Four films: Out of Sight, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Abigail’s Party, Three Days of the Condor

Usually, I tend to fill most of my spare moments with work of one kind or another. But this weekend, exhausted, I made a policy decision to ignore the manuscript awaiting my peer-review, my own manuscript that’s awaiting revisions in response to others’ reviews, and the sermon series than I need to start preparing; and I watched four films instead. It was fun.

First up was this George Clooney/Jennifer Lopez vehicle, a well-regarded adaptation of a book that I was not all that impressed by. Why did I go on to the movie if I didn’t like the book much? I think because of Roger Ebert’s positive review, which rightly majors on the unlikely sparking between the two leads. Still, too many of the characters in this film are simply unpleasant for me to be able to enjoy it very wholeheartedly, and the whole denouement plays out very nastily. Worth seeing, but not twice.

By some distance the most interesting of the films I watched this weekend, it stars a frankly stunning Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, a high-class … well, it’s not completely clear whether she is or is not technically a prostitute, but she’s certainly some kind of paid escort. She meets Paul Varjak, an unsuccessful writer making ends meet as a similarly ambiguous male equivalent and there is an immediate sympathy between them that grows into a friendship and then an attraction. But even as this is happening, Holly is planning to marry a rich man — she doesn’t much care which one. She is clearly not interested in (and maybe not capable of) committing to anyone on a non-mercenary basis.

What makes it work is the fragility of Hepburn’s portrayal, which shows us a Holly who is having the time of her life and successfully persuading herself that she’s loving every minute, even while it’s perfectly clear to us that she has her doubts. At least, I think that’s what makes it work. It might just be that Audrey Hepburn is magnetically lovely, and it’s virtually impossible to look away from her.

There are subplots about Holly’s having been a child-bride, about a crime boss who she visits in prison, and about the woman for whom Paul is a kept man. But all of this is really plot scaffolding to hang the Holly/Paul relationship onto. Everything hinges on what Holly wants to be, or even on whether she’s capable of thinking coherently about that question. For such a cool, elegant character, she feels surprisingly lost, tossed about by circumstances not so much because she can’t fight them as because it simply doesn’t occur to her that she might; she is numbed to her own feelings and so blinded to her own options.

There is a happy ending of sorts, but it feels tacked on. On one level, this seems like an artistic failing: it’s impossible to believe that someone as venal, impulsive and childish as Holly will be able to make a go of an adult relationship with Paul or anyone else. But I wonder if the film is one step ahead of me — whether the very unreality of the ending is an artistic choice. Maybe it was always the intention that we should walk out of the cinema not enjoying the memory of the happy-ending kiss, but mourning the inevitable breakdown that the budding relationship will crash into within a couple of weeks.

By the way, Truman Capote, who wrote the novella that the film is based on, wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the lead. That would have given us a completely different film, and I think a much, much less interesting one. It’s Hepburn’s fragility that makes Breakfast at Tiffany’s heart-breaking rather than merely sordid. So this is one of those occasions where the author’s preference was just plain wrong.

If you’re a Brit, you’ve probably heard of this; if you’re not, you probably haven’t. It’s s classic filmed play from the 1970s, about five awful people having a low-key drinks party while the titular Abigail — the fifteen-year-old daughter of one of principals — is hosting her own much rowdier party off-screen.

I’ve been aware of Abigail’s Party for decades but this is the first time I’d actually seen it, and I’m afraid it didn’t live up to its reputation. The characters are all beset by upper-middle-class pretensions, constantly one-upping each other in small ways, and clearly not happy with their lives — the married couples even more so than the divorcée. These people are awful enough that I don’t want to spend time with them, but not quite awful enough to be really funny; or, for that matter, really tragic.

I have a feeling that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is built on a broadly similar premise, but that it’s darker and stronger, being more a tragedy than a comedy. I plan to watch that soon, and make the comparison for myself.

This film has the worst poster and the best setup of any I can think of. Robert Redford plays Joe Turner (codename: Condor), a very low-ranking civilian CIA analyst. One day he returns from fetching lunch for his office colleagues to find that they have all been gunned down by assassins: he survived by pure chance. The fim is his attempt to stay alive and to figure out what’s going on.

Some aspects of the film have aged poorly: the relationship between Turner and Kathy, the woman he coerces into helping him, is scarcely believable. It veers between intimidation and romance in the blink of an eye, and implies a distastefully masochistic streak in Turner’s victim/lover. On the other hand, the CIA’s involvement, however indirectly, in the assassination of its own people feels terribly relevant in these times when we are all increasingly suspicious of the intelligence agencies.

Maybe the best thing about Three Days is how unprepared Redford’s character is for everything that’s happening to him. He’s not a field agent, and lacks both training and experience. He is, at times, visibly unsure of himself, the very opposite of omni-competent super-spies like Jason Bourne. The result is that the story feels far more real than most spy movies, and all the better for it. Well worth seeing.

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2 responses to “Four films: Out of Sight, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Abigail’s Party, Three Days of the Condor

  1. Hepburn inhabits the part so perfectly that after seeing her do it it is impossible to read the novel without hearing lines like, ‘It should take you exactly four seconds to get from here to the door. I’ll give you two’ in exactly her voice.

  2. I’m looking forward to reading it partly for that reason.

    (In my most recent LotR re-reads, I can’t not hear Ian McKellan’s voice when I come to Gandalf’s lines.)

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