Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Wild Bunch

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Sam Peckinpah, who directed this 1969 western, offers a vision of America’s mythology of the Old West in transition as it deteriorates from idealism into cynicism. The significance of the title of the movie shows that the group of men are uncontrolled outlaws because they find no connection with a corrupt society, and their only allegiance is to the tribe they have formed. Whatever redemption they feel they can achieve in this fallen state comes from their loyalty to each other.
The first shot is of the Bunch, riding together, like a violent family. They are wild, but they are a unified. There is a shot of grinning children as they feed a couple of scorpions to a colony of ants. The film seems to present a restricted path for existence, with the threat of destruction being the primary force. Individuals perish, and any chance at a worthwhile survival depends upon the strength derived from a cohesive group. The image of the children getting enjoyment out of their sadistic act is disturbing, implying that innocence is dead as violence now begins among the young.

The cruel activity of the children is offset with the gathering of members of the Temperance Union, with a speaker quoting from the bible, which is also undercut by the Bunch riding by. The members of the Bunch are disguised as soldiers. Pike (William Holden), the leader, bumps into an old lady and her packages drops. For an instant Pike’s meanness shows on his face but then he puts on a benevolent look, as he and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) pick up the packages and escort the woman. Appearances are deceiving, but these men are at least capable of civilized behavior. They are robbing a railroad depot, but Thornton (Robert Ryan) is there with his group of bounty hunters waiting for them. The Bunch spots the bounty hunters. We see the children marching with the Union, almost desecrating the actions of the righteous considering their affinity for destruction. Thornton’s men are just as bloodthirsty as any criminals, eager to start shooting. There is a smile on one man’s face in anticipation of the shootout, another, Coffer (Strother Martin) kisses his gun. The Bunch throw a railroad clerk out into the street while the marchers pass by, as they are not above sacrificing innocents as cover, who get caught in the crossfire. Many of the bounty hunters are shot. These men are not so admirable since their motivation is to collect rewards as opposed to enforcing the law.

There is recognition between Pike and Thornton as they exchange glances. Thornton hesitates and a band player gets in the way and is shot by Thornton, again showing how the violence of the time is wiping out the innocent. Pike’s return shot does not aim at Thornton, but kills the man next to him. We later learn why these two men can’t kill each other. The violence, which may not seem as graphic as today, but was revolutionary at the time, is extensive. The slow-motion shots make it linger, showing the devastating effect of the bullets on a human body. At the same time the cinematography is stylized, distancing the audience from the gruesome reality observed. The effect is similar to the technique that director Stanley Kubrick used in A Clockwork Orange. The mayhem appears choreographed to emphasize the artifice of film, ironically showing that even death can be made to appear artistic.
The bounty hunters, demonstrating how their callous greed undermines their cohesiveness as a unit, argue over who claims the rights to the bandits that were killed. Thornton is angry about the lack of organized planning which leads to the loss of lives. Harrigan (Albert Dekker), who works for the railroad and hired Thornton and the bounty hunters, criticizes Thornton for not killing Pike. One of the Bunch, Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins), the name definitely fits here, who was guarding people at the railroad office, is cut off from the Bunch. He is unbalanced, asking the captives to sing, licking one of the women, and then shooting them when they try to escape for no reason since the robbery was over. He is shot by the bounty hunters, but even as he dies, he shoots more people, showing his deadly nature, and how the men who are outside the law can attract those that undermine their band of criminal brothers. The townspeople blame the railroad, a supposedly legitimate business, for luring the bandits in with a fake publicized delivery of silver, and thus causing the massacre. Thornton at least does seem outraged by the deaths. Children then imitate the action of the shooters, stressing how systemic the violence has become.

One of the Bunch, Buck (Rayford Barnes) was shot and loses his vision. He says just end it for him, and hardly gets the words out of his mouth before Pike shoots him. If an individual can’t help the group, he is a hindrance, and must be put down. This killing shows the brutal nature of the pact made between these men. Pike says rhetorically and sarcastically that maybe some of the others would like to give the man a decent burial. The thrust here is that their way of life can’t afford the luxury for sentimentality. One man does say he would like to bury him, and another says that too many of their number died. Dutch, Pike’s second in command, chimes in with sarcasm too, saying, “maybe a few hymns’d be in order. Followed by a church supper. With a choir!” The scorn for a religious ritual shows how far these men have distanced themselves from mainstream life.

 Harrigan yells at the bounty hunters for not stopping the thieves, but he only sees things in terms of dollars and cents, not in the loss of life, and threatens to give a thousand dollars to any man who kills one of their number who quits on the job. The intent of this offer is meant to unite this group but really just appeals to their individual greed, and discourages working in harmony toward a common goal. We learn that Thornton was in prison, used to be one of the Bunch, and Harrigan wonders whether he will try to rejoin them. Thornton says he gave his word, which is still important to him, but Harrigan says if he doesn’t bring the bandits back dead in thirty days, Thornton go back to the Yuma prison. Thornton points out angrily that Harrigan is able to order killings with the sanction of the law behind him. Harrigan, thus, appears worse than the criminals since his violence can be carried out without worrying about consequences. There is a flashback of Thornton being whipped in prison, showing the sadistic nature of the supposedly legitimate institution.
The Bunch crosses the river to get into Mexico. The border, as it was used in A Touch of Evil, can represent an area that exists between traditional concepts of good and evil, and here can also show the transition between a romanticized outlook to a cynical one. Two of the Bunch, Tector (Ben Johnson) and his brother, Lyle (Warren Oates) say they don’t think the old member of their group, Freddy Sykes (Edmond O'Brien), and the Mexican riding with them, Angel (Jaime Sanchez), should get equal shares of what they stole. Because Pike knows that anything that threatens to divide the Bunch will lessen their strength, he says he is either the leader and what he says goes, or he ends things right there. The threat of death is enough to cower the two men. Since the heist at the railroad depot was a trap, there are only metal washers in the bags. Pike admits that he saw Thornton at the depot. They plan their next move, but as Sykes says, they’re not getting any younger. Pike echoes that by saying that they must think “beyond their guns. Those days are closin’ fast.” This elegiac feel is similar to what happens in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where outlaws are constantly on the run from a changing world that threatens their place in the mythos of the Old West. In order to ward off the specter of future demise, the men here just laugh it off as Lyle and Tector talk about being with whores while Pike was setting them up to steal washers.
At their campsite before going to sleep, Pike says to Dutch that the railroad robbery was supposed to be his last job. He says he wanted one big heist and then hoped to “back off.” But his pal says, “Back off to what?” Pike has no reply, because they don’t know any other life, and probably couldn’t leave the one they have behind. In a way, their actions and the changing world has trapped them. He asks Pike about other plans, and Pike says there are a lot of garrisons along the border waiting for payrolls. Dutch says the authorities will be waiting for them, and Pike defiantly says he wouldn’t want it any other way. Dutch shows his allegiance to Pike, saying he wouldn’t want it any other way either about confronting the law. Pike has a flashback of him and Thornton (the name might suggest he represents a “thorn” of guilt in Pike’s side?) at a brothel, and Thornton saying they have to move on. Pike says that it’s okay because “Being sure is my business.” But the authorities burst in on them and Thornton is shot and cuffed. Pike escaped and now probably feels guilty about miscalculating their safety and leaving Thornton behind, which makes him bitter about betrayal.

They cross an area of desert and then Sykes causes them to roll down a dune and get unhorsed. Tector threatens to kill the old man, but Pike stops him, and announces his code by which he believes they should live. He says, “We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be! When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished. We’re finished! All of us!” The rest of the world might be in chaos, and a man might help contribute to that breakdown of society, but within the nucleus of the tribe, there is a thread of order through loyalty that keeps one elevated above becoming totally savage.

As Pike tries to mount his horse, a stirrup breaks and he falls down, hurting his leg. Tector and Lyle ridicule Pike, saying maybe they shouldn’t be following a man who can’t get on his horse (as mentioned in past posts, the horse is a traditional symbol for manhood). Despite his pain, Pike manages to mount his horse, and there is admiration on Dutch’s face for the toughness of his leader. As they ride, Sykes asks how Crazy Lee, his grandson, performed at the robbery. Pike didn’t know the young man was Syke’s relative, because the old man wanted Lee to make it on his own. Pike says he did ‘fine.” Even though they are on the wrong side of the law, thieves still care how one of their number handles himself professionally. Pike shows some compassion here, not telling Sykes how undependable Crazy Lee acted.

The Mexican member, Angel (an ironic name which shows an inverse world where the thieves are more noble than the legitimate people in power), invites them to his village and warns them not to disrespect him in front of his people. Angel has not totally accepted his role as a criminal. The others laugh at his hypocrisy, since he is a bandit, which the villagers do not know, and they defy him humorously by saying suggestively they want to get to know his sister, mother and even grandmother. The Bunch’s wildness is contrasted with the domestic and agrarian lives of the villagers. We have here a similar situation that was presented in The Magnificent Seven. An old Mexican, Don Jose (Chano Urueta) says the Mexican soldiers, instead of protecting the citizens, stole from them. Their leader, Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) hanged Angel’s father and took his girlfriend, Teresa (Sonia Amelio). Don Jose says Angel idolized her “like a goddess to be worshiped from afar.” But, she went with Mapache, “drunk with wine and love,” according to the old man, who says these are sad times for Mexico. He sounds a bit like Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, another film that bemoans the loss of old standards of behavior. Don Jose describes Teresa as being like a ripe mango. Cynical Pike says that Angel dreams of love, while Mapache eats the mango. In that sentence we see the defeat of romantic idealism as it is consumed by carnal desire.

Lyle and Tector playfully go with some of the village women to help with the cooking, and Pike says with a laugh that he finds their behavior hard to believe. But, Don Jose says that, “We all dream of being a child again. Even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.” Pike basically admits that his band is among “the worst,” thus understanding that Don Jose means that there is a part of the men of the Bunch that yearn for a return to a less cruel world. But, as we saw the behavior of the children at the beginning of the story, innocence is gone.

Angel keeps wanting to know where Mapache is, but Pike menacingly says he has to let his desire for revenge go or they will leave Angel behind. Angel must choose between two ways of life, and he says he will stick with the “wild” one. As they leave the town, the people sing a farewell but it is mournful and could be a funeral dirge for what is to come. One woman gives Dutch a rose, and he exchanges looks with Pike that seems to say that they are not accustomed to this sweetness. But, it can also represent a flower placed on a coffin.
They go to General Mapache’s headquarters to do some trading. Another general arrives in an automobile, and it is the first time the thieves have seen a car. Pike heard of them and when Sykes talks of airplanes, Pike confirms their existence. He heard that they will be used in wars. Thus, the violence of this new technology, sanctioned by the legal authorities, will cause the extermination of lives in large numbers, so that the outlaws do not seem so evil in comparison to what governments allow. They observe that Mapache has plenty of silver that he has extracted from the inhabitants. So, Dutch says, he’s just another bandit, and in his own way worse because he pretends to be a person on the side of the law. The line between legal and illegal thievery has become blurred with transgressions occurring on both sides of the law. But Dutch says that they are better because they don’t degrade people by hanging them, and calls people like Mapache “scum.”

Two women are brought to Mapache and one is Teresa, Angel’s girl, who has now become corrupted. She laughs at Angel, sits in Mapache’s lap, and kisses him sexually in the ear. Angel yells out the word “whore” in Spanish and shoots Teresa, since the condemnation of betrayal is a major theme in the film. There is the old sexist idea here of classifying women as either virgins or whores, as was noted in the conversation between Pike and Don Jose. The film shows women used by men for sex, and they are viewed as dispensable. However, women in the story many times appear to be ready, with a smile on their faces, to succumb to the men, and can be treacherous. To the movie’s detriment there is no effort given to develop a female character in this story beyond being compliant vessels for male pleasure. The Bunch gets out of this situation by saying Angel’s action was all about jealousy. Mapache and his men seem to go along with that explanation. After being questioned by one of Mapache’s German military advisers, Mohr (Fernando Wagner), Pike assures them that he and his men do not agree with hardly anything the American government stands for. In this way, Pike sort of announces the Bunch’s own declaration of independence from any allegiance except to themselves. They are asked to have dinner with Mapache and his officers.

There is a quick scene where the bounty hunters are riding with Thornton at the lead. Coffer says something about shooting Thornton, as a joke, and slaps his leather holster, alarming Thornton, who falls back so as not to be an easy target. It reminds us of the children who played at shooting guns, and makes a connection to how the urge for violence starts early. It also shows how the loyalty among the members of the illegal Bunch is stronger than that between the legal, but selfish, bounty hunters.

Mapache and the Bunch eat dinner while there is the funeral procession for Teresa winding around them, showing the contrast between a religious ritual for the dead and the illegal plotting of the living. Mohr wants the Bunch to go after a railroad, and says that General Huerta, who has taken over the military and is fighting the outlaw, Pancho Villa, wants to hypocritically show good relations with the American government while his henchman, Mapache, backs a robbery of an American train. Mohr says that they have received intelligence from Mapache about the delivery of armaments by the U. S. Army. Lyle demands women and they are brought to him and his brother, showing the objectification of the females here for sexual purposes and illustrating the men’s indulgence of selfish desires. Mapache doesn’t trust Angel and wants to exchange him for another man in the robbery attempt, but Pike, again showing the importance of sticking together, convinces Mapache that he needs Angel.

Pike, Dutch, Angel, and Sykes are in a type of sauna, getting a bath, and Angel says that he doesn’t want to steal for Mapache so he can kill and steal from his people. Pike says that he should just think about the money, and then he can buy land for his people, maybe even move them away. Angel says no one will drive his people off of their land. Angel is showing that there can still be a connection to one’s heritage and people, but Sykes says that you can’t be loyal to the village and also to the Bunch. His philosophy mirrors that of Pike and Dutch, who don’t subscribe to any other form of kinship than to their immediate band of thieves and their acquisition of wealth. Sykes says he will drink to many things, but most of all “to gold,” which shows where their priorities rest. Angel asks would Pike give guns to a man who would kill his parents or siblings. Pike, showing how he no longer feels a connection to relatives, says that a lot of money “cuts an awful lot of family ties.” Angel, however, says he would like to give guns to his people for protection. Dutch says why not give a case of the arms to Angel. Angel agrees to give up his share of the gold for one case of ammo and guns. He still feels a bond to something beyond this loyal, but materialistic, band of thieves, is important to maintain.

Thornton tells Harrigan that he needs better men and knows where Pike and his men will strike. Thornton says that the American troops aren’t experienced enough. Dutch notices Pike’s old leg injury and Pike finally tells him how he received the wound. A flashback shows that Pike was involved with a Mexican woman whose husband she said was never coming back. The husband returned and found the two ready to have sex. The man killed his wife and shot Pike in the leg. He said he never found the man, but still thinks about getting back at him. This story is another instance that shows Pike’s regret about not seeing trouble coming and another person suffering the consequences because of his lack of foresight.

The Bunch target an American military train at a water stop. Pike’s men quietly board it, getting the drop on the guards. The Bunch detach the locomotive and cargo from the rest of the train. But, Thornton is on board and he and his men ride after the locomotive, and start shooting. Angel, living up to his name here, saves Dutch from falling off the train. They unload the cargo and Pike puts the locomotive in reverse, as he and his men get off and ride away. The front section crashes into the rest of the train and shows the inexperience of the soldiers, as Thornton had said, as they chase their horses. The Bunch rides over a bridge and then dynamite it so as not to be pursued. The bounty hunters catch up as the fuse is lit, but the wagon carrying the arms breaks through the bridge. The bandits free it as a shootout commences and the explosion takes place, allowing the thieves to get away.
There is a short scene where Lyle and Tector say they won’t have to worry about Thornton now. But old man Sykes warns them that Thornton will still come after them. To ward off that negative feeling, they share a drink of whiskey from a bottle which shows the bond between them. Even Angel is included in this scene of camaraderie. They join together in laughter when no whiskey is left for Lyle.

That scene contrasts with the next one at the bounty hunters’ camp where the men voice self-centered complaints, talking about losing horses or catching a cold. Thornton yells at them for having shot at the soldiers instead of the thieves, which adds symbolically to the blurring concerning who are the good or bad guys. Mapache, retreating from a confrontation with Pancho Villa, is handed a communication by a child dressed in a military uniform, the image of a child looking like a soldier again stressing the loss of youthful innocence. The message says that the Bunch has the guns and Mapache says to his subordinate to make sure the Bunch turn over the arms, which shows how he is not necessarily willing to honor the deal of gold for arms.

Pike and Dutch watch in hiding as Thornton and his men try to track them down. Thornton is so disgusted with his remaining bounty hunters that he says, “We’re after men. And I wish to God I was with them.” His words show how he respects Pike and his gang as embodying what it takes to be real men, having courage, cunning, and intelligence. His attitude adds to the ambivalent feelings about the Bunch, who have some admirable attributes, but who are still dangerous outlaws. Pike, demonstrating his intelligence, doesn’t trust Mapache, saying that he thinks he might just take the guns and kill them. He wants to set up explosives that could destroy the arms if Mapache doesn’t pay up. Angel and Lyle discover a Gatling gun in the armaments they have stolen. The weapon is another sample of the escalation of destruction as the move into the modern age progresses.

With Angel’s help, the Mexicans, who are there to collect the guns that Angel promised them, ambush the Bunch. But the Mexicans apologize for not trusting them, saying their mistrust of others has kept them alive. The Bunch just laugh as they acknowledge how these mountain Mexicans can handle themselves, showing their respect for these men who have stuck together for the benefit of them all. The Bunch head toward Agua Verde. They encounter Mapache’s army of men. Pike shows the fuse leading to the dynamite that is rigged to blow up the arms. The officer sent by Mapache says he and his men are not afraid, but when Pike lights the fuse and shows the Gatling gun, they back off. Trust is hard to come by in this world, and betrayal is always a possibility. Pike says he will negotiate at Agua Verde.

Pike rides to meet Mapache and once he is paid part of the money Pike tells him where to find some of the guns and ammunition. He says that the rest are with his men and if he doesn’t return they will blow them up. Pike is no fool, and has made sure that he gets the gold before allowing himself to be vulnerable. He promises the machine gun as a gift, to sweeten the deal. Back at the Bunch’s camp, the men light some dynamite and throw it to where Sykes is ready to relieve himself. He breaks the fuse, but is furious. Even at play, these men are dangerous. Pike brings them the first payment and starts the next delivery. Back at Agua Verde, Mapache now has the machine gun, but doesn’t know how to use it. The Germans keep yelling that it must be mounted on a tripod, but the soldiers accidentally start the gun firing, and they can’t control it. The gun continues to fire, terrorizing the town's inhabitants. The scene is symbolic of how technology advances beyond its inventors’ ability to control it.

Mapache distributes the guns as Angel and Dutch approach with info on the final load as they get paid. Dutch has to explain why one crate of weapons is missing, and he says they lost it on the way. But Mapache says he found out from the mother of the woman who Angel killed, Teresa, that Angel stole the guns. She probably wanted to get back at Angel for what happened to her daughter. Angel tries to ride away but is caught. Dutch, knowing he can’t free Angel, plays along, saying he has to go and Mapache can deal with the “thief,” which is an ironic statement, since they are all thieves.

Back at the Bunch’s camp, Pike says that they can’t go after Angel, even though Lyle points out the man’s courage, and Dutch says he didn’t admit that the Bunch was complicit in giving away some of the guns. Sykes says that they should go after Angel, and he rides off with some horses. But Thornton and his men are out there and shoot him in the leg. Dutch says Thornton should be damned to hell. Pike, because of his guilt about how he left Thornton to get caught, defends Thornton because he gave his word to pursue the Bunch. Dutch yells that he gave his word to a railroad, and what matters is “who you give it to!” He is stressing the bond between men, not to some abstract, supposedly legitimate company. Lyle wants to fight Thornton, but Pike says they are low on water. They should go to Agua Verde, pay Mapache one bag of gold for sanctuary, and Thornton won’t go there. To show Pike’s hard nature, he is willing to sacrifice Sykes so that Thornton will waste time pursuing him. Thornton sees through the plan, leaves one man to look for Sykes while he and the rest pursue the Bunch. One of the mountain Mexicans finds Sykes, suggesting that he probably will help him.
As Pike thought, the general is celebrating his acquisition of the guns. They see Mapache dragging Angel around behind the car. Pike wants to buy back Angel, but Mapache says he doesn’t need gold, and continues to drag Angel around. Mapache says that the Bunch should just enjoy the drinking and the women. Pike says they may as well. Thornton and his men are on the Bunch’s trail but American Army troops are after them because of the bounty hunters shooting the soldiers at the train robbery. After being with prostitutes, the next morning, Pike seems disgusted with the situation and tells the men “let’s go,” which is code for fighting. Lyle shows his commitment by saying, “Why not?” Outside, all Dutch has to do is look at the others and he smiles, knowing what they are about to do, and laughs as they arm up. These men are so bound together that they don’t even have to speak to communicate once their minds are made up.

As they walk, the soundtrack stresses percussion, and there is marching music, as if they are off to war. Pike says to Mapache, “We want Angel,” the Mexican’s name adding significance here as these flawed men, like the gunfighters in The Magnificent Seven, seek redemption by fighting for one of their own. But, they must do it their way, through violence against the true evil men. Mapache says he will give him up. Angel is half-dead and a soldier finishes him by cutting Angel’s throat. That’s the last straw for Pike, who opens fire, shooting Mapache. The Bunch look at each other knowing this is how they are going out and they are okay with it. An orgy of stylized violence consisting of regular action and slow motion follows. Dutch uses grenades and they use the Gatling gun. But there are too many soldiers. One woman shoots Pike in the back, again showing female treachery, but the Bunch also uses a woman as a shield to show how they, too, use women for their own purposes. As Pike fires the machine gun to set off dynamite, a boy shoots Pike, again emphasizing the spread of corruptibility to the youngest in society.

After the bunch and the others are killed, Thornton and his men arrive. We see vultures landing on the dead, and the parallel is made to the bounty hunters as they pick off spoils from the remains of those killed. Thornton comes across Pike’s body, clutching a weapon, even in death. Thornton takes Pike’s revolver as a memento of his one-time friend. Thornton, showing his disgust for the bounty hunters, stays behind, not wanting to be part of the scavenging men. There is gunfire in the distance as Thornton rests. Sykes shows up with the mountain men, and says the bounty hunters didn’t get far as the mountain men got them. Sykes says he and the mountain men have work to do and offers Thornton a chance to join them. Thornton, smiling, joins Sykes, hoping to be part of a new Bunch that lives by a code of loyalty.

Next time, brief impressions on some recent films.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Big Sleep

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
The plot of The Big Sleep (1946) is like going through a maze, but following it is not the important part of viewing the movie. Navigating the labyrinth of the story mirrors the twisted lives of the characters in this film noir work. The convoluted story is a comment on the deceptive nature of society as a whole, and that is the core theme of the film.

Basically, the thrust of the tale involves General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) hiring private investigator Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) to stop a man, Arthur Geiger (Theodore von Eltz) from extorting money from the General to cover up his troublesome daughter’s activities involving gambling debts. There has been a previous blackmail attempt concerning his youngest daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers). The General had help from a tough guy by the name of Sean Regan, who the General treated like a son, to pay off a blackmailer, Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt). But Regan disappears, and that is why the General hires Marlowe. As it turns out, Carmen fell in love with Regan, who is in love with the wife of a gangster, Eddie Mars (John Ridgely). Much later we discover that a drunken Carmen killed Regan for not returning her affection. Eddie Mars gets rid of Regan’s body, hides his wife, Mona (Peggy Knudsen), and makes it look as if she ran away with Regan. His plan is to blackmail the General’s older daughter, Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) who wants to protect her sister.

To complicate things further, the General’s chauffeur, Owen Taylor, who is in love with Carmen, goes to Geiger’s house with Carmen and kills the man for trying to cash in on Carmen’s disreputable behavior. But, a photo of Carmen, taken by Brody, at Geiger’s house implicates her in the killing. (The camera is hidden in a statue, suggesting the deceptive nature of this world, where appearances are deceiving). Taylor takes the film, but is followed by Brody, who takes the film away from him, and probably kills Taylor (even Raymond Chandler, the writer on whose book the movie is based, said he wasn’t sure who killed Taylor. The great William Faulkner, who worked on the screenplay, admitted he couldn’t make sense of the plot). Joe Brody is eventually killed by Geiger’s associate, Carol Lundgren (Tommy Rafferty) because he thought Brody killed Geiger.

Vivian doesn’t want Marlowe to dig any deeper about her sister, and pays him off, saying the case is closed with the deaths of the blackmailers. He instead goes after Mars, who eventually confronts Marlowe with his men. However, Vivian has fallen in love with Marlowe, helps him out, and Marlowe makes it look as if he is escaping while pushing Mars out into the open. Mars is, ironically, killed by his own men, in a sense by the evil he has created. Marlowe contacts the police and the story ends.
Now that we have dealt with the major plot points, we can look at the style, characters and dialogue to see how this film represents the film noir genre. The opening titles show a man and woman in silhouette, lighting a match. The use of blacks and grays are used to show the darker side of human nature. The match implies that irrational passions ignite some uncontrollable urges that may lead to disaster. The rich General is in a wheelchair, showing infirmity, decay. He meets Marlowe in his plant hothouse, where he sits bundled up despite the heat, since life has been drained out of him. (Marlowe sweats more and more as the scene plays out, implying he could get burned becoming involved in the General’s family affairs). The General has not led an exemplary life and sees the bad behavior of his offspring as punishment for his own actions. The title of the movie stresses that death rules in these types of tales. (Also, to illustrate this film’s influence, think of the Coen Brothers’ film noir parody, The Big Lebowski, where the elder Lebowski, in his opulent house, also appears in a wheelchair). The old General, now paralyzed and unable to enjoy life, depressingly lives vicariously through others, telling Marlowe he likes the smell as the detective smokes, and enjoys watching Marlowe drink alcohol. He says, “Nice state of affairs when a man has to indulge his vices by proxy.” But, it is the nature of the beast that even in deprivation, humans still want to participate in those “vices.” The General comments on his orchids, saying how he doesn’t like them, calling them, “Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. Their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.” This line pretty much sums up the film noir perspective. Everything, from flowers to people, succumbs to negative forces, despite appearing deceptively appealing.

Marlowe exemplifies the film noir anti-hero: tough, smart, wise-cracking, but still holding onto a code which elevates him above the criminal element he investigates. He is not as rounded as Bogart’s other famous P.I., Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, but just like Spade, Marlowe wants to get at the truth. He is outraged by the cold way that the character Harry Jones (Elisha Cook, Jr. who was in The Maltese Falcon with Bogart) is killed by the brutal Canino (Bob Steele), who works for Mars. But, his job deals with criminal types, and he has associated himself with nasty characters in the past, admitting to an earlier involvement with the violent Regan. He worked for the district attorney once, but was fired for insubordination, showing how he doesn’t like to play by society’s rules. He, too, must be devious, as he pretends to be a nerd when he visits Geiger’s book shop to get information (the name “Geiger” suggests a Geiger Counter, a device that detects, which fits in with a detective story).

Since film noir deals in the sordid side of people, Marlowe’s dialogue deflates any attempt at pretense. When he first encounters Carmen, she says, “You’re not very tall, are you?” Height here can symbolically be taken to mean someone who takes the “high road,” or extols a higher morality, or can designate someone from the upper classes. It is also a superficial quality that is thought to be a positive physical attribute. Marlowe satirizes these concepts by dismissing the validity of the comment when he says, “Well, I, uh, tried to be.” Marlowe also says to the General that he went to college, but can still speak English, which is a jab at those who see themselves as superior because they have higher education credentials. When the general asks him, “How do you like your brandy, sir?” Marlowe shows his down-to-earth nature by saying, “In a glass.” A similar point is made when Eddie Mars says to Marlowe, “I could make your business mine,” to which Marlowe replies, “Oh, you wouldn’t like it. The pay’s too small.” Marlowe’s disdain for pompous upper-class snobs shows after Vivian says that private detectives are, “greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors.” Again, physical height is used to refer to placement on the social ladder. Marlowe’s response is, “I’m not very tall either. Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie and carry a tennis racket.” Film noir uses stylized, hard-boiled dialogue, not found in everyday conversation, to emphasize the underbelly of society. For example, when Vivian tells Marlowe she doesn’t like his “manners,” he replies, “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like ‘em myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings.” The thrust of all of these remarks is that no matter what your social status, you harbor baser instincts that can lead to corruption.

In film noir, there is an emphasis on the sexual nature of humans, which allows passion to rule over reason, and which can lead to disaster. In this story, Carmen was involved with Joe Brody and Owen Taylor, both of whom lose their lives, and comes onto many men, including Marlowe. She was attracted to Regan, who wanted to be with Mona Mars, and she kills him out of jealousy. Although Marlowe and Vivian have a rocky start, there is heat between them (the performances fueled by the real-life romance between Bogart and Bacall). Dialogue, which was added later to give the relationship here a To Have and Have Not feel, contains sexual connotations using horse riding metaphors. Vivian says that she hasn’t found anyone who can “rate” her as to her racing ability, which means her sexual prowess. Marlowe says, “Well I can’t tell ‘till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how … how far you can go.” Vivian then basically says she is only as good as her sexual partner when she says, “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.” In their case, love augments the sexual attraction, and they escape harm. (Throughout the film, Marlowe addresses Vivian formally as Mrs. Rutledge, like a business client, despite their romantic chemistry. One can see the film’s influence on Chinatown, where Jack Nicholson’s Jake refers to Faye Dunaway’s character, even after having sex, as Mrs. Mulwray).

When discussing film noir, the motif of the “femme fatale” must be addressed. This character type is usually deceptive, presenting a benign appearance covering a conniving, self-surviving agenda (think of Mary Astor’s Brigid in The Maltese Falcon). Carmen presents herself as an innocent child. When she first encounters Marlowe, she fakes a fall, so he can catch her. Marlowe later comments that “She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up.” The image conjures up how a young girl might hop onto a father’s lap, but the fact that Carmen is an attractive young woman subverts the platonic act. The General talks about how Carmen sucks her thumb when she goes into her childlike routine, and we see her do this during the story. Marlowe has no tolerance for the behavior, and says Carmen needs to be “weaned,” forcing her to be on her own, responsible for her actions, instead of continually being protected by her father’s wealth.

The character of Agnes (Sonia Darrin) has seduced Harry Jones for her own purposes and later is more straightforward in acquiring cash from Marlowe for information regarding the location of Mona Mars. But she is manipulated by Joe Brody. Vivian is deceptive with Marlowe, hiding her machinations concerning the blackmailing involving her sister, Carmen. But, like Agnes, she, too is used by a man, in her case Eddie Mars. Also her goal is a positive one, which is to protect her sister, and she eventually aids Marlowe is bring down Mars. (The plot device of the older sister trying to protect the younger one is used in Chinatown, but, in that film, the relationship takes on a much darker aspect, steeped in incest). It has been argued that the portrayal of women as dangerous in film noir is a reaction by men fearful of strong women trying to usurp male power over females. Modern women are seen by unenlightened males as Delilahs trying to cut away at men’s virility. Indeed, one can say that even someone like Carmen has been marginalized by the male dominated society into seeking out the only avenues open to her to survive in a man’s world.

It is a shadowy, cynical, many times inhumane world that film noir presents. Even though the bad guys may get caught in the end, we are left with a sense of foreboding. Despite wanting to believe that we live in a civilized society, we walk down the streets, checking over our shoulders, fearful of the danger that may lurk behind every smile.

The next film is The Wild Bunch.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Being John Malkovich

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Happy New Year! There’s no getting around it, whether you consider its plot or characters, this 1999 movie from writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze is strange. But, there is a great deal of humor in it, and it addresses serious themes involving individual identity.
The first shot is of unsuccessful puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) manipulating a puppet that looks like him, feeling that he can’t control his own destiny, which is ironic since he manipulates the strings of his miniature replica. Puppet Craig looks at a mirror of himself and breaks it because it is unhappy with itself. The wooden duplicate points to Craig’s narcissism, since his art is about himself. Craig is envious of another puppeteer's success who sells out commercially by making his skill into special effects shows. One act of this rival consists of a stories-tall Emily Dickinson puppet he controls in an outside area of the city. This grandstanding performance is another irony, since Dickinson was a recluse who didn’t want public exposure. The implication is that the true artist focuses on the art, not its creator. Here we can sympathize with Craig’s view of how his competitor’s actions are a perversion of art.
Craig is in an unhappy relationship with his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz, almost unrecognizable with frizzy hair and no cosmetic enhancement). She wants children, but Craig is so self-centered that he denies her offspring, and she has numerous animal pets as child surrogates, including a chimpanzee. He wants control over Lotte’s life, to pull her strings, so that she will direct herself toward fulfilling his dreams. Craig, however, is not providing any income. He also works in public, but as a begging street performer. After getting punched out by an irate father whose young girl witnesses a sexually inappropriate puppet act, Craig interviews for a clerical job involving filing, since the ad says the position requires someone who has manual dexterity.

Craig gets the job at LesterCorp, which is run by Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) who is hysterically graphic and blunt about any topic. The office is on floor 7 ½, which Craig first enters with the help of a woman (Octavia Spencer in an early bit part) who jams the elevator so he can gain access to the floor. It is a funny sight gag, as the people walk around hunched over. (Craig already walks bent forward somewhat, showing how defeated his life has been). But, the visual suggests that people working in boring, mundane jobs become worn down by tedious employment. It is here that Craig meets the attractive and sexually charismatic Maxine (Catherine Keener). One wonders why such a strong character lowers herself to work in such a confining (literally and figuratively) job. We later learn that she doesn’t quite fit in with the mainstream herself, and is looking for her own self-fulfillment. Craig awkwardly hits on her, but he is so wrapped up in himself, so out of touch with what it is to be human, that he can’t really relate to others, and has more interaction with his puppets who are surrogates for real people. He instead creates a puppet version of Maxine, and has his avatar romance the Maxine miniature, showing his desire to control others for his own purposes. But isn’t the puppeteer sort of like the filmmaker, who wants to control all the aspects of his or her craft so as to manipulate the audience? Craig has some insight about artistic expression when he says, “There is truth, and there are lies, and art always tells the truth. Even when it’s lying.” Shakespeare does not present the actual history of famous people, such as Julius Caesar of Richard III. But, what he and other creative people do is to find the truth about the human condition within the imaginative construct.

Here’s where the real crazy comes in. Craig drops a file behind some cabinets and discovers a small tunnel. When he enters it he gets sucked into the mind of the actor John Malkovich. The camera looks out at the world as if through Malkovich’s eyes. Craig is there for fifteen minutes, and then is ejected, falling from the sky into a ditch by the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Be careful when driving on that road because you never know what can hit you. The tunnel to become Malkovich seems like an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole that leads to another reality, a mutated version of the one the traveler has left, but where other things can be realized. Craig first says he likes being a puppeteer so he can, like an actor, step outside himself. With his literally entering another person’s mind, he questions the nature of identity. He says, “It raises all sorts of philosophical-type questions, you know, about the nature of self, about the existence of a soul. You know, am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich?” But even though he does gain a new perspective by literally stepping away from himself, he just wants to exploit the situation, as does Maxine at first. Craig shares this amazing discovery first with Maxine, not his wife, because he wants to offer her something intriguing so that she will be interested in being with him. They go into business together, looking to profit from this miraculous finding, as is the capitalist American way, by charging $200 per person to go through the portal. There is a long line of people who want this escape from their dreary lives. But, the film also shows the desire to be famous by narrowing the degrees of separation between common folk and the famous to zero. The portal also turns Malkovich into a common person when he is later controlled by others.

Craig does tell Lotte about his business venture with Maxine, and she is quickly excited, since she harbors transgender, or fluid, sexual feelings, thus showing that she is seeking her identity outside of what would be a typical female role. She says, “It’s kinda sexy that John Malkovich has a portal … it’s sorta vaginal, y’know, like he has a, he has a penis and a vagina.” When Craig says he doesn’t like the idea of Lotte going into the portal, she flatly states her transgender agenda by telling him, “Don’t stand in the way of my actualization as a man.” Craig and Lotte visit Dr. Lester’s home, and Lotte discovers a room  dedicated to Malkovich. We now suspect that Lester knows about the tunnel. Lotte goes through the opening and is inside Malkovich when Maxine, who wants to know more about Malkovich, dates him. Lotte loves the experience, and eventually she is inside of the actor when he and Maxine make love. Maxine falls in love with Malkovich, but only when Lotte is inside of him. Maxine, thus, although participating in heterosexual lovemaking, identifies with the lesbian component of her personality, again showing the malleable nature of identity.

Craig, feeling left out as the two women explore their feelings for each other, brutally restrains Lotte and forces her into a cage housed by the chimp. Since he has restricted her existence before, he now literally imprisons her. He enters Malkovich and vicariously makes love with Maxine. Since he is a puppeteer, Craig discovers that he can control Malkovich like one of his puppets. Malkovich senses this appropriation of his body, and follows Maxine to LesterCorps. He demands that he be allowed to enter the portal. In a surreal scene, Malkovich sees a world that is populated by people that look like him, and can only say, “Malkovich.” It is a narcissistic experience, and it frightens Malkovich, since, although an actor may have a large ego about his performing skills, he wants to inhabit other persons in the pursuit of his craft. In essence, he wants to assume many identities, and not be tied to one version of himself.

Despite Malkovich’s demands, Craig will not shut down access to the portal. We see a flashback experienced by the chimp (a first in filmmaking) which shows the animal was traumatized by seeing his parents captured. The chimp, perceiving Lotte as an adoptive mother, unties Lotte, freeing her. So even what defines the nature of being an animal is called into question.
Lotte seeks out Dr. Lester for help, since she saw his Malkovich room, and concludes that he may have some answers. Dr. Lester tells her that he has lived for many years jumping into bodies when they are “ripe” for the taking. The portal moves from one individual to the next, from a child who ages to the next baby, and when the subject reaches the forty-fourth birthday, Lester takes it over, and can live on inside that person until the next body is “ripe” for possession. This time, he has friends who will join him in this version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dr. Lester shows how people want to defy death, that they seek not to be defined by their old age, and desire immortality even if in another form. Is there a definitive Dr. Lester since he, like an actor, has taken on many roles?

Craig inhabits Malkovich, and is able to control him without being ejected. He reveals his dominance over Malkovich to Maxine, making Malkovich move the way the puppet version of himself did in the opening scene. Craig from the very beginning wants control over others to actualize himself. Through Malkovich’s fame, he is able to show off his puppeteer skills to the world, so he makes Malkovich quit acting and become a famous puppeteer. Maxine is thrilled by the prospect, showing how Craig’s manipulative skills resonate with hers. Malkovich, inhabited by Craig, and Maxine get married. Maxine learns that she is pregnant. The two, however, are not made for each other, and they become estranged. Lester and his friends capture Maxine and threaten her with harm if Craig will not exit Malkovich’s body, since the “ripe” time is approaching. Selfish Craig refuses. Lotte seeks out Maxine and they go together into the portal, accessing Malkovich’s subconscious mind, since Craig has control of the conscious one. They wind up near the turnpike. Maxine says that she became pregnant when Lotte inhabited Malkovich, so, in a way, it is her child. Lotte has fulfilled her transgender goal, fathering a child, and has satisfied her wish to be a parent. Maxine admits her love for Lotte, giving into her lesbian side.

Craig does not have Maxine or Lotte now, and voluntarily exits Malkovich after a bar fight. Lester and his friends then occupy Malkovich (who started to have the same hair as Craig when he had control over him, and later sports Dr. Lester’s hairstyle). When Craig realizes that Lotte and Maxine are in love, he tries to jump back into Malkovich, but it is too late. He enters the portal’s next person, which turns out to be Maxine’s child with Lotte (as Malkovich), Emily.
The end is ominous, because Craig is in the child’s mind, not able to control anything, but still there, in a somewhat vicarious relationship with Maxine and Lotte, but forced to watch their bliss passively. Perhaps he must start from scratch, implied by the youth of the child, as Dr. Lester had said, because he needs to have a fresh beginning to mend his ways. But Dr. Lester, having taken over Malkovich’s body, plans to eventually possess Emily, thus leaving the film with a dire future for the child, and suggesting that identity is a tricky business.

The next film is The Big Sleep.