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.

Is “The Americans” the Most Deadpan Situation Comedy Ever Made?

When I was in college, back in the 1960s, my friends and I used to watch 1950s monster movies and science fiction movies on the late show.  Much of the fun arose out of the unintentional absurdities in those movies, including everything from the poor production values to the corny dialogue to the scientific nonsense. We did not use the word “camp” to describe these absurdities, for though we had the concept, yet we did not know the word.

Then, in 1966, the television show Batman made its debut. This was, to my knowledge, the first time a movie or a television show deliberately had camp value. As a result, there was a lot of confusion when it first aired.  Children took the show seriously and enjoyed it on that level.  Most adults realized it was supposed to be funny, even if they didn’t actually care for it.  But there were a fair number of people that took the show seriously the way children did and criticized it for being juvenile.

I first started watching the show The Americans only a couple of months ago. On the very first episode, I found myself laughing.  I wasn’t laughing throughout the show, but only occasionally.  I would be taking it all seriously, and then something would happen or be said that would make me laugh.  By way of contrast, I never laughed when watching Homeland.  After a few episodes, I started wondering if there was deliberate camp value in this show, only much more subtle than in Batman.

I suppose the first clue was the hammer-and-sickle symbol of the Soviet Union being used as the “c” in the word “Americans.” Then there was the Ozzie & Harriet cover for the two spies, Philip and Elizabeth.  Now, every sitcom family has next door neighbors to interact with.  This does not happen so much with serious crime or spy shows.  We never saw Joe Friday interact with his neighbors in Dragnet.  We never see James Bond at home, let alone see him visiting his neighbors.  But in The Americans, we do have neighbors, and what could be more appropriate than for them to have an FBI agent living next door.

And while I thoroughly enjoy watching Elizabeth kick butt and waste the “bad guys,” something inside me cannot help but be amused by it all.  She is all communist.  Philip, on the other hand, thinks about defecting, is less likely to kill, and feels guilty when he does.  He is the weaker of the two.  In other words, as with many comedies, the husband is dominated by his wife.

What really capped it off was when their daughter Paige discovered Christianity and wanted to start going to church.  I don’t know much about the actual spies Soviets planted in this country who were married and had children, but I should think the Soviets would have wanted the family to go to church to enhance their cover.  In this show, however, the Jennings have apparently never gone to church or given their children any religious upbringing. And so it is that when Paige gets caught reading the Bible, Elizabeth is appalled. Speaking later to Philip, she comments about how horrible it is in America, what with all the churches and synagogues, all that “opiate of the masses” everywhere you look. How can they have her drop a heavy line like that and not expect us to laugh?

Then there is the way Philip, pretending to be Clark, insists on keeping his glasses on even when he is having sex with Martha.  All I can think of is that this is an allusion to another Clark who, we were expected to believe, could keep people from guessing that he was Superman by making sure he kept his glasses on too.  Speaking of which, at one point, Philip says he is worried about the way Martha seems so insistent that she and “Clark” become foster parents.  Elizabeth is disgusted.  “Just who wears the pants in that family?” she asks.  That’s a fine phrase coming from her.

In one episode, Philip and Elizabeth decide to check on Kate, their handler.  They break into her house, which is deserted.  They sneak around, checking things out.  Then Elizabeth notices that the toilet seat is in the up position, even though Kate lives alone.  Sure enough, there is a secret message on the toilet paper core.  Philip would probably have never noticed.

However, a friend of mine assures me that this show is not intentionally camp, that it is meant to be taken seriously.  But I think we have another Batman situation going on.

Night Moves (2013)

Three eco-terrorists, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Saarsgaard), are tired of just talking about the environment, so they decide to blow up a dam in Oregon.  After they blow up the dam, it becomes clear that their idealistic act was naïve and worthless.  Their friends, unaware that Josh, Dena, and Harmon were the ones who blew the dam up, dismiss the whole thing as theater, because the river has twelve dams, so nothing has been accomplished.

As the movie progressed, it became clear that we would not see the dam being blown up.  This was probably for two reasons.  First, there are budgetary considerations.  One gets the feeling that this is a low-budget feature, and it is simply cheaper to let us hear the sound of the explosion as they drive away from the river rather than film a spectacle.  It reminded me of a guy I knew who was much younger than I and therefore used to modern movies.  He was complaining about an old movie he saw once, and I quickly realized he was talking about They Live by Night (1948).  He said, “These guys are planning a bank robbery, and the next thing you know, they are driving down the road listening to a news report of the bank robbery on the radio.  Today, the bank robbery would be the main part of the movie.”  But this was a low-budget film noir, and letting us hear about the bank robbery they just pulled off must have been cheaper than actually filming it.

However, there was something about the style and tone of the movie that also made one suspect there would be no grand, spectacular scene of the dam bursting, water pouring through the valley, tossing boats and cars every which way, and people screaming as they are pulled under the current.  In fact, it is part of the basic idea of this movie that Josh and Dena never really thought things through, that it would be impossible to blow up a dam without someone being killed.  They find out, as is appropriate for a story about guilt and paranoia, that someone has died at the same time we do, when they read about it in the newspaper.  And the fact that it is just one person rather than several was good too.  One death is enough to cause Dena and Josh to become guilt ridden.  Less is more.

Unfortunately, on a couple of points, the movie could not resist a turn toward the melodramatic.  First, when they get in the truck to drive away from the river, they have trouble starting it.  That is such a cliché that I was hoping that wouldn’t happen before they even got in the truck.  Oh well, at least they got it over with quickly.

A second point, however, was most unfortunate.  Dena becomes so guilt ridden that it becomes clear that it is just a matter of time before she turns herself into the police and confesses everything.  To stop her from doing this, Josh murders her.  Josh tells Harmon over the phone that it was an accident, which would have been fine, if he had pushed her and she fell down and struck her head.  But he strangled her, and that is not something one does accidentally.  In any event, this murder accomplishes nothing.  Along with some circumstantial evidence, the fact that Dena has been strangled will make it obvious to the police that Dena and Josh are the eco-terrorists they are looking for.  Therefore, Josh has to take it on the lam.  The murder would make sense only if it would keep anyone from knowing about the fact that they destroyed the dam.  But if Josh is going to have to flee the area and go into hiding anyway, then what is the point of the murder?  Better would be to simply disappear without killing Dena.  In that case, whether she talked or not would not have made much difference, and if she didn’t spill her guts, the possibility would remain open for him to return.

Just as a melodramatic spectacle of a dam blowing up would not have been in keeping with the style and tone of this movie, so too was Dena’s murder out of place.  But maybe the difference was budgetary after all:  it doesn’t cost much to film a man strangling a woman.

Executive Action (1973)

Executive Action dramatizes a theory about Kennedy’s assassination in which Oswald is not the assassin.  I am not a Kennedy assassination buff, so I cannot evaluate the movie on that level.  For me, it is simply a question of whether the movie is sufficiently credible to someone like me who has not studied the issue but has only heard that there are conspiracy theories out there that challenge the official version, which is that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of John F. Kennedy.  For the most part, the movie works and is entertaining.

I especially enjoyed the introductory part, which shows us the motivation of those that want to kill Kennedy.  We see a montage consisting of a refinery, an oil field, a factory, a commodities exchange, a bank, safe deposit boxes, and a board room.  Personifying these business interests is Ferguson (Will Geer), who will be putting up the money to fund the assassination if he gives his OK.  He is the one the other conspirators have to persuade.

The persuasion begins with what must have been a conservative’s nightmare in the early 1960s:  three successive presidencies, each lasting eight years, consisting of John F. Kennedy, followed by his brother Bobby, who in turn would be followed by Edward.  If John John would have been old enough by then to be the fourth Kennedy president, I am sure the conspirators would have added him to the list.  Whichever Kennedy was president, the other two would occupy positions of power, based on a coalition of labor, Jews, Negroes, and liberals.  The ideological agenda of this coalition will be socialism at the expense of business interests, a weakening of American military might by making nuclear arms deals with the Soviet Union, loss of influence in foreign affairs by pulling out of Vietnam, and loss of white privilege.

The men trying to persuade Ferguson seem to have a lot of knowledge about intelligence agencies, most prominent of which are Farrington (Burt Lancaster) and Foster (Robert Ryan).  When they are alone, Foster expresses his concern to Farrington about the population explosion (7 billion by the 1980s) mostly consisting of people that are brown, yellow, or black, all of them breeding with abandon, who will soon be spreading to Europe and America.  Foster believes a victory in Vietnam will give America enough power in Asia to reverse this trend, bringing the population down to 550 million by the end of the twentieth century.  Needless to say, you could not get the population down to that number in that time frame by birth control alone even if you sterilized every female on the planet, so we have to figure he is planning on more drastic means of population reduction.  And while he is at it, Foster also wants to reduce the number of poverty-prone whites in America.  Foster, Farrington, and the others make some really good rightwing villains.

Meanwhile, we see scenes of Ferguson watching television, in which he sees Kennedy talking about the test-ban treaty with the Soviets and about getting out of Vietnam, and in which he sees Martin Luther King giving his “I have a dream” speech.  He slowly becomes angrier and angrier until finally he gives the OK.

In planning the operation, Lee Harvey Oswald, who apparently has some mysterious connections with intelligence agencies, is to be their “sponsor,” which is to say, their patsy.  He will take the fall while three real assassins take out Kennedy.  They even get an Oswald look-alike to help create incriminating evidence.  It is interesting to see the mechanics of the operation being planned and carried out.

One weak link in the movie comes when Oswald shoots a policeman.  Watching the report on television, Tim (Colby Chester) says, “That wasn’t in the scenario,” indicating that they did not expect Oswald to do that.  Farrington tries to explain why Oswald would kill a policeman, but it is a bit lame.  After all, according to this movie, Oswald did not shoot Kennedy, so it is hard to believe that he would panic and kill a policeman, whereas that is precisely something a man might do who had just assassinated the president.

But I was willing to let that one slide.  It was when Tim goes to visit Jack Ruby (Oscar Oncidi) that we have the weakest link in this conspiracy theory.  The proof that it is the weakest link lies in the fact that we are not privy to their conversation.  The reason we do not get to hear what Tim says to Ruby is that there is no possible conversation the scriptwriter could come up with that would make any sense.  The whole point of this movie is to show us in detail what might have happened and to do so in a way that makes the theory believable. By leaving the conversation between Tim and Ruby out, the movie as much as admits that it cannot explain this part.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The scene we do not get to see between Tim and Ruby is so improbable that one comes away from the movie thinking, “Yeah, Oswald was probably the lone assassin of Kennedy.”

Straight Time (1978)

There was a joke going around back in the early 1960s, “Do you ever watch The Untouchables and catch yourself pulling for the good guys?”  It really is amazing how easily a movie can get us to pull for the criminals, making us hope they get away with their crimes.  This is done primarily by making the criminal the protagonist, and also by having that criminal played by a major star.

Is Straight Time that kind of movie?  At first, I thought so, but as I got further into the movie, I came to the conclusion that Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman), a criminal just being released from prison after spending six years behind bars for burglary, was just not sympathetic enough to make me want him to get away with anything.  In fact, I thought the movie was a good illustration of why most people are unwilling to give a convicted felon a second chance.  But after watching the movie, I read some reviews and found that some critics saw Max as a victim of the difficulties of going straight in general and of his parole officer Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh) in particular.  This in turn made me wonder if the people who made this movie, director Ulu Grosbard among others, wanted me to be sympathetic to Max after all.

The first two sentences of a plot summary on IMDb is typical:  “After being released on parole, a burglar attempts to go straight, get a regular job, and just go by the rules. He soon finds himself back in jail at the hands of a power-hungry parole officer.”  Well, I take exception to two parts of that summary, that Max attempts to “just go by the rules,” and that the parole officer is “power-hungry.”

The first thing we see Max do is order a hot dog and then “forget” to pay for it.  Then he shows up late for his meeting with his parole officer, who wants to know where he stayed the night before, because he did not show up at the halfway house, which was required as one of the conditions of his parole, something Max agreed to upon his release from prison.  Max says, “Because I just spent six years in prison.  I just wanted to look at the lights.  I wanted to feel free.  I wanted to walk around and not have somebody tell me that I gotta get in bed at ten.”

Well, isn’t that nice.  Max believes that what he wants is more important than the rules.  Of course, that’s why he has such a long rap sheet in the first place, because he thought that the fact that he wanted something that belonged to someone else was more important than the rule that prohibits stealing.  The rest of us know that we have to try to satisfy our wants while complying with the rules, but apparently six years in prison was not enough to teach Max that lesson.

If I were parole officer Frank, by this time I would be disgusted.  He tells Max he has an attitude problem, which he most certainly does.  But Max is either dense or purposely acting that way, because he asks what kind of attitude he is supposed to have.  Frank patiently explains the facts of life to Max:  “Well, you don’t decide whether or not you go to a halfway house.  I mean, you come to me, we discuss it, then I decide.”  Sounds reasonable to me, but I guess this is what the critic on IMDb meant by saying that Frank was a “power-hungry parole officer.”  I would have told Max to get his ass over to the halfway house, and that once he had checked in there, he could come back to my office and we could start talking about his finding a job.  But Frank is more generous than I would have been, saying, “I’ll make a deal with you, Max.  If you find a place to sleep today and a job by the end of the week, you don’t have to go to a halfway house. Fair?”  More than fair, as far as I’m concerned.

At the employment agency, Max is given some tests, one of which is typing.  The employment agent who is testing him is Jenny (Theresa Russell).  She tells Max three times that his time is up, for him to stop typing, but you know how Max is about the rules.  He doesn’t want to stop typing, so he figures that entitles him to keep going.  Jenny finally has to rip the paper out of the typewriter.

Max goes to visit his friend Willy (Gary Busey), who has apparently also done time.  After Willy leaves the room for a minute, his wife Selma (Kathy Bates) tells Max that it would be best for him not to come around, because Willy has been doing well going straight, and she is afraid that Max might not be a good influence on him.  And then she makes a further observation:  “You’re on parole now, Max.  Well, you really shouldn’t even be seen with Willy, right?”  So here we are again.  A condition of Max’s parole is that he not associate with convicted felons like Willy, but I guess Max wanted to see Willy, and as we know, what he wants always trumps the rules.

In his Guide for the Film Fanatic, Danny Peary seems to be another critic who sympathizes with Max, saying that Frank is venal.  Now, “venal” means “corrupt or willing to be bribed,” but there is nothing to indicate that about Frank.  He just seems to be doing his job trying to run herd on a bunch of lowlifes like Max.  Peary also says that Frank intends to send Max back to prison, but I see nothing to indicate that.  If Max had followed the rules by going to the halfway house and avoiding Willy as he was supposed to, everything would have been fine.

Instead, just as Selma feared, when Willy goes over to Max’s motel room, he does himself up with a nice fix of heroin, and then carelessly leaves behind evidence of the deed, causing Frank to bring Max in for a drug test.  His urine tests clean, but after that he breaks parole completely and goes back into a life of crime.  But even in that realm, Max cannot go by the rules.  Another friend of his, Jerry (Harry Dean Stanton), agrees to rob a bank and later a jewelry store with Max, but in both cases, Max refuses to leave the establishment when the allowed amount of time that they agreed to is up.  “You’re like a two-year-old child,” Jerry tells Max in exasperation.

I don’t even want to talk about how stupid Jenny is for dating Max and wanting to stay with him even after she finds out that he has gone back into crime.  He leaves her behind at a diner where a bus will take her back to Los Angeles, telling her she can’t go with him because he says he wants to get caught.  Oh brother!  Now, it is one thing to say that about somebody else, but it sounds artificial and hokey when someone says that about himself.  Besides, if he wants to get caught, he can just turn himself in.  Presumably, we are supposed to imagine that Jenny won’t be implicated, but she was seen leaving the office with him after he shot a policeman, and the car he drives off in belongs to her, so this is not realistic.

Peary argues that part of the problem is that it is hard for an ex-con to go straight:  “[Max] may be a habitual criminal, but it’s important for us to realize that if he really did intend to go straight come hell or high water, being an ex-con makes that a near impossibility.”  On the contrary, the movie indicates that going straight is indeed possible.  Not only did Max manage to get himself a decent job at the National Can Company, but it is also evident that both of his friends, Willy and Jerry, managed to go straight and do all right holding down jobs.  In fact, what causes Willy and Jerry to go back into crime with Max is not that society makes things hard for them, but that they are basically no good, that they prefer crime to holding down a job and living an ordinary life.

In addition to the question as to how we are to interpret this movie, either like a bleeding-heart liberal, who sees Max as someone who just needed a chance but was victimized by Frank, or like a law-and-order conservative, who thinks that Frank was just doing his job and that Max caused his own problems by not following the rules, there is the question as to which interpretation was intended by those who made this movie.  According to a review published by Variety when the movie came out, those who made this movie at first promoted the former before shifting to the latter:  “Viewers are asked initially to believe that M. Emmet Walsh, the assigned parole officer, is a sadistic person who delights in hassling his charges. But given the circumstances, he does not emerge as a heavy. Indeed, Hoffman’s too-easy lapse into his old ways absolves any blame on The System. Hoffman’s character would have defied the parole supervision of a saint.”

Finally, there is the question as to how much the actors starring in these roles influence our judgment.  Vincent Canby of The New York Times says:  “Max is shrewd, self-absorbed, tough in superficial ways, and doomed. He defines the meaning of recidivism. In real life you wouldn’t trust him to hang up your coat. In Straight Time, in the person of Dustin Hoffman, he’s a fascinating character, made romantic only to the extent that an actor of such stature invests him with importance that is otherwise denied. Max is strictly small-time.”

Peary says, “If Robert De Niro had played [Max], with Martin Scorsese as director, we’d probably be too repulsed by him to feel any of the necessary empathy.”  Another way to look at it is to imagine if the movie had been about a parole officer played by Dustin Hoffmann, one of whose parolees was played by M. Emmet Walsh.

In any event, the movie as it stands, with the actors that star in it, is one of those movies that tell you something about yourself, depending on how you react to it.  Apparently, I’m just a law-and-order kind of guy.

M (1931 and 1951)

In the original version of M made in 1931, as well as in the remake of 1951, a city is plagued by a man who is killing children.  The police become so relentless in their pursuit of the killer that the ordinary way of life of the criminal underclass becomes disrupted.  As a result, the criminals take matters into their own hands, capture the child killer, and have a trial of sorts, during which he tells everyone that he is compulsively driven to do what he does.  Before the mob can do anything to him, the police show up and take him away.

In the 1931 movie, it is never explicitly stated that the children are sexually molested, but it is implied, and in any event, we would automatically assume as much anyway.  In the remake, however, the movie goes out of its way to make it clear that the children are not molested.  While a crowd watches the chief of police on television warning parents about the child killer, someone in the crowd asks, “What’s he mean the children were neither violated nor outraged?”  Someone else in the crowd responds, “What’s the difference?  He killed them, didn’t he?”

Well, it may not make any difference to the people in the crowd, but apparently it must have made a difference to the Production Code Administration.  It was not sufficient merely to omit all reference to sexual molestation.  It had to be explicitly denied.  At the same time, all of the killer’s victims are little girls, which would indicate a sexual preference.  Presumably, just in case the audience refused to believe sex was not involved, the producers went the extra step to avoid any hint of homosexuality.  The killer takes the shoes of his victims, which suggests a fetish, which in turn suggests a sexual perversion.  Furthermore, in one scene, a man and wife are informed that their child has been a victim.  As they start to leave, the woman turns around in desperation and says that maybe it is a mistake, that the child is someone else’s.  We can only conclude from this that there was no body in the morgue for them to identify, that the police were only going by the doll and the girl’s dress, which are on the chief’s desk.  He holds up the dress for her to look at, which she recognizes as belonging to her daughter.  From this we can only conclude one thing:  the killer took off the girl’s clothes, and her naked body is yet to be found.  Still, we are supposed to believe that sex is not the motive for these murders.  Censorship can be confusing.

It goes without saying that the original was much better, and one way in which it was better is that the killer simply had an evil impulse that he did not understand.  In the remake, owing to the popularity of psychoanalysis at the time, we are given an explanation for the killer’s behavior as resulting from something that happened when he was a child.  As a harbinger of that explanation, we see him strangling a clay model of a child, with a picture of his elderly mother sitting right beside him, almost as if she were watching him do it.  At the end, when the child killer is surrounded by the underworld figures that captured him, he gives a garbled explanation about how his father mistreated his mother, and how she raised him to believe that all men are evil.  As a result, he reasons that since he is a man, then he is evil and deserves punishment.  So, he has to kill little girls, partly to keep them from growing up and being mistreated by evil men, and partly so he will get caught and get the punishment he deserves.  The explanation comes across as artificial, unsatisfying, and unbelievable. Fortunately, we are not told why he took the girls’ shoes, which would only have made the explanation even more tortured.  The remake was destined to be inferior to the original, but it would still have been a lot better movie had all that psychobabble at the end been left out.