Saturday, 20 November 2010

Secret Honor (1984) - Robert Altman

Not Altman's finest hour (and a half) this. It's not terrible, I don't think Altman had it in him to do 'terrible'. It's just that this isn't your average film, in fact it's that most tricky of things for a film, since the story started it's life as a stage play. Now sometimes this works wonders (Amadeus, 12 Angry Men, Death and the Maiden, Glengarry Glen Ross), sometimes not (The Wiz). It's not just based on a play though, it also confines itself to one location, which was always going to be a hard sell for your average man in the street. Hitchcock loved the challenge of single location films, and with Lifeboat, Dial M For Murder, Rear Window and Rope, he managed to make some of his best and smartest films. But even Hitchcock would have baulked at the third thing Altman throws into the mix, that of the film only having one actor. So the whole thing is essentially a monologue. Now if you think that sounds like it's going to make for a tough watch, believe me it does. The good thing is that the solitary actor is Philip Baker Hall, who sweats, swears and gurns his way through the film like a trooper, albeit a trooper with the baggiest face in showbiz.

Now for those of you that don't know, the subject of this film is a post Watergate Richard Nixon, tanked up on Scotch and blubbering away about recent American history into a tape recorder. And that is pretty much it. Now if this was thirty minutes shorter then I think it could have worked. After all just two years before Altman had done pretty much the same thing with Rattlesnake in a Cooler. One hour I can deal with, add thirty minutes to that and I start to drift a little. The thing is this could easily have been cut down to say seventy minutes. But that's not for me to say is it?

Also I would say that it helps to have some idea of Nixon's life and time in office. Or if you are like me then to have seen All The Presidents Men and Oliver Stone's Nixon. Otherwise this could have you muttering to yourself that you'll never get the time you wasted on this back or some such.

Altman handles the film with all the skill you would expect from him, his use of long takes allow the viewer to sink into the film and after a while you do get the feeling of being a priest in a confessional. My particular favourite shot is of Nixon reflected in the barred window of his office holding his famous two hands in the air victory pose, looking for all like he's incarcerated (which of course he was mentally, if not physically). Not too subtle but it did the trick.

There are those that say that Robert Altman had a rough old time of it in the eighties, and they'd be right and yet at the same time wrong. If you look through his filmography you'll see that his biggest (artistic and critical) success's are usually followed by something utterly off the wall. For example he followed this film with one of my favourite of his eighties output (although I have yet to meet anyone else that would agree with me about that), - O.C. and Stiggs. Which reminds me I'll have to try and pick a copy of that up someday.

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