Consider two new mysteries by two old masters, Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski: "Shutter Island" and "The Ghost Writer."
Scorsese, fresh from an Oscar for "The Departed," stands on top of the world; Polanski, who's likely en route to the slammer for a rape he committed in the Seventies, sits moldering in Switzerland.
So which film shows its maker at the height of his powers?
Scorsese's "Shutter Island" features Leonardo DiCaprio as a Fifties' Boston marshal who travels to an island hospital for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of a female patient.
It's two hours and 19 minutes of Hitchcock-like tracking shots and bombastic music and shrieking storms and cops in long coats and fedoras trudging past leering mental patients.
Scorsese is a rabid film buff. In interviews he talks of showing his cast old film noirs, and quoting on-screen from madhouse movies like the German Expressionist classic "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." He studied Frederick Wiseman's momentous, long-suppressed portrait of an actual Massachusetts "snake pit," "Titicut Follies."
The result of these onscreen allusions isn't to make "Shutter Island" more emotionally intense. but more impersonal.
On the other hand, Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" is alive and gripping, from its first frame - a fluid, shapely paranoid conspiracy thriller in which the violence is all off-screen.
Ewan McGregor is the writer-for-hire who's hastily drafted (when his predecessor mysteriously drowns) to rework the memoirs of a British ex-Prime Minister name Adam Lang, played by Pierce Brosnan. He is, of course, a thinly-veiled Tony Blair, reviled in his country for colluding in the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The film is full of Hitchcock touches, but Polanski makes them his: "The Ghost Writer" fits him like a straitjacket. His hero is spiritually isolated, trapped in small and vast spaces - on wintry beaches under low, threatening skies, unable to move without being monitored.
There's an icky erotic undertone: With Polanski, sex and death are sibling-close. Whatever you say about this man, a victim and a victimizer, he's an artist to the end: He can conjure up onscreen his inner world-however malignant.
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