We took the Lady de Gloves to see Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood while we were reading Alan Furst’s The Spies of Warsaw. Our link is to all of Alan’s books because we have found all eight we have read to date to be outstanding. Quentin’s movie and Alan’s book share at least three things: A counterfactual story, a joy of place and time, and a chilling villain.
Quentin has a bromance between Rick, the leading man played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cliff, his stunt double, played by Brad Pitt set against the backdrop of Hollywood in 1969 (movies, TV shows, ads, cars, and records) while the Manson Family (in case you didn’t know) threatens their joy. Kyle Smith at NRO thinks Quentin spends too much time on atmosphere:
Tarantino stops the film regularly to linger on a montage of neon marquees fizzing to life, to cast his eye down a boulevard teeming with period cars, or to look at a 1969 television commercial. There must be scenes from close to a dozen movies and TV shows within the movie, some of them real, some fictitious, others combining forms by inserting today’s actors into vintage footage. Almost none of this drives the plot along. Tarantino just thinks it’s cool to re-create 1969 in a thousand different ways, and, with $90 million of Sony’s money to spend, he won’t be denied. He should have cut almost all of it and saved it for the boffins who buy Director’s Cut DVDs. [Emphasis added]
We agree with Quentin and disagree with Kyle. We don’t quite agree with Armond White. It was beyond cool to us and we see it as advancing the plot. It is not that Matt Helm was a great movie or Jose Feliciano’s version California Dreaming was any good. It is an excellent movie, because like Alan, Quentin reflected the time, the culture, and specific people. The joy amps up the coming conflict especially as Sharon Tate enjoys her role in Matt Helm. Perhaps we see it that way because we grew up in that era. Or perhaps it was reading Alan’s evocative book when we saw the movie but we delighted in the atmosphere of both and the contrast between them. We saw the atmosphere as ratcheting up the tension. In both cases we know that gruesome deaths are close by despite the joy of ’69 and the manners of ’38. It is hard to imagine two more different places. Alan and Quentin capture them beautifully.
Sidebar: Somewhere we saw a critic defending Quentin against other critics saying he should have shown the rest of ’69 including the antiwar movement and racial conflict. The critic says Quentin can make the movie he wants. We think there is a better explanation in that the movie needed just one villain, the Manson Family, against the joy of the times. It is, as the title implies, a fairy tale. End Sidebar.
Alan has the love story of Anna and Mercier set against the anxiety of pre-WWII Europe while threatened by the Nazis. Both live in Warsaw but they travel all over Europe. Mercier is a doubly wounded warrior who comes from a long line of French warriors. In 1938 nobody would think the previous sentence was a joke. He was physically wounded in battle and he lost his wife to the ‘flu. He is thinking about retiring but as his “Cold War” starts to heat up he finds interest in his work and love. The extraordinarily brief epilogue suggests that Mercier and Anna will be back. We hope so.
We can’t tell you about the counterfactuals other than we enjoyed both. Watch the movie and read the book carefully so you don’t miss the important stuff. We can’t create the counterfactual where we only do one of reading Alan’s book and seeing Quentin’s movie. We encourage you to do both and recognize that they might be better if taken together.