Close Encounter of The Third Kind (1977): Sci-Fi, Spielberg, and Truffaut

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Close Encounters is built on a mystery and Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to Jaws starts off in a jarring fashion challenging us to stay with him. Because he quickly throws us into the action and suggests this is a sci-fi tale on a global scale.

Bob Balaban, a cartographer-turned-French translator, speaks for all of us trying to figure out what’s going on, yelling out against whirring old WWII fighter engines, “I don’t understand!” Two lines of juxtaposed dialogue are all we need. The planes were reported missing in 1945. But they look brand new! It takes a moment to tease out the dramatic situation, but there we are. The question is how did this happen? As this is a Spielberg creation, we must point our gaze heavenward or more precisely to the outer reaches of the galaxy.

Francois Truffaut somehow feels like a special piece of casting. The Nouvelle Vague director and hero of Spielberg is cast as Lacombe, a French scientist leading a surprisingly cooperative international team.

It’s not simply because this is the only film he acted in that he didn’t also direct. It has to do with his temperament and the subject matter. There’s something serene and utterly profound about Truffaut. He’s deeply human and engaged and yet feels implacable even as everyone else — the Americans especially — seem frantic and harried. He’s a calming force in a literal maelstrom.

Because Spielberg immediately sets the picture up as not only a national but a global storyline with implications for the entire world. It’s not just higher-ups and government officials covertly working on the issue. Extraterrestrial life would mean potential hysteria, especially for the common man. In this regard, he introduces a few stand-ins.

One is Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss). He loves to tinker, isn’t a particularly devoted father or husband, and he’s a staunch believer his kiddos should grow up with the quality entertainment he had as a kid like Pinocchio, instead of vacuous putt-putt games.

If we are to be honest, Dreyfuss can be a perfectly genial hero in something like American Graffiti or even Jaws, but within this narrative, reflected by his family life, he often comes off whiny and obnoxious, and it hurts his rapport with the audience.

In this particular instance, there’s some difficulty in feeling a true human connection with him even as we are drawn and fascinated by what forces he might have witnessed because that is the million-dollar mystery propelling the picture and keeping humanity agog with visions of UFOs and the great unknown of outer space.

Yes, we are planted in the 70s so if you want to blame his wife (Terri Garr) for not being a particular understanding or his children for being exasperating you can, but today it just makes him out to be a selfish dolt. This isn’t the same whimsy of some of his cinematic predecessors; it just feels like immaturity.

Sadly, without a substantial protagonist, a Hollywood blockbuster like this can feel intermittently detached and impersonal. It’s not based on lack of effort by the director or the actor. We simply don’t like the man.

It’s much more agreeable to stick with the sci-fi elements because this is where the film really has its deepest successes. Special effects hardly feel like a detriment. They are simple, practical casting just enough a spell to hold up. But they are not there to do all the heavy lifting.

The first encounter happens when Roy is driving down a country road in his truck only to be ambushed by the most spellbinding sight he’s ever witnessed in his life. It’s greater than any Aurora Borealis and sends his car into a state of zero gravity. The only indication he has after the fact of what he’s just seen is a burning sunburn across the side of his face.

From that point on Roy is doggedly firm in his resolve. It’s almost a primordial urge. He has to see the beautiful lights again, he has to understand them, he needs everyone to appreciate them as much as he does.

One person who does is a single mother, Jillian Guiller, whose little boy Barry has some transcendental encounters in the evening hours, drawn to forces outside of himself — the same forces pulling Roy to something unnameable. In fact, they are the same forces Lacombe is so intent on learning more about. It leads his team traipsing around Mexico, India, Mongolia, etc. all on the trail of this great unexplainable mystery.

For Roy, unadulterated obsession sets in. He can’t get the image out of his head. His wife is frightened. His kids think he’s crazy, and they have every right to. He drags all the family out to stare at the sky. He loses his job. He starts shoveling dirt through the kitchen window with the whole neighborhood watching the spectacle.

With his wife driving off in a tizzy, trying to rescue her family from a maniacal husband who needs mental health, he goes back inside. They fail to see the final destination, the symbol so many people have subconsciously remembered. It’s a clue of where our story must travel.

That leads us to a family road trip — at least one my family took while I was in high school. One of the stops was Devil’s Tower, christened the first National Monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. Like Mt. Rushmore in North By Northwest — which I coincidentally saw on the same vacation — Devil’s Tower is an iconic American symbol. Natural and still somehow mystifying even otherwordly. The perfect seat for our finale.

It’s a mesmerizing experience sitting atop Devil’s Tower taking in the bright lights, the musical patterns of communication putting John Williams’ talents to the best possible use. Though it would be lying to say it didn’t verge on monotony in patches, at its very best, Spielberg has an unabashed appreciation for the wide-eyed spectacle and his stroke of genius is taking a very concrete relic and making it so integral to this encounter.

There’s something totem-like, it is a monolith in its own right, and suggests something as ancient as time itself. His other choice is to make the creatures on the other end the most amiable beings imaginable. Years of watching The Thing from Another World and Body Snatchers taught a different paradigm, but Spielberg is an optimist at heart. It shows through and through as the story is carried away by the exponential magic of the final climactic moments.

In many regards, it is a taste. For those still capable of awe where special effects or time or comprehension don’t get in the way of enjoyment, those final moments can indeed be spellbinding. It’s true their trance-like grip reached out to me. The only regret is some of the momentary distractions leading us on this road. It takes a whole lot of roadblocks and digressions to finally get us to our close encounter.

There’s something else nagging inside me. Dreyfuss fulfilled his unerring obsession like an angelic pioneer sent off to the great unknown. He reached the apex as he conceived it. There is nothing more for him to do. Still, one must wonder how exactly are the wife and kids doing at his sister-in-laws? It seems Spielberg has conveniently left the problematic issues of earth behind for the extraterrestrial. Too bad we are not afforded the same luxury.

4/5 Stars

 

Note: I viewed the Director’s Cut although there is also the previous theatrical cut and the special edition featuring an extended “mothership” scene.

Small Change (1976): A Story of Love and Adolescence

Argent_poche.jpgFrancois Truffaut has a knack for understanding children in all their intricacies. One suspects it’s because he’s never really grown up himself. He is a child at heart with even his earliest films of the Nouvelle Vague channeling the joy and the passion of a younger individual.

First, there was The 400 Blows, most literally, as an autobiographical docu-drama of youth and then Jules et Jim brimming with the freneticism to tell a historical romance with frolicking verve. I feel much the same energy as the boys hurtle through the streets of their little town of Thiers against the opening credits.

He accents it with the scoring of Maurice Jaubert and later on applies the crooning of Charles Tremet to give it an unmistakably French spirit. It’s a different time, a different generation even, but Truffaut has not lost any of his passion or lust for life, once again managing to tap into the exuberance of youth.

It’s nothing spectacular mind you. Small Change is mostly vignette-driven. It subsists off minor pieces of observation and scenes that might easily have a place in real life. Truffaut takes interest in the daily activities of kids and the important business that takes up their time. We are afforded the opportunity to sit back lazily and appreciate the mundane aspects of the community as they happen.

The local school is a humble place, but its admirable pursuits in the name of academics are as old as the Greeks. Resources are one thing certainly. It helps to have means and yet more crucial is a safe space for incubation where young minds can lean into their curiosities. Mediator thy name is teacher, and what a delight to find some of these individuals are more than up for the task.

Boys struggle to memorize and offer the proper feeling to their assigned passages until Ms. Petit ducks out and one of their members can be heard out of the second story window giving a rendition that would make future thespians everywhere proud. It’s moments like these that surprise us magnificently.

If you will, they’re like anti-400 Blows moments or more exactly triumphant answers to the earlier film. Where teachers aren’t authoritarian tyrants all the time nor kids untethered hooligans. Sure, there’s some of both intermittently, but Truffaut finds time to make both factions gel and feel human.

Mostly it comes with living in a neighborhood where everyone knows everybody else. Patrick gladly takes a neighbor’s young son back home and stops by to say hello to the teacher Mr. Richet and his wife, who live down the hall.

Movie theaters are communal spaces where everyone shows up. Ms. Petit’s even there in the back with her boyfriend. It’s a reminder to all the younger generation, adults — even teachers — are real people too.

There is one new boy in town whom nobody knows and his personal life is all but invisible. He doesn’t talk much, his personal hygiene leaves something to be desired, and he seems to lack all the materials they’re supposed to bring to class. He’s one of those kids some might term a “bad influence,” but even he can get in on the latest episode of Columbo making its round through the corridors of the school the night after.

Julien, with his shaggy mop of black hair, is one of them even as he plays at the outsider and shows signs of a tumultuous home life. Youth can be tender even as it’s also shown to be mean-spirited and crude at times. What’s joyous about Small Change is how affection and quality relationships are allowed to take center stage. They are present with teachers and parents too.

But there’s space for humor too. A single mother scrimps as she takes care of her baby and looks eagerly for love. Her little boy is a precocious one wandering into all the open doors, terrorizing the cat and such trifles. In one death-defying stunt, he takes a fall and comes away from it giggling while leaving his mother with a near-heart attack.

Sylvie is a little girl who uses the water from her fishbowl ( inhabited by Plic and Ploc) to brush down her favorite bag, dirtied with age and similar means of upkeepI’m reminded of a hilarious incident where the resourceful little girl balking at going to dinner with her parents commandeers her father’s bullhorn and manages to have an all-included dinner pullied to herself through the open window.

In a concerted effort to save some pocket money, the rambunctious De Luca boys go into the haircutting business, maiming their friend’s head in the process with the most grotesque results.

Meanwhile, Patrick is smitten with the mother of a classmate, Madame Riffle. The lavish advertisement of a man and woman on the wall of a shop fills his mind with dreamy ideas (Comfort on the rails). Still, unlike one of his cocksure peers, he’s tentative when it comes to necking in the theater with their classmates. It’s not the right environment for puppy love. He doesn’t know the girls they’ve met up with. There are too many people around. It’s all forced.

He gets his chance later on with a pretty girl at camp named Martine who causes his heart to go pitter-patter. They only have eyes for one another even amidst the teasing of their peers. You can tell how genuine and sweet it is in the clumsy, bright-eyed manner of youth.

With Truffaut’s own views of adolescence, trauma, and innocent love, one is reminded of descendants like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. This is where he gets it from. There is not one without the other. What makes Small Change intermittently wonderful is how it captures the specificity of its unique time and place. In its own way, it’s an unadulterated descendent of The 400 Blows from a brighter, happier time.

It’s as if Truffaut and the rest of the world has found the love they’ve been craving.  At the very least, they have enough hope to keep on trying. That’s one of the beauties of youth: indefatigable naivete, at times, yes, but more so, relentless optimism.

On the last day of school, before the bell rings for summer, Mr. Richet gives his attentive pupils one final rallying cry:

“Time flies. Before long, you will have children of your own. If you love them, they will love you. If they don’t feel you love them, they will transfer their love and tenderness to other people. Or to things. That’s life! Each of us needs to be loved!”

4/5 Stars

Note: The film is also known as Pocket Money in English-speaking countries, although due to the release of a Paul Newman movie of the same name a few years prior, Steven Spielberg suggested the alternative title for the American release.

The Story of Adele H. (1975): Starring Isabelle Adjani

L'histoire_d'Adèle_H.I didn’t think about it until the movie began, but the only person I’ve ever known to only go by the initial of their last name was for the sake of keeping their anonymity. If you’re a nobody, it doesn’t matter who knows your name.

In this case, if you’re the great Victor Hugo’s daughter, they stand up and take notice. Especially if you run off to Halifax Nova Scotia to pursue a British soldier named Albert Pinson of some dubious repute. Hence Adele H.

This is her story based on the diaries she left behind. It’s during the American Civil War. It’s still left to be seen if the Confederacy will be able to succeed. Adele’s father is currently exiled from his homeland, and she is intent on receiving the invitation of marriage from the man she once rebuffed.

When she lands in the new environment, there’s a timidity furled about her to go with her obvious affluence. She picks up a coach and converses in impeccable English with the driver looking for adequate lodging for someone like herself.

The place settled upon is a boarding house run by a Mrs. Saunders, and there she finds a welcoming albeit humble abode, the perfect home base to begin her inquiries. It seems a noble mission in the service of love.

I’ve come to like Francois Truffaut’s brand of economical period piece. Because usually we come to equate them with ballooning budgets and grand narratives, but Truffaut seems more interested in the character studies. If The Wild Child and now The Story of Adele H. are any indication, it’s the personal relationships he’s invested in and this allows the director to step into the cultural moment and still somehow make them highly resonate with us in an altogether different era.

Isabelle Adjani is the portrait of youthful innocence and she is so young, so beautiful, and full of emotional fervor. It’s hard not to be carried away by the passion of her performance.

Her first meeting with her beloved Lt. Pinson (Bruce Robinson looking like a British incarnation of Alain Delon) blooms with this candor even as it becomes obvious he’s moved on — he no longer has feelings for her, if he ever did — and what’s even more heartbreaking is how madly she still desires to be with him.

Even as the film cuts back and forth between French and English, one is reminded how French really is a romance or romantic language. English sounds so blunt and harsh, at times, in comparison. Maybe as a native French-speaker Truffaut’s not attuned to his actor’s tones in English. Maybe he’s playing off these very elements. No matter, the French is quiet, melodious, and even rapturous in the most passionate declarations.

I don’t understand the literal translation (without subtitles) but the underlying feelings are crystal clear and devastatingly powerful. Her zealousness, the pleading professions of love, met by a soldier whose stoic aloofness only draws out her urgency even more.

One is reminded of a scene where she enters a party — dressed in the hat and tails of a gentleman — but she doesn’t seem to bother hiding the fact she’s incognito, and she gets inside. We see in through the glass as someone goes to fetch Pinot, and he’s forced to make a show of the whole thing by pulling Adele outside and trying to make her listen to reason. Through Nestor Almendros’ fluid cinematography and Truffaut’s intentionality, we understand the whole dynamic without hearing the words spoken.

Or there’s another instance where Adele is presented with a couple volumes of her father’s works by a bookkeeper who is more than a bit smitten with her. But her eyelashes flutter in the most mesmerizing manner, and she proceeds to lash out at him. She doesn’t want to be reminded of who she is and where she comes from.

By now Adele has crossed over to the point of desperation, tears, and, ultimately, obsession. The story begins to sink and devolve into something else entirely. For the first time, we realize what might really be going on.

This might be the most propitious time to insert a morsel about the real Adele Hugo. She most certainly would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Truffaut doesn’t actually make his film about mental illness per se, and that is problematic if we are clamoring for a wholly authentic biopic.

Instead, we must watch Adele’s descent without much explanation. At night she’s overtaken by terrors and during the day she doggedly pursues any means to bring her eternal back to her. First its vague thoughts of hypnotism, then deceit, and character assassination, effectively besmirching her lover’s reputation with anyone else who tries to wed him.

It’s these interludes which somehow evoke the possessiveness of Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven and yet far from being vindictive, Francois Truffaut casts them in the most pitiful of lights. The film is spellbinding for much of the outset, and Adjani remains steadfast through it all. She carries it along based on her immense graces alone.

However, as the dirge-like rhythms drag on, it can hardly maintain its running-time, following Adele through events that feel like foregone conclusions as she becomes more dismal and delusional. It feels like most of the ideas have been expressed to their full potential, and now we must wallow in her trail of unrequited love.

Finally, she follows her man to Barbados only to be left as a shell of her former self escalated by her complete and utter deterioration. When the film ends it feels like a courtesy to all parties. To Adele because she needn’t suffer anymore and for the audience because we could hardly be more woebegone.

If anything, The Story of Adele H. touches on the darker caverns of Truffaut’s creativity, and yet maybe it’s simply because we always remember the youthful giddiness in his pictures instead of the forlorn aspects. More than anything it makes one appreciate how eclectic his body of work is and the through-line connecting every picture is authentic humanity — even humanity unhinged — in some way, shape, or form.

It just so happens Adele Hugo’s humanity was a bit more depressing. The sad thing is, probably few people actually know her name or, frankly, care about it. In spite of this, Truffaut manages to cast her as a creature of unwavering love on the scale of Wuthering Heights or other comparable works.

At 20 years of age Adjani already had completed a role for a lifetime. If you didn’t get the impression already, she has a magnificent aura about her, half spectral beauty, half tragic heroine.

4/5 Stars

The Wild Child (1970) and Truffaut’s Empathy

Wild_child23.jpgThe Wild Child (L’Enfant Sauvage in French) is based on “authentic events,” as it says because Francois Truffaut became fascinated by a historical case from the 1700s. A feral boy was discovered out in the forests and then taken under the tutelage of a benevolent doctor.

Although he had initially wanted to adapt The Miracle Worker, Arthur Penn got to it first and released the rendition of Helen Keller’s story to much acclaim. Instead, Truffaut pored over the medical observations of one Dr. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard relating to the curious case of the aforementioned Victor of Aveyron. Somehow this effort follows in the same vein of The Miracle Worker but feels entirely organic and indigenous to Truffaut’s roots.

There are several immediately striking elements about The Wild Child that become immediately apparent. At first, I wasn’t expecting the black & white cinematography, but somehow it makes so much sense. It’s an intuitive expression of the world and frequent Truffaut collaborator, Néstor Almendros, shoots the world with a stark, no-frills tintype aesthetic proving quite extraordinary.  The pictorial simplicity is impeccable. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is equally spare, all but scoreless, aside from interludes of Vivaldi when appropriate.

The second notable aspect was the opening dedication to Jean-Pierre Leaud. This only makes sense if you consider the lineage of Truffaut and where he has come from. Certainly his first and greatest achievement was The 400 Blows, which starred Leaud as a wayward youth — not far removed from Truffaut’s childhood or Leaud’s own.

Their relationship remained closely intertwined even as it charted the course of the Nouvelle Vague with the works of Jean-Luc Godard and the resurgence of the Antoine Doinel character in Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses, and the still forthcoming Bed and Board.

Of course, in following the historical discovery of a feral boy in the woods of 18th century France, the environment and context could not be farther removed. The opening moments are a striking wilderness chase scene with the naked boy living off the land and fleeing from a pack of hunting dogs, looking to smoke him out and earn the good graces of their masters.

It’s the story of civilization impinging on the natural world even if it is under unusual circumstances. The narrative isn’t an altogether novel one if you remember any historical examples of Native Americans who were shamelessly paraded through so-called “enlightened” western society, like sideshow attractions, only to be decimated by their diseases.

Still, Truffaut films are nothing if not personal, and The Wild Child fits into this personal collage. Each one of his films, individually and together, is sculpted by his ideas into vessels of art and creativity — ways in which to see the world and make sense of it.

If nothing else, somehow he seems to empathize with the circumstances. First, from the child’s perspective, to be left for dead, without parents until the age of 1,1 and then thrown into a world you cannot comprehend. But he has also evolved into the adult — in this case Dr. Itard — who, in a show of sympathy, makes the boy his charge, if not a pet project.

Truffaut is so invested in this role he throws off all pretense of merely being behind the camera and takes on a role in front of it. Both cinematically and practically, he is the boy’s mentor and guide without an intermediary of any kind.

You can see how deeply he empathizes with other human beings and somehow the good doctor seems like a fitting stand-in for Truffaut himself, on multiple accounts. In a society that looks down at this boy, seeing him merely as an outcast, an idiot, a pariah, Truffaut/Dr. Itard sees someone worth salvaging. He won’t give up on the creature’s intelligence nor his primal urge toward morality  — some latent iteration of the noble savage.

And yet he can still be an exacting, obsessive taskmaster. All for the creature’s own good mind you, but there you are. Whether it be the acquisition of language, intelligence, or cinema, you can easily see how any of the three could overlap. He has the end goal in mind, and he’s so unswervingly devoted to the success of his pupil, even to the point of feeling callous at times.

Was this the way it would have been with a wayward, youthful Leaud? Was this Truffaut with his mentor and father-figure Andre Bazin? All seem to be hinted at and as an audience, we can only surmise. Because you have this complicated tie between teacher, antagonist, and friend underlying this film, regardless of its period context.

Someone who opens up the world to you in their infinite wisdom, but no doubt causes you to want to rebel at other times. This is integral to our nature, not only as children but when we grow up too. Only when we’re older are we granted the full lucidity to see everything clearly with the benefit of hindsight. To see the motives behind discipline, tough love, and the implementation of rules.

If I’m to search my own heart, it is not always noble. It is not inclined toward good and has a predilection toward selfish and petty ideas. It takes some framework, some discipline to rein in, but not with the dismissiveness of the civilized elite from Paris and the learned academics. The honest to goodness humanity of Dr. Izard/Truffaut and the maternal affections of Madame Guerin are a fine place to start for reference.

Victor isn’t a miraculous case study during his time in their home by any means. He’s a work in progress. But isn’t he a far cry from where they found him — naked, wild, and living in a hole — self-sufficient though he may have been? As children, we are often content making mud pies in the sand when he could have something far better.

As someone who has dabbled often unsuccessfully in the field of education, you realize it’s the little victories that feel like moving mountains. Thus, when Victor begins to retain information, return home of his own accord, and spell at the word “LAIT” when he wants milk, these are miraculous in themselves.

Still, it takes the adult to have the foresight to know what will be in the child’s best interest. Things get more convoluted when the dynamics change. That, folks, is what we call the teenage years. Because it’s true sometimes, what people think is in their best interest differs greatly.

4/5 Stars

 

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972): Prime Luis Bunuel

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In school, I remember being enthralled by Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at Folie Bergerie” when it donned on me we were integrated into the piece, and the artist was messing with our preconceived notions by literally toying with our perceptions.

As an artist who came into his own a generation later with the likes of Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel oftentimes manages the very same feat of artistic manipulation through his films. He’s the iconoclastic prince and lambaster of the bourgeoisie. He is a craftsman with an intuitive sense of how to toy with, not only his subject matter and his characters, but the audience sitting before him.

Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which we might posit as an exemplary monument to his life’s work, begins with a vaguely familiar premise. People are gathering on the pretense of a dinner party, not unlike Exterminating Angel. Except there is no invisible force holding them there. Quite the opposite. For inexplicable reasons, they keep on getting interrupted and thwarted in their attempts to sit down together for the most curious of reasons.

To their credit, the central sextet sells out to the whole charade. Fernando Rey is up to his smutty old tricks as a respected foreign ambassador with a lecherous side cultivated under the right circumstances. His frequent companions are the Thevenots, Francois and Simone (Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seyrig). Nor can one forget the Madame’s air-headed sister Florence who always seems to be perpetually tagging along.

First, they go to their dinner engagement at a friend’s home for round 1. Alice Senechal (Stephanie Audran) isn’t expecting them because she thought she invited them on a different date and her husband Henri (Jean-Pierre Cassel) isn’t at home. It’s an honest enough mistake. Except the next time, it’s more of the same as their libidos get the best of the hosts. Their maid Ines takes it all bravely with a sweet, unassuming smile as if playing dumb to all the idiocy going on around her on any given day.

It is most definitely a film of first world problems gone awry. We have a bunch of dense and pompous people of exceptional superficiality before us. However, this very easily arrived at prognostication starts giving way to more and more surrealist tinges.

The film hits the skids as Bunuel takes us into a realm all his own. Whether it’s the mind of a mad genius or a perverse old man is up for debate among the literati. But of course, he would hardly give their discourse (or mine) a thought.

Things start getting ridiculous with meal after meal stacked one on top of the other to the point of dizzying regularity. Every scene crammed together features a new dining table or a new conversation over drinks with a dash of the absurd for garnish.

Not to mention nested dreams before the days of Inception because of course, everyone, even Bunuel, seems to have some fascination with the meta, going so far as inserting his own dreams into the story purely because he can.

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What becomes the guiding force is this quintessential fluid sense of absurdism accentuated through the execution of more complex shot sequences utilizing zooms and tracking shots. They maintain the continuity while helping to maintain this Bunuelian sense of dreamscapes. Because for him that’s much of what the world is, a stream of consciousness, and there’s no necessary distinction. And yet there are times within the film he acknowledges them so explicitly as if to send a self-aware wink to the audience.

Meanwhile, he has gleeful fun forcing his characters to walk down the road together toward nothingness. One moment they’re waking up from a crazy dream. The ladies settle down for tea only for none to be available and instead they’re treated to the ghastly stories from a sad-sack lieutenant’s abysmal childhood.

All bets are off when they’re interrupted by cavalrymen winding up their maneuvers and then passing around a joint in the parlor. Another time they’re arrested for some nameless crime and another gunned down by mobsters without pretense.

I’d hardly call these moments spoilers because Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is full of non-sequiturs. Anything is capable of happening at any moment. Sometimes all of dinner is a stage, and the guests merely players. Other times Vietnam seamlessly fits into the context of the scenario’s commentary (“If they bomb their own troops there must be a reason”).

In a sense, Providence is replaced by the rhythms of chance and the bizarre, laying the groundwork for the director’s implicit worldview. But of course, it stretches much further than that imprinted onto the themes and the very fabric of the characters.

The hypocrisy of the social elites is always being closely tied with religion. Bishops are to be made light of and Bunuel’s conception of their rituals can best be summarized by one telling image of a crucifix, cradled in the arms, getting dirt unceremoniously dumped on top of it. Or for that matter, the same priest gives absolution to the man who killed his parents only to think better of it.

But not for a moment would we mistake any of these abrupt outbursts for true drama; each individual instance is only a trifle, a way for Bunuel to follow his flights of fancy like he always does, trampling everything around him with wry exhilaration.

Whatever madcap visions you can imagine in their drawing-room, they basically wind up coming into being. Although Bunuel doesn’t have the same carnivalesque showmanship of Federico Fellini or the technical and spectacular panache of a Hitchcock, he nevertheless invariably keeps their company.

For better or for worse, his films and the visions they employ stay with you. What’s more, his conception of the world is quite transparent. Fellini was mirrored in the director in 8½. There are shades of the “Master of Suspense” in Scottie from Vertigo, and just about every man in a Bunuel picture bears his mark and, at the very least, his philosophy of total irreverence.

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What’s striking is how volatile and relevant he feels in the modern age. I for one always find it perplexing to come at his work because not only does his filmography undermine the tenets of classical narrative convention, he also does much to play his audience as well.

“The Folies Bergere” was mesmerizing as we began to understand we are part of the piece. A Bunuel film is similar because you are brought into it as well and yet one could argue he goes a step further by making his audience the butt of the joke.

All your personal hangups and hypocrisies — social, political, religious, romantic — whatever they may be, will be ousted and laid bare. His players are easy targets as representations of the trivial social elite. But then we were tricked into spending all this time with them that ultimately went nowhere. So let me ask you, what does that make us? Be forewarned Bunuel might just get to you too.

4/5 Stars

A Special Day (1977) with Loren & Mastroianni

a special day.jpgThe film opens with newsreel footage delivered to us in an undoctored format effectively presenting us a view into the past. It is the momentous (some would say fateful) day Adolf Hitler made his triumphant visit to see Benito Mussolini in Italy.

The year is 1938. And it has all the pomp, circumstance, military exhibitions, and blind nationalism one comes to expect with such historical depictions. Director-screenwriter Ettore Scola elects to give us the past instead of totally constructing a version of it. Because that is not what his film is about.

Even to consider Fellini’s farcical take on fascism in Amarcord, complete with swooning beauties and talking Mussolini faces in flowers, A Special Day couldn’t be more divergent. It works and operates in a much smaller more confined space, serving its purposes just fine. As the movie itself opens, we are immediately met with the most confounding of palettes — an ugly clay-colored hue — hardly the best for drawing on fond memories. In fact, it’s utterly unappealing.

This is not a criticism, mind you, because the pervading drabness is another calculated creative decision. What it provides is a very concrete articulation of the world. Furthermore, without committing to the broader context, Scola is able to focus his attentions on one building.

So yes, there is this huge cultural event with a gravitational pull dragging everyone out of the house in droves to celebrate with patriotic fervor. Everyone wants to see the Fuhrer and Il Duce for themselves. But this is all pretense, again, serving the smaller, more intimate scale of the film. It’s for the best.

Not totally unlike Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the housing complex becomes a limiting factor, but also a creative asset. The architecture and space evolve into something worth examining in itself. Within its confines, our two protagonists are thrown together thanks to an escaped myna bird. One is a long-suffering housewife (Sophia Loren) forced to stay at home while her family enjoys the festivities. She’s a middle-aged Cinderella with all the youthful beauty sucked out of her.

Her husband (an oddly cast and dubbed John Vernon) is an arrogant party supporter and all her six children are either brats or too young to know any better. Her station as a mother and wife feels totally underappreciated, even dismissed.

The other forgotten person she happens to meet is a radio broadcaster (Marcello Mastroianni), unwittingly diverting him from an attempt at suicide. Because the current regime has no place for subversive naysayers like him on the national airwaves.

There’s a questioning of whether or not there’s enough for a film to develop. Can it hold on and keep us on board for over an hour? Given everything so far, it’s a no-frills scenario. There’s not much to work with, and success in itself seems like a tall order. Thank goodness we have the likes of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The promise of having them together is a worthy proposition and in this case, it hardly disappoints.

If you’ve only seen them in their star-studded, glamorized roles, prepare to be astounded. Loren could never look completely dowdy, but there’s definitely something forlorn about her. She carries it off quite well. Likewise, Marcello, normally a suave fellow, still has his prevailing moments of charm, but he too is equally subtle.

At least in the case of Loren, it seems like Hollywood only ever saw her as a screen goddess with an accent, and thus cast her in roles catering to that predetermined persona. And yet in her native Italy, in a movie like Two Women (1961) or her in A Special Day, it’s as if they gave her the freedom and the trust to stretch herself and really prove who she was as a bona fide actress.

The little doses of magic they drum up together carry scenes and if you’ve ever seen any of their movies, the intuitive chemistry coursing between them is, by now, almost second nature. Dancing steps of the rhumba to the cutouts on the floor. For one single moment, a saucy tune drowns out the choruses of a fascist regime.

Later she tries to quickly style her hair in the bathroom as he bungles grinding the coffee and sweeps it under the rug like a sheepish schoolboy. Or he makes his valiant attempt at fixing the lamp over the kitchen table that always leaves Antonietta bumping her head. These are the lighter notes.

But if these are the distinct instances of near frivolity, then A Special Day is about so much more on a broader scale. It casts an eye on a society that deems women as totally auxiliary in both intelligence and importance.

Likewise, one is reminded about the institutionalized hatred including vitriolic prejudice against homosexuals. Where people have lost their image and are merely cogs in a political, faux-religion of the state. Not everyone fits in. Gabriele even exhibits a touch of mild insurrection to the state by not abstaining from using the banned “lei” instead of “voi” when addressing others, as the former was seen as too effeminate by Italy’s fearless leader.

If not totally radical, the relationship at the core of this movie feels countercultural, even as it probably taps into the basic longings of many. In some strange, miraculous way they understand one another, unlike anyone they ever have before.

It’s how the film is able to be an empathetic portrait of humanity. Never has it been more evident that understanding can exist anywhere and between anyone in the most unusual of circumstances. So by the time the day’s festivities are winding down and the crowds rumble back in, the two kindred souls part ways to their separate ends of the courtyard, and yet there’s no way not to think about one another.

Gabriele starts packing up to be shipped off and deported because Mussolini’s regime is no place for a man like him. Antonietta puts together dinner for her family — all the normal duties required of her — existing once more as the silent life force behind the entire household. Her mind can’t help but wander to the only person who seems to know her, just as one’s eyes can help but glance at the light he helped fix only hours before.

He takes one final survey of his apartment, his room goes dark, and he’s escorted out of the courtyard, quietly, without any fanfare. The wide void between their apartments has never felt greater. It is the antithesis of a Rear Window ending.

After a few moments of leafing through The Three Musketeers — the book he gifted her — she wanders off to bed and follows suit by turning out the light. Darkness overtaking the day in the never-ending rhythms of life.

If it wasn’t apparent already “a special day” is meant to elicit two connotations. The state would have you believe the sights of Hitler, Mussolini, and grand feats of military might are the type of memories you won’t soon forget. Perhaps they’re even worthy of telling your children about someday.

However, for others, “a special day” means something far more. It has to do with empathy and truly knowing someone and being known like you’ve never been known before. For isolated people in a callous and lonely world of monotone, it’s so much more than all the bells and whistles at a parade. In its own unassuming way, A Special Day is a heart-wrenching love story to the nth degree.

4/5 Stars

Amarcord (1973): Life is a Carnival

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The most magical moments of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord occur at the very beginning and near the end. First, when the puffballs flutter through the air as a sign of spring and then, later, when a soft layer of powder signifies the advent of winter.

It’s a reminder of nature, of seasons, of how life is made up of rhythms, from beginning to end. If you live in California you miss out on that kind of tangible expression of life. You cannot capture the lyrical quality as the Italian maestro captures them over his vignette-driven spectacle with the aid of editor Ruggero Mastroianni.

Part of the reason I loved living abroad — in Japan specifically — there was some sense of the seasons, the utter sereneness of new-fallen snow, and a word to describe the wistfulness that often goes along with nostalgia and the lasting impression of memories (“Natsukashii”).

Fittingly, “Amarcord” is a provincial Italian expression for “I remember,” and this film is full up on quaffs of nostalgia and playful observation from the always lively creative reservoirs of Fellini. You cannot acknowledge the satire of his film without appreciating the affection embedded within it. They are closely related. Because even as you see all the faults and foibles, you cannot help but cast a sympathetic eye on these imbeciles — at least the lovable ones.

If someone else did it, you would get the sense of something mean-spirited, but when it’s your own people and your own way of life, somehow it comes off as not only humorous and perceptive but surprisingly warm.

The pacing is free; the scenes as loose as can be. Our only real markers of change are the aforementioned seasons. Around them, we get to know people. Spring means puffballs but also the local burning of an effigy on a giant bonfire to bring in the new season, complete with firecrackers and festivities.

School life is a lark full of windbags and crotchety oddballs who obliviously try to impart knowledge to their pupils on the highest arts. Their study regimen includes Greek, mathematics, the frescoes of Giotto, ancient history, the relation between church and state in Mussolini’s society, and so on. Each is a lost cause.

Around the dinner table, Mama and Papa Biondi have raging fits in what we might deem typical Italian fashion. They’re constantly bickering and scolding the bambinos for every infraction. In some upside-down manner, it’s a sign of their love and concern.

It’s true the town’s adolescent population, including their son Titta, get up to all sorts of dirty tricks, languishing in their fantasies, and going to confession only out of duty to their parents. There’s nothing contrite about it. Perhaps they don’t know any better.

You can make this argument judging from more general observation. Through Fellini’s lens, a fascist nation under Mussolini is often ridiculous. Flirtatious “Bellas” like the town hairdresser Gradisca (Magli Noel) swoon with nationalistic fervor at rallies, races, Grand Hotels, and the triumphant passage of the SS Rex — a vessel of national pride. That is until it capsizes all the beaming onlookers in their dingies.

One is reminded life is simpler and full of everyday peculiarities. Take Uncle Teo who gets a day on the town, outside of the mental institution, only to spend most of it barricaded up a tree, proclaiming how he wants a woman. One can only imagine it must be a lonely, dreary place on the inside. Then, there are snowball fights in the streets with the paths carved out of the snowpack and Gradisca a perfect target for all the gamely youth.

Nino Rota’s score accentuates so much mood, so much atmosphere, adding to the visual carnival, like a jaunty march and it is, taking us through time and sending us to places all over the little town.

On this grand scale, I’m inclined to like the idea of Fellini’s carousel of images, at least more than the particulars. This whirling, lively, rendition of life in its march of time speaks to so much about existence itself. The themes of looking back at the old ways — with nostalgia — but then also picking apart where we’ve come from to see the flaws and the idiosyncrasies. Some worthwhile, others worth stripping away and dismissing.

One of the most alarming takeaways is just how bawdy Italian culture is. Now it’s nothing new, but we are reminded of uncomfortable truths. Like the fact, Gradica is the ravishing eye-candy for every leering male in town, young and old. It speaks to so much about the male heart and mind, obsessed as it seems to be with women as commodities.

Eventually, Gradisca finds a man, her “Gary Cooper,” and we don’t have much inclination if he’s worthy of her or not. Still, it signals a change. Her wedding is a joyous Italian affair, but it also signs the beginning of the end. It’s as if, when she goes, along with her goes all the trimmings of their youth.

I am reminded of one moment when Grandpa is wandering around aimlessly in the fog. He’s not exactly a saint either. Regardless, he loses his way and laments the fact there are no trees, no people, no birds, no wine. If this is death, he’s not one for it. The situation solves itself easily enough when a carriage rattles by, and he’s found to be right outside his house.

Could this be Fellini’s way to comment on the situation and then temper it so quickly? Because a lot of the characters in Amarcord seem to be caught in this oblivious sort of fog. The greatest tools at Fellini’s disposal are merriment, humor, and even vulgarity to try and defuse situations, whether about love, death, politics, religion, whatever it is. And it’s a relatively effective form of satire a lot of the time.

However, every once in a while you remember it can only get us so far. The “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” mentality, doesn’t quite fill one up with assurance. At least it’s not lasting. Because whether we like it or not, time is always high-stepping onward regardless of whether we’ve made peace with it or not. The turning of the seasons signify life and also death. No one feels that more than Titta. That’s what he’ll remember. Only time will tell if it gets any easier.

3.5/5 Stars

The Sting (1973): Newman and Redford Reunited

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To my mind, there’s never been a dream team quite like Paul Newman and Robert Redford — a perfect one-two punch of camaraderie and cool — it comes so easy. All the ladies wanted to swoon over them, and all the men wanted to be like them. Because what they have together is something envied by us all.

Butch Cassidy was, of course, the breakout success helping to redefine the western in 1969 while also cementing the burgeoning buddy genre. It’s amazing we only ever got one other picture in the storied partnership. Thankfully it was The Sting.

Let me be candid. It’s not as great as its predecessor. I never had the same fondness for its narrative diversions and yet even on subsequent viewings, it assuredly plays to its strengths.

The period crime film captures a strain of nostalgia that feels even more euphoric seen through a second lens. This is Scott Joplin, ragtime, old-time title cards, wipe transitions galore, fine threads, better hats, and an ode to the past — twofold. This is prohibition reintroduced by way of the 1970s.

The world of Chicago gambling rackets fits somewhere in between a James Cagney & Edward G. Robinson’s Warner Bros. gangster flicks and John Garfield’s roles over a decade later (ie. Force of Evil). However, while the world is similar, director George Roy Hill has blessed The Sting with a playfulness. It lacks a cynical even brooding edge which would have been so easy to ascribe to. This is the 1970s after all. It would have been in vogue.

But in dealing with the depression years and corruption with a jocular edge, Hill has won himself an audience. He’s made it a game rather than a drama and as such it’s a welcome vessel of entertainment. This is no Godfather or Chinatown, French Connection or Dirty Harry. The Sting gives itself license to lighten up a bit. The delightful opening gambit is a taster for coming attractions introducing grifter extraordinaire: Hooker (Robert Redford), and the old vet who’s taught him everything he knows.

Luther spins tales of “The Big Con” which in their line of business is the big leagues for every man who has ever swindled someone aspires to. He urges Hooker to shake off the dust of their crummy town and make something of his unique talents. If the young drifter got his way, he would have stayed put. Still, he has crossed someone very powerful in local racketeer Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). There’s no recourse but to shove off and begin the next stage of his training.

He must meet the man Luther spoke highly of The Great Henry Gondorf (Paul Newman). In their first encounter, he’s completely swacked only to utter his first words under a showerhead raining water down on his hungover noggin. When Newman’s grouchy voice finally rings out it’s another form of wish fulfillment we’ve been waiting for. He even soaks his head a la Harper (1966). The anticipation is beginning to set in.

The Hollywood landscape has changed in 4 years. Now Redford is the worldwide megastar. Newman is still a big draw and as good as ever. Regardless, it’s a real hoot to have veteran pros like Harold Gould and Ray Walston. Somehow they feel like television actors to me and that’s by no means a dismissal. In fact, it’s actually a seal of approval; they make The Sting more colloquial even familiar.

Things pick up aboard a train as Gondorf sinks the hook into their pray so they can begin the task of reeling him in for the catch. It’s about keeping the mark off-balance, never letting them know they’re not in control, and making a whole lot of fun for the audience because we’re in on the whole shebang.

He makes a late entrance to a gentlemanly poker game by apologizing, “Sorry I’m late guys. I was taking a crap.” It’s a portent for the entire showdown. Newman hamming it up as the steely-eyed Robert Shaw looks on as if he takes every iota of the other man’s being as a personal affront. It’s a very calculated charade getting under his skin quite effectively. The brilliance of Newman is not taking himself too seriously. He has a good time with every beat and the movie benefits.

It’s a pleasure to watch him walk all over Shaw because Newman might be smug, but we’re in his corner and that comes from his long, hard-fought badge of loyalty. He’s one of those actors we relish playing the scoundrel. Harrison Ford might be the other.

As they look to hook Lonnegan by first getting his ire up and then conveniently setting him up with an ambitious inside man (Redford), we have a game on our hands. Meanwhile, the other boys assemble the crew with a makeshift gambling joint being renovated as they speak.

Hearing Ray Walston’s voice over the action, calling the races, is somehow comforting a bit like having My Favorite Martian reruns on in the background. The film is weak in the female character department but fortuitously Eileen Brennan is able to bring something hardy to the world with her mere presence.

And yet it wouldn’t be a story without a few wrinkles would it? Shaw throwing his weight around in order to play by his rules. They must acquiesce to his demands in order to make him feel secure. Then there’s a nagging cop after Hooker for some prior infraction. Soon even the Feds (led by Dana Elcar) get involved as the whole charade continues to crumble precariously.

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Through it all Redford keeps his cool and looks equally fine streaking around town in his suit — usually to keep from getting the book thrown at him. He might as well be channeling the free-and-easy charisma of Steve McQueen from The Cincinnati Kid. Fittingly, The Sting is an apt descendent of not only that film but Newman’s own stellar vehicle: The Hustler.

Aside from just creating a world of smoky nostalgia, Hill is brave enough to have wordless interludes. The music is robust enough, not to mention his stars and his setting, allowing us to appreciate everything. Sometimes more is said in these moments than in any bit of filler dialogue. We get the privilege of picking up the pieces for ourselves and sitting back to bask in the thrills. The last few minutes are the grand payoff, and it’s lightning-quick but never better.

The Sting is short of a monumental artistic achievement, but it is an experience as only movies provide. It gives laughs, payoffs, and twists in a manner that is wholly satiating. To be a part of a communal event like this is something familiar and warm.

The ultimate joy of The Sting is its ability to play the audience as much as the mark and yet still giving us the relish of feeling like we’re in on the joke. It’s a movie that willingly provides the best of both worlds. And of course, we have Newman and Redford. I’ll stand by it. There was never a better pair.

4.5/5 Stars

The Man Who Would Be King (1975): Starring Sean Connery & Michael Caine

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There is a sense that John Huston is on a tear to prove he can outdo David Lean. However, this might only be an observation based rather unfairly on circumstance. Because Huston purportedly meant to make the picture at numerous junctions in his career, though it never got off the ground with any of the dynamic duos originally put to the fore.

There was Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable at first. Then Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. It could have even been a reunion for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969). Ultimately, none of these pairings came to fruition.

Finally, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, it was given a new lease on life. Regardless, of your personal affinities, it ends up being an unmitigated success given their instant camaraderie even beyond any amount of action, intrigue, or world-building.

Connery is one of the great action icons, partially thanks to Bond, and Caine is very much his equal for a string of iconic roles of his own. It’s no coincidence they both have a “Sir” before their names and still remain two of the most beloved actors in Britain to this day.

Following in the mythic footsteps of Alexander Great, Daniel Dravot (Connery) and Peachy Carehan (Caine) aspire to be the first Europeans to rule the isolated territory of Kafiristan in centuries. In all fairness, The Man Who Would Be King is as much about two lunatics as it is men of valor, soldiers of fortune, and brothers in arms. 

Their venture has them fending off local bandits, crossing the frozen deep, and looking to influence the local lords with their modern weaponry. It’s one step on the long road to becoming immortalized. With the fortuitous help of their translator Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey), a Gurkhan lone survivor of a British outfit, they now have a mouthpiece to pass down their will to the local populace. 

They make liberal efforts to lean into the god complex in order to have an easier time subduing the people and subsequently, mobilizing a personal army. However, in crossing paths with the much-revered spiritual leaders, they find it’s just as providential to be Freemasons. Some brotherhoods are universal.  

It is actually Dravot who is perceived as a god and soon his head gets overblow with his personal ambitions to have a queen and a kingdom with bridges and infrastructure to connect the entire territory.

He is looking to fulfill all the hopes of his protectorate as a divine answer to their prayers. It’s his buddy Peachy, the mere mortal who knew him well before he became a god, trying to show him how nutty this is. It also proves fatal. 

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Michael Caine’s performance, in particular, is broad, overblown with vigor. Is he putting too much gusto into it? Given the stakes of the material and how it plays, he probably does it just right. Because we half expect our characters to be blustering and larger-than-life giants.

One can imagine not only Huston but his actors as well would have relished the material for these very reasons. It really digs into this sense of adventure while giving them parts to grab hold of. This is on the most visceral level; we see it playing out on a grand scale. Still, the picture has a certain intimacy worth expounding upon.

Because while it’s easy to refer to pictures of old as references, say Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or even The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) or Gunga Din (1939), what sets The Man Who Would Be King apart is the simplicity of the principal relationship.

The beats of the plot are nothing altogether new and novel; it makes sense as Rudyard Kipling’s original novella came out in 1888. However, strip everything away and what are we left with? It really is nothing more than a buddy film.

Certainly, it becomes complicated by all sorts of issues and yet what remains the common denominator as the story unfolds? It’s the relationship between our two leads. Hence the potential ties to Butch Cassidy being somewhat telling. Having a pair of charismatic anti-heroes to cheer for makes it extremely easy on the audience. It takes very little to ask for investment.

Above all, it reminds me of those aforementioned tales of old. They weren’t abashed about having a good time and giving way to adventure in the absence of social significance. There seems to be very, little apart from the actors, who place the movie in the 1970s.

After all, Huston was himself an old boy coming from a different generation altogether. Being the maverick and gargantuan personality of machismo in his own right, it seems fitting he would gravitate toward such a tale. Where the bonds between men speak volumes as do their unquenchable cravings for wealth and glory, verging on the obsessive.

Huston is provided his inroad through a real historical figure. Again, the idea of having an author like Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer) be the inception of the story is not a new device. We have Somerset Maugham utilized in The Razor’s Edge for instance and the most obvious might be the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Except this movie is Heart of Darkness in some inverted world where the dark jungles of Africa are replaced with the golden plains of an equally harrowing Middle East. The constricting dankness is substituted with the dangers of the great unknown, wide-open spaces with their own share of pleasures and subsequent perils.

Once more we cater to analogous themes of human avarice and cravings to be made a deity over other human beings. Where setting oneself up as a king of a nation is more of a dream — the ultimate prize in obtaining power and glory — there is no dark underbelly initially.

One cannot help in drawing parallels to The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948) where the lust for all the riches the world has to offer rarely avail themselves without cataclysmic implications. Even as it can be riveting to watch such a big-screen adventure, we must check ideas of superiority or superman complexes.

While The Man Who Would Be King comes to accept this colonialistic world order rather than subverting it, at the very least it does imply the flaws in such a dogma. We’ve continued to see the fruit of such ideologies well into the 20th and 21st centuries.

4/5 Stars

Sleuth (1972): Starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine

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I don’t play games. Many of my long-suffering friends would attest to the fact that this statement is only semi-facetious. Perhaps it must begin with what games are used for. They are recreational, diversions meant to be enjoyable so that two or people might gather together and have a memorable evening.

Except for me, games always have a habit of bringing out the sides of people I never much like. The overly competitive ones who have no sense of the rules; there’s no sportsmanship or any seemingly rational concept of fair play. Either that or they care too much about them — tooth and nail.

The moderately well-adjusted people I seem to know and love, all of a sudden, become animals tapping into their primordial proclivities toward the survival of the fittest.

Another reason I don’t play many games is a reflection on my own poor attitude. I don’t like games much because I’m never very good at them. I’m the victim. The one always losing and getting beaten and putting on a fine face until the next debacle. And why waste my time doing that when I could be doing something far more constructive with my time like say, watching a film…

With this long-winded subtext, I’ve tried to make it apparent why Sleuth might already be rough going for a bad sport like myself. It’s tapping into a world that I already abhor.

Thus, it’s a pure testament to how fine a cast and crew we have to say my opinion of the picture cannot help but be complimentary. Ironically, it readily leans into the issues I have with games to create an engaging conflict.

By the 1970s, Joseph L. Mankiewicz feels like a bit of a bygone relic leftover from the 1950s and some of his finest achievements like All About Eve. It might sound like a harsh observation, but even his greatest film noted the inevitable waning of a once illustrious career.

Thankfully Sleuth is still a credit to his name and how could it not be, bolstered by excellent material by Anthony Shaffer (based on his play) and two certified British treasures in Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier?

They meet in the middle of a maze that reminded me of one summer day on a vacation to Hever Castle. It’s the first in a whole host of games with Michael Caine bemusedly attempting to make his way to the voice emanating from the very center.

Finally, he gets there only when the hidden entrance is revealed to him — the first in a line of wry twists. It’s a portent of the forthcoming recreations.

For a good bit, we don’t what the business at hand is meant to be. Then as they wander through a parlor in the midst of small talk about trinkets and the usual pleasantries, Olivier gets right down to business. The other man wants to marry his wife. Instantly we have the conflict and the basis for our entire film. It doesn’t take much to see why.

You could rarely pay for a better two-man show though there are a few others who drift in and out of the conversations carrying their own importance. Namely, the woman they are both fighting over or the no-nonsense Inspector Doppler (played by Alec Cawthorne) who pays a housecall. Even these characters rely wholly on the mystique created by our leads. (They are indebted to them more than we initially realize).

Obviously, the blocking of scenes is crucial, but it also relies readily on the stars and they oblige, aided by the witty material. The best part about it is the very fact there is this sense of freedom. The house is a centralized space and yet they are given free rein of it, and they’ll readily go tromping around doing just about anything they please. Digging around for old costumes. Ransacking rooms. Blowing up safes.

There’s is very little that feels homey about the antiquated interiors, seemingly possessed by all manner of automatons. At first, it feels like the perfect lair from which Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) will lure his unsuspecting prey into a duel of wits for his wife’s hand.

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They thrust and parry like gentlemen, and Olivier is having a real fine time with the theatricality, vaulting between manic fits of imagination conceived by an authorial mind and then the verbose orator with an affinity for showmanship. It’s all about games and parlor tricks and misdirects, easy enough to get carried away with.

One moment it’s a competition, then a mystery, then a murder. A farce, a set-up, an in-house theater company, a revenge yarn, and another murder. The mechanisms of the plot become less important as it becomes a Columbo episode. How will our culprit, who shall remain nameless, be caught? Except this too is another ploy.

If it’s not apparent already, Sleuth is this maddening game of emotional whiplash as new wrinkles are revealed from start to finish. These revelations are what also keep it quite gripping. Folding over again and again and again as the duo oscillates between cat and mouse, vying for the upper hand. Vaulting into each man’s corner to play the villain and the victim, the mark and the conniving mastermind.

We have such disparate images as Caine running for his life at gunpoint. Then Olivier knee-deep in a coal heap while Caine coolly notes no one of a darker complexion ever manages to make it into Wyke’s fictitious fantasy world. The rival even jeers his finest literary creation, the aptly named  St. John Lord Merridewe.

These are only slight proddings, ploys in a vast web of interconnected stratagems. Of course, this is only a movie so no real people were harmed in the making of this scenario.

The only people who get played are those of us sitting in the dark (both figuratively and literally). One of the greatest joys of the charade is guessing one ploy only to be ambushed by a flurry of new wrinkles.

For it to function, Sleuth must work in a manner of parity, and thankfully Caine is more than up to the challenge. It’s by no means actor and understudy or the opposite even, the old stalwart displaced by the youthful newcomer.

They do feel like partners with equal footing in this game. Here lies the key. So if playing along with Olivier and Caine is the punishment I must resign myself to, I will take it compliantly. There are far worse ways to while away an evening. However, I still don’t play games if I can help it.

3.5/5 Stars