The Music Man (1962) and The Rainmaker (1956)

The Music Man is a musical about a traveling salesman, “Professor” Harold Hill (Robert Preston), who is also a con artist.  According to his nemesis, Charlie Cowell, an anvil salesman, Hill’s latest swindle is to sell small towns on the idea of a boys’ band.  After collecting money for the musical instruments and for the uniforms, he leaves without fulfilling his promise to teach the boys how to play, because he doesn’t know a note of music himself.  In so doing, he ruins these towns for legitimate salesmen like Cowell, who get chased out of town by citizens ready to literally tar and feather them and run them out on a rail.

But, Cowell goes on to say, just as the train that he and other salesmen are on crosses the state line, Hill wouldn’t have the nerve to try to pull that stuff in Iowa on account of the kind of the surly, no-nonsense people that Hawkeyes are known be.  Unbeknownst to him, Hill is also on the train, and he cannot resist the challenge, so he disembarks before Cowell and the other salesmen can put their hands on him.

Hill’s first encounters with the citizens of River City make it clear to him that this will be a tough sell, so he needs to create a problem that he can then promise to alleviate by means of a boys’ band.  When he hears that a pool table is being added to the billiard parlor, he creates a distinction between billiards, which improves the mind and builds character, and pool, which introduces young men to the ways of sin.  A boys’ band, he promises the townsfolk, will keep their sons away from the pool table.

Hill learns that a big obstacle to his plan will be the town librarian, a maiden who gives piano lessons, wears glasses, and will see right through him.  Hill realizes he will have to make love to her to keep her from spoiling his plans, which he will be more than happy to do when he finds out how beautiful she is.  Said librarian is Marian (Shirley Jones), the only person in town of any appreciable intellect.  She has somewhat scandalized the town, because it is falsely rumored she had an affair with an old man, the result of which she inherited all the books in the library, many of which are regarded as being of a salacious nature, though we recognize them as classics.

Marian lives with her mother and her brother, Winthrop (Ron Howard), who is unhappy and withdrawn because he has a lisp.  Her mother is exasperated with Marian’s high standards regarding men, which may result in Marian becoming an old maid.  Marian, on the other hand, simply wants a man who will love her and not merely be interested in possessing her sexually.

Marian finds proof in a reference book that Hill is a fraud just as the musical instruments arrive in town.  She is about to expose him, but then she sees how happy Winthrop is, and how he is no longer afraid to express himself on account of his lisp.  She tears the incriminating page out of the book and keeps it to herself.  Moreover, she realizes that everyone in town has become happier on account of Hill’s presence, leading her to start falling in love with him.

Hill and Marian make up a sexually dangerous couple, dangerous in the sense that we fear that he will take advantage of her.  They stand in contrast to a sexually safe couple, Tommy and Zaneeta.  Zaneeta is the daughter of Mayor Shinn (Paul Ford), who doesn’t want his daughter having anything to do with the likes of Tommy.  But we know that there is no danger that Tommy would seduce Zaneeta and then abandon her.  Instead, we figure they will end up happily married.

Hill’s only instruction to the boys with their new instruments is what he calls the “think system.”  He tells them to think Beethoven’s Minuet in G.  Eventually, the uniforms arrive, money is collected, and it is time for him to abscond, but not before collecting what he calls his “commission,” which involves some dalliance with Marian.  He gets her to meet him at the footbridge, which is a rendezvous for young lovers.  They start kissing.  But then he finds out that she knows he is a fraud, yet she doesn’t care, owing to the happiness he has brought her and others.  Soon after, they learn that Cowell has informed the townsfolk that they have been bamboozled, and that they are looking for Hill to tar and feather him.  Marian tries to get him to run, assuring him that she understands and that it is all right.

I believe we are supposed to use our imagination here.  It would be no big deal for a traveling salesman to kiss a woman a couple of times and then leave town.  The footbridge is understood to be a place where girls lose their virginity, a bridge to the other side, as it were.  In other words, Marian gave herself to Hill.  Only when understood in that way is her telling Hill it is all right for him to leave her of any significance.

The fact that Marian let him “kiss” her knowing he is a fraud causes him to fall in love with her, which in turn keeps him from leaving town before the mob can get to him.  The townsfolks are about to tar and feather him, but they think better of it when they slowly realize, as Marian has, that Hill has brought them a lot of happiness.  Still, he did cheat them out of the money paid for musical instruments and uniforms.

But then the boys’ band appears in their cheap uniforms.  They manage to play a rather sad version of the Minuet in G.  One by one, however, the parents of the boys get excited by the fact that their sons are actually playing in a band.  In their imagination, the boys become accomplished musicians outfitted in brilliantly colored uniforms, led in a parade by Hill, arm in arm with Marian.

At this point we might note that it is not only the dreams of the people of River City that come true regarding the boys’ band, but the dream that Hill has had as well, for earlier in the movie we see him fantasizing about actually being a band leader, and then feeling disappointed that he is not.

What exactly is this movie telling us?  That by being the victim of a fraud we can find happiness?  There is no question but that people sometimes think they have found happiness while they are being swindled, only to be brought to grief when later they discover they have been lied to.  The misery they experience then makes a mockery of the false happiness they experienced, which they would have been far better off without.  Or is this movie telling us that as long as we realize we are being victimized, that makes it all right?  Finally, if both the con artist and his mark have the same wish, which is that the promises of the con man actually be fulfilled, is that the key to happiness?

While I was mulling this over, I kept getting the feeling that the movie reminded me of something.  Finally, The Rainmaker (1956) popped into my head.  It has a similar theme, so let’s review it first, before trying to understand the message that these two movies have in common.  The con artist in this movie is Bill Starbuck (Burt Lancaster).  His thing is to get farmers to give him money to make it rain.  But just as Harold Hill could not read a note of music, Starbuck has never been able to make it rain.  Hill had to manufacture a problem to be solved, the morally corrupting influence of pool, whereas the problem in The Rainmaker is real, a drought.

Corresponding to Marian is Lizzie (Katherine Hepburn), a woman who is in danger of becoming a spinster.  According to her father and two brothers, she is too intelligent for her own good, which was pretty much the same attitude Marian’s mother had toward Marian.  The idea is that a man doesn’t like it when he meets a woman that is smarter than he is.  That’s probably true.  I don’t know what I’d do if it ever happened to me.  Furthermore, in addition to being a major reason for still being unmarried, the intelligence of these two women is essential for our believing that they knowingly allow themselves to be taken in by the con.

Anyway, Lizzie’s older brother Noah (Lloyd Bridges) corresponds to Charlie Cowell.  He is the one who knows Starbuck is a swindler and is the one most against him.  Her younger brother Jim (Earl Holliman) believes Starbuck can make it rain, and he even helps out by beating a drum.  He and his sweetheart, Snookie Maguire, constitute the sexually safe couple corresponding to Tommy and Zaneeta in The Music Man, as opposed to the sexually dangerous couple, Lizzie and Starbuck.

Starbuck gets Lizzie’s father, H.C. Curry, to pay him to make it rain, while allowing him to sleep in the barn for the time being.  While Starbuck works his gizmos, Lizzie’s father and brothers try to get Deputy File (Wendell Corey) to come to dinner, but he cynically says he does not want to get married.  Lizzie is humiliated when she finds out, and in her frustration turns to Starbuck.  Like Marian, she knows Starbuck is a fraud, but he makes her happy by seducing her.

In the end, Lizzie’s father and Jim realize that Noah was right, that Starbuck is a fraud, but because of the happiness he brought Lizzie, they do not want to press charges, and even Noah goes along with that in the end.  Starbuck gives them their money back and leaves.  But no sooner does he get about a mile out of town than it starts to rain.  Just as boys’ band actually is able to put on a great performance at the end of The Music Man because the townsfolk are willing to let Hill go, so too does it start to rain in this movie because Lizzie’s family is willing to let Starbuck go.  Just as Hill wished he actually were a band leader, so too has Starbuck wished all along that he could actually make it rain.  Filled with jubilation, he returns, collects the money, and asks Lizzie to come with him.  At the same time, Deputy File realizes he loves Lizzie and asks her to stay.  She accepts, realizing that Starbuck was just for a night, not for a lifetime.  This is, perhaps, the main difference between the two movies:  Hill and Marian are together at the end of The Music Man; Starbuck and Lizzie are not together at the end of The Rainmaker.

Now let us try to answer the question raised previously:  What are these two movies trying to tell us?  That we should allow ourselves to be victims of a fraud, because it will make us happy?  That when we know the swindler for what he is, and when he knows that we know, his flim-flam will be transformed into reality, and his dishonorable intentions will turn into true love?  This cannot be the message of these two movies, because it is all too obvious that it just isn’t so.

Furthermore, if that were the message, the sexually safe couples in these two movies would serve no function.  Both movies were made before the sexual revolution, a time in which couples were supposed to wait until they got married before having sex.  It may be argued that this custom was more honored in the breach than the observance, but it was the ideal at the time nevertheless.  In The Music Man, the safe couple in question are so innocent that it would never occur to us that they would actually have premarital sex, but in The Rainmaker, the required sexual restraint is made explicit when Jim tells how he almost had sex with Snookie, but then stopped because he realized that would be wrong.  Therefore, we are supposed to regard what happens with the dangerous couples as being exceptional and not behavior that should be emulated.  And Lizzie’s subsequent rejection of Starbuck’s offer for her to come with him in favor of staying put and marrying Deputy File underscores that point.

These movies allow us to indulge the fantasy of giving in to a seduction, while at the same time discouraging any inclinations we might have to actually do such a thing.

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Crimson Tide (1995)

In the movie Crimson Tide, Russian rebels take control of missiles, which they threaten to launch, starting nuclear war with the United States, if their demands are not met.  Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington) is assigned to be Executive Officer aboard the Alabama, a nuclear submarine, whose mission it is to destroy those missiles at the first indication that they are about to be launched.  The commanding officer of that submarine is Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman), who is a little contemptuous of Hunter because he is an “egghead” who spent a year at Harvard, and because he has never seen combat.

Everything is going along just fine until fire breaks out in the kitchen, or whatever they call that in the navy.  Then they are almost torpedoed by a Russian submarine, which also causes some damage.  The end result is that they lose communication with Washington, D.C. just as a final message was coming through.  Ramsey is determined to proceed according to the last order received, which was to launch nuclear missiles at the Russian missile sites.  Hunter argues that they should not proceed, because the message fragment might have been an order to cancel the launch.  Let other submarines, which are not damaged and out of communication, do what needs to be done, he argues.  The result is a mutiny and then a counter mutiny.  In the end, Hunter prevails, and it turns out he was right.

All in all, this is not a bad movie, but much of the suspense is undermined by the fact that the ending is completely predictable.  First of all, in any movie you have ever seen in which someone wants to launch nuclear weapons, that person is either crazy, as in Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); evil, as in The Dead Zone (1983); or just wrongheaded, as in Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977).  So, we know there is no way that it is going to turn out that Ramsey is right and Hunter is wrong.

We can try to imagine two possible endings going against this formula.  Ending One:  Ramsey succeeds in launching the missiles. And it is good he did too, because all the other American submarines in the area had been taken out by Russian submarines.  As a result, the missiles controlled by the rebels are destroyed, and even the Russians are grateful for Ramsey’s bold and decisive action.  Hunter is court martialed and sentenced to twenty years in military prison.

Ending Two:  Hunter succeeds in preventing Ramsey from destroying the rebel missile sites.  As a result, the rebels are able to launch their missiles, full scale thermonuclear war breaks out, hundreds of millions of people die, and the Earth is poisoned with radioactivity.  Hunter realizes he was wrong, as he and the other members of the crew slowly begin dying of radiation sickness.

As if that were not enough, the race of the two respective officers also makes the outcome predictable.  We cannot simply switch the roles of these two actors, because Gene Hackman is about twenty-five years older than Denzel Washington.  But let’s use our imagination.  Let Morgan Freeman play Captain Ramsey and let Brad Pitt play Commander Hunter.  Everything that happens is otherwise the same.  For example, Morgan Freeman punches Brad Pitt twice in the face for refusing to go along with the missile launch.

Of course, we could have Morgan Freeman’s Ramsey turn out to be right, launching the missiles and saving the day, while Brad Pitt’s Hunter is court martialed.  That would preserve our race expectations, but at the expense of violating our expectations regarding the rightness of using nuclear weapons.

Suffice it to say that the ending of this movie is doubly predictable.

Liliom (1930)

I saw Carousel (1956) about thirty years ago, and I was surprised to see that it sentimentalized wife beating and child abuse.  Recently, I discovered that Carousel was actually a softened version of the original play Liliom, first seen in Hungary in 1909.  From what I have been able to gather, it was a failure, but this play was nothing if not resilient:  it kept being staged, made into several movies, adapted for radio, turned into the musical Carousel, first on stage and then the movie, made into a ballet, produced for television in different countries, and still thrives to this day.

To try to get a better understanding of the appeal of this story, I decided to watch the 1930 version in which the title character was played by Charles Farrell.  The movie begins with a prologue, which reads:

This play is the love story of Julie, a serving-maid, and Liliom, a merry-go-round barker. Liliom gropes and struggles through life and death, and even beyond death, ever seeking escape from himself, while Julie’s love for him endures always.

That is to say, Liliom is a tormented soul.  It’s a good thing the movie included this prologue, because without it, we would think that Liliom was just a louse and a layabout without ever realizing his existential significance.  At several points in the movie, he refers to himself as an “artist,” probably because artists are often depicted in film as having tormented souls.  And it is good we are informed of that too, because we sure don’t see him painting any pictures.

As we go through the movie, we find out at various points that Liliom has beaten at least one woman in his past, is a gigolo, seduces women with promises of marriage, only to take their money and abandon them later, and doesn’t like to work, so he lies around sleeping it off while he and Julie are supported by her aunt.  But all these faults are supposed to be just part of Liliom’s charm, whose good looks make him a romantic figure.

Julie’s friend Marie has a suitor named Wolf, and they eventually get married. We are supposed to think of Wolf in a negative light, as someone who is funny-looking and a bit stodgy.  And there is a carpenter that is in love with Julie.  Every week he comes by and asks her out, and every week she says no.  At the end of the movie, eleven years later, he is still coming by once a week, and Julie is still saying no.  Admittedly, a man would have to be pretty pathetic to do that.  But that’s the point.  The idea is that being married to either of these two men would be a boring, dreary business.  You see, they do not have Liliom’s charm (if you can call it that) or good looks.

When Liliom and Julie first meet, he loses his job, because the owner of the carousel is jealous, and Julie loses her job, because she deliberately stays out late.  That’s why they end up living with her aunt.  Julie has a pretty face, and that’s about it.  She never really wants to do anything, and she never has much to say.  She just sits there and waits for Liliom to seduce her and get her pregnant.  The carpenter doesn’t know how lucky he is.

When Liliom realizes that Julie is pregnant, he decides he needs money.  But he doesn’t want to work for a living, so he and his friend decide to rob a man carrying a huge payroll.  But the man turns out to be too much for them, and rather be arrested by the police, Liliom stabs himself and dies.

Like so many movies that portray the afterlife, modern technology is involved.  In this case, it is trains.  I guess trains were a big deal in the early twentieth century when the play was written.  And as is usual, we never see God, only some administrator, in this case the Chief Magistrate.  For reasons that make no sense whatever, an exception is made in Liliom’s case about returning to Earth for a second chance.  Perhaps it’s because he is charming (if you can call it that) and good looking.  But first, he will spend ten years in Hell, and then he will be allowed to go back to Earth to try to do something good, to make up for hitting Julie when they argued.

When the ten years is up, he goes down to Earth.  He talks to his daughter.  When she refuses to cooperate in his effort to make amends, he slaps her.  Liliom finds himself back on the train that takes people to Heaven or Hell, and presumably it’s the latter for him.  Liliom says he failed, but the Chief Magistrate says he did not.  They listen in on Julie and his daughter, who agree that sometimes a slap feels like a kiss, that even if a man “beats you and beats you and beats you,” it doesn’t hurt a bit.  The Chief Magistrate says that Julie’s forgiving, undying love for Liliom is touching, even mysterious.

Presumably, this movie and the play it was based on were made at a time in which women were so dependent on men financially that they often had to endure the misery of a bad marriage rather than try to make it on their own, usually with children depending on them.  That is, movies like this tried to make women feel better about the way their husbands beat them and the children, to help them believe that deep down these men really loved them, and so that made it all right.

But those days are long gone.  Women have options today, and we don’t romanticize wife beating and child abuse as expressions of love.  And yet, this story remains popular.  It beats me.

Death Wish (1974, 2018)

The 1974 original version of Death Wish proved to be so successful at the box office that it spawned four sequels and the remake of 2018.  When the original starts out, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) are at the beach on vacation.  It’s a deserted beach, so Paul suggests making love right there in the open, but Joanna says they are “too civilized” for that, so they go back to the hotel.  When they return from their vacation, Paul finds out from his coworker, Sam, that the murder rate in New York City is getting worse, saying that decent people will have to work in the city and live somewhere else.  Paul notes that by “decent people,” Sam means those who can afford to live somewhere else.  His coworker accuses him of being a bleeding-heart liberal in his concern for the underprivileged, saying that they should all be put into a concentration camp.

Meanwhile, Joanna and the Kersey’s daughter, Carol, are at the grocery store where three hooligans are so behaving so obnoxiously that we don’t even need to see the rape and murder that come later.  We are ready for someone start wasting these characters right now.  As they follow Joanna and Carol to their apartment, we see some nuns crossing the street just as the two women pass by, but before the three men do.  Literally, the nuns come between the men and the women, but figuratively, they do not, as if to make it clear that we live in a godless universe where faith is folly.  Pretending to be the delivery boy with the groceries, the bad guys get in.  What follows is a nightmare of cruelty and horror, as Carol is brutally raped and Joanna is murdered.  The funeral, where words are spoken over Joanna’s grave by a priest, acts as a bookend to the nuns, further driving home the pathetic impotence of faith in the face of so much evil in the world.  Had Carol died as well, there might have been a period of grieving and then moving on.  But Carol degenerates into a catatonic state, thereby acting as a continual reminder of what happened to her and her mother.

If this had happened to Sam’s family, and he got out his gun and started blowing away the city scum, that would have been all wrong, for two reasons.  First, since he is already a fascist, there would be little dramatic value in seeing him put his beliefs into action.  Second, as he is played by William Redfield, we would know that someone who looked like that in a movie would never be able to do what someone who looks like Charles Bronson can do.  Of course, speaking of looks, we had a hard time accepting that Bronson’s character was a bleeding-heart liberal in the first place, but we knew that we were just being prepared for a reluctant-hero situation, so that made it all right.

Paul puts some roles of quarters in a sock to act as a makeshift blackjack, which he gets to use in short order when someone tries to hold him up.  But as he re-enacts the scene at home, elated at the discovery that he is not powerless and does not have to be a victim, the roles of quarters burst apart, so we know that something a little more dependable will be needed.

As an architect, Paul is sent to Arizona to have a look at the real estate project proposed by Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin).  Never mind that places out West like Texas and Arizona are just as modern and urban as the rest of the country, the movies still like to play up the idea that cowboy culture is alive and well.  And this movie really lays it on thick.  As Paul is arriving at the airport, we see Aimes pushing open a couple of swinging saloon doors underneath a sign that reads “Last Chance Cocktails.”  He is dressed in full Western regalia.  Except it’s modern Western clothes, and he is wearing glasses, so he’s kind of a cowboy wannabe.

They go out to where Aimes wants to build his houses, and while they are looking around, we see a real cowboy named Judd herding cattle through the area.  Aimes says he doesn’t want to bulldoze the hills.  Paul says the hills take up a lot of space.  Aimes replies that the open spaces are what this part of the country is all about, saying we need space for life, for people like Judd, for horses and cows.  That sounds nice, but once the houses start being built, won’t Judd and the horses and cows find themselves in the same situation we have seen in Westerns many times, where the free-range cattlemen find themselves shut out by homesteaders?  You can’t herd cattle through the middle of a suburban neighborhood, even if the hills do remain in place.  There won’t be any range war, of course, but it just shows how silly the whole Western nostalgia business is, something Aimes seems to be oblivious to, and which we are supposed to overlook.

Speaking of Western nostalgia, they next find themselves in “Old Tucson,” a movie lot for Westerns and a tourist attraction where scenes are acted out in which a sheriff takes on the bad guys.  These were the good old days, when outlaws met with swift justice.  Subsequently, Aimes takes Paul to his gun club, where we find out that Paul was a conscientious objector during the war.  It seems his father was killed in a hunting accident, and so his mother turned Paul into a pacifist, but not before his father had first taught Paul how to use a gun, so he is a crack shot.  After solving the real estate problem he was sent to fix, Paul heads back home.  Before he leaves, Aimes puts a present in his suitcase.  When Paul gets home, he discovers that the present is a thirty-two revolver.

Now, wait a minute!  Did some city slicker write this script?  No self-respecting, macho, urban cowboy would buy someone a thirty-two, unless it was for his wife, and even then she’d have to be petite.  Nothing less than a forty-five would be the thing for Charles Bronson, even if his character is a bleeding-heart, conscientious-objecting, momma’s boy.  Whatever the caliber, though, it had to be a revolver.  A semi-automatic lacks the cowboy juju that is needed to bring Western justice to the big city.

In any event, it is important that someone gave Paul this gun.  It is standard in the movies that if a civilian buys a gun, he is just going to get himself killed.  But if he acquires the gun in some other way, then he will be able to use it effectively.  And that he does.  Not only does he successfully kill hoodlums right and left, but he causes the crime rate to go down as well:  in part, because the bad guys are afraid they might run into the vigilante; in part, because other law-abiding citizens start fighting back too.

At the beginning of the movie, “civilized” just meant not having sex on the beach.  Later in the movie, it acquires a more pejorative connotation.  Jack, Paul’s son-in-law, says they should have moved to the country, out of the city, where Joanna and Carol would have been safe, recalling Sam’s remark about what decent people would soon need to do.  Paul is contemptuous of this idea, of running away, suggesting that if the police cannot protect people, they should do it themselves.  Jack says, “We’re not pioneers anymore, Dad.”  Paul asks, if we are not pioneers, what are we then?  “I mean, if we’re not pioneers, what have we become?  What do you call people who, when faced with a condition of fear, do nothing about it?  They just run and hide.”  Jack answers, tentatively, “Civilized?”

As we get toward the end of the movie, more Western tropes start piling up right along with the bodies.  Paul tells one bandit to “fill his hand,” to “draw.”  Later, when a police lieutenant (Vincent Gardenia) tells him to leave town, because the higher-ups don’t want him arrested for political reasons, Paul says, “By sundown?”

Paul does move to another city.  Chicago, of course.  And when some punks in the station harass a woman, Paul helps her with her packages, and then uses his thumb and forefinger to suggest a gun, pointing it at them, allowing us to enjoy the thought that this vigilante’s job is not done, that he will soon be cleaning up the streets of Chicago.

So, what can we say about the 2018 remake starring Bruce Willis as Paul Kersey?  Let us consider a few of the differences.  First, in the 1974 original, what happens to Paul’s wife and daughter is much worse than in the 2018 remake.  The daughter is brutally raped in the original, while her mother watches helplessly.  It is pathetic and horrifying.  In the remake, rape is only threatened, and the women are able to fight back:  the daughter slicing a man’s face; the mother throwing boiling water in the face of another.  The daughter never recovers psychologically in the original; she makes a full recovery in the remake.

Second, whereas Paul was an architect in the original, in the remake he is a doctor who works in the emergency room of a hospital.  At first, I thought this was for the sake of irony.  I could almost imagine a tagline:  “He removes bullets from bodies by day.  He puts them back into bodies by night.”  However, the purpose of his being a doctor was really to provide him with a way of finding out who the perpetrators were, which begins when one of them is brought into the emergency room.  Paul of the original never even imagines that he will encounter the men that killed his wife and raped his daughter.  All the men he kills are just bad guys, none of whom he has any personal connection with.  He just walks the streets at night as bait, luring them to their doom.  Paul of the remake does kill a few bad guys unrelated to the assault on his family, but then the rest of the movie is about tracking down all the men that had anything to do with killing his wife and assaulting his daughter.  Actually, even the killing of one of the men who had nothing to do with the assault on his family is an act of revenge in behalf of a boy who came into the emergency room with a gunshot wound.  Presumably, the producers of the remake thought this would make the movie better.  It doesn’t, and not simply because the original is more realistic in this regard.  Between getting revenge on the men that attacked his family and having his daughter make a full recovery, Paul of the remake gets closure.  The situation for Paul of the original remains forever unresolved, for those men are still out there somewhere, and his daughter will never be the same.

Third, there is no Western theme in the remake.  Though the Western comparisons in the original were a little corny, yet they kept the film upbeat.  Paul is at one with himself in his new role as vigilante.  And when he talks to his son-in-law about whether it is better to fight back or to hide, he is reflective and philosophical.  In the remake, Paul is conflicted.  When his brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) confronts him about what he is doing, his attempt to justify himself comes across as whiny and moralistic.  Moreover, at the end of the original, when Paul forms his forefinger and thumb into a gun, we believe he will continue to be a vigilante after his move to Chicago.  When Paul does that in the remake, we don’t believe him.  Having killed the men connected to his family’s tragedy, there no longer seems to be sufficient motive for him to continue in that vein.

There is one similarity worth noting.  As I mentioned above, it was important that Paul be given a gun as a gift, because normal, law-abiding citizens that buy guns in movies usually end up getting killed.  In the remake, Paul starts to buy a gun, but changes his mind when confronted with the regulations.  He later sees a gun drop from a victim in the operating room, and he opportunistically secretes it on his person to be used later, thereby avoiding the jinx of buying it.  He does buy a gun later, a machine gun no less, but that is after he has already done a lot of killing.

All in all, the Death Wish of 1974 is by far the better movie.  The remake is just another revenge movie.  The original is existential.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Most movies, if they are done well, create expectations and then meet them. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a well-made movie, but it deliberately creates expectations that will not be met.  And so it is that while we enjoy the movie for its artistic qualities, we are taken aback as it continually goes out of its way to deny us the satisfactions that we anticipate. Before trying to decide whether this is a good thing or not, we should first examine those unmet expectations in detail.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is the mother of Angela, a girl that was raped and murdered.  Frustrated that so many months have passed with no arrests, she decides to rent three dilapidated billboards and have them state the crime, mention the lack of arrests, and ask Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) why.  It’s pretty early in this movie, but our first expectation is that Willoughby is going to be her antagonist, that he is ultimately responsible for the fact that the police force is primarily concerned with keeping black folks in their place rather than solving crimes.

We are disabused of that notion when we find that Willoughby is a married man with two daughters.  It is axiomatic that villains in movies never have young children, for then we would feel bad when the villain is killed or sent to prison, leaving the children at home, crying for their daddy.  If an ostensible villain in a movie does have young children, he will typically escape punishment in the end. Furthermore, Willoughby is slowly dying from pancreatic cancer, thereby eliciting our pity.  And then he commits suicide to spare his family the misery of watching him slowly die.  Well, one thing is sure.  He’s not going to be the one that raped and murdered Angela.

Our attention quickly shifts to Officer Jason Dixon.  He is the one who is suspected of torturing a black guy.  Unlike Willoughby, he is not married and he does not have children. Even more ominous is the fact that he lives with his mother, who seems to have a baleful influence on him.  Why, we can almost see him holding a knife to Angela’s throat, with a maniacal look in his eyes, as he tells her, “Now, Momma says ….”  So, we sit back and wait for him to get what’s coming to him.

At one point in the movie, Mildred is in a pool hall where Dixon is trying to intimidate Red, the man who rented Mildred the billboards, and who is playing pool with James, who is commonly referred to as “the town midget,” but who correctly refers to himself as a dwarf.  Mildred picks up on the fact that he has a thing for her.  Hold that thought.

After Willoughby shoots himself in the head, Dixon decides to take it out on Red by pistol whipping him and throwing him out the second story window.  He punches Pam, Red’s secretary, in the face on his way out the door, stopping by Red’s body to kick him while he’s down.  This is witnessed by the new Chief of Police, Abercrombie. We figure that since he is black, he will be a man of unimpeachable integrity.  Having just witnessed a brutal assault, we just know that Abercrombie is going to have Dixon arrested and sent to prison.  Nope. Apparently, Abercrombie does not want a scandal to muddy up his new job, so he just fires Dixon.  But that only makes us think the movie is saving Dixon for later, perhaps to be killed by Mildred.

We are led to believe that Dixon set fire to the billboards.  In revenge, Mildred tosses Molotov cocktails at the police station, setting it on fire.  Dixon is inside, engrossed in a letter from the deceased Willoughby, saying that deep down, Dixon has the makings of being a good detective, but what he needs is love, because love will bring calm, and calm will bring thought, and thought will solve crimes. It’s bad enough that someone would actually write such drivel, but it turns out that the letter is transformative, that it turns Dixon into a good guy. But just as he is having this revelation, he becomes aware that he is trapped in the fire.  He crashes out into the street, badly burned. James happens to be passing by at that moment, and he becomes aware that Mildred, who also enters the street, is the one who set the fire.  He provides her with an alibi. She agrees to have dinner with him but says she won’t have sex with him.

It is rare for a dwarf to be in a movie, and when one is, we don’t expect him to be the love interest, unless it is with someone his own size.  So, we wonder what is going on. I won’t try to speak for others on this matter, but my expectation was that Mildred would end up giving him a “pity fuck,” and then when it turned out to be pretty good sex, they would start making a regular thing of it.  But when they go to dinner, she humiliates him and makes him feel contemptible. Did they have to put that in the movie just to make us feel bad?

At the same dinner, Mildred discovers that it was her wife-beating ex-husband who set fire to the billboards.  After James leaves, she picks up the bottle of wine by the neck, which leads us to think that she is going to use it as a weapon, to break it over her ex’s head.  But she just sets the wine on the table for him and his nineteen-year-old girlfriend to enjoy.

A menacing character, who earlier threatened Mildred in the store where she works, is later heard by Dixon bragging about some girl he raped and then burned with gasoline, which fits with what we know happened to Angela.  We think that this will finally be the payoff we have been waiting for, that he will suffer for what he did to Angela. Nope.  DNA evidence proves it wasn’t him, besides which he was stationed in the Middle East at the time.

But he’s still a rapist.  And now that Dixon knows that he needs love, so he can be calm, so he can think, so he can solve crimes, he teams up with Mildred to go kill the rapist as a substitute form of revenge.  We don’t expect to actually see them kill this bad guy, since we are running out of movie time, but at least it will be implied.  But as they are driving down the road, their dialogue begins to sound like something out of a Paddy Chayefsky play:  You sure about killing this guy? Not really. What about you? Not really. Well, what do want to do tonight? I don’t know, what do you want to do tonight?

So, now we can ask, “What is the point of all these unmet expectations?”  One reason might be that we do tire of formulaic movies, so it is good to watch a movie occasionally that defies the norm.  A second reason might be that it makes the movie seem more realistic, because we all know how unfulfilling and disappointing life can be.  After all, the movie is loosely based on a real unsolved murder that involved billboards.  Of course, while art may reflect life, not all life is worthy of being made into a movie.  My own life is proof of that.  A third reason might be pretensions on the part of the writer and director, who wants to be like, well, Paddy Chayefsky.

Whatever the reason, I suppose it’s all right to make a movie like this once in a while, one that frustrates our expectations, just so we can have a little variety in our movie-going experience.  But I don’t think we want them to make a regular thing out of it.

A Guy Named Joe (1943)

A Guy Named Joe has two strikes against it.  First, it is a combat film made during World War II.  It is painful to watch these movies today, what with all the gung-ho patriotism they exude.  Second, it is one of those Heaven movies, which are even more painful to watch.  The fact that it belongs to both genres makes watching it all the way through a most trying experience.  But I must say at the outset that as far as WWII combat movies go, this one is about average, but as far as Heaven movies go, this is the dumbest one I have ever seen.

The title character of this movie is Pete Sandige (Spencer Tracy).  Early in the movie, a child explains that in American slang, “Joe” refers to anyone who is a “right chap,” and that’s what Pete is.  Pete loves being the pilot of a bomber so much that he is constantly taking risks disapproved of by his commanding officer, “Nails” Kilpatrick (James Gleason), and by his girlfriend, Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne).  She’s a pilot, working for the Ferry Service, and she takes risks too, for which Pete threatens to put her across his knee and spank her.

Nails and Dorinda both want to take Pete out of combat, either by promoting him or by reassigning him to teach new officers how to fly.  Pete is appalled at their suggestions.  He says he’d go crazy sitting around in an officer’s club when he is not teaching “kids,” whom he hates.  One gets the impression that he will be miserable when the war is over, when he will no longer be able to drop bombs on the enemy.

Dorinda gets a premonition that “his number’s up.”  In a movie, when someone has a premonition that something bad is going to happen, it always does.  She really puts pressure on Pete to accept that teaching assignment and marry her, and he agrees.  But first, there is this one last mission for him to fly in.  His plane is damaged, but instead of bailing out, he flies the plane right over a Japanese aircraft carrier and blows it up.  But then he crashes and dies.

The next see of Pete, he is walking along on the clouds.  He is still wearing his uniform.  Is that the way it works in Heaven?  Must you wear forever what you were wearing the moment you died?  There must be a lot of people in Heaven wearing their pajamas.  Come to think of it, there must be a lot naked people in Heaven too.  Anyway, it’s good Pete is still in uniform, because Heaven appears to be an army air force base.  Another dead pilot, Dick Rumney (Barry Nelson), explains to Pete that he is dead and in Heaven.  Pete says he never played a harp, but Dick says, “There’s not much time for harp playing up here.  There’s plenty of work to do, and good men to do it.”

Work?  In Heaven?  Oh no!  And here I was worried about what I might be wearing when I die.  Don’t tell me I’m going to have to go back to work, doing what I did for a living for thirty-five years.  Of course, Pete loves being in the military, and one of the conceptions of Heaven is that we get to do in Paradise what we were doing on Earth.  He loves being a bomber pilot during wartime, so he gets to continue in that line now that he is in Heaven.  Almost.  The General (Lionel Barrymore) tells Pete that he will be assigned to helping out new pilots, so he will sort of have that teaching job Dorinda was talking about.  Obviously, they won’t be dropping bombs in Heaven, so Pete will have to back to Earth to help out those pilots.  On wonders if dead Japanese pilots go back to Earth to help out their comrades.  We don’t know, because we never find out whether there is a Japanese air force base in Heaven too.

Like most Heaven movies, we do not get to see God, at least not in the form of Jehovah, the exception being The Green Pastures (1936).  In fact, the other Heaven movies never even refer to God.  There is always some administrator, like the title character in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), who talks about what was meant to be and what must be done.  The people who make these movies probably know that there is something a little frivolous in their depictions of Heaven, and they are afraid that any reference to God might cross the line and move into the territory of sacrilege and blasphemy.  Furthermore, if God did make an appearance, we would expect Pete to ask God why he doesn’t just stop the war himself, thereby plunging the movie into the whole problem of evil that has bedeviled man since the story of Job and the dilemma of Epicurus.

Pete and Dick head back down to Earth, where no one can see or hear them.  So, we wonder, how are they going to instruct anyone?  They do it by planting thoughts in their heads.  Pete is assigned to tutor Ted Randall (Van Johnson), and he gets him to relax by psychically putting the command to relax into Ted’s head.  Pete doesn’t like Ted, in part because he had inherited four million dollars.  “I never did see a guy that inherited a lot of dough that was any good,” he says.

He likes him even less when Ted starts wooing Dorinda and she agrees to marry him.  Then Pete starts trying to sabotage him by putting bad thoughts into his head, making him show off in the airplane, hoping he will be demoted and hoping his hotshot stunts will anger Dorinda.  It doesn’t work, and Pete has to go back to Heaven for a reprimand from the General.  Finally, Joe sees the light and psychically tells Dorinda to forget about him and marry Ted, right after she commandeers a bomber to fly a dangerous mission destroying an ammunition dump so that Ted won’t have to fly it and possibly be killed.  Yeah, that’s right.  The Heaven part of this movie wasn’t ridiculous enough, so they had to throw this absurdity into the plot as well.

Prognostications on the Deficit

We all knew this would happen.

First, we had a tax cut for the rich, which, according to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, will not only pay for itself, but will also help pay down the debt. We wonder how such a magical formula for generating revenue had escaped the attention of mankind throughout the ages.

Not all Republicans are convinced, however.  Low taxes are not the problem, they aver, but too much spending.  While there is a bipartisan consensus that we should cut spending, there is less agreement as to which spending that should be. Some say that we should cut the amount spent on defense, while others say domestic spending needs to be reduced.  So, they compromise and increase spending on both.

To show that their hearts are in the right place, Republicans plan on voting for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.  When Democrats refuse to vote for it, the world will see who really is to blame for the grievous fiscal situation we are in.

By refusing to raise taxes to pay for all the things they want to spend money on, members of Congress are sometimes said to be placing the burden on future taxpayers.  That would be reason enough, I suppose, to explain the motive behind deficit spending.  Future taxpayers cannot yet vote.  And by the time the future taxpayers become future voters, present politicians will have long since retired. But it’s worse than that.  Not even future taxpayers will have to pay for all this deficit spending, because then they will be voting for future politicians. I mean, really!  Does anyone suppose that future politicians will make future taxpayers pay enough in taxes to balance the budget, let alone retire the national debt?

While it is unrealistic to think that future taxpayers will pay more than present ones, it is quite realistic to cut spending on future beneficiaries of government programs. This can be done in one of two ways.  First, Congress can pass laws that will begin to affect people negatively fifteen years from now, because there is a heavy discount applied to years extending beyond that time frame.  It is often said that benefit cuts to the entitlements should be designed to affect only people that have at least fifteen years to go before they become eligible for them.  This way they will have time to adjust.  In reality, people with fifteen years to go will not adjust, because they don’t really care about what happens fifteen years from now.  And since they don’t care, they won’t vote against politicians that cut benefits fifteen years hence.  At least, that’s the theory. The second way to cut spending on future beneficiaries is to do nothing.  This is much safer, politically speaking, because it requires that no votes be taken at all.

However benefits are cut, people will die as a result.  But the dead don’t vote. And however benefits are cut, people will suffer.  But those who suffer don’t vote either.  They are too miserable to worry about voting in an election.  And so it is that policies that cause death and suffering may be politically viable.

Somewhere along the way, taxes will be raised, but not by much.  And somewhere along the way, spending will be cut, but not by much.  And so, we’ll borrow what we can and print the rest.  The borrowing will come first, and it will last until interest rates get too high.  Then we’ll print.  The quantitative easing during the last decade was a figurative form of money printing. There is a lot of brave talk by the Federal Reserve about reversing this through quantitative tightening.  But you know how it is. A taboo broken once is more easily broken a second time.  And this will be especially true considering the salubrious effect of the first go-round. That’s the way things usually are.  A little money printing can be a good thing.  But if some is good, the thinking goes, then more will be better. Unemployment is up? Print some money.  The stock market is down?  Print some more.  The big banks are in trouble?  Print a lot!

Then, when inflation has gotten completely out of hand, we’ll repudiate the debt and introduce a new currency, with far fewer zeroes.  All the death and suffering will soon be forgotten.  It will be new day in a new nation.  And a new Congress will start over again.  Of course, one of the first acts of that Congress will be to run a deficit.  And amazingly enough, we will have no trouble finding people willing to lend us money.