Monday, June 25, 2007

Olivier Centennial: Sleuth and Marathon Man

The Brattle had a couple weeks of these - well, probably just a week total, splitting time with the grindhouse films - and I only got to one double feature. I think it was a rainy week where getting to the movies would mean going there straight from work, and the grindhouse stuff was making me feel kind of movie-d out.

That shouldn't be too much of an issue with their summer schedule; they go back to the "vertical" design I love, and I think I'll be able to comfortably skip most of the Wednesday "Great Adaptations" series (which includes Adaptation but not Great Expectations) - although ironically that's the day I actually come into Harvard Square after work for comics anyway. I'm all over the Barbara Stanwyck and Animation programs, along with weekend series for Raymond Chandler and one delightfully titled "Charlton Heston's Apocalypse". Plus, oh yes, after nearly a year, Election 2 (aka Triad Election, because Magnolia didn't want to try and release both) finally shows up at the end of August (it had been booked for last Octobers Boston Fantastic Film Festival) as part of a double feature. Amusingly, if you do the usual route of starting at 7:30, you'll see the sequel first.

(Two surprises found when composing this post - Sleuth is apparently not available on DVD for less than a hundred bucks, and the Brattle seems to be eschewing midnights this summer)


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 May 2007 at the Brattle Theater (The Entertainer: A Centennial Tribute to Laurence Olivier)

It is easy (inasmuch as any creative process is actually easy) to do parody or pastiche; one simply has to be aware of the familiar elements of a genre and repeat them, either mockingly or slavishly. Homage is a more difficult, and is sometimes as awkward. What writer Anthony Shaffer and director Joseph Mankiewicz do in Sleuth is almost scholarly in comparison.

The Agatha Christie-style puzzle mystery has always taken a lot of flack, in part because its priorities are complementary to those of modern critics (that is to say, there is nearly no overlap between the two groups): Mysteries are simple where Quality Literature is complex (they frequently use plain language to describe cardboard characters whose motivations are straightforward, and have a straightforward moral code) and vice versa (the smallest details must be observed, and characters often act upon their simple motivations in roundabout ways). Taking place as they so often do among England's landed gentry, there's often unspoken classism hidden just below the surface. By the time Sleuth premiered on stage and in cinemas, the classic mystery was looking a bit long in the tooth; a relic of a bygone age.

And, indeed, Shaffer and Mankiewicz expose it as such. Mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) lives in a sprawling mansion complete with a labyrinth of shrubbery and hidden passages, filled with curios, reminders of a more genteel time, and in the most prized position, the Edgar Allen Poe award he received from the Mystery Writers of America. He's an imperious snob, and he has summoned Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) because he wishes to make his wife's lover a deal: Although he figures he would be well rid of Marguerite (Eve Channing), he knows that she will want money, more than even a successful hairdressing entrepreneur like Tindle can provide. So he hatches a plan by which Milo will break in, steal some of Marguerite's jewelry, and sell it to a fence Wyke knows. As the first act wears on, it becomes clear that behind Wyke's jovial mask is a man whose attitude toward the lower classes is patronizing at best and hateful at worst, with a mind geared toward elaborate schemes where simple ones will do, and whose ultimate plan is far more sinister than the one he initially outlined. Sinister, but not necessarily perfect, as the second half of the film finds him matching wits with Inspector Doppler (Alec Cawthorne), a working-class detective who is unimpressed with Wyke's status but has a keen eye for forensics.

Full review at EFC

Marathon Man

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 May 2007 at the Brattle Theater (The Entertainer: A Centennial Tribute to Laurence Olivier)

Not many thrillers these days start with the sort of slow burn we see in the first act of Marathon Man. The obvious comparison is right there in the title - marathon runners have to keep up a steady pace rather than run the risk of burning themselves out - but just because it's obvious doesn't make it any less true.

The movie does get a good jump at the starter's line, when an old German and an old Jew clash at a traffic light, leading to a frantic chase and a fatal result. After that, he film introduces us to some new characters, not immediately connected to the open: Thomas (Dustin Hoffman), nicknamed "Babe", is a graduate student in history haunted by his father's suicide; he's just met a nice girl (Marthe Keller) in the library. Henry (Roy Scheider) and Peter (William Devane) are operatives for an unnamed agency; right now they're in Europe. Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) is a Nazi war criminal who has been living in Uruguay for the past thirty years. An attack on Henry's life alerts them that something's up, which will have them all converging on New York.

There are a couple action beats in the movie's first half, and they're fairly brutal fights you would not want to be in. Mostly, it's a slow and deliberate examination of Babe's and Henry's worlds. We see the punks in Babe's crappy neighborhood laugh at him as he trains for marathons and the tradecraft Henry uses. We can't quite be sure that Henry's one of the good guys, even when we see that there's a connection between him and Babe. It's not until Szell arrives in New York that things start to get nasty.

Full review at EFC.

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