Ah, prisons. There are so many great prison movies (think Papillon, think Bronson, think Chopper, Poison, A Prophet, Scum, Starred Up…. think Brawl in Cell Block 99!). One of these days the long-promised paean to Buzz Kulik and his peerless Riot (Gene Hackman, Jim Brown) will see the light of day, along with the comparable Gene-ius of Scarecrow (co-starring Al Pacino).
For now, though, content yourself with a cinematic classic, in the form of Robert Bresson’s peerless Pickpocket, the Paul Schrader style-fest it inspired (American Gigolo) and its near contemporary, the markedly inferior, markedly racist but nonetheless highly enjoyable Midnight Express. Each of these films contains a seminal cinematic moment in the meeting room where two of the characters are separated by a glass or plastic screen (or, in the case of Pickpocket, a metal grille) and thus at almost as great a remove from one another as we the viewers are from the events on-screen.
In Pickpocket the titular thief (Michel) meets and takes a shine to a young woman, Jeanne. But it’s his friend Jacques who starts going out with her. Michel doesn’t seem that bothered at first (it must be a French thing) and after a visit from a police inspector he leaves France and travels, first to Rome and then to England, where he plies his trade, blowing his ill-gotten gains on women and drink. He eventually returns to France, only to find that Jeanne has had a child by Jacques, who has abandoned her (it must be a French thing). Michel finds regular work but soon reverts to crime and is sent to prison. The long-suffering Jeanne visits him there and Michel tells her how “to reach you at last, what a path I had to take…”
Okay, it doesn’t sound like much in writing, but it’s one of the great transcendental moments in cinema, on a par with the miracle in Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, or the end of Bogdanovich’s Last Picture Show (“Never you mind, never you mind.”) Obviously, to get the full effect you need to watch the entire movie, just as you need to sit through an entire Andrei Tarkovsky film to experience the sheer, blessed, transcendental relief of it being over. But these are trying times, and we are busy kickstarting the economy after COVID and Brexit, and having to worry about Ukraine, though not Afghanistan or Yemen, it seems, so here is a shortcut, in the form of the final scene only, helpfully subtitled in Spanish….
Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo pays homage to the last scene of Pickpocket, and in effect to the whole film, by having Richard Gere (Richard Gere!) play a high-class male prostitute framed for murder and desperately trying to find out who has it in for him. When he realises that his erstwhile “friend” Leon is part of the plot, Julian accidentally pushes him over a balcony and Leon falls to his death (we’ve all been there). So Julian ends up in jail for TWO murders, but then his married lover Michelle steps up to vouch for him, sacrificing both her reputation and marriage because, as she says, “I had no choice, I love you.”
I used to think this was a vacuous, superficial film, redolent of the vacuous, superficial 80s, but it is of course a film ABOUT vacuity and surface, a film ABOUT the 80s, which captures and reflects the zeitgeist of that decade: the money, the coke, the clothes, the cold robotic music (the entire Giogio Moroder soundtrack riffing on Blondie’s Call Me) i.e. the horror, the horror…. What is most disturbing about the film is the ground-breaking objectification of a MAN (Gere) constantly dressing and undressing, parading for the camera, buttocks and genitals on full display, and the contempt in which he is eventually held by everyone – his female clients, their husbands, the police. “Whore!” one of the other men spits at him. Here is a man – an actor, Richard Gere – reduced to the level women have to suffer in film after film. But in the end it’s all worth it, because he has love, and what else does anyone need?
Obviously, to get the full transcendental effect you need to watch the entire movie, just as you should really sit through the whole of Pickpocket, and American Gigolo has better music. But these are trying times, so here is a shortcut, in the form of the final scene only, helpfully subtitled in Ukrainian, as an expression of solidarnosc. Pravda be told, it’s not in the same cathartic league as Pickpocket, Ordet or even The Last Picture Show, but it’s still a great ending.
Finally, in Midnight Express (based on a true story!) the drug smuggler Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis) is incarcerated in a Turkish prison with only John Hurt, Randy Quaid and Peter Jeffrey for company. As subsequent events have proven, spending too long in the company of Randy Quaid is not a good idea, and Billy hatches a plan to escape. But before that, he gets a visit from his girlfriend Susan, who is played by the implausibly named Irene Miracle, and what follows – Susan getting her tits out for Billy in the visitors’ cubicle so he can press his face against the glass and have a wank – is surely one of the saddest, most degrading and yet weirdly sexy scenes in cinema. I’d love to say that Irene Miracle bettered that moment in other films, but sadly Midnight Express was the pinnacle of her career, unless you are a fan of her earlier Last House on the Left rip-off The Night Train Murders (Last House on the Left itself being a rip-off of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring).
I first saw Midnight Express on magic mushrooms, at Redwood Lodge Country Club, on the outskirts of Bristol, circa 1980. That was a strange evening, and not just because of the film. Verily it is a roll call of great ’70s actors from both sides of the pond – apart from Hurt, Jeffrey and Quaid, there’s Mike Kellin as Billy’s dad, chewing the furniture spectacularly, and Bo Hopkins of Wild Bunch fame as a CIA agent who recaptures Billy in the backstreets of Istanbul – and for that reason I’d normally give it a massive double thumbs-up. Alas, it is also one of the most racist films ever made, with nary a good Turk in sight. Fair enough, you might say – perhaps all the Turks Billy Hayes met in prison WERE horrible to him. But a quick glance at the book Hayes wrote, and on which Midnight Express is based, suggests otherwise. In real life Billy had relatively little to complain about, didn’t hate Turks, embarked on a loving sexual relationship with a fellow prisoner, and escaped not by donning the uniform of the head guard he had just killed but by bribing his way out. None of that makes it into the film, or only in the perverted, crowd-pleasing, truth-twisting manner one expects from director Alan Parker and producer David Puttnam (while Oliver Stone, who wrote the screenplay, has proffered a suitably grovelling apology).
I suppose it only remains for me to proffer a similarly grovelling apology to feminists who may take umbrage with my onanistic celebration of the Irene miracle, and to assure you all I am NOT going to post a video of THAT scene! Oh no siree! After all, to get the full transcendental effect (or petit mort) you need to watch the entire movie, silly glossy racist shit that it is.
Parts of the above blog first appeared in the books In Extremadura and 68½ − Movies, Manson & Me. By the way, anyone get the Buzzcocks reference?