MY FAVORITE NICOLE KIDMAN MOVIE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

The Peacemaker (1997)
D. Mimi Leder

“The truth is, I am not a monster. I’m a human man. I’m just like you, whether you like it or not.”

(Marcel Iures’s Dusan Gavrich in The Peacemaker)

“I’m not afraid of the man who wants ten nuclear warheads. I’m terrified of the man who only wants one.”

(Nicole Kidman’s Julia Kelly)

(NOTE: Spoilers included. I highly recommend seeing the movie first…but don’t forget to come back and read it later!)

There are millions of people walking around blissfully unaware of this, but Nicole Kidman is a big crit-illuminati favorite.

So far as I can tell, this is mostly a cover for geek males who have the hots for her (David Thomson wrote a whole book about her–I haven’t read it, but I’ve read enough of Thomson to know he’s an emotional fellow even when he isn’t thinking with his zipper so I ‘m guessing his book is Exhibit A), but plenty of women indulge as well. When she recently celebrated her fiftieth birthday, there were a lot of twitter threads devoted to allowing people to share (or show off) their deep awareness of the Nicole Kidman catalog.

Having missed out on all that–and having noticed that neither of my favorite Kidman movies came up on a single thread I followed, I decided to put my two cents in here.

There’s nothing rational about the illuminati‘s response, of course. Beautiful women have been driving people of both sexes crazy for as long as people have left a record of themselves.

It’s too bad, though, in this case, because Kidman really is a fine actress who has made a career of taking what are, by Hollywood standards, remarkable risks. She deserves the kind of even-handed scrutiny she’s never really gotten.

At least on the surface, where things count when we are judging the beautiful people, The Peacemaker isn’t one of those risk-taking roles. And it isn’t my favorite role of hers. For that you can go here.

But it is my favorite movie of hers.

It was released in the interim between the first attack on the World Trade Center (deemed unsuccessful because it only killed six people) and the second attack, which killed quite a few more and briefly caused a bit of consternation among the Overlord class, before they realized how little time and patience would be required for this, too, to be dumped down the memory hole as long as they stayed patient and refused to win any more wars. Turned out they were up to the task. We underestimate them at out peril.

But The Peacemaker still roils the placid surface they’ve striven so hard to maintain.

The film was a modest success, both critically and commercially. Exactly no one I know of put it on their list of favorite Nicole Kidman movies (which, after 1995’s genuinely unsettling To Die For, had already become a signifier of knowingness, what the kids call a thing) or favorite anything else.

Here’s Roger Ebert, with a fairly typical take:

At one point, trying to dismantle the bomb, the Kidman character tells a children’s choir director, “Get those kids as far away from here as possible,” and the kids scurry out the church door. A nuclear bomb is set to explode in under two minutes. If it does, it won’t help that the kids are four blocks down the street. If it doesn’t, the kids are safe where they are.

That’s illuminati-speak for, “I’m bored. Get back to amusing me.” and typifies the laziness that’s typical enough of the mindset to make it reasonable to assume it’s a prerequisite.

It happens that Kidman’s character doesn’t say anything remotely resembling “Get those kids as far away from here as possible.” She doesn’t say anything about the kids at all. It’s not likely she would, since they are running by her as she fights her way into the church.

She does tell the FBI agents who help her move the body to which the bomb is attached into an area of the church which will help diminish the bomb’s radiation yield (however marginally) if it goes off, to get out and evacuate as many people from the area as possible.

Ebert’s point might still hold….Except it also happens that the nuclear bomb is encased in a smaller bomb, which Kidman’s character is going to have to trigger in order to destroy the timer and keep the nuclear bomb from going off.

So, yes, the kids she didn’t evacuate (and the FBI agents she did) are much safer four blocks down the street than standing next to the smaller bomb, which does indeed, go off.

I noticed all this even when I saw The Peacemaker in the theater and have kept on noticing it ever since. Ebert seemed like a nice fellow, and his late career outreach to first rate younger critics like Matt Zoller Seitz and my blogging pal, Sheila O’Malley, was a real service, but was anyone ever better at not noticing?

And simple logistics aren’t all that Ebert–and, to be fair, pretty much everyone else–failed to notice.

The really big thing they failed to notice is that The Peacemaker’s ticking-time-bomb plot (well-handled, by the way–strictly as a thriller, it meets the J. Lee Thompson-John Sturges sixties-era standard, the highest there is), is a cover for the movie’s real theme, which is that the man who makes his way to Manhattan with a nuclear bomb in his backpack might have a point.

Post 9/11, that’s something even the few Western intellectuals who pondered it previously have been all too willing to forget.

And all of that–the pondering in the moment and the subsequent forgetting– plays to Kidman’s character in the movie and to the skill the actress brought to the role.

One of the things that went unnoticed at the movie’s release and has gone unnoticed since, is that Kidman’s Julia Kelly is a first-rate portrait of a woman operating in–and adjusting to–a man’s world. Not just any old man’s world, mind you, but one put under the most extreme duress imaginable: a scenario where nuclear bombs have been stolen (in the movie’s tense opening sequence, which concludes with one of them going off in the Ural Mountains), and one of them is missing and presumed headed to New York.

After that “failed” bombing in 1993, that was always the threat.

New York, it seems, is full of symbols.

In The Peacemaker the symbolic target is the United Nations, but, really, it could be any symbol of Western power and prestige. It’s our symbols, as much as our reality, that Marcel Iures’s Dusan Gavrich wants to destroy.

And it’s Julia Kelly who stops him.

That’s significant.

She doesn’t stop him single-handed (this is a movie that works in part because, despite the Hollywood trappings, which, to be fair to Roger Ebert, are certainly there, keeps rubbing up against realities which have only become less comforting with time). This isn’t Woman turning into Kick-Ass She-Male and fulfilling every fourteen-year-old boy’s I-got-your-empowerment-right-here-bitch hand-job fantasies.

But Kelly has something to bring to the table and it’s that particular something that becomes crucial in the film’s final moments. Not so much her technical expertise (which does come in handy, but would have been possessed by any man who held the job that puts her in that position to begin with), as her understanding of the bomber’s motives.

While the men around her are focused on the logistics of hunting him down in a specific, ever-narrowing space, she’s trying to get inside his mind.

She can focus on that because she’s nobody’s idea of a warrior. An athlete yes. One of the film’s most effective sequences is the early segue from the nuclear explosion in a faraway mountain range to a shot of Kidman’s long body exploding out of a turn in an Olympic-size swimming pool where she goes for exercise. When she reaches the other end of the pool, the news of the real explosion is waiting for her.

The segue works in the short term, as solid film craft. But it works as character development, too, because by the end of the film, it will only be an athlete who can keep up with the Warriors (led by George Clooney’s Tom Devoe) tracking the bomber on foot through the streets of a Manhattan clogged by the easy panic and de facto martial law (now readily relatable to Boston’s response to the Marathon bombing and all the more effective for being glimpsed rather than dwelled upon).

But, even within a two-block Manhattan-specific radius, a man with a bomb in a backpack is a needle in a haystack.

Kidman’s Kelly finds the needle because she’s the one who has been focused on the why rather than the how all along.

And that focus has something to do with being, not a woman per se, but a woman in a man’s world. A woman who has stuck to her guns throughout, often in the face of male ridicule–has insisted that the bomber wants his act to have that symbolic meaning her Warrior partners (Devoe in particular) have continually dismissed as so much hooey.

Her Warrior partners put her in a position to just possibly save the day. They put her in the position to save the day because they possess qualities she does not.

But she saves it because she possesses qualities they do not. (And it’s not that no man could posses those qualities–it’s that no man who does would be likely to feel the need to prove himself in a man’s world. No man would need to be where Julia Kelly is the way she needs it.)

Then and now, plenty of people noticed the lack of sexual chemistry between Kidman and Clooney. A few people have noticed ever since that Clooney has rarely struck a spark with any of his leading ladies–like Paul Newman, he does his best work with other men. Almost no one seems to have noticed that, in The Peacemaker, sexual chemistry would be pointless, if not ridiculous. They’re trying to save the world. And what they do have is professional chemistry.

You know, the kind a woman needs to excel in a man’s world.

If it weren’t cased inside a well-made thriller, the world might have also noticed that Kidman’s performance is a finely tuned variation on those good old American standbys: The Striver and The Innocent.

They’ve often been intertwined–in the same stories or even the same characters–because they have an inverse relationship. The more one Strives–at least the more one strives for anything worth the effort–the less Innocent one becomes.

The Peacemaker was prescient in a lot of ways, large and small. The casual use of torture is standard (traceable at least as far back as To Have and Have Not, where it was admittedly a lot sexier–who doesn’t want to see Bogie pistol-whip a French Nazi?).

But most of the rest is a window on the world that has come to pass:

The cleverest and most committed terrorists are likely to come from the upper middle class. Russia will always be a player. Martial law tactics are always presumed effective by the people who made the need to “protect” us necessary in the first place. The defeated will always find ways to use our technology against us (exemplified here by an opening scene which sets the plot in motion with a man assassinated in his Orthodox church because he answers his cell phone and a closing scene where the man who took his place has set a bomb triggered by a Harvard-trained Pakistani on a timer that is ticking down inside a Catholic church half a world away).

There’s our increasing reliance on experts, special ops, and the movie stars who play them.

There’s tyranny loving a sniper.

And expedience the same.

There’s the man who wants one nuclear warhead still being more terrifying than the man who wants ten.

Heck, there’s even a Trump joke.

Laughs all around.

But, absent the habit of Not Noticing, The Peacemaker‘s slick surface can’t ease or erase its prickly insights.

The most prescient moment of all–striking truer than anything I’ve seen outside the history books regarding the true cost of Empire–comes when Dusan Gavrich, the Empire’s ultra-civilized victim, is explaining himself to Julia Kelly, the one who might understand.

Devoe’s Warrior, insistent upon logic in ways the Innocent Striver is not, breaks in.

“Sir, it’s not our war.”

Just before he shoots himself in the head, Gavrich’s face hardens into that of the Man of Chaos he never wanted to be.

“It is now.”

I remember that moment from the theater, too.

The innocent, striving days of 1997.

It stayed with me through the denouement that scrambled Roger Ebert’ s brain.

It’s with me still.

I watch it as often as I can, lest I begin not noticing.

(And now that’s out of my system….I’m off to see Wonder Woman.)

MY FAVORITE “ANYTIME” MOVIES….BY DECADE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Some time in the distant past when I used to listen to sports talk radio (and boy is that time getting to be distant), I heard a segment where a bunch of junior noncoms in the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade opined about movies they could literally sit down and watch anytime.

The DBCCB being what it is, Die Hard came up a lot.

Nothing against Die Hard, which I like, but I always thought I could do better ….so, being, as they say, snobby but not runny snobby:

The Thirties:

Carefree (1939, D. Mark Sandrich)

As many have noted, more a screwball comedy than a musical. As not enough have noted, a first class screwball comedy. And while it may not be a musical, strictly speaking, it does have Ginger doing “The Yam,” my favorite five minutes of film. My second favorite five minutes is Ginger, hypnotized, running loose with a shotgun, muttering “Shoot him down like a dirty dog!” while Luella Gear explains to Jack Carson that  “It’s probably one of the silly rules.”

The Forties:

Colorado Territory (1949, D. Raoul Walsh)

Walsh’s superior remake of his own High Sierra, the movie that made Humphrey Bogart a star. It’s easier to have sympathy for a western outlaw than a modern sociopath (even if the sociopath has had the rough edges smoothed away for the box office). Joel McCrea’s at his very best as a man looking for a second chance in the same wrong place he lost the first one, and VIrginia Mayo makes for one fetching half-breed. Plus it’s a heist flick, always a plus in my book.

The Fifties:

Rear Window (1954, D. Alfred Hitchcock)

Top drawer Hitchcock of course. It’s not so much remembered now, but this sat in the vaults for decades before being restored and re-released to theaters in the eighties. I took my mom to see it and, every time Grace Kelly came on the screen she would murmur, “Isn’t she so-o-o-o-o-o beautiful!” I could hardly disagree, but I thought I would go back a week or two later and watch it by myself, just to see what it was like without the sound effects. Met a girl from work in the lobby and, since we were both there by ourselves, it would have been rude not to sit together. First time Grace Kelly came on the screen: “Isn’t she so-o-o–o-o beautiful!” Interestingly enough, we spent the time before the movie mostly talking about a girl in our office who actually was the only woman I’ve ever known who was as beautiful as Grace Kelly in Rear Window, and had just quit to move back to Orlando. I found out a year or so later that she had wanted to date me, in part because I was the kind of guy who took his mother to the movies….Oh, wait. You thought I was gonna talk about the movie? Come on. You know about the movie. Hitchcock’s serious side and his comic side, perfectly married. That’s the movie.

The Sixties:

El Dorado (1967, D. Howard Hawks)

This is probably my all-time “anytime” movie. It’s a not-that-loose remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo, which everybody, including me, knows is “superior.” But there’s nothing in Rio Bravo I’d trade for the hour in the middle when John Wayne and Robert Mitchum are just a couple of roughnecks trying to keep law and order in a cowtown while Wayne keeps seizing up from the effects of a bullet in his back and Mitchum–with so little polish on him you can smell the whiskey, if not the vomit–is trying to dry out in time to dodge the next bullet. And if that’s not entertaining enough, I can always sit and ponder the mysteries of a universe where Michele Carey could smoke that many holes in the screen and fail to become a star.

The Seventies:

The Rockford Files: Season Four, Episode 8, “Irving the Explainer” (1977, D. James Coburn)

Not a movie. Okay, but there’s enough plot for three movies and it never gets resolved or leaves you wishing it would. People ask me what my favorite television series is and I say The Rockford Files. People ask me what my second favorite television series is and I say “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”  Pick to click:  “Let me get this straight: You have a client who has the same name as Herman Goering’s house?”

The Eighties:

Midnight Run (1988, D. Martin Brest)

Way funnier than Die Hard, and the action sequences are no sillier. I’m not sold on Robert De Niro’s serious mode. (The whole Brando school leaves me…bemused.) But there’s never been a better comic actor. Not even Cary Grant. Matched here by the entire cast, including Charles Grodin, who I can usually take only in the smallest doses.

The Nineties:

Wag the Dog (1997, D. Barry Levinson)

Preston Sturges for the Age of the Security State and a road movie to boot. We forget. That’s the only explanation for a world where this movie exists and you still have people running around crediting the CIA–or, better yet, “the intelligence community”–as a reliable source. Comic genius from Dustin Hoffman, the aforementioned Mr. De Niro and Anne Heche, as the Girl Friday from both Heaven (oh, the efficiency) and Hell (she doesn’t care the job or the master, she just wants to serve someone and, buddy, you better be it).

The Current Millenia:

I know we are in the second decade of the new millennia, but it hasn’t been the sort of millennia that produces a lot of things worth revisiting. Forget two, I’m surprised there’s one.

Knight and Day (2010 D. James Mangold)

That’s the whole movie right there. Two people who are amazed by each other. One’s a superspy and the other likes to work on cars. Guess which is which? This is almost enough to make me forgive James Mangold for his wretched remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Almost.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December, 2016 Edition)

As before, in reverse order, excluding Manchester By the Sea, which I wrote about here (17 days, 10 movies):

(NOTE: As before, “Umpteenth Viewing” means I’ve seen it more than five or six times and don’t feel like counting up exactly how many.)

December 11–From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it came to the multiplex and I hadn’t seen it on the big screen since the eighties. And because it still packs a punch no matter the screen size. Strong hints of the stretched-beyond-reason formalism that would mark the rest of Zinnemann’s career are already present. The movie has a de-lib-er-ate pace. It’s as if Zinnemann, an Austrian Jew who left Europe well before the rise of the Nazis and lost both his parents in the Holocaust, wanted to spend the rest of his career arresting time. No modern audience, bereft of memory, would sit still for it.

December 15–Valkyrie (2008, Bryan Singer, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the thrill of it. When I saw this in the theater, nobody in a packed house twitched. That’s despite the fact that at least some, like me, must have known the ending, since it’s a film which takes few liberties with the last known plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. I never tire of it. Perhaps because the real life event it depicts has that thing writers of fiction often spend entire lives searching for: the Perfect Plot. Singer made a decision to strip that Plot to its bare, pulp thriller bones and it moves. Going by in the background–and sinking in more with each repeated visit–is a depiction of a fully functioning police state which has rarely been bettered. And, finally, for Tom Cruise’s Claus von Stauffenberg saying “No one will be spared” to a man whose execution date is printed across the final frame.

December 17–How to Steal a Million (1966, William Wyler, Umpteenth Viewing)

For those faces and who wouldn’t? Oh sure, it’s a lovely comedy caper about stealing that statue (and who wouldn’t?), which belongs to the face on the right. And, as she puts it so eloquently, “You don’t think I would steal something that didn’t belong to me?” But I’d watch those faces doing piano recitals or planting petunias. Who wouldn’t?

December 18–Fun With Dick and Jane (1977, Ted Kotcheff, Second Viewing)

Because I hadn’t seen it in a while and wanted to give it another shot. It’s still pretty good. It’s still not better than pretty good. It moves along okay and has some fun moments. Best bits are still when Jane’s “Jane” goes all feminist though–never stronger than in her two piece by the pool. That and trying to guess which Jane is striving to communicate with us across time and space.

December 19–In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray, Fourth Viewing)

To commend whatever higher power assured that the King and Queen of noir, Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, made at least one film together, and that a director of Ray’s quality (he was then Grahame’s husband, though they were separated during the filming) was on hand to watch over things. It’s one of the few truly destabilizing films. There are no tricks–no surrealism, no funky dream sequences, no smoke dissolves, not even envelope-pushing sex or violence. The title is earned: by dialogue, performance, mood, setting, jagged rhythms. There’s interesting commentary in the new Criterion package which suggests both Bogart and Grahame were playing the screen characters closest to their real selves. Bogart’s real self would be dead in a few years. Grahame’s would end up sleeping with Ray’s son by another marriage when he was thirteen and marrying him when he was of age. None of that is in the plot here. All of it is in the air There’s a reason I’ve only seen it four times despite it being one of the ten best films I’ve seen once.

December 19–Three Days of the Condor (1975, Sidney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because who doesn’t want to relive 1975? Of course, everything 1975 dreaded, which this film does a fine job of conveying, has long since come and gone. Everything except one thing: the persistent metastasizing of the Security State. The movie slows down a bit too much in the middle but the beginning and end couldn’t be better, or more prescient.

December 23–Man of the West (1958, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Anthony Mann’s last great western and Gary Cooper’s last great performance. And for a thousand grace notes along the way, with Arthur O’Connell’s ability to wring tragedy from the fate of a cowardly fool touching me deepest this time around. Oh, and nobody could stage shootouts like Mann. Nor could anyone so deeply personalize violence….and never more deeply than here, where the set up is comic and the payoffs so indelibly brutal that the comedy goes clean out of my head and finds me utterly unprepared for it the next time around. Which might be why the have-done-with-it courage of Julie London’s rape victim (first spiritually, then physically, and it’s hard to say which is worse) never quite struck all the way home before.

December 25–Tiger Bay (1959, J. Lee Thompson, Umpteenth Viewing)

For one of the great thrillers; for the lively presence of working class, dockside Wales just before it was swept under by the tides of History; for the decency of John Mills “being himself” subverting what could have been a Javert-like role; for all sorts of other good reasons. But, of course, mostly for the startling, unprecedented, presence of twelve-year-old Hayley Mills, subsequently unrivaled, even by her. That presence is force multiplied by the film’s real plot–and real tragedy–which is a love story between star-crossed outsiders, separated not so much by the circumstance of a murder one of them has committed, but by a stitch in time that has left them man and girl instead of man and woman or even man and teenager. Perhaps Gloria Grahame would have known what to do. Horst Bucholz’s Bronislav Korchinsky does not. It is perhaps not coincidence that his best English-language work occurs here, opposite the only actress who could have loosened him up.

December 26–Eye of the Needle (1981, Richard Marquand, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the finely etched performances by Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan. Ken Follett’s good source novel made the forgivable mistake of portraying “The Needle”–a German super spy who has obtained knowledge certain of the Normandy invasion and is the only source an increasingly paranoid Hitler (see Valkyrie) trusts to give it to him straight–as a simple sociopath. More by the quality of his performance than anything obvious in the script, Sutherland conveys a man caught by a pang of conscience which cannot quite override his loyalty to a country he has not seen for years and must half-suspect he would no longer recognize. That allows Nelligan to become unhinged not so much by the presence of a monster, but the presence of this particular monster, who, only a minute before, seemed so much like a man she had dreamed into existence. That would frighten any woman into begging, “Stop. Please stop!” as she hunts him through the final scenes of one of the great modern thrillers. Marquand soon after got hung up in the universes of Star Wars and Bob Dylan and, coincidentally or not, died an early death. Who knows whether he had great things in him or this was just one of those lucky one-offs. I’ll continue to savor it, either way.

December 27–The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang, Umpteenth Viewing)

Forget Lee Marvin and Glenn Ford. This is the one where Gloria Grahame had chemistry with the carpet, not to mention the coffee pot. She looks like she could have sex with the air just by walking through it and leave the air begging for more. My favorite Lang and Lang is one of my Top Five directors. I have no idea why I can watch this truly disturbing movie over and over. I’m sure it does not speak well of me. But the way she says “And I did it!”  once the air and the coffee pots don’t want to have anything to do with her anymore is probably some sort of…influence.

Happy New Year!

THE MARSHAL FROM WICHITA….JOEL McCREA (AFTER HE WAS JOEL McCREA) AS WYATT EARP (BEFORE HE WAS “WYATT EARP”) (I Watch Westerns: Take Five)

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Happy to be taking part in Toby Roan’s Joel McCrea Blogathon. Toby blogs at 50 Westerns from the 50’s, which is on my blog-roll and highly recommended for anyone seeking a better understanding of a bottomless subject. His comment section alone is more informative than a lot of books. Anyway, I picked McCrea’s turn as a pre-legend Wyatt Earp in Wichita, one of many superficially unassuming westerns that have grown with time and repeated viewings. Please take the time to click on the link provided and peruse the other entries….There’s always much to learn, even on an average day.

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By the time (1955) Joel McCrea played Wyatt Earp, in Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita, both men were at the height of their fame and iconography. McCrea had been a major Hollywood star for a generation. Earp had been a legend, both in his own mind and elsewhere, for nearly three-quarters of a century.

Nonetheless, on paper it  wasn’t the most natural pairing.

McCrea was sufficiently laconic to give Gary Cooper a run for his money, while Earp’s legend had grown, in part, because of his flamboyance–both as a lawman and a story-teller. Still, in the age just after the closing of the Frontier and just before our present Return to the Primitive, Civilization was thought best managed by the sort of man McCrea was best at portraying. It was what made him a star then and what now leaves him vulnerable to memory’s fast-fade. You don’t quite have to be an aficionado–of Hollywood or the Western–to recognize the value of McCrea’s name in a credit. But, each year more than than the last, it helps.

The Laconic Hero certainly wasn’t all he could play, even in westerns. He wasn’t Preston Sturges’s main boy for nothing, and, in a stone-cold classic like Colorado Territory, he was able to give his rock-solid persona the sort of tiny, invisible nudge (common to the great leading men of his day, virtually unheard of now that everyone’s been to “acting school”), that made him more than credible as the lone competent man in a brutal hole-in-the-wall hold-up gang…and, oh-by-the-way improve on Humphrey Bogart’s star-making turn in High Sierra (of which Colorado Territory was a superior western re-make).

Still, by the fifties, he had grown comfortable in his more basic man-of-the-west persona, and that’s certainly at the core of his presence throughout Wichita.

It’s also part of what makes the movie deceptively quiet. Despite a surfeit of plot and action, plenty of Tourneur’s always deft and subtly impressive visuals, and a strong cast even by fifties’ western standards (Edgar Buchanan, Vera Miles, Walter Coy, Lloyd Bridges, Jack Elam, Robert Wilke…like that, plus an especially fine turn from Wallace Ford as a newspaper editor who’s seen it all before), it can fool you into thinking not much is going on.

Wyatt Earp–not then a name carrying the particular weight that attaches to any version of the Dodge City or Tombstone tales upon which Earp’s legend was built–comes to Wichita to start a business. Then the usual stuff happens.

He averts a holdup at the bank where he is about to deposit his money….

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He turns down a marshal’s badge because he’s not interested….

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He then takes the badge when it becomes evident he’ll never get a business off the ground in any place as wild and lawless as Wichita (the woman is cradling her dead child, just shot through an open window by the cowpokes who have taken over the town…and whose business the town desperately needs)…

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So he tames the town…

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And keeps it tamed….

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To the point where he can enjoy the fruits of his labor…

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In part by wooing the town’s prettiest girl. (Miles, just before she altered the worlds of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. And, while she’s fine here–when was she not?–and you can already learn things by watching her, it’s clear Tourneur, one of the period’s finest directors, didn’t see the qualities they saw. One of the distinctions between even great talent and genius I suppose).

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More than all that, he begins to accept his destiny as a “natural born lawman….”

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The man who can turn this…

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and this…

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into this…

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and this…

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And make it stick until he and the girl can ride off into the sunset, where–having both his history and his myth handy–we know he will clean up other, even more raucous towns, and, unlike most legendary western characters, live to make sure at least some of the tales get told the way he wants them told.

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Simple enough. But that basic story rests inside a larger, subtler one, one which involves a hard-headed look at small town politics, the responsibilities of leadership and power, the testing of character and, yes, the fragility of Civilization. How close the run is between here…

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and here…

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and here…where even those who rejected Civilization a moment before are suddenly reminded of its virtues.

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By movie’s end, McCrea (and his legend) and Earp (and his legend) have merged in a way that hardly seemed possible at the beginning, when the “pilgrim, probably looking for something to eat” approached a cattle drive that would soon shape his destiny.

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In that beginning, McCrea’s at his most lock-jawed and generic. He really could be almost anybody and it’s only upon reflection that you realize how perfectly that suits the Wyatt Earp who, as a later Prophet might have had it, is busy being born. In the world of 1955, or 2016, we expect anyone playing Earp to have a star quality that’s evident from the moment we set eyes on him. But McCrea, who was perfectly capable of exuding that quality, holds it in check as he rides into the movie. It’s preparatory to his playing Earp as a character we don’t know, and who perhaps does not yet know himself. Once you realize that–and I confess it took me several viewings, though of course that’s an acknowledgement there was always plenty to draw me back–the movie itself gets a whole lot more interesting.

It’s credible that McCrea’s Earp is the kind of man a couple of cowpokes would take for an easy mark. And just as credible that they lose first their sense of superiority, and, consequently, their lives, for their mistake.

That’s the sort of duality McCrea’s rare breed of actor specialized in. He had company in this regard, but you wouldn’t need much more than a card table to seat them. Gary Cooper. Randolph Scott. Just then coming on the scene, James Garner. Maybe Jimmy Stewart at a stretch. But you could be as great as John Wayne or Robert Mitchum or Kirk Douglas and never convince an audience that the dumbest cowpoke ever born could mistake you for a mark.

McCrea splits the difference between “aw shucks” and “don’t push me” so easily it could take the viewer just as long to notice as his adversaries do, even in a film where the adversaries aren’t limited to the obvious bad guys. That he’ll tangle with Bridges, Elam, Buchanan, is clear enough. Here, as elsewhere, they were hired to be the sort of men Joel McCrea would have to dispense with. They, too, could do other things, but it’s not asked of them here at the birth of Wyatt Earp, where they do what they do as superbly as ever.

This Wyatt Earp’s biggest run-in, though, is with Walter Coy’s character, Sam McCoy, and not just because he’s Laurie McCoy’s (Miles) father.

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Coy was a fine actor who was often hired to play basically decent but feckless men. This might be his best turn. He shifts from glad-hander to big shot to concerned father to vengeful widower to the film’s chastened conscience as easily and naturally as McCrea shifts from wanderer to lawman and it’s these performances, along with Ford’s beautifully underplayed curmudgeon and (underutilized though she is) the early peek at Miles, already shouldering the permanently thankless burden of representing Civilization, a heartbeat before The Wrong Man and The Searchers, that give the film enduring interest.

I don’t know if the interest is bottomless…But I feel like I’m a long way from being done with it yet.

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SAM SPADE AT THE MULTIPLEX (What Impressed Me This Week)

The Maltese Falcon
(John Huston, d. 1941)MALTESEFALCON1

Whenever classic films make it out to the hinterlands I make an effort to see them, partly in hopes that theaters will book more of them. I don’t know how much good it does. I paid double the usual matinee price for this one this week and saw it in the company of exactly one other patron.

But I’ll keep going anyway, if and when I can, because of the good it does me.

I’ve seen The Maltese Falcon well over a dozen times and read the book three or four times. This was even the third time I saw it on a big screen, (more than any Golden Age film except Gone With the Wind which I’ve seen four times in theaters). I can’t say I’ve always learned from it, though I’ve certainly always enjoyed it. But this time, it definitely stretched me, not entirely in pleasant ways.

One thing that’s always pleasant–and rewarding–is watching Humphrey Bogart’s face, and that’s probably the most important way the big screen enlarges the experience. Even the biggest televisions can’t offer the same opportunity for nuanced scrutiny of a performance like the one Bogart gave here, the one that truly shaped his lasting star persona. Remembering the masterful ways he deployed and varied that persona over the next decade and a half, in Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, The African Queen and even The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (where, to tell the truth, he went a tad self-conscious, though the overreach probably created the space where he found his take on Dix Steele in In a Lonely Place), it can become easy to forget the degree to which every bit of it–hence every shade of his celebrated modernity–was on display in The Maltese Falcon.

It’s not so easy to forget it when you’re watching the movie. Because it’s all there. The sardonic wit, the heroic (or, if you prefer, antiheroic) stoicism, the edge of pure sadism (including large doses of misogyny and homophobia which, were they anywhere near as prevalent in the iconic performances of, for instance, John Wayne, would surely be routinely excoriated by a left-leaning illuminati which has both insisted that the performance is the man and idolized Bogart for those very same qualities for half a century and counting), the assurance of the beast in the urban jungle who operates as a law unto himself, and the inability or unwillingness to separate any of these qualities from the rest, to regard any of them as less than absolutely essential.

Writing in the early seventies, Pauline Kael famously observed of Dirty Harry that “this action genre has always had fascist potential and it has finally surfaced.” But whether fascist is the right word for that potential (I’d argue not quite but that’s a long, interesting debate), there was no “finally” to it. The only meaningful distinctions between Sam Spade and Harry Callahan are the hare-vs-tortoise speeds at which their respective brains work and whatever dime-size wedge can be put between Spade’s sort of private eye serving the inept police and Callahan’s sort of policeman serving the even more inept public.

What Kael might have been getting at was that Clint Eastwood’s Callahan made it impossible to continue either missing or dismissing the above-and-beyond-the-law dynamic that Bogart’s Sam Spade had hardly concealed, though he at least made you swallow it with a smile.

It could all be very seductive.

Dorothy Parker, who I’d rate as an even sharper knife than Kael, may have started the whole “white knight” school of lit-crit that became so curiously bound up with the rise of the hard-boiled detective genre when, in her review of Dashiell Hammett’s source novel for TMF, she declared that Spade had made her go spoony in the same way that Sir Lancelot had when she was a wee lass.

That’s a dangerous spell for any man to cast. Especially when he’s casting it while slapping around women and gardenia-scented queers on such a regular basis and insisting “you’ll take it and like it.”

It’s the liking it that marks the first step into the danger zone. You know: It’s not enough for me to slap you. It’s not even enough for you to accept it. What really matters is that you like it.

That certainly sounds like an idea waiting for a definition and fascism is certainly one that springs to mind.

Sitting in a quiet movie theater all these decades later and marveling at the glory of it all–the perfection in casting, direction, lighting, mood, dialogue woven into an indestructible plot–it’s still easy to miss the road to hell at the center of both Spade’s troubled conception and Bogart’s thrilling execution.

You can learn a lot about a society by studying its heroes. I’m not sure Hammett quite intended for us to take Spade into our national mythology in such an uncomplicated manner. Whether the lethal mix of bravery, hubris and cruelty generated by Bogart and John Huston struck so deep because it carries a touch of naivete that Hammett, having been both a Pinkerton and a commie, surely did not possess, I don’t know.

All I know, all I was reminded of this week, in between the news-channel marathons that are carrying on blithely, cluelessly, while the country that once produced all these things so imminently worthy of devotion circles the drain, was what a dangerous man this Humphrey Bogart still is.

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I hope he’s also still on our side.