Monday, May 28, 2018

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


As I’ve probably said some other time on this blog, I was for thirty years a film-reviewer, a trade which I relinquished 14 years ago. I had long stints first in a newspaper, then on Radio New Zealand, then in a couple of glossy magazines, all the while [the whole 30 years] also writing under a pseudonym in a church weekly. There was also a weird six months, way back in 1990, when I co-hosted a Saturday night film-review show on Television New Zealand.

Every so often, somebody would ask me “What are your favourite films of all time?” or would ask me to compile an all-time Ten Best list. I could usually, with a lot of effort, crank out such a list, but only grudgingly. There are many films which I admire and enjoy, but it is very hard to say which I would choose as the absolute best.

Some time ago, though, I realised that it was easier for me to identify brilliant sequences from films rather than brilliant complete films. I could, at this point, list all the musical numbers I’ve thought the greatest (from Fred and Ginger to the present), or all the sight gags in visual comedy (from Buster Keaton to the present) or all the banter in verbal comedy (from the Marx Brothers to the Present). But let’s stick to what could loosely be called “serious” – albeit genre – films, just to get a flavour of the type of thing I mean. I list them here in chronological order only.

The opening sequence of the 1942 thriller This Gun for Hire, directed by old Hollywood hand Frank Tuttle and loosely adapted from a Graham Greene “entertainment”. We are introduced to a hitman – a guy who murders for money – called Raven and played by the young Alan Ladd. With no dialogue, the opening minutes show this wretched man waking up in a shoddy boarding house, reading a note telling him what his next assignment is, readying his firearm, slapping about a woman who comes in to do the cleaning, and then feeding a stray puss-cat. We’ve already got the mixture of viciousness and softness that is the key to his character. It is perfect exposition – and the second sequence of this film shows him committing his assigned murder coldly and efficiently. The film is not all of a piece, but this is one of the best openings on film.

The main murder sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). Robert Walker, playing one of the most engaging homicial psychopaths ever put on screen, stalks “Miriam”, the young woman he means to kill as part of his insane plan to “switch murders” with a man he met by chance on a train. The scene is a funfair at night. The camera follows Walker as he stalks his prey through the noisy funfair, then follows her out to a small island where lovers meet to smooch. She gets separated from the young men she was with and, in the dark, rushes into Walker’s arms. “Are you Miriam?” he asks. “Why yes,” she says, with a come-on smile, thinking he’s interested in her for the same reason as the boys who were courting her. At which point he strangles her. Often critics have commented on a visual trick Hitchcock pulls here, where Miriam’s glasses fall to the ground as she is being strangled and then we get an extreme close-up of the murder taking place in a disorted image reflected in one of the glasses’ lenses. [It is often explained that Hitchcock had built for him a huge pair of glasses to make this shot possible]. But it isn’t the visual effect that fascinates me about this sequence. It is the way that, by having the scene played in deep shadows while all the time we can see and hear the bright funfair across the water, Hitchcock shows us how much this twisted man is separated from his fellow human beings and their joys. Image here is the exposition of a whole psychological disposition.

Sorry, but we’re still in the realm of noir-ish thriller when I come to my third memorable sequence. This is the opening of Sam Fuller’s down-and-dirty movie Pick-Up on South Street, made in 1953. This is certainly a film that goes downhill after its great start, but the start is still arresting. An establishing shot of a subway train rushing past. Then we’re in the crowded subway car where commuters are jammed together. Richard Widmark slithers up the carriage to where Jean Peters is hanging on a strap. They face each other so closely that you’d call it intimate. He takes out a newspaper and pretends to read it, but his hands are fishing in her open carry-bag, eventually extracting her purse as her eyes are distracted elsewhere. So we know he’s a pickpocket. While their eyes lock, he folds her purse in his newspaper. A few close-ups have told us that this has all been observed by two other men in the carriage. Widmark exits the train and runs. One of the men tries to follow him, but the doors close in his face. “What happened?” says one man to the other. “I don’t know”, says the second man. Neither do we. It is quite some film-time before we learn that this all has to do with some vital information the woman had in her purse – but our curiosity has been piqued more expertly by this opening than by any other I can think of.

And so, after three sequences in expressive black-and-white, to two films in colour. I think The Searchers (1956) is John Ford’s masterpiece, and by most rational measures the best Western ever made. There are many sequences where Ford shows how much he could say laconically. The sequence where Ethan (John Wayne) returns to his friends’ wilderness home for the first time in years, and just by tossing a medal from his bag tells us what sort of life he has led as a mercenary. The sequence where the boy (Jeffrey Hunter) stands in front of the girl (Natalie Wood) to prevent Ethan from killing her in the belief that she has been “tainted” by having grown up with Indians. We have been accepting Ethan as a determined tracker and a sort of hero for most of the film, but by now we fully understand that there is a strain of paranoia about race in him. But the sequence that really gets me is one single shot – in fact the last shot in the film. Ethan has returned the kidnapped girl to her family. Order has been restored and the family reunited. But Ethan does not come into the home. He stands framed in the doorway, and takes up a pose of defeat, one hand clutching the elbow of the opposite arm. Then he turns away and the door closes on him. Perfect. In one shot, we know this man is irredeemable – he will never be part of civilisation.

I could give many more examples of great sequences, but here is the last for now. Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), set in 16th century Japan, is about a complex set of clan wars. At one point, a warlord is informed that one of his key enemies has been killed by a shot made, with a primitive firearm, by a sharpshooter stationed on his castle walls. Distrustful of the accuracy of these new-fangled firearms, the warlord insists that the sharpshooter replicate his feat by shooting off the top of a bush, at the same distance from the castle wall as the object of his reputed fatal shot. And here comes the brilliant self-contained sequence. The sharpshooter loads the primitive firearm. The sharpshooter balances it in his hands, then hangs a weight from it, with some fibre, to ensure it remains steady when he takes his shot. The sharpshooter lines up his shot. The sharpshooter fires. The top of the bush is sliced off. The joy of this is simply the way Kurosawa shows a whole process, and illuminates a whole period in the history of early modern technology, in just three or four shots.

In looking at these five chosen sequences, I am, of course, thoroughly embarrassed that they all come from films with some degree of violence in them, with noir thrillers dominating. I am also embarrassed that they all come from quite some years ago – indeed only the last one was first released when I was already a film-reviewer. This probably shows that I am descending into old fart-dom.

Even so, I hope I’ve illustrated that sometimes sequences can be more memorable than whole films.

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