Léon Morin, Priest (1961)

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This is my entry in The Vive la France Blogathon. Thanks to Lady Eve and Silver Screen Modes for having me!

I recently read some excerpts out of Soren Kierkegaard’s “Attack on Christendom” and the Danish philosopher makes the case “Even when you don’t live by a Christian reality you live in a Christianized world. You know when you offend the collective consciousness.”

Although this context is changing in the present day, it very much fits the world of this film from Jean-Pierre Melville. There is this sense of propriety and a propensity toward specific ways and lifestyles as dictated by the prevailing cultural forces. In this case, the church. Though some choose to kick against the goads and challenge the status quo. That’s where our story commences.

The substantial backdrop of World War II also ties Leon Morin to Silence de la Mer (1949) and then Army of Shadows (1969), which came well after. Because, of course, before his days as the idol of the New Wave and a craftsman of pulp gangster classics, Melville actually worked as a member of a French Resistance himself. You cannot take part in something like that without it totally impacting how you perceive the world.

But there is still an important distinction to be made. This is hardly a war movie. Instead, the war serves as a background for the human experience — a human relationship between a man and a woman. Their relationship starts early in the occupation and stretches beyond the boundaries of V-E Day.

However, the terms seem very suggestive and in an unrefined exploration of the material this would be the case. Still, by some marvel, Melville manages to conduct an astute yet still spellbinding examination of spirituality. The woman: a militant communist. The man: a humble priest of a French parish.

It is two years after Hiroshima Mon Amour. Alain Resnais’s film is one of the most poetic meditations you will ever see on the likes of love, war, and memory. Leon Morin, Priest is certainly different. It is a different kind of cadence and rhythm developing its own sense of a world and the related themes to go with it. But it is supernally evocative in its own right.

Emmanuelle Riva is Emmanuelle Riva, immaculately beautiful with eyes so bright they speak a language unto themselves. The moroseness is evident and yet they flit even momentarily between the cheery and the slightly provocative.

If Riva had her ascension on Hiroshima Mon Amour, Jean-Paul Belmondo was her equal as a nascent shooting star coming off of Godard’s Breathless. In this context, what a curious crossroads to descend upon Leon Morin, Priest. Such a quiet, tranquil picture seemingly more inclined toward the past than any manner of forward thinking. Neither is there a flashy, jazzy lifeblood to it.

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However, in another sense, it could not be more fitting. Melville, as alluded to before, was the Godfather of many of the Nouvelle Vague talents — certainly Godard — and even if it’s only in particular instances, he still has a flair unto his own.

We might note a stripped-down peer like Robert Bresson as reference, but there are abrupt dashes of pizzazz here that feel like the youth of the New Wave, whether in an implied slap to the face or a jarring jump in continuity. The persistent use of fade-outs allows the passage of time to be conceived at a leisurely pace.

The city is such an extraordinary space brimming with character imbued by the sheer amount of years being lived in its midst. At first, the shroud of war is almost a comical distraction. In its early days, solemnity has not set in. Then, the feathered garb of the Italians gives way to the no-nonsense domed blitzkrieg of the Germans.

Families have their children baptized to conveniently hide their Jewish lineage from any prying eyes within the incumbent authorities. Because soon enough, they start deporting undesirables en force. Paranoia and anti-semitism set in, even within our heroine Barny’s own workplace. Fugitives seeking asylum call on her charity in need of ration stamps and a place to gather themselves on their road to freedom.

Then, one afternoon she resolves to give a local priest a piece of her mind during confessions. She settles on the name Leon Morin as he seems like he might be the most receptive party given the peasantry pedigree of his moniker. If we were to label this decision we might label it as nothing short of Providence.

On first impression, Jean-Paul Belmondo feels like an unconventional casting for a member of the cloth. I often allude to his coming out of the tradition of Bogart but could Bogey have played a priest? Hardly. Still, Belmondo pulls it off with a candor, still blunt and true in its implementation. Because he cares deeply for others nevertheless, aided by his plain features and pragmatic perspective which both suit him well.

His dour space with only a desk, a window, and a shelf of books prove a very inviting place. Because he is such a person. At first an unassuming but ultimately charismatic spiritual leader. His lending library is open to Bardy and she begins to visit him and read his books. Somehow battling her urges to doubt due to curiosity and her own desire to gravitate toward him.

She is adamant about scientific proof for God and we begin an interim period that feels like it might be a precursor to Rohmer’s dialogues from My Night at Maud’s. In subsequent days, all the girls start coming to call on the young priest. Whether it’s merely physical attraction or some other ethereal quality about him is never stated outright. This cynical viewer is reminded of the glib aphorism, “flirt to convert.” And yet with each visitor, he comes ready to share the hope that is within him.

Bardy’s assured coworker Marion is one caller and then another very attractive girl who plans to seduce him; it seems she’s in the business of it with a laundry list of conquests going before her. And yet the perplexing aspect of the priest is how impregnable he is even as he welcomes each woman in, cultivates their spiritual well-being, and deals with them in such a frank manner.

Likewise, from the pulpit, he does not spare his words for the congregation sitting before him any given holy day. Recalling much of what Kierkegaard criticized he warns them not be merely “Sunday Christians.” “Not living out a Christian life drives away the undecided” and this is nothing new.

Hypocrisy or closer still being little different from everyone else is often one of the greatest faults of people who are deemed “Christian.” He further extolls them, “They should each be an apostle in their own setting.” It is a fallacy that only a priest can do the work of God. So while he speaks with consternation, he wraps it up with a note of hope. Because according to him,  there’s is “A God whose grace is given to the heretics and believers alike, loved equally in his sight.”

We see even momentarily his guiding force. Why he pursued Barny and did his best to shepherd her. He’s no elitist. His time and services are extended to all people. He lives it out in the day-to-day of life together with others.

When Barny and Morin must finally say goodbye there is so much in the air, gratefulness, sadness, wistfulness — even as she has fallen in love for his righteous guidance and he remains resolved in his mission to tend after the souls of those in his stead.

To merely say this is a conversion story is too simplistic. To claim it’s suggesting the sensuality of forbidden love is off the mark. We already confirmed it is not a war picture. The brilliance of Melville is painting around these conventional lines with the utmost nuance. Of course, the performances are superb. The two cinematic saints in Riva and Belmondo make it possible. The fact we are fallen humans, ripe with warring desires and doubts, make it necessary. Dealing with spirituality in such a perceptive manner is nothing short of a modern miracle.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: Bogart actually did portray a priest in The Left Hand of God toward the end of his career. Thanks for those who pointed it out to me. Much appreciated!

Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964) Starring Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss

MansfavoritesportposterMan’s Favorite Sport was meant to be a Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn reunion that never materialized. Because, of course, put together with Howard Hawks that only means one film — the most outrageous, cockamamie, frenzied escapade ever captured on celluloid — Bringing up Baby (1938).

Rock Hudson and Maria Perschy (I still don’t understand the necessity of her character) even do a reenactment of the famous restaurant wardrobe malfunction scene. The whole thing is unfair really. It’s not so much that Hudson’s not capable in his own right but Cary came first and so we’ll ever be comparing him. It’s best to drop that right from the beginning.

Obviously, the Grant-Hepburn movie never came into being as Hepburn never got involved and Grant, now at the tail-end of his career was hesitant about such a youthful leading lady. He chose to do a rom-com thriller called Charade (1963) instead and faced similar concerns opposite the other famous Hepburn, Audrey that is.

But back to Rock Hudson and what we got instead. When put toe-to-toe with the Doris Day comedies, it mostly holds its own given Howard Hawks’ own long affiliation with the screwiest brand of romantic comedies. From Twentieth Century (1934) all the down to I Was a Male War Bride (1949), Monkey Business (1952), and of course, Man’s Favorite Sport.

Paula Prentiss, husky-voiced and armed with rapid-fire ammunition of the Katharine Hepburn persuasion, does a fine job riddling Rock Hudson with her incessant craziness. So much so that her male counterpart can’t get anything in edgewise, constantly harried and exasperated in every conceivable way. It all signals an imminent love story in their future.

Whereas Day was usually dismayed by some aspect of Hudson’s behavior, it’s Prentiss who holds the prodding role and therefore the most license to cause chaos. She had recently graduated from a plethora of pictures pairing her with Jim Hutton, including such enjoyable trifles as Where The Boys Are (1960) and The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962).

As far as their support, John McGiver has a thatched roof that’s constantly shifting tectonically. It’s gotten to the point that he doesn’t care much. He’s the one who decides his ace employee, Roger Willoughby (Hudson) of Abercrombie and Fitch will join a fishing competition for positive publicity.

It was all dreamed up by a dynamo of a public relations lady Abigail Page (Prentiss). But the catch is the famed fishing expert has never been in a lake before, much less touched a fish in his life. He can’t fish. He can’t even swim. So when Abigail finds out she has even more leverage and agrees to teach him everything he needs to know. We already foresee that turning out just marvelously.

Then, there are two quibbling old-timers who are also contending for the laurels of the fishing tournament. After all these years, it’s a joy to see Roscoe Karns and Regis Toomey still have it like the old days. Even if they’re probably a little slower and grayer around the edges, the charming witticisms are still there. Best remembered for Hawk’s El Dorado (1966), Charlene Holt has a small part as the put-upon girlfriend who constantly has the utter misfortune of seeing her man in the most compromising situations with other women.

Because in some form Man’s Favorite Sport? is a rom-com of emasculation as Willoughby is constantly overwhelmed by Ms. Page from the very first beat. Even unwittingly, she holds the power in the dynamic as he’s plagued by her craziness and inadvertently comically harrassed around each turn. Every moment, from her initial stealing of his parking spot to criticizing his kisses, sends him reeling.

Although overlong, the picture continually saunters along, highlighted time and again by a substantial number of splashes and pratfalls. Mirroring William Powell’s fishing escapades in Libeled Lady (1936), Hudson finds his line and himself dragged along by a major catch. In another instance, he’s falling out of a tree only to land a whopper. We have black bears on road bikes, inflatable dungarees, and water-bed hijinks. In fact, he’s unwittingly leading the competition, exceeding his own expectations, though, he still has Abigail Page to contend with.

It’s like two locomotives colliding head-on — as much as a neo-screwball romantic comedy about a fishing expert who knows nothing about fishing and must learn from a woman who constantly antagonizes him can possibly be. That’s exactly what it is. At least if the locomotives can kiss and make up in the end. Man’s Favorite Sport? Sure. Rock Hudson’s not any good at fishing anyway so it suits him just fine.

3.5/5 Stars

Ride the High Country (1962): A Sam Peckinpah Western

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Admittedly at times, I fall into the trap of getting so caught up in the context of a film and its history I miss out on elements of the experience. However, when I watched Ride the High Country it didn’t feel like I was getting distracted by how this story pertained to others — at least not when I was immersed in it.

I probably don’t foster enough of a respect for Sam Peckinpah as other viewers or perhaps as much as I should, but watching a picture like this there’s this undying sense that he knows full-well the tradition of the western. He builds off some of the best themes of the genre with two fine actors straight out of the tradition. It comes with not only tightening the script to make it more resonate but honing in on the inner conflict of our characters as well.

Lucien Ballard’s photography is equally phenomenal in its use of the width of the screen to capture horizontal panoramas of majesty. Instantly he makes the high country synonymous with raw and rugged beauty that’s a joy to behold.

Like the most riveting westerns, this stunning imagery paired with the compelling narrative of two men, played by Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, picked me up and carried me away. Implicitly I knew that the West was changing; themes that we would be reminded of again most definitively in The Wild Bunch (1969).

In the opening minutes, we already have camels, automobiles, Arabian music, and popcorn machines out in the West and if they’re not purely anachronistic, the times must be changing. And our two main characters too were a different breed of cowboy. It’s more so a simple reality than the point of the drama.

And anyway what we learn and would do well to remember is that sometimes it’s not a generational thing at all. Each person has their own makeup and circuitry that ultimately dictates their decisions and moral framework. But, again, that comes later.

With no acting marshall in the territory and six miners recently killed and robbed trying to get their spoils down to the bank, there’s a need to be met. Steve Judd (McCrea) soon earns the gig guarding a shipment of gold to be extracted from the mining outpost of Hornitos. Granted he’s not as young as he used to be but his name still means something in the territory and when he runs across his old comrade Gil Westrum (Scott) working a carnival show, they bring an entire history with them that we only have to imagine. The other man coaxes his buddy into letting his young partner Heck (Ron Starr) come on too. It’s very reluctantly agreed to.

Their first stop is a ranch ruled by a puritanical homesteader who distrusts all men and their earthly ways; he deems them deserving of God’s wrath. His outlook is so pernicious because there is not an ounce of affection in him and it reveals himself in how he maintains a severe existence that deeply affects his daughter. Such that at the first sign of a man she perks up and runs off to put on some different duds.

Her father begrudingly gives them lodging in his barn far away from his daughter and chides the trio with the words out of Proverbs 22. Perceiving them as godless fortune seekers he lords over them with the words that “gold is a stumbling block.” He’s not wrong exactly and yet Steve coolly comes back with his own scriptural knowledge, suggesting he’s not some heathen. He can ably play the game and hold his own.

Mariette Hartley had yet to become the familiar face who flooded my childhood from The Bob Newhart Show to M*A*S*H but she’s an important piece of this picture just as Ron Starr is. They are the youth, representative of the new generation still trying to find their way. Elsa makes a rash decision to travel up to the mining town to get hitched with a man named Billy Hammond (James Drury) who formerly promised marriage.

She gets there and finds the wheels turning toward matrimony with Billy’s four lascivious brothers intent on the marriage and the added benefits for them. What becomes so striking is the harsh reality of this whirling wedding. It’s crowded with people and photographed in such a way that is claustrophobic, raucous, and dare I say, garish. It hearkens back to a similar sequence in Day of The Outlaw (1959) except the color in this one makes the palette come alive evocatively.

Simultaneously, in her youthful exuberance, it was nothing of what Elsa imagined her wedding day would be like presided over by a drunken buffoon (Edgar Buchannan) and frequented by an ensemble of floozies and lewd miners. It’s completely bereft of the loveliness or intimacy of true matrimony as its meant to be but she’s made her decision. Surely, she has to live with it now.

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Ride the High Country is situated as a moral tale deceptively simple like a High Noon (1952) or Magnificent Seven (1960) in a sense, and yet it gives way to so much of note. Like many stories, it gets to one place only to realize it must go back from whence it came and yet the game and the stakes indubitably change.

In this case, Steve just occupied himself with his task at hand initially and yet in a righteous moment he decides to insert himself into this young woman’s plight and intercede on her behalf. He doesn’t have to do it but it is the right thing and since Heck’s in love with her, he’s right there too. Judd has the girl and the gold in toe planning to do right by both. Gil has his own agenda planned since the first moment they ever set out. Justice relies on men acting in honor and they rarely do. But when they do, it’s important. It’s what this story ultimately hinges on, this constant shifting of moral tectonics.

There’s a deep satisfaction in watching two giants of the genre riding out together in style. It’s true that both Scott and McCrea took a premature retirement (though McCrea would come back years later). The sentiment being, “why not quit when you’re ahead?” and when you look at the landscape of westerns and where they were headed, Ride the High Country is a perfect cantilever jutting out into the great unknown.

Because most important of all and crucial to understanding this inherently American genre is some sense of a moral code — good and evil that must always be grappled with in the hearts and minds of any man who gets on a horse and takes to the West. That’s Ride the High Country at its finest revealing how muddled this tradition would become even in a few years time. It was the direction of the new west still untrod that Peckinpah’s film openly anticipates.

4/5 Stars

 

Gambit (1966): Please Don’t Tell the Beginning!

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Gambit is a film that looks as if it could be so very cut-and-dried, a simple run through and reworking of what we’ve seen time and time again in the age of James Bond, heist films, and romantic thrillers. I’m not saying that still can’t be fun but at a certain point, the ideas have run their course. Thankfully this story, helmed by British producer/cinematographer-turned-director Ronald Neame, has a few tricks up its sleeves and it starts right at the beginning.

I’m not usually keen on SPOILER ALERTS but with Gambit I’ll make an exception as it is a unique case. As the tagline reads, “Go ahead and tell the end. But please don’t tell the beginning!” It’s all very tantalizingly cryptic and as I aim to spoil the beginning and leave the ending open as usual please veer off course and stop reading right this minute if that’s something that you will later come to regret. Anyway, you’ve been fairly warned. For everyone else let’s go back to the opening.

Perhaps the billing does provide a hint of some kind with Shirley MacLaine positioned as our lead and Michael Caine billed second right behind her. Still, it’s the old expectations versus reality hijinks that the film readily unfurls. Michael Caine brings his working-class cockney rogue to the party this time as a two-bit burglar named Harry Dean. Despite being his first Hollywood showing he takes it in stride and nearly steals the picture. But he’s got to at least contend with his costar. Shirley MacLaine is not much of a French-Eurasian but eventually, her ditsy charm shines through when she’s finally able to lay it on. But that’s just it. It takes a while for her to show up as we’ve always know n her and for good reason.

Gambit gives us a facsimile of the perfect crime as envisioned by a criminal. Everything is planned out like clockwork. He’s made allowances for every wrinkle and his understanding of human psychology is unprecedented. Above all, his female companion, his entry point to the richest man in the world (Herbert Lom), is a mute exotic dancer who does exactly what she’s told and nothing more. What could be better than that? The objective of getting in to snitch a priceless artifact comes off seamlessly.

Except we’ve seen that movie before. Thus, Gambit does us a favor by leaving that on the drawing floor as merely Harry’s conception of how things will go as he explains them to his buddy Emile. Only later the movie begins playing the events out for real and subsequently starts subverting the generally accepted principles of a perfect heist with something marginally more interesting.

There’s no limo to meet them at the airport so they must cram into a taxi. Emile isn’t able to get to a payphone to make contact thanks to a gabby local. The wealthy collector, Shahbandar, is a far more modern and shrewd man than his projected eccentric image would have it. In fact, he already suspects them before he makes their acquaintance and his compound is equipped with foolproof security measures.

Harry hasn’t got a prayer to get away with the goods. And yet thankfully Nicole plays a far more substantial role than she was supposed to (much as we were expecting). Because though she’s hardly predictable and initially disapproves of Harry’s activities, she reluctantly goes along and proves to be a major asset thanks to her knowledge of Eastern culture paired with an intuitive wit.

To spoil the punchline would be an egregious offense so I will do my best at showing restraint. All I can say is that no one goes to jail, two people go off in love, and one artist is in high demand as a result. The look on MacLaine’s face when she exclaims, “You’re not even honest enough to be crooks” captures it all. She’s right. There’s nothing worse than the dreaded PR Stunts of attention seekers. They’re merciless. But love wins out in the end.

In a similar vein to How to Steal a Million (1965), Gambit proves itself to be a repeatedly diverting comic caper with moments of intrigue that would be amiss if not for its light-hearted winks of humor. Its greatest trick is a continual undermining of convention, creating a story with a few more wrinkles than we’re used to. In other words, its mode of narrative is just unconventional enough to make for a fine showing. I do quite like a good gambit and this one doesn’t disappoint.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

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Fifty years on and Bonnie and Clyde remains a cultural landmark as the harbinger proclaiming a new American movie had arrived on the scene. As a cinematic artifact, it is indebted as much to the 60s themselves as it is the Depression Era where its mythical crime story finds its roots.

The spark of an idea came from screenwriter Robert Benton’s own knowledge of his father’s fascination in real crime novels, which even led the elder Benton to attend the actual funerals of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. It’s youth rebellion and a free love revolution by way of the 1930s mythology.

Formalistically, Bonnie and Clyde was an effort by producer Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn, collaborating with their screenwriters, to channel the French New Wave. It’s true that at a time, two of the movements titans, Francois Truffaut and then Jean Luc Godard, were both attached to the project. Ultimately, it didn’t pan out but the spirit they’re pictures were imbued with remain even as this effort is undeniably American.

Bringing the exciting and at times challenging art pictures of Europe to the American mainstream with a jolt of new blood, squibs included free of charge. Even if everyone didn’t realize it at the time, it signaled a rebirth of a style and philosophy that was fully alive. It only took generations of new film school filmmakers to run with it and in subsequent generations eventually, kill it.

For now, we had the fateful meet-cute, Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) scantily clad, bored out of her mind, and spying the boy trying to nab her mama’s car. She catcalls him and he welcomes her — nay, challenges her — to join him. He’s Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) a small-time criminal who did a stint in prison and has two missing toes to prove it (It was his gag to get off a work detail a few days before he was paroled). They share a drink over Coca-Cola in the noonday sun. He’s intent on being a big shot and she’s disillusioned by her waitressing gig.

In a moment, he brandishes a gun to exert his manhood and he’s further coaxed on by Bonnie to rob the cash register in her quaint town. She doesn’t believe he has the gumption. A minute later he rushes out with the wad of cash and they’re on their way to a giddy life of crime so thrilling, at first, with its bouncy jangle of banjo strings. This is only the beginning. They aren’t big name criminals yet. That notoriety is born out of three words: We Rob Banks!

Yes, they do. They bring on slow-witted but able mechanic C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) to keep their gears constantly turning so they can handily outrun the police and dot their native Texas with bank job after bank job. Clyde kills his first man after Moss botches their getaway and the papers start to document their harrowing exploits on the wrong side of the law.

A family reunion follows for Barrow as his older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and Buck’s quibbling wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), the daughter of a preacher, join their merry company. It should be noted the ladies take an immediate disliking to each other. Bonnie’s not agreeable to the domesticated lifestyle and she’s wary of Blanche, a woman she deems has no guts. It’s a perceptive observation.

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As their reputation grows, so do the prices riding on all of their heads. First, the cops look to ambush them on their holiday in Missouri. Then it’s a lone Texas Ranger (Denver Pyle) who winds up getting his picture taken to be plastered all throughout the newspapers. He’s not one to forget the humiliation and he’s aiming to make them pay.

Each and every time they take to the road again, starting up their rampage across the countryside a new, casing bank after bank, while gaining a bit of mystique with the common folk. Along the way, they pick up some extra passengers (Gene Wilder and Evans Evans) to terrorize and then make a pilgrimage to the Parker home due to Bonnie’s homesickness.

But even this move is extremely dangerous and soon another police ambush follows on their latest residence that is deadlier still. It’s a downward spiral with an ever larger target being pinned on their backs. Soon they’re picked off like ducks in a shooting gallery with Buck being mortally wounded and Blanche subsequently goes hysterical and spills her guts to the authorities all but sealing the fate of our antiheroes. Bonnie was right about her.

The other three escape by the skin of their teeth though badly battered. With nowhere else to turn, they seek asylum with C.W.’s father who extends some southern hospitality. Although, behind closed doors, he isn’t too keen about his son’s new lifestyle with tattoos and all.

We know the story must end even as Bonnie has successfully canonized their legend nationwide with a poem she penned subsequently published around the country. And they are as in love as they ever were promising to get married and dreaming of a different life where they could settle down and be normal folks. They take what they can get and love each other while they can. Because justice is swift and it comes with a vengeance.

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The old mores are upheld but utilizing a new language that was aberrant and gratuitous in comparison to the traditions of the past. But that was just it. Bonnie and Clyde was somehow the perfect vehicle of antiestablishment both in form and function. It was like the perfect storm of a cultural revolution and a medium to reflect the angst of a generation.

There’s a madcap raggedness to their crime spree that’s almost comical and Penn plays it like a comedy at first. A bunch of hicks out on a road comedy caper, only it’s underscored by graphic blood-spattered violence like the industry had never witnessed before. It’s like putting the frenetic zaniness of the Keystone Kops with the violent gunplay out of the gangster tradition and it creates a disconcerting dissonance ripping apart the standards of Classical Hollywood. Because the industry had showcased degenerate criminals before — the Cagneys, Robinsons, and Bogarts — but they were always hard-bitten figures and, of course, they got their comeuppance.

Up to that point, there was arguably no characterization quite like this where our leads were young and desirable — a new kind of antihero who forged an anarchic path between Gun Crazy, Breathless, and Pierrot Le Fou.

Arthur Penn pointed out at a later date, and you could easily make the argument, for the first time film was being more accurate by showing the actual impact of a bullet on a human body. There was no cutaway. There was no inference or use of the wizardry of editing to imply the results. They were right there in from of us in all their gory reality. That was indeed groundbreaking.

Its final scene ranks right up there with Psycho‘s shower sequence for how it completely shatters everything we knew to be convention. At that point, there’s no going back. You cannot unsee it. It stays with you. Both instances brutal in their meshing of image, sound, editing, and the myriad pieces at the disposal of filmmakers to make us see something deeply manipulating.

Bonnie and Clyde would bear many of the progeny that have challenged me; films that brazenly dabble in violence, comedy, and the darkness of the human heart in almost inconceivable ways. Mixing tones, emotions, and content in a manner that is incompatible at best and deeply perturbing in their most volatile forms.

Surely, we cannot laugh at something and an instant later be subjected to the blackness of death? People cannot be villains and cast as heroes in the same breath. Everything passed down from our traditions tells us this is not the way it works. After Bonnie and Clyde, it was a whole new landscape. No question.

5/5 Stars

Bullitt (1968)

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There was never a better city for crime pictures than San Francisco. Much of this reputation comes from Bullitt and the enduring cool of its hero Steve McQueen. He had many great films and he was a part of some truly epic ensembles including The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, but Bullitt is unequivocally ruled by “The King of Cool.” There is no other focal point.

Frank (McQueen) and his partner Delgetti (Don Gordon) have an authentically antagonistic relationship running deep. Because they know, without saying anything, they have each other’s backs. However, the ensuing events lay out a premise that will test them incessantly. Self-aggrandizing political hopeful Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughan) is intent on presenting his key witness Johnny Ross (Felice Orlandi) before the Senate to spearhead his clamp down on organized crime. He’s handpicked Bullitt to give his valuable asset around-the-clock protection until he’s called upon to testify. He knows the cops exploits are popular with the local press and for Chalmers, every decision is an attempt to vie for candidacy.

For Bullitt, it’s just his job and so he Delgetti and a family man named Stanton take on the assignment ready to sit it out with Ross in a two-bit hotel room feeling like sitting targets with the large windows inviting prying eyes. Even as a certain of apprehension is maintained, the police set up watch and tell Ross to get comfortable. But the status quo was not to be. Stanton’s shift gets disrupted by a brutally unsentimental hit on a hotel room.

Ross gets blown through with a shotgun by two fugitives and Stanton is left for dead as well. Things truly ignite as Bullitt looks to pursue the culprit and feels the residual heat from Chalmers who is ready to make Frank’s life a living hell. Buying time, he hides Ross’s body to keep it out of the news and goes after the men he knows will lead him to his elusive answer.

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Aside from his motorcycle riding in The Great Escape, Bullitt‘s car chase is McQueen’s finest hour as an action star. Though he shared stunt driving duties in both films with industry-pro Bud Ekins, there’s little doubt his persona was well-deserved and he plays the part well.

10 minutes bouncing and thudding through the streets of San Francisco. Epic panoramas of the chase, swerving through traffic and careening around street corners leading to a straightaway where we get to see The Dodge Charger and Mustang really fly.

The enigmatic nature is the key to the rhythms the story settles into. It’s this sense of uneasiness mixed with pavement and payphone realism as Bullitt does the heavy lifting involved with chasing leads.

The beats of the procedural feel methodical and genuinely authentic while never obscuring the fact this is a thriller with pulsating ebb and flow. Because the best action movies are exactly that: action. Not simply in the climactic moments but the mundane. They rarely get weighed down by exposition or dialogue that we have to slog through. And as a result, they are won and lost in the ambiguity.

Director Peter Yates was hand-picked for the project based on his work on Robbery from the year prior, complete with its own defining car chase. Then, screenwriter Alan R. Trustman works with Harry Kleiner to follow up The Thomas Crown Affair, his other vehicle for McQueen.

Bullitt became the standard neo-noir cop film to measure all others from William Friedkin’s French Connection, its East Coast rival, to Dirty Harry and many of the later works of David Fincher including Se7en and Zodiac.

The film is blessed with unprecedented access to San Francisco, which would be all but unheard of today. From streets being closed off, to shooting in full hospital wings, and taking over SFO airport for an evening. These authentic locations all throughout the city not only guarantee a certain degree of authenticity, they also meant Bullitt needed no sets.

Because at the time the picture was shot, S.F. was not necessarily a film mecca though films such as The Sniper, The Lineup, and of course Vertigo were shot there. But Bullitt and other equally atmospheric projects captured its shading for all posterity in the subsequent years. It became so much a part of the cultural consciousness Peter Bogdanovich would very purposely do a sendup of the chase in his neo-screwball What’s Up, Doc.

Handheld Arriflex cameras allow Yates a fluidity and a similar intimacy with the real world that all but plants us in the environment. Steve McQueen racing across the tarmac to nab his man, ducking and diving under oncoming planes taxiing out masks nothing. It feels real and fearless in a way that’s hardly for show. McQueen embodies this type of tenacity.

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In the end, it’s not much of a spoiler that we see another bloody body, this time with wounds inflicted by the police and we’re reminded how similar they look. Yes, one was committed as an act of crime, the other an attempt to maintain public safety but they both lay there horribly mangled.

If the film began with an unsentimental gut punch then it’s safe to assume it would not change and thankfully it does not. Bullitt is the quintessential police film with grit and violence, forged through by a cop who’s willing to go rogue and stand in the face of powerful men to uphold his responsibility. He’s not looking to make a name for himself. Even as he pushes back against the establishment, he’s reined in by his own moral compass. It’s what guides him.

Jacqueline Bisset is enchanting as his girlfriend though she isn’t given much of a purpose in the film except for providing him someone to go home to. She is a much-needed person to draw out the more sensitive side of his normally guarded self. But she’s also the one to put into question his line of work: “Do you let anything reach you? I mean, really reach you? Or are you so used to it by now that nothing really touches you? You’re living in a sewer, Frank.”

Here is the conflict I imagine within most any police officer. This internal tug-of-war between wading through the refuse to clean up the streets and becoming one with it. Of becoming so used to evil, you’re soon callous and cynical toward all good. When the only way to fight violence is with violence in an equal and opposite direction.

At the very least it spells a compromise of integrity and morals and of a belief system. If that’s getting a little too moralistic, know Bullitt is just about the best police procedural we ever had. It certainly holds a well-deserved place in the pantheon of crime genre archetypes. With or without morals.

4.5/5 Stars

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

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To watch the original Thomas Crown Affair now is to see a film that is so completely and confidently of its time. It opens with a Bond-esque enigmatic title theme, “Windmills of The Mind,” playing against blocked split-screen images composing the credits. As such, it’s easily dated by its 60s suavity, which nevertheless serves the film handsomely as it progresses and sinks into its story.

A heist is in its latent stages, composed of the same stylized patchwork of images visually coordinating all the parties involved as Steve McQueen pulls all the switches from the comforts of his corporate office. The streamlining techniques being utilized effectively consolidate the footage and make us more overtly aware of Hal Ashby’s influence serving as the film’s editor. It’s at times discombobulating, particularly when used extensively later on during the polo match to multiply the frames. But it more than serves its purpose through the stylized manipulation of the individual images.

It’s only a heist film for what seems like a few solitary minutes but it’s immaculate in both conception and execution as all parties converge on their target, get in and get out with their prize and very few complications. In this regard, those familiar with Kansas City Confidential (1952) might notice some nominal similarities. The brilliance of the crime comes in using robbers who have never met and can never be tied back to each other again.

The money is dropped off at a checkpoint and all parties involved will get their money when things cool off. In these opening moments you’ll wonder if Steve McQueen is actually a bad guy and where Faye Dunaway is because, after all, she robs banks too. When things begin to unfold and we see where we are destined, it’s not at all what I imagined with McQueen and Dunaway batting for different teams much of the film.

Insurance Investigator Vicki Anderson (Dunaway) is brought on as a favor to her friend to help a harried detective gain some much-needed closure on the case. She makes a stunning entrance and never lets up with the wardrobe changes. Ms. Anderson has an immaculate outfit to coincide with each subsequent scene and an answer for every situation. In fact, she’s the one who intuitively pins Thomas Crown as her man. All she’s got to do is prove it and she certainly can be very persuasive.

McQueen is the eponymous affluent playboy businessman who’s bored stiff by his day-to-day. It includes diversions like polo, dune buggy rides sliding across the sand and soaring through the skies in his custom-built sailplane. For a man like him, it’s not enough so he devotes himself to the perfect crime and it’s his lucky day when he meets a ravishing woman looking to trap him. It makes life a bit more exhilarating.

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Among other rendezvous, they play a literal chess match in his parlor, which serves the dual purpose. Not only does it reflect the sparring going on between the two of them but it effectively accentuates the romantic chemistry pulsing through them with every headlong glance, every thoughtful thrumming of the fingers, or caress of a chess piece. It’s near-wordless with Michel Legrand’s score impeccably setting the quietly sultry mood in the low light.

On top of the title track, Legrand devised his score by composing against the uncut footage and in a generally unprecedented move, the movie was cut to his work. What we are met with within the same extended sequence are faces eventually framed in lingering close-ups. Eyes, mouths, nervous ticks denoting concentration. What’s more, it all culminates into a spiraling kissing extravaganza kaleidoscope of color.

As Vickie closes in on Thomas, he knows she cares about him and he must force her hand instigating a nearly identical heist to draw out her response. She can either work with the authorities or chase after him as he soars away in his jet decked out in his iconic blue-tinged Persol sunglasses. It’s her choice.

The Thomas Crown Affair is the most backward game of cat and mouse with the coolest rodent you ever did see crossing wits with an equally wily and lovely feline. But the stakes are minor in this sumptuous affair as it’s all style over substance in this second teaming of McQueen with director Norman Jewison. Of course, when you have two stars as scintillating as McQueen and Dunaway one could argue that you don’t need much else. Purportedly McQueen jokingly christened his unestablished costar “Done Fade-Away” as a little picture called Bonnie and Clyde (1967) hadn’t been released yet. Boy, was he wrong. She was here to stay.

3.5/5 Stars

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

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The opening images of The Cincinnati Kid are nearly inexplicable but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun. Steve McQueen brushes past a funeral procession of African-Americans complete with a groovin’ brass band. Then there’s a bit of a needless opening gambit where he’s tossing pennies with a precocious shoeshine boy. If the sequence serves a purpose it’s to indicate the world we find ourselves in — New Orleans during the Depression — and it also says something about our protagonist: He’s a winner.

This was Norman Jewison’s first promising picture to follow up a trio of frothy 60s comedies. As far as star power goes, he couldn’t do much better than Steve McQueen as the up-and-coming “Kid” even if the established star might be a bit old for the role. He’s got the prerequisites, confidence and an emotionless poker face, making him a believable big stakes stud. In fact, he’s one of the best around.

We get our first actual taste of the Kid’s talents when he walks off with the pot after challenging a smug nobody in his bluff and flying out a window before sauntering across the nearby railroad tracks after a washroom altercation. Steve McQueen takes it all in cool breezy stride like he does it every day. In truth, he had an action scene written into his contract for every picture and so the film gets the obligation out of the way early.

Afterward, it settles into its happy equilibrium. Edward G. Robinson is stately with beard and silver hair as Mr. Howard, the veteran of the poker-playing world who has seen a great deal and has remained the best of the best even after all these years. It’s all but inevitable The Kid will have to face him. There is no glory, no true ascension to the top of the pantheon of the greats if he cannot topple the old guard.

The Kid has a girl (Tuesday Weld) who he’s intent to keep around even as she goes back to her hometown for some space. He’s not much for talk and that serves McQueen as an actor just fine, but he does show her that she still means something to him.

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Meanwhile, his buddy Shooter (Karl Malden) lines up a date with The Man himself, Lancey Howard. Though I love Malden to death as an actor, he seems slightly miscast as the veteran card sharp. His wife is another story entirely. We meet Melda (Ann-Margret) as she cuts puzzle pieces to size when they don’t fit together. She cheats at everything. Ann-Margret proves as frisky as a calico cat and provocative as ever; the fire blazes between her and Steve McQueen and never stops burning. The camera seems to love them both. But Melda’s overt advances and The Kid’s passive acceptance do have repercussions. It never reaches the notes of melodrama but it’s no question that feelings are hurt and relations are strained.

What the Cincinnati Kid can’t put out as far as substance, it more than makes up for with an abundance of stylized cool instigated by McQueen. It is rendered through a Depression-era palette by way of the 60s, coquettish dames, and a stunning range of impressive personalities, including a boisterous Joan Blondell, who all help fill out the hazy backroom poker joints.

The steely, unblinking eyes of McQueen are made for the poker table. Then again, the same might be said of Robinson, his face never flinching or wavering, with an air of disinterest to match The Kid’s quiet confidence. They’re two sides of the same deck, both winners.

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The last 40 odd minutes or so are admittedly stagnant though having McQueen and Robinson around a table together actually does have the pretense of drama thanks to the stakes and the characters that have been brought to the fore.

It’s hardly an expositional movie but we know the archetypes. The young buck out to prove he can be the best. The old white wizard who’s looking to prove he’s not quite ready to call it quits as he attempts to go out on his own terms. Likewise, we have cocky card players who get taken to the cleaners and card dealers who’ve been around but that can’t always keep them out of a bind.

The film benefits by downplaying most of its dialogue-heavy scenes for the more cinematic moments, which essentially get carried by the faces of McQueen and Robinson alone with a room full of hushed onlookers. McQueen was by pedigree an action star and he reveled in those environments but there’s no question he has a certain mettle that makes his battle going toe-to-toe with Robinson equally compelling. And of course, the older man still carries his same self-assured confidence even if his days of being a Warner Bros. gangster have long since passed. It makes The Cincinnati Kid a cinch to be a winner no matter the outcome.

It’s true the picture went through substantial personnel changes including Spencer Tracy dropping out due to his failing health and Sam Peckinpah was also fired as director paving the way for Jewison. Tuesday Weld also ended up in the project instead of Sharon Tate. She’s a meeker performer but perhaps it works better in contrast with Margret’s character because even though they are friends, they also serve as obvious foils for the Kid’s affections.

Watching the beats the story goes through, one cannot help but think we already have The Hustler (1961) with Paul Newman playing much the same role facing off against Jackie Gleason in what proves to be a stellar black and white classic. While that doesn’t nullify The Cincinnati Kid, it does feel like a similar framework. Thankfully, it still manages to be delectable entertainment in its own right. The closing credits are sung by none other than Ray Charles and a relatively downbeat ending, ironically, provides a breath of fresh air.

3.5/5 Stars

Loves of a Blonde (1965)

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We lost the inimitable Milos Forman not too long ago and it was a minor embarrassment I had yet to watch one of his earlier works from his native Czechoslovakia where he was an integral member of what is now termed The Czech New Wave.

He was, of course, best remembered in the U.S. for a pair of films, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984). However, looking at a picture like Loves of a Blonde oftentimes proves more elucidating because with smaller more intimate stories you sometimes are able to glean more about the director and gain a better sense of who they are.

True, those in the mainstream might find Loves of a Blonde‘s plot too featherweight and arthouse aficionados might be surprised to find how humorous it is. It’s hardly self-absorbed with its own importance. But if the right viewer finds it, they’ll surely be delighted.

The title track is the Czech equivalent to sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, signifying a story that took full advantage of the temporary thawing of censorship behind the Iron Curtain. In this regard alone Loves of a Blonde is a remarkable relic.

In the opening moments, a girl in a dormitory tells her friend about an encounter she once had with a soldier. They shared talk of deer and how animals don’t have obligations like people. They only come together during mating season. There you apparently have nature’s argument for free love. Except for geese. They sometimes stay together for upwards of 120 years.

Simultaneously, a local factory supervisor — an older gentleman — looking to somehow boost the morale of the local female population, because all the resident males have been conscripted, strikes up a deal with a military man to ship in some men.

The People’s Army is welcomed into the town with all the trimmings. It’s the scene straight out of Hail The Conquering Hero (1944), albeit played realistically with men piling off the train to the sound of a brass band and fanfare. Girls waiting to view the smartly dressed men wander by in their uniforms. The destination in question: A dance.

Forman in such a document is willing to take his time on people who normally would not carry the screen, at least in a Hollywood picture. That in itself is refreshing and brazenly real or at least as real as it can be creating this lovely blending of professional and untrained actors all together.

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We settle in on a scenario that is reminiscent of a Middle School dance in America. Totally inept and awkward, as a trio of older men looks to catch the eye of three young gals — except these fellows are no Don Juans. Even the one who fancies himself the leader doesn’t know what he’s doing.

First, the waiter botches it all by dropping the expensive bottle of wine they bought off at the wrong table. They receive the inquisitive gazes of the women on the receiving end. It only gets worse when the waiter proceeds to remove said bottle and take it to the next table to rectify his error. They have made contact but it’s the ugliest of executions. Meanwhile, the girls who’ve caught them looking, again and again, aren’t quite sure if they’re flattered or not.

Then the normative rituals commence with the men bringing the girls over for a drink and the girls oblige almost as a nicety rather than for any want or desire. A ring rolls under the table which one of the bespectacled bumblers struggles to recover. The whole extended mishap features some of the most cringe-worthy comedic moments that I can recently recall. Only for bickering to ensue as the evening falls apart entirely. First, one man decides to go to bed and then the girls follow suit.

Andulla (Hana Brejchova) goes up to the room of a pianist warily, where he tries to teach her self-defense tactics. The inevitable happens and they wind up in bed together though he struggles to get the blinds in his hotel room down.

Afterward, he gives her the most peculiar compliment. She’s angular like a Piccaso guitar. And he’s generally kind but we know this is just a minor thing to him. Not that he’s trying to take advantage of the girl per se but it doesn’t carry much weight for him. There were other girls in other places. And yet for her, it’s possible that she’s never felt so close to someone before. For her, this is love or at least something close to what she is searching for. He vaguely invites her to come see him sometime and she resolves to take him up on the offer.

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There are these moments that follow where it feels like we are watching a screwball comedy. She meets the parents, suitcase in hand, asking for their son. And they have no good answer for where he is. They’re even more confused about what she’s doing there and why.

Father just wants to watch TV and mind his own business. He thinks his nagging wife is nuts but not as nuts as his son. Bless her soul, but the mother is a certified worrywart thrown in a tizzy about just about everything. I’m sure most of us know the type played to the extreme here.

Son arrives home and his disapproving mother makes him join the parents in bed. She’s not about to let him sleep in the same room as the girl. They’re like the three bears crammed into a bed together, bickering and saying that the girl should have never come in the first place.

It fascinates me how one seemingly ephemeral idea that might only be a quick flash of an image or a concept can lay the foundation for an entire picture. Forman was himself a child forced into migration at an early age by the Holocaust and in his young adult days witnessed a girl lugging her suitcase around the big city without anywhere to go. He gave her a lift and heard her story.  She had been invited by a man she’d met who really had no intention of having her at all. It’s just what you say. It’s the etiquette of it all but it doesn’t really mean anything. At least not to most people. There we have the story’s defining motif.

There’s an innocence that radiates from Hana Brejchova’s eyes; she’s so very youthful and still trying to figure out her life. In dismissive terms, we’d call her a dumb blonde but this film suggests something more — a person who is trusting and wants real love.

So due to a temporary relaxation of censorship, Forman’s film could be broken down to frank depictions of romance and free love but that is not its end goal. Because even in those forms of expression, we find a surprising amount of, not only astute observational humor about humanity but an equally telling melancholy. Loves of a Blonde is a testament to both.

4/5 Stars

Review: Hud (1963)

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“I’ve always thought the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner. Sometimes I lean one way and sometimes I lean the other.” – Paul Newman as Hud

Hud is up for contention for the finest film Martin Ritt ever made and it comes down to a truly collective effort. When you survey the talent assembled, it plays like a hit parade by pairing the director with some perennial collaborators who would see him to some of his greatest successes.

Obviously, Paul Newman was a hot commodity and Hud‘s tagline gets it impeccably right. He’s the man with the “barbed-wire soul.” Raffishly handsome, a womanizer, and a drunkard, no less. However, though Newman plays him as a villain, there’s this wonderful dissonance in the man because after all, he’s played by Paul Newman who was forever more likable than a Brando or a Dean. He stretches us to the limits as an audience as we try and discern what to do with him. Dare we say he’s still charismatic without giving the wrong impression about his lecherous attributes? I’m not sure.

Irving Ravetch served as joint screenwriter and producer and his partnership (along with his wife Harriet Frank Jr.) would be one of the most integral to Marty Ritt’s career. The production boasts the inimitable James Wong Howe as the cinematographer, set design by veteran Hal Pereira, Edith Head overseeing costumes, and a well-suited score by Elmer Berstein. This list of names stands as another feather in the cap of the studio system.

It’s a horizontal even cloudless palette in black and white that captures the malaise hanging over the characters with monochromatic lucidity. Bernstein’s arrangement, in fact, is only minutes long but is supplemented by the equally fitting stripped down effect of a guitar.

In many ways, Hud‘s a modern western like a Giant, The Misfits, or even The Last Picture Show documenting the evolution of a certain type of life whether it’s cattle being replaced by oil rigs, the onslaught of personal tragedy, or the debilitating nature of generational divides. There’s a certain dustiness and degradation proving itself to be a far cry from the glory days.

Melvyn Douglas gives a generally gray and emotionless performance that somehow fits the visual landscape. It grows on you minute by minute for its steady cadence, continuously exact and unhurried. Patricia Neal just might have the finest showing of the lot because she has to do battle in a man’s world. She’s both a housekeeper and thus, maternal but then also overwhelmingly assured in her independence. Staving off Hud’s advances and taking care of the two other Bannions — somehow remaining folksy, hospitable, and a bit sensuous too.

Meanwhile, Brandon de Wilde is crucial for the part he plays as the film’s most impressionable bystander. Though he is no longer the precocious little lad from Shane (1953), he is still the clean slate on which the world at large must rub off on.

The film’s first disruption comes from a state veterinarian (Whitt Bissell) with a verdict that the Bannion’s stock might be stricken with foot and mouth disease. Until they can get more conclusive information, the narrative is all but a waiting game and waiting makes the relationship between Hud and his father (Douglas) all the more contentious. They hold each other in contempt and it’s not simply for Hud’s cavorting reputation. There’s some other buried grievance that has never been resolved between them.

Pay attention and you’ll witness many recognizable small town trivialities. Lonnie (De Wilde) carries his transistor radio in his breast pocket. He and grandpa take in a comedy at the picture show complete with a rousing performance of “My Darling Clementine.” There’s the chasing of greased pigs at the Kiwanis Club event and boisterous brawls with the jukebox whirling away merrily. It’s a galvanizing moment of male bonding that fosters a might bit of camaraderie between Hud and his nephew Lonnie.

In the next pivotal sequence, Hud opens up candidly about his brother’s death in a car crash. Then, Hud has it out with his father and in his ensuing rage, fueled by a drunken stupor, makes aggressive advances on Alma. Clumped together like this, the turn of events either don’t sound impressive enough or don’t carry the air of lurid drama out of a drugstore novella. But watch the scenes themselves and they make sense and wield a resounding power in their cumulative effect.

Hud’s animal brutality is only matched by the slaughtering that is undertaken with the infected cattle. It’s a sickening image. Killing becomes so easy even as the long hard process of cultivation takes years and is subsequently snuffed out so quickly. It doesn’t seem right.

Each of our main characters seems destined for a slice of tragedy — every one of a different size and shape. But it never comes off as melodrama, at least not in the end, even as the misfortune strikes. More so, we are reminded that life is tough and at times merciless. Sometimes people are too. But Ritt never seems to leverage that to get a rise out the audience. He lets it play out. He lets his actors act and if that’s how we label it, then they do a commendable job, each contributing their piece to the ensemble.

Because what we are left with at the end of the road is a lot to mull over. I’m not sure what the conclusions are supposed to be and that’s not because this is an esoteric picture by any means. It’s for people and I think people can resonate with it for the very reason that it is affecting and the performances carry weight while never being overburdened by their own importance. Martin Ritt was an actor’s director and he cared deeply about their performances. It shows in just how beautifully they work together.

One of the truly resonating scenes is right near the end. Hud comes sauntering down the street in his cowboy hat and boots, sporting his starched white shirt like always. He gives someone a “hey” and comes around the corner to the bus stop.

We know who is sitting there and yet Wong Howe stays on his back momentarily as he turns to notice this person sitting out of sight. He sees the person and says a few words. It almost feels accidental but even in this, there’s a purpose. Because another film might have built this final interaction into a confrontation. Instead, Hud and Alma share an amiable conversation underlined by no hint of malice. It is what it is and they’ll move on like they always have. It does, however, accentuate a certain wistfulness. In an alternate reality, things might have been far different; they could have been better.

Granted, Hud doesn’t seem like the definitive source for wisdom and yet he might not be far off the truth when he tells Lonnie, “This world is so full of crap, a man’s gonna get into it sooner or later whether he’s careful or not.” It’s all but inevitable.

4.5/5 Stars