Barry Lyndon (1975)

Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Starring Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Marie Kean

In the very, very early days of motion pictures, the novelty of a picture in motion was the primary reason for an audience to come see it. Actors were not actors so much as models, posing in front of the real star: the camera. Only two directors from the sound era of moviemaking would have thrived in that era as they did in their own noisier time. One is David Lynch, and the other is Stanley Kubrick. Barry Lyndon, which is scrupulously posed, could have been a wordless film – it wouldn’t have changed very much at all, for the words people speak are totally forgettable and would have as much import as ciphers as they do as soundwaves. The classical score would have endured. And the beautiful stars – classic hunk O’Neal and lissome model Berenson – surrounded by an all-timer of a weird-looking cast, would have been just as alluring as ever.

In short, Barry Lyndon is one of those potentially wordless films of the first order – better yet, it is a film which could be a series of photographs and be absolutely sensational in a gallery. Kubrick spent much of his youth as a photographer, including a stint with Look magazine; even more than 2001, which for long stretches is quite literally wordless and rates among the most beautiful films ever made, Barry Lyndon would translate well to still images. I’m not the person to tell you about how the lenses Kubrick used for the film work – I’m the guy who will make a joke about Kubrick trading use of those lenses in return for filming the Moon landings – but the effect is magnificent. Who else would think to shoot by candlelight? Who else would think it was even possible? Kubrick (and his DP, John Alcott, who won a richly deserved Oscar for the film) put colors onscreen I’ve never seen before in a movie, and don’t hope to see again. In a decade which includes The Godfather, Days of Heaven, and Cries and Whispers, Barry Lyndon has a strong argument for the best cinematography of the entire 1970s.

Over and over again, especially in the first half of the film, Kubrick delights in shots which focus on an object (like a statuette) or some people (like a battalion of redcoats) and then reveals more and more as we get further away from the original focus. The statuette becomes a scene of two young people, Redmond Barry (O’Neal) and his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) playing cards. The marching redcoats, helmed by Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter), are in fact shown to be on parade in front of an assembled crowd of onlookers. The message is that first looks are, of course, potentially deceiving, or maybe that a narrow focus will yield a narrow understanding. Certainly this is true in the case of Redmond, who dresses like a gentleman and puts on similar airs, but who turns out to be as passionate and base as anyone else. In that scene with the little statue, Redmond does a very bad job – a purposefully bad job, really – of finding the ribbon that Nora has hidden on her person; he is doing what any country squire ought…sort of. The shot cuts off Nora’s head and leaves Redmond’s face at boob level. It is terribly funny, the kind of uncomfortable situation that belongs in a mid-2000s NBC comedy.

Redmond Barry the Hobbledehoy is no more compelling than any version of Redmond Barry, from the Soldier to the Gambling Valet to the Would-be Peer, but the Hobbledehoy is probably the most amusing. As in many other picaresques, the most enjoyable aspect of the story is not in its named protagonist. (This is why Ryan O’Neal, who even in his own time was panned as wooden over and over again, can star in this movie without destroying it.) Certainly in the first chapter of the story set in Ireland it is a line of supporting characters who attract our attention and not Redmond himself. Captain Quin, who brings a new level of histrionics to the British infantry and a facile, Silly Walking quality to his dance moves, is set up as Redmond’s rival for Nora’s hand. Nora’s brothers and Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley), who are at least as funny, can’t stop talking about how Captain Quin has an income of 1,500 pounds a year. And, with a certain brilliance, they play along with the duel Redmond’s engineered to win Nora’s hand, loading Redmond’s gun with some flax. For “killing” Quin in the duel, Redmond is forced to leave home – and almost immediately winds up losing twenty guineas to a pair of highwaymen. The first half-hour of the film is an utter comedy of errors, the story of a man alternate falling up and tripping over himself with a remarkable cluelessness; the difference between that comedy and the one that lives in, say, the final half-hour is merely the size of the stakes. Redmond buys his truly beloved son, Bryan (David Morley) a horse for his birthday; apparently, neither one of them have seen Gone with the Wind, and so when Bryan sneaks off to go ride it, it throws him and gives him a debilitating, mortal wound which takes days to kill him. The slow-motion shot of Bryan being thrown is mesmerizing and terrible – cast against a gray sky, the brown horse, practically black in our eyes, falls back and the boy falls with it. It is stunning and demands our empathy. What’s funny about Bryan’s death is his remarkable sincerity. His father is the kind of man most father warn their daughters about; his mother is lovely but as hollow as a moral victory. They are more or less estranged, and poor angelic Bryan makes them promise – with one of their hands in each of his, as he is laying in his literal deathbed – not to fight anymore. Half of me said, “This is like reading Evangeline in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and the other half said, looking at the reaction shot for Redmond, “Really? You’re going to try to hold them to that?”

It seems almost pointless to describe Redmond, who is almost always the least interesting person in any scene he inhabits. He is something of a chameleon, although not by any design of his. With the Chevalier du Balibari (Patrick Magee), he is a powdered rococo dandy. In the service of the Prussian army, he is much the same as he was in the British: he merely wears a different color. And as he accedes into some level of finery and nobility, he accedes as readily into the vices typically given to that group. His first recourse is physical violence, and seemingly no form of pugilism is unknown to him. He makes a name for himself in the British army after he absolutely wallops a bigger man in a bareknuckle fistfight (which is preceded by one of the movie’s funnier scenes – his commanding officer says that if they’re going to fight, he’ll have the men form a square first…which, in the next shot, they have done). He is a swordsman who can collect gambling debts for the Chevalier. He fights in duel after duel with pistols, and with one notable exception, comes out on top each time. And he has no hesitation about beating the stuffing out of his stepson, Lord Bullingdon (Dominic Savage as a boy, Leon Vitali as a young man), even when there is a crowd present. He is provoked by Lord Bullingdon in front of many nobles, licks him pretty good, and of course sees his ascent to the peerage stopped with the same kind of results as the Titanic had that night in April 1912. In short, where most people might claim to have souls, Redmond has a switchboard.

The climax of the film is a duel between Redmond and Lord Bullingdon, now grown up and determined to have satisfaction for any number of indignities that his stepfather forced upon him. In a movie that is sneaky-funny the whole way through, this may be the sneakiest-funniest scene of them all. Lord Bullingdon, by virtue of a coin flip, gets the first shot. His gun misfires as he’s cocking it, or perhaps in his nervousness he pulls the trigger. The duel’s arbiter – the very picture of fairness and thus totally out of place in this gunfight – gives the next shot to Redmond instead; Lord Bullingdon has, by any reasonable definition, had his shot. And Lord Bullingdon loses his composure entirely. He begins to vomit, eventually having to go back to a corner and work it out. He whimpers and shivers and ultimately cannot even look as Redmond, for the first time acting honorably, fires his shot at the ground. (Perhaps Redmond is smart enough to know that killing his stepson, even in a duel that wasn’t his idea, would make for bad press.) The arbiter, sounding relieved, asks if Lord Bullingdon has had satisfaction, clearly expecting the reprieved to be a gentleman. Lord Bullingdon, to everyone’s alarm, has not had satisfaction, for he takes this is in the most literal way he can: shooting his stepfather is the only thing that would bring him satisfaction. Redmond, fool that he has always been, is left quite literally without a leg to stand on because of the duel. One can hardly feel sympathy for any of these people: what else are we supposed to do but laugh at them?

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