Tuesday, May 23, 2017

1969 Winner, Z


Director:  Costa-Gavras

Distributed by:  Cinema V

Released:  February 1969

Country:  Algeria/France

I’m not one much for cinema with an overt political message—never cared much for All the President’s Men, nor for Dr. Strangelove, nor for anything by Oliver Stone.  Heck, I don’t even really count Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as worth seeing more than once.  So when I learned that Z, 1969’s Best Foreign Film, was considered some sort of all-time great political thriller, I have to admit, I went in begrudgingly.  I don’t like to be hit over the head with a preachy message.

But movies can “transcend the genre,” as they say, and I think Z is one of those films.  Based on a real assassination, that of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963, Z has good guys and bad guys.  The good guys are the leftists who protest war and call for overturning the current system.  The bad guys are the militaristic right-wing government, plain and simple.  The movie starts with the good guys just wanting to have a little get-together in a government-approved setting.  Their political leader is The Deputy, played by Yves Montand, probably best known to American audiences from the 1966 film Grand Prix, with James Garner and Toshiro Mifune.  The bad guys find ways to obstruct and interfere with the good guys’ right to assemble.  The good guys are determined to let The Deputy give his speech, and eventually a time and place (smaller than they’d like) is set.

The Director, while still alive
The Deputy is on the way to make his speech when . . . BAM!  He is knocked on the head with something stronger than just a political message.  The culprit is some ruffian, presumably hired by the bad guys.  But The Deputy is no wallflower—despite one helluva headache, he goes on to make his speech, condemning nukes over the loudspeakers for all to hear outside the small venue.  After the speech, feeling pretty keen about himself, but still needing a couple of aspirin desperately, The Deputy walks out and through the crowd.  Out of nowhere, a car pulls out toward him and BAM!  Like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, he is given a second lump.

This time The Deputy goes down like Apollo Creed after an Ivan Drago haymaker; and this time, he isn’t getting up.  The government (i.e., the bad guys) “believes” this was a classic open-and-shut case of manslaughter by drunk-driving, naturally.  The rest of the film follows the investigation into this incident, with the forces of truth being opposed at every turn by those in power doing all they can to cover up what really happened and who really did it.
"How many lumps?"  "Three or four!"

One such honest investigator is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who stars in two other Best Foreign Films, 2012’s Amour, and 1966’s A Man and a Woman (to be reviewed here in a few weeks), both French films (also of note, the role of the Photojournalist in this film is played by Jacques Perrin, who played as the adult Tito in 1989 BFF Winner, Cinema Paradiso.  Perrin was also the producer of the film).  This investigator is honest and stubbornly pursuant of the truth.  The real question the movie poses is:  Is being an honest man stubbornly pursuant of the truth enough against the full forces of government who have every interest in covering that truth?

Z has great performances and the pacing and photography are perfect for the story.  There is a documentary feel to this film, but it is not without episodes of dark humor.  Especially amusing are the thugs whom the government has working for it, not really bright enough to know why they are doing what they are doing.  The film was billed as a thriller, but it really isn’t one if you
Jean-Louis Trintignant as The Deputy
are paying attention.  The filmmakers have a political viewpoint that is out there for you to see, so if you are surprised by how events unfold, you may be dumber than the thugs that perpetrate the crimes.

The title:  The letter is a symbol that somehow means, “He lives!” according to the film’s closing sequence.  Maybe The Director isn’t really dead, but was only sleeping?  But in that case, they should have called it, “Zzzzz.”

The Culture:  This is an Algerian-French production, but the country of setting is never really identified, despite the story being a fictionalized account of a real event in Greece.  The culture portrayed is a post-war time of political activism and upheaval.

Agenda danger:  Left good; right bad.  The establishment is corrupt and the opposition are pure as the driven snow.  About as subtle as a hammer to the head.  On a side note, Oliver Stone structured his artistically-interesting but truth-averse JFK on this movie, directed by Greek-born Costa-Gavras.

I'm walkin' here!
Best Picture that year:  Midnight Cowboy.  I’m walkin’ here!

Rating:  Your political point of view is sure to color what you think of this movie.  I found it a bit ham-handed message-wise, but the film itself is very watchable.  Stone’s JFK and Spike Lee’s Malcom X are examples of similarly well-made movies, worth checking out for the film-making and performances (particular Denzel Washington’s in the latter), but then to be put aside never to be seen again.  But that’s just this man’s opinion.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

1970 Winner, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

Director:  Elio Petri

Distributed by:  Columbia Pictures

Released:  February 1970

Country:  Italy

We all know people who think they are the smartest person in the room.  They may try to hide it, but by the way they talk and act, you know they think they are smarter than you.  And yet, their defining characteristic is insecurity.  It’s important for them not only to know they are smarter than you, but to prove it by telling you something they think you don’t know or casually dropping some fact designed to make you raise an eyebrow in admiration.  Me?  I’m comfortable enough to not need to stoop to having to prove how smart I am.  If you’ve been reading my reviews, this has already become apparent to you. 

But such is not the case for the unnamed police inspector in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, the winner of 1970’s Best Foreign Film.  The Inspector is a brilliant man, recently promoted to his position.  He is certain that the combination of his smarts, his status, and the general incompetence of his underlings means that no matter what crime he committed—even murder—he would never be caught for.

Gian Maria Volante as The Inspector
The film starts with the Inspector meeting his lady friend in her apartment.  She asks him a strange and intriguing question:  How are you going to kill me today?  The answer will soon be given to her—he will slash her throat and let her bleed out.  And having been made Inspector, he knows exactly what evidence to leave to throw the detectives he supervises off the trail. 

This movie is about hubris, a word many of you probably don’t know.  But I have quite an extensive vocabulary, so I will give you the definition:  it is the condition of unnaturally feeling superior to those around you, to the point of it being obnoxious.  The Inspector, in fact, becomes frustrated during the investigation that the force is so incompetent that they don’t even suspect him.  He begins leaving clues for them so that he will be a suspect, knowing that he is, well, a citizen above suspicion.  It isn’t enough to have committed the murder; it’s important to him that he prove how smart and important he is.  This may or may not lead to his downfall.
Inspector meeting his mistress

Given my encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, I instantly recognized the actor playing the Inspector as Gian Maria Volante, who played the villains the first two “Man with No Name” spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone, A Fistful of Dollars from 1964 and For a Few Dollars More from 1965.  In those movies, he is pure evil; he plays it much more subtly in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.  In real life, Volontè was known for being leftist to the point of having Communist leanings.  As the Inspector, he vows to crush political protestors whom he sees as the enemy.  But even given his autocratic persona, the Inspector is a somewhat pitiable figure, and even though we know he is a murderer, it is difficult to watch him come unglued as he loses control over the situation.

There is an almost comedic tone to the story, helped along by a zippy score by the great Ennio Morricone, complete with mandolin and Jew’s harp.  Morricone wrote the music having only known the basic plot of the movie, and said he wanted the music to be “grotesque.”  The music fits the story like a glove.

Volante in For a Few Dollars More
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion reminded me of a key scene in the latter seasons of the AMC series Breaking Bad.  At one point, it is clear anti-hero Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, will get off scot-free, never having been suspected of being drug kingpin "Heisenberg."  His brother-in-law Hank, a federal drug enforcement agent, believes Heisenberg was a second-rate chemist who had recently been found dead.  Walter cannot abide the false notion that his genius is unrecognized, and clues in Hank that the dead man is probably not his man.  Like Walter, the Inspector is equally arrogant, and oddly despicable and sympathetic at the same time.  And like Walter, his own insecurity may lead to his undoing.

The title:  Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto, in Italian.  I don’t speak the language, but I do know some French.  Also, I have a master’s degree in History and have read Ulysses by James Joyce.

Bryan Cranston in the remake?
The Culture:  Italy, apparently, was not unlike America in the late 60’s, and the movie conveys a distrust of the polizia typical of a young person in that time and culture. 

Agenda danger:  The Inspector, who is corrupt and power-starved, wants to crush protest and civil unrest.  He is a protagonist who underscores the flawed morality of those in power, and in this way the movie conveys the leftist views of Volante and director Elio Petri.

Best Picture that year:  Patton.  Another film about a man in power who is both sympathetic and hard to like.  Of course, unlike the Inspector, Patton’s arrogance is offset by heroic qualities.

Rating:  I found the ending to be somewhat unsatisfying, but overall, the film is a treat.  Volante is superb as the Inspector, so sure of himself and yet so concerned with letting everyone know his is a genius.  Florinda Bolkan, playing his mistress is also a pleasure to watch, appearing frequently in flashbacks, unknowingly pushing the Inspector to commit the crime that will end her life.   

A couple of attempts at an American remake were shelved; my hope is if it is redone, the American version is able to capture the character of the Inspector properly.  Might I suggest Bryan Cranston?  And if this suggestion is taken, I would expect a casting credit, of course, so that everyone would know it was my brilliant idea.