Sir Alfred Hitchcock

BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

19 LIES AND WHISPERS

 

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‘I can‘t lie,’ says Jesse to an old friend. ‘It‘s pretty hectic out there.’  Jesse is referring to his supposed busy sexual activity.   He is telling the old friend an untruth.  Jesse has no money, and the women interested in him are scarce. His motive for telling the lie to the old friend is unclear.  It might be simple adolescent boasting or an attempt to convince the friend that Jesse has status and order in his life, that he can be trusted to stay in the home of the old friend for a couple of nights.  If only we knew why we told untruths.  Some have argued that lies are the handmaiden of ignorance.  The clever have more facts and knowledge to share and that alone takes up time others spend lying.  More assured than the ignorant the clever might not need to bluff.  Yet clever politicians and the deceits of those in authority weaken the argument.  This thought is not explored in Breaking Bad.  Most of the lies of its characters are rooted in their need for survival.  In some instances they exist for the purpose of hiding odorous appetites.  They are not concealing their ignorance.

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The simple view of some TV critics is that Walter White is a bad person because he tells lies.  This is his graceless response to pressure and difficulties, they argue.  Walt has been compared to the charming but corrupt ex-policeman Mike who at least understands that his work for gangster Gus is criminal and wrong.  Walt has illusions, and Mike has self-awareness.  Within this notion is the idea that the lies of Walter White exist because of his dual role as gangster and suburban father.   Walt not only lies to other criminals, he is dishonest with his family and most important himself.   The lies are a consequence of the terrible decision Walt made to manufacture crystal meth and become involved with gangsters, eventually becoming one himself.  This, of course, is nonsense.  Well before he started killing people Walt told lies to himself, his family and no doubt the high school pupils that he taught.  Some of those lies would have been blatant, others would have consisted of avoiding honest answers, staying silent to maintain a fiction.  A lie can exist in a simple false smile, a glance to somewhere else and sometimes a caress.  Sex requires energy and purpose and operates on a different level.  It delivers intimacy but not necessarily revelation and honesty.  The promiscuous tell lies whatever they think but many of the rest have secrets.  Big honest hired killer Mike attracts sympathy because he is kind to his granddaughter.  The kindness may constitute his finer moments but it is not rooted in honesty.  Sweet granddaughter has no idea that cuddly and patient granddad is prepared to kill people to earn his weekly salary.   He has blood on the hands that play with the toys of the child.   Mike needs to keep secrets from the people he loves.  Those secrets are lies.  Mike becomes a friend of Jesse but the friendship although genuine is established through deceit.  It happens because Gus wants to puncture the kinship between Walt and Jesse.

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Everyone in Breaking Bad tells lies or so it seems.  If there is an exception, it is the disreputable and fast talking lawyer Saul.  His only deceit is his assertion that he can help people.  But if Saul is a hustler whose main interest is the money inside the pocket of the person on the other side of the desk, he does explain the way of a brutal world.   All the others are tarnished by dishonesty.  Walt Junior is not a bad son but he walks around pretending he is called Flynn.  The lie may not be designed to trick others but because it denies an established truth it is a lie.  Not so pleasant Gus attempts to conceal his intention to kill Walt and poses as a respectable businessman.   The pose is a lie.

Jesse and Skyler, like Walt, lie when honesty will damage their interests.  Under pressure Jesse darts around his imagination and blurts out nonsense.  When challenged by his parents, he pretends he is working undercover with the Drug Enforcement Agency.  Being married to a drug dealer qualifies anyone for victim status but despite decent intentions and a moral code the actress and extrovert within Skyler enables her to be the most convincing liar within Breaking Bad.   Although seriously hurt by the evasions of Walt her prolonged sulk is nevertheless a calculated performance.  There are other examples, the mistaken identity arrest in the jewellers and her dumb blonde act in front of the tax auditor.

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Hank and Marie also need their secrets and they betray each other.  These betrayals are not sexual but they are significant.  Hank hides his post-traumatic stress, and Marie is a shoplifter.  Hank knows about the criminal nature of his wife but not all her crimes.  Despite those deceits the relationship of Hank and Marie solidifies and they acquire mutual respect.  More important than the lies it seems are the reactions to what are inevitable deceits.

The lies of the characters in Breaking Bad are compounded by the dishonesty of writers and authors who edit conversations and sidestep what should be the next step in verbal confrontations.  Such trickery happens in every drama, movie or novel.  This is done to mitigate the narrative challenges that lie ahead.  Put simply, Walt does an awful lot before Skyler opens her mouth and asks where the hell has he been.   After that happens the opportunistic sulks not only add to the tension but allow Walt further time to establish himself as a crystal meth maker.  For both the scriptwriters and the audience this is a win-win deal.  We are the voyeurs who want Walt to continue his drug making career.  Only after Walt confesses and Skyler discovers that he is a criminal is the audience permitted to see extended arguments between Walt and Skyler.

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The writers may be obliged to be pragmatic but they also explore deceit and its impact on the deceived.  For this they deserve credit.  For Hank and Marie the consequences are modest.  Their natures but also circumstances work in their favour, well, until a certain incident in the desert.  Long before she discovers that Walt is making crystal meth Skyler is disturbed and unnerved by the change in the behaviour of her husband.  It is the repeated lie about the second mobile phone that Walt owns which compels her to act.  Skyler clamps her mouth tight and avoids both conversations and Walt.  The married couple duel and use lies and evasion as weapons.

The best of this occurs in the stand-out episode Down in season two.  Walt and Jesse become estranged from their families and each other.    The parents of Jesse understand that because of the drug habit of their son it has become impossible to accept a word he says.  The lie by Walt about the second phone offends Skyler and has also left her paranoid.  She wants to know what are the other lies and why the lies are being told.  Unlike Marie or Hank she does not understand the reason behind the lies of her partner.

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There are two important movie references in the Down episode of Breaking Bad.  In the opening scene Walt and Jesse meet in a supermarket and discuss their grievances.  The scene is an obvious homage to the film noir classic Double Indemnity.  In that movie everyone tells lies, including the two people who combine to kill the victim.  For them sex has provided additional deceit because it masqueraded as affection.  Insurance man Barton Keyes is too old and job obsessed to be tempted by sex.  He is honest and he will survive but his curiosity and need for proof give him heartburn.  So much for truth.  After being made homeless Jesse falls through the roof of a chemical toilet.   The incident adds helpful slapstick comedy to the gloomy Down episode but the trail of blue chemical that Jesse leaves behind as he walks away is more than comic.  It echoes the murder of the espionage agent in the Hitchcock remake of his movie The Man Who Knew too Much.  Deceit is also important to that film.  Because their child has been kidnapped, a conformist American middle-class couple are obliged to lie to everyone.  The episode Down is directed by ex-cinema man John Dahl.  The director became famous by pioneering neo-noir which resurrected film noir for audiences in the 1990s but added more sex and violence.  The lies of Walter White may be self-serving and reflect a lack of regard for others but compared to the callous protagonists of neo-noir Walt is almost decent.

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Telling lies is like sexual infidelity, and we all disapprove of both.  They are, though, a lot more popular than we like to pretend.  Sexual infidelity for most of us causes pain.  We would rather betray someone than be betrayed.  It is the same with lying.  Deceit creates double standards.  Although lies may secure immediate survival for Walt it is his increasing facility with untruths that ensures Walt will not only lose a family but be doomed.   Before then Walt will cease to know whether he loved his family or they were merely an important acquisition.

Lying is a dangerous business even if we all do it.  Perhaps its ubiquity is why we admire people who pretend.  We award celebrity to the writers and performers that create the most convincing lies.  The final twists in thrillers and detective stories are more than plot revelations.  They are confessions from the creators.  These pretenders present pleas for pardon and insist that although their lies were sourced from deceit there was no harmful betrayal of the audience.  Somehow we continue to believe them.

Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

13 A CASTRO CAST-OFF

 

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It took Brian de Palma 28 weeks to film the second version of Scarface.  An episode of Breaking Bad had to be completed within an eight day shooting schedule.  Compare the movie to the more ambitious episodes of Breaking Bad, and it is Scarface that looks like something from budget conscious American television.  The second version of Scarface was made 51 years after the black and white original by director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Ben Hecht.  The revamp by Brian de Palma received a hostile critical response.  Many of its critics disapproved of the excessive violence and expletive laden language.  There is an almost direct route from the original Scarface to the more modern Breaking Bad that appeared 85 years later.  It is defined by the work of the exceptionally talented, the progress that is made through superior cinematic technology and the changes in the expectations of an audience.

At various points Breaking Bad pays homage to the remake of Scarface.  Actors are used that were present in the second version, including old favourite Mark Margolis as the reduced but still sinister Hector Salamanca.  Gilligan also borrows the odd image.   The two silent and remote assassins in Breaking Bad that search for Heisenberg resemble the pensive killers in the scene in the Babylon nightclub where the first serious attempt is made to assassinate gangster Tony Montana.

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Oliver Stone wrote the not always subtle script of the 1983 version of Scarface, note the name of the nightclub above.  His script retains the key plot elements created by Ben Hecht, and at the end of the de Palma film there is a dedication to both Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht.  This respect for the cinematic past is a feature of the work of Brian de Palma.  He is an Alfred  Hitchcock devotee.  Oliver Stone may have needed to be persuaded to honour the original ambitions of Hawks and Hecht.  Stone, though, left his polemical mark.  The left wing politics of Brian de Palma had informed his masterpiece Blow Out.  Together the two of them ensured we understood their lack of sympathy for modern America.  Neither were they bashful about their misanthropy.   Gangster and mentor Frank Lopez tells Tony Montana, ‘Don‘t underestimate the other guys greed’.  Human appetites distort the work ethic of capitalism and undermine the socialist alternatives.  Gangsters have always prevailed in human history, and in Scarface neither de Palma nor Stone promise relief.

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The film begins in 1980 when 125,000 Cubans left the socialist alternative of the Castro government to seek the promises of American capitalism.   Castro opened his jails and, in the words of the opening titles, added ‘the dregs of Cuban society’ to the emigrants welcomed by the USA.   Tony Montana is one of the dregs and he knows it.  But like Walter White, he has an exaggerated sense of entitlement.  Walt in season five of Breaking Bad admits that he wants more than money.  ‘I want to build an empire’ he says to a baffled Jesse who had previously assumed that the intention was to use any extra cash to facilitate a less stressful existence.  Tony Montana is different to Walt.  Money is there to be spent.  He is not a miser interested in the symbolism of wealth.  ‘I want what‘s coming to me, the world and everything that is in it.’  As he acquires money, Montana becomes addicted to excess but also scornful of how he is living.  Montana does not reject consumption.  What he realises is that money alone will never give him ‘the world’ that he craves.  That belongs to established wealth, people who are no better than him but have no worries about being burdened by criminal status and uncouth manners.  These people learn to network and can buy an education that, despite greed which is no better than that possessed by Tony Montana, enables them to feel and even be superior.   After causing an affray in a restaurant Montana shouts out at the rich diners.  ‘Take a look.  This is a bad boy.’  The rich look askance but they are, of course, looking at a reflection of themselves.

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Walter White is different from Tony Montana.  He is a homegrown American and he has the education and perhaps intellect denied the Cuban gangster.  The world, or at least the billions and status of Gretchen and Elliot that Walt forfeited, could have been his.  Tony Montana does not make political speeches but he is articulate enough to protest against a system that has always been loaded against the people who ‘know the street’.  Walt has nothing to hate but himself, which is why more fortunate onlookers should have some sympathy for his plight.

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The only woman that Tony Montana loves is his sister.  He talks about her in the same way Walt insists upon his love for his family.  Tony wants his sister Gina to be virtuous and provide him with moments of moral sanctuary.  Gina, though, wants to have fun.  Cynical Elvira is anything but an innocent retreat,  Montana kills Frank Lopez and takes mistress Elvira away from the dead gangster but it is only because she is a symbol of progress, something else to consume and display.  When Elvira and Tony talk about their physical relationship neither mentions romance nor even affection.

The name Elvira is Spanish and means truth.  Elvira is no moral exemplar.  She is a snob and, like Tony, addicted to consumption.  Yet Elvira is capable of speaking truth to power.  In an odd way Elvira is like Jesse.  They both switch allegiances between gangsters.  Elvira and Jesse have youth and beauty but they need to lean on those that they imagine have superior strength and advantages.   Elvira is played by Michelle Pfeiffer, an actress that neither lead actor Al Pacino nor director de Palma wanted for the part.   Sigourney Weaver was an earlier preference for the role.  Either would have been fine.  Pfeiffer and Weaver are both capable of looking down the length of their elegant noses.   No one, though, played the part of the contemptuous moll better than Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat.  In that film Grahame has her face scarred with boiling coffee.  In the expensive restaurant where Tony is behaving like an authentic bad boy, Elvira stands up and leaves the dinner table.  She walks away from the excess consumption of Tony Montana and any prospects of boiling coffee being thrown into her face.

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When they meet, mentor Frank Lopez regards Tony Montana as a peasant.  Walt has similar contempt when Jesse and him begin making meth.  His feelings towards Jesse become more complicated. There are odd moments of sympathy from Walt but they do not prevent him from failing to accept Jesse as a human being that has the potential to be nurtured and developed.   Jesse to Walt is no more than a functional link in the meth making plans and ambitions of Heisenberg.  Frank Lopez is equally condescending.  He imagines that he will be able to exploit the peasant will and hunger of Montana.

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Anyone who listens to the 62 episodes of the Breaking Bad Insider Podcast will not only hear the normal and perhaps forgivable Hollywood gush but will also notice that the word ‘cool’ is used often.   Breaking Bad was conceived as an exploration of untypical characters in dramatic, criminal and violent situations.  Detail is also important, and Gilligan and his team worked hard to achieve special moments.   In the podcast discussions they refer to these instances as ‘cool’.  De Palma would have probably used the word poetical.  This difference in approach may amount to nothing more than different generations using alternative language but for all the mastery and triumphs of  Breaking Bad it lacks the poetic grandeur of Scarface.  Montana screaming defiance at his assassins while they pump bullets into his body is an extravagant but unforgettable and poignant moment.  Poetic grandeur and excess, though, are easily confused.  De Palma adds to Scarface an aesthetic that obliges its audience to distinguish between modern excess and poetry.  But, despite the emphasis on style by Stone and de Palma, there is also added realism.  Pacino looks and sounds like a real street hardened gangster in a way that other actors do not.  Frank Lopez has crooked cop Mel Bernstein on the payroll.  A weakness in Breaking Bad is that all the employees of the New Mexico DEA appear to be honest.  Crooked millionaire Gus Fring would have had at least one agent on his payroll. Harris Yulin plays Mel Bernstein the cop that reports to Lopez.  His taciturnity and contempt anticipate Mike Ehrmantraut the doleful hitman employed by Gus Fring.

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De Palma and Stone deny any redemption for Tony Montana.  The final scene reveals that it is not just the weak but the strong that a competitive materialist society wastes.  But Montana is nowhere near as evil as the cultured Bolivian gangster Alejandro Sosa and his powerful establishment friends.  Sosa demands that Montana kills an enemy.  When the target is joined by his family in his car, Montana realises that he cannot kill children.  This compares to Walt who poisons Brock with the toxic plant Lily of the Valley.  The ploy to have Walter White kill an innocent child feels like a deliberate reference by Vince Gilligan to Scarface.   At the end of season four the writing team of Breaking Bad had decided that Walt needed to be a monster.  There might have been a way home from the moon for American astronauts fifty years ago but after he saw the Lily of the Valley plant near his swimming pool there was no way back for chemistry teacher Walter White.  When he needs to, it is amazing what Walt happens to find in his back garden

Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.