100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Taut and Cold, 10-6

You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.

Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can follow to read my full review.


10) Black Swan (2010), directed by Darren Aronofsky

It is genuinely difficult to reconcile out-and-out camp with fear, but Aronofsky, one of the most persistently ambitious moviemakers working, has the gall to at least give it a go. Black Swan recognizes that an overbearing mother is a shared element of Psycho and Gypsy alike. Barbara Hershey does the best of both worlds, down to the possibility that, like Mrs. Bates, her character doesn’t really appear in the movie at all. (It’s not a strong possibility, I know, but it would make this movie so much better.) His cast is a list of performers with unusual, sometimes contradictory track records. Natalie Portman had recently grown back her locks after the messy V for Vendetta, a production slightly less cheesy than Garden State or the Star Wars prequels, where Portman had more than enough hair. Winona Ryder, who had been pretty, brunette, and petite a decade before Natalie Portman supplanted her, plays the past-her-prime star who Natalie Portman supplants. Mila Kunis was best known for That ’70s Show. No actor in this movie better supports this balance, through star persona, of deadly seriousness and quirky performances than Vincent Cassel. Cassel is still one of the most bankable stars in France, renowned for his turns in dramas like La haine and thrillers like The Crimson Rivers, but he’s still probably best known in this country for breakdancing through a laser security field in Ocean’s 12. The cast seems able to bounce between their modes almost effortlessly. Portman’s Nina is a little girl until she suddenly isn’t anymore. Ryder’s Beth is a shambles, the worst of the accusations thrown out there about Ryder after her star fell, but is also a voice of surprising wisdom as she sloppily, drunkenly advises Nina about Thomas’ excesses. Cassel’s Thomas is certainly excessive. At times, he’s an updated version of Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes (though without the raw humanity that Walbrook brought to his part), obsessed with his new prima ballerina and the enormous artistic success she represents. At other times he’s your average cinematic Frenchie sexual predator, almost comically resembling “Daphne’s” characterization of men before “she” officially joins that band headed for Florida.

The last six minutes or so of Black Swan adapts the final sequence of Swan Lake. The music we hear as Odette and Siegfried try to come together, are separated by Rothbart, and then both, desperate, leap to their deaths is iconic and beautiful and sad. We are brought into the scene by an oboe, lightly holding its serve above a string section; the strings amplify, a bassoon and the brass section take over before finally roaring to life against the backdrop of a double suicide. Clint Mansell’s adaptation of that final scene, called “Perfection” on the soundtrack, is a literally brassier interpretation, bolder and largely eschewing the subtler aspects of Tchaikovsky’s original. It’s a marvelous cover, and it is exactly the right tone to set for the pivotal last scene of Black Swan. It’s all too easy to think that the best score for a thriller is sheer moodiness, or an anxious, pitchy set of scene-stealers like those in Psycho. Black Swan is much too pretty and too formally composed to yield all of its energy to moodiness or anxiety. “Perfection” is sheer power in the last moments of a film that left me spellbound in the theater. Where other thrillers yield their last moments to exposition (looking at you again, Psycho) or dark humor (The Silence of the Lambs), Black Swan uses music to deafen us with feeling. Black and white, male and female, camp and horror are all pitted against each other throughout the film, but it’s this final pairing of grace and brawn that gives the film its right to aspire to perfection.

9) Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

A man and a woman meet in Monte Carlo. She is a companion for wealthy folks, someone for lonely old women to talk at and condescend to, a prettier reflection in the mirror. He is a high-born gentleman, handsome and aloof, a widower. He’s looking over the side of cliff, looking suspiciously like a jumper; she cries out to him not to do it. It turns out that even if he was about to off himself, he certainly wouldn’t act like a man in a desperate spot. He scolds her for screaming, for making such a racket. It’s the first instance of, oh, about six hundred in this movie in which she (Joan Fontaine) tries just terribly to do the right thing and realizes that she’s made a misstep that will earn her a scolding at the least. Even as women whose awkwardness is only matched by their physical beauty have proliferated in our movies in the past twenty years or so (Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence), it’s still novel to see a beautiful woman that maladroit. Gorgeous women are not necessarily good – as I understand it, there’s an entire genre of film that makes that point pretty clearly –  but even the evil ones are skillful. Rebecca is described as a woman with an angelic appearance and the Devil’s heart, and both Maxim (Laurence Olivier) and Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) think of the late Mrs. de Winter as basically invincible. Maxim makes his marriage sound positively Faustian, while Mrs. Danvers crows, with a hint of Macbeth in the telling, that no man nor woman could defeat her onetime mistress: it took the sea to kill Rebecca.

Joan Fontaine, referred to in The Aviator as Olivia de Havilland’s “equally luscious sister” and a “pristine Britannic beauty,” is certainly pretty enough to get the grace we expect from pretty people. But she is as clumsy as a newborn ungulate, tripping over herself at every term. There’s a reason that Maxim’s marriage proposal is punctuated with the phrase, “you little fool.” It’s an apt description as well as another brick in the wall; her courtship has been full of outbursts and melodrama. Maxim does not speak tender words but balances seeming indifference with startling and insulting frankness. Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates), the young lady’s employer, is shocked by her companion’s ability to ensnare a man well outside her social class. And so it is that Mrs. Van Hopper’s farewell is laced with criticism of the girl as an employee and as a future wife. As much as any other part of the movie, these scenes in Monte Carlo set an irrevocable tone. The second Mrs. de Winter must never be allowed to have both feet on the ground. She must always be knocked down by some wave or other. No romance can be allowed to blossom; it must always be ready to bloom just as a sudden snowfall arrives.

8) All the President’s Men (1976), directed by Alan J. Pakula

Pakula is one of two American directors from his time to have a “paranoia trilogy,” which not only gives us a clear window into the mind of what American moviegoers were into during the ’60s and ’70s, but which also summarizes the general anxiety that pervades all of All the President’s Men. Amusingly, I usually go back to Jason Robards first when I think about it, who plays Ben Bradlee and whose unwavering critique of Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) is that he’s steering the newspaper into notoriously rocky shoals without much more to go on than their word. “When is somebody going to go on the record in this story!” he yells during one meeting after being told that the Attorney General is involved in Watergate. In a nighttime scene, he tells Woodstein that they ought to be “scared shitless” because nothing’s gone wrong for them yet. (He’s right, incidentally.) Woodward spends a not insignificant amount of the movie not only speaking to a basically anonymous man in a parking garage in the dead of night, but also taking taxis and walking to reach that basically anonymous man in a parking garage in the dead of night. He receives messages in his newspaper and puts a flag on his porch in response. A librarian goes from being willing to help Woodstein get Charles Colson’s library records to saying she actually doesn’t know who Colson is. God’s-eye view shots of the library, of D.C. traffic, overlaid with nervous dialogue, only increase the sense of paranoia that the staff of the Washington Post – and their reticent sources – feel day in and day out.

As a thriller, there’s no doubt that All the President’s Men falls flat. There are too many scenes in the movie which involve waiting, too much talk mumbled slowly in a dark sitting room or shouted over the din of a hopping newsroom. The long scene where Redford acts out two almost simultaneous phone conversations and mixes up the names at the end is great as a cinematic showcase – the name mix-up was not planned at all – but it’s not quite dramatic, either. There’s a reason the rest of the newsroom is watching TV on Thomas Eagleton instead of leaning breathlessly over Woodward’s shoulder as he makes a call. Bernstein’s trip to Miami to try to get information out of Martin Dardis (Ned Beatty), only to be stonewalled for nearly the whole day by his secretary, isn’t exactly edge-of-your-seat filmmaking either. But the movie is successful in making us part of the investigation every time we struggle through phone conversations or sit around a lobby. We too are forced to sift through the boring journalism, to struggle through moments which seem only marginally important, even circumstantial, when taken on their own. All the President’s Men has the advantage of knowing that we all know what happens in the end. It leans on our understanding of the recent past to make those small moments incredibly important, and the movie benefits in the end. Even the last sequence of the film, a series of typed headlines depicting the fall of the rump of Nixon’s Cabinet before finally ending with Nixon’s own resignation, are anticlimactic. They aren’t given more weight than a montage of doors slamming in faces or the announcement of an unusual occupation in a courtroom. All of it was only ever part of the story.

7) Laura (1944), directed by Otto Preminger

McPherson (Dana Andrews) is the ultimate audience stand-in, laconic and reserved, existing to do little more than ask questions of the many people who seem like potential murderers of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). He is so insouciant that it’s almost a problem with the movie. Certainly the movie can’t exist if everyone is freaking out all the time – Clifton Webb and Vincent Price can’t be together too much or this would be a soap opera – but Andrews’ performance is almost unusually unobtrusive. He falls in love with the ghost of Laura during the investigation and is caught up in her once he discovers she was never dead. It’s hard not to be taken by Tierney, who is maybe less hard-edged than we might like as an audience – she could stand to be a little more Rebecca and a little less second Mrs. de Winter – but her constant statements of innocence, as well as our stand-in’s fixation with her, makes her seem especially intriguing. Aside from the fact that we don’t like to think of her as a potential murderer; it just feels wrong to assume, ten seconds after finding out that our presumed victim is alive, that she was actually a killer. Her beauty, whether or not we want to admit that to ourselves, is an impediment to believing in her guilt; McPherson has much the same set of problems. Yet the movie dangles us there for a while, allowing us to consider the possibility that our martyr may have murdered.

No one is more important to the movie than Webb, playing a man with an even more improbable name. In a time when the appearance of actors was less important than their name recognition, Webb is a welcome surprise. Next to Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, who are so handsome it hurts my feelings, Clifton Webb’s pointy nose and thin face stand out. Not everyone in this movie is beautiful, but he simply doesn’t look like he belongs with the people who inhabit the movie. Waldo Lydecker, like J.J. Hunsecker, belongs to a caste of mostly extinct individuals: the newspaper columnist with a great readership, a man whose whims and witticisms can change popular opinion. He doesn’t make for a marvelous villain in and of himself – he gives too much of himself away for his attempted murder of Laura to be a twist, but he isn’t malicious enough to inspire fear – but he keeps our attention because of his obsessive qualities. Too old for Laura but too randy to let go of his lust, too clumsy to pull off the passion-killing he intends to commit but too unlucky to get off scot-free, Waldo is, like any would-be tyrant, intent on seizing the thing which seems most out of his reach. And like a would-be tyrant, he is not shy about doing great evil in order to grab what he wants.

6) The Silence of the Lambs (1991), directed by Jonathan Demme

Occasionally, the conceit of this movie is a little tiresome to me. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) knows perfectly well who “Buffalo Bill” is, but has no interest in telling Bella Swan Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) anything useful unless she gives him the personal interaction he craves. It’s a nice enough way to build suspense over the course of a movie, but it’s too contrived to hit home with any serious force. Both Hopkins and Foster give strong performances, though for me the best line of the movie, the one that sets the tone for the picture, comes from Anthony Heald. Dr. Chilton, en route to Hannibal Lecter’s cell, tells Starling about the time Lecter got himself into a hospital and maimed a nurse with his teeth. “His pulse never got above eighty-five,” he says coolly, and in his voice are several tones, constructive waves building on one another. Chilton is partly doing this to scare the attractive young woman who’s landed in his fiefdom. He’s playing the scientist, emphasizing the empirical facts of a case after having told his guest somewhat offhandedly about the damage to the nurse’s jaw and eyes. And amid everything else, from flirting to teasing to frightening to informing, something about his phrasing, perhaps in the way that he favors the /ɑɪ/ in “five,” conveys how impressed he is with his most fascinating charge. The Oscar belongs to Anthony Hopkins, but Heald is also doing so much work for Hopkins’ character before Hannibal the Cannibal ever showed up on screen. (The reveal, a moment which I primarily credit Demme for, is so good that before Hopkins has had to say anything he has gotten an enormous foundation from a fellow cast member and his director. Lucky guy.)

Without Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs is a little lame. Ted Levine’s seriously deranged serial killer, Jame Gumb, is creepy but largely unmemorable. His best moment is not the new skin he does his Vogue shoot in, or talking about lotion and hoses, but the way he skillfully manages to get his victim into a van. (Also, he watches Starling wander around his house for what, forty-five minutes?) There’s a lot of energy expended on making Gumb and Lecter interesting at Starling’s expense, which is a shame, because heaven knows Foster could have carried a more moving character. The only time when the film really engages us meaningfully with Starling as a person is in the title scene. More interesting than the murder of her father, her desire to unhillbilly herself in polite company, and even her struggle to be a competent and respected woman in an awfully male field is her compulsion to save others. Hannibal Lecter is a classic judge-and-jury type, a man who executes others in escape attempts as willingly as he drives an insane man to suicide because he threw semen at Starling as she walked by him. Starling has an aversion to killing for the sake of it. She shoots down Gumb as an act of clear-cut self-defense, but it also has something of the Sergeant York “Sometimes the best way to save lives is to kill people” vibe. Her great motivation – save people from dying – is evinced in a powerfully symbolic and tremendously moving scene which we, thank goodness, are forced to imagine ourselves. I thought if I could save the one lamb from slaughter, she says, tailing off. He was so heavy. The melody of The Silence of the Lambs is seeing Hannibal Lecter with a giant muzzle, watching him wear another man’s face after chewing it off, the green of Jame Gumb’s night-vision goggles. Its contrabass section, singing this profound harmony, lies in the small intonations of its strong actors.

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