Film Noir

‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956): No Sleep for the Weary

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Becky (Dana Wynter), Jack (King Donovan), Teddy (Carolyn Jones) & Miles (Kevin McCarthy) are speechless in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

What if you went to bed one night with your significant other and woke up the next morning to find that he or she wasn’t exactly the same.

Oh, they may look like the same individual, all right. They even talk, walk, dress, feel, and act like your beloved spouse or relative. But there’s something totally different about them, something you noticed in their eyes. To coin a phrase from a well-known popular song, they’ve lost that “lovin’ feelin’,” that certain gleam, that emotional spark, that intimate connection to you and to past events that tell you your Uncle Joe or Aunt Sarah isn’t the man or woman you thought they were.

The horror and science-fiction genre is privy to all sorts of “what-if-scenarios” such as these. The films of the 1950s were especially prone to invasion theories, of little green men plotting to take over the universe for reasons known only to them. RKO’s The Thing from Another World (1951) told of one such intruder, an advance scout that turned out to be a monstrous blood-sucking “intellectual carrot” with super-human strength and a will to survive at all costs.

In Twentieth Century-Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (also 1951), there were no “space invaders” as such but rather an amiable, cultivated emissary from another planet (played by an equally refined British actor). He wasn’t out to destroy humanity (at least, not yet) but to understand it. In case of trouble, however, this emissary relied on an eight-foot-tall robotic companion — an interplanetary armed guard, if you prefer — to ward off the offenders.

Taking this analogy a step or two further, the one-eyed gelatinous beings of Universal-International’s It Came from Outer Space (1953) were neither conquerors nor destroyers but explorers from a highly-evolved civilization that accidentally crash-land on Earth. Despite their loathsome visage, the aliens’ motives are benign in that they need humanity to help repair their damaged spacecraft so they could return to their peaceful mission.

From the same year, Paramount Pictures released The War of the Worlds, an updated version of H.G. Wells’ Victorian-era novel about those proverbial little green men from Mars. The film took the opposite tack, in that sheer firepower and coordinated attacks, along with a brutal frontline assault, would culminate in total victory. Ah, but those annoying creatures never reckoned with the tiniest of God’s creations: the multitudinous germs and bacteria that inhabit every corner of our planet. Where atomic weapons proved futile in repelling the invaders, infectious disease took over and decimated the Martians’ plans for world domination.

But there were subtler, more insidious methods of conquest yet to be explored. For example, what if you could merge the “alien invasion” picture with a more restrained, less blatant approach — in other words, the humans you are trying to take over would never know they were being taken over?

This is the premise for one of the most chilling, most hallucinatory sci-fi features to have come along in many a decade: producer Walter Wanger and director Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, distributed by Allied Artists Pictures.

The story, adapted from Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, involves an alien life form that assumes the innocuous shape of seeds. What’s so terrible about that? Nothing at all, really — until those same outer-space seeds plant themselves in a farmer’s field somewhere in Southern California. From there, the seeds grow into giant pods that slowly and sinisterly take over the minds and bodies of whoever happens to be around. Once the victims fall asleep, the “pod people” complete their transformation and dispose of the original body.

Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) meets up with former lost love, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), early on in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Such a preposterous idea could have easily been turned into a campy, low-budget frolic with schlocky special effects and over-the-top performances. In the hands of the gifted Don Siegel, however, Invasion of the Body Snatchers became a bona-fide classic of the science-fiction/body horror genre.

The setting is a sleepy fictionalized town known as Santa Mira. One of its inhabitants, Dr. Miles Bennell (lantern-jawed Kevin McCarthy), is a general practitioner just returned from a medical convention. His nurse, Sally Withers (Jean Willes), greets him at the train station to convey the news that the town is in the grip of a mass hysteria. Miles’ office is full of patients who demand to see him and only him. Upon further inquiry, Miles is informed that various individuals have reported that the person they live with, or confide in on a regular basis, is not that person.

After a day of this dilemma, the anxious patients have all cancelled their appointments and the crisis (whatever it was) appears to have been averted. Once Miles gets settled in, he reconnects with lost love Becky Driscoll (winsome Dana Wynter), fresh from a trip to Reno for a quickie divorce. Becky calls on Miles in his office to report that her cousin Wilma (Virginia Christine) swears up and down that her dear old Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t Uncle Ira.

A quick stop at Wilma’s place and a talk with Uncle Ira do little to alleviate her concerns. Still, Miles manages to convince the distressed Wilma to see a psychiatrist friend of his, Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates). It’s possible, in Dan’s later clear-eyed appraisal, that the stresses of modern life may have forced the townspeople to escape from reality. Hmm…

While Miles and Becky go off to rekindle their former relationship, they each take notice of peculiar departures from Santa Mira’s normal routine. For instance, that evening the couple goes out to dine at their favorite dance hall and restaurant. But instead of a crowded gathering, the establishment is curiously empty except for the maître d’.

Becky & Miles enjoy a rare moment of repose on the dance floor

Earlier on, Miles and Nurse Sally drive by an abandoned vegetable stand. The month before, “it was the cleanest and busiest stand on the road,” but now it was boarded up and littered with debris.

There are similar lines of dialogue spoken throughout the picture, minor references and random, off-the-cuff observations that elucidate the plot for viewers in subtle, indirect ways. Taken as a whole, when you’ve re-watched the film (as this author has) after so many years of neglect, you begin to notice, as the characters themselves do, that something is terribly out of kilter from the start.

More samples of what we are driving at: Becky Driscoll’s entry into the story via her spur-of-the-moment visit to Miles’ office. She’s been living in England for the past few years. “It’s wonderful to be home again,” she confides to him, but quickly adds, “I’ve been away so long …. I feel almost like a stranger in my own country.” She’s not joking.

Then there’s little Jimmy Grimaldi, who thinks his mother isn’t really his mother. Miles gives him a sedative, a pill to drive away the demons from his young mind. “Open your mouth. Shut your eyes,” he orders. “In the words of the poet … I’ll give you something to make you wise.” Make him “wise”? Not exactly, but certainly more complacent — a metaphor for what will happen in time to the town’s population as a whole.

Nurse Sally (Jean Willes) holds on to little Jimmy Grimaldi, who takes his medicine from Dr. Bennell

At roughly 80 minutes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a taut little film, with nary a wasted moment or superfluous occurrence anywhere. Everything is held together (and remains that way) thanks to a tidy screenplay by veteran mystery and film-noir writer Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past, The Big Steal). There are noticeable noir strictures to be noted and followed, including the perfunctory narration (by Kevin McCarthy), the ominous black-and-white cinematography (courtesy of Ellsworth Fredericks), the crisply-edited footage (Robert S. Eisen), and the creepy musical score (by Carmen Dragon).

And true to the genre itself, Miles and Becky tease each other good-naturedly with quips and innuendos about the ups and downs of marriage and divorce. They also reminisce about being back together:

“I wish you didn’t have to go home for dinner,” Miles states emphatically.

“I don’t,” Becky counters. “Dad’s eating out with a friend.”

“I could pick you up at seven,” Miles hints to her.

“Well … It’s summer, and the moon is full. ‘I know a bank …’”

“… ‘Where the wild thyme grows’,” Miles completes the phrase, and then adds, “You haven’t changed a bit.”

Not yet she hasn’t.

That line about “the moon is full” is an obvious allusion to werewolves, who convert to vicious fiends once the moon is out and bright. It’s a none-too-subtle clue of the horror to come, except there are no rapacious night creatures, only deadly dull, emotionless carbon copies of former loved ones.

The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters

Miles and Becky meet up with Dan Kauffman, the resident analyst, who comments on the epidemic of mass hysteria that has taken hold of Santa Mira. He’s got a full plate on his hands, and just as many explanations for what’s been happening around town. Kauffman is that person of stature who appears in all these science-fiction flicks of the Fifties, the one individual whose sole function is to explain to the audience what the heck is going on.

Hardly satisfied with Dan’s rationale, Miles takes Becky home. It is evening and the lights are out. In silhouette, Becky muses on the strangeness of what’s been occurring to the citizens of her hometown.

“Let’s hope we don’t catch it,” Miles jokes in response. In mock serious tones, he discloses, “I’d hate to wake up some morning and find out you weren’t you.” Prophetic words, indeed!

Towards the end, Becky and Miles are treated as fugitives from justice (another film-noir conceit) in their attempts to get away from the encroaching mob of pod people out to prevent the couple from alerting the outside world to their presence. Panic, paranoia, and suspicion cloud Miles’ judgment, as they do Becky’s and their friends, Jack (King Donovan) and Teddy Belicec (Carolyn Jones). No one can be trusted: it’s neighbor against neighbor, and relative against relative, until eventually the entirety of Santa Mira has been taken over by alien pods.

One of the scariest sequences occurs in Jack’s home, where he and wife Teddy, along with Miles and Becky, witness the pods’ literal transformation into lifelike replicas of (gasp!) themselves. It’s a genuinely unsettling moment: before their eyes, the lineless facial features and bubbling torsos begin to take shape. Destroying the bodies with a pitchfork and setting the corpses on fire, Miles tries to alert the FBI of the danger, but is thwarted when he realizes the phone offices have been usurped by the pod people, as have the police department and everywhere else. The friends flee for their lives but vow to meet up again in town.

The “developing” seedpod turns into Dr. Miles Bennell

Escaping to his medical office (a place that’s supposed to cure people of whatever it is that ails them), Miles and Becky hide out there temporarily, awaiting Jack’s return. They go down a long and narrow corridor, which heightens the feeling of claustrophobia. The walls are closing in around them — and fast. Prior to this, their attempt to enlist Sally in their cause backfires when Miles sees her take one of the seedpods up to her baby’s bedroom. The chase is on, as the police issue an all-points-bulletin to apprehend and detain the couple.

A comparable scene takes place near the end, where Becky and Miles are seeking shelter in a cave near the outskirts of town. They hide from their pursuers in an old mineshaft, placing wooden floorboards on top as they squish inside an empty hole in the ground. It’s tantamount to a gravesite, of being in one’s coffin or burial plot. While the mob runs over them, completely unmindful of where they’re hiding, the lovers cower just below the pursuers’ feet. It’s a real nail-biter of a sequence.

We, the viewer, can feel their unease, since the camera has followed the couple inside that dark, damp hole. But it only provides a temporary shelter. The sense of eeriness about this episode is elevated tenfold by the skewed camera angle and the intensity of the mob’s footsteps. When they’re finally alone, they leave the hole. Miles and Becky have either risen to new life as purposeless ciphers or reached the end of the line. Which is it?

Hints as to what’s in store for our heroes abound throughout the story. When later cousin Wilma encounters Miles in the street, she tells him she no longer needs a shrink. “I woke up this morning, and everything was all right.” She goes back inside her store and flips the sign on the door from “Open” to “Closed” — permanently, I’d venture to say. There’ll be no more need for work. No more ambition, no more striving to better oneself. No practicing of one’s profession, and no call for personal fulfillment. Existence is its own reward, and the pursuit of happiness can be stricken from our vocabulary.

The walls start to close in on the romantic couple as Miles & Becky leave his office

Released in the 2.00:1 aspect ratio (in this instance, called Superscope), Invasion of the Body Snatchers was originally conceived by director Siegel to be in the standard 1.33:1 ratio. But the distributor, Allied Artists, insisted on the wider screen size, possibly to attract movie viewers used to CinemaScope, VistaVision, and other such formats.

Allied Artists also requested that Siegel provide an expository prologue and epilogue to the production. Both Siegel and producer Wanger argued in favor of keeping things the way they were, with nothing bookending the completed film. However, they lost the argument and a quickie prologue and epilogue were added. These were set inside a hospital emergency ward, where a supposedly “insane” Miles Bennell is confronted by the attending physician (Richard Deacon) and the hospital’s skeptical shrink (Whit Bissell). Consequently, the tale is told in flashback from here on.

Miles tells his story to two disbelieving doctors (Richard Deacon & Whit Bissell)

Either way you slice it, the film works on many levels — with or without those appended sequences. While there is no “happy ending” as such, most viewers come away with the hopeful conclusion that maybe — just maybe — the invasion can be foiled. And that somehow, the long-suffering Miles will at last be vindicated.

The long-held notion that Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a cautionary tale against Communist encroachment, i.e. the so-called Red Scare menace, has not always held up over time. Sure, the U.S. had undergone years of House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, along with the ensuing Communist witch hunts, and accusatory fingers pointed at the movie industry. Once the McCarthy hearings had blown over, however, the dust settled to reveal that Siegel had not explicitly set out to capture those sentiments in his film, at least not overtly.

While not part of the director’s original concept, the themes of conformity and uniformity in 1950s North American life can be viewed as relevant to the main issue. Nowadays, diversity and multiculturalism are the “buzz words” that tend to dominate the conversation, although you would never know it by our highly-charged and exceedingly politicized atmosphere. That the film has resonance for our day is proof enough of its status as a timeless classic.

Here are some things to look for on your next viewing of this archetypal sci-fi flick: pay close attention to the shadows and darkness that slowly engulf the town of Santa Mira; make note of the studied calmness of the so-called pod people; take notice as well of background noises in Miles’ basement and elsewhere; and look quickly for Charlie, the meter reader, played by future film director Sam Peckinpah in a bit part.

More importantly, make yourself aware that the closer Miles and Becky get to one another as a loving couple, the farther apart they will seem relative to their “inhuman” counterparts. As at the beginning of the drama, everything appears to be normal and humdrum; people continue about their business except when those delivery trucks ride into town to deliver more seedpods to all comers. Observe for yourself how quickly they disseminate the pods to every town and village within the Los Angeles vicinity, and within a relatively short time. That’s chaos theory in action!

Remember, too, Miles’ look of utter despair — his expression of absolute shock and bewilderment at the realization that his beloved is now one of “them.” His earlier warning about waking up one day to find that Becky is no longer Becky comes back to haunt him in one of those rare cinematic moments of discovery, an indelible scene that’s sure to send shivers down your spine. There is nothing left for poor Miles to do but run away, right out onto the highway, to inform others of the nightmare that awaits them in sleepy Santa Mira.

Miles’ look of shock and awe in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

When last we see him, Miles stands in the middle of oncoming traffic, spouting the words of a crazed mystic, a male Cassandra that nobody listens to: “You fools! You’re in danger! Can’t you see? They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next …”

This is straight out of the school of nihilistic thought. Aren’t you glad you were warned?

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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‘It Came from Outer Space’ (1953): Strangers in a Strange Land

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The discovery of the alien craft in It Came from Outer Space (Universal, 1953)
The discovery of the alien craft in It Came from Outer Space (Universal, 1953)

An imaginary Arizona locale and desert town is the eerie setting for science-fiction author Ray Bradbury’s story of alien visitors from another world who, on their mission to a different part of the galaxy, accidentally crash land on planet Earth.

Writer and amateur astronomer John Putnam (sci-fi stalwart Richard Carlson), a recent resident of the aptly named Sand Rock, is sharing a cozy, romantic evening with local girl Ellen Fields (beautiful Barbara Rush), a grade-school teacher by profession. Suddenly, the couple witnesses a fiery meteor (or something close to it) streak across the nighttime sky.

Wasting no time, the curious pair drives out to the nearby crash site. As Putnam approaches what he believes to be a spacecraft of some kind, an unexpected landslide buries the contents within — but not before he (and the viewer, ostensibly) get a glimpse of what lies inside.

Hideous and horrible, the aliens are not your garden variety space invaders, but are instead intelligent and, it is later learned, benign beings with expansive minds and souls of their own. Unfortunately, they also have single bulbous eyes, amorphous, gelatinous bodies and the ability to assume the identity and appearance of the local populace.

Ellen (Barbara Rush) & John Putnam (Richard Carlson) through the looking glass
Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) & John Putnam (Richard Carlson) peer through the looking glass, or telescope in this case

Even worse, not everyone shares Putnam’s interest and curiosity about the alien visitors, especially after several of the town’s citizens mysteriously disappear and the only hardware store in sight is robbed of its electrical supplies. Hmm …? What could those pesky aliens want with electrical supplies? Maybe, repair their damaged ship? Or get going with their interrupted mission?

Fear and paranoia soon grip the dusty abode, which is patrolled by chain-smoking Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake). An old boyfriend of Ellen’s, Matt is overly protective of her and skeptical of Putnam’s crackpot theories about aliens. He’s not too keen on strangers either, benign or otherwise.

“Why don’t they come out into the open?” Matt asks Putnam.

“Because they don’t trust us,” Putnam replies. “Because what we don’t understand we want to destroy.”

“I kill only what tries to kill me,” Matt fires back.

Putnam tries to talk some sense into the highly strung lawman. He points to an approaching arachnid. “That spider. Why are you afraid of it? Because it has eight legs? Because its mouth moves from side to side instead of up and down? If it came at you, what would you do?”

“This,” as the sheriff crushes the spider under his boot. Point taken, point made!

Despite this seeming setback, Putnam is able to convince Matt to give him and the alien visitors more time to repair their ship. The aliens eventually release their captives and, returning to their original disgusting forms, leave the Earth in the same manner in which they approached, spewing forth a fiery trail in the sky.

Alien spacecraft from It Came from Outer Space
Alien spacecraft crashes to the Earth in It Came from Outer Space (1953)

A true classic of the genre, It Came from Outer Space tries to live down that egregious title and live up to its well-deserved reputation as one of the few soberly-minded and intelligently conceived sci-fi flicks of the 1950s.

Originally filmed in the 3-D process (though always shown flat in its television screenings), It Came from Outer Space was Universal-International’s first foray into the science-fiction field. In fact, the 3-D effects are rather subdued and less “in-your-face” than other examples from the period. For pure shock value, a creepy film score (credited to Irving Gertz, Henry Mancini, and Herman Stein) penetrates the soundtrack whenever the aliens are caught looming about. You may remember this theme from the old Saturday night Creature Features showcase from the 1960s and ’70s.

One of the unfortunate aspects of this and other similar releases at the time was the studio’s bowing to Fifties convention, whereby the men are given the decisive, upright role as defenders of the realm — true movers and shakers, for good or for bad (see Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World).

This attitude relegated most of the women’s parts to pure window dressing or easily excitable observers. The scene in which Barbara Rush, as Ellen, answers the doorbell and screams her fool head off as she spots a boy decked out in a space invader’s outfit (with toy ray-gun in hand), is a good example of old-fashioned female hysterics.

Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) screams for her life in It Came from Outer Space
Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) screams for her life in It Came from Outer Space

Curiously, in another scene, the behavior of a sobbing Mrs. Frank Daylon (Virginia Mullen), the wife of one of the missing telephone linemen, contrasts sharply with that of the other missing lineman’s floozy girlfriend, Jane Dean (Kathleen Hughes). While Mrs. Daylon expresses spousal concern that Frank (Joe Sawyer) had skipped his meal and hasn’t been “himself” of late, Jane is more flippant about Frank’s partner, George (Russell Johnson): “His landlady told me he skipped dinner. That ain’t like George, not with his appetite.”

I’ll bet!

At 81 minutes, the film is compact and concise. The special effects (done via mirrors, split-screens, double exposures, swirling mists, and such) are state-of-the-art, for the era. And despite the description of the scene with Ellen, the acting is relatively low key. Subtlety and nuance, an inescapable feeling of being watched, and an uneasy atmosphere of impending dread are underscored in the thoughtfully developed dialogue, courtesy of screenwriter Harry Essex. The black-and-white cinematography (by Clifford Stine) stresses the silvery noir elements. The picture was partially filmed on location in the surrounding Mojave Desert area of California, which lent a good deal of authenticity.

Poster art for It Came from Outer Space, in 3-D
Poster art for It Came from Outer Space, in incredible 3-D

The movie also boosted the career of veteran documentary-maker and director Jack Arnold. Arnold went on to lend credibility to the burgeoning sci-fi arena with his subsequent outings, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), with Carlson again in the lead, Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula (both from 1955 and both starring John Agar), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), a classic among classics, and the underrated The Space Children (1958).

In many ways, It Came from Outer Space is as rich and timely today as it ever was. Its lessons about reaching out to those in need, who may be as different from us as night is from day; to extend a helping hand and grasp the thing we’re most repelled by — by learning to overcome our basest fears and instinct for survival, while trying to understand the abnormal ways of others — continue to fascinate as well as entertain.

As the bulbous creatures fly off into the night, Putnam looks back at them in wonder and awe: “It wasn’t the right time for us to meet,” he contemplates solemnly. “But there’ll be other nights, other stars to watch. They’ll be back.”

Indeed they will — and quite a different message from the earlier The Thing, where audiences were issued a dire warning to keep watching the skies for trouble, or the one delivered by the cultivated Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, about our bringing violence to other planets: “The Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.”

We need only examine another “alien invasion” feature in French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated Arrival (2016), which starred Amy Adams in a glowing performance as a linguist charged with translating an indecipherable alien language that could save the world from unintended destruction.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951): A Message for Mankind

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Klaatau (Michael Rennie: "We come in peace and with goodwill" in The Day the Earth Stood Still
Klaatau (Michael Rennie) speaks: “We come in peace and with goodwill,” in The Day the Earth Stood Still

The eerie sound of the theremin (two of them, in fact) begins this early fifties feature. The instruments are accompanied by two groaning Hammond organs and bass-pedal notes in the lower strings. Next, the brass section takes over with a muffled fanfare, suspiciously reminiscent of the opening theme to Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, famously used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968.

The sensation we get is of being taken for a ride through the vast regions of space. Slowly approaching what appears to be the Earth, the soundtrack starts to fade away, leaving behind a staccato accompaniment for piano. The music now follows the trajectory of a mysterious craft hurtling itself toward our atmosphere at tremendous speed.

All the while, the spacecraft is being tracked by military intelligence and radar. Foreign countries are also monitoring the ship’s progress, as its final destination is revealed: the city of Washington, D.C., capital of the United States of America — the bedrock of freedom and democracy in a troubled world.

Almost immediately, newspapers and radio and television commentators from around the globe broadcast the event in cautious but barely controlled concern for what this might mean. One radio personality boasts of the lovely spring weather amid the burgeoning tourist season.

Klaatu's ship circles over Washington, D.C.
Klaatu’s spaceship circles over Washington, D.C.

Without warning, the brightly lit form of the spacecraft hovers into view. It flies directly above the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, and the castle-like structures of the Smithsonian Institution. This startles the gathering crowd who follows the ship as it lands softly on a grassy lawn.

Army and military personnel, as well as tanks, jeeps, guns, and soldiers, have been dispatched to the scene. They assemble and surround the craft in nervous anticipation of what is to come. After a few tense moments, a walkway juts out from the body of the craft. An invisible door slides opens and out pops what looks like a male figure in silvery spacesuit and bubble helmet.

The visitor is an alien emissary from space who has come to Earth bearing only peace and goodwill. His sign of friendship and understanding, however, are taken for aggression when he draws what may be a weapon from inside his suit. An anxious soldier opens fire, hitting the helpless visitor in the shoulder, who instantly falls to the ground. The other soldiers approach the wounded visitor reticently, but just as suddenly Gort, a metallic eight-foot tall robot, comes into view. The soldiers and crowd are aghast at this incredible sight. The robot’s visor slowly opens and a powerful, laser-like beam is thrust upon the military’s tanks and weapons, immediately disintegrating them.

The giant robot Gort (Lock Martin)
The giant robot Gort (Lock Martin) aims his light beam at the military

Struggling to take control of the situation, the visitor halts the onslaught with a few carefully chosen words to the gigantic being. Recovering from the fall, he rises to his feet and retrieves the damaged “weapon.” The visitor then tells an uncomprehending soldier that it was a gift for the U.S. president. “With it, he could have studied life on the other planets.” So much for friendly greetings!

He also brings with him a dire warning which he intends to deliver at a proposed mass meeting of Earth’s leaders. But his intentions are misunderstood by a paranoid society unwilling to listen or to compromise. Impatient with the usual authority figures, including the president’s cynical secretary Mr. Harley, the gentlemanly alien named Klaatu escapes Walter Reade Hospital and his Washington, D.C., confines to learn for himself what makes these mysterious Earth creatures tick.

Michael Rennie is the cultivated, intellectually superior (and veddy British) Klaatu. He’s joined by sympathetic office worker Patricia Neal as Helen Benson — not exactly a love interest, but someone to play off of; Billy Gray (before his Father Knows Best period) as her inquisitive son Bobby; and soon-to-be popular sci-fi staple Hugh Marlowe (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) as Tom Stevens, who later fingers the alien for capture by the U.S. Army (darn those pesky diamonds!).

Mr. Carpenter (Rennie) & Bobby (Billy Gray) at Arlington National Cemetery
Mr. Carpenter (Rennie) & Bobby (Billy Gray) at Arlington National Cemetery

This is science fiction film noir at its finest, and one of the very best of its kind. Twentieth Century-Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still became an instant movie classic upon its release, which, despite the Cold War origins, has not aged a single day since its premiere.

Compare this flick to RKO’s The Thing from Another World, also from 1951, which took a more skeptical view of science by giving the “grunts” the last word. Here, military might bows to sheer brainpower in the person of the seemingly benign Klaatu. The central section has Klaatu rendering the Earth helpless by literally stopping it dead in its tracks — everyone and everything, that is, except planes in flight and ships at sea, along with hospitals, emergency wards, and the like.

The film gathers strength when Klaatu, after calling upon the friendly but eccentric Professor Barnhardt (the “smartest man in the world,” according to young Bobby), becomes a hunted fugitive. Gunned down while trying to make his escape, Klaatu charges Helen Benson with the survival of mankind. The fate of the world rests on her remembering three words: Klaatu barada nikto.

Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) speaks the immortal line: "Klaatu barada nikto"
Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) speaks the immortal line: “Klaatu barada nikto”

Veteran character actor Sam Jaffe plays the scholarly Professor Barnhardt in a proto-Einstein hairdo. His initial meeting with the alien, as well as Klaatu’s growing (but unrealized) friendship with Mrs. Benson and especially her son Bobby, are the movie’s closest encounters. However, jealousy and suspicion permeate the ethos where Mrs. Benson’s self-centered boyfriend Tom is concerned. Tom is representative of humankind as a whole, i.e., always in a hurry to move on and get ahead, but failing to look at the damage being done to those who fall behind. Sadly, this movie’s tenets are as true today as they were over six decades ago.

Others in the cast include Frank Conroy as Mr. Harley, Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee in the Andy of Mayberry series), Olan Soulé, Carleton Young, Fay Roope, Freeman Luske, and real-life news personalities Elmer Davis, Drew Pearson, and H.V. Kaltenborn. The role of the menacing robot Gort (a truly awesome creation) is played by seven-foot-four-inch Lock Martin, who was an usher at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He had to wear two different metallic costumes, one for the front view and one for the back, due to a conspicuous, non-photogenic zipper running down the length of each costume.

Former movie editor Robert Wise directed in clinical, almost documentary-style fashion, while film composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) provided the spare music score. As indicated above, his and fellow colleagues Miklos Rozsa and Dimitri Tiomkin’s use of the theremin gained widespread exposure for this exotic-sounding instrument.

Keep alert to the many Christian and allegorical references spread throughout the script — for example, Klaatu’s untimely death and miraculous “resurrection” near the end, and his earthly alias (“Mr. Carpenter,” get it?). The original short story, “Farewell to the Master,” by Harry Bates, was considerably altered for this movie adaptation, which is credited to screenwriter Edmund H. North (Flamingo Road, Young Man with a Horn).

The basic plot was semi-reworked for the excellent 1999 animated picture The Iron Giant, directed by Brad Bird and released by Warner Bros. Do stay away from the hopelessly inept 2008 Keanu Reeves/Scott Derrikson remake, or face obliteration! Late in his career, Michael Rennie made a well-received 1966 comeback in the two-part “The Keeper” episode for the Irwin Allen-created Lost in Space. Prior to that, Rennie starred as Harry Lime in the Anglo-American series The Third Man (1959-1965).

The film dares to ask: What is man’s place in the universe? And how can his destructive nature be contained? At this stage in our development, Klaatu’s apocryphal sendoff is worth repeating: “Should you extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. We will be waiting for your answer.”

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Godfather, Part II’ (1974) — The Dark Dream Lives On: A Tale of Two Men

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Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II
Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II (Paramount Pictures)

At three hours and twenty minutes, The Godfather, Part II is almost as long as David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind, but not nearly as funny. Taking his cue from the financial juggernaut the first film went on to become, director Francis Ford Coppola decided that a sequel to Paramount’s tremendously successful The Godfather should be more of “a companion piece,” with flashbacks to the early life of young Vito Corleone and fast-forwards to the new/old godfather, i.e., his son Michael.

As a consequence, Coppola’s triumphant continuation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather saga is more than just excessive padding: it looks backward in time to the story of the orphaned Vito Andolini, who flees a violence ridden Sicily and a blood feud with the local Mafia don to come to New York City at the turn of the century. The boy Vito winds up on Ellis Island, where his surname is changed to Corleone by the immigration officers. He grows up in poverty on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and eventually settles down with a pretty Sicilian girl in order to have a family of his own.

During one of several flashback sequences, which comprise three-quarters of an hour of the movie’s total length, we learn how Vito faces down the dreaded Don Fanucci (played in oily fashion by the formidable Gaston Moschin) so as to take control of his life and neighborhood. It’s at this crucial point in the drama that Vito (as well as the viewer) realizes he is able to carry out Fanucci’s murder in methodical, calculatedly cold-blooded fashion. The hood’s death solidifies Vito’s standing in the community as a person to be feared, which ultimately leads to his becoming a “respected” member of underworld society.

We then flash forward to the dawn of a new don, Michael Corleone (an intensely driven Al Pacino, never better), and his round-the-clock efforts to salvage his family’s Nevada holdings from the clutches of a soft-spoken yet ruthless gangster named Hyman Roth (Actor’s Studio co-founder Lee Strasberg in his movie debut, and one of Pacino’s early mentors), who has one of the picture’s best remembered lines: “Michael, we’re bigger than US Steel.” At the same time, Michael has to simultaneously confront the possibility of a traitor in his midst, as well as deal with his failed marriage to perpetually skeptical wife Kay (the returning Diane Keaton).

Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) & Michael: "We're bigger than US Steel"
Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) & Michael Corleone: “We’re bigger than US Steel”

Every scene is a comment on, and a ruminative reflection of, comparable ones to be found in The Godfather. Take, for instance, the opening first communion ceremony for Michael’s son Anthony, juxtaposed against sister Connie’s wedding in Part I — in the first film, the family has come together, whereas in Part II they are splitting apart; or how about the botched strangling of Frankie Pentangeli inside the Rosato brothers’ bar, as compared to Luca Brasi’s death by choking in the presence of Sollozzo and Bruno Tattaglia’s similar establishment.

We could go on and on, but the point has been made: this is one of Hollywood’s most provocative and, you’ll pardon the expression, best executed modern gangster epics. Among the difficulties the main characters encounter in Part II are outright lies, blatant betrayals, family treachery, duplicity and double- and triple-crossings, with enough chokings, drownings, stabbings, and garrotings to fill ten crime novels! In the end, the godfather is left alone in the garden, with nothing to do but contemplate his desultory lifestyle and lost dreams.

There is spellbinding direction by Coppola which never flags, not even for a moment. High production values are maintained from the first feature, thanks to returning production designer Dean Tavoularis, art director Angelo Graham, costume designer Theadora Van Runkle, and expert sound montage and re-recording by Walter Murch. In addition, the hiring of a supremely talented cast of actors make Part II that rarity of movie sequels — damned if it isn’t better than the original, in spite of more than a few lapses in narrative logic (what’s the story with those Rosato brothers, anyway?).

And speaking of casting, the sequel spotlights a gallery of richly detailed performances, in particular one by the dour Robert Duvall as world weary consigliere Tom Hagen, struggling to understand Michael’s secretive ways; Talia Shire (Francis Coppola’s sister in real life) as Michael’s baby sister Connie, who makes a spectacle of herself with new boyfriend Merle Johnson (the real name of actor Troy Donahue, as Merle) at her nephew Anthony’s first communion; John Cazale (suave, in a black mustache and tux) as older brother Fredo and his shady dealings with Roth’s Sicilian “messenger boy,” Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese), receiving the kiss of death from Michael for his troubles; and the stoic Robert De Niro, excellent as young Vito Corleone, who copied Marlon Brando’s mannerisms and hoarse vocalization, while picking up an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the process (and, no, unlike Brando he did not turn Oscar down).

Don Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro)
Don Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) in The Godfather Part II

Others offering huge support include playwright-turned-actor Michael V. Gazzo (A Hatful of Rain) in a standout performance as old-timer Frankie Pentangeli, whose demise in a Roman-style bathtub is just one of many so-called highlights. Gazzo’s role was “invented” by the screenwriters due to the producers dropping Richard Castellano from the film — his salary demands simply couldn’t be met and proved more of a hindrance than a benefit. Instead, we have Irish-Italian actor B. Kirby Jr. (City Slickers, Good Morning Vietnam) as a slimmed-down version of the youthful Pete Clemenza, along with G.D. Spradlin as the garrulous Senator Geary (who gets his comeuppance for badmouthing Michael’s “family”), Richard Bright returning as Al Neri, Joe Spinell as Willy Cicci, and Morgana King, Leopoldo Trieste, Amerigo Tot, Fay Spain, Abe Vigoda, Gianni Russo, James Caan, the incomparable Harry Dean Stanton as an FBI man, Danny Aiello as Tony Rosato, and Peter Donat as Senator Questadt.

Veteran director Roger Corman puts in another of his patented “guest shots” as a member of the investigating committee looking into Michael’s Cosa Nostra connections. Gordon Willis’ dark-hued photography is back, along with Nino Rota’s lush score, supplemented in part by Carmine Coppola, the director’s father, who incorporated a delightfully quaint Neapolitan light opera, Senza Mamma, into the sonic mix. This being a Coppola family gathering, the score for this little divertissement was written by (you guessed it) the director’s maternal grandfather, Francesco Pennino.

The entire Senza Mamma sequence involves a 30-something Vito Corleone enjoying a rare night on the town with best friend Genco Abbandando (Frank Sivero). They are seen watching a performance, in authentic Neapolitan dialect, of a local melodrama in a crowded theater. The part of the singer, who holds a pistol to his forehead threatening to shoot himself at the news of his mother’s passing, was sung and acted by tenor Livio Giorgi. As a footnote to this scene, the backstage manager was interpreted by none other than Metropolitan Opera basso Ezio Flagello.

A five-star family affair all the way, to be certain. Would we lie to you?

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Godfather, Part I’ (1972) — The Dark of Side of the American Dream

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Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) speaks to Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto)
Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) speaks to Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) in The Godfather, Part I

“I believe in America,” an unseen voice exclaims. After which, a dull, amber-colored light illuminates the person speaking: a man with a comb-over in his mid-50s, dressed in a black tuxedo and winged collar. The camera now begins to pull back — slowly and deliberately — matching the cadences of the man’s speech. The speaker resumes his story. “America has made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the American fashion.”

While he is speaking, the camera continues to spend an inordinate amount of time studying the man’s features: his dark eyes, his pursed lips, his foreign accent, his distressed tone, and his obvious discomfort at having to beg for a favor from the dreaded Don Vito Corleone. The man telling his tale of woe is the sorrowful undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), who informs Don Corleone of how his beloved daughter was attacked and nearly raped by two young men, one of whom was her boyfriend. “She resisted. She kept her honor,” he exclaims, his eyes glowing with pride, but, as Bonasera then reveals, “they beat her like an animal.” He starts to weep.

Seconds later, with the camera pulling back, the blurred, shadowy form of a figure is seen at left. The figure signals with his right hand for one of the listeners in the room to provide the undertaker with some refreshment. Continuing to pull back, the camera now shows Bonasera in his chair growing smaller and smaller before our eyes, while the figure at left starts to take shape behind a desk, looming larger and larger in comparison.

And so begins one of the most influential Hollywood films of the seventies, with the cautiously chosen words of the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera making a desperate plea for justice in Don Corleone’s inner sanctum. This scene, so memorable in its outcome and so carefully constructed and paced by the actors and crew, sets the stage for what is to come. It broadcasts the undisputed fact of the godfather’s hold on men, only to see that hold slip away and deteriorate with the unraveling his realm by others.

Francis Ford Coppola’s directing career took off like a rocket as a result of this film’s unprecedented popularity and success. It made him and Paramount Pictures a bigger fortune than either of them could ever have imagined. Mario Puzo’s pulp novel The Godfather – not exactly high art or intellectually challenging as great literature – came to passionate life in Coppola’s now-classic depiction of the Sicilian-American underworld (we know what he meant, even though the word “Mafia” is never uttered).

Sonny (James Caan), Don Corleone (Brando), Michael (Al Pacino) & Fredo (John Cazale)
Sonny (James Caan), Don Corleone (Brando), Michael (Al Pacino) & Fredo (John Cazale)

Postwar America is the setting for this violent tale of Don Corleone, the godfather of the title, who lords it over his crime syndicate as one of the heads of the five New York “families.” Gambling, prostitution, murder incorporated, judges in their hip pockets, and nefarious bribery schemes are the syndicate’s life blood. The men who work for this syndicate are bound to each other by their adherence to a code of honor. But incredibly, the godfather refuses to dabble in illegal drugs, which makes Don Corleone out to be a beggar among thieves. His unequivocal stand against dope dealing lands him and his family in hot water with the opposing forces longing to take over his territory. And honor to a code, as we learn in the end, can both be adhered to or not.

Played by the legendary method-actor Marlon Brando, the Don is power personified: a lift of his hand, a cock of the head, a mere whisper into someone’s ear, and his slightest whim is dutifully obeyed and carried out, especially by head enforcer Luca Brasi (former wrestler Lenny Montana). Both are giants among mortals, or so they are meant to appear. But it’s all an illusion, wiped away by the necessities of their chosen profession.

Brando won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar (he refused it, however, sending in his place an actress posing as a Native American) for his subtle, tour de force performance as Don Corleone, even though he’s relegated to what is essentially a supporting role. For a film that concerns itself with such disreputable types as hoods and gangsters, Brando is still able to find the human element in many a situation. For instance, his playful handling of grandson Anthony in the garden scene late in the picture, where he places an orange peel into his mouth and musses his hair up like a scarecrow to frighten the little boy with a monstrous visage, only to comfort the crying child a split second later.

Equally deserving of mention is Al Pacino (note the fire in his eyes as he talks) as youngest son Michael. It’s been said that Francis Coppola’s film is about the dark side of the American dream, and there are many examples throughout where this dictum has been carried out with startling efficiency (e.g., the decapitated horse’s head, the bullet through Moe Green’s eye). While true enough in practice, the real crux of the drama (with a screenplay by Coppola and author Puzo) is the unquestioned loyalty and devotion Michael feels towards his father, despite Michael’s distaste for dad’s “work.” Michael proves his love by taking over the family business after Don Corleone is seriously injured in a botched assassination attempt — perpetrated by the shifty-eyed Virgil Sollozzo (a cagey Al Lettieri) — and after hot-headed brother Sonny (James Caan, equally hot-tempered) is gunned down at a Long Island toll booth.

Michael (Al Pacino) listens to his father (Marlon Brando)
Michael (Al Pacino) listens to his father (Marlon Brando)

So many quotable lines (“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Leave the gun, take the cannolis,” and “Never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking”), so many individualized portraits (i.e., Clemenza, Tessio, the Tattaglias, Apollonia, Don Tommasino, Fabrizio), it’s one of those pictures that demands repeated viewings as well as our undivided attention. No matter how many times you’ve seen The Godfather, there are always fresh insights to be savored, over and over again: the opening trumpet solo — mournful, longing, full of untold regret; right-hand man and ex-cop, Al Neri (Richard Bright), closing the door on Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton); Brando’s tearful breakdown (“Look how they massacred my boy”) upon viewing the dead Sonny’s shattered features at Bonasera’s funeral parlor; that ironic, masterfully orchestrated finale whereby Michael all-but wipes the slate clean of his father’s foes while standing stoically as godfather to his sister Connie’s child; and many more.

With a fine ensemble cast, including Robert Duvall as the family consigliere Tom Hagen, Talia Shire (Coppola’s real-life sister) as Connie, John Cazale as Michael’s older brother Fredo, Richard Castellano as the fat Pete Clemenza, Abe Vigoda (Fish in Barney Miller) as Tessio, Alex Rocco as Moe Green, and John Marley, Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte, Al Martino, Morgana King, Gianni Russo, Vito Scotti, Simonetta Stefanelli, Angelo Infanti as Fabrizio, and Gabriele Torrei (uncredited) as Enzo the nervous baker. The striking cinematography is by the late Gordon Willis, with incredibly detailed production designs by Dean Tavoularis, and of course that instantly recognizable film theme by Nino Rota.

Wedding scene from The Godfather, Part I (INTERFOTO / GRAZIANERI)
Wedding scene from The Godfather, Part I (INTERFOTO / GRAZIANERI)

Speaking of film scores, there are two romantic ballads featured in the picture: one, the pop song “I Have But One Heart,” sung by Al Martino at Connie’s wedding, was originally published in 1945 and recorded by Vic Damone, with music written by Johnny Farrow and lyrics by Marty Symes; the other number, the so-labeled “Love Theme from The Godfather” — more familiarly known as “Speak Softly Love” — was composed by Nino Rota, with lyrics by Larry Kusik. Given an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score of 1973, Rota was disqualified from competition when it was learned that “Speak Softly Love” was previously used by him for a 1958 movie called Fortunella.

Need we say more?

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Chinatown’ (1974) — What Happens to Nosey Fellows

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Jake (Jack Nicholson) and Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) in Chinatown
Jake (Jack Nicholson) chatting with Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) in Chinatown

In the same year that Paramount was touting The Godfather, Part II as a Best Picture Oscar contender, the studio was cognizant enough of its potential to release Polish-born director Roman Polanski’s brilliant crime drama, Chinatown (1974). With a masterful, Academy Award-winning screenplay by writer Robert Towne (The Last Detail, Shampoo), superb art direction by W. Stewart Campbell (The Right Stuff), and finely detailed production values (Robert Evans is credited as the producer), it took the cinema world by storm. Movie critics fell over themselves with high praise for the venture.

And no wonder: that one-word title alone is enough to tell the tawdry tale of a well-to-do — and well-heeled — private gumshoe named J.J. Gittes (Jake to his “friends”), smartly played by Jack Nicholson (in a star-making role), and his seemingly innocuous involvement with Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway, easily his equal), the wife of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer for the Los Angeles Water and Power Department.

After a series of red herrings and blind alley-ways, Jake unwittingly stumbles onto a deadly game of cover-up by underhanded city officials, snot-nosed (and violent) gangster types, trigger-happy country folk, and wise-cracking police officers, all of whom know a whole lot more than they’re letting on about the dirty dealings over at Water and Power.

Gittes talking to Noah Cross (John Huston)
Jake Gittes talking to Noah Cross (John Huston)

As the fabulously wealthy Noah Cross casually informs Mr. Gittes, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.” Truer words were never spoken. Cross is played by a smarmy but outlandishly entertaining John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo), who is outstanding in a secondary role. Nicholson looks simply smashing in his immaculately tailored suits, wide-brimmed hats, and silk bathrobe (the film’s costume designs were by Anthea Sylbert, an Oscar nominee).

And so is that snazzy roadster, too, but the fashionable getups and period vehicles are all for show. Indeed, that’s the dirty little secret of Chinatown: despite the obvious finery and ostentatious trappings of the rich and famous, the filth begins to pile up fast — to be honest, a little too fast for poor Jake to keep up with. After one too many revelations, the most startling of which will catch most viewers off guard, his carefully calculated world comes crashing down around him. Jake finds himself at sea in a hum-zinger of an ending, a tragic denouement of monumental (as well as Oedipal) proportions.

With their masks lifted and the dirty laundry left hanging on the line for all to see, the characters are revealed as the bizarre grotesques they’ve now become. It’s nihilism writ large, as it were.

Most impressive are the camera angles, which happen to be the work of cinematographer John A. Alonzo (Scarface), who took his cues from Polanski and shot from behind and over Jake’s shoulder. The feeling we get is of being dragged against one’s will into his unseemly realm, to see for ourselves what Jake is about to discover and, hopefully, unravel. We’re accomplices — maybe even voyeurs — witnessing the complete disintegration of everything Mr. “Gits” (as Cross calls him) holds dear.

Faye Dunaway as Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown
Faye Dunaway as Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown

Everything about this classy feature, however, is top drawer, including the dynamite cast. Best of all is Nicholson’s Jake, a fellow too smart to get caught with his pants down, but too dumb to prevent it from happening. Dunaway is so gorgeous to look at, and her arguments so compelling and strong, that we’re immediately taken in by her conviction — a true femme fatale in every sense of the term, but to her own detriment. Her ultimate fate is hinted at, in one of the many superbly engineered and handled scenes, midway through the drama.

Perry Lopez brings just the right touch of sarcasm mixed with disdain to his role as the harried police inspector Lt. Escobar — always one step ahead of his quarry, but wisely taking two steps back to reflect upon the situation at hand. Another major character is the physical locations themselves, which contribute mightily to the overall sense that something’s not right in this part of town (the film was mostly shot in and around the San Francisco Bay area).

Also featuring John Hillerman, Richard Bakalyan, Roy Jensen, Bruce Glover, sweaty Burt Young (Rocky) as Curly, and James Hong, Beulah Quo, Nandu Hinds as Jake’s secretary Sophie, young Diane Ladd as the mystery girl, and Joe Mantell as Jake’s partner Walsh, who gets to deliver the last word and closing “benediction” on the story’s outcome:

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Polanksi appears briefly as the nasty little hood that slices Nicholson’s nose with a knife. As he goes about his distasteful business, Polanski utters another memorable line: “You are a very nosey fellow, kitty cat. You know what happens to nosey fellows?” OUCH! We do, indeed.

The Hood with the Knife (Roman Polanski)
The Little Hood with the Knife (Roman Polanski)

The excellent and spare score is by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith, a gem of a composition that perfectly encapsulates this feature’s melancholy noir aspects. The film was cleverly recycled as the basis for Gore Verbinski’s animated feature Rango (2011), which includes a hilariously sinister takeoff on the Noah Cross character as voiced by Ned Beatty.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Blade Runner’ (1982) — Windows to the Soul: Thoughts on Being Human in a Postmodern World

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Blade Runner - The All-Seeing Eye
Blade Runner – The All-Seeing Eye

Early in the 21st Century, THE TYRELL CORPORATION advanced Robot evolution into the NEXUS phase — a being virtually identical to a human — known as a Replicant..

The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them.

Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets.

After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on Earth — under penalty of death.

Special police squads — BLADE RUNNER UNITS — had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant.

This was not called execution.

It was called retirement.

LOS ANGELES

NOVEMBER, 2019

 *               *                 *

With the scrolling of Blade Runner’s opening title-sequence above, the stage is set for one of science fiction’s most intelligently written and elaborately conceived screen epics. Since its initial 1982 release, director Ridley Scott’s vision of an over-populated Los Angeles (“Hong Kong on a very bad day”) has been widely emulated but never “replicated,” if you’ll pardon the expression.

Stunning production design, concept art, and exemplary art direction, that’s Blade Runner for you, a film that’s been influencing the look of sci-fi fantasy flicks — and those with apocalyptic impulses — for more than a generation, to include the likes of cyberpunk (The Matrix series), crime drama (Se7en), action-adventure (Cloud Atlas), Japanese anime (Akira, Ghost in the Shell), Pixar animation (Wall-E), video games (Cypher, Rise of the Dragon), and other forms of mass entertainment.

Warner Bros. had a tough time figuring it all out, though. Amazingly, the studio marketed the picture as a combination murder mystery-cum-film noir detective story, with Harrison Ford’s monotonous voiceover as a perfunctory commentary on the action. The redundant narration was later dropped, much to everyone’s relief, as were a few reshuffled scenes, for the re-released 1993 director’s cut. Blade Runner was later restored to its present glory between the years 2002 and 2007, which is now the preferred way to see this mind-boggling spectacular.

Based on Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it’s set in a rain-drenched, futuristic Los Angeles in which, among other things, the denizens have adopted a newfangled street slang (anyone for Esperanto?).

We will attempt to examine this highly influential and ground-breaking production through its concept of the eyes as windows to the soul, and how this concept correlates (or not) to both the human and non-human experiences depicted in the story.

Hell on Earth

Blade Runner - Opening Scene: Los Angeles, November 2019
Blade Runner – Opening Scene: Los Angeles, November 2019

In the director’s commentary and making-of features that accompany the deluxe Final Cut edition of Blade Runner, the consensus of all those talking heads was that the all-seeing, all-knowing eye is everywhere at once, one of many deliberate references to George Orwell’s 1984 that present themselves throughout the picture.

From the opening panorama of a postmodern Los Angeles skyline, with its gargantuan flames and shafts of blast-furnaces that billow up from below ground — a frightening apparition of an earthbound inferno — to the aerial view of flying cars, or “spinners,” encircled by beams of light that stream by the endless landscape, we’re in the presence of a vastness of scale unimaginable to the mortal mind.

In the scene immediately following, those red and yellow flames are reflected, left to right, inside the backdrop of an enormous eye, a stupendous close-up shot that encompasses the entire length of the widescreen field. They speak of dreams kept carefully under wraps, burning desires still raging within the eye of the beholder. Is this beholder Big Brother himself, watching cautiously from a vantage point atop what looks to be a pyramid-like structure? No, he’s only human, an ex-Blade Runner named Holden (Morgan Paull), a functionary of the massive Tyrell Corporation which the structure represents.

From the safety of his office window, Holden peers out into the distance at the spectacle of fireballs and spinners. He is smoking a cigarette, his contribution to the city’s already polluted environment. Ceiling fans circulate the smoky air above him. Holden is about to administer the Voigt-Kampff test, a type of empathy assessment given to all new Tyrell Corporation employees, one of whom enters the room. The employee’s name is Leon (Brion James).

Sitting down at the table opposite his examiner, we see a glimpse of Leon’s enlarged eye, distended by the Voigt-Kampff machine to almost half the size of Holden’s initial gaze (the distinction between Leon’s smaller eye and Holden’s larger one also indicates the lack of something extra: a human soul). The machine measures the reaction of its test-subject through a series of questions designed to provoke an emotional response. Depending on the degree of emotion recorded, one can determine if the individual is a synthetic android (i.e., a Replicant) or a human being.

What it records as well is how humanity remains separated into first- and second-class citizens, despite the progress that human rights advocacy has made. Because of the deteriorating climate, the elite of humanity have departed the planet. Those unable to leave and who remain behind are from the lowest echelons of society and, ergo, are treated as such. They are carefully watched over (or spied upon) by the ever-vigilant police force.

Leon (Brion James) taking the Voigt-Kampff test with Holden (Morgan Paull)
Leon (Brion James) taking the Voigt-Kampff test with Holden (Morgan Paull)

As the test progresses, Leon becomes more and more agitated. His evasive comebacks to such trite queries as “You know what a turtle is?” and “You like it there?” — referring to his shoddy place of residence — provide Holden with an opening: “Describe in single words the good things that come into your mind about your mother.”

“My mother?” Leon inquires, his eyes narrowing in focus. “Let me tell you about my mother …” He then fires a pistol pointblank at Holden from underneath the table, and finishes him off just as the examiner goes crashing through the wall (one of the deleted scenes shows Holden in a hospital isolation ward, still alive but experiencing agonizing pain and suffering).

Leon is one of four escaped Replicants — the others are Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), and Pris (Daryl Hannah), a “basic pleasure model” — who have fled their Off-world confinement in a slave-labor camp to make the dangerous trip back to Earth. Originally there were six Replicants, but two lost their lives during the escape. The four remaining Replicants are on the run, as the opening titles suggest, and have been dutifully marked for “retirement.” We learn, too, that because of their four-year life span the only hope they have is to return to their point of origin, to find the Maker and convince him to extend their lives.

Befitting the dark themes associated with “urban film noir,” the principal action takes place primarily at night and during a perpetual rainstorm. For all we know, this could be fallout from acid rain or the early stages of a nuclear winter (e.g., the scene of Zhora’s shooting and death). But no matter what the weather conditions seem to dictate, they occur within a blighted megalopolis where, despite all those blast furnaces, the sun never shines.

Implicit as well, in the perceptive screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, is a hint of Schopenhauer’s philosophy whereby nighttime becomes the realm of intrinsic reality.

In the Land of the Blind

Leon links up with Roy Batty, his fellow Nexus 6 runaway, and together they begin their search for the Maker. They pay a visit to Hannibal Chew (James Hong), the Chinese craftsman who plies his eye-making trade in a frosty deep freezer.

Chew (James Hong) is questioned by Roy Batty
Chew (James Hong) is questioned by Roy Batty (left), while Leon rips open his coat

Toying with the old man, Leon places cryogenically frozen eye samples on Chew’s shoulder — the point being that Chew may have missed detection before now, but he won’t escape their notice this time around, another analogy to the Big Brother theme, as are the enormous digital faces on the ever-present billboards of oriental women popping treats into their red-lipped mouths.

The trio’s dialogue is clipped and dry. Chew is unable to assist them in prolonging their lives: “I don’t know such stuff, I just do eyes,” he insists briefly, with teeth chattering as he speaks. Chew then asks a question of Roy: “You Nexus, huh? I design your eyes.”

“Chew, if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes!” Batty confides. From their conversation Roy learns of the existence of J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), a soft-spoken genetic engineer who could lead them to the elusive Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the head of the corporation that bears his name — the Maker and all-mighty father figure.

Tyrell is holed up in his office, which happens to be the master bedroom in which he lives, works, and sleeps. The décor is ancient Egyptian. In one corner sits an artificial owl who blinks with luminous eyes; they impart the outward show of wisdom, as in the saying, “As wise as an owl.” Wisdom, however, has eluded the Maker, for Tyrell sports impossibly thick spectacles. Was his purpose in wearing them to make his eyes more prominent, or merely to boost his image by giving the appearance of greatness?

Paradoxically, the Maker is myopic, which betrays his lack of understanding for the biomechanical beings he has created. He is blind to the inevitable truth: that one day the Replicants will insist on living beyond their four-year span. This is why the pyramid-shaped edifice that houses the Tyrell Corporation, reminiscent of the Masonic temple of the all-seeing eye, is lopped off at the top: it’s only partially formed and, therefore, lacking in completeness — much as the Replicants themselves are incomplete. They have superior bodies and minds, but lack the necessary longevity.

Of what use are brains, looks, and brawn if they’re gone in the blink of an eye? “The light that burns twice as bright,” Tyrell declares to Batty, “burns half as long.” His efforts at comforting the Replicant, however, fall on deaf ears. Still, the Maker’s own lack of completeness is reflected in his creations, be they office buildings or artificial beings.

Early on in the film, Tyrell summons Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a hunter of Replicants, to the front office to perform the Voigt-Kampff test on his latest creation: the beautiful Rachael (Sean Young), an advanced model and possible Nexus 8 series but introduced as Tyrell’s niece. Once again, we look deeply into the test subject’s eyes (to wit, her soul) by way of a question-and-answer session — this one taking over a hundred questions to get to the desired outcome.

Tyrell Corporation building
Tyrell Corporation building

Since Tyrell lives and works in his office, his bedroom can be both symbolic of sleep and, in many instances, romance and love. It can also represent a place of procreation — specifically, the act of procreating. It was here, in his bedroom office, that Tyrell created the Replicants. And it’s here that the strongest and most intelligent of the lot — Roy Batty — returns, much like the Old Testament Prodigal Son, to his place of origin, in a showdown with the Maker: Roy, the embodiment of the fallen angel Lucifer, in direct opposition to Tyrell, or God the father.

But Roy needs direct access to the Maker, an extremely difficult man to “get” to (there’s a double meaning implied in his choice of words), especially after Leon is shot through the head by Rachael, who upon being told that she herself is a Replicant has fled the Tyrell Corporation and followed Deckard to a crowded street.

Prior to Leon’s demise, the Replicant attempts to dispose of Deckard by putting his fingers into the bounty hunter’s eye sockets, thus telegraphing to the viewer Batty’s immediate intentions for Tyrell, as well as his eventual fate. Similarly, Leon also spouts the same last words — “Time to die” — that Roy will use in his death scene at the end.

In the meantime, Pris is sent on ahead to gain Sebastian’s confidence. She meets him in front of his apartment complex, the stately Bradbury Building in downtown L.A. Once he’s accepted her as his friend, Pris and Sebastian are joined by Roy, who pops in “unexpectedly,” so to speak.

Sebastian is only 25, but he looks much older than his years. He tells the Replicants that he suffers from the Methuselah Syndrome, a degenerative disease that involves rapid aging. The irony here is that a human has undergone biological transformation via an altered or deformed, or even malfunctioning gene, which renders him old before his time; conversely, the artificial beings, the Replicants, have been purposely bred to have shortened lives, but with no apparent signs of aging.

Pris (Daryl Hannah) with Sebastian (William Sanderson)
Pris (Daryl Hannah) with Sebastian (William Sanderson)

Replicants are former test tube babies who have outgrown the test tube and are now seeking knowledge of the world on their own. But the only knowledge they’ve gained in their shortened existence is that life is hard, all labor is drudgery, and that it will end for them at age four (“Built-in fail-safe device”). The following dialogue encapsulates all the sadness, anguish, and poignancy shared by both humans and Replicants:

Sebastian: “My glands. They grow old too fast.”

Pris: “Is that why you’re still on earth?”

Sebastian: “Yeah, I couldn’t pass the medical.”

And then, a little while later, when Roy Batty enters the picture:

Roy: “We’ve got a lot in common.”

Sebastian: “What do you mean?”

Roy: “Similar problems.”

Pris: “Accelerated decrepitude.”

Sebastian: “I don’t know much about biomechanics, Roy, I wish I did.”

Roy: “If we don’t find help soon, Pris hasn’t got long to live. We can’t allow that.”

(From the Blade Runner movie screenplay – Final script: February 23, 1981)

Roy picks out two large glass eyeballs and places them over his own eyes (in imitation of the Maker, it is presumed). It’s his version of the Voigt-Kampff test. He is now the one peering into Sebastian’s “soul” for a response to his request for aid. Through a pickup game of chess in which Roy discovers that Tyrell is Sebastian’s opponent, he convinces the young man, who’s become sympathetic to their cause, to pique the Maker’s interest in an unusual chess move. This is enough to allow the two of them entry into Tyrell’s inner sanctum. Tyrell expresses surprise that his creation didn’t come sooner.

Significantly, Batty kisses the Maker before he kills him. Those familiar with Shakespeare’s Othello may recall the Moor’s final speech that closes the tragedy: “I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this. Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.” Of course, Batty has no plans to “kill” himself. That would go against his nature, as well as the raison d’être for his visit to Tyrell: to prolong his existence.

“I want more life, fucker,” he snaps at the Maker, visibly disturbed (this was later changed to “father”). “You were made as well as we could make you,” answers Tyrell. “You’re quite a prize. Revel in your time.”

Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) meets his Maker (Joe Turkel)
Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) meets his Maker, Dr. Tryrell (Joe Turkel)

Tyrell’s fate at the hands of his greatest creation is the most significant episode in the drama: it’s the highpoint of their confrontation, and a sweeping arc that takes us directly to the Maker’s execution (or the death of their God) by the plucking of his eyes from their sockets, followed swiftly by the crushing of Tyrell’s head. He will no longer see, he will no longer think; he’ll be blinded, as Oedipus was blinded by his own hand, for his numerous faults (Samson, too, was blinded after he lost his strength, a physical representation of his having lost his way).

There will be no more Replicants, no more slave labor by second-class citizens once the last of the artificial humans have outlived their usefulness. The Maker’s pet owl, synonymous with Wotan’s ravens, watches silently close by. Powerless to intervene, the owl can only blink its huge orbs at the murder of its master: they can no longer see or even comprehend the significance of Roy’s act. This definitive end to the Maker, however, and his capitalistic schemes neither fulfills nor satisfies the desperate Batty. Instead, it horrifies an innocent onlooker, Sebastian, who makes a move to flee the terrible scene. Roy corners and murders him, leaving the corpse behind as evidence of his foul deed.

The Man with One Eye is King

Sebastian was the only person allowed to accompany Roy on his way up to Tyrell’s office. But now, Roy is the lone occupant of the elevator that takes him down to street level and away from the scene of the crime: first, his lofty ascent to Heaven; and then, his descent from the heavens back down to Earth, and to an earthly Hell of the humans’ making. The image of Dante’s Inferno runs rampant throughout Blade Runner, and returns again for one last go-around.

Blade Runner billboard
Blade Runner — spinner and billboard

With its promise of a hopeful future, Off-world becomes the new Paradise, which we hear about constantly in the background and foreground of shots that defy the imagination. Immense flying advertisements, bloated dirigibles, and billboards with digital screens broadcast the wonders of a new life in distant, Off-world colonies. Let the biomechanical Replicants slave away for the limited time they’re on the planet’s surface; as for the “real” humans, i.e., those few with means and the wherewithal to leave this nightmare, they will live out their existence somewhere in Paradise (or Paradise Lost, whichever comes first).

Turning to Roy’s final speech, I don’t know of a more fitting end to all that has gone before than this poetic farewell to life. The entire film’s themes are summed up in his brief apotheosis to an undeserving mankind. It begins as soon as Deckard takes his first potshot at Roy’s form. Having wounded him, Roy reacts by letting out a wolf’s howl. Baying at the ceiling, one last song before dying, he grabs hold of a rusty nail and thrusts it into his right hand. Can he still feel pain or hurt? Can he experience sorrow? He runs down the hallway, occasionally poking his head through the wall to spout a few pearls of wisdom: “Four, five, how to stay alive … Six, seven, go to Hell, go to Heaven.” When you have only minutes left to live, you make the most of what little time remains.

In a way, Roy sacrifices what life he has left to save Deckard, the bounty hunter, or “Blade Runner” of the title, who’s been on the lookout for him since the beginning. A life for a life: “Kinship,” Batty shouts triumphantly, as he suddenly grabs hold of Deckard’s arm with his own impaled hand. Seconds before, Deckard had spat at him in rebuke. Yet he prevents Deckard from taking the “fall” for Roy’s crimes. Batty’s piercing blue eyes now glower at Deckard: they are lit from within, with the flickering flame of life ticking by. Only seconds left to his redemption, and he’ll be no more.

Roy Batty glowers at Deckard
Roy Batty glowers at Deckard

Roy acquires his humanity by empathizing with mankind. He first learns about empathy from Sebastian’s example, who unfortunately had to die after witnessing the murder of the Maker. He next mourned Pris’ death, fingering her wound and smearing her blood on his lips. Indeed, the entire film is an homage to humanity, represented by its eyes, the organs by which humans (and their human imitators, the Replicants) reveal themselves to the world, learn from the world and, in the final analysis, grow to attain the knowledge required to survive in the world, while passing on that knowledge to those deemed worthy enough to benefit from it. This is what humans do, and this is the omnipresent theme of Blade Runner: the exploration of one’s humanity and its eventual attainment:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe …” Roy announces descriptively to Deckard. “Attack ships on fire off the shoulders of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments … will be lost in time, like … tears in rain … Time to die …”

Roy has “seen things,” which indicates he has personally witnessed, and experienced, these marvels. “I watched c-beams glitter in the dark” is a phrase that encompasses an image of the night sky, enveloping the massive horizon with flashes of light, a metaphor for death as it makes its stealthy approach.

Finally the last phrase, “all those moments will be lost in time,” indicative of time running out: “tears” can obliterate sight, since one cannot see when one’s eyes are filled with tears. This is the physiological manifestation of blurred vision — “seeing” equates to “knowing,” or gaining the knowledge of things … of the world … and of miracles (such as those Roy describes above). Tears mixed with rain, tears in rain. The rain continues to pour down over Roy’s face, washing the tears away. Again, the analogy is to Roy’s accumulated knowledge, now irretrievable, being lost forever.

His sins have been washed away, a purging of his tortured soul. These words from Ezekiel 18:20, in the American Standard Version of the Bible, read as follows: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die: the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son.” Both Roy’s and Tyrell’s misdeeds have been forgiven. The sins of the father will not be passed on to his son (or sons), and vice versa.

Our final glimpse of Batty is the closing of his eyes and the ritualized lowering of his head, both an unconscious act and, quite possibly, a deliberate bow to Deckard, a nod of understanding that knowledge has been passed on from Roy to Deckard, a human being (or so we believe), who can learn, perhaps benefit from his proximity to this most extraordinary of beings: Roy Batty, a “human” at last through empathy; and Rick Deckard, the pure fool made wise through pity and compassion for a non-human, Roy.

"Time to die..."
Roy Batty: “Time to die…”

No more tears, no more seeing, no more watching. He’s asleep now. The spontaneous release of the dove Roy carries with him flies away to the sky; it’s the launching of Batty’s soul — or whatever it is that Replicants have that equates to a human soul, leaving the physical boundaries of terra firma and flying upward to freedom. Perhaps back to the Tannhäuser Gate.

But the story does not end with Roy’ death. There’s one more Replicant to go: the beautiful Rachael. She waits in Deckard’s apartment, but is she alive, is she dead? Did the lame Blade Runner with the walking cane, Gaff (Edward James Olmos), who revels in making matchstick figures and animal origami, dispose of her body before Deckard’s arrival, before he’s had a chance to save her life?

In Ridley Scott’s Final Cut of the film, there is no “happy ending” for the lovers, only the expectation that by running away the former Blade Runner can have a life outside his distasteful profession, i.e., that of a killer of runaway androids. Having been redeemed by Roy’s death, Deckard embarks on his own journey: to freedom, to liberation? To one of the Off-world colonies? We can only surmise.

But before he and Rachael can get away, Deckard spots something on the floor. It’s a tinfoil figure of a unicorn, the same mythological creature that appeared in his dream. The voiceover reiterates Gaff’s spoken lines, heard on the rooftop of the Bradbury Building where Roy Batty ceased to exist: “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”

Gaff (Edward James Olmos): "It's too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?"
Gaff (Edward James Olmos): “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”

Deckard nods in agreement (giving back to Batty the nod he just received from him), crushes the unicorn in his hand, and takes off with Rachael for parts unknown. The window into men’s souls has been opened. Deckard peered into it, and was changed by what he saw. Like Roy with Sebastian, he and Batty are so alike, yet so different. They’ve seen things, they’ve done things: “Questionable things,” according to Batty, before he blinded and killed his Maker.

But the questions remain: who is more deserving of a future, the human or the Replicant? What did Deckard learn from Roy about life and living? Does this mean Rachael has a limited life span? And is Deckard himself a Replicant?

We aren’t told any of the answers, nor are we assured the couple will have a blissful, carefree future together — or for how long. There is no formal ending to the story, and those familiar yet comforting words that bring this and other twice-told tales to their logical conclusion are never spoken: “And they lived happily ever after.”

Did they? Really? We don’t know the answer. But then again, who does? Ω

Blade Runner (1982)

Produced by Michael Deeley; directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples; based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick; cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth; edited by Terry Rawlings; production design by Laurence G. Paull; art direction by David Snyder; concept art by Syd Mead; special effects supervised by Douglas Trumbull and Richard Yuricich; costume design by Charles Knode and Michael Kaplan; music by Vangelis; starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Joanna Cassidy, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson, Edward James Olmos, Joe Turkel, M. Emmett Walsh, James Hong and Morgan Paull. Color, 116 min. (Final Cut), the Ladd Company, distributed by Warner Brothers.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes