Saturday, May 04, 2013
Illegal – Edward G Robinson plays a brilliant lawyer who is traumatized when he sends an innocent man to the chair. He decides to become a defense attorney, and finds himself drawn into dealings with the mob. This one is kind of a mixed bag for me. I generally don’t like courtroom dramas, but I almost always like EGR, and this one has some good stuff. I like the way Robinson puts a bit of an edge on his character – He definitely has an ego, and that is refreshing to see. The screenplay is by W. R. Burnett who also wrote The Asphalt Jungle, and it is first rate. A trivia note: Jayne Mansfield has a small role as a gangster’s moll.
The Big Steal – This Don Siegel film from 1949 is a bit of everything. Its part Noir, part chase film, and a little bit Rom-Com. Robert Mitchum plays an Army payroll officer on the trail of a guy (Patrick Knowles)who ripped off $300,000 and is letting him take the rap for it. William Bendix is an officer on Mitchums trail. Jane Greer plays Knowles fiancé, who gets involved with Mitchum in his chase. On top of all this are the Mexican police, who are chasing everybody else. I generally liked this due to Mitchum and Greer, and some great locations in Mexico, but there are a couple of quibbles. Knowles is not well cast as a heavy here. You assume Mitchum should be able to break him in half, because he looks more like a math teacher than any kind of bad guy. In addition, the mixing of genres makes it feel uneven in spots. Still, an overall recommendation.
Bullets or Ballots – Another Edward G Robinson vehicle, this one from 1936. Robinson plays a cop who tries to infiltrate the mob. Humphrey Bogart is a mob lieutenant who suspects that something is fishy about him. Bullets in interesting for the dynamic between the two Hollywood titans, but overall, it fell a bit short. The title is a bit mystifying, as well – There’s no ballots here at all.
The Cowboys – John Wayne film from 1972 tells the story of a cattle rancher who is forced to take on a group of young boys for a huge cattle driver. There is never any real mystery as to where this story is going to go, but I recommend it nevertheless. The Duke is good here as a man who is trying to rectify failings with his own two dead sons. There is some good photography by Bruce Surtees and an entertaining turn by the great sneerer himself (Bruce Dern) as the bad guy.
“Who’s gonna help you? These little bitty boys?”
Monday, April 22, 2013
Other Men’s Women – Another pre-code curio from William Wellman., this one from 1930. It revolves around a couple of rail engineers - One happily married, the other a drunken playboy. Trouble ensues when the married one invites his buddy to stay with him and his wife (Mary Astor), and the drunk falls for the wife. This was a grind for me up until the time that the cheating starts, and then it got considerably more interesting ,as the adulterers (although they don’t appear to have sex) deal with what they have done to the cuckolded husband. The film builds to a conclusion that would seem to be logical, except that it flips the characters from what you would expect. As a result, it leaves a bit of a funny taste in the mouth. A lukewarm recommendation.
The Drive By Night – Humphrey Bogart and George Raft in a trucking drama from Raoul Walsh. The two leads play a couple of brothers trying to make a go of it in the trucking industry. They strike up a deal with a wealthy former colleague (Alan Hale) for steady work, but things are complicated by Hales' bat-shit crazy wife (Ida Lupino) who once was involved with Raft and still wants him. Bogie is only fourth-billed here, and wouldn’t really explode until the following year with High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. Thus, it’s not really a Bogie role, and it’s a bit distracting. Lupino is sexy and suitably vile as the femme fatale. Recommended.
One Wonderful Sunday – A lesser known Kurosawa from 1947 traces a pair of young lovers as they struggle with crushing poverty. This is pretty good, if a tad contrived. Some of the situations are a bit predictable, like finding themselves short on a restaurant bill, but there are also some moments that are utterly charming, including an impromptu baseball game. The specter of WWII hangs over everything (the guy is an ex-soldier), and the shots of a ruined Tokyo add an extra melancholy to the story.
Scandal – Another pre-fame Kurosawa. This stars Toshiro Mifune as an artist who unwittingly ends up in a sex scandal involving a beautiful singer (Shirley Yamaguchi). The film follows their efforts to fight the sleazy tabloid that published the story. This film was truly an unanticipated little gem, mainly for the performance of the great Takashi Shimura as the couples’ self-loathing alcoholic lawyer. Shimura’s Hirutu means well, but is weak. He succumbs to his vices and then feels worthless afterwards. In some ways, it foreshadows his greatest role as the disenchanted bureaucrat of Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Very highly recommended.
Monday, March 18, 2013
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Crazed Fruit – Strange name, great film. This 1956 offering from director Ko Nakahira takes its name from a slang term for the post-WWII generation of spoiled Japanese youth. Fruit tells the story of 2 brothers and the girl that one, then the other falls in love with. The problem is, she isn’t what she seems to be. The film presents a group of young men who live in a world of wealth, women, drinking and irresponsibility. It’s not by accident that there doesn’t seem to be an adult close to them. The love between the sober, younger Haruji and the beautiful Eri seems to be storybook stuff, but unbeknownst to him, she is also involved with his worldly older brother. The films conclusion is simply one of the greatest I’ve ever seen, and I guarantee it will stay with you long after you see it. Highly recommended.
The Purchase Price – Pre-code William Wellman tidbit from 1932 stars Barbara Stanwyck as a woman on the run who becomes a mail-order bride for an uptight farmer. There isn’t much to recommend here – The films' tension is supposed to be developed by whether the farmer (George Brent) finally succumbs to Stanwycks charms. The problem is there is no reason why she should love him – He has all the charm of a bowl of cold porridge. This disc is part of the series of pre-code “naughty” films, but this one is a bit on the tame side. The only bit that is kind of clever is a scene that Stanwyck does on a train with 3 other mail order brides. The conversation is funny in that silly double entrendre way, and the fact that one of the women is eating a banana is surely not a co-incidence. Not really recommended, however.
Monday, March 04, 2013
The films of Sam Fuller are tough – It’s imprinted on their DNA. Fuller wasn’t just a Hollywood pseudo-tough guy poseur. Having worked in his teens as a crime reporter, and having worked a pulp writer, and as an infantryman in WWII, he earned his bona fides as a hardscrabble guy. That background is why his films have that hard edge to them that never seems anything but genuine. My favorite Fuller films are film like that, films that have that gruff, unsentimental vibe to them. I’m thinking of Pickup on South Street, and of Steel Helmet, with its crusty, cigar-chomping sergeant played by Gene Evans (a Fuller avatar if there ever was one!). But most of all I think of my favorite Fuller film, the little-seen Underworld USA from 1961.
Underworld belongs in the tradition of man-going-after-bad-guys-who- done-him-wrong gangster films, but I think the reason I think it stands apart from most of them, is the way it treats its “hero” Tully Devlin (Cliff Robertson). This is a guy who is as sentimental as a set of brass knuckles - a true anti-hero.
When a teenaged Tully (David Kent) witnesses his father’s murder, he’s not a babe in the woods. He is already someone who seems destined for jail as a thief. We’ve already seen him lift a wallet off a drunk. The father is a street hustler also, and that’s probably why he found himself in that dark alley at the wrong time. When the cops come to investigate the crime, Tully doesn’t co-operate, even though he knows one of the killers. In his mind, he’s already planning his revenge.
The film shows Tully getting in more trouble, and going to jail. This development is beyond inevitable – it’s intentional. Tully throws a rock through a window when he knows there’s a copy right around the corner.
It’s while he is in prison that he learns that one of the murderers is in the same jail, and is near death. Tully arranges to get transferred to the prison clinic in order to get close to the dying man. When he finally confronts the killer, it’s a bit unsettling. The old man is sick and very close to the end, and when Tully tells him who he is, the killer begs for forgiveness. Tully coldly informs him that he will forgive him - If he gives the names of the other three killers. I find myself conflicted in this scene. Although I want the killers to pay for their crime, it’s easy to feel pity for the dying man, because he seeks absolution for his crime. Tully’s forgiveness, however, isn’t genuine – It’s just a step in the process. He’s the one who comes across as the monster.
Tully now finds himself out of jail, and now knows the names of the men he wants. Problem is that all three are powerful crime lords, and getting to them will be next to impossible. During a late-night spying session at the home of one of the killers, he catches a break. A hired killer (a cool and cruel Richard Rust) brings in a female drug mule with the intention of killing her. Tully steps in to save her, and steals some of the dope, which he uses to give him an in with the mob.
I’m always fascinated by the relationship between Tully and the Rust character Gus. Gus is basically assigned to train Tully, and seems to give off the vibe of being a pretty good guy. There is a scene where Gus talks how the mob uses charity work as a front for their activities. He describes how the mob boss opens up his gigantic pool, and how he, Gus, actually acted as a lifeguard on one occasion, stating “I liked that.”
I think this little section is included because there is a later scene where Gus runs down a little girl in cold blood. It’s a harrowing scene of cruelty, and it is given even more impact because it’s done by this smiling ex lifeguard. Despite his demeanor, Gus is capable of anything.
Although it is stretching it a bit to call it a romance, there is a relationship that develops between Tully and the drug girl, Cuddles (Dolores Dorn). He saves her, and brings her home to have his surrogate mother (Beatrice Kay) look after her, but he isn’t getting too close. When she makes an offhand remark about their possibly getting married, his response cuts to the bone: “You must be on the needle”. It’s willfully hurtful, and it demonstrates finally that Tully is deeply damaged. The “mother” character Sandy is the conscience in this film. She’s the one who tells him that he is only killing himself with his thirst for revenge, and that he doesn’t seem to notice this woman who cares for him.
Tully settles into a relationship with a District Attorney (Larry Gates), and uses this to start to destroy the syndicate from within. The DA feeds him false information, and he presents it back to the mob bosses, who start knocking each other off. There’s a striking scene where Tully goes to confront one of the bosses just before Gus is scheduled to kill him. Tully beats the shit out of the older man, while telling about how he watched his father get brutalized years before. It’s instructive to see how Fuller shoots this scene. We see the crook groaning in pain on the floor, while the ostensible “good guy’ hovers over him and stalks him as he tries to crawl away. Again, Tully is portrayed as the heavy here.
With all the killers finally dead, Tully goes back to Cuddles and starts talking about marriage. This change in him is striking, and it points up that his quest for the death of these men has robbed him of much of his humanity. With the quest completed, it’s like a malignancy has been cut out of him. The DA tries to tell him that there is still work to do – The big boss is still out there, but Tully isn’t interested. Ah, but it’s never that simple, is it? Tully is now expected to help Gus wipe out the rest of the family of the little girl, and one other person, as well – Cuddles.
Underworld USA is a noir, and as such, touches on a lot of the themes that were central to Noir: The damaged hero, the misguided obsession, the central character finding himself trapped in a situation he should have walked away from. What elevates Underworld for me is the way that Fuller doesn’t let himself be swayed by the temptation to sand off any of the edges from his characters. He treats Tully the way he treats the bad guys; capable of cruelty and evil. The world portrayed here isn’t pretty, and neither are its people.
Underworld USA is not available on DVD, but can be streamed off Amazon.
My 2006 commentary on Allan Baron’s Blast of Silence, a cinematic cousin of Underworld USA
Sunday, March 03, 2013
A Single Man – Drama from 2009 stars Colin Firth as a gay University professor struggling with the recent death of his partner. The film follow him through one day, at the end of which, he plans to kill himself. Julianne Morris stars as his alcoholic childhood friend. There is a lot to recommend here, like Firth’s lovely, subtle performance, and the production design, which is a dead-on perfect evocation of 1962 California. Despite all this, I found that the film left me a little bit cold, because none of the characters really engaged me personally. Still, Recommended.
Snatch – This Brit gangster flick is wall-to-wall energy, and one of the most quotable movies I’ve ever seen. It involves two plots that kind of run side by side: In one, a bunch of toughs try to recover a stolen diamond. In another, a shabby pair of boxing promoters try to get a fight with a nasty mob boss without getting themselves eaten by pigs. The thing that makes Snatch such a joy are the characters that populate it. Characters such as: Turkish, Brick Top, Bullet-Tooth Tony, Boris the Blade, and an Irish gypsy boxer (Brad Pitt) who doesn’t utter one understandable sentence. The dialogue is razor sharp and shockingly profane. My favorite, uttered by the nasty mob boss Brick Top:
"Do you know what "nemisis" means? A righteous infliction of retribution manifested by an appopriate agent. Personified in this case by an 'orrible cunt....Me."
Wait Until Dark – Top notch thriller from 1967 stars Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman terrorized by three bad guys trying to recover a cache of heroin hidden in a doll she possesses. This role was a bit out of Audrey's comfort zone, but she does a good job here, as does Alan Arkin as the baddest of the bad guys. It’s not perfect - There are a couple of plot points that are best not examined too closely, like why Hepburns’ character would send a young girl out to find her husband in New York – at night - but it’s a hugely fun watch, especially the last half an hour. There is a brilliant little set piece about how Hepburn uses a ringing telephone to expose the villains. A bit of trivia: This film is based on a play by Frederick Knott, who was also the man who wrote Dial M for Murder. Recommended.