Okay, so, I was in the middle of prepping this post about The Third Man, complete with photos, when the modern-day equivalent of hearing somebody’s voice come through on the telephone line* told me that it was Sydney Pollack’s time. That means I heard about it in an internet chatroom. He was 73.
(It’s kind of shameful that Freaks and Geeks has so gotten into my brain over the years that whenever I hear news of a celebrity death, I automatically hear Joe Flaherty: “You know who cut corners? Sydney Pollack. Know what happened to him? He DIED!”)
Even though Pollack never did a straightforward noir (although I’m told The Yakuza comes damn close), the name of this blog is “New York Noir,” and he was an old-school New Yorker who shot and starred in a number of NYC films over his 40 plus year career. I haven’t seen a lot of his movies, but I’ve seen enough, and you can read my brief comments on those set in New York that I have seen (wow, love that syntax) and a one that is not (I’m leaving out The Firm, which is a lot of fun, just because), after the jump…
Three Days of the Condor (1975, director)
This is one of those 70s paranoia thrillers that had their heyday in the post-Watergate era, and it’s a genre that informed a lot of the John Grisham legal thrillers of the 90s, and you can definitely see remnants of the genre in films like Michael Clayton. It’s the kind of movie Pollock made a lot, and it’s the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore simply because nobody makes entertaining movies for adults about adults anymore. And when I say “entertaining,” I mean the kind of movie that you can take a date to and not be totally depressed by/have nightmares afterwards. It’s my theory as to why Juno and Clayton were such big awards darlings last year.
I have problems with Condor, mainly in the Robert Redford/Faye Dunaway romance that occupies most of the picture’s middle section, but the conspiracy thriller portions that make up the main story are aces. Max Von Sydow is great as an assassin who has a marvelous scene with Redford near the end of the movie where he describes Redford’s eventual death if he doesn’t flee:
It will happen this way. You may be walking. Maybe the first sunny day of the spring. And a car will slow beside you, and a door will open, and someone you know, maybe even trust, will get out of the car. And he will smile, a becoming smile. But he will leave open the door of the car and offer to give you a lift.
It’s a marvelous scene in which Von Sydow gives his character incredible empathy without selling out the core of the character.
The other scene in Condor that I love comes at the end of the picture, and as I read the Wikiquote section to find it, I realize that Tony Gilroy cribbed quite a bit from it for the end scene in Michael Clayton. What stands out about the scene is that the entire movie turns out to be about oil, and Cliff “Uncle Ben” Robertson defends secret plans to invade the Middle East thusly:
Higgins: No. It’s simple economics. Today it’s oil, right? In ten or fifteen years, food. Plutonium. And maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then
Turner: Ask them.
Higgins: Not now — then! Ask ’em when they’re running out. Ask ’em when there’s no heat in their homes and they’re cold. Ask ’em when their engines stop. Ask ’em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won’t want us to ask ’em. They’ll just want us to get it for ’em.
This entire scene takes place as Redford and Robertson walk through Times Square, the old, seedy Times Square that I never got to see, and ends…well, you’ll just have to see, won’t you? But it makes fantastic use of that location, and the entire scene is filled with that NYC milieu that you only get by shooting in New York.
The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989, executive producer)
This, too, falls into the “entertainment for adults” category, and is probably one of the best date movies ever made. (I don’t know, I haven’t tested that theory out yet.) It’s well written, well-crafted, and the character actors that fill out the periphery are “Hey! It’s that guy!”s long and far. Unlike some of the other movies on this list, Baker Boys is set in Los Angeles. The flick’s about cabaret/piano bar musicians, which, you know, is a topic I will watch almost any movie on and probably enjoy it. The only reason I’m bringing up is because it’s fantastic, kind of underrated, and you should see it, because it’s got Jeff Bridges, and Jeff Bridges is the man.
Presumed Innocent (1990, producer)
Sydney Pollack was an actor before he was a director, and even though he was only a producer on this one, I think it’s a great example as to why directors should take acting classes before they direct. (Like I want to do before I shoot Frozen Notes, which, speaking of, twenty pages and counting…) Presumed was one of the first modern legal thrillers, and I really enjoyed reading the book when I bought it over Christmas 2005. It was one of those “finish in a day” kind of books, but it was much better than The DaVinci Code and Five People You Meet In Heaven, both of which I also read over that Christmas, but still not as good as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which I re-read. (But then, what is?)
Anyway, Presumed Innocent, which is not set in New York in the book but is enough of a New York/Chicago analogue that you could safely make that comparison. (The story of Innocent is part of struggling NY writer lore — Scott Turow wrote the first draft while taking the subway to and from work as an attorney.) A good comparison to this movie (and, again, to films like The Firm and Clayton) is A Few Good Men. The material is straightforward, but the actors aren’t going to fuck around. They came to play. And so it is, in the case of this movie, that it’s stolen by two actors who died before they should have: John Spencer, as Harrison Ford’s best friend/cop, and Raul Julia, as Ford’s attorney. Both were wonderful character actors who I liked for a long time before they died. (Addams Family was the first PG-13 movie I saw in the theatre.) I remember liking Presumed when I rented it on videotape shortly after reading the book, but the performances that have stuck with me were those two guys. They steal the movie.
Dead Again (1991, executive producer)
You know when I said that Pollack’d never done a straight noir? I lied, although this one is ker-azy. You should all see it.
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993, executive producer)
Oh, god. I could write another 1500 words on this movie alone, and I hadn’t known that Pollack executive produced this until I read Jeremy “Beaks” Smith’s obit on CHUD.com. This is one of my all-time favorite films, without question, and it’s even more meaningful to me now that I’ve lived down the street from where much of the chess action takes place. I remember watching this in my dorm freshman year and having the slow realization that “Holy shit, this movie was shot on my block!” (They don’t call it Washington Square for nothin’.) This is a wonderful, wonderful movie that is as much about life and art as it is about chess. And it’s about fathers and sons, which is one of the reasons why it’s sort of become the Field of Dreams equivalent in my family. My dad, younger brother and I quoted this movie all the time growing up, and we spent many afternoons watching it together when it was on cable. This is one of those movies that has taught me as much about how to live as real life has, and one of the reasons why I love movies so, so much (more about that later), particularly in this speech from Lawrence Fishburne:
He didn’t teach you how to win, he taught you how not to lose. That’s nothing to be proud of. You’re playing not to lose, Josh. You’ve got to risk losing. You’ve got to risk everything. You’ve got to go to the edge of defeat. That’s where you want to be, boy – on the edge of defeat. But what? Play. Never play the board, always the man. You’ve gotta play the man *playing* the board. Play *me*. I’m your opponent, you have to beat *me*. Not the board, beat *me*.
James Horner’s best score, too. And the cast, not just Joe Mantenga and Fishburne and Ben Kingsley as the three father figures, but Joan Allen and David Paymer and Laura Linney and Anthony Head and William H. Macy and Dan Hedya (who has one of the funniest moments in the movie) and Tony Shaloub. God, everybody is in this and they’re all great.
Michael Clayton (2007, producer/costar)
This is a movie that I’m coming to love — it’s one, like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Bobby Fischer and The 40 Year Old Virgin and The Squid and the Whale and Out of the Past and A League of their Own, films that I love for very distinct, individual reasons — that I can watch at any time and not get bored. Yet it is not a great film. I think the reason I like it so much is, like the others, it’s the kind of movie that I’d like to one day make. Redemption Falls was an amazing experience, but I believe that it’s the goal of a director/writer to grow, to stretch. I had a teacher in high school who said, “Brendan, if I were your tennis coach, I’d tell you to work on your backhand.” And I’ve always remembered that, always tried to live up to that.
I think I like Michael Clayton not just because it’s set in New York, because it is, and not just because it knows how to use the city as a location, because it does, and one of the things that I love about it is that it manages to capture those times in New York City where you feel like you’re one of the only people around, whether it’s on a side street in the middle of the afternoon or that period late at night after the bars have closed down but before the convenience stores and coffee shops have woken up. And certainly I like it not just because it’s incredibly well acted, if thematically dubious in that last scene at the end (which is still awesome), from George Clooney all the way down to Denis O’Hare, and not just because Sydney Pollack, as Clayton’s boss, is very good in it. There’s a moment late in the film where you’re left wondering something about Pollack’s character, and the decision you, the viewer, make about that colors your perception not just of what has come before, but what comes after. When we watched it recently at work, that moment was brought up, whether Pollack’s character knew a character had been murdered or not, and there’s enough subtlety in the moment that allows for multiple interpretations.
Nah, I think I like Michael Clayton, and I like Sydney Pollack, because he made the kind of movies I would like to make. I’ve been reading a lot of David Mamet’s essays lately, and he makes the point that the goal of the writer, the dramatist, and the director, should be to entertain the audience. The definition of “entertainment” is left up to them, but I agree with that. I can honestly say I wouldn’t be focused so much on getting Frozen Notes, this noir I’m fucking around with, right if it wasn’t for watching Clayton, Condor, and Baker Boys in relatively quick succession early this year.
Nobody makes movies for adults anymore. I’d like to.
*Bonnie Raitt, “Streetlights,” one of the best singer-songwriter albums evar.