Headbanging with “John Wick”

John Wick-posterJohn Wick is an uncommonly good action film, a B-movie on steroids. It’s lean and mean, and gets the job done. I found it immensely satisfying from beginning to end, much the same way I felt during Guardians of the Galaxy and The Guest earlier this year. The basic format is  familiar and predictable: a protagonist (almost always male) takes revenge on those who’ve done him wrong. There’s something hugely satisfying and wish-fulfilling about these kinds of films. We’ve seen this many times before in such films as The Big Heat (1953), Death Wish (1974), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Rolling Thunder (1977), Kill Bill I & II (2003/2004), and Taken (2008) to name just a few.  The protagonists have to either acquire the skills necessary to achieve their goals, or they already possess those skills.

At the beginning of John Wick, the title character (played by a perfectly cast Keanu Reeves) has been retired for five years from his career as a professional killer for a Russian gang in New York City. Of course, in these films, we know that guys like this never really “retire.” Wick had fallen in love, gotten married, acquired a vintage ’69 Mustang, and moved to a modern house in New Jersey with split-levels levels and a lot of glass that lends itself nicely to a subsequent shootout. It’s unlikely that the Russians would have been willing to let Wick leave, since he was apparently the best they had at his job, by far. Usually in these scenarios, getting out is not even an option, but I was willing to go with it, perhaps because the head of the Russian mob, Viggo Tarasov, is played by Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist (from the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) and the two sequels. He brings an avuncular, unusually understanding dimension to a character type more frequently portrayed as a thuggish, sadistic sociopath (see Martin Csokas, for comparison, as “Teddy” in The Equalizer, a poor, but more common, example of this type of film that even Denzel Washington couldn’t save).

We learn very quickly that John’s wife has died from an illness, but not beforeJohn Wick-puppy ordering a puppy to be delivered after her death so he won’t be alone. This might sound sappy, but it plays nicely, and in any event, it’s a necessary set-up for the plot, which shifts to the next gear when John is at a gas station. Iosef Tarasov, Viggo’s violent, privileged, nutjob son, pulls into the station and demands to know how much John wants for the Mustang. John says it’s not for sale, which doesn’t make Iosef happy. As we see later, just mentioning the name “John Wick” is enough to strike fear in the hearts of those who hear it, and give them pause. Iosef obviously doesn’t know who John is and probably wouldn’t care if he did. So he doesn’t think anything of breaking into John’s house that night with his companions, who savagely beat John with baseball bats and kick him the head a few times. Then, annoyed by the barking puppy, Iosef takes a bat to the dog as well (this is not a spoiler since it’s in the trailer). This is all it takes to bring John out of retirement. Stealing his Mustang is bad enough, but killing his dog is way over the line for John (it was gift from his dead wife!), and basically justifies all the mayhem to follow.

Chad Stahelski & David Leitch (r)

Chad Stahelski & David Leitch (r)

Someone once described John Woo’s Hong Kong gangster films as “maximum firepower at close range.” If you’ve seen The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990), or Hard Boiled (1992), you know what this means. It‘s also an apt description of John Wick, which was co-directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, two former stunt men and stunt coordinators. Stahelski was Keanu Reeves stunt double in The Matrix (1999) and martial arts stunt coordinator for the The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions  (2003). Their backgrounds and experience have served John Wick‘s action sequences well. There’s a clarity to the choreography of the fight scenes that reflects a level of filmmaking skill you might not expect from first-time directors. These scenes – involving gunplay and martial arts (called “gun-fu” by the directors) – are shot and edited so that we know what’s going on. They don’t use disorienting close-ups and quick cuts the way so many action films do, nor do they use shaky, handheld cameras.

Here are two examples that illustrate the film’s method and style. These clips should also tell you if this is a movie you’d want to see or not. The music is very effective here and throughout the film.

Of course, nobody could do this. It’s absurd, but the film follows its own logic and it basically works if you get on the ride. Though no one would claim it has redeeming social value (not that it has to). Reeves’ performance is just right for this role, which is similar to many he’s played before, i.e. tightly wrapped and showing little outward emotion, a flattened affect. Which serves to heighten the deadpan humor he brings to many of his line readings. His character here evokes Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo (1961), Lee Marvin in Point Blank (1967), Brandon Lee in The Crow (1994), and the unrelenting drive of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator. Reeves’ John Wick may not be invicible, but he is unstoppable. He becomes increasingly tattered and beaten up as the film progresses. Which doesn’t prevent him from dispatching approximately 84 mostly nameless adversaries (this is the directors’ count, and I’ll take them at their word).

John Wick-Keanu still2One of the pleasures of this film is the quality of the actors who round out the cast. Whether their parts are large or small, everyone knows what they’re doing. Willem Dafoe and John Leguizamo are standouts. Two of my favorite actors from HBO’s great series The Wire, Lance Reddick and Clarke Peters, are here. Reddick is especially effective – and funny – as the the manager of the Continental Hotel, where Wick resides when he comes from New Jersey to NYC to take care of business. The Continental, whose clientele seems is apparently made up entirely of professional killers, seems to occupy an alternate dimension of some kind, like something David Lynch would come up with. Other actors include Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy on HBO’s Game of Thrones) as Viggo’s mad dog son Iosef; David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors – 1979, 48 Hours – 1982) as the leader of a team of “cleaners” dispatched to remove the bloody evidence of John Wick’s dust-ups; Ian McShane (HBO’s Deadwood) as the owner of the Continental Hotel; and Dean Winters (from 30 Rock as Tina Fey’s sometimes boy friend and currently in Allstate Insurance TV spots).

John Wick is an impressive debut feature from two new directors who clearly absorbed a great deal about filmmaking from their time on movie sets. They obviously knew what they wanted to do with this film and how to go about it. Something this assured makes me look forward to what they do next. If you like this genre, John Wick is a cut above, and a hell of a ride. - Ted Hicks

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“Force Majeure” – Women and Children First

Force Majeure-posterIf you’ve ever wondered, as I often have, how you’d react in a crisis situation (you’re with your family on a ship that’s sinking, or in a store that’s being robbed at gun point, or trying to get out of the way of a tidal wave – or an avalanche), then you should see Force Majeure, an extraordinary Swedish film written and directed by Rueben Östlund that puts a nasty spin on that question.

In films I always want to identify with characters who stand up and do the right thing, usually at great emotional, professional, or (especially) physical risk to themselves. Many movies are built on this dynamic and depend on audiences identifying with these characters. Gary Cooper coming back to town to face the men who’ve come to kill him in High Noon when it would be easier to turn away, for example. Force Majeure, however, confronts us with a lead character who doesn’t do the right thing, who briefly abandons his wife and two kids in a moment of panic and later denies that it happened at all. Not much of a role model, not much to admire, and not someone you’d want to identify with.

Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Konglsi), and their two children Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara Wettergren & Vincent Wettergren) have come from Sweden to a resort in the French Alps for five days of skiing and relaxation. It’s stated that Tomas spends so much time at work that he has very little time for his children. This is a chance to be together. They seem quite ordinary, nothing out of place, an Ikea family. The first day is pleasant and goes smoothly; they ski together, they all nap on the bed (a great shot that’s held for a long time), and in a scene that’s repeated several times during the film and feels increasingly unsettling, we see them standing side by side reflected in the bathroom mirror as they brush their teeth with electric toothbrushes.

Force Majeure-family in bedForce Majeure-brushing teethOn the second day they are eating breakfast outside on a terrace facing the mountains (actually, every view from this resort seems to face mountains). Since the start of the film we’ve been hearing sporadic booms that sound like cannon fire. I couldn’t figure this out at first, but then found out it has to do with deliberately creating avalanches as a way of preventing large, dangerous avalanches (or something like that). These random booms throughout the film add to a sense of unease. As the family eats, they see a “controlled” avalanche start down the mountain. Tomas says not to worry, this is perfectly okay. But as the billowing snow advances closer and closer, the situation suddenly doesn’t seem quite so safe. People definitely rush to get out of there, but Tomas bolts, knocking someone aside to clear the way, leaving his wife and children at the table. The frame whites out from the snow and stays that way for what feels like a long time as we hear sounds and voices. People and objects slowly emerge, first as shapes and shadows, then more recognizably as the snow settles. There have been no cuts and the camera hasn’t moved an inch during this entire scene.

Force Majeure-the avalancheThat night Tomas and Ebba are eating dinner with a couple they’d met earlier. Ebba starts talking about the avalanche that almost got them at breakfast. With a kind of chagrined laugh she says that Tomas ran away and left them, which he immediately and emphatically says never happened. This denial seems actually worse than his running away in the first place. He keeps it up even when he and Ebba are alone together.

Force Majeure raises issues about what it means to “be brave” and “be a man,” and challenges those concepts in the process. In press notes for the film, the director writes that inspiration for the film came from researching “…true stories of distress and emergency, of passengers during the sinking of ships, of tourists stricken by tsunamis or held hostage by hijackers. In such extreme situations, people can react in completely unexpected and exceedingly selfish ways… It also appears that, in many cases, men do not act according to the expected codes of chivalry. In life or death situations, when their own survival is at stake, it seems that men are even more likely than women to run away and save themselves…” This is uncomfortable information for us guys, though women will probably just nod their heads in agreement.

Force Majeure-Tomas & MatsThe concept of masculinity is also examined in a very funny, off-kilter scene in which Tomas and a friend of his, Mats (Kristofer Hivju), are seated outdoors drinking beer after skiing. A woman comes over and tells Tomas that her friend (a woman we don’t see) has pointed out Tomas and Mats as being the most attractive men there. She returns a moment later to say sorry, her friend didn’t mean them, she had pointed at someone else. There’s something about this scene that just seems so odd and so deadpan. Like so many scenes in the film, this plays out in a single camera setup, with no cuts to distract as Tomas’ and Mats’ egos are puffed up and then deflated in rapid order. (The actor playing Mats looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I’d seen him. It turns out he plays a Wildling leader, Tormund Giantsbane [that's some name], on HBO’s Game of Thrones.)

Force Majeure is impeccably made. The images have a clarity that’s stunning at times. Scenes often play out in silence, or with pauses (often uncomfortable) and looks that are quite revealing without spelling things out. The following scene takes place on the night of the third day when Mats and his much younger girlfriend Fanni are having dinner in Tomas and Ebba’s suite. Ebba again returns to Tomas’ actions of the day before.

This is a very unusual film with an almost clinically objective eye. I liked it a lot. Original and provocative, Force Majeure is a sharp-edged satire that wraps up in a way that makes us rethink much of what’s transpired, and suggests that the issues may not have been as clear-cut as they originally seemed.

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Force Majeure won a prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and is Sweden’s 2014 official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film. After playing the international and domestic festival circuit earlier this year, it opens theatrically in this country on Friday, October 24th. - Ted Hicks

*** Since posting this review yesterday, I read an interview with Rueben Östlund in the October 19th New York Times. If you’re interested in the film, this is definitely worth checking out.

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“Tracks” – On the Road with Camels and a Dog

Tracks-posterIn April of 1977 a young woman named Robyn Davidson set out walking from Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia on a 1,700 mile trek through Western Australia, much of it desert, to the Indian Ocean on the west coast, where she arrived nine months later. She was accompanied by four camels and her dog, Diggity. Robyn’s epic undertaking was funded by National Geographic, in exchange for allowing photographic coverage by an American, Rick Smolan, who visited Robyn periodically along the way.

Robyn published an account of the journey in her book Tracks in 1980. As Rick Smolan said in an interview with myself and several others this past Monday, Robyn wrote the book entirely from memory, as she kept no notes or journal on her journey. I hadn’t heard of Robyn or her book until I read about the film version, but as producer Eric Sherman said, “Tracks is one of those books that pretty much every Australian knows. It’s sort of a seminal epic Australian story.”

That story has been turned into an extraordinary film that opens here in limited release this Friday, September 19th, after successful screenings at many film festivals last year, including Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, as well as San Francisco and Seattle earlier this year. But it didn’t happen overnight. Reportedly there had been five previous attempts to film the book in the 1980s and ’90s. Julia Roberts was “attached” to star as Robyn Davidson in 1993. Nicole Kidman and Helen Hunt were also mentioned at various times. But it was Mia Wasikowska who was finally cast as Robyn. Having seen the film, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Wasikowska playing the part. She really owns it. Filming finally began in October of 2012 with John Curran directing from a script by Marion Nelson. The results are amazing, inspiring, unsentimental, thought-provoking, and incredibly human. I loved it.

Like most people in this country, my first exposure to Mia Wasikowska was in 2008 in the HBO series In Treatment as Sophie, a tightly-wrapped teenage gymnast undergoing psychotherapy. She was explosive, violent, suicidal, and totally got my attention in the role. (I’ve since learned, by the way, that Wasikowska is pronounced VAH-shee-KOF-ska.  Maybe everyone knows this, but I was clueless. She was born in Australia and her mother is Polish.) Mia Wasikowska has done great work since then in features that include Defiance (2008), Alice in Wonderland (2010), The Kids Are All Right (2010), Jane Eyre (2011), and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), to name but a few.

Per Rick Smolan, the extent to which Mia embodied Robyn was uncanny. He also said, “What’s amazing about Mia is she reminds me of a young Meryl Streep, you don’t even believe it’s the same person from movie to movie, she completely transforms into that character. As somebody who spent three months traveling with the real Robyn, it was eerie watching (Mia) become Robyn.” Several weeks before shooting began, Mia and Robyn Davidson traveled to South Australia so Mia could meet the camels and Robyn could show her how to work with them.

Robyn Davidson

Robyn Davidson

Mia Wasikowska as Robyn

Mia Wasikowska as Robyn

John Curran says he’d heard of Adam Driver because of the HBO series Girls, and began to consider him for the role of Rick Smolan when he came across a blog that described Driver as “…weird and fantastic.” This piqued Curran’s interest. Driver has an unpredictable, wonderfully off-center quality that feels just right for his role in Tracks. When asked if it was weird seeing himself on screen, Rick Smolan said, “Very.” Then he was asked if he felt that Adam Driver’s portrayal was authentic and if he’d taken liberties, and Smolan said, “My brother’s a director, so he said they’re going to have to make you into a jerk at the beginning, and then hopefully you’re better by the end of the movie.” He added, “It was the most interesting year of my life, being out there with this woman (Robyn).”

Rick Smolan, NYC 9/15/14

Rick Smolan, NYC 9/15/14

Adam Driver as Rick Smolan

Adam Driver as Rick Smolan

John Curran’s direction is straightforward and intensely quiet. He never gets in the way of the material; he lets it speak for itself and doesn’t amp up moments that are powerful enough in their own right. Curran’s films all have strong female characters. In addition to Mia Wasikowska in Tracks, I’m thinking especially of Laura Dern’s powerhouse performance in We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004). Tracks has an ineffable quality that at times has echos of such Australia films as Picnic at Hanging Rock (d. Peter Weir, 1975) and Walkabout (d. Nicolas Roeg, 1971). These films have a strangeness that feels almost extraterrestrial, especially that scene in Walkabout with Rod Stewart’s “Gasoline Alley” playing in the distance when the father shoots himself to death in his car after driving with his children into the Outback. All of these films have an expectant air about them, like something terrible or great is about to happen, but you don’t know what. When Mia loses her compass at one point, it made me think of Peter O’Toole losing his compass during an arduous desert crossing in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but unlike O’Toole, she finds hers. And promptly gets lost, but Diggity gets her home.

John Curran, NYC 9/15/14

John Curran, NYC 9/15/14

John Curran, NYC 9/15/14

John Curran, NYC 9/15/14

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Animals are major characters in Tracks, as is the landscape itself. This film could not have been shot in a studio, and Robyn could not have made the trip without the aid of her four camels, Bubs, Dookie, Zeleika and Zeleika’s calf, Goliath. At first I thought,  camels in Australia? Then I learned early in the film that camels were brought to Australia in 1840 to help transport people and goods because they were well suited to desert country. When motorized vehicles replaced them, most of the camels were turned loose, and now Australia has the world’s largest population of feral camels.

Here is a short clip of Mia and her camels. In voiceover we hear the letter she writes to National Geographic requesting sponsorship for her venture. It also has a nice taste of the very effective music score by Garth Stevenson.

There’s so much about Tracks that has stayed with me. Such as Mr. Eddy, the tribal Elder Tracks-Mia & Mr. Eddywho travels with Robyn across sacred territory where women are not allowed to go unaccompanied. Mr. Eddy is portrayed by the indigenous Rolley Minutma in a wonderful performance that expresses an abundance of humor and dignity. Or the rather tender interlude when Mia encounters an old man and his wife living on a dried-up farm with nothing else in sight for miles around (it is the desert, after all). She spends a day or so with them, almost like a daughter with her parents. It’s hard to describe. Or the beautiful shot of an incredibly starry sky at night that fills the screen, and then dissolves into a tight close-up of Mia’s face as she watches the sky. Or her relationship with the camels and her dog Diggity (who we learn in the credits is played by a dog with the wonderful name of Special Agent Gibbs). At one point we hear her say in voice-over, “The universe gave us three things to make life bearable: hope, jokes, and dogs. But the greatest of these was dogs.” I was especially blown away by a shot of Mia swimming underwater in slow motion toward the camera; then she pauses and her hair billows forward in a way that’s beyond magical. - Ted Hicks

Tracks-Mia & camel in ocean__________________________________________________________________

Extras:

Below are clips from an interview with John Curran at the Venice Film Festival last year followed by an interview with Robyn Davidson & Mia Wazikowska.

And for those who really want to get into it, The Weinstein Company (U.S. distributor of Tracks) has provided impressively extensive production notes for the film.

And finally, here’s an excerpt from the book itself.

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On the Radio – Monsters & Noir Podcasts!

Podcasts are now available for the two interview shows I did earlier this year for “Talk Art Radio” on WSOU, the campus radio station at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ, not far from Manhattan. I wrote about doing the first show in a post last April called “On the Radio – Movies, Zombies & “Homecoming.” About two months after that program, Mark Svenvold and I did another one; this time the focus was on film noir. Both can be heard via free iTunes downloads at the following site:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/wsou-talk-art-radio/id542463190?mt=10

Under the Description heading look for “Noir: A Style or Genre?” (released 8/23/14) and “Monsters and Me” (released 7/5/14). Both are just under 30 minutes each.

I think they both come off pretty well. It actually sounds like I know what I’m talking about. Mark is also great at keeping the conversation moving forward with a minimum (I hope) of stammering and/or dead air on my part. I was disappointed that our discussion of Joe Dante’s great Homecoming episode on Showtime’s series Masters of Horror wasn’t included, but we talked well beyond the 30 minutes allowed for the shows, so something had to go (see the blog post indicated above for more about Homecoming).

Big Heat-posterThe second show really should be called Film Noir: Then & Now, since we spent a lot of time talking about how the classic noir films of the 1940s & 50s have influenced the “neo-noir” films that came after. Classic noirs include Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Edward Dmytryk’s Murder My Sweet (1944), Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945), Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), to name but a very few. It’s a long list.

Key neo-noirs include J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear (1962), Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), ), Carl Franklin’s One False Move (1992), and Curtis Hansen’s L.A. Confidential (1997). Chinatown-poster3Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Noir is an incredibly fluid, flexible category. While noirs typically tend to have urban settings and involve some sort of criminal activity, there have been science fiction noirs (Blade Runner – 1982) and even Western noirs (Ramrod – 1947). Noirish elements turn up almost everywhere these days in films and television. It’s basically endless.

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Ramrod-posterDetour-main title

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I could go on and on but I’m sure most of you already know this stuff, so I’ll let the podcasts speak for themselves. I’ve enjoyed doing these shows and I hope you enjoy hearing them. Mark and I intend to do more of them.

A special thanks to Ben Rader at WSOU, who engineers these epic broadcasts.- Ted Hicks

 

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Barry Gifford on Film Noir – A Way with Words

As a writer, Barry Gifford definitely gets around. Born in Chicago in 1946, Gifford’s hefty  output (over 40 titles to date) includes fiction, non-fiction, biographies, poetry, and screenplays. I first became aware of his name as the author of the 1989 novel Wild at Heart, which David Lynch made into one of his very strange (as you’d expect) films the following year. In 1997 Gifford co-wrote the screenplay for Lynch’s even stranger film, Lost Highway.

Gifford also co-wrote a 1997 film called Dance with the Devil, based on his novel 59° and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango. The cast includes Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem, James Gandolfini, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, which is pretty intriguing lineup. As far as I can tell, this film was not released theatrically in this country, only on home video.

So far I haven’t read any of Gifford’s fiction or poetry (though I just remembered that I’d read and liked Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac, a book Gifford did with Lawrence Lee that came out in 1978), but I recently read his incredible Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir (University Press of Mississippi, 2001). This is an expanded edition of a collection previously titled The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films, published by Grove Press in 1988. I’m not even sure what you’d call this book. It’s not film criticism in any traditional sense. Gifford covers approximately 120 films (mostly noir, but not exclusively) in short, punchy entries of a page or two each. The pieces are not necessarily descriptive of the films, though sometimes they are. The writing is highly subjective, impressionistic, sarcastic, cynical, sincere, even poetic at times. I love his use of language, which is very alive, often with surprising and unpredictable word choices. He’s loose, idiosyncratic, and as far from stuffy as you’re likely to get. It occurred to me at times that if Charles Bukowski had written film reviews, they might have been something like these.

In an Author’s Note at the end he writes: “Insofar as accuracy is concerned in the following, I guarantee only the veracity of the impression. I wrote these essays as I imagine many of the Cahiers du Cinema reviews of the 1950s were written, on the café or kitchen table at one in the morning. None have been revised for their publication in magazines. This is and was by design, in an effort to retain the freshness of the thought.” Indeed.

Out of the Past Adv in Film Noir-cover

Barry Gifford

Barry Gifford

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Following are quotes from 48 of the films Gifford writes about. I found these particularly vibrant. They definitely got my attention. Reading these can be a kick even if you don’t know the films, but even more so if you do.

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American Friend-poster2The American Friend (Wim Wenders,1977) with Dennis Hopper, Bruno Ganz, Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray.

“The real dramatic life of this movie is in the undertow, the way Wenders meanders broodingly, using Ganz as his ameneusis, stroking the viewer with images, making all colors seem brown at their core – the world turning to shit.”

The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950) with Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe, Marilyn Monroe, James Whitmore.

Jungle reflects two shades: dark and darker.”

“…the streets are filled with spiders and their webs enfold the earth.”

"Asphalt Jungle" - Spanish

“Asphalt Jungle” – Spanish

Asphalt Jungle-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Autumn Leaves (Robert Aldrich, 1956) with Joan Crawford, Cliff Robertson, Vera Miles.

“She’s giddy, wild with the smell of love and she’s not sure what to do about it.”

The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955) with Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Jean Big Combo-poster3Wallace, Lee Van Cleef.

“…the tentacles of light directed at us and slowed down so that the smoke curls and wraps around the darkness like reticulate pythons.”

“…dynamite. When it blows it’s in slow motion again, the white piles of flame and smoke slithering over and around each other, another exquisite maze of deathclouds.”

“Darkness disguises cheap sets… but it takes a visual artist to make the black work, to infect it with just enough light so that anything other than dark seems wrong, uncomfortable, unnatural.”

The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953) with Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin.

Big Heat-Marvin, Grahame, Ford“Grahame’s sharp-angled face is savage enough to begin with, but after she’s burned by the coffee she becomes a kind of she-creature, an untouchable sex bomb.”

“…Gloria Grahame comes out looking like Mary Magdalene, a slender cut above all the other sick fools caught in the bad light.”

The Big Steal (Don Siegel, 1949) with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix.

“The plot is simple but Siegel makes it lively as hell, with wild cutting during the chase scenes. It’s easy to pick out the sequences shot exclusively in the studio; they’re hokey but topsy-turvy and it’s fun to watch Mitchum and Greer goose each other like Bogart and Bacall. Short, sweet, and not too deep.”

Body Heat (Lawrence Kasden, 1981) with William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, Mickey Rourke.

“Kasdan does a good job there, and he throws in enough rustling palm leaves, clanging wind chimes, and sweaty foreheads to usher in a grand sexual rush.”

Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray, 1950) with Joan Fontaine, Zachary Scott, Robert Ryan.

“Krisabel’s got Curtis snowed – he hardly notices that cash kicks off her shoulders like dandruff and that she manages to find a double dozen reasons to avoid making love with him.”

Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962) with Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Polly Bergen, Telly Savalas, Martin Balsam.

Cape Fear-still“Mitchum is a giant of evil in this movie; a slithery, completely corrupt, malevolent force.”

“He’s the angel of death-with-pain, put on earth to give men pause. When he describes to Peck how he got back at his ex-wife after he got out of prison, kidnapping her from her new husband and holding her captive in a motel room for days, raping and torturing her, and finally throwing her naked and filled with whiskey onto the road, we hear the Truth; it’s a swift lesson in the validity of Bad.”

Charley Varrick (Don Siegel, 1973) with Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker.

“The movie is dusty and low-rent, a late 20th-century western with no generous souls.”

Conflict (Curtis Bernhardt, 1945) with Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, Alexis Smith.

“The atmosphere is heavy, ponderous, dark, with lots of rain and misty windows and too much furniture in the rooms.”

“The movie is like good German potato salad, heavy and spicy at the same time.’

Cry Danger (Robert Parrish, 1951) with Dick Powell, Rhonda Fleming, William Conrad.

“Nancy lives in a bric-a-brac heaven, a cozy trailer covered by clinging vines. The setting is claustrophobic, and you can see Rocky squirm thinking about life with this devil-woman.”

Cult of the Cobra (Francis D. Lyon, 1955) with Faith Domergue, Richard Long, David Janssen, Jack Kelly.

Cult of the Cobra-poster2“…Cobra Princess, played by Faith Domergue, who somehow manages to look reptilian even in female human being drag.”

“Faith Domergue gets to like her life as a hot-blooded woman more than her slimey cobra body; she heats up as a dame and can’t take the schizophrenia of it all and goes out her apartment window one last time.”

Cult of the Cobra” is director Francis D. Lyons great paean to anthropomorphism; sophisticated foolishness that nevertheless conveys a vivid image of psychosexual conflict.”

Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, 1947) with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Agnes Moorehead.

“So here we have Agnes Moorehead’s best screen performance. She literally vibrates with evil as the murderess Madge Rapf, an arch slut/bitch unlike any other female villain this side of Judith Anderson in Rebecca.

“…the feline Bacall picks up Bogey on a country road.”

“The scene with the crazy plastic surgeon at two A.M. whose office is down a dark alley is the best of all, full of distended closeups and warped proportions, like faces leaning over a coffin; and we see them as would a corpse. Everyone looks already-dead, half-faded in failing light.”

“…Bacall slithering across the room toward him…”

“…Bogey’s grinning like the Chesire Cat as the warm waves slather the palm-strewn sands, and we fade out to a wonderland where the wounded survive and the wicked don’t.”

Dead Reckoning (John Cromwell, 1947) with Humphrey Bogart, Lisabeth Scott.

“Movies like this depend on nothing so much as mood, on Bogey’s epiphanic expressions, his ability to skate through and around the ham-fisted situations, to make the viewer comfortable through an illusion of competence.”

Dead Reckoning is better than the sum of its parts would seem to yield, which is probably due to the soft sea breeze that blows through it.”

Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945) with Tom Neal, Ann Savage.Detour-still

“Ulmer’s master was F. W. Murnau (Sunrise, Nosferatu), and those Prussian shadows shriek throughout his work.”

“Tom Neal is perfectly cast as the dumbshit dupe who thinks he knows what he’s doing. Ann Savage… gives a tour de force performance as the tubercular madwoman manipulating Neal to Total Loss.”

“Her head is like a bowling pin with brown hair and heavy eyebrows painted on.”

“She looks like a deranged leopard stalking off to the bedroom with the telephone to call the cops on him.”

“The almost ultraviolet bands of light across Neal’s face in Ulmer’s film are like streaks of evil.”

“Even the daylight in this movie is cloudy.”

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix Feist, 1947) with Lawrence Tierney.

“The hours covered in this film are from midnight to dawn, the period during which reality is suspended, when the rational mind loses control, and everything goes haywire. This is one of the meanest, most boldly deranged exercises in maniacal behavior this side of Ed Gein, minus the dismemberment.”

“…evil doesn’t lurk in his face, it gloats.”Devil Thumbs a Ride-Tierney

“Tierney invests this basically stupid plot with such genuine virulence that Devil must be ranked in the upper echelon of indelibly American noir.”

“There is no daylight in that face.”

D.O.A. (Rudolph Maté, 1949) with Edmund O’Brien, Luther Adler, Neville Brand.

“…this ultra-noir masterpiece, a movie that has everyone in a violent sweat from beginning to end.”

“Maté uses the city streets brilliantly in this, making it all into a maze with O’Brien the fightened, maddened, careening rabbit slamming into the wall with nothing making sense. Sweat, sweat, sweat – this movie has it. All improbable, impossible, with finger-snapping blondes, bop, post-World War Two ‘50s-prosperous American city scenes twisted through the bottom of a glass by an uncompromising Kandinskylike eye.”

Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971) with Michael Caine, Ian Hendry, Britt Ekland.

“An underrated, seldom-mentioned noir masterpiece, Mike Hodges’s Get Carter is the shiny suit of British cinema.”

Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946) with Glenn Ford, Rita Hayworth, George Macready.

“It’s enough just to watch Rita in all her glory descend a winding staircase, to fluff up her hair with one hand and let it fall all over her face while her ears and eyebrows twitch and Macready’s nose goes out of joint.”

Get Carter-posterGilda-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gun Crazy-poster2Gun Crazy-stillGun Crazy (Joesph H. Lewis, 1949) with John Dall, Peggy Cummins.

“The guy – long, tall John Dall, kind of a horse-faced Gary Cooper – has to wrest the platinum Peggy Cummins away from the carnival owner.”

“The camerawork is wicked, like Peggy’s mind; the eye is unblinking, relentless, raking across everything it sees like a claw. It’s a hard, mean focus, and I suppose that’s Joseph Lewis’s trademark: the screen pulsates like an injured nerve…”

“The climactic scene, shot in heavy white fog, is exquisite, startling because of the visual quiet – we just hear voices and shots. All in all, a remarkable little movie: sexy, violent, stupid, sad, pretty, tense, strange. More than enough.”

High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941) with Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino.

“When he gets pinned down on a mountaintop, Marie returns with the dog, who leaps out of her arms and runs to Bogey, who’s then drilled into immortality by the bulls.”

House of Horrors-posterHouse of Horrors (Jean Yarbrough, 1946) with Rondo Hatton.

“A personal favorite of mine, House of Horrors is a fractured exegesis on art, love, and curvature of the spine.”

“His face really was remarkable: a grotesquely beautiful shape that the sculptor in House of Horrors just has to render in clay.”

I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) with Francis Dee, Tom Conway.

“The light is always hazy, the black not quite black but with an opaqueness that makes you strain to see more clearly. The effect is like looking through a keyhole and being shocked by a cold fingertip on your neck.”

Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942) with Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway.

“So much is unexplained in this movie that it works – it’s simple but bizarre and very dark.”

The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) with Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Isabel Jewell.

“The Penitente Parade at the end is as weird a procession as anything ever filmed. Lewton and Tourneur knew precisely how to make the innocent and obvious seem strange and unknown. Submitting yourself to them is like giving yourself over to a leering hypnotist and his hunchback dwarf assistant…”

Cat People-poster2Leopardman-posterI Walked with a Zombie-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I Want to Live! (Robert Wise, 1958) with Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland, Theodore Bikel.

“All that’s stacked against a woman is in evidence here, and for a chick who’s trying hard to be a stand-up guy it’s especially gut wrenching. Bodies and shadows pass through, the blacks and whites licking at one another like flames, giving out auras of blue, yellow, green, and gray – until she goes down for the count and everything fades to basic black.”

In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950) with Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy.

“Bogey’s problem is that he can be a mean drunk even when he’s not drinking.”

In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967) with Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Jeff Corey.

“The dark quality of remote flatlands haunts the frame, even indoors. What’s outside is real, ominous, waiting; as dramatic and dynamic as a madman in a hockey mask holding a hatchet.”

“The killers are scars on the plain face of the land, scuttling across it like crabs miles from sand, no place to bury themselves, to escape the light. When they’re hanged their perverse energy oozes out of them like pus from a wound. As valid a portrait of the heart of the country as It’s a Wonderful Life.

The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946) with Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien.

“The Swede offers no resistance: he knows it’s time, life isn’t worth living, and they plug him. But why go down so easily? Why the fatalist? You guessed it: betrayed by a woman. Again. Remember the green scarf with the birds or whatever the hell it had on it? The one she used to wear? Especially if she’s Ava Gardner at her loveliest. Just enough to make you swoon and die. If you’re the Swede, that is.”

The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956) with Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Jr., Timothy Carey, Colleen Gray.

“It’s another great Carey performance as he leers and grunts and groans out of his permanent death-mask face.”

“Everyone looks so worried and concerned throughout that their features are marred, twisted, bent, screwed up in the physical as well as psychological sense.”

Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955) with Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Cloris Leachman.

“This Hammer is kind of an automaton, almost as if he’d been body-snatched and is running on remote control – very remote.”

Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway, 1947) with Victor Mature, Richard Widmark, Colleen Gray, Brian Donleavy.

Kiss of Death-Tommy Udo3“Mature fills up the screen while Widmark wriggles sideways into the frame, a nasty little reptile.”

Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) with Joan Crawford, Ann Blythe, Zachary Scott.

“The theme here is greed, like always, except it’s Southern California style. We get beach houses, mansions, drive-ins, swanky yellow convertibles, adultery out the wazoo, and prick-teasing at its middle-brow best.”

Mr. Majestyk (Richard Fleischer, 1974) with Charles Bronson.

“Bronson doesn’t really mind Cristal’s attention but life beyond the melon patch isn’t quite happening for him.”

“If Peckinpah had made it, movie lizards would consider Mr. Majestyk a masterpiece.”

Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975) with Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Susan Clark, Melanie Griffith.

“Daylight is just some stage we have to go through to get to the moments of truth.”

Night Moves-posterOn Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1952) with Robert Ryan, Ida Lupino, Ward Bond.

“The first half of this movie moves ahead like an express train barely able to stay on the tracks.”

“And the music by Bernard Herrmann, who did so many Hitchcock scores, fractures the pictures, taking them apart and then rewelding them so that the pace hits home like a whirling, bucking bronc, each concussion shattering the previous mood or moment.”

On Dangerous Ground-posterShack Out on 101 (Edward Dein, 1955) with Lee Marvin, Terry Moore, Keenan Wynn, Frank Lovejoy.

“It’s as if William Inge were forced by the government to rewrite some Chekhov play, but set in McCarthy-era America, and he took twenty Valium, washed them down with Old Crow, and dashed it off as the drug grabbed his brain and put him in Palookaville.”

“This movie is a dead-on minimalist portrait of America at its most paranoid. It’s the one to show the history class.”

Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard, 1978) with Dustin Hoffman, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, Theresa Russell.

“This is a troubling movie; it doesn’t make it all the way and yet it nags, gnaws on the viewer like food that just won’t digest.”

Strange Love of Martha Ivers-posterThe Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Mileston, 1946) with Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas, Lisabeth Scott.

“This movie is filled with darkness, brown soot, pessimism, secrecy, control freaks.”

“Nice story, yes? Nobody is happy in this, not even a little bit.”

“Rain, smoke, dirty minds, and bad ideas make this a classic of the corrupt.”

The Strange One (Jack Garfein, 1957) with Ben Gazzara, George Peppard.

“Jocko’s malevolent leer has everyone weirded out, but they’re powerless to avoid him.”

Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951) with Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Leo G. Carroll.

“Nothing’s bolted down in Bruno’s brain; his head is like a trashed pinball machine, with little sparks and bulbs lighting up here and there but in all the wrong places and sequences.”

Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) with William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Jack Webb.

“The movie is an arrow straight into the heart of the Hollywood mystique. It’s something beyond aberration, a larger remark which may not be literature but is nevertheless serious and quite profound.”

They Made Me a Criminal (Busby Berkeley,1939) with John Garfield, Claude Rains.

“This is a sentimental sucker punch of a movie.”

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958) with Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver.

“He uses Akim Tamiroff, who looks like a Turkish Groucho Marx, to set up Vargas’s wife, Susan, as a junkie in order to discredit Vargas. This is an especially fascinating scene, with Mercedes McCambridge playing a lesbian Mexican hoodlum, with the gang of wolf-eyed, leather-jacketed Mex punkers coming down like hyenas on the vulnerable blonde babe.”

The Turning Point (William Dieterle, 1952) with William Holden, Edmund O’Brien, Ed Begley.

“…he’s an amoral monster, willing to torch babies in order to stay on top.”

Where Danger Lives-poster2Where Danger Lives (John Farrow, 1950) with Robert Mitchum, Faith Domergue, Claude Rains.

“She was snakily seductive, though, and her reptilian eyebrows slither and squirm as she coils, strikes and collects Big Bob.”

“Actually, there’s a lot of eyebrow raising in this movie: Domergue, Mitchum and Rains were all experts at one-eyebrow-upmanship, so for a while here it’s kind of an eyebrow Olympics, with the three of them madly manipulating their respective forehead muscles.”

“This is a guy who hasn’t been laid enough because he’s been too busy studying, and when Domergue makes him think she’s giving herself to him when in fact he’s being sucked dry and made stupid by a voracious vampire whore, all we can do is shudder and be wary of love at first bite.”

The Wild One (Laslo Benedek, 1954) with Marlon Brando, Lee Marvin.

“Actually, Brando’s mob are decent fellows compared to the group led by Lee Marvin, who steals the picture right, left, and up the middle.”

Wild One-Lee Marvin****************************************************************************************

Most, if not all, of the films referenced here should be available for either rental or streaming from Netflix, Amazon, and other points on the compass. - Ted Hicks

 

 

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“A Most Wanted Man” & “Double Indemnity” – Top of the Line

A Most Wanted Man-poster3A Most Wanted Man - Sunday, August 3 at AMC Loews Lincoln Square. I love spy stories in films, TV shows, novels & non-fiction, but I’m sure my most immediate reason to see A Most Wanted Man was to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman in the last full performance we’re going to have from this amazing actor. He’s so good in the film, as he always is, that it made me both sad and angry to realize that this is it. I was somewhat startled looking at a list of his films to see all those titles together and realize what a great body of work he’d created by the time of his death at age 46. A partial listing of these films, titles that jumped out at me, include Boogie Nights (1997), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Magnolia (1999), Almost Famous (2000), Capote (2005), Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), The Savages (2007), Synecdoche, New York (2008), Doubt (2008), The Master (2012), and A Late Quartet (2012). When I think of his a cappella rendition of  “Slow Boat to China” near the end of The Master, or having a cocaine-fueled meltdown in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, it makes me crazy to realize we won’t see what he might have done over the next 20 or 30 years.

A Most Wanted Man is the third feature directed by Anton Corbijn and written by Andrew Bovell, based on the John Le Carré novel. Corbijn’s previous features were Control (2007), a profile of Ian Curtis, the lead singer with the band Joy Division who committed suicide at age 23, and The American (2010), with George Clooney as a contract killer in Europe. Corbijn’s controlled, slow-burn approach was a good match for Le Carré. A Most Wanted Man also reminded of what I think is one of the best adaptations of a Le Carré novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965).

As Günther Bachman, the head of a covert intelligence operation in Hamburg, Hoffman is rumpled, short-tempered, possibly alcoholic, and totally focused on getting the job done. Hoffman’s performance isn’t at all flashy; but it is just about perfect. The narrative of A Most Wanted Man is set in motion by Issa Karpov (played by Grigoriy Dobrygin), a recently imprisoned and tortured half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim who has illegally entered Germany. In a post-9/11 world, Hamburg is especially paranoid about the agenda of anyone who fits Issa’s profile. The German government, the CIA (represented by a cold-eyed Robin Wright with a bit of an echo of her steely Claire Underwood on the House of Cards Neflix series), and Bachman’s own organization are all competing to locate Issa and determine the truth of why he is in Hamburg. The film takes its time. The pace is deliberate, but far from boring (unless you need something blowing up every five or ten minutes to hold your interest).

I thought it might bother me that this was another film in which everyone, regardless of nationality, speaks English. But it didn’t distract me at all. There’s something different about Hoffman’s accent in particular. Whatever it is, it works. In a piece in the New York Times this past July 17, John Le Carré describes his visit to the set of A Most Wanted Man and his impressions of Hoffman, at the end of which he talks about Hoffman’s accent in the film. It’s definitely worth reading.

A Most Wanted Man was shown at the Sundance Film Festival on January 17, 2014. Below is an excerpt from a press conference with Hoffman, cast members Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams, and director Anton Corbijn following the screening from. I wish the entire press conference was available, but this is very interesting nonetheless. Seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman in this clip and knowing that he died three weeks later on February 2 is a weird kind of disconnect. What an unnecessary loss.

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Double Indemnity (1944) – Monday, August 3 at Film Forum. Director: Billy Wilder. Co-Writers: Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Film Forum wrapped up its terrific “Femmes Noirs” series with a week’s run of this great film, a key early entry in the “classic” noir cycle (Double Indemnity was scheduled to end on August 7, but has been held over through Thursday, August 14, when the equally great The Killing [Stanley Kubrick - 1956] and Gun Crazy [Joseph H. Lewis - 1949] return for a week’s run through August 21. All three are digital restorations and have never looked better).

Double Indemnity-Neff's doorwayDouble Indemnity set the template for many noirs to follow. Wise-cracking insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets involved with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a bored housewife who uses Neff to help kill her husband and collect the insurance money. As Neff says in his confession to claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), recorded on a Dictaphone in his office as he bleeds out from a gunshot wound, “I killed him for the money, and for a woman. I didn’t get the money… and I didn’t get the woman.” That’s usually how it works out for most noir protagonists.

Here is a clip of the beginning of that confession. This scene begins just a few minutes after the opening credits, so I don’t consider it a spoiler. The rest of the story is told in flashback via Neff’s confession.

The cast is uniformly great. For anyone who grew up seeing Fred MacMurray as the father on the TV series My Three Sons (1960-1972) or in Disney films such as The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) or Son of Flubber (1963), seeing him in something like Double Indemnity can be quite a jolt. He’s perfect, as is Barbara Stanwyck, whose role as the manipulative Phyllis Dietrichson sets the bar for femme fatales, and that’s saying something. Edward G. Robinson is terrific as the brilliant claims adjustor Barton Keyes, shrewd, cynical, and a closet softee, with a “little man” inside who alerts him when something is amiss. His final scene with MacMurray is a punch to the heart.

Everything seemed to come together for this film. Much like Casablanca (1942), there was a happy confluence of director, script, and cast. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, Double Indemnity was the third feature directed by Billy Wilder in this country. His began his career as a screenwriter in Germany in 1929. Like many German directors (Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and others), Wilder got out when the Nazi Party began to come to power. He directed his first feature, Mauvaise Graine (1934), in Paris, before moving to Hollywood, where he had his first hit writing the screenplay for Ernst Lubitch’s Ninotchka (1939). After Double Indemnity, Wilder went on to direct such classics as The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Blvd. (1950), and Some Like It Hot (1959). Wilder co-wrote Double Indemnity with novelist Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe came to personify the picture of a private eye in the public’s mind. Their working relationship was reportedly rocky, but you can’t argue with the result. Chandler went on to write the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), though he requested that his name be removed when it turned out that virtually nothing of his work remained in the finished film. Hitchcock readily agreed (his relationship with Chandler was apparently even worse than Chandler’s with Wilder), but Warner Bros. refused because they wanted Chandler’s name on the film.

Raymond Chandler & Billy Wilder

Raymond Chandler & Billy Wilder

Another important component of Double Indemnity is Miklos Rozsa’s score. It’s value to the film cannot be over-estimated. The music is heard at its most forceful during the opening credits, creating an inexorable momentum and emotion that drives the story and its characters to what feels like an inevitable conclusion. The theme weaves in and out of the film and never lets go. As Walter and Phyllis repeatedly say to each other to underscore their determination to stick it out together, “Straight down the line.”

I especially like the tag line on the poster below at left: “You can’t kiss away a murder!” That’s a pretty hard-boiled line, befitting the film. I also can’t resist including a couple of great foreign posters for Double Indemnity. This film is available for streaming or rental via Netflix and for streaming or purchase from Amazon. If you haven’t seen it, you should. - Ted Hicks

Double Indemnity-poster4Double Indemnity-French poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Film Noir & Everything Else – Too Many Movies

Gremlins at 3D movieToday is my birthday. Ta da! Birthdays can be a time of reflection, so maybe I should reflect on the fact that I’ve only put up one new post so far this month, yet more evidence of my constant struggle with procrastination. If this was an actual job where I had to turn in something every Friday, for example, I’d do it. Might not start until Thursday night, but I’d get it done. I’m the world’s worse boss to myself. It’s too easy to go to another movie, which is ironic, since this blog is ostensibly about movies. Seeing all these movies gets in the way of writing about them.

I just tallied them up, and I’ve seen 225 films since July 31st of last year. Do I get a prize? Plenty to write about, right? Plus I’ve got no end of topics on the back burner that I want to cover, such as the films of Buster Keaton, John Frankenheimer, Ed Wood, Robert Siodmak, Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann, Robert Wise, Budd Boetticher, Don Siegel, Jacques Tourneur, Jules Dassin, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, and many many others, plus drive-in movie theaters, film noir, and all the great stuff on television these days.

I’m really feeling the need to put up a post today so I can have at least two for July. This is arbitrary, I know, but it’s bothering me. I’ve been seeing a lot of film noir the last few weeks that I’ve wanted to write about, but which has resulted in one false start after another. Probably trying to deal with too many films, instead of just focusing on one or two. Film Noir is my favorite type of film (there’s divided opinion on whether noir is a genre or a style, but I know it when I see it). Film Forum here in NYC has been running a series called “Femmes Noir: Hollywood’s Dangerous Dames,” a new double-feature nearly every day. A week before the Film Forum series started, I saw another great noir, The Set-Up (1949), Robert Wise’s brutal boxing picture with Robert Ryan as a washed up fighter trying for one last score. Here’s what I wrote about it before I got distracted by seeing other noirs like Out of the Past (1947) and Murder, My Sweet (1944).

Set Up-lobby cardThe Set-Up (1949) at the IFC Center on Thursday, July 10th. This is a great boxing movie from one of my favorite directors, Robert Wise. He began his long career in film as an editor for Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). He then joined the Val Lewton production unit at RKO, where he directed The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and the exceptional The Body Snatcher (1945), which has Boris Karloff in one of the greatest performances of his career. Wise also made The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) one of the best science-fiction films of the 50s, and probably ever.

The Set-Up is as dark as it gets. Robert Ryan plays Stoker Thompson, a basically washed up fighter at 35 on a losing streak who keeps thinking the next match is the one that will turn it all around for him. But a local mobster wants Stoker to take a dive. Stoker’s manager has agreed, but has so little faith in Stoker’s abilities at this point that he doesn’t even bother to tell him, since he’s sure Stoker will lose anyway. You can probably guess how that works out. Ryan, who I think is still underrated, was an iconic presence in many key noir films. His characters frequently carried the threat of violence to a deranged degree, as in Fred Zinneman’s Act of Violence (1948) and Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952), and were often virulently racist, particularly in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), also directed by Robert Wise. This is ironic given Ryan’s liberal politics and reputation as a kind and decent man.

The boxing scenes in The Set-Up, which take place in a seedy club located on a tattered street in the ironically named Paradise City, are as brutal as anything in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Even though the boxing matches are only four rounds each, Stoker’s fight seems to go on forever. We’re there for every minute of every round. The following clip gives a good sense of how tough these boxing scenes are.

The Set-Up is distinguished by a real-time structure, so we’re in the ring with Stoker for as long as he is. A clock seen in the town square in the first shot shows the time to be 9:05 pm; at the end the same clock shows 10:16 pm. Everything in the film takes place during those 71 minutes.  As far I know, The Set-Up was one of the first films to do this. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope had done it the previous year, as well as Fred Zinneman’s High Noon in 1952. High Noon, in particular, really emphasizes the passage of time with repeated insert shots of ticking clocks. Of course, this makes sense, since the concept of time is right there in the title. But as Ellar Coltrane’s character says in Richard Linklater’s wonderful new film, Boyhood, “It’s always right now.” So whether a story is told in real time, as in The Set-Up, or is spread out over decades, as in Giant, every moment in any movie is always present tense, “always right now.”

Set Up-still cornered

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So what should I do with the rest of the day? I could always go to another movie. Actually, we’ve got a screening of Life After Beth at 6:00 pm. Don’t know much about it, but it has Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser and Anna Kendrick. Good cast, right? Wait, here’s a synopsis that came with the email invite: Zach is devastated by the unexpected death of his girlfriend, Beth. But when she miraculously comes back to life, Zach takes full advantage of the opportunity to share and experience all the things he regretted not doing with her before. However, the newly returned Beth isn’t quite how he remembered her and, before long, Zach’s whole world takes a turn for the worse. Okay, I get it, it’s a zombie movie, probably for laughs.

But I’ve got three hours before the film, so maybe I should watch Sharknado2, which I DVR’d last night. The setting is New York City, so how can I resist? Sharks in the subways, what could be better? Though I doubt anything in this one can top the scene in the first epic where a guy chainsaws his way out of a shark’s gut after being swallowed whole.

Sharknado2-poster

What a birthday! - Ted Hicks

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