Thoughts on The Wild Bunch for The Black List Essential Series:
Thoughts on The Wild Bunch for The Black List Essential Series:
Despite a career spanning twenty-three films as writer and director, filmmaker Federico Fellini once wrote that the only character who still continued to worry him was that of Cabiria—portrayed by his wife Giulietta Masina—in the eponymous Nights of Cabiria. He wrote:
“Cabiria is a victim, and any of us can be a victim at one time or another. Cabiria is, however, more of a victim personality than most. Yet even so, there is also the survivor in her. This film doesn’t have a resolution… so definitive that you no longer have to worry about Cabiria. I myself have worried about her fate ever since.”
Although the director is credited for creating some of the most memorable moments in cinema, along with equally compelling characters, Cabiria stands apart from her cinematic siblings and deserves closer consideration. For Cabiria is a character of contradictions. A prostitute. A cynic. Naïve. Disgusted by men. Desperate for true love. In love with life then begging for someone to kill her…but still, she survives—and she smiles.
Though Fellini initiated his career as one of the preeminent figures within the post-war movement of Italian Neorealism—credited as a cowriter on Rossellini’s seminal Rome, Open City—his early films remained rooted in this realm of storytelling: offering more grounded, character-centric stories concerned with those disenfranchised peoples pushed to the fringes of society. Consequentially, the fates of these characters often end tragically—not washed in fabricated melodrama, but powerfully depicted with pathos and poignancy. Evolving as an artist, Fellini transitioned further from this grounded reality and ventured toward vistas of fantasy and surrealism that still reflected the honest character work seen in these earlier Neorealist films, yet were willing to depart from the unyielding aesthetics to which the emotions of that post-war movement were so strongly responding.
Nonetheless, the film that stands as the transitional point bifurcating between these eras in Fellini’s filmography can be credited towards Nights of Cabiria. For although the film dabbles in surrealism, the heart of the movie still lies in the harsh setting for its titular character to negotiate with a life of unforgiving circumstance. A life that offers as much joy as it does tragedy—one that brings her to the brink of ecstasy, then nearly drives her to throw herself off a cliff.
The episodic structure of the film further complements this idiosyncratic character with an opening scene that serves an intriguing glimpse into the unpredictable nature that composes Cabiria. After her boyfriend Giorgio escorts her to a lake, he pushes her in to drown then steals her purse. Although saved by the locals, she offers no gratitude—angrily storming off instead to search for Giorgio and her money—and creating quite an impression upon the audience of this unusual little woman.
Returning to her little home in the industrial wasteland outside Rome, still enraged by Giorgio, Cabiria seeks out her best friend and neighbor—Wanda. She asks: “Someone would throw you in the river for 40,000 lire? Drown you for 40,000 lire?…Someone who loves you” To which Wanda laughs: “What love? You met him a month ago. You don’t know his name or where he lives. Can’t you understand? He pushed you in! He pushed you in the river!”
Cabiria’s oscillating emotions emerge as the defining elements of her character in each chapter. Mostly, the two major reactions to men seen in this opening sequence: an innocent, child-like yearning to be love, which, after being met with horrendous results, often transforms into defensive anger toward those that ridicule her. As will become evident in the ensuing episodes, and despite warnings from the likes of Wanda (“Can’t you understand? He pushed you in the river!) Cabiria cannot help but revert to these innocent hopes and desires—hopes that the men she meets continually crush.
That night, Cabiria joins her fellow streetwalkers at the Archaeological Passageway and the weird sense of both camaraderie and rivalry within strange menagerie becomes quickly evident. Cabiria, especially, seems to evoke a unique sense of simultaneous ire and fellowship from her co-workers, who seem as equally annoyed as captivated by her presence. Following a spat with these girls, Cabiria is given a ride into town, where the driver offers her the advice that she needs to find a good man, to which she replies: “Why should I slave for filthy pigs like you?” Just moments later, in typical Cabiria-contradiction-fashion, a famous movie star beckons Cabiria to join him within a nightclub (after a fight with his girlfriend)—and she dutifully follows.
Following their fun at the club, and with this famous movie star Alberto Lazzari fascinated by Cabiria’s peculiar personality, he invites her back to his mansion. Cabiria soon finds herself being served lobster and caviar in bed by a butler and is beside herself. She even asks Lazzari for an autograph so that she may brag about the affair to her friends. When Alberto asks about her, Cabiria offers an answer filled again with a combination of defensive explanations, childlike pride, and an unfiltered thought-process that gives further credence toward her almost child-like sensibilities:
“I work the Passeggiata Archeologica. Much more convenient…My friend Wanda. She lives there too. But I don’t bother with the others. The others sleep under the arches in Caracalla. Mind you, I have my own house…with water, electricity… every convenience. I got everything. See this one here. She never, ever slept under an arch. Well maybe once. Or twice. Of course, my house is…nothing like this. But it’s enough for me. I like it.”
During this seemingly fortunate turn of events, Alberto receives an urgent call from his girlfriend that soon finds her intruding upon his tryst with Cabiria. He begs Cabiria to hide in his bathroom, promising that he will soon be back after ridding themselves of the interruption…only for Cabiria to end up spending the rest of the night locked inside the bathroom of this famous movie star with only his pet dog for company.
Like the other sequences of this episodic structure, this chapter functions almost like a short story about a woman’s-would-be-night-with-a-movie-star suddenly injected into a character driven feature length-film. The sequence has a clear beginning, middle, and end and delivers a range of emotions—from the joy of something good finally greeting Cabiria, to the humor of her experience, to the eventual heartbreaking tenderness of her spending the night with this pet dog—isolated, locked away, and forced to sleep on the bathroom floor.
After sneaking away in the morning, Cabiria’s next episode—a scene originally excised in the initial theatrical cut after being condemned by the Catholic Church—involves her coming across a “Good Samaritan” who visits downtrodden citizens living in the caves with food, supplies, and company. While accompanying him, Cabiria comes across a prostitute that she recognizes—a formerly beautiful prostitute admired by every man, but who has now aged into a haggard old woman living in a cave. Immediately, Cabiria recognizes the unbearable truth—her face unable to disguise her sorrow in understanding how such a formerly beautiful woman beloved by men could now spend her remaining years living in the caves beneath Rome—a glimpse of a fate not inconceivable for young Cabiria to one day be living.
Following this episode, Cabiria seeks for something profound—something that may help alter her lifestyle for the better, so she turns to religion—begging the Madonna for help. Though some of her peers appear to pursue this religious quest out of duty more than some deeply spiritual need, Cabiria genuinely pleads for help. She begs: “Madonna, help me, to change my life…make me change my life”.
In credit to Masina’s big doe-eyes, the scene takes on a endearing quality that draws out the innocence inherent to her deeper nature, depicting a young woman incapable of fixing those circumstances of her life, who has reverted to begging for help from a higher power that may be capable of changing qualities of her soul where she cannot.
Not much later, following a few drinks, Cabiria grows quiet in the company of her friends. Impatient, and unable to conceal her rage, she complains: “We haven’t changed! Nobody’s changed”—feeling that her prayers have gone unanswered and that she remains imprisoned within this bleak existence of unforgiving circumstances. Wanda and her friends, however, can only laugh at Cabiria’s infant-like temper—an anger brewing out of the fact that, like a child, she had hoped a god would grant her wish in some Santa Claus like fashion. Flooded with frustration, Cabiria storms off.
Eventually, she finds herself intrigued by an advertisement for a magic show and decides to buy a ticket. Seated in an aisle of mostly men, the magician calls for her to participate in his next act onstage. Though she protests, the men cajole her into cooperating and she begrudgingly joins the magician onstage. After a round of crude insults from the crowd, Cabiria starts to proudly defend herself by announcing that she has a bank account and house of her own—a confession that will ultimately doom her.
Nonetheless, despite this heated exchange between Cabiria and her audience, the magician calms her down enough to perform the trick…and completely hypnotized Cabiria. In one of the film’s most rightfully famous and spellbinding of scenes—one that stands as a true testament to the power of both Fellini as a director and Masina as a performer—Cabiria becomes fully transfixed into the fantasy of her hypnotized spell. The hardened shell of her complicated character that the viewer has grown accustomed to, the defensive little woman with a fiery temper, melts away to expose a wounded, vulnerable soul. She enacts a fantasy wherein she meets an imaginary man named Oscar, confesses her desire to be loved, and the fantasy of living in a loving relationship.
After the rollercoaster ride of her experiences and unpredictable personality, the astounding sequence suddenly stills the viewer into an a deeply absorbing moment that becomes almost too intimate to bear, as the audience is admitted a deeply personal glimpse into the essence of this character’s psyche, only to find the wounded soul hiding beneath the hardened exterior carefully cultivated to protect Cabiria from pain. Then, she is snapped out of her spell.
Wide-eyed and completely disoriented when returning to reality, she is met by jeers from the rude audience of men, laughing at her involuntary confession—and compelling Cabiria to flee.
On the street, however, she is stopped by a persistent fellow. He introduces himself as an accountant—one incredibly infatuated by Cabiria and her hypnotic display. Instinctively fearful of yet another humiliation, she refuses to acknowledge him, but he does not give up. Instead, he again tries to explain how deeply touched her genuine innocence affected him. Moreover, he reveals that his name is Oscar—the name of the man that Cabiria loved in her fantasy—and that he truly believes that the hand of fate has manifested itself in their meeting. Though Cabiria remains suspicious, she agrees to meet him again.
During their next rendezvous, Cabiria continues her cautious engagement with this persistent fellow. Oscar, meanwhile, only appears more romantically transfixed. He professes his love, charms her, and makes clear his intention to continue the relationship. These overtures slowly start to seduce Cabiria, and she can hardly suppress her feelings for her new suitor. Nonetheless, when describing this seemingly perfect new man to Wanda, her friend can only question his motives, though Cabiria remains unphased by such hesitations in the face of finally finding some form of happiness.
On her way home, she encounters a priest, one who advises her toward marriage: “Girls should get married and make children. Matrimony is a sacred thing. In the grace of God.” The admonishment appears to strike a chord, and on her next date with Oscar, she asks that they consider ending the relationship—worried they may be wasting their time. And so, Oscar proposes to marry Cabiria.
She can hardly contain herself in the aftermath, offering a laundry list of criticisms instead: “Marry me? Marry someone you’ve seen ten times? Someone you’ don’t even know. That’s not how it’s done…” But Oscar remains calm—and persistent—and she boils over into an emotional frenzy. Her voice straining, unable to sedate her enthusiasm:
“What do you know about me? About who I am? You shouldn’t fool someone this way. Why pick on me of all people?” At the end of this passionate diatribe, Oscar calmly responds: “We are two lonely creatures. We have to stick together. I need you.” At last, Cabiria accepts. This woman prepared to swear off men just a few night before has now swung to the opposite side of the pendulum—embracing the joy of finding that connection that she so desperately wanted but kept hidden after years of being humiliated or devastated by the eventual outcome.
Completely immersing herself toward living this new life, she soon sells her house to a poor family desperately in need of a larger home—a possession that Cabiria has long prided herself upon as perhaps her biggest accomplishment in this world. Though she freezes for a moment in handing over the keys, realizing the symbolic importance of passing over the prized property as the transitional point from her old life to the new, Cabiria stares upon the faces of this downtrodden family and can then recognize her satisfaction in being able to relinquish the key for the future happiness of this family. Finally, about to step onto the bus that will allow her to leave, she bids Wanda farewell with a smile, promising: “you’ll get a miracle like me”.
The final episode begins with Cabiria at dinner with Oscar, her new fiancé. And while Cabiria can hardly suppress her exhilaration, Oscar has suddenly grown shy and reticent. During their discussion, Cabiria explains that she has withdrawn 40,000 from the bank and plops some of the money there on the table—only to have Oscar promptly scold her to hide it from public view. Not much later, Cabiria suddenly starts to cry tears of joy—thanking Oscar just for liking her for herself and never challenging her about her finances or how she acquired them.
Though Oscar acts more and more withdrawn compared to Cabiria’s increasing adorations, he soon suggests that they take a walk into a secluded, wooded area. Alone, Cabiria showers him with more praise and thanks—a young woman lost in a haze of love. Still, Oscar only behaves visibly nervous, his hesitation palpable and uncomfortable in juxtaposition to Cabiria saying: “ You suffer, you go through hell…but then happiness comes along…You’ve been my angel.”
Oscar then escorts her to a cliff overlooking a lake below—the two of them completely alone upon this isolated promontory. With Cabiria standing on the edge of this cliff, she suddenly realizes how nervous, pale, and anxious Oscar has become. Then, understanding everything in one horrible moment—that Oscar intended to kill her and take her money—Cabiria breaks.
She throws herself to the ground, sobbing, inconsolable, and now begging for him to kill her. Cabiria unable and unwilling to contend with Oscar’s betrayal—humiliated beyond compare after believing she had finally found happiness—and transforms into a being overwhelmed with despair. Confronted by his cowardice, Oscar wastes no more time—he steals her purse and flees—leaving her collapsed, inconsolable, and alone.
Some time later that night, after Cabiria has collected herself from the misery of the experience, she manages to stand back up and walk away from the cliff. She ambles out of the woods and finds herself on a rural street. Moments later, she hears music coming from a group of young men and women emerging from the woods and sharing the road alongside her. They encircle her—clapping, singing, and creating a parade for her—celebrating Cabiria for no specific reason at all: just for being Cabiria.
Despite her desolation, her utter anguish from just hours before when she was begging to die from the unbearable pain—she slowly smiles through the tears…and the film ends.
That smile, however, stays with the viewer long after the credits.
Like the previous episodes, the writing and performance weave a story that impresses a wide-spectrum of emotions along the human experience—from ecstatic highs, to tender poignancy, to the hope of change, to devastating lows that veer close to complete defeat—and yet, Cabiria emerges from each chapter with an enriched understanding of the human experience, whether she is aware of it or not, as does the audience.
Not unlike Antoine Doinel’s final stare at the end of 400 Blows, this concluding image resonates for the lingering ambiguity that demands for the viewer to impress his or her own meaning upon that smile and its implications for Cabiria’s future. Unlike Doinel’s stare, however, that smile cannot help conjure a powerful wave of emotion upon the viewer in that immediate moment—to watch Cabiria resurrected from the utter brink of despair, genuinely pleading to be killed rather than live with the humiliation of Oscar’s betrayal, a kind of trauma that could spiritually paralyze her—and then for her to be able to smile at this improvised parade is a feat on the part of Masina and Fellini that exemplifies the moving power of cinema at its best.
Though the smile of that moment at least gives the audience some hope toward Cabiria’s future, one can understand Fellini’s worry, as well. This is a character that will clearly continue to experience all of life’s highs and lows, perhaps to even more devastating effect than before if it is possible, but that ending still leaves enough hope, enough proof, that no matter what happens—she can still smile again.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
So begins the Yeats poem from which Cormac McCarthy’s novel—No Country for Old Men—takes its name. As detailed in four stanzas, Yeats’ poem addresses man’s mortality: describing a man’s anxieties over his approaching age and encroaching death. The man combats these fears by sailing to the shores of Byzantium, where he hopes that the wise sages from ages past may transcend his soul into the fire of immortality. This fabled Byzantium representing a paradise—an immaterial realm of wisdom and eternity—separated from the deteriorating quality of life found in the material world.
But the country of McCarthy’s story is no paradise.
Set near the Texas/Mexico border in 1980, No Country for Old Men instead presents a barren, brutal landscape where the morals and identity of a nation are at a crossroads. The story follows the journey of three characters caught in a tangled pursuit of one another across this burgeoning wasteland: Llewyn Moss, the everyday man responsible for stealing the money that kicks the plot in motion; Anton Chigurh, the philosophical, psychopathic hitman chasing Moss across the desert; and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the aging Sheriff searching for both men and painfully aware of the declining moral tide plaguing his small county of Terrell, Texas and rapidly spreading out across the nation.
Sheriff Bell serves as the story’s moral compass—a World War II veteran who inherited the role of lawman from his family, and who finds himself aghast at the abhorrent violence suddenly sweeping throughout the sleepy Texas town. In a significant though obvious change for adaptation reasons, his narration is absent from the film. Yet in the novel, these narrations at the beginning of each new chapter function both to break the relentless charge of the narrative and also allow for the Sheriff’s musings about his surrounding world, which he not only no longer recognizes, but which he may no longer want to recognize.
The audience is first introduced to this world of decline through the opening chapter, where the strange, dangerous hitman named Anton Chigurh brutally strangles a young Texas Deputy by transforming his handcuffs into a substitute garrote—slicing his cuffs through the young man’s neck and splattering blood across the police department floor. He then retrieves his iconic weapon—a captive bolt pistol aka a cattle gun—which drives a steel rod through the victim’s skull before then retracting, leaving no exit wound and ensuring a certain death.
Meanwhile, Llewlyn Moss, a Vietnam vet and welder by craft, spends his time in the isolated terrains of West Texas where he hunts a herd of antelopes within these wide-open and unpopulated spaces. While tracking a wounded animal, he stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug-deal gone horribly awry—multiple Mexican men, their animals, and their armored trucks brought down by a barrage of bullets. During his search, Moss, ever the hunter, finds a satchel of money containing close to two million dollars.
This catalytic chapter serves as an embodiment of the unique style so representative of McCarthy’s aesthetic: prose writing that modulates between being clinically observant to poetic and profound, often within the same paragraph:
“He hiked on along the ridge with thumb hooked in the shoulderstrap of the rifle, his hat pushed back on his head. The back of his shirt was already wet with sweat. The rocks there etched with pictographs perhaps a thousands years old. The men who drew them hunters like himself. Of them there was no other trace.”
The Coens’ cinematic translation of this opening scene works to similar effect: introducing the tone, style, and distinguished aesthetic that separates the film from those typically found in such a genre thriller. Specifically, the viewer becomes starkly aware of the filmmakers’ choice to work with a very limited score—rarely using music at all except in a few instances where its presence serves to subtly enrich the emotional content of the scene, rather than manipulate the viewer toward the desired feeling. While most filmmakers are incapable of wallowing within scenes of long silences for fear of boring the audience, the Coens prove that when armed with a strong storyline and a palpable sense of tension that the manipulative effect of music can often be unnecessary or distracting. Instead, the music of the rustling wind and the crunch of boots across gravel provide a soundtrack that further amplifies the suspense already present within the premise.
Nonetheless, Moss steals the money and returns to his trailer parker home. There, he banters with his wife, Carla Jean—a young woman emerging from her adolescent naiveté yet charged with enough wit to keep up with a man like her husband, Llewyn. In the book, the age difference between Carla Jean and Moss becomes a much more prominent factor in their relationship. The fact that she is an eighteen-year-old sales clerk that the much-older-Moss decided to marry, despite her mother’s protests, adds a bit more complexity to their marriage than can be seen in the film. Though Kelly MacDonald’s Texas drawl disguises her Scottish roots, the comparative age-difference between the couple made explicit in the novel imbues a bit more tragedy to the fate that ultimately befalls the young woman.
Still, that night, Moss finds himself in a restless quandary. While searching for the money earlier in the day, he encountered a dying Mexican man asking for water, which forces Moss to return to the desert. There are two ways to interpret Moss’ decision: one, that he is returning to give the man water and save his life; or two, that he is returning to kill the man in the case that the Mexican survives and informs upon Moss’ identity to his superiors.
Either way, the hunter returns to this desecrated rendezvous point, only to find that he is no longer alone. A chase throughout the rocky terrain ensues: one that ends with badly wounded Moss escaping into a river. In both the book and film, the spotlights affixed to the trucks produce a unique element of danger that works to tremendous effect. Where the majority of crime thrillers supply drug dealers that veer so far toward the cartoonish as to eliminate any atmosphere of menace, there’s a feeling of imminent doom generated by the presence of these gangsters—and knowing that Chigurh is somehow tangentially connected with them—that causes an otherwise simple chase through the desert into a white-knuckle sequence of suspense.
From this point forward, the story is very much a game of cat-and-mouse between the three characters: Moss on the run, Chigurh hunting him down, and Bell hoping to find either one before more violence can erupt across his county. The Sheriff’s reaction to this escalating violence serves as the spine of the story’s theme. As a veteran of World War II, and a man realizing that the morals with which he believed upheld the fabric of society are disintegrating before his eyes, the Sheriff begins to question the capabilities and purpose of his identity as a representative of the law.
Early in the novel, McCarthy provides a quick scene of Bell’s character that demonstrates the kind of acute character work separating him from most of his literary peers, similarly eliminated from the film due to its inherent novelistic quality and running-time reasons. Although almost less than a paragraph, the scene instantly establishes the attributes of respect and tradition that so exemplify Bell’s character. In the scene, Bell and his Deputy are driving back from the scene of the massacred Mexicans, when he suddenly spots a redtail hawk lying dead and removes it from the road. McCarthy writes:
“He picks it up by one wingtip and carried it to the bar ditch and laid it in the grass. They would hunt the blacktop, sitting on the high powerpoles and watching the highway in both direction for miles. Any small thing that might venture to cross. Closing on their prey against the sun. Shadowless. Lost in the concentration of the hunter. He wouldn’t have the trucks running over it.”
These core values that compose Bell’s character, as a man who lives by a code of black-and-white morals within a society that has promised following such a code will be rewarded, comes to be challenged by the criminal at the center of this narrative:
Not unlike McCarthy’s most famous literary character—the unforgettable Judge Holden of Blood Meridian—Anton Chigurh appears to personify a dangerous quality beyond the normal capabilities of a man. He is a force of nature. An entity of violence prepared to scour the corners of the earth to complete his task. What separates Chigurh, again, from veering into cartoonish power more along the lines of the Terminator than Judge Holden can be credited to the philosophical propositions that guide his code. Most infamously, this is represented through his flipping a coin to determine a victim’s fate.
Almost an exact adaptation from the scene in the book, Chigurh encounters a hapless, friendly gas station clerk who soon finds his entire life at the hands of this hitman. Despite the clerk’s various approaches to steer the conversation toward small talk, Chigurh relentlessly antagonizes the clerk toward the deeper implications of both his simple questions and the journey of his life that has now brought him to confronting Chigurh. Though the clerk remains clueless as to what he’s putting at stake when Chigurh demands that he call the toss, the implications that he stands to “win everything” and has been “putting it up all his life” instantly saturates the scene with a thick tension that leaves the reader as compelled and speechless as the clerk.
Moreover, Chigurh’s code of violence presents him not as just a mere hitman working at the behest of his superiors’ orders, or one who takes the act of execution lightly, but as a man who views himself as a necessary mechanism far beyond the normal definitions of a murderer. Chigurh represents a destructive force of will—a personification of violence, fate, and determinism that cannot be left unacknowledged or ignored.
Early on, in a quick but insightful character moment, Chigurh drives across a bridge at night. He rolls down his window, draws his gun, and fires upon a bird that just happened to be sitting there upon Chigurh’s crossing. Though darkly comical, the implications that any creature—whether it be a drug dealer, a lawman, convenience store clerk, Llewlyn Moss, or idle bird—any living creature that crosses Chigurh’s path must now contend with the fact that such a crossing may result in their last moment of life. In contrast to Bell’s earlier actions when coming across a bird, where the Sheriff removed the fallen carcass from the road as a sign of respect, Chigurh’s disregard for life of any design knows no bounds.
When Moss later encounters another hitman, Carson Wells, the latter tries to paint a portrait of the danger that awaits him:
“What is he supposed to be, the ultimate bad-ass?”
“I don’t think that’s how I would describe him…I guess I’d say that he doesn’t have a sense of humor…you cant make a deal with him. Let me say it again. Even if you gave him the money, he’d still kill you. There’s no one alive on this planet that’s ever had even a cross word with him. They’re all dead. These are not good odds. He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that.”
Unlike Chigurh, Wells function as a more proto-typical hitman. He is a company man, hoping to complete his job, get paid, and go home. Indeed, he is a man with a sense of humor—one much more discernible through Woody Harrelson’s stylish performance than may be gleaned from the book. However, the film does delete a thought-provoking scene with Wells that serves as further evidence for McCarthy’s acute ability to weave moments of poignancy, tragedy, humor, and bits of surrealism into one unique scene.
Following a very tense, very bloody shootout between Moss and Chigurh around a hotel that ends with the former bleeding to death and stumbling into Mexico, the latter similarly wounded and forced to retreat back to his motel room, Wells returns to the scene of the incident to perform his own personal investigation of the aftermath. There, following the various bullet holes that decorate the hotel façade, he stumbles into a room where an old woman has been killed by a random bullet expelled during the shootout:
“A rockingchair by the window where an old woman sat slumped. Wells stood over the woman studying her. She’d been shot through the forehead and had tilted forward leaving part of the back of her skull and a good bit of dried brianmatter stuck to the slat of the rocker behind her. She had a newspaper in her lap and she was wearing a cotton robe that was black with dried blood. It was cold in the room. Wells looked around. A second shot had marked a date on a calendar on the wall behind her that was three days hence. You could not help but notice. He looked around the rest of the room. He took a small camera from his jacket pocket and took a couple of pictures of the dead woman and put the camera back in his pocket again. “Not what you in mind at all, was it darling?”
Although one can understand the excision of this small moment from the film, the remarkable little moment evokes pathos in a creative and intriguing manner. The death helps demonstrate the cost of violence upon those not even connected to the central narrative, and the rippling effect of such violence—even for an old woman sitting alone in her hotel room, oblivious to the bloody gun battle raging around her—which ultimately cost the elderly woman her life.
As mentioned, the subtle use of score helps further distinguish these tense sequences punctuated by explosive violence. The Coens employ silence with confident control—silence that imbues a feeling of verisimilitude and increases the unease that saturates these otherwise simple settings. Additionally, Chigurh’s second weapon of choice—a shotgun outfitted with a silencer—produces a particularly eerie pneumatic noise that catches the viewer off-guard in their typical expectation of a shotgun blast.
Besides the compression/omission of Sheriff Bell’s narration, the second largest adaptation change can be found in Moss’ relationship with a young hitchhiker. Although one can understand the filmmakers’ decision to compress the material, these exchanges between Moss and the naïve, young hitchhiker are responsible for some of the book’s most touching exchanges. In the film, Moss merely meets a flirtatious woman outside the motel pool begging to share a beer, which promptly cuts to his and her death just moments later—with the Sheriff watching a band of gun-wielding Mexicans fleeing on a pick up truck.
In the book, however, Moss and this young girl share a number of scenes together: in the car, in a diner, in the motel; and ultimately, in the morgue. These dialogue exchanges bring out shades of humanity to Moss that are missing in the film and which are harder to find in between his scenes of machismo against his enemies or the constant stream of sarcasm exhibited with his wife, Carl Jean. Here, Moss takes on a more paternal role, offering this horribly naïve woman advice and comfort toward the dangerous trek toward California that she has chosen to embark.
In their final scene together—again a significant departure from Moss’ concluding scene in the book—McCarthy manages to inject real poignancy into their relationship and imminent deaths. The two share a final conversation upon the hotel’s porch steps, after Moss has given her a sizable sum of his stolen money, so that she may safely arrive in California. Moss advises:
“Let me tell you somethin’ little sister. If there is one thing on this planet that you don’t look like, it’s a bunch of good luck walkin’ around.
“That’s a hateful thing to say.”
“No it ain’t. I just want you to be careful. We get to El Paso. I’m goin to drop you at the bus station. You got money. You don’t need to be out here hitchhikin’.”
The conversation steers from being overly sentimental, but there is a sweetness to Moss’ blunt advice—warning this young woman away from notions of good luck and the fact that money is her best hope for success in this country—that allows for a scene of quiet, genuine emotion to emerge in the midst of this engrossing cat-and-mouse thriller.
And then Moss and the girl are both murdered.
As in the film, the deaths are actually revealed somewhat after the fact—with Sheriff Bell driving out to the site of the corpses. Having just communicated with Carla Jean, and knowing how devastated the young woman will be upon hearing about the death of her husband, the Sheriff’s face sinks in devastation. From both a literary and cinematic approach, the effect is jarring in the best way possible. With every single chapter told through the point-of-view of either Bell, Chigurh, and Moss, to have the latter killed through the prism of Bell’s chapter creates an unexpected feeling—akin to both experiencing the death firsthand while also hearing about it secondhand, like the viewer should not have been told about it yet, and when coupled with the information about the death of the young girl—creates a very moving and memorable death for Moss.
Reeling from the scene of the massacre and their trip to the morgue to identify the bodies, Sheriff Bell and the local El Paso Sheriff retreat to a diner for some late night coffee. There, the two commiserate over the changing nature of being a lawman and the rising tide of violence that seems insurmountable against their purpose to protect the public. Throughout this scene, much of Bell’s dialogue that serves as opening narration for the major chapters has been reworked to fit the dialogue of these two bygone Sheriffs realizing that they are up against a new kind of darkness—one that they have not previously encountered and are unsure how to defeat, if such a thing is even possible.
Probably the most memorable bit of narration reconfigured for this dialogue comes near the end of the meal, when the two Texas Sheriffs remark:
“It’s all the goddamn money, Ed Tom. Money and the drugs. It’s just goddamn beyond everything…You know, if you’d have told me twenty years ago, I’d see children walking the streets of our Texas towns with green hair, bones in their noses…I just flat-out wouldn’t have believed you.”
“But I think once you quit hearing ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ the rest is soon to follow”
“Oh, its’ the tide…it’s the dismal tide. It is not the one thing”.
Though this dialogue is taken nearly verbatim from a separate piece of Bell narration, it reflects another passage where the Sheriff contemplates a similar thematic issue:
“Teachers come across a survey that was sent out back in the thirties to a number of schools around the country. Had this questionnaire about what was the problems with teachin’ in the schools…and the biggest problems they could name was things like talkin’ in class and runnin’ in the hallways…things of that nature…Forty years later. Well, here comes the answers back. Rape, arson, murder. Drugs. Suicide. So I think about that.”
Both these passages reflect the bleak outlook on the imminent future toward which Bell believes he may be receiving just a glimpse of in the present. Though these topics may seem conservative or comically traditional in a political sense—specifically in regards to kids with “green hair and bones in their noses”—the second passage speaks directly to the kind of violence that Bell is witnessing and continues to haunt him. Though, obviously, violence on the level of murder and rape has existed for as long as man’s existence, Bell is commenting on the level of comfort and escalation that he is noticing in his day-to-day duties, especially in regards to his experiences with Chigurh—and the disturbing truth that there may be nothing he nor the law can do to fight against such a dismal tide of violence.
Meanwhile, despite Moss’ death and the retrieval of the money, Chigurh has not extricated himself from the case. Instead, due to an oath upheld between him and Moss, wherein he promised the doomed hunter to spare Carla Jean if Moss would hand over the money and refused, he must uphold his word and kill Moss’ wife. Here again, there is a slight change between the novel and film. Though the conversation remains much the same, the conclusion holds a significant difference.
In both versions, Carla Jean returns from her husband’s funeral to find Chigurh waiting for her with his weapon in hand. Then, despite her protests that “he doesn’t have to do this”, Chigurh insists that he must: due to his oath to Moss.
But Carla Jean refuses.
She demands that Chigurh accept responsibility for the fact that he has a choice to walk away—a view that Chigurh does not share. In a final chance at freedom, Chigurh offers her the same coin toss that he has offered to a number of his victims.
She calls heads and the coin lands on tails.
Sobbing, she refuses to acquiesce to Chigurh’s proposition that he would have obeyed the coin and let her go. But Chigurh counters:
“I have no say in the matter. Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly.”
Speaking directly to the book’s major themes, he further illuminate his philosophy:
“I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people don’t believe that there can be such a person. You see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of.”
This idea of existing as an entity beyond the capacity for someone to recognize as something of human nature directly addresses the issues raised by Bell. The Texas lawman cannot comprehend the rising violence, because he refuses to believe that a person can only exist in this one regard—to perpetuate and commit acts of violence—and therefore he cannot prevail over this unnamable idea, which he refuses to even acknowledge. Following this exchange between Chigurh and Carla Jean, the film cuts to the hitman’s exit, but the book does not favor this less ambiguous approach. Instead, after Carla Jean finally admits to understanding Chigurh’s view, he shoots and kills her.
Intriguingly, however, the next scene catches the audience quite off-guard—as Chigurh is unexpectedly injured in a car collision by a vehicle that ran through a red light. Two young kids rush to help the wounded hitman—Chigurh’s bone poking out through his skin—and he offers money in exchange for their shirt: an automatic gesture of kindness for the kids, but which then turns into a dividing argument about how to split their newfound money between them, while Chigurh flees before the police can arrive.
Chigurh’s societal corruption can be clearly evinced yet again through the two kids to whom he bribes for help in his escape. While the two kids approach Chigurh out of compassion to aid a stranger, Chigurh offers the children a hundred dollars for a shirt and to keep quiet about his appearance. As he whisks away using the shirt as a sling, the kids bicker about splitting the money. Like a virus, Chigurh’s actions begin to corrupt these two kids—two kids who were ready to help someone out of the good of their hearts but who soon believe that their efforts deserve compensation, which then evolves into an argument that divides the two friends.
While the film stops there, the book follows Bell’s investigation further into tracking down these two children. Specifically, some time later, he tracks down the boy by the name of David DeMarco, who has been involved in a robbery using Chigurh’s gun stolen after the wreck. Bell invites the boy to share a coffee, and though he attempts to prod him for information, DeMarco refuses to divulge any details that may help the Sheriff identify Chigurh. Later, Bell manages to track down the second boy—DeMarco’s friend—who did not receive any money. And though nervous, he does indeed help the Sheriff with what few details he can remember and his memory of the event. Though not able to offer any significant details, the Sheriff thanks the boy for his help.
The fact that the first boy keeps his word to Chigurh in exchange for the money makes further explicit this theme of corruption. Much like Chigurh, he chooses to honor the bond of his word and the sanctity of the money exchange rather than aiding the law officer. And the second boy, though still visibly scared by the experience and Chigurh’s presence, who did not accept the cash, still speaks to the Sheriff to provide some help against Chigurh—one who has corrupted his former friend into following in his footsteps.
In the aftermath of these events, with no sign of Chigurh reappearing on the Sheriff’s radar, both the novel and film conclude with Bell’s final reflections on his attitude toward his declining country. After a lengthy confession in the book, the reader learns that the Sheriff still bears a great deal of shame for an incident during his war years. Though awarded a bronze star in WWII for his services, the Sheriff had actually deserted his men to die and has carried the regret of his failings to the present day—these shameful failing perhaps the source of his decision to pursue a role as a lawman where he may correct wrongs and govern over evil.
The Sheriff meets with his crippled uncle Ellis—a former lawman as well—where Bell confesses that he feels outmatched. His uncle sighs, and tries to remind Bell that his feelings have been shared by lawmen for far longer than he may recognize: “what you got ain’t nothin’ new, this country’s hard on people…can’t stop what’s comin’…it ain’t all waitin’ on you…that’s vanity.”
Though the scene in the film works to similar poignant effect, this additional information about Bell’s haunted past helps further expose the vulnerable layers that compose this complex officer of the law battling with both his past and future as a Sheriff. Nonetheless, he does indeed hang up his hat—choosing to spend time with his wife rather than fighting against what appears to a worsening country where he does not belong.
Returning to the Yeats’ poem from which the story takes its name, the poem continues:
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing‐masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
In the story’s final pages, Bell relates two dreams to his wife. In the first, his father gives him some money and he loses it. In the second, he and his father are in:
“older times, and I was on horseback, going through the mountains of the nights, going through this pass in the mountains…it’s cold, there was snow on the ground…he rode past me and kept on goin and never said anything goin’ by, just rode on past…he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down, when he rode past, I seen he was carrying fire in a horn the way people used to do, and I could see the horn from the light inside of it, about the color of the moon…and in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead, he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there, he’d be there.
And then I woke up”.
Like any great piece of art, this enigmatic dream has engendered a wide variety of interpretations. However, when considered in relation to the poem from which the title takes its name, the parallels between these two pieces become starkly evident. As the poem addresses this yearning for a haven that offers sanctity from the degenerative nature of the physical world, the protagonist asks the sages that have already arrived within this realm to allow his union with them in this eternal fire. The poem speaks to a being aware of both his past, and deteriorating future, and who seeks some glimpse of immortality through this land of Byzantium—one where the wise sages have already arrived before him and transcended to immortality through a separation from the physical world.
Likewise, Bell’s dream with his father represents his own Byzantium after death. His father, also a former lawman (a wise sage) rides past his son into this immemorial landscape—one in which darkness surrounds them but through which the father carries the fire of a far more ancient tradition. With the cold, dark terrain perhaps representing some death, where his father now resides, this fire of immortality—of an eternal soul—resides within both Bell and his father and waits for the former’s imminent arrival.
Now retired, painfully aware that death is not too far ahead, the thought of his death and legacy weighs heavily on the Sheriff’s mind. This dream of reuniting with his father in some immortal land with the fire of their spirit still blazing amidst an occluding darkness offers Bell some sense of intrigue, possibly hope, until realizing—
That then he woke up.
Though this dream may have given the former Sheriff a perplexing vision of hope, for now, he remains an occupant of Tyrell County, Texas. A world where men like Chigurh continue to roam free and corrupt the lives of all who cross their path. While No Country for Old Men remains an engrossing cat-and-mouse game between these three men—each existing to perpetuate their own definitions of morality—this premise distinguishes itself from so many genre pieces by offering a complex psychological and moral parable in the face of a worsening world.
“What you got ain’t nothin’ new”, Bell’s uncle warns him; and indeed, the story speaks to a universal feeling shared by generations observing what appears to be decline of the next. Still, the arrival of Chigurh—a man embodying principles of immorality that transcend money, drugs, or normal societal codes of good and evil—represents the manifestation of these anxieties. He is a force of a nature—something which cannot be governed and which ultimately challenges the entire idea of upholding the law. Not only can the law not stop Chigurh, but his actions continue to corrupt or destroy all that come across his path. Moreover, as demonstrated by the fate of DeMarco, Chigurh’s choices will continue to plague and warp such values into the future.
Despite such a dire conclusion, the poem from which the title derives its name—and as further intimidated by Bell’s second dream—there lies a silver lining of liberation in looking past the confines of the physical world. The symbolic Byzantium—a realm where man’s spirit has transcended the degradations of both material society and the physical limitations of the body—offers a glimpse into a landscape where not even the unstoppable corruption of men like Chigurh can attempt to worsen the world. Instead, the Byzantium beyond death, which Bell accesses in his dream, occupies a terrain outside the time and space of material consciousness—one in which those that have already arrived continue to carry on the light of tradition against a worsening darkness. Though Bell wakes up from this dream, still imprisoned to the physical world to which he perhaps no longer belongs, he and the reader are given a description of a land where he does indeed belong—one where he, his father, and the men of this tradition have finally transcended those limitations of their former country—and continue to carry the fire, fixing it out there in the dark, and waiting for whomever will join them in the days to come.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi opens with a literal explanation of the films’ title: the eponymous sushi chef details how he would indeed literally dream of sushi and wake with a burst of creativity concerning his culinary craft. Over the course of the documentary, this all-consuming creative obsession of Jiro’s mind to innovate and perfect his technique becomes the prism through which the film’s explores larger ideas of creativity, discipline, and legacy.
The beginning lures the viewer in with hints toward Jiro’s legendary fame—a montage of his various awards, including the three-star Michelin rating—juxtaposed against tales of his incredibly idiosyncratic work ethic: a man that repeats his daily habits with religious discipline, unwavering in his routines, bound by some deeply embedded personal code. A prominent food critic can hardly contain himself when effusing over Jiro’s sushi: explaining that no other restaurant in Japan contains those components that make Jiro’s so celebrated: a minimalist menu, creativity, and consistency.
Eventually, hints toward the origin of this documentary’s mysterious subject are revealed: his parents were brutally harsh, deeply flawed, and undeniably responsible for the psychological impulses that so intensely motivate him to the present day. Though Jiro speaks about a constant love of his work, and how this commitment has blossomed his life into one of honor and fulfillment, he also hints toward the darkness of his past that has molded this current lifestyle. At the age of nine, his parents bluntly explained that he had, “No home to come back to”—equating success to life and failure to death. Additionally, Jiro watched as his father—an alcoholic that made his living carting people on a ferry—wasted his potential and so severely devastated the young boy. Though his philosophy may appear harsh compared to popular Western parenting philosophies, he has impressed this unforgiving discipline upon his sons, as well, which has resulted in their undeniably successful careers.
Nonetheless, his initial upbringing sheds further light on these developments in craft. Jiro recounts how difficult working as an apprentice could be—with a boss that would abuse and overwork him—but to whom he remained loyal and mastered his burgeoning skills. As the obsession consumed him, Jiro innovated various methods of preparation and design that elevated his sushi far above his peers. More interesting than these techniques, however, is found in Jiro’s regimen for focusing on improvement.
With almost zero variation in his daily habits, Jiro resembles something closer to a machine than a human being in his singular drive to maintain consistency. Whether for a funeral or awards ceremony, Jiro insists on returning to the modest kitchen and not allowing these emotions to distract from his daily output. And more importantly, despite financial success and critical acclaim, Jiro refuses to remain satisfied. Constantly, he seeks to improve and elevate his techniques in all areas: seating arrangement, food preparation, food source—that harmonize in their excellence to create this overwhelmingly experience for the customer.
Moving forward, the focus of the documentary shifts from Jiro to his two sons, most notably: Yoshikazu. While the younger brother left to open his own sushi restaurant under the family name—instructed with the same warning that he had nothing to come back if it failed (and leading to subsequent success)—Yoshikazu works with his legendary father on a daily basis and negotiates with both recognizing his own triumphs and the importance of carrying forward his father’s inimitable legacy into the future.
Though Jiro remains the most prominent figure credited with creating this remarkable sushi, Yoshikazu and the other chefs work with a similarly astounding devotion to their job. Yoshikazu explains that new employees are first tasked with wringing out a hot towel, and until they are able to successfully accomplish this menial task up to their standards, that they are then promoted to working in the kitchen.
This will often take years.
After, they are then promoted to working in the kitchen, where again, they must hone their skills to the point of perfection. Much of what drives their work ethic and fulfillment seems to be in pleasing Jiro himself—one chef admits that he cried after Jiro finally considered one of his dishes acceptable after hundreds of dismissals.
One quickly realizes that this aspect—of ensuring every step of the process meets the same high quality standard as every other component—attributes to the overall exemplary quality of Jiro’s work. The film detours a bit to show the selection of the fish process, and how Jiro or his son seek the best fish possible without substitute. Or, more often, the dealers will reserve their best quality fish especially for Jiro—as they want their product to be put to the best use possible. Additionally, the film sidetracks to explain how the best fish can often be hard to find in this day and age, due to overfishing and overconsumption of sushi as a delicacy. Jiro and Yoshikazu both implore that the sacrifice of natural resources for food consumption cannot continue, though the film then returns to the subject of its title for its conclusion.
Having achieved so much acclaim and fulfillment in these later years, Jiro reflects on his past as an adolescent troublemaker, and many friends chime in that they remember him as a vicious bully. Jiro seems to recognize the redemptive quality to his story—that he began life as such a wayward youth only to have his all-consuming obsession provide a center of focus for his emotions and effort. The film also juxtaposes such an idea against the legacy that his sons struggle to negotiate in considering their own legacy. For although the Michelin judge awarded Jiro—and he accepted the prize—for serving such excellent sushi that meets their rigorous qualifications, it is revealed that Yoshikazu—his son—served the sushi that day.
Like its subject, the film works best when centering its focus upon Jiro to explore the various aspects that overlap with the most curious qualities contained within the renowned chef’s mentality: self-discipline, creativity, focus, and consistency. Near the end, one cannot help but be astonished by Jiro’s resolve and commitment. A man refusing to settle for less, refusing to compromise to his physical decline, refusing to wallow in his successes—and who continues to push himself forward for the betterment of himself, his craft, and those customers that he serves. For a film with a number of profound and provocative ideas at its epicenter, it is the study of this single man—one whose work and philosophy will continue to be spread through his sons and those influenced by the documentary itself—that one begins to understand the significance of a great piece of sushi.
Like last year’s equally commendable Gravity, Ridley Scott’s The Martian pits a lone protagonist against the vast abyss of space to examine the phenomenal capabilities—and crippling weaknesses—of a determined human mind as can often best be explored through the sci-fi genre. Though the two films are remarkably different in tone, both feature a single character forced to battle against both the unforgiving elements of outer space and the interior war within their mind. While Cuaron’s Gravity infuses the terror of this struggle through an atmosphere of dread, Ridley Scott’s The Martian relies much more heavily on humor to highlight its own themes of man’s survival through critical thinking and collective effort.
Opening with a title card that warns: “Life in space is impossible”, Gravity begins with Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her veteran colleague Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. In this brief scene, Cuaron allows the suffocating silence of space to be glimpsed in between their intercom dialogue, while also foreshadowing Stone’s careful—though visibly anxious—maneuverings to avert any fatal mistakes. Nonetheless, falling debris from a destroyed Russian satellite leaves the rest of their crew dead—stranding Stone and Kowalski alone in the void.
While this opening sequence serves both to imbue a sense of awe in its deliberately paced display of distant Earth and the limitless reaches of surrounding space, the light dialogue between Stone and Kowalski offers some impression into her horribly anxious disposition contrasted against Kowalski’s calm confidence. As the chaos of the debris steadily rises in tandem with the subtle score, Stone remains transfixed on her task—unable to free herself from her current, “safe” job. Even when Kowalski gives her a direct order, she struggles to separate herself from the comfort of the work in order to pivot for safety. Repeatedly, this theme will come to define Stone’s psyche—as a woman unable to overcome her current predicament and push her way forward.
Moreover, Cuaron frequently employs long shots to sustain the immediacy of the moment and situate the viewer within the characters’ POV. While the film’s technical achievements have already been discussed at length (and deservingly so), the emotional and thematic importance is never sacrificed in favor of these spectacular displays. The viewer experiences the terrifying experience of hurtling through blackness, reeling farther and farther back from Earth, while these incredible visuals only serve to enhance the experiencer rather than distract for the sake of spectacle.
In refusing to cut (or at least employ “invisible cuts” to maintain the illusion of seamlessness), Cuaron never allows a reprieve from the stultifying and worsening conditions of the hostile environment. The subtle, effective score further cues these emotions—providing an additional layer to the chaotic and disorienting dialogue. Most importantly, it illustrates both the urgency and dire consequences of the premise—making clear that the cruel landscape of space demands for the astronaut to either die or adapt—a theme soon to become the core challenge of Stone’s character.
As Stone tumbles through space completely adrift against the interminable blackness, Kowalski manages to save her using his MMU (manned-maneuvering unit) and the two return to find the rest of their shuttle crew dead. Left with no other option, the duo press forward for the International Space Station. In the interim, Stone moseys forward with Kowalski, who does his best to alleviate her anxiety through small talk. In this dialogue, Stone sheds light on the incident that has so defined her current disposition, when she explains that her daughter died in a random tragedy after hitting her head during a schoolyard game of tag. She details further that when receiving the news, she was driving and listening to the radio, then sadly mutters, “since then, that’s what I do”. This behavior—of being trapped by the past and unable to move forward—has turned Stone into something that resembles her namesake, an immovable block rather than a human being able to adapt and thrive.
Still, after arriving at the ISS, they find that only one of the two Soyuz modules remains. Worse, the other module’s parachute has already been deployed. Kowalski still figures that they may still be able to reach the Chinese Space Station—The Tiagong—to use one of their modules. However, the deployed parachute chords entangle the two astronauts—endangering both their lives. And in order to save her life, Kowalsi detaches the chord to sacrifice his own for Stone’s.
After another distressing sequence of POV shots when Stone must escape from a fire outbreak aboard the ISS, she finds herself within the Soyuz module—only to discover that the fuel has been depleted. With the relentless forward momentum of the plot so far—excepting Stone and Kowalski’s sojourn to the ISS for crucial character building moments—the pacing decelerates to allow the audience to absorb the magnitude of Stone’s utter hopelessness and producing perhaps its most poignant and emotional scene.
After attempting radio communication with Earth, she instead finds herself conversing with an Eskimo fisherman. Having finally found another human connection, the other side is not only not Mission Control, but a random fisherman incapable of communicating back with her, and there’s recognition that her favorite activity since the death of her daughter—just listening to the radio—has now become her last connection to humanity before surrendering to death. She resorts to imitating the howls of a dog heard in the Alaskan background; and then, only through these howls, can she communicate with her fellow man. With small, uncontrollable tears, she lets loose pitiful howls in finding someone else to speak to—shedding tears in communicating with a fellow man; no longer as an American with an Alaskan, or a woman with a man, or an astronaut with someone back on Earth—but as two animals sharing the experience of being alive through this howling of the soul.
Believing that this represented her best hope at returning home, Stone accepts her fate—begging to this listener that can’t understand her with a final testimonial that reveals the overwhelming fear consuming her spirit: “I know I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die today…but I’m still scared, I’m really scared…No one will mourn for me, no one will pray for my soul…”
Bullock’s performance remains steadfast and subtle, never opting to turn this emotionally rendering moment “loud” or melodramatically alter what has been defined as her character’s timid behavior. Instead, she applies restraint and allows these powerful emotions to translate the existential desolation of the situation—making tangible the enormity of her suffering within this small island of safety and the looming certainty of death. Resigned to her fate, Stone deactivates the cabin’s oxygen supply to commit suicide—the lullaby of her Inuit friend Aningaaq drifting her toward unconsciousness—when the film suddenly departs from the stark reality that it has so far effectively hypnotized the viewer into believing and re-introduces the specter of Clooney’s Matt Kowalski.
Despite the obvious hallucinogenic/fantasy aspect of this device, his pep talk to Stone makes explicit the film’s major theme. While the fact that the dialogue so bluntly states its message would be irksome in most filmmakers’ hands, Cuaron has so successfully imbued the subtle nature of Stone’s incredibly timid and reserved character up to this point—a character quality often very difficult to translate to the screen with nuace—that allows these tender emotions to be so successfully evoked. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, Stone is a woman incapable of moving forward—a woman more willing to resign to emotional paralysis than risk the potential for pain.
Kowalski addresses this attitude in saying:
Do you wanna go back or do you wanna stay here? I get it, it’s nice here…just close your eyes and tune out everyone…it’s safe…there’s no one up here who can hurt you…what’s the point of going on? What’s the point of living….your kid died, it doesn’t get any rougher than that…but it’s still a matter of what you do now…and if you decide to go, then you gotta get on with it…gotta plant both your feet on the ground and start livin’ life…”
Kowalski speech motives a newfound fire within her, and she follows his instructions to rig the Soyuz’s jets to connect with the Tiangong and initiate her return journey home. Avoiding the subsequent obstacles that then arise, she enters the capsule and begins her deployment back to Earth. Though a fire within the capsule threatens her safety, she survives the harsh landing into a lake, where she now must swim against the drowning waters and ascend to the surface.
Having struggled so much in the upper echelons of space, Stone’s fight to swim back up to land now deserves special praise. Where so many filmmakers would be content with an easy victory upon her crashing landing to earth, Cuaron pushes the character further and deprives Stone of an easy ending—just as she has finally found her way back home. Yet, Stone does indeed manage to survive—and in a sequence that echoes with symbolism toward the evolution of life itself—Stone reemerges from the waters, rises from the dirt, and takes her first slow, shaky steps back upon planet Earth.
As the story of a single person’s survival within the hostile arena of space, Gravity can often be an unsettling, though ultimately, very triumphant experience. The story positions the darker aspects of a person’s ability to cope with trauma and rise above those shackling flaws of their past to the forefront, and the cinematic techniques on display further immerse the viewer in the terrifying dread of such a premise: specifically, POV shots hurtling through space, the unnerving quiet of the surrounding void, and the utter loneliness of the deathly atmosphere. Cuaron conveys all of these deeper existential questions of a character’s determination through a tone that conjures the dread of such a harrowing experience and being ability to surmount such fear through the exertion of courage and continuing to advance forward.
Meanwhile, The Martian shares a very broad narrative overlap involving the survival of a lone protagonist in space. In this case, however, that hostile territory is Mars; and the protagonist, astronaut Mark Watney. Unlike Gravity, the filmmakers follow a wildly different route in portraying the experience of a human’s fight for survival on a planet hostile to human life—employing humor, a more light-hearted tone, and an ensemble of characters to emphasize its themes of survival through critical thinking, persistence, and collective effort toward a common goal.
After an unexpected storm causes the crew of Ares III to abandon Mars, astronaut Mark Watney finds himself isolated upon the planet due to the damage done to his biometer that designated him as a dead man. When awakening to find himself alive, however, Mark trudges back to the Hab—the habitable human settlement established upon the planet—and, after a restless night of internal questioning, declares that this is not the planet where he will die.
Applying both his knowledge as a botanist and his unwavering willpower, Mark uses the marriage of his science and intellectual prowess to overcome the multitude of seemingly impossible obstacles that appear determined to destroy him. He creates water, food, heat (albeit with a potentially fatal radioactive plutonium) and—even in being responsible for numerous mistakes in the process—still presses forward until he finds success. Throughout these trials, Watney maintains a video blog both for prosperity’s sake and to sustain his moral in the midst of such isolation.
While Gravity’s sense of urgency continually keeps the forward momentum compelling and imbued with a feeling of immediate danger, The Martian must contend with a drastically different narrative timeline that creates an unusual storytelling challenge: building a sense of urgency while also allowing the audience inside Mark’s head. As the monotony of his day-to-day activities would grow tiresome or confusing without any explanation, the device of the video blogs helps alleviate these narrative problems.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA has realized that Watney is actually still alive and begin their own quest in figuring out how to bring their man back home. Because Watney’s activities transpire over such an extended period of time, the story wisely intercuts between those on Earth attempting to bring him back and Watney’s own problems on Mars in order to intensify the struggle and give a glimpse toward the literally cosmic scope of this problem.
As NASA determines the various financial, moral, and practical difficulties in solving that problem, Watney must contend with those battles and victories in the short-term that will allow his long-term survival. The filmmakers construct these sequences as mini-movies of their own right—allowing a constant sense of triumphs and defeats that disguise the longevity of the story’s timeline. Whether it’s finding food, creating water—all seemingly impossible tasks—each problem is constructed around sequences of beginnings, middles, and ends that allow for Watney’s creative solutions to achieve a short victory before returning to yet another seemingly impossible choice to be encountered by NASA.
After Mark manages to reboot the original Pathfinder probe and establish communication with NASA, however, a new dynamic between Earth and the Martian begins to form. More interestingly, the arrival of communication—through the use of the hexadecimal alphabet—demonstrates how important language stands for human survival. Whereas Gravity focused more on this single woman’s psychological journey traversing through space, The Martian distinguishes itself by relying more on a network of people to ensure his successful survival back home—highlighting how important collective effort toward this goal can be and how communication may be the ultimate tool for accomplishing this task.
Most importantly, with the idea of communicating being such an essential feature of this film, comedy and humor become a much more prominent tonal element woven into the fabric of the story. While compelling and vital for the examination of Stone’s character, Gravity maintains a grim, dour tone throughout—appropriate for its specific story—in order to diffuse the sense of hopelessness permeated within Stone’s psyche upon the viewer.
The Martian that is Mark Watney is a very different astronaut. Determined to overcome his dismal situation, Mark maintains a relentlessly optimistic personality and tackles each individual problem in careful, measured steps while narrating his decisions through video blogs that sustain his positivity despite the utter lack of human connection around him over the prolonged time period. Though Cuaron routinely employs unbroken takes or extended sequences that further transport the viewer within the suspense and danger of Gravity’s premise, The Martian opts for a more relaxed, light-beat tone to keep the audience engaged. From rapid time cuts of Mark growing his new potatoes, to montages set to disco music, to comic cuts of Mark complaining about said disco music, this humorous tone endures throughout—replicating the tone of Mark’s indomitable spirit upon the audience to experience this harrowing journey with a feeling that his quality of life need not be completely destroyed.
Still, the fun does not last for long: as both Mark and NASA each encounter significant setbacks. On Mars, Mark’s HAB malfunctions due to a human fault of his own that renders his crops unusable and sunders the entryway—forcing him to protect himself from the elements with a noisy, insecure swath of tarp. Simultaneously, NASA initiates a space probe launch designed to aid him with supplies until the arrival of the Ares IV—only for the probe to disintegrate due to the director’s decision to forego safety inspects in favor of helping out Mark as soon as possible.
After beginning afresh with his new crops, the first hint of darker psychological anxiety creeps its way into the previously positive tone. While Mark rations out his food supply, intently listening for any possible damage to his tarp acting as his shield against the brutal Martian weather, he repeatedly tries to hide the anxiety threatening to paralyze him. Though only a brief moment, the scene shows Mark flinching every time the tarp flaps against the severe winds just outside and demonstrates how perilous the slightest tear could endanger his life. As he calculates his potato rations, this glimpse into Mark’s anxieties just beneath the surface provides an interesting change in tone that reminds the viewer just how truly dangerous and subjected to the mercy of elements outside his control Mark’s life currently remains.
Faced with few options at this point, NASA receives a boon from the CNSA in the form of a classified booster that they are willing to lend to the Americans. At the same time, Donald Glover’s Rich Purnell figures an alternative method for rescue—by using the booster to resupply the Ares III and allow the astronauts to return to Mars, recover Mark, then return back to Earth.
Set to Bowie’s “Starman”, another montage helps disguise the extended period of months that these machinations will necessitate, as Mark also needs to begin his own long journey across Mars to reach the site of the future ARES IV launch. By the conclusion of this stretch before the climax, the stakes have been significantly raised and the passage of time shows some deterioration in Mark’s previously unwavering mental state. Mark now sports a grizzled beard, various sores across his skin, has lost a significant amount of weight, and his teeth have begun to rot. Nonetheless, he retains his sense of humor throughout the endeavor—now calling himself a space pirate—though his humor appears to cause NASA more trepidation this time around than at the start.
As the crew initiates their rescue, Scott allows for a touching moment that exposes these cracks in Mark’s previously unbreakable composition. When the crew begins the countdown, and Mark knows that he’s finally about to engage in the most important few minutes of his life to either die or finally leave behind the isolating land of Mars, he breaks down and sheds tears that both release his repressed anguish and celebrate the triumph of having survived this long upon the hostile planet.
Finally, the rescue begins. At each step of the turn, some unforeseen variable seems to destined to doom the endeavor—whether it’s the weight of the launch vehicle, the distance between Commander Lewis and Mark that prompts him to poke a hole in his suit to fly through space (not unlike Stone’s use of the fire extinguisher), to the dozens of other unforeseen factors that threatened to endanger all of their actions. Thankfully, Mark reunites with his crew and the climax swells with complete triumph and relief. The film wisely wastes no time following their rescue and cuts to the eponymous Martian now back on Earth—teaching potential astronaut candidates about the power of facing your fears and solving each problem in order to survive.
Watney proved him capable of conquering every danger wrought both by the Martian planet and his own mental anxieties. While his physical survival necessitated his application of science and indomitable fortitude to overcome these obstacles, The Martian also emphasizes the importance of collective effort toward the goal of bringing him back home. But most intriguingly, the film’s command of tone—balancing unexpected humor in the midst of such a dire situation—helps instill a similar sense of communal experience for the audience that remains such a fundamental component of the film’s story and theme.
Though very broadly similar films in their sharing of a single protagonist in space struggling to survive and return to Earth, both Gravity and the Martian use the sci-fi genre to address a comparable message about man’s resiliency in the face of a seemingly insurmountable situation. In Cuaron’s Gravity, the story focuses on the fight of its main protagonist and her psychological battle to defeat the depression within her that has arrested those capabilities that will allow for her survival. Moreover, Cuaron employs point-of-view shots, subtle atmospheric score, and an often-dire tone that situates the viewer into both the urgency and terror of the premise—framing the individual as the central story to evoke its themes of progress, triumph, and human ingenuity.
The Martian, however, while also focusing on a sole individual confronting the vast difficulties of both outer space and his inner potential for achieving this feat, also broadens its exploration of this theme to incorporate ideas of cooperation and collective effort in spite of such an impossible outcome. In both cases, the filmmakers have crafted an exceptional, distinguished story that celebrates the remarkable triumphs of the human mind: whether through a tone of dread that then illuminates the capabilities of the human spirit, or how the persistence and positivity of a single man stuck on Mars can inspire those on Earth—both films examine the enduring elements of human nature as best explored through the powerful potential of the sci-fi genre.
“We’re not gonna get rid of anybody! We’re gonna stick together…When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!
In both Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969), director Sam Peckinpah filters the most notable themes of his obsession through the prism of the genre best suited for their most powerful exploration: The Western. Those themes include man’s morally ambiguous nature in relation to an emerging civilization in the lawless wild, the changing landscaping threatening to leave the gunslinger an antiquated figure, and a man’s loyalty both to himself and fellow man that will often doom his remaining years. While the director would also notably venture into the crime and war genre, the Western remained the arena most ideally suited for his own dark interpretation of the West and its purpose as a crucible to challenge a man’s physical, moral, and psychological nature.
Ride the High Country follows the journey of former lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea). Though a former legend along the frontier, his career has devolved into that of a hired gun. Presently, Judd has been contracted to safely transport a shipment of gold from the Coarse Gold Mining Camp back to the town of Hornitos, California. After signing his contract (needing to hide in the bathroom with his reading glasses to do so), Judd runs into his old partner: Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott). Gil has now taken on the identity of a carnival huckster—using his sharpshooting skills to gain an easy buck while working with the hotheaded huckster named Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).
Gil convinces Judd that his and Heck’s help will make the dangerous trek more achievable—and though reluctant, Judd trusts the duo for their help delivering the gold. However, he remains unaware that Gil and Heck are actually conspiring against him – planning to steal the gold with or without his cooperation. On their first stop, they arrive upon an isolated farm ruled by the overbearing, religious man named Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong) and his daughter, Elsa (the film debut of Mariette Hartley). While the devout farmer criticizes the cowboys and their work in gold, his daughter yearns to flee from her isolated surroundings. Though she is promised to a miner at the Coarse Gold Camp named Billy Hammond, Heck remains determined to win her over.
After Joshua catches Heck and his daughter flirting under moonlight, the trio departs for Coarse Gold, until they are halted by the arrival of Elsa—having fled from her father and riding out to be married at the mining camp. Once again, Heck attempts to woo her—but his affections then steer dangerously close to rape before Judd stops him and promptly punishes Heck’s misbehavior. The young man accepts his punishment, though his relationship with Elsa grinds to a well-deserved stop.
Finally, the group arrives at the Coarse Gold Mining Camp, where Elsa finds her fiancé: Billy Hammond (James Drury), along with the rest of the Hammond Family. The brothers reveal themselves to be a crude and vile clan, who make their sexual designs toward Elsa undisguisably clear. Later, despite the aggressive behavior of Billy and his contemptuous clan, Elsa agrees to marry him in the town whorehouse that night. This harrowing, heartbreaking sequence allows for all the rituals of a wedding ceremony to be disastrously perverted by the confines of the whorehouse and its disdainful denizens, and Peckinpah never allows a moment of reprieve, as Mariette Hartley’s face floods with sorrow in being married by a town drunk with prostitutes serving as her bridesmaids.
Nonetheless, just minutes later, when Billy tries to rape her during their “honeymoon”, Elsa finally flees for help. Judd, Gil, and Heck come to her rescue—fending off the camp and rescuing Elsa out of her legally binding marriage. Though successful, this incites the wrath of the murderous Hammond clan. That night, realizing that Judd will never give up the gold, Gil conspires with Heck to finally steal the gold, but the latter has hesitations about betraying Judd – a man to whom he has grown fond and respectful. Gil follows through with the task, but Judd proves quicker on the draw—aware that this was a possibility, but dreading the thought of his old partner committing such a betrayal. Having shamed him, Judd then promises to have the two arrested upon their delivery of the gold.
The following day, they encounter the Hammond brothers and a gunfight ensues. Judd trusts Heck enough to free him during the gunfight, but they’re barely able to overcome the clan. Continuing their journey, Judd allows Gil to sleep on a promontory just out of eyesight, and the latter escapes. Nonetheless, Judd, Heck, and Elsa return to the girl’s farm, where they find her father has been murdered. The Hammonds ambush the trio, and Judd is shot in the gunfight.
Outnumbered and about to be massacred, Gil returns to the rescue at the last minute. They and the Hammonds agree to a fair and traditional shootout: the aftermath of which finds the Hammond clan dead and Judd on the verge of death. While Gil comforts his dying friend, Judd asks Heck and Elsa to stay away and not witness his agonizing death. Afterwards, Gil promises to deliver the gold, as Judd would have wanted. To which Judd replies: “Hell, I know that. I always did. You just forgot it for a while, that’s all.” Gil, Heck, and Elsa all walk away to deliver the dying wish, as Judd absorbs one final look at the Western landscape before falling to his death.
Elsa: My father says there’s only right and wrong – good and evil. Nothing in between. It isn’t that simple, is it?
Judd: No, it isn’t. It should be…but it isn’t.
As would be dealt with to an even more haunting degree in The Wild Bunch, Ride The High Country depicts men of a specific time recognizing that their world is quickly dissolving away in favor of a new kind of civilization—one whose advancement also engenders more ambiguous morals and motives. From the opening shot wherein Judd rides into Main Street believing that he is being greeted as a man of respectable legend, the town quickly pushes him aside in favoring of championing the hotheaded Heck and the shallow entertainment of his rigged camel races. Not moments later, he even runs into his old partner—Gil Westrum—now masked in a completely false identity to adapt with the times and conning the common man. Peckinpah further underlines the idea to more poignant effect when Judd arrives to sign his contract with the bank, and this hulking figure of masculinity must resort to hiding in the bathroom to withdraw his reading glasses– exposing a man all too aware of the new physical limitations accompanying his old age.
But despite his physical shortcomings , Judd remains a man of solid moral conviction and unwavering in his moral compass. Though he clearly discerns a shadow of evil lurking within his old partner, he wants to believe in the good still within Gil, even if that entails allowing his young, wayward sidekick to tag along for the task.
Peckinpah’s interest in exploring these murky morals are further explored in the confrontation between the dangerously religious Joshua and the treatment of his daughter, Elsa. Even with his proclivity for sententious preaching, Joshua’s cruel treatment of Elsa that escalates to physical abuse demonstrates another paradoxical realization of he West, when the motives of both state and religion served the purposes of those possessing its authority—an idea examined in even more stark terms upon their arrival in the mining camp.
On their journey there, however, Heck forces himself on Elsa—prompting Judd and Gil to humiliate him with physical punishment. While Heck and Gil are conspiring against Judd behind his back, this line of morality—of refusing to sink to these levels of depravity—help give further complexity to the very gray morality embedded within these characters and which will prove an important distinguishing factor between the young Heck and the vile Hammond clan.
When arriving in Coarse Gold, the darker aspects of the storyline finally come to full fruition. Hoping to spite Heck, Elsa remains adamant that she wishes to stay—and marry—Hammond, though the latter’s true insidious nature becomes quickly apparent: the brothers curse, behave cruelly, and treat the woman as an object of their lust.
While Peckinpah must contend with making a feature film within the boundaries of the ratings board and audiences of the early sixties, there are unsubtle clues that help hint toward the ugly intentions that inspire the Hammond clan. None more so than Billy himself, who comes dangerously close to raping Elsa just moments after their reunion, and causes Elsa’s anguish to turn from ironic to devastating. While Heck’s own assault is nothing more meritorious, Hammond represents an even more masculine brute—one whose odious nature destroys Elsa’s hope for a better life after escaping the suffocating grip of her tormenting father and has transformed her circumstances into a truly tragic tale.
The scene of the marriage ceremony itself produces even more stomach-turning results. The Hammonds hire the alcoholic mayor of the mining camp to officiate the ceremony, while the brothel serves as the church, and the local whores as Elsa’s bridesmaids. Again, Mariette Hartley’s face expresses the tragedy and perverted nature of this ceremony that was supposed to be the best day of her life in all its horrible agony, while Peckinpah never steeps to manipulative filmmaking affections in order to spell out the drama of the dire situation.
Instead, the terror of scene only worsens the following morning when realizing that—despite the awfulness of the Hammond Clan—Elsa is legally bound by marriage to Billy. While the cowboys promise to fight the decision, Heck vows to not leave unless she can be released from the terrible marriage—all too aware of the consequences in leaving her alone to contend with the sadistic Hammond Clan. Knowing that he will need Heck to overtake Judd in their conspiracy, Gil holds up the alcoholic officiator at gunpoint to steal and discard the license. In this one sequence alone, the story provokes a wide-ranging tapestry of the problematic morals engendered by the attempts to impose order upon an incipient civilization like that found at the mining camp—only for the gray morality of actual right and wrong to complicate matters so that even the best solution necessitates an immoral choice.
Though Gil has been painted as a mostly evil figure so far (Peckinpah going so far as to continually clothe him in devil-red pajamas while tempting Judd), the ultimate confrontation between the two former partners turns into a moment of cruel humiliation as the worst punishment. Judd tempts Gil to shoot him, but the betrayer cannot bring himself to actually shoot his old partner in cold blood. While Heck resigns to his arrest, Gil conspires to evade arrest and successfully does so when, once again, he takes advantage of Judd’s trusting disposition.
Now alone with Elsa and Heck to fend off the vengeful Hammond Clan, the trio are ambushed upon arriving back at the woman’s home front. Again, Judd has a moment of poignant recognition in realizing that he is not the invincible gunslinger that he used to be – as he has now endangered the lives of himself, the woman, and Heck, not to mention the loss of the gold that he promised to deliver. Outnumbered and on the verge of defeat, the climactic return of Gil provides a very well-deserved emotional climax that has come after Peckinpah has so firmly constructed a portrait of Gil’s corrupted character. Now reunited and on the same side, the two partners convince the Hammond clan to a traditional gunfight – the last of a respected ritual that these men of the west will practice.
While they are ultimately successful, Judd is mortally wounded in the shootout and prepared to die. He falls to the ground and begs to die alone in his weakest moment. Gil (with Heck’s help) promises to honor Judd’s wishes—allowing the formerly corrupt conspirators to come full circle in following the right choice—though at the cost of Judd’s death. The surviving trio returns to the task of delivering the gold back to Hornitos, while Judd—now alone and resigned—turns for one last look at the placid mountain behind him—a symbolic monument to his own former physical stature and unchanging moral compass—before collapsing to die.
Ride the High Country represents a story set on the Western range that exemplifies ideas of a man’s compromised morals that would come to be a defining feature in Peckinpah’s filmography. That is to say, that no outcome would ever yield success while being able to accomplish both the morally right decision and the successful execution of the goal. While Judd represents the unwavering moral compass indicative of the legendary gunslingers of old, the ugly complications wrought by a society attempting to impose order on a barbaric land results in either his own death or the corruption of his or companions’ moral code. Although Ride the High Country features compelling, distinct characters that serve to illuminate these themes in the director’s dark vision of the West, his most famous film would cement these ideas to even more profound effect and contribute to the most defining feature of his career in the form of 1969’s The Wild Bunch.
While Ride the High Country offers an entertaining and sentimental impression of those themes and characters that would populate the Peckinpah western, The Wild Bunch serves as the ultimate expression of Peckinpah’s storytelling sensibilities by subverting typical genre expectations to deliver a harrowing and haunting narrative magnified by its revolutionary techniques in craft. Though Leone explored similar territory in his examination of outdated men confronted with a gray morality in his own magnum opus—Once Upon A Time in the West—released just a year prior, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch shows an ugly, brutal side to the oater genre that focuses more on the interior psychology of these doomed men—complemented by its revolutionary editing techniques—to offer a more poignant and morally ambiguous portrait than can be found in its genre predecessors.
In an image that recalls the opening of Cluzot’s The Wages of Fear —featuring young children cruelly toying with scorpions—the opening sequence sets the tone for the unapologetically rough ride ahead. Though opening a western with the stickup of a local bank may seem standard enough, Peckinpah quickly deconstructs the characters and opening set piece into a sequence much more startling than audiences could expect. Having slowly established the peaceful town setting, the bloody bank shootout descends into an ugly massacre that costs the lives of innocent men, women, and children in the service of a bank heist set-up in which neither side is victorious and only foreshadows the blood to be shed by both sides of the law by the finale.
The apparent protagonist—William Holden’s Pike—introduces his character with the famous opening line: “If they move, kill ‘em”, and his decision to sacrifice an innocent female bystander as a human shield only cements the ugly truth about this leader’s difficult moral center from the start. Peckinpah portrays the shootout itself in an explosive, chaotic nature meant to disrupt typical audience expectations of the noble cowboy gunfight that works to overwhelmingly visceral effect—inflicting the audience with a similar sense of surprise and turbulence experienced by the characters.
Although obviously operating under very different intentions, Peckinpah’s feverish vision of the gunfight that so harshly clashes against those versions pioneered by Leone and Ford deserves especial consideration. While the grandiose nature of the genre normally elevated these cowboys to the ranks of aspirational heroes (often more so for the outlaws), Peckinpah’s provocative opening instead depicts the cold brutality that constitutes these gunslingers. While Pike seems to be living under the philosophy of kill-or-be-killed, his subordinate—Crazy Lee—is shown to be a true psychopath: a man reveling in the cruelty and authority of the gun, and whose careless pleasure for the lifestyle costs him his life. A sad fate filled with even more consequence when it’s later revealed that he is the grandson of the elderly gang member Sykes. While Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) had first set the stage for this level of explosive violence and emboldened Peckinpah to further pursue his revisionist genre depiction, the brutal bloodshed within this opening sequence stands as a perfect encapsulation of the complicated morality found within the characters and the harrowing style meant to mirror the ugly savagery of the setting.
Though the gang escapes, the introduction of Pike’s former partner turned pursuer in the form of Robert Ryan’s Deke Thornton further complicates the relationship at play between cop and robber. As Deke has been threatened with either capturing Pike or being returned to a Yuma prison for torture, Deke recognizes that—although The Wild Bunch are no heroes—there is perhaps an even more insidious evil lurking beneath the motives of the railroad and their deputizing the equally lawless bounty hunters to capture them for profit (a premise explored at length in Corbucci’s The Great Silence). Though Deke demonstrates his own inner conflict at being forced to hunt down his friend, he does not hide his disgust at the gleeful behavior of the bounty hunters authorized to kill within the boundaries of the law.
Deke’s disgust becomes even more apparent in the aftermath of the shootout—and begins a motif seen continually throughout the film—wherein children reenact the witnessed violence of the outlaws and authorities. Rather than comprehend the horror of the carnage (with the corpses of their fellow citizens still lying about them), the children engage in imaginary shootouts with one another that further underlines the idea of children inheriting this violence without understanding its terrible cost to their burgeoning civilization.
Back with the Wild Bunch, in the aftermath of barely surviving the shootout, an undercurrent of acknowledgement that their days are undeniably numbered begins to emerge—no one more cognizant of this fact than Pike himself. Without time to mourn or bury their dead, and humiliated with the reveal of the silver washers instead of the silver cache that was meant to be their final steal, William Holden’s face exposes all the heartbreak that now defines this doomed gunslinger.
Faced with no other choice but move forward, he reasserts that the one element within their of control for survival and most distinguishing principle between themselves and the corrupted bureaucracy around them lies in the trust held between each gang member. He orders:
“We’re not gonna get rid of anybody! We’re gonna stick together…When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!”
There’s a desperation and honestly in voices that shades him with virtues of honor—reinforcing the fact idea that the moral quagmire within these characters remains much more complex than can be normally ascribed to the characters that often inhabit the Western genre.
During this brief pause, along with one that occurs a bit later, flashbacks into Pike’s past provide important context on the episodes responsible for informing this broken man’s past both personally and professionally. A flashback into an affair with a Mexican woman that concludes in her being murdered and Pike being shot offers a glimpse into the sorrow and regret drowned by his continual drinking and bloodshed. More importantly, it demonstrates an attempt by the outlaw to change his lifestyle—only for the return of violence to deprive his happiness and dictate his return to the former gangland lifestyle. Though expository, it’s an interesting moment that further fleshes out this character in the hopes of distinguishing him from the typical criminal by offering yet another layer in the complicated, three-dimensional psychology of this protagonist.
Moreover, his flashback with Deke further enriches the relationship between these two men now on opposite sides of the law. The flashback depicts a time during their partnership where the normally cautious Pike felt confident enough to drink, socialize with the women, let down his guard, and which led to Deke’s subsequent arrest. Though short, this flashback also imparts vital character information into Pike’s haunted past that fuels his now unwavering principles of loyalty—as will be seen later with Angel—as he knows the anguish of betraying this principle and the terrible toll upon his conscience. Not to mention, the fact that it has literally come back to haunt him—as Deke now stands as his biggest antagonist and source of his setbacks.
After crossing into Mexico and settling into Angel’s village, the gang enjoys the momentary respite and feeling of community long absent in their time on the other side of the border. As Pike listens to the village’s struggles against the corrupt Mapache, and saturates himself in the simple pleasures of life, he’s reminded of a poignant quote by Don Jose that triggers Pike’s more tender side: “We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all”. While Pike watches the women and children within their calm paradise, the quote takes on an even more heartbreaking power when considering Angel’s brutal fate soon to come. Nonetheless, the scene still allows the gang a night of temporary joy—a moment to dance, laugh, and enjoy the sheer camaraderie of being outlaws—a moment of bliss that will ultimately be one of their last.
For after the gang moves on from their stay in Angel’s village into Mapache’s dominion of Agua Verde, Angel quick destroys any chance of goodwill or anonymity by attempting to kill his former lover for holding an affair with Mapache – a gunshot that errs dangerously close to assassinating Mapache himself. While this incident services a critical plot point by involving the gang into the ammunitions heist, it also functions as a moment of important character illumination; specifically, as seen with Pike. For although the gang leader has been established as one ruthless enough to use a woman as a human shield to survive a shootout, he refuses to compromise his men and accepts the dangerous task directed by Mapache—a vitally important moral decision that will distinguish him from Dutch’s actions involving Angel and Mapache at the climax that will ultimate cost their lives.
Though the gang indulgences in all the pleasures of the flesh before their final heist, these satisfactions suggest a very different kind of joy from the state of contentment seen in Angel’s village. Instead, this is a joy akin to a man eating his last meal on death row. The gang drinks, wallows in alcohol with the women, relaxes—and though Peckinpah films this sequence intending to allow the audience to revel in the bacchanal festivities—a lingering sense of discontentment hangs over these aged men enjoying one last romp before their last battle.
The gang’s robbery of the train and subsequent escape with the ammunition boxes composes the majority of the middle and displays another example of Peckinpah’s impeccable ability to merge major thematic ideals with compelling cinematic techniques. The heist unfolds with slow, deliberate pacing that allows for the all the tension of the scene to hold its grip without ever breaking into rapid-cutting or becoming fearful of the extended time that its numerous machinations demand to construct an escalating sequence of suspense. Every single character’s action and purpose is carefully choreographed, and while the viewer remains gripped by the actual execution of the heist, the lack of score additionally enriches the tension by imbuing atmospheric details—the chugging of the train, the screeching brakes, the panicked whispers between the crew, the distant hoof beats—that all work in service of this precisely paced set-piece.
Simultaneous to this occurrence, Deke realizes that the train is being robbed and frantically attempts to catch his old partner. While gathering his posse, he surveys the various compartments to find fresh faced boys sporting their uniforms that he instantly realizes will have no chance against the ruthless Wild Bunch. While most filmmakers would feel the need to belabor the internal debate of Deke’s dilemma, Peckinpah merely cuts between Robert Ryan’s exasperated expression and the excited or bored expression upon the faces of the adolescent soldiers.
After losing Deke in the bridge explosion crossing the Rio Grande, Pike keeps his word to Angel and releases one of the ammunition cases for his people in the fight against Mapache. Nonetheless, the gang also devises a careful plan for themselves by releasing the cases in separated deliveries that will ensure they receive their full payment without being double-crossed or killed. Pike also supplies Mapache with an (anachronistic) M1919 Machine Gun as a sign of good faith—much to the joy of his surrounding generals. While the plan starts out smoothly, during one of the final deliveries led by Dutch and Angel, Mapache learns of the missing shipment gifted to Angel.
Though Angel initially denies it, Dutch succumbs to his fear of losing the gold or his own life and gives up his companion. Afterwards, the gang recognizes that they are quickly running out of options: Deke is dangerously close on their tail—having already shot Sykes—and they don’t have enough resources to travel out of range: necessitating their return to Agua Verde for safety. Upon arriving, Pike is greeted by the horrendous sight of Angel’s torture—being dragged around town by a rope around his neck attached to the rear bumper of Mapache’s car. Soldiers, women, and children take turns mocking and humiliating him, while his face has been deformed into a bloody pulp. Without any options, Pike and the gang can only absorb the sight with utter disgust. Pike watches with repulsion across his face and can only murmur: “God, I hate to see that.”
While the town of Agua Verde continues their Caligulan celebration, the gang spends their remaining moments in desolate contemplation. Though both Pike and the Lyle twins are with prostitutes, their attention is clearly focused on the horrendous sight seen riding in town. Knowing the right thing to do, Pike gathers Dutch and the brothers together with a simple, “Let’s go” and seals their collective fates. The boys then gather their weapons and begin their final, iconic walk to confront Mapache. Although the moment was unscripted, Peckinpah frames this last stand with a sense of nobility toward the dreaded outcome. These are four doomed men walking toward their grave in an effort to save their friend, and Peckinpah allows the moving emotion of this effort to be diffused upon the viewer to powerful effect.
Upon requesting that they want Angel back, the vicious leader acts about as can be expected—and brutally slices Angel’s throat in defiance of their demand. Having already committed to their decision, Pike wastes no time removing his pistol and shooting the General—knowing full well the consequence of certain death in doing so. While the other leaders remain so momentarily stunned that the gang manages to kill a few of them too, the plaza soon turns into another all-out-war-zone with the Wild Bunch very much outnumbered.
While the opening bank shootout providees a glimpse into the explosive violence that would become a defining feature of the film’s legacy, the last shootout in the plaza—with Pike firing the machine gun in a blaze of glory until his final breath—stands as a true testament to the kind of visceral and revolutionary cinematic techniques on display. This is not the operatic violence of Leone, nor the noble cowboy ritual observed by Ford, but a gruesome cacophony of bullets being fired by men as desperate as cornered animals.
Despite firing back at the army with all their courage, the gang slowly succumbs to their inescapable deaths. Though Pike spares a woman hiding a soldier, she delivers the first bullet that will bring him down. Moments later, after surviving a hail of bullets, a shot in the back from a small child proves to be the final straw that kills this legendary outlaw—another subtle comment on the pervasive violence of the West often absent from most films of the genre which usually confine the violence to the domain of cowboys and brigands. It is not the expected adversary of Deke or Mapache that kills this protagonist, but the women and children whose lives he previously spared that show no mercy in preserving Pike’s own tradition of kill-or-be-killed.
Amidst the rapid-fire of bullets replicated in the quick-paced shots of the editing, Pike’s death and the individual deaths of the Bunch play out in grueling experiences meant to overwhelm the audience. Their pained facial expressions, the jolt of their bodies, the agony in their eyes—all distilled to impose their dramatic effect upon the viewer without ever drowning the emotion to the point that it becomes numbing or melodramatic in the midst of the chaotic gunfire. Instead, the viewer feels the various deaths while caught up in the thrill of the sequence—leading to a powerful, explosive climax that remains as harrowing as it is heartbreaking.
No moment more heartbreaking, however, then what follows in the epilogue. In the wake of this massacre for both sides, Deke and his posse of bounty hunters finally catch up with the elusive gang. They are joined by women, children, and buzzards perched upon the stone gates overlooking their fresh supply of corpses. The juxtaposition between the simultaneous arrival of the ravenous animals and Deke’s men demonstrates the clear parallel between these animals hoping to salvage the corpses for their own selfish needs and these bounty hunters hoping to accomplish much of the same.
And thought Deke’s deputized men howl with glee, Deke stares down at Pike’s corpse—his former friend’s body pitifully slumped over the machine with his fingers still wrapped around the trigger—and a devastated expression washes over his features. A kind of devastation that Peckinpah has articulated time and again throughout the narrative but wisely leaves absent in this specific moment: that these are men who could not think beyond their guns, who died by their principles of loyalty to one another, and who would not break their own code to conform to the changing civilization around them.
Despite his companions’ glee in salvaging the corpses, Deke recognizes that Pike’s death is the end of a era—an end of the West and the kind of men who died by a code that he himself recognizes and honors—and now belongs to the buzzards that are working beside him at the behest of the railroad and bureaucratic civilization. Afterward, not seeing Sykes corpse amongst the Bunch after having knowingly shot him earlier, Deke allows the posse to ride ahead while he remains at Agua Verde to contemplate his future. When distant gunshots confirm his suspicions that the posse has met with Sykes and his recruited rebels, a subtle smile emerges from Deke’s face. Not much longer, Sykes and his own new posse ride into town to greet the former estranged member of the gang:
Sykes: I Didn’t expect to find you here.
Deke Thornton: Why not? I sent them back; That’s all I said I’d do.
Sykes: They didn’t get very far.
Deke Thornton: I figured.
Sykes: What are your plans, now?
Deke Thornton: Drift around down here. Try to stay out of jail.
Sykes: Well, me and the boys got some work to do. You want to come with us? It ain’t like it used to be; but it’ll do.
The dialogue concludes with Deke mounting his horse and joining the new posse: having justified within himself that he’d rather die a man like Pike – a man who confronted death on his own terms and out of an unbreakable code to his friends —rather than a slave to the system in some Yuma prison. With Sykes and himself now the two remaining members, and knowing that the end is near, Deke still understands the significance of dying in the pursuit of honor—even if that means riding as a member in the infamous outlaw gang known as The Wild Bunch.
The Western has always provided perhaps the best canvas for storytellers to impose their broader obsessions of moral ambiguity due to the genre’s general setting of a burgeoning society attempting to civilize a lawless terrain. In both Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah offers his own allegorical interpretations of the West and its issues of masculinity, loyalty, and a very gray morality. As Ride the High Country offers a very entertaining and compelling variation upon these typical genre tropes, The Wild Bunch stands as one of the most impressive examples—not only in Peckinpah’s filmography but the genre at large—of how these thematic ideas can be explored in both narrative and craft to exceptional and illuminating results within the Western.
With Dashiell Hammett’s novel serving as a literary prototype for the hard-boiled detective genre, and the film adaptation arguably considered a model—if not the very first—of the film noir genre, both versions of The Maltese Falcon deserve examination for their consideration and influence within their respective mediums. Starring Private Eye Sam Spade at the center of this byzantine narrative, the almost comically convoluted plot revolves around the eponymous statuette of The Maltese Falcon—a bejeweled figure worth a significant sum of money that fuels the motives of each character. More importantly, the Falcon functions as an archetypal MacGuffin—a plot device term famously popularized by Hitchcock—as an object whose inherent nature bears little importance, so much as it catalyzes the characters’ pursuit of this object to reveal their true nature.
Nonetheless, as in so many of the film noirs to come, the story begins with a mysterious woman asking for help. The woman—Brigid O’Shaughnessy—enters the investigate offices of Archer & Spade for their assistance in apparently tracking down her sister. Though the two are suspicious of her story, Archer trails the man in question—only to be later shot dead. With the police now fingering Spade as a possible suspect, he begins his journey into both proving his innocence and avenging his partner’s death.
But first, he must contend with the peculiar character of Joe Cairo (Peter Lorre). While the book’s descriptions make the character’s homoerotic undertones undisguisably clear, the film must hint much more subtly toward such controversial character ideas for a film produced in 1941. Instead, Peter Lorre’s performance of Joe Cairo emphasizes such affects through his high-pitched voice, extremely polished attire, and scented handkerchief. That aside, Cairo first introduces information regarding the bird while searching Spade at gunpoint. Though Sam outmaneuvers him, he soon realizes that he is being trailed by a companion of Cairo named Willet—commonly referred to as the kid in the book—who doggedly trails the private eye throughout San Francisco in his search to reconnect with Brigid and determine her connection between his partner’s death and this strange statue of the Maltese Falcon.
Eventually, Spade locates the looming figure operating behind the scenes of both Brigid and Cairo in the form of “The Fat Man” aka Gutman. Played to marvelous, memorable effect by Sydney Greenstreet, the perpetually jovial crime figure attempts to manipulate Spade in finding the valuable Falcon. As can be found in similar, heavily-plotted noirs of the time, the narrative from this point forward mostly allows for a series of tense dialogue exchanges, double-crossings, and a climactic confrontation for all parties in which their object of desire—The Falcon—serves to illuminate the true intentions of each character and challenge those aspects of their personality formerly considered resolute.
Besides these genre precedents, the film also helped initiate the careers of both director John Huston and star Humphrey Bogart into those iconic roles which would later cement their legacies. Having collaborated with Bogart as a writer on the early heist film High Sierra (1941), where the young Bogie owned his first true staring role as the leader of the heist, Huston and Bogart would use the successful reception of this first partnership to ascend both their careers in The Maltese Falcon. After the critical and box office success of this picture, Huston would pursue similar movies that would define his career, mostly in the crime genre; specifically: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, and The Asphalt Jungle. Meanwhile, Bogart would grow into an actor of legend just a year later when starring in the most famous film of his career: Casablanca.
Though two previous, failed adaptations of Hammett’s novel had already come to fruition, Huston managed to convince Warner Brothers into financing another by meticulously mapping out each shot beforehand in detailed storyboards and keeping the budget down to $300,000 on an eight-week-schedule. Perhaps more importantly, he also remained extremely faithful to the source material—reducing the already lean narrative of the novel into an almost word-for-word transformation from prose to picture.
Still, the single filmmaking aspect most worthy of praise that exalted the picture into a detective mystery far more compelling than its predecessors can be pinpointed to the cinematography. Roger Ebert and others have argued that cinematographer Arthur Edeson’s work deserves praise on par with that of Welles and Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane for its use of deep-focus, long takes, and low-angle shots. These low-angles are noteworthy for their inclusion of ceilings within interior rooms—a major achievement for the field since lighting and equipment were normally kept above this region of the frame to hide equipment. While also praiseworthy for their invention in this regard, these shots also work to thematic effect in visually enhancing many ideas about character. Most notably, these are utilized in shots of Sydney Greenstreet’s Mr. G, wherein the massive man of wealth and influence is continually framed from low-angle shots that emphasize his power and domineering influence upon the frame.
Likewise, he and Edeson employ deep focus shots that ensure each detail in the foreground and background act in unison to highlight deeper thematic ideas—ensuring many long dialogue scenes are able to both convey necessary plot exposition and retain the viewer’s attention from a visual standpoint. Moreover, the use of a long take in a nearly seven-minute-long shot between Spade and Gutman deserves exceptional praise. Though the take does not call attention to itself in the manner that has made so many other long takes famous, the unbroken shot observes Gutman slowly waiting for Spade to pass out from his drugged drink. The viewer wallows in both the tension and patience of the scene, and Huston wisely never interrupts the shot to pander down to audiences as to the why this scene deserves to play out for such an extended time. Though this exact parallel between Toland and Edeson may be a bit of a stretch, the cinematography on display still deserves its reputable acclaim.
Still, though the film’s technical achievements are worthy of all the esteemed praise accumulated over the decades, the film’s genre and character precedents remain its most relevant legacy. Bogart inhabits the smug, cold, yet oddly charismatic character of Spade with confident swagger and delineates a portrait of the hardened detective that would inhabit the noir genre to the point of cliché. What separates Spade from the imitators, however, can be found in the stirring sense of pathos—one which will soon be starkly illuminated in the climax.
Like the novel, the final scene plays out as one long dialogue scene that begins as a negotiation and concludes in a cold arrest. The nearly twenty-minute long scene plays out almost identically to that of the novel, though the book includes a scene of Spade strip-searching O’Shaughnessy in an act of humiliation that truly reveals Spade’s hard heart—foreshadowing the dark aspect of this character to be crystallized within the climax.
After the Falcon has been revealed as an imitation, and the original “Fall Guy” of the Kid has escaped, Gutman and Spade mutually agree to depart with no harm to the other (though Spade manages to take a few hundred dollars from him “for his troubles”). Left alone with his love interest O’Shaughnessy, the woman who originally entangled Spade within the affairs of the Falcon, she appeals to Spade no longer as an ally or client—but as a lover. She raises questions of their relationship, of love, but Spade’s true nature finally reveals itself when he bluntly explains that he will be handing her over to the police. Though apparent true tears emerge from the woman’s eyes, begging him for mercy and for him to escape with her for a new life, Sam can only explain in his famous last lines:
“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it…I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck…The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”
Despite Sam’s brutal message and Brigid’s look of absolute horror, the speech gives the best indication yet into Spade’s character and what separates this species of investigator from the others: a code.
While Brigid may have actually loved Sam, her ambiguous nature left little in the way for a man like Sam to love her back. Even though he may not have even liked Archer (and was holding an affair with his wife, as well), and though he may have liked Brigid in some other circumstance, his code dictates that he has a certain duty to fulfill—one that he has accomplished by the end of the story—and one that, for better or worse, leaves him back where he began.
The one major, final difference between the book and movie lies in the film’s famous last line. After a cop asks Spade as to what exactly the Maltese Falcon is, he replies: “The stuff that dreams are made of”. Though reports vary in crediting this line to either Bogart or Huston, the line works as a variation of dialogue from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” The line does not need much analysis in the way of deciphering its symbolic significance in relation to what the Falcon has represented: a device that fueled the dreams for those seeking greater glories, riches, and a happier life…only to come away with nothing but an imitation.
Although the film is almost a word-for-word adaptation of a novel, it does leave out one chapter of significance that highlights this idea of chasing something better only to return to a similar life as that which came before. In the chapter titled “Flitcraft”, Spade relates the story of a case from early in his career, which involved a man named Charles Flitcraft. Spade had been assigned to track down this Charles Flitcraft—a successful businessman from Tacoma—who had seemingly abandoned his family. Following his private investigation, Spade discovers that Flitcraft was nearly killed by a falling beam from a construction site, and though the nearly fatal beam just missed him to spare his life, the businessman remained deeply shaken from the experience. As a result, he decided to leave this life behind in search of a new one. His new life, however, came to find Flitcraft as a man in charge of a new business, with a new wife, not far from his original town of Tacoma—clearly unaware how closely his new life resembled the old one.
The point of Flitcraft’s story—and one that makes Spade’s own ending with the Falcon all the more haunting—relates to the this theme of a man being unable to change his true nature, arguably due to the code which so defines Spade’s character. With the Falcon acting as The MacGuffin in this case—a thing that dreams are made of, whatever that may—each character comes to chase this idol of hope only to return to that original life from which they started their doomed journey. Cairo, Gutman, and Willet return to their worldwide search of the actual Falcon, Brigid remains a woman in fear for her life (now under a pending death penalty), and Spade returns back to his office—ready for the next case.
Now having experienced an episode in the career of Sam Spade, the viewer can better understand and contextualize the cynical weariness that has turned this private investigator into a shell of a human being. A man who understands the importance of a code above all else, and who’s able to recognize the futility of chasing a better life that will only return the pursuer back to a life not too dissimilar from the start. Ultimately, Spade recognizes that all these things under the umbrella of “stuff that dreams are made of” represented by the Falcon – a new life, a better woman, untold riches, the solving of a case—are only ever just that for men of a certain nature: ephemeral goals capable of casting the illusion of change, only to crumble over time when a man must return to his true nature and follow the law of his own code.
While the weary, detached detective would become a defining element of noir in the ensuing years, Spade’s sad fate as a man forced to return to a lonely lifestyle defined by a rigid code serves as a significant example of how this noir archetypes and his function within the larger narrative recontextualizes such ideas with profound thematic meaning that relates to dark ideas of both man and the mirage of dreams. As downbeat as such ideas may be, they represent the subversive tropes that came to define the film noir and detective genres at large—themes and characters represented in classic, captivating fashion as best found in the case of Sam Spade and The Maltese Falcon.
In her review of The Wages of Fear (1953), Paul Kael defined the film as an “existential thriller”. This perfect description of the premise’s spin on the thriller genre encapsulates why this film remains so compelling, so dramatic, and so provocative after so many years. Moreover, the fact that The Wages of Fear inhabits this singular space within the genre warrants further examination into how this distinctive film manages to expand this simple premise into a complex, spellbinding study into the nature of man’s relationship to fate, as seen through some of the most thrilling sequences to ever be engraved upon the silver screen.
Opening with a shot that would be reappropriated by Sam Peckinpah for his opening of The Wild Bunch, Cluzot’s The Wages of Fear begins with the stark image of a child toying with four scorpions within the poverty-stricken South American town of Las Piedras. When the boy becomes momentarily distracted by the promise of an iced treat that he can’t afford, a vulture swoops down to steal the scorpions—instantly establishing this savage setting to which these characters and premise must survive. Those characters are found in four men of different nationalities, who share the bond of being men crushed by the cruel hand of fate and now imprisoned within this inescapable town to bleak lives of despair.
The “protagonist” and first man to be introduced is Mario (Yves Montand). Though few details of his backstory are revealed (an enormous distinction in comparison to William Friedkin’s adaptation of the same source material in 1977’s Sorcerer), his fate as a cold, condemned man becomes quickly evident. He treats the cantina girl—Linda—with zero respect, and though clearly a capable man, seems resigned to the disastrous turn his life has taken.
His Italian roommate—Luigi—stars as the second of the four. An honest and hardworking man with a more optimistic outlook, though his lung cancer diagnosis quickly changes his perspective. The third and most intriguing backstory is found in the German—Bimba—a hardened man forced to work the Salt Mines during the Nazi occupation of his country. The final of the four men is introduced in an ex-gangster—Jo—who bribes his way into town and quickly becomes aware of the fatalistic undercurrent that permeates the province and transforms its citizens into prisoners.
Ruling over the village and advertising a chance for escape is the Southern Oil Company. When an inferno erupts over distant oil fields, the Oil Company offers a glimmer of hope in the form of a near suicidal mission. This job entails the employment of four men—two in each truck due to the low odds of survival—that must deliver packages of highly explosive nitroglycerine that will extinguish the inferno consuming a distant oil field.
Knowing that they may very well die but realizing that this opportunity may be their only chance for survival from the arguably worse fate of continuing their interminable lives in town, the four set out on their quest filled with a constant sense of danger in the most literal sense imaginable. With the nitroglycerin onboard the truck, the slightest bump or impact of the volatile substance means instantaneous death. Still, the men accept their job and the consequences of failure, then begin their long drive through the rocky terrain.
The second half of the film depicts this arduous journey in excruciating, powerful cinematic display. The four men are divided into two teams tasked with driving their separate trucks: Mario and Jo in the first, Bimba and Luigi in the second. Though Jo has initially presented himself as a man of bravado and confidence, his disposition alters immediately upon the start of this fatalistic trip. He complains of sickness, weariness, hunger…all things that Mario recognizes as telltales signs of a rattled man, though he knows that they must persist forward and keep to schedule at all costs.
The first obstacle that the two trucks encounter appears in a rocky stretch with recently laid concrete that necessitates their needing to accelerate to top speeds in order to clear. Though Bimba and Luigi are able to successfully speed over this stretch, Jo again reveals his insecurities and brakes just before he has been instructed to drive at a top speed in order to clear the pavement —a move that nearly costs the lives of both him and Mario in this very early stage. Mario takes over the wheel from his fearful friend and manages to navigate them over this volatile ground.
Cluzot modulates the tension of this scene to masterful effect—a skill that will be demonstrated throughout the second half to even more remarkable power. Their needing to clear this road at a maximum speed despite the explosives in their trunk causes the viewer to grow uneasy with every shot that fixates over the speedometer and Jo’s reaction shots of nervous anxiety that mirror the audience’s own anticipation for disaster— creating a scene that serves as a model for cinematic tension at its best.
And it’s worth noting that this is only the first obstacle of the very long journey.
Luigi and Bimba soon encounter the second obstacle: a construction barricade that requires the truck to be gently steered across a flimsy, wooden platform that borders a precipice overlooking a cliff. Though again, the two are able to cohesively work together in order to cross this second sure sign of certain doom, their success has come at the cost of destroying the wobbly planks that allowed their first truck to clear the pass.
While the first set piece creates a feeling of fast anxiety, this second obstacle conjures that of subtle, mounting dread. As Jo directs Mario in his steering the wheels over the most dangerous three-point-turn that has ever been dared, the latter eventually realizes that the former may have fallen off the cliff. With the truck standing on creaking boards that hint at collapsing from the truck’s heavy weight at a moment’s notice, Mario hops out the truck and searches for Jo—only to find his companion hiding amongst the bluffs and fleeing the site.
Throughout this sequence, Cluzot wrings the viewer through a heightened level of anxiety that seems nearly impossible to top. As the audience has already watched Bimba and Luigi barely surmount this wobbly platform, the task seems all but impossible for Jo and Mario to successfully cross these already moldering boards that threaten to collapse under the slightest weight. Nonetheless, the viewer must sit and suffer through this dreaded set piece of merciless tension—a secondary model for cinematic tension materialized through one of escalating dread that contrasts from that of the extreme exhilaration seen in the first obstacle.
Yet, the two still manage to somehow conquer this second perilous stretch. Incensed by Jo’s betrayal, however, Mario drives away—leaving Jo stranded in the cliffs, until the cowardly gangster finally relents. Jo runs along the side of the truck, begging for Mario’s help, which the driver agrees to—having now humiliated the former gangster of bravado into admitting his cowardice.
The four drivers finally reconvene at their third, most immobilizing obstacle—an enormous boulder in the middle of the road that brings their convoy to a standstill. Though the group grows despondent in figuring out how to surpass this boulder, Bimba cleverly realizes that they may be able to use the nitroglycerin itself to detonate the rock and clear the path. Though they succeed in doing just that, another moment of acute, much more extreme tension arises when they realize that they may not have backed up the trucks far enough from any flying debris that would cause certain explosion upon impact. Luckily, the falling debris manages to miss the trucks and the quartet survives.
Still, this is yet another example of Cluzot expertly finding ways to differentiate the existential fear at the heart of the premise and find innovative ways of reworking this anxiety into various obstacles which arise along this journey in the form of plot. While the former two obstacles were ones in which the protagonists could somewhat calculate the danger—meticulously navigating their ways across landscapes that warned of the terror ahead—the flying debris represents the first instance of unknowable danger that arrives before the characters may be able to combat or avoid the consequences of their fate.
Of course, this alludes to the larger metaphor for death that saturates the entire film—the idea that man may be able to avoid avoid certain dangers, but an awareness that there are various agents of fate over which a man can have no control and may only escape through sheer luck—as these characters do.
This idea is further outlined to even more haunting effect in the ensuing scene. After driving past the boulder, Luigi commends Bimba on his heroics and so fearlessly confronting the problem through the use ofthe nitroglycerin. Bimba chuckles, then hints toward the horrors found in his backstory of working in the salt mines while living under Nazi regime. This then sets up Luigi’s next question, as to why Bimba continually shaves every day, to which the latter further explains that before his father’s hanging, he asked to take a shower. Finishing the explanation with: “If I’ve gotta be a corpse, I want to be…presentable”.
Moments later, back in Jo and Mario’s truck, the former has begun rolling a cigarette, when the tobacco suddenly rolls away. A blinding white light blazes in the aftermath, and the two slowly realize in horror as to the source of the searing light:
That Bimba and Luigi’s truck has exploded.
Despite their working together, despite their overcoming obstacles in their path, a sudden bump in the road has now caused their companions’ instant incineration. While the flying debris of the boulder represented a new manifestation of existential terror, the tension charging every inch forward on their journey after this deathly detonation perhaps best outlines the true terror found in this allegory of unforeseeable tragedy that lies at the heart of this intense odyssey.
Now the only drivers left to finish the job, Jo and Mario arrive upon the wreck to find that the explosion has severed an oil line, slowly trapping all in its path, and creating an uncrossable abyss for the truck to pass. Still, Jo walks out to test the boundaries of the oil pit. During the excursion, however, Mario realizes that the truck has started sinking into the oil bog—and realizing that this means either to drive or lose everything—accelerates forward. As Joe himself has become bogged down within the oily mire, Mario faces no option but to drive over his legs—mortally wounding and crippling his partner.
More than any other sequence so far, this sequence exemplifies the suffocating anxiety so perfectly realized through the powerful cinematic storytelling of Cluzot’s capabilities. Having just witnessed that the wrong bump on an otherwise clear road has sent the others to their deaths, the visibly rocky path formed by the oil bog creates an overwhelmingly uncomfortable experience—one that tests the viewer’s ability to remain still within these moments of unyielding suspense.
As Jo shrieks in primal screams while his legs are crushed beneath the tires, while Mario must still march the truck forward at the cost of crippling his companion, both know that this entire excursion may literally blow up in their face at any moment. As a result, these men can no longer carry an appearance of being civilized, ration beings; but instead, they transform into desperate beasts clawing and shouting for survival in the middle of a Mexican desert.
Though both the truck and Jo manage to survive this final obstacle, the latter clearly does not have much left to keep going. In an effort to comfort him, Mario relates an old story about a cigar shop in Paris, one in which both he and Jo are familiar. As Jo asks for more details about the location, and what lied behind a fence that he had never seen beyond, Mario can only tearfully answer that there was nothing. With death imminent, Jo repeats these words in his dying breath to haunting effect, muttering “There’s nothing” just as they finally arrive upon the object of their journey’s quest. Appearing almost like a mirage within this desert as he finally arrives, Mario—now the only surviving member of the four hired drivers—collapses before the blazing inferno having successfully delivered the nitroglycerin.
In the epilogue of this harrowing journey, Mario prepares to drive back home to Las Piedras—now a wealthy man with means of escape. Though the workers offer him a driver, Mario insists on navigating the road back himself: “When someone else is driving…I’m scared”. Simultaneously, Cluzot intercuts a dance scene back at the Cantina, where Linda and the other villagers celebrate the good news that Mario has survived and begun his return journey home.
However, during this travel back, Mario steers down the rocky mountain pass with reckless abandon—arrogantly turning the wheels beside the pratfalls after having just managed to navigate this same terrain with the nitroglycerin—but which he feels he can now fishtail around with arrogant zeal. As the music crescendos, Linda feels a sudden, internal pain and appears to faint or die. Cluzot juxtaposes this against Mario attempting a dangerous turn that proves too much for his vehicle to correct. In the film’s final moment, he tries to swerve back to safety—instantly realizing the error of his arrogant display—and tumbles over the rocks to death.
All four men succumb to the hand of fate in specific, insightful fashion that demonstrates its inevitable power from which no man can escape. While Bimba has escaped the horrors of the Nazi regime and utilizes his intellect to the group’s collective reward, he is struck down by a random bump in the road that sends him to death without ceremony. Even as he knows that this day is coming and shaves everyday to prepare to face it with pride, the fact that this almost spontaneous combustion occurs just after delivering this speech feels as though the writing almost intends to mock his reverence for the grave and trying to preserve his dignity while in the presence of the specter of death.
His companion—Luigi—receives a similar, arguably derisive death, in light of the information that even if this good-natured fellow survives the trip, he will have to face the fact that death is not too far around the corner due to his lung cancer diagnosis caused by years of hard work for the Oil Company. Though Cluzot remains firmly objective in his portrayal of the characters and this brutal world, his story feels the most heartbreaking, perhaps due to the sheer jovial nature of the actor that portrays him.
While the three others are clearly men of a dark past who have found some refuge in Las Piedras, Luigi appears to be a genuinely good-natured man trapped by ugly circumstances—though this would also appear to be Cluzot’s point: that there is no difference between a good and a bad man in a world where fate makes no distinction.
The fates of Mario and Jo represent this idea in similar fashion through their character arcs that reveal the reactions of these two men when confronting death. Mario initially presents himself as a man of sheer bravado—a gangster capable of handling any obstacle with money or an intimidating will. He even wiggles his way into the job by apparently killing the man first employed (or perhaps intimidated him enough to cow down, the details are left cleverly ambiguous)—but nonetheless demonstrating a ruthless man ready to tackle these obstacles.
But almost from the get-go, his cowardice in comprehending the consequences of this task becomes quickly evident. He feigns sickness, delays progress, begs for breaks, and finally quits when confronted with the first obstacle. The second obstacle of the rickety concrete overlooking the precipice finally breaks his initial facade, when he attempts to hide and flee from Mario. Jo’s behavior is not without some merit, however, when he yells back in defense:
“Cause I know what risk is. You just plunge ahead. You think you’re invincible. You can’t see 10 feet ahead of you. I see every pebble, every hole that could send us sky-high. I’ve died 50 times since last night. I can see the explosion up here. I see myself blown to bits. Cause I’ve got brains in my head!
Logically speaking, Jo is right. The entire endeavor is suicidal and irrational, but the fact that he had previously agreed to completing the job—one in which his help may save the life of his partners—produces a problem. While the others try to reconcile the constant danger by acting both cautiously and brave, Jo recognizes their arrogance in any attempts whatsoever—one proved correct when Bimba and Jo are promptly killed after a mere bump in the road.
Mario, however, refuses to yield these insecurities. Compelled to complete the job, with poignant memories of a Parisian past to keep him motivated, the protagonist plunges forward when faced against each obstacle—knowing that persistence may be the only virtue capable of surmounting their survival. Throughout the entirety of the job, Mario embodies this quality—refusing to deter the mission, even at the cost of crippling and then killing his partner Jo.
His return journey home, however, presents a stirring statement about the consequences of ignoring this virtue. Having remained dutiful and persistent throughout the task, he drives with reckless abandon throughout the formerly fatal mountainside—steering the vehicle as though challenging the terrain just conquered. Fate proves the ultimate victor, and through his own human fault, causes his own death.
More importantly and to the point, all of these ideas are embedded in a film that demonstrates these concepts through some of the most thrilling, tension-filled sequences ever conceived for cinema. While this this premise deserves due credit for its genius in establishing such a heightened circumstance for these themes to be examined, the filmmaking on display deserves the highest praise for elevating the narrative to one that delivers an exceptional cinematic experience.
The narrative work of the first half establishes these distinct characters whose lives will be in perpetual danger, along with the psychogeography of the grim setting that traps them, before beginning the slow descent to madness when traversing into the uninhabited Mexican desert that brings out their most barbaric nature. Cluzot sustains an observing, often unsympathetic eye through the entirety of the endeavor in a manner that evokes Kubrick—as his filmmaking style only amplifies the thematic ideas on display and never favors plotting or style that distract from the existential premise on display.
Cleverly, he disguises this fact through the obstacles of the plot and the relentless tension that engulfs each moment. With the threat of annihilation always looming behind each second of film, the viewer must situate themselves within the shoes of these characters and experience each moment of intensified suspense without choice. Every obstacle, therefore, becomes as much of a weight upon the audience as the characters, and the writing always manifest various versions of these existential terror through the forms of different obstacles: the high-speed exhilaration of the first road stretch, the mounting dread of the rickety bridge confronted in the second obstacle, the chaotic frenzy of mistake found in the explosive third, and a mixture of all three found in the final oily bog.
In doing so, the narrative works to magnificent cinematic effect in a manner that elicits its power for utilizing those qualities that are so unique to the medium of film. Cluzot has crafted one of the finest and most distinct thrillers—a movie that occupies a very unique space within the spectrum that Kael so perfectly described as an “existential thriller”—and one that weaves those themes of fate and the folly of man within heightened sequences of suspense that still stand as some of the most exciting ever offered upon the silver screen.
Not unlike Polanski’s unofficial Apartment Trilogy, Alan J. Pakula’s “Paranoia” Trilogy finds its three films united through a similar sense of mood and theme rather than a serialized story. Starting with 1971’s Klute, then The Parallax View in 1974, and concluding in 1976 with All The President’s Men, the trio of films weave a palpable atmosphere of unease—often through the prism of political underpinnings—while following a protagonist’s dangerous journey through an realm of suspense and intrigue. Although Klute situates itself firmly within the detective genre, the following films would inhabit specific arenas within the political thriller—escalating in scope each time—that address themes of grand conspiracy while suffocating the viewer in an atmosphere of dread.
1971’s Klute marks the first film in this Paranoia Trilogy—starring Donald Sutherland as the eponymous P.I. and Jane Fonda as the prostitute at the crux of his case. Following the disappearance of executive Tom Gruneman, the police reveal a series of disturbing, explicit letters from him to a prostitute named Bree Daniels in New York. Though the police are unable to ascertain any other real clues, family friend Peter Cable hires Klute to investigate.
Upon his arrival in New York, Klute begins a complex relationship with Bree that toes the line between business and pleasure for both parties. However, Bree also presents a portrait of the prostitute with more depth than the archetype usually allows: a woman on the verge of wanting more, spending considerable time in poignant psychiatric sessions, charged by a variety of emotions, and with a distinctive personality brought to life from the marriage of the writing and Fonda’s indelible performance.
Nonetheless, as Klute’s able to ascertain some details regarding a john that violently attacked her in the past, the two become subject to a number of incidents that hint toward her being stalked—escalating the sense of paranoia already present in the narrative. When she and Klute also realize that the other prostitutes who committed “suicide” were actually murdered by the same man likely responsible for Gruneman’s disappearance, her life becomes further endangered unless Klute can stop the killer.
More than anything else, and despite the character of the title, the film offers an exceptional character study through the character of Fonda’s prostitute—Bree Daniels. Both Fonda’s performance and the writing compose a character so unlike most prostitutes in film—neither the manic pixy dream girl with a heart of gold, nor a tragic nymphomaniac, nor any of the other typical prostitute portrayals in fiction—but instead, a depiction of a very rounded woman full of flaws, humor, and recognizable humanity.
From her opening manipulation of a customer, to her manipulating Klute, to her own admission of a needing control, Bree Daniels encapsulates an all-too-rare example of a female character with specific depth and writing that respects a character found on such fringes of society by detailing her life with these distinctive personality details. The constant conflict between her need for control, and her inability to control the danger around her, also adds a layer of complexity that allows for this compelling characterization to drive much of the surface level plot. Her use of sex as a means of control might remind viewers of the femme fatales from film noir’s past, but her deep insecurities and visible humanity illuminated through Fonda’s performance elevate this character into a unique persona that defies normal genre function.
In contrast, Sutherland’s Klute typifies the brooding figure of detective mystery, yet his complex relationship with Bree—the continual resistance mixed with magnetized attraction—causes considerable intrigue to be added aside from the central mystery of the case. Sutherland’s face and stern eyes are able to imbue a specific feeling far more than most actors are capable through long dialogue exchanges, and his commendable restraint in ever breaking character in favor of a flashier performance deserves special praise.
Moreover, Pakula continually frames the two characters as just out danger’s reach in order to heighten the atmospheric feeling of claustrophobia within the sprawling New York setting. Point-of-view shots of Bree from the killer’s perspective constantly remind the audience that this woman able to deftly manipulate so many men remains firmly under the watch of this dangerous figure from her past.
Additionally, Pakula uses sound to maximum effect in order to continually disorient the audience’s sense of comfort. With taped recordings of Bree’s promiscuous phone calls, to the sound of footsteps on a roof, to the quiet corridors of a factory, this unnerving feeling of imminent danger always feels just at the edge of each scene—no scene more indicative and haunting of this power than that of the climax.
After Cable has been revealed as the betrayer to Gruneman and the killer of the other call girls, he finally manages to trap Bree at a garment factory. There, the menacing figure begins to taunt her—finally forcing her to listen to an audio recording of his killing a fellow call girl—in an unforgettably disturbing scene constructed through the use of a recording and Fonda’s face of horror. The recording of this man murdering a woman and her pitiful shriek as life escapes demands for the audience to imagine this gruesome scenario within their own imagination, and through this device, creates an atmosphere of horror that other films often aspire toward but through lesser means (e.g. cheap special effects/shock gore). Fonda’s silent, captivating performance in this climactic moment—as a woman paralyzed by her captor and now being psychologically tortured to the point of uncontrolled tears—only serves as further evidence for her well-deserved Oscar win.
Klute remains my favorite film in Pakula’s filmography, and a remarkable crime thriller that conjures a feeling of paranoia only paralleled by those films found in the very different genre of Polanski’s horror. Both performances stand out as career highlights for both actors, and the nuanced writing allows these distinctive characters to lend considerable depth to an already intriguing plot by examining this strange relationship between two figures on either side of the law.
THE PARALLAX VIEW
Pakula’s follow up to this first film in his unofficial trilogy can be found in 1974’s The Parallax View. Here, Warren Beatty stars as dogged reporter Joe Frady—one of several witnesses to a shocking opening scene of a senator’s assassination atop the structure of Seattle’s Space Needle. Cutting to three years, several witnesses—including his ex-girlfriend—are being murdered in “accidental deaths” that demand his investigation into some wider conspiracy linking the murders.
This investigation leads to his uncovering of a mysterious group known as The Parallax Corporation. Going rogue and off-grid, Frady poses as a potential employee for The Parallax Corporation—only to learn that the Corporation employs anti-social personalities and others that do not conform to society in order to enact their political agendas through assassinations or terrorist attacks.
In comparing The Parallax View directly against its predecessor, certain structural parallels emerge that are worthy of consideration. In both cases, the main protagonist works as a detective—Klute explicitly as a P.I., but Frady also acting as an investigator vis-à-vis his job as a reporter—and then embroiling themselves in a case which they are pledged to solve before slowly transforming into a figure forced to face aspects of their identity previously considered resolute.
Though Klute’s transformation occurs on a much more introspective level, The Parallax View weaves Frady’s journey into the actual plot itself—and therefore, the viewer’s journey. Frady’s initial skepticism of any connection between these “accidental” murders, which he continually attempts to rationalize, finally dissolves when a Sheriff attempts to murder him in the sleepy town of Salmontail. His further induction into this secret society confirms his suspicions and incites his urgency in exposing this corrupt corporation operating behind the scenes of these political attacks reshaping the country.
These scenes of Frady’s covert investigations into the Parallax Corporation work as the best scenes in the film—ensuring that the audience remains in arrested suspense and drowned in dramatic irony. Specifically, his first training sequence, wherein Frady—and the audience—are subjected to a montage of historical photos juxtaposed against various words of ideals like “ me”, “country”, and “love” stands as the most memorable and thought-provoking scene in the film. This montage works like a piece of experimental art suddenly spliced into the middle of the film—instantly recapturing the audience’s attention and delivering an exhilarating sequence that returns the audience to a mood of vulnerability and surprise.
As the plot plods forward and Frady’s involvement with this mysterious corporation escalates into one with serious consequences for both his life and the country, the paranoia of the trilogy’s title kicks into high gear and allows for a gripping climax and ambiguous finale that challenges the audience in a way that the best films of this era were capable. Gordon Willis’ cinematography in this climactic scene deserves special attention. As Frady attempts to stop another assassination, he hides in the darkened rafters above the ground floor of the spacious convention floor, and the suspenseful editing between the shadows of the rafters above and this brightly illumined setting below works to spellbinding effect.
Still, The Parallax View stands as the weakest of the three. Unlike the other two films, The Parallax View contains certain sequence of fat that dilute the streamlined narrative. The first example of this occurs in Frady’s fist-fight brawl with the Deputy in the town of Salmontail that would not be out of place in a fifties Western. The fight goes on for an almost comical amount of time, and though the Sheriff has some humorous remarks in the aftermath, it’s an example of noticeable fat on the running-time that is absent from either of the other films. Another example of this occurs in the form of an oddly placed car-chase between Frady and the police that feels like it belongs in a different genre altogether. There are other smaller instances of this type of padding in this film, and these small criticisms add up in a way that causes this film to slag—remarkable and commendable as it is in other areas of craft—to feel like the lesser of the three in terms of storytelling and tone.
Despite these criticisms, the film still deserves its ranking as one of the most intriguing of the seventies. It stands as another laudable entry in this distinct genre of the paranoid thriller pioneered by Pakula, but when laid in direct comparison to the other two films, these glaring shortcomings described above stand in sharp contrast to the streamlined focus and authority of atmosphere found more successfully in the former and the latter.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
Pakula’s conclusion to this unofficial trilogy in 1976 resulted in arguably his most critically acclaimed film to date as a director—All The President’s Men. An adaptation of the book written years after by the movie’s two main character’s, the film follows young Washington post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as they relentless pursue answers to the break-in at Watergate Hotel—only to uncover the notorious scandal that would culminate in the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
A plot summary seems unnecessary for this third entry, as it almost exclusively concerns the laser-focused investigation of Woodward and Bernstein in the aftermath of the perplexing Watergate break-in. Not unlike Frady, the two again take on the role of detectives (with the poster’s tagline claiming: “The most devastating detective story of this century”) in order to collect evidence and information on this grand conspiracy with profound consequences for the narrative of America and a climax that places both their lives and the concept of American authorities at stake.
The film neatly summarizes and manages to make compelling the enormously complicated pieces at play—from the testimony of secretaries, to the infamous Deep Throat, to various committee members all with unmemorable names—the script somehow always makes sure that the flow of information never becomes too overwhelming or lost in the shuffle of the rapid-paced storytelling. As the two reporters are constantly put in the difficult position of prying information from reticent, guilty members who often want to do the right thing but are also aware of the enormous ramifications in doing so, these exchanges never falter in finding ways to imbue a sense of simultaneous triumph and defeat.
Each source, clue, or admission found by the reporters always allows for the reporters to keep their heads above water in the face of immense opposition —from colleagues, from the public, to the White House itself—and every little victory helps in reminding just what underdogs these two reporters were when tasked with writing such an impossible story.
Redford and Hoffman’s performance help convey this range of emotions—from desperation, to stolid determinism, to unenviable publicity, to momentary defeat to absolute triumph—but always in relation to the fluctuations of the case. Because of this laser-focus in hoping to move the story forward without drowning in exposition, the character themselves are only given the briefest personality details (e.g. Bernstein’s chain-smoking) but again, the performances help lend a depth to the emotions and humanizing of both men beyond that of functionary characters by demonstrating their desperation, frustration, and sense of camaraderie in every scene which they share.
Hal Holbrook’s performance as the infamous Deep Throat source serves as an almost literal manifestation of the paranoid feelings so perceptible in Pakula’s vision: a mysterious figure cloaked in shadow, who speaks in riddles, and charges each scene with a captivating sense of ominous power. These scenes between Deep Throat and Woodward are captured once again by familiar Pakula collaborator and “Prince of Darkness” Gordon Willis to astounding effect—always finding a perfect composition between shadow, darkness, and cigarette glow to cast Holbrook as some kind of sinister wraith at the center of this nightmarish scandal.
Famed screenwriter William Goldman deserves similar credit for synthesizing so many disparate elements and never losing the thread of what is at stake for every character entangled in this web—not just Woodward and Bernstein, but those lost in the mix of Nixon’s committee, secretaries fearful of their lives, and the employees of The Washington Post concerned about the reputation of their own careers. Moreover, his sense of pacing perfectly complement the atmospheric paranoia of Pakula’s interest—and the latter third helps raise the sense of paranoia to noticeable effect once Deep Throat confesses to Woodward that their lives are now at stake. From clicking phones, to having to communicate over written messages, to anonymous men that seem to be following them, Goldman incorporates a range of devices to expand this nightmarish feeling to new heights in comparison to the former films.
At last, the final scene—a juxtaposition of Nixon’s televised Presidential oath against dissolves of the reporters typing the story that would cause his resignation—works to tremendous, subtle effect and serves as a perfect visual image for the film’s thesis on display: two reporters who used the power of the press to bring down the most powerful man in the country.
Like the other two films, All The President’s Men revels in an atmosphere of tension and palpable sense of paranoia that find its strength in the taut storytelling on display and through characters determined to find answers within a cryptic maze of suspicion. Starting with Klute, then expanded in The Parallax View, and culminating in All The President’s Men, Pakula’s strong command of tone always keeps the audience in a state of suspense and unease—positioning their point-of-view directly in line with the protagonist attempting to navigate this unfamiliar realm of darkness to find some sense of truth, and then only for those answers to challenge the core ideals. In all aspects of his Paranoia Trilogy, Pakula provides more thought-provoking questions than he does answers—challenging the viewer to examine their own ideas of identity, country, and authority at large.
In the summer of 1979, a then-twenty-year-old Sam Raimi—along with friends Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert—began production on the film intended to initiate his career which would later be titled The Evil Dead. Although having previously made short comedies, the filmmakers were inspired by the success of cheap horror movies found at the local drive-ins and endeavored to make a film found in the same genre. However, the filmmakers did not merely regurgitate the same clichés and tropes that often populated these predictable pictures; but instead, they amplified those conventions to new genre extremes and produced a remarkably distinguished first film as a result.
More surprising and noteworthy, however, lies in the gradual phenomena of this first The Evil Dead movie that would spawn a sequel, a trilogy, a remake, a musical, comic books, videogames, and an upcoming TV show—a truly bizarre franchise built from the foundations of its own bizarre style and tone. For although the first film remained rooted in the horror films from which it was inspired, the successive sequels would never return exactly to that same tone and style. Instead, each film moved just left of center—with each consecutive entry adopting different genre and tonal elements that would separate every film from its predecessor—while still managing to playfully expand upon those larger, recognizable icons of the series that attracted initial audiences.
As mentioned, the debut film sets itself squarely within the realm of the horror genre—only to magnify certain genre conventions to the extreme while also managing to establish some new ones. Having just arrived after the birth of the teen slasher, (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th), The Evil Dead isolates these college students in a remote cabin surrounded by woods, marshes, and a thick atmosphere of menace that seems to saturate every scene. More importantly, it is their exploration of the cabin’s subterranean cellar that the five find the taped recordings of the Naturom Demonto (Necronomicon Ex-Mortis in later films)—the Sumerian grimoire capable of unleashing supernatural entities that lie somewhere between the demonically possessed and a zombie—called Deadites.
From this point forward, the premise essentially serves as a vehicle for Raimi and his cohorts to employ every conceivable gag fueled by their imagination and able to be materialized by their shoestring budget. More impressively, and to similar effect as the nonfunctioning shark of Spielberg’s Jaws, these budgetary limitations were often responsible for some of the film’s most creative moments. For instance, the filmmakers conceived of a camera effect that simulates the effect of a rapidly “whooshing” spirit accelerating toward the cabin that still works to this day—and which would become a hallmark of the series.
And while these small hints of horror help raise tension, it does not take long for these supernatural spirits to turn truly mean and nasty. In the series’ most infamous moments, Cheryl chases a menacing spirit into the surrounding woods, where a tree paralyzes, attacks, then rapes her. As ridiculous as such an idea sounds in print, the execution of the scene leaves the audience in genuine discomfort—as the visualization of this metaphorical horror of rape situates the audience squarely within the position of being a woman under the control of a cruel and relentless entity beyond her power to overcome.
Although the rules remain a bit fuzzy throughout the series as to who becomes infected by the deadites, when, why, etc., the chaotic nature of not having a clearly defined mythology also allows for a unique sense of surprise to be a weapon always within the filmmakers’ grasp—one to be deployed quite often. For following Cheryl’s attack, she becomes the first full-fledged deadite to appear—revealing a gruesomely deformed face, eerie voice, and supernatural powers—though the group manages to lock and chain her in the cellar, where she serves as another element of suspense just outside the edge of frame.
For a film with this budget, the effects are beyond commendable. They offer not just a repeat of the Romero zombies, nor a cheap imitation of Reagan from The Exorcist, but a very peculiar visual presentation of these Evil Dead. Raimi’s decision to continually employ POV shots from beneath the cellar works as an especially creative effect—one that would become a favorite choice of the filmmaker throughout the rest of his career.
A number of other noteworthy moments occur within this first film. The possession of Ash’s girlfriend—Shelly—stand out as particular highlight, along with the many, many ways the filmmakers figure for buckets of blood, gore, and other gross-out moments to proliferate on-screen. But more than even these admirable moments of inventive craft put forth by the young filmmakers, it’s the specific tone of this first film that demands particular attention.
There’s a very fine line between horror and comic absurdity in which this film—and much of Raimi’s filmography—thrives. While the second veers more definitely toward a horror/comedy, and the third would inhabit a singular genre somewhere between fantasy, horror, and comedy—the first wears a very clear coat of horror, though elements of both the comedic and the absurd still find ways to sneak through the cracks.
Moreover, the first film can be classified most definitely within the horror genre for an atmosphere of dread that hangs over the majority of the running time. There are slow-building sequences meant to evoke a clear sense of terror and imminent doom that is absent from later sequels. In doing so, the film retains an inimitable tone that allows this distinct genre quality to remain evident to this day, despite the deluge of imitators that have followed in its wake. Moreover, this unique quality is mostly manifested through the series’ main character:
While instances like Cheryl’s rape and her subsequent imprisonment through the cellar (along with the famous “What’s wrong with her eyes” line) transmit the feeling of unnerving supernatural horror at the story’s premise, the filmmakers are also able to recognizable the similar, absurd nature of the supernatural. Bruce Campbell’s character of Ash serves as perhaps the best vehicle for this idea. While other characters (and any rational human being placed into these gruesome circumstances) would no doubt react with some form of shock or adrenaline-filled survival instincts, Ash reacts with an attitude of someone seemingly born with the destiny of killing Deadites (an idea that would be conceived literally in later sequels). Despite seeing his sister, his girlfriend, and his friend undergo these monstrous perversities from the dead, Ash appears to almost revel—and thrive—within these circumstances.
In doing so, he transfers some of this glee to the audience. What begins as the slow stalking of five friends within an isolated cabin transforms into something closer to a carnival show—though one that still retains an atmosphere of dread. While this veil of dread that hangs over much of the first film would be considerably reduced in the sequels, the original film remains so inimitable and relevant for being able to so expertly straddle within this distinct territory.
Still, this is not a criticism of the later films—just an observation of the stark differences that separate each entry. For when the filmmakers returned for the sequel in Evil Dead II, they opted not to return to that same realm which they had successfully conquered in the original. Instead, the filmmakers retained the most recognizable elements and moved in favor of focusing on an absurdist comedy with horror elements, rather than a horror with elements of absurd—as seen in the original.
Again, Ash serves as perhaps the best embodiment of the film’s tone. From the start, the sequel abandons the atmosphere of dread that crept over the first film, and instead, it chooses to embrace a tone closer to the slapstick of The Three Stooges somehow mixed with those horror elements introduced in its predecessor. Ash’s initial fight with his Deadite-girlfriend, his battle against his own hand that results in his chopping off the appendage then replacing it with a chainsaw, the Looney Toones-like appearance of the bridge that cuts off the cabin from the mainland—all representative of the adoration for absurdist comedy roots that the sequel so warmly embraces.
In some ways, the film may represent an aspect of Raimi that the rest of his filmography has yet to find compare. A film that manages to merge all his genre obsessions: horror, slapstick, excellent sense of rapid-pace editing, and larger-than-life storytelling that are all so idealized within this sequel. Whether one prefers that atmosphere of dread in the original, or this gleeful amalgamation of comedy and horror that so defines the sequel, Raimi’s command of craft and clear ability to modulate both genre and tone in service of his vision remain without debate.
And yet, despite these successes in both genre arenas, the filmmakers shifted for another—much, much more radical shift in tone—with the series’ third entry: Army of Darkness. With the conclusion of Evil Dead II having exiled Ash through a time portal and into the medieval past, the film now adopts a tone that retains some of the tongue-in-cheek/slapstick comedy of the second, the recognizable horror elements of the first, and fully embraces an entirely new realm for these former hallmarks to play: Fantasy.
Outside the most surface-level horror qualities (skeletons, gore, the Necronomicon, blood, etc.)—the atmospheric horror of dread that so saturated the first film and still seeped itself into the sequel—that horror has been overhauled in favor of a more fantastic arena for Ash’s continual battle with the Evil Dead. Again, this is not necessarily a criticism, as a point of comparison for the series’ continual genre expansion.
Instead, Army of Darkness maneuvers its comedic touchstones into some of the series’ most iconic one-liners, while also allowing the slowly evolving action hero of Ash to fulfill his status in the most literal way. Ash’s fights against his alter-ego—Evil Ash—with his shotgun and chainsaw as weapons against an army of skeletons—plays out with all the fun and adventure of a Frank Frazetta painting brought to life then filtered through Raimi’s imagination. Campbell, as well, has been afforded his first true vehicle to shine as a charismatic action star (even more so than II which still had bits of an ensemble) and both delivers beyond expectations while also helping carry some of the film’s weaker moments. His tongue-in-cheek confrontations with the medieval knights, his methods of crowd control through the demonstration of his boomstick, and his refusal to ever correctly recalls the right words to the Necronomicon all play to hilarious effect.
Finally, after more than a twenty-year-lapse, the franchise found itself resurrected in a remake that dropped the “the” and simply presented itself as Evil Dead. With Raimi on board as a producer rather than as a director for the first time in franchise history, the remake returns to the horror roots of the series’ past. However, the remake is a curious beast. On the one hand, it’s admirable that they committed to telling their own premise—of helping a young woman named Mia go cold turkey and isolating her in the cabin in the woods to do so. With the genre trope of teenagers merely retreating to an isolated cabin for a vacation being so worn out and spoofed in the decades since the original’s debut, this interesting spin works as an intriguing twist on a now-worn-out premise.
Moreover, in terms of genre, newcomer Fede Alvarez refuses to hold back in delivering a brutal, explicitly gory version of the Evil Dead into this reinvention. The remake retains the series’ hallmarks—sometimes to clunky effect—such as the Necronomicon, the chainsaw, a possessed hand, trapping someone in the cellar—and though some of these franchise staples are able to be organically weaved into this new premise, there are some moments that feel like awkward fan-servicing.
Still, following the original and its sequel, this remake would probably rank just above Army of Darkness. The gory horror of this go-around can be effective at times—there are some truly squirm-inducing moments that viewers are unlike to forget. Although some ideas like the supernatural witch of the cold opening or merging the Mia character into both the Ash/Cheryl role are interesting, these updates never explore the full potential of their concepts or figure out a way to seamlessly merge their mythology with that of the original. Though the cold-turkey-drug-addiction idea is an intriguing one, this too feels like wasted potential in the race to service all the iconic scenes of the series’ past.
In terms of tone and genre, however, there are two absences that are most responsible for the biggest differences between the remake and its original. The first lies in the choice to pursue a type of horror more focused on the shock of gore than the atmospheric horror found in the first. Due to both the budget and the decision to pursue a mood of terror, The Evil Dead offers a type of horror than leans more toward one of disturbing the viewer than one of pure shock value. Both Cheryl’s rape and locking her in the cellar—continuing to taunt from beneath with her unnerving voice—serving as perhaps the best examples of this.
In the remake, the scares lean much heavier on the shock and vividness of the gore, rather than an imbuing a sense of atmosphere. Many of the sequences are executed without a sense of escalation; instead, the gore just tends to “happen” before the narrative transitions to the next sequence. This is not necessarily a criticism, as the filmmakers are committed to executing their gory take on the series and succeed in this effort—as the gore is truly commendable and capable of creating some of the best contributions in this specific regard to the horror genre for the post-2000 period.
The second most obvious and noteworthy differences lies in the absence of Ash. Knowing that the series’ icon only exists when embodied by Campbell, the filmmakers were wise to reroute the story in the form of a new character: Mia. Again, her twist on the tale as a drug addict attempting to go clean is interesting, and the decision to anchor her character at the forefront works for the most part—especially in regard to the ending. The cost of losing Campbell’s Ash, however, results in arguably the most crucial ingredient for translating the specific tone of the series to the audience.
As mentioned, Ash’s reactions to the supernatural horrors around him are responsible for the blend of true horror and absurd comedy that is so emblematic of the series. With Mia’s possession, the tone turns into one of a more typical horror film. Again, though the remake works well for the most part—and has some spectacular gore effects that deserve praise—it’s the loss of this quality of tone that remains the most significant difference between the remake and the work of Raimi.
For although those aspects of terror found in most horror films are found within Evil Dead—e.g. teenagers in the woods picked off one-by-one, gross-out moments of gore—Bruce Campbell’s Ash character stands as the iconic element that delineates between the weird mix of horror and gleeful absurdity that separate The Evil Dead from more typical horror films. Indeed, Ash’s role in each film helps orient the viewer into the specific tone found in each: whether it’s the more atmospheric horror of the first, the mix of slapstick/absurdist comedy horror in the second, or the action-hero in a world of fantasy found in the third—Ash’s character has evolved into the ultimate icon for defining each entry.
While the remake works effectively, and serves as an interesting exercise in gaining insight into how the series functions, Ash’s involvement seems more integral to the series’ future than that of the Deadites or the other more recognizable horror elements that have been imitated by other films since the original’s debut. Still, besides it’s iconic character, what seems to separate this series and allowed its continued interest over the decades for fans both old and new, can be found in its choice of continued genre expansion.
Each entry refuses to retreat into delivering something that has been seen previously, and whether it succeeds as successfully or not, the decision to always push the series toward new genre territories should be celebrated and applauded. Additionally, with the series now having been translated into a variety of mediums—from a musical, to comic books, video games, and a new TV series on the way—audience interest in all-things Evil Dead remains as relevant as ever with no signs of decline. One hopes that those responsible will continue the legacy of delivering the most recognizable elements that audiences love while also honoring the tradition of pushing the series toward new genre grounds that has come to be the most defining features found in the bizarre series that is The Evil Dead.