The Sting (1973): Newman and Redford Reunited

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To my mind, there’s never been a dream team quite like Paul Newman and Robert Redford — a perfect one-two punch of camaraderie and cool — it comes so easy. All the ladies wanted to swoon over them, and all the men wanted to be like them. Because what they have together is something envied by us all.

Butch Cassidy was, of course, the breakout success helping to redefine the western in 1969 while also cementing the burgeoning buddy genre. It’s amazing we only ever got one other picture in the storied partnership. Thankfully it was The Sting.

Let me be candid. It’s not as great as its predecessor. I never had the same fondness for its narrative diversions and yet even on subsequent viewings, it assuredly plays to its strengths.

The period crime film captures a strain of nostalgia that feels even more euphoric seen through a second lens. This is Scott Joplin, ragtime, old-time title cards, wipe transitions galore, fine threads, better hats, and an ode to the past — twofold. This is prohibition reintroduced by way of the 1970s.

The world of Chicago gambling rackets fits somewhere in between a James Cagney & Edward G. Robinson’s Warner Bros. gangster flicks and John Garfield’s roles over a decade later (ie Force of Evil). However, while the world is similar, director George Roy Hill has blessed The Sting with a playfulness. It lacks a cynical even brooding edge which would have been so easy to ascribe to. This is the 1970s after all. It would have been in vogue.

But in dealing with the depression years and corruption with a jocular edge, Hill has won himself an audience. He’s made it a game rather than a drama and as such it’s a welcome vessel of entertainment. This is no Godfather or Chinatown, French Connection or Dirty Harry. The Sting gives itself license to lighten up a bit. The delightful opening gambit is a taster for coming attractions introducing grifter extraordinaire: Hooker (Robert Redford), and the old vet who’s taught him everything he knows.

Luther spins tales of “The Big Con” which in their line of business is the big leagues for every man who has ever swindled someone aspires to. He urges Hooker to shake off the dust of their crummy town and make something of his unique talents. If the young drifter got his way, he would have stayed put. Still, he has crossed someone very powerful in local racketeer Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). There’s no recourse but to shove off and begin the next stage of his training.

He must meet the man Luther spoke highly of The Great Henry Gondorf (Paul Newman). In their first encounter, he’s completely swacked only to utter his first words under a showerhead raining water down on his hungover noggin. When Newman’s grouchy voice finally rings out it’s another form of wish fulfillment we’ve been waiting for. He even soaks his head a la Harper (1966). The anticipation is beginning to set in.

The Hollywood landscape has changed in 4 years. Now Redford is the worldwide megastar. Newman is still a big draw and as good as ever. Regardless, it’s a real hoot to have veteran pros like Harold Gould and Ray Walston. Somehow they feel like television actors to me and that’s by no means a dismissal. In fact, it’s actually a seal of approval; they make The Sting more colloquial even familiar.

Things pick up aboard a train as Gondorf sinks the hook into their pray so they can begin the task of reeling him in for the catch. It’s about keeping the mark off-balance, never letting them know they’re not in control, and making a whole lot of fun for the audience because we’re in on the whole shebang.

He makes a late entrance to a gentlemanly poker game by apologizing, “Sorry I’m late guys. I was taking a crap.” It’s a portent for the entire showdown. Newman hamming it up as the steely-eyed Robert Shaw looks on as if he takes every iota of the other man’s being as a personal affront. It’s a very calculated charade getting under his skin quite effectively. The brilliance of Newman is not taking himself too seriously. He has a good time with every beat and the movie benefits.

It’s a pleasure to watch him walk all over Shaw because Newman might be smug, but we’re in his corner and that comes from his long, hard-fought badge of loyalty. He’s one of those actors we relish playing the scoundrel. Harrison Ford might be the other.

As they look to hook Lonnegan by first getting his ire up and then conveniently setting him up with an ambitious inside man (Redford), we have a game on our hands. Meanwhile, the other boys assemble the crew with a makeshift gambling joint being renovated as they speak.

Hearing Ray Walston’s voice over the action, calling the races, is somehow comforting a bit like having My Favorite Martian reruns on in the background. The film is weak in the female character department but fortuitously Eileen Brennan is able to bring something hardy to the world with her mere presence.

And yet it wouldn’t be a story without a few wrinkles would it? Shaw throwing his weight around in order to play by his rules. They must acquiesce to his demands in order to make him feel secure. Then there’s a nagging cop after Hooker for some prior infraction. Soon even the Feds (led by Dana Elcar) get involved as the whole charade continues to crumble precariously.

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Through it all Redford keeps his cool and looks equally fine streaking around town in his suit — usually to keep from getting the book thrown at him. He might as well be channeling the free-and-easy charisma of Steve McQueen from The Cincinnati Kid. Fittingly, The Sting is an apt descendent of not only that film but Newman’s own stellar vehicle: The Hustler.

Aside from just creating a world of smoky nostalgia, Hill is brave enough to have wordless interludes. The music is robust enough, not to mention his stars and his setting, allowing us to appreciate everything. Sometimes more is said in these moments than in any bit of filler dialogue. We get the privilege of picking up the pieces for ourselves and sitting back to bask in the thrills. The last few minutes are the grand payoff, and it’s lightning-quick but never better.

The Sting is short of a monumental artistic achievement, but it is an experience as only movies provide. It gives laughs, payoffs, and twists in a manner that is wholly satiating. To be a part of a communal event like this is something familiar and warm.

The ultimate joy of The Sting is its ability to play the audience as much as the mark and yet still giving us the relish of feeling like we’re in on the joke. It’s a movie that willingly provides the best of both worlds. And of course, we have Newman and Redford. I’ll stand by it. There was never a better pair.

4.5/5 Stars

Klute (1971): Starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland

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There was arguably no man more well-versed in 70s paranoia thrillers than director Alan J. Pakula and if we want to consider the genesis of his “paranoia trilogy,” we must begin with Klute. Aside from the thematic elements and Pakula’s evolving pedigree, it is the partnership with the ever-meticulous Gordon Willis that truly stitches this loose grouping of films together.

Klute is set in New York and though you never forget this fact exactly — we spend a lot of time watching Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) move around town — the film is not built out of the seedy streets like The French Connection (1971).

The majority of the action takes place within interiors where the low-lighting and limiting factors of the space add a certain psychological depth. There is something unnerving out there reflected in the characters themselves.

In his first film score, Michael Small evokes the perturbing tinkling sounds no doubt found in many Columbo episodes and all such fare from the 1970s. This film does feel like a case of localized dread.

It involves suits and pimps, but the scale is fairly small, even if it’s indicative of situations throughout the city. Next, the conspiracy would get larger and corporate in Parallax View. Finally, it would be at the very top in the federal government and in this case, it wasn’t simply fiction; it was real, a la All The President’s Men.

In this particular iteration of the thriller, a top-level businessman has all but disappeared, and his concerned wife is aided by the services of a mutual acquaintance and private investigator: John Klute (Donald Sutherland). He is hired on by the man’s firm to get to the bottom of the issue.

Some incriminating letters to a New York call-girl seem to suggest a Jekyll and Hyde existence that his wife knew nothing about. It’s deeply troubling, but it gives Klute a point of departure. Soon he’s questioning Bree (Fonda), who doesn’t remember the man — she’s in high demand these days — and she’s not about to be pumped for information.

Still, the persistence of this enigmatic out-of-towner eventually gets to her as he doggedly keeps after her with quiet persistence. 2 years prior she was beaten by a client and in the past, she has received a string of prank phone calls, not to mention being tailed on occasion. It comes with the trade.

What’s striking about Bree is how real and pragmatic she is about her life. With her brown helmet of hair and undisputed confidence, she takes the day-to-day in stride. She’s not ashamed about being good at what she does, and it’s even a bit empowering to be in such demand while so easily controlling her emotions. With clients, she’s able to maintain a cool and detached demeanor, totally in control of her situation.

However, she’s also not a stagnant individual, trying to move away from her past, tied down to an abusive pip (Roy Scheider), and a certain lifestyle that comes with the territory. There were formerly aspirations to be an actress, and she spends hours with a therapist talking through her issues. It becomes apparent she is one of the many who is an adherent to external processing.

Thus, John Klute is her perfect foil in all regards. She openly lambastes his kind as “hypocrite squares,”  leaving their ivory towers in the country to look down their long noses in scorn at the corrupt city dweller. The dichotomy of the sinful folk and the methodical morality of this suburbanite is being drawn up.

Still, he doesn’t fit such a convenient definition. His is a constantly unphased, totally imperturbable demeanor. His words are chosen very carefully and sparingly; his actions are taken with a certain purpose. Then again, the same might be said of her. Regardless, their aspirations are of a very different nature.

The title itself seems a near misdirect. One can easily contend the picture is named after the wrong character. After all, Fonda is the undisputed shimmering star of independence. And yet the film is bolstered by all its main characters because out of them the narrative is made compelling and essential, based on the bearing it has in their lives.

Screenwriters Andy and Dave Lewis whip together a script that revels in these figures, even as they themselves play against a larger, harsher milieu. It works in strokes of lingering dread and an unnamed apparition out there somewhere.

No scene is it more apparent than when Sutherland literally chases a phantom out of Bree’s apartment only for the person to vanish into the night without any resolution. It is this open-ended nature that supplies tension.

Except there is ultimately a conclusion and it comes in a very real and present form. Given that we are dealing in a world of call girls, loneliness, and sexual desire, it makes sense our solution would tap into these deep-seated issues.

Without giving away the punchline completely, Klute‘s ending makes my insides crawl. In an admission that might have well come from Norman Bates, one character even acknowledges, “There are little corners of everyone which are better off left alone.” It hints at the dark, rancorous proclivities of human nature. They lay dormant only to erupt in vengeance.

Supposedly Jane Fonda thought the film was preaching a message that if a woman has a good psychiatrist and a man at her side, everything will turn out right. This might be the implicit conclusion of the storyline when we take it out of the confines of what we see. However, there’s also still a sense that Bree has a personality and a will to be her own person. She is strong, at times self-destructive, and she has been through hell and back again.

What resonates is the complexity of this independent person who also has frailty. It’s not simply women but all people who need a bulwark of others around them in order to survive.  When two or more are gathered together something powerful forms.

It is not solely about weakness, or maybe it is, because in some form we are all weak, even if we don’t wish to acknowledge it. We cannot stand up to the onslaught of outside oppressors every waking moment of every day of our life. At some point, we must let our guard down.

Thus, Klute is not a film that leaves us thinking someone is weak for requiring help. Instead, I am reminded of the coarseness of this world and the necessity to find others to help us push through it. Alone we will not survive. We cannot survive.

4/5 Stars

 

 

Night Moves (1975): Arthur Penn’s Neo Noir

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“I saw a Rohmer film once; it was kinda like watching paint dry.” – Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby

Gene Hackman is still with us but unlike others who are predisposed to continue working, he was content in setting a hard and fast end to his acting career. All that can be said is he is dearly missed. Even a less renowned project like Night Moves suggests how indispensable his talents were to the acting landscape of the 70s and 80s.

Director Arthur Penn was not an obvious practitioner of genre subversion as say, Robert Altman, but if you look at the likes of The Left-Handed Gun (1958), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Little Big Man (1970), and certainly Night Moves, it’s obvious he took accepted genres like westerns, gangsters movies, and film-noir only to give them a fresh point of view.

It seems fair to assume this film finds its place among the likes of Harper (1966) and The Long Goodbye (1973) because it begins by acknowledging the successive hoops of private investigator films with conscious self-awareness.

However, in such cases, the true entertainment comes in the departures, when it pertains to artistic vision, content, and narrative digressions. Penn shows particular preoccupation in a man at odds with his times and ultimately, a man unable to navigate the world, both personally and professionally.

In one very blunt admission, the lone wolf P.I., Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), acknowledges, “I didn’t solve anything. It just fell in on top of me.” Later, when asked where he was when Kennedy was shot. He responds wryly, “Which Kennedy?”

This is the perfect sentiment in a Vietnam, Post-assassination, Post-Watergate age where rhythm and reason seem all but cast to the wayside. If things reach a resolution at all — and a fatalistic one at that — it feels inevitable. In one sense, there appears to be little personal agency in the current cultural landscape. It’s no different for Harry.

It’s also imperative Night Moves boast a familiar point of demarcation. The despondent point of view is already in place, but it takes time for it to build up to what might already be a foregone conclusion.

It must begin in what feels like a conventional realm. Moseby receives a request from an aging Hollywood B-Girl whose husband formerly made Biblical epics. Now her free-loving daughter Delly (the saucy Melanie Griffin) has gone missing. The actress entrusts Harry with finding her daughter and bringing her home. It’s everything but a by the book assignment.

In fact, Alan Sharp’s script is equally aware of its traditions. Mrs. Iverson inquires if Moseby’s “the type of detective who once you get on a case nothing can get you off it: bribes, beatings, the allure of a woman.” He responds without missing a beat, “That was true in the old days before we had a union.” His fee of $125 a day plus reasonable expenses is also dirt cheap compared to Jim Rockford.

But this is indicative of his general temperament. Asked about his affinity for some grungy old antiquities from a would-be detective partner, he responds bluntly, “I would if they didn’t all remind me of Alex Karras.” Later, when he traps his wife with his crippled rival, far from the virile adversaries of yesteryear, the man coaxes him to take a swing at him, “The way Sam Spade would.”

He is a P.I. as only Gene Hackman could play one forming a beeline through The French Connection (1971) and The Conversation (1974). The core tenets of each of these varying protagonists are flaws — deep and messy. He is prone to violence and resentment and yet somewhere buried deep is a certain tenderness — a conscience and a moral compass of some kind. This ever-fluctuating identity is key.

He feels like a traditionalist more at home with the gumshoes of old than the new-fangled technology guiding detective agencies now. Hackman even rivals Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye, but he doesn’t seem as absurdly out of place so much so that it verges on the satirical — even from a visual standpoint.

His emotional and personal framework is what puts him at odds with this current generation. On stakeouts, of course, he occupies himself with chess matches, watching the mark out of the corner of his eye, and it becomes the film’s defining metaphor.

In making the rounds, he questions a mechanic and one of Delly’s friends named Quentin, followed by the hotshot pilot who wooed her away. The last is the veteran stunt coordinator (Edward Binns), all leading him on the trail to his prize.

His primary case seems to be well on its way to a conclusion far sooner than we might have ever imagined. He tracks Delly down to Mexico, following the leads to her step-father (John Crawford) and the in-house dolphin expert (Jennifer Warren) who are making their domicile on the edge of the water. It’s a little bit of quaint paradise, and it feels rather like a dead-end, where crime stories might come to die.

If this is the outcome of the case, it seems anti-climactic at best. Still, something keeps us glued to the screen. We appreciate the characters and there is some amount of intuition mounting. Arthur Penn would not abandon us like this without something more to ruminate over. Night Moves just keeps on getting more and more perplexing by the minute.

It’s because the issues at hand are not localized; they only seem to morph and proliferate with every encounter, folding back on themselves to create more issues through the simple rhythms of character. Fittingly, actual travel is rarely denoted, only implied by varying cars and sudden jumps in location, thus continuously expanding the story.

It starts with Moseby but trickles down to any number of people he crosses paths with. Melanie Griffin’s part, much like Jodie Foster’s role in Taxi Driver a year later, does its very best to get under my skin, as both play squirm-inducing and unforgettable Lolitas.

Meanwhile, Moseby orbits within this confusing solar system of female relationships. It begins with the problems with his wife and patching up their relationship; because he knows what’s happening, but he doesn’t try very hard to fix things. He just keeps on with his work. Paula is the one who truly tickles his fancy; she’s warm and independent — working for Tom Iverson because, in her own words, “he gets nicer, not meaner when he’s drunk.”

Talking to Paula on another evening Harry explains a famous game in 1922 where Bruno Moritz failed to make a handful of knight moves. “He had a mate and didn’t see it.” These words linger in our mind from thenceforward. Because thoughtful films do not lay out these clues without there being a payoff, and it’s true these prophetic lines of Harry’s recall his own failure. The distractions are too many and his faculties are misdirected and diverted in all the wrong places.

At no instance is this more apparent than the film’s ensuing conclusion. A befuddling series of events begin to unwind. There are fluke accidents on a film set, drudged up bodies, outright murder, and aerial assaults at sea. It concludes with what can only be described as a hypnotic, if not entirely haunting final image — for one last time Harry was unable to see the whole puzzle. He stares helplessly at yet another scene that blindsided him.

Night Moves is a film you almost need time to marinate in. Because on first glance it feels like a sloppy, less meticulous Chinatown plot. Revelations arrive when it is far too late. Yet in its own way, Penn’s movie feels deeper than a surface reading and Hackman is a messed-up hero on par with anything Jack Nicholson could muster up.

However, the antagonist and the opposing forces are of a different nature. If not quite as sinister as Chinatown, they’re equally jarring, leaving us with a wistful impact of despondency. Chinatown is made up of a world that we must helplessly accept as passive bystanders.

It can be propped up as one of the finest mysteries of all time like a tightly wound clock of impeccable foreshadowing and interconnections. Night Moves leaves us with a boatload of loose ends still unresolved and unexplained.

The mystery and focus constantly seem muddled and shifting away from center just as our own focus continually seems to drift. It’s hardly as methodical as its predecessor but this looseness still couches numerous befuddling reveals, as abrupt and disjointed as they might seem.

Of all places, our protagonist’s opinions of art-house cinema provide one last fateful portent. He gets antsy watching a film like Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s where dialogue takes precedence over action.

But it is also a film of choice — little microcosms that require decisions. It’s apt Rohmer’s characters are creatures of choice. When we look at Harry there are similar issues and yet his choices feel pointless because he has little comprehension of the scenarios at hand.

However, there’s no way for someone like him to experientially understand all the situations and, in the end, he pays dearly for it. If the moral of the story is not learning to like appreciate Rohmer’s cinema, it is, at the very least, a call to appreciate that we are people of choice as much as we are relational beings. Both are crucial to life. Harry never quite figures either out quickly enough.

4/5 Stars

Dog Day Afternoon (1975): The Fury of Al Pacino in a Great Heist Film

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We usually think of filmmakers like Woody Allen or even Noah Baumbach for their portrayals of New York. There’s no doubt they have left their imprint on the city, so it’s difficult not to envision it without their influences. However, in his own right, Sidney Lumet also deserves to be viewed in this light, even if it originates from a fundamentally different perspective.

Lumet is a director who seems to know this place intimately, but he hardly sugarcoats it. He gives us something loose and engaging, full of human drama. We saw it in everything from 12 Angry Men (1957) to Serpico (1973). With Dog Day Afternoon it’s much the same.

The film starts with a boat, before making its way across the city with imagery of both the vocational and leisurely activities of the general populous. People are bumping tunes as these city-wide scenes hum with the familiar rhythms of daily life. It seems a curiously wide net to take from the outset, only to make concrete sense minutes later.

Alongside these typical shots is something highly irregular within this same context: The attempted robbery of a local bank. One can easily champion Dog Day Afternoon as the greatest heist film for the very fact it is a comedy of errors because the sub-genre has always been defined by all hell breaking loose as everything eventually goes awry.

This picture never even gets there. It’s the purest articulation of the core tension flowing through any heist movie, going back to the days of The Asphalt Jungle (1950) or The Killing (1956). However, in this case, we are provided none of the same space for a setup or earlier preparation. It’s all the mechanisms of the job going haywire right in front of our eyes. It’s not even that the perfect plan hits a fateful snag or there’s a turncoat or what have you. These robbers are obviously sunk before they’ve even begun, and the story pivots on this, becoming something novel in itself.

It commences with their youngest accomplice who doesn’t have enough stomach to go through with it, and he literally bales on them during crunch time. Sonny (Al Pacino) and his buddy Sal (John Cazale) muddle through because the gun has already come out. They’re committed to what they’ve started. Soon the manager and female tellers are rounded up along with the security guard. No one’s looking for trouble.

But this is just the beginning. Because when they finally get to the issue at hand — the money in the vaults — there’s barely any cash. It was all taken out in the latest shipment. Strike two.

Though Sonny professes to know the ins and outs of bank work, he’s none too bright and in one of his most gloriously idiotic blunderings, he burns up the bank’s register only for the smoke from the wastebasket piquing attention out on the street. Just about everyone needs to use the toilet; they’re the kind of complications you don’t usally make allowances for in such a scenario.

Meanwhile, the police swarm the sight and Sergeant Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) takes on the point to strike up a line of communication with the criminals. This is phase two where Dog Day evolves into a story where the aftermath of this event takes the most prominent place but for altogether different reasons than we usually expect. We reach this point of extended stalemate.

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The security guard is plagued by asthma and gets sent as a sign of good faith, but Sonny’s not about to take any double talk. In the galvanizing moment that forever vaulted Dog Day Afternoon into the conversation of anti-establishment cinema, Pacino walks out on the streets and dares the cops to back down.

This is his stand, and it catalyzes the rest of the film’s action. He knows he has power because the crowds are watching him — if not the entire city. In a moment of inspiration, he starts screaming “Attica” and as his chants, evoking the contemporary prison riots, sweep through the onlookers, and they begin to cheer him on almost as if he’s one of their heroes, and he has found solidarity with them.

TV coverage makes everything live and visible to the viewing public, and it’s the same game we can play with Network (1976). If the media was invasive back then, just imagine how much more of a parasite it is now with smartphones capable of capturing everything.

One might say Dog Day Afternoon documents a very specific cultural moment because we have only continued to progress from there with the media getting more and more intrusive as time goes on.

This strange almost absurd strain of insanity becomes acceptable. Where we have stalemates and compromises with people trying to communicate and defuse a situation of the most volatile nature. All because of a measly bank robbery running afoul.

The drama settles into a strange equilibrium where everyone is trying to work with everyone else to get out of the current situation. The captors and their captives on the inside form a rapport over time. A type of Stockholm Syndrome sets in. Then you have the uneasy symbiosis of the perpetrators and the cop on the outside looking to defuse the situation so the hostages get away safely.

It’s a shortlived truce blowing up again when someone tries to sneak into the back and a shot goes off, sending the police and crowds into a frenzy. On the inside, it isn’t much better. Pacino is at his most intense following up the slow burn of the Godfather Part II (1974) with something equally grating. It’s not exactly documentary, but there is a certain sensibility to it that makes it continuously tense and strangely funny, in its most organic moments.

It only falters with its substantial length, because after losing some of its tautness as an out-and-out thriller, it falls into the strangely comically strains of theatrics before getting distracted by any number of things. These are the lulls that are weathered by the sheer ferocity of Pacino’s performance.

There’s the complication of paying for t the sex change operation of his partner. His mother comes to the scene of the crime to coax him to give up, and it’s another distraction he could do without, in between the phone calls he’s constantly fielding with the police.

In his semi-delusional mind, he develops grand plans to get a car to take them to the airfield where they’ll head to Algeria. Sal is menacing but generally composed, played with matter-of-fact sentience by John Cazale. You almost forget he’s there. The only moment he seems obviously perturbed is when the news outlets make out that he’s gay. He wants Sonny to set them straight.

At the center of this insanity, sweating it out and trying to balance all the pressures thrust upon him is the man himself. He orchestrated this whole thing only for it to blow up into a local phenomenon he could hardly control. He becomes the ringleader of his own form of media circus — albeit on the inside — on par with anything whipped up by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s Ace in The Hole (1951).

The ending wallops equally hard like cold air hitting the face. Again, we met with this weird sense of total equilibrium restored. Life can settle back into normalcy. It’s simultaneously a welcome sigh of relief and still a hollow victory.

Because even if it was momentary, we were in Sonny’s corner too — right there with his hostages — and maybe after spending so much time with him, we were inflicted with a bit of Stockholm Syndrome ourselves. There is this wishful hope that he just might get away and things could turn out. In this austere, pragmatic world of ours, such sentiment seems like folly.

Lumet documents the milieu while Pacino captures its ensuing despondency with his usual unflinching fury. At its best, Dog Day Afternoons is driven by performance, and its director creates an impeccable world for incubation.

4/5 Stars

Mean Streets (1973): Martin Scorsese’s Intimate Crime Film

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Martin Scorsese will always be synonymous with Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, but if we want to truly chart his ascension as a singular creative mind, Mean Streets must be our genesis. Because it essentially lays the groundwork for his entire career.

In truth, it’s the strangest gangster film of its kind; it’s emphatically Scorsese’s, full of his pulse and life-blood –his love of cinema. It is a gritty and intimate creature born out of the American New Wave, further imbued with religious imagery and the imprint of something starkly personal.

Though Robert De Niro might seem the obvious figurehead to gravitate toward, in this instance Harvey Keitel is our true vehicle to move through the picture. We get a line on him from his opening lines lying in bed, “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.”

Because here’s a good kid trying to look out for his friends, while working for his uncle who happens to be a powerful loan shark. There is no grandiose story arc here. At the most mundane level, most of the story revolves around the even-keeled, responsible Charlie trying to vouch for cocky local hothead Johnny Boy (De Niro), who has the continual insolence to dodge his creditors, perpetually trying their patience with his brazen excuses. He’s the type of jerk you’re never going to straighten out.  He just never learns.

The majority of the film has Charlie playing peacekeeper, though he also has the preconception that he holds his own fate within his grasp. The moral issues still gnaw at him. He wants to be his own savior. He’s proud and self-sufficient. 10 “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers” will not satisfy him. They’re just words. He wants to make his own penance for his own sins.

Meanwhile, his uncle tells him to stay away from Johnny Boy. He starts seeing Teresa (Amy Robinson), Johnny Boy’s cousin (and a lapsed epileptic), which is another rocky relationship, partially due to her own hatred of her cousin. Michael (Richard Romanus), a small-time shark gives him fair warning multiple times; he’s not about to take any more of Johnny’s crap. Somehow Charlie seems able to assuage him.

He hasn’t accounted for just how extreme of a hot-headed punk the kid is. In one isolated event, he finds Johnny Boy on a rooftop firing off a piece just for kicks and giggles. He seems to think it was a perfectly good idea, and he holds no respect for any form of social honor. This is near blasphemy in such a time-honored traditional society.

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As with anything Scorsese, it’s not simply about narrative but form as well, and one of Mean Streets‘ most notable successes is in the cutting of the footage to music. Charlie’s life is brought to us via home movie newsreels and The Ronettes “Be My Baby.”

De Niro certainly makes Johnny Boy pop, but his introduction shouldering two women in a bar, sashaying toward the camera in slo-mo to the pounding jagged edges of “Jumpin Jack Flash” is nothing short of virtuoso. It’s hard to even imagine the images outside of the context now. Because it’s totally indicative of the world Scorsese is introducing, bathed in red hues with a swaggering Robert de Niro, and Harvey Keitel watching from the bar.

The oddly discordant matching of “Please Mr. Postman” with a pool hall brawl instigated by Johnny Boy (surprise, surprise), provides a similar mental association as does “The Shoop Shoop Song” played over a brief image of Charlie just about to stick his hand into the flame of a stovetop. The reason is immaterial. The emotion is what speaks.

It’s true American Graffiti might be the quintessential soundtrack movie, but Scorsese’s soundtrack for Mean Streets deserves laud in its own right. Not only is it packed full of classics, they are such effective pieces of this narrative helping to cultivate the mood at any given point in time.

Obviously, Scorsese is a lover of movies, but in the context of this story, they also have a very personal function. They provide a cutaway from the world — existing as diversions and distractions from the daily grind whether it’s The Searchers or The Tomb of Ligeia. It makes no difference. Scorsese allows a reverence for everything, whether it be on late-night TV or a cramped, musty old movie theater.

Even when taking this into account, it’s easy to write Mean Streets off initially as just another gangster movie, especially if you try and analyze it retroactively. But this could not be further from the truth.

Because while rock soundtracks are the norm now, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese were invariably at the forefront of this trend. They make the sound work seamlessly within the context of their stories. It adds layers that would be lost otherwise. There’s something powerful provided by the music working counter to the typical beats of non-diegetic scoring.

Consequently, I cannot help but recall Scorsese talking about his infatuation with Force of Evil (1948) because, within its poeticism, it manages to be equal parts small-time corruption and family drama, all in one.

The world of Mean Streets is analogous. It feels every day and unsentimental, ringing with an obvious authenticity. Because Scorsese is sharing a bit of his childhood neighborhood with us. These characters. The relationships and the business they find themselves in. There is nothing glamorous about it and when someone is willing to bring us something so close to them, they should be rewarded.

Without a doubt, Scorsese expresses deep affection for Hollywood, but he readily bursts forth with his own shot of individualistic adrenaline. These are the kind of efforts that made The American New Wave a boon of cinematic creativity and Mean Streets, with Scorsese as its maverick, must be kept front and center in the collective conversation. There’s no question the collaboration of Scorsese and De Niro is still one of cinema’s most transcendent.

Mean Streets forces us to extend more love to Harvey Keitel as well. The film could not be realized to this extent without all their talents coalescing. Somehow they share a joint language adding up to a shared experience. They know these people and these places on an intimate level, and it shows.

4.5/5 Stars

Slightly Scarlet (1956): Starring Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming

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It’s a grievous offense, but I must admit to clumping Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl in a category together. They are both redheads of immense beauty, around the same age, and while they both featured in some quality films, they never quite reached the apex of a Maureen O’Hara or a predecessor like Greer Garson. It’s highly unfair I know. Still, in an effort at transparency, it’s inevitably the truth.

However, it’s this very element that makes Slightly Scarlet so enthralling, because it’s as if the very premise is playing with my preconceptions. Maybe I am not the only one who holds these feelings.

Here we have (Arlene Dahl) coming out of prison after serving a stint thanks to some petty jewel thievery. Her big sister (Rhonda Fleming) is there waiting for her as the fawning, motherly figure resolved to keep her wayward sis out of any more trouble.

Together in the frame, bursting with natural color, they fit so exquisitely opposite one another. This alone has intriguing elements to it, but thankfully there is more. Because Slightly Scarlet is also a film belonging to John Payne, director Allan Dwan, and cinematographer John Alton. At 70 years old, Dwan at this point in his career had logged nearly 400 features — an utterly astounding benchmark.

Payne, meanwhile, had forsaken his clean-cut image, working with the likes of Phil Karlson and Dwan to churn out some truly gritty performances. Look up John Alton and you have one of the finest starting points for film noir imagery, period. Even in color, he manages to make it clouded with shadow.

Because Technicolor noir most certainly exists — albeit with lesser frequency — though Slightly Scarlet also has origins in a James M. Cain short story, lending a certain pedigree for sleazy criminals, even if liberties were taken. The picture simultaneously proves worthy company to the ripe feasts of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray from Written in The Wind (1956) to Party Girl (1958). The obvious discordant nature is a draw.

What looks to already be a lurid woman’s picture is met with an undercurrent of political graft and corruption. John Payne is a bit of a hatchet man for a local mobster (Ted de Corsia), integral in influencing all his local operations. He’s derisively nicknamed ‘Genius’ for his shrewd tactics, and yet his boss thinks he will never get on the top of the heap. He’s always out for himself, selfishly.

However, the words prove prophetic as Ben Grace (Payne) all of a sudden does switch sides. Here our narratives get tied together because Ms. Lyons (Fleming) is secretary to up-and-coming mayoral candidate, Frank Jansen (Kent Taylor). Grace is able to supply the dirt to run the gangster Caspar out of town. He’s conveniently found a tape incriminating his former boss in a murder. It’s a surefire way to win an election, and he’s not above such tactics.

The staging is exaggerated from the outset, and the photography is lush — part Technicolor galore the other old tried and true Alton chiaroscuro, which he somehow manages in a entirely color production. At its best, the movie revels in the sordid details and over-the-top theatrics, milking every bit of drama out of the scenario. There’s nothing half-baked or tactful about it. Still, it’s armed with pizzazz aided by a hammy, ever swirling score.

Dahl, playing the sex-crazed klepto of a younger sister, literally gets dragged out of her house for her latest offense. In another scene, when she’s slapped across the face, she simply purrs at the man with beguiling eyes, “You play rough too!” As her latest companion tries to lay his mitts on the goodies inside a safe, Dorothy lounges around the abandoned beach house before setting her sights on a harpoon gun, which she has a frisky bit of fun with. It’s all a gag to her and played against the relentlessly somber, hard-bitten Payne, it only accentuates the inordinate oddities.

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While Rhonda Fleming holds down the necessary role as the conflicted central figure and Payne is one of the suppliers of the hard-boiled elements, it is Dahl who titillates and has the most gratifying task as she is given range to be saucy, unhinged, and altogether uninhibited. It fits the scenario.

The subsequent developments are manifold. Mainly that Dorothy starts vying for her sister’s new man, even as she skips out on her therapy sessions. The compulsion to steal exerts itself again with dire consequences, especially in the wake of the political election.

However, as it turns out, Payne is not quite as reformed as he might have led everyone to believe. He’s as pragmatic as he is cynical, getting a ‘Yes Man’ installed as the new city sheriff as he moves in on the mob’s old territory, turning the racket into his own.

Our heroine finds herself utterly conflicted. Between the man she’s fallen for who’s no good — and seems to be in company with her sister — and then the white knight who loves her dearly. The final confrontation, returning to the beach house, does not pull its punches, between spear guns, handguns, and sadistic, even masochistic inflictions of pain.

It’s a fitting shot of volatile adrenaline to cap a movie daring to fluctuate wildly all over the spectrum. It’s not a dignified or a particularly measured effort by any stretch of the imagination, but in pushing its melodramatic tendencies to the max, Slightly Scarlet proves itself more than capable of diverting stretches of crimson entertainment.

3.5/5 Stars

Party Girl (1958): Sumptuous Visuals for a So-So Gangster Flick

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Party Girl is yet another sumptuous Metrocolor feast from Nicholas Ray though the circumstances were admittedly less conducive for another masterpiece. In need of money, Ray took the job but instead getting his accustomed input on the script, he found himself being partnered with a producer he had no history with (Joe Pasternak) and two musical numbers he had little control over.

For someone like Ray, used to taking such middlebrow fare and making it inherently more interesting, the only plane he could really play on was the visual. So Party Girl is a minor success continuing his forays in expressionistic color schemes.

The film sets the scene in 1930s Chicago falling a few tiers under the Warner Bros. gangster flicks of the 30s or a hilarious homage like Some Like it Hot (1959). In this particular scenario, worldly-wise dancing girl Vicky Gaye (Cyd Charisse) is always ready to impart wisdom, and she’s too tough to get hurt by love.

While it can’t necessarily keep company with Ray’s most captivating works in terms of personified emotion or intensity, there are still elements to be thoroughly enjoyed. Cyd Charisse for one is as sultry as ever and if it weren’t for their almost abrupt nature, crammed into the story as they are, her two dance numbers do immense justice to her iconically svelte form. She’s still extraordinary.

Robert Taylor for another is compelling as a defender of criminals, capable of getting mobsters off the hook and willingly working for a big-time kingpin named Rico (Lee J. Cobb). Tommy Farrell’s major calling card is a debilitating limp that forces him to use a cane. But it never feels like a mere gimmick.

Ray consequently praised Taylor’s commitment to the role, gladly studying up on his part so he could convincingly play a cripple. The director even said the older man was on par with any of the Method adherents he had ever had the pleasure of working with. There you have commendation enough.

In trying to categorize Party Girl, you quickly realize it’s a bit of a disconcerting hybrid of a film. Some might say discombobulating more than anything, as it plays at the crossroads of different genres, not to mention different eras.

Taylor and Charisse were purportedly the final two contract players signed to MGM in 1958 and so more than anything, the picture was a justified excuse to put them to use before their contracts expired. But all things considered, their chemistry isn’t bad per se, and they both look lovely under the gaze of the camera.

Meanwhile, Lee J. Cobb is capable as a thinly-veiled Al Capone facsimile. He’s not uninteresting, but the part seems to have nothing surprising to boast. By the finale, the story has run its course and most of the air has left its sails. Aesthetically, the harsh colors somehow don’t play against onslaughts of gunfire the way black and white did in the days of yore.

Maybe unfairly it’s easy to criticize the film because it doesn’t quite stand up to the gangster flicks of old and yet, there’s no way to call it a full-fledged musical. But for any aficionados of the director or his starring players, they might be reason enough to revisit this minor cult favorite. Be assured, it’s by no means a cardboard, cookie cutter piece of work.

3/5 Stars

I Want to Live! (1958): The Anomaly of Barbara Graham

220px-I_Want_to_Live!I Want to Live! calls upon the words of two men of repute to make an ethos appeal to the audience. The first quotation is plucked from Albert Camus. I’m not sure what the context actually was but the excerpt reads, “What good are films if they do not make us face the realities of our time.” This is followed up by some very official-looking script signed by Edward S. Montgomery, Pulitzer Prize winner, who confirms this is a factual story based on his own journalism and the personal letters of one Barbara Graham.

So the film asserts its authenticity right off the bat before even showing an image. It’s obviously hewn out of the tradition of the real crime docudramas popular at the time. And yet with any type of project, perhaps especially those that make such a claim, we must still call details into question and take them with a grain of salt.

Director Robert Wise is at it again handily developing an environment that feels lived in, opening with dutch angles to give us a slightly disconcerting introduction to a jazzy hole-in-the-wall joint. The crime maestro is at his best when he is working with locales he can play around with and in this case, the world gives way to character.

Meeting Susan Hayward in this picture is reminiscent of meeting Burt Lancaster’s Swede in The Killers. They’re in an upper room, a bedroom, cloaked in shadow and we know they have a tragic end in sight. Where we find them is almost as important as the characters themselves because it acts as an extension of who they are.

Graham is a different type of flawed figure who we find not in a lover’s room but some random bimbo. Though the word is never said outright, she’s undoubtedly a prostitute with police looking to nab her. This is our initial image of her, and it is telling.

However, the rest of her story is sutured together with whirling whip pans and mementos from photos to newspaper clippings to TV coverage, providing snapshots of a life through intermittent scenes. What we are given is admittedly jarring and not altogether cohesive, though one could easily concede no life is ever straightforward to piece together. So it is with this one.

Before seeing either film, I always mentally confused Caged and I Want to Live! because of the superficial similarity of women criminals behind bars. However, there is a substantial difference in Eleanor Parker who is able to lead her character through a visible transformation. With Hayward its more about reconciling and portraying the varying entities of this befuddling human being: Barbara Graham.

Soon she is styled as “Bloody Babs” by the media, initially lambasting her as a brazen killer with a past full of criminal activity and impropriety. But at least one man, Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland), begins to change his tune and crusades tirelessly for her innocence. His help, along with the support of a benevolent psychologist (Theodore Bikel), just might turn the tide. Maybe…

Again, the most enjoyable aspect seems to be the mimetic world that has been evoked because to recall the Camus quote, “Here is the reality of our time, and we have no right to be ignorant of it. The day will come when such documents will seem to us to refer to prehistoric times.”

The people (including a young Gavin MacLeod), their clothing, the interiors of rooms, the press, and the mechanisms of the criminal justice system, are all touchstones of some kind. There’s always something we can learn from each even as we must be suspect of how authentic they really are.

Thus, the real star is the direction, featuring some of the most visual flourishes I recall in a Wise picture, further complemented by the jazzy scoring of Johnny Mandel. But its all elemental in creating a backdrop for the story.  Black & White serves Wise particularly well.

The final act initially stalls because the story is played from a waiting game angle, trying to ratchet the tension, although the ending is an already foregone conclusion. Everyone is waiting around. I would have thought the ending would go to Susan Hayward. Because until those foreboding final moments, her character hardly feels established even after all we have witnessed. But sometimes one scene can be galvanizing and emblematic of an entire picture.

However, this is not a boisterous exclamation point but an oddly entrancing death scene and this seemingly purposeful decision proves consistent with most of the picture. It foregoes dramatic and visual hyperbole for leaner more understated beats that bear markers of truthfulness. In the end, life doesn’t go out with an explosion but a drop off into somber nothingness.

With such a conclusion we certainly feel sorry for Barbara Graham. However, I’m not sure if we can completely empathize with her. Nevertheless, like any such high stakes story, I Want to Live! calls into question the American justice system, the death penalty, and our understanding of guilt in this country. So was Graham guilty or innocent? I would have to do more outside research to corroborate the facts though the film implies its own position quite overtly.

Regardless, maybe the picture is about larger themes altogether. Issues that go deeper still into the very fabric of how we enact justice, how we perceive it in the media, and even socially, how certain people seem to get raked over the coals.

Why Barbara Graham? Why not someone else? Why like this? It’s an issue that goes beyond superficial terms like good or bad. As a people, I think we are fascinated by individuals who are layered anomalies not to be understood with a cursory glance. Barbara Graham seems like such a person. We cannot write her off with a convenient stereotype.

3.5/5 Stars

The Reckless Moment (1949): Max Ophul’s Balboa Island Noir

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The scene is set. It’s a week before Christmas. We find ourselves in the charming community called Balboa, 50 miles from Los Angeles, and Joan Bennett drives off into the city for very urgent business. She meets an undesirable in a bar, but this is by no means a tryst. She is facing a sleazy opportunist named Ted Darby to forbid him from seeing her impressionable daughter.

In her opening actions, we already know so much about her. She is assertive and willing to go to great lengths to ensure the safety and protection of her family. Like Shadow of a Doubt before it, we start out in the symbolic sordidness of the city only to return back to the oasis by the sea. The Reckless Moment becomes another home noir where worlds clash.

Ironically Bennett has shed her femme fatale exterior and has come to watch over a household fending off the wiles of the world to keep them from entangling her children. She lives with her elderly father and a young son constantly badgering her while the family’s servant Sybil (Frances E. Williams) proves her most faithful ally. An affluent, hardworking husband is said to exist, nevertheless, he is never seen as he’s away on business in Germany.

For all intent and purposes, it’s Lucia Harper’s ship to run while her husband’s away, and she weathers quite the ordeal. Max Ophuls reacclimates his leading lady with her home, laying out his typical red carpet complete with a spiraling shot up the stairs.

Her daughter Bee (Geraldine Brooks) starts out as a little terror though not quite capable of Ann Blyth’s treachery, because she sees the error in her ways. It comes to pass after her older suitor Darby pays a house call in the dead of night to rendezvous with the young girl. However, it is in the cloak of darkness the youth recognizes his true lecherous character, fighting to get away from him and fleeing the scene as he tumbles, ultimately, to his death.

He effectively disrupts their tranquility by diffusing from the urban center and breaching the sphere of domesticity ruled over by Lucia. The mother hen goes to great lengths to protect her daughter, even further implicating herself.

Because the next morning she finds the body, puts two and two together, and realizes she must do something. With nerves wrought of steel, she somehow manages to dispose of the body in order to protect her daughter. Of course, as we already know there was no need to, but it does make for an intriguing moral drama, and we have yet to even get a glimpse of James Mason.

He does finally arrive and once more, like Darby before him, he is yet another threat to Lucia, invading her drawing room unannounced. His price is $5,000 for some incriminating letters they have of the girls, which might easily implicate her with the police. For the woman of the house, you wonder if this nightmare will ever end because this is what noir always manages.

It takes this perfect post-war reverie and middle-class suburbia then injects it with something terrifying, even calamitous. But thankfully, with performers of the caliber of Bennett and Mason, we get a far more nuanced development.

These central roles are key because everything else revolves around them. They are two poles of the noir world who drag each other toward a murky center where she dips her toes into to the ugly underbelly and he, in turn, gains a coat of chivalry to redeem his moral character.

Because not only does this handsome crook begin to harbor sympathy for this woman — he even extends clemency to her — and as a result of their numerous interactions, he starts to fall in love.

It becomes an increasingly curious relationship because at first, it’s purely that of a helpless mark and the greedy profiteer. But as time passes, it gets ceaselessly complicated. With the husband out of the picture, and James Mason such a prominent star in his own right — it does feel like a secret tryst — a bit of a hidden love affair.

Except it never amounts to anything, because he covers for her, falling back into the dark depths of his old world, and she is able to sink back into hers. Our final image is of her, back turned to the camera, tears in her eyes, reassuring her husband everything is fine on the home front. The credits roll but I’m almost just as intrigued to know the aftermath of such a cataclysmic shift in her life.

Will her clandestine relationship with this man come to light and be seen through the sacrificial lens it probably deserves? Will she ever be able to share her dark secrets with her family and husband? Will the tranquil island getaway of Balboa ever be the same?

Yes, there are time restrictions to this story but the beauty is how much we still are invested in everything falling outside the frame. Here is a testament to an immersive film full of volatility and perplexing emotion that carries a certain weightiness.

It helps to have an intimate connect with this location. I even spent one summer during my youth working on Balboa Island and it is a sandy, relaxed, tourist trap. There’s no doubt about it. I can only imagine how much it would change if your memories of it were imprinted with something so ghastly.

Locals know the annual boat parade at Christmas. Of course, it takes on a different meaning with brawls in boathouses and dead bodies dredged up in the bay. At least it’s only a movie. Knock on wood…

4/5 Stars

Christmas Holiday (1944): A Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly Noir

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Christmas Holiday begins as a movie we’ve probably seen before countless times. A returning G.I. (Dean Harens) is getting ready for some Christmas leave except our star is as stiff as cardboard and that comes before he gets the sobering news. The girl he was intent on marrying has duped him to go get hitched to another man. Despite the pleading of his happy-go-lucky war buddy, he makes the decision to head out to San Francisco all the same.

Inclement winter weather sets up a dark and stormy detour in New Orleans and fortuitously takes the story into slightly different terrain. Unfortunately, Herman Mankiewicz’s script takes so very long to frame its story, it feels like there is a lot of catching up to do.

Although the picture is directed by quintessential film noir craftsman Robert Siodmak, Christmas Holiday is a weird clashing of discordant elements, namely musical numbers with the chiaroscuro malaise of noir. Irving Berlin’s compositions even make an appearance in the form of “Always” repeated throughout the picture as a bit of a romantic musical cue.

On first glance, such a dreary picture doesn’t become Deanna Durbin. She is a songstress first and apt at romantic comedy. And yet in keeping a broader mind, she isn’t too bad in this one. It seems like the material itself is to her detriment, that and an equally jarring characterization by her leading man. Because if we’re honest, a dark, brooding Gene Kelly almost feels like an oxymoron — especially as he plays a craven murderer named Robert Manette.

Again, if we run the same test and give him the benefit of the doubt, it simply does not take, regardless of the material. He feels out of his element, and it’s nominally okay because we have so many future forays to appreciate him for. Still, it does leave one scratching one’s head. While early in his career, he had already made For Me and My Gal as well as Cover Girl so it’s not like no one knew he could sing and dance.

If we summed up the glut of Christmas Holiday‘s plot, it is a less effective riff off Shadow of a Doubt in the sense that we have an everyday man who also moonlights as a murderer. I suppose most killers are like that, but the dichotomy is made so blatant with Joseph Cotten in the former film and Gene Kelly in this one. Similar to future projects like White Heat or Psycho, there is also a mother complex, albeit far less intriguing.

As much as I love Siodmak to death, it’s hard to champion a rather tepid release like this. Measured criticism once again falls on the script, which spends time setting up a character who is only of peripheral importance. It invests in a romance we already know through flashback ended tragically. Any attempts for tension between mother and daughter-in-law feel essentially dull and uninspired.

There’s no pace or ticking time bomb revealed to keep us fully engaged in these dealings until the last possible moment. This is when Manette is out of prison and returning to his missus, whom he believes has been unfaithful. Then, the expected rush from the fateful confrontation is all but nonexistent. Durbin’s wounded reaction is probably the best part.

Based on a Somerset Maugham story or not, the title Christmas Holiday also feels like a total misnomer. In fact, the entire movie feels like a sidebar conversation to what should have been a different film altogether. Man was not meant to subsist on atmospherics alone. There needs to be some form of compelling narrative or at least interesting ideas to mull over. Christmas Holiday is lacking in this department.

3/5 Stars