The sad news about the passing of the legendary Peter Falk broke last week. I feel I should remember the great man, but don't have the time to do a larger-scale post mortem post like I did with Leslie Nielsen. So, I'm just going to reminisce two films that are among his most beloved, and happen to be in my recent memory. So here's to Peter Michael Falk, born September 16, 1927, passed away June 23, 2011.
The Princess Bride (1987)
Director: Rob Reiner
Generally speaking, good films don't need a narrator, let alone one that's a character narrating the story within the story. But Falk's role as the Grandfather is really essential in this one. It's a story about how stories can make us feel better, and that of course needs its storyteller. And any story is better if the storyteller is sly and smart. The Grandfather here is a dead-on performance at that, mocking his grandson for wanting different solutions than the ones available, but still having the necessary warmth and love in his narration. He also crucially sells a story with "Princess" in the title to a little boy, which is no small feat. There is perhaps a tad too many meta-level gags in the film, but Falk always manages to sell them just as good to us viewers.
The story he tells is filled with the basic ingredients of fairy tales. The titular princess, Buttercup (Robin Wright), is kidnapped by a trio of well-meaning thieves. She is rescued by a dashing masked swashbuckler, who turns out to be her long-lost childhood love Westley (Cary Elwes). But the princess's obnoxious fianceé Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) needs to have her back. He's plotting to use her death as an excuse to start a war with a neighboring country and Westley stands in the way. Inconcievable!
Altough Reiner is clearly working on a tight budget here (it looks more like a sunday afternoon BBC historical drama than LotR), the wonderful script by William Goldman and the perfect casting more than make up for it. It is one of those films that has a character gallery to die for and one that can be quoted at almost any circumstance ("Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!" being the most favoured one). Even though it uses fairy tale conventions, it rarely feels clichéd and it rolls along nicely for its brief runtime. And even though it is a film of the '80s, it feels like a timeless one, rather than something forever bound to its period. No wonder it is beloved by many adults. Oh, and it's referenced even in Troll 2.
Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987)
Director: Wim Wenders
Wow, I never realized that these two movies were actually made on the same year. Falk was on a roll here. To balance the more entertaining values of PB, WoD (or The Heaven Over Berlin as I like to call it) is an art film about the last days of the divided Berlin and the careful optimism and melancholia caused by it. Falk's character (Peter Falk) neatly falls to the optimism side.
The angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) is a guardian of the city of Berlin. He gives comfort to those that are lonely and helps along their path even if they can't see him or know that he is there. When Damiel sees a beatiful circus trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin), he immediately falls for her. Now Damiel must decide whether to give up being an angel and turn into a mortal man to meet his beloved one.
The star actor Peter Falk (Peter Falk) surprisingly spots Damiel. Falk reveals that he himself used to be an angel and knows just how Damiel feels. He wanted to experience the world rather than to just watch and thus turned himself into a mortal. Now he's in Berlin to shoot a period film about the city's Nazi past, which he's also writing. He's having a writer's block, with which Damiel helps him. Falk has some world-weariness to him, but he is so damn lovable that the essence of his character shines through. And he takes his Columbo-reminding profile with good humour to boot. It isn't easy to be human but for the chance to live, love and experience, one couldn't want for nothing more. Falk's ex-angel finds particular joy in eating frankenfurters and drawing other people.
Wender's film is a love letter to Berlin, and has gone on to be beloved by friends of the city (myself included of course). It has historical value as well, as it shows the wall still standing and how the country looked just before the fall of Communism. The black-and-white photography for the majority of the film is gorgeously beatiful, but once Damiel earns his humanity, the switches to color. The warm earthly tones emphasize the film's humane message pretty well. The film shares PB's theme of the need for a storyteller, which it seems, angels are particularly good at. As is Falk.
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