Big Important Movie. Whoop whoop. Was it good? Ok yeah it was pretty entertaining. The rotating hallway – they built that? what? – was pretty great. And the linkage between the different levels of dream – the car is in freefall so the elevator is weightless – are bizarrely satisfying. (Why are simple cause and effect so pleasurable to see on screen? The marble hits the dish and the angry dog wakes up … the actual sight of why something happens is wonderful, for whatever reason.) The movie is fun. It’s not a drag. And the scope of it …damn. There’s even a little bit of heat and passion and heart - when Marion Cotillard pulls her swan dive? Yeah. That got to me. This hard heart will own up to that: the miscommunication in that scene, and the tragic results, really pulled at my … empathy and pity … I suppose those are the right emotions. It’s whatever you feel when you see something horrible happening, and beyond being unable to stop it, know that it is inevitable and essential. Pure tragedy. So tick one off for Inception on whatever score card keeps track of Successful High Drama Moments. Hopefully it also contains a box for “sweet snow battle” because you can double-check off that one.
But man, there’s something just not quite there in there. Maybe it’s the last shot. It’s not the right final image. The question we should be left with is not “was it all a dream?” but “was it all moral?” (I just ruined the movie for you if you haven’t seen it. Why in God’s name haven’t you seen it? That’s really your fault; I’m not taking the bullet for that one.) Yes, the question is about the actual deed and McGuffin of the film – the slight of hand trick that Leo pulls on Cillian, and that Ellen Paige (me thinks) pulls on King-of-the-World Leo: is inception, the act not the film, an ethically tolerable action? If you plant an idea in someone’s head, against their will and without their knowledge, and that idea makes them a happier person, was your thought crime justified? Should it be encouraged? It’s like asking whether the government is justified in lying to its people for their own good. There’s not really a good answer. “Yeah it’s ok … so long as we actually end up better off after the deception.” A more rigid rational philosopher would probably say differently, but I’m soft and lazy. You can lie and manipulate me all you want, so long as I’m happier afterwards. But mess with my head and make me sad … well, please just don’t do that.
So ok. Inception sort of missed it’s own point. In all the planning and the explaining and the big stunts and the big sets, amid the rollercoaster-ready brass-horn-hallelujah blown out by Hans Zimmer’s massive pipes, Nolan et al sort of landed three blocks away from where they should have been. It’s a shame. Sort of like watching Bob Ross paint a happy little tree in just the wrong place – “man, it would have been perfect if not for that last minute blunder” – you wish, more than anything else, that they had just gotten it right. But in a sea of summer mediocrity, and in a season of “important, real” films that seem too timid to try anything at bat except for a bunt, it’s pleasant, affirming, and worthwhile to go see a movie that really unloads over the plate and swings for the moon. Whether it makes it there or not is sort of beside the point: the effort, monumental and high minded, endears it enough. Go see it. Again.
A slight premise - arranged marriage produces spontaneous love – that, in the hands of skilled professionals, bears more passion, heart and pump-thumping red-meat vitality than many other more complicated, less predictable romances of the star-crossed sort. It’s all set in a downtown gypsy camp where semi-modern Romani shuck the suits and skirts that walk into their fortuneteller storefront. The action takes place behind the scenes, though. Cornel Wilde’s brother, a Gypsy King, forces him to marry Jane Russell, a Gypsy Minx. “You’ll be king one day, you must have a queen!” The actors playing the unwilling couple clash and sparkle - they push against each other, compete with each other - and it’s all the script can do to keep inventing obstacles to throw between them and “passionately ever after.” Two scenes - both dance numbers - stand out sharply, glowing with the bizarre heat of perfect Technicolor images. The first is the newly wed’s nuptial dance, clapped out and strutted in front of the wedding party (a well costumed, garishly make-up’d gypsy tribe). Russell brings Wilde’s blood up as she dances seductively and he stalks, jungle cats in his feet, around the edges of the floor - he didn’t want marriage, but it’s all that his principles can do to keep him from diving hips-first towards his newly minted, unwanted (so he thinks) bride. He grabs a bolo whip instead, and lashes out at her, taming his own lust by tricking himself that he’s taming her. The second dance number, set amidst an outdoor caravan, has just as much fire. It’s startling how much vitality, how much unchecked life the director, Nick Ray, is able to draw from his actors. They leap through the screen, and register their emotions – anger, lust, jealousy – with their entire form. It’s like watching a whole new species of human, and it may make you hate all those calm, reasonable acting professors who have coached their charges not to “overplay for the camera.” To hell with that. If this sort of stuff is the result, “overplay away,” I say.
[Luther Adler, as Marco the brother and gypsy king, is exceptionally watchable. Standing, it would seem, under five feet tall he still projects, with the barest of efforts, a full voiced masculine command. He walks through the screen and owns it, his every cheek twitch and toe point commanding the audience’s necks and sympathies. He’s not one of those movie champions who’s power and leadership must be taken on faith. His visage on the screen, his voice, his very self, all convey a man not just in charge, but inevitably in charge. Adler might have walked off set straight to any local office tower and demanded a corner office with a view; he seems destined to own the earth. It’s exceptional. An actor like Joe Pesci, also diminutive and fierce, could learn a lot by screening this film and other Adler vehicles: an affection, a tenderness is needed to combat to revulsion and horror that comes from watching any short man “take what’s his” and “seek his advantage”; a quick fist must be tempered with a bone-deep sensuality. The man who can master this balance is the man who can find himself suddenly free from the hell of character acting.]
Screenhogging giants (Sterling Hayden leads) reach for greatness and fail, miserably and totally, for want of common sense. It’s a gas to watch, so long as you get off on suffering. The film – a robbery picture, where the theft comes off but the crooks are burned – is a downward sloping work from the very start. “Every man works for his vice” a bookie drunk observes early on. True indeed – we all work secretly for those things that will wear us down – but while some in the real world have made this vice jockeying work, in John Huston land there are no happy endings for hard fighting men. Grand tragedies of this sort, where the fall is predicted by the nature of the players, can be highly satisfying to a certain kind of sad sack audience, or just shocking and amusing to a genre audience struck unawares by the “serious” nature of the picture they’ve been suckered into seeing, but for the rest of us they are in general just a little sad, and a little too long. The first half of the film, building up towards a jewel robbery, is quite taut and watchable. A loose gang of hoods – an old con just out of the klink, a high profile attorney in need of fast cash, and a motley chorus of small, petty crooks with small, petty dreams – joins together to orchestrate a big score; we’re told just how big (the biggest job ever in the middle west!) but the shop talk means, as it does in so many crime pictures, very little to us. We’re impressed with the men’s ambition, but when pressed could care less about how well this heist will stack up against others at the next Mid Western Jewel Thieves Union meeting. But the enthusiasm of the men infects us, and the slow reveal of their individual personal failings (one is a pedophile, another a drunk, a third (the most likeable) a broken boy with chips littering his shoulders) is a fun counting game – “we know what will undo him, but what about him?” Once the actual robbery is attempted and accomplished, however, we’re left only with the long, slow descent, as one by one each player self-destructs and falls, wax wings flapping, into the void. The final few moments of the film, showing Hayden half dead in a field of horses, is beautiful and poignant, and redeems the film in some small part from the torpor and boredom of the preceding forty minutes. Recommended, overall. Screen this along with Ocean’s Thirteen and Dog Day Afternoon for a strong weekend overview of the progression of morality and honor among thieves in American cinema.
(Marilyn Monroe appears for all of ten minutes as the attorney’s slinky squeeze, and spends nine of those ten attempting to wake up, with a luxurious lack of hurry, from an off-screen catnap. Wonderful.)