“The street was mine,” P.I. Mike Hammer lamented in Mickey Spillane’s One Lonely Night back in 1952, acknowledging a loss of security and identity as The City mutated out-of-control into a messy, violent, overpopulated asphalt jungle. Forty-one years later, the phrase echoed loudly throughout Joel Schumacher’s nightmare of urban discontent, Falling Down (1993), which is being rereleased today in both a Deluxe Edition DVD and Blu-Ray. Time has only shown how bold and audacious Schumacher’s film was, from its claustrophobic opening highway scene borrowed from Fellini’s 8 1/2 to a high-noon showdown on a Venice Beach pier that recalls the hardboiled romanticism of Jean-Pierre Melville. And then there’s the matter of its anachronistic central character, a noir protagonist straight out of the 1950s who defies notions of hero and antihero, victim and villain. Out of work, prevented from seeing his daughter on her birthday by a restraining order, and stuck a traffic jam on a sweltering summer morning — Michael Douglas just snaps. Abandoning his car, he crosses Los Angeles on foot, exacting vengeance for all of society’s hypocrisy and corruption.
Douglas is Hammer/Spillane incarnate: flattop crew cut, emotionless face, white shirt and tie, and severely sociopathic tendencies. And while he may not be a private eye, Douglas’ Eisenhower-era Joe the Everyman throwback is a direct descendent of those alienated hardboiled dicks, pissed off and pounding the pavement trying to restore the streets to some idealized past that never really existed. Hammer, politically incorrect as he may be, was post-WWII-white-male-anxiety-concentrate: a pulpy, oozy mixture of agitation and intolerance who couldn’t comprehend the changes happening around him. Douglas is an updated version of Hammer, who responds to a politically, economically, and racially divisive Los Angeles by shooting up fast food restaurants and blowing up construction sites while delivering sermons on everything from consumerism to economics to race relations.
Recalling Robert Ryan’s sensitive-but-psychopathic performance in On Dangerous Ground, Douglas carefully balances his tirades with sympathetic reactions to daily frustrations, as well as straight-faced humor (to a neo-Nazi: “We are not the same. I’m an American and you’re a sick asshole”). It’s a remarkable performance, and Douglas manages to remain reserved and relatable even while spraying a phone booth with machine gun bullets (no easy feat). Smartly, Schumacher and writer Ebbe Roe Smith never designate a preconceived slot for Douglas — he’s not the “mastermind criminal” like Dennis Hopper in Speed or the “brilliant psycho” like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence or the Lambs, or any of the standard flawed-but-admirable heroes that littered the screen then and now. Instead, like so many noir protagonists before him, Douglas occupies this purgatorial gray area: he’s as bad as the world around him, but at least he knows it, and doesn’t that count for something? It’s the same conclusion Mike Hammer reached in One Lonely Night even while remembering a judge’s condemnation that hit too close to home. He may be a detective, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a killer — just as Douglas’s character may be rightfully disgruntled, but he’s still complicit in society’s failings. To quote one of Spillane’s noir rhapsodies:
One day I would die and the world would be benefited by my death. And to the good there was only the perplexing question: Why did I live and breathe now…what could possibly be the reason for existence when there was no good in me? None at all. So he gave me back my soul of toughness, hate and bitterness and let me dress in the armor of cynicism…
Also on DVD this week:
Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth (2007) (New Video Group, Region 1) – Gloriously/notoriously bombastic author Harlan Ellison is characteristically over-the-top in everything he says (particularly when tooting his own horn). His enthusiasm helps the documentary to rise above intrusively bad green-screen effects and an over-reliance on talking heads.
Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King (1972) (Facets, Region 1) – An epic film about Ludwig II, the mad King of Bavaria, fittingly directed by Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, the epic, mad auteur behind the 442-minute Our Hitler.
Philippe Garrel x2 (Zeitgeist, Region 1) – A double feature of the underappreciated French filmmaker Garrel, including I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991), a cinematic reminiscence of his relationship with Nico, and Emergency Kisses (1989), which stars Garrel, his wife Brigitte Sy and their son Louis (Love Songs, The Dreamers).
Zabriske Point (1970) (Warner, Region 1) – After plumbing the lower depths of the Italian bourgeoisie in a decade-plus run of excellent films ranging from Story of a Love Affair to L’Eclisse, Michelangelo Antonioni decided to go global. First there was the mod-60s Blowup, then this exploration of drug-fueled 1960s America, featuring the music of Pink Floyd and Jerry Garcia.