The Falcon and the Snowman is the only post-Marathon Man film I know by John Schlesinger (though I think I’ll watch The Innocent soon), and it’s not one of his best (I suppose that would be The Day of the Locust). The troubled friends, turned-CIA-agent-opposite-drug-dealer narrative has potential but never really hits the tense notes it seems like it’s meant to. Alongside an early performance from Sean Penn – somewhere between Bad Boys and At Close Range – the film features Steve Zaillian’s screenwriting debut five years before Awakenings, and a long time before he’d really hit it big in the early-mid 90s.
Penn is really great here as Daulton Lee, the drug-addled friend of CIA informant Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton), but he and David Suchet as Alex, his Soviet “handler,” are the only ones who really shine. Hutton has less interesting material to work with, and is sometimes good, but he never quite sinks his teeth into it. He often feels like he’s posturing.
Some of the problems are with the script. Boyce’s falconry hobby is heavy-handed, particularly in a “prey” metaphor used late in the film. Similarly, the opening of the film, which shows Boyce leaving the seminary and a potential life in the priesthood, doesn’t really track – perhaps it’s meant to justify his quick moral compass when he discovers that the CIA is in to some shady stuff, but all of it just feels like a rush job. In fact, Boyce’s entire character arc is wrought with problems, another one of which is his quick shift to paranoia, meant to mirror Daulton’s paranoia (mostly drug-induced) throughout, but which has no feel for pacing or segue.
The Falcon and the Snowman feels very much like the adaptation it is: the characters are stripped thin, and what may well have been a rich bit of development in the falconry, drug dealing, and an odd friendship, feels instead like cheap symbolism.
I mentioned a lack of tension above, and that’s something else that really undoes the film. There’s no real suspense as Boyce and Daulton start to leak secrets to the Soviet embassy in Mexico. There’s hardly a moment of danger until the third act, and by then it’s too late to firmly establish any tension between Boyce and Daulton (that which is attempted is far too little, far too late), or play up anything between Alex and Boyce, which is essentially non-existent.
Aside from Penn’s performance, the best part of The Falcon is probably the humor and other side characters. Here’s Boyce’s first day as a member of the government, meeting his colleague Gene (Dorian Harewood). I like the set design of the office, filled with plants and Playboys. The coverage is pretty standard, starting in the wide, and then moving into shot-reverse-
-and then cutting back to the wide as Boyce approaches (the camera tilts up with him), and then back to Gene as Boyce moves into frame:
Nothing fancy here, but I also like the emphasis on the difference in costuming. Gene is laid back, maybe even stylish, while Boyce – the college kid as Gene calls him – is drab and business, like his dad, a former FBI man.
Here is Daulton’s first meeting with Alex. Their interactions are great, largely because Daulton is such a wreck of a character and Alex never takes him seriously. This part is really funny as Daulton, playing the novice spy, offers a handshake concealing a document. Alex then just opens the document in plain sight:
Again, I dig the set and costume design here – all browns and tans – very opposite the brighter CIA office, but with some colors crossing over. Schlesinger finishes the interaction with a small dolly in to a tighter 2-shot:
It’s a nice little button to end the scene, particularly since Daulton has trouble looking Alex in the eye, but Alex stares him down the entire time.
Two more moments that I liked: Schlesinger dollies along a map of the Soviet Union on the wall, finding a view through to a smoke-filled office as Alex talks to an unseen higher-up:
It’s all very spy-heavy, but still tongue in cheek – moving from the gaudy, colorful map, to an image that is almost too Graham Greene to be true.
Alex and Daulton continue their conversation in Alex’s office, and finally Alex, ever trying to find a buck, makes his money pitch. Schlesinger shoots it as seen below, framing Daulton between images of Lenin and another Soviet that I’m ashamed not to know:
I love representations of embassies in films – they’re always covered in iconography. Putting Daulton between the two as though he too is (or will be) a figurehead of some kind of revolution is, of course, a joke because he’s a joke.