Grace is Gone

Quentin Tarantino's latest movie, Inglourious Basterds, is in competition at Cannes this week, so I thought I'd post a modified version of an old piece about the director (who I consider to be frightfully overrated):

If you could say that he emerged on the scene with Reservoir Dogs, a heist film that, ingeniously, has almost nothing to do with theft, you could say Quentin Tarantino exploded the scene itself with his second film, Pulp Fiction — hailed by film critics and college stoners ever since as the movie that revitalized American cinema (and, notably, brought John Travolta back to prominence). On the basis of these two films, it would be impossible to deny Tarantino's ability to bring Pop color and violent vitality to the screen: my problem with Tarantino is not necessarily in the fabric of his filmmaking, which has flashes of brilliance beyond its film-buff grandstanding and (sometimes-empty) technical virtuosity, but how flat it leaves me feeling, like a lot of white noise.

Pulp Fiction, the ultimate emblem of his work, is essentially a genre film — his inspiration for the movie's four intertwining stories were the most basic of B-movie archetypes — albeit one thrown into a jittery, colorful blender, composed of bright red blood and L.A. juke joints. Unmeasured, galloping through murders and drug overdoses as most films stroll through romantic parks in autumn, it seethes with a distinctive L.A. energy; it's the kind of the film that seems as though it, like the characters, has done few lines before going out. Pulp Fiction moves along with reckless abandon, never pausing to treat the viewer with narrative kid gloves (or visual and aural ones, for that matter): the jostle of a car, the sharp bleat of a gunshot, a glistening syringe and the firing up of a chainsaw remain gruesomely in the mind long after the credits have rolled.

There are moments, though, where the gimmickry, the inability to maintain steady attention on a single thread or character, becomes tiresome. Maybe I'm too deeply affected by the slime of Tarantino's persona, too put-off by his pot-smoking arcana and the many anecdotes of his crippling pomposity to see any of his movies objectively. But the circularity that many called the best feature of Pulp Fiction, which begins and ends with a robbery at a diner, seems representative of the lack of forward movement in his films, the fugue-like attention to details of fleeting importance to the detriment of real feeling. Pulp Fiction is the zenith of the postmodern, a manic blur of pop cultural deviance chopped up into music video chunks.

It should be no surprise then that my favorite Tarantino films, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 are his most searching, not brash and slick but quiet and gritty, like Westerns that, in the lulls between shootouts, enter dim saloons and eavesdrop on the hunted and the hurt and the lonely. The former, with a superb Pam Grier in the lead role, also culls much of its atmosphere from film history, particularly the blaxploitation films of the '70s. But here the debt is sustained, mined for meaning, examined with an eye to updating the genre to include a woman not just "foxy" but witty, darkened by failures of finance and romance, and leavened with a kind of buxom grace.

She, like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, comports herself delicately but firmly, the kind of woman who kicks ass but charms the pants off you while doing it. Thurman, bird-like, her thin nose framed by perceptive eyes and a tight-lipped mouth, does more ass-kicking than charming in the first volume of Tarantino's kung fu/spaghetti Western opus; the end of the second film, however, with its quiet, painful denouement — she finally kills Bill with a literal flick of the wrist — seems dipped in pathos. Having lost everything and crawled back from the depths (again, literally — at one point she is buried alive, and at another heaves herself from hospital bed to stolen truck), you can feel the ache in her body. Thurman no longer glides but instead stoops a bit, as though lugging a great weight.

At the finale, there is none of the cold self-consciousness that characterizes much of Pulp Fiction, nor the playful cynicism of juxtaposing "Stuck in the Middle with You" with the cutting off of an ear in "Reservoir Dogs." It's just a woman finally confronting the man she once loved, the man who betrayed her, in a silent, moonlit garden. The scene achieves, in its simplicity, in its innocuous and beautiful homage to Western-style vengeance served, the heft of parable. Rosario Dawson described Death Proof as "Reservoir Bitches," but I think you'll have realized by now that Tarantino's bitches don't much interest me, even if the palette is right and the editing smooth, the ironic jokes landed with just the right flat punch. Forgive me for liking my silver screen women to show a little grace.


The Gulf

Here's a brief taste of my review of the new Iraq War documentary Brothers at War, posted here on emanuellevy.com:

Since the film’s stated focus is the bond between “brothers,” spending most of the film with Americans is to be expected. But in almost totally losing sight of the war’s other human sacrifices — Iraqi civilians — “Brothers at War” goes further than promoting an uncritical “Support Our Troops” mentality. If brotherhood means ignoring rather than engaging Iraqis unhappy with the invasion, then it also ignores the complexity of the war, and of the troops themselves. In other words, it implies that the understanding of brotherhood (violent, callous) that animates one soldier in the film animates them all: “you get one,” he says, comparing killing an Iraqi to being tattooed, “and you kind of want to get another.”


The Cruel Place We Know

Robert Altman’s rollicking upstairs-downstairs satire of England between the wars, Gosford Park, is not as ambitious as Nashville, his 1975 phantasmagoria of country music, antiwar sentiment, the cult of celebrity and Middle-American chaos; not as formally impressive as The Player (1992), whose brilliant, eight-minute title tracking shot calls to mind an entire history of cinema — replete with allusions to Pretty Woman and Touch of Evil — as it introduces the callow inner workings of a high concept studio; not as sharply drawn, as dangerous, as the earthquakes, car accidents, riverbed corpses and prank calls of the almost-apocalyptic Short Cuts (1993); and certainly not as sweet or valedictory as A Prairie Home Companion (2006), the director’s last film, in which the folksy, sometimes funereal ballads of Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin come to seem stand-ins for an entire ideology of art and culture long ago lost.

But of his films large and small — and here I’ve merely touched upon the large, leaving out McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 3 Women, A Wedding, The Long Goodbye, Dr. T and the Women, innumerable others — Gosford Park is perhaps the best, the most controlled, the one which most succeeds in straddling that ever-elusive line between comedy and drama, the one so thick with meaning and detail that I feel I’m still discovering the film ten viewings on.

Ostensibly a murder mystery set at a shooting party in the English countryside in 1932, the film is better understood, I think, as a few dozen chamber dramas and family sitcoms tied together into a coherent whole, aided by Altman’s magnificent ability to keep the action just this side of nervous breakdown — all while maintaining the intimations of such, the social anxiety, the secrets and lies, the sense that the England of the Depression was already roiling for a fight. Julian Fellowes’ superbly acute, witty and ultimately affecting script only misfires by making Stephen Fry’s police inspector too much an unthinking boor, and minus Fry’s disappointingly broad humor, the same could be said for the cast. I wouldn’t be the first to call it a Who ’s Who of British stage and screen during the last four decades, or the first to find it a bit difficult to keep everything straight.

But here goes: Maggie Smith, deliciously frigid and snobbish as the Countess of Trentham, begging for an increased allowance and devouring each meal with relish while turning up her nose at store-bought marmalade; Michael Gambon as the owner of the estate, William McCordle, a capitalist come up from nothing by working young girls to the bone in sweatshops before the war, and sleeping with them to boot; Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife, Sylvia, bored even by murder; Derek Jacobi as the unfailingly loyal butler, Probert; Emily Watson, devilish, seductive and bitterly funny as Elsie, the lady’s maid (who happens also to be having at affair with William); Clive Owen as the mysterious — and also seductive — valet Robert Parks; and Eileen Atkins as the curmudgeonly, hard-nosed cook, Mrs. Croft, with just the faintest streak of gentleness in her face, as though it’s been buried under the past.

That was quite long, but it doesn’t even touch on the three finest performances, the ones that create the moments in which the film transcends its simpler purpose and gets at real feeling, the tenderness and beauty beneath the facades of class. First there’s Kelly Macdonald as Trentham’s maid, Mary, the film’s moral center, just discreet enough to keep her job and just indiscreet enough to win our hearts, the one through whom the emotional core of the film begins to enter our view. Then there’s the always masterful Helen Mirren, as head maid Mrs. Wilson, a woman woven up so tightly that when the seams tear the revelation that follows suggests all the cruelties of class, of even having an upstairs and downstairs so rigidly separated — it’s a moment, indeed a performance, that fills the gut and hurts the heart. And in an underrated role, a singing Jeremy Northam plays the silent film star Ivor Novello, entertaining people who look down on him for his talents. Crooning “The Land That Might Have Been” as the servants sneak into the darkened rooms upstairs and bask for a few joyous moments in one of life’s tiny, surprising pleasures, his words wrap up the film in microcosm, swooning through the disappointments and hopes of an entire country, alluding to the darkened rooms of the past — and looking toward the light, into some tenuous, questioning hope:

Somewhere there's another land
different from this world below,
far more mercifully planned
than the cruel place we know.
Innocence and peace are there--
all is good that is desired.
Faces there are always fair;
love grows never old nor tired…

Shall we ever find that lovely
land of might-have-been?
Will I ever be your king or you
at last my queen?
Days may pass and years may pass
and seas may lie between--
Shall we ever find that lovely
land of might-have-been?


It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

“You’re wonderful,” she tells him, wrapped up by that rakish striped coat and the jaunty hat, her brown tresses flowing rudely down both sides of her face. “In a loathsome sort of way.”

As much could be said about Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, a sparkling, acid whirlwind of a screwball comedy, starring a he (Cary Grant) and a she (Rosalind Russell) who’ve rarely been better. Though surely not as madcap — or as winning — as Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (let’s face it, Rosalind Russell ain’t Katharine Hepburn), it does squeeze in a lot of twists and turns: Grant is Walter Burns, the ruthless, raffish editor of a big city paper, Russell is his ex-wife and the paper’s ace reporter, Hildy Johnson, and Ralph Bellamy is the dull straight man, Bruce Baldwin, with whom Hildy hopes to settle down and become “a human being” (read, a “real” woman) again. All’s fair in love and yellow journalism, so as Walter undermines Bruce and Hildy’s marriage plans at every turn, hoping to win her back, she chases down a final scoop, about an innocent man condemned to death. The battle is, in the best moments, joyously raucous: “I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you,” Hildy tells Walter after a particularly embarrassing ploy, “if they were just lighting it up.”

Watching the movie again, though, I was struck not by the speed of the verbal sparring or Grant and Russell’s fiery sexual tension, but by the harsh cynicism of a city seeming to spin out of control. Filled with gallows humor (literally — the periodic thunderclap of hangmen testing the gallows resounds throughout the film) and the press’ desperation to get the story, it often feels less like a comedy than a drama that’s curdled into sarcasm. The good guys of the movie — the accused killer Earl Williams and Bruce himself — are the ones who suffer, all while their callous counterparts gallivant around forgetting everybody but themselves. The dizzying layers of corruption, lies and general carelessness leave, as Earl suggests, a sickly taste in the mouth. “I’m not guilty,” he tells Hildy. “It’s just the world.”


A Bunch of Swindlers South of the Border

Early in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948), there's a barroom brawl that seems to sum up the whole film. Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and his buddy Curtin (Tim Holt), two drifters languishing in the Mexican hamlet of Tampico — how they got there is anyone's guess, including their own — confront their first swindler, a man named Pat McCormick who hired them for a job and never paid.

The fighting isn't fast or fancy; no one's a quick draw or a sharpshooter. Instead, the fisticuffs are slow and awkward and unfailingly human; it's a sloppy fight, with men crawling on the ground and clawing at each other's legs. The other men in the bar stand idly by, watching these Americans make fools of themselves in a land they fail to understand. And though Dobbs and Curtin win the battle, there's no clear winner once the film's bigger picture emerges: The money they get from McCormick leads, almost fatefully, to their ruin.

This isn't your normal Western with Gary Cooper standing up at high noon waiting for judgment to come; you're witnessing a tragedy (in the Greek sense), Dobbs' rise to riches and fall, staggering and dusty, into the ditch where he'll be left to die.

Dobbs may be Bogart’s darkest creation, a conspiracy theorist who thinks his partners will steal his money or get him killed by bandits. He's got a face like a dirt road, recording every track of foot, hoof or tire across its crevasses. Even clean-shaven, his sunken cheeks throw dark shadows across his face, creating an ambiguous charm. As the film's antihero, who leaves with Curtin and a grizzled, old prospector (Walter Huston, the director's father) in search of the mother lode, you can see distrust flash across his face, cleaving it in two. "Fred C. Dobbs," he says emblematically, "ain't a guy that likes being taken advantage of."
Every tragic hero has a tragic flaw, and Dobbs' inability to trust is what brings him low. In the climactic scene, set in a rocky, raw, firelit campsite, his distrust turns terrifying. Trying to stay awake all night so Curtin doesn't make off with his share, Bogey's smile turns delirious, his mouth stretching into a maniacal grimace. He's lost his grip on reality, turned into a ghoul of sorts, exacting vengeance for uncommitted crimes.

To some extent, all Westerns examine the tense balance between society and the individual, the line between friends and enemies. Huston is one of the masters of the genre. Even by 1948 he had such a grasp on the material that he could twist it into something much darker. This isn't a "meditation," as some might be prone to call it, despite the fact that there are no duels on Main Street or men in white hats. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, there's action to make the directors of lesser, higher-octane Westerns swoon. The difference is that Huston finds equal tension under the cover of night: when Dobbs, seeing that the old man has left the tent, decides to go check on his share of the loot, you half expect him to start shooting right then.

The genius of the film is that we half hope he does. Dobbs, unlike his partners, is a man in full, not generous and kind like Curtin, or funny and wise like the old man, but someone whose humanity streaks across his face like land illuminated by a flash of lightning. It isn't until the after the credits have rolled that our intellectual and emotional minds separate and we realize that Dobbs is as much the villain of the film as the hero. If his weren't the first face we see, we'd be prone to root against him. Instead, we recognize our own lightning strikes of greed, those moments when the friends we have seem less than they are and the benefits of loneliness seem better than they ever have. We pretend we would act differently, that we root for him because we don't know what's coming.

But we know what's coming from the beginning: the old prospector, like a one-man chorus or even a sighted Tiresias, warns Dobbs and Curtin that "gold is a devilish sort of thing anyway ... not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from wanting $10,000 more. I know," he continues softly, his eyes full of the sorrow of a man who's lost himself in this Unholy Grail, "what gold does to men's souls."

Dobbs smirks, of course, sure of himself like an Oedipus of the desert. He knows what's coming as well as we do but goes merrily along with the charade until violence bubbles up from within. Every hero's tragic flaw, really, is that he doesn't realize that he has one.

Run Aground

The elderly parents at the center Tokyo Story return midway through the movie from an excursion to a seaside spa only to find that their daughter, Shige, who concocted the plan to send them there in the first place, is too busy to give them the time of day. Guilt-ridden by the burden they feel they’ve feels placed on their children, they decide to spend the night apart — the wife at her daughter-in-law's small apartment, the husband with an old friend named Hattori. "We're really homeless now," he says with a laugh.

Home indeed plays a starring role in Tokyo Story, director Yasujiro Ozu's placid compositions using rooms as frames, peopled by unruly family members so constantly mobile it seems they are afraid to find out what the world sounds like severed from chaos. The characters are bound by the homes, happy or not, that they've built, the camera dormant as they mill about, lingering after they’ve left — taking in the ineffable sorrow of the empty room, of routines followed and loved ones subtly, unknowingly, neglected.

The elderly couple, however, seems to have realized the value of taking a moment away from the clutter of everyday life. The charming, pudgy matriarch and rail-thin, sometimes-alcoholic patriarch are by no means perfect, but in their basic goodness and their love for each other we see something worthy of rapt attention. Even sitting on the edge of an inlet to the sea, watching the world change and deciding to return to the countryside, they are captivating. Here is some generative kindness, some luminosity: like a small gift placed gently in the palm of a hand, such a moment protects against the shoals beneath our family lives, the sharp edges that, never acknowledged, cut and sting and fade below the surface once more.

The final bit of the film takes place in the country town where the couple lives, in silent hills pursed by the patter of a riverboat — a breathtaking coda to the Tokyo portion of Tokyo Story. The mother has fallen ill and the children come to lavish her with attention. Too late, it turns out: the mother dies, and the children’s city lives return to view. Why not take the night express back to the city? Shige asks. Our hearts break — not because of her callousness but because she’s forgotten that some things, once lost, are irretrievable; not because she is eager to get back, but because she was too busy to realize that her mother’s trip to Tokyo was the last one she’d ever make.

A Homefront Picture

No warning shots are fired across the bow, no prisoners taken or Flanders fields crossed, but William Wyler’s homefront picture, The Best Years of Our Lives — about three veterans returning from World War II — is a battle film through and through. It has that same fragile toughness we’ve come to expect from our troops, that same inner salient where memory and duty fight it out to a draw. But it does not begin and end, Saving Private Ryan-style, by the battering waves of Omaha Beach, or travel into Apocalypse Now’s addled heart of darkness. It takes place in middle-American Boone City, a mythical place of soda fountains and parking lots where GIs looking for a loan are “gambling on the future of this country.”

By turns pious, moving, sentimental and tough; sprawling, claustrophobic, mincing and unflinching; too careful, too long, too overtly heroic, not even close to unhappy in the final determination, it is still better than “decent and humane” (David Thomson’s faint praise) — and far more than the “schmaltz” Manny Farber saw. Frederic March captured a vulnerability he had never before displayed. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography gave the mundane a layer of suburban chaos, suggesting that the American order was not as neat as the vets (or their women) would have hoped. And those women: Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright, appropriately frustrated and loving, tidying up after a man’s mess, leading lives they wish resembled those of the years before the war just a little more.

What works is the tale’s soft sorrow, the tender disappointment of a hero’s welcome leading inevitably to a sense that even a war’s survivors lose something vital, something they may never fully reclaim — to the touchy, touching notion that Boone City is a salient unto itself, where the battle continues apace.


"You Must Remember This..."

There she was, swooping down on him in that dress — you remember it, the black-and-white knockout, stitched with sex and chilly New York glamour — asking the inevitable question: “Anything else bothering you?”

When you’re a wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart and you’ve just received the cinema’s most swooning kiss, the answer is inevitable, too: “Uh-huh. Who are you?”

It was Grace Kelly, of course. In that moment she went from actress to star — all alabaster skin and perfectly coiffed hair, cutting remarks delivered with such Main Line gentility you couldn’t tell she’d drawn blood. And in the perfect thriller, no less: everything held back, deferred, repressed until it blew up in the bright light of a flashbulb.

The film was Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, about to embark on the most fruitful period of his, or any, career — within a decade he would make The Man Who Knew Too Much (again), Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds. Kelly and Stewart found a delicate blend of tough humor and soft sex that felt like the Lubitsch touch; Thelma Ritter, never funnier, lent her working-class Cassandra’s two cents of wisdom; the courtyard of the apartment complex in which L.B. Jefferies (Stewart) so voyeuristically wallowed formed a world in miniature, its details straight from Zola’s pen.

There’s not a throwaway moment in it: Wendell Corey’s police lieutenant glancing significantly at Kelly’s overnight clothes; Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn) kicking out an overeager suitor before sitting down to cry; the chilling strains of a love ballad drowning out the sounds of murder. So compact, boxed into that studio apartment at the height of a Manhattan summer, Rear Window is in fact a thousand diffuse yarns being rolled into one. The dog, the garden, the lonely woman below, the creepy man above, the photographer and his socialite girlfriend across the way — when the threads come together it’s like the reinvention of the medium, the action so distant, the protagonist, like us, so impotent, that Hitchcock needs to craft a whole new form of suspense.

What he comes up with has so many layers an entire book could be (and has been) written about it. Needless to say, it’s all about watching and being watched, seeing what’s in front of us and missing what lurks behind the neighbor’s apartment door; about the simultaneous impotence and virility of looking; about the personal and sexual transgression of the voyeur. In other words, we’re watching perhaps the best movie ever made about the cinema — that art form where we, like Jefferies, look out into the bright world from a dim room and wait for the dramatic to happen, where we watch Kelly’s ingenuity as she escapes discovery by a hair’s breadth. You remember the moment — the one with the ring and the telephone and the villain’s eyes taking you in from across the courtyard? Of course you remember it, and you always will.

American Beauty

Ethan Edwards is a "mean sumbitch," as they say, his face craggy with hatred and age --- he resembles other humans not so much as he resembles a canyon, throwing deep shadows across the landscape except at high noon. The frontier seemingly resides at the end of his chin, at the upward curve of his hat, at the point on the porch where hastily constructed civilization ceases to exist and the vast desert behind him begins.

Such is John Wayne, né Marion Morrison, all glinting sun and terrifying darkness.

Such is, as they say, America itself. But we don't remember Ethan Edwards, really, nor Ringo Kid nor even Rooster Cogburn --- we remember Wayne in The Searchers, Wayne in Stagecoach, Wayne in True Grit; characters are almost superfluous.

Wayne's performances are his alone, an extension of the persona, a jutting out of the frontier. Perhaps that gets at the heart of the matter: the frontier, as suggested by John Wayne, is the borderland where America meets itself with an eruption of violence, order lost and tenuously restored. And perhaps that's why The Searchers is often considered not only Wayne's best film, but the best Western ever made --- it draws from American iconography and darkens the emotional palette, a kind of cyan filter of our collective memory.

In the film, Ethan Edwards returns from fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He soon falls victim to a Comanche raid that leaves most of his family dead and his niece, Debbie (Lana Wood in the younger years, Natalie Wood when Debbie is older), abducted. The rage Wayne musters is startling. Though his earlier films have elements of this roiling power, they also glide along at the pace of his glorious gait, best described as walking side-saddle, or flowing with the odd sweetness in his molasses-and-sand voice.

Not so in The Searchers, where brevity becomes the soul of disgust. "Living with the Comanche," Edwards says, "ain't living." Debbie, in living with and marrying among the Comanches, isn't better off dead. To Edwards, she already is.

Here are all the American themes, stacked like Russian dolls --- unpack one and you discover another denser element of the whole. Race, xenophobia, miscegenation, war, the West, revenge, destiny --- they coil like snakes, nearly impossible to unravel without getting bitten in the process.

The Searchers has always been, for me at least, a difficult film to watch, so total is Edwards' commitment, as he searches for Debbie over the course of five years, to killing her and her abductors when he finally finds them. (And you know, if you know what American cinema and John Wayne are about at root --- that is, fulfillment of the most basic sort --- that he will find them.)

More pertinently, it seems darkly instructive that John Wayne, the one man most closely associated in the public consciousness with the history of American film, is best remembered (by me at least) not as John Stryker, the gruff-yet-tender soldier who leaves his money with a bargirl in Honolulu in Sands of Iwo Jima, nor as the gallant Capt. Brittles of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, trying to negotiate peace with the Cheyenne, but as Edwards, American darkness coagulated into human form.

The beauty of America has always been, in promise if not in practicality, its do-or-die mentality, its element of risk. I no longer think it a coincidence that we use the word "experiment" to describe our foray into democracy --- it smacks of Alexander Fleming stumbling upon penicillin, resounds with the idea that going for broke, giving up everything to forge a new, better life, is what America is all about.

But we've tended to clear the path with fire rather than ingenuity. And here I am talking not just of our treatment of Comanches but of all American Indians, of Africans and African-Americans, of Cubans and Filipinos, of Chinese and Japanese, of "Slavs" and "spics" and "kykes" and "micks" and "Dagoes."

We've always been afraid of other outsiders joining our bande à part, of coming in and stealing away with our future. That's why The Searchers, more than 50 years old, and Wayne himself, who would be 100 if he were alive today, continue to make some sense to me as a historian and film critic, if not as a person. What Wayne represents --- for he is truly larger than life, no longer solely individual but also metaphorical, symbolic --- is this beautiful and terrible past of both pioneering and xenophobic impulses.

The fear that animates The Searchers hits me more strongly than the quiet heroism of some of his other roles, perhaps, because to me America is no longer the man in the white hat, riding in on his horse to save the day. We invade; we kill and capture; we abduct.

For a man whose name is important --- Marion Morrison, for whatever reason, will never be as compelling as John Wayne, and not just because we're used to the latter --- it seems instructive that The Searchers, in its title as in its content, is a kind of response to The Birth of a Nation: born of revolution and developed through codified racism.

Our nation is a tricky thing to discuss without feeling a little saddened by the mistakes of the past. But history is important here. If the racism of Griffith's epic suggests the darkness of the past, from slavery through to Jim Crow, then John Ford's film suggests something else entirely. The racism in The Searchers, set just three years after the Civil War and released just two years after Brown v. Board of Education is, thanks to Wayne's magnificent performance, something to focus on, to question, to feel uncomfortable about.

The Searchers is about, at root, just what the title says: spreading the searchlight across the shadows, convincing us to use our do-or-die mentality to achieve the American promise rather than hide behind our fears --- in short, to find the most open and pure frontiers we have yet to cross and extend the best parts of our experiment.

Who knows, we might discover something yet.

Jesus Walks?

I counted 10 dead bodies in the first 20 minutes of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, some crumpled in a dark saloon, some slumped under the unblemished white arches of an isolated ranch, still others baking in the colorless desert sun. Individually, and even to an extent en masse, the deaths make no lasting impact; like footprints in the dust, their outlines mark the ground momentarily before winds of change irrevocably carry them away.

But the sheer volume of bloodshed, in so short a span, reminds one that the West, as Sergio Leone envisions it, is a heartless place where death nearly always comes earlier than expected.

If one believes in God, and one imagines that a West like this would make it hard to, then it might not be an outlandish hallucination to picture Him galloping along, spurring his horse on, shooting at will.

In the subgenre of film that came to be called the "spaghetti Western," for its American genre and Italian director-producers, it sometimes seems as though the only impetus not to kill as you please is the fear of being killed in retribution, the eye-for-an-eye clause having become a kind of binding legal document of the irreligious.

This sense of murder as duty-bound runs throughout the genre, but in Leone's "Man with No Name" trilogy, anchored by Clint Eastwood's hardened, almost Christ-like figure, it reaches orgiastic pitch. The films seem to combine the sensibilities of two national myths, in which age-old codes have laid out rocky paths in the otherwise empty desert. To stray is to lose a sense of definition.

Leone's films revise the myths to question the veracity and morality of earlier genre exemplars, to question the existence of God by showing murder among the devout. In essence they ask, "Are you there, God? It's me, America." Our national myth, of individual liberty and the immigrant success story, becomes instead the true tale of death and destruction we have ignored for so long, the number of dead bodies that pile up merely a representative portion of the untold millions who have fled or been killed in our wake.

If the frontier is the American experience, then the spaghetti Western makes the point, clearly, forcefully, under an unrelenting sun, that even the good guys, the quiet ranchers who never marched into towns and saved damsels with guns blazing, are culpable for something.

By the time we see Clint adding four to the body count --- first a voice off screen, a heavy presence seeming to stand behind us as though we, too, are party to the robbery --- the myth is dead. God, too, must be dead, because his angel Gabriel has just kicked some major ass.

We are meant, by such an introduction, to cheer for Clint because he's Clint, and a righteous one at that. But modern audiences, savvy to political terror on a grander scale, are equipped to see the myth for what it is: a myth. And thus our heroes begin to drift silently away --- and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly begins to seem a little heavier with the weight of my own repressed feelings of violent anger, misanthropy, vigilantism. Leone's film is a reminder, first and foremost, of what is unacceptable but unavoidable in terms of the human heart. Indeed I see Clint as a figure from the Bible or the Odyssey, those two epic works of fiction: someone we may love but can no longer believe, because he pulled the trigger.


Sight and Sound

Narratively speaking, nothing much happens in Iranian director Majid Majidi's The Color of Paradise (1999). A greasy widower, hair matted crustily to the sides of his head, tries to abandon his son, Mohammad, at a school for the blind. When the school's directors refuse, the boy and his father travel to one of Iran's lush mountain outposts, where the family's matriarch, known simply as Granny, tends a plot of land and cares for Mohammad's two sisters. Later, Mohammad will apprentice with a blind carpenter and fall into a rushing stream.

Such simplicity, however, can be deceiving — the film pushes the viewer into the realm of the miraculous, imbuing the clack of a woodpecker or the swaying stalks of wildflowers with an almost spiritual meaning.

Mohammad, earnest and joyful, hears the repetitive code of Braille in the whistling calls of birds, in the voice of nature communicating through oblique combinations of letters and numbers; despite his inability to see, he submerges himself in the world, in the possibilities of seeing with ears and hands and nose.

The film's heightened sense of sound, the brief pulses of noise that recur throughout, convey Mohammad's aural sensitivity so that the viewer, too, experiences the world through Mohammad's perspective. Sound — amplified, dampened, articulated lovingly if ever so briefly — marks the lively and celebratory, or, conversely, the dimming hopes of a family sliding gently into ruin.

Arriving in his grandmother's village, tucked into the vernal hillside as though snuggling up for comfort and warmth, Mohammad's gleeful calls of "Granny! Granny!" resound with the innocent, uncomplicated love of a child, with a faith that all will be well.

The whispering grass of Granny's alfalfa plot conjures a quiet chuckle of content, while her flutish voice playfully acknowledges the benefits of a young spirit. The unadulterated joy of watching Mohammad and Granny clasp hands reaffirms, if only for a spell, a belief in the strength of familial ties.

Angry with her for obeying his father's wishes that he not be sent to the local school, Mohammad sulks and evades her embrace. Her eyes well up, her face falls, and she says to him, her voice ever so slightly stiffer, deeper, "I would die for you."

Such love overwhelms; one cannot help but feel her tenuous touch, or sense the warm air of her voice. The film attempts to portray, maybe too hopefully, a world in which the weakest members — the blind, the infirm, the persecuted — are not necessarily destined to suffer the hatred they have, in recent times, suffered so often.

By the end of the film, though, shifts of tone, color and sound reflect darkening horizons and weakening constitutions.

In contemporary Iran, as in postwar Germany, Italy and Japan, the wounds created by time, by the terrors of history, require years to sew shut, to scab over and to heal. Even then, the greatest blemishes and blunders, the most frightening scars, may last lifetimes.

In The Color of Paradise, paradise, in all its beautiful shades is lost. Sun gives way to gray skies, while bright flowers are relinquished for dullish wood and the black soot of never-ending fires. And the call of birds floats slowly away, replaced by the industrial hum of a power saw or the infrequent whine of a duck.

When a bridge breaks and Mohammad falls into rock-strewn rapids, his father (after pausing a moment in what is either relief or shock, and possibly both) jumps in after him. The camera begins to take on his perspective, disorienting the viewer with the bubbling fierceness of nature's wrath, muffling the sounds on which we have thus far relied.

The quiet, searching denouement which follows is devastating, somehow unspeakable, shaking the very fabric of the humanistic faith which runs throughout the middle portion of the film.

To fill the great void left in my heart by the film's end, I immediately began to watch it again, taking pleasure once more in the barely hidden verbiage of colors and sounds which infuses Mohammad's visit with Granny.

The experience confirmed for me, if nothing else, that the strength of emotions galvanized by film remains unparalleled, and that this medium, starting in some cases to show its age, is still worth a hell of a lot.

My Summer of Love

Are you happy?

That's the question at the center of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's cinema-verité documemtary Chronicle of a Summer and it's a tricky one. Tracked down on the street by roving female reporters with tape recorder in hand, the denizens of Paris in the summer of 1960 seem for the most part embarrassed by the question; it's too personal, as though they were asked if their sex life is good or how much money they make. The question is a simple one in the asking but perhaps an impossible one in the answering.

This is, I think, the exact effect the filmmakers — ethnographers of contemporary Europe, so to speak — are after, and, maybe more to the point, the crux of their cinematic experiment. If the point is to acknowledge the camera's presence, the filmmaker's role in sculpting the footage of any film, fiction or nonfiction, into a coherent structure, then the question (open-ended but leading, assuming an uncomfortable intimacy with the documentary subject) gets at more than just a new form of nonfiction filmmaking. It signals a moment in which cinema, particularly of the French variety, decided to turn the lens on itself.

Rouch and Morin's documentary purports to examine the interior life of the French at a historical moment as uncomfortable as the question they ask: Algeria rattles for independence; the nation attempts to reconcile the proud image of de Gaulle with the shame of Vichy collaborationism; the oldest members of the post-war generation are becoming cognizant, slowly but surely, of a world in which the ideals of the Allies are not matched by the realities of racism, sexism and economic want present in the streets of Paris.

In eight years, RFK and MLK will be dead, gunned down at the height of their fame on the American scene. Paris' students will shut down the country with a general strike, allied with the blue-collar factories workers of the dingier banlieux, Prague and Budapest will experience a springtime thaw of Communism and the quick freeze of Moscow's fierce reaction, and Mexico City's thin air will be pierced by the sounds of revolution. In short, Chronicle of a Summer takes the public as its subject, too — and sees, in the still-fresh wounds of the Holocaust, as well as the wounds of the '60s yet to be made, a moment of epochal shift.

If this sounds a bit heavy, that's because it is; Rouch and Morin are as well-versed in film theory and anthropology as they are in cutting and questioning. But the film, for all its high-mindedness, is at root a joy to watch. People, regular people willing to sit in front of a camera and reveal, however slightly, their inner machinations, are inherently interesting. Rouch and Morin film as though they were semi-psychologists, poking and prodding — provoking, you might say — the heart of the matter.

An Italian transplant, with pouting lips and heavy eyes, breaks down over the missed connections that leave her unmoored.

An African student examines, unknowingly, the numbers tattooed on the forearm of a concentration camp survivor.

A worker at the Renault factory, living a monotonous life between the workplace and his tiny, sparsely furnished room, strains against the constrictions life has placed on him.

A portrait of the nation as a stumbling man, you might call it, populated not by patriotic Gaullists ready to die for liberté, fraternité, egalité, but by people with few ties to the French idea as it is, and many ties to the human idea as they wish it to be. That is, I think, why Rouch and Morin's cinema-verité works so well: the style is cinematically more honest than the so-called "direct cinema" of a film like Primary because it admits, as the New Journalists would later do by imposing the "I" on nonfiction writing, that perfect objectivity can never exist, has never existed.

But it's more than that. What the filmmakers are getting at by attempting to provoke this "cinema-truth" is the way in which, in Paris in the summer of 1960, the old rules no longer apply. The idealism of the Resistance may survive in the speeches of the world's leaders, but it has disappeared, or never appeared in the first place, in the minds of the dispossessed, the unhappy, the unmoored.

History has a way of throwing curveballs that necessitate some recalibration in the arts. The modernists responded to the terrors of World War I with stream-of-consciousness and the fragmentation of narrative; the theater of cruelty imagined a nasty, brutish world not far from the horrors of the Depression and the war.

Cinema-verité forms a response to another curveball while it's still flying through the air — inexact, mobile, impossible to pin down. More than anything else, Chronicle of a Summer takes its title with a grain of salt, with tongue in cheek: it suggests that "a detailed narrative record or report," as American Heritage defines "chronicle," is more about detail than narrative, that in a hopelessly fractured world — a world with many questions but few answers — we just have to sew the pieces together and work from there.

The Tower of Babel

The minor terrors of everyday life that infuse the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu — an escaped dog, a hole in the parquet floor, a drink too many — are at first so innocuous that their eventual explosion punches one firmly in the gut.

The moments are brief, fleeting and flickering like a bulb about to burn out, passed over by the eye with nary a second thought. Inevitably, however, they return: whole lives seem built around those first glimpses, whole worlds of interaction where humans, loudly but without understanding, collide and hurt and die.

Iñárritu's most recent film, Babel, is the most far-flung of these (too far-flung, in fact), tied together by the horrifying circumstances of an American couple in Morocco, their nanny and children in Southern California and a girl in Tokyo; 21 Grams, a similar take on a widow, a hit-and-run killer and a heart transplant recipient, is the tightest in construction but the most over-the-top in execution.

His best film is his first, Amores Perros (2000), set in an incongruously chilly Mexico City. Rather than teeming with the crashing, sweaty bodies we've come to expect from Latin America as depicted on film (Fernando Meirelles' City of God comes immediately to mind), the people here are sparse, the skies unendingly gray. The bustle of the city fades. Characters seem rarely to come in contact with others, instead only simulating the quotidian— working as a cashier in a grocery store, for instance — while pursuing, silently, the more devious — bank robbery, illicit affairs, dog fighting. These Janus-like characters, all facade and wary depth, emerge when those minor terrors begin to reveal the disease of their lonely lives, when an infinitesimal event sets in motion something irrevocable.

The multiplicity of narratives, as in Iñárritu's other pictures, suggests our tenuous connections with the world and the people around us; he reminds us that we live in a world where innumerable stories play out simultaneously, stories to which we give no notice until they intersect with our own. He asks us, in a way, to walk down the street and imagine even a sliver of the tale of the next person we pass.

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan Didion once wrote, and Iñárritu, even if he has never read her work, abides quite beautifully. The characters in his films construct narratives around the unspeakable, the fateful, the terrifyingly random. They, like us, try to make sense and order from the disparate threads we are given. They, like us, often fail.

Each of the three main characters in Amores Perros — a young man in love with his brother's wife (Gael García Bernal), a successful supermodel (Goya Toldeo), a hired assassin (Emilio Echevarría) — has a plan, a story, thrown into disarray by an accident, by an inability to predict what will come next and how they will react. And then that moment of fate, that brief image from which everything in the film descends, becomes the focus of the story: the narrative shifts to new ground, unfamiliar ground. Like a flower petal or piece of wood seen under a microscope, the intense focus on these tiny disruptions of life distorts them. An escaped dog becomes a reason to flee; a hole in the floor signifies a crumbling relationship and broken body; the death of a companion segues into the painful birth of a new man.

In short, Iñárritu seems to ask: What becomes of us when we are left bereft of our plans? When our story is hijacked by fate, how do we tell a new one? The answer, though bleak, is in an old man's room, in the flaking, peeling paint — when we are stripped of everything we become like the paint, cracked and dry and decrepit and sad. But then he awakens: he trims his beard; he cuts his toenails; he puts on the bent and broken glasses of someone left with almost nothing. He returns to a home of sorts, pockets filled with dirty money, and leaves a message for a stranger from his past.

He rids himself of that burdensome old narrative of revolution and murder, of life's troubles writ large, and begins a whole new story. He re-enters the world, cautiously, slowly; he reconstitutes his tale with a fresh beginning and, we imagine, a future populace of new characters, walking across the charred earth under an almost imperceptibly brighter sky.

sex, lies and dirty dancing

"Everyone's blessed with one special thing," 17-year old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) says to his girlfriend early in Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997). His "special thing," which he uses to escape the dank, sorrowful confines of his Torrance, Calif., home, is his penis.

Set in the San Fernando Valley in 1977, Boogie Nights is a film about disco and debauchery on the pornography scene, where Eddie, who quickly assumes the nom de porn Dirk Diggler — a name that suggests phalluses and, with its crusty alliteration, Eddie's startling immaturity — rises to stardom by way of his massive, um, manhood.

But for someone who jacks off for gay men in the back room of a night club for a measly $10, Eddie is about as unworldly as they come. He cringes at the first sip of tequila at a party; he tiptoes around costar Amber Waves (the amazing Julianne Moore), asking her if it's alright to make their first onscreen fuck "sexy." "Look at this jackknife," he yells to his buddy Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) as he leaps off the diving board: this is a teenager with little sense of what he's getting into, and none of the wherewithal to get out.

In some ways, though, Eddie's story plays second fiddle to Anderson's lovingly crafted 1970s California. With an almost obsessive attention to detail, he gets the seediness of disco culture (at least as Hollywood sees it) exactly right: the painkillers spilled onto the tacky oak nightstand, the bad coke passed around at parties, the grotesque colors that call to mind overripe fruit.

Everything, even porn king Jack Horner's spacious ranch house, looks tired, as though the entire culture were settling down to die. Amid the Altmanesque chaos of Anderson's sprawling cast and virtuosic tracking shots — including the opening of the film, a three-minute shot that introduces the characters as they prowl the dim corners of their favorite club, Hot Traxx — there's a sense of breakdown and decay.

Mascara runs, noses bleed, smoke gets in the eyes. There's something off here, something hard to place, something that resembles misery but won't quite admit to it.

That's because the genius of the film is not in its overdose of classic songs, its garish hues or its aimlessly hedonistic atmosphere, but in its deeply wrought sadness. The characters lose sons to divorce, find their wives fucking other men and don't attempt to stop it, endure moments of bitter drunkenness and cowardly silence.

The dissonance between the way things are supposed to be and the way things are is, for these marginal players in the Hollywood game, an irreconcilable break in the flow of happiness. With unlimited sex, money and drugs, how could you not have fun?

The explicitness of the film is, however, not exciting but enervating: decisions of where to come and what position to take have the stultifying banality of bookkeeping or stenography. Porn is work, and the repetition of a familiar task, as in any profession, just seems like more time down the drain.

What Anderson says with this mixture of eroticism and boredom is something about film itself — Boogie Nights, at its heart, is not about sex or the '70s but about the satisfaction derived from watching rather than creating. Despite Jack Horner's dream "to make a film that is true, and right, and dramatic," cinema, for the maker, is about narrative spinning out of control, about the margins upsetting the center of the action. It's about everything caught between the frames, about the long takes that capture the endless variety — the endlessness, period — of this unfathomable culture in which we live.

But film for the viewer, in its integral voyeurism, is really just pornography sanctified: It's about climax, about conclusion, about getting off.

For my take on Paul Thomas Anderson and his film There Will Be Blood, check out my piece in Bright Lights Film Journal.

American Gothic

The pageant that burgeoning playwright Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) puts on at one of her childhood birthday parties crams the gently decrepit home in which her family lives with passionate admirers. The stage overflows with the stripes of zebras and tigers; the fronds of painstakingly made faux palms seem to emerge, fully formed, from the walls. But her father (Gene Hackman) dampens the enthusiastic ovation she receives. He didn't, he tells her, find it believable.

Such is the world of Wes Anderson, teeming with the flotsam and jetsam of lives lived parallel to our own: a boar's head on the wall, a junky Gypsy Cab, a falcon on the roof; prep school uniforms, an aquarium ground breaking, a childish love expressed through red, felt-tipped pens; Pescespada Island, Vietcong man-o-wars, the crumbling Belafonte. He fills his films, as Margot fills her pageant, with fakery of place and time that teeters on the edge of the real — "American Gothic," you might call it, with the same stoic humor and grim honesty of the famous painting. His world is one tipped slightly askew, listing with soft tides of graceless human interaction. It's a world that easily obscures the vitality leaping across the screen, a world that easily obscures the fact that Anderson's films tell stories about, quite simply, family.

The Royal Tenenbaums is about a family whose members are so stunted by their early successes that, when failure comes, it rumbles like an oncoming train. Over a theme hopping with the faintly sinister beat of a cello played pizzicato, we see a self-described "family of geniuses" writing plays, selling stocks and bonds, winning tennis tournaments — all in the nostalgic glow that infuses families falling quietly into ruin. "What did we do?" they seem to ask from their still faces and deep-set eyes. "Where did we lose ourselves along the way?"

The answer, despite the fantasy world of cozy urbanity it implies, is in their sprawling house - one that's fallen into the kind of neglect houses that have lost their raison d'etre often do. This is where board games were played and juvenile paintings hung, where tents were pitched and the trinkets of a once-blissful family life have been filed carelessly away. Home, it is said, is where the heart is, but home is in fact a collection of objects, a stable place where memory is hidden in dusty corners and the walls seep with old arguments and bliss. The film doesn't really begin until the grown Tenenbaum children return home, because that is where their collection of collective objects rests.

It is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, however, that strikes me most forcefully as a story of family, possibly because the story of family flows as an undercurrent through what is, essentially, the story of a journey. Here the dysfunction is (in some ways) more subtle — instead of asking, "What did we do?" it asks, "How does a man without a family find one?"

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), a sort of modern-day Cousteau, is the scientist and explorer at the head of a documentary film crew on the search for the shark that ate Steve's closest friend and co-captain, Esteban. He neglects his wealthy wife; he's abandoned a son conceived in a moment of philandering; his film career has tanked on the poor reception of his most recent film. Murray, with a growing paunch of tan, flabby skin and a face fighting a losing battle with gravity, gives Steve a deadened egocentrism. At first glance, he seems a self-absorbed jerk, and he certainly is that. But there's something else there — some aging, some slowing and slipping-down that sends him reeling. He's abrasive, cocky, maybe even stupid. But he's inconsolably sad, too.

After a long series of diversions — too long, in fact — he catches up with the elusive jaguar shark and descends with his companions into the great black deep of the sea in a submarine called Deep Search. Music bubbles up, tapping affirmatively to the rhythms of his final quest, as animated sea life scuttles by. Out of the dark water comes the massive shark, its scales glimmering in the light of the sub, shaking Steve's vessel, and Steve himself, to the core. "It is beautiful, Steve," his wife tells him. "Yeah," he replies. "I wish Esteban were here to see it."

As his aloof, confident façade melts away, his friends reaching in unison to place a hand on his shoulder, something of family is reaffirmed. Some love coils up and springs forth, some recognition that family — whether composed of blood relatives or just the people one feels kinship with — is consolation, bitterness and fear rolled into a group of people tied by an unseen cord. There is, in the stillness of the moment, an unspeakable beauty: an understanding that certain mishaps in life are not meant to be understood so much as endured. Steve's home is a collection of creatures, of companions, emerging out of the dark. And you can tell, watching his eyes for that simple reanimation by which we move through grief, that his heart's finally in it, too.

The Key's the Key

It all comes down to a silly little key.

Never mind Grace Kelly in a scarlet dress, her icy blond locks and clipped Philadelphia accent melting before our eyes; never mind Ray Milland's sniveling, scheming husband, all clumsy heft and cuckolded menace; never mind the telephone and the stocking and the scissors, the terrors of domestic life waiting for a "happy" London couple to unravel.

Dial M for Murder, Alfred Hitchcock's claustrophobically brilliant suspense thriller, rests on the kind of throwaway detail a lesser director would toss at us halfway through and never come to reclaim. The key is, punningly enough, the key.

Margot and Tony Wendice (Kelly and Milland) are the kind of couple that has quiet breakfasts with the paper and drinks highballs before dinner, Londoners for whom the prospect of the swinging '60s would seem distinctly uncouth. But their placid lives, enclosed in a small, plush apartment heavy with tans and browns, show the strains of claustrophobia — too many moments shared, too much privacy sacrificed.

One senses a crackling tension in the air, but it's subtly depicted (the fastidious, almost matronly Tony, for instance, constantly tidies up after his glamorous but somewhat slovenly wife). They've been living with the tension for years, it seems, and grown so used to it that it's faded into the background like the sound of a nearby highway: omnipresent but easy to forget before, in an awkward pause, it roars back to life.

Weaving together short scenes of banality with an undertone of terror, Hitchcock has a fine sense of gently neglected domesticity. In Shadow of a Doubt it was the creaking back stairs or the car idling in the garage, in Rear Window the shy neighbor across the courtyard, in Vertigo an old friend's portraiture.

He infuses his films with a silent decrepitude, a foreboding, in which daily life carries with it some prelude to disaster. Boredom, in life as in film, is the cardinal sin. Here, it's the gulf between husband and wife, the massive emotional chasm in a tiny room. By restricting the action to the Wendices' apartment, he includes us in the claustrophobia, gasping for fresh air. There's a staleness in the clean surfaces and perfectly kept surroundings; it's the mausoleum of a failed marriage.

Why the marriage has failed is easier to pinpoint: Tony's an ex-tennis pro who's lost his skill, his income and his masculinity, relying on his wife's money for survival. His obsessive cleaning has an air of housewifery, pinning him to the home while she gallivants about in beautiful gowns with a younger, more attractive man, the novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). In nearly every way, he's emasculated. And divorce, because of the money, isn't a possibility. So he plans to kill her.

This isn't giving too much away; the film's narrative is deceptively simple. The film is really a chamber drama, taking place, literally, in a single chamber - like a jail cell or an execution room, the death is as much emotional as physical. Take Kelly's wardrobe, the gentle decline from stunning crimson to crummy brown: it's as though she's being absorbed by the apartment, stultified by the entire ordeal. She's so spent she takes up the coarse fabric of her unhappy life and wraps herself in it, trying to make herself disappear.

Despite the complexity of the denouement - watching the scene with the key, one almost fears the possibility of a simple plot hole that would ruin the proceedings — the real story is all Margot, with Kelly striding across the frame as if it were her natural habitat. Her Margot isn't the innocent figurine she might be in less skilled hands: she's cunning and witty and sly, embarking on an affair she knows can lead only to trouble.

A Perfect Murder, director Andrew Davis' paltry 1998 remake of Hitchcock's classic, starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow, is cold and sleek, like a film nerd's science project. But it illuminates the brilliance of Hitchcock's version, the idea that murder (or marriage, for that matter), is less about planning than fortitude. It's about having the strength to see it through to the last, silly little detail, opening the door to breathe the fresh air outside rather than to lock oneself in.

The problem with Tony is his inability to see life as an unkempt apartment, strewn with loose ends: Margot, for him, is just another spot to be wiped away when she's an indelible, unpredictable mark.

Carol Reed's Cordial Violence

Novelist Graham Greene and director Carol Reed collaborated on three films in the cloying atmosphere of the early Cold War, literate spy thrillers crackling with false propriety in political and climatic extremes. The backdrop of the films — shadow governments thrust into corners of broken worlds — is unmistakably dark, a kind of British noir, but each film feels somehow lightened by Reed's fleet direction: in The Third Man even the cobblestone streets of black market Vienna shimmer after an evening rain.

The postwar city is no longer the center of European civilization but a bruised and crumbling beacon of the cigarette trade; a dead body floats quite innocently among the ice chunks in the river. But instead of a dark, brooding score, Anton Karas' peppy zither causes the foot inevitably to tap. His dementedly happy Viennese Waltz sends up the prim Old World Austrians we almost never see, and who seem, by implication, no longer to exist.

Pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna with a job offer from a college buddy, Harry Lime. Unfortunately for Holly, Harry is dead. Unhappy with a British inspector’s accusation that Harry was the head of a deadly penicillin racket, Holly embroils himself in an investigation of his own, picking up a multinational entourage of friends and enemies — Harry's Czech girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli), a mysterious Romanian, an Austrian porter, spectral Russians lurking over the border — along the way.

The Third Man glories in the utter disorder of the "peace," its tone one of cordial violence: a literary compliment follows a sucker punch; the police graciously conduct an unwarranted search and delicately pursue deportation proceedings. "I don't know what protocol means," says Anna as she's led away by a British officer. "Neither do I, miss," he replies. War disrupts; peace often fails to fix things. Reed's beautiful compositions — the diagonal lines of rooftops and window frames jutting across and away — leave one slightly punch-drunk, like the jagged, uneasy divisions of the four occupying powers or the zig-zag feeling of protocols ignored and unknown. Policies and politics are quickly lost to messy practicalities.

That, of course, is what Holly cannot grasp. As Fowler, the British narrator of Greene's novel The Quiet American says about the titular character, Pyle, "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused." Like Pyle, Holly is a naively idealistic American, wreaking havoc on the delicate structures and strictures of unofficial routes, of "codes" and "channels" and "ways of reading the situation" in the Russian zone or in Saigon. But The Third Man takes a gentler view of Holly than Fowler does of Pyle, mostly because the heroic heights of liberation are still fresh. Things are hunky-dory, for the time being.

When Harry finally appears (a dark and dapper Orson Welles), one feels, as Holly does, snakebit. We've been had, duped, by a devilish man: "Nobody thinks in terms of human beings," he says to justify his killings. "Governments don't. Why should we?" To Harry, the cordial violence of a war zone breeds the art of the con. Neutrality — of the Swiss persuasion — breeds only the cuckoo clock. When Harry tries to escape the closing net of international officials by fleeing through Vienna's cavernous sewers, the scene, sans explosion, doesn’t explain “protocol” any better than that British officer. We’re left only with the sense that, as the inspector notes in his opening voiceover, the four occupiers "did their best, you know."