Movie night with Urbaniak: Performance


  nor I had ever seen Nicholas Roeg’s 1969 druggy, draggy landmark of 60s Weird British Cinema before, so we were on equal footing for this viewing.

Myself, I’ve come to believe that the cinematic form demands a certain complexity of plot. Others, obviously, disagree. In any case, I’m always keeping my eye out for novel plotlines, so I kept a pad of paper and pen handy to record the plot of Performance. Here’s what I wrote:

“Chas is a cockney gangster in the 60s” (James Fox is quite startling in this part, seamlessly playing a snide, brutal thug, not unlike Michael Caine’s gangster roles of the same period, and looking a lot like Paul Bettany in Gangster #1 (which is set in the same time period).

“He gets in trouble with his boss and has to go on the lam. He scams a room in a creepy dive, a townhouse that happens to be owned by a guy named Turner, who used to be some kind of pop star.” (Turner is played by Mick Jagger, who is always fascinating to watch, but the part is drastically underwritten, I’m guessing intentionally so, to keep him enigmatic and weird.)

That’s Act I, and it’s straightforward enough. The editing is, to my taste, a little show-offy and grating, but up to here it’s still pretty much a 60s Cockney Gangster Movie (this genre would be revived in the 80s by movies like The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa, and in the 90s by Guy Ritchie, whose movies had show-offy editing of their own).

(One of my favorite things about Cockney Gangster Movies is that everyone freaks out whenever someone pulls out a gun. You, essentially, have Gangsters Without Guns, because guns are a relative rarity in Britain. Here in the US, it’s assumed that all gangsters (at least in movies) carry guns at all times, but when a Cockney Gangster pulls out a gun, everyone hits the deck — watch out, he’s got a gun! No “Mexican Standoffs” for Cockney Gangsters, it’s all punch-ups and thrown chairs. At the climax of The Long Good Friday, Cockney Kingpin Bob Hoskins goes to war with somebody or other, calls his guys to his HQ, and passes out guns — “okay boys, here you go, come and get ’em.” Imagine Al Pacino in Scarface having to supply his thugs with guns at a special meeting.)

At the end of Act I, Chas dyes his hair red and puts on sunglasses and a trenchcoat, and begins to look disturbingly like David Bowie in 1975 (which I’m beginning to think is not a coincidence — that was the year Bowie performed in Roeg’s similarly plotted The Man Who Fell To Earth).

Act II

“Chas tries to figure out what the hell is the deal with Turner.” Turner himself is uncommunicative to the point of opacity, but he has a couple of birds who live with him who are more than happy (delighted, even) to share their secrets with him. They wander around the house, take baths, take drugs, dress up, have sex in various combinations, talk about philosophy, essentially lead a burnt-out late-60s version of the hippie dream. Turner, we eventually find out, used to be a pop star but has lost his inspiration, is looking for something new. “A time for a change,” says Turner, over and over, quoting Mick Jagger, who happens to be playing Turner. There’s a child, I don’t know whose, who also lives in the house. Turner wants Chas out, but then decides to let him stick around.


“They try to fuck him up — why? Chas freaks out.” Turner’s girlfriend feeds Chas a psychedelic mushroom. Chas has a bad trip. The themes of Act II are pushed to their abstract extremes. Incident drops severely as Chas’s concerns turn within. And I have a confession to make: I have about as much patience with movies that try to describe altered states of consciousness as I do with people who try to describe altered states of consciousness.

Anyway, Chas freaks out for a long, long time, and then, just when the movie has lost all semblance of form, it bursts through into a weird, four-minute musical number where Mick Jagger, now made up as a Cockney Gangster, sings “Memo From Turner” to Chas and his Cockney Gangster Pals, backed by the able Rolling Stones. The scene makes no sense in any way I feel like trying to discern, but it is electrifying, and I’m guessing it was inserted by studio people who said “What? You’ve got Mick Jagger in your movie and he’s not going to sing? Then what the hell is he doing there?”

“Chas’s pals come and get him.” Because the movie has to end somehow. Chas’s pals find out where he’s hiding (he doesn’t make it very hard for them) and show up. And there he is, now wearing a chestnut wig and hippie clothes, looking less like David Bowie and more like a member of Spinal Tap. It’s the Lord of the Flies moment, where “order” is suddenly restored and we see how far gone the protagonist is.

But the movie isn’t quite over yet. Something happens between Chas’s pals showing up and Chas (or someone, it’s not clear who) getting in the car with them. Someone shoots someone else in the head, someone winds up dead in a closet, someone else is shown covered in blood in an elevator. I’m not trying to keep a secret here, I honestly have no idea who’s doing what to whom.

The End.

TODD: So, I’m sorry, wait — I have a question. What just happened there?
JAMES: (Cockney accent) Well, it’s about identity, innit?

James, I will have to say, got a lot more out of this movie than I did. He recognized that it was saying something about its time (the 60s), and how the world seemed to be exploding with all these new avenues of psychological and spiritual investigation, and here’s two guys who are coming to the end of that decade from two different directions, the gangster on the lam symbolizing the “establishment” and the burnt-out pop star representing “bohemia,” and they’re both stuck in this purgatory-like house, their lives on hold as they try to figure out where to go now that all the rules have been suspended. And it’s true, the movie does do that. I just wish it would have done it with more plot.

hit counter html code

Get Carter, Snatch

The alpha and omega of British gangster movies. The two could not be further apart in every way. Get Carter, from 1971, has a single protagonist, the structure of a revenge tragedy, an elegant, inexorable screenplay, gritty 70s realism, a palpable, Altmanesque sense of place, stunning, ferocious moments of brutality and ugliness, canny, closely-observed directing, and characters who are thinking, feeling human beings. Snatch has multiple protagonists, the structure of a screwball comedy, a ridiculously complicated screenplay bursting with incident and coincidence, flip 00s surrealism, action where even murder victims don’t seem to suffer, restless, anything-for-a-gag direction and a cast of screwy cartoon characters.

I dearly love both of them.  When I can understand the accents, anyway.

My movie-going life crossed paths with Michael Caine during his “I’ll choose roles for the sunny locations” phase (beginning, I’d say, with The Swarm, continuing through Jaws: The Revenge and on to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. This is Michael Caine during his “eminence for hire” era, and it’s easy to forget what an impressive, cold-eyed, nasty, mean little fucker he could be.  He’s absolutely blood-chilling in Get Carter (and check him out in Mona Lisa as well, a dynamite script), a real cockney Samuel L. Jackson.

The script really helps.  Everything is underplayed and unexplained.  For the first half-hour, we’re not even sure who Caine is and what he’s doing.  We know he’s some kind of London lowlife and we know he’s going to somebody’s funeral, but it isn’t until 25 minutes into the movie, when he suddenly picks up a fallen branch to knock a lookout man unconscious to we realize what kind of man we’re dealing with.  We learn that the funeral was for his brother and that he didn’t die by accident, and we soon learn that Carter isn’t going to take his brother’s death in stride, and by the third act we almost feel sorry for the pornographers, gamblers and real-estate developers in his path, we cringe anticipating each savage remorseless, merciless encounter.  We see him kick a car-door closed on a man’s head, grab another man by the genitals, throw yet another man off a seven-story car park.  We see him drown a drugged woman, stab a man repeatedly in the gut and club another to death with a shotgun.  We also get to see him engage in explicit phone sex (a cinematic first, I believe) while his landlady sits mere feet away.

Not that Carter is happy with himself, mind you.  A good deal of his rage is directed inward as he knows that he, himself, is at least partly responsible for the death of his brother.  He’s filled with turmoil and self-loathing and he plows through the underworld of Newcastle knowing that he’s never going to get back to London, he’s playing for keeps.

A lot of gangsters have passed into cinema history since Carter, but Snatch still manages to bristle with indelible portraits.  The acting in Snatch is wonderful across the board, but two performances always stand out for me: Brad Pitt as the Irish traveler and Alan Ford as Brick Top, the gangster who feeds his enemies to his pigs.  I’ve always enjoyed Pitt’s work, but his performance here is, I believe, without precedent.  He’s game, lovable, fascinating and completely indecipherable, playing a character both utterly simple and yet utterly unknowable, and he positively inhabits the role, vanishes into it.  It’s no star turn and no goof, he’s both playing the role straight and also performing it in the context of a comedy and you can’t take your eyes off him.  This and Fight Club are his two best performances. 

(I first saw Snatch in Paris [with Urbaniak and our wives, if you must know]: between the heavily-accented English and the French subtitles, we could almost make out what the actual plot of the movie was.) 

When Alan Ford’s character first showed up, I first thought “Oh well, here’s another mean gang boss, I’ve seen this character a hundred times,” but Ford brings such a livid, seething intensity to the role that he’s breathtaking.  I found myself actually scared of what he was going to do next, since there seemed to be no limit to his rage.  Maybe it helped that I’d never seen Alan Ford’s work before (although he has a small role in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and has apparently done a lot of British television), I had no casting reference to fall back on (you know, the way we feel that it’s okay if Matt Damon kills someone in The Departed because we’ve seen him do it in The Talented Mr. Ripley but we freak when we see Henry Fonda kill someone in Once Upon a Time in the West because, damn it, he’s Henry Fonda, he’s not supposed to kill people!).

And, as different as the script for Snatch is from Get Carter‘s, I love the way the stories dovetail, I love tracing the plotlines from character to character and dive to dive, from madcap situation to madcap situation.  If Richard Lester made gangster movies, they would probably be a lot like this.  The scripts for this and two other Matthew Vaughn productions (Lock, Stock and Layer Cake) are, as far as I’m concerned, top-notch, intricate puzzle-boxes of narrative invention, Roman candles of collision and intrigue. hit counter html code

The Italian Job

1969.  Directed by Peter Collinson.

Michael Caine et alia are going to steal a whole bunch of gold from somebody or other in Turin, then get away in a trio of Mini Coopers.

TONE: Blithe, breezy 60s comedy.  Women offer sex at all turns, criminals are concerned about their cars and wardrobe, realism is kept to a bare minimum.  In the most fanciful moment, magic mafiosi appear on the side of an Italian Alp, complete with Piranha Brother hats, suits and tommy guns, then moments later vanish into the hillside like gun-toting fairies.

With supporting performances by Noel Coward and Benny Hill, this film can truly be said to contain the alpha and omega of 20th century British wit.

WORTH NOTING: in the original, the triumphant Mini Cooper chase is intended as a metaphor for British ingenuity.  In the remake, it’s intended as a very long commercial for Mini Coopers.

DOES CRIME PAY?  That is a question that is literally left in the balance.
hit counter html code