Category Archives: Neo-Noir

Blu-ray reissue: Atlantic City (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2020)

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Atlantic City – Paramount

Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon deliver outstanding lead performances in this 1980 neo-noir/character study from Louis Malle. Lancaster plays a fading, low-level gangster eking out a living as a bookie. He is also the weary caretaker (and occasional lover) of his former boss’s ailing widow (Kate Reid), who lives in the apartment directly below (whenever she needs him, she comically yanks on an old-fashioned room-to-room bell…making him appear more like an indentured servant).

The biggest thrill in the aging hood’s life derives from an occasional peep at his sexy neighbor (Susan Sarandon), whose kitchen window directly faces his across the courtyard of their apartment building. She conducts a nightly cleaning ritual involving fresh lemons over her kitchen sink-topless (I love the soliloquy Lancaster delivers about “the lemons” after she asks him what he does when he watches her…it is a scene that in the hands of two lesser actors would play more lasciviously than so sweetly). Fate and circumstance tosses them together and puts them on the run from murderous gangsters looking to recover some stolen drugs.

John Guare’s screenplay is rich in characterization, bolstered by a marvelous cast (right down to the bit parts). Atlantic City itself becomes a key character, thanks to Richard Ciupka’s cinematography and Malle’s skillful direction. Malle chose an interesting time to film there; many old hotels and casinos were in the process of being demolished in order to make way for new construction, which adds to the overall elegiac tone.

Paramount’s Blu-ray does show a fair amount of grain and is obviously “not restored” (to which some visible debris and scratches attest), but the picture is still a vast improvement over the DVD. No extras, but I am happy to see this gem finally get a decent hi-def release (a previous Blu-ray by Gaumont, which I have not viewed, was reportedly less-than-stellar).

The Big Heat: The 10 Sweatiest Film noirs (and Neo-noirs)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 4, 2020)

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “Hotter than the 4th of July”? Ice tea on standby:

Coronavirus. Massive unemployment. Murder hornets. Saharan dust… How could 2020 get any worse, you might ask.

With record-breaking scorching heat. That’s how.

Meteorologists on Tuesday revealed that July could bring unusually hot temperatures for more than two-thirds of the continental U.S., possibly matching the historic levels seen in 2011 and 2012.

A weather outlook released by the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center predicts “increased chances” for above-normal temperatures across most of the country as well as below-normal rainfall levels for the Four Corners and parts of the Central and Southern Plains.

Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist with IBM’s The Weather Company, said a pattern of high temperatures and boiling humidity in July could result in “potentially historic heat.”

“After a relatively warm June, we are expecting July to be unusually hot, with the most anomalous warmth focused in the north-central states Great Lakes region,” he told The Washington Post.

The extreme weather could hit parts of the country as soon as this weekend. Some areas in the Greats Lakes may see temperatures of up to 15 degrees above normal on Saturday, according to the Post.

In southern New England, meanwhile, temperatures could soar past 90 degrees by early next week. In the New York area, temperatures will be “slightly” above normal this Thursday, the National Weather Service projects.

The agency also predicts that limited rainfall and above-normal heat will lead to likely drought conditions for the Southern and Central Plains.

Oy.

So…with the mercury soaring in most parts of the country 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 holiday 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 (in alphabetical order)…

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Body Heat (Amazon Prime) – 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.

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Cool Hand Luke (Amazon Prime) – “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”.

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Dog Day Afternoon (Amazon Prime) – 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.

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High and Low (Amazon Prime) – 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.

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The Hot Spot (DVD only) – 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.

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In the Heat of the Night (Amazon Prime) – “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.

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The Night of the Hunter (Amazon Prime) – 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.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice (Amazon Prime) – 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.

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Touch of Evil (Amazon Prime)– 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.

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The Wages of Fear (Amazon Prime) / Sorcerer (Amazon Prime) -The primeval jungles of South America have served as a backdrop for a plethora of sweat-streaked tales (Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath 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.

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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.

 

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Charley Varrick – Kino-Lorber

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

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

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

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

Twitch and shout: Motherless Brooklyn (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 9, 2019)

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Stanley Kubrick once stated, “I like a slow start, the start that goes under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.” I suspect that Edward Norton, the writer/director/star of Motherless Brooklyn, enthusiastically concurs.

Norton’s film, adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s eponymous 1999 detective novel, qualifies as one such “slow starter”. At 144 minutes, it gives the audience ample time to ponder grace notes and soft tones; and (for the most part) avoids pounding you over the head with plot points and suspense hooks. Movies of that sort are hard to find these days.

I have not read the source novel; but I gather it is a complex murder mystery set in contemporary New York, with a largely internalized narrative from the perspective of its protagonist. Norton shifts the time period to the 1950s and channels most of the complexity into his performance as Lionel Essrog, a private dick afflicted by Tourette Syndrome. Naturally, he awards himself a juicy character role and tackles it with aplomb.

Lionel works as a P.I. for an agency headed by hard-boiled war vet Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Minna is not only Lionel’s boss, but his best friend and mentor. Minna is one of the few people who doesn’t (whether consciously or unconsciously) stigmatize him for his uncontrollable physical and vocal tics (Lionel’s co-workers call him “Freakshow”). Minna recognizes that certain ancillaries of Lionel’s condition- to wit, a photographic memory and an ability to laser in on minutiae are ideal attributes for a private investigator.

One day, Minna asks Lionel and another P.I. from the agency to accompany him for a meet he has with some shadowy individuals. Lionel is instructed to listen in on the conversation from a phone booth while his partner stands by in the car. Minna keeps his cards close to his vest as to what it’s all about but makes it obvious that he has the pair of them tagging along as backup in case the meeting goes south in a hurry. Long story short, the meeting goes south in a hurry, and before the P.I.s can intercede Minna ends up dead.

The mystery is afoot (if it’s a yard). Lionel navigates a crooked maze of avarice and corruption that runs through smoky Harlem jazz clubs, Brooklyn tenement slums and straight to the rotten core of The Big Apple (I think I missed my calling as a pulp writer).

Frankly, the mystery (while absorbing) takes a backseat to the character study and the noir-ish 1950s atmosphere (helped by nice work from cinematographer Dick Pope, whose credits include many Mike Leigh films as well as the 1990 cult favorite Dark City).

But Lionel is certainly an interesting study, augmented by a committed performance from Norton, who is one of the finest actors of his generation. As a director, Norton is rock solid if not particularly stylish. Also in the cast: Alec Baldwin (as a very Trumpian New York real estate developer), Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

It’s tempting to dub this an East Coast Chinatown, but it doesn’t “get under your skin” the same way. Still, Norton deserves credit for going against the grain of conventional modern Hollywood “product”, by making us lean in again and pay attention to the details.

…one more thing

So you’re not up for schlepping to the theater? Here are five vintage New York City-based noirs and neo-noirs that are well worth your while and readily available for home viewing:

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Dog Day Afternoon (available for rent from Warner Brothers On Demand) – As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from the late Sidney Lumet easily out-sops the competition. The air conditioning 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 both scary and heartbreaking in his role as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s memorable cameo. Frank Pierson’s tight screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

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Killer’s Kiss (Criterion Collection Blu-ray) – It’s been fashionable over the years for critics and film historians to marginalize Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 noir as a “lesser” or “experimental” work by the director, but I beg to differ. The most common criticism leveled at the film is that it has a weak narrative. On this point, I tend to agree; it’s an original story and screenplay by Kubrick, who was a screenwriting neophyte at the time.

But when you consider other elements that go into “classic” noir, like mood, atmosphere and the expressionistic use of light and shadow, Killer’s Kiss has all that in spades, and is one of the better noirs of the 1950s.

There are two things I find fascinating about this film. First, I marvel at how ‘contemporary’ it looks; it doesn’t feel as dated as most films of the era (or could indicate how forward-thinking Kubrick was in terms of technique). This is due in part to the naturalistic location photography, which serves as an immersive time capsule of New York City’s street life circa 1955 (much the same way that Jules Dassin’s 1948 documentary-style noir, The Naked City preserves the NYC milieu of the late 1940s).

Second, this was a privately financed indie, so Kubrick (who served as director, writer, photographer and editor) was not beholden to any studio expectations. Hence, he was free to play around a bit with film making conventions of the time (several scenes are eerily prescient of future work).

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Sweet Smell of Success (available on TCM On Demand) – Tony Curtis gives a knockout performance in this hard-hitting 1957 drama as a smarmy press agent who shamelessly sucks up to Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker, a powerful NYC entertainment columnist who can launch (or sabotage) show biz careers with a flick of his poison pen (Lancaster’s odious, acid-tongued character was a thinly-disguised take on the reviled, Red-baiting gossip-monger Walter Winchell).

Although it was made over 60 years ago, the film retains its edge and remains one of the most vicious and cynical ruminations on America’s obsession with fame and celebrity. Alexander Mackendrick directed, and the sharp Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman screenplay veritably drips with venom. James Wong Howe’s cinematography (and use of various New York City locales) is outstanding. Lots of quotable lines; Barry Levinson paid homage in his 1982 film Diner, with a character who is obsessed with the film and drops in and out of scenes, incessantly quoting the dialogue.

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The Taking of Pelham, 1-2-3 (available on Hitz and Prime Video) – In Joseph Sargent’s gritty, suspenseful 1974 thriller, Robert Shaw leads a team of bow-tied, mustachioed and bespectacled hijackers who take control of a New York City subway train, seize hostages and demand $1 million in ransom from the city. If the ransom does not arrive in precisely 1 hour, passengers will be executed at the rate of one per minute until the money appears.

As city officials scramble to scare up the loot, a tense cat-and-mouse dialog is established (via 2-way radio) between Shaw’s single-minded sociopath and a typically rumpled and put-upon Walter Matthau as a wry Transit Police lieutenant. Peter Stone’s sharp screenplay (adapted from John Godey’s novel) is rich in characterization; most memorable for being chock full of New York City “attitude” (every character in the film down to the smallest bit part is soaking in it).

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Taxi Driver (available on Netflix) – Equal parts film noir, character study and sociopolitical commentary, this was one of the most important (if disturbing) films to emerge from the American film renaissance of the 1970s, due in no small part to the artistic trifecta of directing, writing  and acting  talents involved  (Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, and Robert De Niro, respectively).

De Niro plays alienated Vietnam vet Travis Bickle, who takes a night job as a cabbie. Prowling New York City’s meanest streets, Travis kills time between fares fantasizing about methods he might use to eradicate the seedy milieu he observes night after night to jibe with his exacting world view of How Things Should Be. It’s truly unnerving to watch as it becomes more and more clear that Travis is the proverbial ticking time bomb. His eventual homicidal catharsis still has the power to shock and is not for the squeamish.

The outstanding supporting cast includes a then-teenage Jodie Foster (nominated for an Oscar), Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks. The film’s memorable score is by the late Bernard Herrmann (it was one of his final projects).

Free to ride: RIP Peter Fonda

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 17, 2019)

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Regarding Peter Fonda: Well, I didn’t see that coming. Not so much his death (he was 79 and he had been battling cancer for a while) but my unexpectedly emotional reaction to it.

At 63 I’m no spring chicken myself; by the time you reach your sixth decade, you begin to grow armor against losing your shit every time another pop culture icon of your youth buys the farm. It’s all part of life. Nobody lives forever, and your idols are no exception.

[**SPOILER ALERT**] So why the waterworks? I mean, I was 13 when Easy Rider came out in 1969; by the time I finally had a chance to see it (probably on late-night TV or maybe a VHS rental…can’t recall) I was in my mid 20s and Jerry Rubin was working on Wall Street; so obviously that abrupt shock ending where Captain America gets blown away by inbred rednecks did not have the contemporaneous sociopolitical impact on me that it might have for a 25 year-old dope smoking longhair watching it in a theater back in 1969.

Maybe it’s the timing of Fonda’s passing. Not that he planned it, but it came smack dab amid the 50th anniversary of Woodstock (August 15-17, 1969). Since it began on Thursday, I’ve been sporadically listening in to a 72-hour synchronized broadcast/web-streaming of the uncut audio recordings of every Woodstock performance via Philly station WXPN. It’s a very different experience from watching Michael Wadleigh’s famous documentary, which (for very practical reasons) only features bits and pieces of the event. WXPN’s presentation is more immersive, and somehow-it is more moving.

So perhaps I was feeling extra nostalgic about the era; which adds additional poignancy to Fonda’s passing, as he was very much a part of the Woodstock Generation iconography.

But Fonda was not just an icon, he was a human being. Here’s his sister Jane’s statement:

“He was my sweet-hearted baby brother. The talker of the family. I have had beautiful alone time with him these last days. He went out laughing.”

I did not know him personally, but if you can go out laughing…that is a pretty cool life.

As to that part of his life he shared with all of us-here are some film recommendations:

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Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry – John Hough’s 1974 road movie features Fonda as the leading man and co-stars Susan George (*sigh* my first teenage crush) and Adam Roarke. Fonda and Roarke are car racing partners who take an ill-advised detour into crime, robbing a grocery store in hopes of getting enough loot to buy a pro race car. They soon find themselves on the run from the law. A shameless rip-off of Vanishing Point; but delivers the thrills for action fans (muscle car enthusiasts will dig that cherry ’69 Dodge Charger).

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Easy Rider – This was the film that not only awakened Hollywood to a previously untapped youth market but put Fonda on the map as a counterculture icon. He co-wrote the screenplay along with Terry Southern and Dennis Hopper (who also directed).

Fonda and Hopper star as two biker buddies (flush from a recent lucrative drug deal) who decide to get on their bad motor scooters (choppers, actually) and ride from L.A. to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Along the way, they encounter a cross-section of American society; from a commune of idealistic hippies, a free-spirited alcoholic Southern lawyer (memorably played by Jack Nicholson) to a pair of prostitutes they end up tripping with in a cemetery.

The dialogue (along with the mutton chops, fringe vests and love beads) may not have dated so well, but the outstanding rock music soundtrack has held up just fine. And thanks to Laszlo Kovacs’ exemplary DP work, those now iconic images of expansive American landscapes and endless gray ribbons that traverse them remain the quintessential touchstone for all American “road” movies that have followed in its wake.

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The Hired Hand – Fonda’s 1971 directorial debut is a lean, poetic neorealist Western in the vein of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Jan Troell’s Zandy’s Bride. Gorgeously photographed by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, it stars Fonda as a taciturn drifter who returns to his wife (Verna Bloom) after a prolonged absence.

Embittered by his desertion, she refuses to take him back, advising him to not even tell their young daughter that he is her father. In an act of contrition, he offers to work on her rundown farm purely as a “hired hand”, no strings attached. Reluctantly, she agrees; the couple slowly warm up to each other once again…until an incident from his recent past catches up with him and threatens the safety of his longtime friend and traveling companion (Warren Oates). Well-written (by Alan Sharp), directed, and acted; it’s a genuine sleeper.

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The Limey – One of my favorite Steven Soderberg films (from 1999) also features one of Fonda’s best latter-career performances. He’s not the main character, but it’s a perfect character role for him, and he runs with it.

Scripted by Lem Dobbs, Soderberg’s taut neo-noir centers on a British career criminal (Terrance Stamp, in full East End gangster mode) who gets out of prison and makes a beeline for America to investigate the death of his estranged daughter. He learns she had a relationship with an L.A.-based record producer (Fonda), who may be able to shed light on her untimely demise. Once he locates him, the plot begins to thicken.

Fast-moving and rich in characterization, with a great supporting cast that includes Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzman, Nicky Katt, and Barry Newman (look for a winking homage to Newman’s iconic character in Vanishing Point).

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92 in the Shade – This quirky, picaresque 1975 black comedy is acclaimed writer Thomas McGuane’s sole directorial effort. (I consider it a companion piece to Frank Perry’s equally oddball Rancho Deluxe, which was also written by McGuane, features several of the same actors, and was released the same year).

Fonda stars as a trustafarian slacker who comes home to Key West and decides to start a fishing charter business. This doesn’t set well with a gruff competitor (Warren Oates) who decides to play dirty with his rival.

As in most McGuane stories, narrative takes a backseat to the characters. In fact, the film essentially abandons its setup halfway through-until a curiously rushed finale. Still, there’s a bevy of wonderful character actors to savor, including Harry Dean Stanton, Burgess Meredith, William Hickey, Sylvia Miles and Louise Latham.

Also in the cast: Margot Kidder (McGuane’s wife at the time) and Elizabeth Ashley (his girlfriend at the time)-which begs speculation as to what was going through his mind as he directed a scene where Kidder and Ashley exchange insults and then get into a physical altercation!

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Race With the Devil –In this 1975 thriller, Fonda and Warren Oates star as buds who hit the road in an RV with wives (Lara Parker, Loretta Swit) and dirt bikes in tow. The first night’s bivouac doesn’t go so well; the two men witness what appears to be a human sacrifice by a devil worship cult, and it’s downhill from there (literally a “vacation from hell”). A genuinely creepy chiller that keeps you guessing until the end, with taut direction from Jack Starrett.

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The Trip – This 1967 drug culture exploitation fest from famed B-movie director Roger Corman may be awash in beads, Nehru jackets, patchouli and sitars…but it’s a much better film than you’d expect.

Fonda plays a TV commercial director who seeks solace from his turned-on and tuned-in drug buddy (Bruce Dern) after his wife leaves him. Dern decides the best cure for Fonda’s depression is a nice getaway to the center of his mind, courtesy of a carefully administered and closely supervised LSD trip. Susan Strasberg and Dennis Hopper co-star. Trippy, with a psychedelic soundtrack by The Electric Flag.

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Ulee’s Gold – Writer-director Victor Nunez’s 1997 family drama ushered in a career revival for Fonda, who received critical accolades (as well as an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win) for his measured and nuanced performance. Fonda plays a widower and Vietnam vet who prefers to keep himself to himself, living a quiet life as a beekeeper-until the day his estranged son (Tom Wood) calls him from prison, asking for a favor. Unexpected twists ensue, with Fonda slowly peeling away hidden depths of his character’s complexity. Beautifully acted and directed, with career-best work by Fonda.

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The Wild Angels – Another youth exploitation extravaganza from Roger Corman, this 1966 drama kick-started a spate of low-budget biker movies in its wake. Fonda is a member of San Pedro M.C., The Angels. The club decides to party in Palm Springs…and all hell breaks loose. It’s fairly cliché genre fare, but a critical building block for Fonda’s 60s iconography; especially when he delivers his immortal line: “We wanna be free to ride our machines…without being hassled by The Man!” The cast includes Nancy Sinatra, Michael J. Pollard and erm-Laura Dern’s mom and dad (Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd!).

Blu-ray reissue: Someone to Watch Over Me (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 13, 2019)

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Someone to Watch Over Me – Shout! Factory

This crime thriller may be one of director Ridley Scott’s less-heralded (if not nearly forgotten) films but is one of my favorite neo-noirs of the 80s. The 1987 release stars Tom Berenger as a married NYC police detective from a working-class neighborhood who is assigned to bodyguard a Manhattan socialite (Mimi Rogers) after she becomes a key witness in a murder case. Initially, their relationship is strictly professional, but…well, you know.

Granted, the narrative may be somewhat familiar, but the film is stylish, sumptuously photographed (by Steven Poster), and well-acted (Berenger and Rogers have great chemistry, and Lorraine Bracco is a standout as Berenger’s wife).

The transfer is gorgeous. Extras include interviews with Poster and screenwriter Howard Franklin (no commentary track).

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

SIFF 2019: X: The eXploited (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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This dark, brooding neo-noir from Hungarian writer-director Karoly Ujj-Meszaros mostly succeeds at being dark and brooding. It begins promisingly with an interesting protagonist; a top-flight female police detective who has been relegated to desk duty because of an acute panic disorder, initiated by her late husband’s suicide (he was also a detective). Nonetheless, she is enlisted by a new department head to help investigate a string of suicides that may have been staged. Unfortunately, the film is ultimately bogged down by a murky, pointlessly byzantine plot.

SIFF 2019: The Invisible Witness (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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This neo-noir/murder mystery unfolds via flashbacks. A well-to-do businessman accused of murdering his mistress consults with a defense attorney 3 hours before he is to be taken into custody and officially charged. He claims to be the victim of an elaborate setup. The circumstantial evidence does not seem to be in his favor. Some moments of genuine suspense, but otherwise by-the-numbers genre fare that was rather obviously made while driving under the influence of The Usual Suspects.

Pre-Oscar marathon: The top 10 “Best Picture” winners

By Dennis Hartley

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

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I’m sure you are aware that the (host-challenged) Academy Awards ceremonies are coming up this Sunday (broadcasting on ABC). As an alleged “movie critic”, I will sheepishly admit that I have only seen 3 of the 8 nominees for 2018’s Best Picture. Then again, it’s been years since Academy voters and I have seen eye to eye as to what constitutes a “best picture”. Either my aesthetic has changed, or the Academy has lowered its standards. And I don’t think my aesthetic has changed, if you catch my drift.

At any rate, this is my way of explaining in advance why you may notice only one “Best Picture” winner from the last several decades made my list, which I have culled from the previous 90 Academy Awards. Perhaps it’s just my long-winded way of saying “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”. And I wish you kids would stay the hell off my lawn.

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You Can’t Take it With You (Best Picture of 1938) – 81 years on, Frank Capra’s movie version of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s stage play (adapted for the screen by Robert Riskin, who was nominated) still resonates in light of our current economic woes.

A Wall Street fat cat (Edward Arnold) comes up with various nefarious machinations to force a stubborn but happy-go-lucky homeowner (Lionel Barrymore) and his eccentric and free-spirited family to sell him his property, in order to make way for a new factory he wants to build in a prime metropolitan location.

Complications ensue when Barrymore’s granddaughter (Jean Arthur) falls in love with Arnold’s son (James Stewart). Hilarity abounds, fueled by contrasting worldviews of Arnold’s uptight, greedy capitalist and Barrymore’s fun-loving non-conformist. There’s tons of slapstick, and in accordance with the rules of screwball comedy, nearly the entire cast eventually ends up standing before a judge (en masse) with a lot of explaining to do.

Although this is one of Capra’s more lightweight films, he still folds in social commentary about the disparity between the haves vs. the have-nots; in some respects it seems like a warm-up for It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra also picked up a Best Director win.

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Casablanca (Best Picture of 1943)-Romance, exotic intrigue, Bogie, Ingrid Bergman, evil Nazis, selfless acts of quiet heroism, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” you’ve ever heard, that goodbye scene at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about this movie-lover’s movie?

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From Here to Eternity (Best Picture of 1953) – Even though James Jones’ salty and steamy source novel about restless GIs stationed at Pearl Harbor was sanitized for the screen, Fred Zinnemann’s film was still fairly risqué and heady adult fare for its time.

Monty Clift was born to play the complex, angst-ridden company bugler (and sometime pugilist) Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a classic “hard case” at constant loggerheads with his superiors (and his personal demons).

And what a cast-outstanding performances abound from Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra (he won Best Actor in a Supporting Role), Jack Warden, Ernest Borgnine, and Donna Reed. At that point of Reed’s career, it was considered casting against type to have her playing a prostitute, but it paid off with a Best Actress in a Supporting Role win.

Zinnemann won Best Director, screenwriter Daniel Taradash picked up a Best Writing (Screenplay) for his adaptation, Burnett Guffey won for Cinematography (Black and White), and William A. Lyon took home a statue for Best Film Editing. A true classic.

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West Side Story (Best Picture of 1961)-You know, there are so many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned as a result of my many, many viewings of this fine film over the years; and since I am holding the Talking Stick, I wish to share a few of them with you now:

  1. When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet.
  2. Something’s coming; don’t know when…but it’s soon.
  3. I like the island Manhattan.
  4. Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it.
  5. It’s alarming, how charming I feel.
  6. Deep down inside us, there is good.

You’re welcome.

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Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture of 1962) – Until you have viewed David Lean’s masterpiece on a theater screen, you can’t really comprehend how big the desert is. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. Or how commanding and charismatic 29 year-old Peter O’Toole was in his first starring role.

O’Toole delivers a larger-than-life performance as T.E. Lawrence, a flamboyant and outspoken British army officer who reinvented himself as a guerilla leader, gathering up warring Arab tribes and uniting them in a common cause to oust the Turks during WW I.

Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson based their literate screenplay on Lawrence’s memoirs, sustaining a sense of intimacy throughout. This was no small feat, considering the film’s overall epic sweep and visual splendor (DP Freddie Young and editor Anne V. Coates more than earned their Oscars).

Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer round off a fine cast, and you can’t discuss this film without acknowledging Maurice Jarre’s magnificent “Best Score”.

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In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture of 1967) – “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic film 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 as well, I find 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.

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Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture of 1969) – “I’m WALKIN’ heah!” Aside from its distinction as being the only X-rated film to ever win Oscars, John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking character study also helped usher in a new era of mature, gritty neo-realism in American film that would reach its apex in 1976 with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (one year before Star Wars ushered that era to a full dead stop).

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as the Fagin-esque Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. Also look for cameos from several of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” regulars, who can be spotted milling about here and there in a memorable party scene.

In hindsight, the location filming provides us with a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

In hindsight, the location filming provides us with a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

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The Godfather (Best Picture of 1972) and The Godfather, Part II (Best Picture of 1974)-Yes, I’m counting them as one; because in a narrative and artistic sense, they are. Got a problem with that? Tell it to Luca Brasi. Taken as a whole, Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part masterpiece is best summed up thusly: Brando, Pacino, and De Niro.

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Annie Hall (Best Picture of 1977) – As far as his “earlier, funny films” go, this semi-autobiographical entry ranks as one of Woody Allen’s finest, and represents the moment he truly found his voice as a filmmaker. The Academy concurred, awarding three additional Oscars as well-for Best Actress (leading lady Diane Keaton, in her career-defining role), for Director (Allen) and for Best Original Screenplay (Allen again, along with co-writer Marshall Brickman).

Part 1 of a triptych (or so the theory goes) that continued with Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, it is also the film that neatly divides the history of the romantic comedy in half. So many of the narrative framing techniques and comic inventions that Allen utilized have become so de rigueur for the genre (a relatively recent example would be The 500 Days of Summer) that it’s easy to forget how wonderfully innovative and fresh this film felt back in 1977. A funny, bittersweet, and perceptive look at modern romance.

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No Country for Old Men (Best Picture of 2007) – The bodies pile up faster than you can say Blood Simple in Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterfully made neo-noir (which also 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, pickup-drivin’ 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 grisly aftermath of a shootout. And yes, being that 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 his imminent retirement (‘cos it’s becoming no country for old men…).

The entire cast is outstanding. Javier Bardem picked up a Best Supporting Actor statue for his unforgettable turn as a psychotic hit man. His performance is understated, but menacing, made all the more creepy by his benign Peter Tork haircut. Kelly McDonald and Woody Harrelson are both excellent as well.

Curiously, Roger Deakins wasn’t even nominated for his outstanding cinematography, but his work on this film easily ranks among his best.