Tag: Gene Hackman

Under Fire (1983)

Under Fire (1983)

Well-filmed but politically naive Nicaraguan revolution film that pulls its punches and settles for melodrama

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Cast: Nick Nolte (Russell Price), Gene Hackman (Alex Grazier), Joanna Cassidy (Claire Stryder), Ed Harris (Oates), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Marcel Jazy), Richard Masur (Hub Kittle), René Enríquez (President Anastasio Somoza Debayle), Hamilton Camp (Regis)

In 1979 Nicaragua was torn apart by revolution as the regime of right-wing President Somaza was challenged – and eventually overthrown – by the Sandinata National Liberation Front (FSLN), a coalition of left-wing revolutionaries. The US largely threw in its lot with the Somaza government until its appalling human rights record – and the outrage at the murder of journalist Bill Stewart, which was caught on camera – led to it withdrawing aid and the collapse of the regime. Not that it led to peace in the country, as Raegan’s government promptly began supporting the right-wing Contra rebels (but that’s another story).

A version of this is bought to the screen in Roger Spottiswoode’s earnest but slightly naïve film which tries to walk the walk but largely pulls its punches. Here Bill Stewart is translated into Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman) whose journalist ex-wife Claire Stryder (Joanna Cassidy) is in love with his best friend war photographer Russell Price (Nick Nolte). Price and Stryder are embedded in Nicaragua and find their sympathies growing for the left-wing revolutionaries – and their hackles rising at some of the actions of their country.

That “some” is the key here. For all Under Fire would like to be a firebrand political film – a sort of Battle of Algiers by way of All the President’s Men – it’s a film that continually pulls its punches. When compared to the brutal honesty Missing (a year earlier) looked at America’s bungled, self-serving and short-sighted foreign policy in Latin America, bashing any communist leaning revolutionary, even if meant propping up blood-soaked dictators, Under Fire looks very tame indeed.

Only the barest information and context is given to American policy. The only two villainous representatives of American policy we see are carefully distanced from the government. Oates, played with empathy-free gusto by Ed Harris, is a mercenary as happy driving trucks as he is executing POWs. The CIA’s man-on-the-ground is not even American – instead he’s a supercilious, lecherous Frenchman played with awkwardness by Jean-Louis Trintignant. Trintignant gets the closest anyone gets to a political speech, pointing out today’s sympathetic left-wing revolutionaries are tomorrow’s Stalinist purgers. But he’s always a degree separate from official American policy.

Instead, America remains the innocent here. The implication is the true decision makers don’t realise what’s going on, on the ground. It’s only the murder of Alex – and the smuggling out of Russell’s photos showing his execution – that leads to America having its eyes opened and withdrawing its support. This neatly lets everyone off the hook. Neither does the film dare suggest the hypocrisy of a country pouring money and arms into the bloody Somaza regime for years, only stirring when one innocent American journalist is killed. Not once does the film challenge the unpleasant truths that lie behind a statement made by a Nicaraguan: “if we had killed an American journalist years ago perhaps you might have done something”.

Instead, the film settles for a slightly naïve romance of the largely decent, young and sympathetic rebels vs brutish Government soldiers. The rebels are all plucky kids – like the young man and would-be baseball player Russell and Claire follow through a street battle in Leon (naturally, he’s shot by Oates, in the back of all places). Either that or decent, wise figures who would never consider sullying their hands the way the government forces do. It all feels a long way from the mutual brutalities of Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers or the (admittedly spittle-mouthed) fury of Oliver Stone’s Salvador.

After a while you start to feel Nicaragua is really a backdrop for a half-hearted romance between two journalists who re-discover their idealism under fire. The sense that the film could be set anywhere really is backed up by it’s opening in the Chad civil war, which is explored in fifteen minutes in the same cursory depth as the Nicaragua revolution. It’s all exotic backdrop for a drama about whether Russell and Claire can get over the guilt of sort-of betraying Alex (although Claire and Alex are already separated by the time they get it-on) and convert their affair into something more meaningful.

Truth be told all three journalists are thin characters, invested with more depth than they deserve by three very strong actors. Nolte is at his gravelly best, scruffy but impassioned, righteous anger bubbling not far under the surface. Cassidy turns a character that could have easily been “the woman” into a dedicated, intelligent and inspiring professional. Hackman finds beats of self-doubt and sadness in an anchorman worried he’s left what he’s loved (personally and professionally) behind.

Spottiswoode films with sweep and energy – helped by a very good score by Jerry Goldsmith and some impressive recreations (sanitised as they are) of street clashes in Nicaragua. But the story never takes flight and its political edge gets far too blunted. Even the murder of Alex is turned into melodrama, the focus quickly shifting to a wild chase for Russell to smuggle his film out of the country to end the Somaza government claims that the killers were the rebels not his soldiers.

It’s where the film goes wrong, settling for melodrama and romance where it should be angry. In the end it’s a romantic film, where American policy is misguided for the right reason and good triumphs. The cheering crowds that end the film ring especially hollow considering the continued violence that plagued the country throughout most of the 80s. It’s a solid thriller, but a flawed film.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Our heroes climb up an overturned cruise liner in the film that launched a thousand enjoyable disaster movie clichés

Director: Ronald Neame (Irwin Allen)

Cast: Gene Hackman (Reverend Frank Scott), Ernest Borgnine (Mike Rogo), Red Buttons (James Martin), Shelley Winters (Belle Rosen), Jack Albertson (Manny Rosen), Carol Lynley (Nonnie Parry), Roddy McDowell (Acres), Stella Stevens (Linda Rogo), Pamela Sue Martin (Susan Shelby), Arthur O’Connell (Chaplain John), Eric Shea (Robin Shelby), Leslie Nielsen (Captain Harrison)

New Year’s Eve on the biggest cruise liner in the world and the money men have ordered “Full steam ahead!” into a storm – after all, it would be terrible publicity to arrive late at harbour. Needless to say, it’s a terrible idea, as the Poseidon is hit by a tsunami and flipped upside down. Everyone at the top of the ship is killed, leaving only the party goers in the promenade room alive. Who is going to make it out from the one of the most famous disaster films of all time?

Produced by the Master of Disaster himself Irwin Allen – he personally staked half the budget and made a fortune – the ship’s passenger log is a host of Oscar-winning stars, each balancing soapy plotlines. Gene Hackman is the maverick priest, body pumping with muscular Christianity, who believes God helps those who help themselves. Ernest Borgnine is a grumpy police chief, on a long-delayed holiday with his ex-call girl wife Stella Stevens. Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson are a retired couple heading to Israel to see their grandson for the first time. Red Buttons is an unlucky-in-love fitness freak, Roddy McDowell a plucky steward. Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea are two (unbearable) kids travelling to join their parents while Carol Lynley is the ship’s terrified singer.

The Poseidon Adventure cemented the tropes you’d come to know and love in disaster films. The maverick leader, the grouchy contrarian, a plucky pensioner with a vital skill, adorably brave kids, a self-sacrificing nice guy… They’re all in here, the actors playing these cardboard cut-out characters with gusto as they climb up the endurance obstacle course set of an upside-down cruise liner.

Allen’s film takes a while to get going: a quarter of the run time is dedicated to setting up the various character dilemmas. Is a member of the crew a former client of Stevens’ Linda? Will Gene Hackman find new purpose in his faith? Will Red Buttons find love? Neame shoots these opening exchanges with the uninspired professionalism the exposition-filled dialogue demands (there are several variations on “What am I doing on this ship? Let me tell you…” lines). But what makes the best of these films work is when the soapy shallowness manages to make the characters endearing. It’s what happens here: the cast could do these scenes standing on their head, but gosh darn it we end up hoping the Rosens will live to see their grandson at the foot of Mount Sinai.

The film of course “starts” proper with that wave hitting. At which point, Allen (and Neame) knows exactly what works. He makes the stakes clear, the target simple (climb up, get out) and taps into common fears of falling, drowning etc. He knows how to make us thrill at the stunts – that tipping ballroom, with various stuntmen plunging downwards – and throw in the odd moment to remind us how tragic it all is (like Red Buttons sadly laying his jacket across some poor soul).

It also understands that we need to feel smarter than the crowd of extras caught up in the drama. When Gene Hackman earnestly tells everyone their only chance of survival is up, we want to feel that we’d be smart enough to go with him, rather than join the sheeple listening to the literally-out-of-his-depth purser (“What you’re suggesting is suicide!”). Allen knows we need to feel smarter so much he later throws in another group led by a confident-but-wrong authority figure (the ship’s doctor) blithely walking downhill to the flooded aft, ignoring Hackman’s cries that they are striding to a watery grave.

No, we’d definitely be with the plucky stars. After all Hackman can’t be wrong! (Gene Hackman’s priest, for all his bluster, is remarkably unpersuasive – he even only just holds onto authority in the group). The stunt work and production design as the battered stars climb up the overturned ship to the hull are remarkable – not for nothing did this scoop nine Oscar nominations – and while the film is undeniably slightly cheesy, it’s played with an absolute earnest seriousness by the cast (Hackman, to his eternal credit, acts as if his life depended on it – which considering it’s clearly a pay cheque role other actors would have coasted through is admirable).

The set pieces are superb. As the cast is whittled down, the deaths carry a certain weight – again conveyed by the honesty of the grief from those left behind. Shelley Winters bagged the best role – and the most iconic scene – as an overweight old lady with a Chekhov’s skill, performing (at great cost) an act of heroism no one else could manage. (She landed an Oscar nomination, largely for this stand-up-and-cheer moment with a sting). Most get a moment to shine – although Carol Lynley’s pathetic, panicking singer (she can’t swim or climb or hold her breath or run…) who spends her time shrieking tries your patience no end.

The film is so much about the experience of seeing this group of people overcome death-defying climbs, swims and flames that when the survivors stagger into the sunlight, the film abruptly ends. It’s all about the ride, with most of the plot points established earlier settled by someone dying on the way up. But it’s entertaining and lands just the right side of involving. The characters may be artificial, but we still care about them.

The Poseidon Adventure was a massive hit and still the best maritime disaster film made (certainly much better than its belated, lame, remake). Allen cements a formula where swiftly sketched characters, played by recognisable actors, go through endurance tests in front of us via terrifying set-ups and death-defying stunts. It’s grand, old-fashioned entertainment, perhaps taking itself a little too seriously, but giving us lots to gasp and cheer at.

French Connection II (1975)

French Connection II (1975)

Change of setting isn’t really enough to justify the existence of this half-hearted sequel

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Gene Hackman (Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier), Bernard Fresson (Inspector Henri Barthélémy), Philippe Léotard (Jacques), Ed Lauter (General Brian), Charles Millot (Miletto), Jean-Pierre Castali (Raoul Diron), Cathleen Nesbitt (Old Lady)

Did The French Connection really need a sequel? Friedkin’s original was a self-contained gem, based on a true story, that even ends with a series of “what happened next” captions. But there was enough of a foot in the door for a completely fictionalised resolution to fates left hanging. French Connection II has some similarities with the original, but it’s also a slight film caught even more obviously than the first between documentary realism and trigger-happy actioner.

The whole film feels like it has been assembled in a rush. The plot is incredibly slight. “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) arrives in Marseilles to help the police track drug kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Doyle doesn’t speak a word of French and charges around pissing everyone off and generally making a nuisance of himself. He’s grabbed off the streets by Charnier’s men. To get him to talk they spend weeks force-feeding him heroin until he’s hooked then cut off his supply. They then return him to the Marseilles police who lock him in a cell and help him go cold turkey. When he comes out if Popeye wasn’t mad before, he certainly is now.

That (long) sequence of heroin addiction and painful cold turkey is one of two things that really makes Frankenheimer’s sequel stand out. I think it must be what attracted Hackman to the film. Not only did the liberal Hackman (troubled by Doyle’s slight neo-fascism in the first film) probably enjoy the idea of seeing this guy hit rock bottom, it’s also an opportunity for an acting tour-de-force. Hackman is probably given more challenging material in this largely forgotten sequel than in his actual Oscar-winning role.

Weaned onto the drugs, Hackman’s body language shifts from defiant resistance to despondent, dope-strewn lethargy until he can’t be bothered to record the passing of days any more in his tally chart. He goes from being cuffed and dragged around, to blankly following his captors and rolling up his sleeve to accept another shot. But that’s nothing compared to the cold turkey scenes.

Locked up in a dingy cell under the police station (the French police worried about taking the blame and also feeling a brotherhood with this fellow cop), Doyle goes through withdrawal mourning – anger, bargaining and eventual grief – in a series of calmly shot, claustrophobic scenes that allows Hackman let rip. And he certainly does, deconstructing this proud man’s self-image until he’s a weeping mess, kicking doors, throwing food around and so full of self-loathing, he can barely face himself in the mirror. It’s hard to watch, and something truly unique – a twisted punishment for a drugs cop and a man who defines himself by his lack of reliance for anyone or anything else.

This long sequence takes up the centre of the film – and includes an equally difficult scene to watch, as Frankenheimer stages in (a single take) forensic detail the French police’s pumping of Doyle’s stomach to get a final (deadly) overdose out of his system. It’s quite unlike anything else I’ve seen before in a cops and robbers shoot-em-up (which is what most of the rest of the film, at heart, is) and you can guarantee it’s the one thing people will remember.

The other element that stands out is Frankenheimer’s – a long time Francophile – ability to shoot Marseilles not as a tourist destination, but a strikingly real urban environment. On top of this anti-picture-postcard environment, he stresses Doyle’s isolation. None of the French dialogue in the film is translated, leaving us as stranded as Doyle is in trying to understand what is going on and what people are saying. Doyle clumsily pantomimes for everything he wants, be that information from a suspect (he tries his toe-picking line to no effect what-so-ever) to a drink in a bar (a long exchange until he finally reaches an understanding with the barman on “whiskey”). Doyle, of course, has made no effort to learn any French and blunders about in a city he doesn’t understand, ruining operations and getting himself and others in trouble.

Aside from these moments though – and despite the film being well shot by Frankenheimer, with a nice continuation of the original’s drained out neo-realism – this is otherwise a conventional and unimaginative film that ticks a number of expected boxes. It has an action set-piece at a dry dock that feels unreal (and also copies the central idea of the car smuggling operation from the first film) and concludes in a chase and shoot-out that’s almost a copy of the original’s ending – with an ending even more sudden. For all Frankenheimer’s love of France, the film still has a suspicion for Europeans – be they smooth criminals or obstructive cops.

French Connection II tries a couple of different things, but never really makes a case for itself as a truly stand-alone film. It’s main rivalry between the hero and villain is dependent on having seen the first film and its slender plot veers into the sort of shoot-outs and set-pieces that don’t feel remotely like they are occurring in a ‘real’ world. It deserves credit for the bravery and honesty of its cold turkey sequence, but it’s a sequence caught in a film that otherwise offers little that’s truly unique.

The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection (1971)

A ruthless, obsessed (of course!) cop chases down a drug kingpin in this Best Picture winning crime drama

Director: William Friedkin

Cast: Gene Hackman (Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier – “Frog One”), Roy Scheider (Detective Buddy “Cloudy” Russo), Tony Lo Bianco (Salvatore Boca), Marcel Bozzuffi (Pierre Nicoli – “Frog Two”), Frédéric de Pasquale (Henri Devereaux), Bill Hickman (FBI Agent Bill Mulderig), Ann Rebbot (Marie Charnier), Harold Gray (Joel Weinstock), Arlene Faber (Angie Boca), Eddie Egan (Captain Walt Simonson), Sonny Grosso (FBI Agent Clyde Klein)

Cops and criminals: do they have more in common than we’d like to think? In Friedkin’s Oscar-winning The French Connection, the lead cop and criminal are both obsessive, single-mindedly ruthless and locked into a cycle of actions that isn’t going to be change with one big bust. Look at them in isolation and its hard to tell at times which is which: the French drug dealer is a suave cosmopolitan type, unfailingly cultured and polite, but remorseless; the cop is a border-line racist and narcissist who doesn’t give two hoots about collateral damage, kills without remorse and whose life is one of tunnel-visioned obsession.

Based on a true-story – the model for Doyle, Eddie Egan, has a cameo playing his own boss – the film covers the arrival in New York of French heroin dealers, led by Alan Charnier (Fernando Rey) looking to make a killing with their prime product. Opposite them is narcotics officer Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), who’s practically the dictionary definition of anti-hero. Doyle and Charnier engage in a battle of wits and force across New York during one blisteringly cold few days in Winter, and never mind who gets in the way.

The French Connection is about masculinity, and that no matter what many men don’t like to lose. Getting beat is certainly the main concern for Doyle, who I’m not sure has ever really thought twice about the impact of drugs (he’d be just as passionate chasing down coca-cola or stamps if you banned those). Neither has Charnier, with his reassured cool of old Colonial Europe, which just knows better than the nouveau Americans. (there is an underlying subversive fear of America being undermined by this suspiciously metropolitan Frenchman, the country’s best defence being a loud-mouthed, son of the streets).

Played superbly by Gene Hackman, Doyle is presented as a man we are invited to make up our own mind about. He’s obviously an effective detective and he doesn’t just go the extra mile: the job is a night-and-day obsession. He’ll spend hours pounding the streets, staking out a hotel on a rainy street, walk miles tailing a subject and barely spend a minute off-duty. He’ll also drive cars wildly though crowded streets, shoot a man in the back, rough-up suspects and treat others with an abrupt anger, xenophobia or both. As a model for the society he’s sworn to protect, he’s a disgrace – but is he the effective agent of crime-fighting we need?

Friedkin’s film largely aims to present Doyle as he is, within its documentary realism – although I’d argue the film repeatedly looks at his commitment and never-say-quit-energy with barely veiled admiration. The film is assembled with an on-the-streets immediacy reminiscent of The Battle of Algiers – added to by the casting of many non-actors in key roles. It’s shot with a drained-out series of muted colours (even more drained-out in Friedkin’s egotistical blu-ray remastering). All shot on location, it captures the slummy flavour of the rougher ends of New York. Right from the off, we see Doyle and Russo roughing up an informer in something between a slum and building site (including the famous “do you pick your toes in Poughkeepsie” exchange, a classic bit of psychological messing with criminals – incidentally check out Scheider trying not to corpse as Hackman roars through this.)

The investigation proceeds with a muted sense of grounded realism. There is a lot of time-consuming following, watching and taking notes. Word is picked up by informers. Careful surveillance work fills out the gang and its members. Doyle is constantly frustrated by bureaucratic demands, not to mention turf-war squabbles with the FBI (who, in addition, think he might be next door to a dirty cop which is pretty fair). Similarly, the criminals go through careful negotiations around timing, testing the purity of the goods and working out the best way of dodging the cops.

Friedkin’s film is so wrapped up in a perfect “slice of life” documentary realism shell, that it gets away with much of the second half being a piece of pure filmic flair. First and foremost is its famous car-chase. Narrowly surviving an assassination attempt from “Frog Two”, Doyle requisitions a car and hares through New York at 100mph trying to beat the elevated train “Frog Two” is escaping on, to the next station. In this superbly cut sequence, Friedkin pioneers the sort of low-angled front bumper shots that would be a staple of car chases for years to come. It’s pounding, gripping and brilliantly assembled, a raw slice of action that uses the film’s documentary style to trick you into thinking it’s something akin to the realism elsewhere.

But it’s a bit of filmic fantasy – and wouldn’t be out of place in Dirty Harry, the other 1971 film about a morally-complex cop. Doyle is certainly a less attractive person than Callahan – with no real moral feelings just a love of winning. Winning is what motivates him in this car chase: he has little interest in questioning the shooter (who has, to be fair, taken out several civilians, including a mother of a young baby) or preserving public safety and way more about getting revenge. He tears through the streets, sending civilians flying, scares Frog Two into killing two more people and finally caps it by shooting his unarmed would-be-killer in the back after a cursory warning. (Not the first time he’ll pull the trigger after only the most slender of warnings).

Winning is all that matters though. Charnier is just as bad. He ruthlessly exploits a patsy and has no concerns about bodies piling up. Fernando Rey’s impish smile and campily cool little wave to Doyle through the subway doors, after he has managed to shake him off in a marvellous sequence in a subway station, is all about enjoying a smug triumph. No wonder Doyle repeats the same gesture to him late in the film when the tables are turned.

It’s the way Friedkin’s film mostly doesn’t ask us to blindly root for Doyle that really makes it stand out. In many ways the film is less exciting – or even less intriguing a character study – than Dirty Harry. It uses its documentary realism heavily at times, to justify showing the sort of shocking, exploitative material (at one point, the camera lingers on the incidental victims at a car crash scene at distasteful length) that you would expect to find in Dirty Harry or Shaft. What Friedkin’s euro-inspired style – and Hackman’s committed playing – managed to do was make itself feel like it was making a higher artistic statement than those films, which played a much more conventional hand.

That and the sense that nothing has really changed. Early in the film Doyle and Russo charge into a bar – a bar by the way with an entirely black clientele, who Doyle delights in abusing – to seize whatever drugs people seem to have on them. It’s a basic clean-up and shakedown – but hours later you can be sure it will be look nothing happened there. Similarly, the film’s end credits reveal all involved basically dodged charges (except for the patsy for the smuggling of course), while the cops got transferred. We’ve got one small win at the cost of at least five lives.

I seem to change my mind on The French Connection every time I see it. Sometimes I think it’s not that different from a host of other police actioners released at the same time (add Bullit to that list). At others, I get gripped by its edgy mise-en-scene and Friedkin’s challenges to conventional morality. And I guess, a film that can make you switch your mind constantly, should be seen as some sort of classic.

Reds (1981)

Reds Header
Warren Beatty brings his passion to life in Ken Loachesque Reds

Director: Warren Beatty

Cast: Warren Beatty (John Reed), Diane Keaton (Louise Bryant), Edward Herrmann (Max Eastman), Jerzy Kosinski (Grigory Zinoviev), Jack Nicholson (Eugene O’Neill), Paul Sorvino (Louis C Farina), Maureen Stapleton (Emma Goldman), Nicolas Coster (Paul Trullinger), William Daniels (Julius Gerber), Jan Triska (Karl Rodek), Gene Hackman (Pete van Wherry)

Reds is the film only Warren Beatty could have made. Imagine the pitch meeting: I want to make a three hour long biopic about American communists, with the hero being the only American buried in the Kremlin, and I need $30million dollars to do it. Only Beatty had the force of personality to get major companies to invest greenbacks into a film celebrating a man who would have happily cheered their demise. Reds is a tribute above all to the dedication of its multi-titled director and his refusal to compromise. It’s a big piece of serious minded, educational but also dramatic and romantic storytelling. Not many people could have pulled it off.

In 1915 Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), a young would-be journalist and suffragette, meets and falls in love with left-wing journalist John Reed (Warren Beatty). The two of them tun off together to Reed’s bohemian circle in Greenwich Village, New York then to Massachusetts, becoming the centre of a community of anarchists, socialists and artists. Their mutual love is damaged by affairs – in particular Bryant’s heartfelt affair with the sensitive Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) and Reed’s own (off-screen) infidelities – but is rekindled as they are swept up in the Russian Revolution, an event that motivates Reed to try and build a similar communist party in America (with very little success). But, when Reed is trapped in Soviet Russia, how far will Bryant go to reunite with him?

Beatty’s dream of making a film on Reed’s life had been knocking around in his head since the 1960s, but it took the success of Heaven Can Wait in 1978 for him to finally have the muscle to get the film made (when Studio execs, having signed the deal, begged him to consider another subject Beatty stuck to his guns). He originally planned only to produce: that quickly expanded into also writing the script (with Marxist British playwright Trevor Griffiths, a hilarious personality mismatch with the Virginian millionaire Beatty), then directing it and finally, to be completely sure the project went where he wanted it to go, playing Reed as well. It would result in Beatty joining the short list of people nominated in four different categories for one film at the Oscars (but he won only Best Director, Reds losing out the big one to Chariots of Fire).

The real strength of Reds is probably Beatty’s producing. This is a huge epic, filmed across multiple countries in Europe (standing in for each other and for America), marshalling a vast number of sets and locations. Much like Attenborough’s Gandhi, it’s a film directed with a smooth, professional competence, but stage-managed to the screen with the flair of a master producer. Each department was staffed by an expert: Vittorio Storaro shot the film with a Golden Age beauty; Stephen Sondheim contributed to the score; Dede Allen assembled thousands of hours of footage, and dozens and dozens of takes of every scene, into a coherent, pacey movie that effectively balances politics and romance.

In many ways, Reds is like the mirror image of Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (it even has a late train ambush set-piece, chugging through the Spanish wheat fields, that could have come out of Lean’s epic). That film was a romance-for-the-ages that used politics and revolution as a backdrop. Reds uses romance and personal stories as a context-setting background, to push to the forefront politics and revolution. This is perhaps the most earnest and impassioned exploration of the history of American left-wing politics in film history. Giving a lot of time  – particularly in its second half – to scenes made-up entirely of impassioned socialists sitting in a room arguing at each other over the minutia of party rules and ideology, this is the sort of epic Ken Loach would have been proud of making.

The politics are also genuinely interesting, quite a feat in itself. Beatty is unafraid to look at the fundamental weaknesses of Western left-wing politics: its own worst enemy is always itself. People who agree on 90% of the issues, swear themselves to become life-long enemies because of differences over the remaining 10%. In one dynamically filmed sequence, Bryant is a frustrated and resigned observer as Reed oversees the split of the American Socialist Party into no less than three factions, two of which set up rival claims to be the “official” Communist party of America.

Not that Reds has any sentiment for Russia: Beatty is savvy enough to know (I wonder if Griffiths was?) that the USSR is about a million miles away from ideal. Factionalism is just as prevalent there, with the difference being the main faction happily uses, suppresses and crushes the others. Reed’s time in Russia sees him becoming increasingly disillusioned and homesick, as he realises a dictatorship isn’t made palatable just because it’s a Communist Dictatorship. As the representative of that system, author Jerzy Kosinski makes for a grippingly stone-faced and ruthless Zinoviev, brow-beating any deviation from the party line.

Beatty makes all this political theorising and left-wing political infighting palatable, by framing it carefully around a genuine romance between Bryant and Reed. For all the unconventionality of their open-ish relationship (their feelings on this change from infidelity to infidelity), these are two people who share a deep and lasting bond on both an emotional and a political level. Both skilled writers, we are shown time and again that they bring out their best work from the other and that when they are focused on each other, they have a mutual understanding few can hope to match.

As Bryant, Beatty (who was in a relationship with her at the time – which didn‘t survive the epic shooting schedule) cast Diane Keaton. It’s a stroke of genius – and this is certainly Keaton’s finest performance. In a way no other role has allowed her, this looks past Keaton’s comedic skills and allows her to match her intelligence and spark with a woman who challenged norms, as a skilled writer and journalist. Keaton can play heart-rending emotion just as well – her breakdown fury at discovering Reed’s infidelity is fully-committed without being OTT – and she’s perfect as the increasingly disillusioned observer of left-wing failures. She believably flourishes from a woman uncertain of who she is to become a determined intellectual willing to cross continents to find what she wants. It’s a brilliant performance, smart, sharp and moving.

Beatty fronts-and-centres her so much, he slightly short-changes himself – playing Reed he doubles down on the boyish charm and enthusiasm (and he feels really young here), making Reed an enthusiastic, vulnerable, naïve figure. We just don’t quite get a real sense of who he is beyond that. You can’t say the same for Nicholson’s Eugene O’Neill, delivering a remarkably low-key, restrained and sensitive performance. He’s loving, emotionally vulnerable and eventually devastated, in one of his finest acting performances. Maureen Stapleton won the Best Supporting Actress for her Earth-mother anarchist Emma Goldman, the cuddly aunt of firey, confrontational anarchic politics.

Reds is marshalled by Beatty into an epic that powers along effectively. The first half of the film gets its narrative balance right: contrasting personal and political growth with a backdrop of War and Revolution. The second half leaves a little too much to chew, a vast amount of political debate rushed through with a series of increasingly short and sometimes disconnected scenes. Beatty balances the narrative with extensive “witness” interviews, from real-life contemporaries of the characters. (These are never identified, which is a bit of shame as it never allows to really know what their perspective was). It adds a feeling of earnestness to a project that gets an effective balance between politics and the personal, between showmanship and details and between scale and intimacy. While it is more of a producer’s film – and rushed in its second half – than a triumph of directorial imagination, it’s still an impressive – and informative – achievement.

Enemy of the State (1998)

Will Smith and Gene Hackman dodge the surveillance state in Enemy of the State

Director: Tony Scott

Cast: Will Smith (Robert Clayton Dean), Gene Hackman (Brill), Jon Voight (NSA Director Thomas Reynolds), Regina King (Carla Dean), Jason Lee (Daniel Leon Zavitz), Lisa Bonet (Rachel Banks), Barry Pepper (Agent Pratt), Loren Dean (Agent Loren Hicks), Jake Busey (Agent Krug), Lisa Bonet (Rachel Banks), Jack Black (Agent Fiedler), Jamie Kennedy (Agent Williams), Seth Green (Agent Selby), Ian Hart (Agent Bingham), Stuart Wilson (Congressman Sam Albert), Jason Robards (Congressman Philip Hammersley), Tom Sizemore (Paulie Pintero)

A congressman (a cameoing Jason Robards) is murdered for refusing to support intrusive new counter-terrorism legislation championed by NSA director Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight). Unfortunately, someone caught the killing on camera. When the NSA come hunting, he plants the recording on an unwitting lawyer friend, Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith). Dean has no idea he has evidence that could blow the conspiracy – and is nonplussed when they set about destroying his life. The only person who can help is mysterious surveillance expert Brill (Gene Hackman), who has spent decades living off the grid. Can the clear Dean’s name and stop the bad apples in the NSA?

Enemy of the State is a fun chase movie, that enjoys the technical possibilities of the surveillance state, packaged with the fast-pace, bright colour-filtered style of Tony Scott (this is one of his best films). There is more than enough wit and enjoyment about it – not to mention watching a host of very good actors, many of them unknowns at the time, bring a lot of sparkle to the film (you’ve got to give kudos to the casting director). Everything of course gets tied up in a neat, pretty bow but it’s a damn lovely bow so that’s fine.

In its detailed look at the power of the surveillance state, Enemy of the State was, in a way, ahead of its time. The ability for the intelligence agencies here to look into literally everything in your life is pretty unsettling, from bank details to computer accounts. Every camera is an eye and satellites are tasked at will to watch anything. In fact, it’s quite something to remember that the state is only more powerful today – the internet and mobile phones would making tracking Dean even easier than the bugs they secrete about his person, which causes him to flee our baddies stripped to his undies. (Also, if only Reynolds had waited a few years, congress would wave through legislation such as he is requesting here, without batting an eyelid).

The film also dares to shade a little bit of naughtiness into Will Smith’s character. Sure, he’s a crusading labour lawyer (we’ve got to know he’s on the right side!) but he’s also an adulterer with trust problems in his marriage. Smith’s still at his charming best here, and his frazzled desperation as he struggles to understand why on earth the NSA is destroying his life is well-handled. Regina King gets a thankless role as Dean’s shrill wife, whose trust in her husband oscillates according to the requirements of the script, rather than any internal character logic.

Enemy of the State sometimes teeters on the edge of making a point about the dangers of the surveillance state. How easy could it be to abuse this power? Unfortunately it puts most of these arguments into the mouth of Regina King’s holier-than-thou wife, which rather undermines them. It’s also made abundantly clear that we’re witnessing rogue agents. This allows the film to focus more on the cool things surveillance can do, rather than clearer moral statements about whether that’s right or not, other than it being a dangerous tool in the hands of the wrong men.

Scott’s film is more of an entertainment than a treatise though (and thank God for that). It also has a nice little touch of 1970s’ conspiracy thriller to it, something the film leans into with the casting of Gene Hackman in a role reminiscent of Harry Caul in The Conversation. Sure, I can’t remember Caul driving a car while it was on fire or blowing up a building, but Hackman still gives the film some class and a touch of old-school espionage and cynicism. Truth-be-told, other than profession, Caul and Brill have very little in common (Brill is far more confrontational and confident, and much less likely to rip his apartment apart) but it’s still a nice call-back. I also rather enjoy Gabriel Byrne’s smart, playful little cameo as ‘fake’ Brill (hardly a spoiler as you can’t move without knowing Hackman is in the picture).

Scott’s high-energy fun culminates in a smart little trap laid by Dean for all his enemies, that plays nicely off the fact that the NSA agents and the Mafia are definitely paranoid and stubborn enough to not realise they are all talking at cross-purposes. The end of the film sees everything back to normal (it’s unclear how, or if, Dean got his job back considering his unceremonious firing), but I wouldn’t worry about it. It would be nice if it had said more, but as a rollercoaster ride it’s short, sharp and sweet.

Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood rediscovers the dangers of killing in classic Western Unforgiven

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Clint Eastwood (William Munny), Gene Hackman (Sheriff Little Bill Daggett), Morgan Freeman (Ned Logan), Richard Harris (English Bob), Jaimz Woolvett (The Schofield Kid), Saul Rubinek (WW Beauchamp), Frances Fisher (Strawberry Alice), Anna Thomson (Delilah Fitzgerald), David Mucci (Quick Mike), Rob Campbell (Davey Bunting), Anthony James (Skinny Dubois)

The Western has a reputation for “white hats” and “black hats” – goodies and baddies, with sheriffs taking on ruthless killers with the backdrop of civilisation hewn out of the wildness of the West. It had passed out of fashion by 1992, and this memory is largely what remained. That helps describe the impact of Unforgiven. A great revisionist Western, searingly honest about the brutality of the West, it was made by an actor more associated with the Western than almost any other since Wayne, Clint Eastwood. Articulate, sensitive, intelligent and superbly made, it marked the transition of Eastwood from star to Hollywood artist. It’s still his greatest movie.

In 1880 in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, the face of prostitute Delilah (Anna Thomson) is slashed with a knife after she sniggers at a customer’s unimpressive manhood. The two cowboys responsible are ordered to compensate her pimp by sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman). Disgusted, the other prostitutes chip in for a $1000 bounty on the men responsible. A young man calling himself ‘The Schofield Kid’ (Jamiz Woolvett) seeks out famed gunslinger William Munny (Clint Eastwood) to help claim the bounty. Once a brutal killer, Munny is now a repentant widower raising two children – and desperate for money. Recruiting old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), Munny rides to Big Whiskey – but will he return to his violent ways?

Unforgiven explodes the romantic mythology of the West, in a way that really made people sit up and notice. In truth, revisionist Westerns had been made for decades before 1992 – Eastwood himself had already directed at least two – but as the public hadn’t flocked to see films like McCabe and Mrs Miller (wrongly!) the main memory of the Western was of the (excellent) likes of High Noon, Shane and John Wayne (but not the Wayne of Red River). Nearly every classic Western, to be frank, has a dark heart and questions the mythology. But few films so starkly exposed the violence, ruthlessness, cruelty and empty morality of the West – or more viciously attacked the romanticism built up around it.

In Unforgiven characters – particularly Munny – are constantly haunted by their past killings. The violence described is always cheap, pointless and brutal, fuelled by huge amounts of booze. Munny never seems to remember why he even did something – be it blowing a man’s face off to killing women and children. Whenever we hear about the past, it is a parade of short-tempered, violent, pissed men using the gun as a first-and-last resort, and never thinking of the consequences. The real ‘heroes’ of the West kill without batting an eyelid and, no matter how charming they might seem, have a terrifying capacity for sadism and violence. Place Munny back into this environment, and it isn’t long before his long-hardened ease with killing emerges once again.

It’s men like this the bounty will draw to Big Whiskey – and Little Bill knows it. Little Bill is superbly played by Gene Hackman (he won every award going), full of bonhomie and charisma matched only by a ruthless “end-justifies-the-means” philosophy that sees this law-giver carry out increasingly brutal and sadistic acts to preserve order. Brutally beating gunslingers – and worse – are justified in his mind, to prevent the chaos and slaughter they bring. And he mocks the pretensions of gunslingers fancying themselves romantic heroes, but doesn’t half enjoy telling tales of his own of exploits.

It’s not a surprise that the film’s face of law-and-order is shown to be just as at ease with violence as the killers he is protecting the town from. It’s part of Unforgiven’s intriguing study of morality. When, if ever, is violence justified? Do the ends justify the means, or is killing never acceptable? Or is it fine if you are convinced the cause is right or the target deserving? How long before you’ve slid so far down this slippery slope, that questions of right-and-wrong don’t even enter your head before you pick up a gun?

There couldn’t be a better face for this than Eastwood. Clint looks old, ravaged and tired, just as Munny is, haunted by the screams of men he no longer even remembers. He’s soulful enough to know he has no soul, capable of understanding he needs to change, but also able to revert to dealing out murder. Eastwood deconstructs his own screen personae of “the man with no name” into an old man who can’t face his past and is filled with regrets. As the film progresses, more and more Munny rebuilds his ease with killing – eventually exacting a revenge that leaves a trail of bodies behind.

There is nothing romantic about any of this: despite the best efforts of journalist WW Beauchamp (played with wide-eyed gusto and energy by Saul Rubinek) to inject it. Beauchamp has made a living turning the adventures of gunslingers into romantic best sellers – and is the films’ clearest attack on Hollywood itself for romanticising an era of violence and mayhem. Beauchamp is the biographer of genteel killer English Bob, who has made his money “shooting Chinamen” for the railroads. Played with a self-important grandness by Richard Harris (one of his finest performances), English Bob (actually a working-class oik masquerading as a gentleman) is living his own press release as a gentleman gunslinger. The fact that – as Little Bill delightedly reveals – he is just as much an alcoholic murderer with no principles is just another example of how little reality and fiction meet.

At least Munny accepts he’s a bad man. Perhaps that’s why his late wife shocked her mother by marrying him – he has enough self-knowledge to want to change even if he can’t. But of his three companions – Morgan Freeman is brilliant as the jovial Ned who has lost his taste for killing – only he lasts the course. That’s not a good thing. When we finally see a fully reverted Munny, downing a bottle of whiskey and shooting up a saloon he’s terrifying: brutally efficient with shooting, in a way that panicked shooters can never compete with.

In Unforgiven violence comes with a cost. A shot man takes a long time to die. The women who called most for violence, are left speechless by meeting the reality of it. A man’s soul is marked forever by taking life – “It’s a hell of thing killing a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever going to have”. It’s a responsibility only a fool takes on lightly – or sober. Munny and Little Bill are they only ones we see who have come to terms with it in some way, one as a necessary evil, the other as an evil he can switch on and off like a tap. Their ruthless coldness is hardly an advert for wanting to be part of this world.

Eastwood’s masterpiece tackles all these ideas with gusto, while telling an engrossing story powered by brilliant performances – Hackman in particular, Freeman and Eastwood are all stunning – and asks you to take a deep look at what we admire so much about violence. It does this in a subtle, autumnal way (with a haunting score), its muted colours helping to drain any further romance from the West. Gripping, thought-provoking and engrossing, Unforgiven is one of the greatest of Westerns.

The Firm (1993)

“He can’t handle the truth!” Tom Cruise takes on The Firm. We lose.

Director: Sydney Pollack

Cast: Tom Cruise (Mitch McDeere), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Abby McDeere), Gene Hackman (Avery Tolar), Holly Hunter (Tammy Hemphill), Ed Harris (FBI Agent Wayne Tarrance), Hal Holbrook (Oliver Lambert), Jerry Hardin (Royce McKnight), David Strathairn (Ray McDeere), Terry Kinney (Lamar Quinn), Wilfrid Brimley (Bill DeVasher), Gary Busey (Eddie Lomax), Paul Sorvino (Tony Morolto)

Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) is graduating top-of-his-class from Harvard Law. A plucky kid who’s worked for everything he has – and who wants to provide the best he can for wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) – Mitch has lots of offers but is seduced by a perk-filled offer from a law firm in Memphis. Everything goes wonderfully at first. But then associates at the firm start to die under suspicious circumstances and Mitch discovers no-one everleaves the firm except in a wooden box. Maybe all that off-shore tax-dodging isn’t quite as innocent as it seems – and those big-city clients with Italian-sounding names aren’t so friendly after all…

Adapted from a best-selling novel by John Grisham at the height of his airport-novel flogging days, The Firm is bought to the screen by Sydney Pollack. And what a complete dog’s dinner he makes of it. The Firm is a dreadful film: long, slow and dull with a plot that stretches right through elaborate and comes out the other side as confusing. By the time Mitch is tearing through Memphis, briefcase flapping behind him, you’ll have long-since ceased caring about anything involved in the film at all. Because for a film of such great length, very little seems to happen in it – and what little does happen is wrapped up in a mixture of legalese and curiously flat chase sequences.

Cruise plays Mitch at his most gung-ho, cocky, shit-eating grinnish. He’s preppy, super-smart, arrogant but also loyal, brave and principled. Aside from a brief temptation by money – and that because he wants the best for his family! – and of course a dalliance with a honey-trap on a beach (but it was a set-up, so not his fault!), he’s practically perfect in every way. He’s even a decent athlete, playfully taking part in back-flipping competitions with a break-dancing pre-teen busker (one of the most clumsy and bizarre introductions of a Chekov’s skill in the movies).

To put it bluntly, Mitch is an irritating character and watching him (very slowly) decide to do the right thing doesn’t make gripping viewing. Around him a host of experienced character actors do their thing, none of them stretching themselves. Tripplehorn does her best with the thankless part of “wife”, though she does at least get to do something a little proactive at the end. Hackman grins and coasts as Cruise’s mentor with the lost conscience. Hunter pouts and wisecracks (Oscar-nominated) as Grisham’s twist on an Eve-Ardenish secretary. Holbrook and Brimley scowl behind smiles as high-ups at the Firm. Harris shouts a lot as a permanently angry FBI agent with a heart of gold. Sorvino breaks out his Mob Boss 101.

Pollack marshals all these forces together with minimal effort and then ticks the boxes of all Grisham-cliches. The only thing missing are some courtroom dynamics, but we get the next best thing with wee-Tommy playing the FBI, the Mafia and the Firm off against each other in a desperate attempt to stay one step ahead of the game. I can’t stress enough how turgid and dull this film is. However scintillating you feel the set-up you might be, as the film clocks into the second hour (with 30 minutes still to go), you’ll be amazed how little sense of peril or threat there is.

There is nothing sharp, pointed or pacey about this film. “It has to happen fast” Tom announces at one point, as he kicks his impenetrable plan into gear. “Good luck in this film” my wife commented. She’s spot-on. Pollack fails to bring any sense of pace or peril to the film. For all we are repeatedly told Cruise’s life is at risk, it never really feels like it.

A big part of this massive failure is the terrible musical score that covers every single second of the film. Provided by an Oscar-nominated Dave Grusin (beating out Michael Nyman’s score for The Piano from even being nominated, one of the most inexplicable oversights at the Oscars from the 90s), every single second of the film is overlaid with a plinky-plonky piano score that would not sound out of place in a second-rate jazz bar or a hotel lift. Rather than bring you to edge of your seat, the score actually makes you feel like you should be resting back in it with a large cocktail in hand and a fuzzy sense of upcoming sleepiness clouding your brain. Which to be honest might work: pissed and half-asleep is probably the only way to get anything from the movie.

Crimson Tide (1995)

Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman face off under the water in Crimson Tide

Director: Tony Scott

Cast: Denzel Washington (Lt Commander Ron Hunter), Gene Hackman (Captain Frank Ramsey), George Dzundza (COB Walters), Matt Craven (Lt Roy Zimmer), Viggo Mortensen (Lt Peter Ince), James Gandolfini (Lt Bobby Dougherty), Rocky Carroll (Lt Darik Westerguard), Danny Nucci (PO Danny Rivetti), Lillo Brancato Jnr (PO Russell Vossler)

“The three most powerful people in the world: the President of the United States, the President of the Russian Republic and…the captain of a US ballistic missile submarine”. So boasts the film’s opening caption. This submarine drama explores the truth of that, during a clash of wills (and more) between Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) and his XO Lt Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) over the launch of the sub’s nuclear missiles at a rogue Russian general. Ramsey has orders in hand. Hunter has a later, partial, order that may or may not be recalling the strike. Should the sub launch, or should they work to repair their radio and check the second message – possibly losing the narrow window of time they have to take out a rogue general’s missiles before he can launch them at America? Glad I don’t have that job.

Tony Scott’s submarine thriller is one of the best of the genre. It throws in all the clichés you would expect (the claustrophobia, the long dive, the game of cat and mouse with an enemy sub, the blips on the radar, the need to sacrifice someone to save the ship etc.) but presents them with a dynamic freshness (helped by Hans Zimmer’s exciting, award winning score). And at its heart it is a character study of two very different men, with very different styles of thinking and leading. Both rules are juicy, so it’s not surprising that two of the best actors in the game fill them out.

Denzel Washington is just about perfect as a Harvard-educated, committed soldier-thinker who believes in relating to the men as much as he does in firm order. Washington is careful not push Hunter towards being too cautious – under his command the Alabama bests a Russian sub in combat – and he may be alarmed by the impact of nuclear war but will reluctantly pull the trigger, but only once he is certain he has received the correct orders. A lot of the film depends on Washington’s natural moral authority, as well as his mix of forceful reserve and relatability. 

You need a big actor to not get steamrollered by Washington in those argument scenes – and few have the authority of Gene Hackman. Hackman is way too smart an actor to make the captain what he could have been in lesser hands – a trigger happy autocrat. Ramsey may be an old hand who believes in telling men what he wants and expecting delivery or a boot in their ass. But he’s not uncaring, he’s well-read, thoughtful, articulate and capable of acts of kindness and generosity. But he’s also a man rigid in his intent when he believes he is doing the right thing – and Hackman is always careful to establish that his intent on launching missiles is because he believes he is protecting innocent civilians back home.

The film becomes a compelling clash of tempers between two men who firmly believe they are both doing the right thing. The film is careful to throw up the fundamental lack of compatibility between the two from the start, even if it is tinged with respect. Their backgrounds, methods of discipline even ways of thinking about their role are different. There is an unspoken racial tension under the film, not because anyone in it is racist, but rather as Washington’s Hunter represents all round a newer America (an educated Black-American officer) that makes Hackman’s naval old hand feel like a relic of Cold War thinking.

But the film is, at heart, sympathetic towards both men, and probably places more blame on the system (an Admiral later reassures us both men were both right and wrong). Scott’s film with its expected flashy style (Scott loves the stark red lighting of the sub at alarm, mixed with the blaring greens of radar screens and the cool blues of sub interiors) gets a wonderful sense of the claustrophobia affecting decisions. Every character is a sweaty mess, while the sub seems to spend half the movie at an angle, forcing the crew to virtually pull themselves through it. 

The final hour takes place almost in real time, and covers the pressure cooker of men forced to make world-destroying decisions, cut-off under the ocean from any idea of what’s going on in the world, in extreme temperatures on little sleep. It’s a world of butch extreme masculinity – another way that makes Washington’s more cultured Hunter seem strangely other. Sweat pours off the men (the camera frequently focuses in on sweat-dripping faces). The officers of the ship generally come out badly, with Viggo Mortensen in particular a weak-willed man flip-flopping from side-to-side during the various changes of command on the sub. Many of the rest think little about what they are doing, and it’s telling Washington is largely supported by non-commissioned officers and regular sailors. Perhaps that’s where the true heart of America lies.

The film was written by a smorgasbord of writers (Robert Towne wrote much of the Hackman/Washington arguments at short notice, while Quentin Tarantino polished up much of the rest of the dialogue – no wonder it’s sprinkled with pop culture references). Initial support from the navy was cut off after Bruckheimer confessed the film was not about a HAL style computer trying to launch missiles, but a potential mutiny on a submarine and a feud between its two senior officers. Scott’s front-and-centring of the human drama between two great actors is what makes the film work – and take its place as one of the classic submarine movies.

Lilith (1964)

Jean Seberg lures Warren Beatty and Peter Fonda into a psychologically dangerous web in Lilith

Director: Robert Rossen

Cast: Warren Beatty (Vincent Bruce), Jean Seberg (Lilith Arthur), Peter Fonda (Stephen Evshevsky), Kim Hunter (Dr Bea Brice), Anne Meacham (Mrs Meaghan), Jessica Walter (Laura), Gene Hackman (Norman), James Patterson (De Lavrier), Robert Reilly (Bob Clayfield)

Movies have long had a fascination with mental illness – in particular the impact of mental illness on women. Lilith is an intriguing, elliptical, somewhat cold but intriguing film that looks at the impact isolation, loneliness and seclusion can have on people and how these damaged psyches can sprawl out and cause further pain and suffering for others. However, it’s also a difficult, unclear and occasionally hard to like film, that deliberately clouds so many of its points in a veil of doubt and uncertainty that it’s difficult to really embrace it.

Returning from an undisclosed war (possibly Korea), Vincent Bruce (Warren Beatty), a lonely, slightly troubled young man, drifts into a job as a counsellor at a private mental hospital, under the supervision of Dr Brice (Kim Hunter). Bruce is empathetic and keen to understand and help the patients, but he finds himself slowly drawn towards Lilith Arthur (Jean Seberg), a sensual and seductive patient at the institute. Encouraged to spend more time with Lilith – as only Vincent seems able to draw her out of a fantasy world to engage with the real one – he increasingly finds himself infatuated with her, increasingly bending any personal or professional ethics to fuel his emotional and sexual need for her.

Just in case you are in any doubt from reading that, it’s pretty clear from early on in the film that the real person in need of help is Vincent. Played with a methody introspection and brooding insecurity by Beatty (he impassively and wordlessly drifts through several scenes or merely watches, and only rarely shows any emotional engagement), Vincent is frequently framed by Rossen alone, lost in the centre and sides of frames, or walking seemingly aimlessly forward. The camera often drifts towards him, if only to stress his lack of real engagement with the things he is seeing in front of him. His obsessive qualities are there from the very start, with his fixations switching between his mother, a former girlfriend (played with a flirtatious seductiveness by Jessica Walter) and finally settling, overwhelmingly, on Lilith whom he follows with the glazed eyes of a potential killer. Beatty struggled with the part – and I can see why, as our central character is such a distant cipher that he becomes someone very hard for the audience to invest any interest in.

Lilith herself is an intriguing if, it seems, unknowable character – almost impossible to tell if she is a truly destructive force or someone who simply behaves as she feels in the moment with no understanding of the impact her actions have. She is frequently callous and cruel, and then will revert to sadness, vulnerability and insecurity. She looks for love – or at least affection and loyalty – at every turn, but then also seems unable to understand any personal relationship except through the filter of sex. Starting the film placing an erotic spell around sensitive fellow patient Steve (Peter Fonda, vulnerable and rather sweet) she quickly switches all her efforts to wrapping Vincent in a web of enchantment (as the film rather clumsily stresses to us in a scene where a doctor explicitly compares her to a spider).

Lilith is increasingly seen as an unsettling, indiscriminate figure. No sooner does Vincent become her lover, than she begins flaunting a sexual relationship she is having with another female patient. (Lesbianism was quite radical for a film at the time). Even more surprisingly the patient is a staid, rather imperious middle-aged woman (played imposingly by Anne Meacham), and the relationship seems to be partly conducted to get a rise (of one sort or another) out of Vincent. Earlier, Lilith flirts disturbingly and erotically with a very young child (who seems disturbed) – although the viewer is perhaps even more disturbed by Vincent’s blank watching of the whole scene. At every point we are reminded of Lilith’s erotic allure – and the framing of the film, and its beautiful photography by Eugene Schufftan helps to create this mystic image. Lilith is often shown behind grills and bars earlier on, before she emerges into the outside world and one enchanting image sees her kissing her reflection in a lake, the very act reducing the reflection to shimmering ripples on the surface: can anyone know her?

The part leans on being borderline sexist, the idea of the enchanting, liberated woman as somehow being a dangerous (almost evil) threat to the safety and mental security of the men around her, deliberately endangering the decent world with her sexual openness. It largely manages to avoid this due to the performance of Jean Seberg, who gives Lilith a vulnerability and suggestions of deep psychological trauma that underpin her surface sexuality, flirtation and predatory nature. It’s no surprise that she is so completely able to overwhelm the repressed, inverted Vincent, or that he becomes such a willing slave to her whims and spur-of-the-moment suggestions.

Much of this disintegration of Vincent underpins the second half of the film, as he and Lilith engage in a dance that ends up having overwhelmingly negative consequences for each of them and for many of those around them. Intriguingly, Rossen’s vision of this mental institute as a more bohemian organisation suggests that the staff all seem aware of (and even tacitly encourage) the relationship – although whether this is part of a treatment or some sort of bizarre other motive is unclear. However, all this doesn’t help to make either character one we really care about, or make the story crystallise into something that carries real impact.

That captures the central problem of the film – Rossen deliberately builds the story with an elliptical sense of mystery in which the actions and motives of characters remain deliberately unclear, and the world they live in takes on elements of the dreamlike fantasy world that Lilith herself sometimes lives in (complete with her own language). Events seems to move with little sense of time. There are surreal interludes, not least an extended sequence where Vincent takes Lilith to a jousting competition (yes you read that right). It’s perhaps all a part of understanding how the personalities of the two lead characters slowly collapse over time into themselves, but it also serves to keep a distance between the film and the viewer. The final tragic outcomes are predictable from the very start of the film, but there is still a certain power to them. As a study of what slow mental disintegration may look like, Lilith is an intriguing little picture, but basically a little too hard to invest in emotionally to carry real impact.