From his imdb credits it looks like Simon Langton made one feature film for theatrical release – 1987’s The Whistle Blower with Michael Caine and James Fox. That’s a shame. The Whistle Blower is a high-concept political thriller that’s at once classically made and beautifully subtle. It’s also a showcase for Michael Caine (isn’t every film he’s in?) – the man truly has some range.
As far as political conspiracies go, this one runs deep. Caine plays Frank Jones, father of Robert Jones (Nigel Havers), an investigative journalist looking into a rash of suicides that may be related to UK-Russia antagonism and/or UK-US allegiances. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Fox, droll face and all, playing simply “Lord.”
The Whistle Blower manages to be jingoist and nationalistically wary at the same time. It’s a good combination of serving one’s country while biting the hand that feeds (and steals from) you.
Caine’s Frank is a textbook example of how to play grief. He doesn’t over or underplay. Red-eyed, Caine makes every action heavy and delayed. The amount of preoccupation in his eyes and actions is stunning and should be classroom material for any aspiring dramatist.
Langton proves quite adept at blocking, and this is where the “classical” comes in. Consider a scene where Frank has a kitchen conversation with his son’s lover, Cynthia (Felicity Dean).
We start in a wide 2-shot. Cynthia is in the foreground and Frank in the background. It’s a balanced frame, with both taking up ostensibly the same amount of space:
Cut to a medium-shot of Cynthia listening:
Back to a medium-shot of Frank. He walks forward and the camera dollies back with him:
The camera lands in a new over-the-shoulder shot:
Cut to Cynthia as the phone rings:
The camera pans and tilts to her, as she opens to camera (partially faces us):
And finally the camera dollies in for a punctuation to the scene:
This is a grand total of four shots, but more importantly, Langton plays with the distance between Frank and Cynthia as their ideas and claims converge and diverge. When Frank walks towards her (shots 4 above), the camera frames him low, looking up at him menacingly, but lands in a fairly neutral position (shot 5), where, though Frank stands up Cynthia (and yes, his position is meant to be stronger here), the cold menace of the just-previous shot is replaced with the solicitous conspiracy of shot 5. It’s quick tonal shifts that are achieved through the blocking. Because Cynthia occupies the lower part of the frame in shot 5, the angle doesn’t feel as low as in shot 4, thereby eliminating the inflected angle.
This scene is followed immediately by a scene with the phone caller in question in his car. That the camera dollies in on the final shot above (and on the mention of his name) calls importance to the subsequent sequence.
As Bill Pickett (Kenneth Colley) drives Langton uses a clever bit of sound design to predict a dangerous ending to the scene.
The scene starts innocently enough, with a shot behind Bill and then a medium close-up on him. It’s still all rather foreboding, as the truck in shot 1 below is center-frame.
But it’s this cut, and the aural accompaniment, that really shifts the mood. By cutting outside of the car, and to the truck in the foreground, and, more importantly, by drastically and suddenly altering the sound perspective from the monotonous hum of the highway to a roaring truck that seems too close to the mic, Langton pulls us out of our highway daze and prepares us for something violent.
General Idi Amin
Barbet Schroder, who I know best for his Maitresse, Barfly and Single White Female, made one of the most indelible documentaries in 1974’s General Idi Amin. A fly-on-the-wall portrait of the Uganda dictator, Schroeder’s film is both absurd and scary. Amin is gregarious, even funny. He’s fat, loud, and pleasant. He spouts about crocodiles and shows off his power in a pathetic looking army training exercise.
Yet throughout – and more so with the advantage of historical context – is an eerie undertone that something just isn’t quite right. Whether it be a length diatribe at a political meaning where Amin imposes his will redundantly, or Schroeder’s camera catching a glimpse of a body bag in the first act, this is a look at a malicious character whose presented exterior is quite the clandestine facade.
What’s most troubling about General Idi Amin is the lack of violence. While certainly not an attempt to make him sympathetic, the film rarely goes out of its way to demonize Amin, instead preferring to let him talk his way through the (semi) narrative. Indeed, nearly every poster and publicity still has Amin smiling amicably.
As Temple professor Chris Cagle indicated when he spoke after the film at a Cinematheque screening, there are several cuts that exist. After seeing the initial edit, Amin took a hostage, demanding that the film be recut to his standards before release. It was only years later that Schroeder’s true cut – his wacky critique – would see the light of day. The control over the edit was presupposed by control over shooting matter, where Amin clearly staged events to his liking for the “benefit” of the cameras.