Tag: Roy Scheider

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.

Klute (1971)

Klute (1971)

Paranoia runs rampant in this fascinating – and chilling – murder thriller that taps into into conspiracy thrillers

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Cast: Jane Fonda (Bree Daniels), Donald Sutherland (John Klute), Charles Cioffi (Peter Cable), Roy Scheider (Frank Ligourin), Dorothy Tristan (Arlyn Page), Rita Gam (Trina), Nathan George (Trask), Vivian Nathan (Psychiatrist), Morris Strassberg (Mr Goldfarb)

There is one question everyone asks when watching Klute: why the heck is it called Klute? Would calling the film Daniels have been too dull? Would Bree have made it sound like a history of cheese? Klute is dominated by its character study of Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels, split between her desire to be an actress and the comforting sense of control and avoidance of intimacy her work as call-girl brings. Klute uses the conventions of the male detective movie to conduct a sympathetic, compassionate character examination of its female lead. Match that with Pakula discovering his affinity for creeping 70’s paranoia, and you’ve got one of the most interesting and rewarding films of the decade.

John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is a small-town cop called in as a private investigator after a six month New York police investigation fails to find his friend, businessman Tom Gruneman. The only lead they have is a series of obscene letters found in Gruneman’s office written to New York call girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). Klute discovers Bree has no memory of Gruneman, but Klute believes she may be in serious danger. Together they investigate the crime further, which becomes more and more focused on a mysterious abusive client and even more complicated by the growing relationship between the quiet, reserved Klute and the strong-willed, independent Bree.

Klute uses the conventions of a gumshoe detective movie, spliced with a hard-hitting 70s fascination with grimy, sensationalist crimes (this was the same year as hard-bitten, shades-of-grey cops in Dirty Harry took on a serial killer and The French Connection explored the drugs trade), in this case the assault and murder of prostitutes. But this isn’t a whodunnit, or even really a detective story. The film is barely 45 minutes old before Pakula basically reveals who the killer is (the suspect list has only two people on it in any case). Most of the investigation takes place off screen. Some answers are kept vague. There is no cathartic moment of success.

Instead, the film feels far more like it’s using its Laura-ish set-up (the big difference here being the taciturn detective’s love interest is alive rather than just a painting) as a backdrop to deep dive in Bree’s personality. Bree is played with a stunning (and Oscar-winning) verisimilitude by Jane Fonda. Fonda immersed herself totally in the character, even living in the apartment set during shooting (Pakula had a working toilet installed) and developing a careful psychological background to Bree that is brilliantly introduced through our frequent cuts to her sessions with a coolly professional psychiatrist.

This is a portrait of a female sex worker on screen, where she’s neither a tragic or pathetic figure, or a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (the standard tropes). Instead, this is a woman struggling with a crippling fear of intimacy and a compulsion to control, who finds a freedom and release in acting out the fantasies of others. Bree speaks to her psychiatrist of being a call girl not as a curse or source of shame, but something she takes a sort of freedom from. It’s clear that really makes her sweat is not adjusting herself to whatever men want (faking an orgasm while checking her watch with one John, or acting out an elaborate, detailed fantasy for a lonely tailor) but the idea of having to be herself, to display something emotional and true.

And prostitution has the advantage over acting as she sets the terms. We are introduced to Bree as just one in a row of sitting actresses auditioning for an advert, each of them dismissively given a score from A to C. She later auditions for Shaw’s Saint Joan with a detailed, heartfelt reading (she’s clearly a good actress) which is stopped mid-speech by a bored director. With Fonda making clear that control is vital to Bree’s sense of well-being, no wonder she struggles with this dismissive world. Or that she finds a greater freedom in high-end prostitution, where we see she sets the terms with a business-like professionalism and is the centre of the focus and attention of her John’s for the whole of their session. This is a feeling she doesn’t get from anyone else.

What really scares her is the thought of a genuine emotional intimacy with Klute. In their first encounters she assumes she can seduce him with the professional ease she does most men, dropping naturally into her role of seductive dream-girl, offering him sex in return for recordings he has of her from his investigation. Later she will prove a point by coming to him in the night and seducing him with a pretence of vulnerability and fear, as if to prove to him (and herself) that she can work out exactly what mood she needs to control any man.

But it’s buried in genuine fear about emotional attachment. To her psychiatrist she talks about not understanding why Klute seems, with no ulterior motive, to be concerned for her safety and well-being despite the things he’s knows about her or that she’s done and said to him.

There is a marvellous scene where the two of them go shopping for fruit (Klute of course knows exactly how to choose the best fruit, he’s that sort of guy). First, she impulsively steals an apple like a naughty, impulsive child. When Klute responds with a bemused half-shock, she stands behind him, a grin spreading across her face, then she lightly rests her head (almost not touching) on his back – then follows him down the street, holding the end of his coat. It speaks worlds of how something in her emotional growth has been slightly stunted somewhere along the line. And the fact this intimacy is followed in the next scene by a drug-fuelled blow-out, speaks volumes of her fear of it.

It’s a brilliant performance by Fonda, throbbing with empathy and emotional complexity. She’s perfectly abetted by Donald Sutherland, who proves himself once again one of the most generous actors in the game. Klute is in many ways the typical rube in the big city, the one honest cop. But he also has a wet-eyed vulnerability, a tenderness and an urge to protect that as motherly as it masculine. He reveals very little emotionally, not from fear but from a shyness.

He’s also an observer. And Pakula’s film partly draws links between detective and voyeurism. Let’s not forget Klute also bugs Bree’s phone and follows her. The camera frequently shoots the action from distance, through windows and looking down on the action: the idea of being constantly observed lingers over the picture, giving it a rich vein of paranoia. The killer listens to disembodied audio recordings of Bree, and these frequently play over the action not only echoing this paranoia, but re-enforcing how her personality is a fractured one between the independent exterior and the less certain interior.

Pakula’s film pulls all this together into something creepy and unsettling but is also a fascinating character study. That is perhaps its best trick. You come into it expecting a film noir or a detective story. What you get is a compelling analysis of the psyche of one woman, who emerges into the picture and takes complete control of it. Perhaps that’s why it’s called Klute – it’s as much a part of the misdirection as everything else. With its psychological complexity and creeping sense of being watched, this would set the tone for many other films that followed in the 70s.

Jaws (1975)

Shaw, Scheider and Dreyfuss take on the shark in Jaws

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Roy Scheider (Martin Brody), Robert Shaw (Quint), Richard Dreyfuss (Martin Hooper), Lorraine Gray (Ellen Brody), Murray Hamilton (Mayor Vaughhn), Carl Gottlieb (Meadows)

Necessity can be the mother of invention. Perhaps no film demonstrates this better than Spielberg’s sensational smash-hit Jaws. If “Bruce” the animatronic shark had not been so unreliable and unconvincing would the film have become such a big hit? If Spielberg had been able to show a convincing shark, would he have dropped the suggestiveness and unseen terror – not to mention the famous creeping dread of John Williams’ score – and gone for more traditional scares? We just don’t know – but he was certainly forced to be as inventive as possible and it worked a treat.

A quiet community on Amity Island suddenly finds itself falling victim to a terrifying series of attacks from a shark. As people panic – and the death toll rises – only local police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) seems to want to close the beaches and declare an emergency (after all we can’t let the simple matter of a few kids ripped to shreds by the finned killer disrupt the holiday season). But when things eventually go too far on the first day of holiday season, Brody finally gets the go ahead to head to sea and take on the shark himself. Only problem is Brody has a fear of water and no idea how to hunt a shark. Just as well he’s teaming up with Marine Biologist Martin Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and grizzled old sea-dog and shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) for the mission. Though with this size of this sucker, they may need a bigger boat…

Spielberg’s film largely works so damn well because it pushes suggestion over what we actually see. The shark doesn’t appear on screen for well over an hour. Instead, we see only movement of the water, POV shots of the shark and the flailing terror of the victims, dragged hither and yon by the unseen opponent. Spielberg very generously – and perhaps accurately – attributed at least half of the film’s success to John William’s iconic score. The seemingly simple, but devilishly intoxicating music perfectly captures feelings of mounting dread and tension. It’s possibly the most instantly recognisable score in film history, and works an absolute treat to get across the terror.

Because that is what the film is all about. There is a reason why the tag line for the first sequel was “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water”. The film plays on the creeping concern with not knowing what is underneath the still surface of the waters. And the possibility that a monster lurks there ready to destroy us, taps into all those fundamental child-like terrors we have of monsters under the bed. The things we can’t see are terrifying. Spielberg taps into this brilliantly, with the frothing of water or the shark’s movement being substituted by other things – either a part of a pier being dragged in its wake, or the barrels that Quint attaches to it with harpoons to track its movement. A large part of the second half of the film revolves around Quint’s ship being chased by floating barrels – and it works never-the-less.

This sense of terror that the film captures so well – as well as the moments of shock of carefully chosen few beats of gore – is a surprise when you consider that Spielberg today is seen as a more sentimental, family-friendly director. But on this film, he was a young buck still out of the gate – this was only his second theatrical film. Spielberg wasn’t even first choice – although his TV movie Duel, which sees a driver chased by a giant truck, the driver of which remains unseen, was the perfect calling card. When he got on board, he made what he himself describes as a series of rookie mistakes, not least insisting on shooting at sea rather than in a tank or just off the coast. Not to mention the multiple delays from the shark. Despite the film’s nomination for Best Picture (and the millions it earned at the box office), Spielberg was denied an Oscar nod as suspicions abounded that the oft-delayed, over-budget film was “saved” in the editing suite. 

While the film is superbly edited – again that creeping power of suggestion and the way the film leaves much to the viewer’s imagination – it’s much easier now to accept Jawswas Spielberg’s first real flexing of his cinematic muscle. The decision to film at sea – while causing no end of problems for the crew – brilliantly allows for wide shot vistas that creates a real sense of isolation for the boat. It constantly looks small, rattled and fragile in a massive environment, making it feel like even more of a mismatch against the size of the shark. Throw in Spielberg’s brilliance at building tension, and you get a film that seizes you by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let go. He’s a master here and the film has more than enough famous shots – including the famous reverse zoom on Scheider as he realises the shark is in the water – to show he was just warming up.

It also helps that the film front-and-centres character and good writing alongside all the thrills. Part of the benefit of the films continued delays is that the original script was constantly tinkered and improved by Carl Gottleib from Benchley’s original. Others were bought in to work on it – most famously John Milius who took a redraft pass at Quint’s famous Indianapolis speech, which Robert Shaw himself then rewrote. What we end up with is a script with three well-drawn – and distinctively different but complementary – characters and plenty of sharp lines.

The three stars fill these roles with aplomb. Scheider gracefully accepts the quieter role, but carries the film with an unshowy ease as an everyday hero, eventually pushed to his limits. Dreyfuss gets the more plucky, overtly comic role as the expert biologist and plucky young gun, with a sharp wit and a chippy younger man’s perspective. Shaw meanwhile gets some of the films best scenes as a grizzled seadog with no time for the kids and a dangerous obsession for proving he’s right. The three actors play off each other extremely well, despite the troubles on set (which Shaw was usually at the heart of, from his drinking, to his clashes with Dreyfuss, to his constant flying back to Canada at any opportunity for tax reasons).

But these three actors work brilliantly together, and the film’s tense brilliance still makes it a compelling watch today. And yes, Spielberg was right – that Williams score does play a huge part in its success. Try imagining what you are seeing in the film without the score playing over it? Necessity is the mother of invention.

All That Jazz (1979)

Roy Scheider plays the director Bob Fosse in a barely-veiled-at-all autobiographical film All That Jazz

Director: Bob Fosse

Cast: Roy Scheider (Joe Gideon), Jessica Lange (Angelique), Leland Palmer (Audrey Paris), Ann Reinking (Katie Jagger), Cliff Gorman (Davis Newman), Ben Vereen (O’Connor Flood), Erzsebet Foldi (Michelle Gideon), David Marguiles (Larry Goldie), Michael Tolan (Dr Ballinger), Max Wright (Joshua Penn), William LeMassena (Jonesy Hecht), Deborah Geffner (Victoria Porter), John Lithgow (Lucas Sergeant)

It’s revealing when a director makes an autobiographical film. There are insights to be found about the sort of person they are – and the sort of person they want to present themselves as to the world. And All That Jazz is possibly the most striking autobiographical film ever made. You have to have a towering amount of ego to make a film showing yourself as a deliriously talented polymath, generally liked by everyone. And then you have to have a giddy self-awareness to give your semi-fictional doppelganger all your titanic faults, selfishness, cruelty and flaws. Let’s not even get into the psychology of turning your own death into a musical number, eight years before it happened.

Just like Bob Fosse, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is a hugely influential choreographer and director who has changed the face of Broadway musicals before going on to become the Oscar-winning director of a string of critically acclaimed films. He is also a workaholic, addicted to a string of prescription drugs, a never-ending smoker, with a strong of failed marriages and affairs behind him. Just like Bob Fosse, in 1975 Gideon is staging his ground-breaking original production of a musical (Fosse was directing Chicago which clearly inspired the unnamed musical here), starring his ex-wife (and mother of his daughter) Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer, a frequent Fosse collaborator), living with his girlfriend Kate Jagger (played by Ann Reinking, who was Fosse’s real life girlfriend at the time). At nights and weekends he is editing The Stand-Up (a version of Fosse’s film about stand-up Lenny Bruce titled Lenny starring Dustin Hoffman). When he has a near fatal heart attack part way through this, Gideon starts to sink. Fosse on the other hand used the experience to write this movie. 

All That Jazz is an electric piece of film-making, full of Fosse’s dynamism. It’s not only crammed with fabulous song and dance numbers (some of the best Fosse work you’ll see) but it’s beautifully edited and paced. Fosse holds it all together so brilliantly you never feel the thing teeter on the tightrope like Gideon does (the first image of the film is appropriately Gideon walking a tightrope). It perfectly captures the high intensity, killer pressure of maintaining this constant state of activity, and suggests how much Fosse (clearly) believed his own life was a performance, every moment constructed and staged for maximum impact. 

And that’s what you wonder about the film. Does Fosse hate himself, love himself or some combination of both? It’s something the film just teases, with Gideon indulged in a series of fantasy-tinged cryptic conversations with Jessica Lange (another Fosse conquest allegedly) as some sort of angel dressed in white. Here Gideon of course flirts and charms as only he can, while answering with ambiguous amounts of truthfulness a series of questions about love, his background, his wishes and dreams. But even when he says these things, there is the half smile that suggests it’s only part of the story. Or maybe Gideon himself doesn’t even know where life ends and the story begins.

Fosse’s film is just about perfectly structured. Repeatedly we see Gideon going through the same daily ritual when he wakes up: Vivaldi, shower, cocktail of prescription drugs, eye drops, slap hands, “It’s a show time!” (with an ever increasing struggle to keep the energy up). As the tempo of this repeated introduction changes through the film, you get a perfect idea of the state of Gideon’s mind and mood – and his relentless attempt to turn his own life into a perfect performance.

In among all this, perhaps no film has ever showed a better understanding of the pressures of creating a Broadway musical. The opening sequence follows a series of exhausting auditions from literally hundreds of dancers desperate for a role in Gideon’s show, slowly being whittled down to the chosen few. The rehearsals are a punishing series of deconstructions as the dancers strive to match Gideon’s perfectionism. Rehearsal rooms are crammed, sweaty and uncomfortable. The money men hover over every scene, with an eye on protecting their investment. And then, we see the results suddenly of Gideon’s work with a Chicago-ish dance routine so sexually charged it is positively indecent. It’s genius on at least three levels.

The film revolves around Gideon, and the amount of time squeezed out of his personal life by his never-ending, passionate work commitments. Leland Palmer is excellent as his loving but deeply frustrated wife, supportive but all too aware of Gideon’s selfishness. The bond between them feels strong, real and above conventional marriage. Ann Reinking is equally marvellous as his lover, protégé, partner and you name it. Between these three characters there is a hugely warm performance from Erzsebet Foldi as Gideon’s shrewd but loving daughter. Fosse isn’t afraid to sprinkle real moments of family warmth in, as if trying to show Gideon all the things he is missing out on – one particularly outstanding moment is a song-and-dance routine Reinking and Foldi perform for Gideon after the premiere of his film The Stand-Up, as entertaining as it is charming.

But the film’s secondary motor, after Fosse’s directing brilliance (seriously, there are few Hollywood directors so undervalued, the man is a genius) is Roy Scheider as Gideon. I can’t really imagine a more bizarre sounding bit of casting: Jaws Chief Brody as a song-and-dance man, the world’s greatest (even slightly camp) choreographer. But Scheider is simply sublime in this role. It’s a towering, landmark performance of total commitment. He’s achingly human, supremely sad but also overflowing with warmth, humanity and humour while also being repeatedly selfish, difficult and demanding. It’s a performance of total absorption.

By time of the finale number (a truly bizarre version of Bye Bye Love, renamed Bye Bye Life, in which Gideon lives his final moments in a fantasy world, singing and dancing his way towards death in front of an audience of faces from past and present) the whole thing is so wonderfully overblown it doesn’t really matter. The film’s passage into the surreal and fantasy as Gideon gets increasingly ill (while showing less and less regard for his own health) will be a bit much for some, but I was honestly so into it that I didn’t care. 

Because the film is about this acute piece of self-analysis from the director, a Fellini-inspired sort of musical , in which the understanding (or lack thereof) we get of Gideon, and which he gains about himself, is most important. His conversations with Lange’s angel of death are intriguing and as informative about the man he really is as the man he wants to be. 

Fosse’s film is simply supremely well directed (Kubrick called it one of the best films he ever saw). Fosse’s editor (playing himself in the film as the editor of The Stand-Up) said if Fosse had actually died during the making of the film, he would have made sure his death was filmed and edited into the movie. I can believe it. The only musical you’ll ever see which doubles as a confession and a condemnation, which turns death and surgical procedures into wham bam musical numbers, and which never becomes maudlin or sentimental about the self-inflicted disaster the director is putting on himself – it’s brilliant.

Marathon Man (1976)

“Is it safe?”: Laurence Olivier interrogates Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man

Director: John Schlesinger

Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Thomas “Babe” Levy), Laurence Olivier (Dr Christian Szell), Roy Scheider (Henry “Doc” Levy), William Devane (Peter Janeway), Marthe Keller (Elsa Opel), Richard Bright (Karl), Marc Lawrence (Erhadt), Fritz Weaver (Professor Biesenthal)

The 1970s were the era of the conspiracy thriller. These were deliberately enigmatic, almost opaque, mysteries in which a humble individual was thrown up against sinister forces, backed by equally shady governments. Marathon Man is a stylish (if rather impenetrable) mystery that offers some gripping moments but gets bogged down a little too much in pleasure at its edginess, darkness and professional assurance.

Thomas “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a post-graduate student working on a re-evaluation of the McCarthy era, partly aimed at clearing his father’s name (who committed suicide while under investigation). Babe’s brother Henry “Doc” (Roy Scheider) works for a shady government organisation, and has recently narrowly avoided assassination twice in France. Doc suspects the killers were sent by renegade-Nazi Dr Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier). Szell’s New York-based brother was recently killed in a car crash, and with his death Szell has lost vital access to his cash reserve of diamonds in a New York bank, which he needs to maintain his safety in Uruguay.

I hadn’t seen Marathon Man for several years, and I was struck by how long it takes to get going: it takes a solid 45 minutes to get to the point. Huge swathes of the opening act of the film is all about getting the set-up and atmosphere, rather than establishing the story. It also seems to be about setting up as complex as possible a context for a film that boils down to a pretty straightforward plot. Nearly all the action that Doc gets up to in Europe is pretty much impossible to work out and never seems to tie in with the rest of the plot once it starts (exciting as it is to watch him dodge assassination attempts). Even the marathon running of the hero, and his relationship with Marthe Keller’s mysterious swiss woman doesn’t in the end really tie in that closely with the story.

But then that’s often the way with Marathon Man. It’s a film in love with atmosphere, its Hitchcockian tricks and its brooding creepiness more than with logic, story or even (really) character. It’s pretty hard to work out what’s going on, and the muttered plot revelations and Schlesinger’s grimy, often deliberately obscure, filming style doesn’t always help the humble viewer work things out. It wants to be like other 70s thrillers and juggle huge events – but it’s actually a rather small-scale, humble film telling a deliberately dreary story, scored with a very 70s combination of electronic noises and plonking piano notes. Plot wise it never really explains what is it about, and gets so bogged down in cross and double cross that it eventually loses its own way.

Where the film does succeed is its individual scenes. Mention Marathon Man and anyone who has heard of it will immediately say “the dental torture film?” They might even say “Is it safe?”. Marathon Man’s dramatic centre-piece is this unnervingly taut torture scene (not too graphic it has to be said – gosh violence in films has moved on since 1976!) where Szell questions Babe (just the one question repeated over and over again) while using his dental skills to “encourage” Babe to answer (ouch!). Ever been even slightly squeamish about going for a dental check-up? This probably isn’t the film for you (heck even one of Szell’s murderous henchmen can’t watch). 

Schlesinger shoots this scenes extremely well, with the camera lingering effectively on everyday dental tools that become dreaded torture devices. Schlesinger builds sequences around action and violence very effectively: escape attempts by Babe are gripping and fight scenes are extremely tense, particularly Doc’s fending off of an assassin in a Paris hotel room.

That scene also highlights another effective part of Schlesinger’s direction of the film: his use of bystanders. The life and death struggle between Doc and an assassin is witnessed across the street by a wheelchair-bound old man powerless to intervene. The opening road-rage deaths of Szell’s Nazi brother and a furious New York Jew are intercut constantly with the reactions and confusions of people in New York’s streets. In the film’s finest scene, Szell has to undertake a terrifying (for him) walk through New York’s Jewish quarter to collect and value his diamonds. His paranoia and fear of being recognised mean he sweatily watches every face. When he is recognised by an old woman – who shrieks for help from bemused passers-by – you really feel Szell’s fear that this woman will turn the mass of watching New Yorkers into a lynch mob. The bystanders really add depth to the film’s paranoia – they are both dangerous and also help to isolate the characters.

The film’s main strength is Laurence Olivier’s stand-out sinister performance as the Mengele-like Szell. Terrifyingly cold, paranoid and sadistically proud, Szell is a truly great villain, and Olivier channels all his Shakespearean experience into turning him into an iconic villain. The film also really works matching Olivier’s imperious old-schoolishness with Hoffman’s edgy, brittle method (the famous anecdote from the film was Olivier’s aghast reaction to Hoffman’s decision to prepare for the torture scene by not sleeping for three days: “Dear boy, would it not be easier to just act?”).

Hoffman is actually very good in the film as a man out of his depth from the start who slowly becomes as hardened and dangerous as the people chasing him. In fact Hoffman, is so involving and empathetically frightened in this film (his desperate range of answers to “Is it safe” are really affecting) that you overlook that he is clearly far too old to be playing a college graduate. Roy Scheider is similarly good as his domineering, but loving spy brother.

But it’s Olivier’s mastery of nastiness that really makes the film lodge in your mind. Schlesinger’s film is often long-winded, opaque and confusing, but Olivier delivers a master-class in imperious nastiness. Szell is a nightmare image of the well-spoken, polite monster and Olivier’s eyes carry a spark of intense menace. Honestly I could happily watch just the scenes he is in – particularly that masterfully performed street walking scene – and be happy to stick with that. The rest of the film is often a bit of a murky mess, but when Oliver is at the centre you forget all that. Marathon Man is a conspiracy thriller so confusing I think it confuses itself – but in the individual scenes it often brilliantly captures dread, discomfort and fear.

The Russia House (1990)

Connery and Pfeiffer go behind the Iron Curtain

Director: Fred Schepisi

Cast: Sean Connery (Bartholomew “Barley” Scott Blair), Michelle Pfeiffer (Katya Orlova), Klaus Maria Brandauer (Dante), Roy Scheider (Russell), James Fox (Ned), John Mahoney (Brady), Michael Kitchen (Clive), J. T. Walsh (Colonel Jackson Quinn), Ken Russell (Walter), David Threlfall (Wicklow)

Based on John Le Carré’s novel, The Russia House was one of the first espionage thriller films released after the fall of the Soviet Union, and therefore found itself exploring the curious impact of Glasnost on the games of one-upmanship that East and West played with each other.

Barley Blair (Sean Connery) is an over-the-hill publisher with connections in Russia, who is enlisted by MI6 to recruit the mysterious “Dante” (Klaus Maria Brandauer, a little too mannered for the film and under used), whose manuscript about Russian nuclear readiness has been intercepted en route to Blair by the intelligence services. Blair’s main contact is Dante’s former lover Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer), a woman trapped in political games.

Second-tier Le Carré is brought to the screen in a film that perfectly captures the authorial voice, but missing  narrative drive. Tom Stoppard’s adaptation masterfully captures the nuances and rhythms of Le Carré’s writing – the conversations of the CIA and MI6 operatives, their lingo and phraseology, are a perfect evocation of the author’s style, while Barley comes to the screen as almost the quintessential disillusioned middle-aged romantic: scruffy with a drink problem and a public school disdain for the prefects of the intelligence service.

The film’s other major positive is the central performance of Sean Connery. The former James Bond (then in the middle of a five-year purple patch of great roles which ran from The Name of the Rose to The Hunt for Red October) brilliantly plays against type as the dishevelled Barley, a man who feels like he has spent a lifetime circling failure and unreliability. Connery tones down his athletic physicality as an actor, playing Barley as a shuffling, hunched figure, often a step behind those around him. He’s also able to capture the romantic defiance behind Blair as well as a sadness and a self-loathing, his eyes showing years of shame at his own unreliability and the disappointments he has inflicted on people. It’s one of his least “Connery-like” performances, and a real demonstration of his willingness to stretch himself as an actor.

He’s well matched by some fine supporting performances. Pfeiffer is a very good actress who balances Katya’s vulnerability with a shrewd understanding of the compromises and dangers of the world she is in. Having said that, the chemistry between her and Connery doesn’t quite click into place during the course of the film. There are also good performances from James Fox and Roy Scheider as feuding intelligence boffins, and an eye-catching “love it or loath it” one from Ken Russell playing one of Le Carré’s quintessential campy, eccentric public-school intelligence operatives.

The film’s main weakness is that the actual story just isn’t quite interesting enough. The stakes never feel as high as they should be, and the unfolding of events seems unclear rather than carefully concealed from the audience. Despite the actors’ performances, Blair and Katya aren’t quite characters we can invest in enough and the momentum of the film too often gets bogged down in a reconstruction of intelligence agent squabbles. Schepisi films the Russian locations extremely well, but too often the camera lingers lovingly on a series of locations like a travelogue, slowing down the pace of the film as the film revels in its status as only the second Hollywood production allowed to film in Russia.

It’s an intelligent and faithful adaptation, but it doesn’t quite come to life. Stoppard’s script doesn’t carry enough narrative thrust and you simply don’t care enough about the fates of many of the characters. In many ways, a less faithful adaptation – such as the BBC’s recent production of The Night Manager – might well have made for a more compelling movie. As it is, although the film feels like an immersion into the author’s universe, it also feels like a dip into one of the less engaging and memorable offerings in his back catalogue. Along with the book’s strengths, it also carries across weaknesses. It’s satisfying enough and doesn’t outstay its welcome – but it also never really seizes the attention.