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Archive for the ‘CRIME DRAMA’ Category

The Wife

08 Sep

The Wife – directed by Bjorn Runge. Drama. 103 minutes Color 2018
★★★
The Story: A renowned novelist prepares to accept The Nobel Prize for Literature his wife has written.
~
Glenn Close plays her as a lady nothing could perturb. She’s miscast.

Francis MacDormand was originally to have played it and would have brought to the character the subtext of an individual capable of being duped because she was inherently unstable or co-dependent. Duped by the privilege of being allowed to write at all and be published. And duped by the hot flesh of the professor who seduces her as a partner in sex and crime.

But writing and publishing are not the same thing. And the screen writer does not honor or even seem to know this distinction.

Close says he is merely her editor. It’s not true. She rejects his editing. For, actually, her husband gets her published under his name because he is Jewish and a male and therefore supposedly “in” and therefore because he is a sort of agent/front-man who puts his name on her work, she is spared the drama of publisher’s rejection and the calisthenics of literary business. She sequesters herself from her family and writes, while nobody knows of the forgery.

Why then does her grown son find her behavior so unnatural, when, he himself is a writer and all writers do exactly that? Writing is a job. It requires a room of one’s own and working hours. Why does he accuse her of that? It doesn’t compute.

The script and the performance of Close are blotted with such anomalies. And Close allows the story to be carried by a smile so broad and fixed we cannot swallow it after a time as being anything but condescending.

Close and her cheatin’ hubby wait out the night for him to be announced as the winner of The Nobel Prize For Literature. When it comes, no indication is given, as they trampoline the bed, that there is an unbalance. Nothing speaks in their eyes. Close plays it as a grand dame who voluntarily corsets her power and likes it and approves. Close plays it like a duchess.

Jonathan Pryce perfectly creates the character of a crude Brooklyn Jew, and behind such a façade anything might be hidden and denied. He’s on the make. He always has been. Of course he’s gleeful to win. But she? She who has actually written the books? Her glee is as unreluctant as his. In fact, as written, there is no way the early scenes can be played. They defy subtext, and none is offered. On and on they go. Through flashbacks of his infidelities and now to his infidelities to come. He is allowed to fuck someone else’s body and she is allowed to write someone else’s books? The tradeoff doesn’t compute. Writer’s cramp would have seized her long before the finale.

Close’s performance coasts on the current Women’s Movement. The Wronged And Abused Female is the sleigh she smugly lays back in and rides. So until his comeuppance, she waits her moment for a nice big fat scene to play—when we’re supposed to feel partial to her as a poor wronged woman.

The truth is they both are crooks.

Christian Slater is perfectly convincing as the popular biographer pushy to sign Pryce on—willing to strong-arm his way into a contract because on the eve of the Nobel award he has guessed the truth. And Elizabeth McGovern is highly effective in the key scene where she inculcates Close in the folly of a female hoping to write anything worthwhile and get the attention a male would get.

One wonders what on earth Close will continue to write when the film’s story is over. How will her famous style not betray her previous con? The question shoves the story over the cliff into the preposterous.

Two recent films promote the same story. In Big Eyes Amy Adams played the woman who painted the Keane kids with their creepy pop-eyed peepers, and Christoph Waltz played the husband. And soon to come, Keira Knightly will play the title role in Colette, whose husband, Domenic West as M. Willy, published her first four books under his name and collected the royalties and spent them.

Of course, Colette’s story is more interesting than the two others because Colette actually was a genius. And because, while she was still young, she beat down the door she had allowed herself to be locked behind. She eventually obtained the rights to her early work, and of her later work, Julie de Carneilhan, Gigi, Cheri, The Last Of Cheri, These Pleasures, Sido and My Mother’s House are among our great literature.

Colette’s indentured service is a fascinating story to know about. Whether it is a great story to watch on the silver screen we shall see. The story of The Wife is not. Glenn Close is not really playing a writer. She is playing a polemic.

What is the key to such stories?

The key is: at what point and how did the artist realize her talent was viable? For if each of these young women knew she had talent, still none of these women yet knew that talent was interesting to a multitude. That is to say that her work was commercial. That is to say that she could make enough money from it to free her from a corrupt marriage and set her name down on a title page.

How did they wake to this?

That story I would like to behold. Not that the con happened, but how the artist came to realize she was richer than the counterfeit she herself had willingly, happily, lazily, and self-indulgently once allowed herself to commit.

 

The Liberation of L.B. Jones

24 Apr

The Liberation of J.B. Jones – directed by William Wyler. Drama. 102 minutes Color 1970.

★★★★

The Story: In a Tennessee town, two bad cops pursue domination over the black community, while two black members of it seek and achieve retribution.

~

Important violence raises this picture out of the mud flinging of a message film and into an imaginative tale of human fact which has not dated.

Willi Wyler’s films earned more Academy Awards for acting than any other director in history. Usually it is Hollywood-type acting, but he certainly cast his pictures well. The original casting of the Lee J. Cobb lawyer who compromises justice for the sake of social peace was Henry Fonda, who would have brought more scope to the role’s requirements of a basically honest man doing the wrong things for what he thinks are the right reasons.

The real mistake in casting is in placing Lee Majors in the key role of his nephew and neophyte law partner, for Majors has a peculiarly corrupt Hollywood handsomeness to him and gift for histrionics that is truly oaken. Barbara Hershey is fine as Major’s wife, but neither of them have scenes sufficient to make the balancing of the whites dangerous.

Not so the casting of the black actors, which is impeccable. The excellent Yaphet Kotto looms as the sweet-natured avenging angel, and Roscoe Lee Brown brings his storied refinement to the role of the rich undertaker who is divorcing his wife. She is played by Lola Falani who is very beautiful and very gifted as an actor. She moves through a dozen ambiguities in the role of Brown’s young wife, and her skill keeps us away from asking a simple obvious question about her: Why doesn’t she just tell her husband? Fayard Nicholas and Zara Cully bring their piquancy and smarts to open the material up for us into the black world. Watch Nicholas, that dancing genius, turn and waylay that woman with a just blow to the jaw. What timing!

Anthony Zerb plays the principal fool cop, and, like Arch Johnson as the other one, they lose their characters behind their put-on deep South accents, so their human projection is lost behind their stereotype sound. It’s a common foible for actors. All you have to do is listen to Chill Wills here to get what a real country sound does when it rings true.

The film is a fine picture, Wyler’s last, co-directed by Robert Swink, for Wyler was laid up by the Southern heat. As a subject it stands as a recompense for his two cowardly attempts at The Children’s Hour, both of which failed and should have failed. But this is a strong film, interestingly framed and shot by Robert Surtees. It is the first film ever made showing a black man killing a white man. And about time too.

During the filming in Humboldt Tennessee, someone approached Roscoe Lee Brown on the street and said, “How come you don’t talk like other colored folk?” To which Brown replied, “Because when I was young, we had a white maid.” And about time too.

 

Nightcrawler

23 Mar

Nightcrawler – written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Crime Satire. 117 minutes Color 2014

★★★★★

The Story: A petty thief steals his way into The Profession Of Paparazzi Of Gore.

~

The two best male performances I saw for 2014, and in perhaps the two best films, were Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler and Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler.

For once the writer of the screenplay has not botched the direction of the picture by forgetting to leave all that stuff out or by not having listened to someone who cast a cold eye beforehand, as Zanuck used to do. For the screenplay is masterful. And the direction is masterful. And the music is particularly masterful. And the casting is masterful. And the filming is masterful. And the playing is masterful.

Why would you possibly deprive yourself of this? Is it because it deals with ambulance-chasing video-vampires who sell their spectacular footage to the TV stations every night? Is it because it is a satire with no laughs? An exposé of how we drool over roadside kill and the crimson-dripping misfortunes of others? How the front pages fix their starshine on murder, misery, rape, crime, and sexual exploitation? If it bleeds it leads.

This is the motto of the studio head played by Rene Russo, so well cast by the director, who happens to be her husband. It is good to see Miss Russo back in business on the blockbuster screen. She plays this well-written part with all the humor, reserve, and savvy in the world. Boy, is she good!

The movie is, however, entirely the province of Jake Gyllenhaal who plays the smarmy but effective video-cameraman. He has lost 20 pounds to play the part of a sort of Zen master juggernaut of the night. Lithe, quick, unreadable, he has made of this character a stern robot, mouthing maxims from career manuals and community college TV management courses. He never speaks ordinary English. He is always a quote. It is an astonishing tour de force for an actor, for even when he breaks out of this humorless, manipulative mummery, he is, behind it, nothing less than insane. This we know.

So the suspense is: what will become of this nut? Will his sidekick, well played by Riz Ahmed, get shafted? Yes, but how? Will Russo outlast our Jake?

Gyllenhaal’s face is sculpted to a skin and a bone. With a little queue on his head, he is an ascetic of slime. If he is not human, it is not because he is insane, not because he is relentless, but because he is without fear. It is an emotion unknown to him, and his being without it gives us ourselves in our ghoulish eye which would gaze on death without horror. As though we were training ourselves for a genocide. A sweet immolation of everything and everyone. An eager 42-caliber finale served up as a free sample at any supermarket you go to at all.

Worth seeing, my dears.

 
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Posted in CRIME DRAMA, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Jake Gyllenhaal, René Russo, SATIRE

 

Three On A Match

18 Mar

Three On A Match – directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Drama. 63 minutes Black And White 1932.

★★★★

The Story: Three grammar school girls stick together as grown women, even more so as one of them goes to the dogs.

~

What is important about this film is not Bette Davis’s cute figure in a bathing suit, nor her part, which is as peripheral to the story as is Humphrey Bogart’s and Glenda Farrell’s and Edward Arnold’s. All three of these make the same impression they were always to make: Bogart as a man to take into account, Farrell as a woman knowledgeable in her own sensuality, Arnold as Humpty-Dumpty pushing everyone off the wall.

Davis plays the least colorful of the three women and the one least connected to moving the plot forward. Joan Blondell plays the light-fingered jailbird who goes straight and marries the boss. We see Davis in the secretary pool at an Underwood, and she really looks like she knows how to type well, for she really did know. One can believe she is a secretary. Later she becomes an au- pair with Blondell in scenes at the beach with a tiresome tyke one wishes they would drown.

Ann Dvojak has the leading role, and Davis, aged 23, could probably have played it beautifully. The point is that Dvojak is excellent and that this is the sort of part that women were getting before 1934, not just wild-assed women who grab men into their beds impenitently and salt their lives with pleasure, but women’s issue parts. These were the pre-Code days of great parts for women which Mick LaSalle writes of in Complicated Women, his celebration of the actresses of this era, their talents, their roles, their films, before the Code put all such roles out into the woodshed for a whipping.

While they lasted, Davis never participated as a leading actress in these sorts of films, although she was of an age to. This is her twelfth film. She is not exactly starting out. Warners still did not know what to do with her. They threw her around like chicken feed. And she knew it.

The sort of parts she fought to play depicted just this sort of woman, women living their lives to the full. They didn’t have to be prostitutes to do it. They could be society women of the sort Norma Shearer played at MGM and Ann Dvojak plays here.

Davis fought for such roles, but Davis fought for what did not exist. Such parts were not mounted after 1934. After 1934, women must suffer for their pleasures or die. The closest Davis could come to such a part was the sexually predacious wife in Bordertown and Mildred Rodgers in Of Human Bondage, who is a tart. She had made 21 films by then, none of them giving her the meaty roles Ruth Chatterton, Constance Bennett, Mae West, Mae Clarke, Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, Ann Harding, Miriam Hopkins, and Barbara Stanwyck played. Davis was good friends with Jean Harlow, but she never got parts like Harlow got. The Code flattened them.

In Three On A Match, Davis is still a Harlow peroxide blonde. Her old chum, Joan Blondell, from New York acting school, has the second lead. Davis is on the sidelines where she doesn’t even look convincing smoking a cigarette.

 

Nobody Lives Forever

31 Oct

Nobody Lives Forever – directed by Jean Negulesco. Grifter Drama. 100 minutes Black And White 1946.

★★★★★

The Story: A G.I. comes home to his former crimes scene and heads for a multi-million dollar scam.

~

John Garfield, perfectly cast as both a G.I. and a criminal. It’s his way, which is always the same way: the sensitive tough-guy, Bronx marshmallow. Very lovable. Very understandable. These are qualities which come with some actors and don’t come with others, and they determine work. Work in two ways: casting, and the way he executes scenes. For out of these qualities spring choices in handling scenes. The acting craft holds outlets for these people. They are not ordinary, these people. They have vitality, presence, and looks. They have in them that which wants to be seen. So in discussing acting in relation to them, it is almost impossible to view them dispassionately. It is almost impossible to define the skill with which the tiger dismembers the faun. What is first, mainly, only possible, is to experience being impressed. That much is sure.

Like them or not, there they are up on the silver screen where they belong. With him and always opposite him are all the other members of the cast, all as vital. George Coulouris as the sleazy crumb horning in on Garfield’s grift. George Tobias, as always comical as the almost useless sidekick. Two comical thug fools, in James Flavin and Ralph Peters. His two-timing, slapable canary played by Faye Emerson at the peak of her beauteousness. And the astonishing Walter Brennan as the pickpocket guru. All these are contrasted in their comical or threatening positions to him and to the only one who is not threatening, but is lovely, Geraldine Fitzgerald playing the widow they mean to cheat. Fitzgerald’s performance makes the film work. She is smart but justifiably ignorant; she falls in love with Garfield and you believe it; she registers everything quietly and truly. Don’t miss her. She lets you perform the part with her. Garbo did the same.

The film’s finale is handled somewhat clumsily. But otherwise the film is beautifully directed, which is a question of values attended to in a way noir does not often offer. W.R. Burnett (author of Little Caesar, High Sierra, This Gun For Hire, The Whole Town’s Talking, Scarface, The Asphalt Jungle) wrote it.

Give it a viewing. Let me know how you liked it.

 

Cold In July

18 Jun

Cold In July – directed by Jim Mickle. Thriller. 109 minutes Color 2014.

★★★

The Story: A small town merchant kills a housebreaker in his home and there are many consequences.

~

Why doesn’t it wash?

We have four wonderfully skilled and properly chosen actors to perform it, Nick Damici, Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, and Sam Shepard. They all give tremendous value, and one of the problems might be the focus on that value. For the director has allowed each of them the time to reveal themselves in normal fashion in circumstances which are not normal at all.  Has he turned, or tried to turn, the instruments of a Thriller into the personnel of a Tragedy?

And if all this is true, why is the part of the wife a thankless role? Because it’s not well written, that’s why. It refuses to set the wife in anything but TV-acting opposition to the practices of her husband. Instead she whines or gathers her youngster up from the restaurant and walks out. Or canoodles. She is never allowed to be intensely interested in him as a human being. She is never allowed to try to see through him. Or she hasn’t the imagination to do so.

The piece begins in a bloodbath and, of course, ends in one. And very good blood baths they are too. But between them, all I see is circumstances that would play very well in a novel. In a novel you must imagine what you are told, so the focus of your imagination screens off the improbable. In a movie everything’s right there in front of your eyes, and imagination is fatal.  In a novel you can’t see the anomalies.

You can’t see that those men’s leaving that drugged ex-con on the railroad tracks is sure to lead back to them.

You can’t believe that in the dead of night with headlights ablaze a car could follow two other cars out into the country without those other cars tumbling to it.

You can’t believe that the FBI would permit the occupants of a safe house the liberty to consistently make snuff porn.

The secret of a Thriller is that the emotion shown has to be so tight and constricted in its range that you are never allowed to look elsewhere in your mind for human inconstancy.

But these four men’s performances are full of human inconstancy. They are beautiful performances. They are Oscar worthy performances.

But do they belong in a Thriller?

 
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Posted in CRIME DRAMA, Don Johnson, Michael C. Hall, MURDER MYSTERY, Sam Shepard, THRILLER

 

The Wolf Of Wall Street

03 Jan

The Wolf Of Wall Street – directed by Martin Scorsese. BioPic Black Comedy. 189 minutes, Color 2013.

The Story: The rise and rise and rise of a sharpie-broker to the heights of wealth and disorder, and the outcome in ultimate wealth and disorder and gullibility for all.

★★★★★

I was disappointed to read in the credits that The Wolf Of Wall Street was based on someone’s life, for it is such an imaginative movie, I expected it to be as made up on the spot as the many dodges it chronicles. It is the wittiest movie I have seen in ten years.

It starts with a 26 year old Leonardo DiCaprio being put in a trance by Matthew McConaughey, a trance in which he remains for the duration, and in that trance enacts the dance of greed and more greed (in the word “greed” the “more” is silent), until at the end we are shown the whole world to be in an obsessive trance, too.

McConaughey’s fugazi-cadenza of the fairy dust of Wall Street opens the piece with a The Gambler’s Creed. It shows that capitalism, meaning brokerage investment (meaning stock and bonds), is silly. For it is based on a cheap thrill. To which one and all must be addicted. Meaning entranced. Get Rich Quick is the silly thrill.

The film is a must. For the writing. For the mastery of execution of the director. For the performances of the McConaughey, along with Rob Reiner as Belfort’s irascible father, Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife, the beauteous Joanna Lumley as her aunt, and everyone involved, small part to major. Jonah Hill is the co-star, and his scenes put one in mind of the early work of Scorsese in Raging Bull, as does the acting work throughout, with its ruthless improvisations and trash talk at will.

Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor of deep shallowness as a leading man, brings his thin-sliced white bread and slather of profound character-acting talent to bear on the part of the cavalier investment broker on the make, and gets up on his hind legs, and his abilities shimmer throughout the picture and hold our interest at a fascinated distance, as he continues his compulsion to trick the customers into speculations from over-the-counter penny stocks, which no one may profit by but him. He gives us a deal of rash playing. The entire performance is flavored into reality by the fragrance of a Bronx accent.

The law bears down. This does not dissuade him from drugs, sex, and high-rolling.

But why go on? Why spill the beans, when it is such a pleasure for you to see them topple out on your own? It is because of Scorsese’s dab hand with this material that you must  attend, and for DiCaprio’s in playing it out with him.

Is it the best film Scorsese has ever made? Could be.

You tell me.

 

Tough Assignment

20 Oct

Tough Assignment – directed by William Baudine. A local reporter and his wife stalk gangsters rustling cattle. Crime. 64 minutes Black and White 1949.

★★★★★

This is lodged in volume 5 of Forgotten Noir, but it has nothing to do with Noir, either in content or treatment — it’s not even filmed as one. But that doesn’t matter. It’s a B film; it was meant to be a B film; it gets 5 stars because it fulfills its intent.

What’s interesting about it is the playing of the minor characters. Each one of them holds the screen in a way that the principal actor does not. Don “Red” Barry as the reporter had played Red Rider for a good long while, and you have to conclude that his prominence here stemmed from the role he had played rather than from his skill or star power.

Not so the supporting people. Joel Blumberg is one of the rare Bonus Feature commentators who, unlike almost all directors, is completely informed and prepared for his subject. For what he does is recite their credits and careers as crew and actors: Steve Brodie, Marjorie Steele (who married Huntington Hartford, the A & P heir who financed the film), Marc Lawrence, Iris Adrian; the editor Harry Gerstad, who this same year won an Oscar for editing Champion and later for High Noon; Stanley Price, Sid Melton, Ben Weldon, Stanley Andrews.

These crew members and actors each made hundreds of films apiece. I love their long careers. The piece-work they did and made a decent living doing. I love actors, their stubbornness and willingness to adapt, their modesty, and their aspiration. For there is not one of them that is not giving his all to the part he plays – and doing that counts for everything in material like this, which would stump the sophistication of a backward third-grader. The director would get $500 to make such a film and make it in a week and go on to the next gig– and the actors did the same, maybe earning less. If you watch these actors in scenes they support, they are more interesting than the star or than the scene they are appearing in, which understandably may draw our attention at first.

But instead, just watch Marc Lawrence, that pock-marked thug with the sunken jaws and keen black eyes. Just watch him respond to the scene at hand. He was working the Bs between filming Diamonds Are Forever, Days Of Wine And Roses, Johnny Apollo, This Gun For Hire, The Ox Bow Incident, Key Largo, Captain From Castile, The Asphalt Jungle, Marathon Man and hundreds of others. He started in the Bronx and entered Eva Le Gallienne’s company and The Group. He died at 95 still active. I love it.

So I sing the praises of actors, actors like these, actors so special in their energy, mein, and visage that they would seldom play leads, but swelled many a scene and made it better. And made an honorable career for themselves their whole lives long.

 

Mississippi Burning

21 May

Mississippi Burning –– directed by Alan Parker. Drama. Two FBI agents search a small Southern town for the murderers of three young civil rights workers. 128 minutes Color 1988.

★★★★★

It hasn’t dated one day.

Two widely divergent investigative styles cross their purposes in this recounting of the actual murders. And in this the film has its only flaw, which is the casting of Wilhem Dafoe as the conservative by-the-books young Turk agent whose methods overwhelm the investigation. He is either miscast or not a good enough actor to play the role unconventionally. Instead we get the conventions: the glasses and the stuffy manner. We get the primness and the stiff necked pride. The problem is as soon as the role is played that way the audience dismisses the character as known.

It needed to be played with easy physical flexibility and charm. The character would still have to say the same lines, it’s just that you would never be able to expect what was coming. It needed an actor much more temperamentally lithe than Dafoe – Robert Downey Junior, say – an actor with whom you never know what’s coming, an actor who can play against the script and still reveal it.

Particularly as opposite him, Gene Hackman, as the second string agent, gives what may be his finest screen performance, in a character so fluid and variable that he can infiltrate a den of snakes and out-writhe them. Every choice is subtle and pertinent. His scenes opposite that great actress Frances McDormand, as the modest wife of the criminal deputy are exquisite.

The film uses Southern negro townsfolk, and their wonderful faces and beings illuminate the screen with telling force. The same is true of the sets and set decoration, which is first class (I know those Southern bungalows) and the locations, most of which were taken in the deep South. These lend an astonishing veracity to the poverty and down-troddenness of the black folk, and the brain-damage of the white folk whose blind bigotry strong-arms and gentles the negroes into the shanty mind of second class citizens in a free nation. Which changes with glacial rapidity. Not even that.

Yet it happened, and they caught those rats.

I was moved by the story and impressed by the authenticity of everything I saw in Mississippi Burning. All of it still pertains.

 

The Street With No Name

20 May

The Street With No Name –­– directed by William Keighley. Police Procedural. An FBI agent imbeds himself in a bank robber gang and almost doesn’t make it. 91 minutes Black and White 1948.

★★★★★

This good film is listed as a Noir, which it is not. It is not, because in Noir the protagonist much have something wrong with them, and there is nothing wrong with Mark Stevens at all. He is a good-looking honest-John male period.

The person who has something wrong with him is Richard Widmark who once again plays the psycho thug, which he began his career with by pushing Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs in Kiss Of Death while snickering. He did this sort of thing in a number of pictures in the ‘40s until he put his cloven-hoof down – but, in fact, he is much better as psychopaths than as a leading man. Here, thank goodness, he is a violent closeted homosexual.

Mark Stevens plays the agent who infiltrates Widmark’s gang, and to say he is too straight to be the hero of a Noir is not to diminish his gifts, for his playing is smart. He makes the character blithe, as though he didn’t have a care or worry in the world. He flirts with Widmark and sails into the harbor of the gang without a glance to the left or right. It’s a shrewd acting move, and Stevens is good at it. He laughs his way through peril. At least that is what he does while others are around and until the thrills start.

A word about such actors. Nice-guy actors form a blank which audiences fill in with themselves. The actor just stands there in his masculinity and his decency, and you do the rest. You find this all the way through literature, from Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince Of Tyre to Dickens’ David Copperfield to almost everything Gregory Peck ever did. These good-guy actors sometimes seem to almost have no temperament as actors, no human imagination, although lots of moral imagination, which is why they crowd together as leading players in Westerns. There are too many of them to list. They provide an empty upright outline which it is the audience’s mission to flesh and fill, a job the audience readily adopts because such actors are always in heroic roles.

A word about Noir style. It’s easy to mistake such a picture as this as Noir because of the way it looks. This one looks terrific, and that is because it was filmed by Joe MacDonald, a master of city streets at night. He would film Sam Fuller’s remake of it, House Of Bamboo, and Kazan’s Panic In The Streets. You might say that the story is really told by the way Joe MacDonald lights and films and moves it, that the narration is really in his hands, rather than the director’s, although the direction is good. The astonishing shoot-out in the immense factory at the end is an example of Joe MacDonald’s extraordinary ability to make a story happen. Someone should fo a study about the narrative power of such photographers as William Daniels, Ernest Haller, Joe MacDonald and other master photographers – although it’s probably already been written, ignoramus as I am.

The film is an A level crime film, with Lloyd Nolan, John McIntyre, and a teen-age Barbara Lawrence, in a gorgeous performance as Widmark’s beard-wife.

 

The Gingerbread Man

02 Apr

The Gingerbread  Man – directed by Robert Altman. Noir. A lawyer leaps to the rescue and finds himself trapped. 113 minutes Color 1998.

★★★

The key ingredient in Noir is casting the female, and this one fails on the basis of its being so badly miscast as to wreck the movie. The female in noir, one way or another, must hypnotize us, or cause us to be desirous of being hypnotized. She should baffle and enchant and fascinate us, against our will if we profess to have a will in such matters. Lauren Bacall appears, and which of us is not helpless to know anything rational ever again? Who is there who can figure out the beauteous Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy? Not I.

In this case we get an actress playing for sympathy or pity or innocence, but the wanness she aims at to achieve this sympathy emerges as a frailty verging on the tubercular. Sympathy is a dull aim for an actor to strive for in a performance. It just won’t do.

And what really won’t do is to have cast an Australian actress in a part which she plays as though her father, brilliantly realized as a mean mountain man by Robert Duvall, had not produced an equally unpredictable cracker in his daughter. Instead the actress in question makes no attempt at a hill-billy accent. Instead of someone peppery and full of tang and fun, we get a droop.

In Noir, the female is more important than the male lead in the sense that our entrancement with her paradox is the element which carries us away from any attention whatsoever with the mad mazes of the plot, which we are not expected to follow and indeed which her presence is there to discourage us from following. So it goes that the plot of this film shoots itself in the foot with all the subtlety of a flare gun, as our attention wanes from the actress in question to the scowl emerging in our brains at the unnecessary and far-fetched plot twists to which we are finding our credulity to be subject.

What did it need? It is obvious that it needed Tuesday Weld.

What it does have is Duvall with oh-such-dirty feet, and the excellent Daryl Hannah as the gal Friday, and Tom Berenger perfectly cast as a lower caste barge captain, and the quirky and inventive genius of Robert Downey Junior as a private eye.

Pierre Mignot shot it gorgeously in Savannah, Georgia, a place which does not register as Savannah but registers like all get out anyhow. The lead is played with mighty dispatch and address by Kenneth Branagh, who evinces all the technical chops needed to play a Southern attorney of great muster and confidence. So the film has that. What it has not is a femme fatale. And without that, we are bereft of our sense of our own potential for self-corruption which Noir is intended to trigger and for us to harmlessly enjoy.

 

Killing Them Softly

12 Dec

Killing Them Softly – written and directed by Andrew Dominik. Crime Drama. A gangland gambling club is robbed, and the perps must be rubbed out; or if not the perps, anyone standing around will do. 97 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
I sit back in my seat and am amazed by the brilliance of American actors, of these particular American actors, and let’s name them right off. Scoot McNairy as one of the dumb hold-up guys and Ben Mendelsohn (actually Australian) as the other. Ray Liotta as the owner of the club and Vincent Curatola as the skeptical mastermind. I watch James Gandolfini hold the screen and I am astonished at his ease, his conviction, his imagination as an actor. Then there is Richard Jenkins (actually from Canada) as the naive businessman acting to hire the hitmen. I watch him see through this character to the bitter end. And I watch them all with amazement at their commitment to their craft, their skill in it, their comfort with the camera, their physical reality, their believability, and their ability to find humor in their characters without semaphoring it to us.

So, if you love an astonishing display of the craft of acting, look no further.

Brad Pitt is the focal character of all of them and all of this, the managing director of the offs.

Brad Pitt is an actor incapable of wearing a suit. But within his range, he is the best actor in American films. His particular instrument is not meant to play a king or a peasant. He is not Charles Laughton. Pitt lacks majesty. He can play only a peasant. But what a variety of peasants he has given us!

He always brings to the screen something new, something we have never seen before. Yes, he is usually cast as cocky, sexy, naughty, beyond the pale males, but he always is fresh, always surprising. He is, in fact, always daring. I think of him as an actor who will never win an Oscar, because he would be judged as having a limited range, whereas the truth is that, while he does have a limited range, within that range he has no limits. This is true of a number of great actors: Geraldine Page, for instance, could not play Shakespeare.

Pitt plays a character sorely vexed by the personnel he must deal with, none of whom are as smart, as realistic, or as experienced as he, and, as a self-made businessman, his peroration is a brilliant diatribe on Republican political business theory, and not to be missed.

Moreover, he is given wonderful scenes to play by the director/writer, as are all the actors, for the piece is marvelously written and directed and filmed and told. Never have so many actors been painted so incisively and intensely in so many close-ups. Andrew Dominik seems to be a first-class director at the beginning of a great career with a perfect film under his belt.

 

The Guy Pearce Papers No 6 — Seeking Justice

01 Dec

The Guy Pearce Papers No 6

Seeking Justice – directed by Roger Donaldson. Action Thriller. A man’s wife is raped and justice is not about to be done, so he takes an offer from a stranger who will take care of the matter – and later he finds out that things are not so simple. 105 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★
How considerate to my dislike of Nicholas Cage that he has made so many movies I would not wish to see anyhow. He’d become The Whisperer. Every speech was uttered sub rosa as though to draw us forward in our seats toward the actor and his material. It’s a TV trick and I object to be thought so easily seduced. Having justly won the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, all one saw was a decline in talent and involvement in films of violence. Up until his Oscar he was super. After it, I avoided him. But now, because I had to watch Guy Pearce, I had to watch Nicholas Cage again.

And I must say he is really quite good. He is not whispering at all. He is giving a stand-up performance in a leading role. What he can bring to a role is mad devotion. This trait, both humorous and charming, is not so common as you might think in an actor, and in this role, as in Raising Phoenix and Moonstruck, it is the essential ingredient, and he has it in spades. We believe it completely and we believe that it is also his fatal flaw.

One of the common features action/thrillers, is that halfway through acting ceases and perspiration begins, as the hero rushes toward and away from peril. There is nothing an actor can do but run and sweat. But up until that time, Cage gives a very honorable demonstration of his craft, and it’s good to see.

His nemesis in the piece is a private vindicator played by the masterful Guy Pearce. From the moment he approaches our hero we know something is wrong. What is it though? Is there something wrong with that perfect suit? Is there something wrong with that Teutonicly shaved head? Is there something wrong in that he approaches Cage at all?

All that is good, but just listen to what the actor does. He does not drool. He does not flash a Vincent Pricey eye. In fact, he does not give away a thing. He’s just a normal even high-minded businessman, isn’t he?

All Pearce does is play it a half a stop lower than middle C.

There’s nothing wrong with this guy at all, right?

Well. if there isn’t, why are we asking this question in the first place?

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, ACTION ADVENTURE, CRIME DRAMA, Guy Pearce: ACTING GOD, January Jones, Nicholas Cage

 

MARKED WOMAN — Bette Davis 5 of 5

26 Nov

Marked Woman – directed by Michael Curtiz and Lloyd Bacon. Crime Drama. A B-girl heads up the ladies to bring down a crime lord, with the help of a stalwart D.A. 96 minutes Black and White 1937.
★★★★
Was ever such assurance!

For there she stands, defying Eduardo Ciannelli the most terrifying gangster ever to appear in film. Bette Davis is just 27 when she does this and her standing her ground opposite Ciannelli is astounding.

Granted it’s just a movie.

But is it? What you see in Davis is coming from a center of absolute strength of power, and it aint fake.

What you are also seeing is that Bette Davis is a woman. We who saw her during those years, and saw the other big female stars at that time, never suspected there was any other type of female. We never thought that their disappearance in film by the ‘60’s would be absolute. There is not a single female in American films today who is a woman, with the exception of Meryl Streep. Jessica Lang? She’s a seductress. Sally Field? Great as she is, and she is, there is still a little girl in all she does. Julia Robert, Reese Witherspon, Gwyneth Paltrow? Don’t be silly. But Bette Davis – ah – a woman. Not a gal, not a chick, not a broad. A woman! As such, she stands tall with ‘30s female stars as unforgettable types of Women’s Liberation. We were grateful to them at the time, and we still are.

Davis won the Volpi Award of the Venice Film Festival for the Best Actress for this performance. Her Oscar-winning years were over, but, with it, her heyday had begun.

What had not quite begun was Davis’ creation of a peculiar film persona. Her odd enunciation emphasizing certain words. Her bitter consonants. Her deadening the ends of lines. Her nutso phrasing. How may packs a day? Her throwing herself about like a bag of potatoes. Her semaphoring arms. Her sexual seething. The raising of her vocal range to a constant pitch of peevishness. The mouth drawn down in a bow of contempt and distaste. Perhaps a certain loss of humor as she took on the position of Queen Of The Lot.

Warners, where she worked, had ridden the social conscience, gangster, and lower class film nags until Zanuck left the studio in ‘33. When Hal Wallis took over, he kept making those films, and this is one of them, but he also began to make historical biography and grand romances. And Davis was to star in the latter. Wallis did not understand Bette Davis, but he knew her box office value, and he purchased for her the big novels and plays of the day, such as In This Our Life, The Letter, The Little Foxes, All This And Heaven Too, and The Man Who Came To Dinner. This particular story was a Warner’s specialty, hot from the headlines: Lucky Luciano that year was brought down by Thomas Dewey (Humphrey Bogart) with the help of Luciano’s prostitutes. And what became of those girls? Take a look at the end of Marked Woman, and see for yourself.

 

End Of Watch

04 Oct

End of Watch – produced, written, and directed by David Ayer. Drama. Two L.A. cops, in their many perilous adventures patrolling crime-hoods, annoy the drug cartel folks and get in over their heads. 109 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
Michael Peña and Jake Gyllenhaal should win Oscars in tandem for their astonishing work as these two policeman badinaging in a car. I just rejoice to see them: two American actors at the peak of their powers and masculinity being marvelous over and over in scene after scene in parts better than which will probably come their way again never. For which credit one’s hat is off to the writer who gives them marvelous palaver and marvelous silences. The piece begins with the drug folk opposition, and since their entire dialogue consists of one word repeated like a doxology, and you know what that word is, their story needs to be told with camera alone, and it is. It is told with as much brilliancy as are the big scenes of dialogue. The film is a series of episodes, each one thrilling and unusual, beginning with a car chase which precedes the credits. These episodes do not constitute a story, but they are exciting in themselves, and they build one upon the next, so one is content to witness the two cops’ work, which, after all, also is one thing after another, and to endure the suspense of one’s ignorance of, care for, and interest in their fates. Gyllenhaal’s film persona in the past has been the knight of doleful countenance; here he displays an inherent fluidity and comic power one had not seen before. (If anyone is ever to play the part of Louie Zamperini, it is he.) Michael Peña sets down firmly in the seat of wisdom and constancy as his co-cop. But it is idle to comment on them separately because they are twinned by their playing, they are talking heads who talk one another’s heads off, jocular, acute, loyal. They come alive as a pair, as Laurel and Hardy did. They impregnate one another as actors and as characters. Gyllenhaal’s habit of hanging his arm out the window for a respite, Peña’s habit of a little Bronx cheer when pressed, toss sprinkles on one thing, a banana split, a single treat shared. I love acting and when it is wonderful I know what a miracle I am faced with. What joy to see them! Feebly titled, the film, nonetheless, deals with crime, and while its episodes are extreme, they are presented by the filmer, Roman Vasyanov and the editor, Dody Dom, in sufficient intimacy and speed to give us a sense of the blindness of the peril the two of them undergo together. The entire cast plays brilliantly; the set designs are right on the money; the music, by David Sardy, does no more and no less than the demands of the scenes require and is as welcome when played as when still. The piece is beautifully executed by the director. And the streets of L.A. have never been more vivid in their meanness and meaning.

 
 

The Formula

25 Jun

The Formula – directed by John G. Avildsen. International Espionage. An L.A. cop sets out to find who murdered his friend and his search leads him to higher echelons of European big money.117 minutes Color 1980.

★★★★

James Crabe was nominated for an Oscar for his beautiful filming of it, a skill which bring coherence and life and meaning to the entire piece. The director and particularly Steve Shagan, who also wrote it and produced it, talk well about it as it goes along, praising the minor actors handsomely and Crabe particularly, but also leaving us enlightened as to the behavior of George C. Scott while it was in production. I leave it to you to dive into the special features for those tasty anecdotes. They hired Marlon Brando because he was perhaps the only actor who could stand up to Scott, and so he does by making his character a sort of lolling baby – this, mind you playing a man who is one of the most merciless oilmen alive. It’s a daring and imaginative choice and Brando is choice in the role. He does something with his lower lip that is so odd and right. He is in his late fifties here and willing to take on character leads. The story involves a mysterious murder which Scott sets himself to solve. The murder seems to revolve around a secret formula for turning coal into fuel oil, which the Germans managed to do for the duration of World War II. It is a telling account of the international oil trade, as apposite today as when it was shot. My daughter went to the same school as Nancy Marchand’s children, many years before The Sopranos. She was an actor I liked a lot. One day, walking down the inside stairs I passed her and asked if she had seen George C. Scott’s TV performance the night before. “No, “ she said, “I don’t think he’s going to show me anything new.” Nor is what he does here new. I first saw him on the Broadway stage in The Andersonville Trial, playing a lawyer. He was very exciting in the emphaticness of his growl, and he was the best Shylock I have ever seen. He was brand new in those days. Later I saw him on stage in Uncle Vanya. He was no longer new. In him what we are faced with, unlike Edward G. Robinson, is a perpetual ire. He is always a sten gun about to go off. And so, seen-one-seen-them-all. The public tired of him. It’s a shame, for here he is quite good, and looking at his work now, piecemeal and years later, it does not weary one as, in its repetition, it did at the time. Indeed it impresses one with its force and intensity. He has tremendous reserves of insult and intention, great timing, the ability to focus and be still, the ability to not show his hand, and the ability to deliver his stuff full force and absolutely mean what he says. He can charm and be dangerous on a dime. You might say he plays everything the same way, but it does not matter so much here, since the story convolutions are what gather our attention in. Marthe Keller is just grand as the partisan love interest he falls in with, and John Gielgud gives great value as a dying chemistry professor, and Richard Lynch deserved an Oscar for his German general. There are three racetrack scenes, one with female jockeys and one racing on ice, and the final one played out between Brando and Scott in Brando’s office in front of Degas’ jockey scene, all of them captivatingly captured by Crabe, whose filming is a lesson in point on the art of lighting, color agreement, exposure, and how to shoot people walking while talking, of which this film has many examples. The film is a classic instance of how a cameraman alone can make a story cohere. In this case there are other coherences to count on. And of course, the presence of the greatest acting genius of the 20th Century.

 

 

 

Bernie

10 Jun

Bernie – directed by. Richard Linklater. Crime Docu-Comedy. A Texan do-gooder befriends a nasty old woman who abuses him mightily and he offs her. 104 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★

A missed opportunity, here, particularly for Jack Black who plays Bernie to perfection. Perfection is never enough. The sweetest man in town and the meanest woman in town, yes – the opportunity missed, though, is that they are really the same person, and we never get to know it. The same person? There are certain males who from an early age decide to be old women. Bernie is such. We do not imagine he has or wants a sex life. All he wants is to hobnob with widows. In fact, it could be said that, more than an old woman, he is himself a widow; that is to say, an old lady who does not have sex. Everyone in town loves Bernie: he is so kind, so thoughtful, so giving. A little swish, it is true, but who cares? – he sings in the choir, gives to charity, and organizes the community for its better good. However, we only see him in public, singing in amateur theatricals, giving money to the Boy Scouts, presiding beautifully as an undertaker. Everyone is his friend. But he has no friend. But that we do not see. What we do see is that he woos the town witch. Under the aegis of all they have in common, they become buddies; they go to concerts together, travel together, and she hands her financial affairs over to him. She melts like Margaret Hamilton under the douse of his decency. But, since she has a great deal of money, she pays for everything, and bit by bit he buys into the life style she provides and bit by bit she enslaves him to it. And when she does she becomes mean to him. Why doesn’t he just quit? Because she’s so bad, something comes over him first and he shoots her four times in the back with an armadillo rifle. What is the something that comes over him? We are never given to know. What it is is that he has a great public life, but he has no private life, but we are never given to glimpse that fact. We get neither inside Bernie’s house nor Bernie. The script scoots along on the surface, and never examines the bitter gun of his essential solitude. She thinks she is her money; he thinks he is his niceness. They are both suckered by themselves. Shirley MacLaine plays the old lady expectedly. That is to say, we expect her to be cast in the part and we expect her to play it the same way she has played this same part for years, and she does. Plastic surgery has mummified her face; it is quite awful to behold. What was she thinking of; she’s in her seventies; did she think people would think she wasn’t? The detestable Matthew Mconaghey is perfectly cast as the detestable  D.A. who puts Bernie away. And the big treat is the Carthage townspeople (for this is a true story), whose heads talk brilliantly and funnily all in favor not just of Bernie but of the murder itself. “Suddenly I was someone else,” says Bernie at his trial. The real gun was in him all along. But, alas, we never see it, for those scenes are missing or were never written. What we see is a performance of great discretion, appeal, and fairness by Black, which makes the film worthwhile viewing, not just because it gives us the liberation of watching a nance as a leading role, but because of the acceptance of him by all those smart good-hearted East Texas types who refresh the film with their innate democracy and talk their heads off about him for us. Their perspicacity is nil, but their diction in achieving it is priceless.

 

The Bigamist

29 Apr

The Bigamist — directed by Ida Lupino. Drama. A man falls into marriage with two quite different sorts of women. 80 minutes Black and White 1953.

★★★

The story is told as voice-over, rather than as drama, which means that the scenes which the actors engage in do not reach beneath a conflicting narrative mode. The story is just a Hollywoodization of the subject of Bigamy anyway, which means the subject has no recognizable human content, only an approval rating. We are supposed to see that these are all just very nice people in a pickle. The only female director of her era, why was Lupino involved? Maybe because the movie is anti-heroic for the male. It’s her penultimate picture as a director; she does a beautiful job with The Trouble With Angels, but that’s it. As an actress Lupino was common without having the common touch, unlike, say, Stanwyck. As wife # 2, she is by turns hard-bitten and sentimental in her choices, and never less than neurotic. So, as an audience, we are supposed to believe what is said about her here rather than how she really appears to be, and we feel cheated. “Damaged goods” is a good description of her ambiance. And true enough, no one could make the romantic utterance, “Ya kill me,” and actually land the line without making one laugh. As an actress, she’s an odd presence in films. Confine your attention to her brilliant performance in Roadhouse or in High Sierra. As wife #1, Joan Fontaine, who once won an Oscar in a leading role, is a sympathetic performer — or, perhaps one should say a pathetic performer. One usually pities her rather than one feels for her, but here she is asked to play the part of a competent, smart, business woman, very much in charge of herself, and she does a pretty fair job. Two more Oscar Winners star here: Edmond O’Brien, who walks through the part, and Edmund Gwenn who overacts the inspector sadly – but then he is given dismal lines. We are supposed to approve of his disapproval of the bigamist, and I don’t, for I do not accept Santa Claus as my moral compass. So it is a B-picture without the energy of vulgarity that often gives B-pictures vitality. One hoped for more, but this is the era of studio collapse; they move towards competing with the lowest common denominator TV had to offer, and it finished them.

 

Papillon

24 Apr

Papillon — directed by Franklin J. Shaffner. Drama. Prisoners in a French Jungle Prison plan an escape. 155 minutes Color 1973.

★★★

Papillon does not hold up as well when it came out. The interiors are sound stage stuff, and they are overlit. And, if we are to take the native Indians on Honduras seriously, what on earth is Victor Jory doing there in all that makeup? Strong as such, the script is by Dalton Trumbo and reflects his stand for independent action by individuals, which is heartening and impractical at the same time. The picture has the virtue of being shot in sequence, first in Spain, then in Jamaica, but the direction is ragged and the execution of the principal escape is noticeably improbable. Dustin Hoffman resuscitates his stage performance of 1966 in The Journey of the Fifth Horse, a fuddy duddy fussbudget he was to put in play again in Rainman. Hoffman is the least affectionate actor in the world. He is not interested in acting a character; what he is interested in is playing an actor playing a character. This means he is interested in being noticed for his “acting,” which is why he does not really qualify for character parts and why he is not to be taken seriously in Tootsie and Rainman. So once more we get Hoffman’s automaton, a fancy characterization that never leaves the studio easel. The result is that he does not really relate to his co-star, which leaves Steve McQueen to carry the picture. McQueen is a limited but interesting actor of great technical cleverness and masculine sex appeal for both genders. He has beautiful wary blue eyes in a small eventful face in a well-shaped head. Here he and Hoffman wear rot-tooth dentures and a ruination of clothes, which help, but one never puts money down on their partnership in escape. For all his carryings on, Hoffman is just no fun. His plaintive whine is designed to elicit pity, but it inspires exasperation instead. On the other hand, McQueen’s other-side-of-the-tracks tuning aid him forcefully in being this pertinacious underdog who refuses to stop escaping. The film is his and it remains one of the proudest efforts of his craft.

 

 

D.O.A. [1950]

09 Mar

D.O.A. [1950] — directed by Rudolph Maté. Crime Drama. A businessman finds himself poisoned, and he has only a short to find out why and by whom. 83 minutes Black and White 1950.

★★★★★

Two world famous photographers made this, and made it well. Ernest Laszlo actually shot it, while Maté directed it. So it’s well worth seeing. Not noir, but shot as though it were, of course, for that was cheap and fun. It’s star, the poisoned, is played by Edmund O’Brien. It’s not easy to think of him as a leading actor. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Charles Laughton version, he is young, slim, handsome, and luscious as the poet Villon. But that’s not how we remember him. We remember him like he is here, as a guy with a cockeyed face, stout, jowly, pompadoured, and never-could have-been-handsome. And yet here he is, as he often was, in a leading role and eventually to win an Oscar. You have to ask yourself how this could have come to pass. But then all you have to do is to place him next to Pamela Britton as his gal Friday. What do you get? He is a born film actor. She is not a film actor at all. And it’s true she was actually a road company touring actress in Broadway musicals, and her technique is exactly that. Which is to say infuriating. Always over-extended, falsely vulnerable, routine. Always counting on the role rather than the character. You wonder how O’Brien could have endured long scenes with her, but he plays them as a human sacrifice. For, while the story is marvelous, the screenplay is over-written, and so we have, for instance, a long, wordy love-scene that would make you rather die of poison than marry the girl. But the story itself is well told, though it should have been cut by those European directors. When you think what makes a top director, you must turn to those who rewrote what they darn well pleased the morning of the shoot: Hawks, Walsh, Stevens. That’s what pushes them over into greatness. Something emerges on the sound stage that day that is more real than what is on paper. Dimitri Tiomkin scored it with his usual slow marches and swells, so we are never left in doubt as to what we are to feel. If you see it, tell me this: in the scenes where O’Brien learns he is poisoned, would he not better have played it completely the opposite to the way he does? You see, instead of watching him, I watched the doctors who are watching him, and they are doing nothing but watching him. Suppose O’Brien had gotten much stiller. A drinker and a philanderer, I think he might have become baffled or thoughtful, or very quiet somehow. Just a thought. The actors’ choices…mmm… particularly in a script where the emotion is extended over long passages of dialogue. Is the first qualification for a screen actor the ability to be a quick study? I wish someone would do a quick study of the matter. Quick studies: Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Henry Fonda. Slow study: Jimmy Stewart. Help me, someone! Anyhow, D.O.A. is not a waste of time, and if you’ve run out of noir, take a gander, why doncha?

 

Trapped [1949]

08 Mar

Trapped [1949] — directed by Richard Fleischer. Crime Drama. T-Men use a con to round up those $20 counterfeit bill plates, but he cons the cons and they con him and he cons them back, and con and con and con. 78 minutes Black And White 1949.

★★★★★

Another film listed as noir that is not. But good anyhow. It’s a police procedural of sorts, with sexy Lloyd Bridges (father of  the Fabulous Baker Boys) as the gum-snapping con. The director was to go on to direct many big pictures of his era, and even though this is a B-flick, it shows a strong hand and good story-telling instincts. Barbara Payton, as Meg Dixon, plays his loyal moll and she is very good. She’s a sort of poor man’s Virginia Mayo (although so was Virginia Mayo), and she, because she loves him so much, provides a realistic sympathy for the crook, which the audience would not share without her – not as easy to do as it looks. A secondary character played by John Hoyt carries a lot of the story, and supplies a certain necessary coldness of intent to it. He was to go on until old age, as an actor on TV, with a huge career there and in films as a supporting and sub-supporting player – an honorable profession. This is what it means to be a born actor. It means that God gives you a call, and casting directors give you one too. The film is shot noir-dark, and is good to look at, and the story keeps hopping. It’s a nifty movie, but it has none of the post-War depth noir captured, no sense of the lost soldier, the home-front betrayal. Never mind. It’s just fine like it is. Check it out.

 

 

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

20 Jan

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels — Directed by Guy Ritchie. Action Adventure Comedy. 108 minutes Color 1998.

* * * * *

Bob Hope isn’t in it, but this is a Bop Hope film with his character divvied up into twenty parts. Bob Hope Meets Scarface it would be called if he were in it. Instead it’s a mixed salad full of various greens and surprising veggies and terrific vinaigrette holding the whole collation together. The quality of the humor lies in the plot and the plot lies in the hands of the camera work. It is a story that cannot be told without a camera because the camera is the secret screwball agent of the plot. It is a hugely mixed up mélange of betrayals and deceptions and deals and masterful meanness and young dumb luck. It never drops its comic spectacles from its nose. Even with the corpses decorating every divan, you will see that they do so with a vaudeville gesture of stage exit. Even the Cockney accents are fun, the more so when you can’t tell what they are saying — fun because the posture they assume to say it is so absurdly readable. When perversion takes its final twist it straightens up and flies right. Watch and see if aint so, corblimey.

 

The Big Sleep

22 Dec

The Big Sleep — Directed by Howard Hawks. Private Eye Drama. A very rich family hires a private eye to keep them out of trouble and it lands him in plenty of trouble. 114 minutes Black and White 1944/46.

* * * *

I found this irritating this time round. When it first came out, I found it glossy and opaque. It still is those things, but this time I got tired of the revamp of the B&B sizzle from To Have And Have Not. The story is a rabbit chase of red herrings – bunnies and fish, yes – and you don’t know which ones you’re supposed to pay attention to. Is it the herrings of the plot, which is a series of rooms opening into one another that you traipse though wondering why you are there? Or is it the series of bunnies in side-rooms, in which Bacall slinks to and from Bogart in a negligee of lies? Of course, in films like this, everyone is lying, including the rooms. I found the B & B relationship a put up job: they never have a conversation; what they have is repartee. So, strictly speaking, there are no real people here. Moreover the film is deficient in its supporting players, none of whom have the interest of those from To Have And Have Not (to which this was a follow-up), with the single except of Elisha Cook Junior, who never fails, but appears in but one scene, and Dorothy Malone, gorgeous at age 19 making her film debut. Her one scene is a case in point of what happens throughout this picture. In the morning, Hawks would rewrite a scene to be shot, set it in the afternoon, and begin shooting at 4 PM. What he was doing was setting the story aside and developing “interesting scenes,” such as the bookshop one with Malone, which is amusing, and for which there is no real excuse. Made in 1944/45, the film was not released until 1946, and then reshot in order to enhance Bacall’s role in the proceedings, so we are given a bunch of scenes with her that place her in close allure with Bogart, while the story itself dawdles among the extras. This makes the whole thing even more hard to follow. Not that you’re supposed to follow it; all you’re supposed to do is follow not-following it, which makes you feel like some dumb kid dragged along by the collar. Bogart brings the same character to us that he brought us in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and To Have And Have Not. Practice has made him perfect with this personage. He is not a very good actor, in some ways, and you can see it in the ear- rubbing Hawks assigned him to. It never works. It’s never motivated. It’s just an add-on. But at what he does, nobody does better, a calm, sensitive, smart, rueful, dogged, smart-mouth, with core-deep masculinity and a wrecked liver. His humor, especially, engages suddenly and rather lovingly, at the spectacle of human folly. In many ways he is an entirely responsive actor, good at badminton, aka stichomythia, and gifted with a monotone that cuts through steel. Louise Brooks accused him of having sacrificed his talent by becoming enamored of the movement of his own lips. Interesting, huh? I can’t say, but no one could have executed this material so well, so stringently, and with such unassailable dignity as Humphrey Bogart.

 

Johnny Apollo

09 Dec

Johnny Apollo – Directed by Henry Hathaway. Drama. The son of an embezzler becomes a gangster to spring his dad from prison. 94 minutes Black and White 1940.

* * * * *

Apart from certain story anomalies and inconsistencies, this is an unusual entertainment, since it actually allows full and extreme value of the relationship between a father and a son and also of a senior gangster and his up-and-coming righthand man. Edward Arnold, who is usually annoying because of his monotonous force of voice and movement, relents in his scenes with the son here, and thus their relationship becomes fully emotional and realized. Likewise, the adoration and admiration of Lloyd Nolan for his henchman is carried to its full flower right to the final scene when he is to murder him. Henry Hathaway’s direction of the picture sets up scenes in long horizontal shots like a rifle aiming. Take for instance the scene where this son/henchman first appears, virtually naked, in rowing togs with the victorious crew in the back throwing the coach in the river at exactly the moment when Lionel Atwill reveals to the young man that his father is a crook. Followed by the scene seen from the back of the father in the foreground as he sees his son come home and at a distance walk upstairs without speaking to him. The story, which is not well written on the level of plot, is very well written on the level of scenic content, and Hathaway highjacks it to develop and give importance to nice long scenes of relationships between interesting people, such as those with all the characters with a drunken, shady lawyer played beyond perfection by Charley Grapewin. Everyone is given permission to go for it, from Nolan to Eddie Mars as his henchman, and everyone jumps at the chance. Scenes played behind the mesh of a prison visitors table and behind the rungs of a stairway have a telling impact, because Arthur Miller filmed them. The film staggers to a halt when Dorothy Lamour sings her nightclub numbers, and staggers to a close when we are led to believe that she and the leading actor could possibly end up as a couple, for the lady has no class and the gentleman is class incarnate, Tyrone Power. At age 26 Power, as he had always done, shines right through his incontrovertible beauty to hold the screen and the story together by the generosity, naturalness, and flexibility of his acting. He was clearly the most accomplished male star of his era, and given no credit for being so. But just look at his eyes as he responds to other performers, and look at the absolute rightness of how he plays his scenes and his clarity in doing so. He was the top male star at Fox. He wanted better parts, but he never got them: there were no better parts in those days. This was it.

 

 

The Night Of The Following Day

20 Oct

The Night Of The Following Day – Directed by Hubert Cornfield. Crime Drama. Four kidnappers hole up in a beach house to generate ransom, and things fall apart. 92 minutes Color 1968.

a cloud over the stars

Cornfield’s commentary is worth the trip, for he remains justifiably vindictive regarding Brando’s destructive misconduct while filming this. But that’s not the problem. The actors are fine, including Brando. The trouble is that the story itself lacks power because we are not offered any way to invest in any of these people, including the kidnappee. Moreover, the film does not generate suspense, and that is probably due to the arrangement of the shots. It is Brando’s last picture as a male beauty. And he really is beautiful — in a blond wig, no less. He is trim, he is buffed, he is dressed all in black. He is forty-four. After this he declines into the soda fountain of his belly and, to the indignation of God, attempts for the rest of his life to attain artistic ruin, which, in his case, was an impossibility. So the greatest actor of his time throws away his sex appeal on the one hand and his career on the other through the mere mischief of an ice cream cone. But this is his last moment with all four burners and the oven and the broiler working, and there are scenes in this picture well worth seeing because of that. We witness again and for the last time his extraordinary power, physical command, and generosity. He performs with an intensity astonishing to this day and with a reserve in which he is unsurpassed because he has so much to hold in reserve. Richard Boone appears in it with him, but his character is given insufficient scenic development, so he remains enigmatic in the wrong way. The great treat is Rita Moreno. Who knows how she came to be cast in this part, but on the commentary the director says she is the best actor he ever worked with, and you can see why. She is immediate, game, always present. She is susceptible to whatever is thrown at her. Her scenes with Brando are daring triumphs of the actor’s art. It is insulting to the world that she was confined to hotsie-totsie parts all her long career in film, when it is clear that she has a classical instrument, and should have been working in classical roles. This is an actor who right now should be playing Hecuba in Euripides’ The Trojan Women. Contemplating this dream, consider this: besides Hecuba there are three great roles in that play, Andromache, Hector’s wife, Cassandra, Hector’s mad sister, and Helen of Troy, and that Rita Moreno at one time or another in her life, could also have played any one of them.

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Scarface

18 Oct

Scarface — Directed by Howard Hawks. Gangland Drama. A homicidal punk rises through the ranks to a gilded gutter. 93 minutes Black and White 1931.

* * * *

The rhythm of screen acting is not yet implanted in Paul Muni, here in practically his first film, until a reel or so elapses. Hawks cast virtual unknowns, Ann Dvorak, Boris Karloff, and George Raft whose first film this also almost was. And Muni was an actor from the Yiddish theater in New York and remained a big Broadway star. Because I never liked him in film I never went to see him on the stage. I should have. (I remember having coffee with Billie Dee Williams when he was understudying and him telling me how kind and helpful Muni was to him.) Muni is never believable as Italian-American, and there are times when you feel he thinks he is slumming, but there are other times when his willingness to expose the character supersedes any cavil one may harbor about his technique, which is the surface technique serviceable for the stage. Muni went on to play many “disguise” roles in film, an actor like Olivier, but he’s not my sort of an actor. The film is beautifully shot by Lee Garmes and edited by Edward Curtiss and Lewis Milestone (Hawks was never interested in editing his own films). The picture is A Gangster Is Born about a hood who takes over from his boss, here played by Osgood Perkins, who is more at home in front of the camera than Muni, and who resembles his more famous son, Anthony Perkins, in his mein and something about the eyes. Beautiful Karen Morley is sensational as the kept woman; Ann Dvorak (one of the few female actors Hawks used more than once) is excellent as the incested sister, and George Raft plays the manikin he played forever after. The minor actors tend to be stagey. But the best parts of the film are the automobile scenes in cars of the period, which seem flimsy and rattletrap and all the more vulnerable. These sequences were shot by L. William O’Connell and directed by Richard Rosson (who did the same for many of Hawks’ pictures) and are the most exciting of their kind ever filmed. Those were days when they used real bullets in movies, so the shoot-em-ups are startling. (One man was actually killed by them.) Sometimes there’s a certain clunkiness about Hawks’ direction, but this may be a function of early sound, for all the scenes are beautifully lit. This one of the Ur-Gangster pictures; Robinson’s and Cagney’s were first appearing at this moment. The film had huge problems with the New York Censors and The Film Review Board, but Howard Hughes finally said To hell with it; I won’t release in New York, and opening it where there were no censors, and was a big hit. It still is.

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M

12 Oct

M – Directed by Fritz Lang. Satirical Drama. A child murderer is hunted by the police and also by the criminal populace itself. 117 minutes Black and White 1931.

* * * * *

Peter Lorre was a great actor and that is plain in this picture. Being Jewish he had to flee immediately to America, where he was cast in sillier and sillier roles, so much so that he was thought to be a silly actor, but it was not so. There is never a time now or later when you cannot identify with the terror of the worms he played as they were about to be stepped on by sadists.  Think of how, in his paranoia and degradation, he is always terrifying to behold. Think of him as an astounding piece of humanity revealed raw. His acting was so good we kept thinking it wasn’t acting. It is a mark of his genius and of acting genius itself that he was able to engage our participation so openly. Think of him in Casablanca in his frenzy as the Gestapo come for him. And see him here. Fritz Lang was half Jewish and had to flee to America soon after, where of course he had a big career also. Their instruments are well matched here in one of the most famous movies ever made – a completely contemporary and extremely humorous satire of the officiousness of Germans tracking down a serial killer. It’s so funny you won’t even laugh. It could have been made yesterday – except it wouldn’t have been this good. A masterpiece. Don’t miss it.

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Crime of Passion

06 Oct

Crime Of Passion – Directed by Gerd Osward. Murder Drama. A successful newspaper columnist gives up her career to marry a decent chap and finds him unambitious and dull. 84 minutes Black and White 1957.

* * * *

Stanwyck is really superb in this picture – and so is Sterling Haydn. There’s a lot of nonsense talk about it’s being film noir. It aint. Film noir depended upon being shot in black and white, and it also depended upon a downbeat and beaten down male character or a ruthless female character as the lead and the sense no one can be trusted. This is not noir. Neither is House Of Bamboo or Clash by Night or a lot of other films talked about as noir. Just because a film is beautifully lit and in black and white does not make it noir. This picture is a good old fashioned woman’s picture – the story of an able and prominent newspaper reporter careerist who falls for a good hearted cop and is driven to distraction by his lack of ambition. The scenes with Raymond Burr are interesting because Burr, who made his career throwing his weight around, is quite sympathetic here. Odd to see it. Barbara Stanwyck is a commanding actress who holds the screen with a minimum of histrionics. She’s older here, but only in years. Her hair was going grey but it looks blond. And her figure is tops. You’ll find it  satisfying to see how many fabulous designer housecoats and negligees can be purchased on an ordinary police detective’s salary. This was Hollywood in the 50s. Fay Wray, Stuart Whitman, and Royal Dano are on hand as well. It’s not noir. It’s pulp. You’ll enjoy it.

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Lady Of Burlesque

27 Sep

Lady Of Burlesque – Directed by William Wellman. Murder Mystery. A burlesque queen and her colleagues are beset by a backstage slaying. 91 minutes Black and White 1943.

* * * * *

Every student of film and every person fascinated by its craft could not do better than to watch William Wellman’s management of crowd movement in this back-stage whodunit. The set is spectacularly real in terms of its seediness, dusty props, crumby dressing rooms, and crowdedness. The film is alive with imaginative motion. Which stops dead when the inspector calls to examine the personnel and everyone has to gather in a dressing room that allows of scarcely any motion at all. So the movie lurches effectively between the hurly burly and hustle of the shows and the standstill of these scenes. Michael O’Shea plays the two-bit fool who woes the heroine, and he is perfectly cast because he is lower-class, and so is Barbara Stanwyck, a Brooklyn girl from way back. She is not physically convincing as a Burlesque Queen; she is not voluptuous, she does not have the machine-gun heart or the powerful double-entendre of a Gypsy Rose Lee who wrote the story, but otherwise she is marvelous, for three reasons. She is a person of determination: her walk is like a destroyer surging across a duck pond. She had great humor, and she had the common touch. Iris Adrian adds her piquant lip to the burley-que life, which was coarser than what we see here, but the casting of the girls with their snappy slang brings out the necessary, as do the costumes organized around their bodies not to reveal their sexuality but to astound by exaggerating it symbolically. A G-string tells less than a three-foot hat! Highly entertaining, Wellman was a master of scene management — and rain, which occurs in many of his films. His scenic management alone, although one is not aware of it, is a treat, a delight, an encouragement, and a reassurance here. Check it out, It’s fun.

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Find Me Guilty

13 Sep

Find Me Guilty – Directed by Sidney Lumet. Courtoom Drama. The longest criminal trial in U.S. history is derailed by one of the 20 gangster defendants.125 minutes Color 2006.

* * * * *

I sought out this picture because the director has entertained me for years: The Fugitive Kind, Long Days Journey Into Night, Network, Running On Empty, The Verdict, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, 12 Angry Men. What I love about Lumet is his respect for the spectacle inherent in the human comedy being photographed at all – and so offering it up in a style which is not two dimensional, not cinematic, but three dimensional, that is to say, theatrical. Time and again the human activity taking place here is given point and honor by an angle the camera takes to report it. Nothing is sensationalized or emotionalized; rather we see the man with the chair on his head bump comedically more than once trying to enter a space not tall enough for it, but we see it at the far end of a very long corridor and at deep focus – so the joke on him is not diverted into Laurel and Hardy but simply noticed. We appreciate the director for the taste he ascribes to us and for the aesthetic common sense we have to distinguish truth in its proper treatment. This gift of his extends to the actors as well, and they are often superb. Brando’s opening scene is Fugitive Kind is the greatest piece of film acting I have ever seen, and, here, Linus Roache is given full latitude to go nuts over this unimaginably huge two year court case. We also see the beautiful Peter Dinklage take just the right size and attack in his role as the principal defense lawyer (his speaking voice alone!). Lumet is a master of courtroom drama (12 Angry Men, he Verdict), and this his penultimate picture is a masterpiece of the genre, an impression that might be overlooked because of the peculiar story it tells and the character responsible for the story’s outcome. Vin Diesel is an actor I had never seen before because he appears in the sort of film I never see –violent action films – but he is a wonderful actor entirely. He plays the a gangster who takes on his own self defense, and proves himself to be a disruptive Merry Andrew before a judge excellently played by Ron Silver. He is entirely appealing as a man whose love of his gang family retains its hold in him against the truth of its not being returned. Vin Diesel, Annabella Sciorra as his wife, Linus Roache, and Peter Dinklage give Oscar-level performances. The movie is mistitled, but marvelous! Don’t miss it.

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They Live By Night

24 Aug

They Live By Night – Directed by Nicholas Ray. Young Romance Escape Drama. With the law barking at their heels, an escapee and a farm girl try for a better life. 95 minutes Black and White 1947.

* * * * *

The first film of Nicholas Ray and a good one. George Diskant filmed it noirishly, but it is not noir, it is Hollywood teen romance. But with a good script and with a powerful supporting cast on all levels, particularly Howard Da Silva who sports a blind eye somehow — he’s really something to watch as the shaky violent holdup man. But you can see excellence and power in every actor: in the tragic Helen Craig the foolish wife, in Ian Wolfe who plays the bogus preacher, in Will Lee as the screwy jeweler, in eager-toothed Byron Foulger as the motel owner, in Will Wright who plays the drunken farmer, in Jay C. Flippen as the sweet but violent ex-con. Each of these performances is strong, detailed, and eccentric, and the film is carried by them. As it is not carried by the leads Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger. O’Donnell begins well – surly, withdrawn, wary, rude – but before long she dies of saccharine poisoning. Why do actresses take that route? They begin salty and turn merely sugary. The part would have been perfect for a young Barbara Stanwyck, a lower class girl and ruthless, or Cissy Spacek, a hick. But O’Donnell is clearly a nice middle class miss, and after she gets out of her dirty overalls, she’s a right proper Hollywood glazed-over thingamajig and all reality is lost. As to Farley Granger he is quite miscast as a JD on the run. Granger was 21 when he made the picture, and he’s just a nice-looking, spoiled, middle-class NYU geek, with no liaison in the character between scenes and no underpinnings either in his own character or in imagination about the character. He plays everything manfully, though, but he is just too privileged to be imperiled. However, a good strongly written story carries them all forward and holds our attention with its unexpected narrative and its individual scenic fulfillments. The film’s a gem that shines brightly and entertainingly, even though and perhaps because it is made of paste. Check it out.

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Border Incident

23 Aug

Border Incident – Directed by Anthony Mann. Government Agency Enforcement Drama. Immigration Authorities track down trafficking of Mexican Braceros illegally imported into the US as slaves. 94 minutes Black and White 1949.

* * * * *

A strong supporting cast of Bad Guys keep putting things in their mouths and doing the cock-eyed and donning stark getups. The magisterial Howard Da Silva as the heavy is great with cigars, of course, but take a look at what the others are chewing. Ugh! Anyhow they’re all very Stanislavsky, very Russian, in their playing, and thank God for that. We have Arnold Moss, mad-hatted, with eyes like black sunflowers, wearing a checkerboard shirt as the actors engage in cards, chess, and other games of chance while the big game of chance unfolds. The great Alfonso Bedoya steals every scene he appears in simply by dint of his appearing in it. He is fascinating to watch and, as an actor, never wrong. Charles McGraw, a Mann staple, looks like he should be thrown in jail and hung.

This leaves us with the stiffs who play the Immigration Good Guys and stand up for the Mexicans who are being treated barbarously. Their on-camera representatives are George Murphy as the set-up and Ricardo Montalban, a big star in Mexico, playing the plant among the smuggled peons. But it is his bonding with the peon James Mitchell plays that holds the screen and validates the action, which consists of an insurrection of the peons. James Mitchell is very beautiful and very Mexican in his affect and his upper eyelids. He and Montalban are exactly the same age, 28; Mann has them play their scenes in great physical intimacy. They wrap themselves around one another without touching. It is interesting to see this happen in a picture of this era. In the end you believe James Mitchell would die to save Montalban’s life, for he nearly does so.

Montalban refers to it as a B movie, which at the time it was, but it’s an A movie now. He also ascribes it to John Sturges, and says nothing more except that it got fine reviews and received some awards but did not receive much attention. Though he could neither sing nor dance, he had made four musicals at MGM, playing exotics, and went back to make another. “I never did get the big dramatic role that is so important for an actor’s career. I never had gotten it in Hollywood.” He must have been dreaming. He had a strong accent and was Mexican. Anyhow, this is that role.

John Alton who shot it paints the film with light; sometimes it is dramatic; sometimes it is theatrical, but it is always gripping, as is Mann’s staging of an all-male cast, and his willingness to go to extremes.  He also ends it, as he ends He Walked By Night and Side Street, with men pursued and trapped in a narrow space, here a canyon, a death canal.

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He Walked By Night

22 Aug

He Walked By Night – Directed by Albert Werker & Anthony Mann. Crime Drama. A sociopathic cop killer turns invisible until the L.A. Police doggedly track him down. 79 minutes Black and White 1948

* * * *

The picture begins rather flatly, even photographically, though shot by the mysterious John Alton. Then, except for a few scenes here and there, it takes off, and one detects the hand of Anthony Mann running the entertainment at us with his welcome and usual ruthless competence. Roy Roberts has the lead as the police chief in charge of finding the brilliant and elusive killer. He is assisted by Scott Brady playing the dumb cop who finally gumshoes the clues into the light of day. The film is an all-male suspense thriller, and it is riveting. On one side it is documentarian, but on the other, strange scenes follow one another in rapid order, creating a skewed sense of a loose-cannon killer holding a cannon – for instance, the long odd scene in which the killer enters the house of someone he knows, Whit Bissell, and beats him up for money. and a scene where the killer operates on himself to remove a bullet. These scenes and Alton’s treatment of them give the killer an unhinged interior for which Richard Basehart is perfectly cast, since he always looked nuts anyhow. (His apogee as an actor was the screwy tightrope clown in Fellini’s La Strada.) Here he is ingrown, mean, paranoid, and resourceful in all situations. Like the big chase scene at the end of Side Street, Mann mounts a stupendous chase through the storm sewers of Los Angeles. The excitement of these scenes completely obscures the fact that one does not care a fig for any of the characters, and that the director’s interest in the killer, signaled by the fact that only his own dog loves him, is purely for his entertainment value as someone as extreme in his attack in the film as the director is with the film itself.

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T-Men

18 Aug

T-Men – Directed by Anthony Mann. Undercover Operation Drama. Two Treasury agents disguise themselves as gangsters to expose a forgery ring. 92 minutes Black and White 1947.

* * *

Supposed to be noir, but not noir, although filmed like all get-out by John Alton who makes something baroquely mad out of a routine story. Dennis O’Keefe plays the government agent going into mufti as a gangster to uncover a counterfeit operation. Having once seen his Hamlet, it’s good to see Alfred Ryder on screen as the sidekick. Wallace Ford plays The Schemer and sweats a bucket doing so. He’s really wonderful; he always is. The story is supposedly authenticated by the presence of the actual TreasuryDepartment head, but this only lends a fussy lecture to the piece. Clearly more money has been poured into this than in previous Mann films of this era, and it pays off in sets and set decoration. O’Keefe is a decent bloke surrounded by violence. (Noir is not about decent blokes.) Mann is more interested in the violence than the decency, and, even when O’Keefe finally shoots down the rat with many shots, Mann brings neither moral nor emotional suasion to the deed. But Mann is a director of remarkable poise in the face of danger. He will keep at it until the deed is done.

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Rififi

03 Aug

Rififi – Written and Directed by Jules Dassin. Heist Thriller. A quartet of experts sets to lift 250 million dollars of gems from a jewelry store. 122 minutes Black and White 1955.

*****

A full half hour at the dead center of this masterpiece is given over to the silent execution of the caper, a passage that has never been preceded, equaled, or surpassed in film.  It was made for $200,000, a penny. Expense forbad the use of Jean Gabin, say, in the lead, and so they hired actors virtually unknown to the public, which suits the material right down to the ground. For we have Jean Servais, with his huge, sad, John McIntyre eyes, in the part, and he is riveting. They all are. What the actors lacked in experience, the crew made up for in brilliance, An A- class cinema-photographer, Phillip Agostini, filmed it, an A-class editor, Robert Dwyer, cut it, and the music is by Georges Auric. What luck! Dassin, a lovable man if there ever was one, had been exiled as one of the Hollywood 10. And in an interview in the Bonus Material he talks about those times and the making of this film. It’s all fascinating. And it is the greatest film of its kind ever made.

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Force Of Evil

28 Jul

Force Of Evil – Directed and written by Abraham Polonsky. Crime. A bespoke lawyer tries to advance his brother in the numbers racket. 78 minutes Black and White 1948.

* * * * *

I never like to say of a film, I wish it had been done this way or that way. After all, the thing is finished, a work of art, good or bad, published, done with. But I wish the closing sequence of this picture had been shot differently: it’s a sequence of John Garfield going down and down the cliff of Riverside Drive to the rocks by the river, and it needs to be a descent into hell and it is not. Unless it is, the last line of the film doesn’t work, and it doesn’t. So when you see this terrific picture, I want you to imagine that it is a hell-descent and that the last line does work. For, setting the conclusion aside, the picture is brilliant in a way that seems to transcend the gifts of those who made it, particularly those of its star, John Garfield, who also produced it. Used to seeing him in Depression get-ups, talking out of the side of his mouth and none too bright, instead one finds him here as the super-intelligent, fastest talking lawyer in New York, an operator in the numbers racket (now the NY State Lottery). Looking at his slightly oily face, one sees a real character constantly in play behind the once familiar features. His delivery is faster than a revolver, and the lines he delivers are swift, devious, mean, the result of a remarkably literate and verbal screenplay by Polonsky. I love a lot of good talk in a movie, and Garfield is not the only one supplied with it. Cast with amazing prescience is Thomas Gomez completely occupying the role of the older brother torn between his need for work and his need for honest work. He has the acting opportunity of a lifetime, and he does not fail it. Beatrice Pearson, as the little bird of conscience, is equally wonderful in a role easy to ruin through piety or dimples, neither of which she opts for. Everyone involved is excellent in this production, but let’s just credit Garfield as standing for all, in bringing life to a life, and therefore a mystery, and therefore a dimension instructing our respect, admiration, and wonder.

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Gorky Park

24 Jul

Gorky Park – Directed by Michael Apted. Police Procedural. A Russian cop discovers an international smuggling plot and his true love in it. 2 hours 8 minutes Color 1983.

* * * * *

William Hurt certainly is a curious bloke. He gives off the same brain-dead emanation as John Malkovich. This quality serves him perfectly in the plot of this superbly suspenseful and remarkably well-directed piece. Filmed in Moscow itself, Helsinki, and Stockholm, we are never on the pinpoint of a sound-stage but always believe we are in the full impersonal latitudes where the film shows us to be. This is not film noir in color. Film noir is mostly every-spare-has-been-expensed, made on the cheap, that black lighting arranged to shade out the paltry sets. Here instead we have the big and unsettling panoramas of foreign unvisited countries and the ominous fall of snow. All exquisitely filmed by Ralf T. Bode. The set decoration by Michael Seirton and the costumes by Richard Bruno are splendid. And all this fortifies the distractions needed to veer us off course as the characters veer off course in proving what we know from his first appearance before us that Lee Marvin is the evil doer. How could it be otherwise? His self-possession is unequalled in all Christendom. I liked the way the story spreads out. It’s not based on concentration of scent, as in Sherlock Holmes, but on the appearance of random elements in a landscape ultimately making sense as belonging there. Michael Dennehy and Richard Griffiths lend their substance to the doings, and one roots for them. Ian Bannen brings his kindly presence to the task, and Ian Mcdiarmid nibbles the scenery nicely as the strange professor. I felt well-treated by the movie. As I opened its continually unexpected wrappings, I was always held by the next unfoldment, and the next, and the one after that.

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Dear Murderer

15 Jul

Dear Murderer – Directed by Arthur Crabtree. Murder. A jealous husband plans the perfect crime, and gets away with it. 94 minutes Black and White 1947.

* * * * *

Dear Murderer has nothing to do with Noir. It is instead a good old fashioned pip-pip British murder story. We know who the murderer is from the start, the redoubtable Eric Portman. Opposite him is a pompadour from hell, played by Greta Gynt, as his wife. The lady is untrue, and one of her untruths is a pompadour almost as towering as hers. The story is well told and satisfying in its genre. Everyone is excellent, since in this sort of piece the acting does not need to amount to much, and the editing needs to amount to everything. Portman tends to rush his lines, a habit that got worse with him as he matured. It’s a habit of English actors when they don’t feel anything. Margaret Leighton used to do it, too. But that his lines hiss by doesn’t really matter so much, since we are, after all, engaged in a battle of the lizards. Watch them sink their giant jaws into one another’s necks. How satisfying!

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Julie [with Tilda Swinton]

15 Jul

Julia – Directed by Erick Zonka. Drama. A raging alcoholic tries to save her ass by an act of crime. 2 hours and 25 minutes Color 2008.

* * * * *

Tilda Swinton here gives one of the greatest performances ever laid down on film. She plays a woman who never tells the truth, and she does it by (watch her eyes) constantly searching the air around her for a story to fill the bill. The bill being: How Will I Survive? She creates a woman who is crudely smart, who can talk fast, but is suicidally deluded. As her folly gains in complexity, her daring gains in rashness, but what is also true is that, as this happens, Swinton allows the character to, no, not sober up, but to slowly bleach out. The piece is beautifully acted by everyone in it. Towards the ending, its Spanish scenes needed to be, not cut, but concertinaed, otherwise it is well edited and shot, and particularly well-written. The director has given great latitude to his cast, and they meet the challenge of creating the human beings necessary to create the story. Julie drinks. And her drinking creates the story. Her AA buddy is co-dependent, and his co-dependency creates the story. The ten-year-old boy is love-lorn, and that creates the story. They all act according to their deficiencies, and out of those the story is born. Swinton is a master of bringing to life hard-to-take characters, and with this one she has gone the limit. She has created the truth of a character who never tells the truth, not once, watch her do it, until the very last line in the film. Then alone does she speak the truth.

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