Saturday, August 29, 2015

Mississippi Burning

Alan Parker built his career on overwrought dramas that boil "important" issues into high-gloss exploitation. Today, Midnight Express (1978) is less shocking expose than xenophobic horror show. Mississippi Burning (1988) is even worse. Lauded in its day as a bold racial drama, it's less enlightened than In the Heat of the Night, which at least gave a black man a speaking part.

Three civil rights workers (two white, one black) go missing in Jessup County, Mississippi in 1964. FBI Agents Ward (Willem Dafoe) and Anderson (Gene Hackman) arrive, finding the townspeople uncooperative towards Yankee interlopers. Their presence initiates violence against blacks, which local authorities refuse to prosecute; grandstanding politicians complain about civil rights and the media turns everything into a circus. Eventually, Mississippi-born Anderson tires of Ward's bookishness and brings in a goon squad to fight the Klan on its own terms.

Let's start with the elephant on the room: Mississippi Burning bears little relation to the story it represents. Three civil rights workers were killed by the Klan, with the connivance of local authorities, in 1964 Mississippi. With J. Edgar Hoover's hostility, the FBI did nothing until pressure from civil rights groups, the victims' families and Northern congressmen forced their hand. The investigation was resolved as much by bribing witnesses as rough police work, helped by a conscience-stricken policeman who tipped off the Justice Department.

Parker and screenwriter Chris Gerolmo have bigger problems than historical accuracy. Their story depicts the South as a viper's nest, everyone a trigger-happy redneck. Parker ensures there's an outrage every five minutes: whether bombing churches, burning chicken coops or beating children, these Klansmen are incredibly industrious villains. When Anderson starts smashing hillbilly testicles and intimidating witnesses, the audience inevitably cheers. Like a high-minded Billy Jack, Mississippi Burning indulges an unholy coupling of liberal righteousness and reactionary bloodlust.

While channeling the audience's most primitive impulses, Parker can't bring himself to depict a black character. Instead there are crowds of faceless Negroes, enduring endless punishment with little more than baleful glares. Blacks march in the street, mourn their dead and sing endless spirituals, becoming lifeless symbols. Only Badja Djola's FBI enforcer, threatening R. Lee Ermey's Mayor with castration, evinces any personality. Better to plumb buddy cop clichés and a love triangle with Anderson and a deputy's conscience-stricken wife(Frances McDormand).

Parker's direction is fine, with competently staged action and some effective montages. His best device shows media interviewing local denizens, selling the message better than the million beatings. Gene Hackman makes Anderson a good ol' boy Popeye Doyle, preferring violence over persuasion; Willem Dafoe sports a Kennedy haircut and horn-rimmed glasses as the by-the-book Ward. Frances McDormand does well in a thankless part; R. Lee Ermey, Brad Dourif and Michael Rooker play assorted cartoon hicks.

Among its myriad sins, Mississippi Burning initiated a decade of tone-deaf racial dramas salving guilty Baby Boomer consciences. These from earnestly square (Ghosts of Mississippi) to offensively idiotic (A Time to Kill), all comforting bedtime stories of white liberals saving passive, grateful blacks from irredeemable rednecks. Watching them makes one appreciate Spike Lee, whose outrage and excess seems an appropriate response to condescending, saccharine pap passing as meaningful.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The China Syndrome

The last great '70s thriller, The China Syndrome (1979) earned immortality by coming out twelve days before Three Mile Island's near-meltdown. Nuclear power remains controversial but that's only one topic explored in this fascinating, multilayered film.

Journalist Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) visits the Ventana nuclear power plant in California, witnessing an accident narrowly averted by manager Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon). Cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas) surreptitiously films the accident, and Kim wants to run it - but she's stymied by their boss (Peter Donat). Richard steals the footage and takes it to the Nuclear Regulatory Condition. The company runs damage control, from media denials to strong-arm threats, and prepares to put the plant back online. However, Jack grows convinced that the issue's more serious than it initially appeared, willing to take any action to avert catastrophe.

The China Syndrome became a fictional rallying cry for anti-nuclear activists, which Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and more recently Fukushima only intensified. If Syndrome somewhat exaggerates the dangers, its portrayal of corporate cost-cutting seems is more solidly grounded. The plant duped an inspector to avoid bureaucratic hassles and save money, an understandable but potentially fatal cost-cutting members. Similar events could happen in any industry, but rarely with such catastrophic potential. Human lives become secondary to the bottom dollar.

Alongside its message of corporate accountability, Syndrome probes journalistic ethics. In the post-Watergate era it's not shocking to see intrepid reporters crashing a story, nor hirsute rebel Richard, a cross between Bob Woodward and Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws. Kimberly's the interesting hook here, an anchor more used to human interest stories about whales and lion cubs; yet she recognizes a breaking story when she sees it. It's sadly credible that a news team would fold before fears of corporate lawsuits. If CBS folded before the tobacco industry, what chance has a Los Angeles local against a major power company?

Director James Bridges films in detached yet gripping style; without musical score, events unfold in tense, understated fashion. Bridges stages the initial near-meltdown with, allowing small (a rippling coffee cup and stuck gauge) that disaster. The film introduces some third act corporate goons to spice things up, culminating in a car chase that's exciting but not strictly necessary. The film regains its bearings afterwards, with a tense standoff as Jack commandeers the power plant. The finale's murky enough that the "truth to power" message seems muddled; will Kim's pronouncements get through, or become one unreliable voice against corporate spin doctors?

Jack Lemmon scores with an intense performance, his faith in the system eroded by bullheaded superiors. Lemmon underplays even Jack's breakdown, a nuanced performance among that actor's best. Jane Fonda's equally solid as a fluff journalist struggling to be taken seriously. Michael Douglas is the weak link, an abrasive hippie hero all-too-common in '70s cinema. Wilford Brimley (The Firm) stands out as Jack's conflicted floor manager. Peter Donat (The Godfather, Part II), James Karen (Nixon) and Richard Herd (The Onion Field) handle supporting roles.

Curiously, The China Syndrome hasn't endured as a perennial like All the President's Men or other contemporaries. True, it rode to success by tackling (and sensationalizing) a hot button issue, but that issue hasn't disappeared. Topical or not, its simple, assured craftsmanship marks it as a classic.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Go-Between

"We can't expect to be happy all the time, can we?"
The Go-Between (1971) marks Joseph Losey's final collaboration with Harold Pinter. After The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967) it's a straightforward take on L.P. Hartley's acclaimed Edwardian novel. Yet it provides a new setting for Losey and Pinter's obsession with class barriers and psychological warfare.

Teenage Leo Colston (Dominic Guard) spends a summer with friend Marcus Maudsley (Richard Gibson), becoming smitten with Marcus's sister Marian (Julie Christie). Leo grows ensnared in a love triangle between Marian, her scarred suitor Hugh Trimingham (Edward Fox) and farmer Ted Burgess (Alan Bates), who use the boy to relay messages to and spy on each other. Leo's increasingly uncomfortable in his position, finding the adults more willing to confide in him than each other - and their confidences are both troubling and dangerous.

The Go-Between is a restrained, barbed drama. Pinter relishes showing his protagonists fatally straightjacketed by social roles. Marian marries the vapid, self-impressed Hugh as an obligation, lacking the will to protest. Ted only interacts with the protagonists at a cricket match (later singing a music hall ballad), where he's regarded as an ape-like curiosity. Despite outward politeness there's no connection or understanding, only icy contempt. Leo moves between both worlds, despite being a "poor nothing out of nowhere"; he ends up bearing their insults, getting an unpleasant taste of grown-up hypocrisy.

Losey's direction marks a notable break from his baroque style. Shooting in the Norfolk countryside, Losey and photographer Gerry Fisher get beautiful scenery of the Maudsley estate, Ted's farmland and windswept forests. The movie's highpoint is an intricately-staged cricket match, where Ted's vulgar style of play amuses and appalls the assembled gentry. The film has a straightforward, almost unpolished style compared with contemporaries like Ryan's Daughter and Women in Love, seeming all the better for it. Only Michel Legrand's melodramatic score strikes a bum note.

Julie Christie expresses her repressed personality only with Leo, showing love and frustration she can't show to others. Dominic Guard (Picnic at Hanging Rock) is impressive, alternately confused and dismayed by his glances at adult society. Alan Bates is an earthy rustic similar to his role in Far from the Madding Crowd. Edward Fox plays a snotty aristocrat better than anyone; this role landed him The Day of the Jackal. There are supporting roles for Margaret Leighton (Lady Caroline Lamb) as snidely domineering matriarch and Michael Gough (Batman), her diffident husband. Michael Redgrave appears briefly as adult Leo.

After The Go-Between, Losey produced The Assassination of Trotsky (1972), a colossally misjudged biopic-cum-art film. Losey then retreated into modest theater adaptations (A Doll's House, Galileo), never regaining his artistic footing. Without Harold Pinter, Losey seemed unable to cull his artistic excess. Between them, they produced three extraordinary films.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Quorum Call: The Godfather, Part II's Senate Committee


A major portion of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Part II (1974) involves Michael Corleone's interrogation by the United States Senate. Having returned from Cuba, where his business venture crumbles during Fidel Castro's revolution, Michael's faced with an investigation initiated by his rival, Hyman Roth. The Senators interrogate Michael's henchman, Willie Cicci, who provides information on the Corleone family and his own crimes, but can't implicate Michael directly. "The family had a lot of buffers!" he announces to general amusement.
Michael later testifies, confronting allegations about his criminal empire and personal transgression. Michael coolly denies their accusations, then reads a prepared statement emphasizing his lack of criminal record and World War II service. Afterwards, he's notified that the committee has a surprise witness: Frank Pentangeli, Michael's capo who survived a hit by Roth's henchmen, then turned against Michael for immunity.

Things don't go according to plan. Michael convinces Pentangeli's brother, Vincenzo, to attend the hearing, either has a threat against Vincenzo life or reminder of the Mob code of omerta. Pentangeli loses his nerve, claiming he invented his testimony under duress. The committee dissolves, with Michael walking scot free. Later, Tom Hagen persuades Pentangeli to commit suicide, saving his family and preserving his honor.
Coppola and Mario Puzo modeled these scenes off the Kefauver Committee, an early '50s Senate body which investigated organized crime. The committee yielded no convictions, with many speculating that its instigator, Senator Estes Kefauver (D-TN) merely wanted publicity for a president campaign. (Kefauver ran in 1956, losing the nomination to Adlai Stevenson; he became Stevenson's running mate). It did, however, plant the Mafia in America's public consciousness: the hearings were widely televised, providing glimpses of underworld figures like Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky.

Another inspiration came from Joe Valachi. A henchman for Vito Genovese, Valachi was already jailed when he murdered another inmate, whom he feared. Threatened with life imprisonment or death, Valachi turned states evidence against Genovese, testifying before the McClellan committee in 1963. Like Willie Cicci, Valachi was too low-ranking to incriminate his bosses. But he did provide useful history and organizational detail on the Mafia, which assisted Federal prosecutors in future investigations.
Coppola filmed these scenes in two days, using unfiltered cameras and sound to create a newsreel look. He also cast non-actors as the Senators. Reviewing footage of the Kefauver hearings, Coppola was struck by the Senators' awkwardness on film. "I asked myself, how could I achieve that effect?" Coppola recalled. "I'll pick writers, producers and directors, all thinking men but untrained as actors." He achieves the desired realism, with the Senators fluffing lines, referring to scripts and acting unrehearsed. But who plays the Senators?

The making of The Godfather trilogy is well-documented, but there's a lot of vagueness and misinformation, both in printed works and the Internet, about these pivotal scenes. If nothing else, Godfather fans and trivia buffs might appreciate the chance to put faces to names.
G.D. Spradlin (Senator Pat Geary) needs no introduction, as he's a major character in the film. A Nevada Senator, Geary tries "squeezing" Michael for a gaming license, only to be blackmailed in turn for murdering a prostitute. Geary later joins Michael in Cuba and turns up on the committee interrogating him. Having previously denounced Italian-Americans as oily criminals, he gives a ridiculous speech espousing Italian contributions to America, inspiring spectator applause and Senate befuddlement.

A larger-than-life figure, Spradlin was as interesting as any of his characters. Born in Paul's Valley, Oklahoma, Spradlin worked as a lawyer, oil producer and political ad man. He ran John F. Kennedy's Oklahoma campaign in 1960, making him natural casting for a Senator. But Spradlin's real passion was acting, joining the Oklahoma Repertory Theatre before moving into film. Pre-Godfather roles include Tom Gries' Will Penny (1968) and Michaelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970).

Spradlin remained a prolific character actor, specializing in Geary-esque slimeballs. Besides Godfather, Part II, his best-known role came as the domineering basketball coach in Lamont Johnson's One on One (1977). Coppola used him again in Apocalypse Now (1979) as the General briefing Captain Willard. Spradlin died in July 2011.
William Bowers (Senator Kane) is the exasperated committee chairman. He's constantly irritated, whether by Willie Cicci's flippancy ("No, I don't know! Tell me") or Geary's bizarre speech. He snidely challenges Michael to read his statement ("I'm sure we're all very impressed"), then threatens him with perjury. When Pentangeli retracts his testimony, Kane loses his cool and recesses the hearing. It's a lovely character performance, especially from a non-actor.

Bowers had an impressive career. Born in Las Cruces, California, Bowers began as a journalist, then published a stage play. Bowers became a prolific screenwriter, penning the Cole Porter biopic Night and Day (1946) and the Oscar-nominated script for The Gunfighter (1950), Henry King's classic Western. He also penned the noirs Split Second (1953) and Tight Spot (1955), the David Niven vehicle My Man Godfrey (1957) and earned a second Oscar nod for The Sheepman (1957). He also worked in television.

One of the strangest incidents in Bowers' career involved The Last Time I Saw Archie (1961), a service comedy starring Robert Mitchum and Jack Webb. Bowers drew on personal experience, having served in the Civilian Pilot Training Program in World War II. However, Bowers based Mitchum's character on Arch Hall, Sr., producer of Z-grade schlock like Eegah! (1962). Hall sued the filmmakers, winning a settlement exceeding the budget of Hall's entire filmography.

A lifelong friend of Coppola's, Bowers landed this plum role in Godfather II. His only other acting appearances came on the TV shows Starsky and Hutch and Mobile One. Bowers later worked for Coppola's Zoetrope Studios as a staff writer, though most of his late career work was for television. Bowers died in 1987.

Peter Donat (Questadt) is the crooked Senate Counsel. On the DVD commentary, Coppola says he envisioned the character like a young Richard Nixon interrogating Alger Hiss. Questadt's certainly snide and unpleasant, acting like an ambulance chaser given a national platform. In the shooting script, but not in the finished film, Questadt joins Geary's party in Havana, arguing about America's support for Batista. Later, Michael learns from Fredo Corleone that he's working for Hyman Roth... a revelation which seals Fredo's fate.

Besides Spradlin, Donat is the only professional actor among the Committee. The nephew of Robert Donat, the Canadian-born Peter worked steadily for decades on stage, screen and television. Appearing in everything from Dallas to Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1976) and David Fincher's The Game (1997), Donat is probably best-known as Bill Mulder on The X-Files. It's nice to know that before joining the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Mulder's dad apprenticed with Hyman Roth!

Several Internet sources claim that Donat originally auditioned for Tom Hagen in The Godfather. Interesting if true, but I haven't found any solid verification. As we'll see, the Internet Movie Database isn't the most reliable source of information.
Roger Corman (Senator Weekler) has only two lines, asking Michael to identify Vincenzo Pentangeli, Frank's brother who arrives to intimidate Frank into recanting his testimony. The script describes him as "very smooth, partly liberal, Tammany Hall." Interestingly, he's the one who originally gave Geary's speech praising Italian-Americans, which makes sense for a Senator with so many Italian constituents.

Corman is the impresario who produced and directed a variety of B Movies: sci-fi movies (It Conquered the World), biker flicks (The Wild Angels), Edgar Allen Poe adaptations (The Raven). He directed one studio film, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967), for Twentieth Century Fox. Despite its success, Corman preferred the exploitation grind, where he's remained ever since: he's still producing movies like Sharktopus (2010).

Besides providing MST3K fodder, Corman's films gave early launches to directors like Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese, actors like Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. Another was Coppola, who "directed" his Battle Beyond the Sun (1962), a re-edited Russian sci-fi flick, along with the horror film Dementia 13 (1963). "Roger was always straight - he never gave you any false hope," Coppola said. "He was always very precise about what you were going to get and do."

Corman describes shooting The Godfather, Part II in his memoirs, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. "There were close-ups on me, harsh, blinding lights... I was behind those lights for two days." He recounts Jack Nicholson, another Corman veteran, visiting the set to rib his performance: "Your entire career in Hollywood depends on how you say your lines." Corman made a mini-career acting in his protégés' works: he's the FBI director in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1993) and a Congressman in Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995).
Phil Feldman (Senator Rogers) objects to Michael reading his statement and leads the interrogation of Frank Pentangeli.

Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise (On the Edge: The Life and Times of Francis Coppola) provide an interesting sketch of Feldman's career. He graduated from Harvard Law School and practiced as an attorney, then served as a codebreaker in World War II, decrypting Japanese military cyphers. Feldman worked for the talent agency Famous Artists before joining the production company Seven Arts, which later merged with Warner Bros. He produced Coppola's film You're a Big Boy Now (1966) over the objections of studio heads, earning Coppola's gratitude.

Afterwards, Feldman produced two Sam Peckinpah films, The Wild Bunch (1969) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970). He somehow managed a close working relationship with "Bloody Sam" until they feuded over Cable Hogue's distribution. His only other onscreen appearance was John Badham's Blue Thunder (1983). Feldman worked in Hollywood until his death in 1991; his son, Dennis Feldman, also became a producer.
This gentleman, who appears at the panel's far right, is Buck Houghton, producer of The Twilight Zone and other TV series. Harlan Lebo's The Godfather Legacy identifies Houghton as one of the Senators and it appears to be this fellow. That leaves four Senators unaccounted for.
One persistent myth surrounding The Godfather, Part II is that Richard Matheson, famous science fiction writer, played one of the Senators. This is repeated ad nauseum online: IMDB lists Matheson as "Senator #3 (uncredited)", while The Godfather Wiki offers contradictory information. Though its page on Matheson categorically denies his presence, his alleged character, Senator King (never identified onscreen), is credited to Matheson. Coppola contributes to the confusion on the DVD commentary; he seems to confirm Matheson's presence, only to confuse him with Peter Donat.

This is easy enough to debunk: Matheson denies appearing in the film in The Richard Matheson Companion, he's uncredited, and there isn't any hard evidence to back these claims. Perhaps Matheson's association with Roger Corman (writing several screenplays for him) started this rumor? While several senators don't speak and are unaccounted for, it's unlikely Matheson's among them.
Reportedly, Coppola cast several real journalists as the press gaggle covering the hearings. It's hard to identify anyone, since they only appear in long shot. Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, is one of the photographers. That's supposedly him kneeling in the bottom right, but he's too obscured to get a clear screencap.

If anyone knows the identities of the remaining Senators, please comment or email me and I will update accordingly. Until then, I hope this article helps clear some discrepancies in Godfather ephemera.

Acknowledgments:
Besides the print resources cited herein, The Godfather Wiki provides useful information on sources, a copy of the shooting script, and some of the screenshots. The Richard Matheson picture comes from The Examiner. This excellent article by John at Homages, Ripoffs, and Coincidences provides the tidbit about Gary Kurtz, along with other cameos throughout the trilogy.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Brotherhood

Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde inspired a new wave of gangster films, which The Brotherhood (1968) nearly whacked. Martin Ritt's crime saga was a notorious flop, nearly dissuading Paramount from adapting a certain Mario Puzo novel. It's more a product of Hollywood cluelessness than actively terrible.

Vince Ginetta (Alex Cord) returns home from Vietnam to marry sweetheart Emma (Susan Strasberg). Instead of going into business, he joins brother Frank's (Kirk Douglas) underworld rackets. Their relationship quickly sours as Frank opposes the Commission's efforts to expand into electronics racket. Vince and Frank spar on this and other points, leading to a fraternal riff. The Commission grows tired of Frank, especially after he orders hits on his own. Frank flees to Sicily, and his ex-bosses entrust Vince with tracking him down.

The obvious knock against The Brotherhood is its distinct lack of authenticity. Despite filming the bookends in Sicily and Lalo Schiffrin's maranzano-infused score, it doesn't seem remotely Italian. Kirk Douglas can play bocce and shout "Mamma mia!" but he's still Kirk Douglas. This is one of The Godfather's best achievements: save James Caan, the principal Italian characters are Italian-Americans, beautifully capturing that subculture. The Brotherhood's gangsters are Sicily's equivalent of cigar-store Indians.

That said, The Brotherhood isn't terrible. Lewis John Carlino's script revolves around a clash between gangland traditions and modern technocracy. Frank learned his trade through breaking arms and busted heads, but the educated Vince checkmates him with smarts and flexibility. There's arguments over everything from Frank speaking Italian to family members arguing about pop music. When Frank retreats to Sicily it leads to an obvious denouement: the New World wiping out the Old.
This provides material for a gangland Cain-and-Abel story, and The Brotherhood fares reasonably well working this angle. Trouble is, it introduces other plot threads - namely a Federal investigation of Frank's rackets - that go nowhere. The Sicily scenes must have been expensive, yet are little more than exotic color; when the actors are Hollywood phony, shooting in Palermo adds nothing. The Brotherhood's conclusion would be moving if the material bolstering it weren't so unremarkable.

Martin Ritt's direction is terse and economical. There aren't any action scenes, only killings with colorful touches: a painfully prolonged garroting, stuffing a canary in a victim's mouth. Leisurely paced, Ritt settles in for commission debates and fraternal squabbles. These scenes are pokey rather than pointed: they drive the plot and give the actors meaty material, but the story's too broadly drawn to achieve the desired depth.

Kirk Douglas is typically charismatic and troubled, nearly overcoming that he's as Italian as gefilte fish. Alex Cord shows the marked lack of talent that doomed him to television and second-string Spaghetti Westerns. Irene Pappas (The Guns of Navarone) and Susan Strasberg (Kapo) are harried gangland wives. Noted Italians Luther Adler (The Man in the Glass Booth) and Murray Hamilton (Jaws) play other Mafiosi. At least Eduardo Cianelli's appropriately cast, after playing Indian gurus and Latins for decades.

It's unfair to compare The Brotherhood against Coppola's masterworks, though its similar storyline doesn't dissuade us. Ultimately, its lack of Italian-ness is less damning than that it's unremarkable.