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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Anxiety over the fallout from a botched jewelry store robbery is the engine turning the emotional grinder inSidney Lumet’s fine 2007 drama, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a ThinkFilm Image Entertainment release. Philip Seymour Hoffmanand Ethan Hawke are brothers, frantically trying to cover their tracks and deal with the absence of the cash flow they thought would become available with the robbery, and discovering they have another family tragedy to cope with as well. Albert Finney turns in an especially poignant performance as their father, and Marisa Tomei has some hot moments as the wife of Hoffman’s character. Running 117 minutes, the narrative jumps back and forth in time to keep things interesting, and leaves the fate of one character open at the end. It is definitely a bleak film, but there is enough intrigue and psychological ambiguity-and downright riveting, guts out acting by all involved-to counteract the sense of dread and disaster sweeping over the heroes, while desperation chips more and more into their façade of competence.

Shot unnoticeably on highdef video, the picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The image transfer is unblemished, although the film has a deliberately gritty look at times. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has a passable dimensionality. There are optional English and Spanish subtitles, a trailer and a very good 24-minute production documentary in which Lumet talks about filmmaking and the cast members talk about working with Lumet. Those rewards extend to the feature’s marvelous alternate commentary track, as well, in which Lumet, Hoffman and Hawke talk about the ins and outs of shooting and performing on HD, about Tomei and the film’s great sex scenes, about sex among movie stars (Lumet teasing mentions but does not name several beautiful famous actresses he has known who were ‘frigid’), and about the more professional aspects of his long career. When the discussion turns to child actors, Hawke, who has been acting since he was twelve, offers an unexpected opinion. “I have a very bizarre relationship to it, which is that I don’t think they should be doing it. It’s very hard for me not to go up to their parents and ask them to take them home. I mean, I know we have to make the movie. I started acting with River Phoenix. For some people, myself included, it was okay. It was a tiny part of my life and it didn’t really make a huge register on my psyche, because I really wanted to be a writer. Acting was like a hobby, and then it kind of took over, and I realize, I survived it, but there’s a big casualty list of young actors. It’s not good for the self esteem.”

Lumet was also a child actor and recalls the time fondly, as it kept him ‘off the streets’ and contributed significantly to his education. Having made so many movies across his career, however, he hasn’t always succeeded, and he willingly discusses his failures, although, as with the unromantic actresses, he doesn’t identify them by name. “One of the things I keep my fingers crossed about it is that when I get the knowledge that it’s not going to work, please God don’t let me find out the first day of shooting. And it has happened. It’s happened to me once, on one picture, during rehearsal. I knew that everything I saw in it was a complete fantasy. I had invented a whole other movie in my own mind and was not going to be able to do that.”

“And you felt like at that moment you couldn’t stop it?”

“Not only couldn’t stop, I couldn’t even talk to anybody about it, because I’m the director. Talk about alone. And the last person you want to tell is the producer, because they’ll panic and go to the company and say, ‘Can I have my deferment now, please.’ It’s the worst feeling in the world. And another time it happened to me on the second day of rushes, and always for the same reason, self-deception. And we need the self-deception. That’s what helps us make the good work, too.”

May 20, 2008

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon