The Verdict

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“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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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– 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.

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– 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’.

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– 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’.

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– 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.

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– 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.

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– 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.

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– 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.

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– 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’).

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– 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.

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– 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.

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– 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.

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– 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.

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

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– 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.

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– 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.

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– 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:

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– 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.

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– 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).

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– 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.

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– 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.

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

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– 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.

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– 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.

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– 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.

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– 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.

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– 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.

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– 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.

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– 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.

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– 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:

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– 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.

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– 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.

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– 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.

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– 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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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The Night of the Hunter

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“…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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

Sorcerer

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“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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Lawrence of Arabia

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“If I fear him, who love him, how must he fear himself who hates himself?” – Sherif Ali

Those words, spoken through tears by Sherif Ali near the close of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, are at once incisive, poetic and heartbreaking – like the film itself. David Lean’s masterpiece is rightly praised for its sweeping scope, its lavish production and its general “epic-ness”, but lines like that are what give the film real power and life. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is as much a quiet, personal film as it is an epic, and it is the interplay of these two elements that make this film absolutely riveting for me. Scope alone is not enough, but when coupled with superior dialogue and a fascinating personal story about a unique historical (or fictional) figure, it can catapult a film into greatness. This explains why films like ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘Schindler’s List’ work, while others collapse under the burden of a vast canvas. Amid the battles at Aqaba and Tafas, the pageantry on display at Wadi Rum, and the numerous treks across forbidding deserts, the central theme of the film is always at the forefront.

What is the central theme? Midway through the film, after Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) sees the eerie image of a ship – obscured by sand dunes – navigating the Suez Canal, a man on a motorcycle provides it as he yells across the Canal: “Who are you?!” (this line was actually shouted by director Lean). The film examines the discovery of identity by telling the story of a man who didn’t fit into British society, British military ranks, or even his own family (due to his illegitimate parentage). As Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) remarks to Lawrence, “It seems to me that you are free to choose your own name, then.” In Lawrence’s case, he finds his real identity, of all places, among warring Bedouins in the “burning, fiery furnace” of Arabia – and to his horror discovers masochistic and barbaric impulses that he would rather not discover.

The first half of the film soars as Lawrence finds confidence, success and eventual fame as a brilliant military tactician. The second half examines Lawrence’s hubris as a self-appointed messiah of the Arab people, and his inevitable downfall as he first flees and then indulges his thirst for bloodshed. Most people I talk to who have seen the film (a small group, unfortunately) say that they loved the first half but not the second. But without the second half, Lawrence’s character arc would not be as resonant or tragic, and therefore not as powerful. Lean conveys Lawrence’s decline in many subtle ways – when Lawrence first dons the flowing white Arabian robes, they are clean and unwrinkled. Near the end, as he tours the military hospital in Damascus, his robes have become dirty, blood-stained and nearly see-through – as if Lawrence has become a ghost of himself (the costume department gradually eroded the texture of the robes until they resembled muslin cloth). There is the brilliant final shot, where Lawrence’s face is seen opaquely through a glass windshield right after a passing motorcycle prefigures his eventual death. Even the film’s original poster (used for the 50th Anniversary Blu-ray) beautifully conveys the character’s ambiguity and complexity. In a sense, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ contains the seeds of the antiheroes that saturate our multiplexes today.

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Remarkably, the film is more or less faithful to actual historical events, and most of the key plot points (though somewhat romanticized) are taken from actual occurrences during World War I. The siege of Aqaba, the success of the Arab revolt, Lawrence’s imprisonment (…) at Deraa, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the ultimate failure of Arab governance in Damascus are all well-preserved in the annals of history, and in Lawrence’s autobiography ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’. Col. T.E. Lawrence is a well-known figure in British military history due to his successful (though short-lived) uniting of the Arab tribes against the Turks. From a film perspective, the historicity of the plot lends the central themes even more gravitas and power by providing a compelling backdrop for sensational battles and quiet moments alike. Furthermore, the movie contains many perspectives on the Arab peoples that remain salient today. The divisions among tribes that caused a failure of the Arab National Council in 1920 also threaten to fracture today’s fledgling Iraqi government. T.E. Lawrence is credited with innovating guerrilla warfare tactics that are still employed today by ISIL, Taliban and al Qaeda fighters against the West. And the US is still embroiled in the quagmire of Arabia, just as Britain and France were for so long. Auda Abu-Tayi reminds us that the desert has indeed dried up more blood than we can imagine, yet we may be approaching the ability to do so.

Art imitates life - The real Col. T.E. Lawrence

The real Col. T.E. Lawrence

There is no shortage of things to admire in the film. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is blessed with an uncommonly intelligent, literate screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson (Bolt also wrote ‘A Man for All Seasons’, a film similarly blessed). Dialogue exchanges are deep, thought-provoking and frequently inspiring. Some memorable examples:

(Prince Feisal) “There is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing.”

(Ali) “These are not ordinary men.” (Lawrence) “I don’t want ordinary men.”

(Lawrence) “I shall want quite a lot of money.” (Gen. Allenby) “All there is.” (Lawrence) “Not that much.”

(Ali) “The Nefud is the worst place God created.” (Lawrence) “I can’t answer for the place, only for myself.”

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The script is genuinely thrilling to follow, and it achieves a type of poetry through its utter simplicity. However, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is far from a simple film. Complex themes aren’t just introduced, but given time and depth so the implications can sink in. Take Lawrence’s rescue, and subsequent execution of Gasim. The incident serves as his first experience with bloodshed, yes, but it also reveals Lawrence’s emerging God complex via his mediation, and extends the subtext of whether one’s actions are indeed “written” or not. Scenes will also hearken back to lines and events seeded earlier in the script. Consider the heartbreaking friendship of Lawrence and Sherif Ali at the film’s core. With self-righteous indignation, Lawrence first accuses Ali of being “greedy, barbarous and cruel” – words that Ali uses to convict him after the final massacre at Tafas. Ali has become the sympathetic and pacifistic one, while Lawrence has descended into madness and shame. This is also depicted in scenes where Lawrence views his reflection in a dagger – first clean and then drenched in blood (remarkably, O’Toole improvised the initial dagger scene).

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So many other elements combine to make ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ a masterpiece. Peter O’Toole is perfect in what would become a career-defining role, and he is able to convey Lawrence’s inner turmoil with the slightest facial tic. Omar Sharif matches him with a supremely confident, emotive performance. He is undoubtedly gifted with one of the best, most lauded ‘entrances’ in movie history, but he is also given one of the best ‘exits’, retreating into the shadows in Damascus in one of my favorite shots. David Lean’s direction is peerless, telling the story through rich visuals and memorable set pieces. Visually, it is a very generous film – I think of the famous mirage scene at the well, the crashing waves along Aqaba’s coast at sunset, Lawrence framed in shadow as he walks on top of a train, the image of blood on the sand just before Lawrence shouts “No prisoners!” Lean also employs exciting editing techniques, like the cut that takes us straight into the desert immediately after Lawrence blows out a match, or the cut from Feisal’s interview with Bentley to Lawrence detonating a Turkish rail line. I can’t think of a film that is as old, yet feels so modern. And to top it off, Maurice Jarre’s rich score contributes a great deal to the alchemy of the film’s success.

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‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is a flawless film and the best, most intelligent of all epic films (AFI voted it the top epic in their 2008 ’10 Top 10’ list). It continues to thrill after all these years, and hasn’t really aged at all. It never steps wrong.

Note: I highly recommend reading Tim Dirks’ summary of the film on filmsite.org, which highlights additional themes and subtexts that I had scarcely contemplated.

Interstellar

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“We used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” – Matthew McConaughey as Cooper

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ is exactly the film it aspires to be – intelligent, visionary and actually quite stirring. It does NOT aspire to be this generation’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, which may explain why some have been less forgiving of its perceived faults. Where Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece about man’s interactions with both technology and the cosmos told its story mainly through haunting imagery and stillness, ‘Interstellar’ aims to be somewhat more accessible. That’s not to say that the film dumbs things down for the audience – on the contrary, it trusts the audience a great deal to follow its multiple explanations of wormholes, quantum physics and other such phenomena. But it is certainly a more plot-driven, dialogue-heavy film than ‘2001’, with a fascinating logic that proceeds toward a satisfying and totally unambiguous finale.

The comparison is justified, though, because Christopher Nolan (who wrote the screenplay with his brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan) has named ‘2001’ among his favorite movies and a direct inspiration for his new space epic. Certainly its influence is present as Nolan borrows elements that worked in that film – total silence in its space scenes, exciting jump cuts, and talking robot companions. Rather than carbon copies, these techniques are appropriate and inventive riffs on Kubrick’s innovations, and they are impressive examples of the craft on display throughout ‘Interstellar’. There are a number of space sequences here that are elegant and beautifully rendered, especially as displayed on an IMAX screen (a highly recommended experience – I saw it here). In keeping with Nolan’s preferred cinematic style, the effects are not overly polished or glitzy. You feel as though you may be looking at actual spaceships and black holes – detailed, but not necessarily crystal clear.

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Beyond being driven by an intriguing plot and fascinating imagery, I found ‘Interstellar’ to be a very compelling emotional experience, due primarily to the father-daughter relationship at its core. Matthew McConaughey is well-suited to the role of Cooper, a former NASA test pilot and father of two who is reduced to operating a corn farm when global staple crops begin to die. In keeping with a time-honored Hollywood tradition, Alberta, Canada doubles as the American midwest – the setting for the first hour of the film, as well as later crucial scenes. With its sparse prairie population and malevolent dust storms, the earth-bound set pieces strike just the right tone of weariness and dread, as well as Cooper’s yearning for something grander. Earth is faced with a rather plausible environmental crisis, and it becomes clear that mankind’s existence is quickly becoming imperiled. In the final two-thirds of the film, Cooper and a team of NASA explorers employ interstellar travel to search for a new planet that will sustain life for humanity.

Meanwhile Cooper’s daughter, Murph, searches for the meaning behind an apparent coded message that routinely shows up in her room, which would sound weird if it weren’t totally convincing in the film. Murph is a smart, plucky amateur scientist in her youth and her exchanges with Cooper are more than just cute dialogue– they show a love of science taking root within her. It is truly wrenching to see father and daughter separated as Cooper, armed with knowledge about Earth’s impending doom, opts to journey to another solar system. Those scenes work, and payoff wonderfully in the film’s climax. As Murph grows to be a middle-aged theoretical physicist (Jessica Chastain), she searches for a way to overcome the challenge of gravity and shuttle the planet’s inhabitants to a new home, if indeed it can be found. She must also deal with the pain of her father’s absence and hang on to the diminishing hope that they will be reunited, all while Earth becomes increasingly scorched and barren.

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This film has done its homework, (noted physicist Kip Thorne contributed a lifetime of research to the project) and yet it never sounds like a science lecture. There is real substance in discussions about gravity, space-time and higher dimensionality, but characters do not dwell on unnecessary explanations. We are given enough information to orient ourselves, and we move on. A common complaint about Nolan’s ‘Inception’ was the higher-than-usual amount of exposition required to lay the ground rules. That was true to some extent, but never as distracting for me as it was for some. However, I found that ‘Interstellar’ had almost no unnecessary or even obvious exposition. Each time an explanation is needed, it is organic, economical and highly engaging. Even the film’s humor is actually funny this time (thanks to the robot named ‘TARS’, voiced by Bill Irwin), instead of the groan-inducing kind found in previous Nolan films.

There were many things that worked for me in the film. I appreciated the theme, stated in the quote above, of pioneering and exploration – elements increasingly absent from our society. One of the trends I analyze in my job is the current lack of strategic vision and purpose in the Department of Defense, and NASA in particular. Those agencies are using R&D funds to pay for increasingly expensive, aging (and ironically ineffective) legacy military systems, thus robbing investments in crucial next-generation technology. Recent events have underscored the lack of direction and purpose at NASA, and there is real worry about the future of American innovation in general, which now seems to aim no higher than cranking out the next smartphone. It is refreshing, therefore, to see a dramatic portrayal of people embarking on an expedition with real stakes and uncharted territory. I also found it refreshing to see the robot character ‘TARS’ represent a more hopeful, non-threatening view of artificial intelligence and technology. It has become rather tiresome for a film to include a warning on the dangers of technology run amok, when a lot of the advances I see in fields such as robotics are more optimistic and affirming in reality. A key theme here, as Cooper’s team moves among possible new homes for the human race, is that evil is not found in technology, or even nature – it is found in our flawed human nature.

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I did have minor quibbles, but nothing to detract from the film’s overall trajectory or impact. Cooper’s son, Tom (Casey Affleck), was not as developed as he could have been with even a few more lines (or a proper sendoff), but there are some heartfelt moments shown between father and son. The scientist Brand (Anne Hathaway) is notably sterile considering her prime position on the intrepid team of explorers, as well as her eventual fate. However, she delivers a key poetic interlude about the quantifiable nature of love, and the film’s ultimate impact does not depend on the audience fully embracing her character. Hans Zimmer’s wall-of-sound score was slightly overwhelming at times (possibly due to the eardrum-shattering IMAX sound), yet even here there are grace notes. His use of organ music in particular evokes the lofty, grand themes inherent in a story about mankind’s search for a new home among the stars.

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‘Interstellar’ is an exciting, thoughtful, and life-affirming epic more akin to ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ or ‘Contact’ than ‘2001’. It mixes substantive “science speculation” with a touching human story that I, as a parent, found very powerful and resonant. Perhaps I have neglected to convey how genuinely thrilling the film is – there are sequences on the prospective new worlds that are quite suspenseful, propelled by Nolan’s clever editing of parallel lines of action. I was surprised to find the pacing of this nearly three-hour movie to be so crisp. The film plays neat tricks with time and employs it as an effective device in one particularly thrilling sequence on a world composed primarily of water. ‘Interstellar’ is a film of ambition, ideas and logic, but it also conveys something that I have long believed about the universe – love is a powerful and penetrating cosmic force. How many Hollywood films dare to say something like that these days? None, that’s how many.

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