Sunday, July 26, 2015

Hud

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Well ladies, Paul Newman is attractive and ugly in this 1963 Martin Ritt (Norma Rae) directed film. He is sexually appealing, but he is pure id, - selfish with a capital S.  The locale is Texas. We immediately understand the kind of man Hud (Newman) is in the opening scene. His nephew (Brandon de Wilde) is tracking him down in town because Hud's father (Melvyn Douglas, in an Oscar best supporting actor role) wants him back on the cattle ranch to discuss dealing with the sick animals. The trail Hud has left leads de Wilde to a bar which his rowdy uncle busted up the night before, and then to Hud's pink Cadillac convertible (obviously a car that does not fit in with the surroundings, much like Hud himself). The car is parked outside a married woman's house, where Hud has spent the night.  Apparently married women are his sexual objects of prey, since there is no chance of commitment with them. When the husband arrives, Hud blames his nephew and says he will take care of things. He drives his car fast and recklessly. These scenes show us Newman's character's egocentric personality in short order. 


Hud's rebelliousness against rules involving sex, drinking, and the treatment of others is attractive to his nephew. Douglas scorns his son, especially after Hud wants to sell off the herd before it becomes known that they are suffering from hoof and mouth disease.  Douglas has two long-horned steer that he raised, and which are becoming extinct, much like Douglas' code of ethical behavior. When we see Hud's bedroom, he has steer horns over his bed, emphasizing that his type of person is responsible for the death of an old morality. We see Hud give his car keys to his nephew to drive to town after Douglas gives him a nasty stare. We later learn that de Wilde's dad died in a car accident when Hud was drinking and driving.  Douglas does not want to shelter his nephew.  He tells him he deserves to go out with women and sow his oats.  But, Hud is still dispersing those wild seeds into his thirties, and doesn't care where he plants them.


Patricia Neal (another Oscar winner for this film) plays the housekeeper, who has had a negative past with a man. But, she too, is attracted to Hud's sexuality, flirting with him, but backing off when he is too forward, fearing a repeat of past experiences. The way Neal and de Wilde devour food symbolically shows the effect Hud has on their appetites.  On the other hand, the housekeeper's nurturing ways make an impression on the nephew, who sees her as a good person, and leads him to respect women in a way his uncle does not. When in a drunken rage Hud tries to rape Neal, it is de Wilde who comes to the rescue. Although it is Newman who withdraws from beating his nephew, pulling back on his own drives.   



Ritt depicts Hud on the outside of circles of people, emphasizing his anti-social ways. He is the winner in the pig catching contest (it takes one to know one), stealing one animal off of a fellow contestant. He wants to shoot the buzzards that are close to the cattle that are to be examined for disease. Douglas tells him that the birds are necessary in the life cycle, but Hud has only contempt for that circle of life.  Hud wants to forget about raising animals, which along with the ranch, represent the life process. Instead, he wants to make money drilling holes for oil, grave robbing the earth for profit. Hud’s plan is a blasphemy to his father. When they have to kill the herd, including the father’s beloved two steer, and bury them, it is Douglas' way of life that also has died.  He tells Hud he always despised him because he just didn't give a damn about anything and had no control over his selfish appetites. When the father is thrown from a horse and physically dies, it is after he was killed spiritually.
 


Neal leaves after the assault. The nephew, after seeing how Hud tried to declare his father incompetent before his death, and witnessing the assault on Neal, also leaves. When all you care about is yourself, you are left alone.


Next week’s film is To Kill a Mockingbird.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Klute

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.


Guess what? Here we have another movie where things are not what they seem. Director Alan J. Pakula’s film takes its title from the name of Donald Sutherland’s character, John Klute. But, this story is really about the prostitute/actress Bree Daniel (Jane Fonda, in an Oscar-winning performance). On the surface the narrative is a mystery/thriller, but, it is really about the roles played by men and women in society.


In the very first scene, we have people enjoying food, drink, and each other’s company at a dinner table. Everything appears safe and civilized. Klute is there, as well as Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli), his wife, Holly (Betty Murray), and Tom’s boss, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), a distinguished looking man with gray hair. There is a pocket-sized tape recorder sitting on the table, recording the event. We don’t know who owns the recorder. However, we later hear Bree’s voice played back on the device in an encounter with an weird “John.” So, we learn whoever owns the recorder is dangerous.

We discover that Tom is missing, and the FBI is at a dead end in its investigation. Tom’s wife, Holly, with Cable at her side, hires Klute, Tom’s best friend, a policeman-turned-private investigator, to find out what happened to her husband. A typed obscene letter from Tom to Bree was found at Tom’s office. Bree testified that she received a number of letters from Tom, but could not identify him by his photograph, since it all took place two years prior. She has a sense that she is being watched before Klute arrives. She says that she received phone calls from an unidentified person, and that someone was messing with her trash and mail.


Klute goes to New York, but initially encounters hostility when approaching Bree. He rents a small basement apartment in the building where she lives. He is sort of a voyeur, watching her and listening, and taping Bree. The possibility that he is the owner of the tape recorder is raised. But we then see the back of a man observing the two, and Klute chases, but does not catch, someone who is on the roof of Bree’s building. He is just doing his job, and resists Bree’s attempt at seduction to acquire his tapes so they would not be used against her. But he could be the antagonist’s double, chasing his darker self, implying that we all have those voyeuristic tendencies that could push us through a scary doorway.

When we first see Bree at an audition she is sitting in a row with many other attractive women. A male casting agent goes up and down the line of women, rejecting them for just the way they appear, like a person going through a menu dismissing dishes to eat. We later are at therapy sessions, where Bree says that she has no power over being chosen for roles. But, when she “plays” the part of the prostitute, she calls the shots. She is allowed to act as the seductress, manipulating her clients. She does not get pleasure from the sex, but achieves enjoyment in the acting performance, which is more like a simulation of a powerful event. She appears to get real satisfaction in this escape from the “real” world. (Apparently Fonda did the therapy session scenes at the end of the filming so she could be deep into the character’s journey, improvising her lines with a real female psychiatrist). But, she admits to her therapist that she wants out of the hooker business, because it has become an addiction, and she realizes that she plays the sex roles that men have defined for her.


Bree has contempt for the “straight world,” because to her it is a hyprocrisy, where men pretend to be upright and moral. She has seen the ugly underside of these pretenders in her profession. When she taunts Klute about what strange sexual practices he may really like, he tells her that she is acting “pathetic.” At first, she feels angry at him, probably because his decency shames her. He makes her bed, soothes her, and brings her cool compresses. One night, she goes to his basement apartment because she says she is afraid. She climbs into his bed, and they have sex. She later acts as if she has compromised him. She says don’t feel bad, because she never climaxes with a “John.” She demeans him by putting him into the category of one of her clients. She says don’t feel bad about “losing your virtue” with her, because in her pessimistic world, “everyone does.” She wants to bring him down to her level, so she can feel more at ease with her depravity, her shortcomings. When Klute attacks her pimp, Frank Ligourin (Roy Scheider) after he says demeaning things about Bree, she tries to protect her pimp, going after Klute with scissors. This act shows what a threat Klute is to her lifestyle. She says to her therapist that she normally does not like being truly intimate with a man because she can be vulnerable, caring about another. There is comfort in numbness. But, she likes being physical with Klute. He likes her even though he has seen her at her worse. Isn’t this part of what constitutes true affection?


Bree tells Klute about a man who beat her. She was given this client by another prostitute, Jane McKenna. Klute and Bree go to her pimp to find out more information. McKenna was jealous of Bree’s success and approval from Ligourin. So, she passed on the beater to Bree as a punishment. McKenna was later found dead, apparently by suicide. Klute and Bree then seek out another hooker friend, Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristen). She and her boyfriend are pathetic junkies. Bree starts to see her world through Klute’s eyes, and realizes the life that could be hers as she observes Page. The latter looks at the photo of the missing man, Tom Gruneman, and says he is not the beater, who was older.


The audience now is shown the villain – the outwardly upstanding businessman Peter Cable. Again, things are not what they seem. The antagonist on the surface seems like a friend of the family, helping them solve the mystery of the missing man. But, he actually uses information from Klute to further his own twisted agenda. The small tape recorder is his, and we see him listen to Bree’s voice who he recorded on the night he beat her. On the recording, Bree says that “nothing is wrong.” She has wicked ideas. She means sexual ones, which is what her clients want to hear. But ideas can be hurtful when words and actions spring from them. Klute finds out that the second hooker, Arlyn Page is dead. Bree’s apartment was trashed and semen was found on her clothes. The semen does not match Tom’s, so Klute knows that the missing man is not the perpetrator. He now suspects that the killer murdered the two prostitutes and Gruneman to cover his tracks. Page died after Klute confided about her to Cable. Klute also runs a test and the letters to Bree were produced by Cable’s typewriter. The businessman pretended to be Gruneman with the prostitutes, and killed him when he found out about the fraud. Cable finds Bree at the factory of one of her clients where she went for sanctuary. She hides there after closing hours. Cable plays his tape of her, and tries to kill her. But, Klute arrives, and Cable kills himself by jumping out of the window. He would not be able to endure the exposing of his black deeds to the light of the waking world.


Most of the film is shot in darkened rooms. Perhaps that is because we all go to Bree’s world in our hidden thoughts. Most of us do not act on those thoughts. Maybe that is why we vicariously participate in the nightmare realm by watching movies.

Next week’s movie is Hud.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

House of Games

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.


David Mamet explores the area between what is legal and illegal, civilized and uncivilized.  He does it in the scripts for The Verdict, The Edge, The Spanish Prisoner, The Untouchables, and he does it in the first film he wrote and directed, House of Games.


Here we have Dr. Margaret (Maggie) Ford (Lindsay Crouse, Mamet's wife at the time), who is a psychiatrist and a recent best-selling author. Her book is entitled Driven, and we later see what drives this woman, who previously was just a passive observer of life, listening to the confessions of criminals. Early on we see her with a female murderer who asks her if the doctor is "exempt" from life, emphasizing Maggie's detachment. 

Maggie has lunch with her mentor, Maria, who has a cigarette lighter that is made of gold, heavy, and precious. She says that she does not have anything precious in her life.  Maria, seeing that her friend has been totally consumed by her work, says she should do something for herself. Ironically it is the advice of the similarly named mentor, her civilized double, who is suggesting something innocent, that helps push Maggie over "the edge," the line that leads into a darker world.

Maggie starts her journey to that world when she meets with a new patient, Billy, who is a compulsive gambler. He says he lost money gambling and now owes $25,000 to a man named Mike. He tells Maggie that her therapy is worthless to him. It is a "con" game, promising some vague help. Because she cannot help her female murderer, she later echoes that she feels like a con artist, which of course lets us see how she can easily enter the world of con men. What Billy says he needs is something concrete, the money, or he will be killed. Maggie gets the address where Mike hangs out, a joint called "House of Games." Maggie enters the place, which along with the Budweiser sign hanging on the wall, displays another advertisement which says, "Say Bull." It may be a Mamet hint that what is about to transpire is "bullshit," something untrue. 


Maggie now adopts a tough gal persona, which the audience did not know she has in her, to see Mike (Joseph Mantegna). This scene shows us that she may not be what she appeared to be, just as are the other characters. For example, we first "see" Mike in shadows, suggesting he may not be what he seems. Mike flatters her by saying how quickly she sized him up as a guy who would not physically hurt someone (which turns out to be true). He shows Billy's marker, which is only for $800. This action makes Maggie trust Mike, since he could have said Billy owed more. Mike says he will tear up the marker if Maggie will help him in the card game being played in a back room. He asks her to tell him if she sees a player in the game show his "tell," which is twisting the ring on his finger, meaning he is bluffing. Maggie goes along, but when things go south, and Mike owes six grand, she offers to pay the money. But, she sees that the gun that the other gambler threatened them with is a water pistol. It was all a scam to get $6,000 from her. Again, Mike seems impressed by Maggie's observational smarts. And Maggie is drawn in by the psychological aspects of people's "tells," which Mike says convey the inner person. She also had a chance to witness a magic show that entertained her, one not seen in legitimate society, and she has fun participating in that world.


When she goes back home, she has in her possession Billy's gun, which she convinced him to give her, and an empty book of matches (no expensive lighter), again reminding her of the emptiness in her life. She goes back looking for Mike, saying she wants research to write a book, but we know it is the excitement of the illegal activity that has brought her back to him. He shows her a "short con" saying that the con artist gives his confidence to the mark, showing that he trusts him. This action makes the mark want to do something for the con artist. Mike says in these transactions, each party gets something:  the crook gets money, and the mark feels good about himself, helping another. Maggie sees that Mike has great psychiatric abilities, as he tells her that she wants to be with someone who will take her to new experiences. It is ironic that he tells her “don’t trust nobody." They go to a hotel, steal a key and use the room to make love.  Mike lets Maggie use the key to open the door, symbolically making her a willing participant as she enters the realm of the criminal.  Mike tells Maggie that she should always take something, a memento, to assert herself. She secretly takes a penknife off of the dresser.


As they leave the hotel, Mike says he is late for a new scam, and tells her to leave. She wants to stay, and becomes part of an elaborate scheme to take money form a mark. In the course of the con, she realizes the mark is an undercover cop, and when she warns Mike and his partner, the cop is accidently shot. They sneak out to the garage and Mike says she has to steal this red Cadillac so they can escape. They get away, but they forgot the $80,000 that was needed for the sting, and which they owe the mob. She promises to get the money to him, which she does. Billy shows up at her office, but she sends him away. As she goes out to dump any incriminating evidence she may have, she sees Billy drive away in the "stolen" red car. She now realizes she has been swindled to get her money, which is confirmed when she goes to the club and eavesdrops on the participants in the scam. Billy was sent to make sure she wasn't caving and calling the cops. She hears Mike say how she stole his "lucky" penknife. She shows up at the airport where Mike is taking a flight, and pretends to act afraid and wanting to leave with him with all of her money. She happens to mention "his" pen that she took and feels so guilty about everything. Of course, her mentioning that it was "his" pen makes Mike realize that she is trying to con him. He thinks he knows her, but he doesn't. He has created a monster in the transformed Maggie, who is livid about being "raped" by him, and having her money stolen. She takes out Billy's gun, saying it isn't hers, so she was never there, and shoots Mike to death.


Earlier on, Maria told a distraught Maggie that she should "forgive" herself concerning any act that she felt guilty about. After all, it wasn't like she killed anyone. At that time she hadn't. In the last scene, she seems refreshed and happy as she meets Maria, and tells her that she has forgiven herself, but she doesn't mention it is the crime of murder for which she has absolved herself.  Maria leaves their lunch table to answer a phone call.  Maggie sees a woman with a gold lighter. She distracts the woman, and steals it, lights a cigarette, and smiles. She feels she has literally and figuratively acquired something  precious, which she felt was lacking earlier, and has followed Mike’s advice about taking something to assert herself. The psychiatrist, who is supposed to promote proper behavior, has crossed over the line and has become a sociopath.


If life is a house of games, one may never know the true nature of an opponent, which, sometimes, can make the game deadly.

Next week’s movie is Klute.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

3 Days of the Condor

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.


The book from which this movie was based is called 6 Days of the Condor by James Brady. The reduction in the number of days does not diminish the impact of this 1975 film directed by Sidney Pollack. It is packed with enough thought-provoking ideas for hours of discussions.


Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) works at the American Literary Historical Society in New York City. The place is a cover for a CIA section that reads, according to CIA supervisor Higgins (Cliff Robertson), “everything.” Redfor’s name is “Turner” as in “page turner.” The workers at the Society feed stories into the computer and look for espionage plots hidden in the narratives. They also get new ideas from the stories. We see that Turner does not like to play by the rules. He is often late for work. He uses an unauthorized exit to buy lunch for his co-workers. He covers his face with his hat at the door to mock the surveillance by the security camera.

There is a poster of Albert Einstein in Turner’s office. This image lets us know that he admires the very intelligent. He too is a smart guy who has absorbed much of what he has read. He can predict when it will start and stop raining. He advises his supervisor to protect his plant from blight, and can fix the computer printer. He talks to his co-worker and girlfriend, Janice (Tina Chen) about a mystery that didn’t sell, but was translated into Spanish, Turkish, and Dutch. He filed a report about a theory of his that this novel may indicate the possibility of a spy network that is unknown to the CIA. His boss gives him a letter that says the higher-ups saw no basis for his theory.


When Turner goes out of the building to purchase lunch, we witness the execution of the whole Society by men led by person we later learn is named Joubert (Max Von Sydow). His code name is “Lucifer.” Interesting, because Von Sydow once played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. When Turner returns and sees that everyone is dead, he takes the receptionist’s gun and calls into the office in a panic. Earlier, his boss questions Turner’s compatibility with his job. Turner says he doesn’t like that he can’t tell anyone what he does because he actually trusts some people. And that is the focus of the film. Trust. It’s hard to come by in the spy profession. Turner’s code name is “Condor,” a nearly extinct bird. Turner is a man who believes in trust, because his moral code distinguishes between right and wrong. In the world of this movie, he is seen as part of an endangered species. His “Days” of the title may be numbered.

The attack at the Society flips Turner’s world upside-down. Trust now is very hard to imagine. He is now suspicious of everyone. A woman with a baby carriage walking toward him is seen as a threat. Later he says, “I don’t remember yesterday. Today, it rained.” He must leave behind all that gave him comfort and must face the present storm. He will not be brought into the “Company” after the hit because he tells Higgins he doesn’t know him or his Section Chief, a man named Wicks (Michael Kane), who says he will meet Condor. Wicks brings Turner’s friend, Sam Barber (Walter McGinn), a man Turner trusts, to meet them at an alley. Wicks shoots at Turner when he arrives, and the latter wounds Wicks, who then kills Sam so he won’t be able to tell anyone that Wicks is part of the conspiracy. Wicks turned Turner’s trustworthiness concerning his friend into a vulnerability. It now appears to Higgins and his boss, Wabash (John Houseman) that Turner is the one who killed Sam and wounded Wicks. However, the shot that killed Sam was too precise for the non-marksman Turner.


Turner is now forced to subvert his moral code in order to survive. He needs a place to hide and rest. In a clothes store he overhears a woman, Kathy Hale, (played by Faye Dunaway) talking about meeting someone in Vermont for a skiing vacation. Outside, he forces her to take him to her place. The relationship that develops between these two is a peculiar one. It’s almost impossible to talk about it. It has to be experienced by watching the film. Turner’s two sides are alternately shown. He wants her to understand that he is a victim, so he tells her the truth about what his job was and that he is being hunted. But, she has a hard time believing him. So, he must tie her up when he goes out, or they lie on the bed and he holds her so he’ll know if she stirs. There is a sort of bondage-sexual subtext to these scenes. She says he has roughed her up. He asks “Have I raped you?” She counters with, “The night is young.” He tells her that he is afraid. She asks why is he afraid; he has the gun. “Yes,” he says. “And it’s not enough,” indicating how terrible the world has become. She says at one point, “This is … unfair.” He says, “I know,” which shows how the concept of right and wrong has become compromised. So, he is torn, feeling compelled to be rough with her at one moment out of expediency, and then complimenting her work as a photographer, admiring the photos on the wall.

About those photographs. They show benches in parks and playgrounds. They are black and white shots.Turner says they are beautiful, but there are no people in them. She says it’s winter. He says no, not fall or winter. They are in between. They are like “November.” He listens in on a phone conversation between Kathy and her boyfriend who is upset about her not showing up, again. She tells Turner that she doesn’t want to know him because he may not be around too long. He counters by saying she wants to be with someone who is on his way. The lack of people in her photos shows that fact. She says she takes pictures of some subjects that are not like her. But, she takes the photos so they are like her. In essence she is saying that underneath she is like Turner. They are both solitary figures. She asks what he wants. He says he just wants it to stop for one night. They make love and during the lovemaking, the camera cuts to the photos on the wall, emphasizing the “November” relationship, a world that is not permanent, but is “in between” something definite and stable. It is ironic that Turner finds someone to trust in a person he chose “at random.”


Turner visits Sam’s place and realizes his friend’s wife doesn’t even know that her husband is dead. He fears for her and gets her out of the apartment. He encounters Joubert, and realizes he is there to kill him since he exits and enters an elevator, following Turner. But, he is able to escape among a crowd of youths. He tells Kathy that he believes he and his office were targeted because of his report. That the hidden spy agency he discovered was another CIA within the CIA. Turner has Kathy pretend she is applying for a job at the New York CIA office. She fakes looking for someone else, but wanders into Higgins’ office. Thus, she can recognize him, and follows him to lunch. She tells  him that Condor wants to see him. They abduct Higgins. Turner finds out that Higgins does not know what is going on. He describes Joubert to Higgins, and says his accent indicates he is from Alsace. Alsace is a land which kept going back and forth between the French and the Germans. Thus his heritage fits a person who has no permanent allegiance to loyalty. Higgins does some research. He is able to link Joubert to Wicks and Atwood (Addison Powell), the CIA head of operations.


However, Joubert was able to see the license plate of Kathy’s car at Sam’s place. Joubert meets with Atwood who we realize is the leader of the conspiracy. While Joubert goes off to eliminate Wicks so he can’t be questioned about the alley incident, Joubert sends an assassin, dressed as a mailman, to Kathy’s apartment to kill Turner. Life is dangerous indeed when those who appear to be trusted government workers are in fact dangerous predators. Turner is able to kill the killer, and takes a key and phone number off of the body. The phone number turns out to link the assassin to Wicks in Washington. Turner traces the key to a Holiday Inn where Joubert is staying. Turner was in the signal corps and worked for AT&T. He taps the phone line and calls Joubert, mentioning the “condor.” He knows Joubert will call someone involved in the murders, and Turner then discovers it is Atwood, who lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland

Turner takes Kathy to the train station to go to Vermont. He says she could take him to Maryland, but she says, “No I can’t.” Their “in between” time is over. She says that Turner has eyes that “don’t lie, don’t look away much. And they don’t miss a thing.” She could use eyes like that in her job. He then warns her not to talk to anyone, and sees the hurt in her eyes as he realizes he is again not trusting. He apologizes and he goes off to confront Atwood.

At Atwood’s house Turner understands by talking to the conspirator that the language translations of the obscure book meant that the whole business was “about oil.” So this 1975 film has a topic that is very timely in our present day. As Turner questions Atwood, Joubert shows up. He kills Atwood. The Company has hired him back, since it realizes that Atwood would have become an embarrassment. The assassin makes it look like a suicide. Joubert assured Turner that he has no contract to kill him now that Atwood is gone. He knew Turner would be at Atkinson’s house - but the CIA did not. He says that if Turner goes back to New York, he has not much of a future there, since he also can be an “embarrassment.” Turner asks Joubert how does he do what he does. He would find it tiring. Joubert says it is quite relaxing. There is no need to worry about sides or politics. Only who, where, and always how much. The joy comes from one’s precision. Joubert says in New York a car will come by, and someone, maybe a person he knows, maybe “trusts”, will have a becoming smile, and offer him a ride. He hands him his gun and say to Turner, “For that day.” So, the Lucifer of modern times is one who has no sense of right and wrong, and is comfortable in that environment. In a scene at CIA headquarters, Wabash, in answer to subordinate Cliff Robertson’s question, says he does not miss the military action of his youth. He misses “the clarity” about right and wrong.


In New York, Turner meets Higgins on the street. A car comes up, but Turner refuses to get in. He asks Higgins if this whole thing was about a plan to invade the Middle East to seize oil. Higgins says the plan would have worked, and the people won’t care about right and wrong when the oil runs out. They will just want them to go get it. Turner takes Higgins in front of the New York Times. He says he has told the newspaper everything that has happened. Higgins tells him he is about to be a very lonely man (he already is). We are not even sure his story will see the light of day, as Roberson asks, “But will they print it?” At the end, Turner, the Condor, is walking alone to Christmas music that ironically contains the words “comfort and joy.”

Redford teamed up with director Pollack on a number of films, including Out of Africa, The Way We Were, and The Electric Horseman. Do you have a favorite?

Next week’s movie is House of Games.