As usual, Cimino's crime (in terms of commercial success)
is to deny the audience any feeling of comfort, stability, or
satisfaction; that is also what makes his films so fascinating.
Author and critic, Robin Wood
Michael Cimino is an iconic figure in Hollywood lore for all the wrong reasons. This isn't the place for a sombre look at the bizarre excesses that lead to the commercial disaster that was Heaven's Gate. This is a retrospective look at the film that sent him into orbit and the higher up he went, the more painful and damaging his subsequent fall. Cimino's ascent started with writing some pretty well remembered 70s' movies – how about Silent Running and Magnum Force? Clint Eastwood let him direct his own Thunderbolt and Lightfoot screenplay and that lead to his most celebrated work, The Deer Hunter. It has been an extraordinary process to re-visit it. I was seventeen years old when I saw it for the first time and like a wasp held in a glass, that experience is still rattling around inside of me being referenced as the familiar tale plays out over thirty years later.
And what a solid surprise to feel familiar emotions and note that the power of the piece is largely undiminished. This is a 'thick' movie, dense with layers of meaning and fully rounded characters. Technically the movie is quite ragged by today's standards (do not take that as a criticism, salute it). It's leisurely cut to the point of cinematic contemplation but what does stand out in thespianic neon is the power of the performances. This is De Niro at the peak of his career; Meryl Streep, so luminous, so far from the acrobatic but middle aged singer/dancer from Mamma Mia and Christopher Walken also years away from his genuinely weird guy persona. These actors have a bloom about them. They make up the whole like a loyal platoon, each having been through the mill (literally and figuratively) and emerged closer than ever. All the smaller parts are utterly convincing and each one has a chance to shine. There are moments in this movie that ring so true that you can't imagine anyone being able to write like this, it's so natural. But more than anything else, The Deer Hunter is a treatise on loss. It's about how something indefinable and tight knit can violently fracture. The community spirit, so real and intact at the start of the film, is eviscerated so completely by events far, far away that it's a genuine surprise that any life of any value is to be lived in their aftermath. In fact this is a movie that a significant part of which could be regarded as suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
We're in Pennsylvania and an iron foundry, a hellish place that prefigures a more hellish place an hour or so away. But these five men are locked together by both an over and understated machismo, simple feelings of belonging and genuine emotional need. The leader is Michael (DeNiro), a quiet introspective man whose philosophy of life is almost abstract. He doesn't suffer fools and is probably the 'deer hunter' of the title (and yes, I know the title could mean many things). His immediate subordinate and favoured hunting partner is Nick. Christopher Walken has mutated (and I mean that in a good way) into the actor most sought after when a certifiable loon is required. But here, fresh faced and about to explode into stardom, he's holding back a little and it makes the events to follow even more upsetting.
In his last role before succumbing to lung cancer, we have the forlorn and hangdog John Cazale as Stan. Once seen and never forgotten, he was a truly gifted character actor behind an interesting face that starts the conversation about the unfairness of life before he even opens his mouth. Steven's getting married. As he seems to be the baby of the group, John Savage plays him young and the sight of his leg halfway through the movie really shook me up when I first saw it. If you know the film, you know exactly the kind of thing that gave me the shivers way back in 1978. Then there's Chuck Aspegren filling up the beefier form of Axel. All you have to do as an actor is convince and these five seem like they've been drinking buddies from the year dot. And I can't hear Franki Valli's "You're Just Too Good To Be True" without being in that bar with the boys playing pool.
Vietnam is around the corner but there's time for a last hunting trip and a wedding, the length of which prompted one wonderful letter published in the now defunct Films Illustrated magazine. I'm paraphrasing but it was something like "I enjoyed The Deer Hunter but I was at the wedding so long I felt I should have brought a present." The wedding is also a going away party for the men who are going to war voluntarily – ordinary Americans doing their perception of their duty. There's that word 'ordinary'. I've said it before but it takes some talent to appear to be this ordinary. The scene of De Niro packing his rifle while Walken talks about trees is a masterclass in sub-textural writing. Great actors take stuff like this and load it with significance. Just for the record, the wedding is just over 24 minutes long. Great actors can also communicate a great deal even with a glance. De Niro looks at Streep (or the meaning is contained in the timing of the cut) and it's ever so clear he wants her, his best friend's girl. Forbidden fruit.
Cimino is doing something in the first hour that Peter Jackson tried to do in his remake of King Kong. The idea is to really get to know your characters so when things start breaking down, you care. Their fates have meaning. Jackson stated this explicitly and yet as each of his characters were devoured or crushed, you gave them barely a nod in recognition. We loved Kong and Naiomi, no problem. It was just that everyone else was lost in overblown exposition and a curious lack of character recognition. Cimino nails this because he knows what to show and how to show it. We really get to know these men and women and that is why the emotional punches are so painful. And the literal ones too when Stan floors his girlfriend because she was getting her arse squeezed. Violence that reveals character – that's Scorsese's career right there. It's a shock but perhaps a bigger one that Stan is simply allowed to 'kiss it better'.
I find the whole idea of volunteering to fight a war repugnant but again, everything is prey to context. American leadership tried very hard to convince the populace that the biggest danger to them and their way of life was not the technology that could level cities but the propaganda of insidious, cancerous strains of communism. The average Joe – if he even exists – would have to be sure that he was doing the right thing, laying his life on the line for his country's best interests. However misguided the reasons for conflict, to an American in that time, communism was a monstrous baby-eating monster and it had to be fought. And that's what the average Joe thought and so off they went. The anti-social Green Beret at the wedding, a nicely judged performance by Paul D'Amato, has looked into the face of the abyss and has no time for drunken revellers. He is the raven knocking at the door. One more hunt before it's not wildlife in the sights on top of a rifle.
The hunting scenes are the spiritual core of the movie. The angelic choirs give that away. How noble it is to send a shard of metal into a deer? As the Green Beret said "Fuck it." De Niro's front and centre in both hunts but he's whole in the first and oh, so very broken in the second. The preparation on the car is the scene, which for some reason, really stuck in my head after my first viewing. It's the "This is this" speech. DeNiro may be stubborn and living by some code the others find difficult to relate to but I felt I understood him. It's a canny bit of writing, macho men picking up on vulnerability and awkwardness with women and driving a spike into it. Somehow DeNiro stays above it and as he hovers, Cazale is made even smaller. After the self-important camera drift in the bar scene is an extraordinary cut. It's the no bullshit cut. It's the 'hell' shot with no lead up. The whirr of the Huey blades gives us the tiniest foreshadow. Today, Cimino probably would have cut to the coming explosion. But we're in it now and trauma comes rarely more traumatic. And so begin the events that tear up these men's souls.
In 1978, these Vietnam scenes were hard to watch in any detached way. The brutality and absence of hope were overpowering. I'm not going to say too much about them here in case the movie is new to you but let's just say some dark seeds are sown in the middle of the movie, seeds which germinate and suffocate. There is an enormously odd transition that made me want to read the script to see if some scene was excised. No sooner has DeNiro got the upper hand and reunited with his two buddies in the middle of a jungle war zone (his lack of recognition is one of the casualties of war), bombs go off, we see some troops, impossible to tell who they are and then a cut from a river to a shack and our boys have been taken which leads to the infamous Russian Roulette scene. Narrative-wise, it's the only wrong/odd move the movie takes. It's here where Savage excels. He is horribly convincing as a man marked for death. DeNiro is superb as the strong man in a horribly weakened position. It's only fitting that there is no music – just the reality of the characters. Tense doesn't begin to cover it.
DeNiro's return to a community smashed by its loss is a mixed blessing. The camaraderie between former friends is now somewhat forced and the rest of the movie concerns itself with revelations of continuing damage from the psychological car crash that was Vietnam. This is where DeNiro trademarks his famous "Look at you, look away and then look at you with even more intensity" acting strategy. For her part, Streep manages a pratfall in a bowling alley that feels more real than anything she could have planned to do. But awkward is the name of this game. There's a shot at about 2 hours, 13 minutes and 25 seconds in that seems miraculous. There's no CG but somehow Cimino got predator and prey to leap into shot at the same time. Extraordinary or extraordinarily lucky?
I'm going to let you discover the rest of the movie for yourself. Trust me. It's worth it. The Deer Hunter tries hard to be significant and profound and perhaps it's that effort that puts some people off. I wasn't aware of the effort the five or six times I've seen it and have enjoyed it purely as entertainment. I never understood the racist accusations and the fact that everyone got so steamed up because there were no North Vietnamese Russian Roulette tortures. It's a movie. Someone made it up. Regardless of the criticisms, The Deer Hunter is strong stuff and highly recommended.
It's hard not to have high hopes for an HD transfer of a film I first saw on a cinema screen large enough to fly a passenger jet through, and for the most part Optimum's Blu-ray lives up to expectations. There is some variance, but when it's good it's rather lovely. Wide location shots in particular are almost always a joy – the interior of the Russian Orthodox church in which the wedding is held boasts a fabulous crispness and level of detail, while the mountain exteriors of the two deer hunts are at times genuinely breathtaking. Black levels are excellent throughout, and colours are natural and rich when appropriate, but never shout their presence, which is only appropriate. Even the red lighting of the Saigon bar interior is nicely graded so that it doesn't feel over-saturated. The resolution increase is clearly visible on almost every scene, in the sharper detail on faces, clothing and set detail, but it's those wide shots where the transfer really shines – in one I found myself able to count individual bricks on a building that was some distance from the camera. There is noticeably more grain in the Vietnam material, the result, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond assures us in the extra features, of having to push the exposure and overdevelop the image to more closely match incorporated stock footage, most of which appears in the fall of Saigon sequence. Sharpness and colour are still very impressive here. A couple of shots – notably in the night sequence where Nick makes Mike promise not to leave him in Vietnam – are a little unsteady in their exposure, but for the most part this is a significant leap over the DVD.
click on the picture for a full sized screen grab
Now here's an odd thing. Start playing the film with the Dolby 2.0 stereo track enabled and during the title music switch to 5.1. For some inexpiable reason the pitch of the music seems to shift up a couple of notes. It has to be a trick of the ear, as there is no earthly reason for this to happen, but the same happens during the wedding and elsewhere when music is playing. Both tracks are lively, though, with the music spread a little wider on the 5.1. If you want to hear how the actors sound when dubbed into French, German, Spanish or Italian, then you're also in luck, and there's a very decent selection of subtitle options too.
Commentary with director Michael Cimino
Nicely fed by American critic and fan boy F.X. Feeny, Cimino provides a wealth of background detail on the production, much of which is specific to the sequence playing. Appropriately, there is plenty of discussion on the cast, particularly the use of non-professionals (Chuck Aspegren, who plays Axel, was a steel mill foreman seconded for the movie on De Niro's suggestion, while supporting roles are played by everyone from Pennsylvania locals to Thai prostitutes and even, it is claimed here, CIA operatives), some coverage of the technical aspects ("I could shoot a whole movie with a 10mm lens and 10-to-1 zoom") and some enjoyable anecdotes about the preparation for and shooting of individual scenes. John Ford is repeatedly singled out as both a favourite filmmaker and influence, British film crews are praised for their professionalism and sense of humour, directors of photography are chided for taking credit for the look of the film, and the advantages of having music playing live in a scene are convincingly outlined. A tinge of sadness creeps in when talking about John Cazale, who was already dying of cancer when filming began, and the commentary itself is put on pause when Cimino discusses the real veterans' hospital in which Walken's post-war scenes were filmed and becomes overcome with emotion at the memory. Accusations of racism are dismissed as absurd with a qualifying explanation for the handling of the scenes in question – whether you completely buy into it is another matter, as it still sidesteps the issue on an 'ends justify means' basis. And if you had problems with the "God Bless America" finale, then Feeny's parting words are likely to give you similar cause to twitch. But this is still a hugely informative and enjoyable commentary, and even at 3 hours there's hardly a dead spot here.
Presentation by Mickey Rourke (2:37)
The recently reborn Rourke recalls the impact the film had on him on its release and sings the praises of the cast, particularly De Niro, from whom he learned a lot when they worked together on Angel Heart. A short piece that's been compressed from a longer interview with the use of annoying flash frame edits and fade-outs.
Vietnam War: Unknown Images (47:36)
An incorrectly labelled extra whose actual title is Une Sélection d'extraits de Images Inconnues la guerre du Vietnam, which roughly translates as A Selection of Extracts from 'Unknown Images: The Vietnam War' (or as it is subtitled here, Unseen Images), originally a longer, 3-part TV documentary series that was made in 1997 and shown on Vietnamese television to some acclaim in 2005. Written by Daniel Costelle, directed by Isabelle Clarke and compressed down from the original 156 minute running time, it provides a potted history of the Vietnam war using footage shot at the time by American cameramen, which is used to illustrate the words being spoken by the dour French voice-over. Those who believe that documentaries should or even can be bias-free will likely have some problems here, with the wording of the narration, the juxtaposition of the images and the use of sound effects and music all contributing to a critical view of the conflict, though the initial suggestion that the Americans are going to be cast as the bad guys is soon balanced out with a similarly negative picture of the North Vietnamese actions against their own countrymen. Valuable largely for the footage it includes, some of which is in very good shape, it really doesn't need the sinister notes and dramatic action movie score provided here to achieve its impact. Includes a brief extract from a troop training film with the extraordinary title 'Get to Know Charlie', which against expectations appears to be more respectful of the North Vietnamese soldier as an enemy than the main feature. The squeamish should be warned that there is explicit footage here of serious injuries, dead and mutilated bodies, and an animal sacrifice.
Realising the Deer Hunter (23:31)
An interview with director Michael Cimino, conducted by the good people at Blue Underground, that repeats some information from the commentary but usefully expands on others. The process of writing the script is covered in some detail, originally a joint project with a friend whose first completed draft, according the Cimino, read like it was "written by someone who was mentally deranged."
Shooting The Deer Hunter (15:31)
Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond talks about the look of the film and how it was achieved, which involved everything from stripping leaves from trees to pushing the film two stops and overdeveloping to downgrading the "beautiful negative" in order to more closely match the grainy 16mm documentary footage incorporated into the Vietnam sequences. Some people, he suggests, found Cimino difficult to work with, but he had no problems with him and still regards him as a considerable talent.
Playing the Deer Hunter (15:38)
The too rarely seen Savage recalls his experiences working on the film in a manner just twitchy enough to suggest he was left emotionally damaged by it. One of the recalled anecdotes involving a helicopter that became snagged on a footbridge provides an alternative take on Cimino's commentary version, and he gets choked up just thinking about Cavatina by Stanley Myers, the guitar piece used as the film's main theme.
What looks like the original release trailer, at least from the structure and style – I'm pretty certain it would be cut very differently nowadays.
As with all such extras this is likely to change as other features are added. At present there's not much here, a BD-Live Community connection, an HDTV Basic Display Tuning Guide and a textual description titles dynamicHD – The Technology, which tells you nothing of interest.
The release disc also appears to have a booklet, but this was not available for review.
A still powerful and impeccably crafted study in family, community and friendship and the devastating effects of war on all three. Optimum's Blu-ray, part of the Studio Canal Collection (a sprinkling of prestige titles that have been released simultaneously on the UK market), does the film proud in the transfer, with the increased grain on the Vietnam sequences down to a decision made on the original shoot rather than an issue with the disc. Most of the extras have been carried over from Optimum's 2006 2-disc DVD release, and while I'm still not sure whether this is the right film to pair with the Vietnam documentary material, it does provide a small counterbalance to the film's war sequences and is an interesting inclusion nonetheless. As a whole the disc comes highly recommended.