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Archive for the ‘GOVERNMENT AGENCY ENFORCEMENT DRAMAa’ Category

The Wire

19 Mar

The Wire – various directors. TV Series. Color.

★★★★★

The Story: A Baltimore cop moves through the worlds of the waterfront, public schools, newspaper publishing, and politics to bring a drug cartel to justice

~

Well, now I’ve seen it all.

And so I must bid a fond farewell to certain characters. I say “to certain characters,” rather than to the story itself, for I found the characters more taking than the stories abounding.

The seasons are five. One story deals with the lives of stevedores on the waterfront. A second with the public schools. A third with the world of politicians. A fourth with that of newspapers. Laced through these are stories of the drug business on one hand and on the other stories of the police who seeks to dismember them.

All of this set in the city of Baltimore and shot there.

The star of the series Dominic West, an English actor in perfect voice for an Irish- American cop, I liked very much. He’s good looking, sexy, interesting, and a darn good actor. His Jimmy McNulty has a rapscallion-eye, and the daring to inaugurate rash plans, but we learn he does not really possess the imagination to execute them. A flaw.

For this he needs the doll-house-furniture-maker cop Lester Freamon, played by the inestimable Clarke Peters, also English, whom we shall see again in the producers’ Treme, as chief of the New Orleans Indians. He’s an actor who has to function around machines yielding delicate information – he it is who runs the wire taps – and it is a credit to his skill that you believe everything he does in relations to them. He brings the undramatic alive.

Deidre Lovejoy is the great looking DA who outsmarts the politicians, the judges, the police, and she is always a welcome sight in the doings. Frankie Faison also reappears in Treme in a similar role of a corrupt functionary, and he is just wonderful in this sort of part. Also in Treme, Wendell Pearce, with his easy searching eye, is a comfort to civilization as Bunk Moreland, McNulty’s chum.

As drug lords we have the perilously handsome Idris Elba as Stringer Bell, the brains fronting The Barksdale drug consortium. He is sorely missed when he leaves the story, as are J.D. Williams as Bodie, who leads the street hawkers. I began by disliking him and ended by rooting for him. As, at the last moment, I rooted for the incomprehensible Felicia Pearson playing the gender-unidentifiable Felicia “Snoop” Pearson. Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski, the ex-policeman now high school teacher played by Jim True-Frost, grows on one too. Proposition Joe, the local drug connection with the waterfront smuggler, The Greek, I also much miss. How could one forget him. He is played brilliantly by Robert F. Chew. Michael Kostroff is super as the drug lord’s lawyer, Levy. And we have Aiden Gillen as the newly elected mayor of Baltimore an actor perfectly suited one day to play that other unworthy worthy, George W. Bush.

One hopes to see these actors again and often.

But the three characters I’ll miss most are Bubbles, the shopping cart salesman hop-head, played with wide-eyed wonder by Andre Royo. What a wonderful actor. How fascinating he becomes! How real!

It is he I will miss most, along with Michael K. Williams as Omar Little, the efficient, highly ethical sawed-off-shotgun-toting robber of the druggers.

And the boy who protects his three brothers as best he can from the fates awaiting them.

For the most part the main story lodges in front of the background of a U.S. Senator’s overthrow and the entrapment of the drug kingpins. This main story is the feud between Omar and a newcomer to the Boston Drug field, one Marlo Stanfield whose icy eyes execute everyone around him who blinks the wrong way. His presence directs the style of seasons four and five. To watch Jaimie Hector act him is fascinating because of his perpetual petrifaction. He shall not be moved. His two eyes are beautiful and not quite even, which gives him a gaze of incalculable power.

These actors, in parts a little more well-written than the stories which house them, hold my attention, curiosity, and care. This is why I watch their stories to their outcomes so loyally. A series like this affords us full immersion. And here, as later in New Orleans’ Treme, the city of Baltimore allow us to visit and explore streets and scenes and persons we would know nothing of, perhaps even if we lived there.

Many interesting conclusions are to be drawn, many significant inferences. For all these worlds are worlds of double-conscience. And none of these worlds are familiar to me in any way whatsoever. If they are veracious, and I sense they are, it is a view of America harsh, but worth all the entertainment the series affords.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

J. Edgar

26 Nov

J. Edgar – Directed by Clint Eastwood. Biodrama. The personal and official doings of the unstoppable force of the founder of the FBI. 137 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

The music which Eastwood composes and chooses himself is beautiful, as usual. And the sets (Bumstead’s demise has not diminished this in Eastwood’s work) are first class. The camerawork keeps things dark, for most of the story takes place in interiors, but when the period is the 1920s and earlier what we are shown does not look like those eras but like a film trying to make us believe we are in them. The story moves back and forth in time, quickly, which is not a problem, but there is only a pictorial, not a thematic connection between a racetrack now and a racetrack then, which is why some audience members have found this editing baffling. From the start, every one of Eastwood’s films has been revolutionary in subject matter. But every one has endured a narrative failing of some kind. In each film is a flaw which derails the development of the main character in relation to the material. Here the problem lies in a bifurcation which on the one hand tells the story of a man who sacrifices his personal life for his career, and on the other is the story of a man who comes to the end of his imaginative power long before he comes to the end of his willingness to leave office, and so like Quaddafi and many another, becomes paranoid, vicious, and a liar. Leonardo Di Caprio plays J. Edgar Hoover. And this poses a deeper problem. Hoover was a fascinating careerist, but there is nothing particularly interesting about J. Edgar Hoover himself; he is not an attractive person – physically, intellectually, or spiritually. He was a dogged professional whose ideas and accomplishments ran out with World War II. After that he became the usual martinet, with all the usual and very dangerous failings and bents. Di Caprio is also not a very attractive person. He is not someone who, like Edward G. Robinson, can just be himself and enchant us. That is why he is not a true leading man. He is, however, a brilliant character lead, and if you wish to see him at his best see Total Eclipse, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Celebrity, and Blood Diamond, and leave the rest alone. My hunch is that Di Caprio is essentially introverted, and great only in characters who are not introverted, but are rather characters of high volatility, and Hoover was not that. For J. Edgar he certainly has worked on a vocal pattern, but that pattern just keeps him trudging through the doxology of the role, “I intend to save America from its direst enemies!” The story tells us that J. Edgar Hoover turned out, like Quaddafi, to be an assassin, but in Hoover’s case an assassin of reputations. All meant to bolster his own. But De Caprio is too close in tenor to Hoover himself to make him interesting. His relations with his right arm Clyde Tolson were probably not sexual, for two reasons, one being that Hoover was not a particularly sexual person, he was a monk of work, and the other being that in those days it would have been far too dangerous to his reputation and to that of the FBI had that ever taken place and been found out, which it certainly would have been, for it was just the sort of evidence Hoover collected to use against others. The redoubtable Judi Dench plays his mother who knows the truth and warns him. I don’t know why she is cast; she’s very good, but Lady Hoover is what we get. I don’t believe, as in Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, that Eastwood or his screenwriter or Di Caprio understand the first thing about the pulls and refrains of homosexual attraction. Here we have a story which might, like Brokeback Mountain, have moved us. But it doesn’t. The man who is supposed to be dying before our eyes is already dead from the start.

 

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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Side Street

20 Aug

Side Street – Directed by Anthony Mann. Crime Drama. A down-on-his-luck young man steals a cache of cash from two gangsters and gets into no end of trouble. 83 minutes Black and White 1949.

* * * *

Farley Granger was housed at the Plaza when he played this impoverished young married guy, and he, having just broken off his affair with Shelly Winters, was having an affair with Leonard Bernstein. Does it show? There’s a quality in Granger as in a willow tree, alluring but flaccid. David Thomson characterizes him as “pretty but dull, innocent but fallible, wronged but petulant,” and all this makes him perfectly cast as the poverty row New Yorker who steals $30,000 thinking it is $200 for his pregnant wife’s maternity care. He plays his scenes of shame and flight superbly, which enables one to set aside that he is supposedly good-looking in order to concentrate on his talent, which actually exists. Anthony Mann once again casts the leading lady with a weak actress, Cathy O’Donnell, but Granger liked her personally and liked acting with her, and they have the same size of temperament opposite one another, which makes them believable as husband and wife. The shabby streets of New York City in its Golden Age are filmed magnificently by Joe Ruttenberg, who never shoots anything head on, but always askew, lending the story an obbligato to the moral imbalance inherent in it. Conrad Nervig has edited it perfectly, and the script by Sydney Beohm is first class. Anthony Mann was not a great director because he did not choose great material. It’s really that simple. But, now at MGM, he has available a crew of supporting players whose talent was unexceedable, in this case, among others, the great Jean Hagen as the airhead alcoholic girlfriend of the psychopathic strangler He-Of-The-Beautiful-Voice James Craig. The aerial shots of New York, particularly those of the chase scene at the end in lower Manhattan, obviously done some Sunday morning in the summer, are spectacular and could never be done again. Mann is a very good director and holds one’s attention throughout. It’s not noir, but noirish, and I defy you once you start watching to stop.

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