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Five lives intersect on an isolated island, 28 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

With very few exceptions, I like Bergman movies, although I'm not sure why. I've liked them ever since seeing "The Seventh Seal" and "Wild Strawberries" back in 1957. His films go deep into the hearts and minds of his characters, who are usually troubled or give the impression of reaching for something and not getting it or else burying some part of themselves. By what? By being human. By being situated between two worlds, this one and another one that is felt but is ineffable and unreachable to real depth for most of us. No one escapes this dilemma. Not all realize it or express it, but it's the underlying script of their lives. Bergman characters spin and spin around in this world in a myriad of ways, seeking, or escaping or trying to escape. They express their diverse personalities and Bergman gives us case studies of remarkable psychologies, spread over a wide range. And, of course, Bergman has the finest set of repertory players a director could ask for and work with.

In "The Seventh Seal", Max von Sydow is reaching but Gunner Bjornstand is suppressing the difficulty of understanding this life with cynicism. Similarly, in "A Passion", von Sydow's character escapes to solitude and an occasional bender, but reaches out toward nature, a pet dog that he rescues and a neighbor (Erik Hell) with bronchitis who remains self-sufficient hauling firewood. The innocent Hell becomes a suicide after he is humiliated and beat up, blamed by a group of islanders for something he didn't do. There's a madman loose on the island who is killing animals. Why is this in the story? I see it as a symbol of evil on the loose. The villain isn't caught and he's killing living creatures, sheep and a horse and almost a puppy, for which we ordinarily feel affection and caring. What do human beings do to themselves and to others? If they treat helpless animals like this, or are capable of it as the symbolism suggests, what might they do to each other? They might be unable to live together, even when they try, or live together in harmony. They might kill one another in anger. They might lie. They might bury their feelings under cynicism.

There are 4 main characters beyond Hell, played by Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson and Erland Josephson. We view pertinent parts of their lives over the course of a year or so. Each has a history we come to know. They are all imperfect beings, but real people, well, not quite. They are real Bergman people. That is, they are "more" than most of us articulate or display. They are more intelligent, more introspective, more capable of understanding and expressing themselves, and more engaged in passions. They are troubled in various ways. It's odd that Bergman gets to do what he likes, which is make these films, and his cast members get to do what they like as actors, but the characters they play have many problems. We are not seeing, I suppose, the problems that trouble the film's makers. I think that Bergman loves these characters.

It is not difficult to summarize the main interactions of the 4 main characters. Many reviews do this. No need to do it again in detail. The beauty of the island is captured by great cinematography, even though the landscape is snowy, difficult and harsh looking. This is something like human nature, a beauty amid or in what is not all that pretty in the personality. Josephson plays the cynical character who tolerates his wife's affairs. Andersson has had an affair with Ullmann's first husband, before he and their son was killed when Ullmann drove their car off the road because her husband was leaving her. Andersson has an affair with Sydow before he takes up with Ullmann. Ullmann is possessive, smothering and jealous but she hides it. Her hypocrisy is greater than anyone else's in the film.

Sydow makes a big effort to connect with people again, after hiding his past as a petty criminal. He fails with Ullmann, and she fails with him. Josephson and Andersson fail too. The community has killed the innocent Hell, and they know it when a horse is burned to death and the dead Hell couldn't have done it. Harmony is unattainable, a real conjunction of souls, which is what Ullmann dreams of and imagines she had and was possible. Human beings have to settle for something less. Sydow too is disappointed. He tried. In the end he wants his solitude back. Ullmann hasn't changed. She almost drives the car off the road again. Where are the exits for these people? Where are their consolations? It will have to be either in diversions or in discoveries and activities beyond this film. Josephson has a hobby of photography, but he questions his talent at it. Andersson has affairs. In a novel feature of this film, each of the actors comments on their character during the film. Andersson's improvised thoughts suggest that her character might turn to suicide but will find some fulfillment in work. Her character is the most spontaneous or joyful of the bunch. Ullmann can't forget her past. She has a great deal to overcome, and to Sydow she seems crazy. Josephson is not finding fulfillment in his work, even though he is very successful.

It's a Bergman film.

Halle Berry's husband is murdered and she tells the cops her story, 27 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"The Rich Man's Wife" is technically a neo-noir that, for most of its length prior to a twist ending, draws plot elements from "The Postman Rings Twice" and "Strangers on a Train". Therefore, it plays more like a classic noir.

The film seems not to have satisfied a good many movie viewers, judging from its below-par rating and most of the IMDb reviews. I find the movie entertaining, cleverly constructed and well-done in all departments, including acting and cinematography. The use of some familiar plot elements or resemblance to such elements didn't matter too much, because the film had plenty of originality besides. Suspense and realism are good. Halle Berry is shown as a strong and capable woman, but then she's telling the story. The movie is best seen without having read reviews beforehand that revealed too much plot. I had no idea what it was about.

The whole story, up to just a few minutes at the end when Berry is released and leaves the police station, is related by Halle Berry to two policeman. It is not a confession but her recounting of events that led to the deaths of 3 men. We see nothing in the past but what she says. However, at the end we do see in real time the questions and reactions of the two cops after she leaves the station.

The 3 men now dead are her husband, Christopher McDonald; a stranger to her with a criminal record, Peter Greene; and her lover, Clive Owen. McDonald died in a park of multiple gunshot wounds in an apparently failed carjacking. Greene and Owen died at her residence, both shot. Two guns were involved. Entering her story is also Owen's ex-wife, Clea Lewis. According to her story, Greene killed her husband and was going to frame her and blackmail her. She says that Greene killed Owen who had come to rescue her, and she killed Greene with a second gun. The two policemen, Charles Hallahan and Frankie Faison, don't believe her story. Too much is hard to explain, and she has a motive. Her husband is rich, controls all assets in his name, and she has signed a pre-nuptial agreement that rules out divorce as a means of getting his wealth. But his death will benefit her after a wait for probate.

The title is "The Rich Man's Wife", and that tells you something right away that's true. Halle Berry, in a very good role and doing a very good job handling it, plays a poor but beautiful black girl who married a rich white executive, after knowing him and he knowing her for one day. It tells you that the story is focused on her, which it is. Almost everything is told by her and involves her, but not all. She recounts some events according to her reconstruction of what happened when others were involved.

The title raises questions. What is Halle Berry really like? Is she telling the truth? What's she after? Her husband's wealth? Or is she trying to extricate herself from being charged with several felonies? Or some combination of these? However, once the movie gets going and we enter the flow of events, we are likely to forget that she's telling the story. We are likely to believe her rather than constantly remind ourselves to be skeptical until there is verification that what she says is true. Alternatively, we can, like the detectives, be checking up on the logic of the details to see if the story hangs together and resolves the origins of the three men's deaths. The story functions then as a suspended mystery.

Altogether, for a noir fan like me, "The Rich Man's Wife" filled the bill and then some. In plot, it's much more like a classic noir than a neo-noir. Director Amy Holden Jones, who also wrote the movie, got a really good performance out of Halle Berry. The supporting cast is believable and quite strong without overdoing it. Haskell Wexler's cinematography is a strong point. What we see on the screen, told through Berry's eyes, seems to have just the right patina or feeling of a remembrance as opposed to something we are seeing in the real-time of events.

Karl Boehm is a tortured photographer-murderer touched by Anna Massey, 27 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Peeping Tom" (1960) is a deep and sophisticated treatment of a man whose personality has been so twisted by his father that he has become a peeping tom who murders women and films the murders. Michael Powell directed from a story and screenplay by Leo Marks. Marks also wrote the story behind "Cloudburst" (1951), which is about an ordinary man driven to murder out of revenge. And he co-wrote another psychological screenplay, "Twisted Nerve".

"Peeping Tom" features a top-notch performance from Karl Boehm as the troubled protagonist. He is driven and he knows it. He's not psychotic but twisted, having been made that way by his father who was a biologist interested in fear. His sadistic father is shown in old film and was played by Powell.

Boehm's murders torture him. Anna Massey and her mother, Maxine Audley, live in the house owned by Boehm, the same house where he grew up. Massey is attracted to Boehm and unknowingly is trying to draw him back to normality. Her blind mother is more suspicious. Rather than turn this into an ordinary thriller, although it does have some suspense, "Peeping Tom" provides much exposition of Boehm, showing us what he sees through his camera, showing us the details of his murders, and having us watch his films after he has made them and as he watches them. He's the focus of the film, as the title suggests, and not any good guys or detectives, apart from Massey who likes him. Boehm's relationship with Massey is explored in quite a lot of realistic detail too, as part of the explication of Boehm's character.

Film noir marks a broad movement of movies into more sophisticated and deeper themes and areas of exploration than what came before, as well as a change in focus and emphasis on more subterranean characters and realistic psychologies. We certainly can find prior movies that herald such depth and focus, but in some sense, film noir marks the maturation of movie stories and ways of telling them. It also marks the audience acceptance of this material.

"Peeping Tom" belongs in the noir category and is usually placed there. Daring for its time, it brought grief to Powell. The film explicitly shows extreme evil in family life and what it leads to. Psychosis is not the only source of evil; Boehm is not at all psychotic. The film shows the extreme difficulty of someone who is afflicted by conditioning of emotions from overcoming it. Hope and love do not conquer all. There are forms of corruption that accrue through family life and they are resistant to change.

All of this is shown without the presence of a character like a doctor who presents it to us or by other such non-cinematic means. There is no prologue here from a psychiatrist, corresponding to those introductions by prison wardens and district attorneys that begin some crime-noirs. Nothing like that is done here to soften what we see. We see much of it through the eyes of Boehm's character himself. He is the undoubted protagonist. It brings to mind Carradine playing "Bluebeard". It brings to mind both treatments of "M".

Julio de Grazia finds a huge stash of money from a bank robbery, 26 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"The Lion's Share", written and directed by Adolpho Aristarain, is an excellent film noir; genuinely so, including story and cinematography, which is dark. It doesn't come across as neo-noir. It is not retro-noir; it's not set in the past. It is not like a flat-looking American post-noir. It comes closest to sharing the look and feel of 70s-style noir, which involves quite a lot of dark coloration, a distinct downbeat mood, a presentation of the city as dangerous, and a bluntness and directness when it comes to showing the characters. They are not prettied up in any way.

The story takes a basic premise and elaborates it faithfully and realistically, so as to present us with intense dramatic conflicts that illustrate much broader themes than might be expected from a crime story. This is the mark of intelligent and insightful writing.

The story in one brief scene introduces two robbers doing a car theft from a parking lot overseen by an attendant. The older thief has been around the block a few times. The younger one we soon find out is a murderous sociopath, a cause of friction between the two of them. The older man definitely has second thoughts about being with the younger. They're both well-dressed and groomed, not delinquents. The younger one can exude considerable fake charm.

Next, the story introduces us to an ordinary guy, Julio de Grazia, who works at an office unhappily. He's drinking a bit and not holding a job well. The father of a young teenage daughter who lives with her mom, his marriage is very troubled. He's separated, living in a little apartment. He and his wife are on the brink of divorce. They've developed a lot of antagonism and distrust.

The two thieves make a big heist at a bank with another thief. Their plans go awry and they flee with the huge stash. On a roof, they stash it in a water tank. In his apartment below, de Grazia hears and sees them briefly. Later, when he hears of the theft, he explores and finds the money.

The money is in new bills and the serial numbers have been published widely. This and his find set the fuse to the story's dramatic possibilities. This development is where the movie excels. Although de Grazia almost immediately leaves his apartment, he faces a hostile city at night and he does not know where to turn. The robbers find their money gone. They put two and two together, learning that he has left his apartment. Knowing his name, they start going through the 20 or so men with the same name. If need be, they can get to de Grazia through threats to his wife or daughter.

De Grazia contacts a friend who once had some shady connections. They will try to sell the hot money at a discount. But the robbers know that this will be their natural path. De Grazia attempts to reconcile with his wife, leading to some marvelous scenes between them over the money.

The film is especially good in showing the corrosive effect of the money on de Grazia's life, on his relationship to his wife, and upon his friend and his woman. De Grazia's every attempt to relieve his life's misery and unhappiness with the money runs into severe difficulty.

Badge 373 (1973)
Robert Duvall seeks his partner's murderer, 25 January 2015

"Badge 373" is typically listed and discussed as noir, and it definitely is a 70s-style noir. There are plenty of night scenes, dark locations, and up-front dialog. There's one extended chase scene involving a bus. This is what you call a cop noir, like "Dirty Harry, "Bullitt", "The Seven-Ups", and "The French Connection". It's a very good cop-noir movie that stands on its own against that heavy competition. I've seen it twice and it holds together very well. It maintains momentum through its second act quite well, making good use of the conflict between Duvall and Bloom. Its main weakness is in some of the lesser parts. Eddie Egan plays in it and has a writing credit, and that bestows gritty realism on the picture. Robert Duvall stars as a suspended cop deeply upset by the murder of his partner and determined to rectify it. Virna Bloom has a substantial part as his recent girl friend who doesn't understand his drive and motivation. Henry Darrow plays a Puerto Rican gun merchant who is providing a local contingent of Puerto Ricans with a big shipment to be taken to the island and used in a revolutionary push for independence. His part goes somewhat and forgivably over-the-top in some "White Heat" bravado.

Duvall carries the movie as a tough and unafraid cop, something of both a tenacious bulldog and a bull. He works alone on the case, outside the department because of his suspension. Duvall's work in this movie, as in "The Outfit" and in "True Confessions", is strong. He is perhaps somewhat underrated or overlooked, despite his steady employment, effectiveness in a wide range of roles and the risks he has taken in directing. In "Badge 373", Egan is around to restrain him and can't.

This may not be the best of that era's crop of cop-noirs, but it carried the noir ball admirably. It's a delight to watch for its no-nonsense toughness, no quarter being given to political correctness, and it helped prepare the way for a good many neo-noirs to come.

Deadfall (1968)
Eric Portman partners with Michael Caine in a cat burglar heist, 24 January 2015

This British film, directed by the competent Bryan Forbes, who did the truly excellent "The Angry Silence" is listed as one of Eric Portman's noirs. I must say he's outstanding in this film. In all of his noirs and films, he brings in -- decadence, I think. Here, he's a homosexual thief who induces the younger cat burglar, Michael Caine, into participation in a burglary. Caine goes for Portman's wife, whom he has never slept with. There's a hidden story behind that. Caine is very good in this picture. He does his eyes and voice as good or better than anyone. I'm not among his detractors. As in noir caper films, a large dose of tragedy awaits those involved. The film has a handsome look to it. John Barry does the music and Shirley Bassey gives her full-throated all to the title song, which is an apt one.

Now, not all British films suffer from the British disease, but this one, unfortunately begins to suffer and inflict its pain on us after the caper ends at the 60-minute mark. I might add that American films of this era sometimes catch this disease too. It's slowness, bloating, needless scenes, pretentiousness, and feeble attempts at obscure imagery (here it's seagulls). There's also obscure references to youth that do not quite gel into anything of significance. The Brits also have never conquered the science of producing an easy to hear sound track. Add an Italian actress or any foreigner with an accent into the mix and you may miss some words. Even during the caper, Forbes chose to intercut a classical music concert attended by the man whose home is being burgled. This attempt at suspense falls flat, simply by being prolonged. It also features a boring guitar concerto that any jazz guitarist from Tiny Grimes to Wes Montgomery would put to shame. The whole sequence runs too long. But after it, we shift into the Caine-Ralli love affair and the picture grinds to a halt for almost 30 minutes, still leaving 30 minutes to go. I did get antsy watching this.

Good for 50-55 minutes. Slow for 30 minutes more. Then 30 minutes for a wrap-up that's just average. If it weren't for Portman, this film would sink swiftly to the bottom.

British audiences are apparently a different breed than we Americans used to more snap, crackle and pop. Night of the Demon has two prints, edited very differently, and it provides a very interesting contrast to Curse of the Demon, the same story edited two ways. It's amazing how much slower the British version is. Strangers on a Train has a Brit version in which the first conversation of the two strangers is quite a bit longer. It actually seems endless for what the additional verbiage accomplishes. Hooray for all those 1-hour British crime quickies! Way to go, boys. That's the ticket.

Charles McGraw, a crazed steeplejack, is cruel, not the tower, 24 January 2015

After being thrown off a train, John Ericson, is taken in by a crew of steeplejacks led by the hard-drinking Charles McGraw. McGraw is two-timing his wife with Mari Blanchard, who nurses the often bare-chested Ericson back to health. She's out of the burlesque business and looking for security and a man with drive and prospects, which she sees in McGraw who heads the repair company. Ericson joins the team in the high and dangerous work of scaling water towers and chimneys. Steve Brodie is going with McGraw's wife. He falls from a tower because ropes were cut. Police are not called in, having little to do with itinerant workers like these. Depending on who's promoting a theory, suspicion falls on a rival team of steeplejacks, but to some extent on McGraw. McGraw's jealousy over the evident Blanchard-Ericson attraction blossoms into something worse.

This film features decent acting and some very good photography of the goings-on around a water tower and a chimney. Ernie Heller gets the credit. There are necessarily some process shots, but they are mixed in with realistic scenes. The main weakness of the story is the script. Warren Douglas, who has done good work in "Loophole" and "Cry Vengeance", falters on this one. He doesn't bring out the transition in the McGraw character. There is no clear line of suspense in the film; the urgency is missing. The continuity is lacking so that the finale comes off as abrupt. Still, the movie is watchable for b-movie fans. It's a minor noir. McGraw and Blanchard keep it interesting. A turn by Alan Hale, Jr. helps. Steve Brodie keeps it going while he's on screen. Ericson is earnest and quite solid, but he doesn't or can't create a character in depth out of the paucity of materials he's given. Mostly his part revolves around romancing Blanchard.

One wishes that there had been more work on the script because the story is all right, but Allied Artists was a low-budget operation. Thankfully, despite that, they produced a number of good or better than good films. This one is almost there.

Charles Vanel and Jean-Paul Belmondo taking flight in America, 24 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Jean-Pierre Melville has given us such wonderful movies, exceptional. There's not one that should be missed. Each and every one is a marvelous gem.

L'aine des Ferchaux literally means "the groin of Ferchaux". This title refers to the ending in which the fleeing banker, Ferchaux, develops a mortal illness, perhaps a stomach cancer. The film goes by the American title "Magnet of Doom", which is fanciful and leaves it to you to decide what that magnet is. It's apparently money. The German title literally is "the millions of a hustle".

Anyway, you have Charles Vanel in top form, and Jean-Paul Belmondo right there with him. Vanel is a shady banker, a wealthy man with money stashed in America and Caracas, a very shrewd man, a tough man who lets nothing deter him.He keeps two girls for his pleasure who call him "godfather". He is an old oak tree, as Belmondo sees him, who understands human psychology, and he is a fighter to his last breath. Men he sees as of three types: sheep, leopard, and jackal. We will be wondering what kind of man he and Belmondo are. Not sheep, for sure, but leopards who do their own fighting and killing, or jackals who pick up the remains of what others have produced. Facing possible arrest in France, Vanel flees to America after hiring a secretary, Belmondo. Belmondo is a boxer whose last fight meant his exit from that path. He's got nothing now but a girl friend. They're broke. He almost hocks a keepsake from her mother, but doesn't go through with it. On the other hand, he leaves her cold with nary a word, in order to take up the good offer to accompany Vanel on his run. Vanel knows that Belmondo is an opportunist and not trustworthy, but he's used to hiring such types and using them if he likes how they appear. Belmondo knows that Vanel is a selfish man without feelings for others, even his own brother.

These two land in New York and end up driving to New Orleans. Melville gives us wonderful views of America of that time. This is a road movie, among other things. Vanel is being followed by the FBI because France has sent extradition papers to the U.S., but the government hasn't decided yet, and so the pair are on a long leash. This aspect of the story is secondary, providing one of several incidents on their trip together that serve to weld these two men together or separate them, but in any event characterize them.

In New Orleans, Vanel becomes ill. They are living in poor quarters and there are some criminal types nearby who see an opportunity to lay their hands on the money they are carrying. But so does Belmondo. That's something he's been thinking of too for a long while. How much of a scoundrel is he? Vanel is facing death. He wants a son and a protégé. He wants to die with some dignity. He wants redemption without acknowledging it, or to know he's lived a life worth living. Money is not enough, he finds. Greed is not enough. Running over other people is unrewarding at the very end. Loneliness is bitter and overwhelming. Belmondo wants money and freedom, or rather what freedom he thinks he can get with money. But Vanel's life shows that this kind of freedom is not enough. Vanel has bonded with Belmondo, perhaps to his surprise and perhaps for the first time in his life. He wants him to carry on with his money in Caracas, but he has some affection for the young man, calling him "son". Does Belmondo bond with Vanel, or does he confirm his being a scoundrel by taking the money and leaving Vanel to die? How callous is Belmondo actually? Does he abandon Vanel as he abandoned his girl friend in Paris? Has Vanel sized up Belmondo correctly from their very first meeting, knowing him better than he knows himself? All of this is resolved in the final sequences of this story, and mostly through what we see on the screen, with dialog kept to only that which is essential for guiding us along these paths of the human heart.

The whole movie is told in flashback with Belmondo doing the voice overs. There is no time at which the narrator joins the action in real time. Everything is in the past. The feeling given by Belmondo's narration is highly introspective. He is a thoughtful man who reflects on his own behavior and experiences, which often surprise him. He is learning who he is. He is happy with the girls he meets, and he's choosy. He loves Sinatra whom he idolizes as a man who made it big from very humble beginnings. He has drive and ambition but doesn't know if he'll make it, having failed as a boxer. His entire experience with Vanel has been a surprise for him. He finds something inside himself that he didn't know was there.

Is this film a noir? It is constantly classified as such. In story and atmosphere, it is. Its tone and perspective define it as such. The tone is not quite regret but a feeling of struggle and yearning, of Belmondo's wanting to reconcile the two sides of his and man's nature, the material and the spiritual. He's attempting to come to terms with two kinds of love too, the more dominant is his love for material things; but his love reaches higher too when it comes to certain people. He's attempting to come to grips with the good and evil inside himself and every person who has ever lived, with the exception of one. This is rather a deeper noir than most.

John Wick (2014)
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Keanu Reeves is an ex-hit man avenging his dog against Russians, 23 January 2015

The logic of the story in "John Wick" meets with very serious objections in many reviews, and they are valid. This movie is not about logical story. If you are looking for realism or real people, themes and emotions, don't go here. The story is basically comic book, video game, fantasy action all the way. On that basis, it is average. It gets boring after awhile, and that detracts from its cinematic appeal. An immense number of bodies piles up, perhaps more than in many spaghetti westerns. Their deaths are choreographed in a style that takes from Hong Kong movies. The photography, lighting and atmosphere are all neo-noir, but the story is a barebones revenge story without any neo-noir depth.

However, I will argue below that this unrealistic story nevertheless reveals pertinent themes of the American emotional map. The story may be highly artificial. It may come across as just another action film, which it is. But it still is a mirror that reveals.

"John Wick" is an abstract kind of movie. That's its artistic bent. That's its main story-telling merit. The story has been reduced and simplified to the point where it delivers simple pivot points into explosively violent episodes. That's the first abstraction. Next, Keanu Reeves as John Wick becomes a superman, a marksmen whose reactions are so swift that he's almost untouchable. The raising of a mortal man into a being whose will and powers are so superior is a second form of abstraction. The third abstraction is the city, the buildings, the hotel where criminals congregate, the home of Wick, and the automobiles that traverse the city. All of these are generally shown as sleek, clean, imposing, domineering, cold, in bluish light lacking warmth. The city and this world have been made into a universe whose high degree of order is a facade for irrational explosions of violence. There is a sharp contrast between the order and cold beauty constructed by the producers and builders of these objects and surroundings and the battling Wick vs. the Russians and killers out to get him.

Wick's orderly life was first disrupted when his wife died of a chronic ailment. That order was one of love from and to his wife. Its restoration was approached when she gave him a really adorable puppy, arriving after her death. He loved his car, which was stolen, and that dog, which was killed. Love was destroyed by the son of the Russian gang leader (Michael Nyqvist) whom Wick had worked for. Wick's reputation dogged him. Knowing that Wick would go after his son, Nyqvist attacks first; but only after Wick refuses to talk to him and negotiate a settlement. This provides Wick the excuse to go after Nyqvist's organization in toto; but Wick brought it on by refusing to negotiate. The initial Nyqvist attack has such nameless and faceless dolts, who know no better than to divide their force and attack Wick in ones and twos, that he kills them all. Superman is faced with forces that possess sorry assassination skills.

Wick presents us with a curious mixture of heat and cold. The moral universe he inhabits is one of hot emotion. The surroundings in which he operates is cold. When he kills, it is often machine-like. It is distant. But quite often, it becomes hot and dangerous in hand-to-hand situations. The movie's creators are most interested in the choreography of death and killing. There is a combination of fury delivered with cold precision in this movie that reflects how Americans go about their 21st century wars. There is a combination of cold delivery of firepower through drones, bombs and missiles, and hot delivery through close-in combat.

But the movie's basic fascination is with untethered revenge, excessive revenge, and destructive revenge. The Russians are convenient targets. They might be any number of other convenient enemies with Balkan roots or Colombian roots or any other enemy-of-the-day. They might even be Iraqis, as in "American Sniper". We are seeing the urge to lash back. It is being shown here as irresistible, a powerful force delivered with almost machine-like proficiency by a professional assassin. He may as well be a sniper, and he is assisted by Willem Dafoe who actually is a sniper. The story has a large nod to "professionalism" and the "code" among the criminals. Ian McShane enforces that code at his hotel.

"John Wick" is a movie that, knowingly or unknowingly, reflects deep currents in American life: the thirst for an enemy, the quest for revenge, the glorification of professionalism, the ready adoption of force and violence, the conquering power of the hero, and the belief that the deaths visited upon the enemy are justified by what he has done. Turning the other cheek is completely out of the question in this mindset, but so are reason, balance and reconciliation. Just as the U.S. no longer negotiates, or not without applying force and sanctions, neither does Wick. His response to losing his car and dog is unbalanced and excessive, as well as being excessively violent to the exclusion of all other options. This too reflects contemporary and past currents in American life.

Private eye Patrick O'Neal takes on businessman John Gielgud and his right-hand man Herbert Lom, 22 January 2015

Now that "Assignment to Kill" has been released by Warner Brothers Archive in a good widescreen print, it should gain a wider audience. Perhaps then the IMDb rating will rise, as it should. Perhaps not. This will depend on whether or not viewers realize and appreciate the fact that this film has dialog and a script overall that's way above average. It also features a robust cast and good scenery and production values. The film was written and directed by Sheldon Reynolds. He knew his way around the intrigue genre, having done "Foreign Intrigue" as a movie and a TV series by the same title.

The star of this movie is the deep and somewhat gravelly voiced Patrick O'Neal. He has no assignment to kill, and he is not a spy. The only assignment to kill is one he assigns to himself. He's a private eye called in by insurance executive Kent Smith to investigate a possible fraud whereby several ships were lost at sea. Co-executive Philip Ober doesn't want to hire such a man as O'Neal but goes along. The owner of the ships was John Gielgud, a businessman who operates in shipping, munitions and such in the interstices of weak states with soft regulation, open ports and customary bribes. Gielgud's right hand man is the dapper but dangerous Herbert Lom, never without threatening muscle. The trail begins in the Swiss Alps where a body has been found under the snow. There may be a survivor who walked away from a small plane crash, and he may be linked to Lom. Both Lom and O'Neal are at the scene and they begin to confront one another almost immediately. This continue throughout the movie and is one of its highlights. It is not often that the basic conflict arises so quickly and permeates the whole story. Their interplay is handled with much intelligent writing.

Soon enough, Joan Hackett comes into the story, affording another level of enjoyable depth. She's an ordinary woman with a conscience, outside the cynical and tough world inhabited by the likes of Lom and O'Neal, who has killed 5 men in the line of his work. She's the link to the man, Peter van Eyck, who survived the crash and has information on the intentional sinking of the ships. The writing that brings out her point of view in contrast to O'Neal's is excellent. Despite their differences, they are attracted to one another. The writing superbly brings out O'Neal's knowing logic for his moves, as he tersely explains them to Hackett's questions.

Oscar Homulka comes in as a Swiss cop who cynically allows O'Neal a free hand to do what he cannot do. Eric Portman does a small turn as a nervous notary public who takes his first bribe.

Cynicism, or one might call it a realistic attitude toward the real world congruence of politics and big businesses and oligarchs, is a marked theme of this story. O'Neal has his soft spot, however, and Hackett is confident she can bring it out and sway him. Lom is confident he can by O'Neal off. Gielgud has built an empire that he considers impregnable and beyond law.

While not a spy story, the atmosphere and intrigue bear a marked resemblance to that genre.

In his discussion of Eric Portman in the Encyclopedia of Film Noir, writer Geoff Mayer places "Assignment to Kill" in a list of Portman's appearances in film noir. I concur. This story is noir through and through.

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