Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Visual Poetry: Double Indemnity

PERSONAL FAVES: Double Indemnity

I think, if I were called upon to explain the term film noir to someone who had no understanding of cinema, I would simply sit them down and show them 'Double Indemnity'. I wanted to avoid starting this review with a big fat piece of opinionism - something I do too often as it is - along the lines of " 'Double Indemnity' is the ultimate film noir". Particularly when film noir boasts some many great examples of itself. But I really do believe that 'Double Indemnity' ticks all of the boxes.

To this end, and without mentioning the movie I was going to be writing about, I asked a number of friends and colleagues: "What does film noir mean to you?" There's a pretty good catch-all definition in an article on GreenCine: "Film noir is the flipside of the all-American success story ... It's about what people want, how badly they want it and how far they'll go to get it." I expected a checklist of genre tropes, stock characters and visual motifs. I expected femmes fatale, hapless dupes, tenacious investigators, rain-slicked streets, blinking neon, shadowy cinematography; lust, lies, greed, corruption; blackmail, theft, betrayal, murder. Random twists of fate. Carefully planned crimes unravelling. Webs of deceit tying in-too-deep anti-heroes in knots. Points of no return long passed. Redemption just out of reach. Abject cynicism vis-a-vis the human condition.

I expected, in other words, a list I could easily check 'Double Indemnity' off against. It's got the quinessential film noir plot to begin with: disillusioned protagonist Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is persuaded by sultry siren Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to bump off her husband (Tom Powers), all the better to pocket the proceeds of the titular insurance policy. It's got a dogged investigator: claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a man who can sniff out a lie at thirty paces and even if he can't, figures it for a big fat fib anyway and goes after the truth like a bloodhound.

Neff knows that it's Keyes he's got to outwit if he's going to get away with it. The murder has to look like an accident. And definitely not like suicide. Insurance company boss Norton (Richard Gaines), aghast at the potential payout, tries to browbeat the fiesty Phyllis by suggesting that her husband topped himself, therefore invalidating the policy. It doesn't work, and Keyes roundly mocks him after Phyllis storms out:

Keyes: You know, you ought to take a look at the statistics on suicide some time. You might learn something about the insurance business.
Norton: Mr Keyes, I was raised in the insurance business.
Keyes: Yeah, in the front office. Come now, you've never read an actuarial table in your life have you? Why, they've got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by race, by colour, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day; suicide, how committed: by poision, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps; suicide by poison, subdivided by types of poision, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, alkaloid, protein and so forth; suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from steamboats. But Mr Norton, of all the cases of record, there's not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train.

As acutely as he proves Norton wrong, Keyes determines to uncover the truth of Dietrichson's death. He's not the only one who wants answers. Lola (Jean Heather), Dietrichson's daughter from a previous marriage, isn't buying the official line either. Particularly since she has it in mind that Phyllis was instrumental in her mother's death. Neff's problems pile up: not only is Keyes edging closer to the truth, but Neff himself is having to get close to Lola just to make sure she doesn't go running her mouth off to the wrong people. Then Phyllis gets wind that Neff and Lola are getting cosy and draws the wrong conclusion.

Here's another tenet of the genre I was expecting my impromptu survey to reveal: the old "hell hath no fury" scenario.

Yes, I was sure that 'Double Indemnity' ticked all the boxes. In fact, the only departure I anticipated would be the milieu that many noirs operate in - the criminal underworld - but even then 'Double Indemnity' replaces this with the everyday crimes of regular joes telling the occasional porky on their claims form. If anything, I thought, 'Double Indemnity' emerges as more cynical for playing out against a backdrop of the insurance business than against a world of casinos, speakeasys and houses of ill-repute.

So I was surprised (and delighted) that when I asked my friends and colleagues about film noir, they avoided the obvious and talked instead about the atmosphere of the films; the mood; the emotional response. They talked about an all-pervading sense of inevitability, of characters caught up in situations they can no longer control, rushing headlong towards a bad end. They talked about believability, about characters who do the wrong thing or get ensnared by the wrong people because of weakness or vulnerability or one bad decision (usually made because they see it as a short cut to money or sexual fulfillment). They talked about characters trying to escape from the things they've done, hurtling past the point at which they might have been able to reverse their actions, having to construct ever more elaborate lies and/or alibis, all the time making it worse for themselves.

They talked about how film noir lingers in the mind: images and narratives and characters that stay with you for days, weeks, months. How the key scenes often hinge on a one-in-a-million, unplanned-for, never-saw-it-coming bit of bad luck - something that even the canniest criminal mind could never plan for because the only thing you can never pre-suppose is the cosmic coin toss of whether your luck turns out good or bad in any given situation. How film noir, with all the illusions and desires and primal urges that drive its anti-heroes to the wrong decisions, only to be undone by that one forgotten detail, that one unexpected twist, is kind of like life.

So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe 'Double Indemnity' isn't the ultimate film noir. With so many great examples from the 40s and 50s - when the best of American story-driven genre cinema was married to the chiaroscuro expressionism of a melange of European filmmakers who had fled to the States to escape rise of Naziism - maybe it's more a case of any film noir being the ultimate film noir. It's those just-like-life moments of almost poetic defeatism, of hopes being dashed and a world-weary understanding bleeding into gap that's left, that sum up film noir. Moments so resonant that you don't even have to name the film; they almost exist autonomously.

Moments like Alida Valli walking past Joseph Cotten in the graveyard. John Garfield looking up from a dropped tube of lipstick rolling along the floor to the hourglass figure of the girl he'll kill for. Humphrey Bogart ironically describing an artefact that's inspired murder and deceit as "the stuff that dreams are made of". Robert Mitchum setting eyes on Jane Greer and knowing that he's in for a world of trouble but unable to help himself.

And Fred MacMurray, gut shot and painfully recording his confession - his Calvary the bland interiors of his office - coming out with a line that pretty much sums up film noir: "I killed him. I killed him for money. And for a woman. I didn't get the money. I didn't get the woman."

Such is life.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hot Fuzz

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that Britain is generally a bit of a crap place. I speak as a native. Our weather's crap, our government's crap, our television's crap. It's a good job our cinema's had its fair share of high points - Powell & Pressburger, the Ealing films, Hitchcock, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, the Scott brothers - otherwise we'd be down to William Shakespeare, football and the royal family to act as standard bearers of our cultural heritage, and frankly that's way too much for one playwright who's been dead 800 years to shoulder on his own.

And even then I worry about British cinema sometimes. Most of our brightest lights were very quick to make the move Stateside. Those who have stayed tend to a small screen, non-cinematic, people-in-housing-estates-yelling-at-each-other-for-two-hours aesthetic. That, or they disappear up their own fundamental orifices in a welter of pretentiousness. Mentioning no names, Peter Greenaway.

While I'm being decidedly unpatriotic and getting all this off my chest, I may as well offend the middle class critics who have long fawned over them as the leading lights of British cinema and say that I'm not all that keen on the work of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Loach, when he gets the balance between cinema and politics right, can pull off a thunderingly good movie - 'Hidden Agenda' and 'Land and Freedom' are bob on - but most of the time the balance is way off kilter and he's too focussed on making a polemic to make cinema. Mike Leigh I find downright patronising. I'm working class (grandfather: miner; father: truck driver) and I don't recognise Leigh's characters. They have none of the earthy humour, colloquial loquacity and cameraderie that I've seen first hand. Sight & Sound would never publish me for saying this, but it deserves saying: 'The Full Monty' is a more realistic depiction of working class life than anything by Mike Leigh.

All of which is a 300-word way of saying thank God and all His little angels for Edgar Wright. Two films into his career (and I'm gnashing my teeth to think that he's already defected across the pond for his third feature) and he's made two British films, set in recognisably contemporary British locations, full of British actors playing quintessentially British characters, the situations and satirical elements imbued with a distinctly British strand of dry humour ... and both films have been cinematic, pacy, massively entertaining and funny as fuck.

'Shaun of the Dead' was a knowing send-up of George A Romero's undead saga that I can't imagine any other British filmmaker attempting - let alone pulling off. (Ken Loach's 'The Wind That Shakes the Zombie'? Mike Leigh's 'Happy Go Zombie'? Don't think so!) It also had enough bite that it succeeds as a stand-alone film. With a cast of small screen comedy greats (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Dylan Moran, Lucy Davies, Martin Freeman) and an authentic big screen legend (Bill Nighy), a script that juggled the laughs and the gore without missing a beat, and some brilliantly true to life moments (fleeing a horde of flesh-munching zombies? where do you go? shopping mall? military base? course not! pub, innit?), 'Shaun of the Dead' was so assured and accomplished that it seemed like Wright had wrought himself a fucker of a hard act to follow.

Then he went and made 'Hot Fuzz'. The talented bugger.

There are those who hold 'Shaun of the Dead' as the better film, but for me 'Hot Fuzz' is pure comedic genius. Wright and co-writer Pegg basically take the mismatched-partners-tough-talk-car-chases-blow-shit-up buddy movie ethos beloved of Hollywood, shake up all the cliches, and restage the whole thing in a sleepy Home Counties market town. The kind of place where everyone knows everyone else. The kind of place that wins "best kept village" awards. The kind of place that has an amateur dramatics society but no cinema.

Not that this bothers half-arsed copper PC Danny Butterman (Frost). He prefers the pub to the theatre, plus there's his extensive collection of action movies on DVD (his personal faves: 'Point Break' and 'Bad Boys II'). He's delighted when he gets partnered with Nicholas Angel (Pegg), an ambitious Londoner transferred out of the metropolis after the top brass decide that his outstanding arrest record and string of commendations makes everyone else look bad. Danny plagues Nick with endless questions about life in a more action-packed constabulary (for example, "have you ever fired your gun in the air while screaming Aaaaaarrrrgggghhhh?")

Nick finds it hard to share Danny's excitement. His commitment to diligent police work earns reprimands from new boss Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent) and the mockery of Special Branch bods DS Andy Wainwright (Paddy Consodine) and DC Andy Cartwright (Rafe Spall). He finds his duties (wielding a speed camera, officiating at a church fete tombola) banal to the point of humiliating. His biggest case is the disappearance of a local swan.

Then the murders start. Full-blooded, hilariously graphic affairs. Wright lets horror movie imagery sit cheek-by-jowl with cop movie iconography (his double homage to 'Scream' is a treat) and the effect is peerless. The short, zippy scenes and full-tilt editing are matched by the thick-and-fast barrage of in-jokes. The aforementioned 'Point Break' and 'Bad Boys II' get their key moments gleefully sent up; a running joke about one of the am-dram members being an extra in 'Straw Dogs' sets up a pub shoot-out/mantrap decapitation that's absolutely priceless; 'Scream' and 'The Omen' nudge up against each other; a 'Shaun of the Dead' DVD makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo; the leather-jacketed Special Branch types are pure 'Sweeney'; and there's a dash of Sergio Leone in the build-up to a screamingly funny gun battle that plays out like Sam Peckinpah on laughing gas or John Woo meets 'Last of the Summer Wine'.

For all the broad comedy, the best gags are the least obvious: Nicholas Angel's badge number is 777 (in theology often consider the number of God just as 666 is the number of the beast); the only character who refers to him by his number is Simon Skinner, played by former Bond (ie. 007) Timothy Dalton; the shotguns Nicholas and Danny use in the climactic shoot-out are Winchesters (the name of the pub in 'Shaun of the Dead'); identical twin brothers are differentiated by their choice of reading matter: a contemporary novel by Iain Banks and a sci-fi by Iain M. Banks (Banks is one and the same author, who uses the M. to differentiate the types of fiction he writes; the brothers are played by the same actor); the contemporary Banks novel is 'Complicity' - filmed, not entirely successfully, by Gavin Millar - which concerns a series of murders staged ironically according to the misdeeds of the victims, a concept embraced by the conspirators in 'Hot Fuzz'.

The cast is eclectic: in addition to Dalton and Broadbent, Edward Woodward, Billie Whitelaw and Kenneth Cranham do some of their best work in ages, while Bill Nighy and Martin Freeman return in an effective cameos, alongside Steve Coogan. In fact, there's no-one, even in the smallest roles, who strikes a wrong note. Not only does Wright have an ear for dialogue, an eye for the cinematic, and a sense of humour tuned with radar-like effectiveness to the genuinely funny, but he's also a bloody good actors' director. As I may have mentioned before, talented bugger.

Friday, July 24, 2009

I'm Not Scared

'I'm Not Scared' doesn't begin promisingly. There are lush, lingering shots of golden cornfields. Acres and acres of waving corn. Seriously, there's so much waving corn that you could easily mistake this for the early part of a Michael Bay film - you know, the bit before he remembers to bring on the giant robots or blow the shit out of everything. Oh yeah, and there's Einaudi burbling away on the soundtrack, endlessly regurgitating that fucking annoying diamond advert music that went over so popular with legions of blue-rinse Classic FM listeners. Then - as the corn waves and the violins crescendo and the cinematography threatens to slide off the screen and wrap itself around a box of chocolates - a bunch of kids ride their bicycles all Spielberg-like right through the middle of it.

Then you remember that director Gabriele Salvatores is best known for his 1991 Oscar-winner 'Meditteraneo' - a sun-dappled war movie, untroubled by the grungy business of war, in which sod all happens, very prettily, for an hour and a half.

You strap yourself in, making sure there's a beer or a bottle of wine or a glass of scotch to hand. You offer up a vague prayer that the phone will ring, or there'll be a knock at the door. Something to relieve the 97-minute tedium of Einaudi and waving cornfields and the kind of blue skies you normally get in holiday brochures where you just know the photographer's gone to town with the polarising filter. Does this sound snide? I'm not kidding: 'I'm Not Scared' is so cloyingly gorgeous in places that it makes your average David Lean epic look like it was shot hand-held on a cameraphone on the streets of Beirut.

And then this happens:

The kids race to a deserted farmhouse, the loser having to pay a forfeit. When Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) complains that he was only last because his sister Maria (Giulia Matturo) tripped, gang leader Skull (Stefano Biase) picks on tubby and defenceless Barbara (Adriana Conserva), randomly declaring her the loser. The other kids back him up. Barbara, becoming tearful, asks what the forfeit is. "Show it to us," Skull sneers - 10 years old and you can already tell how shittily he's going to treat his girlfriend/wife/casual flings later in life. When Barbara hesitates, Skull slaps her. Barbara, pathetically, starts fumbling at the buttons of her skirt and suddenly the golden corn and the bright blue sky and the swirling violins seem like they were all part of a different movie, one you watched a couple of weeks ago. You start wondering where Salvatores is going with the scene. When he's going to call time on it.

Fortunately, Michele does the decent thing and takes the forfeit on himself (he's made to walk a rickety beam across an otherwise fallen-in ceiling then leap from an upper window into the branches of a nearby tree) but the scene has been soured, the bright summer's day darkened, the prettiness marred and the point made: kids can be evil little sods.

And more so, the film avers as it progresses, their parents.

When Michele and Maria return to the deserted farmhouse to find Maria's glasses, Michele discovers a hole covered with a piece of corrugated metal. Prising it back, he sees something at the bottom of the hole. A foot. A child's foot. Michele panics, leaps on his bike and pedals away like mad.

It doesn't take him too long to return, though. Tired of Skull's bullying, tired of the tense atmosphere at home - his father Pino (Dino Abbrescia) is often away, his mother Anna (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) is prone to mood swings - the hole and the mystery of its occupant are too priceless a secret and Michele keeps going back.

The young boy in the hole (he's Michele's age) is called Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro) and he's been kept underground, in the dark, for so long that he's convinced he can't see. More than that: he's convinced he's dead and that Michele is an angel. Michele's parents know a lot more about him, though. He's the child of a rich couple, the victim of a kidnapping arranged by Pino's bullish and unpredictable friend Sergio (Diego Abatantuono). Only their little get-rich-quick scheme (which all the adults in the village are in on) isn't paying off as expected. The money's not appearing and Filippo's becoming a liability. Soon they're drawing straws to see who undertakes the grim business of disposing of him.

'I'm Not Scared' is almost a very good film. It captures the sense of wonder, the sense of immediacy, that children exhibit towards the world. Never mind that Michele has found someone imprisoned in a hole, leg shackled - it's an awesome secret that nobody else knows (or so he thinks - for a while, anyway) and while he feeds Filippo and takes him water, even contriving for a short period to bring him out of the whole, it doesn't occur to him until very late in the day - until, specifically, he sees Sergio with a gun and understands exactly what Sergio intends on using the piece for - that Filippo might actually appreciate being released.

Salvatores captures the darker aspects of childhood, as well. There's the scene mentioned at the start of this review. There's Maria expressionlessly "drowning" her Barbie doll in a water trough ("she was broken anyway"). There's Pino's frequently rough treatment of Michele.The film is set in 1978, the Seventies being a time when parents could happily wallop their kids without any Social Services intervention (I speak from experience on this point) and short-tempered lorry driver Pino only seems able to show affection to his son by engaging him in arm-wrestling competitions. Elsewhere, he berates the boy harshly, at one point yelling in his face "Get lost".

Similarly, the pastoral cinematography occasionally peels away the glossiness of its own veneer and DoP Italo Petriccione incisively evokes the dirt poor village, the drab houses and the hardscrabble lives of the inhabitants. Sadly, the veneer is smoothed back into place for the finale, Salvatores ramping up the melodrama and steering things firmly into Spielberg territory. Mawkish music? Check. Emotionally manipulative direction? Check. A huge bright light beaming down on the protagonist? Check. The niggling sense that this could have been a really punchy, powerful and thought-provoking ending if only the film-makers had demonstrated the courage of their convictions and not gone the cheap, hollow, shamelessly tear-jerking route? Check, check, check.

It's apposite that the closing frames of 'I'm Not Scared' are as flawed as the opening ones. Style and content, set-piece and cinematography, dialogue and music all seem to be at odds with each other. This is European cinema slavishly trying to emulate Hollywood and unless you're Luc Besson and believe in the holy trinity of car chases, shoot outs and hand-to-hand, that can only be a bad idea.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Limey

I know I've disparaged the whole 'Movie-X'-meets-'Movie-Y'-as-an-easy-way-of-pigeonholing-'Movie-Z' school of film criticism in these pages before (and rightly so: it's a lazy and unimaginative way of writing), but in the case of 'The Limey' there's no other way of putting it:

'The Limey' is 'Get Carter' meets 'Last Year at Marienbad'.

Feel free to stop reading at this point, pour a large glass of scotch, maybe re-watch Mike Hodges' amoral revenge-thriller classic and Alain Resnais' oblique arthouse puzzler back-to-back, and then ponder long and hard on the implications of that comparison.

I'll say it again: 'The Limey' is 'Get Carter' meets 'Last Year at Marienbad'.

Director Steven Soderbergh takes a fairly humdrum premise - British career criminal goes to America to find out the truth behind the death of his daughter and gets medieval on the collective asses of anyone and everyone who was either involved or stands in his way - and turns it into an avante-garde experiment in editing, narrative dissonance and aesthetic abstraction.

At this point I need to give myself a bollocking for using the phrase "aesthetic abstraction" because it exemplifies the kind of wanky analytical film writing I started The Agitation of the Mind to get away from. But again, I'm screwed if I can find another way of putting it. 'The Limey' is a genre movie put on the psychiatrist's couch, encouraged to indulge its more violent and antisocial tendencies as part of its therapy, then reconstructed as a divisive, discursive and challenging art movie.

What defines 'The Limey' is its editing. How many movies do you remember principally for the way they're edited? The work of Godard. The aforementioned 'Last Year at Marienbad'. That's about it. Of course, there are movies aplenty which demonstrate effective use of editing - take virtually any summer tentpole action movie: a fight scene, chase or shoot out is only as good as the editing. A sloppily edited shoot out will have no spatial continuity and leave you thinking that bullets are whanging about all over the place and the combatants sheltering in entirely different locations. An uninterestingly edited car chase will simply reduce speed, tension and white knuckle stunt driving to interminable shots of one car following another car. But the most memorable fights and shoot outs and car chases are edited to emphasise the fighting or the shooting or the chasing - seldom does the editing call attention to itself.

Except in the case of 'The Limey', which might as well open with the credit "a film edited by..."*. This is editing which not just calls attention to itself, but happily demolishes the linear and the logical (several dialogue scenes feature non-speaking participants). It goes beyond montage, juxtaposition, flashbacks or flashforwards. It's more like a cardsharp shuffling the very movie, dealing out scenes and images and iconography, sweeping them up from the table again and cutting them back into the pack. It's a frustrating or utterly joyous viewing experiencing depending on your mood, your genre expectations and whether you might have consumed proscribed substances prior to watching.

The 'Get Carter' comparison is apposite: Michael Caine's eponymous tough guy and Terence Stamp's career criminal Wilson both hail from London; Carter arrives in Newcastle a fish out of water and needs help from one of the locals to find his way around, Wilson touches down in L.A. and relies on his contact Ed Roef (Luis Guzman)'s help to assess the lie of the land; Carter's after the truth behind his brother's death, Wilson his daughter's. Both rampage from one encounter to the next in bull/china shop stylee.

Wilson's trail leads him to record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda). A fellow '60s icon, Fonda is an ideal counterweight to Stamp's stentorian intensity. Their respective backgrounds set up a sneaky little subtext - East End vs East Coast - to the culture clash scenario writ so large elsewhere in the film. "There's one thing I don't understand," declares a gang boss cop (Bill Duke) who's just sat perplexedly through a colloquialism-laden rant by Wilson, "and that's every fuckin' word you say." At times Wilson's lexicon of 'Sweeney'-isms (example: "Now look, squire, you're the guv'nor round 'ere, I can see that. I'm in your manor now, so there's no need to get your knickers in a twist. Whatever this bollocks is that's going down between you and that slag Valentine's got nothing to do with me") tips into pastiche, particularly when Stamp cuts loose and lays on the ham.

And yet it works. It works because the great Luis Guzman is such a laconic foil to Stamp. It works because the film looks so good. It works because Soderbergh assembles a kick-ass '60s soundtrack (any film that kicks off with a blast of The Who automatically wins points with me).

And it works for exactly the reason it shouldn't. It constantly reminds you that you're just watching a movie. The very nature of the editing is a statement of self-reflexive intent. That Soderbergh cuts in footage of Stamp in Ken Loach's 'Poor Cow' by way of flashbacks takes it further and reminds you that you're not just watching a movie but that the guy in the lead role is an actor who's been in other movies. This would normally be the point at which my interest would be killed stone dead, a priest summoned and the last rites performed.

And yet it works. Even though it shouldn't. And that in itself is part of the pleasure.

*For the record 'The Limey' was edited by Sarah Flack, one of her three collaborations thus far with Soderbergh.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: The Man Who Wasn't There

Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) doesn't have much to say. He's married to Doris (Frances McDormand), a hard-nosed and sharp-tongued would-be social climber who's carrying on with her boss, department store owner Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini) in hopes of fast-tracking her way to a managerial position. Ed works at his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco)'s barber's shop. Michael's the principle barber, the raconteur. The guy who yacks incessantly to the customers. Ed keeps himself to himself. Doesn't say a lot. He just cuts the hair.

One day Ed cuts the hair of entrepeneur Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), who pitches him a business deal. $10,000 and Ed can buy his way into a dry cleaning franchise as a silent partner. Ed sees it as his ticket to a better life. He sends Big Dave a blackmail note, citing knowledge of his affair with Doris and demanding $10K. Big Dave approaches Ed for advice. Ed advises him to pay.
Big Dave coughs up the moolah, but by coincidence sees Tolliver at the drop point. Unbeknowst to Ed, Tolliver had already approached Big Dave as a potential backer, asking for $10K. Big Dave puts two and two together, makes five, goes to see Tolliver, beats the truth out of him and puts two and two together a second time, this time coming up with four. Big Dave approaches Ed again, only it's not advice he wants now. This time he wants Ed's head as a paperweight.

Things take an unexpected turn, however, and Big Dave ends up dead and Ed calmly goes into work the next day like nothing happened. Then a couple of detectives visit him at the barber's shop to inform him Doris has been arrested. The cops have wised up to her affair with Big Dave and - unbeknowst to Ed - the money she's been skimming from the department store - and come up with five. She's charged with murder and arraigned for trial.

Anybody cursing me for not flagging a "spoiler alert" alert right now should take a leaf out of Ed's book: sit down, lit a cigarette, watch the world drift past and ruminate on twists of fate that life conjures up. They should also take comfort from knowing that 'The Man Who Wasn't There' - as serpentine as its plotting is (and it's the equal of 'Miller's Crossing' in this respect) - reaches a point, about halfway through when Big Dave's wife Anne Nirdlinger Brewster (Katherine Horowitz) starts speculating about UFOs and government conspiracies, where plot ceases to matter. Where the whole film reaches a level of visual poetry (frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins achieves a pinnacle of the cinematographer's art that can justifiably be called genius). Where the visual poetry is matched by the verbal poetry of Ed's increasingly discursive and existentialist voiceover. For a character who has the absolutely minimum of dialogue, Ed narrates screeds of voiceover.

For the record, the plot as it develops (or devolves, or branches off, depending on personal opinion) encompasses Ed's old friend Walter Abundas (Richard Jenkins) and his pianist daughter Birdie (Scarlett Johannson), and hot-shot lawyer Freddy Riedenschnieder (Tony Shalhoub), a man who builds defences around the uncertainty principle and an almost Ayn Rand-like conception of the modern man. The film's title works on two levels: the disappearence of Tolliver, potentially a crucial witness in Riedenschnieder's defence of Doris; and Ed's estimation of himself.

As the fallout from his blackmail scheme takes ever-more unpredictable turns, bizarro twists of fate complicating matters to the point that when Ed confesses all to Riedenschnieder the lawyer dismisses his entire story because he'd be unable to prove a word of it (!), everyone but Ed seems to pay the price. Like dominos falling, everyone he knows topples; is brought down. Finally, he sees in Birdie's talent for the piano a chance to be a positive influence in someone's life; a chance at redemption. Fate has other ideas in mind.

'The Man Who Wasn't There' is at once the perfect synthesis of everything the Coens had done up to that point, and a stylistic departure. A departure in that (a) it's their first and currently only production in black and white, and (b) their previous films, for all their quirkiness, are still immediate, if not visceral: think of the violence in 'Blood Simple' or 'Miller's Crossing', or the manic protagonists of 'Raising Arizona' and 'The Hudsucker Proxy' and 'O Brother Where Art Thou'. 'The Man Who Wasn't There' has a stillness about it; a detachment. Its aesthetic is reductive, to the point of a harsh clinically white set for the final scene, the sole focal point of which is the electric chair.

And yet it's a distillation of their previous work in terms of cultural touchstones: the convoluted fictions of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett inspired 'The Big Lebowski' and 'Miller's Crossing' and there are hints of both here as well as a dash of Jim Thompson - the blackmail element climaxes quarter of the way into the film, the murder element about halfway, and it's an out-and-out aftermath story thereafter; as well as in terms of visual tropes.

There is probably a scholarly paper somewhere out there entitled "Circular Images in the Films of Joel and Ethan Coen". It's probably as dry as a year-old madeira cake, full of pretentious waffle and will land its desperately earnest author a gig writing for Sight & Sound. I'm almost tempted to write it myself, but I've no truck with the kind of people who endlessly debated the meaning of the hat blowing through the woods in 'Miller's Crossing' (for fuck's sake, Tom says it himself: it was a dream and "it stayed a hat ... I didn't chase it ... nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat") so I'll simply point out the Coens' love for round objects - the tumbleweed and bowling balls in 'Lebowski' and the hula-hoop in 'The Hudsucker Proxy' are here matched by circles of light, a hubcab, the hard white disc of a searchlight and a UFO. The latter is possibly a dream or hallucination. Possibly.

I'm tempted to say 'The Man Who Wasn't There' is the ultimate Coen brothers film, only it doesn't feature John Goodman, John Turturro or George Clooney in the cast. Still, what's inarguable is that 'The Man Who Wasn't There' is achingly beautiful. Beautiful to look at. Beautiful - in Thornton's laconic narration and a soundtrack consisting almost entirely of Beethoven's piano sonatas and the Archduke Trio - to listen to. It did seem, though, for a brief time - with the entertaining but determinedly mainstream 'Intolerable Cruelty' and the just plain average 'The Ladykillers' as follow-ups - that it represented the Coens' peak. Then they made 'No Country for Old Men'. Which goes to show how much I know.

PERSONAL FAVES: Miller's Crossing

Verna: What are you chewing over?
Tom: Dream I had once. I was walking in the woods, dunno why. Wind came up, blew my hat off.
Verna: And you chased it, right? You ran and ran. Finally caught up to it and you picked it up. But it wasn't a hat anymore. It changed into something else. Something wonderful.
Tom: No, it stayed a hat. And no, I didn't chase it. Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.

'Miller's Crossing' opens in a manner deliberately evocative of 'The Godfather'. There's a man sitting behind a desk in an office dominated by dark wood. He's nonchalant, lugubrious, in control. There's a short, sweaty, agitated guy standing in front of the desk. He's come to beg a favour. But where 'The Godfather' gives us Don Corleone and Bonasera, the latter wanting justice for an assault on his daughter, the former prepared to help so long as Bonsera might one day discharge a duty to him, the set up is very different in 'Miller's Crossing'.

Behind the desk: Irish-American mob boss Leo O'Bannion (Albert Finney) and behind him his trusted lieutenant Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne). In front of the desk - and, by the end of the scene, leaning over it, every blood vessel in his face threatening to burst, up-and-coming gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) and his second-in-command Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman). And the favour? Well, that concerns bent bookie Bennie Bernbaum (John Turturro) and the various reasons Johnny Caspar wants him dead. Leo ixnays the killing, reminding Johnny that "you're only as big as I let you be". Johnny storms out. Tom counsels Leo that a conflagration with Johnny and Eddie Dane would be unwise, particularly over schnook like Bennie Bernbaum. Leo laughs it off. Then the opening credits roll and what follows is just under two hours of the tricksiest, most convoluted plotting the gangster genre has ever seen.

In brief - and this is without factoring in Tom's gambling debts and the importance to the plot of fast-talking secondary character Mink (Steve Buscemi) - the rivalry between Leo and Johnny Caspar that comes to a head over Bennie Bernbaum is complicated by Leo's doting romance with Bennie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Garden), a vampish good-time girl who's working out more angles than a geometrist, and Tom's clandestine affair with same. The murder of a tail Leo puts on Verna exacerbates an already tense atmosphere.

Johnny Caspar pressures Tom to leave Leo's organisation and work with him instead. His powerplay is demonstrated by an attempt on Leo's life. However, it's unsuccessful. Leo fends off his attackers with a tommy gun (earning an approving "the old man's still an artist with a Thompson" from a minion) while "Danny Boy" plays on a wind-up gramophone.

The relationship deteriorates between Tom and Leo, culminating in the revelation that Tom and Verna have been doing the wild thing. Leo makes Tom redundant (that's the mob version of redundant, where you take a beating first then get bodily thrown off the premises) and Tom approaches Johnny Caspar to see if the job opportunity is still available. Johnny wants an act of good faith from Tom. He wants Tom to give up Bennie Bernbaum. Tom obliges, but isn't prepared for his next test of loyalty: take Bennie into the woods down near Miller's Crossing and put a bullet in his brain. Tom's not cut out for this kind of thing and when Bennie pleads for his life, Tom lets him go. Bad move. Bennie's working out a few angles of his own and it's not long before he reappears on the scene and starts making life difficult for Tom. Meanwhile, Eddie Dane - suspicious of Tom's proximity to Johnny Caspar - figures that Tom would "rather join a ladies' group" than whack a guy and takes him on a little trip back to Miller's Crossing to look for the body ...

'Miller's Crossing' has more twists than a sack of snakes - and just as much venom. More turns than a wrongly-programmed satnav - and takes you on just as confusing a journey. It's dark and cynical. It's brutally amoral and violent. In addition to the shoot-outs and molotov cocktails through windows, Tom seems to take a blow to the face every five minutes - from Leo, from Verna, from Eddie Dane, from Bennie, from any of the guys he owes money to. Everyone wants something from him, and everyone's got an angle. Amazingly, having said all that, 'Miller's Crossing' is also funny as hell. Johnny Caspar's losing-the-point monologues and Mink's mile-a-minute colloquy are hilarious verbal pyrotechnics. Elsewhere, wise-ass dialogue abounds. "If I'd known we were going to cast feelings into words, I'd've memorised the Song of Solomon," Tom muses at one point. Later, as lost for words as he is for Bennie's corpse, Tom walks fearfully through the woods. "You ever notice," Eddie Dane observes, "how the smart dialogue dries up the moment a guy starts soiling his union suit."

But it's Verna - and Marcia Gay Harden has never been better - who has the last word. When Tom, looking for her at Leo's behest, angrily bursts into a powder room and confronts her, she asks, "Shouldn't you be doing your job ?" He replies, "Intimidating helpless women is my job." Her comeback: "Then go find one and intimidate her." Amen, sister!

Coen brothers double bill

The Coen brothers' filmography is a hymn to crime cinema, deviating from the brutally serious to the seriously off-kilter in typically subversive and iconic style.

Consider the brooding neo-noirs of their remarkable debut 'Blood Simple' and their masterful return to form 'No Country for Old Men'. Consider the slapstick capers on display in their frenetic sophomore film 'Raising Arizona' and their somewhat misconceived Ealing comedy remake 'The Ladykillers'. Consider the complications of kidnapping in wintry police prodecural 'Fargo' and Chandleresque slacker fave 'The Big Lebowski'.

Consider crims on the run in 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' and gangsters whose hats have a tendency to gust poetically through the woods in 'Miller's Crossing'. Consider a man who just cuts hair getting in deeper and deeper in 'The Man Who Wasn't There'.

Even their more lightweight films are layered with lawlessness, be it corporate crookery in 'The Hudsucker Proxy' or a plot development involving a bumbling asthmatic hitman in 'Intolerable Cruelty'.

In fact, with 'Burn After Reading' just a stone's throw from the crime genre (it's an espionage tale, but one set in motion by an act of theft), there's really only 'Barton Fink' that doesn't fit into the scheme of things. Unless of course the crime in question is that done by Hollywood to the artist.

Two Coen classics in the offing today, both from the personal faves list.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Released from prison after a five stretch for the "redistribution of wealth", Corky (Gina Gershon) lands a bum job fixing up an apartment in a mob-owned tenement block. The people next door are Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) and his moll Violet (Jennifer Tilly). Caesar works for Gino Marzzone (Richard C Sarafian) and as such has to endure being partnered with Gino's viciously unpredictable son Johnnie (Christopher Meloni).

Violet, tired of all the macho bullshit and her designated role as trophy girlfriend/plaything, is immediately attracted to resilient, tough-talking Corky and the pair soon begin a clandestine relationship. But the secrecy only complicates Violet's life. She wants out; away from Caesar and his cronies; a new start in life.

When Caesar and Johnnie recover $2million in misappropriated funds from light-fingered mob accountant Shelly (Barry Kivel) and the currency is left in Caesar's safekeeping pending Gino's arrival from out of town to collect it, Violet and Corky hit upon a plan to swipe the cash and have Caesar take the fall.
At a cursory glance, I'd say pretty much all the requirements for an old-school crime caper are present and accounted for: a suitcase full of cash, an elaborate sting, an unexpected development that sends the carefully delineated plan spinning into freefall, a duped and vengeful loser, a corpulent mob boss, a loose-cannon wiseguy and a husky femme fatale. One who just happens to like other women.

This is the central conceit of 'Bound' - the machismo of the genre given a fresh spin by the elevation to protagonist of not just the gangster's moll but her lesbian lover - and might easily have been its failing. With its catalogue of shoot-outs, profane verbal stand offs, heads slammed against bathroom fixings and fingers snipped off with secateurs, 'Bound' has its share of exploitative elements. In the hands of many directors - especially, as here, two male co-directors - the romantic element could have been an exploitation scene too far, a bit of steamy soft-focus girl/girl action between the beatings and the gunplay.

Kudos to the brothers Wachowski, then, that they took Violet and Corky seriously as characters, and treated their relationship seriously as well. Don't get me wrong, the big sex scene in 'Bound' is steamy - but it's erotic in the proper sense, a culmination of the attraction and flirtation between Violet and Corky that hasn't so much simmered as ignited into flame and melted the celluloid during the first quarter of the film. Kudos again to the Wachowskis for retaining feminist and sex education expert Susie Bright as a consultant (she cameos in a bar room scene). The imagery and symbolism of the early scenes (most notably in Violet and Corky's first conversation) emphasise the feminine. I'd be willing to bet, if 'Bound' weren't so plot-driven and firmly pigeonholed as a crime movie (and, perhaps, if the Wachowskis hadn't gone onto create the beefed up mythology of the 'Matrix' trilogy and the day-glo vapidity of 'Speed Racer', that critics would be quick to tag the film as pro-feminist.

Umm, actually that's wrong. Andy and Larry Wachowski had already created 'The Matrix' ... well, they'd written the script for the first film anyway. 'Bound' was conceived as a stepping-stone, a low-budget debut that would prove they were capable of making the leap from writers (their original screenplay 'Assassins' had, albeit in a much mucked about with version, been filmed) to directors. Their aim was to instill enough confidence in the money men that 'The Matrix' would go into production with them at the helm.

A film, in other words, that got made purely so they could get another film made. And five films into their career it remains the best thing they've done.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Review as haiku,
the seventeen syllables
counted on fingers.

Gangster set-pieces
dominate opening scenes
before stillness falls.

Violence erupts
in deadpan nightclub shoot-out,
gunplay played for laughs.

Bad men now lie low
where sea, sand, horizon meet:
killers killing time.

Measured pace gives hints
of classical film-making,
Ozu with uzis.

"Beat" Takeshi Kitano
exudes po-faced cool.

Bad men pass the time,
sumo and Russian roulette,
triggers pulled with smiles.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Made ten years later, 'Carlito's Way' plays out like the flipside to 'Scarface'. In place of an aggressive young hothead on the rise, a middle-aged career criminal trying to go straight after an appeal frees him from prison. In place of glamorous locations and opulence, broken down neighbourhoods and a sense of lives wasted. In place of "THE WORLD IS YOURS" on the side of a blimp, "ESCAPE TO PARADISE" on a travel agent's poster. What both films share is the illusion of these promises.

Both protagonists share a self-declared integrity that proves their downfall. Tony Montana tells anyone who'll listen that he only has two things "my word and my balls" and quickly comes to believe his own publicity - comes to believe, in other words, that he's invulnerable. Carlito Brigante (Pacino) is fiercely loyal - a debt owed is one he's honour-bound to discharge. And he owes lawyer Dave Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) big time.

Kleinfeld has exploited an irregularity in the District Attorney investigation that put Carlito behind bars, launching an appeal that gets him out after just five years of a thirty stretch. Determining to go straight, Carlito devotes himself to putting together the money he needs to buy a legitimate business. A favour to his cousin on his first day out sees him mixed up in drug deal that goes bad; within minutes there's bodies all over the place, Carlito's wounded and he's on a hiding right back to the slammer if he doesn't get out of there PDQ. On the plus side, with all the other participants dead, the $30K that finds its way into his pocket makes for a decent bit of start-up capital.

Another favour, to debt-addled nightclub owner Saso (Jorge Porcel), sees Carlito running the joint, assisted by Pachanga (the great Luis Guzman*). The money's coming in, he's rekindled a romance with old flame Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) and his dream of a normal life is looking more and more real. There are just two flies in the ointment.

One is Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo), a big-talking wannabe who's squeezing Sosa for money owed. Carlito has him ejected from the nightclub after he starts some shit but goes against his deeply ingrained instincts to whack Benny and instead lets him walk away.

The other is Kleinfeld. One of his clients, Tony Taglialucci (Frank Minucci), has a line of credit with Kleinfeld to the tune of a million dollars he entrusted to Kleinfeld to make a payoff but which went into the lawyer's back pocket. Taglialucci is terminally ill and doing time on the Riker's Island Prison Barge. It's his dying wish to break out. An inside man can get him off the barge. All he needs is someone to fish him out of the river. Kleinfeld owns a boat. Taglialucci orders Kleinfeld to liaise with his sons and be on the river at the appointed time. Convinced the Taglialucci boys will summarily dispose of him once their dad's safe and sound, Kleinfeld asks Carlito to repay the favour.

And Carlito has no choice but to help. As he puts it when Gail pleads with him not to get involved: "Dave is my friend. I owe him. That's what I am. Right or wrong, I can't change that."

Things go wrong. Kleinfeld, coked to the gills, takes matters into his own hands and crosses the line. Sosa tips Carlito off that Pachanga's loyalties are divided, then proves to be duplicitous himself when Carlito finds that money is missing from the club. Some made guys who were associated with Taglialucci want answers over the break-out snafu. Then the DA comes calling ...

If 'Scarface' is an exercise in surface value, 'Carlito's Way' is deeper, more considered, much more accomplished. Pacino's Carlito Brigante is introspective and complex where Tony Montana was extrovert and brutally simplistic. Carlito's relationship with Gail provides an emotional crux. In 'Scarface', the stakes were purely monetary. Here, they're infinitely higher. So when the net begins to tighten and Carlito's bid for freedom turns into a desparate race against both time and a bunch of men with guns, de Palma ratchets the tension to an unbearable level. In one extended, heart-pounding sequence, a battle of wits at the nightclub segues into a skin-of-the-teeth escape, leading to a tense subway pursuit and culminating in a cat-and-mouse showdown at Grand Central Station.

What makes de Palma's achievement so impressive is that he's already revealed how it ends - in the opening credits. Two hours spent building up to an ending the audience already know - and a real downer of an ending at that - yet you barely breathe for the fifteen minutes Carlito spends running for his life, running for a future summed up by three words on a poster; an advert; something crafted to fool people into believing.

*Amazingly, this is the first time I've featured a Luis Guzman film on the blog. He's one of those actors who automatically makes you smile when you see his name in the opening credits; you know, however else the film might pan out, that you're in for at least one great performance.


An oft-repeated criticism of 'Scarface' is its portrayal of Cubans. Which is kind of laughable given the American government's attitude towards Cuba. I don't really think there's much American film-makers can do to compound the insult. Nonetheless, it's an easy criticism to understand. Opening with a news footage montage showing the boat people arriving in the US, title cards inform us that of the quarter of a million refugees who left Cuba in 1980, an estimated 25,000 had criminal records.

It's swiftly insinuated that Tony Montana (Al Pacino) counts for one of them. Detained, along with his friend Manny (Steven Bauer) at the ironically-named Freedomland (a refugee camp situated beneath an underpass), Tony embraces the American dream by undertaking a hit on a political dissident in return for a green card. Oh, and a job. If you can call sweating over a greasy stove in a burger van a job. Needless to say, Tony and Manny soon investigate career opportunities outside of the catering industry.

Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham), number two to paunchy mob boss Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), gives them a taste of the criminal underworld - both its dangers (Tony is almost eviscerated by a chainsaw when his contact on his first job pulls a double-cross) and its rewards. One of the rewards is that a balding declasse middle-aged guy with a fake tan and a lot of bling gets the svelte, smart-mouthed and sexily contemptuous Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) on his arm. Tony decides he wants what Frank has. Particularly Elvira.

Tony strengthens his powerbase after Frank sends him and Omar to lay the groundwork for a deal with Bolivian drug lord Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar). Sosa recognises Omar as a stool pigeon and has him taken care of. Sensing he can trust Tony, Sosa makes the deal directly with him. This doesn't go over too well with Frank, who decides Tony's becoming a liability.

The key scene for me - and one of de Palma's trademark set-pieces - takes place in a nightclub. Plot points and narrative developments converge in such a cluster it's surprising one of the staff doesn't show them over to a table of their own. One near the stage. That way they could enjoy the cavortings of Octavio the Clown, though they'd have to scoot out the way PDQ as soon as the shoot-out starts. But I'm getting ahead of myself ...

Tony and Manny show up, the former not impressed to see his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) enjoying a bit of the old bump and grind with some greasy lowlife, the latter not impressed that he's not the object of said bumping and grinding (Manny's hots for Tony's sister is something that has serious ramifications later on). When Gina's bit of rough leads her off to the toilets for a quick fumble and a line of coke (classy guy!), Tony sees red. His mood is already tense after a conversation with bent cop Mel Bernstein (Harris Yulin) who wants monthly payoffs from Tony and his holidays paid for. Then Frank and Elvira turn up, the latter unresponsive (as yet) to Tony's attentions and there's an altercation.

So we've had, in one ten minute scene, the Tony/Gina/Gina's boyfriend situation, the simmering Gina/Manny tension, the Tony/Bernstein issue, the unresolved Tony/Elvira tension, and the Tony/Frank stand-off. Throw into the mix the two gunmen waiting for the spotlight to drift away from Octavio's performance and light up Tony's table ...

De Palma's camera navigates the nightclub, and the intricacies of the scene, with effortless panache. In a film that has more than its share of set-pieces - the aforementioned business with the chainsaw, Tony's settling of the score with Frank, the abortive hit Tony undertakes at Sosa's behest, the 'Wild Bunch'-style shoot-out at Tony's mansion - this is a stand-out both technically and in terms of advancement of narrative. It's after Tony survives the ensuing gunplay that his ruthless ambition really drives him forward; ten minutes later, we're in montage territory, hundred dollar bills whizzing through a counting machine, Elvira on Tony's arm, vans pulling up in front of a bank and tough guys in sharp suits hauling bulking sacks of currency inside. All cut to Giorgio Morodor's pumped-up score.

And from here, 'Scarface' enters the downward curve of its narrative arc. If 'Little Caesar' is perhaps cinema's first rise-and-fall gangster epic (albeit shoehorned into 77 minutes), then 'Scarface' is one of its fullest expositions, the narrative arc charted across a properly epic running time of two and three quarter hours.

'Scarface' blew me away the first time I saw it, in my late teens. Everything about it was big: its length, the performances, the production design, the verbal outbursts (particularly Pacino's "take a look at the bad guy" rant in an upmarket restaurant) and the violence. I watched the video quite a few times in my twenties. I picked up the DVD as part of a Pacino box set recently and this afternoon is the first time I've seen it in maybe a decade. It's still a hell of movie, for all of the reasons mentioned. But it's an empty one. All surface: glossy and immediate and superficial. Which is kind of the point - the theme is moral bankrupcy, and de Palma achieves some 'Citizen Kane'-style images of his protagonist alone by his own actions in a mansion filled with very expensive but worthless things - but the bravura staging of the final massacre (with its all-together-now iconic line "say hello to my little friend") strives to make a martyr of Tony Montana. Unlike Henry Hill in 'Goodfellas', he doesn't get to live out the rest of his life like a shmuck - he gets to be the messiah of movie violence, instead, only defeated when someone shoots him in the back; the poster boy for everything de Palma and writer Oliver Stone were meant to be criticising.

"First you get the money, then you get the power," Tony declares soon after he and Manny get their start with Frank, opining that it's only after these two achievements that you get the women; "that's the way it works in this country." From the outset, Tony's vision of America is as a big fat dollar sign waiting for him to grab a chunk of it. The blimp he sees shortly after taking over Frank's operation - the message "THE WORLD IS YOURS" blinking out in huge letters - is at once his mission statement, his epitaph and the big lie he fell for.

A film criticised for its depiction of Cubans? As much as 'Scarface' can be said to be about anything, it's about how the American dream, no matter how villainous those who pursue it, is always the bigger bad guy.

Al Pacino double bill

I enjoyed last weekend's James Cagney double-bill. The hit-and-run style of reviewing - watch the film, hammer out the article, post it online, watch the next film, repeat - made the experience a lot more immediate than my usual modus operandi of watch film, let my thoughts about it percolate in the back of my mind for a few days, draft out an article, revisit it the next day, edit, polish, correct typos, generally dick around with it for probably longer than necessary.

So I've decided to repeat the exercise today. Longer films this time, so expect the second review much later this evening.

Our subject: a pair of gangster movies (interesting that the general "crime movie" remit of Shots on the Blog seems to have gravitated so specifically towards the gangster movie), one made in the '80s and very redolent of the rampant materialism of that decade, the other in the '90s and more introspective in its approach - that pair Al Pacino with director Brian de Palma. I don't think I've written about a de Palma film yet on The Agitation of the Mind. Let's rectify that. He's an interesting if frustrating film-maker.

I've often heard this summarising comment applied to Stanley Kubrick's ouevre (and not without justification): that his films are technically brilliant but devoid of emotionalism. You could easily say the same of de Palma, and in fact use the comparison to point up that as technically-minded as Kubrick is at the cost of the human element, his films are also very accomplished narratively. Not only is de Palma's work generally lacking emotionally (although one of this afternoon's choices provides an exception to the rule as does, say, 'Blow Out'), he's not adverse to sacrificing narrative coherence for the sake of showmanship (pick your own example here; I can think of at least half a dozen without even flipping onto IMDb to refresh my memory).

De Palma's also an ideal director to engage with right now because, generally speaking, his best outings have a crime/mystery/gangster bent. In order to maintain the integrity of that statement, I am going to have to pretend that 'The Black Dahlia' doesn't exist - or, better still, imagine myself in an alternative reality where David Fincher had directed it and was currently in pre-production with James Ellroy's follow-up 'The Big Nowhere' and not some Facebook flick.

But I digress. The first film of the afternoon is sliding into the DVD player and a definitively dodgy dude is about to get off the boat from Cuba ...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Little Caesar

You can tell a lot about a gangster film by its dialogue. Ideally it should be terse, quotable, make poetry of profanity and bristle with barely-below-the-surface aggression.

Some examples:

"I'm a mook? Wassa mook? You can't call me a mook." - 'Mean Streets'

"Now go home and get your fuckin' shinebox." - 'Goodfellas'

"Never have anything in your life that you can't walk out on, in five seconds flat, if you feel the heat coming round the corner." - 'Heat'

Now here's a line from 'Little Caesar':

"What a fine pickle we're in."

Excuse me?!? A fine freakin' pickle? Did these tommy-gun-toting bad boys all of a sudden astrally project from the gin joints and shadowy back alleys of Chicago to the less-than-mean-streets of a Noel Coward play? A spot of robbery and murder before we break out the cucumber sandwiches, what ho, chaps? More tea, Rico? What next? Tony Montana saying, "Allow me to introduce you to my diminutive companions"? Michael Corleone opining, "I say, old bean, it doesn't do to trust anybody outside of the family"?

A fine pickle, indeed! Okay, I wasn't expecting "mook" and "shinebox" and "motherfucker" every other line, but this was 1930 and pre-Hayes Code and the dialogue could have been edgier.

So, moving on from Francis Faragoh's stilted screenplay (an adaptation of William R. Burnett's novel), how does 'Little Caesar' stand up nearly 80 years after it debuted?

I'm loathe to badmouth the acting - allowances have to be made for films of a certain era where performance styles still carried over a lot of baggage from the artificiality of theatre and the exaggerated expressivity of silent movies - but it has to be said: with one honourable exception, the acting in 'Little Caesar' is as creaky, stilted and generally shoddy as the script. Leaden, inelegant line readings. Awkward physicality. The scenes between Rico's lily-livered friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jnr) and his twinkletoes girlfriend Olga (Glenda Farrell) are nauseatingly melodramatic.

So what makes 'Little Caesar' a classic? It's not as if it were the first gangster film, or the first to elevate villain to protagonist. It does, however, represent the first example I can think of where a gangster film charts a rise-and-fall narrative arc. Director Mervyn LeRoy shoots for the moon in terms of structure, incident and narrative development, a scant 77 minutes taking small time thug Rico (Edward G. Robinson) from gas station stick-up merchant to right-hand-man to an established Chicago mob boss, a man whose rule he deposes. The gang now his, Rico unflinchingly despatches one of his own when the dumb shmuck in question develops a bad case of moral conscience and takes himself off to see the priest. His death, gunned down on the cathedral steps in what is perhaps cinema's earliest depiction of a drive-by, is as iconic as it is shocking.

Rico also finds himself at daggers drawn with Joe, once his buddy and partner in crime, now gone soft and more interested in establishing himself as one half of a dance act with Olga. But while Joe and Olga are knocking the crowds dead at flashy hotspot The Bronze Peacock, Rico has designs on knocking the joint off.

The robbery itself is another reason 'Little Caesar' endures. The heist was still a-ways off being a veritable genre cliche back in 1930, and no-one would have faulted LeRoy for filming it straight: gunmen bursting in, shots fired, crowds subdued, cash grabbed, tyre-squealing escape made. But no; he does it differently. As differently as I've ever seen a heist scene done. He films both the gang's modus operandi and the reactions of the patrons as a sequence of almost abstract tableaux and effects a series of dissolves between them. It's like watching the bank job set-piece in 'Heat' redone in the style of Chris Marker's 'La Jetee'.

And, ultimately, 'Little Caesar' earns its status as a classic because of Edward G. Robinson. He swaggers, sneers, backstabs and browbeats his way through the story, even maintaining a full-on contempt for authority figures, rival hoods and average joes when his empire crumbles and he goes to ground. He's as unmalleable a character as Edward Fox's Jackal; he presupposes the line in 'Goodfellas' where Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) says of Tommy de Vito (Joe Pesci) that if you beat him with your fists he'd come at you with a knife, if you beat him with a knife he'd come at you with a gun and if you beat him with a gun you'd better finish the job because he'd just keep coming back at you till one of you were dead.

Rico is the gangster genre's original fedora-wearing badass mo' fo'. There's hardly been a single gangster down the decades and under the direction of anyone from Coppola to Scorsese to de Palma who doesn't owe Rico a debt of honour and quite possibly a share of the profits.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Day of the Jackal

The hitman is a staple of crime fiction. Maybe even more so in novels than films. The two best hitman novels, for my money, are 'Rogue Male' by Geoffrey Household and 'The Day of the Jackal' by Frederick Forsyth. Household humanises his protagonist; Forsyth keeps his an enigma. Household's novel is a rivetting aftermath story, focussing on the ramifications of a failed assassination attempt; Forsyth's a brilliantly paced account of the build-up to one. A novel which details, precisely and without any sensationalism, the logistics of killing someone.

Fred Zinnemann's adaptation of 'The Day of the Jackal' keys in to the procedural aspect of the narrative. The Jackal (Edward Fox)'s meticulous planning in the early stages - and, later, his talent for extemporisation when things go wrong and the net starts to tighten - is contrasted with the diligent investigative work of Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel (Michel Lonsdale), the man tasked with stopping him. With saving the life of his intended victim, Charles de Gaulle.

Now who would want to assassinate the President of France? A little outfit called the OAS, for one. They're a mite peeved that de Gaulle has granted independence to Algeria, seeing this kind of thing as decidedly un-French, and, in a pacy opening sequence, try to whack him themselves. This entails a handful of men with machineguns popping out from behind parked cars as The Prez's limo cruises by and letting rip. A portentous voice-over muses that seven seconds elapsed, 140 rounds were expended, one bullet (in a close but no gitane scenario) came within an inch of de Gaulle's noggin, but - crucially - no-one was injured.

If there's any factual basis in this it would seem that scary terrorist movements, in the '70s at least, were defined by the Baader-Meinhof group, the Red Hand Gang and the PLO, while the OAS brought up the rear, trailing quite a long way behind the Dennis the Menace Fan Club and the Dagenham Girl Pipers.

When the ringleaders are brought to justice and the OAS CEO invited to a blindfold party (fellow guests: a dozen bullets), the remaining members decide that a safer alternative - and one more likely to succeed - is the hiring of a renowned English hitman. Let me just reiterate that: a bunch of French guys resort to paying an English guy to do the job properly. Ouch, that's gotta hurt!

The Jackal, accepting the commission, reminds his employers that "this is a once-in-a-lifetime job, whoever does it can never work again". They ask his price. Remember that hilarious scene in the first 'Austin Powers' movie where Dr Evil asks for "one ... million ... dollars"? The Jackal asks for half a million. Jeez, even the subway hijack crew in 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three', made just one year later in 1974, ask for the full million. To make it worse, the half mill the Jackal asks for - it's not even dollars. It's francs. Bloody good job he's not doing the hit in 2009; he'd get paid in Euros and probably just be able to afford a restaurant car sandwich during his trip back on the Eurostar.

But I digress ...

The Jackal warns his employers that their organisation is riddled with moles, and suggests that those few who are party to his involvement should go to ground, keep a low profile and generally STFU. Unfortunately, the necessity of some high-profile bank robberies, payroll hold-ups and jewellery store heists in order to raise funds brings the heat down on them and senior OAS man Wolenski (Jean Morel) is nabbed by French security operatives. They interrogate him with such zealous brutality that I half expected Dudley Smith from 'L.A. Confidential' to step out from the shadows and ask Wolenski if he has a valediction, boyo.

Wolenski squeals. The authorities now know that de Gaulle's life is under threat and the assassin is operating under the codename Jackal. A manhunt gets underway, Lebel at the helm.

On one hand 'The Day of the Jackal' can be dismissed as an overlong, over-plotted co-production that's only just one spoonful of custard short of being a Euro-pudding; a work by the director of 'High Noon', 'From Here to Eternity' and 'A Man For All Seasons' which ticks along on narrative developments and accretion of detail rather than characterisation and human drama; a film which is, with the exception of a melon suspended from a tree exploding as the Jackal puts a practice shot through it, devoid of iconic or memorable imagery.

But that's kind of missing the point. 'The Day of the Jackal' is meant to be slightly bland; meant to dwell on minutiae. The devil is in the detail, be it the Jackal adjusting the sight on his rifle after the first couple of practice shots go wide, or stripping to the waist and doing a quick al fresco respray job on his car to throw the police off his trail for just a few hours longer. Or Lebel and his right-hand-man Caron (Derek Jacobi) painstakingly liaising with their opposite numbers in England, Italy and America, checking and cross-checking possible leads, chasing down that one clue that might put them on the trail.

The detail is in the Jackal's business meetings with the gunsmith (Cyril Cusack) who manufactures a portable, lightweight rifle to the hitman's specifications, and the snivelling forger (Ronald Pickup) who tries to blackmail him and pays the price. Fox is perfect as the Jackal, breezing through these scenes with an easy charm and ineffable civility, only for the mask to peel microscopically back at certain moments and reveal the icy cold reserve beneath; the glacial professionalism and emotional detachment.

Determinedly keeping pace with Forsyth's heavily-populated and labyrinthine plot, Zinnemann's direction follows the blueprint of Kenneth Ross's screenplay like a mechanic referring to the Haynes manual. Wisely, writer and director decline to find a human side to the Jackal or probe his backstory, and this more than anything is what boosts 'The Day of the Jackal' up a notch beyond the merely formulaic. The Jackal - everything about him a mystery, from his identity to why he became a killer to how he honed his various skills - is as absolute a character as, say, Michael Myers in 'Halloween'. He is what he is; he offers no explanation for himself; he simply stalks through the film with an implacable relentlessness. He'd probably put two in my head just for the glib tone of this article.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

La Fille de l'Air

In a quirky and quinessentially European take on the old boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl-back scenario, heavily pregnant Brigitte (Beatrice Dalle) has her home violently invaded by armed police looking for her partner Daniel (Thierry Fortineau) who is out providing for his family by robbing a supermarket, and both are locked up (in a heart-warming scene they get married whilst under lock and key). While Brigitte is released soon after having her baby, she is distraught to find that Daniel, who's escaped from prison four times in the past, has to serve all his sentences (because of the escapes his sentences cannot now run concurrently) and is therefore looking at 36 years behind bars. Not too keen on waiting that long for the honeymoon, Brigitte settles on an innovative way of getting him out - a hair-raising scheme involving a helicopter, a fishing rod and a toy gun.

If all this makes 'La Fille de l'Air' sound vaguely ridiculous, that's only because it's disturbingly easy to imagine the story as a high concept Hollywood movie. A comedy, in all probability. You can imagine the pitch: "It's 'Airwolf' meets 'The Longest Yard'. It's 'When Sally Sprung Harry'!" You can imagine the poster: Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn half-glowering-half-grinning at each other with a silhouetted chopper hovering over a PG-friendly prison. The tagline: "When they're not breaking up ... they're breaking out!"

Which is why it's worth offering a silent prayer to whatever higher powers may be that Hollywood didn't get their hands on the story and Lebanese filmmaker Maroun Bagdadi (director of the award-winning 'Hors la Vie'), working from an intelligent, sensitively crafted and non-sensationalist screenplay by Florence Quentin, brought it to the screen instead. A dramatisation of Nadine Vaujour's autobiographical book (yes, 'La Fille de l'Air' is a film based on a true story that's so crazy it sounds like something out of a film), its writer, director and cast deserve kudos for not letting rip with the visual, dramatic or stylistic excesses that could so easily have squandered the human angle of the project and mired it in crowd-pleasing/hi-jinks vacuity.

Having said that, an early sequence teases audience sensibilities with the promise of Luc Besson/John Woo style action as an armed police unit come crashing through the windows and skylight of Brigitte's house. The door is kicked down for good measure and the whole place torn apart. Furniture is smashed, knives hack into sofa coverings, a goldfish bowl and its occupant are swept callously from a table to shatter on the floor. It's about a minute's worth of kinetically edited heavy-handedness that makes 'The Sweeney' look like the Salvation Army and leaves you feeling like a tornado just swept across the screen.

An hour and a half later, Bagdadi stages a just-as-tense ten-minute set-piece detailing Brigitte's air-traffic-control-defying mission to rescue Daniel - and it's a damn fine piece of action cinema. But the real drama is encapsulated in what happens inbetween. The immediate aftermath of the police raid and the arrests is depicted from Brigitte's perspective. She deals with incarceration, has her child as a prisoner, finds solidarity with some of the other inmates; she's released and tries to facilitate a reprieve for Daniel through proper channels; her efforts are stonewalled; she learns that he'll be inside for 36 years. Things get worse. In setting her up with a criminal fraternity who might be able to help her spring Daniel by less bureaucratic methods, her brother Philippe gets involved in a robbery that goes wrong. The first Brigitte hears of it is when she gets news of his death. Likewise Daniel's "cousin from Orleans": he has a plan, he just needs to do one job in order to raise the funds. Brigitte, trying hold down a straight job, picks up a paper at work - his face is plastered over the front page; he's been killed in a shoot-out - and has to hold it painfully together as she realises another hope has been dashed.

Or maybe not. Hastily clearing out the apartment she set Daniel's cousin up with, she comes across details of the plan he was hatching. A plan that calls for a helicopter, a fishing rod and - at Brigitte's insistence; she wants no truck with actual firearms - a replica gun. Which is where we came in.

In focussing on Brigitte's relationships with her family - her world-weary, slightly disapproving mother and her achingly innocent daughter represent the other points of the familial compass - and juxtaposing her grim determination with moments of absolute despair (there's a standout scene where she berates the helpless Daniel for Philippe's death), Bagdadi foregrounds character and motivation. The big finale, when it comes, is all the more tense as a result. He is also well served by a good cast, Dalle in particular casting off the voluptuous bombshell image that christened a thousand posters courtesy of 'Betty Blue' and proving herself a very capable character actor.

Tragically, 'La Fille de l'Air' was Bagdadi's last film; he died a year after its release, in 1993. The exact circumstances surrounding the manner of his death - a fall down an elevator shaft - remain unexplained. He was 43.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


Again: SPOILERS. All over the shop.

Whoa! Did I say 'Angels with Dirty Faces' was eventful? That goes double for 'White Heat'!

Before we even get to plot synopsis, here's a checklist of set-pieces: train robbery; attempted police sting, escape and pursuit; undercover cop infiltrating gang; mobster's henchman plotting a take-over with the help of his boss's turncoat moll; prison break; wages heist. There are any number of crime films that have built around just one of these big dramatic conceits. 'White Heat' gives you half a dozen in one movie.

With no preamble or exposition, director Raoul Walsh opens with a clinically professional train robbery. Clinically professional, that is, except for the novice hood who blurts out gang boss Cody Jarrett (James Cagney)'s name in front of the cowering-at-gunpoint engineer and fireman. "Why don't you give him my address?" Cody snarls. He swiftly executes engineer and fireman lest they identify him later. Things escalate: two mail guards are killed, and the engineer, lurching back from the gunshot, collapses onto a steam release valve that jets a scalding blast into the face of one of Jarrett's crew. Brutal stuff and an early indication as to why a 1949 film carries a contemporary '15' certificate for home viewing.

Cut to: the gang laying low in an out-of-the-way cabin. In one scene - one scene! - it's established that Cody, not unlike Vic Dakin in 'Villain', is overly fond of his mother (Margaret Wycherly), that his neglected wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) is finding solace with Cody's ambitious right-hand-man Big Ed (Steve Cochran), that Cody is hip to Big Ed's designs, and that Cody suffers from debilitating headaches. The gang use a violent storm to quit the hideout and head for safety, but leave behind the poor unfortunately severely burned by the jet of steam. A pack of cigarettes left with him as cold comfort bear fingerprints that point the cops towards Cody.

With a tail on Ma Jarrett (the wily old gal shakes them; they only locate her through a dumb-luck wrong turn), the heat comes down on Cody. He decides to jump before he's pushed and pleads guilty to a hotel robbery (smaller take; no casualties) that occurred at the same time as the train job. Result: minimum sentence (1 - 3 years); alibi for the train robbery. The authorities don't buy it and straight-arrow copper Philip Evans (John Archer), injured by Cody during a shoot-out, arranges a plant in his cell: undercover agent Vic Pardo (Edmond O'Brien).

Vic gets nothing out of Cody, who instantly distrusts him, but is there when fellow inmate Palmer (Paul Guilfoyle) - in the pay of Big Ed - stages an assassination attempt against Cody in the prison machine shop. Vic saves Cody, who repays the favour when he busts out of prison during a transfer to a psychiatric facility and takes Vic with him. He also takes Palmer - at gunpoint - and locks him in the trunk of a car. When Palmer complains its stuffy, Cody aereates the trunk - with four bullets.

So why's Cody so keen to blow the joint? Well, it starts with a visit from Ma: she tells him she's caught Verna and Big Ed in flagrante and announces that she's going to take care of things. Cody, impotent in his inability to stop her, is left clinging to the bars that separate them in the visiting room, wailing for her to desist. Later he hears from a newly admitted con that she's dead. To say he goes beserk is like saying Oliver Reed went down the pub now and then.

Settling the score with Big Ed, but unaware that he still has two traitors in his camp, Cody puts the gang back together and plans a wages heist at a chemical plant. This time, though, the cops have the location and the inside man is about to be outed ...

'White Heat' was made eleven years after 'Angels with Dirty Faces'. Some things had changed, some things stayed the same. Gangsters still talk in rat-tat-tat bursts of smart-alec dialogue. Cops still arrive at crime scenes fully equipped with searchlights, tear gas and tommy guns. What's changed is the moralising. Who gives a fuck that Vic gets the "he made it to the top of the world and then it blew up in his face" final line? - you've spent the last half of the movie despising him as a stool pigeon anyway. Nor is there any of the human element that suffuses 'Angels with Dirty Faces'. If Rocky Sullivan is basically a decent guy who was let down by the system whilst in reform school and set on an inexorable path to a life of crime yada yada yada blah de blah de blah, then 'White Heat' makes no bones that Cody Jarrett is basically one royally fucked up psychopath.

What makes the film really interesting is that it also engages with his psychopathology. Cody's father "died kicking and screaming in the nuthouse" (it's suggested the psychosis is hereditary); he feigned headaches at a young age to gain his mother's attention away from the rest of the family; he treats his mother better than his wife; he admits to carrying on conversations with his mother after her death. I can't think of another film from this period that delves so deeply into its anti-hero's psychological make-up. James Cagney's Cody Jarrett is a precursor to decades of cinematic miscreants, from Dirk Bogarde's Tom Riley in 'The Blue Lamp' to Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates in 'Psycho' to Tom Noonan's Francis Dollarhyde in 'Manhunter'.

Raoul Walsh, a stalwart of hard-hitting film noir and crime cinema with the likes of 'They Drive by Night' and 'High Sierra', made his masterpiece with 'White Heat'. Apart from the occasional flaw (the chemical plant shoot-out, although it seems to occur in real time, begins in broad daylight and concludes at dead of night), it's a film that puts to shame most contemporary blockbusters in terms of pacy narrative and well-handled set-pieces, and - in its iconic, amoral and plausibly empathetic depiction of villainy - echoes down the years in Scorsese's 'Goodfellas' and Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs'. A film that, in its apocalyptic ending, was relevatory for its time. The gangster movie, perhaps more than any other genre, has produced an astounding ratio of classics ... and 'White Heat' is one of the best.