Saturday, April 30, 2011

Strangers in Love

I could not have asked for a better venue to view Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

Knowing the American Film Institute is conducting a year-long retrospective of Hitchcock films, I traveled up to the AFI theater just outside Washington, D.C. and basked beneath its gilded ceiling. It is a beautiful facility. The old-time music piped through the sound-system and the grandiose, yesteryear style of the d├ęcor in the place make it perfect for the old black and whites.

So far was my experience from the usual megaplex, shopping mall variety that accompanies movie-going these days, I probably would have enjoyed anything projected on the screen in front of me that night. Fortunately, I did not have to struggle to find brilliance in some forgotten B-movie. Suspicion made for excellent Friday fare, even if I knew little about the movie before staking my entire night on its quality.

In this, I do not think I am alone. I am increasingly aware that there are quite a lot of Hitchcock films nobody seems to know anything about.

Partly, this is because the little boy who was afraid of the dark and then grew up into a rotund master of thrillers made 53 films. Hitchcock’s career spanned nearly six decades, and in that time, transitioned from silent films to “talkies” and from black and white images to color. And while it would be foolish to claim his legendary filmography contains unearthed “gems,” (because doesn’t everyone know about Hitchcock?), I do think it is safe to say his later work eclipsed many of his earlier, more character-driven pieces in terms of notoriety.

Suspicion fits nicely into the underappreciated cart.

Released in 1941, the film is shot in black and white and has virtually no special effects. The plot shuns external threats – such as giant robots or other people with firearms – in favor of following the odd courtship and even more bizarre marriage between Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. Grant is depicted as a lazy heel that shuns work and is forever borrowing money to maintain his lavish lifestyle, while Fontaine is an icy and overtly neurotic woman who was destined to become a spinster had she not met her eventual husband.

An unlikely couple meets on a train
Taken together, the two have little in common, beyond the fact they are attracted to one another and oddly balance out each other’s eccentricities. The essential drama in the picture revolves around whether or not it is possible for the couple to truly know their partner. Grant and Fontaine’s courtship is accidental and it quickly resolves itself in marriage before either they or the audience quite understand the gravity of what is occurring.

For the rest of the film, Grant attempts to conform to what he erroneously believes his wife wants while she neurotically obsesses about whether her husband is a criminal interested in killing her for her share of the family inheritance. Along the way, we learn that Grant is both a liar and a thief, but by the end of the picture, we are no closer to understanding the full truth about his intentions than his suspicious – and potentially disturbed – wife.

Part of this brilliant ambiguity lies in the film’s problematic production.

Hitchcock famously complained about how producer David O. Selznick meddled with Suspicion to Francois Truffaut. Essentially, Selznick forced Hitch to scrap an ending in which Grant was in fact a murderer and his wife bizarrely allows herself to be killed. Selznick believed nobody would buy an actor as debonair and charming Grant was a murderer – and he was right. The original ending, which stuck closer to the source material contained in the novel Before the Fact, bombed with test audiences, and thus Hitchcock’s exploration of the charming sociopath never materialized.

For the record, Truffaut also pointed out to Hitchcock that he was wrong about the ending, arguing that the film’s compromised screenplay is better than the novel because it is “less farfetched” and allows for far more “subtler nuances in the characterizations.” However, none of the three luminaries anticipated the response the 2011 audience I was a part of experienced.

Put simply, as the lights came up in the AFI Theater, none of us knew what to make of the movie’s conclusion, and the general consensus I overhead was that the film’s ending was intentionally ambiguous: That is, like Fontaine’s character, the audience is put in the position of choosing whether the self-confessed liar – Cary Grant – was telling the truth about whether he really was capable of murder. This, of course, is not what the filmmakers intended.

A doting husband with a milk? Or a murderer with Poison?
In terms of the script and its intentions, Grant is telling the truth at the end of the picture. He is not a murderer, and his wife’s suspicion is just that – suspicion. Per this reading of the film, Fontaine is a horribly neurotic character, plucked straight from the Victorian stories Hitchcock devoured as a child. Like the disturbed and unreliable female narrator in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Fontaine becomes unhinged by her own imagination and a complete lack of self-confidence. Unable to cope with and respond to reality as it actually is (her husband is a liar and a thief), she creates a much more horrible one (her husband is a murderer out to get her).

She does this, in part, because she is incapable of responding to the more prosaic truth. Overtly demure and largely passive, she functions in the film as a kind of female version of Hamlet, in that she is unable to process new information she learns about Grant and then act decisively. As is the case with the Danish Prince, this builds a palpable frustration among the audience, many of whom quietly yearn for her to cast out her wayward husband. However, such a positive act is clearly beyond Fontaine, who throughout the film acts only reactively. Indeed, she is uninterested in Grant’s courtship until she overhears her parents speculating that she will become a spinster. In response, she immediately kisses Grant, and within the next half hour of film, elopes and marries him.

The problem with viewing Fontaine’s subsequent suspicions as inaccurate is that the audience is given so much reason to believe her feelings are correct. Grant is revealed to be a fairly awful husband, as he is immature, possesses no work ethnic and at times seems unconcerned with his wife’s feelings. Worse still, Fontaine learns he is a perpetual liar, capable of cheating to acquire more money.

But does all this make him a murderer?

As the film progresses, the circumstantial evidence against Grant mounts, but at the same time, Fontaine’s reliability increasingly deteriorates. In one crucial scene, while she is playing a word game that resembles Scrabble, her subconscious directs her fingers to spell out the word “murder” in the presence of her husband and his best friend. From there, her mind easily leaps to a dream/fantasy of Grant pushing his friend from a nearby cliff. When it is subsequently revealed Grant did not kill his friend, Fontaine is overjoyed – but her suspicions return almost immediately with a new and more elaborate scheme (her own poisoning).

All of this is clearer to the audience upon the film’s completion.

During the movie's gradual progress (choosing a waltz as its theme is no accident), the audience is entirely in Fontaine’s sway and we believe what she believes, which is precisely what Hitch intended. That she is wrong at the picture’s conclusion makes us all her unwilling confederates. This is clever, but I think it obscures a deeper, and perhaps more disturbing, commentary on the two protagonists.

Throughout the film, the couple’s love for each other continually blinds them. The end result is that Hitchcock seems to be saying that no matter how much time two people spend together and no matter how close they become, they will never fully understand the inner psychological workings of the other person, even if they are man and wife. 

Will he or won't he?
How else can we explain that a woman could believe her husband is a murderer when everyone else around her does not?

This, I believe, is the overall theme one can take away from a film that teases the audience with delightful confusion and unimagined surprises: In matters of the mind, we largely remain strangers to one another, no matter how much in love we are. In that regard, the question about Grant’s true nature is as much as a litmus test for the audience memebers as anything else. Either you believe a woman could be that wrong about her husband or she knows him better than anyone else does. The choice is yours…

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Violent Crucible of Creation

First, a confession: I am probably one of the few people who believe famed director Sergio Leone became a better filmmaker with each picture he made.

Leone with Steiger on location

For most moviegoers, The Man with No Name Trilogy is the Italian’s masterpiece (and the exemplar prime of all Spaghetti-Westerns). And there’s good reason to think so. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the final of the three, is a devastatingly epic movie whose convoluted moral landscape and powerful performances led some to label it one of the best films of all-time.

As for me, I will cast no stones at that picture here, save one…

A true classic
As good as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is, I think Once Upon a Time in the West – Leone’s next effort – is far superior in terms of its scope, its construction and the effectiveness with which it presents director’s quintessential themes. For many, Leone’s career ends – or should have ended – with Once Upon a Time in the West. Accordingly, this line of thinking believes Leone’s abilities behind the camera nosedived at the onset of the 1970s and films such as Duck, You Sucker! (often referred to as A Fistful of Dynamite) and Once Upon a Time in America are dour afterthoughts to a career best remembered by earlier efforts.

I heartily disagree.

Having used up all his ideas about traditional Westerns in the Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone cleverly pivots away from the genre with 1971’s Duck, You Sucker! and confronts his audience with a visionary depiction of political revolution as farce. The result is bold and complicated film that functions on many levels and comes closer to qualifying as art than anything else Leone did in his spectacular career.

The dramatic and philosophical direction Leone intends to go, as well as the fact we are a long way from Clint Eastwood and gold-inspired shootouts, is clear when the film opens with this ominous quotation Mao:

“The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence.”

To ram home these points, one of the first scenes involves a stagecoach full of upper-class passengers who take turns humiliating Juan Miranda, a lowly Mexican peasant who connives his way into their presence. Miranda, played with delightful nastiness by Rod Steiger, eventually robs the coach at gunpoint, rapes the lone female passenger and then revenges himself on the men by kicking them downhill into a gully filled with mud.

What begins as a rather conventional bandit picture – albeit one with striking political overtones – is immediately shaken up by the combustible introduction of the film’s other main character, John H. Mallory. A former IRA activist, Mallory is an expert in explosives who came to Mexico to do demolition work for a German mining company. Throughout the film, his disdain for “uniforms” and other figures of authority is the palpable product of his unspoken anarchism (at one point, he is filmed reading Bakunin’s famous treatise on the topic). Mallory is confronted by Miranda and his gang and subsequently tricked into becoming an outlaw. Mallory eventually returns the favor by tricking Miranda into helping the Mexican Revolution, despite the latter’s complete lack of sympathy for the revolution and total disinterest in politics.

A table fit for the poor
The fact the setting of this film has shifted from the America to Mexico and the timing moved ahead from the Old West’s traditional 19th century period to 1913 further illustrates Leone’s explicit desire to turn his back on the ferocious isolation he chronicled in Eastwood’s The Man with No Name trilogy. However, there is a thematic connection between those pictures and Duck, You Sucker!

More specifically, Eastwood begins his three films essentially as a loner.

In A Fistful of Dollars, he commits himself to no cause, choosing instead to play two rival factions off each other in a desolate town. In A Few Dollars More, his second outing, he is paired with Lee Van Cleef in what can be construed as a heroic quest. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly begins with an attempt to restore Eastwood to his lone gunman status, only to see events in the film force him into various undesirable partnerships. Along the way, he is – for the first time in the series – forced to acknowledging the suffering of others (most obviously the Civil War soldiers) and to realize that “going it alone” is not always a realistic approach.

Unlikely friends...
This is important because Leone himself claims Duck, You Sucker! is essentially a “buddy” picture that documents the friendship between Mallory and Miranda.

To explain, Miranda begins the film as an almost primitive human being, in that his moral code is entirely the amoral tribalism bound up in familial connections. His gang is made-up of family members and his ambitions will not tolerate any horizon that is not associated with his family’s profit. This is a kind of familial narcissism, in which all other non-familial people, such as those on the carriage, are a means to an end and nothing more.

Mallory’s friendship forces Miranda to accept that non-familial people can have value, and this ultimately shakes-up Miranda’s worldview and forces him to accept the importance of the politics he has hitherto ignored. The politics become even more important when they inadvertently lead to the demise of his family and Miranda realizes that who is in charge of a country can literally mean the difference between life and death.
For Mallory’s part, his friendship with Miranda is purely redemptive. Through a series of flashbacks, it is gradually revealed that Mallory’s best friend back in Ireland exposed the explosive expert’s revolutionary activities to the authorities, most likely because the two men were competing for the love of the same girl. Not only did this betrayal lead to Mallory leaving Ireland, but it also strengthened his feelings toward anarchical sentiment (if friendship is a sham, then all of society’s bonds must be equally empty, right?).
As important as the relationship between the two lead characters is, their interactions are also functional, in that they serve Leone’s larger, more ambiguous intent.
As the opening quotation told us, this is a film about violence and revolution. However, the difference between this picture and the many others that have explored these subjects is that Leone ultimately advances no agenda and offers no conclusive ideology. Those who criticize the film for this – the sort, who I suspect yearn for this picture to morph into a kind of Battleship Potemkin – have missed the one definitive statement Duck, You Sucker! does make.

Put simply, this movie is ultimately about the act of creation, and it explores the notion that all forms of creation – be they political “revolutions” or otherwise – are born from a violent combination of chaos and destruction. This is why The New York Times is correct to observe that film feels “rapturous and more than slightly insane.” Creation typically involves both sudden rapture – or Eureka moments – and the painful all too often zany process of organizing one’s inspiration.
Thus, like the political revolutionary who attempts to breakdown society so he can reorganize the mob within new political boundaries, the artist’s work is an imperfect effort to impose order on formless media – the blank canvas, the shapeless lump of clay or unexposed film reel. Through the imposition of structure, both the revolutionary and the artist hope to create shared understandings that easily translate from person to person.
Miranda, among the masses, against his will
I have no way of knowing for sure, but I suspect Leone worked off pure emotion for most of this film. It just feels spontaneous and delightfully unmanaged. Ambiguity abounds, themes are introduced and disregarded. Entire scenes can seem aimless and irrelevant (until the film is complete). This may sound terrible, but it is not. What Duck, You Sucker! does is take audiences through the absolute fury of creation, and along the way, it punctures the tired and elitist notion that human creativity – especially as expressed in politics – is ever a finished product.
“Don’t tell me about revolutions,” Miranda yells at Mallory. “What happens afterwards? The same fucking thing starts all over again!”
Leone himself said: “I have the film say, in effect ‘Revolution means confusion.’”
Confusion is where creation comes from. It is the void, the chaos from which organization will eventually emerged, but before that process begins to take shape, violence and upheaval have to occur. Miranda has to lose his family in order to see the importance of politics – which admittedly he never wholly subscribes to – and the value in non-familial friendship. Mallory must go through the fire of another bloody revolution to realize he can trust someone and depend on them, regardless of the sort of person Miranda is.
The madness of counter-revolution
And all of this unfolds in scenes of disturbingly violent grandeur or brutal simplicity. The mass executions in the city or the confrontation with the column of soldiers in the desert are both as compelling and beautiful as anything Leone ever filmed, and what is more, I would argue their meaning is far weightier than similar scenes in his previous work.
This is not to say the film is without problems.
It is much too long, for starters, and it undoubtedly suffers from its oft repeated flashbacks and its overly lush soundtrack. Still, for all its blemishes, this is an epic piece of filmmaking, one in which Leone clearly expanded as an artist and a thinker to his outermost limits. Far from perfect, with little or none of the neatness of his previous efforts, Duck, You Sucker! is the boldest and most radical piece of filmmaking the Italian maestro undertook, and it I think it may be the most important movie he ever made.