Archive for Bruce Dern

Beck #4: Roll Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2022 by dcairns

The fourth book in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, The Laughing Policeman, not only became the first non-American winner of the Edgar Award for crime fiction, it became the first modern Swedish novel to become a Hollywood movie. Since it was the seventies by the time that happened, Stuart Rosenberg’s film can leave out the double meaning of the book’s title, and just leave it as an ironic dangler. (See also STRAW DOGS and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but note that Roman Polanski felt compelled to add a scene to CHINATOWN that made the title literal.)

Screenwriter Thomas Rickman (THE COAL-MINER’S DAUGHTER) has changed lots of other stuff too, and I would say that practically all his changes make things worse, though a good many of them probably couldn’t have been avoided. And, since the cast is great and enough of the intriguing story remains, what we have is actually a really pretty good policier. Watching the films around it that got everything wrong, I can appreciate this one much more in spite of the cliches and reactionary stuff.

Walter Matthau is Martin Beck — only here he’s a San Francisco detective called Jake Martin. Like Beck, though, he sleeps on the couch, though the movie has no convenient way to make it clear that this is his choice, part of the policeman’s long, slow, voluntary break-up with Mrs. Beck. As in the books, Martin is surrounded by a variety of other cops of varying degrees of competence, but none of them really resembles the characters in the novel. The always-welcome Anthony Zerbe is required to play a shouty boss character that surely felt somewhat tired even then, but the addition of Bruce Dern and Louis Gossett Jr adds welcome flavour.

Someone has massacred all the passengers on a bus, then gotten clean away. One of them turns out to be a young detective. Is it a random homicide (of the kind far more common in the US than Sweden) or is some more secret motivation at work. Dern uses an authentic cop word to describe mass shooters: “they’re kronky,” he says, meaning crazy. But I believe, from my reading of John D. MacDonald, that kronky really signifies someone who’s twitchy, suspicious, clearly hiding something. The word has now been superseded by the similar hinky.

Cinematographer David M. Walsh’s (MONTE WALSH, SLEEPER) visuals take advantage of fluorescent strip lighting’s tendency to turn green when photographed on film, giving the film a hazy, ghostly pallor that’s somehow very pleasing. Rosenberg, who made COOL HAND LUKE and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, has a deft way with a long lens, so the film has both a slight documentary grit and a Hollywood sheen. The TransAm Building becomes a major supporting character of the Frisco scenes.

The most unfortunate and dated change from the book is Rickman’s rewrite of the villain character. In the book, he killed an ex-lover who was threatening to derail his upcoming prosperous marriage. Now, years later, he enacts a massacre to take care of a dangerous witness and the cop who, on his own time, has been investigating the cold case. Rickman makes it a sex killing, but also makes that nonsensical by typing the character as gay. “A fruiter,” insists Dern’s character, about nine times too often. Complete with Van Dyke beard, a tonsilar aberration which has haunted Beck films since ROSEANNA.

And here, at last, are Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and he’s GOT THAT BEARD.

Showing homophobia in the police force is just realistic, even commendable, but the film in no way distances itself from Dern’s attitude. Even about ten years earlier, in THE BOSTON STRANGLER, the filmmakers understood that gay men were unlikely to become sex-killers of women. If Dern’s character, a part-time asshole, fixated on this sex angle and were proved wrong, that would be one thing. But the nonsensical homophobic theory proves to be correct in the film. The bad guy killed a woman because he’s queer.

Martin/Beck is given a bit of an explosive temper, too, which is different from the novels but not really a bad thing per se. It’s just that Matthau’s rages seem triggered by sexual matters, strip shows and gay bars and prostitution. The audience is encouraged, I think, to see sexual liberation as part of a general moral slide that ends in murder. Even though there’s a suggestion that the murderer committed his first killing to cover up his homosexuality, since “things were different just a few years ago.” So sexual repression is, it would seem, more dangerous than even the sleaziest commercial exploitation.

The final big change is the most destructive — Rickman adds the inevitable car chase, with the killer ending up on a bus so that we’re back to square one. DIRTY HARRY was just two years previous, so Rosenberg has a hard time making this seem fresh or exciting. The dated cliches have a certain nostalgic value, it’s true, but they basically represent a failure of imagination. Returning to the opening crisis is technically sort of a good idea, in principle. But it plays out as boring. It’s to the credit of Rickman’s dialogue and what’s left of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s plot and all the good acting and filmmaking choices elsewhere that this is only a moderate blemish.

Rewriting all the minor characters — removing incompetent kops Kristiansen and Kvant, for instance, tends to soften the novel’s criticism of the police. We do get Anthony Zerbe as one of those perpetually furious, exploding police chiefs, but the books’ exposure of the way the police force is politicised and the bosses are more concerned with covering their own asses is missing.

The “Swedish nympho” — actually just a highly-sexed and pragmatic young woman in the book — is absent, but we get Joanna Cassidy as a lesbian nurse. She’s kind of a positive portrayal — the movie wants her to be titillating, and Cassidy is suitably glamorous, but it’s a very rare example of a lesbian in a mainstream Hollywood film who isn’t either a murderer or a murder victim. Some kind of weird flirtation with Dern confuses the issue. What we see quite clearly in the movie is that Hollywood finds lesbians titillating and gay men disgusting and frightening. It’s not as bad as FREEBIE AND THE BEAN in this respect, but then, nothing is.

Lou Gossett Jr is on hand, too, looking very cool. I was impressed by him telling off Dern for provoking some Black guys — “You’re making it harder for the next cop.” Dern pays no heed. On this viewing, the line struck me a little differently. Faced with a clear example of a white cop being unprofessional and kind of racist, Gossett’s character’s first loyalty is to the force. This seems somewhat true to reality, even if it’s not specifically what the filmmakers intended: some African-American cops do see to see themselves as cops first, and can be as racist as many white cops. Sjöwall & Wahlöö repeatedly talk about the culture in the police force that insists on group unity and an us-against-them attitude, where the “them” is the whole of the rest of the population.

The book’s ending could have worked really well on screen, I think — relying on a character reaction, it could have played a little like the end of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, the other entry in Walter Matthau’s public transport duology, making excellent use of that amazing fizzog. In the book, Beck’s teenage daughter presents him with a record of the title song, by Charles Penrose. Beck’s family find it hilarious, but the constitutionally glum Beck doesn’t crack a smile. But at the end of the book, he gets a phone call that cracks the case — the murdered cop had come up with the right answer. Ironically, however, this piece of the puzzle shows up after the case has already been resolved, so it’s a black joke by fate of the kind the books are full of. And Beck, at last, gets the joke.

But, instead, we get an ironic pay-off as a forgotten plot point reemerges as a laughable dead end (it may have inspired the grim gag at the end of Mamet’s HOMICIDE), a reminder that even if you follow every clue in the most professional manner, the universe is likely to have the last laugh. In that sense, it feels absolutely in keeping with the original authors’ sardonic view of the world.

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN stars Charley Varrick; Freeman Lowell; Sgt. Emil Foley; Zilkov; Prof. Nelson Schwartzkopf; Zelmo Swift; Wonder Woman; Dr. Ernie Lombardi; Zhora; and Sherrif J.W. Pepper.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2021 by dcairns
This is a good image

THE ‘BURBS is one of the Joe Dante films I haven’t watched much — I think only once, until now. But I got the excellent Arrow Blu-ray with the alternate cut and ending and a big documentary and a commentary. EXPLORERS and SMALL SOLDIERS are the other two I want to go back to. Oh, and THE HOWLING also because it’s been years.

There are Dante films that are on TV a lot and if they come on and I watch for five minutes I end up watching the whole thing, no matter how many times I’ve seen them — these are the GREMLINS films and INNERSPACE. Even if I channel-hop into them middle of one, I’ll end up staying to the end credits.

But THE ‘BURBS had sort of slipped by me. I remember it was either Sight & Sound or the late Monthly Film Bulletin that said their problem with the ending — and we all knew there had been more than one ending shot — was that the revelations about the creepy neighbours didn’t fall comically short of our suspicions, and nor did they comically exceed our suspicions. Which I think is probably true, but this time round it played differently.

It’s a really fun film. Tom Hanks is superb (and I miss the funny Tom Hanks, fine as he is in straight stuff), Rick Ducommon is great in the Jack Carson role, Carrie Fisher and Bruce Dern, and then the Klopeks are wonderful, and for a while it seemed like only Dante knew how great Henry Gibson was and would use him.

And then this ending. Which is, it’s true, not quite triumphant comically, but also seems to run against what the whole film is about. Tom Hanks has a fantastic speech at the end in which he denounces the curtain-twitching paranoia he’s been sucked into — THEY’RE not the monsters, WE’RE the monsters! And Hanks bats it out of the park. The Klopeks being innocent really puts the audience on the spot. Well, we kind of knew the protags were getting carried away, but this is really strong. So having the Klopeks turn out to be the monsters after all negates that completely. True, the speech still happens. But what people tend to take away from a film is the ending. A weak ending ruins your MEMORY of the experience. The meaning imparted by the ending is always seen as the meaning being promulgated by the film as a whole.

The original ending was going to be Hanks being loaded into the ambulance and Werner Klopek (Gibson) is in there and he’s going to kill him. Which is the ending of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (which also had multiple endings shot, but that was, I believe, based around the question of what order the episodes would eventually run in). But the reason they didn’t end on that note was, “Well, you can’t kill Tom Hanks.” Which I understand.

Weirdly, that ending might have worked better for me in terms of what it’s saying — true, having the Klopeks turn out to be killers seems to retroactively justify all the intrusive snooping and paranoia. But look: our hero’s going to DIE for it. Maybe that sort of works. It doesn’t make being a nosy neighbour look all that attractive.

But now, since Tom Hanks can never die, he has to win, and we get Dern and Ducommon preening xenophobically about their success. And while they’re comic buffoons, and Hanks is now disgusted with them, which helps a little… Fiona was RANTING about the inappropriateness of this ending. I think she took it personally, since we’re both a pair of life’s Klopeks at heart. I was more muted in my dissatisfaction, maybe because I was thinking about the difficulty the filmmakers were up against. If you suddenly have to explain all the weirdness including a human femur turning up in a back yard 10 RILLINGTON PLACE style, you’re into the ending of SUSPICION and it becomes a rather dry box-ticking exercise and anticlimactic to boot. And the script hadn’t been written, and filmed, with that intent in mind. It’s like you’re in a labyrinth and all the exits are sliding shut and you’re being channeled towards the most reactionary finishing line, the one that ends by making the conformists in the audience feel good about themselves.

So it’s a film that could be Dante’s most subversive movie apart from the last ten minutes.

Does the same objection apply to REAR WINDOW, which was kind of the progenitor for THE ‘BURBS? The characters debate whether spying on your neighbours can ever be a good thing, but then it turns out it can. But that also makes us feel rather awkward when Lars Thorwald confronts L.B. Jeffries with his “why are you persecuting me?” speech, and Jeff is even more tongue-tied than usual. Does that get Hitch out of trouble altogether? Is THE ‘BURBS held to a different standard because it’s satire, and so ducking back into being on the side of the normals feels like more of a cop-out?

And if it turns up on TV will I get sucked into watching it again? That’s something I won’t know until it happens.

Shorter’s Better

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2020 by dcairns

There’s a spoiler for THE DRIVER just past the next picture.

I remember being impressed by the text at the start of THE GREY FOX which tells us that the titular Old West bank robber was credited with inventing the term, “Hands up.” And realizing that he’d come up with a snappy and effective way of saying what he wanted, at gunpoint. “Put your hands up,” takes too long.

OK, in WHEN THE DALTONS RODE has them saying “Reach!” but that only works if the customer has heard the expression “Reach for the sky!” otherwise they could be thinking “Reach for what?” and then you’d have to shoot them. Worse, they might reach for the wrong thing, and shoot YOU.

So it was fun to read in Bruce Dern’s memoir, Things I’ve Said and Probably Shouldn’t, that when tasked with saying the line, “You’re under arrest,” at the end of Walter Hill’s THE DRIVER, he remarked to his director, “OK, but shorter’s better.”

“What do you mean?”

“Shorter’s better.”

“Just say the fucking line, OK? ACTION!”

Dern, flanked by a great many cops, has Ryan O’Neil surrounded.


Hill called “Cut!” and the crew applauded.

Then Hill said, in effect, Okay, smartass, but since this film is going to say Screenplay by Walter Hill, not Screenplay by Walter Hill with Additional Dialogue by Bruce Dern, do it again and this time say the fucking line as written. So he did.

I told this story to a few people and they all said, “Which version’s in the film?” And I couldn’t remember.

So I bought it secondhand for like 50p.

It’s “Gotcha.”

No wonder Bruce looks kinda smug.