Friday, 14 May 2021

Fatal Attraction (1987)

Glenn Close and Michael Douglas embark on a disastrous affair in Fatal Attraction

Director: Adrian Lyne
Cast: Michael Douglas (Dan Gallagher), Glenn Close (Alex Forrest), Anne Archer (Beth Gallagher), Ellen Hamilton Layzen (Ellen Gallagher), Stuart Pankin (Jimmy), Ellen Foley (Hildy), Fred Gwynne (Arthur), Mug Mundy (Joan Rogerson), Tom Brennan (Howard Rogerson), Lois Smith (Martha)

It was one of the biggest hits of the 1980s and was said to bring to life every man’s worst nightmare – which as David Thomson rather astutely put it, probably meant “too many men in the 1980s were worrying about the wrong thing”. Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is a successful, middle-ranking lawyer representing a publishing company. He flirts with editor Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). Then one weekend, when his wife Beth (Anne Archer) is away with their daughter, he spends his time sleeping with her. Problem is, Alex won’t accept it was just a brief fling. Soon she’s calling his office, visiting his wife, claiming to be pregnant as part of a swift descent into furious obsession, demanding Dan leave his family for her. It won’t end well.

Fatal Attraction is a film that is going to struggle the more we move into the #metoo era. While in the 1980s audiences could be expected to be reasonably sympathetic to a man who just wants a bit on the side – and then feels oppressed by the moral consequences that follow – today it’s a bit tricky to feel the same. Put bluntly, Dan is a selfish man who is desperate to be seen to be doing the right thing. And while he realises he’s probably made a mistake after his first one-night stand, he still throws himself into a second day of flirting and sex with Alex (out of a sense of social obligation).

But then Fatal Attraction is a deeply conservative film that plays into feelings of fear and anxiety at the idea of the perfect domestic life being assaulted by an outsider. It portrays the damaging impact on Dan and his family as entirely the responsibility of Alex, instead of admitting that clearly both Dan and Alex are to blame for what happens. Sure, Alex becomes a (literal) bunny-boiler (this film is the origin of the phrase) and later a knife-wielding psychopath. But all this spins out of Dan’s selfishness and his fundamental lack of regard for the feelings of either his wife or Alex (both of whom he wants to think of him as being a good guy – which he probably isn’t).

Dan’s “have his cake and eat it” attitude is the real villain here – and while he is, of course, unlucky to hook up with someone as unbalanced as Alex, any perfectly rounded person would be expected to at least match some of Alex’s reactions. She’s right to say that he is shirking his responsibility, right to say that its wrong for him to use her for a bit of fun and discard her, and she’s right to be disgusted at his automatic offer to pay for the abortion he assumes she will agree to.

A more modern version of Fatal Attraction would probably play out a bit more like the TV multi-perspective drama The Affair (where Dominic West and Ruth Wilson’s characters split the narrative between their very different perspectives on a life-shattering love-affair). It would show more sympathy for Alex’s desperation, loneliness and sadness – and really explore what it is that happened in her past that made her react as extremely to rejection and betrayal as this. And it would have greater criticism for Dan’s cavalier attitude to other people’s feelings.

But then a film like that wouldn’t have been a hit. Glenn Close may not have liked the reshot ending – which came out of test screenings that showed audiences really wanted Douglas to kill that bitch – with Alex entering the Gallagher country home with murder in mind. But the final desperate battle between Dan/Ruth and Alex – and the nuclear family being re-cemented in the shedding of Alex’s blood – was what made the film such a hit. Because who wants the complexity of shared responsibility when “The Other Woman” can literally rise from the dead to strike one final blow before being gunned down?

The film also worked of course due to Glenn Close’s fabulous performance in the lead role. Close worked hard to not position Alex – for all the film aims to do this – as a creepy stalker. Instead she invests her with a righteous fury of a woman who feels she has been terribly wronged, whose every attempt at peace-making has been slapped away and responds with justified anger. There is a real fragility in Close – who consulted psychiatrists to understand Alex’s fragile mindset – and she never lets us forget the pain motivating her actions, even as the film becomes ever more melodramatic and turns her character into more and more of a horror film staple.

Opposite her, Michael Douglas is equally good. This was Douglas’ first in a run of roles where he seemed to embody something in the everyday American-man that lived in terror of female independence and sexuality (he would be terrified on screen by Sharon Stone, Kathleen Turner and Demi Moore over the next seven years). Douglas is great though because while he looks the American dream, he conveys this sense of weakness and compromise. He convinces completely as a rather weak-willed man, terrified of being made to face the consequences of his actions. Archer is also first-rate in a surprisingly low-key role as the wronged wife.

Fatal Attraction starts out as a fascinating look at morality and morals in modern America and ends as a slasher film. A more complex film might have lasted better – even if it wasn’t such a hit – but it throws just about enough depth in there, before the madness descends.

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Inherit the Wind (1960)

Spencer Tracy and Fredric March go toe-to-toe in Stanley Kramer's liberalism-on-trial movie Inherit the Wind

Director: Stanley Kramer
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Henry Drummond), Fredric March (Matthew Harrison Brady), Gene Kelly (EK Hornbeck), Florence Eldridge (Sara Brady), Dick York (Bertram T Cates), Donna Anderson (Rachel Brown), Harry Morgan (Judge Merle Coffey), Claude Atkins (Reverend Jeremiah Brown), Elliott Reid (Prosecutor Tom Davenport), Paul Hartman (Deputy Horace Meeker)

In 1960, Inherit the Wind was a parable. The teaching of Darwinism being illegal in a small town that defined itself by its faith couldn’t really happen today could it? So, the film used the concept as an angle to criticise the restrictions placed on free speech during the McCarthy years. The wheel has come full circle now: it’s no longer unlikely at all to imagine something like this happening. Indeed, versions of it have already taken place in America this century. This change does actually help the film look increasingly more prescient as time goes by.

A fictionalised version of the famous Scopes monkey trial (with most of the names changed, but many of the court room events fundamentally the same) a local schoolteacher, Bertram Cates (Dick Young), in a small Southern town is placed on trial for teaching Darwinism in his school. Staunch Christian and former Presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) volunteers to put the case for the prosecution. Cates’ defence will be handled by the renowned liberal lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy). Sparks fly in a courtroom and around the town, where many people are instinctively opposed to anything that can be seen to draw doubt on intelligent design.

Kramer’s films are often both praised and criticised for their rather heavy-handed liberalism. Inherit the Wind is no different. You’d be hard pressed to miss the message here about the dangers of intrusive laws designed to govern what we think and believe. Kramer’s film edges away from making criticism of fundamentalism too overt. Sure, the local preacher (a lip-smacking Claude Atkins) is a tongue-frothing “burn ‘em all!” maniac, only happy when stirring up an outraged mob. But on the other hand, Drummond is revealed to be a man of (liberal) faith – and, in an agonisingly heavy-handed final note, the film ends with him literally weighing The Bible and On the Origin of the Species in his hands then clasping them both together. You see – science and faith can work together!

While it’s easy to smile at Inherit the Wind’s striving for inoffensive liberalism, it means well and actually produces some effective court-room set-pieces. While its overlong – the sections outside of the court could do with trimming down and a rather shoe-horned plot with Cates dating the local preacher’s daughter (not helped by the blandness of both actors) promises much but delivers very little. What the film really works at is a chance for two seasoned performers to go at each other hammer and tongs in the court. Chances they both seize.

Spencer Tracy sets a template of sensible, liberal reasonableness mixed with a well-defined sense of right and wrong that would serve him well in a further three collaborations with Kramer. He brings Drummond a rumbled worldliness, a shrewd intelligence and a patient forbearance but never once lets us forget his righteous fury that this case is even happening in the first place. His courtroom performance hinge on a winning reasonableness that can turn on a sixpence into ingenious traps for witnesses. He’s a rock of decency in a shifting world and Tracy effectively underplays several scenes, making Drummond seem even more humane.

It also means that Tracy makes a lovely performing contrast with Fredric March’s firey passion as Brady. Sweating in the heat of the court, March’s Brady is overflowing with moral certainty and fury. March’s performance is big, but the character himself has a court-personae that depends on him appearing like an embodiment of God’s fury. It works because March gives Brady a quiet air of sadness. This is a man raging against the dying of the light – this case is his last hurrah. Brady is becoming yesterday’s news, but can’t seem to consciously accept this. In quieter moments, he is clearly a man of reflection and reasonableness – but (in a surprisingly modern touch) is all to aware that a raging public personae is what “sells”.

Kramer’s film is at its strongest when it lets these two actors go toe-to-toe. These moments aren’t just in the fireworks for court. Private scenes between the two show a great deal of mutual respect and even admiration. The two men are old friends. Drummond is very fond of Brady’s wife Sara (played excellently by Fredric March’s real life wife Florence Eldridge), who also regards him as a man of decency. They can sit on a bench at night and reflect on the good times. Brady may be a type of demagogue but he’s not a rabble rouser like the Reverend Brown (who he publicly denounces) even while he enjoys the attention of crowds. Drummond isn’t adverse to whipping up a bit of popular support – or enjoying the attention. It’s a fine contrast of two men who both similar and very different.

Aside from this, Kramer sometimes trips too often into rather obvious and heavy-handed social commentary. Gene Kelly is on good form in an over-written part as a cynical journalist - he sort of cares about justice, but only if its a good story and has only scorn for anyone else who believes anything. The film closes with a rather heavy-handed denunciation of his lack in belief in anything, compared to Brady's faith. The script is at times a little too weak – Tracy and March sell the hell out of a vital confrontation near the end, playing “gotcha” moments that the script largely fails to deliver – but there is still lots of meat in there. Some of the staging and performances – including the extended pro-religion protests that pad out the run time – are a little too obvious. 

But at heart, there is a very true and increasingly more-and-more relevant message in this film – and when its acted as well as this, it’s hard not to enjoy it.

Forrest Gump (1994)

Tom Hanks unleashes some cloying charm in Forrest Gump

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Robin Wright (Jenny Curran), Gary Sinise (Lt Dan Taylor), Mykelti Williamson (“Bubba” Blue), Sally Field (Mrs Gump), Haley Joel Osmont (Forrest Gump Jnr)

Oh dear God. It’s worse than I remembered. I hadn’t watched Forrest Gump since maybe 1995. I hadn’t liked it much then. But that might just have been my contrariness: sure I was going to find faults in the film that became a cultural phenomenon. Rewatching it today: actually no, I had good taste. This must be one of the worst films to ever win the Best Picture Oscar – and certainly one of the most unsettlingly twee, sentimental, conservative-minded pieces of feel-goodery to ever come out of Hollywood.

You surely know the plot. Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks, who to do him credit plays this one note character with real charm) is a good-hearted man with developmental difficulties (IQ below the 75 mark) who lives through some of the most turbulent times in American history. From racial violence in the 1950s, to Vietnam, the Cold War, the political turmoil of the 1970s, Forrest lives through it all. And largely lets it wash over him, never letting it intrude on his simple, folksy, homespun gentleness. Although that might mostly be because he also doesn’t really understand most of the things happening around him. He’s quite a contrast with the girl he’s loved since their childhood, Jenny (Robin Wright) who embraces everything the modern world brings (protest, politics, drugs) but of course finds her life much less rewarding and happy than Forrest’s “go-with-the-flow” acceptance.

Just writing it down I can feel my stomach turning again. At the time the filmmakers were very keen to promote the film as stridently apolitical. Yeah sure the film never praises, say Kennedy or Nixon, just as it goes out of its way not to state an opinion on either George Wallace or the Black Panthers. But the film is, at its heart, a large, beating, reassuring lump of rank conservatism.

It looks back at America’s past with rose-tinted glasses, portraying a world which would have all better if they had taken a leaf out of Forrest’s book. If we had all been just as uninvolved, decent, kind and stayed at home where we were happy rather than getting engaged in major social and political issues, everything would have been better. Forrest is a celebration of all-American virtues of honesty, bravery and loyalty – but the film is also an implicit criticism of other all-American virtues like curiosity, scepticism and challenging the status quo. Basically, the film celebrates the cosy attitudes conservatives adore and has nothing good to say about more liberal values. Sure, it doesn’t roll out a banner for Nixon – but you can also see this playing well at a Trump rally, with people saying we would be a happier country if we could all be a bit like Forrest.

That’s really tough on the film – and I imagine Zemeckis and co would be rightly horrified about that very idea – but it’s a film that doesn’t once challenge the audience at all. I was reminded throughout of Being There which took a similar concept: a man with low IQ finds himself at the centre of major events. But while that film was a satire – where the characters invest Chance’s gnomic utterings with profound wisdom – this film is a serious drama which encourages the audience to see a “deeper wisdom” in Forrest, to effectively treat him as a sort of prophet. There is a reason bland nonsense like “life is like a box of chocolates” caught on.

The original book was far more of a satire on the shallowness of modern culture. This instead plays like a sort of holy fool pilgrimage, with Forrest’s interaction with historical figures played for laughs. From showing Elvis how to dance, to (in the film’s most cringing moment) inspiring John Lennon with the lyrics of Imagine (another reason to hate Forrest), the film is crammed with gags like this. While the insertion of Tom Hanks into newsreel footage with Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon is impressive (although it has not aged quite so well), it’s not made with any point. This is because Forrest has no real appreciation of what’s happening around him. He’s merely moving from one event from the next – but this lack of engagement and understanding is held up as a virtue. And the very fact that it is, speaks to the film’s underlying conservatism and love for simple, small-town American ideals that shouldn’t be sacrificed to all that uncomfortable social and political change.

The film is particularly harsh on Jenny, decently played by Robin Wright, who is portrayed as someone succumbing to every trend and popular movement of the era. And whom the film consistently punishes for this by showing her emptiness, shallowness and unhappiness, until it finally consigns her to death from AIDS. Just in case we’ve missed the point, Forrest repeatedly urges her to come home – to stop engaging with the wider world and the problems in it and bury her head back into the sands of home, where everything is simple, safe and nothing changes.

The world of Forrest Gump is one where corruption and war mongering don’t matter because it happened a long time ago. A world where racial politics are too distasteful to mention (although since Forrest’s Granddaddy was a leading member of the KKK – a flashback played for laughs – that clearly wasn’t the case). Where the only black people Forrest encounters are the outsider soldier Bubba (who of course dies in ‘Nam – even in serious films, the Black Guy dies first) and his servile family whose names don’t even merit a mention, but who become the grateful beneficiaries of Forrest’s oblivious generosity. But there is no sense here of the dangers and violence of America (bar some nasty jocks at Forrest’s college) – which considering the film has a cameo from George Wallace of all people is really striking.

But then the problems of the world I guess don’t seem that bad if you just don’t think about them and instead go through life with a smile on your face, blissfully unaware of what’s happening around you. The closest the film gets to giving Forrest an opinion on something is when he is asked to speak at a rally against Vietnam – and even then the sound cuts out meaning we can’t hear him (though it seems to have been profound). A wittier film, like Being There, would have made this a moment for satire. Here it seems more like the magic of Forrest’s simplicity mustn’t be shattered for the audience by daring to suggest he actually has a view on something.

The film is a warm and comforting hug, that tells people the past wasn’t that bad and would have been better still if we’d just been nice to each other. That wanting to change the world is dangerous and greater rewards can come from going with the flow. For all Forrest is bereft by Jenny’s death, the film still rewards him with family, home and friends. It’s sentimental, empty, depressing crap. Well made, but simply dreadful. You may not know what’s in a box of chocolates, but you sure as shit will remember after you’ve vomited them all back up after watching this.

Monday, 10 May 2021

The Aviator (2004)

Leonardo DiCaprio excels as Howard Hughes in The Aviator

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Howard Hughes), Cate Blanchett (Katharine Hepburn), John C Reilly (Noah Dietrich), Kate Beckinsale (Ava Gardner), Alec Baldwin (Juan Trippe), Alan Alda (Senator Owen Brewster), Ian Holm (Professor Fitz), Danny Huston (Jack Frye), Gwen Stefani (Jean Harlow), Jude Law (Errol Flynn), Willem Dafoe (Roland Sweet), Adam Scott (Johnny Meyer), Matt Ross (Glen Odekrik), Kevin O’Rourke (Spencer Tracy), Kelli Garner (Faith Domergue), Frances Conroy (Katharine Houghton), Brent Spiner (Robert E Gross), Edward Herrmann (Joseph Breen)

Howard Hughes grew up wanting to make the biggest movies in the world, fly the greatest plans and be the richest man in the world. He achieved all of this. He ended his life a wild-haired long-nailed recluse, terrified of stepping outside his controlled zone, a victim to crippling OCD. Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is a triumphant, brilliantly engrossing, sumptuous exploration of Hughes’ years of triumph, where everything seemed to go right publicly – even while everything was beginning to go wrong internally.

It’s Scorsese’s second teaming with Leonardo DiCaprio – and while DiCaprio’s boyish good looks don’t really relate to what the real Hughes looked like, his charismatic enthusiasm, passion and determination brings Hughes triumphantly to life. It’s a brilliant performance, which dominates the movie. DiCaprio seems to completely understand power of driving ambition, who will mortgage everything he has time and time again to achieve his dream – and also the force of personality needed to turn those dreams into success. But obsession drives both success and eventual personal disaster. There is always something slightly fragile about DiCaprio – maybe its those boyish good looks – and here he brilliantly captures the tragedy of a man clinging to his sense of self, struggling with the demons within him.

Scorsese’s film gloriously balances the epic with the personal. It so brilliantly relates to the irrational but very convincing fears of those suffering from OCD, that scenes featuring Hughes obsessively plucking tissues from boxes, or stuck in restrooms scared of touching the door carry a real sense of threat. The grandness of much of the rest of the film – and the sense we get have how much more Hughes could have achieved – means the demons he carries are even more affecting. Imagine what he could have done, if he wasn’t terrified of even the smallest germ, or was able to put aside his destructive urge to control every inch of his environment and the people in it.

All this tragedy works because the grandness is so impressive. Scorsese’s film looks beautiful. The filming was inspired by replicating the visual and colour styles of contemporary Hollywood. The early 1930s-set section of the film apes the toned look of early-colour (green appears blue, most strikingly at a golf course) with full colour only appearing when the film hits the years of technicolour. The 1940s sequences are inspired by touches of film noir, leaning into the early days of epic technicolour by the end. It looks striking and also amazing. The production design is similarly breathtaking, while the film is shot and assembled with a wonderfully vibrant energy.

It’s also got plenty of wit. John Logan’s fast-paced script captures the sense of a fun of a man who was determined to turn his dreams into reality. John C Reilly is a lot of a fun as the weary number 2, constantly performing financial gymnastics to keep his bosses dreams afloat. Compulsion and obsession makes Hughes the sort of guy who will rebuild an aeroplane from scratch because of a minor flaw, or will reshoot a film because it will work better with sound. During the shooting of Hell’s Angels he keeps a private fleet of planes on the ground while waiting for clouds that will make the scene work. Frequently thousands of dollars a day are spent keeping projects ticking over, while Hughes waits for perfection. He’s not a man to compromise – and you can see why an artist like Scorsese would relate to that. While the film never lets you forget this obsessive perfectionism cuts both ways – and is as much a symptom of OCD as obsessive handwashing.

Scorsese’s passion for classic Hollywood clearly informs much of the first half of the film, that covers the shooting of Hell’s Angels and Hughes’ relationship with Katharine Hepburn. There are delightful cameos from Hollywood icons like Errol Flynn and Louis B Mayer. Playful references abound. The film’s emotional heart is the bond between the two larger-than-life ambitious figures Hughes and Hepburn. Cate Blanchett (Oscar-winning) is fantastic as Hepburn, a pitch-perfect impersonation that also captures her gsharp, uncompromising intelligence and no-nonsense energy. The chemistry between the two is spot-on.

The film’s second half covers more the aviation of the title, with Hughes’ struggle to break the near-monopoly of the skies owned by PanAm, with his own airline TWA. With Hughes starting to teeter on the edge of OCD collapse, even while energetically setting records in the air and fighting battles in the senate, its perhaps even stronger. It also introduces nemesis in Alec Baldwin’s smoothly manipulative Pan Am chairman Juan Trippe and, most delightfully, an Oscar-nominated Alan Alda as a hypocritically corrupt Senator Brewster. The dinner and senate clashes between Alda and DiCaprio provide glorious energy to power the film’s final act.

It also serves as a last hurrah for Hughes. It’s DiCaprio that really makes the film work as this star burns itself out, finally succumbing to the compulsions that we know will see him end his days locked into a room at the top of a Las Vegas hotel. Moments carry a suggestion of fantasy - is Hughes imagining some of the shady figures he sees at the edges of frames? Are oddly toned late meetings with Ava Gardner (an underpowered Kate Beckinsale) an illusion? It's all part of the the powerful sense of tragedy of seeing him end, wild-haired, peeing into milk bottles and stuck into loops of repeating phrases over and over again. Scorsese’s film superbly captures the immense sense of lost opportunities.

The Aviator is undeniably grand and triumphant film-making, that looks a million dollars. But it also manages – in thanks to a superb performance from DiCaprio – to capture a tragic sense of a man who burnt himself out at the height of fame and success. It tells two parallel stories without us realising it: a man achieving his dreams, even while his nightmares consume him. With Scorsese’s perfectly judged direction and some wonderful performances, this is both a sprawling epic and a very personal story of loss. While it seems very different from the films we might expect from the master, I think it might be one of his finest works.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Richard Widmark and Jean Peters feel the heat from the cops, the commies and their own passion in Pickup on South Street


Director: Samuel Fuller
Cast: Richard Widmark (Skip McCoy), Jean Peters (Candy), Thelma Ritter (Moe), Murvyn Vye (Captain Tiger), Richard Kiley (Joey), Willis B Bouchey (Zara), Milburn Stone (Winoki), Henry Slate (MacGregor)

It’s 1950s, and the biggest bogeyman in America is the Commies. Candy (Jean Peters) is one of their unwitting couriers, funnelling top secret microfilm for her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley) to pass to his Moscow superiors (poor Candy just thinks she engaged in helping Joey with some good-old All-American industrial espionage). Trouble is, while the Feds are trailing her, they watch her being pickpocketed by career thief Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). Skip now has on his hands on some serious state secrets. Should he return the film to the police who want to lock him up? Or make a big score by blackmailing the Commies who want to kill him?

What makes Pickup on South Street so intriguing is it’s not necessarily as straight forward as you might think. Fuller’s film is an anti-communist film – the sort of “reds under the bed” scare that terrified millions in a country still reeling from Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs. But this isn’t your standard Red Scare film. Because our heroes have about as much stake in the USA as they do in the USSR. They are the down-trodden, the under-class, the grifters. At the end of the day, I’m not sure Skip McCoy really cares who ends up with the MacGuffin. He’s motivated firstly by financial gain and secondly by personal revenge. No appeal to flag and country cuts any ice with him.

Making the hero this sort of anti-social career criminal was a master-touch as it not only enriches the entire perspective of the film – what has their country ever done for these people – but also adds an air of uncertainty over the whole thing. There would never be any doubt if the microfilm had fallen into the hands of a clean-cut Henry Fonda type. The fact that it’s Richard Widmark – who always looks like he’s torn between laughing in your face or punching it – means you never quite know what he’s going to do. If it works out best for him to hand that film over the Russkies, you can be sure he will.

That’s despite the heavy-handed entreaties of the cops and feds. Skip faces a barrage of hostile interrogations, vague promises, handcuffs and searches from law agents who are damn sure he has the film, but can’t prove it. Like many Fuller films, there is more than a hint of roughness and violence in every frame – and the law and order figures aren’t averse to this. Captain Tiger (what a name!) has already served a suspension for beating Skip in custody. An illegal search or two isn’t beyond them. You can see why the FBI was unhappy with this film – not least because it shows them constantly out-thought by a pickpocket.

The Commies though are a thoroughly bad lot. After all, it’s still an anti-Communist film. Richard Kiley’s snivelling coward Joey is no true believer, but the kind of low-breed opportunist tempted by a quick buck. The other communists we meet are corrupt, shady types, sitting in backrooms puffing pipes and casually handing out death sentences. Kiley’s weak-willed and increasingly desperate Joey becomes more and more despicable as the film goes on, desperation to save himself from the fury of his paymasters leading to ever lower and despicable crimes.

So the only people who really come out as truly decent – and playing by a very fixed moral code of their own – are the criminal underclass. In this world, everyone knows where they stand. Skip isn’t angry at stool-pigeon Moe, who carefully trades information with the police – everyone has to make a living he observes. Skip will pick pockets to earn his keep, and punch back when he’s attacked, but there is no sense that he has any taste for the crimes of the Communist agents. He’ll sell on the microfilm to them – but that’s only because his own government offer him nothing but hot air and empty promises. And, as the unspoken message of the film goes, what difference would it really make to Skip and his like anyway where the film ends up?

Instead Skip becomes motivated by personal feelings – specifically his feelings for Candy and Moe. There is a genuine sexual frisson between Skip and Candy from the start: Skip’s pickpocketing of Candy is shot like a sex scene, all sweaty brows, heavy breathing and close-ups (with Skip’s hands ‘penetrating’ Candy’s handbag with all the metaphorical energy of a train speeding into a tunnel). As events draw them closer together, the two maintain this electric sexual energy – whether arguing or fighting or lying to each other they seem unable to take their hands off each other – and the intimacy of close-ups and low angles Fuller uses for this brings a real sexual charge to their scenes. Widmark – superb as a heavy with a (hidden) heart – and Peters are also great, with Peters bringing a real roughened hinterland of disappointment to her role.

The other motivator for Skip becomes the stool-pigeon Moe, brilliantly played with an eccentric bag-lady energy by an Oscar-nominated Thelma Ritter. Moe is a grifter, selling ties by day and trading information on the side. She embodies the underdog nature of the criminal world, wanting nothing more than to earn enough to buy a decent funeral when she goes. Ritter has a marvellous speech on just how tied she feels from this constant scramble of scrapping by on the edge of society. A surrogate mother figure of a sort to Skip, Ritter’s performance is a classic piece of character acting.

Fuller’s scene is lean, short and fast-paced. Like many of his films there is a lot of violence – beatings, fights, shootings – all shot superbly with the camera pulling back to soak up the action. Sex and violence go hand in hand – Skip accidentally punches out Candy thinking she has broken in to kill him, and the two of them are in a passionate embrace moments later. Mixed in with touches of reality, that bring the tough urban world the characters live in, Pickup on South Street is a lean and mean film that manages to be more than just a straight anti-Communist film. It doesn’t just give us something to fight against: it also asks how we might give people something to fight for.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

The Assistant (2020)

Julia Garner is a silent witness to monstrous goings-on in a Hollywood studio in The Assistant

Director: Kitty Green
Cast: Julia Garner (Jane), Matthew Macfadyen (Wilcock), Makenzie Leigh (Ruby), Kristine Froseth (Sienna), Alexander Chaplin (Max), Juliana Canfield (Sasha), Dagmara Domińczyk (Ellen), Bregje Heinen (Tatiana), Jon Orsini (Assistant), Noah Robbins (Assistant)

Jane (Julia Garner) is a low-level assistant in a Hollywood production company, run by an unseen movie mogul (but there’s no doubt that it’s Miramax and Harvey Weinstein). First in and last out every night, Jane is silent, downtrodden and treated as little more than a piece of furniture by the rest of the staff. Following her over one working day, from scrubbing semen stains out of her boss’ sofa and ending with her leaving the office as he takes advantage of another aspiring actress, The Assistant doesn’t have a plot as such. Instead it’s an experience film – a glimpse into an industry where abuse of your position is so common-place that it permeates every inch of a company, that is set-up to completely service the greed of its president.

Kitty Green’s film is very good at getting across the grinding, depressing, overbearing misery of entry level jobs. Jane slaves for hours at thankless, menial tasks. Coats are thrown at her, cups dunked down in front of her to clean, she is never addressed by name and barely has eye contact with another member of staff. Her contact with her boss is enraged phone calls after non-existent errors (for which she has to write grovelling email apologies) or tiny moments of praise communicated by third parties. Jane is still clinging to the dream of one day becoming a producer herself – but her day-to-day life is a never-ending stream of insults, misery and exploitation.

The film is also very good at showing how someone like Weinstein got away with it for so long. It’s because everyone knows – so much so that it’s become normalised, a part of everyday life, something that no longer seems outrageous or disgusting but just a part of how the business operates. People joke about not sitting on his sofa. Everyone knows what “private screening” is code for. People book late night flights so their boss can have time for his evening exploitation of young actresses. His erectile dysfunction medicine is delivered to the office. Headshots of actresses are printed off and piled on his desk, like a hardcopy of Tinder. The HR department goes out of its way to cover up his crimes.

Jane’s encounter with Matthew MacFadyen’s slimey HR manager is the film’s highlight. Concerned about a naïve young waitress who has clearly been plucked out of a country diner for the bosses perverse entertainment, Jane tries to raise her concerns with HR. She is promptly told complaints will destroy her career, be seen as her own envy – and that she doesn’t need to worry as she is not “his type”. MacFadyen oozes corrupt indifference.

It’s the film’s highlight, as it’s the closest it gets to a giving Jane a character arc. It’s the only time we see her pushing against her working environment – and then making a conscious decision to do nothing about it. While the film’s idea to cover a single day in Jane’s career, after she has spent weeks at the company, is successful in getting across the grinding monotony and everyday sexism and culture of abuse, it does mean the film effectively makes its point in the first fifteen minutes and then repeats it endlessly for the next 70. It also means that, while Julia Garner is very good her character largely hits the same note of downtrodden concealed pain and anger continually.

A more interesting film – if more conventional – could have charted several weeks, allowing us to see how the optimism and excitement Jane seemed to start with in her career was beaten out of her by her appalling abusive workplace. It would still have allowed us to grasp all the monstrous normality of the boss’ abuse, but we could have had a richer exploration of the impact on her.

As it is, The Assistant instead gives a brilliant sense of how horrible an industry can be when the greedy, destructive, vileness of its head permeates every inch of it. But that’s kind of all it says or tells us. It gives us a wonderful sense of what this workplace might be like – but its lack of event, plot or character dynamics means it doesn’t always make for rewarding drama.