PAST AS NOT SO OBVIOUS PRELUDE (Noir, Noir, Noir: Second Feature)

All the President’s Men (1976)
Director: Alan Pakula

allpresidentcover2I’m not sure how many people have viewed the straightforward screen adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of how they broke open the Watergate scandal that felled Richard Nixon as noir (as opposed noir-ish, which can be stretched to include almost anything that isn’t an MGM musical). From that contemporary Czech poster above, I’d say the commies, at least, had a notion.

But if noir is defined by a film’s relationship to, as Edmund Wilson might have put it, the specifically American Jitters, then All the President’s Men isn’t just noir but near-definitive. If it happens to also be quite faithful to history, as no one has ever credibly denied, then it’s all the more remarkable.

It’s worth remembering that noir at its best is never invested in civilization. Most of the black-and-white killer-dillers from the classic period (Double Indemnity, The Big Heat, The Asphalt Jungle) are fundamentally pre-civilizational, man stripped bare, deprived of any but the basest aspirations (lust, greed, survival, revenge). That’s why the ones that worked at all worked extremely well, and also why even the very best of them tended to sell out at the end. They didn’t always, or often, end happily, but they nearly always ended romantically. How else to cut the darkness?

On that score, All the President’s Men has a seemingly insurmountable problem. The romance seems built in. Heroic journalists trying to bring down the king yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

But, given the source and the times that produced both the history and the movie, no amount of star power or studio gloss could keep it from being ultra-realistic, too. Somebody realized that and doubled down. Almost no film from the ultra-realistic seventies feels as much like a period documentary as this one, and that’s despite the presence of heavy duty stars and top flight character actors, the kind with personas attached, popping up throughout.

You could argue (I wouldn’t), that Dustin Hoffman or Robert Redford or Jason Robards have been better elsewhere, but, despite the near-ubiquitous presence of their real-life counterparts (Bernstein, Woodward and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, respectively) in our lives for four decades running (even Bradlee’s death only slowed him down a little), the actors still seem more like those men than they’ve ever seemed liked themselves. I see Carl Bernstein on CNN, bloviating on yet another topic he clearly can’t be bothered to know anything about, and all I think is “Too bad he’s not really Dustin Hoffman.” I see Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men and all I think is “too bad he not really Carl Bernstein.”

And that’s the easy one…the one who probably didn’t work for the CIA.

allpresident5

None of which makes ATPM either great or noir. It wasn’t really meant to be great, I don’t think, except maybe in the way earlier classy commercial properties like The Ten Commandments or My Fair Lady were. Great in the grand old Hollywood style of radiating a certain stiff-necked significance, a film the whole family should see.

And I certainly don’t think it was meant to be noir.

But put a bunch of talented people together with an indelible moment and you never know what might happen.

For one thing, it might actually work on the “significance'”level, as ATPM did and does.

But then it might also, over time, leap the trace.

As ATPM certainly is doing now, in this turbulent month when, on a hunch, I left Medium Cool and A Face in the Crowd to the liberal twitter crowd and pulled this off the shelf instead.

Dutifully or not, ATPM gives us a worm’s eye view of the process of catching rats in high places. Consciously or not, its obvious message is that the only people really qualified to do the job are other rats.

You don’t need to buy Ben Bradlee as a lifelong CIA asset–or someone who would have snuffed the story of the century in the cradle if it had been likely to bring down somebody he liked–to get that from the movie.

And that’s what makes it great.

And that’s what makes it noir.

Maybe just because the heroes involved were more transparent than they knew, even in the moment (forget the long aftermath), it’s possible to be grateful for what Woodward/Redford, Bernstein/Hoffman and Bradlee/Robards did without liking them even a little bit. Against all odds, the movie resists heroism. It just sets you down in soulless “news rooms,” shadowy parking garages, wet city streets, sunlit suburbs, some “ratfucker’s”  apartment….and then lets you work out the moral logistics for yourself.

Sure, Woodward/Redfern occasionally shows a touch of remorse or honesty or self-reflection–or at least seems to. But, real or faked, it never lasts. You can never be sure that these things, too, aren’t calculated as a price well worth what was then merely a potential payoff.

Brave? Prescient? Pure Fluke?

Who knows?

But as we enter our post-civilizational phase, where no secret is so dark it could ever possibly bring anybody down (what Donald Trump really meant when he said he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t make any difference)–a phase that surely began when the half of the “establishment” that had driven Nixon from office for the one truly unpardonable sin of attacking them, decided early retirement was punishment enough–it feels odd to watch a film that captured that moment a little too perfectly. It comes uncomfortably close to proving noir‘s unspoken pre- and post-civilizational premise: The darkness is all there is.

Ever.

dick2

(NOTE: As I  pretty much always do, I watched All the President’s Men in tandem with Dick, Andrew Fleming’s 1999 duck-and-cover satire of same. I was reminded, yet again, that even the most brilliant satire runs up against limits. I was also reminded, yet again, that those limits can be transcended if you manage to weave “You’re So Vain” into a realistic depiction (beautifully played by an up-until-that-very-moment-gloriously-over-the-top Dan Hedaya) of Nixon departing the White House while Betsy and Arlene cut up some American flags which they intend to put to very good use. I’ll probably have more to say about Dick, which also happens to be one of the two or three greatest movies about the seventies, a decade that arguably could only be understood satirically, some other time, but for those interested, this lovely reminiscence is highly recommended, not least because it reveals how disastrously close “You’re So Vain” came to being….something else!)

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Shia LaBeouf Looks Back, Robert Ryan is Careful Not to Look Ahead)

The Company You Keep (2012)

I saw both Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps in theaters.

Though he was far from the worst thing in either, if Shia LaBeouf had been standing in the lobby of those theaters wearing exactly what he wore in the movies I had just seen, I probably would have walked right by him without a second glance.

The credits of The Company You Keep, Robert Redford’s casual, by-the-numbers mea culpa for Weatherman (where once again we learn that they were in it to save us from our poor, ignorant selves!…who knew?), were so stuffed with Oscar Winner/Nominee types that I didn’t even register the names of the actors if and when they rolled at the beginning. Figured I’d surely recognize anybody who had anything important to do.

So imagine my surprise when twenty minutes or so had passed and I had to look up the name of the youngish actor who was moving through this sedentary “thriller” like a lightning strike through a corn-field and it was….Shia LaBeouf.

Seriously, he was so quick on his feet, so much the only member of the cast who “got” the sixties, that I thought at some point they should just start playing early Who songs in the background every time he came on screen. And he kept it up almost the entire movie. Right up until the very end when the script (which had let everybody else down a long time since) finally let him down too.

Lightning strikes are tricky, so I don’t know if this was a one-time occurrence or he’s finally on to something. But I’m definitely going to start keeping watch.

The Naked Spur (1953)

I’ve probably seen this a dozen or so times. Like many great movies, it strikes different chords at each separate viewing. What really got through to me this time was Robert Ryan’s villain–or more accurately, how different he is from Robert Ryan’s several other distinctive villains in other good or great movies.

It’s an early version of the types who showed up in Budd Boetticher’s Ranown series with Randolph Scott a few years later, where they were typically played by Lee Marvin or Richard Boone or Claude Akins, all of whom were wonderful.

But Ryan’s take is more realistic, hence more chilling.

I’ve met this guy on occasion and, even when he isn’t a suspected murderer on the run, he really is like this.

In life and in the movies, he has a world of cunning. In most movies he also has a world of cool. It’s the type of part that was made for the always uninteresting belief that villains are inherently more interesting than the rest of us.

Except the way Ryan plays him, his Ben Vandergroat doesn’t have an ounce of cool. He’s grasping and desperate and manipulative, not merely slippery with sweat but greasy with it–as far as possible from the modern villain’s mask which so often calls to mind the cool shark gliding in the shark pool. (The actor even trades in his trademark rasp for a high-pitched not-quite-whine.)

It’s a testimony to the quality of the script, direction and cast that nothing else fades away once this is finally recognized by slow learners like me. If anything the stakes are intensified (it doesn’t hurt that the finale is one of history’s greatest sustained action sequences). The scariest thing in the world, after all–even scarier than nature–is a villain who is actually villainous. One who, lacking the cool villain’s essential sadism, controlled only by meanness, truly doesn’t care about anything like money or revenge or jealousy but only about his own survival.

I guess by the time he made The Naked Spur, Robert Ryan knew there’s no threat in this world quite as unsettling as simple human banality.