As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.
That requires some explanation. Like a lot of people my age, my brain was scarred as a youth by The National Lampoon, when it was a magazine easily available on newsstands. A continuing feature was the Foto Funnies, which were lame jokes in a six-grid photo layout, which was always an excuse to show a topless model with alarmingly large breasts. The pertinent one involved the guy in bed with her (the set was almost always a bed) talking about how, if a person had never eaten a steak, but had been told all their life how incredible a steak was, how good it tasted, when that person finally had a steak, the result would inevitably be disappointment, because the steak had been so built up all their lives. The punchline was the pendulous model saying, “Not until I’m married,” but that’s not the important part. The important part is the lifelong build-up.
And this has happened to me several times in my seemingly endless catch-up on the Movies I Should Have Been Watching All This Time But Haven’t. When I watch a movie that has been praised so unanimously that it is impossible to watch it tabula rasa, that your viewing begins on the first frame with the weight of expectation pitched unnaturally high. Vertigo is, alas, one of those. It was first recommended to me highly in college, but that was when it was unavailable in any form; finally it was released again in 1984 with four other Hitchcocks that had been in rights limbo. It is heavily referenced in two of my favorite discoveries from last year, Chris Marker’s La jetee and Sans soleil. It replaced Citizen Kane as the #1 movie of all time in the Sight and Sound Critic’s Poll last year, for God’s sake. Yet I am immune to its charms.
That likely also has something to do with my own relationship with Hitchcock: I’m not a big fan. There is something about his movies that distance me from the events on the screen, even as I note the craftsmanship. The one Hitchcock movie I positively adore is Psycho, and small wonder, as it is his version of a B movie, my poison of choice. So, as I watch Vertigo unspool, I am appreciative of the technique, I note that Bernard Hermann and Alfred Hitchcock were made for each other, and don’t care much beyond that.
I guess I should say that Vertigo is the story of police detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), who is recovering from a nasty incident involving a chase across tenement rooftops that left a uniformed officer dead and Scottie with acrophobia and a sense of vertigo whenever heights are involved. His leave of absence is interrupted by an old school chum who begs him to follow his increasingly erratic wife (Kim Novak), who seems to be haunted by her ancestor, a woman who committed suicide a hundred years before. Of course, the two fall in love before she plunges to her death off the bell tower of an old Spanish mission, Scottie unable to stop her because of his crushing fear of heights. Then, after six months in a mental ward, Scottie sees a woman on the street who looks uncannily like his lost love…
Vertigo is based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who can count in their credits Diabolique and Eyes Without A Face. Unlike either of those, Vertigo rests on a conspiracy that ultimately fails because one of the conspirators makes two very stupid mistakes – well, three, really – leading to the final reveal. As a study in obsession, it is queasily great. As a mystery, not so much so.
It flopped badly when it premiered in ’58 (and is now regarded as Hitchcock’s masterpiece – sound familiar?), and a lot of blame over the years has been placed on Stewart’s shoulders. At age 50, he was thought to be too old to be playing a romantic lead to an actress literally half his age (again – sound familiar?). Hitchcock later said he thought Kim Novak was miscast (he had wanted Vera Miles), but truthfully, Novak is fine, essaying a difficult role very well.
The Conversation (1974)
The Conversation is another character study about an unpleasant character. Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert who is neurotically protective of his own privacy. As the movie opens, he is engaged in his latest job, taping the conversation of a young couple during lunchtime in a busy park. Obviously thinking they have a safe place to talk, they are blissfully unaware of the three hypersensitive microphones with sniper scopes trained on them or the man with a shopping bag and a hearing aid tailing them.
As Caul mixes these four sources to provide the clearest version of their conversation, he becomes aware that the two are having an affair, and they are fearful of the woman’s husband, almost certainly Harry’s client. Harry’s claim to fame is an impossible surveillance he somehow managed in New York several years previous, taping a conversation under such guarded circumstances that it led to a bloodbath in a corrupt union, and the torture/murder of an entire family. Haunted by his culpability, however tenuous, to that crime, the already troubled Caul begins to fear that history will repeat itself, the two lovers will be murdered, and it will once again be his fault.
The Conversation is as post-Watergate as a movie can come. Harry’s evolving paranoia is well pricked-on by Francis Ford Coppola’s direction and grimy early 70s design. The titular conversation itself was shot with several different line readings, so the actual performance changes as Harry’s attitude toward it does. Coppola has said that movies like this and his earlier The Rain People were the sort of movies he wanted to spend his life making; the fact that this would mean living in a world without The Godfather movies or Apocalypse Now puts one in the unfortunate position of being glad he didn’t get his wish. Even with a lower budget and smaller scope, the cinematography here is highly detailed and enveloping: in that first aerial shot of the crowded park, you look exactly where Coppola wants.
Gene Hackman picks this as a personal favorite among all his roles, and he does an uncomfortably good job of portraying a shabby man with a shabby soul. The cast constantly surprises, with Teri Garr, a very young Harrison Ford (in a role that was supposed to be small, but Ford so impressed Coppola he expanded it), Robert Duvall, and that Rosetta Stone of 70s cinema, John Cazale.
A bit of a tough nut to crack, but very worthwhile.
In 1937 Los Angeles, private detective Jake Gittes is hired to investigate the possible infidelity of city water engineer Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling, who played Ham in Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze, and yes, I was distracted by that bit of trivia). Gittes finds it, then is surprised to find out that the woman who hired him was not Mrs. Mulwray – that would be Faye Dunaway – and when Mulwray turns up dead, Gittes finds himself on the trail of a conspiracy involving two very important parts of LA life – water and land.
People argue over whether Chinatown is neo-noir or just plain noir, so ably does it imitate the truly American genre from the 40s, but come now – the movie is so far removed from The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity that it’s clearly a new, meaner generation of that beast. Simple human greed is always a factor in noir, but here the greed is magnified a thousandfold, the corruption on a massive, government level. Director Roman Polanski trades in dark, venetian blind-lit rooms for sun-burned Los Angeles streets and parched orchards. Previously hinted-at sexual crimes, buried in Hayes Code-constricted noir is extremely – and famously – overt here.
Generally speaking, I don’t have a good relationship with the Polanski movies I’ve seen, but Chinatown is a seriously good movie. This is the movie that elevated Jack Nicholson to a romantic lead, and Faye Dunaway just keeps cropping up in these Great Movies, doesn’t she? There’s probably a reason for that.
Easy Rider (1969)
Though Easy Rider isn’t truly a Nicholson movie. What it is is a remarkable bellwether in American cinema. The third-grossing movie of the year (behind Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and Midnight Cowboy), it kicked off the New Hollywood with a vengeance. Like that other surprise counter-culture hit, Bonnie and Clyde, it also borrows a lot from the French New Wave.
There’s not much plot in Easy Rider, but there is a hell of a lot of earnestness. Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (director Dennis Hopper) make a small fortune smuggling cocaine in motorcycle batteries. They buy new bikes and set out to find America, or at least make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Along the way they pick up alcoholic ACLU lawyer George (Nicholson), and introduce him to marijuana. They pick up two hookers in the Big Easy and have an acid trip in a cemetery. Everybody gets killed by rednecks. The end.
It’s an odd and interesting trip, so very different from the TV version, Then Came Bronson, just one of the many attempts to cash in Easy Rider‘s commercial success.I’m intrigued at how, without much in the way of visual effects, the trip sequence in the St. Louis No. 1 cemetery so accurately captures the LSD experience.
None of these guys were exactly strangers to Hollywood at this point, but this movie definitely – and most certainly in Nicholson’s case – brought them from the ranks of small roles and day players on TV shows to the ranks of actual Movie Stars, and not just in B pictures. Again, like Bonnie and Clyde, actual locals take many of the roles, but you can also catch young Karen Black, Toni Basil, and Luke Askew for once not playing a lunatic. Fonda is his usual straight-shooting dreamer, and Hopper has the courage to make his balancing role a paranoid jerk.
And if nothing else, Easy Rider has some arrestingly beautiful scenery played against THE BEST DAMNED MOVIE SOUNDTRACK EVER.
I should also point out, for the sake of completeness, that roughly between Network and Some Like It Hot in our last installment, I hit a day where I was called into work a City Council meeting to cover for a co-worker, and I had to employ my second cheat: Ebert had written about three Chuck Jones Warner Brothers cartoons, and I watched them in the waning hours of that Wednesday. They are What’s Opera, Doc?, Duck Amuck, and One Froggy Evening. All successfully subvert the usual template of Looney Tunes shorts, and are well-deserving of the respect shown them. There are copies available on YouTube, but are of such abysmal quality, I’m not even going to try linking them here.