Fargo

Fargo Paul BunyanAlfred Hitchcock would have liked this 1996 Joel Coen and Ethan Coen quirky thriller that contains so much comedy it transcends genres.  It borrows a number of techniques from the master of thriller movies, including a clever McGuffin, a villain with empathy, horrific incidents that are hilarious, and a tremendous environmental atmosphere.

The following review contains plot spoilers!

Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is caught in a deep financial bind during the winter of 1987 and hatches a scheme to hire two thugs, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) so that her wealthy father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) will pay enough money to pay off the kidnappers and leave him high and dry financially.  At the same time, he has been working on a real estate deal that would leave him wealthy enough to quit the car business altogether.  He has been pitching this scheme to his father-in-law hoping that the man will loan him $750,000 to complete the deal.

Fargo William MacyHe drives to Fargo to give the prospective kidnappers a 1987 Oldsmobile Ciera to cement the deal, passing through the hamlet of Brainerd, Minnesota, home of Paul Bunyan.  Returning to Minneapolis, Jerry is shocked to find that Wade is actually interested in the real estate deal, so he hastily tries to contact the kidnappers to cancel the deal, but they are already on the road to the Twin Cities.  In a meeting with Wade and his financial officer, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), Jerry finds that they only want to pay him a finder’s fee and will not loan him the $750,000.  Although Jean puts of nominal resistance, Carl and Gaear wrap her up in a shower curtain (there are several reverential Psycho moments) and head back to Fargo.  When Jerry finds Jean missing, he tells Wade that the kidnappers want one million dollars for her return, thinking he can get the money for the real estate deal, but that the kidnappers will only deal with him.

Fargo Steve BuscemiOutside Brainerd, Carl and Gaear get stopped by a state patrolman because Carl has forgotten to put tags on the Ciera.  While he attempts to smooth things over with the officer, Jean moans under the shower curtain in the back seat and the trooper asks them to exit the vehicle.  On impulse, Gaear grabs the officer and shoots him in the head.  He tells Carl to move the body off the highway and while Carl is trying to drag the dead man out of the way, a car happens by and two people witness it.  Gaear puts the Ciera in gear, chases down the witnesses and shoots both of them after their car has flipped into a field.

Fargo Frances McDormandBrainerd Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is awakened in the early morning hours by her deputies who need her at the scene of the triple homicide.  Her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), faithfully fixes his seven-month pregnant wife breakfast, jumps her patrol car, and sends her off.  Marge quickly figures out exactly what happens and launches an investigation that leads her to the Blue Ox Motel where the two men stayed on their way to Minneapolis.  She interviews the two girls who bedded the men and follows up on several phone calls made to Jerry’s mechanic, Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) who had set the deal up for Jerry.  Following up this lead, she goes to Minneapolis only to find that Shep has disappeared.  She interviews an extremely nervous Jerry, ultimately growing suspicious of him.

Jerry’s plans are derailed when Wade takes the money and heads for a rooftop parking lot to meet Carl.  Jerry follows, but Carl gets annoyed by Wade and shoots him.  Wade gets in one shot that goes through Carl’s jaw.  Further annoyed, Carl empties his gun into Wade’s body and runs with the money, shooting the parking lot attendant on the way out.  Stopping on a lonely highway, he looks into the bag and discovers a million dollars.  He takes out enough to account for the original small ransom that Jerry had told him about and buries the bag in the snow along a fence, marking the spot with his ice scraper.

Thinking that Jerry may have lied to her, Marge goes back to the dealership, but Jerry storms out and disappears, so she puts him on the radar for the state police.  When Carl returns to their Moose Lake hideout, he finds that Gaear has killed Jean.  He gives the man his half of the money, but Gaear is upset that they were also supposed to divide the Ciera.  Carl yells at him, but on his way out, Gaear kills him, too.  A tip leads Marge to Moose Lake where she discovers Gaear feeding Carl’s body into a wood chipper.  She confronts him and when he tries to run, she wounds him and then arrests him.  On the way in, she adds up the deaths and remarks that the money wasn’t worth it.  Jerry is found at a motel and arrested.

Right from the very beginning of the movie, the atmosphere is stark and it sets up the cold northern winter that is the blanketing background of the movie.  A wash of white fills the camera and only fleetingly do we see Jerry’s car moving through the hazy bleak whiteness.  The cinematography is extraordinary and the use of color is truly dazzling.

The script and the editing are extremely tight, leading to a film that runs only one hour and thirty-eight minutes, yet tells a completely compelling story.  The dialogue is crisp and taut, full of the deep northern dialect that lends a comedic feel from the first time Jerry opens his mouth.  Each scene is so succinct and well written that the story moves inexorably to its conclusion.  There is only one plot element that slows it down: a subplot with an old acquaintance of Marge that makes her think Jerry might be lying.  It takes up more space than it probably warrants, but it is the only detraction from an intricate, well balanced script.

The acting is amazing, beginning with Frances McDormand and William H. Macy.  Although McDormand doesn’t even make an appearance until nearly 30 minutes into the movie, her presence takes it over.  Marge is a pretty simple character and she keeps everything in perspective, casually adding up the elements of the crime while dealing with her pregnancy.  Her Minnesota dialect is pitch perfect and it keeps the comedy always working for the good of the film.  Macy, a relatively unknown character actor before Fargo, is terrific as Jerry, a character that we instinctively don’t like, yet we feel his terror as the situation gets further and further out of hand.  It is a brilliant performance.

All of the supporting actors are great, from Buscemi and Stormare as the kidnappers to Lynch as Marge’s supportive wildlife artist husband, Norm.  Presnell is truly funny as Jean’s father.  Everyone works together to create a wonderful ensemble of acting that all goes back to support the script.

Fargo was amply rewarded with seven Academy Award nominations, with Oscars for Frances McDormand for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay for the Coen brothers.  It was also up for Best Picture (Ethan Coen), Director (Joel Coen), Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), and Best Editing (Roderick Jaynes).

It remains the best of a deep and impressive body of work by the Coen brothers.  In spite of the violence, it is a film that can be enjoyed over and over.  It is a classic of American cinema that should have a place in every serious film buff’s collection.  The DVD special edition contains a “making of” featurette, as well as a Charlie Rose interview with the Coens and Frances McDormand.

As I said at the beginning, Hitchcock would have loved this one!

The Big Sleep

The-Big-Sleep Bogart BacallThis 1946 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novel remains one of the best films ever made for a variety of reasons.

Start with Chandler’s novel, written in a unique voice and style, that delved into the underworld of big city vice, using dangerous and edgy behavior that were normally hidden from the public eye: pornography, promiscuity, and homosexuality. Phillip Marlowe stood out as a character.  He was mature, worldly, manly, direct in a way that even criminals found disarming.  Finally, you have a plot that wastes no time on deliberation or description.  It moves forward relentless, with a certainty that is not obvious until the reader finds himself breathless in wonder.

The film is directed by the brilliant Howard Hawks, who understood the story arc and knew he wanted to make a film that wasted no time. He hired the same writers who had fashioned his 1944 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, the great novelist William Faulkner and science fiction/crime wizard Leigh Brackett (one of the first women to break through into either genre) and told them to waste no time.  Unlike other screen adaptations, he wanted this one to leap directly from the page to the screen.  Working separately on different parts of the book, they finished the first screenplay in eight days.

Private eye Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called to the mansion of wealthy retired General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). With two wealthy, bored daughters who move in a racy crowd, the old man finds himself blackmailed with the gambling debts of his youngest girl, Carmen (Martha Vickers).  Sternwood’s former detective, Sean Regan, an old acquaintance of Marlowe’s, has disappeared.  Before leaving, Sternwood’s older daughter, Mrs. Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) asks him if he has been hired to find Sean Regan, who had been seriously interested in Carmen, but he won’t tell her anything, but the wisecracking and banter between them creates a sexual tension that is palpable.

Marlowe begins by investigating the man who holds the gambling debts, a rare bookstore owner named Geiger, but he discovers the man’s assistant, Agnes Lowzier (Sonia Darrin) knows nothing about rare books and she stonewalls him on her boss. Hiding out in a rival bookstore across the street, he spends a rainy afternoon with the sexy proprietress (Dorothy Malone) before following Geiger home.  Waiting in the car, he hears gunshots, sees a car roaring away, and then finds Carmen inside, high as a kite, with Geiger’s body on the floor before her.  He finds a camera hidden inside a statue, but the film is missing.  Looking around, he finds Geiger’s notebook, filled with names and unreadable ceiphers.  Taking the book, he returns Carmen to the Sternwoods and finds that Mrs. Rutledge has no answers.

An old friend, Police Detective Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey) brings Marlowe along when they fish a car out of the ocean just off a local pier. It belongs to the Sternwoods and the driver turns out to be a former Sternwood chauffer who had also been in love with Carmen.  It has been made to look like a suicide, but the driver had been killed before the car was driven off the pier.

Mrs. Rutledge appears at Marlowe’s office the next morning with scandalous photos of Carmen and a new blackmail demand from a small time gambler named Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt). She can get the money through her friend, gangster Eddie Mars (John Ridgely).  Marlowe says he will wait for her call that night before the $5,000 in blackmail money will be paid.  During the day, he tails Brody to his apartment.  That night, Mrs. Rutledge puts him off, but on a hunch, he goes to Brody’s and finds not only Agnes, but Mrs. Rutledge as well.  Although held at gunpoint, he puts together the sequence of events as he understands them.  The chauffer had actually killed Geiger and taken the photos, but Brody stopped him and confiscated them to bribe the Sternwoods, which he had done before.  Marlowe suspects that Brody killed the chauffer, but Brody maintains his innocence and that killing remains unsolved.  Carmen shows up with a gun, demanding the photos.  Marlowe easily disarms all of them, but before he can get more information from Brody the man is shot through the door.

It is a complicated and twisting plot, but it moves forward relentlessly. The smart, sharp dialogue crisply moves the story along and renders it secondary really to the underplot: the growing relationship between Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge.

When Hawks directed To Have and Have Not, he knew he’d found the ideal screen couple in Bogart and Bacall, so he was determined to reunite them for this movie.  By that time, their off-screen romance was big news in Hollywood and the pairing was natural.  With a great script and an excellent cast, Hawks shot the film in 1944, but it was kept on the shelf for two more years, partly because Warner Bros. was working feverishly to release all of their wartime films before World War II was over and partly because there were problems with Bacall.  After the huge hit with To Have and Have Not, she was considered a hot property, but her follow-up film, Confidential Agent, was a flop and she’d been widely panned in reviews.  Her agent, Charles K. Feldman, wrote a letter to Jack L. Warner, asking that several scenes in The Big Sleep be re-shot and the film re-edited to take advantage of Bogart and Bacall’s screen chemistry.  Warner agreed and the two actors were called in to film additional scenes, including the now famous scene in the restaurant that is full of sexual innuendo.

The Big Sleep Martha Vickersbig-sleep-dorothy-malone-humphrey-bogart-toastingbig sleep_cab-driver

One thing that becomes apparent right from the beginning of this movie is that beautiful young women are used in abundance to help create a strong feeling of free sexuality. It begins when Marlowe arrives at the Sternwood residence and the gorgeous Carmen walks in wearing a really short skirt and throws herself into his arms.  Then, you meet Mrs. Rutledge and Lauren Bacall shines as a young urbanite living life on the edge.  It continues with the girl at Acme Books, played by Dorothy Malone, who unpins her hair and closes the store to spend an afternoon drinking rye whiskey with Marlowe.  Then there is the female taxi driver that Marlowe rides with who gives him her card and tells him to call her at night when she’s not working.

In the pivotal scene between Bogart and Bacall that was re-shot, the two of them are talking about having a relationship in terms of horse racing. She wonders just how far he will go and he replies that it depends on her.  Is she willing “to go all the way?”  This tightly wrapped sensuality, contrasted against the violence, the mystery of not knowing exactly what is happening in a plot that moves forward darkly, relentlessly creates a movie that almost impossible to stop watching.  It moves that way right to the end, when we finally sense that Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge will be able to consummate their smoldering desires.

Shot in beautiful black and white, the film has been restored to allow modern viewers to see it as released in 1946. The DVD also includes a documentary on the two versions of the movie, showing scenes that were cut and added, so viewers can see how much the film was improved by the re-shoot.

It is every bit as strong and engaging today as when it was first released and that is one reason it will always be considered a classic, perhaps the very finest example of film noir and one of the best movies ever made.