Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"Local Hero"

There’s a warming pleasure in being surprised by a long-time favorite movie that unexpectedly pops up on television. Such was my great good fortune when our Public Television station recently delivered an uncut and uninterrupted broadcast of Local Hero (1983. Oh, my. Almost thirty years ago), written and directed by Bill Forsyth.

Local Hero’s plot setup deliberately and deliciously crosses us up. Knox Oil and Gas, a large and rapacious oil company based in Houston, sends out “Mac” McIntire, a hotshot young executive, to buy up an entire village – a remote beach town in Western Scotland – with plans of converting the area into a giant refinery.

Insulated from the corrupting effects of modern society, Ferness, sparkles with quaintness and “pixie dust.” The village innkeeper, Gordon, is also the mayor and the town accountant (so he’ll represent the town in the upcoming negotiation.) Though holding down three jobs, Gordon determinedly makes time for a startling number of romantic interludes with his spectacular wife, Stella.

So that’s the set-up – an “all business” American, dispatched to an idyllic Scottish village, his heartless employers bent on turning the place into yet another venue for profit and pollution. This is the standard arrangement for a story in which “the People” band together and rise up in protest, to protect their pristine ecosystem and their cherished “Quality of Life.”

The surprise twist in Local Hero?

The townspeople can’t wait to sell out, a secret they must keep to themselves, in hopes of driving up the price.

The big “third act” obstacle is that beachcomber – and beach owner – Ben Knox (whose last name is mysteriously the same as the oil company’s) refuses to sign off on the deal, preferring instead to hold onto, and continue “working”, the beach.

Another major thread in the story is “Mac’s’” gradual thawing and ultimate conversion to the Ferness lifestyle, to the point, where, while drunk, he proposes trading lives with Gordon, Gordon returning to an advancing career in Houston, and “Mac” inheriting Gordon’s responsibilities, including Stella.

The story is fresh, fine and fun. But what captures my heart every time are the multiple quirkily delightful little touches Local Hero provides.

A few examples:

- Throughout the movie, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), head of Knox Oil is continually hounded by a “psychologist”, whose therapeutic approach involves verbally, and if Happer would let him, physically abusing his “patient”, in hopes of curing his, unspecified, psychological difficulties.

- Ferness’s spiritual leader is a black minister from Nigeria.

- Though the village is entirely traffic-free, whenever “Mac” crosses the town’s only street, he gets perilously close to being run over by a driver on a motor scooter.

- A Marine biologist, aptly named Marina, may actually be a mermaid, a revealing “tell” – aside from her ability to remain under water for astonishing periods of time – being that at one point in the movie, she exposes distinctly webbed toes.

This leads to a wordless scene, in which we discover Danny, a youthful Scottish Knox Oil employee smitten with Marina, lying underwater in a bathtub.

Finally, Danny rises up, immediately checking a stopwatch, to determine how long he’s remained submerged. Danny then takes a long, deep breath, and once again drops back beneath the surface, in an unexplained but understood attempt to develop underwater breathing capacities that will impress Marina.

- Victor, a middle-aged, Russian fisherman comes ashore on his annual visit, to reconnect with friends and also check on his, unashamedly capitalist, financial investments, dutifully managed by Gordon.

During the evening’s communal gathering, Victor gets up to sing “his song”, a country-and-western swing tune, whose first line which a thickly Russian-accented Victor energetically brays out is, “Yes, I was born to be a cowboy…”

The upbeat ending is a win for everyone, except perhaps “Mac”, who is ordered back to Houston, with only a pocketful of seashells to remind him of the heaven-on-earth he has temporarily called home. Throw in the “Northern Lights”, a meteor shower, and a primally haunting score by Mark Knofler (of “Dire Straights”), and you have a movie “critics have called” – I love that meaningless phrase – “whimsical”, “wry”, a “warm and deceptively slight comedy.”

I call it magical, enchanting, funny, deeply satisfying and sublime. And I recommend it highly.

Unless you like noisier comedy.

In which case, I’d stay away.


Tom said...

Hi Earl, Your blog has become part of my daily routine. Just wanted to comment about "Local Hero". I happened upon this movie late one night when I was exhausted and absolutely had to get a good nights sleep. Needless to say that didn't happen. It's very hard to describe the charm of this movie but you did a great job of it. Highly recommended to all of your readers.

Gary Mugford said...

Earl, back in March of 2009, I spent a month reviewing my favourite 31 movies from the last century. Local Hero came in third, after North to Alaska and Electric Dreams. The review is here at http://mugfordmugshots.blogspot.com/2009/03/movies-3-local-hero.html

In the review, I also mentioned The Coca-Cola Kid, which also made my list and shares many of the themes of Local Hero. Both are worth the rental/download/streaming or however you get movies these days.

As I concluded my review of Local Hero, "All of this magic by Forsyth is polished to a degree of delight I haven't seen much of over the years. He adds in the Northern Lights and a great score by Mark Knopfler to make the words, sounds and pictures coalesce into that rarest of all things, a feeling of happiness.
You owe it to yourself to be happy today. Rent it. "

Unknown said...

Burt Lancaster is clearly at the top of his game in this picture. I think he only had one other movie in him, Field of Dreams, before he died.

Both showed why he is to be consider one of the greatest actors of the 20th Century.

Tom Mason said...

I think I caught the same recent PBS showing you did. I also saw this in the theater when it first came out. I love it, and I wish Forsyth was still working.

Mark said...

Local Hero is brilliant, and has one of the great subtle jokes in it. McIntire, the hotshot from Houston, is visiting a gaggle of local fishermen at the small town's waterfront, and there's a toddler in a stroller among all the men. He looks at the kid and says, "Beautiful baby. Whose is it?" The fishermen all exchange glances...and that's the end of the scene. I saw Local Hero two or three times in theaters, and invariably, about 20 seconds after that scene, somebody in the audience would figure it out and laugh belatedly.

Enjoying your blog, sent here by Ken Levine.

Paul Castiglia said...

"Local Hero" is my favorite film of all time. I saw it when in the theater when it came out (I was a junior in high school then) and immediately loved it. I've been revisiting it a lot lately and it not only continues to resonate, but also continues to surprise with some little moment I'd either forgotten about over time or never "got" before. A very special, rewarding film.