by Adam Riske and Patrick Bromley
Adam: Welcome back to Summer ‘92 Redux, our revisit of the Summer 1992 movie season. This week we’re discussing two movies: Brian De Palma’s psychological thriller Raising Cain, starring John Lithgow, Lolita Davidovich, and Steven Bauer, and the film that eventually won the Best Picture Oscar for 1992, Unforgiven, directed, produced, and starring Clint Eastwood and co-starring Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris.
Patrick: These two make an interesting double bill, because you have two icons of the ‘70s and ‘80s trying to get their mojo back after a string of disappointments. Clint Eastwood was coming off the buddy cop action movie The Rookie and Brian De Palma had just made The Bonfire of the Vanities, still considered one of the biggest fiascos in Hollywood history. They both got back to doing what they do best: for Eastwood, it was a return to the western genre that had made him such a big star, and for De Palma it was a return to the kind of thriller with which he had made a name in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. One of them was much, much more successful than the other.
Adam: Am I crazy for not hating The Bonfire of the Vanities? I’ve never read the book, which I’m sure would change my opinion. Anyways, you raise an interesting comparison with Eastwood and De Palma. Unforgiven has the benefit of being the last western Eastwood has made to date (I remember it being marketed/discussed as a culmination of sorts), so people considered it as both a comment on his previous work and a final chapter to it as well. Plus, it’s a really damn good movie, probably my favorite of his directorial work. Raising Cain, I think was seen as a director doing more of the same (fair or unfair as that may be) and not breaking new ground, though I’d argue it’s a director who knows what he’s doing so much in this space that he’s at his most playful. I like both movies. This was my second viewing of Raising Cain (the first one was just last October during Scary Movie Month) and on this viewing the comedy really came to the forefront. This is a profoundly silly movie, but one that is made with a lot of gusto by De Palma (who over-directs in a way I love like a single, several minute tracking shot following a psychologist and two detectives having a conversation through a building) and a bananas multi-character performance by John Lithgow, who seems like he’s having a blast. Raising Cain improved for me on the second viewing once I put aside that it’s about style and size and concern about the story is secondary.
Are these two movies favorites of yours in terms of their director’s filmographies?
Raising Cain, on the other hand, is not one of my favorite De Palma movies. I like it, but mostly as a Brian De Palma superfan. I feel like it’s only for his advanced studies students, like Snake Eyes and The Black Dahlia. I’m glad you mention the humor of it all, because I tend to find a lot of De Palma movies very funny even if they’re not overtly comic. (Ironically, the few times he has made out and out comedies -- like Wise Guys or The Bonfire of the Vanities [which, I agree, is not as bad as its reputation] -- they haven’t really worked for me.) Raising Cain is overwrought and histrionic to the point of comedy. It’s not my favorite script of his and has the unfortunate distinction of equating someone suffering from DID with villainy (the way he does with a trans character in Dressed to Kill), but he directs the shit out of it and John Lithgow is going all the way over the top. He’s such a ham. Plus, I like seeing De Palma using some of his “company,” like Steven Bauer and Gregg Henry. I feel like De Palma was one of the first guys to recognize the awesomeness of Gregg Henry. But it’s such a weird movie to put out in the summer, right? Did Universal really see this as a commercial hit? Am I forgetting some period in which Lithgow was pure box office? Or is it just that a wider variety of movies used to come out in the summer, and the landscape has changed so much over the last 20 years that it’s now become unfathomable for anything but a tentpole blockbuster to be released between May and August?
Adam: Summer 1992 is the strangest summer. I don’t remember Lithgow being a box office draw at the time either, although he was having a mainstream movie villain run with Raising Cain, Ricochet, and Cliffhanger all around this time. Would you prefer to go back to the Summer 1992 landscape over what we’ve been getting in the Summer Movie Season during the past 10 years that are largely tentpole-centric? I sort of appreciate the fact that ANYTHING could have come out. For example, in the next few weeks I’m watching two animated movies called Freddie as F.R.O.7. (about a frog detective?) and Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.
Dances with Wolves), so those two movies being as good as they are really helped me embrace the genre. It never felt out of fashion to me. It’s kind of amazing Unforgiven resonated with me at such a young age (it’s a very adult movie in theme and pacing), but I grew up in a household where Clint Eastwood movies were a staple. I too didn’t have the context of Clint Eastwood’s career on that initial viewing. It was just a kickass movie. I also thought Jaimz Woolvett was primed to become a giant mega-star. I was incorrect. This most recent viewing was interesting because a movie I already thought was great ended up playing better than it ever has. The things that stood out to me were the subtle and sad score by Lennie Niehaus, which is so great at setting the tone of the film, and Gene Hackman’s performance at Little Bill. I could watch an entire stage play of Little Bill having conversations with people in Big Whiskey. I like how the Richard Harris-Gene Hackman sequence sets up the threat of having any conversation with Little Bill, whether it’s with Saul Rubinek or Morgan Freeman later in the movie. Little Bill’s jovial nature makes his transition to violence even more unsettling. In a career of great performances, this might be one of Gene Hackman’s very best.
Unforgiven resonated even more for me on this watch because I was noticing certain things through a 2020 lens. The community of Big Whiskey is built on a power structure of men ruling the town. The prostitutes forming a union and putting out a bounty threatens the town’s power structure and then all the men are desperate to get back to the old norm. I also used to only view Hackman as the film’s villain but this time I was chilled by thinking of him as law enforcement. The movie doesn’t make scripted statements about race, but it can’t go unnoticed how cop Little Bill was brutalizing Ned during his interrogation and then later putting him on display to set an example.
Patrick: Gene Hackman definitely gives the performance of the film, and it’s a testament to his work and to the screenplay that he’s not all that different than he is in a lot of other movies. It modulates his usual persona just a little bit here and there to make him a threat -- a man of violence among men of violence. That he would be the hero and Eastwood the villain in any other traditional western demonstrates just how brilliantly Unforgiven inverts the structure of the genre.
To answer your earlier question, I would much, much rather have a landscape that looks like Summer ‘92. We’ve covered all kinds of movies of all sizes, but I would argue we’ve covered more mid-range titles than big blockbusters, and I like the mix better than what we get these days. Unforgiven feels like one of the “bigger” movies of the summer, but I think that’s because of the iconography it carries along with it and not necessarily the budget or the scale. Warner Bros. was very smart to release the movie in the summer. They knew they had something special.
Adam: One thing I really appreciate about Warner Bros. is how director-friendly they are. Once they have their hooks in a Stanley Kubrick or Clint Eastwood or now to a lesser degree (ducks for thrown vegetables) Christopher Nolan, they seem to get out of their way and let them make whatever they want. I’m also a sucker for this timeframe of western where the Wild West way of life is on its decline and the outlaws and police officers that became legends are now forced to transition. I’ve always wanted to see a movie where someone like Wyatt Earp is working in Hollywood as a consultant. But Kevin Costner has to still be playing Wyatt Earp and the first director he undermines is played by Kevin Reynolds.
Patrick: Yeah, for better or (mostly) worse, I really like that Warner Bros. lets Clint Eastwood make a movie every year or two and stays the fuck out of his way. It’s resulted in some movies I really like (like A Perfect World) and some movies I will totally watch when they’re on (like Absolute Power). Unforgiven is best among them. And speaking of Kevin Costner and Wyatt Earp, I really like Wyatt Earp. It gets no love because of Tombstone.
Adam: Save it for the Earp cast? Also released this week in 1992 are two movies I had lots of fun watching last week: 3 Ninjas and Whispers in the Dark. I’ve seen 3 Ninjas many times over the years and it’s a level of ‘90s kid movie weird that I can definitely get behind. Once you hear “Rocky loves Emily,” you can never get it out of your head. The basketball scene is timeless. I like watching the original now knowing that Max Elliott Slade (who plays Colt) is the one who stuck around the series longest. He’s the glue to the whole damn thing -- the Brian O’Connor, if you will. Whispers in the Dark is almost like a non-aware parody of ‘90s sex thrillers while still being made in the prime years of that subgenre. It feels like a different movie every 10 minutes and some of the places it lands with its characters approaches Wish Upon proportions. I need more off-the-rails Alan Alda!
Patrick: I’ve only seen 3 Ninjas once, and it was during a Kung-Fu night we programmed at my house for Junesploitation. I didn’t grow up on it, so I can’t say it mean much to me, but I think the kids liked it? I’ve never seen Whispers in the Dark, but now I totally want to. My only memory of that movie is the giant vinyl poster for it that Doug once took from JB’s garage sale because he thought it was funny.
Adam: I have a lot of questions about this vinyl poster. What looks good to you for next week? Single White Female? Stay Tuned? Diggstown? Johnny Suede?
Patrick: What a week! August really rallies. I actually like all four of those movies, so I’ll let you pick.
Adam: I’m going to watch all four either way (the latter two will be first-time watches for me). Let’s revisit Single White Female since we’re both Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bridget Fonda fans! See you next time.