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NOTES ON THE BREAKING POINT, ALIEN: COVENANT AND THE RETURN OF TWIN PEAKS

by Dennis Cozzalio May 21, 2017

God bless the Criterion Collection for their forthcoming Blu-ray of a nifty 2K restoration of The Breaking Point (1950), the second swipe at Ernest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, which is on the company’s release schedule for August 2017. You may have heard of the first version… Bogie, Bacall, Hawks, “You know how to whistle, don’t ya?” Remember that one? Well, this one, the story of a down-on-his-luck charter boat captain Harry Morgan (John Garfield) who gets manipulated into a deadly smuggling run to help make ends meet, is directed by Michael Curtiz, and it trades Hawks’ larky, Casablanca-derived vibe for something decidedly darker, a daylight-splashed noir that somehow ferrets out all the chiaroscuro shadows in Hemingway’s material nonetheless. Throughout The Breaking Point, but especially in the movie’s riveting second half when Morgan allows himself to get roped into a second, even more dangerous scheme, Curtiz builds incredible suspense the way the rest of us eat lunch—usually without a second thought—and his camera is always finding fresh and fascinating ways to interpret the motivations, regrets and hidden fears of his cast of unusually rich characters.

Speaking of the cast, I don’t see how anyone could have improved on the work turned in here by John Garfield as Morgan, squirming to maintain his dignity under the thumb of bad luck, temptation and curdled expectations for post-war prosperity; Phyllis Thaxter as Morgan’s picture-postcard wife, a loving spouse whose boundaries will be tested and whose passions for her husband robustly hint at another sort of boundary, that of the Hollywood Production Code; Wallace Ford as the sloppy, sweaty, crooked-like-a-creek-bed lawyer Duncan; and most especially Patricia Neal, in one of her first juicy roles, as Leona Charles, an opportunistic party gal who hitches a ride with Morgan on his first ill-fated boat ride and who pops up at various junctures throughout the picture, forever testing Harry’s loyalty and his own personal morality with her own undeniable measure of impertinent allure.

The Breaking Point is a terrific, ultimately devastating movie which never lets its characters, or the audience, completely off the hook—its ostensibly upbeat, relieved conclusion is haunted by a silently insistent ghost of the consequences of Morgan’s moral lapses and it leaves you reeling, saddened, and convinced of the gravity of Curtiz’s achievement. This is one movie which deserves to be considered among the top-tier of Hollywood classics instead of languishing, as it has for a good, long while, in relative obscurity within the shadow of its more high-profile, star-driven predecessor. And now, thanks to Criterion, it’s gonna get its chance in the spotlight. The upcoming package includes new interviews with writer and scholar Alan K. Rode (Charles McGraw: Film Noir Tough Guy), Garfield’s acting instructor daughter Julie, a new video essay analyzing Curtiz’s masterful, almost-invisible directorial techniques, and a booklet essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek, this looks like a shoo-in for one of the best Blu-rays of the year. And the August 8 release date plays right into the hands of those, like my dear wife, who may soon be compiling a birthday list for a certain someone who looks and sounds a lot like me.

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Alien: Covenant handily passes the “Is it better than Prometheus?” test, which to some ears may sound like damning with faint praise. I found the previous film insufferable in its dawdling pretense and so chockfull of lousy acting, with Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron and especially Noomi Raapace leading the charge, that it might have turned into giddy camp had director Ridley Scott’s tone throughout not been so sullen. (It takes a special sort of talent to make even Idris Elba look bad.) But Alien: Covenant, the next phase in the prequel-ized advancement of the Alien xenomorph universe mythology (sigh), manages to carry through and even clarify the father-son/creator-created musings generated in Prometheus and make them considerably more compelling, all by embracing the considerably less philosophical pray-run-scream tactics that characterized the first three terrifying films in the series. When you think back on those movies, you may be struck, as I was, by how unimportant knowing the backstory details of those acid-blooded, perfect-organism killing machines seemed when you were immersed in all the strobe-lit screaming and chest-bursting terror they so effortlessly delivered– we knew why we were scared. And indeed, though no Prometheus-style slog, Alien: Covenant does at times feel weighed down by its commitment to telling the tale of how the iconic helmet-headed monsters came into being, and what they’re purpose might be.

That said, the movie is scary and it moves at a respectable clip, building to a rousing climax that bears comparison to the early films, even if it sometimes feels a bit too familiar—for some reason, screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper find it necessary to have their Ripley stand-in, played with admirable, sorrowful intensity by Katherine Waterston, proclaim “Let’s blow this fucker out into space!” not once, but twice, deliberately inviting a comparison that the concept of Waterston’s character is not capable of withstanding. That invocation also invites the viewer realize how often, for all the criticism of the Alien movies as simple vehicles for turning human beings into ground meat, there were truly memorable characters on the menu—think not only Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, but of the contributions from the late Bill Paxton (“Game over, man!”), John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Jeanette Goldstein, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen, to name but a few. Covenant’s crew is considerably less remarkable, though Waterston does well stepping into Weaver’s shoes, Danny McBride displays unexpected gravitas as ship’s pilot Tennessee, and Michael Fassbender effectively reprises his Prometheus turn as the inquisitive, creator/creation-obsessed synthetic David, whose motivations have become less mysterious and more terrifyingly defined than they were last time around, and also as Walter, another synthetic, with programming significantly upgraded (and downgraded) from David’s relatively primitive level of perfection. (You can tell them apart by comparing David’s refined British enunciations with Walter’s flattened Midwestern delivery.) David’s interrogation/seduction of Walter midway through the film rates as an auto/homoerotic filmmaking tour de force– Fassbender gets to make eyes at himself, an actor’s dream come true!– even though the allegedly sophisticated audience I saw it with wasn’t sure how to react. (So of course, default position: hooting and giggling.)

The scene comes off as a curiously revealing and naturally self-reflexive investigation of creation remarking upon itself—as do David and Walter, so now do the Alien movies themselves. If Ridley Scott is merely marking time by returning to the well, then at least it is at the service of perhaps his own most universally well-regarded creation, and the 80-year-old filmmaker, whose career has been anything but artistically consistent, seems if not exactly vital and engaged, then most certainly amused in a “give ‘em what they want” sort of way. You can practically hear his nihilistic chuckle as the Covenant floats away from the camera toward deep space and the commencement of the end credits—if the fate of the colonists left aboard seems more uncertain than ever, then at the least the Alien series itself seems destined to try to find the right balance between its impulse to scare and its suddenly more urgent philosophical underpinnings. For all its shortcomings—apparently in space no one can craft elegant dialogue or avoid making fatal mistakes of judgment—Alien: Covenant suggests the series might be on the right track, with maybe a work to stand alongside the brilliance of the original entries yet to be discovered, along with another deadly colony of xenomorphs, on the next uninhabited world somewhere in the infinite dark.

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Finally, by the time you read this some of the secrets of Twin Peaks: The Return will have already been revealed. (The new series premieres Sunday, May 21, on Showtime.) As someone for whom Showtime is not available, I’ll have to spend the next four and a half months—the new run extends to 18 episodes, all directed by David Lynch—sequestered from spoilers, and probably from the Internet itself, in a perhaps ill-fated attempt to keep things fresh until the show starts appearing on streaming services or on Blu-ray. Which means also that I’ll have more time than the more premium cable-conversant viewer to rewatch the original 29 episodes from 1992-1993 and get reacquainted with the squirming underbelly of life in the small Washington town which seems fearfully and fatally tuned to a thrumming frequency of evil (transmission source: The Black Lodge) that seems, for the thankful viewer, endlessly weird and endlessly renewable.

My own re-immersion in Twin Peaks has begun with revisiting Lynch’s widely reviled 1992 feature film prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and it’s been something of a relief to discover that the movie feels much more like a fully realized masterwork than the case of fatally flawed faux-surrealist doodling it appeared to these eyes to be in 1992. The movie opens with a declaration of intent—a field of static is seen on a TV screen, which is swiftly crushed by the blunt instrument that will do in Teresa Banks, the young drifter whose murder presages that of Laura Palmer and effectively begins our journey into the series’ world of secrets. TP:FWWM is definitely a departure from the standards and practices of early ‘90s network television— one wonders what will result from the relative absence of restrictions on the new series, combined with the relative escalation of coarseness on movie screens in the near two decades since Lynch’s film premiered. But counter to my own initial complaint, TP: FWWM is also genuinely surrealist, perhaps more so than any other mainstream American movie I can think of, and perhaps more resonantly strange in its deadpan moments of repose than in its more stylistically disorienting moments. And yet even the film’s patented oddity, to which Lynch is clearly vocationally committed, comes in for some satirical jabs—near the film’s start, the strange, apparently nonsensical behavior of a redheaded messenger gets a straight-faced interpretation by Chris Isaak’s FBI agent that pokes fun at literal-minded viewers (like me) and then just as swiftly swerves away from the importance of the reveal to the movie at large.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is also a deeply unpleasant film, one that is significantly more difficult to watch now, when I have my own 17-year-old daughter to shepherd, than it was 25 years ago. The greatness of Sheryl Lee’s performance may have been overstated in some quarters—she’s very good at suggesting the undercurrent of torment in Laura Palmer’s life, yet she can also seem frighteningly unmodulated when the emotions start to run too hot. But her fearlessness is indisputable, and she’s the beating heart that assures Lynch’s film never strays from its most potent purpose– illuminating the nucleus of the series’ central mystery, which is not the fate of Laura Palmer as much as it is Laura Palmer herself. Lynch himself has suggested that the key to the new Showtime run of Twin Peaks episodes lies within the heavily coded landscape of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, news which ought to send shivers of delighted anticipation and dread through the ranks of the Twin Peaks fandom in equal measure. While the world sits down to the new episodes with a steaming cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie, or perhaps a heaping bowl of garmonbozia, I’ll be sequestered in my own version of The Black Lodge, ears covered, eyes shut, hoping to keep the secrets of the new Twin Peaks at bay until they can be absorbed in my own way.  Good luck with that, eh?

About Dennis Cozzalio

DENNIS BIO PIC

Dennis Cozzalio has been writing his all-purpose, agenda-free film criticism blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule since 2004. Cozzalio studied film at the University of Oregon in the late ‘70s and currently resides in Glendale, California where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He spends his (precious little) free time writing, cooking and trying to reconcile himself to a new reality weighted more toward catching up on movies at home, where distractions abide, and less in the overpriced, chatter-infested environs of 21st-century cinemas. His favorite movies include Nashville, The Lady Eve, Once Upon a Time in the West, Fellini Roma, His Girl Friday, Dressed to Kill, Amarcord and 1941, and he thinks Barbara Stanwyck can do no wrong.