That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #20: Why Don’t You Pass The Time By Playing A Little Solitaire?

Posted by kozemp on November 1, 2012

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Why is Janet Leigh in this movie?

This is a glib criticism I admittedly toss around a lot. It’s a convenient joke and criticism all in one and it practically writes itself. “Why is [thing X] in [movie Y]?” Usually it comes out when something in a movie feels tacked on, or unnecessary, or it’s too far outside the movie’s tolerances for either goodness or badness. Sam Rockwell in Iron Man 2. The car chase in The Rock. The love interest for James Franco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Helena Bonham Carter in the last Terminator movie. Sam Worthington in the last Terminator movie. Actually, basically anyone in the last Terminator movie. But you get the idea. These things are usually a case of either a) studio interference, or b) filmmakers who refused to heed Faulkner’s advice to kill your darlings.

But in this specific case none of that seems to work. Janet Leigh is certainly not wildly better or worse than anyone else in the movie – like everyone involved, she is amazing – and the case isn’t so much that her character feels tacked on or unnecessary so much as…

So much as I CAN’T FIGURE OUT WHAT THE FUCK SHE’S DOING. My glib bon mot, in this case, becomes a literal request for information. The movie is too perfectly constructed, too meticulous, too watertight for her to just be thrown on there as so much gilding the lily. She has to be doing something, but what? FOR GOD’S SAKE, WHAT?!

I've never understood the meaning of that saying, "more or less."

My father has always insisted that Eugenie is in the movie because she is Ben Marco’s control, the last Manchurian fail-safe to keep their plan from going pear-shaped. That is one of those things that… I guess the movie doesn’t explicitly FORBID that kind of interpretation, but it has always seemed like grasping at straws to me. If she is that she certainly doesn’t do a very good job of it. Could she just be there to provide a happy counterpoint to Josie Jordan, and thus to further establish Raymond as a foil for Ben?

Because – let’s get away from the ontological question of Janet Leigh for a bit – in a film that is packed to bursting with amazing, perfect execution at every turn, how awesome is the dynamic between Bennett Marco and Raymond Shaw? On the one hand you have Ben, a smart, competent, good man who has come unglued because of what’s been done to him by Yen Lo. On the other hand you have Raymond, who is a cold, cruel, detestable lout because of what’s been done to him by his mother – and just what we’re explicitly told, never mind the horrors the movie HINTS that his mother has been visiting on him – who is actually turned into a sympathetic, even positive character by Yen Lo’s “dry cleaning.” His devotion to his duty and his country and the love of a good woman (for whatever reason she’s around) end up saving Ben Marco; the same devotion and, most cruelly, the same love of a good woman end up destroying Raymond Shaw.

I could go on and on about the foil relationship between Ben and Raymond for days. This stuff is porn for writers; it is one of those things that every time I see the movie I am blown away by the depth and complexity of the characterizations.

And, like I mentioned, this is in a movie that is already gushing with awesome to begin with. All that amazing characterization wouldn’t be worth much if the leads weren’t as good as they are, and sweet zombie Jesus are they good in this.

SINATRA. Oh my stars and garters, Sinatra in this. Sinatra didn’t exactly give a ton of exceptional performances in his career, and everyone goes on about his showy acting turns in The Man With The Golden Arm and From Here To Eternity. I’ve always thought the former was overblown and his performance overwrought, and the latter (while in a movie that my love for will soon be apparent) is good but a small part… man oh MAN does Sinatra knock this one out of the park. The range he displays in this movie is astonishing. And for however much of a persona he put on, I’ve never bought the idea that Sinatra was any sort of tough guy… except for the fight scene with Henry Silva (the voice of BTAS Bane!). The fight is quick and brutal, and when Ben starts shouting “what was Raymond doing with his hands” for the first and only time I actually found Frank Sinatra to be physically dangerous. For my money he was never this good, and would never be again. Not even close.

And Laurence Harvey… at first blush Raymond seems like a pretty thankless role, but on further examination there is, as a golfer might say, quite a lot of meat on that bone. Harvey (like Sinatra) has to do a lot of work showing that his character constantly has conflicting impulses, and you can actually see the CHARACTER doing that, not the actor, and it’s fucking incredible. Laurence Harvey is an actor who isn’t terribly well known to modern American audiences – even I admit I haven’t seen a whole lot that the guy was in – but his conception of Raymond Shaw is a wonder to behold.

(Interestingly enough both Ben and Raymond have the SAME conflicting impulses – Raymond is cold and clinical so as to conceal his rage at the world for what was done to him before Korea, and Ben adopts a sort of brutally efficient affect to control his rage at what was done to Raymond IN Korea. More character parallelism… <cue Homer drooling noise>)

Just like with the whole porn-for-writers thing, I could basically go on for days about every single thing in this movie and how awesome it is. There is little point in singling anything out, even the leads (though I did because of AWESOME), since pretty much everything in this movie is note-perfect. Even Janet Leigh, despite the fact that I can’t figure out why she’s in the movie. But this is a rare case – you might want to write down the date – where I am happy to admit that there is something I cannot figure out, will never figure out, am incapable of figuring out.

Because this time, there are two possibilities. One is that this perfect, astonishing, genre-defining film, in which everyone involved made every decision with molecular accuracy, has an important piece that is maddeningly out of place. The other is that I just can’t figure out exactly what those purveyors of perfection were doing with that one piece.

I’m going with the latter.



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