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The Wrong Man (1993)
The Wrong Man (1993) The Good, The Bad, And The Heartbreaker
This one is way off the radar or "noirdar". Probably because its never seen or has been dismissed or mislabeled as fluff. It's probably forgotten for two reasons, one it was a Showtime film (much like The Last Seduction was originally an HBO film), and two, it had a lot of adult T&A but its all germane to the story, its T*i*t*s & A*s*s with CLASS. It can be done and done well. It's also as noir a tale as you can get.
Kevin Anderson plays a young 30-ish American, Alex Walker, a sailor on the run from a second degree murder charge, whose cargo ship is working the Gulf coast of Mexico, think of the classic Noir roles that went to Steve Cochran, William Holden, Glen Ford etc.
John Lithgow plays the "ne plus ultra" Ugly American John Mills, channeling Henry Fonda and touches of other classic Noir performances you see a bit of Jimmy Stewart a bit of Broderick Crawford, he's so very entertaining in the role, an excellent performance.
Rosanna Arquette plays the Heartbreaker, Mills' young wife/common law friend with benefits, a real lovable Floozy Femme Fatale named Missy. Arquette is playing the exact type of exhibitionist, free spirit role that in the late 50s early 60s would have been given to Brigitte Bardo, Arquette is smoking-ly sultry in this film and beautiful to watch a siren luring men to their fate.
There is also a good policier angle that is nicely fleshed out of a young Mexican Criminal Law graduate Ortega played by Ernesto Laguardia . who will remind you of a young Ricardo Montalban, vs. the old school police chief Diaz played excellently by Jorge Cervera Jr. who gives off a John Wayne/Harry Carey vibe. The cinematography is outstanding, the noir sequences to die for, the Mexican locations humidly hypnotic.
Robert Harper is excellent as the fleece joint operator in Tampico, he has some memorable sequences, I think Dan Duryea or Timothy Carey as I watch him.
I'm starting to believe that what makes Neo Noirs authentic Neo Noirs for me, is not only a heavy dose of Noir stylistic cinematography along with a simple Noir storyline, but also a bit of cinematic memory, when you can picture the stars in these Neos as inheritors of Classic Noir star parts, or see a nod to Classic Noir locations combined with an old school, without bells & whistles, low budget, "B" film artistry you reach the tipping point into full blown Noirsville.
All the action sequences are done very well and all low key, mostly on foot, no automatics, no car chases, no explosions, just good choreography on existing location, Bravo! Watch for the "Duello of the Wrong Man" sequence, "The Death Of Felix" sequence, "The Ballad of the Heartbreaker" and "The Dance of the Siren". You wont be disappointed.
I had to order this off Ebay from Hong Kong, it's worth it. It's equal to the best Neo Noirs of the 90s, a great, great soundtrack by Los Lobos too, enjoy.
True Romance (1993)
Once Upon A Time In Detroit
Once Upon A Time In Detroit
A heart beat of Noir.
The title sequence for True Romance magically conveys us to the bleak cold desolate vortex of the Rust Belt 1990's Detroit, but also back a million plus years to the time when fantastic tales were spun by ancient man around the first campfire. Only in the here and now, the fire is scrap wood fed and in an oil drum in a vacant lot surrounded by hobos, outcasts, and scavengers and the fantastic tale is offered with rising sparks and smoke up to the eternal night. A Neo Noir tale.
Very few of the classic noirs used the female voice over, one that readily comes to mind is Claire Trevor's in Raw Deal. This neo noir story is triggered in one long flashback by a voice over narration by ex-call girl femme fatale Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette). Arquette here is downright outstanding, if ever there was a character that captured that effervescent spirit of Marilyn Monroe's various characters (and updates that quality to the 90s and makes it her own) in a film it's Arquette's Alabama in True Romance. She is a blond, buxom, bombshell, a "firecracker" the "shot from the front" sequence where she jiggles down the courthouse steps rivals Marilyn's classic "shot from behind" wiggles from Some Like It Hot and Niagara. You just sense that if this were still the big studio days and she was under contract she would have been typecast into many of these kind of parts in quick succession at the peak of that phase of her beauty, Arquette might have become iconic but would the price have been tragedy as it was for Marilyn? As it is her performance is just a one off. The studio days are long gone and the atmosphere is catch-as-catch-can and Arquette did not get another similar Neo Noir role until her double parts as Alice & Rene in Lost Highway. I guess time will be the judge if contract stars of the Studios or those of the new corporate deal system will be best remembered in the long run. Arquette here ranges from sweet and coy, to desperate and deadly, her transformation into Athena with her Amazonian like war scream is chilling.
The tale unfolds as quasi comic book/martial arts/Elvis geek Clarence gets shot out of the saddle by a B-girl at a local tavern. Later at a late-night triple bill Sonny Chiba show, Alabama, in a contrived maneuver spills her popcorn over the seat on Clarence. She expresses her dismay in an instantly lovable cutesy/ditzy manor and is soon climbing over the seat and settling in beside him. They soon connect and later over pie and coffee in a diner begin to fall for each other. Clarence takes her back to his pad above the comic book store where they make love. Later Alabama confesses that she is a call girl and was paid and sent by Clarence's boss as his birthday present. Clarence is not mad at all says it's the best present he ever had and that it was not just the physical part but he never had so much fun with a girl ever before in his life. They pledge their love for each other and get married. The whole sequence is wonderfully written and rings so true that you suspect it is somewhat biographical.
Clarence, (Christian Slater) in probably his best role, watch his dialogs with Alabama and his father. He is "cooler than cool" as he follows his personal rockabilly espirito Elvis in the way he deals with situations and travels life's highways. . Elvis tells him to confront Alabama's pimp Drexl and it's this meeting that sends the tale spiraling into Noirsville.
The rest of the cast is superb, Michael Rapaport as Dick Ritchie a struggling numb nuts want to be actor who lives with stoner Floyd (Brad Pitt) who has a plastic honey bear bong. Bronson Pinchot is the weasel Hollywood yes man Elliot Blitzer to producer Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek). Dennis Hopper is Clifford Worley, Clarence's security guard father who sings Country Western songs while making his rounds and lives in a trailer park wedged between the river and the railroad tracks. Mafioso Don Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken ) is a capo for Blue Lou Boyle. Virgil (James Gandolfini ) is a reflective hit-man. Gary Oldman is delightfully over the top as courier and pimp Drexl Spivey. Chris Penn as Detective Nicky Dimes and Tom Sizemore as Detective Cody Nicholson are Gung ho LA cops. Samuel L. Jackson is Big Don a spastic druggie with some memorable lines, and Val Kilmer is "Mentor" (Elvis).
Ably directed by Tony Scott with beautiful cinematography by Jeffrey L. Kimball. A great soundtrack by Hans Zimmer stitches all the segments together. True Romance is one of those films that prove that every once in a while Noir has a pulse. A fun flick with abundant eye candy 9/10
Hickey & Boggs (1972)
Smog Noir in The City of Angels
Al Hickey (Cosby) and Frank Boggs (Culp) are two ex LAPD cops scrapping the bottom of the barrel trying to make ends meet as PI's in the brown haze of the smoggy gas guzzler dominated LA of the seventies. Their office is a back room accessed from a parking lot through a dilapidated peeling panel door, they can't pay their phone bill and the answering service so they opt for the service which they can check from phone booths. They chow on chillidogs from a street vendor and strategize the case at their local bar. Hickey drives a '62 Chevy Nova and is estranged from his wife & daughter, Boggs is a boozer, has a dented '61 T-bird, watches his ex-wife Elaine dance at a Live Nude Girl joint enduring her "eat your heart out" verbal jabs, and pays prostitutes at 20 bucks a pop.
The film nicely transitions through Tinseltown's classic Film Noir icons of the past, the classic streamlined silver Super Chief "F" units, Union Station, and the Los Angeles City Hall to the smog shrouded broken dream downtown of 1970s.
The tale starts when a creepy pedophile-ish lawyer named Rice hires the team to just find his "wife" Mary Jane (Carmencristina Moreno). Rice works for Leroy the head of a black power organization. Mary Jane is really the wife of Quemando (Louis Moreno) who held up a federal reserve bank in Pittsburgh for $400,000. She just hit town on the Super Chief and is trying to unload the hot money to various factions around SOCAL by mailing $1000 dollar samples to them, one of which is syndicate mobster Brill (Robert Mandan) who bankrolled the original heist.
Given a list of leads, Hickey & Boggs begin a strange journey through the miasma of decadence and decay of The City Of Angels that one usually never saw, LA's chamber of commerce should have had a coronary. The film is filled with the ambient sounds of roaring freeway traffic, passing disembodied conversations and pounding surf.
The various leads our boys encounter make a nice cross section weird characters, nobody seems normal except for the Mexican American family and they are the bank robbers.
Hickey in the course of the tale discovers a dead lead and then Boggs uncovers a hidden envelope containing the sample $1000 bills in his house. After reporting the murder to the police and the discovery of the bills the authorities match the serial numbers to the Pittsburgh heist Hickey & Boggs are informed of a $25,000 reward. Now the boys have a motivated goal.
The detectives Hickey & Boggs are similar to their earlier counterparts in spirit but here in this film they have almost lost the power to change their situations. In part I think this is more the fault of the screenplay. Whether the original Walter Hill screenplay or Bill Culp's changes or studio suits are to blame is worth investigating. In classic hard boiled stories the confrontations were small scale, the stories convoluted but still simple.
Here, our two dicks are out gunned in three confrontations even battling helicopter mounted machine guns at the final denouement. This may be an effect of the increasing popularity of the Action Genre in the 70's and trying to modernize a traditional noir story into an action film rather than any statement of the ineffectuality of a private dick in the modern world. But Hicey & Boggs do win in the end but at a big cost.
A film not without faults 8/10.
Hit Me (1996)
Been on a Jim Thompson adaptation kick recently, both novels and film adaptations. This film captures his small time screwed up loser desperation universe perfectly, I don't know how close to the book A Swell Looking Dame, it is, it is next on my to read pile, but as a stand alone film it works. It's a great Neo Noir and I got a bit of a Blue Velvet Lynch-esque vibe from it, though a comparatively low key vibe but in a good way.
Elias Koteas performance as Sonny the goof ball night bellhop really shines. Sonny stuck in a dead end job is reduced to swiping hotel VHS players and cases of hotel booze to make ends meet. He is supporting, on his own, his mentally challenged older brother. Sonny occasionally even pimps hookers to lonely business men out of hotel rooms. After multiple viewings a fragment of cinematic memory finally "hit me", think of what a good, serious, tragic-comedic Red Skelton performance may have looked like in a film noir, some of Koteas' facial expressions are that dead on, but other comedians like Huntz Hall also come to mind. This probably flew over the heads of the then current (1996) film demographic for most of whom Skelton and Hall are non entities. But Koteas goes even further creating his own believable lunatic of a character who constantly talks to himself and habitually is physically pumping up his ego for various tasks by acting out and letting fly with compulsive manic gestures.
Laure Marsac as Monique Roux simmers delectably, a soiled dove-ish French Canadian griffter/hostess/hooker, the femme fatale of the film. The seemingly incessant Tacoma rains depresses her character to the point of despair. Marsac ranges all the way from waifish crumbling beauty, to sloe eyed temptress, and finally boils as a deadly Diana in an explosive chase sequence set in the streets of a deserted warehouse district. Her sole life quest focusing her character, seems to be to get to "Gay Paree" any way she can by any low life means possible. She carries an Eiffel Tower tchotchke that lights up and plays her leitmotif. It acts as a sort of dream navigation beacon to mother ship Paris. She's fun to watch.
Jay Leggett plays Sonny's childlike dependent older brother Leroy, practically house bound in a "crazy house" dwelling strewn with food containers & decorated with discarded toys. He is way over weight, a good natured human Muppet who tells Sonny that he wants to go to Foster Care because there he can eat all the ice cream he wants.
Kevin J. O'Connor is Cougar, a harelip scarred, sadistic thug of a loan shark who has recently become the hotel security man, Bruce Ramsay is Del a former bellhop buddy of Sonny who has hit the big time. He connives Sonny into a plan to rob a high stakes illegal poker game.
Philip Baker Hall is great as Lenny Ish, the hotel's biggest client and the local mobster who grouses that he used to live in "a five star country".
William H. Macy unexpectedly shows up in a great little cameo as a homicide detective. J. C. Quinn and Haing S. Ngor play Sonny's fellow night shift employees.
The studio sets capture the cheapo 2-3 star hotel world, and a nice opening montage shows Sonny schlepping through his various dead end bellhop job duties in the bowels of hotel housekeeping, accompanied by a plucky melody that becomes Sonny's leitmotif. Later when Sonny & Monique make love their two leitmotifs combine into a nice score by Peter Manning Robinson.
Of course, being a Neo Noir everything goes terribly wrong for ridiculously simple reasons, in this case a change of diet, and the film leaves Sonny and Leroy setting off on a trip to Nowheresville, sitting in their rusty, trusty beater Chevy, orbiting the edge of the Twilight Zone in the universe of lost dreams.
Great NYC PI flick - Soul Noir
One neat little bonus of going on a Neo Noir hunt is finding those diamonds in the rough that come completely out of left field. Sometimes a film is hyped so fully as one thing that its never looked upon or considered as any thing else. This film especially so since its considered one of the first of its own genre.
Shaft (1971) has been called the first blaxploitation flick, screw that and it's derogatory connotations (think Sergio Leone vs the majority of "Spaghetti" Westerns as a reference point), its actually not only a great PI film, directed by Gordon Parks (acclaimed photojournalist for Life magazine ) but also shot in a very noir-ish style by Urs Furrer. Between the eye of the director and the skill of the cinematographer the film looks beautiful. The shots of Manhattan, The Village, Harlem circa 1970 are gorgeous. It's sleazy Times Square/42nd Street at fin d'une époque, before Disneyfication eradicated it all.
Establishing shot, an aerial view of 7th Avenue Manhattan looking North towards Broadway and Times Square. A cacophony of traffic blares skyward, we look down upon madly scintillating 42nd Street theater marquees, classic Hollywood product, Lancasters The Scaphuters, Redfords's Little Faus And Big Halsey competing with triple X features He And She, School for Sex and The Wild Females, this ain't Busby Berkeley Territory anymore. Isaac Hayes' soul and funk-styled iconic theme song begins to pulsate the title appears over a subway entrance as leather clad Shaft glides up to the trash littered gum stained sidewalk and jaywalks his way across the main stem. This title sequence segues into the beginning of the story when Shaft is alerted by Marty the blind news stand paper seller that two cats were looking for him.
Shaft is based on an Ernest Tidyman and John D. F. Black screenplay from a book by Tidyman. The dialogs are all spot on in 70's hip jive. It's co-produced by Stirling Silliphant (who wrote late classic noirs, 5 Against the House, Nightfall, The Lineup and also neo noir -ish In The Heat Of The Night).
What's sad is Shaft gets right what practically every Mike Hammer, the quintessential NY P.I, based film neglects, and that is a real feel for the gritty noir, on location, underbelly side of New York City. (save Allen Baron's 1961 Blast Of Silence, and Armand Assante's I, The Jury(1982)) and even the latter doesn't spend near enough time in the streets
Shaft is a very plausible re-imagining of the classic private eye flick. The P.I. was always about cool this go round it is about back COOL. Richard Roundtree is perfect as the suave hip protagonist John Shaft, a good detective, grudgingly getting genuine respect from all.
Moses Gunn is incredibly good as tough crime boss Bumpy Jonas showing quite a bit of range as he pleads with Shaft to take his case. Charles Cioffi as Androzzi Shaft's NYPD detective cop buddy holds his own and runs interference between Shaft and the department. Drew Bundini Brown is Bumpy henchman Willy, Christopher St. John is Ben Buford a former hood rat friend of Shaft who is now a black militant, Antonio Fargas is great as streetwise Bunky. Character actor Lee Steele plays a blind news vender. Shaft is a Neo Noir New York City wet dream, it hits on all cylinders, check it out. 10/10
Romeo Is Bleeding (1993)
Leonesque New York Neo Noir
Romeo Is Bleeding (1993) Leonesque New York Neo Noir
"What is hell? Hell is when you should have walked, but you didn't. That's hell."
Its not very often a film comes from way way out of left field and just blows me away, a film that actually holds interesting scenes knowingly long enough to allow you to drink them in. A film that lovingly caresses the essence of classic Film Noir, updates its violence conventions and very stylishly tells a tall tale that's so dangerously close to being over the top but yet is still believable enough to let it all roll. Romeo Is Bleeding is addictive-ly compelling in the same manner that Sergio Leone re-imagined Westerns are, and you have to scratch your head and wonder what kind of opiate were the critics and the viewing public mainlining on when this accidental masterpiece of a film debuted. This has happened many times before not only in cinema, but even in the long history of the Fine Art world. Films that at first are panned and forgotten that finally through the filter of time get interpreted right.
A Neo Noir whose all star cast is excellent but actress Lena Olin steals every scene she is in.
The narrated story revolves around the decent of NYPD Sergeant Jack "Romeo" Gramaldi into Noirsville. Jack's voice over narration while a throwback to classic noir is also unique, it's comprised of two voices, sometimes the present one the good Jim (aka repentant Jack), sometimes the bad Jack, and sometimes he listens to one head sometimes he listens to the other one.
Jack looked just like anybody but inside he wasn't like anybody, he was going to do something about the dream. Jack supplies tips on the locations of safeguarded witnesses who will testify against the mob headed by Don Falcone. As Jack puts it he puts a quarter in a slot and $65,000 comes out of a PO Box. He takes the cash and feeds the drain hole he dug for it in the back yard of his Maspeth, Queens row house. Everything was going right until they started going wrong.
Jack's tip on Gazzara gets both Gazzara and federal agents massacred by "Queen of Queens" rackets mob hit woman Mona Demarkov. Olin is Mona, the pieces lithe, sexy, Russian Femme Fatale and she is a smart, devious, scary-sexy one at that. She flashes her sex like a neon sign at the bottom of a dead end road. Jack looks like a deer caught in her headlights. She probably scared the hell out of a lot of conservative prepubescent boy scouts out there with her animal like sexuality in 1994. That may be the reason the film did poorly upon release, the Zeitgeist was't ready for the likes of Mona. She is feline, deadly, a fusion of Diana and Venus, and when she "presents" herself to Jack, he, and any of us out there that's got a pair of stones are goners. This film is one of the definitive depictions of the Female being deadlier than the Male. Jack is hypnotized between the allure of Mona and the money she baits him with. In the tradition of classic Noirs, its far more powerful a scene with what it doesn't show than say a similar sequence in Basic Instinct.
After Demarkov is captured the second time she makes a deal with the feds to turn witness against Don Falcone. Sal asks Jack for her location Jack provides it but the info is wrong and Jack is summoned before Don Falcone who says he will make his wife ugly, burn his house down, and gut his girlfriend, and if he doesn't kill Mona he'll authorize it. On top of all this Jack fancies himself as a ladies man, a straying tomcat Romeo with women problems, both with his long suffering wife Natalie, and with dive waitress Sheri. Jack and Natalie have some poignant scenes together as their life together falls apart. Jack realizes too late that you don't own love, love owns you.
Romeo Is Bleeding features a New York City festooned with graffiti, during the era of the World Trade Center. Williamsburg, Bushwick, and the JMZ elevated line in Brooklyn, Maspeth, in Queens, and lower Manhattan are all featured in the film. Sal like a chain smoking bad Bogart, tells Jack outside of Coney Island, that it (New York City) is like the Fall of Rome out there, the streets are filled with animals. Don Falcone acknowledges that he knows the barbarians are outside the gates but tells Jack that that doesn't mean we have to leave the door open.
Weaved throughout the film both the sound design and the excellent mood pieces that make up Mark Isham's score fit so well to the scenes and overlaps creating a total atmosphere that I again recall the great collaborations of Leone/Morricone, Hitchcock/Herman and Lynch/Badalamenti. The acting is top notch every aspect of the film works amazingly well. This is a hardcore/hardboiled Neo Film Noir about melancholy and regret. Upon multiple re-watches 10/10
Mulholland Falls (1996)
LA/Desert/Western "B" style Neo Noir
The Wild West circa 1950s....
This film reminds you not only of all the "B" LA/Desert based crime Noir films but it also channels a very strong updated Western vibe with its quasi legal vigilante justice story line. Endorsed by the "chief" a nice cameo by Dern, the un-officially sanctioned Hat Squad, Hoover (Nolte), Coolidge (Palminteri), Hall (Madsen), and Relyea (Penn) are like modern day Earp Brothers riding around the boulevards of broken dreams in the ultimate Western "boom" town, The City of Angels, "tinsel town", LA. Their mission is to keep the vice rackets under local control and their territory/turf runs from the desert ranges of the Cal/Nev border country to the Pacific rim. Their targets are any organized crime mobsters from the Mid West or East Coast who they sort of run out of town by sundown by escorting them to Mulholland Falls, sort of like Niagara Falls without the water.
Hoover makes you think of Dashiell Hammett's Continental OP, a big imposing stocky cross between Noir icons Sterling Hayden and Raymond Burr. He wields justice with a sap, again reminiscent of the way Wyatt Earp would coldcock outlaws with his Buntline special, and re-enforcing the films Wild West vibe. His partner Coolidge reminds you of Joseph Calleia's character in Touch of Evil, is a slightly neurotic transplanted Easterner, the squads methods of vigilante justice are effecting his life to the point to where he is seeing a female psychiatrist. The attempts by Coolidge to deal with old school Hoover's wild mood swings and his admonitions to the squad about how they agreed that they weren't going do this or that again are quite humorous. Hall and Relyea are both more laconic, though Hall is the cockier of the two.
When the squad about to launch a victim off the "falls" mobster: You can't do this this is America. Hoover: This ain't America, this is LA...
The catalyst to the decent into Noirsville is when the squad is sent to investigate the body of a woman who is embedded face down into the ground at a housing development in the hills above LA. She looks like she was run over by a steam roller, and when she is pried out and turned over her identity is known to Hoover who is visibly shaken. His reaction is noticed by his squad mates. An autopsy indicates that she fell from a great height, like a cliff, but there are no cliffs at the site. An X-Ray has a curious blank section caused by a radio active piece of glass. Back at headquarters a film canister arrives addressed to Hoover and a screening reveals a stag film spliced with shots of a desert resort, a military instillation, a hospital ward and soldiers at a tactical atomic bomb test.
The stag film shows the films equivalent to the femme fatale, Allison Ponds (Connelly) a love goddess, fatal in one way or another to all the men she touches. Connelly is like a brunette Marilyn Monroe and she displays her assets in all their glory. Allison in the film is screwing an unknown man, Hoover's reaction to the film spurs Coolidge to confront him about the girls identity, and Hoover confesses to having a six month affair with Allison, a high priced prostitute. In flashback we see Hoover, during a raid on an after hours club, walk in on Allison bitch slapping a pimp who was about to shoot the teen aged girl laying on a bed behind her with junk. Hoover over doses the pimp dead with his own needle.
Allison's best friend and neighbor is Jimmy Fields (McCarthy), a gay photographer, he sent the film footage to Hoover as both evidence of a government cover-up (the reason he thinks that Allison was killed) and for protection from her killers. He confesses to the existence of other films indicating that he also has a film of Hoover with Allison.
The radioactive glass and the film sends the squad like a posse, riding across the desert to a Nevada test site in a 49 Buick Roadmaster. This beautifully filmed sequence strongly enforces the contemporary modern setting with the classic Hollywood Western replacing horses with automobiles, while at the same time evoking classic era Western US Noirs.
Classic Noir locations used are the Los Angels City Hall, the Pacific Coast at Malibu, Desert Hot Springs, and Mulholland Drive. The film adds to that list a neat googie style apartment with pool and what has to be a unique instantly iconic neo noir location, the Sedan Crater in Nevada, a spooky nuclear bomb test site. The nuclear test angle of the story is a nod to Kiss Me Deadly but I've read that the films original ending was for Hoover and Coolidge, after surviving an emergency landing too near a test site, were to be incinerated by a nuclear blast. Now how utterly noir would that have been?
I say I like it better than LA Confidential, and more every time I watch it. The Cinematography by Haskell Wexler (In The Heat Of The Night) is gorgeous.
It got the hats right, it has a nice rendition of "Harbour Lights" by Aaron Neville, you gotta love that Buick Roadmaster convertible tooling across the gorgeous desert landscapes and also Jennifer Connelly's boobs. I guess you gotta find out these things for yourself rather than go by critics, it's the reason I never checked it out. WTF were they thinking? Is it because almost nobody wears fedoras anymore or drive dinosaur gas guzzlers?, or was it because the cast was all adults and smoking is frowned upon, who knows. It reminds you of all the LA based crime Noirs. The only small fault is Nolte's mumbling, it's hard to understand him at times. Nice enough score by Dave Grusin 9/10
The Kill-Off (1989)
A run down Jersey Shore amusement park in the dead of the off season and adjacent fly speck town (Keansburg) are the setting for The Kill-Off an excellent, off the radar, low budget, Neo Noir based on Jim Thompson's novel of the same name. The story is updated to post code late 1988, Newbie Director Maggie Greenwald does a fantastic job re-creating a Neo Noir milieu effectively, with limited sets and aside from Jorja Fox (Myra), William Russell (Rags), and Cathy Haase (Dannie Lee), for the most part a majority of great but career-wise, comparatively flash-in- the-pan actors. Produced in 1988 by Palace Pictures.
The cast of looser slime balls include, Luane (Loretta Gross), a bed ridden hypochondriac, a black widow who has sat for years in the center of a web of telephone lines. Her poison tongue gossip and innuendos about the various denizens of the town results most recently, in the twin suicides of a brother & sister when she suggests that the sister has her siblings "bun in the oven". The telephone Luan holds is a powerful weapon in the hands of skillful equivocator.
Ralph (Steve Monroe) is Luane's the slow on the uptake "stupe" of husband. Pete (Jackson Sims) is the owner of The Pavilion a boardwalk skid row dive bar who needs money, Rags (Russell ) is Pete's on the wagon, head bartender, Myra (Fox) is Pete's rebellious daughter, Bobbie (Andrew Lee Barrett) the "skell" drug pusher after Myra who is dealing out of The Pavilion. And the last to be introduced is a full figured ex prostitute turned stripper, Dannie Lee (Hasse) who is wonderfully spot on as the femme fatale who triggers The Kill Off.
The story un-spools as follows, years ago Luane's dead father scams $10,000 from Pete but dies before he can spend "the sugar". The money is never recovered and Pete strongly suspects Luane of holding out on him. Pete and Rags decide that the best way to get The Pavilion off the skids is to turn it into a strip joint so Pete takes off down the Garden State Parkway looking for a stripper. In some industrial section he spots local talent Dannie Lee selling her ass on the street. Pete pulls over, gets out and looks her over. Dannie Lee gets apprehensive as Pete physically twists her about checking her various assets, and asking her if she ever took dancing lessons. She indignantly tells him to f-off until Pete responds by asking "how would you like to make money standing up for a change"? Meanwhile, Bobbie scams Ralph out of his maintenance job at the Park and gets Myra hooked on horse.
Ralph married at 18 to Luane who was in her 30's have a bizarre open marriage, Ralph has one night stands with local teeny boppers and as long as Ralph tells Luane the details she's cool with it, cool with it until Ralph gets bounced by Dannie Lee. You watch the train wreck unfolding with rapt interest. There are poignant yet equally touching moments throughout the film especially Dannie Lee's learning curve as a stripper and the love story that develops between her and Ralph.
Every aspect of the film hits on all cylinders, the script based on Jim Thompson's novel by Maggie Greenwald is ripe with good one liners. The music by Evan Lurie (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) tongue & grooves with the environs of the story well. The noir-ish cinematography by Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas) enhances the dreary winter Raritan Bay seaside atmosphere and the low class bungalow interiors, especially when filtered through an old Xenon Entertainment Group VHS official release, the film can only improve with a proper DVD release.
A cool cat looking for a connection
It's all about cool, cool that aura of quiet intensity along that ever changing cutting edge balancing between conservative and excess, the spark between new and old, you know it when you see it.
William Powell had it, Noir icons Bogart, Dick Powell, Mitchum, Conte, Andrews, Ford, Holden, and Hayden had it. James Garner as Marlowe displays one of the last vestiges of classic, big city, private eye cool, surfing the counter culture tsunami of the 60s. Yes, other P.I. depictions will follow, the majority on TV, but they will be diluted and tainted by the sea change of the Age of Aquarius, but they will be written quirky, cutesy, and PC. The only other film P.I's that have the classic cool in contemporary settings are Paul Newman's Harper films, Armand Assante in I, The Jury, and possibly Elliot Gould's turn as Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, and Gene Hackman as Mosby in Night Moves.
Right out of the chute we are dropped both visually into Marlowe's current case in the title sequence by the use of a nice dynamic camera aperture motif that reveals multiple candid papparazi/surveillance photos, and audibly by a bubblegum style pop tune from the silly side of the commercial sixties. Titled "Little Sister" (sung by Orpheus) that ties the film to Raymond Chander's novel "The Little Sister" The tune itself then morphs into a tinny sounding diegetic song blaring from the radio of Marlowe's top down Dodge convertible.
The car rolls along, and only in southern California, a horsehead oil pump studded beach, and up to a peace sign and flower power festooned hippie hotel called The Infinite Pad. Jammed into the chrome barred appointments of the dash is a photo of Orin Quest, the wayward missing in action brother from some hicksville Kansas fly speck who blew town down Route 66 in search of kicks. Marlowe wades through the throng of stoned out denizens and into the mangers office replete with posters, burning incense, and love beads. Marlowe soon finds out that he's in deeper doodoo than the $50 dollar retainer chump change case warranted.
So how, you may ask, does a knight errant loner like Marlowe survive in a world of full page add, multiple operative, private investigation agencies? Well, he sublets half of his shabby suite of family-hand-me- down furnished offices to a beauty college who's ex-pat Brit proprietor doubles as an answering service/receptionist. He is good for a few chuckles.
Cinematographer William Daniels (Brute Force, Lured, The Naked City) achieves a subdued almost laid back noir-ish style, photographing sleazy late 60s LA in a way that emphasizes the thin veneer of "new" that cosmetically covers the same old decay, its just Day-Glo painted now. Noir archetypes such as the Bradbury Building, and Union Station provide a cinematic memory link to classic film noir, while modern apartments, cloud club panoramic restaurants, the Hotel Alvarado and Sunset Blvd. strip joints anchor us to 1969. The use of split screen both advances the story line and occasionally provides a bit of humor. Another segment at a TV studio juxtaposes a throwaway modern dance routine along side one of the 20 Greta Garbo films that Daniels is famous for. Garner disdains the dance number to a TV exec telling him that the Garo film is the real entertainment.
1969 contemporary Marlowe is a cool level headed professional, efficient, witty, and generous he even has a sleep over gal pal who works at the DMV who he also pumps for information. He eschews fedora and trench coat for sunglasses but still smokes a pipe and drinks bourbon.
The stories catalyst is Orfamay's search for brother Orin and turns convolutedly into something else. Gayle Hunnicutt is Mavis Wald, a prominent TV star billed as "America's Sweetheart" an almost auguring like reference to Mary Tyler Moore & her show by the same name. Marlowe's involvement shakes things up enough to get various seemingly un-related individuals getting caught in a vortex with bodies piling up. Watch for Bruce Lee trashing Marlowe's office. The repartee between Carroll O'Connor and Marlowe. The sequence at Union Station where a woman is caught sitting at a lunch counter between Marlowe and Orfamay where they update all the skulduggery that has taken place the various facial expressions she displays are hilarious. This is a reference to a similar set up in The Dark Corner where Mark Stevens and Lucille Ball are conversing while a ticket booth girl overhears them.
Fellows shines as Orfamay. Jackie Coogan is good as shifty Grant W. Hicks. George Tyne is a hoot as as the Hotel Alvarado house dick. Rita Moreno sizzles as stripper Dolores, doing a very sophisticated striptease routine that's low on tease and high on strip. It makes you think of what may have been if Hollywood had not been shackled by the Hays Code. Think of the strip routines of Rita Hayward in Gilda, Adele Jergens in Armored Car Robbery, Anita Ekberg in Screaming Mimi, Robin Raymond in the Glass Wall, Barbara Nichols in Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, even Kim Novak in The Man With the Golden Arm.
The soundtrack after the title sequence reverts into variations of a nice cool jazzy theme. If I have any quibbles it would be for even more LA location shots (especially with the cinematographer of The Naked City). DVD from Warner Archive Collection. 9/10
Darker Than Amber (1970)
Neo Noir - Film Soleil - Beach Bum Noir
This film is hard to pigeon hole into any preset category. Its based on the writings of John D. MacDonald a Pennsylvania native and a very prolific author of crime and suspense novels, many of them set in the South and predominantly the southern tip of the state of Florida. Between the years 1953 and 1964, MacDonald specialized in crime thrillers, considered now as masterpieces of the hard-boiled genre. Most of these novels were published as pulp paperback originals, with their attendant sleazy cover art. His noir/neo noir street creds start with his 1957 novel The Executioners that was brought to the screen in 1962 as Cape Fear, a very dark story of suspense and animalistic menace starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. Many of MacDonald's novels suggested a sinister presence just beneath the friendly patina of palm tree studded small coastal towns.
The film followed McGee's back story very well. McGee was basically a Florida beach bum, a Korean War Vet, who won a large 52-foot barge-type houseboat in a poker game. His home base was Ft. Lauderdale, Bahia Mar Marina, slip F-18, but his life style enabled him to drift about the inter-coastal waterway, the Everglades, and the Florida Keys, beach combing, drinking, fishing. He named the houseboat boat the Busted Flush, and took his retirement in installments between jobs, when the money ran out he did "salvage consultant" work. The salvage work was retrieving things lost by people, in shady legal deals, scams, flimflams, skulduggery, etc., etc., usually things with no proper recourse for the victim. McGee's price was for half of whatever he recovered, and half was better than nothing. Occasionally McGee was asked to locate missing people in other Gulf States or foreign locals in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. He is a sort of rogue PI without a license.
McGee had a quasi partner/buddy Meyer, a retired economics professor, a brainy type that McGee could bounce problems and ideas off of, who lived on a cabin cruiser moored in a slip near by. The only other regular was the "Alabama Tiger" a millionaire, who had the "worlds longest running boat party" on a large yacht also in the Marina. In the film this is changed to the "Alabama Tigress" (Jane Russell). McGee also had an old Rolls Royce that had been in an accident and had been converted into a pickup truck that was called "Miss Agnes".
The story of Darker Than Amber starts off very noir-ishly. As credits roll to a jazzy tune, a convertible speeds down a deserted highway, street lights whiz by overhead, a passing car highlights a driver (Robert Phillips), and a bleach blond goon (William Smith) sitting in the back seat with a honey-haired woman named Vangie (Suzy Kendall). A street lamp flash reveals that one of her feet is lashed to a dumbbell. The car passes over a long bridge a remote section of the Overseas Highway bridge (the highway that island hops its way to Key West) it reaches the far end and makes a U-turn. After a semi passes the car drives back onto the bridge.
Cut to McGee (Rod Taylor) and Meyer (Theodore Bikel) fishing from a small rental skiff anchored at night under the ridge. The car pulls to a stop above them and the honey-haired woman strapped to the dumbbell is dropped off the bridge. As the car speeds off she sinks immediately from site and she's hooked on McGee's lure. McGee, with Meyer wielding a flashlight, dives in and brings her up. They resuscitate her and head back the Flush. She wont tell them her name, and she doesn't want them to go to the police.
McGee heads back to the bridge in the daytime and dives to retrieve the dumbbell, (an 85 lb. weight for a 100 lb. woman) but is seen by a lookout who is staking out the "murder" site.
As they cruise leisurely back up the Keys McGee slowly pries the story out of her. Her name is Vangie (Suzy Kendall), short for Evangeline she was literally a Femme Fatale, a high priced call girl working a cruise ship racket that lured drunk wealthy unattached men to a rendezvous at her cabin. The men were surprised by either Griff (Phillips) or Terry (Smith) and killed for their money then deep six-ed over the side. She was wanting out of the racket but the only way out is dead.
By the time they reach Bahia Mar, McGee and Vangie are an item. But she decides to sneak off the Flush in another noir-ish sequence and go back to her bungalow and retrieve her stash of ill gotten loot. Her two murder racket accomplices Terry (William Smith) and Griff (Robert Phillips) tipped off that she is still alive, spot her while she is on her way. Terry grabs Vangie and while Griff speeds down the highway towards them Terry tosses Vangie into the cars path, the force blasts her through a plate glass window of an ice cream parlor.
Ahna Capri delivers a good performance as Del, Vangie's co Femme Fatale partner in Terry's murder for money scheme. McGee is able to convince her that she is next to be eliminated.
The hit-and-run murder of Vangie, sets McGee off on a revenge mission that culminates in a legendary graphically violent, savage, fight scene, between Rod Taylor's Travis McGee and the film's villain, Terry.
This film needs a fully restored DVD release of the full Runtime: 96 min, the version I have was recorded off TCM and it is missing a few minutes of the legendary fight sequence (which can be see on YouTube in a Dutch release)
A 9/10 for McGee fans (it could have been a tad bit longer for character development) and an 8/10 if you are unfamiliar with the material