Play Misty For Me
In a certain sense, or an indeterminate one, the film is an intermittence in a long helicopter shot at the beginning and end.
Tremendously detailed as it is by set decoration and cinematography, the two keys to Play Misty for Me seem to be first and foremost an extraordinary application of lighting to a versatility of what might be described as the dramatic imagination (in a theatrical sense), and this is correlated with the second, a broad response to black-and-white film technique (an art of tonality), especially the film noir, and most particularly Hitchcock’s Psycho, which is cited in two studied variants (the first knife attack, summarizing the shower scene, and the murder with scissors, abridging the private detective’s death), all of this brought to bear on color cinematography.
Evelyn (Jessica Walter) enters the dim living room with a tray, puts it down in front of the camera (up-angle) and crosses to the fireplace before Dave Garver’s (Clint Eastwood) entrance. This involves the transit of various luminous fields in the chiaroscuro before reflected light from below at the fireplace throws her pink outfit into a shimmery dazzle.
A pointed expression of the technique is a sort of running gag of partially illuminated sets recomposed by turning on a light. This occurs twice, with a large part of the frame in darkness suddenly lit, preparing the punchline at the end when a doorway is left unlit, into which Garver exits and at length re-emerges carrying Tobie (Donna Mills), the camera pans on them as they pass in front of the curtains and are suddenly silhouetted.
Other approaches include a long-lens study of tall waves as background to a walk on the beach, a comprehensive mini-documentary of the Monterey Jazz Festival, and an allusion to Vertigo. Don Siegel reveals a Soupy Sales side as the bartender, Murphy.
The characterization of Garver is completely effective, having been constructed literally from underwear to hair as a West Coast hotrodder acquiring professional responsibilities, capped with a responsive performance by Eastwood of a caliber usually given to Leone and Siegel, and which was completely overlooked by the critics. A whiff of the Nouvelle Vague and Julie Christie is in the air inhabited by Mills.
The subtle eroticism of the forest tryst was conventionally interpreted by Ebert as “menacing”, but not at all with a cogent awareness that Play Misty for Me picks up Monterey where One-Eyed Jacks left off.
Jessica Walter is first seen at the Sardine Factory against a vast circle on the wall behind her (to her right), establishing a compositional device, and shortly framed by a yellow bouquet on a mantelpiece. Her performance is practically the manifestation of a vortex, played closely with the camera for dynamic effect.
The conclusion is from Robbe-Grillet (Le Voyeur). The precipitate themes are jazz and, much more remotely, the actor turned director (Tobie’s portrait of Garver, slashed by Evelyn, is a characteristic squint).
High Plains Drifter
For reasons which are beyond fathoming, the New York Times calls this a “revisionist” Western, and even goes so far as to claim that John Wayne wrote to Eastwood against it. One thing is certain, the word “revisionist” here has no meaning at all and is simply one of those things which take the place of thought. To this it might be added that, so far from being “not what the West was all about,” High Plains Drifter is precisely the sort of film Wayne made throughout his career. It will be very helpful at this point to summarize the plot for clarity’s sake.
The Lago Mining Co. has staked a claim beside a lake. The little town of Lago is of visibly recent vintage, not new but still perhaps on its first coat of paint. It is discovered that the claim lies on government property, though the company has no intention of seeking a variance. The sheriff (Buddy Van Horn) threatens to reveal the truth, so the company has him killed, three hirelings bullwhip him to death on Main Street one night. The hirelings now begin to lord it over the town, villains that they are, so the company gets them drunk and frames them for a gold theft. As the film begins, it’s the day of their release from territorial prison, and a stranger rides into town looking for whiskey, a bath and a bed.
Already, you see pretty clearly that this is a Western such as Blue Steel or Lawless Range, with the added experience of High Noon and Bad Day at Black Rock. The stranger learns the story piecemeal (and so does the audience), he’s hired to defend the town, and organizes a militia.
This is the raw essence of the story, but the formal treatment attains a maximum of poetry in the highest sense, especially in the hands of a director who is evidently even at this point a master of his art, and who in the face of incomprehension remade the film twice, as Pale Rider and Unforgiven. The surly, furtive townsfolk resent the stranger (the figure is from Eliot, if you will). He’s sitting in a barber’s chair when more company hirelings accost him and he shoots them dead on the spot (Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine also has a hard time getting a quiet shave). On the street, a charming blonde (Marianna Hill) sizes him up and makes his acquaintance by bumping into him and tonguelashing him. Her rudeness knows no bounds, so he takes her forcibly into a barn and makes her acquaintance then and there, to her delight and ravishment (and eventual vindictiveness). The camera takes her POV as he stands over her afterward, adjusting his pants with a sober, unruffled expression. The conjunction of these two events is not only Borgesian, but like much of the film depends on a correct evaluation of True Grit as a masterpiece in its original evocation of the West as a function of nineteenth-century modes of speech and thus, as here, of mind.
One of the things the stranger orders is that the town be painted red and re-named Hell. At least once before in films there has been a town painted red, East Berlin in Casino Royale. The ambiguity turns on Mallarmé and the adjuration to the poet in “Toast Funèbre”. Whitman comes into play when a contemned dwarf is named Mayor and Sheriff by the stranger (“Reversals”).
The main point is the tangibility of love as a nexus, the main style a romantic suspension of ennui, the ennui of middle-age cares and tensions, the ennui of youthful idleness (he is a Hollywood real estate agent, she is a vagabond), distinguished as side-throws in bright scenes that display Eastwood’s acuity with actors, the ex-wife, the old friends, a mistress, a pickup, a colleague, and the girl’s casual acquaintances.
The Eiger Sanction
The prologue in Zurich is an encapsulation of the entire film on another basis, that of a spy thriller, to satisfy the demands of the genre. The film proper speaks a somewhat different language, that of art, with a central metaphor of mountain-climbing.
The degrees are history and æstheticism, inspiration, labor and accomplishment. The teacher elevates the pupil, then cuts the strings.
The first half concludes in Ford Country with the climbing of a peak, and this sequence contains an homage to True Grit (the duel in the desert). The second half opens like The Sound of Music with an Alpine helicopter shot. The camaraderie of the team is drawn from Downhill Racer, and also the realism of the location photography.
Gradus ad Parnassum, where the teacher and the pupil meet as equals.
Like Buñuel in La Mort en ce Jardin, Eastwood eschews most of his studio work for a direct and immediate involvement with the natural domain, for its own sake or in terms which are its own. The desert floor, the face of the Eiger, these are absolutes with a relative meaning in abstraction so very remote from the dramatic realities they possess that the ending of the film drops into symbolism as neatly as a coin into a purse, without losing its extrinsic value (a mountaineer’s POV from the end of a rope).
Vonetta McGee has a particularly brilliant role, but greater demands on or more grateful roles for the cast in general are not many. They fluidly shift their positions like The Maltese Falcon and foregather like the elements of a dream amidst which Eastwood (climbing an outside wall or snow slope) moves with equally calibrated finesse in front of or behind the camera.
The coda is a homey glimpse of inspiration and wisdom flanking the artist, to complete and round out the metaphor, in the mountain’s shadow.
The Outlaw Josey Wales
The opening figures later in Pale Rider, certain details are common to High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven, the best comparison is probably to John Cage’s Bicentennial composition Renga/Apartment House 1776.
The memory theme that becomes more crucial further on (in Firefox, for example) is a recurring nightmare. The proposed return in spring “or the following spring” harks back to Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, which on this score has a note from Buñuel’s Los Olvidados.
The title character’s byword is like Robert Preston’s in George Templeton’s The Sundowners.
The theme of hubris (“Doin’ right ain’t got no end.”) works from Post’s Magnum Force into a study of revenge and “living by the sword” in one of the greatest Western masterpieces.
Sufficient unto the story are all the precedents which need not be cited. Discernible nonetheless is Blaise Cendrars’ “Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France”, about a train trip to Siberia with a prostitootsie.
The supremely beautiful style is strictly from Breezy or is a bright blue clear distillate of The Eiger Sanction’s planked-down next-to-hand realism. You can’t do more in the way of scope than The Eiger Sanction, unless it’s Firefox or Space Cowboys.
The subjective handle has two motives: the supplanting of reality in the observable cosmos, as you might say, with a comfortable if absurdly static (in this context) borrowing of the ideal works of Roy Lichtenstein, and the liquidation of the residue still clinging “like primordial mud” to the assassination in Dallas, by an application of the paranoid-critical method to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
It opens at daybreak in Phoenix. Shockley enters the scene from a film noir bar and crosses the street to a late modern civic building, in front of which is his car. Jazz deplores his fate.
The house shootout inspired Hopscotch to a comical apotheosis. “God Makes House Calls”, says a road sign.
The long sequence in the constable’s car shows the technique. A master shot through the windshield features a black-bound ticketbook (with a blue and a yellow pen stuck in it) next to a large pink can of Tab forming a composition in the foreground, sitting on the dashboard. Close-ups of Eastwood and Bill McKinney abstract the background, but a further close-up of Locke in the back seat presses in to a trademark dissolution of the view out the rear window, which occurs nowhere else.
The night ambush immediately resumes the landscape feeling of Play Misty for Me in a few frames of fog and mountains, before setting up Bonnie and Clyde for the thematic resolution of the finale, which is surprising even though carefully prepared. “God gives Eternal Life”, another road sign says.
Just before this, Roy Lichtenstein in excelsis at the phone booth, panning out to Ruscha.
The motorcycle gang puts the camera behind Eastwood’s pistol out of not so much Spellbound as Lichtenstein. The furious helicopter pursuit is Lichtenstein ending in a suggestion by Baldessari.
The cattle car shows a knowledge of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, and is a rare tour de force as the second biker is hurled past a camera on the train onto the ground, perfectly matched with a zoom-out beside the track. A last shot from that vantage point gives satori to the open-slatted car, lens out to a long shot.
Nu dans le bain... Locke’s feet, left arm, sharp fingernails...
Duane Hanson’s sculptures people the bus. Given internal armor, it inspires The A-Team to derring-do.
Eastwood’s boss is a hireling of the mob. Discussions are held on the subject of public assassination on a public thoroughfare by police officers in the light of day, marvelously. Squad cars are sent out. In a high long shot, you see Bressonian passersby walking along the same street.
The great finale is set downtown. Now, the master of this is Cassavetes, and the hallmark is Minnie and Moskowitz. Eastwood tunes up as Hingle steps on the bus, under a sign advising patrons that some law or other “prohibits operation of this bus while anyone is standing in front of the line,” with another sign in the distance over his shoulder reading “Whitney & Murphy Funeral Home”. Into the vortex, past another sign: “First National Bank—Give Us a Chance”, and it’s James Cagney running the gauntlet at the end of Blood on the Sun, a final homage to Bonnie and Clyde with an excoriating twist, after torrential reference to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch, before a last stupefying citation from Frank Capra.
There is perhaps another allusion, to The Fighting Seabees, which is directly quoted in Heartbreak Ridge.
Only The Parallax View and The Conversation exhibit so consciously an elucubration of modern art.
Bronco Billy’s Wild West Show is an itinerant exhibition of trick ridin’ and ropin’ and shootin’ and the Indian snake dance with a real Indian (who sometimes get bitten), under its own big top. As another great showman once said, this is “caviary to the general,” and the film begins with Bronco Billy rallying the troupe on a highway in a downpour. Where’s the spirit of the thing, he tells them more or less, these tueurs sans gages.
He goes into a Farmers & Merchants Bank to cash a two dollar check, and foils a robbery, because he really is the fastest gun in the West. He hires a waitress at the drive-in to toss plates and get up on his horse, but she’s no good. His trick roper gets arrested over some old charge about Vietnam. The tent catches fire and burns down to the ground. Somewhere in all this a runaway heiress from New York joins the show.
Eastwood, also playing the Copland cowpoke, tunes this up at the outset with a few allusions (Fellini, Polanski, Capra) accurately found, then busts loose into something like Howard Hawks country (Hatari!) with an admixture of The Cowboy and the Lady, for example, and a bit of Kafka’s Amerika. There’s an artful adaptation of the stairway shot from Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (leading to the significant fire sequence, like the unequal fight in White Hunter Black Heart), and an anticipation of Unforgiven. By the time he gets to Hal Roach’s inestimable Road Show (under the management of S. Diaghilew), he’s well out of sight, soaring beyond gags like three cheers from the “criminally insane.”
The model for this and Blue Thunder is The General; the distinguishing marks here are an understanding of flashback psychology and the specific ergonomics of the aircraft involved, along with a rare ability with computerized special effects (see, for a comical comparison, Apollo 13 or The Hunt for Red October).
A surprising, ingenious film, dilapidated, charming, etc. It is devoted to a major retrospective of the life or works of a fictional musician, a man who plays guitar and sings (Eastwood’s impressionism) and fills in piano at a blues bar if called upon. An invaluable personage, bumping up against the strictures of a non-imaginary world somewhat, and fizzling out in a blaze of minor glory.
A sort of tragic companion to Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown, the same idea, to find the musician in the music by isolating him. The technique is a period application of The Eiger Sanction (or White Hunter Black Heart), startling compositions utilizing wide-screen and focus, and a settled approach to moviemaking in the most varied style.
It opens with a decisive element from Bound for Glory, and twice early on alludes to the first frames of The Third Man. The manner of presentation is critical: these are Chinatown’s Okies, not Ford’s. In town, Eastwood finds the local folks at the end of Deliverance.
His singing, which has a dramatic value toward the end, is the whiskey tenor of a jazz musician.
Various picaresque adventures gradually coalesce into The Reivers, and after still more, one-half of the equation has been stated. The rest, surprisingly, is the bitter truth about art on the receiving end. The allusions are to Keats, who was contemned and tubercular, and Whistler, who went to London and found the Royal Academy painting with treacle.
The ending is taken from The Third Man.
A thoroughgoing investigation, analysis and overhaul of Play Misty for Me for Harry Callahan, and beyond this, artistically positioned for it, a symphony of retribution. Beyond that and ultimately, a very complex study of the forces at play in modern society, it can’t be put more simply without resorting to expressions like human motivation or the drama of personal existence. The presence of Pat Hingle establishes the nexus to Hang ‘em High, and the most villainous of the villains dies impaled on the horn of a merry-go-round unicorn.
You may, if you wish, compare this with The Girl Most Likely To..., and my compliments. The three separate plot elements are seen to be thematically related and are then winnowed down to a single mirror image, like the china teacup and chrome-plated revolver in one shot.
Vincent Canby made the mistake of considering this film as a non-entity, which illustrates the hazards of film criticism for the newspapers more tellingly than any review that comes to mind. He was no better an art critic, given his assessment of Jennifer’s paintings as “neo-Edvard Munch” (they are comfortable boutique paintings and one tortured self-portrait). Be bold, be bold, yet not too bold, lest your heart’s blood should run cold.
There is a particular elegance in the murderess’s modus operandi, a shot to the groin and one to the noggin. And then there is that unicorn, which reportedly does not exist on the San Paulo merry-go-round.
Pale Rider appears to be famously founded on Shane, and this structural feint is largely responsible for its relatively slight reputation, but the actual basis revealed principally by the dynamiting of the mining company’s works is The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.
Or perhaps the work is a conjunction of Stevens and Huston, the way it’s a study of light and dark, an extension of Eastwood’s cinematographic studies from Play Misty for Me on. The technical term is Rembrandt lighting, exhibited in the string of close-ups before the great centerpiece of the campfire meeting, which suggests the painter’s Night Watch within a strict realism.
Daylight exteriors are undiffused, interiors are all but unlit. The murder of the gold-miner on the snowcovered street in a light snowfall (a technically demanding scene paralleling in its gradual acceleration the raid on the mining camp in the opening) brings on a sacrificial mitigation of the harsh sun, and this occurs again after the final shootout.
Such a concentrated, deliberate and studied film requires a very careful analysis. The casting is exact as rarely seen in cinema, and the precise relationships of the characters are constantly gauged in close editing of rapid, tight shots. The measure of the triumph achieved here is in what has gone before, Stevens and Huston but also McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Richard Kiel plays a sort of Goliath, and among the associations bundled into the rockbreaking scene is Cool Hand Luke. The villain (Richard Dysart) is a self-described empire-builder who says, “what’s mine is mine.”
The assault on Megan at the mining company reflects the depredations inflicted by the works. Her earlier scene with the preacher in the woods at night shows the greenness of the new country, as her mother’s later scene with him is interrupted by what is called “a voice from the past.”
So precise is the execution that a key structural element is given in a single shot, brief and stationary, placing the preacher left at an angle visually anchoring the frame with one elbow (Barret is on the right, irresolutely), and this governs the elimination of the hired guns subsequently.
Megan and the preacher in the woods are a modulation from the campfire meeting and go to the rapidity of the train and telegraph accompanying the preacher’s departure, which brings on the argument between Barret and Sarah, and leads to a variant of the campfire meeting by day.
All of which is to suggest the difficulty of analysis by virtue of the plethora and minuteness of detail, but also the structural indications which point to a transparent reading. The conjunction of Huston and Stevens might be in the conflating of Shane’s past with Judge Roy Bean’s, before his second coming. This figures in Unforgiven, and as strange as it is just below its familiar surface, Pale Rider is prepared in that aspect by High Plains Drifter.
Another technical feat, along with the Chimes at Midnight culmination of the opening raid, is the grand realism of the mining works taken directly from photographs, and this in turn is characteristically reflected in the creation of interiors, particularly Barret’s house, of such accuracy as to cause or allow the examination of another way of life, as the preacher gazes out through handmade window glass or into a mirror of the same stuff.
Vanessa in the Garden
The common expression for the writer is “to live by the point of one’s pen”, applied to Balzac, for example. The painter exists only, insofar as he is a painter, by the tip of his brush.
A subtle operation, largely derived from Jack Webb, divined along the lines of the Grenada campaign, from the point of view of a Marine gunnery sergeant. The surety of this position establishes the precise vortex of the comedy.
In the first place, Eastwood is able to draw a clinically fine portrait of a drill instructor as a sort of Baudelairean albatross, not very good out of his element but nonpareil in it (Eastwood’s acting in this role is remarkable, a variant of Webb’s D.I. carefully modeled and finished).
Taking the squad into Grenada is forthright satire of the finest, ideal sort, because it isn’t satire at all, it’s a direct rendering of the events polished to the exactitude of the Marine higher-up who settles the rivalry between the gunny sergeant and the supply officer. Nothing’s out of place in this portrait, or anywhere else in the film (with its Battle of Anghiari war game), and so it almost imperceptibly registers Frost’s lines:
The question that he frames in all but
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
A picture of Parker as working musician, and this is mainly conditioned by exhaustion and rejection, the salient image is a cymbal tossed into the air by a drummer to signal his first saxophone solo is a failure at age fifteen.
Mostly critics have responded to this accurately, larding their appreciation with the misconstructions Eastwood never applies. The man behind the monster behind the artist is all he is content with, to go with the recordings.
Solid approximations, the picture of Mrs. Parker as cool harbor, Gillespie as band manager, female figures out of The Music Lovers, picaresque adventures on the road, that somehow educe the strange existence of Parker, a guy who had to make a living.
White Hunter Black Heart
A carefully cultivated work of art, with a bit of what Orson Welles would call “sidearm snookery.” The nature of the mummery calls for a background theme slowly filtered through the foreground. It explodes in the sublime and terrible catastrophe to lay bare the theme, which is the wishful thinking of Eliot (“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”) vis-à-vis the artist.
The successive stages of the argument, which is specifically formulated around the film director in a roman à clef, depict him wresting the apparatus from external control, escaping from its bonds by a device from Nemerov (“So with the poet and the secret wish”), entering upon The Conquest of the Irrational, and finally submitting to humility.
These are the necessary and bitter steps. A film about filmmaking, like 8½ or Hollywood Ending.
The opening nightmare pays homage to Hitchcock and J. Lee Thompson, and states the theme.
The treatment of this prelude is conventional to the point of exasperation, and is therefore ironically placed in stylistic counterpoise to the surreal precision of the rest, which is a virtuosic synthesis of countless films (among them Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects, High Noon, and Freebie and the Bean) in a running patchwork or a system of flourishes, as when Hi Diddle Diddle is leisurely invoked to cap the joke about the rookie’s father buying protection for him.
The film begins with a tour de force: a car theft ring returning luxury models to a factory trailer, busted and pursued in a shower of sparks along the Harbor Freeway.
This gang is itself the high-priced spread, lunching at the rich young rookie’s favorite restaurant. The underside of this noonday veneer is an unremitting spiritual vision of darkness in which the mind is overwhelmed.
There follows the twofold indoctrination of the untrained disciple and the incomplete master. The structure is remarkable for establishing a variation or variations on a theme with a complete finish closing and advancing the series.
In short, the material is treated with artistic exactitude not to exhaustion but to fruition. Eastwood’s skill is quite evident in the flying gag between buildings with a burning background, as in Firefox.
This all works like one of Hitchcock’s storyboarded gags, with each and every idea popping up like a light bulb. The free-floating tenor of Eastwood’s style is adapted to a finely-modulated “bundle of discrete images,” nowhere more evident than in the scene where a gangster with a police badge is playing up to the rookie’s wife in the very home where the rookie’s nightmare has him before a police board accusing him of having killed his brother (and so wearing a badge under false pretenses).
None of this is ever explicitly stated, so that the film hews close to the surface at all times, as closely as possible, stretching the point for affability and to get a taut laugh.
The technique is very dapper. As the Bullitt chase on the LAX runways bursts into The Killing, Eastwood interjects a POV of two million dollars lying on the tarmac.
The texts at the
beginning and the end are presumably written by W.W. Beauchamp. The first
movement lasts fifteen minutes and culminates in the image of the “cut whore.”
Thirty-five minutes in, English Bob brings on the train and the entire
mechanism is working. There is a momentary homage to Death Wish.
One-Eyed Jacks (as well as The Rifleman) has its place in the scheme of things. “He’s my biographer,” says the Duke (or the Duck), and Eastwood went on Charlie Rose’s show afterward with a biographer of his own.
”Whore’s gold” buys the vengeance for a whore’s grievance.
The debilitating effect of memory in Firefox, which is built into the apparatus, is assigned to an aria here. A measure of Welles’ Touch of Evil occurs, and there is a startling effect in the drawings of the two “wanted” cowboys, which don’t ring true at first but have a poetic justice all their own.
The expulsion and return theme is simply stated. The effect of this bit of dialogue—KID: They had it coming. WILLIAM: We’ve all got it coming, kid.—is Hamlet modified by Frost.
There is a subtle homage paid to Cat Ballou. Before Little Bill’s demise, there’s a flash in Gene Hackman’s performance that makes a second or two of film worth the famous fight scene in Torn Curtain.
The ending resolves a lot of pussyfooting around True Grit’s grand experiment, which is to represent the West as a state of mind reflected in language, and also pays tribute to The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.
A Perfect World
The unique structure, in which the first shot recurs at the end with a different or intensified meaning, was improved in the filming into a work of pure poetry (compare the last shot of The Bridges of Madison County). The camera moves over grass and a Casper mask and money in the breeze, a man is lying there smiling, cut to the sun and a hawk flying, the title appears, cut to a helicopter just overhead. It could be Pippa Passes, directed by Eastwood by way of Bergman.
A Perfect World is unique in my experience for having inspired the New York Times and the Chicago Sun-Times to a discernment which one or the other achieves upon the rarest of occasions, but never both at once. This left the two reviewers at The Washington Post playing good and bad cop-out, respectively.
I detect in Eastwood from at least Every Which Way But Loose on at least a kinship with Stroheim in his sense of humor and patient psychological realism, and also here you see his montage, the camera never moves except to cover an action sequence (mounted on a car’s hood, for example). The extremely lightfooted editing has the same function as a steadily-moving camera, it allows things to be discovered, it allows for instantaneous changes of mood.
As the New York Times observed, there are many references to other films. The main structural component is Bonnie and Clyde, largely observed in the town shootout and getaway, and also at the end. Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz figures as the prison break’s basis, and observe how minute the quotations can be: the manner of filming the ever-smiling department store clerks directly reflects the giggling ladies in the “absent-minded professor” scene of Welles’ The Stranger, and further by suggestion ekes out this rapid little sketch of a main street store.
Eastwood is also capable of a few quick riffs à la Schlesinger. Costner is wounded by the boy, lurches toward him like Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, then turns toward his tied-up victims with a jackknife like Alan Arkin in Wait Until Dark, then... does something else (this whole scene is calculated finally to evoke the assassin in Lewis Allen’s Suddenly).
It all takes place in Texas just before President Kennedy’s assassination, and rather bravely gets to the heart of the matter, something (the critics also observed this) beyond crime and punishment.
That opening sequence serves another purpose, it acts like the opening number of Minnelli’s The Band Wagon to settle the matter artistically at the outset and so permit the director to work freely for a while. Eastwood outdoes Minnelli by going two hours before the final helicopter-out and Lennie Niehaus’s orchestral theme (Texas Rachmaninoff) spill the beans that this is a great picture.
The Bridges of Madison County
Considerations of art, the more tangible side of White Hunter Black Heart. This is significantly a co-production of Amblin and Malpaso (Kathleen Kennedy and Clint Eastwood are the producers). Baudelaire and Hawthorne meet in the film, whose secondary theme was stated in J. Lee Thompson’s St. Ives, the equivalence of film and dreams.
The central situation figures in The 39 Steps. Eastwood displays the large farmhouse kitchen with a corner shot. In the prelude/interlude/postlude, Spielberg’s dim suburbia is gradually permeated with sunlight and birds. “Casta diva” is borrowed from Malle’s Atlantic City. Meryl Streep models her performance on the great Anna Magnani for various reasons.
Eastwood opens up in the pickup-truck scene (with a “floating” camera). “You just got off the train because it was pretty,” says Francesca, “without knowing anyone there?”
His approach to the covered bridges is a cinematographic study, and also an adequate representation of a photographic session outdoors, with birdsong, etc.
Kincaid washing up might reflect John Sturges’ The Capture; his gorilla story is part of a tribute to Woody Allen. There is a subtle emulation of Paul Newman’s direction. “Ancient Evenings” and W.B. Yeats co-exist, as in Norman Mailer’s novel. “Le Vin des Artistes” is transposed at first by a careless observer: “He’s getting her drunk, that’s what happened. Maybe he forced her, that’s why she couldn’t tell us.” The confrontation is explicitly stated: “the American family ethic... seems to have hypnotized the country.”
Nabokov expresses a novelist’s wish for an art of painting capable of rendering a landscape reflected “mimetically” in a parked car. There’s a Nabokovian awareness of cars as small enclosures. The abstract quality of the dialogue is coped with by Streep with an Italian accent (which gives rise to further developments, and complements the sculptural objectivity of the style); Eastwood finds a natural formality: “This kind of certainty comes but just once in a lifetime.” A famous scene from The Glass Menagerie is quoted.
A particularly fine night exterior at the bridge has the immediate registration of most of the backgrounds, with the inset quality of some of them (a close-up of Streep getting her picture taken shows their two trucks seen in the distance across the bridge; the family returns home and walks across the yard revealing an unused set of swings behind them); the lighting of this shot brings to mind the garage scene in Hollow Triumph (The Scar).
Eastwood makes use of Orson Welles’ discovery in The Magnificent Ambersons that storefront windows are a reflective source of material. A very complicated effect is initiated by Streep’s crestfallen look in the jazz club (out of Manhattan). A remarkable Steadicam shot moves from interior to exterior night seamlessly. Various films have a fleeting resemblance: D.O.A., Casablanca, Warren Beatty’s Love Affair, The Year of Living Dangerously, Lolita, Anna Karenina, etc.
“Whatever it is that makes an artist look like an artist to the world,” says Clint Eastwood as Kincaid, “is just a feature I don’t have.”
“That’s what an artist does best,” i.e., provide illumination, says Francesca about Kincaid, who earlier protests “I’m not an artist—that’s the curse of being too well-adjusted ...too normal.” The final shot expresses, by way of Byron, a conclusion like that of Wake of the Red Witch, for example.
Eastwood is one of a number of directors like Bob Rafelson who have come to grips with natural lighting; his sound editing is also among the best.
There is prodigious stage management of objects at the end (bracelet, book, medallion, etc.) forming a fugal stretto of symbolic language meant to express the whole film in about a minute, or accomplish a resolution.
Beauty and Truth at the mortal divide (The Eiger Sanction) between study and practice, the one inevitable and the other. The magnetic pull of the Golden Treasury is lost in the seat of action, the actual touch of the painter’s brush is on the living material and not toeing the mark.
So much for the outer framework. The classical references of a homespun revolutionary government are liberally borrowed to cover a large indebtedness or liability until one asks not, etc.
The Secret Service agents are from Kafka, the main treatment of the theme in this aspect is from Welles. The situation winnows down to a scoundrel in his last refuge and the unalterable conviction of his place in the scheme of things. The structure collapses and expands around this event with repeats, the rich young wife dies shot twice, two shots nearly hit the jewel thief and his daughter, the jade-and-gold letter opener passes from the victim’s hands into the artist’s and then bears witness.
Hitchcock figures repeatedly, from Blackmail to Dial M for Murder and Rear Window. Richard Brooks’ Wrong Is Right is cited for the presidential prerogative and the flunkey’s recording. The central structure is oddly reflective of Beaumont’s “Miniature” on The Twilight Zone (dir. Walter Grauman).
Pink Cadillac for the false identity, The Gauntlet for Cafe Alonzo, The Magnificent Ambersons (of which Eastwood is a student in The Bridges of Madison County) for the staircase and stained glass of the baronial manor.
The direction works hand in hand with Goldman’s tightly cinematic sequence of small details, outfitting the screenplay for the camera with adept portraits in all the characters, who are played equally. The final accord is on the set in such constructed images as the two bronze ladies at the castle door, each with an upheld lamp, the small dressings of each scene in speaking detail and utmost realism, placed in the film by rapid surmise as nimble, precise cutting.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
A coarse, brutal and bold joke is the basis for the entire structure. “I knew you when you was a two-bit hustler on Bull Street,” Minerva says alluding to it as she counters a squirrel’s request for sustenance. The midrange of the film has fine comedy and dramatic acuity, the surface is Savannah and Eastwood’s technique.
Not seeing the hilarity underneath the tragedy, some critics complained of tempo and length. It’s a political joke, the nouveau riche occupant of Mercer House is a man of culture and sophistication, he kills a shop boy of violent temperament and criminal proclivities who has menaced him, but in truth they were lovers. The two lie dead on a Persian carpet after a trial and acquittal.
The refinements of exposition isolate Eastwood at his Tribune desk like a Zen island whilst the waves of so-called journalism ebb and flow around him.
He breezes through the zoo because it’s a breeze of a zoo.
The equipoise of Eastwood and Isaiah Washington as Beachum is clearly stated. Beachum’s daughter draws a picture with blue sky and yellow sun and bird markings like a last Van Gogh.
Porterhouse, the accountant, is a throwaway. As in Firefox, memory is a crippling burden. “Reporters with hunches,” reflecting the new amateurism, are undesirable.
Eastwood’s mistress reveals their affair to her non-smoking husband (his editor) by saving his cigarette butts in an ashtray by her bed. This is not shown but stated by the husband to Eastwood, a bit of Alpine comedy.
“Isolated” is the way one is said to feel, yet “the crooked shall be made straight.” There is the cigarette gag from Meet John Doe.
The opening is from The Right Stuff. Marcia Gay Harden’s briefing is from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The crucial shot is the last, which is developed out of the masterpiece Altman made before his first masterpiece, Countdown (followed by That Cold Day in the Park). It certainly helps to know these films, but the critics’ understanding stopped at Grumpy Old Men and Apollo 13 (except Richard Corliss of Time, who found that last shot “haunting”), even though the script and direction are simplified as much as possible, especially in the opening scenes, so that even a film critic can understand them. Not that the film is easily diminished thereby, despite a certain feeling of constraint. On the contrary, the razor-sharp satire benefits from the bare-bones approach as still more daring, and then ultimately the film transcends even that. But if there’s one thing our critics fear more than art pure and simple, it’s razor-sharp satire.
Anyway, there’s the modulation of the theme out of Heartbreak Ridge, a secondary theme from The Eiger Sanction, and a general expansion of the technical expertise acquired in Firefox. And there’s the modulation of the image of the Russian satellite, passing through a stage very close to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
In a way, though, the critics can’t be held entirely at fault. What’s being expressed is perhaps not generally understood, or if it were, why make Space Cowboys?
Los Angeles is portrayed at the opening as a helicopter night exterior that develops into a crime scene. The evocations of L.A. (between Long Beach and Burbank) have a cumulative accuracy, and in one case lead to a joke: the factory scene is lightly sketched-in out of D.O.A. by way of Chinatown, and the receptionist is a Valley girl.
The structure draws in a tight rein of “connectedness”, then dazzles in the manner of Seurat’s portrait of Félix Fénéon, to give a complex picture of Los Angeles as a city dying of its own flakes.
The sound editing registers a great deal (which is to say, a useful amount) of subtlety.
The acting is excellent, an expression of its settings (in the lapidary sense), and rises to Eastwood’s rendition in the last scenes of a man with a heart transplant, a fine coup.
In view of the immediate critical response, there is a prophetic touch in the killer’s identification with the name of Eastwood’s boat (The Following Sea), and thus with hangers-on of the type satirized in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories.
The ending suggests The Martian Chronicles as an ultimate provenance.
For this, Eastwood magnifies a technique deployed over the years, where the focal plane is kept in the foreground, allowing backgrounds to coalesce into large-scale abstractions, as can be seen here in the final night exterior on the riverbank. The general technique is for once allowed free rein, or rather it’s slowly unleashed in a continuous stream of variants and variations. An almost imperceptible focus-pulling creates depth in the camera, which is situated to reveal the actors one by one this way, like varying stage lighting. Or backgrounds fade and blur into congruity with blank walls and spaces like the interrogation room. Or lighting and focus combine in a complex articulation of relationships in depth. The comprehensive camera technique has furthermore great play with spatial organization on the flat plane, the classical technique of Hathaway and Losey.
The free modulation of each shot, which also and at the same time is governed by a deeply-informed and intimate realism, mirrors the technique of the screenwriter, whose surfaces are realistic East Coast speech, with the actual drama occurring in the symbolism underneath. Somebody had to do this, and the fact is when you get behind the tragic mythomania of a place like Boston, you find what Yeats found in Shakespeare, hilarity. The freedom of the script and the freedom of the camera treatment are based on a complete understanding of the materials involved, and so in turn give great freedom to the actors, who are said to have turned in scenes after one or two takes, often.
There is an unmistakable ambience of Arthur Miller in the drama, an awareness of The Crucible and also something of A View from the Bridge. There is also a carefully cultivated theme from Deliverance which bears out a derivation from Robbe-Grillet’s roman nouveau Le Voyeur in the most humorous possible way, as a side bet which pays off at the conclusion of the investigation, if not of the film. And there is an effective splice, you might call it, of The Spiral Staircase.
The recurrence of Eastwood’s musical theme is rather Godardesque. The sound editing is, if possible, even more richly detailed than it was in Blood Work (note also the helicopter view of the crime scene from that film, developed more fully), and the art direction is in a word exemplary.
It all ends in the vision of redeemed Bostonians and judgment deferred, after a scene from Shakespeare, with a parade. With three or four things going on all the time, it’s most important to see this effectively projected and not as at the fabulously overpriced Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, where the seats are reserved and the sound is jackhammer-loud.
Eastwood is asking Ray Charles about early influences, and they both say Meade Lux Lewis at the same time, laughing.
You sit at the piano and hit tones, what comes out evolves into the movie expansiveness of Tatum and Peterson, Nat King Cole’s mysterious precision (from Ellington’s abstract sparsity), or the raw elegance of Professor Longhair (who practiced on thrown-out pianos). Eastwood clarifies Tatum’s florid lines and Peterson’s nervous ones, shows rather Cole’s virtuosity, and the Professor repaired those pianos himself.
Polymaths like Ray Charles of the crackling sparkling big-city sound and Dave Brubeck with his full orchestrations, Dr. John’s Bartók-Gottschalk Orleans blues, the great Jay McShann (for whom there’s only fast and slow) with Big Joe Turner, jazz pro Pete Jolly in an uptempo/ballad, et al., are seen to stem from a piano tradition whose increments are Paderewski, Dorothy Donegan and whatnot.
“The blues is the basis of everything,” and all the varieties are related. Marcia Ball plays Longhair in the finale, Fats Domino boogie-woogies “Swanee”, Pinetop Perkins boogies, Otis Spann has two-hand or one-hand tremolos under “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”, Henry Gray gives a foursquare blues in fine singing style (he had to sneak out of the house to learn it).
Eastwood hears it all very clearly. Fats Waller was his original. He brings up bebop with Dr. John, who hears it out of Louis Armstrong, “a little thing”, Thelonious Monk is seen at it, Dr. John echoes it for the camera, also gets the sound of Professor Longhair’s singing voice in the keys. Brubeck has a ripping uptempo blues, Charles Brown a jumping blues. Count Basie and Oscar Peterson take a turn on two pianos. Eastwood begins a slow stretto of performers in bits and pieces, Oscar Peterson and André Previn two-pianos, McShann and Brubeck four-hands in the studio, McShann and Perkins, the Doctor and Henry Gray, all leading up to one of Charles’ renditions of “America the Beautiful”, beginning with the fine verses of the third stanza, ending on a gospel note with many a vocal invention on the first stanza.
Million Dollar Baby
The title signifies a boxer (in this case a girl) who is carefully trained over several years to get a shot at the big money, and a priceless infant.
The fallen state of humanity is depicted in a Lincoln metaphor extrapolated from Nicholas Ray (King of Kings), MoCushla injured by a dirty blow from the Blue Bear, an East Berlin prostitute, is left paralyzed from the shoulders down.
The out-of-focus backgrounds are allowed to coalesce into cogent abstract compositions, a piece of gym equipment silhouetted against a lighted window, a framed picture on a hospital wall. The Hit Pit Gym in Los Angeles has the authentic squalor of such a place, the rhythm of Eastwood’s compositions brings to life its capacity for action and reflection, echoed by a recurring “little phrase”. A delicate theme of John Ford’s has the trainer estranged from his daughter (who returns his letters unopened), on his knees praying and at mass every day, with hectoring questions about the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception for a young priest, who is seen in one magnificent widescreen composition standing in the foreground left at the open door, with an angular view all the way to the altar on the right. There is a good deal of play with lighted elements of composition in dark backgrounds, again with a controlled sense of abstraction.
The major theme is mirrored in a puny, spirited fellow who calls himself “Danger”, punching the air and boasting idly at the gym, until he’s badly bloodied in an ad hoc fight with another regular who wants to “put him down.”
There is the former boxer who lost an eye fighting and is now the trainer’s assistant, there is the lady boxer’s good-for-nothing family, too fastidious to respect her career and too grubby to resist her winnings, there is her opponent, who likes to fight dirty and whom the trainer refers to (in her presence) as a “skanky Kraut”.
“The latest freak show” prevails upon an aged trainer to give her instruction. No doubt, this is a risky proposition. The main line follows her ambition toward the championship, with a secondary one of his aspiration (by way of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and Thoreau) to a satisfactory cabin and homemade lemon meringue pie.
This is all very tragic and cathartic and also highly comic by turns. Eastwood’s tremendous speed and exactitude are not only reflected in the nature of the story, they’re demanded as a counterpoint to the symbolic nature of the drama. All of his efforts to secure a rendition so true to life that one reviewer complained it was a hackneyed boxing movie are vastly repaid by not only freeing the drama but giving it a high degree of articulation as well. His attention to the actors is visible in a careful scene of the ex-boxer (Morgan Freeman) telling his tale in profile, with the camera correctly seeing his glassy eye at moments (a medium shot). Freeman’s scenes with Danger are easily virtuosic, and in one of them he just walks away with the Oscar. Every bit of the acting is first-rate, however, down to small but key roles. Hilary Swank earns her Oscar by doing precisely what is required without a flaw, and with an Ozark accent.
Don Siegel and Sergio Leone directed Eastwood well, John Sturges was perhaps not as successful, but Eastwood found in his approach a key to his acting future. In his own films, you rarely see the seamless polish of his performances for Siegel and Leone, rather you get the slight instability of one for Sturges used as a pivot for creativity—which is defined in Million Dollar Baby this way: “She’s a better fighter than you are,” the trainer tells his lady boxer, “she’s younger, she’s stronger, and she’s more experienced. Now, what are you gonna do about it?” Substitute any adjectives you want, the craftsman submits, the artist invents. And so, as so often, there is an entirely new invention here, which may best be judged in the trainer’s first lesson to the girl. It’s a highly-accurate, deeply-adjudged and astoundingly-executed rendition of the character, insofar as it or any other prominent feature has to exist beyond its structural manifestation in the complete work.
It would be difficult to recall a film as perfectly structured, which is to say having its component parts so firmly interconnected, for all the insufficiencies of digital filming.
Flags of Our Fathers
Eastwood set out to make a film as bad as Saving Private Ryan, and for the most part he has succeeded. The compressed wits extrude certain effects which have not been achieved before, however, such as the state of mind reflected in soldiers listening to a Japanese propaganda broadcast who suddenly hear a girl singing “I’ll Walk Alone”, or the conclusion of Ira Hayes’ speech to the Congress of American Indians, “There’s goin’ to be greater understandin’ between Indians and white men as a result of this war. It’s goin’ to be a better world,” which is precisely like the speech addressed by Jackie Robinson to the camera in The Jackie Robinson Story. On the other hand, a fine lateral shot of the black sandy beach, brief as it is and novel in its way, shows how the film could have been made more correctly, if that had been desired, and resembles The Longest Day.
Furthermore, Eastwood achieves in Adam Beach’s performance as Hayes something he has never done, because his style and technique do not call for it. It is a fully-fledged dramatic representation and carries the essential suffering of the film’s message, which has little or nothing to do with Iwo Jima and everything to do with the kind of film Eastwood’s co-producer has made a byword of greatness in the mouths of an ignorant public.
The flag is raised on Mt. Suribachi, twice, those involved are brought home to sell war bonds. They re-enact the event on a papier-mâché float in a stadium full of spectators, and a four-star Marine general compliments them, “If that doesn’t pry open their wallets, nothing will.”
The flags of our fathers are the individual frames of film in every motion picture worthy of the name, the Battle of Iwo Jima is fought every time a director accomplishes some victory over foolishness and chicanery and all the rest of it, and if you want the facts, Eastwood reserves them for the end credits, which roll beside snapshots of the real men and the real place. Otherwise, and without any doubt, the theme of every digital film is the digital film.
Letters from Iwo Jima
If Kurosawa had directed Tora Tora Tora from the Japanese side, as he had planned, it would have to be a film very much like this, except that Eastwood has the dual advantage of having seen and understood Rhapsody in August, and so we have something like a late masterpiece by Kurosawa.
This is the key film, placing Flags of Our Fathers in the correct position of a gloss on Mann’s The Outsider.
The cold, washed-out film stock through a digital intermediate expresses the final period of the war. The visual special effects add a note of incredulity. The rest is Kurosawa.