In 1992, Liam Neeson starred in two WWII films, in one he played a Nazi villain, and in the other he played a Nazi with a heart of gold. Shining Through and Schindler’s List are both… Wait, Schindler’s List won Best Picture in 1993? So what movie do I have to compare Shining Through to? Unforgiven? Goddammit. Okay, one movie’s a WWII romantic spy film, the other is a Clint Eastwood western. Your guess is as good as mine as to how these two compare.
Shining Through – “Part of the film’s problem is a clumsy script which contains some horribly clunking lines. Such mouthfuls as, “What’s a war for, if not to hold onto what we love?” grate on the ear. The German security forces are referred to in heavy-handed purple prose as “Hitler’s dreaded stormtroopers”.” (Michael Coy, IMDb)
Unforgiven – “Unforgiven is a classic Western and there are no two ways about it. The essential point is that it tells a good story and illustrates it with sometimes stunning detail, using the genre through which to filter some surprisingly complicated moral ideas.” (Derek Malcolm, The Guardian)
Shining Through is such an exciting spy thriller, I began writing this essay, took a seven month break, and then got pissed because I remembered I had to finish watching the rest of the movie. The film opens on a film set and an elder Linda Voss, played by Melanie Griffith, sits down to be interviewed by the BBC for a documentary about Women in the War. The interviewer begins by asking Linda how she first became interested in World War II. She replies that it would probably have to be the movies. The BBC filmmakers were probably quietly groaning, there’s nothing worse than talking to someone who consistently references movies and compares things in real life to them. The old age make up effects on Melanie is so impressive, I wouldn’t be surprised if Clint Eastwood saw the film and wanted similar amazing talent done a couple of decades later for his film J. Edgar. Anyway, with that introduction, the film flashes back to 1940 New York where a young Linda is living.
Linda’s narration is about as exciting as Clint Eastwood talking to a chair. While the film was originally only 90 minutes long, Melanie’s delivery of the narration added on another 40 minutes to the film. In fact, the cinematographer Jan De Bont, who had previously shot many films, including the masterpiece Leonard Part 6, got so tired having to listen to the endless sluggish pace of Melanie, that he decided to step up and become a director and make a movie called Speed about a bus that couldn’t slow down and a movie called Twister about a bunch of people chasing tornadoes.
Sparing us of endless monotone narrations about the past, Unforgiven luckily opens with just a few pieces of text explaining that the Clint Eastwood character William Munny used to be a fearsome outlaw and killer of women and children before leaving that lifestyle to start a family with his young wife. However, shortly after, his wife fell ill and died, leaving Munny alone to take care of his two children on his farm.
After the initial opening, the story cuts to a fight taking place at a saloon in Big Whiskey. A drunk cowboy beats and slices up the face of a prostitute because she laughed at the size of his dick. At least he only cut up her face, it could have been worse and he could have used a garden hose. But everyone knows it’s a nasty vice for a woman to make fun of a Johnson. Luckily, Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) comes in and breaks the fight. Also, I don’t think his name reflects in any way to his anatomy. Little Bill decides to fine the men instead of hanging them which pisses off the fellow prostitutes. So instead, they gather up some money and offer a $1,000 reward to whoever kills the cowboys. Fifteen minutes in and so far that’s a pretty swift set up for an engaging western.
Back in WWII land, oh god, it’s only fifteen minutes into this and I’m already bored. Applying for a job as a secretary, Linda is hired once it is discovered that, being half Jewish, she is fluent in German. She is soon introduced to her boss Ed Leeland, played by Michael Douglas, and he is instantly turned on by her. However, he does notice that Linda has an eye for detail, is overly confident, and speaks her mind far too much. Linda jokingly says that it’s her Irish half that causes that to which Ed replies “lethal combination”. Who knew that Linda’s annoying useless observations would make me yearn for the days of Raymond Babbitt instead of her?
Meanwhile, back in the old West, a young cowboy named The Schofield Kid visits Munny asking if he wants to be partners with him to claim the reward on the wanted beaters. The Kid is pretty full of himself, claiming to be a great shot and pretty deadly. In fact, he’s so cocky you’d think he’d be interviewing to be Michael Douglas’s secretary. Initially he declines the offer, but shortly after he realizes he needs the money to feed his family, so he stops by to get his old friend Ned Logan to tag along. After all, old people tend to need Morgan Freeman to accompany them on long rides.
Elsewhere, gunslinger English Bob and his biographer W.W. Beauchamp (played by the lethal combination of Irish Richard Harris and Jewish Saul Rubinek) arrive to Big Whiskey first, clearly hoping to claim the bounty by killing the men who cut up the lady. Seeing him shoot pheasants from a train, and hearing of his title as the Duke of Death, it’s clear that he’s up to the task of getting the reward. Unfortunately, once again, Little Bill has to butt in and stop things. Knowing English Bob from the past, Little Bill beats him within an inch of his life and arrests him for bringing firearms into the town. I guess the Duck of Death isn’t as fierce as he seemed.
Working as his secretary and dressed like Marge Simpson in her pink Chanel suit, Linda starts dictating Leeland’s letters, and she quickly catches on that he’s a spy. Acting all giddy and constantly smiling, Linda calls him out on his secret job, and since it’s the not 19th century in the old west, rather than cutting up her face for acting all cocky, Leeland instead falls in love with her. I can’t believe Melanie Griffith would play a character who has a secret sexual relationship with a wealthy man who has a respectable job. Trying to explaining that to your kids one day.
Soon she begins attending the secret spy meetings with Leeland and the fellow OSS members in Washington DC, because, well, I don’t know why they let Linda in. But eventually she won’t shut up and volunteers to travel to Berlin and become a spy, posing as the new German cook to a Nazi. While Leeland is initially against the idea, Linda gives the most dramatic speech about making strudel I ever heard, that he is immediately convinced and allows her to go.
See, unlike the characters in Shining Through, the people in Unforgiven aren’t afraid of calling out people for being cocky and putting them in their place. Riding along to their shooting destination, The Kid keeps acting like he’s all high and mighty, being a crack shot with his pistol and all. Finally Ned puts him in his place by discovering that The Kid is pretty much blind.
Meanwhile, back in the jail cell, Little Bill starts telling tales of the real English Bob to the biographer Beauchamp. And, like Ned does to The Kid, Bill calls out English Bob for not being the classy gunman he claims to be. Bob was just a cocky guy with a gun who killed people for the hell of it and over time created the whole British persona as a bit of a gimmick. Bill eventually releases Bob and sends him on his way while Beauchamp stays behind, having a new character to write about, old Little Bill himself. Man, if only people would have done something like that to Linda in Shining Through. What I would have given to have Leeland take a bite of that strudel, spit it in her face, slam the door, and THE END showing up on screen. Now that would have been a brilliant film. But unfortunately there’s still about 90 minutes left of her yapping on screen to suffer through.
On the way to her destination, Agent Double O Strudel took a pit stop in Switzerland to meet up with Sunflower, played by Sir John Gielgud, the German spy working for the Americans. After starring in back to back Best Picture winners Chariots of Fire and Gandhi, Gielgud was heartbroken that he wasn’t cast as Debra Winger’s love interest in Terms of Endearment, so he had to resort in starring in dreck like this. Unfortunately, after taking a train ride that lacked in pheasant shooting, Linda arrived in Berlin a bit overwhelmed because she realized there was more to being German than just cooking strudels.
Of course, the very first thing Sunflower tell her is try not to look like a spy, so maybe it’s not the smartest idea to repeat the secret codes to yourself while crossing the street or to accidentally drop the messages right in front of the Nazis, just a suggestion Linda. And while it’s known she likes movies and is a fan of Chaplin, it’s not really a good idea to perform some slapstick while making dinner for the Nazis, spilling soup on them, and serving them raw doves. Maybe she was trying to feed them ducks of death by not cooking them, but she’s not that clever enough. But luckily, even though she failed miserably and was fired as the cook, a nice Nazi named Franz Dietrich played by Liam Neeson showed up, and after having a laugh about the bad dinner, he takes her in as a nanny. Ah, love in the time of E.coli. Neeson is pretty good here, I hope he doesn’t get typecast as a generous Nazi who finds jobs for Jews.
While all that action is taking place, William, Ned, and The Kid reach their destination as well. They show up to Big Whiskey at night in the pouring rain and stop by the saloon for a drink and perhaps some advances from the kindly prostitutes. Unfortunately, William can’t seem to catch a break, he’s sick with the flu and, after Little Bill hears of their arrival with guns, he nearly beats William to death. Man, Little Bill sure is a mean guy, he should take some notes from the Nazis in Shining Through, you don’t need to constantly kick people in the stomach and whip them with your pistol, a little slap on the wrist and telling them to leave should suffice.
Luckily, Ned and The Kid avoided the beating from Little Bill. They rescue William and nurse him back to health. Soon enough, the three get back on track and find those cowboys. Though Ned gets cold feet after having one of the cowboys in sight, William takes over and kills one of the guys. Shortly after, Will and The Kid finish the job and kill the other two cowboys. Of course, it turns out this is The Kid’s first kill, and he’s pretty shook up about it. As they collect their reward from one of the women, they discover that Little Bill had caught Ned, made him reveal who William used to be, and eventually killed him. Well, angrier than an old man getting brochures for an old folks’ home, Will tells The Kid to scram so he can go kill Little Bill.
So, for some reason, another random plot point is thrown into Shining Through, where Linda is trying to look for her beloved German cousins who were found to still be alive. She decides to take the Nazi children to the zoo, but instead goes to find her supposed family in Berlin. But of course, when she reaches their place, it’s all in rubbles. So yeah, they’re dead, but at least we got an attempt from Melanie Griffith to give an Oscar clip by crying her eyes out. Suddenly, Berlin gets bombed, and even though the production of Shining Through literally wasted about a million dollars by not having the cameras rolling when blowing up a building, at least they managed to get a zebra to run across screen for some reason.
Returning home, the kids run to Papa Neeson telling him that they were in the middle of an airstrike, and they said next time it happens they should go to the secret room nobody knows about. Double O Strudel finally catches a break, and the camera looms on her for far too long with dramatic music blaring, I’m surprised she didn’t wink at the camera.
As if Double O Strudel couldn’t screw up anymore, Neeson asks her to come to the opera with him, and there a fellow audience member recognizes her and says her real name. The camera looms on Nazi Neeson’s face for far too long with dramatic music blaring, I’m surprised he didn’t wink at the camera. When they return home, she quickly gets her things and runs away, and fleeing to Gielgud’s place for help, he basically says “screw you, you’ll get me killed” and slams the door in her face. That’s my favorite scene in the entire movie.
You know, when Little Bill discovered who Will really was, a famous killer, he went all out and got all of his deputies to gather together and prepare to kill him on sight. However, Shining Through came up with a very clever scheme when Liam Neeson discovered that Linda turned out to be an American spy: he disappeared for the rest of the movie, never to be seen again.
Meanwhile, on a dark and stormy night in Big Whiskey, Dirty Munny shows up to the saloon getting ready to take care of all the local punks. After a friendly little introduction with each other, William shoots Little Bill and decides to kill about a dozen or so more people as well. But of course, with his new client recently killed, Beauchamp tries to latch on to William as his next subject. You know Beauchamp, you need to take after Linda, it’d be much easier to just watch movies about cool stories rather than creating them yourself. But, like The Kid, William tells Beauchamp to scram as he leaves Big Whiskey to travel back home.
Because nobody remembers who the hell she is and what her role in the film is, I’ll spare you the details of giving you another boring plot point, and just say that a woman Linda goes to for help turns out to be a Nazi. Long story short, Linda gets shot, falls down the laundry shoot, and somehow Michael Douglas pops up the next day to rescue her and get her out of Germany.
Disguised as a Nazi, apparently the best way to sneak past the Germans is to pretend you can’t speak at all. With no help from Linda (surprise surprise), Leeland gets shot trying to cross the border while carrying her in his arms, and for a brief gleam of hope, I thought they would both die. Unfortunately, the incredibly boring voice of old Linda appeared and I was reminded that she was narrating the story as an old lady, and she says he lived. And, right before the movie ends, we get one more moment of Agent Double O Strudel trying to act extremely clever and referencing a movie.
So in the end, how do these two films from 1992 compare? Unforgiven is often referred to as an anti-western, because unlike the traditional western, this film focuses on the violence and doesn’t really have a true hero or villain, rather real people with real flaws. Shining Through can often be referred to as an anti-spy film. Because unlike the traditional spy film, this film focuses on a protagonist who is horrible at the job, isn’t convincing at all being undercover, and can’t deliver codes to save her life. In the end, if I was forced to watch Shining Through one more time, I would pay a group of assassins to come and kill me.