I must be an old soul when it comes to movies. Or maybe I’m just old. Whatever the case, my list all-time favorite films doesn’t include many contemporary movies. There are some that could eventually end up in this top tier, but for now, only “Michael Clayton” has made the cut. It’s no surprise that there are two Hitchcock films and a Stanley Kubrick film here. They are two of my favorite filmmakers. Sydney Pollack, Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplain aren’t too bad, either.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST
1959 • DIRECTED BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK
Even the opening titles of “North by Northwest” make you want to keep watching. The skewed credits by Saul Bass and the chaotic music by Bernard Hermann tell you that nothing is going to be normal or comfortable in this movie. It’s going to be confusing and disorienting. The everyday chaos of Manhattan ad man Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is easily handled, but he isn’t ready for the ride he is about to embark upon. “North by Northwest” is the best of Hitchcock’s man-wrongly-accused films, and Cary Grant the best to take the ride, running the gamut of emotions from inconvenience to indignation and then genuine fear. He also goes from just wanting to extricate himself from his situation to curiosity over what is actually going on. He goes as far as assuming the identity of the man he has been wrongly accused of being in his quest to find answers. The cross-country action is terrific, and the scenes legendary. The crop duster sequence is harrowing, and Hitchcock certainly draws on epic backgrounds with the UN Building and, of course, Mount Rushmore. But what takes North by Northwest into the Essential category is the intimate dialogue between the characters. At times witty, other times naughty, especially between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, who is wonderfully confident in her role as the sultry female lead. The innuendo is only barely subtle between the two. The expressions, both verbal and non-verbal are terrific throughout with a great cast that includes James Mason as international spy and Martin Landau as his henchman. “North by Northwest” is a smart movie. You are allowed to try and figure things out along with Roger Thornhill without having solutions slapped into your face. This film remains at the top of my list of all-time greats.
The cropduster scene taking place on the stark farmland supposedly in Northwest Indiana, the chase on Mount Rushmore, the art auction scene — all are classics, but I like the dinner scene on the train. Cary Grant is as suave and as smooth as they come, but he is outdone by the savvy and confident Eva Marie Saint. She knows exactly who he is and what he is, and what she wants. The wordplay leaves no doubt about where they are headed, but it’s still a fun back-and-forth.
CARY GRANT as ROGER THORNHILL
In the police station, making his one phone call after being arrested for drunk driving:
“Mother, this is your son, Roger Thornhill … No, no, Mother. I have not been drinking. No, no. These two men, they poured a whole bottle of bourbon into me. … No, they didn't give me a chaser.”
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THE 39 STEPS • 1935
If you’re looking for another Hitchcock-Grant pairing, the two worked together on “Suspicion,” “Notorious” and “To Catch a Thief.” Hitchcock also made several films of a man wrongly accused, such as Roger Thornhill in ”North by Northwest.” The best of these is “The 39 Steps,” which features Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll handcuffed together while going on the run evading authorities and spies. Also worth mentioning are the early film, “The Lodger,” along with “The Wrong Man” and “Murder!”
OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB
1964 • DIRECTED BY STANLEY KUBRICK
As a teenager, I was not unfamiliar with political satire or political comedy. We read “Animal Farm” in school, and I watched “M*A*S*H” on television and had seen the movie, and understood that it was really about Vietnam, not Korea. Other satires like “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” tended toward sight gags and almost slapstick humor. Smart satire of politics, news, business or whatever is very hard to pull off. There is a certain subtlety to it, sometimes with dark humor, almost always with sharp dialogue. Charlie Chaplin produced a not-so-subtle satire of Hitler in “The Great Dictator” back in 1940 and “Sullivan’s Travels” parodied the movie industry in the 40s. “M*A*S*H” was the best satire of war, “Network” took on television and “Being There” took on politics. But the best of them all has been “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb,” Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece poking fun at global thermonuclear war. With an amazing cast that includes Peter Sellers (playing three different roles), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and Slim Pickens, the performances are outstanding. Even the character names are fun, with the sexual undertones not so much innuendo as they are blatantly overt. The connection between male-driven military power and sexual prowess is a running theme in both dialogue and visuals. Kubrick (who would go much darker and more violent later in “ Clockwork Orange”) brings it all together with his visual style in high-contrast black-and-white, wide shots, tight shots. The dialogue and acting runs from farcical to humorously chilling. It’s an interesting note that this film came out eight months before the movie “Fail Safe” which is a serious take on nearly the same scenario of a wayward U.S. bomber headed to Moscow. Both movies took their premise from the book “Red Alert” by Peter George. Both films stand up well on their own, but are a good study when viewed as a package. As with any Kubrick offering, the visuals are a subject all on their own. It takes multiple viewings and perhaps a cheat sheet from one of the many web sites devoted to the subject to catch all Kubrick’s stylings. Multiple viewings are also required just because it’s such a terrific film.
Sellers, as President Merkin Muffley (see what I mean about the names?) finally gets the Soviet premier Dmitri Kissov on the phone to tell him about the rogue bomber on its way to bomb Moscow. Sellers carries the scene as we hear only his side of the phone conversation. Despite the graveness of the situation, it seems more like a chat, with the two discussing the sound quality of the call, how each of them are, how friendly the call is, and who is more sorry about the situation. The light, superficial tone of the call is set in contrast to the gravity of the situation, and also to show the “weakness” of Muffley’s diplomacy compared to the “strength” and manliness of the military.
STERLING HAYDEN as GENERAL JACK RIPPER
The funniest line comes when an American general and the Russian ambassador are engaged in a scuffle, and the President says “You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” But that’s a one-off line. The better line comes from General Ripper, after initiating the bomber strike on the Soviet Union, explains to Capt. Mandrake (Sellers, again) that he had done it because he thought the Russians had been behind the introduction of fluoridation into the U.S. water system, which he believed was sapping the Americans of their “precious bodily fluids.” It’s the ultimate overcompensation for a moment of male impotence:
“Well, I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love. Yes, a profound sense of fatigue... a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence. I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake. But I do deny them my essence.”
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FAIL SAFE • 1964
It’s probably worth watching the film “Fail Safe,” the straight-forward drama based on the similar circumstances in “Dr. Strangelove.” Both are loosely based on the novel “Red Alert” by Peter George, which is about a nuclear bomber entering Russia accidentally and is unable to be recalled. Both films were released within a year of each other. “Fail Safe” was released second, and suffered from comparisons to Dr. Strangelove. But “Fail Safe” holds up on its own with solid performances by Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau and a young Larry Hagman.
1941 • DIRECTED BY ORSON WELLES
It has become popular recently to not list “Citizen Kane” among the top films. Maybe it's a critic's way of showing they have their own mind. But each time I watch the movie and try to knock “Citizen Kane” down for flaws, I feel like I’m nit-picking. Yes, there are times when the dialogue feels loud and forced without much subtle nuance — kind of like a stage play. That is understandable, considering it was Welles’ first film, and most of the actors came from his Mercury Theatre acting troupe. But it is remarkably packaged, from the overlapping manner of telling the story to the experimental camera work of Gregg Toland. Toland’s deep-focus technique allowed for parallel actions taking place within one scene. He varied angles and used creative sets to skew the sense of scale and proportion. My favorite acting performance is that of Joseph Cotten as Jed Leland. Leland is Kane's best friend and the one person who knows him best and calls him out in his own way, but yet even Leland doesn't have a full understanding of the complete Kane. Cotten is even better in another of my Essentials, “Shadow of a Doubt.”
There are so many terrific moments that it is diffcult to settle on one. Agnes Morehead is spectacular in her limited role as Kane's mother, and the scene where she signs the papers to send the young Kane to live with Mr. Thatcher is a masterpiece of expression and movement. Welles provides Kane with many of the best lines in the movie. As a newspaper veteran, I enjoy the scenes from the newspaper office. But one scene that I can single out is the the one in which Kane's estranged friend Jed Leland is the drama critic for Kane's newspaper who must review the opera starring Kane's less-than-talented wife. Throughout the performance, we see Leland in the audience, knowing he is faced with trying to please his friend with a phony glowing review or be true to himself and write an honest, critical review. The shot of Leland tearing up his program and making a bit of toy out of it is classic, and is one of the many shots from "Citizen Kane" that is parodied by "The Simpsons." The scene ends with Kane entering the newsroom to find a druken Leland passed out over his typewriter. Kane steps in and completes the bad review that Leland had started. Leland awakens and approached Kane, and asks ”I thought we weren't speaking.” Kane responds, ”Sure we're speaking Jedediah … you're fired.“
EVERETTE SLOANE as MR. BERNSTEIN
Now an old man, Mr. Bernstein is asked if he knew the meaning of Mr. Kane's last word,"Rosebud." He speculated it might have been something very simple or fleeting:
“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.”
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THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS • 1942
Really the only way to follow up the classic Welles made in his first film is to watch the second, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” nearly as much as classic as “Citizen Kane.” Like the making of “Kane,” the making of “The Magnificent Ambersons” is as much a story as the movie itself. The version Welles presented RKO was edited by more than 40 minutes, mostly while Welles was away in South America producing a film for the U.S. government. Despite the cuts, the movie is still considered a classic. Many of the players from Welles’ Mercury Theater who appeared in “Citizen Kane” also are in this movie, including Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead and Ray Collins. It is an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel. Despite numerous endings filmed by Welles that veered from the novel, the edited final scene (a happier ending, despite the overall dark tone of the movie) matched that of Tarkington’s book.
1942 • DIRECTED BY MICHAEL CURTIZ
“Casablanca” has been called the perfect movie. It certainly has all the elements — a compelling story, great performances from an outstanding cast, memorable scenes, and remarkable visuals. To watch it today, it’s hard to think of anyone else in the legendary roles: Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, Claude Rains as Capt. Renault. Set in the open city of Casablanca, the shadow of the early days of World War II sets an immediate level of anxiety and intrigue. People from all over Europe have congregated here, looking for ways out or to make money on the black market or in other nefarious ways. There are troops from all sides, along with underground activity, adding to the intrigue. All manner of patriots and scoundrels, all bound together with little opportunity to leave. Dropped into the middle is a basic love triangle — a beautiful woman (Bergman) and the two men who she loves. One is her husband, Czech Resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henried) who rallies the underground against the Nazis, The other is the dashing American nightclub owner Rick Blaine, whom she had met and fell in love with years earlier in Paris after believing her husband had been killed. Upon finding out Lazlo was still alive, she went to be with him, leaving Rick to leave Paris without her and never knowing why she left him. They are reunited as Ilsa and Victor arrive in Casablanca and enter the Cafe American, not knowing that Rick is the proprietor, and now a bitter cynic still pining for his lost love. Seeing her again prompts one of the most famous lines in filmdom, as a drunk Rick laments, “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”
That's the setup for the rest of the movie goes about trying to resolve two unresolveable situations in love and war. Victor and Ilsa want to escape Casablanca for America where he can continue his work, but escape is virtually impossible under the Nazi influence, except for using letter of transit that Rick has in his possession. The other situation is the love triangle in which Ilsa cannot choose which of the two men she loves she will follow. The situations come to their resolution at a foggy airport in one of the most memorable scenes in filmdom.
Even the smallest of roles in this film are performed to perfection. Many of the actors had actually escaped Nazi Germany or other occupied areas in real life, providing a well-woven narrative depth. Lastly, the cinematography and outstanding wordplay from a terrific script puts “Casablanca” in contention as the best film ever made.
Not to be lost is the music, including the emotional scene in which the cafe patrons singing the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” overpowers the German officers singing their anthem. Don’t forget Dooley Wilson at the piano playing “As Time Goes By,” one of the most famous film songs ever. Play it, Sam.
There are a dozen legendary scenes in this movie, and picking one is difficult. The “La Marseillaise” scene is stirring. The roulette scene with the young couple heartwarming. Captain Renault provides smile-inducing lines. But the airport scene at the end of the film can be argued as the greatest in history. It’s certainly among the all-time best. Rick’s speech to Ilsa sending her off with her husband is legendary, but the best moment within the scene comes right after, and is all visual, all symbolic. Victor has returned from making final arrangements, and the three of them are standing together. Victor asks if she is ready. The camera cuts in to Ilsa, who is initially at Rick’s side, but her eyes shift across the screen to Victor. She steps across to stand next to him. No words are spoken, but none are needed. All has been decided. Those few steps across the screen have spoken volumes. It takes two seconds, but hits me every time.
CLAUDE RAINS as CAPTAIN LOUIS RENAULT
This film is filled with memorable lines. The last line “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.“ “Here’s looking at you, kid.” “Of all the gin joints …”, “Round up the usual suspects”, “The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” “We’ll always have Paris.” “Play it, Sam.” “I am shocked- shocked- to find that gambling is going on in here!” But I have one line that has always stuck with me. It’s another line from Captain Renault, another smart-ass line that is oh-so-clever. Rick has just revealed to Renault that he had hidden the elusive letters of transit in Sam’s piano:
“Serves me right for not being musical.”
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TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT • 1944
You can look at any of Bogart’s films and you’ll get a “Casablanca” vibe, including more classics in “The Maltese Falcon,” “Key Largo” and “The Big Sleep.” Even in “The African Queen” he is paired with a heroine battling Germans. But the most-often comparison comes in “To Have and Have Not,” which some have dubbed “Casablanca on a Boat.” It’s Bogart again, this time in the Caribbean as a boat captain, again in conflict with the German-controlled island of Martinique during World War II. There’s also a nightclub and a piano player (this time it’s Hoagy Carmichael), and a sultry female lead — Lauren Bacall, making her film debut at the age of 19, and her first of four films with Bogart, with whom she was starting one of Hollywood’s great pairings and love stories. The comparisons of this film to Casablanca continue right down to having a famous line. In this film, it’s when Bacall turns to Bogart as she leaves the room, “You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
SHADOW OF A DOUBT
1943 • DIRECTED BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK
The great thing about Hitchcock is the many different ways he creates suspense. He can move you to the edge of your seat with pure terror, such as “The Birds,” or how our minds affect our reality, like “Vertigo” or “Rear Window.” Hitchcock called “Shadow of a Doubt” his favorite film, and his style here is unique. Hitchcock doesn’t wait until the end to unravel a mystery. He tells you right from the beginning that Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) is a miserable, cynical serial killer. His train arrives in town spewing black smoke, portending the darkness he is bringing to the sunny city. We know his is the killer. The suspense comes from how or if his naive, small-town family will uncover his terrible secret. He hardly holds back or tries to hide who he is. His soliloquy at dinner is chilling, but barely causes a ripple among family members. Only his niece (Teresa Wright), who believes she has a special connection to her beloved uncle “twin,” begins to understand who he is and that he has brought his dark world and a certain bit of reality into their idyllic setting. The rest of the family blissfully floats through life, in spite of Uncle Charlie’s overt pronouncements. Even the benign game that Joseph and his friend, Herbie, play about how to get away with murder doesn’t register in its morbidity. The psychological drama we follow is with Young Charlie as the veil of the real world is slowly lifted. Her quest for adventure results in seeing that there is a dark world out there, and it has swallowed her uncle. In the end, although she loves him, she must destroy him. The cinematography does a wonderful job in subtleties from shot to shot, creating the "twins" symmetry between Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie and including visuals with reference to death and dying. Hitchcock also uses the camera to convey varying emotions or even morality with his use of lighting, perspective and angles.
There are three main scenes that really stand out to me. One is visual, and the other two are moments by Uncle Charlie, explaining his bleak view of society. The first, mentioned earlier, is Uncle Charlie’s arrival in town. The thick, black smoke of the train coming into the station is an ominous sign of the evil entering the quiet, naive town. Uncle Charlie needs assistance getting off the train, he has a cane and is obviously a broken man. But after breathing the pure air of this good town, he suddenly becomes re-energized and soon has a spring in his step. Uncle Charlie’s first speech comes at dinner, as the camera pulls in tight from the side and the background goes black. He compares widowed women as fatted cattle, wheezing and waiting for slaughter. Only Young Charlie is disturbed by this vileness, saying the women are still living human beings. Uncle Charlie turns and looks directly into the camera and coldly says, “Are they? Are they, Charlie?” The third scene comes immediately after the dinner scene. Young Charlie has fled the house and her uncle follows her to a smoky bar, a place the Young Charlie would never have gone into on her own. There, Uncle Charlie tells his young niece how she has led a sheltered life, a dream life away from the ugliness of the real world - his world. She knows by now he is a murderer and bitter man, but in this speech, Uncle Charlie is almost begging her to turn him in and end his pain. He tells her “Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.”
TERESA WRIGHT as YOUNG CHARLIE
HENRY TRAVERS as JOSEPH NEWTON
In a movie with a dark tone, there are lighter moments, sort of. Young Charlie’s father, Joe, and their neighbor, Herb, have an ongoing contest about ways to commit with murder without getting caught, including drowning and poisoning by mushrooms. It’s a macabre game, but basically harmless. Still, it bothers Young Charlie, who wonders how they could be so flippant:
YOUNG CHARLIE: “Oh, what's the matter with you two? Do you always have to talk about killing people?”
JOSEPH NEWTON: “We're not talking about killing people. Herb's talking about killing me and I'm talking about killing him.”
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STOKER • 2013
It’s difficult to find a film that has the same complex setup as “Shadow of a Doubt.” Certainly, there are plenty of good vs. evil films, those where a malevolent entity enters into idyllic settings, and even those where the evil force appears good. But it wasn’t until a little-known film “Stoker” came out in 2013 did a similar plot emerge. Directed by South Korea’s Park Chan-wook, the movie stars Nicole Kidman. The story involves a young woman whose father dies, and at the funeral she meets her father’s brother — her Uncle Charlie — for the first time. Over the course of the film, the woman slowly learns that the charismatic Charlie is not who he seems. While the movie is more violent and is close to the horror genre, the film’s writer acknowledges that he was highly influenced by “Shadow of a Doubt,” down to the naming the uncle “Charlie.” There is also the psychological connection between the niece and her uncle, and there are nods to the original film with scenes on a staircase and involving trains.
1931 • DIRECTED BY CHARLIE CHAPLIN
When I had my own apartment and needed cheap decorations, I thought I would put up some posters, like a lot of 20-something single males have done and still do. I liked movie posters and had an art-deco style “King Kong” poster. I also found a poster for Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” that I really liked and had on my wall for several years. I had never seen the movie, but at that time, I thought the poster would make me look a bit more eclectic and interesting. I decided I would try and find the movie to watch, but in the early days of video rental stores, it wasn’t easy to find a 1930s silent film, even if it was considered a classic. I finally found a copy and after a viewing, I realized that my taste in movie posters was justified by the quality of the film. I’m not an expert in silent films, but I can tell that Chaplin is a master in the art of dialogue without words. His expressions make the scene, even without the subtitles. The physicalness of his Little Tramp character is legendary. But it is still amazing to watch the way he moves and the choreography of those movements. I learned later that Chaplin was a perfectionist and would do take after take until he got the scene just the way he wanted it. The opening scene where he works his way off a statue, and the classic boxing sequence were done with such precision. They certainly needed to be rehearsed over and over, because of the long single takes in each scene. One wrong move or even a move out of tempo would cause the whole take to be scrapped and redone. Even in what seems to be a simple story, I read that Chaplin shot more than 300,000 feet of film to make “City Lights,” with its completed length at just over 8,000 feet. That means Chaplin shot 40 times as much footage as ended up in the final product. The result, while a simple story, is told beautifully with a certain depth. The comic side scenes are not only funny, but within them there are the small movements that give that extra touch that Chaplin worked so hard to achieve. By the time this film premiered in 1931, talking pictures were the norm, but Chaplin, THE premier silent storyteller, wasn’t ready to give up on it. It was a relative new medium, but filmmaking was still smart, and Chaplin was a master. It’s a sweet story of the destitute Little Tramp trying to help the blind flower girl, first for rent money, then for funds to get her an operation to let her see again. The blind girl thinks her benefactor is wealthy, and the Little Tramp lets her believe that. He disappears from her life just as she regains her sight and begins s new life.Their paths finally cross again. She is the now-successful flower shop owner, and the Tramp is even more down on his luck. Not recognizing him, she offers him a flower for his lapel. It’s not until she touches his hand that she realizes who he is. The smile on her face shows that she accepts him for who he is, not for how he looks or that he is not rich. That’s all that is needed to bring a smile to his face as the film ends. It’s one of the best closing scenes in all the history of movies.
The ending of the movie is special. It brings a tear to your eye every time. Again, it has subtitles, but in reality, none are needed. The scene I enjoy most, though, is the boxing scene. Physical comedy is difficult. The great Marx Brothers mirror pantomime is a classic of coordination, and the boxing scene in “City Lights” takes that to another level. Again, long takes of tempo, timing, coordination of movement and space are remarkable. The actors make it look effortless, but as you watch, you realize the level of physical coordination it took to pull off the scene. It not only takes the brilliance of Chaplin, but also of the actors he works with. Many of the physical comedy routines pioneered by Chaplin, along with his silent film contemporary Buster Keaton, have been copied by filmmakers ever since.
CHARLIE CHAPLIN as THE LITTLE TRAMP
VIRGINIA CHERRILL as THE BLIND GIRL
It’s a silent film, so the lines are subtitles. Actually, words aren’t even necessary. The expressions fill in for dialogue. It’s simple. It ends the film. It’s just a few words, but it says everything. The blind girl says that, yes, she can she now. She sees everything, not just the new colors of the world around her, but really sees things. She sees the Little Tramp in his shabby clothes and understands all that he done for her and it doesn’t matter that he isn’t a wealthy benefactor. It’s a vision that goes beyond physical sight.:
The Tramp: “You can see now?”
The Blind Girl: "Yes, I can see now.“
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THE KID • 1921
Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” is his most famous character as the rumpled vagrant with the benevolent heart who goes out of his way to help others while all the while trying to survive himself. “City Lights” is the best of these silent films made between 1914 and 1936. In a similar way to how the Tramp plays benefactor to the blind girl in “City Lights,” Chaplin finds himself as father to an abandoned baby in “The Kid.” The little Tramp raises the boy (Jackie Coogan, who would later play Uncle Fester in “The Addams Family”) as his own, until the boy’s mother reappears years later. The boy is taken from him and to his mother, who had offered a reward for the boy. A kind policeman takes the Tramp to the mother’s house and the boys and his adoptive father are reunited, and the mother takes the Tramp into her house, grateful for raising her son. The ending is similar to “City Lights” in that the Tramp is accepted for his good deeds and heart, and not for his shabby look.
2007 • DIRECTED BY TONY GILROY
It’s said that in great jazz, it’s not about the notes that are played but about the ones that aren’t played.
Watching “Michel Clayton” is like listening to those notes that aren’t played.
In three main characters we see people they aren’t particularly happy to be in, yet have made certain moral compromises. We see their flaws and how they deal (or don’t deal) with them.
George Clooney is in the eponymous role as a lawyer “fixer” for a mega-law firm. He could have risen higher, but a variety of shortcomings have left him in the position of cleaning up messy problems the firm’s clients find themselves in.
Tilda Swinton magnificently plays Karen Crowder, the chief counsel for agrochemical company U/North in a class action suit where the company’s product allegedly poisoned a number of people. Tom Wilkinson, in another outstanding performance, plays attorney Arthur Edens, who is negotiating a settlement of the suit before suffering a mental episode.
Edens is the first to break from his moral dilemma. While he was found running naked in a snowy parking lot, he seems to have reset his moral compass and now wants to expose U/North with documents proving their guilt. Clooney is called in to rein in his friend and colleague.
We first see Swinton struggling with her role as her character retreats to a restroom stall in a cold sweat. We don’t know why, but we know more as the story develops. We see her physical flaws as she dresses for a presentation, and as shows her lack of self-confidence as she rehearses her speech.
Her weak mindedness is further exposed when she is convinced not to trust Michael Clayton to take care of the problem, and is bullied into issuing the order to have Edens and Clayton killed.
Clayton is the thread that runs through the story, and after Edens is killed, Clayton finds the evidence that Edens had against U/North. Clayton escapes the attempt on his life, which, combined with Edens’ death, is enough to push Clayton to decide the truth is worth what it will cost him.
First, there's the scene in which Michael Clayton pulls his car over when he sees horses on a hill that remind him of an image in his child's book. He leaves the car moments before it explodes. It's a surreal moment. The horses have saved his life, causing Clayton to further re-evaluate his life. It would be easy to go with the scenes at the end of the film, where Clayton entraps Karen in a bribe for the damning U/North documents. That includes the great line. “I'm not the guy you kill. I'm the guy you buy!” That is followed by Clayton getting into a cab and telling the driver “Give me fifty dollars worth. Just drive.” the credits roll as we see a silent Clayton presumably contemplating a new life where his ethical decision has cost him everything.
But it is Swinton, who won an Oscar for her performance, who turns in a pair of stellar scenes. The first, at the beginning of the movie, we see her obviously in mental distress, profusely sweating in a bathroom stall. At the moment, we don’t know why, but that unfolds through the movie. Her second scene is getting ready for her final presentation, with all her clothes laid out perfectly on the bed. She stands, exposed, in her underwear, an imperfect form meticulously searching for the perfect look. We know at this point, she is barely hanging on mentally, using the selection of her outfit as the one last thing she can control.
GEORGE CLOONEY as MICHAEL CLAYTON
TILDA SWINTON as KAREN CROWDER
Clayton, a "fixer" attorney whose job it is to clean up messy legal problems, has just confronted U/North chief counsel Crowder over documents proving the company is guilty in an agrochemical poisoning case, and that she had ordered hired killers to murder Clayton.
Michael Clayton: "I'm not the guy you kill, I'm the guy you buy! … I'm the easiest part of your problem and you're gonna kill me?"
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First of all, it's hard to find a film the quality of "Michael Clayton." It's one of the top movies of the 2000s.There are several whistleblower films going back to "Silkwood." There are also films that show major corporations trying to hide wrong-doing, like "Erin Brockovich,""The Constant Gardener," and 2019's "Dark Waters." There are just as many films featuring lawyers faced with ethical dilemmas. "The Firm" may come closest, with Tom Cruise joining a law firm with plenty of perks. But when he uncovers that the firm is engaged in a massive tax-evasion scheme for wealthy clients and is trapped between the firm and the government, he makes the ethical choice to expose the firm. It doesn't have nearly the depth or the performances of "Michael Clayton." The other film is "The Verdict" with Paul Newman as an aging attorney looking for redemption from his past behaviors. While it includes an Oscar-nominated performance by Newman, it is more of a courtroom drama with the comeback feel-good finish rather than deeper ethical exploration.
In the end, "Michael Clayton" stands alone. It's probably best to just watch it a second time.