Saturday, August 27, 2011
Howard Hawks made a career out of delivering various masterpieces in differing genres. Within the screwball comedies genre, both Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) are classics. Hawks was responsible for many westerns as well, with Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959) as quintessential viewing. Hawks also helped secure Humphrey Bogart’s legendary status with legendary film noirs To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). Yet before Hawks fostered Bogart’s anti-hero image, he made Scarface (1932), a film that is a predecessor to his noir classics. Scarface’s deservedly ultra-violent reputation challenged Production Code rules, and in doing so caused some severe cutting to the film and even led to a re-shooting of the ending. Despite the changes that were enforced, Howard Hawks came up with some creative ways circumvent the Production Code, especially within scenes concerning gun violence.
The establishing scene of gun violence in Scarface (1932) begins (4.25) with the death of Big Louis Costillo (Harry J. Vejar) who is gunned down by Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) while answering a telephone call. Howard Hawks cleverly conveys the cold detached violence with merely a shadow and a whistle. As Tony approaches Big Louis, he leisurely walks up, with his hands in his pockets, while whistling a tune. The menacing shadow that approaches Big Louis conveys a casual approach to murder. Tony shoots him three times, cleans the gun with a handkerchief and tosses it towards his body. Tony strolls out of the scene still whistling, and unfazed by his own actions.
In previous expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), M (1931), or even its then contemporary Vampyr (1932), the use of shadowy figures often represented a manifestation of one’s worst nightmare. Shadows can take the form of a crazed murderous somnambulist, maybe a ghoulish vampire, or a child murderer and can even project the incomprehensibility of a fever dream. Yet Hawks creates something different, by introducing a comical approach of a strolling, whistling murderer. According to the Production Code (between 1930 to 1934): “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.” Yet, Hawks uses a formulaic introduction to a murderer and switches the tone. The film viewer is not meant side with the villain, but already they find him more intriguing than Big Louis (who comes across as a shady, gluttonous, Italian stereotype). Though Tony is the villain of the film, he is also paradoxically the lead protagonist, and ultimately an anti-hero.
The Production Code also stipulated that, “methods of crime should not be explicitly presented.” Hawks cleverly maneuvers around this censorial objection, by showcasing all the violence behind shadows. The Code furthers, that “the use of firearms should be restricted to essentials.” Thus the scene never shows a firearm but rather indicates it with sound effects. Similarly, in the scene where Tony goes to the hospital to finish off one of the hoods that didn’t previously die (28.25), gun sound effects are used while Tony’s body is off screen. Hawks again uses Tony’s shadow as indication of his presence in the victim’s room, and he comically throws flowers on the victim’s body as a final farewell. Hawk’s consistently uses humor to downplay and distract from the perpetual violence. Soon after (28.38), Hawks cuts to the rapid flipping of a calendar, moving to the speed of the sound of a machine gun, and indicating the many deaths occurring within that time span.
Reoccurring constantly in Scarface is the symbol of an X, which can be seen throughout many of the death scenes in the film. When Big Louis is killed by Tony (4.25), a cross (or sideways X), can be seen reflected on the wall as his shadow approaches. When the hospital victim is killed (28.25), an X accompanies Tony’s shadow on the left side. Yet, Hawks most creative use of the X symbol happens at the massacre of the seven mobsters (48.08), where the scene actually opens on multiple X shaped wooden rafters. Hawk uses the multiple X shaped wooden rafters to foreshadow the fate of the mobsters. As the camera pans down, Hawk reveals the shadowy silhouettes of the seven mobsters about to be executed in a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre style. Yet as the sound of machine gun fire explodes on the soundtrack, the room is filled with gunfire smoke, and the silhouettes disappear one by one. Again, Hawks manages to convey the ultimate amount of violence, while showing little bloodshed. As the last shot is heard, the camera pans upward revealing the same seven X shaped wooden rafters.
Though Scarface has plenty of examples of hardcore violence, Howard Hawks utilizes expressionistic filmmaking to convey some of the violence in a more subdued manner. When Gaffney (Boris Karloff) is hiding out from Tony and his gang (50.00), a lighted X appears in the background marking him next for death. Right before Gaffney is finally killed at the bowling alley, he scores a point knocking all the pins down, and one of his men marks an X on his scorecard, which again foreshadows his death. When Gaffney is shot down, Hawk’s camera again pans away from the violence and follows the bowling ball, which knocks all the pins down. Hawks uses the symbolism of toppling bowling pins to convey the human massacre. When Tony kills Guino (George Raft) (120.50), a lighted X appears in the background, signaling again the mark of death. Even Tony’s sister Francesca wears a dress, which has straps in the back that crisscross into an X (101.20). It comes as no surprise that she will not be around by the end credits.
Scarface is by no means a subtle film, and it uses direct examples of gun violence throughout. When indirect means of violent representation is used though, Hawks is at his most creative. The use of shadows and lights effectively penetrates the psychological imagination, where raw and visceral violence does not. Howard Hawks proves himself to be a true artist, one who is able to convey his vision of violence, despite the stringent Production Code restrictions that were imposed on him.
Aki Kaurismäki’s I Hired a Contract Killer (1990) is a detour from the Finnish filmmaker’s usual language and country, for he sets the film in London and has a French actor in the lead. Based on an idea by film director Peter von Bagh, Kaurismäki’s original screenplay bares similarities to both Robert Siodmak’s German film Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (1931) and Ernst Neubach’s French film On demande un assassin (1949). Yet, I Hired a Contract Killer presents Kaurismäki’s reoccurring themes and his dark sense of humor. Similar to the pacing of his previous film The Match Factory Girl (Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö) (1990), Kaurismäki’s follow-up deals with loneliness and desperation with more optimistic results. Kaurismäki brings his Finnish perspective in concerns of cultural immigration, communication (or lack there of), and the dismal and empty conditions of the working class. The film’s setting, however, is in London, the main protagonist is French and the soundtrack is made up of mostly old American songs, lending to the film a very surreal environment (especially when viewing with un-removable Japanese subtitles). Though he is a Finnish director, Kaurismäki’s vision encompasses the influences of other westernized cultures.
The story concerns Henri Boulanger (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who works in the drab registry office of Her Majesty’s Waterworks. The viewers are introduced to Henri through the appearance of a miniature replicate of the Eiffel Tower used as a paperweight on piles of reports. Because he is French, Henri is also an outsider to his British surroundings. A diligent worker, Henri eats by himself (while all his co-workers fraternize), is the last to leave the office, and lives alone in a small apartment. The one thing that Henri nurtures in life is a couple of plants on his rooftop, though he manages to topple them over when watering them. Henri spends his night eating biscuits and drinking tea while staring out his window at a brick wall. The next day, the head of department informs him that the government has decided to privatize the Waterworks, and the new owners want to downsize employees, beginning with foreigners. After fifteen years of service, Henri is fired without warning, and given a broken golden watch as compensation. The solitary and reclusive Henri realizes, after looking at his phonebook, that the only two numbers he has is of the company that just fired him and a deceased aunt. Feeling desperate and hopeless, Henri decides to kill himself and purchases a sturdy rope; however, he fails to hang himself successfully. He then tries to put his head in a gas oven, but unfortunately for Henri, London is in the midst of a gas strike. Henri finally convinces a cab driver to take him to a seedy part of town, to a place called the Honolulu Bar, where he places a contract out on himself to be killed.
Henri waits for his killer to come for him but gets bored, leaves a note on his door, goes to the local pub, and decides to begin smoking, drinking and falling in love. After meeting Margaret (Margi Clarke) a local flower seller, he decides he wants to live after all. Yet, when he returns to the Honolulu Bar to cancel the order, the place is demolished. Henri spends the rest of the film trying to elude his killer; unfortunately, things get even more complicated when Henri walks into a botched jewelry burglary and is framed for murder. While Henri has a newfound love for life and Margaret, his killer is terminally ill with cancer. Eventually Henri is forced to hide out and work at Vic’s French Hamburgers, a tiny restaurant securely hidden away in a cemetery.
Aki Kaurismäki’s films often focus on characters of working class backgrounds who either commit themselves to banal jobs or avoid responsibility all together. For example, in his film The Match Factory Girl, the female protagonist works a dead-end position at a match factory, financially supporting her parents who do nothing all day. In Kaurismäki’s The Bohemian Life (La vie de bohème) (1992), all the characters (a writer, an artist, and musician) avoid conventional lifestyles and occupations. His characters are people of few words, and conversation is kept to a bare minimum. Kaurismäki often showcases Finnish culture as a depressed, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking society of lonely romantics. Though his films are often short (usually under 80 minutes), Kaurismäki’s languid pace, stationary shots, and minimal dialogue give the illusion of a longer film. The director also incorporates a great deal of dark humor to off set the gloomy predicaments his characters face. Kaurismäki’s continuous fascination for early American rock n’ roll, is showcased in most of his films, and is often used with a sense of irony. For instance, Andrew Nestingen writes, “Kaurismäki’s films exhibit recurrences of static camera, laconic and marginal characters, low-key lighting, American cars, and idiosyncratic musical choices, among many elements.” (Nestingen, pg 110.) In I Hired a Contract Killer, Kaurismäki depicts characters who are not so far removed from his depiction of Finnish culture. The characters are interacting as they would in any other Kaurismäki film.
Aki Kaurismäki and his brother Mika Kaurismäki have been making films in Finland since the early eighties. Both brothers set up a production company called Ville Alfa, which was based on a character Aki played in Mika’s first film The Liar (Valehtelija) (1981). In The Liar, Aki’s performance greatly resembles actor Jean-Pierre Léaud’s manic escapades in such French New Wave films as Antoine and Colette (1962), Masculin Féminin (1966), Stolen Kisses (Baisers voles) (1968) and The Mother and the Whore (La maman et la putain) (1973). Aki Kaurismäki not only mimics Léaud’s unpredictable nervous energy, but he even embodies a similar physicality to the actor. The character and company’s name “Ville Alfa” is even a direct nod to Jean Luc Godard’s film Alphaville (1965) (on which Léaud coincidentally was one of the assistant directors). In fact, Kaurismäki has said that, “he (Leaud) was my hero as an actor, when I was a young film buff. He was the best! Maybe five John Waynes or three Robert Ryans match one Jean-Pierre.“ (Leaud L’unique.)
Throughout the sixties, Jean-Pierre Léaud was the quintessential symbol French youth. Many of the major European film directors of the sixties and beyond grew up on a diet of films by Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard, and consequently strived to include Léaud in their films. Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini worked with Léaud on Porcille (1969) and Bernardo Bertolucci cast him alongside Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris (1972). Polish second wave director Jerzy Skolimowski utilized Léaud’s quirkiness in Le Depart (1967) and Dialóg 20-40-60 (1968), while even Brazilian political director Glauber Rocha directed him in The Lion Has Seven Heads (1970). In the film I Hired A Contract Killer, Kaurismäki interprets Leaud’s previous cinematic incarnation to inhabit a mirrored space in cinema reflection. For example, Kaurismäki reflected, “When working with him, I was acting first for him, to show him how he should act. But I in fact was acting him acting, and then he imitated me acting him acting. So it made a whole circle.” (Leaud L’unique.) Kaurismäki would again use Leaud in his next film The Bohemian Life, which draws more influence from the French New Wave and is even shot in Paris.
Besides the influence of Jean-Pierre Leaud, Kaurismäki also channels French New Wave directors like Godard and Truffaut. I Hired A Contract Killer uses exaggerated colors in the interior spaces, where walls are painted in deep reds, golden yellows, or royal blue, reminding one of Godard’s use of color in such films as Contempt (1963), Pierrot le Fou (1965), or Made in U.S.A. (1966). It’s interesting that Kaurismäki’s next film The Bohemian Life was shot in black and white, presenting a stark contrast. Incidentally, Godard would jump from splashy color to black and white from film to film as well. In addition, Kaurismäki references the film poster art for Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses in I Hired A Contract Killer when Margaret kisses Henri and leaves a lipstick imprint on his forehead (33.20). This shot mimics the iconic poster art of Leaud’s earlier film, where his character Antoine is painted with a lipstick imprint on his forehead.
Though Kaurismäki uses a French character’s perspective to drive the narrative of I Hired A Contract Killer, he uses London’s landscape and its culture as the backdrop. This film derives some cinematic influence not just from France, but also from the United Kingdom. Dedicated to the memory of British filmmaker Michael Powell (who had died in 1990), I Hired A Contract Killer explores the theme of mortality, which was also a recurring idea in Powell’s work. In the Powell film Stairway to Heaven (1946), a wartime aviator must plead for his life with a celestial court, after he has cheated death in a plane crash and fallen in love with a woman. Similarly, in Kaurismäki’s film, the protagonist Henri is in a state of running and pleading with a contract killer for his own life, after he has fallen in love. Also, despite the plot similarities between Siodmak’s and Neubach’s films, Kaurismäki claims that it was the British made Last Holiday (1950) that influenced his film. The movie Last Holiday concerns a terminally ill agricultural machinery salesman who takes a final trip and finds his true value as a person. Kaurismäki states, “I made I Hired A Contract Killer because when I was ten years old I saw the film Last Holiday by Henry Cass, and since then haven’t been able to dispel the impression it made on my mind, in spite of mixed stages of life thrown by puberty, youth and later, manhood. I don’t think that I Hired A Contract Killer resembles in any way its model, and it’s not meant to, either.” (Toho Laserdisc.) Though differing in plot points, the life-affirming message in Stairway to Heaven, Last Holiday and I Hired A Contract Killer are similar.
Despite the film’s British setting, the soundtrack to the film is made up of early American songs that punctuate the isolation of the characters. “Body and Soul” by Billie Holiday emphasizes the loneliness of Henri’s landlord, while Holiday’s “Time on my Hands” illustrates the dead-end patrons of the Honolulu Bar. Reoccurring rhythm and blues numbers like “Need Your Loving So Bad” and “Suffering with the Blues” from Little Willie John are aural manifestations of Henri’s internal state. In addition, through the inclusion of Joe Strummer (ex-member of The Clash), a British lyrical perspective is formed. Joe Strummer makes a small cameo performing “Burning Light” in a pub, where a picture of Elvis Presley hangs behind him. (If Kaurismäki is referencing his connections between himself and his cinematic hero Leaud, then he is also bonding Strummer with his idol Elvis.) Strummer’s “Burning Light” lyrically conjures up Americana images of deserts and California roads, reminiscent of highway life found in Kaurismäki’s earlier film Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989). It is Joe Strummer’s appearance that lends a real sense of British authenticity, legitimizing its London setting. Though Kaurismäki claims that, “I made the film in England because people there speak a civilized language that I passably master myself. It greatly facilitates the shooting if one understands at least a part of the dialogue.” (Toho Laserdisc.)
Despite the ever-growing interest in Aki Kaurismäki, and the recent release of three films through the Criterion Collection, it’s surprising that I Hired A Contract Killer has not ever had an official release in America. What makes it especially surprising is that it’s one of the few Kaurismäki films presented in English. Yet, the film has never been released on VHS or DVD in America, and one has to hunt down a copy of the 1991 Japanese Laserdisc just to see it. Despite the rarity of the film, its influence can be found in such films as Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998) and the lesser-known Killing Emmett Young (2002). Hopefully one day I Hired A Contract Killer will earn the audience it deserves, and Kaurismäki’s films will have wider availability. Kaurismäki’s vision encapsulates many westernized influences, and projects a very unique Finnish perspective.
Kaurismäki, Aki. Interview for I Hired A Contract Killer Japanese Laserdisc Insert. Toho Laserdisc TLL 2423. 9 March, 1991.
Leaud L’unique: Un Documentaire. Dir. Serge Le Peron. Universal, Canal + Wide Eye Pictures. 2001.
Nestingen, Andrew. Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia: Fiction, Film, and Social Change. University of Washington Press, 2008.