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!

Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a DoubtIs this Alfred Hitchcock’s best movie?  The Master thought so.  Of all the films Hitchcock made in his lifetime, this was his very favorite.  It combines many of his best filmmaking techniques, it is tremendously suspenseful, and the very heart of the movie is loss of innocence.  This review contains plot spoilers, so beware reading the entire summary below if you want to be surprised!

The opening credits show a ballroom with couples dancing to “The Merry Widow Waltz,” an image that will be reprised throughout the movie.

Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) lies on his bed in some nameless Eastern city, a pile of money laying on his bedside table.  His landlady tells him that two men have been looking for him, so he languidly gets himself together, goes downstairs and immediately loses the two men who are following him.  He sends a telegram to his family in Santa Rosa, California, informing them that he will soon arrive for a visit.

His niece, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) lies around her bedroom bored to tears with her life in the small town and wonders if anything exciting will ever happen.  Her father, Joseph (Henry Travers) can’t understand her, but promises that things will get better.  Charlie decides to send a telegram to her uncle Charlie hoping that he will come visit them to make things more exciting and she is stunned when the telegram from her uncle arrives–she calls it mental telepathy that they were thinking of the same thing at the same time.  Uncle Charlie’s sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge) is young Charlie’s mother and the family is completed with brainy little sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott) and a younger brother.  When Uncle Charlie arrives by train, they are all excited to see him, especially Charlie who feels that they are like twins, partly because she was named after him and partly because he seems to bring that excitement that she really wants out of life.  During dinner that night, Emma begins to hum “The Merry Widow Waltz,” but no one can remember what it is called.  Uncle Charlie distracts them so that no one does actually give us the title.

Uncle Charlie gives everyone gifts, including a ring to Charlie that has an inscription inside, but one from someone else to someone else.  A neighbor, Herbie (Hume Cronyn) shows up to discuss crime fiction with Joseph.  Uncle Charlie finds something in the newspaper that disturbs him.  He pretends to play a game with Ann where he tears up the section of the paper he was reading.  Stuffing it into his pocket, he goes upstairs, but Charlie is curious.  Claiming that they have nothing to hide, she steals the bit of paper, but can’t make anything out of it.  Ann tells her that the library is open until 9 PM, so Charlie runs down and finds the paper.  There is an article about the “Merry Widow Killer,” a man who marries rich widows and then kills them for their money.  When two government agents, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) and Fred Saunders (Wallace Ford), show up posing as a national survey team, Uncle Charlie gets nervous and refuses to have his picture taken, but Charlie agrees to go out with Jack to show him Santa Rosa and he admits that he is a detective on the trail of the “Merry Widow Killer.”   Uncle Charlie is one of two suspects they are investigating.

Suspicious and torn between family loyalty and fear that Uncle Charlie really is the killer, she proceeds cautiously.  When the suspect on the East Coast is killed trying to run away, it is assumed that the man was the killer, but Uncle Charlie begins to arrange “accidents” for Charlie, including a broken stair step and finally locking her inside their garage with the car running and the key in his pocket, trying to kill her with carbon monoxide poisoning.  The family all go off to a speech that Uncle Charlie is giving, so Charlie tries to call the government agents to no avail.  Later Uncle Charlie announces that he is leaving.  He has carefully arranged to run off with a family friend, who just happens to be a rich widow.

As the train moves off, he holds Charlie prisoner and tries to throw her off the moving train, but as the struggle, he loses his balance.  A little push from Charlie and he falls into the path of an oncoming train.  The final scene shows Charlie talking with Jack at Uncle Charlie’s funeral.  She remarks that Uncle Charlie thought the world was an evil place, but Jack tells her that there is only some evil in the world.

One can understand, especially from a thematic point of view, why this would Hitchcock’s favorite film of his entire canon.  The story develops Charlie’s arc from being an innocent, bored with her simple hometown life, to understanding that evil can lurk in the most unexpected places.  The viewer sees her grow as a person from an immature girl into a mature woman and that is always eminently satisfying.  But the film offers much more than this.  Uncle Charlie and Emma’s wistful view of the past as a beautiful waltz contrasts sharply with his perception that the world has grown into an awful place, full of stupid people who only eat and talk and display their jewelry.  His own bitterness at the world fuels his murder spree and when he sees his hope of that innocence of youth, his niece Charlie, turning cold to him, he can only respond with the despair that leads him to try to kill her.

In addition, the suspense is so finely crafted in this film that the viewer is pulled to the edge of their seat, waiting to see what happens to the girl Charlie.

The performances are uniformly good, but Joseph Cotton is magnificent as Uncle Charlie.  He leads us through all of his moods, from that painful yearning for innocence to the fear of being caught, to the despair of losing his niece’s good graces.  It is a powerful performance.  Teresa Wright is wonderful as the girl Charlie, capturing the essence of a soul at the turning point of her life between childhood and maturity.  Hume Cronyn is delightful as the family friend Herbie, who is always trying to find the perfect murder.  One of the best performances in the film is given by Patricia Collinge as Emma, who may miss the innocent past even more than Uncle Charlie and whose love of him creates the central challenge to Charlie’s struggle about revealing her uncle’s identity as the killer.

However, Macdonald Carey failed to make an impression on me as Jack.  Perhaps the character was written with too many contradiction or maybe I just didn’t buy his romantic interest in Charlie.  For whatever reason, his performance did not ring true for me.  It is the only blip in an otherwise great cast.

All of Hitchcock’s best film techniques are present in Shadow of a Doubt, some of them never more finely executed, and it will remain as one of the best films he ever made.  His best?  That question is still open for debate.

Vertigo

Vertigo_1958_trailer_Kim_Novak_at_Golden_Gate_Bridge_Fort_PointAcrophobia is a perfect psychological ploy for a Hitchcock movie. Always fascinated with little psychological motivations, Hitchcock used fear of heights as the guiding principle of his 1958 movie Vertigo.  The plot, so detailed and involving, has become nearly iconic as the film has worked its way into the American psyche.  It will be discussed in some detail in this review, so if you haven’t seen the movie, please beware.

The film begins with a rooftop chase scene in San Francisco. A uniformed cop is chasing some criminal with Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) right behind him. Jumping from one roof to another, Scottie slips on the Spanish tiles and slides down, barely catching hold of a gutter to prevent himself dropping many stories to the pavement.  In an effort to help him, the cop climbs back down the roof and holds out his hand, but Scottie has entered a kind of fugue state where he is unable to respond.  Slipping, the cop falls to his death as Scottie watches with a kind of tunnel vision.

Diagnosed with acrophobia, Scottie, independently wealthy, decides to retire rather than take a desk job. He hangs out with his old pal, former fiance, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), a former artist who now designs brassieres.  An old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) calls Scottie and asks for a meeting.  A shipping magnate, Elster is concerned about his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), a stunning blond who is obsessed with her great gandmother, Carlotta Valdez, who was courted by and bore a child to a very rich San Franciscan, who built a great house for her in what is now the Western Addition, then abandoned her.  She gradually went mad and eventually committed suicide.  At first reluctant, Scottie takes on the job of tailing her as a protective measure, as Elster thinks she might do harm to herself.  He follows her first to a flower shop where she buys a little nosegay of rosebuds, then to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in the Presidio, where she sits before a painting called Portrait of Carlotta, in which the mysterious Carlotta Valdez holds an identical nosegay.  Looking closely, he sees that Madeleine’s hair, done up in a bun that terminates in a distinctive whorl, exactly matches the hair style of Carlotta in the portrait.  Afterwards, he follows her to Mission Dolores, where she visits Carlotta’s grave, and, finally, he tails her to the McKittrick Hotel, which he later discovers is the home that had been built for Carlotta.

The next day, Midge takes Scottie to visit the proprieter of the Argosy Bookstore, who tells him Carlotta’s history. Later, he follows Madeleine to Fort Point, underneath the Western end of Golden Gate Bridge, where, to his horror, she jumps into San Francisco Bay, an apparent suicide.  He jumps in after her and saves her life.  Rather than returning her home, he brings her back to his apartment, undresses her, and puts her to bed, hanging up her clothing to dry.  Scottie passes through phases of becoming fascinated with her, to becoming obsessed with her, and finally falling in love with her.  They meet the following morning, going to Muir Woods, where he begins to drill her on what she remembers of her rambling and especially her dreams, one of which includes a memory of being at the Mission of San Juan Bautista.  Stopping at Cypress Point, they kiss passionately, then he brings her to the Mission, hoping that he will be able to confront her with the past and help her to move beyond it.

At the Mission, she emotionally begs him that whatever happens, he should remember that she loved him, then she runs into the church and climbs the stairs of the bell tower. Following, he begins to have his vertigo attack and cannot go all the way to the top.  He hears a scream and sees her body falling past a window and she dies in the fall.

Although he is cleared of any wrongdoing during the inquiry, he retreats into himself and is finally hospitalized with extreme depresson. Visiting him, Midge sees that he is nearly catatonic and the doctor informs her that it will be six months to a year before he can be released.  Skipping ahead, we see him visiting the places that Madeleine used to visit.  One day, he sees a brunette that looks so much like Madeleine that he follows her back to her apartment and introduces herself.  At first reluctant to see him, Judy Barton (Kim Novak), a shopgirl who works at I Magnin, eventually gives in and agrees to a date at Ernies, the restaurant where Scottie first saw Madeleine.  After he leaves her apartment, Judy relives the moment at the top of the bell tower and we see Elster throw his wife’s body from the bell tower as Judy screams.  It becomes apparent that Judy had been playing the part of Madeleine for Scottie’s benefit, so that Elster would have a reliable witness (with vertigo) who would swear that she committed suicide.  Still in love with Scottie, Judy decides to pursue a relationship with him.

Obsessed with the memory of Madeleine, he begins to dress Judy to look like her, going to the extreme of having her hair dyed blond and recreated the whorl at the back. When she dresses for dinner, however, she makes the crucial mistake of putting on Carlotta’s necklace.  Recognizing it, Scottie assembles the pieces of the puzzle.  He brings her back to the bell tower and forces her to go all the way to the top.  In the process, he overcomes his vertigo.  She confesses to being an accomplice to Madeleine’s murder, but when a nun comes up the steps, Judy screams and turns to run, falling to her death, the same as Madeleine.

James Stewart and Kim Novak both give brilliant, breathtaking performances in this film, which must rank as one of Hitchcock’s very best in a distinguished career of filmmaking. Stewart gives the best performance of his own career as Scottie, perfectly believable from beginning to end.

The cinematography by long-time Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks is excellent. As a long-time resident of San Francisco, I love the detail and love of landscape shown the San Francisco Bay area, from the Golden Gate Bridge, to the Palace of Fine Arts, Coit Tower, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Presidio, Muir Woods, Cypress Point, and Mission Dolores.  It is stunning to see the city in all of its beauty in the late 1950’s.  Although many things have changed over the years, the essential beauty remains unchanged.  At one point in the film, Elster, talking about his return to San Francisco, remarks that the city isn’t what it used to be, but he doesn’t understand the basic timeless beauty to be found there.

The opening credits, designed by Saul Bass, provide a dramatic introduction to the movie. Beginning with a close-up of a woman’s face, the camera moves into and extreme close-up of the woman’s right eye, dissolving into the distinctive whorl, in vibrant violet, that becomes a repeated motif in the movie.  The costumes, by Edith Head, are gorgeous.  And, of course, the music by long time Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann is great and illustrative of the action.

The screenplay, written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, based on the French novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac, is the perfect Hitchcock vehicle.  The pacing of the film is nearly flawless, although it must be considered a little bit long.  As with most of Hitchcock’s movies, the first viewing is the most important because all of the details are just being discovered, but it is also a film that can be watched many times merely to study the technique. 

Painstakingly restored to its original Vistavision glory by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, the DVD is simply stunning. It contains a special feature on the film’s difficult restoration process.  If there is one thing, however, that dates the film, it is the special effects depiction of Scottie’s dream after Madeleine has died.  Stewart’s head, framed against a pulsing stream of light and with evolving animation just doesn’t seem to work now.  It was state-of-the-art in 1958, but it doesn’t show well now.

Even with that flaw, the film remains one of Hitchcock’s finest.