Category: The Film Vault


My junior year of college, I finally took a film production class. Before that, I was pre-med and miserable in it. Biochemistry 330 was the final nail in the coffin and I jumped ship second semester. Although I didn’t or couldn’t put words to it, that winter of ’97-98 was an incredible turning point for me, leading me down the path to… well, not exactly glory. But not yet ruins, either.

No longer saddled with extra science courses, I stocked up on film theory and production as much as I could in my final three semesters of college. One theory course I took was taught by Professor [first name redacted… I mean, forgotten…] Cohen, who conducted, still to this day, the most interesting Film Theory course I’ve ever taken. It was a lecture course and simply called “Introduction to Film.”

At the beginning of the first class, Professor Cohen said something to the effect of: “If you like going to movies and might be concerned that knowing how movies are made will negatively affect your enjoyment or viewing of them – drop the course.” I love this advice. It’s like knowing how a magic trick works, I guess. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain… er, camera.

The films we watched in that class were incredible. They ranged from the elegant Chinese film Raise the Red Lantern to the elegant American film Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (There are painfully few Austrian body-builders in Raise the Red Lantern, I must say.)

Several of the films I watched in that class fit into my requirements for re-visiting. But one stands out in my mind as a personally transformative piece of cinema – High Noon. Directed by Frank Zinnemann and written by Carl Foreman (who was booted from the production and fled to London after being blacklisted by cowardly jackasses).

The title of this weblog entry (seen above) is taken from the Oscar-winning original song that plays in the opening credits – “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'” the refrain goes. And I can’t even think about High Noon without hearing that song in my head. It’s old-timey and sounds like it would be from the era in which the film takes place. And the musical score, a variation of the theme, is used to incredible effect in the film – more so than almost any film I can think of. (I don’t really know how to describe music in word form but I’ll do my best.)

The score (also Oscar-winning) is very methodical, a precise beat that prods and moves along, unyielding. It’s used throughout, but as the film progresses, the beat increases tempo (look there – a musical word!) as the tension increases.

This is probably true in other films but the reason why it works in High Noon is because of something the title itself implies: Time.

The film takes 85 minutes to tell. The events of the film are in real time and take the exact amount of time to unfold on the screen. It is incredible.

This is before computer editing (obviously) that allowed for trial and error. So aside from the extremely tight storytelling, this is an amazing feat of technical filmmaking, especially for 1952.

Time. Time is everything in the film. (Even the judge’s last name, as seen on a sign, is “Mettrick.” This must be deliberate, a subtle reminder of a steady and measured pace.) In 85 minutes, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) is coming off the noon train and he’s pissed. And Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the man who sent Miller to prison, has to gather forces to make sure the outlaw doesn’t return and destroy the peace Kane created.

Which would be easier in normal circumstances, but it’s Kane’s wedding day to Amy Fowler (pre-Princess Grace Kelly) and he’s about to leave town. After the ceremony and right before he and Amy get ready to leave, Kane expresses concern that the new marshal* hasn’t yet arrived. Moments later, the telegram arrives warning that Frank Miller’s a-comin’. Everyone knows it’s to kill Kane – the man who cleaned up the town, a hero to the citizens there.

Kane and Amy are quickly scuttled away, put on their packed-up wagon, and in a flash they’ve left town. But Kane stops before he gets too far and realizes that this is his fight. He cleaned up this town, he’ll be damned if the man he kicked out comes back and everything us undone. So he assumes, in the 80 or so minutes before the train arrives, he can gather up a posse of citizens to join him and fight. But as he goes around Hadleyville trying to amass a force, he’s met with scorn, incompetence, and worst of all – indifference. After all, Kane is technically no longer marshal as of that day and Miller’s beef might be just with Kane. If Kane goes, then perhaps Miller won’t do anything at all. So the church goers, the saloon patrons who miss Miller’s lawless reign, and even his deputy who said he would help – all of them turn out to be unwilling or unable.

The only one who wants to fight is a young boy, and there’s no way Kane will let a boy risk his young life. So the clock ticks, and it’s just Kane.

(*Did you realize “marshal” is spelled with one L? Doesn’t that look weird to you?)

“I’VE GOT TO, THAT’S THE WHOLE THING”

Kane is one of my favorite film heroes in any film ever. His main character trait is commitment to duty. He has a job and an obligation and is bound by it – to the point of his own destruction. This reminds me of how I was raised to understand Lord Rama, hero of the South Asian epic “The Ramayana.” Having grown up in the Hindu tradition, I studied and was really drawn to Rama – a celestial incarnation who has superhuman powers but is mortal and bound to a deep sense of duty.

In “The Ramayana,” Rama is frequently described as dharma personified. “Dharma” is “duty” (“Dharma” is also the name of a bad ’90s sitcom character and probably countless children of hippies). Rama’s dharma is as a prince, a son, and as a warrior. But this frequently puts him in a sticky situation, this deep commitment to duty. Rama’s father, King Dasharatha, (against his own wishes but for reasons that are too complex to get into here) asks Rama to go into exile to the forest and renounce the throne and riches and everything. Because he’s bound to follow his father’s wishes, he goes without hesitation. But Rama’s father soon dies from heartache and an old forgotten curse.

Kane, in High Noon, is bound to protect the town. But he’s also bound to his new wife. What about her? If he protects the town, if he chooses to abandon her on their wedding day and risk his life, his wife won’t fight with him. She’s a Quaker, sworn to nonviolence (hey there – another connection to Hinduism!) and potentially will be widowed. He chooses an earlier, “greater-good” obligation and duty. But that doesn’t make it easier to swallow for Amy.

This question of duty is fascinating in High Noon and doesn’t only apply to Kane. What’s Amy’s responsibility? Should she stand by her man? What about her own faith and moral compass?

A great character in this town is the Mexican businesswoman/former Kane lover, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado). She scolds Amy thusly (again – WordPress’s best effort in script format):

HELEN
What kind of woman are you? How can you leave him like this?
Does the sound of guns frighten you that much?
 AMY
I've heard guns. My father and my brother were killed by guns. They were on the right side but that didn't help them any when the shooting started.
My brother was nineteen. I watched him die. That's when I became a Quaker.
I don't care who's right or who's wrong.
There's got to be some better way for people to live.
Will knows how I feel about it.

So now – we have Kane in town and no one is going to help him. His wife is going to leave on the same train Miller’s coming in on. Kane goes to the church and it looks like people are going to rally behind him, reminded of his work cleaning up Hadleyville. Then, steadily, people say – hey, it’s not our job to fight. The minister throws in his $0.02 and it comes up as so:

DR. MAHIN, MINISTER
The commandments say 'Thou shalt not kill,' but we hire men to go out
and do it for us.
The right and the wrong seem pretty clear here.
But if you're asking me to tell my people to go out and kill and maybe get themselves killed, I'm sorry.
I don't know what to say. I'm sorry.

Even his former Deputy Sheriff (Lloyd Bridges), mad at Kane for not giving him the promotion to marshal, tries to convince his old mentor Kane to leave town – to the point of drunken fighting him to get his point across (it doesn’t work).

So Kane is alone. Amy is at the train station – she sees Miller’s gang waiting for that same train to arrive with Frank Miller. Kane thinks he’s going to die. He even sits down and writes his final will. And then, this incredible montage sequence happens. It’s triggered by Kane’s initial scratching on the paper. THEN, holy cow, it’s really intense. A driving, pushing crescendo of a montage – the music rising more and more as the cuts (still shots almost) get tighter and tighter, giving us an overview of everyone we’ve met in town – the folks at the bar, the church (some with expressions of regret or fear), the people betting against him, Miller’s criminal cronies, the inn keeper, the judge who sent Frank Miller away, Helen, Amy, different intense angles of clocks and pendulums, all building up to the dolly in we saw earlier of the chair Miller was sentenced in. And then the train whistle!

The train is here. Frank Miller is here. And it’s time. Then the music is over and it’s back to Kane, finishing up the last of his final will and testament.

Holy cow it’s awesome, don’t you think? Note the composition – the arrangement of people in the frame (also called blocking). Everyone is mostly still and really cramped together. This blocking creates a sense of tension, a subconscious claustrophobic effect that amplifies the excitement, especially when coupled with the driving, metronomic music. And as we return to shots (seeing Miller’s gang a second and third time), everyone is even closer together. This is directing at its finest, and a masterstroke of editing, done without flash or fanfare. It’s the one time in the film that is taken out of the real-time context in a way. It’s happening now in present tense, but they are almost all happening simultaneously as opposed to in linear, time-forward sequence.

THE TIN STAR

Professor Cohen, in that great “Intro to Film” class I was talking about, illustrated one shot in this movie that I always think about in my own work. It’s perhaps the greatest shot, or one of the greatest, in American movie history. I say this knowing full well that there is no way to rank this sort of thing. But as a filmmaker, one tries to best use the tools and language of cinema to illustrate emotion through technical means. A great shot is a great shot if it can communicate an emotion but does not draw the viewer out of the film to say “wow that’s a great shot.” If you notice it’s great, it’s probably only doing part of the job it’s supposed to do – too technical, not enough emotional.

Will Kane goes out into the middle of the main street of town. He sees the carriage with his wife go by. He stands in the middle of town, awaiting his fate. And then, the camera starts on a close up of him. And then it pulls back and rises away and up. The music is wary – what’s going to happen next? – and by the end of the shot, we’re looking down at a wide stretch of the town. Kane is the only person there. He’s tiny in the frame, looking around nervously.

He is utterly alone. And he’s screwed.

(Shot starts at 1:10)

The shootout goes on and Kane would definitely have been toast – had it not been for his wife. Amy, who has relinquished violence, hears the first gunshots and runs from the train station back to town. Kane fights in the street and we don’t know where Amy is at all. And then, suddenly, one of Miller’s henchmen goes down. Shot in the back. It’s revealed that Amy pulled the trigger. We see her from behind, and all she does is slump her head. It speaks volumes – for love, she went that far. She violated one of her own principles to save her husband. But not without a personal cost.

Even though this is a singularly unique Western, the good guys still defeat the bad guys. But the end is so good that it cements the film’s place as an unconventional entry into the American Western genre and movie history in general. The townspeople come out after the shootout is over. Kane looks at them, with something like contempt, and throws down his tin star badge. It’s like spitting on the ground in front of them. (It’s badass.) And he takes off with Amy finally – changed, jaded perhaps. He fulfilled his duty, his dharma, as a marshal.

I watched this film recently with my fiancée, who hadn’t seen the film before. She was incredibly surprised that no one came to help. She thought for sure the townspeople would’ve come out in the end, to say something positive about the spirit of community, of people standing up for this heroic figure. You know – good American values that one might expect to find in a traditional Western including loyalty, teamwork, heroism. But the fact that the town people didn’t is what makes this film a true work of literature. Perhaps it says something about human nature, about how we’re willing to send people off to die but less willing when the reality is closer to home.

What’s interesting to me I just discovered is that people from all sides of the political spectrum have claimed Kane as their own. The film was considered Un-American when it came out seeing that it showed American townsfolk as cowardly – and also possibly an allegory of the McCarthyism and the Red Scare. (The screenwriter was blacklisted, for crying out loud.) John Wayne tried to sink this film because he thought it was the “most un-American thing I had seen in my entire life.” I read that the film was used in Poland’s Solidarity movement to rally support against the Soviet-backed Communists in the first partially free elections there. And now some on The Internet claim Kane as a true American – someone who will go to fight (read: go to war) despite being convinced not to, and that not fighting (like the rest in town) is un-patriotic.

All of this is hooey.

How on earth could this film be both Communist and Anti-Communist, as well as un-American and uber-American simultaneously? It’s either the most muddled film ever made, or people are idiots. (Okay there’s probably a third category in there someplace…)

But seriously – have these people actually paid attention to this movie? Will Kane is scared! It’s written on his face throughout. He’s not sure if he’s doing the right thing the entire time. He questions himself, isn’t sure if he is right. He thinks he’s done good in town but everyone seems to think otherwise. Gary Cooper as Kane is not a big shot braggart like John Wayne in pretty much every movie The Duke is in. Cooper’s Kane is deeply conflicted and scared but is bound by dharma, (like Rama) and that is what drives him. He’s not boldly growling, “Hey, I’m going to save this town, bitches! YEEEHAW!!!!” He’s saying – “Crap – I’m the marshal. Which sorta sucks because it’s my last day, but I’ve got to do it. Who’s with me? Wait – no one? Seriously?”

If he was truly a win-at-all-costs guy, he would’ve gladly taken the help of that kid. And he would’ve insisted the deputy sheriff stand and fight instead of saying, “Go on home to your wife and kids, Herb” after Herb gives the old hey-I-thought-there-would-be-more-of-us-look-I’ve-got-a-family-to-think-about excuse. Kane isn’t someone who wants to fight, this is someone who now has no choice.

Arguably, if Kane had left at the beginning and Miller comes into town, causes some mischief – the new marshal will come in and fight Miller off, most likely. I don’t think Miller could restart a reign of terror in a few short days. But Kane makes a choice that he’s still marshal and, ultimately, finds out that it’s all on his shoulders for real. If anything, this is an exploration of personal fear and duty. He ultimately is courageous, standing up to true, primal fear we see in that great high angle shot and in close-ups throughout. But it’s not without a recognition of his own frailty, morality, and a questioning of himself. He falls back on his dharma and fights.

I think we can all relate to Kane. Most of us have found ourselves with something on our plate or down the road, coming on a metaphoric noon train, that we are terrified to do. It’s unavoidable and it might hurt or destroy us (again – speaking metaphorically here). But we have to face it. And often we have to face it alone, like Will Kane, and confront our fear.

For those of you who know me (which I assume is all six of you since you’re reading from the inception of this weblogging endeavor), the obvious pick for me to begin writing about my favorite movies would be Star Wars. But it’s so obvious that I’m going to have to hold off on it for a few posts to get warmed up.

So instead, let’s go to 1994 – which, astounding to me, is now seventeen years ago.

It was an incredible year for movies, one of the best in recent memory for American studio and independent films. A sampling:

And lesser greats including-

The above lists can only be followed by this: !!! That’s right – three exclamation points. (Several of the above movies will be written about in the future…)

It was also the year of the legendary Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s White followed by Red, ending his renowned “Three Colors” Triology. I assume this is a great trilogy, since I was required to watch all of them before starting at the American Film Institute. I am ashamed (proud?) to say I have seen zero of them and made it through 2-plus years of film snobbery. (Kieslowski’s work remains on my ever growing to-see list, especially The Dekalog.)

But the one film I didn’t include in the above 1994 list (!!!) is the one I’m going to talk about – The Shawshank Redemption (written and directed by Frank Darabont based on the Stephen King novella).

In 1994, I began my senior year of high school and started to spread my movie-viewing wings. My parents had a long-standing and quite firm policy of not allowing me to watch R-rated films until I was 17. Which meant I only saw R-rated movies at my friends’ homes – and usually consisted of the high brow cinematic antics of Booger Presley in Revenge of the Nerds or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s early pre-governor one-word-title art house fare including Commando and Predator.

So in 1994, with drivers license in hand, the occasional use of my parents’ car, and no movie-viewing-age restrictions tying me down, the film floodgates opened – so much so that I saw Pulp Fiction at the dollar theater seven times. And so began my long ascent (descent?) into the a life as a filmmaker. It was a good year to start, as you can see.

The Shawshank Redemption may seem like a trite mainstream choice to begin with for a film school elitist snob. After all, it’s on TNT like every other Saturday or something. I just caught it for a few minutes the other day. Holy s***[*edited for TV*], was it hard to watch with commercial interruptions.

But take yourself back to the first time you saw the film, before you knew what happened, before you knew of a place called “Zihuatanejo” or the name Andy Dufresne. Before Morgan Freeman was lampooned for narrating one too many movies.

It’s hard for me to actually remember when I saw it the first time because of TNT and all, but it was definitely during the film’s opening run in the theater in 1994. I remember seeing it in 2004 in Los Angeles at the great Arclight Theater in Hollywood for its ten-year anniversary re-release. I was at the Arclight for a screening of AFI thesis films, and afterwards snuck out of the reception to see The Shawshank Redemption. I hurried down and asked, “are there seats left for Shawshank or is it sold out?”

The guy at the ticket counter seemed confused at the question, and only when I got into the theater did I realize why – the theater was almost empty. Man, f***[*edited for TV*] TNT network!

But don’t blame its cultural pervasiveness against the movie itself. It is truly a masterful piece of cinema that brings together taught storytelling, elegiac cinematography, and a classic score that ties everything together. The film is textbook filmmaking. (And – because these things matter somehow – it is No. 1 all time on the IMDb user ratings list.)

The narrative device, first of all, has always reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Red (Morgan Freeman) is the narrator but is not really the main protagonist – that’s Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins). In Gatsby, Nick Carraway tells the story of Jay Gatz. As far as my college English-major recollections go, this was a novel (pun intended) narrative  device for a work of fiction at the time. It’s not totally unusual for a narrative film to have this structure, but it is less common than the first-person standard way films are told. At AFI, my graduate school, they beat it (literally?) into us – “whose story is it? Whose story is it?!” (And then the beatings. The beatings…)

In Shawshank, it’s Andy’s story, but it’s also Red’s – just as it is Nick’s and The Great Gatsby’s. And in the beginning, the movie seems like it’s going to be a more conventional style. The opening credit sequence intercuts the courtroom with Andy on the stand, the night of his wife’s murder, and the verdict. It’s incredibly efficient – it covers the crime, the conviction, the possibly wronged defendant (Andy) and ends with the judge’s gavel and a cut to black.

But then! It goes to a different character who starts narrating! After a long dolly shot in from medium close up to Red’s face ending with a “Rejected” stamp after his parole hearing, he begins his voiceover: “There must be a con like me in every prison in America.” Everything from here on continues with Red and everything is from his point of view. We never learn anything that Andy is doing to steadily, quietly escape until the very end – because it’s Red who tells us and he knows barely more than we do. When Andy escapes and there’s that incredible shot looking up at the Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), and the camera recedes down the shaft revealing the tunnel and the warden’s face getting smaller – we learn about Andy’s escape the same time Red does.

Back to that opening scene in the prison, though – it’s is one of the many scenes that give me goosebumps when I see it. After Red says, “So when Andy Dufresne came to me in 1949 and asked me to smuggle Rita Hayworth into the prison for him, I told him no problem” the camera flies over Shawshank in a super wide aerial shot that swings over the prison as the inmates flood out into the yard while the prison bus arrives into the gate.

The shot accomplishes a few major things. First, and most basic, it gives us a layout of the place. This is a massive fortress, the world we’re going to live in for the next two hours. And second, as an extension to that, the shot gives a contrast to Red’s boast that he’s going to bring Rita Hayworth into this place – how will that even be possible? It’s as if the film visuals are throwing down the challenge to a stated goal by our main character.

And third, the music played over the shot creates the feeling of an elegant, graceful film. This isn’t the gritty Cool Hand Luke or Orson Wells’s version of The Trial – this will be visual poetry.  And it is.

EVERY LAST MAN FELT FREE

There is one moment early on where this second person narrator slips to a first person, and that’s when Andy enters the prison for the first time. There’s this textbook point-of-view shot that illustrates what our character is up against. Andy is entering, shackled, and he looks up. We then cut to his point of view, what he’s seeing, as he looks up and the overbearing, imposing, impenetrable stone walls of Shawshank Prison loom over him. It’s a tilting up and dollying forward shot, so the feeling is of the building rising up and over us, enveloping us completely.

It’s something you may not have noticed explicitly, yet it’s a filmmaker’s dream to have a shot that good in a film. It says so much, may never be remembered as being anything spectacular, but in the language of cinema, a shot like that speaks volumes on a subtle level. The viewer can feel its effect without really knowing it.

There are a handful of these incredible shots in Shawshank, so I’ll only mention a couple otherwise this will go on forever. The scene where Andy locks himself into the office and broadcasts a Mozart aria over the entire prison yard is another one that the emotion of the scene perfectly matches the shot selection and execution. The music soars (as Red’s voiceover says), and so does the camera – a very wide shot that rises up from the ground as the people stand in place, listening and looking somewhere. The camera continues to move until it reveals, in the foreground, a speaker playing the music, cut together then with close-ups of people’s faces just listening, not moving at all. The grounds, lined with prisoners standing to listen, is a shot that’s part otherworldly, part magical, and incredibly beautiful. It feels as if it’s lifted above the timeline and reality of the film. Here’s the line, in the best screenplay format WordPress can do:

RED (v.o.)

I tell you, those voices soared. Higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away…and for the briefest of moments – every last man at Shawshank felt free.

(Please excuse the Korean subtitles if you are, like me, unable to read them.) Which is one theme that’s explored throughout the film – how do you feel human in a place meant to strip you of humanity? (Red: “They send you away for life, and that’s exactly what they take.”)

Early in the film, Andy and Red are tarring the license plate factory roof. Andy overhears guard Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown) complain about some inheritance tax problems. Andy walks over and the guards draw their guns, and Andy asks – “Mr. Hadley, do you trust your wife?” Now, knowing that Andy was put in jail for the murder of his wife makes this even more tense and unusual – but what launches it into dangerous territory is that he’s nearly thrown over the roof because of it. There’s a high angle shot overhead looking down at the ground below that then moves down, changes to a profile shot of the two of them, and then swings around them as Andy explains a tax loophole that will allow Hadley to keep his money.

Andy asks for payment:  beers for him and his “co-workers.” Andy:  I think a man working outdoors feels more like a man if he can have a bottle of suds. That’s only my opinion. Sir.”

RED (v.o.)

And that’s how it came to pass, that on the second-to-last day of the job, the convict crew that tarred the plate factory roof in the spring of ’49 wound up sitting in a row at ten o’clock in the morning, drinking icy cold Bohemia style beer courtesy of the hardest screw that ever walked a turn at Shawshank State Prison. We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders, and felt like free men. We could’a been tarring the roof of one of our own houses. We were the Lords of all Creation.

By recognizing Hadley’s humanity, Andy was able to get Hadley to recognize the prisoners’. The scenes are almost too perfect to bear – first the camerawork and editing while they’re tarring the roof. Then the sun-bathed drinking their beers in near silhouette on the roof. Heartachingly beautiful stuff.

Okay, I’ve done it – I didn’t quickly list the shots and sequences I love. I went into extreme detail. I’ll try to wrap this up, but one more thing I want to talk about…

REHABILITATED

One thing that makes the film really click as a work of art is it’s symmetry. Symmetry, when used poorly, can feel too controlled, too stifling or paint-by-numbers. When used well, when used to emphasize the repetitiveness of prison and to establish a pattern – only to change it ever so slightly at the end – is incredibly satisfying.

Take, for example, the three scenes of Red before the parole board. Each time, it’s a long slow dolly into to his face, starting from a medium-wide shot to a close-up of his face at the end of his speech. Then, a cut to a close-up insert of “Rejected” with a picture of Red as a young man on his prison file. And repeat. That is, until the end when he finally is granted parole. The shot stays longer in a close-up on Red’s face – he’s changed over the years, not going to give the answer the parole board wants to hear but what he actually has learned in Shawshank. It’s wise and earnest and shows true “rehabilitation.”

Parole granted. And what makes it snap and even more satisfying is the symmetry of those scenes. The “approved” stamp is that much more rewarding on a deeper level because we know the repetition, the same negative result before. We know what he has gone through – and to have a new result and not the same is a big relief for the character and the audience.

Then, when Red goes out into the world, his life is almost identical to that of Brooks (James Whitmore) when earlier in the film Brooks, an old man, made parole. Both Brooks and now Red have become “institutionalized” – can’t live on the outside of Shawshank. Red living on the outside has dialogue that’s almost identical to Brooks’s. Red even stays in the same half-way house that Brooks stayed in, including the ceiling cross beam with the inscription “Brooks was here” he wrote moments before hanging himself.  We have this fear that Red’s fate will be the same.

Red looks up at the cross beam where Brooks hung himself, and Red says, “Get busy living – or get busy dying” – and we’re not totally sure what’s going to happen. Or at least since we’re watching a movie we’re hoping he’s not going to do the same thing.
But then, he says, “That’s goddamn right.” And we see him walking out and the camera tilts up as he passes to see the “Brooks was here” only to have the addition: “So was Red.”

This symmetry of scenes and shots and moods sets up a familiarity for us, an expectation subconsciously that the outcome will be the same as before. So when it is not, it’s a huge relief. This attention to detail, the similarity and affinity of one scene to another, enhances our feeling of satisfaction and relief when the result differs.

The relief continues on and the film rolls downhill, a gushing torrent of beauty and graceful filmmaking – textbook dénouement or “falling action” – as Red then buys at ticket to Fort Hancock, Texas, says he’s guilty of parole violation (the dialogue mimics Brooks’s from earlier, too), until we see the Pacific. The voice over and imagery still give me chills (emphasis mine):

RED (v.o.)

I find I am so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain…  I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. (beat)

I hope.

Now this is the way to end a film – on the white sands of Zihuatanejo along the blue waves of the Pacific, contrasting the grey prison of Shawshank, with Andy working on a boat and the wind blowing – two friends free men under endless sky.

To end a movie that way – well, you might as well retire from filmmaking after that. It’s just too excellent and no matter how many times I see it, I well up with tears and fall in love with movies all over again.

I think one of the reasons I love this film so much is that it reminded me of the Chicago stage production of The Count of Monte Cristo I saw as a teenager a few years before. This was an early connection I made as someone who thought about literature and art and the parallels we try to find in archetypal storytelling across genres. My eventual English-major self was proud of my high school self (especially since the film makes an actual mention of the Alexandre Dumas novel in the movie).

In The Count of Monte Cristo, the wronged party exacts revenge in precise and equal amounts of those who wronged him. And rewards those who were good to him in his pre-prison life. It’s incredibly satisfying, this Karmic retribution. Shawshank has that same feeling for me. Perhaps it reaffirms my personal spiritual belief – not always confirmed in reality – that what goes around comes around. So this spoke to me, directly, and said, Yes, the Golden Rule has not yet been repealed.

Throw in the incredible visuals captured by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (robbed of the Oscar in 1995 and other years) and Thomas Newman’s score – let’s just say if it’s on TNT next weekend, I’ll probably sit down and watch it until the end as always.

Deep sigh of satisfaction. Roll credits.