Crime and Avoiding Punishment

After spending some time with found footage movies, it was time to move to a more conventional type of movie presentation, and if we are going to ease back into a more traditional type of movie, I feel it’s best to use something with a high quirk factor, because that, my friends, is how I roll. And that means continuing to fill out my list of 60 Movies I will Absolutely Catch Up On This Year with some more Coen Brothers, in this case, No Country For Old Men.

Well, you can be pretty sure that if you’re watching something based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, you’re in for a sure-fire laugh riot. Haha, I kid Mr. McCarthy, but in discussing this movie with pal Dave, he opined that The Road was a far more upbeat affair than No Country for Old Men.

The movie starts with Tommy Lee Jones, playing Sheriff Ed Bell, who talks about his life as a lawman in a family of lawmen, how he always loved to hear stories of the old-timers, some of whom never even wore a gun. “You can’t help but compare yourself against the oldtimers. Can’t help but wonder how they would have operated these times.” Which is your theme and explanation of the title right there.

Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is hunting in the Texas desert with no success until he stumbles upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong: several vehicles riddled with bullet holes, corpses, the sole survivor half-dead in a truck whose bed is filled with bricks of heroin. He trails the one person to getaway from the scene, finding him dead under a tree, and clutching a satchel filled with a whole lot of money.

Moss takes off with the satchel and a couple of free guns, but doubles back later when a twinge of conscience forces him to return with water for the dying man. He’s going to regret that charitable urge for the rest of his life, because that’s when one side of the drug dealers show up to find out what happened to their stuff. Moss gets away – barely – but only by leaving his truck behind.

Moss packs his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) off to her mother’s and begins life on the run, followed a group only referred to as The Mexicans, and someone infinitely worse: Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, in an Oscar-winning turn), a perfect collection of dead-nerved soicopathy who generally leaves everyone he encounters dead. His weapons of choice: an air hammer meant for use in a slaughterhouse, and a shotgun with a silencer. His trademark: making his victims call a coin toss, like a semi-sporting Two Face.

The movie is an enthralling chronicle of that brutal chess game, with Moss, who we find is a Vietnam vet, and Chigurh fairly evenly matched, their single encounter rendering both men badly wounded. Chigurh, in classic villain form, is pretty incensed when he finds out other people have been sent to look for Moss; he takes it personally, even killing the one person who has located the target and the satchel, without being told either.

If there is one thing that spoiled my watch of No Country for Old Men, it is that one sequence – because of the way it was shot, or kinda confusing dialogue, or just being an old man myself, I did not understand. Like a lot of Coen Brothers movies, there are some balls still in the air when the movie ends, and my misunderstanding led me to think that there were a whole flock of balls in the air. Luckily, I was watching it with my pal Dave, and later discussion proved he’d had the same experience (which made me feel infinitely better). Score one for waiting to watch it on DVD.

It was the same way with The Big Lebowski, really. I was tooling along on the story, ready for the big payoff, and the movie ends about 15 minutes before that payoff. And if ambiguity in an ending is the worst criticism you can level at a movie, then that is one good movie.

The next day called for something to balance that, which seemed to be the 1959 Otto Preminger movie Anatomy of a Murder. I knew this was held out as a classic courtroom drama, so I figured chances were good for a definite ending.

Preminger did not shy away from controversy; just four years earlier he had examined drug addiction in The Man With the Golden Arm. Anatomy of a Murder was based on a best-selling novel by Robert Travers, a pseudonym for Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker. It’s based on a real court case, but there are some things you can do in literature that you couldn’t do in movies in 1959, like mention the word rape or even refer to panties.

Former district attorney Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) is facing a foundering private practice when he takes on a high-profile case. Army lieutenant Manion (a young, intense Ben Gazzara) has shot and killed a local bar owner after the man had allegedly assaulted and raped his wife Laura (Lee Remick, who is acetylene torch hot in this movie).  Biegler will be in the courtroom up against the man voted into his former office, who brings in a better legal gun from the state Attorney General in the form of Claude Dancer (an early turn from George C. Scott, smooth and graceful as a shark).

There is the usual amount of investigation and probing before the trial, but it’s the courtroom action that forms the majority of the movie. The actions of the lawyers are as much performance and  histrionics as anything else, and it is to the movie’s credit that parts of the case as presented become so ambiguous that by the end of the picture we, the viewers, join Biegler and his team in not envying the jury the choice they have to make.

I speak of Biegler’s team, by which I mean the always welcome Arthur O’Connell as a lawyer turned town drunk who sobers up to help his old pal, and the criminally underrated Eve Arden, as Biegler’s smartass – and smart – secretary, who’s a few paychecks behind.

One especially wonderful piece of casting is the presiding judge, who is brought in from a circuit court as the local judge is recovering from a serious illness. This man is Joseph N. Welch, who served as an attorney for the Army during the Army-McCarthy hearings. You know, the guy who said, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” That guy. He had some TV notoriety from that, and does well in the role. (A fun anecdote from the Criterion disc tells of Welch being nervous around Gazzara, who had a reputation as an extremely serious young method actor who brooked no less than equal perfection from the people on set with him. He needn’t have worried, as Gazzara had watched the televised hearings and adored the man.)

Over 50 years after the fact, it’s hard to see what the shouting was about. We hear about rape and murder nightly (and before we even get to the news, har de har), so the more salacious moments only seem quaint at this remove. We can, instead,  just enjoy the soundtrack by Duke Ellington (and the sight of Jimmy Stewart jamming on a piano with the Duke in a smoky road house), the excellent performances by seasoned and unseasoned pros in an excellent cast, and the beautiful black-and-white photography of a handsomely appointed, real courtroom, all marble and wood.

Here’s Otto Preminger moving into Alfred Hitchcock territory with the trailer:

1 Comment

  1. I need to watch No Country for Old Men again myself, because, at the time, I was convinced that the Coens had The Getaway (72) on their minds when they made it. The friend I watched it with finally saw The Getaway (with me, in a theater) this weekend and seemed to think I was sort of on to something, but perhaps not as much as I thought I was.

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