The difference between the two obsessive quests in The Searchers (1956) and French Connection II (1975) is one of quantity: Popeye Doyle’s one goal, revenging himself on the hedonistic narcotics king, Charnier, to hell with everything else! involves more staccato cuts, more bits of cheerful Mediterranean color, more focus changing, and, especially more mobility and paranoia in Hackman’s acting than occurs during the entirety of Ethan Edward’s (John Wayne) endless Monument Valley search for little white Debbie (Natalie Wood) who, unthinkable for a Wayne-Ford adobe epic, has been cohabiting rather sensibly with a Comanche chief named Scar.
Effulgence, luxuriance . . . the new Hollywood film multiplies everything, trying to get the mythic aspect as well as a very contemporaneous attitude about candidness, what does candidness mean as a way of life? Old studio works like Double Indemnity (1944) stick to one hard-boiled attitude about the Forties in the L.A. suburbs: the camera-lighting-acting-language is dry, deadpan, and along with its clipped, blunt pace, adds up to a unified experience. Why does the new film try for so much within the genre system? Scorsese’s movie (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) about a woman’s search for fulfillment is an updating of an old Stanwyck tearjerker in which a gutsy woman isn’t going to give up; Scorsese’s movie surrounds this Stanwyck structure with down-to-earth feistiness, mythic glamour, and a fairy-tale quality. Godfather II is a gangster movie that’s come a long way since Scarface; the production is grander than that of Gone with the Wind and its gangsterism becomes a portrait of America, from the hopes of Ellis Island to the unspeakable obscenities of Las Vegas.
The mushroomed technique and attitude in Godfather-Alice-Jaws-Night Moves is talking about a bountifulness that has to do with a new grasp of the entertainment film, a new belief in speaking to a mass audience. There’s a tremendous euphoria and confidence banked into California Split, even the puzzling Mike Nichols comedy, The Fortune. From editor to writer, the crew making these films is young (at least in spirit), educated, and composed of a Quiz Kid student of film who has spent vast amounts of time just studying the poster of Forty Guns, or what Ferguson wrote about the iron fence in Citizen Kane. With such box office-prestige winners as Last Picture Show and Godfather, this group of mutual supporters have taken over the Seventies.
French Connection II comes from a financial structure in which all the chips are riding on a dozen blockbusters per year instead of the fifty-two annually turned out by a Darryl Zanuck and fed into theaters Fox once owned. Where Walsh-Capra-Wellman created prolific oeuvres cranking out movies each tailored to the dimensions of a Warners or Columbia film, the new directors often speed from one studio-genre-producer to another, creating a Four Musketeers one-for-all, all-for-one atmosphere.
In place of the Jim Thorpe versatility which generated so many Forties- Fifties films where one Sturges-Welles-Fuller did all the jobs, the vibrations today in the cutting rooms are Happy Days Are Here Again, and perhaps something of the feeling that it can’t be true: “Could we really have won all those Oscars? Is it really me who dashes off a high-priced script in thirty hours and flies to Rome for a Dino de Laurentis confab? Only yesterday I was an usher at The New Yorker and trying for a Howard Hawks autograph.”
“Now that we’ve run off those Sixties punks (Godard, Jim McBride, the first Truffaut films, Rocha, the ass-poking Kuchar brothers) who tried to crumb up the genre movie,” a Bogdanovich director says to the world, “we can really have some fun, wear some fancy summer linens, and screen Young Mr. Lincoln every night in our own bedroom . . . with our own classy chick beside us.”
Comparing the image of The Thing (1951) with any frame from Scorsese’s Alice is like comparing a clean, neat square to a luxuriant garden which might turn upside down, where one portion is hard to see but one or two bewitching flowers are in sharp focus, and where a till-now benevolent gardener may turn into a frenzy of sadism and jeering. Scorsese’s movies are about youth’s dream squelched-by-the-adult-verities, the charismatic fullness of a jungle cat punk, a feisty ten-year-old, a vulgar and good-natured veteran waitress, and a visceral apprehension about an eager-messy world, a reaction he transmits through a saucing, glamour technique. He has a romantic appreciation for Life, which remembers an actor’s best moves and generously supplies the time for full-scale exposition.
Using a nervous-generous hoopla of real to camp techniques, the makers of Alice set up Harvey Keitel’s country-boy stud so that his every move is repellently slick but excitingly canny and detailed. All of Keitel’s scenes are contrived but stick in the brain, particularly the one in which he tries to pick Alice up after a singing turn. Ben is a man with a funny trade (he fills bullet cases with gun powder) and he plays a little boy game, disarming by persistence and a refusal to recognize a brushoff. The exhausted and irritated Alice can hardly look at this pest, “God, not another one.” Keitel’s careful improvising gradually breaks Alice down and seems to throw the actress, Ellen Burstyn, off stride, springing her into what she does best: a gutsy and undisguised presentation of a woman who’s lived a lot, lost a lot, and who throws all her scars at you. The scene sinks into itself and becomes its own time and place. A great plus for the Alice movie is that it does have these quiet pockets.
So what’s being said here is that Hollywood has leaped into a new studio saddle, long after the studio system is supposed to have expired. The studio now is one large, pliant, amicable structure run by a group of Squire Allworthys rather than Jack Cohn or Warner Mayer. These chesty optimistic nomads— writers, set designers, editors—move fast and comprise a large familial network behind the scenes. The importance of this gemütlichkeit phenomenon is that it is creating a new type of film, a sort of hybrid, which crosses a mythicized genre film with a mushroomed aestheticism. Like any film since 1959, it has been indelibly touched by the process-oriented innovations which began with Breathless. The process element in Godard’s mercurial, never pat soundtracks or Bertolucci’s sumptuous color and grandiloquent camera motion have by now been domesticized. The result: a cheerful, full movie fleshed out with TV’s audience-grabbing mechanisms, inflected by an omnipresent, overwhelming showboat technique, and, whether the subject is an illusive menace haunting Amity (Jaws), an heiress being fleeced by two bumbling losers in a totally actionless frame (The Fortune), or an introspective Sam Spade tossed around by a case that starts with a cliche aging actress and ends with several cliche water shots in the Florida Keys (Night Moves), the movie is unconsciously talking about the familial triumph and mass appeal philosophy of the new filmmaking alliance based in San Francisco and L.A.
From one angle, these movies are about the cheerful possibilities of being sheltered, covered, having a buddy ethic, etc. The population being depicted in The Fortune (a mock family), California Split (pals), The Passenger (two women pushing their man into Commitment), Jaws (buddies), and Night Moves (instant intimacy with anyone Harry Moseby meets) is mostly asserting family values as being above criticism. Each movie takes its own route into this theme. Coppola’s family (Godfather II) finishes by eating itself up. The structure is a series of family events, past and present, in which the technique (slow tracking shots through crowded space, setting up scenes that have the sentiment and color of old postcards, giving his De Niro–Brando characters a statuesque stillness that suggests power, setting up two-person scenes which create the sense of a Boss-serf relationship) often involves the humiliation of someone who has strayed from the family. Scorsese never divulges the reality of Alice’s day-today survival process. Alice is continually acquiring substitutes for a family, while the technique (a spotty lighting system, an overly dramatic camera conveying a lot of movement and mood, the glamourizing of non-star types) has the effect of spicing up the material. In The Fortune, three people without a past or future are doomed to be buddies all the time: the whole film is about bumbling and incompetence, in which the rote-like procedure (a classic cooking scene like the one in Hitchcock’s Frenzy, hardly examined or entered) suggests that the three incompetents are in a perpetual primitivism.
In French Connection II, Frankenheimer’s ease in France reveals itself with fast day-to-day talk in a police station, a great second knife (Philippe Leotard) in constant lean motion like an efficient stiletto, and his allowing Renoir’s rhapsodic camera to go on, never stopping him. The movie is one cheerful, snappy family in a town that seems incredibly fast and rough.
Finding Frog I in French II is cued to Hackman’s motion and malice slob persona (no friends, a ratty hotel, dowdy clothes, and, except for P.J. Clark’s blood-oozing burgers, he wouldn’t know good from bad food) the way the Lana Turner film was cued into her still shot glamour. Hackman’s Popeye is physically active to a point where, like Keitel-Nicholson-Burstyn in full momentum, he is visually ungraspable. Just what kind of a body does Popeye have (Hackman’s Harry Moseby in Night Moves is another story: he’s laid back, looking tall, sexy, with a Newmanesque grace) when he’s scrunched-to-running as a three-week junkie in a crummy Marseilles basement, clammy with massive stone walls out of Les Miserables. If they really want him to recover, why couldn’t Frankenheimer get him a less TB-arthritis-infested room. He’s always scrunched up, sweating, often in a tantrum, running madly through the streets: like Pacino in the Needle Park film, he’s a darting performer who inflects off the gag’s center, falling away from the action.
My favorite scene: a very vulnerable Popeye, nearing the final stages of his cold turkey, is taken for an around-Marseilles ride to locate the fleabag where he was shot up. The subdued, quiescent, enfeebled Popeye is neatly countered by the jangle of Marseilles streets and Renoir’s jerky camera shots. As a handsome girl goes by with an ice cream cone, Hackman answers from the rear: “I’d like some of that.” His French counterpart, a sluggish Bernard Fresson, warns, “It would kill you right now.” Popeye answers: “I mean the ice cream,” and the windup is a quiet, meditative eating of the ice cream. Unlike the pointed embarrassment of a cellar speech explaining baseball, “the dandy southpaw Whitey Ford,” to an uncomprehending Fresson, the car scene is played-photographed off-center, creating space that’s not dependent on virtuosity but lets in a sensually complex world.
The danger of genre movies is the tyranny of the plot, the domination of the male hero (Alice Hyatt is an exception), and the fact that, despite the yen for rack focus, dusky lighting, sun-blanched backgrounds, and tunnel vision, the movie is still tied to the hero’s upper torso, or two bodies clamped dead center in an empty wide screen. Good improvisation and an actor who lets it all hang out hide these dangers, but are also ironically the cause of them. The idolatry and dependence on the hotshot actor leads to total contradiction. Alice Hyatt’s trial run in a sparsely populated Tucson bar should be a desperate occasion. Her voice has no resonance, there’s no phrasing, and at no point is she working to improve vocally other than in her repartee with her upstaging kid. The scene gets a one hundred percent glamour treatment. In these films centered around one or more hotshots, both the environment and the feeling of process withers. When the new hybrid film is at its best (Hackman’s ice cream act), its reality seems to be about waiting, spending time: there is the sense of the plot being off frame, happening next door.
with Patricia Patterson; July 20, 1975
From Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, edited by Robert Polito (The Library of America). Used with permission of the publisher.