Panic in the Streets (1950)

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Methuselah is younger than I am tonight.  A US Health Service physician Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) is called to supervise the autopsy of an unknown man and realises the John Doe (actually Kochak and played by Lewis Charles) died of pneumonic plague, the pulmonary iteration of bubonic plague. We have already seen the man chased and shot by the flunkies of gangster Blackie (Walter Jack Palance), Poldi (Guy Thomajan) and Fitch (Zero Mostel) on the dockside. Revealing his discovery to the mayor and city officials, Reed is informed that he has 48 hours before the public will be told about a potential outbreak. Joined by Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas), Reed must race against time to find out where the unknown man came from and stop journalists from printing the story so that they can prevent an epidemic. They begin their search among Slav and Armenian immigrants as the man’s body is cremated … From the low level and unwittingly infected crims racing to find the booty they believe the dead man Kochak was protecting, to the warehouses unloading produce on the New Orleans wharves, this paints a great portrait of a city that no longer resembles what we see in this post-war crime thriller. The lurid title only tells you part of the story which director Elia Kazan insisted be shot entirely on location, using the smarts he picked up on Boomerang to create episodes of masterly tension from Bourbon Street in the French Quarter (spot Brennans!) to the banks of the Mississippi, with Reed’s marital and parenting issues nicely etched – there are bills to pay and he should spend more time with his son instead of trying to be more ambitious, according to his wife Nancy, played by Barbara Bel Geddes – providing the day to day humdrum issues against which the bigger melodrama takes place in a race against time. The contrast in performing styles is gripping – from Widmark’s Method-like approach to Palance’s conventional and scary villain, Mostel’s semi-comic goon and Douglas’ usual rambunctious affect to Bel Geddes classical mode, this is a terrific demonstration of American theatre and film acting styles bumping up against each other. It’s beautifully shot by Joseph MacDonald and edited by Harmon Jones. Edna and Edward Anhalt’s story was adapted by Daniel Fuchs and the screenplay is by Richard Murphy but Kazan stated that it was rewritten every day while they were shooting. He would use what he learned of The Big Easy for his next (studio-bound) film, A Streetcar Named Desire. He believed this was the only perfect film he made “because it’s essentially a piece of mechanism and it doesn’t deal in any ambivalences at all, really. It just fits together in the sequence of storytelling rather perfectly. But that’s really why I did it, and I got a hell of a lot out of it for future films.”  Very impressive, cher!

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The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

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Aka Thelma Jordon.  The past is the prelude to the future. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that, Miss Jordon?  The lovely Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck) shows up late one night in the office of soused assistant DA Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey) a married man, who would rather get drunk than go home to a younger wife whose father torments him. Thelma tells him a story about prowlers and burglars at the home of her aunt who she takes care of. She’s concerned about her aunt’s valuable emeralds. He asks her to join him for a drink and she agrees. Before Cleve can stop himself, he and Thelma are involved in a love affair. But Thelma is a mysterious woman, and Cleve can’t help wondering if she is hiding something.When Aunt Vera is found shot, Thelma calls Cleve rather than the police, and he helps her cover up evidence that may incriminate her, but he believes her version of events – an intruder killed the woman. When she is arrested for murder, Marshall is in a unique position to help her and persuades the prosecution that a reasonable doubt exists due to evidence of an elusive Mr X (which he believes is Thelma’s estranged husband, Tony Laredo). Thelma Jordon is acquitted. Her past, however, has begun to catch up with her and she finds a deadly way to make it go away … Marty Holland’s story was developed as a screenplay by Pulitzer Prizewinner Ketti Frings and the links to Stanwyck’s previous femme fatale in Double Indemnity are clear with Stanwyck fiercely attractive as the bad girl who does the right thing – in the end. The atmosphere is quite fatalistic, and practically Langian, amplified by the dark tones of cinematography by George Barnes, echoing Thelma’s plea, why do crimes always have to take place at night? Very well handled by emigre director Robert Siodmak, this is a very underrated noir which despite some flawed construction offers some wonderful performances to enjoy with a truly shocking outburst of violence leading to an almost contrite conclusion.

Molly’s Game (2017)

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The United States versus Molly Bloom. The true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) a beautiful, young, Olympic-class freestyle skier trained by her father (Kevin Costner) who had a terrible accident that stopped her in her tracks aged 22 and she turned to running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade in LA then NYC before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and … the Russian mob which she didn’t know about but she’s indicted all the same. She’s broke, her money’s on the street, she has no friends. Her only ally is her criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) who learned there was much more to Molly than the tabloids led people to believe… This should be a screwball comedy but the stakes aren’t really high enough and most of the time Molly isn’t the protagonist, she’s more of a stooge to several men whose power she threatens.  Aaron Sorkin turns his own poker hand to directing with this adaptation of the well-publicised book by Bloom. What it has aside from a woman with daddy issues and an incredible brain are some insights into one vastly overrated charming pillow-lipped actor (I’m lying, obvs) who isn’t named here but everyone knows his poker habit and that he married the studio boss’ daughter (they’re now divorced, he’s not been onscreen for ages) and what he does to Molly is … what you’d expect. So this devolves into sexist power-playing and cheating. The difference between sport, playing poker, gambling and cheating is the axis on which the narrative rests, and those slim timings between winning and losing and trusting what you know rather than letting the other fellow game you with a duff hand. I’m agnostic about Chastain although as critic Tom Shone has it, she doesn’t care whether we like her. In real life, Bloom is a very interesting woman. Here, despite her smarts, it takes her psychologist/nemesis father to give her the dimestore truths about what’s screwed her up (and it’s very obvious, just not to her). It’s just a shame it takes 125 minutes to get the three-year diagnosis in the three minutes it actually takes. However it’s structurally relevant because she has undercut him as a kid by issuing her high school teacher’s critique of Freud in an attempt to undermine his profession over family dinner. There is a good supporting cast:  Michael Cera is the Movie Star, Chris O’Dowd is the Irish American schmuck who turns informer for the FBI, Brian d’Arcy James is the idiot loser who turns out to be something else entirely, Bill Camp is the serious player who loses everything. The voiceover narration (somewhat unreliable, given that it’s from an addict suppressing her memories) is both irritating and enlightening. The exchanges with Elba are problematic – as ever he has diction issues so he’s not as fluid as Chastain and you take cover for fear of his spittle reaching beyond the screen. However as long-winded and prolix as this is (and thank goodness there’s very little time spent in court and none walking/talking) it’s almost a relief to see a film that doesn’t require the female to have sex with the leading man, even if he’s permitted to win a verbal battle concerning The Crucible and she has to take a horrible beating courtesy of some very nasty Joisey mooks. What this probably needed is the conclusion that the real (literary) Molly Bloom has courtesy of James Joyce, referenced here several times: a final, stinging monologue that takes everyone down. But even Sorkin knows he can’t outplay the master and Molly has learned what she knew all along – trust nobody. The only problem is after 140 minutes it really doesn’t amount to a hill of poker chips.  Adapted by Sorkin from Bloom’s memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker.

The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp (1953)

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A beautiful blonde angel (Diane Cilento) arrives in The Angel, Islington on a goodwill mission to soften the heart of pawnbroker Joshua Webman (Felix Aylmer). To raise money for her earthly mission, she pawns her harp for £20 and declares her love for the shop assistant Len (Philip Guard) who is immediately taken with her. She shows the people she encounters the path down which their happiness lies, whilst winning at the dogs and dodging pickpockets (Alfie Bass and Thomas Gallagher) and tries to improve people’s economic situations (pretty dire at the time) and puts couples together. This is a fairly typical British film of its post-WW2 era, blending elements of sentiment and whimsy with social realism (but you could take issue with the way that Jewish characters are represented). There are some nice visual touches – my favourite occurs when Bass gets planted in a birdcage during a foiled burglary. This was adapted by Charles Terrot from his novel and TV play with Sidney Cole and directed by Alan Bromly. Quite charming, with Cilento immensely impressive as the naive visitor in one of her earliest appearances, really becoming the Angel of Islington. There’s a pleasant score by Antony Hopkins.

To Live and Die in LA (1985)

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– Why are you chasing me? – Why are you running? – Cause you’re chasing me, man! When his longtime partner on the force Jimmy Hart (Michael Green) is killed, reckless U.S. Secret Service agent and counterfeiting specialist Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) vows revenge, setting out to nab dangerous counterfeiter and artist Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe). Partnered with the seemingly straight-arrow John Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance sets up a scheme to entrap Masters, resulting in the accidental death of an undercover officer. As Chance’s desire for justice becomes an obsession, Vukovich questions the lawless methods he employs:  Chance is ‘sextorting’ Ruth Lanier (Darlanne Fluegel), promising her her freedom in exchange for information and his dangerous methods include landing Masters’ flunky Carl Cody (John Turturro) behind bars which triggers a series of violent events … Directed by William Friedkin, this feels a lot like a feature-length episode of Miami Vice with added vicious. It starts in quite an extraordinary fashion – a mad mullah swearing to destroy civilisation on the roof of a building – which somehow makes it very contemporary (albeit he’s not taking anyone with him). Based on Gerald Petievich’s autobiographical work and adapted by him with Friedkin, this holds up surprisingly well but there isn’t a single character with whom you can empathise:  they are all singularly sleazy. Luminously shot by Robby Muller, this is a burnished LA, all sunsets and cement and chrome, with corruption a thread running through everything and a stunning car chase that’ll have you clutching the arms of your chair. It’s surprisingly full-frontal in its sex scenes and scored by Wang Chung. Now that’s not a sentence you read every day. This swirls around in the brain long after the last, very unusual shot happens at the tail end of the credits:  Petersen’s face.

The Great Gatsby (1974)

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You can’t repeat the past? Of course you can. Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) is a young man from the Midwest living modestly among the decadent mansions of 1920s Long Island. He becomes involved in the life of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford), a rich man who throws the most lavish parties on the island. But behind Gatsby’s outgoing demeanor is a lonely man who wants nothing more than to be with his old love, Nick’s second cousin-once removed, the beautiful Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow). She is married to the adulterous and bullheaded millionaire Tom (Bruce Dern), creating a love triangle that will end in tragedy when a misunderstanding leads Tom’s lover Myrtle (Karen Black) to her death in a road accident and her cuckolded husband seeking revenge … We hear all about Gatsby long before we meet him, even if Nick imagines he sees him on the end of the dock early on, with that green light winking on and off. It’s the perfect way to introduce a character who is a self-made myth. Everyone has a different idea about the protagonist of a novel which itself is a masterpiece of sleight of hand storytelling:  it tells us on page one just how. There are a lot of things to admire about this film which is as hollow with the sound of money as Daisy’s voice:  the design, the tone, the casting, which is nigh-on perfect, but the writing leaves the performances with very little to do. Redford, that enigmatic, elusive, evasive Seventies superstar is the ultimately unknowable, uncommitted actor trying to revivify his past love, even as Daisy cries out to this now-multi-millionaire Don’t you know rich girls don’t marry poor boys? Waterston does his best as the writer/narrator who knows far less than he lets on. Dern probably comes off best as the unfiltered louse Fitzgerald wrote but overall Francis Ford Coppola’s script while faithful cannot replicate symbolic effect and the entire novella represents in the most eloquent language ever written class gone wrong in the ultimate American tragedy. Directed by Jack Clayton.

 

Blind (2017)

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We’re all just trying to get home I suppose. Suzanne Dutchman (Demi Moore) seems to be a happily married trophy wife. Her husband Mark (Dylan McDermott) is a wolf of Wall Street. At a dinner party Mark speaks to his client Howard (James McCaffrey) who is then caught by an undercover female agent for using and dealing cocaine and does a deal for immunity in exchange for information on Mark’s insider dealing. Mark is then arrested and Suzanne is facing charges and she is sentenced to 100 hours of community service.  She begins reading for visually impaired Bill Oakland (Alec Baldwin) a famous one-hit-wonder author and now a writing professor who is guilt-ridden over his wife’s death in the car crash that blinded him.  They take an instant dislike to each other. But she can’t leave and he needs someone to read his student’s work to him. During her time with Bill, Suzanne develops feelings for him and also finds out about her husband’s affair which leans her towards Bill even more… This is carried mostly by star power by three very likeable performes – although McDermott’s violence is foreshadowed in his presentation of a diamond necklace to his wife in the first scene, as though he’s imprisoning her. We understand the title isn’t just about Oakland, it also serves as a metaphor for Suzanne’s entrapment, blind to her husband’s flaws – and they become very problematic indeed. Her massive wedding ring also signifies the situation – writ large in the first scene with Oakland. Her arrival supplants volunteer Gavin (Steven Prescod) who is really a superfan looking to get into Oakland’s writing class – but even when he takes the job of houseboy he takes advantage and makes off with Oakland’s unfinished second novel. This is really a story about writer’s block, and then some. It has some lovely visuals and interactions but lags a bit in pacing. Still, it’s nice to see these actors who don’t get in front of the cameras enough, as far as I’m concerned. Based on a story by Diane Fisher, this was adapted by John Buffalo Mailer (who also acts here) and directed by Michael Mailer, sons of that very pugnacious writer, Norman.

 

The Letter (1940)

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With all my heart, I still love the man I killed. In Singapore, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), the wife of a rubber plantation administrator, shoots and kills a man, Geoff Hammond, claiming that he tried to take advantage of her. She is arrested and her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) hires attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to defend her. Her claim of self-defence is doubted by the locals. During the trial Howard uncovers an incriminating letter that casts doubt on Leslie’s story. The two become embroiled in a blackmail scheme involving a Malayan clerk Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) and the dead man’s widow Mrs Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) … One of the great melodramas of the era, this Somerset Maugham adaptation by Howard Koch had already received an interpretation in 1929 with Jeanne Eagels in the leading role and Marshall had played Geoff Hammond. With the dream team of Davis and director William Wyler it became an opportunity for Warners to make an intense, lush festival of emotions concerning race and sex shot by Tony Gaudio, costumed by Orry-Kelly and scored by Max Steiner. Davis is simply unforgettable, as is the opening scene, when a shot rings out under a full moon …

Scared Stiff (1953)

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– This thing’s dead. – It’s in the right place. Vaudevillian Larry Todd (Dean Martin) thinks he’s killed a mobster in NYC and wants his sidekick Myron Mertz (Jerry Lewis) to get him out of the country on board a ship. Mary Carroll (Lizabeth Scott) inherits her family’s ancestral home on a small island off Cuba and despite warnings and death threats, decides to sail there and take possession of the supposedly haunted castle. Larry sees in a newspaper that he isn’t the killer after all but it’s too late – the ship has sailed. Once on the island the three enter the eerie castle and after seeing the ghost of one of Mary’s ancestors and fighting off a menacing zombie, find the key to the castle’s treasure… The Lewis-Martin shtick may not be to everyone’s taste and in fact they didn’t even want to remake George Marshall’s 1940 Bob Hope hit comedy The Ghost Breakers – because it was just about perfect. But Paramount had their way and it was turned into this (unfortunately monochrome) musical version of the 1909 play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard and adapted by Herbert Baker and Walter DeLeon. Norman Lear got his first screenwriting credit here for some rewriting work and Marshall was on directing duties again. Martin and Lewis purvey their spry act and the scene when Myron has to lip sync to Carmen Miranda’s song Mamae Eu Quero as the record sticks on the turntable is a highlight – her own performances aren’t too bad here either! But things really get going in the haunted house. Silly fun with an unexpected cameo (or pair of them.)

John Wick Chapter Two (2017)

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He once killed three men in a bar with a pencil. Who the fuck can do that? John Wick, that’s who. They killed his wife, his puppy and stole his Mustang last time out. It’s four days later and he’s got his car back (John Leguiziamo tells him it’ll be fixed by 2030). Then the Camorra burn his house down because he won’t do as they ask. So he very reluctantly takes a marker to kill the guy’s sister in Rome before she takes a seat at the top table of gangsters. He’s taken care of at the Continental by the most accommodating hotel manager you’ve never met, Franco Nero. There’s an incredible bathtub scene with a woman in a pool of blood like a suicided angel. Then the chase through the catacombs by a rapper (Common) with a grudge on behalf of his dead employer… And revenge will swiftly follow. After an operatic orgiastic surrender to extraordinary violence Ian McShane puts every hitman on the planet on his tail. Them’s the breaks! I will kill them all, vows Wick. He’s got an hour – what a cliffhanging ending! A perfect setup for the next installment with the impressively inexpressive Keanu Reeves, the angriest widowed hitman on the planet, now injured, in trouble, waiting for the insurance company to pay up on his house and his new puppy padding at his heels with 59 minutes to go and running for his life as even the homeless killers in NYC are booked for the next job … What an awesome exercise in kinetic action, coupled with extraordinarily beautiful visuals (kudos to DoP Dan Laustsen) constituting an ode to blood-letting and architecture and the odd nod to religion (his home is referred to as The Priest’s Temple) and perhaps secret societies. With an old school Commodore and typists putting out the word for his head on a stick (or a pencil) in a very elaborate Heath Robinson contraption, this has oodles of style and savoir faire with a fair bit of swagger to spare and just the correct amount of terse, witty dialogue. The bleed is in the aorta. Pull it out and you will die. Consider this a professional courtesy. The perfect antidote to Christmas! Written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Chad Stahelski.