Friday, January 14, 2011

There’s No Business Like Snow Business

Werth: Hi there, Wise.

Wise: Hello, Werth.  

Werth: I was just sitting here thinking about all this lovely snow we’ve been getting.  

Wise: I know.  It’s turned New York into a winter wonderland. 

Werth: Or a wonderslush depending on your street corner. I was worried about you.  I knew you had gone to the farm for the weekend, but didn’t know if you could make it back.  

Wise: Luckily, I left just before the snow started, otherwise I would have been stuck out there until the mule team came by on the sledge.  

Werth: I do hope John Proctor and Goody Smith brought their snowblower.

Wise: As it was, I got to watch the start of the storm from the train.  It was really beautiful to see the landscape gradually fill up with snow.  It reminded me of how great it is when movies use snow in interesting ways.  

Werth: Like in Scarface

Wise: Actually I was thinking about  Murder on The Orient Express.  Based on the mystery novel by Agatha Christie, it’s a classic turn on the locked room formula.  All the characters are trapped on a snowbound train, a murder is committed in the middle of the night, and Christie favorite Hercule Poirot must solve the mystery. 
Werth: That darned Belgian.

Wise: It’s also a classic of 70’s cinema with the cast packed with Hollywood luminaries from all over the map.  Albert Finney plays Poirot, Richard Widmark is the paranoid American businessman who winds up dead, Sean Connery is delightfully blustery, and Ingrid Bergman plays against type as a stuttering milquetoast.  

Werth: That train is jam-packed with stars! 

Wise: But that’s not even half the cast.  Lauren Bacall is in it and so are John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Michael York, and Jacqueline Bisset.  It even has Dame Wendy Hiller who is not only one of my favorite actresses but also originated the role of Eliza Doolittle in the film version of Geroge Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion long before Audrey Hepburn lip synced her way through My Fair Lady.  Every performance is delightfully juicy, filled with scenery chewing moments as well as some real tenderness.  It’s also a satisfying mystery.  

Werth: It must be hard to create story action when everyone’s stuck on a train.  

Wise: Director Sidney Lumet makes some interesting choices in the ways he shot the film.  During the interrogation scenes, the camera lingers on the characters’ faces, allowing the audience to speculate on their guilt or innocence.  There are also a number of flashbacks, and Lumet gives those a nightmarish quality, suggesting the furious anger of the murderer. 
Some of the most memorable shots, however, are exteriors of the train in the snow.  Lumet uses the train’s progress to telegraph the progress of the investigation: we see it stuck in a snowbank when the mystery is at its murkiest, and then, as soon as Poirot reveals the solution, the train emerges from the ice.  

Werth: So did the butler do it?  

Wise: I have to admit, the ending is not such a surprise, especially given the calibre of the actors present, but the conclusion makes a particularly satisfying end. What’s your favorite snowbound classic? 

Werth: Amazingly enough, my favorite snowy movie is a mystery as well—1996’s Fargo.

Wise: Ooh! That IS snowy.

Werth: From its opening shot of a small bird followed by a car emerging from a raging snowstorm, Fargo uses the heavy snow of a Middle-North winter to do more than just tell us they’re in Minnesota. The snow becomes an active participant in the film’s design. Fargo is what you might call a Film Blanc.

Wise: Is that a Belgian candy? 

Werth: It’s like the photo negative of the Film Noir. Film Noir uses the stylized lack of light to create a distinct look. Shadows cut across the faces of femmes fatales and mugs with guns, hiding their motives and highlighting their dark intentions. In Fargo, instead of shadow, we have blinding, white snow. The bodies of the victims don’t lie in half-light, but contrast bloodily with the pure snow. 
The criminals aren’t dark masterminds like Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon or Kirk Douglas in Out of the Past. They are snowy morons blinking in the light reflected by snowdrifts. Jerry Lundergaard’s temper tantrum with an ice-scraper is acted out in a snow-covered, empty parking lot as if on a white canvas for all to see. The darkness (and the idiocy) of these characters has nowhere to hide.

Wise:  I think what’s interesting about Fargo is how it seems so comfortable being a dark thriller, and a comedy at the same time.

Werth: I remember seeing the trailer in the theaters and when we heard, “From the makers of Raising Arizona,” and the two hookers with their sing-song accents started head-bobbing, we were certain Fargo was going to be a laugh riot. But it’s not—not really. The Cohen Brothers film what is essentially a murder mystery with all the requisite blood, violence and tension, but they tell the story with characters that are so quirkily ordinary, it becomes comic. William H. Macy’s Oscar®-nominated performance as Jerry Lundergaard is so expertly pathetic you almost feel sorry for him—even if he is having his own wife kidnapped. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare as the kidnappers are like a filthy, dysfunctional vaudeville act. 
And Frances McDormand, as the pregnant, homespun Columbo who tracks down the kidnappers, goes from the blandest of conversations with her husband about duck paintings for a stamp competition to walking through a body-filled crime scene where she nails every detail of the murder. Her performance is funny, brave and touching and it won her a much-deserved Oscar®.

Wise: Uh yeah?

Werth: Is that your attempt at a Minnesota accent?

Wise: Uh yeah?

Werth: And on that comically thrilling note, I’m going to go outside and try to find a snowbound trains full of old movie stars.

Wise: Would you settle for a subway car full of old hobos?

Werth: As long as one of them is Belgian.

Wise: Tune in next week for a piping hot serving of Film Gab!


No comments: