All the President’s Men

There are at least two kinds of detective stories, some which are driven by clues and some which are fueled by the characters. Great writers blend the two seamlessly, but even among Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries there is a special appeal to A Study in Scarlet because it is a great pleasure to watch Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes become acquainted. Of the two vehicles for such stories, the more sure is character, and so all good detectives are either in partnership or at least ensure they have a good sidekick and work in a big office where they are looked upon as a liability.

All the President’s Men begins with a break-in, a burglary which was to create a sensation, at the Watergate Hotel. Soon after we see the botched robbery, we are placed in the offices of the Washington Post and can rest easy, knowing we are watching another investigative reporter flick. When Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford are chosen by the newspaper magnates to pursue the initial leads, it seems as though we know what sort of detective story we are sitting upon: who would pay to have two such actors if their characters were not going to drive the plot?

Indeed, the investigation stands accused just as suspected. Hoffman plays an old hand, whose loose reporting has him in hot water with the brass—he is the sort of reporter who might balk at typing the word ‘allege’ and all its conjugates. Redford is new to the paper and eager to make his mark and, perhaps, is also interested in discovering the truth. There is friction at first: Hoffman takes what Redford writes and polishes it without permission, and when doubt is thrown on their efforts they accuse each other of making mistakes; but their fusion is quickly accomplished and the paper is, for the most part, willing to stand by their reports. The structure of the film is all wrong if we want to hammer it into a readymade hole.

I do not think it is generally advisable to use the title of a work to argue to its conclusions, As You Like It is not a relativistic play nor is the main character of Ivanhoe the knight of that name, but when ordinary means for understanding a work of art are not forthcoming, a return to the title can give the necessary clue without which we could go astray. All the President’s Men is about… all the president’s men. As Redford and Hoffman go door to door and make numberless phone calls their personalities hold our interest and underpin the story, but the story is not about them, it is about those whom they interview. Much of their time is spent trying to confirm their hunches and leads, but they are baffled everywhere they turn; no one is willing to go on record. The film is about all those who could expose the scandal and about their fear. It is about those men to whom the camera never turns, those powerful men within the Whitehouse entrusted with the president’s campaigning. In a clever shot (or rather, a splicing of shots) at the end of the film the television in the lower left shows Nixon’s swearing in while in the top right Hoffman and Redford type out the story which will sink his presidency; the film is finally about the precarious nature of wrongdoing when greed jumps the fence and runs free of the law.

All the President’s Men is available on Netflix, and on many other platforms for rent and purchase. I definitely recommend you watch it if you have Netflix, are interested in the detective genre, or want to learn more about the events surrounding Watergate. The movie is enjoyable, but perhaps not great.

The Ladykillers

The Ladykillers is one of the great comedies, and comedies are a hard thing to pull off. Why is this so? Since the primary aim of comedy is to let you give yourself up to laugher for a few hours, albeit such an aim does not preclude the inclusion of deeper currents of thought, there is a danger that the comedy will never develop enough depth to withstand a slowing of the comedic pace. That there are very few films which elicit continuous laugher throughout is sign enough that comedy itself is a fickle vehicle for a movie; a comedy driven by laugher alone cannot sustain momentum through its less raucous scenes. Look at modern comedies: how many of them fall flat after twenty minutes? Nearly all of them. Their problem is that although they have a promising premise, they lack a structure which permits the divorcing of character and plot development from laughter; when the laugher becomes sporadic to make room for development, they stall. Structure and pacing are paramount in comedy, which may explain in some way why we speak of comedic timing but never of tragic timing.

The Ladykillers is one of the great comedies because of its structure: its laughs are as golden as they come, as good as those in its more famous cousin, Arsenic and Old Lace, but its structure is what sets it apart. The film runs for ninety minutes, and if you divide it in half and then roughly into fifteen minutes segments you can see the carefully constructed foundation upon which it builds its laughs. It is at the halfway point in the film that it takes a sinister turn, turning from a light comedy to a dark one. Of course, the characters are the same, and sinister, in the second half, but instead of having robbery in mind they have murder. Here is a chart in which the movie is broken in half and sixths:

1st 2nd 3rd
Intro to Situation
Conflicts introduced (lighthearted) Climax: Robbery
Boccherini Boccherini
In the house, odd angles
ends with unitive roof scene
Begins with separation of antagonists
4th 5th 6th
Intro to situation
Conflict Introduced (hard-edged) Climax: Murder
2nd musical piece 2nd musical Piece
In the house, muffled angles
ends with divisive roof scene
Begins with separation of antagonists

 

This structure is not perfectly rigid, but the exceptions to it highlight the unity of the parts. Take, for instance, the Boccherini theme which plays continually in the lighthearted 2nd and 3rd parts, is identified at the halfway point by the old lady of the house, Mrs. Wilberforce, and then never heard again until the end where it takes on a maniacal form.  Again, the frightening aspect of Alec Guinness’s character is present, but played for laughs, in the first moments of the film although it properly belongs to the darker 2nd half where it helps define the mood.

One particularly brilliant move the film makes is having the same sets of antagonists in the first and second part and tying the two conflicts together causally. When the first conflict turns from trying to use a clueless old lady as an unwitting accomplice for a robbery to trying to kill her, the second conflict turns from questioning what sort of faith a man of action can put in such a plan to how to escape from the ghoulish brain who came up with the plan to begin with. Whereas the music and setting of the scenes unify the parts which are separated temporally, the unity of the different narrative threads is achieved by the causal connection between them.

As you watch this movie you may not really see the structure, you may be laughing too much to notice it beyond the abrupt dropping of the Boccherini theme, but it is the form on which the movie rests. Whether this brief description of that form is enough to make you watch the movie only you can say—I’ve yet to meet someone who watched a comedy for its structure. Watch it for its laughs, but be thankful that someone once put so much effort into giving you something to unwind to.

Cleo from 5 to 7

Cleo from 5 to 7 begins with a consideration of death. The only color in the film is that of the tarot cards in the opening sequence; after that there is an exquisite black-and-white. The color had illuminated a gritty world which the descent to monochrome masks just in time to face the despairing Cleo’s bracing manifesto ‘As long as I am beautiful, I am even more alive than the others.’ The film might well take these words to itself.

Cleo and her film together step away from the presence of death and conceal themselves: Cleo into the bustle of a Parisian evening, the film into the intimate life of Cleo. How intimately can she be seen? Only as much as she will expose herself. On the way to her rooms she stops to buy a hat and is momentarily, yet tellingly, roused from her poor spirits. From 5 to 7 are the lovers’ hours in Paris, and when she returns, crushed by death’s portend, to her flat from the fortuneteller’s apartment the arrival of a lover is expected.

The lover arrives and goes, a man too busy to look at Cleo and see her panic; she is outside his life and he outside hers. What we need is some music: enter the songwriters, those who ought to know the passions, desires, and needs of Cleo. They cannot, even with music, touch Cleo’s soul, and when they accidentally do, they are wrapped up in something beyond their comprehension. In the most powerful scene of the film Cleo sings of the loneliness of the ugliness of death, and no one gets it—to them it is just a song, they dare not let it be more.

Cleo flees, and finds herself, in the end, seeking out her friend, who models part time and is comfortable with her nakedness, a nakedness which makes her happy, not proud. Where Cleo was unable to await her lover naked, instead adorning herself in pretentious, carefully considered negligee, her young friend happily reveals her beauty to a consort of unknown artists. Until this meeting I do not think Cleo could be taken seriously when she equated beauty with life, but suddenly, seeing her contrasted with her friend, she is taken in deadly earnest. She claims that she is worn out always looking at herself while pretending that she is looking at others looking at her. Here she touches upon a question worthy of minds like Walker Percy and St. John Paul the Great and exposes the film in all its depth.

The film is no longer hidden away, but is Cleo also able to return to a sense of innocent nakedness? That is the question the film is willing to reveal, but I do not think I will answer it here. Whether or not this film is a tragedy depends on the answer to this question. Does she see another and is she seen by another’s loving look, as St. Augustine describes man’s desire? That is the question behind the film’s art; mirrors and reflections are almost constantly present on the scene forcing us to keep this question in mind; Cleo is living in the eyes of others, terrified of ceasing to be, and knowing that ‘man is a being who tries to have an air of being, even if he does not wholly succeed in convincing himself that he is somebody’. The fear of being an ‘anybody’ hinders her from being a ‘somebody’—there must needs be a person to affirm Cleo. But is she looking in the right place? In the unnamed Parisian crowds? Jeramiah warned, ‘In vain you beautify yourself; your lovers despise you; they seek your life.’ Does she heed the warning or does she smother her beauty in artificial illusion?