The Duellists, Coma, Coming Home, The Fury


• Two years ago we had Barry Lyndon; now we have THE DUELLISTS. The two films have much in common. They are among the most visually beautiful films ever made. Both films reek with atmosphere. Both take place in the Napoleonic period, and both have to do with the military. Characters in both are consistently drawn, but not profoundly. Those who liked the first are likely to like the second.

In most films, plot is the most important consideration; in the vast majority of the remainder, character is. In these two films, setting and atmosphere are paramount. Those who desire continuous action or probing character study should not bother to see either of these.

Within these limits, The Duellists has more to offer than most current film fare. It is a story of how a minor and accidental slight can become an obsession which follows men throughout their lives. The duellistic "code of honor" is really the principal subject of the picture. It reaches—to 20th century minds at least—such heights of absurdity that one wonders how it could ever have been carried to such lengths (yet the story told in the film is supposed to be a true one). When one duellist requests political pardon for the other, thus perpetuating the pointless conflict, the film's credibility with many viewers snaps, and with it much of the sympathy for the principal character. Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel do well in parts which call for no depth of characterization but considerable skill in duelling. The fault lies not in their portrayal, nor even in the shallowness of the roles assigned them, but in the ridiculous "code of honor" they practically kill each other defending.

• If nothing else, COMA is a neat little thriller. It is also enough, if you take it seriously, to make you resist ever going into a hospital again—in view of its main theme, the manipulation of anesthetics so as to put patients into a permanent coma. There is also the tried-and-true theme of "everybody thinks she's crazy" and tries to soothe her instead of investigating the data, but she turns out to be right. This film hits several psychological jugular veins; and though it has flaws, it is a tidy job of unpretentious filmmaking.

It also deals explicitly with the collectivist theme "the individual doesn't count, only society does" ("The individual is too small," says one of the characters), and it even attacks that thesis. But the attack is somewhat incoherent: it isn't really clear, for example, how having carbon monoxide put into the anesthetic of certain patients is going to do "society" any good: there are surely enough comatose patients to experiment on as it is, if that's what you think "society" needs.

Some of the scenes are quite terrifying, with the added psychological thrust of "this could happen to me if I went to the hospital." But the point of the picture is so obscured by the hunt-and-chase scenes that very few viewers will emerge from the theater singing the praises of individual liberty or objecting to State interference with it. And this is a pity, since the material that would illustrate that thesis is vividly marshaled before us.

• I suppose that the idea underlying the making of COMING HOME was that it should be an intense love story, a breaking of ground on the subject of the Vietnam war, and most of all a powerful indictment of that war.

Unfortunately, it does not come off as much of anything. There are excellent actors—especially the three principals, Jane Fonda, John Voight, and Bruce Dern—and a seasoned scriptwriter, Waldo Salt, who provides a few good lines. But the film fails completely in the directorial department: it needs a strong hand to pull the pieces together, to make the action and the characterizations sharp, and to move powerfully from one scene to the next, and none of this is done. It is as if we were seeing the "first draft" of a film rather than the film itself. The music is so constant and intrusive that one often longs just for silence. As the music (or noise, depending on one's point of view) rises in decibels and the scene accelerates in emotions shown per minute and we think we are coming to some kind of climax or resolution, it then changes suddenly and we are left grasping at nothing.

I found it impossible to identify emotionally with any one of the characters. Nor are their motivations really presented in enough depth to help us understand why any of them behave as they do: mostly they are just characters going through roles. Combine this with the suspicion that the whole film is made from an ideologically stacked deck, and you have an aesthetic and an ideological failure at the same time. The year's most ambitious American film so far is also its major disappointment. When one aims high and then falls, the fall is greater than if there had been no attempt to attain the heights in the first place.

• When laws of nature are suspended in films, the usual result is that "anything can happen," and usually does, without much rhyme or reason; and so, instead of the viewer's expectations being frustrated, he has no idea what kind of expectation to have. Those who introduce supernatural powers tend to get carried away with them.

This is not the case with THE FURY, which is, at the least, a tidy and exciting thriller; as entertainment—and it can hardly pass as a lecture on parapsychology—it succeeds, provided that the viewer is not unduly squeamish. Director Brian De Palma has outdone his achievement in Carrie—which by itself is not saying much; but the continuity is much smoother, the music is superior, the buildup is more competently attained, and the story-line is semi-intricate without being confusing. The characterizations are also better—veteran actors Kirk Douglas and John Cassavetes in juicy parts, and a collection of new acting talent displaying good potential.

Both films deal with telekinesis, the power to move objects by mental concentration alone. There is also a trace of a different power, pre-cognition, which is quite different from telekinesis. The success of the film as a suspense yarn, however, need not be traced to supernatural causes, but to certain plot-twists and plausible surprises: for example, there is a main plot involving characters A and B, and a second plot juxtaposed with it involving characters X and Y, and when a bit later the viewer sees A in the same scene with X he wonders what the connection is. In the end all is made clear, if not with the self-confident aplomb of a Hitchcock, at least with plausibility and a good dose of suspense along the way.

Such success could not have been achieved if the telekinetic powers had been employed with abandon; but they are used sparingly, in a narrowly defined context. Sometimes A, who has clairvoyant powers, doesn't even know that B, the object of the search, is nearby, for the power is manifested only under carefully specified conditions. Knowing what the conditions are, the viewer, however skeptical he may be of supernatural powers, is inclined to go along with them for the sake of the ride. And the ride is exciting enough to justify the "willing suspension of disbelief."