The Firm (1993)

The Firm poster.jpg

Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) is the hotshot Harvard grad hired by Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an established law firm run by Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) but he soon discovers that beneath the outward trappings of success there’s a very dark side and a price to be paid for that nice car and condo (well, they’re lawyers, whatcha expect but corruption?). When Mitch travels to the Caymans to hide client funds, he’s seduced by a woman on the beach – and the resulting photos compromise his marriage (to Jeanne Tripplehorn) and he’s now under the cosh to do as he’s told because as he finds out previous associates were murdered when they uncovered the firm’s mafia tax fraud. He’s approached by the FBI to wear a wire … There are tremendous performances here in this super-efficiently told thriller, especially by Holly Hunter who has a whale of a time as Gary Busey’s secretary/ lover – he’s the private eye who shared a prison cell with Mitch’s brother, whose existence made Mitch vulnerable to exploitation. The John Grisham thriller was originally adapted by David Rayfiel who had been working with director Sydney Pollack since the mid-Sixties however a major rewrite and restructuring (and removal of some) of the book’s elements by Robert Towne made it a far pacier piece of work.  (There was a draft by David Rabe but Towne supposedly never saw it.) It’s a fantastically suspenseful entertainment, with a great performance by Cruise and he is matched by the peerless Hackman. You can read more about all of this in my book ChinaTowne in the chapter detailing Towne’s collaborations with superstar Cruise:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1489868389&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

Advertisements

Midnight Run (1988)

Midnight Run poster.jpg

Robert De Niro is the taciturn bounty hunter called in on one last job by Joe Pantoliano, to bring in an accountant for the mob (Charles Grodin) who’s stolen millions of his employer’s money and given it to charity in a fit of pique on finding out they guy’s true identity. His faked fear of flying means a cross-country journey from NYC to LA – with the FBI, the mob and rival bounty hunter John Ashton on their tails. This handcuffed odd couple are like chalk and cheese, the phobic money man and the smartass no-nonsense ex-cop in this near-definitive buddy movie: their byplay is priceless, with both De Niro and Grodin turning in brilliant performances. This action comedy written by George Gallo is one of the great screenplays of the Eighties. Directed with verve by Martin Brest in what is his best film to date. Simply sublime.

Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt poster.jpg

Steve McQueen. A Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback. The greatest car chase ever filmed (until The French Connection). Jacqueline Bisset as the beautiful and intelligent love interest.  A fairly routine police procedural adapted from the novel Mute Witness was elevated to something approaching mythic precisely because McQueen’s innate cool transforms the material by virtue of his being allowed to be himself under Peter Yates’ careful direction. He’s up against a senator (Magnificent Seven co-star Robert Vaughn) with an agenda to shut down a Mafia investigation while Steve has to keep his witness hidden and find out what’s really going on. Adapted by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner from the novel by Robert L. Fish (or Pike!). Just listen to Lalo Schifrin’s score! Truly iconic.

GoodFellas (1990)

Goodfellas.jpg

As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. Martin Scorsese’s astonishing portrait of Sicilian-Irish Henry Hill’s 25 year rise through the ranks of Italian-American hoodlums – and his eventual fall – is re-released this month and it still exerts a visceral thrill. Between Coppola and Scorsese we have a reference book on this topic and so many of the tropes and lingo of this subculture are common parlance thanks to them. Nicholas  Pileggi adapted his book Wiseguy (with Scorsese) and with an exegesis on true crime and punishment, violence,  family, honour and dishonour, cooking, drugs and horrible taste,  it has a panoramic sweep we pretty much take for granted. Not for nothing did some of the cast become mainstays of The Sopranos, which wouldn’t exist without this. However it is not the sociological examination we think it was:  it’s a film of no particular depth or self-knowledge, not if we’re depending on Henry’s voiceover. Instead it’s a stylish compendium of cinematic vocabulary, with flourishes influenced by everyone from Anger to Visconti, boasting a particularly nice tribute to The Great Train Robbery in the closing moments. And there are a lot of great, queasy moments here, with gore to spare:  Joe Pesci has the lion’s share as the psychopath Tommy DeVito; Paul Sorvino as the main guy, Paulie Cicero;  and Catherine Scorsese has some nice bits as Tommy’s mom, a keen amateur painter; De Niro is good as Jimmy Conway, the other Sicilian-Irish guy who can never be truly Mafia; Lorraine Bracco is superb as the whining Jewish wife who develops a taste for cocaine; and Ray Liotta could never be better than here, even if he’ll never be a made man. A funny and scarifying tour de force of surfaces, textures and moviemaking.

Second Chance (1953)

Second chanceposter101.JPG

RKO made some pretty fast-moving, fun noirs and this is one of them – shot on location in Mexico with good looking people, as was the wont of Howard Hughes, by now in charge of the studio. The screenplay by Sydney Boehm and Oscar Millard was based on a story by DM Marshman Jr who shared writing credit on Sunset Blvd and went back east after this to join the world of advertising. Rudolph Mate was directing for 3D so other than the pulchritude of stars Robert Mitchum as a boxer and Linda Darnell as a singer – he’s helping her escape the attention of her mobster boyfriend Jack Palance – there’s a stunning climax in a cable car. Palance was at the peak of his Hollywood heaviness and he’s as good as you’d hope.

The Godfather (1971)

The Godfather poster

Make him an offer he can’t refuse. Go to the mattresses. Leave the gun, take the cannolis. The Godfather is truly the I Ching, non vero? Mario Puzo’s novel is gripping but kinda schlocky, Francis Ford Coppola saw a way to imbue it with a kind of classicism at a time when the few Mafia movies that had been made were really just cheap-ish thrillers. The story is that of family, brothers, inheritance, murder and mayhem. If you do the Paramount Studios tour (and I thoroughly recommend it) you can see the NYC set where Michael takes out the crooked cop and the rival who’s tried to assassinate his father Don Vito – a friend obsessed with production design asked me if the floor (tiled) was still there and I had to disappoint them. But it was a thrill. Because no matter how many times you see this film it lures you in, just like they do Sonny to the tollbooth on the Causeway (jeez, the first time I saw this I didn’t go to bed till 2 in the morning. The image of James Caan being rattled like a ragdoll under machine gunfire is unforgettable and horrible. Never mind the horse’s head…)  Watching Pacino transform from the good youngest son to the efficiently vengeful killing machine is really something – his movement under the greatcoat and bowler at the movie’s end makes you weep, and that closing shot, when his wife is literally shut out in that long shot … Oh, I feel like I’m turning into Edward G. Robinson:  Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?!  Coppola did a fine job in making over the material so that you feel like you’re watching a parable about America rather than a tale of scuzzy mobsters. But he knew mid-production there was a scene missing and so he asked screenwriter and script doctor Robert Towne to help him out: the result being the garden scene when the Don is handing over the family business to the war hero son he thought would become a Senator. You can read about that in my book about Towne: https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472425177&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon. What a fabulous film.

The Iceman (2012)

The Iceman poster

One critic called this Zodiac meets Goodfellas. And therein lieth the problem. It’s the true story of a mob hitman, Richard Kuklinski, who supposedly murdered around 100 people between 1965 and 1986. Michael Shannon marries Winona Ryder who thinks he dubs Disney cartoons. Actually he puts together pornos for the Mafia. When his boss (Ray Liotta) shuts down the place he tests him by giving him his gun to shoot a homeless man. He has form so it’s not a problem. And he keeps on killing. And doublecrosses his boss with another contract killer (Chris Evans) who operates a Mr Whippy van. And the killings just go on and on. Until he’s caught. And we don’t care. Shannon’s is an unsympathetic character and the (co-)writing by director Ariel Vromen just doesn’t move us a whit, even with the backstory of the rough upbringing and the brother inside for raping and murdering a 12 year old girl. Hear this? It’s the sound of the smallest violin in the world.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Breakfast at Tiffany's poster.jpg

This was the first movie poster I ever bought, for my very first home while I was away at college, a studio apartment that was even smaller than the one inhabited by Holly Golightly, that flighty Manhattan party girl. Heavily sanitised for contemporary audiences, there are still people to this day who don’t understand that she’s a prostitute. I wonder what they make of Paul Varjak? Do they think he’s breaking in 2E’s bed?! With the passing of time, Audrey Hepburn feels ever more like a sprightly cipher, hardly human, barely knowable. It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that this Truman Capote story was for, and about, Marilyn Monroe, and that he was upset that she wasn’t cast. There’s magic in this concoction adapted by George Axelrod:  from the first sight of Holly in the Givenchy dress; her wonderful cat (Cat);  the party; Holly singing Moon River; the courtroom mess; and the final, lovely scene when Paul (George Peppard) makes her see sense and finds Cat and we believe she might have a different kind of life. There is the opportunity to nit-pick and there are some that hate Mickey Rooney playing Oriental. And the scene where Holly gets the telegram about Fred is upsetting. It is this twist from happy go lucky to tragic that marks out the film as a major turning point in the star’s persona and indeed her future career. She hits a lot of different notes. But somehow director Blake Edwards sustains the lightness of touch that makes this Hepburn’s best-loved movie: there is a clarity and charm and brittleness that belie the churning emotions beneath. She’s not an icon for nothing. And I still cherish my poster – the original, theatrical, Sellotape-stained mess that it now is.

Al Capone (1959)

Al Capone 1959 Steiger poster.jpg

The rise and fall of one of the biggest American mafia hoods. The great Rod Steiger required serious persuasion to take on the role of the legendary mobster and insisted on a raft of rewrites (by Malvin Wald and Henry F. Greenberg) to deglamourise the murderous thug. Presumably the documentary voiceover that occasionally disrupts the drama over stock footage and newspaper montages was inserted at his request. Luckily cool girl Fay Spain (Dragstrip Girl) is around to provide an impressive show as  the requisite hard to get woman for this forceful look at gangsterism. Their scenes together are terrific. Tough, realistic and as generous to all parties as one might expect. An Allied Artists production.

The Equalizer (2014)

The Equalizer colour poster.jpg

When I went to see this with my dad, he had just one question afterwards:  where was Edward Woodward?! You might well ask. (Woodward died some time ago, sadly).  However Denzel Washington’s previous collaboration with writer/director Antoine Fuqua has been Oscar-winning (Training Day) and  dark moral dramas play to both their strengths so this reprise of the late great man’s 80s TV series was a logical generic step. Its screenplay is by  Richard Wenk, working from the long-running show written by Michael Sloan and Michael Lindheim. Robert McCall is working in a Macjob (probably Walmart) supervising shelf-stacking in security mode, he’s befriended an extremely young prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz in a spiky performance) and this accidental association lures him out of his dark past in black ops to confront the balance of the scales of justice once again when she gets beaten up. She’s involved with a gang of horribly violent Russian brothel-keeping drugdealing thugs (not exactly a leap since every small town in Ireland has one) and they are fronted by fixer Teddy, played by Marton Csokas. What my dad should have been asking is, Who the hell is that?! Because Csokas has been hiding in plain sight for years, giving astonishing performances that make his co-stars look great. He plays sensual, damaged, abusive and empathetic in the same breath. Even when he’s trying to murder somebody. He is the reason that this film takes a different turn entirely into something extremely complex and difficult and strange and involving and sexy. He is an amazing actor, something I finally realised when I watched him in the TV mini-series Falcon (2012). Has nobody else noticed?! Someone give him a leading role. Please.

Marton Csokas