Monday, August 27, 2007

Semper Fi

There’s a moment in John Dahl’s Red Rock West that some might look at and wonder why it’s there. It’s the first meeting between Nicholas Cage’s Michael and the hired killer known as Lyle from Dallas (Dennis Hopper)

Hopper gives Cage a ride, and they discover that they have something in common – They were both Marines. Cages’ Michael is, in fact, is a survivor of the horrific 1983 Beirut truck bombing that claimed the lives of over 200 Marines. Lyle exclaims, “You’re one lucky Son-of-a-bitch!” and Michael replies with a bit of irritation “I KNOW I was. 241 guys weren’t.”…And Lyle nods softly in agreement.

The Marine connection surfaces again at the films climax, in the form of a little tongue-in-cheek visual joke, but what makes this moment so memorable for me is that this is one of the rare times where a film takes a few moments to prise open a bad guy and shine a little light in. Lyle is a cold killer, a Hopper loony to rank alongside his best, but in this small, seemingly insignificant moment, we get to see him for a tiny bit more.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Underworld Beauty

For a film lover, there’s not much that can top the pleasure of seeing something that you know nothing about, and having it just blow your doors off. Such was the case with Underworld Beauty, my first dabble in the work of the Japanese master Seijun Suzuki. This film has got a lot of things I love – Cool, tough men, sexy tough women, and a bit of depravity thrown in for good measure. Simply put, this is a great film.

We first meet Miyamoto as he walks down a deserted sewer, dislodges a brick from the wall and removes something from the other side – A gun and a small bag of diamonds. This opening sequence nicely introduces the hard-as-nails underground world of UB, and does so without a single word of dialogue. We can guess that Miyamoto is a guy who has just gotten out of prison and is recovering his hidden loot, but an early meeting with a crime boss puts an unexpected spin on things. It turns out that Miyamoto wants to sell the diamonds in order to help out his old partner Mihara, who lost a leg in the job that sent Miyamoto to prison.

The rooftop meeting to sell the jewels goes bad when several masked men interrupt it. Rather than give up the diamonds that he paid such a price to obtain, Mihara swallows them and leaps off the building to his death. The bad guys all have a dilemma now: Their diamonds are in the stomach of a dead man, and the body is in the hands of the law.

This, folks, is where the story takes a twist towards the macabre. We have already briefly met the dead man’s younger sister Oyane, and her artist boyfriend Arita. These two know where the diamonds are, and during a last viewing of Mihara’s body, Arita distracts his girlfriend long enough to recover the stones from inside the dead body.

One thing that strikes you as you watch this film is the America-fied air that it gives off. The story, its B&W, wide-screen presentation, and jazzy score could have been lifted wholesale from some of the great American noirs, like Pick-up on South Street or Kiss Me Deadly. The “hero” Miyamoto with his leather jacket and black fedora looks much more like a North American construct than any traditional kind of yakuza. This film walks in the tough-guy footprints laid down by people like Sam Fuller.

I put hero in quotes above because, although Miyamoto is the hero in the strictest sense of the word, he is far from a virtuous knight errant. There’s no suggestion that he didn’t deserve to be in prison, and throughout the film he carries himself with the air of someone who is not to be messed with. There’s a scene early on where he walks into a raucous nightclub, and everything comes to an abrupt halt. His quest to recover the jewels and his efforts to protect Oyane after her brother’s death are tied to what he likely sees as a duty to his former partner, and nothing more.

Arita now seems to have everything wrapped up, because no one else knows that he has the diamonds, everyone believing that they were cremated along with Mihara. It all goes up in smoke, however, when Miyamoto visits and intercepts a damning telephone call. Miyamoto thus recovers the diamonds and sets UB’s marvelous endgame into motion. On one side Miyamoto with the diamonds, and on the other side the crime syndicate who are holding Oyane hostage.

Underworld Beauty is a marvelous-looking Noir, and never more so than in its finale, when Miyamoto goes to the mansion of the head bad guy to settle things up. The final showdown is lengthy and makes good use of the house with its shadowy hallways and Western-style look. Miyamoto and Oyane are pinned in a corner of a dark, steamy basement, and work together frantically to burrow their way out through a coal chute. It’s a terrific set piece, shot through with soot, sweat, and gunpowder. Rescuing a girl never looked like such hard work before.

A final note – My profuse thanks to Tom Sutpen (The David Ortiz of film bloggage) for providing me with a copy of this little jewel.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

On Location

Fritz Lang (front of car) sets up a shot for the great Metropolis (1927)

The Marquee

Wall Street, 1987

Friday, August 17, 2007

On this Date

A happy 87th to Maureen O'Hara, born on this date in 1920

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Soundtrack

The film is "Performance", and the song is the great "Memo From Turner", by Mick Jagger. Enjoy.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Marquee

a.k.a. The Battle of the Rails, 1946

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Kurosawa Blog-a-thon

Throne of Blood

Swing on over to The Film Vituperatem and sign up for his Kurosawa Blog-a-thon, taking place Nov. 15th to the 22nd.

Moments of Distiction

The finale of "Vanishing Point" - Forever seared into the mind of this one-time adolescent.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

"That man never killed anybody"

Butler is a guy who just oozes intimidation. Played by the Brit Hugh Millais, the main heavy in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller is scary even when he’s being nice. Butler is sent by a mining company to get rid of Warren Beatty’s McCabe after he refuses to make a deal with them. McCabe realizes that he may have made a grave error, and goes to meet with this strange big man. Taken literally, their conversation seems almost innocent, but as played by Millais, with his beard and gigantic fur coat, it’s a masterpiece of menacing undercurrent.

Butler begins by amicably asking McCabe about the terms of the deal he was looking for, and McCabe admits the frivolous bantering on price. When pressed by Butler, McCabe instantly collapses and admits to what his real price was.

You weren’t so far apart, were you?

NO! That’s what I’m trying to tell you! We can still make a deal!

I don’t make deals.

Aren’t you here working for the mining company?

No, I’m here hunting bear!

I thought you worked for the mining company.

I do sometimes – When they can’t make a deal.

But I can make a deal!

Not with me.

That’s not the exact dialogue, but you get the idea. Butler has been nothing but friendly during this exchange, but his message gets through loud and clear. You should have made your deal when you had your chance, because now it’s too late.

The quote at the title if this post is Butler’s reply after the meeting when told of McCabe’s reputation of having killed another man in a card game. In my estimation, Butler, who most certainly HAS killed someone, is able to see through McCabe’s bombast. When it comes to murder, he is the real deal.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Newsstand

Myrna Loy on the February,1935 cover of Photoplay

Thursday, August 02, 2007