Looking for a video my daughter might like on a lazy Saturday night, I spotted Peter Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon” on the shelf at Blockbuster. It’s old and it’s in black and white, and usually she would respond to her father’s enthusiasm with a tolerant politeness and a glance over her shoulder for something made this decade, but when I explained that it’s about this conman who gets lumbered with a daughter he didn’t know he had, who turns out to be better at the grift than her father, she surprised me and went for it.
Neither of us regretted it, judging by the response it got. I have only seen this film once before, when I was about 22, but it still glowed in my memory. It was everything I remembered. It’s a tight, funny story, told without sentimentality, with a script by Alvin Sargent that reminded me what American films were capable of before Spielberg and Lucas got their clammy hands on them. The performances are beautiful, with Ryan O’Neal and his own daughter Tatum playing the father Moses and the daughter Addie. Whatever happened to Ryan O’Neal?
Whatever happened to Madeline Kahn? She plays the floozy Trixie Delight, who’s time and looks are running out and she knows it. I remember her from Mel Brooks’ comedies where she was always effortlessly sexy and funny, but here she is straight, with her emotions bare. She delivers a speech to the child Addie, that lays herself open in a couple of lines and shows us that this apparent bubble-head is actually entirely aware of her situation and its limitations, and accepts them for what they are, things this child couldn’t possibly know about, but will find out all about in her own time.
The thing everyone remembers from the film is the very young Tatum O’Neal’s performance, for which she won an Oscar. It is quite simply astonishing that a child so young with no experience could deliver a performance so convincing, made all the more demanding by the very long, uninterrupted takes Bogdanovich goes for, in imitation of his hero Orson Welles.
The film is shot in gorgeous black and white by the great Laszlo Kovacs, always in the deep focus that Bogdanovich also borrowed from Welles. A scene in which Moses tries to buy a train ticket for the child that’s just been foisted on him is reminiscent of the celebrated sequence in “Citizen Kane” when the young Charles’ parents arrange for him to be sent away, and he can be seen in the back of the shot through a window noisily playing in the snow. In this film Addie stands forlornly by the road over Ryan O’Neal’s shoulder while he arranges to send her away. Over the shoulder of the Station Master can be seen a couple of girls in white dresses playing happily, occupying the same place in the shot Addie does, drawing a simple but devastating visual comparison.
I was deeply impressed by the scenes close to the end when everything is starting to unravel for Mose and he’s being chased by the local sheriff of the neighbouring town, whose brother he has just ripped off, and a gang of thugs through the empty streets of St Joseph. He runs down empty streets lined with period cars and hung with heavy afternoon shadows, among colonnades and railroad tracks and warehouses, and the scene looks like a nightmare sequence out of Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” or the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico. This is an uncanny quality Bogdanovich had captured before, in “Last Picture Show”; a sense that the society of people was precarious, and might slide away into emptiness unless civilisation rallied and propped it up again.
The ending is the sort of sequence in a film that makes you hold your breath with the daring of it, in case the protagonists fall off the wire and the film slams shut with a note of sloppy sentiment or misjudged pathos. But it doesn’t and they all pull through, and the final minutes of the film are the kind of thing that can be compared to the best things in John Ford or Orson Welles without embarrassment, the kind of thing you can call a classic and mean it.