Hot Movie Takes – Gregory Peck
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Gregory Peck was a man and an actor for all seasons. Among his peers, he was cut from the same high-minded cloth as Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda, only he registered more darkly than the former and more warmly than the latter.
In many ways he was like the male equivalent of the beautiful female stars whose acting chops were obscured by their stunning physical characteristics. Not only was Peck tall, dark and handsome, he possessed a deeply resonant voice that set him apart, sometimes distractingly so, until he learned to master it the way a great singer does. But I really do believe his great matinee idol looks and that unnaturally grave voice got in the way of some viewers, especially critics, appreciating just what a finely tuned actor he really was. Like the best, he could say more with a look or gesture or body movement than most actors can do with a page of dialogue. And when he did speak lines he made them count, imbuing the words with great dramatic conviction, even showing a deftness for irony and comedy, though always playing it straight, of course.
I thought one of the few missteps in his distinguished career was playing the Nazi Doctor of Death in “The Boys from Brazil.” The grand guignol pitch of the movie is a bit much for me at times and I consider his and Laurence Oliver’s performances as more spectacle than thoughtful interpretation. I do admire though that Peck really went for broke with his characterization, even though he was better doing understated roles (“Moby Dick” being the exception). I’m afraid the material was beyond director Franklin Schaffner, a very good filmmaker who didn’t serve the darkly sardonic tone as well as someone like Stanley Kubrick or John Huston would have.
Peck learned his craft on the stage and became an immediate star after his first couple films. He could be a bit stiff at times, especially in his early screen work, but he was remarkably real and human across the best of his performances from the 1940s through the 1990s. I have always been perplexed by complaints that he was miscast as Ahab in “Moby Dick,” what I consider to be a film masterpiece. For my tastes at least his work in it does not detract but rather adds to the richness of that full-bodied interpretation of the Melville classic.
My two favorite Peck performances are in “Roman Holiday” and, yes, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I greatly admire his work, too, in “The Stalking Moon” and have come to regard his portrayal in “The Big Country” as the linchpin for that very fine film that I value more now than I did before. He also gave strong performances in “The Yearling,” “Yellow Sky,” “The Gunfighter,” “12 O’Clock High,” “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” “Pork Chop Hill,” “On the Beach,” “Cape Fear,” “The Guns of Navarone,” “How the West was Won,” “Captain Newman M.D.” “Mirage” and “Arabesque.” I also loved his work in two made for television movies: “The Scarlet and the Black” and “The Portrait.”
He came to Hollywood in the last ebb of the old contract studio system and within a decade joined such contemporaries as Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in producing some of his own work.
Peck’s peak as a star was from the mid-1940s through the late 1960s, which was about the norm for A-list actors of his generation. Certainly, he packed a lot in to those halcyon years, working alongside great actors and directors and interpreting the work of great writers. He starred in a dozen or more classic films and in the case of “To Kill a Mockingbird” one of the most respected and beloved films of all time. It will endure for as long as there is cinema. As pitch perfect as that film is in every way, I personally think “Roman Holiday” is a better film, it just doesn’t cover the same potent ground – i.e. race – as the other does, although its human values are every bit as moving and profound.
Because of Peck’s looks, stature and voice, he often played bigger-than-life characters. Because of his innate goodness he often gravitated to roles and/or infused his parts with qualities of basic human dignity that were true to his own nature. He was very good in those parts in which he played virtuous men because he had real recesses of virtue to draw on. His Atticus Finch is a case of the right actor in the right role at the right time. Finch is an extraordinary ordinary man. I like Peck best, however, in “Roman Holiday,” where he really is just an ordinary guy. He’s a journeyman reporter who can’t even get to work on time and is in hock to his boss. Down on his luck and in need of a break, a golden opportunity arises for a world-wide exclusive in the form of a runaway princess he’s happened upon. Lying through his teeth, he sets out to do a less than honorable thing for the sake of the story and the big money it will bring. It’s pure exploitation on his part but by the end he’s fallen for the girl and her plight and he can’t go through with his plan to expose her unauthorized spree in Rome. I wish he had done more parts like this.
Here is a link to an excellent and intimate documentary about Peck:
Just last night on YouTube I finally saw an old Western of his, “The Bravados,” I’d been meaning to watch for years. It’s directed by Henry King, with whom he worked a lot (“The Gunfighter,” Twelve O’Clock High,” “Beloved Indidel”), and while it’s neither a great film nor a great Western it is a very good if exasperatingly uneven film. That criticism even extends to Peck’s work in it. He’s a taciturn man hell-bent on revenge but I think he overplays the grimness. I don’t know if some of the casting miscues were because King chose unwisely or if he got stuck with certain actors he didn’t want, but the two main women’s parts are weakly written and performed. Visually, it’s one of the most distinctive looking Westerns ever made. Peck also had fruitful collaborations with William Wyler (“Roman Holiday” and “The Big Country”), Robert Mulligan (“To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Stalking Moon”) and J.L Thompson (“Cape Fear” and “The Guns of Navarone).
Two Peck pictures I’ve never seen beyond a few minutes of but that I’m eager to watch in their entirety are “Behold a Pale Horse” and “I Walk the Line.”
Peck’s work will endure because he strove to tell the truth in whatever guise he played. His investment in and expression of real, present, in-the-moment emotions and thoughts give life to his characterizations and the stories surrounding them so that they remain forever vital and impactful.
For a pretty comprehensive list of his screen credits, visit:
Hot Movie Takes – “Taxi Driver”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
It’s hard to imagine general American moviegoing audiences being prepared for “Taxi Driver” when it hit theaters in 1976. I mean, here was ostensibly a film noir that eschewed standard conventions for a dark fever dream of one man’s mounting paranoia and revulsion in the urban wasteland of New York City.
The character of Travis Bickle didn’t have any direct cinema antecedents but he did emerge from a long line of disturbed screen figures going back to Peter Lorre in “M,” James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in “White Heat,” Richard Basehart as Roy Martin in “He Walked By Nigh,” Robert Walker as Bruno Antony in “Strangers on a Train” and Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in “Night of the Hunter.”
There are even some hints of Robert Ryan as Montgomery in “Crossfire” and as Earle Slater in “Odds Against Tomorrow” and of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in “Psycho” and as Dennis Pitt in “Pretty Poison.”
Bickle also anticiated many screen misfits to follow, including some of the whack jobs in Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino films.
As a disenfranchised loner who sees the world around him as a venal place, Bickle obsessively reinvents himself into a self-made avenging angel ridding the streets of scum. His response to the violent, lurid subculture of sex for sale is an explosive bloodletting that is, in his mind, a purification. In the end, after carrying out his self-appointed cleansing mission, are we to believe he is mad or merely misguided? Is he a product or symptom of urban isolation and decay?
Paul Schrader’s brilliant script, Martin Scorsese’s inspired direction and Robert De Niro’s indelible performance took what appeared to be Grade B grindhouse thematic material and elevated it into the realm of art-house mastery. They did this by making the story and character an intense psycho-social study of disturbance. Bickle is not some nut case aberration. Rather he is one of us, which is to say he is an Everyman cut off from any real connections around him. The way he’s wired and the way he views the world make him a ticking time bomb. It’s only a matter of time before he’s set off and goes from talking and fantasizing about doing extreme things to actually enacting them. He lives in his head and his head is filled with disgusting images and thoughts that occupy him as he drives his cab through the streets of what he considers to be a modern-day Gomorrah. He fixates on certain things and persons and he won’t be moved from his convictions, which may or may not be the result of psychosis or sociopathic tendencies.
Schrader’s script and Scorsese’s direction, greatly aided by Michael Chapman’s photography and Bernard Herrmann’s musical score, find wildly expressive ways to indicate Bickle’s conflicted state of mind. Atmospheric lighting captures a surreal landscape of garish neon signs, steam rising from the streets and back street porno theaters, strip clubs and whorehouses. He grows to hate the pimps and pushers, the johns and addicts littering the city. When he tries to intersect with normality, it’s a complete disaster. Languid, dream-like music underscores the moral turpitude bringing Bickle down. Emotionally-charged, driving music accompanies Bickle’s trance-like rituals and final hypnotic outburst that is simultaneously savage and serene.
Travis Bickle is a troubling symbol who straddles the legal, moral and psychological line of impulse and premeditation. Does he know what he’s doing? Is he responsible for his actions? Or is he insane?
De Niro’s transformation from mild-mannered cabbie to scary vigil ante, complete with the famous “Are you talking to me?” break with reality, is where the real power of the film resides. He somehow makes his character believably frightening, revolting, pathetic and sympathetic all at the same time. To me, it will always stand as one of his two or three greatest performances because he completely inhabits this disturbed character without ever going over the top or resorting to cliches. He creates a true original in the annals of cinema that belongs to him and him alone.
There are some fine supporting performances in the film by Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd. Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel and, of course, Jodi Foster as the adolescent prostitute Bickle anoints himself as protector and rescuer of. They and De Niro share some strong moments together. But it’s when De Niro’s character is alone and brooding, stalking and staring, that he most comes alive as a terrible reflection of our dark side run amok.
You can read “Taxi Driver” anyway you want: as exploration or examination, as cautionary tale, as prescient forecast, as potboiler crime pic. But however you read it, it is a vital, compelling and singular work of its time that endures because no matter how bizarre the story and stylized the effects, it’s always grounded in the truth of its single-minded protagonist. The film never stops giving us his point of view, even at the height of his mania.
Like a lot of the best ’70s American movies, this one doesn’t leave you feeling good but you know you’ve had an experience that’s challenged your mind and emotions and perhaps even moved you to some new understanding about the human condition. That’s what the best movies are capable of doing and this one certainly hits the mark.