This movie, about populist demagoguery in America, is pretty upsetting in itself, but what's worse is that the dystopian fascist conspiracy it depicts—a scheme to kick random sections of the black populace off relief in New Orleans—is so small-scale.
And we find, examining American film history, that Sinclair Lewis's novel It Can't Happen Here has never been filmed, and that filmmakers have tended to take his title as a statement of truth. A Face in the Crowd reassuringly tells us that Americans always get wise to would-be dictators before it's too late. We have very few movies that take the idea of a tyrant getting elected and run with it. There's Gabriel Over the White House, but that's an MGM film so naturally it views the idea of a despotic zealot in the Oval Office as a good thing. The Dead Zone offers a glimpse of such a future, but demonstrates that such a fate can be averted even after it's been prophesied.
Stuart Rosenberg was a very stylish and dramatically sound filmmaker, on a good day. I still remember the shock impact his Cool Hand Luke had on me as a kid: the first movie I ever saw without a reassuring happy ending. Well, WUSA is certainly depressing, and Rosenberg uses all his skill with anamorphic widescreen to put it over in a compelling way. The script seems to be missing huge, essential bits of plot and character development; adapted by Robert Stone from his own 1967 novel, A Hall of Mirrors, it feels like important narrative glue has been omitted.
It also feels like a network narrative at first, with parallel lines of action featuring disparate characters, but the various threads both do and do not weave together. Too much time is spent with Paul Newman, whose character fails to develop, and not enough with Anthony Perkins, whose character leaps forward in confusing jolts, eventually plunging us into a reprise of The Manchurian Candidate's assassination climax.
(When Hitchcock met John Frankenheimer, he asked him why Laurence Harvey, as the assassin, kept the light on in the room where he prepared his sniper rifle. "Because that's what you would have done," suggested Frankenheimer. "Quite right," said Hitch, "Because the audience always wants to see what the villain is doing." WUSA leaves its assassin, and its audience, in the dark. Oh, and it has Laurence Harvey in it, which adds to the unfortunate sense of deja vu.)
But. Stone writes really good scenes, and Rosenberg can sure shoot them and his actors can sure play them. The following exchange takes place in a New Orleans branch of the Playboy Club, apparently a real location, decorated in the colors of the swastika. Anthony Perkins as the tightly-wound Rainy, who Newman's character calls "a moralistic twitch," confronts one of his paymasters, having discovered that he's been working for the wrong side, facilitating a fake survey for the plot throw people off welfare.
"I want to hear you tell me—what have I been doing in those slums all year?"
"Well, I tell you, you're way off base coming up here, boy. I mean, you try to shake us down, we give you great big trouble."
"What have I been doing all year, I want you to tell me."
"Now listen: our survey is M.T. Bingamon's operation, I'm acting for him. Now boy, we can stomp on you and your whole damn family. You know that. Anyhow, nobody cares about that collection of unwed mothers and pimps you got down there; that is, nobody but the goody-goodies. Here, lemme ask you something, what is it you—"
"I have you. I have your name and the sight of you, but I want your boss."
"I get it, you one of them fanatics, huh?"
"Yeah, well you shouldn't have been allowed in here, lemme tell you something, I mean, you see, we don't deal on a personal basis, I mean, we don't have nothing to do with personalities, just no personal involvement whatsoever."
"You have a personal involvement with me. And so has your Mr. M.T. Bingamon."
"Rainy, look, I'm getting a little tired of this. I don't care if you're an eightball or anarchist or whatever the hell you are, but you gotta get one thing straight: you can not come into a public place and try to shake me down."
"Well I wish I could shake you down, I wish I could grind you and shake you to powder, but if I can't I can teach you fear. I think you're afraid of me already."
"Me, afraid of you?"
"That's right. Mm-hmm!"
"Let me tell you something, It's you that's gonna be afraid. You and all the dirty little scum like you. That's right, you just lie in bed at night and quake, everybody in this whole country that's out of line is gonna learn fear and that's going to be very shortly."
"There are some people in this country who are going to learn fear and there are some people who are going to un-learn it and that'll be very shortly."