“To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985)
Former Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich’s novel “To Live and Die in L.A.” might have seemed a natural for cinematic adaptation, given that the book is written in such a lean, spare style that it practically screams “film treatment”; the composition of the book marked by alternating a detailed, though stylishly unimaginative descriptions of settings (the selection of shooting locations and compilation of elements for the director’s mise-en-scene practically jump off the page) with dialogue imbued with that faux hard-boiled tone popular with scenarists who mistake cynical plot synopsis for revealing conversation (a comparison with the novels of George V. Higgins illustrates the difference between dialogue as character and talk as mere plot momentum).
The novel also features rival parallel investigations by Los Angeles based Secret Service agents to nab the notorious counterfeiter Rick Masters, structurally assuring the illusion of increased intensity of suspense, but actually diluting the competing ends of the procedural aspects of the story, especially when the character lines are diverted in unnecessary directions such as Agent Hart’s encounters with a new neighbor whose apartment has been robbed. The insertion of this awkwardly conceived minor subplot- which goes no where and has no relevance to either the plot nor reveals untold nuances of character -may hint at a romantic relationship, but it is entirely extraneous to the narrative and imprudently halts the momentum of the book.
The book also suffers from an abundance of by-the-numbers plotting and a finale which betrays the assertion of Masters’ professional caution in the service of a hurried, lazily constructed wrap up of disappointing contrivance. However, what the novel does feature are characters who are obsessively driven to the point of abandoning all sense of lawfulness (and certainly good sense), mentally blurring the line between the pursuer and the prey by myopically cemented to the process of the hunt within an ever darkening moral funnel: characteristics essential for gestation within the filmic oeuvre of William Friedkin, whose protagonists are most successfully drawn when they cross the line into obsession, whether through psychological fixation or situational desperation.
From the start, the film engages in important structural rearrangements to the novel intended to focus and intensify thefilm’s immersion into Friedkin’s signature twilight world of cops who find themselves overwhelmed by their darker, obsessive impulses. First, the character of Jim Hart (Michael Greene) has been reassigned from the novel-length role to a brief appearance as the retiring partner of Agent Richard Chance (William L. Petersen), a move which intensifies the focus of the hunt, while also psychologically ramping up Chance’s reason for his pathological pursuit of Masters (Willem Dafoe), as opposed to the book’s rather unapologetic characterization of a naturally immoral renegade, an aspect of the novel which ultimately imbued the story with a welcome unpredictability of action- though too often randomly laid aside for the convenience of the situation -as Petievich demonstrated a willingness- in fictional terms, at least -to abuse the boundaries of agency conduct; though a last-minute reticence toward his own character’s actions which accounted for much of the novel’s late hour contortions of logic, a problem which Friedkin’s sometimes short-sighted character alterations seem unable to have reconstituted into a more satisfyingly amoral continuance of consequences; especially in a late hour transformation of John Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance’s new, less ethically equivocable partner, which instead of packing a cynically ironic wallop, as obviously intended, it leaves the audience scratching its collective noggins.
Structurally, the film is light years cleaner than its literary source (it jettisons an unnecessary subplot between Hart and an attractive neighbor that often stops the book dead in its tracks), though the addition of an opening sequence in which Hart and Chance foil a Presidential bombing attempt is not merely badly conceived and unconvincingly staged (Friedkin preposterously conceives of a “clean” explosive which evaporates all trace evidence, including leaving an adjacent agent, not only unmarred, but unstained as well; an act of the supernatural transcending anything found in “The Exorcist”.), but completely extraneous to the plot; a bit of directorial showmanship that completely misfires, especially considering other streamlining of the plot essentials. More importantly, it tells us nothing about the characters. The film’s narrative thinning also puts an additional burden on the more brittle story elements, not the least of which is the increased prominence of Chance as a problematic representative agent of good. The film embraces a rather simpleminded view of the world in which an almost antiquated code of machismo is the order of the day, despite the inclusion prominent female roles. These are relegated to curiously subsidiary positions considering one’s eventual importance in shaping the ultimate fate of the principals; with character conceptions so sketchy that the actual status of Masters’ female confederate is left one of the film’s many unattended mysteries. So too is the rationale for Chance’s reputation as a reckless maverick (his love of base jumping is demonstrative of taking a “chance”, get it?) since the opening scene demonstrates a temperament thoroughly in control. Subsequently, the renegade degeneration in his code of conduct and its subsequent seductive pull toward his straight arrow partner is never explored, thus we’re left to accept the extremities of behavior at less than convincing face value.
If the film is less gritty than Friedkin’s “The French Connection” (it doesn’t have the advantage of those marvelously atmospheric urban New York settings), then moral stakes are a bit more overtly delineated, camouflaged only by a new and unwelcome affinity of Friedkin’s to mire the proceedings in decorous flourishes that aim for a “Miami Vice” hipness, but are merely distracting affectations. Was his early, more uncluttered documentarian sensibility lulled into a narcoleptic haze by the neon glow of Los Angeles? Unfortunately, the same absence of utilitarian efficiency cannot explain away the conspicuously hackneyed dialogue which peppers the film like a bad pulp detective novel attempting to mimic its betters. Every utterance is a collision of the obvious attempt to slickly contemporize the tough guy patter from film noir mysteries, though it emerges as second-rate Quinn Martin cop vs. crook dialogue. Raggedy elements of noir are everywhere except in the film’s visual scheme which emphasizes, not the shadowy netherworld of different shades of darkness (a traditional visual allegory for moral rot if ever there was one), but of sun-baked open horizons, exposing its characters to an unsympathetic spotlight revealing their flaccidity of conception rather than demonstrating any tragic surrender to irredeemable corruption. Is noir possible outside of it’s restrictively and densely shadowed aesthetic or can the genre transcend beyond monochromatic visual tropes? Michael Mann appears to have achieved just this in both “Thief” and the shamefully under-appreciated “Manhunter”, though his much admired “Heat”- despite impressively detailed robbery sequences -is an ultimately empty exercise in epic genre overreach. Friedkin is far less successful in a similar environment. his characters, now operating in what is essentially a moral vacuum, with the complete abnegation even the most basic principles of honor among thieves. In this mire of nihilism, where is any seductive element evident in Chance’s behavior- certainly not in any measurable success in the pursuit of his nemesis – which would eventually lure in his morally grounded partner, except for the necessity to keep the script’s blueprint for predictable duplicitous backstabbing to continue churning like an overactive hamster wheel? The concluding truly cynical coda suggesting that hell is a self-constructed place on earth, is laced with dishonestly contrived irony. It’s a clip and pasting of moral juggling of the most disingenuous kind. While Friedkin’s is attracted to protagonists who are obsessively compulsive in their goals, but there is a huge difference between actions born of nihilistic values and those which are taken simply for unrestricted expediency of plotting. None of the judgment calls of the Secret Service, as dramatized in “To Live and Die in L.A”, make a great deal of sense, with the department seemingly indifferent to the cold-blooded murder of one of its own. This agency passivity (though typical of the source novel’s view of agency politics, which is anything but kind) seems existent only to allow Chance to operate with total (and evidently undetectable) disregard of rules, regulations or the law.
Most alarming of all is the level of disengagement to be found in the performances; an area of uncontestable strength in Friedkin’s early work. With the exception of Dean Stockwell who, in his silky portrait of a duplicitous attorney, who effortlessly walks the razor’s edge between the bad guys and the bad guys with badges (he seems to be the only character in the film who understands how things really work) while administering mercenary solicitude, the rest of the cast fails to achieve credible immersion in their roles. As Rick Masters, Willem Dafoe is effectively creepy and altogether convincing as a master counterfeiter (an early scene in which he manufactures a stack of bogus twenties is easily the best sequence in the film), until he falls prey to the whims of an overstimulated scenario calling him to transmute from a criminal mastermind into a mad dog killing machine (Masters dispatches with so many associates, one wonders with whom he intends to do future business?), always the sign of an eleventh hour poverty of creative judgment.
Why is it that movies featuring people involved in Intelligence always seem in short supply of that very ingredient? If one were to admire a movie simply for its technical polish, its proficiency of craftsmanship alone, then John Frankenheimer’s “Ronin” would find an elevated mantel of honor above the diminishing crowd of far less impressively wrought but eminently more substantial films. However, a motion picture of consequence requires more substantive attributes than a capable cast, razor sharp editing and an exhausting abundance of extremely well designed and shot action sequences (all of which “Ronin” has in spades); it also requires a minimum of creative acumen in plotting and character development to elevate the film above the generic equivalent of a cinematic B12 injection. In this regard, the film suffers from an acute case of artistic anemia; a circumstance that is particularly troublesome since the deficiencies of the film’s narrative coherence are a result of deliberate design.
The film is constructed as an elaborate series of chronically circuitous actions, which are propelled by motivations deliberately obscured through painfully colorful convolutions of dialogue (so unnaturally stylish that it is bluntly obvious that J.D. Zeik’s co-scenarist is none other than that master of chatter who effortlessly sacrifices subtleties and truth for an overly inflated quotability quotient: a pseudonymously concealed David Mamet), making even a marginal synopsis virtually impossible. A shadowy Irish lass named Dierdre (Natasha McElhone) assembles a group of five equally shadowy men- Sam (Robert DeNiro), Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), Larry (Skip Sudduth) and Spence (Sean Bean) -whose sole shared qualification (though this too is questionable) seems to be a résumé including service as a Cold War operative. The reason for their assemblage is the pursuit of a metal case, the contents of which continually come into question, but will forever remain unrevealed.
The film is centered entirely on this Hitchcockian MacGuffin; a narrative hook whose importance is emphasized only by the level of carnage with which the hired guns are allowed to get away with. Nowhere in the film is there any suggestion that any law enforcement, neither local nor international, has taken the slightest notice of the alarmingly frequent public acts of indiscriminate wholesale slaughter which result from the pursuit of the elusive case. Nor is there even a moment’s reflection by any character in the film that the situation has gotten out of control in proportion to the criticality of obtaining their stubbornly slippery objective; all of which presents a twofold problem with the “heroes” of the film in that, by the evidence of their actions, they must all be deemed both irretrievably incompetent and sociopathic, neither being conducive to deserving an audience’s empathy. Even if intended as a black comedy, it would be impossible to justify the volume of collateral fatalities, but this film is humorlessly presented in deadly earnest.
Considering the expertise the assembled crew are supposed to possess, virtually no time is spent in the planning of the case’s interception- we are simply informed by Sam that “it’s a good plan” -though the eventual execution of the operation is contrary to such claims, consisting of little more than a sloppy ambush, an extended car chase and a chaotic gun battle; none of which is complimentary in assessing the team’s skill set in either planning or execution. The follow-up chase is a textbook example of action for its own sake; its very presence in the film being a de-emphasized admission that the ambush was fated to fail. Rather than adding complexity to the plot, the sudden introduction of an internecine element into the team is less a clever plot twist than a troubled screenplay, completely bereft of logic, throwing a distracting bone to the audience to obscure the rapidly imploding narrative. After all, why allow the audience a quiet moment to contemplate the competence of Dierdre’s confederates in compiling the team in the first place (with, at this point, two of the members shown to be unreliable) when you can muddy up the waters with an assortment of holdover Soviet hardliners who are conveniently introduced and eliminated, with no possible reason except deflect from such problematic questions, and to create the illusion that something critical is transpiring?
Ignoring the total absence of professional efficiency or lack of moral conscience in the central characters, the film occasionally switches gears and moons nostalgically over a movie-fed romanticized view of Cold War agents in which espionage is depicted as an almost sacred yet secular higher calling, battling the forces of anarchy which threaten all of the civilized world; a view beautifully dispelled in one brief monologue near the conclusion of Martin Ritt’s superlative “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”, and one that is contradictory to the cold-blooded graphic brutality casually executed by both the “good” and “bad” factions (if such a determination can be realized) in the film. Attempting a philosophical connection to this antithetical adherence to a code of honor/moral vacuity among thieves, the film introduces yet another shadowy figure, Jean-Pierre, an associate of Vincent’s who spends his time manipulating miniature samurai figures (the allegorical hints are as subtle as a haymaker) and waxing rhapsodically as to the history of the 47 Ronin; a story which is intended to imbue a profound historic antecedence, though in the context of haphazard mercenary chicanery emerges more as cheeky moral predestination. The contextual referencing itself is clearly redundant as the same information was imparted in rather unnecessary opening title cards, though Jean-Pierre’s retelling is given substantially more dramatic weight than it merits through the pleasing gracefulness of Michael Lonsdale’s relievedly quiet performance. However, nothing may excuse the blundering plot miscalculation when Vincent asks for Jean-Pierre’s assistance in locating the lost case, a task which Vincent is assured can be accomplished with a simple phone call. If this is so, then this opens up an already problematic screenplay to a myriad of questions it is not equipped to answer. For instance, if the location of both the case and its interceptors can be found with a simple inquiry, then why all of the cross-country calamity? Why all of the innocent collateral damage? And how does this reconcile with a last minute reveal that explains a major character’s true motivations and target other than the mysterious case; a development that begs an even greater question: if the case is suddenly disavowed of material importance to the plot, why were so many other murderous factions so eager to possess it? In essence, the screenwriters have cobbled together a house of cards that is unable to withstand even the most forgiving scrutiny. “Ronin” is also a textbook example of a film caper whose execution is incongruous to the expressly secretive nature of the featured enterprise; pretending to exist in a phantom plane of covert activity while announcing their every movement with a reckless exercise in destructive excess; here highlighted by a (far too) lengthy car chase through the highways and tunnels of Paris, exacting an astonishing number of what concussive and fiery deaths of unlucky civilians.
The film has been excitedly appraised for its old-school adherence to non-CGI stunt work, especially in the auto chases (Frankenheimer is a fast car enthusiast) and a return to form, whatever that is supposed to mean. Despite the occasional steep declines his films have fallen into (“99 & 44/100% Dead”, “Prophecy”), Frankenheimer’s directorial skills have never seemed to wane, though they are certainly at the mercy of the material he chooses, especially those projects which are inconsistent with his greatest strengths; a genuine flair for films that feel like great feats of engineering: multi-tiered narratives involving convoluted conspiracies (Curiously, Frankenheimer has never made a film as controlled or powerful as any of his monochromatic efforts; with color, perhaps, adding a distracting and gaudy texture to his live television nurtured aesthetic.), whereas as demonstrated in his interesting subdued failures such as “The Gypsy Moths” and “I Walk the Line”, ruminative subtlety is not his strong suit. However, with “Ronin”, the director , saddled with a dumbbell script, hits the proverbial guard rail once too often and only the dented fenders emerge victorious.
“Heaven Help Us” (1985)
When considering the curious slide in quality in the most popular film genres of the past, if there is a source of more continuously disappointing results than the American comedy, it is certainly that more odoriferous of sub-genres: the teen comedy? So imagine the odds of such an adolescently inspired opus managing an unexpected but precarious tightrope walk between the expected elements of lascivious gross out pranksterism (displaying a genuinely funny brand of comedy) and an unexpectedly touching subplot which manages to capture the hesitant vulnerabilities and insecurities of first love.
That “Heaven Help Us” also exists within the generally unsatisfying group of films which immerse themselves in the ripe but easy parodic target that is the piety of organized religion (herein identified, as is the case with most films of this sort which rely upon what is considered an easily mockable, as Catholicism), a subject often met with a crassly insultingly disrespectful and stereotypical exaggeration (despite the fertile indigenous possibilities which might nurture genuinely biting satire), “Heaven Help Us” expands upon its own modest achievement through an intelligent (and mature) compilation of the type of details which reveal substantive character depth in an unobtrusively unforced cumulative manner. In fact, despite the sometimes outlandish antics of the youths involved, even the most provocative actions feel completely organic to the characters within the limited context in which the film takes place. Thus rather than the humor feeling forced for the sake of randomly convenient insertions of typical adolescently randy humor, it emerges as natural reactive consequences of the the particulars of situation and the specifics of character. The film also manages to poke at the abuses of institutional religion without engaging in a callous devaluation of the spiritual value of faith, and it’s this resistance to an easy acquiescence toward pubescent coarseness that makes “Heaven Help Us” stand a cut above the average film of its kind.
Taking place in the autumnal days of American youth’s innocence in 1965, the film follows the experiences of transplanted Bostonian Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy) at Brooklyn’s St. Basil’s Academy for Boys, and his association with a quartet of fellow students who although initially seemingly light years apart in behavioral temperament seem to find a bonding common core with a like-minded resistance to the institutionalized authority under which the students find a constant test of their natural desire for expression of autonomous individuality. However, while rebelliousness is an expected aspect of the teen comedy, it is generally presented as a witless anarchism in the service of sexual prurience; characteristics of which are in trace attendance, but are intelligent modified with a far rarer inclusion of a more compelling formative aspect in regard to actively budding maturity: genuine growing pain- a legitimate and identifiable anxiety beneath the surface of the students’ anarchic spirit. It is this palpable undercurrent of teen angst which lifts the film above its more scatological infantile genre brethren, as the film is wise enough, without overt declarations, to identify the primary source of adolescent anxiety, not from the more casually asserted and excepted excuse of peer pressure, but from the influence of the inherent anxieties expressed by the adults surrounding them and to whom the youths are forcibly attentive enforced to influences irrelevant to whether or not that influence advances a nurturing stability. The film illustrates that this often critically damaging developmental smothering can be the result of both emotionally fractured familial settings and (in the case of St. Basil’s) institutional persecution, and it is to the credit of the surprisingly nuanced screenplay by Charles Purpura that the adult antagonists are treated with an equal sympathy and (with the exception of an extremely funny cautionary speech against Lust by Father Abruzzi (Wallace Shawn) preceding a school dance) never reduced to cartoon stereotypes. It is the reaction to the perception of the stifling of organically spontaneous expressiveness through relentless appeasement to the demands of the adult world which provides the film with its comic tension and its dramatic potency; most delicately balanced with grand gestures of humor, and without the embarrassing histrionics of more acclaimed portrayals of teen angst, such as the mawkish “Rebel Without a Cause”.
For a film intended as a comedy, the narrative intersects with acutely felt traces of deeper emotional issues, such as unresolved loss and grief; the domestic tranquility of both Dunn and his girlfriend Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson) tragically disrupted by close deaths, Dunn’s loss of his parents and Danni’s father’s mistress committing suicide, an act which spirals the parent into a catatonic melancholy. The direct consequences of these deaths upon Dunn, his sister Boo (Jennie Dundas) and Danni result in their being cast into premature roles of adult responsibility and- in essence -the familial providers of strength and consolation; roles which are unfairly demanding considering their youth and, more importantly, unaccompanied by any compensatory assurances that they might exercise that burden of responsibility with autonomy, absent of withering adult scrutiny. This is nowhere more movingly demonstrated than in the relationship between Dunn and Danni, which is initially sparked by the attraction of mutual gestures of resistance to the delinquent behavior of the academically challenged bully Rooney (Kevin Dillon), blossoming with a depth of romantic sensitivity rare in modern American films (almost unheard of in teen comedy) until the sudden interference of threatened adult authority rudely brings about their separation. The fleeting corporeal punishments resulting from the students’ mischief is exposed as trivial in stark contrast to the more harshly felt endurance of pain born of more intimately felt emotional rending.
Early on in the relationship, there is a wonderful moment which subtly explains the entire behavior/consequence dynamic between the teens and the school authorities (representing the actively judgmental but disaffected side of the adult world), disguised with flippancy, in which Danni observes that Dunn is not like the other students, to which he casually replies “I just got here.” That off-handed remark succinctly illustrates the film’s raison d’ètre: that despite the surface preoccupation with youthful irreverence, the undercurrent of gravitas reveals the teen’s anarchic spirit to be as much a coping and survival mechanism as much as a natural expression of spontaneously eruptive iconoclasm.
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)
Frank N. Stein: There’s no crime in giving yourself over to pleasure.
Audience Response (Boston): There is in Massachusetts.
Long a staple of the disappearing urban Midnight Movie circuit, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is a movie discussed in terms of its post-initial release cultural phenomenon rather than as simply a film; albeit one which has profited by taking advantage of a novelty scheduling strategy with each screening’s unashamed encouragement to engage the full range of its audience’s exhibitionist participatory propensities: to, in
essence, become a member of the cast, and thus a culprit in obscuring the genuine merits or demerits of the film on an unpolluted aesthetic level. Cultism run amok- especially when coupled with novelty populist enticements -is bound to generate a great deal of misplaced emphasis on disingenuous critical assessment based on an artificial cultural impact which has more to do with the emergent in-theater pageantry rather than with any intrinsic value in the film: the seduction of empty Populism as an easy and thoughtless substitution for critical acumen.
Every area of cultural endeavor demands a certain amount of popular reactive observant filtering, not only for the necessary promulgation of said endeavors (unfortunately the pursuit of culture is shackled with the necessary evil of some form of patronage, were Art to exist in a vacuum it would lose all meaning) rather than the very idea of Art which is the result of efforts beyond mere craft and into the purview of certain indefinable tangents of humanist instincts. However, when that same audience patronage intrudes on the attended work’s intention- as designed -the resultant deliberate alteration for the sake of the audience’s own self-generated idiosyncratic amusement, a breach is created between artistic intention and mere populist utility, and when the critical estimation of a work is entirely regenerated with this altered form is prominently evaluated above that of the original form- allowing the individualistic interests of public patronage counter the original , a schism is created beyond the mere empty idolatry of cultism, with the work overwhelmed by popular external stimuli; thus not being in actuality what the creative artists intended, but instead becoming a substitute wish fulfillment for the audience: an intentionally calm body of water may be given active ripples by a bystander throwing a rock into the surface. Unfortunately, in critical terms, a puddle is often just a puddle.
Based upon the theatrical musical by Richard O’Brien which mixes a peculiarly slight parodical homage to horror and science fiction films with an aggressively smirky attitude that anchors to the eneterprise an entirely unmerited satisfaction with its own imagined sense of the outrageous, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is a problematic film fundamentally due to its own toothlessness as both film parody and sexual counterculture satire. The film traces (the plot, what there is of it, is tissue thin) the experiences of Brad (Broadway’s Danny Zucco, Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) who find themselves stranded outside of the stately exterior (actually the Bray Studio Mansion, home to the Hammer horror legacy) of the home of one Dr, Frank N. Stein (Tim Curry), an abode which seems to play perpetual host to an unceasing parade of masquerade ball/prom night celebratory excesses the nature of which seem to be strictly an excuse to give the illusion of an energetic backdrop to the rather dull proceedings, yet the nerdy nature of the celebrants- meant to appear outrageous -seem hardly more bohemian in nature than Brad and Janet; which upends later scenes which are meant to introduce the innocents to stimulative spontaneous carnal encounters. It is only with the introduction of Frank. N Stein himself that things ratchet up a notch or two, however this too is limited to Curry’s outlandishly enthusiastic performance, as the script quickly reveals itself to be a splice job assuming that the constant suggestion of B-movie references is sufficient substitution for a clear and coherent script: the film brims with recognizable props from Hammer horror films as if their presence and the nostalgic memories they might conjur, might confer elevated legitimacy to the scenes. Instead of a narrative which introduces, clarifies and develops characters with lucid interaction, we are instead presented with stale and sheepishly familiar Halloween pageantry (which explains the ease with which nonprofessional audience members are able to expertly mimic the onscreen antics without a sense of irony that their source of cultural idolatry is so easily purloined by anyone with pancake make-up and a sewing machine).
Not unlike the film canon of John Waters, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” seems quite content that its own brand of self-congratulatory “excesses”, though even within the genre mocking context of the film, the inclinations toward finding a naturally outrageous nature to any sexual proclivity outside of square-headed heterosexuality is pretty tepid territory without a truly provocative goal. For a film which is confident in its outrageousness, its essential toothlessness embarrassingly asserts itself at every opportunity in which the narrative might take a road less traveled while instead engaging in a self-defeating spineless restraint. Thus, the possibilities inherent in Frank N. Stein’s “obsessions” are given no attention ultimately making all of Curry’s delighted, lip smacking decadence a disappointing come-on with the film continually backing away from any narrative developments flavored with genuinely enjoyable lascivious content.
The middling content and presentation of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” makes the performance of Tim Curry stand out all the more. The film itself never delivers the goods: it’s all tease without any payoff (as opposed to the failure the aforementioned Waters’ films which are entirely comprised of payoff without any practical foreplay), possibly making Curry’s appearance initially seem over-the-top, though this is simply an example of dedicated performance in the midst of a desert of performers suffering from the laziness of undeserved overconfidence that the supposed (but invisible) provocative edge of the material could be used as a crutch sufficient to carry the film. The film is peppered with amusing narrative inserts featuring Charles Gray as the unnamed Criminologist whose presence is a witty virtual reinvention of the bouncing ball from the Fleischer Studios’ Song Cartoons, however, even this humorous device is used unevenly and without ultimate purpose. The songs are often bright and inventive, better appreciated on a soundtrack album than with dilution through the unimaginative staging of director Jim Sharman whose bluntly uncinematic approach to the material belies his theatrical background but discloses no apparent natural instinct for the most basic film aesthetic. Sometimes a puddle is merely a muddle.
“Pale Rider” (1985)
In “Pale Rider”, director Clint Eastwood has fashioned not so much a remake of “Shane” as a reinterpretation of the story’s key elements mixed with a retooling of the basic supernal retributive conventions of his own 1973 “High Plains Drifter”; an amalgam of styles both aesthetic and thematic that while not an entirely successful mesh, does often yield interesting results in the continuation of Eastwood’s personal directorial style; an aesthetic which stresses the spare leanness of storytelling (virtually commiserate with docudrama in its lack of trimmable narrative fat) that is highly reminiscent of his mentor Don Siegel, as opposed to the overtly flamboyant and self-consciously stylized visual histrionics of his other more invisible influence, Sergio Leone; though such storytelling austerity places greater demands on the written material to be complimentary in its lack of sagacity by making every word and gesture carry a contributory value of significance: a trait of certain films which is often mistaken as profundity when, in fact, it might be more practically suggestive of a formal emptiness.
This emptiness actually factors into the true Leone influence as once again, Eastwood’s character is portrayed as a type of nomadic cipher, though in actuality rather than The Man With No Name, is more accurately The Man With No Story: we know no more about him by the end of the film than we do at the beginning, despite the fact that there are myriad opportunities for intimate exploration that are met with frustratingly stony silence. That the true nature of his character remains undefined (not to mention possibly phantasmagorical) is a result of deliberative design, and thus one must ascribe as a calculated pattern in the Eastwood directorial oeuvre. The characters played by Eastwood remain existential ciphers; rather than originating as provocateurs, they seem limited to entering an already embittered arena requiring a moral cleansing by way of a six-shooter; Eastwood plays the avenging angel in Western garb obliterating the frontier Sodom and Gommorah. The religious overtones (rather than purely supernatural echoes which invested “High Plains Drifter” with a sense of Hellbound retribution but without a sophisticated enough development to suggest whether or not that “avenger” was intended as supernal or merely supernatural) of the story are developed commensurately with the film’s swing toward a feminine (not feminist) perspective: something completely new in an Eastwood Western, though it is interesting to note that even this gentler presence is substantially limited to Sarah (Carrie Snodgress) and her young daughter Megan (Sydney Penny), whose early whispered plea for help seems to initiate the appearance of the mysterious Preacher (Eastwood). There is a dual romantic dynamic at play with both Sarah and daughter expressing romantic longings for the enigmatic stranger- suggested by his unflinching willingness to confront menacing antagonists -despite the fact that Sarah is also involved in a tentative relationship with Hull Barret (sensitively played by Michael Moriarty), a propector who rather bravely takes on a role of reasoned leadership among the settlers and becomes an ersatz sidekick and ally to Preacher. However, with the film’s elemental Biblical charged stand of Good vs. Evil, Eastwood boxes himself into a creative paradox: what works to inform the film with this limiting moral primitivism is also what causes the film to fall short of a fully realized vision.
Within the figure of Preacher, there is no flexibility of character (even in “Shane” there exists a tension tension as to whether the title character will hang up his guns or find a more immediate solution to the homesteader’s dilemma) or possibility of a psychic salvation (oddly, Eastwood’s character seems perfectly at peace, especially when in direct, violence-prone confrontations (the one distinguishing feature to “Pale Rider” is the placidity of Preacher’s demeanor, which seems more a product of a Zen-like calm rather than an aggressive certainty of his own superiority with killing, as in the director’s previous two westerns) since- despite the inexorable path to exercising the law of retaliation -Preacher doesn’t even begin to show signs of a tortured psyche igniting a compulsion for vengeance, but rather follows a morally simplified Guardian Angel ethos: shoot or be shot. However, cloistered in this rigidity of conception, Preacher becomes less a character than a force; but of what? Empyream scorekeeping? The Flying Finger of Fate? Despite the allusions to phantamagorical origins, Preacher remaining an enigma leaves an unfortunate vacuum at the center of the film
If there seems a rare complexity of character (in the context of director Eastwood’s western efforts, to this point), it is limited to a few select supporting roles- those which correspond to the familial characters drawn from “Shane” -and that complexity is merely illusionary, since not one of the supporting characters is allowed to cast an influence as to the destination of the story, the central core of the narrative being a violent retribution which has nothing at all to do with the people supposedly championed by the Preacher. The progression of the plot is as fixed as if it were determined by intelligent design by way of a dusty blueprint rather than be left to the rolling dice of Destony. Unfortunately, what is missing from “Pale Rider” is the imaginative contribution of a screenwriter interested in more than an imitative recipe for what has already proven workable in both “High Plains Drifter” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (though certainly with its genesis as far back as his original Leone collaborations), and which by this film might concisely be identified as The Western Gospel According to Clint.
This central problem of enigmatic portagonist extends to Preacher’s ultimate antagonist; not the greedy businessman Coy LaHood (how about that for an unsubtle hint at a character’s deplorable nature?) played to perfection by Richard Dysart, but his mail-order gun-for-hire Marshall Stockburn (well cast with former TV “Lawman” John Russell, who despite a stony countenance that could freeze a bonfire, manages a few precious and telling moments that even the most ruthless of killers have their reachable points of anxiety) who arrives with a half dozen”deputies”, although by all evidence they are merely hired assassins. Yet, the true nature of Stockburn’s larful status is never addressed. Is he a n appointed hand of the law gone wrong? Merely a hired killer? Answering such questions might inevitably lead to unraveling even one string in the great tarn ball of mysteryu surrounding Preacher, especially with their former association- which again is only teased at, though the existence of which is obvious.
This is important as, in the end, the true nature of conflict in the film isn’t Preacher as prospector protectorate versus the landowner LaHood (thus making the bulk of the film rather pointless and simply an extended introduction to the real intended action), nor is it even an matter of a transparently affixed “modern” message about the abuses of environmental rape versus properly respectful homesteading. Rather, the film is simply about Preacher exacting his justice against Stockburn; a conclusion which undermines Megan’s opening plea for holy intervention over her slain dog’s grave (a nod to another iconic 50’s film “Jeux interdits” perhaps?) since the resultant “guardian angel” seems to be acting with complete self-interest, also belying the sincerity with which Preacher’s actions against LaHood’s bullying tactics (certainly a break from the purer inentions of Alan Ladd’s eponymous hero in “Shane”) since he doesn’t take direct preemptive action against the man’s interests until Stockburn enters the picture. Several more gaping holes in the logic of the movie demand attention: if the simple prospectors are taken with Preacher as they see him as not only fearless but a soulful man of the cloth, why doesn’t anyone question the fact that his strength comes from violence and never by argumentation based on any conviction with reliously based moral doctrines? Also, unless such presumed apparitions are equipped with farsighted gifts of precognition, how does Preacher know that Stockburn will eventually be called to this desolate location?
The central problem of a continuing core enigma in the westerns directed by Clint Eastwood rejects the essential need for empathetic responses to a narrative’s protagonist (or even an antagonist, depending on the material) by the audience, a situation which might be understandable were the films intended as untraditional exercises in alienation à la Antonioni though this seems an unlikely intention on the Eastwood agenda. Rather, it is another manifestation of his cultivation of a signature spareness of style, though unlike his directorial aesthetic, it is a minimalism which fails to enhance the substantive dramatic scope of this production.