Review: Bobby Deerfield

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Sydney Pollack has carted the same thematic luggage down the road so consistently that running a standard, connect-the-dots literary tracer through his feature works is relatively easy. Pollack has concerned himself not so much with issues of death as with things that are dead, or so close to death that there is no appreciable difference. His films imply that rigor mortis set in long before the scenario began, and will spread after the last reel. To his credit, the repackaging of the principal components of this tragic vision has always been fresh. We’ve had the opportunity to see Pollack’s marked men and women slowly die while slavishly and knowingly dressing up the cancer of a metaphorical promise (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), through the ultimate victimization of human relationships by virtue of living in vulgar, extremist times (The Way We Were) or by a contagion of paranoiac losses (Three Days of the Condor).

Pollack’s thematic constancy has not been matched by aesthetic constancy, however. They Shoot Horses is marred by an imbalance of subjective shots and the infamous cuts to Michael Sarrazin under arrest and on trial; but the film’s imagistic cohesion and integration are highly personal and architecturally sound. And Pollack’s exquisite montage of Sarrazin straining to catch a fleeting leak of sunlight while dancing in the sealed ballroom suggested a primitive urgency on the new feature director’s part straining against the classical/polemical loftiness of the project.

There were few such strainings toward personal realization in the films of the next seven years. Pollack seemed to be building his films around narrative needs rather than his needs, and they grew puffier and more impersonal. In fact, if it were not for Bobby Deerfield, it would be difficult to credit any formal auteur sensibility of sustaining importance to Pollack. After such a long delay in decisively tipping his hand, Pollack now owes it to himself to heat up his intentions, become the star of his films, and lose any fear of “imposing” a personal style on “impersonal” narrative necessity.

Ironically, I suspect that it was the alleged dubiousness Pollack felt toward the Deerfield concept that has made it work. Pollack is a producer-director of some independence, yet his approach to Deerfield makes it almost seem as if he had done it on assignment: lacking the certainty of a Hitchcock about the filmic potential of his acquired property, but on the other hand feeling free to dispense with the soap, the equalized vantage points of the novel’s two main characters, and the pushy, blatant, author-explains-character’s-mood tactics of Remarque’s novel. Pollack made his uncertainty an asset, forced his personality to compensate for it—and ended by saying more about the modern world than in his more topical vehicles.

Bobby Deerfield is the story of a world-renowned racer who, long ago, sought to put all familial baggage—mother, brother, memories of formative years, a “one-minute marriage”—behind him, and set out to develop a new and successful persona in Europe. In a race that he wins, two drivers crash: one is injured, but lives; the other never had a chance. Visiting the convalescing survivor, Deerfield meets Lillian, an inquisitive, aggressive hospital patient, whom he reluctantly assists in returning to her uncle’s home in a small town in Italy. Along the way he is equally intrigued and exasperated by her questions and fitful behavior. Later he learns from Lydia, the woman he lives with, that Lillian is dying. Deerfield returns to her and stays with her, his streamlined life upset by inevitabilities larger than his power to overwhelm.

Bobby Deerfield, a film that has everything to do with its principal character’s solipsism, begins in the very core of privacy and reclusiveness, Deerfield’s dreams. Deerfield is seen in a longshot, walking and tracing the tire marks of some previous, future, or perhaps nonexistent race. We abruptly cut to him sitting in full racing gear in his Formula One, asking with the voice of an autistic child for the “key,” which an unidentified assistant repeatedly tells him is unnecessary. Deerfield awakens startled and scared, checking his pulse. We are at the core of mystery and obsession in Deerfield’s compulsive dwelling on the crackup that cost the life of his competitor. We have bought into a privileged partnership with the inaccessible but charismatic Deerfield, via a back door into his fears and most vulnerable moments: his disturbed sleep, his bath, a luck-invoking ritual involving Lydia kissing his scarf before he dons it in a race (the closest physical contact between Lydia and Bobby that Pollack allows us to witness). We are convinced, as Deerfield is by his instinctual “awareness,” that something—“a rabbit, a reflection off a lady’s pocket mirror”—caused the crash, and we resent the resistance to this theory by less attractive, more fatalistic underlings. But our investment slowly erodes as it becomes clearer that Deerfield merely believes in unseen variables (as opposed to deities), which he feels compelled to control or negate. Our ultimate compensation is a more objective, possibly loving view of who he is.

Bobby and Lillian (Al Pacino and Marthe Keller)
Bobby and Lillian (Al Pacino and Marthe Keller)

The swift dissolution of our visual confederacy with Deerfield comes in a painful scene when he examines a still projection of the critical moment of the accident. He stands inches away from the screen image, looking hard at it, in a way reminiscent of David Hemmings’ search for a link to an elusive reality in his enlargements of the park photos in Blowup. But in this case, what Deerfield wants to see is sadly, clearly, not there. From this point, he will cultivate further obsessions throughout the film, and they will appear to us as obstinate and juvenile—but without jeopardizing our primary emotional ties to him. In one scene, as the benign owner of the land Deerfield and Lillian are picnicking on strolls by, Lillian takes the initiative in meeting him while Deerfield rolls off a stream of biographical questions at her. When he finally notices the man (Deerfield has remained atop a hill while Lillian has gone exploring below, there encountering the landowner), he absurdly harps on a demand that she account for this “guy with the salami,” as if Lillian were privy to the engineering of each small stroke of fate. This telegraphs Deerfield’s great need of her, but also his paranoia about that which he cannot foresee or control—a paranoia that will appear to be justified shortly thereafter. The salami man, a quaint and harmless stranger to Lillian, will in fact take her into the skies in his hot-air balloon; that Lillian goes—in effect, lured from Deerfield’s bed—enrages Bobby, and sets him back emotionally. But perhaps the truth behind this disorienting dual role of the salami man (as casual passerby and agent of separation) lies not in the narrative itself but in Pollack’s cinematic handling of it: Deerfield returns to Lillian following his own near-fatal accident on the track, and Lillian inquires if he won the race. Deerfield tells her No without mentioning the mishap. With some psychic prowess of her own, Lillian asks, “Was it your rabbits?” Deerfield’s pursuit of her has made him willfully transparent, and what Lillian can see she finds, in her own words, irresistible.

What rescues Bobby Deerfield from its undeserved, early reputation as another banal Love Story is also the most dramatic change from Remarque’s original novel, Heaven Has No Favorites. The character Clerfayt has become Deerfield, and we are interested in nothing in this film except as it relates to him. Whatever stylistic transformations the film makes over its course are subjective extensions of the changes in him. Any question of whether or not we should care about the flawed Deerfield is inapplicable: if you hate his image, you will hate just about all the others, for Pollack’s visual integration is that strong.

Even the other principals are revealed to us exclusively through Deerfield. We will never know Lydia beyond her genuine desire for him, pitifully buttressed by her management of the details of his professional life and a frightening omniscience of his whereabouts. But lest she be defined as a web-spinning stereotype, it is important to remember that Deerfield sets the tone for their relationship as with everything else, and Lydia, in weakness, defense, whatever, forges the proper survival behaviors. More importantly, she is seen as a cog in Deerfield’s movie, not on her own terms.

Our introduction to Lillian comes through one of Deerfield’s stylized assertions of his personality: the gunning of his car engine as he drives into the town where she is hospitalized. Lillian is sharply awakened from her sleep (harking back to our introduction to Deerfield himself), which is part of her hospital routine, and which in turn is part of the routineness most grating to her manic/complacent cycle in approaching death. The roar of Deerfield’s various motors is frequently associated with a major stylistic motif in the film: that of the camera following an almost unbroken horizontal movement of Deerfield driving, running, and walking, representing the closest he can come to a personal élan as he is flanked by enough outside protection—Lydia, who makes his clothes and withholds upsetting messages prior to any race, and his assistants, who must ignore their own professional wisdom to follow his whims—to have no need for perpetual escape. Besides, Deerfield made his escape long ago. His constant forward motion, his inability to articulate why he is most comfortable in that state and why he seems consistently cornered and perplexed by people (Lillian, Lydia, Lillian’s uncle, a magician at the hospital restaurant) whenever he sits still, and final release from his need for a kinetic fortress, are all expressed by framing Deerfield as he sees himself: a once-trapped animal who gnawed its leg off to get away, and now flaunts the freedom to be moving in circles.

By tracking these forward thrusts, Pollack can also clarify what is happening to his character through embellishments on the image of clean, undisturbed movement. A poignant moment finds a marching band crossing the screen from right to left for no apparent reason save Divine acknowledgment that Deerfield has made yet another entrance into the center of the screen, driving around a curve and into the town square where his friend recuperates. Pollack’s playing out of Deerfield’s self-image is handily underscored by Deerfield’s hotshot posturing, his verbalized, gestured, and posed (for booze and Seiko watch commercials) assumption that wherever he goes he’ll be the victim of mob adoration. And when Deerfield angrily drives to and from the site of Lillian’s balloon flight, his car kicks up an ugly dust storm seen from a God’s-eye view, deflecting any romantic identification with speeding away from his pain.

It is only in those scenes where Deerfield is genuinely baffled or affected by something that the camera ceases to pan religiously and track his every move. When he first meets Lillian, he is left alone at a dining table, his energy and time set in idle and out of his control, while his friend uses a phone. Lillian first speaks to him in German, catching him off guard, and she later carries on a long inquisition on the subject of who and why is Bobby Deerfield while presenting her back to him. Again, as she is an unknown commodity at this point in the film, our interest is still designed and defined as being with Deerfield. Shortly after this scene, Deerfield has his second comeuppance of the night in a bar: he is puzzled by a simple magic trick, and is unable to learn from the magician what he is certain must be a fathomable and finite bit of here-and-now skills. The camera horizontally recedes from Deerfield twice: in the restaurant as he watches the trick performed, and then dollying back from his face and toward the direction of the magician’s entrance into the bar. The most obvious aberration of the camera’s fluidity occurs in a climactic scene of Deerfield crawling out of the flaming wreckage of his Formula One, slumping to the ground while trying to comprehend the fact of his accident with no rabbits in sight.

If Deerfield is forever going forward, then someone must certainly be moving vertically in this film. That would be Lillian, who functions in a far more utilitarian role here than in the novel, handily balancing Deerfield’s excesses with her own. Because she is dying and exhibits the expectable penchant for using time fully, her own excesses are more sympathetic, and closer to some major truths about herself, Deerfield, and all of us. Besides the exquisite balloon scene, in which Lillian acts out her need to literally rise above and see the world as a singular, cogent vision, Pollack’s strongest contrast and complement of the two characters (and one of the few real loosenings from Deerfield’s grip on our vantage point) comes during a dinner scene on the long journey to Lillian’s uncle. Standing out in the void of shadows and night, three distinct, fiery orange lights blaze in the distance over a lake behind Lillian; and behind Deerfield’s head we see randomly dispersed, distant blue lights, coolly reflected on the water.

Pacino’s performance has already been written off as among the most flaccid of his career. I would argue that his work as Deerfield is among his most complex film acting to date, principally because it is his most cinematic performance. By that I mean Pacino exerts a control necessary to allow his image to be assimilated into the wholeness of Pollack’s frame. His emoting, and brilliant suppression of it, is always commensurate with whatever else accompanies him in a shot. For his trouble, the components sharing the screen with him reflect and unravel his characterization, from his clothes to the displays of idolization by his fans in the bleachers and the decor of the Italian landscape. Pacino has done a rare service to audiences accustomed to thinking of good film acting as his pull-out-the-stops Method ranting in Dog Day Afternoon.

In America we are attending and discussing the works of highly derivative filmmakers (Scorsese, De Palma, Lucas, Spielberg), chiefly because they are honest about their derivation; i.e. we are learned fans acknowledging learned fans—as if synthesizing one’s awe of cinema in the form of a film could ever be as significant as allowing the film to stand as a continuum of growth. As a counterpoint to this syndrome, it is possible that Deerfield will be less impressive when it has to stand apart from its time and current context. But if there is permanence to this film—and I believe there is—it will be because of its tenacious self-reliance (rather than elaborating on or fulfilling needs precipitated outside the film), and its personal revelation of its director, its personal validation of the heretofore-impersonal credit “Directed by Sydney Pollack.”

© 1978 Tom Keogh

BOBBY DEERFIELD
Direction: Sydney Pollack. Screenplay: Alvin Sargent, after the novel Heaven Has No Favorites by Erich Maria Remarque. Cinematography: Henri Decaë. Production design: Stephen Grimes; art direction: Mark Frédérix. Editing: Fredric Steinkamp. Music: Dave Grusin. Production: Pollack; executive: John Foreman.
The players: Al Pacino, Marthe Keller, Anny Duperey, Walter McGinn, Romolo Valli, Stephan Meldegg, Jaime Sánchez, Norm Nielsen.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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