A Director's Brief on Assassination


No one depicts glossy cinematic murder quite like Alan J. Pakula ... in such a respectful manner, I mean. In the director's conspiracy thrillers, he evokes the horrible truth of how life can change - be snuffed out - in the fraction of a fraction of a second. Bar a few occasions (like 1992's Consenting Adults), he doesn't stage his murders - or the discovery of murder - with the operatic frenzy of a Hitchcock. He instead employs a certain cool, clinical sweep. But in employing such, he isn't clinical and remote in his view of his victims; he doesn't deprive them of their human dignity in the lead-up to their final moments on Earth. The assassins may be smart, but the victims are not minimised for having been outsmarted.  

The most critically appraised of Pakula's murder sequences are found in 1974's The Parallax View. Pakula is masterful in letting an image linger until we're sure nothing will happen - that the filmmaker has almost fallen into the languorously indulgent, the extraneous - then, it happens. Or he places an assassin in our line of sight (and that of the victim's) in a manner that could only be described, as Films & Filming's Gordon Gow once did, as gentle.1 Or, perhaps most effectively, he cuts from the image of the protagonist comforting a woman who's afraid for her life to a shot of the said woman now at peace - a corpse in the morgue. In each case, the sudden, intended deprivation of a life is aligned, through filmic stylisation, with the regular rhythms of life.

In a way, Pakula's style of murder and assassination stands out even more acutely in 1993's The Pelican Brief, as it is a more commercial piece through and through. It's based on the John Grisham novel, and Grisham traverses safer commercial terrain as a general rule. But Pakula and star Julia Roberts give us a wonderfully haunted - and spooked - heroine. If the film seems warmed-over by Pakula's standards it is only in the sense that the conspiracy is revealed with a firm sense of "all is well" resolution, and typically in Pakula's worldview when the conspiracy is cracked, foreboding remains. (That said, Pakula, with considerable support from composer James Horner, does manage to retain a vaguely melancholy atmosphere throughout.) It is muscular commercial entertainment; the sort of thing Hollywood is rightly celebrated for.

Within the first fifteen minutes of The Pelican Brief, though, we are reminded of one thing: Pakula does murder extremely well. Interestingly, Pakula, in reuniting with his Consenting Adults cinematographer, Stephen Goldblatt, re-employs a visual motif from that film for Pelican's opening murders: the slow, extended take - often a pan - that keeps most of the violence off-screen (though never dulling its effect) but does often settle on a point in which the carnage can be revealed. This is certainly the case with the first murder sequence, where the camera pans from the sleeping judge, past a door (that creepily moves further ajar) over to his carer; a silencer is heard, the carer falls forward and out of shot, a second shot immediately follows, and the camera slowly, steadily returns, past a now-swinging door, to the judge. When we are granted sight of him, it is to appraise a bullet wound in his temple. We know he has fallen victim to a highly accomplished assassin, but the view of the freshly killed Supreme Court judge is simply a sad one. There isn't the sense we should be covertly impressed with the assassin's efficacy.

The second murder sequence, the vicious strangling (if not, neck-breaking) of a judge at an adult cinema, is an even longer single take, but with a gliding camera employed this time rather than a camera pan from a fixed position. The cinema appears largely empty, but the judge, who we first observe from a distance in a "dressed down" disguise, is still careful to remain a distance from other patrons. As the camera closes in on him, we appraise just what a hunched-up ball of shame he is: we are observing a man stuck in emotional turmoil and self-hatred. But this is another example of where Pakula takes care to locate his victims in emotional and spiritual struggle (or otherwise just implicated in the banal normalities of life) that gives his victims a human dignity. There isn't the impression of a filmmaker looking down upon them without empathy, judging them as insignificant fools who "deserve" their punishment. 

Punishment, of course, still occurs. Once seated, the nervous man stares at the screen, mesmerised, and he doesn't seem to register (or he isn't going to risk being seen to register) the figure that takes a seat in the row behind him, slightly to his right. The camera moves past the judge to the assassin. The killer's process of preparing the rope, the instrument with which to kill the judge, is slow, careful and methodical - and the camera duly follows. The process has an almost has a sensuous quality, a point underscored when, in the assassin’s preparations, he caresses his thighs (he's adapting his movements with the environment, of course, but the impression remains). But in the moment he breaks the judge's neck, the camera remains firmly on his face. (It's a tasteful and respectful choice, but perhaps that impassive face is the greater chill, anyway.) And then the rope is removed as carefully and methodically as it was produced. We don't return this time to a murdered judge's body; but the moaning characters on the cinema screen (there is no comfort to be gained in their horribly perfunctory and impersonal "ecstasy") and the throbbing industrial percussion (no less impersonal) do continue grimly towards sunrise.

The second judge's murder is an especially strong and memorable scene, beautifully choreographed. The next murder, the one that sends Julia Roberts' law student into hiding, could have been wildly sensationalistic - it's a car bomb after all - and in the film's trailer it is depicted as much. In the film, however, the huge explosion seen in the trailer, is preceded by a smaller explosion. It does the murderous job, but seems a failed explosion in Hollywood terms. And while Roberts' character can see that something extremely dire has just met her boyfriend, her rising hysteria is also accompanied with sheer confusion. As she runs towards the car, the “real” explosion ignites. Again, in Pakula's stylised assassinations, a firm sense of “messy reality” is evoked.

It is the next assassination, though - the murder of an FBI agent in his motel room - where everyday frivolity is exploited to powerful effect. The set-up is almost strikingly conventional: a slow, descending camera movement reveals a "bug", the existence of which the agent, having freshly emerged from a shower with towel around waist, is blissfully unaware. Then a sliding door opens - the ol' assassin in the closet trick - while the agent moves about the room, even at one point amusingly sizing himself up in the mirror. The camera keeps a wide perspective on these two points of action. And Pakula again holds on the wide shot for such an extended period that it feels extraneous, as though the filmmakers have misjudged the rhythms and the logic of the suspense. But this is Pakula's best trick. We suddenly cut to a close-up of frothy sitcom hijinks playing on a nearby television. Is this our invitation to exhale? Except that seconds later, the sharp sound of a silencer pierces the soundtrack and the agent's blood and viscera rudely douses the television screen. It's a uniquely orchestrated shock, with Pakula stretching out the conventional details in the service of making the unconventional perspective, when it occurs, all the more impactful. The final kicker, and again supportive of the gravity Pakula brings to murder in commercial cinema, is that the assassin helps himself to the complementary chocolate the victim had only just removed from its packaging.

There is a further murder to occur: the threat is that it the victim will be the heroine herself, but instead the assassin will be the one removed by a shadowy figure. The build-up to murder this time is accompanied by strident percussion from Horner's orchestra, no doubt due to the threat to our heroine's life. But there is also an emotional logic to this harsh accompaniment: the accumulation of assassinations now affords an atmosphere of oppressive paranoia.

In the end, the reason to give thought to these creatively orchestrated murders in The Pelican Brief is that they constitute notable examples of where the stylisation on show doesn't render murder, death and the victim's lives an abstraction. Instead, Pakula’s style actually supports an insight into the horrors of life snuffed out. The smooth commercial moves are delivered, but the gloss on show is not shallow. Pakula brought a significant degree of visual and thematic sensitivity to the sensational elements of his thrillers, ably supported by his teams of craftsmen. And, as a side note to this sensitive view of the sensational, it is worth noting how well-situated The Pelican Brief is between two other big Hollywood productions of the era, Phillip Noyce's Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994). Those cinematic thrillers - also based on hugely popular novels - have similarly often been missed for their finer details on the presentation of murder. There can be subtle ambitions beyond the commercial imperatives, and the novelist's repute, and it's never too late to look at them head-on. 

1 A copy of Gordon Gow’s “The Parallax View” review (Films & Filming, December 1974) can be found at: http://alanpakula.blogspot.com.au/2016/05/the-parallax-view-films-filming-review_29.html

Published 1 November 2016