(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)
Get Carter (BFI; Region B)
Easily vying for the crown as the best British gangster film of all time (or perhaps a photo-finish with The Long Good Friday), Mike Hodges’ classic 1971 adaptation of Ted Lewis’ novel Jack’s Return Home was a superb showcase for star Michael Caine.
The meaty role was also a departure for Caine; while he had already played anti-heroes (most notably in the “Harry Palmer” spy film trilogy), Jack Carter was arguably the least sympathetic character he had tackled up to that point in time (bit of a sociopath, actually).
The plot is minimal: Carter, a low-level but coldly efficient London gangster hops a train to Newcastle to investigate his brother’s “accidental” death (against the strong advisement of his superiors). The deeper he digs, the more feathers he ruffles. Does he care? Fuck all. Gritty, seedy, and shockingly brutal, it’s an uncannily realistic dip into the criminal underworld.
Caine’s indelible performance is just the icing on the cake. Hodges’ assured direction, the immersive verité location filming (by Wolfgang Suschitzky), outstanding supporting cast (Ian Hendry, Britt Ekland, John Osborne, George Sewell, Alun Armstrong, et.al.) and an unforgettable opening title sequence (driven by Roy Budd’s ultra-cool, proto-acid jazz theme) make for a heady mix.
BFI’s limited edition reissue is a real treat for fans of the film (guilty!). The 4K restoration is jaw-dropping; the film has never looked this good in a home video format. Two audio commentary tracks; one archival with Hodges, Caine and Suschitzky, the other is a new one with two film historians. There is a new 60-minute interview with Hodges, a new 17-minute feature reviewing Roy Budd’s career, an exhaustive 80-page booklet, and much more. The only catch: Please note it is Region B locked!
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)
An Unsuitable Job For a Woman (Indicator UK & US)
In his original review of Christopher Petit’s 1982 mystery-thriller, Financial Times reviewer Nigel Andrews wrote:
Petit has a wonderful compensatory feel for the drip torture of English emotion. Motive and passion are squeezed out drop-by-drop in a rural England landscape that seems bloated with past rain, and ever cloaked with pencil-grey cloud or thin sun.
In two sentences, Andrews not only nails the atmosphere of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, but articulates what I find so inexplicably compelling about Petit’s stunning 1979 debut, Radio On…a film that I simply must revisit annually, and of which I wrote:
As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how the cinema can capture and preserve the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.
Now the embarrassing part. I had no clue that a feature film adaptation of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman existed until this Blu-ray reissue was out. I am a fan of the eponymous 2-season UK television series from the late 90s (in fact, I own it on DVD), but this was an interesting discovery.
Adapted from a P.D. James novel (co-scripted by the director and Elizabeth McKay), Petit’s film stars Pippa Guard as Cordelia Grey, a young woman who unceremoniously inherits a small detective agency after discovering her boss dead in his office (little explanation is offered, and not unlike Helen Baxendale in the TV version, Guard plays Cordelia in an oddly detached manner…not having read James’ original novels, I’ll assume this is how the character is written?).
Her first case is investigating the alleged suicide of a free-spirited young man who is the son of a powerful businessman (a quietly menacing Paul Freeman). The story is more of a perverse family melodrama than a conventional mystery-thriller; but it’s fascinating watching Cordelia as she spirals into an obsession with the victim that recalls Dana Andrews’ unrequited detective in Laura. And it’s always a pleasure to watch the great Billie Whitelaw do her voodoo (as Freeman’s P.A.). This kind of slow boil may not be for all tastes; but again, this film is mostly about atmosphere.
Indicator’s transfer is taken from a new 4K scan of the original negative, accentuating DP Martin Schäfer’s artful and unique use of Afgacolor stock. Plenty of extras, including new interviews with the director, Ms. Guard’s brother Dominic (also featured in the cast), and producer Don Boyd. The exclusive limited-edition booklet includes an insightful new essay by Claire Monk and more.
Just as temperatures were heating up for about half of the U.S. population [in late May] the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its monthly climate trends report . The main takeaway? Prepare for a scorcher of a summer.
The agency said that above-normal temperatures are likely across almost all of the lower 48 states in June, July and August, except for small areas in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Plains.
The Northeast, from Delaware to Maine, has the highest likelihood of being extra-hot, along with parts of the West. The agency also forecast lower-than-normal precipitation for much of the West, which means it’s unlikely that the severe drought gripping the region will end.
[…] The climate pattern called La Niña is likely responsible for some of the above-normal heat. But it’s important to remember that, generally, it’s hotter than it used to be.
So…with the mercury already soaring in many sections of the country I I thought I would curate a Top 10 “hot” noirs binge-watch…should you be so inclined. Hot-as in sweaty, steamy, dripping, sticky, sudoriferous crime thrillers (get your mind out of the gutter). If you’re like me (and isn’t everyone?) there’s nothing more satisfying than gathering up an armload of DVDs (along with a 12-pack of Diet Dr. Pepper) and spending a hot weekend ensconced in my dark, cool media room (actually, I don’t have a “media room” nor any A/C in my apartment…but I can always dream). So here you go (alphabetically)…
Body Heat – A bucket of ice cubes in the bath is simply not enough to cool down this steamy noir. Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 Double Indemnity homage blows the mercury right out the top of the thermometer. Kathleen Turner is the sultry femme fatale who plays William Hurt’s hapless pushover like a Stradivarius (“You aren’t too smart. I like that in a man.”) The combination of the Florida heat with Turner and Hurt’s sexual chemistry will light your socks on fire. Outstanding support from Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, J.A. Preston and an up-and-coming young character actor named Mickey Rourke.
Cool Hand Luke – “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 drama. Newman plays a ne’er do well from a southern burg who ends up on a chain gang. He gets busted for cutting the heads off of parking meters while on a drunken spree, but by the end of this sly allegory, astute viewers will glean that his real crime is being a non-conformist.
Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech (Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson’s screenplay is agog with classic lines), Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor turn. Also in the cast: Ralph Waite, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Anthony Zerbe, and Joy Harmon steaming up the camera lens as the “car wash girl”.
Dog Day Afternoon – As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from Sidney Lumet out-sops the competition. The AC may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation).
Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale is at once scary and heartbreaking as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s cameo. Frank Pierson’s tight screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.
High and Low– Akira Kurosawa’s multi-layered 1963 drama is adapted from Ed McBain’s crime thriller King’s Ransom. Toshiro Mifune is excellent as a CEO who risks losing controlling shares of his company when he takes responsibility to assure the safe return of his chauffeur’s son, who has been mistaken as his own child by bumbling kidnappers.
As the film progresses, the tableau subtly shifts from the executive’s comfortable, air-conditioned mansion “high” above the city, to the “low”, sweltering back alleys where desperate souls will do anything to survive; a veritable descent into Hell.
While the film is perfectly serviceable as an absorbing police procedural, it delves deeper than a standard genre entry. It is also an examination of class struggle, corporate culture, and the socioeconomic complexities of modern society.
The Hot Spot – Considering he accumulated 100+ feature film credits as an actor and a scant 7 as a director of same over a 55-year career, it’s not surprising that the late Dennis Hopper is mostly remembered for the former, rather than the latter. Still, the relative handful of films he directed includes Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Colors, and this compelling 1990 neo-noir.
Don Johnson delivers one of his better performances as an opportunistic drifter who wanders into a one-horse Texas burg. The smooth-talking hustler snags a gig as a used car salesman, and faster than you can say “only one previous owner!” he’s closed the deal on bedding the boss’s all-too-willing wife (Virginia Madsen), and starts putting the moves on the hot young bookkeeper (Jennifer Connelly). You know what they say, though…you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Toss in some avarice, blackmail, and incestuous small-town corruption, and our boy finds he is in way over his head.
In the Heat of the Night – “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.
While Steiger is outstanding here as well, I always found it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme.
The Night of the Hunter – Is it a film noir? A horror movie? A black comedy? A haunting American folk tale? The answer would be yes. The man responsible for this tough-to-categorize 1957 film was one of the greatest acting hams of the 20th century, Charles Laughton, who began and ended his directorial career with this effort. Like many films now regarded as “cult classics”, it was savaged by critics and tanked at the box office upon initial release (enough to spook Laughton from ever returning to the director’s chair).
Robert Mitchum is brilliant (and genuinely scary) as a knife-wielding religious zealot who does considerably more “preying” than “praying”. Before Mitchum’s condemned cell mate (Peter Graves) meets the hangman, he talks in his sleep about $10,000 in loot money stashed somewhere on his property. When the “preacher” gets out of the slam, he makes a beeline for the widow (Shelly Winters) and her two young’uns. A disturbing (and muggy) tale unfolds. The great Lillian Gish is on board as well. Artfully directed by Laughton and beautifully shot by DP Stanley Cortez.
The Postman Always Rings Twice – A grimy (but strapping) itinerant (John Garfield) drifts into a hot and dusty California truck stop and” last chance” gas station run by an old codger (Cecil Kellaway) and his hot young wife (Lana Turner). Sign outside reads: “Man Wanted”. Garfield wants a job. Turner wants a man. Guess what happens.
An iconic noir and blueprint for ensuing entries in the “I love you too, baby…now how do we lose the husband?” sub-genre. Tay Garnett directs with a wonderfully lurid flourish. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch adapted their screenplay from the James M. Cain novel.
Touch of Evil– Yes, this is Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that celebrated and oft-imitated tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor and one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir.
This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (“You should lay off those candy bars.”). The creepy and disturbing scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge presages David Lynch; there are numerous flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time. Welles famously despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.
The Wages of Fear / Sorcerer–The primeval jungles of South America have served as a backdrop for a plethora of sweat-streaked tales (Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: TheWrath of God come to mind), but Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 “existential noir” from sits atop that list.
Four societal outcasts, who for one reason or another find themselves figuratively and literally at the “end of the road”, hire themselves out for an apparently suicidal job…transporting two truckloads of touchy nitro over several hundred miles of bumpy jungle terrain for delivery to a distant oilfield.
It does take some time for the “action” to really get going; once it does, you won’t let out your breath until the final frame. Yves Montand leads the fine international cast. Clouzot co-scripted with Jerome Geronimi, adapting from the original Georges Anaud novel.
If you’ve already seen The Wages of Fear, you might want to check out William Friedkin’s 1977 action-adventure Sorcerer, which was greeted with indifference by audiences and critics upon initial release. Maybe it was the incongruous title, which led many to assume it would be in the vein of his previous film (and huge box-office hit), The Exorcist. Then again, it was tough for any other film to garner attention in the immediate wake of Star Wars.
At any rate, it’s a well-directed, terrifically acted “update” of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 film noir (I refer to it as an “update” in deference to Friedkin, who bristles at the term “remake” in a letter from the director that was included with the 2014 Blu-ray).
Roy Scheider heads a superb international cast as a desperate American on the lam in South America, who signs up for a job transporting a truckload of nitroglycerin through rough terrain. Tangerine Dream provides the memorable soundtrack.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)
Philippe Le Guay’s “neighbor from hell” thriller (scripted by Le Guay with Gilles Taurand and Marc Weitzmann) stars one of my favorite contemporary French actors, François Cluzet (Tell No One). Cluzet plays a quiet fellow who buys the unused basement of an upper-crust couple’s Parisian apartment, presumably for storage . However, with the ink barely dry on the deed, the couple discovers to their dismay that he clearly intends to live in the cellar (sans plumbing). It gets worse when they discover his online persona is every progressive liberal’s nightmare. A slow-burner with a key takeaway: always check references!
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 5, 2022)
“Hey buddy-could you direct me to the Ark of the Covenant?”
Life IS pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
-from The Princess Bride (screenplay by William Goldman)
“How can a guy get so low?” Even within the dark recesses of film noir, the cynical 1947 genre entry Nightmare Alley is about as “low” as you can get. Directed by Edmund Goulding and adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s novel by Jules Furthman, the film was a career gamble for star Tyrone Power, who really sunk his teeth into the role of carny-barker-turned “mentalist” Stanton Carlisle.
Utilizing his innate charm and good looks, the ambitious Carlisle ingratiates himself with a veteran carnival mind-reader (Joan Blondell). Once he finagles a few tricks of the trade from her, he woos a hot young sideshow performer (Coleen Gray) and talks her into partnering up to develop their own mentalist act.
The newlyweds find success on the nightclub circuit, but the ever-scheming Carlisle soon sees an opportunity to play a long con with a potentially big payoff. To pull this off, he seeks the assistance of a local shrink (Helen Walker). While not immune to Carlisle’s charms, she is not going to be an easy pushover like the other women in his life. Big trouble ahead…and a race back to the bottom.
The film was considered such a downer that 20th-Century Fox all but buried it following its first run. In addition, legal tangles barred it from being reissued in any home video format until a 2005 DVD release. I was one of those noir geeks who literally jumped for joy when I heard the glorious news. I was even more excited when the Criterion Collection released a Blu-ray in 2021 that featured a sparkling new 4k digital restoration.
It was about the same time as the Criterion reissue last summer that I first heard there was a remake in the wings, scheduled for a December 2021 release. I found the timing…interesting but shrugged and figured that if the new production had somehow expedited the long-overdue restoration and reissue of Goulding’s original version, then (to re-appropriate Elliott Gould’s catchphrase from Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye) “…it’s okay with me.”
After a relatively brief time in theaters, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley (adapted from Gresham’s novel by the director and Kim Morgan) has pulled up stakes, loaded up the wagons, and (as of February 1st) moved the carnival to HBO Max and Hulu.
Remakes (like carnivals) are a tricky business. You need a barker (or a director, if you will) who is skilled enough to convince the marks that if they depart with their hard-earned cash and buy a ticket, they are about to see something they’ve never seen before.
Therefore, I approach remakes, particularly of classic noirs, with trepidation; I’ve been burned too many times. Not that they can’t work. One example is Farewell, My Lovely–Dick Richards’ atmospheric 1975 remake of the 1944 film noir Murder My Sweet (both adapted from the same Raymond Chandler novel). It isn’t “better” than the 1944 adaptation (which starred Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe), but stands on its own because it remains faithful to Chandler’s original milieu, and Marlowe is played by Robert Mitchum, whose own iconography is deeply tethered to the classic noir cycle.
Most often, I’m left thinking “Why ‘fix’ it if it ain’t broke?” As I wrote in my review of Roland Joffe’s 2010 remake of John Boulting’s 1947 noir, Brighton Rock:
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 Pinkie has a brooding intensity, he 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 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.
Alas, I think what we have here with del Toro’s Nightmare Alley…is a Pinkie problem.
I won’t bury the lede (although that may elicit a raised eyebrow if you’ve slogged this far through my windy ramblings). The new Nightmare Alley has a fine cast, led by Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, with support from the likes of Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, and David Strathairn …but (and this is a big “but”) they are all window-dressed as noir archetypes, and given nothing substantive to do with their characters.
On the plus side, the first hour is an immersive dip into the carny world (but offset by the drag factor of the remaining 90 minutes of the film’s bloated running time). This is attributable to the work of the production designer (Tamara Deverell), art director (Brandt Gordon), set decorator (Shane Vieau) and costume designer (Luis Sequeira).
That said, style without substance can only carry a film so far; once the story moves from Carlisle’s work-study course under the tutelage of veteran “seer” Zeena (the always wonderful Toni Collette, who injects real heart into her character) and her longtime partner-in-bilking Pete (David Strathairn, also a standout), it flat-lines.
Factoring in my own admitted prejudices going in as a cultist devotee of the original, I wouldn’t discourage you from giving the wheel of fortune a spin to see if this iteration of Nightmare Alley lands in your wheelhouse; there is a certain amount of pulpy entertainment value (likely unintended) in Cate Blanchett’s hammy “no more wire hangers”-level turn as the shrink who conspires with Carlisle to fleece a millionaire (Richard Jenkins, also over-cooked here…especially in a “motherfucker”-laced Grand Guignol set-piece that would fit cozily into a Tarantino film).
But if your question is “Left with a choice to watch only one version, which one is the best?”, my crystal ball points to 1947.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)
Tough Guys Don’t Dance (Vinegar Syndrome)
If “offbeat noir” is your thing, this is your kind of film. Ryan O’Neal plays an inscrutable ex-con with a conniving “black widow” of a wife, who experiences five “really bad days” in a row, involving drugs, blackmail and murder. Due to temporary amnesia, however, he’s not sure of his own complicity (O’Neal begins each day by writing the date on his bathroom mirror with shaving cream-keep in mind, this film precedes Memento by 13 years.)
Noir icon Lawrence Tierny (cast here 5 years before Tarantino tapped him for Reservoir Dogs) is priceless as O’Neal’s estranged father, who is helping him sort out events (it’s worth the price of admission when Tierny barks “I just deep-sixed two heads!”).
Equally notable is a deliciously demented performance by B-movie trouper Wings Hauser as the hilariously named Captain Alvin Luther Regency. Norman Mailer’s “lack” of direction has been duly noted over the years, but his minimalist style works. The film has a David Lynch vibe at times (which could be due to the fact that Isabella Rossellini co-stars, and the soundtrack was composed by Lynch stalwart Angelo Badalamenti).
Vinegar Syndrome has done a bang-up job with the 2K restoration. Extras include new interviews with Hauser (he’s a real hoot!), cinematographer John Bailey, Mailer biographer/archivist J. Michael Lennon, and more.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)
Prince of the City (Warner Archive)
Sidney Lumet directed this powerful drama based on the true story of NYC narcotics detective Robert Leuci (“Daniel Ciello” in the film), whose life got turned upside down after he agreed to cooperate with a special commission. Treat Williams delivers his finest performance as the conflicted cop, who is initially promised he will never have to “rat” on any of his partners in the course of the investigation. But you know what they say about the road to Hell being paved with “good intentions”. Superb performances from all in the sizable cast (especially Jerry Orbach). Lumet co-adapted the screenplay from Richard Daley’s book with Jay Presson Allen.
Warner Archive has a habit of skimping on the extras; this release is no exception, but this is the best-looking print of it I’ve seen since I first caught it in a theater back in 1981.
Robert “Bobby” Gentile, one of the last surviving named suspects in the infamous heist of 13 artworks valued at $500 million from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, died on Friday. He was 85 years old and had suffered a stroke, according to his lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan.
“He denied having the paintings till his death,” McGuigan told the Boston Globe. “They say he was a bad guy, but he became a friend. He was the last of his kind.”
The Gardner robbery took place in the early morning hours following Boston’s spirited St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in 1990. Two men dressed as police officers gained access to the museum thanks to a night security guard, tied up the two watchmen on duty, and spent the next two hours stealing masterpieces by artists including Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Edgar Degas, and Édouard Manet.
Keep your eyes peeled at those estate sales. You never know.
I’m sure you’re shocked, shocked to learn there is a Netflix docuseries about the robbery, entitled (wait for it…) This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist. I haven’t seen it yet (there are only so many hours in the day), but I have seen my share of heist films …so I thought I’d break into my video vault and pull out a few favorites:
The Anderson Tapes – In Sidney Lumet’s gritty 1971 heist caper, Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private.
To my knowledge it’s one of the first films to explore the “libertarian’s nightmare” aspect of everyday surveillance technology (in this regard, it is a pre-cursor to Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoiac 1974 conspiracy thriller The Conversation).
Also on board are Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and Quincy Jones provides the score.
Bellman and True – This off-beat 1987 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).
Bob le Flambeur – This is the premier “casino heist” movie, a highly stylized homage to American film noir from writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville. “Bob” (Roger Duchesne) is a suave, old-school gangster who plans “one last score” to pay off his gambling debts.
The film is more character study than action caper; in fact its slow pace is the antithesis to what contemporary audiences expect from a heist movie. Still, patience has its rewards. The film belies its low-budget, thanks to the atmospheric location shooting in the Montmartre and Rue Pigalle districts of Paris.
Charley Varrick – Directed by Don Siegel (The Big Steal, The Lineup, Dirty Harry) and adapted from John Reese’s novel by Howard Rodman and Dean Reisner, this tough and gritty crime drama/character study from 1973 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. If the cheeky dialog reminds you of a certain contemporary film maker, all will become clear when one character is warned that the mob may come after him with “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.” Joe Don Baker is memorable as a kinky hit man.
Criss-Cross – Burt Lancaster stars in this 1949 noir by revered genre director Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Suspect, The Killers, The Cry of the City, et.al.). Lancaster is an armored car driver who still has the hots for his troublesome ex-wife (Yvonne De Carlo). Chagrined over her marriage to a local mobster (Dan Duryea), he makes an ill-advised decision to ingratiate himself back into her life, leading to his reluctant 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, atmospheric cinematography by Franz Planer.
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round – James Coburn is at his rascally best as a con artist who schemes to knock over a bank at LAX, ingeniously using the airport’s security lock down for the visit of a foreign dignitary as cover. The first half of the film is reminiscent of The Producers; in order to raise the money he needs to finance the heist, he uses his charm to bilk rich women out of their savings.
Aldo Ray, Severn Darden and Robert Webber give good supporting performances. It’s the only real film of note by writer-director Bernard Girard, but one could do worse for a one-off.
$ (Dollars) – In this 1971 film from writer-director Richard Brooks, Warren Beatty is a bank security expert who uses intel from his sex worker girlfriend (Goldie Hawn) to hatch an ingenious plan to pinch several safety deposit boxes sitting in the vault of a German bank (the boxes belong to criminals). The robbery scene is a real nail-biter.
What sets this apart from standard heist capers is a chase sequence that seems to run through most of Germany and takes up 25 minutes of screen time (a record?). The cast includes Robert Webber and Gert Frobe (Mr. Goldfinger!). Great Quincy Jones score.
Heat-This is writer-director Michael Mann’s masterpiece. While it features the planning and execution of several heists and delivers exciting action sequences, at its heart it is a character study.
Robert De Niro portrays a master thief who plays cat-and-mouse with a dogged police detective (Al Pacino). Mann not only examines the “professional” relationship between the cops and the robbers, but by drawing parallels between the characters’ personal lives he illustrates how at the end of the day, they basically seek the same things in life (they only differ in how they go about “getting” it). De Niro and Pacino only have one brief scene together, but it’s a doozy.
The great supporting cast includes Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Wes Studi, Amy Brenneman and Ashley Judd.
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.
Kelly’s Heroes – The Dirty Dozen meets Ocean’s Eleven in this clever hybrid of WW2 action yarn and heist caper, directed by Brian G. Hutton. While interrogating a drunken German officer, a platoon leader (Clint Eastwood) stumbles onto a hot tip about a Nazi-controlled bank with a secret stash of gold bullion worth millions.
Eastwood plays it straight, but there’s anachronistic M*A*S*H-style irreverence on hand from Donald Sutherland, as the perpetually stoned and aptly named bohemian tank commander, “Oddball”.
Also with Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, Gavin MacLeod and Harry Dean Stanton. Mike Curb (future Lt. Governor of California!) composed the theme song, “Burning Bridges”.
The Killing – Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film (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 TheAsphalt Jungle (also recommended!). 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 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. Also in the cast: scene-stealer Marie Windsor, who plays an entertainingly trashy femme fatale.
Legendary pulp writer Jim Thompson was enlisted for the screenplay (adapted from Lionel White’s Clean Break). Stories have circulated that Thompson never forgave the director for the “screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, with additional dialog by Jim Thompson” billing, when it was allegedly Thompson who contributed the lion’s share of original dialog to the script.
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 genre films of the era. Playing with the timeline to build a network narrative crime caper is cliché now, but was groundbreaking in 1956 (Quentin Tarantino clearly “borrowed” from The Killing for his 1991 caper Reservoir Dogs).
The Ladykillers (1955) – This black comedy gem from Ealing Studios concerns a league of five quirky criminals, posing as classical musicians, who rent a flat from little old Mrs. Wilberforce and use it as a front for an elaborate bank robbery. To watch Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom working together is a beautiful thing.
William Rose scripted (he also penned Genevieve, another Ealing classic). Director Alexander Mackendrick would go on to helm one of the darkest noirs of them all, The Sweet Smell of Success, in 1957.
Ocean’s Eleven (1960) – This (very) loose remake of Bob le Flambeur is the ultimate Rat Pack extravaganza. Frank Sinatra stars as Danny Ocean, a WW2 vet who enlists 11 of his old Army buddies for an ambitious take down of five big Vegas casinos in one night. Yes, they are all here: Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Angie Dickinson, Henry Silva and the original “Joker” himself-Cesar Romero. Lewis Milestone directed, and Billy Wilder is said to have made some non-credited contributions to the script.
To be sure, it’s a vanity project, and may not hold up well to close scrutiny; but every time Sammy warbles “Eee-ohhh, eee-leaven…” I somehow feel that all is right with the world. Steven Soderbergh’s contemporary franchise is slicker, but nowhere near as hip, baby.
That Sinking Feeling – Sort of a Scottish version of Big Deal on Madonna Street, this was the 1979 debut from writer-director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero, Comfort & Joy). An impoverished Glasgow teenager, tired of eating cornflakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, comes up with a scheme that will 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, but with a wee touch of working class weltschmerz; this subtext makes it a precursor to films like The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine and Brassed Off. Nearly all of the same principal cast would return in Forsyth’s 1982 charmer, Gregory’s Girl.
Topkapi– I’m sure I will be raked over the coals by some for choosing director Jules Dassin’s relatively lighthearted 1964 romp over his darker and more esteemed 1956 casse classic Rififi for this list, but there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes-eh, mon ami?
The wonderful Peter Ustinov heads an international cast that includes Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley and Akim Tamiroff. They are all involved in an ingeniously planned heist to nab a priceless bejeweled dagger that sits in an Istanbul museum.
There’s plenty of intrigue, suspense and good laughs (mostly thanks to Ustinov’s presence). There’s also a great deal of lovely and colorful Mediterranean scenery to drink in. Entertaining fare.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 14, 2021)
“My only request is that you pay mind to the details of my story, with hope we see eye-to-eye at the end,” writes the protagonist/narrator in the opening of Skyler Lawson’s Whelm. As I learned the hard way (that is, having watched it in a somewhat distracted frame of mind in my first go-around), it would behoove the viewer to heed the writer’s advisement, so as not to be left feeling blindsided or bewildered by the epilogue.
That is not to say the narrative is willfully obscure; at its core it’s no more densely plotted than your standard-issue 90-minute crime caper. It’s just that (and I know this will be an instant turn-off for some) it has been s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d into a 2-hour ah…visual tone poem. In other words-patience, Grasshopper.
Not that that is a bad thing in this handsomely mounted period piece, drenched in gorgeous, wide scope “magic hour” photography shot (almost unbelievably) in 16mm by Edward Herrera. Writer-director Lawson’s debut feature evokes laconic “heartland noirs” of the ‘70s like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us.
Set in rural Indiana during the Great Depression, the story centers on two estranged brothers: our narrator Reed (Dylan Grunn) and his older sibling August (Ronan Colfer), a troubled war veteran. The brothers help their father run an inn that has seen better days.
Like most people of the time, the brothers are bereft of funds and always looking to scare up extra coin. This leads them to fall in with a pair of extralegal characters-a suave, charismatic but decidedly felonious fellow named Jimmy (Grant Schumacher) and a cerebral, enigmatic man of mystery named Alexander Aleksy (Delil Baran). What ensues is equal parts heist caper, psychological drama, and historical fantasy (in 13 “chapters”).
For an indie project that was shot in just 2 weeks, the film has an astonishingly epic feel, which portends a big future for Lawson. Lawson also co-composed the dynamic original score (with Chris Dudley). He is helped by a great ensemble (all previously unknown to me). Baran makes fascinating choices as Aleksy- I think he will be someone to keep an eye on as well.
If you’re hankering for a film with (as Stanley Kubrick once described his approach) “…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” and hearkens back to something we old folks used to refer to as “cinema”-this is about as good as it gets in the Summer of 2021.
WHELM is on digital platforms and in select theaters as a 35mm roadshow event.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 10, 2021)
The Parallax View (The Criterion Collection)
Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 “conspiracy a-go-go” thriller stars Warren Beatty, who delivers an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop the Space Needle. This puts him on a trail that leads to an enigmatic agency called the Parallax Corporation.
The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.
The screenplay is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with a non-credited rewrite by Robert Towne). The narrative contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination, and (in retrospect) reflects the political paranoia of the Nixon era (perhaps this was serendipity, as the full implications of the Watergate scandal were not yet in the rear view mirror while the film was in production).
The new, restored 4K digital transfer is a revelation. The audio track retains the original mono mix, but is also a substantial upgrade from the 1999 Paramount DVD (which I think I’ve nearly worn out…if that’s possible with digital media). Extras include archival interviews from 1974 and 1995 with Pakula, a new program on DP Willis, and a new introduction by filmmaker Alex Cox. I’m awarding this package my highest rating: 4 tin foil hats!