Tag Archives: adaptation

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

5 Jan

Film directing remains a steadfastly male domain, retaining the taint of macho adventurism long since passed. In the past, talented female helmers like Ida Lupino and Elaine May were judged by a higher standard than their male counterparts; expected to be twice as good to be considered equal. But this gender imbalance is slowly being rectified by a new generation. Inspired by trailblazers like Mary Harron, Jane Campion and Jodie Foster, the likes of Kathryn Bigelow, Lisa Cholodenko, Debra Granik and Lynne Ramsay have made compelling award-winning work that hasn’t become trapped in a gender ghetto.

Glasgow native Ramsay made a string of stellar shorts before her debut feature, ‘Ratcatcher’ (1999), a searing portrait of life in her hometown during the turbulent early Seventies, garnered critical acclaim. Next was ‘Morvern Callar’ (2002), a vivid adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel which served to cement her reputation as one of Britain’s most exciting emerging talents behind the camera. Then things took a turn for the worse.

In 2001, Ramsay was slated to direct the adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-seller ‘The Lovely Bones’, but walked away from the project in 2004 after ‘creative differences’ with the film’s producer – and eventual director – Peter Jackson. There were whispers that the passionate, plain-speaking Scot may have burned her bridges with Hollywood’s power elite, that she was destined to be yet another flash in the pan; a notion happily dispelled by this adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s million-selling, Orange Prize-winning novel.

Ramsay’s most ambitious offering yet, ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ exhibits Ramsay’s gift for taking a familiar, popular literary property and putting on it her own artistic imprint. The film centres on Eva Khatchadorain (Tilda Swinton) in the aftermath of a school massacre committed by her son, Kevin. Ostracised by the community, Eva struggles to rebuild her life; though in the eyes of those around her she is complicit in the crime, the anger and grief transferred onto her, as imprisoned by the act as her son. The narrative flits back and forth, recounting the endless battle of wills between Eva and Kevin; a war of attrition that intensifies as Eva comes to understand that her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), doesn’t share her sense of foreboding about their offspring.

After eight years in the wilderness, ‘We Need to Talk…’ reaffirms Ramsay’s standing as a singular cinematic voice. Ramsay handles the emotionally dense source material with poise and self-assurance; placing herself at the service of the story, her compositions designed to articulate the fraught nature of the characters’ relationships, never succumbing to vulgar displays of technique. The sound design ably conveys Eva’s inner tumult, isolating lawnmowers, clocks et al. to create a cacophony of the everyday that mirrors Eva’s fuzzy mental state. The livid red and orange that figures throughout the production design, combined with recontextualized saccharine pop songs and Jonny Greenwood’s original score, create a palpable unease that can best be described as ‘Lynchian’.

Swinton has matured from Derek Jarman’s primary muse into one of the elite character actors; as her worth is not predicated on her physical allure, Swinton has been afforded the opportunity to evolve beyond the onerous constraints of conspicuous glamour. Her performance in ‘We Need to Talk…’ is so astounding because so little of its strength is verbal; there are no showy soliloquies, but the role is a gruelling physical challenge to which she rises with aplomb. So much of the drama rests on gesture, inflection, brief flickers of what lies behind the eyes, multiple layers of frustration, exasperation, resentment and desperation, and the rest of the cast proves equal to the challenge.

Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller both succeed in tracing Kevin’s growth from burgeoning sociopath to fully-fledged psychopath; Miller is chilling in his evocation of perspicacious teenage nihilism, while Newell portrays the vindictive relish of the solipsistic child with a conviction that is amazing for one so young. Reilly occupies a tertiary role, a position traditionally taken by female characters; separate from the unfolding drama, there to provide moral support and play devil’s advocate, a thankless but crucial contribution to the overall effort.

‘We Need to Talk…’ has more to say about the relationship between violence, environment, adolescence and the mass media than Oliver Stone/Quentin Tarantino’s grandstanding take on the subject in ‘Natural Born Killers’ (1994), any of Michael Haneke’s numerous discourses – ‘Benny’s Video’ (1992), ‘Funny Games’ (1997) et al. – or Gus Van Sant’s voguish examination of the issue in ‘Elephant’ (2003). The film weighs in on the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate with commendable subtlety, and explores the role of our increasingly passive society – a paradigm where we are reduced to the status of consumers and observers, experiencing life through a variety of filters – in fostering feelings of powerlessness and its concomitant rage. Executed to perfection by all involved, hopefully we won’t have to wait another eight years for Ramsay’s next effort.

Swinton and Reilly: the happy couple.

  

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Marat/Sade (1967)

10 Nov

The recent RSC production of the Peter Weiss play ‘The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis De Sade’ – to give it its full, unwieldy title – has caused considerable controversy and reignited the endless debate about the limits of art. Antony Neilson’s revival of the infamous ‘play within a play’ met with an average of thirty walkouts per night, with one disgruntled patron describing it as ‘utter filth and depravity’; critics haven’t been much kinder.

Peter Brook’s adaptation of the original 1963 production is amongst the better known celluloid evocations of Sade’s work: the others being ‘Quills’ (2000), a bawdy romp with literary pretensions that portrays Sade as a lovable libertine in the order of a louche seventies rock star; and the altogether nastier ‘Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom’ (1975), which in its total lack of compassion can be said to embody Sade’s worldview with the greatest insight.

The director of the Charenton asylum, Coulmier (Clifford Rose), decides to stage a play written by its most famous occupant, the Marquis De Sade (Patrick Magee), with the other patients playing the roles for the enjoyment of Coulmier’s bourgeois friends and family. The play tells the story of Jean-Paul Marat (Ian Richardson), a polemicist during the French Revolution who met his end at the hands of Charlotte Corday (Glenda Jackson). Marat was a contemporary of Sade’s, a firebrand with whom he had impassioned debates about the validity of his revolutionary actions.

As the play progresses, Coulmier, accompanied by his wife and daughter (Brenda Kempner and Ruth Baker), intervenes in proceedings when contentious lines that were intended to be excised from the script are uttered by its wayward players. The play details Sade and Marat’s conflicting opinions on the tumultuous events gripping the country: Sade averring that Man is by nature a destroyer, overwhelmed in the face of nature’s indifference, while Marat counters that the collective will can sooth our inner conflict, seeing hope in fraternity, equality and liberty.

No doubt keen to distinguish itself from its theatrical progenitor, ‘Marat/Sade’ is a thoroughly cinematic experience, standing in stark contrast to so many other stage-to-screen transfers. Picking up where he left off with his previous film adaptation, ‘Lord of the Flies’ (1963), Brook packs the screen with detail; playing with focus and composition to great effect, utilizing the far reaches of the frame, characters occupying the fore, mid and background and addressing the camera. It all combines to create a sense of dynamism and spontaneity within a sparse single location, though clearly every move was planned to the smallest detail and executed with the utmost precision.

The production design and art direction are expertly handled by Sally Jacobs and Ted Marshall, fashioning a drab palette of black, grey and off-white, consciously contrasted by the Culmiers’ pristine robes and Charlotte’s virginal attire; while David Watkin’s cinematography uses the queasy sunlight streaming in through the windows to create some startling interplay of light and shade. The sound design is equally effective, bringing unsettling noises to the fore and isolating voices from the often cacophonous songs, backed by a heady blend of stentorian band music, religious dirges and atonal blasts of noise.

Every member of the ensemble cast manages to distinguish themselves: Michael Williams as the sardonic Herald, John Steiner as the foppish Monsieur Dupere, the Greek chorus of the disenfranchised comprising of Freddie Jones, Hugh Sullivan, Jonathan Burn and Jeanette Landis, and Robert Lloyd as the deranged preacher turned rabble-rouser Jacques Roux. Magee and Richardson do battle, reflecting the duality of human impulse, with Rose as the glib political operator moderating their debate. Magee – best known for his role in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971) – has a careworn physiognomy that perfectly elucidates the toll of Sade’s journey into the abyss of human cruelty; while Richardson – forever the Machiavellian Francis Urqhart in the public imagination – plays the tortured idealist with zeal.

In her first major role, Jackson is spellbinding as the young victim of ‘sleeping sickness and melancholia’ who is reluctantly thrust into the role of assassin; conveying Charlotte’s fragility and confusion, trapped in a constant state of dazed semi-consciousness, her breathing tremulous, her diction faltering, her body language cowed; it is the work of an artist at the height of their capabilities.

‘Marat/Sade’ unfolds like a grand metaphor: the inmates are forced into their roles for the pleasure of the elite audience, the bars protecting their shadowy forms from the rabble; the suffering of the many reduced to a theatrical trifle for the few. ‘Marat/Sade’ is imbued with the spirit of rebellion that exploded in 1789, bubbled to the surface once more in 1968 and is beginning to make itself heard again today, lambasting endless war for the personal gain of an already wealthy minority, ‘happy mutual robbery’ and the spoils being ‘grabbed by businessmen, financiers and manipulators’. Conversely, for all his turpitude, Sade is an icon of the Freidman Monetarists, Libertarians and sundry other self-regulators in his assertion that ‘I believe only in myself’, whether they care to acknowledge his legacy or not.

Mainstream theatre has been hijacked by hackneyed recreations of reliable properties and saccharine musical spectacles; its vitality drained by its quest for ever-greater profit; seeking not to challenge and edify, but comfort and pacify. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the current version of ‘Marat/Sade’ met with such opprobrium from a generation of theatregoers inured to such middlebrow fare.

Marat/Sade '11 at the RSC.

Priest (2011)

31 Jul

Once again, 3-D is a panacea for a floundering industry rapidly running out of ideas. Though the technology had existed in various forms since the 1890s, 3-D was rolled out by Hollywood in the post-war doldrums, when the flight to the suburbs and the growing popularity of TV dealt business a double blow. As with its initial commercial incarnation, 3-D in 2011 is adhering to the law of diminishing returns; the spectacle on which the early films coasted rapidly palling. Running parallel to this is the primacy of the Nerd Paradigm: what was once a risible fringe has become the dominant pop cultural discourse. There is, of course, a societal dimension to this; as people withdraw from the world and retreat from reality, they seek solace in uncomplicated, morally unambiguous fantasy worlds populated by mythical figures and heroic protectors. ‘Priest’ is a product of both these phenomena: a long-delayed 3-D spectacular based on – what else – a little-known comic book depicting – what else- a post-apocalyptic world where humans and vampires do battle; it reunites director Scott Charles Stewart with leading man Paul Bettany, who collaborated on the equally underwhelming ‘Legion’ (2009).

‘Priest has the feel of a project that was overseen by a focus group of ‘typical cinemagoers’ – i.e. teenage boys. It is a disjointed mess of second and third-hand visual and conceptual tropes – an Orwellian dystopia that is pure ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), a lawless wilderness that is firmly in ‘Mad Max’ territory overrun by faceless creatures borrowed from both the ‘Alien’ and ‘Resident Evil’ franchises, Matrix-lite fight sequences and quasi-Western window dressing that is more Marilyn Manson than Sergio Leone. If you see the film, I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with your own list of influences; it is one of the few joys to be had from the film. ‘Priest’ is Tarantino’s magpie sensibility taken to its high-concept extreme; shorn of wit, irony and humour.

Despite being considered one of the most exciting actors currently working, Bettany’s filmography is littered with clunkers like ‘Wimbledon’ (2004), ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (2006) and ‘The Tourist’ (2010). His portrayal of the heretical killing machine here will do little to enhance his standing; but given the trite material with which he had to work, it is hardly surprising that his performance has all the emotional depth and intensity of a video game cut scene, growling hackneyed lines and seething beneath his cassock. Brad Dourif and Christopher Plummer are wasted in peripheral roles, Maggie Q is here merely to advance the clunky romantic subplot, clean-cut pretty boy Cam Gigandet seems to have been airlifted in from a daytime soap to play the dutiful sidekick and Karl Urban is more Giorgio Armani then Lee Van Cleef as a high-camp vampire desperado hilariously named ‘Black Hat’.

Cory Goodman’s script is one of the most ineptly written in recent memory – at least ‘Drive Angry’ (2011) didn’t take itself too seriously. A kernel of a good story resides within ‘Priest’; but it presents ideas without seeing them through, resulting in a cliché-ridden mish-mash. All the high-octane violence that action fans hunger after is here, but it is forced into an ill-fitting allegorical,  cod theological straitjacket. The characters are so poorly defined that their fate is a matter of supreme indifference; delivering painfully contrived dialogue that has no emotional hook and is merely there to advance the plot, such as it is.

‘Priest’ is indicative of the creative entropy that has gripped mainstream cinema, highlighting the stultifying effects of the corporate mindset; a brash, brainless, cut-and-paste exercise that takes the surface elements of superior works and revels in its palpable lack of originality. Its financial failure will thankfully spare us a slew of sequels, but as Hollywood continues to operate like a high stakes casino, be prepared for more of the same.

Black Hat: Pure Evil!

Submarine (2010)

19 Jul

Anyone familiar with cult British comedy will be aware of Richard Ayoade; he has made his name as a player in such shows as ‘The Mighty Boosh’, ‘Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace’, ‘Man to Man with Dean Learner’ and ‘The I.T. Crowd’, bringing his gawky charm and E.L. Wisty-esque otherworldliness to a succession of oddballs and outsiders. But TV comedy stars must always enter into the film world with great trepidation, as what makes them so effective in the thirty-minute format often doesn’t translate to the big screen – as Mitchell and Webb’s ‘Magicians’ (2007) is a disappointing testament to. Ayoade wisely opted to stay behind the camera for ‘Submarine’, amassing an impressive cast for this adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s coming-of-age novel.

Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a bright but gauche teen living in Swansea in the 1980s. Struggling to fit in at school, he bullies his fellow students in an attempt to impress Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a callous, manipulative classmate who takes pleasure in toying with his emotions, but with whom he is determined to lose his virginity. Oliver’s home life is disrupted when Glen (Paddy Considine), the first love of his mother, Jill (Sally Hawkins), moves in next door, throwing the failings of her marriage into sharp relief. Oliver does his best to rouse his depressive intellectual father, Lloyd (Noah Taylor), and sabotage Glen’s attempts to woo Jill, becoming a go-between for his emotionally stunted parents.

‘Submarine’ makes for frustrating viewing, with Ayoade falling prey to First-Time Director’s Syndrome. The film is burdened by its influences – chiefly Wes Anderson – and struggles to strike the delicate balance of laughs and narrative progression that is crucial to any film comedy’s success. There is a sense that Ayoade is trying way too hard to prove his directorial chops, throwing into the mix every technique at his disposal – slow motion, multiple angles, numerous cuts, freeze frames, split screens, Scorsese-esque ‘Super 8’ segments and a constantly moving camera. It all becomes wearing and has the effect of detracting from the story. Alex Turner throws out a few subpar Arctic Monkeys offcuts, his star cache no doubt helping to market the film in the US.

On the plus side, ‘Submarine’s’ humour is more bittersweet then laugh-out-loud, its sophisticated tone a welcome departure from the crass ‘sex wager’ formula that proliferates the teen comedy genre. The script succeeds in depicting the causal cruelty and mob mentality of the playground; one of its most striking themes is how intellectual curiosity can bring with it a profound sense of insignificance, detailing the travails of the smart. There is a grim authenticity to the depiction of Oliver’s home life: a passive-aggressive minefield where his ultra-vigilant mother and over-analytical father quietly rue their failures and pile their neuroses onto his shoulders. All of which is helped in no small part by Erik Wilson’s downbeat photography, its washed-out palette conveying a wintery chill, and Roberts’ wry narration, which perfectly replicates the inner monologue of a teenage aesthete struggling to come to terms with sexual awakening and domestic upheaval.

A great ensemble cast strives manfully to overcome the glib, comic cadence of the dialogue: Taylor and Hawkins play the saturnine marine biologist and frustrated actress with typical élan, Roberts and Paige have genuine chemistry, Considine provides an injection of broad humour as a leather-clad ‘mystic’ sporting a luxurious mullet, and executive producer Ben Stiller makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance. But, alas, their efforts are undermined by Ayoade’s desire to ape the hyper-stylized, self-aware idioms of US indie cinema. One cannot escape the feeling that, in striving to deliver the desired look, the film loses some of its heart, the end result feeling like a hipster reimagining of ‘Gregory’s Girl’ (1981). All of which is a tremendous shame, as Ayoade clearly has talent as a director; if he can calm down and rein in some of his stylistic excesses, his next project could be something special.

That luxurious mullet.

Barney’s Version (2010)

10 Jun

Paul Giamatti’s gradual ascension to the upper echelon of indie stardom is due in no small part to his ability to convincingly portray those at the lowest ebb:  from the hubristic filmmaker in ‘Storytelling’ (2001) to the failed writer in ‘Sideways’ (2004), Giamatti has turned in a litany of performances that run the gamut of failure, alienation and regret. Aided in no small part by a physiognomy that was made for tragedy, Giamatti’s normality has ironically become an asset in a business which places a premium on youth, beauty and exoticism.

Prior to embarking on this adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s novel director Richard J. Lewis and writer Michael Konyves had a less than stellar track record. Lewis has worked on TV since the late ‘80s, directing shows as diverse as ‘Superboy’ and ‘CSI’, while Konyves has a handful of TV movies to his credit. So the fact that they came together to produce a work of such distinction makes ‘Barney’s Version’ an even more tremendous achievement.

As its title implies, ‘Barney’s Version’ is an account of the life of Barney Panofsky (Giamatti), told entirely from his perspective. Barney is a sixty-five-year-old producer of ‘totally unnecessary’ TV who becomes the subject of a book by a police detective (Mark Addy), which accuses him of murdering his best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman). The film flits between time frames, recounting Barney’s three marriages and shedding light on the circumstances surrounding Boogie’s death.

Much like ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’ (2002), ‘Barney’s Version’ is a prime example of the unreliable storyteller at work, outlining the inherently subjective nature of biography. One can never be entirely sure if what we are witnessing is the mendacious testimony of a guilty man or an honest appraisal of events; whether these are the people as they really were or how Barney would prefer they are remembered. The memories occur at random, Proustian rushes stirred by external stimuli, using Barney recollecting them as a handy bridging device.

Lewis draws on a number of influences: the freeze frames, musical interludes, photo montages and slow motion bring Scorsese to mind, the kinetic camerawork is reminiscent of Lumet at his dynamic best, and the conversational scenes using New York as a backdrop are straight out of classic Allen. But this is not the kind of directorial karaoke from which certain ‘auteurs’ of renown have made their fortunes. Lewis doesn’t use these stylistic flourishes as crutches, but implements them at appropriate moments. Guy Dufaux’s cinematography creates a distinct ambiance for each temporal shift, Claude Pare’s production design authentically replicates each period depicted, and Konyves’ screenplay is brimming with ribald humour and caustic bòn móts – ‘She subscribes to the Economist but buys Vogue off the stand’ being one of the most memorable.

Giamatti delivers a barnstorming turn as the querulous, vindictive soul who seems out of place in the modern world. He does an outstanding job of lending pathos to this most ambiguous of protagonists; a philanderer and possibly a murderer, mining the insecurities of the autodidact, his hunched, lumbering gait and pinched diction articulating Barney’s woes. Dustin Hoffman is in rare form as Barney’s father, a charming, roguish ex-cop with a darkness and hurt lurking beneath the gregarious surface: it is Hoffman’s best performance since he stole the show in ‘Wag the Dog’ (1997). Giamatti and Hoffman are a joy to watch together; neither trying to upstage the other, both secure and generous enough to accurately chart the father/son dynamic. Barney’s wives are played to perfection by Rochelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike; as his foul-mouthed, free-spirited first wife, garrulous, ambitious second wife and radiant, indulgent third wife respectively.

It would be a mistake to dismiss ‘Barney’s Version’ as a ‘Jewish film’, just as it would be to write off Spike Lee as a maker of ‘black films’: it may take place within a specific milieu, but it deals with a range of concerns that transcend cultural boundaries. ‘Barney’s Version’ is as much about platonic male love as Barney’s romantic travails: his relationship with Boogie is the most lasting and meaningful of his life, and he constantly searches for a woman who understands him on the same level. The film illustrates the futility of revenge, the most heinous form of mutually assured emotional destruction. The twelve years it took to bring ‘Barney’s Version’ to the screen were not wasted: this is a work whose quality will endure, and whose influence will only appreciate over time.

Giamatti, with the Golden Globe he won for his portrayal of Barney.

Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

23 Oct

This adaptation of J.P. Miller’s teleplay is an intriguing anomaly in the career of Blake Edwards, a director renowned for helming lightweight fare like ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, ‘The Pink Panther’ and ‘10’. Likewise, this marked something of a departure for its star, Jack Lemmon, who had carved out a niche playing lovable, befuddled everyman in the likes of ‘The Apartment’ and ‘Some Like It Hot’. ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ is an interesting film historically, marking something of a bridge between the production-line output of the old studio system and the daring, taboo-breaking new spirit that would emerge towards the end of the decade and reach its apotheosis with ‘Easy Rider’.

The film charts the courtship and marriage of Joe Clay (Lemmon) and Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick). Joe is a high-flying Public Relations man, which in reality involves little more than kowtowing to the egos of his upscale clients, whether it be procuring women or finagling flattering press coverage. Kirsten is the assistant to one of Joe’s top clients; a bookish young woman who prefers chocolate to Joe’s chosen vice. Joe eventually introduces Kirsten to the anaesthetizing joys of alcohol. Now with a child to care for, Kirsten and Joe descend into the hell of full-scale alcoholism, their hard-living lifestyles coming into conflict with their cosy domesticity.

‘Days of Wine and Roses’ is shot in downcast monochrome, Phil Lathrop’s photography noticeably darkens with the characters’ worsening circumstances, the expressionistic lighting patterns and slabs of shadow increasing as addiction’s grip tightens. Henry Mancini’s Oscar-winning score does much to articulate this slide into the depths of despair, with its doleful, jazzy tones. Edwards sticks to delicate pans and noncommittal medium shots for the most part, a decision that lends genuine significance to the few close-ups he uses – as when Kirsten’s father offers Joe a drink; his dilemma is etched all over Lemmon’s famously expressive face.

Lemmon is captivating as a world-weary cog in the machine; his impeccable comic and dramatic timing are equally in evidence here. He imbues an essentially unlovable character with much needed empathy and humanity, underscoring Joe’s misgivings about the ethical vacuum in which he operates. Kirsten’s decline is particularly heartrending, and Remick rises to the task of conveying this. She undergoes a startling physical transformation, beginning the film as a statuesque, insouciant beauty and ending it a haggard, crestfallen husk of a person. It comes as little surprise that both leads were nominated for Oscars. Though Lemmon and Remick provide the film’s core, ample support is provided by Charles Bickford as Kirsten’s redoubtable father, a man struggling to keep his daughter from following Joe down the path to self-destruction.

‘Days of Wine and Roses’ takes place at a time when America’s moral consensus was beginning to erode; when people began to question the values they’d been taught to believe in, when job security and the promise of advancement up the career ladder was no longer enough to pacify nagging doubts and frustrations. The film underlines this dysphoria. Kirsten is plagued by alarming reveries, using drink to blot out the grime she sees all around her – the world is dirty when she is sober. Jack despises the dark art of perception management, a world where integrity is an impediment to success, consumed by guilt for dragging Kirsten down with him. They are trapped in a mutually destructive union, bound by their need to seek solace in the bottle. The film’s final third occasionally falls prey to preachy moralizing in the form of Jack Klugman’s Alcoholics Anonymous leader, but any lapse into melodrama is offset by the strength of the performances.

‘Days of Wine and Roses’ is not a comic account of affable drunks or a mawkish cautionary tale – the most common approaches to the depiction of alcoholism – but an important progression in screen realism, comparing favourably to the yardstick, Billy Wilder’s ‘The Lost Weekend’. Jack Clay is up there with Harry Stoner in ‘Save the Tiger’ and Shelley Levine in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ as a seminal role in Lemmon’s legendary career.

Why aren't movie posters this good anymore?

Compulsion (1959)

26 Sep

The Leopold and Loeb case has been fertile ground for film-makers; from Hitchcock’s experimental ‘Rope’, to Tom Kalin’s turgid ‘Swoon’, to Michael Haneke’s hectoring guilt-by-association-fest ‘Funny Games’, to Rafal Zielinski’s criminally overlooked female take on the ‘thrill kill’ phenomenon ‘Fun’. But ‘Compulsion’ remains the most well-known, primarily because Nathan Leopold sued the film’s makers for defamation of character; which, ironically, only served to boost the profile of the film. ‘Compulsion’ is emblematic of Hollywood’s preoccupation with ‘message’ movies in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, the undisputed king of which being Stanley Kramer.

‘Compulsion’ tells the tale of Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) and Arthur Strauss (Bradford Dillman); two wealthy college students who see themselves as Nietzschian supermen beyond good and evil. They undertake to explore all the possibilities of human existence, a quest which culminates in the murder of a teenage boy. Sid Brookes (Martin Milner), a fellow student working part-time as a journalist, finds a pair of glasses from the crime scene that links Steiner to the murder. Strauss and Steiner prepare an alibi, which quickly unravels under the scrutiny of District Attorney Harold Horn (E.G Marshall). They are charged and face the death penalty. Enter Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles), a maverick defence attorney and vocal opponent of capital punishment who is employed by the students’ families to save them from the gallows.

Journeyman director Richard Fleischer takes a conspicuously journalistic, Kramer-esque approach; the clinical, well-lit tone and unfussy shot selection provide a workmanlike platform for the performances, despite the lifeless soundstages and choreographed location shoots. Dillman plays the affable, brazen Strauss in a manner that seems hopelessly outdated and affected, when you consider that ‘On the Waterfront’ and its fine-de-siècle ilk had been in the ascendancy for much of the ‘50s. Strauss is intended to be the antagonist, the id to Steiner’s superego, but Dillman’s portrayal is so mannered that it renders the character little more than a snide caricature. Stockwell, on the other hand, pitches it perfect as the impressionable, bewildered Steiner, marking him out as an actor attuned to the changing timbre of his craft.

Orson Welles’ had no such truck with this nascent naturalism and remained a steadfast adherent to the ’bombast’ approach to the last. His performance is that of an actor whose cinematic instincts have deserted him and is forced to fall back on showy theatrics, running roughshod over director and production – something Welles became infamous for when he deemed a project beneath his talents. Grandstanding appeals to the jury abound in the heavily codified world of courtroom dramatics, and Welles savours this opportunity to use the culmination of the trial as a shop window for his acting chops; lurching around the set and delivering a disjointed, ranting, meandering, sonorous monologue for the best part of twenty minutes.

But for all its melodrama, ‘Compulsion’ still has value when viewed in the context of the Cold War. Though set in the ‘20s, the film’s core themes resonate with the moral and philosophical sensibilities of ‘50s America – the conformist, proscriptive paranoid world of the slowly eroding moral majority. Much like Judd and Arthur’s homosexuality, the fear of communism is only ever alluded to; ‘rationalism’ and ‘secularism’ are invoked throughout as a handy euphemism for the godless faith. Judd and Arthur symbolize a world where certainty and order no longer hold sway, where nature’s innate cruelty has shaken people’s belief in a guiding force. America’s de facto class system is also addressed, albeit tentatively; the deference with which Judd and Arthur are treated when being questioned would not have been extended to suspects from less affluent backgrounds. Indeed, their interrogators refuse to believe at first that these privileged young men could be capable of such a heinous crime.

‘Compulsion’ goes as far as was permitted by the self-censorship of the industry and the squeamishness of society; but it still feels like a missed opportunity to deal with the case in an even-handed manner. Little attempt is made to explain what in fact compelled these two young men from well-to-do homes to act as they did, beyond blaming the big ideas their heads were filled with at their seat of learning. The apparent coldness of their home life is never addressed, as family life was sacrosanct in ‘50s America, an integral part of its self-perception as God’s Own Country.

The one kernel of a dangerous idea that the original case – and the film, however unintentionally – posits is that the criminal urge transcends wealth, education and breeding, a contention that strikes at the very heart of the idea that these things are tools for amelioration. Richard Murphy’s screenplay ultimately shies away from this in favour of ‘morality lessons’; pandering to the status quo and allowing the audience to go home reassured that their values have not been challenged.

Stand back, Mr Welles is about to declaim.