The Steel Trap (1952)
This is the kind of film for which the phrase “They don’t make them like this anymore.” Was coined. It is a small, low budget tightly scripted black and white thriller in which the suspense is constantly to the point of being unbearable. I suspect that it falls into the “noir” genre of some kind because it very definitely focuses and explores the noir or dark side of its principal character’s persona. But I would prefer to call it a “cozy” of some sort. But I don’t mean that in the British Mystery sense of the word. I call it that because of the narrow scope of the picture both in its visuals and story which is almost exclusively about the leading character Jim Osborne, his wife Laurie and the crime he commits. Just about every other character in the story is a walk-on in terms of screen time. There are a few outdoor scenes but 80% of the action takes place indoors, either in houses, office buildings, hotel rooms or airports. This lack of visual expansiveness is what gives the viewer this cozy sense, enclosed feeling I am talking about.
The story in outline is simplicity itself. A bank manager discovers a loophole in the US extradition laws with Brazil and decides to change his hum-drum life by stealing a million dollars from the bank on Friday thereby giving him the whole weekend to get to Brazil and disappear before the theft is discovered on Monday. He lies to his fife who is unaware of his plans. He tells her that he’s going on a business trip and would like her to accompany him. He then commits the crime and they start on their journey. But things don’t go as easily as he had thought and he is faced with one problem after another. Some of them are major but most are trivial or mundane circumstances that we all face when travelling, without much tension, simply because we don’t have a million stolen dollars in our luggage.
The film begins casually enough but then in about 10 minutes in the suspense starts to build and build until we’re about to explode. This because the director (Andrew L. Stone) who was also the author puts us not only in the shoes of Jim Osborne but also into his mind via narration. It stars Joseph Cotten as Osborn and Teresa Wright as Laurie. Both were in Hitchcock’s terrific Shadow of a Doubt (1943). There they were uncle and niece; here they are husband and wife. Cotten, with his Patrician looks and cultured sounding speech patterns always had a talent for projecting something sinister underneath. Here he tempers it with a certain kind of tender concern. Teresa Wright, on the other hand, always projected a kind of outright honesty that was engaging without being cloying. And in the context of this story that quality is used to good effect.
The running time is 85 minutes. But it is an 85 minutes packed with so much nail biting suspense that it could or should be used as a model of effective screen economy in these times when just about every other released mainstream picture seems to be an indulgent 20 or 30 minutes too long for its own good…In the olden days of the Studio System (in which this film was made) a picture like this was called “ a programmer” meaning it was a taut, expertly made cinema exercise of little or no significance. Just something to go on the bottom half of a double bill. But today if a sharply made suspense film like this came along, we wouldn’t call it commonplace, we would most likely call it a “work of art.”
The Breaking Point (1950)
Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point (1950) is always being referred to as a re-make of Howard Hawk’s To Have and Have Not (1944). But if you look at both of them side by side you will see that isn’t so. Yes, they’re both adapted from the same literary source, Hemingway’s novel that was called To Have and have Not. But Hawks virtually changed everything in the novel except some of its bare essentials and constructed something more coherent and livelier. And with the magical casting of Bogart and Bacall in their first screen pairing created a motion picture classic that seems fresher upon repeated viewing. The Breaking Point is not that lucky but it’s a pretty good film in its own right. I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid in the 1950s and had forgotten all about it. Then I saw it about a week ago on TCM and was surprised at how good it is. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Michael Curtiz, that unheralded master of the studio system who directed so many classics that he deserves a serious and in-depth appreciation by some film scholar or critic, directed the film. Here he seems to be working in his studio–professional mode yet the result is still both engrossing and entertaining.
John Garfield this time assumes the Harry Morgan role. And he still owns a boat and to make his payment on it he still has to run some illegal immigrants from one place to another. But where Bogart’s Harry Morgan was laid back, and cynically amused, Garfield’s is tense, worried, suspicious and more than a little desperate. Walter Brennan played Eddie, Morgan’s mate as an amusing drunk who supplied a lot of the humor to the film. Here that character is called Wesley and is played by the black Puerto Rican actor Juano Hernandez, not as a drunk. Far from it, he’s a caring, wary sidekick or partner who functions in some ways as Morgan’s conscience. In this version Harry has a wife and two little girls. The wife is played by Phyllis Thaxter and there’s no surprise there. Ms. Thaxter throughout her career played multiple variations on the “stand-by- your- man” girlfriend or wife. But here she is given more individuality and spunk than usual. Patricia Neal young, sophisticated and sexy plays Leona Charles, a sort of lost, rich woman who rides on Harry’s boat and develops the hots for him. She’s the equivalent of the Slim character played by Lauren Bacall in the Hawks film. The only problem is in this one the character is not very well defined and romantically has nowhere to go since Harry is devoted to his wife and kids. But with virtually nothing to do it’s amazing how much Patricia Neal makes her presence felt. She even gets to sing a song in a sort of rundown nightclub. And Neal, not a singer, does it in a half-talk/ half singing style that Rex Harrison perfected some years later in My Fair Lady (1964), and she’s pretty darn good.
This film is more in the suspense/ melodrama category than To Have and Have Not therefore it lacks the humor of the former. What humor there is, is mostly provided by Wallace Ford as a smarmy con man and from a lot of the terrific wisecracking dialogue supplied by screenwriter Ranald MacDougal who went on to become a pretty good director himself. The cast brings it off with great brio. So much so that it all seems fresh and urgent and even unpredictable although we’ve been down this plot path before.
But for me the thing that makes the whole film work, despite some misgivings stated before, is the mise en scene. Curtiz was a master of that. And as I watched the film I was reminded of scenes from Casablanca (1942), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (also 1942) and otherswhere he made things on screen so alive by keeping the camera in medium range and letting the characters define themselves through behavior as well as dialogue. He also had a good sense of narrative and knew how to keep a story in forward motion all the time. So we’re staying with Harry Morgan through out The Breaking Point to see which way he’ll turn and how it will come out for him. And there’s an interesting sting in the end. It’s the last shot in the film and one that’s totally unexpected that sends us out with a somber thought or two despite its sort of happy ending. Once again that was Michael Curtiz telling us that he wasn’t just a studio hack but a man with a sense of the larger picture who was able to ask questions about how one man’s actions can impact the lives of others. And Master director that he was he could do it with one shot that contains no dialogue.
There was something about this story that made the studios go back to it once more. But don’t ask me what it is because I have no idea. But the story was remade again eight years later, this time starring War hero turned actor Audie Murphy in the Harry Morgan role. This time he was called Sam Martin and the Film was called The Gun Runners (1958) and it was directed by Clint Eastwood’s favorite director Don Seigel. I haven’t seen the film since I was a kid so I can’t report on it. But there you have it, the same story told three different times by three different idiosyncratic directors who weren’t trying to create carbon copies of the one that preceded it. And as far as that goes The Breaking Point stands independently on its own as a worthwhile endeavor.
Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981)
From around 1969 to 1994 (The Black Sparrow Press years) Charles Bukowski (a/k/a “Buk”) was the Demon Angel of American letters. Attacked, vilified or ignored by the so-called “literary establishment” Bukowski established himself as “King of the Lower Depths” with a “Damn them all who don’t like it attitude”. He wrote about drunks, whores, criminals, derelicts and low lifes of every discernible stripe in a manner that both fascinated and repulsed the middle class in a variety of ways that made him, his writings and his poetry readings extremely popular especially among college students to whom he was something of a hero. And he wasn’t a one-trick pony either. Bukowski was a short story writer, a novelist, a controversial essayist and a poet. His books, especially the books of poetry, sold very well and his novels too. After a while he developed a cult following of considerable size. Again among the young.
Now Bukowski was a drunk, and a disorderly sort of person in life and nearly all of his fiction were thinly veiled autobiographies and he made no secret of it. Quite the opposite, he seemed to glory in the fact that him and his fictional alter ego Hank Chiniski, were effectively twins under the skin. Both were writers and drunks, both had fights and romances with wild, crazy women. Or women that he made wild and crazy once they became involved with him. Reading a Bukowski book is a wild but satisfying ride. And like Richard Brautigan, another idiosyncratic writer of a different stamp, you read one Bukowski book and you want to read another and another and another.
So it was only a matter of time before Hollywood, with its bourgeois taste and sensibilities came calling. And the independent filmmakers took on the challenge too. So much so that to date there are over 30 short films adapted from his short stories and 4 mainstream features from his novels. Now I have only seen a few of the short films and all of the feature length ones and to me they all are misses in one-way or another. Barfly (1987), with an original screenplay by Bukowski himself and directed by Barbet Schroeder, starring Faye Dunaway and Mickey Rourke (before his physical transformation), is the most popular and although the film is entertaining and sports good performances by its two star leads it still fails to capture the essence of Bukowski and his world. Factotum (2005), with Matt Dillon misses it even more. The other one called Crazy Love (1987) hits and misses, mostly misses. To me the one that comes closest to capturing the man and the world he wrote about is the little seen (here in the US) Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981), adapted from a book called Errections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and other Tales of Ordinary Madness directed by the Italian filmmaker Mario Ferreri starring Ben Gazzara in what I consider to be among the five best performances of his career. He somehow seemed to channel Bukowski better than anyone before him or since. His writer/ alcoholic, here called Charles Serking, does poetry readings, drinks too much, misbehaves with women and figures of authority not so much by design but out of his renegade instinct. In the film he wanders all over the place in a drunken haze going from one fractured situation to another and one burnt-out woman after another. And the structure of the film has this wandering quality too. That is one of its strengths and its major weakness as well, because while watching it one wishes that the narrative was more disciplined and not so seemingly chaotic. Some of the episodes appear to be arbitrary and unnecessary and sometimes just outright dull. But hey, then again, so does life.
Besides Gazzara, the late Susan Tyrell and others give good account of themselves in the various parts. Tyrell is an actress whose work I knew in the 60s and 70s when she was doing Off and Off- Off Broadway. Then when she transitioned to the movies I followed her career with interest. Her performances were always good and even more than that. But she seemed to be type cast in too often as the drunken lay -about who had fallen from grace and was somewhat bitter or angry about it. In other words she was playing Bukowski women before she was actually in a film based on a Bukowski book. So here, as I said before, she fits in quite perfectly with the milieu.
Why the films based on Bukowski material miss so badly is a question I can’t answer. Or if I tried it would take me quite a long time and a whole lot of words to explain. But the final simple answer is; I don’t know. But until someone does, Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness along with Gazzara’s central let-it-all-hang-out performance, comes the closest.
Picture of the Week: Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955)
The world of jazz and the life of jazz musicians appear to be one of the most elusive subjects as far as filmmakers are concerned. A number of bio and fiction films have been made on the subject but outside of the documentaries most of them aren’t worth much. One of the best is Bernard Tavernier’s Round Midnight (1986). But even that one has its flaws.
My film pick for this week is Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues and it’s not a great jazz film. If anything it’s a good distance from that. But it’s such a curious odd duck of a movie that it deserves a look-see for exactly that reason. And also for its interesting offbeat cast and their performances. I call the film “Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues” because he produced, directed and plays the title character in the film. He was also the guiding creative force throughout. That to me makes him the films auteur in the true sense of the word…Now prior to making this film Webb was primarily known as the creator and star of the highly successful series Dragnet (1951-59). During that time he also directed, produced and acted in four theatrical features: Dragnet (1954), The DI (1957) and later on The Last Time I Saw Archie (1965). But it is his second film Pete Kelly’s Blues that’s the most interesting.
The story takes place in Kansas City circa 1927 and it’s about a jazz musician (Kelly) who has a small band and trouble with the organized crime figure in the area. Or as the poster put it: “In the world of bad booze and jazz they tried to push Kelly but Kelly just wouldn’t budge.” Edmund O’Brien plays the gangster who not only wants to control Kelly’s bookings but also insists that Kelly employ his alcoholic girl friend Rose (played by singer Peggy Lee) as the singer in his band. Janet Leigh is Ivy, a wealthy young woman who follows Kelly from town to town but is something of a social dilettante when it comes to music, men and love. Pete Kelly is a loner with integrity who rejects the socialite’s offer of romance, refuses to be strong-armed by the mob and is loyal to his men and fights for them even when they defiantly disobey his orders. But as I said before you’ve seen all this before. There are no turns in the plot that you haven’t encountered elsewhere.
But what keeps the film continually interesting and entertaining is the cast. Webb does his deadpan thing with a certain style and flourish. Janet Leigh is beautiful, sexy and nicely varied in what could’ve been a one-note role. Lee Marvin shows up in an uncharacteristically sympathetic part, Andy Devine has an interesting non-comic role as a cold hearted, tough-minded cop and he’s terrific. Jazz singing great Ella Fitzgerald plays a nightclub owner and the previously mentioned Peggy Lee is so heart breaking as the boozy, mentally damaged singer that she received an Academy Award nomination as the Best Supporting Actress that year. And just to make things more interesting, future sexpot Jayne Mansfield shows up in a tiny role as a cigarette girl.
The music in the film, a combination of Dixieland and Blues, is lively and sometimes haunting. The title song “Pete Kelly’s Blues” has gone on to become something of a minor standard among jazz musicians and can be heard on a surprising number of recordings. In the film it is memorably sung by Ella Fitzgerald while Peggy Lee knocks out a terrific rendition of “Hard Hearted Hannah”. Added to that, the whole film feels like a labor of love and it well might be. Jack Webb did play the cornet in life as he does in this film (although it’s not his music you hear) and he was a devoted jazz aficionado. Much of this comes through and keeps you interested. Then there’s Harold Rosson’s cinematography. He shot the film in a brightly colored palette that gives an almost child’s coloring book quality to the setting and the action. This effectively takes the story out of the historical past of the 1920s and sets it in a wonderfully imagined Never-Never-land world of its own, which I liked a lot.
Altogether it romanticizes and glamorizes the world of jazz but it can get down and dirty when it needs to be. This is a film I treasure for its peripheral as well as its primary virtues. Because as the lyric of the song states: “Some call em Pete Kelly’s Blues…You can call em anything you choose…I just call them blues.”
Finding Tommy Riley (2004)
This is one of those deceptive films that for the first 15 minutes or so gives you the déjà vu impression that you’ve seen this story before. “Been there, done that” so why bother? The over arching plot we’ve seen dramatized a dozen or more times before. A young somewhat talented but troubled boxer who once had Olympic ambitions encounters an old trainer and former boxer who has left the profession and is currently working as an English teacher with little or no enthusiasm. He sees the kid working out in the ring and is sufficiently impressed by his abilities that he decides to train him and hopefully turn him into a championship caliber fighter. Sound familiar? But then just as we get settled into thinking that we know where this film is going is when it fools us because in spite of the plot’s familiar touchstones that’s not what this picture is about at all. It’s about people and their connection to each other, which is sometimes physical, sometimes spiritual and other times practical. Specifically it is about the relationship between the boxer (Tommy Riley) and the trainer (Marty Goldberg), their similarities and their differences. But then the story goes beyond that, it explores the dark and sometimes forbidden aspects of their characters as well. And between the acting, the writing and the direction the film gets so close to these characters needs and desires that it sometimes makes for uncomfortable viewing. At least it did so with me. Like the sight of the proverbial bad accident I didn’t want to look at but I absolutely had to. But I don’t want to say any more about the plot because I don’t want to give away any of its surprises.
This is a character driven piece that effectively focuses primarily on two individuals. The trainer Marty Goldberg played by Eddie Jones an actor I’ve known since the late 1960s when we worked together as waiters in a popular restaurant in New York City. Over the years I’ve seen him on stage and on screen many, many times and watched his talent grow until he has become one of the most reliable and most assured character actors in the business. But in all that time I’ve never seen him tackle a character as varied and contradictory as this. And in doing so Eddie doesn’t miss a beat. He gives a performance that (to me) is the most masterful of his career thus far… Keeping pace as well as matching Eddie beat for beat is the actor JP Davis who plays Tommy. Because this is so much a two -character story both actors had to be equal to each other in execution or the film would’ve come off as unbalanced. It doesn’t and it’s a tribute to their abilities. There are other excellent performers in the film but its success depends on the two primary actors. And they carry it so well that I can’t imagine any other actors in those roles doing it any better. In addition to that JP Davis also wrote the insightful and poignant screenplay. Eddie O’ Flaherty is a director I hadn’t heard of before. But based on the sensitivity and restraint with which he directed this delicate screenplay, I’m sure I’ll be hearing more about him.
This is a boxing story so there are many big boxing moments, which are skillfully crafted for maximum impact and suspense. But it is in the quiet moments where the individuals simply talk to each other about seemingly mundane things that the story becomes more dimensional, more recognizable and more human. This too I think is due to the director’s handling of the material that allowed its subtler points to surface in unexpected ways.
When the film was shown at various festivals it was met with a host of enthusiastic critical response. I think it even won a few awards. I was certain that it would at least have a life in the movie theatres that catered to discerning audiences. In other words “the art houses”. But I was wrong. As far as I know the film hardly played in any theatres at all and then simply disappeared. So once again we have a film that could’ve been a contender but didn’t get a shot. Who knows why? It’s just one of the unfair quirks of the industry. And that’s a shame. A real crying shame because if any film deserves to be seen and appreciated for its many virtues, this is it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an absolute masterpiece but it is a hell of a lot better than ninety percent of the stuff that’s out there and deserves a second chance and a first look if you haven’t seen it.
Picture of the Week
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
I stumbled upon the second of Jose Padilha’s Brazilian cop thrillers first. The more available of the two (on Netflix instant watch) the film caught my immediate interest and left me stunned. A month later I tracked down a copy of the first film and completed in reverse order a pair of films that some might compare to having the relationship and power of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.
However, Padilha’s films are more reminiscent of two sources: Scorsese gangster films (Goodfellas and Casino) and because of its setting, subject matter and shooting style (City of God). The film uses a narrator like all three of those and is told in a broken up structure. Nevertheless, the Elite Squad movies stand on their own as relentless and effective works of cinema.
The story follows a cop Nascimento (played by actor Wagner Moura) as he moves up in the ranks of Brazil’s toughest/meanest police division BOPE (the elite squad of the title). They wage war against the drug trade in Rio de Janeiro. In both films the protagonist struggles with the temptation to leave the force (based on pressures from his wife) or to stay in the fight, surrounded by corruption even in his own squad. He tries to find an adequate replacement who can take on the almost Batman-like justice he serves upon the city, which introduces various police officers including actor Andre Ramiro (who crosses over in both films).
Nascimento is one of the most intriguing characters I have seen on time in a while. At once stern and stoic, Wagner Moura gives him moments of emotional vulnerability, frustration and compassion which add up to a complex (I hate to use the term) anti-hero. Some might call him a fascist (with his Wyatt Earp brand of killing justice), his torture techniques and his merciless attitude towards drug dealers and corrupt cops, but in the end he is only a man caught in the middle of a terrible situation doing his best to make his country better. He’s Serpico with the madness of Jeremy Renner’s Hurt Locker character and like Renner, Wagner Moura is one of the most exciting actors working today. He is also wonderful in the film V.I.Ps and will soon play Italian director Federico Fellini in a film. Here he creates a character who resonates far past the confines of the film’s running time and holds his place in film history.
What Padilha (who actually considers this a trilogy with his debut documentary Bus 174) has created with these films is a crime epic on the level of James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet novels. It is ambitious, spanning corruption from the streets to the police departments to the press and politicians. I am impressed by how relentless the film is, unapologetic about its portrayal of a situation with no easy answers.
The second Elite Squad was the most successful film to ever be released in Brazil, beating out Avatar‘s gross in that country. Since then its director has made the move to America and will direct the remake of Robocop. Though that story provides him the opportunity to flex his muscles in similar subject matter, I cannot help but worry about the direction of his career and wish he had stayed in Brazil like many other foreign directors who lost something in their move to Hollywood: Peter Weir, Paul Verhoeven, Roman Polanski, etc.
One can only hope that regardless of the money Padilha continues to make good films.
Ryan’s Daughter (1970)
David Lean’s career as a filmmaker had been on the high road of success for such a long time that it came as a major surprise when his film Ryan’s Daughter failed to impress either on a critical level or at the box office. In fact no one was more surprised or shocked than Mr. Lean himself. It is said that he was so hurt by the reception that the film received that he took a voluntary exile from filmmaking that lasted 14 years.
Ryan’s Daughter followed a distinguished list of Lean directed movies starting with The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – 7 Academy Awards, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – 7 Academy Awards and Dr. Zhivago (1965) – 5 Academy Awards. Then along came Ryan’s Daughter in 1970 so public expectations were high. But after its initial showings those expectations came crashing down. The film was called bloated, a tempest in a teapot, over- inflated, over-studied and boring. I remember when I first experienced the film I sort of knew what everyone was talking about but nevertheless I liked it. In other words I agreed with the dissenters on many of the things they had to say but felt that the brio with which they attacked the film was totally undeserved. It was as though they were determined to gleefully bring Lean back down to earth after all those successes.
The movie is not perfect by any means. It’s biggest problem being that it is a tiny story encased in a frame that is too large, too vast and too ornate for it. It also goes on much too long for those who are impatient with films that don’t move along at a rapid clip. I am not one of them. I like the fact that it takes its time and establishes its sense of place so firmly that if I visited the small village where the drama occurs I could easily find my way around. Then there’s the visual excellence that we have come to expect in any Lean directed film as a matter of course. And Ryan’s Daughter doesn’t disappoint. This is a film that is distinguished by its visual splendor, and truth to tell, is somewhat overwhelmed by it. This doesn’t bother me in fact I like it as an aesthetic that just about every frame looks like a magnificent painting due to Lean’s compositions and the excellent cinematography by Freddie Young who won an Academy award for his work. But there are other things in the film to appreciate as well including Robert Mitchum’s beautifully understated performance that went virtually unnoticed by both the critics and the general audience as well. In fact all the performances down the line are uniformly fine. But Mitchum’s stands out because it was so unexpected. His character Charles Shaughnessy is a quietly heroic man of few words and no action. This was the opposite of the Robert Mitchum that we had all come to know and enjoy in a career that began in the early 1940s. David Lean said that he deliberately cast against type and was very, very pleased with his performance.
The screenplay was by Robert Bolt the well-known author of the play and Academy Award winning film A Man for all Seasons (1966). He also had authored or co-authored the scripts for Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. This time his original screenplay was inspired in part by Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Or so it is thought. The year is 1918, the place is a small village on the Irish peninsula of Dingle where a young woman Rosy Ryan falls in love with and marries a quiet schoolteacher who is perhaps 20 years her senior. Then seemingly out of nowhere comes a young but emotionally damaged British officer who in an unguarded moment takes Rosy Ryan into his arms and kisses her. An adulterous romance ensues and becomes the gossip in a town where the British are reviled. It all comes to a head at a beach on a stormy night when the British soldiers discover some Irish revolutionaries collecting a shipment of guns. Acting on the belief that Rosy Ryan betrayed them to her British lover the inhabitants of the village decide to exact their revenge on her. But as the story unravels we come to discover that events and people are considerably more complicated than that.
Some of the other fine performances worthy of mention include the role of Rosy Ryan played by Sarah Miles who was married to Robert Bolt at the time. Trevor Howard as the tough but human and humane Father Collins, Leo McKern as Thomas Ryan, pub keeper and Rosy’s troubled father… John Mills as the mute Michael who somehow manages to get into everyone’s business won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his performance. Christopher Jones’ performance as the British officer Dorvan (Rosy’s lover) was severely criticized as being too mannered and distant. But again I don’t agree. I think that it is chillingly effective. It presents one of the most disturbingly accurate portrayals of a shell-shocked victim I’ve ever seen on screen.
So as I said before this is not a perfect film but there are many good reasons for seeing it. And I guarantee that some of its images will stick with you for years to come.
Deep End (1970)
What is it about a film that seems to be failing but holds your interest till the last frame? I’m not talking about a guilty pleasure or a train wreck that you can’t look away from. I’m pointing to a peculiar kind of picture that is so unique and ambitious that even if it doesn’t quite work, it is in fact more captivating and engaging that “perfect” movies.
Deep End, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, is one of those for me. A bizarre film with an unusual tone and an unpredictable air which never quite comes together but nevertheless remains one of the most fascinating cinema experiences I have had in recent times.
Skolimowski may still be most known as an early collaborator of Roman Polanski, co-writing Knife in the Water. But the Polish filmmaker soon paved his own way, directing many films from the 70s till now (all of which I have not seen except for his latest, a relentless survival tale with Vincent Gallo called Essential Killing). He has also appeared as an actor in a wide variety of movies including Eastern Promises, Mars Attacks, Before Night Falls, and most recently The Avengers.
Back to his 1970 film, Deep End is the story of a young man (John Moulder-Brown) who gets a job at a public pool/bathhouse where he meets Susan (Jane Asher), a sexy attendant who captures his virgin fascination. This is probably one of the most erotic films I have seen, not in the sense of explicit sex or nudity portrayed but in the way that the whole movie permeates lust.
The setting is the perfect atmosphere for this sexual tension to play out, with horny older women using the young man’s affection to satisfy their desires and Susan whoring herself out in a variety of ways (except to our protagonist).
The film bounces between a coming-of-age tale, an absurdist comedy, a rock ‘n’ roll/punk film (with the soundtrack by Cat Stevens and Can), and finally a thriller. Because of these shifts, along with a poorly dubbed English dialog track (all that’s available on my Region 2 copy) and some outrageous moments which don’t quite fit, Deep End does not “work” in a formal sense of the word.
But it doesn’t matter. This is cinema. Pure cinema. It doesn’t have to make sense, it just needs to be experienced. And what a haunting one Skolimowski created. A movie that will surpass its faults and reside in my memory and imagination for a long time.
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
If like me you occasionally enjoy a good dose of western hokum you’ll find that they don’t come much better than Sam Rami’s The Quick and the Dead. Now this should not be confused with the 1987 TV western of the same name starring Sam Elliot or the 1963 war picture boasting the same title as well. No, this one was made in 1995. It stars Sharon Stone (who also co-produced), Russell Crowe, in his first American film, a young Leonardo Di Caprio and the always-reliable Gene Hackman. In supporting parts are a host of top character actors from both TV and the big screen. …I call this film hokum but I mean it in the best sense of the word because its premise is so thoroughly absurd. But it is presented with such panache and style by all concerned that it carries you along on its giddy ride with just enough rest stops to catch your breath before taking you away again.
The story is about a town where a man named Herod (Gene Hackman) stages an annual series of gunfights for the prize of one hundred thousand dollars. All gun duels are “to the death” he tells everyone and the one left alive is the winner and he moves up to the next level. “Anyone who cheats or refuses to kill his opponent will be shot by my men.” And to emphasize the point Herod points to several men with rifles placed on various rooftops overlooking the street…A bunch of colorfully raffish characters come in from all over to enter the contest, win the money and satisfy their bloodlust. But of course the fastest and best shooter is Herod himself and the whole idea behind the contest is really for him to display his prowess in a variety of ways. And he does this with a smile on his lips and an evil twinkle in his eyes….The characters that show up are a rowdy bunch indeed.
There is an African American shootist (Keith David), a fast draw braggart (Lance Henrikson), a Native American called Spotted Horse (Jonathan Gill), a loudmouth bully (Kevin Conway) and The Kid (Leonardo Di Caprio). On the sidelines, locked in chains is Court (Russell Crowe), a former outlaw now turned man of God who now repudiates violence. He used to ride with Herod in the bad old days and Herod means to lure him back into his violent ways just to prove that no man can or is capable of changing his character so radically. The center of town and the place where much of the action takes place is the saloon owned by Herod. And the street in front of this same saloon is where the gun duels occur. They are MC’d by the bartender (Pat Hingle) who recites the rules and when all is ready tells them “Gentlemen, the street is yours. You will commence firing when the clock strikes and the man standing is the winner.”
One of the surprise entrants to the contest is The Kid, a boasting Old West version of the young Mohammed Ali. “I am the greatest! There’s no one in the world faster than me and I am here to prove it!” He especially wants to go up against Herod for reasons that are revealed toward the end. Another surprise contestant is Ellen (Sharon Stone) who signs up but is turned down because she is a woman. “No woman is allowed to compete.” She is told. But Herod relaxes that rule after Ellen insists and displays some of her skills. After that the film is really a series of gunfights shot in every style Raimi and his DP (Dante Spinotti) could think of and they are extremely inventive. So much so that if I didn’t know better I would’ve thought that the film was an imaginative adaptation of a graphic novel. But it isn’t. It’s from an original screenplay by Simon Moore who was smart enough not to just rely on the gunplay to carry the day. He has several interesting back-stories to motivate the principal characters and plenty of smart aleck dialogue to keep things speeding along to its high action climax.
Hackman anchors the film with his well-defined sharp-witted villainy. Di Caprio obviously had fun playing The Kid as some kind of rock star gunfighter. Russell Crowe is subdued and amusingly dethatched, as the gunfighter turned minister and Sharon Stone is simply a knockout as the woman with more on her mind than just winning a gunfight. Gary Sinise has a small but important role as a Marshall. There’s also a blind boy (Jerry Swindall) and a doctor (Roberts Blossoms) who figure importantly in the plot. But as I said before it’s the style that makes the film so much fun. So the credit should go to its director Sam Raimi and his creative crew.
Western genre films are so out of favor that when this film was released the mainstream critics virtually ignored it dismissing it as “Silly trail dust” and moved on to better things. But this film is much more than that. It is a beautiful merging of content and style. And it is done with a kind of boldness and sure handed confidence that you hardly see anymore. I’ve watched it six or seven times now and it never fails to please…So to hell with the critics, this one is pretty damned good movie. Give it a look, see if you don’t agree.
The Robber (2010)
The Robber, a German/Austrian movie directed by Benjamin Heisenberg, is part of a wave of recent indie crime films that could be linked back to Refn’s Pusher trilogy, the current source of Australian thrillers such as The Square and Animal Kingdom, as well as other European releases such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films and Headhunters.
The Robber is the most restrained of all these and that works both for and against the film. It tells the true story of an Austrian marathon runner whose hobby was robbing banks. The movie in some ways also echoes the true tale Stander about a South African cop whose career turned in similar directions but whereas that film was highly stylized, director Heisenberg seeks and succeeds here at a minimalist action picture.
Andreas Lust plays the title role with a stone-faced exterior, drained of all emotion. In many ways it is a performance that towers over Ryan Gosling’s in Drive (and his predecessor’s, Ryan O’Neal in The Driver). These comparisons are fitting because Lust portrays a sort of (and I hate this word) existential protagonist who cannot stop robbing banks no matter his success as a runner and consistently pushes to “run” from the law and everything else till he has nothing left.
In the last half of the film, I kept wanting Heisenberg to punch up the robber’s tale but he never does. The action increases, and except for a few pieces of exhilarating soundtrack, he lets the happenings speak for themselves without interference. Again, this is good and bad because The Robber, an interesting film and must-see, resides somewhere in limbo. It doesn’t reach the heights of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket and on the other end of the spectrum does not achieve the incredible relentless energy of Pusher.
Perhaps what Heisenberg wanted was to create a realistic portrait of this man, an enigma but in so doing, it feels like he plays it a little too safe. Either way, the movie is one of the more interesting crime films to be released in recent years and deserves more attention than it has been paid. The last shot is one of my favorites ever.