There's always a new thriller. The word is a beloved and apparently solid promotional label. But what exactly is a thriller? There are plenty of immediate similarities between two Westerns, or two vampire movies. But two films both designated as thrillers can be as different as chalk and cheese.
To Raymond Durgnat, thriller is a "bill-of-fare word […] referring to audience expectations of fairly vague topics, tones, and kinds of experiences" (Film Comment, July-August 1975). Fairly vague, indeed – if all that really defines the inclusion of a film in the thriller genre is the presence of thrills! What the hell are they?
Genre experiment: in your largest local video store, try tracking a particular title – Arthur Penn's Target (1985), say, or De Palma's Body Double (1984), The Hitcher (1986) or Angel Heart (1987) – through the nebulous and often interchangeable categories of Thriller, Action, Adventure, Horror and Drama, all of which may centrally depend on a thrill ingredient. Although individual films (happily) fit many bills-of-fare simultaneously, the inevitable tugs in particular directions are eventually very revealing.
Why should Wall Street (1987) veer more to Drama than Best Seller (1987), a mere Thriller? Why does Witness (1985) qualify as a serious or high-class thriller? Why do thrillers by auteur directors – Brian De Palma's The Untouchables (1987), Wayne Wang's Slam Dance (1987), Roman Polanski's Frantic (1987) – sit so uneasily between several categories, sold nervously both as classy thrillers (i.e. thrillers with an added quality ingredient) and easy-to-take Art movies? And why do rich and strange hybrid thrillers minus a marketable auteur die so quickly in town – as in the case of James B. Harris' remarkable Cop (1987)?
The thriller is a victim of the deathless split between art and entertainment. Movies considered either instantly (Au revoir, les enfants) or eventually (The Searchers) as Art usually answer to criteria of value that are extremely literary: they possess a significant theme, characters that are human in their three-dimensional complexity, a contemplative attitude to a milieu or a landscape, dramatic metaphors, symbolism, believable story-lines … Whereas thrillers are not arty, but crafty: well constructed, tight, exciting, stereotypical and, in some sense, quite meaningless. Thrillers are – like Leonard Maltin says – good genre movies. When a Great Director takes on a thriller, it is usually assumed that he or she is coasting, keeping their hand in, or trying to regain a bankable position in a precarious film industry (eg. Polanski).
So there's always a new thriller, upon which dutiful hack reviewers can only comment that it thrills or it doesn't: The Bedroom Window (1987), Someone To Watch Over Me (1987), The Stepfather (1987), Masquerade (1988) ... and woe to such a film which takes any dirty risks, or crossbreeds factors beyond the immediate thriller parameters.
Thrilling is often synonymous with another great, lazy, vague reviewers' catchword: Hitchcockian. Yet even here the art/entertainment tension plays itself out. For on the one hand, Hitchcock is the Great Entertainer, and any film that gets you in and takes you on a ride is magically thereby Hitchcockian. Anything with suspense, twists, mystery, an exciting climax, or a shower scene. Hence The Age's Neil Jillet praising Masquerade: "a sub-Hitchcockian script". Yet exactly a week later in his column, Jillet derides The Stepfather for the same "irritating conceit" of “dipping its lid” to Hitchcock, because the film indulges this "to win the admiration of the sillier French critics". Sacré bleu, those mythical Silly French Critics!
Beyond the suspicion that Jillet would be hard pressed to name even three real, contemporary French critics, his nervously paranoid quip clearly conjures the dreaded Seriousness with which Hitchcock (the other Hitchcock, as it were) has been treated for about forty years. Those damn French, trust them to spoil a good night's entertainment! But there's been a unassailable mountain of talk about Hitchcock the Artist, or at least Hitchcock the exemplary man of his social culture: sin, guilt and redemption (according to those silly French critics of long ago, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer); capitalist ideology and its subversions (according to Robin Wood or Andrew Britton, not French); the nasty point-of-view gaze of patriarchy (French Raymond Bellour, American Tania Modleski). A thriller that tries to bring into itself traces of both Hitchcocks – wham-bang Entertainer and serious Artist – risks seeing itself thrown overboard by conveyer-belt reviewers.
Yet there's a danger in simply claiming Hitchcock (or De Palma or any supposedly Serious thriller director) for Art by recourse to the same old literary grid of Theme, Character, Symbol and so on. The thriller is a crafty, mechanical form, not a literary one. Its effects need to be evaluated and discussed in a way that is not simply journalistic or consumerist – that cavalier, superior method of ticking off whether the plot tricks ‘worked' or not. Hitchcock, for his part, called what he did pure cinema. It's too easy to dismiss this term as simply a Showman's empty flourish covering the absence of an appropriate intellectual framework; it's worth seriously asking what the pure cinema of the thriller form entails.
Michael Henry, writing on Brian De Palma, provides us with a lead:
Unlike Martin Scorsese, De Palma belongs to a breed of artists who do not create to express themselves but express themselves to create. His primary interest lies in the handling of signs and figures, in subverting codes and their conventions, in the dialectics of objective and subjective shots, in the intricate alchemy through which fiction comes into existence. Deliberately opting for illusionism, he seems to have set out, from his earliest efforts on, to inventory all the resources of filmic rhetoric. (American Film Directors, ed. Jean-Pierre Coursodon, Vol 2, 1983).
This is indeed what happens in the Mechanical Thriller – The Untouchables being the supreme recent example – the filmmaker expresses in order to create, and not the other way around, which is the lit-crit norm. No longer, in a thriller, does form serve content; no longer are themes or ideas the end-point of the film's process of construction. Thrillers upset predominantly thematic minds because everything that's usually expressive – like the characters and what they stand for – is really often only a pretext. A pretext for what? Moves, structures, forms: pure cinema. Thrillers don't call out for interpretation, a careful recovery and discussion of thematic clues after the fact of watching the film; they carve themselves in the times and spaces of their own performative present tense.
Of course, some thrillers, like Hitchcock's best (Vertigo, Rear Window), are both expressive and creative (in Michael Henry's terms) in equal measure; but these days, the balance has definitely swung over to the purely creative (and in ways Hitchcock never dreamed of – hence the emptiness of the term Hitchcockian). And so thrillers demand a new kind of critical attentiveness, even a new kind of criticism (with its own special and complex entertainment rewards).
Serious criticism, at present, tends to go at thrillers in two predominant ways: either it judges them as inadvertently symptomatic of the current social ideology (film as unknowing sociological exhibit); or it discovers in them radical, subversive implications (film as knowing critical gesture). Symptomatic thrillers are usually big, glossy, and full of strange, floating contradictions (Fatal Attraction, Someone To Watch Over Me), whilst the slyly expressive thrillers are crazily inventive little genre films (preferably written and/or directed by Larry Cohen, like Best Seller). Yet in both the big thriller looking for the Classy Drama angle of a Hot Social Issue (money/sex/drugs in the ‘80s) and the little thriller aiming to combine and twist the moves of five genres simultaneously, meaning may no longer be a particularly meaningful business. Rather, thematic/expressive clusters might function completely on par with the decor, the special effects, and the turns of plot. This is certainly the surface mentality which Adrian Lyne brings to Fatal Attraction, or Alan Parker to Angel Heart.
As an example of the Little Thriller, consider Joseph Ruben's tremendous The Stepfather – the assumed subversiveness of which has been noted even by hack reviewers, and, in particular, celebrated wildly in a Film Quarterly article. Now, Ruben is certainly hip to a bit of thematics; he obviously has a rough sense of what people have said in recent years about the radical implications of some of the Old Hollywood melodramas and thrillers of the ‘40s like The Reckless Moment (Ophuls), Undercurrent (Minnelli) or especially Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock). Ruben can mimic both Hitchcock the Entertainer and Hitchcock the Subversive Artist. The Stepfather is certainly anti-patriarchal, anti-American Dream, anti-old-fashioned values. Ruben sprinkles around the traces of such radical sentiments like he sprinkles around stunning dolly shots or bits of inscrutable ambiguity; it's all, largely, for effect, frisson, perhaps not for the primary purpose of expressing a conviction about or insight into social norms. I don't think we can say, as does the Film Quarterly reviewer, that The Stepfather smashes patriarchy and creates a space for female viewers to enter a nurturing relationship with the mother. Ruben's pure cinema is simply more abstract than that.
Slam Dance presents a similar case. From a hopeful literary angle, the film is about Wayne Wang's usual thematic concerns with personal identity and responsibility. But its finest moments actually occur in the stunning plot revelations which allow surprising linkages of characters, situations, spaces. Slam Dance celebrates, in the name of pure cinema, what we might call the clinch effect – those powerful moments when elements and clues that have been casually placed around the film suddenly lock together. And Wang understands well how the viewer's journey through the particular textual space of the thriller – "that unreal real we call film" (Raymond Bellour) – is like the trail through a labyrinth, full of tunnel visions and tight passageways. The film teases interpretative minds with its dizzy array of doppelgangers, symmetries and ambiguities. But finally, aren't these devices more simply the classic thriller repertory of moods, effects, transitions?
Roman Polanski's career displays a fascinating pull between the poles of Art and Entertainment. Polanski was claimed from the first by the Art circuit for his Eastern European allegories that helped define the custom made Film Festival bill-of-fare – and he has found it well nigh impossible to check out of this circuit. (Item: on The Movie Show, David Stratton asks Polanski about a film dearly remembered by Festival/Art House patrons, Knife in the Water – and proudly enunciates the title in the original Polish.) One side of Polanski yearns indeed to make the total Art film – Macbeth, Tess. More generally, Polanski has proved himself consistently adept at giving the Art circuit those borderline Dark Side Entertainments it occasionally craves – films like Repulsion or The Tenant which crossbreed popular narrative forms with the requisite Kafkaesque interpretative lines (Kafkaesque being one of those upmarket reviewer's gushwords with as little meaning as Hitchcockian).
Yet one senses in Polanski a powerful desire to escape the Meaningful Art circuit altogther and abandon himself to Good Little Genre Films that are meticulously crafted: The Fearless Vampire Killers, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, Pirates, and now Frantic. Polanski has his own obsession with Pure Cinema mechanics, flaunting in interviews the perfection of his craft (Pirates had "a hell of a script"; Chinatown is regarded amongst Hollywood pros as "the perfect script"). Frantic reclaims for Polanski's career what Pirates so bravely and fatally discarded: that art/entertainment crossover concession to Polanski's auteur obsessions ("filmmaking is an x-ray of the director's mind"), that dash of urban paranoia or modern alienation which gives Age or Sydney Morning Herald reviewers something to sound oh-so-slightly serious about. But fundamentally, art alibis aside, Frantic is one of Polanski's greatest, most brilliantly constructed machines, alongside his other thrillers Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown.
Interestingly, the only time that Polanski's showbiz sense of pure cinema has at all coincided with critical taste was during the crazy days of 1970s film theory. The Barthes-inspired, invariably elitist love of 'the text', forms and pure signifiers over boring old fictional worlds, themes and signifieds, found in Polanski a true fellow avant-gardist. Beginning with Pascal Kané's 1970 book on the director, and continuing through commentaries by Daniel Percheron and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Polanski was seen to produce a “perverse play” on the filmic codes (of time, space, verisimilitude, genre) in Fearless Vampire Killers, What? and The Tenant (Claude Chabrol was similarly momentarily enshrined in the same period). Some of Polanski's own remarks of the ‘60s bear out this intellectually formalist orientation – such as his claim that Cul-de-Sac (1966) was a textbook of “cinema syntax”. By the time of Pirates, however, this merry band of Polanski fans had also disappeared, leaving him well and truly stranded. In the meantime, after all, De Palma, Lynch and others had stepped in to adopt the mantle of perverse play.
But Frantic brings us firmly back to showbiz, Hollywood … and Hitchcock. It's fascinating to watch Polanski, with quiet virtuosity, redraw the map of the contemporary thriller and specify what is truly Hitchcockian about it (not that Hitch actually invented anything, of course, only that he marked and arranged the given conventions distinctively). Refusing the show-off excesses of De Palma – who explodes the Hitchcock matrix of differential seeing, hearing and knowing into a dozen duplicitous pieces – Polanski brings the narrative game back to a single character's point-of-view, and to a MacGuffin, that single precious object around which all characters converge (Polanski and his long time collaborator Gérard Brach, with great daring, make it a nuclear MacGuffin, à la Kiss Me Deadly ).
The film is an astonishing demonstration of the thriller form's pared down textual mechanics, a virtual Poetics of the thriller. Predicated super-functionally on the single-minded drives (narrative goals) of the characters (to find a spouse, get paid, win the MacGuffin), Polanski turns the very notion of driving – entering a space, penetrating its ever receding depths, finding a way to backtrack out – into a total filmic system, both for Harrison Ford and for us (we enter and exit the film on a highway just outside Paris, locus of the film's narrative events). Frantic is not a hallucinatory, revelatory thriller in the Slam Dance or De Palma mode; it has a truly creepy evenness of tone, a steady movement-in, and an everyday physicality of milieu. This drift allows Polanski to play subtly throughout with the unbelievable and the unsaid, and whole worlds of peripheral detail that the film alights on in passing.
Polanski, like Hitchcock, is able to make his pure cinema cake and eat it too. For in the final moments the MacGuffin – that fictional lynch pin, that little piece of nothing around which everything revolves – attains even an emotional poignancy. This precious object which pays off for Polanski with so little meaning, which runs the film into the ground simply that it can end magnificently – it suddenly shines as a symbol of human waste and meaninglessness. It takes a true Master to calculate these kinds of shifts in register. In a lean cinema year, Frantic joins Penelope Spheeris' Dudes (1987) as one of the most inventive and important films in recent memory – important not least of all because it makes us ponder anew the ways and means of the thriller, somewhere between art and entertainment.
© Adrian Martin August 1988