Wednesday, January 17, 2018

2017 in the 60s

Birdman of Alcatraz - John Frankenheimer - What I love about prison films are the sympathies with the incarcerated the audience automatically and instantly has. The recognition that this is a fucked up situation and that nothing matters so much as the prisoner's desire to be free and pursue that freedom through whatever means they can. Does the movie address the crimes of the real Robert Stroud? Not really. But that's because they're not important to recognizing in him (in Burt Lancaster's performance) his essential worth and the waste of his latent potential the punitive system (embodied by the always wonderful Karl Malden) seems indifferent, if not outright opposed, to. I like to recast every prison or ex-con movie I see with whoever the latest most-hated figure of the day is to see how it holds up... could I have the same response to this movie if the character's name was instead... Harvey Weinstein? Mitch McConnell? Food for thought.

Bullitt - Peter Yates - Style over substance is an empty, meaningless criticism: exhibit A.

Cash on Demand - Quentin Lawrence - Sometimes criminal undertakings are woefully over-simplified, other times they're way too complicated. Neither has to be an insurmountable obstacle to enjoying a fiction though. This one falls into the overly complicated approach to robbing a bank taken by the crew of this film. Made on the cheap by Hammer Studios its use of a single primary location makes it feel like it was adapted from a stage play or perhaps made for TV, but though we're stuck in an improbable situation and an uninteresting location for the run time we get through because we're stuck there with Peter Cushing.

The Chase - Arthur Penn - A prison break stirs up the social unrest in the home town and assumed destination of escapee Robert Redford (young, pretty Robert Redford as possibly the least threatening desperado ever committed to film). Marlon Brando plays the Sheriff of the community in question, Assumed to be in the pocket of local societal elites by everybody in town he suffers indignities at every turn while racial, sexual and economic pressures mount throughout the course of one long, hot Texas day. Fuck, I loved every minute and every complicated relationship and situation of this stage play adaptation (adapted by Lillian Hellman from playwright Horton Foote) that gives melodrama a good name.

A Colt is My Passport - Takashi Nomura - Released the same year as Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill (the better remembered yakuza picture also starring Jô Shishido) this one is a straight-forward hardboiled thriller full of romantic notions for codes of honor among gangsters. Shishido and Jerry Fujio are assassins and partners hired to kill the head of arival  yakuza family, but upon completion of their mission find themselves trapped in a strange city and cut off from the support of their own organization whose leadership have struck a hasty new deal with the rival family and offered the killers up as a goodwill sacrifice for the new partnership. The pair of killers have only each other, their wits and their guts to help them survive.

The Criminal - Joseph Losey - Terrific vehicle for Stanley Baker - whose name I'm fucking embarrassed to know only in the last couple of years (if he hadn't died youngish he'd surely have been as recognized as say Sean Connery, right?) - from blacklisted American Losey making films in Europe. It's not one of the angry, politically-fueled films from Losey, in fact it's got the care-free surface of a Guy Ritchie British crime caper, but it's a jaunty middle finger to law and order in the name of initiative and self-serving outside the system operating we call criminality.

El Dorado - Howard Hawks - John Wayne and Robert Mitchum star in this bromance of legendary proportions - Mitchum as the full-time drunk of a sheriff and Wayne as the hired killer with a soft spot for the little guy. When Wayne hires on as muscle for a big rancher muscling his way into ultimate power in a small town he flips sides instantly when he discovers he's been put up against his long time friend who's now the sheriff. The raggedy duo bring a couple other unlikely allies into their stand against the man and fucking shoot it out because fuck if they're gonna represent the favorite. Fuck yeah. One of the things I love most about the whole affair is that it's not a question of morality, but of friendship, that turns the Wayne character so easily and finally. He's been a hired thug plenty of times, but he'll be damned if he's gonna cross his buddy, fuck you very much.

Farewell, Friend - Jean Herman - Alain Delon and Charles Bronson as an odd-couple of mercenaries teaming up to rob a French corporation. That... that's about as sure-fire a formula for success as I've heard. Hat tip to Andrew Nette for the heads up on this one.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much - Mario Bava - Full of visual flare, but still restrained by Bava standards, it's a moderately effective Giallo of gaslighting and amnesia with minimal, but lovely stabbings.

In the Heat of the Night - Norman Jewison - Sidney Poitier is a sharp, educated, black, big city homicide detective passing through a deep-south small town on the night of a murder.. Initially he's picked up as a suspect by the racially hostile police force, but when police chief Rod Steiger realizes the resource he is, he asks him to help in the investigation.

The Italian Job - Peter Collinson - Lightweight caper picture in the vein of, (but not quite on the level of) breezy entertaining heist fare like Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven with Michael Caine at the fore. Small risk, small reward. Not sure why this one was selected for a big budget remake, unless it was to sell Mini-Coopers.

The Killers - Don Siegel - Inspired by more than based on Ernest Hemingway's short story about a man who doesn't resist fate when his murderers suddenly arrive. The short story had an acquaintance of the victim left to wonder why he seemed so resigned to his fate while this version of the big screen adaptation (a great case for remakes not being an automatically bad idea - as much as I love Robert Siodmak's version, I prefer this one) leaves the question in the mind of Lee Marvin, one half of a team of assassins who, once his job is completed, investigates the why of it all. I love the lurid, over-saturated colors, the cast (including John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager, Angie Dickinson and Ronald Reagan) and the hardboiled energy.

The League of Gentlemen - Basil Dearden - The type of let's get the gang together and throw a heist fare that lives and dies on the cast's chemistry and the director and editor's success in sustaining tone, plus the audience's inclination to go along. Nobody gets too bent out of shape about things like danger or dying in a most British fashion. Fine if you're in the mood.
Mirage - Edward Dmytryk - Gregory Peck stumbles charmingly out of place through an office party and shares an awkward encounter with Diane Baker when the building's power is cut and they emerge from the dark of the stairwell onto the street where a colleague has apparently jumped to his death. The blackout is more far reaching than just the electricity though as Peck begins to realize he's missing a couple of years' worth of recent memory. Strange things begin happening to him - threats from strangers with guns, people suspicious of him - and he hires private investigator Walter Matthau to look into his own past. An amnesia/conspiracy thriller at turns good-humoredly winning and irritatingly obtuse, but ultimately chillingly effective in its byzantine structure and final reveals.

The Naked Kiss - Samuel Fuller - After the startlingly good opening sequence where we're treated to Constance Towers, playing a bald prostitute, beating the shit out of her pimp before hitting the road and quitting the town, the film's pace slows considerably as we follow her to a new city where she's told by the police chief to keep moving. Instead she gives up sex work and starts over as a nurse living a quiet suburban life, and the whole affair becomes a drama of manners and sexual taboo that seems a little quaint and tame and stuck in its time until the real underlying ick is uncovered. Goes from goofy and awkward (wtf with that musical number?) to super frankly, disturbingly dark awfully quick.

Peeping Tom - Michael Powell - What a fucking great psycho-sexual serial killer flick. An absolute treat to look at with its super saturated colors and light and shadow compositions, and if Vertigo is the ultimate precursor to De Palma's main aesthetic this one is probably second.

Point Blank - John BoormanLee Marvin was front and center in two of my favorite neo-noirs, this one and Don Siegel's The Killers, where the slightly psychedelic sensibilities of the sixties infuse the otherwise familiar hardboiled tropes they execute with conviction while subtly playing with if not outright subverting. Both a time-capsule and a still vital piece of celluloid pulp.

Psycho - Alfred Hitchcock - Love the audacity of killing off the movie star and switching protagonists halfway through, the technical brilliance of the shower scene and all that, but my favorite bit is the perversity of making us root for Anthony Perkins' monstrous killer in a move so simple and absolutely effective as that hick-up in his cover-up of the crime when the car looks like it's not going to sink into the bog after all. He's got us in his corner in an instant and he knows it so surely his look toward the camera is blackly hilarious.

Shock Corridor - Samuel Fuller - A journalist goes undercover in a mental hospital to investigate a murder and finds it a struggle to stay sane. In classic Fuller style this one goes back and forth between tediously on the nose scenes and speeches to surprisingly sophisticated and daringly frank audience confrontation. Watch it alongside William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration and see if you go nuts in the process.
The Shooting - Monte Hellman - Warren Oates gets an all-too-rare lead role and does not fucking squander it in this shoe-string, but terrific western produced by Roger Corman as one half of one of his shoot-two-pictures-at-the-same-time-in-the-same-locale-and-share-the-cast specialties. I think I slightly prefer this one to its sibling Ride the Whirlwind which also starred (screenwriter) Jack Nicholson.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold - Martin Ritt - As an antidote to hedonistic escapist Ian Fleming style spy films about hot seduction and high action in exotic locale this is a John Le Carre spy movie about cold seduction and very little action in depressingly drab locale... and it's riveting. Especially Richard Burton - he's electrically still amid the tensions of this decidedly downbeat example of cold war heroics.

Stop Me Before I Kill - Val Guest - A race car driver recovering his nerve after a terrible accident fantasizes openly about strangling his wife. His psychiatrist assures him he can work this out.

Underworld U.S.A. - Samuel Fuller - Easily my favorite and the most across the board successful film of Fuller's I've seen. It's a gangster revenge epic with sharp focus and clear intent and it delivers the goods.

Victim - Basil Dearden - A group of men associated through affairs with the same dead young man are being blackmailed and struggle to keep up with the extortion demands - some turning to crime to make money, all of them increasingly desperate. One of them is a successful barrister who stands to lose his career and possibly even face charges if outed as homosexuality was still against the law in the UK. Supposedly the first English language film to use the word homosexual.

Young Savages - John Frankenheimer - Burt Lancaster stars in this slightly embarrassing portrait of the origins of white flight and the deep rooted fear that America's underclass will eventually rise up and beat us to death with their calloused, underprivileged hands. Embarrassing because the naked fear exposed by decades of cinematic maturation and sophistication makes us realize they've been making the same damn picture - this time with a liberal bent, just as often with a conservative one - forever and we're just as silly about juvenile crime now as we ever were. Still, Frankenheimer employs some eye-catching visual flares once in a while that keep this thing watchable.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

2017 in the 50s

Anatomy of a Murder - Otto Preminger - Court room drama generally ain't my jam. Luckily this one spends a lot of time outside of official proceedings with the likes of Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara. Unfortunately I am a philistine who doesn't care for jazz soundtracks in general. Final judgement - a sharp looking, nice-looking meh.

Armored Car RobberyRichard Fleischer - You know who would've made a hell of a (Richard Stark's) Parker? William Talman, that's who. Probably Charles McGraw too now that I think of it. Twenty years early, but if you dig that shit, you'll like this one too. Lean, mean and self-describing.
The Big Heat - Fritz Lang - Perfectly hardboiled fare and certainly a must for sons of Lee Marvin whose turn as sadist Vince Stone is probably the standout for the whole picture.

CompulsionRichard Fleischer -Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman as Leopold and Loeb (or Steiner and Strauss if you will) deliver engaging performances as the spoiled psychopaths and Orson Welles gets to speechify satisfactorily at the end, but for my money the film could've used a deeper look at the budding killers that climaxed with the crime or the arrest. Stockwell especially is unnerving and I wanted more time with him making my skin creep.

Crime in the Streets - Don Siegel - Biggest smile is "and introducing John Cassavetes" in the opening credits otherwise it feels like a made-for-TV level offering from the usually top-shelf Siegel. Too bad.

Diabolique - Henri-Georges Clouzot - A petty tyrant's murder is plotted and carried out by the women whose lives he makes most miserable, his wife and his mistress, but when his corpse disappears the co-conspirators find their plan shot, their resolve tested and their sanity strained. Adapted by Clouzot (who also adapted Georges Arnaud's book Wages of Fear for the screen) from the novel by Pierre Boileau, it's a classic noir setup and classy atmospheric treat where suspense and spookiness intercept. The film stars Véra Clouzot, wife and frequent collaborator of director Clouzot, and Simone Signoret whose physical resemblance to Sharon Stone I could believe was enough to have been the kick off for the Stone-starring 1996 remake (alongside Isabelle Adjani and Chazz Palminteri) as the femmes fatale and Paul Meurisse as the suitable object of violence.

Dial 1119 - Gerald Mayer - Nice little hostage stand off flick with a particularly strong turn from Marshall Thompson in the lead. His clean-cut, all-American looks hardly ruffle as he murders a man in the opening minutes setting the stage for a showdown we know will take further lives.

Edge of Doom - Mark Robson - Farley Granger is a working-class kid with a big religious chip on his shoulder doing his best to care for his sick mother. Dad was a suicide and denied a Catholic funeral and when mom dies the kid's attempt to get some help or at least acknowledgement is met with general indifference from the clergy and the big, hard city and little more than obtuse posturing from the church. Murder happens.

Fingerprints Don't Lie -Samuel Newfield - What a forensics-based slog. Ugh. Sid Melton's non-sequitur comic sketches fall flat while managing to be the best parts of the film.

House on Telegraph Hill - Robert Wise - Two women in a Nazi concentration camp develop a bond and when one of them dies leaving behind a fortune and a family in America her identity is assumed by the other when the camp is liberated. Her assumed identity helps her escape one set of problems only to set up many more. Romantic suspense is a tough target to bullseye (maybe for me more than you) and this one fell short for me in tone. Wise did terrific hardboiled and mean as shit noir with Born to Kill, delivered suspense in Run Silent, Run Deep and succeeded in romance with West Side Story. The elements don't all gel into a perfect whole and it succeeds and fails on a scene by scene basis.

Illegal - Lewis Allen - Edward G. Robinson is an upright D.A. who sends DeForest Kelley to the electric chair before realizing he was an innocent man. Distraught over his mistake he quits his job and briefly becomes a drunk before realizing his new calling as a defense attorney who employs all manner of trick to get his clients off. The tricks start off amusing, become silly and then loyalties are split between the upright and the leaning. Meh.

Kansas City Confidential - Phil Karlson - When the patsy for an armored car heist gets wise to his predicament he decides to cut himself in on the take tracking down the thieves and posing as one of them. Tough as hell tone and a great cast including Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Neville Brand and John Payne (who went on to star in 99 River Street and Hell's Island for Karlson) make this one an all-timer recommendation.

The Left Handed Gun - Arthur Penn - Based on the Gore Vidal play inspired by the exploits of Billy the Kid, this production, despite its deep bench of talent suffers in comparison to Young Guns for its lack of Kiefer Sutherland.

The Lineup - Don Siegel - Big screen version of the small screen series that was essentially Dragnet in San Francisco. Lucky for us Siegel and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant threw the TV show's formula out the window and gave much more screen time to our trio of heavies Eli Wallach, Robert Keith and Richard Jaeckel than an episode ever would have. It's pretty plodding police fare until the focus shifts to the villains who really chew that scenery. Wallach and Keith especially hint at some dark psychic corners and depraved depths that time and the production code would never allow to be fleshed out. That's just as well - hints are often better than explicit explanations. They manage to pull off many a blackly-comic moment including a bath house sequence nearly as memorable as those in T-Men or Eastern Promises. The plot involving the most ridiculous heroin smuggling scheme ever is a one-crazy-day tour of the City by the Bay that leaves about as much blood on the pavement as Siegel's other Frisco film, Dirty Harry.

99 River Street - Phil Karlson - This one's the goods. Everything you want in a noir film - seedy atmosphere, class resentment, sexual distrust, men who only know how to solve their problems with violence and the men and women who manipulate them, moody cinematography. Bonus points for depictions of probably the two most thematically essential film noir occupations: fighter and cab driver. Fuckin-A.

On Dangerous Ground - Nicholas Ray - Robert Ryan turns in an electric performance as a hardboiled, even unhinged, violent cop trying to do a good job outside of his big city beat when he finds himself  demoted to a rural area and investigating a murder in the mountains. Ida Lupino plays a blind woman Ryan becomes involved with and who, as the sister of his suspect, significantly complicates his case. This one bristles with alternate energies generated by the leads and could have something to do with the dual directors as this one includes uncredited direction from Lupino to boot. Whatever the reason it's a top-notch noir.

On the Waterfront - Elia Kazan - One of those beloved pictures that tends to be reduced to a single scene or line of dialogue and you forget how great it actually is till you re-watch it. Plus, Karl Malden is always worth paying attention to on screen - one of those rare character actors you absolutely believe as the salt or scum of the earth depending on what the script suggests. The social conscience of his pictures coupled with his actions during the HUAC hearings make a Kazan an endlessly interesting figure whose personal life, try as I might, I'm not capable of separating from his art.

Orders to Kill - Anthony Asquith - Paul Massie plays an American fighter pilot who speaks french is trained to assassinate a member of the french resistance suspected of being a double agent (Leslie French). The heroic soldier eager to prove himself begins to have doubts about his mission and issues of morality and duty dominate the middle of the picture while the final act is a surprisingly engaging post-action character resolve. Worth noting that Lillian Gish has a small role while Irene Worth's resistance contact is the most compelling character and I found myself wishing for more time spent with her.

The Phenix City Story - Phil Karlson - The interview portions are a clunky device for exposition, but there's no denying the immediacy of the real locale street shots, the seedy brothels and casinos and the violence is potent - especially the murder of a young girl, just damn, you feel it.

The Racket - John Cromwell - Robert Mitchum, the face that gave no fucks, as a crusading policeman? Who smoked up that premise? It probably helps us swallow the conceit that Mitchum never wears a police uniform. Mitchum's cop is squared off against Robert Ryan's gangster in this remake of Lewis Milestone's 1928 adaptation of Bartlett Cormack's play of the same name. The best bits here are the details depicted of the inner-workings of the titular criminal empire so deeply entrenched into the life of the city they're practically legit - the toughest, most crooked racket there is.

Roaring City - William Berke - This one gives cheapies a good name. Lot of fun to watch handsome Hugh Beaumont talk tough and smooth. It's private eye fare that starts with fixed fights and escalates to murder and nobody takes any of it too seriously. The writing is cartoonish and cheesy, but Beaumont chews it well, and every time he sticks a pipe in his mouth it's fun to imagine Ward Cleaver fucked off to the gutter to live by his wits - make for a hell of a beat novel or Men's Adventure series.

Shake Hands With the Devil - Michael Anderson - An a-political American medical student is slowly recruited into the Irish Republican Army after experiencing the brutality of the black and tans, but he eventually comes to cross purposes with their fiery and charismatic leader in 1921.

The Sniper - Edward Dmytryk - A young man so afraid of women that he takes to shooting them for kicks ought to sound a lot more far-fetched than it does. I have no idea how it struck audiences at the time, but holy shit, how depressing is it that this feels so readily believable?

Time Without Pity - Joseph Losey - This race against the clock mystery about a bad father trying to clear his son's name before he's executed is fine, but suffers when compared to some of Losey's better work.

Union StationRudolph Maté - I kinda love movies that take place on trains and I most certainly love William Holden on screen so this cat and mouse kidnapping thriller's a no brainer.

Vertigo - Alfred Hitchcock - Somehow I always underestimate how gorgeously produced this deeply fucked up story is. Perhaps more than any other single movie may be most responsible for Brian De Palma's career - everything from the obsession of Jimmy Stewart, and the split identity of the Kim Novak to the technical precision of the staging and editing and the sensual surreality of the lighting. It's just a great flick.

Western Pacific Agent - Sam Newfield - The hunt for a killer riding the rails is intermittently interesting as the action stays with the bindle-stiff killer on the run after robbing a pay load of marked bills, but the investigation-end of things is pretty pat. Note to self: tramps are more interesting protagonists than cops. Sid Melton offers comic relief.