Oscar Movies: In the Line of Fire (1993)–Starring Clint Eastwood

It was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s well-known maxims that a thriller is as good as its villain. The Master of Suspense proves again that he was a shrewd filmmaker when his philosophy is tested against two new thrillers, Sydney Pollack’s The Firm and Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire.

Both movies are mainstream entertainment–the kind of polished works that Hollywood justifyingly takes pride in making. And both thrillers are star vehicles: Tom Cruise in The Firm and Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire. Yet, the Eastwood film is superior-and more engaging too. Why

In contrast to Pollack’s film, which is plot-motivated, In the Line of Fire is character-driven. And unlike most thriller and action films (Cliffhanger is a good example), in which the villains are just stupid and nasty, it boasts a flamboyant villain who is just as absorbing as the hero. The role is cast with John Malkovich, an actor who has excelled in playing seedy creeps; it’s probably Malkovich’s best work since Dangerous Liaisons.

Eastwood plays Frank Horrigan, an aging, alcoholic, morose Secret Service agent–a loser of sorts. Ever since Kennedy’s assassination, 30 years ago, Horrigan has been obsessed with his failure to save the president, feeling that he should have taken the fatal bullet. He is a classic American hero, a professional in desperate need for redemption to regain his self-esteem.

In the Line of Fire suffers from its own cynicism–the story goes out of its way to stress that the incumbent president Horrigan is so anxious to protect is basically a wimp. And the villain is no longer a typical Hollywood type (Nazis, Communists, South American drug lords) but a disenchanted American who has lost his faith in the country. He believes, as he tells Eastwood, that: “Nothing they told me is true and there’s nothing left worth fighting for.”

At 62, Clint Eastwood continues to improve as a performer. He seems to have learned a lesson or two from the career of John Wayne, another star who became a better actor (True Grit, The Shootist) as he aged. Following Unforgiven, Eastwood continues to revise, i.e. deconstruct, is action screen persona. If the point of reference for his Oscar-winning film were the Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns (For a Fist of Dollars), the counterpoint for the new thriller is the Dirty Harry film series.

Eastwood uses his age and other limitations (a small, inexpressive voice) to his advantage. You may have to close one eye and forget that he is courting in the film a female agent (Renee Russo), who is half his age. But the romance is somehow credible; there is one near-sex scene that is both funny and revealing.

In the Line of Fire is structured and directed as a cat and mouse race, with periodic encounters between Horrigan and Leary until their final showdown, masterly staged in an elevator in a high-rising hotel. German filmmaker Petersen established a reputation a decade ago with Das Boot, but has wasted his considerable talent on such silly projects as Shattered, in l991. Petersen is a proficient technician–his new picture is directed in an impersonal style, just like The Firm. Except that the much more gifted Pollack could be great when given the right vehicle (Tootsie, 10 years ago, was his last really good movie).

There’s another advantage to the Eastwood film. I never got a sense of McDeere’s work and everyday life in The Firm, perhaps because he was so busy running away and/or fighting his firm and the FBI. But In the Line of Fire provides a pretty authentic and detailed view of the tedious routine of Secret Service agents.

One day when the history of American screen villains will be written, Malkovich’s Mitch Leary should be right next to Hitchcock’s delicious villains: Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, Robert Walker in Strangers on the Train (with which In the Line of Fire shares some similarities), and, of course, Anthony Perkins in Psycho. (All three thrillers are worth seeing, even on video).

Of all the real and potential blockbusters I have seen so far, In the Line of Fire may be the only summer flick that can also be watched–and enjoyed–in the fall.

Oscar Nominations: 3

Supporting Actor: John Malkovich

Screenplay (Original): Jeff Maguire

Film Editing: Anne V. Coates


Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

Tommy Lee Jones who won the Supporting Actor Oscar for The Fugitive

The Screenplay Oscar went to Jane Campion for The Piano.  Michael Kahn won the Editing Oscar for Schindler’s List.