Tag Archives: crime

The Watchmen

Zack Snyder is  well known for his film adaptations of comic books – 300Man of Steel, and his upcoming Batman / Superman film all, of course, started as comic books. Perhaps he was the obvious choice to film what is often called the greatest comic of them all -Alan Moore’s 1985 masterpiece The Watchmen. Attempts had been made to film this story before; directors who had been involved with the project before Snyder included Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass, and all had withdrawn, creating the idea that The Watchmen was impossible to film. That Snyder finished the film at all, then, is tribute to him; that the film itself is so good is astonishing.

The mid-eighties saw a huge shift in how comic books were created and perceived. Two artists in particular, Moore and Frank Miller (responsible for Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns, 300, Sin City and more) were responsible for making the form more complex, darker, more adult. If reflection theory suggests that art mirrors to some extent the world from which it comes, then these comic books perhaps imitate a time which was defined by the last violent spasms of the cold war and the  ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. This film, of course, did not appear until 2009, 24 years after the original comic book, so some of that relevance has been lost. Indeed, in the move from page to screen, much has been lost, and the film is less clever and less ambitious than the book; but the stories and characters retain much of their power and even now, we can see how the influence of The Watchmen (and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) has shaped the better superhero narratives of the past decades.

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What are superhero films for? Well, obviously, it depends on the superhero – Superman and Wolverine are two very different beasts –  but there are certain conventions which we can identify. Essentially, in Proppsian terms, superheroes are the narrative ‘good guys’ who save humanity time after time. Even when they have weaknesses, whether it be kryptonite in Superman’s case or a tendency towards gloomy introspection for Batman, the audience are secure in a diegesis where the good guys will always (or usually; superhero narratives were often a little more complex than they were given credit for) do what is right and where they will always triumph in the end. As such, these stories reflect a world where morality is simple; good guys and bad guys. It is no surprise that the Golden Age of Comic Books coincided with World War 2; a time when such simple, or simplistic, morality was needed to shore up patriotic belief in one’s own nation and cause.

More modern narratives, often constructed under the influence of film noir, tend to seek to construct a more complex and nuanced sense of morality, perhaps to reflect a world where people are less likely to cleave to the certainties of religion or patriotism. The Watchmen was the narrative which, more than any other, reimagined the superhero for this new world. It represents a complete act of genre revisionism and we can see its influence today in films where the superheroes are somewhat less than heroic – Kick-Ass, for example – or where the world is seen to be more morally complex than a simple binary of good and evil.

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The narrative centres around a group of masked crimefighters. They have no supernatural or extraordinary powers (with one exception) and rely on speed and strength to defeat criminals. We see that this is no normal superhero caper when the story opens with the murder of one of the group, The Comedian. Already, the representation of the ‘hero’ has shifted; these people are only slightly less vulnerable than the rest of us. This shift in representation changes much more, though, when we delve into the Comedian’s backstory. He attempts to rape another of the superheroes; he shoots dead the mother of his own baby in Vietnam; he might be responsible for killing John F Kennedy; he does very shady work for the US government. In general, he enjoys murder, mayhem and violence on a grand scale. He is most definitely not a clean-cut ‘good guy,’ or any sort of good guy at all, and yet, he is one of our heroes. His iconic smiley face badge is splattered with his blood after he dies; Snyder follows it in (his very characteristic) slow-mo all the way down until it hits the ground alongside the Comedian himself. It gets passed around some of the other heroes until it is finally buried with the Comedian. We see it repeated at the end of the film, now on a news reporter’s t-shirt, the blood replaced by tomato ketchup. Snyder is highlighting this as the symbol of the entire film; the mix of happiness and violence, life and death, good and evil, the shadowy middle ground which is the world of The Watchmen. And, The Comedian would have us believe, the world of modern America – he is semiotically associated with the American flag and describes himself as the personification of the American Dream.

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So, we start with a superhero who is a murderous, cynical, rapist. He’s the least sympathetic (by some way) of the ‘good guys’ in the film but he is by no means the only one who is seriously messed up. The others variously exhibit sociopathy, misogyny, misandry, impotency, narcissism, alcoholism, addiction, solipsism, masochism, psychopathy, promiscuity and sadism. And one of them, Rorschach, smells really bad. Indeed, Rorschach appears to be the heart of the group; the one member who never compromises his moral vision. He is utterly dedicated to the fight against evil, and he sees evil everywhere. He is deeply misanthropic and, in particular, misogynistic – his mother was an abusive prostitute and Rorschach is seriously affected by his memories of her. In his ‘normal’ life he is Walter Kovacks, a near-derelict, borderline-insane bum who reads right-wing propaganda and habitually predicts the end of the world. As ‘Rorschach’ he is basically a hard-boiled noir figure, generally framed in isolation and in chiaroscuro.

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He is in ways a typically hypermasculine, uncompromising figure (as are several of the others – these are all tough guys) but his backstory reveals him as a very damaged character and by the end his inability to compromise his morality appears more like a liability than an aspect of heroism. He needs his superhero identity to give meaning and structure to his life; when he cries ‘Give me back my face’ after being unmasked, we realise that he is in flight from his ‘real’ identity and is in fact quite a pitiful figure. It’s not that he won;t compromise; it’s that he doesn’t know how to.

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He’s not the only one whose life is rather empty without his secret identity. Nite Owl, the Batman-like alter ego of Dan Dreiberg, starts  a relationship with Silk Spectre, another of the heroes. He cannot perform sexually, however, and this impotence is surely representative of the exact opposite of what a male superhero should be. He can only perform once they have reverted to their superhero identities and it becomes clear that, like Rorschach, he is incomplete without his secret identity; he is more comfortable and effective – more potent – in his costume than out of it. (He admits as much himself. ‘I’m tired of being afraid… afraid of war, of the mask killer. Of this damn suit and how much I need it.’)

Clearly, then, the representations of superheroes are being changed in The Watchmen. The heroes are more deeply drawn, the violence is more realistically brutal, actions have more believable consequences. The story does more than this though. Postmodern theorists talk about ‘Grand Narratives’ or ‘metanarratives’ which tend to apply to our view of life. One such narrative might be that human history is generally moving towards a better state and that what is ‘good’ will eventually triumph over what is ‘bad.’ Superhero films, obviously, support this metanarrative by showing good triumphing over evil and the world as a fundamentally predictable, benevolent place. All of this certainty and predictability is removed in The Watchmen. One character, Doctor Manhattan (a superhuman figure created by a nuclear accident), a man with Godlike powers of transformation and manipulation, says of his girlfriend ‘She tells me I’m like a God now. I tell her I don’t think there is a God’ and this reflects the atheistic, existential uncertainty of the film’s diegesis. By the end of the film, we have no idea who the good guys are or whether there is any such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ There is no guarantee that the heroes live or even die, or that criminals are punished. The criminals and the heroes, in fact, are the same people. And in this regard, in this challenging of conventional generic structures and moral ideologies, the film is very postmodern (though not even nearly to the same extent as the original comic book.)

Zack Snyder makes a very good attempt at the impossible with The Watchmen; a huge amount of what made the original comic book so special has been lost, and yet enough remains to make it one of the best ‘superhero’ films ever.

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The Act of Killing

Anyone interested in film has probably been spending some time recently looking at the end-of-year ‘best of’ lists. The same films crop up, of course – aggregation sites like Metacritic show that big-budget films like 12 Years a Slave and Gravity are topping the polls. Number six on that list, though – and in first place in ‘serious’ publications like Sight and Sound and The Guardian-  is something of an anomaly; a documentary, and an experimental one at that, about the persecution and killing of supposed Communists in Indonesia when the army suppressed an attempted coup in 1965. It’s called The Act of Killing and it was made by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous co-director. (That anonymity is the first sign that we are not in conventional film-making territory here; the Indonesian crew stayed anonymous for fear of violent reprisal.) It is a wonderful, strange film – one of those which stays with the viewer long after watching -and though many reviewers say it is ‘difficult’ to watch, it really isn’t. The shocking thing, in fact, is how easily we are drawn into a world of utter amorality and chaos.

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When a story is told, the teller has decisions to make. ‘Where to stand?’ is the first one; that is, whose story are we telling? What angle are we approaching from? This film deals with a series of atrocities and massacres which claimed the lives of anywhere from 500,000 to 1,000,000 people. The obvious approach is to let the victims, or their loved ones, speak, to give them the voice they were so brutally denied. Much more difficult, and controversial, is to stand on the other side and to explore the lives and minds of the men who did the killing. But this is what Oppenheimer does in his film. It is basically the story of Anwar Congo, a small time gangster who ‘rose’ to become the leader of one of the more notorious death squads. The film claims that Congo was personally responsible for killing around 1000 people. This choice to tell the story of the killers has earned Oppenheimer some furious condemnation; Peter Rainer, for example, refused to give the film a grading, writing that ‘Oppenheimer allows murderous thugs free rein to preen their atrocities, and then fobs it all off as some kind of exalted art thing. This is more than an aesthetic crime; it’s a moral crime.’ As we’ve seen, other reviewers considered this the finest film of the year; it obviously evokes powerful emotions and responses, which is surely appropriate for a film about a conflict which still shapes Indonesia today.

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Another question which storytellers need to answer is ‘How to speak?’ How do we tell the story, or, in documentary, how do we get the subjects to tell their own story? Conventional documentarians stick a camera in front of the subject and let them speak or follow them around and let them show themselves. Oppenheimer does this also; we follow Congo and various associates, mostly other gangsters, as they go about their business – extorting money from their neighbours, largely – and to that degree it’s a conventional observational documentary. But clearly Oppenheimer wanted to go beyond the surface of how these men continue to justify what they did and ask more profound questions – how, for example, does a man live with himself after committing mass murder on an unimaginable scale? To this end, he uses more creative methods, more associated with performative documentary; he invites the killers, all huge fans of film, primarily American film, to re-create events and emotions from their past by making a film about them. This is a strange, indirect way of getting at ‘the truth’, and predictably it only succeeds in getting at one version of the truth; but it certainly produces a powerful, affecting film, one that both awakens awareness of the events under discussion and provokes questions about the nature of murder and evil.

Watching these men produce their film with almost childlike enthusiasm produces absolutely bizarre imagery, mostly involving the thuggish Herman Koto, an overweight gangster who plays all the female roles and provides comic relief.

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At the start, we watch Koto encourage local children to act out the burning of their homes and the slaughter of their parents, laughing and joking as they perform for him. He is a big, humorous bear of a man, warm and affable, and it is easy to forget tat these children are reenacting things which happened, probably to their grandparents, and that Herman and his friends really were those who were burning homes and slaughtering the inhabitants.

Anwar Congo himself first appears as a dapper, frail gentleman with an amusing vanity (he favours bright, old-fashioned suits and we often see him fussing with his false teeth.) He loves the camera, and is more than willing to discuss his past; this quickly becomesa  discussion of chosen methods of murder as he explains how he hit upon his favoured method -strangulation with wire – as a way of avoiding the need to clear up afterwards. (‘We used to beat them to death,’ he says, ‘but there was too much blood.’) Several times, we see him re-enacting the strangulation of victims as he and his friends, usually dressed as noirish gangsters, for that is how they choose to see themselves, make the film about their actions. The film gains some depth when Congo confesses that he has nightmares about what he has done, and this then becomes the narrative focus of the film; we watch as he approaches an (rather underwhelming) understanding of his actions. At the end of the film, he himself is filmed being ‘strangled’; he weeps as he watches it, then retches when he returns to the scene of many of his murders. This is narrative in the classic Western style; one man forced to change, to perhaps start to move towards some sort of understanding or redemption. (And any suggestion of understanding or redemption, of course, might be completely fabricated by the filmmaker or by Congo himself; it is easy to see why so many people were offended by this film.)

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Oppenheimer guides Congo towards this epiphinaic understanding by making, or allowing, him to confront his past. One of the most powerful scenes is when the stepson of a real-life victim nervously tells the story of how his father was abducted and killed and how he, as a child, had to bury the body. He then acts in the film, playing his father as the gangsters strangle and kill him. At this point, and later during the reenactment of a village massacre, we start to see more thoughtful reaction shots as Congo reflects on what he is doing and has done.

anwar reflective

The massacre scene is perhaps the most powerful part of the film. It is a masterpiece of juxtapositon, as is the whole film; we see men gently encouraging women and children to act more realistically, then cut to one of those men bragging about how he would ‘rape the shit out of’ fourteen-year old girls. An Indonesian MP turns up to help with direction, showing us that the people who massacred all these supposed ‘Communists’ (in reality, simply people who attracted the wrong sort of attention) are, in large part, the people running Indonesia today. The re-enactment itself is blurry, filmed with hand-held cameras, the sound muted, and it is devastatingly effective, both for the viewer and those who act in it, many of whom are in tears at the end.

reenactment massacre

There is too much to say about this film; Dana Stevens summarises it well by calling it ‘a movie that makes you want to laugh and cry and retch and run out of the theater, both to escape the awful things the film is showing you and to tell everyone you know that they need to see it, too.’ I hope my students will watch it, not only for the lessons it teaches about life (evil is boring, everyday, everywhere) but also for the example it sets for film-makers; how fearless, creative, unconventional thinking and approaches can lead us to ask uncomfortable questions and communicate powerful truths.

Paul Greengrass #2: Captain Phillips

As I wrote in the last post, Paul Greengrass has developed a style which is composed of two distinct approaches to film; Hollywood thrills combined with politically-motivated realism. In Bloody Sunday we see his politics and realism dominate; in his two Bourne films, we see him tend much more towards mainstream thriller. He does both of these things exceptionally well, and bringing them together, as he does in Captain Phillips, results in a gripping thriller which is infused with, but not slowed down by, the real weight of political and social comment.

As with Bloody Sunday, the film is based on real events. In 2009, the US ship Maersk Alabama was hijacked by 4 Somali pirates, led by 18 year old Abduwali Muse. The Captain, Richard Phillips, was taken aboard a lifeboat and held hostage for five days until he was freed by a Navy Seal team. This film is based in part on the book written by Phillips. This is typical Greengrass territory; a real story of conflict and danger serving as a microcosm of much wider political tensions, exploited for opportunity to both thrill and educate an audience.

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Primarily, though, Captain Phillips is a thriller. The tension gets cranked up so much that it’s actually hard to keep watching at times. Tension, of course, is created by many things and Greengrass’ characteristic “shakycam”, combined with sensitive and responsive editing by Chris Rouse, serve to effectively recreate both the chaos of the actual hijacking and the almost unbearable claustrophobia aboard the lifeboat once Phillips is taken hostage. Aesthetically, it’s business as usual for Greengrass and, as usual, all the kinetic camerawork and jumpy editing strives to put us in the middle of the action. It works, I think; although it is much complained about, I’ve never had a problem with Greengrass’ cinematography since it suits his subject matter and overall style of edgy, nervy realism. If you’re in the anti-shake camp, though, there’s a facebook page you can join to vent.

Conventional wisdom tells us that mainstream film should be edited ‘invisibly’, that audiences should not even be aware of camera and editing, focusing instead on the performances. Although we’re definitely not in ‘invisible editing’ territory here,  the performances are easily strong enough to distract those who need distracting, for they are astonishingly good. Tom Hanks, an actor who I think struggles to escape his own persona – decent, warm, humorous – plays (very) slightly against type as the slightly officious, bossy Phillips. He nags his crew, frets about his son and comes across very naturally as an unremarkable father figure. By the end, however, we have come to be astonished at the resilience and courage of this very normal man, and the last ten minutes of the movie might well count as the absolute pinnacle of Hanks’ career.

Even stronger, however, is the performance by first-timer Barkhad Abdi. Playing Muse, the leader of the hijackers, he manages to convey youthful bravado and invulnerability with a mature understanding that he is trapped in a struggle between much bigger forces. We come to like him, indeed, and feel for him at the end; as with Hanks, there is a real star quality and charisma in Abdi which leaves the audience open to understanding the motivations for his character’s actions.

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The relationship between these two forms the basis for the narrative. At the start, we are in fairly simple good/ bad binary opposition territory (although the ‘bad guy’ role is filled more by Muse’s very volatile sidekick, Bilal, played with ever-increasing intensity by Barkhad Abdirahman.) It would be very unlike Greengrass to leave this relationship uncomplicated, though, and there is always a sense that these two men, Muse and Phillips, are alike in some ways. Edwin Davies sees the film as ‘an examination of a clash between two captains, Philips and Muse… that is firmly grounded – or, perhaps more appropriately, anchored – in their shared humanity.’ As blogger SBT points out, both men are mere middle managers in larger organisations, working for and frustrated by bosses’ expectations; later, we see the commanders of warships in similar roles, eager to interpret and execute – literally – orders from their own bosses. What we see played out on screen is the human cost of interactions between vast national interests and tensions; but it’s done so well that it works basically as a struggle between two men, both trying to do their jobs as well as possible.

Greengrass doesn’t make too much of the socio-political context (although, bafflingly, Stephanie Zacharek writes that ‘there’s something about Captain Phillips that’s exhausting, and it may have to do with Greengrass’s insistence on trying to explain why unhappy Somalis would want to clamber aboard an American ship and start firing automatic weapons willy-nilly’; although ‘exhausting’ is exactly the term to describe Greengrass’ work, it’s hard to see where or how he has overdone the contextual material.) At the start, we see Phillips’ concern about his son’s job prospects juxtaposed with Somali villagers clamouring to be allowed to be part of the pirate crew. Later, he suggests to Muse that there must be employment open to him other than fishing or piracy. ‘Maybe in America, Irish,’ retorts Muse. There is almost a father-son relationship between the two, though the film never becomes quite that cheesy; but Hanks nags the hijackers about their doomed enterprise, teaches them how to operate the lifeboat, even gives Muse some advice on how a Captain should act. All of this, of course, gives the film an emotional richness and punch which most thrillers lack.

Overall, a superb film which works, as ever with Greengrass, on the head and the heart.

The Godfather Part 2

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is widely regarded as one of the best films ever made (it’s certainly a popular choice with fans, making second place in the IMDB all-time-greatest list, although critics are a little harsher, only allowing it number 21 in the Sight and Sound list. The sequel, 1974’s The Godfather Part 2, is generally thought of one of the best sequels of all time. It’s certainly one of the most successful, being the only sequel ever to win an Oscar. There is much discussion over which of the two is better. To me, it’s wholly artificial to debate the relative merits of the two films; even compared to most films and their sequels, they feel like two halves of one text and the removal of one part diminishes the power of the other.l

Where does the film’s reputation come from? It’s certainly not originality. The Godfather as a whole is a wholly conventional gangster story. If we look at the earliest crime dramas, we see many of the conventions are still evident decades later in Coppola’s movie. The Public Enemy, for example, made by William Welman in 1931, one of the founding texts of the genre, has several similarities. The focus is on the criminals, not the police (indeed, the forces of law and order are pretty much absent.). The criminal is an anti-hero – somehow sympathetic despite doing generally immoral, and often very terrible, things. The text is very much gendered; it’s a film full of men and it’s about masculinity. It’s also about family – actual families and crime families. Such conventions – and more – are evident in both films, and in other crime movies like Nine Queens or The Town or Rififi. Of course, this isn’t just a crime film, it’s a Mafia movie (or ‘mob film’) and that’s a subtext with a range of conventions all its own. The Mafia, as an Italian organisation which spread to America, gives Coppola the perfect basis for exploration of his themes – old world versus new world, tradition versus modernity, father versus son, past versus present and so on.

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So, is this merely a ‘genre’ film? Is there space to recognise auteurship at work? Certainly; the distinction between genre and auteur theory has always been a dubious one, and if we accept the postmodern view that nothing is particularly original anyway, then auteurship becomes a shaky notion anyway. Coppola’s vision is most definitely recognised in this film, and we can see his favourite themes and motifs appear in many of his other films. We see monomania just like Michael Corleone’s in Apocalypse Now, for example, and paranoia just like Michael’s in The Conversation.  Although the film is not particularly original, it is certainly the most fully realised exploration of many of these common themes and that is how it earned its reputation and what justifies the inclusion of Coppola in any list of great directors. That is, they’re not the first Mafia films, but arguably the best. (Scarface and Goodfellas are in the running, though!)

American (and thus global, pretty much) crime film, of course, is closely intertwined with the noir tradition, and at its heart, The Godfather Part 2 is a noir. Aesthetically, it is one of the darkest films I have ever seen – not for nothing is the cinematographer Gordon Willis known as the ‘prince of darkness.’ The darkness of the cinematography (as well as the exceptionally affecting minor-key score by Nino Rota, noted and praised by Roger Ebert, who says ‘it stirs emotions we shouldn’t really feel for this story’) connotes, as in all noir, the darkness at the heart of the story, at the very heart of the world represented in the film and the people who occupy that world.

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It’s Michael’s story, of course, and the almost Shakespearean wallop that the film packs is a direct result of the focus on his descent from his family’s moral touchstone – the boy his father, Vito, tried to protect from the family business – to what Coppola himself called a ‘monster.’  Pacino turns in a magnificent performance (no small feat in a film which contains just about all of the generation’s greatest American actors) which conveys the deep loneliness and emptiness within Michael; that theme, that we are spiritually dead, is classic noir. Noirs from the classic period, of course, were informed at least in part by spreading secularism and the decline in religious faith caused by World War 2. The resultant crisis of faith and conceptions of the universe as a cold, Godless and chaotic place found expression in the bewildering narratives and moral relativism of films like Kiss Me Deadly. Here, we see it more obviously in the religious iconography and symbolism; Michael marking Fredo for death with a kiss, like Judas with Christ, for example, or the opening Catholic funeral which leads to more violence. These symbols are empty of religious signification and full of violence and deceit, and the implication is clearly that religion has no real part to play in this world, despite the (conventional, of course, of the mob film) many instances of characters praying, blessing themselves or offering thanks to a God they clearly have no time for. This rejection of religion – the rejection of Catolicism, Italy, the Old World –  perhaps reaches its fullest expression in 1990’s (much inferior) The Godfather Part 3 when we see Michael – murderous, treacherous and amoral – receive special commendation from the Pope for his ‘charitable work.’

In terms of context, The Godfather Part 2 is rather difficult to pin down, and that’s a compliment. It is amazingly undated and looks like it could have been made just about any time in the last forty years. Again, this gives it a Shakespearean weight and relevance in that it is not constrained by reference or relevance to one place or time. Bu there are contextual points to be made. It clearly grows out of the New Hollywood movement, most obviously in the way it takes an existing genre and reworks it somewhat (just as, for example, Dennis Hopper would do much more drastically to the Western in Easy Rider.) Likewise, it can be seen to deal (as crime movies often do) with several important contemporary issues – the immigrant experience, for one, or the way women are treated in Italian-American cultures or, indeed, more generally.

Primarily, though, the social importance of the film comes from its examination of the American way of life itself. Michael, like Vito before him, is absolutely in pursuit of the American dream. He wants a better life for his family than he had himself (we are repeatedly reminded of his desire to put the family’s business on a legal footing, even as it becomes clear that this dream of legality and respectability is impossible) and he wants professional success – to be the best at his job, to live up to his father’s memory. He wants financial security and safety; all the things which Americans are told to aspire to. Maryann Johanson writes of the Corleone family that ‘their story is pretty much the story of America in the 20th century.’ The entire Godfather saga is an analysis of what this dream, this ambition, does to Michael, and the obvious answer is that it destroys whatever is good in him. John Hess, writing at the time of the film’s release, casts all this in a Marxist light; he sees the film as detailing the binary opposition between capitalism (The American Dream) and humanity (represented by everything Michael loses.) He sees opposition between Michael’s family and his crime family, his ‘work.’ The two, clearly, are incompatible (Hess writes that ‘the benefits of the family structure and the hope for community have been destroyed by capitalism.’ It’s a fascinating way to look at the film; Michael’s family are taken from him by violence, or they are alienated or, most tellingly of all, he has them killed. Fredo’s death at the end of the film is extremely affecting, marking as it does the final nail in the coffin of Michael’s own humanity. The final shots of Michael show him entirely alone, firstly in flashback at his father’s table, secondly in the present time as an older man.

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Michael has, in some way, always been alone. In the first scene he has just announced his desire to join the army, against his family’s wishes. In the second, he has had Fredo killed, (obviously) against the wishes of what remains of his family. Clearly, he has never understood what family actually is, what it is for; he understands it as something to protect, to make prosperous, but he doesn’t have the emotional wherewithal to understand why he is actually doing all this for his family.

In this, he is opposed to his father, Vito. Their stories – Vito’s climb to ascendancy as Godfather in the 19oos and Michael’s descent to monstrousness in the 1950s – are told in parallel, thus creating the binary oppositions – past and present, old world (Europe) and new world (America), father and son – which so profoundly inform the film. Vito is shown to be a man who loves his family – properly, affectionately – and his friends. As he is gathering friends about him, Michael, 50 years later, is alienating them (sometimes, the very people his father befriended all those years before.) At one point, we see Vito with his family, telling his son how much he loves him, being the conventionally happy family man:

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When we cut back to the film’s present day and Michael’s story, he is arriving alone at his home to meet his wife, who has just a had a miscarriage (we later find it was an abortion.) He looks at her, then turns away; he does not have his father’s ability to be open and emotionally natural – to be a good human being – even with people he once loved. It’s not so simple as father/good, son/ bad, of course; immediately before returning to be with his family, Vito had gunned down a local mobster. This is his first killing, and one which does not appear to trouble him in the slightest. Nobody here is a ‘good guy’ (this is noir, at least in spirit, remember) but Michael apparently does not know how to maintain his humanity in the midst of so much evil. In Michael Hess’ terms, already mentioned, he is a business man, not a family man; he can’t be both.

All in all, a truly magnificent movie, one that does what the best narrative art does; shows us real, believable characters being buffeted by life and managing or failing to manage to reain something of themselves. By the end, when Michael is completely without humanity, we still feel for him, because we understand how he came to be like that; the film shows us how ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are, perhaps, merely constructs, how we are all the product of our environments, how even the best of us- Michael Corleone, the young charmer, the war hero – can be corrupted.

Crime #4: Rififi

Rififi, Jules Dassin’s 1955 masterpiece, has been called the greatest example of the heist genre and one of the finest French noirs. It’s perfect, the kind of movie that makes people love film – wonderfully written, edited and acted. A diamond, Peter Bradshaw calls it, and he’s right.

Dassin was a successful director of noir thrillers, most famously Naked City, in the 1940s. In 1950, he fell victim, along with many others, to McCarthyism. Unable to work in the USA or abroad – American companies would refuse to distribute his films – he finally managed to get hired to make Rififi – a project he was singularly uninterested in – in France, after five years of unemployed frustration. Whether his recent history influenced the making or tone of the film, and given what he had been through it’s probably best to assume that it did, he ended up producing a film which is as violent and dark as any of the great noirs (Truffaut himself called this the greatest noir he had ever seen.)

The film revolves around Tony le Stéphanois, a bank robber freshly out of prison. A young friend, Jo, offers him the chance to do one last job, at a jeweller’s store, and after initially refusing he is soon involved. Tony is a classic noir anti-hero – a character blended of equal parts light and dark (and lit the same way.) He risks his life to save Jo’s son, but also brutally beats an ex-girlfriend. He is absolutely faithful to his friends, but will kill those he thinks have betrayed the criminal code. The character, of course, reflect the film’s world; once again, we’re in familiar crime scene territory, wherein morality is relative and there are no reliable definitions of good and bad to cling to.

As ever in crime drama, the film is in large part a study of male relationships. Most obviously, this is done through the characters of Tony, Jo and Jo’s son (and Tony’s godson) Tonio. We see how Jo dotes on his boy, and how, for him, crime is a way to provide for his son. Tony too is devoted to the boy and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the two of them see in the boy some innocence which they have lost. But we see Tonio’s love of toy guns and fast cars, his desire to always be with his father and godfather; it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see that the boy may well continue in their footsteps one day. The darker side of these relationships are also shown; when one of the men crosses the line and gives away information, there is only one possible ending for him. ‘You know the rules,’ Tony tells him, immediately before regretfully executing him. Those rules, the mechanics of male relationships, are the real theme of crime drama and of this film. As such, it’s largely a film about and for men; the women in the film are wives and girlfriends or prostitutes and victims. 

The film, then, is largely about relationships. But it’s also about crime, and ‘the job’ itself is shown in the famous central segment; 30 minute of almost complete silence, during which Tony and his three accomplices drill through the roof to the store, disable the alarm, crack the safe and escape. It’s a superb sequence, almost unbearably tense, and clearly the model for every complex, nerve-wracking heist scene since. We are firmly on the side of the criminals; we have seen their lives, met their families and grown to like them (especially the romantic Italian safecracker, César le Milanais, played under an assumed name by Dassin himself.) We want them to succeed. But the heist is in the middle of the film, not at the end, and we realise that this is not to be an Ocean’s Eleven deal where the men walk away rich and happy; the film is too honest, to real to give them that sort of easy ending.

rififi2big

There is too much to say about this film; the cinematography is beautiful (Paris in the wintertime looks moody and beautiful) and the editing is excellent (particularly in the last race against time in Tony’s car. Jumpy, disorientating, this reminds me strongly of later New Wave scenes, such as the opening of Breathless.) Suffice it to say that it does what all the best noir and crime drama does; it makes us care about and feel sorry for men who are not immediately or easily sympathetic, and it makes us think a little more about what it means to be heroic. As such, it began a tradition which found perhaps its best expression in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Go and watch it. (I know, I know, I always say that. But you HAVE to watch this one!)

Rififi tenderness

Crime #3: The Town

Ben Affleck’s Boston roots loom large in his body of work – in Good Will Hunting, or Gone Baby Gone, he shows us his city, and in particular he shows what sort of people, especially men, it produces. And as the title of his 2010 crime flick, The Town suggests, this time it’s Boston itself that is the subject of the film.

One blue-collar Boston neighborhood has produced more bank robbers and armored car thieves than anywhere in the world.

The movie is about a gang of armed robbers, led by Affleck’s Doug. His childhood friend Jem, very well played by Jeremy Renner, is the gang’s resident loose cannon and the foil to Doug’s comparatively calm, clear-sighted character. The film starts with a bank robbery during which Jem takes an employee, Claire, hostage; the gang later find out that she lives in their neighborhood. In a plot device which stretches credibility almost too far, Doug meets and starts a relationship with Claire. You can probably guess what Jem thinks of that.

The Town fight

The best heist movies aren’t about heists. Although the actual crime scenes in The Town are exceptionally well realised – among other things, this is a very exciting crime thriller – the majority of the film is about the relationships between the main players – Doug, Claire and Jem. Jem is by far the most interesting character, and it’s his need for Doug to validate him, to stay in Boston, to keep going along with the heists, which is the single most interesting thing in the film. In one scene, just as Doug is making clear his decision to leave Boston and their shared life of crime, their shared history, Jem attacks him, and after the fight we see his vulnerability, his love for his friend, his inability to express himself in any way except violently. Crime movies deal with male relationships, and this is Affleck’s favourite theme also; look at the two of them, constrained by the bars, metaphorical and literal, sprawled at opposite ends of the screen, trying to bridge the gap between them.

Crime drama often extends this analysis of male relationships into the father / son relationship, and Affleck uses this convention to offer some comment on the roots of the movie’s criminality. We hear how Jem’s father died in prison, and we see Doug visit his own father, an apparently unrepentant bank robber and murderer, who is serving life. His father expects his son to be involved in crime; there appears to be nothing else for him to do. Boston is shown as a hard, brutal place where options are limited; we hear about the racial problems (Jem’s sister Krista complains about the black people who ‘thinks there’s no more serious white people in Charlestown.’) Drugs, too, of course; Krista seems to live permanently on the edge of losing her child (who may or may not be Doug’s baby) due to her Oxy addiction. Clearly, and admirably, Affleck wants to make a comment about the social causes of crime and addiction. Roger Ebert praises the effort, but isn’t convinced of its success.

town lads

Crime itself is  represented as brutal and uncompromising; this is not Nine Queens with its likeable and relatively harmless rogues. We see multiple extended scenes of the gang at work, and there’s no shortage of blood and gunfire. The film is non-judgmental about this violence, but does make a point of showing how the police at work are pretty much as brutal as the criminals. Again, as is common in crime drama, the line between good and bad, good guys and bad guys, is not as clear as it might be.

Affleck gets a lot of criticism, but it’s largely undeserved. He’s an okay actor and a good director, and he’s trying to make serious, albeit unoriginal,  points. The Town is a very good film with some outstanding performances and, particularly, a fantastic rendering of Boston as a cold, hard place, not much different from the prison which casts such a shadow across the lives of the men in the film.

Crime #2: Nine Queens

Argentina’s Fabian Bielensky only made two features before his death at the age of 47 in 2006. Nine Queens (2000) was his first (followed by the noirish The Aura in 2005.) Both films were critically acclaimed, and Nine Queens certainly impresses as a tightly-plotted, well-performed take on the heist or sting sub-genre.

As a fairly recent film, we expect to see some development of the genre conventions laid down in earlier crime and heist movies like The Public Enemy and Rififi. Equally, of course, we expect to see many of those conventions in place, and they are in plain view here. As ever, we are situated with the criminals; we follow Juan and Marcos about their day as they meet, then stumble across the opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to sell the fabled Nine Queens (a sheet of rare stamps) for a small fortune. Both of them, largely thanks to the charisma of the actors (Ricardo Darin is particularly good as the older of the two, Marcos), are likeable even though they are engaged in reprehensible behaviour and contemptibly small-scale crime (ripping off small stores, stealing from old ladies, thieving newspapers.) They are made more sympathetic by virtue of their backstories – Juan is trying to raise money to help his father escape a lengthy prison term, Marcos is tangled up in a complex court case with his brother and sister. As ever in the heist, we’re forced to identify with the bad guys.

We saw this also, of course, in those earlier films. In The Public Enemy we saw how Tom Powers was affected by troubled relationships with his brother and mother; even in Rififi, not as reliant on backstory, we were made to sympathise with Jo in particular when we see his closeness to his son. Even Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs shows us just enough of Mr Orange’s background – the sparse apartment, the wedding ring – to raise interest and sympathy. In his Guardian review of Nine Queens, Joe Queenan points out that ‘scam movies always trick us into identifying with the criminals, and never sympathising with their victims’ and says that, as a result, such films ‘are almost completely devoid of moral content.’ While I don’t quite agree with this, it’s clear that there is moral ambiguity, inherited from noir, at the heart of these movies; we’re dealing with antiheroes, not heroes.

In terms of representations, Juan and Marcos seem to have the relationship we’ve already seen between Mr Orange and Mr White, or Tom Powers and Paddy Ryan – a younger man, often alienated from his own father, seeking a new mentor. Marcos takes Juan under his wing and starts to teach him how to survive as a conman; as we’ve seen, these are extremely gendered texts and the informing theme is, arguably, masculine relationships. In many ways, the narrative arc which interests us is watching a younger man learn to navigate the criminal world and his own lie, alway sunder the guidance of his surrogate father figure.

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Given the masculinity of these films, female representations also seem predictable. While the women in the film seem at first glance stronger than those in older examples – at least twice, the success of the central scam depends on decisions made by women, and the female characters in the film are as well-drawn as the men – they are ultimately secondary characters, and the plot is entirely dependent on the men for development. The film is about men struggling against other men for the upper hand and the ‘prize’; it could even be argued that one of the female characters (Valeria, Marcos’ sister) is the real ‘queen’, the actual prize being contested. Such representations – men helping women, then being rewarded by being ‘given’ the woman – are often identified in fairy tales, but they are common in crime fiction also.

So far, so familiar. Does the film go beyond genre convention? Perhaps, a  little. There is a degree of social commentary; Marcos points out at one point that criminality is rife in Argentina and it’s telling that many of the characters, all of whom are involved in crime of one sort or another, point out that they aren’t crooks. Perhaps, in this world, their criminality is the norm. That seems to be supported at the end of the film when Argentina’s financial collapse of 2000 plays a part in the plot; everyone’s getting ripped off here, not just the victims of the two central characters. The system, it is suggested, is in some way complicit in all this criminality, most clearly seen in the (possible) fact that Juan needs the money from the scam to bribe a judge to help his father. Such bribery is represented as an unexceptional part of the legal system in Argentina. This, perhaps, pushes it beyond straight genre imitation a little.

Also, the plot is more complex than those earlier films. There’s a touch of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in the twists and turns, although it has none of that film’s narrative daring. The plot twists are driven by treachery, incompetence and coincidence; all features which play a common part in the genre. There’s a lovely symmetry to the narrative, in the way the younger Juan seems to take some control away from the older Marcos. Where Marcos leads Juan into criminality by the arm at the start, the situation is reversed (and the shot mirrored) by the end.

ninequeens start

9 Queens End

So, not the world’s most original movie, but a very, very good one; the twist is cleverly handled (you always know someone’s being swindled; working out who is not so straightforward) and the genre conventions, while clearly in play, are well handled and used.

Crime #1: The Public Enemy

Our Year 12 students recently watched Reservoir Dogs, and in order to put that in a context for them, I’ve been thinking about the crime and heist genres. I’ll be posting about a few of these films over the next few days and, hopefully, encouraging some students to see some new films. (Or old ones.)

Whenever I teach about the crime movie, or even think about it, I go back to the early Hollywood gangster pics. Under the studio system, Warner Brothers was considered the ‘gangster’ studio, and one of the best they made, of course, was William Wellman’s 1931 classic The Public Enemy. Starring James Cagney, this is the film that really broke him as a star and just as Cagney is perhaps the prototypical star of gangster film, The Public Enemy is one of the films which absolutely defined the genre.

Reflection theory tells us that films or other texts tend to be influenced by what is going on in the world at the time of making. What was happening in America in 1931? Prohibition, for a start. Alcohol would still be illegal until 1933, and the film, like many others made at the time, uses the illegal booze industry as the background or all the criminality in the film. The Great Depression was reaching its worst point, and audiences, it has been suggested, can more easily identify with, or at least be interested in, a man who turns to crime when times in the real world are tougher. So, in every way, The Public Enemy is informed by its time; but, it’s still very watchable now because the themes it encodes, about loyalty and family and brotherhood and morality, remain entirely relevant today. That’s why today’s crime films convey exactly the same ideas.

The plot is pretty standard fare for then or now. A young man, alienated from his own family, seeks to belong somewhere else and finds a surrogate family in the local Mob. (So that’s where Goodfellas got that idea from.) He starts small but his crimes escalate and we see him reap the rewards – flashy cars and restaurants and beautiful woman (one of whom famously gets a grapefruit in the face.) Obviously, there’s a turning point – and, in the 50s reissue of the film, a tacked-on moral point which is not actually as clear as the producers of the film might later have pretended.

How does it influence current films? In many ways. Using Reservoir Dogs as an example, we can see a range of influences:

  • It’s a gendered text. This is a male film, about masculinity. As is common with American fiction of all sort, relationships between men are shown to be closer than those between men and women. The women are peripheral to the men’s lives; the real loyalty and love in this story is between Matt Doyle and Tom Powers. These two men grow up together, share their work and play and, effectively, their lives. The exception, by the way, is the mother; Tom loves his mum and the mother – son relationship is represented as wholly positive and good. Reservoir Dogs is the same – there is not a single woman in the film. (This does not, however, necessarily mean it is sexist. More later.)
  • It’s about family. We see young Tom, already predisposed to crime, beaten by his father and hectored by his older brother. Later, he is beaten by that same brother. He is defiant and dismissive, but vulnerable – we see later how he wants his mother’s love and his brother’s forgiveness  As such, he seeks acceptance somewhere and he finds it in the criminal gangs of a series of older men. We see the same in Reservoir Dogs in the figures of Mr Orange and Mr White. While Mr Orange is dying, Mr White cradles him, holding and speaking to him like a baby. Although there is double-crossing going on, the relationship between these two is close and genuine – a father and his son.Mr-White-comforting-Mr-Orange-reservoir-dogs-25583572-1024-896
  • We identify with the criminals. Generically, the difference between the crime drama and the police drama, or police procedural, is which side of the crime the audience is located on. Here, we follow the criminals, not the cops. And as a result, we are more likely to sympathise with the criminals. That’s certainly the case here; although Cagney’s Tom Powers is in every way reprehensible, we have Cagney’s star appeal beaming out of him and making him irresistible. Likewise in Reservoir Dogs, we can’t help but warm to characters like Steve Buscemi’s Mr Pink – even though he’s a self-centered, murderous thug who doesn’t tip. More than that, we buy into the criminal code; within the diegeses and ideologies of these films, the worst crime against masculine honour is to betray your mob ’brothers’ – we see it in both films, and we see how keenly the betrayal is felt and (possibly, in Reservoir Dogs but most definitely in The Public Enemy) how savagely it is punished.
  • Attitudes to women are shown to be questionable, to say the least. Although I’ve already said that these texts are gendered, there are often strong women in the films. Jean Harlow’s Gwen is one such in The Public Enemy – a woman who appears to be a match for Cagney’s Tom. But we see, in the ‘grapefruit’ scene and elsewhere, how Tom is incapable of sustaining relationships with women apart from his mother (and he struggles there at times too.) He is a man’s man in every way. It has been said that there is a strong streak of homoeroticism in American literature and film – think of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Captain Ahab and Ishmael, Starsky and Hutch, Batman and Robin; a great deal of American narrative is based around the bromance, the male partnership or relationship. Reservoir Dogs, as noted, goes far beyond this in that there aren’t actually any women in the film to  be in twisted relationships with – but when the men talk about women, as in the conversation about Madonna at the start, or Elois (the woman who glues her partner’s penis to his stomach), it’s easy to argue that Tarantino is seeding these men with a warped sense of where women fit in their worlds. It has been argued that there’s actually a sophisticated feminism at work in this characterisation.

There are lots and lots of other similarities – the iconography and locations, the wise-guy dialogue, the violence– but this post is already long enough. Just watch it! You’ll see Jimmy Cagney get a tooth punched out (really), nearly get shot in the head (really) and Mae Clarke, obviously, get a grapefruit in the face. (Really.)