Sunday, 26 June 2011
RAGE (1972) dir. George C. Scott
Starring: George C. Scott, Richard Basehart, Martin Sheen, Barnard Hughes, Nicolas Beauvy and Ed Lauter
By Greg Klymkiw
In the movies, things often begin innocently enough with clouds, but as we all know, those billowing masses of stratospheric cumuli can also deliver iniquity of the most malicious kind. To my way of thinking, pictures from the 1930s, 50s and 70s had some of the more vile cloud droppings. In 1935, Hitler descended through the visible vapour to preside over the Nuremberg rallies in Leni Riefenstahl's masterwork of Nazi propaganda The Triumph of the Will. During the Cold War in 1957, similar meteorological puff balls brought an incurable condition to the character of Scott Carey (Grant Williams) in Jack Arnold's classic sci-fi thriller The Incredible Shrinking Man. Philip Kaufman's stunning 1978 remake of Don Siegel's hysteria-infused 50s chiller Invasion of the Body Snatchers, alien spores bent on replicating themselves in mankind drifted into Earth's atmosphere from space. Through brumous wisps over San Francisco, the podlike spire of corporate homogeneity, the Trans-America building, stood like a seeming and appropriate beacon for a life form bereft of emotion and bent on destruction.
Those are a few of my favourites. The list of clouds that bring nastiness in the movies could, however, go on.
RAGE was made in 1972 - a decade where paranoia ran rampant in both life and the movies and when belief in conspiracy became commonplace - especially in the sort of urban backdrops as portrayed in Kaufman's picture and the numerous political thrillers of the era.
In RAGE, we are far from the bustle of a metropolis. The town and the country are - in most matters - two solitudes and so it is that the opening of actor George C. Scott's feature directorial debut cascades us - not over a city, but through the lush, heaven-like clouds hovering gently over a rural Nevada landscape. We're in sheep country and Scott plays Dan Logan, a rugged herdsman who lives a quiet life with his pre-teen son Chris (Nicolas Beauvy). The two have a mutual respect and admiration for each other and nature. They go about their laconic business on the open rugged plains - the outside world far, far away.
Or so they believe.
With the exception of a military helicopter blasting over them and Lalo Schifrin's odd score - seeming more at home in an episode of The Waltons than the usual throbbing dischords he generated for films like Bullitt and Dirty Harry et al - father and son eventually bed down for the night under the stars. Dan and loyal pooch nestle comfortably within a canvas tent, whilst sonny-boy sleeps outside, keeping the sheep, crickets and stars company.
The next morning, Dan wakes up to find all his sheep splayed about the fields - barely alive. Chris is in the same condition. Dan attempts to wake his son, but to no avail and he bundles the boy into his pickup truck. Taking one last look at the carnage, Dan's POV reveals a sheep twitching in pain, its tongue hanging out and blood pouring from its nostrils. In bold, blazing red, the title treatment appears over the shuddering wooly ungulate. As the word RAGE smashes into our faces, so does the Lalo Schifrin score. We know for sure we're not in Kansas, Dorothy. Nor, for that matter are we in Waltons territory.
As the previous God-shots of the bucolic countryside return, cinematographer Fred (Patton, Billy Jack, Papillon, The Towering Inferno) Koenekamp captures the overhead fury of Dan's truck racing madly across the Nevada countryside. With Schifrin's trademark grating, grinding music pounding away and ace editor Michael (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, Fatal Attraction, Saving Private Ryan) Kahn's expert cutting, we know for sure we're in the region of full-blown 70s paranoia.
What follows was, and still is, everyone's worst nightmare - the death of a child - compounded by feelings of helplessness when the death has been caused by the idiotic, senseless actions of a government that should serve and protect at all costs and then refuses to own up to its actions and illegally colludes with as many agencies as possible to cover up its incompetence, its callous disregard of the innocent and its inherent evil.
In reality, many of the South Western United States have hosted all manner of nefarious activities and it's no surprise when it is revealed to us very quickly in RAGE that the government has been developing a nerve gas to use in battle and that an accident has released a small, but deadly amount of the poison.
Soon, all of Dan's sheep die and so does his son. He has also been exposed, but to a lesser extent.
Lesser, but still lethal.
All of this information is, of course, withheld from him. Governments - any governments - are not there to tell the truth. Their reason for being is to uphold the status-quo, the war machine and the New World Order. The film believes it to such an extent that it is infused with a calm, matter-of-fact acceptance of this notion and is relentless in hammering it home. (I love the moment when a military scientist calmly explains - between bites, chews and swallows of his lunch - the devastating effects of nerve gas upon all living things.)
One of the best aspects of the screenplay by Philip Friedman and Dan Kleinman is the clinical manner in which we are delivered all the information that is kept from Dan, the character Scott plays. For us, there are no surprises. We hear everything and see everything - what the tests were for, how they screwed up, the need to contain the disaster, the insidious manner in which all will be covered up and most horrendously of all - the knowledge that anything that has come into contact with the deadly nerve gas will die and so, in the name of "science", Dan will not be told about his impending demise so he can be poked and prodded by doctors and the military to study the effects of this weapon of warfare, or, if you will, of mass destruction.
We watch these Mephistophelian machinations with horror and frustration. We know what our central character does not - the truth.
And what a great character! Dan Logan is a true everyman of a generation that believed in the status quo. He honoured country, authority and put considerable trust in professionals - like doctors. After all, he is, by his own admission, a simple sheep farmer who loves solitude, nature and his son - especially his son. Since being widowed, he lives for his flesh and blood. He is the epitome of decency and, as the central character, he is our way IN to this story. Knowing everything while he knows nothing puts us in his shoes. Though knowing and not knowing are opposite sides of the fence, the end emotional result is the same: mounting frustration, sorrow and finally, anger.
This is fine writing and even finer direction. George C. Scott creates a mise-en-scene of astounding power. Even when he uses slow motion to accentuate emotion tied to action or an action to deflect while, at the same time foreshadow a dramatic beat, he successfully uses a potentially cliched technique (especially in first-time feature directors) that it works almost every single time. Yes, he does overuse it and the film has a few dollops of clunkiness, but nothing that detracts from the whole.
Scott especially makes fine use of cinematographer Fred Koenekamp. The lighting in virtually every scene is spot-on - everything from the antiseptic fluorescence of the institutional interiors to the deep blacks of night punctuated (often with a moving camera) with flashes of light. Yes, there are definitely elements of film noir used to great effect in this harrowing conspiracy thriller, but the picture is also infused with a heavy sense of Aristotelian tragedy. (This, no doubt, appealed greatly to Scott.)
As an actor, he delivers - under his own esteemed direction - one of his best performances. Any movie called RAGE and starring George C. Scott is a flashing billboard of what to expect. And yes, rage comes - Oh Boy, does it come!
But it's a slow burn.
Scott the director wisely uses Scott the actor so we believe every turn of his character through the myriad of emotions he expresses (or holds back). Scott, of course, looks great with a stylish down home burr-cut and bushy eyebrows - in addition to his grizzled mug. He's also in terrific physical condition. He might be a tad paunchier than the days he slapped his rock-hard belly as General Buck in Dr. Strangelove, but he looks every bit the MAN who works with his hands. And Damn! As comfortable as Scott seems behind the wheel of a pickup truck, he also looks great on a motorcycle - cooler than cool.
Earlier, I made mention of Michael's Kahn's editing. Many of the cuts are seamless and "silent", but on occasion we are slammed with a cut that rips the breath out of us. One of the most stunning edits occurs on a closeup of George C. Scott's face as he looks - almost without emotion - upon the post-autopsy body of his child and then, in the sweetest spot imaginable we get a smash cut to black. The black holds silently until we hear Scott's off-camera sobs and we realize we are in an exterior black as the camera is moving until a square of light reveals Scott moving with psychotic determination in his gait and pain growling from his throat. This is an incredible sequence and a stunning marriage of every major craft discipline achieving a level of convergence that is exactly the sort of cinematic effect that evokes gooseflesh.
As a director, Scott wisely surrounded himself with a terrific cast. It's great seeing Richard Basehart of the long-running sci-fi TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (in addition to some great film noir pictures and very cool eclectic roles in the work of directors like Federico Fellini and John Huston) playing Scott's longtime family doctor - a country general practitioner of the old school who, like Scott's character, places his faith in authority and briefly, in the younger men of science. Martin Sheen, as one of those youthful medicine men, is positively chilling as the career bureaucrat wearing the Hippocratic Oath as if it were the same chain attached to the ghost of greedy old Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol.
The deliciously evil Ed Lauter makes a great appearance as a hospital orderly who'd be more at home as a strong-arm thug to Richard Conte in The Big Combo, while many of the smaller and bit roles feel like they're either played by non-actors or some amazing character actors who are so good they exude the odious whiffs of reality needed to contribute additional colour to the proceedings. In particular, the actresses playing nurses in the hospital laden with conspiracy are such foul cucumbers they give Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest a definite run for her money. Playing military officials, creepy scientists and department of public health officials, the likes of Barnard Hughes, Stephen Young, Paul Stevens, Kenneth Tobey and William Jordan are not only a who's who of 60s/70s character actors, but acquit themselves brilliantly - especially in a horrific boardroom scene where the conspiracy is hatched.
RAGE is one of the best conspiracy thrillers of the 70s and definitely one of the earliest on the scene. Other pictures are better known and revered, but George C. Scott set the stage and the bar very high for all of them. It's a movie that seems to have fallen through the cracks and anyone who enjoys this genre will no doubt enjoy the picture thoroughly. More importantly, though, it's a movie that resonates with our contemporary world and does its job with equal doses of subtlety and sledgehammers. It's perhaps that very dichotomy that makes it an important work in the canon of American cinema of the 70s.
And the rage? Oh yes, there's plenty of that. The carnage Scott inflicts is vicious. Each blow against "The Man" gives us immense pleasure, but the screenplay and by extension, Scott the director, won't give us the Smores in the McFlurry. The film delivers a devastating conclusion, like many of the great 70s classics. The end is on par with the final moments of Dirty Harry, Night Moves and, among many others, The Parallax View.
RAGE gives us the goods we so seldom get in contemporary cinema.
We can win an occasional battle with "The Man", but we'll never win the war.
Sadly, "RAGE" is only available through the Warners Archives label wherein it must be special ordered online (and will only be shipped to U.S. addresses) or secured at a premium from retailers who import the copies into countries outside of the U.S. In Toronto, Canada the only places that carry a wide selection of these titles are the flagship store of Sunrise Records at Yonge and Dundas and the newly resurrected Starstruck Video at Dundas and Tomken. Thankfully, it IS available, but it deserved better than this (as do many of the titles in this particular library).