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I Could…

David Thomson

Really, you could. We all know the feeling and we might as well admit it. And don’t take false comfort in its being a game. Just cross your fingers that you won’t be put in the position of having to live with a concentration camp in the next village and pretending to be stupid. Those awkward neighborhoods can creep up on you. 

The precious thing in a fiction is that our aspiring energy or suppressed hope may get some release at last. Jack Torrance doesn’t really want a winter job, or a novel to his name. (It’ll never be as successful as a Stephen King.) He wants his demon set free. You know that urge: if you own an automobile, you can’t bear to think of it picking up a scratch, let alone a dent . . . or the hideous threat of a crash. But don’t you love those movies where car after car is concertinaed and destroyed before bursting into rapturous fire? Cars get killed in movies as easily as people and give us a thrill of liberated damage.

I shouldn’t say this. It could be too close to shouting “Fire!” in a packed theatre. We know how awful that would be: the panic, the rush, with some innocents trampled underfoot. And yet, fire can be exciting. I cannot forget that exhilarating moment in theatre, at the start of Shakespeare’s Henry V, when the Chorus cries out, “Oh, for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention . . .” We are dreamers, made that way, and photographed fire is so beautiful or ecstatic. 

Movies came along at the moment when a soaring population (not just in numbers but in expansive hopes) began to knock against the obdurate facts of poverty, misery, disaster and . . .Our movies are a business; we sometimes like to call them works of art. But deeper down than those functions, they make a climate where impossible possibility is offered, where voyeurism is indulged and we are invited into pretty frames where space, light, happiness, and ease are mixed in with those pressing taboos, the orgy, crash, and murder. We can all get a look at those sensations for a trivial financial deposit—no commitment, no responsibility, just the imagining. Shoot! you say? 

Some people undoubtedly fantasize about our current situation in which one might be forgiven for some wistful wondering over whether a malign and disastrous political leader should be . . .

And I daresay you recall His own wicked insight or boast about how, in a monster’s grandeur and fame, he could go out on the street—and shoot anyone. He’s dreaming all the time. Who else do you know so free from dull fact?

Once upon a time, in the dense forest of Germany, an unnamed English gentleman, a sportsman, aimed his rifle at the begging figure of a great dictator, and . . .

In Geoffrey Household’s adventure story Rogue Male, published in May 1939, his sportsman hero tells himself he is setting up to stalk the monster simply as a test of his hunting skills. Household never named the terrible target, though the sportsman who is captured before he can fire his gun, then tortured and nearly killed, will be hounded by unmistakably Gestapo forces in a desperate chase story. It’s then the sportsman admits he would have fired—should have done so. After all, his fiancée had been murdered by the monster’s thugs.

In 1939, as a magical sniper, would you have shot Hitler? You wouldn’t hurt a fly? Or a rat? But 1939 was the last days of innocence. Suppose you bore the weight of extra knowledge that had accrued by 1945. Still, you might hesitate? Hesitation is the cusp of fantasy’s pleasure. Perhaps you’d think back and weigh the consequences of those few shots fired in Sarajevo in June 1914 by the muddled, inept Gavrilo Princip when the archduke’s car took a wrong turning. One shot can kill so many. A part of us still thinks of warning that feeble archduke.

By 1941, Fritz Lang, who had himself quit Germany in 1933, made a film in Hollywood, Man Hunt, taken from the Household novel. Walter Pidgeon played the sportsman. Joan Bennett is the London tart who helps him. It’s well done in a 1930s way that still alarmed the Hays Office for being anti-German. It’s not as compelling as the remake, Rogue Male, from 1976, directed by Clive Donner, adapted for the screen by Frederic Raphael, with Peter O’Toole as the sportsman. O’Toole brought a passion to the hunter’s mission. Seven when war broke out, he had grown up hating Adolf, obsessing over him and knowing he was evil. He often said Rogue Male was the favorite of his pictures.

There’s talk of another Rogue Male remake now, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the hero. I doubt the story will stop there. The hesitant assassin is a figure lodged in our mythology, the armed man (or woman) who says, “I could . . .” If we’re going to have heroes and villains, there comes a moment when our good guy may feel the dark necessity of eliminating the monster. The American action film where heroism is put to the test has always been a shooting gallery. But the trick is for the shootist to understand a Hitler before history has had time to reach its verdict.

Here’s the delicate point: it’s hard in a movie to have a character pick up a gun, take careful aim . . . and not have him fire it. There’s a pregnant, waiting permission in the structure of the medium that whispers, “Fire me.” They shoot films, don’t they? 

It’s possible to fall for the storylines of narrative cinema, the show business trick, to believe that good will triumph, along with true love and the happiness we deserve. But beneath those homilies there is a lurking pressure, the unhealed suggestion that we are poised at the other end of the voyeur line, ready to open fire. How can it be that generations of directors and cinephiles stay pledged to the theory that film is not an inducement to violence?

From Murder at the Movies by David Thomson. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

David Thomson is one of the great living authorities on movies, and is, most notably, the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. He has written more than 20 books, including biographies of David O. Selznick and Orson Welles.

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