Ghosbusters II


“The, the joyfulness is over!” Dr. Janosz Poha

As part of the promotional blitz leading up to the eagerly anticipated release of ‘Ghostbusters II’ in the summer of 1989, co-writer and actor Harold Ramis appeared on Bob Costas’ NBC late-night talk show ‘Later’ for an interview. Referring to the original hit film, ‘Ghostbusters’, Costas asked, “Can a sequel to a movie that successful be as good?” Pausing for careful consideration, Ramis then offered the only possible reply to such a question – “It’ll definitely be better than ‘Police Academy 6’, I promise you.” Now that is an admittedly low bar, which ‘Ghostbusters II’ clears with ease, but I sensed some hedging in Ramis’ tone as though he knew, in this case at least, that the real answer was no (full disclosure: I have not seen ‘Police Academy 6: City Under Siege’…yet).

No, ‘Ghostbusters II’ is not as good as the 1984 classic that preceded it, but the mere fact that I am employing this standard of measurement reveals how inescapable and, frankly, easy it is to evaluate a sequel in the context of the original, rather than on its inherent value. On its own, (oblique Bobby Brown shout-out) ‘Ghostbusters II’ is a mildly funny, occasionally very funny, and good-natured film, with elements that still work and whose greatest value lies in providing the audience with an opportunity to spend more time with characters that we’re fond of. It is also an uneven film that coasts too often on nostalgia for its predecessor, containing a few too many bad jokes and bland scenes, as well as a particularly lame payoff that ultimately falls flat for me. How much of my reaction is due to the burden of expectation the film carries, and how much is due to the actual quality of what exists on the screen? Is my love of the original film an obstacle that prevents me from enjoying ‘Ghostbusters II’ as much as I could? Or, conversely, do I like ‘Ghostbusters II’ more than I maybe should because of how much I loved ‘Ghostbusters’? Does the answer lie in a study of hermeneutics and exegesis? Answer: as in all things, of course not.

The film begins 5 years after the events of ‘Ghostbusters’, with the ragtag paranormal investigators legally prohibited from ghostbusting of any kind after being saddled with the blame, and the financial burden, of nearly destroying New York City. We spend the first part of the film catching up with each of the principal characters – Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) are found slumming in birthday party purgatory, Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) is conducting an amusing academic study using questionable methods, and Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) is doing exactly what we might expect he’s doing on the television circuit. We then watch the team come together in the face of a new supernatural threat to former client Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), and her new baby Oscar. What is this threat, you ask? Demon dogs? A 100-ft. marshmallow man? Nope – it’s an old painting. Ah, but did I mention that it’s a painting of nasty Eastern European warmonger Vigo the Carpathian (played by allegedly nasty human being Wilhelm von Homburg, but voiced by Max von Sydow)? Vigo is feeding off the negativity of New York’s populace in a bid to come back to life and…what? Wreak havoc? Glower? Rule the world, I guess. And once again, our boys are called upon to save the day using their unique ghostbusting skills.


Glower Power

As of this writing, ‘Ghostbusters II’ sits at 53% on Rotten Tomatoes’ infamous Tomatometer, with a slightly higher audience score of 61%. Of course, the Tomatometer can be dead wrong (see here), but I find it to be a generally useful guide. The film received mixed-to-negative reviews upon release, and most of those reviews tend to focus on two major flaws: 1) It’s a tired re-tread of the first film, and; 2) It’s not very funny. I don’t fully agree with either of those assessments, but I can certainly see their validity. Addressing the first complaint, I definitely think ‘Ghostbusters II’ hits many of the same beats as the first film, though it’s not particularly obvious until you dig in. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of some similarities between the two, including central structural elements and some smaller details:

Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters II (1989)

Team comes together and has success in the face of public doubt

Team comes together and has success in the face of public doubt

Growing supernatural threat (Gozer)

Growing supernatural threat (Vigo)

Mid-film ghostbusting montage

Mid-film ghostbusting montage

Meeting with Mayor of New York to describe the seriousness of the growing threat

Meeting with Mayor of New York to describe the seriousness of the growing threat

Winston joke to Mayor during above meeting

Winston joke to Mayor during above meeting

Bureaucrat (Walter Peck) attempts to stop team by locking them up and persuading mayor not to listen to them

Bureaucrat (Jack Hardemeyer) attempts to stop team by locking them up and persuading mayor not to listen to them

Enormous paranormal entity at the film’s conclusion (Stay Puft Marshmallow Man)

Enormous paranormal entity at the film’s conclusion (Statue of Liberty)

Peter Venkman somehow wins affections of Dana Barrett despite not changing at all for the better

Peter Venkman somehow wins affections of Dana Barrett despite not changing at all for the better

Applause from waiting crowd following successful final busting

Applause from waiting crowd following successful final busting

There are probably more similarities, but let that suffice. To me, this brief list does not exactly scream Lazy Writing. Actually, in some of the above cases, the writers appear to have deliberately tried to subvert, or at least spin, the original (e.g., the Statue of Liberty is not malevolent, whereas Stay Puft is). Simply employing the same elements is not so egregious a cinematic sin, provided they are well-executed the second time. To me, each element above just happens to work far better in the original than it does in the sequel. Same structure, but better execution – the jokes were way funnier and I was far more invested in buildups and outcomes as the plot of the first film unfolded. Retreads and remakes can work fine if done well and done differently enough, with maybe an occasional wink to the audience (see Exhibit A). In some ways, the job of a sequel is to give audiences a certain amount of what they want, along with new material that they didn’t know they wanted. The task of balancing the familiar with the fresh is fraught with risk, because if you lean too heavily on the familiar then you tend to invite comparison, which places a premium on executing to the same standard. I think ‘Ghostbusters II’ simply fails to deliver on that front, including a few too many scenes that suffer in comparison with the original.


Given that its predecessor essentially pioneered the “scare comedy” genre, it’s appropriate to ask: Is ‘Ghostbusters II’ funny? Bill Murray seems not to think so, stating in 2010, “The second one was disappointing because the special-effects guys took over. I had something like two scenes—and they’re the only funny ones in the movie.” Due respect to Mr. Murray, but I actually think there are several jokes and sequences that are quite hilarious, and most of these don’t even involve his character! Many of them come from the supporting character of Dr. Janosz Poha (Peter MacNicol), the possessed museum curator. MacNicol’s line readings and mannerisms are so well-timed, zany, and brilliant that it seems like he’s the only one who knows he’s in a comedy sometimes. He steals every scene he’s in, and he singlehandedly makes the film worth watching. Additional laughs come from another supporting character – the Ghostbusters’ lawyer/tax preparer/C.F.O. Louis Tully (Rick Moranis). His line about turning into a dog (along with the Judge’s reaction) is my favorite joke in the whole movie.


There are other solid laughs scattered throughout, including the subterranean ghost train sequence and Venkman’s photography session with Vigo. Unfortunately, these laughs are fleeting, and the film is significantly weighed down by the limp interactions between Peter and Dana around the mid-point. We spend way too much time observing the cute little domestic routines they go through as they form a patchwork family unit, and not enough time exploring the real comedic potential between these two very different characters. It’s a little awkward to see Weaver, conveying intelligence and strength in all her roles, put up with some of Murray’s shenanigans. Additionally, the subplot between Moranis and Annie Potts as secretary Janine Melnitz is tangential and distracting. There are lots of jokes throughout the movie that elicit groans rather than smiles, and it’s sad to watch this winning cast deliver subpar material when another script polish or two probably would have gone a long way.

Even so, there is a lot to appreciate about ‘Ghostbusters II’. Here are a few examples:

  • I really like the first half of this movie. There’s a sense of momentum, there are exciting set-pieces, and it is undeniably fun to watch these characters return to doing what they do best. The courtroom sequence in particular is the high point of the film, deftly mixing action and comedy beats and embodying everything we love about Ghostbusters
  • The visual effects by ILM are unsurprisingly well done, with Dennis Muren ably replacing Richard Edlund as effects supervisor. Apparently this was one of the last films to exclusively use optical effects rather than digital, and the film employs a combination of puppetry and other practical effects to produce some memorable additions to the ghost lineup (e.g., the Scoleri Brothers, modeled after the Blues Brothers!)


  • DP Michael Chapman (‘The Fugitive’, ‘Raging Bull’) creates some nice widescreen compositions and lends a professional and polished look to the proceedings. I don’t really have a sense of Ivan Reitman’s directorial choices and style, but what’s on the screen looks good, and it certainly matches the aesthetic of the first film, helping to establish it within the same world
  • The film effectively uses New York City locations, like the Statue of Liberty or the Alexander Hamilton Customs House in Lower Manhattan, which doubles as the Art Museum. Whenever I visit NYC, I think back to the ‘Ghostbusters’ movies, which gave me my first sense of the vibe of this unique city


  • This might be cheating, but I actually like a lot of the deleted scenes, and wish they had remained in the final cut. Readers of the 1989 promotional comic book and novelization tie-in (like me) know that the original script contained an entire sequence where, after staring at the Vigo painting, a possessed Ray takes the Ghostbusters on a wild Ecto-1a ride, nearly killing them. There is also a scene, available on the Blu-ray, where Jack Hardemeyer (Kurt Fuller) is swallowed up and killed by the shell of slime at the museum, leaving two smoking shoes behind. Both of those scenes would have improved the end result
  • I like the central idea (Aykroyd’s contribution) regarding a buildup of negativity that manifests itself supernaturally. That premise provides a hook with lots of potential, even if the film doesn’t quite maximize it


Unfortunately, these positives are mitigated by some clear negatives:

  • Simply put, there is not enough busting of ghosts in this movie. Following the courtroom scene, and the subsequent montage, the team really doesn’t engage the ghosts or Vigo directly until the end, and by then it’s a bit too late. The pacing of the film is too leisurely, with long stretches that could have used some serious energy
  • The final confrontation with Vigo is not near as compelling as it should be. Despite being the main villain, Vigo is rather inert through much of the film, and when he finally does leave the painting, he just stalks around looking grumpy. We don’t get a sense that he’s a major threat or that there are real stakes at play. We also never really find out what connects him to the other ghosts that are unleashed around town (with Gozer you sensed it was all building to something wicked in Central Park West). And how exactly do our heroes defeat Vigo anyway? Why does he explode? And what accounts for the cheesy painting that randomly shows up at the end?


  • Finally, Randy Edelman’s score is a far cry from Elmer Bernstein’s distinctive sounds from the first film. Oscillating between moody, heroic, and lighthearted, the score fails to provide a cohesive theme for the movie as a whole (and it often sounds like it was recorded on a cheap Casio keyboard)

For me, the ultimate value of ‘Ghostbusters II’ lies in the opportunity to spend more time in the company of these characters, in this world, for one more go-around. As a kid I ate this up, and I wonder if people would have been more forgiving of the film in 1989 if they knew it would be the last hurrah for this group. Divorced from the weight of expectations, I think ‘Ghostbusters II’ is a fun, amusing, even satisfying piece of entertainment, albeit with some notable flaws that nearly cause it to “cross the streams” as it were. Still, “who [else] ya gonna call?” (I’ll show myself out)




Zodiac 3“I…I need to know who he is. I…I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it’s him.” – Robert Graysmith

Take one look at the poster for David Fincher’s 2007 masterwork ‘Zodiac’, and you know exactly what kind of experience this film offers. The intriguing tagline (“There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer”), combined with an image of the signature Bay Area fog partially obscuring the Golden Gate Bridge, encapsulates the entire film perfectly – it will be as much an evocation of a distinct time and place as it will be a descent into the uncertainty and darkness surrounding the Zodiac killer. All of the thematic elements are right there in plain sight, and the poster has the added benefit of being one of those images that burrows in the mind, drawing you back to its unsettling quality – much like the film itself.

Zodiac Poster

Beginning in the late 1960s through the early 1970s, the San Francisco Bay Area was galvanized by a series of murders committed by the self-named Zodiac killer. In isolation, the killings themselves were not a new phenomenon, nor did they fall into the truly depraved category reserved for the type of gruesome murders committed by contemporaries such as Ed Kemper or Ted Bundy. But Zodiac was so unique because he clearly relished the persona he crafted through a prolonged dialogue with the police and the press, as well as the celebrity / infamy that came with it (similar in that regard to the BTK Killer, apprehended in 2005). He seized the public’s attention so effectively that the entire region was set on edge and gripped by pervasive fear, like an ever-present fog. Indeed, the Zodiac murders seem emblematic of the entire era, which was in many ways defined by mistrust, paranoia and dread.

Using the San Francisco Chronicle as a clearinghouse for his cryptic letters (along with bloody swaths of his victims’ clothing), Zodiac described his murders in cold detail, taunted police officers, issued exaggerated (yet chilling) threats, and left such a wealth of clues, ciphers and evidence that it seems unbelievable he was never caught. That a cartoonist for the Chronicle, along with a policeman who was the model for ‘Bullitt’ and ‘Dirty Harry’, persisted long enough to make a convincing case against one particularly creepy suspect is oddly fitting for a story this ominous. Truth is stranger than fiction, I suppose.

Zodiac 2

Comparison of two possible Zodiac handwriting samples

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The one that started it all – Zodiac’s first letter to the Chronicle

In many ways, ‘Zodiac’ is like the cinematic equivalent of a police case file, unfolding step-by-step, clue-by-clue, from the perspective of the reporters and detectives who tried to solve it. A brief prologue establishes the killer’s viciousness, recreating a sudden attack (likely Zodiac’s second) on a young couple at a lovers’ lane on a lazy Fourth of July. The film then pivots, via a very clever opening credits sequence that tracks the first of Zodiac’s letters, to the newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle. There, we meet cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a naïve newcomer to the staff who abstains from that era’s vices and counterculture, as well as the seasoned crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), fully enjoying the groovy late-‘60s party before booze and drugs begin to fuel his decline. More murders soon follow in two flawlessly staged sequences, and a media frenzy ensues.

The arrival of the Zodiac sparks a morbid curiosity in Graysmith that grows into a driving obsession by the film’s end. Avery is slightly more blasé about the case, looking on with puzzled detachment as Graysmith eagerly attempts to solve the ciphers and codes included in Zodiac’s correspondence. That changes, of course, when bloody clothing is sent directly to Avery, making him even more addled and dependent on stimulants. In parallel, SFPD Detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) gather evidence from crime scenes, interview witnesses and suspects, and try to piece it all together.

Zodiac 7

The Lake Berryessa crime scene, recreated from case file photos

Eventually Toschi and Armstrong settle on a suspect with several alarming tendencies, and in one of the film’s best scenes the detectives stage an interview with him that subtly becomes a tense interrogation. But the suspect resists, evidence fails to materialize, and the trail grows cold. After Armstrong and Avery are forced to tap out from fatigue, Graysmith and Toschi are left to sift through the pieces and try to jog something loose – easier said than done in the face of dwindling public interest as time goes on. This is underlined in a gloriously meta scene that depicts Toschi squirming in his seat during a screening of ‘Dirty Harry’, appalled to see the case on which he has pored over for so long reduced to a mere plot device. “No need for due process, right?” he laments.

Now more than ever, I am convinced that ‘Zodiac’ is one of the best, most essential films of the millennial era. It is a dominant entry in the true crime genre that shares DNA with ‘70s thrillers like ‘All the President’s Men’ and ‘The Conversation’ (another film that uses its Bay Area setting to great effect). Ever since my youth, I have been fascinated with true crime, preferring books that detailed real-world sociopaths, gangsters, and serial killers to the world of fiction. Serial killers are, of course, nothing new to Fincher, who previously approached the subject in the vivid 1995 thriller ‘Se7en’. That film was less concerned with delving into the criminal psyche as it was with delivering a pulpy, atmospheric horror show, but it largely succeeded on its own lurid terms. Fincher’s talent as a director was evident in his sophomore effort (I distinctly recall, at age 12, being impressed with the craft on display in the trailer for ‘Se7en’ alone), but with ‘Zodiac’ he tops himself, bringing a more finely-honed aesthetic to a deeper, weightier examination of one of the most infamous serial killers in American history.

Zodiac 1

Crossing the Golden Gate into Napa Valley

However, labelling ‘Zodiac’ as merely another serial killer movie is far too simplistic, glossing over so much of what Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt are really aiming for here. Among many other things (a newspaper story, an examination of how violence is reflected in popular culture, etc.), ‘Zodiac’ is primarily a story about obsession and a need for closure that never comes. The film embraces ambiguity, particularly in its climax, and is therefore far more compelling than a typical police procedural. Though Fincher clearly points to one suspect over others, he’s more interested in immersing the audience in the process of assembling a case than he is in solving it. He and screenwriter Vanderbilt made a conscious decision to include only those murders where an eyewitness was present (three out of five total), and they also include a few blind alleys, red herrings, and possible encounters with Zodiac for good measure. This is an incredibly complex narrative that both demands and rewards the viewer’s full attention as we sift through a mountain of clues, and re-examine what we know and what we think we know about the case.

The three leads are very effective in their roles, especially Gyllenhaal, who invests his character with a strange balance of decency and obsessiveness. Gyllenhaal can do creepy (see the excellent 2014 L.A. noir ‘Nightcrawler’), but he wisely dials back those notes here until the end, focusing more on Graysmith’s dogged determination and pluck. Mark Ruffalo is also very good as a cop who is passionate about his work, and who cares about the case more than he lets on. He and Gyllenhaal play well off each other in the later scenes as they debate evidence and arrive at similar conclusions via two very divergent paths. Downey Jr. (pre-‘Iron Man’) is well-suited for the flashier role of Avery, who provides a lightness to the proceedings while lending some not-insignificant insights to the case. The film spends far more time with the three principal characters than it does with Zodiac, and our own emotional journey mirrors theirs, progressing through stages of confusion, excitement, and frustration. This is not to say that the film lacks suspense – the presence of Zodiac, though limited mostly to the early scenes, feels omnipresent, always lurking just beneath the surface. John Carroll Lynch, playing prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, makes such an impression in his handful of scenes that I falsely remembered him appearing in more of the film than he actually does.

Fincher’s ability to convincingly transport the viewer to this particular time and place is what ultimately elevates ‘Zodiac’ above so many other films in the genre (with a huge assist from cinematographer Harris Savides). He uses inspired musical cues (including an unsettling score by David Shire, reminiscent of his work on ‘The Conversation’), perfectly-blended CGI, elegant compositions, and a wealth of period details to accurately depict the look and feel of the ‘70s Bay Area. It certainly helps that Fincher actually grew up in San Francisco during this time – he seems to have absorbed the very essence of his physical and cultural surroundings, and it shows. This is one of those films that contains a generous amount of memorable scenes, and nearly a dozen perfect shots – the kind that cinephiles go crazy for. I’ll list a few of my favorites:

  • The film opens with the retro Paramount and Warner Bros. logos from the 1970s, followed by a perfect opening shot of Vallejo, California on the Fourth of July, complete with fireworks illuminating the night sky and Three Dog Night’s ‘Easy to be Hard’ playing in the background – an effective glimpse of the tranquil world before the violence arrives

Zodiac 10

  • Following the prologue, we get another excellent aerial shot (composed entirely of CGI!), swiftly approaching the Port of San Francisco, complete with the Embarcadero freeway, which collapsed in the 1989 earthquake, and the under-construction Hyatt Regency. Fincher is the best in the business at employing CGI, using it more often than you realize, but mostly limiting it to the corners of the frame (except in this shot, of course) as an enhancement to the images and the story

Zodiac 1a

  • The Lake Berryessa murder is among the most chilling I have ever seen. Its impact is enhanced by the slow, deliberate nature by which Zodiac approached and subdued his victims, mirrored in the pace and framing of Fincher’s compositions. It also contains one of the most disturbing close-ups in recent memory, as Zodiac demonstrates to his victims that his gun is indeed loaded

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  • In one of the most obvious flourishes of David Fincher’s career (which is saying something) his camera follows a taxicab and its doomed driver from a dispassionate, God’s-eye view, fixing on the cab and pivoting perfectly with it as it makes a turn. A very simple shot (also completely CGI) that may not mean a whole lot and that certainly calls attention to itself, but I love it nonetheless

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  • Apart from its obvious technical merits, the time-lapse construction of the TransAmerica building, set to Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner City Blues’, is a very effective way of conveying the passage of time as the case drags onward, as is a subsequent two-minute radio montage of current events and music set against a black screen

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I could go on and on about my appreciation for ‘Zodiac’ – it’s the kind of film that reveals new layers and richness with each viewing. Even knowing the details of the case backwards and forwards, I still return frequently just to appreciate a thrilling true crime story told with considerable craft. I prefer ‘Zodiac’ to ‘Se7en’ because where the latter film seeks to repulse, the former seeks to immerse and involve us. Stylish, methodical, and ominous, ‘Zodiac’ lingers in the memory like a cold case inviting us to take another crack at it.

The Verdict


“We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And we doubt the law. But today you are the law.” – Frank Galvin

Sidney Lumet’s 1982 courtroom drama ‘The Verdict’ languished on my Netflix cue for quite a while before I finally sat down to watch it. Despite all the glowing reviews I had read, I put it off because devoting two hours to it somehow sounded like a lot of work to me. The one or two clips I had seen over the years seemed dreary and forlorn. The plot synopsis, displayed prominently on the film’s original poster, doesn’t exactly describe a crackerjack legal thriller in the mold of more modern genre fare (e.g., ‘A Few Good Men’, ‘Runaway Jury’). Courtroom dramas are tricky because they are usually competent enough, they contain no shortage of dramatic possibilities, and they can often be quite thrilling (see 2007’s ‘Michael Clayton’), but how often do they transcend the genre and become something truly cinematic and memorable? Well, I should have trusted Lumet, the director of one courtroom drama that actually succeeded in that regard (’12 Angry Men’), to deliver another superb entry in the genre. ‘The Verdict’ is a smart, powerful and gripping film. I’m glad I finally gave it my time, because it paid off handsomely.


Paul Newman stars as Frank Galvin, a washed-up Boston attorney resigned to playing pinball at his favorite watering hole, when he’s not fleecing bereaved families for cases. Early on, we see him approaching a widow at her husband’s viewing, shamelessly handing her a business card just before being angrily dismissed. Galvin is an alcoholic who hasn’t tried an actual case in years, for reasons that are eventually made clear. His office is a mess, and so he has to resort to seeing clients in an adjacent façade of an office to appear professional. From the outset, we get a palpable sense of just how low this man has allowed himself to sink.

Galvin’s friend and former teacher, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden), hands him an ostensible slam-dunk medical malpractice case out of pity. The case should give Galvin enough money to retire, possibly at the bottom of a bottle of cognac. The case involves a young mother who aspirated under anesthetic during childbirth at a Catholic hospital, and has been rendered brain-dead and comatose. The woman’s family, though grieving, has no qualms about using the settlement money to improve their quality of life in a different state. Galvin, giddy over the expected generous settlement with the Catholic Church, goes to the hospital to take Polaroids of the victim. But Lumet patiently holds on a shot of the pictures as they develop, with the cold whirring of a respirator in the background, and then he lingers on Newman’s face, falling with heartbreak. This poignant scene, staged so beautifully by Lumet, and performed so powerfully by Newman, provides a key turning point. Not only will Galvin try the case (with no apparent evidence of wrongdoing), but he will simultaneously salvage his last shred of dignity, and perhaps even his own soul. Now that last line sounds hyperbolic, but watch this scene and you’ll see that the stakes are indeed that high.


Thus, we have the makings of a classic underdog story, complete with a chance at redemptive justice and the promise of explosive drama. Yet the most striking thing about ‘The Verdict’ is that it contains all the standard genre tropes you would find in any episode of ‘Law & Order’, while remaining grounded, restrained, even downright muted for its entire length. You want shocking twists? You got ‘em. There are several unexpected developments woven into David Mamet’s fine script, including one near the end that made me audibly gasp. You want the story of an underdog lawyer working against all odds, taking on a cold, monolithic entity, with a less-than-sympathetic judge to boot? Check. You want a doozy of a closing statement, famously performed in one take by Mr. Newman? Exhibit A is right here, folks.

Despite all of this, director Sidney Lumet refuses to embellish events, eschewing flashiness in favor of sturdy, workmanlike craftsmanship (save for one showy camera move as the verdict is read, which is entirely appropriate and amazing). Here is a legal thriller that plays almost exactly as it might in real life – and it is far more compelling than flashier entries in the genre because it deals honestly with its subject. The not-insignificant intrigue of the plot plays out against a frigid Boston landscape, populated by ominous cathedrals and soaked in a drab brown color palette. The score, by Johnny Mandel, is so sparse that I didn’t even register it. The whole film has a funereal tone – almost as if Lumet is actively trying to extinguish any hope the audience might cling to (certainly the open-ended closing shot supports that argument to some extent). But the thrills are there all right, because they are germane to Mamet’s screenplay. You can’t follow the logical progression of the story, with its multiple obfuscations and reveals, without being genuinely riveted and invested in the outcome (aside: my wife, who I felt certain would fall asleep during the movie, hung with it to the end. In one sitting. That should tell you something).


Rarely do I watch a film and feel compelled to comment on the quality of the performances, but ‘The Verdict’ is a genuine tour de force for the principal cast. Paul Newman is so good here that, in just a few short scenes, he obliterates years of movie star charisma to create one of the most desperate characters I’ve ever seen. One of my favorite moments comes when, after deciding to try the case, a troubling development forces Galvin to realize just how formidable his opponent is. In a lesser courtroom drama, the protagonist, armed with the Truth, would simply regroup and double down on his case. Instead, Galvin – who has habitually taken the easy way out – remains true to form and pleads with the archdiocese to renegotiate the settlement! When they refuse, the look of horror on Newman’s face communicates volumes. He continues with the case, but only because he has no other options (and still no evidence), and Newman provides a window into just how flawed a character Frank Galvin really is.


Newman also effectively conveys just how much rust this character has to shake off in order to even be on the same playing field as his opponents. Galvin makes mistakes, botches the jury selection process, and fails to properly vet the credentials of his witnesses. Throughout the film, I genuinely had no idea whether he was going to pull it off or not. Newman’s performance is the key to the whole film, because he somehow must get us to sympathize with Galvin – that we end up doing so is a testament to his acting prowess. James Mason also provides a wonderful performance as Ed Concannon, the lead counsel for the Church’s legal team, relishing his antagonistic role while staying just this side of cartoonish villainy. David Mamet has always had a gift for terse, punchy dialogue, and he provides the actors with some great lines throughout, along with meaty exchanges that really raise the dramatic stakes.


Rather than floating away into the ether, ‘The Verdict’ has stayed with me since I finally watched it, and I am convinced that the key to its power lies in its refusal to indulge in theatrics. This same material, filmed with modern panache or flourish, might easily have been forgotten in a week. Credit must surely go to Lumet for bringing his subtle, unvarnished brand of filmmaking to the proceedings, and therefore trusting the drama inherent in Mamet’s script. Within the courtroom genre, it surpasses ’12 Angry Men’ on my personal best list and, in my view, represents the genre’s most likely candidate for consideration on any greatest movies list (it was reportedly Richard D. Zanuck’s favorite film among all that he produced – quite a list). I don’t yet know whether it belongs among the greatest of all films – time will tell – but either way, ‘The Verdict’ is essential viewing and a great reminder that, though the courts exist to provide a chance at true justice, reality is rarely that dramatic.

The Thrill of the Chase


“Action is character.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Bullitt (1968)

‘Bullitt’ is a movie that, intentionally or not, is all about style over substance. Produced by Philip D’Antoni (more on him later), it was a critical and commercial hit in 1968. Seen now, the film is still fairly slick – thanks in part to Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy score – yet somewhat unremarkable as a whole. It’s best viewed as a vehicle (pun intended) for Steve McQueen’s persona, embodying machismo, a distaste for authority, and ‘cool’ above all else. Frank Bullitt was modelled after SFPD Detective Dave Toschi (who famously investigated the Zodiac killer), and McQueen plays him as a world-weary, no-nonsense cop who keeps his cool in all situations, whether he’s confronting an ambitious District Attorney or, say, pursuing a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T through the streets of San Francisco. Steve McQueen was a perfect fit for this type of character, having shown flashes of that persona in films like ‘The Great Escape’ (1963) and ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ (1965). They could have titled the movie ‘McQueen’ and nobody would have blinked.

I mention this because, in many ways, the film’s central car chase is a perfect visual encapsulation of the character of Frank Bullitt, and of the mythology of Steve McQueen. The one word I would use to describe the chase is cool. The cars are cool, the music is cool, and the stunts are cool. Heck, even Bullitt’s tweed jacket is cool. In my opinion, it is this element that is most directly responsible for distinguishing the chase in the annals of movie history. The craftsmanship, while certainly coherent, is workmanlike (apart from the superb editing) and the chase itself is not exactly pulse pounding. It is a chase that I admire more than I love, but I do appreciate it for being what it is: a frigging monument to ‘cool’.

And now to analyze the craft of the chase:

– I really like Lalo Schifrin’s intro music, which manages to simultaneously set the cool tone and increase the suspense. I also like that the score drops out as soon as the chase kicks into high gear. This was Schifrin’s suggestion, and director Peter Yates wisely agreed.


– The chase begins with a neat opening shot of Bullitt, already aware of the two hitmen, pulling slowly out of the parking lot. We follow his 1968 Ford Mustang GT (a truly incredible machine) using a slow zoom, and then as the Mustang pulls away the camera picks up the pursuing Dodge Charger at the tail end of the shot – no cuts. As a technique, I prefer this more classical style of shooting longer takes, rather than employing a lot of needless cuts. This requires coordination, but it pays off.


– The driver of the Dodge Charger, and choreographer of the chase, is the legendary stunt driver Bill Hickman. He also choreographed (and acted as wheelman for) chases in two other Philip D’Antoni productions: ‘The French Connection’ and ‘The Seven-Ups’.


– Here’s a technique that is not exclusive to car chases, but that certainly adds to the effect: a great composition. I really enjoy how we are looking through the Charger’s windshield, not consciously aware of the rearview mirror until Bullitt appears in it, and as soon as we register that, we get a quick zoom on the rearview mirror for emphasis. This is a surprisingly effective way of generating excitement. If we had cut from the two hitmen scanning for Bullitt to, say, a shot from the Mustang’s perspective looking at the Charger, or perhaps an overhead shot of the two cars, it probably wouldn’t be as exciting. I also enjoy Hickman’s priceless reaction shot. In general, these driver-POV shots (present in each of the three chases we’re examining) are an excellent way to involve the viewer in the action, almost like a participant. This is especially true in ‘Drive’.


– Jim Emerson is correct when he says that you can feel (and I would add hear) these cars holding back their raw power. And when Hickman buckles his seatbelt with them racing gloves, you know what’s coming next – 1960’s audiences would have been really amped up at this point because back then it was widely understood that only the pros wore seatbelts. It wasn’t even a law yet.


– As Emerson points out, it really is a bit agonizing when the chase finally begins in earnest, only for Bullitt to be stuck in traffic as the Charger peels off. You get the feeling like Bullitt may lose them at several points along the way, which is essential in maintaining the suspense for this particular two-car chase. In reality, this model of Dodge Charger was so souped-up that it would have easily lost the Mustang – Hickman and other stunt drivers had to continually back off the accelerator to keep the Mustang close.


– I think it’s effective to show McQueen doing his own driving throughout (even though stunt drivers were involved at points). McQueen was an accomplished driver in real life, and seeing him actually burn rubber adds a good deal of credibility. It’s also helpful that his face refuses to show any emotion throughout the chase (unlike Gene Hackman’s). Just focused, collected, and cool.


– What hill is this, you ask? It’s most likely Taylor Street heading north. A very iconic location that gives a great effect as cars seem to disappear and reappear as they fly over the hills. I once caught air like this on a hill in San Diego using our family’s Saturn wagon, and I can tell you from experience that it is quite harrowing.


– Here we see the value of a good film editor. We have a sequence of shots from multiple perspectives of both the Charger and Mustang bouncing down the hill. It is all the same sequence, but shot from different angles and perspectives (you can tell because of the green VW Beetle and the yellow car present in multiple takes). Film editor Frank P. Keller (who won an Academy Award for his work here) stitches the multiple angles together, along with some insert shots, to make it look like a longer chase than it is. You almost don’t notice it’s the same street/sequence the first or second time through. The seams do show on repeat viewings, but Keller should get credit for squeezing a lot of cheddar out of one simple sequence. My favorite angle is the one with the fast reverse zoom that reveals more oncoming traffic to be “dodged”.

– This chase is geographically impossible as presented. It begins in Fisherman’s Wharf, goes into midtown along Taylor and Chestnut Streets, proceeds down Russian Hill and ends in Brisbane. Of course, none of that matters to the viewer. I only bring it up because a truly great chase usually has a distinctive tone that is linked to the city/setting in which it takes place. We get a real feel for San Francisco and the bay area here as we speed through some of its most notable locations (the same applies to Brooklyn in ‘The French Connection’, and L.A. for ‘Drive’).


– I always feel that, despite the increased speed, the chase loses a little something when they get onto the open road. You lose the close confines, a lot of cross-traffic, and the sense that the Charger may escape. The filmmakers add a few near misses now and then, and it is fun to watch/listen to these cars throttle up to speeds of 110 mph (reportedly), but the first half of the chase is easily the best.


– I don’t know what you call this (a matching shot?) but it is visually pleasing. You get a quick, one-second shot of the Charger passing two cars at a very high speed, and then a cut to a shot of the Mustang passing the exact same cars, at about the exact same angle. It gives a nice effect, and it’s nice to see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.


– The sliding motorcyclist is Bud Ekins, McQueen’s stunt double who famously jumped the wire fence on a motorcycle in ‘The Great Escape’. Good stunts like this are always effective in a chase, because there’s a real chance the dude could end up as road pizza.


– Of all the highway shots, I think I like this best. A very tough stunt to execute, the Charger hits a truck, careens into the guardrail, and then zooms straight under the camera (a similar effect is used in ‘The Dark Knight’, as Emerson points out, and in ‘The French Connection’ when Hackman hits a pile of garbage and comes close to hitting the camera). I like to imagine 1968 audiences screaming and fainting in front of the screen, like apparently occurred when people saw ‘The Arrival of a Train’ for the first time.


– Just like in ‘The Rock’ when Nicolas Cage’s Ferrari gets destroyed by a streetcar, I hate seeing these beautiful cars get damaged.


– I like the effect of the shotgun blasting Bullitt’s windshield, a shot that is likely more effective for being shown from the inside of Bullitt’s car.


– Again, Keller’s editing salvages this scene. When the Charger finally loses it and crashes into the gas station, you get an insert shot that quickly zooms in on the gas station, another insert shot of an explosion in close-up, followed by a shot of the Mustang passing the exploding gas station. In reality, the Charger with test dummies in it hit a wire that triggered the explosion too soon, nearly ruining the costly take. Keller’s inserts allowed that take to mostly be used for everything pre-explosion. Though you never actually see a clear view of the car hitting the building, there’s no mistaking what happens.


– Here are two appealing fellows. In fact, they’ll be a-peelin’ them off the pavement! Nothing like a nice closing shot of two guys burning to death. I do like the blur effect and the creepy horn sound right before the fade out.

So what did I learn from ‘Bullitt’? In addition to the above, I appreciated the sound design of the entire chase. This was a really innovative chase for its time, in part because the music you hear is the squeals of tires and engines revving as opposed to a score. There’s a point when Bullitt is pinning it on the highway, and the sound you hear is a kind of rhythmic churning of the engine. That’s pretty cool.

This chase is classic and exciting, but technically feels a bit too rehearsed. It’s not spontaneous enough. Part of that is because the filmmakers were actually responsible (unlike, say, William Friedkin) and went through the process of requesting permits, which required streets to be blocked off and controlled. You can tell some of the passing cars are pulling their punches a bit, and there’s a lot less swerving and dodging than you would actually see in San Francisco traffic. However, that doesn’t take away from the sheer joy of watching these muscle cars do their thing.

The French Connection (1971)

When producer Philip D’Antoni hired William Friedkin to direct ‘The French Connection’, he explicitly gave the young director a mandate to top the chase in ‘Bullitt’. Early in production, Friedkin knew it was looming, but he didn’t know any specifics yet, such as who would be chased and how, where it would take place, and where it would fit into the film’s narrative. So Friedkin and D’Antoni took a walk in Brooklyn and just brainstormed ideas, trying to absorb the urban vibe of the city along the way. They eventually hit upon the idea for an elevated train chase, which is a wonderful hook in itself. Yet the great inspiration of the filmmakers was to employ the chase primarily as a metaphor for Detective Popeye Doyle’s single-minded, obsessive, almost amoral, pursuit of his target. From Bay 50th St. and Stillwell to 18th Ave. in Brooklyn, Doyle pursues the train at all costs, threatening drivers and pedestrians all along the way. The chase serves a useful narrative purpose as well, because it jump-starts a case that Doyle has been taken off of. Combine all this with electric, life-threatening filmmaking, and you get the granddaddy of all car chases. This one put ‘em all away in my book.

Here are some of the techniques on display:


– Another great opening shot that foreshadows the coming chase. It seems obvious now, but the idea to incorporate a subway train is a great way to visually establish a New York atmosphere, while also making for a very interesting and novel chase, because the train is theoretically free of obstacles, providing it with an asymmetric advantage. This structure also provides a constant subconscious orientation for the viewer. You never really need to figure out which direction Doyle is headed – so long as he sticks to those tracks.

– After the warmup foot chase between Doyle and the French assassin Nicoli (played by former stuntman Marcel Bozzuffi), the chase begins in earnest. Thanks to Doyle’s gun-toting on the subway platform, the transit officer is onto Nicoli – very useful to have parallel (and escalating) action happening on the train as Hackman pursues. This ensures that there is never a break in this frenzied, kinetic chase.


– Here’s a great matching set of shots that don’t appear in succession, but which come pretty close together. The overhead shot of the train, at an angle, is matched by an overhead shot of Doyle’s 1971 Pontiac LeMans already barreling down the street at about the same angle (a favorite shot of mine – I love the cut into it from Nicoli on the train).


– A word on the driving. This car looks like it’s going fast because it’s going fricking fast. In real traffic. Without permits, blocking, or advance warning to pedestrians. When faced with the prospect of having to obtain permission from the hundreds of storefront owners along the route, Friedkin just said “F— it!!” and put a fake police gumball siren on the top of the car. Friedkin had earlier challenged Bill Hickman, over drinks in a local bar, about his driving being more sizzle than steak. Hickman drunkenly replied, “You want me to show you something? Put the car on Stillwell (Ave.) tomorrow morning, then I want you to get in it with me, if you’ve got the balls! I’ll show you some f—in’ driving!” With the help of NYPD Officer Randy Jurgensen, who was nearby in case they got into real trouble, Friedkin gave Bill Hickman the green light to floor it all the way down the street. They reached speeds of up to 90 mph! Friedkin was in the backseat operating the camera and constantly yelling at Hickman to “…give it to me! This is f—in’ great!” Friedkin has since admitted that it was absolutely reckless and dangerous to film in this way, that it was a miracle nobody was killed, and that he wouldn’t do something that callow now. Though reckless, I am positive that this filming method is responsible for nearly all of the kinetic energy of this chase. They got lightning in a bottle with this one.


– Jim Emerson points out this technique (pivot shots?) in his video essay, and it’s dang effective. The axis of motion moves predominantly from left to right throughout the chase, and never switches to the opposite axis without pivoting through a forward facing shot.


– Another set of forward-facing matching shots in succession, helping the viewer transition from the train to the car below.


– This two shot transition is my favorite thing in the entire chase for some reason. After Nicoli threatens the train conductor with a gun to the head, we get this awesome (and complex) shot, looking down at the LeMans through the train tracks. Then we get a shot of the LeMans just freaking cruising to get to the station, complete with roaring engine sounds. These two shots give me chills. In addition to being exciting and complex, the two shot sequence has brought us from the train to the ground again.

– The pacing of this chase never lets up. Friedkin said he and his editor cut the entire sequence to Santana’s cover of ‘Black Magic Woman’, and that a subconscious rhythm was therefore present throughout. I’m not sure about that, but it seems plausible to me. The song certainly sounds appropriately ‘70s. A good example of the genius pacing: once it becomes clear that the train isn’t stopping, we stick with the train for a bit, but then cut right into Hackman already behind the wheel again. It would have drained momentum to show him running back to the car, even though we did see him running up the stairs to try and catch the train. From this point on, the chase becomes a lot more desperate and out of control.


– Gene Hackman did a lot of driving too, and that’s him behind the wheel when the white car hits the LeMans. This was not a planned occurrence – the white car was driven by a stunt driver who was supposed to just barely miss Hackman, but he slammed into the car instead. Again, the crash lends electricity to the chase because it’s real. In a continuity shout-out, in the shot just before the crash, you can see the white car approaching. In a continuity, uh, non-shout-out, apparently now it’s overcast for 10 seconds in Brooklyn. Still, I love the shot just after the crash, with the LeMans skidding to a stop right in front of the camera, and the train visibly moving in the top-right of the frame. Turns out, it really is effective to just show the audience what you want them to see.


– These low shots from the front bumper careening down the street are the signature shots of the chase, filmed with Hickman behind the wheel. The speed feels very authentic, but there was some slight visual trickery involved. The cinematographer, Owen Roizman, employed long lenses to make the oncoming cars appear closer than they were (it couldn’t have been too much, though). He also undercranked the film to 18 fps to enhance the sense of speed.


– Another cool shot of the car and the train together, preceded by a forward-looking shot from under the train, and followed by another small crash. This accident actually involved a civilian though, and was also not planned.


– At this point, you can feel Doyle’s desperation. We get a quick insert of his foot flooring the gas pedal. Then, as the speed picks up, it appears that traffic has jammed up and there is no more lane for Doyle to use. We get an insert of Doyle yelling “Come on!!!”, followed by a shot that now reveals a narrow lane opening. This shot is held as the LeMans drives right into cross traffic (Roizman’s long lenses are doing their work here, making a crash seem inevitable). It seems odd, but I actually like the insert of Doyle briefly applying the brake, because the sequence has been cut so that you feel the need to brake as well. I remember having that feeling during my very first viewing of this chase.


– Here’s an exciting near-miss (entirely planned) involving a pedestrian (of course pushing a baby carriage) using six shots. They’re quick shots, but each one serves an essential purpose, especially the fast zoom on the screaming mother.


– The final shot of the actual chase is the train crashing into the back of another train that has just left the station. Though I’m sure Friedkin probably wanted to just crash the two trains without a permit, this was actually accomplished by filming the shot in reverse while undercranking it, then rewinding it. It seems a bit cheesy, but it works.


– Officer Randy Jurgensen, as well as several other NYPD officers, vigorously protested Doyle’s shooting of Nicoli at the end of the sequence, calling it cold-blooded murder. Friedkin overruled them, and when audiences cheered during test screenings, Friedkin found Jurgensen and bragged that not only was it staying in the film, but it was going on the freaking poster. And so it did. Friedkin remains convinced that Eddie Egan, the real-life basis for the character of Popeye Doyle, would not have hesitated to shoot him either. Bozzuffi, a trained stuntman, did his own fall in one take.

This chase is the gold standard for me, mainly because it has such high energy. It is technically accomplished, coherent, and genuinely exciting. Rather than the chase in ‘Bullitt’, which pretty much eclipsed everything else in the movie, this chase is also better woven into the fabric of the film as a whole. I was about to write that the shots in this sequence, as in ‘Bullitt’, are held longer, but I actually don’t think that’s quite true. Compared to today’s shaky-cam style, yes, but I think there are actually a lot of quick cuts, and not as many long takes as you might expect. However, the cuts are never needless or chaotic – they always serve a purpose. On the strength of this sequence alone, I think William Friedkin earned his Oscar for Best Director (along with his editor, Jerry Greenberg, who won the Oscar for Best Editing).

Drive (2011)

Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir ‘Drive’ opens with a modern chase done well. Though there are worthy examples of modern car chases, it seems these days there are far more subpar efforts that equate action with sensationalism, or that simply display poor craftsmanship. Regarding the typical chase scene nowadays, Roger Ebert said, “The key thing you want to feel, during a chase scene, is involvement in the purpose of the chase. You have to care. Too often we’re simply witnessing technology.” ‘Drive’ is about a solo wheelman (Ryan Gosling) who works as a Hollywood stunt driver by day, but moonlights as a getaway driver-for-hire to low-level crooks. Working in the McQueen mold, he is so heavily mythologized that the film doesn’t even bother to give him a name – only a code: he’ll get you anywhere you need to go within a five minute window, and he doesn’t carry a gun. He drives. In order to set the stage for the film, Winding Refn and his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, chose to open with a chase that subverts the typical template in two ways: (1) Gosling and his two passengers are trying to avoid detection by remaining at low speeds until it becomes necessary to open up, and; (2) The chase is filmed entirely from the perspective of the car or someone inside the car. The result is a stylish and unique sequence that frames the film nicely. This is proof positive that you can make a thrilling chase without breakneck speed (though ‘Drive’ later provides a nice example of that as well).

Here’s the craft on display in this sequence:


– The sole purpose of this chase is to introduce us to Gosling’s character and showcase his cool professionalism and skill. It begins by employing tension, with Gosling simply waiting for his passengers as an alarm sounds and a police dispatcher is heard sending units to respond. We linger on Gosling’s face using multiple angles, including one showing him in the rearview mirror of his Chevy Impala, and again in a shot that employs a slow push-in. He’s not anxious, but he is laser-focused. These takes pay off in the shot where he finally turns to look ahead through the windshield once the lagging crook runs to the car.

– Once the chase slowly begins, the (absolutely cash money) background music rises to a higher volume. This demonstrates, I think, an appropriate use of background music for a chase. Even though the previous two chases rightly substituted the sounds of cars in pursuit for a score, I think that choice might have been wrong here. Stealth and quiet are the key elements, and the track adds to the overall vibe of the pursuit. When the chase does accelerate, the music drops out.


– One effective technique employed throughout is the use of shifting focus. At the outset of this shot, the police cruiser is in focus, but as it moves away from Gosling, the focus shifts to Gosling’s face in the rearview mirror, his gaze following the cruiser as he turns in the opposite direction.


– The audio of the police scanner enhances the suspense of this chase. It communicates tactical information that telegraphs the actions of patrolling police cars, it provides orientation for the viewer, and it also provides a credible explanation for Gosling’s successful evasions. And in the above shot, the audio of the scanner is well-synched with the helicopter spotlight as it locates Gosling’s car, kicking the chase into a higher gear.

– It seems plausible to me that Gosling could evade a police helicopter in this way. In a line right before this clip, the Driver mentions that there are “100,000 streets in this city”, so when he pulls under the bridge, we’re not thinking about the odds of successfully evading the police. We’re confident that Gosling has memorized every one of those 100,000 streets and he knows exactly what he’s doing.


– After the helicopter leaves, and it seems like Gosling is in the clear, we get this nifty sequence that again employs shifting focus. At first the approaching car is out of focus, so we don’t necessarily notice it, but soon we see it’s a police car as it comes into view. The police scanner lets us know that the Impala has been ID’ed, so we wait in suspense for Gosling to finally gun it. Then we get a cool shot from the rear window of the car as the cruiser turns around in pursuit. Pretty slick effect.

In sum, this chase presents a nice throwback to the cool vibe of ‘Bullitt’, while also creating a distinctive feel of its own. I enjoyed the nighttime setting, the compositions, and especially the innovative subversion of car chase conventions. I also appreciated the naturalistic lighting employed throughout – passing streetlights provide fleeting illumination, but for the most part Gosling and the two crooks are very dimly lit, as they would be in real life. We get a good sense of setting, with the chase beginning in a non-descript industrial area, and ending right at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles (in the film, this chase is bookended by several stunning nighttime shots of the L.A. skyline). The sequence is very technically accomplished and stylish, and it firmly establishes itself among the greats in modern cinema chases.


Munich 1

“We’re supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s Jewish. That’s what I knew. That’s what I was taught…If I lose that, I lose everything. That’s my soul.”

Robert, an Israeli bombmaker and hitman, to team leader Avner

Steven Spielberg’s ‘Munich’, the film that should have won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2005, is a visceral, intelligent and haunting study about the futility of responding to violence with counter-violence. It uses the experiences of an Israeli hit squad, retaliating to a brutal terrorist attack, as a gateway for questioning the policy of swift retribution pursued by a nation-state. Of course we are invited to draw our own conclusions, but given that ‘Munich’ was released a scant four years after the September 11th attacks, and given the poignant final shot of a Manhattan skyline containing the still-intact twin towers, it’s clear that the target audience is as much America as Israel. One can readily identify the potential pitfalls of treating this material in an overly sanctimonious or heavy-handed way, especially in a post-9/11 context. Yet, remarkably, one of the great strengths of ‘Munich’ is found in its refusal to grandstand or provide clear answers. These are raw, complex issues and the filmmakers respond by delivering a raw, complex film. This is Steven Spielberg as you’ve never seen him before – oblique, spontaneous, subtle and angry.

The film opens with an arresting recreation of the central tragedy when, on September 5, 1972, members of the PLO’s Black September faction invaded the Olympic Village and held the Israeli Olympic team hostage, ultimately killing all 11 athletes. From the get-go Spielberg keeps us at a distance, convincingly mixing snippets of archival news broadcasts with staged footage of worldwide audiences tuning in. Consequently, we see the event as a TV viewer or a spectator in a crowd of onlookers might see it, getting only snippets of incomplete (and often incorrect) information. Only later in the film do we gradually see the complete details of the killings via three strategically placed flashbacks. In a clever touch, the sequence ends with each athlete’s name being read aloud on television, intercut with Mossad agents reading the names of the 11 Palestinian masterminds of the plot. Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) agonizes over more “dead Jews in Germany” and concludes that “every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” A targeted revenge mission is chosen over additional airstrikes on PLO camps because it will appear more deliberate and will get the world’s attention.


The remainder of the film tracks the Israeli hit squad as they travel throughout Europe eliminating names in a series of magnificent and suspenseful set pieces. Avner (Eric Bana) is the loyal, yet inexperienced team leader who leaves his wife and newborn child to fulfill a perceived obligation to his homeland. He is given a team of four sharply-drawn characters to join him in the multi-year operation: Steve (a pre-007 Daniel Craig) is the South African getaway driver, brash and unapologetic, but betraying fear as time wears on; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) is a toymaker-turned-bombmaker who shows reluctance almost from the outset; Hans (Hanns Zischler) is the document forger, cold and pragmatic; Carl (Ciarán Hinds) is the cleaner who doubles as Avner’s conscience, offering philosophical commentary and kvetching from his years in the field. Another key player is Avner’s handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), offering no sympathy or reassurances, voicing inconvenient truths and constantly demanding results. These performances are uniformly excellent, providing a convincing portrayal of how a secret operations team might actually function. All five members are well-developed, and each is given their moment to make crucial, and sometimes surprising, contributions for better or worse.


We observe the team as it comes together in righteous zeal and certainty, and then we watch as it begins to fracture under the psychological toll of navigating a world of shadows. The film’s color palette is warm and soft in the early stretches, but the presence of blood red is embedded throughout. Soon the body count rises, the target list grows to a seemingly endless length, team members are picked off in chilling ways, and the “hall of mirrors” effect sets in. In parallel, the film becomes cold and drained of color as the initially sanctioned mission morphs into one of personal vengeance, and as killing becomes a habit for Avner, bleeding into his spiritual and family life. The final exchange between Avner and Ephraim, against a gray Manhattan backdrop, is hollow and heartbreaking, mirroring the futility of Avner’s (and our) search for resolution.



Depending on the day, I might place ‘Munich’ above Steven Spielberg’s other “serious” movies (e.g. ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’), simply because it is relatively free of cloying sentiment or blatantly obvious creative flourishes. Spielberg often gets nailed for those things, but I don’t mind them in films like ‘E.T.’ or the Indiana Jones series because they seem appropriate to the overall tone of those pictures. However, it is very refreshing to see the pure craftsmanship that he can apply to a subject as dark and unsentimental as this. At times you feel like Spielberg is operating in guerilla filmmaking mode, and he has said that he cut way back on storyboarding and pre-visualization for this film, preferring to go with his first instincts when composing a shot or sequence. I sense that Spielberg trusted his technique – as well as the audience – more with this film, refraining from spelling things out or underlining themes visually or through music (John Williams’ score is also mournful and understated, never dictating emotional responses).

The result feels more spontaneous and exciting – each assassination set piece is expertly staged and truly suspenseful in a Hitchcockian sense, offering something gripping and new with each changing locale. The film has an excellent sound design (courtesy of the great Ben Burtt), emphasizing unique dissonances and exaggerating small elements, like footsteps or an elevator creaking to a stop, to really draw out the suspense during each killing. Lending realism to the proceedings, Spielberg also employs effective period techniques like the slow-zoom, hearkening back to ‘70s paranoia thrillers like ‘Three Days of the Condor’ and ‘The Parallax View’. Overall, the film authentically captures the tone of the ‘70s (I can only imagine), and has a refreshing international feel to it, as though you are travelling among world capitals with the team. ‘Munich’ is an impressive display of Steven Spielberg’s total command of technique, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his larger, effects-driven blockbusters.

Munich 3

Munich 4

Despite the impressive technical craft on display, one of my favorite elements of ‘Munich’ is the literate, brilliant script by Eric Roth and playwright Tony Kushner, working from the (allegedly) non-fiction book ‘Vengeance’ by George Jonas. Roth has had some misfires in his repertoire (‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, ‘The Postman’) but oh Johnny when he connects, he connects (‘Forrest Gump’, ‘The Insider’). This film certainly belongs in the latter category of smart, adult dramas Roth has scripted. Tony Kushner’s contribution (probably via most of the dialogue) is absolutely crucial, providing exchanges so finely honed that they cut deep. This is a film that can effortlessly transition from complex ethical discussions to frank, brutal violence without losing its sense of purpose and tone. The script is loaded with subtext, providing constant reminders of the longing for home that is so central to the Jewish faith, and to Avner personally. For some reason, the most memorable scene for me occurs on a pastoral French estate, where Avner meets the source providing information on the Palestinian targets. Played by Michael Lonsdale (‘The Day of the Jackal’), he is an aged patriarch and former resistance fighter, who deals in a world of intersecting secrecies in order to provide for his large extended family. Though he acts in a kind, fatherly manner toward Avner, much to the chagrin of his real son, Louis (Mathieu Amalric), the old man firmly reminds Avner “You could have been my son. But you’re not. Never forget that.” Seen in context, those words are at once forgiving and portentous, exemplary of the entire script’s precision and depth.


‘Munich’ is really not an easy film to watch. It is bloody, dark and unforgiving – Spielberg’s darkest film by far. Like a lot of classic films, this one takes a real toll on the viewer, probing emotions that are not easily explored, and offering little hope. But as an exciting and thoughtful piece of post-9/11 entertainment, few films have surpassed it.

Munich 7


The Night of the Hunter

Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter

“…and a little child shall lead them.” – Isaiah 11:6

Charles Laughton’s ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen. It could be accurately described as any number of things – a genteel folk drama, a haunting horror story, a grotesque fairy tale or a fable about religion, sex and greed. The film contains those and other seemingly incongruous elements, yet somehow succeeds in blending them together in a unique and utterly beguiling package. It’s hard to nail down – when I first sat down to watch it a few years ago, I was expecting a simplistic, low-rent, forgettable horror film. I was surprised to find instead a multi-layered and haunting piece of art, with ambitions beyond its B-movie premise. 1955 audiences, unprepared for its thematic dissonance, were left all sewn up in horse pies. Certainly the curious theatrical poster didn’t even begin to hint at what the film is really about, instead playing up the melodrama between a newly-married husband and wife. Unfortunately, its failure at the box office ensured that Laughton, a revered actor, never directed another movie.


But ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is really about only one thing– a terrifying wolf in sheep’s clothing. The self-anointed “Preacher” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is one of the truly great and archetypal villains of the cinema – a predator who wends his way through the West Virginia countryside, carrying out his twisted gospel (or, in Powell’s silky words, “the religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us”) of murdering widows and stealing their money. The film is based on the novel by Davis Grubb, who based his novel on the real-life case of Harry Powers, a serial killer who was hanged for murdering two women and three children in West Virginia in 1931. Powers was merely a con man who ensnared lonely women through magazine ads, but it was Grubb’s inspiration to give his central antagonist the shady persona of the Preacher.

After a heavenly introduction of sorts, the plot is quickly set into motion. Descending from a disapproving, God’s-eye view, we zero in on Reverend Harry Powell, speaking to his version of the Almighty after killing another widow and stealing her car. He is imprisoned for car theft, but he soon deduces that his cellmate, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), has entrusted $10,000 of stolen money to his two young children, John and Pearl. Upon his release, and Ben’s hanging, Powell uses his snake-oil charm and pretended piousness to ingratiate himself with the dim townsfolk and weasel his way into the Harper home. Before long, he marries and cruelly murders the poor mother, Willa (Shelley Winters), and then terrorizes and pursues the children across the countryside, all-the-while singing a chilling rendition of the hymn ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’. When the exhausted children finally find refuge with a good Christian woman, Ms. Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), the stage is perfectly set for a showdown between L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E, personified by Cooper and Powell respectively.

For a 60-year-old film, I was surprised to find real substance and frankness to the script. There are plenty of subtexts and themes on display in ‘The Night of the Hunter’, but the great masterstroke of Laughton and his screenwriter, film critic James Agee, is to infuse the narrative with heavy religious overtones and symbolism throughout. The centerpiece of the film is a languorous riverboat sequence in which the drained and terrified children, having narrowly escaped Powell’s switchblade, drift down the Ohio River as various animals look on under a starry sky. Clearly intended to echo Moses’ journey, the sequence has a quiet beauty that allows the audience a brief reprieve for reflection before the chase picks up again.


The film also accurately depicts the daily religiosity of the South during the Depression era. The townsfolk all use a quasi-biblical speak that feels right at home, and one of the movie’s great treats is the dialogue, full of scripture quotations, Apple Pie wisdom and some genuine humor. One of the most compelling scenes is Powell’s demonstration of the age-old conflict between good and evil using his tattooed hands. It seems odd, in this day and age, to see a film place religion so squarely at the forefront of the proceedings, but by doing so, Laughton and Agee elevated the story from cheap exploitation into a more spiritual, mystical realm.

Another major theme, and one that I paid far more attention to now that I have kids of my own, is the innocence and resilience of children. For a while, John is the only one who sees right through Powell’s act – little Pearl is so young and impressionable that she almost warms to the Preacher’s charms. John demonstrates maturity, resolve and bravery for most of the film, but he does have limits. It is sad to watch him finally collapse at Powell’s feet, unable to shoulder the illicit burden any longer. And it is touching to watch him regain his faith in parental love through Ms. Cooper’s firm but loving care. Though it is indeed “a hard world for little things”, we are also reminded that children often “have more endurance than God is ever to grant [them] again.”

This raises another interesting point. From the moment Ben Harper asks John and Pearl to hide the money, we are given examples of adults who consistently let the children down in one way or another. In fact, with the exception of Ms. Cooper, every adult in the picture is either completely oblivious to Harry Powell’s true nature, or is too weak to do anything about it. Willa is so easily dominated that even after she figures out Harry’s game, she naively believes that a type of salvation will come to her by her husband’s murderous hand. Uncle Birdie, the boathouse keeper, discovers Willa’s body but shrinks from the implications, and passes out drunk just as John and Pearl need him the most. The gossipy Icey Spoon is all too happy to buy the Preacher’s charade, and just as happy to exploit the orphaned children in a fit of religious zeal following Powell’s trial. And although Ben Harper justifies his theft because of his kids, what good does it do them to have their father hanged? This is what makes Ms. Cooper’s presence so towering – she is the only adult with any real moorings or common sense. She embodies meekness, sacrifice, charity and righteous anger all at the same time. It is telling that when she sings the hymn along with the wraith-like Preacher, she includes the phrase ‘Leaning on Jesus’ (a phrase that is absent in Powell’s version).

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When I recall this film in my mind’s eye, I first think of the haunting, beautiful imagery that is employed throughout. Charles Laughton and his cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, deliberately incorporated elements of German expressionism, with its angular design and its stylized use of shadows. There is the great shot of Powell on horseback, silhouetted against the approaching dawn, keeping pace with John and Pearl as his hymn echoes across the field. The most frightening scene to me is Willa Harper’s dream-like death scene, with Powell raising his switchblade in a bedroom that looks more like a chapel than anything else, followed by the haunting sight of Willa’s body at the bottom of the river. Of course, there is also the climactic nighttime standoff between Rachel Cooper and Harry Powell that uses light and shadow in ways that are integral in generating suspense. I also appreciated small things, like the use of the iris-in technique to focus on John and Pearl hiding in the cellar. I always respond to films where the direction is confident and deliberate, simply because if I sense there is substance and effort invested in a scene, or if I can tell there are layers to a composition, it focuses my attention (almost like reading and pondering scriptures). Here, Charles Laughton provides strategic, confident direction, and the result is a rich experience that rewards multiple viewings.


I can’t explain exactly why I return to ‘The Night of the Hunter’ now and then, but a big reason has to be Robert Mitchum’s syrupy, snaky characterization of Harry Powell, the titular Hunter. The Preacher is a twisted, sexually depraved, misogynistic monster who uses religion as a cover for doing wickedness. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but as I watched the film again, I couldn’t help but think of modern-day analogs like pedophile priests, or groups like ISIL and al Qaeda, who perform truly unspeakable acts in the name of a higher power (and who, incidentally, terrorize and victimize children). And make no mistake – Harry Powell is a very dynamic character. Whenever he is onscreen, the viewer can’t help but be enthralled by his charm and persuasiveness. He’s just plain fascinating to watch. His presence dominates the entire film, and is perhaps its most lasting legacy.


‘The Night of the Hunter’ is a brooding, strange and chilling film, but one that has grown on me over the years. I personally would not describe it as a horror movie – it’s more disturbing than scary, more gothic and subversive than outright frightening. It does show its age in a few places, and it has an abrupt ending that feels somehow too neat. But it has several things going for it – rich biblical themes, some genuine suspense, a surprisingly bold tone, stylish direction and above all, a villain for the ages. There’s something to it.



“No man is just anything.” – Blanche Manzon, summarizing a key theme of ‘Sorcerer’

Is it possible to view William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’ (1977) in 2015 and judge it solely on its own terms? The film arrives with an unusually compelling backstory involving a troubled production, an auteur director with a string of hits (and a massive ego) who was due for a failure, and one of the most unfortunate release dates in movie history. After flopping both critically and commercially, ‘Sorcerer’ lived in relative obscurity for nearly three decades before enjoying a critical reassessment – even a resurgence – in recent years. Having researched all of the behind-the-scenes drama, I was intrigued enough to submit the film for consideration in this venerable forum, despite not having seen it before. However, as I began to watch ‘Sorcerer’ I wondered if I had handicapped myself a bit. Would I be able to objectively assess the movie, divorced from what I knew about its background, and simply let the images, sounds and story play out on the screen?

Luckily, I believe I succeeded in doing so. ‘Sorcerer’ is a tight, lean, thrilling piece of cinema – one which I found truly refreshing in an age of, well, ‘Star Wars’-type spectacle. As I watched it, I was reminded of two more widely recognized auteur films of the late ‘70s – Michael Cimino’s ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978) and Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979). Those two films are certainly more celebrated (and less claustrophobic), but ‘Sorcerer’ approached similar subject matter, did it perhaps more efficiently, and was their equal in at least ambition, if not success. It was first through the gate in what could be called the ‘gritty, personal, yet operatic’ period of late ‘70s cinema, which would officially come to a close in 1980 with Cimino’s ‘Heaven’s Gate’ (though, astoundingly, even that film is now enjoying a similar reassessment!). ‘Sorcerer’ skillfully combines weighty themes with tense, tough filmmaking to become a genuinely thrilling experience. At times, I was surprised at how kinetic and violent it was (you gotta love that fake ‘70s blood!). It has a bleak worldview, to be sure, along with an absence of heroes to root for and an ambiguous ending, but I count these among the film’s strengths because they ensure a more lasting impact for the viewer.

The film is a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘The Wages of Fear’ (1953), a French classic with the same basic plot outline (Friedkin insists it is not a remake, but a “re-imagining” with original characters. Sure, Billy…). The plot can be very simply outlined – four men, living in forced exile in the South American hellhole of Porvenir, are tasked with transporting leaky and volatile explosives over 218 miles of jungle road to extinguish a raging oil-well fire. To accomplish this task they will use two trucks (the aptly named ‘Lazaro’ and ‘Sorcerer’), cobbled together from junkyard components. A simple plot, yes, but it provides a springboard not only for exhilarating set pieces, but for exploring grander themes such as the random buffetings of fate, and the necessity of forging alliances in the face of certain death. The film’s unfortunate title (which misled 1977 audiences to expect an ‘Exorcist’-type thriller…from the director of ‘The Exorcist’) refers more specifically, in Friedkin’s words, to an ‘implacable, cruel wizard of fate’ against whom humanity fights in a brutal and constant struggle. In retrospect, ‘Sorcerer’ is a perfect and truly ironic title, given the history of the film’s initial demise.


‘Sorcerer’ is chiefly an action thriller, but it also contains absorbing drama. Though we never really get to know them, the four principal characters are nonetheless introduced with care and detail in the opening stretch. They don’t even get in the trucks until just after the one-hour mark, but thanks to four prologues at the outset, and the bleak middle segment in Porvenir, we get a palpable sense of the desperation that drives each man, even before the perilous journey begins. Friedkin’s first choice for the role of Scanlon was Steve McQueen, but when he turned it down, Friedkin had to settle for Roy Scheider. I’m glad he did. McQueen would have been all wrong for the part, because Scheider and the other men possess a physical, world-weary sensibility that is essential in conveying the characters’ struggle for redemption. The acting (frequently done in close-up) effectively suggests complex emotions – principally greed, fear and despair. In a film with deliberate echoes of John Huston’s ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ (1948), Scheider is given a great Fred C. Dobbs moment (“We’re sitting on double shares!!”), and he effectively sells the surreal, hallucinatory climax as well as Scanlon’s eventual acceptance of his powerlessness against fate.


From a technical perspective, ‘Sorcerer’ is very well-crafted. The film is filled with beautiful, tactile imagery. Rich jungle greens contrast beautifully against explosive oranges, and Friedkin’s trademark ‘documentary realism’ style of mise-en-scene, which first shocked audiences in ‘The French Connection’ (1971), is convincingly employed throughout. For example, while filming the bombing in Jerusalem, an actual terrorist bombing took place nearby, and footage of the incident was captured and used in the sequence. Indeed, the whole film – including the prologues – was shot on location, and we can tell. At times the two trucks (to say nothing of the actors) seem to be in danger of being swallowed up by the jungle, providing compelling evidence of what Werner Herzog called the “voodoo of location”. This refers to the ways in which an actual location can provide a sensory or visual impact that adds veracity to what is portrayed onscreen.

This is nowhere more evident than in the centerpiece of ‘Sorcerer’ – the harrowing bridge-crossing sequence over a raging jungle river. I use the word ‘harrowing’ without hyperbole – the sequence exceeded my expectations in every way. Going in, I knew that it was achieved through practical effects, that it was genuinely life-threatening, that, once built, an unprecedented drought forced the filmmakers to rebuild the bridge over another river (costing millions) and that it was supposed to be quite a memorable sequence. I knew all of that, but when the scene arrived I was transfixed by the escalating tension and dread that unfolded on the screen, reinforced by a marvelous sound design. In this scene, as well as a later one involving the careful detonation of a tree, Hitchcock’s oft-cited theory about the difference between suspense and surprise is validated (though we soon get a jarring example of the latter, too). There is also an effective use of montage in the truck-assembling sequence. Set to a hypnotic electronic score by Tangerine Dream, Friedkin intercuts the sweaty faces of laboring men with images of the inferno at the oil-well, simultaneously building suspense and inviting a direct comparison with the characters’ inner struggle. Walon Green’s screenplay is spare and taciturn, with very little dialogue, and the film favors imagery and pure cinematic storytelling over exposition – an advantage, in my opinion. In terms of craftsmanship, ‘Sorcerer’ shows William Friedkin (over?)confidently at the top of his game.


I do have some lingering questions after my initial viewing. The Mexican assassin Nilo (Francisco Rabal) felt a bit underdeveloped, even by the film’s comparatively minimal standard of character development. He lacks an ostensible motivation or need to escape his surroundings, and seems to be in Porvenir almost by choice. Is he on the run? Out of money? We never get a sufficient explanation, and must fill that gap with some assumptions about his situation. I wonder, too, if it might have been more effective for at least one of the four protagonists to be a more innocent or random victim of circumstance. Sure, once they commence their journey they are all at the mercy of fate, but prior to that one could argue that each man is simply living out the consequences of his poor choices. As it is, the most sympathetic character is the French financier Manzon (Bruno Cremer), providing a voice of reason and the film’s sole emotional anchor, if it can be called that. And of course there is the open-ended conclusion – Friedkin has claimed that the sound just prior to the credits is not actually a gunshot, but a car backfiring, thus leaving what happens in that bar entirely up to the viewer’s imagination.


The last question I have is a rhetorical one: would I have enjoyed ‘Sorcerer’ as much in 1977, or would I have opted for a corny space opera with clear-cut heroes and villains? Hard to say. Back then, America was still reeling from Vietnam, Watergate and a series of domestic ills, and ‘Star Wars’ provided them with a desperately-needed escape. Little wonder that a return engagement of ‘Star Wars’ kicked ‘Sorcerer’ out of Mann’s Chinese Theater after only a week of release. But the later success of ‘The Deer Hunter’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’ proved there was still a market for gritty, ambitious filmmaking. Was the ‘Star Wars’ juggernaut solely to blame, or was Friedkin’s hubris also the cause? As the maverick auteur demanded more money to achieve his vision (the budget swelled from $2.5M to $22.5M), he alienated both studios behind the project, and they responded by only lightly promoting the film. Certainly it didn’t help when Friedkin plastered a picture of the Paramount Board of Directors in the offices of the film’s shady oil company, either. The answer is probably some combination of those elements.


Abstract analytical exercises aside, I found ‘Sorcerer’ to be brilliantly crafted, exciting and memorable. Certainly it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I instinctively respond to films like ‘Sorcerer’ that are made with real ambition and grit, and that reject the timidity in most modern Hollywood films. Directors used to deliberately seek to make masterpieces and achieve a form of greatness. Francis Ford Coppola went to the jungle and emerged with a definitive vision of madness and war. William Friedkin went to the jungle to achieve his masterwork, and never quite returned. He can thank the cruel wizard of fate for that.