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.

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