Saturday, September 25, 2010
Friday, September 24, 2010
Today, I want to remember a non-genre effort from the same year as Escape from New York, Daniel Petrie's Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), starring Paul Newman, Ken Wahl, Ed Asner, Rachel Ticotin and Pam Grier.
Although I was only eleven when the film was first released, I still remember the widespread public controversy this film generated. Police advocacy groups felt that Fort Apache: The Bronx was vehemently anti-cop (because it portrays Danny Aiello as an out-of-control, murdering law enforcement official...). At the same time, some people complained about the film's less-than-flattering depiction of the Bronx's Puerto Ricans and African-Americans.
Another group also widely disapproved of Daniel Petrie's film: movie critics. The consensus of the day seemed to be that Fort Apache: the Bronx was episodic and loosely-structured...more like a regular old TV show (Hill Street Blues?) than a legitimate movie.
In retrospect, however, it seems plain that the film's much-complained about loose narrative structure is actually its greatest strength. Fort Apache: The Bronx isn't a neat, canned cop movie in which a crime is presented and then solved, clue-by-clue, by heroic, investigating cops.
Life isn't really like that, so why should movies have to be?
Life isn't really like that, so why should movies have to be?
On the contrary, Fort Apache: The Bronx is an involving, slice-of-life, workaday peek into the existence of a lonely, aging cop in the Bronx -- Murphy (Newman) -- as he contends with with prostitutes, muggers, and corruption on the police force Accordingly, the film never pushes an overly-plotted Hollywood-style narrative, and the result is a cinematic work-of-art in which the characters feel more realistic; more true, and which life (like real life...) is full of unexpected eddies and tributaries that must be navigated.
Director Petrie makes the most of his laid-back narrative approach, never force-feeding on the audience arguments about abstract ideologies. At its heart, the film does indeed present two approaches to law enforcement -- liberal and conservative -- but both prove equally ineffective, and the movie never comes down in favor of one over the other. Both are treated sympathetically, and both are shown to have unwanted repercussions.
Instead, Petrie is a fine observer, not a propagandist. He consistently deploys the tenets of realistic filmmaking (authentic location shooting; deep focus long shots, and pans within the frame etc.) to chronicle the life and times of a man with great conscience, but not necessarily great courage.
What is this, the gunfight at the OK Corral?
|Welcome to Fort Apache.|
A police officer in Fort Apache tartly describes the Bronx of 1981 as a "40-block area with 70,000 people packed in like sardines, smelling each others' farts, [and] living like cockroaches."
He then ticks down a list of considerable problems including "youth gangs," families that have been "on welfare for three generations," "high unemployment," the "lowest income per capita" and "the largest proportion of non-English-speaking" denizens in the city.
As Connolly assumes command of the 41st Precinct and deals with the specter of a cop-killing bogeyman, he orders a huge wave of arrests. The police bring in and book prostitutes, bookies, and other petty crooks literally by the bus-ful. The idea is that by shaking the trees, so-to-speak, something will fall out; a clue about the identity of the cop killer.
"You're just making thing worse," third-generation cop Murphy (Newman) insists, but Connolly continues to go by the book, in the process actually escalating the tense situation. "You're going to war," Murphy points out, again linking the situation of 1981 to the historical Fort Apache battle of 1881.
|Questions of conscience at Fort Apache.|
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
A suspenseful game of Cold War chess, "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" gets my vote for the all-time best episode of Bruce Geller's Mission: Impossible (1966-1973).
This third season installment -- originally aired in mid-January of 1969 -- commences with a close-up shot of Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) unlocking a small padlock to gain entrance to a secret location and receive his taped orders.
The remainder of the episode involves how Jim unlocks the mind of his opposite number in a foreign intelligence unit: one wily and devilish mastermind named Stefan Miklos (Steve Ihnat).
Specifically, Phelps must establish for the brilliant Miklos that a man named Townsend (Jason Evers) is still working for Miklos' government and is not, in fact, a double agent for the Americans, as has been suggested by another foreign agent, the conniving Simpson (Ed Asner).
Why the con?
Because Townsend possesses top-secret but false information that the U.S. government wants Miklos' government to believe and act upon.
Therefore, Miklos must believe that Townsend is still trustworthy, along with his information.
Yet in order to believe this carefully constructed-lie, Miklos must "discover" what he deems the truth himself. He must see through a carefully-constructed "frame" of Townsend that Phelps has painstakingly created. His ego must be satisfied that he has arrived at the right conclusions.
Good...because "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" is almost impossible to explain in terms of language, yet perfectly understandable -- perfectly plain -- in the watching.
In large part this is due to director Robert Butler's frequent use of extreme close-ups and insert shots to highlight important narrative clues (an airport locker key, a passport, etc.). This is one reason I have always admired Mission: Impossible: because the series' creators always understood that television is primarily a visual medium and acted upon that knowledge.
During the episode's opening briefing with Cinnamon (Barbara Bain), Rollin (Martin Landau), Willy (Peter Lupus) and Barney (Greg Morris), Phelps describes his foe, Miklos, as "cold, calculating and ruthless," and a man with "no weaknesses, no flaws," thereby setting up the character as a truly worthy adversary; one quite different from the run-of-the-mill villains featured on the series. Miklos is a man quite expert at mind-games, one not easily led to a conclusion, so Jim must make certain his plan for Miklos is not too obvious...but also not so byzantine that he can't decipher it.
To employ a cliche, it's a tightrope walk all the way.
The only way to defeat Niklos - a man "invulnerable" except "to himself" -- is for Jim to play on Miklos' own cunning; to manipulate his belief in himself and his abilities. To accomplish this, Jim and his team lead Miklos through a precise maze of small clues and have him think his way to the "right" (or is it wrong?) conclusion.
|Rollin plays Miklos, with Simpson.|
Those clues -- also revealed in true M:I-styled economical, visual storytelling -- involve small, simple things: a match-book, a painting and a small time discrepancy.
Each clue is surreptitiously offered to Miklos only once, but Phelps gambles on his enemy's photographic memory (shown as almost subliminal flash-cuts or freeze-frames in the body of the episode).
Phelp's only advantage over Miklos in this "sting"-type tale is the fact that one foreign agent (Simpson) has never seen another foreign agent (Miklos).
Therefore, Rollin impersonates Miklos with Simpson; and then turn around and impersonates Simpson with Miklos. What brass!
|Rollin plays Simpson, with Miklos.|
This gambit -- with Rollin playing two roles -- permits series regular Martin Landau to craft two really fine, very different performances: one aping the squirrely, suspicious Simpson (Asner) and one mimicking the cool, brilliant Miklos.
What's even more amazing about these tour-de-force performances is that Landau dances between them, back-to-back, scene-to-scene and -- again -- the viewer always knows precisely "who" Landau is supposed to be.
It's terrific work, and Landau pulls it off with real joie de vivre. If you look at the two photos of Rollin featured in this post, you can see that Landau's face actually looks different when he's playing Miklos and Simpson, but no make-up or prosthetics are employed. It's just the way this actor carries himself.
The tension in "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" keeps spiking for two reason, primarily. The first involves split-second timing. Barney and Willy must get Rollin's photograph into a hollow statue base, taking out Asner's photo in the process.
But Miklos is en route from the airport and arrives to pick up the statue (and the secret package inside) early...necessitating Barney speed up his delicate work (which involves cutting through a display shelf with a saw...). Here the plan nearly falls apart.
|The matchbook of a left-handed man?|
|A watch set back a few minutes...|
|Game over and mission accomplished: Miklos believes the wrong man.|