Dirty Work

Dirty Work (1998)

Dir. Bob Saget

Written by: Frank Sebastiano, Norm Macdonald, Fred Wolf

Starring: Norm Macdonald, Artie Lange, Traylor Howard, Christopher McDonald


Early on in this project while writing about Belly, I called it “probably the worst movie, objectively speaking,” that I had reviewed to that point in this project. If you go back and read the review, however, you’ll find that Belly is actually a film that I genuinely enjoy and watch often, and that in spite of some of its cinematic shortcomings, I found some interesting things throughout the film to write about. While Belly looks more like an auspicious debut that hinted at great promise never really fulfilled by its director, Hype Williams, Dirty Work could be viewed more as the hacky, sophomoric comedy that it really is. It is definitely the worst movie that I’ve written about for this project, displaying none of the artistic flair of some of the other “bad” movies that I’ve reviewed. However, Dirty Work will always have a place in my heart. It is truly one of my favorite movies, and I don’t even classify it as a guilty pleasure, because I enjoy it fully, without irony, and without shame. Dirty Work is a bad movie, but, to me, it’s endlessly quotable and rewatchable. In a way, it’s the perfect movie to close out the first year of this project on, because I’m fairly certain that I’ll be one of a very select few to have written a gushing, unabashedly positive review of this much-maligned, oft-forgotten, footnote of cinematic comedy.


Dirty Work tells the story of Mitch (Macdonald) and Sam (Lange), two underachievers who have been friends since childhood. Growing up, the pair are taught by Sam’s father, Pops (Jack Warden), to not take crap off of anybody. Taking that lesson to heart, as children they make it their mission to serve comeuppance to anyone who wrongs them, child and adult alike. However, when they grow up, they find themselves too often on the receiving end of the comeuppance. Mitch in particular has a difficult time fitting into society, losing 14 jobs and his girlfriend in a matter of three months. Down and out, Mitch asks to move in with Sam and Pops, and shortly thereafter, Pops suffers a severe heart attack. When the two friends are faced with raising $50,000 to secure Pops a heart transplant, they first try their hands at a series of odd jobs, but soon realize that the key to raising the money to save Pops is by returning to their roots as revenge artists. They open up a revenge-for-hire business and offer to do other people’s dirty work for them, all the while saving up money to save Pops. Along the way, Mitch meets a woman whom he falls in love with, Kathy (Traylor), and ends up running afoul of the town’s most powerful citizen, Travis Cole (McDonald). Cole tries to trick Mitch and Sam into helping him condemn a build that he owns, but they eventually turn the tables on Cole and end up getting the last laugh. In the end of the film, Pops gets his heart transplant, Mitch gets the girl, and Cole is railroaded out of town after being exposed for the fraud that he is.

Dirty Work was added to my collection in the summer of 2002. That year, I spent about two weeks cooped up inside the house recovering from a bout of mononucleosis. As such, my mother picked up a few inexpensive DVDs to keep me occupied while I was homebound. One of these bargain bin finds was Dirty Work, and I probably watched the film a half dozen times in those two weeks. I had already seen it in the movie theater with some friends when I was about 13 years old, but it didn’t really stick out to me at that time. I was a latchkey kid back then, and I would often come home from elementary and middle school and watch reruns of “Saturday Night Live” on cable while I waiting for my parents to get home from work. I had gotten introduced to Norm Macdonald’s wry, dry sense of humor through these afternoon television watching sessions, and, as a result, I was a member of the small demographic that was actually interested in Dirty Work when it was released. The movie didn’t make a huge impression on me, but I can remember enjoying it a good bit. I loved the callbacks that Norm did to his Weekend Update persona, pulling out a Dictaphone and recording “notes to self,” and my friends and I were all fans of Chris Farley’s performance as Jimmy, Mitch and Sam’s bar buddy who had his nose bitten off by a Saigon whore, but overall the movie didn’t really stick with me after that initial viewing. Since receiving it on DVD, however, Dirty Work has been a staple of my viewing schedule for the past 15+ years. I don’t know if its offbeat, mocking style of humor needed some time to grow on me, or if part of the joy of the movie lies in repetition, but the older I get and the more times I watch Dirty Work, the more I want to watch and enjoy it again and again.

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I think the common line of thought on Dirty Work, if the film is even thought of at all, is that it is a simple, sophomoric comedy, loosely and conveniently plotted, and filled with gross-out humor. On the surface, this is an absolutely accurate description of Dirty Work, but after nearly 100 viewings, I’ve come away with a much different reading of the film. Sure, Dirty Work is a “bad” movie, but I think that it is intentionally so. It’s a nudging, winking meta-film, poking fun at the cookie cutter studio comedies of the time, and standing as a prime example of anti-comedy, much like Saget’s and Macdonald’s other work. These are two master comedians, with a great understanding of and appreciation for the history of the medium, and the nature of humor, in general, and I simply find it hard to believe that they combined to create a movie that is crass for the sake of being crass. Though it features many alumni of the institution in cameo roles, Dirty Work is something of a send up of the morass that Saturday Night Live-inspired movies had become by the late 1990s. Similarly to an SNL film, the central conceit of a revenge-for-hire business feels like a sketch that has been pushed beyond its boundaries, but rather than relying on catch phrases or recurring oddball characters for a nostalgic sort of humor, Saget and Macdonald rely on escalating levels of absurdity, cringe-inducing anti-humor, and a defining performance from Macdonald, one of SNL’s most maligned cast members of the 90s. They combine these elements to create a chaotic comedic maelstrom that certainly isn’t for everyone, but which fully hits home with me.

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Of course I realize that a viewer’s enjoyment of Dirty Work is going to be directly related to their enjoyment of Norm MacDonald’s particular brand of wry, winking humor. MacDonald, something of a “comedian’s comedian” and certainly an acquired taste when it comes to mainstream comedians, is essentially playing a version of himself in the film, imbuing Mitch’s character with all of his trademark quirks and mannerisms, familiar from his stint behind the anchor desk at SNL’s Weekend Update. MacDonald does try to act in the film, although he’s best when he isn’t trying to force himself into a character and is instead allowing Mitch and the film, in general, to be a vehicle for his comedic stylings. To say that Norm MacDonald is a bad actor isn’t a hot take or a novel idea, but his brand of monotone non-acting is perfect in this film that he co-wrote for himself. The film’s humor largely stems from MacDonald’s deadpan line delivery, and his presence as a straight man in a very zany world. He also proves himself adept at physical comedy, not something that he was normally associated with, through a very funny running gag that sees Mitch being physically tossed through a series of windows. I can understand that MacDonald’s presence in the film on its own might serve as a stumbling block for the uninitiated, but I can’t picture another comedian or actor delivering some of the lines that he wrote, much less with a completely straight face. He anchors the film, not necessarily with a great performance, but with a certain comedic sensibility that is necessary for the rest of the film’s antics to revolve around.

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The rest of the stars orbiting MacDonald do so admirably. The film’s true supporting actors, Artie Lange as Sam and Traylor Howard as Kathy, don’t really stand out much, but Dirty Work is full of excellent cameos from some big name comedians. I mentioned him already, but Chris Farley’s role in Dirty Work is one of my favorite of his. He only has a few scenes, but he makes the most of them, and leaves a memorable impression in what would be the final film he worked on before his death. His character, Jimmy, is one note, a barfly who has sworn revenge on the Saigon whore who bit off his nose, but Farley brings his irrepressible physicality and charm to the role, playing against type as a somewhat villainous maniac. The scene, early in the film, where he confidently queues of the Rolling Stones classic, “Street Fighting Man,” on the bar jukebox before Mitch and Sam get in a brawl, only to push the wrong button and underscore the fight with Rupert Holmes’s “Pina Colada Song,” is one of my favorites in all of film comedy. Chevy Chase also shines as the degenerate gambler physician who offers to bump Pops’s transplant up on the list if Mitch and Sam can raise enough cash to help him pay off his bookies. Like Farley, Chase makes the most of his limited screen time, providing classic one-liners that feel improvised. His comedic timing is as excellent as always, and he has mastered the understated delivery that can drive a joke home before the audience even realizes it has been uttered. Don Rickles delivers some devastating insult comedy in a brief appearance that really served as my introduction to his brand of acerbic, vitriolic comedy. He debases Sam and Mitch, as well as the other employees at the movie theater where they are briefly employed, with such cutting quips. The scene leaves me laughing out loud no matter how many times I see it.

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I could be wrong. Dirty Work could be just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill bad movie. It certainly seems to be that way on first blush. Saget’s direction in the film would be most generously described as competent. The script is both outlandish and simplistic, often settling for lowest common denominator punchlines and toilet humor. The film’s lead actor turns in a performance that seems almost determinedly wooden. However, despite all that, I honestly feel that the film is a twisted work of comedic genius. I really think that it was a movie ahead of its time, engaging in the type of anti-comedy that would become popular a decade later, at least in underground comedy scenes. It isn’t the type of movie that could ever become a classic, even of the cult variety, but I have rarely found a person who I’ve showed the film to or reminisced about it with who doesn’t find something about it to enjoy. I don’t know if my lionizing of the film is a sort of justification, but I also don’t feel that my outright admiration for Dirty Work is something that needs to really be justified. I’ve rarely subscribed to perceived dichotomies between high and low culture, and I’ve been even more reluctant to cast my lot with existing cultural values when it comes to art. I believe that, increasingly so, great art can come from any number of sources, and that beauty is often in the eye of the beholder. Writing about 50 different movies from my own personal collection this year has reminded that there’s really no accounting for personal taste. People should like what they like, and watch what they want to watch. If a movie makes you happy or gives you some relief or distraction from life’s many problems, even for just a couple of hours, enjoy the hell out of it. Happy New Year.

Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry (1971)

Dir. Don Siegel

Written by: Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, and Dean Riesner

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Andy Robinson, Reni Santoni


Clint Eastwood was one of my cinematic heroes when I was growing up. I came of age watching his films and modeling my impressions of cinematic masculinity on his stoic, skillful, ruthless archetypal characters. Whether he was the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s famous trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns, or William Munny in Unforgiven, or Inspector Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry films, Eastwood stood out to me as an example of American cinematic machismo. Throughout his career, he embodied so many famous characters and character types that it was easy for me to pick an Eastwood film for every mood. Sometime in my early 20s, that started to change, as I became more aware of Eastwood’s personal politics, and as he began to age, publically, and ungracefully. Though Unforgiven will likely always have a spot in my personal top ten films of all time, Clint Eastwood and his films became an early lesson for me in learning to appreciate and separate an artist’s output from his or her personal politics or persona. While I found little common ground with Eastwood as his politics became publicly more and more reactionary and right wing, I still found myself appreciating of many of the films that he directed and starred in as works of art. However, I found other films of his to fall into a grey area, where their content seemed too influenced by Eastwood for me to feel totally comfortable enjoying them. Dirty Harry, unfortunately, falls somewhere in this category.

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My reservations about the film aside, Dirty Harry is considered one of the definitive action films of its time, and deservedly so. The film, which would be followed up by four sequels of varying quality, introduced the world to Inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood), a hard-boiled, no-rules San Francisco police detective who believes in bringing in his man at any cost. In Dirty Harry, Callahan is tasked with tracking down and apprehending Scorpio (Robinson), a serial killer who is threatening to murder one San Franciscan every day until the city obliges to pay him a ransom of $100,000. Callahan and his partner Chico (Santoni) track Scorpio across the city, nearly catching him several times, but the killer manages to elude apprehension over and over again. Scorpio teases the police department and mayor’s office with another threat, this time telling them that he’s buried a teenage girl alive and they have just a few hours to meet his demands before she suffocates. Callahan finally manages to track Scorpio to Kezar Stadium, where Scorpio hands out programs for the 49ers games, and confronts him on the football field. Harry shoots Scorpio, and tortures him by stepping on his wound until Scorpio gives up the location of the girl. However, when the police check the location, they find the girl already dead, and Scorpio is released from custody because Harry violated his civil rights. Scorpio continues his crime spree, hijacking a school bus and demanding a plane ticket out of California, but Harry is quick to cut him off. The two square off in an abandoned quarry, where Harry is quicker on the draw and manages to shoot Scorpio down. After killing Scorpio, Harry tosses his badge into a lake, unwilling to be a member of a police force upon which he cannot shoot first and ask questions later.

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I can assume, based on my editorials in that plot synopsis, that you can gather my attitude towards some of the more political or socio-political content in Dirty Harry. Dirty Harry is the story of a rogue cop who flaunts departmental procedures and scoffs in the face of citizens’ civil rights, ruling over a city with an iron fist and a .45 Magnum, daring criminals to test his authority. Of course, on the other hand, Dirty Harry is the story of a crazed serial murderer who would hold a major city hostage were it not for the endeavors of one cop, willing to make the sacrifices that others aren’t. Where your sympathies tend to fall when watching Dirty Harry is largely dependent on your existing worldview and political stance. I certainly don’t mean that anyone watching the film would necessarily be drawn to rooting for Scorpio, but that the extent to which a viewer can sympathize and root for Harry is largely dependent on their own views on authority. Clearly, the audience is intended to root for Harry Callahan, as he’s the hero of the action movie, but I personally find it really difficult to reconcile my anti-authoritarian stance with a film that asks me to root for a renegade cop. I hate cops. Always have, always will. I do understand the need for law enforcement in a society, but the brand of highly militarized law enforcement practiced currently in America is antithetical to my worldview of treating other with dignity and respecting their rights as human beings with agency. To me, Harry is just as much a psycho killer as Scorpio, and his refusal of the badge and the moniker of official power at the film’s end isn’t something to be celebrated, because Harry’s lust for power and violence doesn’t stem from his position as an authority figure, but from some deep-seeded defect inside of the character. Harry will continue his brand of vigilante justice (in no fewer than four sequels) whether he has the backing of the badge or not.

Dirty Harry is a particularly difficult film for me to watch in 2017 in light of the ongoing revelation of widespread and heinous abuses of power by police officers across America. Institutional and individual abuses of power on the part of law enforcement are certainly nothing new, but the existence of cell phone video technology and the prevalence of social media have shed a light on what I feel is the most important news story happening in America today. Every week, a new video surfaces of a cop somewhere gunning down a citizen, who is often unarmed, and almost always hasn’t committed a capital offense. Police in America have taken to playing judge, jury, and executioner in the street and on the beat, and too often the targets of their ire are young black men. Seeing Harry Callahan pointing a massive pistol in the face of a black man who is cowering on the ground, and teasing him with the famous catchphrase, “Do you feel lucky? Well do you, punk,” is simply too disturbing to me. The actions that Dirty Harry takes throughout the film and his casually bigoted attitude towards any nonwhite characters in the film are beyond the pale. While Siegel crafts an engaging and original action film around his rogue inspector, Harry Callahan simply isn’t a character that I can stomach spending any time with. His reckless, sadistic behaviors simply hit too close to home after seeing dozens of examples of modern day cops acting out their own vigilante fantasies on grainy cell phone video. As engaging and groundbreaking as the film might have been for its time, its current relevance really sours me on it.

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As I mentioned, there is an important lesson for me to learn in the films of Clint Eastwood, both those that feature him as an actor and the films that he has directed, about separating a work of art from its creator. In Dirty Harry, in particular, there’s a micro lesson that I can glean about admiring aspects of a work of art while being uncomfortable with or out of step with its overall message or presentation. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the many positive aspects that do exist throughout the film. One of the things that jumps to my mind immediately when I think of Dirty Harry is the film’s unique score, composed by Lalo Schiffrin. The soundtrack to the film is a psychedelic jazzscape, featuring unusually syncopated rhythms and atonal melodies. The acid jazz underscores the film’s many chase scenes and heightens the tension of the images, creating a natural sense of unease in the viewer through its use of dissonance. The film is also well shot, its rapid zooms and quick cuts became genre staples throughout the 1970s. Dirty Harry stands as a massively influential film, not just in its own time period, but into the present day. Unfortunately, its influence doesn’t seem totally limited to the cinema. In the film, we have examples of a rogue cop who wantonly acts out street justice, and of a psychotic killer who would, almost certainly, be one of today’s mass shooters who have utilized easy access to high-powered, military-style weapons to enact their terroristic fantasies, killing hundreds. I’m not suggesting that the current state of police/citizen relations is in any way impacted by a 45-year-old film, but that the culture of American hyper-masculinity that lionized a vigilante cop in Dirty Harry has evolved and mutated to such a degree that our society is beset with an epidemic of gun violence and of institutionalized, state-sanctioned murder of citizenry. Dirty Harry is a well-made action movie, but because of its inherent conservatism, it isn’t any fun. The film’s current relevance saps it of any of its levity for me, and it isn’t a film that I’ll likely be watching again.

The Dirty Dozen

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Dir. Robert Aldrich

Written by: Nunnally Johnson, Lukas Heller (from the novel by E.M. Nathanson)

Starring: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, John Cassevetes


I don’t really have a whole lot to say about The Dirty Dozen. It’s a classic war picture that’s been sitting on my shelf for probably the last 15 years. I have no idea what spurred me to pick this DVD up when I was a teen, but I remember watching and enjoying it a few times before it got shelved for good. It’s the kind of big studio blockbuster that was common during the 1960s, before a wave of more independently-minded, modernist filmmakers took American cinemas by storm. Although it feels a bit antiquated by today’s standards, The Dirty Dozen was a hit in its day, and it remains an influential film. Watching it for this post, I realized I had forgotten quite a bit about the beginning of the film, remembering only the climactic assault on the German chateau. On the whole, the film was a lot funnier and more entertaining than I had remembered, and it was a pretty pleasant rewatch.

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The film concerns itself with 12 convicts who are either sentenced to death or to lengthy prison terms who are selected by the Army to carry out an incredibly dangerous top secret mission behind enemy lines. In exchange for their completion of this mission, which is to infiltrate a German officers’ chateau in France and kill as many Nazis as possible, disrupting the chain of command in preparation for the D-Day invasion, the convicts will have their sentences commuted, records erased, and will be reinstated into the Army at their former ranks. The man charged with training this ragtag group of murderers and thieves is Major John Reisman (Marvin), a career military man who has grown disenchanted with the institutions that he has come to represent. The film’s first two thirds consist primarily of training montages which help to introduce the audience to the members of the Dirty Dozen and to their unique personalities. Notable here are Privates Victor Franko (Cassavetes), Archer Maggot (Telly Savalas), R.T. Jefferson (Jim Brown), and Joseph Wladislaw (Charles Bronson), all of whom are sentenced to death, and all of whom represent the scope of personality types embodied by the Dirty Dozen. Their training complete, the Dirty Dozen set off for France and their mission. The assault on the chateau is a success, and though only one member of the team survives the mission, the rest are remembered as heroes who lost their lives in the line of duty.

I love movies in which a team is assembled to perform a mission or job. These types of “professional” films, such as The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, or Ocean’s 11 often combine genres and feature broad casts of disparate actors who each bring a different focus to their role. In this respect, The Dirty Dozen doesn’t disappoint, with almost every member of the team providing a memorable moment or signature line. Cassavetes and Savalas shine as the anti-authoritarian and unpredictable members of the team, with Savalas’s Maggot nearly compromising the mission when he snaps and begins shooting everything in sight after breaking into the chateau. Bronson’s Wladislaw is the strong, silent member of the team, and is the only one to be confirmed to have escaped alive after the mission. Jim Brown puts a face to the plight of Black soldiers in the military with his performance as the oft-disrespected Jefferson. His death scene after bombing the German officers’ basement bunker, ensuring the success of the mission, is a memorable one, and a moment that brings to mind his punishing running style as one of the original stars of the NFL. Even the lesser members of the Dirty Dozen, such as Donald Sutherland’s Private Vernon Pinkley, are given their moments to shine. Pinkley’s impersonation of a General inspecting the troops of a rival Colonel is one of the film’s signature moments of comic relief. The film’s chief strength comes from balancing these various performances and making sure that each character gets his signature moment.

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Of course, even the most balanced ensemble film needs a lead, and Lee Marvin is clearly the star of The Dirty Dozen, although it nearly wasn’t so. John Wayne was the original choice to play Major Reisman, and I’m glad that he backed out of the film over concerns with the character’s morality, because I don’t think that he would have been able to convey some of the nuance that Marvin does in the film. Marvin’s performance in this film would catapult him into a higher echelon of stardom, although it would also continue his career down the path of playing similar roles. His Major Reisman is a tough, no-nonsense leader, but he is also shown to have a sensitive side through his obvious devotion to his team of castoffs. Marvin, who served in the military during World War II, along with many members of the cast, exudes authority and calm command. He cuts the sort of figure that demands respect and he’s an instantly recognizable presence in any film. A hard boiled legend, Marvin’s career was largely built on his rigid physical presence and booming voice, and he utilizes both here to great effect. Pigeonholing Marvin as a character actor, however, would be doing his career a great disservice, and in The Dirty Dozen he subtly displays the chops that earned him an Oscar just two years prior. He’s equally as effective in the scenes in which he has to display the bluster befitting of a military officer as in the quieter scenes in which he attempts to connect with the members of his team. Clearly, Reisman sees these men as misunderstood characters who have been failed by the institutions of the military and who can still be of service to the rest of the team and to their country, and Marvin expresses this care through the unusually gentle way that he guides them through their training, molding them into a capable unit. Marvin’s performance provides a grounding counterbalance to the more expressive performances from the members of the Dirty Dozen, and a stable center around which the rest of the cast can orbit.

In addition to having a strong and diverse cast, The Dirty Dozen also features some pretty shocking content and potentially progressive politics for a film of the time. Although the film’s violence seems very tame by today’s standards, it was uproarious at the time of its release. It certainly wasn’t the first film that asked its audience to sympathize with violent criminals, but The Dirty Dozen does little to normalize their criminal behavior, or to offer much redemption for the worst of its characters. The frank vileness of Savalas’s Maggot must have been a shock to audiences in the late 1960s, with the characters unrepentant racism, crudeness, and violence (both physical and sexual in nature), on full display. Maggot is a bad apple, and remains such until the end, having to be shot by Jefferson when he snaps and nearly botches the whole mission. A psychologist would likely label Maggot some sort of nihilist, and his nihilism is largely evident throughout the film. The Dirty Dozen is a film that sets itself and its characters against every institution that might stand in their way. Though it’s a war picture, I think that the film is clearly anti-military in its politics, showing the larger institutions of the military and the government to be cruel, outdated, and farcical. This is a film that, through its championing of Major Reisman and the Dirty Dozen, favors the individual over the institution. The Dirty Dozen are honor-bound to fight for one another, but there’s little indication that they feel the need to serve a larger master. This anti-authoritarian stance must have been exceedingly rare at the time, particularly in a mainstream war film.

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Through several decades-later sequels, including a short-lived television show, The Dirty Dozen has become a brand, representative of a style of late-1960s era filmmaking. It certainly isn’t the first film in which a ragtag group of misfits is assembled and turned into an elite team, but it has become one of the most recognizable and influential. I’ve been guilty myself of shortchanging the film, of assuming its generic faithfulness and its paint by numbers premise. The performances from the film’s ensemble cast are worth the price of admission, but diving a little deeper into the curiousness of the film’s politics and its attitude towards military customs and institutions reveals a film that is worth more than just a cursory glance or a nostalgic revisit. The Dirty Dozen isn’t my favorite film by any means, but watching it again revealed a depth that I hadn’t previously ascribed to it. One of the best experiences in working on this project has been the times that a film that I had perhaps undervalued takes me by surprise. It doesn’t happen too often, although my reactions to all but my very favorite and most familiar films in my collection are frequently altered by the time spent away from them and the ways that I’ve changed as a person in that interim, but when I’m truly able to see a film I thought I knew in a different light I’m reminded why I set out on this lengthy project in the first place.

The Devil’s Backbone

The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

Dir. Guillermo del Toro

Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, David Muñoz

Starring: Fernando Tielve, Federico Luppi, Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Iñigo Garcés


I spent a long, long time thinking about The Devil’s Backbone after the first time I saw it when I was in college. That was probably 2006, shortly after director Guillermo del Toro had really broken through to the mainstream with the release of the acclaimed fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth. I was taken with that picture, and its fantastical, allegorical approach to presenting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, and I was eager to seek out other work from del Toro. I had already seen Hellboy (although I didn’t realize until years later that it had been directed by del Toro), but The Devil’s Backbone was the first Spanish language film of his that I discovered. I was instantly taken by this sad ghost story, and instantly recognized it as a companion film to the later Pan’s Labyrinth. The film takes a similar approach to exploring the Spanish Civil War, utilizing elements of fantasy and horror to allegorically depict the horrors of life under the threat of Fascism for both children and adults, alike. The film’s beautiful images and sorrowful story stuck with me for years, until I finally decided to purchase it in 2013 during a half price Criterion Collection sale at Barnes & Noble. It isn’t a film that I watch often, but it’s one that I’m very glad to have decided to add to my collection.

Set in the dying days of the Spanish Civil War, with Franco’s forces on the verge of defeating the left-wing Republican forces, The Devil’s Backbone begins with young Carlos (Tielve), a war orphan, being delivered to a secluded orphanage run by Carmen (Paredes) and Dr. Casares (Luppi), who are sympathetic to the Republican cause. Carmen and Casares are hiding a cache of gold, which they are using to help fund the Republican war effort, and, as such, they have gained the attention of the Fascist forces, with the orphanage becoming a target for bombings. An undetonated bomb stands upright in the middle of the orphanage’s courtyard, a stark reminder of the everyday reality of war within which these children are coming of age. Upon his arrival at the orphanage, Carlos is bullied, particularly by Jaime (Garcés), and he is told rumors by the other children of a ghost that haunts the orphanage, whom they call “the one who sighs.” When Carlos proves his bravery by venturing out of the communal sleeping quarters at night, he gains the acceptance of the other boys, but he also witnesses firsthand the existence of the ghost, and the attempts of the orphanage’s groundskeeper, Jacinta (Noriega), to break into a safe and steal the gold cache. Carlos, Jaime, and the other boys realize that the threat to their home is not from the ghost or from the war raging outside their doors, but from the ruthless Jacinta who will stop at nothing to steal the gold, even if it means destroying the orphanage and killing the wards who live there.

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Del Toro has publically professed to The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth being his favorites among the films that he has directed. Although I haven’t seen all of his output, I would have to agree. Both films are rich visually and symbolically, weaving thoughtful allegories that feature excellent performances from young actors and established stars alike. While Pan’s Labyrinth may get more attention, as it truly served as del Toro’s breakout, and is widely regarded as one of the best films of the early 21st century, I think I may prefer its sparser, more haunting predecessor. There is just something about the austere, remote setting of the miserable orphanage and its wards, both living and dead, that stays with me for days and weeks after seeing the film. The film sets its tone immediately. It’s both claustrophobic, as much of the action takes place within the walls of the orphanage, and liberatingly imaginative, as the fantasies of the young boys who live within are allowed to play out in the face of their dire surroundings. The Devil’s Backbone walks this balance between darkness and light throughout, leaving its audience to try to piece together which of the characters are good and which are evil. Initial assumptions about character motivations are often undermined by new information presented later in the film, and several characters are not what they seem. By the film’s final act, when the horrors of violence and death finally invade the orphanage fully in the personage of Jacinta, clear lines are drawn between good and evil, and the true nature of all of the characters is revealed. In a powerful final scene, del Toro presents a symbolically dense critique of evil, in the forms of greed, lust for power, and cruelty, that doubles as a critique on the savagery of war and the brutality of Fascism. Just as in Pan’s Labyrinth, in The Devil’s Backbone it is the human characters who are revealed to be the true monsters, and the human impulses to kill and destroy that are the true evil unleashed on the world.

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The Devil’s Backbone is a ghost story, and it’s certainly a horror film, but it is rarely scary. Instead, the film is deeply unsettling and haunting. Del Toro resists the urge to present his ghost, Santi, as a menacing figure, even when he is first introduced. Santi is an orphan who disappeared the night that the bomb fell at the orphanage, and who the adults in the film believe simply ran off, frightened by the bomb. The children all seem to believe that Santi is “the one who sighs,” and though they are frightened of the ghost, he is almost never presented as a true threat. Santi can be seen from the earliest scenes in the film, sadly haunting corners of the frame, watching his former friends at play. He does stalk Carlos, who may be the only boy to actually see the ghost, but he’s hoping to make a connection and reveal the truth of his death. Santi is presented throughout the film as a pitiable figure, in need of help from the film’s living characters to truly be at rest, but there is another ghost that is present within The Devil’s Backbone that is more insidious.

The film’s opening voiceover, spoken by Dr. Casares references ghosts: “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps? Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time, like a blurred photograph, like an insect trapped in amber.” This quote can be applied to all of the film’s ghosts, including Santi who is condemned to haunt the place of his death, reliving his tragedy and having his trauma frozen in time forever like an insect in amber. But I think that the quote most directly applies to a ghost that exists in the film only textually. The traumatic history of the Spanish Civil War is a ghost that is haunting The Devil’s Backbone, a film which sees del Toro resorting to fantasy to explore and interpret a real historical event. In the film, del Toro is commenting on the Spanish Civil War explicitly, but he is indicting all wars. He depicts the traumatic experience of life during wartime as a ghost which haunts the wards of the orphanage. One young boy has gained the nickname Owl (Javier González Sánchez) because he has become so traumatized he never speaks, only staring with his wide, haunted eyes. The undetonated bomb in the courtyard serves as a ghostly reminder of the war raging outside, but del Toro’s symbolic representations of war throughout the film are more powerful. War is the tragedy that society has doomed itself to repeat time and again. It’s an instant of pain, compounded one million times, and spread throughout the world like a vapor. Those affected by its ravages become ghosts themselves, set adrift in the world, their lifelike appearances belying the death they carry with them.

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Political subtext aside, The Devil’s Backbone is a masterful film in all respects. It’s visually stunning, with a vibrant color palette of reds and oranges. The camerawork is subtly complex, with complicated but unassuming tracking shots giving the impression that the camera is following behind and spying on its subjects, always ready to duck behind the nearest corner. I love it when a film manages to mesh form and content so seamlessly. The film’s narrative progresses at a perfect pace, allowing scenes to breathe just before ratcheting up the tension, and the script is complex and twisty without being cliché. Though The Devil’s Backbone does turn on a significant plot twist in its final act, the reveal feels earned. Like the best twists, this one leave the viewer wanting to go back and rewatch, looking for clues, and repeat viewers will certainly be rewarded, as the film is deep with foreshadowing and callbacks. The film’s ending, while not elliptical, is just open enough that a crack of mystery remains. It’s a wonderful puzzle of a film, and it begs to be watched closely and intimately.


The film’s performances are all top notch, which is commendable with so much of the cast being comprised of young, inexperienced actors. Tielve delivers a soulful performance as the young Carlos. His wide eyes speak volumes to the sensitivity that he has to the world around him, but they also mask the determination that he brings to the role in the later scenes in which Carlos has to act decisively to save his friends. Garcés plays Jaime as a typical bully early in the film, pushing Carlos around and trying to maintain a façade of toughness, but by the film’s end he softens his performance to reveal the true Jaime as a frightened young boy burdened with carrying an unspeakable secret. The film’s adult actors all match the caliber of their young costars. Paredes plays Carmen as a steely, determined matriarch. She is the backbone behind Luppi’s softer, gentler patriarch, Casares. The two form a parental binary to the children, both nurturing and disciplinarian, but behind closed doors they enact private passions and acute anxieties. Their characters forge an unsteady partnership throughout the film, but their dedication to the cause of Republicanism and to their charges is unwavering. The two veteran actors imbue their characters with life through gestures and slight expressions, never needing to overact. Across the board, the actors employ a simplistic, naturalistic approach to their roles, and the realism that it brings to a work of fantasy is grounding and makes the film that much more significant.

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The more I’ve thought about The Devil’s Backbone over the past few days, the more I’ve come to admire about the film. It’s one that always manages to penetrate and stick with me for a while after a viewing. It’s powerful to see a film that can deftly wrap a political statement inside such a sensitive and truly effective dramatic narrative, and del Toro manages that easily with this film. He uses the film’s sad narrative to evoke emotions as disparate as joy, dread, and empathy, while encouraging his audience to read the film on a cerebral level, as well. It’s a beautiful film brought to life by spirited performances from its cast. The film’s visual storytelling and subtle allusions make for a richly rewarding and deep cinematic experience. If I were to rank the 50 or so films that I’ve written about thus far for this project, The Devil’s Backbone would almost certainly have a place within the top 10. It’s a film that many might overlook in favor of del Toro’s later, more celebrated films, but it is a classic in its own right, and not to be missed.


Desperado (1995)

Dir. Robert Rodriguez

Written by: Robert Rodriguez

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Selma Hayek


Desperado was one of my favorite action movies when I was a teen, and it, along with other early Robert Rodriguez films, became highly influential on my early ambitions of becoming a filmmaker. I was a certified Tarantino freak in high school, and his filmography and circle of influence became a major jumping off point for me in discovering other favorite films. It was a short jump from Tarantino to his friend and frequent collaborator Robert Rodriguez, and Desperado was my entry into the latter’s low budget, sun baked brand of cinema. I immediately recognized the meta-cool of Tarantino’s postmodern style, but while Desperado indulged some of the same impulses of Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown, its influences were decidedly grittier. While Tarantino’s films sought to recontextualize and elevate their B-movie influences to the status of “high art,” Rodriguez’s reveled in the “low art” status of their cult and midnight movie predecessors. Rodriguez has proudly walked to the beat of his own drum throughout his career, learning the trade of filmmaking on the job, and constantly evolving as an artist. At this point, he has become a brand, the progenitor of a grindhouse resurgence that has only gained steam as new media has made it easier for aspiring filmmakers to create movies on a shoestring budget and get them released to wide audiences through alternative distribution channels like streaming or VOD, but Rodriguez’s early films represent a different type of guerilla filmmaking. In the 1990s, with films like Desperado, Rodriguez was one of a handful of filmmakers raising the flag for interesting, high production value, low budget, DIY filmmaking.

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Desperado begins with a road weary, possibly deranged traveler (Steve Buscemi) stumbling into a bar in Mexico and relating the tale of a tall, shadowy figure that he saw murder a bar full of gangsters a few towns over. His story piques the interest of the bartender (Cheech Marin) and his associate (Carlos Gomez), as they obviously know the principals in the traveler’s story. It turns out that that shadowy figure is known as “El Mariachi” (Banderas), and he’s strapped with a guitar case full of guns, on a quest for vengeance against Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), the drug lord who murdered his wife. Desperado is a straight forward revenge tale, with El Mariachi stalking Mexican towns, hunting down members of Bucho’s gang as he tries to get closer to the man himself. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Carolina (Hayek), a book store owner who happens to be Bucho’s lover. When Bucho finds out about El Mariachi and Carolina’s affair, he sends his men to hunt down the pair, but they fight off their pursuers and eventually confront Bucho himself at his compound. After dispatching of Bucho, El Mariachi is free to ride off into the sunset with Carolina, although he hangs onto his guitar case full of guns, “just in case.”


What the film might lack in narrative complexity, it more than makes up for in fast-paced, explosive action. Rodriguez is obviously channeling the influence of the Hong Kong action films of John Woo in Desperado, but the film doesn’t feel derivative. Instead, it becomes a celebratory homage to those action landmarks, and a testament to Rodriguez’s ability to create polished, kinetic action sequences on a shoestring budget. His book, Rebel Without A Crew, details the process that Rodriguez went through to make his debut film, El Mariachi (which Desperado is a sequel to). It can serve as a primer for young filmmakers looking to chase their own movie dreams, and it was a huge influence on me in my late teens. Though the budget for Desperado was significantly larger, it was still scant by Hollywood standards, and Rodriguez still holds true to the rules of economic action filmmaking detailed in his book. His later films would see him working with bigger budgets, full FX teams, and cutting edge CGI technology, but the essence of Rodriguez’s style is perfectly on display here.


The stunt work in Desperado is impeccable, with Banderas doing all of his own stunts and performing some excellent fight choreography. He combines slapstick elements with traditional fight choreography and firearms work to create an ultraviolent, combustible ballet. Bullets rain down throughout the movie and countless scores of anonymous bad guys are dispatched of. This is action at its most impersonal and most impressive: mindless, excessive, and explosive. Rodriguez, a self-proclaimed guerrilla filmmaker, squeezes every bit of value out of his film’s $7 million budget. His mastery of practical effects and ingenuity as a filmmaker allow him to turn in a film that looks every bit as polished and has just as many high action set pieces as a big budget studio film. Although the industry and movie making technology have changed significantly in the 20+ years since Desperado was released, aspiring filmmakers who want a crash course in delivering high quality films on a budget should still look to Rodriguez’s early films and his book for tips. He’s by no means the only filmmaker capable of producing films of this quality on tight deadlines and budgets, but action films are so often the result of bloated FX budgets, lengthy shooting schedules, and complicated stunt work, and they still rarely leave the lasting impact that Desperado has, which is a testament to Rodriguez’s unique skillset.

As I mentioned, for all of its visual sheen, Desperado still finds Rodriguez struggling to flesh out his narratives. The script for Desperado is bare bones, interested only in the most direct motivations for its characters, and certainly not interested in significant psychological examination or character development. I don’t know that Rodriguez has ever really learned to write a “good” script, but I also don’t think that he often makes the type of films that are so significantly character driven that this is a bad thing. He plays to his strengths in Desperado and doesn’t let extraneous character background or plot devices get in the way of the fight scenes and explosions. There are attempts in the film to provide some depth for El Mariachi’s character, such as his relationship with a young boy who is growing up watching the cartel violence in his town, or his romantic relationship with Carolina, but these are largely underdeveloped. Narrative simplicity in a film like Desperado is fine. Character motivations in films like this one are concrete and don’t need a significant amount of discussion. However, one interesting thing about Rodriguez’s approach to storytelling in Desperado is his penchant for weaving the story together through narrated flashbacks. The film opens with one such instance of this technique, with the traveler telling the story of his encounter with El Mariachi interspersed with flashbacks of the mysterious gunman shooting up the bar. Though this isn’t a unique narrative device, Rodriguez employs it skillfully enough in Desperado that it helps to break up the linear progression of the film and makes for an interesting storytelling wrinkle.

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Though the script might not be complex or narratively innovative, it does feature several great individual moments and opportunities for characters to deliver memorable monologues in one-off scenes, particularly earlier in the film before the action really ramps up. Banderas is great as El Mariachi, which, for me, is his signature role. He plays the character with a combination of winking cool and ruthless, violent determination. There’s an elegance to the choreography that Rodriguez has designed, with Banderas performing his stunts like a dancer, performing a duet with the camera to graceful, devastating effect. Hayek has little dialogue in the film, but she proves equally capable of performing action stunts, and Rodriguez gives her enough agency in the film that she doesn’t sink to the role of eye candy, which would have been a typical choice in a Hollywood action film. Almeida is a hate-worthy villain as Bucho. His performance isn’t over the top, as he chooses to play Bucho as largely disinterested in anything going on around him. His defining characteristics are cruelty, greed, and apathy, and they’re manifested in Almeida’s nose-in-air performance and his utter disdain for the rest of his costars. In many ways, though, the film’s supporting cast are given the best moments in the film and provide the most memorable performances, aside from Banderas’s. Desperado features cameos from familiar faces such as Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin, Quentin Tarantino, and Danny Trejo, and though most of these actors are only given a scene or two, they bring their established (or burgeoning) personae to their scenes, and individually nail them. I’ve already mentioned Buscemi’s opening scene, which sets the stage for the destruction to come, but Marin’s cynical, corrupt bartender is classic Cheech, particularly in his brief interaction with an entitled tourist. Tarantino gets a brief moment to ham it up with a memorable telling of a genuinely funny joke, while Trejo, in one of his first mainstream film appearances, makes the most of his silent performance by utilizing his imposing physicality in a role as a bounty hunter tracking El Mariachi. Top to bottom, the cast shines in a genre that often doesn’t ask much of its actors.

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It’s probably pretty obvious that my zeal for Desperado has not lessened any with age. It isn’t a film that I watch with any regularity anymore, but it’s one that I can get caught up in just as easily today as I did when I first saw it. Most modern action movies have become so formulaic and so obviously FX driven that I rarely seek them out. Desperado still feels like a breath of fresh air. It has its obvious influences, and it is clearly existing within a fairly rigid genre template, but Rodriguez’s sensibilities and his unique storytelling voice keep the film from ever feeling derivative. The film’s set pieces still hold up even with 20 years of technological innovation, and its central performance from Banderas as El Mariachi is an action archetype. I feel like Desperado doesn’t get as much consideration now, because Rodriguez’s career has moved away from making straight action movies and more into a direction of making B-movies and children’s sci-fi, but it’s a genre classic. In the 1990s, Desperado was a weekend cable TV staple, and it is still as fun of an experience to sit down and mindlessly consume as it was then.