‘Once Upon a Time in America’

Once 1 Widely and justly heralded for his trendsetting Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone’s final and arguably most ambitious work was in another staple American genre. Like these Westerns though, this film was as much of its respective variety as it was about it. Once Upon a Time in America, with its name obviously derived from Leone’s previous Once Upon a Time in the West, is a gangster film of the highest order, and, at the same time, it recalls so many of its predecessors, from the Warner Brothers classics of the 1930s to The Godfather. This was by design. As Leone himself notes, “My film was to be an homage to the American films I love, and to America itself.”

Out now on a newly restored and extended director’s cut Blu-ray, America stars Robert De Niro as David “Noodles” Aaronson. Probably the quintessential gangster movie actor of the modern era, De Niro was by this point firmly established as one of the preeminent performers of his generation, with two Oscar wins already to his credit. He is joined here by James Woods, fresh off his excellent turn in Videodrome but still a few years away from his first Oscar nomination and about a decade from becoming a household name, as partner in crime Maximilian “Max” Bercovicz. Rounding out their gang are Patrick “Patsy” Goldberg (James Hayden) and Philip “Cockeye” Stein (William Forsythe). There is also “Fat” Moe Gelly (Larry Rapp), their loyal friend, and his sister, Deborah Gelly (Elizabeth McGovern), Noodles’ perpetual love interest. As the names of these characters indicate, America is somewhat distinct as far as contemporary gangster films are concerned in that it is primarily populated with Jews rather than Italians. This doesn’t so much add or take away anything from the plot, but it does give the characters and the film in general a distinctively illustrated cultural background.

In smaller roles are Joe Pesci (just his eighth credited feature film) as Frankie Manoldi, and Jennifer Connelly in her big screen debut as the young Deborah. Key Leone collaborators Ennio Morricone (music), Tonino Delli Colli (cinematography), and Nino Baragli (editing) were also involved, and as with most of their work for Leone or elsewhere, America is all the better for their exceptional contributions.

Part of what gives America its ambitious quality is its scope. Post-Goodfellas, it’s perhaps not that uncommon to have such a life-spanning chronicle of one man’s venture in gangsterdom, but even that pillar of the gangster picture doesn’t touch America as far its lingering on minute details and crucial moments. Of course, America‘s now restored four-plus hour runtime allows for considerable temporal luxury as well.

Once 3

Based on Harry Grey’s novel “The Hoods,” America follows the journey of four young men as they ascend the ranks of New York’s ruling criminal class, with all the loves and losses and friendships and fights in between. The story is indeed a sprawling one (little wonder there are six screenwriters credited) and it has the familiar rise and fall structure that befits the gangster film so well, for while it is always enjoyable to see the young hood make good, we know that peak success is short lived, and the downfall must soon come. As the film begins and we see Noodles in his older age, we are aware that he obviously survives, so the question then becomes what exactly is it he has survived? After leaving the city 35 years earlier, Noodles is called back, but by whom, and why?

As part of the film’s complex flashback structure, we instantly see that a younger Noodles is on the lam, to the ultimate detriment of his friends, and it’s made clear that the million dollars he has presumably stashed away is missing, but these various loose ends of narrative have yet to be tied together. It’s about 39 minutes into the film before Leone takes us to the very beginning of these young men, where the then adolescent crew does odd street jobs and shows off some criminally enterprising ingenuity. Friendships are forged, sexuality is explored, and while a grand drama unfolds when the boys are older, for now, in their youth, we witness a series of vignettes that shape the men they would become.

Once 5

It is about half way into America‘s second hour when we leave their childhood and with them enter a more dangerous, amusing, and dramatic adult existence. When Noodles is released from prison (to keep this spoiler free, I’ll skip over the actions that put him there), things have changed. He was absent through the group’s more substantial formation and its emergence in stature and respectability, and thus he returns and remains something of an outsider, even though the others have done everything they could to maintain his involvement, going so far as to retain his cut of their profits. But now, conflicts of business and pleasure develop (Noodles has been away from both) and there are struggles between the individual—Noodles attempting to recapture a portion of life he was denied—and the group. It doesn’t help that Noodles is fairly antagonistic, continually provoking those around him, especially Max, with whom he has always had a complicated relationship.

The street kids have grown up and away from their low-level escapades and are now fully entrenched in the professions of bootlegging and prostitution, and they’re very successful at both. They are now also associated with crooks of a different color, namely politicians. Add to this their involvement with union leaders and their hostility toward corrupt law enforcement and you have most of the key ingredients to any great gangster film.

There is no denying America‘s indebtedness to gangster pictures of years past, and as shown in many of the genre’s archetypal titles, the gangster has always been the preeminent cinematic antihero. These men are lawbreakers and wrongdoers, but more often than not, we’re in their corner, frequently cheering them on along the way. America takes this tendency, intensifies it, and aggressively confronts it. Yes, Noodles, Max and the others are for all intents and purposes our heroes, and there’s no question they can be charming and quite appealing, darkly funny even (the baby-swapping), but they can be dastardly. They are, after all, murderers and rapists. “We have enough enemies without being gangsters,” says Noodles’ Jewish driver in a newly added scene, and this is something of an implied reoccurring theme throughout the film. These men, Noodles especially, have the ways and means to live an honorable life, but they are constantly reverting to their criminal ways. “Why go looking for trouble?” you can almost hear his Jewish mother ask. Even after Noodles finally has his romantic evening with Deborah, which is preceded by the heartfelt line when she asks if he has been waiting long and he responds, “All my life,” the beautiful sequence culminates with arguably his most barbaric action.

Once 2

As a coming of age fable, America is very much about myth making, not unlike Leone’s Western film preoccupations (once upon a time…). He depicts moments as if in a memory, a dream, or as if captured via a Polaroid picture that has long since been tucked away in some forgotten and suddenly discovered shoebox. This gives the film a touching poignancy, an appreciable atmosphere of nostalgia, and a rendering of a very specific time and place. There are the loves had and those lost, the schemes and feuds, the sex and violence, the rites of petty crime and surprisingly harsh consequences. Leone’s color and lighting choices reflect this subdued wistful tone. He trades in his previous penchant for expressive and exaggerated imagery and sound for a more classically subtle and melancholic style (though we do get moments of lasting amplified noise for dramatic effect, such as the opening phone ringing—recalling the creaking windmill that begins Once Upon a Time in the West—or Noodles provocatively stirring his coffee).

This is also a wholly unusual landscape for Leone. Gone are the scorching, open western vistas; the sands of the desert have blown away and been replaced by cold, wet asphalt. Towering skyscrapers and bridges now surround this new breed of outlaw. Yet even in this foreign territory, Leone’s early 20th century Manhattan streets, with all of their bustling liveliness, have clearly been crafted by one who has a fondness for the era, or at least an exceptional knowledge of it. The art direction by Carlo Simi (also known for great work on numerous Spaghetti Westerns) contributes to an authentic recreation down to the smallest facet. By the end of the film, one truly feels as if having been through something and having experienced a world. Sure, a lot of this has to do with the film’s length, allowing for ample time to take it all in, but more than that, it’s this level of detail and the subsequent absorption into the milieu.

Where Once Upon a Time in America stands apart from nearly every other gangster film is in its strongly emotional conveyance of regret, of missed opportunities, opportunities lost, and of a somber reflection. And this isn’t only noticeable at the film’s conclusion. Throughout the entire picture, the characters appear to live as if they can see their own demise right before their eyes. “You can always tell the winners at the starting gate,” says Noodles, adding, “and the losers.” They seem to be aware that there is likely no permanence to what they’re doing, that their end, probably tragic, is in some ways inevitable.

Once Upon a Time in America is not a perfect film. No question it has more than enough greatness, but the “big reveal” conclusion in particular has never been totally satisfying. The reasons for Noodles’ return, the intricate revenge plot behind it, and the incorporation of political intrigue feel like they belong in another film. Nevertheless, the film was a true passion project for the 55-year-old Sergio Leone. (He supposedly turned down a chance to direct The Godfather in order to work on this picture.) Tragically, though, he would pass away a mere six years later. While it is undeniably sad to see such a great director die so early, and to think of what else he could have accomplished, as final films go, this is about as good as it gets.


‘Ali: Fear Eats the Soul’

Ali 3

The tragically brief filmmaking career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder consists of great quantities, varying qualities, and an insatiable artistic vigor. With more than 40 completed works in less than 20 years, Fassbinder was a dynamo of creativity. He fluctuated in and out of any number of generic constructs, experimented with a variety of formal devices, and told an eclectic assortment of stories. With so many great films to his credit, it’s hard for any one movie to lay claim as his finest achievement. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, his second of four films released in 1974, is one that puts up a good fight though. At the very least, it certainly ranks among Fassbinder’s most purely charming and emotionally effectual.

“Happiness is not always fun” declares an opening title, and as Ali progresses from there, the path of this most unlikely of love stories is blemished by a xenophobia and bigotry that transcends decades, cultures, and countries. Emmi (Brigitte Mira, in her first and finest performance for Fassbinder) is an elderly cleaning woman who happens by an immigrant bar. She steps in to get out of the rain and casually orders a drink. The regulars decide to have some fun with this old lady. They tell Ali, one of the foreign laborers who frequent the establishment, to ask her to dance. Ali is played by El Hedi ben Salem, himself a Moroccan whose eight of nine acting credits were all in Fassbinder films and who, at the time, was also in a relationship with the filmmaker. Born in 1935, he would pass away just two years after Ali‘s release. By contrast, the veteran Mira was born in 1910. She lived until 2005.

Ali 5

Balled up, shrunken, and shunned, Emmi is as out of place in this bar as Ali will soon be in a conventional domestic setting. Asking her to dance is a simple gesture, even if it has roots in condescension, but it quickly turns into something more. As the two dance, the others mockingly survey the disparity of the duo. But then Ali goes back and sits with Emmi. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Then he pays for her drink. Then he walks her home. This definitely wasn’t supposed to happen.

In this opening sequence, Fassbinder shoots Emmi as a solitary figure or has Emmi and Ali together in one frame and the onlookers together in another. This basic pattern continues throughout the picture. Rare is the arrangement that has Emmi and Ali together with (that is, welcomed or embraced by) others. There is, then, an immediate visualization of the film’s “us versus them” theme of alienating conflict. Ali owes a great deal to the Douglas Sirk masterpiece All That Heaven Allows, but whereas age and class were the barriers in that 1955 classic, here there is age, class, race, nationality, probably religion; to say these two have the odds stacked against them would be quite the understatement.

A neighbor sees Emmi enter her apartment with Ali, and the accusatory condemnation in her circle promptly begins. Of the foreigner, one shocked neighbor proclaims to another that he’s “a black man.” “Real black?” eagerly—but not too eagerly—wonders the other. “Well, not that black, but pretty dark,” says the first.

Emmi reveals that her Nazi father hated foreigners and her husband was Polish. She knows what intolerance is like, but she sees past such prejudices. Rather, she recognizes the instant bond she and Ali tenderly share. They are modest, simple, and nonjudgmental. They are, in their own ways, alone, always working, and marred by sadness. Together they have something special though, something that is beyond the scope of what the gossiping, gawking, busybody neighbors can appreciate.


The neighbors aren’t the only ones to contend with. Emmi’s children don’t respond well to her declarations of love toward Ali either, and they respond even worse when they first meet the man himself. Daughter Krista (Irm Hermann, another of Fassbinder’s stock company) and her husband Eugen (Fassbinder) have their own domestic issues. But they can turn a blind eye to their relationship troubles by honing in on what they perceive to be their mother’s. Eugen especially has a deep-seeded hatred of foreign workers, so as far as he’s concerned, there’s one strike against Ali already. Emmi noted earlier that her family only really gets together for special occasions, but despite that implied familial distance, they are all suddenly now very troubled by this new development. The compressed disgust and hate that registers on the faces of Emmi’s children as the camera pans to each in close-up is one of Fassbinder’s most subtle and powerful touches in the film. The stunned silence is broken when son Bruno (Peter Gauhe) throws a tantrum and kicks through the television set (most certainly a reference to All That Heaven Allows).

No matter. Ali and Emmi are in love. There may be some naiveté on her part, or perhaps just innocent optimism, but she refuses to let the scorn get her down. One rainy day, the two marry at the local registry and they’re on their way as man and wife. First stop after the wedding: an Italian restaurant, where Hitler used to eat.

Ali 4
The reactions to the new couple grow increasingly ugly. The nasty and bitter coworkers and neighbors slam all immigrant works as uncivilized, barbaric, dumb, dirty, and money hungry (the women also don’t approve of policemen with long hair). When they’re not being so openly callous, they attempt understatement, telling Emmi euphemistically that there’s “dirt in the house.” Eventually, it gets to the point where they won’t even speak to her or sit next to her at lunch. Though El Hedi ben Salem is generally inexpressive (as he usually is, so it may not be the Ali character), Brigitte Mira has never been better, and she is especially good in these sequences. As she stares isolated in the frame, Fassbinder holds the camera on her weary face to maximum effect, giving us a chance to take in her dejected expressions of sadness, envy, and confusion.

Not everyone is so cruel, however. The landlord’s son, for example, sees nothing indecent about the relationship. But it’s too late. At an outdoor café where Ali and Emmi are almost comically deserted as strangers look on, she ironically professes her wish to be all alone with him, with no one around them. Then she breaks down. The recent treatment has gotten to her. She doesn’t like feeling ostracized.

Not long after this, everyone grows more cordial. But there’s a catch. It’s only the desire for personal gain that changes their tune. When it’s for their own benefit, they don’t have as much trouble with the newlyweds as they used to. The neighbors now like Ali’s muscles, and Emmi’s children no longer think their mother is a whore, especially not when they need something from her. Yet simultaneously, things starting falling apart at home. Emmi overcomes her disheartened state by joining in the gossip when there’s a new target and Ali, disenchanted with some of Emmi’s established ways, seeks the illicit company of a trampy bartender, going to her for couscous and “couscous.”

Ali 1

What’s Fassbinder saying with all this? Is the relationship indeed doomed to begin with, or is it just that it takes more work and sacrifice than either Emmi or Ali are willing to put forth? Ultimately, they reach a degree of understanding. They have tried to deny the societal influence that affects their lives, but by the film’s end, honestly sheds light on their hypocrisy. As in so much of Fasssbinder’s work, nobody here is wholly innocent or entirely wicked.

Todd Haynes, whose Far from Heaven (2002) is another take on All That Heaven Allows and, by extension, Ali, provides an introduction to the movie as one of the bonus features on the Criterion Collection release of the film. He gives a thorough background of Fassbinder’s politics, his career, and he discusses their shared influences and preferences. Among those preferences is an appreciation for light and color. Haynes’ decorative flair in his film is a more obvious mimicry of Sirk’s work, but Fassbinder too imbues Ali with an excellent use of color. It’s less overtly expressive than Haynes or Sirk (or even than in some of his own later films— Lola (1981) most notably), but it’s nonetheless a key part of Ali and a crucial nod to one of Fassbinder’s greatest heroes. As much as anything else, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is just that: a tribute to a style of filmmaking very much admired by this prolific and provocative German director. But because it is a Fassbinder film, Ali stands more than securely on its own merits, with its own ideology, its own unique form, and its own social intent.

Always inventive, never repetitive, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was among the world’s most fascinating filmmaking figures, responsible for several masterworks. Among them, Ali may be the best of the best.



Macbeth 1

Following the success of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, and prior to what is arguably still his greatest film, Chinatown (1974), Roman Polanski made three curious filmmaking choices. One was the international coproduction and rarely discussed What? (1972), one was the racing documentary Weekend of a Champion (1972), and the third, which actually came before these two, was Macbeth (1971). It is obviously not that a Shakespearean adaptation in itself is unusual, but rather that it so seemingly diverted from the films that were garnering the young Polanski his worldwide acclaim: taut thrillers like The Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965), Cul-De-Sac (1966), and Rosemary’s Baby. Yet in Macbeth, there are a number of characteristic Polanski touches — in story and style — harkening back to these previous works and in many ways pointing toward those to come.

Hugh Hefner and Friends 1970

Don’t be fooled by the Playboy Production/Hugh M. Hefner as executive producer credits, this is no Penthouse Caligula (1979). This is a somber, sorrowful, generally faithful, and visually satisfying version of one of Shakespeare’s most cinematic works. It’s probably unnecessary to recount the entire plot of such a well-known tale, but suffice it to say, working with some truly gifted collaborators (production designer Wilfred Shingleton and cinematographer Gil Taylor especially), Polanski does great justice to this story of blind ambition, brutal murder, and erratic madness. When Macbeth (Jon Finch) first has the seeds of a lofty reign planted in his mind by the three weird sisters, his transformation from innocent curiosity at their declaration to the resolute drive that preoccupies his soul is a slow but steady development. Exacerbated by the devious Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis), Macbeth begins to contemplate how to achieve the predicted role of King, who stands in his way, and who will obediently follow.

Macbeth 2

As Finch does an exceptional job conveying the brooding Macbeth, in all of his anguish and indecision, Annis is superb as his shockingly two-faced wife, who abandons her conniving ways, puts on her required mask of respectability, and reverts back again with frightening ease. Though Finch does a good deal to show Macbeth’s doubt, it soon becomes clear that there is indeed no doubt whatsoever. His path is clear; he is to give in to his “vaulting ambition,” he is to, as Lady Macbeth suggests, “look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under it.” The first step is to kill King Duncan (Nicholas Selby).

Once the deed is done, an unceasing snowball of violence begins to roll, as Macbeth grows anxious and paranoid and he and Lady Macbeth both begin to mentally unravel. While Lennox speaks of “strange screams of death” the unruly night of Duncan’s murder, nothing could prepare the region for the conspiratorial turmoil that follows. Macbeth aggressively does all he deems necessary to secure his position, wiping out any and all potential adversaries, not the least of which is friend and fellow general Banquo (Martin Shaw).

Even before he goes on the warpath to his own destruction, Macbeth is shown to be prone to visions, seeing the dagger that directs him to enact Duncan’s demise, but as he descends into grief-stricken and murderous madness, his visions intensify. Haunted by Banquo’s death, he falls victim to delirious dream states of surreal panic. And as his breakdown progresses, he becomes more and more insular and suspicious, seeking refuge within the confines of his castle. In these sequences, we see prominent elements from many of Polanski’s finest films. The depiction of one’s progressive mental instability, intensified by paranoia and a sense of claustrophobia, revealed in Macbeth’s delirium and accompany delusions, and in the restrictive setting. Macbeth’s isolated castle is itself perched high on narrow mountaintop and within that, Polanski stages the drama to be even more withdrawn and visually tightening.

Macbeth 4

In contrast to this, there is the beautifully melancholic exterior photography, its lushness and natural splendor a precursor to Polanski’s Tess (1979). The windswept English location, shot under the effect of perpetual dampness and cloud cover, is scenery that strongly reflects the foreboding tragedy that unfolds. What the setting lacks in bold vibrancy, it makes up for with rich texture and stunning and subtle natural light, both of which become markedly apparent in the newly released Criterion Collection Blu-ray. If the exteriors point toward Polanski’s own later work, inside the castle walls, the interior design is reminiscent of Roberto Rossellini’s historical pictures from the late 1960s and early ’70s. In films like The Rise of Louis XIV (1966) or Blaise Pascal (1972), Rossellini similarly depicted largely unglamorous time periods in a realistic fashion, with acute attention to detail. A key difference here though, is that Polanski imbues the stark reality of his recreation with more expressive camera placement, movement, and editing.

Macbeth 6

The brutality of Polanski’s Macbeth is commonly remarked upon, and while there are occasionally quite graphic moments, the bloodshed isn’t that extraordinary, certainly not by 2014 standards. And even if it were, bearing in mind the tragic events of Polanski’s personal life just two years prior, it should come as no surprise that violence weighed heavy on the filmmaker and undoubtedly was in need of an outlet. This much of the film’s backstory is largely glossed over in the Criterion disc’s bonus features, which is perhaps for the better, as the Tate-LaBianca murders at the behest of Charles Manson are an unwieldy topic, one that can (and did) easily lead to distraction from Macbeth itself.

What is given considerable attention in these additions is a comprehensive account of the film’s tumultuous making (over budget, Polanski rumored for replacement) and its generally poor critical and commercial reception and meager release (the connotations of the Playboy name somewhat of a hindrance for “serious” filmgoers). There were, however, many positives, and that much of the production is discussed in a Dick Cavett interview with coscreenwriter Kenneth Tynan and in “Two Macbeths,” a 1972 TV episode with Polanski and theater director Peter Coe. The Polanski Meets Macbeth documentary contains some fascinating and revealing behind the scenes footage, including of the superbly realized movement of Birnam Wood. And Toil and Trouble: Making “Macbeth,” a documentary featuring interviews with Polanski, producer Andrew Braunsberg, assistant executive producer Victor Lownes, and Annis and Shaw, neatly covers the film’s gestation from beginning to end.

Though I’m by no means a Shakespeare film aficionado (or even a big fan), on the whole, Martin Shaw’s declaration in this latter documentary is reasonable. Given Macbeth’s visual accomplishments, the first-rate performances from all players, the excellent use of setting, and the overall production design, it very well may be the “best Shakespeare film that’s ever been made.”

‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’


Now a legendary horror film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as it seems to be called just as often (hereafter TCSM either way), was at the time of its release a most unusual feature. Why the movie still resonates today though, why it still has such a strong cult following, and why it remains one of the genre’s greatest entries, is for many of the same reasons it was so groundbreaking in 1974. The Vietnam-era angst has since dissipated (or has perhaps been replaced by a new sort of battle fatigue) and the notion of a post-Night of the Living Dead horror film renaissance has certainly gone by the wayside, but TCSM remains just as expressive and as masterfully effective it ever was.

The opening scroll touts a film that is both “mad and macabre,” and goes on to give the picture a (false) true story mythos, suggesting with a tone of journalistic actuality that on August 18, 1973 the events we are about to behold actually occurred (production on the film started July 15, 1973, so there’s that). As flashbulbs illuminate mangled and rotting corpses, a piercing grinding or sanding sound cuts through the muffled noises and the voices of disembodied men. These are more than just corpses strewn about. These physically mutilated bodies are situated in bizarre arrangements in a graveyard. Something very wrong has been happening in this remote Texas region. A sickly feeling of impending, ghastly dread is heightened by hues of saturated oranges, yellows, and red, a color-coding that will reappear throughout the film. Over the radio, we hear news accounts of other horrific events in the area. Death is in the air it seems.


The story that follows is admittedly slight, with little in the way of narrative exposition or elaborate characterization, neither of which prove to be especially necessary for this film that functions far more successfully in its emphasis on atmosphere and visuals. Such as they are, there are five main characters though: Kirk, Pam, Jerry, Sally, and her brother, the wheelchair bound Franklin, the only character with a memorable presence, for better or worse. In these roles are William Vail, Teri McMinn, Allen Danziger, Marilyn Burns, and Paul A. Partain, respectively.

“Things happen here about,” says a drunkard rather cryptically in the beginning of the picture, and while the group’s intention of visiting an old family home seems innocent enough, it soon becomes obvious that things will not go as planned. Along the way, they pick up a bloodied and scarred hitchhiker who laughs hysterically, notes that his family has “always been in meat,” carries snapshots of cow carcasses, and proceeds to cut his palm with a pocketknife. What could go wrong here?

So much of what is now a tried and true horror cliché is present to this point—the eccentric drifter, the group of teenagers, a cemetery, an isolated setting, etc.—but when the hitchhiker is removed from the van and proceeds to smear his blood on the side, the initial mild weirdness takes a sharp yet subtle turn to imminent danger.

The quintet arrives at their destination and begins to survey the area, including a visit to a nearby farmhouse with inhabitants who, we find, have a very peculiar sense of dysfunctional family values. Again, this begins the now common, though then comparatively novel, scenario of picking off one by one each of the young people, ultimately concluding with the “final girl,” arguably the first incarnation of this similarly modern generic device.


Early on in the van, there is mention of the zodiac and planetary alignments suggesting some sort of otherworldly evil, but such a foreign stimulation for the terror that transpires is not to be. The evil here is not from the beyond. The evil here is very human, very real. From the first time we see the famous Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), it becomes clear that TCSM is operating on a whole other plane that its horror predecessors. The picture eschews the typical, but by no means mandatory, malevolent back-story assigned to the villains. This wickedness is an inexplicable one. There is no solace in an explanation, no comfort in reasoning. Those who reside in this house of horrors operate on an unknown and perhaps unknowable wavelength. They simply are who they are and director Tobe Hooper appears to be not the least bit concerned with establishing their motivations or their rationale. And the film is all the better for it.

There is surprisingly little bloodshed in the film, but there is certainly violence—painful and sudden violence—starting with the dynamic first kill, a brutally realistic and spastic takedown. In place of excessive gore, there is a palpable sensory experience. Stifling Texas heat and the concurrent dirt and grime that appear bonded to every individual and surface produce a texture of uncomfortable grit and roughness. Add to this the stated stench of the local slaughterhouses and the sweaty confinement of the van and you get a highly evocative sense of displeasure. TCSM utilizes abject features to amplify its unpleasantly potent picture of the horrific: spiders scurrying in the corner, peeling wallpaper, bones, hair, fur, teeth, and skulls. These naturally repellent or at least unsettling elements placed in these abhorrent sites set a truly horrific scene.


Related to this are the anatomical constructions that decorate the interior of the farmhouse. The gruesome set design created from these revolting props is an ornamentation built on the objectionable. While TCSM is a fictional film, part of its inspiration came from the ghastly exploits of Ed Gein (also a basis for Norman Bates in Psycho and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs). Here, his fleshy furniture and corporeal costuming are ever-present and act as a sort of primitive precursor to the body horror subgenre that would develop years later, the pinnacle of achievement to come in the works of David Cronenberg. TCSM is particularly focused on physical deformity and disability (see, for example, Franklin, his crippled condition conveying a weakness that will contrast against the power of Leatherface) and, on the other hand, the strength of the physical and mental will that allows for the gruesome bodily modifications and the generally repugnant living conditions of this most uncanny family.

For a film that otherwise looks down and dirty and clearly on the lower end of the budget spectrum ($83,532 according to an IMDB estimate – yielding a $30,859,000 gross), credit goes to Hooper and director of photography Daniel Pearl for keeping the film punctuated by unexpected bits of stylish skill. Odd and interesting angles and smooth, occasionally quite intricate camera maneuvers do a good deal to offset any apparent budgetary restrictions. Yet one of the reasons TCSM is so impressive is its generally unappealing look. This has nothing to do with poor cinematography (though cheap 16 mm stock no doubt contributed), but it is a feature common to a great many horror films from the period. Take any number of the cannibal films of the 1970s, the average Video Nasty, or the early Wes Craven features; these films look unpleasant, and they work extremely well because of it. There is no gloss, no sheen, no consistently crystal clear imagery. They are grainy, murky, and soiled. The settings are filthy and ugly. The people, or at least the bad people, are unattractive and peculiar. Forget their narrative content, these films look like horror films. One of the last really great movies to effectively capitalize on this visual distinction was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), which arguably falls more into the drama category anyway, already signaling a stylistic shift in the form. In any case, such an objectionable quality and association is relatively rare now, which is a shame, for as TCSM shows as well as any, it makes for a profoundly visceral viewing experience.


For those who agree with any of the above assessment and likewise find TCSM to be a strikingly impressive horror film, the newly released 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition 2 Blu-ray/2 DVD combo pack is a gold mine of fascinating featurettes, commentaries, and behind the scenes miscellanea. On the disc with the feature are no less than four distinct commentary tracks (two unique to this set), bringing in everyone from Tobe Hooper and a majority of the cast to production designer Robert Burns (perhaps the most unsung and integral contributor to the film) and editor J. Larry Carroll. The 72 minute The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth is probably the most informative special feature, but inclusions like a 2000 tour of the farmhouse-turned-restaurant with Hansen and an episode of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds will stoke the fan boy’s interest in the film’s contemporary state (I for one would gladly take a trip to Kingsland, Texas in order to dine at the Grand Central Café). Deleted scenes, outtakes, more interviews, even a blooper reel; the bonus disc sheds light on nearly every facet of this classic motion picture.