Pollack Paranoia

January 31, 2012

Three Days of the Condor (1975) is a conspiracy thriller by Sydney Pollack about a renegade CIA section.  There were a lot of movies then about that sort of thing:  Watergate; JFK’s assassination; Vietnam – any nutty theory seemed to have some traction.  Unlike The Parallax View of 1974 by Pakula, which is darker and takes itself much, much more seriously, I thoroughly enjoyed this film, while I found the Pakula number predictable and pretentious.  I guess I like Redford more than Beatty too.  (I still want to know how they filmed that scene on the Seattle Space Needle at the start of Parallax though!)

Redford plays Joe Turner, a CIA researcher who returns from a lunchtime errand with the office’s sandwiches to find everyone murdered.  Why would  anyone rub out a bunch of nerdy intelligence analysts?  He may be an egghead bookworm, but he’s also Redford, so he can fight and think on his feet like James Bond:  not quite believable.

He forces Cathy (Faye Dunaway) to shelter him, she falls for him, of course, and they sleep together.  The next day, she’s feeling a bit skittish.  He tells her, “You don’t have to help me.”  She replies, “Oh no, you can count on me, the old spy fucker…”  He’s annoyed.  A funny bit; part of what makes this thriller a little quirky.

The film is shot in New York City, and it’s a real treat to see the locations.  It’s NYC in the 70s, the NYC I remember, even when I’m walking around the spic-and-span streets of today near Central Park – The NYC of humungus cars lumbering down potholed streets, garbage on the sidewalk, and grime.  Several of the shots of CIA headquarters in NYC are in the World Trade Center, a deliciously sick irony, given the fate of those structures and the CIA ineptitude that helped bring it on.  Here, the Hoboken train station take on a noir/Casablanca atmosphere as Turner walks away from Cathy, maybe to his death.

Cliff Robertson (sporting a massive, windblown rug) plays Higgins, the CIA guy trying to get Turner:  is he on Joe’s side, or does he put The Company first?  Here he stares at a primitive version of Google Maps trying to locate Joe from a phone call, but Joe was too clever to be tracked.

Joe finds the CIA guy who rubbed out his friends so that a secret rogue CIA plan to invade the Middle East wouldn’t be uncovered.  Turner realizes it was all about oil.  Sounds familiar.  The 1973 oil crisis was a recent memory.

John Houseman is the old CIA hand who craves “the clarity” of yesteryear.  Max von Sydow is  Joubert the hired murderer who has found clarity in “the precision” of his work.  He doesn’t have to worry about which side pays.  He has found peace.  He and Joe have a little man to man outside of the renegade’s house.  Joe seems cool with the fact that Mr. Death (yep, Max has a lot of experience with The Grim Reaper) knocked off his colleagues:  he’s a bit overwhelmed by it all, and asks for a lift to the train station.  This was another of the enjoyable, unpredictable elements in this film.

Joe is not quite through with The Company.  He meets Higgins again, who tries to justify the whole dirty business, although, of course, that renegade went too far.  They have a little debate about democratic accountability with Turner taking the high road, “ask the people what they want,” and Higgins telling him that when they are out of gas, hungry and cold, they will just want the ‘authorities’ to get it done, and not ask why.  He has a point, doesn’t he?

The moral ambiguity of the ending, the unresolved romance, the unknown future of Joe Turner is what makes this movie really fun.  Joe tells Higgins that the New York Times now has the whole story.  He thinks that will protect him:  he doesn’t quite trust Higgins to be gentle with him, despite Higgins’ show of concern for his welfare.  After all, Joubert told him not to trust anyone.  Higgins is aghast – another Pentagon Papers debacle – but as Joe walks away, he calls to him.  How far can you walk?  “How do you know they’ll print it?”  “They’ll print it,” shouts Joe, but he doesn’t seem totally convinced.

Sydney Pollack turns up at the end of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s final work, and a terrible disappointment to me.  He gives the low down to Tom Cruise who cannot fathom the corrupt orgy he’s witnessed.  Pollack tells him that the high and mighty, the secret governing class, they do things you wouldn’t believe, if you only knew.  Yeah, yeah, I read the papers, we know.  It’s a pretty silly denouement.

Oops…what if they don’t print it?

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Ladies in Distress – Chabrol & Pakula

February 22, 2010

 

The film world is not one that features lots of strong women characters, unless their strength is heavily overlaid with softness, and unless they are in distress.  Two females here:  the first is Catherine from Claude Chabrol’s Masques; the second, of course, is Bree from Klute – both are victimized by predatory males and need saving by a handsome young man.  At least they show a lot of spunk in the process!

These two go together well in their sort-of minimalist approach to the thriller, and the creation of a stifling atmosphere of “paranoia.”  In Masques, we find a young man staying at a plush country estate with a fabulously popular host from a French TV game show – a gong show for old people, without the gong.  The young fellow is writing his biography, so he says, but he is obviously searching for clues about a missing woman.  The host’s young female ward, Catherine, is a wilted flower of a young woman, under continual medication, sensitive to the sunlight, tall, slim, and pretty in that emaciated pale way that some French women bring off on-screen.  We learn that the older man is a monster behind his mask, willing to kill his mother for a good picture by Monet, and probably killing with poison the young woman whom he is also fleecing of her inherited wealth.  The cat and mouse game between the young and the old man ends with the priest of TV good feeling de-frocked on-screen, and the two young people happily betrothed.

This film is very clever and witty.  Small bits of dialog are so revealing.  The host is horribly allergic to feathers – they will be his death!  When his thug-chauffeur is carrying the drugged body of the young girl to her nasty end, he comments, “Oh, she’s light as a feather.”  Little touches like that abound in this film, and all the characters are wonderful, but especially Phillipe Noiret, as the devil with a beaming face.

Chabrol visits again the theme he treated in Ten Days of Wonder:  the evil, controlling God-the-Father, but with a lighter touch.  The only problem I have with the film is that Catherine’s impetuous infatuation with the young houseguest – she brings him some hangers and then embraces him passionately and without preamble! – seemed very odd to me.  Was she spending her time there waiting for a new guest to fall in love with..?

The woman who needs saving in Alan Pakula’s Klute, is not a pretty young thing – she’s a hard-as-nails independent prostitute.  The man stalking her is unseen by her, ever watchful, powerful, rich, and psychotic.  Anyone who has watched a lot of movies won’t be surprised by anything that happens in this film – do we need to be surprised to feel suspense? – all the tension comes from the characters.  We know that Klute will save Bree, but will they stay together?  Will Klute ever open up and … smile?  Will Bree ever allow herself to not be in control of her life and feelings?  That’s the real suspense story. 

The film is eerie and sinister.  In this age of cell phones, pocket digital equipment and cameras, the tiny reel-to-reel tape recorder at the center of the psychotic vortex is a devilishly scary prop.  The dispatching of the villain, wonderfully played by Charles Cioffi, is simple, clean, and abstract,  in keeping with the look and feel of the movie.  A real pleasure, this one.


The Lady Vanishes

October 5, 2009

coming_clean

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) reminded me of Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel in a way.  A group of middle-class people find themselves in a nightmare world bounded by the edge of a room, or railway car, from which they cannot escape.  This one has a happy ending.

The movie gets off to such a slow and corny start, I almost gave up on it.  There’s the rich playgirl, getting ready to return to London to settle down according to Daddy’s wishes, and marry a “check-chasing blueblood.” A pair of stereotypical, cricket-obsessed Brits who keep up a steady idiotic patter, a charming, handsome, and brash musicologist  studying local folksongs, and a slightly batty old English lady governess.  They are all trapped by an avalanche in a remote backwater of some fictional central-European country, waiting for their train connection back to England.

off_to_marriage    not_cricket

Once on the train, the playgirl and the governess become friendly, and when the girl wakes up from a snooze, the old lady is gone.  Simply gone.  Everybody claims to have never seen her!  It becomes a somewhat labored cat-and-mouse game between the girl and the passengers:  she trying to get evidence that the woman did exist; they implying or saying straight out that she’s crazy.  A bit of physical evidence convinces the music man, and they make a team.  It turns out that the passengers are in a conspiracy to abduct and kill the old lady with an elaborate switcheroo involving a fake medical expert, a nun in black high-heeled pumps, and an Italian circus performer.  Then it gets weird.

After the heroes rescue the governess, the bad guys separate the train cars and direct the passengers and the engine onto a small line that runs into the forest.  They stop the train and surround the car with armed men.  After a failed ruse to get the passengers to disembark, they direct a fusillade at the car.  Why are all these people suddenly fighting for their lives in the middle of nowhere, trapped in a rail car, simply because of some old lady? 

A pretty woman with her lover, both fleeing spouses, demands that her man use his gun to defend them.  He thinks it’s all insane – the only sensible thing is to surrender and explain everything.  She grabs his gun and starts firing.  The two Brits rise to the occasion, without visible emotion of course, and turn out to be crack shots.  One grabs the pretty lady’s gun saying, “I’ll put it to better use,” and proceeds to pick off the attackers.  With each shot, the woman starts with fear while he, surveying the situation, calmly remarks, “I’m sure that there’s a rational –bang!– explanation – bang! – for all of this.”  Indeed there is.

use_the_Gun   a_rational_explanation

Happily returned to London, the playgirl abandons her gold-digging fiancé and surrenders to the ill mannered, but charming music man in an embrace that is not what I expect from a Hitchcock film

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