“Suddenly my senses are all incredibly acute … I’m different, more alive, stronger … “
About a decade ago, Mike Nichols chose to make one lyrical film, for reasons I still can’t explain. It’s true that, by the ’90s, the director/producer was starting to move away from “urbane” entertainment, and into less controlled areas. What Planet Are You From? (2000) was one of the loopiest comedies in years, with two wild actors (Annette Bening and Garry Shandling) allowed to really go places: anywhere they wanted, judging by Bening’s scatty rendition of “High Hopes.” Closer (2004) is a definite improvement on Carnal Knowledge (1971), a highly structured puzzle that nevertheless gives its actors some space, leaves a few loose ends, and makes room for Clive Owen’s stunning performance. A ’70s Nichols film would have contained that performance, cutting to each explosion as a feat of acting; this one holds back, its overview shattered by the one character who bursts in on us. But that still doesn’t account for Wolf (1994) being the phenomenon it is: a mysterious and searching fantasy, with an almost total belief in legend — in the sun and moon, the spirit of winter (and the creatures that nestle within it), and the thought of man merging into a warm animal. How is it that this savvy theatrical producer suddenly became entranced by the moon? Is it possible that a director of topical films could fall in love with the seasons all over again? It may not be useful to look at Wolf as a Nichols creation, except to marvel at the conviction with which he depicts the primitive — he’s one of the least misty directors around. Yet, of all places, the film is set in the power circles of New York — in rich offices and estates, all viewed with such apparent distrust that it’s as if Nichols had never known what it was like to be inside.
Wolf does have its spiky horror elements, but remarkably, this is a werewolf movie with almost no pulp in it. Despite Jack Nicholson, and Rick Baker’s make-up, this is primarily a winter thriller: an evening and night film, in which specific atmospheres are gradually relayed to us. Rather shockingly, the film is about the moon, and New York at night, as much as anything else: there are shots of the gold mesh city surrounded by wilderness, and in one scene, Manhattan is a series of blue and silver columns drawn up out of the water. The frame seems digitally untouched, yet it looks like a fairy landscape: a row of sliding, cascade-like forms. These are more than just glamorous night shots: they seem enchanted but oddly slowed, because of the eye implied behind them. Whoever is looking through this lens has the whole city covered: the entire network is apprehended in a glance, but the grand vision leaves him unimpressed. He wants to rework it. So who owns that eye? It’s the wolf.
Part of the problem with this film’s reception was that most critics found the selling point ridiculous (“Jack Nicholson becomes a wolf”), and criticized Nichols for wasting fine acting and human drama on a genre film. But when it comes to turning into a wolf, growing hair and fangs is the least of it: the subtle little patches of home-made fur are more of a tribute to Rick Baker than an essential to the plot. In its exploration scenes, the film has a plaintive, almost mournful tone, tracing the route of a solitary animal through the woods. When the dark comes, it’s like nightfall in a nature documentary: an enveloping, blanket-like atmosphere, enhanced by Nichols’ use of thick evening sounds — buzzes and rustling twilight noises — so that we’re kept in this wraparound world. There’s a peculiar bleakness to the images — the groves of bare trees, the weakness of the dawning light — that is so resonant it seems to carry its own voice-over. I was reminded of the tone of National Geographic specials of the ’60s and ’70s, which depict a cruel and relentless wilderness: as in, “Night falls, and the wolf must return to his home . . .” or “The time has come for the brood to fend for their own . . .” Nichols makes use of that severity — the cold light, the flickering dark on white — and creates the sense of a desolate, inescapable nature, for which the only comfort is bodily warmth. Light and heat are constantly trying to break through the film: a pale bleary orange sun behind branches, half a misty moon beyond curtains.
It’s an environment in which we’re drawn to warmth and light like outsiders: the first image that pulls us in is a tiny spark, traveling through the New England winter, which turns out to be a careening car. Throughout the film there are images which invite us to draw in out of the darkness, so that it’s as if we’re tracking the path of a small narrow creature — a warm, intelligent animal that responds to touch. Nichols and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno have devised a completely consistent background for Wolf: glowing orange or dusty sunsets, streaked and overcast skies, little silver touches given to snow and lakeside scenes, and a particular attention to the last rays of the sun, when urban reality starts to dissolve. Overall, there’s a sense of rich, proud solitude combined with low-key imagery, and Nichols relates this animal perspective to the film’s themes: the experience of being alone in the city, and the central relationship between Will (Nicholson) and Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer). The dull sheen of the images has its own romance, especially when it draws on other mythologies: the riding of dark horses, and the “fascinated,” unreal quality of the stream and woodland scenes. The film is about kindred spirits connecting, and heading towards a wintry frontier.
So Wolf embraces two kinds of myth: the noir sense of the city, and an obedience to the natural world. It’s this combination that makes the movie so striking, but rather than mining the tension between them, Nichols makes one seamless mood. Ennio Morricone’s music enables this to occur: it makes logical transitions between the unlikeliest of scenes. This is one of my all-time favorite soundtracks, in which even a very individual sound binds so closely with the image that it’s difficult to recall how much movement is happening onscreen — are we really seeing action, or just feeling the charge of the score? The best thing Morricone does is to integrate elements of pulp into the sound, so that both incredulity and fear are part of our response. For the wolf’s night scenes, Morricone uses a solo flute backed by high strings: it’s an ascending score, with the guarded, slow notes of the strings as precarious as a tightrope. The high pitch holds us in a vice: the flute has a tense, shivery sound, and when it makes a sudden note, it has an unnatural luminosity — like a splash of fake blood or horror. It’s a very lurid noise, which conveys the lurching animal: Will’s springs into the air look like stop-motion photographs, and the music arrests us in a similar way, giving the impression of staggered steps. As in Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo (1958), the thrill lies not in the fact that a sound is unexpected, but in the dread that precedes the noise. Occasionally, the flute has a screechiness that suggests pulp terror (the term “heebie-jeebies” comes to mind), and yet the score is never ironic: it keeps you suspended in that luminous, too-bright sound, with a total conviction that transcends pulp. Will describes his transformation as the fact that “suddenly my senses are all incredibly acute . . . I’m different, more alive, stronger,” and the music involves us in that process: it gives us an awareness of sound production and texture, with its abnormally sharp notes, and the pursed, rather hollow sound of the flute. The shimmering drums are a signifier of “silver” — and when matched with a metallic image, they enhance its brightness and definition, so that we imagine slivers and slices of action. Morricone’s work is acutely skin-sensitive: this is as close to lupine as music can get.
The film also has a warming “love theme” that’s associated with the character of Laura. It features gently plucked strings, and because of its slow, unwinding line, it seems to suggest “all is forgiven,” carrying the promise of an understanding. Unusually for a romantic theme in the ’90s, it also has a lead saxophone — a layer of sophistication that implies an awareness of its own effect. In fact, Nichols introduces it quite self-consciously: as a tender, heart-string chorus. But the most distinctive theme is the one that keys us into the presence of the wolf. It’s a kind of electronic pulsing which tends to recur whenever the wolf surges ahead, or when a particular vision spurs him forward. Most reviews of the soundtrack have criticized its impersonality, but I suspect that this is what Morricone (who could easily produce a more organic sound if he needed to) was aiming for. It’s a deliberately mechanical line, which nevertheless conveys the frantic rush of the animal: the digital sounds imply an unthinking, headlong movement. By shifting this theme around, Nichols is able to change the film’s pulse subtly throughout, in response to different stimuli. When used to accompany a vista, the noise suggests a super-sensory awareness — an intense tracking of the eye — and this relates to Wolf’s theme of visionary moral perception: the daydream clarity that sees right across the city, and into the corruption behind doors. When applied to a field, or especially, a face, the scrambling sound causes us to roam all over, exploring the architecture: it helps to unite the faces of Nicholson and Pfeiffer, and the animal that binds them together at the end.
Nichols has often talked about a very intriguing casting secret — when choosing all the actors for one film, he tries to cast the same person over and over again. As with so many Nichols statements about filmmaking, it’s an articulate-sounding idea with enormous potential. It could be the key to, say, Renoir or Cukor: casting people of the same emotional energy, or “tenor,” like color grading in a picture. I could even believe it of Spike Lee (although it’s more likely that he converts actors to the one pitch), but I don’t think it’s quite true of Nichols — if his original picks had panned out, Sharon Stone and Mia Farrow would have played the roles taken by Pfeiffer and Kate Nelligan, and there’s no way of seeing those two as “the same person.” Nevertheless, in Wolf, there appears to be an unusual bond between the cast. Prior to this, my favorite moment in Nichols was Sigourney Weaver saying “two-way street” in Working Girl (1988): he seems to enjoy rounding out a cast with theatrically trained actors, and as long as these are not too brittle, it works. Wolf has its group of distinguished supporting performers (Nelligan, Christopher Plummer, James Spader), and it puts them in a familiar Nichols setting: a comedy of corporate manners, this time with the prestige publishing world as its background. There’s a lot to savor: the dark wood offices, the English secretaries, the concerned and loyal staff (the way ideal servants in films cater to the audience). Nichols shows an unprecendented visual control of his actors; as the icy but desired wife, Kate Nelligan has a white-painted oval face — it shines out of the dark house, a sign of alarm and regret.
Pfeiffer seems to have had more input into her character: she apparently rejected the more stylized aspects of her part, such as wearing a red hood for her first encounter with the wolf, and dismissed turning Laura into a vet or park ranger as “camouflage . . . bullshit to make it interesting for someone.” Instead, she steered the role toward nobody and nothing: her desire was to play “someone who grew up not ever having any place . . . who’d probably never be more than that.”1 That sense of “busting out” unexpectedly has always been part of our engagement with her as an actress; her best roles (Married to the Mob, 1988, The Fabulous Baker Boys, 1989, The Age of Innocence, 1993) are arguably about the attempt to be more than nothing — characters trying to transcend their perceived vacuity. This is perhaps her most restrained “nothing” yet — and in a strange way, it’s Jack Nicholson’s as well.
Nicholson playing an honest man isn’t like Jim Carrey trying to control his fidgets: he can turn serious without being blank, and for him, playing it straight doesn’t mean abandoning all of his technique at once. (Carrey’s attempt at a plain face while saying “Was nothing real?” in The Truman Show, 1998, still has to be one of the most ridiculous moments of the ’90s.) For Nicholson, the relaxing and softening of gestures — without changing their essential form, or their sense of enlightened irony — shows how flexible he really is, and how much his inwardness contains. We see that his brows can be used for more than mischief — while his face and his instincts can take him down predictable lines (his snarky turn in Carnal Knowledge), in the last decade Nicholson has incorporated more humor and waywardness into his style (his fabulous president in Mars Attacks, 1996, where his few words of French perfectly suited his gruffness). I would argue that Nicholson’s best performances occur when he has actually made the attempt to communicate with another actor — when his character has tried to be expressive, and failed, but revealed himself in the process. Very few actors tackle the problem of how an unusual person relates to others: with Nicholson, we get an ironist who finally commits to one way of speaking and looking, if only for a moment.
That quality was evident in (I think) his greatest performance — as Eugene O’Neill in Reds (1981). Initially, the role seems like a novel experiment: it’s a little odd watching this cunning actor’s mouth try to slip open “involuntarily.” But for Nicholson not to be actorly would be a betrayal of his nature, and one of the loveliest actor’s moments on film is O’Neill’s hunched walk out of the house after being rejected by Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). All the contradictions in this man’s experience are expressed in his gait: as he walks down the bright path, we see that he grows older and wearier — just a touch of extra weight at the shoulders and knees — and is almost lumbering, yet there’s the gallant light step that carries him out. In only a few scenes, Nicholson shows a man uneasy between his great gestures of “gusto” — his eyes darting and shifting in between throwing his eyebrows, moving from surly underdog to man of letters. When Bryant tells O’Neill that she’s “embarrassed” because she’s married Reed (Warren Beatty) after their affair, his first instinct is to parody his own “civilized” reaction to the devastating news: just a quick glance away and he replies, “That is embarrassing,” in the manner of a drawing-room socialite. It’s typical of Nicholson — and this character’s integrity — that he would use someone else’s voice to express heartbreak, rather than break his own mode to access it. For Nicholson, the encoded reply is his spontaneous response: coded understatement is this actor’s signature.
There are shades of that performance in Wolf: as the one publisher who cares about talent, Will is almost masochistically elegant — he’s a carrier of past traditions, no longer valued. Nicholson’s gestures tend to be a line of defence, and this time the pose gets tested. When Will tells Laura that he knows “what God meant” in making her, he can say the line without losing any of its nuance — the unease or staginess of speaking this way. It’s not that Nicholson redeems the line, but that only he can give conviction to such words, so that the reference to purity actually seems won and earned. Robert Towne has named him as the one actor who can make any script play: “You could not write a sentence too long for him to say . . .Part of it is that his seemingly monotone delivery isn’t monotone at all .”2 Along with the film’s night sounds, Nicholson’s delivery thickens the atmosphere: his voice, with its luxurious “folds” and way of doubling over words, is just as much of a draw as the plot.
The original poster for the film, with its three featured words “Nicholson Pfeiffer Wolf”, and the image of Nicholson snarling up at a curve of Pfeiffer’s face, now seems like a very distant era in marketing, when studios were prepared to sell a mystical concept to audiences. But Wolf delivers what it promises: it may start off like a typical Nichols, with office politics and people taking civilized small bites of food, but the film is an uncanny expansion of these themes. Part of this is the erotic slowing of images: Laura riding a dark horse in a circle, or the grappling of two men, are like small pictorial fields, opening out onto the real. Credit should go to Giuseppe Rotunno for the links between the yellow eye and the moon, the white receding lights on a windshield (with the suggestion of rear-projected fantasy) and the shots of pale blossoms against red brick. Nichols and Rotunno have come up with a look that emphasizes black outlines and the definition of images. In this, it’s similar to Birth (2004), another film with a legendary romance at its center. Birth had the unforgettable image of a lovestruck child caught in black branches, although it was a much more austerely controlled, and therefore less mysterious film.
Wolf has passages of dark trees, Pfeiffer emerging beneath the arch of iron gates, the intricate lacework of the Bradbury building, the detailed imprints of shadows. All these black borders create a kind of Germanic, or storybook context for the film: there’s an unnatural definition to the lit-up world (blue, brown, and orange) that’s seen through a black-framed window. The camera closes in on the dark mountain shape of a shoulder: there’s constantly an etching of the sublime on the film’s images. This occurs particularly at the end, when a series of giant faces appears, and the forward-rushing music lets us race through them, like a corridor. At this point, the love theme becomes combined with the tracking score, and so the two romances merge: the awe at a full-screen face, and the idea of an easily traversed New York. Nichols takes that “we are all animals underneath” cliché and turns it into a passion: an enveloping mood without a break. Put together the setting sun, the wilderness, and the relentless electric pulse, and you’ve got the sense of a city taken by night.