The Hitchcockian Fugitive: Harrison Ford Keeps Going

Richard Loncraine’s Firewall, from a screenplay by Joe Forte, has raised the provocative question of whether Harrison Ford, at 63 and counting, is too old to play an action hero. First of all, it ill behooves a 77-year-old movie reviewer like me to think of anyone at the tender age of 63 as anything but a spring chicken, particularly when said reviewer recalls the inspiration he has received from the great, gnarled twilight westerns of John Wayne, Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott and, of course, Clint Eastwood.

Before I leave a subject that is more gruesome for the motion-picture camera than the typewriter to contemplate, I would like to recall an incident of all-too-human hypocrisy in judging the age of others, even vicariously. It has been reported that sometime around 1957, that renowned moralist and feminist, Frank Sinatra, made Mrs. Billy Wilder cry when he complained that the character played by Gary Cooper in her husband’s Love in the Afternoon was a creep to take advantage of the young girl played by Audrey Hepburn. At the time, Cooper was 56 to Hepburn’s 28—a gap of 28 years. And wouldn’t you know it: Less than a decade later, the then 51-year-old Sinatra wooed and married 21-year-old Mia Farrow—a gap of 30 years. Love in the Afternoon happens to be one of Wilder’s greatest films, and at the time it didn’t receive the critical and commercial success it deserved, which is why I’ve remembered this trivial bit of gossip.

Anyway, Mr. Ford’s Jack Stanfield is less an action hero than a contented, midlife-crisis-free patriarch who shares a home with his loving career-woman wife, Beth (played by 42-year-old Virginia Madsen), and a tensely teenage-ish daughter, Sarah (Carly Schroeder), who is perpetually at odds with her full-of-beans kid brother, Andy (Jimmy Bennett). The Stanfield clan resides in a luxurious oceanside mansion full of security safeguards, as befits Jack’s high position at a Seattle bank as the executive vice president for security. The last thing Jack is looking for is trouble of the kind that is the only bankable commodity in Hollywood these days.

Even before all hell breaks loose, Jack has shown signs of crankiness at the office over the challenges posed by a proposed merger of which he disapproves. His mood isn’t improved by an unexpected visit to the bank by a supposed private investigator seeking payment for an online gambling debt. Expected at home for an evening with his family, Jack is waylaid in his car by Bill Cox (Paul Bettany), a smooth-talking bogus bank executive who informs Jack that his family is being held hostage by a team of confederates, whom we have already seen gain entry to the house by pretending to be delivering pizza.

From this point on, the film unfolds an elaborate plot designed to exploit this paranoid period full of electronic threats to the sanctity and solvency of our individual identity. The noisily embarrassing false-gambling debt turns out to be part of a larger conspiracy to steal billions and billions of dollars from Jack’s bank. I can remember a time when mere thousands of dollars constituted a big haul—but that was long before overseas bank accounts in the Cayman Islands.

For all his surface charm, Mr. Bettany’s Bill Cox is one of my least favorite types of villain: omniscient, omnipotent and uncannily anticipatory, at least for a time. Meanwhile, for what seems like an eternity, every member of the Stanfield family is endlessly terrorized and reminded of their powerlessness. At first, much of the story is told from the vantage point of an entertaining variety of surveillance instruments. Whatever fun there is in the movie comes from our curiosity about how outrageously improbable the director and his scenarist will have to be in devising a way for Jack to get out of the intricate traps that Cox has set for him, without getting himself and his family killed in the process.

But that is the point: Once Cox reveals himself to be more of a sociopathic monster than he at first seemed, what is to be lost by calling in the cops at the first opportunity? Surely Jack has no reason to believe that Cox will keep his promise not to kill him and his family once the money has been stolen and transferred to the Cayman Islands. Of course, the same argument could have been leveled against some of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic films: That’s why Hitchcock made it a point to give his heroes as much to fear from the police as from the villains. There was also generally enough humor in the proceedings to enable the impish director to wink at his audience so as to facilitate its suspension of disbelief.

Unfortunately, there is little humor in Firewall, only grim determination. But I must confess that I didn’t mind all that much, since I stayed absorbed to the very end, possibly because I have always given a slight edge to failed melodramas and would-be suspense thrillers over failed comedies and farces and musicals—perhaps because, contrary to popular and even critical opinion, the latter are much harder to accomplish successfully than the former and are thus, paradoxically, hardly worth seeing at all.

But make no mistake about it: Firewall is barely worth seeing, despite its above-average cast. Mr. Loncraine and Mr. Forte are to be commended for not indulging in cheap, exploitational menace with the attractive female hostages. There is even a tentative effort to make Beth a more active participant in saving the family from the evildoers, but in the end it is Jack who must supply the technical wizardry that will confound Cox, despite all his electronic erudition.

I was particularly impressed with an actress new to me named Mary Lynn Rajskub, who plays Jack’s unusually starry-eyed secretary, Janet Stone, who plays a crucial part in Cox’s eventual downfall. Ironically, it is Cox who notices Janet’s devotion to Jack, which her boss apparently fails to see—even after Janet throws a would-be suitor’s flowers into the wastebasket. For fear of complicating the caper, Cox orders Jack to fire the smitten Janet, and the subsequently painful scene between them comes as close as anything in the film to high comedy. Indeed, the ridiculous intrigue around the bank even before Cox invades the scene provides a steadily satiric counterpoint to the eventually deadly struggle between the two men, along with Cox’s array of co-conspirators.

The end of the film finds Jack and his family together with Janet, alive and triumphant, far from the bank. Jack has even managed to become a Hitchcockian fugitive from the police for a brief interlude, which allows the filmmakers to provide product plugs for a variety of familiar electronic devices that serve as reminders of our increasingly mindless consumer society.

Regional Differences

Gilles Porte and Yolande Moreau’s When the Sea Rises, from their own screenplay, has already won a place on my Best Foreign-Language Film list for 2006, despite its brief run locally and the somewhat baffled reviews. In France, Ms. Moreau won the 2005 César, the French equivalent of the Oscar, as Best Actress, and When the Sea Rises won the César for Best First Work—which is somewhat misleading, since Ms. Moreau has been touring onstage since 1982 all over France, Switzerland, Quebec, Belgium and anywhere else French is spoken with a tragicomic one-woman show entitled A Dirty Business of Sex and Crime, which provides the foundation for the film.

Since 1984, Ms. Moreau—one of the most beautiful horizontally challenged women I have ever seen on the screen—has appeared in over 40 movies. For his part, Mr. Porte has shot around 30 short films since 1987 as a director of photography. When the Sea Rises is his first feature film, co-written and co-directed with Ms. Moreau. (Mr. Porte is also the director of photography.) Having worked five years together on the script, it’s unlikely that the two will make a sequel, or indeed work together again. When the Sea Rises is thus all she wrote as far as their collaboration is concerned.

The film begins at a performance of the stage show. Irène (Ms. Moreau) makes her entrance disguised in a monstrously ugly head mask and wearing a ridiculously striped dress into which she slouches clumsily. Her first words—“A terrible crime”—refer to her having killed her lover; and if the act doesn’t bother the audience, it doesn’t seem to bother her, either. The important thing for her is to find another man to love, and quickly, if necessary from the audience. And so Irène drags one of the spectators onstage, with the rest of the audience cheering him on.

Real love enters the picture when Irène’s car breaks down between tour engagements, and a passing motor-scooter driver named Dries (Wim Willaert) stops to help her. In gratitude, she gives him two tickets for her show later that night. And it is Dries whom she persuades to go up onstage with her that night, and for many nights thereafter. It turns out that Dries is in a form of show business himself, helping manipulate giant papier-mâché figures for fairs and carnivals. He is a slightly goofy, happy-go-lucky character, but a genuine feeling of affection springs up between them, partly through a perceptive recognition of their shared eccentricities. Irène also talks on the phone to a husband and child back home, but we never see them in the flesh, so to speak.

There is much that an American audience won’t know about the film’s setting, a region in northern France on the Belgian border. As Ms. Moreau explains her milieu: “It’s easier to talk about what you know. A little bit easier. Personally, I’m originally from Brussels and, like a lot of people from Brussels, I’m half French and half Flemish. I like the rough-and-readiness of the Flemish, their honesty and lack of pretension that seems to fit in with the landscapes. The earth sticks to the soles of their shoes. The scenery is almost harsh, but develops a mysterious sense of poetry. We didn’t set the story on the French-Belgian border by chance. It enabled us to navigate between two cultures that are close and yet so far apart. I chose as my ‘prince,’ my ‘hero,’ a Flemish speaker who works in France. He has such a wonderful accent when he speaks French. I know northern France very well from having toured there extensively in the 80s. We were shooting in places where I had performed my show twenty years before, such as Le Palais du Littoral at Grande-Synthe. The diversity of the locations such as cabarets, village halls, theaters, and even the Beer Fest provided a backdrop that allowed us to show what it is to be an actor.”

I liked the film before I read all the background notes, and I think most perceptive viewers will like it, too—but its aura of strangeness persists if you don’t know all the cultural and linguistic nuances involved. I certainly don’t, though my limitations as a would-be expert are even more pronounced with all the Asian films flooding our art houses. What to do? One can throw up one’s hands and stick to American or, at least, English-language movies, or one can plunge hopefully into the unknown and immerse oneself in the visual clues provided by the medium. Of necessity, I have chosen the latter course, preferring to rely on the approximations of English subtitles rather than plunge the cinematic Outer World into total darkness.

In my infinite search for cultural distinctions, I use my mania for tennis to help me to grasp the telltale differences in temperament between the French-Belgian champion Justine Henin-Hardenne and the Flemish-Belgian champion Kim Clijsters, much as I listen carefully to the tonal and rhythmic differences between Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. Certainly, I will never know enough, but I will never stop trying.

In any event, When the Sea Rises remains a strangely sad love story of rare poetic power. It is also an odyssey of sorts through a snobbishly neglected part of France that shares the scenic wildness of the North Sea. If it ever comes back or appears on DVD, don’t miss it.

The Lover

The French avant-garde screenwriter and director Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) is being honored on Tuesday, Feb. 28, by the French Institute Alliance Française at Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street (212-307-4100). The proceedings will begin at 7 p.m. with firebrand filmmaker John Waters, a self-professed admirer of Duras, introducing Duras’ film Le Camion (1977), in which she acted with Gérard Depardieu, as well as excerpts of his own films where he parodies her style. The screening will be followed by a dialogue between John Waters and Kent Jones, a critic from Film Comment and the associate program director at the Film Society at Lincoln Center. It should be a highly amusing evening.

The Hitchcockian Fugitive:  Harrison Ford Keeps Going