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
Out of the Past
Of that post-WWII generation of male actors who came of age in war flicks but really defined themselves in the Film Noir genre, none was cooler than Robert Mitchum (and that was a group of cool dudes that included Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Sterling Hayden, Robert Ryan, and his co-star here Kirk Douglas). Whether playing a hero or a villain, Mitchum reeked of both danger and manly charm even when he spewed indifference. His career spanned decades with a number of signature roles and important films, but of the Noir period none was better than that of ex-detective turned gas station owner Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past.
Director Jacques Tourneur is more known today for his groundbreaking horror flicks with producer Val Lewton: Cat People, The Leopard Man and I Walked With a Zombie. Though in retrospect those eerie and strange shadowy black n’ white flicks could be called horror noir, making the Frenchman the perfect director to bring his almost Expressionistic approach to a crime mystery in what was then considered a B-genre. Like much gothic horror, Jeff Bailey is a guy haunted by his past, trying to escape from his own mind and hide from his own instincts.Continue Reading
The Night of the Hunter
Whoa, Daddy if you haven’t seen The Night of the Hunter you really need to. It is probably, along with Vertigo and Citizen Kane, one of the pinnacles of 20th Century American cinema. It manages the rare trick of being funny and scary, stylized and naturalistic. Visually it harkens back to D.W. Griffith’s silent films and to German expressionism, with its constant, shadowy sense of menace, giving this film’s depiction of an American past a sinister daydream quality. It’s the first and only film British actor Charles Laughton ever directed. James Agee, one of the most important writers of Depression era America, adapted the screenplay, and Stanley Cortez, a poet with a lens (he did the incredible cinematography for Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons) was cinematographer.
For all the top tier tinsel town talent, though, this is Robert Mitchum’s show and he dominates the film with a kinky intensity, a murderous, almost supernatural creepiness. There’s a reason Siouxsie Sioux cited Mitchum’s psychotic preacher character as a key reference point for what she wanted to explore with the Banshees’ music. He’s pure evil but he’s such a wild card, a character as much dark myth as flesh and blood, that he is utterly spellbinding on screen.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