Saturday, September 05, 2009

Pointless List : Knife Fights

The greatest fictional knife fight I have encountered is in the third volume of Cormac McCarthy's "Border Trilogy"; Cities of the Plain. Here the young hero goes to face the pimp of the young prostitute he has fallen in love with. McCarthy knows how to write violence so that we feel every stroke of the blades and hear the spatter of every drop of blood, and yet the long, thrilling scene is also lyrical and poetically beautiful. It ends badly for both men. Andrew Domink wrote a screenplay for an adaptation of McCarthy's book but could not get finance and made The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford instead. And much as i adore that film, it is regrettably devoid of any knife fights. I know Dominik would have done a fantastic job with the knife fight scene. The razor blade and ear scene in Chopper tells me so.
Some other notable knife-fights:

Tommy Lee Jones vs Benicio Deltoro
William Freidkin's Hunted is basically about knife-fighting. Many scenes depict men using knives to hurt other men, or men showing men how to use knives to hurt other men. It makes sense then that it should climax in an epic knife fight between the two alpha males at the centre of the film's story. Atop a waterfall. With knives they have constructed themselves, that very morning. More or less a remake of First Blood, Hunted depicts Jones' character in pursuit of Deltoro's mentally unstable rogue Special Forces Soldier through the Pacific Northwest. Flashbacks reveal that Jones was his instructor, teaching him, amongst other things, knife-fighting. How to kill a man with a few simple strokes. We see that Deltoro has learned well from the way he disposes of some hunters at the start of the film. Friedkin fetishizes the knives in the film. We see them cut through the air, sleek and black and deadly, we see them beaten into shape for the final combat. It is almost suggested that they are the only honorable weapon - so personal and intimate, so messy. These men are natural warriors, at home in the wilderness, and knives are their weapons of choice.
For the climax, Jones makes a knife from stone, like some caveman, while DelToro gets all ironmonger and forges one from steel. They have a tense, visceral fight on top of a waterfall, the mist rising around them. It involves a lot of feinting and blocking, and hammering gripped knives toward each others chests with free hands. Theres a lot of brutal wounds and blood. One of them wins. It feels like what knife-fighting probably would look like if trained men were doing it, and is horrific. The influence of the Bourne films is obvious here. The first two Bourne films both feature scenes where the hero fights a man armed with a knife, in which he must improvise his own weapon - a pen and a magazine, as it happens. Each scene is shot and edited for maximum visceral impact - the blows amplified and exaggerated, the flesh wounds made fleshier, more wounding. Hunted copies this attention to the grimly undeniable physical reality of this kind of violence, and it benefits from that approach.

2. Kill Bill Vol 1
Uma Thurman vs Vivica A. Fox
This is just the opposite. An utterly movie knife fight, this finds two beautiful women waving blades at one another and smashing through walls and furniture for a few minutes. The cinematography is lovely, and the best part is the sound design - the zipping noise the knives make as they cut the air is beautiful, the kind of noise a child makes to simulate a knife against air, and pushes the scene in so much more of a sensual diection, without the grisly realism of Hunted. The wounds sustained are movie knife wounds - long, deep, bloody nicks, which do no real perceptible damage, just make people grimace in pain and slash open clothing in a dramatic but visually appealing fashion. Tarantino, regarded as one of the poets of cinematic violence since his debut with Reservoir Dogs, abandoned any semblance of realism entirely with the Kill Bill films. They exist in a universe more outlandishly cartoonish than the rest of his films, and the violence is accordingly amped up and archly hyper-real. Here, the domestic setting suggests authenticity, but the lighting, the colour scheme and the action create a pleasing tension through their knowingly lush, artificial beauty.

3. The Long Riders
David Carradine vs James Remar
A western knifefight, just as it should be. In a saloon, over a whore. Walter Hill's Western is intent on depicting each of the Western's many rituals as a way of portraying community and placing his outlaws firmly within it, and so we have a hold-up, a dance, a courting, and a knife-fight. These men each take one end of a sash in their mouths, maintaining an equal distance between them at all times, the way the ancient Greeks used to box, bound together so that there was never any recourse to flight. Their blades are enormous - footlong implements like mini-swords. And yet the actual combat is like a ballet, all arcs and slashes and supple twists and pivots on toes. Carradine's long coat flows around him like a cape and he displays all the grace of the martial artist he was, whereas Remar's brute athleticism is emphasised by Hill's choice of shots. Hill, ever the excellent action director, makes it hit hard.

4. From Here To Eternity
Burt Lancaster vs Ernest Borgnine
This one never really gets off the ground. Stockade-Guard Bully Borgnine has an encounter with cocky Italian Frank Sinatra in a Forces Bar in Honolulu before Pearl Harbor. He is itching for a fight with the skinny little shrimp, only he is rudely interrupted by Sergeant Burt Lancaster, brooding due to his troubled romantic life (think Deborah Kerr and a wave). Borgnine pulls a flick-knife when faced with the obviously formidable hulk of Lancaster. Burt grins that cold grin, and we can see in that moment that on this particular night, he is happy for this opportunity to hurt someone. He picks up a bottle off the bar and casually smashes it, then beckons Borgnine forward. Borgnine thinks better of it. We can see the fight, how it would have gone, however. How Lancaster would have carved up the fat man and how brutal it would have been. Altough director Fred Zinnemann never evinced the greatest eye for action, we almost regret not having actually seen it, especially when Borgnine meets Sinatra again, this time in the Stockade.

5. West Side Story
George Chakiris vs Russ Tamblyn
AKA "The Rumble". Shot by director Robert Wise like a musical sequence, this is a dance, the two men dramatically circling and moving toward one another as the crowd surges and retreats around them. The colours are hallucinatory - the infernal red lighting beneath the bridge in the background matching the red on Chakiris' sweater - and it almost seems to be a single take, with the camera set back for a mid-shot of that massive soundstage. Despite this, the violence of it is shocking. This is an opera, after all, every emotion heightened, so that the first death here - so hammy and camp in the way its played and presented - is also incredibly effecting. "Maaariaaaaa!!!!"

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Blogger Ross said...

You love hunted almost as much as you love Malick and Mann.

Men who make manly films and a film about manly penetration...just saying.

You keep making me want to watch Hunted every time you mention it, but somehow never enough to actually part with cash - let me know if it's ever particularly cheap.
Was it made after the first Bourne? I thought it was older?

10:40 pm  
Blogger David N said...

They both came out in 2002, so I guess it's not influence so much as coincidence.

I think I love it so much because it's First Blood, remade. And I badly want to remake First Blood. But I only thought it was alright on first viewing. Its subsequent tv viewings which have converted me. The fact that it's so lean and simple and old-fahsioned appeals to me.

And the knife fights.

11:09 pm  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

Spartan. Why no mention of Spartan here? This post was crying out for a Spartan quote.

Was it too obvious?

7:21 pm  
Blogger David N said...

I used the Spartan knife quote in a Mamet post a couple of years ago. Is there an actual knife fight in Spartan? Coz I dont remember one.

11:57 pm  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

A very short knife fight occurs. H. Macy has a gun. Kilmer has a knife. Kilmer wins. Because he doesn't do 'Knife Fighting'.

10:40 am  
Blogger David N said...

Yeah. For me that doesn't qualify. Nor does James Coburn with a knife vs a gunman in The Magnificent Seven. Gotta be knife vs knife (though admittedly I stretched that with From Here to Eternity, though at least that's an edged weapon) to qualify as a knife fight.

12:20 pm  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

In that case, motherfuckin' Under Seige an' shit.

11:44 am  
Blogger David N said...

I feel I've written about Seagal enough for one lifetime, but yeah that's a pretty good scene. But this is in no way suggested as a definitive list. Which is why the post is called "Pointless List". All alternatives are obviously welcome, however.

4:58 pm  

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