In a less complex age, the Thirties, say, when opinion polls first began, “free spirit” and “rugged individualist” could, on occasion, blend in the “little people” heroes of Frank Capra—a Mr. Deeds or a Mr. Smith. By the end of the Second World War, with the constant acceleration of events, the increasing theatricalization of issues and ideas, and the ubiquitous Soviet threat, these ideal types, the irreverence of the free spirit and the ruthlessness of the rugged individualist, appear more and more as polar types, become now truly larger than life, and thus, in cyclic fashion, tend to comment on themselves and the country as well.
One knows to what extent, and how explosively, the rock generation influenced recent American history. Less well known, perhaps, as a barometer of current taste, has been the career of Clint Eastwood. Though little has been written about him, though I suspect there are millions of Americans who’ve never even seen an Eastwood movie, to whom he’s simply a name in the way Newman and Redford are not, nevertheless he has been, for quite a while now, the most consistently profitable star both here and abroad. The Eastwood phenomenon, I think, lends itself to an examination of the “soft” and “hard” aspects of the American scene, of how the “convictions” of free spirit and rugged individualist, which found root in our soil long before the industrialization of America, continue to fascinate, despite their archaic air.
Lawrence wrote of the Leatherstocking hero of the Fenimore Cooper novels, “Patient and gentle as he is, he is a slayer.” The saint with a gun. And this has been pretty much the Eastwood persona, whether as cowboy or cop, in Old West or corporate underworld, running to ground all manner of wild thing—and a bit of a wild animal himself. Yet if the nativism is traditional—an essential guilelessness touched with a mean streak—what’s most distinctive about Eastwood, a latecomer to the ranks of rugged individualists, is how effectively he struggles against absorption into mere genre, mere style, even while appearing, with his long-boned casualness and hypnotic presence, to be nothing but style.
Compare the raunchy nonchalance of Burt Reynolds, his rival and contemporary: blow-dried hair and mustache, bomber jacket and jeans, boozing and guffawing and busting ass, constantly playing up to audiences as Eastwood almost never does. Reynolds seems largely a synthetic creation, Gable in Test Pilot hedonistically retreaded for the demands of disco culture. Eastwood’s qualities, though also a mass of clichés, nevertheless go much deeper, are more obscure. For the true flavor of popular culture, whether in its debunking form as in the Sixties or as a salvaging operation as in the Seventies, comes from a sense of the elemental, a particular attitude, a particular mood as primordial as is currently fashionable—that is to say, topical. For many of the Sixties free spirits the topical referent had been prophetic, old values engulfed by new values in the “times they are a’changin’,” the proletarianization of college youth as a vanguard class acting out an audacity inflamed by history. With Eastwood the topical referent has been nostalgic, the average man’s growing uneasiness over the eclipse of old paths, old truths, from the Silent Majority to Moral Majority, what some now call the “politics of resentment.”
Again, the “verisimilitude” of popular culture, especially in Hollywood, and repeatedly since the end of the Fifties, is as exclusive as it is inclusive. What’s absent in its portrait of the world is as notable as what’s present, and both, in sub rosa fashion, are animated by the prejudices of the hour.1 So, in Eastwood’s movies, frustration and aggression are dominant. All the tropes of adversity, the primary “male” appetites—greed, honor, fraud, struggle, violence—are there, but significantly diluted of any real social, intellectual, or even familial coloration. What happens goes beyond the drama of minute particulars, with Eastwood indelibly there, always a figure in firm outline in a combat situation.
Understandably, such a persona, more Yankee than Puritan and more “lonesome traveler” than either, is preeminently a man with a project: a battle to win, frontier to cross, criminal to collar; evocative of patriarchy, yet aloof from it; with little belief in Providence but lots in provender. He is a “closed” rather than an “open” personality, without unction and without “feminine” traits; a graduate of the school of hard knocks, and yet almost childlike in his grievances.
Few other actors convey so naturally, even at their more brutal moments, so outraged a sense of innocence. See, in particular, the stunningly understated Escape from Alcatraz, as well as the six films Eastwood has himself directed and starred in, from the harassed romantic idol of Play “Misty” for Me to the frankly anachronistic fable of last year’s Bronco Billy (along with The Outlaw Josey Wales, his best work to date).
In Eastwood, then, whatever the narrowness of range (and he has neither the power nor the care of Hackman or DeNiro), image and idiom are one, an economy of speech and an economy of movement are perfectly matched, his taciturnity is a guarantee of his veracity, and both, however antagonistic, are emblematic of a private ethic. In his own way, Dylan had this too: “To live outside the law you must be honest.” But the free spirits of the rock generation went capriciously against the heroic mode; Eastwood, of course, unabashedly invokes it, even as he adds a certain jocund eccentricity, or eerie quality of “distancing,” to give it a new and ambiguous appeal.
The trio of spaghetti Westerns Eastwood made in Europe during the Sixties under the direction of Sergio Leone were unusual in that respect—and an unusual achievement in themselves, though contemptuously dismissed by the critical fraternity. At once crudely virtuosic and curiously detached, these films (the best of them, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, includes an unforgettable bit of pantomime between Eastwood and a dying Confederate soldier), with their repetitive, if balletic, hangings, showdowns, or massacres, their caskets and cadavers, their boom towns, ghost towns, or “male pic” buffoonery, derived neither from the homely metaphors of Hawks and Ford, nor even from the later postwar “psychological” work of Boetticher or early Peckinpah. They existed, rather, on a pointedly primitive level, almost in a delirium of grand guignol, so flamboyant at times as to approach parody (with an occasional bow to Kurosawa).
Thus these early films were politically equivocal (Eastwood, I imagine, having yet to grasp the true nature of his constituency). The laconic assertions—“Everyone here is becoming very rich—or else they’re dead”; “Two kinds of people in this world: those with a loaded gun and those who dig”—could serve equally as sardonic celebration of social Darwinism or as Marxist rhetoric. Just as Eastwood himself, the perennial drifter or wildcatter, bronzed and unshaven, with his poncho, his cigarillo, and sly rejoinders (“You don’t admire peace?” “It’s not easy to know something you know nothing about”), silent about the past, with no discernible future, a personal vendetta his only present, could serve, in the days of the Hanoi bombings, as both an example of the “ugly American” and a hero of the hard hats.
It was only after he returned to the States in the Seventies, began the series about the tough cop “Dirty Harry” with Don Siegel (there had been a trial run a bit earlier in Coogan’s Bluff, Eastwood as an Arizona yokel among the Manhattan smoothies), that the actor’s fluently nerveless style was at last to find its proper focus and, more important, proper time. For now was the Nixon era—and the growing backlash against hippie and yippie. Eastwood became Inspector Harry Callahan of San Francisco Homicide, “cold, bold Callahan with his great big .44,” suitably cleanshaven, with patch jacket, tie, and shades. Gone was the giocoso style of the Leone Westerns. Instead one found a strict visual rhythm, a shapeliness in tactile detail, often with expert musical accompaniment, usually a Lalo Schifrin score. And in place of the great open spaces there was the TV feel of live coverage, camera and crew at the scene of disaster or hot spot, increasingly for many Americans the sine qua non of urban reality.
Unlike Cooper or Wayne, a county sheriff defending his neighbors from the outside invaders, Dirty Harry in the guise of rugged individualist always has to work in a big city where he can be near the action and yet preserve his loner’s status. But it must be a locale of a particular kind. A Dirty Harry in the Los Angeles Police Department would be redundant. Such a character can only truly function if set against a presumably “permissive” milieu like San Francisco where, as a colleague famously explains, “A hood can get a cop but let a cop kill a hood—it’s murder,” and in which mob or hood can be seen as virtually interchangeable with “radical,” “deviant,” or “incompetent.” And where San Francisco itself emerges not as the city of Tony Bennett’s hymn, but rather as a sort of twentieth-century frontier town, a city of crazies, full of black militants and dope addicts, counterculturists and leftist revolutionaries, even, on occasion, the scheming rich (symbolic of “decadence”) or a worker priest (conveniently regarded as a dupe of the revolutionaries or, in our current jargon, a patsy for “disinformation”).
Thus the “fascist” aura the rugged individualist will now suggest; thus his receptivity to simplistic enticements, whatever his reflex pieties: “Nobody’s against the ‘system’ more than me,” Dirty Harry assures us in Magnum Force, “but until a better one comes along, I’ll stick with it.” For the age has grown far edgier, demands now (at some level) a blood bath; it’s no longer interested in “understanding,” or in the dual nature of victimization, but in unequivocal reprisal.
DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Bronson in Death Wish, Hackman in The Conversation, Scheider in The Seven-Ups, Matthau and Dern in The Laughing Policeman, Joe, Walking Tall, the Shaft programmers, or the racist dragonade of the controversial Fort Apache, the Bronx—these films, among others, in their differing ways, along with Eastwood’s, represent a significant turning point in Hollywood’s relation to low life, as well as a significant shift in leftist and rightist sensibility among the public. From Dead End to Knock on Any Door, Detective Story to In Cold Blood, roughly the four decades prior to the Seventies, there was always, more or less, an implicit sympathy for the plight of the disadvantaged—at the very least the extenuating circumstances of crime. An attitude so puissant it was amiably satirized in the Officer Krumpke number of West Side Story, the delinquents singing, “We’re not responsible for our acts, social conditions are.” By the time of Dirty Harry, though, a new dehumanization is apparent, with the criminal no longer considered even pathological, simply demonic. A freak. How can Dirty Harry be sure the Scorpio sniper will strike again? “Because,” he replies, “he likes it.” And of course Dirty Harry likes it too. “Nothing wrong with shooting, as long as the right people get shot.”
The private eyes of Chandler and Hammett, while by no means antagonistic to the status quo, knew that the law, in general, is made by the rich for the benefit of the rich, on the back of the middle class, with the poor in such an equation getting the short end of the stick. Chandler, writing in a famous essay that “down these mean streets a man who is not mean must go,” was apostrophizing a spirit of generosity infusing his rancorous heroes, culminating finally in Sinatra’s portrayal of the last “good” cop in The Detective: “Garbage-can housing is our most profitable form of housing. And our responsibility is to sit on those garbage cans.”
In the Seventies, however, being poor is no longer a biblical tribulation, social affliction, or even a taxpayer’s burden; it is merely a “racket.” The committees formed to “prevent the nigger from getting everything” or George Gilder claiming that “compassionate” economics have been destroying the poor rather than helping them or that “entitlement” sounds the death knell of capitalism—these are really not too different from Dirty Harry, much earlier, cruising in his patrol car the nocturnal sleaze of Folsom Street and mumbling, “I’d like to throw a net over the whole bunch.”
The solution, henceforth, is not to be through integration but isolation, creating the currently familiar tension in which the poor themselves, along with other “dubious” or “superfluous” elements, Agnew’s “rotten apples,” Murdoch’s “vagrants,” or Koch’s “swine,” become a threateningly perceived underclass and by which a moral order is thought possible only through an imposed order. (Aristotle: “That which by its presence brings about one result is sometimes blamed for bringing about the contrary by its absence. Thus we ascribe the wreck of a ship to the absence of the pilot, whose presence was the cause of its safety.”)
Against such a background, the collapse of the Great Society and the presumed exhaustion of liberalism, the “code” of Dirty Harry is to be measured. And to the Protestant ethic is added the daredevil’s imprimatur, the cop following a metier of risk and discipline, “a full day’s pay for a full day’s work,” at a time when much of the rest of the community, it’s implied, has been “goofing off.” So Dirty Harry knows what’s what, not might before right, not the iron fist, but that might is right—that is to say, it alone accomplishes anything; that often the safest way is the most dangerous way. To a degree such a “code” exemplifies professionalism above everything, even, at times, macho prejudices. Told that the camaraderie of a group of ace cops is so intense they’re thought “to be queer for each other,” he responds, after his mordant fashion, while breezing past the revolving doors of a police station, “Tell you something. If the rest of you could shoot like them, I wouldn’t care if the whole damn department was queer.”
And if there’s a quarrel with authority, it’s surely not that of oppressor and oppressed. In the Dirty Harry series there’s no question of class structure or class interest, or the slightest suggestion that white-collar crimes are more numerous, or may be more injurious to the body politic, than blue-collar crimes (see John Gerassi and Frank Browning’s The American Way of Crime). Rather, the quarrel is there because authority is thought not to be using its muscle; at issue is never an “unwinnable situation,” the concept of the poltroon, but simply the supposed knavery of rascal libertarian, corrupt bureaucrat, or failed leader. If the times are tyrannical or out of joint, it’s because a fool is in office and madmen walk the streets, and if the law sanctions the latter, then the law too is “crazy”—or the “problem.”
Epithets such as “pinko” and “commie” are unheard. Still it’s typical that the villainy always takes place in situations resembling those surrounding Huey Newton or Patty Hearst, Manson, or the Zodiac Killer, but never those of Kent State, Watergate, or My Lai. Typical, as well, that often Eastwood is simultaneously against both those who cry “power to the people” and not a few of the people in power themselves, for certainly there’s little difference between the contempt he showers on the “punk,” “animal,” or “creep” and his distaste for all manner of intellectual palaver, whether from the vantage point of professor, theorist, or media flunky.
In the all too ironic finale of The Enforcer, Eastwood blows away the last “nut” in headband and love beads in the tower of the abandoned Alcatraz, destroys the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force, rescues the blundering and cowering mayor who’d been held as hostage, then walks off in righteous disgust. After this we get a lingering shot of a chopper from City Hall scouring the island, waving the white flag, the bullhorn braying, “We have your money. We have acceded to all your demands. A plane is ready to take you where you want to go.” The vigilantism of the Old West, with its hatred of “book larnin”‘ and “women’s talk,” of “civilizin”‘ influences, becomes the archdefender of civilization.2
And yet Eastwood’s persona is hardly the usual redneck salivating at the prospect of a kill, or even an updated Mike Hammer. Nor would Eastwood be able to command so wide an audience if it were. Whatever the plebeian allure, Eastwood has a patrician grace; every inch that of a “star,” in the old sense, one of the few, I think, to have emerged in America in the last twenty years. The taut, lean, powerfully built body, the sensitively chiseled, unsmiling face, a voice surprisingly soft, almost ghostly in its monosyllabic intonations (though grown thicker and moodier with advancing age), the shock of tawny hair and lithe walk (the most distinctive of any actor’s since Fonda), the famous “squint” and glacial eyes which nevertheless can seem terribly vulnerable—these unusual physical endowments couple with Dirty Harry’s meager psychological background to produce a certain inarticulate melancholy.
But in the absence of bonds among people and place, of a shared belief, there are bonds of another order, more potent, those of hunter and hunted. And if there’s no compassion between them, there’s plenty of complicity. Most evident, perhaps, in The Gauntlet, where a Dirty Harry type is now also a drunk and down-and-outer, unexpectedly pitted against Sondra Locke’s wonderfully brash, bickering Vegas hooker with a master’s degree in something or other who teaches him a thing or two.
Sherlock Holmes, we remember, lamented the death of Professor Moriarty, his archnemesis and only peer. This, however, represents less the criminal as the dark, repugnant underside of the cop than the mythical mastermind lacking an adversary worthy of his hieratic talents. The incendiary Dirty Harry, though, needs his culprit not just to stay in business, but also to give him a reason for being, or to save him from becoming a culprit.
Deep down, one can discern in Dirty Harry a very contemporary instance of the “secret sharer,” as out of step with the age as the petty mobsters and welfare wretches, the assorted Untermenschen he combats so mercilessly.
One can also feel that somehow he too is a ploy of forces he’ll never quite fathom or resist—the miasma of big-city paranoia, the implacability of technological growth, or metropolitan man himself, an unstable compound in an all too hazardous world. For Harry leads a life always at the edges of careerism, has no real share in the spoil, preserves his humanity—that is to say, his individuality—largely through default, or releases it only in moments of crisis, and possesses neither close chums (“Don’t like to get too friendly with partners”) nor wife. And the sex, what there is of it, is perfunctory. A chick asks: “What does a girl have to do to go to bed with you?” A pause, while he looks her dead in the eye: “Try knocking on my door.” Push such a character to outright pathology—make him something other than an elegantly roughhewn fantasy figure—and he’d resemble Gary Gilmore of The Executioner’s Song.3
It’s no wonder Eastwood has a big following among black audiences, even though the presentation of blacks in his films is not always flattering—as it’s not always flattering to other ethnic minorities, among whom he’s also popular. Each group may perceive in Eastwood a glamorized version of its own reveries of omnipotence, its own amorphous sense of distrust. For if the Sixties was largely a decade of confrontation built on an egalitarian ethic, however falteringly understood, against the predatory and powerful, the Seventies increasingly became an epoch of polarization, built on a jingoistic and retributive ethic, what Jack Newfield in an article in the Village Voice has recently described as “a selfish epoch of shrinking opportunity and insecure status.” Violence, of course, was common in both eras, but with many of the Sixties young, violence tended to be turned inward, not, as with Eastwood, outward. In Eastwood’s movies violence is the “norm,” preparing Eastwood’s persona for its own apotheosis, ensuring not only his stature as rugged individualist but, more significantly, his “conservative” appeal as “survivor.” “You never change,” one of Dirty Harry’s colleagues marvels over the star’s youthful appearance, “you always stay the same”—the colleague himself having gone “out of control” after years on Homicide. But it’s precisely Dirty Harry’s inability to change or to have, in the psychobabble of the day, “growth experiences” that makes him appear so indomitable as punisher or standard-bearer, whatever the odds, “never to surrender,” as happens even in the baleful moments of The Gauntlet.
Trying to sort out the legacy of the Sixties, reading much of the recently published memorabilia, one can now easily observe a strain of suicidal disaffection running through it. That society was manipulative and meretricious was a governing donnée; the “destructive element” of modernist thought serving as a psychedelic motif. Beneath the sassiness of Dylan, his carnival air and tambourine, lay the “tombstone blues.” Beyond the credo of the Beatles that “all you need is love” stood the war in Vietnam, or the various assassinations following in the wake of the civil rights movement. Along with the pastorale of flower children at Sheep Meadow there were also the overdose in Harlem, the sudden deaths of Hendrix and Ochs. Joplin and Morrison. So too on many of the campuses not a few were defiant in their belief that to “cop out” or “drop out” was a better deal or more honorable than to “sell out.”
Indeed in those days not to “succeed,” to be “outside” society yet “inside” one’s legend, was somehow to “freeze frame” a life, as in the spectacular last sequence of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Newman and Redford, the gringos under attack, spring from the shelter of a ramshackle arcade, their guns blazing, while from the rooftops in the little square the Mexican militia lets loose its volley of bullets and the doomed outlaws are left in the midst of action, in a “time freeze”; they don’t bite the dust, but are caught at that anguishing instant just before death, heroically outnumbered, yet jokingly, almost lovingly, meeting what cannot be avoided, intent on capturing their mules and riding hellbent for leather past the foreign encirclement, their bodies in a split second riddled with wounds, but their faces upturned, the two guns still firing as the last shot of the camera turns them to stone and the credits roll over the screen.
“Off” in our vernacular means “being alive,” but it also means “being dead.” “Getting off” and “getting offed,” as we know, run perilously close in the national psyche—and in more ways than one, and with diverse reverberations as well. The polemical “last generation” of the New Left’s Port Huron manifesto and the “last days” palaver of the evangelical right, the former representing, temperamentally, a masochistic anti-institutionalism, the latter a sadistic anti-intellectualism; Rap Brown saying “violence is as American as apple pie,” Haig saying “this country was formed by armed conflict … insurrection, if you will”; Hinckley a Nazi Party reject; the marketing of games such as “Capital Punishment” allowing the participants “the opportunity of putting their adversaries in life imprisonment or on Death Row”—these are not merely symptomatic of the assaultive rhythms of a declining economy that plays havoc with permanence. More pertinently, they’re also indicative of alternating states of apathy and agitation to which we’ve long grown accustomed and presumably now could not do without.
By the middle of the Seventies, ethnic minorities no longer bothered to jeer at the weirdos, peaceniks, or rock stars; by the middle of the Seventies ethnic minorities had turned upon one another. “Saturday Night Live” (more than the genial bigotry of the earlier Archie Bunker) delighted the people in the suburbs with its jokes about wops and kikes, spics and coons, even though not a few of the people in the suburbs were themselves of ethnic minorities, or had friends who were. Feminists rose up on “revolutionary” issues, only to be asked why it was they did not like men, why they did not like having babies, what they had against their mothers. And if the Sixties gave us revisionist estimates of the cold war, by the end of the Seventies we already had revisionist estimates of My Lai as filtered through a revivified Klan mentality.
In the Seventies, too, after the iconoclasm of the Sixties, “belief systems” were unearthed everywhere; “sensitivity training” gave way to “assertiveness training”; people were “born again,” along with the water bed and TM; the picketing at Dow Chemical was replaced by the “decency rally” to abort gay rights or the pill; a controversy one thought had been buried fifty years ago put in a startling reappearance in the continuing debate over “creationism” and “evolutionism.” “Traditional values” were dutifully reproduced, but often with incongruous results. No more powerful, if sanguinary, depiction of family life was to be met than in the brilliant Godfather films of Francis Ford Coppola, each of them almost a parodic—albeit unconscious—illustration of “the family as a haven in a heartless world.” And in Sylvester Stallone, the patriotic brute of Rocky, who “don’t use no dirty words,” falls in love with a thirty-year-old “virgin,” jogs with a couple of bricks in his mitts to become champion of the world, one found, in an era of “crisis journalism” and renewed “thinking about the unthinkable,” the perfect throwback to comic-book Americana.
“Mass culture,” notes Roland Barthes, “is a machine for showing desire. Here is what must interest you, it says, as if it guessed that men are incapable of finding what to desire by themselves.” To desire—but never to understand. And yet if in fact we do not “understand” why we act the way we do, or why the world works the way it does or doesn’t work, if we continually foster a sentimental or inaccurate audit of the past or prefer to imagine le dernier cri as our only possible relation to the future, if we fluctuate between Emerson’s notion that “a man has a right to be employed, to be trusted, to be loved, to be revered” and Stockman’s sally that no man is owed anything by government, if the praxis of rugged individualist and the poesis of free spirit appear as little more than a species of mythic ephemera dependent on the seismography of the tickertape (as now in the contest between old money and new money, Frostbelt and Sunbelt, the rugged individualist is toying with “Texas chic” as formerly the free spirit had been toying with “radical chic”), our tests of “reality” become a matter of the lane in the supermarket, one’s rung on the corporate ladder, how to make or save a buck.
Mass desires, then, resting as much on mass anxieties as on mass obfuscation, always look in a time of panic for a magical solvent, someone or something to combat not only the toxicity of world events but, more important, the decline of faith in “reality” itself. Thus our rebirth in reality is again, cruelly and inevitably, by way of fantasy. The world, we currently understand, or at last are willing to admit, is no longer our oyster but our Gordian knot, so we elect an Alexander, an old actor in the guise of a young man, a physiocrat of the plains, who with one brilliant stroke will slash his way to victory and, as he stated in his inaugural, “balance the budget,” and “turn the country around,” the suspense of so theatrical, indeed so sacrosanct, a venture being not whether the dream behind it is noble or ignoble, or even what historical forces might favor it or impede it, but simply, as in a movie, will it work? Or more precisely, how soon will it pall?
In Bronco Billy, Clint Eastwood portrays a modern-day roustabout, a former shoe salesman who, having grown up in the tenements of Newark and been nourished on the fare at the local Bijou, quit one day in his thirties and left for the itinerant life of the rodeo, because as he winsomely observes, “In America everybody can become what they believe they are.” In the best scene in the movie, a scene as sweetly comic as it’s clearly meant as a depiction of a “mass yearning,” as well as a roguish memento of our nickelodeon era, and which nevertheless goes against the prevailing optimism of the rest of the film, Eastwood is beside his motley troupe waiting in a red car, armed with bows and arrows, Indian gear, and coonskin caps. Eastwood, Bronco Billy himself, is on his horse, the same horse he rides with jangling spurs in daring sequence beneath the big top of the small towns he tours on his circuit of the Northwest, to the delight of the “little pards” who watch in the sparsely filled stands with Hershey bars and wide eyes. At this particular point, Bronco Billy, who’s been a good man all along, “a sinner like everyone else,” who needs God and reveres God, is broke, having resources for neither himself nor his troupe. He now does something he thought he’d never do, but must do: there in the desert, with his horse, his blue kerchief pulled down below his steady eyes—and since Eastwood as Bronco Billy is not meant to be too bright—the words, “This is a holdup,” are ready on his lips.
Then we get a long shot of an approaching train coming down a long track, a close view of the puzzled engineer wondering what on earth a cowboy and his horse are doing near that track, and we hear the repeated warning from the conductor’s whistle. We see that Bronco Billy does not budge, but then neither does the indifferent train as it continues its progress across the plain, as the Bronco Billy troupe shoot arrows at the departing train, and Bronco Billy fires his pistol in the untroubled air. A little boy looking out the window of a dining car says, “It’s a cowboy and Indians, Mother,” as the bored lady nods. Finally a medium shot of Bronco Billy, slouched in his saddle, slowly releasing the kerchief from his face, to stare dumb-founded at the empty track, the distant smoke, and the great robbery which did not take place.
April 1, 1982
Much of the vigor of Reds is due less to its “revolutionary” air than to Beatty’s John Reed as a romantic artist no longer separated from the masses but at the forefront of mass change; it’s not historical determinism that engages him but the older, nineteenth-century notion of heroic energy. Similar “bourgeois” versions of the “left” are to be found in the anecdotal Ragtime and the unjustly maligned Heaven’s Gate. ↩
Surely Don Siegel is being disingenuous when he remarks in Iain Johnstone’s recently published survey of Eastwood’s career, The Man With No Name (Morrow, paperback, 1981), that the reason the killer in Dirty Harry wore the “peace symbol” (the only character who did), was not to besmirch the “doves” but to “remind us that no matter how vicious a person is, when he looks at himself in the mirror, he’s not capable of seeing the truth about himself.” But the “peace symbol,” used in such a context, during such an era, had obvious political “import” (much as does the absence on TV today of dramas about the poor and the superfluity of those about the rich). Siegel is merely confirming the “demonic” view of things implicit in the film; his remark, if one were to take it seriously, is theologically flawed as well. (Note also Jerry Falwell’s inquisitorial Listen America!, his bogus claims that “nowhere in the Bible is there a rebuke for the bearing of armaments” or that the “role of government” is to be a “terror to evildoers within and without the nation.”) ↩
In Prince of the City, where moral ambiguity also surfaces, Danny, the cop who “sings” for the Feds, cannot be a “hero,” though there’s surely a sense in which he’s meant to be a classical antagonist surrounded by a chorus of other voices. But these voices—narcs, dealers, prosecutors—often duplicate one another and Danny’s own. The signal quality of this film about the NYPD’s Special Investigatory Unit is its garrulity: the constant lies, the asseverations and reassurances, the love taps and bear hugs—these are always the prelude to the Judas kiss, the inevitable betrayal awaiting Danny on both sides of the law. The signal quality of True Confessions, a far subtler tale of urban corruption, is its characteristic silences, its Bressonian deflation of every dramatic moment, the two main characters, Duval, the jaded cop, and DeNiro, his “brother, the Monsignor,” each a sinner in his own haunted way, finally reconciled at the edge of a grave in the Mojave desert, after all dreams of glory, and all shoddiness, have been put to rest. True Confessions, however obliquely, still believes in the efficacy of the human soul; the underlying impulse of Prince of the City, presented, of course, as a “documentary,” is the sophistical apparatus of justice, that, in Al Capone’s words, “nobody’s on the legit.” ↩