Tag: Walter Matthau

Fail Safe (1964)

Henry Fonda desperately tries to avert nuclear war in Fail Safe

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Henry Fonda (The President), Dan O’Herlihy (Brigadier General Warren Black), Walter Matthau (Professor Groeteschele), Frank Overton (General Bogan), Fritz Weaver (Colonel Cascio), Edward Binns (Colonel Jack Grady), Larry Hagman (Buck), William Hansen (Defence Secretary Swenson)

In 1964 the classic film on nuclear conflict was released and became a landmark in Hollywood history. Also released was Fail Safe. Dr Strangelove has dragged Fail Safe through history like a sort of phantom limb. It’s reputation – if you’ve heard about it at all – is “Dr Strangelove but with no jokes”. That’s hugely harsh on a well-made, tense and fascinating film that sees nuclear war as less the blackly comedic theatre of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction, the buzzword of the day), and more as a dark human tragedy where mistakes, suspicions and paranoia lead to disaster.

During a routine manoeuvre, a mechanical power surge at USAAF leads to a mistaken but correctly authenticated order being sent to a wing of bombers to drop their nukes on Moscow. Due to Russian jamming, USAAF has no idea this has happened until after the five minute recall window. After the five-minute window has passed, the pilots follow their training and ignore all subsequent orders no matter who gives them – even if it’s directly from the President (Henry Fonda) himself. Desperately the President works with the Soviet Union to stop the bombers (and prevent the inevitable full scale nuclear war they would provoke). Problem is national pride, mutual suspicion, subordinates who can’t stomach co-operation between enemies and those that an accidental first strike is the perfect way to start a nuclear war one side could win, keep getting in the way.

While Dr Strangelove saw the insanity of MAD – the willingness of the leaders of both sides to promote a type of war that could only lead to the destruction of all life on earth – as so darkly absurd it could only be a subject for jet-dark-satire, Fail Safe takes a more humane if equally chilling route. Shot mostly with a low-key documentary realism by Sidney Lumet, the action is restricted to no more than four main locations. Once the crisis starts we never go outside. We never even see the Russians, represented only by photos and their words given life by Presidential translator Larry Hagman. Bar from the odd piece of stock footage, we are in the bunkers with the characters. And we feel as powerless as they do, as events spin out of control.

The film could be seen as an attack on the replacement of humans from the system by machines. Sure, the strike is triggered by a faulty piece of equipment. But everything after that is the result of good old-fashioned human error. The US debate about shooting down the bombers that goes on for so long, the bombers get out of range. The Russian refusal to accept US help to shoot the bombers down, leading them to taking pot shots at radar ghosts. The attempted coups on both sides in the command room, as junior officers refuse to co-operate with the enemy. The mistrust between both sides that leads the Russians chasing a decoy attack run rather the real bombing plane, despite the pleading of the American General that it’s a decoy.

And above all, the crushing arrogant insanity of introducing a system like this in the first place. A system so regimented and drilled into its soldiers – removing any chance of independent logical thought – that the pilot of the bombers will even ignore his own wife pleading down the line that the first strike he believes he is retaliating against hasn’t even happened. A system where leading American advisors suggest that, because it’s so difficult to call back an attack like this, why not just launch everything else after it as well and claim victory. This system can destroy the world but has no leeway for human error and forbids any independent thought from anyone. Now that’s MAD.

It takes a while for the film to get going, laying its groundwork slowly. Much of the first half hour introduces the characters – such as the family life of anti-Nuclear but loyal soldier General Black (a very good Dan O’Herlihy) and the chilling pragmatism of war theorist Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) to whom nuclear war is just a matter of working out what the acceptable casualty rates are (he would agree with Stalin that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic). We tour the USAAF base where level-headed General Brogan (an excellent Frank Overton) and his twitchy number two Colonel Cascio (a slightly too fidgety Fritz Weaver) demonstrate just how fool-proof their systems are to a couple of congressmen – just as those systems fail.

From there the film plays out almost in real time, as the planes fly the two-hour journey to drop their bombs. Two hours when everyone tries to desperately tell themselves that this disaster can be prevented (or in some cases, can be turned into victory). Lumet’s film captures wonderfully the claustrophobic intensity of this. The Russians – despite never being seen – are skilfully humanised with snatches of conversation and photographs. The pilots are brave, resourceful, brilliantly trained – making their rigid determination to destroy the world for no reason (because their training doesn’t allow them to consider any other alternative) all the more tragic.

It all culminates in an impossibly bleak ending, the President’s only alternative to all-out nuclear war is one of terrifying magnitude. The inevitable build to this sacrifice is also executed with a low-key intensity. Fonda is perfect in the lead role – his tortured gravitas and decency pushing him towards ever more distasteful and finally appallingly bleak decisions.

Lumet’s film isn’t perfect – an overly impressionistic opening of General Black’s recurring dream of a matador smacks of someone who has watched way too many Bunuel films – and its slow start probably takes five minutes too long. But with its chillingly cold glaze on the flaws in the nuclear deterrent and the people who operate it, it deserves to be remembered as something more than Dr Strangelove Without the Jokes.

JFK (1991)

Kevin Costner goes on a quest for the truth in Oliver Stone’s crazy but brilliant JFK

Director: Oliver Stone

Cast: Kevin Costner (Jim Garrison), Sissy Spacek (Liz Garrison), Kevin Bacon (Willie O’Keefe), Tommy Lee Jones (Clay Shaw), Jack Lemmon (Jack Martin), Walter Matthau (Senator Russell B Long), Gary Oldman (Lee Harvey Oswald), Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), Donald Sutherland (Colonel X), Laurie Metcalf (Susie Cox), Michael Rooker (Bill Broussard), Jay O. Sanders (Lou Ivan), Edward Asner (Guy Banister), Brian Doyle-Murray (Guy Banister), John Candy (Dean Andrews), Sally Kirkland (Rose Cheramie), Wayne Knight (Numa Bertel), Priutt Taylor Vince (Lee Bowers), Tony Plana (Carlos Bringuier)

When great events happen, it’s hard for us to accept they might take place for random reasons. Rather than freak occurrences or boring individuals, we’d rather see them taking place due to an impenetrable web of shadowy figures. There is something in us that rejects randomness and embraces order. Conspiracy theories are the (ironic) result of these, with their exponents often the most passionate believers in the all-pervading genius of big government. Events like the death of President Kennedy can’t be because some nobody shot him. Instead it must be part of a wider junta of baddies, with every man you see merely a front for a cabal of the wicked. It’s hard not to be swept up by the lure of the conspiracy theories (they invariably have the best stories after all) – and Oliver Stone’s JFK is perhaps the definitive mainstream conspiracy theory essay.

Taking the campaign of Louisiana DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) to find out the “truth” about the murder of President Kennedy, Stone’s film is part a fascinating presentation of half-truths and “might-have-beens” and part a sprawling mess of irresponsible nonsense. Either way it’s assembled with astonishing panache, a level of filmic skill that makes it (literally) almost impossible to tell whether what you are seeing is true and what is invention. Stone’s film superbly interweaves a variety of film stocks and effects to seamlessly splice together newsreel footage, Zapruder film and his own reconstructions so brilliantly it frequently becomes hard to tell which is which.

The same logic also applies to the script. JFK is frequently engaging and fascinating. But you have to remember that it is the equivalent of meeting the most literate and articulate street corner “End-of-the-Worlder”. Such is Stone’s skill he could, I am sure, have created an equally compelling film which would have you questioning the Moon Landings or the shape of the Earth. JFK throws an army of questions, objections and theories at the screen. And while it rarely provides much in the way of answers, only points that it wants you to think about, these theories frequently fascinate. Imagine JFK as a sort of video essay, linked together with dramatic scenes, with its points delivered by authoritative and trusted actors like Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

There is absolutely no doubting the technique of Stone here, or his mastery of the language of cinema. The work of Robert Richardson’s photography, with its myriad styles, and of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia’s editing, pulling together a host of images, snapshots and flash cuts into an insidiously convincing whole, is breathtaking. Light in particular is superbly used, casting some characters in shadow, flaring up to (literally) blind others – light frequently plays across Garrison’s glasses, a visual metaphor for his own struggle to see the light. The speeches he writes for his characters are superbly done, and make their points with great skill – Sutherland (superb) has a hugely convincing story of military black ops action (and inaction) before and after the assassination that fills almost 20 minutes of screentime.

There are compelling arguments made about the ability of Oswald to fire the shots, the triangulation of fire, the spurning of an easier shot before the fateful turn, Oswald’s seemingly illogical movements after the shooting etc. etc. There is decent reasoning behind all of this, and the points are marshalled very well. But, like all extremist theories, suddenly it will turn into something just a little batshit (Lyndon B Johnson ordering the hit or some sort of cabal of Cubans, CIA, FBI and Secret Service working together to conduct a coup).

Much of Stone’s passion for finding the truth (the film’s mantra) is rooted in his own romantic view of Kennedy, as some sort of lost “Prince Who Was Promised”. To Stone, Kennedy would have withdrawn us from Vietnam (news I am sure to the President who started and escalated America’s involvement in it), ended the military industrial complex (contrary to his platform when elected of a stronger US military), bought the Cold War to an end (again, running against his sustained opposition to the Soviet Union) and introduced full Civil Rights (a cause he was lukewarm on at best – unlike his brother or his successor Johnson).

But Kennedy was a romantic figure who had the ability to invite people to invest him with whatever qualities they wanted (both good and bad), a magic cemented forever by his untimely murder. In reality there is no indication that JFK would do (or want to do) any of the things JFK argues he was assassinated for. But that’s all part of the magic of the conspiracy. Facts and events can be marshalled into whatever you want them to be. (Tellingly the only member of Garrison’s investigative team who questions these theories is shown to be a creep in the pay of the conspirators.)

So Kennedy can be a saint, and the film can outline (with no evidence at all beyond a series of coincidences and unlikely or random events) a grand vision of master schemers reshaping America over the body of a dead President. Does it really stand up? Well no of course not. But I will say it is compelling viewing – even if it is essential to keep an open mind about it. Stone later wished he had made clearer that much of the work here was pure fiction (and speculative at best). Certainly it’s a point to keep in mind.

Perhaps Stone should also have looked again at some of the other beats in the film. The film’s version of Jim Garrison as a kind of saintly campaigner for justice flies in the face of many (then and later) who believed the Louisiana DA a shameless self-promoter – an argument made easier to believe by the real Garrison’s cheeky cameo in the film as his ‘nemesis’ Earl Warren. No mention is made in the film that the case he brings against Clay Shaw was dismissed by the jury after less than an hour, and the film avoids explicitly showing his lack of evidence. Costner delivers the final speech, with its famous “back and to the left” commentary on what seems like Kennedy’s unnatural movement after being hit by a bullet and breakdown of the “magic bullet” (both theories now largely discredited), with aplomb, but the film puts a halo on Garrison which doesn’t really stand up.

But again at least it’s entertaining. Other parts of the film don’t even manage that: the baseline narrative that links up the various compelling conspiracy lectures is frequently dull, insipid and lamely written. Sissy Spacek has perhaps the most thankless role in film history as Garrison’s wife whose nearly every line is a variation on “Honey please stop reading the Warren Report and come to bed”. Even that though pales against the exploration of the 1960s gay scene in Louisiana (which Clay Shaw and his “fellow conspirators” were leading members of) which has an unpleasant stink of homophobia, playing into a host of deeply unpleasant (and false) stereotypes of gay people as perverted, promiscuous and preying on the straight. One suspects there was more than a little truth in the idea that Garrison’s fury at Shaw was at least partly motivated by homophobia.

These sequences work considerably less well today – and frequently go on far too long – but when the film focuses on its Kennedy theories it is at least compelling, even if it’s all rubbish. The film made it mainstream to believe Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy in which Oswald was, if he was involved at all, only a patsy. How different would the world have been if Oswald had lived and been made to explain why and how he killed Kennedy? But then chances are, being such an average an unremarkable man, people wouldn’t have believed him anyway.

Stone’s film is a triumph of agenda-led fantasy. Stuffed with faults it makes you at least ask questions – even if you wisely use those questions to affirm many of its points are questionable at best. But any film buff will love the skill it’s told with and the beauty of its technical assembly. Costner was perhaps a little too bland to drive the thing along (although the film uses his innate morality very well), but there are several good performances not least from Gary Oldman who is brilliant as put-upon, used but unknowable Oswald. Nuts, crazy and packed with compelling nonsense, it at least always encourages you to find out more about the actual history.

Charley Varrick (1973)

Walter Matthau schemes a caper in crime thriller Charley Varrick

Director: Don Siegel

Cast: Walter Matthau (Charley Varrick), Joe Don Baker (Molly), Andy Robinson (Harman Sullivan), John Vernon (Maynard Boyle), Sheree North (Jewell Everettt), Felicia Farr (Sybil Fort), Norman Fell (Garfinkle), Woodrow Parfrey (Harold Young), William Schallert (Sheriff Horton), Jacqueline Scott (Nadine), Tom Tully (Tom), Benson Fong (Honest John)

Don Siegel was perhaps the ultimate professional director, who took on any scripts that came his way, producing polished, professional films. In the later part of his career, he finally received some of the freedom to start shooting his quality B-movies on A-movie style budgets. Charley Varrick was the first film he made after his box-office smash Dirty Harry, and Siegel received more time and space to deliver a film that mixed action and drama with an elaborate, almost meditative, mystery.

Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) is a former stunt pilot, whose small crop-dusting business is a front for carrying out small-scale robberies. A bank robbery in Tres Cruces, New Mexico goes horribly wrong – Varrick’s wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott) is killed and he and his partner Harman Sullivan (Andy Robinson) find the small job they had anticipated is actually holding a huge amount of mafia money. Varrick knows the mafia won’t rest until they get the money back – and he is right, as bank president Maynard Boyle (John Vernon) has no choice but to call in ruthless hitman Molly (Joe Don Baker) to get the money back and kill those who stole it.

Charley Varrickwas also known by Don Siegel as The Last of the Independents – and that kinda fits its tone. Varrick is a small-scale operator who has chosen crime because he’s been squeezed out of the crop-dusting business by the corporations. He’s operating a crime gang that follows a series of carefully planned robberies, aimed at stealing humble amounts: enough to be a nuisance rather than cause a genuine scandal. He’s a small-time operator, proud of who is, who doesn’t want to hit the big time but to excel as the big fish in the small pond.

The whole film reflects this personality: the film is deliberately set in a quiet American town in the mid-West – the opening credits are played over everyday scenes of small-town life. Every location is slightly run-down and unimpressive. Those wrapped up in the crime are regular Joes – on both sides of the law – and the values and principles are those of mid-west America. Even Molly the hitman – while clearly ruthless and capable of extreme violence and full of disdain of those he meets – has a drawling, cowboy quality to him. 

Part of Siegel’s point is that into all this explodes a story of crime, murder and violence that all spins out of money (doesn’t it always?). The mystery element is the audience wondering how Varrick is going to get out of this with both cash and life intact. What Siegel does really well is effectively make Varrick an unreliable narrator. Despite the fact we follow him around in the film, we are never really told what he is thinking or why he does things. Only at the end of the film are all the threads of the actions he has carried out pulled together – a real lightbulb “ah ha!” moment – and the real purpose of what he has been doing is revealed.

To make a character who plays their cards so close to their chest work, you need an actor who is effortlessly charming. The film gets this in Walter Matthau. Matthau, with his hang-dog Droopy-face is hardly anyone’s first idea of a ruthless bank robber (surely part of the film’s point!) but his winning charm and kindly-Uncle quality, as well as the eye of assured cool that Matthau gives him, really make you root for him. In fact it works so well that you actually forget how ruthless Varrick in this film: from moving on swiftly from his wife’s death, to ruthlessly sacrificing several people in his quest for self-preservation. In other hands, Varrick wouldn’t half come across as a copper-bottomed shit. 

Instead, his plan of misdirection, clues pointing towards the wrong thing, and carefully juggled parallel attempts to escape (his unrevealed real plan, and the clumsy surface plan that the audience knows must be a bluff) really works to keep you engaged and entertained. Siegel is purposefully pulling the wool over your eyes in virtually every scene – and he has Varrick basically tell us he’s doing this – but there are few things that audiences like more than a magic trick. We want Varrick to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the end – to surprise us all with how clever he’s been (and to reward those who have worked out part of what he is doing).

Siegel mixes this with a surprising number of quiet, even soulful moments that mix the thoughtful with some black comedy. From Varrick’s tender kissing of his dead wife – right before he professionally carries on with their plan to burn the get-away car they escaped in (this time with his wife’s body inside it) – to a secret meeting/interrogation/intimidation of timid bank manager Harold Young (a twitchy Woodrow Parfey) by smooth big-city bank manager Boyle (a superbly cold John Vernon, nowhere near as assured and secure as he thinks he is) in a cow-filled field, these scenes are about character as much as they are about plot.

Siegel mixes this with moments of pure action and drama. The opening bank robbery is surprisingly violent, considering the gentle introduction to the film – and our “heroes” are amazingly ruthless towards those that stand in their way. Joe Don Baker’s chillingly amoral Molly hands out beatings as easily as he does slightly goofy Western smirks (a beat down of Harman is particularly brutal). Varrick is quietly ruthless and the film ends with a dynamic chase scene in a scrapyard, quite unlike anything you have ever seen.

Charley Varrick epitomises the sort of 1970s film that studios and Hollywood looked down on at the time, but inspired the filmmakers today far more than some of the Oscar winning gumph that got praised. Parts of it are dated – women in the film are either love interests or whores, and both Molly and Charley (Walter Matthau is no one’s idea of a lothario) bed compliant, impressed women in the film with an off-hand carelessness. But the core and heart of the film is in its cool, calculated confidence mixed with a sense of Western soul. With a terrific performance by Matthau, this is a fine example of independent film-making.