Circus of Fear (1966)

Circus of Fear.jpeg

Aka Psycho-CircusCircus of Terror/ Das Rätsel des silbernen Dreieck / Mystery of the Silver Triangle/ Scotland Yard auf heißer Spur. I wonder if we have something in common with the murderer.  We’re both looking for the same thing. In the aftermath of a daring armoured car heist on London’s Tower Bridge that ends with the murder of a security guard, police detective Jim Elliott (Leo Genn) follows a trail of clues to the travelling Barberini Circus, which has just passed through the city. Though he suspects a conspiracy under the big top, he discovers strained relations between the disfigured lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee) and his associates and colleagues who include owner Barberini (Anthony Newlands), ringmaster Carl (Heinz Drache), bookkeeper and wannabe clown Eddie (Eddi Arent), knife-thrower Mario (Maurice Kaufmann) and a dwarf called Mr Big (Skip Martin). Elliot struggles to find his man – and recover the stolen cash – in a maze of blackmail and deceit that concludes in a sharp-edged dénouement courtesy of Mario …  Why must these things always happen at the weekend? Written by producer Harry Alan Towers (as Peter Welbeck) and based on Again The Three Just Men by Edgar Wallace, whose prolific work had just spawned another series of adaptations at Merton Park Studios, this is a British take on the German krimi genre and happily has Klaus Kinski as the mysterious Manfred among a terrific cast numbering Suzy Kendall as Gregor’s niece Natasha, Cecil Parker as Sir John of the Yard, and Victor Maddern as Mason the unfortunate who uses a gun, with Lee in a mask rather defeating his key role but leading to a key unveiling in the third act. Genn is a bit of a PC Plod rather than an intuitive ‘tec but his role winds up anchoring the narrative and he’s nicely sardonic if secondary to the overly complex and twisty plot of the circus crowd’s behind the scenes antics with red herrings and dead ends dangling everywhere. Mostly nicely handled by cinematographer Ernest Steward with some interesting shot setups and well paced by director John [Llewellyn] Moxey. The opening scene is smartly achieved without dialogue and the final summing up scene is a high wire act quite different from what you’d see in Agatha Christie. Werner Jacobs directed the German version which has an alternative ending and was released in black and white. I do like to respect a man’s privacy but in a criminal case there’s really no such thing

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Bad Times at the El Royale

Alright, yeah, I think it’s some kind of pervert hotel. It’s 1969. The El Royale is a run-down hotel that sits on Lake Tahoe on the border between California and Nevada. It soon becomes a seedy battleground when seven strangers – cleric Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Ervio), a travelling vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), the Summerspring sisters, Emily (Dakota Johnson) and Rose (Cailee Spaeny), the sole staff member on site, manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) and the mysterious Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) – all converge on the hotel one fateful night for one last shot at redemption before everything goes wrong… I can’t do it. I can’t kill no more people. Doesn’t your heart go out to actors nowadays? Either they starve themselves on chicken breasts and broccoli to appear as ludicrous superheroes looking deranged from hanger and bodybuilding steroids on the subsequent publicity tour, or they wind up in something like this (or in Hemsworth’s case, both), a kind of Tarantinoesque closed-room Agatha Christie mystery trading on well-worn tropes. It’s really not right, is it? Seven strangers. Seven secrets. All roads lead here. However this pastiche is cleverly staged (with an actual state border running through the building), impeccably designed (by Martin Whist) and shot (by Seamus McGarvey) and well performed outside that narrow generic style that such material demands.  It’s overlong but florid and rather fruity with nods to Hitchcock and Lynch and the big reveal is worth waiting for. Written, produced and directed by Drew Goddard. Well, it looks like the Lord hasn’t forsaken you yet

The Driver (1978)

The Driver poster.jpg

You know I don’t like guns. The laconic and enigmatic Driver (Ryan O’Neal) excels at manoeuvering getaway vehicles through the tightest of spots following robberies, making him quite in demand in the criminal underworld. His skill and notoriety, however, infuriate the corrupt Detective (Bruce Dern), who becomes obsessed with taking the Driver down and has issues convincing his cohorts (Matt Clark and Felice Orlandi) on the best way to entrap him. He decides to use Teeth (Joseph Walsh) and his trigger-happy gang, and offers them a deal in a set up robbery. Luckily for the speed-loving anti-hero, the Player (Isabelle Adjani), a gorgeous and resourceful woman, is around to help him elude the Detective… I’ll tell you something, I’m very good at what I do. Who says American cinema doesn’t do existential? Channeling Melville (Jean-Pierre) and Camus this boils the film noir down to essentials and provides a sustained picture of Los Angeles at night often challenged, rarely equalled. From the country and western music played on his Craig electronic notebook (I want one) to his moniker of Cowboy, the western allusions play out with an unexpected shootout involving a man who doesn’t usually carry a gun. The irony of course is in the casting:  Dern once killed John Wayne on screen, so brings that genre baggage to this tapestry of tropes. Writer Walter Hill was making his sophomore directing outing following Hard Times and you can tell he watched a lot of Raoul Walsh movies.  The generic character names are proper archetypes that take flight in this most meticulously conceived actioner, the car chases reminding us of his work as AD on Bullitt (he wrote this for Steve McQueen). There’s astonishing camerawork and shot design by Philip H. Lathrop, who did Shadow of a Doubt and Saboteur with Hitchcock and the opening tracking shot on Touch of Evil, as well as doing a great job on Blake Edwards’ astonishing LA movie Experiment in Terror and The Pink Panther. There are other titles on his resumé, but those are impressive enough credentials for one DoP. The limpid lighting and great cutting make this muscular thriller a visually haunting experience. The scene when the Driver teaches Teeth and his gang how to really drive a Merc in an underground car park is stunning and you know, when you think about it, they’re just driving around a car park.  That’s all. But it’s how they do it that matters. There is a winning simplicity and modernity that bespeaks careful construction to achieve this finessed cinematic affect. And there’s the significance of the cars in the culture and what this is about symbolically, a western scenario unfolding in a lawless town where Dern fancies his chances as omnipotent sheriff irritated by his constantly questioning sidekicks. There’s the usual hilariously inexpressive performing by Adjani, a great supporting role for Ronee Blakley as the Connection and a very satisfying ending. This is why Walter Hill is one of the geniuses of cinema and why O’Neal was a major star, perfect for the era. He looks great, he says little and he does it with surgical exactitude. He and Dern have utterly asymmetrical acting styles and make remarkably memorable complementary foes. One of the great Seventies movies.  How do we know you’re that good?

Bande a Part (1964)

Bande a Part French.jpg

Aka Band of OutsidersA Who-Dunit, Who’s Got-It, Where-Is-It-Now Wild One From That “Breathless” director Jean-Luc Godard!  Smalltime crooks and cinéphile slackers Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) spend their days mimicking the antiheroes of Hollywood noirs and Westerns while pursuing the lovely Odile (Anna Karina) whom they meet at English class. The misfit trio upends convention at every turn, through choreographed dances in cafés or frolicsome romps through the Louvre trying to set a record for fastest circumnavigation. Eventually, their romantic view of outlaws pushes them to plan their own heist, but their inexperience may send them out in a blaze of glory – just like their B-movie heroes … Isn’t it strange how people never form a whole?Ostensibly an adaptation of a novel called Fool’s Gold by Dorothy Hitchens, that’s just a skeleton on which the mischievous Jean-Luc Godard drapes his love and admiration of Hollywood genres (and Karina) over a series of apparently improvised riffs in this lightly constructed charmer. A few clues for latecomers: Several weeks ago… A pile of money… An English class… A house by the river… A romantic young girl... It’s a splendidly rackety affair, with several standout scenes providing the postmodern matrix for much of pop culture (and a name for Quentin Tarantino’s production company). It’s Godard at his most playful, joyous and audience-pleasing, exploring what it’s like to not want to grow up and how it’s always possible to have fun with like-minded people. Then, you go a little too far and someone goes and spoils it all for everyone. Maybe. Sheer pleasure. Godard said of the dance scene: “Alice in Wonderland as re-choreographed by Kafka”. A minute of silence can last a long time… a whole eternity

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.png

A policeman who breaks the law is twice the sucker.  Career criminal Ralph Cotter (James Cagney) escapes from prison and then murders the partner-in-crime (Neville Brand) who grassed him up in the first place. He attempts to woo his ex-partner’s sister Holiday Carleton (Barbara Payton) by threatening to expose her role in his escape. Cotter quickly gets back into the crime business—only to be shaken down by corrupt local LA cops led by Inspector Weber (Ward Bond) and Lt. John Reece (Barton MacLane). When Cotter turns the tables on them, his real troubles have only started…  I don’t want the coroner to find the bruises on these birds. One of the purest expressions of violence committed to celluloid, this post-war gangster noir is dominated by the strutting sadism of James Cagney, who bestrides it as though he hadn’t been blown up at the end of White Heat. Co-star Barbara Payton was hand-picked by Cagney and is of course one of Hollywood’s most notorious party girl casualties whose own biography bore this film’s title and she gives us a direct line to sex in her interaction with Cagney, while rival Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter) is her visual and performative opposite; Bond is a locus of police corruption and revenge; and Group Theater founder Luther Adler bristles as the lawyer coerced into helping the gang. If I ever saw a crazy man, he’s it. Adapted by Harry Brown from Horace McCoy’s novel, and produced by Cagney’s brother William, this is an amazing exposition of Los Angeles as an exquisite corpse of genre tropes, the cinematic city responsible for most of noir’s topography where the cops are just another filthy gang.  We couldn’t tip ’em off if we sat on the roof of their car. In another stranger than fiction story from that metropolis’s Ripley’s lore, this is the film that Phil Spector and Lana Clarkson were watching the night of her killing. Utterly riveting, febrile and quite shocking. Directed by Gordon Douglas. All I saw were the guns

The Old Man & The Gun (2018)

The Old Man and the Gun.png

You’re never exactly where you’re supposed to be, are you? I mean, ’cause if you are, you’re dead. In 1981 at the age of 70, Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) makes an audacious escape from San Quentin, conducting an unprecedented string of bank heists across the south with his friends Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) that confound authorities and enchant the public because he comports himself so politely and makes friends of the tellers. He’s the classic gentleman thief who never resorts to violence. Embroiled in the pursuit are detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), who becomes captivated with Forrest’s commitment to his craft, and widowed retiree Jewel (Sissy Spacek) who loves him in spite of his chosen profession.  But Dorothy (Elisabeth Moss) the daughter he never knew thinks she can assist the police with their enquiries Ten years from now, where will you be, what’ll you be doing? Now, whenever I close the door, I think: “Oh, is this the last time I’ll ever have a chance to do whatever that thing was?”  Supposedly the last film by Seventies superstar Redford, it sees him reunited with his impressive Pete’s Dragon writer/director David Lowery in a slight but engaging tale of true crime adapted from a story in The New Yorker by David Grann. The pleasures are mostly small ones, with the sense that the parallel police story interwoven with the main narrative is subtracting from the whole rather than enhancing it, particularly with a relatively short running time, even if the relationship between Tucker and Hunt is one of mutually grudging respect. It’s fun to see three old guys on a seemingly harmless crime spree:  the money doesn’t even seem to be the point, it’s more like taking on The Man and there are some witty lines (particularly one diatribe from Waits) in this lightly written piece. It’s shot nicely on grainy 16mm, reminiscent of films made in the era being depicted, a florid landscape contributing to the relaxed tone. Spacek is fine in a rare appearance, amused by this playfully persuasive career criminal but not so much that she will agree to stealing jewellery at a mall.  Redford’s cryptic persona, once described as ‘there’s no there there’ (like LA), is effortlessly distracting and self-satisfied, the film concluding on his enigmatic smile, glinting like that of the Cheshire Cat. As a film wrapping up a star text that includes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting it’s a fitting finale but it’s more a footnote than a lap of honour (that may have been All Is Lost). Redford is a true movie star and the last of a dying breed if the most recent show at the pitiful affirmative action Oscars is anything to go by. Charisma – there’s nothing like it, is there? He’s a guy… who is old… but used to be young… and he just really loves robbing banks

Hotel Artemis (2018)

Hotel Artemis.png

No killing the other patients – rule number one.  How many times do I gotta say it?  Rioting rocks a dystopic drought-ridden Los Angeles in 2028 and disgruntled thieves Waikiki/Sherman (Sterling K. Moss) and Lev (Brian Tyree Henry) make their way  following a heist to Hotel Artemis – a 13-storey, members-only hospital for criminals run by ageing Nurse/Jean Davis (Jodie Foster) a no-nonsense, hard-drinking, high-tech healer who already has her hands full with a French assassin Nice (Sofia Boutella) who’s injured herself to gain entry to carry out a job for Detroit; Acapulco (Charlie Day) an obnoxious arms dealer; when an injured cop Morgan (Jenny Slate) who knew Jean’s late son begs for help. As the violence continues outside, the Nurse must decide whether to break her own rules as she gets the call that Malibu Mob boss the Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum) is on his way in for treatment in the care of his son and heir Crosby (Zachary Quinto) Twenty years we’ve never let anyone in who wasn’t a member. Now you wanna let in a cop? Decisions decisions! Harder than ever to make in the dark as the power keeps cutting out and the production keeps the lighting budget low to try and highlight Foster’s performance as a crew of uglies decide how to best kill each other while she discovers the truth behind her son’s OD death. A kind of pointless vision of future shock since it’s already here and John Carpenter and Ridley Scott did it all thirty-five years ago. All that’s new is Dave Bautista minus his usual superhero makeup as Nurse’s sidekick. If you want to see Father John Misty (who wrote the song Gilded Cage for the movie) you had better bring a torch. Written and directed by Drew Pearce and produced by the sons of John le Carré, if you can believe it. Cops kill poor people, poor people kill cops. Circle of life

Widows (2018)

Widows

The best thing we have going for us is being who we are… no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.  When Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew of criminals are engulfed in flames during a botched job in Chicago, Harry’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis) finds herself owing hustler-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) a couple of million dollars. Armed only with a notebook in which Harry detailed his past and future plans, Veronica teams up with the gang’s other widows – Linda (Michelle Rodriquez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and single mom Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to mount a robbery her husband was planning that could clear their debt and give them a new start. Meanwhile, an increasingly brutal election battle featuring Irish-American career politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his father Tom (Robert Duvall) emphasises the social problems of Chicago, raising the stakes for this ramshackle group’s first foray into crime…  I’m the only thing standing between you and a bullet in the head. Steve McQueen won the Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave, a relentlessly gruesome account of black American history, an astonishing achievement for a British visual artist never mind a black director. His genre impetus has hardly been on anyone’s radar but he was a fan of Lynda La Plante’s feisty women from the 1983 British TV series (set in London) and brings a lot of artistry to this slick feminist outing concerning itself as much with issues of poverty, domestic abuse and childcare as the unlikeliness of a heist led by women trying to pay back their criminal husbands’ debts following the conflagration that killed the men in a botched heist.  The backdrop which exists in the narrative courtesy of Farrell’s role is given huge expressivity through Sean Bobbitt’s widescreen camerawork, the issues of money and race and class and the sewer of Chicago politicking right there for all to see but of course that deflects from the main story even as it serves to amplify a theme of difficult intergenerational relationships.  This detailed texture is an expansive approach in an established genre which usually has a narrow focus but if ultimately it doesn’t fully engage in the manner which you’d wish, it’s probably due to the underwhelming adaptation by McQueen and Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn which doesn’t give the principals a lot to work with – a shame in the case of Davis, who works at it and has some great scenes with Neeson. Debicki comes off best because she has a character who goes through real development and lots of emotions as the narrative progresses – from abuse by mother and husband, through sugar baby, to independence. Good, but should have been a lot better, especially with that twist 75 minutes in. Criminals and cops are the same. They never bring their shit home

Westbound (1959)

Westbound.jpg

Well, they tell me they got a good man runnin’ this place.  In 1864 former Union officer, John Hayes (Randolph Scott) manages the Overland stagecoach company which transports gold to the North from California. Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), a businessman who’s quit working for Overland and is secretly loyal to the South, is intent on robbing the coaches. Hoping to heist the treasure as a way to revive the Confederacy, Putnam also has a grudge against Hayes, since his wife, Norma (Virginia Mayo), was once involved with Hayes. It seems everyone in this small Colorado town is now out to help the South …  You walk out of this house and you go out the way you came in… with nothing but the clothes on your back! The sixth in the western partnership between Scott and producer/director Budd Boetticher this does not belong to the official Ranown cycle and is written by Bern Giler (as opposed to Burt Kennedy) from a story with Albert S. Le Vino. It’s not the typically taut film you’d expect from that team but it’s notable for the killing of a small child and two striking female performances by Mayo and Karen Steele (as Jeanie Miller). Scott is solid as ever. That’s a lot of woman!

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

Kansas City Confidential.jpg

I know a sure cure for a nosebleed: a cold knife in the middle of the back. A mysterious fellow, Tim Foster (Preston Foster) contacts a trio of criminals Pete, Boyd and Tony (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef) to help with a bank heist. The four wear masks and remain strangers to each other, planning to reunite in Mexico to divvy up the loot. Joe Rolfe (John Payne), a down on his luck former GI and ex-con trying to go straight that they framed to take the heat, gets his charges dropped, and the police offer him a reward if he can help recover the cash. But only after they beat up and torture him. He agrees, and when one of the thieves meets his end, Rolfe assumes his identity to catch the crooks… What’s waiting for you, Harris? The chair, the gas chamber, or just a rope? Like all good little noirs, there are lessons to be learned and a steep moral curve is there if you’re looking for it but mainly this is a well managed, pacy heist movie with bristling dialogue. Star Payne and director Phil Karlson did uncredited work on the sharp script attributed to Harold Green and Rowland Brown (story) and George Bruce and Harry Esssex (screenplay). Payne was once famed screenwriter Robert Towne’s father-in-law and had an interesting career, mainly a song and dance man and mostly famous for appearing in Miracle on 34th Street, but then becoming an interesting character actor. This particular production was part of a seven-picture deal with Pine-Thomas Productions to which he eventually obtained the rights. He had showed his dramatic chops paired with Claudette Colbert in Remember the Day and later in The Razor’s Edge and this particular cycle of action/crime films would conclude with Technicolor noir Slightly Scarlet. He then had his own western TV series, The Restless Gun, which ran for two seasons, in which daughter Julie appeared. Her daughter Katharine Towne is now an actress too, carrying on the family tradition. This is an effective thriller, briskly directed by Karlson and performed to the hilt by an ensemble to beat the band – some of those lowlifes are among my favourite character actors, with Coleen Gray and Dona Drake in nice supporting roles. The armoured car heist is superbly simply done in a tough as nails actioner that must have inspired Reservoir DogsIt don’t take no big thinking to figure a couple of guys like us ain’t in this bananaville on a vacation!