Daily Archives: March 31, 2010

Shutter Island (US 2010)

The opening of Shutter Island – an allusion to Taxi Driver?

I’m surprised that Shutter Island has done so well at the box office. There were only a handful of people in my local 400 seat cinema for a teatime showing – but it’s already taken $200 million globally. Perhaps I’m under-estimating the general cinema audience? I was prepared for something that might be problematic when I read a couple of blogs that suggested that you need to see the film at least twice before it is possible to write sensibly about it. I think that is probably correct – so I’m just going to make some general comments and hope that others join in and enlighten me for future viewings. I’m not sure I want to see the film again just yet.

If you don’t already know the set-up, it’s 1954 and Federal Marshal Leonardo Dicaprio is charged with investigating the disappearance of a female inmate from the secure unit for the criminally insane on isolated Shutter Island.

In a way, the ‘meta film’, the discourse around it, seems to be similar in structure to the film itself in that it’s hard to distinguish real analysis from all the games critics and commentators are playing in discussing what does or does not happen. On the one hand, the movie buffs are all playing spot the reference and on the other the fans of popular cinema are divided as to whether the film is brilliant or tosh. One critical decision is straightforward. It’s a beautifully mounted film, with terrific design, lighting, camerawork and editing and a bevy of talented players under the control of Hollywood’s current most skilled practitioner. It’s gripping for 2 and a quarter hours and it leaves you with lots of questions.

I’d like to play the references game first. I ‘felt’ rather than observed Sam Fuller and Michael Powell. I’ve since seen a review which refers to a Fuller-Powell-Ray mash-up (on the Auteurs blog). Yes, could be, but the Ray which came to my mind (and I have no real idea why) was On Dangerous Ground – possibly because I was thinking about how much Robert Ryan would have added to the film. Scorsese is reported as mentioning Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) and Dr Caligari. There is also a line of dialogue that points directly to Frankenheimer’s Manchurian Candidate. And, of course, the film is awash with Hitchcock, especially Spellbound and Vertigo. It really is a pleasure just to admire the beauty of the sets and the settings – the interior of the lighthouse, the cigarette still smouldering on the cliff-top edge. In the image below, we see Ruffalo and DiCaprio on the ship in the first sequence. I’m not sure that I’ve got the right image, but there is a strong sense here that we are being offered one of Hitchcock’s back projection scenes which in films like Marnie are weird because they aren’t necessary with modern production techniques. It’s almost as if Marty was inviting us into his dream about 1940s/50s cinema.

Is this 'real' or a contrived 1950s back projection shot?

But it’s also Hitchcock that sets me wondering about the weakness of the film and that’s my problem with Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s not that he’s a bad actor and in fact he performs very well. It’s more that he just isn’t a Hitchcockian leading man. He’s not suave enough to be Cary Grant, liberal enough to be Henry Fonda or bewildered enough to be James Stewart. He’s not handsome enough and/or not mean enough. The other possibility is to be less ‘starry’ and more bland (which can also become mean). I’m thinking here of Ralph Meeker as Mickey Spillane in Kiss Me Deadly or any of Fuller’s leading men.

Fuller’s Shock Corridor:

Robert Ryan in Crossfire:

. . . and On Dangerous Ground:

Ralph Meeker in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly:

Vertigo and Spellbound (with a bit more Dali):

Stairs, slats, light, shadows – trapped above the pit (see Kiss Me Deadly and Vertigo).

John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate – the Korean brain-washing sequence:

Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past – the sublime Robert Mitchum:

and finally Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman:

So, all you have to do is to imbibe these wonderful scenes and then watch Shutter’s Island, blocking out DiCaprio and imagining Robert Ryan or Ralph Meeker instead.

If all Marty has done is to remind us of the power of cinema in its true nightmare period, he’s done something.

I need to see the film again before I can tackle the music.

Production notes and hi-res stills