Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sidney Lumet - "The Machines Are Winning"

I guess this could be filed under another "DOUBLE LUMET POWER" blog-post, and it could also be filed under the RIP-TRAIN post as I'm dealing with a director and two of his films, and he's recently passed (damn, almost two weeks now, has it been that long?  Where did he go, he was just here a minute ago, maybe under the couch or kvetching about The Wiz... or something). 

At any rate, these are two films, two I've yet to see until this week, that fall under a certain heading in Lumet's work.  He's been a director who's worked in the courtoom, with police officers, in familial dramas and sometimes with larger-than-life people.  But with Fail-Safe and The Anderson Tapes they fall under the same theme, which is presented by the director on his great book Making Movies.

The theme: The Machines Are Winning.  What does this have to do with a movie about nuclear annihilation and a heist?  A lot, actually, and yet in different tones, with a couple of heavyweight actors a piece, and with some scenes that stick out tremendously in Lumet's ouvere as some of his best.

First, the serious one, and (arguably) a 'masterpiece' whatever that means:

First, to get it out the way, yes, Fail-Safe is the "serious" version of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying (and Love the Bomb).  And at the time it came out it was completely stone-faced about a subject that, to no fault of the director Sidney Lumet, was following on the heels of a fellow New York director Stanley Kubrick's bonafide masterpiece comedy.  And hey, how can you NOT laugh at the buffoonery capable of men at the top in positions of military power and in politics?  I had a vague idea that the two films might be similar before watching this one, though I had no idea until I saw the documentary included on the DVD that the writers of the Fail-Safe book were sued for plagiarizing the book Red Alert, which was used as the inspiration for 'Strangelove'.  Nothing came of it, though ultimately Fail-Safe did the first word at the box-office following so soon after the mockery.  Who could take nuclear annihilation seriously after that?

Well, apparently, deadly.  The power of Lumet's film is to make it something of a horror film, like the Ultimate one with a capital YOU.  Coming recently from seeing the fourth film in the Scream series, I understood something was off from the start, and that's because the characters didn't act like real people in a situation of dread and terror like being stalked by a (albeit self-conscious) serial killer.  We can buy horror if the people in the story are real enough to feel with, and seeing Fail-Safe reminded me that even in such a high-stakes thing such as American and Russian missles with the ability to destroy most of the known Earth by "accident" can be made real by the performances, yes, but also believing the people on screen, how they'd react and think and decide.

Billy, don't throw paper airplanes in class!
  In a strange way the film is kind of life-affirming, despite once or twice having a to-the-audience look from a character saying "No, this cannot be, cautionary tale people!" The characters, military men at the Pentagon, those also military at the war room, and the President in his bunker (even the Russians on the other end) don't want to get things to the point of total catastrophe... well, most of them anyway, there are those like the Poli-Sci professor played by Walter Matthau or the one Colonel in the war room who think that a) nuclear annihilation is an inevitability in such a circumstance how it's set-up, and b) there is no way the Russians can't NOT compromise the way they are.  One is more methodical and cool in his judgments, and the other just completely panics or clams up when given an order by the general.  Seeing them in action in their respective rooms is to see what is flawed essentially in humanity: the evil side of logic (the arguments between Matthau and General Black are some of the best scenes in the film) and the weak.

But hey, why is this film still relevant and powerful anyway?  For one thing Lumet eliminates all music from any scene, even incidental music or something that might set the mood at the start like in Dog Day Afternoon.  If you're going to present something as happening in a kind of 'reality' (in semi-quotes since there is that repetitive stock-footage shot of the jet flying and firing repeatedly), why have something that will heighten mood?  Kubrick's use of music in Strangelove was more playful and part of the mocking manner with a March to War tone put to it that was just perfect (and of course "We'll Meet Again" a sick joke that makes you chuckle AND sick to your stomach, ah Kubrick the rapscallion).  Lumet won't have any of that, and in a sense the dialog is all there is, and those faces of men who increasingly, scene after scene, get tenser, a little sweatier, faces paler and eyes tenser.

Henry Fonda's Ghost after seeing his son Peter in Ghost Rider

The cinematographer doesn't make things any less expressive, however.  It's not a super-showy picture, but it is in the same way that 12 Angry Men was, also a film with Henry Fonda as the sanest man in the room (or at least the one speaking with the most unabashed honesty possible and control) and in rooms principally.  Though not always just on faces, which are given quite a good number of wonderful pans and dollies around their heads, and with lighting that makes it dark and brooding almost like a Nuclear-Noir of sorts, but on the giant map on the wall.  I loved seeing how the camera would move in on a moment, or how it would cut from one to another and then pull back from that map to show the room.  How characters are placed in a frame matters so much for Lumet too, and how their faces fill up a frame, how Fonda and his translator (a wonderful actor at his side by the way) move relatively little, save perhaps for Fonda's propensity to be dramatic with his fingers.

Fail-Safe brings up a lot of captivating thought and discussion on its own terms about the inherent danger of a doomsday scenario.  But it's also a nail-biter, and that is what makes it so essential as a piece of cinema and entertainment.  Time can pass by and perhaps maybe one day there won't be any nuclear bombs (might be silly, though a documentary like Countdown to Zero takes it seriously).  But the essential problem of the film stays really firm even as Presidents may change or poli-sci professors like Groeteschele gain crazy momentum or drift away: how can we really be sure of what goes on if our machines can malfunction?  In that sense the film may even have a link to Kubrick's other seminal 1960's film 2001, where a computer malfunctions at the danger of a space mission.  Yet Lumet and his writers (or the writers of the book at any rate) make it more frightening and palpable by making it about how they break down in subtle ways, little cracks that can happen and can only get worse from there.  It's not necessarily about them being "smarter", but anything out of control can make suspense, and this film is nothing but a spectacular suspense film first, a haunting Cold-War parable second.

Oh, and it has a really bizarre dream scene at the start too involving a matador and a guy becoming paralyzed with fear.  I could analyze that to death, but I'll leave it to you to decide what that's all about.  What I'll leave off on before the next film is the ending, which takes 10 New York snapshots on the streets in quick succession as the countdown happens, and then cuts back to each for a quick zoom in.  Sometimes life just... freezes up I guess against something that inconceivable.

But anyway, back to more practical things, like... a Heist!

And now for a whole other machine: surveillance.  Lots of it.  It's basically the big Running Gag(TM) of The Anderson Tapes, where Sean Connery plays the man in the title, Duke Anderson, an ex-con who plans a robbery of, well, the building his girlfriend (Dyan Cannon) lives in.  He assembles one of those motley crews- Martin Balsam as a gay antiques dealer and Christopher Walken in his screen debut(!) among the few of them- and plots to do it on Labor Day when only the people who may live in the apartments will be there and most people will be out of town so there won't be many people on the streets.

But, of course, there's a catch.  A few of them, actually, as there is surveillance going on, but not really to Anderson's knowledge.  I say 'not really' as he knows but doesn't give a shit, and anyway the surveillance people are really wire-tapping each other.  The big joke and fun with the movie- though it doesn't really get that way till near the very end- is just how much the stakes are against Anderson and his crew just based on all of the wire taps and tapes going on.  In other words, everyone knows what everyone's doing, just not the exact date and time of some of the events (such as when Anderson will rob the building).  And it isn't like cops that are tapping things, otherwise there wouldn't be much of a heist.  It's other mobbed up people and the like.  Richard Nixon might be proud of their work.

And already, at the start of his career, Walken has his 'Walken-Face' nailed.

I enjoyed how the characters came together as they did, and especially the interactions between a super-cool Connery and cooler (or just out-of-it in his way) Walken on screen, like when he first approaches "The Kid" (as he's credited) to do the heist and a long-winded explanation comes from Anderson about insurance and how people who are robbed should be happy cause of the experience and getting the insurance.  There's a little side drama that happens midway through the movie with Connery and Dyan Cannon's character I didn't care for, or rather I just kinda tuned out of it.  Lumet is clever with his camera always, getting fine close-ups of the actors and places, and he deals with sound very well too, as he should since it's a movie set in the world of surveillance.

The theme that Lumet's working with again- "The Machines Are Winning"- becomes clearer during the heist at a crucial point.  It's a big set-piece really, taking up about the full second half of the running time, as Anderson and his crew go through as many apartments as they can, and the thing that does them in is a sickly asthmatic kid (with the air conditioner and everything, who does he think he is, Martin Scorsese?), who when finally left alone after the robbers crack his safe for coins rolls in his wheelchair to a hidden CB radio(!) and contacts anyone who can listen in.  No matter how tightly run an operation Anderson may have, and albeit with a few snags here and there during it (like a violent crew member who has to get the smack down from Anderson to stop hassling the residents), the machine and access to it is their undoing.  Somewhat, I should say (not to much a spoiler is it? the thing with the kid was on the back of the video box so if they can spoil it why not me, but I digress).

Now for those "missing" profits from The Avengers!

It's a perfectly good 1970's heist movie- emphasis on 'good' and 70's with that Quincy Jones soundtrack that might have influenced whoever scored Soderbergh's Ocean movies- with a solid cast and some good hard-boiled dialog.  Not all of it feels that 'new' really, and it really gets cooking best once the heist takes off, but it's a funny one, one of the funniest alongside the likes of Big Deal on Madonna Street.  Lumet keeps the pace hard and tight, and as the forces-that-be come down upon the crew the suspense is crackling but stull very funny in some of its twists and the reactions from the residents.  Lumet does one other interesting thing via Frak (Dog Day Afternoon) Pierson's script, which is to periodically cut from a heist moment with a building resident to the aftermath when the cops are interviewing such and such a person.  It gives the storytelling an interesting twist as we know what may be coming with them but with the robbers, who knows. 

Overall, a sharp, underrated (if not great) number that feels like a looser and more entertaining romp through a similar theme that Lumet worked with several years before.  Bottom line: Technology = Damn it!

1 comment:

  1. hey jack
    i like the way you are a big fan of sidney lumet sir.i had not watched both of the movies but now i want to see them.