Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Thursday, December 27, 2012
Might As Well Go All The Way
The last time I ever saw my grandfather, my mother’s father, was way back near the end of ’95. He was in his late nineties then. And he still remembered lots of things. Sure, not everything, but that’s understandable. And I learned a lot from him then, like how apparently my grandmother was the very first musician to ever perform on WOR radio back in New York. He still kept her violin by his bedside. One detailed story he told me wound up rambling all over the place but was never anything but fascinating, with some blind alleys popping up in mentions of people who disappeared through the doors of memory to slight revelations that were enough to make me wonder what else he had seen and done in his life. But what I learned on that trip was about all I learned. “There just wasn’t enough time,” said Vito Corleone to his son Michael. You could say that about much of life.
Memory of films is something as well. Maybe there are minor films that we encounter and what if you see something for the first time in years that you remember with some fondness and discover some sort of odd connection to it deep within you? Even if that connection really has nothing to do at all with the film? I recently found myself pulling out an old VHS of Martin Brest’s comedy GOING IN STYLE, first released on Christmas Day 1979. While watching George Burns in the lead role I couldn’t help but start thinking about how much he resembled my grandfather. Of course, he probably doesn’t very much at all. Maybe it’s the glasses Burns wore for this role. Maybe it’s the uncharacteristically stoic expression that remains on his face through much of it. Maybe it has to do with the hints the character gives out of what happened in the past, a past that will never be known about because there will always be things about your grandfather, your grandparents, your family, that you’ll never know. And maybe Art Carney in the film reminded me somehow of a long gone Uncle who the memories I have of are even more distant. Speaking of distant memories, I actually do remember seeing GOING IN STYLE on a Saturday evening with my parents at the long gone Scarsdale Plaza, a place I’ve written about before. Maybe it’s kind of a mature, introspective film for someone my age at the time to see but it was marketed as a goofy comedy so who was to know? I’m glad I returned to it now.
Three friends Joe (George Burns) Al (Art Carney) and Willie (Lee Strasberg) share an apartment somewhere in Queens living off their Social Security, doing little but sitting on a nearby park bench as they watch kids play and life go by, lost in their own thoughts. One day Al, fed up with how little money they have as well as the aimlessness of it all, comes up with an idea: how about pulling a stick-up? Even if they get caught, they won’t do too much time and there’ll be plentiful Social Security checks waiting for them when they get out. And besides, it’ll give them something to do. The two others soon agree and before they all know it, wearing Groucho Marx glasses as disguises, they’re knocking over a bank in midtown Manhattan. Things go much easier than they ever could have imagined but soon an unforeseen development changes their new direction in life even further.
The first feature directed by Martin Brest who also wrote the screenplay (based on a story by Edward Cannon) GOING IN STYLE does its job with a minimum of fuss within 98 minutes yet is surprisingly warm and completely human in a low-key way that allows it to have staying power past the end credits, making it more than just a caper film. Even though Joe denies it when he speaks of his life there’s a certain feel of regret hanging in the air and while it’s clear that each of the three men has a past few specifics are ever given to. Burns’ Joe, ever stoic even when a sly grin comes to his face, mentions stealing during the war but little else about it, making me wonder if he passed up on some big chance long ago that he’s somehow trying to make up for and it all adds to his canniness in setting all this up whether working out their transportation or his reasoning for why they need to use real bullets. Carney’s Al, always willing to go along with whatever anyone says, is the very definition of jovial in almost everything he does whether happily singing along with doing the dishes or gazing at girls on the street. Strasberg’s sadsack Willie doesn’t have any ideas at all, content to do nothing more than feed the pigeons from his bench while lost in his regrets of long ago, particularly the memory involving his long-gone son that he speaks of in the film’s most devastating scene.
Only the present seems to matter fully with the spectre of that giant, overflowing cemetery seen at one point hanging over the three of them every time they walk down the street with an air of inevitability whether pulling this job gets them to feel forty again for a few minutes or not. What’s the difference, Joe asks, when Willie expresses concern they could get shot pulling the stick-up. And, for them, what is the difference, right? Even when it feels like things are about to go full-on maudlin when Joe looks at some old photos (presumably of Burns when he was younger, possibly with Gracie Allen) the film doesn’t let him have it. Often in life you don’t get to have it either. Sentimentality gets you nowhere. It’s in these moments with the characters where the film is strongest whether the single lines of dialogue from them that say so much or when it just holds on their faces—it makes a simple scene where the three men buy hot dogs into something meaningful and the opening shot alone is a model of economy not in terms of plot but in giving us a few moments to observe who they are and what their body language says.
Everything surrounding the big hold-up maybe moves a little too fast for credibility but there’s still a lived in feel throughout the whole thing that makes it undeniably affecting so such issues don’t really matter, particularly when there are scenes like a particularly heartbreaking tableau framed against a group of kids playing in the park sprinklers nearby in the foreground. There are laughs but they’re almost secondary--just about the broadest joke in the film, not counting the presence of those Groucho masks, is something I remember bringing the house down way back when (it still gets a laugh out of me actually—the way Burns is walking is so crucial in selling it) but the film is willing to let that stand aside in favor of simple things like the close-ups of the actors as they head towards the big robbery, giving us more in their faces than we ever need to know otherwise either from exposition or prolonged speeches that offer more details about their lives--kudos to composer Michael Small for his score here as well, expertly balancing the various elements throughout. One other big gag late in the film involving what’s ordered at a fancy Las Vegas restaurant reminds me of something I heard that my grandfather did long ago. There are things in there like that too. It’s also kind of fascinating to me now how much of the film just holds on the characters without stirring up a fake ticking clock or outside threat--none of the guys have just received bad news from their doctor and there’s no landlord threatening to evict them. It’s just boredom. They need to do something as long as they’re still alive, even if the rest of the world barely seems to think of them that way. When something does happen near the end it comes practically out of nowhere which seems believable too.
It’s practically a three-character piece all the way through with no unnecessary side characters, with the key exception of Al’s working class nephew Pete played by Charles Hallahan. No one else is needed. Brest wasn’t even thirty when he made this film and the film displays utter confidence in its willingness to keep things simple, especially considering how a few of his later films like SCENT OF A WOMAN certainly didn’t scrimp when it came to running times. GOING IN STYLE is a gentle, endearing reminder that we’re all stuck where we are in one way or another with our own ticking clocks prisoners so we should be willing to do certain things whether it’s flying off to Vegas at a moment’s notice or just putting onions on your hot dog. Not to mention robbing a bank. Because, what the hell, right? Who knows how much time we have. What the hell could we lose? The film doesn’t underline any of this too much. It doesn’t really need to.
It’s almost easy to forget how the film features two leads who at time were recent Oscar winners and a third who had been nominated. Easily the best performance of George Burns’ late career it’s also the one where every ounce of his famous personality seems to be shred away. Part of it is the glasses, part of it is simply the way he’s willing to carry himself—they seem to be confident that since he’s George Burns we’re going to like him anyway so the movie doesn’t try to add anything to that and as a result it makes the character he plays into more of a human than at any other point in his career. Whether dancing in the street or playing with his nephew Pete’s little girl Art Carney is always delightful but in a grounded way, coming off as a person who’s joking around as opposed to just comic relief with a certain amount of sadness that comes from what ultimately happens. Playing the most reluctant of the three at first Lee Strasberg is quietly wonderful, showing how his former cab driver stopped trying years ago—the actor’s eyes during his big speech pierce my soul and it makes the moments where some light come into his eyes mean that much more. It never really occurred to me that this film features the sight of Hyman Roth laughing with undeniable joy. That’s just goddamn beautiful. For all three actors every gesture is just right, even the way they walk down the street seems genuine. As the one other key character, Charles Hallahan gives off a sense of decency that makes it little surprise why they would confide in him and he quietly plays very well off Burns and Carney.
As the real lead of the film Burns keeps his stoicism going through much of it all right up to the very last moment where he allows that to break, an ideal note and last line to end things on not to mention a final shot where the end credits roll that has always stayed with me ever since seeing it in the Plaza long ago. That smile he gives there reminds me of my grandfather as well, particularly as he said something to me during that visit about my grandmother, one of the most beautiful declarations of love for someone departed I’ve ever heard anyone say. But I don’t want to share it. It’s for me. Some things I have to keep to myself. Just like I need to have certain movies continue to matter to me and never let anyone ever take that feeling away. No matter how old I get.