Sunday, February 26, 2017
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
The title of the motion picture tells you upfront what the story is about – the glamorous draw of the promise of the City of Angels, and the dirty secrets it tries to hide as people there vie for success. Hanson said that the movie industry settled here because filmmakers liked shooting in the soft, soothing sunlight that saturated this part of California. But, as someone said about LA, “you come for a vacation, and go home on probation.” So, there is that underbelly of its people that Hanson wants to expose, and ironically contrast with the celebrity of stardom.
The movie begins in 1952 with a voice-over from tabloid sleaze master Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) of Hush Hush magazine. To “hush” is to stifle speech, which is what the successful want done concerning their nasty actions. But, while on one hand, the public doesn’t want its ideal version of the town of dreams shattered, at the same time, it craves to hear the dirt. Why? Maybe for the same reason that people want to look away from a car crash, but can’t because of a perverse morbid curiosity. Or, perhaps they envy the success of movie stars, and want to cut them down, lower them to the level of the drudgery of the lives of everyday working people. Sid says that “Life is good in Los Angeles. It’s paradise on earth. Ha, ha, ha, ha. That’s what they tell you anyway.” We eventually see a collage of murderous hits, as the audience hears Sid relate how crime boss Mickey Cohen, (the criminal version of a star), is now in jail, and a vacuum of illegitimacy exists. However, someone is killing all of his pretender mob lieutenants. At one of the killings, an unidentified person steals a suitcase full of heroin. And, the LA Police Department has a public relations problem because of its inability to solve these crimes.
Detective Bud White, (Russell Crowe), is out on a liquor run with his partner, Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) for a Christmas party. They come across a house where a man is beating his wife. Bud sent the man to prison before, and is checking up on him. There are holiday decorations on the outside of the building, contrasting the surface appearance of the season of good cheer with the cruel actions inside the home. White rips down the Santa sleigh and lights to get the man to come outside. But, symbolically, the tearing away of a façade shows him to be a man who does not tolerate deception or phony appearances. LA is a strange place for him to be, since Hollywood specializes in presenting illusions. He beats up the man and handcuffs him to the porch so the police will arrest him. White offers comfort to the woman, asking her if she has a place to stay. His name is “White,” suggesting that he is one of the “good guys,” despite his brutal behavior. When they get to the party at the precinct, Stensland says they were late because his partner’s helping the battered woman shows how White has his “priorities all fouled up.” We have an upside-down world here, where decent acts are denigrated.
When the abusive man comes out of his house he asks Bud who is he, and the cop says, “I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past.” The line refers, as we later learn, to Bud’s childhood history. His father was an abuser. As a boy, he tried to stop his father from hurting his mother. His dad tied him to a radiator and then beat his mother to death with a tire iron. The father left, and was never found. Bud later talks about wanting justice, and his anger towards criminals, and especially those who hurt women, may be his attempt to exact the punishment his father never received. Actor Crowe said he wanted Bud’s clothes to be tight-fitting, as if confining the man. The character does look like he is ready to burst out of them at any moment as his rage for criminals builds. It may be that wanting to get free of constraints reflects a desire to make up for having been restrained to that radiator.
On the way to the Christmas party, White goes into a liquor store to buy the booze. He encounters Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger, in an Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actress role). There is a definite contrast between the way the two appear. He wishes her a merry Christmas. She returns the favor adding, “officer” to her greeting. He says was it that obvious, and she says, “It’s practically stamped on your forehead.” Again, we see that Bud is the man who has nothing to hide. Not so Lynn. Her head is symbolically covered by a hood, so that Bud at first only sees a bit of blonde hair and some of her profile. When he goes outside, Bud notices that the fancy car Lynn is heading towards has a woman with a bandage over her nose. Sensitive to abused women, Bud investigates. The woman, who turns out to be Susan Lefferts (Amber Smith), tells Bud, as does Lynn, that Bud has it all wrong. Honest Bud again comes up against deceptions. The owner inside of the car is Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). Great name for a man, as we later learn, who sometimes uses plastic surgery to have hookers look like movie stars. Their skin is “pierced” for the surgery, and then they are “patched up” to look like the intended person. Putting a “patch” over something also is an attempt to cover up what is wrong underneath. In Pierce Patchett’s name, we get the theme of surface phoniness. The “pierce’ part also suggests sexual penetration (Psycho anyone?). Pierce has his driver/bodyguard, Buzz Meeks (Darrell Sandeen), deal with Bud. White overcomes the man, and from his wallet discovers the man’s name. Bud gets him to admit that he was an ex-cop, which Stensland confirms, but does not act like he knows the man personally, or the bruised woman in the car.
We encounter Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a narcotics detective, at a glamorous Hollywood party. Jack is the technical adviser on a TV show entitled “Badge of Honor,” an ironic title, since, at this time, honorable policemen are in short supply, and many corrupt cops hide behind the superficial legitimacy of their badges. Jack tells his dancing partner that he teaches the star of the show how to walk and talk like a cop. She says that the actor on “Badge of Honor” doesn’t walk and talk like Jack. He counters with, “Well, that’s ‘cause he’s the television version. America isn’t ready for the real me.” Hollywood presents the sanitized version of reality, the dream in which the people want to believe, in contrast to the seedy reality. The show uses the line from the real TV series “Dragnet,” where the policeman says he wants “just the facts,” which is the opposite of what Hollywood, and corrupt cops want exposed. The “real” Jack works with Sid Hudgens, who gets Jack leads on movie stars having sexual encounters while using drugs. Sid pays Jack for “acting” in his set-up. Jack arrests them, while Sid has the caught actors and actresses filmed at the scene (as reality and staged filmmaking merge). We have invasion of privacy and destruction of careers so that Jack can enhance his career, and Sid’s manipulation of events can increase his readership at the expense of others.
The first time we see Sergeant Edmund Exley, he is being interviewed by a reporter, because in LA, how one appears, one’s public image, is what dominates. His father was a well-known policeman, who was killed in the line of duty. The precinct captain, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), tells Exley he is a political animal and shouldn’t go into homicide, where he will be called upon to plant evidence on an obviously guilty person, beat a confession out of a suspect he knows to be guilty, and may have to shoot a hardened criminal in the back if there was a chance a lawyer would get the man off. (This last example is an ironic foreshadowing of the end of the film). Exley believes he can mete out justice by not doing any of the above. It is significant that Dudley, as do others, advise Exley to lose his eyeglasses. He looks too cerebral if he wears the lenses, and they want him to play the typical role of the macho cop. It may also symbolize that the removal of his glasses signifies the loss of his clarity of moral vision.
All of the above occur on the same evening. At the precinct, while Exley acts as Watch Commander, Jack arrives and tries to give him a payoff, which Exley refuses. Bud and the others party it up. Then, three Mexicans suspected of assaulting policemen are brought in. Instead of trying to find out “just the facts,” the inebriated cops spread rumors about one of the attacked officers losing an eye and another being in a coma. Exley tries to set them straight by saying they only suffered muscle bruises. The cops tellingly put Exley in a cell, as if truth and justice are being locked out of sight, hidden away from view so the “fake news” can flourish without contradiction. White first tries to control Stensland, but when one of the Mexicans curses him, he, too, joins in the fight, as does Jack, when his clothes are dirtied. (As opposed to Bud’s outfits, Jack dresses the part of a Hollywood leading man, showing he has strayed from his true role in life). The press, who interviewed Exley, are there, and, they photograph the beatings of the Mexicans, adding to the already compromised image of the police department. The newspaper headline is “Bloody Christmas,” mirroring the brutality that Bud exposed at the abuser’s house, which is in sharp contrast to the purpose of the holiday season.
The LAPD need to provide the public the look of an agency that is trying to clean up its mess, while at the same time not shaking things up too much. But, Bud White and others will not snitch on fellow cops who participated in the precinct braw. The Chief of Police suspends White for not cooperating. Using his considerable political skills, Exley agrees to give testimony, saying what he truly believes, that “Justice must be served,” and that the cops “confuse silence with integrity.” But, he bends the concept of justice with pragmatism, by suggesting that those punished should be ones close to retirement. That way they can leave early with full benefits. But, he argues there must be a sacrifice that doesn’t look convenient. Dudley is willing to let Stensland go, but wants to keep Bud because he is willing do the things that Exley said he wouldn’t. At Exley’s urging, the higher-ups use Vince’s love of working on “Badge of Honor” as leverage to get him to testify against those who can retire. In return, Exley receives a promotion. On his way out the door, Stensland turns down Bud’s offer of going for a drink because he says he has a “date.” Dudley gives Bud his badge and gun back, but only if he switches to homicide, not to solve cases, to Bud’s disappointment, but instead to use his muscle to intimidate others from taking over Cohen’s operations. It is interesting that when Dudley asks Bud if he follows everything he told him, Bud says, “In technicolor.” The use of a movie term, which is meant to imply vivid understanding, also has a connotation of something exaggerated, and staged. The place where the physical intimidations take place is the deceptively patriotic named Victory Motel, situated next to an ugly oil rig that plunders the earth in the midst of such an otherwise beautiful setting.
In his new position, Exley is hated by the other cops for being a snitch. One evening, he takes a call about homicides at the Night Owl Diner. It turns out that many people were shot there, and it appears to be a robbery. Again, what something appears to be on the surface is not necessarily the case in this town. One of the dead is Stensland. But, it turns out that one of the women killed at the restaurant was Susan Lefferts, the surgically altered woman in Patchett’s car. Dudley says they have information that three African Americans were in the vicinity driving a Mercury coup. Exley goes with Jack, and after following a lead, show up at the home of one of the black suspects. However, two of Dudley’s men are already there, and they have found money (presumably the cash stolen from the diner), and the shotguns, which are a ballistics match in the Night Owl case. Exley stops one of these officers from killing the suspects, who look at each other as if some plan was thwarted.
Back at the precinct, Exley again shows his mental skills by playing the suspects off one another. He may not be willing to do Dudley’s required extreme actions to get a felon, but he is not above manipulating, even lying, to incriminate them. (There is a shot which shows the reflections of the police in the window of the interrogation room so that they are seen at the same time as the suspects inside, thus equating the cops with the criminals). But, the suspects say they had no shotguns, and do not admit to killing anyone. It comes out that they have abducted a woman, and have raped her. Bud, exploding because of harm done to a female, plays forced Russian Roulette with one of the men, getting an address. White rescues the woman after basically murdering her captor and making it look like the man fired at Bud. White is willing to do what he feels must be done for what he calls “justice.” Exley yells at him, and says Bud doesn’t know the meaning of justice. Bud significantly says to Exley that he should go after criminals, instead of cops, referring to his snitching. These words are ironic considering what happens at the end of the film.
Conveniently, the three black suspects escape from jail. Exley remembers the address they disclosed where they acquired drugs. Exley goes there with other men. A gunfight ensues after one of the cops fires first after a bottle accidentally breaks. Exley, the man everyone thought was just good for the use of his brains, uses a shotgun to kill the suspects. He is now accepted as “Shotgun Ed,” and receives the department’s highest commendation. Again, appearances are deceiving as there is more to Exley than first meets the eye. But, those eyes get stained with blood during the shootings, as Exley did not wear his glasses, indicating that he does not yet see that he has been made complicit in a corrupt plot.
Jack was suspended for a while for his participation in “Bloody Christmas,” and as part of the deal, has to work in Vice temporarily before resuming work on the TV show. At one of the busts set up by Sid, he found a business card with the phrase “Fleur de Lis” on it. In Vice, he sees the same name on evidence involving a pornography ring. We later learn that Patchett runs this service, which involves the prostitutes, and since Lefferts was at the diner, there is also a link to the Night Owl killings.
Bud is not satisfied concerning Stensland’s murder, and the coincidental presence at the diner of both his former partner and Lefferts. He goes to the liquor store where he saw Lynn, and tracks down Patchett, who admits to the prostitution ring, but nothing else. Bud also finds Lynn’s address. Director Hanson said that her home was divided into two levels. The downstairs is where she entertains her clients. It represents the fake pretense of having sex with her as a Veronica Lake lookalike. It, like the movies, is a fantasy world. Upstairs is where Lynn Bracken, the real person from Arizona, lives. When Bud first arrives at her place, she is with a man, on the first floor, who acts tough (emphasis on “acting”), wearing an undershirt and a fedora hat. They are watching a movie starring the real Veronica Lake. Thus, the illusion is doubled, since there is only a film of the real person, and just a pretend real actress. When Lynn answers the door, the man asks if she wants him to get rid of Bud. Bud tells the man to get lost, knowing that he is no tough guy, but really a married city councilman, who Bud threatens with the possibility of notifying his wife about his unseemly activity. We are again shown the underside of the supposedly respectable surface of LA in the form of this man.
Even though Bud is on the job, he is obviously attracted to Lynn. She basically says that girls like her, who came to Hollywood to become stars, can only get a chance to act by playing sleazy versions of their idols. She says he is the first man who hasn’t immediately said she looks like Veronica Lake. He says she looks better than the actress. By delivering that line, he is telling her that he sees beyond the pretense, and is perceiving the real Lynn Bracken, who only has changed her hair, but nothing else. She has already observed in the liquor store how he has nothing to hide. When he doubts his intellectual ability to solve cases, she tells him he found Patchett, and her, and that he is smart enough. They become genuine lovers on the second floor of her place, which is free of any false illusions. There is a happy scene where Bud and Lynn go to, where else in this film, the movies, to escape the stressful world they travel in.
After checking out the evidence, Bud concludes that Stensland’s “date” was with Susan Lefferts. He visits Mrs. Lefferts (Gwenda Deacon), who identifies Stensland as Susan’s older boyfriend. Bud searches the house, smells a bad odor which Mrs. Lefferts attributes to a rat that died in the walls, and finds the body of Buzz Meeks. The decaying body, infested with rats, buried under the crawlspace of the house, symbolizes the ugliness beneath the surface of sunny, beautiful LA. Significantly, when Bud emerges, after being asked by Mrs. Lefferts if it was a rat, he says, “Yeah. A big one.” Buzz also finds out from a Mickey Cohen enforcer, Johnny Stompanato (Paolo Seganti) that Meeks came into a large supply of heroin (the missing suitcase), and Bud concludes that he was murdered for stealing the drug.
Jack Vincennes meets up with Sid at a party. Sid takes compromising photos of people for his exploitative version of journalism. (Photography can present illusions, reality, or even manipulated versions of the truth). He gives Jack money to catch the DA, Lowe (Ron Rifkin), in a homosexual encounter with the actor Jack previously arrested at a pot bust, and from whose apartment he picked up the porno ring card. The actor, Matt Reynolds (Simon Baker), thinks he recognizes Jack from a Fleur de Lis party. At a bar, Jack starts to feel guilty about his sleazy actions, and leaves the $50 Sid gave him on his whiskey glass. Hanson drives home the theme of the story when we see Jack under a movie marquee with the film title The Bad and the Beautiful, stressing the dual nature of LA, and, given America’s obsession with the film industry, the country in general. Jack decides to go to the motel and call off the sting, but is horrified to find Reynolds murdered.
Exley, wheeling the Hispanic girl, who was held captive and raped, out of the hospital, learns from her that she lied about the time she was with the black abductors. She gave out the false information (more deception) to tie them to the Night Owl killings, in order to get the justice (that word again, which everyone wants, no matter the cost) she did not think a girl like her would get. (While they are exiting the hospital, they are photographed by the press, the pictures painting a picture of a victim and a hero, but what is not seen is that they are also a liar and a manipulated killer). Since the African American men, who Exley thought he had righteously killed, had an alibi, Exley now starts investigating. When he finds Bud White was also checking evidence, he approaches Jack Vincennes to help him, since Exley wants someone outside the compromised homicide division. When Jack questions Exley why he wants to reopen the Night Owl case, Exley relates how his father was killed by a guy Exley calls Rollo Tomasi, the guy who gets away with the crime. Exley says he forgot for a while why he joined the force. He says, “it was supposed to be about justice.” He, like Bud, lost a parent to somebody who got away with it, and they both want that to stop. When Exley asks Jack why he became a cop, Jack hesitates for quite a while, and says he can’t remember, emphasizing how corrupt he has become. So, he works with Exley for redemption.
Exley also visits Mrs. Lefferts’ house after finding out that was where Bud went. He too discovers the body and has it sent to the coroner, who identifies it as Meeks. Jack was tailing Bud for Exley, and they find White at Lynn’s house, where they spy on the two who act affectionately toward each other. Since Lynn is one of Patchett’s prostitutes, as was Susan Lefferts, Jack realizes that the there is a connection between The Night Owl, Reynold’s death, and Fleur de Lis. Exley, also attracted to Lynn, goes to interrogate her. She tells him that she sees Bud “because he can’t hide the good inside him.” She sees him because he “doesn’t know how to disguise who he is.” The woman who is a phony in her profession is drawn to the man of no deception. She also says she sees Bud because he not like Exley, who is a master at political deception, but who she does not realize is trying to aim for the higher good. She seduces Exley, because Patchett has sent Sid to photograph their sexual encounter, which Lynn thinks will be used as leverage to protect Bud. Sid’s spying is similar to that of Exley and Jack’s earlier, again showing how the police and the criminal are echoes of each other, and how, as before, photography can manipulate reality.
There is actually a humorous scene in the film, but one which still furthers its theme. Exley and Jack go to a restaurant to question Stompanato. There is a woman there with him. Exley comes on strong, and says the woman is a whore who was cut to look like Lana Turner. A smiling Jack tells Exley it really is Lana Turner, who throws a drink in Exley’s face. Back in the car the two laugh, with Exley saying, tellingly, “How was I to know?” The line between legitimate and illegitimate has become so blurred, even a detective can’t tell the difference, and it is Jack, the man traveling between both worlds, must be the one to reveal the truth.
Jack goes through police records and finds a connection between Meeks, and Stensland concerning an investigation into blackmail, which Dudley signed off on. Jack goes to Dudley’s house, tells him that he and Exley are working on something together, and asks him about what he has discovered. When Dudley is satisfied that Jack has not yet talked to Exley, he shoots Jack. We now realize Dudley is behind all of the killings. With his last laughing breath, Jack utters the name “Rollo Tomasi.” Dudley removes the body, and then starts a sham investigation into Jack’s death. He tells his men, “Our justice must be swift and merciless,” an ironic statement since he has perverted the practice of “justice” through his covert actions, and now in his overt words, exhorting a type of law enforcement that is not deliberate and without compassion. Dudley asks Exley if he knows of a person of interest in Jack’s death, Rollo Tomasi. Exley now knows that Jack sent him a message as to who killed him, and he realizes Dudley is the enemy.
To get Exley out of the way, Dudley tells Bud he needs him at the Victory Motel to interrogate someone he feels will lead them to Jack’s killer. It is all a setup to get Bud to go after Exley. They brutally question Sid, who admits that he had a business relationship with Jack to photograph people in compromising positions, arrest them, and Sid ran stories on those taken into custody. He says about Patchett that he used his prostitutes to be photographed by Sid with people to be blackmailed. He says he has pictures in his car of Exley and Lynn, which the enraged Bud discovers. As he drives away, Dudley says he wouldn’t want to be in Exley’s shoes. Dudley then kills Sid, as he starts to tie up loose ends.
Bud first stops at Lynn’s, who says she thought she was protecting him. His anger then takes over, and it subverts his caring for women, as he hits Lynn. He then feels so much guilt that he quickly and silently leaves her. He goes after Exley, who has checked work reports and sees the link that Jack discovered between Stensland, Meeks, and Dudley. Bud bursts in on him shows Exley one of Sid’s photographs, and then attacks Exley. The latter holds him off long enough to tell him “Think!” He previously called Bud a mindless thug, but now he appeals to his investigative intelligence, as he tells him about Dudley’s conspiracy, and how he pointed Bud at Exley. Bud reveals that Stensland lied to him about not being familiar with Meeks or Lefferts. Stensland and Meeks stole the heroin, Stensland killed Meeks to have it all for himself, and received retribution for the rip off. They start to see how Dudley had his men plant the weapons and the money at the African American suspect’s house before Exley arrived there. They also see how Dudley and Patchett manipulated all of them including Lynn to take over Mickey Cohen’s operation. Bud asks Exley does he want to tear down the Night Owl case that made him. Exley says yes, “with a wrecking ball. You want to help me swing it?” These two who misread each other, now realize they both have the smarts and the guts to exact justice, and they can do it together.
The two visit DA Lowe, and after threatening the man’s life, get him to admit to his being blackmailed, and poor Reynolds was killed because he heard too much about what was going on. Bud’s beating the man up and dangling him from the window raise the question of how far are these two willing to go to exact justice. However, the question is what do you do when the people in charge of the legal system are themselves the criminals? They then go to Patchett’s house. They find him dead and a suicide note left behind. But, Bud sees that his fingers were broken, showing again, that what really happened is not what appears to be the truth. Since Dudley is covering his tracks, they then realize Lynn is in danger. Bud, feeling ashamed of hitting her, sends Exley to protect Lynn. Bud goes to see Sid, who he finds dead. He gets a call to meet Exley at the Victory Motel. When he arrives there, Exley says he thought Bud wanted the meeting. Bud suspected it to be a setup, and says this way may be how the story must end. Dudley shows up with his men. There is a fierce gun battle, and Bud and Exley take out everyone, except Dudley. Exley is wounded in the process, and Dudley shoots Bud, but not before he stabs the captain in the leg, and Exley aims a gun at him. Dudley promises Exley he will be rewarded if he just walks out to greet the police cars arriving. He tells Exley to hold up his badge so the cops will know he is a policeman. This advice echoes the title of the TV show “Badge of Honor,” which is as fake as Dudley’s false presentation of integrity. Exley then does what he told Dudley he wouldn’t do. He shoots Dudley in the back, and then holds up his own badge, his honor, though extralegal, intact. Bud earlier told him to go after criminals instead of policemen. It turns out, they were one in the same.
Exley tells the whole truth to the Chief of Police, who again sees how disastrous it would be for the force if the real story came out. The DA starts to think how to spin it, saying that maybe Dudley can be painted as a hero. Exley, he himself now in the interrogation room, seems to read their minds, and says there has to be more than one hero. We then see the story in the newspaper that Dudley is depicted as a crusader rooting out corruption. Exley is again awarded the Medal of Valor. The ugliness of the truth is once again hidden by the illusion of a happy ending.
Bud somehow survives, and will be going with Lynn back to Arizona, away from La La Land. Exley tells her that even though the police department is using him, he will be using them, presumably to try to have it live up to the standards of a true badge of honor. Exley and Bud exchange a brotherly handshake, and Bud and Lynn drive away. It is ironic that in LA, the two redeeming angels are these flawed ones. The song heard over the closing credits contain the lyrics, “Accentuate the positive.” It is, after all, Hollywood.
The next film is Medium Cool.
Sunday, February 19, 2017
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
I decided on a change of pace by discussing a film that makes me feel good whenever I view it. This 1978 movie, co-written, along with Elaine May, co-directed, along with Buck Henry, produced and starring Warren Beatty (for which he received Oscar nominations in all of the above categories), is a delightful romantic comedy. But, it also has its sad moments, which it balances very well with the humor, a difficult task to accomplish. Add to this cinematic recipe a dash of satire regarding the American capitalist system, and you have the ingredients for a successful motion picture.
The film begins with the main character, Joe Pendleton (Beatty) running. He runs all through this story, whether outside or later inside in the Leo Farnsworth mansion. In addition to running, he rides a bicycle. He is a professional quarterback with the Los Angeles Rams, so being an athlete, one would expect him to exercise. But the movie implies that Joe just wants to move forward, to get to a goal that he was born to reach. Of course, his running inside the big house also adds comedy to the scenes.
Joe has done a remarkable job of repairing an injured knee without surgery. As trainer Max Corkle (Jack Warden, Oscar-nominated) tells the Head Coach, played by Dolph Sweet, Joe isn’t taking any medications whatsoever. In practice, Joe successfully completes many passes, prompting the Head Coach and Max to say, “He’s looking awfully good.” And that about sums up Joe – besides being a handsome fellow, he is just a good guy, as the rest of the film shows us. The Head Coach decides to make Joe the starting quarterback for the next game, replacing aside the usual starter, Tom Jarrett. Before Joe hears the good news, a reporter asks Joe, after his practice, what he thinks of the Rams’ chances this season. He says that they will go to the Super Bowl and will win. When the reporter then says what does he really think, off the record, Joe repeats the same thing. Joe is a honest person – he doesn’t have separate answers for the same question, because for him, the truth is constant. The reporter then asks him what does he think of his competition, Jarrett. Joe says that the quarterback is not his competition, he’s the starting quarterback for his team. Joe is a team player, who unselfishly wants to help all of his fellow teammates win, not just himself.
However, that doesn’t mean he has no personal aspirations. He tells Max that he doesn’t know if he’ll have a chance to see if all of his hard work (even on his birthday Joe is studying films of his football opponents) will pay off, an ironic statement given his imminent demise. Max is his close friend, to whom Joe administers neck realignments for his aching spinal problem. Max remembers Joe’s birthday, goes to his house with a cake, and tells him, ironically, that he hopes he has many more birthdays, not realizing that this is the quarterback’s last day on earth as Joe Pendleton. This scene is one of many where the sadness sits well along with the comic, as we witness Joe’s extreme health food obsession which includes drinking liver and whey shakes, and we hear Joe badly playing his soprano saxophone, as he does several times in the movie. The film’s soundtrack, with its jaunty (music to jog by?), well-played saxophone, adds a feel-good comic touch and contrasts with the sadness of Joe’s death and the feelings of loss by other characters. But, its well-played music, just like a well-played game, also symbolizes what Joe can accomplish if given time.
After Max gives Joe the good news about him being the starting quarterback the following Sunday, Joe, of course, goes out running, and then biking. But, we see a truck veer into an oncoming lane of the road on which Joe is traveling, and there is an unseen accident in a short tunnel. It is important that we don’t see the accident, only hear it, because it allows some suspense until we find out what happened. Joe is now walking with his saxophone in the clouds with an escort from the afterlife (Buck Henry). There are others there in line ready to board a plane to go to their ultimate destination. Joe thinks it’s just a dream, and, of course, runs around and does push-ups, his body comically appearing out of the cloud formation with each upward thrust of his arms. Because he refuses to board, a higher up on the celestial pecking order Mr. Jordan (James Mason) appears to handle things. He convinces Joe that he is not dreaming, and Joe realizes he is dead. However, he is adamant that he shouldn’t be there. Mr. Jordan gets a readout on Joe’s time of arrival and it is years in the future. The escort is new to the job, and took his assigned person “out” just before the accident to save unnecessary suffering. Mr. Jordan lectures the escort that they operate on probability and outcome, and each outcome is different. So, an escort cannot remove the probable victim’s soul before the outcome. As Joe later tells Max, the escort didn’t take into account that Joe was an athlete, and his sharpened reflexes would allow him to dodge the truck. Mr. Jordan says Joe must be put back into his own body. Joe says, “anybody can make a mistake.” Here the comical thrust is that even heaven has its bureaucratic glitches.
Unfortunately, when the escort and Joe return to earth and attend Joe’s gravesite burial ceremony, they discover his body was cremated. Max can’t see Joe, and says that he hopes that if there is football in heaven, God will make his dead friend first string. Mr. Jordan takes over and tries to find a substitute body for Joe, and the audience sees a few comic possibilities, including a German speaking race car driver. Joe’s persistence to achieve what he considers his destiny predominates, as he wants an athlete so he can still play football. Mr. Jordan takes him to the house of mega rich businessman, Leo Farnsworth, who is sedated and about to drown in his own bathtub after his wife, Julia (Dyan Cannon, Oscar-nominated) conspired with her lover, Leo’s personal secretary, Tony Abbott (Charles Grodin) to kill Leo. True to his nature, Joe runs through the house, despite no one seeing or hearing him, looking for help for the victim, even though the man’s body will allow him to be human again, because he cares about other people.
What makes Joe accept the use of Farnsworth’s body is a woman, Betty Logan (Julie Christie). She has been sending letters and trying to meet Farnsworth. She is from a small English town that will be displaced when Farnsworth’s company builds a refinery there. She meets with Abbott, and says besides callously altering the town’s inhabitants’ lives, the rich man’s company produces toxins that harm the environment. Joe is immediately smitten with Betty, and wants to help her, Mr. Jordan says Joe can help her if he becomes Farnsworth, which Joe agrees to do, but only if it is a temporary arrangement. After he becomes Farnsworth, he tells Mr. Jordan that he still looks and sounds like himself. The “angel” says that inwardly, Joe is the same. So, no matter what we may look like, as we alter our appearance, or grow old, the thrust here is that our essence stays the same, our inner being. From a practical standpoint, this plot element allows Beatty to still portray the main character.
When Joe meets with Betty, she hits him with an onslaught of outrage, and he, in an attempt to quiet her, tries to tell her the truth. At this point, a funny moment occurs when Joe attempts to calm her by saying she shouldn’t be afraid of who he is because he doesn’t frighten anyone. This statement is immediately followed by his wife entering the room, seeing her supposedly dead husband alive, and screaming. Betty, of course dismisses Joe’s statement that he is not Farnsworth, and thinks he is just playing a demeaning game. She vows to continue her protests. Joe tells Abbott to make sure the company isn’t hurting anyone. Joe is sincere, but his secretary, coming from a corrupt mindset, assumes they are being bugged, and Farnsworth is just putting on a show of honesty. Joe also questions the dishonesty of leaking the rumor of a merger to manipulate an increase in stock prices, which Abbott takes as standard operating procedure.
We then get a humorous attack on the excesses of the super-rich. The Farnsworth house and grounds are extremely oversized. A small canon is discharged when the flag is raised and lowered, depicting an act of usurped importance. Farnsworth wore polo outfits, including a helmet, and various dress military uniforms with epaulets and medals. Joe and Julia, dressed like she is going to visit a head of state, eat at a stretch dinner table. There are servants everywhere, who are conditioned to indulge the wealthy in their normalcy-challenging ways. So, when Joe seems to be talking to no one when the escort and Mr. Jordan show up, they prepare hot cocoa for the unseen guests. Joe is out of place and appears awkward when the servants keep handing him hats representing various pursuits. He asks if he (Farnsworth) plays polo or sails, and the response is, “not really.” At first, he tries to play the part, but the rich man’s phoniness goes against his straightforward honest nature. That is why he says he doesn’t want to see any more hats. He also is not dismissive of the help, and always thanks the servants for preparing his meals.
Joe prepares for a corporate board meeting, hoping to help Betty. At the event, he invites reporters, and Betty, into the board conference room, to the alarm of the members, because, unlike transparent Joe, they wish to hide the activities of the company that puts profit before social responsibility. He is taken aback that an intelligent creature, such as a porpoise, is killed in the processing of tuna. He points out that there are a number of lawsuits and protests against the company. Joe gives a speech that on the surface seems comical, but which is a blueprint for the way large businesses should be run. And, he appropriately, delivers it using football as a metaphor. He asks if they are having a winning season, and is told that they have had a profitable year. So, if you are ahead, he says, you don’t make mistakes, such as building plants that are harming the environment. He says you protect your players, i. e., society. He says we’re not in it for one game, but for the whole season. In essence, he is urging action that doesn’t shortchange the future for immediate wealth. He says that they shouldn’t be making products that harm the environment, and to Betty’s joy, urges the relocation of the refinery. He says what if these actions cost more. They’ll charge a little more for their considerate behavior. Referring to the porpoise problem he tells them, “If it costs too much, we charge a penny more. Would you pay a penny to save a fish that thinks?” He says, “Let’s be the team that plays by the rules.” So, he and Betty have in common the belief that one should care about the community of people as a whole, the notion that it takes a village, or a team, working together for the individuals belonging to that larger group to prosper.
Joe asks Betty, who says what he said at the meeting was wonderful, to have dinner, and they go out to eat at a hamburger drive-in joint. He says he took her there because Joe thought she wouldn’t want to be seen with a big shot corporate jerk in a more public setting. The place fits his down-to-earth style. She has become enamored of him, saying even when she was yelling at him, she saw something likable in his eyes. What she saw was Joe’s inner goodness, which could not be disguised. They can’t stop looking at each other, and Joe assures Betty that he is getting a divorce.
The escort shows up and says they have found an athlete for Joe. But, he has fallen in love, and now doesn’t want to give up Farnsworth’s body, since he wishes to continue to build on the relationship he has established with Betty as the businessman. He decides to get the body in shape so he can still pursue his athletic dream. He acquires athletic equipment and has Max show up, hoping to convince him to help Joe. (Max’s inability to just light his cigar because Farnsworth’s lighter is a too complicated device for a simple task, emphasizes the rich man’s excess). When he can’t persuade Max to do it for money, Mr. Jordan shows up and tells Joe that he can tell Max the truth, and will be believed. Joe tells the trainer things about his life only a close friend would know. He realigns his neck the way Joe did. He recalls Max’s words at the grave by saying that there was no football in heaven, so God couldn’t make him first string. The convincer is playing the saxophone just the way Max’s quarterback pal did. Joe was talking to Mr. Jordan, invisible, of course, to Max, but then the supernatural helper disappears. Max starts talking to the spot where he thinks Mr. Jordan is standing. After going out for a liver and whey shake for Max, Joe comes back in, sees the trainer talking to no one, and delivers the funny line to Max, “Don’t go crazy on me,” after he appeared earlier to Max to be out of his mind.
Joe starts to practice with the hired help on Farnsworth’s grounds. This activity implies that Joe wants them all to be on the same playing, thus eliminating the social divide between the privileged and the working classes. The only way, however, for Joe to get a tryout with Rams is to buy the team. In the context of the story, we find this acquisition acceptable, but it indicates that those with a great deal of money can get what they want, as opposed to the less financially endowed. Once the rams’ football players allow Joe to get a pass off, he excels. The Head Coach now repeats what he said about Joe, when he was in his own body, when he says, “He’s looking good,” showing that, in a way, you can’t keep a good man down.
Joe invites ecology groups to the estate, which shows how productive the rich can be when they use their influence to provide meaningful change. Betty is also at this gathering, and the two wander off together, which leads to a foreshadowing image, as they talk near a well. She sees that he is worried, which is due to his concern that he will not be able to stay as Farnsworth. He says to her, “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” and tells Betty what she saw in his eyes she would recognize in another, whoever that person might be, even a quarterback. Later, Joe tells Mr. Jordan that he won’t leave Farnsworth’s body, but Jordan tells him that he must abide by what is written. He assures Joe that there is always a plan, a reason for everything, and, as it turns out, God does, in this film, work in mysterious ways.
At that same water well, Abbott shoots and kills Joe’s Farnsworth, comically because the gun goes off at the same time as does one of the silly daily cannon shots, but also sadly, because Joe is temporarily, again, without a body. Because Farnsworth is missing, having fallen down the well, Max goes to the police because Joe told him about Abbott and his wife plotting to kill Farnsworth. Betty also goes to the police when Farnsworth is nowhere to be found, since he proposed to her, and she knows he would not have gone away. The policeman Krim (Vincent Gardenia) brings Max with him for an interrogation of Julia and Abbott. While the Super Bowl plays on the TV, Krim unleashes Max on the suspected couple. Since the trainer knows so much about their plot to kill Farnsworth, they crack, trying to blame each other for murder. At the same time, the Rams’ quarterback, Jarrett (the athlete the escort was talking about, but did not name), sustains a head injury. It is important that we never see the real Jarrett, because the audience might identify with him, and feel sorry for his loss. He is supposed to die, as Mr. Jordan reassures Joe, saying that it was his time to expire. Joe steps in as Jarrett, and wins the Super Bowl for the Rams.
It seems that there will be an unmitigated happy ending, but that is not the case. Max knows that it is Joe who stepped in, which Joe confirms in the winning locker room. But, Mr. Jordan appears to Joe and tells him when he leaves, Joe will not remember anything about him, or what happened to Joe Pendleton. He will live his life out as Tom Jarrett, because, as it turns out, that is his destiny. When Max sees him again, Joe questions why the trainer is calling him Joe, as he does not recall anything about what had happened. We feel sad for poor Max, who, in a way, has lost his friend Joe for the second time. When Jarrett leaves to go to a celebration party, he runs into Betty who is looking for Max. He asks if they had ever met. The lights go out because they are shutting the stadium down, and in the darkness he repeats Joe’s words, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” When they are outside (significantly on the playing field, where these two team players should be) she says that his voice sounded very familiar. He then admits that he really doesn’t want to go the party, and asks if she would like to go for some coffee. She looks in his eyes, and is able to see what she saw in Joe, his inner goodness. She then recalls Joe’s words, and says, “You’re the quarterback,” and says yes, she would love to have some coffee with him.
So, this movie says, the real essence of an individual does not die, and when it comes to achieving one’s dream, and experiencing true love, heaven can, indeed, wait.
The next film is LA Confidential.
Okay, here are a few Oscar picks for next Sunday:
Best Actor: Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
Best Actress: Emma Stone for La La Land
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
Best supporting Actress: Viola Davis for Fences
Best Director: Damien Chazelle for La La Land
Best Movie: La La Land
Sunday, February 12, 2017
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
The dire consequences that result when the affairs of the secular state clash with those of the religious establishment are the subject of this 1964 Oscar-nominated film based on the play by Jean Anouilh. It is a theme that dominates another work a few years later, A Man for All Seasons (See the post on that movie). In the latter motion picture, the clash is between King Henry VIII and Thomas More. Here, the conflict involves King Henry II and Thomas Becket. Sir (and Saint) Thomas More from the beginning of the film has his moral base, but Becket finds his spiritual compass as the story unfolds.
The film provides a historical context at the beginning by telling us that Henry is the great grandson of William the Conqueror who was the French Norman that defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. His barons and the Catholic clergy helped William oppress the Saxon peasants. But, Anouilh took great liberties with other facts in order to present his take on the historical events. The film opens with Henry (Peter O’Toole, Oscar-nominated) entering Canterbury Cathedral to do penance for the death of Becket (Richard Burton, also nominated for an Oscar), who in this story is a Saxon. We then get the back story, initiated by Henry’s nostalgic reminiscences of happier times with his close friend. It is significant that the King must temporarily relinquish his earthly rule by going to the church and undergoing physical punishment. He shows he is a man of the flesh, not of the spirit, when he says that the Saxon monks are about to whip his “delicate skin.” He says to Thomas’ sepulchral image that the weather almost always has been “cold,” as it was on their last meeting. This reference points to Henry’s preoccupation with the physical world, but also refers to the coldness that he feels Becket showed him despite Henry’s love for his friend.
The story then flashes back to what Henry considered warmer times. He and Becket would go out “wenching,” that is, satisfying their sexual appetites with women, and drinking. The emphasis here is on earthly delights. We get the sense that despite Henry’s proclaimed love for Becket, there is also envy of the man who Henry admits that even in matters of debauchery, Becket was “even better at that than I was.” When the two return to the castle following their carnal exploits, Henry complains of being cold after washing, again self-involved with is physical comfort. Becket is the one who uses a towel to dry him off and restore his warmth. But, Henry says to Becket that the Saxon might actually enjoy the cold, referring to Becket’s emotional state. Although the two have had heterosexual conquests, they pursue them together, and there is a definite homosexual subtext in the film in how Henry feels toward Becket, as this and other scenes show.
We learn from their conversations that Becket is Henry’s learned advisor. As the King says to the clergy and barons, “He’s read books, you know. He’ll checkmate the lot of you!” Henry says to his companion that he has been told not to trust Becket because he is a Saxon, and wonders why his barons hate it that Henry made Becket a nobleman. Becket responds by saying, “One hates what one wrongs.” We see here that Becket is not deluding himself. He does not view the Normans as benevolent invaders, and knows that they are exploitative rulers. How can there be equality when some of the people are not treated equally? But, Becket is a pragmatic collaborator, and Henry asks how does he reconcile collaboration with honor. Becket compartmentalizes, and says he doesn’t try to combine the two. He basically avoids the question about his honor, saying it is a private thing, and he collaborates “to live.”
They go to a meeting with the clergy, and it is here where the movie presents us with the overview of the main conflict. Henry needs money to fight his war with France, and wants to “executive order” away the past practice of excluding the Church from paying taxes. The Archbishop, (Felix Aylmer), says that the Church can’t service the soul and the military, too. But, Henry rightly points out that in the past the priests had no problem taking up arms when conquering the Saxons. He also wants priests who commit civil crimes to be tried in the realm’s courts, not in ecclesiastical ones. Henry emphasizes that there can only be one law in the land, and that is the King’s law. One can argue from our perspective that Henry’s point is correct, but it is also true that the King wants his singular power for domination to persevere.
At this meeting, Henry, always the politician looking for leverage, appoints what he considers his man, Becket, as Chancellor of England, the keeper of the Great Seal of the Realm, symbolized by the ring bearing the images of lions which Henry gives to Becket. The position entails being the King’s advisor, and among other duties, involves judicial and legal responsibilities. Henry says that Becket was always advising him, and now it will be official, and says to those present that Becket is “always thinking.” It may seem that Henry is rewarding Becket, but the King really wants him to owe Henry for the appointment; thus, the relationship in many ways is still one of conqueror and conquered. The Archbishop reminds Becket that he is a member of the Church, an archdeacon, and that his allegiance to the Church is slipping away. It is significant that the worldly Becket and Henry have forgotten Becket’s ties to the spiritual establishment. However, it is a foreshadowing of Becket’s eventual commitment to God. Becket then states where his current loyalties lie, when he says, “England is my mother now.” Toward the end of this meeting, Henry says his guards are approaching, as if to intimidate the clergy, but says they are only bringing his “snack.” He was hungry, and then says that he will pray after he has eaten. Once again, we see that Henry represents the desire for carnal satisfaction, which takes precedence over religious needs.
They go hunting after the meeting, and Henry and Becket wander away from the rest of the hunters. Henry, of course, complains of being cold. They go into the hut of a peasant. There is a young girl and her father, who are so fearful, they don’t speak. Henry’s disdain for them, referring to each as “it,” calling the man, “dog,” and referring to them as mutes, seems to bring out some of Becket’s decency toward his people. He offers to get water for Henry, in lieu of the peasant fetching it. The young girl’s brother attacks Becket outside in an effort to protect his sister. Becket allows him to escape, and says to Henry the wound he received in the confrontation was due to a horse bite. Becket can see that Henry wants the very young woman to satisfy his lust. Henry tries to rationalize his wanting the girl by saying he is doing her a favor by removing her from her poverty. Of course, he leaves out the part that he is selfishly exploiting her for his own purposes. Becket says for sustaining a wound in the act of getting his sovereign’s drink, his reward should be the peasant girl. Henry is bothered by this request, but concedes, as long as Becket realizes he owes Henry a favor, to which his friend agrees. Becket then tells the father that no one will come for his daughter. Thus, we see this compassionate latent part of Becket which is in conflict with his selfish “collaboration” with his conquerors.
Back at the castle, the debauchery and gluttony of Henry’s Norman noblemen are on display in a wine-soaked feast. Becket’s introduction of forks to inject civilized behavior backfires, as Henry predicted, when one of the barons uses it to stab another. Becket, although being Henry’s advisor, does not participate in this drunken behavior, standing aloof from the proceedings, showing him, after his helping the peasants, to not be at home in either the peasant or Norman worlds. He visits the woman who loves him, Gwendolen (Sian Phillips). Becket tells her that he is not able to accept the idea of being loved. Perhaps it is because of his guilt for betraying his people, and not having any honor or dignity involving right versus wrong behavior. A drunken Henry violates their space together. He begins to touch Gwendolen, telling her that he may appear as a brute, but that he is soft as a swan underneath, and then crudely belches, negating his statement. He tells Becket that he needs Gwendolen to smooth out his still rough edges, and asks Becket to repay his debt for the peasant girl by giving up his woman. In this sham of civility, he basically treats Gwendolen as he does all Saxons, as property that he owns. His asking for her is a sort of test. He says if Becket loves him, he’ll give up something he truly cares for. One can also argue that Henry wants to eliminate the woman that stands in the way of Henry’s love for Becket. But, Henry wonders if Becket really cares for anything, including him. Becket asks for a moment with Gwendolen, and Henry agrees because he is not a “savage.” Of course, despite his attempts to pretend otherwise, his lust for power shows his savagery.
In that moment together, Gwendolen asks Becket if when Henry is done with her, will he accept her if she returns to him. Becket’s cold nature, the one Henry accuses him of, shows itself as he says he will not take her back. He does understand himself, though, as he says where in most people there is honor, in him there is a void. This admission so devastates Gwendolen, that when Henry goes to her, he finds that she has stabbed herself to death, rather than accept him. Henry’s shallowness and selfishness is obvious as he cares nothing about Gwendolen, but runs to Becket for comfort after the suicide upsets him. With Becket, he acts like a child asking a parent to tell him that everything will be alright. He can’t stand the sight of blood, which brings into question his ability to lead his country in battle. He says he is lonely, and wants to sleep in Becket’s bed, like a little boy wanting parental protection, or perhaps, given Henry’s underlying homosexuality, wanting to replace Gwendolen in Becket’s bed. But, because what has happened to Gwendolen, Henry wonders out loud if Becket will harbor anger toward his king. They obviously have a love-hate relationship.
Becket says that he must improvise his honor day-to-day, which of course is a contradiction, since honor is a steadfast ethical standard. He says that as long as he wears the ring of the Chancellor, he will be Henry’s faithful servant. But, after Henry dozes off, Becket wonders what would happen if he really met his honor, and asks, “Where is Becket’s honor?” At this point, he is at least thinking about his morality, and is open to its possibilities, and possibly contemplating seeking it.
Becket continues to vacillate between being compassionate and acting in a Machiavellian way when he accompanies Henry to France to wage war. He tells Henry, “One must never drive one’s enemy to despair; it makes him strong. Gentleness is better politics. It saps virility. A good occupational force must never crush. It must corrupt.” In Henry’s tent, he has a naked woman under the sheets, as he is in his usual plundering mode. However, Henry tellingly kicks the girl out of his bed, to make room, as it were, for Becket, his true love, to discuss strategies. But Henry is a keen observer, and he says that instead of admiring morality, Becket appreciates “aesthetics.” That is, he cares more about the way things are done, not the purposes behind the actions. Henry insightfully comments that Becket would be just as formidable an enemy as an asset, which is a definite foreshadowing of their battle to come. But despite how cold Becket comes off in these scenes, he also prevents a Saxon monk by the name of Brother John (David Weston) from being punished after he attacks Becket, and sends him back to his abbot, thus repeating the action with the peasant girl’s brother. There are these hints that he is capable of showing mercy.
Henry receives word that his nemesis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has died. Becket shows his softer side as he remembers that the man was the first Norman to show him kindness. But, Henry, always playing secular politics even at the moment of the death of a spiritual leader, has the inspired idea of naming Becket as the replacement. He says that because Becket is an archdeacon, he can be ordained a priest, and then become the archbishop. Much foreshadowing ensues. Becket warns Henry, “Don’t do this.” He admits that it “frightens” him. He realizes that living a pious life may make him prone to devotion, which will provide that honor which will fill that void inside of him, but which will put him in opposition to the King, who has been his benefactor. Henry feels that he has the upper hand here, and he won’t pass up the chance to use it. He tells Becket that “the die is cast. Make the most of it.” How ironic these words are, as he sets in motion exactly what Henry speculated on about what a formidable opponent Becket can be, since the future archbishop does make “the most” of his situation.
We next see Becket giving away his possessions. His clerical enemy, Folliot (Donald Wolfit), the Bishop of London, says it is good publicity. But Becket actually enjoys the process. He says it’s like being on a “holiday.” He addresses the crucifix hanging on the wall and says to Christ, “It all seems far too easy.” He never felt any affection for things, or people, for that matter. But, now he is on the path that feels right for him, an otherworldly one, that he feels destined to follow. The film then depicts the outwardly grand and elaborate ceremony, signifying a rich religious tradition, which elevates Becket into the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Its solemnity also raises Becket’s inner being to the lofty meaningful purpose he has been avoiding his whole life. The religious vestments are meant for a holy person, and Becket is ready to play that part. In this case, the clothes definitely make the man.
Becket brings the monk, Brother John, who had attacked him, to Canterbury to be his assistant. John feels Becket has betrayed the Saxon people and now is doing the same to God. Becket tells John that maybe the monk can teach him “humility,” which the secular Becket never could master. John eavesdrops on Becket’s prayer to God, in which he says that he wants to know what it is to love, to adore, which he was not capable of on the human level. John realizes that the Archbishop is sincere, and that he is now ready to hear the voice of one who can help him remember his heritage. John says to Becket, as he embraces the Archbishop, “I didn’t know,” referring to the man’s actual devotion. Becket responds by saying, “Neither did I.” Becket surprises himself that his desire to be devoted to God is real.
In a scene with his wife, children, and mother, Henry shows his lack of caring for the traditional heterosexual family. He sees his next in line son to be a schemer, just waiting for his father’s demise so he can take the throne. He says to his wife, Queen Elanor of Aquitaine (Pamela Brown), “Your body, madam, was a desert that duty forced me to wander in alone.” Being “alone” frightens Henry, and is why he goes to Becket after Gwendolen’s death. The Queen hates Becket for taking Henry away from her to visit whores, but Henry says it was just the opposite. So, it is Henry who is the carnal corrupter, showing how Becket was never the one who sought fleshly pleasures, but just played along to please Henry. Henry’s lust for women is transient, but his love for Becket is enduring. As Henry waits for Becket to visit him, after the latter becomes Archbishop, like someone hoping to see his lover, the King’s mother (Martita Hunt) says, “You have an obsession with him that is unhealthy and unnatural.” She sees Henry’s homosexual leanings, and of course espouses the negative viewpoint of her time.
Becket sends Brother John to deliver a message to Henry about the apprehension of a priest, who “debauched” a girl, by Lord Gilbert, who subsequently killed the cleric while escaping. Becket wants Gilbert tried for murder, having killed the priest without a trial, and wants adherence to the trying of priests in ecclesiastical courts. Henry, outraged that Becket did not come to him, now goes to Canterbury. Of course, the first thing he does is complain about how he is “frozen stiff” from the ride, which again emphasizes his earthly needs, and symbolizes, again, the coldness he feels coming from the Becket, who he thought was his man. Becket says he must protect his “sheep,” since he now sees himself as God’s appointed shepherd on earth. Henry says to him that he was the one who appointed him to his post, and owes allegiance to the King. He says that when Becket attacks a nobleman, he attacks the King, and then he is attacking England. Becket says to Henry, “you have introduced me to deeper obligations,” those that are more profound than the ones governing the political world. (Visual details are meaningful, as we see Becket pulling the priestly sash he wears out of Henry’s presumptuous hands, as if it has been sullied by his secular touch). Becket says that he now has a higher honor to defend – the honor of God. Becket gives back the Chancellor’s ring, because it represents a conflict with his office as the Archbishop. Henry’s pain is palpable as he tells Becket, “I would have given away my life laughingly for you. Only I loved you and you didn’t love me.” So, the battle lines are drawn, those between church and state, conqueror and conquered, and friend and loving friend.
Henry, vowing that he will now learn to be alone, seeks out his former foe, Bishop Folliot, to bring down Becket. Henry tells the priest that he goes to him not to confess a sin, but something worse, a “mistake,” again showing Henry’s priority is matters of state, not faith, the opposite of his old friend, Becket. He says his friendship died a kind of “heart” failure, which indicates a feeling closer to love than just friendship. As they concoct a scheme to slander Becket by saying he embezzled funds as Chancellor, Henry relapses into anguish for plotting to hurt Becket. Folliot berates him for lack of resolve, saying, “You love him, don’t you? You still love him!” After Folliot spews insults about Becket, Henry tells him he has confided his hate, not his love, and that he will not tolerate verbal attacks against Becket, which shows how torn he is about his current actions.
After excommunicating Lord Gilbert, Becket flees England for the sanctuary of King Louis of France (John Gielgud), and eventually petitions Pope Alexander III (Paolo Stoppa). (Excommunication was a real punishment to the Catholic population, since it meant cutting a person off from spiritual redemption through receiving sacraments, and condemning a person to hell). Henry is afraid that Becket may get the Pope to place England under Papal Interdict, which means the whole area would be cut off from the Church’s sacraments. But instead, Becket asks the Pope to be relieved of his title to prevent a schism within England between the church and the state. The Pope however, wants the Church to prevail, and tells Becket that he will retain his post, but stay in monastic retreat in France.
At the monastery, Becket, while praying to God, feels life is too easy, too happy, in retreat. He says that he became Archbishop to defend his religion, and wants to return to England to continue the fight. (The poet T. S. Eliot, in his work Murder in the Cathedral, addresses the subject of whether Becket’s forcing Henry’s hand was an act of pride, or even suicide. Eliot resolves the problem by saying that when a person’s will coincides with that of God’s, there is a resolution of the dilemma). So, Becket persuades King Louis to have a meeting with Henry to bring about a reconciliation, for which Henry will be in debt to Louis. He tells Louis that Henry will never forgive Becket, though, for having preferred God to Henry. The two face each other on a beach, where Henry again complains of the cold. Becket had told Henry to protect himself against the cold by getting used to it, splashing himself with water before venturing out into chilly weather. Here it seems to symbolize not only their opposing sensibilities, but also the difference between Henry’s noble lineage and Becket’s peasant background. The King complains about his family, telling Becket never to marry (being a priest, Becket can’t), but it again shows Henry’s wish to keep Becket, even now, to himself. Becket agrees to several compromises so he can go back to England, but will not lift Lord Gilbert’s excommunication, and still insists on the Church’s right to hold ecclesiastical trials. Becket knows he will always be a thorn in Henry’s side, and accurately tells the King that he will never see him again, which horrifies Henry.
We find Henry with his barons, drinking, quenching their physical thirst. One of his noble subjects tells the King that Becket returned as a hero to the Saxons as they cheered him when he visited various villages. This news vexes Henry, but he also significantly grabs his heart, showing the pain of his lost love, and admits that so long as Becket lives, “I tremble, I shake.” He then asks, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” The barons take this statement as an order to kill Becket. The Archbishop acknowledges to Brother John that the time of his death is close. He says, “It is here now, the supreme folly, this is its hour.” He even wonders if God is “laughing” at him. He sees himself as playing a part in an absurdist play written by God to make him the victim despite his dutiful service. But, he accepts his role as an archetypal sacrifice, as he says to the Deity, “I’m ready: adorned for Your festivities.” The barons murder him in the cathedral, when vespers are to occur, highlighting the contrast between the holy and the profane.
The movie ends where it began, with Henry in Canterbury Cathedral, now being severely whipped by Saxon monks as he accepts responsibility, if not guilt, for Becket’s death. (He warns his barons that they will basically have to make a sacrifice, too, for having brought about Becket’s demise). For Henry, it is all about politics, to appease the Saxon population, and the Church, but also to retain the Crown’s dominion. However, his submission for punishment, his stripping off of his kingly robes, and being humbled and humiliated, symbolizes a concession to the spiritual needs of the people, who live in an earthly kingdom. This action is at least a temporary reconciliation signified by the final shot, a panoramic, inclusive view of the Church, The King, and their subjects.
The next film is Heaven Can Wait.