The Face on the Barroom Floor

Deadwood: a killing that lingers

Anyone who’s ever been in a fight remembers it forever. Those of us who don’t like to fight — who never really learned how to shut our minds off to the fact that we’re punching someone in the face — see the world of violence as a foreign place whose customs we hope we never have to get the hang of. I’d rather — much rather — live in a war-zone than ever get into a serious fight, one where the guy isn’t trying to merely beat me but take me apart with his hands. I spent my seventeenth summer traveling with the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, and nearly all of the guys I worked with (we looked after the livestock) had run out on something — bail or family, alimony or parole. They were thwarted and listless creatures, cockeyed with liquor and getting old fast. Out of boredom and drunkenness but mostly from rage they fought, over anything and nothing at all, in horrific little set-tos that didn’t last long before someone was hurt. No schoolyard shoves or who-sez preliminaries led up to the violence — it just erupted, flowing naturally from some disagreement in the air — and it only stopped when someone had been overwhelmed both physically and psychologically, which is a soul-crushing thing to see. One fight, fought over the all-important point of where a horse should be tied on the picket line, ended with the stout farmboy we called “G.I. Joe” splayed across the horseshit and hay, coughing ropes of blood through his nose and screeching for mercy as his opponent towered over him, spitting obscenities into his face while threatening to wallop him again.

I suppose that’s why movies never get fistfights right — they’re too ugly in their one-sidedness — so we mold them into entertaining agons where punches sound like a wet washcloth hitting the bathroom floor instead of human bone breaking against itself. And yet violence is all the rage in our movies — without it most films wouldn’t know how to end. It’s so pervasive that even an otherwise respectable movie like Something Wild has to end with Ray Liotta taking a six-inch knife in his guts. And of course Liotta must die from his wound — without that assurance the audience would exit the theater with misfiring synapses, half-consciously alarmed he may somehow escape, recover, and return to finish his bloody mission. All of this formula comes in a Jonathan Demme film about a man losing his conformist ways, a theme that served a dozen Cary Grant comedies without once boiling over into bloodshed. One reason why I’ve always admired the Robert De Niro-Charles Grodin buddy-picture Midnight Run is that it foils our expectations of violence after preparing us for the worst: once the heroes, cops, and villains have gathered for a showdown in the Las Vegas airport, the movie ends, not in a hailstorm of exploding squibs, but in a confrontation both comical and, for one moment, intensely suspenseful, providing the perfect catharsis that Hollywood ought to be able to churn out in its sleep.

It’s remarkable that after so many years and so many movies that employ violence, so very few American films do justice to the subject. It only gets worse as time goes by, what with the wisecracks and fireballs and flesh wounds, and the hero’s code of ethics still making him fall for tricks that were musty when vaudeville died. It’s enough to make one giddy when movie people actually act like people. I felt like throwing a party the first time I saw Key Largo, where Edward G. Robinson, having spent the movie establishing himself as an arch-criminal of Hitlerian malice and cunning, attempts to deke Humphrey Bogart in their endgame. “Okay, Soldier, I’m coming out — I ain’t got no gun,” he yells as he slithers out of the fishing boat’s cabin, a pistol hidden behind his leg. When I saw Bogart peering down through the hatch, I was ready to throw my beer at the TV — I knew he’d ultimately win the showdown but I was also positive he’d fall for the old ruse in the meantime — but no. As “Johnny Rocco” hove into view, Bogart fired a shot into him without a moment’s hesitation. And when Robinson, staggered but not downed by the shot, continued to move, Bogart let him have it again, and then again.

Even rarer than those moments where violence is represented realistically are those when it’s rendered with an aesthetic point in mind. After Seven Samurai, Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch (still the Rosetta Stone of cinematic violence), and a handful of miscellaneous killings in lesser pictures, it’s hard to think of films or TV shows whose violence was done well enough to make it stick to our ribs — not just shocking, but truly affecting. Terrence Malick’s Badlands is rife with brutal killings but nothing in it touches the moment when Kit, the bored, half-bright sociopath played by Martin Sheen, locks a hapless young couple in a storm cellar, sticks his pistol between two of its boards and blindly lets go a couple of rounds, then asks his girlfriend as he sprints away, “Think I hit ’em?” Francis Coppola’s instincts as a storyteller were never sharper than they were in The Godfather Part II when he had the thickheaded thug Don Fanucci touch his chin in bewilderment at an apparent marvel — a darkened lightbulb — just before Vito Corleone guns him down.

Fanucci’s killing — one of cinema’s greatest murders — caps a long sequence that follows Vito as he stalks the Black Hand during his stroll through the Feast of San Gennaro ... an incredibly suspenseful sequence; suspense isn’t its only point: it’s drawn out so long we feel a welter of emotions as it progresses, culminating in the moment when Vito applies the coup de grâce by shooting Fanucci in the mouth, a moment made horrific by being shown in close-up, but which is split by a feeling of relief because Vito has so much of our sympathy. Hitchcock, of course, was the master of sustained mayhem: in (at the very least) Sabotage, Strangers on a Train, Psycho, Torn Curtain and Frenzy, he crafted long, incredibly detailed sequences ending in violent deaths whose aftershocks play on our nerves after the movies have ended.

And yet considering the absolutely incredible amount of violence in our movies, so little of it is memorable in the way that, say, William Holden shooting down the German officer to kick off the final bloodbath in The Wild Bunch is. Our contemporary filmmakers tend to care only about body counts, without ever following through on their punches or actually affecting us emotionally with their maimings and gorings, which is surely the only legitimate excuse for such bedlam to begin with. In Chinatown we never quite recover from seeing Jack Nicholson’s nostril bisected by Polanski’s switchblade before the movie is barely a quarter old, while in Die Hard and the Bruckheimer movies bodies are stacked up like cordwood, yet no one in the audience thinks of choking on their popcorn. It’s unreal.

So it was with something like gratitude that I took in Dan Dority’s fight with Captain Joe Turner in the fifth episode of this season’s Deadwood. This scene is the real deal — the realest deal I’ve seen in years. As a piece of cinematic storytelling, for intertwining character with action, for contrasting the physical exertion of combat with the terror of death, it has few peers. Even for a show so accomplished as Deadwood it’s a tour de force.

That isn’t to say that watching the scene is a pleasure; it’s far from that. It had come to me only earlier in the week how much I’d cottoned to Dority and W. Earl Brown’s work in the role, a realization born of the fact that series creator David Milch and his writers had set Dority on an unavoidable collision course with Turner, an Old West version of Oddjob — a fitting comparison as his employer is mesmerized by the mention of gold — whose indomitable mien made him seem the inevitable victor of any fray. Dority, with his paunch and slouch and stringy long, hair looks like your older hippie brother who’s gone bad. You still root for him, though, his sunny drawl and odd moments of grace taking much of the moral stink off of him. And as Al Swearengen has had to evolve, so have his men, even if they haven’t known why or that they’re doing it at all.

But George Hearst’s insane plans, seemingly ripped from the Book of Revelations, to destroy the camp if it won’t succumb to his will, forces Swearengen and his confederates — including that yang to his yin, Seth Bullock — to backslide a little, and maybe a lot. For the black hat in a Western Hearst’s motives run deep, so deep as to be unfathomable even to Swearengen, whose forte is divining his opponents’ next move. Hearst understands that he can destroy Swearengen by removing his right-hand man in a protracted and very public killing, one indelibly stamped by his own hand, and in that sense Dority and Turner are each shadowed by a tragic cloud — both men, defined by their loyalty to their bosses, must go through with the fight just to sustain their identities.

Brown has stated that Milch said he wanted the fight to have three qualities: 1) an absence of fistfight clichés (no roundhouse punches or people thrown through storefront windows); 2) a rolling rhythm, gaining in intensity just when it seemed to be slowing down; and 3) something he’d never seen before. It’s that second quality which really defines the fight, which in memory seems to occur in a mere handful of set-ups even though it’s nearly five minutes long. The sequence in fact does have several cuts, but none of them are for the sake of flashiness — they simply propel us to a better vantage point of the convulsive action, whether we want to go there or not. The fight itself is played out just as a combat between practiced, burly, and motivated contestants would, with the larger, more lethal Turner having the slight but distinct advantage from the first second of contact. The men fight in such close quarters that it’s hard for either to land a solid blow, and the first big turning point comes when Turner headbutts Dority, then grabs Dan’s cheek between his teeth. This quick one-two is a true howler; you see how it instantly dazes, and frightens, Dority, and throws all the advantage to Turner’s side. In fact Dority spends most of the rest of the fight just trying to escape with his life, two or three times crawling pathetically away, and each time Turner comes after him, making his life a little the worse with each return. At one point Turner hauls Dan to his feet and strangles him from behind, and through the snot and blood Dan spits into the wheeling sky Swearengen is seen staring impassively down from his balcony.

The sequence wouldn’t be what it is if not for what comes next. Turner drags Dority to a mud puddle and forces his face down into the water, and holding it there, glances up to where Hearst stands on his “veranda” (in truth, the top of an awning accessed by the hole that Hearst has punched in the wall of his own hotel), looking for his Nero to give him the thumbs-down. In that moment, when it looks that his man (and friend) has lost, Swearengen quietly lowers his head, in anguish and in concession. When the creative team of The Sopranos killed off Adrianna La Cerva two years ago, out of a delicacy of feeling for us (and perhaps for her), they let her crawl offscreen before Silvio Dante put one in her head. But Swearengen’s redirection of his gaze seems to confirm that both the worst and the unthinkable are about to happen: that his power, deliciously diabolical as it is, is about to be stripped away, and that a character we’ve come to care for is about to be dispatched in conditions so squalid and humiliating as to be grotesque, and right before our eyes.

It’s that motion of Swearengen’s, that downward tilt of his head, that hit me where I live. I’m sure it has to do with how the show’s relationships are made so concrete and believable that we can sense with unusual particularity how all of these people feel about each other. (Swearengen’s history with Dority has been doled out to us in dribs and drabs — we know, for instance, that they cut the lumber for The Gem together.) When Dority is being held facedown in that water, Swearengen is at risk of passing with him. From his point of view he’d have no leg to stand on if Dan were killed; Dority’s drowning would only finish what Hearst had begun by cutting off Swearengen’s finger. And Ian McShane has never been finer than in his scenes leading up to the fight, when Swearengen desperately tries, without success, to suss out Hearst’s intentions — “What’s in his head, I cannot fucking find in mine” — while pretending to his allies that he’s only working by his own timetable. Al Swearengen may be nothing but a sacred monster, and but for sheer naked circumstance he and Dority would be child-killers, but in this one moment none of that matters. Two men’s lives, and all of their labor, can be seen vanishing into an oily mudhole.

Leaving the kicker — presumably, the thing Milch had never seen before. Eye-gouging was a fairly frequent turn in frontier fights so it couldn’t have taken much labor to realize that popping out the Captain’s left eye was the right way to decide the fight’s direction once and for all, but it only comes after one last crisis: Turner smacking Dority’s skull against a rock, once with a thud, once with a sickening crack. But if Dan’s body is beaten, the look in his eye as his fingers spider across Turner’s face, and then dig into it, is focused and deliberate, and when the Captain rolls off of him, one eye now dancing at the end of its nerves and his arms convulsing so rapidly that it seems for a second they’ve jacked up the film speed, Dan, like Bogart before him, knows he’s moved beyond the place for self-destructive pity.

Technically the scene’s a bloody marvel. For one thing, whatever Brown’s makeup artist is making, it isn’t enough: by the end of the fight, his mouth spilling a long cable of saliva, his face split and bruised, his hair and clothing slathered in blood and grease and mud, Brown looks like a caveman who’s been blindsided by lightning. The sound design, too, is a thing of beauty. Except for a wagon rolling past at the beginning and the heavy thuds of the men’s blows, there’s barely a sound in the entire five minutes — only a grunt here, a murmur there from one of the bovine onlookers. The glaring absence of mood music gives the fight a fluid but fully shaped form — we can clearly retrace the action in all its vigor the second it ends. And in the end we’re left with the sound of Allan Graf’s indescribably ghastly howls after the gouging, at least until Dority takes his cudgel-like fire log to the back of Turner’s skull. We don’t see that last bit of violence, and barely even hear it, coming to us as it does from Al’s distanced perspective on the balcony, just before he flips his toothpick over the railing and goes back inside. After everything that’s come before, it’s a blessing to have things end with a whimper.