Category Archives: ★★★★

The Beguiled (1971, Don Siegel)

While The Beguiled is a thriller, the film keeps the thrills exceptionally grounded. The film’s set during the Civil War, with wounded Yankee sniper Clint Eastwood taking refuge at a girls school in Confederate territory. The school is quite literally set aside from the war. The war is outside the gates and everyone wants to keep it that way. And they can’t. The Beguiled opens with a montage of Civil War photographs in an attempt to sear the images into the viewer’s mind and memory (at least for the film’s runtime).

Even if the characters can avoid thinking about the war, the viewer can’t.

Because there’s enough going on in The Beguiled it could be avoiding the war entirely. Especially once Geraldine Page’s character reveals as all done. Except director Siegel keeps all the reveals as grounded as the thrills. He never wants to break tone, which is one of the film’s bolder moves as Siegel takes almost the first hour to establish the limits of that tone. The Beguiled is excruciatingly deliberate; Bruce Surtees’s photography makes that deliberateness something exceptional. He and Siegel do these despondent low light shots of the cast. Never scary exactly, but always disturbing. There’s no exposition about the difference between night and day in The Beguiled, but it’s there.

The Beguiled’s “there” is quite a lot.

Eastwood’s sniper is a deceitful, manipulative creep. He isn’t, however, a Confederate. And The Beguiled doesn’t shy from looking at how its female characters benefit from the Confederacy. Or what ugly people it encourages them to become.

Page’s headmistress is responsible, not caring. She’s haunted, which makes her sympathetic, but there’s always the threat of cruelness, which makes her not. Teacher (and former student) Elizabeth Hartman should always be sympathetic, but she too has some cruelty. It comes out in jealousy–usually after catching Eastwood paying too much attention to seventeen year-old student Jo Ann Harris–which somehow makes Hartman less sympathetic.

Yet Hartman has this ethereal, naive sadness to her, which creates omnipresent sympathy. Like everything in The Beguiled, there’s a lot going on.

Besides romancing Hartman, Page, and Harris, Eastwood also charms twelve year-old Pamelyn Ferdin (who finds him wounded and brings him to the woods in the first place) through some subtle grooming; the nicest thing, overall, to say about Eastwood’s character is when he’s manipulating Ferdin, it always appears it’s pragmatic exploitation, not perversion.

Because Eastwood starts being a little creepy about two minutes into The Beguiled and he never stops. He gets more creepy, he gets less creepy. Sometimes he’s right about something in addition to being a creep, sometimes he’s wrong, but he’s always a creep. He’s always untrustworthy and manipulative, even if he’s often too injured to be a real danger.

And then there’s Mae Mercer. She’s the school’s slave. She and Eastwood have the film’s closest thing to an honest relationship. Or at least one where Mercer thinks it’s honest; she’s able to see through the rest of Eastwood’s guile. Again, there’s no exposition about this understanding, it’s just in how Mercer’s performance and the film works. Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp’s script is just as deliberate as everything else–Siegel’s composition, Surtees’s lighting, the fantastic Lalo Schifrin score, and Carl Pingitore’s breathtaking editing.

The direction, the script, the photography, they all have askew aspects. Pingitore’s editing, Schifrin’s score, Ted Haworth’s production design, they’re always flat. They’re expansive and luscious, but they’re providing the foundation to keep the rest stable. The Beguiled’s exceptionally well-made.

All of the acting is great. Page is probably most impressive; her character has the most going on. Again, Eastwood’s one heck of a creep–contrasting ways he’s fundamentally a “better” character–but still just a creep. Hartman’s good, though she’s the first act romantic diversion. Once Eastwood starts flirting with Harris and Page, Hartman gets less to do. Harris is effective. It’s impressive how subtly The Beguiled reveals her innocence. Ferdin’s great. Mercer’s great.

And the rest of the girls–older than Ferdin, younger than Harris–are all good. They aren’t Beguiled, so they’re mostly background.

The film’s got this jarring technique of having a female character’s internal monologue play as they regard Eastwood or one of his behaviors, first as an enemy, then as a man (which, really, is the same thing). Siegel and Pingitore do it matter of fact, the insight not a narrative necessity, but a tonal one. Another fantastic little piece of The Beguiled.

The film’s full of them.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan; director of photography, Bruce Surtees; edited by Carl Pingitore; music by Lalo Schifrin; production designer, Ted Haworth; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Clint Eastwood (John McBurney), Geraldine Page (Martha Farnsworth), Elizabeth Hartman (Edwina Dabney), Pamelyn Ferdin (Amy), Mae Mercer (Hallie), Jo Ann Harris (Carol), Melody Thomas Scott (Abigail), Peggy Drier (Lizzie), Patricia Mattick (Janie), and Darleen Carr (Doris).


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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is either terrifying or horrifying. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two. Sometimes it’s visual terror or horror, sometimes it’s audial, sometimes it’s just implied. Director Hooper has three different styles–daytime, nighttime, indoor–and each goes from terror to horror multiple times. The film takes place over less than twenty-four hours, with Hooper and the film taking breaks–sometimes long–to move ahead in the present action. There’s an intense scene, a break, an intense scene, a break, an intense scene, a break.

The breaks are never scenes. There is no comic relief. Even when there’s a relative pause in the intensity, Hooper keeps it buzzing. There’s a constant reminder. It’s not about being concerned or cautious or scared. It’s about being terrified. Hooper, photography Daniel Pearl, co-composer Wayne Bell–in addition to directing, producing, and co-writing, Hooper also co-composes the score–they make the idyllic terrifying. In the opening crawl (narrated by John Larroquette), the film says it’s going to make idyllic terrifying. And it does.

The film, the opening crawl informs the viewer, is about five “youths,” specifically Marilyn Burns and Paul A. Partain (at least, according to the crawl). And Burns does have a central role in the film’s goings-on, whereas Partain just has a big part. He’s left out of the action; Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel bully Partain to a degree. He’s in a wheelchair–he’s traumatized in the first five or six minutes in an attack from a knife-wielding hitchhiker (Edwin Neal)–yet he’s still a complete jerk. Sure, Burns isn’t an awesome sister to him and her boyfriend, Allen Danziger, is a dick, but Partain’s a jerk.

It’s not about him whining or being unpleasant in general, it’s about how those traits affect his actions, which do not endear him to anyone. And most of Texas Chain Saw Massacre does not involve chainsaws or massacres. Most of it is, in terms of runtime, not intensity of moments–most of it is the five youths.

They’re apparently college students or at least around that age. William Vail and Teri McMinn, who are the nicest, complete the five. The girls are blonde and into astrology. The guys are sort of early seventies dimwit Texas hippie posers. Vail and McMinn are a couple, with Vail the traditional male lead type. He’s sweet, a little dumb, but sensitive.

And, for a while, Hooper and Henkel tease him having the bigger part. Then they give it to Partain; taking the film away from someone likable and sympathetic, putting it on someone unlikable and difficult to sympathize with, even though not sympathizing with him creates guilt. But no resentment. Because Texas Chain Saw isn’t about resentment or sympathy or likability.

It’s about horror and terror.

Hooper shoots the daytime scenes as tranquil, relatively rich in color (there’s this lovely sunflower patch some characters walk through). He does tracking long shots, often with a slight dolly in or out at the end. The narrative distance is the thing. The opening crawl told us to pay attention to the youths–who are in this part of rural Texas seeing if Burns and Partain’s grandfather’s grave has been robbed–and Hooper directs exactly how we can pay that attention. The sound editing is big in Texas Chain Saw, and not just when it becomes a combination of clanging music, screaming, and a chainsaw–which is when the film is being terrifying, while foreshadowing being horrifying. The sound editing is also how Hooper is able to keep the audience with the characters. We can always hear them, we just can’t really see them. Instead, we mostly get to see Partain. Whining. Being weird. Being unpleasant.

The nighttime shots are completely different. Cinematographer Pearl gives the film this rich blackness, which Hooper sporadically, unevenly fills. There’s a chase sequence through bramble; it creates a maze for the pursued, one the audience can’t see around either. And the pursuer–Gunnar Hansen in a mask of flesh and waving a chainsaw–is always just behind. The chainsaw, which Hooper refuses to fetishize, always seems just in range of its target. Later, during the morning sequence, Hooper shows he can do terrifying chase scenes in daytime too. He and Pearl’s subtle use of depth throughout the film is magnificent.

After the nighttime shot comes the interior scenes. Even though there have been some interior scenes on the same location, Hooper handles it differently. Tight shots. Fast cuts. From the victim’s perspective to outside the victim, toggling rapidly; sometimes the rapid cuts lead to the change in perspective. Editors Sallye Richardson and J. Larry Carroll do great work throughout, but the last thirty minutes are unbelievable. The film’s already shockingly intense, but then Hooper and his editors have to kick it up a notch. Turns out there are even more surprises in the story than expected. Though expectation is hard. Hooper keeps the viewer’s attention on each moment as it occurs. No distractions.

Except Partain. Isn’t he annoying? Don’t you hate him? Wow. You hate a kid in a wheelchair. You’re awful. Isn’t he annoying though?

The last third is terrifying and horrifying in a way the first two-thirds aren’t. Turns out there’s a comfort in the unknown, all Hooper and Henkel have for reveals are worst case scenarios. The last third explores that unknown. Intensity to the point of nausea. Then more. Then more. Then more. It never ends.

I suppose Partain’s great. His obnoxious is perfect. Burns’s good. Vail and McMinn are fine. Danziger’s an unlikable prick, which, again, seems to be the point. Hansen doesn’t get any lines, but the physical performance is outstanding. Especially since Hooper takes the time to show the inhuman villains emotional moments, but not their intended victims. Neal’s good. Jim Siedow is a gas station owner who the Mystery Machine–oh, yeah, the youths are in a van–comes across. He’s great.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre terrifies. It’s what Hooper’s going for–terrifying the viewer. The way he does it is to create this masterpiece of mood, timing, photography, performance, everything. Every shot appears precise (which is astounding given the film’s micro budget), every cut is right on; his control of the mood is absolute.

Maybe someday I’ll even be able to watch it in one sitting.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Tobe Hooper; screenplay by Kim Henkel and Hooper, based on a story by Henkel; director of photography, Daniel Pearl; edited by J. Larry Carroll and Sallye Richardson; music by Wayne Bell and Hooper; released by Bryanston Distributing.

Starring Marilyn Burns (Sally), Paul A. Partain (Franklin), Allen Danziger (Jerry), Teri McMinn (Pam), William Vail (Kirk), Edwin Neal (Hitchhiker), Jim Siedow (Old Man), John Dugan (Grandfather), and Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface).


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The Brother from Another Planet (1984, John Sayles)

Despite being about an alien who crash lands on Earth and finds himself stranded in New York City, The Brother from Another Planet takes its time getting to being a fish out of water story. Even when it does, it’s more like a fish being carefully transported in a cup of water to maybe some more water story. Writer-director-editor Sayles and star Joe Morton create this perfect point of entry–the alien (Morton) who crash lands and discovers New York–and then they entirely ignore that possiblity. Morton’s alien can’t speak. The viewer has his backstory, but no understanding.

So when Morton’s moving into a location, even though the viewer is meeting new characters simultaneous to Morton, it’s flipped because the humans are trying to figure him out just like the viewer. Sayles balances it perfectly. Morton’s calm, silent, which gives Sayles room to fill the soundtrack with conversation and sound and music. As the viewer finds their footing in how Sayles is telling this story, the style changes as the story develops. Brother has an incredibly peculiar structure.

Morton’s in New York, looks human besides his feet, and has magic fixing things (technical and biological) powers. He’s a Black man and he’s in Harlem. He goes to a bar, meets its regulars, and Sayles sets up almost half the movie. Brother’s present action is short–seems like around a week–and Sayles doesn’t pace it evenly. All the setup is also important because the characters all recur. Because in the middle of the first half, where Morton’s a fish out of water but not having that experience (he’s being treated as a human in need, not a marooned space alien), Sayles reveals Morton’s on the run.

He’s on the run from Sayles. And–wait for it–David Strathairn. They’re credited simply “Men in Black.” And they’re aliens too. Only they can talk and screech like angry cats when they get excited. And they run like morons. They’re hilarious. Because Brother’s a comedy. It’s occasionally serious, it’s occasionally scary, but it’s a comedy.

Except when it’s not. Because in the second half, it becomes this gentle romance and also this gritty crime procedural. Only, in the case of the latter, it’s out of nowhere because the viewer isn’t privy to Morton’s thoughts. It’s all guesses. Sayles doesn’t fetishize the mystery either. It’s just part of Morton’s character; despite being the lead, the film isn’t from his perspective. He’s always the lead, but only sometimes the protagonist.

Morton’s phenomenal. He’s got to let the audience in, but never the cast. He actually doesn’t get much to do at the beginning, once opening set piece is done. He gets more to do in the second half and it’s an abrupt, graceful transition. Sayles’s plotting of the film is exquisite. He’s got this big cast and everyone gets a lot to do. They don’t get it all at once, they’re never fighting for room, they just–eventually–all get a lot to do. It does mean sometimes a great supporting performance doesn’t get much more material, but it also means sometimes the great performance comes later in the role. It’s uneven, but graceful. Morton, Sayles, composers Martin Brody and Mason Daring, they all keep the moments consistent, even if there’s a big style change.

Sayles indulges without ever losing track of the story or Morton. His editing is great. The rhythm he creates, once Morton steps into the bar, has so much depth, it fits the supporting cast. And the supporting cast is big and excellent.

The bar guys are Daryl Edwards, Steve James, Leonard Jackson, and Bill Cobbs. They’re great. Tom Wright and Maggie Renzi are social workers. They’re great. Wright is playing the hero of a stranded space alien story, but doesn’t know it and Sayles isn’t interested in doing that story. Wright’s just the more traditional protagonist.

Caroline Aaron, Rosetta LeNoire; great. Jaime Tirelli… awesome. Fisher Stevens, awesome. Then there’s Dee Dee Bridgewater who sets off a completely different rhythm and type of storytelling. It’s like the first act of Bridgewater’s movie got dropped into the second act of Brother. But it works because Sayles has established the irregular pace.

Bridgewater’s great. Of course she’s great.

Good photography from Ernest R. Dickerson. Sayles’s composition is pragmatic and tied into Morton’s narrative distance and the script. Dickerson help makes it seem ambitious.

It’s great. The Brother from Another Planet is another one of those great movies where I just say “great” a lot because I think the repetition, despite employing the same adjective over and over, is also accurate. It’s great. Things are great about it. It’s a masterful delight.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, directed, and edited by John Sayles; director of photography, Ernest R. Dickerson; music by Martin Brody and Mason Daring; production designer, Nora Chavooshian; produced by Peggy Rajski and Maggie Renzi; released by Cinecom Pictures.

Starring Joe Morton (The Brother), Dee Dee Bridgewater (Malverne Davis), Steve James (Odell), Bill Cobbs (Walter), Leonard Jackson (Smokey), Daryl Edwards (Fly), Tom Wright (Sam), Caroline Aaron (Randy Sue Carter), Herb Newsome (Little Earl), Jaime Tirelli (Hector), Maggie Renzi (Noreen), John Sayles (Man In Black), David Strathairn (Man In Black), and Rosetta LeNoire (Mama).


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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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