Magazine article The New Yorker

Thrilled to Death; the Current Cinema

Magazine article The New Yorker

Thrilled to Death; the Current Cinema

Article excerpt

In the second half of the Graham Greene-Carol Reed classic "The Third Man" (1949), the blundering, well-meaning American Joseph Cotten finally confronts his dazzling friend Orson Welles, who has been selling watered-down penicillin to hospitals in postwar Vienna. High up in an enormous Ferris wheel, Cotten asks Welles if he has ever faced one of his victims. Welles responds:

Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to eat my money--or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spend?

Welles's remarks have an insidious brilliance, and, whatever else the Ferris-wheel scene means, it has always figured for me as a mischievous little allegory of the moviegoer's relation to death onscreen. In movies, and particularly in thrillers, people get blown away very easily, and sometimes by the dozen; most of them are nameless hoods, and, usually, their deaths mean nothing to us. The appeal of the thriller genre--it's hardly a secret--is essentially amoral. By that I don't mean that we are complicit in mayhem, only that many of us enjoy watching it artfully staged. When someone dies, the payoff comes not in the form of twenty thousand pounds but in the unnegotiable currency of excitement.

Thrillers produce two kinds of emotion. First comes apprehension--the hunter drawing near, the catastrophe unfolding, the everyday world altered into a sinister landscape of danger. The audience is paralyzed with fear and anticipation. And then comes violence, which releases the tension. The bloodshed may, in the end, only increase our fear, but at least for a time we're not breathless with anxiety. Relieved, we want the violence to go beyond what's possible in life--we need that heightening the way an ordinary sedan needs a turbo engine--but not too far beyond it. Even as we require exaggeration, we want to be allowed to believe that the violence is "real." That is, we don't wish to be reminded too explicitly of our need. Thrillers enter into a sinful, slightly duplicitous transaction with our desire to be entertained. The greatest thrillers, however, go beyond the transaction and take up the challenge offered by Orson Welles in the Ferris-wheel scene; they make us wonder if the deaths of strangers should somehow matter to us.

Among the big-budget Hollywood thrillers of midsummer, Jonathan Demme's "The Manchurian Candidate," pitched for contemporary relevance, is the one that should make us care for its characters most; Paul Greengrass's "The Bourne Supremacy" has little relevance to anything except its own extraordinary bullet-train virtuosity; and Michael Mann's "Collateral," the best of the three, not only is beautifully made but has the largest human significance. As it happens, the chief menace in the movie, a dead-eyed contract killer named Vincent (Tom Cruise), says pretty much the same thing that Welles says to Cotten in "The Third Man." Vincent shows up in Los Angeles at dusk and expects to leave at dawn. His job: to eliminate five witnesses in an impending federal prosecution of a drug cartel. "Collateral," written by Stuart Beattie (with much additional shaping by Mann), is about the peculiar bond that develops between this stone killer and a sweet-tempered taxi-driver, one Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx), who gets bullied by Vincent into providing transportation all through the night. The people Vincent kills--minor members of the drug operation who've been forced by the feds into cooperating--aren't meant to be innocent. But Vincent has no connection to them. He doesn't hate them; he doesn't feel anything about them at all. It doesn't take Max long to realize that he, too, may be eliminated before the night is over. Yet he's more baffled than frightened. He likes peace and quiet--the solitude of his own fantasies as he's driving around--and he wants to know, Why kill people? …

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