The Candidate (US, 1972)

There’s no business like politics

It’s striking that, although it was made 40 years before The Ides of March,The Candidate is almost as up-to-date. The cynicism, alongside extraordinary naiveté, that characterises American politics is beyond satire with The Trump in the White House; I should say the same is true for the UK with our on-going Brexit-driven stupidity. The only striking difference I noticed in the film is the Republican candidate keeps emphasising how they need to keep America great; nowadays Trump’s tagline is ‘make America great again’. Otherwise the bullshit remains the same.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t a difference between left and right politics (the former is far preferable of course!). Robert Redford’s ‘candidate’ is an idealist who, despite is best efforts, gets enmeshed in the ‘machine’ of party politics. However, he would be a far better senator than his opponent. One of the exciting things at the moment in American politics is Senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who brilliantly emphasised the corruption inherent in the American democratic system – see here. She, single-handedly it seems, has shifted the Overton window (which frames what can ‘legitimately’ be discussed) to get a progressive taxation on the agenda.

Jeremy Larner’s script for The Candidate reeks of authenticity which isn’t surprising as he was principal speech-writer for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential bid; he won an Academy Award for his effort. Michael Ritchie’s direction complements the script brilliantly, shooting in Academy Ratio (to give a televisual feel thus mimicking the way many watch political campaigns?), the camera moves in a documentary style seemingly chasing the action rather than shooting action staged for it. I’m not sure whether Ritchie counts as a New Hollywood director as I haven’t seen Prime Cut, released just before The Candidate; his debut was a Redford vehicle Downhill Racer (1969). The Candidate, though, certainly fits into New Hollywood as it’s a thoughtful film with a ‘message’ and was distributed by Warner Bros. Redford and Ritchie made the film through their own company; presumably constituted solely for this film as they didn’t produce another together.

I saw the film nearly 40 years ago and could remember the ending clearly, an indication of how effective it is in a low-key way. I doubt Redford was ever better (I have little to say about his recent The Old Man & the Gun (US, 2018) other than Sissy Spacek was great): his star charisma is undercut by uncertainty in his eyes as his doubts about what he’s doing dog him throughout. I love his puzzled expression when an old mate, from his ‘eco-warrior’ days, congratulates him on doing well whilst knowing it’s ‘bullshit’. The candidate has clearly been taken in.

 

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Norma Rae (US, 1979)

They won’t get you if you’re part of a union

Norma Rae is a bit of an outlier of New Hollywood cinema that thrived at the start of the 1970s. The big studios had lost their audiences and the surprise hit, backed by Columbia, of Easy Rider (1969) allowed an auteur directed cinema to, relatively, thrive for a few years. Peter Bogdanovich, Bob Rafelson and Martin Scorsese (amongst others) made films that were consciously art rather than ‘mere’ entertainment. Although Easy Rider was a watershed film, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (both 1967) had already tapped the counter cultural zeitgeist and, as is so often the case in history, the transition between periods is blurred. So New Hollywood began before it flourished and continued, in a diminished form, after it ended. Of course, mainstream entertainment never went away but it was a time when Hollywood would back interesting films.

In a simplistic manner we can ‘blame’ Jaws (1975) for the end of director-driven movies and the beginning of the producer-dominated High Concept film. Star Wars (1977), with its backward-looking aesthetic, signified the end of innovative filmmaking (apart from the special effects) in Hollywood that, arguably, we are still in with superhero films and Disney remakes being virtually the only game in town. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), which bankrupted United Artists, was the last straw.

Why is Norma Rae one of the last gasps of New Hollywood? It was directed by Martin Ritt, who was one of the most reliable of Hollywood’s liberal film directors, and focuses on working class people, in cotton mills. The narrative is driven by the attempt of a union organiser (Ron Liebman) to get the workers to join. It also features a female protagonist, Sally Ann Field as the titular character (who won a Best Actress Oscar), and an entirely non-sexual relationship between her and the organiser: not even a chaste kiss even after they go ‘skinny dipping’. It’s unusual for Hollywood not to hint at ‘romance’ between female and male protagonists. Field’s Rae is sexual but it is on her own terms. The film was based loosely on Henry Leifermann’s Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance, a biography of Crystal Lee Sutton, w woman who did actually stand on a table holding a sign saying ‘union’ after she had been sacked (more details here).

The scenes in the cotton mill are superbly authentic, the horrendous racket of the machines defeating conversation and, indeed, making organisation difficult. The difficulties of everyday life, on poor wages, are admirably delineated and the workers aren’t patronised as being ‘stupid’ for not being in a union. Company propaganda is shown to divide the workers, sometimes on racial lines. These were, and are, very real battles and the inevitable triumph, it is a Hollywood film after all, is a rallying call to all non-unionised folk.

Norma Rae deserves its place, alongside films like the independent John Sayles’s Matewan(1987), as one of the best American films about trade unions. Field was on The Graham Norton Show (BBC1) recently promoting her autobiography. It was quite scary seeing her as she hadn’t seemed to have aged much in 40 years. She was more like simulacrum and it is an indictment of our age that high profile people, women in particular, aren’t allowed to age properly.

Killing Ground (Australia, 2016) and Don’t Breathe (US, 2016)

Unhappy New Year in Australia

Two critically appreciated horror-thrillers with very different audience reaction: Killing Ground‘s rated 5.8 on imdb and seems to have taken little at the box office; Don’t Breathe gets a 7.1 and took nearly $150m worldwide. Both are superbly well made but for me there’s a crucial difference that makes the Australian film far superior: I cared about the characters.

 

Just deserts?

In the American film, which cost approximately 10 times more to make, the three protagonists are burglars. In Australia, the protagonists are an ‘in love’ couple celebrating New Year in the Outback. Writer-director Damien Power ensures this isn’t sickly-sweet and he’s aided by excellent characterisation by Harriet Dyer and Ian Meadows. Aaron Pedersen adds some charisma as the lumpen proletariat and although the film’s been compared to Deliverance (US, 1972), the film isn’t really about class. So as the burglars break in to a blind man’s house I’m quite happy for him to terrorise them (they have to be quiet hence ‘don’t breathe’). It is true that the narrative configures our sympathy with the youngsters as we learn more about the apparent victim but it’s too late by then; ‘too late’ for me but not most apparently.

Power’s film has plenty of suspense but it becomes clear he’s more interested in the relationship of the lovers; Dyer’s Sam proposes early in the film. How does such a romantic commitment stand up to life-threatening circumstances? Most of the violence is handled well and the worse is off screen though I thought the fate of the baby was miscalculated (I’m not entirely sure what happened as it was pretty dark).

The director of Don’t Breathe, Fede Alvarez (who co-wrote with Rodo Sayagues), handles the darkness well when the blind guy cuts the power to take away the youngsters’ advantage of sight. We’re in Silence of the Lambs (US, 1991) territory with our ‘heroes’ floundering in the dark but we can see as its shot (or post-produced more like) with filters that signifies ‘pitch black’ whilst we can clearly see what’s going on. It’s far better than the ‘day for night’ technique used in Hollywood’s heyday.

Don’t Breathe‘s slated for a sequel (Alvarez has directed the flop The Girl in the Spider’s Web, UK-Swede-Germany-Canada-US, 2018) but I’d rather see Power get another shot; he’s only directed a short since. Hopefully this won’t need to be in Hollywood but unfortunately that’s the path to take to get the finance. I can’t fathom why imdb voters prefer the American film as the Australian is much more emotionally involving; I guess it is because the former has more visceral thrills which is what youngsters tend to be more interested in.

The Glass Key (US, 1942)

True sado-masochism

Simplistic histories state The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the first film noir and so The Glass Key, also adapted from a Dashiel Hammett novel, counts as an early entry. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) now tends to get the pioneering accolade though obviously the trends were lurking earlier as noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini’s new book, Film Noir Prototypes: Origins of the Movement, emphasises. The Glass Key doesn’t have an overtly noir look but then the celebrated The Big Sleep (1946) has zero (or near to zero) chiaroscuro lighting. There are a few scenes where shadows entrap characters but other traits of the genre are certainly present. There are also numerous low angle shots giving a quasi-expressionist feel to the mise en scene.

The plot’s convoluted and Veronica Lake seduces with a glance though she’s more femme than fatale. Apparently she was only 4 foot, 11 inches in height, so complimented Ladd who was only eight inches taller and they starred together in other films such as The Blue Dahlia (1946).

‘You’re looking at me kid’

The worldview is dark though political corruption is given a comic edge as if to say it is to be expected; America doesn’t seem very different now with the gerrymandering that went on in some southern states to suppress the black vote last November. The heavies are supremely psychotic and William Bendix is quite terrifying in the role as he almost cuddles Ladd’s Ed Beaumont as he anticipates the beating. Beaumont doesn’t seem too impartial to being battered either; there is sado-masochism in play. Beaumont’s escape from imprisonment is quite brilliantly done and the visceral violence in the film, though inherent in the genre, probably wasn’t matched until Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Bendix was in The Blue Dahlia too and I don’t think I’ve seen Brian Donlevy in a better role and he manages to convey honesty and corruption in one.

The director was Stuart Heisler and this is his best known film and although he does an excellent job it’s probable that cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl was also a big influence on the film as he started his career in Germany and worked during the Expressionist period.

It’s slightly depressing that one of the reasons film noir remains compelling today is its nastiness. There’s little sugar coating that can make early Hollywood sickly. For example, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is a superbly shot World War I drama and grips until the protagonist’s mother starts gushing in a way that was conventional at the time. Little in noir is dated as women are often as much a narrative agent as men though there appearance is paramount; that’s true today. The failure of the law to bring evil convincingly to justice, and at the time the Production Code’s ‘law of compensating values’ insisted that bad be punished, is an entirely modern viewpoint. It’s true The Glass Key does have a soft ending but that’s not what lingers. Rather it’s the scene when Bendix is dishing out a fatal beating and Ladd’s Beaumont is looking on admiringly.

Widows (UK-US, 2018)

Doin’ it for themselves

Widows represents a further step into the mainstream for co-writer and director Steve McQueen. Ironically, given 12 Years a Slave was essentially an art movie, this is likely to be less financially successful than its predecessor. Business Insider attributes this to the November release date; whatever the reason it’s not for the lack of thrills within the film.

Based on Lynda LaPlant’s ’80s TV series the film centres around a heist undertaken, in desperation, by the widows of thieves. It has elements of a number of genres, including the heist movie, political corruption thriller and urban gangster. McQueen overlays a political analysis that is both specific to Chicago (the film’s setting) and, he argues in his Sight & Sound interview (November), the world. McQueen manages to both revitalise the car chase (the brilliant opening) and use sound in distinctive ways. An example of the latter is where Daniel Kaluuya’s psychopath is listening to Black Panther Alfred Woodfox, on the radio, talking about his 44 years in prison. This brings in the discourse of racial politics and, particularly in one scene, #BlackLivesMatter (not as convincing as a similar scene in The Hate U Give).

Sound is also to the fore when Colin Farrell’s conflicted politician, Jack Mulligan, leaves the Projects to return to his leafy home, barely a minute away. Whilst Mulligan rages on the soundtrack the camera remains on the car’s bonnet observing the shift in wealth of the environment.

It’s a stellar cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriquez, Liam Neeson, as well as the aforementioned Kaluuya and Farrell. Robert Duval plays Mulligan’s dad and leaves a lasting impression as a hate-filled demagogue. The budget, notwithstanding the immense financial success of 12 Years a Slave, was a meagre $42m so it’s obvious that the talent is keen to work with McQueen.

Given the director’s ethnicity I was surprised to see, once or twice, that Viola Davis’ face was less clear than the white actor in the scene. It’s difficult to shoot both clearly, though I imagine digital technology could ‘cure’ this, and it is commonplace to have the black face more undifferentiated than the white. I’d’ve thought McQueen, and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit, would have reversed the power relationship.

However the film is as much about gender as race and McQueen ensures we have no doubt about the evil of toxic masculinity. There’s one moment when Neeson screws up his face and wails about saving himself that is especially noteworthy. Davis portrays her widow as indomitable in the face of her circumstances and Elizabeth Debecki’s transformation of an abused wife to a self-contained woman is entirely convincing.

Unsurprisingly, Widows doesn’t have the power of 12 Years a Slave, the subject matter sees to that, but McQueen confirms himself to be one of the most imaginative directors on the circuit.

The Boston Strangler (US, 1968)

Straining to be modern

By the late 1960s the old Hollywood guard must have known their time was past; Jack Warner’s attempt to bury his own film, Bonnie and Clyde, lasted six months when, on its re-release, it became a hit. The Production Code, that had pickled representations for over 30 years, went the way of the moguls and Hollywood grew up. The push was more economic than cultural, the audience was disappearing because Hollywood was no longer in touch with the zeitgeist. The ’60s was the age of the teen and Aquarius as the counter culture, fuelled by Civil Rights and atrocities in Vietnam, was where it was at. In cinema, the French ‘new wave’ had affectionately broken the binds of classical Hollywood form and, by the end of the decade, was washing over Los Angeles.

The formal innovations of the time can be seen particularly in The Boston Strangler through director Richard Fleischer’s use of split screen. It is especially affective when characters are knocking on a door in one half of the screen; in the other we can see the strangler’s corpse awaiting discovery on the door’s other side. The last part of the film, a fanciful interrogation by the lead detective and the suspect in a mental asylum, gets ever more abstract (so not classical Hollywood) with the whiteness of the setting and the use of flashbacks; ‘fanciful’ because the film is based on an actual case (that has reared its head in numerous films) and this dialogue never happened. The roles are played by classical Hollywood stars, Henry Fonda and Tony Curtis, respectively. Curtis is far more comfortable, possibly because he was playing out of his ‘persona’ comfort zone, a psychopath rather than a charmer. His difference fits with the difference of the film whereas Fonda ‘good guy’ plodding belongs to another era.

Unsurprisingly not all the innovations have dated well. When Fleischer splits the screen even more, into a mosaic, it becomes difficult to know what to look at. Not that it was confusing as the subdivided frame was serving as a montage, but it was nevertheless distracting. In addition, the psychology espoused in the asylum no longer rings true. Cinema’s representation of psychology often has a loose relationship with the discipline as it’s used for dramatic purposes.

However, the film remains worth seeing as an example of the transition between old Hollywood and the New Hollywood of the early ’70s. Of course, most of the films emanating from California at the time were standard genre fare not suitable for experimentation. The Boston Strangler strains to be modern which is better than not being modern at all.

Panic in the Streets (US, 1950)

Palance representing the noir virus

It’s a long time since I’d seen Panic in the Streets and I don’t think I appreciated its brilliance on first viewing. One of the continuing attractions of film noir, I think, is its modernity in terms of the ideas expressed. The sickness in the human soul that noir portrays hasn’t gone anywhere, indeed it may be taking the ‘upper hand’ at the moment. So to see representations of evil is both cathartic and a warning. Richard Murphy’s screenplay has more than a human evil, personified here by the outstanding Walter Jack Palance (as he was credited), as the bubonic plague is spreading in New Orleans.

The screenplay’s good, but the plaudits must go to Elia Kazan for his extraordinary direction. Kazan’s roots in documentary are evident with the location shooting which helps make the threat of plague seem real (as does the casting of non actors, in small roles, as people who are just trying to get on with their lives). Richard Widmark plays the public spirited health official who fights the complacent cops to get them to understand that a serious epidemic is possible. Palance plays Blackie who believes there’s a ‘Maltese Falcon’  (something extremely valuable) being hidden and his search takes him to the plague carrier: a wonderful metaphor for venality.

Location shooting adds to the tension

It’s not just the location shooting that gives the film a realist edge; Kazan uses some extraordinarily long takes (for Classical Hollywood) that add to the intensity as the drama plays out (for a short time) directly before our eyes (no cutting to signify mediation). This requires great acting and there’s plenty on offer in the film: the aformentioned Palance, his sidekick Zero Mostel (all sweaty obsequiousness) and Barbara Bel Geddes as ‘the good woman at home’. In addition, Kazan doesn’t simply let the long take impress us, but sometimes actors and/or the camera moves and the resulting compositions continue to be aesthetically satisfying. Often when a director uses a handheld camera to signify realism the balanced composition is lost in favour of directness. Kazan offers us both directness and meaningful mise en scene.

Finally, deep focus compositions, which by their nature tend to be expressionist due distortions created by the lenses, add to the sense of panic by both showing the narrative world in detail whilst subtly displacing its fabric. Much of the film’s action takes place at night, giving plenty of opportunity for chiaroscuro lighting and so brings the noir into the everyday world.

In addition, J.P. Teloitte in Voices in the Dark (Illini Books) showed how eating runs as a motif throughout the film as a metaphor for appetite; something that drives us but not necessarily in our best interests.  Overall it’s a brilliantly constructed and executed film; one of the best noirs.