Category Archives: Gangsters

SIFF 2017: Godspeed **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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This neo-noir “buddy film” from Taiwanese writer-director Chung Mung-Hong concerns an aging, life-tired taxi driver (Hong Kong comedian Michael Hui) who unwittingly picks up a twitchy young drug mule (Na Dow). Blackly comic cat-and-mouse games involving rivaling mobsters ensue as the pair are pushed into an intercity road trip, with their fates now inexorably intertwined. If the setup rings a bell, yes, it is very reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Collateral, but unfortunately not in the same league. It’s not the actors’ fault; the two leads are quite good. The problem lies in the uneven pacing (an overlong and gratuitous torture scene stops the film in its tracks). Likely too many slow patches for action fans, yet too much jolting violence for those partial to road movies. It does have its moments, and I’m sure there is an audience for it, but I’m just not sure who.

One froggy evening: Yakuza Apocalypse **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 10, 2015)

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If you were to put Van Helsing, Highlander, Forbidden Zone, Godzilla and Youth of the Beast into a blender, and then splash the puree onto a blank movie screen Jackson Pollack style, you would end up with something resembling Takeshi Miike’s Yakuza Apocalypse.

Near as I could figure, the “story” centers on a yakuza boss who is magnanimous toward, and beloved by, the “civilians” of the (Neighborhood? City?) he lords over; as for his rivals in the criminal underworld…not so much. Oh, did I mention that he’s also a vampire? As this can give one an enormous advantage over one’s enemies (being already dead tends to make you immune to assassination), he’s been the top dog for a long time.

However, this dog’s about to have his day. I mean, any vampire yakuza boss with half a brain will tell you that you’re in deep shit when a guy who dresses like a pilgrim blows into town with a mini-coffin strapped to his back and a blunderbuss in his sash, announcing himself as an emissary of the actual underworld and cryptically warning anyone who will listen that “he” is coming. And so the boss finally meets his doom (don’t ask), but not before biting his most trusted lieutenant on the neck, thereby passing on his awesome vampire powers. The freshly anointed boss has his work cut out for him; according to a “kappa goblin” (a guy with a beak, chronic halitosis, and a turtle shell growing out of his back), his town is about to have a visitation from the “world’s toughest terrorist”, a badass dude with an agenda that is “…so chilling, you gotta laugh.”

Are you following all of this so far? Shall I go on?

Fret not; for I shan’t, because from this point onward, it gets sort of hazy. There’s something about the end of the world, and a magic ring, but otherwise it’s just yelling, shape-shifting and martial arts shenanigans. There’s also too many superfluous characters jamming up an already needlessly busy storyline. I’ll admit that I got a few chuckles watching the “world’s toughest terrorist” deliver roundhouse kicks in his Teletubbie suit (that can’t be easy), and “Gander all you want at my kappa-ness,” may turn out to be my favorite movie line of the year. And someday, some way, I will fully understand the significance of the knitting class in the basement, with all the students in leg irons. And on that glorious day, I will know that I have finally found the path to true enlightenment.

It’s just a jump to the Left (of Miami): Top 10 Cuba films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2015)

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There’s just something about (Castro’s) Cuba that affects (U.S. presidential) administrations like the full moon affects a werewolf. There’s no real logic at work here.

-an interviewee from the documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro

The Obama administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this President…

from Gov. Jeb Bush’s official Facebook statement, December 2014

Pardon me for interrupting, Jeb. October of 1962 just called…it wants its zeitgeist back.

the author of this post

 

 Although you wouldn’t guess it from the odd perfunctory mention that managed to squeeze in edgewise through the ongoing 24/7 Donald Trump coverage dominating the MSM, that flag raising at the American embassy in Cuba yesterday, coinciding with the first official visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in 70 (seventy) years was kind of a big deal.

Wasn’t it?

Maybe it’s just me (silly old peacenik that I am). Anyway, in honor of this auspicious occasion, here are my picks for the top 10 films with a Cuban theme. Alphabetically:

Bananas– Yes, I know. This 1971 Woody Allen film takes place in the fictional banana republic of “San Marcos”, but the mise en scene is an obvious stand-in for Cuba. There are also numerous allusions to the Cuban revolution, not the least of which is the ridiculously fake beard donned at one point by hapless New Yawker Fielding Mellish (Allen) after he finds himself swept up in Third World revolutionary politics. Naturally, it all starts with Allen’s moon-eyed desire for a woman completely out of his league, an attractive activist (Louise Lasser). The whole setup is utterly absurd…and an absolute riot. This is pure comic genius at work. Howard Cosell’s (straight-faced) contribution is priceless. Allen co-wrote with his Take the Money and Run collaborator, Mickey Rose.

Buena Vista Social Club- This engaging 1999 music documentary was the brainchild of musician Ry Cooder, director Wim Wenders, and the film’s music producer Nick Gold. Guitarist/world music aficionado Cooder coaxes a number of venerable Cuban players out of retirement (most of whom had their careers rudely interrupted by the Revolution and its aftermath) to cut a collaborative album, and Wenders is there to capture what ensues (as well as ever-cinematic Havana) in his inimitable style. He weaves in footage of some of the artists as they make their belated return to the stage, playing to enthusiastic fans in Europe and the U.S. It’s a tad over-praised, but well worth your time.

Che– Let’s get this out of the way. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no martyr. By the time he was captured and executed by CIA-directed Bolivian Special Forces in 1967, he had put his own fair share of people up against the wall in the name of the Revolution. Some historians have called him “Castro’s brain”. That said, there is no denying that he was a complex, undeniably charismatic and fascinating individual. By no means your average revolutionary guerrilla leader, he was well-educated, a physician, a prolific writer (from speeches and essays on politics and social theory to articles, books and poetry), a shrewd diplomat and had a formidable intellect. He was also a brilliant military tactician. Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriters (Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen) adapted their absorbing (two-part) 4 ½ hour biopic from Guevara’s autobiographical accounts. Whereas Part 1 (aka The Argentine) is a fairly straightforward biopic, Part 2 (aka Guerilla) reminded me of two fictional films with an existential bent, both of which are also set in torpid and unforgiving South American locales-Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Like the doomed protagonists in those films, Guevara is fully committed to his journey into the heart of darkness, and has no choice but to cast his fate to the wind and let it all play out. Star Benicio del Toro shines.

The Godfather, Part II– While Cuba may not be the primary setting for Francis Ford Coppola’s superb 1974 sequel to The Godfather, it is the location for a key section of the narrative where powerful mob boss Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) travels to pre-Castro Havana to consider a possible business investment. He has second thoughts after witnessing a disturbing incident involving an anti-Batista rebel. And don’t forget that the infamous “kiss of death” scene takes place at Batista’s opulent New Year’s Eve party…just as the guests learn Castro and his merry band of revolutionaries have reached the outskirts of the city and are duly informed by their host…that they are on their own! And remember, if you want to order a banana daiquiri in Spanish, it’s “banana daiquiri”.

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay– Picking up where they left off in their surprise stoner comedy hit Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, roomies Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) excitedly pack their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board. Since it is a homemade, cylindrical device containing liquid, it resembles another four-letter noun that starts with a “b”. When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic appearance, catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by a jingoistic government spook and issued orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster. Through circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they break out of Cuba, and hitch a boat ride to Florida. This sets off a series of cross-country misadventures, mostly through the South (imagine the possibilities). As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top their predicament, the funnier it gets. It’s crass, even vulgar; but it’s somehow good-naturedly crass and vulgar, in a South Park kind of way. Also like South Park, the goofiness is embedded with sharp political barbs.

I Am Cuba– There is a knee-jerk tendency in some quarters to dismiss this 1964 film about the Cuban revolution out of hand as pure Communist propaganda, and little else. Granted, it was produced with the full blessing of Castro’s regime, who partnered with the Soviet government to provide the funding for Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov’s sprawling epic. Despite the dubious backing, the director was given a surprising amount of artistic leeway; what resulted was, yes, from one perspective a propagandist polemic, but also a visually intoxicating cinematic masterpiece that remains (accolades from cineastes and critics aside) curiously unheralded. The narrative is divided into a quartet of one-act dramas about Cuba’s salt of the earth; exploited workers, dirt-poor farmers, student activists, and rebel guerrilla fighters. However, the real stars here are the director and his technical crew, who leave you pondering how in the hell they produced some of those jaw-dropping set pieces (and if you think Birdman has tracking shots, think again).

The Mambo Kings– Look in the dictionary under “pulsating”, and you will likely see the poster for Arme Glimcher’s underrated 1992 melodrama about two musician brothers (Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas) who flee Cuba in the mid-1950s to seek fame and fortune in America. Hugely entertaining, with fiery performances by the two leads, great support from Cathy Moriarty and Maruschka Detmers, topped off by a fabulous soundtrack. Tito Puente gives a rousing cameo performance, and in a bit of stunt casting Desi Arnaz, Jr. is on hand to play (wait for it) Desi Arnaz, Sr. (who helps the brothers get their career going). Cynthia Cidre adapted her screenplay from Oscar Hijuelos’ novel.

Our Man in Havana– A decade after their collaboration on the 1949 classic, The Third Man, director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene reunited for this wonderfully droll 1960 screen adaptation of Greene’s seriocomic novel. Alec Guinness gives one of his more memorable performances as an English vacuum cleaner shop owner living in pre-revolutionary Havana. Strapped for cash, he accepts an offer from Her Majesty’s government to do a little moonlighting for the British Secret Service. Finding himself with nothing to report, he starts making things up so he can stay on the payroll. Naturally, this gets him into a pickle as he keeps digging himself into a deeper hole. Reed filmed on location, which gives us an interesting snapshot of Havana on the cusp of the Castro era.

Scarface– Make way for the bad guy. Bad guy comin’ through. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is a bad, bad, bad, bad man, a Cuban immigrant who comes to America as part of the 1980 Mariel boat lift. A self-proclaimed “political refugee”, Tony, like the millions of immigrants before him who made this country great, aims to secure his piece of the American Dream. However, he’s a bit impatient. He espies a lucrative shortcut via Miami’s thriving cocaine trade, which he proves very adept at (because he’s very ruthless). Everything about this film is waaay over the top; Pacino’s performance, Brian De Palma’s direction, Oliver Stone’s screenplay, the mountains of coke and the piles of bodies. Yet, it remains a guilty pleasure; I know I’m not alone in this (c’mon, admit it!).

638 Ways to Kill Castro- History buffs (and conspiracy-a-go-go enthusiasts) will definitely want a peek at British director Dolan Cannell’s documentary. Mixing archival footage with talking heads (including a surprising number of would-be assassins), Cannell highlights some of the attempts by the U.S. government to knock off Fidel over the years. The number (638) of “ways” is derived from a list compiled by former members of Castro’s security team. Although Cannell initially plays for laughs (many of the schemes sound like they were hatched by Wile E. Coyote) the tone becomes more sobering. The most chilling revelation concerns the 1976 downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off Barbados (73 people killed). One of the alleged masterminds was Orlando Bosch, an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida (he had participated in CIA-backed actions in the past). When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80s, many Republicans rallied to have him pardoned, including Florida congresswoman Ileana Ross, who used her involvement with the “Free Orlando Bosch” campaign as part of her running platform. Her campaign manager was a young up and coming politician named (wait for it) Jeb! Long story short? Jeb’s Pappy then-president George Bush Sr. granted Bosch a pardon in 1990. Oh, what a tangled web, Jeb! BTW, Bosch was once publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General (don’t get me started).

R.I.P. Bob Hoskins

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 3, 2014)

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1942-2014

According to most of the perfunctory obits on the network newscasts and such over the past several days, the only work of note by the late great British actor Bob Hoskins was his starring role in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Yes, I’m sure we can all agree that was an entertaining romp (if a wee bit overrated) and Hoskins (who never gave a bad performance in his life, despite the material he may have had to work with at times) proved that he could hold his ground against a bevy of scene-stealing cartoon characters, but as far as I’m concerned, that was strictly a paycheck gig. Granted, at a casual glance this guy may have reminded you more of your 10th grade shop teacher than say, George Clooney, but hand him a juicy character role that he could really sink his teeth into, and he’d go straight for the jugular, tearing up the screen like a fucking Cockney Brando. Standing 5 foot 6 and built like a fireplug, he could appear as huge and menacing as a killer grizzly, or as benign and vulnerable as a teddy bear. For a true appreciation of what Hoskins was “about”, just check out his more “actor-ly” movies…like my top five picks:

Felicia’s Journey– Due to its disturbing subject matter, writer-director Atom Egoyan’s 1999 psychological thriller/character study does not make for an easy watch, but it does provide an ideal showcase for Hoskins to fully flex his instrument. He plays an introverted, middle aged man named Joseph who works as a catering manager. He is obsessed with his late mother, who was a TV chef. He whiles away evenings in his kitchen, cooking in tandem with Mom via old videotapes of her program (while Egoyan’s film is not a comedy, Hoskins’ portrayal has echoes of Rod Steiger’s creepy “Mr. Joyboy” in The Loved One). As he strikes up an unlikely friendship with an equally insular young Irish woman named Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), who is in search of the cad who left her in the lurch after getting her pregnant, there are disturbing reveals about Joseph’s past that will have you wishing that Felicia would magically heed your fruitless pleas to get herself far away from this man, and quickly. As he does in most of his films, Egoyan uses a non-linear narrative and deliberate pacing to build up to a powerfully emotional denouement.

Inserts– If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once co-starred in an “X” rated movie, would you believe me? This largely forgotten 1976 film from director John Byrum was dismissed as pretentious dreck by many critics at the time, but nearly 40 years on, it begs reappraisal as a fascinating curio in the careers of those involved. Dreyfuss plays “Wonder Boy”, a Hollywood whiz kid director who peaked early; now he’s a “has-been”, living in his bathrobe, drinking heavily and casting junkies and wannabe-starlets for pornos he produces on the cheap in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins steals all his scenes as Wonder Boy’s sleazy producer, Big Mac (who is aptly named; as he has plans to open a chain of hamburger joints!). The story is set in 1930s Hollywood, and as deliciously decadent wallows in the squalid side of show biz go, it would make a perfect double feature with The Day of the Locust.

The Long Good Friday– If I had to whittle it down to my “#1” favorite Hoskins performance (no simple task), it would be the one he gives as “Harold Shand”, in John Mackenzie’s 1980 Brit noir. Harold is a “hard” Cockney gangster boss, on the verge of forging an ambitious alliance with an American crime syndicate. Unfortunately, a local rival is bent on throwing a spanner in the works, using any means necessary. Harold finds himself in a race against time to find out who is responsible before “they” succeed in sabotaging the deal. Screenwriter Barrie Keeffe has a keen ear for dialog, and applies dabs of subtle dark humor throughout. Cinematographer Phil Meheux makes great use of London locales. Helen Mirren is a standout as Harold’s mistress, who also serves as his unofficial (and formidable) consigliere (Hoskins and Mirren reunited onscreen for the 2001 film Last Orders). In the film’s closing scene (a lengthy, uninterrupted close up of Harold’s face) Hoskins delivers a master class in acting, without uttering one word of dialog. Gritty, brutal and uncompromising, this ranks as one of the best British crime films of all time.

Mona Lisa– Hoskins gives a nuanced, Oscar-nominated turn as a “thug with a heart of gold” in Neil Jordan’s brilliant crime fable. Fresh out of stir, Hoskins is offered a gig by his ex-boss, a London crime lord for whom he took the fall (Michael Caine). Hoskins becomes the chauffeur for a high class call girl (Cathy Tyson) who serves select clientele in discreet liaisons at posh hotels. The pair’s “oil and water” personality mix gets them off to a dicey start, but their relationship morphs into something unexpectedly rich and meaningful (and it’s not what you’re thinking). The twists and turns keep you riveted up to the end. Hoskins and Tyson have great screen chemistry (like a streetwise Tracy and Hepburn) which injects this otherwise unsettling tale with much genuine heart and soul.

Pennies From Heaven (Original BBC TV version)- Written by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), this 1978 production is rife with Potter’s signature themes: sexual frustration, marital infidelity, religious guilt, shattered dreams and quiet desperation…broken up by an occasional, completely incongruous song and dance number (Potter was a fabulous writer, but I would never want to be in his head). Hoskins gives a superb, heartbreaking performance as a married traveling sheet music salesman living in Depression-era England. His life takes interesting turns once he is smitten by a young rural schoolteacher (Cheryl Campbell) who lives with her widowed father and two creepy brothers. It’s best described as a ‘film noir musical’. Far superior to the ill-advised U.S. feature film remake released several years later (with Steve Martin in the lead role).

 

SIFF 2014: White Shadow ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Hullabaloo on May 17, 2014)

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Israeli director Noaz Deshe’s impressive, strikingly photographed debut is a character/cultural study about the travails of a young albino Tanzanian. There’s also a “ripped from the headlines” element; According to a 2013 U.N. report on human rights, there has been an escalation of horrifying attacks on albinos in Tanzania, because (there’s no delicate way to put this) their organs and body parts have become a high-demand commodity for witch doctors (who use them in rituals and potions). Such is the possible fate for Alias (Hamisi Bazili), sent by his mother to live with his uncle (James Gayo) after witnessing his father’s brutal murder. As if it wasn’t tough enough for bush-dwelling Alias to adjust to life in the big city, his uncle is in debt to gangsters. The subtext recalls Peter Weir’s The Last Wave; a modernized indigenous society struggling to shake off archaic superstitions without losing their sense of cultural identity.

Blu-ray reissue: Prime Cut ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2014)

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Prime Cut – Explosive Media Blu-ray

This offbeat 1972 “heartland noir” from director Michael Ritchie features one of my favorite Lee Marvin performances. He’s a cleaner for an Irish mob out of Chicago who is sent to collect an overdue payment from a venal, sociopathic livestock rancher (Gene Hackman) with the unlikely moniker of “Mary Ann”. In addition to overseeing his meat packing plant (where the odd debt collector ends up as sausage filler), Mary Ann maintains a (literal) stable of naked, heavily sedated young women for auction. He protects his spread with a small army of disturbingly uber-Aryan young men who look like they were cloned in a secret Nazi lab. It gets even weirder, yet the film has an oddly endearing quality; perhaps due to its blend of pulpy thrills, dark comedy and ironic detachment. It’s fun watching Hackman and Marvin go mano a mano; and seeing Sissy Spacek in her film debut. Explosive Media skimps on extras, but boasts a sharp transfer.

Blu-ray reissue: Tokyo Drifter ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 30, 2012)

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Tokyo Drifter– Criterion Collection Blu-ray

The key to understanding what makes this existential hit man thriller from Japan’s Nikkatsu studios so uniquely entertaining…is to not try to understand it. Don’t get hung up on silly conventions like “narrative coherence”; just turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. If that sounds like the reassuring counsel someone might give to a friend who is taking their first acid trip…you’re right.

Because when this film was made (1966), an awful lot of people were taking their first acid trip, including director Seijun Suzuki (at least that’s my theory). The “drifter” of the title is a yakuza with a strong personal code (and really cool Ray-Bans) who is trying to go legit…but of course, “they pull him back in”. But as he does not wish to dishonor his boss/mentor, who is also trying to get out of the game, he splits the big city to wander Japan and let the chips fall where they may, as members of various rival gangs dog his every step.

Highly stylized and visually exhilarating, this is a real treat for lovers of pure cinema. Suzuki’s wild mash-up of genres, which quotes everything from French New Wave to James Bond and westerns to film noir, was pretty bold stuff for its time, and it’s obvious that postmodernists like Tarantino have watched it once or twice. Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer dazzles the senses.

SIFF 2012: Keyhole **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2012)

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Immersing yourself in the world of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin is not unlike entering a fever dream you might have after dropping acid and trying to get back to sleep…after waking up inside somebody else’s nightmare. If that sentence made sense to you, you might find Keyhole worth a peek. Any attempt to offer a cogent synopsis of a Guy Maddin film usually ends in tears, but I’ll try:

A Roaring 20s gangster (Jason Patric) comes home after a long absence, schlepping a corpse and a hostage. His gun-toting crew encamps in the living room, and his house is surrounded by coppers. Patric’s primary concern, however, is getting upstairs to reconnect with the wife (Isabella Rossellini). Unfortunately, it takes him 90 minutes to get up the goddamn stairs. Did I mention the protagonist’s name…Ulysses? It’s a Homeric journey, get it?

Reminiscent of Ken Russell’s Gothic, another metaphorical long day’s journey into night via the labyrinth of an old dark house. And, like Russell’s film, Maddin’s is visually intoxicating, but ultimately undermined by an overdose of art house pretension and self-indulgent excess.

The punk and the godfather: Brighton Rock (2010) **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 10, 2011)

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It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. Couldn’t the test of man have been carried out in fewer years? Couldn’t we have committed our first major sin at seven, have ruined ourselves for love or hate at ten, have clutched at redemption on a fifteen-year-old deathbed?

 -Graham Greene, from The Heart of the Matter

 Did you ever get on a kick with a writer? It can be quite a passionate love affair. When I was in my early 20s, a friend loaned me a dog-eared paperback copy of The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene. The diamond-cut prose, compelling narrative, and thematic depth left me gob smacked. “Ah,” I thought, “so this must be that ‘literature’ of which they speak.” It was time to put Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean behind me and kick it up a notch (when I was a child, I thought as a child, etc.). I had to have more of this.

And so it was that I got on a Graham Greene kick, voraciously devouring virtually every word that he ever fought from his pen. As I plowed through the oeuvre, I began to notice prevalent themes emerging; most notably that whole Catholic thing (for someone like me, with a Jewish mother and a Protestant father, it was theologically fascinating). There was much ado about guilt, mortal sin, clutching at redemption, moral failure, lapsed faith…and more guilt. But you could still “dance to it” (in a literary sense).

The rich complexity and narrative appeal of Greene’s “theological thrillers” certainly has not been lost on filmmakers over the years; nearly all of his novels have been adapted for the screen (with mixed results). Most have been dramas and film noirs, like the The Fallen Idol, This Gun for Hire (based on A Gun for Sale), The Ministry of Fear, The Fugitive (based on The Power and the Glory), The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair (with a 1955 and 1999 version), The Quiet American (twice-made, in 1958 and 2002) and two uncharacteristically light-hearted entries-Our Man in Havana and Travels with my Aunt. All the aforementioned are worthwhile, but if pressed to pick my personal favorite Greene-to-screen, it would be John Boulting’s 1947 noir thriller, Brighton Rock.

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That film was memorable on several counts. It was stylishly directed (Boulting later helmed one of the early nuclear paranoia thrillers, Seven Days to Noon and the classic comedy I’m All Right, Jack), well-scripted (by Greene himself, along with Terence Rattigan) and topped off by then 24 year-old Richard Attenborough’s indelible portrayal of the central character, a ruthless and ambitious hood named Pinkie Brown.

In fact, Attenborough so thoroughly inhabits the creepy, sociopathic Pinkie that you find it difficult to connect the actor who plays this hateful little punk with the future Oscar-winning director of Gandhi (by then addressed as ‘Sir’ Richard). Any way you slice it, a tough act to follow, for anyone attempting to do a remake. And guess what-someone has.

For the new BBC Films production of Brighton Rock writer-director Rowan Joffe has, for the most part, kept original characters, chief plot points and thematic subtexts intact, but moved the time period to the 1960s. The story is set in 1964 Brighton; on the eve of the infamous Mods vs. Rockers youth riots which took place at the popular English seaside resort that year (shades of Quadrophenia). Sam Riley tackles the Pinkie Brown role. Pinkie is a low-rung mobster who has been scheming for dominance of his gang.

When his mentor (Geoff Bell) is killed by a rival outfit that is attempting to monopolize the local gambling racket, Pinkie sees an opportunity to upgrade his own status by proactively seeking vengeance on his friend’s killer (Sean Harris). In their haste to grab the intended victim Pinkie and his cohorts get sloppy and involve an innocent ‘civilian’, a naïve young waitress named Rose (Andrea Riseborough). A ‘pavement photographer’, intending to take a picture of Rose, inadvertently gets an incriminating shot of the soon-to-be murder victim and his abductors. When Pinkie learns that Rose has a claim ticket for the photo, he ingratiates himself into her life, pretending to be romantically interested.

Joffe’s film left me feeling a little ambivalent. While it is kind of refreshing to see a British mobster flick that isn’t attempting to out-Guy Ritchie Guy Ritchie, this version of Brighton Rock may be a little too somber and weighty for its own good. Moving the time setting to 1964 doesn’t detract from the original, but it doesn’t necessarily improve on it, either (and did it really need ‘improving’?).

In fact, large chunks of the film are essentially a shot-by-shot remake of the 1947 version. Joffe’s version exudes more of a Hitchcockian vibe; it is particularly reminiscent of Suspicion. While Riley’s portrayal of Pinky has a brooding intensity,  it lacks  a certain subtlety that Attenborough brought to the character in the original.

In Greene’s original novel, Pinkie is described by Rose as someone who, despite his youth, seems to “know” he is “damned”, and all of his actions are predicated on this feeling of quasi-religious predestination. Attenborough, I think, embodies that perfectly, while Riley simply comes off as preternaturally evil, like a boogeyman.

Dame Helen Mirren feels a wasted as Rose’s employer Ida, who is suspicious of Pinkie and becomes a thorn in his side; oddly, her character (crucial in the book and the 1947 film) seems to have been downgraded. The usually wonderful John Hurt barely registers; not really his fault as his character is underwritten. The ubiquitous Andy Serkis chews the scenery in a couple of scenes, as the rival mob’s boss, and there is a standout supporting performance from Philip Davis (whose presence also brings a sort of symmetry to the Quadrophenia connection; he played ‘Chalky’, one of the teenage Mods  in Franc Roddam’s eponymous 1979 film). There are worse sins than watching Joffe’s film, but if you prefer to clutch at redemption, rent the original.

Criterion peddles Kubrick’s noir cycle: The Killing **** & Killer’s Kiss ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2011)

“I like a slow start, the start that goes under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.”

-Stanley Kubrick

To someone unfamiliar with Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre, a cursory glance at his career stats (13 movies over a 46 year span) might prompt some head-scratching as to what all the fuss is about concerning his impact on the medium and influence on countless film makers. But you know the funny thing about great artists? They are defined by the quality of their work, not the quantity (after all, James Dean only starred in 3 feature films).

Indeed, a lot of filmmakers (alive or dead) should be so lucky to have but one entry in their entire catalog that could hold a candle to, say, a Paths of Glory. Or a Spartacus. Or a Lolita. Or Dr. Strangelove. Or something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, or Full Metal Jacket. Even Stanley Kubrick on a relatively “off” day (The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut) handily outclasses any number of titles “now playing at a theater near you” (speaking purely from a technical, artistic, or aesthetic standpoint).

Granted, when compared to his subsequent work, Kubrick’s independently financed 1953 feature debut Fear and Desire, does, I fear, leave much to be desired from a narrative standpoint; but everybody has to start somewhere. That being said, the film (shot, edited and post-synched by Kubrick and scripted by Howard O. Sackler) does feature masterfully composed shots that hint at the then 25 year-old Kubrick’s already highly developed sense of style.

Kubrick did his best to distance himself from the film, suppressing attempts at revivals (allegedly even hunting down prints and having them destroyed). A rare public screening in Los Angeles last fall has created buzz that a restoration and long-awaited DVD could be in the works; in the meantime we’re stuck with (what looks like) a 20th generation videotaped copy somebody posted on YouTube.

Some better news for Kubrick completists arrived earlier this week in the guise of Criterion’s “2-fer” reissue of the director’s second and third films (previously unavailable in Blu-ray editions), Killer’s Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956). The latter film gets star billing on the package, and the former is “demoted” to one of the supplements on the disc; but it’s still great to see both of these early Kubrick gems receiving Criterion’s traditionally fastidious “clean-up” and supplementation (MGM’s SD issues have been available for several years, but were “bare bones” editions with so-so transfers). These two films also represent Kubrick’s own mini noir cycle.

The most renowned of the pair, The Killing, is considered by many to be the director’s first “proper” film, as it was his first with well-known actors and to reach a sizable audience. This was also Kubrick’s first adaptation from a book (from Lionel White’s Clean Break). Legendary pulp writer Jim Thompson was enlisted to work on the screenplay (according to a supplemental interview on the Criterion disc with poet-author Robert Polito, Thompson never forgave the director for the “screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, with additional dialog by Jim Thompson” billing in the credits, when it was Thompson who allegedly contributed the lion’s share of original dialog to the script).

The Killing (nicely shot by DP Lucien Ballard, renowned in later years for his work with Sam Peckinpah) is a pulpy, taut 94-minute noir that extrapolates on the “heist gone awry” model pioneered six years earlier in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. Kubrick even nabbed one of the stars from Huston’s film, Sterling Hayden, to be his leading man.

Hayden plays the mastermind, Johnny Clay (fresh out of stir) who hatches an elaborate plan to rob the day’s receipts from a horse track. He enlists a team, including a couple of track employees (Elisha Cook, Jr. and Joe Sawyer), a wrestler (Kola Kwariani), a puppy-loving hit man (oddball character actor Timothy Carey-the John Turturro of his day) and of course, the requisite “bad” cop (Ted de Corsia).

Being a cautious planner, Johnny keeps his accomplices in the dark about any details not specific to their particular assignments. Still, the plan has to go like clockwork; if any one player falters, the gig will collapse like a house of cards. However, as occurs in The Asphalt Jungle, it’s a scourge of human weaknesses (and the femme fatale of the piece, an entertainingly trashy Marie Windsor, as Elisha Cook, Jr.’s belligerent wife) that ultimately unravels the caper.

While certain venerable conventions of the heist film are faithfully adhered to in The Killing, it’s in the way Kubrick structures the narrative that sets it apart from other such genre films of the era. The initial introduction to each of the main characters, and the account of how each man’s part in the heist itself eventually plays out, are presented in a non-linear, Rashomon-style structure. Kubrick also adds a semi-documentary feel by utilizing an omniscient narrator.

Playing with the timeline to build a network narrative-style crime caper may be cliché now, but was groundbreaking in 1956 (Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is the best modern example of liberal “borrowing” from The Killing). I’m also pretty sure that Christopher Nolan was paying homage in his 2008 film The Dark Knight, which featured a heist scene with clown-masked bank robbers (in The Killing, a shotgun-wielding Sterling Hayden hides his face in a clown mask to rob the track’s loot).

It’s been fashionable over the years for critics and film historians to marginalize Kubrick’s 1955 noir Killer’s Kiss as a “lesser” or “experimental” work by the director, but I beg to differ. The most common criticism leveled at the film is that it has a weak narrative.

On this point, I tend to agree; it’s an original story and screenplay by Kubrick, who was a neophyte at screenwriting at that time (and with hindsight being 20/20, most of his best work was borne of literary adaptations). It could be defined as simplistic (and at a 67 minute running time, plays out its plot points like, say, a weekly episode of a high-production value TV crime drama). But when you consider other elements  that go into “classic” noir, like mood, atmosphere and the expressionistic use of light and shadow, I believe that Killer’s Kiss has all that in spades, and is one of the better noirs of the 1950s.

The film opens and closes in New York’s Penn Station, with the story’s protagonist, an anxious and furtive young boxer named Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) providing a voiced-over flashback narrative as he recounts a rather eventful and life-changing week or so in his life.

Naturally, there’s a beautiful woman involved (it’s a noir rule), and her name is Gloria (Irene Kane). In this case, she’s not a femme fatale, per se, but the quintessential “nice girl next door”. Okay, she is a private dancer, working at a 10 cents a whirl joint called “Pleasureland”. So she is a “nice girl” in the “what’s a nice girl like you doing working in a place like this?” kind of way. Davey and Gloria’s apartment windows face each other across an alleyway; we see them  checking each other out in a voyeuristic manner in some early scenes; telegraphing to the audience that sooner or later, these two will be hooking up.

It is Gloria’s boss at the nightclub, a creepy, low-rent mobster sleaze named Vincent (Frank Silvera) who brings the dark elements to her life (and to the story). The two are in a relationship, about which the much older Vincent seems more enthused than Gloria. In one particularly sordid scene, Vincent yanks Gloria off the dance floor and makes her watch one of Davey’s boxing matches on TV (he knows that he lives in Gloria’s building). The violence seems to turn Vincent on, and he begins unceremoniously pawing at the reluctant Gloria; thankfully, Kubrick quickly fades to black.

A few nights later, Davey hears a woman screaming. He sees Vincent assaulting Gloria, and dashes over to help her. Vincent also gets a good look at Davey before yanking Gloria’s shade down. By the time Davey gets to Gloria’s pad, Vincent has fled. Davey comforts her, and…you can guess the rest. Vincent’s jealously-fueled rage eventually puts their lives in great danger.

There are two things I find fascinating about this film. First, I marvel at how ‘contemporary’ it looks; it doesn’t feel as dated as most films of the era (or could indicate how forward-thinking Kubrick was in terms of technique). This is due in part to the naturalistic location photography, which serves as an immersive time capsule of New York City’s street life circa 1955 (much the same way that Jules Dassin’s 1948 documentary-style noir, The Naked City preserves the NYC milieu of the late 1940s). It’s possible that Martin Scorsese may have studied this film before making Raging Bull, as there is an arresting similarity between the boxing scenes in both films, particularly in the highly stylized manner that they are photographed, lit and edited.

Second, this was a privately financed indie, so Kubrick (who served as director, writer, photographer and editor) was not beholden to any studio expectations. Hence, he was free to play around a bit with film making conventions of the time. Several scenes are eerily prescient of his future work. A dream sequence, shown in film negative, that features a sped-up tracking shot racing dizzily through Manhattan’s skyscraper canyons, immediately calls to mind the “beyond the infinite” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Then there’s a climactic showdown between Davey and Vincent, set in a storage room full of naked store mannequins, that takes a macabre, comic turn when they start whacking each other with plastic body parts, recalling the final confrontation between Humbert and Quilty amidst the discombobulated contents of the rundown mansion in Lolita, and to some degree, the scene in Clockwork Orange in which the ultra-violent Alex bludgeons one of his hapless victims to death with a comically oversized “sculpture” of a phallus.

It’s a bit tough to follow that last bit of imagery with anything, other than to say that for Kubrick fanatics, Criterion’s new edition of these two gems is the reissue of the year!