As Clooney’s Catch 22 adaptation moves forward and his film Suburbicon is released on DVD, Lee Wright looks back at the actor’s underappreciated 2008 thriller The American. Spoilers ahead.
Twenty-years after Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman was first published, Dutch film director Anton Corbijn (Control, A Most Wanted Man) was the man responsible for bringing the George Clooney adaptation of the novel to the big screen. Retitled The American, on the surface it looked like a typical shoot ’em up potboiler. In fact, it was a stylish, moody drama with the odd gun pulled out once in a while.
Booth’s novel about a British gunsmith known as Edmund to some, and Signor Farfalla (Mr Butterfly) to others, was less in the mould of Graham Greene, but more like Laurie Lee. Told in the first-person narrative of Edmund, the novel is full of self-reflection, touching on religion, culture, politics and death. The main character is packed with interesting thoughts that unfortunately become less engaging as the novel wears on. What we have in the case of The American, is one of those rare occasions when the film proves a better experience than its source material.
The film opens with Jack (Clooney) and his lover Ingrid at their log cabin in Sweden. The next morning, they discover footprints in the snow. Seconds later gunshots are fired and the couple get to shelter. Ingrid becomes even more alarmed when Jack takes out a handgun of his own and kills the sniper who fired at them. Jack instructs Ingrid to go call the police, and once she beings to walk away, he shoots his lover in the back of the head.
This is a strong, cold-blooded opening and sets the tone for the remainder of the film. Jack is instructed by his handler, Pavel, to lay-low in a quiet Italian village and told not to make any friends. With the portent of danger at his shoulder and a clear distrust of Pavel, Jack does not stick to the plan. Instead he sets himself up in a neighbouring town in Italy. There he goes by the name of Edward and poses as a magazine photographer.
After a short time, Jack agrees to accept the Hollywood hitman formula “one last job” for a female assassin known as Mathilde, who hires him to build her a custom sniper rifle. At the same time, he falls in love with a local prostitute, Clara (played by the stunningly beautiful Italian actress and singer Violante Placido).
His relationship with Clara leads to arguably the best scene of the film. After a further attempt on his life by another Swedish killer, Jack becoming increasingly paranoid when he finds a pistol in Clara’s purse. He takes her to a remote location in the mountains for a picnic. Clara strips down to her nothings and swims in the stream before laying down in the sun. When she reaches for her purse, Jack opens the picnic basket and we see a handgun concealed from view. The anxiety on Jack’s face as he readies himself to shoot another woman he has loved is a real pay-off way before the film reaches its climax.
A similar scene takes place in a deserted café. Jack waits to exchange the briefcase containing the sniper’s rifle with Mathilde. The tension is cranked-up and Jack’s sense of danger is so well played out that the film might have been better to have ended there.
Of course, the film industry can’t allow such a protagonist to live in the end. After all, he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword. In the spirit of Get Carter, a main character who takes the lives of innocent people in order to cover his tracks, will inevitably meet with the same fate. If you swim in muddy waters, you’re going to get dirty.
At the time of its release, some critics claimed the film was uninvolving. It slipped under the radar of audiences who were used to films with more action, nicely tied up endings and less emotional reserve.
The memorable thing about the film is Clooney’s brooding performance, played as it is with restrained dialogue. This approach has echoes of Steve McQueen in 1972’s The Getaway or Ryan O’Neal in 1978’s The Driver. The same minimalistic method would later be used by Matt Damon in 2016’s Jason Bourne (a film criticised for Damon having only 25 lines of dialogue).
But this subdued style is truer to life. If you have a lonely, self-conscious protagonist, he isn’t going to be spouting funny one-liners before blowing a man’s brains out in a Dirty Harry fashion.
The American is more art film than action film. If the script had been around in the 70’s it may well have ended up as a Steve McQueen, or even Charles Bronson vehicle. But Clooney did a fine job. It made a refreshing break from some of his previous roles like the Ocean’s Trilogy. The joy of this film is not so much what it shows, but what it withholds. It is deserving of a second viewing.