THE GENERAL (UK, 1998) *** 1/2
This also applies to many a movie. So please see The General now, in a theater.
Made by London-born Englishman John Boorman in his beloved Ireland,where he lived for some 25 years, The General ranks with his best: Point Blank , Deliverance, Excalibur, The Emerald Forest, Hope and Glory, Beyond Rangoon.
It is about a major malefactor and his life. Martin Cahill really did exist in Dublin. His c.v. runs like a catalogue of crime.He was a thief, a suspected killer, a libertine, a bigamist, a weird art-loving collector who stole paintings, a perpetrator of much else, all of it illegal.
His disdain for authority was monumental. It included the law, the authorities, the English, even the Church (which for an Irishman is anomalous). Hubristically, he defied the power of the police and, better yet (or as turns out, worse for him), he challenged the might of the IRA.
The film takes Cahill from his assasination to his assassination, as this event frames the movie. It segues with just parts of his life story, starting with the childhood of a preternaturally gifted, audacious and self-controlled young thief. Cahill the adult is played by Brendan Gleeson who is said to look uncannily like his model.
Gleeson-Cahill has a potato face and a potato-sack body, which ought not to be derogatory terms in spud-loving Ireland. As conceived and performed he makes us sidestep both our potentially romantic views and our indignation. The picture lets us have our ups and downs in evaluating Martin, who could be a vulgar but friendly teddy bear one moment, a crass torturer the next.
He became a celebrity in Ireland.The myth around him was often that of a modern Robin Hood, which he decidedly was not. He may have given some money way, but not on any large scale. But he certainly was a robbin' hood.
Boorman falls neither for the cliches nor for the conventions of the gangster film genre. The General is a Thoroughly Modern Movie in every aspect: conception, construction, editing, camera-work and all. But not of the kind that shouts "modernism!" and tries to impress you with its techniques. The techniques are there, but unshowy and clearly harking back to Boorman's early period as a first-rate director of fifty-plus documentaries for the BBC.
As an individual, and especially as the leader and brains of a gang, Cahill was -- and remains on celluloid-- an amazing tactician. He plans and plots cleverly and minutely, he thinks on his feet, improvises, makes instant decisions, never loses his cool. He is so brazen that the word could have been invented for him. His brazenness may well have been his best weapon.
Scorning all that's scornable, the only thing he did not do was to thumb his nose, literally, in courts or police stations. This, because in his public appearances, he favored wearing hooded coats and spreading his hands over his face, as though this would make him The Invisible Thug. Those peculiarities add a kind of childish naivete to the man, although my better guess is that they were his ways to avoid showing his true reactions, those facial expressions that might have worsened his case.
Brendan Gleeson is the sort of superbly skilled realistic actor that you do not watch him as a thespian but as the character he lives, lives in, and portrays. John Voight, Boorman's old friend from Deliverance, sports an Irish accent that sounds genuine -- at least to American ears-- as he plays (very well) police inspector Ned Kenny whose Holy Grail was to get Cahill. Somewhere, someone compared Kenny to the French Inspector Javert who hounded Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Not so.There is no cruelty, no villainy about Kenny, and no innocence about Cahill.
The film is elliptical. Not to the point of confusing you but to the point of asking for concentration. This task is sometimes arduous given the often undecipherable accents. At the Cannes Festival where I first saw the picture, American critics who could not read the French subtitles were often puzzled by the dialogue. For example, some people were confused by Cahill's marital status: he has a lovely wife who has a lovely younger sister with whom he also sleeps -- with the wife's blessing. A menage a trois that even raised the eyebrows of some tolerant French spectators. In addition we see our non-Robin stealthily stealing a child's toy while some neighbors sleep. Its destination is the child he has had with his sister-in-law.
Boorman decided to film in black and white. Says he: " Color films are too saturated. They prettify. They vulgarize. And particuarly, they romanticize poverty.[...] B &W abstracts while color distracts [...] But there are deeper reasons. Most of us dream in B & W [...] a B & W film approaches the condition of a dream, of memory, reaches out into the audience's subconscious. There was often a mythic dimension to B & W movies. They presented a familiar yet alien world, a contiguous reality."
The movie used color stock which was printed in B & W, a system that can enhance shadings. And they shot in CinemaScope format which, used intelligently, allows the screen's expansion to places that need to be included. The B & W use of Scope reminds me somewhat of Francois Truffaut 's creative photography in Jules and Jim.
Not that friendship is celebrated as in Truffaut's movie. What's generated is minute, complicated team-planning which is executed with brash clockwork. There is strong suspense in the carrying out of holdups and burglaries. The step-by-step preparations and crimes are not as detailed as in Kubrick's race-track heist-movie The Killers, or Rififi's jewel robbery that was made in France by American self-exile Jules Dassin. What I do sense in the Cahill gang is a new element, the amazing luck that accompanies the General's strategies. And all this has a constant accompaniment of humor and amusing bits, even while you are aware that Martin, his men and their actions are far from funny.
The movie's Irishness is beautifully observed, with no sentimentality, no stress on poverty, no blarney, no unnecessary colorfulness. What there is instead is Boorman's fascination with Cahill. The bottom line is that Martin comes through as extraordinarily clever and innovative in his avocation, but most likely a hollow man with no real interests --except for his family and his bourgeois menage a trois--outside his profession. He lived comfortably from his often spectacularly profitable hauls; he took, democratically, only one standard share; he did not drink or do drugs; his home was nfancy middle-class; and in general his kind of life that a 9 to 5 mid-rank employee might live. Cahill remains a mystery. Were his actions motivated by a compulsion? As in Robert Bresson's "Pickpocket" but on a gigantic scale?
Just as fascinating as the film is John Boorman's "A personal
account of the making of The General" which runs nine tightly packed pages.
It is both an Odyssey and an Iliad of the endless, complicated steps,
search for a producer and for funds, problems, troubles, financial deals,
legal battles, disappointments, searches, stumbling blocks, etc. from conception
to fruition. The shoot lasted eleven weeks; the preliminaries took years.