Directed by: Anton Corbijn. I guess it’s pretty cliché to say that this film’s cinematography owes a lot to still photography, since director Anton Corbijn was a photographer before entering into filmmaking. And it’s probably more cliché to pay special attention to the colour palate, since Corbijn is known for working almost exclusively in black and white, from his photos and music videos for Joy Division (and later, for my favourite U2 song), and finally for his film debut Control, from a couple years back. But, this is indeed the Dutch photographer’s second film to date, and his first in colour. And, the colour palette is indeed very beautiful. From the opening credit sequence onward, wherever he gets the chance, Corbijn uses very simple mise-en-scene—the lighting, art direction, locations, wardrobe, props, etc—in order to compose a very simple monochromatic palette hearkening back, in my eyes at least, to some kind of sleek, ultramodern 60’s futuristic style. In its look and its content, its tone—an American action movie made not by sleek Hollywood execs but by a Dutch artist, shot in Italy.
This film has all the best aspects of European and American coolness. Movies like this are what decides what is cool at any given point in time. 40 years ago, it was John Boorman’s Point Blank with a stoic, suit-wearing, violently cool Lee Marvin, and with The American, we haven’t really come all that far. Still a middle-aged white man, one of the quintessential leading men of their times, a man of action, in this case portraying a quiet but headstrong (and, when necessary, violent) man, and in both cases, what the ladies could (and do) describe as a “silver fox.” The content of the story is, of course, very different. The American, from the title onward, calls attention to nationality, and specifically, the centrality of American identity. This identity is, of course, central in America, but by setting the film in Italy, Corbijn draws attention to a phenomenon I find pretty interesting: when inside your home country, your nationality if fairly meaningless; it takes on its greatest significance, and sometimes its greatest complexity, when you go somewhere else. In this little Italian villa, Jack is regarded by the local priest simply as “the American,” and in conversation he speaks of Jack in generalities like, “you Americans want to escape history, always living for the present”, etc.
I know that much was made of the film’s modelling after the structure and trappings of the Western, specifically the Spaghetti Western of Leone—Corbijn even works in that devastating intro scene with Henry Fonda from Once Upon a Time in the West. And in the sense of having a lone stranger, an American, in a new town, being violent (and not always admirably so, as with Eastwood’s Man With No Name) but ultimately being the most noble and authentic person around, this film does fit that lineage somewhat. But to my eyes, this film is almost the inverse of a Western, whatever that is, and not an Eastern, either. The American is yanked outside of the land that defines him, and here, in the winding, twisting, labyrinth of small-town Italy, the Old World, the American finds a new context. There’s certainly something to be said about his attachment to the prostitute, the final heroic and human gesture at the end, and lots of other things. For now, though, I’m content to enjoy this film as an exceptional example of coolness in modern cinema that won’t be surpassed for a little while.