The Wrong Man (1956)

The Wrong Man begins with a prologue, not a written one, but a scene with Alfred Hitchcock at a distance, barely visible in the light on a dark street, saying that the movie we are about to see is “a true story, every word of it.”  Then come the credits, followed by a disclaimer where this is directly contradicted:

The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred.

So, there!

The story is about a man named Christopher Emanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda), who works at the Stork Club in New York as the bass player in the orchestra. When he gets off work, while riding the subway, he looks at an advertisement for an automobile promising family fun.  For some reason, there is no advertisement suggesting that a bachelor might have fun with an automobile. But then, I guess a bachelor doesn’t need an automobile to have fun.

Then he looks at an advertisement for a bank, claiming to be a family bank. There is no advertisement claiming to be a bank for bachelors, so I don’t know where they would go to borrow money.  But then, I guess bachelors don’t need to borrow money from a bank.

The movie continues to drive home the point that Manny is a family man.  When he stops to get something to eat, the man behind the counter asks him, “How’s the family?”  When he gets home, he brings in the milk left by the milkman, which is a nice family touch, but either Manny works really late, or the milkman makes his deliveries extra early.  As he passes the bedroom where his two sons are sleeping, he looks in on them. Then he checks in on his wife Rose (Vera Miles).  The next day, his mother calls, asking him to stop by.  We later find out he has a sister and brother-in-law.  I suppose the idea is that what will soon happen to him will disrupt everyone in his extended family, making it much worse than if it happened to a bachelor who grew up as an only child and whose parents are no longer living.

In looking at the ads mentioned above, it is clear that Manny would love to take out a loan from the family bank to buy the car and have some family fun.  But that is just an idle dream for him.  He pretends to play the horses, marking pretend bets, and then checking later to see how much he would have won.  But his reality is dreary.  He may have to take out a loan, not for a car, but rather so that Rose can have her wisdom teeth removed.  And the reason his mother wants him to stop by is that “Pop” is not doing well.

Manny takes Rose’s life insurance policy to the company to get that loan.  While there, he is mistaken for a man that held up the company on two previous occasions.  They call the police after he leaves, and Manny is arrested and taken to the police station.  A police detective assures him that an innocent man has nothing to worry about, that only the guilty have anything to fear.  And yet, he is repeatedly identified as the man that held up one business or another, including the insurance company.

This is as unsurprising as it is unnerving.  If a Mr. Jones is already known to the witness of a crime beforehand, and he then testifies that Jones committed that crime, we have good reason to trust his testimony.  But if the witness had never seen Jones before the day of the crime, then his testimony to that effect should be treated with a fair amount of skepticism.  I have read of studies in which psychologists staged crimes before a room full of students.  In one, only 14% of the witnesses were able to correctly identify the “culprit.”  In another staged crime, 60% of the witnesses in the classroom, including the professor, identified the wrong man as the one supposedly guilty of the faked assault.  And yet, many an innocent man has been sent to prison on the basis of just such evidence alone.

There have been over a dozen times in my life where someone has mistaken me for someone else, saying he saw me at a store I never go to, or asked me how I enjoyed the concert, which I did not attend.  I usually joke that I hope these doppelgängers behave themselves so that I don’t get blamed for something they did. But when watching this movie, recalling those times where I have been mistaken for someone else makes me squirm.

In a lot of movies, Manny would be arrested, locked up, arraigned, and bailed out in five minutes of screen time.  But Hitchcock takes us through the whole process slowly, so that we experience the dread of handcuffs, bars, hard beds, and angular accommodations.  On the day of his arraignment, he has to show up in court unshaven, which only adds to his humiliation.

After he is bailed out, thanks to money raised by his sister and brother-in-law, Rose begins having a nervous breakdown.  She blames herself for what happened to Manny, but then she blames him, accusing him of borrowing money on a previous occasion so they could go on a vacation they couldn’t afford, something he had already admitted at the police station.  So, it appears that some of Manny’s money problems were self-inflicted, contrary to what we thought at first.

Then, at his trial, the prosecuting attorney, in his opening statement, says he will show that Manny needed to borrow money to pay off the bookies, based on statements he made to the detectives. Manny looks at his lawyer, Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), negatively shaking his head to indicate that it isn’t true.  We heard Manny admit that he went to the race track a few times, but that is all. Did the detectives misunderstand him?  Did they purposely make this up?  Or were those supposedly pretend bets in fact real bets, and he was in trouble with the bookies? We never find out, since it ends in a mistrial.

The reason for the mistrial is that a juror expresses his impatience when O’Connor is cross-examining the eyewitnesses.  There are two witnesses, a Mrs. James and a Miss Willis, who both work at the insurance company, and who had picked Manny out of a lineup.  First, Mrs. James identifies Manny as the one that held up the insurance company where she worked.  Then Miss Willis takes the stand.  Manny’s lawyer asks her about the “alleged lineup,” to which there is an objection.  At first, I thought it strange that he would make a disparaging remark like that about the lineup.  We were able to see the men that were grouped together with Manny, and I saw nothing problematic about them.  Perhaps the subsequent dialogue reveals his misgivings:

O’Connor:  Were there any men in that alleged lineup you knew before that night?

[After an objection to his use of the word “alleged,” he continues.]

O’Connor:  How many of the men did you know?

Miss Willis:  One.

O’Connor:  And who was that?

Miss Willis:  Mrs. James’ husband.

Mrs. James’ husband!  What kind of lineup is that?  We saw the scene where the women picked Manny out of the lineup.  So, why didn’t we hear Mrs. James say, “George!  What are you doing here?”

Anyway, O’Connor then begins a tedious process of asking Miss Willis about the men in the lineup, including Mr. James.  He asks what the various men were wearing, how tall they were, and how much they weighed.  Who could be expected to remember such details?  It is at this point that a juror asks, “Your Honor, do we have to sit here and listen to this?”

He took the words right out of my mouth!  If this is the best O’Connor can do, I thought to myself, Manny is in trouble.  Anyway, justified or not, the remark occasions the request for a mistrial, which is granted.

After the mistrial, Rose has a complete mental collapse, staring vacantly off into space. She talks about how “they” will find Manny guilty no matter what he does.  Manny has to put her in an “institution.” However, he voiced similar sentiments himself when two of the men that might have provided him with an alibi turned up dead.  He tells O’Connor, “You know, like someone was stacking the cards against us.”  We don’t take his remark seriously, but it is intended to prepare us for what is to come; for it clearly suggests that there is a baleful, supernatural influence working against him, which can only be thwarted by a countervailing supernatural force for good.

And so it is that in what thus far has been an engrossing movie, there is a complete narrative rupture. Manny’s mother tells him he should pray.  He says he already has prayed.  And we know he has.  When first arrested, he has to remove all the items from his pocket.  One such item is a Rosary. Any man that would carry a Rosary around in his coat pocket is definitely religious.  During the trial, we see him holding the Rosary in his hands, under the table, presumably saying the prayers.  And so far, those prayers have come to naught.  Nevertheless, his mother says, “My son, I beg you to pray.”

Manny goes into the next room where he looks at a picture of Jesus on the wall.  We see him gazing at it as his lips move.  His image is superimposed over that of a man walking down the street.  He comes closer and closer until Manny’s face coincides with the face of the man in the street.  They have roughly similar features.

Well, the man tries to rob a store, and the owners subdue him and have him arrested. At the police station, one of the detectives working Manny’s case notices the similar appearance of that man to that of Manny. The end result is that Manny is freed.

This miracle ruins the movie.  And it is especially presumptuous, given Hitchcock’s claim that the story is true.  Yes, it was probably true that Manny’s mother told him to pray, and right after that the holdup man was arrested.  But given the way it is filmed, there can be no doubt that there has been divine intervention, something Hitchcock could hardly guarantee.  Maybe that’s why there was a disclaimer.

We never minded when we saw Manny praying with the Rosary.  Religious people pray in times of stress. And if he had subsequently been freed when the man was arrested later on in the film, we would not have felt obliged to see that as resulting from a supernatural cause.  But the scene involving Manny’s face superimposed over the holdup man as Manny prayed to the picture of Jesus makes it impossible to interpret that as anything other than a genuine miracle.

In Chapter XV of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the author reflects upon the fact that the degree of credence we accord to miracles depends largely on when they are supposed to have occurred.  He admits that in the early days of Christianity, the intervention of God was more necessary than it is today:

If the truth of any of those miracles is appreciated by their apparent use and propriety, every age had unbelievers to convince, heretics to confute, and idolatrous na­tions to convert; and sufficient motives might always be produced to justify the interposition of Heaven. And yet, since every friend to revelation is persuaded of the reality, and every reasonable man is convinced of the cessation, of miraculous powers, it is evident that there must have been some period in which they were either suddenly or gradually withdrawn from the Christian church.

And so it is, Gibbon goes on to say, that it is only with reluctance that even the most devout will admit to miracles in present circumstances:

In modern times, a latent and even involuntary scepticism adheres to the most pious dispositions. Their admission of supernatural truths is much less an active con­sent than a cold and passive acquiescence. Accustomed long since to observe and to respect the variable order of Nature, our reason, or at least our imagination, is not sufficiently prepared to sustain the visible action of the Deity.

And if Gibbon was right when saying this in the eighteenth century, then all the more so is this true in the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries.  People might still accept miracles that occurred in subsequent centuries, but Gibbon’s expression “visible action of the Deity” is significant.  What counts as a miracle no longer is something utterly contrary to what can occur in nature, such as when Joshua made the sun stand still.  Rather, it is something compatible with natural causes, but ascribed to the hand of God nevertheless.  We might say of such miracles that they involve the invisible action of the Deity.  When an airplane crashes, and all are killed except a baby, some may say that it was a miracle the infant survived, but we know that the skeptical will have no trouble attributing the event to mere chance.

What Gibbon said of real life also applies to the movies.  We not only accept, but also look forward to, the depiction of miracles in film as they occurred in biblical times, whether it be that of Moses parting the Red Sea, or that of Jesus walking on water.  But when a miracle supposedly takes place in a movie that is set in contemporaneous times, we do not see a marvelous violation of the laws of nature, but rather an outcome that could have happened naturally, but which the movie encourages us to regard as a miracle, usually because someone prays just before the event takes place, a conclusion we would never have come to otherwise.

For example, in Made for Each Other (1939), a nun encourages Carol Lombard to pray to a statue of Jesus that the serum for her baby will arrive in time to save its life, even though there is a blizzard raging so severe that pilot who is going to bring the serum will be risking his life to make that flight.  She does pray to that statue of Jesus, after which the pilot, who has had to bail out of his plane, manages to get to a farmhouse, where the farmer calls the hospital to tell them the serum has arrived.  Absent the prayer to an image of Jesus just prior to these events, we would never have concluded that God intervened to save her baby.  We’d have simply said to ourselves, “Well, that was a close call!”

After he has been exonerated, Manny goes to the insane asylum to tell Rose the good news, but she continues to stare off into space, saying it doesn’t matter.  He says to the nurse, “I guess I was hoping for a miracle.”  She replies, “They happen, but it takes time.”  The epilogue tells us that Rose was released from the hospital after two years.

Just as we were not bothered by the Rosary and Manny’s prayers during the trial, so too do we think nothing of this conversation about a miracle regarding Rose’s recovery. People speak of miracles figuratively all the time, meaning nothing more than a positive outcome that is unlikely.  So, it is only the literal miracle involving the picture of Jesus that ruins the movie.

There are movies, even those set in the twenty-first century, where miracles are perhaps more acceptable. If the movie lets us know from the outset that it is religious in nature, such as God’s Not Dead (2014), where God, we are invited to believe, keeps a reverend from being able to leave town so that he can get the dying atheist professor to ask for God’s forgiveness and be saved (i.e., so we can see the atheist crawl in the end), the miracle is at least in keeping with what has come before.  It doesn’t matter whether you regard this as a good movie or not.  The point is that the miracle is not unexpected, since we have been prepared for something like that from the beginning.

In the case of The Wrong Man, however, we have not been so prepared.  Up to the point of the miracle, this is the most realistic movie Hitchcock ever directed, and thus the fantastic miracle really seems out of place. When out of the blue, a miracle occurs as a means to resolving a dramatic difficulty, it comes across as a deus ex machina, a contrived and artificial solution to a problem that seems unsolvable.  In the case of The Wrong Man, however, the miracle could have been left out, and we would have accepted the arrest of the man who actually held up the insurance company as something that could easily have happened. So, we get the disadvantage of a deus ex machina, as something contrived, without any benefit, since there was no need for such a drastic solution to Manny’s problem in the first place.

In addition to movies that announce their religious themes up front, I suppose it is worth mentioning that we never object to miracles in a comedy, as in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).  And whatever misgivings we have about miracles ordinarily understood, in which God intervenes for someone’s benefit, we usually are much more receptive to evil miracles, as it were, as when Satan intervenes for his own wicked reasons, as in The Exorcist (1973).

The problem with depicting a miracle in modern times is not only, as Gibbon says, that we are reticent to accept the occurrence of genuine miracles in the modern age.  It is also the fact that the supposed occurrence of such encourages reflection on the problem of evil, to wit, if there really is an all-powerful, loving God, then why is there so much sin and suffering in the world?  For a lot of religious people, this is not a problem. They have their pat answers, involving such things as free will, God’s divine plan, and the sin of questioning the ways of God in the first place.

But for others, even those that are otherwise religious, such thoughts are disturbing, precipitating a whole raft of questions they would rather not think about:  Why did God let all these bad things happen to Manny and Rose in the first place, when he could have made sure the bad guy was caught right away?  Why was a prayer necessary to bring about the miracle, and if it was, why did Manny’s previous prayers not suffice? What was God waiting for?  And given the success he had the first time, why didn’t Manny just go back to the picture of Jesus and work up another miracle to get Rose out of the mental institution right away?  (The movie says Rose was all right after a couple of years, but I have read that she never really did completely recover.)

All these questions interfere with our enjoyment of the movie.  And this is regrettable, since the movie would have been just fine with no miracle at all.

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) and JFK (1991)

In 1957, I encountered my first conspiracy theory.  According to my father, American intelligence had broken the Japanese code six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.  And so, by the first of December, 1941, they knew that the attack was imminent.  But they did nothing about it.  The reason, my father said, was that the American people were against entering World War II, and so Roosevelt, who wanted to get America into the war, let the attack happen, knowing that an inflamed public would then demand retaliation.  I was in the sixth grade at the time, and so naturally I believed what my father told me.

I no longer believe that story, of course.  But what I now find interesting is that no one has ever made a movie about it, one that dramatizes the conspiracy, in which we see Roosevelt conniving with his fellow conspirators to suppress the intelligence that an attack on Pearl Harbor was imminent, motivated by all the profits that will be had by makers of munitions, who in turn will contribute to his re-election campaign.  More importantly, there is glory in being a wartime president, most conducive to holding on to power.  Conspiracy-theory movies can be fun, so why not a movie like that?

But first, I suppose I must define a few terms.  As we all know, conspiracies go on in the world, as when some Roman senators conspired to assassinate Julius Caesar.  But that’s an historical fact.  On the other hand, it is only a theory that the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko was the result of a conspiracy involving Vladimir Putin.  But we do not call it a “conspiracy theory,” for to do so would not only imply that the theory is false, but also that those that believe it are goofy; whereas this is a theory that may be true, and one in which it is reasonable to accept.

However, much in the way that the demeaning expression “colored person” has been transformed into the acceptable “person of color,” so too can we eliminate the pejorative connotation of “conspiracy theory” by changing the order the words to “theory about a conspiracy,” which can be regarded as neutral as to whether the theory is true or not, and without disparaging those that might embrace it.

That being done, however, we must now distinguish between conspiracy theories that are real from those that are fictional.  It may seem that by definition, all conspiracy theories are fictional.  However, by “real conspiracy theory,” I mean those that a lot of people believe to be true, whereas by “fictional conspiracy theory,” I mean those that are made up simply for our entertainment in the form of a novel or a movie, usually bearing some similarity to a real conspiracy theory.

For example, there is a real conspiracy theory that the moon landing was faked.  It inspired the fictional conspiracy theory in Capricorn One (1977), in which a mission to Mars is faked.  Likewise, there is a real conspiracy theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the man that killed John F. Kennedy, and it inspired the fictional conspiracy theory in The Parallax View (1974), in which Warren Beatty plays a reporter who investigates one political assassination only to end up becoming an Oswald-like patsy in another.

However, the distinction between real and fictional conspiracy theories is not absolute.  There are real conspiracy theories concerning Area 51 and UFOs, in which the government is thought to know all about aliens from another planet, but is determined to keep us from learning about it.  The movies Men in Black (1997) and The X-Files (1998) are based on these real conspiracy theories, but involve fictional characters and events.

Most real conspiracy theories are never made into a movie in the classic Hollywood sense, the kind that is shown in major theaters in the United States, featuring well-known stars, the kind of movie that might even be considered for an Academy Award of one sort or another.  They do find an outlet, however, in other forms.  For example, there are the straight-to-video movies, such as The Death of Vince Foster:  What Really Happened? (1995).  There is Horseman Without a Horse (2002-2003), a television miniseries in Arabic and shown in the Middle East, based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is about the Jewish plan for global domination.  And there is Paul Is Dead (2002), a movie made in Germany in which a young boy gets all into the conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney died in the 1960s and was replaced by a double.  And a lot of such second-rate movies are documentaries, as opposed to dramas.

The conspiracy theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the assassin of John F. Kennedy is the grand exception, having been made into two mainstream movies.  In 1991, Oliver Stone wrote and directed JFK, a movie about New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his investigation into the assassination of Kennedy, which provoked strong negative reactions from politicians and journalists alike.  Many books have been written arguing that Oswald was not the assassin of Kennedy, including the two on which this movie was based, but the negative reaction people had to JFK proves how much more powerful a movie can be than the written word.  The movie is populated with major stars, not just those playing the leading roles, but also small roles as well.  This makes the characters they portray seem important in a way that lesser known stars would not, which in turn makes their role in the conspiracy seem more believable.  Such is movie logic.

The movie touches on all the standard elements of the conspiracy theory.  There is the faked picture of Oswald holding a gun, the reference to the live oak that would have blocked his view, the fact that it would have been difficult for him to get off three shots that quickly and accurately with a bolt-action rifle, the single-bullet theory, Oswald’s calling attention to himself at a shooting range, the grassy knoll, the Zapruder film, and more, much more.  It does so quite effectively.

At the same time, the movie is exhausting.  Have you ever known someone that was into a conspiracy theory?  You quickly learn never to bring the subject up, kicking yourself when you accidently touch on it, for you unleash a torrent.  As an example, let us consider the theory that the moon landing was faked, and let us imagine a hypothetical friend who is all into that theory.  If you are old enough, you probably saw the moon landing live on television, were impressed, and then went on with your life.  If you are younger, you nevertheless saw the footage, but at a later time.  And that’s about the extent of your knowledge of the event.  But your friend has about six or seven books on his bookshelf, telling of how it was all faked.  He has read them at least three times.  They are underlined with notes in the margins, full of cross-references.

Do you think you have any chance of winning an argument with him about the moon landing?  That’s a silly question.  You can’t even hold up your side of the conversation.  All you know is what you saw on television, whereas he is overwhelming you with “facts.”

“And that’s why the Bilker report was suppressed,” he asserts in the middle of his tirade.

“What’s the Bilker report?” you ask.

He is appalled.  “No wonder you believe we put men on the moon.  You just accept whatever you they tell you.  You probably believe that Judith Crenshaw’s death was an accident.”

“Who is that?” you foolishly ask.

“Oh, my God!  You don’t know who she is?” he exclaims with exasperation.  “She was the one who was out there in Arizona where they filmed the whole thing.  She was supposed to testify at a congressional hearing, but drowned in her bathtub the day before.”

That is what it feels like watching JFK.

There is a Mr. X (Donald Sutherland) who is a Deep Throat character.  When he starts talking to Garrison, we are presented with a fusillade of “facts” that will make your knees buckle, so it is fortunate that most people watch this movie sitting down.  He makes the point that the “How?” and the “Who?” are of secondary importance.  The real question is “Why?”  The principal answer to that question parallels the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory I referred to above.  Just as allowing Pearl Harbor to happen got America into World War II, which meant big profits for the weapon manufacturers, and secured Roosevelt’s re-election; so too was the assassination of Kennedy intended to prevent him from getting us out of Vietnam, for there was much money to be made by getting us into a war over there.  Kennedy had already cost the business community a lot of money by refusing to invade Cuba, and they didn’t want him to do the same with Vietnam.  That is why the movie begins with Eisenhower’s farewell address, warning of the military-industrial complex, and ends by noting all the money that has been spent in fighting the Vietnam War.  Mr. X makes the ultimate declaration:

The organizing principle of any society, Mr. Garrison, is for war.   The authority of the state over its people resides in its war powers. The state needs war in order to exist.

It sounds as though Mr. X might have been the author of the notorious book, Report from Iron Mountain, which transcends even the profit motive in arguing that war and the threat of war meet the needs of society to such a degree that it would be difficult for society to exist without it.

But mostly it’s about money.  From that point of view, the movie argues that when those on the right accused Kennedy of being soft on communism, their real concern was that he was likely to sign peace treaties with adversaries rather than go to war with them, thereby cutting into profits.

But there is another motive, connected with the first, expressed by Guy Banister (Edward Asner).  “Goddamn peace treaties!” he says.  “That’s what happens when you let the niggers vote.  They get together with the Jews and the Catholics and elect an Irish bleeding heart.”  In this way, the war-profits motive is connected with that of Protestant white supremacy.

And this second motive blends with a third, which also angered Banister:  resentment over the Bay of Pigs, consisting of anti-Castro Cubans, of course, and American intelligence agents that felt betrayed when Kennedy failed to follow through on that invasion.

Right-wing animosity toward African Americans and Jews is still with us, but the one about the Catholics seems quaint.  Looking back, it is hard to believe how much anti-papist sentiment there was in those days.  The fear was that the Pope would tell Kennedy what to do, on pain of excommunication if he refused to obey.  Kennedy even had to give a speech, declaring that he would resign the presidency should he receive an order from the Pope that was inconsistent with America’s best interests.

Today, conservatives love Catholics, at least when it comes to putting them on the Supreme Court, where there are now six Catholic justices, vastly exceeding their proportion in the general population.  The reason is clear.  Catholics believe that birth control is a sin, so a fortiori they believe abortion is a sin.  Now, a given Catholic may nevertheless be pro-choice, being unwilling to impose his religious beliefs on others.  But as far as conservatives are concerned, there will remain a residual sentiment of sin.  And so, regardless of the political stance that may have been taken by any of the Catholic justices on the Supreme Court, conservatives are content in their supposition that the prevailing attitude of those justices is that abortion is evil.

JFK is a movie about a real conspiracy theory in its pure form, for all the characters in the movie are based on real people.  It looks at the Kennedy assassination from the outside, from the standpoint of an investigator trying to piece together the elements of the conspiracy.  An earlier movie, Executive Action (1973), looks at it from the inside.  Whereas the number of people in on the conspiracy in JFK is beyond our ability to count, the number of conspirators in Executive Action is small.  At one point in the movie, they are all in one room, apart from those that will eventually be hired to do the shooting.  In JFK, you sometimes get the impression that in order to put all the conspirators in one place, you would have needed a football stadium.  The characters in Executive Action are fictional.  However, they are presented as representing the men that actually did conspire to have Kennedy assassinated, and so the movie still qualifies as a real conspiracy theory.  The conspiracy-theories dramatized by these two movies are almost the same, but there are slight differences.  In both movies, people quote Shakespeare, giving these movies the proper tone.

For the most part, Executive Action works and is entertaining.  First, there is 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.  Therefore, as with JFK, money is the primary motive for Kennedy’s assassination.

The persuasion begins with a prediction that 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 Robert, who in turn would be followed by Edward.  Whichever Kennedy was president, the other two brothers would occupy positions of power, based on a coalition of “big-city machines, labor, Jews, Negroes, liberals, and the press.”  The ideological agenda of this coalition would 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.  (Dalton Trumbo must have enjoyed writing the screenplay for this movie as a form of retaliation for what the right put him through earlier in his career.)  And so, as in JFK, we have the same secondary motive concerning race and religion, except for the absence of any expressed concern about Catholics.  The third motive, resentment about the Bay of Pigs, is present as well.

I also liked the part where the chief conspirator, Farrington (Burt Lancaster), points out that whereas Europeans will readily believe that there is a conspiracy behind an assassination of a major political figure, Americans are used to the idea that assassinations of presidents are carried out by mentally unbalanced individuals.  With that in mind, Farrington conceives a plan that will point to just such an individual as being the lone assassin, fitting right into what the American people are predisposed to accept.

The men trying to persuade Ferguson seem to have a lot of knowledge about intelligence agencies, most prominent of which are Farrington and Foster (Robert Ryan).  When they are alone, Foster expresses his concern to Farrington about the population explosion:

The real problem is this, James.  In two decades there will be seven billion human beings on this planet, most of them brown, yellow, or black.  All of them hungry; all of them determined to love.  They’ll swarm out of their breeding grounds into Europe and North America.  Hence Vietnam.  An all-out effort there will give us control of South Asia for decades to come.  And with proper planning, we can reduce the population to 550 million by the end of the century.

Needless to say, you could not get the population in South Asia down to that number in that time frame by birth control alone, even if you sterilized every female in the region, so we have to figure he is planning on more drastic means of population reduction.  He continues:

Well, someone has to do it.  Not only will the nations affected be better off, but the techniques developed there can be used to reduce our own excess population:  Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, poverty-prone whites, and so forth.

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

In planning the operation, the conspirators set out to make Oswald, who apparently has some mysterious connections with intelligence agencies, their “sponsor,” which is to say, their patsy.  He will take the fall while three real assassins make their getaway.  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.  Some of it strains credulity, however, as when the conspirators sneak into Oswald’s garage, that conveniently happens to be unlocked, in order to steal his rifle, so that one of the assassins can use it and then leave it behind in the book depository.

Another weak link in the movie comes when Oswald shoots a policeman.  Watching the report on television, Tim, an associate of Farrington, 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 is the part about Jack Ruby that constitutes the weakest part of this conspiracy theory.  The explanation Ruby gave as to why he shot Oswald was that he was upset that Oswald killed Kennedy.  This movie should have let it be just that.  Instead, we get a scene in which Tim goes to talk to Ruby, so as to make Ruby part of the conspiracy, but we are not privy to their conversation.  Nor do Tim and Farrington refer to whatever it was Tim supposedly said to Ruby when they watch him shoot Oswald on television.  We can’t help but conclude that the reason we do not get to hear what Tim says to Ruby is that Dalton Trumbo could not come up with anything that would make 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 credible. By leaving the conversation between Tim and Ruby out, the movie as much as admits that it cannot explain this part, which detracts from its believability.

At the end of the movie, while enjoying a game of pool, Foster receives a phone call from Tim.  After he hangs up, he tells his companions that Farrington just died of a heart attack, while he continues his turn at the pool table.  Now, Farrington is a fictional character.  Therefore, his death and Foster’s nonchalance in hearing about it were put into this movie as a matter of choice.  This leads us to ask, what purpose does it serve?  Inasmuch as this movie has us in a frame of mind as to suspect that nothing happens by chance, that all events are guided by sinister purposes, we cannot help but suspect that Farrington’s death was arranged as a way of guaranteeing the security of the remaining conspirators.

This is followed immediately by an epilogue, in which we are told that eighteen of the material witnesses to the assassination died within the next three years, many of them violently.  The implication is that the conspirators saw to it that these people died so as to impede any investigation into what really happened.  One wonders if the witnesses to those deaths were then killed off.  You can never be too careful.

But now let us address the observation made above that most real conspiracy theories are never made into mainstream American movies like JFK and Executive Action.  Given this relatively small sample, it is difficult to draw any conclusions with certainty.  Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder if making these two movies was acceptable because the villains were on the right, whereas having the villains be on the left would preclude turning a real conspiracy theory into a mainstream, dramatic film.  This would explain why the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory was never made into a movie, since the chief villain would have been Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democratic icon, even though the motive of getting the country into a war for the profiteering that would ensue would be the same as in the Kennedy movies.

In both Kennedy movies, the villains on the right express anti-Semitic attitudes, in which they regard the Jews, among others, as causing them problems.  But we know we will never see a movie in which the Jews are the conspirators.  For example, there is no way a movie producer in Hollywood will get himself a copy of Holocaust Denial for Dummies and make a movie dramatizing the way the Jews fabricated the holocaust, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Scarlett Johansson.

In JFK, there is the suggestion that the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy are a continuation of the conspiracy.  When Garrison wakes up his long-suffering wife (Sissy Spacek) to tell her that Bobby Kennedy has just been shot, she finally becomes convinced of the conspiracy too.  “You were right,” she says. “It hasn’t ended yet.”  Then they proceed to have the best sex they’ve had in months.

At the trial of Clay Shaw, Garrison argues that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed because they were also opposed to war, threatening the war-profiteering that was in progress, while it was made to appear that they were “also killed by such lonely crazed men.”  But he’s not through.  “How many more political murders,” he asks, “disguised as heart attacks, suicides, cancers, drug overdoses?  How many plane and car crashes will occur before they are exposed for what they are?”

But the conspiracy theories that have been promoted concerning the assassination attempts on George Wallace and Ronald Reagan will probably never make it to the big screen.  It’s not that the villains are said to be on the left.  Rather, the alleged conspirators are on the right, just not the far right where Reagan and Wallace were.  But since they are to the left of Reagan and Wallace, that’s left enough to preclude a conspiracy-theory movie about either of these two assassination attempts.  Or maybe there is simpler explanation:  failed assassination attempts just aren’t interesting enough to warrant the production of a major film.

However, were this the sole consideration, we should expect to have seen a mainstream 9/11 trutherism movie by now.  One version of this theory is that George W. Bush and other politicians on the right knew that the attack on September 11, 2001 was imminent, but they let it happen so that America would invade the Middle East, with the usual war-profiteering motive underlying that, along with the glory of being a wartime president.  There are the various versions of Loose Change 9/11, beginning in 2005, but they are basically internet videos and documentaries besides.  Therefore, even if I am correct in my supposition that right-wing villains are a necessary condition for the making of a Hollywood movie about a real conspiracy theory, it is not a sufficient condition.  In fact, so few are the mainstream movies depicting real conspiracy theories that the sufficient condition, whatever it is, must be difficult to attain.

A birtherism movie, on the other hand is out of the question, as the villains would have to be on the left, creating a phony birth certificate so that we wouldn’t know that Obama was really born in Kenya, thereby allowing him to become president of the United States.  And that’s too bad, because I can envision a scene in which some right-wing politician says, “Of course, Obama was born in Kenya.  That’s why he believes in Kenyansian economics!”

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.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

The Many Versions of Once Upon a Time in America

After going for more than a decade without making a movie, Sergio Leone finally completed Once Upon a Time in America in 1984.  As he was and still is my favorite director, it was with great expectations that I went to the theater to see it.  I was disappointed.  I couldn’t believe how flat and lackluster it was. That December, I watched Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert give their lists for the best movies of 1984 in their show At the Movies.  Siskel said his pick for the best movie of 1984 was Once Upon a Time in America.  I was stunned.  But he immediately explained himself.  He dismissed the theatrical release that I had seen as worthless, and said he was basing his pick on the version released in Europe. Ebert said he would have picked that movie to be the best as well, but he felt he was limited to movies as they were when they came to American theaters.

Soon thereafter, I saw the European cut on cable.  Unlike the theatrical release, which was 139 minutes long and told the story in chronological order, the European cut, which is 229 minutes, is filled with flashbacks and flashforwards, and includes the scenes in the opium den.  Furthermore, the European cut has a composition by Ennio Morricone, “Poverty,” that fills one with a feeling of loss, which is essential to the movie, but which was completely absent from the theatrical release. Suffice it to say that the European cut is every bit as good as Siskel and Ebert said it was.

After seeing the movie on cable, I decided it was time to buy a video cassette recorder so I could have my very own copy of the movie on video tape.  However, the version on video tape was in standard format, not widescreen.  Somewhat later, the movie was released in widescreen on laserdisc, which I bought.  In order to get the entire movie on that format, there were two discs, each of which had to be turned over to watch what was on the other side.  However, someone made a mistake in producing these discs, so that side one of the second disc, labeled Part 3, was the last part of the movie, which meant side two, labeled Part 4, needed to be watched first.  But the way this movie jumps around in time, you might not realize at first that you were watching the movie out of order.  If ever there was a movie where such a mistake should not have been made, this was it.

In any event, I knew from the credits that the movie had been based on the semi-autobiographical novel The Hoods by Harry Grey, a gangster who had written the novel while he was serving time in Sing Sing, so I looked for it in the bookstore.  Instead, I came across a paperback with the title Once Upon a Time in America.  It was my first experience with a novelization, a book that reverses the normal order of things and uses a movie as its source.  Someone decided to publish that instead of issuing a reprint of The Hoods.  In what follows, when I refer to the novel on which this movie is based, I am referring to The Hoods, not the novelization.

Recently, an “extended director’s cut” of 251 minutes became available on DVD.  In some cases, the additional material helps prepare us for stuff that comes later.  In others, it helps us to better understand what is going on.

According to Christopher Frayling, in his book Sergio Leone:  Something to Do With Death, Leone had ten hours of footage to start with, which he edited down to six hours, thinking about releasing the movie in two parts, but finally settled on a version close to four hours long [page 458].  There are rumors of a 270 minute cut that will probably never be seen, not even on DVD, because the actors never dubbed in their voices on the additional material [page 462].

And finally, there is the additional footage that existed only in Leone’s mind, as when he wanted the scene where Noodles (Robert De Niro) is making his way to an opium den in Chinatown to be filmed in Hong Kong [page 458].

The Basic Story

I have no wish to try the reader’s patience by presenting a complete synopsis, but only to mention what I think is absolutely essential for even a minimal discussion of this movie.  There are three time periods during which the action of this movie takes place. The movie is not explicit about the dates of the first two, and different sources vary slightly in this regard.  I have picked the dates that make the most sense.

1920.  Jewish teenagers in the Lower East Side of Manhattan are budding criminals in 1920.  They agree to put half the money they make in a suitcase, kept in a locker in a train station.  One of those young hoodlums, Noodles, is in love with Deborah, and his best friend is Max.  Noodles kills a rival gangster and then stabs a policeman, for which he is sent to prison.

1932-33.  Noodles gets out of prison in 1932.  He rejoins the gang, and they get into more serious crimes, such as the holdup of a wholesale jewelry establishment, where a woman named Carol (Tuesday Weld) is employed.  She is in on the heist, and during the excitement, she encourages Noodles to hit her.  He does that, and then he rapes her as well.  She eventually becomes the girlfriend of Max (James Woods).

The gang also makes a deal with Jimmy O’Donnell (Treat Williams), a union boss, helping him succeed in a strike.

When Noodles finds out that Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern) is leaving for Hollywood to pursue her acting career, instead of marrying him as he hoped, he becomes so angry that he rapes her.

Note 1:  The rape of Deborah is perhaps the most unpleasant, prolonged rape ever shown in a major motion picture, worse even than the rape of Carol, which was bad enough. Audiences and critics alike were scandalized.  Leone only made matters worse when he said the rape was “an act of love by a man who has lost the only thing he has ever wanted” [page 448].  And, indeed, such a remark would be regarded as outrageous by anyone that regards love as something beautiful, so that Noodles’ love for Deborah is being thought of as excusing what he did.  Instead, this remark is only intended to be an explanation, an explanation that also sees the ugly side of love.

Note 2:  The extended director’s cut introduces the character Eve as a woman Noodles picks up in a nightclub right after he rapes Deborah. He hires Eve to pretend to be Deborah and tell him that she loves him. In the European cut, she just seems to show up out of nowhere later on.  By “later,” I mean that in the chronological sense, not in the movie sense.  As far as the movie is concerned, she is the first person we see in the opening scene.

Max wants the gang to knock over the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which would be suicide for all of them.  To keep that from happening, Carol tells Noodles to figure out some way to get them all arrested and put in jail, long enough for Max to forget about that crazy idea.  Noodles takes her advice.  He calls the police and tells them about a shipment of alcohol they will be transporting on the last night before the repeal of Prohibition.  Things go terribly wrong, and Max is apparently killed.

Note 3:  Lying in the street beside Patsy and Cockeye, two other members of the gang since boyhood, is a body, presumably Max, burned beyond recognition.  This is not meant to fool us.  We know that when someone in a movie is supposedly dead, but the corpse is disfigured beyond recognition, that person is probably not dead. This is only meant to deceive Noodles and anyone else in the movie who was not in on it.

Note 4:  The scene in Miami where Max announces that he has dreamed of robbing the Federal Reserve Bank of New York all his life is hard to accept because it is the first time anyone has heard about it. We should have been prepared for this, perhaps by having Max say something to that effect to Noodles when they were teenagers.  In fact, that is what happens in the novel.  This is also the scene where Eve shows up, seemingly out of nowhere in the European cut.  The extended director’s cut introduces us to Eve earlier on, but it does not include any earlier remark by Max about robbing the Federal Reserve Bank. One might suppose that such a remark was filmed, but never made it into the movie. However, in the scene where we first hear about Max’s lifelong dream to rob the Federal Reserve Bank, Noodles acts as though this is the first time he is hearing about it as well.

Noodles tries to ease his guilt by going to an opium den, which is part of a Chinese theater, where the audience watches a show consisting of shadow puppets.  An attendant fills an opium pipe for him, which Noodles puffs on and then goes to sleep. But he is awakened later by the attendant, who tells him a couple of gangsters are in the theater looking for him, because he ratted out his friends, and he needs to get away. He finds out from Fat Moe, Deborah’s brother, that the gangsters have already killed Eve.  Knowing he must leave town, Noodles goes to get the suitcase with the money the gang has accumulated over the years, but it is filled only with newspapers.

1968.  Thirty-five years later, Noodles returns to his old neighborhood, owing to a letter he received informing him that the bodies of his friends have been moved to another cemetery, but which really tells him that someone knows where he has been hiding all this time.  At the cemetery, inside a mausoleum, he finds a key to another locker at the train station.  It turns out to hold a suitcase full of money, with a note saying it is payment for his next job.

He finds out that Carol has been living in the Bailey Foundation, which is a rest home established by a Mr. Bailey, who is presently the Secretary of Commerce.  She tells him that Max wanted to die because there was insanity in his family, which he was afraid he had inherited and would go crazy himself some day.  So, he put the idea of informing on the gang in her head, so that he could commit suicide by cop.  While she and Noodles talk, he sees a picture of Deborah with a lot of other people at the Bailey Foundation on opening night, taken some fifteen years earlier. Carol says she is some famous actress, whom she does not know.  From there, Noodles locates Deborah, who is performing in Antony and Cleopatra.

Note 5:  In the extended director’s cut, we see Deborah’s performance as Cleopatra when she commits suicide, which in turn is a premonition of Max’s real suicide.

Noodles talks to Deborah after her performance.  He knows she has been living with Secretary Bailey for years.  Bailey has a teenage son, supposedly by a woman he married, but who later died. However, we can’t be sure this is true, and we wonder if he is Deborah’s son as well.  When Noodles sees Bailey’s son, played by the same actor who played Max when they were young, he realizes that Secretary Bailey is actually Max.

Having been sent an invitation to attend a party at Secretary Bailey’s mansion, Noodles decides to accept, even though Deborah pleads with him not to.  At that party, Max tells Noodles that he, Max, will be assassinated before he can testify in front of a Senate committee, so he says he wants Noodles to kill him instead, as a way of letting him have the revenge he deserves.  Noodles refuses even to acknowledge that he is talking to Max, calling him “Mr. Bailey,” indicating that he prefers to continue believing that he was the one that betrayed Max rather than the other way around. Noodles leaves, and as he walks down the street, he sees what appears to be Max walking behind a garbage truck that can grind up stuff. The grinder suddenly starts making a lot of noise, after which the man is nowhere to be seen.

Note 6:  In the theatrical release, there is no garbage truck.  Instead, Noodles hears the sound of a gunshot, from which we are to suppose that Max shot himself in the head.  As for the European cut, it is not certain that Max did get himself ground up in the garbage truck.  Twice before, Max pretended to be dead but really was not:  the first time, when he pretended to have drowned in 1920; the second time, when he pretended he had been killed by the police in 1933.  And now, in 1968, it may be that Max is only pretending to be dead for a third time.

Note 7:  The Hoods was published in 1952, and it ends with Noodles telling us how he got away, but can’t say where he has been hiding out all these years.  Consequently, the part of the movie where Noodles comes back in 1968 is not based on the novel.  And yet, according to Frayling, Grey told Leone that one of the liberties he had taken with the truth was in having Max be killed in the novel.  In actuality, he admitted, “Max” was still alive.  In fact, “Max” had recently wanted to pull off a holdup with Grey, but Grey’s wife threatened to leave him if he went along with it.  A few weeks later, Grey saw “Max” being arrested on television.  So, the idea that Max is really still alive, if not based on the novel, was the nevertheless inspired by Grey in a conversation he had with Leone.  [page 401]

Note 8:  Halfway through the movie, in the extended director’s cut, we see Noodles looking at the garbage truck.  Right after that, he sees a car that has been following him around suddenly explode, a car belonging to Secretary Bailey, but who was not in it at the time. This prepares us for the idea that there are people who want to kill Secretary Bailey before he can testify in front of a Senate committee, fearing he will confess to the various forms of corruption he has been involved in over the years, thereby implicating others.  The man behind this determined effort to kill Bailey/Max is Jimmy O’Donnell.  He indicates that Max’s son will also be killed if Max doesn’t cooperate by signing over most of his wealth, with twelve percent being left for his son if he does sign.  Max signs the papers.  Before Jimmy leaves Max’s office, he lets Max know that it would be for the best if he committed suicide.  He tells Max that he is going to join the party, and it will please him if he hears a gunshot before the party is over.


According to Frayling, the passage of time is the central theme of this movie [page 392].  This is not time understood as an abstraction, as merely that in which events may or may not occur.  Rather, time is to be understood existentially, in it’s significance for the person whose life at first is naively experienced, and then comes to be colored by memories, with regrets about the past and with a sense that the future is slipping away, with a feeling of time that has been lost.  This is why the flashbacks and flashforwards are essential to the movie, so that the significance of the present is bound up in things that happened in the past and will happen in the future.

When Noodles and his gang are just boys, but before they meet Max, they try to roll a drunk for his watch. However, Max manages to get to the drunk first and take that watch.  Then Whitey, a corrupt cop, whose beat is the gang’s neighborhood, takes the watch from both of them.  They get the watch back from Whitey when they take a picture of him having sex with Peggy, an underage prostitute. Max still has that watch when Noodles finds him again in 1968.  Needless to say, the watch is a physical representation of time.

As noted above, when Noodles and Max were young, he and the other members of the gang agreed to save half the money they made in suitcase, stored in a locker in the train station.  The key to the locker was given to Fat Moe.  He attached it to the key to his clock.  When Noodles realizes he needs to go into hiding, he takes both keys with him.  When he returns thirty-five years later, he hands Fat Moe the key to his clock, which he then uses to wind the clock for the first time in all those years. The idea, of course, is that it is as if time has stood still, in the sense that nothing of significance in their lives has happened during those years.  This is confirmed when Moe asks Noodles what he has been doing all these years, and he says, “I’ve been going to bed early.” Perhaps this is an allusion to Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which the opening line is, “For a long time I used to go to bed early.”

This theme is reinforced by various pieces of music in the 1968 section that have something to do with time:  “Summertime,” “Night and Day,” and “Yesterday.”


Early in the movie, Noodles remembers how he used to stand on a toilet and peek through a crack in the wall to watch Deborah (Jennifer Connelly, playing her as a teenager) dancing in the storeroom of her father’s kosher restaurant. There are stacks of flour in the storeroom, and the dust from the flour creates a haze, giving the scene a dreamlike quality.  At other points in the movie, Noodles looks at her through rising steam, creating a similar effect.  She dances to “Amapola,” a song comparing a pretty girl to a poppy, the flower from which opium is derived. Together these elements form a constellation of themes running through this movie: Deborah/dream/love/opium.


Deborah knows that Noodles is watching her, and so, on another occasion, she surprises him by opening the door of the restroom, saying, “That record’s just like Ex-Lax. Every time I put it on, you have to go to the bathroom.” It is important that she does not enter the restroom. Previously in the movie, in a scene that, quite frankly, grosses me out whenever I watch it, Noodles goes into the communal restroom for the floor of the tenement his family lives in. He sits down on the toilet. Peggy also lives with her family on that floor. When Noodles realizes Peggy is coming to use the restroom too, he unlocks the door so that he can expose himself to her.  Unlike Deborah, Peggy walks right in, and Noodles spreads his legs. He gets up from the toilet and starts making sexual advances. She says she is about poop in her pants, after which she plops down on the toilet he just got up from, telling him to get out. Throughout the movie there are innumerable references to garbage, excrement, and anal sex. Taken together, all this leads to an opposing constellation of themes: Noodles/reality/sex/filth.

The Beginning and End of Prohibition

As the movie jumps back and forth in time, it always seems to heading toward the end of Prohibition. When Noodles and Max first become friends, Prohibition has only recently become the law of the land. Their friendship comes to an end just before the repeal of Prohibition becomes effective, when Noodles believes he has caused the death of Max.

Furthermore, Noodles’ love for Deborah begins around the same time, in the early days of Prohibition, and his dream of marrying her comes to an end when he rapes her.  Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Deborah when she is grown up, said she understood that “the point of the part is that she is an imaginary woman” [page 446]. In brutally raping her, Noodles drags her out of the dream/love/opium constellation into his own world of reality/sex/filth.  The next day, he sees her sitting by a window of the train that will take her away, and when she sees him, she pulls down the shade, shutting him out of her life forever.  Just before she got on the train, we saw her picking up the December 5, 1933 copy of the New York Times, announcing the repeal of Prohibition, ending at 5:32 PM that day.  The beginning of Prohibition is the beginning of Noodles’ friendship with Max and his love for Deborah; the end of Prohibition is the end of that friendship and the end of that love.

The newspaper Deborah buys at the station is regarded by some critics as a goof, because in subsequent scenes, reference is made to the fact that Prohibition has not ended yet, though it soon will.  And then, when Max, Carol, Noodles, and Eve go to Miami, we see them reading the November 24, 1933 copy of the Miami Herald, which says that Prohibition will end in December.

However, a scene occurring many years later, in 1968, makes it clear that this connection to the end of Prohibition is not intended to be understood realistically. After Noodles leaves Max’s mansion, and we have seen the garbage truck move on down the street, this is followed by a bunch of revelers coming down the street in a car that appears to be from the days of Prohibition, as we hear the song “God Bless America,” sung by Kate Smith. The sounds they make and the background music are identical to what we heard at the beginning of the movie, as Eve prepared to enter the apartment she shared with Noodles. They are the sounds of people celebrating the end of Prohibition. In other words, even in 1968, it seems we are still approaching the end of Prohibition.

An Opium Dream

It still seems to be the end of Prohibition because what happens in 1968 is actually just a dream, a dream that is taking place at the end of Prohibition. As Frayling points out, one problem with this theory is that Noodles would not know about 1968 technology, like television [page 424].  But that can be justified as dramatic license:  1968 as we know it to be must stand in for 1968 as Noodles might have imagined it in 1933.

After Noodles rapes Deborah, he tries to forget what he did by spending time in an opium den. This is referred to, but not seen. We do see two scenes of him in the opium den, however, both of them being after he thinks he has killed Max. The first time is at the beginning of the movie, where we see him leaving; the second time is at the end of the movie, where we see him entering. Bookending the movie in this way, with the leaving being seen in the beginning and the arriving at the end, we are encouraged to see the movie as Noodles’ opium dream, an obsessive dream that could be starting all over again. The shadow puppets Noodles looks at after he enters the Chinese theater, while waiting to get into the opium den, reinforce the idea of a dream, of an illusion. As his dream takes place at the end of Prohibition, the scenes set in the future are not real, but only part of his wish-fulfilling dream. In that dream, he denies the reality of Max’s death, and imagines that it was really Max who betrayed him, stealing all the money the gang had accumulated. Furthermore, by having Deborah be Max’s lover, and possibly be the mother of Max’s child, his dream makes it appear that she betrayed Noodles, in a way that would make sense only to Noodles’ way of thinking, thereby alleviating his guilt over having raped her.

Note 9:  It is natural enough to suppose that the scenes that take place before Noodles goes to the opium den, right after thinking he has caused Max’s death, are veridical. However, his opium dream may even be encompassing earlier events, even those in 1920, memories distorted by the opium and his desire to understand the past in a way that absolves him of any guilt.  After all, the flashback to Noodles’ childhood days begins in 1968, when he stands on that toilet, remembering how he used to spy on Deborah.  If the 1968 portion of the movie is a dream, then the flashback in 1968, representing his memory, would have to be part of that dream.  A scene that was filmed, but not included in the movie, Frayling characterizes as “Noodles’ opium-rich flashback to himself, Max and the gang as children” [page 459].

When Max offers Noodles the chance to get his revenge for stealing all the money, taking his girl, and ruining his life, Noodles magnanimously refuses to accept this reality, saying that he prefers the delusion he has lived with all these years, the one in which he betrayed Max.  But this too is just part of the dream.  Having convinced himself that it was really Max who betrayed him, he gets the benefit of seeing Max ground up like garbage, while at the same time casting himself as the true friend after all.

Note 10:  Noodles never minded making a deal with the Italians when he was young, helping them save shipments of alcohol that had to be thrown overboard, but he never wanted to get involved with them in a big way, with Frankie (Joe Pesci) in particular.  And he didn’t mind assisting Jimmy O’Donnell and his union to win a strike, but once again he didn’t want to get involved with the unions in a big way, especially with “party leaders” like Sharkey, presumably communists, who were behind the labor movement.

Max, on the other hand, wanted to get involved with both Frankie and Sharkey, believing that more money and power could be acquired by being a part of the organizations these men represented. When Noodles said he didn’t want anything to do with these organizations, Max said, “You still think like some street schmuck.”

In the extended director’s cut, Jimmy O’Donnell, speaking on behalf of those very organizations that now want Max out of the way, puts pressure on Max to give up his wealth and his own life as well.  This is another aspect of the wish-fulfilling dream that Noodles is having, one that vindicates him, proving that he was right all along to avoid entanglements with politicians and the syndicate.

In the final scene, which is in the opium den, we see Noodles take a puff on the opium pipe. The expression that suddenly appears on his face is one of happiness, but it is only the false kind of happiness that opium provides, a temporary illusion in a world of filth.

Cinematic Influences

In Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), a previous movie by Sergio Leone, there are quotations of old movies, especially Westerns.  According to Frayling, there are many such connections for Once Upon a Time in America as well.

First of all, the Noodles of the novel was influenced negatively by gangster movies:

Noodles was at pains to distance himself throughout the book from phoney ‘moving picture holdupnicks,’ ‘loused-up stories of hoodlums’ and the fast-talking heroics of Hollywood professional criminals.  [page 383]

Leone didn’t care for the novel as literature, but in his conversation with Harry Grey, he became aware of cinematic influences on the author himself:

And yet, as Sergio Leone was quick to notice, the book seemed to have been written by the screenwriter of a low-grade ‘B’ movie.  The first-person narrator even reminded him of a Hollywood voice-over:  ‘The grotesque realism of this elderly gangster who, at the end of his life, couldn’t stop himself using a repertoire of cinematic citations, of gestures and words seen and heard thousands of times on the big screen, stimulated my curiosity and amused me.  I was struck by the vanity of this attempt and by the grandeur of its bankruptcy.’  When the fable takes over from the actual life of the author, ‘that could be a great subject for a film.’  [page 384]

Frayling then goes on to point out connections between events in the book and classic gangster movies produced in the 1930s and 1940s.

The novel in turn had some influence on Leone’s previous films, the harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West stemming from Cockeye’s harmonica in the novel, though that became a pan flute in Once Upon a Time in America.  The conflict between Noodles and his brother regarding their sick mother is reflected in the conflict between Tuco and his brother, Father Ramirez, in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), regarding their parents.  Juan’s dream of robbing the bank at Mesa Verde in Duck, You Sucker (1971) corresponds to Max’s dream of robbing the Federal Reserve Bank. [pages 387-88]

Just as the basic structure of Once Upon a Time in the West was based on Johnny Guitar (1954), the basic structure of Once Upon a Time in America, according to Frayling, is Citizen Kane (1941):  Noodles corresponds to the investigative reporter trying to get to the bottom of a mystery; Carol, who is a resident in the Bailey Foundation, a rest home for old people, corresponds to Jed Leland; Fat Moe corresponds to Bernstein; Deborah to Susan Alexander; and Max, as Secretary Bailey, corresponds to Charles Foster Kane [page 421].

Within that basic framework, quotations from gangster movies abound, as noted by Frayling:

In some sense, the trappings of the genre were a ruse, as Leone was at pains to point out:  ‘It is not a film about gangsters.  It is a film about nostalgia for a certain period and a certain type of cinema and a certain type of literature.’

Nevertheless, the ‘citations’ were certainly there:  from the Chinese theater (The Lady from Shanghai, 1948) to the contract killing (The Killers, 1946) to the gangster revisiting his childhood neighborhood (Angels with Dirty Faces, 1938; Dead End, 1937); with one protagonist feeling nostalgic about the anarchic early days (High Sierra, 1941), the other becoming increasingly megalomaniac (White Heat, 1949), and both having to confront a complicated new world of unions and politics (Bullets or Ballots, 1936).  The suitcase at the train station recalled Cry of the City (1948) and The Killing (1956); Noodles’ relationship with Deborah resembled Eddie Bartlett’s with Jean Sherman in The Roaring Twenties (1939), and the elderly Noodles’ arrival at Senator [sic] Bailey’s Long Island party mirrored Police Sergeant Bannion’s arrival at the affluent mansion of Mike Lagana, head of the crime syndicate, in The Big Heat (1953).  [page 422]

One connection that Frayling fails to mention is Cody Jarret’s fear of inherited insanity in White Heat, which may be why Cody preferred literally going out in a blaze of glory, just as Max feared going insane and brought about his own end, in which he too was burnt to a crisp.

The opium dream itself has its citation, “reminiscent of John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), where Walker’s (Lee Marvin) tale of revenge may be just wish fulfillment as he is left for dead on a deserted Alcatraz.” Leone preferred the ambiguity of a double reading, as what actually happens, and as opium dream [page 424].

The citations listed above are mostly conceptual, as opposed to those of Once Upon a Time in the West, which are in some cases conceptual, but in many cases visual, so that if you have seen the movies being quoted, the images alone will establish the connections.

Frayling provides even more connections, too numerous to go into here.  Suffice it to say that in this movie, art reflects life, life reflects art, and then art reflects life reflecting art.

Lured (1947)

Lured is about a man who likes to send the police cryptic poems about certain women before they disappear.  Only after these women have been reported missing are the police able to figure out that they were the ones in the poems.  So far, eight women have vanished in this fashion.

Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball) is a dime-a-dance girl, or rather, since the story is set in London, make that a six-pence-a-dance girl.  A coworker tells her she has answered an ad in the personal column from a good-looking man from a good family, and that she is going to quit her job and go away with him.  Sandra tells her that is dangerous, but her friend says she is not worried as long as she has her bracelet with elephants as a good-luck charm.  The next night, her friend disappears.

Sandra goes to Scotland Yard and talks to Inspector Temple (Charles Coburn). They soon realize that Sandra’s friend is the woman in the most recent poem, which referred to elephants.  Sandra agrees to work for Scotland Yard as bait by answering every ad in the personal column that seems as though it might be from the man they are looking for.

Just before Sandra’s friend disappeared, she had made an appointment to audition for Robert Fleming (George Sanders), who is looking for dancers for one of his night clubs.  He has a partner, Julian Wilde (Cedric Hardwicke), who functions as his secretary and accountant, and who lives in the same house with Fleming.  Eventually, Sandra and Fleming fall in love and plan to marry.  But before that happens, she answers several ads with no result.

Finally, she goes to work as a maid where she is introduced to Dr. Nicholas Moryani (Joseph Calleia), who is looking for women willing to go to South America.  The women are forced to become night club hostesses or servants.  But after Temple has him arrested, he says that Moryani would not have bothered with cryptic poems in carrying out his enterprise, and the killer or abductor they are looking for is still out there.

After incriminating evidence is found in Fleming’s desk drawer, he is arrested.  But the real killer turns out to be Julian, of course.  He killed the women because he was jealous that they preferred Fleming over him.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie is the way it gives people acceptable motives by the censorship standards of the day, when we can readily discern the real motives that are at work.  In various ways, Julian is coded as a homosexual.  His last name is Wilde, the same as that of Oscar Wilde, the notorious homosexual of the nineteenth century.  He often holds a cigarette between his thumb and several fingers rather than between his index and middle finger, the way most people do.  It has an effeminate look.  And reading poetry was another subtle indicator of homosexuality in old movies.  In other words, Julian killed beautiful women because he hated the fact that Fleming was attracted to them instead of to him.

Also, the idea that the women were shipped all the way to South America just to be hostesses and maids is laughable.  Such women would have been forced into prostitution.