Category Archives: Heist Caper

SIFF 2021: Heist of the Century (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 10, 2021)

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A stoner heist comedy based on a true story? Stranger things have happened. In 2006, a team of robbers hit the Banco Rio in Acassuso, Argentina. They took hostages, stole $8 million in valuables and cash and escaped in a boat despite being surrounded by 200 police. They ordered pizza and soda for the hostages, sang happy birthday to one of them, and left behind toy guns and a note saying they stole “money, not love.” If that isn’t a film begging to be made, I don’t know what is. Director Ariel Winograd and screenwriters Alex Zito and Fernando Araujo have fashioned one of the most entertaining genre entries Elmore Leonard never wrote. My festival favorite so far.

R.I.P. George Segal

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 27, 2021)

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I was saddened to learn of George Segal’s passing earlier this week. I confess up front that I have zero awareness of his latter-career television work; but then again, I haven’t followed any network sitcoms with much interest since Seinfeld went off the air in 1998.

For me Segal’s visage will be forever associated with a streak of memorable film roles from the mid-60s through the late 70s (perusing his credits on the Internet Movie Database, I realized that apart from David O. Russell’s 1996 comedy Flirting with Disaster I have not seen any of Segal’s big screen work beyond Lost and Found (Melvin Frank’s disappointing 1979 sequel to his own 1973 romantic comedy A Touch of Class).

I will remember him for his masterful comic timing (he was the king of the reaction shot) but he also had great drama chops. He was also a decent banjo player (I searched in earnest for any instance where he may have jammed with Steve Martin…but alas, if it did happen, there is no extant footage). Here are my top 10 George Segal recommendations:

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Bye Bye Braverman – Viewer caution: This film contains graphic depictions of extreme Jewishness (I’m allowed to say that…I’ve lived it). A lesser-known gem from Sidney Lumet, this 1968 comedy-drama follows the escapades of four Manhattan intellectuals (Segal, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Warden and Sorrell Booke) who pile into a red Beetle and spend a Sunday afternoon schlepping around Brooklyn searching for the funeral of a mutual friend who dropped dead following a coronary. Much middle-age angst ensues.

Episodic but bolstered by wonderful performances and several memorable scenes. My favorite involves a fender-bender with the great Godfrey Cambridge, playing a fast-talking cabbie who has converted to Judaism. Another great segment features Alan King as a rabbi giving an off-the wall eulogy. A scene where Segal delivers a soliloquy about modern society while strolling through a vast cemetery will now have added poignancy.

The screenplay was adapted from Wallace Markfield’s novel by Herb Sargent, who later become a top writer for Saturday Night Live from 1975-1995. Also in the cast: Phyllis Newman, Zohra Lampert and Jessica Walter (who also passed away this week, sadly).

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California Split – While it has its share of protracted scenes and an unhurried, naturalistic rhythm you expect from Robert Altman, I think this 1974 comedy-drama is the director’s tightest, most economical film; I would even venture it’s damn near perfect.

A pro gambler (Elliot Gould) and a compulsive gambler with a straight day job (Segal) bond after getting roughed up and robbed by a sore loser and his pals in a poker parlor parking lot. Gould invites Segal to sleep over at his place, a house he shares with two self-employed sex workers (Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles). The men become gambling buddies. Soon they are mutual enablers, spiraling down the rabbit hole of their addiction.

The film doubles as a beautifully acted character study and a fascinating, documentary-like dive into the myopic, almost subterranean subculture of the degenerate gambler. As Roger Ebert put it so beautifully in his original review of the film: “This movie has a taste in its mouth like stale air-conditioning, and no matter what time it seems to be, it’s always five in the morning in a second-rate casino.” Perceptive screenplay by actor Joseph Walsh, who also has a great cameo as a menacing loan shark.

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The Hot Rock– Although it starts out as a by-the-numbers diamond heist caper, this 1972 Peter Yates film delivers a unique twist halfway through: the diamond needs to be stolen all over again (so it’s back to the drawing board). There’s even a little political intrigue in the mix. The film boasts a William Goldman screenplay (adapted from a Donald E. Westlake novel) and a knockout cast (Segal, Robert Redford Zero Mostel, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand and Moses Gunn). Redford and Segal make a great team, and the film finds a nice balance between suspense and humor. Lots of fun.

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LovingAmerican Beauty meets The Prisoner of Second Avenue in this 1970 sleeper, directed by the eclectic Irvin Kershner (A Fine Madness, The Flim-Flam Man, Eyes of Laura Mars, Never Say Never Again). Segal is in his element as a freelance commercial illustrator and suburban dad on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Dissatisfied with his own work, on the rocks with both his wife (Eva Marie Saint) and his Manhattan mistress (Janis Young), he’s fighting an existential uphill battle trying to keep everyone in his life happy.

The story builds slowly, culminating in a near-classic party scene up there with the one in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo. Patient viewers will notice the film is well constructed and despite being made 50 years ago, still has much to say about modern manners and mores (all in the space of 90 minutes). The intelligent screenplay was adapted from J.M. Ryan’s novel by Don Devlin.

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The Owl and the Pussycat – Segal plays a reclusive, egghead NYC writer and Barbra Streisand is a perfect foil in one of her best comedic turns as a profane, boisterous sex worker in this classic “oil and water” farce, directed by Herbert Ross. Serendipity throws the two odd bedfellows together one fateful evening, and the resulting mayhem is crude, lewd, and funny as hell. Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from Bill Manhoff’s original stage version. Robert Klein is wonderfully droll in a small but memorable role. My favorite line: “Doris…you’re a sexual Disneyland!”

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The Terminal Man – Paging Dr. Jekyll! Segal is excellent in the lead as a gifted computer scientist who has developed a neurological disorder which triggers murderously psychotic blackout episodes. He becomes the guinea pig for an experimental cure that requires a microchip to be planted in his brain to circumvent the attacks.

Although it’s essentially “sci-fi”, this 1974 effort shares some interesting characteristics with the post-Watergate paranoid political thrillers that all seemed to propagate around that same time (especially The Parallax View, which also broached the subject of mind control). Director Mike Hodges (who directed the original version of Get Carter) adapted his screenplay from Michael Crichton’s novel.

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A Touch of Class – Directed by Melvin Frank (The Court Jester, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) this 1973 film was co-written by the director with Jack Rose and Marvin Frank. Segal and Glenda Jackson make a great comedy tag team as a married American businessman and British divorcee who, following two chance encounters in London, realize there’s a mutual attraction and embark on an affair. The best part of the film concerns the clandestine lovers’ first romantic getaway on a trip to Spain. The story falters a bit in the third act, when it begins to vacillate a little clumsily between comedy and morality tale, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny.

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Where’s Poppa? – If you are easily offended, do not go anywhere near this film. But if you believe nothing is sacred in comedy and enjoy laughing so hard that you plotz-see it.

Where do I start? Carl Reiner’s 1970 black comedy (adapted by Robert Klane from his own novel) concerns a New York City attorney (Segal) who lives in a cramped apartment with his senile mother (Ruth Gordon). Honoring a deathbed promise to his dearly departed poppa, Segal takes care of his mother (well, as best he can). She is a…handful.

The beleaguered Segal’s day begins with prepping his mother’s preferred breakfast of 6 orange slices and a heaping bowl of Pepsi and Lucky Charms (interestingly, in California Split Segal himself is served a breakfast of beer and Fruit Loops by the two sex workers).

His businessman brother (Ron Leibman) is too “busy” to help, so Segal must hire nurses to take care of ma while he’s at work. Unfortunately, she has a habit of driving them away with her over-the-top behavior. When Segal falls head-over-heels in love with the latest hire (Trish Van Devere, in a priceless performance), his thoughts about how he’s going to “take care” of ma and keep this blossoming romance abloom become…darker.

Segal was rarely so hilariously exasperated as he gets here, it’s Gordon’s best (and most outrageous) comic performance, and the supporting cast (which includes Barnard Hughes, Vincent Gardenia, Paul Sorvino and Garrett Morris) is aces. Again, this film is not for all tastes (it would never get green-lighted now) …but rates as one of my all-time favorite comedies.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – If words were needles, university history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) would look like a pair of porcupines, because after years of shrill, shrieking matrimony, these two have become maestros of the barbed insult, and the poster children for the old axiom, “you only hurt the one you love”. Mike Nichols’ 1966 directing debut (adapted by Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee’s Tony-winning stage play) gives us a peek into one night in the life of this battle-scarred middle-aged couple.

After a faculty party, George and Martha invite a young newlywed couple (Segal and Sandy Dennis) over for a nightcap. As the ever-flowing alcohol kicks in, the evening becomes a veritable primer in bad human behavior. It’s basically a four-person play, but these are all fine actors, and the writing is the real star of this piece.

Here are some additional George Segal films worth a look:

King Rat (1965; WW2 drama, dir. Bryan Forbes)

The Quiller Memorandum (1966; Cold War spy thriller, dir. Michael Anderson)

Blume in Love (1973; romantic comedy-drama, dir. Paul Mazursky)

The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976; western comedy, dir. Melvin Frank)

Fun with Dick and Jane (1977; crime caper/social satire, dir. Ted Kotcheff)

Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978; comedy-mystery, dir. Ted Kotcheff)

Flirting with Disaster (1996; comedy, dir. David O. Russell)

 

Blu-ray reissue: The Grey Fox (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28,2020)

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The Grey Fox – Kino Classics

I was overjoyed to finally retire my dog-eared VHS copy of Philip Borso’s underappreciated 1982 gem. Filmed on location in Washington State and British Columbia, Borso’s biopic is a naturalistic “Northwestern” in the vein of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller; an elegiac portrait of a turn-of-the century “west” that is making an uneasy transition into modernity (which puts it in a sub-genre that includes Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country or Richard Brooks’ Bite the Bullet).

The film is based on the real-life exploits of “gentleman robber” Bill Miner (who may or may not have been the progenitor of the venerable felonious command: “Hands up!”). The Kentucky native was a career criminal who spent about half his life as a guest of the State of California. First incarcerated in his early 20s, he was released in 1880 and resumed his former activities (robbing stagecoaches). The law caught up with him and he did a long stretch in San Quentin. When he got out of stir in 1901, he was in his mid-50s.

The Grey Fox picks up Miner’s story at this point, just as he is being “released into the 20th-Century” from San Quentin. Miner is wonderfully portrayed by then 60-year-old Richard Farnsworth. Jackie Burroughs is excellent as well, playing a feminist photographer who has a relationship with Miner. John Hunter’s screenplay weaves an episodic narrative as spare and understated as its laconic and soft-spoken protagonist.

Kino’s Blu-ray features a new 4K restoration, highlighting DP Frank Tidy’s fabulous cinematography (he also shot Ridley Scott’s debut 1977 feature film The Duellists, one of the most beautiful-looking films this side of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon). This is a film well-worth your time, whether this is your first time viewing or you are up for a revisit. (Full review)

Blu-ray Reissue: Criss-Cross (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2020)

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Criss-Cross – Eureka Masters of Cinema (Region “B” locked)

Film noir aficionados are sure to rejoice once they see this gorgeous 4K digital restoration of the 1949 classic from revered genre director Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Suspect, The Killers, The Cry of the City, et.al.).

Burt Lancaster stars as an underpaid and over-worked armored car driver who still has the hots for his troublesome ex-wife (Yvonne De Carlo). Chagrined over her new marriage to a local mobster (veteran noir heavy Dan Duryea), he makes an ill-advised decision to ingratiate himself back into her life, leading to his half-hearted involvement in an armored car heist as the “inside man”.

Great script by Daniel Fuchs (adapted from Don Tracy’s novel; Steven Soderbergh adapted his 1995 thriller The Underneath from the same). Artful, highly atmospheric cinematography by Franz Planer.

The 1080p transfer of the 4K restoration is luminous; one of the best I have seen in a while for a classic period film noir. There are two audio commentary tracks; I have only listened to the one by film scholar Adrian Martin, who is quite enlightening. Among the extras: 31-page collector’s booklet and the Screen Director’s radio adaptation from 1949.

Hands up: The Grey Fox (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2020)

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What were the odds? A couple weeks ago, I Tweeted this:

I hadn’t thought about The Grey Fox in years; it’s one of my favorite 80s sleepers. Something about Senator Kaine’s “gentleman bandit” couture made the film suddenly pop into my head.

Flash-forward one week: I receive an email alerting me that Philip Borsos’ 1982 gem has undergone a 4K restoration and was premiering May 29th for a limited run via Kino-Lorber’s “Kino Marquee” platform (small world!) The studio distributes to a network of select cinemas nationwide, giving movie fans a chance to buy “tickets” and support their shuttered local art house venue by streaming through that venue’s website. Here in Seattle, the film is playing via the Grand Illusion theater’s virtual screening room; for other cities / venues click here.

Filmed on location in Washington State and British Columbia, Borso’s biopic is a naturalistic “Northwestern” in the vein of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The film is based on the real-life exploits of “gentleman robber” Bill Miner (who may or may not have been the progenitor of the venerable felonious command: “Hands up!”).

The Kentucky native was a career criminal who spent about half his life as a guest of the State of California. First incarcerated in his early 20s, he was released in 1880 and resumed his former activities (robbing stagecoaches). The law caught up with him and he did a long stretch in San Quentin. When he got out of stir in 1901, he was in his mid-50s.

The Grey Fox picks up Miner’s story at this point, just as he is being “released into the 20th-Century” from San Quentin. Miner is wonderfully portrayed by then 60-year-old Richard Farnsworth. Farnsworth (who died in 2000 at 80) brings an uncanny authenticity to the role; not only because of age-appropriate casting, but thanks to his rugged countenance (undoubtedly stemming from his previous three decades as a stuntman). Farnsworth literally looks like he stepped directly out of the 19th-Century and walked right into this film.

John Hunter’s screenplay weaves an episodic narrative as spare and understated as its laconic and soft-spoken protagonist. Miner gets out of prison and heads north to Washington state, where he lodges with his sister and her husband and finds work. The straight and narrow wears thin on the restless ex-con. He talks a dim-witted fellow worker (Wayne Robson) into traveling with him up to Canada to be his partner-in crime. As stagecoaches are a thing of the past, Miner (not unlike Butch Cassidy) intuits a bright future in robbing trains.

Eventually Miner has to cool his heels, as a dogged Pinkerton man (Gary Reineke) is hot on his trail (he’s noticed that the perpetrator of a string of train robberies in Canada has a suspiciously similar M.O. to Miner’s past stagecoach robberies in California). He and his cohort settle in a small town in British Columbia, where Miner (now living under an alias) meets and develops a relationship with a feminist photographer (Jackie Burroughs). Do Miner’s bad, bad ways catch up with him again? That would be telling.

Borso paints an elegiac portrait of a turn-of-the century “west” that is making an uneasy transition into modernity (along the lines of Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country or Richard Brooks’ Bite the Bullet). The 4k restoration is gorgeous, highlighting DP Frank Tidy’s fabulous cinematography (he also shot Ridley Scott’s debut 1977 feature film The Duellists, one of the most beautiful-looking films this side of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon). This is a film well-worth your time, whether this is your first time viewing or you are up for a revisit.

Blu-ray reissue: Charley Varrick (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 14, 2019)

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Charley Varrick – Kino-Lorber

It’s nice to see this tough, gritty and underappreciated crime drama/character study from 1973 getting some Blu-ray love.

Directed by Don Siegel (the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Big Steal, The Lineup, Hell is For Heroes, Dirty Harry) and adapted from John Reese’s novel by Howard Rodman and Dean Reisner, the film stars Walter Matthau as a master thief/ex- stunt pilot who gets into hot water when he unwittingly robs a bank that washes money for the mob. I think it’s one of his best performances. Unique crime drama with a great cast (Joe Don Baker is memorable as a kinky hit man).

If the cheeky, colorful dialog reminds you of a certain contemporary film maker, all will become clear when one character is warned that if he doesn’t come clean, the mob may come after him with “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.”

Kino-Lorber’s Blu-ray features a sharp transfer from a new 4K remaster, as well as a 76-minute 2015 documentary delving into the film’s production and director Siegel’s career.

Blu-ray reissue: Bellman and True (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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Bellman and True – Indicator Series Blu-ray (Region “B”)

This 1987 sleeper is an off-beat heist caper from eclectic writer-director Richard Loncraine (Brimstone & Treacle, The Missionary, Richard III, et.al.). Bernard Hill stars as a computer system engineer named Hiller who finds himself reluctantly beholden to a criminal gang he had briefly fallen in with previously. They have kidnapped his teenage son and threaten to do him harm if Hiller doesn’t help them disable the alarm system at the bank they’re planning to rob.

The one advantage he holds over his “partners” is his intelligence and technical know-how, but the big question is whether he gets an opportunity to turn the tables in time without endangering himself or his son. A unique, character-driven crime film, with cheeky dialog and surprising twists (Desmond Lowden co-adapted the screenplay from his own novel with Loncraine and Michael Wearing).

Indicator’s limited edition boasts a nice hi-def remaster and includes both the 122-minute pre-release version that premiered at the 1987 London Film Festival and original 114-minute UK theatrical cut of the film.

Screen capture: Stockholm (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 27, 2019)

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I’m sure you have heard the term “Stockholm syndrome”? In the event you’re a hypochondriac who may lay awake tonight worrying you’ve “caught” it, let me put your mind at ease…unless you are currently a hostage, exhibiting all the following indications:

1. A development of positive feelings towards your captor.

2. There has been no previous relationship between you and your captor.

3. You’re refusing to cooperate with police forces and other government authorities.

4. You no longer feel threatened, as you’ve adapted your captor’s world view.

Granted, if you ticked all those boxes it could also indicate you’re a Trump supporter; but that discussion is for another time. This is (purportedly) a “movie review”, which I assume is what you came here for (and you’re free to leave…I’m not forcing you to stay).

Like the phrase “drinking the Kool-aid” (now routinely applied to any behavior felt to be analogous to the mass suicide of Jim Jones’ followers at the People’s Temple compound in Jonestown) “Stockholm syndrome” has an etymology that was torn from the headlines.

In 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson, a Swedish convict on leave from prison (Sweden’s penal system is a bit different from ours) held up a bank in Stockholm. What began as a run-of-the-mill “take the money and run” operation escalated once Olsson impulsively took hostages following a shoot-out with cops, who arrived before he could make his getaway.

Olsson’s behavior was eccentric; after wounding one of the two officers who made their way into the bank, he ordered the other to sit in a chair and “sing something” (the officer promptly launched into “Lonesome Cowboy”). Olsson himself was reportedly a tuneful fellow; frequently warbling Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” throughout the incident.

His first demand was that his friend Clark Olofsson be released from prison and brought in to join him at the bank. The authorities agreed; hoping to utilize Olofsson as a liaison for negotiation with police. That plan went nowhere fast; resulting in the two cohorts retreating into the bank’s vault with the four hostages and barricading themselves there.

Any leverage that the authorities may have had at the outset was compromised when the incident became a media circus; it was covered on live television, marking the first time that Swedish viewers had been offered a ringside seat to an unfolding crime-in-progress.

In the course of the 6-day incident, something unique occurred regarding the relationship between the hostages and their captors. After a phone call Olsson made to Prime Minister Olaf Palme threatening to kill a hostage if his demands to be given safe passage from the bank were not met by a deadline failed to yield results, hostage Kristin Enmark placed her own follow-up call to express her disapproval; she chastised Palme for his “attitude”. This bonding between captors and captives led to the coining of “Stockholm syndrome.”

You couldn’t make this shit up, right? Sounds like perfect fodder for a slam-bang seriocomic heist-gone-awry true-crime thriller a la Dog Day Afternoon. Unfortunately, writer-director Robert Budreau’s Stockholm is not that film. Which is a real shame when you’ve got excellent actors like Ethan Hawke, Noomi Rapace and Mark Strong on board.

As in the aforementioned Dog Day Afternoon, principal character’s names have been changed to protect the guilty; Jan-Erik Olsson is “Lars Nystrom” (Hawke), Clark Olofsson is “Gunnar Sorensson” (Strong) and Kristin Enmark is “Bianca Lind” (Rapace).

Hawke’s costuming makes him a ringer for Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider (now that I think about it, I could swear he was consciously channeling Hopper’s idiosyncratic tics and mannerisms). His performance dances on the edge of hammy, as if he wasn’t quite sure whether to play it for comedic or dramatic effect; although that may attributable to the bathos in Budreau’s script (which I feel fails to reveal the humanity of the characters).

The most glaring hole in the script is the writer’s apparent lack of interest in the biggest question: “why” did the hostages side with their captors? What turned them? There is nothing in the actions of the characters themselves that suggests exactly when this pivotal moment has occurred; we only know that this has “happened” when the head police negotiator wonders aloud why the hostages have allied themselves with their captors.

Good question, as we in the audience would kind of like to know why this happened too.

Desperate housewife: Criterion reissues Barbara Loden’s Wanda (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 23, 2019)

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Wanda Goronski: I don’t have anything. I never did have anything. Never will have anything.

 Norman Dennis: You’re stupid.

 Wanda Goronski: I’m stupid?

 Norman Dennis: If you don’t want anything, you won’t have anything, and if you don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You may as well be dead. You’re not even a citizen of the United States.

 Wanda Goronski: I guess I’m dead, then.

That remarkable exchange is from the 1970 character study/road movie/crime drama Wanda, an underseen indie gem written and directed by its star Barbara Loden. Previously hard-to-find, a restored edition of the film is newly available from Criterion.

Wanda (Loden) is an unemployed working-class housewife. It’s clear that her life is the pits…and not just figuratively. She’s recently left her husband and two infants and has been crashing at her sister’s house, which is within spitting distance of a yawning mining pit, nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. We don’t have an opportunity to get a sense of her home life, because as the film opens, she’s on her way to family court.

A protracted long shot of Wanda daintily traipsing through the bleak obsidian moonscape of the coal pit as she heads for court with hair in curlers, white tennis shoes, white stretch pants, white floral blouse and carrying a white purse is…not something you see every day. It’s also an indication you’re in for a narrative with deeply existential subtexts.

When the judge scolds her for being late, the oddly detached Wanda shrugs it off, telling His Honor that if her husband wants a divorce, that’s OK by her; adding their kids are probably “better off” being taken care of by their father. Shortly afterward, Wanda splits her sister’s house and hits the road (hair still in curlers), carrying no more than that white purse. This suggests that either a.) she’s a dim bulb, or b.) freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

The first third of the film is episodic; Wanda wanders aimlessly, stopping at a tavern for a drink. A traveling salesman with a Vista Cruiser buys her a beer, she sleeps with him at a cheap motel. She busts him trying to sneak out the next morning, and just makes it into his station wagon. When they stop for an ice cream cone, he peels out and abandons her.

Nonplussed, Wanda kicks around some dull burg and drifts into a movie theater for a matinee and a nap. When she awakens, the auditorium is empty, and she discovers someone has rifled through her purse and stolen what little money she had been carrying.

Now officially broke, Wanda heads for the nearest tavern. The suspiciously furtive man behind the bar is less than friendly; he tells her to beat it, they’re closed. Nonetheless, Wanda asks him for food and drink. Giving her an incredulous look, he serves her (sort of). Through all of this, Wanda either doesn’t notice or doesn’t give second thought to the sight of the unconscious, bound and gagged man lying on the floor by the cash register.

Her “bartender” is a petty criminal (Michael Dennis) who has just knocked over the joint. His name (as we come to learn) is Norman Dennis, and the ever-malleable Wanda is soon on the lam with “Mr. Dennis”. The couple become a sort of low-rent Bonnie and Clyde.

Wanda is Terrance Malick’s Badlands meets Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA; like Malick’s film it was inspired by a true crime story and features a strangely passive female protagonist with no discernible identity of her own, and like Koppel’s documentary it offers a gritty portrait of rural working-class America using unadorned 16 mm photography.

The verité feel of the film (mostly shot using available light) was no accident; in a 1980 documentary by Katja Raganelli included on the Criterion Blu-ray/DVD, Loden explains why she ultimately decided on cinematographer/editor Nicholas T. Proferes (who had worked with documentary film maker D.A. Pennebaker). Of the various cinematographers’ work she had been looking at, Loden felt “[Proferes] really has some feelings for people, and he knows how to show ugly things without it appearing ugly…the ugly side of life.”

In that same interview, Loden also discusses how the project had been percolating for some time strictly as a script, and why she ended up deciding to direct it herself. “I sent it to some directors who liked it,” she recalls, “…they were all men, which wouldn’t necessarily make a difference, but they didn’t seem to understand what this woman was about. I would not take it to studios […] I wanted to make it my own way.” So…she did.

Although she could not have known it then, that decision has been since acknowledged as a groundbreaking move. The number of female auteurs in American film at that time could have been counted on one hand (Ida Lupino is the only one I can think of ).

Wanda also bridges an interesting cusp of second wave feminism’s effect on early-to-mid 70s American cinema. While its protagonist shares characteristics with Shirley Knight’s runaway housewife in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), Ellen Burstyn’s widowed single mother in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), and (in a more tangential sense) the steadily unraveling suburban housewives played by Carrie Snodgrass in Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), I could see how modern audiences might scratch their heads over how such a passive character who allows men to objectify her and generally treat her like shit could possibly qualify as a feminist heroine.

In a 2003 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Marguerite Duras interviewed director Elia Kazan about Loden’s legacy (Kazan was married to Loden from 1967 until her death from cancer at age 48 in 1980). Kazan offered some unique insight on her character in Wanda:

“In this movie she plays a character we have in America, and who I suppose exists in France and everywhere, that we call floating, a wanderer. A woman who floats on the surface of society, drifting here or there, with the currents. But in the story of this movie, for a few days the man she meets needs her; during these few days she has a direction […] Barbara Loden understood this character very, very well because when she was young she was a bit like that, she would go here and there. She once told me a very sad thing; she told me: ‘I have always needed a man to protect me.’ I will say that most women in our society are familiar with this, understand this, need this, but are not honest enough to say it. And she was saying it sadly”.

So perhaps the sense of empowerment emanates not from the protagonist, who simply “is who she is” (i.e. a character, portrayed by Loden the actor), but the act of creation itself by Loden the writer and director of the piece (and the very personal place it comes from).

In an essay included as a booklet with the disc, Amy Taubin offers this take:

I thought it remarkable [when Taubin saw it in 1972], in part for the very reason many in the audience dismissed it: Loden’s Wanda was anything but a feminist role model. Rather, she was a version of the characters Loden had been playing on and off Broadway, on television […] She had been typecast as the kind of all-American beauty who believes that male desire is the only measure of her value, and necessary to her survival. […] Responses to the film when it was first released were mixed, with two prominent critics (Pauline Kael and Rex Reed) referring to Wanda as a slut and expressing their annoyance at having to spend time on a movie with such a negligible protagonist. […] Thanks to the feminist energy that has continued to evolve as it has seeped into the culture in the decades since the film’s release, Wanda can now be appreciated as a portrait of a kind of woman who, being no man’s fantasy, had almost never been seen on the screen before.

Hopefully, this release will help give this fine film the wider appreciation that it deserves.

The sundown kid: The Old Man and the Gun (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 20, 2018)

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I have no idea what kind of box office The Old Man and the Gun will do its opening weekend, but if my unscientific head count of approximately 10 fellow patrons at the Friday matinee I attended is any indicator, I’d say Venom is in scant danger of usurpation.

Not that you asked, but there were more indicators of lowered expectations. For one, I noted I was the youngest person in the auditorium (I’m 62). Granted, the star of the film just blew out 82 candles this summer. And of course, a film with “old man” in the title is obviously not targeting a young demographic. It’s no secret Hollywood is all about the youth audience. This may be why the film’s leading man Robert Redford has intuited it’s better to burn out than to fade away; insisting that this role is his “farewell” performance.

This informs the elegiac tone throughout writer-director David Lowery’s leisurely-paced character study, based on the true story of career criminal Forrest Tucker (Redford). Tucker was a slippery devil; during his “career” he escaped from prison “18 times successfully, 12 times unsuccessfully” (his words). Like Redford himself, Tucker pursued his chosen profession well into his golden years, earning a reputation as a “gentleman bandit” (he committed armed robberies, but was courteous to all his victims).

Truth be told, Tucker’s relatively benign bio (well, for a felon) doesn’t have the inherent makings of a riveting crime thriller; but luckily Lowery is smart enough to know that. This is mostly about Bob Redford playing…well, Bob Redford. For one last time. So Lowery doesn’t go for film school flash; utilizing mostly close-ups and two shots, he lets his camera linger on his star, while he exudes that effortless Redford charm and charisma. Both the subject matter and Redford’s naturalistic, low-key portrayal recalls Phillip Borsos’ wonderful 1982 sleeper The Grey Fox, which starred Richard Farnsworth as turn-of-the-century “gentleman bandit” Bill Miner (which is also based on a true story).

Redford is supported by some ace players. Danny Glover and Tom Waits play Tucker’s partners-in-crime (who were dubbed “The Over-the-Hill Gang” by law enforcement). Waits’ character has a great monolog explaining why he hates Christmas that makes you wish he’d been given some more screen time. Sissy Spacek is a welcome presence as a widow Tucker romances (I swear she gets more radiant as she ages). Casey Affleck is effective as a rumpled police detective who plays cat and mouse with Tucker for a spell.

While this is may not be the most memorable film Redford has done over a long, illustrious career, there are worse ways to go. And Bob? We’ll keep the light on for you.