A Salutation in Retrospect to the best dramatic actor’s scene in Hollywood Movie History And To the two who made it so.
The film TRUE ROMANCE opens with the idyllic romantic dream of every Rock n Roller since Elvis, Jerry Lee and Little Richard promised it. Our grit cloaked urban-dwellers, Arquette (Alabama) and Slater (Clarence,) offer us an erotic kissing sequence nearing petit mort. By the keystrokes of his dirty urban ingeniousness Tarantino and via Tony Scott’s smoky, soul catching direction we are engaged in everyone’s romantic mythical moment. Even when the romance is revealed to have been a dollar driven concocted “call girl” tryst the forever-hopeful heart rebounds and meets its match in a true romance.
Or as Alabama says, “there is a God” for every lonely heart out there.
It is a Tarantino take on Hollywood’s mandatory boy gets girl “happy ending.” But that and the perfect casting and acting of Jackson (et al in alphabetical order,) are not the “it” of this movie and in a fundamental way, are beside the point of what I believe to be the finest acting scene in Hollywood movie making history. The chaotic Tarantino mix of vulgarities, sweating with sex in the hyper violent scene between Drexel, the Wigger, as masterfully produced by Oldman, and the obsessed rescuer Clarence seems almost to be a crescendo curtain attention getter as introduction to the pinnacle scene. But I don’t think so.
I believe it to be an odd back story to the scene that will require our complete attention. No further distractions. It is almost that Tarantino had a moment of tender violence in the script, or that is how Scott managed to interpret it. Or, it is simply in the making, an epiphany for the director and actors no matter what Tarantino intended.
And what is in the making is the scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken.
I want to say that from the moment of his entrance we see a different Dennis Hopper than we are accustomed to. Hopper’s sing along with Burl Ives’ Little Bitty Tear Got Me Down as he leaves his work-a-day job, closing the plant gate, urging his pet Rottweiler into his used vehicle, sets a tone for his role as working class Joe the survivor. That he is a retired cop does not alter that station: despite expected pension for all cops, he is still punching the clock. Mostly notably absent are his patent, seemingly herky jerky, frenetic Hopperisms. Hopper (Mr. Worley,) immediately introduces the only calmness in the film until the end. That this odd calmness may came as a result of his being sober – or abstinent of alcohol is a clue to those of us attuned to what that can mean.
I say I want to hesitate because I’ve seen this cinematic scene and its movie too many times; talked of the work of Hopper and Walken together so much that the scene majestically stands apart from the roiling rush that is the films motor, that it is such an exquisite experience that I may be imbuing Hopper’s entry on the film stage with a premature note of applause rather than simply noting it as the first of the gift he provides us.
And then he fondly smiles as his dog Rommel goes romping, chasing after a passing canine which is metaphor for the rest of Alabama and Clarence’s helter skelter movie leaving us with the perfect cine-dramatic denouement of everything that comes before he opens the door to his trailer, faces a 9mm pistol and is socked into a fade out and a Cut To --- Mr. Worley seated in his trailer still dressed in winter coat, forehead lit perfectly by Jeffrey L. Kimball ’s lighting, captured and readied for what we are now to be bestowed by Scott’s direction.
There is at first a pensive acceptance on Hopper’s bleeding face for what he knows must come as he looks at a Walken who exudes the occupational elitism of the counselor to his boos, Blue Lou Boyle. Walken’s character, (Vincent) Vincenzo Coccotti, or Vincenzo as his underling calls him, is a hood raised above his Sicilian forbearer’s peasant station. A criminal who has thwarted the likes of the cop Hopper once was.
Set opposite Hopper’s blue garbed working security guard’s uniform is fashioned the élan of Walken’s scarf and overcoat, finely tailored Italian dark cut suit, demure silk tie and pocketed silk kerchief. Garbed so we hesitate a moment before accepting that it was this elegantly fashioned being that threw the punch that knocked Hopper back out of his trailer door and rendered him captive in the which in which he waits for what he knows that will be imposed upon him.
Contrasted to Mr. Worley’s posed nonchalance of ignorance of the information that Walken wants --- has come in a death mission to obtain, is an iconic Walken characterization. The somber lighting and photo direction set the mood and the acting space of never more than three steps and a sit-down in which Walken presents to Hopper the only chance he has. He tells him that they are going to have a little Q and A and in a gesture of civility, he offers Worley a “chesterfield.” Worley calmly, pointedly says no. He will not engage in civility when barbarity is at hand. And sure enough civility is gone. In a single statement Walken tells Hopper that he may take “comfort in the fact that you never had’ a choice,” but to give up the whereabouts of Alabama and his son.
And in supreme gesture equal to Brando’s Godfather’s casual but defining use of hands at his face --- surpassing Pacino’s shifty, transformative use of body language – legs’ moving from casual no engagement to that of a new Godfather’s authoritative assumption of the Don’s throne --- Walken offers Hopper a salutary moment of empathy: Clasping his hands together in front of him, as a good son raised Catholic would do, speaking of the “whore” Alabama and Hopper’s son’s flight with the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of his – his boss’s drugs - he implores, father to father in a most sincere way, that Hopper “not go down that that road with them.” Walken is the Dark Prince, “the anti-Christ,” he states. Never for a moment is he anyone but. The range of the artisan’s facial expression, in a sharpened conscious use of those exquisite facial features and in the use of them in capturing the lighting as any great actor does, delivers a calm, deliberate tone, coupled with a sardonic power wielder’s arrogance that matches that of Hopper’s first “Hail Mary” response.
“Look I’d like to help you but I ain’t... I haven’t seen Clarence.” It’s a losing gambit and it gets one of Walken’s finest moves. Scott captures it perfectly: the left fist shown, the dropping shoulder and the bone crushing hook to the nose that Walken then shares the consequences of with Hopper in describing the smashed cartilage blow that numbs the brain. Still a gentleman he offers Hopper his kerchief and Hopper takes it allowing that as bad as the shooting pain to the brain “smarts,” but Vincenzo offers, that is “as good as its gonna get. And it ain’t gonna get that good again.” It only gets worse: When Hopper admits seeing his son and tells Vincenzo that he’s gone on his honeymoon we see the viper that is Vincenzo’s soul. We see it in his almond shaped eyes, in the flair of his nostrils, in the hiss that signals his controlled rage, in the almost inner dialogue that comes out when he sotto voices that he gets angry having to ask the same question “a second time.” The shiny, dark purple of the material might seem to signal what ought to be the beginning of the end of Hopper’s resistance. But Hopper is now resigned and fully accepts his entry into this dance of death. He has now nothing to lose whether or not he remembers that Clarence’s LA address is stuck to the refrigerator door. He has his dignity – and a serious disrespect for the pretense for Vincenzo. Nonetheless, Worley will try one more play. Hopper now weighs in with a sincere appeal for Vincenzo to “now you just wait a minute and listen to me...” and out comes his last diversionary spiel.
“They never told me and I never thought to ask,” he finishes bold faced.
Vincenzo gives nodding acknowledgement of Mr. Worley’s line of bullshit. You know he is patronizing the obviousness of Mr. Worley’s lie. He expects it. He too, we must remember has a son, about Clarence’s age ... any father would try...you understand! He is in fact, bemused by this. But his tolerance is a setup for the lesson in “tells” that Vincenzo will share with Worley.
As Worley finishes with “so help me God” to his lack of his son’s whereabouts, Vincenzo gives him the same, “what are you telling me?” bend at the hips look then nods over Worley’s shoulder.
There has loomed, from the moment Worley sat, like the Mafia’s psychopathic version of The Hulk, the figure of Gandolfino, who parenthetically as Tony Soprano would become HBO’s Godfather. I would guess that reward is due in large part because of his performance in this and a later truly theatrically perfect scene of Tarantino-violence with Arquette in the film. He looms with his now famous smirk. At the nod he acts. Grabbing Hopper’s right hand he yanks it back, well-honed knife in hand, slices through Worley’s palm skin and muscles. This is one step “worse” than the shot to the nose.
Vincenzo then offers a lecture in telling liars, of which the Sicilian is the best in the world. His father was the grand champion of Sicilian liars. From him he learns that “men, have seventeen pantomimes, women, twenty.” They are the way you can tell when someone is lying. He tells Worley that he knows that Worley knows where they are. He gives him an out: “tell me where they are before I do some damage that you won’t walk away from.” In no pantomime of calm we have reached that moment when everything changes. It changes when Worley now ready, calmly asks for that Chesterfield as would a prisoner tied at the stake awaiting the firing squad. Vincenzo pauses a moment. A splendid moment in which he decides to offer, (perhaps, a gratuitous grace one last time), giving Worley the Chesterfield. But it is a setup and this time its Hopper doing the preparations.
But we must pause here. I must pause us. We are at the pivotally defining acting in this grand scene. With a perfect use of emotional surrender communicated by a subtle transformation of facial expression – followed by an accepting request for that “Chesterfield” Now surely Worley is that prisoner at the stake before the firing squad with one last request. He is about to unmercifully destroy the Don’s artifice of elite pretension.
We pause because civilized consideration requires that we vet the cutting insults of words he uses. Not since Richard Pryor’s onstage denunciation of the wholesale denigrating that is the foundation of “nigger” has it been OK to use it in open society. The contemporary possessive, oft familial embrace of “my nigger” in word and intent by people of African heritage does in no way purge that word from his haunting image best found in the South’s “strange fruit.” Nor ought we to sanction it herein if it were used in any other way than as intended in the scene.
I believe that the film makers were being true to Worley’s New York Irish working class, cultural upbringing and character and Worley’s intent to cut this Dark Prince (no pun) to his quick, and utterly destroy that which Sicilians hate most: to be reminded not of their legendary, ruthless, corrupt, criminally mafia inspired violence, but of the faux nature of the European-Caucasian racial elitism they claim heir to, coming to find that they are progeny of the African-Mediterranean gene pool.
That qualified, Worley delivers a finely paced, gallows -humored, flaying, (again no pun), ancestral lesson to the now totally caught unawares Prince.
Don Vincenzo Coccotti, bemused looking, smiling in an act of feigning camaraderie with his “gumbas,” his, we suppose, hireling Sicilian henchmen, is more artifice. We ought not to be surprised by this faux, jocular act. But can be distracted – as he most certainly is at first by the audacity of the smiling, point making, soft jabs of Worley’s finger cigarette holding motions as he accompanies his beautiful character destruction of the Prince.
For we must know from the glimpse we have had earlier into the rage pit that lies at the base of this Mafioso’s frontal lobes – as surely as does Worley – that while his raptor-like insult-flaying will last in the Prince’s mind forever – and, in that of the Prince’s underlings – that this dance of death has but one ending.
Finished with redefining the barbarian Worley settles into the chair with his only possible victory and prepares to accept the murderer murdering him. Knowing now that he has aroused the Don to vent his rage quickly: He communicates a sense of solace in that the now enraged Don will not torture him but deliver the denouement quick and to the brain.
Walken’s “kiss of death” is the false humorous “I love this guy” final turn in the tango.
“I haven’t killed anyone since 1984” he says as he blasts Worley straight into the forehead. Death is mercifully immediate. But we must know that the Don cannot kill the truth of the insult even as he fires five gratuitous bullets into the departed Worley.
Of course I could be wrong. I have been before. But I fear not in reiterating that this is the finest, dramatic piece before a camera by two of our finest actors.
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