Gilbey on Film: Tony Scott, 1944-2012

A master manipulator of space and suspense.

Most of us don’t think we’re susceptible to the corny myths and delusions bred by cinema and by showbusiness in general. Then something happens which proves you can be as sappy as the next person in line at the popcorn counter.

That was what I felt when I heard yesterday that the director Tony Scott had died by leaping from a bridge in Los Angeles. The sense of rupture came, I think, not simply from Scott’s death, but from the nature of it. Things like that don’t happen in Tony Scott productions. People don’t usually commit suicide: they don’t really get unhappy or despondent, and they don’t lose hope; when something terrible happens, Tony Scott’s characters lash out against others. I know: suicide, especially such a demonstrably public one, is a form of lashing-out too. But what I’m trying to get at is the extent to which Scott’s death contradicts and complicates the myths we bought into with his movies.

When a man’s daughter is kidnapped in a Tony Scott film, he kills and kills and kills until he retrieves her (that’s Man on Fire); when a fellow has a grievance, he makes an entire city pay (see Scott’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, which replaces the brooding eccentricity of the original film with sound and fury and more sound); there can be moments of genuine suffering (such as when Dennis Hopper finds himself in Christopher Walken’s bad books in True Romance) but they don’t last - they get subsumed by the bullets and banter. People in Tony Scott movies certainly don’t jump from bridges unless they are dodging a fireball from an exploded tanker, or they have a bungee cord attached to one leg. Even in those cases, it’s a stunt man.

So the nature of Scott’s death will, I think, stick with us as long as anything in his work, because it reminds us what those movies helped us to forget: that there is something in life that can’t be vanquished by script-doctored dialogue, dazzling shoot-outs and slice’n’dice editing. It reminds us that he was human, whereas the films might have been made by a sophisticated machine with a devilish sense of humour.

Odd, now, to think of him as a British director, so completely had Hollywood blockbuster cinema adjusted to his way of talking. The critic Bilge Ebiri wrote yesterday of Scott’s breakneck, wipe-clean style: “If it sounds like I’m describing Michael Bay, that’s because I sort of am. What we like to think of today as the Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer aesthetic was, in fact, originally the Tony Scott aesthetic (often deployed in films made for Bruckheimer and his late partner Don Simpson). Only back then there was a lot more art to it.”

There was something unmistakably proud and painstaking about Scott’s approach which distinguished him from disciples like Bay. Both men have been responsible for movies that bludgeon the senses. But I doubt that Bay has any films in him as coiled and patient as Crimson Tide,  as loopy as Domino or as rampantly pretentious as Scott’s 1983 debut, The Hunger.

His hits, the ones that brought him back from the commercial failure of The Hunger, were Beverly Hills Cop II and a brace of Tom Cruise vehicles: Top Gun (Cruise with wings) and Days of Thunder (Cruise with wheels). But his best movies were not so commercially calculating. Crimson Tide is a taut thriller set aboard a nuclear submarine. An aborted emergency message is received appearing to order the loosing of missiles, but in the absence of certainty, a stand-off develops between the gruff, old-school captain (Gene Hackman) who wants to let Russia have it, and his lieutenant (Denzel Washington), who advises caution.

It’s a clash of ideologies, and Scott’s skill lies in his ability to keep that in mind while also delivering a masterclass in the manipulation of space and suspense. (It’s not one for claustrophobics.) Hackman and Washington are like grand masters poised over the chess board, with a flawless supporting cast, including James Gandolfini and Viggo Mortensen, as the massing pawns. Michael Schiffer and Richard P Henrick’s tight screenplay received some uncredited input from Quentin Tarantino (a friend of Scott’s since the director had bought the then-unknown young filmmaker’s screenplay True Romance). Tarantino added a nice touch to the racial tension between Hackman and Washington by coming up with the dialogue about Lipizzaner stallions; Scott kept everything on the boil for two hours straight.

There were other enjoyable and often audacious films: the time-travel thriller Déjà Vu, the wham-bam buddy movie The Last Boy Scout. And if you’re going to be foolhardy enough to attempt to remake Coppola’s The Conversation as a slick action film, you might as well make it as giddy and silly as Enemy of the State, in which Will Smith is divested of his spoils, his family, his clothes, his entire goofy, grinning persona. (There was also room for Hackman, who played the surveillance expert Harry Caul in The Conversation, to show us what Harry might be up to all these years later.)

Of course, I am not really deluded enough to believe that directors die the way they direct. But Scott’s death is so radically out of sync with the other public parts of his life that I wonder about the effect it will have on his back catalogue: will those pictures still carry the same sense of abandon now? It’s a sad occasion, and also a rather sobering one for anyone who looks at films and at real life and sees only the faintest demarcation between the two.

The late Tony Scott in 2010 (Photograph: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit