Thursday, May 4, 2017

Man Out of Prison: Scott Adlerberg

I know more about movies than probably 95% of the population, but less about film than two-thirds of my friends. One of the greatest pleasures of trips to various crime cons and N@B events are the conversations with my favorite nerds who wear their brainy obsessions well, and nobody wears theirs nattier than Scott Adlerberg.

I reach out to Scott for guest spots because he's not publishing this shit anywhere else. If the dude had his own blog or regular column in a film rag I could go there for a fix, but I have to hit him up at the bar in Philly or New York or New Orleans or Raleigh or wherever the hell I'll see him next... or talk him into writing me a piece for HBW.

Yeah, it didn't make the deadline for Man Out of Prison month, but this was worth the wait.

Thanks, Scott - the floor is yours.

I’ve been reading and enjoying the Man out of Prison posts here and asked Jed for an opportunity to list some of my own. He said sure, go for it, and I started thinking. So many of these films have been made, but which ones are my favorites? I tried not to talk about movies already mentioned in this series, though once or twice I think I did include a film somebody else wrote about, mainly because I like the film too much not to discuss it.

So, here goes.

Dark Passage (1947): directed by Delmer Daves

A familiar classic adapted from the David Goodis novel, but still, to this day, one of the stranger man out of prison films. It’s also a prime example of the man gets plastic surgery tale. Humphrey Bogart, in San Quentin for killing his wife, busts out of the joint, and gets his face changed. He insists he's innocent of murder, and with the help of Lauren Bacall, who he’s just met, he sets about investigating who really killed his wife. He also needs to find out who, since his escape, killed a man he considered a friend. It’s a film that noirish, for sure, but it does have a happy ending.

Couple of things about the movie. At least half of it uses the subjective camera technique. During those scenes, we see everything through Bogart’s eyes. The plot drives this, so the technique doesn’t seem gratuitous, and director Daves is able to keep the camera moving enough in these scenes to keep everything lively. This is also a film, oddly, that French surrealist artists of the 1940s and 50s admired: the way the plot unfolds, with absurd twists and coincidences but like a wish-fulfillment fantasy of the protagonist, who can change his identity and entire being through surgery, is something that appealed to them.

For whatever reason, this is still the Bogart-Bacall film that gets the least attention. I’m not sure why. I for one think it’s better than Key Largo.

Pale Flower (1964):  directed by Masahiro Shinoda

A Japanese man out of prison film, Pale Flower is a black and white, widescreen beauty. A middle-aged yakuza named Muraki gets out of jail after serving a term of a few years and becomes involved with a seductive young woman, Saeko, who he discovers is a gambling addict. While he's an old-school gangster, stoical to the core, she's an impulsive thrill seeker. She's well-to-do and seems to be slumming it in the underworld. He falls for her, and it seems that the life force she possesses will be something that helps him rejuvenate himself and re-adapt to the outside world. Is this just the old story of a man achieving redemption through a woman's love? Not exactly. Saeko’s penchant for taking chances and seeking out danger actually is a full-throttled self-destructiveness, and Muraki realizes that if he stays with her, she will destroy them both. Still, can he go back to the empty life he had before he met her?

This film has an odd mood, at once swoony and detached. Most of the film takes place at night, on rainy streets or in gambling dens, and the shadow of doom seems to hang over everything. There’s a gangster subplot to go along with the twisted romance,  and Muraki finds himself in the middle of a mess, with life-defining choices to make. Considering how unbalanced people on the outside can be, maybe prison wasn’t so bad after all.

Mona Lisa (1982): directed by Neil Jordan

Here’s another movie where a guy out of prison, Bob Hoskins, falls for a woman. But in this case the woman, Cathy Tyson, keeps her emotions somewhat hidden so that her agenda is difficult to read. Until the very end, that is, when the protective and hopeful hero gets an unpleasant shock in the sort of twist Neil Jordan loves to deliver.

I liked 
Mona Lisa a lot when I first saw it, a bit less so on a second viewing years later. It’s still a film worth seeing, though, because it has a beautifully modulated bittersweet mood and a terrific feel for both its seedy London underworld and the posh hotels where Tyson’s character, a high-class prostitute, meets her clients. It also has great acting, with Hoskins playing a yearning loser type as well as he played the dynamic Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday. Every emotion Hoskins feels, you feel also. Robbie Coltrane, pre-Cracker, is his friend trying to dispense sensible advice, and it’s a pleasure when Michael Caine, as likeable an actor who ever lived, forgoes charm and gives us vicious, which he does here as a crime boss. No man out of prison film I've seen is more about romantic illusion than this one.

The Horse’s Mouth (1958): directed by Ronald Neame

Alec Guinness is painter Gulley Jimson, who begins the film being released from jail after a one month sentence. He was locked up for continually harassing his patron (who’s Ernest Theisger – Dr. Praetorious in The Bride of Frankenstein) by telephone. The first day Jimson’s back on the streets, he resumes his pestering calls to his patron, and things get more unhinged from there, as Jimson proceeds to do whatever he can to secure money and find locations to paint.  If that means entering a couple’s apartment when he knows the couple will be on vacation for six weeks, he’ll take over that apartment, along with his helpers and bohemian friends, so that he can do a painting on a blank wall there. Never mind that he and his eccentric crew wreck the place. Never mind that on their return the couple fall through a hole now in the floor. Jimson got his painting done, no apologies necessary, and he can move on to what he needs to do next.

The Horse’s Mouth is not a crime film, though actually Gulley Jimson commits a bunch of small crimes – call them misdemeanors – in pursuit of his calling. He can’t be stopped. The film’s climax, when he enlists kids and acolytes to help him paint a gigantic mural on the wall of a church they know will soon be demolished, is hilarious, disturbing, and touching – like the entire film. Alec Guinness himself adapted Joyce Cary’s novel of the same name, and he creates an implacable character you can’t forget. I’ve seen The Horse’s Mouth countless times and recommend it to friends often.

Pretty Poison (1968): directed by Noel Black

Young man leaves a mental institution on parole, and said young man becomes enamored of a girl on the outside. Here we go again, with a familiar plot outline. And when the man is Anthony Perkins, disturbed, fidgety, perhaps delusional, we have to think, considering his most famous film role, that he will be the agent of destruction in this story, if destruction there will be. There is, there’s killing, but not because the parolee wanted things to happen that way.

Perkins brings feeling and sympathy to his role, and to hers, his co-star, Tuesday Weld, brings ice. As high school student Sue Ann Stepenek, she’s chilling. She’s a smiling seductive cheerleader whose ruthlessness is not initially apparent. Weld was always compelling in her roles, and in her long career, this has to rank among her best performances. She did not get along with the director during the filming and has said that she hated the film, but it’s one that holds up very well with time. It’s part neo-noir, part psychological thriller, part black comedy, part young lovers in trouble story, and it’s among the first films I can think of that explores the darkness beneath the surface of bland, pleasant suburban America. Watch Pretty Poison now and you see its influence on many filmmakers, including David Lynch, the Lynch of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.

 Buffalo 66 (1998): directed by Vincent Gallo

Is there any film except this one that has a scene where the prisoner, minutes after his release, is knocking on the prison gate to get back in because he has to take a pee and doesn’t want to do it outside? That’s Buffalo 66 in a nutshell – unpredictable, eccentric, funny, sad, and somehow very true to the absurdities of life. The stories about how director/writer/star Vincent Gallo clashed on the set with cinematographer Lance Acord, Anjelica Houston and most of all Christina Ricca are well known, but however contentious the production was, he finished up with a one of a kind film.

Gallo’s character, Billy Brown, is not quite like any other cinema guy who’s left prison. For one thing, romantic feelings don’t come easy to him. Though he kidnaps a woman (Ricci) and makes her pretend to be his wife, he does everything he can throughout the film to resist any affection she shows him. You might say he’s an anti-romantic, and it’s bracingly refreshing, not to mention comical, to see a character like this. By the end, when he does undergo a change, you feel that the progress he made in allowing himself to connect with another human being has been, as drama, totally earned.

The Eel (1997): directed by Shohei Imamura

A man who’s been out fishing comes home early and finds his wife in bed with another man. He stabs her repeatedly with a knife as she stares up into his face.  When she’s dead, he covers her body with a sheet. Soaked with her blood, he rides his bicycle to the police station and turns himself in.

So begins The Eel, a late work from the great Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura. After that opening scene, the film picks up years later when the man, Yamashita, is let out of jail on parole and opens a barber shop with the intention of living his life quietly. He says he’s done with women and shows little inclination to mix with anyone while he goes about serving customers in his shop. His sole companion is the pet eel he’s brought with him from prison. He keeps it in a large tank and addresses most of his conversation to the eel while avoiding talk with people. As Yamashita puts it to the curious customers who ask him about it, “He listens to what I say.” It’s also true that the eel is his ideal companion because it doesn’t say stuff he might not want to hear.

Try as he does to stay detached from life, complications ensue, and Yamashita’s existence becomes entangled with a woman, Keiko, whose life he saves after she attempts suicide. Keiko is as damaged as he is and comes with her own family baggage. When she begins working in his shop, a number of figures start intruding on both, and The Eel becomes a study of two people wary of each other trying to make new lives for themselves even as outside forces make things difficult for them.

Remorse, guilt, sadness, fear, jealousy, punishment, dreams, nightmares, hope, the desire to persist and survive – The Eel shies away from nothing. Yet it moves with an easy flow and contains no melodrama. Though the film simmers with tension (after all, we’ve seen what Yamashita is capable of), Imamura maintains a light touch. He’s too wise and tough a filmmaker to do a standard and predictable story about redemption, but he draws you into the characters painful lives fully. Pain and bleakness, yes, but from all the difficulty, people might just be able to get past the barriers others create and that, very much, they’ve erected for themselves. Wounds don’t heal completely, but a modicum of happiness is possible.

I’ve Loved You So Long (2008): Phillipe Claudel

In France, in the mid-size city of Nancy, a former doctor named Juliette Fontaine leaves prison and moves in with her sister, her sister’s husband and father, and the married couple’s two young adopted daughters. Juliette is a woman not without a mordant wit but whose overall demeanor is grave. She’s cerebral and at times aloof; she carries herself with the air of someone who has no time for the inessential. We don’t know why she has such reserve, but our interest is piqued. What did Juliette do, we wonder?  Why did she go to jail?

A character study and family drama that revels in the details of the everyday, I’ve Loved You So Long functions as a mystery that gives up its secrets gradually. First we find out that whatever Juliette did, it was serious: she served a 15 year prison term. Then we learn that she committed murder. Next we find out the victim was her 6 year old son, and finally she reveals the motive behind the killing. To everyone in the film, her sister included, the reason behind her act comes as a revelation; during her trial, Juliette had sat in court refusing to say a word about why she killed her son.

Kristin Scott Thomas is Juliette, and her performance alone makes the film stand out. She plays a person who rarely lets down her guard, who clearly feels the weight of what she did yet does not feel the need to apologize for it. She’s hurting but not guilt-stricken. She wants no one’s contempt and no one’s pity. She strikes up two non-romantic relationships with men, one a probation officer, the other a colleague who works at the hospital where she gets a job, but she makes no effort to push these relationships beyond the platonic. In fact, the way this movie portrays these two friendships is impressive. We see adults on screen acting like adults who understand that life is difficult and complicated and not necessarily solved by seeking out love or jumping into bed. Sometimes talk and companionship are all a person wants or is capable of giving. And throughout, we see Juliette using her strength and intellect to try to continue on with life now that she’s rejoined society.

Superbly calibrated, I’ve Long You So Long is a film that sticks with you.

Scott Adlerberg is the author of Spiders and Flies, Jungle Horses, and Graveyard Love. Follow him on Twitter @ScottAdlerberg

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