Showing posts with label Ridley Scott. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ridley Scott. Show all posts

26 October 2022

The Duellists


A young girl shepherds a group of geese down a tree-covered lane.  She’s brought up suddenly short by a tall man in a Hussar’s uniform, standing indifferently in her way.  A short distance beyond, two other men in shirtsleeves are en garde, at rapier point.  She’s stumbled onto a duel.  The two men are clearly mismatched; the first is awkward and inexpert, the second condescending and impatient.  The first makes a stumbling attack, the second parries him and circles to one side, exasperated.  The first lunges again and the second skewers him center body, as carelessly as brushing aside an insect.  “Là,” the better swordsman says,   and steps back, leaving the blade sticking through and through.  He lifts his empty hands in a dismissive gesture, this small business beneath his dignity, and turns away. 

This is the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s 1977 feature picture debut, The Duellists.  Conrad begins his 1908 novella with a brief paragraph to set up his backdrop, the Napoleonic wars, and drops you right into it.  Ridley, if anything, allows us to catch our breath for a single, brief moment, but then abruptly pulls the rug out from under. 

Here’s the hook.  Two of Napoleon’s officers, cavalrymen, fight a duel, the pretext a supposed insult, but the cause of their dispute itself misunderstood.  They go on for another dozen years or so, from Strasbourg to the invasion of Russia to the emperor’s exile, to fight each over and again, to no result, until finally, one forces a resolution on the other. 

Conrad is no stranger to obsession, or the collision of fate and accident, or the opposition of two people thrown into relief, their character mirrored.  “The Secret Sharer” comes to mind, or Lord Jim.  What drew Ridley Scott to it seems more problematic.  I don’t see a lot of ambiguity in his movies.  Subtleties, elusiveness, a thing seen on the periphery, yes, and shape-shifting.  But for the most part, you seem to skitter on material surfaces, often metallic, or reflective, armored, not porous and elastic, not inward. 

And yet.  A sense of something hidden, or withheld.

The cinematographer on The Duellists was Frank Tidy, his first feature, as well as Ridley’s, but the camera operator was Ridley himself.  This is telling.  The guy actually looking through the lens.  You have to wonder which of the two was composing the shot.  The movie’s beyond pictorial – every frame is breathtaking.  You can feel a sense of awe, not that they’re so good at what they do, but that they got a chance at the brass ring, and made the most of it. 

The gods also smiled on their casting.  Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine are the leads, Keitel as the hasty fireplug with a grievance, Carradine as the long, languid drink of water, both of them playing to type, but making it seem new, as if each of them were suddenly startled awake, in character, and blinking at the light.  Cameos to make you swoon: Albert Finney and Tom Conti, Edward Fox and John McEnery, Alun Armstrong, Diana Quick, Pete Postlethwaite.  They lucked into it, whatever it is, and stepped across the magical boundary into the sublime. 

Available to stream on Amazon Prime; also on DVD, both Standard and Blu-Ray. 

13 June 2018

Guilty Secrets

I was invited by my Santa Fe pal Johnny D. Boggs, a terrific Western writer, to post a list of ten favorite movies on Facebook, one a day, in ascending order from #10 to #1, with the title and an original theatrical poster, if possible, but without explaining the choices. Every day, nominate somebody else to follow your lead. Sort of like a movie fan chain letter.
Now, this is a serious responsibility - no irony intended. For example, Johnny's choice for his Number 7 was The Grapes of Wrath, and he attached my name to it. (When we got to his Number 1, it was The Searchers.) My point being that you couldn't risk being frivolous. I had to really think about it. My first instinct was to follow Johnny's lead, and do Classics, my personal Ten Best list. The Wild Bunch, Seven Samurai, Letter From an Unknown Woman. But then I thought, No, wait. Why not Guilty Secrets? What if the criteria were, you're sitting down to dinner, you're gonna watch a movie, and saying you had the DVD on your shelf, or you could stream it live, which pictures would be your defaults? Any night, or every night?

So here's the list, which is utterly arbitrary. The only unifying conceit is that I've watched these movies over and over, and would again, tonight or any other night.

[NOTE: I put these upon Facebook without explanation, per the rules. I've added my own little cheats.]

Red Dawn (1984)
Ridiculous, knuckle-dragging claptrap, of the highest order. Then again, if you stop for a minute and consider that Milius meant it as a metaphor for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Wolverines as mujahideen, it actually makes sense. Ravishingly shot, in New Mexico locations, by Ric Waite. Powers Boothe steals the movie.

Juggernaut (1974)
It's been suggested that we're fascinated by the nuts and bolts of how to do things. Heist pictures, Rififi, or here, an ocean liner in the mid-Atlantic wired with high explosive, the bomb disposal team parachuting in, the clock winding down. Dick Lester directed. Enough star power to sink the Poseidon. Clifton James and Roy Kinnear blow them all out of the water.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The opening shot, as the credits fade. The camera dollies down, past the snowbound railway platform, and then a car drifts by, at ground level. You can almost see the string pulling it along. The fact that the entire scene is a model only ingratiates it to me. It's an innocent artifice, an invitation. When you catch sight of Charters and Caldicott in the waiting room, you can't help but smile in anticipation. You fall into the familiar rhythms.

In Harm's Way (1965)
Enormous, clunky, overwrought. All of the above. It gets a terrific, muscular punch from Wayne, who delivers a thoughtful, considered character that the other people in the movie seem to think is easy to read. The dramatic mechanics of the picture are pure Preminger, the formal checks and balances, but Wayne demonstrates a gravity of purpose that subverts it. You're all too aware of the labor involved, the engines and devices, the undertaking itself. Wayne doesn't struggle to be convincing. he gives his guy weight, without ever being ponderous.

The Train (1964)
Frankenheimer. What else do I need to say? The disorienting montage of Manchurian Candidate, the pulled focus of Seven Days in May. An integrated technique in this picture. The inertial, iron force of the locomotives. The fact that there's no CGI (oh, and Burt Lancaster does his own stunts). The truly amazing dolly shots, Labiche crossing the freight yards to the boat moored by the canal towpath; the colonel at Wehrmacht headquarters in Paris, the camera finding him in the chaos; the scene with Labiche casting the damaged engine part. I bow to genius.

Charade (1963)
Please. I can't imagine I have to say anything at all.

Two Rode Together (1961)
You knew there was going to be a Ford, right? This is here. of course, because of the scene by the river. "I thought she had something stuck in her teeth." For all its comedy - and 'comedy' isn't really the right word, it's burlesque - Two Rode Together is terrifically dark, much more so than The Searchers, which for all its darkness ends on a note of hope. Two Rode Together is despairing.

The War Lord (1965)
Meditative, although on paper it must have been pitched as a swashbuckler. A guy whose devotion to duty is inflexible throws it all away for love, both carnal and idealized. A very old-fashioned conceit. Terrific art direction. I love the fact that the keep is nothing like the castles in Ivanhoe, say, but a brute stone tower, damp, smoky, the horses stabled below. Guy Stockwell gets all the good lines. Richard Boone's forlorn devotion to Heston commands genuine heartbreak. Haunting score.

The Night of the Generals (1967)
Not much of a mystery, not when the biggest headliner in the cast is twitching like he's got St. Vitus' Dance. but the way they tell the story, the fractured narrative and the unreliable narrators. And the main device, a murder in wartime, where killing is every man's trade. In a movie top-heavy with brand names, the lively presence of Charles Gray in support is like a whiff of ammonia, piercing and astringent, a master class in the pursed lip and the cocked eyebrow. You want supercilious? This is ur-supercilious.

The Duellists (1977)
Ridley Scott's first feature. You're joking, right? Nope. He'd done commercials and TV, but The Duellists is his first movie. People talk about Ridley's eye. The cinematographer on The Duellists is Frank Tidy (and it was his first feature film), but Ridley is his own camera operator - he's the guy looking through the lens. Think about it. The next picture is Alien. Where did this astonishing, feverish, specific gaze come from? It seems to have simply sprung into being, already fully found. The Duellists is hallucinatory, but transparent as glass.


Ten runners up.
  The Professionals
  On the Beach
  Night Train to Munich
  Extreme Prejudice
  The Dogs of War
  Rio Bravo
  Midnight Cop
  Hour of the Gun