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Dip huet seung hung (1989)
"One vicious hit-man. One fierce cop. Ten thousand bullets."- from a promotional ad for THE KILLER.
There are two exaggerations in that teaser slogan for THE KILLER. The hit-man played by Chow Yun Fat is actually a suave, rather sentimental anti-hero who is looking to bail out of his deadly-force-for-hire profession. Yes, he's a murderer. But he doesn't enjoy his work. As for the "fierce cop", Danny Lee portrays him as more of a dogged, enthusiastic peace officer than as an maniacal enforcer of the law.
But what about those ten thousand bullets? I'll put it to you this way: at quite a few points in the film you may find yourself sitting there with your mouth agape and your eyes bulging from their sockets. Keep the remote handy also for you may be doing extensive replaying of scenes. The action sequences are mind-boggling in the cleverness of their staging and intensity of their execution. John Woo's best film carries his signature motif of entangling alliances between good guy/bad guy/evil guy(s), spinning around in a hypertensive milieu of criminality where exhaustive foot chases, unbelievable physical dexterity, and claustrophobic showdowns are the norm. And all of this unfolds beneath a firestorm of discharged ammunition.
What has always set Woo's Hong Kong films apart are the exquisitely balletic movements of his actor/characters while under semi-automatic duress (surpassing Peckinpah's earlier but static slo-mo style by leaps and bounds). Working in Hollywood, Woo has been hard pressed to live up to his earlier films. HARD TARGET, BROKEN ARROW, FACE/OFF, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II, et al. are cartoonish popcorn flicks missing the all important complexity and richness of character and story of the Hong Kong films. Hollywood sunders another original talent. But watch THE KILLER, get involved in the story, and look out for those flying bullets. One day, hopefully, Woo will recapture his earlier form.
The Night Stalker (1972)
A "Stalker" For The Ages
"This nut thinks he's a vampire! He has killed four, maybe five women. He has drained every drop of blood from every one of them. Now that is news Vincenzo, news!"- Carl Kolchak, newspaper reporter, to his editor in THE NIGHT STALKER.
Produced in just eighteen days by television horrormeister Dan Curtis (DARK SHADOWS) as shoestring-budget program fodder for a network TV movie-of-the-week show, THE NIGHT STALKER became a ratings champion due to its unexpectedly lively mixture of amusing cynicism in the face of unnerving circumstance.
Richard Matheson's detailed yet economical teleplay grabs you immediately with a plot of rapidly growing terror. And when director John Llewellyn Moxey unleashes stunt coordinator Dick Ziker and his team of incredible stuntmen you may find your jaw dropping (watch for the melee at the hospital and the swimming pool sequence). The movie's success is also due in no small measure to Barry Atwater's hair-raising appearance as the bloodthirsty fiend, Janos Skorzeny. Atwater doesn't have a single word of dialogue but his image leaves a lasting, unsettling impression.
But without question this is Darren McGavin's movie and his relaxed, reactive performance infuses many of the scenes with a sustained and welcome humor. As the chillingly staged murders multiply and the disbelief of the jaded civil servants and one hard luck, bandy-legged journalist begins to crumble, the viewer is borne away into the nightmarish reality of the tale with genuine, chilling fear rising out of the threadbare production. Once again, a whole lot less provides a whole lot more. The follow-up movie, THE NIGHT STRANGLER has its moments but never quite matches the creeping dread of STALKER.
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Orson & Harry: The Final Cut
"I'll pay a thousand dollars to anyone who can explain the story to me."- Harry Cohn*, head of Columbia Pictures, on THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI.
In Frank Brady's fine biography of the celebrated actor/director/writer/producer, *CITIZEN WELLES, we discover that Harry Cohn was in such awe of Orson Welles' talent and was so desperate to make a movie with him, that he nearly gave Welles full autonomy: the aforementioned writing, directing, producing, and starring acting role. But Cohn did withhold one very important element which many if not most filmmakers seek: the final decision on editing.
More than a year after THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI was in the can waiting for release Cohn railed against the director for cost overruns, for what Cohn felt was an incoherent mess of a movie, and, most vehemently, for tampering with Rita Hayworth's image (Welles cut and dyed blond Rita's dark tresses). It was a tough shoot for Orson: constant delays, script changes, killer Mexican heat, plus one added burden: the breakup of his marriage to the film's female star. Ultimately,Cohn dumped the film as a second feature where it bombed financially.
The film itself? With its theme of pervasive corruption threatening a stalwart if highly unaware protagonist, LADY is an uneven prototype for Welles' fully realized noir masterwork, TOUCH OF EVIL (1958). Both films share a nightmare quality; there is constant dislocation and disorientation in each work. Both films take on an atmosphere of cramped delirium, magnified by crude allusions and nefarious deeds which slip in and out of the deep physical and psychological shadows. And both films exhibit murder as an almost preordained fate. Again, LADY's major flaw is a rambling story structure, underscored by poor editing (Cohn and a studio editor pieced the film together!).
But there are great performances, with Everett Sloan's Arthur Bannister throwing his nasty Kane-like weight around, albeit on crutches, and especially Glenn Anders' sweaty, quietly obscene malefactor, Grisby, a fascinatingly distasteful cretin who sets the skin to crawling. Orson labors hard in his role of Michael O'Hara. I found his cartoon brogue entertaining. But while the accent may be overdone, wouldn't it be in a nightmare?
C'era una volta il West (1968)
The West: Still Wild And In Wonderful Widescreen
The plaintive wail of an harmonica echoes across a dusty landscape flattened by a merciless sun. Soon, the savage, ringing chords of an electric guitar answer in explosive dissonance. In front of this aural disruption a weatherbeaten humanity scrambles in and out of buildings and across walkways hacked from trees and thrown together too roughly. A fearsome lust to own the land draws the righteous and the corrupt alike. There is greed aplenty. Murder is no stranger. And vengeance hangs in the air.
Sergio Leone's undying love for the Western reached its zenith in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. The film is a sprawling tapestry come to life, teeming with energy, highly stylized in its look and tempo. Like SHANE before it, Leone's unqualified masterpiece has influenced every Western in its wake. The film is complemented greatly by the magnificence of Ennio Morricone's music and Tonino Delli Colli's breathtaking widescreen photography. The performances are seminal works. Though Henry Fonda had played it hard and mean before (see John Ford's FORT APACHE and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE), he knocked the audience for a loop with his grizzled bad guy. Robards gives his world-weary rogue irresistible charm. Bronson is galvanizing as the man on a mission (he's SHANE gone slightly maniacal). And the graceful determinism of Cardinale adds a much needed civility to the surrounding upheaval. This is Leone's greatest film and ONCE is absolutely essential viewing. Other Westerns worth viewing: RED RIVER (1948); HIGH NOON (1952); SHANE (1953); FORT APACHE (1948); MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946)
Brilliant Satire (50 Megatons Worth)
"Yes, the whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost...if you keep it a secret! VY DIDN'T YOU TELL DER VORLD, EH?!"- Dr. Strangelove in DR. STRANGELOVE.
I'll tell "der vorld". After the dewy circumspection of LOLITA, Kubrick had a creative brainstorm. Gone are the eternally long takes of the previous film, with its prosaic settings and conventional structure. Beating back the censors, Kubrick was emboldened. He let loose with a barrage of wit and stylization. DR. STRANGELOVE is a template for radical filmmaking, dropped squarely into the film industry's bland mainstream. The director excoriates the denizens of the military-industrial complex, exposing them as a collection of disturbed lunatics whose pathological urges translate into nuclear destruction.
The production is geared to stun. The editing creates a rapid cascade of jolting imagery and dialog, much of it hysterically funny, but overlaid with an ominous solemnity. Ken Adam's sets are overpowering works of detailed artistry (cheers for the vaulting ceiling of the War Room). With Kubrick attached firmly to his back, the stark monochrome of Gilbert Taylor's photography exudes a vise-like grip over the audience. The script's satirical punch is so effective it gave birth to a slew of jocular, oft-quoted one liners: "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here; this is the War Room!" And once more, Kubrick displayed his flair with actors. Nowhere in George C. Scott's film appearances will you see a more unfettered and successful effort. In what would prove to be the acme of his professional career, Peter Sellers comes across with three devastatingly funny portrayals, each one weighted with a touch of gravity to give them lasting impact. Kubrick was fearless. Fifty years after STRANGELOVE'S release the film is still alive with the power of his audacious wit and intellect. STRANGELOVE is arguably the director's finest hour and a half.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Stanley Kubrick: His First Masterpiece
PATHS OF GLORY: Here, Kubrick establishes an important thematic component that is present in many of his great films. The idea of entrenched authority answerable only to itself and running amok with cruel insensitivity would seem like the fearful concerns of a paranoiac except that Kubrick is informed by reality. The film is named after and based on Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel which was based on actual events, making Kubrick's depiction of the sadistic generals unassailable. Their ill-advised forays into the battlefield are horrifying. When their folly turns into unimaginable tragedy we enter the realm of the demented. Willing to maintain their status and power at a terrible human cost the depraved military leaders persecute brave men who are guilty only of following orders. From a moral stance, the viewer is poised to watch hopefully as one man steps forward to begin the search for truth and the fight for justice.
Maintaining status and power despite the human toll; Kubrick gives this subject a thorough and unflinching examination in PATHS OF GLORY and it would be a topic he would scrutinize more than once with fierce intensity. In SPARTACUS (1960) the cruelty of Roman might seeks to strangle human freedom. In DR. STRANGELOVE (1964), a deranged general (again the military) strives for purity of essence by driving mankind to the brink of doom. And perhaps most chillingly, in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), a nearly "human", all- controlling computer, evolves into a homicidal entity determined to preserve the integrity of a space mission by eliminating "human error".
The validity and impact of PATHS OF GLORY is underscored by its twenty year ban by the French government. The film is a seamless melding of technique (the dolly shots of Kirk Douglas in the trenches are remarkable for their power), storytelling (the script is highly charged but not hysterical), and beautifully nuanced performances (McCready and Menjou are utterly dynamic; Douglas gives his outrage a perfectly modulated naturalism). Kubrick's emotional passion is unalloyed by his intellectual cool in this film. And that fact makes PATHS OF GLORY my favorite of all the director's work. Recommended: Lewis Milestone's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930).
"There must be security for all or no one is secure."- Klaatu, to the world's leaders at the conclusion of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.
Here is the ne plus ultra for sci-fi movies. It does not pander to the child in us like E.T. It does not befuddle with dazzling images like 2001. Though it does present a threat from outer space, it does not take the form of a drooling, acid-for-blood whatsis with razor fangs and a hunger for human flesh. Instead, it proposes that there are indeed humanoid lifeforms in existence off the Earth with, dare I write it, powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men (though Klaatu can't fly and is in no way bulletproof).
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is intelligent, engrossing and damn scary. Director Robert Wise (yup, he directed WEST SIDE STORY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC and, unfortunately, the first STAR TREK movie), with the invaluable aid of Edmund H. North's fine script, utilizes a spare, noirish style to deliver a powerful statement about man's capacity for self-destruction. Only 92 minutes long, the film says volumes without sermonizing about a serious topic. And it does so most entertainingly. It makes the fantastic seem not only plausible but very likely.
Bernard Herrmann creates a persistent mood of uneasiness with the vibrating eeriness of his Therimin-driven music. Michael Rennie's urbane spaceman radiates a barely contained bemusement and contempt for the violence prone humans he faces. In this early role, Patricia Neal displays how gifted she was at conveying subtle emotional shifts. Through the eyes of Billy Gray we see wonder, puzzlement and terror as only a child can experience them but without condescension. Lastly, in all the annals of sci-fi moviedom few can match the unstoppable power of Gort. Klaatu barada nikto..... (And please don't waste your time with the utter failure that is the 2008 Keanu Reeves remake; just revel in the enduring excellence of the original).
The Haunting (1963)
Chill Of The Unseen
"No one lives any nearer than town. No one will come any nearer than that. In the night. In the dark."- Mrs. Dudley, the housekeeper in THE HAUNTING.
THE HAUNTING is that welcome kind of rarity, a film adaptation that improves on the original source. Shirley Jackson's novel doesn't put the emphasis on whatever supernatural vibes may be lurking. Her real focus is the chills and shocks that are derived from the clash of personalities and wills of the characters, notably Eleanor, an embittered and repressed woman who has experienced paranormal phenomena, and Theodora, a somewhat worldly but also quite wary psychic. In the book the people are more frightening than the house. The film's director Robert Wise maintains the painful human interactions but smoothly and intelligently sharpens the presence of that dreadful something enveloping the house and its inhabitants. In the film the house becomes a fifth and menacing character.
There are odd little changes from book to film. Dr. Montague, the scholar who spearheads the paranormal project in the book, becomes Dr. Markway in the movie. Markway's wife, an disruptive, imperious shrew in the book, is softened and humanized considerably in the movie (and Mrs. Markway is played by James Bond's Miss Moneypenny, Lois Maxwell). With the exception of Russ Tamblyn (a bit out of his league here) the cast is excellent. Julie Harris, seen in too few films, plays the long suffering Eleanor to perfection. The dark, understated beauty and sexual vibrancy of Claire Bloom, expressing the fragility and viciousness of Theodora, is in ideal contrast to Harris' neurotic primness. The tension between the two women sets in motion a subtle undercurrent of desire.
Then there is the house. Photographed by Davis Boulton in chilling black and white, in harsh daylight, at odd angles and throughout its forbidding interior, it is most unsettling to gaze upon. One scene may actually haunt you: the door to the study is probed!
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
For Mature Audiences
Yes, in the not too distant past Tomas Alfredson's film version of John Le Carre's engaging mystery-spy thriller would have certainly attained an "M" from the old ratings board, though not due to any overt displays of sexuality or nudity; and while there is one hilarious bit of profanity tossed out in the midst of the slow, icy grip of the plot developments, the language used by most of the characters in the film could hardly be described as "mature" in the pejorative sense.
No, the maturity of TINKER is indicated chiefly by the staid, stoic behavior of the indisputably adult figures who go about their business in their chosen profession and by the intricate, labyrinthine permutations of the unfolding tale. And the tale is set into motion by one objective: find the mole. Who is the spy (from the other side) who has been gathering information on the other spies (from our side?)? As depicted here the answer to the question does not come easy at all; finding the mole is painstaking, dangerous, even deadly work. This is James Bond for grown-ups; Mission: Impossible for (perhaps) the seriously middle- aged (though not exclusively). Pyrotechnic exhibitions and ingenious toys of destruction would serve little or no purpose in a film such as this. Indeed, as already pointed out by quite a few reviewers on this site, aficionados of the "high concept", low complexity, jump cut, action-driven school of filmmaking may find themselves searching for the exit door after the first thirty minutes or so of TINKER.
The audience is asked to attend and attend closely from the very outset and if there is bafflement in the viewers in determining who the mole is, there is equal bafflement among the characters in the film owing to the twists and turns and deceptions of the plot and the utter elusiveness of that slippery mole: the bafflement as well as the satisfying conclusion is well earned due to an excellent script, a tour de force of ensemble acting brilliance and superb direction.
Despite the very entertaining restraint of the characteristically volatile Gary Oldman (it was fun watching him rein in his energy and verve) the George Smiley on display here, though subdued in appearance and demeanor, cuts a more dashing figure than the bland cipher created in the novel and later portrayed with nondescript perfection by Alec Guinness in the 1979 television series. There were six hour long episodes in the television show and if memory serves the show was also a very engaging viewing experience; there was, naturally, far more time to delve into character and clarify (but not simplify) certain elements of the story.
Still, with a running time of just over two hours Alfredson achieves a wondrous compression of detailed information that, again, keeps you well engaged and yet gives the impression of a very sober, deliberate, unhurried immersion into a world apart, a world where trust is a rare commodity and where that close associate looking at you with cool yet friendly detachment from across the conference table may just be planning your imminent demise.
The Set-Up (1949)
Bitter Dregs Of The Sweet Science
ROBERT WISE 1914-2005 The clock reads 9:05 in the p.m. And the nighttime streets are teeming. The entrance to the athletic club is especially busy. It's fight night. Crammed into a small, tawdry locker room, the young hopefuls and old dreamers who comprise the boxers prepare to do battle. Each fighter feels it's his night to win. Each fighter is certain that he is "one punch away" from the big time, perhaps even a chance at a championship. Off in a corner, one fighter, the aging Stoker Thompson, clings to his illusions with heartbreaking desperation.
By the time the viewer reaches that early scene in Robert Wise's shattering THE SET-UP, one is already immersed in Stoker's bleak existence. Milton Krasner's sinuous camera opens the film with a graceful crane shot, smoothly setting the film's tone by quickly establishing a sense of place and people. Almost as quickly, Art Cohn's screenplay begins to pepper you with sharp, terse dialog. Scenes unfold with alacrity, extending just long enough to deepen the drama of Stoker's physical and psychological struggle. The resulting emotional turmoil is fairly excruciating.
The film's atmosphere is enveloped in a rank crudeness commingled with an unsubtle irony that jumps out at the viewer: a backwater, honky tonk town called Paradise City; a fleabag flophouse dubbed Hotel Cozy; glaring neon letters flashing over the nightmarish streets: "Dreamland". Meanwhile, inside the boxing arena, circling the ringside, waits the paying public, an especially vicious cross-section of humanity, shouting to the rafters for bloody mayhem. Yet the cruelest twist is meted out to the too old Stoker, still striving to reach his battered aspirations while nearly everyone in his world, including his suffering and profoundly sensible wife, works against him.
As director Robert Wise mentions in his commentary on the DVD, 1949 produced two powerhouse films with boxing serving as a framework for the story. But while Mark Robson's terrific CHAMPION (starring Kirk Douglas in the role that made him a star) gives its central character the full biographical treatment over a long period of time (with plenty of drama and melodrama to go with it), the "real time" compression of THE SET-UP captures a brief, agonizing moment. The anguish Wise draws from Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter is remarkable, as are the performances of the other actors. Krasner's cinematography is equal to the best of that period (Alton, Howe, Robert KrasKER of THE THIRD MAN fame, Musuraca, Roe; interestingly there are shots in THE SET-UP and CHAMPION that are, except for the actors, nearly identical in composition and lighting). "I can't fight no more," Stoker moans at the end, an utterance that certifies his professional demise but also signals his chance at a new and hopefully better life.
The filmography of Robert Wise, who died on September 14th at 91 years, is well-established and known widely by film buffs the world over including the many who submit their comments to this website. However, exceptional work is always worthy of another look. Like Howard Hawks, Wise had great critical and commercial success in a variety of genres including westerns and crime films. Winning Academy Awards for two big musicals, WEST SIDE STORY (1961) and THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), he was also adept at horror: THE BODY SNATCHER (1945); THE HAUNTING (1963); science fiction: the peerless THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951); THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1970); and dramas laced with social commentary: I WANT TO LIVE (1958) with its focus on capital punishment, and ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959) which married a crime caper plot to a biting study on the effects of racism. His career in film was charmed from the start as he edited CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS for Orson Welles (AMBERSONS had no small controversy when Wise "saved" the film after Welles was barred from the final cut). In all, Robert Wise directed thirty-nine features, many of them memorable, with some becoming indisputable classics.
A Festivus For All Of Us!
Giddyup! The first three seasons of the number one sitcom of all time (sez who? TV Guide?!) are on DVD. Yes, following those rather uncertain first two years (after which Jerry's fictional father underwent an extreme physical makeover) SEINFELD coalesced into the legendary sitcom we know and love. And this happened for three very important reasons: writing, writing, and, of course, writing.
It can't be emphasized enough. The miraculous ability of the staff writers- Jennifer Crittenden, Steve Koren, Spike Feresten, Tom Gambill & Max Pross, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, et al. -to devise and develop riotously funny material was key to the show's success (well, duh!). And the writing had real staying power: even in repeats the show still pulls in big ratings (just compare the syndication fate of FRIENDS, a cookie-cutter sitcom that was all too bland, uninspired, safe, and witless). To use an overworked phrase, SEINFELD pushed the envelope- with a show about nada (or yada yada yada).
Yet there was another element which contributed to SEINFELD's phenomenal popularity: the on-screen symbiosis of the cast. In the grand tradition of THE HONEYMOONERS, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, MARY TYLER MOORE, and ALL IN THE FAMILY, the cast of SEINFELD functioned like a well-oiled machine, balancing and strengthening each other as they strove for comedic excellence (and this empowering camaraderie extended to the steady stream of remarkably talented supporting actors who made brief but indelible appearances throughout the series).
If it matters at all, SEINFELD is already in the TV/sitcom pantheon, and deservedly so. Just how great was/is the writing? Is it possible for a single line or two of dialogue to evoke vivid memories (well it is after you've viewed an episode twenty times!)? Check out these bon mots: "Helloooo, Newman!" "Not that there's anything wrong with that." "So, is he sponge-worthy?" "Elaine, this shiksappeal is a myth." "Mulva?" "He took it out." "No soup for you!" "Oh my god, the queen is dead." "Serenity now./Hootchie mama." "I got hand!/And you're gonna need it!" Notice: SEINFELD had no affiliation with Vandelay Industries.
Laugh While (If) You Can, Monkey Boy!
"So what? Big deal."- A Lectroid commander in THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI.
Greetings honorary members of the Hong Kong Cavaliers and to all you neutral observers and detractors as well. Hoping to clarify the mystery and purpose of this 1984 docudrama, I have scoured all available data (including movie reviews), scrutinized the musings of the film's director via the DVD's special features, and held extensive conferences with official representatives of the Banzai Institute for Biomedical Engineering and Strategic Information. I hasten to point out that my findings are inconclusive and that many questions remain.
The film is (negatively) a rambling, disjointed pastiche of pseudo-hip, sci-fi/comic book inspired shenanigans that (positively) manages to generate inordinate amounts of charm and wonder through its fortuitous collusion of eccentric story line (battling aliens; a deeply depressed damsel-in-distress, (Penny Priddy); the actual Hong Kong Cavaliers honing their rock and roll chops; Buckaroo himself, pushing his new jet car- with the incredible Oscillation Overthruster -through the forbidding regions of the 8th dimension) and the glowing charisma of the actors at play: John Lithgow's Dr. Lizardo is hilarious and ingenious. W.D. Richter's nerdy persona obscures his inability to fashion Earl Mac Rauch's free-wheeling screenplay into a coherent whole. Still, the many facets of the story remain intriguing and Michael Boddicker's synthesized music is majestic and buoyant.
However, the questions persist. What did happen at Grover's Mill in October of 1938? Was Orson Welles part of an invasion plot that involved mass hypnosis? Are there extraterrestrial biological entities living among us? Documentation outlining an thorough governmental inquiry into these matters has reached this commentator. A report by the investigators, special agents Mulder and Scully, shall be made available to the public in due course. A final note: a page, supposedly torn from Welles' personal diary and written in a shaky, nearly illegible hand, carried the following, ominous message: keep watching the skies!
The Long Goodbye (1973)
Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye: The Radical Noir
Robert Altman jettisons most of Raymond Chandler's sinister post-World War II ambiance for the more insidious banalities to be found in the daily life of the early 1970's. Many of the twisting complexities of the plot are ignored also (see the DVD's special features interviews for greater insight). The remaining shreds of the Chandler story leave the viewer with a gaggle of corrupt, near-corrupt, and aimless searching souls who inhabit Los Angeles and its general vicinity.
But Marlowe is still stuck with finding out where a more than slightly deranged novelist is located, and where a pile of cash belonging to a decidedly sadistic hoodlum has gone, and who murdered the wife of his best friend, Terry Lennox. Perhaps most pressing of all, for this Marlowe, is tracking down and grabbing as many cans as possible of the right brand of pet food for his finicky cat.
Altman is in full re-invention mode here, turning a classic crime novel that searches for truth and justice through its careworn but noble sleuth into a laid back character study that plumbs the depths of our hero's righteous resolve. Since the focus has been turned fully on Marlowe's actions and reactions within his murky occupational world, its left to the actor playing the part to pull an engaging performance, a counter cultural rabbit if you will, out of his hat.
Abracadabra! Elliot Gould's loose-limbed, chain-smoking, cat-loving gumshoe seems more like a hapless victim of circumstance than the determined detective who attempts to pull it all together in the end. He's mostly off-balance and confused. And even though he declares near the film's conclusion that "I didn't solve anything", this Marlowe knows who done it. Gould is very amusing and entertaining as the private investigator. He isn't the best Marlowe ever (Dick Powell gets the prize for his surprising turn in 1944's MURDER, MY SWEET, with Bogart coming in a very strong second in the 1946 version of THE BIG SLEEP), but Gould is refreshingly different (a trench coat in Southern California?- no way, man).
He's an improvise-as-you-go p.i. who probably would have been plowed under in late 1940's America (no, he isn't as tough as Powell or Bogart) but is ideally suited for the slippery ethos of the 1970's. Altman's ultra relaxed approach nudges the characters at the viewer who in turn push their flaws and foibles at us with intriguing results. Megastar alert: keep your eyes open for an unaccredited muscle-bound newcomer who makes a brief appearance, and whose name would shortly be on the lips of millions of moviegoers as well as quite a few Hollywood executives.
Screwball Comedy, Italian Style
Back in the 1970's Lina Wertmuller was an art-house superstar. But more importantly, she was a first class original, bursting with a fresh, exciting vision.
Now, here's a lively storyline: a rich, racist, reactionary female- a right wing, fascist mind in a knuckle-biting, voluptuous body -is stranded on a mid-sea desert isle with a poverty-stricken, chauvinistic, Communist male- a left-leaning propagandist in a scrawny masculine body. "Make nice" they don't. Well, not right off the bat. Not before much nasty invective and grievous bodily assault take place. But then afterward....ahh, afterward.
SWEPT AWAY, though a foreign film, is in the manic, irreverent, well-timed tradition of Hollywood screwball comedies like THE AWFUL TRUTH(1937), MIDNIGHT(1939), THE LADY EVE(1941), and most emphatically, HIS GIRL FRIDAY(1940)- only with a shipload more profane repartee, orgiastic lust, and bone-crunching physicality than was ever permissible or desirable in those older classics. Throwing all vestiges of caution to the four winds, Wertmuller really surprises the viewer with her take on the battle of the genders strained through a volcanic political dialectic.
Upon its initial release many in the audience demurred strongly (and still do) as the male's dominance slipped into outright brutality. Certainly, Wertmuller can be accused of going too far, but never of boring us. Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangelo Melato are absolutely letter perfect: sulking, teasing, attacking, retreating, seducing, rampaging, abandoning. Their director spurs them through an emotional and physical gauntlet and they meet each dramatic challenge with winning artistry. You may feel wrung out by film's end. Or enraged. Or both. But you'll have quite a time.
Controlling Stanley: The Spartacus Experience
As most are undoubtedly aware this is the film that the director virtually expunged from his repertoire. But why did Stanley Kubrick really disown SPARTACUS (1960)? The answer can be summed up in two words: absolute control. Kubrick wanted total administrative as well as artistic authority over the making of the film about a revolt of gladiators and slaves in ancient Rome.
But you will notice that Bryna Productions not only financed SPARTACUS but also an earlier film directed by Kubrick, PATHS OF GLORY (1958). Bryna was Kirk Douglas' film company and, as most filmgoers know, he was the star of both films. Besides having all the money to make the films, Douglas had artistic vision as well. Only three weeks into what would prove to be an incredibly complex and arduous production, Douglas fired venerable director Anthony Mann (RAW DEAL, RAILROADED,THE FURIES, THE NAKED SPUR, THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, MAN OF THE WEST, etc.) from SPARTACUS. With only two days notice, Kubrick was hired to replace him.
Shooting PATHS OF GLORY, Douglas had confined his criticisms and objections to Kubrick's failed rewriting of the script (they went with the original screenplay). Douglas' complaints and artistic influence were far greater on SPARTACUS, much to Kubrick's chagrin. Though the director craved autonomy over every aspect of the film, Douglas would not budge. A tense compromise was reached but ultimately Douglas had the last word. Kubrick saw himself as just a hired gun. And he would never allow himself to be placed in this position again.
Later, both men would complain about the film's outcome and each other. They never made another movie together.
But SPARTACUS is no uneven patchwork of divergent ideas. The film is cohesive and arresting. At the restored version of three hours and eighteen minutes, there is practically no dead footage in the film. Dalton Trumbo's screenplay is surprisingly economical, with sharply drawn characters placed against the sweeping historical majesty and violent sociological tumult of ancient Rome. Quite plainly, the gloriously inventive music by Alex North is among the greatest scores ever written for a motion picture. And despite Kubrick's bad experience, he managed to guide the actors towards creating outstanding work (a best supporting actor Oscar for Peter Ustinov). He even transformed the very real enmity between Laughton and Olivier into an on-screen asset. His other contributions were considerable also (the large scale and power of the battle sequence, for example). In the end, for the film at least, the clash of giant egos proved fortuitous. Recommendations: for greater insight and detail on this and Kubrick's other films I urge you to seek out Jan Harlan's excellent documentary, STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES, and Vincent LoBrutto's exhaustive, highly informative biography, STANLEY KUBRICK. For the producer's views on SPARTACUS and its director, take a gander at Kirk Douglas' very candid autobiography, THE RAGMAN'S SON.
The Big Combo (1955)
Another "Lost" Noir Classic
Here is yet another gem from the forgotten noir vault. Director Joseph Lewis trades in the quasi-cinema verite style of his GUN CRAZY(1950) for strictly in-studio work and still hits the jackpot. Cinematographer John Alton works his customary chiaroscuro artistry on a fairly straightforward tale of one frustrated but determined police detective longing to collar one supremely confident crime boss.
Cornel Wilde plays the cop with stolid righteousness (although the lawman isn't above trysting with a leggy striptease artist). But the filmmakers put the main focus on the calculating yet tortured (and torturing) mobster played by Richard Conte. Conte, spitting out many of his lines with measured bile, is brilliant: a smug, know-it-all killer backed by the ever-ready menace of Lee Van Cleef and the studied goofiness of Earl Holliman. (As written, these two bring a very special dynamic to post-World War II crime melodrama). Brian Donleavy is on hand as a washed up but still scheming mob kingpin. And Jean Wallace plays the high-falutin' moll who yearns to go back to her world of piano recitals and afternoon teas but who just can't get enough of Conte's sinister mojo. This low budget but highly effective noir makes an excellent double feature with another cheap but powerful film of the genre, BEHIND LOCKED DOORS. Both films are highly recommended.
Tod Browning's film of the Stoker novel didn't so much eclipse Murnau's NOSFERATU (1922) as shove it into antiquity. One big reason was the technological advancement of sound. Roughly three years old by 1930, the public embraced the talking picture wholeheartedly over silents.
The other big reason for Dracula's success was that the star of the stage play had been cast as the star of the film. And movie history was made. Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula is now a eighty-one year old icon, outlasting all other interpretations before or since. The twist is that this Dracula looks nothing like Stoker's creation (read the book). Lugosi, either through his work with the playwrights or later at Universal with Browning, devised the most insidious form the character would ever take- a handsome, courtly, well-groomed, civilized aristocrat, so gracious and attractive that he projected an aura of well-being over the viewer. This was worlds away from the Murnau/Max Schreck approach of head-on abomination in NOSFERATU.
Sensibly, no one in their right mind would stay within viewing distance of Schreck (or Kinski in NOSFERATU, THE VAMPYRE and Dafoe in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE) after the first glimpse. But Lugosi's Count would have you chatting and drinking wine- until he began to drink of you. That cape and those evening clothes are the perfect deception. Browning's Dracula is sometimes stagy and tentative in its continuity (it feels at times that the director was unsure where to go next in the progression of scenes). But Karl Freund's photography summons up a persistent mood of heavy gloom and enveloping dread.
Two other assets in the film are Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing and Dwight Frye as Renfield. Van Sloan was Universal's resident Learned Man, appearing as an Egyptologist in THE MUMMY (1933), and perhaps most famously as Dr. Waldman in FRANKENSTEIN (1931). A career-long character actor, Dwight Frye was an eccentric talent who appears to have worked exclusively at Universal. He had his best role as Renfield, producing a still blood-curdling, sneering laugh that seemed to come from the depths of a hellish insanity. If you haven't seen this Dracula please do so. The Count awaits.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
The Ghost Of Murnau
Could it be that the restless spirit of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is watching over his artistic legacy, quietly sabotaging the designs of any filmmaker who would dare to comment on his work, especially his classic horror film, NOSFERATU(1922)?
If you've seen Herzog's NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE, you know it is mostly a pallid affair. Now, unfortunately, with E. Elias Merhige's SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE, we get more of the same. This time we are treated to a kind of docudrama purporting to show us how, perhaps, NOSFERATU came into being. Yet we gain no insight into Murnau's life or his artistic accomplishments leading up to NOSFERATU.
SHADOW opens hurriedly, showing Murnau and company enroute to a foreign shooting location. With perfunctory exposition the film attempts to establish Murnau's reputation as a controlling artistic force, but there is very little of dramatic import here. Similarly, the mystery of Max Shreck- who he was, where he came from, what drew Murnau to him, et cetera, is never dealt with in cinematic terms. Merhige tries to offset the emptiness of the script by suggesting that Shreck was an actual vampire, promised his pick of the film crew by Murnau just to get the movie completed. But this idea has very limited success.
On the other hand, Willem Dafoe's Shreck/Orlock is another in a series of arresting takes on the actor and the character. Less demonic than Shreck, not as guilt-ridden as Kinski's version, Dafoe is like a cranky old veteran, impatient with the endless preamble of life. He just wants his meal(!) and his solitude. He's creepy, to be sure, and rather pathetic. John Malkovich as Murnau chews through the scenery like a petulant brat.
The strange opening title sequence of the film is its most interesting asset: a mysterious line drawing of an entranceway, highly baroque in design, unfolding and changing as you are drawn closer, into an hypnotic and sinister multiplicity of shapes, figures, and patterns. Regrettably, the rest of the film isn't this detailed and seductive.
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
The Screen's Best Marlowe
"I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in; it had no bottom."- Phillip Marlowe in MURDER, MY SWEET.
There are plenty of bottomless pools in MURDER, MY SWEET, Edward Dmytryk's outstanding noir. Tapping into a direct line to the dark places of the human psyche, the film raises the curtain on one shadowy scene after another. It leads the viewer on a convoluted trip through a very gloomy and treacherous labyrinth where oily con men, pesky cops, scheming ladies, and at least one gargantuan lovesick Romeo put the down-at-heels private investigator through the wringer.
Moose Malloy's vanished girlfriend (and a tidy retainer) occupies Marlowe at first. Then, when an expensive jade necklace needs retrieving (with another fat fee offered), Marlowe bites again. But suddenly those too deep pools begin to appear.
John Paxton's screenplay has the cast of characters thinking out loud a lot, which helps occasionally. But just as in Raymond Chandler's other overly schematic crime story, THE BIG SLEEP, strict attention must be paid. Yet even if you become confused, you can still revel in Harry J. Wilde's sterling cinematography. (As mentioned in another review, Wilde, along with a slew of other people, including Orson Welles, shot additional scenes for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS for which he and the others received no credit. As Welles himself intones rather solemnly at that film's conclusion: "Stanley Cortez was the photographer").
The really big draw in MURDER is Dick Powell, not just delivering a career-changing performance (and being the first actor to play Marlowe) but also giving the best interpretation of Marlowe on film- and that includes Bogart's fine outing in Hawks' THE BIG SLEEP(1946), Robert Mitchum's two disappointing films, and Elliot Gould's daring 1973 performance in Altman's THE LONG GOODBYE. Powell projects the detective's weary cynicism and dogged determination without any hint of showy mannerism or overplayed toughness. His presence is completely natural and convincing, far from any Hollywood ham acting.
In addition, MURDER, MY SWEET presents the polished villainy of Otto Kruger, slithering around Powell with his characteristic reptilian menace; Anne Shirley as a spunky good girl who brightens the gloom somewhat; and, on the femme fatale side, the high voltage glare of Claire Trevor, laminated in heavy make-up like a pricey, megawatt doxy. Literally towering over everything is Mike Mazurki's Moose (far more effective than Jack O'Halloran's catatonic trance in Mitchum's FAREWELL, MY LOVELY). Mazurki's silent entrance into Marlowe's office at the beginning sets the uneasy mood where huge, powerful forces stir and then emerge from the darkness.