A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part five

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.

Vertigo (1958)

vertigoVertigo, unfortunately, fell victim to what I call First Steak Syndrome.

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)

resize_imageThe 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-1The 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.

Chinatown (1974)

film-noir-chinatown-1974-movie-poster-via-professormortis-wordpressThanks to HBO, I had seen the last five minutes of Chinatown many times. It was time to catch up on the other two hours and five minutes. Besides, I had a crime thing going on.

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)

MPW-23917I didn’t feel like yet another crime movie, so I went with more Nicholson.

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.

2077615734_0f6ef42587It’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.

The Stanley Kubrick Project: The Shining (1980)

Of all the Movies That I Haven’t Seen But Probably Should, likely the most surprising is Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s multi-kabillion-copy bestseller The Shining. It is, after all, a horror movie, and I have moved through my life adoring the horror genre. If I’ve grown disenchanted with the genre over the years, it is because so much of the product created has little to offer me. I walk through the Halloween Haunted House, and spend all my time recognizing the props, so shopworn and rote has the field become.

When I find a movie that actually scares me, that’s something to cheer about. I suppose it’s some sort of desensitization, because my wife refuses to watch anything having to do with horror. It affects her on a level I can never hope to achieve again.

You see, I recognize all the props.

But we’re here to talk about The Shining, not me.

After the dismal box office on Barry Lyndon killed forever any chance of making his dream Napoleon project, Kubrick, while casting around for his next movie, must have been keenly aware of a need to make a commercial film. I don’t think box office ever truly mattered to him, but he was close to some of the executives at Warner, and making their lives easier might be a good thing. Horror had been a major force in the realm of Major Motion Pictures since The Exorcist blew up in 1973, and its possible, maybe even probable, that Kubrick was enough of an egotist to either a) feel that he was being left behind, or b) that he could show everyone what they were doing wrong.

So, Stephen King’s bestseller The Shining. That is what is referred to as Box Office Gold. Recognized name, recognized property. A Sure Thing.

Except that it wasn’t a sure thing. I remember everybody who saw it hated it, mainly because they’d read the book. Everybody had read the book. I think with international sales and all, The Shining made its money back, but the backlash was severe.

Then, it’s also a pattern with which we should be familiar by now. Derided at its initial run, The Shining is now considered a classic, almost always cropping up in those largely useless “Best Horror Movie” lists. (I hate lists.) Kubrick, as ever, if not ahead of the curve, is the curve.

Most of the ire directed at the movie is the changes wrought on the source novel, though really – how this surprised anyone is beyond me, given the changes made to the paper versions of Lolita, Red Alert, A Clockwork Orange and The Luck of Barry Lyndon. It is easier and far more common to pick up and read a book – (especially one in such plentiful supply as The Shining, which used-bookstores enforced a moratorium upon, they were so common) – than to examine a film director’s body of work. And admittedly, in 1980, it was damned difficult to examine Kubrick’s  oeuvre in a casual manner; you had to be a student at a well set-up university or a millionaire.

The Shining concerns the Torrances – man, woman, and child – who are going to spend six months in the fancy Overlook Hotel as winter caretakers. Jack (Jack Nicholson) is trying to write a book. The child, Danny (Danny Lloyd) is psychic, his abilities manifested through Tony, “a little boy who lives in my mouth”. The Mom, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) is pretty much the only non-imaginary friend Danny has – the family seems to have moved a lot recently.

Snowed in by one of the worst blizzards in years, The Overlook Hotel (built over an Indian burial ground, of course) begins to make itself known to the three people trapped inside. Danny keeps seeing ghosts – two sisters who were killed by their father, another caretaker, years before in similar circumstances. Jack begins having nightmares about murdering his family. And then he starts seeing the ghosts of Overlook Past.

There is a certain amount of controversy right from the start, with the casting. King wanted someone who could track from normalcy to insanity, suggesting Michael Moriarty or Jon Voight; he wanted a good man to be slowly corrupted by the Hotel. Jack Nicholson – a choice with whom I’m sure none of the executives argued – is twitchy from the get-go. He’s playing an alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in months, and he’s quite obviously keeping a tight lid on, projecting normalcy; he needs this job.

The choice of Shelley Duvall was similarly a source of dismay. Nicholson, for instance, wanted Jessica Lange; but the choice of the unglamorous Duvall, playing a woman who is at a brittle truce with her marriage, who is trying to make it work, chain-smoking her way through days with an oddball son and a volatile husband, who is similarly trying… it’s just damned canny casting.

Duvall has said the filming wasn’t something she regretted, but likely wouldn’t do, ever again – interviewed by Roger Ebert, she stated that “… my character had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week.” And to facilitate that, Kubrick was infamously mean and short-tempered with her, even instructing his daughter, Vivian, who was shooting a making-of documentary, “Don’t sympathize with Shelley.” Brutal technique, worthy of Eli Cross. I can’t really say that I can sanction it but, but my God, what results!

Kubrick’s movie takes a much less mystical track with the story, though the fantastic elements are still there – casting The Shining  as a movie of pure psychological horror simply doesn’t hold up, especially toward the end when the spirits of the Overlook start manifesting to Wendy. The Hotel finds a not-too-subtle toehold in Jack’s already tormented psyche, resulting finally in the closest thing Kubrick employs to a jump scare: Jack talking to someone who isn’t there in the abandoned bar, all liquor and provisions packed away for the winter – and in the reverse shot, we see Lloyd the Bartender, in a fully stocked bar. It’s a superb “Oh shit!” moment in a slow-burn movie.

A slight digression: In a scene before the snow actually comes in force, Wendy comes into the large lounge area which Jack has chosen for his writing space. What follows is a fairly upsetting scene that shows that Jack is fraying at the edges, as he tells her in no uncertain terms that yes she is interrupting and it takes time to get back to where he was and to never fucking come in there when he is writing. Look, I would like to think I would not be as offensive as Jack, but I swear to you that is a conversation every writer has wanted to have with his spouse.

A truly major change from the novel is the hedge maze, which, of course, replaced the topiary animals coming to life at the novel’s climax. Something like that might look incredible in the theatre of the mind (truthfully, I found it laughable even while reading the book), but in a movie, it is definitely something better left out. The Hedge Maze of the movie turns out to be a logical, satisfying replacement that lends itself to an exciting, fitting conclusion. (Due Diligence: I have not seen the “authorized” TV version of The Shining, but I understand the topiary animals are there – they just don’t move unless you’re not looking at them. That could work, but the Hedge Maze is so much more of an elegant solution)

I also think a good deal of the backlash against The Shining when it was first released was an unconscious feeling that Kubrick would re-invent the horror movie, just as he had re-invented the science-fiction movie with 2001. But truth to tell, Kubrick hadn’t re-invented the genre as much as delivered a good, stately science-fiction movie, a leather-bound version printed on wonderfully smooth paper, that would sit proudly on the shelf, next to its paperback brethren with rough pulp pages and gaudily colored cardboard covers. And that is what he did with The Shining: created a prestige version of a ghost story that has aged in only the best ways, as quality craftsmanship always does.

You see, I still recognized all the props. But they were so skillfully made, so well-presented, that I did not resent them one bit, and instead welcomed them, like old friends ’round a roaring fire.

To tell ghost stories.