Category Archives: Drama

Love with the Proper Stranger (1963, Robert Mulligan)

Love with the Proper Stranger has a lot to resolve in its third act. There’s a somewhat sizable supporting cast, the act two cliffhanger for leads Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen’s romance is precarious–there’s a lot. So it’s striking when Proper Stranger just doesn’t do a third act. Director Mulligan loves the New York location shooting and he just embraces it for the ending, doing a big crane shot but otherwise being very vérité.

Proper Stranger is a melodrama about Wood getting pregnant, McQueen being the daddy, them not being married, and McQueen not really remembering Wood anyway. It doesn’t want to be a melodrama. Mulligan and writer Arnold Schulman do everything they can to avoid traditional melodrama; long, fantastic portions of the film are just McQueen and Wood looking at each other, trying to figure out what to say. Milton R. Krasner’s photography holds the actors’ faces, Mulligan giving them time to deliberate on how to approach the other. It’s a shame this method is entirely gone by the lead-up to the end. McQueen will be furtive, then not, with Wood’s reaction expresses slow to catch up. They’re wonderful to watch together.

Shame the script doesn’t keep up with them.

Schulman gets easily distracted. He’s got a lot of depth in his scenes, which focus on Wood and McQueen, but make sure to provide a lot of activity around them. So when the film quiets that activity to spotlight Wood and McQueen, it’s affecting. Mulligan trains the viewer how to watch the stars, how to wait for them to act out.

Oops, I got distracted by something wonderful in Proper Stranger, which writer Schulman never does. Instead, he gets distracted by the Italian ethnic comedy subplot he’s got going with Wood’s family. When Wood moves out, mother Penny Santon goes into bedridden conniptions. It seems like a significant subplot, given how much time is spent with Wood’s family during the film, but maybe not. Because resolving it would be difficult and Proper Stranger eventually just wants to ride it out on Wood and McQueen’s charm and the lovely, rending Elmer Bernstein score.

Schulman and Mulligan try very hard to give Wood her agency and McQueen some unpredictability, but they don’t know after the character and actor have had that moment. Both actors have big character arcs, which the film first embraces, then ignores. Once Wood moves out, she’s no longer a protagonist, she becomes subject. Her embrace of agency reduces her part. It’s real unfortunate. Especially since it’s not like McQueen gets the extra space. It’s just wasted. Schulman and Mulligan bungle the finish without any clear motive, except it’s time for the movie to stop.

Nice support from Edie Adams, Tom Bosley (in a way too thin part in Schulman’s ethnic comedy plot line), and especially Herschel Bernardi as Wood’s most protective older brother. It’s not a great part, but Bernardi does a lot with it. Because Mulligan gives him time to react and process the plot as it unfolds. Love with the Proper Stranger goes from being patient and deliberate to dispassionately rushed.

McQueen’s good, Wood’s good. Both have some great moments, both have some not great ones. Wood’s are usually because of the script, while McQueen’s are his ambitions for the performance just not clearing. There’s a very occasional Italian accent thing he does and it never works. But their great moments more than make up for the rest.

Krasner’s photography, Bernstein’s score. Excellent. Aaron Stell’s editing, not excellent. Some bad cuts, but it might be because Mulligan’s trying different things in scenes. He’s trying to avoid the melodrama, like one more New York location shot will elevate the film. Except he just goes with Schulman’s depressing comic sequences for Wood’s family. It doesn’t make any sense.

Kind of like how it doesn’t make sense the movie doesn’t have a third act. What Proper Stranger does get done is good, but should be better. Wood and McQueen deserve better. Their performances deserve a film wholly worthy of them.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Arnold Schulman; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Aaron Stell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Alan J. Pakula; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Natalie Wood (Angie Rossini), Steve McQueen (Rocky Papasano), Herschel Bernardi (Dominick Rossini), Tom Bosley (Anthony Columbo), Edie Adams (Barbie), and Penny Santon (Mama Rossini).


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The Winslow Boy (1999, David Mamet)

The Winslow Boy utilizes all the trappings of a stage adaptation without ever being stagy. Director Mamet opens the film with a family entering their home–there’s some muted conversation before they get completely inside, then the introductions begin. So it’s a very play structure too, at least as far as the first and third acts go, but Mamet perfectly matches that structure. The way Mamet paces the film is exquisite. He anticipates story beats with stylistic choices, often infusing Winslow with indeterminate foreboding.

The first act sets up the cast. Nigel Hawthorne is the stern but loving and proud father, Gemma Jones is mother, Rebecca Pidgeon is the oldest, a pre-WWI feminist and suffragette, Matthew Pidgeon is the disappointing middle child, and Guy Edwards is the (much younger) pride of the family. Mamet and his actors deliberately establish their characters, with Mamet moving the narrative focus among them for best result. As the actor establishes their character–the beginning Winslow Boy is sort of a rapid, pre-Christmas ground situation exposition dump; Mamet keeps it moving through dialogue speed, repetition, Barbara Tulliver’s editing, and especially Benoît Delhomme’s photography. Winslow Boy only has the one main location–the family’s house–and Mamet is inventively pragmatic composing shots in it. Again, he emphasizes the actors’ performances, even when it’s an off screen actor.

After the setup, the film jumps ahead four months. There has been some hint of the main plot–young Edwards is expelled from the royal naval academy for thievery, a crime he maintains he didn’t commit–but not how it will play out. Hawthorne fights the expulsion, at great expense to the family and to great publicity. It’s Edwardian England, between wars, and it all causes quite a stir. Enough of one to eventually threaten Rebecca Pigdeon’s love life.

Mamet and the cast have a great deal of fun with Edwardian propriety, with Pidgeon getting the best lines. There’s a thoughtfulness and gentleness in the propriety and how the actors essay it, something the film technically emphases. The music’s different, the photography and composition are more intimate–even when it’s set during a bright day, Mamet and Delhomme find a way to focus just on their subjects. The rest of the world is far away.

About halfway through the film, Winslow Boy introduces Jeremy Northam’s barrister. Winslow is never about the process in getting the expulsion reconsidered, it’s about the effects of that process, both immediate and collateral. Northam’s character lets Mamet take the film into the House of Commons, to hear the debate–otherwise, news of the case is usually shown through expository shots–supportive buttons, political cartoons, branded umbrellas.

Thanks to Mamet’s established repetition device, he’s able to not just get the information across of what’s happening offscreen, but he’s able to give it the necessary context for viewers not well-versed early 20th century British law. Pidgeon and Hawthorne are learning about it too. It’s a great way to make the characters more sympathetic too; it puts characters and viewers at the same point on the learning curve.

The performances are all excellent. Rebecca Pidgeon and Jeremy Northam have a lovely, gentle romantic subplot. They’re both great, though never as good with anyone but each other. Their timing, how Mamet handles their peculiar flirtation, anchors the third act of the film.

First act lead Hawthorne spends the second act in obscured transition. In addition to straining his family to defend Edwards’s honor, he’s got his own aging character arc, which he never gets to play on front burner, and then he’s got to deal with the publicity fallout. So he has these relationship arcs with almost every character. Sometimes just for a quiet joke.

Jones is the film’s unsung glue for the first half. She’s mom, she’s always sympathetic, she’s great with all her costars. Her comic timing is phenomenal. Matthew Pidgeon’s good, Edwards’s good, everyone’s always good and often better. Mamet directs for his actors.

The Winslow Boy is a quiet, gentle, rousing success.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Mamet; screenplay by Mamet, based on the play by Terence Rattigan; director of photography, Benoît Delhomme; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Alaric Jans; production designer, Gemma Jackson; produced by Sarah Green; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Nigel Hawthorne (Arthur Winslow), Rebecca Pidgeon (Catherine Winslow), Gemma Jones (Grace Winslow), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Morton), Guy Edwards (Ronnie Winslow), Matthew Pidgeon (Dickie Winslow), Aden Gillett (John Waterstone), Colin Stinton (Desmond Curry), Sarah Flind (Violet), and Neil North (First Lord).


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The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin)

The French Connection has a linear progression. No flashbacks, no flashforwards; it’s never implied two events are happening simultaneously. One thing happens after another. Only there’s nothing connecting those things, other than the actors, other than the cops’ investigation. Because French Connection unfolds for the viewer just like it does the cops. Or if the viewer has more information, it turns out to be pointless. Not so much a red herring as immaterial.

Eventually, it turns out a lot is immaterial in The French Connection. Director Friedkin doesn’t make an effort to misdirect the viewer, he just doesn’t provide the information.

The French Connection is about New York narcotics cops Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider trying to figure out how Tony Lo Bianco is dirty and what it has to do with Frenchman Fernando Rey. The viewer finds out about Rey in the first scene of the film–in fact, he’s the only one with ground situation character information–but it takes a while for Hackamnd and Scheider to discover him.

The film runs 104 minutes. Much of the second half takes place in the span of a week. Friedkin and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman only have three expository sequences. Two are traditional boss chewing out rogue cops scenes, the other is Scheider giving a surveillance report to Hackman. The audio is laid over shots of the scenes and characters in question. It’s breathtakingly efficient, especially since Hackman and Rey colliding will soon change the film. The somewhat large cast of characters is repeatedly introduced to ingrain. The angry boss scenes use different techniques to do different things, like reducing Scheider’s part while maintaining its presence (the solution is to give him more personality) and setting up Bill Hickman’s dipshit federal agent tagalong.

Simultaneous to this exquisite plotting is the filmmaking. Friedkin and the crew excel. Owen Roizman’s photography has this crisp chill to the police work but a heat to the “off duty” scenes and locations. Friedkin and editor Gerald B. Greenberg have some scenes where it’s just incidental noise, no sound for the dialogue. Or they’ll just cut fast to the next scene. Or they’ll just cut fast and jiggle the pacing of a scene; Hackman is in a car, gets out, but they cut it ahead, so Hackman’s walking into the shot before he’s done talking about getting out of the car. It’s a gallop. And it goes a long way for mood.

Then there are the performances. Scheider is fantastic, ably navigating his character shallowing out as the film progresses. Hackman’s reserved but bombastic, violative but sullen. He has an energy and Scheider’s got to keep up with and sometimes contain it (both as an actor working off another and to essay the script). Hackman and Scheider are a phenomenal pairing.

Hackman’s performance is captivating. He always has something else to reveal about the character, which keeps the police procedural even more interesting. Every action, every reaction–Hackman makes them impulsive but inevitable.

It’s juxtaposed against Rey, who never loses his cool. He also has to reconcile his character–a sauve, cultured, loving Frenchman who’s also an international drug dealer.

Marcel Bozzuffi’s terrifying as Rey’s flunky.

Good score from Don Ellis. It’s deceptive when its being obvious. It excites the viewer’s imagination, forcing their engagement with a particular scene or shot. Combined with Friedkin and Greenberg’s cuts, French Connection has occasionally has an uncanny feel without ever giving up its grounding.

The French Connection is a singular motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by Ernest Tidyman, based on the book by Robin Moore; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Gerald B. Greenberg; music by Don Ellis; produced by Philip D’Antoni; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gene Hackman (Jimmy Doyle), Roy Scheider (Buddy Russo), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier), Tony Lo Bianco (Sal Boca), Marcel Bozzuffi (Pierre Nicoli), Frédéric de Pasquale (Devereaux), Arlene Farber (Angie Boca), and Bill Hickman (Mulderig).


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Disco Pigs (2001, Kirsten Sheridan)

Disco Pigs might not be the best title for Disco Pigs, but it’s hard to imagine any other title for it so an imperfect one is better than a wrong one. Maybe disco had some appropriate cultural Irish relevancy. Or maybe playwright Enda Walsh, who adapted the screenplay himself, couldn’t think of anything else either.

The film opens with an unborn baby–who will grow up to be lead Elaine Cassidy–with Cassidy narrating her thoughts about being born. Writer Walsh gets in some foreshadowing during this narration, kind of some sore thumb foreshadowing, only it takes a long, long time for it to come out in the narrative.

The film quickly fastforwards to Cassidy at sixteen years, 348 days. In her crib at the hospital, she meets another baby in the adjoining crib. That baby grows up to be Cillian Murphy. He too is sixteen years, 348 days, when the present action begins. They live next door to one another and have been their entire lives. Their rooms are mirrors of one another, each with a secret window between so they can hold hands as they sleep each night.

Disco Pigs is the story of their seventeen days until their seventeenth birthday.

For the first third of the film, about ninety percent is Cassidy and Murphy together. They’re so wrapped up in one another–and have been for so long–they don’t seem to form outside relationships as individuals, just as a unit. They have their own shorthand language, somewhat fantastical, with the rest of the world utterly detached.

Director Sheridan keeps a bit of distance, occasionally developing Cassidy separate from Murphy–though Murphy’s the one who gets the eventual big scene in the first act. Even though they’re teenagers, surrounded by teenagers doing teenage things, there’s a chasteness to their relationship. Physical romance is still something for a giggle, not a fantasy. Until it becomes clear Murphy’s moving away from the giggling to the fantasy faster than Cassidy and even though they have their own language, it’s a child’s language, without the words they need to communicate now.

Their respective home lives reveal some more differences. Murphy’s mother, Eleanor Methven, finds him more of a laugh than a concern. She’s got another kid, a younger sister (presumably from a different dad, but it’s never mentioned). Meanwhile, Cassidy’s parents–Geraldine O’Rawe and Brían F. O’Byrne–are far more concerned Cassidy’s future. So they let the school talk them into sending her away.

The middle portion of the film is Murphy’s quest to find her juxtaposed against Cassidy socially developing away from him. It’s also when it becomes clear Murphy’s not just missing his best friend, he’s severely mentally disturbed. While Cassidy’s section quickly becomes affable (thanks to the influence of roommate Tara Lynne O’Neill), Murphy’s half is harrowing.

The third part of the film is the birthday, which director Sheridan and editor Ben Yeates methodically pace. It retains some of that harrowing momentum, only cut loose of any expectations, both from the viewer’s perspective and Cassidy’s.

Both Cassidy and Murphy are exceptional. It’s a toss-up who’s better; even though they start from similar positions, Walsh’s narrative gives them entirely different character arcs. There’s a relative staticness to the roles in the beginning, something Murphy retains, only it becomes clear entropy is affecting him as well. And he’s aware of it; it’s never part of the script, but it’s always present in Murphy’s performance.

Sheridan’s direction stays calm, even after she closes the narrative distance. There’s seemingly a greater sympathy with Cassidy, yet in hindsight–and after some foreshadowed backstory gets covered–it’s there with Murphy as well. The third act really is about integrating the various styles Sheridan’s been working with–that joint first act, which develops stress fractures, and the separate, wildly different second act. It’s all got to come together.

Great photography from Igor Jadue-Lillo. Great music from Gavin Friday and
Maurice Seezer.

Disco Pigs is difficult, terrifying, and lovely. Cassidy and Murphy give breathtaking performances.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kirsten Sheridan; screenplay by Enda Walsh, based on his play; director of photography, Igor Jadue-Lillo; edited by Ben Yeates; music by Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer; produced by Ed Guiney; released by Renaissance Films.

Starring Elaine Cassidy (Runt), Cillian Murphy (Pig), Tara Lynne O’Neill (Mags), Brían F. O’Byrne (Runt’s Dad), Geraldine O’Rawe (Runt’s Mam), Eleanor Methven (Pig’s Mam), Darren Healy (Marky), and Michael Rawley (Foxy).


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