Tag: Jack Nicholson

As Good As It Gets (1997)

As Good As It Gets (1997)

Sparks fly in this straight-forward sitcom set up from James L. Brooks

Director: James L Brooks

Cast: Jack Nicholson (Melvin Udall), Helen Hunt (Carol Connelly), Greg Kinnear (Simon Bishop), Cuba Gooding Jnr (Frank Sachs), Skeet Ulrich (Vincent Lopiano), Shirley Knight (Beverly Connelly), Jesse James (Spencer Connelly), Yeardley Smith (Jackie Simpson), Harold Ramis (Dr Martin Bettes)

Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is the rude, misanthropic writer of Mills and Boon style novels who suffers from an OCD that sees him keep to a strict series of routines. One of the most important is always having breakfast at the same table of the same restaurant, where the only waitress who will serve him is Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt). Carol is caring for her young son Spencer, who suffers from chronic asthma. All starts to change when the homophobic Melvin is persuaded to look after the dog of his neighbour, gay artist Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), after he is assaulted during a robbery. Melvin finds himself getting closer to the dog – and before he knows it, starts to reluctantly build a friendship with Simon and a romantic relationship with Carol.

If you thought that sounds rather like the set-up for a sitcom… you’d basically be right. James L Brooks demonstrates his TV roots again with what could almost be an extended pilot for a TV series, shot with his characteristic functionality. While its an attempt to show how different people can struggle to overcome barriers to connect with each other – be those psychological, social or health – it squeezes this into a trope-filled plot set-up, that swims in sentimentality and gives opportunities for actors to enjoy scenery-chewing, attention-grabbing parts.

None more so than Jack Nicholson, winning his third Oscar as Melvin. To be honest, what Nicholson does he is essentially portray a less complex version of Victor Meldrew from One Foot in the Grave. Melvin is a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and delights in using his wealth to excuse him from saying a host of unacceptable things about everyone he meets (not a single gender, sexuality or race escapes his quick-witted bile).

Of course, the audiences know that it’s alright because it’s Jack, and while he might be a rogue he’s basically got his heart in the right place. Discovering that is basically the purpose of the film: of course, all that rudeness and cruelty is a front to protect an insecure man from the dangers of emotional commitment. Not to mention that the first thing to melt his shell is that most familiar (and sweet) of Hollywood props, a dog. Brooks does manage to demonstrate that Jack’s acts of kindness are at first partly about making life easy for himself – securing an expensive doctor for Carol’s son is about ensuring she doesn’t leave his restaurant and agrees to keep talking to him – but the film is determined to show everyone is basically “decent” and “kind” even if they don’t know it.

Inevitably, the best way of doing this is for that familiar old development, the road trip: for contrived reasons connected to Simon needing to ask his parents in Baltimore for help with medical bills, Melvin, Carol and Simon climb into a car for a cross-country drive. Needless to say, the predictable clashes, confessions, break-ups and reconciliations take place. It being a Brooks movie, this all takes place over an extended two and a half hour run time (indulgent for such a traditional set-up).

What makes it work is that the acting of the three principles is fiercely committed. Oscar-winning Nicholson eats up the cutting dialogue but also manages to mine a lot of “little boy lost” vulnerability from Melvin, a man who throws up barriers of rudeness, aggression and misanthropy to protect himself from getting hurt. Helen Hunt (who won another Oscar) hones years of experience in delivering fast-paced, witty dialogue from Mad About You, also shows real depth making Carol a similarly guarded person, using sass and cynicism as a shield against a world she expects to bite her. Greg Kinnear is a fragile artist, hiding behind his art, tortured by denial about his problems and desperate for an emotional connection.

That theme of the defensive barriers – and crippling effects of our own mental hang-ups – is the deeper message that Brooks manages to bring to the film. Melvin might seem, on the surface, the most obviously maladjusted but at least he’s vaguely happy in his skin at the start of the film. The other characters wear smiles of contentment, but only to hide deep stress and turmoil. It’s Brooks’ TV roots that turns all this into a series of “learning” lessons, where every scene in the final act is accompanied by someone making a profound choice, making a new start or letting something go.

As Good As It Gets is about making the best of things. And Brooks makes a pretty good fist of making this a decent (overlong) romantic comedy with a touch of depth. But its still mired in predictable tropes. Melvin’s OCD expresses itself in the most amusing filmic way possible, essentially as a form of charming eccentricity rather than the crippling disease it can actually be (it ticks all the predictable boxes, from light-switches, to compulsive hand cleaning to not stepping on cracks in the pavement). The film also, rather worryingly, suggests OCD can be overcome just like any other personality problem, simply by opening your heart and learning those lessons.

It’s fine, but you can watch it now and wonder how a film that’s essentially an over-extended dramedy TV-show pilot ended up scooping so many prizes. Entertaining, with some interesting perspectives, with committed acting, but very little that’s new and a lot that’s rather tired.

Batman (1989)

Batman (1989)

Comic book movies get a jump start in the very first attempt to take the genre really seriously on screen

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Jack Nicholson (Jack Napier/The Joker), Michael Keaton (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Kim Basinger (Vicki Vale), Robert Wuhl (Alexander Knox), Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon), Billy Dee Williams (Harvey Dent), Michael Gough (Alfred Pennyworth), Jack Palance (Carl Grissom), Jerry Hall (Alicia Hunt), Tracey Walter (Bob), Lee Wallace (The Mayor), William Hootkins (Lt Max Eckhardt)

Strange to think, but there was a time when comic book movies were not Hollywood’s be-all and end-all. Instead, they were slightly embarrassing, campy messes, big-name actors were a little ashamed to appear in and studio executives were convinced no-one outside a comic-book shop would be remotely interested. So, you could say Batman is one of the most influential films of the last 30 years, a massive box-office smash that treated its source material fairly seriously. For the first time ever, it was suggested these films could be dark and adult, as well as fun. Sure, there is a lot more goofy humour in it than you might remember, but it changed how this genre was perceived.

It’s an origin story of sorts. Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) has just started his campaign as Batman, the masked vigilante terrifying criminals at night in crime-ridden Gotham city. A late-night scuffle at a factory stuffed with toxic waste (but of course) sees psychopathic gangster Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) tumble into a vat of chemicals. Napier emerges, disfigured and insane, as The Joker and starts a campaign of terror across Gotham. A campaign only Batman can end.

Fans feared during its production that the film would follow in the footsteps of the campy 60s TV show. So many letters of complaint (at least 50,000 – imagine how many tweets that would translate into today) at the casting of ‘comic actor’ Keaton hit the officers of Warner Bros, the company’s share price even took a dip. Fans were only reassured when the film opened – and you know you’re in for something heavyweight, as soon as Elfman’s strikingly gothic yet bombastic score echoes out.

Gothic is the word here: Gotham is imagined as world where Art Deco meets Steampunk by way of German Expressionism – it’s like a Fritz Lang explosion in a graphic novel panel. The film was a brilliant twist on noir, with every street hosting a looming nightmare. This was a dark, sinister world where it was always night (fitting for the Dark Knight) and horrors lurked around every corner.

The nightmare at the heart of the film is of course the Joker. Nicholson was so uncertain about doing the film that he struck a deal giving him unprecedented control over the hours he worked, the length of the shoot, the billing and above all a huge back-end salary on box-office and merchandise (the deal was so good, he also made millions from Batman Returns, the sequel he didn’t even appear in). But it was worth it as the film benefits hugely from Nicholson’s cultural and artistic cache, but also his flamboyantly, unashamedly demonic performance, a grinning imp clearly having a whale of a time. Shrewdly, Burton recognised the Joker was such an outrageous character he could provide all the campy, OTT humour some viewers expected – and because it was in tune with the anarchy of the character, the fans wouldn’t mind. Which of course they didn’t, because it’s Jack.

Nicholson soaks up nearly all the energy of the film, leaving very little left for Keaton. Almost certainly very aware of the overwhelmingly negative reaction to his casting, Keaton plays the role absolutely dead-straight. So dead-straight in fact, that he all but forgets to bring any life to the character what-so-ever. Batman is a humourlessly sober hero (the rubber headset also meant Keaton couldn’t hear anything on set) while Wayne has a timid shyness that masks personal trauma. Keaton hits the notes very carefully and seemingly has decided to hide all the manic energy he had shown elsewhere. He effectively concedes the film to Nicholson – and it says a lot that he even looks overawed by Kim Basinger’s greater vibrancy as love-interest Viki Vale.

Watching Batman today, with our attitude to this sort of material changed completely (not least by Christopher Nolan), it’s striking how much more goofy this film seems. It actually says a lot that this was hailed as the darkest, most serious comic-book movie ever. It’s crammed with Burtonish pratfalls and visual humour, from tea trays blocking bullets to Basinger fainting when surprised by a jack-in-the-box. Classic Hollywood imagery is spoofed – at one point the batwing flies over the clouds, holds position dead-centre of the moon and then dives down while everyone in the film is dressed in a mix of pastiche 1930s style and 1980s clothing. In no way could you mistake anything here as happening in something approaching the real world (compare and contrast the few-degrees-to-the-left reality of Batman Begins).

Burton was in fact an odd-choice for director, with only two live-action films under his belt. He’s not been fond of Batman – he called it “mainly boring to me…more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie” – and the film is an odd fusion of styles. Burtonish dark humour and surreal dashes, mixed with blockbuster action and Prince songs. The film itself has a drifting and unfocused plot (part of constant studio rewriting – shooting the climax Nicholson asked Burton “Why am I climbing up these stairs?” to which Burton responded “We’ll work it out when you get to the top”) which plays around with ideas of trauma motivating these characters but goes nowhere with it. The Joker has no scheme and the film gives him no real personality depth or manages to explore his anarchism in the way The Dark Knight did. Events sort of happen with a shady logic and an unconnected inconsistency, until the film decides to end with a parade climax and rooftop fight.

What’s also striking is how little the comic books are treated like Holy Text by the film-makers (a complete no-no today, where even the slightest deviation from the writ leads to an avalanche of on-line criticism). Batman offs criminals without a second thought, his backstory is radically altered, the continuity merrily distorted. He seems less like a highly-trained fighter and detective, and more a gamely-trying brawler dependent on gadgets. Every character outside Batman, Vale and, I guess, the Joker is a clueless old buffer. While the film is inspired by the look of some of the comic books, it basically has no interest at all in their mythology or deeper themes.

Batman is entertaining but manages to feel long – largely because its plot is vague and drifts, without a tightly controlling theme or plot arc. It’s at times rather inconsistently edited – watch the sequence in the art gallery that is rife with continuity errors – and the film is slightly in awe of Jack Nicholson’s exuberant performance that dominates the film and crushes the life out of any narrative. But it showed that comic books could take place in a world that was dark and imposing rather than primary coloured and that superheroes didn’t need to wear their underpants over their trousers to get the crowds in. For all its flaws, it’s the first stone in the road to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and yes I know it’s a DC comic).

Reds (1981)

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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.

Broadcast News (1987)

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Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter and William Hurt struggle with the news and love in James L Brooks not very funny or insightful romantic media satire

Director: James L Brooks

Cast: William Hurt (Tom Grunick), Holly Hunter (Jane Craig), Albert Brooks (Aaron Altman), Robert Prosky (Ernie Merriman), Lois Chiles (Jennifer Mack), Joan Cusack (Blair Litton), Peter Hackes (Paul Moore), Christian Clemenson (Bobby), Jack Nicholson (Bill Rorish)

TV news – what is it for? To inform or entertain? It’s a debate James L Brooks tries to explore in his inconsistently toned hybrid rom-com and satire. At the end you very much intended to come out with the view that it should be about one, but is more about the other.

In the Washington branch of an unnamed network, Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is a rising star producer, prone to daily emotional breakdowns. Her best friend is brilliant, committed reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), who longs to be the anchorman but lacks social skills. Arriving in their branch is Tom Grunick (William Hurt), handsome and full of TV savvy, set to become an anchor but lacking any real knowledge of either journalism or current affairs. Naturally a romantic triangle develops between these three, along with all sorts of debate about the purpose of TV news.

The film stacks the deck firmly in favour of the view that news should be a comment-free recitation of facts. Brooks’ film bemoans – often in heavy-handed ways – the intrusion of human interest, soft stories and puff pieces in place of hard-hitting questions and challenging coverage. Tom Grunick is the embodiment of this: charming, friendly, reassuring – and totally uninformed, interested in “selling” a story rather than telling it. Meanwhile, to the film’s disgust, the higher-ups at the network frequently value appearances and popularity over tough analysis, and looking good on TV counts for more than journalistic skills. Pity the film: if it feels this network is bad, imagine how it’d feel about Fox News today.

Of course what the film isn’t interested in is acknowledging a certain level of showmanship is an important tool in making the news accessible, engaging and interesting for the audience – making them more likely to pick up the important things in the content. It also overlooks that purists Aaron and Jane may avoid stage-manging their stories as overtly as others – but they’re more than happy to fill them with heart-string-tugging references and shots to get the audience reactions they want. In fact, you can see Tom’s point – what’s really wrong with him interjecting a shot of his own teary face while interviewing a rape victim (a moment he recreates)? Isn’t that basically the same?

Broadcast News tries to outline the difference, but I’m not sure it goes the full distance – or makes the debate accessible or interesting. That might be partly because the film can’t decide whether to give more attention to the satire or the romance – Jane is attracted to Tom (who returns her feelings), but is extremely close with Aaron, who carries a not-even-concealed passion for her. Both plots sit awkwardly side-by-side, getting in each other’s way and not adding insight to each other.

But then the film is fairly shrill. That partly stems from the two characters we are meant to relate to being tough to like. Holly Hunter is dynamic as the forceful, passionate Jane, but she’s also a rather tiresome character. Her purist demands are slightly holier-than-thou and while there are nice touches of humanity (on a date with Tom, she doesn’t want her handbag opened at a security check because she’s put a pack of condoms in it)  the film doesn’t manage to warm this control freak (so domineering she can’t get in a taxi without dictating the route). Jane also has a tendency to burst into tears – a suggestion of some underlying emotional problems the film instead treats as a joke.

That’s nothing compared to Albert Brooks’ Aaron Altman. This is exactly the sort of character beloved by film-makers, but who if you met in real life would come across an an unbearable creep. Like Jane, he’s an uncompromising idealist whose pious self-importance quickly grates. The film doesn’t appreciate the irony that its champion of professional reporting yearns to be the pretty-boy face of the network and resents that he’s neverbeen the popular kid.

His tantrums and rudeness are meant to be signs of his genuineness and the film leaves no doubt that his love for Jane should be requited because he knows what’s best for her. He’s the Nice Guy who doesn’t get the girls even though he really deserves them.  A scene where he furiously berates Jane when she confesses her feelings for Tom, then demands she leaves, then demands she stays so he can lecture her on his pain and why her feelings are wrong smacks of a thousand male script writers who didn’t get the girl they wanted and it was so unfair.

The film’s view of women is often questionable. Today, Aaron looks more like a Proto-Incel, one emotional snap away from strangling Jane because she won’t love him when she SHOULD. The film sees him as a relatable, principled hero. Jane may be smart and principled, but she’s hysterically over-emotional for no given reason (Women! They’re so crazy!), domineering and controlling. The film’s only other female character is Joan Cusack’s production assistant who spends her time either shrieking in shrill panic or talking with nervous incoherence.

So, it might be a fault of the film that the character I related to most was the one we were meant to condemn. William Hurt’s Tom is nice-but-dim, superficial but polite, supportive, hard-working and honest, self-aware enough to feel guilty that he’s not really qualified to do the job. He tolerates being mucked around by Jane far more than many others would and despite being constantly abused by Aaron, offers him no end of support. If Tom is the nightmare shape of TV news, you end up thinking “well heck, is it really that bad?”

Broadcast News overall is an underwhelming experience, not funny or romantic enough to be a comedy, or insightful enough about journalism to be thought-provoking. Brooks directs with his usual televisual lack of flair, but there are some decent comedic set pieces: Cusack has a mad-cap dash through a TV studio to deliver a taped report for a deadline that is a masterclass in physical comedy, while the film’s best set-piece is Aaron’s sweat-laden anchor appearance on a weekend news bulletin. But the film gives too many characters a pass and avoids asking itself the tough questions. It ends up a bit of a slog that probably has more appeal to insiders than audiences.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine are tempestuous but loving mother and daughter in Terms of Endearment

Director: James L Brooks

Cast: Shirley MacLaine (Aurora Greenway), Debra Winger (Emma Greenway-Horton), Jack Nicholson (Garrett Breedlove), Jeff Daniels (Flap Horton), John Lithgow (Sam Burns), Lisa Hart Carroll (Patsy Clark), Danny De Vito (Vernon Dalhart)

Spoilers: If you can spoil one of the most famous tear-jerkers of all time.

I think its fair to say 1983 was a weak year at the Oscars. The finest film of the year, Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, was a four-hour Swedish saga (and arguably a TV series anyway), wasn’t nominated. The most lasting films of the year, Flashdance, ScarfaceWar Games and Return of the Jedi, were never Oscar bait. Terms of Endearment motored through to hoover up five Oscars – beating out The Big Chill (cut from a similar soapy cloth), The Dresser (a British stage adaptation), The Right Stuff (a slightly cold Mercury programme saga box office flop) and Tender Mercies (a low-key character drama about a Country-and-Western singer that won Robert Duvall an Oscar). By any measure that’s not a list for the ages.

And Terms of Endearment had the added bonus of being the second biggest hit of the year, after Jedi (yes, I know!). It’s a surprise, as this sort of female led drama rarely scoops the big prize – so at least it makes a pleasant change. Terms spools out a collage of scenes (there are sometimes time jumps of years between scenes), chronicling the lives of over-protective, domineering mother-and-free-spirit Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter, defiant, at times highly-strung, Emma (Debra Winger). The two have a difficult, though loving relationship, often depending on each other for emotional support – especially in their relationships: Emma’s with feckless philandering English Professor ‘Flap’ Horton (Jeff Daniels) and Aurora’s with playboy retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). But both come together when tragedy and illness strike.

Watching Terms of Endearment today, it’s often hard to see what the fuss was about. Although it wasn’t the first film to jerk tears via last-act illness (see Love Story), this started a wave of films where illness to a key member of the family (usually a mother) has a devastating, tear-jerking (but often eventually heart-warming) effect on the rest of the family (especially young children). Terms of Endearmentprobably does this better than those that followed, but watching it today its hard not to see it as something a little more familiar than it might have felt at the time.

Brooks’ background was in TV (he had several successful shows on his resume, from The Mary Taylor Moore Show to Taxi – so he certainly knew what the masses liked) and this, his first film, often feels like a cut-down mini-series. It matches exactly the sort of soapy, family saga of several TV epics of the time, and Brooks shoots the film with an unfussy, visually flat series of TV angles (aside from his skill with actors, his directing Oscar is a travesty). With each scene effectively standing alone – its collage effect means the film covers at least 14 years minimum with often only the age of the children any indication that time has passed – it also has a slightly bitty air of something assembled for cutting into episodes or advert breaks.

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with this. But, it does mean the film feels like it meanders along through a series of small crises, designed to be easily digestible. The film has a whimsical lack of directness – not helped by its overbearing (and dated) musical score. It relies strongly on sparky dialogue delivered by a cast who all look like they are having a good time (although, allegedly, they really weren’t with Winger and MacLaine in particular barely on speaking terms when the cameras weren’t rolling).

The main dramas are romantic. Aurora doesn’t quite know how to respond to her feelings for gnarled playboy Garrett. An early date between them hilariously contrasts her ludicrously over-formal clothes and his scruffy indifference. Its a difficult dance between two people who, for various reasons, are scared of commitment. But then Emma has made her own mistakes. She’s married Flip (is there a worse name in cinema?) for independence, but really they have nothing in common – and Flip’s eye quickly goes roving. Emma responds in a way her mother would understand: a potentially ‘first strike’ affair with John Lithgow’s meek bank manager (Lithgow and Winger have a wonderful scene at a diner, where he is almost too scared to touch her hand). You can see both mother and daughter teeing themselves up to make the same mistakes: the generations never learn from each other.

At the heart of the film is the mother-daughter relationship. But for me, this often lacks focus and never really coalesces into something that feels real or emotionally coherent. Now you could say that’s like life – and that’s a fair point – but several of the events feel heightened (particularly those featuring Aurora) and the characters are mutually dependent when the story demands it, and barely in touch when the opposite is needed. It’s easy to feel some connecting thread is being lost in those massive time-jumps. I found it hard to escape the feeling several times that people behave like this in the movies but never in real life.

But then, you get the final thirty minutes which revolves around the cancer diagnosis and eventual death of Debra Winger’s character. Here is where Brook’s flat, unobtrusive style comes into its own, his simple, restrained staging of these scenes making them surprisingly moving and affecting – especially considering the artificiality of some of what we’ve seen so far. For the first time, emotion, truth and earnestness – without too much blatant heart-string tugging – comes into play, and these simple scenes of two mothers saying goodbye to their children and each other end up having real emotional impact – as do the slightly stunned scenes of grief of those left behind.

It’s a shame then that most of the rest of the film before that doesn’t quite connect with me. The film was festooned with Oscars, but naturally the person most responsible for it working – Debra Winger – missed out. Winger is superb here, the only character who feels genuinely true, tender and also flawed in natural ways. She is slightly impulsive but also frightened of change, a character who can shout and rage but also is weak and dependent on emotional bonds. She’s totally believable and I would have loved to see more on her troubled relationships with her kids, and how her eccentric mother has impacted her ability to form bonds with her kids. The film doesn’t go there.

The Oscar went through to Shirley MacLaine who gives a big, showy performance as Aurora – and nabs the “Oscar Clip” moment as she bellows at nurses to give her daughter her medication. MacLaine’s Aurora never for one moment feels like a real person, but instead a novelistic invention of an eccentric mother, thrown on screen. MacLaine plays her to the hilt, but it’s a performance that feels mannered. But she gets the film’s fun moments – and gets to spark off Jack Nicholson who coasted to another Oscar as the sort of horny scoundrel he would play again and again for the much of the next thirty years on screen.

Terms of Endearment has enough in it that, if you like this sort of thing, you’ll love it. Perhaps it does mean more to mothers-and-daughters. I found it at times overly twee and laboured. But I can forgive it a fair bit for how effectively it displays grief – and how brilliant Debra Winger is in it. Over honoured? Sure. But, for its genre, a high point.

The Departed (2006)

DiCaprio, Nicholson and Damon runaround in Scorsese’s cartoonish Oscar-winner The Departed

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Billy Costigan), Matt Damon (Colin Sullivan), Jack Nicholson (Frank Costello), Mark Wahlberg (Sean Dignam), Martin Sheen (Captain Queenan), Ray Winstone (Mr French), Vera Farmiga (Dr Madolyn Madden), Alec Baldwin (Captain Ellerby), Anthony Anderson (Trooper Brown), James Badge Dale (Trooper Barrigan), David O’Hara (Fitzy), Mark Rolston (Tim Delahunt)

It’s one of those historical oddities that Scorsese finally won his Oscar for his lightest (comparatively speaking) most out-right entertaining film. I’ll confess I’ve never been a huge fan of The Departed. It won Best Picture in a year without a clear front runner, with the Academy feeling an overwhelming sense that Scorsese was ‘due a win’. The Departed is certainly entertaining, but as a great big, violent cartoon which feels like a different universe from the director’s real gangster masterpieces, such as Goodfellas, Mean Streets and Casino. The Departed also can’t hold a candle to Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The Aviator (I know that last one is controversial). Still it may be just a bit of fun, but at least it is fun.

Boston is a city where the Irish community is split, between cops and robbers. Crime lord Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) gets a man on the inside by pushing his protégé Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) to train as a police officer so he can get tips from the inside. Simultaneously, Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) recruits officer trainee Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an honest young man with a dodgy family, to go under cover in Costello’s gang. Both moles feed information on their ‘side’ to the other – but the stakes heighten as they both become aware of the others existence and race to unmask the other’s identity.

Based on a Hong Kong action film, Infernal Affairs (which has the same plot, but tells the story in about half the time). The Departed takes the basic template and ratchets almost everything up to an even more frenzied pitch. Scorsese throws in fast-cutting visual flair, makes effective use of montage and lays The Rolling Stones over the soundtrack (he really does love Gimme Shelter doesn’t he?). It’s hard to tell, watching The Departed, how much Scorsese’s tongue was in his cheek. This could very easily be a parody piss-take of Casino, with its bright-lights, extreme violence, effing and jeffing and toxic masculinity.

What is clear is that The Departed has all the logic of a playground game. Nothing ever feels particularly real, all emotions and personalities are dialled up to eleven. Big name actors have fun with big, chewable dialogue fully of sweary one-liners. There is barely any sense of a wider world, The Departed really being a chamber piece involving a few key characters, played out in a graphic novel style. In real life both Costigan and Sullivan would have been uncovered in seconds (it makes Line of Dutylook like a fly-on-the-wall documentary). If it has links to any Scorsese film, it’s probably Cape Fear, which was a similar heightened pastiche (of Hitchcock). Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of fun in watching Scorsese essentially take himself off, and it’s nice to see him having fun, but the film’s constant resorting to foul-mouthed, cartoonish action means depths are missed.

For starters, the film touches on but never really dives into the complex divided loyalties Costigan and Sullivan feel for their sides. After years (at least I think its years, there is very little sense of timeline in the film) pretending to serve one master while actually serving another, you’d expect an exploration of loyalty being increasingly torn between these two masters. It’s not a sense that comes across in the film. Instead, both of them feel fear of their false master and resentment to the true master. Both want to retire – seemingly to the same (lawful) side. The film spends time on the psychological impact of the constant stress of living a lie – but its analysis of this is skin-deep, trauma exhibiting as a bubbling, unpredictable temper (especially with DiCaprio’s Costigan) rather than really giving us an understanding of the psychological trauma. All the final shots in the world of a rat crawling across a railing in front of the court house, doesn’t translate into insight.

The film also misses the mark in exploring the dangerous masculinity of this world. The intense male attitudes here – with the macho posturing and the constant use of sexual and homophobic slurs – are obviously part and parcel of this world. But you feel a smarter film would have unpacked this more, rather than using it for punchlines and chuckles. There’s only really one woman here – a female psychiatrist who (obviously) becomes involved with both men – and you feel more could have been made of how the destructive bloodshed of this film is at least partly powered by overgrown schoolboys on both sides burning the world down to prove their manliness.

But this film is designed as an entertainment, not the sort of insightful character study Scorsese has delivered in the past. And with its primary colour pallet and shots – like a character falling from a building, and low-angle Dutch angle shots of characters checking phones – that seem inspired by graphic novels, it’s clear that we are not meant to take things too seriously here.

That carries across to the performances, many of which are Grand Guignal in their excess. None more so than Jack Nicholson in a performance of such flamboyant “Jack-ness” that it will either delight you or make you wonder whether Scorsese gave him any limits at all. The cast is roughly split between the OTT and the method. Mark Wahlberg follows Nicholson’s lead as a foul-mouthed, permanently angry cop, with rigid morals (he was Oscar-nominated and gets most of the film’s funniest lines) while Baldwin showboats amusingly on the chewy dialogue. At the other end, Sheen brings a fatherly warmth to Queenan while Winstone mumbles a lot as Costello’s number two.

In the leads, DiCaprio brings an edgy, firecracker intensity to Costigan, a man who seems constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Damon, by contrast, underplays rather effectively as the seemingly straight-laced Sullivan, letting the Boston accent roll around his tongue and riffing effectively off his “boy next door” looks. Vera Farmiga does decent work as the woman caught in the middle – even if she’s not 1% convincing as a trained trauma psychologist.

That doesn’t matter though in the heightened, cartoony posturing, blazing gun battles and operatic shouting that makes up the crazy world of The Departed. Scorsese lifting the Oscar for this is rather like David Hockney winning the Turner Prize for a doodle. I enjoyed it a lot more this time around, but it’s still a big, crude, graphic novel, something that looks and sounds clever., but is only a B-movie imitation of Scorsese’s finest work. The Departed is frothy but misses the mark when it aims for true thematic or character exploration.

The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson loses his mind in The Shining

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Jack Nicholson (Jack Torrance), Shelley Duvall (Wendy Torrance), Danny Lloyd (Danny Torrance), Scatman Crothers (Dick Hallorann), Barry Nelson (Stuart Ullman), Philip Stone (Delbert Grady), Joe Turkel (Lloyd), Anne Jackson (Doctor), Tony Burton (Larry Durkin)

I’ve often had mixed feelings towards Kubrick’s films. He’s impossible not to admire and there is no doubt many of his films are landmarks in cinema. But I’ve also often found him a brilliant technician, a striking intellectual but an emotionally cold and distant director, who seizes the brain and sense but doesn’t always engage the heart. It’s perhaps unsurprising that a director who has such control over the tools of cinema should be able to use it to create one of the greatest horror films of all time. Because what else is horror but the expert use of technique to unsettle and scare the audience? It’s like the genre Kubrick was destined to try – and succeed at.

The Shining was itself partly born out of Kubrick’s disappointment at the reception given to Barry Lyndon, his cinematically rich, but emotionally unengaging (to many) Thackeray adaptation. It garlanded awards, but praise that was more respectful than fulsome – while audiences had largely stayed away. Kubrick may be an artist – but he still wanted people to see his work. He decided to direct a film based on a poplar horror novel – after all people have been seeing slasher and fright pics for decades, so why not get a piece of that action? Stephen King’s novel was one of the few that engaged him (allegedly the famously highbrow Kubrick spent months reading part way into various horror novels before flinging them across his office in contempt). Sure Kubrick – much to King’s annoyance – junked many of the author’s themes in favour of his own. But in doing so he created a terrifying and deeply unsettling experience that stands as his most effective late work.

In the abandoned, and snow isolated, Overlook Hotel during off-season, writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is hired as caretaker to keep the building running. Accompanied by his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd), Torrance hopes to use the isolation time to come up with a draft of his new novel. However, dark forces are at work at the hotel. Ten years ago the caretaker butchered his whole family there, and the deaths have left a psychic legacy on the building. This is picked up on by the ESP-powered Danny, but also begins to play on the psyche of Jack who slowly begins to become ever more short-tempered, twitchy and unhinged as time goes on.

The Shining is one of the most frightening and unsettling films I’ve ever seen. And I attribute that completely to Kubrick’s mastery of the language of cinema. Every single frame, every single note on the soundtrack, has been perfectly shaped to inspire dread in the heart of the viewer. There are no cheap tricks, no jump scares, no obvious cinematic parlour games. Instead this is Kubrick using his technical artistry. What else can you say when one of the most disturbing things in the film is the changing sound of Danny’s tricycle as he cycles round the hotel (in a single, low angle, tracking shot), going from near silence as he cycles over carpet to bursts of sound as he cycles over wooden floor? When the score overwhelms with discordant sound and high notes as Danny simply stares at a door? 

But Kubrick’s genius is everywhere. He understands how the human brain is unsettled by symmetry. Watch the film again and see how so much of it is perfectly framed, how still the camera often is, how images – such as shots of corridors or rooms – are set in such a way to make the image look symmetrical. Something is off in our minds about seeing a building that looks so precise. It transfers as well when the actors are caught in the middle of the frame, with the set either side of them looking identical. Our mind keeps telling us it’s wrong. It feeds into our own doubts and fears. It disturbs us completely. Stillness and quiet mix with bursts of colour. For every elevator door opening to deposit a tidal wave of blood, there is the quiet intimacy of Philip Stone (absolutely chilling) as a ghostly representation of a past janitor, urging Jack to “correct” his wife and child.

That fear of symmetry extends as well to Kubrick’s use of two girl twins as ghosts of the former caretaker’s murdered children (and their stillness and softness of voice is equally terrifying). The ghosts throughout this film that urge Jack on in his murderous rampage are almost uniformly softly spoken, calm and polite – qualities that carry more and more menace. Even when the horrors begin to erupt, Kubrick keeps the camera movement and editing slow, gentle and frequently employs tracking shots (naturally leading to the invention of a new type of Steadicam). Where jump cuts are used they are to give us flashes of Danny’s ESP visions of the hotel (sudden cuts to the murdered girls or other horrors), enough to jolt us and working all the more in the rest of the film’s measured pace and gothic chills.

Kubrick also brilliantly makes use of the psychological impact of isolation. Out in the middle of nowhere, it’s clear time quickly loses meaning. The film is punctured throughout with title cards that seem increasingly random, either naming days (with no indication of how much time has passed between them) or time jumps that seem unconnected with the previous scene. It’s quick to see how much the Torrance’s perception of time has been lost in never-changing surroundings. The impact of constant isolation on a fragile psyche is perhaps something we are even more acutely aware of in 2020, and it’s clear that it has a catastrophic effect on Jack, who becomes ever more susceptible to his bad angels.

Those bad angels are partly where Kubrick begins to deviate from King. Not surprisingly, with Kubrick’s often nihilistic view of humanity, he introduces the idea that Jack has a history of violent temper and even striking Danny. This is very different from King’s idea of a good man and father being bent out of all recognition by the hotel’s evil into a would-be murderer. It’s possibly the main objection King had against the film’s changing of the novel. That and Kubrick’s clear disinterest in “shining” – the name given to the ESP qualities some of the characters display. For Kubrick, what was more important was the unsettling impact environments can have on people’s psyches – amplified in this case by terrifyingly bloodthirsty ghosts. For King the corruption of the good from evil among us was crucial. Both are fascinating ideas – but you can see why the book’s author would not be pleased to see his concepts sidelined.

Part of this may also have stemmed from the casting of Nicholson. Probably the greatest American actor of the 1970s (his hits during that decade are astonishing), this was the first chapter in a new era. Now Nicholson became JACK, part actor but part personality, so larger-than-life that you only had to say his first name for everyone to know who he was. Sure, Nicholson is (like in A Few Good Men) a ticking time bomb, but the performance works. It’s the film where Nicholson embraced for the first time the demonic grin and leer of cruelty he would use so well. But seeing him attack the film’s gothic qualities, while still having a touch of humanity for its quiet moments, works a treat. Could any other actor in the world have pulled off “Here’s Johnny!” and still have us absorbed in the character and the film? It’s pantomime, but brilliance.

More controversial is Shelley Duvall’s weepy, slightly pathetic wife. Much of Duvall’s wetness in the role is surely connected to the reportedly miserable time she had on set. To draw the “right” reactions from her, Kubrick essentially bullied her on set, putting her through hell. Sometimes hundreds of takes were done of even the most trivial scenes to get them right (this film perhaps cemented Kubrick’s reputation for ludicrous perfectionism), a regime that reduced Duvall to a state of near psychological collapse. While this was perfect for her performance, it was hardly conducive to her well-being. And was in itself perhaps another sign of the lack of heart in Kubrick, a director concerned only in the end with effect not emotional truth.

So it’s a black mark against the film. But The Shining is still a masterpiece, perhaps one of Kubrick’s greatest films. The film was so dependent on its technical wizardry, detailed perfection and preciseness that its impact becomes almost unbearable. It focuses on all Kubrick’s strengths and almost none of his weaknesses – indeed his basic dislike of people becomes crucial to its effect rather than running counter to an audience’s need to invest. Tense, unsettling, troubling and in the end deeply scary, while never feeling cheap or exploitative. It’s a landmark in both its genre and its director’s career.

Chinatown (1974)

Jack Nicholson struggles against the system – and loses – in Chinatown

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Jack Nicholson (JJ Gittes), Faye Dunaway (Evelyn Cross Mulwray), John Huston (Noah Cross), Perry Lopez (Lt Lou Escobar), John Hillerman (Russ Yelburton), Darrell Zwerling (Hollis Mulwray), Diane Ladd (Ida Sessions), Roy Jenson (Claude Mulvihill), Roman Polanski (Man with Knife), Joe Mantell (Lawrence Walsh), Burt Young (Curly), James Hong (Kahn)

“Of course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” So says Noah Cross in the superlative Chinatown, the sort of the film you’ll want to start watching again the second it ends. Cross is of course a respectable businessman and an absolute monster. And his mantra applies just as much to Los Angeles as envisioned by Polanski and writer Robert Towne. It’s a corrupt, dirty place where terrible, appalling things are regularly allowed to happen but everyone pretends the place is fabulous. It’s such a sublime film, while also so bleakly, despairingly dark that you are surprised you fall in love with its excellence.

In 1937 private detective JJ “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired – or so he thinks – by the wife of Water Board director Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) to investigate his infidelity. When he does seem to uncover it, he founds not only was his client not Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), but that shortly after his pictures appeared in the press (without his knowledge), Hollis himself winds up dead, having drowned in a dry river bed. What does this all mean? And how does Evelyn’s father (and Hollis’ business partner) Noah Cross (John Huston) play into this all? Gittes investigates further, to uncover shady schemes to manipulate the cities water supply for profit, under-handed business deals and unspeakable family crimes that leave lives shattered.

Polanski’s film has such a timeless wonder about it, perhaps because it was filmed with such careful and beautifully designed classicism that it has never dated. Seen at the time as a film told in the style of the classic film noirs (although it is of course full of blazing LA sunshine), but crammed with a darkness and corruption classic Hollywood shied away from it now seems to take its place as the most masterful of Hollywood mysteries. It’s recreation of 1930s detail is perfect, while its film making is restrained, controlled, unflashy but creates an atmosphere of simmering mystery and tension behind every frame. It’s a masterfully restrained piece of film-making that deals with matters of shocking horror.

And tension there should be as this explores the darkest underbelly of America. With Jerry Goldsmith’s sublime music score under every beat – riffing on classic Hollywood tunes, but with a haunting faded grandeur that suggests a whole melancholic world going to the wall – the film looks like classic, beautiful America but uses that to counter-frame terrible, heartless acts. LA is corrupt from top to bottom. Businessmen are asset stripping the city and its surroundings to line their own pockets. Wealth brings total immunity from all sorts of crimes, regardless of how foul they are. Even family ties are polluted by terrible lusts and greed. And for Gittes, Chinatown is representative of this – a one word reference to his career as a cop, where his ability to do any good at all was forever compromised by corruption.

Jack Nicholson’s performance as Gittes is central to the film’s success. He’s in every scene and the story is told entirely from his point-of-view – so much so that when he is knocked out, Polanski slowly fades out sound and picture. Nicholson is best known for his flamboyance, but here he brilliantly underplays too present a complex picture of an idealist disguised as a cynic. Gittes tries his best to coolly accept the world is what it is, and even that he is just trying to get what he can out of it. But he’s in fact a decent and honourable man with a deep-rooted sense of morality, who struggles in the world because it’s ill-suited for a guy who just wants to do the right thing. He has a sort of outdated charm and nobility about him, an almost courtly gentleness at times, and only lashes out in anger when he feels is either being lied to or his sense of honour impugned. He has a natural sympathy for the little guy and for all he may try to spin the sort of cynical Marlowesque dialogue, you don’t feel his heart is really in it. He is a dreamer who wants to believe.

And he’s totally ill-suited to this world he ends up with. Gittes uncovers every inch of the mystery – but nothing he does has any positive impact. He completely fails to protect anyone, his attempts to ensure happy endings end in disaster, he’s regularly beaten to a pulp (most famously having his nose slit by a cameoing Polanski as a weasily little hoodlum) and he’s at sea when dealing with most of the characters of the film. Even his carefully built emotional armour breaks down, leaving him vulnerable to making even more mistakes. There are perhaps few characters so ineffective – and again it’s a credit to Jack Nicholson’s charisma that he makes this character feel like such a proactive figure.

Gittes senses at all times that there is some dark secret underpinning all these events he encounters. But he’s too innocent to begin to suspect the horrors that Evelyn has put up with at the hands of her abusive father. Faye Dunaway brings a marvellous fragility and vulnerability to a character who transcends the traditional femme fatale. (Dunaway famously hated both Polanski and working on the movie). At first seeming imperious and even suspicious, the film slowly breaks her character down into a wounded and vulnerable woman putting on a front, determined to try and protect herself but doomed to forever be the victim.

And Noah Cross is the dark heart of this. Played with a sensational sense of gentility masking supreme corruption and greed by John Huston, Cross is genteel and polite while being ruthless and grasping. He also reveals himself capable of huge, destructive acts, indifferent to the pain this causes and utterly implacable in his vileness. Huston’s performance – he’s only in three scenes – embodies the terrible dark heart of America, where money and power it seems can let you get away with anything you want, no matter who knows. (And I love the way he persistently mispronounces Gittes name, turning it into a growling Anglo-saxon “Gits”.)

Robert Towne’s superb screenplay is perfectly paced and pieces together an intricate and fascinating plot where every small detail mounts together into a devastating whole. It’s a film that demands careful watching, and that revels in small details and character beats that gain greater impact the more you see the film. Brilliantly, the macguffin here is water – the control of a substance that should be a right for every man, becoming a superb metaphor for the theft from ordinary Americans of justice and their country. 

The film culminates – as you feel it must when watching it – in a nihilistic ending where evil triumphs and good loses out. “Forget it Jake – it’s Chinatown”, goes the famous closing line. It works so superbly, because in Towne’s and Polanski’s vision of America here, there is no chance of the right thing winning out if the powers that be would have otherwise. With Jake’s Chinatown career in the police force becoming emblematic of everything that’s wrong in American justice, sure it makes sense that his return there as a private eye would see the same outcome. Towne pushed for a more upbeat ending, but Polanski knew – correctly – that only the shock of murder could end this tale, especially a murder that would have no repercussions.

Polanski’s direction is faultless, cool, calm, wonderfully observant with a superb sense of the 1930s – the film looks beautiful – and using the sunlight and brightness of LA to stress that just because we can see clearly, doesn’t mean we understand what we are looking at. With one of the greatest scripts ever – and a superb performance by Jack Nicholson in one of his finest roles – this is one of the best mysteries in Hollywood history, a timeless classic.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Jack Nicholson is superb as McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Director: Milos Forman

Cast: Jack Nicholson (Randle P McMurphy), Louise Fletcher (Nurse Ratched), Will Sampson (“Chief” Bromden), William Redfield (Dale Harding), Brad Dourif (Billy Bibbit), Sydney Lassick (Charlie Cheswick), Christopher Lloyd (Max Taber), Danny DeVito (Martini), Vincent Schiavelli (Bruce Frederickson), Dean Brooks (Dr John Spivey), William Duell (Jim Sefelt), Scatman Crothers (Turkle)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of the landmark films of the 1970s, one of those films that’s on everyone’s list for great masterpieces. It lifted all five of the Big Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay), one of only three to do so. It’s widely loved for its celebration of rebelliousness and individualism, but there is more to the film than that. It’s as interesting for the things it doesn’t explore as much as the things it does.

Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) has himself sent to a mental institution rather than a prison farm, under the belief that serving his time in the institution will be far easier than doing hard labour. However, he finds the ward he is locked into is under the authoritarian control of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), a passive-aggressive bully with a strict interest in the rules at the cost of all humanity. The inmates are cowed, but McMurphy encourages them to express themselves and seize their freedoms – little realising that his freedom is dependent on being signed off by the doctors, not the length of his original short sentence, and he has made no friends in the hospital authorities – or that Ratched is determined to break his influence over the other patients.

Forman was a perfect choice for directing a film that directly echoes his own iron-curtain upbringing. OFOTCN is a film that celebrates the freedom of the individual – but also recognises that authority and the state always wins out in the end. The hospital ward is cold, oppressive, a white-lined world where Ratched observes and quietly controls everything from her booth, softly issuing directives that carry a quiet menace. The film rotates around clashes between McMurphy wanting to do his own thing and Ratched stridently reinforcing a fixed hospital agenda. At one point Forman’s camera tracks from McMurphy on the basketball court, up to Ratched watching behind a full length window like an imposing Stasi officer. Forman totally understands the struggle of expression and free will in oppressive regimes, and it’s this that has given the film such a rich life – who doesn’t want to land on the side of freedom?

It helps as well that representing freedom we have possibly Jack Nicholson’s finest performance as McMurphy. A roaring, bubbling, manic, burst of nature, an impish anti-authority figure who rips through every scene with intense energy. It’s a marvellous, inspiring performance. And it makes McMurphy exactly the sort of rebel without a cause we would like to be, the guy who can inspire and lead through force of will alone, who refuses to be cowed or crushed. 

Nicholson’s performance however is a perfect mixture of larger-than-life drama and moments of reflection. The film splices in a few conversations between Nicholson and the doctors that, over the course of the film, change more and more from spry defiance and mockery towards a quieter, more despairing resignation as he slowly begins to realise how trapped he is. Not that he wants to show any of that to his fellow inmates, or to Ratched with whom he keenly engages in a battle of wills.

Ratched herself is exactly the sort of cold, rules-bound, inflexible authority figure we are naturally placed to hate. Louise Fletcher is wonderful, with her softly spoken iciness matched with certainty about her moral position. Is she even interested in curing the patients? Her focus seems to be completely on controlling and running the patients’ lives rather than changing the status quo. 

This battle of wills drives the film, but it’s interesting as well for what it tells us about McMurphy. He seems to have no understanding of the fact that, while his fellow inmates are cowed, they are all to some degree mentally ill and certainly all frightened and unpredictable. McMurphy sees them as people who need to be encouraged to seize their own destinies, but these are people who are incapable of really understanding what McMurphy is trying to do or have any interest in it. He shakes up their world, but has little real impact on them in the long term.

It’s not a film that engages in any great understanding of mental illness, but suggests that perhaps McMurphy and Ratched are in their own ways as insane as the people they are fighting over in the asylum. McMurphy is a self-destructive force who pushes for small things with huge passion, but then drifts through the major things. He acts without thinking and doesn’t try to understand the people around him. Ratched meanwhile is so obsessed with controlling her own small universe, she has defined her entire life around her governance of the ward.

The film has a slightly troubling relationship with women – which is not necessarily a criticism, but an observation since the film’s only prominent female character is Ratched and all the inmates are men. The things that Ratched stops the men from doing are the sort of typically “male” activities that McMurphy delights in – gambling, sports, girls – while McMurphy himself is (in what is the only truly dated moment in the film) in the slammer partly for having under-age sex with a girl, which he eagerly describes to his doctor. McMurphy pushes all the inmates to become more like the sort of man he understands men should be, and while it is a freedom of expression, it’s also one that has little place for women in it, other than as sex objects.

But that’s not the real aim of the film, so you can forgive it. McMurphy is not an intellectual or a man on a mission, he’s an unthinking burst of energy that burns up the world around him and demands the freedom to not be told what to do. That’s what gives the film its real emotional impact and why it spoke so much to Vietnam era America, and continues to speak to us today. And of course it’s linked to the fact that the film is a massive tragedy.

Because in the end the forces of oppression do win and McMurphy’s spirit is crushed. Sure McMurphy more than contributes to his own failures – he allows his own to drift away, and his pushing of his own agenda of what he feels men should want dooms poor Billy Babbit (a stuttering slice of timidity played by Brad Dourif). The film has a Pyrrhic victory in his inspiring the “Chief” (William Sampson), a giant native American flying under the radar by pretending to be deaf and dumb, into carrying out McMurphy’s dreams.

But for our hero it’s a bust. Forman’s film is a brilliant celebration of the energy and futility of lords of misrule like McMurphy, with a commanding performance from Jack Nicholson that’s one for the ages. A wonderful piece of ensemble playing in a set that becomes a metaphor for oppressive regimes, it’s remained remarkably undated and a force to be reckoned with on any top ten list.

The Passenger (1975)

Maria Schneider and Jack Nicholson hit the road in Antonioni’s partly frustrating, partly masterful The Passenger

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

Cast: Jack Nicholson (David Locke), Maria Schneider (The Girl), Ian Hendy (Martin Knight), Jenny Runacre (Rachel Locke), Charles Mulvehill (David Robertson), Steven Berkoff (Stephen)

Ever wanted to jack in your life and have a go at being someone else? It’s a temptation we’ve all felt at one time or another, that chance to make a completely fresh start free of all those burdens and expectations of our own lives. 

It’s a temptation thrown in the way of David Locke (Jack Nicholson) a British-American journalist, trying to make contact with rebel groups in the deepest Sahara deserts of Chad. Returning, after a failed excursion, to his ‘hotel’ in the tiny, beat-up village in the middle of the desert he finds that the only other resident, an Englishman, has died of a heart attack. The two man have a physical similarity, enough for Locke to decide to swop places with the dead man and leave Chad under a new identity as David Robertson. Curious to follow the details left in Robertson’s appointment diary, Locke finds that he has taken the identity of an arms dealer – making sense immediately of why Robertson was also in the hotel at the time – forcing Locke to stay one-step ahead of both the arms dealers and his wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) and producer Martin (Ian Hendry) keen to talk to him about ‘Locke’s’ death.

If that sounds like it might be an action packed thriller – you’d be wrong, because let’s not forget that this is an Antonioni film, and if there is one thing you can expect from the revered auteur of the Art-House, it’s that his films are mysteries wrapped in enigmas. The Passenger is no exception, a slow, intriguing mood piece that only partially allows the audience even half a chance to puzzle out what it’s about, mixed with striking images and haunting sequences of fundamental unknowingness. Despite the paragraph above there is almost no plot in The Passenger, with the film instead focused on themes of alienation, existentialism, destiny, fate and identity. In other words all the big stuff.

Much of this is captured in the character of Locke. Played by Jack Nicholson in a stripped-down, purged style a million miles away from the “Jack” of legend, Locke is a blank. We spend almost the entire film with him, but learn virtually nothing about him. What desires or miseries or depressions drive him to abandon his life and head out into a new life? We have only vague whispers about an unhappy marriage (with a wife having an affair with someone else) and a general listless dissatisfaction with his own life and career. Locke is a character yearning for some kind of release, some kind of higher meaning – the happiest he seems to be in the movie, is hanging over the side of a cable car, arms outstretched, pretending to fly over the waters below. It’s a freedom like that – some sort of total unshackling from the modern world altogether – that he seems to want or need.

So why doesn’t he go for it? Why doesn’t he just junk Robertson’s appointment diary and escape properly into the wide world, well beyond the reach of Chad rebels, curious wives and BBC Producers? Perhaps because he is a Passenger himself, a man who lacks the essential will and freedom of purpose to make his own destiny, to escape the structure of a world he finds so constricting? Instead, he seems bound of a wheel of fire, compelled somehow to continue following some sort of structure unable to yank himself fully free of the chains of this modern world. He wants to be a free spirit, but he remains a little man, to whom events happen, who is approached by people, who follows directions not forging his own path.

He gets as close as he can to opening up by talking to a passenger of his own, a mysterious girl (played with an unaffected naturalness by Maria Schneider that is part graceful reality, part wooden stiffness but works perfectly) he encounters while following Robertson’s trail. He first spots her sitting on a bench in London, then sees her again atop Guadi’s La Pedrera in Barcelona. Is this coincidence? Is this fate? Destiny? Or is this a curious suggestion that the girl may be more than she seems? None of these questions is answered by the film, but it fits perfectly in with the unknowing vagueness and quizzical unpredictability of its events. Hammering home the blank unknowability of Schneider’s character, she isn’t even named in the film. She joins Locke on his journey, but her motivations are as vague as his – is it escape, a bohemian lark, a curiosity that guides her? Who knows?

The film continues in this vein, showing Locke drifting from Chad to the UK to Berlin, Barcelona and Seville, never seeming to allow Locke more than a few seconds of freedom. Is the film asking if there is any such thing as true freedom, that even after swopping lives Locke still finds himself locked down into following a series of pre-arranged duties, like a train on a line? It’s not clear, but it’s beautifully filmed. Antonioni’s mastery of the camera shines throughout the film, and it’s full of haunting and immersive imagery, not least in his skilful use of locations and framing, with Locke and the Girl frequently positioned oddly or even dwarfed by the architecture and locations around them, from the plains of the desert to the towers of Gaudi.

Antonioni also saves for this film some sequences which are simply breathtaking in their cinematic mastery and beauty. His control of technique is near faultless – while his art house vagueness might have you pulling your hair out at points, these sequences will have you winding the film back just to relax in their skill and confidence again. Early in the film, we see Locke sit and fake his passport in his Chad hotel – oh for the days when identity theft was as simple as glueing a new photo into a passport – the camera smoothly moves around him, while he listens to recordings of Robertson and he meeting, until it settles onto the balcony (all this in one take) at which point Robertson walks into frame and continues the conversation, Locke following him and, there we go, Antonioni has taken us suddenly into the past. Without a single cut, the camera follows the conversation before panning back round to Locke sitting once again writing.

It’s a sequence that cineateases would be raving about, if it wasn’t dwarfed by the film’s penultimate shot, a stunning seven-minute single take that would be simplicity itself to make with CGI and Steadicam today, but was somewhere achieved without the invention of others. Starting on a single shot of Locke’s Seville hotel room, the pan slowly focuses on events outside the grilled window, the camera slowly zooming in on the outside until it passes through the grill and rotates 180 degrees back to see the room from the outside, while the Girl and other mysterious people arrive and leave outside. It’s a beautiful, brilliant, sublime, masterful piece of cinema. It’s compelling, surely one of the greatest “one-take” shots in all of cinema. Simply perfect. Directors could sit and dream of making such a shot. 

Antonioni’s masterful direction and wilfully obtuse exploration of his themes makes for a film that is at time frustratingly unreadable, but also crammed with opportunities for the viewer to insert their own views and interpretations, something that is only going to become more tempting (and rewarding) with repeated viewings. Alongside that, it’s a simply beautiful and sublimely made piece of cinema – and if for no other reason deserves your time.