A View to a Kill [1985)

The opening disclaimer is odd.  Zorin…  One wonders whether the apologetics were in deference to Valerian Zorin.  In the West, the Soviet diplomat/statesman was best known for a stand-off with Adlai Stevenson at a UN Security Council meeting during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Surely the legal clarification wasn’t at the behest of a high Soviet official?  The question is important because it colors my reading of this film.  Something unique was afoot for this production.  At what point in the life of this film was the disclaimer created?  Valerian Zorin died the year after this film was released.

Is it significant that an MI6 agent dies in the carwash at a BP gas station?  Is it significant that a Chevron sign comes tumbling down to destruction in the San Francisco car chase?

One thing is certain:  the fact that villain Max Zorin is interested in horse breeding and horse racing is no accident.  Dr. Carl Mortner (played by Willoughby Gray) is a former Nazi scientist whom the Soviets picked up (à la Operation Paperclip).  His steroid experiments on pregnant women in concentration camps spawned our highly-intelligent, psychopathic antagonist in question.  One could draw many parallels…

But we must also remember that this is a movie.  In my estimation, it is the best Bond film up till this point with the possible exception of The Man with the Golden Gun.  What makes this film so special is indeed exactly what I have been skirting around:  its villain (Christopher Walken).

Yes, the theme by Duran Duran is great.  Yes, Grace Jones is fantastic.  But it is Walken who really provides the drama.  That the greatest of all Bond villains would have a particularly nasty scheme up his sleeve is only natural.  Eliminate the competition.  It is simple.  Cold, calculating, mechanical…and creative in its destruction.

Fiona Fullerton really filled out since her role as the title character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1972).  She would have made an excellent Bond girl, but the honor goes to perhaps an even more worthy candidate:  Tanya Roberts.  The blue-eyed Roberts and the blue-eyed Roger Moore are almost like the thoroughbreds which play a minor role in this film.  Credit both actors with remaining human while still being among the beautiful people.  Both do an excellent job of giving depth to their characters.  This would, sadly, be the last Roger Moore production in the Eon series of Bond movies (barring a late comeback).

It may or may not be significant that Roberts’ character has the last name Sutton.  Considering the geopolitical intrigue at stake, one might consider the reference as to Anthony Sutton.  Dr. Sutton was a historian, economist, and writer on politics who researched and published on such fascinating topics as the Skull & Bones fraternity of Yale University, The Trilateral Commission, and the U.S. Federal Reserve System.  Of particular note are Sutton’s books on the relation of Wall Street to both the Bolsheviks and the Nazis.

Shedule, not skedjule.  With a simple pronunciation nuance, Walken exits the mine after killing his own workers with an Uzi (while laughing).  Surely such demented individuals don’t reach such important positions of power, do they?

Walken even laughs at his own death.  By attacking Moore with an axe, we are brought back to the archetypal depiction of insanity which Jack Nicholson so hideously characterized in Kubrick’s The Shining.

I won’t forgive myself without mentioning the significant contribution over the years of Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny (this being her last film in the role).  And as a reward for having read this far, the secret to the disclaimer is Zoran Corporation (which strangely, strangely actually did specialize in making microchips…and! was located in Silicon Valley).  As a side-note, the aforementioned company derived its name from the Hebrew word for silicon (being strongly connected to the government of Israel, though incorporated in Delaware).

And I didn’t even get to snowboarding…or the game for Commodore 64 🙂

-PD

Rope [1948)

For many years this was my favorite Hitchcock movie.  Sure…I secretly thought Psycho was better, but I didn’t want to be ordinary.  It was long before I understood the metaphorical reading of Rear Window; long before my mind was mature enough to wrap itself around the slippery plot of Vertigo; long before I realized that North By Northwest was truly sui generis. 

What was it about this film?  I had first run across the title in a quote attributed (I believe) to Peter Bogdanovich.  Rope was a film to be studied.  Rope was a feat of trickery.  The Rope trick.  Long, unedited shots…  It was only later that I discovered how they reloaded the film.  Once you know, it seems obvious, but upon first viewing it does seem like the master and slave reels had unlimited 1000s of feet to spool out and take in.

But that’s not it.

What was it about this film?  It was Jimmy Stewart.  Good, old Jimmy Stewart of It’s A Wonderful Life.  Jimmy Stewart as Louis-Ferdinand Celine.  Jimmy Stewart the misanthrope.  The novelty of it!  But the “kicker” was bloodlust.  Jimmy Stewart redeemed with Emersonian integrity.  His words thrown back in his face.  Even at an old age.  Stewart’s character realizes he has been wrong all these years.  Would Nietzsche have had the same reaction to Hitler?  Would Wagner?

There is no way to accurately “read” this film without placing it in history:  three years after the end of WWII.

Inferior.  Superior.  Intellect.  Beyond good and around again to evil.

It is Hitchcock commenting on himself.  The character of Rupert is the dark, sardonic, macabre humor of Alfred the auteur and joker.  But what of that ending?

There is no more blood-curdling pronouncement of justice in the history of cinema that when Jimmy Stewart proclaims, “You’re both going to die.”

The character names don’t matter.  The tricks of filming even less.

This is the inquisitive Stewart of Rear Window already suspecting.  This isn’t the Hitchcockean trope of “the wrong man:”  this is the right man.

Stewart can’t believe it.  We can’t believe it.  And we saw the whole thing.

We don’t trust our instincts when the conclusions go (as Dick Cheney said) “beyond the pale.”  Look up that phrase.  Look up Arnold Rothstein.  The “pale of settlement.”

In King of the Jews the author Nick Tosches touches on this phrase.  My contention is that Tosches knew in 2005.

Rope is the story of two young men who strangle an “inferior” being (who just so happens to be a Harvard man).  Hmmm…from where then would that make our killers?  Yale, perhaps?  Is this an quasi-establishment jab at the Skull & Bones fraternity?

And Rupert…dear old Rupert…the house master from our murderers’ prep school days…  Could the reference be Phillips Academy?

I will leave these remarks as a thumbnail sketch to inspire discussion.  But it was certainly the novelty of Stewart as a villain…and his redemption as the voice of reason.  Yes.  The message is clear.  All who have killed in this eugenic manner will die.  You’re all going to die for what you’ve done.  It is what society is going to do to you.  The public doesn’t want to hear your advanced theories and your avant-garde morals.

Hollywood failed the Jews.  Cinema failed those in the death camps of WWII.  This is Godard’s grand theme in Histoire(s) du cinéma.  Film has the ability to preserve the “honor of the real,” to quote Jean-Luc.  No country was more technologically advanced (arguably) in terms of motion pictures during WWII than Germany.  Why were their scientists so sought after by Operation Paperclip (and the Soviet equivalent) following the war?  Why were they so successful?  Because they were brilliant.  It doesn’t make sense then that there is no available footage from the pre-liberated Nazi camps.  Cinema failed to prevent the holocaust and this cinematic gap in history likewise has rendered the medium irreparably hollow.  That was Spielberg’s failure with Schindler’s List:  one cannot portray what has never been seen.  The camps no doubt existed.  There is no disputing that.  But there is a hole in the heart of cinema’s history.

The 21st century has offered cinema another chance.  And contrary to Dick Cheney’s quote and its context, there is nothing beyond the pale.

 

-PD

Dr. Strangelove [1964)

…and you will know us by the title which follows the colon.  Yes, Dr. Strangelove is indeed a mouthful when its title is cited in full.  Some years ago I proffered that this film summed my personality up better than any other single motion picture.  Whether or not that remains true, I still hold it to be one of the two perfect or near-perfect films which Kubrick made (the other being Lolita).

I won’t labor over the plot details too much.  Indeed, some may not yet have seen this masterpiece.  I suppose it would behoove me as a critic “of the people” to not always give away the ending.  But when I last viewed this piece of cinema, some things struck me which had previously slipped unnoticed under my nose in the fray.  Perhaps I am most ashamed to admit that I never realized one of the principal characters was named Jack D. Ripper.  He is, indeed, the problem child of this movie.

Played by Sterling Hayden (Johnny Guitar, anyone?), Ripper sets in motion a string of events which define the drama over the course of 94 minutes.  Neither had I recognized the humor in his operating base:  Burpelson AFB.  Perhaps there’s not as much meaning in the place, but the character is indeed aptly monikered.

The film really gets going as we see Peter Sellers (the true star(s) of this film) for the first time in one of his three roles.  As Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, he is the proper Brit whose tact makes him unable to quite fix the snafu in progress (a rogue launch against the U.S.S.R.), but whose diplomacy nearly staves off a most dreadful outcome.

There is an interesting element of this film which is approached tongue-in-cheek, but which nevertheless perhaps deserves further investigation at length.  That element is fluorine…in the form of fluoride…as in fluoridated water.  It just so happens that our resident kook (who has singlehandedly endangered all of civilization by ordering his bomber wing to attack) is very much against water fluoridation.  The year, we must remember, is 1964.  Ripper explains to Mandrake that fluoridation began in the U.S. in 1946.  He takes this (along with his rabid anti-communism) to indicate that water fluoridation is a grand Soviet plot.

Indeed, water fluoridation in the U.S. is said to have begun in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1945.  By 1951, the U.S. Public Health Service had made water fluoridation public policy.  In 1960, it is estimated that 50 million Americans were the recipients of fluoridated water.  In 2006, the percentage of the U.S. population receiving fluoride in their water was at just over 60%.  Any thought outside this narrow swath of inquiry is said spuriously to be the conjecture of conspiracy theorists.  Funny how the villain of Dr. Strangelove is one such fellow–a real doozy at that…inept at expressing himself…always talking about “bodily fluids.”  Indeed, something strange is going on with this subplot.  I will leave it to the reader to investigate the merits of pro-fluoridation and anti-fluoridation.  I myself avoid fluoride at all costs.

Back to cinema (and Peter Sellers), we next encounter another funny name:  President (of the U.S.) Merkin Muffley.  Merkin, of course, is the name given to “public wigs.”  And the muff in Muffley, well…  Again, I urge the reader to let their imagination guide their inquiry.

It would be germane to introduce my own bit of conspiratorial evidence at this juncture.  There is, of course, the oration of Gen. Turgidson (George C. Scott) where he urges the President to (thank you Rahm Emmanuel) not let this tragedy go to waste.  Yes, it is that age-old stain on humanity which Webster Tarpley so eloquently sums up as “cynical.”  Gen. Turgidson (another apt name) asserts with bombastic cynicism a plan so heinous (while holding his megadeath statistics) that it could only be concocted by Hollywood, right?  Wrong.

Case in point:  Operation Northwoods.  With apparent thanks to author James Bamford (and those who have railed against the Kennedy assassination as being something far different than it was characterized), documents from 1962 show the very real psychosis of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (of which, no doubt, Gen. Turgidson would seem to be part…if not the head).  No, Kubrick was not simply out to discredit conspiracy theorists.  Perhaps the fluoridation subplot is a smokescreen, but Gen. Turgidson shows verily that he shares a certain simpatico with our rogue Gen. Ripper (who launched the insubordinate attack).  Oh…what would Kubrick make of our post-9/11 world had he lived to see it?  Indeed, the timing of Dr. Strangelove couldn’t have been better (or worse, depending on how one looks at it), considering that just two months before its release J.F.K. was murdered in Dallas.

Ah, but President Muffley’s voice of reason prevails (just as J.F.K.’s voice of reason categorically refused the Operation Northwoods plan which was agreed upon and signed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff…including their head, Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer).  I won’t deviate too far from the plan, but suffice it to intrigue the reader that Northwoods was a false-flag terror attack which would have used remote control planes, fake passengers (with “carefully prepared aliases”) and other such stratagems (including the death of American citizens) which certainly could have no bearing upon events in say, I don’t know, the past 15 years or so, could they?  Or course not.  How silly of me.

And while some ideas such as cobalt bombs seem preposterous today, in 1964 they must have seemed quite nerve-wracking indeed.  The Soviet doomsday device which figures in the movie is, of course, humorously inserted, but the technology was (at the very least) tested by the British in Australia in 1957.  Nevil Shute’s novel On The Beach (also 1957) leans heavily on this technology being quite real and not in the least silly.  Even the Eon series of Bond movies takes up the idea somewhat (in 1964, no less…same year as our film) in that Auric Goldfinger intends to use a device which incorporates cobalt to render the gold of Fort Knox uselessly radioactive for 58 years.  All experiments aside, the theory seems to indicate that radioactive cobalt would be a hazard for far longer than 58 years (as Dr. Strangelove himself points out in the odd segment just before the end of our film).  Indeed, 100 years is more like it (for all practical purposes).  Perhaps even 142 or so…

But I dare say the only name one needs remember in this piece of cinema is Col. “Bat” Guano.  The writers (including Terry Southern) were really having a larf by that point.  Our team aboard the one aircraft which didn’t get the recall “memo” head to what seems to be a made up locale in Soviet Russia:  Kodlosk.  By the end of this romp we are not only questioning the mental capacity of L.B.J. (newly sworn-in President when this came out), but also that of dear old George W. Bush.  One can’t help interpreting the role of Slim Pickens as symbolic of the cavalier disrespect for human life wrapped up in all of America’s nuclear ambitions.  And he just so happens to be a rural gent–a cowboy, if you will.  No matter that the real life Pickens was not only born in California, but died there (in Modesto, to be exact).

“Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?,” sing Pink Floyd in the song “Vera” from 1979’s The Wall.  Going on to reference the very song which ends Dr. Strangelove (“We’ll Meet Again”), it’s an appropriate way to broach how Kubrick’s masterpiece will go down in history.  I personally find only the ending to be a bit clumsy and, thus, the film as a whole (at least) near-perfect.

Sellers’ third role in the film is that of Dr. Strangelove himself.  An obvious remnant of Operation Paperclip, Strangelove is the former (?) Nazi who is wheelchair-bound (with a gimp arm to boot).  This really is Sellers at his surreal best, no doubt doing a good bit of visual improvising (as his bum arm seems to have a mind of its own–at one point choking the neck to which it is attached).

There is one (and only one) female character:  and she is a tightly-wound symbol of power.  Played by Tracy Reed in a bikini, she mainly figures into just one scene (that in which Gen. Turgidson is indisposed in the “powder room”).

Speaking of (and to) power, one would be remiss not to mention the RAND Corporation.  It has been ventured that Herman Kahn, John von Neumann and/or Henry Kissinger might have been templates for the character of Strangelove.  To that I would add Albert Wohlstetter.  All four were part of the aforementioned “think tank.”  Another possibility is Wernher von Braun.  Indeed, it is worth some study to learn how this former Nazi SS member became head of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Likewise, it is interesting how the International Institute for Strategic Studies played a role in the genesis of Dr. Strangelove.  It was, in fact, the director (Alastair Buchan) of this organization (ostensibly formed in 1958) who suggested to Kubrick the book upon which the film would be based.  That book was Red Alert by Peter George.  Silly me, all of these think tanks have me in a quandary.  I was quite sure Mr. Buchan was of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (a.k.a. Chatham House, formed 1920), but I see that I was mistaken.  I do, however, congratulate myself upon noticing that Kubrick’s chum Buchan was son of Hitchcock’s Buchan (author of The Thirty-Nine Steps).  Interesting also that the aforementioned Herman Kahn was a consultant on Dr. Strangelove.

As was noted in my article concerning Dr. No (1962) [see “Bond” section], Ken Adam went from that Eon Production’s set designer to being Kubrick’s man concerned with the same on Dr. Strangelove.  Indeed, that iconic table in “the war room” is covered in green baize.  One need not look further than Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale for the previous symbolic nature of this fabric (consider M’s door, for instance).

Back to Herman Kahn…  He coined the term “megadeath.”  But it took Kubrick and Peter Sellers and God knows who else to concoct the only line ending with which I can feel assured (the feeling is mutual, I’m sure) a sense of finality:  “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

 

-PD