Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Lookout (2007)

March 30, 2007, release date
Directed by Scott Frank
Screenplay by Scott Frank
Music by James Newton Howard
Edited by Jill Savitt
Cinematography by Alar Kivilo

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Chris Pratt
Jeff Daniels as Lewis
Matthew Goode as Gary Spargo
Isla Fisher as Luvlee Lemons, the woman who seduces Chris
Carla Gugino as Janet, Chris’s caseworker
Bruce McGill as Robert Pratt, Chris’s father
Alberta Watson as Barbara Pratt, Chris’s mother
Alex Borstein as Mrs. Lange, the bank teller
Sergio Di Zio as Deputy Ted
David Huband as Mr. Tuttle, the bank manager
Laura Vandervoort as Kelly, Chris’s high school girlfriend
Brian Roach as Danny, Chris’s teammate and high school friend
Suzanne Kelly as Nina, Danny’s girlfriend
Greg Dunham as Bone
Morgan Kelly as Marty
Aaron Berg as Cork

Distributed by Miramax Films
Produced by Spyglass Entertainment

A word of thanks to Moises, who recommended The Lookout to me. Moises and I were classmates in the 2015 online class TCM Presents Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir, which was taught by Richard L. Edwards, Ph.D., of Ball State University in collaboration with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Canvas. Click here for more information about the class discussion board, which is still up and running, and about film noir in general.

If The Lookout had been filmed in black and white instead of color, I think I would have mistaken it for a film noir from the 1940s. In fact, one of the first details that I noticed on the screen after the opening sequence is that the main character Chris Pratt attends classes at the Independent Life Skills Center of Kansas City, which made me think immediately of the 1952 film noir Kansas City Confidential. Both films are about bank heists, and I wondered if the film’s writer and director, Scott Frank, was thinking of the 1952 film when he wrote the screenplay for The Lookout. He doesn’t mention anything about it in the DVD commentary that he and cinematographer Alar Kivilo provide. In any case, I will have to see Kansas City Confidential again.

The Lookout starts at grass-level: lots of color, specifically green, even though it’s night. Then the camera moves along and up, like a predator lying in wait, and catches the headlights coming toward it. A car appears, with a couple in the front seat, a couple in the back, speeding along a dark deserted road. The driver, Chris, is looking for the fireflies that come out at a specific point in the year because he wants to show them to his girlfriend. To see them better, he turns off his headlights. His friends in the backseat start to get nervous, aware of the possible danger, but Chris persists until his girlfriend gets nervous too and convinces him to turn the headlights back on. By now, the car is close to hitting a combine thresher. The camera cuts the sequence just before impact, the screen fades to black, and the words “four years later” appear.

Chris Pratt was once a high school hockey player, a sports star, out on the night of his high school prom with his girlfriend Kelly, his best friend and teammate Danny, and his friend’s girlfriend Nina. His drive on a deserted road and his desire to show his girlfriend the beauty of the fireflies overhead causes a car accident that kills Danny and Nina, injures his girlfriend, and leaves him badly hurt with a traumatic brain injury. The next scenes, with Chris’s voice-over, which includes repetition of the phrase “I wake up,” are effective at describing succinctly what Chris’s life is like for him after the accident. This focus on Chris, someone who has been seriously injured, often has trouble focusing and remembering, and may or may not be accountable any more for his actions, is precisely what make this bank heist film different. Trying to remember what happened the night of the accident becomes an important theme for Chris and for the film.

(This blog post about The Lookout contains spoilers.)

Fate plays a large role in Chris’s life, starting with the accident when the film opens. Chris and his friends are driving on a deserted road, and there’s no reason to believe that anyone else would be on it at night. Fate seems to put the stalled thresher in the middle of the road for Chris to hit. The best that Chris can do after the accident is continue getting his life back together in the apartment that he shares with a blind man named Lewis and support himself as best he can working nights as a janitor at a local bank, the Noel Town Bank. But fate is still at work in Chris’s life. His job and his condition are what interest Gary Spargo: Gary has been watching Chris and charting his current habits. Gary and his friends plan to use Chris in their plot to rob the Noel Town Bank.

Once Chris becomes involved in the planning of the bank heist, events seem to spiral quickly out of control. He suffers trauma again, during the bank heist, because of decisions that he may or may not be responsible for, given his condition since the accident on the night of his high school prom. The second episode of trauma brings back some memories from the first one, and Chris’s flashbacks are instrumental to the resolution of the story. Chris had no memory of the car crash, and only through the traumatic events of the bank heist does he regain those memories. Once he can remember what happened the night of his high school prom, he feels more in control of his life and more able to put his life back together.

How responsible is Chris for the auto accident and for the decisions that he makes after the accident? Is Chris coerced into joining Spargo’s group planning the bank heist, or is he responsible for his own actions? Chris seems to think that he is responsible, judging by what he says in the return to his voice-over narration at the end of the film:
“Once upon a time, I woke up, and I robbed the Noel Town Bank. I returned the money and confessed my part, but in the end the FBI decided that someone like me could never pull off something like that. I guess it didn’t hurt that Marty cut the phone line instead of the video feed, so that the whole thing was caught on the bank cameras. . . .”
But viewers cannot be as sure about Chris’s conclusion. Before he recovers his memories, he is easily swayed by Spargo. Spargo tells Chris, “Whoever has the money, has the power.” It’s a powerful incentive for Chris, who is looking for more power, more control, in his life. Spargo’s manipulation of Chris works, at least temporarily.

The members of the original bank heist gang, especially Bone, are portrayed as thoroughly evil, but all the other characters are much more complicated. Chris eventually realizes that he has been manipulated by Spargo. He also realizes that he is doing wrong, and he slowly begins to realize that he is betraying his friends and putting them in danger with his decisions. In addition to his guilt over his high school friends’ deaths, Chris starts to feel guilty about the harm he is bringing to his coworkers and friends, especially Lewis and Deputy Ted.

Chris mentions early in the film that he didn’t really enjoy hunting with his father and his brother, but he hunted with them because he was good at it. After his participation in the bank heist and remembering what happened the night of the accident, he uses his new sense of control and power. It has nothing to do with money and thus gives him an edge over Gary Spargo. This edge and his expert marksmanship allow Chris to save himself and his friend Lewis.

After the accident on the night of Chris’s high school prom, all the colors in the film are muted and washed-out. Chris is just barely living his life now. Scenes in Chris’s and Lewis’s apartment are shot with light, shadow, and color that reminded me of Edward Hopper paintings. The last sequence in the film, in which Chris reflects on his past, is brighter and a bit more colorful: He is finally embracing his life and looking toward the future.

But Chris’s voice-over that accompanies this last sequence is also haunting. Some of what he discusses reminds viewers that he is still suffering from a brain injury. He says, “Until then, all I can do is wake up, take a shower, with soap, and try to forgive myself.” It’s a line that repeats his words from the beginning of the film. Chris has learned to sequence events, but he does it best working backward: “I guess I’ll just have to work backward from there.” It’s an approach that he learned from his roommate Lewis, who told him that he cannot write a story if he doesn’t know where it’s going. It is also the idea that helped Chris save his own and Lewis’s lives near the end of the film.

I cannot recommend The Lookout enough. It is a dark story of a character on the road (pun alert!) to redemption. The music in the film is haunting. It matches the mood of the characters and advances the plot. The cinematography is beautiful and dark. The narrative stays true to the characters, and it doesn’t offer any easy answers for them or for viewers. In noir fashion, the ending is ambiguous, and viewers are left wondering. But it does leave them with a measure of hope.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Sabotage (1936)

December 2, 1936 (United Kingdom), release date
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by Charles Bennett
Based loosely on the novel The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
Music by Louis Levy
Edited by Charles Frend
Cinematography by Bernard Knowles

Sylvia Sidney as Winnie Verloc
Oskar Homolka as Carl Anton Verloc
Desmond Tester as Stevie
John Loder as Sergeant Ted Spencer
Joyce Barbour as Renee, theater employee
Matthew Boulton as Superintendent Talbot
S. J. Warmington as Hollingshead
William Dewhurst as the professor

Distributed by Gaumont-British Picture Corporation Ltd.

Many consider Alfred Hitchcock to be in a category all his own, and I am not going to dispute that, but I do think that some of his films can be listed in more than one category. Sabotage is one of those films. Its dark themes about violence—how it leads to more violence and how it presents morally ambiguous choices to people who never wanted violence to begin with—places it in the category of noir, specifically avant noir (“before noir”), which many call proto-noir. Sabotage was released in 1936, before the period when film noir was at its height, generally 1940 to the early 1960s.

A movie theater owner, Verloc, accepts one more act of sabotage, the task of setting off a bomb in London, because the money is good. At first, he is reluctant about sabotage that will involve hurting people, but his greed about the money slowly gets the better of him. Once he accepts this task, he gives little thought to the consequences of his actions, even when they have a direct effect on his family. He doesn’t realize at first that he is already under suspicion by Scotland Yard. A police sergeant, Ted Spencer, is keeping him under daily surveillance, and some of Ted’s fellow officers tail Verloc occasionally. During the course of his surveillance work posing as a grocer next door to the Verlocs’ movie theater, Ted becomes emotionally attached to Verloc’s wife, Winnie, and the narrative thus becomes even more complicated.

(This blog post about Sabotage contains spoilers.)

What Verloc doesn’t foresee is Winnie’s young brother Stevie becoming involved. Stevie agrees to deliver the package not knowing that it contains the bomb. When it explodes on a London bus, Stevie is killed. When Winnie learns of her brother’s death, she is understandably distraught. She is even more upset when she learns that her own husband had a part in Stevie’s death. She is hurt and betrayed by Verloc’s culpability and by his reaction when she confronts him: He seems to think that they should make the best of the situation and move on with their lives, maybe consider starting a family of their own. Winnie is appalled by his lack of sensitivity and his callousness, and she rejects him. They sit down to dinner almost immediately after, and Hitchcock uses carefully controlled shots and cutting to demonstrate Winnie’s frame of mind when she picks up a carving knife, Verloc’s realization that his wife is more upset than he imagined, and her accidental stabbing of Verloc. The moral ambiguity starts here for Winnie: Did her wishing Verloc dead cause her to stab him? Did she purposely set out a plan to kill her husband? The film does not offer any definitive answers.

When I saw Sabotage for the first time, the moral ambiguity of some of the characters’ decisions struck me the most. It added a level of sophistication to the narrative that I had not expected. For instance, Ted falls in love with Winnie, a married woman. For part of the film, he is portrayed as good-natured, perhaps even easily duped. But when he realizes that Winnie is responsible for her husband’s death, he tosses everything aside, including his profession and his professional ethics, and offers to leave the country with her so that she can evade questioning by the police and perhaps even imprisonment. Both Winnie and Ted know the facts of Verloc’s death (Winnie confesses everything to him), but when Ted’s fellow officers reach a different conclusion about what happened to Winnie’s husband, neither Winnie nor Ted offers to clarify. In the final shot, they walk away, their backs to the camera, through the crowd that is beginning to congregate around the crime scene. They already know what happened and don’t want to linger.

Another example of the moral ambiguity of the film is that the saboteurs do not discuss their reasons for their acts of sabotage, and viewers have to accept that the violence has only vague explanations. The release date of the film offers a clue: It is the interwar period in Great Britain, and perhaps domestic spies are at work for various international and political reasons. Ted’s boss, Superintendent Talbot, tells him that the saboteurs are interested in “[m]aking trouble at home to take our minds off what’s going on abroad. . . .”

Fate plays a large role for some of the characters. It certainly does for Stevie, who is only trying to be helpful when he agrees to act as messenger and carry the package containing the bomb. Verloc would have carried the package himself except that Ted is in the movie theater asking Winnie a lot of questions, and Verloc doesn’t want to walk past Ted while carrying the bomb hidden in a package under his arm. Instead, he takes advantage of Stevie’s good nature.

I have seen Sabotage at least twice recently, and my enjoyment of the film was even greater on repeat viewings. The complexity of the story is more apparent: Each detail is important, and it’s easy to miss important details with only one viewing. The camera work and the story are sophisticated, and it’s worthwhile to see Sabotage more than once to appreciate its many layers. Hitchcock and film noir fans won’t be disappointed.