Produced by Columbia Pictures
Directed and Written by Guy Ritchie
Released by Sony Pictures

Shadow of the Vampire
Produced by Saturn Films
Directed by E. Elias Merhige
Screenplay by Steven Katz
Released by Lion Gate Films

Thirteen Days
Produced by Kevin Costner and Beacon Communications
Directed by Roger Donaldson
Screenplay by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow
Released by New Line Cinema

Even the weakest films can have a redeeming moment or two. Whether it’s a clever actor reinventing a shopworn role or an especially well-photographed scene, there is often enough to keep us from feeling entirely cheated of our time and money. This month’s films underscore the point: None of the three really succeeds (one is inexcusably tendentious), but they all have something to offer.

Guy Ritchie’s Snatch begins provocatively at a Hasidic diamond exchange in Antwerp. Five men in black overcoats, outsized homburgs, and sidecurls enter the premises discussing—what else?—the Annunciation. “It’s a nice story,” one observes. Another agrees: “After all, it’s not every day a virgin conceives a son. And it was the virgin that got the attention. A couple of hundred years, you got the Holy Catholic Church.” At this, a third member of the bearded entourage groans, “Oy vey!” Could this have anything to do with Ritchie’s personal life? He has, as all the world knows, fathered a child with the Madonna of our time, a woman who gained celebrity by singing “Like a Virgin.”

So far, so kosher. But then Ritchie shifts into Pulp Fiction overdrive, spinning plot upon plot. Robbers break into the exchange and steal a diamond “as big as your fist,” which, upon their return to London, is promptly stolen by other thieves who are then chased by the original villains. Somehow both criminal teams find themselves in the middle of a dispute between bare-knuckle-boxing promoters. And so it goes. The film descends into a nearly nonstop manic montage punctuated with flashes of violence: Thugs feed their victims to pigs; someone chops off a corpse’s arm; a gangster known as Bullet Tooth lives up to his name. All of this is played deadpan for yuks, but the relentless beatings, shootings, slashings, and maulings soon become numbingly tedious.

Then there’s the dialogue: Ritchie, apparently, has been reading Raymond Chandler. One thug reminds another of the wisdom of adapting to circumstances, intoning, “When in Rome . . . ” The other retorts, “I’m not in Rome, I’m in a hurry!”—lines directly stolen from Chandler’s 1944 screenplay for Double Indemnity. As if to prove it pays to recycle the very best, Ritchie then makes the mistake of supplying some witticisms of his own coinage. The film’s central villain, a murderous gangster in his 60’s, declines sugar for his coffee, growling, “No thank you, I’m sweet enough.” Later, he threatens some potential victims. “Do you know what nemesis means?” he hisses through his dentures. “It’s a righteous infliction of retribution by an appropriate agent.” This isn’t Chandler; it’s desperate.

The film is almost redeemed by Brad Pitt’s performance as Mick, the Irish gypsy, a bare-knuckle champion with an unstoppable right cross and an hilariously impenetrable accent. He perfectly renders the confidence of a physically gifted young man blithely undaunted by his lower-class impoverishment. Unfortunately, the rest of Ritchie’s film lacks Pitt’s marvelously funny insouciance.

Shadow of the Vampire also has its moments. If nothing else, it’s beautifully filmed and graced by fine actors. The film’s premise, however, is fatally flawed. We are asked to believe that German director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) was so committed to aesthetic authenticity that he hired a real vampire to play the lead in Nosferatu, his 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Despite the film’s serious tone, it feels more hke a “What If?” history sketch from Saturday Night Live. What if Clark Kent had been a German and fought for Hitter as Übermensch? What if Murnau’s star. Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) had been one of the undead?

These what-if differences are supposed to be alternately amusing and chilling, but I found them mildly curious at best. Why? Well, first, however historically significant, Nosferatu is a trite, ridiculously simplified adaptation of Stoker’s text. Second, director E. Elias Merhige and his writer Steven Katz fail to suggest why anyone would find the tale at all compelling.

Although Murnau’s silent film has been hailed as a masterpiece by many enthusiasts, I’ve always thought it quite charmless, little more than a cartoonish attempt to scare audiences. The monster looks pathetically weak: Murnau unaccountably decided to invest his vampire with the characteristics of a filthy, scrounging rat; his bloodsucker looks creepily feral, not seductively suave. He’s a bald, beaked geek from a sideshow, his tall, thin frame sidling awkwardly with a hunched, arthritic stiffness. He looks about as threatening as an undernourished scarecrow. The film’s only accomplishment is that it opened a vein of Dracula movies that remains unstaunched after 80 years. Still, the flow wasn’t fully primed until Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, in which Bela Lugosi played the lead as a hypnotically seductive roué. The fusion of sex and horror is the public’s preferred catnip.

If the Dracula story works at all, it does so as an allegory of sexual impulse deformed by repression until it erupts as a caricature of natural desire. That is why the count’s primary victims are invariably young, engaged virgins. He bites their throats ostensibly to drink their life-giving blood, but his intentions are unmistakably erotic. The overly sheltered women swoon in his arms and awaken infected with his unhealthy lust. Their passions do not lead to new life, however, but to an eternal existence among the undead. Lust without love becomes an end in itself Those in its grip are doomed to an endless series of unsatisfying couplings, all sadly sterile of progeny. This plot line worked well for Stoker’s novel and the few vampire films that adhered to it.

Absent Stoker’s subtext, however, Murnau’s film holds little interest. Perhaps that is why Merhige’s deconstruction of it seems so oddly flat and literal. If his real vampire is playing the part of Dracula, then we must accept him as a real bloodsucker, not a metaphor. He is merely an ugly monster who needs human blood to survive, which is exactly how Dafoe has been directed to play the part. He does it very well, not only looking uncannily like Schreck but adding a weirdly furtive intensity to his precursor’s performance. In keeping with the film’s conceit, Merhige’s Murnau is supposed to have privately contracted with this monster and then held him in check to protect his other actors, at least for the duration of the filming. Finding himself denied human prey so close at hand, Dafoe paces back and forth in short, mincing steps, glaring jerkily left and right, snuffling all the while like a frustrated rat. There is, however, no thwarted sexual desire in his performance. So what is this about? We’re left with an early film director so madly obsessed with authenticity that he has no scruples about putting his cast in mortal danger. Is this an ex post facto plea for special effects good enough to dispense with the real thing?

Whatever Merhige’s intentions, his daft little film is undeniably watchable. Not only do we get a beautiful tour of Berlin and Bremen, but the many scenes depicting Murnau directing Nosferatu also provide a fairly detailed look at how silent films were made.

Thirteen Days, a Kevin Costner production, presents a chilling scenario with its vivid dramatization of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. I have only one complaint: Its montage of fevered White House meetings, military preparations, and contemporary newsreels is so visually compelling that I am afraid many millions will mistake its script for documentary truth.

Director Roger Donaldson wants us to believe that Jack Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood), his brother Bobby (Steven Gulp), and their boyhood friend and political advisor, Kenneth O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), saved us from nuclear holocaust when they faced down not only the Soviets (who had been impolite enough to put nuclear missiles in Cuba) but also America’s military leaders, who saw the Russian faux pas as their opportunity to bomb the bejesus out of Castro. Instead of succumbing to the warmongering of the Pentagon, the Kennedys wisely steered America to a diplomatic compromise. After a few false starts, they listened to Adlai Stevenson, who urged a quid pro quo: America would remove the Jupiter missiles it had placed on Russia’s border in Turkey, and Russia would haul its arsenal out of Cuba. Of course, the Kennedys being Kennedys, they insisted upon a face-saving proviso for their nation and—not incidentally—themselves. The missile.s in Turkey would not be removed until months after the Russian arms left Cuba, and there would be no public acknowledgment of any linkage between the two withdrawals.

Donaldson presents this as a strategically brilliant victory, but was it? With Soviet anti-aircraft guns firing on our U-2 surveillance planes, American battle ships about to fire on Russian transports, and armed nuclear warheads aimed at Washington, D.C., was Kennedy’s bid for a public-relations coup worth the risk? The missiles in Turkey, after all, were obsolete and had been scheduled for removal well before the crisis occurred. Later, Jack would make the puerile boast, “I cut Khrushchev’s nuts off—his analogy of choice. When his staff had expressed reservations about invading the Bay of Pigs 18 months earlier, he had mocked their fears: “Everyone’s grabbing their nuts on this.” This testicular level of discourse reveals Kennedy’s leadership for what it was: callow, unseasoned, and alarmingly impulsive.

You would never know this from Costner’s worshipful film, of course. Donaldson and his writers, Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, portray Kennedy as a man of Zen-like patience. They have chosen to disregard his earlier hasty miscalculations regarding Cuba, revealing nothing about his bumbling of the Bay of Pigs invasion, even though it clearly led the Soviets to believe they could get away with their missile stunt. After initially supporting this CIA mission to help anti-Castro Cubans retake their homeland, Kennedy got cold feet and tried to limit our involvement for fear of what would happen to his administration if the risky operation failed. The decision was disastrous. Hundreds of men died, 1,200 were taken prisoner, and more than 100,000 dissenters on the island were arrested. The result was a major coup for Fidel Castro, whose popularity grew spectacularly in its aftermath. And the Soviets became convinced that Kennedy was both irresolute and incompetent, a judgment that clearly emboldened their Gold War ambitions.

None of this appears in the film. Kennedy is portrayed as a thoughtful, prudent world leader. We see him looking soulfully out of the Oval Office window as he deliberates on the fate of humanity. This does not comport with the man who reflexively analyzed his foreign policy in macho argot. A fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond adventures, Kennedy seems to have had the spoiled child’s need to appear tough. In crises, he considered it a sign of weakness to “grab your nuts” and “look like a bum.” But, when things went wrong, he let others take the fall. With only mild protest, he allowed his supporters to blame the Bay of Pigs on Dwight Eisenhower. Theodore Sorenson, for one, alleged that the invasion plans had already gathered unstoppable momentum under Ike and, therefore, Kennedy had no choice but to go along. Not so. Eisenhower had merely permitted discussion of an invasion, expressing strong doubts about its wisdom.

Faced with the missile threat, Kennedy’s apparent restraint seems to have been more a case of paralysis. He didn’t know whom to trust. Worse, he was almost as concerned about appearing weak as he was about provoking nuclear war. After temporizing several days, he came close to authorizing an airstrike. By that time, however, Maxwell Taylor and Curtis LeMay felt obliged to point out that the delay had given the Soviets time to assemble and arm the missiles. Since there was no certainly the first airstrike would destroy all the weapons at once, retaliation was not only possible, but probable. (The film, of course, portrays the generals as rabidly unwavering in their desire to attack throughout the 13-day crisis, regardless of changing conditions on the ground.) Kennedy dropped the machismo and went for the trade-off. The film portrays his decision as the choice of a statesman; perhaps it was, at that moment. But we must not overlook—as the film so deliberately does—that Kennedy’s curious blend of juvenile bravado and cautious self-regard had brought this nation to such a fatal pass.

Suggesting this, of course, would be tantamount to apostasy in Hollywood. Costner couldn’t allow inconvenient facts to topple the shrine.