Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Bringing a Serial Killer to Justice

At some point 65 years ago this month, the movie "M" made its debut.

It was a remake of a German movie that was made two decades earlier, and it had roughly the same plot — the search for a serial killer — but the setting shifted from Germany to Los Angeles, presumably to take advantage of the locations in the Los Angeles area that had been frequently used to tell stories on the big screen — and continued to be until the Victorian neighborhood underwent extensive renovation starting a few years later. Several locations in the movie do still exist, however, and are sometimes used in movies today.

I have never seen the 1931 movie, and I only saw the 1951 version recently. It is not the greatest movie ever made. At times, the editing seemed choppy to me, and the story isn't told as smoothly as movie stories tend to be told today.

But I found myself thinking of several things as the movie revealed the various themes that were happening at once. And it had an unexpected ending for a movie made early in the 1950s, a decade that is routinely savaged as the "Leave It To Beaver" decade.

I thought, for example, of the notorious child murders in Atlanta in 1980. That is probably the only case of child serial murders to receive national attention in my lifetime. Maybe there are other, equally obvious examples that I am simply forgetting, but that really is the only one that comes to mind.

It isn't, unfortunately, the only case of an individual child murder that comes to mind. I've known of many of those in my life. Too many.

"M" was an interesting movie for several reasons.

While it was kind of raw in its presentation, the nature of the story was raw — and, I am sure, shocking for movie audiences of that time. I have long thought that many of the things that we find repugnant, like child murder and sexual assault, do not happen with any greater frequency today than they did many years ago. They are just spoken of more frequently.

That, it seems to me, was what people really found shocking about such stories in 1951 and even when I was growing up long after "M" was in the theaters. It was the kind of thing that nice people simply didn't talk about.

But ignorance is not bliss, and that was one of the unspoken lessons of "M." If a serial killer is on the loose, knowledge really is power.

The people in "M" knew there was a serial killer on the loose, and the chief of police even made an appearance on TV to warn citizens of the danger. But things were different 65 years ago. TV was not in every home, and many people had to see TV from the display window at the appliance store. That was what was shown in "M," and it must have looked perfectly normal to audiences in 1951, but it looks odd to audiences who can carry TV with them in a phone/computer/camera/TV gadget that is small enough to fit in one's breast pocket. Such audiences can't comprehend a time when everything wasn't available on demand.

(If the movie is ever remade again, that is something that will have to be rewritten. It wouldn't be hard to do, but it would have to mention all the ways that the police could get the word out and solicit the public's assistance. You know. Along with TV, radio and newspapers, the police could be shown preparing messages for Facebook, Twitter and all the other social medial outlets.)

If you think about it in the context of 1951 vs. 2016, you are left with the truly inescapable conclusion that the story's writer was positively prescient. The words that came from the police chief's mouth in his address on TV could be the same speech, virtually word for word, that was given by Atlanta's mayor to his terror–stricken city three decades later.

David Wayne played the child killer, driven by a compulsion that was the result of ideas that had been planted in his brain by his mother when he was very young.

The police were getting desperate. There had been too many deaths and too few plausible leads, and they began to harass mobsters, who did not appreciate the increased police attention. It kept them from doing business so they decided to find the killer themselves. And they did.

He was taken to a parking garage for a mock trial and was convicted by a jury of mobsters.

As I say, it wasn't an artfully done movie.

But there was a remarkable moment at the end when the murderer spoke for himself and explained how all these blood sacrifices had been his way of seeking salvation.

The movie featured several familiar faces — or, at least, they would become familiar to audiences in the years ahead and mostly on television after it became more of a fixture in people's homes.

David Wayne tended to play supporting roles in movies. His performance as the child killer in "M" was a rare opportunity to see him in a leading role. His TV credits were extensive, mostly in guest roles but occasionally in recurring ones.

Jim Backus played the mayor but was better known later in his career as Mr. Howell on Gilligan's Island and the voice behind Mr. Magoo.

Raymond Burr was many things in his career. He played Perry Mason and Ironside, but in "M" he played a gangster named Pottsy.

Oh, and one more thing. Do you know what the M in the title stood for?

It was the code name for the operation that was intended to apprehend the killer. The name was Operation: Murder. That implies that murder was such a rare occurrence in 1951, even in a big city, that the effort to capture a serial killer could be code–named "Murder" — when, in fact, murder was not necessarily a rare occurrence. As I wrote earlier, I think things like that probably just weren't spoken of as much 65 years ago.

If a new version of the movie is ever made, the title will need to be changed — perhaps to a C for children or K for kids.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Getting Carried Away

"Looking back you never regret the ones you did, only the ones you didn't."

Dr. Evans (Hal Holbrook)

I always liked Dennis Hopper. I can't think of a performance he gave that I didn't enjoy, and I was very sad to learn of his death nearly six years ago.

If a typical story has its hero and its antihero, I suppose you would have to classify most, if not all, of Hopper's roles as antihero — not necessarily in the sense that he was a villainous character (although he did play some villainous types at times) but usually in the sense that he definitely was not an heroic figure. Whether he played a villain or not, he was usually weak, flawed, imperfect. He was always very human, neither truly evil nor truly good, neither black nor white but 50 shades of grey — like most humans. In that sense, he was truly an Everyman.

Having said that, I feel compelled to observe that Hopper's work in "Carried Away," which premiered 20 years ago today, was a more introspective and thoughtful performance than moviegoers saw him give in most of his movies. In many ways, I felt I really knew his character — Joseph, a middle–aged farmer/teacher who had a lame leg because of an accident in his youth and, perhaps as a result, never strayed far from where he was brought up. At the age of 47 he lived with his cancer–stricken mother in the farmhouse in which he was raised. He taught in the local school and tended the farm when he wasn't teaching.

It was a predictable existence — including the routine outward appearance of Joseph's ongoing courtship of a widow and colleague (played by Amy Irving).

That is the thing about Everymen, I guess. After a certain point in their lives, they don't tend to take risks — if they ever did. They stick with what is safe and familiar.

And that is how it was with Joseph and Rosealee.

Another thing about Everymen. At some point, they seem to realize their limitations — or, at the very least, they recognize that they have limitations.

And they live within those limitations, whatever they happen to be. They are realists. Joseph certainly was a realist. A brutally honest one. "I'm a mediocre teacher," he said at one point, "and an even worse farmer."

Joseph was a man who lived a safe life — until he found himself being forced out of his teaching job because he didn't have the academic credentials that were required by the school district. He was told his services would no longer be needed after the current school year ended. Not long after, a beautiful young girl (Amy Locane) came into his life through his classroom. She was the daughter of a retired Army major (Gary Busey) who wanted to board his daughter's horse on Joseph's property. She came over regularly to ride her horse — and seduced Joseph, who found himself caught in the classic conundrum — torn between pleasure and guilt.

It was a challenge at times for Joseph to keep his relationship with the girl secret, but he managed — until the local doctor (Hal Holbrook) happened upon the two of them in Joseph's barn.

He advised Joseph not to continue the relationship, pointing out the 30–year difference in their ages.

And Joseph's mother (Julie Harris) knew what had been going on. "I don't know who you think you've been fooling," she said to him.

Well, he had been fooling Rosealee, for one. She found out about Joseph's relationship with the girl when, after Joseph's mother died, Rosealee took it upon herself to answer the sympathy cards — and one was a suggestive card from the girl. Rosealee confronted Joseph and stormed out on him.

And, at the end of the movie, Joseph and the major had a discussion about the girl. Or, at least, the start of one. He conceded that what had happened was probably more his daughter's idea than Joseph's, which it had been.

(I have often wondered if Busey's character inspired Chris Cooper's character in "American Beauty" a few years later. Both were military men who had teenage children who had become involved with — or appeared to have become involved with — an older neighbor going through a midlife crisis. Busey's character was much more restrained, but "American Beauty" was a different kind of movie in many ways. Busey's character wouldn't have worked in "American Beauty," and Cooper's character wouldn't have worked in "Carried Away."

(Cooper's character, of course, killed Kevin Spacey's character in the mistaken belief that he was involved in a homosexual relationship with Cooper's character's son. Busey's character's daughter actually was in a relationship with Hopper's character — and Busey and Hopper went hunting together, but Busey never threatened Hopper.)

The movie struck me as being a slice of life. Life's events rarely have neat endings in which everyone sees the lessons that were intended to be learned, and "Carried Away" was like that. At the end, Joseph and Rosealee seemed to have reconciled, but the audience was not sure what would become of them — or even what the moral of the story was.

Perhaps it was, as Joseph acknowledged, the power — and the lure — of being carried away. Nothing more and nothing less.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Agony of Victory

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Maris and I used to play chess every Thursday night. Oh, how she loved the game.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): No wonder. The king is stationary while the queen has all the power.

The relationship between fathers and sons can be a complicated thing. I suppose the paternal relationship can be complicated for daughters, too, but I have no experience with that. I had one brother, and that was it. We have each had our challenging times with Dad — but at different times and for decidedly different reasons.

There seems to be more of a tendency to have a generational barrier between fathers and their children than mothers and their children — although, again, I have to plead ignorance when it comes to relationships between mothers and daughters.

Maybe it has something to do with the bond that forms between mother and child during the mother's pregnancy, but, in my experience, my peers' relationships with their mothers have usually been more relaxed than the relationships they have had with their fathers.

As a general rule. There are exceptions, of course.

The viewers never saw Frasier interact with his mother — except for one episode in which she was part of Frasier's fantasy (and an episode during the run of Cheers! when Frasier's mother made an appearance) — but it is not hard to conclude that both he and Niles had very loving relationships with their mother. They idolized her so much they followed her into psychiatry instead of following their father into detective work. In fact, in every conceivable way, they seemed to take after their mother.

They were both trying, almost all the time, to bond with their father, and they were always trying to outdo each other. What seemed to have come easily with their mother was like pulling teeth with their father. (How well I know that feeling.) In the episode of Frasier that aired on this night in 1996, "Chess Pains," Frasier had to deal with the mixed emotions sons often feel when they are in some kind of competition with their fathers — and they win.

Winning, though, wasn't Frasier's problem. Let me explain.

Initially Frasier wanted someone to play chess with him on an antique chess set he had acquired. But then after he got Martin (John Mahoney) to play with him, Frasier's focus changed when Martin started winning every time. Frasier couldn't understand it. He was clearly smarter than his father, and he was convinced that he was a superior player. How could he lose every time?

If you ever watched Frasier, you know how obsessive he could be, and he began to obsess about why his father won all the time. At first, he thought it was blind luck. But the more he thought about it — and the more input he got from his brother — the more convinced he became that he had been deliberately — albeit subconsciously — losing.

As Niles observed, it is a widely accepted belief that the moment of a boy's greatest joy — and his greatest sorrow — is when he beats his father for the first time.

But even armed with that knowledge and determined to finally win, Frasier still lost, making him more frustrated and more determined to defeat his father.

It got so bad that Frasier set off the smoke alarm late one night just to wake up his father so he could get him to play one more game. Martin was reluctant to do so, especially once he realized that Frasier's obsession wasn't just about losing. It was about losing to Martin.

Martin defended his success by pointing out that he had honed many of the skills that are valuable in chess through his work as a detective — such as analyzing clues and trying to stay a step ahead of the other guy.

He wasn't going to give Frasier another game — until Frasier said he would give Martin $5,000 if he won again.

That set up a high–stakes game in which both Frasier and Martin tried to distract the other into making bad moves. Ultimately, Frasier claimed his victory — and almost immediately began obsessing over whether the outcome was on the level.

Martin assured him he had given it his best shot and that Frasier had won fair and square. Frasier left his father's room for a few seconds, then peeked back in the doorway and, in a small, almost inaudible voice, he said, "I'm sorry I beat you, Dad."

In what has to be one of my favorite sub–plots in Frasier's 11–year run, Daphne (Jane Leeves) suggested to the recently separated Niles (David Hyde Pierce) that he might be less lonely if he got a dog. So he did — a rather high–strung greyhound that apparently bore a striking resemblance to Maris.

Frasier and Martin (John Mahoney) saw the resemblance, of course, but Niles didn't. All he knew was that the dog struck a familiar chord within him. Nevertheless, the way Niles doted on the dog and the way she ignored him truly was Niles' marriage in miniature. Even a casual Frasier fan must have seen that.

When Niles and the dog left, the three stood and stared at the doorway where he had been only seconds before.

"Am I the only one?" Daphne wanted to know.

"No," Frasier and Martin replied in unison.

"Does Dr. Crane have any idea?" Daphne asked.

Again, Martin and Frasier replied in unison. "No."

I thought it was a brilliant touch.

Had the episode focused strictly on the Martin–Frasier chess matches, it would have dissolved into a one–joke story. But the introduction of the Maris substitute kept interest from flagging.

In many ways, I thought "Chess Pains" was the best episode of what may have been Frasier's best season.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Fashion Plate

"What an inspired use of burlap!"

Lucy (Lucille Ball)

On this night in 1956, Ricky (Desi Arnaz) and Lucy (Lucille Ball), along with Ricky's band and the Mertzes (William Frawley and Vivian Vance), were in Paris in an episode of I Love Lucy titled "Lucy Gets a Paris Gown." See, after attending a Paris fashion show, Lucy had made up her mind that she had to have a dress designed by a leading French designer (who apparently was fictional). Ricky said he wouldn't spend the money. After all, he had invested in a Don Loper original in Hollywood the previous year. (Loper was not fictional.)

Lucy went on a hunger strike and resolved not to eat again until Ricky got her the dress.

Lucy was faking the hunger strike, though, and Ethel was her supplier. Now, I know that Ethel was Lucy's accomplice in just about everything, but, even though their actions clearly were intended to benefit Lucy, there was usually some residual benefit for Ethel, too. In all the times I have seen that episode, I have never figured out what was in it for Ethel. It couldn't have been because she expected to get a dress, too. After all, Lucy might have succeeded in wearing Ricky down, but Fred would pinch a penny until it bled. There was no way he would spring for a Paris original for Ethel.

Anyway, Ethel kept providing Lucy with food during her alleged strike.

Probably the biggest problem with faking a hunger strike is, at some point, it will become obvious that you have not been depriving yourself after all. Somehow, though, Lucy managed to look so gaunt by the third day of the strike that Ricky could bear it no longer and broke down, buying her a Paris original. But then he discovered that the strike had been a phony. Ethel had smuggled in a roast chicken that Lucy had hidden in a camera bag. When Ricky went to get the camera to take a picture of Lucy in her new dress, he discovered the chicken. He took the dress away with a renewed determination not to give in to Lucy's tactics again.

Earlier in the episode, Ricky and Fred had mocked the Paris fashions, saying the dresses looked like potato sacks and the hats looked like feedbags.

Away from their wives, Ricky and Fred plotted to get even for the phony hunger strike by having dresses made from actual potato sacks with designer labels sewn inside. They would make up some story to explain to their wives why they had decided after all to give them these original dresses.

Oh, and the hats. Lucy's hat was a horse's feedbag and Ethel's was a champagne bucket.

Lucy and Ethel were skeptical. The outfits were strange — but they were Paris originals, or so they believed, and they wore them in public, reveling in the attention they were receiving from the patrons at the cafe, including the fictional French designer. Ricky and Fred could stand it no longer and confessed to their wives what they had done. Beyond humiliation, Lucy and Ethel wrapped themselves in a tablecloth as if covering their nakedness and retreated from the cafe.

Well, Ricky and Fred apologized for what they had done and agreed to give their wives genuine Paris originals. On their way to the dress shop, they stopped at the same cafe, and, while they were there, some models came strolling by wearing the same burlap outfits the girls had been given.

Ricky and Fred saw an opening. They wouldn't have to buy Paris originals after all, they said, because the girls had the originals.

But the girls had to confess that they had burned those dresses as soon as they could.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

John Wayne's Defining Role

"Figure a man's only good for one oath at a time; I took mine to the Confederate States of America."

Ethan (John Wayne)

Sixty years ago today, "The Searchers" premiered on America's movie screens. Its hero, played by John Wayne, was unabashedly racist. He was a middle–aged veteran of the Civil War, a former Confederate soldier who returned to West Texas a few years after the end of the war, presumably with the intention of forming a partnership with his brother.

When I say the character was racist, those who haven't seen "The Searchers" might presume from what they have read so far in this article that the character was anti–black. But he wasn't. He was anti–Indian.

See, in the story, Indians raided a neighbor's homestead and stole some cattle. Wayne and some others went in search of the Indians to retrieve the cattle, but it turned out that the theft was simply a ruse to get the men away. When the men returned, Wayne's brother's home was in flames. His brother, his brother's wife and their son were killed. Their two daughters had been kidnapped.

So Wayne and his nephew (Jeffrey Hunter) embarked on a search.

The search went on for five years. Early on, the body of the oldest daughter was found brutally murdered and, presumably, sexually assaulted. The search went on for the youngest daughter, who had been 8 years old at the time of her abduction. No one knew what had become of her.

They finally found out. She was with the chief of a company of Comanche. She was played by a young Natalie Wood, 17 in real life and one year removed from her Oscar–nominated performance in "Rebel Without a Cause." Seventeen is a bit older than Wood's character would have been. Kidnapped at the age of 8, discovered five years later.

I saw it a few years ago after having gone several years without seeing it, and I remember thinking that Wood looked really young in the early part of the movie, much younger than she should have been. It wasn't until later that I realized that the young version was Natalie's younger sister, Lana Wood, who would have been about 9 when the movie was made.

Natalie played the role briefly at the end when Wayne found her in the Comanche camp. She said she was now a Comanche and didn't wish to return with him. Wayne would have preferred to see her dead and pulled his gun on her, but Hunter shielded her.

I had to wonder, as I watched it a few years ago, if "The Searchers" would have been a success in the theaters today. Wayne's racism certainly would have been a lightning rod for criticism, but, like Captain Ahab, there was a kind of beauty in his character, driven by an obsession that seems ugly without its redemptive qualities.

What are those redemptive qualities? Well, the character stood for principles like devotion and loyalty, but he was driven by the desire for revenge. He was a complicated character, worthy of Shakespeare.

It was a gritty story; the American Film Institute ranked it #12 all time — and #1 among the westerns. High praise.

It was pretty successful at the box office, too, but it received no Academy Award nominations. That surprised me when I heard that for the first time. I wasn't really surprised that Natalie Wood wasn't nominated. Her part was pivotal, but her screen time was brief. She did far more to deserve that nomination for "Rebel Without a Cause."

But the failure to nominate Wayne was a big mistake on the part of the Academy.

I once read a Roger Ebert column about the movie, and I recall that he said Wayne's character was the most compelling character Wayne and director John Ford ever created together. And that is certainly saying something, given how many times they made movies together.

It also happens to be true.

John Wayne's fans will point to all sorts of movies and roles that they will tell you defined the Duke — but it is hard to imagine either a John Wayne movie or role that could be said to have defined him better than "The Searchers."

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Teaching an Etiquette Lesson

"Ah, there he is, the man who floats like a lepidoptera and stings like a hymenoptera."

Niles (David Hyde Pierce)

We've all been there. Well, I presume we have. I certainly have.

We've all found ourselves at the mercy of rude and inconsiderate people. Haven't we? Well, most of us have.

And, if we're honest with ourselves, most of us also have been the sources of rude and inconsiderate behavior as well.

No one, it seems to me, is immune either way. That's human nature, isn't it? Aren't we all at least a bit self–centered? And isn't that mostly what is at the heart of rude and inconsiderate behavior — as well as the belief that one has been its victim?

That seemed to be what Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) was discovering in the episode of Frasier"High Crane Drifter" — that first aired on this night in 1996.

As it usually was with Frasier — and, no doubt, is with many people — it was the accumulation of several events that finally made him go ballistic.

First, someone took his parking space, and he had to park several blocks from the radio station. He wanted to go back downstairs during a station break and leave an angry note on the motorist's windshield. Roz (Peri Gilpin) favored letting the air out of his tires, but Frasier refused to respond in kind. Thank God a cooler head prevailed.

Then he went to a video store in search of a classic movie, but he was repeatedly ignored by the clerks — and then someone else who overheard his conversation with a decidedly disinterested clerk snapped up the only copy of the movie that Frasier wanted. That cooler head was thawing.

Upon his return to his apartment, Frasier was annoyed even more by a new neighbor, a heavy metal musician named Freddie Chainsaw who had moved into the penthouse and insisted on playing his music loudly enough to rattle the paintings and other works of art Frasier had on display. Frasier tried calling him to complain, but it did no good.

He was getting steamed now.

The straw that broke the camel's back came in the cafe when Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Frasier tried to find a table on an extremely crowded day. They spotted one that was about to be vacated and politely stood and waited for the people who were sitting there to leave, but another patron slipped in and grabbed the table before Niles and Frasier could sit down.

Frasier scolded the customer, who obviously didn't care, so Frasier decided to give him "an etiquette lesson" and grabbed the patron and tossed him out of the cafe.

Frasier's revolutionary moment made the local papers — under the heading "The Crane Mutiny."

Frasier inspired Daphne (Jane Leeves), who had been tormented by a neighbor who kept removing her laundry from the washing machine and leaving it in a soggy pile on a counter in the laundry room. Daphne reported that she had taken off her new red panties and tossed them in with his whites.

Frasier was a bit uncomfortable with the praise he was receiving from the newspaper and his family, but then Freddie Chainsaw switched on his loud music and Frasier tried to call him again. All Frasier had to do was identify himself, and the music immediately went silent. It seems Freddie Chainsaw had read about "The Crane Mutiny" in the morning paper.

Frasier's radio listeners had read about it, too, and all the calls he received that day were about etiquette lessons that Frasier's listeners had been giving the inconsiderate people in their lives. Everyone was provoked about something, and many were retaliating in creative ways. One was annoyed by a leaf blower being used at 7 a.m. so he smashed the leaf blower against a tree. Another put some rotten shrimp in someone else's air conditioner. Still another sent a boxload of scorpions by FedEx. Still another set someone's lawn on fire.

Frasier scolded his listeners, one of whom accused him of having a double standard. He could respond when provoked, she said, but they could not.

And Frasier had to concede that his behavior, though not nearly as extreme, had been just as wrong. And he pledged to contact the man he had tossed from the cafe to apologize in person.

When they met at the cafe, though, the man had no intention of accepting Frasier's apology. He announced that he was suing him for assault.

But Niles got Frasier off the hook by provoking the man into pushing him, then made believe he had been knocked to the ground. When Frasier ran to see how he was, Niles whispered to him, "Countersuit."

Problem solved.

Frasier was impressed that Niles had made his tumble into a table seem so authentic and observed that Niles even gave the appearance of being in pain. "You have a tear in one of your eyes," Frasier said.

"I landed on a fork," Niles replied.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

What Was It About 'Fargo'?

"Mind if I sit down? I'm carrying quite a load here."

Marge (Frances McDormand)

What is it, I have to ask, about "Fargo," which premiered on this day in 1996, that makes it one of my favorite movies?

I've seen other Coen brothers movies, and, to be perfectly honest, the story in "Fargo" doesn't strike me as being particularly remarkable when compared to those other movies.

I've seen William H. Macy in other movies, for that matter, and I think he is always good, no matter what kind of role he has been given to play — but I'm not sure I saw him in anything before I saw "Fargo."

The same is mostly true of Frances McDormand, who won Best Actress for her performance. I did see her in "Mississippi Burning" years before she made "Fargo," and I also saw her in "Short Cuts" before I saw "Fargo." She is consistently good.

Likewise, I had seen Steve Buscemi in movies before — "Reservoir Dogs," for example. I think he, too, is always good. His performance in "Fargo" was not an exception for him.

"Fargo" wasn't unique, nor was its cast.

And the supposed inspiration for the movie — a true story — wasn't unique, either.

However ...

"To watch it is to experience steadily mounting delight, as you realize the filmmakers have taken enormous risks, gotten away with them and made a movie that is completely original," wrote Roger Ebert, "and as familiar as an old shoe — or a rubbersoled hunting boot from Land's End, more likely."

McDormand played a pregnant police chief investigating a murder that she connected with the apparent kidnapping of the wife of a Minnesota car salesman (Macy) who had been having financial problems. No one else apparently knew about these financial difficulties. The idea was for the wife to be kidnapped and held for ransom by a couple of criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare). The salesman's father–in–law was a wealthy man who would pay the ransom for his daughter's safe return.

The criminals were in on Macy's plot, you see. They would give the ransom money to Macy. In return the criminals would be paid half of the ransom money and a then–new vehicle — leaving Macy with more than enough money to pay off his debts.

Which led to an obvious question that Buscemi's character asked Macy in their first meeting, "Why don't you just ask him for the money?"

"Or your fucking wife, you know," chimed in Stormare's character.

"Well, it's all just part of this," Macy said in his smarmiest manner. "They don't know I need it, see. OK, so there's that. And even if they did, I wouldn't get it. So there's that on top then. See, these're personal matters."

However, as Ebert observed, "To describe the plot is to risk spoiling its surprises," and I feel compelled to, in Ebert's own words, "tread carefully."

On the surface, the plan seemed simple enough. But the film had an ample supply of that eccentric irony that is always present in Coen brothers movies; thus, there were many little twists and turns, which prodded Macy into what may have been the best performance of his career. It was worthy of Hitchcock; as Ebert described it, Macy was trapped in "the unbearable agony of a man who needs to think fast and whose brain is scrambled with fear, guilt and the crazy illusion that he can somehow still pull this thing off."

As I say, things just didn't go according to plan. Right from the start — the kidnapping itself didn't go smoothly. En route to the kidnappers' cabin hideout, they were stopped by a state trooper, who was shot and killed. Enter McDormand, who was chief of police in the town where the murder occurred. McDormand's character pieced everything together perfectly.

I thought her interrogation of two hookers who slept with Buscemi and Stormare, then hung around long enough to watch late&night TV with them, was hilarious, especially their Minnesota accents. Every time I see it, I remember an appearance by Minnesota native Lea Thompson on The Tonight Show around the time "Fargo" was in the theaters. She said she had been back to Minnesota and had talked with some of her old friends about the movie.

"Yah, but you know nobody talks like that," she said one of her friends had said to her. In truth, everyone in the movie talked like that.

If you haven't seen the movie, I will leave it to you to discover how McDormand figured out what had happened — and how, in the process, she applied increasing pressure to Macy's character, who was totally incompetent when it came to carrying out a crime.

As each new problem surfaced — for example, illegible serial numbers on nonexistent cars for which he was trying to get a car loan company to pay — he got caught tighter in that vise.

I'm really no closer to answering my original question: Why is "Fargo" one of my favorite movies?

I don't know, but, perhaps, Ebert came close to an answer when he wrote, "Films like 'Fargo' are why I love the movies."

Friday, March 04, 2016

Spoiling the Perfect Murder

Most television series run Christmas–oriented episodes at, you know, Christmas time.

But Alfred Hitchcock never did things the way other people did them.

Actually, the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that aired on this night in 1956, "Back for Christmas," really had very little to do with Christmas at all. It mostly just mentioned the holiday in the title.

See, the story centered on this middle–aged couple about to embark on a trip to America. The length of this trip was unclear, but they insisted they would be back in time for Christmas — hence, the mention of the holiday in the title. The apparent purpose of the trip was for the husband, John Williams, a metallurgist, to work on a temporary assignment on the West Coast.

On the day of their planned departure, Williams (who appeared in three Hitchcock movies and half a dozen other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents) killed his wife and buried her in the basement, where he had ostensibly been digging a wine cellar. In typical Hitchcock fashion, viewers didn't see the blow that killed Williams' wife. They only saw him raise a club and bring it down where the audience knew her head to be.

Williams had directed her to take a close look at the hole he had been digging, and she fell right into it after the blow. The audience knew because there was an audible thud a few seconds after the club came down.

The audience also knew that, earlier in the episode, Williams had assessed his wife's height and compared it to the rectangular hole he had been digging. The camera allowed the viewers to see what Williams was seeing, and the audience knew that was no wine cellar. He had been digging her grave.

The next thing the audience knew, Williams' ship was arriving in America. He and his wife had told their friends they didn't like to fly and were crossing the Atlantic by ship. They were taking their car with them so they could drive across the continent — and, I presume, to have their own transportation in America.

That neatly covered most of the loose ends.

The viewers watched Williams arrive in New York, then drive across the country to California, where he was set up in a ritzy hotel. He wrote forged letters from his wife to the friends back home, at first reassuring them that, yes, they would be back by Christmas, then gradually allowing doubt to creep into their minds. By the time the couple didn't return for Christmas, it would hardly be a surprise.

The surprise was on Williams. His wife — who could be bossy in the preparations for their departure — had secretly arranged for excavators to turn the basement into a wine cellar while they were gone.

Williams got an advance bill for the excavators' services, addressed to his wife, and he knew what that meant. In the course of their work, they would find the body.

Well, she had insisted that the excavators have the work done before Christmas. Apparently, that was to have been her Christmas gift to him. Instead, he was going to be getting a much different gift — presumably well before Christmas. It was only a matter of time before some detectives would be knocking on his door.

The story supposedly was based on a real murder in the United Kingdom. As I understand it, the perpetrator in real life was a doctor who dismembered his wife after killing her.

That was too messy for Hitchcock. I do recall he made one movie in which a man killed and dismembered his wife, but it was all supposition until late in the movie. As a matter of fact, I believe that movie was based on the same case.

That's the way Hitchcock liked it. He's been gone more than 30 years; I think he would have been very uncomfortable with the horror movies that have been at the theaters since he's been gone. They're mostly too gory, too graphic for his taste.

Hitchcock preferred more style than that, more sophistication. He almost always presented murders in such a way that there was at least a touch of ambiguity. You might be 99% certain that someone killed someone else, as Jimmy Stewart was in "Rear Window," but it was always hard to get around that last 1%. I guess it was Hitchcock's way of reminding us that suspicion of guilt is not the same thing as proof of guilt.

Not a bad thing of which to be reminded, is it?

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Opening Some Doors

"Actually, I don't remember being born. It must have happened during one of my blackouts."

Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer)

Watching Oliver Stone's "The Doors," which premiered on this date in 1991, was "like being stuck in a bar with an obnoxious drunk," film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "when you're not drinking."

It wasn't quite that bad — although my reaction the first time I saw the movie was probably close to Ebert's. Make no mistake about it. "The Doors" was not for the faint of heart.

And I agree, it could be painful to watch. So, too, it seems to me, it would have been painful to watch Jim Morrison's life unfold — but the audience wasn't spared a portrayal of that.

That is what Stone was trying to do with his biopic. It was about the band, of course, but Morrison was the band. He was the one who wrote most of the lyrics. He was the one the fans came to see. And you couldn't tell that story without telling what came before.

It wasn't hard to see why Val Kilmer was cast as Morrison. Compare pictures of the two. Kilmer is virtually the spitting image of Morrison.

I don't know how much Meg Ryan resembled Morrison's common–law wife Pam. I'm not sure I have ever seen a picture of her.

But I have heard they had a volatile relationship, and that part came across loud and clear in the movie.

As I understand it, they had an open relationship, and Pam had problems with that. Everything boiled over at a group gathering of the Doors and their significant others. If you have seen the movie, I have no doubt you will remember the scene. Pam became an hysterical, screaming maniac, thoroughly disrupting the occasion and driving people away. Now, Pam was a hippie chick, but the whole communal scene never seemed to work for her, and Meg Ryan did a good job of presenting what must have been a very complex character.

Yet I'm convinced Ebert was onto something when he wrote that Pam really was one of many "supporting characters who drift in and out of focus during his long, sad binge."

The character who had the most significance — other than, I suppose, the members of the band — was played Kathleen Quinlan, "an older rock journalist," wrote Ebert, "who is heavily into sadomasochism and the trappings of witchcraft."

The part of the film in which she managed to penetrate the haze of booze and drugs that enveloped Morrison was worth the price of admission.

"[T]he character is miles different from anything she has played before," Ebert wrote, "and brilliantly conceived and executed."

I agree, although Quinlan has taken on other acting challenges since "The Doors," rendering Ebert's judgment less absolute. In 1991, though, it was still a stretch for an actress who was nominated for an Oscar early in her career for her portrayal of a schizophrenic young woman.

Ebert acknowledged the movie was "not always very pleasant," and that is something I have observed in less tactful language, I suppose. Ebert explained it better than I can:

"There are the songs, of course, and some electrifying concert moments," Ebert wrote, "but mostly there is the mournful, self–pitying descent of this young man into selfish and boring stupor. Having seen this movie, I am not sad to have missed the opportunity to meet Jim Morrison, and I can think of few fates more painful than being part of his support system. The last hour of the film, in particular, is a dirge of wretched excess, of drunken would–be orgies and obnoxious behavior, of concerts in which the audiences wait for hours for the spectacle of Morrison stumbling onstage to fake a few songs or, notoriously, to expose himself."

Yeah, that about covers it.

I have noticed that Oliver Stone always seems to walk a tightrope between art and documentary in his films — and he doesn't always maintain his balance. "The Doors" was no different.

Ebert observed that "the concert scenes ... play with the authenticity of a documentary." They are convincing. If you didn't know better, you would swear you were watching archival footage of the Doors in concert.

But then the artistic part comes in, and it isn't so artistic. The artsy part, I presume, was when Stone tried to capture Morrison's drug experiences on film — but, in hindsight, it seems to me that the artsy part was really the gritty slices of Morrison's life — which included his fascination with death.

Once again, Ebert nails it.

"He's like Edgar Allen Poe on acid, crawling along the ledges outside hotel windows, or begging his lovers to stab him in the heart."

I guess the Morrison character summed it up best in the movie when he said, "This is the strangest life I've ever known."