Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film about a ballet company and its new star, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), who is torn between her love of dancing and her love of the composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). Victoria has always dreamed of being a great dancer, and with the famous ballet director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), she gets her chance, catching the notoriously picky Lermontov's attention and increasingly becoming the company's star performer. At the same time, Lermontov has hired the aspiring young composer Julian, and he too becomes a star within the company, composing original new music that impresses everyone who hears it. The only catch is that Lermontov has an obsession with dancers committing their entire lives to their art — he is furious when his previous star announces that she's getting married — and since it's inevitable that Victoria and Julian will eventually fall in love, their success seems very tenuous.

The film is about the ballet, of course, but more than that it's about the untenable position of women in a world that forces them to choose between ordinary domestic pleasures — love, marriage, family — and the ability to express themselves creatively or professionally. By the end of the film, Victoria is positioned between two men, Lermontov and Julian, neither of whom will allow her to build a balanced, happy life for herself. Both men demand that she choose one or the other. The final confrontation is structured like the showdown of a love triangle, the two men verbally dueling over the woman they both want, even though Lermontov has no sexual or romantic desire for Victoria; he wants only for her to dedicate herself entirely to dancing. In between them, Victoria can only cry, being asked to choose when it's obvious that she both loves Julian and loves dancing, and wouldn't want to give up either. (Though why she'd ever want Julian, who's made up like a wispy 30s Hollywood leading man and who's as much of an arrogant, unyielding jerk as Lermontov, is a question the film can never quite answer.) The film is positively progressive in its examination of Victoria's dilemma, even if it's only in tragic terms, with no way out for her, no solution to resolve these tensions tearing her apart.

But that's the nature of this film. It's an overwrought melodrama and it knows it — it revels in it, in fact. The performances, with the exception of Shearer's supple, subtle turn as Victoria, are uniformly over-the-top, both onstage and off. At one point, the choreographer Ljubov (Léonide Massine) dances around Lermontov while arguing with him, as though dancing a part in a ballet; a spotlight even follows Ljubov around as though he were still rehearsing. This scene, with its light comic undertones, suggests that these people live the ballet, that onstage and off they're prone to dramatics and overstatement, to grand gestures that could be seen way up in the last rows of the theater. They're always projecting, and so their histrionics work within the context of their characters. This is especially true of Lermontov, who despite his backstage role always seems to be acting, to be projecting the image of the demanding, tyrannical director that he believes he should inhabit. Walbrook's performance is such great fun because of this artificiality, this note of hysterical overacting that infuses everything Lermontov does. After he finally convinces Victoria to return to dancing towards the end of the film, when she leaves the room he shakes his arms around, clasping at the air, grandly declaring his excitement at his victory to the empty room.

Powell and Pressburger match the story's melodramatics with lush, patently artificial imagery that enhances the film's underlying themes: as is so often the case in their cinema, the film seems to take place in a surreal dreamworld of painted backdrops and lavish sets that stand in for such glamorous locales as Monte Carlo. Onstage and offstage are united in artificiality, suggesting that for these artists, under Lermontov's guidance, life and art are unified, with the latter overshadowing the former. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the sublime 15-minute sequence in which Victoria performs the ballet The Red Shoes for the first time. It is one of the finest sequences in the cinema, a beautiful and remarkably playful melding of the cinema and the theater, and an ode, not to the power of ballet but to the power of Powell and Pressburger's own chosen art.

Once the performance starts, Powell and Pressburger deliberately and playfully erase the boundaries and limitations of the theatrical stage, leaping into the realm of the cinema. When Victoria's character in the ballet sees the red shoes in a shop window, she imagines that she sees herself dancing in the window, turning pirouettes. It is an idea that's all but impossible to convey purely through dancing, on a stage: it is internal, a moment of imagination that can only be conveyed cinematically. So Powell and Pressburger superimpose an image of Victoria dancing in the window, as she stands outside, looking in and imagining this scene. Although the moment ostensibly occurs during a real theatrical performance of the ballet, before an audience, Powell and Pressburger instead stage the sequence with a cinematic sensibility that could never be translated to the stage in this way. When Victoria first dons the red shoes, she does so by leaping forward into them, and in a closeup on her feet, the shoes change, in an instant between frames, from her plain white ones to the bold red ones. It is, again, a moment that purposefully shatters the illusion of a ballet taking place on a stage — in a theatrical performance, the dancer would have to go backstage and change her shoes at this point, but Powell and Pressburger elide the costume change through the magic of editing.

Again and again, the filmmakers are calling attention to the differences between the cinema and live theater, using every cinematic trick at their disposal to transform this ballet into a fluid, magical sequence. Victoria turns and leaps across the stage — and the wooden boards of the floor keep reminding one that this is a stage — and dances in long straight lines that would be impossible to maintain on a real stage without dancing into the backstage area. Indeed, at one point, after a lengthy sequence in which Victoria dances through a succession of narrow corridors and between buildings, Powell and Pressburger cut back to a long shot of the entire stage, which reveals Victoria emerging from the rear of the stage, where she would have just been dancing for a long time completely unseen by a theater audience. Only the camera is able to follow her back there, its graceful tracking following the fluid lines of her movement. The subsequent sequence of Victoria being taken away by the power of the red shoes relies heavily on superimposition to lend a ghostly, translucent quality to the dancer as she hops and twirls through eerie nighttime vistas and, finally, enters a free fall that's familiar from cinematic dream sequences but would, again, break the constraints of reality on a real stage. Still later, she dances with a wisp of paper that transforms briefly into a man, her own costume changing between shots, before the man again fades away into a newspaper blowing in the breeze.

Towards the end of the performance, Powell and Pressburger finally insert a high shot looking out towards the audience beyond the row of lights at the front of the stage, the first time since the very beginning of the performance that the presence of the audience or the stage borders are revealed. But at this moment the audience is replaced by a superimposition of a churning sea, and the sound of the waves blends subtly with the sound of applause, suggesting that Victoria is seeing everything through her character and the story of the ballet, seeing everything around her transformed and made real through the magic of creative expression. It is a stirring, thrilling sequence, and one feels both Victoria's joy in the dance, and the joy of the filmmakers in shaping and directing her dance. That joy, both in front of the camera and behind it, is the joy of creativity and art, and even when this film is at its most tragic and heartrending, that joy is the feeling that comes through most strongly.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Minority Report

[This is a contribution to the Steven Spielberg Blogathon, hosted by Icebox Movies and Medfly Quarantine, running from December 18-28.]

It is fitting, and much remarked-upon, that for a film about seeing the future, eyes and vision are incredibly important to Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. The film literalizes the idea of seeing the future, removes the concept from the realm of the metaphysical and places it into the context of a gritty forensic police thriller. The future world it imagines, by way of Philip K. Dick, is one in which a trio of powerful precogs — savants with awesome mental abilities — are harnessed by the police department to prevent violent crimes before they happen. The precogs see — literally see — murders that are going to happen in the future, and their visions are harnessed through computers into video records that can then be played back, manipulated, and enhanced, their details thoroughly dissected by the precrime investigator John Anderton (Tom Cruise).

The business of cop shows, the sifting through of evidence and unearthing of clues, is translated into this futuristic milieu as Anderton analyzes these videos in order to discover the soon-to-occur murder's location and actors. Spielberg stages the introductory scene of Anderton leading an investigation as though the detective was conducting a symphony, using a complex computer system that responds to his every movement. He waves his hands and video fragments dash across the screen. Segments are looped and repeated, details are zoomed in on and snatches of sound are amplified, and every nuance of the video becomes a potential clue pointing towards the scene of the future crime. Detective work becomes a process of looking deeply and intently, examining the image — in other words, the detective becomes a figure analogous to a film editor, or perhaps a film critic, an analyzer of images, fitting together the bits and pieces of a scene in a way that makes sense and reveals the meaning of the scene.

The film's literalization of seeing the future is so potent because it's a metaphor or a model for the cinema, but even more poignantly it's compared to home movies. Anderton spends his days looking into the future, but his nights are spent immersed in the past, in home movie recordings of his young son, who disappeared and is presumed dead. We never say that we are seeing the past in the same way as we talk about seeing the future, but when we look at home movies or a photo album, we are in fact seeing the past, visually engaging with memories. When Anderton pulls up the footage of his son playing on the beach, selecting it from a larger collection like a connoisseur, he engages with it in much the same way as he does with the precogs' visions of the future: looping and rewinding, revisiting key passages as though hoping to extract some meaning, some tangible clue, from these images of his laughing, energetic son. It places Anderton's work in heartrending relief, as an effort to find the truth in these video images of the future, the truth that eludes and mystifies him when trying to make sense of the loss of his son through video records of the past.

The directive to look, to see deeply, is also central to the character of Agatha (Samantha Morton), the most powerful of the precogs. Agatha wants a witness, wants someone to look closely at a particular vision of hers, a vision of a crime that has long been thought "solved," the murder prevented before it happened. Agatha's quest becomes linked to Anderton's when Anderton sees himself in one of the precogs' visions, and sees his own name come up as the next would-be murderer for the police to apprehend. Anderton is forced to go on the run, eventually joined by Agatha, who he liberates from her weird imprisonment in the tanks that house the precogs and make them look like exhibits at an aquarium, an aspect of the whole precog system that everyone seems, curiously, morally blind to until Anderton rips Agatha out of this housing and is forced to confront her humanity.

That moral blindness is another form of seeing and not seeing, the motif that Spielberg seems fascinated with here. Is it really possible that this future society is so indifferent to the humanity of the precogs that a system where these people are permanantly chained, physically and mentally, to a computer system that channels their visions, is not only accepted but is soon to be unveiled on a larger scale? Before Anderton goes on the run, he and his fellow cops make some nods to the moral and philosophical dilemmas at the root of precrime — how do you arrest someone for a crime that hasn't actually occurred? — but they easily shake off the deeper doubts of FBI agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), dismissing his concerns as inconsequential whining. In (broad) contemporary political terms, Witwer is the bleeding-heart liberal concerned with rights and morality, while the rest of society seems poised to side with the law-and-order conservatives who view the sacrifice of these abstract values and ideals as secondary to the gains of preventing murders. Spielberg never taps too deeply into this subcurrent of the story, but it's there nevertheless, teasing just below the surface.

Instead, there's a lot more fun with eyes and seeing. Anderton, grieving for his son, buys his drugs from an eyeless man whose hollow, empty sockets unseeingly bore into the center of the suffering Anderton. Later, he goes on the run but his eyes identify him wherever he goes. In this future society, eyescans are so routine that even advertisements scattered around on billboards scan the eyes of passersby in order to target spoken ads at individuals. As a result, wherever Anderton goes, his name is being shouted out amidst cheery slogans; Big Brother sees him everywhere because big companies see him everywhere. There's something to be said here, probably, about the reversal of the usual couch potato dynamic of consumers staring at ads. Now the ads stare back, and get personal, the logical outgrowths of online ad targeting and spyware. Spielberg, again, doesn't really go there, just leaves it as intriguing loose thread. For him, the eyescans are a plot device, necessary to give Anderton an obstacle to overcome.

This problem results in the ingenious sequence where Anderton goes to a disreputable doctor who gives him an eye transplant, which in this society where eyes are the windows not only to the soul but to one's entire person, is the equivalent of a new name and a new identity. Spielberg stages a brilliant sequence where the blind and blindfolded Anderton, who has to shield his eyes for some time after the surgery, is forced to hide from an army of spider-like miniature police robots. Spielberg's camera follows the robots on their skittering journey through the dilapidated building where Anderton is hiding, the camera seeming to creep through walls, finally arriving at the room where Anderton tries to slow his pulse and hide his breathing by submerging himself in cold water, before being forced to reveal his new eyes for the robots to scan.

All of this is set-up and preparation for the film's best gag, the slapstick chase sequence between Anderton and his own eye, a slippery connection to his past identity that he finally holds onto by the barest thread. Literally. This sense of humor — black, grisly, sometimes positively naughty as in Anderton and Agatha's visit to a virtual reality sin palace — enlivens the film, as does Spielberg's predictably fluid action staging. Minority Report is tense and visceral, balancing man-on-the-run suspense with bursts of action and those moments of piquant humor that give this dark film a surprisingly playful sensibility.

The finale drives home the film's multiple takes on seeing — to see the future, to see the truth, and not always at the same time or in the same sense — while first imprisoning Anderton in a way that mirrors the fates of the precogs at the beginning of the film, then unleashing him for the climax. Spielberg, as always, can't resist tying things up for the finale, resolving the darker undercurrents of the film in a tidy denouement where the bad guy is caught, the precog program ended, and everything set right. The rest of the film raises unsettling propositions about justice and morality: that justice could miscarry; that the illusion of moral certitude is just that, an illusion; that predicting the future can be the same as creating it, as Anderton is, paradoxically, set on the path to murder by the prediction that he would commit a murder. The film's ending tiredly suggests a more benign justice that will, eventually, win out in the end, but the torturous, unlikely machinations required to reach this happy ending only wind up enforcing the limitations of justice and law. Spielberg, no matter how hard he tries, can't erase the disquieting implications of his own film, and Minority Report is all the richer for this final lingering tension.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Blow Out

Brian De Palma's Blow Out is the director's idiosyncratic take on Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up, blending it with elements of Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and, as usual for De Palma, a host of other cinematic reference points. De Palma's film unmistakeably twists its source material to the director's aesthetic and preoccupations, making it for good or ill its own work, separate from the films it's remaking. Like its predecessors, Blow Out opens with someone inadvertently witnessing a murder, in this case the movie soundman Jack Terry (John Travolta). Terry is out late one night near a lake, recording sounds for a film he's working on, when he sees — and hears, and thus records — a car get a blow out in its tire and crash off the road into the water. Terry jumps into the water and rescues the car's passenger, Sally (Nancy Allen), though the driver is already dead. It's only later that Terry realizes that he has witnessed a murder, that someone lurking in the woods had shot out the tire on that car, causing the crash. And it's only later that he realizes that the man who died in the crash was a governor and a prospective presidential candidate, and that the passenger was not his wife. Terry finds that the politician's friends and allies are now pushing for a cover-up, suppressing the fact that Sally had been in the car when it crashed, and hurrying the investigation through without looking too hard at anything.

Blow Out distinguishes itself from its antecedents by shifting the emphasis away from process and onto the thriller aspects of the plot. In Antonioni's Blow-Up, a photographer takes what he believes, initially, to be some innocuous photos of a couple in a park, but over time, as he examines the photos and becomes obsessed with them, he comes to believe that the images hide, in their details and shadows, the evidence of a murder. In The Conversation, similarly, Coppola focuses on a sound engineer who slowly zeroes in on a fragment of a recorded conversation that, he believes, is suggestive of a murder plot that's set to be enacted soon. In both films, the emphasis is on the slow process by which these men discover what they believe is the decisive evidence; ultimately, the films become psychological and internal, embroiled in nuances of image and sound more than concrete facts.

De Palma dispenses with this angle almost entirely. The mystery in Blow Out is not psychological or internal, and De Palma leaves no doubt about its concreteness by periodically diverting from Terry's perspective to show the actions of Sally and the photographer Manny (Dennis Franz), or the psychopathic Burke (John Lithgow), who committed the initial murder and who continues killing to cover it up. The result is that Blow Out becomes more of a straightforward thriller. Interestingly, where the films that De Palma draws upon placed the audience into the subjectivity of the protagonists' experiences, De Palma consistently allows the audience to be one step ahead of the protagonist. Even during the accident scene, while Terry races to jump into the water after the car, De Palma stages the sequence in a long shot to reveal a shadowy figure in the background, skulking behind Terry and then running away across a bridge at the top of the frame. This will turn out to be Manny, escaping after taking pictures of the accident, and later De Palma will show Sally going to see Manny, revealing that the two of them had been working together to set up the dead politician as a cheater. At other times, De Palma follows the creepy Burke as he plots to cover up the evidence of his crime and eliminate the remaining witnesses.

De Palma might sacrifice the claustrophobic psychological intimacy of Blow-Up and The Conversation, but he gains the propulsive forward momentum of a thriller. The film is taut and tense, centered on Travolta's casually effective performance, which really has the feel of an ordinary guy inadvertently caught up in a conspiracy that stretches far beyond his understanding. In the scenes after the accident, as the police question him, Terry reacts with annoyance and confusion as their questions seem to be steering him away from the facts of what actually happened. Things only get worse from there, and De Palma's decision to incorporate events other than those that directly involve Terry creates the impression that the soundman is caught up in a vast network of shadowy dealings and violence.

This is especially true of the hints one gets of the actions of Burke, a truly chilling character whose role in the film gradually becomes more prominent. At first he's simply a shadowy form, his face unseen, but the more he appears, the creepier he seems. He begins staging a series of sexual murders of women who are the same type as Sally, with the understanding that she'll eventually be slotted in as the final victim in the series. De Palma's staging of the crimes in a bright red light, often filmed from above, sets up the pulse-pounding finale, in which Terry desperately races to get to Sally before Burke kills her. Sally, framed against an American flag, bathed in its red glow, an ironic commentary on the film's political and patriotic backdrops, cries out to Terry, screaming, in one of the film's most bracing and memorable images. Another of the film's most affecting images is a dizzying 360-degree pan around Terry's studio as he realizes that someone — the sinister Burke, though Terry can only pin it on the ubiquitous and mysterious "they" — has erased all of his tapes, including the recordings of the car accident. As Terry scrambles around, putting on one tape after another, filling the room with the empty hum and hiss of blank tapes, the camera turns and turns, tracing a circle around the room to show all these machines playing back the sound of nothingness.

De Palma takes such obvious joy in these kinds of touches that it's obvious that the aesthetics are, in some ways, the real point and subject of this film. Like all of De Palma's films, this is a film that is as much about the texture and style of moviemaking as it is about anything else. There are several sequences where Terry, trying to produce a record of the car accident to prove that there was a shot fired, assembles a movie by marrying a sequence of still frames to his own soundtrack of the incident, creating a movie from these constituent parts. De Palma has taken a lineage of films about sound and images and made a film that celebrates the artistry of the movies, the ability of the cinema to deliver thrills through elements of style. The frantic, fast-paced, over-the-top chase sequence that ends the film makes this point powerfully enough, but then De Palma can't help but offer up one last bitterly ironic twist, as in the film's final moment, when a genuine expression of despair and terror is repurposed, through the magic of moviemaking techniques, as a cheap effect in a shoddy, exploitative B movie. This is perhaps De Palma's cynical joke on himself, on his own process of translating the movies of his forebears into this propulsive thriller. Blow Out may not be as sharp or as deep as the films it channels, but it's a tense, stylish, satisfying thriller in its own right.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Olivier Assayas' Carlos is a probing, fascinating epic, a sprawling, admittedly fictionalized biography of the Venezuelan-born socialist terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who went by the nom de guerre of Carlos (Édgar Ramírez). The film's scope and breadth encompasses, in sharply drawn detail over a five-and-a-half-hour running time, nearly 20 years in the life of this self-described revolutionary fighter, who briefly became an internationally infamous face of terrorism for his violent actions and bold plots. The film is a profile of one man and his actions, but more than that, it is a sweeping portrayal of terrorism, diplomacy, the shifting alliances of convenience and ideology that define global relations, the back-door dealings and maneuvers in which state action and anti-state terrorism exist as part of a single, densely connected network. It is an epic in the true sense of the word, a film that attempts to present a coherent portrait of this single terrorist's actions and, in the process, to examine the struggles of the Cold War and the struggles that continue to define the world today.

Carlos is an idealist for a cause, at least at the beginning of this three-part saga. Assayas opens the film with Carlos as an eager young fighter, already with some background in insurrectionary struggle behind him, but still relatively inexperienced. He nevertheless becomes an important figure in the European arm of a Palestinian terrorist organization, based in London, carrying out actions against prominent Jewish leaders. His first, clumsy attack on a businessman to some extent establishes the pattern for what's to come: Carlos is fast and violent and effective, but his gun jams and he only wounds the man, forced to escape frantically. His second attack, a bombing of a café, goes smoother, and soon afterward Carlos, naked and solid — he will grow fat in his later years, and is already boxy — admires himself in a mirror, caressing between his legs. It is as though this success is a sexual conquest for him, a validation of his manhood and his valor. He finds glory in the slaughter of random innocents.

Sexuality, masculinity and glory are very important to this film. Carlos is a compulsive womanizer, a man who loves women as much as he loves weapons, as much as he loves his cause — or the idea of a cause, since an actual ideological commitment seems increasingly remote in relation to him throughout the course of the film. In one of the film's most telling scenes, early on, with one of his many lover/conspirators, he shows her a trunk full of weapons, reveling in her fearful reaction. He caresses her with the weapons in his hands, placing a grenade first between her legs, then rubbing it up her body to place the arming ring between her bared teeth. Sex and war and revolution are all tangled up for Carlos. His lover tells him that his love of women and his love of weapons are the same, and Carlos seems to agree: "my weapons are extensions of me, like my arms." One can't help but think of that earlier scene, where Carlos held his penis in the aftermath of a bombing, celebrating these "extensions" of himself.

Carlos celebrates because, more than an ideological revolution, it's personal glory and personal success that he seems to thirst for. He chafes against orders, declaring that he's working for the revolution, not for any leader or single government. But later, when he's independent, with control over his own cell, he demands absolute obedience; he only wants to be the one giving the orders. At one point, he tells a Saudi Arabian diplomat that he cherishes democracy, that he will discuss a crucial matter with his comrades — but when his comrades disagree with him, he explodes, making the decision unilaterally on his own. It's not democracy he wants, it's not revolution, and more and more what he seems to want is money.

The brilliance of the film's three-part structure is that it documents the increasing distance of Carlos from any kind of idealism or, towards the end, any kind of action at all. Throughout the film's first part, Carlos is, at least ostensibly, striking out in the name of a cause, though even then his cause seems poorly defined, a so-called "internationalist" movement that aims to fight imperialism everywhere. He rejects peaceful means, rejects strikes and protests and political channels, and one suspects, even this early, that he does so not so much because he doubts their effectiveness as because these methods lack opportunities for glory and grand gestures, for headlines and action. When he's first asked to join the Palestinian group, he's told to think of a code name, but he already has: he's obviously put a lot of thought into this, come up with a cool name to make famous before he had done anything to require such an alias.

The first part ends with a shot of Carlos and his cell on a train, headed towards what will turn out to be their most decisive and grandiose action, an assault on an OPEC meeting, aimed at both making a big statement and, in the process, killing the Saudi and Iranian oil ministers to advance the agenda of Iraq. The film breaks here because if the first part documents Carlos' introduction to terrorist action, the second part is about his acclimation to infamy, about his willingness to allow himself the illusion that he's an important actor on a global stage. The OPEC assault becomes a protracted and increasingly bizarre hostage negotiation, as Carlos' initial plans fall apart due to machinations within various foreign governments. He had been relying on Libyan support, but during the initial attack he killed a member of the Libyan delegation, burning that bridge almost immediately.

As a result, the terrorists wind up flying back and forth between Libya and Algeria with a DC-9 full of OPEC delegates. It would be almost comical if the stakes weren't so high, and Assayas emphasizes how ridiculous and petty it all is — the plane lands in Libya despite official refusal, but isn't allowed to leave the edge of a runway, and while they're bickering with flight control, an Austrian diplomat steps in to demand that the terrorists return the borrowed DC-9. All this while lives hang in the balance, and the terrorists begin to realize that they're facing a choice between carrying out their mission — slaughtering the Iranian and Saudi ministers — and getting killed, or letting everyone free in exchange for a large sum of money and political protection. Carlos' militant associates are in favor of killing the ministers, sacrificing themselves to complete the mission, but Carlos disagrees. He's "a soldier, not a martyr," he says, and tries to convince the others — and possibly himself — that the revolution needs the money, but it's hard to ignore the sense of a man coming to terms with political realities.

The political reality, for Carlos and his allies, is that they are simply pawns in a complex global game. Carlos began his struggle with grand goals. But what is he fighting against? Imperialism, capitalism, Zionism. He offers up abstract enemies, ideologies to combat, but there's seldom any evidence that his missions — carried out, as often as not, in service of shadowy political motivations in Baghdad or Moscow — do anything to advance his abstract revolutionary program. He fights for money, for ransoms, to gain support of one possibly sympathetic government or another.

Within the film, the German revolutionary Angie (Christoph Bach) provides the voice to these doubts, expressing his desire to fight capitalism, to make a difference, not simply to "spread terror." Angie, disillusioned with the struggle, is particularly appalled by the actions of some of his German comrades who, during a siege on an airplane, separate the Jewish passengers from the non-Jews, threatening to kill the Jews first. Angie sees it as a continuation of the horrors of Auschwitz, perpetrated in the name of a cause that is supposed to oppose tyranny and brutality but winds up simply duplicating it or worse. Angie sees a clear difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and he also sees clearly that the actions he's taken part in have done little to advance the kind of cause he is interested in. Carlos sees the world in black and white, in terms of revolutionaries and anti-revolutionaries, but Angie understands that not all revolutions are equal, and that much of what is done in the name of revolution has little to do with advancing the fight against capitalism or opposing oppression.

To underscore this point, the film's second part, which encompasses the OPEC raid and its aftermath, ends with Carlos striking a deal with the Syrian government — formerly his enemies, who had once tried to killed him, but who now want his services in a changed world — to set up a new organization and work for them. In the film's third part, the bulk of the terrorists' time is spent shuttling from one place to another, establishing tenuous relationships with various socialist governments, getting an offer from the KGB to kill Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (Carlos dithers until someone beats him to the hit), forging alliances with Iraq, Syria and East Germany, even flirting with helping out Romanian dictator Ceausescu. Carlos' ideals, whatever they were, seem to have vanished, and when one German diplomat calls him a mercenary, it's essentially accurate. He plots mission after mission, most of which never happen, but which in any case all have as their only goal money, or weapons, or political support. The film's third act is a long decline into irrelevance, as Carlos gets old and fat, settles down with his wife Magdalena (Nora von Waldstätten) and their daughter, drinks, plays at the beach, poses as a businessman. It's an aging terrorist's idyll, and Assayas presents it as such, as a surreal interlude of domestic calm — at least relatively, since Carlos' philandering ways continue throughout — in a life of violence. Carlos' story doesn't end with a bang, it just peters out, until after the Cold War, after a montage shows the fall of the Berlin Wall and the destruction of the East Berlin Stasi offices where Carlos once cut so many deals, Carlos is simply a liability, welcome nowhere, kicked out of Syria and Libya, abandoned by the mistreated Magdalena, out of contact with his daughter. Even his vaunted penis fails him, throbbing with pain and requiring medical attention, while his vanity compels him to seek liposuction — "for his love handles," as an observing spy mocks him to a superior.

Carlos is forced to confront, then, the knowledge that he was not nearly as important as he had thought. With the Cold War over, there are no longer any friendly government embassies or spy headquarters where he is welcome, no longer any allies, no longer anyone who needs his services. He even tries to flatter himself by believing that someone is going to come after him and kill him, that the French or the Israelis or the CIA would want him dead, but the fact is that he's a small concern by this point, incidental, and he's finally only taken to France and tried for the long-ago murders of two policemen. He was a useful nuisance, an agitator in the long war between East and West, a gun-runner and a pawn. But despite his briefly famous name and his grandiose rhetoric, he accomplished nothing. He was never more than a tool passed around in the hands of various warring governments.

In documenting this harsh reality, Assayas' filmmaking crackles and vibrates with raw energy. The soundtrack buzzes with punk and post-punk songs by bands like Wire, New Order and the Dead Boys, music with a raw-nerve vitality that is perfectly suited to Assayas' globetrotting saga. His characteristic probing camera is equally well-suited to nuanced negotiations, fast-paced action, and the many slow, sensual scenes that establish the rhythms of Carlos' global lifestyle: his routine seductions of women, his constant traveling back and forth. The film leaps from place to place around the world, constantly introducing new cities and new power brokers with onscreen titles, conveying the sense of constant momentum that, in the early stretches of the film, establishes Carlos' rise to power, and is then used in similar ways later in the film to suggest that he is no longer welcome anywhere, that he's being forced from place to place.

The film's scope also allows Assayas to establish subtle rhymes and patterns, like the way that, during the OPEC hostage incident, the plane is turned away from Libya, and later, when Carlos is trying to find a safe asylum to settle in after being kicked out of Syria, his plane is again sent back from Libya, for very different reasons, but both times because of politics, alliances, appearances, diplomacy, all the things that Carlos likes to think he's involved in but that he really doesn't understand. There is a pattern, too, to Carlos' seductions of women, to the ways in which he draws women to him and uses them, always continuing to take other lovers, to see prostitutes, and to demand absolute obedience in matters both personal and political. He is a chauvinist who has little patience for feminism, who despite his supposed championing of the oppressed can see no role for women as equal partners.

This is just one of Carlos' limitations as limned here. Assayas, by necessity, invented much of this story, reading between the lines of his meticulous research, and he shapes the material into an examination of the ways in which ostensibly revolutionary programs again and again serve the interests of various states and governments, never doing anything to help the oppressed anywhere. Even when Carlos undertakes a campaign of bombing and terror with the intention of freeing Magdalena from prison, he only accomplishes the opposite, stiffening the sentence handed down against her in response to the attacks. In this respect, Assayas goes somewhat beyond Gillo Pontecorvo's famous The Battle of Algiers, to which he obliquely nods with his café bombing sequence. (Though Carlos, notably, never looks at the faces of his victims the way the terrorist in Pontecorvo's film so memorably did.) Pontecorvo's film was sensitive to the devastation wrought by terrorism while suggesting that sometimes such violent resistance was necessary in the face of oppression. Assayas suggests, instead, that if that were ever true, it's not anymore, in a constantly shifting world order where oppressive and unstable governments aim terrorism as a weapon at one another, using the terrorists themselves, and their ideals and ideologies, as pawns in this global game of high-stakes chess.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rio Lobo

This is a contribution to the Late Films Blogathon being hosted by David Cairns at Shadowplay.

Howard Hawks' final film, Rio Lobo, is an awkward, limping, but still often poignant and entertaining goodbye from the great director. It is the concluding chapter of his loose, self-plagiarizing trilogy of John Wayne Westerns, another film cast from the mold that produced the classics Rio Bravo and El Dorado. Like its predecessors, Rio Lobo centers on Wayne as a tough but good-natured man of principle, in this case the Union officer Cord McNally. McNally is looking for justice following an incident at the end of the Civil War when a Union traitor allowed a gold convoy to be hijacked by Confederate troops, with one of McNally's best friends dying in the attack. With the war over, McNally enters into an unlikely alliance with two former Confederates, the Mexican-French Cordona (Jorge Rivero, an exceptionally unlikely Confederate officer) and Tuscarora (Robert Mitchum's son Christopher, singularly lacking in his father's screen presence). This trio, eventually joined by the lovely drifter Shasta (Jennifer O'Neill) and Tuscarora's crotchety, cross-eyed old father Phillips (Jack Elam), set out to find McNally's justice while also resolving a battle over land rights in the town of Rio Lobo.

The film has all the ingredients of a classic Hawks adventure, taking a disarmingly offhand approach as the heroes rush headlong into danger. The script has the signature laidback feel of late Hawks, spiced with some mild banter and goofy humor, but something feels off about it all. A big problem is the casting, which is almost top-to-bottom awful. Hawks' other two late Wayne Westerns had been packed with supporting turns from Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Walter Brennan and Angie Dickinson, and their ease and charm with the quick-witted scripts were crucial to the films. For Rio Lobo, Hawks pulled together a cast nearly as inexperienced and undistinguished as the young troupe he'd gathered for his equally clumsy racing picture Red Line 7000. Only experienced character actor Jack Elam is really fun to watch, in a campy, over-the-top role; the rest of the cast is simply lackluster. The usual Hawks charm occasionally shows through anyway, which is to say that one gets what he's going for, even if the actors can rarely pull it off. O'Neill has a certain appealingly matter-of-fact attitude that makes her laughing banter go down easy, but she has no depth, no feeling, and Hawks did her no favors by casting her in basically the same role, of the proud woman with a checkered past, that had previously been played with far more wit and pathos by Angie Dickinson.

But O'Neill at least makes an impression. Most of the rest of the cast is utterly unappealing. Hawks' great hangout Westerns had relied on a minimum of gunplay and a maximum of relaxed wordplay, and for that he'd needed actors who could be comfortable in their skins, and with one another, who could be captivating while simply lounging back in a chair and verbally sparring. He comes up empty here, and seems to know it. Even Wayne, who was near the end of his own career and ailing, seems ill-at-ease, and in any event his laconic manner can't compensate for the non-entities he's surrounded with. The actors can't shoulder all the blame, though, because the script is nearly as haphazard as the performances. There are some fun lines — asked why Cordona had taken Shasta's clothes off after she'd fainted, he replies that he and McNally flipped for it, and he won — but otherwise there's a whole lot of clunky exposition and banal dialogue. There's too much purely functional chatter, the kind of placeholder fluff that one suspects the Hawks of a few years earlier would've improvised or rewritten on the spot, but perhaps he didn't have the energy anymore.

In that respect the film is kind of sad, as though it bears the marks of Hawks' age, his inability to marshal all his tremendous talents the way he once had with such verve and wit. He'd live another seven years, but he wouldn't make another film. In many ways, the film is about saying goodbye, is about what it's like to be the man of action growing old. If one reads between the lines, Rio Lobo begins to seem like Wayne and Hawks, two old men at the ends of their careers, wondering what old age could possibly mean for men like them, men who had in many ways defined themselves by youth and virility and vigor. To see Wayne, old and sickly and bulkier than ever, struggling to mount a horse, is to know that Rio Lobo is a kind of farewell to the cowboy who'd grown old onscreen — it's a long way back from here to the young, surprisingly skinny gunslinger defining his iconic image in John Ford's 1939 Stagecoach.

One sees the difference in Wayne's relationship to the women, too. Wayne had never been the most comfortable actor in romantic situations, and Hawks had always gleefully taken advantage of that discomfort, making it the chink in the tough guy's armor, pushing him into situations where beautiful younger women could upstage him with their frankness and their beauty. In Rio Lobo, though, the duo finally acknowledge Wayne's unlikelihood as a romantic hero; he's now the aging father, uninterested in women and uninteresting to them. When Shasta throws in with McNally's group, Cordona immediately latches onto her, aggressively pursuing her, but she spends the night cuddled up next to McNally — not because she wants him, but because he's "comfortable," because he's not a sexual threat the way the fiery, passionate Cordona is. McNally laughs it off but the way he keeps bringing it up subtly underscores how much it stung, how much he took it as an insult. The tough guy, the gunslinger, the cowboy, has become sexually irrelevant, to the extent that this beautiful young woman doesn't even consider him in terms of sexuality. She thinks nothing of spending the night curled up next to him under a blanket because she obviously considers him sexless, safe, and one feels how much that must hurt McNally — and by extension, Wayne and especially Hawks, who always prized his ability to win the attention of far younger women.

Hawks' insecurity with this theme leads him, perhaps, to counterbalance it with a scene where Cordona, fleeing from the bad guys, stumbles into a young woman's house, where the topless Amelita (Sherry Lansing) waits, barely covering herself with her hands. The scene reads as racy and flirtatious — and it might've come across as funnier if the actors weren't so bland — but it's an obviously gratuitous display of T&A, a particularly blatant bit of pointless, seedy pandering. The moment is redeemed only slightly by the film's climax, in which Amelita, thirsty for revenge, proves her mettle as a tough Hawksian woman.

Still, this is a Hawks film, and if the casting and scripting aren't up to his normal standards, there are still pleasures to be had here. Perhaps to make up for the lack of compensating joys in the characterization, the film is much heavier on action than either Rio Bravo or El Dorado, and the action is well-staged and viscerally exciting. During the lengthy opening sequence, Confederate bandits rob a Union train using a string of contrivances — a nest of hornets, torches, grease, ropes strung across the tracks — that are ludicrously convoluted but play out great on screen. The robbery leads directly into a cleverly staged pursuit from the Union troops, with the troops splitting up at each fork, so that eventually McNally is riding through the center of a shallow stream all by himself, seeking out his prey. Later, the trio of McNally, Cordona and Phillips lead an assault on the ranch of their enemy Ketchum (Victor French), and Hawks' tense staging of their stealth dispatching of the ranch's bodyguards is impeccable.

But he has the most fun with the grand finale, after the ranch shootout. At one point, when McNally calls a huddle and tells his allies that they're going to hole up in a jail, it's a kind of metafictional wink: he might as well have turned to his friends and said, "hey, did you ever see Rio Bravo or El Dorado?" The actual jail hangout sequence is pretty short, but Hawks quickly follows it up with a re-enactment of the prisoner exchange and shootout with which he ended Rio Bravo. This time, though, it's the bad guys who think to throw dynamite into McNally's position, along with other subtle variations that show Hawks having fun recycling old plots and old situations. The film is frequently clunky and awkward, but it's also often charming, exciting and, in its examination of the aging Western archetype — and the aging filmmaker behind the camera — surprisingly poignant.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Conversations #22 (part 2): Black Swan

Jason Bellamy and I have now posted part II of our conversation about Darren Aronofsky. In part I, from a couple of weeks ago, we talked about Aronofsky's first four films, and now we've turned our attention to his fifth and latest, Black Swan. We talk about the film's psychosexual underpinnings, its lurid aesthetics, its genre references, its links to the films of Powell and Pressburger and others, and its ideas about female sexuality and identity. We hope you'll join us in discussing this very provocative film. We have a feeling that lots of people have strong opinions about Aronofsky in general and this film in particular, so please let us know what you think in the comments section at the House Next Door.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Thursday's Track: Two by Rollerball

In this new semi-regular series, I write about tracks that particularly move and impress me. Take a listen and join the conversation!

Portland, Oregon's Rollerball is one of the great and sadly neglected bands of recent years. This eclectic, unpredictable outfit doesn't get anywhere near the acclaim they deserve for their utterly unique sound, which blends avant-pop, free jazz, noisy electronics, prog rock, reggae and ethnic musics, even dashes of techno, into a surprisingly cohesive sound. They've released 13 albums since 1997 and have amassed quite an impressive, varied discography. Despite ranging all over the place from album to album and even song to song, they somehow always sound like Rollerball, no mean trick when one track might be a noisy free jazz blowout, the next a downtempo trip-hop ballad, the next a scratchy piece of improvised psych/folk. It's hard to sum up a band this diverse in one track, so I haven't even tried, instead picking two tracks that, while still not really encompassing the full breadth of this great band's oeuvre, do suggest their ability to shapeshift at will.

"Starling," off the 2003 album Real Hair, is one of the band's poppiest and most accessible songs, from one of their poppiest albums. It's a gorgeous piece of late-night pop, with dubby drums (there's an equally great remix of the song on 2004's Behind the Barber that amps up the dub elements) and a simple but sensuous female vocal that soars above the ska horns and tinkling piano. It's lush and otherworldly, like all of Rollerball's best avant-pop pieces, evocative of Julee Cruise's music for David Lynch but really existing in its own peculiar world. Rollerball's pop tendencies are laced with darkness and mystery; songs like this seem meant to be sung by witches, late at night, preferably in cemeteries, where this haunting music can drift out into the moonlight.

A somewhat different side of Rollerball is evident on "Osceola," from 2000's Bathing Music. The track opens with a scratchy violin accompanied by martial drums, slowly building momentum in a manner reminiscent of Rollerball's contemporaries in turn-of-the-millennium post-rock. But rather than mining simple loud/soft dynamics and building towards an expected explosion, Rollerball adds in jazzy horns to disrupt the solemn march, then transitions into a delicate ballad. The song is constructed modularly, though each section flows gracefully into the next so that the stylistic shifts seem natural rather than abrupt. Free jazz blowing builds out of the song form and then flows back into it, finally leading to the controlled cacophony of the climax.

These two songs are a fitting but incomplete introduction to Rollerball, one that omits the glitchy techno/blues of "Burning Light," the epic jazz grandeur of "Slits Arandas" (both from 2004's Behind the Barber), the supernatural incantations of Trail of the Butter Yeti, and the crotchety, fractured folk of Catholic Paws/Catholic Pause. This is a band well worth exploring in depth, and I hope this all-too-brief introduction will open a few more ears to Rollerball's singular sound.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Lady Eve

It's not for nothing that Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve opens with an animated title sequence in which a leering serpent winds across the screen, because Barbara Stanwyck, who spends the first half of the film as the card sharp Jean Harrington and the second half as the British noblewoman Lady Eve Sidwich, is a sly, sexy, serpent-like incarnation of the woman as a temptress and a conniver. She's a con woman of the first degree, a seasoned hand at luring men to their financial doom, usually at the hands of her con man father the "Colonel" (Charles Coburn) and his wily valet Gerald (Melville Cooper). So when she meets the inheritor of an ale fortune, the reptile scientist Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), she immediately sets out to snare him the same way she's snared so many other men. She sets a trap, gets his interest, snuggles up to him and not so subtly seduces him. She oozes sex: in one scene, she cuddles up to the helpless Charles, speaking to him with her cheek pressed against his and her lips moving just inches from his, constantly threatening to kiss him but never quite doing it. It's steamy, and so disarming that the audience is seduced right along with Charles, which is part of the film's charm. Sturges has concocted such an irresistible con woman — and embodied her, wisely, in the slinky toughness of Stanwyck — that one is constantly rooting for her to succeed, to get the hapless and, at times, brainless Charles in her clutches, to do with as she pleases. That she predictably falls in love with the guy and winds up wanting him for more than his money is expected but almost incidental to the plot. Whether she's looking for love or squeezing another con, we're rooting for her to get her man.

The implicit undercurrent of the film, in these scenes of wooing and seduction, is that love is a con like any other. At one point, Jean gives Charles a speech about how cleverly women must win over men; she's talking about love, about the ways in which women use their feminine powers to subtly ingratiate men to them, but she might as well be talking about her con jobs and plots. It's all the same, and the methods she uses to get the guy she wants to fall in love with her overlap conspicuously with the methods she would use to cheat him out of his cash. In one of her more candid moments, Jean admits, "a moonlit deck is a woman's business office." Sturges has a lot of fun with this basic conceit, turning games of love into games of trickery and deceit, games of lies and truths, with the increasingly floundering Charles obviously in over his head, whether he's being swindled out of money or tricked into love. The name Eve, which Jean takes on as her alias, is particularly well chosen, because in this film the woman has all the power, the woman is in control, the woman guides the man into folly and then, if she chooses, back out again.

Fonda gamely plays along with these shenanigans, tripping into one bit of horseplay after another. He eventually figures out that Jean, who he wants to marry, is not an oil man's daughter but a notorious swindler and card cheat, and he's crushed. But when she shows up again, in the second half of the film, as the Lady Eve, niece of a nearby British nobleman, he incredibly doesn't believe it's the same woman; he falls for her disguise completely after some initial doubts. At first, this seems like an unforgivable contrivance, a stretch even by this film's standards of masculine stupidity. But the longer the gag plays out, the better it gets, and the more believable. It's as though Charles wants to be deceived, wants to be conned, because more than anything what he wants is Jean, or Eve, or whatever she's calling herself, and if he has to be blindsided to get her, then he'll clear his brain and fall for any lame scheme she cooks up, just so he can be in her clutches again.

It's all totally delightful, particularly when, predictably, he falls hard for Eve and asks her to marry him — and the same scene from earlier plays out again, with him delivering the same corny lines, the same poetic visions, as though he'd rehearsed this speech over and over again for whoever he was going to marry. This time around, she fills in some of the lines for him, knowing this bit pretty well by now, and Sturges turns the scene into even more of a farce by having a horse continually interrupt the expressions of love by nuzzling Charles' head, thrusting its big head into the frame, looming over the two lovebirds below. It's brilliantly staged, a would-be romantic scene that's utterly undermined both by the fact that this is the second time it's played out within a half hour of screen time, and by the horse's insistence on butting into the frame, ruining the glorious romantic shot of the lovers framed against a dramatic sunset. Sturges takes the usual romantic imagery and completely subverts it, mocking the whole idea of a grand and pure romantic love: his characters eventually do find love, but only through a maze of misunderstandings, misidentifications, lies and schemes.

Sturges' sense of comic timing, his visual and verbal wit, is impeccable throughout, and the script is teeming with sharp lines and quick turns of phrase. When Charles tells Jean she has a "nose" for cards, she asks him if there are any other parts of her he likes, a neatly suggestive line that only gets better when his flustered reaction prompts her to say, "Relax, I was only flirting with you." This guy's such a dolt he doesn't even recognize flirtation, and in the second half of the film he's subjected to a ludicrous series of pratfalls and mishaps, especially at a party where he's distracted by Eve's uncanny resemblance to the woman who had earlier broken his heart. He falls over a sofa, gets the roast dumped on him by his comically snooping bodyguard Muggsy (William Demarest), and stoops to free up a snag in Eve's dress, only to stand up into a dessert tray. This stuff works because Sturges never leans too hard on the slapstick for its own sake; the physical comedy is an expression of Charles' humiliation and abasement, as similar scenes often were in the romantic comedies of Howard Hawks.

Muggsy, for his part, provides a running commentary on his employer's stupidity, as he instantly recognizes Eve as Jean and can't understand why Charles has any doubts. Muggsy keeps popping up every so often, dubiously exclaiming, "it's the same dame," as though to remind the audience, as if we could forget, of just how loony this whole business is. Muggsy's parody of detective work, as if there's any real sleuthing necessary to figure out this non-mystery, is just one of the running gags running through the film, among which the most prominent is probably Charles himself. Charles' inability to grasp what's happening to him — that he's falling for the same woman twice, and in the end, three times — is mirrored in his physical incompetence. Early on, he practically melts in Jean's arms, closing his eyes, his face slack, barely able to mutter a word as she patters on with her lips so close to his. If he was in a Warner Brothers cartoon of the era, he would've literally turned into mush and puddled on the floor, and he all but does it anyway here, constrained only by his corporeality.

That's why that cartoon snake at the beginning of the film is so appropriate, in so many ways, suggesting the themes of seduction and trickery, and the Adam and Eve myth, as well as the literal snake (from Charles' scientist gig) which keeps showing up in unlikely places and providing fodder for more comic wordplay. But also because the film is a cartoon, with Jean/Eve as a kind of fleshy, sexy Bugs Bunny, doing anything to trip up and toy with her opposite number, turning rivalry and hunting into a big game of constant reversals and dress-up routines. The crackling dialogue, the edgy persona of Stanwyck, the good old boy dumbness of Fonda, Sturges' casually effective way of staging comic scenes, all of it is in service to the film's celebration of love as a long con that's well worth being tricked into.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Sniper

The Sniper is an early example of Hollywood taking a stab at the kind of criminal/psychological analysis that is, today, a commonplace element of crime fiction. At the time, though, in 1952, this film's dead-on look at the psychosexual dysfunction of a killer must have seemed bracing and realistic, even if today its psychology seems strained and its examination of the subject superficial. The film focuses on Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), a man with some serious issues about women. The film's opening text offers up a message about sex criminals, and indeed Miller's sickness is explicitly compared, within the film, to that of rapists and other sexual predators and perverts. With that context established, the opening images of Miller assembling a sniper rifle immediately acquire a sexual subtext, and his use of that weapon to murder women becomes a form of symbolic rape from a distance for a man who's afraid of and disturbed by women, who simultaneously wants them and detests them. During Miller's first murder, director Edward Dmytryk, in one of the film's most shocking shots, zooms in for a closeup on Miller's hands, caressing the barrel of his rifle, wrapping his hands around the gun and running them up and down its smooth metallic length. The sexual subtext of the crimes, the sense that Miller is getting off on these women in the only way he knows how, couldn't be more blatant.

Dmytryk does an excellent job of staging the murders, establishing the creepy sensation that Miller is lurking in the shadows, watching and waiting. His first victim is the pianist Jean (noir stalwart Marie Windsor), a woman Miller knows as one of his customers from his job as a laundry deliveryman. When Miller visits Jean's apartment early in the film to drop off a dress for her, the two flirt innocently — or rather, Jean flirts with him, not suspecting that it's anything more than the casual banter that often passes between acquaintances when conducting this type of routine business. But Miller is a very damaged man, and it's obvious that he's attracted to Jean, and at the same time turned off every time she drops a hint of her lifestyle as a nightclub pianist, every time she hints at the men she knows. Windsor brings just a touch of her usual femme fatale persona to Jean, a few stray touches of regret and world-weariness, a shade of noir toughness in this otherwise normal woman. She has only a few scenes, and Windsor, typically, makes them count, makes this woman memorable so that her sudden death, which sets Miller off on a killing spree all around the city, will be all the more affecting.

The scenes of Miller stalking Jean, following her down shadowy streets to her club and then setting up with his rifle on a roof nearby, are interrupted by a brief scene inside the club, where Jean fends off a drunken admirer and banters with the club owner. The juxtaposition subtly connects the drunk, with his increasingly antagonistic behavior, to the killer waiting outside, who nurses his own even more violent hostility towards women. What's interesting about the film, particularly for its era, is how it pointedly brings the subject of attitudes about women to the surface. It seems like virtually everywhere Miller goes, he encounters someone who has something to say about women, and usually something negative or stereotypical. A doctor tells Miller that he should get married, that cooking is women's work, and Miller's landlady tells him virtually the opposite, that men should learn how to cook just as well as women. In a scene where Miller makes a phone call at a drug store, Dmytryk cleverly stages a miniature drama in the background as the couple running the place bicker over the guy's perceived flirtation with a customer. These kinds of prosaic details subtly comment upon and enhance the central story, and the way this scene places a whole story into the background of the shot is fascinating.

Later, Miller goes to a carnival and unleashes his hostility in a game where the object is to throw a baseball at a target to knock a woman into a tank of water. Miller becomes increasingly enraged and violent, knocking the woman into the water again and again with his perfect aim, but what's notable is that he's really only getting too into the spirit of the game, which seems to be based entirely on this kind of hostility, on the idea that guys will want to step up and knock the woman off her stool if they can. Miller's only more honest about it — and has a better aim than most. The film doesn't exactly explicitly question these kinds of attitudes, but they certainly come bubbling to the surface, often in ugly ways. There's an odd disconnect, for example, between the killer's attitude towards women and the joking tone of a scene where one cop teases his older partner about married life. Similarly, a scene where the police question a lineup of sex criminals, trying to find out if one of them is the sniper, is frankly just bizarre, as the interrogator adopts a blatantly comic tone, turning around to catch the reaction of his fellow cops as he delivers his one-liners about rapists and peeping toms. It's staged like a comedy routine rather than a real interrogation of dangerous sexual criminals.

If the film never quite resolves these tensions, it's at least obvious that the treatment of women, and men's attitudes about women, are at the center of this story. A subtle line is drawn between common ideas about women and Miller's extreme actions. Less interesting is the film's tendency towards blunt, pat psychoanalysis and preachy speeches, which become more common in the film's second half. At its best, particularly for its first half, The Sniper is a taut and tense psychological thriller that places the audience in uncomfortable intimacy with the dysfunctional killer. In the second half of the film, though, the emphasis begins to slide away from Miller and onto the police who are trying to catch him, including Lieutenant Kafka (Adolphe Menjou) and the police psychologist Kent (Richard Kiley). Kent is prone to long speeches about how sexual criminals should be treated and committed to mental institutions, an early expression of the idea, now encoded in our justice system to some degree, that sexual crime should be treated differently from other kinds of crime. The film essentially goes on hold whenever Kent speaks: there might as well be an announcement that the film is being interrupted by a political advertisement or a public service announcement. Similarly, the depiction of Miller as having been damaged by his mother's strict and possibly abusive upbringing is delivered so bluntly and obviously that it takes away from some of the film's more subtle points.

In the end, The Sniper is an interesting if flawed picture that should be credited for attempting to explore sexual crime in a bold and direct way. Its ideas about sexual deviancy and the dynamics of gender relations might seem dated today, but nothing can take away from the creeping terror of its murder sequences. And nothing can dull the power of its haunting final shot, a slow zoom towards the face of Miller as he's caught by the police, hugging his rifle to his chest, a single tear running down his cheek.