The cinephile's gaze has long appreciated the smaller, modest beauties of old films. (Not even "authored" films: I mean the beauties of the chaff as well as the wheat.) Yet the disposable, omnipresent, generic films of our more recent past are slowly seeping into historical perspective as well. What if a person were given a copy of The American Cinema and a discard box of VHS tapes, and simply told to work things out from there? What could we find by looking at these films and according their significant elements their tiny, absent fanfare?
Diary of a Hitman (Roy London, 1991)
Like a cross between Boiling Point (James B. Harris, 1990) and What Happened Was... (Tom Noonan, 1994), Diary of a Hitman constructs a scenario of generic neo-noir and talky, stagey, emotionally voluble interpersonal exchanges. The film is strange but not quirky, humble yet probing. Few movies have seemed to be such appropriate platforms for Whitaker's whispery, wounded kind of swagger. Denzel Washington (in Tony Scott's 2004 Man on Fire) or Anthony LaPaglia (in Mark Malone's 1994 Killer, another movie we might examine in the future) wouldn't exist as this kind of a unstylish, unstylized hitman—not in this world of mundane apartments art directed to avoid panache. Places are furnished with phone books and mouthwash and newsprint and catalogue furniture. The scene under consideration here could have been shot in any boring middle class apartment circa 1990. The sample paint on the wall is a nice touch. Whitaker's character Dekker, charged by some asshole with the execution of said asshole's naïve young wife (Sherilyn Fenn) and child, shows up at the apartment to make the hit. Dekker's personal sensitivity seems to stem from mundane, slow-burn frustrations—quotidian inconveniences and pressures. This is a low-key way to cast an assassin's heart of gold. In this scene, Sharon Stone, playing the target's sister, shows up before the execution can take place. Briefly, there's an intriguingly conceived sequence—isolated medium shots of Whitaker, Fenn, and Stone ping off of one another. The shots in themselves are nondescript; they're conventional. But it's the texture that context gives the shots. The script has efficiently set up nuanced emotional states each of its characters, each of which is distinct and butts against the other two. So as eyeline matches shift (Whitaker, Fenn, Stone), each cut brings the energy of two incompatible emotional states. This is not a virtuosic moment. Far from it. It is instead the performance of modest ingenuity, humming along, contrary to the most discernible imperatives of the post-studio era industry. Perhaps this could remind a person of certain old B-movies … where modest craft might in its own quiet way, prove inspired to those who have eyes to look.
Part of our on-going video series, The Last Place You Look