“Dirty Harry” in “Zodiac”

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The killer in Dirty Harry (1971) was loosely based on the so-called Zodiac Killer. Very loosely. The deviations start in the opening scene, as the killer–called “Scorpio” in the film–uses a high-precision rifle to kill someone in a hotel rooftop swimming pool and leaves a note demanding the city pay him $100,000. In the last scene, Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan captures, shoots, and kills Scorpio (right after reprising the most famous line of the film: “Ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”). Nothing of that corresponds with the real-life Zodiac, who killed at close range, didn’t ask for money, and was never apprehended or even conclusively identified.

But the parallels were close enough for the screenwriter and director of the 2007 Zodiac (James Vanderbilt and David Fincher) to use Dirty Harry as an ironic counterpoint to the real-life police officers their film portrayed. The key cop in Fincher’s film is San Francisco Police Department Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Rufalo), whose previous previous cinematic connection is mentioned in Zodiac. One character notices the way his gun is upside-down in a shoulder holster and says, “He wears his gun just like Bullitt”–the title character of Steve McQueen’s 1968 San Francisco-set cop movie. Another replies, “No, McQueen got that from him,” which is apparently true.

In Zodiac, years of going by the book and following up fruitless leads starts to wear Toschi down. His supervisor urges him to take some time off: “Go to Candlestick [home of the Giants baseball team], see a movie.” We cut to a marquee announcing a special screening for the S.F.P.D. Whoever selected the film for the screening probably meant well but made a kind of cataclysmic blunder, with the choice of Dirty Harry. We see Toschi, seated next to his wife, slumping deeper and deeper into his seat till he has to leave–one imagines that the fantasy of a cop taking the law into his own hands is simultaneously alluring and offensive, yielding a cognitive dissonance that’s hard to bear. He walks out to the lobby; he’s still there, smoking a cigarette, when the film ends. The mayor walks by and says, “Hey, that Harry Callahan did a hell of a job with your case.”

Toschi: “Yeah, no need for due process, right?”

Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who has become obsessed with the Zodiac case, joins Toschi and tries to offer some encouragement: “You’re gonna catch him.” As he walks out, Toschi responds, “Pal? They’re already making movies about it.”

 

 

“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” in “The Simpsons”

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Poochie

As viewers of The Simpsons know, The Itchy & Scratchy Show is a cartoon often watched by Bart, Lisa, and their friends; it’s about a mouse who finds ever more baroque ways to maim and/or kill a cat. The cartoon-within-a-cartoon first appeared in 1988, when the characters who would become The Simpsons were a feature of The Tracey Ullman Show, and, according to the Simpsons Wiki, has been featured eighty-seven times on The Simpsons proper.

“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” (1998) was a milestone for The Simpsons: with it, the show passed The Flintstones for the most episodes produced for a prime-time animated series. Probably not coincidentally, the episode provides a deliciously meta look at the problems confronted by a long-running show. You see, ratings for The Krusty the Clown show are plummeting whenever Itchy and Scratchy comes on, and Krusty isn’t happy. “But Itchy & Scratchy is critically acclaimed!” the cartoon’s producer, Roger Meyers Jr., tells him. “Acclaimed?” the clown snorts. “I oughta replace it right now with that Chinese cartoon where the robots turn into blingwads!”

The attempts to get Itchy & Scratchy back on its feet were surely taken from The Simpsons’ staff’s own experiences, from the self-contradictory focus groups (“So you want a realistic, down-to-earth show that’s completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots?”) to the notes from network execs. They’re sure the show needs a new character–a dog. “We at the network want a dog with attitude,” one suit says. “He’s edgy. He’s in your face. You’ve heard the expression ‘let’s get busy’? Well, this is a dog who gets ‘biz-zay.'” (Remember, this episode appeared in 1998, when the “let’s get biz-zay” Arsenio Hall Show had already been off the air for four years.)

The ploy doesn’t, of course, fool Lisa: “Adding a new character is often a desperate attempt to boost low ratings,” she confides to Bart. Magically and without explanation, a new kid appears in the Simpsons household, Roy; like Poochie, he wears shades and a backwards baseball cat. Á la The Fonz, he calls Homer and Marge “Mr. and Mrs. S.”

Improbably, Homer is hired to provide the voice of the cartoon dog, Poochie. He appears with “June Bellamy,” who does Itchy’s and Scratchy’s voices, at a fan event. And that gives the episode’s writer, David X. Cohen, a chance to skewer the bulletin-board-lurking obsessives The Simpsons had already begun to attract. One of them, Doug, pushes up his glasses and asks a question.

In episode 2F09, when Itchy plays Scratchy’s skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is a magic xylophone, or something? Ha ha, boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.

Homer: I’ll field that one. Let me ask *you* a question. Why would a grown man whose shirt says “Genius at Work” spend all of his time watching a children’s cartoon show?

[embarrassed pause]

Doug: I withdraw my question.

[starts eating a candy bar]

Everybody gathers at the Simpsons house to watch the episode.

Nelson’s right, it stunk. As usual, Lisa has the sharpest take: “It’s just that Poochie was a soulless by-product of committee thinking. You can’t be cool just by spouting a bunch of worn-out buzzwords.

To which Bart inevitably replies, “Don’t have a cow, Lise.”

Cohen gets in more jab at the “fans.”

Comic Book Guy: Rest assured I was on the internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.

Bart: Hey, I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain?

Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.

Bart: What? They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them.

Comic Book Guy responds with the first iteration of what would become one of The Simpsons’ own greatest buzzwords: “Worst. Episode. Ever.”

“Coed Frenzy” in “Blow Out”

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Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) begins, appropriately, with the sound of heavy breathing. We see the outside of what turns out to be a sorority house. A security guard lingers in front of a window, watching as two very scantily clad sorority sisters dance to loud rock music. All of a sudden a knife appears in our frame a vision, and–from the point of view of us, the audience–the guard is stabbed in the back. The killer moves over to the next room, whose occupant is having sex with a guy. She sees the slasher and yells out. But it’s too late–he’s already in the house. As he strolls the halls he observes more young women wearing very little clothing and gazing at one with no clothing, in a shower stall. Out comes the knife, and before we can say Psycho, she sees him and screams…

And we cut to John Travolta, a cigarette in his mouth, giggling. “God, that scream is terrible,” he says. We’re in a screening room where Travolta’s character–sound designer Jack Terry–and the director have just watched the same footage we have.

 

 

After some back and forth about the scream, the director asks how long the two of them have worked together. Jack: “Well, let’s see. I met you on Blood Bath, right, and then we did Blood Bath 2. And then we did Bad Day at Blood Beach, and then we did Bordello of Blood. That brings us up to date, Coed Frenzy.

Coed Frenzy is specifically a … takeoff on? homage to? … Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), which shares the killer-in-the-sorority-house setting and is sometimes credited (?) with being the first slasher film.  Blogger and author Dan Hassler-Forest makes a distinction between Black Christmas and John Carpenter’s much more successful Halloween, which came out four years later:

Halloween and its many, many imitators tend to transform the intended victims into objects for us to stare at as they are being stalked, pursued, and threatened by the killer, thereby aligning us with the aggressor’s point of view. The implicit misogyny of the resulting formula was parodied most effectively by Brian de Palma in the opening scene of his masterpiece Blow Out, where every sexist cliché in the genre book is thrown at us. As early as 1981, it was apparently obvious to someone as astute as De Palma that slasher movies were all about ogling women as fetishized sex objects before taking sadistic pleasure in seeing them suffer.

I’m not sure if I would be so quick to credit De Palma with astuteness and parody. Rather, he appears to be fetishizing (or at least directing his gaze at) the women, and then taking sadistic pleasure in their fate. The sleazy director tells Travolta, “I didn’t hire that girl for her scream, I hired her for her tits.” To me, that about sums up De Palma’s actress-casting philosophy.

Travolta goes out to Fairmount Park to record some sound effects for Coed Frenzy. (The thing I like best about this movie are the many Philadelphia locations. I moved to town the year after Blow Out was released, and the film is an archive of many things that have changed, like the Reading Terminal, RIP, and a few that have stayed much the same, like the Reading Terminal Market.) While there he happens to record the sound of a car plummeting off the bridge, a car that happens to have in it a politician and a woman not his wife. Shades of Chappaquiddick.

Listening to the recording, Jack is convinced that it contains evidence of nefarious doings, and he becomes obsessed with it. Shades of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Antonioni’s similarly titled Blow-Up, and Coppola’s The Conversation. There is some interesting exploration of voyeurism and ’70s-style conspiracy, and some typically well-crafted De Palma set pieces, but the film left a bad taste in my mouth. The repeated violence against women came off as exploitative (in a bad way) and, to use Hassler-Forest’s word again, sadistic.

Back to the subject of this blog, Dennis Franz plays a sleazy opportunist in Blow Out, as only Dennis Franz can. At one point he’s in a cheap motel room, and the TV is on, as TVs in cheap motel rooms always are. IMDB tells me that the movie he’s watching is Brian De Palma’s first film, Murder à la Mod (1968), which failed so badly that for years it was believed to be lost, and no one missed it. The plot, according to an IMDB contributor:

Naive young lady Karen wants to help her struggling amateur filmmaker boyfriend Christopher raise enough money so he can divorce his wife. Meanwhile, jolly psycho prankster Otto stalks the building where Christopher is shooting a low-grade adult movie in order to keep himself afloat.

From the get-go, apparently, De Palma was De Palma.

 

“Queen Kelly” in “Sunset Boulevard”

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Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) is probably the most movie-besotted movie of all time. Start with the premise. Gloria Swanson, a silent-film star whose career was derailed by the talkies, is Norma Desmond, a silent-film star whose career was ended by the talkies. Her card-game buddies are played by Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner, all silent-screen stars of yore. Her butler-chauffeur, Max, turns out to be a once-acclaimed silent-film director and Norma’s ex-husband. He’s creepily–and brilliantly–played by Erich von Stroheim, a once-acclaimed silent-film director who’d been reduced to playing character parts, mostly Nazis in World War II-pictures. One of the few Hollywood folk who successfully made the silent-to-talkie transition was director Cecil B. DeMille. Surprise! He turns up as himself. We see him on the set of Samson and Delilah, which was released in 1949. According to IMDB, “Set elements and costumes from … Samson and Delilah were pulled out of storage, and cast members from that film re-hired, to re-create his filming.”

The most meta scene comes shortly after screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) takes up residence in Norma’s decrepit mansion, where he serves as a combination amanuensis/boy toy. He tells us (there’s voice-over narration by Joe throughout) that Norma throws regular movie nights, just for the two of them; Max is projectionist. The repertoire, of course, is her own films. We see a bit from one of them, a scene where the young Norma’s face is illuminated by candles.

The clip is from Queen Kelly, a 1929 film that, more than any other single factor, derailed the careers of Swanson (the star) and von Stroheim, the director. At least he was the director until producer Joseph Kennnedy (Swanson’s lover and JFK’s father) fired him because the scenes he’d produced were too explicit and dark. Because von Stroheim retained the rights for what he’d shot, the film had never seen in the United States–until Sunset Boulevard.

The film, of course, is silent. As Norma tells Joe, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”

 

“Vertigo” in “Twelve Monkeys”

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Terry Gilliam’s 1995 dystopian time-travel thriller Twelve Monkeys begins in the year 2035. We gradually learn that a virus released in 1996 killed off almost all of the world’s population. One of the underground-dwelling survivors, James Cole (Bruce Willis), is sent back in time to the 1990s to try to gather information about the outbreak. He winds up in an insane asylum, where his claims that he has come from the future don’t go over too well.

The TV-in-the-day-room is an essential fixture of such scenes, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on down. Often, mindless chirpy fare on the set comments on the grim reality before us. That’s the case in Twelve Monkeys, where, in addition, everything playing on the TV relates to animals. We successively see three 1940s Tex Avery cartoons:  “Swing Shift Cinderella,” “Little Tinker,” and “Who Killed Who.” We also glimpse a segment from “Horizon: The Cruel Choice,” a 1983 British documentary on animal experimentation (a theme of Twelve Monkeys), which itself includes a clip from the movie The Andromeda Strain. Then, to hit the monkey theme home, the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business briefly comes on. (It’s heard more than seen.)

In a later scene, a television is playing “Prehistoric Super Salesman,” a 1969 cartoon. IMDB’s plot description: “Woody Woodpecker is sent back to the stone age by a mad scientist and his time tunnel.”

But the  big set-piece movie-in-movie scene comes late in the film, when circumstances have started to crowd in on Cole and Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a psychiatrist he encounters in one of his visits to 1996 and who becomes his companion on the mission he comes to believe is his destiny.

The segment begins with full-screen view of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in which the characters played by Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak are strolling among California redwoods. The dreamy Novak, who imagines herself the reincarnation of a nineteenth-century woman, points out “my” life span on an ancient tree’s rings; the parallels with Twelve Monkeys’ time traveling is clear.

We cut away to see Cole and Kathryn sitting in a Philadelphia movie theater that’s showing a 24-hour Hitchcock marathon also including (a marquee tells us) Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, and Psycho. The parallels to Vertigo multiply. Cole say, “I think I’ve seen this movie before, when I was a kid.” And right after he says the word “before,” Stewart asks Novak (whose present-day character is named Madeleine, just like Stowe), “Have you been here before?”

Cole is mesmerized by the movie, and gets at a striking comparison: that watching a film at different times in your life might be similar to keeping on going back in time to the same moment.

It’s just like what’s happening with us. The movie never changes. It can’t change. But every time you see it, it seems different, because you’re different.

Then someone in the sparse audience shushes him, a nice touch.

The next thing Cole knows, he wakes up alone in the theater, wearing a wig and fake mustache. On the screen is yet another Hitchcock movie, The Birds, reinforcing the animals-run-amuk thread of Twelve Monkeys. He runs out to the lobby and it’s almost as if we’ve literally stepped into Vertigo. Kathryn has on a blonde wig (making her look like so many Hitchock heroines) and actually is wearing the same style of coat Novak wears in Vertigo. At the moment when Cole sees her, the soundtrack is part of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score.

On the Twelve Monkeys director’s commentary, Gilliam describes how things got bizarre when he and his team looked at the scene from which they mined the music.

We discovered that the cuts between Kim and Jimmy Stewart are identical to the cuts between Madeleine and Bruce. Then it got even stranger. The scene [in Vertigo] ends when they embrace and the whole room turns around them…. The foyer of the cinema [in Twelve Monkeys] is circular. We put them on a a turntable and the whole room spins around them.

That scene was eventually cut out. Still, Gilliam says, “It was almost as if the ghost of Hitchcock was making this section of the film.”

 

“Saboteur”

In 1942, six years after Sabotage, Alfred Hitchcock made the similarly titled Saboteur. But so much had changed. Hitchcock was now based in America, and Saboteur–an earlier-day North By Northwest, in a number of ways–was his first film to exploit the landmarks of what would become his adopted country, including Boulder Dam, the Statue of Liberty, and, in the movie-in-movie scene, Radio City Music Hall.

The main character, competently played by Robert Cummings, works in a munitions plant in Los Angeles (which in the movie is always pronounced “Los Angle-ese,” the way I remember the baseball announcers of my youth saying it). Falsely accused of setting a fire, he goes on the lam and eventually crosses the country, along the way finding the real Fifth Columnists.

One of the traitors is played by Norman Lloyd, whose career has stretched from his debut on the New York stage in 1933 to a role in 2015’s Trainwreck (and included a memorable turn as Dr. Auschlander in the 1980s medical drama St. Elsewhere). The cops are on to him and track him down in Radio City, filled with folks watching a melodrama.

 

It’s a great set piece but a strange one. The audience is tittering, then laughing uproariously, at the film on the big screen (which isn’t a real movie but a scene shot by Hitchcock with B-list actors), even after jealous-husband Henry pulls out a gun and threatens to use it. At that very moment, the Lloyd character, cornered by the cops and hiding behind the movie screen, shoots through it with terrible consequences. Henry starts shooting, but the audience incongruously keeps  roaring with laughter–until a woman screams. Lloyd moves in front of the screen and darts across it, creating a riveting image that may have been Hitchcock’s most self-conscious commentary on reality and artifice and terror, and how mixed up they can become.

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“Who Killed Cock Robin?” in “Sabotage”

A broad theme of this blog is the way in which cinema is about cinema. Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936) is in large part about a cinema, The Bijou, which the main characters–the Verloc family–own and operate, next to which they live, and where a good deal of the action takes place. That’s one (of many) departures from the source material, Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent. What both book and film share is that Verloc is a saboteur, his wife and her younger brother are unaware of that, and a bomb explosion is at the center of the plot.

(Spoiler alert.) In the film, Verloc (Oskar Homolka) gives his wife’s young brother Stevie the bomb, hidden in a bird cage, along with film canisters labeled Bartholomew the Strangler–another meta touch, as no such film exists. He gets on a bus and is supposed to drop the package off at an appointed spot at 1:30. The audience knows the bomb is set to detonate at 1:45, and, in the first great Hitchcockian set piece, we watch with mounting suspense and horror as the bus is delayed and the clock ticks ever closer to the fateful time. It finally arrives, the bomb goes off, and Stevie is killed.

In their sitting room next to the Bijou, Verloc confesses to his wife (Sylvia Sidney) what happened, trying to excuse his role in the tragedy. In a state of shock, she walks out and into the theater and the sound of laughter. The audience–mostly children–are watching the 1935 Disney short “Who Killed Cock Robin?” in which the robin, crooning a la Bing Crosby, is serenading a wren who talks and looks like Mae West. For a moment, Mrs. Verloc joins in the laughter, and it seems that the lesson might be the same as in Sullivan’s Travelsthe transporting and redemptive quality of silly comedy.

But then an arrow is shot and strikes Cock Robin, who falls to the ground, apparently dead. The spell is broken, and Mrs. Verloc’s face, in closeup, literally falls. She is back to her real-life world of mourning and pain.