The Godfather

A minor observation on the influence of Little Caesar on ‘The Godfather’ films.

Link Posted on Updated on

We know that The Godfather films draw knowledgeably and extensively on classic 30s gangster films for their structures and iconography. But watching Little Caesar recently I was struck by how closely and directly the influence of Little Caesar can be seen in  The Godfather  and The Godfather II. Here are but two examples:

On the left, the killing of Tony Passa in the Church Steps in Little Caesar and on the right the finale of killing during the baptism scene in The Godfather.

The funeral sequence in Little Caesar on the left closely resembles the festival of San Rocco scene in The Godfather: Part II where Vito Corleone plans to murder Don Fanucci.

 

José Arroyo

A Few Observations and Some Questions on Scarface (Howard Hawks, USA, 1932)

Link Posted on Updated on

I’d not seen Hawks’s Scarface for several decades and had forgotten the title cards that are placed between the opening credits and the beginning of the drama proper (and which you can see below). They rather shocked me. Has any government of the day and its citizenry ever been held to account for a social ill by a popular film as clearly and strongly as Scarface does? If so, I don’t remember it. And why don’t contemporary films do the same? Are media companies now run by Tony Camontes who have already made the world theirs?

The insolence with which Paul Muni as Tony Camonte lights his match on the policeman’s badge is more familiar to us today but it still succeeds in garnering the desired effect (see below).

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 19.58.08.png

The script is a marvel: Complex relationships, humour, a stance on society, a critique of capitalism, an attitude to crime, a complex interviewing of class and ethnicity, all are woven into a classic rise and fall structure in which everything has its place, and the place of everything is tight and has to move fast. It’s no surprise that the credits feature Ben Hetch, John Lee Mahin, W. R. Burnett and Seton I. Miller, all legendary writers with long careers in this type of material.

There are aspects of the film that still raise an eyebrow. I was surprised this time around at the overtness of the incestuous desire: Tony Camonte’s (Paul Muni) desire for his sister Cesca (Anne Dvorak), and her acknowledgment of it is expressed clearly at the beginning when she receives it with shock and disgust. Later, after he’s killed the man she married on the morning after their wedding, she flees from him. But she can’t bring herself to kill him and at the end there’s an acceptance ‘I am you and your are me.’ she says.

I was surprised as well at how beautifully lit the film is and how ingeniously the  lighting is deployed. The first murder that we are shown Tony commit, we see him do it as a shadow through a screen (see fig A, below); the St. Valentine’s-type massacre we see later in the film is also rendered in shadows, this time on a wall (see fig B, below). The effect is poetic if brutal.

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 19.57.39.png
Our first half-sight of Tony
Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 20.03.02.png
St. Valentine’s type massacre

But I want to here note simply the beauty of the atmospheric and very expressive uses of light and the camerawork that captured it, credited to Lee Garmes and L. W. O’Connell. See for example how Tom Gaffney (Boris Karloff) is lit in his hideout below (fig C) or how Karen Morley is lit as Poppy when she decides to fully embrace the dark side and opt for Tony (fig D). Its very beautiful.

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 20.04.30.png
LIghting Gaffney in his hideout
Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 20.08.18.png
Karen Morley lit to enter the dark side and opt for Tony

I had not remembered how modernity itself seems to be a theme in the film. I was first struck by this with the shot in which Cesca is upstairs eyeing Guino (George Raft) flicking his coin on the street and noticed that the time the film was set in and shot was still a time in which horses and buggies shared the street with cars (see fig E). The film depicts a world that is new and changing: it’s significant that the protagonist is an immigrant. The world is literally new to him, with codes (in dress, style, taste) that he continuously misreads; a world full of opportunity for those who dare, and full of new and marvellous tools with which to destroy the other and take over, as for example the moment when Tony discovers that there are now such things as automatic machine guns so that even murder can now be accelerated(see below — fig F), a moment of realisation that with such tools at his disposal the world really can be his.

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 19.59.37.png
A world where horse-and-buggy shares space with the car
Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 20.02.22.png
Tony and Guino discover the automatic machine gun, which makes him certain he can take over everything.

Speed and the reduction of time in which various spaces can be crossed also embody modernity in the film. See for example, the montage below, so typical of Thirties American cinema and here showing gang warfare on a daily basis and through the months. It’s now a cliché of the period but still feels exhilarating to watch.

Seeing Scarface again also highlighted Hawks’ skill as a director. See, for example, the scene below. Tony has heard from his mom that his sister Cesca has moved out and is living with a man like a common trollop. We know she’s madly in love with Guino (George Raft). We’ve seen her dance a very suggestive Charleston to him in the nightclub (see a close-up of it below).Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 20.06.02.png

She’s at the piano playing him a song when the bell rings. Guino goes to answer it, eyes his gun but what the hell it’s his wedding day. He flips the coin — a gesture Raft would forever be associated with —  and opens the door. Then note how Tony looks through Guino, eyes his sister, she screams, we hear the gunshot, and cut to  Guino’s chest presumably receiving the bullet mid coin-flip, before another cut to a two-shot in which Guino eyes Tony, shakes his head as if to say ‘you got it wrong’ and collapses out of the lower part of the frame.   Hawks has shifted the focus from Tony murdering his best friend, a dramatic highlight in any film, to the relationship between brother and sister through the way the murder is staged and cut with imaginative uses of composition, framing, staging and point-of-view. The direction still feels fresh. It’s amazingly fast as well, married and widowed in twenty-four hours. In thirties cinema, things move fast (and it’s just as well with performances like George Raft’s).

I should probably end with a note on performances. Muni is unquestionably a ham, but I find him a most effective one here. He overdoes it, lays on the ethnicity, the gestures, so thick that you see an actor thinking through what he’s doing at every step; yet the result is easily understood and vivid. In the extras for De Palma’s 80s remake, Al Pacino talks about how he found Muni’s performance ‘astounding and inspiring and I thought after that I just wanted to imitate him. I wanted to do something. I was inspired by that performance’. Ann Dvorak is also very vibrant and very beautiful though not always good; and Hawks gets good characterisations out of those who can act (Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, Boris Karloff). Those who can’t, like Raft, he gives amusing business to.

It was thrilling to see again.

 

Questions:

Is the hospital scene in The Godfather a reply to the hospital scene in Scarface: in the former Don Corleone is saved; in this one, he isn’t, and the gangsters have the insolence to throw in the flowers after the bullets.

Was Boris Karloff on Coppola’s mid when he cast Abe Vigoda, the former in The Godfather looks like an aged version of the latter in Scarface. 

José Arroyo

Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan (Henri Verneuil, France/USA, 1969)

Image Posted on Updated on

 

IMG_8063

 

I was amused to see that in the opening menu of the French DVD for Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan, we’re invited to click on ‘Lecture du film’, instead of ‘Main Film’ or merely ‘Film’, thus inviting us to read, or engage in a reading. Of course, viewing always involves making sense of things, but ‘a reading’ also implies that there are depths, interpretations that need to be unearthed, complexities that need to be unravelled.

I found it rather funny because all of the pleasures that Le clan des Siciliens offers are shallow ones, which is not to say that they are not worth experiencing, or that they are so shallow as to not constitute pleasure at all.  Indeed the film offers many pleasures, all superficial, and each a  joy, beginning with the stars:  The publicity for Le clan des Siciliens advertised ‘Ensembles les trois grands du cinéma français’, ‘pour la première fois réunis à l’écran/ ‘French cinema’s three greats, together onscreen for the first time,’ a slogan which must have at least annoyed Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo and all the other French male stars who weren’t Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Lino Ventura.

Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan is very rewarding to look at as a genre piece; it is to a degree inspired by the jewellery heist genre, and the modish way of filming it, that made The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, USA, 1968) such a big hit the year previously. It also contains the hijacking of of an airplane that would feature so prominently in the Airport films and help turn them into some of the biggest blockbuster hits of the 70s. The film also foreshadows the interest in the Mafia that would  find such extraordinary expression in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films in the years to follow. And last but not least, in France it would revive popular interest in the ‘polar‘, the French crime thriller, an interest that has yet to wane.

The plot revolves around Roger Sartet (Alain Delon), a lifelong thief who Commissaire Le Goff (Lino Ventura) has finally brought to justice after many years. Sartet gets indicted but on his way to jail, he manages to escape the armoured and guarded vehicle transporting him there with the help of Vittorio Manalese (Jean Gabin), the head of a Sicilian clan with international connections operating from Paris. Manalese is just about to retire to his land in Sicily when Sartet comes to him with the perfect crime. Sex, double-crossings, money, jewels and the survival of the family itself will be at stake; all with Le Goff chasing Sartet’s tail and finding in the Manalese clan much more than even he bargained for. But though the plot is serviceable, it’s not what makes Le clan Sicilien such an exhilirating, if superficial watch. Here are some illustrations of the aspects of the film I loved most:

 

a) A mise-en-scène of various kinds of stardom, carefully deployed, and designed to be put to meaningful use, visually, narratively, and taking into account audience expectations to maximise the pleasures on offer.

b) Every shot is interesting to look at (far left), expressively lit (middle) and artfully composed (far right)

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 13.27.48.png

c)  The shots, pretty, artful and beautifully lit as they are, are also composed to allow for plot and narration. Here, for example, director Verneuil and cinematographer Decaë — one of the very greatest —  create a composition that allows for the whole Sicilian clan to be seen. You see the grandmother, off-screen but relflected in the mirror knitting in the upper left hand corner, his children and son-in-law at table discussing the heist, Gabin centre and the recipient of all light, engrossed in the tv, a source of light, that will spur his grandchild, seen coming through the door-way with his mother, to reveal something he saw that will transform the narrative, that will twist the preceding events into the tailspin that will follow to the end. Significantly, the only one in the room but not onscreen will be the source of the trouble that will follow, the cause of the decimation of this ‘happy family’. It’s the work of at least very highly-skilled craftsmen

 

d) The kind of film that makes you want to find out where one can buy the accessories

 

 

e) The security system is what’s being discussed, the grand jewellery, by some of the greatest design houses of the century — Chaumet, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and others —  is what’s being shown

 

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 13.38.54.png

f) A hint of the perverse within the clan, at least homophile if not homosexual

g) a truly great score by Ennio Morricone. I’ve put extracts below with and without images so you can hear the sound itself, and how dialogue is then interwoven with it. But later also the sound accompanied by images so you can see how expressively put together it is. Who cares that Gabin is the least convincing Sicilian ever? He’s clearly head of the food chain in every other department, rightly head of the clan, and the flute and that ‘Boing Boing’ sound — so distinctive but one I can’t name the source of — will so memorably accompany, announce and dramatise his fate and that of the other protagonists.

– sound

Lino and Gabin filming the last scene with Verneuil

– what Verneuil and Decae manage to achieve with the help of Gabin, Ventura and the other filmmakers in terms of sound and image

Le clan des Siciliens was a blockbuster success, with 4.8 million spectators in France alone. The film probably benefitted from the publicity generated by Alain Delon being involved in the Marković affair, where Delon was questioned for the murder of his bodyguard, Stevan Marković. As you can see in the wiki page for it, it’s a scandal that implicated the highest levels of government, not only murder but also a soupçon of sex, and threats that nude pictures of the wife of the future president of the republic would be exposed. Alain Delon was often suspected of having connections with the Corsican mafia, and that extra-textual knowledge, along with the recent scandal, undoubtedly helped make Delon believable as a mafioso. He’s a pleasure to look at but it is Lino Ventura and Gabin (even with his accent) that give the performances worth watching. They, the set-pieces and the way the film looks and move are what made the film a blockbuster hit and continue to be the source of the many pleasures the film offers, shallow as they might be.

PS

 

In Les mystères Delon Bernard Violet writes of how the hijack scene on the plain is considered a great moment in film history/ un grand moment du cinéma; and how Delon himself is described as ‘secret, élegant, doué, consciencieux, mûrissant’/ secretive, elegant, talented, conscientious, maturing’/; grave, inquiet, inquiétant, volontaire, beau’/ serious, troubled, troubling, willing, handsome’; ‘félin, secret, inquiet, lucide, désenchanté’/ feline, secretive, troubled, lucid, disenchanted’; séduisant, élégant, mystérieux, audacieux, maître de soi/ seductive, elegant, mysterious, audacious, master of himself’ 1. Not bad.

 

José Arroyo

 

All qyotes from Bernard Violet, Les mystères Delon, Paris: Flammarion, 2000, pp. 288-289

The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1972)

Posted on Updated on

the Godfather

It was a joy to rediscover this. I was too young to see it when it came out, though I remember the excitement in grade school when they broadcast the first and second film knitted together with additional footage and, if I remember correctly, in chronological order, as a television miniseries. The opening, the closing, the baptism, the killing in the restaurant: all are great and it’s hard to fault the film. It has a beautiful gravitas and is to me a clear example of  lean, classic, filmmaking. It is often described as operatic, and of course in a certain sense it is, but very sparse in comparison to the current bombast. With Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton.

José Arroyo

The Iceman (Ariel Vromen, USA, 2012)

Posted on Updated on

the-iceman-michael-shannon_0-670x349

Littered with spoilers so do not read if you don’t want to know the ending.

in a lonely place

From the first ten minutes of The Iceman we know that Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is ‘in a lonely place’, that he’s got ‘a touch of evil, that he’s got ‘no way out’: that he’s ‘D.O.A.’ Perhaps only in the period of post-war noir has American cinema been bleaker or better than it is at the moment: Blue Valentine (2010), Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011), Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011), Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012), The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012), The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) , Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik 2012), Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012), Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012), to name but a few examples. Dystopian views now are not just limited to genres like science-fiction or horror but seem to have seeped right to the centre of the culture. However, although other films might have as bleak an outlook, none has a darker look than The Iceman.

 

 

Our Cultural Past as Mythos of a Fictional World

 

            The film spans the period of the early 60s to the early 80s but most of the action takes place in the 70s in Hoboken, New Jersey, where Frank Sinatra was born, and in the various boroughs of New York where he started his career. Atlantic City, in the middle of getting a gambling license that will enable it to try to compete with Vegas, is another Sinatra association and buying a condo there is Kuklinski’s dream. The film references the Gambinos, the Calleys, the Lucchese and other legendary Mafia families Sinatra’s name was often linked to. The places where Kuklinski lives and kills are ones John Travolta’s Tony Manero might have walked through on his way to the disco at this time, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Manero working for DeMeo (Ray Liotta), the gangster who’s got Kuklinski on hitman retainer,  or even in porn if his dancing career in Manhattan had fizzled out.

Saturday-Night-Fever_John-Travolta_red-shirt-leather-jacket-top

The world of The Iceman is like the underbelly of Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, USA, 1977), ethnic working men strutting in platform shoes, tight high-wasted flared trousers over printed shirts with pointy collars, on the fringes of society and trying to get out of their situation in different ways in the same streets and to a similar disco beat. The Iceman makes much of Kuklinki being of Polish origin and its mix of Poles, Irish, Dutch, Italian, and Jewish characters, probably because it’s an accurate historical reflection, but perhaps also because it enables the picture to makes claims about a world and not just one community within it (the way it seems in other mafia films and TV shows from The Godfather films to The Sopranos). The Iceman is telling the story of an individual and one within a very particular context but it’s also operating within and making use of a very potent American mythos – that of the urban gangster — and making use and a particular formal vernacular — that of film noir. I’ll return to the genre and cultural tradition through which the Iceman tell us its story later. But let’s first look at the beginning.

no-way-out-rand1

Beginning Thesis:

‘Mr. Kuklinski, do you have any regrets for the things you’ve done?’ asks a nameless voice over a tight close-up of Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski, famed mafia hitman. We are shown Shannon’s head slightly to the side, half-hidden in darkness; a still, strong, tightly-coiled face with calm calculating eyes; a rough grit-and-granite face, all angles that simultaneously illuminate and enshadow. It’s a perfect question to start the narrative. The diegetic sound has already indicated he’s in jail, so what has he done? And what’s to regret? That play of light and shadow on the sharp planes of Shannon’s face constitutes an ideal image with which to start giving shape to Kuklinski and his world. The Iceman will return to the same scene at its end, when Kuklinski will give us his answer and the film its final nudge to the audience’s judgment of Kuklinski as a person and of Shannon as an actor.

The film then cuts to April 29, 1964 via a high wide shot of a dark urban setting at night; lampposts shine brightly but can barely pierce the darkness. We’re then shown the outside of a cheap diner in a dark street. As we go inside, however, the lens seems to soften and makes the people we see inside seem young, attractive, vulnerable. When I first saw Shannon in Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols, USA, 2007), his lanky frame, soft and measured way of speaking, his ability to be emotionally transparent and unquestionably masculine, reminded me of Henry Fonda. He brings a little of that to this scene: Richie, for that’s what Deborah (Winona Ryder), his date, calls Kuklinski, is soft-spoken, awkward, bashful. ‘You ask a girl for coffee, you should have something to say,’ she tells him.

When Kuklinski looks at Deborah, and this is a testament to Shannon’s achievement as an actor in this part, his face seems to melt and soften as if from metal to flesh. He’s got a neatly combed side-part and wears a mod polo with geometric white piping on the collar. He’s been after her a long time and wants to impress her but can barely get a word out. She’s also neatly dressed; hair bouffed up as was the style then, but not extravagantly so; she wears a neat blouse with a lacey collar — she’s a respectable girl. He likes that kind of good girl. Kuklinski finally finally mumbles that she reminds him of Natalie Wood, only prettier; she ‘aw shucks’ the compliment but she likes it; and as Natalie Wood’s Judy in Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1955) most certainly would, Deborah gets a little thrill from the kind of guy that’s got a grim reaper tattooed between thumb and forefinger. He offers a toast but it’s with water, and she pulls back, saying toasting with water is bad luck. ‘I don’t believe in bad luck,’ he tells her. In fact he doesn’t believe in anything except her.

Just as her aunt arrives to pick her up, he asks Deborah whether he can see her again and she says yes and pecks him quickly on the cheek, even if her aunt is looking: they’re in love. The film is so precise in telling us day, month, and year because it’s the day that changed Kuklinski’s life, brought meaning to it: Deborah’s love, and later that of his children, along with his own love for them, will enable him to latch onto whatever humanity he has left to him.

Second Scene: Anti-Thesis

The second scene shows us Kuklinski playing pool with his buddies. Here it’s all elegant, extreme wide-angle shots of frames within frames within frames, in light browns and muddy yellows. Kuklinski and his buddies hustle a guy who refuses to pay. Kuklinski’s cold stare makes him change his mind but the guy doesn’t know when to shut it and he can’t resist a final insult before leaving, one involving Deborah. In The Iceman, when someone pushes Kuklinsi to the point of no return, his face becomes still and hard. In this case, the first instance we see it, the camera moves in to one of the great images in this film, a key one, in another tight close-up. Kuklinski’s shown to us slightly from below, his face turns to his right, digesting what the fool’s just said, then to his left as he makes a decision. As he does so, his face and the camera come to a stop, the face lit so that exactly half of it is in darkness. The image could be that of Two-Face in the Batman comics with darkness replaces the scarring. Kuklinski’s scars, as we will soon find out, are all internal but this sense of being split into darkness and light in a consciousness that can barely contain that polarity and is always threatening to explode because of it is very important in the film.

I’ve taken some time over the first two scenes of the film not only because they’re crucial in the depiction of the fictional world we will be seeing and in introducing us to the main character but because they also set out the structure of the film and its main themes. First we get the questions. Then we get nice Richie in love followed by the ‘rise’ of Killer Kuklinski. This idea of the double or, perhaps better put, the dark half of a split whole is a structuring idea in the film. It not only enables the type of story already familiar to us from The Sopranos (David Chase, HBO, USA, 1999-2007), the Mafia hit man who’s leading a double-life as a happy family man in the suburbs, but goes deeper into more existential questions: Is evil inherited, is it shaped, why bother to be good at all in a world without God?

‘You gotta feel something for somebody’

When Richie first meets Deborah he tells her that his job is dubbing movies  (as in the making of copies rather than the lending of his voice) for Disney but really it’s dubbing porn for the mob. One day when they come to collect and he doesn’t have them ready (they have the wrong date), they rough him up. Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) is so impressed by Kuklinski’s cool, even with a gun on his face, that he puts him to a test. A few days later, Roy takes him for a ride, makes his sidekick Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer) give a homeless person some money, then points a gun to Kulinski.  ‘Look at that fucking guy, he’s cool as ice’ he tells Josh. Then turning to Kuklinski, ‘you gotta feel something for somebody’. ‘I’ve got a wife and children’. With that Demeo puts the gun away and offers him a deal: if he can kill the homeless man they’ve just given change to, he’s got a job working exclusively for him.

The moment when Kuklinski kills the helpless hobo is an early turning point in the film, one that propels the rest of the narrative until another turning point, on which more later. At this moment, however, the darkness enshrouds the image and half of Kuklinski becomes what the film tells us he might always have been, the ruthless unfeeling hit-man, steeped in a darkness so deep that the screen fades to black. This is then followed by an exciting montage –  thrilling in its editing, jolting in its content — of his hits in various New York/ New Jersey locations overlooking the Hudson and/or the Manhattan skyline. A leap into the dark, an embrace of it, can quicken the pulse and carry its own excitement

 

A Visual Relationship to Noir

the-french-connection

The film looks like a combination of The French Connection (William Friedkin, USA, 1972) and a television documentary: the image is thin and underexposed; sometimes hand-held, sometimes with elegantly composed images, always with a loose feel that foregrounds character against lots of black, as if darkness is oozing into Kuklinski’s world and threatening to swamp it. The hand-held camera is usually used during a hit; the steadier but usually still-mobile shots characteristically showing Kuklinski with his family. Light levels are designed to communicate as well, darkness alternating with light but even the light within the home getting thinner and darker as the film progresses. There are moments where a scene fades completely to black (the murder of the homeless person for example); other moments were the characters turn and become two-dimensional, hard silhouettes momentarily disembodies of their humanity like in that moment in Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946, USA) where Ballen George Macready) subtly threatens Johnny (Glenn Ford). The Iceman is a tour de force of expressive cinematography (by Bobby Bukowski).

Screen Shot 2013-06-12 at 20.08.52

Doubling, Halves, Structural Opposites

Ideas of doubling, of complementary halves, of equal but opposites seem to structure almost every aspect of The Iceman, from minor points to themes to structuring elements. For example, De Meo likes to meet at The Gemini Club; Deborah to Kuklinski is his better half and saving grace; the film asks us to compare Kuklinski to his brother Joey (Stephen Dorff) in Kuklinski’s favour (he’s not sadistic and doesn’t accept contracts on women and children) and the same later on, when Demeo puts a momentary halt on business and Kuklinski has to team up with a scarier, more brutal and sadistic hitman , Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), from whose practice of freezing bodies so police can’t trace the time of death Kuklinski is misnamed ‘The Iceman’. Kuklinski believes he’s better than them, more moral.

The film’s point-of-view and the spectator’s understanding are not always the same as Kuklinki’s. Winona Ryder’s sideways glances, and her hiss at him when their daughter gets run over, hints at her knowing more about what her husband does for a living than she lets on; that her ignorance is as much a feign as his currency dealings. Also, his brother is right when he says Kuklinski will end up right there in Trenton State Prison with him. Lastly, Mr. Freezy might be more sadistic than Kuklinski but Kuklinski has no problem adopting his methods when his condo in Atlantic City’s at stake.

From the moment that Kuklinski starts working for DeMeo until the film’s other turning point, when he’s hired to kill Marty Freeman (James Franco) but leaves loose end, we see first an exciting montage — thrilling in its editing, jolting in its content — of his hits in various New York/ New Jersey locations overlooking the Hudson and/or the Manhattan skyline; after this, such hits are alternated with a happy home sequences of suburban family life in Jersey, as if the dual sides of his nature are perfectly  balanced. He seems to be a happy commuter Dad (though I’m sure some of his hits must have taken place closer to home). But it’s interesting that the film’s second turning point, the beginning of his descent conjoins two ideas, both pertinent to American culture now, but not usually brought together: that of a loss of faith and that of a loss of job.

The Second Turning Point and Descent

Kuklinski, by his own terms, leads a balanced life; he manages to alternate the happy suburban home life and the urban killing very successfully until the film’s other important turning point. Plot-wise the context for it is that Josh Rosenthal, the local capo’s best friend and right hand man, has not only been waving Demeo’s name around without authority and at some risk, but has actually just gone and robbed large amounts of cocaine from two Hispanic dealers. However, those he thought were merely lowly Spics end up being connected to one of the ‘families’ and thus their death requires extracting traditional restitution from DeMeo: the body of the person that did it in a bag. Marty Freeman (James Franco) has been blabbing about that person maybe being Rosenthal. Earlier in the film, when Demeo caught wind that Rosenthal was using his name he told him: ‘You and I have a history together. It means something to me’. Because of that, Demeo, in order to protect Rosenthal and himself, puts out a hit on Freeman; and to make sure it gets done, and without Kuklinski’s knowledge, he puts another hitman on the case, Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans).

Thematically, the turning point is set-up by a scene where Richie and Deborah are spending family time with their children. They’re in the bedroom, the television news is showing coverage of the Vietnam War, and Kuklinski’s eldest girl says that, according to one of the nun’s at school, it’s God’s will for people die in Vietnam. The family has a discussion about this with Deborah saying that God is so busy that he can’t take care of everyone and thus the family has to look after each other. But Kuklinski was an altar boy; ideas of Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell, and the existence of God are what he was raised with. When he goes to kill Marty Freeman and Marty begs for his life, Kuklinski makes him an offer, he’ll give him thirty minutes to pray and if God stops him, he’ll spare his life and take the consequences.

One of the wonderful things about American cinema at the moment is that we see actors’ hunger to perform in a way that we haven’t seen for a long time. They’re taking risky roles in small films, seemingly for the love of it. Here we get the opportunity to see an unrecognizable David Schwimmer as Rosenthal (the audience does giggle when they finally recognize him but only briefly. He’s superb); Chris Pines looking almost unattractive but more manly and dangerous than I’ve ever seen him on screen as Mr. Freezy; a magnificent Stephen Dorff, also completely unrecognizable and truly creepy, slimy, dangerous – I’ve loved him more in other films such as Somewhere   (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2010) but I don’t remember him ever being better. We also get to see Robert Davi, whose very face is as Demeo tells him, an association with bad news, a reason he’s now been a joy to filmgoers for decades; and of course Ray Liotta, who must have recently hired the best script-reader in Hollywood because after years of working in dross, in the last year alone he’s appeared in Killing Them Softly and The Place Beyond the Pines, which is to say the very best of current American cinema. And not least, a much desired return of the glorious Winona Ryder to the screen in a leading role. One just sighs with pleasure at the sight of her; and she’s very good here – there’s a core of steel under that lace collar. But the greatest scene in the movie is almost ruined by James Franco.

Detour into Franco

James-Franco-in-The-Iceman-2013-Movie-Image

I love James Franco and think he’s been unjustly criticized for interests that should in fact be praised: an interest in art in general first; then for actually writing, painting, performing, directing; then for wanting to extend himself as an actor in a variety of parts. I loved him in Oz, The Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, USA, 2012) and thought nobody else could have captured the shabby, kind-of-ladies man but too honest and goofy to be a lady-killer, gauche, sweet not-innocent Oz; the loveable, sexy but not dangerously so, two-bit conman: He’s just perfect in that role. But he’s not here. His performance as Marty is lazy, as if he’s just arrived from something more important on his way to something more important still, plopped himself on his knees and told Ariel Vromen to hurry up and get on with it.

This, in the most important scene in the film and playing with and against Michael Shannon, whose performance here must stake a claim to his being one of the very finest actors working in American cinema today. Star or not, if Franco, can’t deliver, particularly in a small but crucial role such as this one, he should have been re-cast; and I hold it against the production that such a crucial role should end up so amorphous and lifeless on screen. As if, instead of Rod Steiger, it was the winner of some hick high-school acting contest that ended up opposite Brando in the ‘I could have been a contender’ scene in On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, USA, 1954).

Existential Kuklinski

Kuklinki’s a walking existential question. Like Camus’ Merseault in The Stranger  (1942) he feels no connection to others, but he doesn’t particularly seek meaning, though his family gives him that. Yet in his offer of mercy to Marty he’s pushing his daughter’s question, ‘why does God let innocent people die?’ further: Does God exist at all? Whilst Franco’s busy being an inert blob, Shannon, filmed from below, like Satan himself challenging God, urges him to pray. ‘Go ahead’ he says quietly, ‘Our father….’. ‘I’m not feeling nothing,’ he warns Marty, ‘nothing at all’. ‘Pray harder’. ‘Your last chance,’ he warns .

Jean Paul-Sartre dramatized alienation in works like Nausea (1938)and more systematically explored the question of Being in a world without God in works of philosophy like Being and Nothingness (1943). But films, even not quite great ones like The Iceman, sometimes offer moments of better emotional understanding of such existential questions, of understanding and feeling, even if only briefly,  the void that opens up in the moment that Kuklinski tells Marty, ‘I think God’s busy’ and offs him.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote, ‘“I must be without remorse or regrets as I am without excuse; for from the instant of my upsurge into being, I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help.’ Arguably, Kuklinski has known this from the very beginning.  But it is from this moment that his sense of responsibility for his family supersedes, erases, justifies, a loss of taking responsibility for his own actions; it’s the moment where he stops to shape his world and it starts to shape him.

From then on, it’s a descent into the same place we first met his brother both physically and emotionally, though Kuklinki is perhaps more aware of this, and will feel it more acutely. First, Richie loses his job, and the loss of his job, leads to a lack of self-worth and a loss of status in the home. To recover some of that, he becomes ‘The Iceman’. But the stresses of doing this type of work, then means he loses his family (the one thing he regrets) when they start seeing him as Jekyll and Hyde figure (which he’s never been in his own mind).  Finally we’re made aware of the full extent of loss of self when his square face turns almost to the camera at the end to assert that hurting his family is the only thing he regrets.

150px-EvidenceOfThingsNotSeen

It seems that recently I’ve seen a whole series of films about men in America (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, Killing them Softly) where the loss of a job is tied to crime, or the job is crime. What types of ways men are allowed to perform a  particular type of masculinity is tied to their having a job or not, to them being criminalized or not and when that happens. There’s a racial and ethnic dimension to this as well that The Iceman hints at through its ethic mix but doesn’t quite explore. James Baldwin has a wonderful passage in The Evidence of Things Not Seen where he quotes a black spiritual that goes ‘When a woman gets the blues Lord, she bows her head and cries/ When a man gets the blues lord, he takes the train and rides.’ But Baldwin reminds us that we should ask ‘Why does the black man take the train and ride, why does he flee from his responsibilities’. Baldwin’s answer is that America posits normative and idealised ways of being men in America and then doesn’t allow Black Men inhabit those norms or ideals, thus the ‘take the train and ride’. I think these films are raising very similar questions today. What is an ideal way of being a man in America today and does a normal working joe have to kill someone in order to be that guy.

The Iceman is not a great film but it’s a serious and satisfying one, with Shannon’s performance sure to become legendary. It has  a beautiful use of light and shadows from cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, and memorable dialogue. Immediately after I saw it, my view was that Shannon was superb but the film itself no great shakes. I still think that to a degree; but it’s a rare film that inspires me to write at this length, rarer still in a film I don’t particularly like. It’s a film that but for the actors, and that of course is the biggest but, one can’t divorce them from the film, but if one could, The Iceman is almost more interesting to think about than to see. Maybe further viewings will bring out yet more. It’s a film to ponder, and in thinking about Shannon, to ponder with awe.

José Arroyo