jon: day seven

"listen. i work for the CIA. i am not a spy. i just read books! we read everything that's published in the world. and we...we feed the plots - dirty tricks, codes - into a computer, and the computer checks against actual CIA plans and operations. i look for leaks, i look for new ideas...we read adventures and novels and journals. i...i...who'd invent a job like that?" - robert redford, three days of the condor (1975)

i look at this final day as a 75% reward. i think jon intentionally let me coast in on this last day, giving me almost all things he knew i would enjoy. almost. we start strong with ronald neame's hopscotch (1980).

walter matthau plays a CIA operative of the old school. he believes in cultivating networks of information, cultivating relationships with other agents and relies on his wits and intuition, exploiting these intangibles to a degree that makes him among the best in his field. this also puts him in danger of becoming obsolete and when he handles a case in a manner that doesn't sit well with his bureaucratic bureau chief, played with all the napoleonic complex that ned beatty can muster, he finds himself sidelined, assigned to a desk. this will never do, so he shreds his file, heads to austria to rekindle a relationship with an old flame and begins to write his memoirs. the cat and mouse game begins as he begins to send chapters of the damning documents to the CIA and other major intelligence agencies around the globe, threatening to expose their legacies of dirty tricks. the rest of the film is a masterful hybrid of light comedy and thriller, as his old fashioned ways keep him constantly two steps ahead of the state-of-the-art. this one deserves a vital-graph entry all its own, as it is one of my all time favorites. it's basically a one man show and, fortunately for me, the man is walter matthau. it struck me this time around that the reason i love his work so much is that i think he is the closest comedy descendent of w.c. fields and all of those tendencies are in full effect here - the curmudgeonly charm, the dry aside spoken just under the breath that makes it twice as cutting as anything said at full volume, the love of the sound of words. if your definition of thriller has to include explosions, gadgets and car chases every ten minutes, keep walking. if the agility of the mind is as important to you as the agility of the stunt department, you're home. this was the only time all week that i laughed this much.

i did laugh almost as much at the next film, though i'm not sure that's what richard donner had in mind when he made conspiracy theory (1997).

this thing was hilarious from start to finish. what was supposed to be a thriller played more like a three stooges marathon written by coast to coast a.m. callers. mel gibson plays a cabbie obsessed with conspiracy theories who apparently strikes a nerve with the CIA. maybe it was the whole "manmade earthquakes as a cover for NASA to kill the president" bit, who knows? at any rate, he's abducted, tortured and escapes and it is slowly revealed that he's a dormant assassin. man, that must happen a lot. you'd think they'd find a way to fix that. things escalate, there's the inevitable showdown in a remote location and julia roberts re-enters the world of equestrian show jumping. if you'd like to get an idea of just what was so funny, let me try to re-create the experience in my head for you. first: mute the clip below and pause it for a second.

next, click this and then come back over and press play again on the video.

here's the thing. all this spooky business with the CIA - all the shadowplay, subterfuge and elaborate conspiracies - is completely unnecessary. look around. look at people. there's a girl you know on facebook, maybe a coworker, maybe a friend of a friend. she's moderately pretty and has been getting by on that for a long time now. she's as plain on the inside as pretty on the outside. she likes mani-pedis and loves 2-for-1 margaritas at happy hour. she's read every nicholas sparks book. she's going to marry a man who's kind of handsome, maybe a bit dim, maybe a salesman. they'll go places once in a while wearing the matching colors of their alma mater. he may be good to her. he may be a louse. she may not be equipped to tell the difference. they'll have 2.3 kids that they raise to be good american consumers and look forward to a good night of must-see t.v. together, they will seek out their own miniature oblivion every day. do you think you have to go to elaborate lengths to trick these people? whatever your shadowy cabal wants to do can be done in plain sight. just put whatever you want these people to think about it into a commercial. when we can be this honest, we can stop making these movies and mel gibson can stop getting residual checks.

next, we go from crazy to breezy with stanley donen's charade (1963).

audrey hepburn plays a woman whose husband has just died under suspicious circumstances, thrown from a train. the CIA informs her that he had doublecrossed some fellow soldiers in a scheme involving stolen gold. $250,000 has gone missing, which everyone assumes she has, and she soon finds herself beset on all sides by those who would like to potentially intimidate or romance it out from under her. this is the most confectionary item on the list today, to be sure. it is all about cary grant being cary grant and audrey hepburn being audrey hepburn. it's a good thing they're so good at it. matthau is back again too, though this time sporting a mustache, so he obviously can't be trusted. it has some nice blackly comic moments and the banter between our romantic leads is always effervescent. it plays like a collaboration between alfred hitchcock and blake edwards. i've seen it a few times now and i don't know if it was the lingering effects of mel gibson or a general impatience with the hitchcock junior varsity vibe of it all but this time it just made me anxious to get on to the real thing.

which i soon did with our last film this week, alfred hitchcock's the 39 steps (1935).

two films i love in one day - that has to be some sort of record for queue de grâce. robert donat is excellent in this as another of hitchcock's "wrong men". the action begins in a music hall with an impressive display of recall from a novelty performer named "mr. memory". the revelrous atmosphere is soon undone, though, as shots ring out and everyone frantically heads for the exits. in the melee, our hero meets a nervous young woman who turns out to be a spy who turns out to get murdered. drat the luck! now the primary suspect in a homicide, he takes it on the lam and goes from one close call to another, narrowly getting out of jams, evading and escaping from police, hiding out on the moors and even delivering an impromptu speech at a political rally. he manages to shackle himself to madeleine carroll, one of the first of the hitchcock blondes, and she is slowly but surely convinced of his innocence. eventually, things come full circle and we find ourselves at the music hall again, with "mr. memory" being our flesh and blood macguffin this time around. events replay themselves, questions fly from the audience, another shot rings out and the espionage plot driving the action is foiled. this is truly a masterpiece of pacing. its pulls and rhythms are completely undeniable. you find yourself drawn in and breathlessly hurtling along through a parade of hitchcock's trademark elements, including his fondness for tweaking the censors with a risqué bit of business involving some stockings and the traditional cameo from the man himself. the performances are a bit mannered for a contemporary audience, but if you want to see how a suspense film should be cut, plotted and paced, then this is a masterclass. a very satisfying ending to the week.

and with that, we ring down the curtain. thanks, jon. that was all kinds of fun, so much so that i hate to see it end. i think i am going to watch the 39 steps again right now.

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