Better than AFI’s Top 100: 30-26

The following is part of an overview of the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films, from my perspective. For an introduction to the project and an index of other entries in the series, click here. For a list of more than 800 films which I considered for the top 450 and my eligibility qualifications, click here. And for a way to vote on what you think the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films are, click here. If I’ve written a full-length review of the film on this site, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!

30) The Godfather Part II (1974), directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

The Godfather Part II has a plan in mind. By showing the humanity of a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro), even when he steals or murders, the inhumanity of an aging Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) will be all the more horrifying. The mistake of Part II is that Michael simply isn’t as interesting as the movie wants them to be; I want “it was an abortion, Michael,” to smack me in the face or the betrayal of Frankie Pentangeli to strike fear, but both leave me cold. Part of this is in Pacino’s portrayal, which is fine but inconsistent. Either Michael has calmly lost his soul or he boils over, without any emotion in between to make either one feel realistic; Pacino is already overacting with the same zeal that’s made him a caricature in the present day. Coppola is not going through the motions, precisely, but if someone else had copied the plot structure of The Godfather for his movie as intently as Coppola did for Part II there’d be a lawsuit. But this is still, by my reckoning, the thirtieth best American movie of all time. What’s new in this movie is what works best. De Niro and an old New York are mesmerizing. John Cazale, as a new Fredo who is guided primarily by resentment instead of frailty, is the redeeming factor in the ’50s plot.

One of the reasons I adore the De Niro plot of the film is that it’s not in any hurry to get us anywhere. It has no pretensions like the Pacino plot does; in the late ’50s an action is only interesting if its motives are completely veiled or if the result is bloody. Vito comes to prominence as a leading mafioso in bits and pieces. He takes a bundle of handguns through the window, he steals an enormous rug, he kills a boss. In the meantime, his children are born, get sick, and grow older. He avenges his father’s and brother’s murders at the hands of a don in Sicily. He ambles through the packed streets below tenements without any hurry at all. His story is fascinating not because there’s an extravagant mystery that he must solve but because he seems like such an unlikely candidate to rise to prominence. (The first scenes of the film focus on him as a young boy escaping a vendetta by emigrating to the United States; like people will say about Fredo four decades on, the general consensus on the boy Vito is that he hasn’t got a brain in his head.) De Niro mimics the Brando wheeze beautifully, and that helps, but there is a poetry in his motions that’s never evident in anyone else. He moves at about 85% of the speed everyone else moves at, looking up more slowly at his ailing son than the average parent would, walking casually through the flood of fellow Italian immigrants on a workday or on the day of a festival. Most importantly, he carries russet around with him just as Marlon Brando had two years before.

29) Psycho (1960), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Slashers, more than monster movies or supernatural horror, are based in our fear that even in secure moments we are anything but. The Last House on the Left, which very nearly made the this list, is as much about the parents taking revenge on the drifters who commit half a dozen heinous crimes on their daughter and her friend as it is on the drifters’ original crime. Halloween discomfits our notions of ownership of a place; Nightmare on Elm Street makes us worry about the usually safe fortress of sleep. Psycho, aside from invading the quotidian spaces of showers and hotel rooms, gives us reason to question the security in family relationships as well. Norman Bates and his mother are the champion example; the Crane sisters, Marion and Lila, have a strained relationship of their own. (There’s a case to be made, funnily enough, that between this movie and Touch of Evil no actress has a harder time of it in hotels than Janet Leigh.) In one zone, a profound sickness takes over, and the effect is felt with sledgehammer force in quite another. It’s a pity that the movie feels it has to explain that to us at the end of the picture; this might be a top-20 movie if it just left well enough alone.

Anthony Perkins is all over this movie and not merely in the bathrooms and basements, and he has a significantly tougher performance to make than anyone else in the picture. Janet Leigh plays her image, Vera Miles is no-nonsense and worried, Martin Balsam is a dedicated ol’ PI, and John Gavin plays a white man. In 1960, no doubt it was easier to make people terrified by throwing a transvestite on the screen than it is now. (Sigh.) But this is only twenty seconds of screen time, if that, where we see Norman in a dress and a wig. (While he’s there, it’s not the get-up which is frightening; it’s his face, which has this broad, clownish smile on it that really shouldn’t be scary at all but is.) Perkins plays Norman more or less straight for the majority of his time on screen, alternating between aw-shucks and politely randy. What I like most about Perkins’ performance is that without the setting of the Bates Motel around him, he would not be the least bit frightening. The taxidermy is a darn sight creepier than Norman Bates, and John Gavin, for heaven’s sake, is more aggressive than him in one key scene.

28) The Apartment (1960), directed by Billy Wilder.

In the other movies in this group of five, here’s a short list of crimes committed: fratricide, matricide, double-digit first-degree murders, a hit-and-run that ends in the death of a little boy. Yet if you asked me to point out the movie in this post which is most about cruelty, it would have to be The Apartment. In The Wolf of Wall Street, we were given the ribald sins of corporate giants to scorn and jeer at, but never were put too close to the victims of those people. The Apartment aims at somewhat humbler rats in the rat race but does something far braver than The Wolf of Wall Street does; it finds in the victim a much more interesting person to put the camera on for a while. Fran Kubelik, possessed of a name like a mouthful of dry corn flakes and a face like sweetness and light, is an elevator operator at a New York skyscraper. What anyone would recognize as sexual harassment nowadays is a daily chore for her to try to stave off with a mixture of humor and threats. One bigwig smacks her butt real good on his way out of her elevator; she threatens to cut off his arm with the elevator door. It is not an effective deterrent; that manager’s first words to our guide, Bud Baxter (Jack Lemmon), are along the lines of “I’d like to get her on a slow elevator to China.” Later on, Fran’s affair with a married bigwig who tells her that he’s willing to divorce his wife for her ends badly when she learns that he says that to all the girls he sleeps with; she tries to kill herself in what she believes to be some stranger’s apartment over Christmas. (It doesn’t help that her paramour, Sheldrake, gives her a $100 for Christmas…watching him do that is one of the most painful moments of the movie.)

Though you can’t pretend that Bud is a victim on the same plane as Fran, and the movie doesn’t ask us to, Bud has to undergo some level of humiliation and hurt at the hands of his bosses as well. His apartment is a love nest for a whole laundry list of superiors to use; saying no to them is like asking to be fired. So it is that Bud comes home to find Fran (who he has a crush on himself) in his apartment having tried to OD on pills she found in his medicine cabinet. What sets The Apartment apart is that in this moment, Bud does not try to move in on Fran. Even more, he does not try to pretend to his doctor neighbor that someone else is responsible for having driven Fran to attempt suicide, and thus takes an incredible amount of abuse from the doctor which he only appears to have earned. What makes this my favorite Lemmon performance of all time is that Bud sacrifices himself for someone who needs help and pity far more than himself. He gives up career and reputation, but it’s not until he does that that he can let his gentleness out for the first time in what must be years. So few male characters in the movies get to be as gentle as Bud, and The Apartment makes a lovely case for adding more.

27) Double Indemnity (1944), directed by Billy Wilder.

Double Indemnity, Wilder’s other classic set in the world of insurance, is a movie where artfulness is rewarded and sloppiness is punished. In his first meeting with Phyllis Dietrichson, Walter Neff rattles off a series of hypothetical possibilities, all of which would end, presumably, with a marvelous little sexual field day with this married stranger. Phyllis fends him off exceptionally well, perhaps only as well as Barbara Stanwyck could. (It has been said before, and it must be said again: that wig Stanwyck is wearing is the worst wig in the history of the world, but she wears that blonde dishrag like the Pope wears his mitre. It’s not the hair that we’re supposed to fixate our male gazes on anyway, but that anklet she has that catches the light in the same way she snares Neff’s attentions.) The plan not just to kill Phyllis’ husband but to kill him in a way that pays the double indemnity is especially delicate, requiring as it does not merely an insider’s knowledge of the insurance biz, but also the signature of a man who doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about having life insurance. The first sign that this artfulness cannot go on long, that the designer’s blueprints won’t survive the harshness of real-world engineering, appears on the train when Walter runs into that fellow who wants very much to talk to him all the way up to Palo Alto. The art of seduction is in celerity; the art of murder is in planning. Walter is asked to mix his pleasure with his work when he asks that man to run and get a cigarette case for him; it’s our first sign that Walter’s mind, to borrow from Fitzgerald, “would never romp again like the mind of God.” It’s not until their relationship begins to erode, changing in the face of the murder that they’ve done, that Walter and Phyllis lose the tough talk and punchy dialogue. The artfulness is gone especially in Walter’s speech; only Phyllis seems capable of remembering the phrase he used at the outset of their plans: “all the way down the line.” Even their final meeting, where the two lovers try/succeed in blowing the other away, is a scene which is more notable for the atmosphere of lighting and shadow than it is for the words that MacMurray and Stanwyck hiss at each other.

Their fates are to be decided by the one character in the history of the world, maybe, who can make actuarial tables sound like sonnet cycles. Legend has it that Edward G. Robinson was not keen on taking the role of Barton Keyes (my heavens, the names in this movie) because he was a supporting character. Happily for us Robinson is in this movie. Compared to MacMurray, who was 6’3″ or 6’4″, Robinson looks like a garden gnome who escaped from R.J. Reynolds. He is intimidating not because of his size but because of his artfulness. Unlike the boss, Edward Norton (who is the reason, I guess, why you give your characters unlikely names), Keyes knows what he’s doing. When Mr. Norton calls in Phyllis to tell her that he does not intend to pay her the sum because he believes that her husband committed suicide, Phyllis plays her part perfectly and scalds him by taking advantage of every ounce of privilege given to a widow. She tells him she’ll sue the company for the payout, which Keyes (and Neff) are certain will end with her getting the $100,000. The real tongue-lashing in this act saved for Mr. Norton doesn’t come from Phyllis, though; it comes from Keyes. Keyes blisters Mr. Norton for his strategy, for his clunkiness in execution. You inherited this, Keyes says with the relish of an employee who knows his employer needs him desperately. And that’s why you don’t know that there’s no such thing as suicide from a moving train at twenty miles per hour. That’s why you don’t know there are great volumes filled with the statistics on every type of suicide imaginable, and then every subtype. That’s why you got a widow in here to tell her that her husband killed herself, and that’s why your company was just opened to a lawsuit. Double Indemnity is funny in that way. Craft and skill and adroitness are the products of passion. Neff mentions on more than one occasion that Keyes genuinely loves the work he does; it’s no wonder that Keyes manages to reverse engineer the murder his protege did through the mere genius of practice and experience.

26) Short Cuts (1993), directed by Robert Altman

Picture links back here

As opposed to Nashville, where everyone ends up at the Parthenon together, or Gosford Park, where everyone’s been in the same manor house for a minute, Short Cuts does not go out of its way to make connections between characters or to place them all in the same spot together. The connections are there, although there are fewer points of relation than there were in Gosford Park. The earthquake is temperamentally more to my liking than the concert in Nashville, though I can’t help but feel like the concert is way more successful as a closing.

Short Cuts is a movie which works from a position of detachment. This is not to say that the movie avoids or has a dearth of emotional moments, for there are hysterical and heartbreaking points in the film scattered around the movie, as if placed there by the farmer from the parable who sowed his seeds on rocks and ready soil alike. In the presence of three men who just want to take a fishing trip in a remote part of California, a dead girl in the water is at first a mystery, almost immediately an inconvenience, and finally something of a mascot. When one of the men tells the story to his wife, her grief is palpable. You just left her there? she asks, and her convicted hurt is reality slapping us in the face. (This is true in more ways than one; Short Cuts owes much of its plot to several short stories by Raymond Carver.) The husband, played by Fred Ward, thinks he’s got a real anecdote on his hands; the wife, played by Anne Archer, never sees the girl but because of that seems to have a much stronger grasp of reality. In real life, you stop the fishing trip and contact the authorities; you don’t just leave her there while you drink your booze and stand downriver from her. Bruce Davison and Andie MacDowell lose their eight-year-old just hours before he turns nine, or perhaps in the first hours after he turns nine; he was hit by a car and deteriorated rapidly and inevitably after the collision. The two of them confront the baker who has been making some nasty phone calls; they never picked up the cake they ordered for their son’s birthday. The baker (Lyle Lovett) does not try to defend himself; he is immediately contrite and does his best to console the grieving parents. This subplot is the weakest part of the movie, but it still works. In a movie which features married couple after married couple – Ward and Archer, Matthew Modine and Julianne Moore, Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin, Chris Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and more – working out some level of torment on each other, watching a stranger do his best to atone for his small role in hurting them is meaningful and affective. Like Archer’s reaction to the watery corpse, Lovett’s reaction to the news of a dead child is grounded in the reality of real people; when Tomlin hits the boy in the first place, she asks him if he’s okay but makes no move to claim responsibility for it legally.
The detachment in Short Cuts is in viewing people with fragile, dissipating connections, each of whom could credibly be the star in his or her own movie, and pushing them to the background together. As I’ve written at length before, the Davison/MacDowell, Ward/Archer, and Modine/Moore partnerships are the primary players in the film. Yet it seems equally likely that the relationship between Robert Downey, Jr. and Lili Taylor could be explored further. Taylor is a standout in a crowded cast list, especially against Downey; both play their parts well, but Taylor is possessed of a decency that seems to have eluded her self-important husband in ways both humorous and sad. Tim Robbins and Madeleine Stowe are handsome and caustic foils for one another, and a movie about the post-Rodney King L.A. policeman and his sly, passive-aggressive wife is almost underutilized here. Only one of the actors could not have been the star in a different movie from this vast plot, and that’s Annie Ross. Ross, as a jazz singer, is the rubber casing around the copper wiring of the plot. Music plays much the same role via Jeremy Northam in Gosford Park and with, um, everyone in Nashville, but here Ross is less within the bounds of the action than Northam’s Ivor Novello or the twelve different actors in Nashville who sing or play music in character. Her performances are mood enhancers first and foremost, and while Short Cuts could probably survive without them, the movie would lose the unexpectedly released emotional heft that Ross’ singing brings to the picture.

2 thoughts on “Better than AFI’s Top 100: 30-26

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s