Steven’s return to an emphasis on red and yellow set design in his latest undertaking jumped out at me right away. If you check out my remarks on his early films, you will note he tended to hit hard on the Technicolor pairing of ruby slippers and yellow brick road hues featured in Wizard of Oz. Here, the introduction to downtown Brooklyn lingers on red and yellow signage. Note the red and yellow paint on the artistic spy’s desk. As the movie progresses, you will see red and yellow wallpaper in the Donovans’ house as well as a faded version in the dumpy apartment in East Berlin. Courtrooms and embassies, both stateside and abroad, are resplendent with crimson and gold. Add to the list the neon motel sign where the pilots are recruited. Even the climactic phone booth provides a glowing backdrop for our hero with its eye-catching palate.
A playful WOO reference by insurance lawyer/negotiator Donovan crops up at the beginning when he uses the example of a tornado destroying someone’s house rather than the more typical scenario of fire or flood.When James Donovan first encounters Rudolf Abel, Spielberg silhouettes Tom Hanks against the blaring light of windows in the background. It happens again in court and in Vogel’s office. If you’ve explored my website, you know that the bright light which lured Dorothy into Munchkinland foreshadows danger lurking ahead for the protagonist.
When James Donovan first encounters Rudolf Abel, Spielberg silhouettes Tom Hanks against the blaring light of windows in the background. It happens again in court and in Vogel’s office. If you’ve explored my website, you know that the bright light which lured Dorothy into Munchkinland foreshadows danger lurking ahead for the protagonist.
The oft-used device of ascent and descent from normality to a whole other dimension of reality is touched on when Lt. Francis Gary Powers soars over then crashes down into Soviet territory. Steven makes the most of cyclonic motion with the spinning exploding chaos of the doomed aircraft. Note the camera sees it from above, much as we see Dorothy’s rooftop twirling downward.
Berlin, east and west, exhibits an air of hopelessness by use of subdued dreary colors, a Kansas air of greyness.
The Amblin’ bicycle makes its first cameo in East Berlin as Pryor attempts to execute an escape through the last portal of the famous wall. It pops up again—complete with Miss Gulch’s whimsical basket—as a means of delivering mail in the embassy.
In the embassy bike scene, listen for the bell ringing. AHA! This is the Glinda chime moment. Pay attention now; you are about to be treated to a crucial plot twister…Sure enough, immediately afterward, Donovan confides his bombshell to the hapless ambassador’s assistant: the deal must include ‘two for one’ or there will be no deal at all.
An interesting prop appears on Vogel’s desk; it is the same hourglass that we saw on Indiana Jones desk in Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, a smaller version than the Wicked Witch’s sand sifter that terrified Dorothy.
Through a train window, James Donovan is assaulted by the horrific sight of refugees being gunned down as they try to scale the wall. He relives this memory at home in Brooklyn when from a subway window he sees a gang of boys leaping a chin link fence. Normal scenes surveyed through windows take on surreal undertones in Spielberg fare like Dorothy’s bedroom view of the world caught up in a tornado.
Check out how at the end James collapses diagonally across the bed. It is very reminiscent of Dorothy’s position after her bedroom window knocks her out. When he awakens, we are assured he will find himself safe at home again.
How and why does Steven Spielberg decide which projects he’s interest in taking on? Like Wizard of Oz, the story usually involves the theme of someone wanting or needing to return home again. Certainly that is the case for these three ‘spies’. ‘Is home really safe?’ —another question Steven likes to play around with comes up again in this film. The Donavan household undergoes a lot of safety angst not only from cold war propaganda, but due to the community’s disapproval of James’ quest. Ah, yes, the quest, the lending of a helping hand to get someone home where he/she belongs comes straight out of Wizard of Oz.
Finally we meet again the trickster. Only through James Donavan’s clever manipulations will the main characters be able to attain their noble goals. To complicate this obvious theme, we even have layers of tricksters like the CIA agents’ insistence that James appear to be acting alone, like the Soviet and East German official’s similar insistence upon no traceable government involvement.
Viktor Navorski meets and befriends three steadfast companions in this nether world between Krakozhia and New York City just like Dorothy did in Oz. Mulroy, Enrique, and Gupta represent the qualities of Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion. Enrique searches for his heart (love of Dolores). Paranoid, fearful Gupta searches for the courage to return to his family in India and face imprisonment. Mulroy is the brainy one. He keeps Gupta’s silliness in line—much as Scarecrow reigns in Lion—and he imparts savvy hints to Viktor to help him survive in this often hostile environment. See Goonies.
Of course Frank Dixon plays the Wicked Witch of the West, trapping Viktor out of sheer meanness and his own desire for power/promotion.
Viktor’s goal is to find a ‘wizard’, in this case the virtuoso jazz musician whose signature will complete his father’s collection. See A.I., Minority Report
Gupta uses a mop to delay the Krakozhia flight, affording Viktor time and opportunity to get his wish and go out into NYC. You will recall the witch’s broomstick was the tool required by Wizard as compensation for the companions’ wishes to be granted.
As Viktor promenades down the center of airport toward his exodus, he is encouraged and cheered on by his companions and bystanders, again much like Dorothy in Munchkinland and Emerald City. See Joe vs.the Volcano, Twister, The Color Purple, Catch Me if You Can, Sugarland Express, Used Cars.
In the climactic parade scene, on the upper level, the camera flashes upon a distinctly yellow floor like yellow brick road. However close-ups do away with the pigment.
At the end, Frank’s security guards—like the witch’s soldiers in the castle—are only to happy to defy previous orders and former protocol. They let the captive go free.
Gupta triumphantly reassures Viktor from tarmac that everything is okay; he is returning home. See WOO, A.I., E.T., Super 8, Jaws, War of the Worlds, Empire of the Sun, War Horse, Saving Private Ryan, Sugarland Express, Hook, Close Encounters, Catch Me if You Can for other characters’ touching faith in safety of home.
Viktor initially complicates matters when he refuses to confirm he is ‘afraid to go home’. Pure at heart and untouched by Frank’s evil influence, or those overthrowing his country’s government, he can never accept that home is anything but a safe place for him. Dorothy shares the same viewpoint despite events to the contrary like Miss Gulch and the tornado. See above notationfor characters with equally naïve notions about the sanctuary of home. See Twister, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Catch me if You Can, Minority Report, Amistad, The Color Purple, Munich, Poltergeist
The film’s finale has Viktor confidently answering the cabbie’s request for a destination, “I am going home.” If he doesn’t exactly close his eyes, he certainly narrows them. See WOO Dorothy’s ‘no place like home incantation’, Empire of the Sun, A.I.
Krakozhia: some say the country is named after Krakow…maybe…but is also pseudo-anagram for Kansas and Oz.
Introduction opens with spaceship in woods…you see the glowing triangular pyramids, some kind of flora-specimen collecting devices…Check the right hand side of scene. For an instant camera pans tree and an animated human face appears in bark, just like the apple trees in Oz. See Minority Report, Poltergeist.
Elliot gets tipsy because ET has discovered beer, he lets frogs loose and in pandemonium kisses the girl. Camera closes in to her black patent leather shoes; she kicks out her heel in a move exactly like the one Dorothy uses to show off ruby slippers.
The trailers, posters all featured the key moment when Elliott is speeding away on his bike with ET on handlebars. ET’s magic launches them over the cliff… and then they are flying through the air. Obvious parallel: Almira Gulch pedaling her bike through the air is straight out of Dorothy’s view of inside the tornado.
Apparently the bike scene from ET is one of Spielberg’s favorites. It is now the logo for Amblin, his production company. Spielberg gives his trademark bicycle a cameo in many films. SeeMunich, Adventures of Tintin, Amistad, 1941, Always, Super 8, War of the Worlds, Empire of the Sun,The Goonies, Sugarland Express, Jaws, Inner Space, Used Cars, Poltergeist.
Chimes/clinking are used in this film to foreshadow magic. ET’s jury rigged phone clinks; chimes sound right before the spaceship returns to pick him up; a bell actually rings before the BMX gang all take off into thin air. WOO’s good witch always announced her arrival with magical chimes. See Always, A.I.,The Color Purple, Jaws, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Super 8, Twister, Twilight Zone, Joe vs. the Volcano, Poltergeist.
You will see the oft-used backlit, dusty quiet scene when the astronauts first invade Elliot’s home searching for ET, like Dorothy’s house upon landing in Oz— calm before craziness. See War of the Worlds, Minority Report, Twilight Zone, Twister. Also the ‘air of grayness’ that WOO used to portray Kansas is changed to an air of eerie blueness in this scene.
And yes WOO’s recurring theme is handled again in this as in many of Spielberg’s films…all ET wants is to “go home.” See Jaws, War Horse,The Terminal, A.I., The Color Purple, Sugarland Express, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Catch Me if You Can, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, Super 8, 1941, Amistad, Minority Report, Munich, Hook, Poltergeist.
Interesting note: The mother protests, “This is my home,” as government officials violate her sanctuary. Home is supposed to be a ‘safe’ place. See Twister, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Catch me if You Can, Minority Report, Amistad, The Color Purple, Munich, Poltergeist.