This column is written against writing in crime novels, against acting in crime films, and is for… something else.
The French filmmaker Robert Bresson did not like to cast any actor in more than one film. He referred to them not as “actors” but as “models,” and said he did not want them to act at all, but just to be. The reason he did not want to have recurring actors in his films was that he wanted the audience to see the character, not the actor—or, worse, star—playing the role of the character.
I have never been able to convincingly argue otherwise. Bresson’s Pickpocket was a huge influence on the work of Paul Schrader—the final scene of Schrader’s American Gigolo is almost identical to that of Pickpocket—but, for me, something that makes the scene less powerful in Schrader’s film is that I’m not watching a man in prison overwhelmed by the experience of finding love. Instead, I’m watching Richard Gere brilliantly acting as that man.
The English actor Ray Winstone has talked about how helpful he found his friend Gary Oldman when they worked together. During rehearsals, Oldman would sometimes tell him, “I can see you acting, Raymond.”
With a star like Richard Gere, even when you can’t see him acting, you can see that he’s Richard Gere. And so, however powerful the story you’re watching, his presence serves to remind you that it’s a story, and that the suffering or joy of the character is being acted.
I was struck once again by how right Bresson was when I recently watched the film Irreversible. It is a brilliant and important film. It is honest, and so it offers no easy answers. Many people have found it unwatchable because of its long scene in which a woman is anally raped and beaten into a coma. Roger Ebert wrote that he had seen critics walk out of a screening, unable to bear watching it, and that he himself had closed his eyes at times. I can understand why; the scene is vile, and the stationary camera never takes a break. Knowing all this in advance, I was bracing myself when the scene began…
And it didn’t bother me that much.
As graphic and realistic as the scene was, there was one thing that kept it from upsetting me: The woman being raped was played by Monica Bellucci, which for me served as a constant reminder that this wasn’t really happening. Instead of being horrified by the cruelty and misery of what was being depicted, I found myself admiring Bellucci’s superlative acting ability.
This is why I have rarely been as unsettled by crime films as by books. When I read Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, I flinched at the violence that was done to a woman by the protagonist. But when I saw the film (my review is here) I was distracted by the fact that the woman was Jessica Alba.
Note that I said “rarely” not “never.” There are actors who can not only make us forget that they are acting, but make us forget that they are actors and that we know who they are. One of those rare beings, who are famous and who play parts in films but are not actors or stars, is Robert Mitchum. Another is Gene Hackman.
There was recently an anthology of crime stories published called Lee, in which various authors wrote fiction with Lee Marvin as the protagonist. Not characters played by Lee Marvin, but Lee Marvin himself. It’s an amusing concept, and there are some fine stories, and I can understand why it was Lee Marvin—because, whatever part he is playing, in whatever film, Lee Marvin is always Lee Marvin. This is why I would be reluctant to see a film of a book that was important to me if the film starred Lee Marvin.
Not so with Robert Mitchum.
My favorite English-language novel is The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins. Higgins seems to be aiming, in prose, for something similar to what Bresson aimed for in film; though there are words on the page, it doesn’t seem like writing. It’s something else, something other, something more. The words on the page don’t tell you the story, or even show it to you—they make you experience it. When I first read the book in the late 1990s (I’ve read it at least once a year ever since), I was dumbfounded. And when I heard that there was a film, I declared that it would be impossible to film such a book, especially with a star like Robert Mitchum playing the criminal working stiff Eddie Coyle.
I was wrong. Mitchum didn’t play Coyle. Mitchum didn’t appear in the film. Eddie Coyle did, and he happened to have Mitchum’s face, but I soon forgot that, in the way you forget that a guy you work with looks like some movie star, because he was Eddie Coyle. I couldn’t see the acting.
While The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the greatest U.S. novel of the 1970s, and the film does it justice, it’s not the greatest U.S. film of that decade. For that, see another Mitchum film, The Yakuza.
This one is from an original screenplay by Bresson’s disciple Paul Schrader and Robert Towne. Whether you want to write crime novels or crime films, I can give you no better advice than to watch this. Just as being printed on paper doesn’t make something a novel, being a performance by actors recorded on celluloid doesn’t make this a film. It’s something else.
This time, the man with Mitchum’s face (has any other actor gone from being so physically beautiful to so ravaged while still playing leading roles?) isn’t a world-weary, small-time loser but a worldly-wise retired detective who travels to Japan to pay a debt to an old friend who’s embroiled with the Yakuza. Unlike the deliberate smallness of the world of Eddie Coyle, this is a story of love, violence and personal integrity on a Shakespearean scale, and a story of a clash of cultures in which Japanese noir meets American neo-noir and, combining them, becomes something else.
It has one of the most devastating climaxes of any story. I watched it with my partner, Daishin Stephenson, who has an uncanny ability to predict story endings, however cleverly set up, and I was curious to see whether she would figure out how this one would end. She didn’t, even seconds before it happened, and yet she agreed with me that it was the only ending that made any real sense.
In that climactic scene, a man suffers in atonement for harm he has caused over decades. It is all on his face and in his voice, and yet there is nothing melodramatic about it. I couldn’t admire the skill of Robert Mitchum in portraying suffering the way I was able to admire that of Monica Bellucci—because I had forgotten about Robert Mitchum, and could see and hear (and feel) only Harry Kilmer.
A few weeks ago, I was struggling with the final draft of the crime novel I’m currently writing. I broke through and found my way after spending some time with a man who had the face of an actor and novelist named Gene Hackman. But he wasn’t Gene Hackman, he was an alienated professional snoop and saxophone player named Harry Caul, and I met him by watching The Conversation. This is how we meet some of the most important people, and have some of our most important experiences, and how some of us have our lives saved, or find a life to begin with. This is what happens when artists transcend art and meet all of humanity in a territory that is not fiction and not fact, but something else.