An Overview of The Dirty Harry Series

If Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy made Clint Eastwood a star, it was the Dirty Harry films made him a legend. After watching all five of these classics over the course of a week, I can safely say there isn’t a single bad or even mediocre entry in this series—all of them are great films in their own right, and each has its own unique set of pros and cons. So instead of talking about the series in summary, I’m going to give each movie the attention it deserves, one at a time. In doing so, I hope to do justice for one of the most entertaining and influential action series in the history of film.

Dirty Harry – Although the level of quality within the Dirty Harry series is fairly consistent, nothing could ever surpass the original. Dirty Harry is a testament to what action-thrillers can and should be: it’s quick and easy to follow, but also smart and nuanced. Plus, it’s got plenty of kick-ass action and some unforgettable lines. Director Don Siegel brings a darker and seedier side of San Francisco into the spotlight, making the city a character of the film in its own right. Composer Lalo Schifirn delivers one hell of a soundtrack—the jazzy main theme perfectly compliments  the movie and its titular character, and the haunting voices of Scorpio’s theme seem to echo from the villain’s own twisted psyche. And of course, you can’t talk about Dirty Harry without talking about Clint Eastwood, who inhabits the character of Harry Callahan in a performance that shaped the future of the cinematic action hero (especially the anti-hero). Eastwood makes this film and the series as a whole larger than the sum of its parts, and without him we wouldn’t have the Schwarzenegger’s, Stalone’s, and Willis’s of the 80s and 90s, not to mention a countless number of cop movies and characters. The appeal of Harry Callahan is flawlessly encapsulated in the unforgettable bank robbery scene toward the beginning of the film.  Among the chaos of blaring alarms and panicking bystanders, Harry is perfectly calm. Pay attention to the way he walks in this scene—in pretty much every scene he’s in for that matter. He always goes straight forward, never circling around the issue at hand. When the bank robbers open fire, he doesn’t hesitate in firing back, handling his iconic .44 Magnum with laser-like precision. Before you know it, the situation has been taken care of, finished as soon as it began. To put the icing on the cake, Harry wasn’t even on duty when this scene started—he was on his lunch break. Hell, he hadn’t even finished chewing his hot dog. This brings up an important aspect of Harry Callahan’s character: although he’s on the side of the law, he’s more than willing to take matters into his own hands. He follows the rules until the rules stop working. He hates bureaucracy and the restrictions the system places on him, but he puts up with it for the sake of doing the right thing, sacrificing his reputation, his dignity, and maybe even his sanity to do the jobs that no one else will—“the shit-end of the stick”, as his partner Chico Gonzalez puts it.  As great as all of the aesthetic qualities of his character are, it’s this defiant sense of individual morality that makes Harry a truly great character. The sequence ends with one of the most iconic moments in all of cinema: Harry pointing his revolver down at the incapacitated robber in an image of total power as he delivers one of the most cold-blooded lines ever written. I don’t need to recite it here. Even if you’ve never seen Dirty Harry, you’ve probably heard this line before, or at least a misquoted version of it. This scene has almost nothing to do with the main plot of the film, but it’s a testament to the character of Harry Callahan that hasn’t lost a fraction of its power after over 40 years. You may have noticed that, after over 500 words, I haven’t even provided a plot synopsis. Dirty Harry’s premise is so straightforward that it needs little explanation: the city of San Francisco is being terrorized by a rooftop sniper, a maniacal murderer who goes by the name of ‘Scorpio’ (played by Andrew Robinson in a haunting performance), and it’s up to Harry Callahan to put a stop to him. The simplicity of the plot could be seen as a limitation, but Dirty Harry is a film that shines within its limitations. Something that shouldn’t be ignored is the historical context in which Dirty Harry was released. This was 1971—the Vietnam War dragged on, becoming more and more unpopular with the American public. It was a time of political unrest that makes today’s political climate look comparatively stable. Liberals and conservatives called each other communists and fascists so frequently that the words pretty much lost their meaning. This was also a time when urban crime was on the rise, and the law enforcement system was making changes—some for the better, but some for the worse. The worst of these negative consequences was the rights of criminals overpowering the rights of their victims and of the police officers who pursue them. Upon its release, Dirty Harry became controversial for taking a more right-wing approach to these issues, and for defending the use of violence by the police. Some critics panned it as being ‘fascist propaganda. Looking back on the film today, these criticisms were obviously hyperbolic. Dirty Harry does present some conservative ideas, but it certainly isn’t fascist propaganda—hell, it hardly feels like a political film today at all. Above all else, Dirty Harry is a film which prioritizes being thrilling, entertaining, and undeniably cool above all else. It goes to show that you don’t always need to agree with the things you enjoy, and it never hurts to consider views that oppose your own. Today’s audiences seem to understand that better than those of the past, and the universal praise Dirty Harry receives today is testament to that. If you haven’t seen this film yet, add it to your watch-list—you won’t regret it.

Magnum Force – Part of the appeal of this series is how each film offers new insight into Harry Callahan, forming an extensive character study when it’s all put together. This is apparent almost immediately with the sequel to the original film, Magnum Force. Whereas Dirty Harry criticized the bureaucratic nightmare of left-wing law enforcement, Magnum Force tackles the other side of the issue by examining what happens when the police go too far. By doing so, director Ted Post and screenwriter John Milius blur the grey line that Harry treads, testing and ultimately reinforcing his moral code. Instead of the maniacal, peace-sign-garbed Scorpio, the villain this time around is the intelligent, calculating Lieutenant Briggs (played excellently by Hal Holbrook) and his rookie gang of vigilante traffic cops (who look ominously similar to Nazi stormtroopers). I suppose Magnum Force is also the most noticeable drop in quality within the series—as I’ve said, the original film stood above its successors, never to be surpassed. That isn’t to say Magnum Force is a bad film by any means. On the contrary, it’s a great sequel. If you enjoyed the first film, you’ll probably find yourself thoroughly entertained by this one as well.

The Enforcer – In Dirty Harry and Magnum Force, the dynamic between Harry and the main villain was a major factor of what made the films great. Unfortunately, the Vietnam-vets-turned-terrorists of The Enforcer are probably the weakest antagonists in the series. What instead carries this movie is the chemistry between Harry and his newest partner, Inspector Moore (played by Tyne Daly). This is an aspect of the Dirty Harry films I’ve held off on talking about until now. In each film, Harry is assigned a new partner. All of these partners have one thing in common: they always end up in the hospital or in their grave by the end. Aside from giving Harry someone to interact with throughout the film, the partner adds a tragic element to his character. It’s as if Harry is doomed to fight an endless battle, the inevitable fate of lonesomeness always haunting over him. Dirty Harry‘s Chico Gonzalez and Magnum Force‘s Early Smith were fine characters in their own right but The Enforcer stepped up its game with Kate Moore. Out of all of the partner characters, she’s the only one to go through a complete character arc. We first see her at her final test for becoming an Inspector, then struggling to keep up with the far more experienced Harry in their attempts to get to the bottom of the terrorist case, and then finally proving herself by helping him take down the terrorists and rescuing the mayor. All the while, she develops a strong bond and charming chemistry with Harry, which makes her tragic fate at the end of the film all the more heartbreaking. In spite of its forgettable villains, The Enforcer still stands as a solid entry in the series.

Sudden Impact – Six years after the release of The Enforcer, Clint Eastwood returned to the series once again, this time as both actor and director. What resulted was perhaps the most unusual of all the Dirty Harry films. A small town outside of San Francisco has become the hunting ground for Jennifer Spencer (played by Sondra Locke), a gang-rape victim looking for revenge, and it’s up to Harry (on a forced vacation) to find her and get the situation under control.  Although the original touched upon some similar ground, Sudden Impact stands out as the darkest film in the series. If Magnum Force blurred the thin grey line between right and wrong, this film nearly destroys it all together. The “victims” of the killing spree arguably deserve their punishment, but Jennifer isn’t exactly in the right, either. This dilemma comes to a head when Jennifer discovers that one of the rapists has been left in the same comatose state as her little sister (who was also a victim of the gang-rape). Besides moral ambiguity, the way this film approaches the character of Harry Callahan is also quite unique—he’s still the same badass as always, but we get to see a not-so-‘Dirty’ side to him. Clint Eastwood was reportedly tired of playing the same role over and over, and decided to spice things up a bit. Harry empathizes with Jennifer in a way he never could with Scorpio, Lt. Briggs, or the terrorists. He even becomes romantically involved with her, completely unaware that she’s the one he’s after. I suppose I can’t avoid the fact that Sudden Impact is also the most flawed film in the series. The most glaring issue is something it shares in common with The Enforcer—a bland and forgettable antagonist. Instead of sticking with Jennifer, the film does a sudden 180 by making one her past aggressors a downright cartoon villain. But I can’t really put all the blame on Eastwood—a majority of casual viewers didn’t go to a Dirty Harry movie to see thought-provoking moral complexity—they went to see Clint Eastwood blasting away criminals with his .44 Magnum. You could accuse Eastwood of having his cake and eating it too, but doing otherwise would have been too great a risk. And even if the villain is as flat as the great plains, the film still delivers a kick-ass finale and a powerful ending. Harry ultimately decides not to arrest Jennifer, giving her a second chance. Don’t let the mediocre score on Rotten Tomatoes scare you away from this one—Sudden Impact is well worth a watch.

The Dead Pool – Where Sudden Impact focused on the darker side of the Dirty Harry series, The Dead Pool focuses on the fun, light-hearted side. After his latest escapade, Harry unwillingly becomes a local celebrity, and subsequently finds himself a target in a series of murders. The only clue in catching the serial killer is a celebrity-death betting game called The Dead Pool, created by a B-movie director named Peter Swan (Liam Neeson). Why this film has such a low score on Rotten Tomatoes is beyond me—in terms of sheer entertainment value, The Dead Pool is probably the sequel that comes closest to rivaling the original Dirty Harry. Just take a look at what this film has to offer: Harry’s new partner is a Chinese-American karate master; Jim Carrey makes a cameo appearance as Johnny Squares, a washed-up rock-star who becomes the serial killer’s first target; there is an undeniable romantic tension between Harry and TV reporter Samantha Walker (Patricia Clarkson); the movie makes a thrilling chase sequence out of a remote-control toy car (which just so happens to be rigged with explosives); Harry takes out the main villain with a harpoon gun from the set of Swan’s latest film. To make a long story short, The Dead Pool is an absolute blast from start to finish. And in spite of its lighter tone, the film is also an insightful look on all things media and its obsession with death and violence. It’s fascinating to see a series which is known for being violent and controversial tackle this sort of topic. For me, it made the film all the more enjoyable. I’ll admit that The Dead Pool was a strange way to conclude Harry Callahan’s story, but at the same time, a neat little bow-tie ending would be unfitting for him anyway. For as much as I enjoy the series, all good things must come to an end.

Conclusion: What’s not to love about Dirty Harry? Its impact on the modern action genre is immeasurable, and the films are still great after over 40 years. Even among the unhealthy amount of media I consumed this summer, Dirty Harry stands out as one of its highlights. If you’re as interested in the legendary Clint Eastwood’s career as I’ve recently become, you owe it to yourself to watch all 5 of these classics as soon as possible.

 

Sympathy for the Devil – A Clockwork Orange Character Analysis

Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange is one of the most amoral characters ever put to page or screen. It’s no exaggeration to say he’s a representation of the Devil, an incarnation of primal evil. He spends his nights preying on the innocent with his derby-topped droogs, committing every crime from robbery to rape, and enjoying each and every minute of it. He’s one bad kid, to say the least. In spite of this, he’s also one of the most compelling protagonists in all of fiction. There are plenty of characters that we ‘love to hate’, but Alex is one of the few we ‘hate to love’.

A Clockwork Orange, especially the movie version, is sometimes seen as a sort of precursor to the punk-rock movement. This is mostly referring to the film’s memorably bizarre but undeniably stylish aesthetics, and to its individual-vs-society undertone. Despite this, Alex is hardly a punk-rock character, who are usually defined by an anti-establishment attitude and deliberate rebellion against authority (“fighting the system” as it were). Instead, he is utterly indifferent to authority, and seemingly to society as a whole. There is no greater purpose or politics to his crimes—he is simply looking for a good time and doing as he pleases, driven by raw impulse and desire. There is an almost jovial energy to him that contrasts the horror of the acts he commits. He treats crime like a child treats playtime. No scene better exemplifies this than the infamous ‘Singin In the Rain’ sequence, where Alex and his droogs break into the house of a writer and his wife and beat the living shit out them, all while singing one of the happiest songs in existence. I doubt Gene Kelly was pleased with that. The fact that the song was exclusive to the film version is a testament to the brilliance of both Stanley Kubrick and Malcolm McDowell.

There is more to Alex than just sadism. If this wasn’t the case he wouldn’t be as likable of a character as he is. With his love for violence and sex also comes a love for art, music, and language. A man of wealth and taste, so to speak. While others around him mock the arts, Alex holds them in high regard, especially the works of Ludwig Van Beethoven. The way he describes the power of Beethoven’s symphonies (the 5th in the novel and the 9th and the film) demonstrates a high level of intelligence underneath his animalistic behavior. There is something eloquent about the way Alex uses language, even when compared to his droogs, who use the same teenage ‘Nadsat’ slang. The narration, in particular, has a seductive power to it, grabbing hold of the audience and never letting go. He is also undeniably funny, with an almost ironic sense of humor. He certainly isn’t lacking in self-confidence either—in the book he occasionally refers to his youthful good looks and he maintains a certain level of charisma in even the most intimidating of social situations. These are all traits that demonstrate individual power, suggesting that Alex’s behavior is not a result of lacking self-control. He simply does what he does because he wants to. He is evil by choice.

And while Alex is amoral and bad-natured, the world around him and the government that rules it are shown to be just as bad, if not worse. While Alex’s evil is grounded in chaos, violence, and sex—which lie in the dark heart of human nature—the evil of the world around him is grounded in hypocrisy, deceit, manipulation, and the desire for control—which lie in the synthetic, artificial underbelly of modern society and the corruption of authority. We constantly see “innocent” people indulging in the same cruelties Alex, but only he is punished. Just to name a few examples, we see Alex being physically abused during his ‘interrogation’ after he is caught (by a group of four, no less, just he and his droogs). There are even implications in the movie that Alex has been sexually abused by his post-corrective advisor P.R Deltoid, first when he smacks Alex in the crotch after lecturing him in his parents’ bedroom (strange place to be hanging out, no?), and second during the interrogation, where his spit lands right on Alex’s mouth (the number of takes it took for Kubrick to be satisfied with the shot is proof that this detail was intentional). The Ludovico Technique is sort of the epitome of systematic, authoritative evil within A Clockwork Orange. It’s like a libertarian’s worst nightmare—complete robbery of the freedom of choice, one of the most basic of human rights. By taking away Alex’s ability to commit acts of violence and rape, they also take away his ability to defend himself from his vengeful former victims or even engage in healthy sexuality. This creates a moral dilemma within the viewer/reader’s head. Which is the greater of two evils—the consequences of free will or the consequences of taking that free will away?  I’ve already mentioned how Alex is essentially a representation of the Devil, but the Ludovico Technique acts as a sort of reversal of the fall of Lucifer. Instead of an angel corrupted by sin who falls to hell, Alex is a devil brainwashed out of sin who falls to an artificial ‘heaven’. Consider the scene in the film where Dim and George—Alex’s former droogs—reappear as police officers and carry Alex off to brutalize him. There is a great easter-egg here, courtesy of Kubrick—the numbers on the back of Dim and George’s uniforms are “665” and “667”, with Alex placed in between them. In other words, 666, the number of the Beast. But notice how he’s only associated with the number after he’s been brainwashed.

There is an entirely different way to interpret Alex’s character, however. When you consider that he is the one telling the story, through his own biased perception, you have to wonder if the audience only favors Alex over the world around him because that’s what how he wants you to feel. There is a great video by film analyst Rob Ager entitled “The Ludovico Lie”, which I highly recommend you watch for further detail—basically, Rob suggests that Alex only pretends to have been brainwashed in order to get out of prison, and that his narration is nothing but a pack of lies, seducing the audience into sympathizing with him. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist, after all. In my opinion, this alternate perspective only adds to the appeal of Alex’s character, as a symbol of individual power in its most sinister form, and yet another testament to great writing by Burgess, great directing by Kubrick, and great acting by McDowell.

And speaking of McDowell, I simply can’t write a post about Alex DeLarge without mentioning the man who brought him to life on the screen. In the book, Alex was more of a symbol—a raw force of nature and evil—rather than just a person, and this made adapting him to film a tricky task. But McDowell fulfilled that task with flying colors. His performance in A Clockwork Orange is undoubtedly one of the greatest movie performances of all time, at least in my mind. He embodies all of the humor, energy, charisma, and raw, horrific power of the character.

There is one last element of Alex’s character, and of A Clockwork Orange in general, which has left many an audience scratching their heads: the ending. The original ending of the novel has been subject of controversy among readers. Being the symbolic “twenty-first” chapter, it has Alex giving up his old ways by choice in order to pursue the happiness of family life. It implies that the rampant violence and sexuality which Alex and his droogs were so enamored with is merely a product of adolescence, something that exists in all young men to some extent. It’s a bit of an odd ending, I’ll admit, but I satisfied by the book either way. Although Kubrick claimed he never read the original ending, the cryptic final shot of the film might suggest otherwise. I was utterly confused the first time I finished watching it—it has the same final line from the book’s twentieth chapter (“I was cured, all right.”), but the line is paired with this bizarre final image. It shows Alex engaged in sex with a woman on a floor covered in what appears to be either snow or white confetti,  surrounded by applauding spectators. Once again I’ll have to call upon film analyst Rob Ager for explanation. In his video on hidden jokes and metaphors within A Clockwork Orange, he suggests that the final shot is symbolic of marriage and the sexual fulfillment that Alex can finally have as a result—almost identical the original conclusion of the novel. A Clockwork Orange can be very ambiguous and open-ended with its themes, so there could be another possible meaning to the ending, but the evidence for the marriage interpretation seems solid to me.

Alex from A Clockwork Orange demonstrates that even the most despicable of characters can be compelling, even sympathetic, and proves that there’s more than one way to create a great character. I tip my derby and raise my glass of moloko-plus to the genius of Burgess, Kubrick, and McDowell.

I’m already planning on writing another analysis of A Clockwork Orange, so keep an eye out if you enjoyed this one, and don’t forget to slash that like button with your cutthroat bratva, my dear brothers. Ciao.

The King of Comedy Analysis

“Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime” -Rupert Pupkin

One night. That’s all Rupert Pupkin needs. And he’s willing to get that one night at any cost, by any means necessary.

When director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Zimmerman created The King of Comedy back in the early 80’s, they thought were merely critiquing the celebrity culture at that time—they had no way of knowing that their comments would only become increasingly relevant over the years. Despite this, the film feels like a prophecy. It’s strange how, out of all of Scorsese’s work, The King of Comedy, a movie where not a single bullet is fired nor a single life taken, stands out as something uniquely disturbing. Roger Ebert went as far as to call it “one of the most arid, painful, and wounded movies I’ve ever seen”. Putting my infinite respect for Ebert aside, I think he was just a bit too hard on the film. Still, I have to agree that certain scenes in The King of Comedy are downright painful, even embarrassing to watch.

Rupert Pupkin, played by the inimitable Robert De Niro (in his fifth collaboration with Scorsese), has the passion and talent to become a great comedian, but pursues success in all the wrong ways. He manipulates, lies, stalks, and kidnaps his way to fame, indifferent to the potential repercussions of his actions. He is constantly rejected throughout the film but is so desperate and delusional that he is incapable of accepting that he has even been rejected at all. What is more disturbing is that, in the end, he succeeds. In fact, the dishonesty of his methods only elevates his sudden fame. Unlike Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, there is almost no defense to be made for Rupert’s actions. But like Travis, the audience can empathize with Rupert upon analyzing his deeper, unspoken motivations, if to a lesser extent. There is a sequence that plays out in his imagination which perfectly encapsulates the self-hatred and anger he has bottled up inside of him. The scene is a talk show turned into a wedding, with his school principal as the officiant. The principal gives a speech about how wrong he was about Rupert, offering an official apology from everybody who ever wronged or doubted him. This is what Rupert wants. He sees fame as a way to prove the world wrong, to show everybody that he isn’t just another nobody loser, that he’s the “King”, and he bases his self-worth entirely on whether or not he can achieve that fame. It is a childish but undeniably real and relatable motivation. Too often we base our self-worth in the most trivial matters—a grade on a test, a number on a scale, or the amount of likes on a social media post. It is for this reason that The King of Comedy is more relevant now than ever before, especially with the advent of the internet and social media. You could argue we live in a world full of Pupkins. Celebrity culture, back then and even more so now, often centers around meaningless drama, gossip, and exploitation. Celebrities are supposed to be famed for their unique talents, people to look up to as sources of inspiration or even role models. Yet many lack any real talent whatsoever and haven’t struggled a day in their lives, and even the ones who do are often unfairly misjudged or exploited by the public. Some are downright unbearable as human beings on even the most basic levels.

When Rupert finally makes it onto Langford’s talk show, there is something deeply disturbing about his jokes that the people watching seem to be oblivious to. It leaves you wondering how much of the story he’s telling them is the truth. At the end, he literally admits that he kidnapped Langford to millions of people, who still think he’s just joking. Rupert’s final words summarize the film’s critique on celebrity culture to a tee: “Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime”. When it is revealed to the public that Rupert really did kidnap Langford, he is met not with backlash and rejection—instead he becomes a nationwide phenomenon, the new biggest thing.

The antithesis to Rupert Pupkin is his idol, talk show host and comedian Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis. He wants nothing more than to regain his privacy but is haunted by stalkers and rabid fans, ultimately being the kidnapping victim of Rupert and his partner-in-crime Masha, who is obsessed with Langford on all levels, even sexually. She is arguably even creepier and more delusional than Rupert, with just as much self-hatred bottled up inside of her. The casting of Sandra Bernhard, a relative unknown at the time, was a stroke of genius. She so perfectly embodies the character of Masha that any other actress would have paled in comparison.

I haven’t even mentioned that, despite the film’s darker and more disturbing elements, it is still immensely funny. Some of the best comedic moments come from the small verbal clashes between Rupert and his off-screen mother, played by Martin Scorsese’s real-life mother Catherine Scorsese (who would go on to play Tommy’s mother in GoodFellas). Reportedly, Robert De Niro actually burst out laughing in one the takes because of how funny it was.

Martin Scorsese brings his trademark style of hyper-realism mixed with surrealism once again. No director creates paints such compelling images of New York City as he does. Instead of the seedy, hellish, and claustrophobic yet hypnotically beautiful city from Taxi Driver, we get a New York that feels vibrant and alive, yet still hiding something sinister beneath the surface, much like Rupert himself. Even more so than that, Scorsese’s films are unrivaled in capturing the best and worst sides of America and of the human condition in general. After Quentin Tarantino, Scorsese is probably my favorite director of all time. I’ve only seen six of his films but all of them are among my most beloved, with Taxi Driver currently residing at the number two spot on my favorite live-action films of all time. The King of Comedy is yet another fine example of Scorsese’s genius as a filmmaker.

 

 

The Deer Hunter: An Intimate Epic

I first learned of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter while scouring YouTube for Quentin Tarantino interviews of all things. In one of these interviews, Tarantino was discussing Robert De Niro’s outstanding career throughout the 70’s and early 80’s, and his roles in such films as Mean Streets, The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, and Once Upon a Time in America. One of the films that happened to come up was The Deer Hunter, which he described as an “intimate epic”. I finally saw the movie about fourth months ago and just re-watched it a few days ago. It’s easily one of my favorite movies, and I think Tarantino was spot on in his description. The Deer Hunter certainly has the makings of an epic, with a three-hour run-time split across three acts. These three acts come together to demonstrate the devastating effects of the Vietnam War on not only the people who fought in it but also their friends, families, and communities. It has often been labeled as an anti-war film, but I think that label, while not necessarily inaccurate, is somewhat misleading, and has provoked some undeserved criticism. The Deer Hunter is not a film that take sides. It does not seek to vilify The U.S or the Vietnamese (though it’s depiction of the VietCong is, admittedly, completely monochromatic). It does not exist for the sake of pushing Michael Cimino’s ideology or opinion on the war, nor anybody else’s for that matter—if anything, it allows the audience to form their own opinion. It is an acknowledgement of the pain that real people experienced, of an era in U.S history that should never be forgotten, and above all else, it is a film about people, their lives, their emotions, and how those things are irreparably changed by war.

To be more specific, The Deer Hunter follows three steelworkers from the small industrial town of Clairton, Pennsylvania—Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken, in a performance that won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), and Steve (John Savage)—before, during, and after their service in the U.S Army in Vietnam. The film is book-ended by large gatherings of people, the first a wedding and the second a funeral.

The first act is possibly the most vital. The film takes its time establishing the characters and the world they inhabit. From the scorching heat of the steel mills to the coziness of the saloon, the town of Clairton, shot beautifully by Hungarian-American cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, feels so alive it’s like we’re right there with the characters. It’s the little things that make this hour-long introduction something truly special. By the end, we have an incredibly vivid understanding of the characters, of their relationships, their beliefs, their traditions, their lifestyle, their strengths and their flaws. Mike, Nick, and Steve aren’t the only characters we learn about; there’s their friends Stan (the last performance of  John Cazale, who was terminally ill during the filming), Axel (Chuck Aspergen), and Jack (George Dzunda); there’s Steve’s overbearing mother (Shirley Stoler), and his bride-to-be Angela (Rutanya Alda); and finally there’s Nick’s girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep), whom Mike has an unspoken longing for. Small, seemingly unnecessary details like Linda’s abusive, drunken father (Richard Kuss) or Jack’s talent for music (we see him in the church choir during the wedding sequence and playing piano in the saloon) give the setting a level of depth which other filmmakers tend to overlook.

Most of the first act consists of Steve and Angela’s wedding. It is a time of celebration—we see the characters laugh, dance, and drink obscene amounts of alcohol. The characters are enjoying their last moments of peace before they have to leave. There is some foreshadowing to the effects the war will have on the characters, the first from a spaced-out green beret officer at the party and the second from a personal conversation between Mike and Nick, who asks Mike not to leave him in Vietnam—a promise that will become important much later on in the film. The morning after the wedding, the characters go hunting in the Pennsylvanian hills, providing us some exquisitely beautiful cinematography. At this point, killing still has a sense of meaning and purpose for the characters. There is a great scene after the deer hunt where they listen to Jack playing piano in the saloon—there’s no dialogue, just silent contemplation.  Immediately after, the audience is thrust into Vietnam.

Compared to other Vietnam movies, The Deer Hunter lacks the large-scale action you might find in Apocalypse Now, Platoon, or Full Metal Jacket. In fact, there is very little action at all. There is a short sequence where we see Mike kill one of the Vietcong with a flamethrower. Nick and Steve arrive at the site via helicopter. Their reunion with Mike is cut short by an enemy attack, in which the three are captured offscreen. What follows is the unforgettable POW-camp sequence, otherwise known as the Russian Roulette sequence. Regardless of what you think about Michael Cimino or even The Deer Hunter as a whole, this is indisputably one of the greatest and most fully realized scenes in all of cinema. You can feel the characters’ friendship solidify itself more and more with each click of the revolver. Few movie scenes are so effective at building tension, to the point where it becomes almost unbearable. No matter how many times I re-watch it, it makes my heart race every single time. You could argue that, despite the scene’s incredible execution, there is the issue of historical inaccuracy—prisoners were never forced to play Russian Roulette in Vietnamese POW camps. I would like to counter this with a famous quote from Vietnam veteran and writer Tim O’Brien: “Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth”. The Russian Roulette might not be a historically accurate plot device, but it is one of the most effective central metaphors of any movie I have ever seen. The revolver takes and spares life at random; there is no ideology, no morality, no human judgement. There is only fate, if such a thing really exists. It is a small symbol with a meaning of enormous proportion, perfectly fitting for The Deer Hunter as a whole—an intimate tale with epic scale hidden beneath the surface.

After escaping from the camp, Steve is left physically crippled and Nick utterly disillusioned, wandering through the dark and hazy streets of Saigon’s red light district. This is the only part of the plot that seems a bit contrived for me—Nick finds himself at a professional Russian Roulette ring, where he nearly reunites with Mike before the two are ultimately separated. While it allows the Russian Roulette metaphor to reappear, it sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the film.

The character least affected by the war is Mike, whose return home initiates the film’s third act. When he sees that his friends are waiting at his house, he finds himself incapable of facing them. There is a great moment where we see him sitting silently in a motel room. De Niro’s fantastic acting demonstrates Mike’s inner emotional turmoil. The next morning, Mike tentatively approaches Linda and his friends. The comfort and openness from the first act are gone—replaced by a shyness, even awkwardness at times. The way the town feels is deliberately different—it seems colder, darker, and emptier. Parts of the third act mirror the first act, showing similar situations before and after the disillusioning effects of the war. There is another deer hunting scene, where Mike tracks down a deer but ultimately spares its life. Killing has lost its meaning. He and Linda grow closer, trying but ultimately failing to fill the void that the absence of Nick has caused. After visiting the unresponsive Angela, Mike finds out about the veterans hospital Steve is staying at. Steve refuses to come home, clearly feeling the same emotional distress as Mike. When Mike goes to the hospital, he discovers that Nick has somehow been sending money to Steve from Saigon, where anti-war protests are reaching an all-time high. He returns to Vietnam one last time to bring Nick home.

By the time Mike finds him at the Russian Roulette ring, Nick is in a delirious state, seeming to have forgotten who he is. Mike takes the place of Nick’s opponent in the game, and after bringing up a conversation the two had at the beginning of the film about how deer should be taken out in one shot (“one shot is what it’s all about”). For a moment, Nick seems to remember who he is and recognize his best friend. “One shot” he repeats, taking the revolver and pulling the trigger. Nick is killed, taken away by the 50/50 chance at life or death.

Nick’s body is brought home, and a funeral is held. Afterwards, there is one last scene where the characters gather at the saloon for breakfast. After some quiet moments, they  begin to sing “God Bless America”. While the POW Camp sequence is undoubtedly the film’s best scene, the ending is a close second. The use of the song is not meant to be patriotic nor satirical. It touches on so many emotions all at once that it’s difficult to put into words. It is at once incredibly sad but also strangely uplifting. I won’t interpret it any further, as it is something you should experience yourself if you haven’t already. After the song, the film ends with a toast—“to Nick”.

I’ve gone this long without even mentioning The Deer Hunter‘s soundtrack. The main theme, “Cavatina”, a classical guitar song performed by the legendary John Williams, is one of my favorite pieces of music in all of film. It is so like the rest of the film, seemingly simplistic yet conveying a rich spectrum of emotions and possible meanings.

If The Deer Hunter‘s intimidating run-time or Michael Cimino’s understandably poor reputation (Heaven’s Gate pretty much destroyed the studio system single-handely) have kept you from watching this excellent film, I urge you to change that immediately. The Deer Hunter is not only one of the best Vietnam films but one of the best films of the 1970’s, and of all time for that matter.

 

Dog Day Afternoon Analysis

There’s a scene toward the end of Dog Day Afternoon where Sonny (Al Pacino) has just said goodbye Leon (Chris Sarandon) and his wife (Susan Peretz)  in two back-to-back phone calls. He’s visibly exhausted and coated in sweat from the summer heat (and no A/C to boot). He’s sitting there quietly, when, just for a moment, we see him break down into tears before burying his face in his hands. There is not a single line of dialogue in this moment—Al Pacino’s facial expressions and body language do all of the talking. It’s a great piece of character acting, but it only works as well as it does because of the empathethic bond between the audience and the character of Sonny.

Dog Day Afternoon is based on a bizarre but true story of a bank robbery that took place in Brooklyn in 1972, three years before the film was made. The opening shots of New York City tell us what all we need to know—it’s a hot, sleepy, boring summer afternoon that’s about to get a whole lot more interesting. Moreover, they establish a sense of naturalism and realism that pervades throughout the film.

Sonny is a person who wants to make everybody happy, but only ends up hurting everybody in the long run, himself most of all. He wants to make up with his homosexual wife Leon (Chris Sarandon) by paying for his sex-change operation, but chooses to do so by robbing a bank. The reason for this is unclear, since it’s immediately obvious he has no experience as a professional criminal—when he pulls out a rifle to threaten the tellers, it gets caught on the ribbon of the present box he was hiding it in. Sonny believes everything he does is the right course of action but almost always regrets it immediately afterwards. When the bank robbery immediately goes sour, he refuses to give up and continues to worsen the situation throughout the entire movie, terrified by the prospect of going back to prison. He tries to act menacing to the hostages but can’t help being nice to them at the same time, even demanding that the cops order them pizza because they’re hungry. Sonny desperately wants to be with Leon—a desire that is reciprocated—but everything he does only pushes the two farther apart, and we know that their relationship would never work out, even if we wish it could. There is never a moment where the audience can truly condemn Sonny—we can’t help but feel that it is fate itself which has condemned him. Even though he’s a bank robber, someone who would normally be the villain in your typical cops and robbers flick, and even though we learn some unsavory facts about him and his recent past, we want him to succeed. In fact, it is Sonny’s flaws—his incompetence, his naivety, his erratic and seemingly self-contradictory personality, his inability to help who he is—which make him more empathetic to the audience than most film protagonists could ever hope to be.

Consider the scene where Sonny’s mother, played by Susan Peretz, shows up at the scene and tries to convince him to come out. Pacino almost effortlessly conveys Sonny’s utter embarrassment at the situation. There’s a great moment that shows exactly what kind of relationship the two have: she’s going on about how Sonny’s actions aren’t his fault, trying to avert the blame from him to his heterosexual wife Angie. Sonny keeps trying to tell her otherwise, but she doesn’t listen to him—she just goes on and on. From this scene alone, we can tell that she hasn’t truly listened to him since the day he learned to speak. The scene also shows that Sonny is well aware of his problems: “I’m a fuck-up and an outcast, and that’s it. You get near me, you’re gonna get it—you’re gonna get fucked over and fucked out!”

Al Pacino is often accused of overacting, to the point that many underestimate how brilliant of an actor he truly is. He is as capable of excess as subtlety, often blending the two together flawlessly. This can be seen in full force with his portrayal of Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon, which is perhaps one of the greatest movie performances I have ever seen. He offers so much to the film that a mere script can not, truly bringing the character to life.

I’ve already talked in great detail about Sonny, but let’s not forget his partner in crime, Sal, played by the inimitable John Cazale. We learn very little about Sal throughout the film, but there is an unspoken depth to him that is only possible because of Cazale, a naivety, sensitivity, and vulnerability that makes him just as endearing and tragic as Sonny. Nearly every single line delivery is genius. John Cazale is an actor with an unmatched ability to open up all of his emotions, all for the sake of becoming the characters he plays. He shows parts of himself that most actors want to keep hidden. Had he not died tragically young, I have little doubt that his work would have continued to rival that of Pacino, De Niro, and other immensely talented character actors.

Dog Day Afternoon can be best described as a ‘tragic comedy’. The line between comedy and tragedy is practically invisible; some of the film’s funniest moments are also the most heartbreaking. There is a particularly famous improvised line from Cazale—when Sonny asks if there’s any special country he wants to go to, Sal says “Wyoming”. For as uproariously funny as the answer is, it’s also incredibly sad, since Sal is dead serious. “Wyoming…” Sonny replies, “…That’s not a country.”

The film’s most heartbreaking scene comes right at the end. Sonny and Sal are so close to their goal, yet the audience can feel an impending sense of failure and doom. They’re at the airport, about to make their escape to Algeria (“I’m going to the tropics—fuck the snow!), and Sal is visibly nervous, since he’s never been on an airplane before. The hostage who they let go in exchange for the jet, Maria, tells him not to be scared and gives him a necklace for good luck. A few moments later, we see a revolver that the FBI agent has been hiding. Before we know, Sal has been shot, and the agent has Sonny at gunpoint. It’s over.

I was also impressed by way the film treated the topic of homosexuality. For a film that came out over forty years ago, when the LGBT movement was treated as a joke by many, it never uses Sonny and Leon’s relationship in a disrespectful or exploitative manner. Chris Sarandon’s portrayal of Leon (another of the film’s excellent performances) never feels like a caricature—if the audience laughs at one of his lines, it isn’t because he’s gay. The locals watching the situation go down and even the police might laugh or make fun of them, but the film itself never does. Sonny and Leon’s relationship is treated no differently than if it was heterosexual. While this isn’t vital to the film’s quality, it’s a good thing that a film based in reality treat its subject matter with as much realism as possible.

Dog Day Afternoon is a testament to realistic filmmaking and creating compelling, empathetic characters. Over the past couple of months, I have incredibly lucky with my movie choices—never before have so many of my favorite films been ones I’ve seen so recently, and Dog Day Afternoon doubtlessly belongs to that category.