Killers, comedy and porky, too
April 5, 1985
The Hollywood blockbuster mentality, which decrees that a movie is either
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or nothing, has rendered the modestly
scaled independent film an endangered species. And, given the cost of an
evening out at the movies, casual theatregoers would just as soon stay
home and rent a cassette unless they are convinced the biggest biggie in
town - at one point it was Terms of Endearment, now it's Amadeus - will
not only show them a good time but will impart a life-changing experience
once thought to be the prerogative of religion (or drugs).
Because so few films, even the biggies, can possibly live up to their
advance billing - all those "stupendous]" "magnificent]" "monumental]"
quotes - audiences emerge from almost any highly touted movie that has
been around more than a month or two chirping a chorus of disappointment.
In the case of tiny perfect movies that do not set out to be religious
experiences, the dangers of raising expectations destined to be dashed are
compounded. Three cases in point: within their self-imposed limits, The
Hit, A Private Function and Blood Simple, all of which open today in
Toronto, are well-nigh perfect films, but avoiding the oversell is all but
impossible. The best bet is to rush to see them before anyone has a chance
to tell you how terrific they are.
The Hit, a British comedy directed by Stephen Frears, must be the only
gangster movie in history to owe a portion of its inspiration to Elisabeth
Kubler-Ross' On Death and Dying. In that volume, the doyenne of death
doctors outlined the five states that the terminally ill and their loved
ones are said to pass through. The Hit's screenwriter, Peter Prince, has
used the stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) as the
framework for an extraordinary fable in which Willie (Terence Stamp), a
London gangster now living in Spain, is sought out by a couple of
repulsive professional killers, Braddock (John Hurt) and Myron (Tim Roth),
to even the score - Willie turned snitch years ago and now it's time for
him to pay with his life.
The catch is that Willie has already worked through his death and is
ready to go. He's as resigned to his fate as a Sunday school saint, a
beatific state contrasted poignantly with the desperate desire to live at
all costs displayed by Maggie (Laura Del Sol), a resourceful young slut
who is taken hostage during the journey.
Eventually, the film, shot on location in Spain by a director with an
innate understanding of how to stylize without becoming self-conscious,
asks to be seen as a comic but moving meditation on the ways we do, or do
not, go gently into that good night.
The style in Blood Simple is entirely self-conscious, and good for it.
This rewrite of James M. Cain by way of the grottiest splatter movie
around is a triumph of artificiality in which the owner of a Texas
roadhouse (Dan Hedaya) hires a reptilian private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to
murder his adulterous wife (Frances McNormand) and her lover (John Getz).
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen, and directed by Joel, the deadpan
script is salty with mock Texanisms such as, "You thought he was colored;
you're always assuming the worst." Meanwhile, the visuals play
sophisticated games with cliches - to reveal any of them would be to spoil
Devotees of splatter movies will be unfazed by the Gothic violence
toward the end, but for people who quail at Friday the 13th movies and
won't even consider Clint Eastwood, Blood Simple may prove gory going,
despite the fact that the carnage is staged intentionally as baroquely
Over all, with its equal emphasis on mendacity, bloodletting, high
style and avarice, Blood Simple suggests what might have resulted had
playwright Sam Shepard been hired to write a parody of horror films for
Brian De Palma.
A PRIVATE FUNCTION
Avarice and mendacity are the subjects of A Private Function, set in a
ravaged and rationed postwar England of 1947 where a bit of bacon is
capable of bestowing social status. Gilbert Chilvers (Michael Palin) is a
hard-working chiropodist who is married but doesn't wear a ring - "Tiny
bits of skin from people's feet tend to collect under it," he tells one of
his clients cheerfully.
Gilbert's wife, Joyce (Maggie Smith), is as restless as her husband is
content. Joyce, a matinee Lady Macbeth, puts on airs and has ideals. "Mrs.
Rhoades' ingrown toenail has turned the corner," reports Gilbert, engaging
in small talk after his day at work. "Please, Gilbert," Joyce recoils
airily (as only the magnificently mannered Smith can recoil), "don't bring
feet to the table."
Director Malcolm Mowbray and writer Alan Bennett (An Englishman Abroad)
take their time in introducing the inhabitants of the Chilvers' Yorkshire
village and in making the basic premise (an illegal pig is being fattened
for "a private function") clear, but the wait is worth it, and when the
pig, having become even more incontinent than usual as the result of a
diet that included ginger cookies, rodents and toenail snippings, pays an
extended, odiferous visit to the Chilvers' household, A Private Function
becomes a public cause for comic celebration.
The image that sticks is not, however, essentially comic: it's of the
tartily attired Joyce Chilvers with her dreams of "making this town sit up
and take notice," telling herself wistfully, "I want a future that will
live up to my past." She is speaking for herself, for her people, for her
era - and for her Empire.