The Emperor Jones
The year 1933 introduced two cinematic giants to the world. Hollywood released King Kong, which portrayed a big royal black gorilla—a “king” who is head over heels in love with a tiny blond white woman for whom he willingly climbs the highest mountain, i.e., a skyscraper. That same year, an independent filmmaker named Dudley Murphy released The Emperor Jones, which portrayed a big royal black man—an “emperor” who is in love with amassing power and climbing to the peak of his own personal destiny, i.e., a nest egg. The film was promptly censored, and it was sparsely screened in savagely mutilated prints.
One of the main scenes that got The Emperor Jones banned occurs midway through the narrative, when Paul Robeson orders a white man to light his cigarette. In that one moment we see the birth of black self-determination in American cinema. Two years later, in Charlie Chan in Egypt, we see Stepin Fetchit threaten a white man by placing a straight razor up against his throat. Fetchit’s razor threat began with Robeson and that cigarette. Sidney Poitier pimp-slapping Larry Gates in In the Heat of the Night—that, too, begins with Robeson. Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Gordon Parks’s Shaft revealed black men who were talking, hitting, and shooting back . . . because of Robeson and that cigarette. And when Spike Lee decides to “do the right thing” and toss a garbage can through Danny Aiello’s window, it’s fruit from the tree Paul Robeson planted. Mary McLeod Bethune called Paul Robeson “the tallest tree in our forest.” The Emperor Jones is the tallest tree in his cinematic forest.
In 2012, Sight & Sound unveiled its Greatest Films of All Time list with Vertigo at the top, replacing Citizen Kane. As Renoir once remarked, “Everybody has their reasons.” While picking the “greatest” anything is an inherently impossible task, if we’re going to do it, let’s be sensible. It hasn’t really been established that Vertigo is even Hitchcock’s greatest film, let alone the “greatest film ever made.” At the moment, that honor still belongs to the gorgeously conceived and immaculately executed Citizen Kane. It’s perfectly feasible that some filmmaker could someday make a narrative feature that replaces it. This could happen—and when it does, we’ll all know it. Meanwhile, Citizen Kane is still, resolutely and relentlessly, the greatest film ever made.
The Ruling Class
In the seventies, John de Lancie dragged me to see Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (which scared us both so profoundly that we actually walked out midway and sat in the lobby, leaving our girlfriends to tough it out alone), Sidney Lumet’s Network, John Waters’s Pink Flamingos, Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock, Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein, and Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class. Thanks, John!
The Ruling Class is about an English lord named Jack (Peter O’Toole) who vacillates between believing himself to be Jesus Christ and believing himself to be Jack the Ripper.
It’s been said that the Brits handle satire better than their American cousins do, and this is usually pretty much true. Their satire cuts and cauterizes to the bone. American satire is almost always undermined by our inability to make the cut—i.e., to part the flesh, to break the skin. We like to show where the incisions should be but usually refrain from actually wielding satire’s scalpel. Prince always insisted that many artists fail because they have the right ideas but don’t take them far enough. In The Ruling Class, Peter Barnes’s script, Peter Medak’s direction, and O’Toole’s performance (his greatest this side of Becket and Lawrence of Arabia) all go far enough. They meticulously eviscerate the corpse of England’s class system, remove all its internal organs, and put each of them up for display. The Ruling Class is apocalyptically brilliant and persistently hilarious. It’s weird, it’s wonderful, and it’s very, very wise. It’s the kind of film that encourages you to be bold, to be brave. To tell the truth.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Spoiler alert: Near the end of the movie there’s a group shot with Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove sitting in his wheelchair. Peter Bull is standing to Sellers’s right. If you watch Bull’s face when Sellers begins savagely beating his own disobedient right arm, you’ll see Bull break character and visibly squelch the impulse to laugh . . . twice. Not once, but twice.
I was nine years old in 1963, when Dr. Strangelove opened in Flint, Michigan. With the movies you adore, it’s like a marriage, and I’ve been happily married to this movie since 1963.
Stanley Kubrick’s career can be neatly divided into two parts: before Dr. Strangelove and after Dr. Strangelove. It’s his most rebellious, exuberant, hilarious, and personal film. It’s the only one of his movies where he not only lets his pants down but proceeds to run around in his underwear. So do writer Terry Southern and actor Peter Sellers. And it is most certainly the only Kubrick film where actors break character in the middle of scenes. My ex-wife used to laugh uncontrollably during the Ripper/Mandrake scene, when Sterling Hayden explains fluoridation and his “loss of essence.” Ripper: “Women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake. But I do deny them my essence.” Note: There has been a persistent rumor floating around for decades that Kubrick and Southern were “ordered” to remove all fluoride references from the script, and they declined to do so.
Pay particular attention whenever President Muffley (Sellers) is on the phone with Soviet Premier Dimitri Kissov. Sellers’s ability to urgently mix the real, the surreal, and the stupid into one seamless singularity is incomparable.
Yet another note: With the exception of Frank Silvera’s appearances in Kubrick’s first two features, whenever black people appear in most of his films, they are invariably treated with a gossamer veneer of veiled disdain. A year after Dr. Strangelove was released, James Earl Jones gave an extremely revealing interview that exposed Kubrick’s racist approach to the character he played in that film. Jones believed that Kubrick had pushed him to buck his eyes wide in one scene, like a helplessly frightened Mantan Moreland or Willie Best. It is a tribute to Jones that he resisted this effort, and a credit to Kubrick that he did not insist.
A Raisin in the Sun
Lorraine Hansberry’s writing is beyond sublime. Is that possible? Apparently so. The ensemble acting is also beyond sublime. Frankly, I always find it difficult to talk about A Raisin in the Sun because it is such an overwhelming masterpiece and absolutely unprecedented in terms of showing black people in three dimensions. Up until that point, black people in American cinema had rarely been permitted to manifest subtlety. The quality of being subtle on film was exclusively consigned to Caucasians. Hansberry’s achievement was bequeathing subtlety and three dimensions to the black screen image. This 1961 film is the foundation stone for all that follows, and from the moment I first saw the film in 1962, I’ve remained in rapturous awe of it.
A quick word about Sidney Poitier’s performance: it’s a luminous master class in acting. Poetry in motion. And emotion. Poitier always demurred when people approached him in the fifties and sixties about playing Hamlet. But the mercurial breadth and scope of his performance as Walter Lee Younger makes it crystal clear that he would have been a great, great Hamlet.
I first saw Being There with my mother in Manhattan when it was initially released in 1979. This was about six years before I read the Detroit News article about Doug Street, the protagonist of Chameleon Street. Being There triggered something that ultimately led to my film. I had no idea when I saw it, of course, but in retrospect there were so many notes and nuances that Jerzy Kosinski and Ashby and Sellers hit in this movie that really stuck with me. The idea of presenting a certain image to the world, to the media, and in social situations while in reality being something totally different—that first struck me when watching Being There. It has a deft, slightly daft attitude of deconstruction best embodied by the end credits, where Ashby strings together separate takes of Sellers.
Sellers and Ashby are doing in Being There what Louise Lasser did in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman—deconstructing plot; deconstructing dialogue; deconstructing emotions, trends, genre, and culture all at once. Like in that moment downtown when Sellers gets hungry and, because he was raised in a mansion with a black maid, he approaches black women at random asking, “Can you get me some lunch?” Or when Ruth Attaway (the aforementioned black maid) sums it all up by staring incredulously at Sellers’s image on TV and announcing the bottom line: “Yes, sir! All you gotta be is white in America to get anything you want!” The intimate interplay between black culture and white culture, between the media and mind control—all of those factors really bowled me over when I first saw Being There. God bless the soul of Jerzy Kosinski!
After making such a big deal about Citizen Kane being the greatest film ever made, my comments about Seven Samurai may sound slightly contradictory. There are two films that, whenever I watch them, make certain questions pop into my head. With Dog Day Afternoon, at some point I’ll suddenly hear this question in my mind: Is Al Pacino giving the greatest male performance in a feature film ever? With Seven Samurai, I always hear the question Is this the greatest film ever made? Now, I don’t know what the answers to those questions are, but this is something that always takes place with those two films and no others. I don’t mean to slam John Sturges and his Hollywood remake, but Lord have mercy, whenever I see The Magnificent Seven it’s like cardboard compared to the caviar and cake of Seven Samurai.
Children of Paradise
The characters in Children of Paradise include actors, aristocrats, petty thieves, pretentious murderers, lovers, haters, pimps, poets, parents, and prostitutes. And somehow director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert are able to make us see ourselves in each and every one of these people. That’s quite an achievement!
A special note: the acting of Jean-Louis Barrault is so fine that it’s a privilege just to be in his presence!
The Third Man
The Third Man is a spine-tingling, zither-tinged movie where the murderous and the mundane always walk hand in hand. With the possible exception of Bernard Lee’s character, Sgt. Paine, everybody in The Third Man is a bit of a weasel. In this movie, Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is brought to life by Carol Reed’s mise-en-scène. Everybody breathes in a constant flow of betrayal. The results are exemplified by Orson Welles as the charismatically charming Harry Lime, a princely pagan who thinks nothing of crippling and/or killing children with diluted penicillin . . . as long as the retail price is right. It’s an adult movie made by adults about adults. Paradoxically it also features one of the most annoying and terrifying five-year-olds ever seen in film.
A quick note about Orson Welles: He’s always had his detractors. Orson’s Detractors have always been with us, and are with us even now, long after his death in 1985. When Welles was alive many people were genuinely intimidated by his genius, including Ward Bond, John Ford, Laurence Olivier, Peter Sellers, and Ingmar Bergman. Now that he’s dead, people still come gunning for him all the time. (Recently Frank Langella casually made murderously dismissive comments about Orson’s acting on TCM. The hits keep coming!) Several years ago filmmaker/musician Ray Bally and I formed a special corporation dedicated to the protection and preservation of Orson Welles. The name of the corporation is We Protect Orson, Man, Inc. Membership entails watching Mr. Arkadin while eating ice cream and sipping espresso.
If I had to spend the rest of my life alone on an island and was only allowed to take one film noir with me, it would have to be Nightmare Alley. Between 1979 and 1985, I was constantly on the lookout for material (and also writing my own) for a feature film. In 1981, I began exploring the possibility of remaking Nightmare Alley, which I was in love with. I saw the film and then had to get a hold of the novel by William Lindsay Gresham. This was before Amazon, of course. I had to go to a bookseller who sold rare books. I got the book and had my collaborator Lynette Mance type it into a formatted transcript, and we began shaping it into a screenplay. We tracked down the corporation in Manhattan that owned the property and began preliminary talks. It was only reading about Doug Street in the spring of 1985 that stopped me from working on a Nightmare Alley remake. You can see the correlation between Nightmare Alley’s conman, Stanton Carlisle, and Chameleon Street’s conman, Doug Street.
The character of Carlisle’s conning is what attracted me to the film, and I was enamored by the way Tyrone Power plays the part. Power believed it was his greatest performance, and he’s absolutely right. His Stanton Carlisle is constantly conning, conning, conning, and yet doing it so subtly. He never telegraphs the con. The people he’s conning have no idea because he sends up no signals, never raises any red flags—but the audience watching the film is completely tuned in to what he’s doing. We can virtually read his mind second by second in real time. Often when you watch a movie about a conman or somebody duplicitous, you can see them working their con from a mile away, and it’s kind of absurd because the people in the movie who are interacting with him are forced into acting as if they don’t see it. It’s very disconcerting. But in Nightmare Alley, it’s almost like Power is telepathically communicating with the audience, perfectly holding the interplay between himself and all those people he’s conning in the palm of his hand. Until—! Until he meets psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter. She’s a deadly character, deeply contemptuous and effortlessly cunning. Helen Walker plays her like Hedda Gabler on heroin. Watching her play scenes with Power is like watching a mongoose and a cobra slowly circling each other as they fight to the death.
Tracy Letts’s Top 10
Tracy Letts is an American playwright, screenwriter, and actor. He received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama for August: Osage County and a Tony Award for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Joel Potrykus’s Top 10
With his features and new short film, Thing from the Factory by the Field, currently playing on the Criterion Channel, the writer-director selects ten movies that influenced his style.