Rehabbing Tonto: THE LONE RANGER as Picaresque Tale

Rehabbing Tonto: THE LONE RANGER as Picaresque Tale


As The Lone Ranger
shifts from the point of view of its hero, John Reid (Armie Hammer), to the
first-person narrative of his Indian sidekick Tonto (Johnny Depp), the tired
pulp story becomes a postmodern picaresque. A type of story with a long
literary tradition but seldom seen on film, a picaresque is usually episodic in
nature, a fact that contributes to what many perceive is the messiness of The Lone Ranger. Tonto exemplifies the
typical picaresque hero (or picaro), noble in intentions but misguided and
perhaps even unreliable in his perception of the events in which he is usually at
the center. Like Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, this film begins with a
rather decrepit Indian as a dubious storyteller, spinning a yarn full of
non-sequiturs and magical realism that both uncomfortably overlap with heinous
atrocities in order to subvert the typical white victor’s perspective of the
American western. The first appearance of Depp, made up to look a hundred-odd years
old, is itself a metatextual reference to Little
Big Man
’s protagonist, Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman). Crabb is a white man
raised by the Cheyenne who encounters famous figures like Wild Bill Hickok and
George Armstrong Custer (who, in The Lone
, finds his own visual parallel in a cavalry officer played by Barry
Pepper), just before their grand, untimely ends. 

Tonto’s pseudo-mysticism is one exaggeration highlighted in his narration,
later revealed to Reid by his sidekick’s own people as the mad ravings of a
fool. But Tonto’s skewed imaginings serve to leaven the social commentary with
humor as is typical in other picaresques like Don Quixote. A dark flashback showing the extermination of Tonto’s
tribe by plundering strip-miners backs up against a hallucinatory image of the
Lone Ranger’s horse Silver standing comfortably at the tip of a branch of a
tall tree. “There’s something very wrong with that horse,” says Tonto, an odd
laugh line at that point of his story. But isn’t it also a bit of humor meant
to both mitigate the horror that precedes it as well as heighten it in sharp
relief? It certainly inspires Reid to take the role Tonto has bestowed on him
more seriously than he does initially, if for no other reason than he fears the
crackpot may not be up to the task.

Still, Reid is more of a milquetoast here than in any previous iteration of
the Lone Ranger character. Consequently, Tonto becomes a tragic hero looking
for redemption. He is indirectly responsible for the genocide of his own
people, but he strives to make amends by stymieing the advance of the railroad
(and attendant whites) into Indian lands, ultimately with no success. This the
film makes clear even before the story proper starts. Our introduction to the
wizened, old Tonto is in a travelling circus sideshow display behind a racially
charged nameplate that reads “The Noble Savage.” Even Tonto’s name,
as alluded to when Reid asks him if he knows what it means in Spanish, befits
that of the typical picaro. “Tonto” is Spanish for “idiot,” an
apt description for other picaresque heroes such as Redmond Barry Lyndon or
Forrest Gump.

Much of the gleeful critical piling-on directed at The Lone Ranger is
conflated with politically correct hand-wringing, involving Hollywood’s
depiction of Indians and the casting of Depp to play the Masked Man’s Indian
sidekick, Tonto. One camp is offended by the very existence of Tonto, a
mishmash of Hollywood’s stereotypes of indigenous people. Of Depp’s
performance, Mark Dujsik
says, “…speaking in broken English and gratuitously mugging for the
camera—perhaps it’s for the best that a Native American actor has been spared
the indignity of the role…” Another sillier group’s outrage seems to stem from
nostalgia for the television Tonto they grew up with. Badass
’s Devin Faraci says “… The Lone Ranger is a movie that seems
to be embarrassed of its own source material…. Unwilling to just degrade The Lone
Ranger himself by making him a buffoon, the movie also makes Tonto a gibbering

Critics are insulted that Depp, whose claims of Indian ancestry are remote
if not entirely questionable, was cast as a quite evidently made-up Indian icon.
However, before the previous 1981 disaster, only one Indian actor had ever played Tonto, TV’s Jay Silverheels (a Canadian
Mohawk whose real name was Harold J. Smith). Silverheels did his best to imbue
a character that was basically an expository soundboard with elements of his
own heritage in order to position the character as a hero his people could look
up to. But at his foundation, Tonto is still a thin character. Being upset that
the mutable Depp is playing Tonto is like feeling insulted that British
chameleon Peter Sellers played the faux-French Inspector Clouseau.

Depp’s performance as Tonto is a memorable tragicomic creation, made
perfectly viable by the framing device utilized by director Gore Verbinski to
tell the movie’s story. Indeed, when seen as a picaresque told by an
anti-establishment fool, it becomes clearer that Depp and Verbinski are not only
not denigrating the Indians; by
rehabilitating the subservient character of Tonto, they are elevating the
Indian people to their rightful place as the central figures of the story of
the American West. As if to bear out this idea, Verbinski offers us, as the
final credits roll, an elegiac, silent crane shot of Depp’s aged Tonto
shuffling off into the sunset, not in his stereotypical buckskin but his titular
partner’s now-threadbare black outfit. He has become the hero of his own tale.

Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and
television for his blog,
Cinema Viewfinder. His criticism has also been
featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog,
Wide Screen, Opposing
Views and Follow him on Twitter.

THE GAME (1997): Fincher Flips MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE on Its Head

THE GAME (1997): Fincher Flips MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE on Its Head


Long unavailable (domestically) in a proper home edition, David Fincher's unsung puzzle thriller The Game finally gets its due this week thanks to Criterion's shiny new Blu-ray upgrade of their own 1998 laserdisc release. The new Criterion release confirms that Fincher's film—and its hokey premise of a 1-percenter put through his paces in a punishing experiential game—plays as well if not better than it did when I first saw it theatrically fifteen years ago. After all, is there any way to watch Michael Douglas' shallow, well bespoke Nicholas Van Orton—a lonely investment tycoon with a pile of human debris (an ex-wife, a recovering addict for a brother) left behind in his wake—and not think of Mitt Romney? Especially in one scene where his car gets a flat, and he asks his ne'er-do-well brother Conrad (Sean Penn), "Do you know how to change a tire?" Van Orton’s investment banking career, his slicked-back hair, the way he addresses his underlings, his slicked-back hair and expensive taste in suits . . .  even his pinky ring, all reek of a privileged upbringing. Then there’s the long, powerful shadow cast by his late father. Van Orton’s similarities with Romney rob him of a little of the sympathy I'd normally reserve for a movie protagonist.

But The Game's central conceit reminds me of something else. At one point, Fincher was in talks to direct an entry (the third) of the Mission: Impossible franchise. At first blush, that's not too difficult to envision after watching the fastidious Fincher so expertly execute this plot-heavy exercise, dependent on so many contrivances and coincidences. This goes a way back, I admit, but one of the stock scams employed in the 60's Mission: Impossible series (in episodes like "The Train," for instance) was for the team to con one of their marks into participating in some kind of fake adventure of which the IMF team was in total control. This might involve role-playing, movie-like sets, surveillance devices, rerouting of phone lines, etc., all in a manner designed to create a false reality for their target, one in which the IMF team could manipulate the person into doing something uniquely antithetical to his or her true nature.

Similarly, Van Orton is a pawn manipulated by Consumer Recreation Services (CRS), the organization he hires to provide him with an initially amusing but ultimately life-threatening, all-pervading diversion he can't seem to escape. While not too different from the plot puzzles of Mission: Impossible, the one major schism is perspective. While the fun for viewers of the old spy show lies in knowing how the mark is to get his comeuppance at the hands of the IMF team, in The Game, Fincher puts us in the position of the mark himself, in this case Nicholas Van Orton. Fincher takes great pains to hide the strings pulling on Van Orton (this metaphor is perpetuated by the film's marketing team who actually used a CGI-rendered marionette in The Game's teaser) so that even the viewer only gets glimpses behind the scenes when Van Orton does. For example, when Van Orton happens upon the set dressing that adorns the flat belonging to his companion (guide?) Christine (Deborah Kara Unger)—a refrigerator devoid of any food or drink, faucets where the water isn't turned on, a bookcase housing only the spines of a book collection—should we believe that he is finally onto something? Has Van Orton cleverly sussed out a resolution to the all-encompassing game designed by CRS? Or is his discovery merely another meta-layer peeled back to entice Van Orton further into CRS's labyrinth?

The reason Fincher might have passed on directing an entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise is that he more readily identifies with the person being manipulated than with the manipulator. Like Ripley in Alien 3, Detective David Mills in Se7en, and even subsequent protagonists like the narrator of Fight Club and Zodiac's Robert Graysmith, Van Orton struggles to grasp the events around him, ultimately forced to succumb to the currents dragging him along and hope to emerge intact or changed (for the better) on the other side of The Game's looking glass. Think how interesting a picture would be painted of M:I's IMF team if a movie took the point of view of one of their victims. The Game comes closest to offering just such a view. More than when The Game was initially released in 1997, Van Orton is an antihero of our times, a capitalist humiliated into submission by intellectuals outmaneuvering him. And believe me, this target's punishment, just as it may be, is a little too disturbing for your simple, run-of-the-mill action franchise. Mission: Impossible audiences hungry for empty-headed derring-do from Tom Cruise would never accept siding with the enemy or the complicated implications Fincher’s subversion of his premise might provoke.  

Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and television for his blog, Cinema Viewfinder, and reviews DVDs and Blu-rays for Nomad Editions: Wide Screen, a digital weekly. His criticism has also been featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog, Opposing Views and Follow him on Twitter.

The Assassination of Sterling Hayden by the Auteur Francis Coppola

The Assassination of Sterling Hayden by the Auteur Francis Coppola

This morning, I was pondering the mini-movie-marathon TCM will be dedicating to one of my favorite actors, Sterling Hayden, on his birthday, March 26th. The tall, Nordic-looking blond was often relegated to heading up B-Westerns and crime stories in the 40s and 50s,  like Arrow in the Dust and Suddenly, before finding a fan in director Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick first used Hayden in just that type of film, 1956's The Killing, an early genre piece that really didn’t set the box office on fire. Hayden's reputation didn't really begin to attain a certain stature until a few years later. By then, Stanley Kubrick had become Kubrick™, the reclusive, one-named auteur who’d buck the Hollywood establishment and direct Hayden in the slightly bent role of Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). This atypical, blackly comic role helped Hayden get darker, pivotal roles from many of the top auteurs who'd come after Kubrick, as they ascended in the New Hollywood's director-led artistic revolution, filmmakers like Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye), Bernardo Bertolucci (1900) and most notably, Francis Coppola. It was then, while thinking of Hayden’s role in Coppola’s The Godfather, that something wild occurred to me.

In 1972, The Godfather was something new to American cinema (the movie celebrated the 40th anniversary of its release on March 15th). It was a crime story that was also a prestige picture. No expense was spared in adapting the bestseller by Mario Puzo, mostly because the demanding Coppola resisted Paramount’s previous attempts to produce it quickly and cheaply, a la Martin Ritt's box office bomb, The Brotherhood. It's hard to imagine in retrospect, but actors lacking any trace of Italian ethnicity, like Ryan O'Neal and Robert Redford, were being considered to play The Godfather's protagonist, Michael Corleone, just like The Brotherhood had cast the lantern-jawed Kirk Douglas as its lead (for more on the ins and outs of The Godfather's production, read the indispensable The Godfather Companion by Peter Biskind). And why shouldn't the studio have done so? Up until then, heroes and antiheroes, regardless of intended ethnicity, were played by WASP (or in the case of Douglas, WASP-looking) actors like Hayden himself.

nullA lack of positive ethnic representation in cinema forced Cuban Americans like myself to adopt Scarface and its Cuban drug-lord Tony Montana into our cultural iconography (which I talk about at length here). One thing Cuban Americans do share with Montana is his immigrant experience. And one of the reasons Tony Montana in particular was so easily accepted by myself and others like me is because of the actor who played him. Al Pacino not only looked like one of us, he looked nothing like Sterling Hayden. You couldn't just stick Pacino in a Western without some kind of lengthy exposition to explain his presence in the film. But you could cast Pacino as the lead in a crime movie just like the ones Hayden starred in. And that's what Coppola did, casting Pacino as the star of The Godfather against the protests of studio executives, while assigning the aging Hayden a secondary role as a police chief. And not just any chief, but an utterly detestable, racist, and corrupt one.

Pacino's Michael Corleone was the first hero Cuban Americans had called their own, in a movie known to us as El Padrino. What Coppola did not just for Italians or Cuban Americans, but all ethnicities, was demonstrate that a prestige picture by a major studio could be carried by an Italian American, one who wasn't fair-skinned and blue-eyed like Frank Sinatra, but brown-eyed and of olive complexion and short stature like Al Pacino. Combined with the casting of character actors like Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson or black actors like Richard Roundtree as leads in some of the most popular films of the era, it’s fairly simple to see why Pacino’s success in a movie of that scale opened doors for so many offbeat-looking characters that would follow. Coppola's The Godfather was not just a major release. It won the Best Picture Oscar, spawned another Oscar-winning sequel, and has become one of the most watched movies of all time. And despite the risk of being overshadowed by no less an actor than Marlon Brando, Pacino carried The Godfather simply by virtue of being in every scene.

Coppola, who based many of the cultural touchstones of the film on his own family's experience as first-generation Italian Americans, then did something remarkable when he cast Hayden as Captain McCluskey, the despicable police chief we rooted against. He had Michael shoot him in the head midway through the film. Al Pacino, New Hollywood icon and one of my cultural heroes, shot Sterling Hayden, Old Hollywood stalwart and one of my favorite actors. In the head. Francis Coppola assassinated Sterling Hayden, and American cinema would never be the same again.

Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and television for his blog, Cinema Viewfinder, and reviews DVDs and Blu-rays for Nomad Editions: Wide Screen, a digital weekly. His criticism has also been featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog, Opposing Views and Follow him on Twitter.

TONY DAYOUB: The many faces of George Smiley

TONY DAYOUB: The many faces of George Smiley

nullThough Gary Oldman came up empty at the BAFTAs this past weekend, he still stands a chance of being recognized at this year's Academy Awards for his career-best turn as graying spymaster George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This is Oldman's first nomination, and to my mind the most deserving of any of the performances cited in the Best Actor category this year. For Oldman – usually a kinetic and, at times, even bombastic performer – the role offered the challenge of playing a man accustomed to fading into the background. Projecting a face so passive it could almost be labeled a mask, Oldman allows a glimpse into Smiley’s inner life through his aqueous eyes, which betray volatility more in line with the rest of the actor’s notable roles.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about a Secret Service in which aging lonely spies fight for dominance in the landscape of the Cold War, a field of battle over which they long ago chose to sacrifice any kind of private lives. Oldman’s Smiley is, then, a perfect distillation of director Tomas Alfredson’s rethink of John le Carré’s 1974 novel. But Oldman is following in the footsteps of many famed British actors who’ve assayed the role. Sir Alec Guinness’ depiction of Smiley is the most well-known, but there were others.

  • Rupert Davies – The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965, Directed by Martin Ritt) –

Book excerpt:

nullShe thought they were a little too smart for policemen: they came in a small black car with an aerial on it. One was short and rather plump. He had glasses and wore odd, expensive clothes; he was a kindly, worried little man and Liz trusted him somehow without knowing why… As he got to the door, the elder man hesitated, then took a card from his wallet and put it on the table, gingerly, as if it might make a noise. Liz thought he was a very shy little man.
– John le Carré, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, 1963


In this acclaimed thriller, based on Le Carré’s third novel, movie audiences first met Smiley, and only briefly. As played by Rupert Davies (The Witchfinder General), he comes closest to the way he was originally envisioned by the author and former spy. Though Smiley was the writer’s protagonist and alter ego in his first two, less successful novels, he took a different tack with this one. Focusing on Alec Leamas — a “scalphunter,” or field agent — Le Carré was able to benefit from some of the ’60s era ardor for the superspy generated by the 007 films, making the grittier, more realistic The Spy Who Came In from the Cold his first bestseller. Commensurate with Le Carré’s intentions at that point of his bibliography, the film relegates Smiley to a small supporting role as the undercover Leamas’s secret contact with the “Circus,” the British Secret Service. Disheveled, unremarkable, with a mustache and thick spectacles, Davies’ Smiley appears onscreen for maybe five minutes, but his role is pivotal. He welcomes Leamas (Richard Burton) to his Chelsea apartment (already familiar to readers of the earlier books), facilitating a secret rendezvous with their chief, the mysterious Control (Cyril Cusack). And in a scene depicting the character’s warm-hearted benevolence, Smiley visits Leamas’s lover, Nan (Claire Bloom), in order to investigate his whereabouts after losing contact with him. Or, as the ill-fated ending for Leamas and Nan suggests, maybe the cagey Smiley was actually putting Control’s larger plan into motion.

  • James Mason – The Deadly Affair (1966, directed by Sidney Lumet) –


Book excerpt:

When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary. When she left him two years later in favour of a Cuban motor racing driver, she announced enigmatically that if she hadn’t left him then, she never could have done; and Viscount Sawley made a special journey to his club to observe that the cat was out of the bag.

This remark which enjoyed a brief season as a mot, can only be understood by those who knew Smiley. Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad. Sawley, in fact, declared at the wedding that “Sercomb was mated to a bullfrog in a sou’wester.” And Smiley, unaware of this description, had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince.
– John le Carré, Call for the Dead, 1961


With those words, Le Carré introduced readers to his alter ego in his very first novel, in a chapter entitled ‘A Brief History of George Smiley.’ Lumet cast James Mason (Bigger Than Life) as Charles Dobbs, née George Smiley, a name tied whose rights were tied up with Paramount Pictures, the studio behind The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. As one would expect, the dashing Mason’s portrayal is quite a departure from the fat, cuckolded functionary of the novel. Perhaps that is one of the reasons screenwriter Paul Dehn – who had so faithfully adhered to Le Carré’s book when scripting the Ritt film – felt free to turn in one of the least faithful adaptations of Le Carré’s novels. Dobbs’ inner torment concerning his wife’s infidelities, never explicitly depicted in Call for the Dead, is externalized by Dehn. Ann – in the novel an absent memory that haunts Smiley throughout his investigation into the murder of a Foreign Office bureaucrat – is given form in the film by a very sexy Harriet Andersson (Smiles of a Summer Night). And for good reason.

Lumet’s film raises the stakes for Dobbs a lot higher than Le Carré did for Smiley in his maiden writing effort. In The Deadly Affair, Ann conducts an affair with Dieter Frey (Maximilian Schell), introduced early in the film as a former protégé of Dobbs. By contrast, Frey is free of such entanglements in Le Carré’s novel; readers don’t even know of Frey or his history with Smiley until the novel’s final chapters, in which the author reveals him as the spymaster’s nemesis. Dehn’s inspired reworking of the story doubtless influenced Le Carré when writing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy a few years after. This particular plot element of a double-agent betraying Dobbs/Smiley by attacking him his weak point, his wife, is a crucial story point in that book.

  • Alec Guinness Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979, directed by John Irvin) and Smiley’s People (1982, directed by Simon Langton) –


Book excerpt:

…for each house three cars jammed the curb. From long habit, Smiley passed these in review, checking which were familiar, which were not; of the unfamiliar, which had aerials and extra mirrors, which were the closed vans that watchers like. Partly he did this as a test of memory to preserve his mind from the atrophy of retirement, just as on other days he learnt the names of the shops along his bus route to the British museum; just as he knew how many stairs there were to each flight of his own house and which way each of the twelve doors opened.

But Smiley had a second reason, which was fear, the secret fear that follows every professional to his grave. Namely, that one day, out of a past so complex that he himself could not remember all the enemies he might have made, one of them would find him and demand the reckoning.
– John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 1974


The iconic George Smiley performance – the one Oldman claims he didn’t see to prepare for his own portrayal – is that of Alec Guinness in these two BBC television productions. Guinness is so spot-on that Le Carré stated (in a 2002 interview included on the disc) that he could no longer imagine anyone but Guinness when thinking of Smiley, and that this limited his ability to write the character. (Indeed, Smiley would not appear in any of the author’s subsequent novels until making his final appearance in 1990’s The Secret Pilgrim.) In the first six-episode series, Guinness eschews any residual actor’s vanity to play a world-weary spy. Smiley is shelved for his unwillingness to play office politics in order to stay in the good graces of four incompetents who maneuver themselves into positions of power over the Circus. Though not at all physically imposing, Guinness brings a still quality to his performance that accentuates Smiley’s bespectacled, owl-eyed wisdom. Sticking closely to Le Carré’s novel – one of his most sprawling, and the fifth to feature Smiley – the miniseries adds another layer of complexity by addressing the decline of Smiley’s marriage and the degeneration of the British Secret Service’s influence on the world, and tying it both in with the decay of the British empire.

The second six-episode series Smiley’s People suffers from a confusing script rewritten by Le Carré himself, but that doesn’t stop Guinness from continuing to fine-tune his rendition of Smiley. By the time this sequel was shot, Guinness had melded with the character, absorbing the prop of Smiley’s wide glasses into the iconography of the role. Smiley, a virtual nobody to the new generation of agents in charge at the Circus, throws himself headlong (and alone) into a gambit to capture his arch-enemy, Soviet agent Karla (Patrick Stewart). Smiley – at once out of place and yet ordinary enough to be overlooked in any setting – is placed in such incongruous locales as the English countryside, Paris, and even a Hamburg sex club. Making sense of the labyrinthine plot (which confounded some viewers of the new version of Tinker Tailor) is ultimately of less importance than is the pleasure of seeing a master actor achieve symbiosis with one of the most significant characters in his filmography.

  • Denholm Elliot – A Murder of Quality (1991, directed by Gavin Millar) –


Book excerpt:

Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession. The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction. A man who, like Smiley, has lived and worked for years among his country’s enemies learns only one prayer: that he may never, never be noticed. Assimilation is his highest aim, he learns to love the crowds who pass him in the street without a glance; he clings to them for his anonymity and his safety. His fear makes him servile…
– John le Carré, A Murder of Quality, 1962

More of a curiosity than required viewing, Millar’s film casts Smiley as a Jessica Fletcher-like amateur sleuth solving a murder mystery in a town built around a tony boy’s prep school. Le Carré wrote the screenplay himself, based on his second novel. Though, having painted himself into a corner with Smiley’s decision to leave the Secret Service in Call for the Dead, the author turned to his former occupation as a schoolmaster for inspiration. Denholm Elliot (Raiders of the Lost Ark) makes for a pretty bland Smiley, showing little of the wit that he possesses in other roles. But this is likely a result of a combination of circumstances; one being Smiley’s literary infancy in its thin source novel, and the other being the book’s atypical setting in a world that offers little opportunity for that character to display his obvious virtues. A Murder of Quality plays exactly like what it looks like, a middlebrow Masterpiece Mystery, albeit one featuring notable actors such as Joss Ackland, Christian Bale and Glenda Jackson.

Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and television for his blog, Cinema Viewfinder, and reviews DVDs and Blu-rays for Nomad Editions: Wide Screen, a digital weekly. His criticism has also been featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog, Opposing Views and Follow him on Twitter.

TONY DAYOUB: TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is a worthy remake filled with lonely characters

TONY DAYOUB: TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is a worthy remake filled with lonely characters


The tall, athletic man introduced earlier in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as British Intelligence officer Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) walks into a classroom and begins to write his name on the chalkboard. Only he does not write the name we’ve come to know him by. The typically garrulous young males attending the tony prep school remain blissfully unaware of their new teacher’s identity as he starts handing out the class assignment. But the viewer is all too keenly aware of who Prideaux is if only for the fact that we saw him shot in the back at the start of Tomas Alfredson’s film adaptation of the John le Carré novel. Is this a flashback? Or did Prideaux somehow survive the shooting? Prideaux’s mild demeanor belies his efficiency, a fact his students become aware of when a bird trapped in the chimney suddenly flies into the classroom in confusion. Prideaux rapidly pulls out a club from his desk drawer and swats the bird down to the ground where it continues to squeal in pain. As Alfredson directs the camera to capture the students’ horrified reactions, the sound of Prideaux beating the bird to death comes from off-screen.

nullThis memorable scene crystallizes much of the convoluted – yet ultimately satisfying – story of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. For one, the momentary confusion caused by the squawking bird is a metaphor representing the chaos a Soviet double agent is causing within the upper ranks of the Circus, the British Intelligence branch MI6 that Prideaux was working for at the time he was shot in Budapest. Secondly, the viewer must determine whether what is being shown is taking place in the film’s past or its present. Lastly, the sequence illustrates how a character who’s been left to languish in a sort of purgatory for a failed espionage mission may actually be underestimated in his level of competency. The treatment of Prideaux after the shooting – torture, reassignment and disavowal – has been a far more protracted death than the mercy killing he granted the poor animal.

One could say the same thing about George Smiley (Gary Oldman), ex-Deputy Director of the Circus, who was dismissed along with his boss, the mysteriously designated Control (John Hurt), when Prideaux was believed to have been killed in Hungary. Control had secretly sent Prideaux there in order to uncover a mole amongst his top lieutenants: “Tinker” (Toby Jones), “Tailor” (Colin Firth), “Soldier” (Ciarán Hinds) and “Beggarman,” Smiley himself. Smiley’s firing along with that of Control’s made the question of his treachery academic. But both operatives were now on the outside, unable to ferret out which of the other three officers was providing the Soviet double agent some of the Circus’s most valuable secrets. The aimless Smiley goes about his daily routine – swimming in the Thames, contemplating the ruin of his marriage and unable to shake the paranoia inherent in his lifelong career – all but forgotten by his country. However, the death of Control, and intelligence gathered by an underling, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), initiates an invitation from the Prime Minister’s office for Smiley to return and continue his former boss’s investigation into the identity of the traitor.

nullThe usually volatile Oldman is superb as the constricted Smiley. Oldman’s portrayal is even more amazing considering it follows in the footsteps of Alec Guinness, whose performance as Smiley in the original 1979 BBC miniseries and its sequel, Smiley’s People – both available on DVD from Acorn Media if you’d like to compare – is among his most iconic. Over the hill, his hair streaked with gray, and wearing oversized spectacles – red frames for the flashback sequences, horn-rimmed for the ones set in the film’s present day, 1974 – Oldman’s Smiley is a study not so much of repression but economy. Smiley never raises his voice in the film, not even at the close friend who is cuckolding him, except for when an associate tries to justify his betrayal of queen and country. Smiley’s reflective glasses even serve as an occasional blind, shielding his tempestuous, observant eyes from any examination. When a fly is buzzing around the interior of a car driven by protégé Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley, rather than fruitlessly wave his hand in the air chasing it down, waits until the fly is close enough to the window to roll it down and let suction take care of the rest.

What one finds most striking about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the anguish and loneliness that lies at the heart of its brittle, cold exterior. As the movie starts to wind down, the depth of alienation experienced by those in this nasty profession becomes ever more apparent. The desire for emotional connections – the utter loneliness of the job – drives many of the film’s players, including Prideaux, the closeted Guillam, the traitorous mole and yes, even the stoic Smiley. Tarr, the lethal operative whose intelligence relaunched the inquiry, is eager to finish his part of the mission to chuck it all for a quiet life raising a family. Prideaux and Guillam, each separately involved in his own secret homosexual relationship, are the epitome of the type of individuals bred for the espionage service, men of character who have developed an unerring ease in cultivating a double life. And then there’s Smiley, whose frustrating love for his philandering wife is the only chink in his carefully built armor. Smiley’s weakness might just be the proper fuel for his instinctive ability to unearth his fellows’ motivations and find out who the mole really is.

Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and television for his blog, Cinema Viewfinder, and reviews DVDs and Blu-rays for Nomad Editions: Wide Screen, a digital weekly. His criticism has also been featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog, Opposing Views and Follow him on Twitter.

The Chicago Way: Crime Story back on DVD for its 25th Anniversary

The Chicago Way: Crime Story back on DVD for its 25th Anniversary


EDITOR'S NOTE: Contributor Tony Dayoub marks the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Michael Mann's Crime Story. We have paired his new piece with Matt Zoller Seitz's video essay Zen Pulp, Pt. 5: Crime Story, which was created for the Museum of Moving Image.

On September 18, 1986, director Michael Mann (Heat) made good on his promising career in TV and film with the debut of his new period cops-and-robbers saga, Crime Story. Not only did Crime Story’s feature-quality production design live up to that of its TV antecedent, Mann’s stylish Miami Vice; Crime Story also fulfilled its aim to present a morally complex world in which it was often difficult to tell those who broke the law from those who upheld it. Set in 1963, the show explores the multiple facets of a young hood’s rise to power in the Chicago Mob through the viewpoints of its three protagonists. Ray Luca (Anthony Denison) is the pompadoured criminal quickly ascending the ranks of the “Outfit.” Lieutenant Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) is the cop in charge of Chicago’s Major Crime Unit (or MCU) who bends the law in the service of justice. And David Abrams (Stephen Lang) is the idealistic young lawyer caught between the two men and their obsessive cat-and-mouse game. Today, a little over 25 years since its premiere, Crime Story: The Complete Series (Image Entertainment) comes out on DVD. At press time, review copies were not made available, so it’s impossible to ascertain if any improvements have been made over the questionable video quality of previous iterations. But this short-lived series, an influential precursor to the well-written serials littered throughout cable this decade (i.e., The Sopranos, Mad Men, Justified, and others), is worth owning despite any potential issues with its digital transfer.

In 1984, the success of Miami Vice’s MTV cops premise had made Mann a household name, allowing him to develop virtually any project for NBC. Mann went back to a theme that informed his earlier films and would recur again and again in subsequent ones: the razor-thin borderline between order and chaos. In his first feature, Thief (1981), Mann focused on the rigid code of honor of a Chicago jewel thief named Frank (James Caan), zeroing in on his professionalism and expertise as counterpoint to the crooked methods used by the police and his criminal associates to bring him under control. Manhunter, a crime procedural, took a different tack, examining how FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) experiences a progressive loss of his own identity as he tries to get inside the head of an active serial killer. With the same skill Vice displayed in applying memorable music to key moments of its violent tale, only now taking a period setting into account, Crime Story represented a sort of apotheosis of all of these elements.

In much the same way Heat would later, Crime Story looked at opposing sides of the law – both in sharp relief and, in some cases, muddled reflection of each other. (Heck, Heat even lifted one scene from Crime Story whole cloth – Al Pacino’s cop discovers he’s being cuckolded and takes his TV as he moves out, just as Torello does in an early episode.) Torello’s poisonous hatred of Luca spills onto his personal life, rupturing his marriage and often bringing death to his loved ones. At one point, Torello acknowledges his obsession privately to Luca, “You know, when you chase someone as long as I’ve chased you, in the end, it really comes down to two people: you and me.” With little regard for his officers – big-hearted Sgt. Danny Krychek (Bill Smitrovich), cigar-chomping Walter Clemmons (Paul Butler), jokester Nate Grossman (Steve Ryan), and rookie detective Joey Indelli (Billy Campbell) – Torello rushes headlong in pursuit of Luca, frequently endangering the lives of innocent bystanders.  The lethal Luca, meanwhile, cooly dispatches orders and manages his lackeys in much the same way a company CEO does. Public defender Abrams justifies his work on behalf of criminal scum by righteously pointing out that everyone is entitled to a top-notch legal defense. But as the series continues, Torello begins fumbling the rest of his police work in order to focus on Luca, coming under fire from a federal attorney. Abrams starts feeling the sting of his close association with mobsters, especially when his father (himself a famous mob lawyer) is killed by a car bomb meant for him. The ambitious Luca becomes more reckless in his hunger for power.

By the time Luca makes it to the top of his organization, he is paranoid. Luca turns on his closest henchmen, Pauli Taglia (John Santucci) and Max Goldman (Andrew Dice Clay), in an episode directed by Mann himself, “Top of the World.” The real-life events that inform the episode (perhaps the pinnacle of the entire series) also provide the backstory for Martin Scorsese’s Casino. Like Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro, the character of Luca stands in for real-life mobster Anthony “the Ant” Spilotro whose cowboy antics began interfering with the Chicago Outfit’s Vegas dealings. The character of Max Goldman, like Robert De Niro’s “Ace” Rothstein in Casino, is a stand-in for Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. Casino’s opening scene, in which Rothstein survives an abortive car explosion, is also depicted in “Top of the World;” Goldman survives an explosion meant to eliminate him for discovering Luca cheating with his wife.

Crime Story came by its gritty realism honestly. It was created by Chuck Adamson, a former Chicago cop who consulted Mann on Thief, and Gustave Reininger, a former investment banker turned screenwriter with a tendency to put himself in dangerous undercover situations while researching his work. In fact, Mann filled out Crime Story’s cast, much the same way he did in Thief, with actors who had once been cops or felons in Chicago. Lead actor Farina had been a cop and Adamson’s partner. And Santucci, whose supporting character of Pauli was the show’s breakout favorite, had been a highline jewel thief busted by Adamson and Farina. Santucci’s exploits served as much of the foundation for Thief, and he doubled as a technical consultant on Crime Story.

While it wasn’t the first prime-time series to have serialized elements, Crime Story was one of the most cohesive, at least in the first of its two seasons. The first season follows Luca’s meteoric rise from simple home invader (in the pilot episode directed by Abel Ferrara) in Chicago to chief enforcer for syndicate boss Manny Weisbord (Joseph Weisman) in Las Vegas. Torello rides his coattails, in a sense, graduating to G-man with the Justice Department along with the disillusioned Abrams, both of them tasked specifically with bringing Luca and the Outfit to justice. The time-compressed first season comes to a natural and nihilistic conclusion, in which few of the characters seem to get out alive, Mann’s nod to the slim chances that the ratings-challenged series would return for a second season. But return it did, and now, the Crime Story writing staff, or what was left of it after many moved on to other projects, had to figure out how to get themselves out of the corner that they had painted themselves into. With two, possibly three, of the lead characters at death’s door in the first season finale, the ultimate resolution was far-fetched for a show that had always prided itself for its verisimilitude. The show wound down its second season with inconsistent episodes set in the Vegas milieu before concluding with a tight trilogy of episodes filmed in Mexico, where Torello’s squad goes vigilante in order to finally stop Luca once and for all. One wonders if today’s TV landscape might have been more supportive of Crime Story.


Though ratings played a part in its cancellation, another significant contribution was the expense of recreating the early ‘60s. Today’s cable series have learned to amortize their costs – not to mention increase the production time allotted in filming an episode – by producing seasons that are half the number of episodes as those of network series. With less need for filler episodes – Crime Story produced a number of episodes that mostly consisted of clip compilations to bring its audience up to speed – then season-long storylines take on more potency. Just look at the current season of Sons of Anarchy, another show in which the criminals are the protagonists. Kurt Sutter’s outlaw biker series had to ask for one more episode than its allotted 13 when it became clear this year’s plotline involving SAMCRO’s dealings with a Mexican drug cartel was bursting with too much story potential.
Still, as a forerunner to the morally relativistic worlds seen on TV crime sagas like Boardwalk Empire and its cable confreres, Crime Story stands out as a beautifully executed and engaging exemplar.

Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and television for his blog, Cinema Viewfinder, and reviews DVDs and Blu-rays for Nomad Editions: Wide Screen, a digital weekly. His criticism has also been featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog, Opposing Views and Follow him on Twitter.