Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Forsyth (writer and director) Local Hero
director Bill Forsyth has established himself, in films such as Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero, and Comfort and Joy, as the creator off
somewhat offbeat comic works that leisurely spool out the lives of his
characters in a manner that seems, at times, like a kind of surrealist
fairy-tale set against a realist backdrop.
Local Hero, released in 1983, one of his
very best, begins within dark towers of downtown Houston in a building owned by
Knox Oil as the company board meets, while the CEO, Felix Happer (Burt
Lancaster), falls into a snore-laden sleep. The board has determined to buy a
small village in Scotland, Ferness, to create a large oil refinery.
Happer, clearly more interested in the
stars more than the oil business, is currently being psychologically treated by
a hack psychologist whose methods include heavy abuse, which Happer alternately
accepts and rejects as the mood strikes him, finally ordering the truly “crazy”
psychologist to be “shot down”: “There’s a madman on the roof. You’d better
call the police to get some marksmen over here. Shoot him down. Shoot to kill.”
Happer assigns a purchasing assistant MacIntyre
(Peter Reigart) to handle the deal in Scotland on the basis of his Scottish-sounding
name. In truth MacIntyre is of Hungarian background (his immigrant parents
thinking that MacIntyre sounded American), and he is better negotiating, as he
puts it, via telex. But just being asked to Happer’s office is a sign of honor.
Happer has little business advice, but is most specific that Mac, while in
Scotland, keep an eye on the stars.
So does the thoroughly American Mac enter
into a world he knows little about, a country of savvy survivors as we have
seen in a long tradition of Ealing and other comedies such as Whiskey Galore! Meeting up in Aberdeen
with a Scottish Knox representative, Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi) to drive to
Ferness, they accidently hit a rabbit along the way and forced to sit out the
night on the highway because of fog. Indeed by the time they reach Ferness they
might as well have discovered Brigadoon, so different is this world from either
The hotel, so they discover, is run by a clever
businessman, Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson) and his sexy wife, Stella. Not only
does he run the hotel, serve as waiter and head barman, but works off-hours, as
Mac and Oldsen soon discover, as the town lawyer and investment counselor. Getting
wind of Knox’s proposal, Urquhart, like a wily fox, suggests some disinterest,
telling Mac to take a couple of days to acclimate himself to his new location,
but immediately springing into a dance upon his bed: “Oh boy, are we going to
Gordon quickly calls meetings with the
locals to ask for their faith in him as the middleman—a meeting hilariously
held in secret at the local church, the parish run by an former African, who,
when Mac and Oldsen coincidently enter the churchyard, is sent off as a decoy:
Rev. Macpherson: You
want to buy my church?
Mac: Not as a going
With the two interlopers' backs turned
away from the church entrance, we see the village citizens racing from the
sanctuary; only Oldsen notices, but is so seemingly incompetent, he does not
even mention the event.
Days of slow haggling follow, as the
citizens pretend disinterest while impatiently waiting for Gordon to settle on
a price. What they cannot have imagined is that Mac, wandering the town’s
beaches, enjoying the wonderful meals cooked up by Stella (including the
rabbit, Trudy, whom the two men have turned into a pet), and the general
congeniality of the village begins to alter Mac’s perspective, as he falls in
love the Scottish way of “muckin’ through,” each villager not only taking on numerous
tasks in life, but working together in a communal way. Stars fall, comets come
into view, the Northern lights spin out colors of green, purple, and red, all
of which Mac dutifully reports back to Happer from a small seaside payphone
which is repainted a bright red.
meanwhile, has fallen in love with a Knox researcher, Marina (Jenny Seagrove),
who mistakenly interprets the strangers’ arrival as a response to her proposal
to turn the area into an institute for the study of the sea. She, in turn,
nearly always sea-bound, seems to be a real life mermaid, which even further
enchants the child-like Oldsen.
Negotiations continue, Gordon serving up a
42-year old whiskey to Mac. The Russians arrive in the form of a vodka-bearing
sea-captain, Victor (Christopher Rozycki), who regularly visits the town and
has invested money in a fund which Gordon oversees. And, in the midst of all
these comings and goings, are the plans for a céilhid, a Scottish social
gathering, with music and dance.
Mac has been so taken with the village
that, drunk, he offers Gordon to exchange lives, he coming to live in Ferness,
with the obviously capable Gordon going to work in Houston for Knox—with only
one condition, that he leave behind Stella, with whom Mac has fallen in love.
MacIntyre: [both men are
drunk] Would you leave Stella here with me?
Gordon: Sure I will.
MacIntyre: You’re a good guy,
The scenes of the céilhid, with its rosy
cheeked and freckled youngsters playing instruments, its arguing old men, and
the punk-tattooed motorcyclist obviously attracted to Oldsen, are some of the
best in the film. With his characters hardly speaking, Forsyth presents the
absolute charm of the community, its social bonds and its spirited love. Even
if the villagers themselves are all too ready to sell out and to abandon their
lives, we and Mac realize it would destroy a blessed civilization.
Fortunately, Gordon soon reports, the beach is owned, on command of
ancient decrees, by a sort of pack-rat scavenger, appropriately named Ben Knox,
who is not at all ready to leave his paradise. Mac even offers him a series of
world-wide beach properties to replace his current home, each of which Ben
refuses. Reporting back to Happer, Mac is told to prepare for his bosses’
arrival. His helicopter comes flying in at the very moment that the villagers
have begun to descend upon Ben’s doorless hut, which Happer mistakenly
interprets as a “greeting party.”
So does the owner of Knox oil meet the
Scottish Knox, who shares with Happer a fascination with all things astronomical.
At a one on one meeting they get along swimmingly, Happer, by conversation's
end, willing to abandon his plans for a huge refinery in order to create an
astronomical center in its place. The seemingly hapless Oldsen suggests he add
Marina’s Institute for sea study, an idea which Happer quickly seems to
embrace. Poor Mac is sent off back to Houston, gently stroking the shells he
has collected from the beach in his lonely and soulless apartment. Back in
Furness, the telephone ensconced in its small read box rings, but there is no
one there any longer to answer it.
In short, the Furness villagers are
saved—even from themselves! But who, one has to ask, is the local hero? Is it
Gordon, who has bluffed not only Mac, the entire Knox industry, but, perhaps,
even his fellow citizens? Is it Ben, who refuses to give up the world he
inhabits? Or even Oldsen, who despite his seeming outsiderness, is, after all
Scottish and, who along with Marina’s imagination, changes everything? Or is it
the now isolated and lost Mac, who fell in love with the very world he was
trying to negotiate the destruction of? Perhaps even Happer might be described
as saving the village, coming home to a world he has only previously imagined.
I suppose, with so many possible heroes, it doesn’t quite matter. The life
Furness offered was its own salvation, a world that couldn’t afford to lose
Los Angeles, July
As I’ve reported
elsewhere in the My
Year volumes, I met Peter Riegart at a
Los Angeles Greek restaurant, Sofi, some few years after publishing Paul
Auster’s City of Glass trilogy (1986
or 1987), to discuss his hopes of transforming the first fiction into a film.
He would have been perfect, it seems in retrospect, as one of the characters;
but evidently he could not find a screenwriter to transform the inner dialogues
of Auster’s fiction into effective film language. I now think, given my
understanding of film, I might have been able to do that. But at the time, I
was young and had no thoughts of screen-writing. Besides, the film rights
belonged to Auster and his agent.
I did very much enjoy my lunch with Peter,
who seemed so straight-forward and self-demeaning that one might never have
thought of him as a successful film actor.
As I have also reported, I met him several
years later at the 80th birthday party for my friend Joseph Perloff
(in 2005). There we had a delightful conversation about his appearance in the
DVD version of the Bette Midler musical Gypsy,
in which I described the wailing Riegart as a delightful foil for Midler. He
revealed the fact that he had been in an affair with Midler for many years in
Reigart has not appeared in a great many
movies since, and I wish he might be rediscovered. His quiet, understated
presence is perfect for directors such as Forsyth.