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Director/Coscreenwriter: Sergio Leone
By Roderick Heath
For Sergio Leone, making Once Upon a Time in America was a 15-year labour that consumed the bulk of his directorial career. By the mid-1970s, Leone seemed to be washed up. The genre he had done so much to codify and popularise, the spaghetti western, had burnt out. Leone’s tilt at making a defining western saga, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), was mutilated and dismissed in the U.S., and Duck, You Sucker (1972) was similarly lost in the shuffle. Although he continued to produce odd projects and stepped in to help direct some without credit throughout the ’70s, Leone was left perched between worlds. He rejected advances from Paramount Pictures to direct The Godfather (1972), as he was fascinated instead by a purportedly autobiographical novel called The Hoods by former gangster Harry Goldberg, who published under the name Harry Grey. Leone finally put together a big $30 million budget. His ambition seemed to pay off as the 4.5-hour epic earned a standing ovation upon its premiere at Cannes. Triumph quickly curdled, however, for such expansive vision was conspicuously out of favour. A hacked-down version of the film released in the U.S. was a colossal flop, and the calamity on top of an arduous shoot helped kill Leone 5 years later. The 229-minute European cut, however, retained a strong reputation for those who could see it, as I first did, on a brick-thick VHS set.
Aside from its length, Leone’s film is challenging and commercially tricky, as Leone created a deeply ambiguous work, an apogee of the director’s individual temperament. Contradiction was Leone’s defining quality: A high stylist with a gift for lowdown art. A realist with a love of mythology. A romantic with a fetish for brute violence and sexuality. An Italian with a predilection for American pop culture and a gift for creating synergy between the spacious, aestheticized approach of European film and the gritty sturdiness of American argot and actors. A revisionist and Socialist-tinted historian, picking at the scabs of worldly motives, always looking for the carnal and corruptible underpinnings of human impulses, and yet conjuring dreamlike, mythopoeic visions of that history shot through with quixotic longing and melancholy. Once Upon a Time in America is a film where the audience is faced with mirroring ironies that fold time and tale back in on itself.
Leone employed seven screenwriters to build upon his ideas, including an uncredited Ernesto Gastaldi and snappy English dialogue by Stuart Kaminsky, and yet each touch was subsumed into Leone’s, as the film is more visual than verbal. It also both extends and contrasts the methods of Leone’s westerns. The long, elliptical, carefully rhythmic and internally rhyming structuring of Leone’s direction, as small plays of character and power and build-ups to violence are detailed with nerveless intensity, were retained. But whereas Leone’s westerns were defined by space, both in the environs of the open range, and crisp widescreen compositions based on horizontal lines, …In America is dense and baroque, the blasted colours and sunstruck brightness swapped for saturated tones, deep-etched darks and opiated atmosphere.
…In America has been characterised by some as one long drug dream, taking place in the mind of antihero David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) as he lies in an opium den. The movie starts there and finishes there, moving in an Ouroboros sort of pattern. Noodles has retreated to the den behind a Chinese shadow-puppet theatre to forget the consequences of the pivotal act of his life, an act that’s communicated in impressionistic fragments of sound and vision. The first scene of the film depicts his girlfriend Eve (Darlanne Fluegel) being shot dead in their apartment by gunmen on the hunt for him, with the strains of Kate Smith’s operatic take on “God Bless America” echoing in the background. Noodles’ friend, restaurateur and bar owner Fat Moe Gelly (Larry Rapp), is beaten to a bloody pulp by the same mob enforcers until he gives them Noodles’ location. A telephone rings like a jackhammer, burrowing into Noodle’s consciousness through the blur of the drug, conflating a call warning Noodles to flee, and, in his dazed reveries, a phone call he seems to have made to a policeman and the ringing bell of a fire truck at the remembered scene of a conflagration where corpses are laid out, variously scorched and bullet-riddled: Noodle’s pals and partners in crime Max Bercovicz (James Woods), Patsy Goldberg (James Hayden), and Cockeye Stein (William Forsythe), killed, it seems, by some connivance of Noodles’.
This opening manages at once to be allusive and almost psychedelic, but intelligibly puts in play both the taunting mysteries of the oncoming drama and the urgency of the immediate danger to Noodles, who has to flee the den and save Moe. This he does, in a scene that recalls the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West. Where that film had a windmill and a steam train on a flat plain, here there’s an elevator and interior heights, appropriate for the vertiginous moral chasms and landscape of the city. The elevator works laboriously, motor grinding and mechanisms shaking, to the floor where Moe is laid out like a carcass and a waiting assassin patiently awaits its passenger to alight. Instead, a bullet explodes out his forehead, fired by Noodles, who took the stairs. As well as being a quintessential Leone moment of surprise violence, Noodles’ wiliness is revealed here, a gift the film recapitulates many times, but also repeatedly counterpoints with his endless capacity for self-sabotage.
A talismanic key is taken from Moe’s grandfather clock, a key that fits a locker in Grand Central Station, but to Noodles’ evident shock and disappointment, the suitcase within only contains a bundle of newspapers instead of the expected fortune. Noodles has no choice but to keep running from the vengeance he has set in motion. He steps out of the frame, the camera zeroes in on an art deco poster for Coney Island and a wall mirror. Noodles re-enters the shot, reflected in the mirror, balding, doleful, and tense. The artwork is now a pop art mural, a version of “Yesterday” rises to displace “Night and Day” on sound, and without a line of dialogue, we know Noodles has returned to New York in the late 1960s.
This brilliantly handled leap forward touches on one essential aspect of …In America, which is as much about time and what it does to people and what they do to themselves in the eye of it, as it is about individual circumstances. It’s also one of the greatest explorations of the transporting intensity of remembering. Leone and ever-attuned composer Ennio Morricone even twist the potentially cheesy motif of using “Yesterday” as a leitmotif for aging regret to work for them by pushing it to a limit with a muzak-flavoured cover: nostalgia is another pop value. Noodles and Moe meet again, tired and on the wane, defined by a past that went magnificently and seemingly irreparably wrong. Moe’s bar is an islet of the past in a former Jewish neighbourhood, now filled with the new wave of Puerto Rican immigrants. Moe certainly didn’t pilfer the million dollars in the locker, Noodles now sees, and he explains the ominous yet seemingly casual missive that’s brought him back to New York, a letter that confirms someone knows where he’s been hiding and has now summoned him back for a reckoning. Longing for a chance to repair the past and pining for the flare of youth’s energy and vision transfigures Noodles. But he was not a good man, not even one ennobled by the Corleones’ familial ethos. Rather Noodles was, as the idol of his life, Moe’s sister Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), once diagnosed, a guy always doomed to be a two-bit punk. Noodles’ return home sees objects take on transformative power, recalling distant times and people: in the back of Moe’s bar is a peephole, and looking through it like a cinema audience conjures a young Deborah (Jennifer Connolly) as a vision of youth’s hope.
That youth is revealed as hardly an idyll, however, as Noodles and his pubescent pals were dirty-minded, fun-loving, budding criminals. To make money off local standover man Bugsy (James Russo), Noodles (played young by Scott Tiler), Patsy (Brian Bloom), Cockeye (Adrian Curran), and Dominic (Noah Moazezi), burn down a newspaper stand. They also rob drunks and blackmail an obnoxious cop (Richard Foronjy) after they photograph him having sex with underaged sexpot Peggy (Julie Cohen). Leone’s young imps are little pishers, glimpsed squirting lighter fluid as if they’re pissing on the newspapers. The boys encounter Max (Rusty Jacobs), a junkman’s son who foils one of their criminal enterprises with cheeky humour and then joins them. Success continually raises the stakes for the boys’ misadventures: gaining control over the cop places them in the path of Bugsy, who has Noodles and Max beaten up. When Noodles and his pals outmanoeuvre Bugsy in ingratiating themselves with the mafia, the older punk sets after them with a gun.
These ’20s sequences are majestic in their blend of the hazy immigrant remembrance that was popular in the newly ethnic-conscious and historically attuned American cinema (The Godfather Part II, 1974; Hester Street, 1975; Ragtime, 1981), but far outstripping most for evocativeness and exactitude of milieu—Leone’s period worlds are characters in themselves. One of his keenest gifts lay in creating organic milieus in particular places where social forces are in constructive flux. Leone’s crack team of filmmakers—cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, editor Nino Baragli, art director Carlo Simi, costumer Gabriella Cespucci—helped to make his old New York a place of dirty wildernesses of brick and cobble where the criminal lads dash and dance like Our Gang turning into Dead End Kids. Rooftop empires of bird shit, flapping laundry, and illicit sex and empire-planning. Harbours flooded by fog, zones of mystery and adventure. Above all, nascent industrial might symbolised by the Manhattan Bridge, like living in the shadow of a pyramid, the New World’s expression of communal power and hubristic desire. The neighbourhood around Moe’s place evolves in obedience to the zeitgeist. The old kosher restaurant run by the Gellys where young Moe (Mike Monetti) labours is a popular community crossroads. It gives way to a speakeasy, popular with a panoply of the urban melting pot, housing both underworld and elite. Finally, it becomes the clapped out, run-of-the-mill bar where Moe has to pay protection to a Puerto Rican standover man. When Noodles is fatefully carted off to a juvenile prison, both the prison and the opposing warehouse wall against which his friends range to see him swallowed by the beast emphasises the impersonal scale and fetid, rotting atmosphere of the urban landscape in a fashion that feels the oncoming age of oppression.
The very American tale of the immigrant experience, defined by the simultaneous, wrenching, gravitational fields of ethnic community and eruptive New World mores (young Noodles refuses to go home because what of remains “my old man’s praying and my old lady’s crying and the light’s turned off”), is crossbred with the Italian cinematic tradition for looking back in pained wistfulness at the birth pangs of modernity in films as diverse as The Leopard (1963), The Voyage (1974), and 1900 (1976). There’s also the equally Italian delight in describing the raw side of entering adulthood: the young hoods are obsessed with sex, whilst wrestling angrily with their weaknesses and deeper desires. Although the protagonists of …In America are unusual in the ranks of screen hoods for being Jewish, they’re exceedingly Italian in spirit, calling to mind the libido-addled adolescents of Fellini’s 8½ (1963) and Amarcord (1973). There is also, of course, deliberate recapitulation of classic movie themes, specifically, the gangster film, laced with references: the rise-and-fall stories of Little Caesar (1930) and Scarface (1931); the immigrant angst and youth-to-nefarious age drama of The Public Enemy (1931); and remixes of those themes in the tempted street kids of Angels with Dirty Faces (1937) and the generation-tracing arc of The Roaring Twenties (1939). Also, the galvanic punch and sociological notation of Don Siegel, Roger Corman, and Sam Fuller in the ’50s and ’60s, and the political awareness and epic tone of The Godfather. One original aspect of the story, anticipating Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), is the way its narrative centres on a character who could be perceived as peripheral, even a loser. Whereas James Cagney’s and Paul Muni’s gangsters always fell eventually but became colossal in their defiance or their tragic qualities, Noodles becomes not a fallen warrior, cautionary example, criminal overlord, or even really a proper antihero. Rather, he remains something of a fool of fortune doomed to keep losing great chunks of his life to his antics and poor judgement.
Youth is brought to an end through a series of rolling events, and indeed all three epochs described in the film detail long plot arcs dotted with vignettes and climaxing in dramatic severances. The greatest moment of the lads’ youth comes when they convince a mafia overlord to try their invention, involving flotation balloons and counterweights of salt, which can refloat cargos of liquor dumped in the river to avoid patrols. Waiting on a boat in the harbour in a dreamy mist that slowly unpeels over a grimy industrial waterway, the boys see their invention work and celebrate, with Max and Noodles falling overboard: Max plays a prank on Noodles, pretending to drown, before reappearing in the boat, flashing his mocking grin. Much later, Noodles plays the same gag on Max. The two friends, closer than brothers, also constantly try to get one over on each other, treating life almost like a huge practical joke. The folie à deux aspect of their friendship defines the entire narrative. Deborah mockingly describes Max as Noodles’ mother, constantly calling him, but for criminal hijinks. Max first appears on a garbage cart, and steals a watch from a drunk the others wanted to roll, motifs that double and reverse in the finale. Bugs shoots Dominic, who dies with pathos in Noodles’ arms, his felling filmed in slow motion, severing youth from adulthood. Noodles, in a lunatic fury, knifes to death both Bugsy and a cop who tries to intervene, and is imprisoned. He’s released years later as an adult, when Max and the others have become successful bootleggers and entrepreneurial criminals.
Max greets Noodles upon release with a present that combines Leone’s love of bawdy sexuality and morbid humour: Max has a hooker (Ann Neville) laid out like a corpse, pretending to be dead, only to drag Noodles in to prove they’re both very much alive. As the famous quote from …In the West says, Leone’s heroes have “something to do with death,” yet sex and death are constantly correlated with insistent, Freudian power, particularly in this film, where both impulses are seen as the logical extremes of life, whilst most nebulous needs, like love and power, have a grip of religious insubstantiality to them. Whereas love was something Leone’s gunslingers spurned in pursuit of revenge, or had lost and spurred that revenge, Noodles is fatally split by his base instincts and higher aspirations. Carnality is its own strength: when he’s returned to Moe’s, Noodles encounters an older Peggy (Amy Ryder) who’s now a rotund madam-cum-earth mother who sells it profitably “by the pound.” Reunited with his pals, Noodles is brought in on a heist job shopped out to them by made man Frankie Manoldi (Joe Pesci) and his acquaintance Joe Minaldi (Burt Young), who’s got wind of a lucrative diamond shipment he wants them to rob. This turns out to be a double-cross, as the gang’s really been hired to kill Minaldi, and take the diamonds as pay by Manoldi.
Young’s hilariously grotesque cameo as a kind of simian throwback jammed into a suit, telling the story of how he got the tip-off about the diamonds via an anecdote involving insuring his penis, calls back to the shambling, ill-shaven untermenschen that dogged the heroes of Leone’s westerns—pre-modern men who border on being Titans. The double-cross assassination takes place in another peerlessly atmospheric setting, a foggy canalside littered with beached steamboats and industrial detritus, and plays out with deliriously intense staging, with Cockeye shooting Minaldi point-blank through his jeweller’s glass, the gang raking his car with a tommy gun, and Noodles chasing an escapee into an eiderdown factory, where he catches his prey and guns him down in a shower of whirling feathers. Noodles performs well, proving he’s still a man of action, but is irritated at having not been told what was going down. He vents his irritation at Max and the others with loopy humour by driving their car off a pier, suggesting that even now, with their extremely grown-up sex and violence, they’re still kids delighting in mayhem and tomfoolery. An aspect of this extends through a ribald subplot: during the robbery of the diamonds, Noodles was pulled into a play-act rape of the jeweller’s secretary, Carol (Tuesday Weld), actually the inside snout who tipped off Minaldi and a deeply kinky broad who gets off on illicit thrills. When she coincidentally turns up at Moe’s as a customer, the gang greet her wearing the handkerchief masks they used in the robbery, with their dicks out, so she can pick out her prior acquaintance. But Carol picks Max, and becomes his girlfriend.
The more “elevated” influence on Leone’s tale was The Great Gatsby, which informs the longing quality of Noodles’ attraction to Deborah and all that she represents, both in youth, as a creature of grace and purity in a mucky world, and in manhood, as a woman going places in the world legitimately. Unlike Daisy Buchanan, however, who was a gossamer idyll formed by an elusive precinct of aspiration, Deborah actively constructs herself, knowing full well the world she lives in and the nature of Noodles. She puts on airs and wheedles her way out of chores by dint of her exceptionalism, as she’s trained in arts that may take her places, including feminine arts both full of mystique and irritating power over Noodles. The childhood friends who take different roads is another old motif of the gangster film (Little Caesar, Manhattan Melodrama, Angels with Dirty Faces) crossbred here with romantic longing, but developed in highly unexpected ways because one of Leone’s darkest themes here is betrayal and the damage people who love each other can do. One of Deborah’s fateful acts, locking Noodles out of the restaurant and refusing to answer his cries for help after he and Max are beaten bloody by enemies, suggests that Noodles will always be on the outside, calling for Deborah, and also informs his later act of brutal revenge on her, inextricable from his erotic and emotional obsession. The film’s apogee of romanticism depicts Noodles trying finally to consummate his love for Deborah with his ill-gotten fortune, taking over an off-season hotel for the night in a show of spectacular courtly advance shot through with intimations of grandeur and sadness; this scene captures the essence of Fitzgerald’s book better than any straight adaptation has so far achieved.
Yet it also provokes and feeds into Leone’s own Janus-faced sensibility, as Deborah maintains her focus and tells Noodles she’s leaving for Hollywood in the morning. He, smouldering with anger whilst they’re being driven back to the city, viciously and punitively rapes Deborah on the backseat until the chauffeur pulls over and puts an end to it. A supremely disorienting and ugly scene (though fascinatingly undercut by the chauffeur’s agency, as he even refuses Noodles’ money; in most melodramas with a crime of this sort, the functionary would be assumed to be a moral null), is one of Leone’s singular accomplishments, as it so utterly debases the usual core of sentimentality found in the gangster film, forcing a radical audience reorientation of where its sympathies lie. Early in the film, Noodles’ hunters had shot Eve, Deborah’s worldly substitute, and, with electric provocation, one tweaked a society lush’s nipple in the opium den with his pistol. Sexual violence adds an uneasy, potent undercurrent to the film as a whole. With Noodles’ assault on Deborah, it becomes clear that Noodles’ lifestyle and milieu, far from being redeemed by Deborah, has instead poisoned him, his expectations of women and life in general. Indeed, what was pseudocomic and anticipatory in Noodles’ and friends earlier sexual encounters with Peggy and Carol becomes appalling.
Leone reaches for and achieves Dostoyevskian stature in his depiction of madly clashing impulses inside characters, as Noodles is at once exposed in his reactive cruelty: he essentially treats Deborah in the same way he did Bugsy, with the blind anger of a kid who feels he’s had something treasured stolen from him. He also defeats himself utterly, and feels immediate, crushing shame, as he watches Deborah leaving for Hollywood on a train the next day, amidst a swirl of steam on the platform, like he’s a phantom his own life, which indeed is what he becomes. There’s a moral precision to this even as Leone largely rejects simple moral readings—all his characters here are cruel to each other on some intimate level, of which physical violence is only one variant. Earlier, young Deborah had charmed Noodles and sustained his fantasies by reading to him from the Song of Solomon, but roughing up the sublime poetic metaphors by comparing the idealised creatures on the page with Noodles, hanging onto her words with increasing torment as she stated “he could never be my beloved.” Deborah’s ironic reading elucidates Leone’s art: alternations between lofty yearnings and expressions of sublime emotions jarringly interpolated with vulgar and cynical sophistication. Equally strong and just as auspicious as Noodles’ crush on Deborah is Noodles’ bromance with Max, whose enticingly wicked grin and humour casts a different spell. Max’s spying curtails Noodles’ one kiss with Deborah just before Bugsy’s beating, signalling Max’s impact on their fate, and also, as later events confirm, exploring the synchronicity of their identities.
There’s an element of commentary on capitalism throughout the film, as there was in …In The West, where Frank (Henry Fonda) gazed with admiration and frustration at the apparatus of real, fiscal power after annihilating the small-time speculator; here Noodles has the gift for creating and putting over a stratagem, but it takes evolving tycoon Max to exploit them. This film deals with characters who are villains in Leone’s other films, though Cockeye, like Harmonica in …In The West, carries an instrument (a piccolo), and Noodles feels the righteous spur to revenge on Bugsy, an urge he will later, importantly, quell and reject. As in Leone’s westerns, community exists, but the heroes do not protect it, exemplify it, or even really blend into it, but are rather cordoned off in a way John Ford only did with final deliberation: when young, the boys are constantly filmed in empty streets at the fringes of activity, or on rooftops, whilst Deborah passes through the midst of crowds, both at one with them but moving against the tides. The beating Noodles and Max receive from Bugsy occurs after the rest of the street has deserted with the residents heading off to the synagogue. Even when Max finds security and insider status under an assumed identity and fortune, he cannot join the crowds in his house, and spies instead on his son as he greets his pretty girlfriend and enjoys all the joys of his aristocratic youth, bought with so much bloodshed and loss.
When Noodles first returns to his old street in 1968 and nears Moe’s, he is confronted by the momentarily surreal sight of a gravestone lifting into the air from behind a brick wall by a front-end loader, as the old immigrant graveyard is being disinterred. The motifs are trebled here, as both the memento mori hanging over Noodles is literalised, the notions that graves are opening and the dead walking is first hinted, and the unavoidable fact of the past being consumed by the present. Later, he finds his friends have been granted an ornate mausoleum, which, a sign says, was paid for by Noodles himself. There he finds another totemic key to the same old locker at the station containing a suitcase full of money: Noodles is being given one last job. A scandal is playing out on TV with a face Noodles recognises: union boss Jimmy Conway O’Donnell (Treat Williams), who the old gang once saved in their finest deed, supporting striking Teamsters, by using wit as well as weapons to combat a plutocratic manager, his goons, and his pet cop, Chief Vincent Aiello (Danny Aiello). Leone goes to town in a bright, relieving comic movement staged with impudent vivacity to “The Thieving Magpie,” as the gang swap babies in their hospital cribs, including Aiello’s, repeating their earlier act of blackmail to impress a cop. Leone pulls off a mirthful, technically superb overhead shot of a nurse frantically trying to calm the crying babies who have just been swapped, visualising the thematic notion spoken subsequently, that the gang have just played god and reapportioned destinies to each character. As Max says, “We’re better than fate. We give some the good life, give it to others right up the ass.”
The gang’s swashbuckling efforts on behalf of the unionist prove they still have emotional ties to the cause of working men. This proves a double-edged sword, as they put O’Donnell in debt to the mafia. Noodles rejects the oncoming age of corporatized criminality, which Max, O’Donnell’s political overlord, and Manoldi begin to build to carry them past the end of Prohibition. Indeed, the film examines a common point of fascination for modern gangster movies and popular history, digging into the complex relationship between organised labour, organised crime, and progressive politics. There’s the suggestion that in the formation of a new bloc of power out of divergent interests to counter settled oligarchies, helped define modern America. Max, alone amongst the gang, sees the possibilities, and he takes his chance to complete his own version of Deborah’s dream to completely transcend his roots and become a great American. Noodles’ rejection of the combination vision sets in motion Max’s master plan even as he seems to acquiesce, and his plot plays out under the guise of suicidal madness, as he proposes an impossible heist. Rather than let his friend push along with this seemingly mad intention, Noodles then counters with his own calculated betrayal, setting up the gang to be arrested on their last liquor run. But Noodles is absent, knocked out by Max seemingly in an unstable rage, and the story begins to catch up with itself, as the early glimpses of the aftermath of the set-up have already told us how this ended. Or did they?
The return at last to 1968 to play out the final stages, comes with the revelation that not only is Max alive, now known as Bailey, but he has wormed his way into the highest reaches of society and political life and seduced Deborah. This fact revealed to Noodles in his poignant, inevitably tentative reunion with her after a stage performance, or rather when the reunion concludes: Deborah’s face, swathed in stage make-up, is despoiled as she rubs it off, identity seemingly smudged as dimensions of her character Noodles never imagined are opened up. The face of her son (Rusty Jacobs), who arrives whilst they’re talking, instantly rewrites the past—he has Max’s young face, stamped by preppie innocence and confusion. Noodles’ contrition at what he did to Deborah is matched by her and Max’s guilt at having destroyed him to gain their own lives.
“Bailey” and his works are unravelling, however, thanks to the still-lingering ties to O’Donnell and the mob, and the final truth that emerges is that he only delayed, rather than avoided, the same reckoning that Noodles has long since made: finding Max heals rather than hurts Noodles, and he’s revealed in their final exchange as an almost monkish penitent, calmly and sadly refusing Max’s request for a friend to shoot him rather than some anonymous assassin, whilst recalling their shared youth, a time that involved and led to horrible things, and yet was still youth. The ambiguous, even surreal final moments of the film provoke both frustration and wonderment, and yet can be coherently read. Max seems to follow Noodles out from his house only to disappear into a passing, peculiarly menacing garbage truck, evoking one tale about Jimmy Hoffa. But does he kill himself, or is he killed? Either way, he goes out the way he came into Noodles’ life, in the back of a garbage mover, moments after he held up that watch, that talisman of the past.
The final images of the film circle back to the past, then, as Noodles is passed by ghostly, yet rowdy apparitions of parties past, as Jazz Age roadsters tear by, and then Noodles himself, a young man again, crawls into the opium den, returning to where we found him: indeed, did he ever actually leave? Was it all a dream of anticipation, a drug-enabled psychic fit? Or did, as I tend to think, Noodles realise on some level not unlocked until he got high, that Max had faked his death, and the practical joke was ongoing? Of course, Leone designed his narrative carefully to refuse exact explanations or interpretations, as so many of the film’s devices, scenes, and settings have recapitulated the notion that everything finally ends up back where it started.
As ever with a Leone film, the indispensable aesthetic capstone is Ennio Morricone’s scoring, which swings from florid, operatic feeling to jazzy jaunt. Just as Morricone’s scores for the westerns constantly nudged the atmosphere of Leone’s film toward both expressionist weirdness and the cultural gravity of Latin America through his instrumentations, so, too, does his work here, constantly punctuated by panpipes, give the film an exotic, haunted quality, as if ghosts are crowding the margins of the lives on screen. The cast is superlative. De Niro’s turn as Noodles is low-key, and yet represents one of the actor’s best achievements, in how concisely he portrays a man who ages 30-odd years, avoiding all of his familiar actor’s mannerisms whilst conveying deep, if taciturn emotion. By contrast, Woods is electric as Max, a less subtle role but one that requires the dash and indivisible mixture of charm and visceral scorn he’s invested with, whilst Weld is wickedly good as the masochistic, yet somehow dominating Carol. Even with its deliberate mysteries and the elisions, which may finally be partly plugged by longer forthcoming editions, Once Upon a Time in America is a cinematic pinnacle.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: David O. Russell
By Roderick Heath
David O. Russell is a filmmaker for whom I’ve maintained a certain wary admiration since first encountering his work with Flirting with Disaster (1998). Amidst the directors who emerged from highly idiosyncratic independent filmmaking in the early to mid-1990s, as Russell did with Spanking the Monkey (1994), Russell’s specific interest was in observing natural oddballs in their native habitat. As such, he seemed to maintain links not just with the Robert Altman-derived strand of modern American cinema but also with a variety of frenetic comedy associated with the screwball works of Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and the Marx Brothers, except that his character types are rooted securely in naturalistic environments. Yet Russell doesn’t have Altman’s covert grace or political and cultural wit, whilst his humour is far more forced and jumpy. He is a product of a snarkier, more fiercely hip age, with characters that thrash about trying to generate comedy and action rather than enacting the farces elegantly served up to them by masterminds. I have no great liking for Three Kings (1999), which gained a lot of cool-kid traction because of its shallow critique of the Gulf War while being only a flashy variation on certain, better ’60s war movies.
When Russell came back from exile with The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), he was obviously playing by house rules, which made his films both more humdrum, but also, ironically, more enjoyable, injecting eccentric invention into standard narratives. American Hustle represents a compromise, mixing a populist brand of sarcastic frolic with his fascination for unruly dispositions. Whilst the Altman-esque element is still apparent in American Hustle, the style here is plainly a mild annexation-cum-parody of Martin Scorsese, borrowing devices and flourishes like his driving edits, alternately explanatory and dissenting voiceovers, signature inrushing camera dollies to punctuate scenes, and evocations of the simultaneous earthiness and brash flash of ’70s Americana. Whereas Scorsese usually situates his narrative perspectives deep within the often unpleasant headspaces of his characters, however, American Hustle remains determinedly exterior, watching its character types eddy in their fetid pools of temperament.
The film is based loosely on the infamous “Abscam” stings run by the FBI that took down several on-the-take bigwigs in the wide-open post-Watergate era, already touched on cinematically in another sub-Scorsese hit, director Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997). Russell takes the tale and inverts its tabloid meaning, making grifters, corrupted leaders, and phonies the heroes and the driving investigator a self-interested, nutty villain, as if The Sting (1973) had been reset in the same era it was showing in theaters. Russell kicks off with an arch but fitting sequence. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) carefully hides his bald pate with a combination of comb-over and toupee, only to have it ruined by aggressive FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) as the two men argue about proceeding with their current sting operation and the woman between them, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), tries to maintain working equilibrium. Flashbacks reveal how this unlikely team came together. Irving, a glass salesman with a sideline in fake art and bogus loan agenting, met Sydney, a Midwestern blow-in with a penchant for putting on an English accent, at a party, where they bonded over their mutual love of the elevating pleasures of Duke Ellington. After they hooked up, they found a deeper accord in their love of covert role-playing and profitable deceit. They’re a match made in Hades, except for the complication that Irving is already married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a young single mother he wed essentially out of charity.
The scenes recounting Irving and Sydney’s union are played with an interesting mix of dreamy wonder and raconteurism, as each narraties what they were thinking and feeling, stricken by recognition of a kinship that can, perversely but logically, find its best expression in criminal behaviour: Love, Underworld Style. Sydney’s adopted persona as a veddy British dollybird proves to facilitate Irving’s loan scams perfectly, as she pretends to have connections to a reputable London banking firm. They’re undone, however, when one potential client is Richie working undercover, and Irving semi-wittingly manages to leave Sydney holding the bag because she seemed to be flirting with Richie. Richie cuts a deal with the deceitful duo to use their talents to catch corrupt officials, promising they can walk away after three operations.
Richie sets his sights on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the go-get-’em, regular-Joe mayor of Atlantic City who’s trying to rebuild the city as a tourist mecca. After much bickering and backbiting, Irving sells Richie on the idea of putting together a scam wherein they pretend to be connected to a zillionaire Saudi sheikh who wants nothing more than to invest in Polito’s vision of a reenergised boardwalk. Tensions simmer constantly between this potentially explosive mix of personalities: bullshit artiste Irving is forced into unfamiliar zones of emotional intensity, constantly seething with jealousy as Sydney punishes him for sticking with Rosalyn by holding him at arm’s length and half-faking a romance with Richie. Irving also begins to squirm in contemplating the damage the scam is going to do to Polito, with whom he becomes fast friends, and the potential of mob reprisal, as the boardwalk project demands they make deals with Meyer Lansky associate Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro).
On a superficial level, American Hustle keeps bouncing along merrily, driven not by the mechanics of the Abscam plot, which is quite garbled at points and generally played as a farcical, even counter-productive proposition, nor in generating tension with the story beats. Russell only milks the most salient absurdity from the plot, when Richie has Latino FBI agent Paco Hernandez (Michael Peña) to pose as the mythical “Sheikh Abdullah” rather than Irving’s first choice of an actual Arab pal (Saïd Taghmaoui). This choice sparks both humour at Hernandez’s inaptitude at the role and then suspense, in one of those by-rote post-Goodfellas “tension when talking to the gangster” scenes, as he’s presented to Tellagio, who reveals an unexpected gift for speaking Arabic. American Hustle is rather a wobbly highwire trick, trying to gain propulsion from volatile character interactions, putting Irving and Sydney in constant danger by placing them in the hands of various lunatics. Richie sees himself as a brilliant but stymied law enforcer, but he’s actually a sexually repressed, brattish self-promoter with a bizarre, ultra-Catholic mother. He’s faced with the disdain and disregard of immediate superior Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), and keeps trying to guess the moral to a long-winded anecdote Thorsen tries to tell him; eventually Richie physically assaults Thorsen in frustration. Nonetheless, Richie gets his way and fends off repercussions by appealing to state’s attorney Anthony Amado (Alessandro Nivola, done up to look like Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II), who’s as greedy for high-profile arrests as Richie. Richie’s an interesting study in pathology and an ironic depiction of law enforcer as a case in arrested development, evoking FBI kingpin J. Edgar Hoover. Like Irving and Sydney, he’s on the make and doesn’t care who it hurts so long as he realises his vision of triumph, but unlike them, he is convinced of his own rectitude.
American Hustle is clearly a movie moulded to fit a fading ideal of popular cinema—actor-based but kinetic, taken from true life but rendered much larger than life. And yet’s it’s a peculiar, frustrating failure that manages to stay in a state of flux, emotionally and artistically, for over two hours. The acting is exciting and hammy in roughly equal measure. Cooper’s excessively mannered, and finally downright irritating performance stretches out the manic phases of his character from Silver Linings Playbook to fill an entire movie like being stuck in a phone booth with a well-groomed chimpanzee, and fails the film because it renders Richie too discursive an antagonist. Similarly, Bale pulls off one of his impressive ACTOR! transformations by becoming a paunchy, drawling, oh-so-Noo Yawk operator, but Irving isn’t deeply compelling as a protagonist even when facing a problem of conscience. Where a charismatic actor closer to the required physical type like Paul Giamatti might have made Irving interesting, with Bale he remains a dead spot. The emotional crux of the film is supposed to be Sydney and Irving’s combative reaction to the pain of loving each other counterbalanced by the quiescent, often cross-purpose desire of both to achieve authenticity and realise their private fantasies. But the film’s too skittish to let this underlying earnestness stand, too vague about those fantasies, and not sure which way is up when it comes to authenticity. For instance, Russell can’t resist playing the film’s real climax—when Irving admits all to Polito and tries to warn him what’s coming—as farce. He cuts into the scene halfway through the conversation, so there’s no sense of tension about the building emotion and unease, and then provides laugh-line-like jump cuts to shots of Polito’s kids all crying as word gets around. Not surprisingly, Polito throws Irving out, and Irving suffers a brief spell of shamed hyperventilation before getting on with saving his own ass, but the reckoning is stated rather than felt. This is a notable example, but far from the only one that shows Russell closing off avenues to real substance.
Rosalyn becomes the narrative joker in the deck: because Sydney’s been cast in another “role” in their comedy, Irving needs Rosalyn to be his wife in the scams without quite letting her in on what’s going on. Rosalyn, in spite of her kookiness, is smart enough to know something’s up, and harbours her own suddenly nascent intent to emerge as a social butterfly. Thus, with madcap bravado, she overcomes her professed anxiety and outpaces the scammers and the feds in making friends not just with Poliltos, but also the mafia hoods insulating Tellegio. Lawrence helps to crystallise the film’s most interesting themes, including the notion that elaborate plots and constructs are found in all walks of life, but that the borderlines of the scam are smudged by the very human aspirations of the players. She charms the Politos and helps sell both her own, Irving’s, and Carmine’s fantasy worlds by being herself, warts and all, going on a memorable rant about nail polish that ends in her tumbling tipsily from a restaurant booth. Russell gets far too cute with her character, however, as her loose-cannon approach gets more dangerous, tipping off one of Tellagio’s lieutenants (Jack Huston) that Irving’s running a con, and then fudging as to whether Rosalyn is actually some kind of idiot savant of plotting, putting her husband on the spot to come up with an exit strategy, or just a flake who happily claims flukes as her genius. This comes after she’s had a flagrantly weird and bracing sing-and-dance-along to Paul McCartney’s theme song for Live and Let Die, gyrating with malicious glee as if she’s gotten beautiful revenge on Irving. There’s such compulsive kineticism and unrestrained loopiness here that it almost wills itself into making sense. And yet, the feeling that Rosalyn stands in for an artist-director creating in the same improvisational way comes to the fore.
The part depends greatly on the audience’s lingering affection for Lawrence, as Rosalyn is presented as scary-exciting, but Rosalyn is really an awful creature in many ways—capricious, disturbed, and destructive, only partly elevated by her own desire to become a self-actuating person. If Russell had cast not the delicious Lawrence but someone closer to Irving’s nominal age, Rosalyn would look much more like a sitcom caricature. Lawrence shocks it into life with that gift she has, badly frustrated in her headlining films but keenly understood by Russell, for playing brittle personalities: her Rosalyn has the authentic flavour of many half-wonderful, half-disturbing people out there in the world. More often, she’s depicted as Irving’s ball and chain, tethering him to an unbearable state of reality to which his flights into fancy with Sydney are only temporary reprieves. Then, arbitrarily, after a long sequence fuelled by this dynamic, with Irving raving on in thin-wedge frustration like a reject from a Neil Simon play, Rosalyn, suddenly lets him off the hook, as if Russell couldn’t think of a believable way to get Irving loose of her and end his movie. The stage is then set for Irving to pull off a clever last-act twist that nets him and Sydney a sweet paycheque and Richie a seemingly well-deserved humiliation.
As a whole, American Hustle made me curious in all the wrong ways. Part of this curiosity lay in trying to work out what it is. Is it a satire? A screwball farce? A caper flick that riffs jauntily on a true-life episode of venality? A tragicomic study in absurd people searching for legitimacy? Yet another piece of cinematic reference that looks back nostalgically to ’70s fashions in film and clothing? A collection of acting exercises cut together with great skill? Well, it’s all these things, and none of them; at least, not any one of them to a satisfying or complete degree, except perhaps the last two. Russell reveals a strong level of wry affection for a bygone era of American life where regular guys got together and sang along to Tom Jones with a good stiff drink in the hand, and ladies piled their hair in absurd concoctions, wore fur, and mocked the workings of a microwave.
The film’s best scene, which really does hit a remarkable, almost transcendent note, sees Russell cutting between Irving and Carmine engaged in such a singalong, roaring with impudent, drunken life and hope for a reborn American dream, whilst Richie and Sydney enact another version of the same thing, dancing in a disco to Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s mighty “I Feel Love,” whereupon they retreat into a toilet and make not love but a pact of ardour. Richie’s thrilled that he might be about to escape the strictures of his life, and Sydney releases a tile-cracking whoop of joy, a moment that feels utterly random and yet a logical endpoint for the thrill of being alive, and for Sydney not so much for love of Richie, as she’s really playing him, but of excitement at the feeling of being master of her destiny again. Otherwise, however, Russell remains at arm’s-length from both considered feeling and lacks sociological depth. Irving’s line of crap about a fake Rembrandt that’s become real from effort echoes too many others films of last year, notably Trance and Blue Is the Warmest Colour, that try to fool you into thinking they’ve got something profound to say about their own self-awareness when they’re just tritely spelling out the theme for you.
Whereas a close antecedent like Boogie Nights (1997) wrestles with an entire zeitgeist, for Russell it’s mostly window dressing, reducing character arcs to a series of well-described impulses of a misfiring nervous system. He has great capacity to get his cast fired up and his visuals flowing in propulsive manner, but little gift for the kinds of pivots in tone and aesthetic that regulate intake and make for a deeper kind of film experience that can infuse even a pop bauble. American Hustle is certainly blatantly sceptical of the presumption of mutual exclusivity in the motives of con men and police in an America where everyone’s on the make in some way, an idea that’s endlessly reiterated in dialogue. People in government are occasionally self-serving and career-minded? Wow, that’s profound. Phonies might desire to be, like, real? Blow my mind why don’t you. More interestingly, it touches on the notion that sometimes corruption in government may be a mere adjunct to other, better motives and actions: the film makes the point that all the Abscam operation succeeded in doing was bringing down some lawmakers, many of whom were enticed into illegal acts and like Polito, were trying to do some good. But this idea isn’t particularly well-served in a film that lets Irving and Sydney smarmily off the hook because Richie’s a prick, and politically it’s a damp squib. It’s also—and this might be its chief crime—not really that funny.
The unstable mixture and uncertain aim of the film confirms that when Russell isn’t being corralled into commercial moulds, his own are too shallow to contain all of what he creates. Some people love that sense of filmmaking without a net, but Russell isn’t actually uncontrolled or ebullient enough to truly cut loose, nor is he ever discomforting in his irony like Altman often was. Whereas Scorsese, even when presenting the gaudiest, most stylised visuals, presents them with illustrative framing and punctilious cuts, and Altman held back to give the impression of random discovery, Russell pushes in more tightly and cross-cuts, feeding off and repurposing the energy of his actors. That’s why many scenes feel as if they’re about to burst at the scenes—because in cinematic terms they are.
Renner and Adams give the film’s most measured performances. Adams is particularly good as Sydney, with her habitual lapses in her British accent, a mixture of operator ruthlessness and hopeful pathos inflecting her scenes. Renner is low-key as Polito, at once charming and persuasive as a populist leader, but also vulnerable in his streak of blue-collar sentimentality. The idea that Carmine, as a tragic hero, was a potentially more interesting protagonist than the ones foregrounded, who are essentially supporting grotesques placed centre-stage, occurred to me, especially as the central proposition of the film, the troubled but supposedly magnetic attraction of Irving and Sydney, never feels particularly vital, certainly never as vital as anything that occurs between Irving and Rosalyn, who remains, as Irving says in voiceover at the end, always interesting. And so, too, ultimately is American Hustle. It’s neither a mere polyester shindig nor a covert artwork, but something intriguingly misbegotten, far less than the sum of its parts but more than a lark in the meadow. It’s something, but I’m not sure what.
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Director/Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola
By Roderick Heath
The ’00s are already starting to feel like a long time ago. The first decade of the new millennium, an age of gorging excess for a select number which ended up in a giant socioeconomic car crash from which we’re still recovering, is going to look ever stranger for people as they look back on the time—its naked money worship, the War on Terror hysteria, the gaping voids of thought and substance all too ably recorded for posterity by reality TV, and the new internet-fuelled super-pop culture. Just lately, I’ve started to get the feeling that filmmakers, particularly those from the independent scenes, have become canaries in the cultural mines the way poets used to be, registering changes in the zeitgeist with a peculiar speed that is perhaps indicative of how much quicker cinema production can be today and how much more engaged filmmakers are with the evolving social discourse. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring throws its mind and mood back to around 2008-9, when the bogus rhetoric of “aspiration” as justification for incredible greed and new forms of social exclusion was both at its height and about to meet the cold reality of boom-bust cycles, which here comes in the form an even more immediate, pitiless wake-up call.
The Bling Ring adapts a real incident, via a Vanity Fair article that was called “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” a jaunty title that identifies the brand-name-emblazoned mindset of the criminal gang whose activities comprise a weird mixture of delinquency and absurdity. A group of teenage friends, all children of affluence and times of plenty, engaged in a string of comically easy robberies of the houses of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, and Megan Fox, filching money, jewellery, and clothes. This allowed them to hit the L.A. highlife, where everybody’s a wannabe, with impudent élan. Fox famously has a freely quoted line from King Lear tattooed on her shoulder, “We will all laugh at gilded butterflies,” a jab in the original context at the kinds of well-dressed empty vessels who flock around the flames of power. The Bling Ring could be the butterflies, or they could be the laughers.
This crime wave is sparked by Asian-American high schooler Rebecca Ahn (Katie Chang), who sees nothing wrong with stealing cash from parked cars and random houses in prosperous suburbs, even jacking a Porsche with blithe confidence. The ring begins to take shape when she ventures into Hilton’s manse when her pal Marc Hall (Israel Broussard) finds out online that she’s out of town. Marc, gay, dowdy, and awkward, is socially adopted by Rebecca when, like her, he’s forced to attend a public school after being kicked out of a private one. Rebecca offers Marc the chance to make glamorous associations and become a cool kid, as she’s friends with would-be model and fashionista Nicki Moore (Emma Watson). Nicky is enthused about the idea of stealing, and she brings her pal Chloe (Claire Julien), her younger sister Emily (Georgia Rock), and adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) into the ring.
After returning to Hilton’s house multiple times, the ring begins to branch out and target other celebrities’ houses, after Marc does his quick research on the net to make sure when they’re away. Sam’s boyfriend Rob (Carlos Miranda) joins them on some raids, whilst Chloe and Marc sell some of Orlando Bloom’s Rolex watches to Chloe’s boyfriend, sleazy nightclub manager Ricky (Gavin Rossdale). Emily joins the gang when they need someone small to slide through Fox’s dog door. Their raids on Hilton’s house go undetected for a long time, because the owner leaves the keys under the welcome mat and they resist stealing any major items. Later, when robbing the house of TV host Audrina Patridge, they’re caught on camera as shadowy invaders. Their crimes become an open secret amongst the people they know and the scenes where they hang out, and they even display their exploits on social media. Finally, they’re rounded up and prosecuted after Rebecca, fleeing from tension at home to live with her father in Las Vegas, unwittingly makes Marc her accomplice in taking stolen goods over state lines.
Fragments of interviews taking place in the future with the ring, particularly Marc, give some context and perspective. Marc’s shift from teenage dirtbag to budding fabulousness is glimpsed in casually employed shots of him hovering before his webcam wearing lipstick and lounging about in a pair of stolen pumps, offering the only real signs of traditional character growth and identification, and a mischievous understanding of the protean forces at work for such a person. But Coppola really only gives us these bones because Marc is the gateway. Otherwise, the Bling Ring members are shallow, deliberately so. There’s little point in listening to them talk, because they talk crap; they’re well versed in brand names and designers but empty of other concerns. They’re pretty average young people, actually, save for the circumstances of their youth as citizens of L.A. and therefore faced with constant proximity to the promise of the high life in an imperial capital. Watching The Bling Ring, I had an insight into the way “we” morally respond to movies, via an element that has haunted Coppola with particular doggedness since her directing career began—that she’s a spoilt rich girl making films about same. Her perspective on the rapacious abyss that certain aspects of capitalist triumphalism conceal has become plainer and less generous since the playfully sardonic Marie Antoinette (2006) was infamously jeered at Cannes for making the link between modern consumerism and imperial downfall not just bitingly plain, but genuinely funny. The Bling Ring, whilst dealing with immediate, almost ripped-from-the-headlines fare, is certainly a thematic follow-up.
Coppola’s emotionally immediate, but conceptually slightly laboured Somewhere (2010) indicated that she had listened to her critics on one level, and adopted a more distanced and elusive take on the “white people problems” she was portraying, but in a manner that felt hackneyed on some levels. The Bling Ring benefits from both intimate knowledge of what she speaks and also definite, ironic amusement, delivering her least conventional narrative yet, shorn of many external complications and dramatic niceties. The film received a largely admiring but cool reception, and part of me began to wonder as I watched it if this wasn’t due to how successfully ambiguous is Coppola’s stance towards her teenage anti-Robin Hoods. The Bling Ringers engage in criminal acts according to sketchy, but carefully hinted personal needs and desires that are channelled into an official, overarching project of socioeconomic parasitism. If they were doing what they were doing for, say, the reasons that the rich-kid anarchists of this year’s The East do what they do, or rebelling or bringing down their idols with any purpose, or even acting out lodes of emotional disquiet that can’t be repressed by affluent suburban conformity a la Rebel Without a Cause (1955), they would immediately become heroes for the audience—naughty, nonviolent Dadaists making a mockery of wealth and fame and the pretences to possessors of such to exceptionalism, finding keys under the doormat to multimillion-dollar mansions and paltry security defending the castles of the new elite.
But the Bling Ringers remain well beyond the easy empathy of the audience because they seem, at least superficially, to be moving like baleen whales, sucking in both their sustenance and other people’s property thoughtlessly on a kind of emotional-moral autopilot. Not that they’re amoral or even particularly mean-spirited, though there are flashes of such qualities, especially when the temptation to posture according to the pop culture stricture toward ironclad egocentrism, arises. In just about the film’s only scene of traditional tension, Sam takes hold of a pistol Nicki finds in a house and waves it in Marc’s face, shifting into a movie-derived attitude of untouchable self-righteousness and threatening cool, and there’s momentary uncertainty of just how far Sam wants to take the act, if it is an act. She then sneaks into Rob’s bedroom to do the same thing with him, only for the gun to go off, luckily only putting a hole in his mattress.
Rebecca’s early larcenous behaviour seems the more familiar behaviour of a troubled teen, but it swiftly transforms into a much less common project. The ring tend to believe, not without some justification, that the world of the rich and famous is a smorgasbord from which they can partake without consequence, because everyone has plenty, and they’re entitled to a piece of it. Rebecca, for example, hopes to be a successful fashion designer—nay, intends and expects it—but in the meantime, finds that many of the privileges and perks of the level to which she wants to be elevated can be more easily obtained simply by stealing them. When the ring raid Patridge’s house, Coppola’s camera notes it all in a slow, inward-zooming longshot, framing the glowing house against the L.A. skyline like some temple of money, touching this and other midnight odysseys with a near-religious awe. There is an added layer here in that the camera also mimics the vantage of a CCTV camera, and the film segues into eerily green-tinged surveillance shots that turn what from a distance seemed to be a cubist delight of space and light into a trap.
For Marc, in particular, these ventures offers the chance to invent himself free of social judgment. The ring engage in acts that look and feel quite anarchic, illicit, and subversive, but only accidentally: their actual desire and intent is to enjoy the lifestyle without any concept of critiquing it or subverting it as class rebels. From a distance, and even pretty close up, they’re vacuous rich kids getting off on being naughty. Coppola’s already made withering mirth from a particular species of Hollywood dipstick—Anna Faris’ starlet Kelly—in Lost in Translation (2003), but here the likeable, witty audience avatars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson provided are missing; even a figure like Somewhere’s Johnny Marco, who was suffocating in an empty existence, has been excised. The closest thing to a substantive adult presence in The Bling Ring is Nicki’s mother Laurie (Leslie Mann), who home-schools Nicki and her sisters in deliciously, deliriously Californian New Age fashion, complete with prayer circles in which vaguely religious bromides-cum-pep talks are delivered. Laurie, far from a countervailing presence, is the film’s purest vehicle of satirical humour: when one of her home-schooling sessions is glimpsed, she holds up a handmade chart festooned with pictures of Angelina Jolie as an example of an inspiring role model, except that when she prods the girls why they might admire her, Sam suggests, “Her husband.” Other parents do appear, but they’re mostly onlookers, dissociated from their children’s lives. Marc has a father who’s “in the biz” as a film marketer. Jessica’s broken home seems to have played a part in her blithely larcenous behaviour. But Coppola avoids as much as possible making a cautionary tale of wild amoral teens with ignorant parents, like every teen crime flick going back to the Ed Wood-scribed The Violent Years (1956) and including another of this year’s films, the lauded but laboured Spring Breakers, which stands at a fascinatingly fantastical remove from The Bling Ring. Spring Breakers offers a (middle-aged, male, “edgy”) filmmaker’s take on a similar motif of teen girls becoming criminals for profit and fun, except that everything in it is made to circle back to the filmmaker’s sexual fetishism of their actions—just like The Violent Years.
In The Bling Ring, Coppola tries to avoid as many clichéd stances as possible. Rather than give us a malefic sense of things spinning out of control as the Ringers indulge in cocaine-charged nightclub partying, she makes them dreamily beautiful. There’s an implicit link to her The Virgin Suicides (1999) even as it seems to be making a directly opposite point. Whereas in the earlier film, adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’ pseudo-mythopoeic novel, the young women were innocent nymphs wilting from being caged by outdated moralism, here the girls are unscrupulous sexpots free both to mimic and exemplify immediate cultural maxims of louche self-indulgence. What unites them, however, is Coppola’s manner of shooting them, daubed in rich light and colour and vibrating to furiously onanistic club beats, in a style that makes clear that the fresh bloom of youth is a fleeting moment of protean wonder. Of course the Bling Ringers want to get high, dance, and be rich, such are pretty normal impulses, and when they’re gyrating, however they’ve bought it, they are, like everyone else, rejoicing in the moment of their youth. Laurie does, accidentally almost, introduce one important idea to The Bling Ring when she advises her children, “We have to be really careful who we surround ourselves with, because we wind up being the average of those people.” Nicki later tries to use this as her out when justice comes knocking, trying to blame the company she’s kept for getting involved with crime, but finally being convicted for just that reason, indicted by her own propensities.
The Bling Ring, as a title, has ironic inferences: “bling,” of course, is probably the most popular phrase to emerge from hip-hop slang (and it comes, in turn, from comic book representation, a kind of visual onomatopoeia that could easily be projected onto Coppola’s colourful, epic surveys of jewels and designer shoes without making them anymore cartoonish). The ring, especially when Jo finds that gun, almost manage to live up to a peculiar schism that underlies a lot of contemporary pop culture: the rejoicing of flashy wealth coexisting with trashier values of physical strength and fitness, pistol-packing invulnerability, and posse-trailing imperiousness that also comes from hip-hop and represents a driving force behind the popularity of the Fast and Furious movies. Lana Del Ray and Frank Ocean are a couple of pop musicians who had made notable inquiries into this spirit lately. Del Ray’s upper-class jeune filles delighting in becoming concubines to blaxploitation villains could represent the fantasy lives of the ring, whilst Ocean’s druggy “Super Rich Kids” turns up, almost inevitably, over the end credits. The ring don’t physically hurt anyone, because they’re actually all wusses, and their criminal success occurs only because the people they’re targeting don’t believe criminals would dare rob them. Indeed, the culturally ingrained barriers, the aura of awe and distance that surrounds the modern media celebrity as the new aristocracy, is more effective than CCTV cameras and burglar alarms, a barrier that only a gang of kids from the same world would dare violate. Of course, many of the pleasures the ring derive from their actions are eminently, classically criminal: they can live beyond their means after brief spells of risky work, feel important and illicitly clever, and enjoy the notoriety their transgressions earn them.
It’s entirely apt that the ring’s first and repeated target is Paris Hilton, an ideal celebrity of a new brand of aristocracy famous for absolutely nothing other than being rich and telegenic enough to profitably show it off, whose house is revealed as a distressing trap of narcissism and tawdriness, complete with at-home pole dancing parlour (a common motif of Coppola’s fascination/repulsion for the modern highlife). Hilton, unlike the Bling Ring themselves, seems to know that she’s an interloper without talent whose only trick is the willingness to turn her entire existence into an act of pop art—or she’s completely blind to her own existence. The cleverest aspect of Coppola’s narrative patterning, though it’s one that contributes to the film’s slightly imbalanced quality, is that she largely reduces the middle hour to a flow of instant gratification: little small talk, minimal character development, just a series of criminal forays that offer the illicit thrills of exploration, like a sort of pirate edition of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” and the payoff of hard partying and private delight in shiny things. Coppola makes the audience complicit in their adventures, offering racks of designer goods for the eye-dazzling pleasure of plenty, and the repetitive acts of incursion, theft, and escape.
When the cops do come knocking, there’s an obvious affinity again with Coppola’s earlier work, this time with the climax of Marie Antoinette when the revolution calls: paradise lost, lives ruined, and the plenty that came so easily suddenly, cruelly severed. Rebecca tries to fake her way through a police interview, confident she’s disposed of all the booty after Marc called to warn her of their impending arrival, but her smug smile disappears when they turn up items she’d forgotten. Nicki screams with panicky despair as she’s handcuffed and hauled away. Marc is branded as a rat by the media, because after being arrested, he carelessly told the cops about his accomplices. But once arrested and indicted, Nicki treats it all like an audition as she tries to decide on the perfect outfit for a court date, and the infamy their arrest brings them is registered by Nicki only as the fame she’s always planned for. She’s interviewed for the Vanity Fair profile, fending off her mother’s goofily agreeable attempts to interject and add details, irritated that Leslie keeps trying to get in on her media moment. The law, historically arranged to powerfully favour property owners and now carefully tailored to the needs of modern consumerist society, falls upon the kids with such heaviness that they become exactly what they would never seem to be: martyrs for the sake of offended people of wealth. Concluding shots of Marc being hustled away with other orange-jumpsuited convicts, strike a surprising note of melancholy, the awareness that the fun and games have ruined lives, and the slightly bitter volte face that notes that a bunch of dumb kids have been hit with the full force of law.
Given the quality of The Bling Ring, it’s hard to admit, but also certain that the film doesn’t always sustain its best ideas: the observational sharpness that defines Nicki, Marc and Laurie doesn’t touch the other characters. Coppola’s last two films bear signs that she’s trying annex aspects of the more aloof, pseudo-objective filmmaking that art house figures have leavened in the past decade or so. But this affectation works against her own best qualities as the Molière of San Fernando, capable of both smiling as a ruthless satirist but also offering expansive empathy and cinematic expressivity. Nonetheless, to a great extent, Coppola’s decision to pare back standard dramatic development helps emphasize the film’s sociological qualities, the precise sense of how aspects of modern youth culture are branded; thus character is expressed through the accumulation of affectations rather than actual personality.
Broussard, Chang, and Farmiga are excellently naturalistic, whilst Watson leaves behind Hermione Granger here in playing the most polar opposite temperament her age bracket could offer, giving a convincing performance as a merrily vain moon unit. If the last sight of Marc suggests surprising tragedy, Nicki, bound to emerge from every situation as the winner because she’s been programmed to, rounds off the film with unsurprising gall. She’s last seen being interviewed about her arduous 30 days in prison, relieved by the fact that the girls’ idol and robbery target, Lindsay Lohan, was in the same boat, and leaves off with a plug for her website, NickiMooreForever.com.
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Director: Frank Urson
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 2002, the filmed version of the Bob Fosse/Kander and Ebb musical Chicago won the Academy Award for best picture. It was a stunningly great film with a message for our media-manipulated times. The genesis of these works, as well as William Wellman’s 1942 film Roxie Hart, was a hit Broadway play from 1926 by Maurine Watkins, a Chicago Tribune reporter who sensationalized the stories of two female murderers and contributed to their acquittals at trial. One of the killers was Beulah Annan, a glamorous and adulterous party girl who, in 1924, shot her lover, Harry Kalstedt, when he announced he was leaving her. The other was Belva Gaertner, a cabaret singer who gunned down her lover Walter Law as he sat in his car. The larger-than-life producer and director Cecil B. De Mille grabbed the rights to the play, and the result is the 1927 film Chicago.
Chicago takes up the story of only one of the murderers, Beulah Annan, who from this film onward becomes Roxie Hart. Played by Phyllis Haver, she is a beautiful, golden-haired waste of space who is only interested in money and fame. Her straight-arrow husband Amos (Victor Varconi) adores her. He picks up one of her garters as she sleeps, a gaudy contraption with bells on it, and shakes it lovingly near his ear. Later, he waits on a man at his tobacconist shop. This man, Rodney Casley (the great character actor of silent and sound pictures Eugene Pallette), takes an interest in some cigarettes for ladies whose advertising suggests your woman will stay with you if you buy her these cigarettes. Casley laughs that he’s trying to unload his woman. Amos drips that if Casley had his wife, he’d never want to be rid of her. In fact, we learn they are talking about the same woman, Roxie, when Casley fumbles in his pocket for his wallet and comes up with the other silver-belled garter.
Casley goes to meet Roxie to end their affair. She persists in trying to keep him, but he pushes her roughly against the wall and knocks her bureau over. Out spills a gun. As Casley opens the door and steps out into the hall with the words “I’m through” on his lips, Roxie says, “You’re through, all right,” and shoots. A bullet shatters a mirror on the door, and passes through, hitting Casley. The broken mirror is a brilliant spidery image, followed by an equally brilliant depiction of Roxie’s reaction to what she’s done. We never see Casley’s body, only Roxie looking at it as she tries to maneuver around it. You can see the wheels turning in her, trying to figure out what to do, wondering if he’s really dead, being disgusted by the dead body in her front room. She tears the piano roll out of the player piano; this is a reference to the Annan murder in which it was reported that a recording of “Hula Lou” was playing on Annan’s victrola as Harry lay dying in a pool of blood.
Roxie calls Amos, who comes running and phones the police. They and a male reporter show up. Amos tries to take the blame, but the sly assistant district attorney (Warner Richmond) traps Roxie by saying Amos said she did it. She goes ballistic, accusing her husband of ratting her out. Of course, he did no such thing, and the heartless Roxie realizes she’s been set up. Nonetheless, the reporter is thrilled by her seductive good looks and has his cameraman pose her as remorse itself while a cop stands in for the dead man on the floor.
The scenes in prison while Roxie awaits arraignment are clever and all too short. Roxie’s all-out fight with another woman on murderer’s row, who is strapped in to a hip-reduction machine, is comic and a little frightening. The wit and sardonic humor of this film is just as piercing as in the 2002 film, and most of it is done without words. Haver gives a knockout performance, showing the difficulty Roxie has being anything but a chippie. When her attorney Billy Flynn, played with cynical grace by Robert Edeson, has her rehearse her brave, sweet, innocent, and noble looks before they face the jury, she needs a lot of coaching. He puts her in a cream puff of a dress that we are told is pink and has her carry a bouquet in her hands. She looks like an overgrown infant with a nosegay to ward off the smell of her own rotten character. The trial ends with Flynn snatching the bouquet from her hands, tossing it to the floor, and crushing it underfoot, a symbol of delicate womanhood threatened by a guilty verdict. Roxie flings herself on the broken blossoms and passes out. “The defense rests,” Flynn murmurs. You bet it does!
The director of record was Frank Urson, but the hand of De Mille is in clear view. The basis of the real murder, sex, shows how the canny De Mille always had one eye on the box office in his choice to produce the film and in the bawdiness of many of the scenes. Filming the entire murder sequence with Haver in a negligee starts the ball rolling. Of course there is nothing like a balls to the wall catfight to stir the blood. During the trial, a clever sequence showing Roxie’s legs and the curled toes of the male jury shows the Little Bo Peep routine to be a variation on the sex with a schoolgirl fantasy.
De Mille the moralist shows up in the end, of course, preserving his reputation as a God-fearing man with Urson as his front for the smut on display. Amos Hart is on screen way too much, stealing money from Flynn to make up the rest of the $5,000 he needs to hire the lawyer for Roxie in a completely unnecessary scene, and flinging Roxie into the streets, trashing the apartment, and stomping on her photo in a moralistic rage, knowing that he helped her get away with murder. The film should have ended with Roxie disappearing into the crowd on the uncaring streets of Chicago, but we are shown that good triumphs as the Hart’s maid Katie (Virginia Bradford) cleans up the apartment and is poised to become the good wife Amos always deserved. Too late. The phony melodrama of the main story flings the straight-up melodrama of the happy ending into the brass spitoon where it belongs.
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Director: Cy Endfield
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“I didn’t know he was going to kill him!”
Really, Howard? You’re in film noir! Of course your partner was going to kill your hostage!
On Saturday, January 26, I had the unique thrill of being at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for the premiere of the restored 35mm print of Try and Get Me! at Noir City 11. Try and Get Me!, whose original title The Sound of Fury was scrapped, changed to something more lurid, and remarketed for national distribution when the film flopped in California, is the powerful film that blogathoners turned out in force to support during 2011’s For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon. Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation, thanked a large coalition of organizations and people whose efforts were responsible for bringing this film back to pristine condition for future generations; yes, blogathoners, you received your due and the grateful applause of a sold-out audience.
From working with the Film Noir Foundation on the blogathon, I knew this film pushed the warning needle far into nasty. However, I was not adequately prepared for its visual and narrative power, or the nakedly emotional performances of Frank Lovejoy, Lloyd Bridges, and Kathleen Ryan. Based on a real incident that took place in San Jose, California in the 1930s, Try and Get Me! is one of the darkest—and best—noir films I have ever seen.
When we first meet out-of-work ex-GI Howard Tyler (Lovejoy), he is in Seattle convincing a truck driver to give him a ride back to his California home. His young son Tommy (Donald Smelnick) is sassing his mother Judy (Ryan) when Howard comes through the door and gives his son half-a-dollar so that he can go to a baseball game with his friends. Judy is overjoyed that this extravagance indicates that Howard has found work—but he hasn’t.
One afternoon, after trying and failing to get day work, Howard heads for a bowling alley to get a beer. He ends up talking to Jerry Slocum (Bridges), fetching the conceited bowler’s shoes and following him home when Jerry hints that he knows about a job for Howard. He throws Howard an advance on his pay, and the elated man runs home to treat his family to gifts, groceries, and a good time. He has second thoughts when his job turns out to be getaway driver for stick-up man Jerry.
After the duo commits a series of robberies, Howard’s discomfort grows unmanageable. Jerry says they will commit the inevitable “one last job” that will set them on Easy Street for good: the kidnap for ransom of a rich man’s son. Snatching Donald Miller (Carl Kent) goes smoothly, but when the three men go to a quarry where Jerry says they will hold Donald, Jerry orders Howard to tie the victim’s legs with a belt and push him down a gravel pile. The kidnappers follow, and Jerry bashes Miller’s head in with a rock. He and Howard dump the body in the water at the bottom of the pit and leave town with Jerry’s girl Velma (Adele Jergens) and Velma’s friend Hazel (Katherine Locke) to provide themselves with an alibi. Eventually, Miller’s body is found, and Hazel, who thinks Howard is single and interested in her, soon learns from the conscience-stricken man that he and Jerry killed Miller and turns them in. Newspaper columnist Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson) and his profit-minded publisher Hal Clendenning (Art Smith) try the case in the press, and public sentiment turns ugly. Stanton realizes too late that his appeal to emotion has set irrepressible forces into motion that will mean a horrible end for Howard and Jerry.
Lovejoy fills Howard with a genuine pathos, portraying a man too desperate to understand what kind of person he has gotten himself mixed up with. Jerry treats him like a lackey from the start, having him fetch his shoes and fasten his cufflinks, bullying him into increasingly reckless crimes. Any confidence and command Howard might have had drained out of him long ago; his son loves him, but runs wild, and his wife’s quiet acceptance of their situation is almost worse for Howard. He feels he is not good enough for them, and his rapid slide into crime seems almost a fatalistic attempt to get out of the way of a better future for his family, a wish he eventually voices explicitly in the last act of the film. Howard has our sympathy, a decent man with a loving but stressed family life, whose own lack of guile brought him a form of mob justice we feel he doesn’t deserve.
Lloyd Bridges is insanely good as Jerry. A supreme narcissist without the brains to pull off anything as sophisticated as a kidnapping for ransom, his Jerry seems entirely without conscience. Obviously a sociopath, he knows a patsy when he sees one and closes one door after another behind Howard until there is no hope for escape. His partying with Velma, a blonde B-girl whose instinct when at the courthouse where Jerry and Howard are being arraigned is to pose seductively for the photographers, shows that he hasn’t given Donald Miller or Howard, for that matter, a second thought. When the angry mob forms outside the jail where the two men are being held, Jerry moves like a caged animal, pacing rapidly in his small cell, rattling the bars, bashing his head against the cell wall, and whining in a pained panic. His fear gives way to defiance: “Try and get me!” he challenges. Howard’s worried face is almost too painful to watch.
Ryan, playing a version of her loyal Kathleen Sullivan from the British noir Odd Man Out (1947), Irish accent and all, is quite affecting in pleading with Stanton not to characterize her husband as a monster. Her understated fear runs as a steady undercurrent throughout the film and economically characterizes the financial hardships and privations so many families felt in postwar America, the unease that defines much of what we call film noir. Katherine Locke has a truly kooky role—the plain friend of the sexpot Velma who lives in a fantasy of finding true love, believing Howard is actually her boyfriend whom she has a right to scold for his drinking. We’d laugh at her in another film, but she has just enough edge of crazy to her to make us hold back. Cliff Clark brings a no-nonsense authority to his supporting part as the town sheriff trying to uphold the law and keep his prisoners safe.
What makes Try and Get Me! truly extraordinary is Cy Endfield’s direction, his last major American film before the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s gobbled him up and forced him into exile in England, where he continued to make powerful films such as Hell Drivers (1957) and Zulu (1964). His camera is always on top of the action, as we can practically feel Miller rolling down the hard gravel to his doom and imagine his murder from indistinct movements Howard only hears and interprets with a wretched, horrified face. I have always wondered how a well-guarded jail could be breached by a mob. Now I know. Endfield’s climactic scene builds in intensity as the mob masses and works together like a colony of army ants to overpower the tear-gas-wielding cops with fire hoses and pull open the doors of the jail with gangs of men pulling on ropes in unison to the cries of “heave, heave, heave.” The audience in the Castro Theatre was breathless with horror, watching with compulsive fascination the extraordinary staging of one of the most compelling scenes ever committed to film.
Endfield was radicalized by the Depression of the 1930s, an era that produced Fury (1936), Fritz Lang’s version of this true story that accorded more with the zeitgeist of its time. Try and Get Me! appeared just as audiences and critics alike were turning against dissent and discord to achieve the artificial peace of the 1950s. Endfield’s nihilistic vision of group think and the court of public opinion was not destined to find favor in its own time. Looking at the film now, it seems timeless in the brutality of its psychology, making the haves of society as represented by Stanton and his circle seem decadent and profit-driven, and showing how desperation and lack of opportunity can prove a breeding ground for criminality of every type. Blogathoners, you should be very proud to have contributed to bringing this important, brilliantly realized film back to life for future generations to view and ponder.
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Director: Arnold Laven
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Over the past week, Chicago cinephiles have been treated yet again to another installment of Noir City, the celebration of film noir staged by the Film Noir Foundation each year. As a satellite festival of FNF’s 10-year-old main event in San Francisco, Noir City Chicago has brought film fans out to the historic Music Box Theatre for only four years, but presenter Alan K. Rode, a good friend made during our fundraising blogathon for FNF, has assured us that the festival in Chicago will continue as long as the current level of enthusiasm and support remains. That’s good news for film buffs in search of the rarities regularly presented at the festival alongside the more famous fare that forms essential viewing for film neophytes.
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is just such a rarity. While not completely unknown or forgotten, the film has never been officially released on VHS or DVD. Most people who have seen it remember it from commercial television in the 60s or 70s, or misremember seeing it because it shares the same title as the famous ballet set to Richard Rodgers’ music and committed to film twice, first, with the original Balanchine choreography in On Your Toes (1939) and then in 1948’s Words and Music, with new choreography by Gene Kelly. While Laven’s Slaughter includes the Rodgers music, rendered in a tasteful, effective score by Herschel Burke Gilbert, the film bears no resemblance to the ballet’s story of a love triangle that ends in murder.
Instead, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue has been hung with the unfortunate label of stepson to On the Waterfront (1954). While both films focus on mob corruption in New York’s longshoremen’s union, each deals with it in its own way and from different angles. Elia Kazan’s masterwork, told from the point of view of the longshoremen, is greatly elevated by the towering performances of Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, and Karl Malden, whereas Slaughter’s cast, though fine, is packed with yeoman actors like Dan Duryea, Charles McGraw, and Sam Levene, and anchored by a much weaker leading man, Richard Egan. Slaughter has one virtue On the Waterfront lacks: based on the nonfiction book The Man Who Rocked the Boat cowritten by former New York district attorney William J. Keating, it tells in compelling fashion the true story of the only murder conviction achieved against a mobbed-up union official from the prosecutor’s point of view.
In a very suspenseful opening sequence, we watch three men arrive at an apartment building on 10th Avenue and spread out to cover all exit routes, climbing on the roof and entering the stairway from the top and stationing themselves in blind spots from below. A car pulls up in front of the building—it is Benjy Karp (Harry Bellaver), who always gives his friend Solly Pitts (Mickey Shaughnessy) a ride to work. Solly’s wife Madge (Jan Sterling) yells down that Solly will be right there. After some affectionate banter, Madge hands Solly his metal lunch box and sends him off with a kiss. Moments later, Solly is cornered and gunned down. As the gunmen flee, Madge runs to her husband who says, “‘Cockeye’ Cook (Joe Downing) and two of his gorillas did it.” He is taken to the hospital, gravely injured.
DA Howard Rysdale (Levene) sees the Pitts shooting as an impossible nut to crack, another of the 150 waterfront murders unsolved because of witness fear and payoffs. ADA Keating (Egan), two months on the job, steps forward to take the case: “I have to catch one of those sooner or later.” Rysdale, his resources spread thin, reluctantly agrees. Keating works with police lieutenant Anthony Vosnick (McGraw) to locate witnesses and build a case.
Slaughter is a police procedural in The Naked City mold that has more in common with the politically conscious films of the 1930s than with the postwar fatalism that informs the thoroughly pessimistic outlook of many classic noir films. Keating, the son of a union coal miner, is a crusader for justice for a man who dared to stand up to the mob and paid the ultimate price, but he’s strictly by the book, not shadowed by a painfully guilty past. Vosnick, a trusted member of the waterfront community, is more the pragmatic veteran who convinces a reluctant Benjy and Madge to testify and gets Solly to change his “I didn’t see them” statement on first being shot to repeating what he told to Madge. But because he does it “off the record,” he jeopardizes Keating’s case when extremely crafty mob attorney John Jacob Masters (Duryea) casts reasonable doubt on the defendants’ guilt by highlighting the flip-flop statements (even calling into question Solly’s deathbed testimony) as evidence of police coercion. The fragility of truth and justice does get a slightly noirish sort of airing, but this film doesn’t admit those noir shades of gray in depicting its battle between good and evil.
Nonetheless, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is extremely satisfying. Sterling’s performance as a tough-minded widow is beyond good, showing the various emotions of a worried wife tending to her dying husband and a strategic witness who avoids taking the stand until after Christmas to ensure that the killers will be convicted and get the electric chair. Duryea, not at his most evil but certainly at his most articulate, has a field day with the excellent dialogue and legal logic screenwriter Lawrence Roman provided to him; Duryea certainly is one of the best actors to emerge from mid-century American cinema. A wonderful turn comes from diminutive Nick Dennis, who plays a longshoreman nicknamed Midget who goes ballistic the day after the attack on Solly, drinking and cursing the union bosses who had him hit. As the goons who shot Solly chase him around and through the dock machinery, we see how vulnerable a single man is, with only his speed to keep him ahead of deadly force, as his coworkers opt to keep their mouths shut to live to see another day. Mickey Shaughnessy spits his contempt for the men who attacked him during his deathbed deposition, lifting his hospital gown to show “Cockeye” exactly what his guns did; while we see only blood-stained gauze, the gesture is still shocking. Julie Adams plays Keating’s fiancée and wife with more presence and authority than her “little woman” role normally would have afforded her.
Egan is a bit pallid as our central character—Laven reportedly wanted Robert Mitchum in the role—but he is believable as a straight arrow dedicated to upholding the law. When he gets involved in a wildcat strike on the docks, he forgets himself and behaves as he did when at his father’s side on the picket lines, slugging it out with the hired muscle trucked in to quell the protest. It would have been nice to see more of that side of Keating from a dramatic point of view, though I imagine this fight was a script embellishment, not reality.
A surprise is seeing Walter Matthau in his fourth big-screen appearance as union boss Al Dahlke. His charisma is unmistakable, but his acting, sliced, would go well with cheese on rye. He is both too big with his sarcasm and oily “friendship” and too small with his menace. He comes off more as a skinny bully made bold by having big guys surrounding him than a genuine made man with the notches on his gun to prove his mettle.
DP Fred Jackman Jr. makes the most of the dockside settings (Long Beach, CA, doubling for New York) to lend a verité look to the film, and his lighting and camerawork in the stairwell where Solly is shot is appropriately ominous; kudos to film editor Russell Schoengarth for making that scene coil and pounce with thrilling menace.
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue should have been a contender, because it’s got class written all over it. Here’s hoping more people will take the chance to enjoy the action and artistry of the talented cast and crew who made this fine mid-century movie.
You can view the entire film for free here on YouTube.
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Director/Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In cinema, even documentary cinema, the question of who we think we see on screen and who is actually on screen are two different things, fueling all kinds of existential fun and games for the astute filmmaker and receptive audiences. Identity as a motif has preoccupied numerous filmmakers, from Ingmar Bergman (Persona) to Monte Hellman (Road to Nowhere) to Abbas Kiarostami (Close-up). Identity is often tied up with psychosis, and psychotics frequently feature in horror and suspense films because they channel the nameless, faceless Id that resides in all of us that, on some level, we all would like to release in all its rampaging glory once in a while. The idea that any one of us could become a gruesome killer if someone or something pierced our social conditioning is at the heart of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure. Kurosawa, interested in the shocked comments people invariably make after a neighbor or acquaintance commits a brutal murder (“He was such a nice man. They were an ordinary couple.”), explores the nature of identity and whether our bodies and minds are mere vessels waiting to be filled.
On a busy street in Tokyo, a man (Ren Ohsugi) walks through a damp tunnel as cars pass on his right. A fluorescent light illuminating the tunnel blinks and buzzes. We next see the man in a hotel room with a naked prostitute. He is moving about the room, and she is sitting up in bed. Suddenly, he grabs a pipe and bashes her twice on the head. When next we enter the room, it is filled with police investigators. The lead detective, Kenichi Takabe (Kôji Yakusho), observes that a deep “x” has been cut across the prostitute’s neck and chest. The man is found naked, hiding in an air duct in the hallway. When he is questioned at police headquarters by Takabe and police psychiatrist Makoto Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), the man has no idea why he killed the woman. The case resembles other murders under investigation where a similar “x” was carved into the victims.
Takabe will have several more such murders to investigate as the film goes on, but he must balance this puzzle with the increasing burden posed by his wife Fumie’s (Anna Nakagawa) mental deterioration. We first see Fumie talking with her psychiatrist (Toshi Kato) as an outpatient and observe her attachment to the story of Bluebeard. She tells the doctor that she knows how the story ends—Bluebeard is killed by his wife. Fumie doesn’t appear capable of murder, but the worry she causes Takabe, the things she does that drive him crazy, the loss of companionship he experiences by her disconnectedness certainly must cause a kind of death to his spirit. Not being able to talk to her about the pain of his work is especially difficult for him.
As other “x” cases come to the fore—a young man kills his wife of two years, a police officer shoots his partner in the head, a doctor kills a man in a public bathroom and peels his face away from his skull—we and Takabe slowly discover what links them together: a young amnesiac who is soon identified as Kunio Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), a medical school dropout whose disheveled home reveals shelves of books about psychiatry, psychosis, and works about and by Franz Mesmer, a German physician who developed the idea of animal magnetism, or in the term used in the film, hypnosis, to influence behavior. We saw the young husband, Tôru Hanaoka (Masahiro Toda), encounter Mamiya on a beach and after Mamiya collapses, take him home. Mamiya questions him over and over about who he is and asks him questions about his wife Tomoko (Misayo Haruki) while transfixing Tôru with the flame of his cigarette lighter. As Mamiya bounces from one encounter to another—Hanaoka takes him to the police station, where he mesmerizes Oida (Denden) the cop before being sent to a hospital to put Dr. Miyajima (Yoriko Dôguchi) under his spell—the daisy chain of violence barely outpaces Takabe’s efforts to unravel the mystery before he himself is drawn under Mamiya’s influence.
As with most detective-centered stories, Takabe is no ordinary cop. He is intelligent and tormented, a Japanese version of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, and his complexity makes him a Rorschach image of good for his evil opposite Mamiya. Mamiya entices Takabe with an accurate assessment of the detective’s torment, mentioning a vision Takabe had of Fumie hanging dead in the couple’s kitchen that incited the detective to helpless wailing. Of course, as a mesmerist, Mamiya causes his victims to conjure such visions by helping them to access their deepest fears and hatreds through his highly developed gift for hypnosis. Only by remaining empty himself can Mamiya be the master rather than the victim.
It is Mamiya’s conviction that most people don’t know themselves, the many selves hidden under the surface, the duality of their generous and vicious impulses. He considers Takabe extraordinary, like himself, for recognizing the split in himself—trying to be a loving husband while seeing the worst in human nature on a daily basis. The encounters Takabe has with Mamiya create convulsions of emotion in him, signaled not only by his violent outbursts toward Mamiya but also toward some of his colleagues; in fact, when Takabe tries to turn the tables on Mamiya by forcing him to look at his own lighter while incarcerated, a vision of a rain-collapsing ceiling overwhelms Takabe, and the lighter goes out. It appears to have been put out by the rain water, but my guess is that while Takabe was having the visions, Mamiya merely blew the lighter out. But, of course, this wouldn’t be a horror story if we didn’t give ourselves over to wondering if the strange sights on screen are real or imaginary.
Kurosawa’s camerawork is beyond good. He scouted locations in and around Tokyo that reek of decay, giving us a fair approximation of a haunted house in the penultimate scene where the final showdown between Takabe and Mamiya takes place. He combines handheld work with static long shots of great beauty and atmosphere. He knows how to create tension by considering the images outside the frame that haunt our imagination, for example, having Sakuma enter Mamiya’s cell, which has a short wall hiding the toilet area in which Mamiya is standing. We don’t see the prisoner, but we know what he’s capable of, and the fear of actually looking at him infuses this scene powerfully. In a later scene, we see one handcuff hanging from a pipe, and the story a cop tells Takabe about it creates the image of the body that had been attached to it in our minds in an uncomfortable parallel to the way Mamiya was able to create images in the minds of his victims. Indeed, Mamiya is rather like a filmmaker, bringing us under his spell, finding our triggers, conjuring images through exposition and suggestion.
But Cure does more than that. It makes us wonder what Takabe achieved by resolving the murder investigation. The last two scenes are powerfully suggestive, but also highly ambiguous. Takabe has put his wife in a psychiatric hospital, and we see a very brief scene at the hospital in which the image of a corpse with the telltale “x” appears. Takabe is later seen eating heartily and happily in his regular diner, apparently cured of his previous troubles. His waitress removes his plates and is called over to speak to her boss. Calmly she moves to a station and picks up a large chef’s knife. Has Takabe taken over where Mamiya left off, or has our experience of the film left us imagining the worst?
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Directors: William Friedkin/John Frankenheimer
By Roderick Heath
It’s 40 years now since The French Connection was released, soon to capture the Best Picture Oscar, set up William Friedkin as a directorial talent with the world before him, and make Gene Hackman a top film star, pushing age 40. From such a distance, during which time the film’s status as a classic has wavered and Friedkin’s career has never quite lived up to its great early promise, now the cultural bullseye The French Connection scored seems ever more peculiar. Not simply in that it’s a crime flick, not a prestigious genre, lacking the epic pretensions of The Godfather which would win similar garlands the following year, but also in the rich yet radical, machine-like beauty of its filmmaking, the eerie disquiet of its ending, the oft-ugly ferocity of its pig-faced bog Irish cop hero, and tangible atmosphere of then-decaying New York. The two French Connection movies are coarse, bloody, rapidly paced, unswerving and experiential rather than analytical. The first entry is a police procedural that seeks for the most part to clearly, intricately, and excitingly describe a fictionialised version of one of the biggest drug busts in history, with as much nuts and bolt detail about both smuggling and policing as any film ever made. Lacking big stars, romance, moralising, and even much action except in the central, ever-impressive chase sequence, The French Connection brutally contrasts much of what passes as popular filmmaking today, and Friedkin’s film and its sequel by John Frankenheimer constitute summits of mainstream American movie-making.
Friedkin’s film, moreover, always strikes me as a different movie each time I watch it. Initial viewings are almost a sensory overload: there’s little that is overtly tricky about Friedkin’s filmmaking, but the depth of his reliance on visual storytelling, the alertness to environment, to detail, to nuance of behaviour essayed at such rapidity, infuse the screen with a lustre that only seems to increase as time passes. With repeated viewings the potency of Friedkin’s conception of Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle’s cat-and-mouse game with drug kingpins as a form of class warfare jumps out at me. Anti-drug messages were big at the time of the film’s production, in the waning phase of the counterculture and the onset of the Nixon-era mood of social depletion, and that possibly gave The French Connection the right gilt of nobility to swing its Oscar victory, whilst it was in line with the short-lived affection for gritty fare inaugurated by Midnight Cowboy (1969). Nonetheless, it’s fascinating how little The French Connection is actually about the white powder over which lives and punishing effort are expended. The only user seen in the film is the slick-mouthed long-haired chemist (Pat McDermott) who tests the purity of the imported heroin for a small amount of it. Yet the junk seems indivisible from the snatches of blasted and sorry suburbs of the city, filled with urban decay, cheerless wintry wastelands, and infested with small-time dealers, which Friedkin describes with chilling efficiency throughout. In this vision of a contemporary American metropolis, white cops beat hell out of black dealers in scenes of predatory flushing and catching of the prey, yet there’s a pall of certainty around both sides that they’re both stuck inhabiting the same wilderness, fighting on the level of primitives for the scraps society is casting down their way.
Popeye and his partner Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) have the best arrest record in their department, but they’re all too acutely aware, as their superior Simonson (Eddie Egan) reminds them, that in essence their labours are petty and ineffectual. But then, after a bust that sees Russo get a slice on the arm and the perp (Alan Weeks) angrily knocked about and bullied, the two retire to an up-market tavern for some R’n’R, only for Popeye’s raptor-like eye for criminality to zero in on a gathering of underworld figures out wining and dining their women, including Sal Boca (Tony LoBianco), tossing around money. Popeye talks Russo into following them about, and eventually they’re stunned to find that Sal returns early in the morning to his teenaged wife and a tiny diner business. Popeye is immediately convinced that Sal is connected in some serious fashion, and he’s dead right. Sal is arranging the Stateside end of a massive heroin deal, of junk being supplied from Marseilles by Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), which will be brought into the country inside a Lincoln Continental by French TV star Devereaux (Frederic de Pasquale). Popeye’s convictions are patronised by his senior and by FBI agent Mulderig (Bill Hickman) attached to the case. The past, which involved the accidental shooting of a fellow cop, dogs Popeye as wickedly as the hangovers he nurses each morning after drinking himself stupid. But the team’s work begins to pay off when Charnier and his pet thug Nicoli (Marcel Buzzoffi) arrive in town to make the deal, and they link Sal to Weinstock (Harold Gray), a financier for traffickers, whom Sal is trying to get to invest in the deal.
Although it’s most certainly not a documentary, The French Connection gains a lot of its pep from practically neo-realist elements. Those include the casting of non-professionals like the real-life analogues of Doyle and Russo, Egan and Sonny Grosso, and Irving Abrahams, who plays himself in the car-stripping scene. The immersive vision of a gritty metropolis offers glimpses of men lying sprawled on the pavement, filth-crusted subway tunnels, and camerawork in the street where it’s clear the crowd, constantly glancing at the camera, aren’t extras. The film probably gave Scorsese some permission to explore his city in similar fashion with Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976). The method Friedkin adopted, with his toey but unaffected handheld camerawork in many scenes, lends physical energy to the essentially observational sequences, whether they’re about Doyle and Russo trying to eat whilst freezing their asses off on a surveillance job, or, most memorably, the sequence in which they strip down the Lincoln in which they think the shipment has been hidden, bringing to the fore the amazing amount of empty space in such a seemingly solid car, and the increasing frustration of the cops as they fail to find anything before Russo’s observations about the car’s weight lead to a sudden, successful realisation. A peculiar quality of The French Connection, one that its sequel shares, is that it’s a beautiful-looking film, with Owen Roizman’s photography absorbing colour in variegated patches that come to resemble a Rauschenberg artwork. An arsenal of New Wave tricks, from zoom shots to disjunctive sound and vision, sees the film accumulate in layers, offering an aspect of raggedness that conceals the great filmic talent at work behind it. That talent is clearly at work in the dance of actors and imagery in Popeye and Charnier’s amusing hide and seek in the subway, in the cold-blooded assassination Nicoli commits after the deceptively ambling opening shots (complete with tearing off a hunk of his victim’s bread loaf), and of course at a much higher volume in the chase scene and the violent finale.
The French Connection’s monomaniacal bent in sticking almost purely on the matter at hand is often why it’s been discounted as a simple cop flick by many over the years, and yet I feel it’s precisely there where its greatness lies, in refusing to linger on extraneous detail or pompous presumptions of socio-political and aesthetic import, whilst still concisely evoking them. Early in the film, when Popeye and Russo visit the tavern in which they first make Sal, The Three Degrees, a black girl group, croon lyrics that point neatly to the irony that this generation, sending rockets to the moon, is also the one living in decaying tenements, beating hell out of one-another, and stuffing drugs into its veins. Otherwise the context is simply there to be read, in the lives its heroes lead and those of the villains. Popeye inhabits a boxy little apartment in a grim tower block, and the only pleasures he gets are liquor and sex, at which he’s fortunately adept at getting, as when he picks up a bicycling girl, cueing the film’s lone islet of bawd as Russo, coming to Popeye’s place to talk over a new development in the case, finds him handcuffed to his bed and the girl still darting naked about the flat. But life is otherwise not much fun for these guys, and Friedkin makes a marvellous, almost Chaplin-esque visual suite out of the scenes in which Doyle and Russo try to cram their faces with pizza and terrible coffee whilst Charnier and Nicoli dine in a ritzy restaurant. Whilst Popeye’s behaviour demands tempering empathy for him with wariness of his fiery brutality and racism, here the pendulum shifts his way: you can practically feel Doyle’s white-hot antipathy in Hackman’s grimace as he watches the pair, not only a personal resentment owing to his own working-stiff righteousness, but in the already clearly conceived detestation of people who are getting seriously rich by eating out what’s left the fabric of his city and world.
Daryl F. Zanuck warned Friedkin that if the film wasn’t done right, he’d end up with a glorified The Naked City episode, and Friedkin’s answer to that was to invest Popeye with his voluble ambiguity; by turns, Popeye, with his signature pork pie hat and trenchcoat, is a swashbuckling hero and a scary prick. His maniacal dedication to the case at hand is both his great virtue and great weakness, blind to other matters, whether it be mangled car wreck victims in a scene where he comes to blows with Simonson and Mulderig, and finally accidentally gunning down Mulderig in the finale when he’s chasing Charnier, barely blinking when he and Russo discover the mistake and keeping after the villain. That closing moment is one that Friedkin shoots in the environs of the ruined warehouse where the drug deal was going down, and through which Popeye dashes off, as if he’s disappearing into an existential void in keeping after Charnier, emblem of a world beyond his grasp and comprehension. I suppose it could be said that the great chase sequence that is the film’s centrepiece betrays the texture of the film’s realism, but of course it’s also the bit you look forward to, as the eruptive elegance of Jerry Greenberg’s editing and the brilliant shooting of Friedkin and Roizman converge here for a masterpiece of its kind. The chase starts when Nicoli makes an ill-fated attempt to rub out Doyle, recognising that it’s his drive that is sustaining the threat to the deal. Nicoli instead finishes up plugging a carriage-pushing mother and a railway guard, driving a train driver to have a heart attack, and causing a train wreck, as Doyle all the while chases at high-speed through busy streets in a commandeered car. The hood-mounted camera shots of speeding motion through the streets giving the sequence its sense of hurtling doom, and the sequence resolves with brute frankness as Doyle plugs Nicoli in the back when he tries to run. Other cops objected to this touch, but Egan gave Friedkin the nod to include it: even in adding some pizzazz to the film, the integrity of its unromantic take is retained. Scheider, who was cemented in the cinemagoers’ mind in ’71 with this film and Klute, is terrific even in playing a relative second fiddle. His peerlessly pronounced retort to Mulderig’s comments about his partner, “Shove it up your ass,” is one of the summits of on-screen profanity.
French Connection II seems at superficial attention to announce some unfortunate aspects of Hollywood’s nascent sequel culture: it was the first major Hollywood sequel to have a simple numeric attached to the title, a touch that was in keeping with the film’s veneer of terseness and yet soon to become a signature of corporate Hollywood laziness. It also moves away from the reportage of the original for a fictional continuation, more dialogue-heavy and melodramatic in form. Yet such descriptions are deceptive, as French Connection II is as good as, perhaps better than, the first film. Friedkin, who had moved on to his other best-known movie, The Exorcist (1973), didn’t return for it; instead John Frankenheimer, the solidly established and lauded hand from the precursor generation of new-style American directors, took over. He retained key aspects of the first film’s style, whilst also refining it and making some innovations of his own. It stands as possibly also Frankenheimer’s last truly great film, for a similarity of both his and Friedkin’s careers was their early brilliance and their shaky later oeuvres. A key linking element of the two films, other than Hackman and Rey, is Don Ellis’ nervy, vibrant scoring, accented with elements of jazz, funk, spurts of musique concrete, and even modernist atonal passages that infuse the cityscapes with alien vibes. The sequel picks up spiritually where the original left off, with Doyle still chasing Charnier, having been sent to Marseilles as the only man who can certifiably recognise him, to liaise with the local detective chief Henri Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), who treats him with dismissive contempt and relegates him to a desk next to the men’s room door. Popeye doesn’t realise that he’s actually been sent to lure Charnier out, and, worse, he’s really being set up by other cops back in New York whom Charnier bought off, hoping he’ll get killed.
Inevitably, Popeye is a fish out of water in this world, and scenes in Frankenheimer’s film carefully mirror some in Friedkin’s. This contrasts his earlier behaviour and former competence, as when Popeye chases down a suspect running from the scene of a sabotaged narcotics lab, only for Barthélémy and his men to drag him off, because the guy’s actually an informant, underlining the irrelevance of Popeye’s racial assumptions and his inability to recognise the lay of the land he’s so sensitive to back home. Popeye’s head-on policing style in such a circumstance seems doomed to cause havoc, his signature bullying tactics and verbal tirades are reduced to a comedy routine before a laughing, uncomprehending prisoner, and his declarations of determination to nail Charnier seem like so much empty rhetoric. Alienated by Barthélémy, he instead starts pounding the streets in trying to catch a glimpse of his quarry. One night, after chatting up a beach volleyball player (Reine Prat) and being spied doing so by Charnier, he’s kidnapped by Charnier’s thugs, and one of the tailing policemen Barthélémy has on Popeye is run over and killed. Charnier has Popeye kept prisoner in a seamy hotel filled with drug addicts and prostitutes, and pumped full of regular doses of heroin for three weeks, partly to extract what he knows about Charnier’s new operation, which is nothing, and also in a precisely sadistic vengeance on the most implacable of anti-drug enforcers, reducing him to a robotic dependent. Finally Popeye is given a hot dose and dumped outside the police station, and Barthélémy and doctors fight to save his life.
Frankenheimer, who had worked on French location several times before, uses a mostly French crew, including DOP Claude Renoir. The filmmaking team’s eye for picturesque decay invests Marseille with the same mix of lively affection and squalid authenticity as New York received in the first film, with labyrinthine, rubbish-strewn poor quarters lurking behind the ritzy harbour surrounds. If Friedkin’s film has its roots in the docudrama of ‘50s crime flicks, Frankenheimer’s is closer to genuine film noir, and, in a way, can be seen as a stealing back of that tradition from the New Wavers. Such a perspective is implicit in the way the film offers a deglamourized and peerlessly tangible sense of the locale that anticipates, and possibly laid seeds for, modern French crime films like Un Prophet (2009) much more than it resembles the icy but aestheticised, denaturalised works, from the likes of Godard, Melville, and Chabrol, of the time. There’s as much procedural detail in this sequel as in the original, as Charnier’s innovative new smuggling methods, including in tomato cans and on ship hulls, are carefully depicted, but whereas the first film is to a large extent “about” that detail, here it’s more functional within a cohesive, driving plot. French Connection II is more concerned with exploring Popeye’s gruelling journey and penitential suffering, in being almost destroyed by Charnier and his own arrogance, before resurging with (literally) fiery wrath.
Popeye seems initially like the quintessential ugly American in his insensibility to warnings and blithe indifference to local niceties, as Barthélémy needles him into getting on the street. Popeye begins to adapt, slowly: in a terrific early scene, Popeye strikes out with a couple of local ladies but finds a sort of a pal in a bartender (André Penvern) with whom he gets tanked and reels about the streets with, and his capture by Charnier comes after he’s managed to score with said volleyball player, proving he’s still got his mojo working. Meanwhile Charnier has returned to his piss-elegant lifestyle: dialogue scattered in both films suggests that his actual background, in spite of his mansion and purebred young wife, is in the working class and the docklands. He is arranging a new big shipment now with multinational collusion and finance, with the aid of an American General, Brian (Ed Lauter). With its suggestions of wider conspiracies and higher levels of malfeasance, French Connection II subverts some of the presumptions of the original, becoming in effect a Watergate movie in which Popeye finally finds a better working partnership with the Frogs than he did with his own feds.
Hackman had won the Best Actor Oscar for the first film, a deserving win in a strong year for contenders. But he’s even better – perhaps the best in his career – in the sequel, particularly in the lengthy, grinding scenes in which Barthélémy helps him through going cold turkey, a regimen Barthélémy insists on because it would be the end of Popeye’s career if his state becomes a matter of record. We find out things about Popeye here that explain a lot about him, like the reason for his surprising athleticism – he was once a baseball player who instantly joined the cops when he caught a glimpse of a young Mickey Mantle – as well as his fixated intensity, and the despair within him that addiction reveals rather than causes, previously anaesthetised with booze and work, but given free reign by a junkie’s pathos. Hackman’s opinion of his character was low – “Doyle is a fascist,” he said unequivocally, whilst reporting that cops generally loved the honesty of the portrayal – but his reserve against the character’s stridency and cruelty falls away in the sequel. The central, achingly sustained scene of the film comes when Popeye rambles on to an attentive but largely bewildered Barthélémy, who’s guilty at Popeye’s fate and his own not being able to rescue him. Popeye tries to demonstrate baseball moves with chicken drumstick and orange, in between contortions of withdrawal and desperation, struck through with the impossible need for friends and familiar things in going through hell, in a city that just doesn’t offer them, from hamburgers to people who know who the hell Mickey Mantle is. His stay in the hotel, where he’s visited by an aged English addict (Catherine Nesbitt) who soothingly rambles to him about her own past whilst stealing his watch, has a bleak cul-de-sac of the soul atmosphere to it reminiscent of the boarding house in The Seventh Victim (1943), the perfect place for Popeye to be lost in a haze of his failings as well as heroin.
To a certain extent, this whole narrative movement serves a not dissimilar purpose for Popeye as Indiana Jones’ encounter with the black sleep of the Kalimar in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984): the protagonist, partly defined hitherto by antiheroic traits, goes through an ordeal that makes him look into his dark side, and emerges newly fired up for total war. There’s an implicit approval of Popeye’s reckless style, and yet another message is quite clear, that if he and Barthélémy had worked together properly from the start, his ordeal could have been avoided, and the last act sees the policemen working together in a purposeful unit. The other actor the two films share is of course Rey, who was reportedly accidentally cast in the original when Friedkin requested “that guy from the Bunuel films”, meaning Belle de Jour’s Francisco Rabal, and the casting agent signed up Rey so quickly there was no time to renegotiate. It was a happy accident, if true, because Rey’s excellence is in how utterly un-villainous his Charnier seems, a dapper and affable man about town whose ruthlessness and cleverness are only hinted at in his insolent little wave to Doyle in the first film, and then revealed in the most specific circumstances. His best moment in the sequel comes when Charnier first spots Doyle in Marseilles, acute anxiety charging his features before resuming normal operations, and adopting a cobra-like chilliness when he later interrogates his cop prisoner. Once he recovers, Popeye embarks on a campaign of purification, fending off Barthélémy long enough so that he can track down the hotel himself. Pouring petrol about the place, he sets it ablaze to drive out the denizens like rats, flushes out Charnier’s goons, and releases his now deeply personal sense of grievance and frustration on the only scale that can satisfy it. It’s a typically outsized reaction from Popeye, but it does work: he gets a lead on Charnier’s new deal. He and Barthélémy almost manage to capture a new shipment where it’s being extracted from the hull of a Dutch freighter in a dry dock. But they barely survive an encounter there with Charnier’s new number one henchman, Jacques (Philippe Leotard), who wields a German army machine gun with brutal aplomb and kills Barthélémy’s subordinate Miletto (Charles Millot), before letting the sea into the dry dock.
Popeye saves Barthélémy’s life when he’s knocked out by a falling spar, and the French cop repays the favour by helping Doyle stay, when his superiors want him kicked out of the country, and acting on Doyle’s hunch, watching the Dutch ship’s captain (Raoul Delfosse), who leads them to Jacques. The cops track him back to the warehouse where they’re able to bust the whole of Charnier’s operation. Barthélémy gains some vengeance when he dispatches Jacques, who, trying to escape with some of the drug shipment in a truck, instead crashes into the warehouse doors Barthélémy sets closing: Jacques is hurled out through the windscreen. Meanwhile, Popeye chases Charnier on foot through the city. Amongst the many felicities of his filmmaking, Frankenheimer engenders the visuals with a sense of physical connection to Popeye, painstakingly portraying the delirium and liquid sense of time and care when he’s under the influence, his attempts to get back in shape after he’s recovered. This pays off in the finale’s lengthy foot chase, the modulated soundtrack and the lunging POV shots conveying Popeye’s exhaustion, so that the audience practically share his burning lungs and aching feet. Inevitably, this sequel risks being more prosaic as it finally gives Popeye the closure he sought, and yet there’s still an existentially gruelling aspect to his chase, running without gaining. It finally resolves in one of the sharpest and nastiest comeuppances in movie history, as Charnier, right on the threshold of again cheating Popeye of his prize, hears his cry from the quayside seconds before bullets smack into his body, and Frankenheimer cuts directly to black. The final effect is both satisfying and chilling, and one of the most perfect endings anywhere.
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Director: Monte Hellman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“Jesus, I love to shoot film.”
“Look out, Haskell, it’s real!”
Although Monte Hellman did not cite it has an influence, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) was the film that came to mind as I watched Hellman’s first feature film in more than 20 years. Road to Nowhere is a film about filmmaking, and the love Hellman has for the form permeates this film. So, too, does Hellman employ a documentary style to expose the bones of the filmmaking process for his film within a film. However, neither the film Hellman stand-in Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) makes, nor the fact-based story on which it is based is at all real. The fun for audiences is not just in trying to make sense of the reflexive storytelling, but also in recognizing how we, like the directors, love to lose ourselves in making the unreal real.
In this particular film, the “real” story collides with the film Haven is making (also called Road to Nowhere) in the form of Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), an unknown actress he casts to play Velma Duran, a woman mixed up with corrupt politician Rafe Taschen, to be played by A-list actor Cary Stewart (Cliff de Young). Political blogger and scriptwriter Nathalie Post (Dominique Swain) says the pair faked their own deaths to perpetrate an insurance fraud, and flashbacks of Laurel confirm that she was hired to play Velma in “real” life in the North Carolina town where the suicides were staged to preserve the lives of Nestor Duran’s (Fabio Testi, also in Hellman’s Iguana) family in Cuba, though why they would be in danger, and from whom, is never made clear. It appears that North Carolina insurance investigator Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne) posed as a construction worker at Haven’s home with the express purpose of slipping a DVD of Laurel, whom he thinks is Velma, to Haven during the casting process and ingratiating himself as a location adviser to keep an eye on her; he doesn’t have to talk Laurel up to Haven, who is bewitched by her and turns down an offer by Scarlett Johansson to play Velma for scale to pursue his obsession.
Hellman has crafted two intriguing and very different films. Haven’s Road to Nowhere is slow and contemplative, making stunning use of the Smoky Mountains location and Sossamon’s enigmatic face to create a mournful atmosphere that is as enveloping as the low-hung clouds that roll off the mountains and across the water where Taschen’s plane goes down. A scene whose portent we won’t discover until nearly the end of the film shows Sossamon drive to a tunnel, walk in, and double over in an agonizing gut-wrench of emotion; carefully shot so we don’t see the other opening of the tunnel, this is indeed the titular road to nowhere.
Hellman’s outer shell of Road to Nowhere is caught up almost completely in the mechanics of filmmaking. We witness Haven’s arguments with his screenwriter Steve Gates (Robert Kolar) over casting, the endless ad libbing on set, the build-up of Laurel’s role, and the accompanying requests by increasingly marginalized cast members for more lines. Such is Haven’s obsession that Gates and the rest of the company are reduced to being his yes men and women. Cary Stewart is shown on the phone with his agent complaining about how the movie has shifted him into a supporting role; when asked if anything can be done contractually, he responds to what he hears on the phone with “Yes, we should have asked for more money.” Haven does a preproduction interview with real Variety reporter Peter Bart, implying that he doesn’t get romantically involved with the people on his shoots, and then sharing a room with Laurel on location.
What really put me in the same place as Haven was his evening occupation with Laurel—watching DVDs in their barebones hotel room using equipment he brought for that purpose. His film choices—The Lady Eve, Spirit of the Beehive, and The Seventh Seal—are as different from each other as Hellman’s two Road to Nowhere films, yet Haven proclaims each of them masterpieces. When Laurel asks how many films he has seen, Haven scolds her for the question: “Never ask a director how much time he spends watching other directors’ dreams.” “Then, am I your dream?” asks Laurel. Indeed she is, and other writers have suggested that Hellman’s one-time paramour Laurie Bird, his star in Two-Lane Blacktop, has uncomfortable parallels to Laurel.
Certainly, Hellman’s film is chockablock with references to his life and movies in general. Writing in an insurance investigator (and possibly cuing our memories with a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle) certainly calls to mind Double Indemnity. Several of his characters and the production team for the Haven film share the same first initials as he and other members of the production team. In fact, his fondness for cutesy names, like the matinee idol mash-up Cary Stewart and the destined-to-blog Nathalie Post, is a quirk meant to suggest types more than people, I imagine, but one I find more cheesy than effective. The extremely literal lyrics of the songs contributed to the film by alt-country singer-songwriter Tom Russell also seem to slam us over the head with the film’s theme. Perhaps this is Hellman’s sly trick on the Hollywood dumb-down most films must get before they can be marketed to the widest possible audience internationally. However, Hollywood isn’t the only target to get blown a raspberry—the lingering cheesecake shot of Swain’s curvaceous butt and one of Laurel taking a phone call while sitting on the toilet seemed like they escaped from a recipe book for audacious indie filmmaking.
A friend I spoke with after the screening couldn’t believe how appallingly bad Sussamon was, but Laurel insisted to Haven that she wasn’t really an actress. Her performance in the scenes we see in Haven’s film certainly are quite wonderful, and if she was trying to play an actress who couldn’t act, as I believe she was, she did a very fine job. In fact, I would say that generally speaking, the other performances don’t quite measure up to hers.
The climax of the film is the part that evoked Medium Cool most strongly for me. “Look out, Haskell, it’s real,” is a famous line from Wexler’s film, a reference to tear gas police shot into the crowd of protesters of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In fact, there was no tear gas where Wexler was shooting, and the line was dubbed into the film. In the same way, Haven shoots Bruno in a rage with the line, “You brought a gun into the scene,” a suggestion that the murder was an unplanned part of Hellman’s film. Wexler’s film ends with a camera pointing at the audience, whereas we get to see the murder scene and the police stand-off through Haven’s HD camera viewer—and a shot of Hellman’s crew filming it all.
Road to Nowhere is an intriguing film that will appeal most strongly to the serious cinephile who has wrestled with the implications of cinema as a voyeuristic and reflexive art form. In the final analysis, however, Hellman’s film has a valedictory feel to me, a summation of a life in the movies by one of its most staunchly independent elder statesmen.
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Director: Carol Reed
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In life and art, the blackest of humor has always been a part of the Irish sensibility. Although the lace-curtain Irish have fought for respectability against the more anarchic elements that surface regularly from the Irish collective unconscious, their own rioting at the premiere of John M. Synge’s patricidal and immodest Playboy of the Western World shows a nature that simply won’t be denied. Odd Man Out provides another unflattering portrait of the Irish, mixed with the noble image they tend to have of themselves and their struggles. In the end, only love proves honest, if not entirely honorable.
Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is the head of an unnamed organization no one could fail to recognize as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He has barely paused to take a breath following his release after a long stretch in prison before getting back to business, meeting with his compatriots at the Belfast home of Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan) to plan a payroll robbery to help fund the organization. Guns are issued, and as Pat (Cyril Cusack) brandishes his buoyantly, Johnny scolds him not to be quick to use it. Johnny’s second in command, Dennis (Robert Beatty), urges him to sit out the robbery, observing that he seems shaky. Kathleen, who is in love with Johnny, agrees with Dennis, but Johnny feels that he needs to assert his command and that his rightful place is alongside those taking the risks.
Johnny and his three co-conspirators walk into the mill they plan to rob and empty the contents of the office safe into their valises. As they make their way down a hall, the alarm sounds. As the others exit and hop into the getaway car, Johnny is momentarily dazzled by the sunlight. A guard catches up with them and wrestles with Johnny, shooting him in the shoulder. Johnny draws his weapon, kills the guard, and is dragged alongside the car by two of his men as Pat speeds away. Pat takes a sharp turn, and Johnny is flung free of the car. As Pat argues with his comrades about his fears of capture if he backs the car up to rescue their fallen leader—making his argument legitimate by wasting oodles of time—Johnny staggers to his feet and disappears around a corner.
Johnny’s gang exemplifies the opposite of the discipline and loyalty that would have characterized the IRA when Johnny and Dennis were coming up. Dennis is aghast that the gang left Johnny behind, but it’s clear that Pat was only thinking of himself. Pat’s lies to Dennis about why Johnny didn’t make it back with them forces Dennis into the streets to find his comrade.
Johnny evades capture when Dennis, having located him, lures the cops away by pretending to be the injured Johnny and rather carelessly sacrificing his own freedom by punching a couple of cops on a crowded bus. Johnny gets past a roadblock in a hansom cab that the police searched earlier. The cabbie (Joseph Tomelty), astonished to see Johnny in his cab, settles him into a washtub discarded in a dump on the edge of town. There Johnny sits, ridiculous, with snow falling around him, until a ratty little man named Shell (F. J. McCormick) finds him and contemplates whether to turn him in to the police to collect the sizeable reward on his head or negotiate with Father Tom (W. G. Fay), the priest the Catholic community turns to when looking out for their own best interests.
At this point, the story veers sharply from the IRA story and transforms into a strange burlesque in which Johnny becomes almost incidental, serving merely as the catalyst by which we view the Irish character as it is constellated by a talented and varied cast. Shell favors amusing, elliptical blarney to communicate his insider information, for example, bringing one of his pet birds to Father Tom and using it to allude to his discovery of Johnny in the washtub. He goes from planning to claim the £50,000 reward to agreeing to come to terms with the priest, though it’s pretty clear that he’ll probably get nothing but a florid thank-you. Is he inept? A fool? A patriot? McCormick dances with the highly literate dialogue provided by F. L. Green, screenwriter and author of the novel on which the film is based, and transforms Shell into a Beckett character, waiting for his ship to come in, yet seeming to conspire to ensure that it won’t.
The other half of this Godot pair is the iconic mad artist, here named Lukey and played broadly by Robert Newton. Lukey lives in the same tenement as Shell and waylays him whenever possible to pose for endless hours as a model for a series of Christ paintings. When he finds out that Shell has a lead on Johnny, Lukey is overcome with the idea of being able to paint the eyes of a dying man. The machinations that get Johnny out of a private booth in the Crown Bar (shot on location in Belfast) and in front of Lukey are too absurd to detail here. The stereotypical Irish thirst for booze and brawling takes the spotlight as Johnny hallucinates the heads of people he’s spoken with during the day in the bubbles of beer spilled on his table.
The outside world is a mixed bag that Reed carefully locates with his set decoration in the various strata of Belfast society. Two women trained in first aid during the war come to Johnny’s aid, and bring him into their thoroughly bourgeois home. Their goodness won’t allow them to turn him in, but they disapprove of him and don’t want to be mixed up in his criminality. War profiteer and vice lord Maudie (Beryl Measor), on the other hand, lives in a resplendently tacky home that has its own phone booth. Maudie is a Mother Courage knock-off—not so far from Reed’s most famous character, Harry Lime—selling Pat and his comrade out to protect her interests with the police. In this sense, what goes around comes around for the selfish and stupid Pat.
You couldn’t ask for a better-looking, more atmospheric film than Odd Man Out. Many noirish elements, including deep shadows, nighttime exteriors, shooting down stairwells, skewed camera angles, cages, and bars mark Johnny as a trapped animal. During Johnny’s fevered meanderings through Belfast, director Carol Reed treats us to frightening and absurd hallucinations, like the aforementioned, surreal “bubble heads,” but more poignantly, Johnny’s hallucination of his jailor as he hides in the air raid shelter and imagines it is his cell. We come to understand Johnny better from his imaginary conversation with this jailor than in many of the real-world interactions he has.
James Mason emphasizes his character’s weakness, not strength, his foolishness, not his resolve. Johnny’s self-defeating pride, his wavering commitment to armed resistance to achieve a united Ireland while failing to take his own advice to Pat, his offhandedness about Kathleen’s love, and his relative passivity as he’s passed around like a hot potato by wary locals make him less a Christlike figure than a pawn, an idea.
But it’s not that he doesn’t have a prayer—in fact, Kathleen intends to escort him to Father Tom while they wait for a boat that will take them to freedom. Of course, the symbolism of the boat signals death (one is reminded of James Mason on another boat—a cursed ship in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman), and Kathleen provides an angel’s love to escort him beyond life to a place where she can protect him for all eternity. Kathleen seems to be the moral center of this film because of the purity of her love that seems very motherly (is she chaste as well?), but the life of the guard Johnny killed means nothing to her in the grand scheme of her devotion.
Most of the characters in this film seem quite childish. In an early scene, a group of children are playing soccer in the street when their ball lands at the feet of a grown man. Instead of passing it back to them, he kicks it as hard as he can in the opposite direction—a nice device that eventually will lead to Dennis’ discovery of Johnny, but also a needlessly mean and infantile reaction from the man. Late in the film, Johnny quotes a famous line he learned from Father Tom: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Ironically, Johnny’s pangs of adult conscience and an awareness of mature feelings for Kathleen are only awakened when he is at his most helpless and dependent—in the last hours of his life, after he learned he had killed a man. Odd Man Out is an Irish tragedy indeed.
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Director: Anthony Mann
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There are often great pleasures in the programmatic films churned out by Hollywood’s independent film studios. Like Roger Corman’s productions, many of these movies gave future cinematic titans experience and chances to experiment. Such a film is Railroaded!, a fairly routine crime drama made by Poverty Row’s Producers Releasing Corporation that flirts with being a full-blown film noir thanks to the edgy direction of Anthony Mann and his cinematographer Guy Roe and the obsessive performances of John Ireland and Jane Randolph.
We start in noir country—a nightscape of a city street lined with bright theatre marquees. The camera moves down the street and swoops down to a close-up of a shop window advertising “Clara Calhoun: Your House of Beauty.” The door opens to Clara herself (Jane Randolph) ushering a happy patron with a new coif out with hopes that she gets home safely. The remark was meant to flatter the patron, but it has portends of a tragedy soon to befall the shop.
Clara runs an illegal bookie operation in the back room of her shop. After she closes up, she and her assistant Marie (Peggy Converse) start counting the take. Marie goes to the front of the shop to lock up, and Clara opens and closes the back door three times to signal two men in a laundry truck. They enter the shop to steal the gambling money. At the same time, a policeman patrolling the street hears Marie scream and shoots into the shop. He hits one of the robbers, but is killed by the other. The two men flee, with the unharmed man, Duke Martin (John Ireland), abandoning the truck and his badly injured partner, Cowie Kowalski (Keefe Brasselle), in front of a doctor’s office. Clara and Duke, lovers and conspirators, bemoan their bad luck but begin their campaign to frame the owner of the truck, Steve Ryan (Ed Kelly), as the gunman who killed the cop.
The film has a fairly standard plot that moves through Steve’s arrest by Det. Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont), Ferguson’s growing suspicion that Steve is innocent, and his progress at uncovering and apprehending the real murderer and making time with Steve’s beautiful sister Rosie (Sheila Ryan). Among the complications are Rosie’s independent attempt to find the killer, which causes her to cozy up to Martin; Martin’s growing paranoia about anyone who could tie him to the murder and his greed for the money his employer, Jackland Ainsworth (Roy Gordon), makes off the entire bookmaking operation. The final showdown between Martin and Ferguson, with Rosie as the damsel in distress, plays just as expected, as does the closing clinch between Ferguson and Rosie.
It is the bizarre and atmospheric elements in this film that make it more of a standout than its filmic brethren. The robbery has some lurid, adrenaline-inducing moments that raise it above its unpromising beginning. Martin, wearing a Navy scarf belonging to Steve, pushes Marie into the beauty salon, where he intends to rob the cash register as Cowie bags the money from the book operation. A hand rattling door knobs proves to be the unlucky cop, O’Hara, who we soon see in full approaching the salon. His shadow plays against the window, warning Martin and causing him to raise his shotgun and walk toward Marie, warning her not to scream. Mann directs the camera to look straight up the gun barrel, cutting to close-ups of Marie as she backs away and does exactly—and inevitably—what she is told not to do. The menace of the scene almost had me doing the same.
Another crazy, erotic scene occurs when Rosie goes to Clara’s apartment and confronts her, sure she lied when she identified Steve as the killer. Martin is in the apartment, but hides behind some curtains. Accusations and tempers start to fly, and soon we find ourselves in an extended cat fight, with the two women shaking and hitting each other, falling over couches, knocking over lamps, and eventually landing on the floor for the obligatory hair pulling. Martin, like we, watch this fight with a voyeuristic excitement. Rosie eventually stands up and leaves, having gotten denials from Clara, but also the location where Marie has gotten a new job. Clara’s revelation of this information and Martin’s awakened sexual interest in Rosie will cause him to turn on Clara and have her seeking solace in booze.
Ireland and Randolph easily walk away with this film. Ireland plays a psychotic killer and abuser of women with an ingratiating hardness that is fascinating to watch. We just know he’s going to kill everyone he can! Randolph is just as hard and cynical at the beginning of the film; she projects an insolent toughness, and her set-up of the robbery is carefully calibrated. She can’t be shaken from her identification of Steve as the killer, but Martin’s changed attitude toward her turns her into a desperate neurotic who knows she’s suddenly become expendable. Clara goes to a nearby shop to phone Ferguson and take him up on his offer of protection, but Martin has spotted her and crept up on her on the sly. While she stands in the phone booth, too nervous to notice Martin has cracked it slightly to listen in, the cuts between their faces ramp up the tension. The pathos of Clara looking behind her as she walks home to meet Ferguson is rather touching, since Martin is already waiting for her there and certainly intends to kill her.
By contrast, Sheila Ryan seems like a high school girl trying to act tough, and, well, Hugh Beaumont was born to play Ward Cleaver, not a romantic and rugged cop in a proto-noir. They have no chemistry and nothing interesting to say. Check out this dialogue, symptomatic of most of the script:
Criminologist: You know, there are only two kinds of animals that make war on their own kind – rats and men… and men are supposed to be able to think.
Mickey Ferguson: I think you’ve got something there, Doc.
Zzzzzz. And dig those crazy shoulder pads—they fairly mesmerized me with their outrageous awfulness.
I was quite taken, however, with several actors in small roles. Kelly has a great face, and his character is no pushover. He protests his innocence, but expresses cynicism about the wheels of justice. It was good to see a suspect with some balls. Ainsworth’s girlfriend Wilma, unfortunately uncredited, quite reminded me of Claire Trevor. She sits in smug obedience to her keeper in the first scene in which she appears; in the second, however, she’s full of insolence and insults toward the man. In another scene with an interesting walk-on, Martin has agreed to pay a wino to take the fall for the robbery, getting Steve off the hook. The wino, also uncredited, repeats by rote the story he is supposed to tell the police, as though the thought of having money to buy as much alcohol as he wants brought his mind into focus. Neither of these characters has a real role to play in the plot, but as in most great B-films, and especially noir, these small touches add atmosphere that pays big dividends.
In this film, although the police want to get someone to pay for killing one of their own, they expressly state that they don’t want to convict an innocent man. Despite the noirish lighting and truly bizarre set pieces, the lines of good and evil are far too carefully drawn to make this a true noir. In a few years, noir would blossom fully, and cops would be as rotten as robbers. In the meantime, however, Railroaded! provides a crucial and entertaining link in the development of a future noir master, Anthony Mann.
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Director/Screenwriter: Michael Mann
By Roderick Heath
This post is part of For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon.
In looking for a film to write about for the Film Noir blogathon, I initially felt most motivated by what I wanted to avoid. Film noir was a dark, nasty, immediate kind of cinema movement that sprang out of artistic and real-world inspirations that were crucially of their moment, reportage from the front lines of domestic landscape of the Depression and World War II eras. It was really a style more than a genre, though tropes of crime fiction have become inextricably associated with it, blended and mediated through a specific range of clichés and metaphorical niceties that were exhausted with great speed. The intervening half-century of pop culture has often threatened to render that vital and spiky cinema a powerful magnet for nostalgic fetishism and arbitrary appropriation. Thus, I began to think more about what film noir had evolved into. I thought about what could be called the noir revivalism since the ’80s, some of which, like Wim Wenders’ Hammett (1982), Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), or Brian de Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006), preoccupy themselves in recreating the tangy milieu of noir but also employs a grittier portrayal of things more tangentially explored in the older genre works—sexuality, drugs, race, the whole shebang. And there are other films that, like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), the Wachowski brothers’ Bound (1996), Rian Johnston’s Brick (2005), and the oeuvre of John Dahl, took the basic precepts of classic noir and played them out in a contemporary context.
Only a few current English-language directors have, however, truly kept the ethos of noir alive without a hint of retro cute. Since his debut with 1981’s Thief, the most high-profile is Michael Mann. Miami Vice, a bristling prestige project that had a troubled production and proved a surprise semi-failure on release, is nonetheless a genuinely evolved noir film. Adapted from the slick ’80s television series created by Anthony Yerkovich, for which Mann was executive producer and unofficial artistic mastermind, this Miami Vice refused to be nostalgic even for the ’80s. Mann signals his take fairly early when a nightclub pulses with Felix da Housecat’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”: the song is old, the beat is new. Mann built upon the stylish minimalism William Friedkin and Peter Yates had brought to crime flicks in the ’60s and ’70s, but his fascination with pared-down, art moderne visual textures was something new: existential haute couture. Mann’s stylistic reinventions have often outpaced audience receptivity throughout his career, and many of his early films, including the now-lionised Manhunter (1986), were bombs.
Miami Vice shows quickly enough how little interest it has in going through the niceties of adapting a TV show. Mann tosses the viewer in medias res with “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell), Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), and the members of their undercover squad, including Tubbs’ paramour Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris), Gina Calabrese (Elizabeth Rodriguez), Stan Switek (Domenick Lombardozzi), and Larry Zito (Justin Theroux), busy trying to sting pimp Neptune (Isaach De Bankolé) in that nightclub. Crockett is drawn away by a frantic phone call from informer Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes), who’s charging across the city in his sports car, hoping to make it home. His wife has been taken captive by the mob of drug-dealing white supremacists, after Alonzo had arranged a meet-and-greet between the criminals and some FBI agents. Alonzo spilt the beans to the racists, and FBI agents are brutally, summarily gunned down by the white supremacists’ military-level firepower. Crockett and Tubbs manage to intercept him on the freeway and get him to pull over and explain, but when word comes through that Alonzo’s wife has been found murdered, Alonzo steps in front of a semitrailer. The boss of the blown FBI operation, Fujima (Ciarán Hinds), approaches Crockett, Tubbs, and their boss Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley), because they’re the only people he can now trust with a mole certainly within his own operation.
Crockett and Tubbs swing into action, using their knowledge of who’s shipping what in and out of Miami and their willingness to bend the rules. After Trudy carefully falsifies criminal records for them, they destroy the high-speed boats being used to ferry in the gang’s dope. Then, using another criminal interlocutor, Nicholas (Eddie Marsan), the duo shop themselves out to the supply end of the business, represented by arch narcotics entrepreneur José Yero (John Ortiz) and the shadowy Isabella (Gong Li) from their base in Ciudad de Este in the Brazil-Paraguay-Argentine borderlands. Both are merely senior employees for the glowering kingpin Francisco Montoya (Luis Tosar), an internationally powerful, stateless monarch whose final approval Crockett and Tubbs have to gain to run a drug shipment into Miami. They pull this off, and get a second, larger contract, hoping to learn as much as possible about Montoya’s operations. Crockett enters a swiftly combusting romance with Isabella, who is Montoya’s lover but also a nominal free agent. Yero, ruthless, paranoid, and suspicious of these too-efficient newcomers, uses this affair to convince Montoya they should nullify their deal with the Americans and let their Nazi business partners take care of them.
Unlike most of the neo-noir I mentioned above, Miami Vice maintains the defining aspect of noir: the visual style is an aesthetic unit with the story’s preoccupations and the overt and covert themes. Mann’s film burns like liquid nitrogen, laying out the eponymous city as a sprawl of lights drenched in darkness and populated by swashbuckling law enforcers and monstrous villains. The film’s imagery often resembles modernist painting and varieties of experimental photography. Such affectations retain a quality that was part of the punch of classic expressionist-influenced films, retaining a definite link with the way directors like Lang, Welles, Hitchcock, and many others could twist a cinematic frame so that the elements within it became somehow abstracted. Mann shoots faces, bodies, technology, and architecture in such a way that they hover in a kind of electrified, yet impersonal beauty, sometimes with a crisp distance redolent of Jeffrey Smart or David Hockney, sometimes so close as to lose all sense of proportion and form. I particularly love the glimpse of the colossal white-supremacist thug festooned with tattoos and resembling some kind of humanoid brontosaur ransacking a refrigerator, while Alonzo’s wife’s slain form lays lifeless in the background. Another, very different moment of wonder comes when Sonny and Isabella flirt, their foreground faces blurred, but the background landscape sharp, perfectly communicating the almost drug-like intensity of their attraction.
The result is one the few genuine stylistic masterpieces of modern American film. Refining the aesthetic he’d developed in Thief, Manhunter, Heat (1995), and The Insider (1999), Mann pushed it to a limit here. Miami Vice’s terse, deterministic approach to the usual beats of the action-crime genre, as opposed to the operatic prolixity of Heat, is one of the things I like most about it, but this also perhaps made it bewildering for many. Mann tries to explicate as much of the drama as possible through the behaviour of the characters rather than through what they say to each other, and he pushes the notion that action is character to a rare level. The shot in which Crockett notices that Montoya and Isabella are wearing his-and-her watches turns casual detail into revelation, opening yawning abysses of subsequent uncertainty. That Crockett and Tubbs trust in each other completely is a matter chiefly communicated through how they stand and sit together, and the later concern Tubbs has that Crockett might be falling under the spell of Isabella and the potential imperial wealth he could accrue with her is as much about eye contact as talk. At the heart of this story, obviously, is one of the oldest motifs of the crime genre: the shifting no-man’s-land between cops and criminals. One of Mann’s most distinctive refrains in his crime stories is not just the porousness of the boundaries between good and bad, lawman and criminal, but also what keeps them polarised.
A significant difference between the hazy outsider parables of classic noir, with their losers, lone knights, femme fatales, and fatalistic sense of social hierarchy (and the insidious evil of fascism always sharply remembered as a then-recent phenomenon), and the sorts of TV dramas on which Mann cut his teeth, including Starsky and Hutch and Miami Vice itself, was that such cop shows drew their heroes as guys doing a job and enjoying their lives when not working. This paved the way for how most modern cop shows are more about workplace dynamics than crime and its social dimensions. Mann’s concerns since starting his film career have been more classical, repeatedly pondering how people on both sides of any border, but usually a legal one, can have startling similarities as well as telling differences. “There’s undercover, and then there’s ‘which way is up’,” Tubbs notes at one point, firmly placing the film’s concerns back in classic noir territory. The real impetus there is found in the two concurrent, defiantly now-fashioned stories of Sonny and Isabella and Ricardo and Trudy, and narrative urgency is not sourced in any tension that Sonny and Tubbs might be seduced by the dark side, but in what their dedication might cost them and those they love. The early scenes portraying the grisly fate of Alonzo’s family and the FBI agents lay out the threat as almost gothic in scope and menace, especially the startling moment in which the racists’ high-powered weapons smash apart the agents.
Eventually, of course, they have to face down the same threats, when, double-crossed by Yero, they have to first extract Trudy from the hands of the racists, who have yoked her with plastic explosive (a charged image in more ways than one), and then work out a way of extracting Isabella and taking down the baddies without getting themselves annihilated. The story is necessarily simpler than the sorts of intricately woven political, social, and personality strands in some of Mann’s later-career films, like The Insider (1999) and Ali (2001). Yet his attempts to create a modern kind of noir film encompassing global networks of information, transport, permeable borderlines between national borders and even settled ethnic and sexual identities mediated throughout the flow of imagery both extends and, to a certain extent, subverts some of the given elements in classic noir films like Force of Evil (1948), The Big Heat (1953), Underworld USA (1961), in which crime organisations became metaphors for a sinister side to Western capitalism itself. In the course of the narrative, Mann traces the colossal drug-dealing project from end to end, possibly to make up for the epic he had wanted to made about the drug trade that was forestalled by Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2001). This holistic vision of worlds within worlds makes Miami Vice a much darker, denser film than one expects.
Almost all classic noir films are about the subterranean link between mean streets and the mansion on the hill. The original inspiration for Yerkovich’s series was a story he’d read about how the seized assets of drug dealers were being employed in operations against them. Such is the reason why Crockett, Tubbs, and the rest of their team are able to live lifestyles seemingly far above their pay grade. The sheer scale of money and clout the likes of Mendoza can call up, and the lifestyle they can enable, is pretty seductive. Mann is superlative at changing the tone and pace of his films with strange reversals, like the famous sleeping tiger scene in Manhunter and the coffee-drinking scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. Here it’s in a scene where Isabella, after making a deal with Crockett and Tubbs, succumbs casually to Sonny’s come-ons and gets him to take her out for a spin in a borrowed-for-the occasion speed boat. She convinces him to take her to Havana for a drink, and they speed off across the waves. It’s as if he’s suddenly driving the movie into a hazy fantasy, a high-end commercial or space-age version of an Ernst Lubitsch film where ritzy people casually do ritzy things at the drop of a hat. And yet it cleverly and seductively illuminates the film’s biting perspective on a 21st century in which money, and what it buys, has become its own continent. Where once Friedkin’s hero Popeye Doyle had stood on a corner in the cold and watched his quarries stuff their faces, Mann’s are much more comfortable. But this, in its way, proves more dangerous.
What follows is an extended romantic interlude that deliberately echoes the earlier one between Ricardo and Trudy. Both couples shower together in moments of eroticism, but the disparity between the moments is impossible to ignore. Whereas Tubbs and his girl are clearly, easily in accord on all levels to the point where Ricardo can get away with a cheeky premature ejaculation gag and it’s just part of the fun, the layers of truth and deception in Sonny and Isabella’s relationship (Is his anecdote about his roadie father true? Why is he trying to make the super-profitable deal with her?) are all too telling. Add to this, of course, the obvious, suggestive disparities—Sonny the white trash rendered slicker by experience and ambition, romancing Isabella, a Chinese woman with a Spanish name and a mother who was a translator killed in Angola. Mann’s odd, fascinating games with racial coding expresses itself in Isabella and, in less germane style, with Fujima, played by an Irishman. Such seems to be his way of both subverting the clear-cut boundaries of the original series’ drug war geopolitics and simple fascination with watching the world’s wanderers find each other. Professionalism is another of the few meaningful yardsticks in Mann’s films, and, of course, Crockett, Tubbs, and team are arch experts; but so are Isabella, Yero, Mendoza, and even some of the white supremacists.
That sort of chitinous professionalism that hides a hidden psychic cost is also, of course, another long strand in noir, back to Hammett and Hemingway, the latter being one of noir’s biggest nongenre sources (no wonder Mann’s been kicking about the notion of shooting For Whom the Bell Tolls). Mann’s embattled individualists, searching for their own ways of living and often rejecting those that don’t smell right, certainly belong to that tradition, and his version of The Last of the Mohicans (1992) sifted out their link to an even older tradition (and notice Crockett’s name, “sonny” of another frontiersman legend). And yet some of the most fascinating moments in the film are far smaller and human, like Sonny’s care in doing up Isabella’s seatbelt in the speedboat, or the beat in which Isabella waits for Mendoza to speak after she casually informs him she slept with Crockett, and he only wants to know more about what she’s gleaned of his business plans. The cops-vs.-robbers business here is traditional men’s stuff, of course, but also one, Mann repeatedly emphasises, in which modern women are more often a part. Isabella, Trudy, and Calabrese are fully engaged members of what used to be purely masculine fields of endeavour, in a modern sense, and yet when push comes to shove they’re rendered pawns by the baddies. Isabella is no traditional femme fatale, in that her purpose is not consuming destructiveness of herself and others, in spite of the fact that she’s most definitely a criminal; “She’s one of them,” Tubbs states categorically to Sonny to remind him of the demarcations of their world. But she’s really more a kind of brutally pragmatic yuppie, jetting off to Geneva when business calls. I like Li’s performance in the film in spite of her initially inelegant command of English, and in part because of it, for the way Li relaxes and responds to Farrell’s Crockett with her entire physique and manner.
Crockett and Tubbs are, finally, old-fashioned white knights, going down those mean streets. Tubbs’ first specific gesture in the film comes when, infuriated by seeing Neptune manhandle one of his young hookers, Tubbs chases after him and breaks the fingers of one of his bodyguards. Later, when Trudy is endangered, Tubbs gains a personal motivation. Perhaps the true femme fatale is Calabrese, who has what is actually the film’s greatest bit of tough-guy business. She confronts the white supremacist holding the trigger for the bomb around Trudy’s neck, and informs him how she’ll shoot him in such a way that he can’t reflexively detonate the bomb; “Fuck y-” is all he gets out before her bullet does exactly that. The scene in which Tubbs and Calabrese invade the trailer of the creeps holding Trudy—the most-low-rent end to an international conspiracy imaginable—is borderline brilliant, not only for the bit mentioned above, but also for Tubbs’ own no-bullshit handling of the situation. You know all those films where you groaned when a hero failed to stop a villain by neglecting to put a bullet in his head when he was down? Not this one. But then, the nasty twist: Yero remotely sets off the explosive, seriously injuring Trudy just at the point all seems well.
After that, naturally, comes a walloping showdown between the cops and Yero’s coalition of paramilitary enforcers and the white supremacists Sonny and Isabella are literally caught in the middle, and Ricardo chases down and blows a hole in Yero. The action here anticipates the mix of naturalism and first-person force Mann would again muster in his follow-up, Public Enemies (2009), a film that intriguingly attempted to avoid the usual affectations of the period movies comprising much of the noir revivalist oeuvre. That Crockett and Tubbs’ ethics are at a slight remove from the strictures of their job is not shocking, but it is important, as Crockett, with Tubbs’ silent assent, bundles Isabella away from the battle scene to make her escape. Real heroism in Miami Vice is finally being able to tell the difference between right and wrong, and also to make the compromise between wish and reality. The film ends on much the same unfinished note with which it began, with Trudy merely recovering from her injuries, the standby villains defeated but with Mendoza having escaped.
Miami Vice is such an inherently visual film that it’s damnably hard to write about and demands multiple viewings, but I’ve come to love it as well as admire it. The acting is of a very high calibre, with Farrell and Foxx acquitting themselves exceptionally well; I particularly enjoy the unblinking deadpan fashion with which Tubbs asks of Yero, “Are you with the Man?”, a line that might have defeated many other actors. But it’s often the supporting cast, especially Tosar, Henley, and, above all, Ortiz, who truly galvanise the film. The result is one of my favourite films of the new millennium and one that keeps something of noir’s crumpled romanticism alive amongst the high-tech and unforgivingly modern.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Claude Chabrol
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The film world is awash today in notices about and tributes to Claude Chabrol, the French New Wave director who died yesterday at the age of 80. Noted for his leading-edge championing of Alfred Hitchcock, Chabrol himself relished in making many a good thriller. But he was also interested in power and corruption in society, in families, and in the human heart.
I can’t pretend to be extremely well versed in Chabrol’s career, nor have I seen nearly as many of his movies as I would have liked. But the films I have seen (This Man Must Die and La Cérémonie are reviewed on this site) have led me to an instant kinship with this critic of the smug, excavator of hypocrisies and depravity, and bemused observer of the strivings of men (mainly) whose ambitions are not only unworthy but surprisingly simple-minded and, ultimately, modest.
The Comedy of Power, his 2006 takeoff on a real-life scandal, is a rewarding exercise in watching him perform a perfect balancing act between a drama of corruption and a comedy verging on slapstick. That he has some female enforcers hand some very self-impressed men their dicks on a platter is even more deliciously humorous.
The first comedic moment comes right at the start, with an explanatory title in bold lettering that contains the boilerplate disclaimer that usually appears at the end of all feature films—that the movie is a work of fiction and any resemblance between the characters and real persons is strictly coincidental. In fact, any French viewer would recognize this story as “L’affaire Elf,” a worldwide, multiyear scheme in which politicians and business leaders enriched themselves through kickbacks paid by corrupt African governments and businesses. But you don’t have to be French to get the inference. Political and financial scandals know no borders, and this movie’s theme strikes an all-too-familiar note.
Chabrol sets up the adversarial sides with economical visual gags. We meet the first corrupt businessman, CEO Michel Humeau (Francois Berlèand), as he prepares in his office for a weekend trip. He speaks on two cellphones at once as a flurry of assistants buzz around him. When the phone that has his wife on the other end cuts off, he shakes it and then uses it to—what—shave? No, he has a skin condition, and he’s always scratching at his face; perhaps his wife literally makes his skin crawl. Outside of his office building, he is accosted by a complement of gendarmes and arrested. Amid protests of “Do you know who I am?!” Humeau is forced to strip at the prison—a literal dressing-down.
We get an inkling of what’s ahead when two of his associates, hearing of his misfortune, say that a magistrate named Jeanne Charmant-Killman (Isabelle Huppert) is the investigator. She is known as “The Piranha.” Cut to a shot of some enormous goldfish sitting at the bottom of a small fish tank—a hilarious and perfect metaphor that is rounded out when the camera pans down and we observe The Piranha in action, eating sushi with a man who is involved in the scheme but who thinks he has her where he wants her.
Of course, no man in this film is any match for Charmant-Killman. Huppert gives her a spine of steel wrapped in a painfully thin form of pure energy fueled by nicotine. She has a short, sarcastic laugh ready for any of the dubious, ridiculous statements made by the buffoonish conspirators she interviews one by one. Descarts (Jacques Boudet), a rubberfaced politician who is fond, as all the conspirators are, of enormous cigars, decides to contain Charmant-Killman by coopting her and setting her in competition with another woman. He has her promoted, moved to a spacious office, and gives her a very sharp assistant, Erika (Marilyne Canto). But, instead of ending The Piranha’s crusade, this move only doubles the conspirators’ trouble. The only person the plotters manage to corrupt is a man, and they show the famous honor among thieves by shamelessly ratting each other out.
This film would have been a farce in other hands, and probably a good one. Chabrol, particularly by casting Huppert, adds the necessary gravity to the story. This really is how the world works. Greedy, stupid, condescending men are lining their pockets with taxpayer money in countries all over the world for luxuries they could well afford with their executive salaries, or a mistress, or some other bit of ephemera to balm their overtended egos. Dedicated prosecutors like Charmant-Killman keep putting their thumbs in the dike, but the pressure is too great to hold out for long. In one particularly tragic case, anti-Mafia fighters Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were Excellent Cadavers, and in the film, Charmant-Killman eventually comes under 24-hour police protection.
The only misstep is the depiction of Jeanne’s rich husband Philippe (Robin Renucci), who becomes ever more lonely and depressed as his wife develops tunnel vision for her quarry. He makes a desperate choice near the end of the film that seems to reach her, and hints are that she may have a change of heart toward her work. This character transformation, if genuine, is unnecessary. Chabrol should have trusted Huppert more. Her performance is so vibrant that it is impossible to see Jeanne Charmant-Killman as one of the caricatures that surround her.
Indeed, Chabrol has shown an affinity for detective stories and their keen-eyed sleuths to such an extent that this collaboration led me to envision Huppert as Charmant-Killman in a series of films to offer a realistic antidote to the fussy concoctions of Agatha Christie. Although Chabrol can no longer offer his amazing touch to the proceedings, I sincerely hope to see The Piranha hunt another day. l
David Hudson at MUBI has a comprehensive round-up of articles, observations, and more here.
Roger Ebert has a Chabrol tribute and links here.
Longtime Chabrol enthusiast Ray Young (Flickhead) has a tribute and links here.
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Director: Johnny To
By Roderick Heath
Johnny To has emerged in the past few years as a master of Hong Kong genre cinema, filling the void left by the departure and disgrace of John Woo and other industry notables in Hollywood adventures. To and Woo share characteristics, both concentrating on bristling macho dramatics, each analysing fundamental social, business, and personal bonds through the charged metaphors of the gangster film, and both channelling the influence of foreign masters like Ford, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Leone into their localised aesthetic. They’re very different in other respects, however: where Woo is usually an operatic executor of movies that are fundamentally about movies, reverent of the given structures and precepts of the genre film, To is much more of an ironist, willing to play games with his audience’s expectations in laying out standard elements and then executing simple, but brilliantly effective twists. To’s as strong a stylist as any in modern cinema, but a purposeful, efficient one, saving pyrotechnics for the moment of maximum impact, and with his dancing camerawork, lightning editing, and keen mise-en-scène, he barely wastes a frame. Election proved something of a breakthrough for him in terms of overseas attention, and it’s not hard to see why.
The story is fairly simple, but To keeps his pieces moving on the board so fast it’s a challenge to stay focused. The Wo Sing triad, one of the most notable—but far from only—illegal organisations in Hong Kong is having an election for its chairman, who serves for two-year spells. The tradition of the election is over a hundred years old, and the codes that bind the triad members together go back even further, to the days of resistance against the Manchus and the rebellions of the Shaolin monks. The two candidates to replace outgoing boss Whistle (Chung Wang) are Lam Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), two temperamentally disparate kingpins. Lok is calm, disdainful of showy expressions of power, the kind of guy who walks around his neighbourhood and converses with shopkeepers without a weapon or bodyguards, a detail which speaks of his certainty of power. He keeps a fine apartment with his son Denny (Jonathan Lee). Big D is far less restrained: married to a potent kingmaker wife (Maggie Shiu), he’s a man who smiles and cajoles with excessive pleasantness and explodes in childish tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants. And he doesn’t, when, in spite of his carefully administered bribes to some of the “uncles” who form the decisive circle of triad chiefs, Lok wins the election as the most honourable and respectable of the choices.
Big D decides to dispute the election, and kidnaps two of the uncles he blames for his loss, cranky old Long Gun (Yuen-Yin Yu) and dissolute Sam (Robert Hung), whom he’d bribed but who failed to vote for him because there wasn’t enough money to go around. He nails them inside wooden crates, and rolls them repeatedly down a mountainside until they’re bloodied, dazed messes. Calling up Whistle, he threatens their lives unless Whistle helps him in challenging the triad’s guardian of tradition, Teng Wai (Wong Tin Lam); Whistle responds by having a subordinate hide the carved dragon-motif baton that is the symbol of authority in the Wo Sing in mainland China. Big D senses he might still stake a claim to the governorship if he can get hold of the baton by proving that he has the muscle and guts to snatch the baton to those who would still deny his authority.
Getting wind of an impending clash between the quickly polarising sides, the police, commanded by stoic Chief Superintendent Hui (David Chiang), drag in all the uncles, including Lok and Big D, who, still raging at his fellow uncles who he thinks betrayed him, begins kicking Whistle in front of reporters whilst waiting to be taken into the police station. Whistle flees the violence, but is run over by a car and critically injured. The cops, desperate not to see a gang war start, only want to force the uncles to find a way to sort out their problems. But events threaten to spiral out of everyone’s control as rival bands of men loyal to Big D and the other uncles try to fetch the baton from its hiding place in Guangzhou, and an embittered Whistle tries to blab from his hospital bed.
To’s quick eye takes in a raft of small details that fill out the universe of the triad bosses with alternatively disarming and dismaying effect. Most of these gangsters aren’t actually very tough or especially good at their jobs—they’re mostly middle-age men whose days of roughneck street warfare and standover work are behind them. Amongst the younger ones, who include young punks with something to prove, and genuinely fierce warriors in need of a watchful eye, the slickest is the preternaturally cool Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo), who distributes bribes and collects debts whilst also attending seminars in finance. Small and large rituals—Teng Wai making tea for the uncles to seal their election decision; a later, full-on, religious-flavoured, blood-brother ceremony—define and seal their society. The power of ritual and tradition is simultaneously endangered, illusory, and still binding in subtle and supple ways. The governorship of the triad is established by totems and oaths, and but these are only emblems of real things, and the competition to command the emblems will finally express the reality of those symbols. As the film plays out, the meanings of those symbols become thoroughly apparent.
Election also hints at broader meanings through its title: the election, the illusion of democracy, is a sanctified ritual in the triad. But it’s only possible because of the mutual consent of powerful men, and To encompasses the history of Hong Kong and the relationship of Chinese society to centuries of hegemonic rulers both foreign and domestic. Simultaneously, what adherence to a creed means is taken seriously all the way through, even though the drama is driven by upstart Big D’s refusal to accept the rules, a breach of the creed. He threatens that if he doesn’t get his way, he will break away and form his own triad, a potent threat indeed as no one wants a war. The police know they can’t stamp out the triads, and are happy to act as something like referees in this game to reduce collateral damage; their attempts to corral the uncles before the situation combusts prove partly successful. In a moment that’s both ribald and telling, Long Gun, whilst berating Sam and Big D for failing to give a big enough bribe, orders a nubile young prostitute to jump up and down for him: those old farts are happy as long as their pockets are stuffed, their dicks are wet, and the world’s jumping to their regulated beat.
In the film’s sustained, exhilarating central movement, the battling factions and the police try to beat each other in ferrying the baton out of China, leading to the teeth-gnashing moment between two intermediate members. Kun (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung), functionary for a boss who’s signed on with Big D because he’ll sell their drugs at a higher rate, beats Lok loyalist Big Head (Suet Lam) with a log to get him to give up the baton, whilst Big Head recites the words of their triad oath, explicating the bizarre bond of corporeal grit and spiritual adherence that keeps the Triad bound together. But then Kun gets a call from his boss, telling him the plan’s changed: he’s now to make sure that the baton comes home to Lok, and he has to apologise to the bloodied, battered Big Head before immediately leaving with the baton, knocking over a policeman in his relentless drive back to Hong Kong. He then passes the baton on to motorcycle-riding, hard-as-nails kung-fu warrior Jet (Nick Cheung), who was first glimpsed in the film taking offence to Big D’s patronising jokes, which caused him to crush up and eat a ceramic spoon as a fuck-you to the wannabe overlord; we know then he’d rather die than let Big D get the baton. With Jimmy Lee, who manages to intercept him, they beat off a mob of his men, Jimmy stuffing one heavy into a barrel and stomping on the lid until he’s trapped like a Looney Tunes character and Jet finishing up with a machete jutting from his shoulder. But the pair’s grit sees them victorious and Lok gains the baton. It’s the most generically satisfying part of the film as a blindingly executed piece of action.
Terrific little details flitter by at high speed, like the “you’re full of shit!” look Jimmy wears in listening to Uncle Sam’s swearing he’s not going to gamble any more, or Teng recalling how the baton once had to be sprayed down with insecticide after the last election because the former holder was such a slob. There are points in Election where even fierce attention won’t really reward a first-time viewer. Many of the bosses and their henchmen are swiftly introduced and barely distinguishable, though that’s probably intentional. Lok’s supine calm and Big D’s hot-headed smarm are, on the other hand, very carefully contrasted to carefully manipulate initial impressions. Lok, with his calm demeanour and general reputation for honour and chivalry within the triad, seems by far the better man, yet one senses that Lok’s security in his sense of power gives him a great capacity for ruthlessness. This is proven when, to make sure Whistle doesn’t blab to the cops, he has Whistle’s son run down by a truck and threatens that his daughter will be next, causing Whistle to commit suicide by pulling out his own life support. Once the baton’s in Lok’s hands, he reaches out to Big D, bringing him into his plan to expand the Wo Sing’s turf by taking over another triad’s territory: Big D pretends then to make an alliance with that triad’s boss, Brother Dinosaur (Bo Yuen), only to team with Lok to kill him, Big D relishing stabbing and kicking the dying man. All suddenly seems right in the Wo Sing world again.
But To saves his most brutal and amazing flourish for the very end: when Lok, Denny, and Mr. and Mrs. Big D share a bucolic afternoon fishing, Big D, pleased by how things are going, suggests that he and Lok share the Wo Sing governorship as some other triad bosses have done. Lok says they’ll have to talk it over with the fellow bosses, and then, when Denny and Mrs. D are momentarily absent, he picks up a huge rock and bashes Big D’s head in with it. Mrs. D sees him and tries to run away, but Lok catches her, throttles her, and buries her with her husband in an unmarked grave, before calmly driving home with his son, who witnessed his violence, in glazed, silent trauma, into a blood-red sunset.
The ending is both a ruthlessly concise trash job on the veneer of gangland civility that brings to mind the climax of Scorsese’s Casino (1995)—indeed, the thought of Scorsese having remade this film rather than the far less inspired Infernal Affairs is a tantalising one—with its galvanising, surprisingly prolonged, and truthful violence, but it’s also a coldly logical culmination of all that has proceeded. Lok’s unremitting execution of his rival and his problematic wife is both power politics defined, and obedience to the creed of the triad. Big D has violated the society’s laws and defied the judgement of the uncles, and he pays the price for that violation in the same way that Big Head defended the laws: at the cost of having his body pummelled, but this time unto death. This hardly leavens the final disturbing vision of Lam Lok as a brutal psychopath, his son’s haunted look saying all that’s necessary about life in this world even as they slip back into their social roles. The savage excellence of this coda elevates Election far above the pack. l
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Director: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One Sunday morning in May 2000, the Stephenses, a Georgia couple in their 60s who were vacationing in Jacksonville, Florida, left their room at a Ramada Inn for some coffee. They were confronted by a man who demanded money and, tragically, Mrs. Stephens was shot and killed. With little to go on besides a description of the killer—young, skinny, black, wearing dark shorts and a t-shirt, and carrying a Derringer-type weapon—police stalked the neighborhood near the motel for someone who fit the bill. Patrol officers spotted 15-year-old Brenton Butler, skinny and black, walking on the street and decided to stop him. They asked him if he lived in the area (yes) and if he would mind talking to the investigating officers to offer any information about the neighborhood he might have (no). Butler got into the squad car and was driven to the motel. Mr. Stephens took one look at Butler seated in the back of the squad parked 50 feet away and identified Butler as the killer. Police brought Butler closer to Stephens and asked him if he was sure. “Yes. I wouldn’t send an innocent man to jail.” That ended the police investigation. Butler signed a confession and was put on trial for first-degree murder and armed robbery.
When news of the arrest was broadcast, Jacksonville public defender Patrick McGuinness was driving to his office. He recalls thinking that this young man had thrown his life away and the life of his victim. But McGuinness would soon have a change of heart: “As I learned more, I became increasingly angry.” He and Ann Finnell, a 23-year veteran of the Jacksonville public defenders office, made righteous use of their anger to defend Brenton Butler to prevent a travesty of justice from taking place.
Murder on a Sunday Morning, winner of the 2002 Oscar for best feature documentary, poses the kind of story that must have had a natural attraction for French director De Lestrade, sharing as it does similarities with Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s classic tale of criminal justice run amok. Of course, the fictional Jean Valjean, who is hunted relentlessly by police inspector Javert when he escapes from prison, did commit a crime. But, his crime (stealing bread for his starving family) and his punishment (eventually, a death sentence when his escape attempts were taken into consideration) reflected a repressive society that was willing to condemn a man just for being poor and trying to take care of his family. In the Stephens case, Brenton Butler was brought into the criminal justice system for the crime of being black near the scene of a crime, thus, the more ironically apt French title, The Ideal Culprit.
As Finnell eloquently puts it near the beginning of the film:
Officer Martin came in and candidly admitted that the only reason Brenton Butler was even stopped that morning was because he happened to be a black male walking in the neighborhood. Now think about that. That means for every African American in Jacksonville, Florida, if they happen to be walking down the street lawfully going about their own business, not doing anything wrong, that they are subject to being stopped and asked to get into a police car, and driven away from what they’re doing, and subject to being shown to the victim of a crime with the possibility that that victim would identify them under the most suggestive of circumstances, that being that they happen to be sitting in the back seat of a police car and most victims would think that they wouldn’t be sitting in the back seat of a police car unless they had done something wrong, right? So that’s where we are today in Jacksonville Florida, and I personally find that to be disgusting and reprehensible.
The film offers straightforward coverage of the pretrial preparations and trial itself from the point of view of the defense. McGuinness and Finnell are shown examining evidence collected at the scene of the crime, questioning the man who found Mrs. Stephens’ purse in a dumpster on his daily rounds of collecting aluminum cans for recycling, marking the time it would take for Butler to get to the crime scene from his home based on when his family saw him in the morning, and so forth—in other words, conducting their own investigation. The police didn’t check the purse for fingerprints, and they never recovered the murder weapon. Butler’s attorneys also tore into the confession, wondering why a young man on his way to fill out a job application at a local Blockbuster would bother after just making off with $1,200 of the Stephenses’ vacation money. Nothing added up.
De Lestrade takes us seamlessly through the knowledge and logic the defense attorneys used to reconstruct what happened after Mrs. Stephens died. Tourist killings in Florida were making the news domestically and internationally (no doubt, this is why De Lestrade learned of the case), and the police needed to put people in jail to protect the tourism industry. With a witness ID, the system could move swiftly to conviction and incarceration. Lazy, more inclined to believe a white witness than a black defendant, and skilled at getting confessions through intimidation from black defendants through a black enforcer, Det. Michael Glover, the police acted with impunity to railroad Brenton Butler. Their shoddy work and cruelty—including a beatdown by Glover of Butler—make McGuinness’ disrespectful attacks on their professionalism and character a pleasure to watch.
Particularly satisfying is McGuinness’ cross-examination of Det. James Williams, who wrote the confession that Butler signed, one that he claimed was in Butler’s own words but finally was forced to admit was his own creation. McGuinness relates in one of his typically interesting and caustic comments to the filmmakers that he and Williams talked before the testimony in the hallway. Williams, no fan of the public defender, sarcastically remarked on McGuinness’ smoking “another one of your cancer sticks.” McGuinness replied, “I always like a cigarette before sex,” accurately predicting that he was going to screw Williams in the courtroom.
It’s sad and sobering to see the Butler family deal with their ordeal. Brenton is stoic until his mother takes the stand to testify to his whereabouts on the morning of the murder. As she starts to cry, the camera moves to her son, his face wet and streaming with tears. His father prays with him from across the thick glass in the prison visitors room and says, “God don’t make mistakes,” a belief that many people, including me, would find hard to take given the circumstances of this trial. Frighteningly, the indifferent police work meant a real killer was still out on the streets able to kill again. Again, McGuinness makes this point for us. I admit, I’ve gotten so used to documentary directors narrating and inserting themselves into their films (the curse of Michael Moore), that I was jarred—in a good way—by De Lestade’s decision to let his subjects do all the talking for themselves.
Since Brenton Butler was tried and exonerated in less than an hour, we’ve seen some big changes in race relations in the United States. But the pushback has been hard, and this case is sadly echoed in the recently passed Arizona law that could see a lot of innocent people stopped, like Butler, for walking while Latino. The question of police torture and forced confessions is alive, if being given a low profile in the cowed media, in Chicago, as the trial of former Area 2 Commander Jon Burge for allegedly torturing more than 200 criminal suspects (many of them black) between 1972 and 1991, to force confessions is underway. The judge in Butler’s case, when thanking the jury for its service, called the U.S. criminal justice system the best in the world. That may be true on paper, and the judiciary worked in this case, but we’ve got quite a ways to go before we can truly claim that reputation.
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Director: Jules Dassin
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The 1940s were an interesting time for motion pictures. The first half of the decade was given over to patriotic fare and escapist entertainment to aid the morale of a nation embroiled in World War II. In the aftermath of the war, as revelations of the depth of the horror in Europe and the Far East came home with the battle-scarred men, the movies took a turn to the dark side. Proto-noir films like Detour presaged the coming paranoia of the 1950s, and films like The Best Years of Our Lives and Gentleman’s Agreement were frank about postwar realities like housing shortages, scarce jobs, a growing awareness of bigotry, and veterans broken in body, mind, and spirit. Brute Force teamed Jules Dassin, a master of crime films, and Richard Brooks, a screenwriter whose uncompromising gaze filled theatres with such forceful fare as Key Largo, Blackboard Jungle, and Elmer Gantry, for a look at postwar crime and punishment. While adhering to the Production Code dictum that crime must not pay, Brooks and Dassin took a sharp detour from the early 1940s notion of clearly defined good and evil and punished both the convicted criminals and their lawless jailors, reflecting the shadow of the concentration camp on American psyches.
Brute Force centers its action on the convicts of cell R17 in Westgate Penitentiary, which is headed by career bureaucrat Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) but run by a cop named Munsey (Hume Cronyn), whose slight body and soft-spoken manner belie his ruthlessness and ambition. When we first enter the cellblock, inmates are looking out their barred windows at a long car and saying their good-byes to one of the inmates. His stretch is up all right, but only because a hole 6 feet deep is waiting for him on the outside. Munsey had the older convict work in the dreaded drain pipe, where many convicts find illness and death.
As the car pulls away, a couple of guards escort an inmate who was absent from roll call that morning, Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), back to R17. He has spent 10 days in the hole for carrying a shiv. The prison grapevine has fingered Wilson (James O’Rear) as the source of the planted weapon, and preparations are underway to see that he gets his. Despite Wilson’s petition for leniency to inmate power broker Gallagher (Charles Bickford), the instruction “Wilson, 10:30” gets passed around. Collins manages to be in Dr. Walters’ (Art Smith) office when Wilson is cornered in the prison license-plate shop by cons with blow torches and forced into the punch press in a scene of desperate brutality. Wilson is only one of the inmates whose death can be traced back to Munsey, who ordered him to plant the shiv on Collins. The captain has forced dozens of inmates to bend to his will, or take the consequences. One of the occupants of R17 will become his next victim, the warden will bend to a new get-tough policy handed down from on high or lose his job, and cancelled parole hearings prompt Collins, his cellmates, and even the compromise-oriented Gallagher to hatch an escape plan.
Brute Force has an interesting, if occasionally stylistically jarring device for taking us inside the lives of some of the cellmates. We flash back with them to the women they left on the outside and learn a little about their crimes. Tom Lister (Whit Bissell) feared his beautiful wife Cora (Ella Raines) would leave him because he was barely scraping by as a lowly accountant. By juggling the books, he was able to embezzle enough money to buy her the fur coat she’d always wanted, but police sirens interrupted their happy moment. Collins is worried about his wife Ruth (Anne Blyth), who he learns from his lawyer is not getting a cancer operation because she won’t act without him at her side. Collins’ flashback shows him stopping to see Ruth, a paraplegic, before pulling that “one last job” that does all crooks in in the movies. The most entertaining flashback is provided by Spencer (John Hoyt), a con artist who got conned by a beautiful blonde named Flossie (Anita Colby) in a Runyon-esque short story of pithy grace. Soldier (Howard Duff, in his impressive screen debut) just wants to get back to Italy, where he hopes his girl Gina (Yvonne de Carlo) is waiting for him—sadly, his flashback shows Gina shooting her own father to protect Soldier, and she is probably in jail herself.
It is in the prison where this film is most compelling. The grind of a convict’s daily life is shown in a bleak fullness that seems real. The prison is severely overcrowded, with six or seven men in a cell. The food served up in the mess hall looks fit to hang wallpaper, not eat. The oppressiveness of the surroundings is beautifully captured in the art direction of John DeCuir and Bernard Herzbrun: the barbed wire, the guns, the medieval drawbridge to the outside that only lets men out when they’ve finished their sentence, died, or are going to work in the drain pipe. While it doesn’t match the cruel conditions of Caspar Wrede’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, that film was made in the harsh winter of northern Norway. For a set-bound Hollywood production, Brute Force does a very good job.
Dassin puts the pedal to the metal when Munsey goes about uncovering Collins’ plan. He scores a rubber-hose beating of one of Gallagher’s men with the uber-mensch strains of Wagner, a decided contrast with the tasteful undertones of film scorer Miklos Rozsa. Cronyn conducts this beating shirtless, revealing some toned muscle on his formerly unimposing form and visually suggesting the physical ideal of the Third Reich. It’s a bit over the top for a scene that would have been just as effective by focusing on the stiff rubber hose and the steadily more battered face of Munsey’s victim, but cutaways to the cringing guards outside of Munsey’s office create a nice indirect source of unease.
Lancaster, in only his second screen role, capably ushers in the new breed of physical, downscale leading men to come. Character actor Jack Overman plays a punch-drunk boxer in R17 so poignantly that he made me want to see more of him. Bickford doesn’t have a lot to do, but he’s authoritative doing it. Art Smith has the philosopher’s role in this film, and he plays it to the hilt. A drunk who has reached the end of the line working at the prison (did the prison drive him to drink or did drink limit his options to prison work?) he sees through Munsey’s plan to become warden and mocks his ambitions. He doesn’t wonder, as another character does, why men try prison breaks even though they are doomed to failure. The conditions under which the prisoners live say it all, and the film refers to real prison breaks that had been tried at San Quentin and other U.S. facilities. Interestingly, virtually all of the prisoners are Irish; the only other ethnic type called out in the script is a Caribbean inmate nicknamed Calypso (Sir Lancelot), whose off-the-cuff songs describe actions in the story. Prisons would never be this white again.
The climax of the film, of course, is the prison break attempt. It’s action-packed, thrilling, and very, very cruel. A mob of cons in the prison yard swarm guards and await their chance. It never comes, but the vision of a restless population of men must have shook postwar America by the nape of the neck. Dassin’s politics, evident in this film, proved sadly prophetic. The repression that came in the following decade forced him to flee the United States to escape the Hollywood blacklist so he could keep turning out great films like Brute Force. l
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Director: Na Hong-jin
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A South Korean film that’s been getting a fair amount of good press and audience reaction is The Chaser. It is described by most as a thriller in which former police detective turned pimp Eom Joong-ho (Kim Yun-seok), after having several of his girls go missing, tries to track down one of them, Kim Mi-jin (Seo Yeong-hie), only to find himself in the midst of a serial killer investigation. Like many South Korean films that have murder as one of their prominent ingredients, The Chaser is graphically violent. The serial killer, Jee Young-min (Ha Jung-woo), likes to bash heads in, especially those of prostitutes, who make easy targets. He prefers to drive a chisel through their brains, but he’ll make do with a hammer, a shovel, or a vase when an unexpected need (e.g., snooping neighbors) arises, as it does many times in this film. Joong-ho likes to kick the shit out of people to get the information he needs, and he’s always very impatient for an answer. So far, we’re in Dirty Harry country.
The features that I believe make this film stand out to audiences and critics alike is the extreme concentration on Eom’s desperate race to find Mi-jin, which builds suspense even as it documents the reawakening of a conscience in a pretty rotten man. As they say, scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disillusioned idealist underneath. Even as we start to understand Eom, the killer remains a cipher. Why does he kill? We don’t really know, and that irrationality tickles our fear and offers a welcome level of uncertainty in a genre that seeks to reassure with simplistic psychological profiles and explanations; indeed, this film makes fun of a psychologist who tries to do just that. The film also displays that sideways, absurdist humor for which South Korean filmmakers are justly lauded, offering an ineffectual police force to which Eom hand-delivers the killer that hatches some wacky ways to try to find evidence to hold him before he must be released. The film also displays an ironic contempt for technology, given that the country is both a leader in electronics manufacturing and has a nuclear threat just north of the border. There isn’t a single gun in the entire film, and cellphones, though plentiful and a device Eom believes will help him find Jee and Mi-jin, are ineffective. Scenes on the narrow, steep streets of Seoul provide a visually interesting and noirish atmosphere that suits the film beautifully.
Nonetheless, none of these qualities were able to cut through the intense loathing this film generated in me. The Chaser trafficks in femicide in a particular grotesque way—to redeem Eom. He was selling women’s bodies and originally thought someone was stealing his “property” to sell into a sex slave ring. That was his motivation to find Jee. Frankly, I’m not the least bit impressed with his slowly dawning guilt, blaming himself for forcing Mi-jin to service Jee when she wanted to stay home to nurse a bad cold. While I won’t deny that people can acknowledge the wrong they do and change, Na’s willingness to indulge his audience’s more prurient appetites and the abuse of a woman to allow Eom to find his soft spot are cheap and exploitative.
In case we can’t see how thick Eom is, the script bludgeons him with pathos and idiocy to ensure he changes. It lays the guilt on even thicker by giving Mi-jin a beautiful 7-year-old daughter Eom discovers when he breaks Mi-jin’s door down and whom he drags around Seoul with him and eventually has to rush to the hospital after she comes to ill in a dark alley when nobody is minding her. The film floors the pedal on Eom’s guilt when he retrieves a message Mi-jin was forced to leave in voicemail saying she’s afraid of continuing life as a prostitute because he was too busy hoofing it to where he finally figures out Jee lives to answer his cellphone. This, of course, exposes the idiot plot whereby he and the police have been looking all over the district, even looking for bodies on a nearby mountainside, even though they found Mi-jin’s car in roughly the same location where another of Eom’s missing prostitutes had parked her car and Eom has the killer’s house keys.
Women have been raped, tortured, and murdered for our entertainment with great regularity—and generally without placing these atrocities in a context that respects women—for as long as there have been serial killer movies. This convention is so well accepted that the reviews of The Chaser I’ve read (though, I’m assured, not all) don’t even comment on the femicide, preferring to concentrate on how the film comments on politics, institutions, and Eom’s character development. I noted a similar lack of critical comment about femicide in my recent review of Backyard (2009), even though that was the whole point of the movie.
In the winter 2009 issue of Cineaste, Christopher Sharret asserts in his article “The Problem of Saw: ‘Torture Porn’ and the Conservatism of Contemporary Horror Films,” that filmic serial killers seek to teach their victims a lesson in old-fashioned values and decency, with allusion to the government-sanctioned torture of terrorists out to destroy America and its wholesome values of Mom, apple pie, liberty, and justice for all. It’s not a far leap to suggest a similar message in other serial killer movies, including The Chaser, only the lesson not only encompasses sexual and social conservatism (note that when Jee decides to move on after apparently eluding prosecution, he dresses like a businessman) but also continues the fictive efforts to put women back in the place they started to abandon with the dawning of second-wave feminism in the 1970s. I think it’s very telling as our culture wars continue that this film has already been picked up for a Hollywood remake starring Leo DiCaprio as the detective/pimp antihero.
If there can be a line in the sand when it comes to films, I think I’m finally ready to draw it. Femicide should not be so normalized among film and TV producers that it goes largely unremarked upon. I earnestly ask my fellow film reviewers and audiences to stop ignoring this disturbingly ordinary plot device and bring outrage back into our collective consciousness in written reviews and other public forums. If you’re willing to do it for Native Americans, African Americans, and other put-upon people, it behooves you not to give these kinds of films a pass no matter how much they engage you (see Cinema Styles on Pixar for more).
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Director: Carlos Carrera
2009 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Radio commentator Peralta (Joaquín Cosio) tells his listeners in the greater Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua-El Paso, Texas area the facts about their home. It is the site of 60,000 legal border crossings a day as goods and cheap labor head north to American markets and American boys go south looking to lose their virginity among “our world-famous sex workers.” Ciudad Juárez also is a mecca for the poorest of the poor looking for work in the factories of the multinational companies that find costs quite reasonable; some will make a bid to cross into the United States when the border guards aren’t looking.
To Mexicans and many people around the world interested in human rights, Ciudad Juárez is notorious for its large number of unsolved kidnapping-rape-murders of women—many of them factory workers—numbering more than 1,000 over more than a decade. Keep that number in mind—I’ll get back to it.
The dead women of Ciudad Juárez have been the inspiration for works of art, museum exhibits and lectures, magazine and newspaper articles, a Jennifer Lopez film (2006’s Bordertown), and much, much speculation about serial killers, conspiracies, and sex rings. Now we have Backyard, the film Mexico has chosen as its entry for the 2009 Oscars, that seeks to provide both a narrower and broader perspective on why the women of Ciudad Juárez are dying.
Ciudad Juárez is welcoming two new women—Blanca Bravo (Ana de la Reguera), a police detective transferring from Veracruz, and Juanita Sanchez (Asur Zagada), an 18-year-old country girl leaving her back-breaking farm work for a freer, more exciting life in the city. Bravo is investigating a murder—a preserved body of a young woman who has been found in the desert with her nipple torn off. She has a gold tooth with the letter “K” stamped in it. Two women who work for a women’s aid organization recognize it as belonging to a woman named Karen, a domestic-abuse victim. Karen’s boyfriend, an Egyptian nicknamed the Sultan (Sayed Badreya), has a record for rape in the United States. Bravo brings him in and suspects that he is a serial killer. Eight more dead women are found in the desert while he is in custody; a case is made linking him to the Cheros gang that runs a nightclub in town where Juanita, called Juana, likes to party on Saturday night. But the aid workers have presented Bravo with hundreds of photos and stories of screams in the night every full moon.
Back to Juana. The minute we saw her get off the bus carrying her cardboard boxes of belongings, we knew she’d end up among the mourned of Ciudad Juárez. After moving in with her sweet cousin Márgara (Amorita Rasgada), who gets her a job at the factory, she hooks up with a traditional young man from near her hometown in Chiapas. The two converse in their native Indian language, but Juana wants to forget her country roots. The young man goes to the nightclub to meet her, only to find her dancing with someone else. Several men incite him to avenge this humiliation. He drugs her, and the men take her to an abandoned outbuilding, where, much to the young man’s horror, they all rape her and force him at gunpoint to put a plastic bag over her head. She is dumped like a sack of garbage from their van in a scene of unmitigated brutality.
Filling out the stories of these two women are the dirty dealings of the police commander (Alejandro Calva), who only wants to get a desk job in Mexico City, and the governor of Chihuahua (Enoc Leaño), who makes a large show of force to get the story about the murders out of the pages of the New York Times. Convening a task force to brainstorm ways to make the city safer for women, he brings the ideas to Texan and Japanese industrialists with factories in Ciudad Juárez. The two categorically refuse to offer financial assistance to install better lighting or hire more police officers, and actually threaten to take their business elsewhere, where labor is under the $1.08 an hour the Mexican workers earn. Lastly, we are thrown a story of Mickey Santos (Jimmy Smits), a rich Mexican who lives in El Paso and comes to Ciudad Juárez on every full moon to indulge his taste in school girls.
This film really sounds stuffed with plot threads, but they are handled fairly economically and help director Carrera paint a picture of this community that goes beyond the bogeyman horrors with which it has come to be associated. The fact is that because of a lack of resources and political will, it has become easy to get away with killing women in Ciudad Juárez, and so they continue to die. As Bravo learns, so do we—there is no serial killer or sex ring per se, just the usual femicide with more publicity. This is an important message of this grave film, and Carrera emphasizes this as a worldwide problem not only by bringing the Egyptian into the story, but also by flashing statistics of sex-related murders of women in various other Mexican cities, in South American countries, and ending with the stats for New York City—more than 3,200 dead.
The film is not entirely successful, however. Throwing in Smits’ character and then letting Bravo pump him full of lead was done to relieve the audience of its frustration and perhaps send them home without really taking the message of the film to heart. While Carrera, who attended the screening, said this film was not made to entertain, this and other touches—particularly the attractive lady detective in the Law & Order mold—are right out of the Hollywood play book. Other reviews I’ve read of this film critique it as a thriller and underplay or ignore its message—a rather chilling commentary on how even the most hideous violence against women has so completely infiltrated the entertainment industry. Looking at this aspect of the film and today’s trends and comparing them with my commentary on I Spit on Your Grave and A Question of Silence, which has become a hot topic again this week on a certain feminist site I frequent, leaves me in despair. We really haven’t confronted the issues I identified in that essay, and if anything, we’ve actually taken a step back.
Carrera mentioned that about 150 of the 1,000 cases have been solved, but that the killings continue. “We have a problem with machismo in our culture,” he said, “though things have gotten better, a little at a time.” That’s it, of course. When women are treated as fully human and not targeted simply for the crime of being female, we will finally solve the problem we seem to see only in Ciudad Juárez.
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Director: Brian Caunter
2009 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On Sunday, as the hubby and I were on our way into the AMC theatre for the day’s films, I spotted a weathered, red-haired man standing on the sunshine-filled sidewalk talking to some people. “Isn’t that the guy we saw last night in Chicago Overcoat, the detective?” I asked. Sure enough, it was. We waited patiently for said actor—Danny Goldring—to finish his conversation and then went up to him and thanked him for a great evening. He commented on how young and talented the filmmakers are. “When he hits 30, they’ll have to kick him out. Over the hill,” the veteran actor joked.
A homegrown production shot on the streets of Chicago, Chicago Overcoat is one of the hottest tickets at the festival. The advance word must have been out that this neat crime drama has all the goods. Chicago Overcoat is an amazingly professional directing debut for Brian Caunter, with assured handling of both actors and cameras, amazing cinematography and location choices, and great pacing. But it’s also clearly an homage of the neophyte filmmakers not to the crime capers of old, but rather to Quentin Tarantino. The hardboiled screenplay has an ironic, almost kitschy feel without taking much away from the reality of the characters, and it’s hard to ignore how much the lead character’s girlfriend in her synthetic black wig looks like Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction. I hope Thurman, who is receiving a Career Achievement Award from CIFF, stops by to see this small tribute to her.
The film opens in Cook County Jail, where mob boss Stefano D’Agnostino (Armand Assante) is being held for trial on various racketeering charges. He orders his lawyer to have the witnesses silenced. D’Agnostino’s second in command, Lorenzo Galante (Mike Starr), reluctantly gives the job to 65-year-old mob soldier Lou Marazano (Frank Vincent), who has been itching to make some real money after spending 20 years performing small-time strong-arm jobs.
If it’s possible for someone to be nostalgic for contract murder, then Lou is. In fact, however, he’s nostalgic for the entire way of life that is disappearing among the 31st Street Crew of mobsters he calls his family. Respect, it seems, is sorely lacking. Particularly for him. This chance will help him repair his reputation, help his divorced daughter Angela (Gina D’Ercoli) make a new start with his grandson Michael (Robert Gerdisch) apart from his insolent ex-son-in-law Joey (Mark Vallarta), and get him to Las Vegas for a comfortable retirement.
Lou’s first hit is a cinch. The second, too, except that Lou returns to an old habit of his—sending flowers to the widow of the man he’s just killed. The return of the “Flower Man” has Det. Ralph Maloney (Goldring) hot on his trail, beginning at the shop where the flowers came from. He picks Lou up for questioning. Although he’s let go for lack of material evidence, the Cicero boys decide Lou’s a liability and order his death. You don’t want to trap an old dog with his own tricks, however. Lou’s seen it all, played every part (“I’ve been the friend” who suckers the victim), and he’s not going down—not to the cops and not for his family. “Fuck that! I’m going to Vegas!” But will he be able to stay one step ahead of the many people who want to take him down?
Chicago Overcoat is a fast-paced cops-and-mobsters film that gets a bit of star power from brief appearances by Assante and Stacy Keach, who took a day off his gig at the Goodman Theatre playing King Lear to shoot a short scene as a retired cop who worked on some of the “Flower Man” hits. But it is the yeoman actors playing yeoman mobsters and cops who fill the screen with anger, regret, petty politics, and longing that propel this procedural beyond caricature. Lou’s long-suffering girlfriend Lorraine (Kathrine Narducci) hopes Lou will see her as more than a shack-up and alibi, but seems to reach her last straw; odds are, though, that she’ll still be pining for him long after he’s gone. Goldring plays an obsessed cop with equal amounts of verve and defeat. His partner, Eliot (Barret Walz), is young, handsome, and in over his head. They make a perfect team.
But it is Frank Vincent as the cold-blooded killer who’s afraid his daughter will find out he let her son hold his tommy gun who moves like a well-oiled pistol through this film, driving the action, committing to acts of sudden violence that shock and delight us, remaining himself—a family man to his real family and a hard-headed pragmatist who kisses the past good-bye the way any self-respecting Sicilian mobster would. He narrates the film with a Mike Hammer sort of patois that is sometimes too glib, but always working to convince. I was especially tickled by a line Lou has when he meets an old friend who has baited the trap for his execution. They’re talking about the old days, and his friend tells him he hasn’t been the same since his wife split. “Maybe I should talk to someone,” says Lou in a perfect send-up of Tony Soprano, “let it all out.” Genius.
I don’t know if there are any tickets left for the last screening of this wild ride of a movie. I’d be very surprised if it didn’t get a DVD release. Look for it. You’ll have a great time.
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Director: Michael Mann
By Roderick Heath
Without a by-your-leave, Public Enemies tosses the viewer into the midst of high-tensile action, as John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) seeks to bust several members of his gang out of an Indiana prison by pretending to be a prisoner under the armed escort, of another members of his gang. The hot-headedness of Ed Shouse (Michael Vieau) escalates the brilliant, daring plan into a murderous gunfight, causing the death of Walter Dietrich (James Russo), Dillinger’s mentor. John, infuriated, throws Shouse out of the getaway car.
It’s the classic Michael Mann moment—the hard-assed antihero with the shade of death in his eye who tolerates no bullshit and lives by instinct and a subterranean moral code. When Dillinger reaches Chicago to live it up, he eyes a pretty flapper, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), on the dance floor. He approaches her with heedless, existential imperative and sweeps her off her feet with his urgent ardour, making her fall in love with him practically by force of will and the pheromones of the endangered beast, a soul-mate outsider seeking some new world.
But the time for Dillinger and his associates—the famous panoply of glorified stick-up men like Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), and Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi)—is running out. The big squeeze starts from two directions. Empire-building FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), needing a hook to sell his vision for the bureau, chooses stony professional Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), after he’s killed Floyd, to head the Chicago office to take on most of the remaining gangsters. The ensuing war, in which Purvis and his inexperienced agents find themselves severely outgunned, gives Hoover new political traction. This development stokes the wrath of Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) and the other syndicate bosses whose nascent, coast-to-coast empire could be endangered by the Bureau’s broadened powers. The result is that the mob refuses to aid “freelancer” Dillinger and his bank-robbing fellows.
This also is a classic Mann moment: the lone operator facing a seemingly implacable conspiracy of corrupt overlords. The film’s liberties with the actual events are nearly as broad as any Hollywood hype, but a film further away from the sticky propaganda of, say, The FBI Story (1959) is harder to imagine. Mann’s best work is darkly, crucially romantic, with a fatalist, politicised heart. Even in his fresco-like biopic Ali (2001), Mann confirmed that his hero’s victories in the ring didn’t add up to hill of beans in the face of political and business dealings—it was only the spirit he showed that counted. Over the nearly 30 years since his debut with Thief (1981), Mann’s staked a claim as one of the most original and cohesive stylists amongst American directors. Where expectations for Public Enemies might have included deluxe retro-glam (not that it’s lacking) and idealised period stylisation, a la Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), instead of retreating into historicism, Mann looks for the germination of his concept of the modern world.
Despite its vintage material, Public Enemies is an urgently contemporary film, with the vigour of its editing and filming, the thunderous force of its intriguingly naturalistic action sequences, eliding the standard beats of period melodrama storytelling and instead immersing immediately in a teeming narrative. The use of handheld, often digital, cameras and natural lighting infuses the screen with a woozy, sooty, physically forceful grace (and yet Mann doesn’t trade in the incoherence that’s become the new mark of Hollywood cool). Which is not to say that there’s no connection between Mann’s eye and that of the culture of the period; like Hitchcock and Lang in their post-expressionist cinema, Mann offers up compositions that turn rows of convicts and hulking machines into cubist arrangements, charging objects with threat and watching the world of men bleed into that of anonymous technology. The FBI agents lurk in telephone exchanges, trying to master the new arts of electronic surveillance, the lights of the exchange glimmering like visions of twisted alchemist.
Kinship between experts and their tools is another familiar Mann fascination. Like most truly great directors, Mann is intrigued by detail, by process, by wanting to show how we get to a point—watching Dillinger’s intricate understanding of his weapons, the agents in their fastidious methods, as technology becomes as much symbiotic partner for the efforts of his protagonists. James Caan in Thief, was some superheated vision of a scifi novel swathed in his gear as he burnt his way into a safe; Graham walked and talked himself into a serial killer’s perspective in Manhunter (1987); Ali relentless training his body, holding outside himself every taunt and pleasure until the time comes; even Hawkeye with his long rifle in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), the basic avatar of Mann’s identification figures. Here, the gangsters wield their Tommy guns and BARs with ruthless force, and Purvis and the agents return with whatever ruthless force they have—the law and the fist.
Mann’s stylisation turns these gunfights into urban guerrilla warfare that could be off the streets of Baghdad or Falluja, an angle that dances close to political allegory that deepens as Hoover presses Purvis to “take the white gloves off.” This directive reaches its nauseating apex when first Tommy Carroll (Spencer Garrett) is tortured for a hideout’s location, and then Billie is arrested (or is it renditioned?) and beaten by an agent (Adam Mucci) to force her to give up Dillinger’s hiding place; when she sends him on a wild goose chase, his wrath is only forestalled in the nick of time by Purvis. And yet Purvis is the face of the new, implacable authority hunting down the enemies of the new world, where Dillinger is the spirit of apolitical social revolution, an anarchist without a pamphlet, calling to mind Mann’s pointed presentation of nascent American independent Hawkeye as technical traitor and outlaw in his society. Mann finds in these furious confrontations of the will to enforce versus the will to resist, plus with the cacophonous power of modern weapons, the root of more contemporary issues. Dillinger finds fellowship with Billie through their mutual resentment and seething frustration. Whether in or outside the establishment, Mann’s heroes always come into conflict with some cabal within that establishment, their own fundamental rebelliousness sometimes liberating them, but more often condemning them to try to face down the engine coming at them. Mann renders his landscapes bony in spareness, forebodingly shadowed, a lunar landscape from which assurance and warmth are bled away.
The entwining of a pair of strong men in conflict, and yet with more similarities than differences, is obviously similar to Heat (1995), but also familiar from the inside-out opposition of Chingachgook and Magua in Mohicans, Graham and Lecter in Manhunter (1986), and Woermann and Kaemplfer in The Keep (1984). But here the mirror is less the efficiently humourless, cocky Purvis, than the canny old Dallas lawman Charles Winstead (the great Stephen Lang) Purvis brings in to give his crew some old-school muscle, and it’s Winstead who delivers the bullet to Dillinger and the tragic last words he mutters to Billie. But Dillinger and Purvis are firmly linked in terms of ethics: neither will cross a certain line to achieve their ends. Purvis won’t allow torture of a woman; Dillinger won’t go into the easier, more lucrative business of kidnapping. The mirroring usually leads to a moment in which the hero steps outside himself, as Ali does in surveying the pictures of himself as world-beating colossus drawn by poverty-stricken villagers. For Dillinger, this moment happens when, with a brazenly, yet curious boyishness, he walks into the FBI office entirely devoted to his capture, looks over the information they have on him, and finds the staff lazily listening to a ball game on the radio, assuming he’s just another blow-in agent.
Mann’s women have become nearly as signature as Howard Hawks’. Wary but hopeful, spunky but aware of their own endangerment in a hostile world, they’re attracted as if by gravity to men who usually bring on destruction. Cotillard’s smoky-eyed beauty, already well utilised for femmes fatale in Une Affair Privée (2002) and A Very Long Engagement (2004), sinks effortlessly into Mann’s milieu as a woman whose needy readiness to believe Dillinger’s pie-in-the-sky promises ought not to be confused with weakness. When Billie’s carted off to prison, Dillinger shacks up quickly enough with Romanian immigrant Anna Sage (Branka Katic) and blowsy call-girl and aspiring waitress Polly Hamilton (Leelee Sobieski). But his heart belongs to Billie, to whom he kisses “Bye bye, Blackbird” in his dying breath.
Inevitably, the climax, in which Dillinger is gunned down outside the Biograph Theatre, has a quality of letdown, and yet Mann stages it with operatic verve, building through cross-cutting montage tied with a swirling score (as in his great finales to The Keep, Manhunter, and Mohicans) until the startling moment in which Dillinger is shot, the bullet bursting out through his face and leaving him sprawled on the sidewalk. Depp, here free of Disney and Tim Burton, gets to do his most graceful, subtle acting in a while, giving heft to Mann’s essential accord with the spirit, if not the style, of all those old-school gangster flicks: the villain’s much more likable than the supposed goodies.
Tough, grim, complex, and bristling with energy, it’s the best film I’ve seen this year. l
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