1989    US    Carolco
Colour    123 min

Director:  Constantin
Script    Joe Eszterhas

Jessica Lange
Armin Mueller-Stahl
Frederic Forrest
Donald Moffat
Lukas Haas
Cheryl Lynn Bruce

I don't normally bother to write about a film unless it greatly impresses me: what motivates me to put pen to paper (or index-finger to keyboard) is a desire to share an enthusiasm, to tell the world how wonderful something is. I know that negative reviews have their value and usefulness too, but I don't much enjoy writing them.

This offering, Music Box, is the exception in that I can see its defects perfectly clearly, and they are many, but it still seems to me worthy of your time and attention simply because it's such a good idea for a film. So let's take a look both at the film Costa-Gavros did make and the one he didn't.

The story is presented almost entirely as a courtroom drama, with a short location sequence in Soviet-dominated Budapest. The Jessica Lange  character, Ann Talbot, is a successful young criminal lawyer in Chicago, estranged from her husband (Ned Schmidtke) and living with her 11-year-old son Mikey (Lukas Haas).  She is the daughter of hyphenated-American  Mike Laszlow (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who came over from Hungary at the close of the Second World War. As a result of a US Immigration Department investigation, evidence begins to accumulate that her beloved old man is not the innocent Hungarian farmer he claimed to be when he came to America, but a monstrous war-criminal named Mishke, the notorious leader of  Arrowcross, a home-grown Hungarian Nazi terror-squad, which used drowning as an economic alternative to shooting their Jewish victims, tying family groups together and pushing them into the Danube, or forcing young women (whom they had first raped) to perform press-ups above the half buried blade of a bayonet. The allegations against Laszlow become more graphic and nauseating as the trial proceeds, delivered as they are in an almost deadpan way by a series of respectable-looking late-middle-aged holocaust survivors.

The daughter cannot conceive of her father's being guilty of these abominations, and sets about constructing a clever defense, discrediting witnesses and building up a case that he is being framed by agents of the Communist government of Hungary as a reprisal for taking part in anti-Communist demonstrations in America.

Initially, her defense seems to have succeeded: then, as  a result of her visit to Hungary along with the court to question witnesses, she unearths new, devastating evidence of her father's guilt. A pawnshop ticket given to her by the wife of one of her father's old associates leads her to a Chicago pawn-shop, and the music box of the film's title. The music box, as it plays,  winds out a series of old photographs that have been hidden in its mechanism: photographs of the proud Mishke going about his murderous work, unmistakably her father as a young man.

This is undeniably very powerful material, but I think the reaction of most commentators has been to wonder why they have not been more moved by it. There is undoubtedly something wrong with the way the story has been told.

I think the first fundamental mistake of the piece is to focus on the Jessica Lange character and almost to ignore the father. Certainly there is interest in the emotional hell someone would go through to discover that her father was a torturer and mass-murderer, more especially with the implications this would have regarding her son, who idolizes his grandfather. But in fact, whether through weak direction or a rather lifeless script, or perhaps because she is somewhat miscast in the role (a long way from the soft, doe-eyed seductress or even victim parts we have seen her play in the past), Lange does not really convey much that is convincing or involving regarding her mental state. Her confrontation with her father after she has discovered the truth about him seems merely shrill, and we see her fall into a  sort of sullen depression in the film's closing scenes, but the emotional conviction and power are just not there.

Also I feel very strongly as I watch this movie that I want to understand Laszlow:  what is it that makes a man take pleasure in killing and inflicting pain? Can such a man change radically, become a "salt of the earth type", a phrase used by Ann's father-in-law, (Donald Moffat) to describe all the former Nazis he met as an espionage agent, including Claus Barbie. Laszlow is in fact a much more interesting character than his daughter. How does he cope with the guilt of his absolutely unspeakable and inhuman past? How could such a man have developed the relationship that he has with his grandson, and with his daughter (although the claimed affection here is less obvious)?  It might have been more interesting to leave a question mark over whether or not Laszlow even knows himself  whether or not he is Mishke: - might the "Communist plot" idea be a sort of self-delusion he has created in order to protect himself from insanity? But in the film this interpretation seems to be largely ruled-out by Laszlow's reaction to the blackmail threat from his former accomplice. I think this is part of another overall fault that I find in the script  -  there is simply too much closure. A little ambiguity here and there might have made it a lot more interesting.

Laszlow is given too few lines and the audience too few insights into his true mental state. To a large extent he is simply moved from one setting to another as a foil for the courtroom action. His one courtroom outburst is all we are really given on which to reach a judgement about the man who should be the central figure of the drama. Yet he lives on in ones mind after the final curtain, he is an intriguing enigma, and there have been many many Laszlows in real life over the last few decades.

Without wanting to be too negative, I think there is also a problem  with the way the picture of Mishke's atrocities is built-up. Any courtroom drama tends to become a bit wordy and a bit static. This has to be compensated in one way or another. Sparkling dialogue and fiery emotional intensity is one form of compensation, another is some kind of contrast in mood, scene or pace. Some kind of light and shade.  Music Box seems to make use of neither possibility. The courtroom scenes are frankly a bit dull, and the witnesses tell their stories with a sort of emotional detachment which might possibly be realistic, given the distance in time of the events they are reporting, but which simply doesn't make very good cinema. We don't have much sense of the reality of the events they are describing. While I can understand that the simple technique of flashbacks intercut with the evidence might possibly undermine some aspects of the plot's construction, pre-empting as it were the possibility that the evidence was false, I think that this could have been coped-with and provided-for in the script, and that it would have helped the courtroom sequences considerably.  After all, whether Laszlow was guilty or not the fact that the atrocities had taken place was not disputed. Brief, dreadful images crashing in here and there might have worked better than traditional slow dissolves. I don't pretend to have the imagination of a film director, but I think  that something more visually powerful was needed to get us on the edges of our seats and to get us involved in the obscenities to which these people had been subjected.

Again on the question of contrasts, the Budapest sequences were too similar in lighting, texture and mood to the Chicago sequences. There was an opportunity here to introduce something of the drab oppressiveness of life in a Soviet satellite state in the late 1980s and it was simply not taken.  And surely a film entitled Music Box was simply crying-out for a musical motif of some kind (which could have been varied to support differeing moods)? Again the opportunity was not taken-up.

Even the Hungarian traditional dancing sequences at the beginning of the film lacked any distinctive atmosphere: they looked like Hollywood film-sets of Hungarian dancing, which of course is exactly what they were. The whole film, for my money, was too clean, tidy and brightly-lit. What a pity the project could not have been taken up by some penniless independent production company and put together on a shoestring budget but with a little real conviction.

It has been pointed out that Music Box was Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' third retelling of almost the same story. There had been Debra Winger as the undercover FBI agent in Betrayed falling in love with the man who turned out to be a racist murderer, and Glenn Close as the woman lawyer in Jagged Edge falling for her wife-murdering client. Always, it would seem, he likes to concentrate on the female lead, depicting her as someone who allows her heart to rule her head, ending up as the Devil's advocate, defending the indefensible. Viewed from within this framework, the outcome of Music Box was predetermined  -  Laszlow was going to turn out to be guilty. It might have made for a better dramatic structure if  Eszterhas had permitted a little ambiguity in the ending of Music Box. Suppose that the "not guilty" verdict had stood, so that father, daughter and grandson could be ostensibly happily reunited,  and then a few nagging doubts were to enter the picture  -  obviously something less conclusive than the photographs in the music box, but something sufficiently strong to sew the seeds of doubt in Lange's mind and in ours. Then the father/daughter relationship could have become uneasy and suspicious rather than merely smashed asunder.  It would have been a totally different film of course, but the ending might have seemed more in keeping with real life, where good and evil, true and false, are seldom so clearly delineated.

Having made a catalogue of criticisms I must also tell you what I found spellbinding about the piece.  I think I am very attracted to the sense of two different worlds impinging on one another across a fifty-year chasm of time. Lange and her father and her son and all the Chicago characters live in a tidy, sanitized comfortable cocoon up to the moment the investigators from the US Immigration Department arrive. It is beyond their comprehension that anyone could come along and overturn their whole existence with just a few chilling words. Yet there is a terrible unaddressed past out there and nothing is going to make it go away.  It seems to speak of the precariousness of our lives, the shallowness of all our glib self-assurance.  The music box is a powerful image of something pre-programmed, mechanical, undeviating, unrelenting: playing-out the tune that it was made to play.  An image of an inescapable destiny that will have to run its course however we may rail against it. Nothing is going to change that tune or stop it before it runs down.  The music box is that part of our fate over which we have absolutely no control.

In fairness to Eszterhas, and putting to one side all my niggles, he has also set up what is truly a fascinating moral dilemma for the Lange character.  She must choose between sending her own father off  to face the Death Penalty in Hungary, and forcing her child to accept that he is the grandson of a mass killer; or turning a blind eye and going on with her life in Chicago, with Mikey continuing to admire the old man as a role-model. The best line in the film, in my view, is not spoken by any character but is the opening of the letter that Lange writes to the judge, informing him of the new evidence she has found and effectively condemning her father to death. She begins the piece "I went for a walk by the river", which seems to me an immensely evocative image. I see her in my mind's eye, strolling slowly along by the waterside, weighing-up the dreadful choice before her, steeling herself for what she knows is the only moral and decent thing to do. It's a phrase that has now entered my own mental vocabulary: when things have reached the point where I am no longer sure I can deal with them I say to myself "Time to take a walk by the river" and the mood that it evokes seems to help me to calm down and marshal my thoughts so that I can get to the heart of whatever the matter may be.

Back to Top

Back to First Page