Emperor of the North
Starting with Bonnie and Clyde in ’67 and throughout the '70s, the Depression in America became an exciting setting for a whole slew of films. That dark period of the 1930s sometimes became romantically re-imagined as a freewheelin’ adventure time or was used more dramatically as a metaphor for current times. Prime examples include The Sting, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Paper Moon, Dillinger, Boxcar Bertha, and Hard Times. And though it does not get off to the most promising start, Robert Aldrich’s 1973 movie, Emperor of the North, ends up being one of the best action flicks of the decade, as well as an almost comic-book Valentine to the era.
After opening with a scroll about the history of hobos riding the rails, Emperor of the North then rolls into the most unfortunate film theme song with all-stars behind it, maybe ever. “A Man and a Train,” with lyrics by the great Hal David (partner of Burt Bacharach), music by the nearly legendary Frank De Vol (he scored most of Aldrich’s films and The Brady Bunch!) and sung by Marty Robbins (”El Paso”), features gems like “a man's not a train and a train's not a man. A man can do things that a train never can.” I’m not sure what the word is for homoeroticism between a man and a train, but this song is it.Continue Reading
Kiss Me Deadly
In the world of noir a good mystery is so much more about the journey than the destination. I couldn’t really explain to you what was happening through every scene of Mulholland Dr. or who did what in The Big Sleep but those films are such superb examples of atmosphere as a blueprint for understanding the director’s vision that nothing is lost by not understanding every last scene or plot twist contained within. A first rate noir is more than the sum of its double crosses and knifed backs. In fact without that brilliantly unnerving atmosphere it’s just another run-of-the-mill whodunit. Noir is atmosphere certainly more than it could be called a kind of plot which is why films as conceptually different as Sweet Smell of Success and The Killing are both considered to be part of the noir canon. Kiss Me Deadly is director Robert Aldrich’s adrenaline charged mystery set in a mid-'50s Los Angeles of sun-seared nuclear paranoia. It's a detective story but it’s also about an era of America defined by its paranoia over the possibility of impending nuclear holocaust.
Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) is a hot shot Private Investigator who makes his living snooping around and catching people with their pants down. He’s the one that the jilted wives of L.A. go to when they want proof that their husbands are cheating. It’s a dirty way to make a living or so he is constantly told but he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s out for his own gain. He likes cocktails, race cars, women, and his unbelievably cool apartment. If he had a code of ethics it probably boils down to “the ends justify the means.” A woman on the run winds up in Mike’s car one night and before too long he is embroiled in a mystery that ensnares gangsters, the FBI, a murderous blonde, and pretty soon the fate of the entire world. Everyone is after what Hammer’s girlfriend terms, “the great whatsit.” When it’s found it takes the fatalism of noir to a whole new realm.Continue Reading
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Director Robert Wise’s 1951 Science-Fiction opus The Day The Earth Stood Still has always been the granddaddy of the friendly alien invasion genre. While the more popular “mean alien” genre dominated Sci-Fi in the decade (The War of the Worlds, The Thing From Another World, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the peaceful alien is usually less exciting and harder to pull off. It wasn’t really for another 20-something years that it was done as well again (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Starman, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial and even the ’78 version of Superman). Like the best of Sci-Fi, The Day The Earth Stood Still reflects the paranoia of the period (the Cold War, the atomic bomb). What makes it so much more than the usual hokum of the '50s is the high caliber talent behind it. It has a groundbreaking and influential score by the brilliant Bernard Herrmann. Director Wise (after editing Citizen Kane) helped invent the Noir Horror genre with The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945). Afterward he did straight Noirs with films like The Set-Up (1949) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). Though The Day The Earth Stood Still has a black and white gloss to it, it also has shadows, lies, and typical Noir pessimism, making it maybe the first Noir Sci-Fi flick.
When a big flying saucer lands in Washington, DC, the handsome alien pilot Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges from it in peace but is shot by a jumpy soldier. In response, his big robot buddy Gort emerges and destroys all the weapons present with his head laser. After a debriefing by the military, Klaatu tells a White House official he has an important message for the leaders of the world. Instead he is pooh-poohed and locked up. He escapes and goes undercover as “Mr. Carpenter,” a dim-witted Earth nerd, taking a room in a boarding house to learn more about these strange Earth people. He hangs out with a science loving kid there named Bobby (Billy Gray) who gives him a walking tour of DC and a quickie lesson in Americanism. Bobby’s mom, Helen (the great Patricia Neal), works for Professor Jacob Barnhardt (played by Sam Jaffe), a math wiz, whom Klaatu eventually befriends and to whom he explains his intentions: Earth’s love of war and newly acquired atomic weapons have endangered the universe, and unless the powers that be dump their nukes, he will be forced to destroy the planet.Continue Reading
If you know anyone afflicted with a phobia towards classic film this might be a good place to start them. White Heat is one of the darkest, funniest American films ever made with tension as thick as a hangman’s noose. Did you enjoy the film The Dark Knight? Do you remember the opening bank heist scene where the Joker kills off each accomplice as soon as they have served their purpose? Did you like that scene? Of course you did. It’s the best scene of the whole film. Well, White Heat is kind of like the bank heist scene from The Dark Knight. It runs on that kind of gleeful nihilistic energy. It’s more film noir than gangster film, though it is so well performed and well directed that it doesn’t really matter what you call it because it’s in a class by itself.
James Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a psychotic gang leader who plans and executes heists and seems to kill as much for his own kicks as for necessity. Of all the swaggering maniacs Cagney played, Cody Jarrett is his masterpiece. He’s older and slightly heavier than the lithe gangster characters Cagney played in his youth but Cody Jarrett is much more honestly twisted than anything Cagney had done before. He is the terrifying monster lurking beneath Cagney’s portrayals of charming psychopaths. Cody is a mama’s boy. He has headaches that make him run for his mother’s lap. She knows how to comfort him and how to manipulate him.Continue Reading