★★★★

A Man for All Seasons (1966, Fred Zinnemann)

What’s so incredible about A Man for All Seasons is how big director Zinnemann makes it while keeping it small while keeping it big. The settings are big—palaces, estates, and so on—but Zinnemann keeps the set pieces small. He and cinematographer Ted Moore will do big establishing shots, but only after they’ve gotten into the details of the places. They incorporate the technique into the opening titles, then keep going with it throughout the film. The film’s all about the small actions and pettiness of important men, those establishing montages bring them down to Earth. Or at least establish a grounded Earth in which to play.

Georges Delerue’s regal but also demure score perfectly accompanies.

The film’s about Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield in a singular performance); he refuses to publicly support King Henry VIII’s first divorce. Robert Shaw plays the King; he’s great too. Only in it for a couple scenes, but great. And a grandiose enough performance to cast a shadow on the film after he’s established. You’ve got to believe Shaw can be so petty about Scofield not supporting him, without ever establishing Shaw’s regard for Scofield. At least, not until after Scofield’s pissed him off. Man for All Seasons has a wonderful sense of how to elucidate history—writer Robert Bolt (adapting his play) does “pepper” the exposition with historical detail, but only ever for the characters’ edification, not the audience’s. And when doing historical exposition, Bolt’s default is for the common man—or at least the more common man, let’s say still identifiable if not sympathetic upper middle class—not the nationstate politics. Yes, Scofield toggles between kingmakers and kings like Orson Welles and Shaw, but he also deals with ambitious bureaucrats like Leo McKern (and unambitious de facto ones like Nigel Davenport). His would-be protege, John Hurt, is just a man trying to make something of himself out of university and Scofield tries hard to protect him for the realities of corruption. For Scofield’s More, the corruption tends to have a religious bent but the film never particularly gets into the religiosity. Bolt, Zinnemann, and Scofield examine More’s actions and how his beliefs chart those actions, not the content of the beliefs. They’re kind of lucky to have More as the subject, as him not voicing any opinion whatsoever is what gets him into trouble. A man keeps his thoughts his own when in Tudor England, something Scofield tries to impart on friend and foe alike, which leads to some wonderful moments.

Scofield’s family also plays a big part. There’s wife Wendy Hiller, who doesn’t get much to do but is good, daughter Susannah York, who’s awesome and gets lots to do—sometimes just reacting; the film sets her up as Scofield’s intellectual heir, if she weren’t a girl anyway, and so her perception of the events and behaviors she experiences are another storytelling slate for Zinnemann and Bolt. Man for All Seasons is very quiet, very simple, very complicated. The film deliberates, even when it doesn’t have enough information (usually because Scofield’s keeping his mouth shut about it).

Scofield’s the protagonist; his actions and reactions drive the plot. A constant undercurrent is the story of ambitious, not entirely dim-witted, but morally corruptible Hurt, who ends up finding a mentor in McKern. Only McKern’s a jackass, power hungry bureaucrat jealous of Scofield’s intellectual powers (no matter what McKern accomplishes, Shaw’s never going to love him for his mind whereas Scofield manages to disrespect the King and maintain the intellectual regard). And Hurt’s aware he’s going to the Dark Side, providing yet another storytelling slate. Man for All Seasons never feels stagy, never feels like its a series of vignettes whether the most character development happens off screen, yet it is that series of vignettes. Zinnemann, Moore, Delerue, and editor Ralph Kemplen just make sure it never feels like one. Zinnemann maintains the importance of the film’s visual style even when the dramatics are center stage (Moore’s beautiful “natural” lighting helps), which allows for nimble style changes. It’s magnificently executed. Zinnemann’s direction is assured but never showy, confident but ambitious; the chances the film takes are almost exclusively on the actors—at least into the second act—and Zinnemann facilitates the performances, but the actors are the ones who have to nail the moment, which seems like it should lead to at least the acknowledgement of the stage adaptation but it never does. Because the film’s limited world is so big.

All of the acting is great. Some of the cast get to have more fun—Welles gets to have a lot of fun, McKern’s a delightful weasel—but the ones who have major constraints (Hurt’s weasel-in-training, Corin Redgrave’s obnoxiously Lutheran Lutheran who’s courting York) are still excellent. York, Davenport, and Hiller all deliver in some hard scenes; York and Davenport get the bigger ones, but Hiller’s got to do a lot in short amounts of time. The film often uses Hiller to establish character stuff for Scofield. She’s part of his ground situation, revealing more as the film progresses, without ever doing exposition dumps. Far from it. Hiller’s concise.

As for Scofield… the story’s about people wanting to hear what Scofield’s going to say next and the film’s about staring at Scofield and waiting to see what it’ll be. He’s in the spotlight the entire film. Great direction, great script, great supporting cast, but Man for All Seasons is Scofield’s performance. And it’s an exceptional one.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Fred Zinnemann; screenplay by Robert Bolt, based on his play; director of photography, Ted Moore; edited by Ralph Kemplen; music by Georges Delerue; production designer, John Box; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Paul Scofield (Thomas More), Susannah York (Margaret), Wendy Hiller (Alice), Leo McKern (Cromwell), John Hurt (Rich), Nigel Davenport (Duke of Norfolk), Corin Redgrave (Roper), Orson Welles (Cardinal Wolsey), and Robert Shaw (Henry VIII).


The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954, Mark Robson)

With the exception of Grace Kelly (the only significant female character in the film), none of Bridges at Toko-Ri’s main characters are ever explicitly scrutable. Even when the admiral, Fredric March, muses about the nature of war and the men who wage it, the film’s already established March’s thoughts don’t betray him. He’s not cagey; if anything, he’s a conversational duelist, on the offensive. It’s a very interesting development on the character, who’s initially set up as a sad old man with a dead son who latches onto those officers with similar demographics in his command, in Toko-Ri’s case it’s William Holden. Holden’s a disgruntled lawyer from Denver, Colorado who got called up ahead of activist reservists because of his WWII experience. He’s got Kelly and two daughters at home; he’s miserable at war, living on the carrier, flying missions; he’s trying to grow a drinking problem and he’s thought through faking mental issues to get out of flying those missions.

And he’s not quiet about it either.

One of the strangest things about Toko-Ri’s script, other than it really being a grim, tense, terse war movie with a bunch of character drama shoehorned in to utter perfection, is how little the film is concerned with establishing Holden’s character. The movie opens with March, then goes to Mickey Rooney, who’s fourth lead in the first half, third in the second… maybe second in the second. March is the admiral, Rooney’s the rescue helicopter pilot (Earl Holliman is Rooney’s sidekick), Holden’s the pilot, Kelly’s the wife. Holden never gets a scene to himself until into the second half of the movie, after he’s been introduced through Rooney’s lens, March’s lens… maybe not Kelly’s lens. She doesn’t really get a lens. She gets the dramatic music and she gets to speak plainly about her feelings, though she’s also adorably small c conservative—the one full, sweet scene we get with Holden, Kelly, and the daughters is when they’re in their Japanese hotel and they go to the steam baths and there’s a Japanese family there too. It’s cute but not pandering; mostly thanks to Robson’s direction and Holden but also editor Alma Macrorie, who’s just as good doing the comedy as the fighter jets.

The movie opens with Holden crashing into the ocean, Rooney saving him, March bonding with Holden and telling him Kelly and the daughters are waiting for them in Japan. Then it’s three days ahead and we only get hints of how they passed from Holden’s expressions and how he interacts with the other guys on the ship. The point of that very soft character development technique becomes clear later, in the second half of the film, when it’s just Holden shutting all the guys out on the ship after they’re back to sea, headed to a dangerous mission. Bridges gives its characters their own politics, identifying most with Holden—who’s slowly buying into March’s take, but March also just sees Korea as a diversion from Soviet Russia… but for progressive reasons. Sort of. Kelly’s living “Donna Reed Goes to War.” Rooney’s a sociopath we find out. A lovable one, but a complete sociopath.

The film is character studies but fits them into the epical war drama frame. While mostly being tense action and preparation for action. Valentine Davies writes a really tight script; Bridges is based on a James Michener so who knows where that efficiency is from. Because there’s also Robson. He opens the movie with this very practical look at the way aircraft carriers work. The film opens with a thanks to the U.S. Navy for their participation, but it’s not clear how much participation Bridges is going to get. It gets a whole lot. There are big action set pieces, both in and out of fighter jets. Macrorie and whoever did the miniature effects startlingly match the actual jets. It’s a beautifully edited film.

Including on the opening “welcome to an aircraft carrier” montage sequence. It fits into the narrative eventually, but for a while it’s just Robson displaying this world. Very quickly the grandiosity of the carrier becomes mundane. Very quickly. In fact, I think Robson just cuts away from the carrier setup and never comes back to it. So he truncates it, because Robson keeps a brisk pace through the Japan sequence. Yeah, there’s the cutesy bathhouse scene but there’s nothing else. Otherwise the film’s always working toward the second half, where it slows down and puts Holden through a wringer and the audience never really gets to understand exactly what’s going on with him. Because even though the narrative distance is fairly firm on being about what happens to Holden and around Holden, it also seems like it could toggle over to being about what Holden’s going to do, which would change reads on how previous events unfolded. The Bridges at Toko-Ri doesn’t tell the audience what kind of the film they’re actually watching until around the third act; from the start, it promises to tell them, then keeps building to it. For at least an hour. It’s kind of breathtaking how well Robson and Davies pull it off. They don’t do it for the benefit of the genre—the early lefty-ish war movie—but for the film’s. Instead of going big, Robson and Davies keep it about the four main characters. It’s a tricky finish and the film’s very nimble in the execution.

The best performances are Holden and March. Not to knock Kelly or Rooney, they just don’t get the parts. Holden doesn’t really get to talk about his and March doesn’t talk about his when he’s talking about his. Robson cuts to their close-ups and waits for their reaction, in expression or dialogue, the film unable to continue until they’ve had their moment. Bridges hinges on them. Kelly and Rooney are both excellent, but the film doesn’t hinge on them in the same way. Because Kelly does get to talk about her experience; arguably her learning to speak up for herself is the film’s only traditionally successful character arc. She doesn’t suffer in silence or obfuscation. Rooney’s an entirely different case, initially set up as comic relief (or near to it) he’s actually something quite different. While still retaining some of the comic quality. But just as tragic as everyone else in their mutual delusions.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri takes the pieces of a war action movie and a war melodrama and assembles them into something very special. Great work from Robson, Davies, Holden, March, Kelly, Rooney, editor Macrorie, and photographer Loyal Griffs (save a rear screen projection shot here and there). It’s a phenomenal piece of work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by Valentine Davies, based on the novel by James A. Michener; director of photography, Loyal Griggs; edited by Alma Macrorie; music by Lyn Murray; produced by William Perlberg and George Seaton; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Lt. Harry Brubaker), Fredric March (Rear Adm. George Tarrant), Grace Kelly (Nancy Brubaker), Mickey Rooney (Mike Forney), Earl Holliman (Nestor Gamidge), Charles McGraw (Cmdr. Wayne Lee), Keiko Awaji (Kimiko), and Robert Strauss (Beer Barrel).



Parasite (2019, Bong Joon-ho)

Metaphor is a luxury item in Parasite. First act lead Choi Woo-sik excitedly talks about the metaphorical when things are still going well. Choi, a floundering, unemployed early twenty-something from an unemployed floundering family, lucks into the perfect gig—tutoring a rich teenager with her English. Choi’s great at his English, he just doesn’t apply himself. Or he’s really bad at math (he didn’t go to college, despite acing his English language tests over and over). Even better, the mom (Jo Yeo-jeong) is a bit of a bimbo. A very well-spoken, well-informed one, but not someone who, you know, reads. She knows how to talk about reading though. It’s a very interesting part; Jo’s great. Probably giving the film’s best performance, which isn’t an easy task, but the script never turns her into a caricature. It’s weird watching her at first, because you’re waiting for director Bong and co-writer Han Jin-woo to go for some easy bit and they never do. The film’s got a very particular narrative distance with wealthy Jo and her husband, Lee Sun-kyun. See, Choi and his family come to see Jo and Lee as the caricatures, while….

And I’m ahead of myself.

On his first tutoring lesson, Jo tells Choi about how her other kid—Choi’s tutoring the teenage girl, played by Jung Ji-so—but Jo’s other kid, the younger boy (Jung Hyun-jun) he’s actually an artistic genius. Well, Jo’s convinced herself he’s an artistic genius, anyway. And Choi sees the chance to get his artistically talented sister—so good she faked his college transcript for the job interview—a gig tutoring the clearly not a next level genius son. Park So-dam is Choi’s sister. Once she gets into the house and is able to manipulate Jo better than Choi can (or thought to), it’s time to get dad Song Kang-ho and mom Jang Hye-jin gigs too. They just need to get rid of the other servants to make vacancies. Because Park and Choi have a whole plan worked out, complete with role-playing lessons to get Song and Jang ready for their parts. Choi’s lucked the whole family’s way into full employment.

Something Bong and Han carefully foreshadow.

They’re similarly careful about how they juxtapose the two families. Because, obviously, they don’t let on they’re related. Becausee they’re being very safe about how they’re conning and exploiting Jo and Lee and with some empathy—to protect them from getting exploited by someone else. Song’s gone positively soft for the family and what he thinks is their naiveté, Choi’s got a crush on his inappropriately young tutee; they’re all in on the con, with Choi and Park starting to work out plans for the future. Only Choi and Park are inexperienced kids and even though Song and Jang are ready and willing with the con, they’re not any more experienced in this world either. Jo and Lee live in this distinct, gigantic literal architect’s dream home. Bong has these great shots of how much area Choi and his family have to walk to get around. They live in a basement apartment where drunks piss on their windows. There’s not room in that apartment for a long shot, there’s not enough room for Bong to pan the shot to follow them. Everyone’s got their own kind of naiveté in Parasite; the audience can’t necessarily see into the characters’ blindspots either. Bong and Han don’t exactly have any mysteries, but they’ve got some Brobdingnagian surprises.

Sometimes those surprises impact the epical narrative, sometimes they impact the subtext. Parasite says a lot, looks at a lot. Bong never forces it, some of he and Han’s moves so subtle you don’t catch on to when they started laying the groundwork until they’re ahead a couple more reveals. Kind of like the aforementioned metaphor as a luxury item. They’re already two or three metaphors in between they reveal they’re metaphors. It’s so good. Sometimes watching Bong pull it off, thanks also to Hong Kyung-pyo’s photography and Yang Jin-mo’s editing—sometimes it gets distracting, how well this scene or that scene works. How ably Bong is accomplishing with the film. And it doesn’t take until the the third act for that feeling, it hits in the early second. Parasite’s great from really, really early on.

The acting helps with that early success. Everyone’s excellent. They’re different kinds of excellent, because no one’s got the exact same kind of function in the script—mom Jang’s got a great long sequence where she’s never the focus of a scene but how she’s moving through the background is the actually important thing going on. Meanwhile, Song’s got a very different kind of part; his part changes the most throughout, and not just because he and Jang start the film more in supporting roles. It takes a while. Bong and Han never hurry it either. There’s not a wasted moment in the film.

The best performances are Jo, Sang, and probably Lee Jeong-eun (the kindly housekeeper who could foil Sang and family’s plans). Jo and Sang have a handful of scenes together and they’re always so great because Jo and Sang are giving such nuanced, guarded performances. The script demands it, more than for anyone else, and seeing them acting together is something special. Because they’re doing separate things, which are then informing the scene in how they spark off one another.

It’s fantastic to watch.

Park and Jang are both really good. Park’s got the hardest part in the first act—she’s got to be the most different between home and work—and she’s great. She gets less later on, but when it’s all on her, Park nails it. Lee—the rich husband—he’s good. Choi’s really good. Parasite’s just really good in general; also specific to its many parts. Bong sets up the film as an experience, something for the audience to go through. It’s not an inaccessible experience. In fact, what makes it so impressive is how often Bong and Han just go for their big symbolism and such. Bong’s fearless.

Parasite’s outstanding.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Bong and Han Jin-won; director of photography, Hong Kyung-pyo; edited by Yang Jin-mo; music by Jung Jae-il; production designer, Ha-jun Lee; produced by Bong, Jang Young-Hwan, Moon Yang-kwon, and Kwak Sin-ae; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Song Kang-ho (Kim Ki-taek), Choi Woo-sik (Kim Ki-woo), Park So-dam (Kim Ki-jung), Jang Hye-jin (Kim Chung-sook), Jo Yeo-jeong (Park Yeon-kyo), Lee Sun-kyun (Park Dong-ik), Jung Ji-so (Park Da-hye), Jung Hyun-jun (Park Da-song), and Jeong-eun Lee (Moon-gwang).


Mondays in the Sun (2002, Fernando León de Aranoa)

At some point, around the halfway point but maybe a little earlier, Mondays in the Sun becomes an endurance spectacle—can director de Aranoa (who co-wrote with Ignacio del Moral) actually keep the film lyrical. There are softly epical arcs in the film, but they get resolved gradually (or not at all) in the final third. There’s no potential for the epical arc because it’s about people in stasis; the film is about these three ship-builders who got protested their fellows getting laid off and ended up getting laid off themselves. Four years later, there’s no progress. They’re past desperation at this point, halfheartedly clinging to various hopes, while (proverbially) clinging to their beers with double fists. Proverbial because no one actually double-fists their drinks. Actually, they’re patient, pensive drinkers.

The film opens with footage of the cops attacking the protesting workers, set to this really calm, really gentle music (by Lucio Godoy). Like everything with Mondays, it’s patient, deliberate. It’s just the militarized cops doing worse and worse things to the protesters. Then it’s over; fade out. de Aranoa and editor Nacho Ruiz Capillas have excellent fade outs in the film. Sometimes they’re for humor, sometimes they’re for tragedy, most times they’re for a combination of both.

There’s an immediate tone change in the subsequent scene, which introduces the primary cast and one of the most frequented locations—José Ángel Egido is taking the ferry to a job interview, Javier Bardem and Luis Tosar are going along too. Tosar’s going along because he too is ostensibly still looking for work. Bardem’s along because he’s got nothing else to do. They raze Egido for being too old for this job he’s trying to get. There’s no exposition setting up the context of the opening protest, we don’t find out it’s four years later until the last half of the movie, there are just single lines of dialogue—friends needling each other—to set up the characters’ ground situations. It helps Bardem’s a talker. He’s able to fill out a lot. And he’s a master needler, so the exposition comes through in some of the responses to his pokes. Mondays has a phenomenal script. de Aranoa’s direction is excellent, sure, but it’s the script. The script and the actors.

Bardem’s a ladies man—he spends his days screwing and daydreaming, avoiding paying a fine for a broken streetlight in the protest. It’s not an expensive fine, it’s the principle. All Bardem has at this point, the film explores, is that adherence to his principles, which aren’t so much tested as tempted; Bardem’s got his lines and he doesn’t cross them, but it takes a while make them all out.

Tosar’s the married one. Well, both he and Egido and supporting pal Celso Bugallo are all married but Tosar’s the one whose wife (Nieve de Medina) gets the film’s attention. She works at the tuna factory, standing twelve-hour shifts, no longer able to feel her legs. Tosar’s at home, “job hunting” with the boys, or at the bar. Of everyone, he’s got the most epical arc in the film, at least the implication of it. Because as the runtime progresses, Tosar’s drinking comes home with him. He adores de Medina, but given their situation—they only ever see each other in passing—it becomes a nuisance to her. Because it’s been four years.

Then there’s Egido, who’s trying to competent with men twenty years younger for office jobs he’s not really qualified for. He’s got a somewhat epical arc—he’s adapting to the job interviews, he’s trying to learn new things—but told in the most lyrical way of anything in the film. Like I said, the script is amazing. Egido’s got a wife and family at home, so he’s in a much different situation. There’s also the implication he didn’t blow through his severance like Bardem definitely did and Tosar seems to have done. He’s the responsible one. And it’s breaking him. Mondays is an exploration of dignity, resolve, and stubbornness. When they’re confused, when they’re called for, when they’re not.

It doesn’t just explore through Egido, Tosar, and Bardem; their pals are just as important. There’s Bugallo, who becomes a day drinker with his wife away taking care of family. There’s Joaquín Climent, who owns the bar where they all drink. He took his severance and set up a place where everyone else could give him theirs (but no, he actually comps his alcoholic pals). He’s also got teenage daughter Aida Folch, who probably shouldn’t be growing up in this environment. Especially not given Bardem’s such an oaf of a man-slut. Then there’s Enrique Villén, who’s a security guard (so a cop), and Serge Riaboukine, who came to Spain when the Soviet Union collapsed. Cosmonaut to ship-builder to handbill passer. And because the acting and the script are so damn good, Mondays is able to get away with such an obvious statement about the world grinding up its workers.

Performance-wise, Bardem’s best. Then Egido. Then de Medina, then Tosar. She’s better because of the material. Suffering wife beats out passive inflicter of said suffering. The supporting cast is all excellent too.

Very nice cinematography from Archie Mayo. That Godoy score is great—gentle, yet aware of the grit. Capillas’s editing is fantastic. Julio Esteban’s production design. The technical side is all strong.

Mondays in the Sun is an outstanding film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fernando León de Aranoa; written by de Aranoa and Ignacio del Moral; director of photography, Alfredo Mayo; edited by Nacho Ruiz Capillas; music by Lucio Godoy; production designer, Julio Esteban; produced by Elías Querejeta and Jaume Roures; released by Sogepaq.

Starring Javier Bardem (Santa), José Ángel Egido (Lino), Luis Tosar (Jose), Nieve de Medina (Ana), Joaquín Climent (Rico), Aida Folch (Nata), Enrique Villén (Reina), Serge Riaboukine (Serguei), and Celso Bugallo (Amador).



Chimes at Midnight (1965, Orson Welles)

Chimes at Midnight opens with Orson Welles and Alan Webb, both aged men in the Medieval Ages, bumbling (probably at least somewhat drunkenly) in for the night; they sit at a fire and gently reminisce about their youth. The scene gives a first look at screenwriter, director, star Welles in all his giantic grandeur as Shakespeare’s Falstaff (either the film’s title is Falstaff or Chimes at Midnight; the film itself isn’t sure, opening with Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight); I’m not sure what preference Welles had). There are a lot of corpulence jokes at Welles’s expense, which is just one of the many rather interesting things going on in the film. And Webb’s distinct too, even though he’s not coming back for a while.

Ralph Richardson narrates the film (after that scene), but adding another layer to it is the source of his narration. He’s narrating from a 1577 history book (so 170 years after the events in the film), but Welles’s script is adapted from Shakespeare’s Henry series, which is even later than that history book. But Welles adds yet another layer to it by playing the history straight but doing it people’s history. Yes, there’s great material stuff for the royals, but it’s really all about the plebs. Those great scenes for the guys playing the kings, princes, and knights, they end up just priming the emphasis on the reality of the age. As a filmmaker, Welles is exceptionally giving to his actors and very confident in their performances. Sure, Welles gives himself the juiciest part—one where he gets to put a target on himself for all sorts of comparisons, not to mention Welles is, amongst other things, a writer and Falstaff is a Brobdingnagian bullshit artist. But a bad one. Like, a lot of the first half of Chimes is watching people get the better of Welles, except while not getting the shit end onscreen, he’s not just making this exceptional film experience, he’s also giving his cast a lot of great material. They’re all potential Judases, basically, and at least one of them already knows he’s a Judas.

No spoilers.

After the titles, Richardson takes over explaining things. John Gielgud is a new king, one who had to fight for the throne. While he worries about maintaining rule, his son, the Prince of Wales (Keith Baxter), is off drinking and whoring, as well as committing occasional robberies, egged on by his best friend, Welles. While Welles, Baxter, and Tony Beckley (Beckley’s the noble friend who low-key hates Welles because Baxter likes Welles more than him) are sometimes literally screwing around, Gielgud’s got to deal with Norman Rodway and Fernando Rey starting a rebellion. It quickly turns into Rodway’s subplot, which is great because Rodway’s fantastic. He’s got this amazing scene with his wife, Marina Vlady. Like, adorable and cute and sexy and from out of nowhere. Just a neat detail in their character relationship. It also goes to establish that people’s history reality; Chimes is going to show private moments of historic, fictionalized characters, but certainly showing them more… potentially bawdy than in the original fictionalization. It gets really good. There are occasional scenes where Welles weaves this amazing narrative flow and then the way he shoots it, cuts it, moving the film through the dialogue… it’s gorgeous.

It’s also often just for laughs.

Welles, Baxter, Beckley? It’s slapstick. Sure, it’s handled with a firm grasp on the film’s reality, but it’s slapstick. There are gags. Welles is very ambitious with his adaptation, he’s exceptionally assured (especially with the filmmaking devices he uses to compensate for the low budget) but never overconfident. There are plenty of things could go wrong—like Baxter, who’s got the film’s most difficult character arc. But it all works. Baxter makes a shift when he needs to make a shift—the first half of the film is about Gielgud’s fight with Rodway and how it’s going to affect actual heir Baxter. The second half is set a few years later, after Baxter has gotten a little more serious and had less Welles in his life. They’re going to get back together though, only Welles is no longer the same fun loving guy he was before. Sure, he’s still constantly drunk, but he’s mopey about his age—hanging out with fellow old fogey Webb—even though young and relative hottie Jeanne Moreau really does seem to adore Welles.

In between these two very different films—it never feels awkwardly assembled either; Welles and company make it feel like a totally natural transition. Anyway, splitting the two time periods is the battle scene. It’s a phenomenal sequence; runs around nine minutes. There’s comedy (Welles is played as a complete joke during the battle, but he’s got a funny sequence before it when he’s “recruiting”), there’s terrible medieval bloodshed, there’s chivalry, there’s tragedy. Welles figures out how to do it “authentic” without a lot of money. It’s a breathtaking battle scene. Chimes has lots of moments, lots of different kinds of them, but this battle sequence is wild.

Great editing from Elena Jaumandreu, Frederick Muller, and Peter Parasheles. Really good black and white photography from Edmond Richard; gorgeous production design from Mariano Erdoiza; Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s music… is perfect for the film. It’s actually one of the film’s bigger risks, but it works out. But just as music… I’ll bet you could write a book about the film’s post-production. Because it’s exceptionally well-assembled. Chimes at Midnight works out. Every bet Welles makes with the film works out.

The biggest bet is Baxter, who’s great. It’s his story, Welles, Gielgud, Beckley, whoever… they’re just all along for the ride. He’s the rightful heir. Who else’s story could it be?

Gielgud’s amazing, Moreau’s good, Rodway, Vlady; Margaret Rutherford’s awesome as Welles’s suffering landlord.

And Welles is great. Really great. He doesn’t give himself a lot of big moments—he gives himself the comedy instead—but when he gets a big moment, wow, does he nail it.

Chimes at Midnight is peerless.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Orson Welles; screenplay by Welles, based on plays by William Shakespeare and a book by Raphael Holinshed; director of photography, Edmond Richard; edited by Elena Jaumandreu, Frederick Muller, and Peter Parasheles; music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino; production designer, Mariano Erdoiza; produced by Ángel Escolano, Emiliano Piedra, and Harry Saltzman; released by Brepi Films.

Starring Orson Welles (Falstaff), Keith Baxter (Prince Hal), Norman Rodway (Henry Percy), John Gielgud (Henry IV), Tony Beckley (Ned Poins), Alan Webb (Shallow), Margaret Rutherford (Mistress Quickly), Marina Vlady (Kate Percy), Fernando Rey (Worcester), and Jeanne Moreau (Doll Tearsheet); narrated by Ralph Richardson.


The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Orson Welles)

It’s immaterial to the film overall but I want to talk about how Welles compensates for projection composites looking like projection composites. He changes up his focus, sometimes focusing on the person in the foreground, sometimes not. Is it intentional? Is he really trying to compensate?

Well, the technique does compensate a little for it. The Lady from Shanghai does have, technologically speaking, a more consistent visual look as the film goes between projection composites and location shooting.

Again, it’s immaterial. It’s just one heck of a what if.

The Lady from Shanghai moves very quickly. It runs just under ninety minutes, with a present action of five or six months. However long it takes to sail from New York City to San Francisco, through the Panama Canal, with some extended stops in Mexico, plus a murder trial. There’s a lot of summary, always ably narrated by writer, director, producer, and star Welles. Welles is a world-traveling Irish sailor who meets Rita Hayworth one night in Central Park, while he’s waiting to find a ship out. Welles, who tries the Irish charm on Hayworth at first sight, ends up saving her from some muggers. He takes her to safety, they talk, they flirt, and wouldn’t you know it, she’d love to hire him on to sail her yacht.

Oh, and she’s married.

So Welles, in the first and last smart thing he does in Shanghai, says no. But when he gets another chance in the form of Hayworth’s much older husband, played by Everett Sloane, shows up to beg him, Welles takes it. He’s feeling way too young, strong, and virile comparing himself to Sloane, who’s a disabled person. He’s also an extremely wealthy lawyer. And he calls Hayworth “lover” in a way it makes everyone’s skin crawl and almost seems like Sloane knows he’s having that effect. Even though Welles is narrating the film, he never reveals his character’s hopes and dreams when he signs on to the yacht. He’s infatuated with Hayworth, yes, but he’s also got a sidekick along, fellow able-bodied seaman and not yacht guy Gus Schilling, and he soon finds out everyone around Sloane’s very, very weird. Like Sloane’s business partner, Glenn Anders, who’s a sweaty drunk.

See, Anders figures out the Welles and Hayworth thing—even more than Sloane, who’s at least passingly aware of the attraction and uses it to humiliate both Hayworth and Welles—but Anders realizes there’s more emotion behind it than Sloane expects. Welles has the heart of a poet and the fists of a six foot three Irishman. He sees through Hayworth the pin-up to the woman; see, Sloane likes it when Hayworth wears skimpy bathing suits in front of all his pals.

Sloane’s a great villain. The film doesn’t really have villains or heroes, but Sloane’s great in the villain spot. He’s cruel, calculating, immodest. He’s a major creep in a film with a bunch of major creeps—like Anders is clearly more dangerous than Sloane, but are you just underestimating Sloane because he doesn’t have use of his legs. Because there’s something else going on besides Sloane wanting to humiliate his trophy wife for being gorgeous, someone’s planning on killing him. Actually, no one seems like they’re not planning on killing him, except Schilling, who just does his job.

So those two plots go on simultaneously, plus the class commentary. See, Welles doesn’t like being privy to the goings ons of these shitty rich people. But they all love being condescending to him, even Hayworth, who runs hot and cold as far as their flirtation goes.

Then there’s a murder and then there’s a trial. There’s an action-packed, hallucinatory finale. There’s a great de facto chase sequence through Chinatown, there’s a big fight scene. An Orson Welles fight scene. He’s really good at some of it, though Viola Lawrence’s editing is key. Her editing is key for everything in Shanghai because the film only exists in its shots and angles, intrusive ones. Welles pushes the camera into faces—with the exception of Hayworth, who gets cradled by the camera, Welles’s infatuation controlling the shots. Welles and Hayworth were married at the time, which doesn’t add a real layer, but is kind of fun to think about. Especially during Hayworth’s big scenes. She’s got a handful of them and they’re all awesome. Welles gives himself the showier part, with his Irish accent—which gets amplified thanks to Welles’s audio process. All the dialogue is looped. The actors performing their lines separately from speaking them in their performance. No actual diegetic sounds, just diegetic sound effects, which the characters don’t “hear.” It gives Shanghai this detached but incredibly intimate quality. Even though that intimacy with the characters’ conversations is more often than not intrusive. The film’s very intrusive. Yes, it’s a film noir about hot cheating wives, sexy Irish lugs, corrupt rich people, and boats, but it’s also this careful examination and evaluation of its characters and what they represent and what they don’t and how the disconnects affect them.

So, it’s a tad misanthropic. But deservedly.

The best performance is Sloane. No one else gets to be such an exceptional creep. Not even Anders, who’s a big creep. Or Ted de Corsia, who’s a little creep. But Sloane also gets more complex emotions and they get laid bare. It’s an outstanding, spectacular performance.

Then Welles, then Hayworth. Welles, director and screenwriter, showcases Hayworth for narrative impact and effectiveness. It means she doesn’t get as good of a part as Welles, actor. But even if her part isn’t as good overall—meaning she can’t give a better performance because he’s written and directed it so she can’t—he does give her far better shot composition than anyone else in the film. He’s not just cradling her for that infatuation angle, he’s also amplifying her deliveries. So Hayworth still manages to have a “movie star” performance in this movie without the possibility of movie star performances. Welles doesn’t compose shots for them.

Anders is great; Schilling is good, Erskine Sanford is fun as the judge. Evelyn Ellis is excellent as Sloane’s maid. She’s a Black woman with a very hard life and Sloane exploits her and brags to everyone about it. In front of her.

Because he’s an incredible creep.

Great photography from Charles Lawton Jr. There’s a lot of stuff in Lady from Shanghai. Almost everything except Shanghai. Lawton shoots it all beautifully. The end action sequence is singular, thanks to Welles, Lawton, and Lawrence. The cuts and the lights are integral to its success. And it is a success. So good.

Welles, Sloane, Hayworth, the supporting cast, the crew, they make something special. The Lady from Shanghai is fantastic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Orson Welles; screenplay by Welles, based on a novel by Sherwood King; director of photography, Charles Lawton Jr.; edited by Viola Lawrence; music by Heinz Roemheld; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Orson Welles (Michael O’Hara), Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister), Everett Sloane (Arthur Bannister), Glenn Anders (George Grisby), Ted de Corsia (Sidney Broome), Evelyn Ellis (Bessie), Gus Schilling (Goldie), and Erskine Sanford (judge).



The Great McGinty (1940, Preston Sturges)

The Great McGinty has a gentle surprise ending. Not a twist. More a reveal, which then recasts the previous ninety minutes and change in a slightly different light. Because McGinty has a very deliberate bookending—there’s even a title card to explain the setting. An unnamed banana republic, two American ex-pats on the run from bad decisions, though one is a wrong guy who made a right choice and the other is a right guy who made the wrong choice. Louis Jean Heydt is, presumably, the right guy. He’s drinking himself to death and getting sympathy from good girl bar dancer Steffi Duna, who’s really just looking out for him in one of the film’s many nice humanity observations. Eventually they end up at the bar, where bartender Brian Donlevy (sporting an amazing blond dye-job) tells them if they want to hear a sad story, just listen up.

Donlevy doesn’t narrate the flashbacks; there are occasional mid-shelf bookends where the film checks back in on Donlevy, Duna, and Heydt, but they don’t have any presence during the flashbacks. They’re passively present, which is kind of important for Donlevy’s character arc and the final reveal. Sturges has a gentle touch with the narrative; he never gives too much the impression of guiding the narrative, just as comfortable with slowing down the present action as speeding it up and skipping ahead in time. Donlevy’s story starts on an election night; he’s in a soup line, one of the forgotten men of the Great Depression. If he goes to vote for the mayor, he can make a couple bucks. All he’s got to do is vote. Though not under his own name. William Demarest explains the whole scheme to Donlevy (and the audience), establishing that gentle touch of Sturges’s what will be the film’s many information dumps. Donlevy ends up Great because he’s a success in a city’s political Machine. Sturges has to explain a lot about that Machine’s procedures. And he’s got to make them palatable. So he gives them to Demarest, who’s cranky and hilarious about the whole thing, and to Akim Tamiroff, who’s explosive and hilarious about the whole thing. Tamiroff’s the big boss. Donlevy goes from paid voter to protection collector to alderman to whatever he wants in record time. He makes it because Tamiroff likes Donlevy’s initiative and lack of fear.

Even though there’s constant danger, Sturges makes it feel entirely immaterial to the plot (even though the audience knows Donlevy at least doesn’t die thanks to the bookend). But Sturges doesn’t leverage having those bookends to keep Donlevy safe, he puts it into the script, gets it out of Donlevy’s performance—Tamiroff walks away with every scene he’s in, he’s awesome; Demarest doesn’t walk away with his scenes (except when they’re just his scenes) but he definitely distracts from the action; female lead Muriel Angelus does walk off with the scene, but usually without having to move. More on her soon. But Donlevy doesn’t get to be flashy, he doesn’t get to be outrageous. He gets to show excitement, he gets to show outrage, he gets to show love. But all at very human levels. Angelus’s human, but the way Sturges composes her shots, she’s angelically functional. It’s like Sturges sketches a caricature in the script and, with his actors’ performances, together they make it into a full character. But Donlevy doesn’t get that synthesis, not the same way. There’s no compensating for his performance. Donlevy’s always got to be the straight man, which makes for an interesting character arc. He never gets a dramatic character move. His character development has to lead the narrative, but it also doesn’t get to be directly addressed.

One result of that approach is the ending reveal working so well. Sturges sets up the narrative distance in the opening bookend and never changes it too much. There’s always a definite distance between the film and Donlevy’s protagonist and narrator, making enough room for Tamiroff to live large in the first half, then Angelus in the second. But when Tamiroff’s big, it’s still Donlevy’s movie. When Angelus’s big, it’s kind of more her movie. Because she’s getting to see behind Donlevy’s scrappy, functional exterior. And sometimes the interior is just as scrappy and functional, which then leads to more context for Donlevy’s character and more potential for Donlevy and Angelus’s relationship. She’s the single mom, Machine secretary who sees his potential for greatness, even before she realizes she sees it. She and Donlevy have this quiet relationship in the middle of all this noise and Sturges focuses more on Angelus in those scenes, leading to some awesome little moments in both her performance and the film. Sturges’s direction of the cast on the film is spectacular.

There’s a lot of nice echoing in Sturges’s script. Gentle but deliberate, like everything else. He’s also able to get a lot of laughs out of not necessarily humorous situations. It’s a great script.

The whole thing’s great. So great I wish I’d been making Great puns right from the start. And don’t let the last paragraph of them dissuade you on The Great McGinty—Sturges, Donlevy, Angelus, and Tamiroff do some… exceptional work on it.

The Great McGinty. It’s terrific.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by Hugh Bennett; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Paul Jones; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Brian Donlevy (Dan McGinty), Muriel Angelus (Catherine), Akim Tamiroff (The Boss), William Demarest (Skeeters), Libby Taylor (Bessy), Donnie Kerr (Donnie), Mary Thomas (Mary), Allyn Joslyn (George), Louis Jean Heydt (Tommy Thompson), and Steffi Duna (The Dancing Girl).



Body Heat (1981, Lawrence Kasdan)

Sumptuous is unfortunately not the right word to describe Body Heat. I wish it were because sumptuous just sounds hot, temperature-wise. And Body Heat is all about heat. It takes place in during a very hot Florida summer, its cast dripping with sweat, constantly in search of a cool breeze or a cool drink. Functioning air conditioning too.

The film opens with lead William Hurt watching a building burn in the distance. Lots of arson for insurance money going on in the small city. Hurt’s a lawyer, the type who defends arsonists and general fraudsters. He’s not good at his job, but he’s charming, good-looking, and likable enough. He’s maybe too objectively stupid to be particularly sympathetic, but the liability and charm goes a long way. Despite his questionable lawyering, he’s a local ladies man, regaling pals Ted Danson and J.A. Preston with his exploits. Danson’s the county prosecutor who regularly beats Hurt in court but there are no hard feelings, they’re good friends. Preston’s the town’s single detective; he looks on Hurt a little more paternally than fraternally, which gives the relationship some texture. Hurt’s relationships with Danson and Preston, which never have enough drama to even be C plots, are one of writer and director Kasdan’s great accomplishments in the film. There’s a history between the men, a warm one (not a Heat pun), and as it gets more and more strained, it’s affecting to watch. Hurt’s friends see the best in him, even when he doesn’t.

For texture Danson gets a whole Fred Astaire wannabe thing, dancing in and out of rooms, or just while he’s walking along. It’s a fun character trait.

Again, Kasdan’s got all sorts of wonderful details. Plus Danson—not a short man—is great at the dancing.

Things start getting complicated when Hurt sets his sights on married woman Kathleen Turner. She’s an ideal conquest—her husband’s out of town during the week—and she’s able to keep up with Hurt’s innuendo banter. Kasdan does a phenomenal job with the innuendo banter; you wish there was more of it but Hurt’s able to seduce her pretty quickly so things go quickly from banter to lovey-dovey talk. Hurt’s rather receptive to the lovey-dovey when it comes from Turner. The film establishes in the first scene he’s not from his regular paramours, but they’re also not stinking rich and have actual jobs; as long as its a week night, Turner and Hurt are able to just have sex marathons, breaking only when physically exhausted in her luxurious house.

Sumptuous is the right word to describe the house.

And things carry on pretty well, even after the film introduces Turner’s husband (an appropriately nebulously creepy Richard Crenna); Hurt and Turner even survive getting busted by her best friend (Kim Zimmer) and niece (Carola McGuinness). But then Hurt runs into Turner and Crenna at a restaurant, leading to an incredibly awkward dinner, and then they start talking about how much nicer life would be if Crenna weren’t around anymore. After all, Hurt knows plenty of lowlife criminals (Mickey Rourke, who’s awesome in a small part) and he’s tapped into the law and order side thanks to Danson and Preston.

Can Hurt and Turner go from a passionate affair to something more dangerous? Well, maybe the more appropriate phrasing is can they successfully go from their passionate affair to something more dangerous.

The film’s got a fantastic lead performance from Hurt, who’s so charming, good-looking, and likable it isn’t even initially obvious he might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer. And Turner’s always playing him for some reason, it’s just not clear what. Body Heat has no illusions about its leads’ affair. John Barry’s booming, sweeping, jazzy-ish score is never romantic. Tragic, sure. But never romantic. Even if Turner is capable of it, there’s never a sign Hurt could be.

She’s hot, sure, but rich and hot is twice as good.

Then there’s the lush Richard H. Kline photography—the film looks sharp but muggy, like through a heat haze—and Kasdan’s spectacular direction. Kasdan goes all out with composition, both for static shots and the swooping crane shots. All of them cut together sublimely, courtesy Carol Littleton. Body Heat is a technical marvel.

Then there’s the script. Outside the lovey-dovey talk, where Turner turns the tables (no pun) on Hurt, it’s all sharp, deliberate. Kasdan does a great job directing the actors. Big parts, small parts, everyone in Body Heat gives an outstanding performance. The way Hurt delivers the dialogue is something special. The filmmaking elevates Heat from its thriller and suspense tropes already—but Hurt’s performance (along with Turner’s, though in a different way) make it a singular picture.

It’s pulp but it’s not. It’s too humid to be pulp. The pulp gets waterlogged. Body Heat is exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan; director of photography, Richard H. Kline; edited by Carol Littleton; music by John Barry; production designer, Bill Kenney; produced by Fred T. Gallo; released by Warner Bros.

Starring William Hurt (Ned Racine), Kathleen Turner (Matty Walker), Ted Danson (Peter Lowenstein), J.A. Preston (Oscar Grace), Lanna Saunders (Roz Kraft), Carola McGuinness (Heather Kraft), Mickey Rourke (Teddy Lewis), Kim Zimmer (Mary Ann), Jane Hallaren (Stella), and Richard Crenna (Edmund Walker).


The Heiress (1949, William Wyler)

My favorite moment in The Heiress is when Olivia de Havilland has a slight tremor, watching someone walk away after she’s just told them off. It’s this fantastic glimpse into her character. The film has something of a double twist ending, so it’s going to be hard to talk around various spoilers but suffice it to say de Havilland’s always got her guard up. You just don’t realize how guarded—shielded might be the better term—until later in the film. de Havilland goes through the film without a real confidant; there’s no opportunity to address de Havilland’s perception of the events. There are the occasional minor reveals in dialogue to provide character texture, nothing more. Otherwise, you’ve just got to trust de Havilland and director Wyler, without much to go on in the former’s case.

Wyler’s visibly breaking his ass from the start to do everything just right, however. Heiress is a play adaptation (of a novel) and de Havilland’s home is the main setting—with some big field trips away—but the house is the thing. Wyler and cinematographer Leo Tover compose these constrained, framed shots, which can’t be claustrophobic because de Havilland’s doesn’t feel trapped in the house. Quite the opposite, but Wyler and Tover still have to contend with the physical realities. Luckily the house is big enough and the floor plan’s right they can use tilts, drawing the audience’s attention to the importance of the passive information those shots cover.

It’s important later when characters are being (possibly) duplicitous and their body language is important. Heiress could open with a disclaimer informing the audience to watch people’s hands or they’re going to miss big plot moments.

Heiress runs almost two hours and the first ninety minutes or so has its own three act structure, based on the characters’ expectations. It starts with de Havilland getting ready for a party. It’s 1850, she’s the unmarried daughter of wealthy doctor Ralph Richardson, her mother is long dead and Richardson has done a crap job raising de Havilland for a combination of reasons but they mostly boil down, generally, to men are trash and, specifically, Richardson is an egomaniac. So his devil goatee is perfect. His sister, Miriam Hopkins, is a recent widow and has come to live with them, giving de Havilland a friend (though not confidant). Hopkins encourages de Havilland, something Richardson never does.

de Havilland’s shy, socially awkward, funny, smart, thoughtful, and kind. No one cares about those things in 1850, unfortunately; she’s supposed to be glamorous and sharp-witted. There’s some suggestion de Havilland’s the ugly duckling daughter of a famed beauty (who Richardson still blathers about), but basically she’s a “plain Jane” because she doesn’t pluck her eyebrows.

Enter Montgomery Clift, charming, well-spoken, and broke. It’s 1850 so it’s still possible to turn your blood blue in a single generation but Clift is more interested in enjoying life then working. He starts courting de Havilland, who’s immediately enamored because Clift’s a stone fox, but Richardson thinks he’s a gold digger. Clift’s interiority gets just as little reveal as de Havilland’s, which is important later on. Hopkins is on Clift’s side, which encourages de Havilland. For ninety minutes, Heiress is mostly about their courtship and its result. The last thirty isn’t epilogue but a complete readjustment of the narrative structure. The characters (and audience) thought the story was one thing, but it’s really another. Great work from Wyler on making that transition successful. Subtle and nimble.

Great performances from the four principals. The characters are constrained by “society” decorum, affecting options, decisions, reactions. Outside the box thinking is never an actual possibility so it’s never discussed but it’s considered and only in the actors’ expressions (or body language). Heiress is never a stagy play adaptation, but it’s still very much a stage adaptation. Wyler showcases the actors’ essaying of the roles, getting into the minutiae of the performances.

So they’ve got to be great.

And they are. de Havilland’s the best. She’s got an exceptionally difficult arc. Clift’s excellent, Richardson’s excellent, Hopkins is excellent. Even though it’s prime showcase for Clift, he doesn’t get the range of material as Richardson. And Hopkins gets all the subtly, because she’s all in on 1850s society thinking and she needs the world to make sense in those constraints.

Great photography from Tover, nice cutting from William Hornbeck; Harry Horner’s production design is key. And the Aaron Copland score is wonderful. Even if he didn’t really do all of it (Heiress had some behind-the-scenes turmoil). The screenplay, by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz (who also wrote the source play), is excellent. Wyler, obviously, does superb work.

The Heiress is outstanding.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz, based on their play and a novel by Henry James; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Aaron Copland; production designer, Harry Horner; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Sloper), Montgomery Clift (Morris Townsend), Ralph Richardson (Dr. Austin Sloper), Miriam Hopkins (Lavinia Penniman), Vanessa Brown (Maria), and Betty Linley (Mrs. Montgomery).



To Die For (1995, Gus Van Sant)

To Die For’s got one of those effortlessly smooth but obviously intricate narrative structures. Screenwriter Buck Henry is adapting a novel, which author Joyce Maynard structured with many different first person accounts. Van Sant and Henry and editor Curtiss Clayton keep the sense of different perspectives—including some interview sessions where someone is obviously making a documentary, maybe not even necessarily the same documentary between interviewees—but the film’s never actually first person. There’s always a narrative distance. Because To Die For only shows so much of its characters. They’re all still mysteries at the end. The film’s got a very definite, very dark sense of humor and it’s never clear just how much Van Sant and Henry are bending reality.

For example, Tim Hopper and Michael Rispoli’s almost entirely dialogue-free police detectives. They’re absurdly intense, emphasis on the absurd. Only Van Sant never plays them for laughs. They cut through the film, their absurd unreality somehow realer than what’s been going on in the film.

To Die For is about cable access weatherperson Nicole Kidman seducing a teenage boy (Joaquin Phoenix) to kill her husband (Matt Dillon). The first act of the movie covers the basic setup and then how Kidman and Dillon got together and how their families clash. Dillon’s Italian, Kidman’s a WASP. It’s quite wonderfully never clear what attracted Kidman to Dillon. Apparently she really did “go wild” for him, but then he got in the way of her career. In addition to her nightly weather duties, Kidman’s making a documentary about local teenagers, including Phoenix. Once Dillon decides it’s time for Kidman to start popping out babies—he gave her a year—well, Kidman starts having sex (apparently a lot of sex, which isn’t initially clear and adds a bunch of layers to things in hindsight) with Phoenix, the end plan being getting Phoenix to kill Dillon.

The film almost entirely shows Kidman’s planning the murder from Phoenix and Alison Folland’s perspectives. Folland is one of the other teenagers in the documentary. Kidman’s documentary, not the pseudo-documentary narrative device. Casey Affleck is the third kid. Folland just wants a friend, Phoenix is in love, Affleck is an ass. They’re all poor, all neglected or abused, all dumb. Affleck gets assigned the project (by Henry, who cameos as their school teacher), but Folland and Phoenix sign up. They’re the only two in the class who don’t see Kidman is a little too much. There’s something clearly off about her.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, that off is she’s an undiagnosed sociopath, something no one suspects—including her—because her parents have spoiled her for so long. Their pampering of Kidman hid it, which the film momentarily and brilliantly addresses when Kidman freaks out dad Kurtwood Smith, who until then seems like it’s completely aware of her peculiar personality. Kidman’s obsessed with wanting to be a newscaster, which motivates every action until she realizes she doesn’t have to be a newscaster to be famous. It’s another of the film’s awesome little character development moments, when Van Sant and Henry reveal they’ve been discreetly layering in an arc, using the pseudo-documentary structure to give it some extra kick. Sometimes for humor (not laughs, humor), sometimes just because.

There are seven concurrent narrative layers. They all take place sometime after the events. There’s Illeana Douglas (as Dillon’s sister who always knew Kidman was bad news); she’s being interview for a documentary. There’s Phoenix in prison. There’s Folland not in prison. Then there’s the parents on a daytime talk show—just the straight talk show footage—Smith and Holland Taylor as Kidman’s parents, Dan Hedaya and Maria Tucci as Dillon’s. Susan Traylor plays Kidman’s sister, who never has anything to say but always has this knowing look. There’s Wayne Knight as Kidman’s boss at the TV station. Then there are the flashbacks. And, finally, there’s Kidman narrating to the camera.

Only she’s not confessing so her material is very different. The reality she presents is very different from what we see transpire. Maybe it’s never clear with Taylor, but Smith seems to know Kidman’s guilty.

Listing the best performances in the film is basically just like listing the cast. Kidman and Phoenix are both phenomenal. And even though they have a bunch of scenes together and Kidman’s manipulating him and Phoenix is bewitched, their character arcs are entirely separate and so are their performances. They don’t have “chemistry” because it’s not possible for them to have it in those conditions. Folland’s great. Douglas is great. Knight’s great. Smith’s great. Affleck, Dillon, Hedaya, Taylor, Tucci; they’re all good. They just can’t compare. They don’t get the material, though there’s always this implicit material. Like Traylor’s looks, whatever they mean.

Good photography from Eric Alan Edwards, good production design from Missy Stewart, perfectly matched Danny Elfman score (it’s a constant, emotive, supportive but never ambitious score). To Die For’s technicals excel. Everything about it excels, especially Kidman, especially Phoenix, especially Van Sant, and especially Henry.

It’s gang busters.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gus Van Sant; screenplay by Buck Henry, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard; director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Curtiss Clayton; production designer, Missy Stewart; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Laura Ziskin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Nicole Kidman (Suzanne Stone), Joaquin Phoenix (Jimmy Emmett), Alison Folland (Lydia Mertz), Casey Affleck (Russel Hines), Illeana Douglas (Janice Maretto), Wayne Knight (Ed Grant), Kurtwood Smith (Earl Stone), Holland Taylor (Carol Stone), Dan Hedaya (Joe Maretto), Maria Tucci (Angela Maretto), Susan Traylor (Faye Stone), Tim Hopper (Mike Warden), Michael Rispoli (Ben DeLuca), Gerry Quigley (George), Buck Henry (Mr. H. Finlaysson), and Matt Dillon (Larry Maretto).


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