Mar 122003

I shouldn’t have done it, I know, but last night I watched 12 Angry Men again on television. Its principal interest is sociological. It preserves in celluloid a representative collection of liberal stereotypes circa 1957 — bloviating bigot Ed Begley, Lonely Crowd adman Robert Webber, hypersensitive slum-dweller Jack Klugman (looking positively fawn-like, if you can believe it), neurotically precise broker E.G. Marshall, short-fused martinet Lee J. Cobb, broad-minded and tolerant architect Henry Fonda. What is it with Hollywood and architects anyway? How come they always get a free pass? Why are there doctor and lawyer jokes in store, but no architect jokes? One of the funniest running gags in Seinfeld was George, pretending not to be unemployed, continually masquerading as an architect. It’s so respectable, and you probably won’t have to answer any embarrassing technical questions. If I ever write a screeplay, I’m going to make my villain an architect, out of sheer perversity.

One thing you can’t help but notice, after you’ve seen this movie a few times, is how obviously guilty the boy is. Henry Fonda demolishes the eyewitness testimony, on which E.G. Marshall, the voice of prosecutorial reason, foolishly bases his case, but eyewitness testimony is usually unreliable anyway. Consider the murder weapon instead. The accused owned a switchblade with an elaborately carved handle, supposedly unique: the storekeeper where he bought it said he had never seen another. A switchblade of the same design was found in his father’s chest. The accused, questioned by the police about his own switchblade, maintained that he lost it through a hole in his pocket. (We’ll presume, though we’re never told, that his pocket actually did have a hole in it.) His alibi is that he went to the movies, whose titles, plots and actors he could not recall. Architect Fonda’s first gambit is to show the jury an identical switchblade that he bought in a pawnshop, reasoning thence that someone else could have done it. Maybe, but if the accused is innocent one is obliged to believe the following: first, that the real perpetrator committed the murder, coincidentally, with a knife identical to the one the suspect owned; second, that the accused lost his own knife on the very same night; and third, that he watched two movies and was unable to recall, when questioned immediately afterwards, a thing about either one. Reopen the deliberations, dammit! I want to hang that jury.

(Update: Jim Valliant, a district attorney, notes in the comments that by not turning the knife he bought over to the judge, Henry Fonda was also guilty of misconduct.)

(Another: Brian Micklethwait comments.)

Mar 062003

There has been considerable discussion of the ethics of police torture in the blogosphere without a single invocation of the seminal American text on the subject, a work with which all of these distinguished ethicists are doubtless familiar. I refer, of course, to Dirty Harry.

That famous torture scene on the football field has its troubling aspects. Callahan makes a point of ordering his partner, “Too Much Linguine” DiGiorgio, out of the stadium: “Go out and get some air, Fatso.” He knows he’s about to cross the line. He doesn’t want to make DiGiorgio complicit, but he doesn’t want witnesses either.

It’s also no certainty that the man they’re chasing is even the killer, although it’s highly probable. Nobody has had a good enough look at him to provide a physical description, and the only positive ID they have is from the ER doctor who treated his stab wound. It’s conceivable that someone else could show up at a big city hospital with the same sort of wound at the same time. But this is more than good enough for Callahan.

Callahan is also quite sure the girl, whose life he’s supposed to be interested in saving, is already dead. He tells the Mayor and the Police Chief so in an earlier scene, and Scorpio confirms his hunch by telling him in the bagman scene in the park that “I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to let her die. I just wanted you to know that.” And in fact the girl is dead. Callahan tortures Scorpio because he enjoys torturing criminals. In the famous bank robbery scene — “six shots, or only five?” — he fires the empty at the robber’s head only partly because the robber asks him to (“I gots to know”). Mostly he does it for jollies. If you doubt me take a good look at the grin on his face when the gun clicks.

Callahan does manage to discover the murder weapon (in an illegal search) and the location of the dead girl, so in a certain sense the torture is effective. In the long run, however, it proves disastrous. Callahan saunters into the District Attorney’s office the next morning expecting a hero’s welcome; instead he is informed that Scorpio isn’t going to prosecuted.

DA: You’re lucky I’m not indicting you for assault with intent to commit murder.
Callahan (doing classic Eastwood slow burn): What?!
DA: Where the hell does it say you’ve got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel. Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I’m saying is, that man had rights.
Callahan: Well, I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.
DA: You should be. I’ve got news for you, Callahan. As soon as he’s well enough to leave the hospital, he walks.
Callahan: What are you talking about?
DA: He’s free.
Callahan: You mean you’re letting him go?
DA: We have to, we can’t try him.
Callahan: And why is that?
DA: Because I’m not wasting a half a million dollars of the taxpayer’s money on a trial we can’t possibly win. The problem is, we don’t have any evidence.
Callahan: Evidence? What the hell do you call that? (He gestures toward Scorpio’s weapon on a side table.)
DA: I call it nothing, zero.
Callahan: Are you trying to tell me that Ballistics can’t match the bullet up to this rifle?
DA: It doesn’t matter what Ballistics can do. This rifle might make a nice souvenir. But it’s inadmissible as evidence.
Callahan: And who says that?
DA: It’s the law.
Callahan: Well then, the law is crazy.

Also in attendance is a Judge Bannerman, a professor of constitutional law — at Berkeley, naturally, which provokes, in me at least, some residual sympathy for Callahan. Bannerman summarizes the matter dryly:

The search of the suspect’s quarters was illegal. Evidence obtained thereby, such as that hunting rifle, for instance, is inadmissible in court. You should have gotten a search warrant. I’m sorry, but it’s that simple…The court would have to recognize the police officer’s legitimate concern for the girl’s life, but there is no way they can possibly condone police torture. All evidence concerning the girl — the suspect’s confession, all physical evidence — would have to be excluded…

Now, the suspect’s rights were violated, under the Fourth and Fifth and probably the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. Without the evidence of the gun and the girl, I couldn’t convict him of spitting on the sidewalk.

So is Callahan justified in torturing Scorpio? Legally, no way. He scotches a case that the State had a good chance of making. Morally, unclear. Part of his motive is to try to save the girl, unlikely as that is, but part of it is sadism. The movie doesn’t approve torture by any means, despite its reputation. Eastwood himself clearly wanted a chance to clean up Callahan’s act: the first sequel, Magnum Force, casts police vigilantes as the villains, against whom Callahan stands for law, order, and proper police procedure. (It is unsatisfactory for this very reason, among others.) If arch-badass Clint Eastwood is queasy about police torture, I’m not surprised that mild-mannered law professor Eugene Volokh is too.

(Update: Arthur Silber has some well-considered thoughts — on torture, not Dirty Harry.)

Feb 152003

Special thanks to Oliver Stone for Comandante, his upcoming searing exposé of Fidel Castro. Besides the “revolutionary” mustache Stone sports for his scenes in the movie, making him look like the missing Ortega brother, one detail cannot go unmentioned:

Throughout, Castro wears his trademark green fatigues, but when the camera pans to his shoes it shows how times have changed: even a veteran revolutionary sports the ubiquitous Nike swoosh.

Fidel Castro, supporter of evil capitalist exploitation of Third World sweatshop labor.

Jan 132003

Kathy Shaidle, Colby Cosh and The Ambler, Kevin Michael Grace, are having at each other about movies. I intrude on this intramural squabble only because they’re all wrong.

Pulp Fiction, to begin with, is the most overrated movie by the most overrated director of the last twenty years. About forty-five minutes into the movie, John Travolta traces a square with his hands, by way of telling Uma Thurman not to be so, or maybe it’s Thurman who makes the gesture to Travolta, I can’t remember. In any case Tarantino paints a square on the screen over it, in the manner of certain awful movies from the early 60s. With this, this ironic and allusive yet utterly obvious and stupid gesture, I lost hope. Royale with cheese indeed. By far the best of Pulp Fiction‘s three segments is Harvey Keitel’s cleaner, plagiarized in concept and many details from La Femme Nikita and in any case easily separable from the rest of the movie. Plagiarism is Tarantino’s one extraordinary talent; the best bit in Reservoir Dogs, the crooks naming themselves after colors, is lifted from the excellent little caper movie The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, which Kathy justly praises. Pulp Fiction’s chronology is shuffled to disguise its conventional plot of boy gets girl, fixes enemies, and rides off into sunset. If the movie had been filmed in time it would be more immediately obvious what a banal exercise it really is.

2001 is aptly described by its chief defender, Kevin Grace, as a tone poem, and by tone-poem standards it is watchable and snappily paced. Yes, the bone-throwing and lip-reading are cool, and given a choice to sit through one of Kubrick’s movies, I will take 2001 over Barry Lyndon, and definitely over Eyes Wide Shut.

It baffles me that some critics list Some Like It Hot as the funniest comedy ever made, and I suspect that its subject matter inflates its reputation. A far funnier Wilder-Monroe movie is The Seven-Year Itch, which more than any other single movie made Monroe Monroe and is remembered now only for the scene in which her dress blows up as she stands over the subway grate. Her combination of sex and ingenuousness is never better captured than here, when she looks directly into the camera and says, “He was like the Creature from the Black Lagoon!” The Seven-Year Itch is a perfectly sunny and cheerful movie about adultery. Such movies, about anything, were rare then and are extinct now.

Miracle from Morgan’s Creek is the wrong relatively obscure Preston Sturges vehicle to revive; try Unfaithfully Yours instead — especially the scene where Rex Harrison wrestles with a sort of 1940s equivalent of a CD burner, and loses. I laugh harder at this than anything else in the history of the movies.

That scene in Manhattan where Woody Allen (no, not his character; personally) recites the things that make life worth living into a tape recorder: “Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, the lox at Zabar’s, Louis Armstrong’s ‘Potato Head Blues’…” — what’s not to hate? I mean, get a blog if you have to do that sort of thing. Like Kathy, I prefer Crimes and Misdemeanors: the skewering of the Alan Alda character is even more delightful because one gets the distinct impression that Alan Alda, in life, is actually like that. But I would trade both movies, plus Annie Hall, for the first half of Love and Death, distinguished for, among other things, containing not only the best but the two best village idiot jokes ever.

Thumbs-up, thumbs-down, this is fun. Stay tuned for other thought-substitutes, coming soon!

(Update: AC Douglas posts his top movies of 50 years hence. I have enough trouble just figuring out what I like.)

(Another Update: What I call plagiarism Colby Cosh calls research. Here’s a guy who can refer to Rashomon and write “acquaintance with the grammar of one’s art,” when the art is movie-making, in a single sentence, calling me a snob. I like it.)