Category Archives: Neo-Noir

But of tomorrow: RIP Ryan O’ Neal

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 8, 2023)

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No lad who has liberty for the first time, and twenty guineas in his pocket, is very sad, and Barry rode towards Dublin thinking not so much of the kind mother left alone, and of the home behind him, but of tomorrow, and all the wonders it would bring.

-from Barry Lyndon

Oh man, oh God…we’ve lost another one:

Ryan O’Neal, the boyish leading man who kicked off an extraordinary 1970s run in Hollywood with his Oscar-nominated turn as the Harvard preppie Oliver in the legendary romantic tearjerker Love Story, has died. He was 82.

O’Neal died Friday, his son Patrick O’Neal, a sportscaster with Bally Sports West in Los Angeles, reported on Instagram. He had been diagnosed with chronic leukemia in 2001 and with prostate cancer in 2012.

“As a human being, my father was as generous as they come,” Patrick wrote. “And the funniest person in any room. And the most handsome clearly, but also the most charming. Lethal combo. He loved to make people laugh. It’s pretty much his goal. Didn’t matter the situation, if there was a joke to be found, he nailed it. He really wanted us laughing. And we did all laugh. Every time. We had fun. Fun in the sun.” […]

Patrick Ryan O’Neal was born on April 20, 1941, in Los Angeles, the older son of novelist-screenwriter Charles “Blackie” O’Neal (The Three Wishes of Jamie McRuin) and actress Patricia Callaghan. He competed in Golden Gloves events in L.A. in 1956 and 1957 and compiled a boxing record of 18-4 with 13 knockouts, according to his website.

In the late 1950s, O’Neal and his family moved to Munich, and he became infatuated with the syndicated TV series Tales of the Vikings, which shot in Europe and was produced by Kirk Douglas‘ company.

According to a 1975 newspaper account, he wrote to another producer, George Cahan, on the show: “I am six feet tall, and with a false beard I will look as much like a Viking as any actor on the set … I may be the Gary Cooper of tomorrow.”

O’Neal went on to perform as a stuntman on the series.

After appearing on such shows as The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Untouchables, Leave It to Beaver and My Three Sons, O’Neal co-starred opposite Richard Egan on Empire, a 1962-63 NBC Western set in New Mexico.

O’Neal would go on to land a choice role on the drama series Peyton Place, appearing in 500 episodes from 1964 to 1969. His big screen breakout was starring alongside Ali MacGraw in Arthur Hiller’s 1970 tear-jerker Love Story; not a personal favorite of mine, but a huge box office hit that assured him movie star status for the remainder of that decade.

Honestly, I wouldn’t call him a method actor…but O’Neal was undeniably a movie star, in the old school sense; I might even venture, “laconic”, much like “the Gary Cooper of tomorrow” that he once aspired to be. A toast to a fine career, and all the wonders that it brought him.

Here’s some recommended viewing:

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Barry Lyndon – Stanley Kubrick’s beautifully photographed, leisurely paced adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s rags-to-riches-to-rags tale about a roguish Irishman (Ryan O’Neal) who grifts his way into the English aristocracy is akin to watching 18th-century paintings sumptuously spring to life (funnily enough, its detractors tend to liken it to “oil paintings” as well, but for entirely different reasons). The cast includes Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Leonard Rossiter and Leon Vitali.

This magnificent 1975 film has improved with age, like a fine wine; successive viewings prove the stories about Kubrick’s obsession with the minutest of details were not exaggerated-every frame is steeped in verisimilitude. Michael Hordern’s delightfully droll voice over work as The Narrator rescues the proceedings from sliding into staidness.

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The Driver -Walter Hill’s 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. O’ Neal is perfectly cast, exuding a Zen-like cool. Also with Isabelle Adjani. One of my favorite 70s crime thrillers, and an obvious inspiration for Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive (my review).

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Nickelodeon -Peter Bogdanovich’s love letter to the silent film era, depicting the trials and tribulations of indie filmmakers, circa 1910. It leans a bit heavy on the slapstick at times, but is bolstered by charming performances by a great cast that includes Ryan O’Neal, Stella Stevens, Burt Reynolds, John Ritter, and Tatum O’Neal. It’s beautifully photographed by László Kovács. Anyone who truly loves the movies will find the denouement quite moving.

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Paper Moon -Two years after The Last Picture Show, director Peter Bogdanovich had the audacity to shoot yet another B&W film-which was going against the grain by the early 70s. This outing, however, was not a bleak drama. Granted, it is set during the Great Depression, but has a much lighter tone, thanks to precocious 9 year-old Tatum O’Neal, who steals every scene she shares with her dad Ryan (which is to say, nearly every scene in the film).

The O’Neals portray an inveterate con artist/Bible salesman and a recently orphaned girl he is transporting to Missouri (for a fee). Along the way, the pair discover they are a perfect tag team for bilking people out of their cookie jar money. Entertaining road movie, with the built-in advantage of a natural acting chemistry between the two leads.

Also on hand: Madeline Kahn (wonderful as always), John Hillerman, P.J. Johnson, and Noble Willngham. Ace DP László Kovács is in his element; he was no stranger to road movies (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). Alvin Sargent adapted his screenplay from Joe David Brown’s novel, “Addie Pray”.

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Tough Guys Don’t Dance – 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). A guilty pleasure.

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What’s Up, Doc? – Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is a love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence being Bringing Up Baby). Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand have wonderful chemistry as the romantic leads, who meet cute and become involved in a hotel mix-up of four identical suitcases that rapidly snowballs into a series of increasingly preposterous situations for all concerned (as occurs in your typical screwball comedy).

The screenplay was co-written by Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton. The fabulous cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy. In his second collaboration with the director, cinematographer László Kovács works his usual magic with the San Francisco locale.

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The Wild Rovers – Blake Edwards made a western? Yes, he did, and not a half-bad one at that. A world-weary cowhand (William Holden) convinces a younger (and somewhat dim) co-worker (Ryan O’Neal) that since it’s obvious that they’ll never really get ahead in their present profession, they should give bank robbery a shot. They get away with it, but then find themselves on the run, oddly, not so much from the law, but from their former employer (Karl Malden), who is mightily offended that anyone who worked for him would do such a thing. Episodic and leisurely paced, but ambles along quite agreeably, thanks to the charms of the two leads, and the beautiful, expansive photography by Philip Lathrop. Ripe for rediscovery.

Blu-ray reissue: The Big Easy (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 19, 2023)

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The Big Easy (KL Studio Classics)

“Aw…come on, chère.” I can’t reckon why, you… but there was a mess of swampy Louisiana neo noirs bag daer in the 80s- Southern Comfort, Angel Heart, No Mercy, Cat People, Belizaire the Cajun, Down by Law, and (my favorite of the bunch) Jim McBride’s slick 1986 crime drama.

Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin star as a NOPD detective and a D.A., respectively who become enmeshed in a police corruption investigation. Initially adversarial, the pair’s professional relationship is quickly complicated by a mutual attraction  (what…you’re going to cast Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin in a film and not let nature take its course? I mean, come on, chère!).

Admittedly, the twists and turns in Daniel Petrie, Jr.’s screenplay may not hold up to scrutiny, but you’ll be having too much fun watching Quaid and Barkin heat up the screen to care. Great supporting cast, featuring Ned Beatty, John Goodman and Grace Zabriskie. Image and audio are an improvement over a previous DVD release; the disc features a 2023 commentary track by McBride.

Blu-ray reissue: The Man on the Train (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posed on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 19, 2023)

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Man on the Train (KL Studio Classics)

There are a handful of films I have become emotionally attached to, usually for reasons I can’t completely fathom. This 2002 drama is one of them.

Best described as an “existential noir”, Patrice LeConte’s relatively simple tale of two men in their twilight years with disparate life paths (a retired poetry teacher and a career felon) forming an unexpected deep bond turns into a transcendent film experience. French pop star Johnny Hallyday and screen veteran Jean Rochefort deliver mesmerizing performances. There was a 2011 remake…but frankly, I don’t see the point, because this is a perfect film.

Kino skimps on the extras (just a theatrical trailer). While Kino’s high-def transfer is an improvement, the unusually high graininess and muted color palette that I had chalked up to a quality control issue with the Paramount DVD remains; so I’ll make an educated guess that this was a creative choice by the filmmaker (he wanted a ‘twilight’ vibe, perhaps?).

The stars are God’s eyes: Adieu,William Friedkin

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 7, 2023)

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*sigh* One by one, the giants continue to fall:

William Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director behind The French Connection and The Exorcist who was one of the most admired directors to emerge from a wave of brilliant filmmakers who made their mark in the 1970s, died Monday. He was 87.

Friedkin died in Los Angeles, his wife, former producer and studio head Sherry Lansing, said.

His pictures, which also included 1977’s Sorcerer, 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A. and 2006’s Bug, were marked by an exceptional visual eye, a willingness to take what might have been a genre subject and treat it with high seriousness and a sense of how sound could add a subterranean layer of dread, mystery and dissonance to his stories — a haunted and haunting quality that lifted his visceral works into another realm, conveying a preternatural sense of “fear and paranoia, both old friends of mine,” as he said in his 2013 memoir, The Friedkin Connection.

Fear and paranoia. I’m not a religious person, but I distinctly remember jumping out of my seat and shouting “JESUS CHRIST!” about a dozen times the first time I saw The Exorcist.

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It truly freaked me out, affecting me on a primal level like no other film I’d seen; to this day the very thought of sitting through it again makes me recoil. I remember feeling anger toward the filmmaker for triggering months of nightmares and lingering heebie-jeebies.

I was still in high school; I didn’t know from auteur theory or what a two-shot was…but I’d been to two world’s fairs and a rodeo and could sense that there was “something” about the atmosphere, the immersive nature of this film that raised the bar for horror tropes; there was a cinematic alchemist at the helm (“how did he do that to me?!”).

More from the Hollywood Reporter obit:

He was part of a brilliant generation of filmmakers who upended the studio system, making movies that were provocative, individualistic and anti-authoritarian. Several of its members at one time joined forces to create The Directors Company in an attempt to give themselves the independence they cherished, though internal disagreements led to its dissolution, not long after they had collectively turned down Star Wars.

About that “brilliant generation”…I “discovered” Friedkin’s 1971 crime drama masterpiece The French Connection, as well as the work of many of his contemporaries in a sort of ass-backward way-as I recounted in a 2017 piece about the death of the neighborhood theater:

Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 3-year period of my life (1979-1982) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260-mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 60s and 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit. While I had a lot of favorite haunts (The Surf, The Balboa, The Castro, and the Red Victorian loom large in my memory), there were two venerable (if a tad dodgy) downtown venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the dank and the dark with snoring bums who used the auditoriums as a $2 flop: The Roxie and The Strand.

That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 3 years I spent in the dark was my film school; that’s how I got caught up with Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Wim Wenders, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, etc.

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I have probably seen The French Connection 25 times; if I happen to stumble across it while channel-surfing, I will inevitably get sucked in for a taste of Friedkin’s masterful direction, Ernest Tidyman’s crackling dialog (adapted from Robin Moore’s book), Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider’s indelible performances, or a jolt of adrenaline:

Gerald B. Greenburg picked up a well-deserved Oscar for that brilliant editing. Statues were also handed out to Friedkin for Best Director, producer Philip D’Antoni for Best Picture, Hackman for Best Actor (Scheider was nominated, but did not win for Best Supporting Actor), and Tidyman for Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

Just as his films were uncompromising and “in your face”, when it came to speaking his mind, Friedkin was certainly no shrinking violet. I found his irascibility endearing-like the sampling in this tribute Tweet posted today:

Don’t hold back. Tell us how you really feel, Bill! Irascible …and irreplaceable.

In addition to the obvious “must-sees” The Exorcist (if you dare) and The French Connection, here are a few more Freidkin recommendations for movie night:

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The Boys in the Band – Friedkin’s groundbreaking 1970 film adaptation of Mart Crowley’s off-Broadway play centers on a group of gay friends who have gathered to celebrate a birthday, and as the booze starts to flow, the fur begins to fly. It may not seem as “bold” or “daring” as perceived over 50 years ago (and many contemporary viewers will undoubtedly find certain stereotypes of the time to be problematic), but what the narrative reveals about human nature is universal and timeless.

It’s one of the best American dramas of the 1970s; a wicked verbal jousting match delivered by a crackerjack acting ensemble so finely tuned that you could set a metronome to the performances (Crowley adapted the screenplay). The production is also unique for enlisting the entire original stage cast to recreate their roles onscreen. Warning: Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” will be playing in your head for days on end.

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Sorcerer – The time is ripe for a re-appraisal of Friedkin’s 1977 action-adventure, which was greeted with indifference by audiences and critics at the time. Maybe it was the incongruous title, which likely 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 an expertly directed, terrifically acted update of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic 1953 nail-biter, The Wages of Fear (I say “update” in deference to Friedkin, who bristles at the term “remake” in a “letter from the director” included with the Blu-ray I own).

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. Walon Green wrote the screenplay, and Tangerine Dream provides a memorable soundtrack.

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Killer Joe – This 2012 film is a blackly funny and deliriously nasty piece of late-career work from Friedkin. Jim Thompson meets Sam Shepherd (with a whiff of Tennessee Williams) in this dysfunctional trailer trash-strewn tale of avarice, perversion and murder-for-hire, adapted for the screen by Tracy Letts from his own play. While the noir tropes in the narrative holds few surprises, the squeamish are forewarned that the then-76 year-old Friedkin still had a formidable ability to startle unsuspecting viewers; proving you’re never too old to earn an NC-17 rating. How startling? The real litmus test occurs during the film’s climactic scene, which is so Grand Guignol that (depending on your sense of humor) you’ll either cringe and cover your eyes…or laugh yourself sick. (Full review)

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To Live and Die in L.A. – Essentially a remake of The French Connection (updated for the 80s), Friedkin’s fast-moving, tough-as-nails 1985 neo noir ignites the senses on every level: visual, aural and visceral.

Leads William Peterson (as an obsessed treasury agent) and Willem Dafoe (as his criminal nemesis) rip up the screen with star-making performances (both were relative unknowns). While the narrative adheres to familiar “cop on the edge” tropes, there’s an undercurrent of weirdness throughout that makes this a truly unique genre entry (“The stars are God’s eyes!” Peterson’s girlfriend shrieks at him at one point, for no apparent reason). Friedkin co-adapted the screenplay with source novel author Gerald Petievich.

Friedkin’s hard-boiled L.A. story is painted in dusky orange, vivid reds and stark blacks; an ugly/beautiful noir Hell rendered by the late great cinematographer Robby Müller (who worked extensively with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch). The icing on the cake is Wang Chung’s ace soundtrack, woven seamlessly into the narrative by Friedkin and editor M. Scott Smith. This sequence alone is worth the price of admission (not to mention a masterclass in editing…if not counterfeiting):

Don’t nobody move: Top 15 heist capers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 29, 2023)

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Malaria’s not the only surprise comeback of 2023. Gold heists are still a thing:

Police in Canada are investigating one of the largest gold heists in the country’s history, after more than C$20m ($15m; £12m) of the precious metal and other valuable goods were stolen from Toronto’s airport [this past April].

[…] In a brazen pilferage, a “high-value container” disappeared while it was being transported to a cargo holding facility near Canada’s busiest airport.

Authorities say the thieves gained access to the public side of a warehouse near Toronto Pearson International Airport that was unmanned by airport security.

The theft, which is still under investigation, was an isolated and “very rare” incident, police say. While a heist of that magnitude is indeed rare, a look at Canadian history shows it’s not the first.

The Toronto Pearson International Airport has often been used as a hub for gold mined in the province of Ontario, and in September 1952 it was the scene of a mysterious heist.

Back then, Pearson was known by another name: Malton Airport. It is where thieves managed to steal about C$215,000-worth of gold bars (valued at about C$2.5m today).

The gold was stored in a steel mesh wire cage before it was loaded to a Montreal-bound plane. From there, it was destined to be shipped to the UK.

But when the plane arrived in Montreal, there were only four boxes of gold bullion out of 10.

According to articles from the Toronto Star at the time, the robbers were never spotted. No suspect has been publicly named since the heist took place 70 years ago.

The gold “just seemed to vanish”, a police officer told reporters at the time.

“Theft happens all the time at airports,” says Stacey Porter, an independent security consultant who conducts security risk assessments for airports.

Airports are large facilities with lots of potential security vulnerabilities, especially in areas where bags and cargo are kept, he says.

Cameras capture every moment that passengers spend inside airports, but luggage – both commercial airline cargo and larger shipments made by businesses – are often kept in darkened warehouses that may not have much video surveillance. […]

While Canada has an impressive history of gold heists, none come quite close to one that has been dubbed the “Crime of the Century” in the UK, involving the theft of gold bullion in November 1983, valued then at £26m.

In today’s currency, that amount is worth around £112m, or C$188m in Canadian dollars.

The robbery unfolded after six armed men broke into the Brink’s-Mat depot near London’s Heathrow Airport, with the help of one of the security guards who was in on the theft.

They were expecting to find large sums of foreign currency. Instead, they stumbled on precious gold, diamonds and cash.

The theft led police on a lengthy chase to find all of those who were involved, as the criminals enlisted the help of others to help turn the gold into cash.

Many murders over the years have been linked back to the robbery, as well as a few suicides. Much of the gold has never been recovered and four out of the six original robbers were never convicted.

The heist was one of the largest in world history at the time, and had a lasting impact on both the British public and police.

A BBC TV drama depicting the robbery and its aftermath stated that “if you have bought gold jewellery in Britain since 1984, it is likely to contain traces of the Brink’s-Mat gold”.

That BBC miniseries is called The Gold, and is streaming here in the colonies on Paramount Plus-which (dammit!) is a platform I’m not subscribed to (nothing a “free trial” can’t cure, if you catch my drift). There’s also a 1993 made-for-TV movie called Fool’s Gold: The Story of the Brink’s-Mat Robbery, starring Sean Bean (I haven’t seen that one either). I’ve always been a sucker for heist films; as I’ve seen my fair share, I thought I’d steal a few moments of your time and break into my video vault to share a few favorites:

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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.

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Bellman and True – This off-beat 1987 caper is 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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 this 1966 film is reminiscent of The Producers; to finance the heist, he uses his charm to bilk women out of their savings and valuables.

Also with Aldo Ray, Severn Darden and Robert Webber. Don’t blink or you’ll miss a very young Harrison Ford in his uncredited role as a bellhop (he only has one line). Lightweight but quite enjoyable. It’s the only film of note by writer-director Bernard Girard, but one could do worse for a one-off.

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$ (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.

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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.

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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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Kelly’s HeroesThe 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”.

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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 The Asphalt 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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

…And just for fun:

Tribeca 2023: He Went That Way (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 17, 2023)

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Or, as I have dubbed it, He Went Every Which Way but Loose. Jeffrey Darling’s heartland noir (set in 1964) gets its kicks on Route 66. An animal handler (Zachary Quinto) is on the road to Chicago with his BFF…a celebrity chimpanzee named “Spanky”. At a truck stop café, he offers a ride to a wary hitchhiker (Jacob Eldori), little suspecting that he’s picked up a vicious serial killer. While all the elements are in place for a tension-filled “killer on the road” thriller, the film never quite gels as such. The two leads are game (like Michael Madsen before him, Eldori takes full advantage of his angular James Dean countenance with a suitably twitchy and squint-eyed performance) and the scenic vistas are well-photographed but vacillating tonal shifts in the narrative ultimately drag the film down.

Tribeca 2023: Cinnamon (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 17, 2023)

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Coffy? Meet Cinnamon. Written, directed and executive produced by Bryian Keith Montgomery Jr., this crime thriller marks the first offering under the banner of Village Roadshow Pictures’ Black Noir Cinema, which according to Variety, “…aims to adapt and redefine the Blaxploitation genre and translate its spirit of empowerment to a new generation of Black audiences.” With all due respect, isn’t that an avenue that filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (e.g. Jackie Brown, Django Unchained) and the Hughes Brothers (e.g. Dead Presidents) have already been traversing for a couple of decades? I’m just asking questions.

Hailey Kilgore plays a young woman who works at a gas station and aspires to make it big in the music biz. David Iacono plays the petty thief who sweeps her off her feet and vows to make her a star by any means necessary (he’s handsome, but roguish). The pair brainstorm a scheme to score some cash. Complications ensue. Kilgore and Iancono are appealing, and having players like Damon Wayans and genre stalwart Pam Grier (still a formidable presence) on board lends cachet, but the film falls curiously flat.

Only after dark: Top 10 neo-noirs of the 2000s

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 15, 2023)

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What is “neo-noir”, as opposed to “film noir”? The easiest explanation? Most of your film scholar types generally define the “classic film noir cycle” as cynical, dark, and moody B&W crime dramas produced between 1940 and 1959; consequently, any similar entries going forward automatically get tossed into the “neo” noir bin. Now, there are those who would say (with a certain air of haughtiness) “actually, that’s an oversimplification” (yes, I hear you).

But I’m a simple kind of man. I take my time; I don’t live too fast. Troubles will come, and they will pass. So, for the purposes of this study (and to spare you further Lynyrd Skynyrd quotes) I’m just going to dive in with my picks for the top 10 neo-noirs of the new millennium (so far) …suitable for late night viewing, with a stiff shot of your favorite adult beverage on standby.

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – It’s a testament to the late director Sidney Lumet’s gift that his final film (which he made in 2007, at age 82) was just as vital and affecting as any of his best work over a long career. Recalling The King of Marvin Gardens, it’s a nightmarish noir-cum Greek tragedy, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a stressed-out businessman with bad debts and very bad habits, which leads him to take desperate measures. He enlists his not-so-bright brother (Ethan Hawke) into helping him pull an ill-advised heist of a jewelry store owned by their elderly parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). Also with Marisa Tomei, Michael Shannon, and Amy Ryan. Great ensemble work, with a taut screenplay by Kelly Masterson.

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Collateral – Tom Cruise is unarguably the most popular movie star on the planet; in fact so synonymous with market-tested box-office mega-product that he seems more of a “brand” than a human being…which is why I’m always blind-sided when he occasionally reminds me that he can still act (when he wants to). One case in point: Michael Mann’s 2004 film.

Cruise disappears into his role as a suave sociopath, a contract killer who enlists an unsuspecting L.A. cabbie (Jamie Foxx) to be his wheel man as he coolly checks off his “to do” list for the evening. Equal parts neo-noir, hostage drama, and psychological thriller; incredibly tense. Brilliant cinematography by Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron captures the vibe of L.A. at night in unique fashion (nice little unexpected touches, like a glimpse of a coyote sauntering across a downtown street). The populous supporting cast includes Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Debi Mazar, Peter Berg, and Javier Bardem. Stuart Beattie wrote the screenplay.

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Drive – Ryan Gosling gives one of his best performances to date as a Hollywood stuntman by day, a wheelman-for-hire by night in this richly atmospheric, top-notch 2011 crime thriller from Danish director Nicolas Winding (with a screenplay by Hossein Amini and James Sallis). Paradoxically (and in true Steve McQueen fashion) Gosling is technically giving more of a non-performance; he is not quite all there, yet he is wholly present (i.e. the less he “does”, the more intriguing he becomes).

From a purely cinematic standpoint, the director proves himself to be on a par with masters of modern noir like Michael Mann, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Albert Brooks, whose quietly menacing turn as a mean, spiteful, razor-toting viper goes against type (don’t expect Albert to be the “ ha-ha” kind of clown in this outing; more like the John Wayne Gacy kind of clown). (Full review)

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The Guilty – Essentially a chamber piece set in a police station call center, this 2018 thriller is a “one night in the life of…” character study of a Danish cop (Jakob Cedergren) who has been busted down to emergency dispatcher. Demonstratively glum about pulling administrative duties, the tightly wound officer resigns himself to another dull shift manning the phones.

However, if he was hoping for something exciting to break the monotony, he’s about to fulfill the old adage “be careful what you wish for” once he takes a call from a frantic woman who has been kidnapped. Before he gets enough details to pinpoint her location, she hangs up. As he’s no longer authorized to respond in person, he resolves to redeem himself with his superiors by MacGyvering a way to save her as he races a ticking clock.

Considering the “action” is limited to the confines of a police station and largely dependent on a leading man who must find 101 interesting ways to emote while yakking on a phone for 80 minutes, writer-director Gustav Möller and his star perform nothing short of a minor miracle turning this scenario into anything but another dull night at the movies. Packed with nail-biting tension, Rashomon-style twists, and bereft of explosions, CGI effects or elaborate stunts, this terrific thriller renews your faith in the power of a story well-told. I haven’t seen the 2021 U.S. remake…but I don’t see how you could improve on perfection. (Full review)

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Killer Joe – This 2012 film is a blackly funny and deliriously nasty piece of work from veteran director William Friedkin. Jim Thompson meets Sam Shepherd (with a whiff of Tennessee Williams) in this dysfunctional trailer trash-strewn tale of avarice, perversion and murder-for-hire, adapted for the screen by Tracy Letts from his own play. While the noir tropes in the narrative holds few surprises, the squeamish are forewarned that the 76 year-old Friedkin still has a formidable ability to startle unsuspecting viewers; proving you’re never too old to earn an NC-17 rating. How startling? The real litmus test occurs during the film’s climactic scene, which is so Grand Guignol that (depending on your sense of humor) you’ll either cringe and cover your eyes…or laugh yourself sick. (Full review)

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Man on the Train –There are a only a handful of films I have become emotionally attached to, usually for reasons I can’t completely fathom. This 2002 drama is one of them. Best described as an “existential noir”, Patrice LeConte’s relatively simple tale of two men in their twilight years with disparate life paths (a retired poetry teacher and a career felon) forming an unexpected deep bond turns into a transcendent film experience. French pop star Johnny Hallyday and screen veteran Jean Rochefort deliver mesmerizing performances. There apparently was a 2011 remake; but as in the case of The Guilty (above)…I don’t see the point.

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Memories of Murder –Buoyed by its artful production and knockout performances, this visceral and ultimately haunting 2003 police procedural from director Joon-ho Bong (Parasite) really gets under your skin. Based on the true story of South Korea’s first known serial killer, it follows a pair of rural homicide investigators as they search for a prime suspect.

Initially, they seem bent on instilling more fear into the local citizenry than the lurking killer, as they proceed to violate every civil liberty known to man. Soon, however, the team’s dynamic is tempered by the addition of a more cool-headed detective from Seoul, who takes the profiler approach. The film doubles as a fascinating glimpse into modern South Korean society and culture.

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No Country For Old Men The bodies pile up faster than you can say Blood Simple in Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterfully constructed 2007 neo-noir (which earned them a shared Best Director trophy). The brothers’ Oscar-winning screenplay (adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel) is rich in characterization and thankfully devoid of the self-conscious quirkiness that has left some of their latter-day films teetering on self-parody.

The story is set among the sagebrush and desert heat of the Tex-Mex border, where the deer and the antelope play. One day, good ol’ boy Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) is shootin’ at some food (the playful antelope) when he encounters a grievously wounded pit bull. The blood trail leads to discovery of the aftermath of a shootout. As this is Coen country…that twisty trail does lead to a twisty tale.

Tommy Lee Jones gives a wonderful low-key performance as an old-school, Gary Cooper-ish lawman who (you guessed it) comes from a long line of lawmen. Jones’ face is a craggy, world-weary road map of someone who has reluctantly borne witness to every inhumanity man is capable of, and is counting down the days to imminent retirement (‘cos it’s becoming no country for old men…).

The cast is outstanding. Javier Bardem picked up a Best Supporting Actor statue for his turn as a psychotic hit man. His performance is understated, yet menacing, made all the more unsettling by his Peter Tork haircut. Kelly McDonald and Woody Harrelson are standouts as well. Curiously, Roger Deakins wasn’t nominated for his cinematography, but his work on this film ranks among his best. (Full review)

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Rampart In a published interview, hard-boiled scribe James Ellroy once said of his (typical) protagonists “…I want to see these bad, bad, bad, bad men come to grips with their humanity.”  Later in the interview, Ellroy confided that he “…would like to provide ambiguous responses in my readers.” If those were his primary intentions in the screenplay that drives Oren Moverman’s gripping and unsettling 2011 film (co-written with the director), I would say that he has succeeded mightily on both counts.

If you’re seeking car chases, shootouts and a neatly wrapped ending tied with a bow-look elsewhere. Not unlike one of those classic 1970s character studies, this film just sort of…starts, shit happens, and then it sort of…stops. But don’t let that put you off-it’s what’s inside this sandwich that matters, namely the fearless and outstanding performance from a gaunt and haunted Woody Harrelson, so good here as a bad, bad, bad, bad L.A. cop. (Full review)

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Whelm – Set in rural Indiana during the Great Depression, writer-director Skyler Lawson’s 2021 debut feature centers on two brothers: Reed (Dylan Grunn) and August (Ronan Colfer), a troubled war veteran. Desperate for money, the siblings get in over their heads with a suave, charismatic but felonious fellow named Jimmy (Grant Schumacher) and a cerebral, enigmatic man of mystery named Alexander Aleksy (Delil Baran).

Equal parts heist caper, psychological drama, and historical fantasy. A handsomely mounted period piece, drenched in gorgeous, wide scope “magic hour” photography shot (almost unbelievably) in 16mm by Edward Herrera. The film evokes laconic “heartland noirs” of the ‘70s like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us. (Full review)

Honorable mentions:

The Irishman

Mulholland Drive

The Man in the Basement

Motherless Brooklyn

Blade Runner 2049

Child’s Pose

The Hunt

The Silence

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The Sweeney

Mesrine

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

The Escapist

The Limits of Control

Blu-ray reissue: Get Carter (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)

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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!

And playing us out…Roy Budd.

Blu-ray reissue: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)

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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.