Category Archives: Heist Caper

SIFF 2015: The Price of Fame **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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Well, this one looked good on paper (I had anticipated something along the lines of Melvin and Howard), but after a promising start, writer-director Xavier Beauvois’ “true crime” dramedy about a pair of bumbling, would-be extortionists falls curiously flat, despite earnest performances from an affable cast.

The story is based on a late ‘70s incident in Switzerland in which two down-on-their-luck pals (played in the film by Benoit Poelvoorde and Roschdy Zem) cooked up a bizarre and ill-advised plan to dig up the coffin of the recently interred Charlie Chaplin and then hit his family up for money to have the body returned.

The caper itself takes a relative backseat to the main thrust of the film, which is ostensibly a character study. Therein lies the crux of the problem; these aren’t particularly interesting characters (at least as written). And the third act is nearly destroyed by that most dreaded of movie archetypes: the Maudlin Circus Clown. Beauvois’ idea to use Chaplin’s compositions for the soundtrack is clever, but he overdoes it. Peter Coyote does add an interesting turn as Chaplin’s longtime assistant.

Prisoners of love: The Dog ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2014)

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And all he got was this stupid T-shirt: The Dog

On a sultry August afternoon back in 1972, a botched Brooklyn bank robbery morphed into a tense hostage drama that played out on live TV; and once rumors began to circulate that the ringleader, a Vietnam vet named John Wojtowicz, had engineered the heist in a desperate attempt to raise funds for his lover’s sex reassignment surgery, it became a full-blown media circus.

Wojtowicz’s accomplice didn’t survive the day (he was shot dead by FBI agents) and he earned a 5 year-long stretch in the pen for his troubles. The incident inspired Sidney Lumet’s classic 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. Al Pacino’s iconic turn as Wojtowicz added shelf life to the robber-turned folk hero’s initial 15 minutes of fame.

Of course, Hollywood rarely gets it 100% right, even with stories purported to be “ripped from the headlines”. In a new documentary from co-directors Alison Berg and Frank Keraudren called The Dog, none other than John Wojtowicz himself appears onscreen to set the record straight. The first thing he wants us to know is that he’s “a pervert.” Okay then. But it’s also important for us to understand that he is “a lover” as well, because after all, in his lifetime he has had “4 wives, and 23 girlfriends.” Are we supposed to be taking notes?

Many unexpected twists and turns ensue. While it’s well established from the get-go that Wojtowicz (who died in 2006) was a riotously profane, unexpectedly engaging (if deeply weird) raconteur…he is not the only star of this show. The scene stealer? His dear (late) mother, who insists that “half of what (John) says is bullshit.”

Nonetheless, this is an absorbing film (a decade in the making) that works on multiple levels. It can be viewed as a “true crime” documentary, a social history (there are surprising tie-ins with NYC’s early 70s gay activist scene), a meditation on America’s peculiar fetish with fame whores, or (on a purely popcorn level) as a perversely compelling family freak show along the lines of Grey Gardens or Crumb. I’m giving it a three and a half out of four “Atticas!” rating:

Attica! Attica! Attica!”

Blu-ray reissue: That Sinking Feeling ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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That SInking Feeling – BFI Blu-ray (Region “B”)

This relatively obscure, low-budget 1979 wonder marked the debut for quirky Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). Sort of a Glaswegian version of Big Deal on Madonna Street, it’s the story of an impoverished teenager, tired of eating cornflakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, who comes up with a scheme to make him and his underemployed pals rich beyond their wildest dreams-knocking over a plumbing supply warehouse full of stainless steel sinks. Funny as hell, imbued with the director’s unique brand of low-key anarchy and a poignant undercurrent of working class Weltschmerz. BFI’s region “B” Blu-ray* is packed with extras, and sports the cleanest transfer I’ve seen of this previously hard-to-find gem (*please note that this region “B”-encoded disc requires a region-free Blu-ray player for playback).

London’s burning: The Sweeney ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2013)

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If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching hundreds of crime thrillers over the years, it’s this: if you’re a bad guy, be wary of any police team that is known on the street as the “(insert nickname here) Squad”. Consider “The Hat Squad” in Mulholland Falls, Lee Tamahori’s 1996 neo-noir concerning the exploits of a merry crew of thuggish cops (led by growling fireplug Nick Nolte) barely distinguishable in thought or action from the criminals they chase.

The latest example is writer-director Nick Love’s new film, The Sweeney, which centers on “The Flying Squad”, a modern-day team of London coppers who share similarities with their fedora-wearing American counterparts. For one, they’re led by a growly fireplug (Brit-noir veteran Ray Winstone). He’s DI Jack Regan, a “cop on the edge” who swears by the adage: “To catch a criminal-you have to think like one”. You also apparently have to act like one; Regan and his clannish unit bend the rules (as they violate 57 civil liberties) on a daily basis. But they always get their man, sealing every take down with the catchphrase “We’re the Sweeney…and you’re nicked!”

Regan’s questionable methods have put him at loggerheads with his supervisor (Damian Lewis), and with head of internal affairs DCI Lewis (Steven Mackintosh). Lewis and Regan have a history of mutual animosity, which would likely turn into open warfare should Lewis ever discover Regan has been playing bangers and mashers with his estranged wife (Hayley Atwell) who is an officer in Regan’s squad.

However, office politics soon takes a back seat to Regan’s obsession with nailing his criminal nemesis (Paul Anderson), who Regan suspects as the mastermind behind a series of bold, military-style robberies. The squad intercepts the heavily-armed robbers in the middle of a bank score, but after a pitched gun battle on the busy London streets, they elude capture (set in Trafalgar Square, it’s the most tense and excitingly mounted cops ’n’ robbers shootout since Michael Mann’s Heat). Regan’s superiors are not pleased with his disregard for public safety, so they ask for his badge and gun; however with some clandestine help from his protégé (Ben Drew) he is soon “unofficially” back on the case.

Love’s film is based on a British TV series of the same name, which ran from 1975-1979. One needn’t be familiar with the TV version to enjoy this film, which I did immensely. The screenplay was co-written by John Hodge (Trainspotting), and is chock-a-block with crackling dialogue and amusing insult humor. Performances are excellent throughout; Winstone is perfectly cast, and I was impressed with Drew’s convincing performance as a reformed petty street criminal turned cop (you may know him as  rap artist “Plan B”).

Interestingly, while it has a number of similarities to the Mann film referenced earlier, there is one classic neo-noir that Love’s film particularly evoked, and that is William Friedkin’s 1971 thriller, The French Connection. Winstone’s character is a kindred spirit to Gene Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle.

Both bachelors, they are slovenly and bereft of social skills, but on the job, they are a force to be reckoned with; driven, focused and relentless in their desire to catch the bad guys. And like Doyle’s obsession with “the Frenchman” in Friedkin’s film, Regan’s pursuit of his quarry becomes his raison d’etre; all else falls by the wayside.

Most significantly, both characters see themselves as working-class heroes of a sort. The criminals they seek to take down are living high off their ill-begotten gains; they are cleverly elusive, yet so confident in their abilities to cover their tracks that they seem to take perverse pleasure in taunting their pursuers. This is film noir as class warfare. Or, this could just be a well-made cops and robbers flick with cool chase scenes.

Blu-ray reissue: To Catch a Thief ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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To Catch a Thief – MGM Blu-ray

This is one of those Hitchcock films that’s more about the romance, scenery and clever repartee than the chills and thrills, but that makes it no less entertaining.

Cary Grant is “retired” cat burglar John Robie, an American ex-pat and former Resistance fighter living on the French Riviera. A string of high-end jewel thefts (resembling his M.O.) put the police on Robie’s back and raise the ire of some of his old war buddies. As Robie tries to clear his name and find the real culprit, his life becomes more complicated when a love interest enters the picture (Grace Kelly).

To be sure, it’s fairly lightweight Hitchcock, but holds up well to repeated viewings, thanks to the  chemistry between Grant and Kelly, intoxicating location filming and the delightful supporting performances (particularly from Jessie Royce Landis, as Kelly’s mother).

The witty, urbane screenplay is by John Michael Hayes (who also scripted Hitchcock’s Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry and the 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much remake). MGM’s Blu-ray transfer is sparkling, doing justice to Robert Burks’ colorful, Oscar-winning cinematography.

SIFF 2012: Robot and Frank **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2012)

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Robot and Frank, a lightweight crowd pleaser from first-time director Jake Schreier, opens with a screen crawl informing us that it’s “the near future” (code for “we’re not budgeted for CGI, so you’ll have to take our word for it”). The story centers on an aging ex-cat burglar named Frank (Frank Langella). Concerned about Frank’s increasing forgetfulness, his son presents him with a “caregiver” robot. Initially, Frank reacts with crankiness and hostility toward his metallic Man Friday (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) but warms up considerably after he gleans that the robot is a wiz at picking locks and cracking safes. You can likely guess what happens next (think Going in Style meets the classic Ray Bradbury-penned Twilight Zone episode, “I Sing the Body Electric”). Not exactly groundbreaking sci-fi (the A-I theme is pretty dusty) but buoyed considerably by Christopher Ford’s affable screenplay, Langella’s engaging performance and the always-welcome presence of Susan Sarandon.

Whoa, Lopakhin: Henry’s Crime ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 30, 2011)

Keanu Reeves does Chekhov? No, I’m not pitching an idea for an SNL sketch. After all, he has done Shakespeare (in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing, Gus van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, and played the lead in a stage version of Hamlet)-so is it such a stretch to see him sporting a goatee and a waistcoat in The Cherry Orchard?

In the quirky indie heist caper Henry’s Crime, he plays a guy who takes a role in a Chekhov play, even though his character is not an actor. I hear you-“Typecasting?” I know that Reeves has his share of detractors, perennially chagrined by his unique ability to remain completely motionless and expressionless for two hours at a stretch. But I have a theory-although his characters appear wooden, they still enjoy a rich” inner life” (you know…like Pinocchio).

One assumes that Henry (Reeves) has some kind of inner life. He seems a likable, easy-going fellow, if a bit…inscrutable. Maybe it’s his job. Working the graveyard shift at a N.Y. Thruway tollbooth would put anybody in semi-comatose state. Nothing fazes the agreeable yet impassive Henry, one way or the other-although he does display a slight twitch when, one morning at breakfast, his wife (Judy Greer) broaches the subject of the couple having a child.

We get the impression that Henry would prefer to be anywhere else but there, at that moment, having that particular conversation. What’s going on? Is this a troubled marriage? Does he love his wife? Is this cipher of a man internally harboring primal doubts? Or…is he suffering from a sudden attack of gas? There’s no way of discerning.

Fate intervenes, when an old high school chum named Eddie (Fisher Stevens) shows up on his doorstep, with a drunken cohort in tow. Both men are dubiously outfitted for baseball. Eddie wants to know if Henry can give them a ride to their “game”.  Nothing about this questionable scenario seems to raise red flags for Henry. Even Eddie’s request to stop at the bank “on the way” fails to elicit a raised eyebrow from Henry. Needless to say, the heist goes awry, Henry’s car stalls, his “friends” flee, and guess who ends up holding the bag?

Henry doesn’t rat and takes the fall. At this point, one might surmise that Henry is either some kind of transcendent Zen master…or a clueless moron (not unlike the protagonist of Forrest Gump or Chance the gardener in Being There). Ah, but our little wooden boy is about to meet his Geppetto: Veteran con man Max (James Caan).

Max is one of those oddballs who actually “likes” prison-which is why he has been sabotaging his own parole hearings, so as to continue living on the state’s dime. He becomes a mentor/father figure to Henry, who takes it to heart when Max advises him that he needs to find a Dream, and then pursue it. So what is Henry’s epiphany? Since he’s already done the time, he might as well now do the crime.

Henry gets out of the pen, discovers that his wife has remarried to one of the creeps who set him up, and foments a plan to rob the bank that he originally had no intention of robbing in the first place. While casing the scene, he Meets Cute with an actress (Vera Farmiga) who is working at the  theater next door to the bank. Hence,  the plot thickens, getting us to that part where Keanu does Chekhov.

There’s a little déjà vu running through this film (the second effort from 44 Inch Chest director Malcolm Venville). Sacha Gervasi and David White’s script may have been “inspired” by some vintage heist flicks; specifically, Alexander Mackendrick’s 1955 comedy The Ladykillers, and Lloyd Bacon’s Larceny, Inc. from 1942 (essentially remade by Woody Allen as Small Time Crooks). While the film has classic screwball tropes, it lacks the  pace of Lubitsch or Sturges.

That said, I still found Venville’s film  engaging enough. I was reminded of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66; in addition to sharing its filming location, this is another low-key comedy with oddly endearing characters that “sneaks up” on you, especially once you realize how sweet it really is. And there’s no crime in that, is there?

Wheel men don’t eat quiche: Drive ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  September 24, 2011)

Even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.

-Tsunetomo Yamamoto, from the Hagakure

If there is one thing I’ve learned from the movies, it’s that a man…a real man…has gotta adhere to a Code. Preferably a “warrior” code of some sort. Not that I claim to lead any kind of Samurai-inspired lifestyle; if someone were to ask me what code I live by, my reflexive answer would likely be “206”. It used to be “907” when I lived in Alaska. Did you know that the biggest state in the union only has one area code? So technically, all Alaskans live by the same code. But I digress.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, “code”. Steve McQueen…there was a guy who specialized in playing characters who lived by a code; he also brought a sense of Zen cool to the screen. There were others, like Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lee Marvin, Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood (before he began co-starring with orangutans). But McQueen (pardon the vernacular) was “the shit”.

Now, when one thinks of film directors whose canons abound with such characters, Jean-Pierre Melville springs to mind. Insular and taciturn, the typical Melville protagonist may be a criminal, but he is a decidedly disciplined and principled one. In Melville’s universe, honor among thieves is not an oxymoron.

One prime example is Jef the hit man, a cool customer played with steely detachment by Alain Delon, in Melville’s 1967 film, Le Samourai. Although it is  relatively static  by today’s “action thriller” standards, it has influenced a number of  film makers (John Woo and Quentin Tarantino have worshiped at its altar).

A direct descendant is Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), a spare and hard-boiled neo-noir about a professional getaway driver (Ryan O’Neal) who plays cat-and-mouse with an obsessed cop out to nail him (Bruce Dern) and a dissatisfied customer who is now out to kill him. “Spare” would also be a good word to describe O’Neal’s character (billed in the credits simply as: The Driver), who utters but 350 words of dialog in the entire film.

And now, in 2011, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (channeling Melville by way of Hill’s aforementioned film) and leading man Ryan Gosling (channeling Delon’s character by way of McQueen) have teamed up on a noirish action thriller called Drive.

Gosling (“Driver”) is a Hollywood stuntman by day, wheelman-for-hire by night. Not unlike O’Neal’s Driver, he is a bit picky regarding who he will work with, and has a Set of Rules that must be strictly adhered to. “I give you a five-minute window,” he tells his clients, “anything happens in those five minutes and I’m yours, no matter what.” Outside of that time window, the customer is forewarned that he is on his own. “I don’t sit in while you’re running it down. I don’t carry a gun. I drive.” As for those who are tardy? There’s no ride home. Get in, get out, or you’re left holding the bag.

Yes, he’s very strict. But it’s a display of good business acumen; particularly in a “business” where a slight misstep can cost you years of your life, rotting in a prison cell. So far, by sticking with his “code” of professional discipline, Driver has managed to keep his moonlighting gig off the radar and maintain his double life with relative ease. However, the Fickle Finger of Fate is about to dip into both his personal and professional life.

On the professional side, his friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a retired stuntman and mechanic who throws Driver a little work on the side at his auto repair shop, has approached a shady acquaintance, an ex-film producer turned loan shark (Albert Brooks) and his mobster partner (Ron Perlman) to invest in a customized race car. Shannon envisions Driver, with his formidable skills, as a potential money-making champ on the track. Not a bad idea, but these are not the kind of guys who are likely to just write off a bad investment. These are not nice men, period.

On the personal side, Driver is developing a strong attraction to a pretty neighbor (Carey Mulligan), a prison widow with a young son. The feeling is mutual, but news arrives that hubby (Oscar Isaac) has earned an early release. While he is disappointed, Driver still continues to be a good neighbor and spend quality time with her son (you know, the code). When the safety of mother and son is threatened by her husband’s prison “creditors” after his release, Driver warily offers to help him pull off a debt-settling job.

What his film may lack in original plot ideas (Hossein Amin adapted the screenplay from a book by James Sallis) is amply compensated by Refn’s stylish execution and his leading man’s charismatic performance. Paradoxically (in true McQueen fashion) it is technically more of a non-performance; Gosling is not quite all there, yet he remains wholly present. Perhaps the biggest surprise in the film is Albert Brooks, whose quietly menacing turn as a mean, spiteful, razor-toting viper goes against type.

This is the most atmospheric L.A. noir since Michael Mann’s Collateral (which now that I think about it, is another film that has direct lineage back to Le Samourai). In purely cinematic terms, I think Refn proves himself to be on a par with modern noir masters like Mann, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan. He was smart to enlist cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who is no stranger to the genre (The Usual Suspects, Blood and Wine, Apt Pupil, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). The action sequences are slickly done and quite exciting (although it turns out Gosling didn’t go 100% “McQueen” on us; stunt driver Jeremy Fry is his double).

The pulsing synth-pop score (by Cliff Martinez) is very retro-80s (the Fairlight lives!). A caveat: while this film is artfully made, it does contain several shocking scenes of brutal violence,  potentially off-putting for the squeamish. That being said, if you fancy yourself a connoisseur of fine noirs and pure cinema, I would recommend that you plunge recklessly into this film. And do not think about victory or defeat. By doing this…you could awaken from your dreams.

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!

Blu-ray reissue: Johnny Handsome ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2010)

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Johnny Handsome – Lionsgate Blu-ray

Seconds meets Point Blank in this taut, nasty neo-noir from director Walter Hill, which is one of my favorite sleepers of the 1980s.

Mickey Rourke stars as the genetically deformed Johnny, a career criminal low-life with a knack for masterminding heists. As he nears the end of a prison stretch, he is offered reconstructive face surgery by an empathetic doctor (Forest Whitaker), who eventually helps him get paroled.

Johnny’s first order of business is planning some payback on his former partners, who set him up to take the fall. The trick will be how to do it while under the watchful eye of the cynical cop (Morgan Freeman) who originally put him away, and knows a recidivist when he sees one. Lance Henriksen and Ellen Barkin are the film’s guilty pleasure as a nihilistic couple who make Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers look like Ozzie and Harriet.

Screenwriter Ken Friedman adapted from John Godey’s novel. The Blu-ray release should earn this underrated gem new fans.