The Big Heat
Film noir is a style, genre, atmosphere, whatever, often synonymous with a dizzying amount of plot twists, shadowy visuals, and double and triple crosses interwoven into spider web of a plot. But in some of the most memorable examples of film noir certain filmmakers took a more, well, direct approach. The Big Heat is a lean, stripped down revenge story without the murky lighting and wafting smoke of rotten glamour that permeates many a classic film noir. The visual style is flat, the plot is relatively straightforward, but make no mistake, it’s a film that pulsates with paranoid intensity. Lang would return over and over to the trio of themes best spelled out in the title song of his weird western, Rancho Notorious: “murder, hatred and revenge.” He liked to chronicle the way that an obsessive need for revenge can turn men into that which they despise.
Before Dirty Harry there was The Big Heat’s Sgt. Bannion, an honest cop in a nameless city in the stranglehold of corruption at every level. Bannion doesn’t mince words and takes relish in stepping on the toes of every person he’s not supposed to mess with. A police captain dies under mysterious circumstances. His mistress meets Bannion for a drink and tells him she thinks he was murdered. This sparks Bannion’s investigation into a conspiracy that ensnares almost everyone in power surrounding him. When the mob retaliates in the most horrifically personal way imaginable Bannion’s crusade takes on a deranged quality. He’ll stop at nothing until he takes down Italian dandy crime boss Mike Lagana any way he can. When a ditzy girlfriend of one of Lagana’s thugs decides to help Bannion she becomes just one in a line of many victims whose personal sacrifice for Bannion’s crusade means almost nothing to him.Continue Reading
As this year’s Academy Awards approaches I find myself trying in vain to understand how Public Enemies didn’t garner a single Oscar nomination. The film was gorgeous to look at, featured a career-best performance from Johnny Depp, and avoided the clichÃ©-ridden territory of the period piece biopic for something more ambiguous and relatively challenging. Was that why the film was a relative critical and box office disappointment? Clearly the film did not satisfy as Summer blockbuster entertainment. Universal Pictures didn’t quite know how to market the film and seemingly tried to sell it almost like a comic book adaptation a la The Dark Knight with a larger-than-life image of Depp in a trench coat and fedora, shotgun at his side, stretching the length of office buildings on the huge banner posters that draped L.A. prior to the film’s release. It didn’t work to sell the film because the film they were selling wasn’t exactly the movie that we got. It’s a movie with beautifully shot bank robberies, shootouts rendered in symphonic splendor, and plenty of compelling narrative, but somehow in its fly-on-the-wall approach to following Dillinger it left audiences cold.
That aforementioned coldness works both ways. Public Enemies is downright frosty and it’s to Michael Mann’s credit that he refuses to overdramatize the life of an infamous gangster in all-too-familiar ways. Let me explain myself. Mann gives us a completely new kind of period film. He junks the typical sepia-toned melodrama approach and instead, with his digital cameras, creates something immediate, taking us out of the realm of nostalgia and into a real world scenario that actually feels dangerous instead of merely nostalgic. If you are willing to accept the worthiness of this approach it is completely thrilling.Continue Reading
The Reckless Moment
What do a famous film director with a deep appreciation for Korean food and a handful of fellow middle aged customers who shop at Amoeba every single day have in common? They love the import DVD section. The import section is reserved for DVDs from different parts of the world that have different region coding from U.S. DVDs. If you have a region free DVD player you can watch them. What is surprising is how many film titles are only available as imports. 1984, Barfly, and The Magnificent Ambersons are just a few of the titles that either went out of print or were never released on DVD in the U.S. and can only be bought relatively cheaply as imports. Cinephilia can be a lonely and expensive calling made more frustrating by limiting what one watches to what the studios dictate as permissible for one to purchase. I begin this review extolling the virtues of Amoeba’s import DVD section simply because without it I would never have been able to see The Reckless Moment on DVD, which would have been a real shame because it’s one of the best thrillers released during the heyday of American film noir and perhaps one of the strongest feminist films I’ve ever seen. The Reckless Moment stars Joan Bennett as Lucy Harper, an upper middle class Californian housewife who looks after her teenage daughter and pre-teen son while her husband is perpetually away on business. Between her kids and her father-in-law she doesn’t seem to have any time to herself. Although her station in life is a privileged one, with all the perks such a position affords—hired help and a huge house to name but two—she is completely trapped by her situation without seemingly a moment to devote to herself. Her entire identity seems to be subsumed by motherhood. She is perpetually photographed in the film with the silhouette of her home’s staircase and other furnishings casting prison bar-like shadows across her. This isn’t a Douglas Sirk tearjerker about the spiritual emptiness of white American privilege (well, not completely), but rather a classic noir thriller, so let me get to the part of the story where someone gets murdered.
Bennett’s rebellious daughter Bea, played by Geraldine Brooks, is stepping out with a sleazy older guy whom Lucy knows is all wrong for her daughter. Bea is in art school which is shorthand in the film for being surrounded by all the wrong people. Mother and daughter fight but Bea refuses to budge. Lucy takes matters into her own hands by traveling to a seamy part of L.A. from her idyllic lakefront property to confront Bea’s boyfriend, Ted. She is determined to protect her family at all costs, and Ted turns out to be just as much of a lowlife as she thought he was. Later though, when Ted winds up dead just steps away from their beautiful home, Lucy, without knowing what exactly happened, must figure out how to dispose of the corpse and keep her daughter’s name out of the murder investigation. To complicate matters further, a couple of blackmailers turn up demanding $5,000 for Bea’s love letters to Ted which were used as collateral by Ted for a debt he never repaid. When asked by one of the blackmailers why she is doing so much on behalf of her daughter, Lucy looks him in the eye and offers up being a mother as the only reason necessary.Continue Reading
Cradle Will Rock
Cradle Will Rock belongs to that class of movies that don’t particularly offend anyone or bomb big enough to become a notorious flop; nor was it greeted with a ton of enthusiasm. Considering the talent involved with the film—Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, John and Joan Cusack, and Susan Sarandon, to name but a few—the mild applause the film seemed to generate upon its release was kind of like damning with faint praise. I never understood this because I find Cradle Will Rock to be a whole lot of fun, while at the same time serving as a pointed critique of the political apathy prevalent in art today.
The film tells the story of one of the most mythologized theatrical events of the 20th century. No surprise that Orson Welles was directly involved then. We’re in New York in 1937 and the city seems to be the epicenter of a massive upheaval in society at large. There is labor unrest, growing unease about global fascism, and a gnawing sense that capitalism has failed the common interests of the average citizen. (Hey, maybe the film is due for a critical re-appreciation after all…)Continue Reading
Sweet Smell of Success
I tend to sum up Sweet Smell of Success by saying that it’s sort of the alpha male version of All About Eve. It’s a movie about men and envy and wanting to be numero uno at all costs. But really the star and thematic center of the film is New York. It’s sharply written and gorgeously photographed as a city full of shysters, whores, crooked cops, and naïve cigarette girls, with the city’s truly powerful people wielding their influence like back alley thugs. For all the neon-lit corruption it makes the New York of the late-1950s look like a terribly exciting place to be. It’s an after-dark town with a hot Jazz score soundtracking a desperate populace thieving, scheming, and hustling—the quintessential Dark City that Noir dreams are made of. As the terrifyingly important J.J. Hunsucker, New York’s most powerful gossip columnist (played by the imposing Burt Lancaster), says with true affection, “I love this dirty town.”
Hunsucker’s column attracts 60 million daily readers and he relishes his ability to make or break anyone he chooses. He’s a sociopath in a nice suit who strikes fear into the hearts of the major players in the worlds of entertainment and politics. Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, a hungry press agent desperate for a piece of the Hunsucker pie. His world is a 24-7 confidence game where he feeds the dupes on his payroll line after line about how they’re next in line to get mentioned in Hunsucker’s column. But J.J. likes making Sidney squirm for his supper—he cuts him out of the loop entirely so that Sidney will do just about anything to get back in J.J.’s favor.Continue Reading
What happened to Jonathan Demme? He used to make the best movies. I’m talking about the films he did before Silence of the Lambs changed his life and career options for good. Perhaps regretting his film's instigation of a wave of serial killer-based entertainments, he got very high-minded after Silence of the Lambs and kept returning with more Oscar bait in the form of Philadelphia, which continued his winning streak, and Beloved, which did not. Since then he has alternated between director-for-hire projects and small scale documentaries, before returning to something like his old style with last year’s Rachel Getting Married. But nothing he has done in years has been as good as the comedies he did in the late 1980s. They were exuberant life-affirming spectacles. He brought a New York downtowner’s aesthetic to mainstream comedy and lifted up a dreary end of the decade—a time best remembered for comedies that celebrated getting rich or blowing shit up—with an offbeat sensibility. He was like an American Pedro Almodovar in love with the idea of New York as a melting pot of bohemians and working class immigrants, all tuned in to the same Afrobeat soundtrack. His New York was full of loud colors, Jamaican beauty salons, and cool people—one big punky reggae party.
Something Wild is his best film. It’s a film that celebrates a life lived without rules before segueing into darker territory exploring the same themes. Jeff Daniels plays Charlie, a nice guy yuppie in Manhattan that gets his kicks walking out on his lunch bill. Melanie Griffith is Lulu—she’s got the famous Louise Brooks bob and lots of Voodoo priestess jewelry on. She’s an edgy chick who catches on to Daniels’s pathetic act of rebellion immediately. She threatens to rat him out if he doesn’t get in her car and see where the day takes them. She’s going to teach him a thing or two about wild. Pretty soon they’re naked in a hotel room and she’s making him call his office while she otherwise distracts him. The scene is playful and sexy, rather than obvious, because Lulu isn’t objectified as Charlie’s "manic pixie dream girl" who teaches him to live; instead she’s the one in charge. The scene is more about Lulu’s fetishizing of Charlie’s straightness than anything, though we get the feeling that Charlie has been looking for someone like Lulu all along. It’s the complete opposite of how most straight male directors would have played the scene and just one of the details that make this film unique.Continue Reading
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a movie lodged right into our pop cultural DNA somewhere between Psycho and Stonewall, and I would wager that its reputation as a “camp classic” might precede it to the film’s detriment because its greatness is in spite of its cultural baggage as a Hollywood Babylon-style punch line. Throughout the years since its release the film has been referenced, paid homage to, and parodied more times than I probably know about. There’s just something about the premise of two notorious aging movie queens tearing into one another—no one seems able to resist that glamorously morbid premise. By the early 1960s Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were at the point in their careers where they had to spoof themselves in a Hollywood horror story to get the attention of an audience that had long since deserted them. It was a risk that paid off and ultimately redefined the kinds of roles being offered to aging movie stars. …Baby Jane? was more than just a sleeper hit that resuscitated a few careers; it became a phenomenon that helped spawn a whole cottage industry of films starring has-been actresses pouring on the fake blood and brandishing pick axes. People wanted to see these one-time "it girls" playing murderous grandmas. It was the age of the Hagsploitation horror flick and …Baby Jane? was the one that started it all.
But let me reiterate, I come to praise What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as a sharp Hollywood satire, not to bury it under more faint praise as a “camp classic,” though there’s no denying it’s the Shakespearian gold standard for that. The problem is that identifying something as camp tends to negate it as anything other than a joke—even a knowing joke— and what makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? memorable goes far beyond its kitsch value. It’s a darkly comic satire in the vein of Sunset Boulevard but with weirder and more compelling characters. And it’s not just Davis and Crawford who remind us of why they were great to begin with. The supporting cast is just as good as they are—Victor Buono as the portly would-be suitor and artistic collaborator of Jane is particularly excellent. And in Robert Aldrich the film has a curiously awesome choice for a director. Aldrich could be described as a man’s man kind of director who made war pictures and nasty offbeat noirs like Kiss Me Deadly. Hiring him to direct a movie about two old Hollywood legends at each other’s throats was an inspired choice. Aldrich liked perversity and clearly the innate perversity of the film’s premise must have appealed to him. But he also locates the pathos in the characters and makes us care about what happens to them. It’s hard to categorize What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as anything other than a classic. It’s a Hollywood satire, it’s a lurid tragedy, a gothic noir of sorts - kind of horrific, certainly camp, and very funny. It has much to say about the two legendary leads and their notorious dislike of each other as it does about an industry that treats women terribly.Continue Reading
Bad Day at Black Rock
I wish the screenplay for Bad Day at Black Rock was taught in screenwriting classes as a model example of how to craft a perfect thriller. Ideally it might inspire a confidence in economic storytelling that students today would have little familiarity with. An incredibly suspenseful movie that lasts just 81 minutes, Bad Day at Black Rock could be the perfect corrective to every lousy impulse by movie executives to lard up a story with overkill. I think that’s the real problem with modern studio fare. Lest their movies be ignored by an increasingly fractured and distracted audience, movies nowadays are oversold into oblivion. Even trailers are exhausting to watch. It’s a simple case of too much information at every turn. As far as Hollywood is concerned, a film that treats the audience like adults with the capacity to figure things out for themselves is a risky prospect for the 15-year-old fan boy market and, at this point, what’s not good for the fan boys is not good for Hollywood’s bottom line. And this all-pervasive tendency for movies to be too long and too obvious even extends to the contemporary thriller where it tends to spoil them from the outset.
The mantra of a good screenwriter is "show, don’t tell" but the inclination of most movie people nowadays is show, tell, and then add a commentary track to the DVD that spells out even more useless information. It can be said that independent film has created a forum for more offbeat storytelling, but there was a time when a good story was enough reason for a big studio such as MGM to produce it. Which brings us to the case of Bad Day at Black Rock. It represents the antithesis of the overkill approach.Continue Reading
“A mob doesn’t think. It doesn’t have time to think.” - Sylvia Sidney as Katherine Grant
Fritz Lang wasted no time in establishing his reputation in Hollywood as the master architect of the thriller. His first American film after having fled Hitler’s Germany is a searing indictment of the dark side of the American character that pulsates with an almost unbearable tension for its first half as a collision of combustible elements in a small town ignites into a shocking act of cold blooded mob violence. Lang wanted to do a film about the culture of public lynching in the U.S. and the curiously grotesque party atmosphere that has historically accompanied them. He felt that his protagonist would have to be guilty of the crime for which he was being lynched and that he should be African American in order for the story to truly resonate in this country and for the film to have the maximum impact. MGM would never agree to either of these stipulations, so he geared his story around a young Spencer Tracy as an American everyman in the wrong place at the wrong time, who faces the full unhinged brutality of a mob of townspeople calling for his blood.Continue Reading
"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations." — Orson Welles
“I like the dark. It’s friendly.” — Simone Simon as Irena DubrovnaContinue Reading