Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Shootist

What Happens ? 

The film opens with scenery of the open West, which moves on to pistols firing as different time periods are captioned. Narration kicks in over the scenes of the same rugged looking younger cowboy in many gunfights in the 1800's.  "His name was J.B. Books, and he had a matched pair of 45's with antique ivory grips, that were something to behold. He wasn't an outlaw. Fact is, for awhile, he was a lawman. Long before I met Mr. Books, he was a famous man. I guess his fame was why somebody or other was always after him. Wild country had taught him to survive. He lived his life and herded by himself. He had a credo that went [J.B. Books' voice cuts in.] "I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people and I require the same from them." It's now 1901 and an older Books (John Wayne) is headed to Carson City on horseback. A man on the road attempts to hold him up, but Books shoots him in the gut. The bandit falls to the ground saying "You've murdered me." but Books tells him he'll just have a long bellyache. After Books orders the man to hand him his wallet (which he threw to the ground when pulling his pistol) the bandit says "You're not gonna leave me here?" Books replies "Well, it's quite obvious, that's what you were gonna do to me." before pushing the man away from his horse. Watching the bandit fall into a stream behind him, Books advises him to get into another line of work as "this one sure don't fit your pistol."

Arriving in Carson City, Books picks up a newspaper announcing the death of Queen Victoria, and looks it over, on his horse, in the middle of the road. A hostile man named Jay Cobb (Bill Mckinney) is angered by this, as he can't pass by. Cobb calls out "Hey! Hey you! Hey Methuselah, move that cack out of the way!"
Books: Are you talking to me?
Cobb: Yeah, you dumb bastard. I said move it, or I'll deliver you something to remember me by.
Books: Well now, pardon me all to hell.
Books obliges moving out of the street. As Cobb passes, Books says "Buster..." at which Cobb puts his hand on his pistol. Books says "Try it." but Cobb's passenger, young Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) tells him to calm down, as "the old man isn't worth a bullet. He looks all tuckered out." Cobb and Gillom have a laugh driving off. Books adds, when they're out of earshot "You're right, there, son."  
Books reaches his destination, the office of Dr. Hostetler (Jimmy Stewart) Hostetler remembers him from many years ago, greeting him warmly. Hostetler helped him back to health 15 years ago "the only time he was ever hit, at the Acme Saloon." Hostetler recalls that he killed two men and Books remembers the second one came out of nowhere and nearly killed him and would've if Hostetler hadn't been there. "You must have the constitution of an ox." Hostetler says. Books reveals that ten days ago, he saw a doctor in Colorado, when he wasn't feeling well, and when the doctor gave him his results, he set off to see Hostetler. He tells Dr. Hostetler that he won't tell him what the first doctor said, until he examines him. Hostetler agrees and tells Books he has an advanced cancer. Books confirms that's what the first doctor had told him. He asks "What can you do?"
Hostetler: There's very little I can do. When the pain gets too bad, I can give you something.
Books: What you're trying to tell me, is that I...
Hostetler: Yeah.
Books: Damn.
Hostetler: I'm sorry, Books.
Books: You told me i was strong as an ox.
Hostetler: Even an ox dies.
Books: How much time do I have?
Hostetler: Two months, six weeks, less...There's no way to tell.
Books: What'll I be able to do?
Hostetler: Well, anything you want at first. Then, later on, you won't want to.
Books: How much later?
Hostetler: You'll know when. You'll have to get off your feet and get some rest.
Hostetler recommends Books see the widow Rogers, for a room in town. Books asks him not to tell anyone he's in town

Books heads to the Roger's place and runs into Gillom again, who's outside sweeping. Books jokingly references Gillom's earlier comment. Gillom's mother, Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) comes out to greet him and agrees to rent him a room. On his way into the house he tells Gillom "Boy, get my gear and saddlebags off that horse and bring them into the house." Gillom gives him a defiant look, but his mother scolds him and he agrees. Books gets a tour of the property. Books asks to take his meals in his room. Bond says "I serve meals in the dining room." He offers to pay extra and she agrees, as he isn't permanent. Books, addresses Gillom as "Boy" again, prompting Gillom to have an outburst. "My names not boy, It's Gillom Rogers and I don't like being ordered around." Books responds "Well, that's fair enough, Gillom Rogers." and asks him nicely to see that his horse gets fed. Gillom agrees. Bond remarks that he seems used to giving orders. and Books says "Well, I guess it is a bad habit of mine.
Bond: I didn't get your name.
Books: [pulling his pistol from his saddlebag] I didn't give it. Is it so important?
Bond: For anyone living under my roof, it is.
Books: Alright, it's...Hickok. William Hickok.
Bond: Where do you hail from, Mr. Hickok?
Books: Abilene, Kansas.
Bond: And, what do you do there?
Books: I'm a U.S. Marshal.
Bond: Oh, that's nice.
Books: No, it isn't.
Bond: I'm glad you're not staying long, Mr. Hickok. I;m not sure I like you.
Books: Not many do, Mrs. Rogers.

Gillom brings Books' horse to the stable, getting a drink of whiskey from the stable manager, Moses (Scatman Crothers) Moses finds "J.B. Books" on the horse's saddle. Gillom is delighted that the famous books is in his house. Moses and Gillom do a gunfight imitation, with Moses pretending to be Books and Gillom pretending to outdraw him. He runs home, excited to tell his mother.He asks if she knows who he is, and she tells him, William Hickok. Gillom tells her that "Wild Bill Hickok was shot before I was born. We got J.B. Books here. He's killed 30 men."  Obviously disturbed, she sends Gillom to his room, and confronts Books. He admits his identity, and she demands he leave. But he tells her he can't. She asks if that's his "Last word." and he says it is. He remarks "You have a fine color when you're on the scrap." Bond rushes to the phone to call the marshal's office. Marshal Thibodo (Harry Morgan) arrives at the Roger's place. He approaches Books cautiously, although Books tries to set him at ease. Thibodo informs him "Books, Carson City's full of hard cases, who'd sell their soul to put your name on the wall. You'll draw trouble like an outhouse draws flies." He reveals he doesn't have anything he can hold Books for, but orders him out of town. Books answers "Maybe I'm not so inclined." Thibodo informs him that he'll have him removed by force, deputizing as many men as he needs. Books reveals that he can't leave, as he's going to die. Thibodo then bursts out in excitement, revealing that he reasoned he might die confronting Books. Books doesn't care for his joy over this news and tells him "You talk too much." Thibodo is unapologetic, but agrees not to tell anyone the news, saying "Alright, just don't take too long to die. Be a gent, convenience everybody and do it soon." Books makes Thibodo jump by pulling a newspaper out from under his gun. He tells him "You've worn out your welcome. Scat." Thibodo obliges, saying "The day they lay you away, what I do on your grave won't pass for flowers." as he leaves.

Books notices something by his window and reaches outside pulling Gillom from outside into his room. He says "You damn little sneak." and tells him to "knock on my door like a man." When pressed Gillom reveals that he's told Jay Cobb about him being in town. Gillom apologizes, telling Books it's an honor to have him in the house. Gillom tells Books that he heard all about his shootout at the Acme Saloon and never thought he'd meet him. Books tells him "There's more to being a man than handling a gun."

Books finds Mrs. Rogers in the kitchen and apologizes for giving a false name. She tells him he can repent by leaving. She adds "Mr. Books, you're a notorious individual, utterly lacking in character or decency. You're an assassin." Books replies "That's according to which end of the gun you're on." He reveals to hear that he's dying of cancer and tells her he won't be a burden and offers to pay her more.

The next morning, Books sees a journalist, Dobkins (Richard Lens) in his room. Dobkins reveals that he's already written a story about him being in town, which is sure to be big news, but he would like to do a series of stories on Books. Dobkins gets carried away listening to his own idea about revealing why Books turned to violence, but is startled when Books holds a pistol to his face and tells him "Make like it's a nipple." He leads Dobkins out the door backwards with the gun in his mouth. Mrs. Rogers is alarmed at the situation, but watches as Books tells Dobkins to bend over on the porch. He then says "Dobkins, you are a prying pip squeaking ass. If you ever come dandying around here again...." He then kicks Dobkins in the ass sending him off the porch. Mrs. Rogers scolds him, but becomes concerned when she realizes he's out of breath.

Books visits Hostetler again. He gives him some Laudanum, telling him to take what he needs when he needs it. Books asks Hostetler what will happen. He says he'd rather not talk about it, but Books insists. Hofsteter says "There'll be an increase in the severity of the pain, in your lower spine, your hips, your groin. Do you want me to go on?" Books nods. "The pain will become unbearable. No drug will moderate it. If you're lucky, you'll lose consciousness, and until then, you'll scream."
Books appears shaken and Hostetler apologizes offering to visit him at Mrs. Roger's place. Hostetler tells him "There's one more thing I'd say. Both of us have had a lot to do with death. I'm not a brave man, but you must be. Now, this is not advice. It's not even a suggestion. It's just something for you to reflect on while your mind's still clear. I would not die a death like I just described. Not if I had your courage.  
Mrs. Rogers comes to see Books in his room, and Books tells her. "I was reading about old Queen Vic. Well, maybe she outlived her time. Maybe she was a museum piece, but she never lost her dignity, nor sold her guns. She hung on to her pride and went out in style. That's the kind of an old gal I'd like to meet." He asks her if she's afraid of him and she admits that she is. She claims to be asking about dinner but he tells her that isn't what she came to say. She relents and apologizes for anything "unchristian she said or did." He asks her to go for a drive with him, and she refuses. They agree to start trying to get along better, and she finally changes her mind and agrees to go with him.

That night we see a man hurrying to the Metropole Saloon to inform a card dealer named Pulford (Hugh O'Brian) that Books is dying. Pulford remarks "Too bad, that's a man I could've taken." One of the players laughs, and Pulford tells him "You have two ways of leaving this establishment, my friend, immediately, or dead." The player leaves, then returns right afterwards with his gun drawn, shooting at Pulford. Pulford, unfazed, guns the man down. They determine that Pulford shot him through the heart from 80 feet away.

The next day Books and Mrs. Rogers go for their drive. They have a personal talk, Books asking her why she hasn't remarried.She tells her she loved her husband and still does. He also asks her about Gillom, and she reveals, that she worries about him. Books says "I wouldn't be too hard on him. Every young man feels the need to let the badger loose now and then." He tells her he feels overall about his life, that he's "had a hell of a good time." Heading back into town, a man greets Mrs. Rogers named Mike Sweeney, (Richard Boone) Sweeney is then flattered that Books remembers him. Books says "You look just like I remember the Sweeney's, mean and ugly."  Sweeney mocks Books' pillow, and remarks that he knows Books is in town for a short time. Books asks her about her association with Sweeney. She says "That man is no friend, quite the reverse. How do you know him?" Books reveals that he killed Mike's brother, Albert. She remarks that these things must worry him. He says "Bond, I don't believe I ever killed a man, that didn't deserve it." She remarks "Surely, only the Lord can judge that."

That night, in bed, Books wakes in the night and sees a man with a gun creeping around his window. It turns out to be two men, both of whom he shoots dead. Gillom hears the noise and comes to check it out finding the bodies. Books tells him to call the Marshal. Gillom is ecstatic about having the shootout in their house. She tells Gillom that Books is dying, and starts crying. Gillom at first doesn't believe it but comforts her. In the morning, the other boarders leave. Thibodo shows up in the morning and offers to post men outside, complaining about what it costs the taxpayers. Thibodo tells him he hopes he's feeling more poorly every day. He tells Books about Pulford's shoot out and offers to send him there. Books says "You do that." Thibodo goes on "The old days are gone, and you don't know it. We've got waterworks, telephones, lights. We'll have our streetcar electrified next year, and we've started to pave the streets. We've still got some weeding to do, but once we're rid of people like you. we'll have a goddamn Garden of Eden here. To put it in a nutshell, you've plain, plumb outlived your time." Books tells him "You're the longest winded bastard I've ever listened to." and points his gun at Thibodo, who leaves.

Books visits the stables and happens upon Moses singing a song he made up "John Bernard Brooks lies amolderin' in his grave. But, his horse keeps galloping on." Books calls to him and asks if he wants to do business. Moses offers Books $100.00 for his horse, telling him the Gillom said that would be fine. Books tells him he needs $300.00 and won't budge on it, although Moses wants to haggle. Books agrees to sell it for $298.00 just so Moses can call himself the best haggler. Books confronts Gillom about his claims to Moses, and Gillom claims he thought Books would sell his horse to help his mother. Books reassures him that he never though of him as a horse thief. Gillom asks for a shooting lesson. Books agrees that he should know how to handle a gun, but asks if he'll tell his mother. Gillom does very well at the shooting lesson. Books asks where he learned to shoot and Gillom tells him he goes shooting with Cobb sometimes. Gillom then jokes about Cobb breaking a salesman's jaw the other day. Books remarks "Nice employer you have." Gillom says he'd like to see Cobb and Pulford go at it. Gillom asks how he killed so many people. Books tells Gillom his code, "I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people and I require the same from them." Gillom says he doesn't understand how he always came out on top when he nearly tied him shooting. Books says the trees don't shoot back, and adds "It isn't always being fast or even accurate that counts. It's being willing. I found out early that most men, regardless of cause or need, aren't willing. They blink an eye, or draw a breath before they pull the trigger. I won't." When Gillom pulls out some whiskey, Books tells him it doesn't go with guns and tosses it away.

That night, Books has a visit from a woman named Serepta (Sheree North) She asks if it's true. and they talk about how they loved each other. He tells her, "We all have our time." They agree that they should've married,and she says they still could and having his name would help her. She tells him that Dobkins the newspaperman had approached her to put her name on a book about him if she got married. She then complains about what she paid to get there and he remarks "You and Dobkins are two sides of a counterfeit coin." but agrees to pay her fare. She has an outburst about him not caring what happens to her. He says "God, and I loved you once." She tells him to "rot to death." before leaving.

Books has breakfast with Mrs. Rogers and asks her to clean up his "Sunday go to meeting" clothes, as he'll need them Monday. He turns down her invitation to go to church saying his soul is what he's already made of it. She reveals she's been praying for him. She asks why he was angry at Gillom yesterday, and he tells her they straightened it out and she should be proud of him. She then offers to have the reverend visit him, but he refuses. He declares that his dying should be private and he's sick of everyone prying. She challenges his glorified image as a "shootist." and he tells her "I'm just a dying man, scared of the dark." Mrs. Rogers is angry and says "Damn you, for the pain you've brought into this house." Books leaves the table, holding his side.

Books gets a shave and a haircut, where the undertaker, Hezekiah Beckum (John Carradine) notices him. He stops in the barbershop to introduce himself. Beckum offers an elaborate funeral. Books asks "How much?" Beckum says he'll do it for nothing, just the privilege. Books says "No, I mean, how much will you make on the deal? Oh Beckum, you're going to do to me, what they did to John Wesley Hardin. You're going to lay me out, let the public come by and gawp at me, for fifty cents a head, 10 cents for the children. When the curiosity peters out you're going to stuff me in a gunny sack and stick me in a hole while you hurry to the bank with your loot." Books proposes that Beckum pay him $50.00 cash and deliver a headstone to his specification Monday morning. Beckum agrees.

At the Roger's house, Books asks Gillom for a favor. He tells him to go to Jack Pulford, Jay Cobb and Mike Sweeney and tell them that he'll be at the Metropole at 11 AM on Monday, without mentioning to each of them that the others were invited.  Gillom agrees, to do it after church in the morning.
The next day Books slips in the tub, and Mrs. Rogers helps him. She told him she should've asked for help to begin with and he says he promised not to be a burden. She tells him it's too late for that. Books mentions that they went a full day without fighting, and she says it's because they didn't see each other all day. She sees that he's out of laudanum and offers to call Dr. Hostetler.He declines and says he'll be fine. She guesses that he's planning to do something, because of his Sunday clothes, haircut and not refilling the laudanum. He asks her to promise not to ask any questions tomorrow when she sees him leaving all dressed up. He says "No tears, Bond." Gillom comes home, and she leaves the room, promising, as he asked.

Gillom closes the door and tells Books he got it done. He reveals that he ran into Thibodo as he had to go to jail to give Cobb the message. Thibodo agreed to let Cobb out for long enough to meet Books tomorrow. Gillom says "You'll never guess how Cobb took that." Books says "I'll bet he jumped with joy." But, Gillom says "He got all white, scared to death." Gillom continues "Pulford was happy. He really respects you. He told me so. And he sure was polite, he said, 'I eagerly await the honor and the privilege of having him try his luck at my faro table. '" Books asks about Sweeny. Gillom says "You watch out for him, Mr. Books. That man is mean and he hates you." Books answers "Well, we'll see if we can't clear that up tomorrow." Gillom wants to ask him something but Books tells him to go to bed. Books says he wants to give him something. Gillom says he won't take pay, but Books tells him he wants to give him his horse, and reveals he bought him back, handing Gillom the bill of sale. It dawns on Gillom what's going to happen and he gets shaky saying goodnight.

In the morning Books puts on his good clothes. Beckum's men deliver the headstone. Books looks it over, seeing simply his name, birthday and "Died 1901" with the day blank. We see Pulford arriving at the Metropole early while Books is getting ready to leave. Mrs. Rogers catches him on his way out and compliments him on how grand he looks. He says that it's his birthday and he's off to have a drink to celebrate. They say goodbye and he leaves. SHe starts crying watching him walk down the road. Thibodo escorts Cobb to the Metropole and Cobb tells him that after he gets books, he's coming for him, but Thibodo isn't bothered. Gillom is at outside the Metropole and sees Sweeney enter. Pulford asks Sweeney if he'd like to try his luck at cards, but Sweeney doesn't bother responding. The three men glare at each other while they wait. Books arrives at the Metropole and walks in as Gillom watches from across the street.
Books tells the bartender it's his birthday and asks for the best in the house. He sees Cobb, Pulford and Sweeney through the bar mirrors and jumps behind the bar when Cobb tries to shoot him in the back. He shoots Cobb while the others watch. Sweeney shoots him and he fires back, missing, while Pulford watches. Sweeny grabs a table and holds it in front of him to approach the bar. Books shoots through the table until Sweeney falls, yelling "I'll tell you, that was for Albert." Pulford takes the opportunity to fire then takes cover while Books stays on the floor behind the bar trying to figure out where Pulford is from a reflection in a glass. He sees Pulford just before Pulford sees him, and shoots him through the forehead. Books gets to his feet and leans on the bar as the bartender comes back out. Gillom can't take the suspense and runs across the street into the Metropole. He sees the bartender sneaking up behind Books with a shotgun, and yells "Look out!" as the bartender starts blasting him. Books falls to the ground and can't quite raise his gun. Gillom takes it and shoots the bartender three times while Books looks on. He then throws the gun away, and Books smiles, nodding just before he dies. Gillom takes off his jacket and covers Books. He takes off his hat and walks out seeing Hostetler at the door watching. Gillom walks away while everyone seems to be running toward the bar. His mother is waiting for him, and they walk home together.

What About It?

The Shootist is a film about the end of an era, and a man that belonged firmly to the time that's left behind. That man could as easily be John Wayne as J.B. Books. an idea supported by the footae in the opening of Wayne in his younger days, his larger than life persona, so obvious in his earlier films. While I've never been the biggest John Wayne fan, there's no denying that he was a film giant, occupying a unique place in the movies. With a few exceptions, his characters were tough and stoic and noble. His off screen persona was as large as his onscreen one. This was the man who made Rio Bravo as a response to High Noon, feeling the Sheriff's asking everyone in town to help him with a showdown was unamerican. I watched all of his movies as a child and they offered a lot to be admired, the stoic, tough, but uncorruptible men he played certainly had their own appeal and I have to think that Wayne greatly helped define the popular perception of Americans as "cowboys" His screen characters are about as close it gets to an actual "hero" figure. Although, as is pointed out in this movie, those characters did an awful lot of killing.  Books' code here could well have fit any of his past characters. "I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people and I require the same from them." That's the idea of John Wayne. But, there's something added here, a coldness we didn't often see from him, as when he tells Gillom "It isn't always being fast or even accurate that counts. It's being willing. I found out early that most men, regardless of cause or need, aren't willing. They blink an eye, or draw a breath before they pull the trigger. I won't." That's not a John Wayne we're used to. He may have had that knowledge but he never would've said it and even here, he can't help but point out to Mrs. Rogers, that he's never killed anyone that didn't deserve it. (Of course Tony Montana said the same thing in Scarface) While I certainly have some issues with John Wayne's personal politics, I'm not concerned with that here, just the image I have of him, that he left on the screen.

Wayne's Books is not really a likable man. He's used to barking orders and to people making way when he comes through. He's the greatest celebrity of the old west, and it's big news when he visits Carson City. Books is a guy that knew Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson and outlived them too. He's fine with not being liked and not surprised when trouble finds him. Trouble is taken to show that he isn't a callous killer, as when the man attempts to rob him at the beginning, he could've easily and perhaps justifiably killed the bandit, but somewhere in his code, he determines that the man didn't deserve it. While an able killer, he doesn't celebrate cruelty. This explains why he selects Cobb as part of the final showdown. Cobb isn't a character with much screen time, but Bill McKinney gives him a scowl and a temperament that makes him supremely unlikeable, but not so far removed from many inconsiderate motorists in a hurry. We know all we need to know about Cobb, by how he talks to a stranger, dropping threats without thinking twice. But, I think it's Gillom's revelation that Cobb was bragging about breaking a salesman's jaw that confirms Book's opinion of the man. He comments "Nice employer you have there." and we have to wonder if he isn't noticing Gillom's amusement at the anecdote, more than the facts themselves, and in his choosing Cobb, perhaps he's trying to spare Gillom the bad influence that Cobb surely is (which Books witnessed himself when Gillom joined in in making fun of him at the beginning.)   
Ron Howard's portrayal of Gillom is an interesting one and his history of acting roles, certainly gives it some interesting depth. We associate Howard with wholesome characters like Opie from the Andy Griffith show and Richie from Happy Days, so it's easier to see that goodness in Gillom,  although we're also shown his potential to steer away from that. He's clearly influenced by Cobb, and convinced he has something to prove, as we see when he challenges Books before realizing who he is. In a sense, the main struggle of the movie is to determine the direction Gillom chooses. I think it's not accidental that Cobb drives a horse driven cart, while Books has only his horse. Cobb is the impatient, supremely entitled modern man, supremely concerned with his own convenience, giving us a period example of road rage, while Books is the patience of sitting out in open and unforgiving spaces, capable of violence, but mainly in the interest of survival. It's fitting that they meet in Carson City, an almost mythological piece of the old West. Although here, it's not entirely Books' Carson City. The Acme Saloon has given way to the modern "Metropole."  While Cobb represents  it, Thibodo is the champion of this shift. He gives us the situation pretty clearly, telling Books "The old days are gone, and you don't know it. We've got waterworks, telephones, lights. We'll have our streetcar electrified next year, and we've started to pave the streets. We've still got some weeding to do, but once we're rid of people like you. we'll have a goddamn Garden of Eden here. To put it in a nutshell, you've plain, plumb outlived your time." Like Cobb, Thibodo carries an easy cruelty, as when he whoops for joy, being informed that Books is going to die soon. Thibodo is the law but he certainly isn't a good man. Harry Morgan portrays him well, and unapologetically.

Progress doesn't happen overnight however, and there are always those who remember the old days. When Books decides to venture to Carson City, it's to see Dr. Hostetler, a an who was there when he was, and witnessed the only time, he almost died in a gunfight. He saved Books' life and Books has never forgotten. For his limited screen time, Stewart is invaluable in the depth of history that he adds to Books. They're both products of the "old days." in this movie and in actuality, seeing them together recalls their screen time in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." another film about the changing times, and another film where Wayne played his "larger than life cowboy" role with a bit of a knowing wink. Stewart like Wayne is from another area, but he exemplified something different in his roles, not the tough guy like Wayne, but the average man who strived to be decent. Like Wayne, his persona was bigger than his screen time. It's easy to believe that the two are old friends and who but Hostetler could give Books the news that he's going to die. He advises Books to consider going out another way, advice that a modern man might not offer, and fittingly Hostetler is there to witness the end, as Gillom walks away.
Lauren Bacall is the perfect choice as Bond Rogers. Like Stewart and Wayne, she represents the past era and fills her role well, giving Wayne a feminine interest but never veering into romantic parody. She is self sufficient and tough in her own way, but not uncaring. While she dislikes the old ways perhaps as much as Thibodo does, she is also a product of them, and possesses a good deal of compassion. Books can reveal things to her that he couldn't to other men, as when they argue over church and he puts aside all bravado and tells her "I'm just a dying man, scared of the dark." WHile she doesn't approve of his ways, she does see a manliness in him, that she senses could be valuable to Gillom, who has been without a father figure (except for Cobb perhaps) for some time. Wayne and Bacall play off each other perfectly and her scene saying a cheery good bye and not crying until he's well out of the house is touching and telling of her character.  

A great deal of the film deals with Books fending off the celebrity obsessed vultures, Serepta, Dobkins, Beckum the undertaker, everyone sees his death as a public event. When Books compares his coming funeral to that of John Wesley Hardin, he sums it up well. "Oh Beckum, you're going to do to me, what they did to John Wesley Hardin. You're going to lay me out, let the public come by and gawp at me, for fifty cents a head, 10 cents for the children. When the curiosity peters out you're going to stuff me in a gunny sack and stick me in a hole while you hurry to the bank with your loot." Of course, Beckum doesn't argue the point much, as that's exactly what he plans to do. Books, like Wayne is a celebrity, larger than life, and the public wants a piece of him. Books, however, simply wants to maintain his dignity while he goes out, as he points out several times, making an apt comparison to another relic of the past, Queen Victoria  "I was reading about old Queen Vic. Well, maybe she outlived her time. Maybe she was a museum piece, but she never lost her dignity, nor sold her guns. She hung on to her pride and went out in style. That's the kind of an old gal I'd like to meet."That's what Books wants to. He knows it's his time to go, but he wants to do it his own way, like he lived his life.

Don Siegel crafts a compelling story, and uses all of his actors here to their best effects, not only their performances here but our knowledge of each of their histories. Wayne, Stewart, Bacall, Howard, Morgan (and the rest of the supporting cast, Carradine, Crothers, Booth) each of them bring a distinctive body of work with them that informs who they are. These actors were not chosen accidentally and it shows. As a result, we get to know these characters far more than we should reasonably expect to in the time we see them. This is a truly remarkable effect, executed flawlessly, and Siegel has exactly the right touch for it. Siegel is well known as being Clint Eastwood's big influence (The Unforgiven was partially dedicated to him) and that makes sense here, as this is a movie which symbolically hands off the reins (after the fact) from the John Wayne ideal cowboy to the Clint Eastwood realist cowboy in Dirty Harry (which Wayne had actually been offered.) Siegel acts like Gillom here, a link between two eras.

 Books is not a realistic character, he retains much of Wayne's persona, but with a hint of darkness not often seen. Although we see John Wayne shot in the back and killed, we nonetheless have to see this as an affectionate send off, for all his flaws and unbelievability, there was no one quite like John Wayne, and likely won't be again. The Shootist turned out to be Wayne's last movie as the man himself was dying, but it's fitting. In the words from The Man who Shot Liberty Valance  "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Certainly no actor fit that bill better than John Wayne. And here, he proves he is an actor, not just a man playing a caricature of himself. The depth of charcter given to Books is wonderful to see.

Personally I'm happy we see Books die smiling, having witnessed Gillom, momentarily take up the role of righteous killer, only to choose correctly in Books' opinion and throw the gun away. Gillom walks away alone, while everyone runs the opposite direction, determined to see the spectacle and perhaps get a piece of history. Hostetler watches sadly, relieved that Books went in his own way. His time is coming too, certainly. That's as good a triumph as Books could hope for, and one fitting of the Wayne persona which fascinated so many. Carson City will soon belong to the Thibodo's of the world but Gillom remembers, and hopefully he'll take the good parts with him.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Top Ten Crime Bosses

People love gangster movies, and there's no one as important in gangster films as the big boss. Even when you don't see him, his threat is always there. For most gangsters in film there's always something the boss could discover that seals your fate, or it could just be your own bad luck. Most often, gangster films concern themselves with the daily operations of people in criminal organizations. But there is also the "rise to power" film, detailing the journey from the bottom to the top. Few gangsters ever make it all the way, and if they do, the odds of retiring or dying of old age are not so great. Nonetheless, many dream of being the top guy, because it means all the money, and power, the brass ring of the criminal life.

Of course when you're the head of a large group made up of criminals, it's hard to trust anyone. There's bound to be someone as ruthless as you, wanting your spot, or the cops you don't own, plotting to take you down. All the same, it's somebody's American Dream, have all the luxury and power you want, and all you have to do is figure out how to keep it. As unbelievable as it may seem, many of such stories are based on actual events (although some more loosely than others.)

I've tried not to dominate my list with the same actors, (although having two from Pacino was unavoidable.) and only include films where the boss has a prominent role. Please feel free to add your own suggestions. I'd love to hear what your agreements/disagreements. There are certainly many other worthy roles. I've also included links to full reviews on those films that I've covered in a past entry.

10. Brick Top (Alan Ford, Snatch)

Brick Top is a long way from a Corleone type. He controls the local boxing circuit and associated gambling with ruthlessness and hungry pigs. Turkish (Jason Statham) and Tommy (Stephen Graham) need to get their boxer onto Brick Top's books. After finally getting him to agree, they run into a group of gypsies and find one of their number, Mickey (Brad Pitt) can easily lay out their prized boxer with one punch. With their boxer incapacitated and very impressed with Mickey, Turkish thinks to have Mickey fight for them. Brick Top isn't happy with the switch and demands Mickey throw the fight. Mickey, however isn't good at following directions and knock the other fighter out immediately. Meanwhile Bricktop also has to deal with some would be thieves who happened to hit up one of his bookies, who unexpectedly came into possession of a corpse and are having trouble getting rid of it. He enlightens them as to his preferred methods:  "the best thing to do is feed them to pigs. You got to starve the pigs for a few days, then the sight of a chopped-up body will look like curry to a pisshead. You gotta shave the heads of your victims, and pull the teeth out for the sake of the piggies' digestion. You could do this afterwards, of course, but you don't want to go sievin' through pig shit, now do you? They will go through bone like butter. You need at least sixteen pigs to finish the job in one sitting, so be wary of any man who keeps a pig farm. They will go through a body that weighs 200 pounds in about eight minutes. That means that a single pig can consume two pounds of uncooked flesh every minute. Hence the expression, "as greedy as a pig." And of course, Bricktop has a pig farm, and intends his advice to affect them very personally until they tell him about the diamond they're after. Brick Top gives Turkish another chance, burning Mickey's mother to death and destroying slot machines which are Turkish's other income as a a warning. Mickey doesn't follow orders again, getting Turkish and Tommy into deeper trouble. Brick Top sets out to exact his revenge, not realizing that Mickey expected it and set up his fellow gypsies to take him and his men out first. Alan Ford gives us a nasty and ruthless Brick Top, who exudes enough hatred with a look to frighten most normal people. His downfall is not realizing that Mickey doesn't follow those rules.

9. Al Capone (Robert DeNiro, The Untouchables)

While certainly not DeNiro's best performance, he does just fine making the figure of Al Capone a large one. In the Untouchables we get him as a seemingly unbeatable opponent. Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is trying everything he can, but can't get near him, as much of the police force that Ness relies on is under Capone's control. It isn't until he listens to a little advice from agent Jim Malone (Sean Connery) who advises Ness "He pulls a knife, you pull a gun."  Ness takes the advice, and starts hitting harder. This doesn't stop Capone, however, who continues his business as usual, threatens the lives of Ness' family (and Ness himself of course.) He declares, "I want you to get this fuck where he breathes! I want you to find this nancy-boy Eliot Ness, I want him DEAD! I want his family DEAD! I want his house burned to the GROUND! I wanna go there in the middle of the night and I wanna PISS ON HIS ASHES!" Capone even has some of Ness' men killed (including Malone.) Finally deciding to go after him for tax evasion, and getting him into court, they find an unbothered Capone, who's all smiles. His main hitman, Frank Nitti has been allowed by the corrupt mayor to bring his gun into court. Ness can't abide this, knowing Nitti killed Malone, and calls him on it, leading to a showdown, which ends with Nitti dead, and the revelation that the jurors were bribed and the judge is intimidated too. Ness manages to set things right and finally gets Capone into prison, but it wasn't easy.          

8. Harry (Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges)

Full Review

Harry carries himself more as a business man than a crime boss, conducting himself in a proper family man, while giving orders over the telephone. Harry has a very particular way he likes things done. In, "In Bruges"he has decided to kill one of his own hit men, Ray (Colin Farrell) and sends him to Bruges with friend and longtime associate, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) reasoning that Bruges is a town that's "like a fairytale" in order to give Ray a nice time before he's killed. Ray, however, despises Bruges and Ken isn't able to bring himself to kill him, and actually stops Ray from killing himself over his accidental shooting of an innocent little boy. (which is why Harry wants to kill him) When Ken informs Harry that he won't do it, Harry heads to Bruges himself and tells Harry that Ray should've killed himself the moment that he killed the kid, and that's what he himself would've done. He wounds Ken, rather than killing him, although Ken sacrifices himself anyway, to alert Ray. During an extended chase, where Harry takes great pains not to injure innocent people, he accidentally shoots a dwarf actor dressed up as a schoolboy, and is obliged to live up to what he had said earlier, immediately killing himself, while Ray, perhaps unwisely, tries to alert him to his error. Fiennes is terrific as a frightening but amusing and relatable boss, who truly believes in the code he insists on.

7. John Rooney (Paul Newman, The Road to Perdition)

Full Review

John Rooney (Paul Newman) is the head of the Irish mafia in an Illinois town, controlling nearly everything that happens there. His top hit man is Michael Sullivan Sr., an orphan he took in when he was young and has great affection for.
Rooney's actual son, Connor, however, is a psychotic loose cannon, who kills a man needlessly. Michael Sr. and Connor then discover that young Michael Jr. had hidden in the car and seen the whole event. Without his father's approval or knowledge, Connor attempts to have Michael Sr. killed, while he himself kills Michael's family with the exception of Michael Jr., who wasn't home. Sullivan goes on the run with his son, and approaches Al Capone's people, to try and get approval to kill Connor. They however, don't oblige and Sullivan starts robbing banks of strictly money held for Capone, hoping to pressure them to turn over Connor. He obtains information that Connor had been stealing from his father and shares it with John, but John already knew that and despite his feelings and affection for Michael, he can't turn on his own son. Sullivan meets John Rooney later that night, effortlessly picking off all of his men, before nearing Rooney, who he finishes off up close and face to face. Rooney understands, and tells him "I'm glad it was you." With the elder Rooney dead, Capone doesn't care about Connor and gives him up, although Michael still has a hit man pursuing him and a son to keep safe. Paul Newman gives us a memorable figure who we know has to go, but we still sympathize when Michael feels bad about it.

6. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington, American Gangster)

Although Frank Lucas is the extremely successful head of a drug dealing organization, he differs from many crime bosses, in that you'd never know it. While certainly not above murder, or ruthlessness, he's more concerned with making money and keeping his ship in good shape. He patiently learns everything he can from his boss, Bumpy Johnson, until he dies and hands over the operation. Not happy with the status quo (inferior product, lots of hassle, not enough money) He arranges to go straight to the source, and rather than deal with the mafia, he brings his drugs in from Viet Nam. This gives him a pure product at a price the middlemen can't compete with. He takes pains to treat his people right, and instructs them not to be flashy. He's content to stay low profile if it brings the money in. However super honest Officer Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) notices him at the one moment he forgets about keeping a low profile. With extreme perseverance, Roberts sets out to bring Lucas down. Once Roberts has him, Lucas, ever the businessman, agrees to be helpful for a lenient sentence, turning on his associates as well as all the dirty cops he dealt with. Denzel Washington makes Frank Lucas a crime boss who tries to care about his family and his neighborhood. Drugs to him are just product, and by his reasoning, if they weren't purchased from him, they'd be bought somewhere else. Denzel Washington handles the role quite capably, making Frank admirable for his ingenuity and intelligence.

5. Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson, The Departed)

Frank Costello is a powerful crime boss in Boston. He's admired by a young boy, Colin (Matt Damon) who Costello recognizes as a great possible resource and grooms him as he grows up to get on the Boston Police force to serve as his mole. At the same time, Billy Costigan (Leo Dicaprio) is going the opposite way, he'd like to be a cop, but his family background, makes him perfect for the police to use against Costello. Costello's group and the police both become aware of moles, and much effort is spent by both sides to find them. Colin however, finds unexpected news in his search, that Costello himself, is a mole for the FBI, leading Colin to question his motives and actions, and ultimately, it isn't Costigan that brings Costello down, but Colin, angry at the betrayal, and justified because Costello attempted to kill him when confronted on it.  Of course Colin and Billy have business to finish up, but it's Costigan that put it all in motion. Nicholson gives us the ultimate manipulator, a man who has a use in mind for everyone he meets and ultimately proves that his only loyalty is to himself. As likely to have you killed as tell you a joke, he's a truly distinctive character who prides himself on details, yet can't possibly keep track of them all. Nicholson gives us crude charm and psychosis in one package.

Keyser Soze (Kevin  Spacy, The Usual Suspects)

Soze is a different kind of crime boss in that no one knows if he exists or not. He's a malevolent figure who has put so much effort into his own reputation that his name is enough to frighten people. Criminals do jobs for Soze without even knowing they're working for him. Even when he's caught, they don't know they have him. Customs agent Kuljan (Chazz Palmienteri) knows something his off in his investigation of a horrible dock fire, and confronts the only survivor, Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) who has already cut a deal about his own involvement. Kint walks with a limp and appears the weak link in the group of criminals involved in the fire.  He tells Kuljan an interesting story about how a heist was put together, portraying Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) as a possible Soze, knowing that's Kuljan wants to hear. However, as Kint leaves the station, Kuljan realizes that many details of Kint's story were fabricated based on items Kint was looking at in the office. A fax comes over with a drawing of Soze, from a nearly dead eyewitness, and it looks just like Verbal. Kuljan rushes out to the street, where Verbal's limp has suddenly corrected itself and he gets into a waiting car, leaving Kuljan to ponder his words "The best trick the devil ever pulled was making people believe he doesn't exist."  Kevin Spacey is great, playing essentially two parts, the clumsy Kint that we see, and the mastermind, Soze hidden beneath.

3. Frank White (Christopher Walken, King of New York)

Full Review

Frank White gets out of prison with a vision to give his city a makeover. His first move is to eliminate a rival gang because he doesn't like the way they do business (child prostitution among other things.) He wants to give the city a new hospital. He considers running for mayor, and decides to give the city a new hospital. The hospital project is to be started with Frank's drug money. He offers a local triad a chance to get on it, but when they turn him down, he and his gang kill them all and take their hidden drugs. The police are soon gunning for Frank and his men and succeed in getting one of his crew to sell Frank out. Frank finds out and punishes the rat, but the police are all after him and take out most of his crew, but not without heavy losses themselves. Frank catches up with head detective Roy Bishop (Victor Argo) and explains the situation, as well as his plan to put bounties on the heads of all the cops involved.  Bishop asks Frank if he thought he'd get away with all the killing. Frank simply answers "I never killed anyone that didn't deserve it." Bishop pursues Frank into a subway car, causing Frank to drop his Robin Hood image a moment, taking a woman hostage. He shoots and kills Bishop, who gets a shot off himself. Frank realizes he's been shot and dies himself pretty shortly. In one of Christopher Walken's best roles, he makes Frank a complex character, a man truly wanting to help, but not familiar with sensible ways of doing so.

2. Tony Montana (Al Pacino, Scarface)
Full Review

Tony Montana comes to Miami, Florida from Cuba with nothing but aggression and desire. He agrees to deliver some cocaine and collect payment. The job goes wrong, but Tony gains the upper hand, walking away with both the cocaine and money. He quickly gets connected with a local crime figure, Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) but soon outgrows the association, taking advantage of a trip to Bolivia to start setting up his own deals with Frank's supplier, Sosa. Tony wants more than working for someone else can provide. He leaves Lopez behind to make his own money and starts pursuing his wife Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) Frank, threatened by Tony's success, moves to have him killed, but fails. Tony calls Frank on his attempt, killing both Frank and a cop he associates with. His business is wildly successful, but into a hitch when he's busted by an undercover cop. Sosa gives Tony an option to avoid prison, calling in influential friends to protect Tony if he assists in the killing of a Bolivian journalist. When the journalist's family gets involved Tony kills the Bolivian hit man to save them. Sosa declares war on Tony, sending an army of his men after him. He seems indestructible for awhile but they keep coming finally shooting him from behind. Scarface shows us a man who wants everything and won't be stopped until he gets it and explores the limits of how much force is required to keep it. Pacino is brilliant as a practical force of nature, a man unwilling and perhaps unable to recognize any limitation except the final one.

1. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, The Godfather)

Michael Corleone comes from a powerful crime family, his father Vito, being the Don of one of the "five families." Michael starts out removed from the family business, returning home from a stint in the Marines. He makes a point of telling his girlfriend that he isn't like them. Don Vito refuses the Virgil Sollozo's (Tattaglia family backed) request for support with his heroin operation, as he believes drugs will damage his influence. Don Vito sends one of his men to infiltrate the Tattaglia backed operation, but he's quickly found out and killed, followed by an assassination attempt on Don Vito himself. The eldest Corleone, Sonny (James Caan) handles operations for a while, but Michael soon gets personally involved. While visiting his father at the hospital Michael discovers he's unguarded. He saves his father and gets severely beaten, mouthing off to a corrupt cop. Sonny retaliates having the son of Don Tattaglia killed. Michael personally offers to kill both Sollozo and the cop who beat him. He succeeds, and then goes into hiding in Sicily. Sonny is soon killed, however and Don Vito agrees to meet with the five familes to settle the situation, discovering that it isn't the Tattaglia's but the Barzini's behind their troubles. Michael soon encounters enemies of the Corleones in Sicily barely escaping an assassination attempt. With the war in the US resolved, Michael returns home and takes over the Corleone business. He marries his old girlfriend and promises to make the family legitimate. Michael confuses the family with his actions but he receives advice from his father. He uncovers an attempt by the Barzini's to have him killed, but doesn't let on, instead staging a serious of killings which includes Don Barzini. When his wife asks him about one of the murders, he assures her convincingly that he was not involved, and ends the film as the true Don Corleone. Pacino's Michael is a compelling figure, and "the Godfather" illustrates wonderfully how his distance from the family gives way until he truly is the family and everything he said he wouldn't be.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Cop Land

What About It?
(for a full summary of the film, scroll down to "What Happens?")
Cop Land is a huge movie, packed with character and information. With such a stellar cast, it's hard to imagine everyone getting their full story told, but it tries. This is made easier by the fact that these character's have a lot in common, they're all cops, and they're all affected by a shared history. Everyone in Garrison is reaping the benefit of Ray's deal with the mob, and they all carry the guilt of the scandals Ray has had to quiet, with Tunney in the past and in this movie with Murray, as well as the day to day corruption, allowing drug traffic as part of the arrangement. This creates a haven for cops with the intent being that all the consequences are left in NY with the precinct. Of course, it doesn't always work out that way and the strain is visible on the key players.
Stallone's Freddy, stands out, in that he alone is not part of the group, although he is tightly linked to them. He's not a cop but he is law enforcement. He admires cops and wants to be one himself. Initially Freddy in content to keep his eyes and mouth shut, feeling grateful perhaps to be Sheriff, which, along with his association with Ray's group, allows him to feel almost like a cop. That isn't to say he's happy. Freddy is badly broken, and has long ago given up on any goals he might have had. He serves as almost comic relief for the cops in Garrison, being nothing more than a toothless guard dog. His job is to give out speeding tickets to those who aren't cops, and investigate stray trash bags. He's impossibly meek about his role, allowing himself to be pushed around and demeaned with a smile. He's very aware of how he's regarded. Yet, Freddy is not naturally that meek, he's simply too beaten to react anymore. Some of this he dilutes with his drinking. We get the feeling that Freddy was handpicked for his role, as he doesn't appear to be any threat whatsoever to the nature of Ray's plans in Garrison.
It's interesting to see Stallone surrounded by so many fine actors, as a weak performance would stand out in this film like a sore thumb. Other than Rocky, Stallone has never seemed as if he was out to court critical acclaim with his acting rage. But, here, I can't imagine someone pulling the role off better. He puts on the role of Freddy completely. We never get Freddy as an imposing figure, like Stallone often plays. Freddy is not a fighter. If he ever was, he's forgotten how a long time ago. Freddy just soaks up abuse like a sponge. Of course, his despair is deeper than not being a cop. He's constantly slighted by the woman he's in love with, and continues to meekly put himself out there in front of her. 

Annabella Sciorra's Liz is another different twist on a character. Although, Freddy has been pining for her since he saved her life (and maybe before) She feels almost no consideration for him, other than a mild obligation to humor him. She casually mentions that she called him about her trash bag problem because she didn't want to bother her husband Joey (the real cop) with it. He doesn't mutter a word of protest, even helps her abuse him saying, quite genuinely, "I'll take care of it. it's Ok. He's got the city to worry about, right?" She doesn't even bother to say yes or no to smooth over the ugly moment, just leaves him to go through her trash and investigate. When he tells her what she already knows, that it's Rose's trash, he offers to talk to Joey. She again scorns him, saying "Why, you didn't marry him." rubbing salt again in Freddy's wounds. He contents himself with a ritual of listening to sad Bruce Springsteen songs while thinking about her. She even ruins this ritual by telling him that he could get his records on CD now, only for Freddy to remind her that it wouldn't make much difference to him (due to his deafness.) She quickly brushes off a potentially intimate moment, suggesting that Joey or no, she's not interested in him. Freddy confides in her once he decides to go after Ray, essentially scolding him and revealing the root of her character by defending Joey's participation as him "only wanting a place for them to live." and then cruelly suggesting Freddy is trying to imitate Joey.  Sciorra plays the character perfectly, superficially pleasant, but terminally shallow and thoughtless, making Freddy's pining all the more tragic.

Harvey Keitel's Ray is a perfect part for him. Ray is the planner and architect of Garrison. He doesn't need to say or do much as he has many people willing to do his bidding. He functions as a mob boss of cops, although he has people he answers to himself. He's content with his role in things, and determined to defend the status quo at all costs. He recognizes limits but is very skilled at working within them. He can get an investigation suspended but wouldn't attack the Internal Affairs office. He has a balancing act to maintain, as his livelihood and lifestyle depends on illegal activity, but he still has some responsibility to uphold the law. He is very proud of being a cop, and feels very entitled by that, as we see when he tells Deputy Cindy Betts, "See, officer, in Garrison, when the car you're gonna tag has a PDA sticker, I'd advise you to think to yourself, Hey, that's one of the good guys, I think I'll go catch me a bad guy. " Keitel tells us more with a look than a sentence many times, his silent fuming at disrespect, from Joey Randone and from Figgis, tells us what he's capable of, and has us immediately concerned for their safety. Ray has no trouble with murder, even that of other cops, and his own nephew, should it endanger his plans. Ray is very clever and competent, never doing more than he needs to to achieve his goals. When he wants to get of Joey, he realizes that all he needs to do is be a bit late to rescue him. He's an eager opportunist, although if the situation hadn't presented itself, he certainly would've made sure another one did.
Robert DeNiro's Moe is also great for the screen time he has. He's essentially an agent of change, and Freddy's wake up call. Freddy not quite being a cop, actually works in Moe's favor as Freddy doesn't have the instinctual enmity for IA that the cops do. He's able to establish a bond, saying we're both law enforcement. Moe in his own way is as ruthless as Ray at working within channels, very easily insulting and scorning Freddy himself when he offers to help after he has the case closed on him, in the hopes that Freddy will get mad and turn things over so he can reopen a case. Moe's smugness wen visiting Garrison is amusing, Ray and him both knowing that it isn't just a random visit. We get a hint of a history between the two of them years ago, and it's clear that Moe would like nothing better than to bring Ray down. Moe is a by the book cop however and Ray is certainly aware that there's little he can do, if nobody talks. Moe and Ray are essentially the good and bad tugging at Freddy, and neither man is very reassuring.

Ray Liotta's Figgis is the closest thing Freddy has to a friend. He's as tarnished as any of the other cops, a coke head, who thinks nothing of major insurance fraud if it lets him start over. Of alll of the Garrison cops however, Figgis is bitter, as he reveres his ex partner Tunney, a casualty of Ray's machinations, and carries some guilt over what happened himself. Figgis however accepts some of the guilt and has trouble keeping quiet about it, knowing it was a terrible thing, even if it means beating himself up, he can't forget it. Yet, for all his bitterness, Ray has some genuine compassion for Freddy, perhaps relating to his plight as he himself ended up being far less than had probably hoped. Of everyone involved, he's the only person other than Liz to notice Freddy's tragedy. WHen he tells Freddy, "Then you have to watch as this girl you saved, this beauty queen, marries this cocksucker. And you with your ear, you can't even get a desk on the force. You're fucked. Be jealous, Freddy. Let it out. I would." we get Figgis' regard for him. Later Figgis concern causes him to fight his own self interest, and save Freddy's life, helping him finish bringing Ray down, even though it means killing his fellow cops. Their friendship is an interesting one, having their beaten states as their common denominator. Freddy realizes Figgis torched his own house, yet never seems to entertain the idea of bringing in Ray, knowing Ray enough to know, that his girlfriend's death was not intentional. This also illustrates that Freddy is not hung up on the letter of the law. Like Ray, he has his own grey area.  Yet unlike Ray, murder and mob collusion clearly crosses that line.

 The rest of the cast is also terrific. Robert Patrick playing Jackie as an eager psychopath. Arthur Nascarella's Frankie, is the more reasonable enforcer. The two of them serve well as Ray's henchmen, mirroring a mob type association. Michael Rapaport is great as Murray Babitch, the clueless and not too bright victim, in way over his head. There isn't a weak performance in the film, and there's so much going on, that again, it's amazing that Freddy is able to remain the undeniable center of everything. The fact that he appears less capable than anyone else only makes his character work better. Freddy is easily underestimated. He's assumed to be dumb and uncaring. When Moe tells him that nobody's watching the cops in Garrison, Freddy insists. "I am." and we don't believe him, but we're wrong. Freddy is watching everything as we realize when he asks Ray if he got the materials from Berta at the bomb squad. Even drunk, playing pinball, while they attempted a discreet exchange, Freddy saw what was happening. He just hadn't chosen to act, choosing willful blindness and ignorance.

Freddy spells out his own dilemma to Ray, saying "You know, if i saw Liz, drowning in the water, if I saw that today, I wouldn't go in. I'd stand there, and I'd think about it. And, that's the best thing I ever did with my life." This reveals much about Freddy, namely that despite his failure to get anywhere with Liz, to be a cop, or the resulting deafness, he still counts that action as a success. Freedy still believes in goodness. he just feels powerless to contribute to it anymore. He recognizes that Ray is bigger than him and wouldn't know where to begin. When he finds a direct action, retrievig Murray and bringing him in to IA, he sees his chance to do something right again, and won't be stopped. Figgis proves correct that "being right is not a bulletproof vest." and fortunately Freddy's newly awakened belief and determination are rewarded, by Figgis returning to help him, telling us that Ray's spread of corruption is not complete.

We also see however, that the lingering belief in goodness is not necessarily kind to it's bearers, as the most corrupt seem to bear their guilt without qualm, while Figgis and Freddy are tortured wrecks. Freddy's good and law abiding deputies are a disappointment as well, neither of them willing to risk anything to help Freddy, as it appears obviously dangerous. Moe's detachment is similar, in that he's likely willing to have Freddy get himself in serious trouble, in order to reopen the case, although likely too late to help Freddy.  However, the result of the tortured psyche's of Figgis and Freddy, is that they are both willing to sacrifice everything when it dawns on then that the situation is intolerable; Figgis for the sake of friendship and guilt, Freddy, for the chance to do something good with his life again.

In Cop Land, James Mangold gives us a dense film which plays like a small one. Garrison is the perfect setting for the story and the cops playing the gangsters, and the importance of "being a cop" in this world, shows that there is a big difference between the law and justice.  Freddy will never be a cop, but he can help justice along here and does, simply by finally deciding to take action, rather than just thinking about it. He provides himself another chance to accomplish something good with his life and prove he's capable of more than anyone thought of him


What Happens?

Moe Tilden (Robert DeNiro) narrates as we zoom overhead from NY to NJ cityscape. "Back in the 70's, every cop wanted out of the city. But, the only cops allowed to live outside NY were transit cops, because the transit authority was also run by Jersey and Connecticut. So, these guys I knew at the 3-7, they started pulling overtime at subway stations and got the city to declare them auxiliary transit cops. They bought some land in Jersey, got cheap loans from people they knew. They made themselves a place where the shit couldn't touch them. That's what they thought anyway. (pause) Every precinct has it's cop bar, all blue, no civilians. For the 3-7, it was the Four Aces, just across the river. "

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Leap of Faith

What About it?
(for a full summary of the film, scroll down to "What Happens?")

Leap of Faith is on the surface, a movie about a con man, but it treats the subject differently than other fake evangelist films. There are plenty of real life examples of phony preachers to draw from, and Steve Martin does a great job presenting a man who knows how to use his over the top charisma, with Jesus added in, to make a quick buck. Jonas Nightingale is different than most in that he is primarily a businessman, and his sermonizing has a definite off switch.  He doesn't attempt to convince his crew of his phony "faith" but rather revels in his own charm and perception, using it at times for their amusement, while relying on his core group to make his "abilities" work. To Jonas Nightingale, the preacher bit, is the perfect con, in that he isn't breaking any laws, and the justification, "We put on a good show." is a sensible one. He does put on a good show. The difference however, between his act and that of any other performer is that a man of God can ask for more money. Jonas has an uncanny skill at reading people and their cues, but he's not content with that. His method of having Jane feed him research and cues about people in his earpiece, makes it easy for him to amaze people. Yet, he never believes his own hype. Jonas knows his skills, but doesn't need the self congratulation that many of his ilk do. It's enough for him, that he's taking the money from the suckers who give it. Beneath it all, he's coldly practical and remote, his association with Jane being his only real relationship.

Richard Pearce presents a very believable world here. The "beaten small town" atmosphere comes through very well and is a great contrast with Nightingale's larger than life show. The attention paid to that show is also terrific, giving us a look at the inside of a sophisticated con operation, that has to appear amazingly convincing to the audience. Basically we're given a world and a cast carefully constructed to get Jonas to a particular point. The people he's surrounded with tell us a lot about the man.

Debra Winger's portrayal of Jane presents a perfect way to take a look at Nightingale. Jane is jaded herself and readily subscribes to the "good show" philosophy. She is privy to every detail of his act, playing a crucial part of it, serving as his "gift of second sight." She doesn't have his charm or his coldness however. She wants something to care about, which initially we hear in her talking about getting a puppy, and later, we see more, in her attraction to Sheriff Braverman. She has difficulty justifying taking money from a town that's practically destitute, whereas Nightingale has no qualms about it.  Jonas and Jane are kindred spirits of a sort, and we see that Jane's more caring nature is one of the reasons she sticks with him, as evident when she tells Sheriff Braverman the story of Jonas' mother leaving him. In Jane's opinion, measuring by the scale of Jonas' childhood, his con man preacher act is practically a good deed, rather than a criminal activity. We find the two of them late in their relationship, and Jane has clearly had some doubts over the years, but in this town she's given a motivation to break out of the arrangement.

Jonas doesn't come across as "evil" so much as a slick and amoral opportunist. He doesn't set out to hurt anyone, but neither will he sacrifice his own profit, for the sake of anyone else's well being. He is supremely self interested and entrenched in his habits, so much so that his act is second nature. The lines he draws are interesting and practical. His "healings" are all staged,  so when he encounters Marva's little brother, and talks to him about faith (not realizing he can't walk) it only takes him a moment to change his approach after Marva reveals their past incident with a faith healer, and he tries to discourage Boyd looking to God for help.  Clearly, he wants to avoid Boyd becoming a problem at a revival meeting. However his advice to Boyd about not waiting on God to help him comes through as very sincere and may in fact be what Jonas truly believes. "Fine, you believe that if you want. I'm gonna run." he says,and that is really what his character is all about. Belief in anything but his own abilities simply doesn't enter into his life. Steve Martin is perfect for the character, giving both the exuberant showman and the cold calculating planner equal weight, and appearing sincere on both sides.

Lolita Davidovich does a fine job as Marva,portraying her as cold and inflexible, at least towards Jonas. Her stance makes perfect sense when she reveals the story about the accident that killed her parents and crippled her brother. She's certainly wise to treat Jonas this way, as her suspicions are all correct. Jonas, however is so used to being able to control people, that his inability to reach her is a challenge he can't set aside (until he learns about Boyd's legs)

Liam Neeson's Sheriff Will Braverman  is Jonas Nightingale's opposite. He only speaks plainly and doesn't seem to care about money in the slightest although he cares deeply about his town and the people in it. His efforts to stop Nightingale would be very effective if Nightingale wasn't so adept at his trade, a fact which Will acknowledges freely. He doesn't like what's going on, but he's not a movie sheriff with a crazy vendetta or an ego conflict. He does what he can reasonably do and when it doesn't work, he reluctantly accepts it, other than his personal interest in Jane. He proves himself adaptable as well, proposing a serious relationship to her after only knowing her for days, because he knows that if he doesn't act quickly she'll be gone. He's the perfect character to have a "pissing match" with Jonas, as he is as resolute in himself as Jonas is, only his lifestyle is more of benefit to others. Jonas knows very quickly that Braverman is a possible problem where Jane is concerned, but it's one problem that's beyond him. The part seems very natural for Neeson and he gets the Sheriff's quiet competence across enough to make Jane's turn around believable enough.

The supporting cast is very solid. Lukas Haas is a sincere and believable Boyd, impossibly trusting and hopeful. Jonas crew are all played well, including Meat Loaf as Hoover and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the tiny part of "Matt" Every character here is essentially there to expose a certain part of Jonas and it gets a full character across well although the man himself is not typically very revealing and given to calculated interactions. All of the characterization has a devastating effect, when we realize that in this case, the one thing this particular con man/evangelist can't deal with is, as he tells Boyd "the genuine article." Obviously the actual healing would only help his business, but Jonas whole life is based on his lack of belief in anything miraculous. The con being him adjusting for the indifference of the universe by his own stacking of the deck. Psychologically, he is not able to function in his old role anymore, in the face of this undeniable proof, which he of course recognizes immediately.

It's telling that his immediate response to the miracle is anger. Essentially, he has just been proven undeniably wrong in his own house. It doesn't matter that no one else can see that. When Boyd repeats his own words about being a fake, "Well, what difference does it make, if you get the job done?" He reveals an understanding he never would've admitted earlier, "Kid, it makes all the difference in the world." He's also able to get more of an understanding about his own childhood, as we see when he gives Marva the message for Boyd "Tell him, just because a person doesn't show up, doesn't mean that the person doesn't care about them." Jonas is now at a place where there is much he doesn't know, and he's lived so long by having all the answers. It makes sense, that his response is to just walk away, as he is essentially starting everything all over again. It may be tempting to some to take the move as a religious message, but I didn't see it that way, simply as a story about a very determined and flawed man being forced to realize he has a long way to go. A miracle happens, but Jonas can't explain it.  To me, a big point was the fact that something happened that he did not know. To define it as a "Jesus" experience, would drastically simplify the change to the character. We know that Jonas is well versed in matters of Jesus and he does have angry words towards him after the healing, but he's talking to himself as much as he's addressing God.

It's not quite a redemption story, but close, a movie that ends with that possibility opened up. As it's presented here, that is is nonetheless a remarkable thing. Jonas doesn't know where he's going, only that it's someplace he hasn't been before, and he seems happy enough about that. The film talks a lot about hope, a subject Jonas knows because he gave up his own, in order to make money from the hope of others. Nobody argues with his arguments that people without it can leave his shows with hope. He gets how valuable it is, it's what keeps him in the money. We're left with the thought that for everyone involved; the town getting rain, Boyd now walking, Jane finding someone to care about, and Jonas Nightingale himself, looking at the universe in a brand new way,there is some hope. It's an interesting ending in that rather than wrap it up happy with a bow, we end at the very beginning of something, which is really what hope is. If we followed the characters  a little longer, we may find problems and flaws come back, but Leap of Faith is content to leave that for another story.

What Happens?

A bus marked "Miracles and Wonders" comes into focus driving down a dusty road, and being pulled over by a police car. Inside the bus, we find travelling evangelist Jonas Nightingale (Steve Martin) making a wager with his crew concerning the outcome of the stop, before exiting the van. The bus' driver, Hoover (Meat Loaf) is concerned, because he has a DUI which could get him into trouble, but Jonas doesn't seem concerned. He puts on a small microphone so his crew can hear the events and presents himself to the cop as the bus driver. The officer is initially not interested in Jonas patter. He fails to produce his license and registration and tells the cop "I'm a law abiding citizen just like yourself. The only difference is I know there's more to life than my nine to five. If you knew that, you'd still have a wife and daughter to go home to." This angers the cop enough to cuff him and put him in the car. In the car, Jonas appeals to the cops emotions with inside information about him losing custody of his daughter, intuiting many personal details with uncanny accuracy. Jonas wins his bet to everyone's amusement, and reveals one of the cues to his assistant Jane (Debra Winger)