In the vast majority of auteurist writing on Tony Scott, his hefty, multi-faceted body of work is split misleadingly into three phases: the early “art films” (One of the Missing, Living Memory, L’auteur de Beltraffio, The Hunger), the proficient, sometimes boneheaded spectacle films (Top Gun through to Enemy of the State), and the later, more abstract films (Spy Game onwards). Around about the time of Enemy of the State Scott’s work underwent a famed aesthetic transformation; taking the core ideas of all of his preceding blockbusters and blowing them up into dense, super-edited mutant hailstorms of sound and colour. Today, a couple of months after his death, viewing the films as symptomatic of a larger trend in filmmaking can indeed be instructive, but too frequently suffocates the nuance that existed film-to-film throughout his filmography. The idolatry of the later films’ greatest achievements overlooks the boneheadedness of films like Déjà Vu and Domino and disparages the well-crafted thrills of Crimson Tide or Enemy of the State.
My question is simply this: is Tony’s really an oeuvre divided? The films credited to “Tony Scott”—the unquestioned elder-god of the vulgar auteurists—and those “written and directed by Anthony Scott” reveal their similarities/differences in an interesting push-pull of both conflicting and converging images and ideas. Starting at the early films, one sees that the most consistent line that can be drawn through all of his vast body of work is the almost obsessive impulse to complicate on a frame-by-frame basis: constantly “adding” in order to emphasise artifice and to fracture space and time, and simultaneously—through this very “mixing pot” style of shooting and editing—to flatten broad gestures and overarching structure and design into spectacular glass panoramas, in which the characters actually become their own psychologies. This applies to films as heterogeneous as True Romance, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, The Last Boy Scout, or Beverly Hills Cop II—or Top Gun for that matter, which as a movie doesn't hold much water, but as an overblown, complex, florid showreel for the U.S. Naval Air Force, with its stunning “Take My Breath Away” sequence, it never fails to bring home the bacon.
So I watch his first film, a short adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s One of the Missing, and am reminded straight away of Man on Fire (the remake). Denzel Washington’s bodyguard becomes a will-o-wisp that flickers solemnly at the centre of an intense cinema maelstrom. The soldier in One of the Missing finds his madness exploding uncontrollably outwards from his severed head, slipping between nightmare and reality in a way that predates (and surpasses) 127 Hours. The film as a whole—angular, disjointed and showy—is powerfully inward-moving and extremely puzzle-like. Man on Fire is a flurry of protean images, and this shorter, "artier" film shares the same instability.
Scott’s roaming camera at first follows the soldier moving through the countryside, peeking out at him through cobwebs of thickety branches, observing his hunt for the enemy soldiers, but quickly jumps into the space of his mind as a blistering canon blast obliterates the dilapidated ruin he's hiding in, burying the soldier under the rubble. The landscape of the film morphs radically. The soldier, pinned down, screaming, eyelashes flaked with dust, stares straight forward down the cold barrel of his own rifle—only recently loaded—which is now poking out of the ruins in front of him.
Scott’s camera is maddening: he points it right into the soldier’s grit-caked face, zooming quickly in and out, stabbing, splicing. With eyes like spider's eggs, and spittle gathering at his lips, the man becomes an alien figure—the sound of his wailing at this point is separate from the montage and is steadily blanketed by the same mechanised drone heard in Ray Gun Virus (Paul Sharits, 1966). A spider slowly crawls towards the tip of the gun, tenderly lowering itself into the darkness.
Perhaps it is just me who finds here an adolescent impression of that agonising scene towards the beginning of Man on Fire where Creasy points a gun at his temple, but like the soldier willing himself to silence his agony, it is the gun itself that fails to fire. Creasy sees the failure as act of divine providence that is channeled through the saintly young girl watching over him from her balcony, yet in One of the Missing the failure is but a tiny flicker of mercy cruelly extinguished. On the night following Scott’s suicide, listening to the director’s commentary on the Man on Fire disc, a few ghostly words reached out from through the ether: “In my opinion the toughest thing anybody can do is to take their own life.”