The Killers (1964)

The_Killers_(1964_movie_poster).jpgAfter an opening to rival the original film noir The Killers (1946), though nowhere near as atmospheric, Don Siegel’s The Killers asserts itself as a real rough and tumble operation with surprisingly frank violence. However, it might be expected from such a veteran action director on his way to making Dirty Harry (1971) with Clint Eastwood.

With hitmen (Lee Marvin and Clu Galagher) as the motors for the story, they help maintain a similar flashback structure to the original film taken from Hemingway’s short story, except this time their inquiries are a little more forceful than anything the insurance investigator managed in Robert Siodmak’s film.

Furthermore, to fit better with the cultural moment boxing is traded out for race car driving as our fateful hero in this instance is Johhny North (John Cassavetes) a tragic figure who got caught up in love and wounded in the same instance.

Still, Cassavetes even before he was a director of great repute, he made for a quality acting force because the intensity always seems to burn in his eyes and it serves him well here yet again.

He and his mechanic partner (Claude Akins) are intent on winning a big pile at the racetrack but Johnny gets caught up in a romance with an alluring beauty named Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson) who can’t get enough of him. But she also happens to be pretty closely connected to an unscrupulous “businessman” who conveniently pays the bills for her. If Johnny knew any better he would get out of there as fast as he could but she’s a knockout who seems to want him and he wants to believe in her sincerity.

Ronald Reagan takes on the uncharacteristically grimy role as the corrupt Jack Browning which interestingly enough would be the actor’s last Hollywood role before switching his sights on politics first as governor of California and then down the road aways as the president of the United States.

Like his predecessor so many years before, The Swede (Burt Lancaster), Johnny (Cassavetes) gets played for a bit of a stooge and as embittered as he is after a faltering racing career, he inserts himself into Jack Browning’s (Reagan) get-rich-quick bank job which is bound to spin out of control. Adding insult to injury Sheila is right there searing through him like she always used to. The imminent results speak for themselves concerning hitmen, dames, and everyone else who could possibly be caught up in the dirty business.

There are isolated moments where the drama gets laid down a little thick and yet for a film that was initially supposed to be a TV movie, this effort really is an enjoyable neo-noir despite being starkly different than its predecessor. In fact, that allows it to stand on its own two feet and even if it’s not nearly as good, Siegel’s film is still quite thrilling. Thankfully this one lives up to its name and it goes out as deadly as it came in which usually bodes well for a crime picture.

Part of that goes down to the acting talent because it feels like there’s no real throwaway role and everyone has something to keep them busy. Lee Marvin has top billing and he takes up a post that feels like it just might be the precursor to the enigmatic crime spree of Point Blank (1967). His performance along with Clu Gulager’s are undoubtedly the coolest bar none and yet they aren’t even in the majority of it.

That privilege goes to Cassavetes and Dickinson who light up the screen and play their character types impeccably. The same might be said for Claude Akins or Norman Fell. The only odd spot is Reagan but then again maybe that might only be my bias since I’m so used to seeing him be presidential.

3.5/5 Stars

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemarys_baby_posterFrom the haunting opening notes of a lullaby to the otherworldly aerial shot floating over New York, Rosemary’s Baby is undeniably a stunning Hollywood debut for Roman Polanski.

What follows is a tale weighed down by impending doom and paranoia. But although the tone is very much suited for Polanski, it’s perhaps even more surprising how faithful his adaptation is to the original source material. Most of the dialogue if not all of it is pulled from the pages of Ira Levin’s work and the Polish auteur even went so far as getting the wallpaper and interiors as close to the novel’s imagery as he could. But that hardly illuminates us to why the film is so beguiling–at least not completely.

In an effort to try and describe the look of the film, the best thing that I can come up with is inscrutably surreal. Some of it is undoubtedly due to the lighting. Partially it’s how the camera moves fluidly through the cinematic space which is mostly comprised of interiors. But nevertheless, it’s absolutely mesmerizing to look at and it pulls you in like the wreckage of a car crash. As much as you don’t want to, your eyes remain transfixed.

Mia Farrow, with her figure gaunt and her hair short, becomes the perfect embodiment of this young wife. The progression she goes through is important. Because she starts out young, bright-eyed and cute. Still, as time progresses she evolves into her iconic image, shadows under her eyes, ruddy and covered in beads of sweat. Her state is no better signified than the moments when she walks through oncoming traffic in a complete psychological daze.

John Cassavetes brings his brand of comical wryness to the role of the husband and struggling actor. But face value gives way to more sinister underpinnings. Old pros like Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, and Ralph Bellamy are given critical parts to play as an overly hospitable old crone and her husband and the aged doctor who are all privy to this deep-seated conspiracy.

You’ll find out soon enough what that means if you watch the film. However, for me what kept coming back to me is that this is, in essence, a subversion of the Christ child narrative with a new “Mother Mary” figure.  And hidden behind this psychological horror show is something, oddly enough, darkly comic. It’s summed up by the scene in the doctor’s office waiting room where Rosemary begins to leaf through Time Magazine. The headline reads bluntly, “Is God Dead?” As a relapsed Catholic surrounded by people who scoff at religion, the world is seemingly devoid of such things. Even the film itself features more profane moments, greater sensuality, and darker themes than any film of the early 60s. Thus, that magazine headline is not too far from the truth

It’s a question that many would have undoubtedly answered in the affirmative in 1968 too, a year fraught with rebellion, unrest, assassinations, and conflict. Polanski himself would even lose his beloved wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Mansion family. Mia Farrow was served divorce papers by Frank Sinatra on set. It surely was a dark time and yet while Rosemary’s Baby is disillusioning, there’s also an absurdity running through it.

However, the bottom line is that it maintains its frightening aspects because so much is left ambiguous. We don’t see the baby. We never fully understand what’s afoot. And we don’t even know what will happen to Rosemary in the end. What choice will she make? What path will she choose? Is this all a cruel nightmare or will she wake up? Can anyone rescue her from her torment? There are no clear-cut conclusions only further and further digressions to be made.  There’s something fascinatingly disturbing about that. It ceases to grow old.

4.5/5 Stars

Shadows (1959)

shadows1By today’s standards, it might not look like much, but all conversations of independent filmmaking cannot go anywhere without John Cassavetes and specifically his debut Shadows. It’s hard to get out of our modern perspective with so many different outlets to get films made, but back in the 1950s your only road was Hollywood and that was only a select few. Then Cassavetes got the idea to make a film with a group of his acting school students, who were trying to carve a niche for themselves amidst the method acting revolution overtaking New York.

In its initial cut, Shadows was far from popular, and after it was overhauled and re-edited it did a bit better. But now it is the emblem of indie movies — it’s a different type of film-making altogether. It’s the Beat Generation. It’s New York City. It’s handheld camera work. It’s thumping jazz. It’s improv. It’s spontaneous.  All of this loosely ties together the narrative of three siblings dealing with universal issues like family and highly volatile ones like interracial relationships.

shadows2The first is younger brother Ben Carruthers, a light-skinned black who has a struggling career as a jazz musician which he balances with a nightlife of escapades with his buddies. More often than not he’s getting in trouble, in a pinch for cash, and his violent temper gets the best of him more than once.

Then there’s his older brother Hugh who is trying to sing a new gig with the help of his agent, but he must settle for a stint at a sleazy nightclub. It feels below his talent and completely wastes his ability, but he just goes with it. On the side, he tries to keep an eye on his younger brother and sister who he feels responsible for.

shadows3The youngest, Leila, is still an innocent and naive girl who thinks she knows how to take care of herself. Over the course of the film, she winds up with a few very different men. The first is a stuffy author with an authoritative streak. The second is a soft-spoken bright-eyed man, who gets her to sleep with him. Finally, the last one is a young African-American man who is gentlemanly, but not about to be made fun of. In fact, over the course of these relationships, we see the evolution of Leila as she starts out as a demure girl with the big doleful doe eyes. Slowly she becomes more controlling and self-absorbed, but still, she has a lot to learn about actual romantic love.

She’s not the only one either. We leave Ben as he lays battered with his buddies after they got in a brawl with some tough guys over some broads in a diner. There’s no big epiphany at the end of this or some riveting conclusion. We leave them in a moment of their existences just like any other. It’s nothing altogether novel or interesting, and ironically that’s what makes Cassavetes’ film so fascinating. It broke the mold — perfect in all of its imperfections or more aptly because of them. Not to mention the fact that it flipped conversations on race and gender upside down.

4/5 Stars

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

a6338-awomanunderinfluenceWow, this film from John Cassavetes was truly gut-wrenching and powerful. Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk are wonderful as Mabel and Nick. At their core they both seem like essentially good people. They love their kids, their family, and friends. Except Mabel’s problems tear them apart and in turn hurt the ones they love. The drama is not created my major plot twists, but the mundane and the typical. Dinner conversations, picking the kids up from school, gatherings with friends. This is when the film takes place and this is where we see their family unwinding at the seams. It is a personal story and the cinematography and the script for that matter are not polished. They are allowing us to see into this situation and thus the heartache and the pain washes over us and we become engaged with it.

Supposedly Richard Dreyfuss threw up after watching this film. Some may not be able to claim that same reaction, but there is no doubt that your heart goes out to not only Mabel but her children who are caught in the middle of it all. Even Nick, who can be a callous and even violent person is given a heart because he was portrayed by the great Peter Falk. This is definitely powerful stuff that is worth seeing.

This film may actually be more difficult to watch than some gorier films for the simple fact that it will hit the audience close to home. Literally. This is my first film from the director John Cassavetes and hopefully there will be more in my near future. Take a chance with this one because there is a chance that it is different than many of the polished Hollywood films you have seen in the past.

4.5/5 Stars