Films that have a moral condemnation about the seedy underbelly of life but still try to offer up a little titillation along the way have been around since the beginning of cinema. Sleazeploitation, if you will. Think of all those sexy pre-Code films and then consider the gangster and later noir period when the arousing exploits of a hatcheck girl would be stymied by the censors, making sure we knew this was amoral behavior. By the '70s and Midnight Cowboy, the sex industry had become a full-fledged and often legal enterprise and shock was less easy. Sleazeploitation films often deal with an innocent seeing the seedy world that has been around him all this time (and usually in such sleaze capitals as New York or Los Angeles). It's most interesting when big name directors make these films; of course when guys like Brian De Palma (Body Double) or Paul Schrader (Hardcore) make films about such subject matter it’s not shocking because they have a dark history in exploitation-ish cinema. That’s what make one of the great sleazy thrillers of the '80s, 52 Pick-Up, all the more interesting. It was directed by the great John Frankenheimer, a guy who was an innovator in the early dawn of live television and by the '60s was a major director of classics The Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds and Seven Days in May. In the '70s he generally moved to straight but tasteful thrillers like French Connection II and Black Sunday, but he ended the decade on a sour note with the mutant bear horror dud Prophecy. The '80s meant mostly forgettable work for hire, including 52 Pick-Up, which in ’86 was a box office bust and mostly written off by critics as trash--and I can sorta see why. But on a recent screening, I was struck with just how intense and exciting it actually is; this is a film that may have a cornball dated score and we may laugh at the clothes, but it actually ages well and deserves reexamination as a possibly important film by an important director.
If the name Frankenheimer wasn’t enough to bring some class to 52 Pick-Up, consider this; it’s based on a book by one of America’s all-time great crime novelists, Elmore Leonard. At this point only his early Western novels had transferred well to film (3:10 to Yuma, Hombre). 52 Pick-Up had just been adapted into a film called The Ambassador with Robert Mitchum and Ellen Burstyn to little notice in ’84, and the following year Burt Reynolds would star in the horrible Leonard adaptation Stick. It really wasn’t until the '90s that Leonard adaptations would hit their zenith with the trifecta of Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown. For Frankenheimer, Leonard adapted the book himself (with John Steppling), changing the setting from his hometown of Detroit in the book to, of course, the more glamorously seedy Los Angeles.Continue Reading
With post-Vietnam War movies there is a “Vietnam Vet taking down his enemies” genre that would include the pulp biggies Taxi Driver, Billy Jack and First Blood, as well as pure vigilante exploitation films like Eye of the Tiger, Vigilante Force, The Exterminator, The Annihilators and Gordon’s War (not to be confused with the ‘Nam vets that appear as crazies in Targets, Black Sunday, Skyjacked and Earthquake or the zombie vets of Cannibal Apocalypse). Somewhere between pulp and vetploitation lays the very intense and violent Rolling Thunder. This was director Joe Flynn’s followup to his interesting crime thriller The Outfit. Paul Schrader (most famous for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) wrote the screenplay though he claims it was reworked away from his original intention by credited co-writer Heywood Gould (Fort Apache the Bronx and Cocktail). Either way Rolling Thunder definitely carries Schrader’s signature theme of the lonely loner on a self-destructive path against society while seeking his own kind of redemption.
The film opens with Denny Brooks’ ballad “San Antone,” which was used similarly in The Ninth Configuration (he also sang the theme to the Chuck Norris choppy-socky Breaker! Breaker!). After spending years as POWs, Major Charles Rane (William Devane) and Sergeant Johnny Vohden (a very young and very intense Tommy Lee Jones) finally return home to Texas. Of course, we know from our film studies, going as far back as William Wyler’s WWII drama The Best Years of Our Lives, that returning vets have a tough time readjusting. And Rane is no different. His pretty wife Janet (Lisa Blake Richards of TV’s Dark Shadows) tries to help him ease back into civilian life, but he senses she has moved on (it’s obvious she has been involved with a local cop), and his son doesn’t even remember him. Rane suffers from PTSD and is emotionally distant, even turning down the advances of a young military groupie, Linda (Linda Haynes). The town tries to make him feel welcomed with a parade, a new car and over two grand in silver dollars (one for every day he was in captivity).Continue Reading
Witness for the Prosecution
Almost forty years after her death in 1976, Agatha Christie is still the queen of the mystery novel. Her characters, including Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are seemingly just as popular and prolific today (mostly on television now) as they were when she first invented them. Though many of her stories have been adapted for film, only two--by my recollection--have lasted the test of time. In '74 Sidney Lumet made a solid Poirot story, Murder on the Orient Express, thanks to a great cast led most memorably by Albert Finney. But even better was back in ’57 when Witness for the Prosecution was directed by the superstar director Billy Wilder. First appearing as a short story, Christie later turned it into a play. But Wilder and his two co-screenwriters, Larry Marcus (who would go on to co-write the brilliant screenplay for The Stunt Man) and Harry Kurnitz (the play A Shot in the Dark) would open it up for the screen and add the wonderful role of Miss Plimsoll for actress Elsa Lanchester, giving her an opportunity to share the screen with her husband Charles Laughton. Ironically, a TV remake and most stage adaptions of the play since have included the role, a Wilder invention, not a Christie one.
In England, big-time defense attorney (barrister) Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) is on the verge of forced retirement due to health issues. He has a full-time nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Lanchester), on his case, nagging him to rest and give up his vices. But when Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) appears at his door, about to be indicted on murder charges, Sir Wilfrid is too intrigued to pass the case up. Vole, a handsome and married playboy (and American, though that is never acknowledged), is accused of murdering a much older woman who took a shine to his charms and conveniently had just changed her will, making him the beneficiary to her fortune. Vole reasonably explains his side, and it does appear to be circumstantial evidence stacked up against him. Vole's passionate German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) backs up his story. But when the trial comes along, strangely Christine is called by the prosecution, claiming Vole admitted to killing the old lady and painting a terrible picture of both herself and her husband. The great Wilfrid looks to be defeated until a greedy Cockney woman sells him some current love letters exchanged between Christine and her secret lover. The new evidence shows that the wife lied and it is enough to prove Vole’s innocence and end the trail. But Sir Wilfrid knows it was all too easy and there is something amiss. And here we get the great, shocking M. Night Shyamalan twist that Agatha Christie and her ilk specialized in.Continue Reading
The Crying Game
In his introduction to the published screenplay of Chinatown, Robert Towne wonders if there’s anything left to do with noir. He wonders if the aesthetics and thematics and poetics of noir are simply outdated in the information age, where a sense of mystery is harder to come by. Sensibly, he shrugs off this worry and points to The Crying Game as an example of how noir can still say new things to us as a modern audience. The thing I admire so much about the film, though, is that it manages to be both a deeply personal love story as well as a morality play about modern day political crime in Britain. It’s an IRA story with terrorism, assassinations, and a queer love story at its center. Somehow it all makes complete sense.
The first third of the film is told in flashback. Fergus, played by Stephen Rea, is an IRA operative who feels immense guilt for having had a role in the death of a hapless British soldier, Jody, played by an overbearing and overacting Forest Whitaker. Whitaker’s character gets to know Fergus after he’s nabbed and before the inevitable happens, Jody makes Fergus promise to check in on his girlfriend, a London hairdresser named Dil, after he is gone. The story goes from IRA thriller to blue neon Brit noir when Fergus goes to London, haunted by the tragic fate of Jody. He looks in on Dil as promised and quickly becomes infatuated with her. Dil is a cool London chick and a transgendered woman (with a penis) though Fergus has no idea. Fergus isn’t saying who he really is and Dil isn’t saying who she really is. Once nature takes its course and Fergus discovers the truth about Dil he doesn’t handle it very well. But because of the fact that he actually has a conscience, and his genuine confusion over his feelings towards Dil, he doesn’t ever really leave her. The IRA is never truly going to let him go, though, and his loyalty to them becomes a liability for someone in the throes of a curious new relationship.Continue Reading
I’m all for being provoked by a film if I think there is a good reason. I’ve steered clear – right or wrong – of legendarily sadistic fare such as Salo, Irreversible, and Takashi Miike’s work, to name a few, because whatever important things about modern society they think they’re getting at, I just don’t like watching people horrifically degrade one another for two hours at a time. I don’t really think it’s a necessary punishment we need to go through when we go to the movies in order to learn about life or art. It’s just not something I can easily stomach. Maybe that makes me a dubious critical voice here but I think there’s a fallacious connection between onscreen depravity and important, serious cinema. It’s a weird kind of pretension that suggests that the movie-as-endurance test is the most serious kind of cinematic art. I think that’s dumb. But hey, that’s just me.
That said, Compliance, Craig Zobel’s true crime tale of a sinister phone prank played on a fast food manager in Kentucky, had its fair share of walkouts. A lot of people got angry at this film and were disgusted by what they saw onscreen and exasperated by the idiotic decisions made by the principle characters, but I didn’t mind because the film is an excellent and very timely morality tale. It’s a morality tale in that it’s a story with an actual moral seriousness running through it - something that I don’t think you can say of similarly provocative films of late. Maybe it’s the fact that it depicts a world so familiar to some of us – a fast food restaurant off the highway in rural America where employees are made to feel entirely dispensable and where there is always some omnipotent higher level of authority in charge but never present. That the employees never question the horrific things they are asked to do by a sociopathic prank phone caller is telling because, as service industry workers, they are made to feel so passive to the authority and control of the corporation that owns the franchise that it tragically never occurs to them to say no.Continue Reading
Dirty Pretty Things
Who the hell is hounding you in the BMW
How the hell he find you, 147'd you
Feds gonna get you
Pull the strings on the hood
One paranoid youth blazin' thru the hood
– M.I.A. “Galang”
In the introduction to his published screenplay of Chinatown Robert Towne considers the depressing state of contemporary cinema in a Hollywood decades removed from Chinatown and the New Hollywood of the 1970s. For him it's the overload of expository dialogue meant to move the plot along and wooden, one-dimensional quality of characters in current films that kills any suspense or drama.Continue Reading
Deep Cover is one of those underrated films with a bold social commentary that is often swept under the carpet because it's from the '90s—that time in America that everyone loves to hate (but I love unabashedly.) When I first saw the film as an adolescent there was something about it that begged a very adult question; is mankind good in nature but drawn to necessary evils, or are we evil drawn to the predisposition of trying to be good? Living in Los Angeles, where the film is set, I still find myself asking that question.
Taking the still-relevant racial tension of an era and focusing on its organized crime and judicial system, the film opens with a young boy witnessing his father holding up a store on Christmas Eve. He is shot and killed, leaving the boy with a determination to never have such a pitiful existence. Russell (Lawrence Fishburne), now a man, is a rookie police officer trying to make a difference in the world. He doesn't drink or do drugs, however, when called into an interview for an assignment, he is told that he has the psychological profile of a criminal. In undercover work, he is assured, all of his flaws will become virtues.Continue Reading
It's an unfortunate fact that the vast majority of actors who, in their prime, filled roles that were at once progressive and invigorating, turned to ones that were lackluster, if not depressing, once they reached their peak of marketability within a genre. Usually this career transition leans towards comedy--and while viewers strain to recognize adept versatility on the screen, they often find themselves quite underwhelmed. Some notable examples of such actors are Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. That being stated, in Killer Joe one can find a rare opposite in transitions. Here we find the harmless and perhaps awkward Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer, Into the Wild) and the go-to charmer of chick-flicks, Mathew McConaughey, playing two morally reprehensible characters that are not only believable but unnerving.
The plot more or less surrounds the woes of Chris (Emile Hirsch), a somewhat desperate young man of poor character who owes a Texan drug lord 6K for “misplaced dope.” To blame for the drugs going missing is Chris’s mother Adele, a woman whom he, and the rest of the family, hate. He goes to his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) for help. Ansel lives in a trailer park with his new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his daughter Dottie (Juno Temple) from the previous marriage. When it becomes clear that Ansel doesn’t have the money to lend him Chris tells him of a half-brained scheme involving Joe Cooper, a detective who is self-employed as a hitman. The obvious target is Adele, who has a $50,000 life insurance policy. The money could not only pay off Chris’s debts and the $25,000 fee for Joe’s services, but the remainder could send Dottie, the sole beneficiary, to college.Continue Reading
The Long Good Friday
The DVD box has a blurb from an old review that compares it to The Godfather, but in all actuality the very British pulp gangster flick The Long Good Friday is much closer in spirit to TV’s The Sopranos. Matter of fact, it’s fair to say that The Sopranos is a direct descendent of this crime and politics saga. Bob Hoskins, in a brilliant, star-making performance, carries the film as Harold Shand and, like Tony Soprano, he’s a two-bit street punk who has worked himself up the criminal food chain; instead of New Jersey he runs London. Like Tony, Harold fancies himself an ambitious businessman. He thinks the gaudy opulence he surrounds himself with gives him class and makes him legitimate. Also like the TV show, his wife plays a key role in his life - she’s almost a First Lady of the underworld. Unlike Tony, Harold seems to be devoted to his wife Victoria (played by the great Helen Mirren, just hitting her stride in her important run of great film and TV roles). She seems to be a little more posh than him and like his fancy boat, helps him feel like he’s arrived. Harold also has a crew of devoted lieutenants, the younger ones treat him like a father figure. Although maybe what makes these husky, bearish gangsters resemble each other most is the complicated rage that they desperately try to control. Even when they know revealing their true sociopathic nature can be bad for business, they just can’t help themselves.
With The Long Good Friday, British television director John Mackenzie, on a very modest budget, inexplicably made probably the best English gangster film ever. Inexplicable because though the guy continued to work in film and TV for decades he never made anything else of note. Nor did screenwriter Barrie Keeffe, who also came from the small screen, and who, after the acclaim for The Long Good Friday, never had another screenplay produced (he went back to TV). These two guys, along with the strong collaboration from Hoskins (who also came from TV at the time), would create such a special little gem that would help usher in a mini resurgence in home grown independent British film in the '80s (British film meaning paid for by the pound, not the dollar).
How's this for an all-star 1970s line-up? Capricorn One is a kinda sci-fi, conspiracy minded, political-thriller written and directed by Peter Hyams (Peeper, Outland and the similarly themed The Star Chamber) starring the once popular Elliott Gould as a pesky reporter (as if his Philip Marlowe from Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye wanted to grow up to be Woodward & Bernstein). The three innocent astronauts with their lives on the line are played by the manly James Brolin (Westworld), the nerdy Sam Waterson (The Killing Fields) and ex-football star O.J. Simpson who became famous for... well you know. The astronauts wives include Brenda Vaccaro (Midnight Cowboy) and Denise Nicholas (Blackula). Hal Holbrook (Deep Throat from All The President’s Men) is the conniving government bureaucrat doing his authoritative three-piece-suit thing. Listed and boxed in the credits as special guest stars is the underrated and strangely attractive Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces) and Telly Savalas, taking a break from TV's Kojak. The rest of the cast is rounded out with other TV fixtures from the decade: Robert Walden, David Huddleston and David Doyle (Bosley from Charlie’s Angels). It’s not just the cast or the haircuts that make Capricorn One so beautifully '70s, it's the paranoia that has come to define so much of the work of the decade.
While a script about a manned rocket ride to Mars that may or may not actually happen sounds coincidentally 2012, Capricorn One is all 1978. Following on the heels of political assassinations, the Vietnam war and Nixon’s Watergate scandal, Hollywood was hot for covert government and corporate dirty work, represented with a number of conspiracy driven films as diverse as All The President’s Men, The Conversation, Winter Kills, The Parallax View, Chinatown, Executive Action and Three Days of the Condor. The '70s sci-fi genre into which Capricorn One sorta falls had similar themes with flicks like Westworld, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and Silent Running. Of course both genres were basically driven out of business the year before Capricorn One was released when Star Wars was unleashed on the world. Along with the success of Rocky, Hollywood was becoming less interested in the cynicism of the past and now looking for heroes for the future (also ending the mega-stardom of an actor like Gould who specialized in rumpled losers.)