Saturday, 29 July 2017

The brilliance of Peter Biskind's "Seeing Is Believing" and the classic right-wing 1996 Mel Gibson film "Ransom"

One of the most exciting books about cinema I've ever read is Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, left-wing film historian Peter Biskind's 1983 study of the political attitudes underlying 1950s American movies. It's worth reading for the first chapter alone. In it, Biskind dissects Sidney Lumet's claustrophobic 1957 drama, 12 Angry Men, in which a New York jury tries to reach a verdict on a young Hispanic accused of murdering his fodder (sorry - his father). At first, they're all for frying the little bastard, but, gradually, the achingly rational architect Henry Fonda - the representative of the corporate-liberal state - convinces the others that the little bastard is innocent...

 He does this by isolating the left and right-wing, middle and working-class extremist "indignants" (think Corbynites and UKIP supporters), hammering away at them until their own prejudices and psychological flaws are exposed: only when these angry malcontents repent by voting for an acquittal are they welcomed back into the warm, fuzzy, consensus-driven, centrist fold (think Blairites and Conservatives Wets).

The teacher played by Glenn Ford in the earlier inner-city school drama, Blackboard Jungle (which memorably opens with Rock Around the Clock blasting on the soundtrack) employs the same tactics to quell the hoodlum element in his class: Teach's attempts to isolate the most disruptive thug succeed when - in front of the whole class - he traps the punk into making a racist remark, thus ensuring that the thug's main ally, played by Sidney Poitier, changes sides and becomes Ford's main ally instead. Blackboard Jungle also shows the futility of smothering criminals with kindness (bleeding-heart liberalism) or hard-hearted discipline (conservative authoritarianism).

While I certainly don't accept all of Biskind's assertions, and while, like critics trying to explain modern art to the great unwashed, he often sees things that aren't really there (e.g. an anti-feminist subtext in a film about giant ants threatening Los Angeles), every page contains insights that have enriched my understanding and enjoyment of the films discussed when I've watched them again. The book is currently available on Kindle for £10.04.

Surprisingly, one of the films Biskind doesn't mention is the stonkingly right-wing, "man's gotta do", anti-consensus Ransom! (1955), starring Glenn Ford as a businessman who refuses to pay the ransom demand when his son is kidnapped. It was remade by Ron Howard in 1996 (without the exclamation mark). I've already written about it on this blog, but I've rewritten that article for the next issue of The Salisbury Review:

Ransom, 1996, directed by Ron Howard, starring Mel Gibson, Rene Russo, Gary Sinise

The 1996 film Ransom may not be the best right-wing film ever made, but it is one of the most right-wing films to come out of Hollywood since the 1950s. If it hadn’t been directed by Ron Howard and hadn’t starred Mel Gibson – both of whom were flying high at the time – I somehow doubt that it would have received the necessary funding from executives in one of the world’s most left-liberal industries.

The plot is simple enough. A New York-based airline owner’s young son is kidnapped and a ransom demand is duly received. The FBI is called in. When the father, played by Gibson (in blistering form), follows their advice and tries to pay the ransom, he realises that the kidnappers have no intention of releasing his son. When another ransom demand is made, Gibson, on his way to the drop point with a suitcase stuffed with $2 million, changes his mind. He drives straight to the nearest Fox affiliate TV station and addresses the kidnappers directly on live TV. In a speech that will have had right-wingers roaring in approval, he lays all the money out in front of him, and then delivers the following message:
"Two million dollars in unmarked bills, just like you wanted. But this is as close as you'll ever get to it. You'll never see one dollar of this money, because no ransom will ever be paid for my son. Not one dime, not one penny. Instead, I'm offering this money as a reward on your head. Dead or alive, it doesn't matter. So congratulations, you've just become a two million dollar lottery ticket... except the odds are much, much better. Do you know anyone that wouldn't turn you in for two million dollars? I don't think you do.”
 Gibson suggests that the kidnapper releases his son at once, and then does his best to disappear:
"You still have a chance to do the right thing. If you don't, well, then, God be with you, because nobody else on this Earth will be."
As he packs his money away following the broadcast, Gibson becomes aware of the disgusted, accusing stares of the TV production team. Outside, an angry crowd shouts insults as he leaves the studio. His wife is appalled by what he’s done, as are the members of the FBI team working on the case. The whole world is against him. But he’s right and they’re wrong.

What makes this such a quintessentially right-wing film? First, the hero is a rich businessman without any discernible humanitarian urges, and with a distinctly dodgy commercial past – he’s been involved in criminal deals and has been investigated for corruption. There are no rich businessmen heroes in liberal films – unless they’ve seen the progressivist light and are now determined to make the world a better (i.e. more left-wing) place.

Second, it’s society’s agents who are in the wrong here – to such an extent that the main kidnapper turns out to be a serving NYPD detective (a brilliantly malevolent performance by the  conservative actor, Gary Sinise). The message is clear: don’t trust experts. Left-wingers display an almost religious reverence for experts, especially those appointed by the state. Gibson decides to ignore the corporate “wisdom” of wider society - especially its enthusiasm for compromising with evil - and instead relies on his own street-fighter’s brains, guts and instincts. A man’s gotta do, etc.

Third, the hero uses his ill-gotten gains to defeat his chief enemy by appealing to the greed of the other members of the gang. He doesn’t try to appeal to the criminals’ better nature, because he knows they don’t possess one: they’re unredeemable scum. And because the kidnapping is essentially a criminal business deal, Gibson feels he’s better able to conclude it successfully than the earnest, well-meaning, touchy-feely government experts who are supposedly helping him to recover his son. In a telling exchange, the lead FBI agent tells Gibson, “Tom, you've got to play the odds, man. I've been doing this for eighteen years, and if I were a betting man, I would bet on the people who pay every time, out of the gate.” To which Gibson replies, “Did you bet on the ones where you got back a corpse?”

Ransom was a remake of the 1955 film, Ransom!, which benefitted from the typically glum intensity brought to the role of the businessman father by the staunchly Republican actor, Glenn Ford. If anything, Ransom! is even more of a hymn to right-wing, don’t-rely-on-the-state, stand-on-your-own-two-feet individualism than its successor. It’s left to the frazzled Chief of Police to expose the namby-pamby gutlessness of the centrist, corporatist state: “How long do you think I’d hold my job in this community if I went around doing what I thought was right…What do you want, Charlie, a criminal code with guts?... This is the USA, for Pete’s sake – we’re a very humane people.”

Ransom was the sixth most successful American box office film in 1996. Right-wing films tend to perform well commercially. Hollywood should make more of them.

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