Ras: Old Guy Movies

Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes, a film directed by Juan Jose Campanella, won a 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and it deserves the prize. There is much to like in this mystery/thriller:  an intriguing plot featuring that old staple – revenge; a writer writing and rewriting the story line even as it occurs; flashbacks that make you work to figure out the story; an inside look at the Argentine “justice” system; and a romance that never quite happened.

Ricardo Darin is a delight in the part of Esposito, a retired detective who is obsessed by a lurid rape-murder 20 years before. As a pensioner, Esposito can’t get the case out of his head so he’s writing it up as a novel and visiting his old office in hopes of reopening the cold case files.

The title refers to the detective’s theory on who the killer is – one suspect is found making goo goo eyes at the victim in an old photo – but it also refers to a second story line – an unfulfilled romance between the detective and his former boss (Carla Quevedo). Now a judge, she was a young department chief newly arrived 20 years before. Esposito had a deep thing for her from the moment he saw her, but as a result of class barriers, organizational hierarchy, and his own inability to seize the day, nothing happened between them.
The judge and Esposito
But watch their eyes 20 years later, when the ex-detective walks into the judge’s office with a manuscript to show her. Their eyes glow, they delight in each other. Without their ever saying a word, we feel this instantly. So reopening the old case is for Esposito a chance at a do-over for another passion he’s never let go of.
This movie is particularly appealing to – how shall we say this? – men of certain age. The years have made Esposito grayer, sure, but he’s also gotten wiser and cooler over time, and you can see that the judge sees this too. The Secret in Their Eyes is an immediate classic in the genre I’ve come to think of as Old Guy Movies.
In an Old Guy Movie the hero is a man of wisdom and maturity who has seen many things. Because he has acquired considerable savoir-faire along life’s way, he has a glint in his eye and an amused attitude. (A short-form variant of the archetype is Kaze’s Most Interesting Man in the World from those Dos Equis commercials.) In these films the Old Guy hero is often contrasted to a young man who may have vigor and looks and better abs, but who is seriously in need of that certain something the Old Guy has picked up. For people like me who have discovered the first faint glimmers of aging in themselves, this Old Guy character, when done well, is irresistible.
What are the best Old Guy Movies? Here are two more great ones to go with The Secret in Their Eyes.
Robert Forster
In this low-budget indie film, written and directed by Dan Cohen, Robert Forster plays a vet jewelry salesman assigned to show a young hotshot how you sell jewelry to store owners in small Pennsylvania towns.  Forster, 59 when the movie appeared, is a master of the business.  He knows all the angles and doesn’t have much patience for teaching his impulsive young sidekick, nicely played by Donnie Wahlberg.  Of course, in the manner of Odd Couple plots everywhere, they do become buddies in time.
Forster handles his role in an understated way. He’s a quiet, gentlemanly sort (part of being a good jewelry salesman is not to attract attention) and a man of character. What makes  Forster  truly appealing is that his character doesn’t have all the answers – especially when it comes to women.
Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis with the Greek dance music score by Mikis Theodorakis, this film gives us the Old Guy as life force. Anthony Quinn was only 49 when he played the part, the part he seems born to play, though the book’s Zorba is in his 60s. Zorba is a workingman-philosopher who’s had his up and downs in life when he’s hired by the narrator, the prototypically inhibited Englishman, a writer no less, played by Alan Bates.
Zorba’s signature line comes when he urges the Bates character to make a move on a young Greek widow and Bates shies away, saying that it would only lead to “trouble.”
“Trouble?” says Zorba. “Life is trouble. What is life but to undo your belt and go looking for trouble?”
Wonderfully seductive lines, especially if like me you’re the inhibited Englishman by nature, and they’re delivered with credible panache by Quinn.
Zorba the Greek and the Englishman
Director Michael Cacoyannis offers us an
other great moment  at the climax when the Englishman, always too stiff to dance, says to Zorba, “Teach me to dance,” the sirtaki music starts up, and they begin the slow movements of a dance on that elemental Greek beach.
Eli Wallach at 93
There are other fine Old Guy performances to be sure. Robert Duvall as Gus McCrae, the ex-Texas Ranger cowboy in the 1989 TV mini-series Lonesome Dove from Larry McMurtry’s novel, is one. Burt Lancaster in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), a story I’ve blogged about at length, is another. And there is that delicious five minutes in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer when 93-year-old Eli Wallach shows up as a sly old hermit with a vital bit of info for the hero.
Do you have a favorite Old Guy Movie?

3 Responses to Ras: Old Guy Movies

  1. How about Jackie Gleason in "Soldier in the Rain?"

  2. I'm glad to read you excellent blog about one of my favorite movies. You've captured the essence of it's appeal to me. Thanks for the two additional movie suggestions.
    Tom M.

  3. Thanks, nighttunmes and Tom M. I saw Soldier in the Rain a couple of centuries back and don't remember much about the Gleason character. Will have to check this one out again. I do remember Steve McQueen and Tuesday Weld and Glenn Yarborough on the sound track in that movie.

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