Dark Knight – Who Was Heath Watching?

As you may know, I don’t often see movies in the cinema any more. So when there’s one I’m really keen to see, I make sure that I get the DVD as early as possible, turn up the sound, turn down the lights and watch it right.

So it was with ‘The Dark Knight’ last weekend.

A newer foible is that I avoid as many reviews and as much discussion about a film as possible, until I can see it for myself. After quite an effort, I therefore came to this one fairly ‘clean’. Not entirely, of course, the world and his grand-aunt knows that the late Heath Ledger turned in a performance as ‘The Joker’ which rocked the screen and promised great things to come. Alas not to be.

Much more about Heath in a minute but first the movie.

Singer paved the way with ‘X-Men’ and one can hold out some hopes for next year’s ‘Watchmen’ but, really, ‘The Dark Knight’ is the first comic book adaptation directly aimed at adults. It’s a great film but I think you're going to have to like comic book adaptations to get it. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Director, Chris Nolan rarely puts a foot wrong with his movies anyway. There’s ‘Memento’ (brilliant), ‘Insomnia’ (Pacino’s last 'genuine' performance?) and, hell, I even rate, ‘Prestige’ as a clever, highly-entertaining film. His first hit at Batman (... Begins) suffered, for me by too much back story and one unforgivably misguided line from Gary Oldman (“I gotta get me one of those...”) which nearly spoiled the whole show for me.

But this time he gets it all just right. Most impressive for me was the editing. Nolan cuts from many of his scenes even before they seem to be finished and hits off into the subsequent scene just a few seconds after it seems to have begun. The effect is one of breathless story telling with not enough time in hand. It is both striking and highly effective.

So I really enjoyed it.

But here’s a funny thing that happened while I was watching it. Heath Ledger appeared on screen and I was very interested in what my reaction to his performance would be. My immediate thought was, ‘My God, he’s ‘doing’ someone.’ When I say ‘doing’ I don’t mean it in a bad, rip-off. way or anything. I think Heath yet again proved himself as a great performer here and it is lamentable that he didn’t get to stay around and show us many many other great things. But it immediately struck me that an element of his performance was clearly referencing someone or something that I had seen elsewhere. It was very distracting and it took me over half an hour to figure it out.

I have a theory about two people he might have studied. The second one even revealed something very interesting to me about the film.

Here’s the first:

That’s right. Jack Lemmon. Half an hour in, it hit me like a ton of bricks that Heath was throwing quite a bit of 'Jack Lemmon' in there. Need some more proof? Just watch the scene where the buildings blow up behind the Joker, watch how he moves, then watch ‘Some Like It Hot’. Eh?

Then, I saw someone else in the performance.

The second actor I saw was none other than… Andrew Robinson.

Now before any of you run away saying ‘who the hell is Andrew Robinson?’ I think you know him all right. Watch this (be warned, may be disturbing):

The 'Scorpio Killer' from 'Dirty Harry'. Tell me that Heath’s Joker does not contain elements of Andrew’s spectacular performance. Go on, tell me.

The Joker character is so very remarkable because of the remarkable way the late great Heath Ledger plays him. But the writing also helps too. Dispensing with the traditional ‘History Of’ back story, The Joker comes from nowhere, wants nothing and tragically, due to the actor’s untimely death, may now disappear back into nothingness. A comic legend is completely redefined.

And, finally, when I realised the ‘Dirty Harry’ connection, I came to see something else . that was; how very similar to ‘Dirty Harry’ the whole ‘Dark Knight’ movie is. A twisted serial killer, a city held to ransom, a renegade law bringer deeply tied to the killer, it’s all in there. Batman is Dirty Harry. Is that an accident, do you think? Just something I’m over-thinking? Look at all those yellow school buses in ‘The Dark Knight’, so iconically used in ‘Dirty Harry’ – no accidents in the mind of Chris Nolan methinks.

What do you think of my Joker theories. Did you see anyone else in Heath’s performance? I’m off now to read some reviews and see if any one else saw what I think I saw.

‘I bet the whole bloody world did…


Kat Mortensen said...

I didn't have to read any further - Andy Robinson with the piercing "Scorpio"-eyes - the villain in the 1st (best) Dirty Harry movie. Yeeees!

Oh, but you also just nailed it with the Jack Lemmon (God, rest his soul!)

Sorry to say, I am not a fan of the Dark Knight (having come from the campy school of Adam West). Too gruesome - and I really detest clowns!


Kat Mortensen said...

Sorry, I just have to comment again. I wonder if some film student somewhere has come to the same conclusion about the Dirty Harry Connection (good title, by the way) and is writing his/her thesis on it as we post?


Anonymous said...

Andrew Robinson... yes definitely!

I once heard rumour that it was Robinson who was seeded to take on Ledger's role in the other film he was working on when he died (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), but ultimately Jonny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell were cast in different aspects of the role.

Robinson is another understated actor, from the Gemini Killer above, to the Cardassian taylor/spy Elim Garak of Star Trek: DS9.

True legends of hardcore acting, up there with Gary Oldman in my humble oppinion.

Ken Armstrong said...

Thanks Kat, you know I love your comments, the more the merrier.

Thanks, particularly, for a gentle 'prod' showing me a rather basic mistake in my post which I have now fixed. You are very subtle and kind. :)

Kat Mortensen said...

Ken, whatever "prod" you may have gleaned, I assure it you it was unintentional - I have no idea what you fixed.


P.S. Have you seen the original "Insomnia"? It's brilliant!

Matthew S. Urdan said...

Every movie is derivative. There are few unique performances that don't owe their pedigree to someone who came before them, as there are no more truly original ideals, just recycled ones with endless permutations.

Look at Revolution Road, coming out xmas from Sam Mendes (American Beauty), Kate Winslet, Leo DiCaprio and Kathy Bates---it's hubby Sam Mendes writing for Kate and Leo to get them the Oscars they deserve with an assist from Ms. Bates, but what it is is simply recycled American Beauty. Will it work? Maybe. But 10 years ago American Beauty was original. After countless knockoffs and last year's Little Children, I think they're fighting against the "been there done that" syndrome. It might be great movie-making, it might have great acting, it might have a great story, but movie goers are harder and harder to impress each year.

That being said, can the movie not stand on its own? Of course it can. The question is: was all the necessary care to establish the story, the settings, and define the characters given? Or does it rely on the American Beauty to fill in the gaps?

Batman: The Dark Knight, stands on its own. You don't have to see Dirty Harry in it for it to be a great movie. You don't need to see the school buses in Dirty Harry and connect them with The Dark Knight to make the movie great. The Dark Knight stands on its own. That it references other classics that came before it does not make The Dark Knight a remake or even derivative. It makes the Dark Knight even more than the sum of its parts, and by giving nods to classic movies and performances of the past, it hands out a hidden easter egg or two for those who can spot the nods.


hope said...

Interesting conclusions, probably right on. I say "probably" only because there are certain movies in life which have too much hype and thus kills my interest. I'm not fond of "dark" and it can be highly overrated.

That said, I'd rather have the picture in my head of a past "knight" role by Heath Ledger, the one he played in "A Knight's Tale". Lots of good music in that one used with great comedic effect. :)

Thanks for saving me money on movies I'd hate so I can shuffle it towards one I'd enjoy.

Ken Armstrong said...

Hi Andy, you had me salivating over your bacon butties earlier (no that is *not* rude). I'm glad you agree on Andy, I know you know your stuff!

Kat, I'll tell you again about my little error, I'm sure you'll smile. I haven't seen that original 'insomnia' - well, i saw a little of it but that doesn't count. I will keep an eye out for it.

Hi Matt: I enjoy seeing references and derivations but as you rightly point out, they only enhance the experience for me. I think a little tip of the hat to earlier material is intelligent and commentable. As you say, this is a fine film and I wouldn't want to leave anyone with anything other than that impression.

(isn't it great how I only get excited about movies months after everyone else has seen them? :) )

Hi Hope: Knight's Tale was good fun actually, I didn't think it was going to be from the trailer.

Anonymous said...

I didn't see that movie (Dirty Harry) but I might just have to see it after your review. Not that I'm in to twisted movies but I do watch a lot of CSI and other such murder mystery shows... so maybe I am into twisted things!

Anyway, that was a very fresh perspective on DK. I hadn't realised the Jack Lemmon connection until you mentioned it. Without even watching the video I knew exactly what you were talking about (I recently saw him with Marilyn in 'Some Like it Hot' - brilliantly hilarious movie).

I have to say, I'm even more impressed with you now and have to thank you for this fresh look. I love the DK even more now!

ktales said...

I can see the similarities on the characters on their, it may not have been a conscious effort but a subconscious roll also could have led to a similarity between the characters mentioned in the post. Unfortunately we'll never know.

good post,


Canucklehead said...

watched it last 'knight' on dvd ... not a batman fan ... but i really thought heath was incredible. i'm not a movie nerd like you guys clearly all but watching the clips i'd say you are bang one. (i mean that in the most affectionate way). my only worry is that not being a comic nerd either - what if the joker is supposed to show up in future sequels - who the hell could follow that? sorry about the punctuation and such - birthday drunk. my pencil - let me show it to you ...

/not as dirty at is sounds.

Jena Isle said...

Hi Ken,

It was a dark movie for me. Even most of the events seem to occur in the dark. It was okay but not that memorable for me. And I don't have that talent of yours in doing movie reviews. Thanks for sharing with us that talent. Cheers.

Jim Murdoch said...

Seems he actually based him on Johnny Rotten although I have no doubt as an actor his was familiar with both examples you give.

Ken Armstrong said...

You should see Dirty Harry, Reggie. In its time, there was nothing to match it and it spawned several generations of movies.

ktales: welcome! I think, 'subconcious roll' may well be quite right.

Hi Linc: I'm sure he was meant to show up in future movies. The fact that Heath made the part so much his own, and then died, begs that question - who, if anyone, will do it now?

Jena: It is a dark movie - even the resolution is dark - don't we appreciate the light more after we come out of the darkness, maybe that's the value of dark entertainment?

Hi Jim: Interesting that - I can't see much 'John Lydon' in his portrayal but he should know, I guess...

Susan at Stony River said...

Of course when you said "don't look at my blog", I ran straight over. (How did this post miss my feedreader?)

Must admit I will never see this one. Scared of clowns for one, scared of scary movies for another! I covered my eyes when the wolves attacked Belle in Beauty and the Beast (yes, the Disney one).

And yep, that poster looks a bit like my face these days...yuck!

glen8p said...

Obviously Jack Lemmon and Tom Waits