America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
The Movies of Jake Steiger
Imaginary reviews by Dan Geddes
Beginning with his first film, Mr. Kleen (1988), writer/director Jake Steiger went on to film some of the most popular films of the 1980s and 1990s.
Steiger’s directorial debut starred Arnold Schwarzeneggar as a mentally unbalanced janitor working at the Sears Tower in Chicago. One day a Japanese terrorist group led by Toshiro (a masked Harvey Keitel) violently seizes the tallest building in the world, and demands $25 million dollars. Despite the quick response of the police, army, and National Guard, the building seems doomed until Mickey Kleen (Schwarzeneggar), ready to clock out for the day, spots some broken glass on the floor.
Mindful only of his solemn duty to keep the floors clean, Mickey grabs his mop and starts following a long trail of blood and broken glass. Soon he stumbles upon some of Keitel’s terrorists, but is able to beat them with his mop, and take their semi-automatic weapons. As he dutifully mops up their blood, Mickey suffers from some heavy-handed Freudian flashbacks about his sloppy, long-lost father, who always made Mickey clean up after him. Audiences are nearly treated to the spectacle of Scharzeneggar in tears.
As he works his way through the building, dispatching legions of Japanese terrorists, Mickey seems more concerned with the state of the building he has maintained (single-handedly?) for so long than with the ceaseless violence in which he is embroiled. But Mickey’s janitorial skills come in very handy as he creates lethal explosives from familiar house-hold chemicals (product placement in this movie is in extremely bad taste), and seems to know every inch of the floor-plan of the world’s tallest building.
Eventually he dispatches Keitel himself by spraying a goodly portion of undiluted Lysol into his eyes. The ink on Keitel’s mask begins to run, and Mickey peels off the mask, and discovers Keitel is his long-lost father. Mickey’s psychological wounds are healed by the very sight of his father, who, blinded by the Lysol, is unable to recognize his son as the police carry him away. There are strong suggestions of a sequel.
In interviews, Steiger pointed out that, despite the non-stop violence and $55 million dollars in property damage, not a single character actually dies on screen in Mr. Kleen, presumably showing Steiger’s unusual restraint (and social responsibility) as an action-movie director.
After the success of Mr. Kleen, Steiger turned to the crime genre, writing and directing All In The Family. Robert De Niro, on loan from director Martin Scorscese, stars as Sammy Carlotti, a humble Gambino Family hit man, wrongfully accused of defecting to the rival Castellano Family.
One day while using the toilet in a Little Italy bakery, Sammy overhears two of his closest colleagues arguing about the best way to kill him for betraying the Family. Joey (Mickey Rourke) favors shooting him in the head and dumping him in the East River, but Sal (Abe Vigoda) favors strangling him with a garrote and leaving his corpse in Central Park as a warning to would-be traitors. Meanwhile, Sammy must sit quietly on the toilet (apparently holding back anal eruptions) while they debate these matters. Eventually they leave, and the next day Sammy launches a pre-emptive strike by sending Joey and Sal a tray of peppers stuffed with plastic explosives. “How’s that for heartburn!” Sammy quips later, watching the explosions through a set of binoculars.
But now Sammy is on the run from the Gambinos, who in this movie seem to control the entire New York City Police Department. To disguise himself, Sammy adopts the garb of an Hasidic Jew. While walking around Crown Heights he meets a liberal rabbi named Maury Yablonovich (Billy Crystal), whose mincing way of speaking provides a comic interlude in the midst of the general bloodbath. Maury is immediately skeptical about Sammy’s story of being a rabbi himself, and eventually Sammy confides in Maury enough to relate his predicament. Maury believes it isn’t Sammy’s fault, and if he ever clears his name with the Gambinos maybe he’ll set Sammy up with his beautiful younger sister.
Soon the Gambinos find Sammy and bring him and Maury (also accused somehow of being a Castellano operative) back to Family Headquarters for a show-trial. The trial is held in an elaborate underground courtroom, with Don Salvatore Gambino (Burt Young) serving as judge (he even wears a robe and wig and bangs a gavel). Don Gambino solemnly pronounces both Sammy and Maury guilty of treason, “the most serious of all crimes against the Family.” Sammy protests his innocence, and begs the court spare his life in light of his many devoted years of gangland killing. Don Gambino is momentarily moved by Sammy’s protestations of loyalty, but eventually dismisses him with the single word “morte.”
Hapless Maury is bound and gagged, and placed on a boat to Spain for a one-time stint as a matador (a favor for a Spanish crime syndicate). Sammy is placed in an bizarre-looking torture chamber, designed by Crazy Frankie Sciotti (Danny DeVito), the Gambinos’ chief torturer. Despite experiencing inhuman degrees of pain, Sammy survives, finally managing to free his hands and shove Sciotti’s untucked shirttails into the cogs of his own infernal torture-chamber, which pulls him in and grinds him to bits. Escaping Gambino headquarters through a poorly guarded air-duct, Sammy soon commandeers a helicopter, and manages to overtake the Gambino yacht in the Atlantic, carrying on board the innocent Maury Yablonovich. In the climactic shoot-out, Sammy kills everyone on board the yacht except Maury.
The movie then flashes forward a few years, when Sammy marries Maury’s sister, Tamar (Marisa Tomei). He is now part of a gentler family than the Gambinos.
After directing two very profitable movies, Steiger spent nearly three years and $75 million dollars creating this thinly veiled autobiographical fable of his early life in Brighton Beach. Macaulay Culkin stars as young Jack, a sensitive, misunderstood teenager, who enjoys making home movies of himself and his seven siblings. Marlon Brando co-stars as his gluttonous father, given to semi-intelligible mumbling and odd facial expressions. Debra Winger is improbably cast as his histrionic mother, continuously protesting the loss of her youth to another (presumably unwanted) pregnancy.
Much of the movie is shot as a period piece, with scenes of 1950s Manhattan and Brooklyn (Steiger refused to use stock footage on “artistic grounds” and built elaborate sets on location in midtown Manhattan at staggering cost). This provides the backdrop for Steiger’s coming-of-age story, and we see young Jack fall in love, get his first job, refuse to attend college, and experience other youthful milestones.
Brando himself, at $1 million dollars a day, very often forgot his lines, and lapsed into largely unintelligible evocations of his past roles in A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and The Godfather. Steiger later complained publicly that Brando often “made up his lines from scratch” and “paid no attention at all” to his script, often calling the Debra Winger character “Stella” or “Mama,” despite the fact the character’s name was Ruth—causing interminable delays to the filming at incalculable cost. Steiger later estimated that 80% of Brando’s performance ended up on the cutting-room floor as “completely inappropriate gibberish,” and that he was forced to resort to the extreme measure of dubbing another actor’s voice over Brando’s—sometimes unseamlessly—in order to salvage key scenes.
Steiger’s story of eight children raised by an unresponsive and egomaniacal Brooklyn father brought poor critical reviews and box-office draw. Many were confused by the complete absence of story, writing off Bringing Up Eight as a “$75 million dollar home movie.” Steiger poneyed-up and lost $10 million dollars of his own money on Bringing Up Eight, and critics were already claiming Steiger’s greatest work was behind him.
With Universal Studios deserting him after Bringing Up Eight bombed at the box-office, Steiger was tentatively embraced by Time Warner, on the condition he return to action movies, his proven metier. Steiger—humbled and impoverished by Bringing Up Eight—responded obediently, producing, writing, and directing Serial Murderers Naturally, a 150 minute bloodbath that he later defended as a satire of the media’s lust for violent lead stories.
The movie opens with Yank Feller (Kevin Costner) being released from Rikers Island prison for a bank robbery he didn’t commit. Because the bank robbery had received such intense publicity many years before, when he is released Yank must run a gauntlet of television cameras to fight his way to the waiting pink Cadillac convertible of his old flame, Luscious Wilson (Sharon Stone).
For the first ten minutes of the movie, Yank seems determined to walk a straight-and-narrow path, but when Luscious informs him they have neither prospects nor money nor a place to stay, Yank becomes susceptible to her scheme of robbing a Wal-Mart. It is supposed to be a simple robbery; Luscious had heard how “this guy Mario” did it, and everyone at the store was so terrified that he was “over the state line before the police had even been called.” And yet, a few days later, as Yank and Luscious are holding up a Wal-Mart, a customer draws a weapon and Yank is forced to shoot him, and in the melee the store manager (Barry Corbin) pulls out a gun and Luscious fires and wounds him. They get away from the Wal-Mart with the cash, but their long killing rampage has begun.
That night, in their motel room, counting their cash from the hold-up, Yank and Luscious watch the news of their Wal-Mart heist, and derive an eerie satisfaction from their notoriety. They begin to feel like heroes, and, seeing how little actual cash they yielded from the hold-up, are hungry for their next robbery.
As each botched robbery degenerates into a gunfight, Yank and Luscious begin to take a sick pleasure in the inevitable killing that occurs at each robbery sight. They are always eagerly turning on TVs and radios, or buying newspapers to hear news of their exploits.
Presumably, as Steiger’s heroes commit yet another grisly murder, the fact that television cameras follow the murderers around the country is supposed to be proof positive that Steiger’s intended target is the media. In fact the most frightening character in this movie is neither Yank nor Luscious but Sam Donaldson, turning in a truly disturbing performance as himself: a leering and craven opportunist without a shred of moral decency, who follows Yank and Luscious’ trail of corpses around the country. Yet if the “message” of Serial Murderers Naturally is that the contemporary media is fascinated with violence, the movie offers no moral judgment of the murderers. Indeed, insofar as the murderers seem spurred on by the publicity of their crimes, Steiger seems to be asserting that the media is in some ways more guilty than the perpetrators themselves.
And yet how does one not root for these cold-blooded killers? In the tradition of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde or Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Steiger has cast established, likeable stars in the lead roles, making us root for the villain-heroes. With Serial Murderers Naturally Steiger has created a traditional crime saga, but uses the media as his whipping boy so as not to be accused of utilizing gratuitous violence to draw audiences. Yet that is precisely what he has done, reaping fantastic box-office rewards for his efforts.
Somewhat revitalized by the commercial success of Serial Murders Naturally, Steiger was artistically confident enough to create Ford, a biography of Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States.
Brian Dennehy turns in a riveting performance as “Gerry,” the former college football star turned politician, leading America through the turbulent aftermath of Watergate and the OPEC oil crisis.
Early scenes show a troubled Gerry, deliberating with top advisors about whether he should pardon former President Nixon. Ford’s unpopular pardon of Nixon is here attributed to heavy pressure from Nixon loyalists in the Administration, who threaten Ford with their collective resignations if Ford fails to pardon Nixon. Despite Steiger drawing some heavy-handed comparisons between Ford and Shakespeare’s King Lear, Dennehy’s performance leaves no doubt that Ford was a masterful politician with a steady hand on the ship of state.
Rather than ignoring it, Steiger wisely tackles Ford’s unfortunate tendency to fall down in public. He shows how a few innocent missteps became a national joke due to Chevy Chase’s send-up of Ford during the first season of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” in 1975-76. An improbable scene shows Chase (played by an aging Chevy Chase) meeting with a high-ranking staffer of the Jimmy Carter campaign—suggesting that a Carter-Chase conspiracy turned the tide in the 1976 Presidential election, leading to Carter’s weak if morally righteous presidency.
Yet Steiger and Dennehy create a Ford of haunting complexity and enduring compassion. Curiously, most audiences stayed away.
Ford proved to be a commercial disaster for Steiger, who returned to form with Scent of A Banknote. Co-written by rising filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, Scent of A Banknote tells the story of two rival LA gangs that rob the same bank at the same time on the same fateful afternoon.
The first half of the movie cuts between shots of each gang planning its respective heist, and features much patented Tarantino dialogue—a colorful blend of gutter profanities and articulation hitherto unseen in cinematic hoods. A great deal of dramatic irony would have been generated in these early scenes had we not already known from previews that both gangs would end up in the bank at the same time.
Christopher Walken stars as the head of the “Stones” (they wear Rolling Stones masks during the heist; Walken is Mick Jagger). Other “Stones” include Tarantino himself, Christian Slater, and Willem Dafoe (a surprisingly plausible Keith Richards). The rival gang, Styx (no reference to the 1970s rock band), is comprised of Powers Booth, Matt Dillon, Nicholas Cage, and Cher, their fiercest, and natural leader.
The Stones arrive at the bank first, and Walken seems to be the complete master of the situation—until Cher and the other Styx burst into the bank shouting “Everyone on the floor!” without at first noticing that the bank is already being robbed. Walken’s astonished expression at this development is itself worth the price of admission. The two gangs—all guns now pointed at each other rather than at bank employees—endure a strangely hilarious 15-minute showdown. Walken and Cher spew out menacing (if somewhat eloquent) profanities at each other, and the room is charged with the possibility that the two gangs will annihilate each other. But no one is killed yet, except an obligatory hapless bank-guard, gunned down while honorably reaching for his own gun.
The police soon surround the area, and Walken and Cher realize they’d better come to some arrangement. Walken suggests that each gang keep a member of the other gang as hostage; but in a hilarious moment—vintage Tarantino—it becomes apparent that no one in the room cares at all whether anyone else lives or dies—thus negating the whole hostage-principle. But Cher (watching her cogitate is one of the great joys of this movie) stumbles upon the brilliant idea of using members of the gangs as fake hostages—just to fool the police. Even the bank employees and customers nod approvingly at this idea, realizing it will relieve them of that unsavory role. Walken and Cher phone the police chief (Morgan Freeman), claim they have hostages, and so had better be furnished with a helicopter to the take them to the airport immediately. Now with guns from two rival gangs pointed at her, the bank teller (Maureen Stapleton) is absurdly reduced to counting out equal stacks of money (“Or Presidents won’t be the only dead people on that cash!” yells Walken) for each gang.
All is going well for the gangs—the cash has been secured, the police believe their story, the helicopter is preparing to land behind the bank—until they realize that with hundreds of cops pointing guns at them some of them are actually going to have to put their guns away and pretend to be hostages. Cher helpfully suggests that all of Walken’s “Stones” can serve as hostages, which only fuels the latter group’s suspicions of her. Eventually they compromise, and two members of each gang are held hostage for appearance sake, but even the “hostages”’ look hardened enough that the police become suspicious.
In the climactic scene (with echoes of Dog Day Afternoon), the helicopter pilot and co-pilot, both policemen, seize an opportune moment (many ecstatic faces are eyeing the large sacks of cash or pointing guns at each other) to shoot everyone on board except Walken and Cher. The police themselves are mortally wounded in the melee. Walken pushes the police away, and seizes control of the helicopter. Cher pulls her gun on him, but realizes the idiocy of shooting the pilot of the helicopter in which she herself is a passenger, and the two seem to form some sort of compact. Cher even claims she has fallen in love with him on this fateful afternoon, to which Walken, resigned to his fate, cynically replies: “Until we land.”
Scent of A Banknote was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best director (Steiger), best original screenplay (Steiger and Tarantino), best supporting actor (Walken), best supporting actress (Cher), and best cinematography. Many wondered why Cher was considered a supporting actress in a movie whose next most prominent female character—Stapleton’s hapless bank-teller—has about three minutes of screentime.
DiCaprio stars as Justin Churchland, a rich Bostonian, who wants to visit England despite the war raging in Europe. As the mighty Lusitania passenger liner leaves New York Harbor (with ominous violins playing over the soundtrack), Justin bumps into a young woman named Julia (Winona Ryder), whom he mistakes for a ship’s attendant. She is humiliated, and so cries and runs away. He feels guilty and stares into the sea.
The opening scenes show us the disturbing level of luxury available on passenger liners. Because Steiger shows us aristocrats shoving shrimp into their mouths while poorer passengers like Julia gape hungrily from a distance, he appears to be condemning the ways of the degenerate wealthy. A middle-aged American businessman, with a young nymphet in one hand and a champagne glass in the other laughs, saying “Sometimes I don’t think we deserve all this!” Then the camera focuses on the periscope of a nearby German submarine, implying they will receive their just rewards soon enough.
Late that night, Justin becomes very drunk on champagne, and as he is heading back to his cabin he bumps into Julia again, and apologizes profusely for insulting her earlier. She accepts his apology, and soon they are out on the deck, contemplating the black sea, and Justin tries to kiss her. Despite his appalling wealth, Julia fends him off, asserting her “honor,” despite her poverty and obviously tartish manner of dress. But because Justin and Julia bump into each other so often, and because DiCaprio and Ryder’s names appear at the top of the movie’s credits, we still harbor a solid suspicion that they will eventually fall in love.
Another subplot follows The Lusitania’s Captain Thorne (Patrick Stewart), whom we first see reading the Travel section of the New York Times. In a nod to historical accuracy, Thorne reads an ad placed by the German Government, warning American travelers of its plans to sink all ships passing through British waters, including The Lusitania. Capt. Thorne also knows that stores of American munitions have been secretly stored in the bowels of his ship (making it a legitimate target under international law), and that he should warn the unwitting American passengers about the potential dangers of the voyage. But he doesn’t, knowing he would be fired for disclosing the news.
Despite Steiger’s efforts at the screenplay level, The Lusitania is not a film that will be remembered for its acting. DiCaprio and Ryder’s romantic scenes would seem lifted out of TV’s “Days Of Our Lives” if only they were more credible. While in the presence of Ryder, DiCaprio’s face registers an expression closer to nausea than passion. Ryder herself bears a visible condescension toward the other actors, especially DiCaprio. In interviews after The Lusitania’s release, she repeatedly called DiCaprio “talentless”, and said that “all she got” out of her own involvement in the movie was her $10 million paycheck.
The night of the sinking (a heavy-handed caption reading “The Night of the Sinking” informs the audience what is to transpire) Justin finally convinces Julia he loves her, and convinces her to join him in his cabin. Soon afterwards a torpedo hits the ship, and we are engulfed in nearly 45 minutes of splashing water, flying deck chairs, frightened aristocrats in strange hats, men unthinkingly stealing bottles of liquor, and general pandaemonium.
Then we are shown Justin pledging never to leave Julia’s side. They hold hands tightly. Immediately, an uncannily accurate surge of water bursts into the cabin like a demon. The water rushes right at Julia, pulling her away. Their hands grip as long as possible, but eventually Justin’s grip slips. Julia is thrust headlong into the Atlantic. Justin cries a little, but manages to find his way to a lifeboat. We sense that his life without Julia will remain a hollow shell. Indeed, despite his camera’s earlier critique of the decadent wealthy, by the end of The Lusitania Steiger seems to be offering us the moral of “seize the day.” Justin and Julia’s only mistake was to let class-consciousness delay their electric passion.
A final caption informs us that over 128 Americans sunk to their deaths off the coast of Ireland (the 1000 dead from other nations are unacknowledged).
Like most viewers, I left The Lusitania with an adrenaline-rush from the magnificence of its special effects and soundtrack. The ship’s sinking is rendered so vividly that we viewers are almost saddened not to have been onboard for such a festival, however fateful. The Lusitania has set a new technical standard for cinematic entertainment, one that may take two or more years to surpass.
* * *
Jake Steiger’s next movie, a second remake of King Kong, is due out in the year 2000.