Thursday, July 12, 2012

On the importance of jumping only to the right conclusions

A bit of a change in theme today - this is a film review, in association with The Wife's "The Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never made" Blogathon, hosted by The Wife's blog, Tales of the Easily Distracted, and Classic Becky's Brain Food.  There's about fifty people writing about films that mimic, honor, flagrantly ransack and are just plain inspired by the work of The Master of Suspence.

Of all the things Hitchcock did well, the finest is how he could place average people in unique situations, and let their paranoia run amok.  Until the moment that his main character seized control of the situation and turned it on his pursuers, they'd be running blind, not knowing who to trust.  Sometimes the audience would have more information than the character did, which served only to increased their shared sense of worry - the character would be having a casual conversation, unaware there was a bomb in the room, set to go off in seconds..

In 1997, much-lauded playwright David Mamet wrote and directed The Spanish Prisoner, a drum tight con-job movie that keeps its main character, repressed genius Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) off-balance almost from the start, for all the wrong reasons.  He's guided happily down, off, and back on the proverbial primrose path throughout the film, and you with him.  Only until the climax of the film are you provided with the traditional bit of extra info that puts you in the lead of Joe, and only for a few minutes.

Joe works for Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara, a good actor), CEO of a company of no solid description.  Joe has developed a "process" for the company - we never learn more about it, other that it is complicated, promises impossible profit, and must be guarded scrupulously.  In other words, a perfect Hitchcockian McGuffin, or "The thing that everybody wants but nobody knows what it is, and it doesn't matter".  Joe has been brought to a private island in the Caribbean to present the process to Klein's investors, with the assistance of his friend George Lang (magician Ricky Jay) and secretary/assistant Susan Ricci (singer Rebecca Pidgeon, now AKA Mrs David Mamet).  Joe and Susan do not know each other, but they hit it off as Joe allows himself to relax after giving his presentation.  Taking photos of each other on the beach, Joe is approached by a man named Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin in a dead serious and truly astounding role) who was accidentally captured in a photo, and offers Joe $1,000 for the camera.  Instead, Joe hands the camera to Jimmy, no strings attached, a move which moves, and somewhat embarrasses Jimmy.  He and Joe begin chatting - Jimmy is on the island with a princess of a country no longer on the map; Joe remains quiet about why he's there.  After a pleasant evening of drinks, Jimmy asks Joe to "perform a service" for him - he has a small package he'd like Joe to deliver to his sister in New York, and Joe agrees.

"They didn't get OFF the seaplane; they came from the
DIRECTION of the sea plane"
On the plane, Susan, a chatty little ball of enthusiasm, begins to blather on about how people are often not what they appear.  Case in point, Mr. Jimmy Dell.  Susan rambles on about how they don't know anything about the man, he could be anyone.  Joe smiles and nods through her meanderings; it's only when she begins to mention "Drug mules", people who get asked to carry packages for strangers that Joe's ears and nerves prick up.

He tears open the package in the lavatory, only to discover it contains a vintage book on tennis, along with a note to Jimmy's sister, suggesting she get to know the gentleman bearing the gift.  Unfortunately, in his zeal, Joe has damaged the cover.  When they land in New York, he purchases another copy of the book, swaps it in the packaging, and drops it off at the woman's apartment house, too embarrassed to deliver it in person.

Now at this point, Joe's suspicions about Jimmy subside, but the too-smart-for-the-movie audience will suspect that the McGuffin will turn out not to be the process, but the damaged book that Joe innocently exchanged with a copy.  I shall save you time - it's not. 

Joe and Jimmy meet up again in New York, and a friendship grows quickly.  Joe begins to open up about his job, and while not revealing the details of his process, lets slip that he's afraid that he may not be fairly remunerated for his hard work.  Jimmy offers to assist - he suggests they discuss things with a lawyer versed in contract and copyright law. 

But when Joe stops by the apartment house of Jimmy's sister, only to find out that he HAS no sister, Joe begins to realize that he may be blundering into something that could get into great trouble.  He contacts the FBI, and sure enough, they've been after the guy for years.  Joe agrees to help them sting Jimmy.

And believe it or not, THAT'S when things go pear-shaped.

The twist at the halfway point of the movie is sublime in its elegance; the twist near the end is perfectly shocking, especially if you remain naive and don't try to "guess the ending".  I SO want to discuss them in great detail, but since it's a film not many have seen, I'm loath to spoil it for you. 

 As I mentioned before, Hitchcock would often let the audience in on information that the hero does not have - by doing so, he lets you know that a situation is far more dangerous than the hero is aware, so instead of wondering what will happen next, you know damn WELL what will happen next, and are screaming at the screen for him to get outta Dodge. They don't do that at all in this film, save for at the very end, when you realize exactly how long Joe's been getting played. He catches up quickly however, though unlike the usual Hitchcockian hero, he never quite gets the chance to turn the tables to his advantage.  The last moment where we're supposed to hear the whole plot from the villain's lips is a hilarious to a similar expository scene in North by Northwest - in both cases, it points to the fact that the details are, in reality, immaterial.  It doesn't matter that the diamonds are in the badman's left or right shoe, only that he's going to be caught, eventually.

There's one thing I must address, even though it may serve to spoil a surprise to a degree. The eponymous con of the title is never actually pulled in the film. "The Spanish Prisoner" is a classic con, currently being used by endless Nigerian bankers. In it, a person claims to be a refugee dignitary of a foreign country, who was unable to escape with his riches. If you (the mark) can assist him with only a small advance of funds, he will gladly share the riches with you when they are liberated. Sometimes they even have a lovely sister who will be pleased to marry you. With all the window dressing pulled away, Joe falls for a simple slight-of-hand swap known as The Murphy, which I think you'll agree, is not as good a title. Ironically, The Spanish Prisoner is the main con used in one of Steve Martin's OTHER films, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  Michael Caine is the main con artist in that film, making a good living off of playing an exiled prince, bumming chips off of naive housewives in Monte Carlo.  Steve Martin's the apprentice in that one, and they both end up combating a third con-man, known only as "The Jackal".  But that, as they say, is another story.

Like so many films with a con-job at its core, it's a film that must be watched twice.  Enjoy the first run through with innocent eyes - don't start looking for the tells.  On the second run through, you'll see how expertly not only Joe is set up, but the audience.  The first shot in the film is called back for the final twist, and an offhand comment by Susan while in the tropics serves to put you at ease about something that, again, when you re-watch it, you'll be amazed you missed.  I almost want to write a second essay expressly to be read after watching the film, so as to freely discuss the twists and surprises.

The script, as should be obvious by now, is expert.  The directing is very indicative of Mamet - When we first meet many of the characters, they speak in a very clipped, almost formal tone, in rather short sentences.  They open up and relax a bit as they grow more friendly with each other, but it's an interesting thing to see the change.  Ricky Jay's role is short, but memorable - he passes through the film like a three-piece suited Confucius, dropping pearls of wisdom like "Beware of any enterprise which requires the purchase of new clothes".  As mentioned before, Steve Martin is stellar as Jimmy Dell - a perfectly straight performance, without so much as a double-take.  He was so good, I'd sorely love to see him in another film with no laughs.

Sgt. Bilko doesn't count.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

On the Danger of Feeding the Trolls

As you may know, a lot of episodes of the early days of television are lost, presumably forever.  Partially as a cost-saving measure, and partially because they literally never imagined people would want to re-watch TV shows, a lot of video tape was erased and re-used, and a lot of film was thrown away or burned.  Even Doctor Who, considered one of the best Sci-Fi shows ever made, has tragic gaps in its collection.  As a rule, anyone who has episodes of the show have been asked to come forward, and the BBC will only ask to make a copy of the episodes; no questions asked, you keep your original.  It's always a joy to hear that an episode or two have been found, sometimes from TV Station archives, sometimes from private collectors.

So, a few months back, I ran a review of Julie Newmar's series, My Living Doll, which was just released on DVD.  It's listed as "Volume 1", not because a second volume is planned, but because only 11 episodes of the 26-episode series are known to exist, and they wanted to make it clear that it wasn't the complete series.  They even listed one of those episodes as Bonus material, as they didn't think the quality was good enough to charge money for. 

They actually had the whole run, but fifteen episodes were lost in the Northridge Quake of 1994.  They spent six years trying to find as much of the series as they could.  Believe me, eleven episodes is a TRIUMPH - for the years I've been a fan of the show, I only knew of four. So they played as fair as they could, and I was more then happy to get what we got.

The reviews on Amazon were pretty positive, save for one fellow who really took them to task for "only" releasing 11 episodes.  He seemed to think that this was a multi-volume dodge, as opposed to it being all they had.  So he slapped two stars on it and left a short, nasty review.

Which all the OTHER fans of the show began to...oh let's go with "rebut with extreme prejudice".  Classic "I can say anything I want I am anonymous" stuff - insults, references to farm animals, the usual.

But here's the thing.  Then the guy says that he has two additional episodes of the show in his film collection.  This was met with suspicion by the commenters, but the producers of the DVD tracked the guy down, and started negotiations to get the copies.

The comment thread, being on the Internet, turned uglier, and the epithets blew thick and fast.  Some of the comments got deleted, and I can only imagine what kind of line they crossed to earn that. After a conversation that referenced the rude comments on Amazon (over which which nobody involved had any control), The fellow stopped taking the calls of the producers.  He popped back up announce that because the Internet had hurt his feelings, not only does he have no plans to offer the episodes to the producers, he plans to burn them.

The guys over 65 (based a small bit of research) and is likely not used to the vituperatives and invective tossed about casually on the Internet.  But threatening to destroy the episodes is an overreaction, and if it's as a result of the commenters, they might have to do some thinking about how they do things.

Now, there's no way to know if the guy was on the up-and-up, or if he was as much of a troll as the folks who insulted him.  But he had been talking to the producers, and progress was being made.  But to lose any bits of classic TV over a couple of comment thread insults would be an absolute shame.

Not everybody on the Internet knows when you're just being witty, or engaging in good-natured ribbing.  Sarcasm does not work well in test, acronyms and emoticons notwithstanding.  There is no way to know how someone is going to take your comment.  A shred of decorum could go a long way to keeping a situation from getting out of hand.  hopefully this will be the worst thing that ever comes of these people's electronic slings and arrows.