And then, for about four minutes, it becomes a cop movie.
As we’ve been going through Superman: The Movie, I’ve been tracking the film’s swift pivots in tone, as it transforms itself from sci-fi space opera to tragic teen drama to screwball comedy, with a detour into the psychedelic mindscapes of the Fortress of Solitude. The film is essentially a montage of different styles, and once we get to Metropolis, that process doesn’t stop.
People talk about the Krypton / Smallville / Metropolis sections as if that explains everything, but Richard Donner keeps on juxtaposing different styles through the entire movie. This moment is a perfect example, because over the next four minutes, the film is going to walk us through a gradual transition that takes us from the last scene’s classic romantic comedy meet-shoot and leads us down into the depths of the underworld, and the brutal murder of a central figure in the sequence.
Naturally, this dark ritual of summoning begins with a quaint musical comedy street-sweeper, who shouts, “Hi, Otis!”
Yesterday, I talked about how Donner cleared the screen of clutter and contradiction when Clark and Lois stepped out of the Daily Planet building into a sunny Metropolis afternoon. On Clark Kent’s side of the street, everyone was well-dressed and polite, traffic noise was kept to a minimum, and there were no visual distractions to get in the way of the audience focusing on the characters’ interactions.
This sequence does the opposite of that, in a way that indicates to the audience that they shouldn’t be feeling comfortable anymore. The street looks grimy in this scene; we see trash cans, and there’s a guy sweeping up rubbish in the gutter. The signs on the stores are more aggressive, and the guys aren’t all wearing suit jackets, like they were a few minutes ago.
Also, stuff keeps getting in the way. People cross right in front of the camera, even when a character is speaking. A car passes by, while one of the cops is pointing at Otis across the street. In the shot pictured above, the camera is positioned behind the red dome light on the police car, which obscures our view of Otis’ progress down the sidewalk.
The music cue is giving us conflicting feedback, as well. This scene is the introduction of the final major motif in John Williams’ soundtrack: a march known as the Villains motif. The track mainly involves a nervous-sounding string section making an insistent four-four beat that cycles through various stages of agitation. Over that, a cheerful tuba plays a sprightly melody line, in keeping with Otis’ jaunty straw hat and slightly waddling gait.
The cue bridges this moment of transition between comedy and something more sinister, starting with the chirpy tuba line that fades after four bars, until all you hear is the quickened heartbeat-pulse of the strings section. (See? I can write about the music. It’s easy; you just say things.)
So that brings us to the plainclothesmen of the moment, sitting in their car which as far as I can tell does not actually have a door on the passenger side. Spotting Otis, the driver cop directs his partner’s attention to the public enemy across the way. The partner, Harry, is pretending that he’s leaning on something, but then the driver motions him to hop in, and Harry just walks through the empty space and sits down in the seat, looking expectant and making no move to shut the car door, which does not exist. I don’t really have a point to make about that, it’s just that I noticed it and now I can’t think about anything else, and I want to pass that burden on to you.
Since I’m writing a post that will involve these two guys fairly heavily, I would like to be able to refer to them both by name, rather than Harry and driver cop. Unfortunately, the movie has decided not to help me in that regard. In the credits, they’re listed as Officer #1 and Officer #2. In the dialogue, driver cop calls his partner “Harry”, and Harry calls driver cop something that sounds like “Ah-miss” the first time, and “Ar-miss” the second time. I gather that “Ah-miss” is the way a guy with a Metropolis accent says “Ar-miss”, but “Ar-miss” isn’t a name, as far as I know. If you’re thinking that the name might be Amos, then it’s definitely not. I don’t know what it is. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, one way or another.
Anyway, the cops get excited when they see Otis, who they recognize right away. “Look what we got,” says driver cop, pointing across the street. “Let’s take him.”
“Wait a minute,” Harry says, and then he says, “Maybe he’ll lead us to the big man, himself.” I don’t know why he starts with “wait a minute,” when he clearly means “awesome, I agree that we should take him,” but that’s what he says.
I also don’t know why they’d want to drive a car through the busy traffic of midday midtown Metropolis to follow a guy, when they could easily keep pace with him on foot, especially because once they arrive at Grand Central Station, which is where he’s going, they’ll have to park the car somewhere, and they don’t have a hope of finding a space near the terminal, so they’ll have to park in a garage, which will take forever and cost them the 1978 equivalent of thirty-five bucks.
But the driver says, “Lex Luthor?” and Harry says, “You got it, Ah-miss,” and then he sits down in the passenger seat of the car that they shouldn’t be driving, and doesn’t close the door that isn’t there.
Inside the terminal, Otis walks by a blind newsvendor, who’s standing with his seeing-eye dog and shouting “Hey, what do ya read?” which is Metropolis newsvendor talk.
Otis and the newsman greet each other by name, and Otis picks up a copy of the Daily Planet, and drops a coin into the jar. Then he tries to take a pretzel without paying for it, but the dog can sense funny business, and barks at him until he turns around and pays for the pretzel too.
It’s an economical little bit of character-building, which lets us know that Otis is a petty criminal who steals from the blind, and he’s also a hapless comedy nitwit who’s easily foiled.
The thing that strikes me is that this must be his regular daily routine, because everyone along the way knows him by name. So if he’s hoping not to be followed, which he’s going to half-heartedly indicate a minute from now by holding the newspaper next to his face for a second, then I don’t know why he takes a regular daytime route to his boss’ secret lair, where even a blind guy can recognize him.
But I’ll stop nitpicking at this point, because none of that matters; the point is that Otis is connected to Lex Luthor, who’s actively wanted by the police, and Grand Central Station is the departure point where the movie’s going to start running on a different track.
We’re almost an hour into the movie, and so far we haven’t had a real antagonist, unless you count the exploding science council, or Brad from the football team. Superman has lost several parents, due to more or less natural causes, but otherwise, he’s had a pretty smooth ride to Metropolis and a job in print journalism.
But now, the movie is going to lead this pair of redshirts down to the gates of Hell, to find out what curiosity does to cats.
As I said, Otis is recognizable at some distance, and holding a newspaper up to his face when a couple uniformed cops go by is not really the cloak of invisibility that he’s hoping for. But there are lots of people around, and if you’re going to shake off a tail then it might as well be at Grand Central Station, where there’s lots of distraction and noise.
Otis has clearly been marked as a comedy character, but the detectives trailing him are not; they walk with purpose, and manage to follow him down to a train platform. These are the first people that we’ve seen in Metropolis who aren’t wisecracking nonstop, and this descent into the dark spaces indicates that something serious is going on.
Otis walks through the train doors and out onto the track, leading us into a gloomy and dangerous space. The music faded out a little while ago, and now all we hear is the unsettling sound of a running train, as heard in a setting where we know people aren’t supposed to go.
The transition in tone still doesn’t seem to apply to Otis, who playfully tries to balance as he walks along the rail, but there’s a point where even a cheerful person in the wrong context can seem threatening.
Harry is still taking things seriously, and he’s competent enough to figure out the winding path that Otis takes through the trackway. He calls for backup on track 22, and continues to follow.
But it turns out that on his own turf, Otis can be competent too, in his limited way. The cops have followed him into his home territory, where he’s under the protection of a higher power.
While a passing train obscures the trailing cop’s view, a secret mechanism moves the section of wall behind Otis’ perch — the sudden, unexpected intrusion of a James Bond trope, which tells us that there’s another style of movie that we’re now able to access.
Otis trips lightly through the portal, casually flicking a switch that closes the secret door, and leaving the rest of the world on the outside of this new, hazardous space.
When the train has passed by, Harry realizes that Otis has disappeared through a secret passage that’s helpfully marked MAN HOLE, so you can tell where the men are going.
Harry’s excited — “So that’s it!” he grins — because he’s still under the impression that this story is about him.
But then there’s a well-deserved tension sting, as we suddenly see Otis from another angle, viewed on a big monitor that dominates a room filled with smaller screens. If that door-opening trick was a James Bond device, then this is clearly the spider at the center of the web, who’s been constructing a space laser out of radioactive diamonds while the rest of us have been messing around, topside.
With the Bond villain’s usual disdain for his underlings, a voice growls, “It’s amazing that brain can generate enough power to keep those legs moving.”
Then we see him tap on a button in his bank of controls…
And the view on the monitor screen changes, to show poor Harry, approaching the secret portal.
And then we cut back to the subway tunnel — with the cop in precisely the same pose and shot from precisely the same angle as the view on the villain’s monitor screen.
This is an unbelievable display of narrative power, especially for a guy who we haven’t been introduced to yet. This villain is actually taking over for the director, seizing control of Donner’s ability to switch from one shot to another. He’s placed all the cameras, and he’s editing the film on the fly, while it’s happening.
With that kind of power at his command, is it any wonder that this villain can put a swift and violent end to Harry and his partner? The cops carried us this far — down below the ground, where the scary people dwell — and now they’re no longer necessary. The cop movie has given way to the James Bond film, which is apparently happening on the other side of that secret door.
When backup finally arrives, it’s too late. Harry has been eliminated from the film, and we’re no longer responsible for paying attention to him. The deceased doesn’t even matter enough to leave some blood spatter that ought to be coating the landscape, after a train kill.
So that’s a “rest in pieces” for our four-minute friend. Officer Harry is survived by his hat, and a grieving partner whose name I have not yet figured out.
Enter Lex Luthor, Bond villain
and mythopoetic trickster figure
1.44: The Man Behind the Curtain
— Danny Horn