Hitchcock Lives: 'Four Days in September.' (Elements of an Alfred Hitchcock Novel Reappears in New Movie)

By Alleva, Richard | Commonweal, March 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

Hitchcock Lives: 'Four Days in September.' (Elements of an Alfred Hitchcock Novel Reappears in New Movie)


Alleva, Richard, Commonweal


Four Days in September, the fact-based thriller about some idealistic Brazilian students who kidnapped the American ambassador in 1969, creates suspense the hard way: by making us care about the characters whose lives are in danger. When the leader of the kidnappers, a hate-corroded ideologue, puts a gun to Ambassador Elbrick's head, director Bruno Barreto doesn't have to amplify the cocking of the pistol so that it sounds like the gate of hell being unlocked. We catch our breaths because we genuinely fear for this gentlemanly official with his air of sober decency, wry self-mockery, and need to explain himself lucidly to his abductors whenever they interrogate him. Alan Arkin, who plays Elbrick, has shucked off all the tricks of his youth - the staccato speech pockmarked by sudden shouts, the demented widening of the eyes - and now seems to be able to think his character into existence. Like Paul Newman in Nobody's Fool, Arkin is an actor of such technical security that he no longer lunges for his audience but waits for it to focus on him.

But it's not only Elbrick we care about. Most of the terrorists are middle-class students, but Barreto and his scriptwriter, Leopoldo Serran, never let us dismiss their actions as the struttings of radical chic. These youths are truly ashamed that their once democratic country is now ruled by a military junta. And their high spirits and intellectual curiosity don't allow them to embrace the conformity and self-immolation of the true believer, though they sincerely try to. Forced to take guerrilla aliases, they tend to revert to their own names. Encouraged to think of each other as mere components of the coming revolution, they can't stop themselves from flirting, gossiping, arguing, and asking their hostage personal, friendly questions. Fernando, an intellectual who can't shoot straight, hears the ransom statement he penned read on TV and starts to mouth the words along with the announcer, so proud is he of his literary style. Next to emotionally messy, humane kids, the cell leader seems small and desiccated, a squat thug, and it's not surprising that the young people are soon responding more to the ambassador's dignity than to their cell leader's dedication, though they are still willing to kill Elbrick if their demands aren't met.

With its car chases, shootings, impersonations, and hairbreadth escapes, Four Days in September is melodramatic yet never a melodrama. Melodrama demands simplification of morality and it is this simplification that the movie repeatedly avoids. Ideals and reality collide repeatedly through the movie. The guerrillas rob a bank and pause to lecture their captive audience of tellers and customers on the righteousness of this "expropriation." (Oh, those revolutionary euphemisms!) But a terrified girl in the crowd can only put her head on her mother's shoulder and weep, even though the revolutionaries are supposedly robbing on her behalf. Fernando, taking a cab, hears the driver - another one of the common people the kidnappers are trying to serve - praise the subversives he's been hearing about on the radio. …

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