The Big Combo (1955)

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First is first. Second is nobody.  Police lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde)  comes under pressure from a gang headed by a vicious mobster Brown (Conte) but his superiors don’t want him to follow the case due to lack of evidence. He is helped by the gangster’s supposedly dead wife Alicia (Helen Walker) who is mentally ill and jealous at her husband’s affair with another woman, the suicidal Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), with whom Diamond becomes obsessed and who supplies him with information to help him close the net on his foe.  In the meantime a gangster presumed still alive turns out to have been murdered and Brown’s cohorts are planning upheaval … An astonishing gangster film, a fetid fever dream of sadism, sexual obsession and suicidal tendencies (moreso than an exploitation flick about the mob). Philip Yordan’s screenplay is as tough as they come and Conte’s incarnation of the vicious Brown is a performance for the ages. But it is a film of striking performances and Wallace (Wilde’s real-life wife) had herself tried to commit suicide a couple of times so this co-production between their company and Yordan and producer Sidney Harmon’s must have hit a number of home truths. The women here are a diverse and fascinating bunch:  Helene Stanton as dancer Rita has a brief appearance but she looks so different from other actresses of the era you won’t forget her. Brown’s handicapped mentor Brian Donlevy’s point of view of experiencing being shot (minus sound) is mesmerising and the cinematography by John Alton is jaw-dropping:  the use of light in the final sequence is historic [you’ll find some of these shots on the covers of film noir studies].  David Raksin’s music sets the scene with his innovative jazz-influenced bursts underscoring the key movements – but the music in the torture scene is from Shorty Rogers and His Giants (with the deafening drum solo by Shelly Manne). Directed with his usual unforgiving pace by Joseph H. Lewis. Extraordinary.

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The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

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I’ve studied you all these years – a little girl in a cage waiting for someone to let her out. In 1928 young Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) inadvertently causes the death of her cruel, authoritarian and extremely wealthy aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha lies to the police and Walter (Kirk Douglas), who saw the crime, corroborates the girl’s story. Eventually, they grow up and wed out of convenience; the meek and alcoholic Walter is genuinely in love, and Martha thinks that her secret is safe since she has married the one witness to her aunt’s death. As District Attorney he saw her lie on the stand and put an innocent man to death for the crime. However now Martha is trying to get Walter elected Governor and her childhood pal Sam (Van Heflin) shows up.  Martha knows her dark past may not stay a secret for long and Sam’s romance with Toni (Lizabeth Scott) – an ex-con just out of jail – threatens to come between them …  The film noir as hothouse melodrama, this has Stanwyck at her most manipulative since Double Indemnity but the surrounding performances are impressive as satellites to her cunning. Adapted by Robert Rossen (and an uncredited Robert Riskin)  from playwright John Patrick’s short story Love Lies Bleeding, this plays fast and loose with love and death, desire and obsession, betrayal and murder, marriage and entrapment. The pickup between Heflin and Scott is really something and the dialogue is really striking – just look at the way the Bible crops up at crucial plot points. Stanwyck’s string of extra-marital affairs reveals a longing for sex not often portrayed in Hollywood films of the era. Douglas makes an impressive debut as the weak husband just as capable of lying. The twisting DNA spiral of guilt and secrecy plays out brilliantly as these conflicted personalities bump up against one another in a deadly game. And what a twist(ed) ending! Listen to how the rain hits the windows of that fabulous house during some of the toughest conversations – talk about atmospheric! The cinematography by Victor Miler and score by Miklós Rósza are quite splendid. Directed by Lewis Milestone.

Cape Fear (1962)

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From my limited knowledge of human nature, Max Cady isn’t a man who makes idle threats. After an eight-year prison sentence for rape, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) targets Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), one of the lawyers who sent him away. When Max finds Sam and his family, he begins a terrifying stalking spree, intending to ruin Sam’s life. Desperate to protect his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin), Sam makes every effort to send Max back to jail. But when his attempts fail, Sam realizes that he must take matters into his own hands if he wants to rid his life of Max for good after he targets his family and makes the lewdest of provocative suggestions to the Councillor …  The great John D. MacDonald’s novel The Executioners was adapted by James R. Webb and director J. Lee Thompson turns the whole kit and caboodle into something absolutely sensational:  a crime thriller that has an extraordinary pair of performances at its helm and a great sense of place. Peck (reunited with his Guns of Navarone helmer) is the relentlessly decent family man driven to violence and Mitchum is extraordinary as the horrifically lascivious crim who says and does everything imaginable to torture him, playing the system to its limits for all it’s worth while Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas are on both their tails. Brilliantly shot, paced and designed and totally enervating. Fabulous.

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

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Who knows what men are really capable of?  We all wear pantomime masks.  It’s 1880 and Victorian London is gripped with fear as a serial killer is on the loose leaving cryptic messages written in the blood of his victims who appear to have no connection with each other. As the body count mounts the mystery becomes increasingly outlandish and blame falls on the mythical creature of Jewish lore – the golem. With few leads and increasing public pressure, Scotland Yard assigns the case to Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy), a seasoned detective whose homosexual inclinations prevent his promotion and who suspects that he’s being set up to fail. Faced with a long list of suspects, Kildare must rely on help from a witness to stop the murders and bring the maniac to justice… Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful Victorian novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem gets a suitably OTT workout here but Jane Goldman’s adaptation misses a trick or three and doesn’t entirely sustain the plot (you’ll guess the killer very quickly). There’s a lot to like, particularly in the interplay between Nighy and Daniel Mays as Constable George Flood which is put to the forefront of this interpretation but the rivalry with Inspector Roberts (Peter Sullivan) is badly underwritten. A game cast including Douglas Booth as the legendary Leno, Eddie Marsan as Uncle, Sam Reid as failed playwright John Cree, Olivia Cooke as his wife and surprisingly literate former music hall performer Lizzie and even Paul Ritter bringing up the rear as a librarian, do a lot in a good-looking production. It’s not often Karl Marx and George Gissing are suspected of serial murders! And Nighy deepens his usual bonhomie with barely concealed emotion. However the misguided construction means that this never really comes over the way you’d expect given the powerful origins of the tale and ultimately it fails to reconcile the male and female stories in this multifaceted portrait of sex and violence.  Directed by Juan Carlos Medina.

Marathon Man (1976)

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How am I to fathom your mind if you continue to hide it from me?  Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a Columbia graduate student and long-distance runner who has just enrolled in a doctoral seminar with Prof. Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver) where his focus will be the fate of his father a fellow historian driven to suicide in the McCarthy era purely on the grounds of his Judaism.  He is oblivious to the fact that his older brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), is not in fact an oil executive but a government agent chasing down a Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) and who is almost murdered by a blue-eyed Asian hitman in a Paris hotel. Doc visits Babe in NYC and meets his girlfriend the allegedly Swiss Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller) whom he figures out immediately as one of Szell’s couriers. Babe doesn’t believe there’s a bad bone in her body.  Doc is murdered and his colleague Janeway (William Devane) tells Babe the muggers who ambushed him in Central Park are Szell’s henchmen but they won’t come for him tonight – but they do, and Babe is held at the end of Szell’s dentist’s drill constantly being asked Is it safe?  He is caught in the middle of a transaction being expedited by The Division who clean up matters arising from disagreements between Washington and the CIA ...  Director John Schlesinger reunited with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman to make this iconic paranoid thriller adaptation by William Goldman of his 1974 novel which invokes all sorts of historic nightmares not to mention the fear of unnecessary dental surgery. For a liberal pacifist you have some sense of vengeance Doc tells Babe when he realises he still has the gun their father used to blow his brains out. The last time I saw this was in the middle of another sleepless night during a three-month bout of glandular fever and the words Is it safe? made it impossible for me to recover, for, oh, probably another month at that point. There might be plotholes you could drive a truck through that not even Robert Towne’s putative and uncredited rewrite fixed but even fully conscious and in broad daylight it remains a transfixing piece of work whose echoes are still felt. The schematic structure is emblematic of a film whose many well-constructed sequences take place in famous locations – Columbia, Central Park, the diamond district, where Szell is recognised by two of his victims. Szell! Der Weisse Engel! shrieks a camp survivor as the old Nazi is ironically forced to get a price for his diamonds from the very race he tortured and executed with extreme prejudice thirty years earlier. The entire text is replete with such irony, expressed by Janeway in the line Everything we do cuts both ways after he supposedly rescues Babe only to deliver him back to the Nazi. The dialogue is biting and great:  I believe in my country/So did we all. Michael Small’s score is superb with a real feel for the emotive fraternal and familial issues underlying the narrative action whose logic turns on the notion of history itself and the versions of truth which we tell ourselves and in turn are told to keep us happy.  He did much the same job on The Parallax View, another paranoid conspiracy thriller whose similarly allusive style (and on which Towne also did some controversial rewrite work during a writers’ strike) makes it the best political film of its time. It looks incredible, thanks to Conrad Hall. Oh the Seventies really had great films. Nowadays they’d probably give Szell a sympathetic backstory. Not so much in real life for Keller whose father actually was a Nazi. History is all around us in this persistent, resonant film. Pauline Kael called it a Jewish revenge fantasy. Goy veh.

Belle de Jour (1967)

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A quoi penses-tu? Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve), belle ménagère parisienne ennuyée et frigide, ne parvient pas à réconcilier ses fantasmes masochistes avec sa vie de tous les jours aux côtés de son mari Pierre (Jean Sorel), chirurgien couronné de succès. Lorsque son copain Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) mentionne un bordel secret de haut niveau dirigé par Madame Anais (Geneviève Page), Séverine commence à travailler dans la journée sous le nom de Belle de Jour: elle ne travaille qu’entre 1400 et 1700 heures. Elle perd son instinct frigide avec son mari et commence à avoir des relations sexuelles avec lui. Mais quand un de ses clients, un gangster nommé Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), devient possessif et tire sur son mari dans un accès de pique, elle doit essayer de retrouver sa vie normale mais Henri est déterminé à lui faire part de ses soupçons … La satire magistrale de Luis Bunuel est une adaptation du roman de Joseph Kessel de 1928 et l’interprétation de Jean-Claude Carrière et Bunuel n’est rien moins qu’ingénieux – à parts égales la comédie noire et la fantaisie surréaliste. La performance de Deneuve est tendue et évasive, terne et autosatisfaite, la bourgeoise ultime – juste regarder sa réaction à l’assistante du tenanciere de la maison close qui compatit à devoir satisfaire le grand Chinois avec une boîte mystérieuse: Deneuve savoure le sexe avec lui et le sourire de son chat tout. Il y a tant de choses à recommander sur ce travail audacieux d’un auteur dans son apogée: la cinématographie de Sacha Vierny vient d’être créée; les costumes d’Yves Saint-Laurent en font l’ultime film de mode; le terme «belle de jour» est maintenant un jargon commun de son incarnation précédente comme un jeu de mots sur le terme français «belle de nuit» ou prostituée. C’est tout simplement magnifique. Voyez-le avant de mourir.


					

Videodrome (1983)

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This has something you don’t have Max. It has a philosophy. And that’s what makes it dangerous. Max Renn (James Woods) is the director of a UHF TV channel operating out of Toronto in the early 80s looking for new material. He picks up a channel specialising in torture and violence which appears to be operating out of Pittsburgh. When his new girlfriend radio host Nikki Brand (Blondie’s Debbie Harry) disappears and turns up in one of their snuff movies he finds out too late that his violent hallucinations are happening because of what he’s been exposed to on videotapes which aren’t being broadcast at all – they’re being targeted at powerful people to exert mind control in a disintegrating society … David Cronenberg’s film has such a predictive quality despite some yucky special effects by Rick Baker. Made a decade before the internet became public, this is a satirical disquisition on the dangers of virtual reality and the closing of the distance between hard and soft technology – just watch what Woods does with his own abdomen, the new slot for a live VCR that has a direct connection with his brain! After Scanners made him famous this is the body horror that Cronenberg brought to bear on the idea of censorship and the belief run riot in those days that watching violent films bred violence in the viewer.  Woods’ ‘paranoid intellectualism’ as Cronenberg has it is just the disparaging stance that this subject needs to express this film’s very black comedy.  Long live the new flesh indeed.

Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

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I was being romantic then you go and disturb me with your kinky fuckery.  Sex is ever thus. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is assistant to a fiction editor Jack Hyde (!) (Eric Johnson) at a publishing company and he has designs on her. She bumps into Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) at an exhibition where her friend’s giant photos of her are the star attraction – and he’s bought them all. He inveigles his way back into her life, screws her, has her boss fired after he comes on to her, and then she gets his job. Only trouble is a girl is following her – subplot one. It’s Christian’s previous submissive – who bows before him causing Ana to have a crisis of at least two minutes because she knows she will never kneel down when he tells her! Then Christian asks her to move in and he instructs her once again. Then he nearly dies in a helicopter crash – except he doesn’t. At his birthday party he announces their engagement and the woman who introduced him to S&M (Kim Basinger) gets teed off and his mom (Marcia Gay Harden) hears about it and banishes her. Like the one night stand that stays for breakfast, this nonsense will just not go away and they even had the cheek to include Jeff Buckley and The Police on the soundtrack. Ms Johnson’s clothes slip off as regularly as Dornan’s accent and it’s all as smooth as those Ben Wa balls. Allegedly not as filthy as the books by E.L. James this is still shit. Barely plotted, it was adapted by Niall Leonard (her husband). Directed by James Foley.

Goat (2016)

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Not being a) male or b) someone who feels compelled to join anything, the appeal of fraternities is admittedly beyond my ken. However this account of Brad Land’s initiation to his older brother Brett’s Phi Sigma Mu house at the end of the 1990s is worth a look, if only to illustrate the desperate measures men take to prove themselves. Brad (Ben Schnetzer) is brutally mugged over the summer and is still feeling the after-effects when he goes to Clemson. The hazing he endures during hell week is overseen by Brett (Nick Jonas) who is conflicted about his entry to the group and it includes being ordered to either drink a keg or have sex with a goat. The devastation that occurs following one seemingly innocuous fruit-pelting incident brings matters to a head, as it were. Adapted from Land’s memoir by David Gordon Green with a rewrite by Mike Roberts and director Andrew Neel, this won’t make you feel much different about these nonsensical and violent rituals but Schnetzer and Jonas both give good performances and this is really a story of brothers and what it takes to bring them back together after a mugging drives them apart. There is no real sense of the outside world or sense prevailing, no view of the college at large or other interactions – except partying with some dumb drunk girls. James Franco was instrumental in getting this made and has a supporting role as a big man no longer on campus but keen to get his top off. And just look at those pecs in the titles sequence! Homo sapiens?! (I’m being ironic, obv. Unlike the participants.)

True Deception (2016)

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Aka The Adderall Diaries. Written and directed by Pamela Romanowsky this James Franco-starrer (he also produced) is an adaptation of a misery memoir by ‘orphaned’ writer Stephen Elliott whose inconveniently live father shows up to wreck his reputation and publishing deals. At the same time he becomes obsessed with a murder case involving millionaire Hans Reisner (Christian Slater) who’s accused of killing his wife;  and sexually involved with a journalist (Amber Heard) who’s had a bad childhood herself. Much of the story is compressed into conflicting montages and competing flashbacks squeezed into a relatively short running time of 83 minutes so it’s hard to reconcile the somewhat wasted star power with the narrative. The mirroring idea of the villainous murdering father on trial is a rather obvious metaphor, real or not, and the writer’s block being solved by a true crime is verbally compared with Capote and Mailer. But the writing process remains mysterious and the scenes with Slater are fairly perfunctory. Cynthia Nixon shows up as one of the few drug-free actors in this narcissist’s psychodrama. One wonders why Franco was drawn to playing this role following True Story (2015). However the main interest here and maybe for him is seeing two very pretty people in an S&M relationship with some scenes rather reminiscent of Madonna’s great embarrassment, Body of Evidence. Memories are made of this. Sigh.