Thursday, November 6, 2008

Assassination Meditation

by Hokahey, for the Politics & Movies Blog-a-thon

Political films aren’t my favorite genre. I can appreciate the artistry and performances in films like All the President’s Men and Primary Colors, but I’m happier seeing a film from most other genres. Though not entirely a political film, Citizen Kane, without a doubt, contains the most iconic single image of any political film: Kane, the candidate, delivering his loud, bombastic speech in front of that huge campaign poster of himself. The camera pulls back, and, well, you know, classic!

A curious side story here: Back in the early days of the VCR I finally told myself that it was time to see Citizen Kane for the first time. I knew it had something to do with politics – I had seen that classic image – and for some reason I thought Kane gets assassinated at the end like Willie Stark in All the King’s Men. I suppose my disappointment that the film didn’t end with Kane’s assassination is one of the reasons I first considered Welles’s classic to be highly overrated. It was not until I began watching Citizen Kane three times a year – when I show it to three different sections of my American history course which includes a big unit on American film history – that I began to see the beauty of that film. I’m now a very big fan of Citizen Kane, even though it isn’t an assassination film.

I love movies with assassinations in them. Assassination films incorporate an uncanny visceral tension and a disturbing sensation of dread that satisfy the cinematic thrill junkie in me.

My favorites have to be The Day of the Jackal, directed by Fred (High Noon) Zinneman, and The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer – both of which are about assassinations that never happened. I can’t say which contains my favorite assassination. Perhaps Candidate is the better film, but the suspense in Jackal is masterfully developed and gut-wrenchingly memorable. Both films include twists that come at the very crucial final moment when the rifle has been raised at the target – in Jackal it’s Charles De Gaulle being shot at by a hired assassin played by Edward Fox – in Candidate it’s a presidential candidate aimed at by a brainwashed Korean War “hero” played by Laurence Harvey.

Assassination plots are more suspenseful when plans go awry, and that happens in both of these films. I won’t give away one of the most abrupt setbacks for the nameless assassin played by Edward Fox; even though you’ll be ready for a surprise, it will catch you unawares. For Laurence Harvey’s Raymond, things go wrong in a surrealistic sequence in which a Queen of Hearts and a random spoken idiom coincide serendipitously in a bar near Central Park. And in both films, the assassin gets through security by means of a clever disguise. In the climactic sequences, the suspense is built by the ubiquitous trappings of assassination film: the triumphal music introducing the target; the confusion and ironic merry-making of the oblivious spectators; the dawning awareness of the plot; the frantic dash to avert tragedy.

A very obscure gem of an assassination film that I have only seen on television is Nine Hours to Rama with Horst Buchholtz (the seventh gun in The Magnificent Seven) as the leader of the conspiracy to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi. Covering the tight timeframe of the hours just before the killing, this film examines the bitterness and motives that drive the assassin – Naturam Godse. And just like the above two films, things go wrong, as they historically did, as the assassin’s accomplices are picked up by policemen for a silly mistake. And, too, just like in the best assassination films, the assassin works his way through an agitated crowd while policemen make their fruitless last-minute dash to stop the deed from happening.

Many might consider Oliver Stone’s JFK to be the granddaddy of all assassination films, but I put it in a different category because it doesn’t follow the classic pattern of the assassination film in which suspense mounts as perpetrator and/or victim moves toward the assassination that must come toward the end of the film. JFK is a masterful examination of the myriad details of Kennedy’s assassination, but it is more focused on the conspiracy theory than on the assassin, his motives and the deed.

Perhaps the best portrait of a would-be assassin is Taxi Driver, which memorably depicts Travis Bickle’s alienation and bitterness, exacerbated by his frustrating dalliance with a woman from a totally different world. Taxi Driver does a great job of analyzing the development of the kind of person who randomly fixates on a political figure whose death will be the assassin’s catharsis.

Another memorable anatomy of an assassin is Andrew Dominick’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Casey Affleck is superb as the wimpy, obsessive outcast who stalks Jesse James to rub elbows with infamous greatness – then to achieve his own notoriety by becoming the man who shot Jesse James. Casey Affleck’s Bob Ford has all the traits of the assassin: he’s a bitter loser; he has a fascination with guns; he is obsessed with his target; he wants to be known.

In the long sequence covering the fateful day, Dominick does a masterful job of depicting Ford’s tension and Jesse’s foreboding. The water Bob splashes on his face seems slowed down by nervous pressure. Jesse sees something ominous in the loss of his daughter’s shoe. When the time comes, Bob’s face is drawn and pale with tension; he looks sick. And, as in all good assassination films, the fateful moment arrives with leaden, heart-pounding inevitability. The assassin cannot be stopped.

Are there any new assassination films on the way? Ah, yes, Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise as Klaus von Stauffenberg, the man assigned to set off a bomb to kill Hitler during World War II. Though Hitler, unfortunately, doesn’t get offed, the story of the plot to assassinate him is a fascinating one, so hold off researching it before you see the movie and you will enjoy some suspenseful surprises. Meanwhile, Spielberg plans a 2010 film called Lincoln, with Liam Neeson in the title role. The summary slug suggests that the film covers more than just his assassination – though the plot to assassinate Lincoln includes enough weird twists and mysteries to fill an entire film.

Who would you cast to play John Wilkes Booth? What’s your favorite assassination film?


Jason Bellamy said...

A few years ago I might have said Christian Bale for Booth. But after all the snarling in "The Dark Knight" -- a director's stylistic decision more so than an acting choice -- I'm down on him. Given Booth's youth, maybe Ryan Gosling ... or Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

As for assassination films: "Jesse James" operates outside the standard conventions of the others you mentioned, but it's the better for it. More emotionally complex.

A film that actually follows the assassination format is "Bridge on the River Kwai" -- it's just not a person in the crosshairs. Also, I've always liked the assassination aspects of "In The Line Of Fire" -- a good B assassination flick. I love how Malkovich's character smuggles the weapon and the ammunition into the event. Brilliant.

James Yates said...

If you're in the mood for a good assassination film, and one that is even lower than a "B" movie, try Lewis Allen's "Suddenly," a 1954 film with Frank Sinatra as a would-be presidential assassin. It's pretty cheesy, but Sinatra does have the occasional flash of brilliance.

As for John Wilkes Booth: Even though he's a bit older (Booth died at 26), how about Sam Rockwell? He's gaining more prominence, but I've always considered him a very underrated actor.

Anonymous said...

I think I would go with Robert Downey Jr. for Booth. He was a little foppish, but very talented, considered the greatest Richard III of his day. Downey might be a bit old for the part, I forget how old Booth was at the time, but I think he could do it justice.

Richard Bellamy said...

I love the casting suggestions for Booth. Robert Downey, Jr. is a great choice. I'd go for Casey Affleck - though I suppose he doesn't look much like Booth. I'd cast Brad Pitt in his younger days.

I have seen "Suddenly"! I rather enjoyed it. Nice suspense. Though, you're right, it is cheesy. I think I remember somebody getting electrocuted by a television or something like that.

Interesting - yes "Bridge on the River Kwai" follows the pattern of the assassination film: the plot, the planning, the set up, and then things go wrong! Love it when things go wrong!

Bob Westal said...

Well, for paranoid assassination films, you definitely need to check out "The Parallax View" (one of the classics of the genre). Also, the very strange "Winter Kills" deal with the aftermath of one. (It's based on a book by Richard Condon, who wrote the novel, "The Manchurian Candidate")

One that is a bit less successful and is hard to see, but definitely interesting if you can get a hold of it is "Executive Action," which is basically a reconstruction of writer Donald Freed's rather unlikely theory of the Kennedy assasination, written by Dalton Trumbo, I think.

Richard Bellamy said...

Bob - I remember seeing "The Parallax View" back in the 70s. It fit right into the bitter, cynical, paranoid Nixon era. I remember the montage of images at the end. Very powerful for those days. It would be worth seeing again.

I've seen "Executive Action" but not "Winter Kills." Speaking of writer Richard Condon, I read his novel "The Manchurian Candidate" - very dark humor; very memorable.

While we're on the topic of paranoia and "The Manchurian Candidate" - there was a rather odd 60s Cold War spy film with Laurence Harvey, Mia Farrow, and Tom Courtenay - with the odd title of "A Dandy in Aspic." Harvey plays a double agent. Lots of confusing intrigue. I remember some very atmospheric East Berlin scenes. I love the dramatic ending - typical of the 60s.

It came to mind after seeing "Body of Lies," because Harvey's character is named Ferris. It's not out in DVD, and I have never met anyone who has seen "A Dandy in Aspic." Anyone?