Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Films of Tony Scott: Part I

During the month of September, Cody will be posting a five article series looking over the filmography of Tony Scott.

Part I covers Scott's film work from One of the Missing (1969) through The Hunger (1983).

"The scariest thing in my life is the first morning of production on all my movies. It's the fear of failing, the loss of face, and a sense of guilt that everybody puts their faith in you and not coming through."

As anyone reading this blog probably knows, last month the world of cinema lost one of its top names when Tony Scott took his own life by jumping from the Vincent Thomas Bridge, a suspension bridge linking the San Pedro area of Los Angeles to Terminal Island and a location that he had previously planned to film a large crowd scene on for his never-made remake of Walter Hill's 1979 classic The Warriors.

There have been rumors and questioned reports of reasons why Scott may have made the decision to end his life, and maybe the public will never know why he did it. We don't need to know, that's only his family's business, and I send out my heartfelt condolences to those he left behind.

The only thing that should be of a movie fan's concern are the results of his forty-plus years in film, during which he was a producer on fifty projects, a cinematographer and an editor on some, and what he was primarily known for, his work as a director.

Between 1969 and 2010, Tony Scott directed seventeen feature films, a few shorts, multiple commercials and music videos, and a handful of television show episodes. Looking over his filmography after hearing the news of his death, I realized that, although I wasn't a fan of every one of his movies, there wasn't a single one of them that I wouldn't gladly rewatch and write some words about. And I thought, to honor his memory, I would do that this month.

Scott's older brother Ridley preceded him into the film world, and he even played The Boy in Ridley's short Boy and Bicycle. Tony's chosen outlet for his creativity was painting, but when it proved too hard to make a living at that, he decided to give directing a try himself.


Tony Scott's first directorial effort was a low budget, twenty-five minute long, black and white short film based on a story by Ambrose Bierce.

Set during the Civil War, the film follows a Confederate soldier named James Clavering as he parts from his infantry division and goes out into the wilderness of south Georgia alone to scout enemy lines. "God be with ya, boy." Spotting some Union troops, Clavering finds a hiding spot among some ruins on a hillside and prepares to take a shot... But he's chosen a very bad spot, and the dilapidated structure collapses on top of him.

Clavering is trapped beneath the rubble, not seriously wounded but unable to move, the barrel of his loaded and cocked rifle stuck in such a way that it's pointed right between his eyes.

Even though he was working with limited means, it is clear from this short that Scott was a filmmaker with a stylistic flair and a willingness to experiment. As the essentially buried alive Clavering struggles, panics, dreams, hallucinates, worries that his rifle may discharge and eventually comes to hope that it will, Scott plays with the editing, manipulates sound, goes wild with the camera. The camera spins around and around, the extreme close-ups of Clavering's eyes and mouth as he screams in fear and desperation predate similar shots in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by a few years. As Clavering's existence becomes a living hell, the chirping birds in the trees remain maddeningly happy. Young Scott made his directing debut an impressive and effective one.


Most write-ups on Scott's career state that his first feature film was 1983's The Hunger, he himself said the same, but technically this fifty-two minute film that he wrote, directed, co-edited, and shared cinematography duties on twelve years earlier does qualify as feature length.

Loving Memory was made for the British Film Institute, its running time kept under an hour because it was meant to get theatrical play in the second half of double bills, a B-movie by the term's original definition.

It's a very simple, low budget film, shot in black and white like One of the Missing, but much more subdued than anything else Scott ever made.

There are only five people in the movie, and two of those are passing appearances within the first four minutes. The three the film focuses on are a pair of middle-aged siblings and the young man who they accidentally hit with their car while out one day. After the collision, without hesitation, without a word of discussion between them about what they should do, they load the corpse into the car and take it back to their cluttered, isolated country home.

Once there, the film consists almost entirely of one-sided conversations the woman has with the corpse, who is placed in a chair in the room that used to belong to a now-deceased brother. She brings the corpse cups of tea that she places at his feet, dresses him in the dead brother's clothes, and tells him her life story. While she does this, her brother goes about with his chores, working alone at a nearby mine, gathering materials he needs to build a coffin to bury the young man in. The woman is saddened by the idea that her new friend will soon be placed in the ground, she thinks it's silly, he should be allowed to stay in the house...

Loving Memory is an interesting little film and has some wonderful cinematography by Scott and fellow shooters Chris Menges and John Metcalfe, getting great use out of its lonely location in the Yorkshire moors. It's Tony Scott's arthouse drama.

Scott spent the next decade working with his older brother at the Ridley Scott Associates commercial production company. He directed an unknown amount of commercials in that time, but it has been said that the number was literally in the thousands. The only thing he directed in the twelve years following Loving Memory that wasn't a commercial or music video was an episode, entitled L'auteur de Beltraffio, of the French television series Nouvelles de Henry James.

By the time his commercial reel caught the attention of the head of production at MGM, Scott was desperate to make another feature film. When offered the chance to bring a screenplay based on a novel by Whitley Strieber to cinematic life, Scott took the opportunity. The result:


The song "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus starts playing, Bauhaus lead singer Peter Murphy shuffle-dances through smoke and shadow, into the light on a caged-in nightclub stage, and Tony Scott's first studio picture has begun. As Bauhaus performs, an elegant thirty-something couple makes their way through the crowded club until they spot a younger couple that appeals to them. The film begins cutting back and forth between Bauhaus in the club and the two couples riding off together, having agreed on some partner swap action. "Bela Lugosi's Dead" fills the soundtrack during the club shots, replaced by the film's original score by Denny Jaeger and Michel Rubini when we see the couples away from the club. At a point, the score takes over completely, and as the couples commence their swap, the cuts to Peter Murphy continue, and then flashes to a very angry caged monkey are mixed in as well. When the thirty-something couple reveal that their Anhk necklaces contain tiny daggers that they use to slice into their younger partners, the monkey goes berserk and starts tearing into and devouring the other monkey in the cage with it. Afterwards, the older couple washes off their bloody necklaces and hands.

It's a masterful opening six and a half minutes, containing no dialogue aside from "No ice." and a terrified lab worker's scream at the murderous monkey to "Stop it!" It's all music, imagery and stylish editing.

The "thirty-something" couple, Miriam and John Blaylock, played by Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, are actually much older than they appear. Miriam is a vampire who has been around for thousands of years, originating from Egypt. She married and turned John into a vampire in 18th century France. The vampires of this story are not the typical sort that fear garlic and crosses and get burned up in sunlight. They're able to live like normal people, except for a weekly need to feed on human blood.

When they were wed, Miriam promised John that they'd be together "forever and ever". That's a promise that John is starting to doubt, as he's beginning to show signs of aging. Loss of stamina, wrinkles, etc.

Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) works in the lab where the monkey went crazy, researching sleep and longevity, trying to find a cure for a disease called progeria, a genetic condition that affects children and causes their bodies to age at an accelerated rate. It's a terminal disease, the average life expectancy of a child with progeria is sixteen.

Since Sarah is an expert in the research of aging, John goes to her for help. She doesn't take his concerns too seriously, a grown man with liver spots on his hands isn't a big deal, so she asks him to wait while she goes to a meeting. In the two hours that John spends in the waiting room, he ages into a senior citizen.

Returning home, John soon realizes the horrific truth - he will live forever, but while Miriam remains youthful, it's only a matter of time before the bodies of the people she turns into her companions begin to catch up to their real age. They can't be destroyed, there is no release. Once their bodies have aged beyond use, she stores them away. All of the companions she's had throughout history are locked in coffins in her home, trapped as living mummies. John joins their ranks.

Sarah goes looking for John, visiting the Blaylock house, meeting the lonely and mourning Miriam, who's in need of a new companion. Some kind of psychic connection is made between the two, which makes it easier for Miriam to woo Sarah with her charms. During their second interaction, Miriam serves Sarah sherry and plays piano for her, a love song between two women. Sarah asks her, "Are you making a pass at me?" Miriam replies, "Not that I'm aware of." Then Sarah spills the sherry on her shirt... the chest of her shirt, under which she's not wearing a bra... nipple pokies... Anyone who's ever seen a porno knows what the cleaning process leads to. The lesbian love scene with Deneuve and Sarandon, during which blood is exchanged and Miriam starts turning Sarah into a vampire, may be even more popular than the opening sequence.

Sarah's life starts getting very strange and scary after that experience with Miriam. Will she become yet another companion who ends up spending eternity living in a box, or will she somehow find a way to stop the process?

The heavy dose of style exhibited in the first minutes continues throughout, and now that he's honed his craft in commercials and is working in color, Scott's visual trademarks really start to show up in this film - smoked-up rooms, the way sunlight comes through windows, blue light, neon. The Hunger is still Scott in a low key, he's still making an art film here. Set in New York and filmed in London, his one turn in the horror genre feels like a semi-erotic European goth-punk dream, less about terror and more about luring the viewer into its odd atmosphere.

I first saw The Hunger in October of 2003, theatrically, as the next-to-last movie in a twenty-four hour horror marathon. Usually the pace of the film probably would've knocked me out at that point, but I was set up to stay awake, I wasn't kicking back in one of the theatre's chairs, I was watching the film from the bar in the lobby, through a window into the screening room, still able to hear it perfectly. Sleep-deprived but unable to fall asleep was a good mindset to be in while watching this movie, making its tone all the more effective. It is a very good film, one of Scott's best as far as I'm concerned.

Despite its quality, the studio releasing the film was not happy with how artsy Scott had made it, and audiences did not show up for it. The Hunger didn't do well at the box office, but has gone on to develop a cult following. Its monetary failure didn't help Scott's film career out. He went back to making commercials and music videos, and it would be another two years before he made the film that was his real breakthrough.

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