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

Pretty Poison (1968)

Prettypoison1.jpgBoy. What a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?” – Anthony Perkins as Dennis Pitt

Director Noel Black himself described the story as “a Walter Mitty type who comes up against a teenybopper Lady Macbeth.” It seems like the perfect shorthand to get a line on the characters and the actors more than rise to the challenge.

By all accounts,  Black, a recent UCLA film grad, wasn’t much of a director, at least when it came to working with actors. But he could sure edit a film together. The cutting helps to accentuate this trippy world with the spliced together images of Anthony Perkins’ unstable psyche.

After securing his release from a mental institution, Dennis (Perkins) is continually fixated on all sorts of fantasies — playing games full of cops and robbers and CIA agents. He keeps surveillance on a pretty blonde majorette (Tuesday Weld) drilling nearby and unwittingly meets her at a local hot dog stand. They make contact and his nonchalant cool captures her imagination.

We are always wondering if they actually take each other seriously. But the beauty of the script is how they never seem to question one another. They just go with it. What seems utterly ludicrous to us as an audience is so very believable to them.

It relies on Anthony Perkins being able to pull it off and he gets it spot-on with every line coming out of his mouth with total conviction. He makes us believe he’s serious with every bit of fanciful conspiracy he matter-of-factly dreams up.  At his core is this benign human being. We get a sense he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Of course, watching Psycho (1960) might give us a different inclination. And that’s part of the issue.

Perkins’ performance can never be seen outside of the shadow of his greatest triumph and simultaneously his most constricting role. Because everything he does is informed by the part of Norman Bates. If we were able to remove this distraction, his part in Pretty Poison would feel much the same as Tuesday Weld’s does. Because in films like Friendly Persuasion he was the shy, All-American boy. But conventions are getting subverted left and right.

They both make us start believing in their reality. They rendezvous in “makeout valley” only to get ousted by some cops and Dennis tries to hold down his job at the plant, despite constantly being distracted. He professes that aliens are trying to infiltrate the water supply and then very reluctantly stakes out Sue Ann’s home to spy on the mother’s boyfriend.

They are swimming in the invigorating paranoia of their own little world and the drugged-out love romp they create for themselves. Each reverie-like frame bathed in sunbeams and an ever refracting prism of colors. For these very reasons, Pretty Poison could play as a companion film to The Shooting (1967) – another acid singed genre picture.

But at some point, it begins to turn on its head. Because Dennis is the one we suspect will become dangerous due to his erratic behavior. It seems all too inevitable as his parole officer (John Randolph) continues to warn him. Yet the killer joke of the whole movie is how it plays out for real.

This pretty blonde in the high school honor roll turns out to be a femme fatale sipping Pepsi. What are the chances? A little friendly neighborhood murder is what’s on the docket one evening. She gets an emotional high from her adventures with Dennis only to take them to an even deadlier end. The film is not meant to make conventional sense. It never does.

Instead, it operates in alternate realities, delusions of grandeur mixed with sociopathic behavior. It is an instance of a story having two edges, both the terrifying and darkly funny. If there was ever an obvious precursor to Gone Girl (2014), Pretty Poison seems like an obvious jumping off point.

Unfortunately, it was the casualty of absolutely horrific timing. Not only did it not get the distribution it needed but the year of 1968 was punctuated by the assassinations of both MLK and RFK. A film with such content was probably not on the top of the public’s watch list.

For the actors as well there were unfortunate circumstances. Since it was Perkins’ first highly visible American film since Pyscho (1960), his typecasting was again solidified because the shades of an unhinged Norman Bates type is all people seemed to focus on. Tuesday Weld hated the entire process and considered it one of if not the worst of her performances. Though her rapport with Black might have been nonexistent, somehow an evocative performance of contradictions still comes through to compliment her costar.

It’s easy to see where the roots of a cult following might grab hold of such an idiosyncratic picture as this. It fits into the love-on-the-run canon with the likes of Bonnie Clyde (Weld was offered the lead initially) and then Badlands (1973) but Pretty Poison is an even smaller scale story never breaking out of a small town scope.

Its neuroticism and quirks are incubated in such a way to deliver a tone indicative of late 60s disillusionment within the youth culture. Weld might be the finest example as she along with a select few represented the prim and proper girl-next-door sensibilities of the 1950s. Pretty Poison blows the lid off the past and in its own unassuming way it offers a warped portrait of where the world might be heading. If the right person dusts off this offbeat genre flick, it casts a certain off-the-wall spell to capture the imagination.

3.5/5 Stars

Blade Runner: 2049 (2017)

Blade_Runner_2049_poster.pngThe finest compliment that can be paid to Blade Runner 2049 is that it is indubitably the most enigmatic film I have seen in ages. Typically, that’s newspeak for a film that probably deserves multiple viewings, because its intentions, much like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) are not always clearly laid out. Especially in this day and age when we often expect things to be given to us and our hands to be held as an audience.

For that very reason, those who admired the original will potentially find a worthy successor in Denis Villeneuve’s rendition but this cult franchise might be hard-pressed to convert a new fanbase. Because while the greatest cinematic achievements are often equally artistic endeavors and continually entertaining, Blade Runner is worthy of the former while still lacking the kind of visceral fun that will grab hold of a new generation.

Still, there’s a necessity to draw up a distinction between faulty pacing and a film that is completely comfortable moving at the pace it deems important. The film paints in panoramas and epic strokes that the Ridley Scott’s original simply could not manage. Though perhaps more importantly, it did develop a cyberpunk, tech-noir aesthetic that created a new template for so many future projects.

The veteran cinematographer and Villeneuve favorite, Roger Deakins, produces visual splendors of the first degree with his own brand of photography. They are the kind of immaculate frames where shot after shot can be admired each one on its individual merit as if perusing a vast gallery of paintings. One important key is that oftentimes we are given enough time to take them in without frenetic editing completely cannibalizing the pure joy of a single image.

It can similarly be lauded as not merely a piece of entertainment for thinking people but a piece of visual art and a philosophical exploration. That last point will come up again later.

But it’s also quite easy to liken this installment to George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road (2015) which was able to provide a facelift to its material by successfully expanding the world that had been built in the original Mad Max trilogy. Likewise, this movie maintains much of the integrity of its predecessor by seeing the return of several cast members, screenwriter Hampton Fancher, and even Ridley Scott to a degree as executive producer.

Our story in this addition begins with a new model of replicants, Nexus-9, who are used as the current force of blade runners as well as other more menial duties. Among their ranks is K (Ryan Gosling) an officer assigned by his boss at the LAPD (Robin Wright) to track down the last remaining rogue models of “skin jobs” still surviving.

Simultaneously the Tyrell Corporation has been replaced by a new organization led by a visionary named Wallace (Jared Leto) who has aspirations to create an even more magnificent android in search of true perfection of the human form. He’s also very much interested in a mysterious discovery that K makes while performing his duties.

Wallace sends out his henchwoman (Sylvia Hoeks) to do his recon for him. Meanwhile, K travels far beyond the metropolis of Los Angeles with its unmistakable imagery full of Coca-Cola ads, Atari game parlors, and countless women walking the streets looking to pick someone up.

It’s comforting to know that my home away from home, San Diego, has been turned into a giant rubbish heap while Las Vegas looks more like the Red Planet than any earthly locale though still strewn with the remnants of the strip’s sleaze. If we ever took for granted that this is an apocalyptic world then we don’t anymore.

In keeping with the integrity of the picture and the curiosity of the viewers, it’s safe to say that Edward James Olmos makes his return as Gaff still partaking in his origami-making ways though his subject matter has changed slightly. And of course, the man everyone has been waiting for, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is of crucial importance that becomes at least a little bit more clear as K progresses in his search for concrete answers. The cornerstone of the story is, of course, Deckard’s beloved Rachael and the life of anonymity he has taken up since his retirement as a blade runner.

But until its very last frame Blade Runner 2049 feels cryptic and mesmerizing in a powerful way. The narrative is so expansive and grandiose making it questionable whether or not the film is able to maintain a cohesive core with a singular purpose but some potentially profound ideas are undeniable.

Plenty of spiritual imagery courses through it and hardly by accident. An almost Christ-like birth of a supernatural nature remains at its center and what we can presume to be several very conscious references to the book of Galatians —  a letter that not only tackled the so-called “fruits of the spirit” but Gnosticism or the idea that the Creator was a lesser divinity (not unlike Wallace).

Upon reflection, I’m still partial to the original because while both films grapple with the dividing line between the human and the non-human, the first Blade Runner came from a human perspective and that’s even in how it was shot and the technology of the time. It looks like our world, dark, dank, and gritty as it may be.

But in this narrative, while a further extension of that same world much of what we know is in question and it hardly feels like we are taking on a human point of view anymore but we are put in the place of a replicant — an android — even if he has a desire to be human. And again, that lack of humanity reveals itself in the very frames of the film full of unfathomable sights acting at times like a tomb-like mausoleum– so bleak and austere and cavernous.

That is to say that the original even in its darkness still managed to have a soul in the incarnation of Deckard. This picture though trying so desperately to do likewise feels even more detached. It, in some ways, brings to mind Gosling’s Drive character who was very much the same. And yet the other side still deserves some acknowledgment because there is an underlying sense that K does evolve into a more sympathetic individual as time passes. The case can be made that he is the most human.

Going beyond that, it’s also an exploration of how the world is saturated with sex and probably even more so than its predecessor. There’s a particularly unnerving scene where a man tries to combine fantasy with physical intimacy in a way that feels all too prevalent to our future society and consequently it brings up similar themes to Her (2013).

Even in such a future, it’s comforting to know that Presley and Sinatra live on in the hearts and the minds of the populous though that reassuring truth cannot completely overshadow the myriad of issues still to be resolved.

The final irony remains, the problems do not begin with the replicants themselves but in the hearts and souls of mankind. I see that central complexity of the film very clearly reflected in the two iconic objects. One an origami unicorn, the other a wooden horse.

Because we can read into the first if we want to as an indication that Deckard is a replicant and we can see the latter as confirmation that K is, in fact, human and yet on both those accounts we might be gravely mistaken. It comes downs to our own personal perceptions. Whether these beings were “born not made” or vice versa.

It gives more credence to the assertion that the eyes remain the window to the soul. That is never truer than in Blade Runner a film that fittingly opens with a closeup of an eye — the ambiguity established in the first shot. As K notes later, he’s never retired something that was born. Because “to be born means you have a soul.”

Of course, that razor-thin dividing line can be very difficult to dissect completely and that’s Blade Runner 2049 stripped down to arguably its most perplexing issue. Could it be true that an android could act with far more humanity than any human? The verdict might well be out far longer than 2049.

4/5 Stars

Review: Chinatown (1974)

chinatown1Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown

The more you watch movies like Chinatown, the more you realize how much you’re still learning. I saw it the first time and I naively thought I knew everything about it. After all, it seemed fairly cut and dry. But the beauty of this film is a labyrinth-like story that can still keep me engaged after multiple viewings. There are things that I missed, things that I have to piece together once more, and more often than not details I simply forgot. Robert Towne’s script has an intricacy to its constantly spiraling mystery plot that remains powerful and Roman Polanski — with cameo included — directs the film with a sure hand as well as a cynically bitter ending worthy of his work. At that point, he was returning to the same city where a few years prior his wife Sharon Tate had been brutally murdered and that certainly had to still be heavy on his mind.

Throughout, Chinatown has elegant visuals of a desert dry Los Angeles circa 1930s, and it is aided by a smooth Jerry Goldsmith score made for such a period crime film as this. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), is the smooth-talking, smart-aleck P.I. with a penchant for trouble, but that goes with the business. In the tradition of all his heirs like Spade and Marlowe, the whole story is told from his point of view and we get the details at the same pace as him. That means a lot of the time we are just as confused as him, trying to pick up all the pieces.

Aside from Nicholson, Faye Dunaway’s performance is an interesting reworking of the archetypal femme fatale, because she has a different side to her. Also, John Huston’s performance is wonderfully nefarious, because he plays Noah Cross with a top layer of geniality that is ultimately undermined by his base nature. It’s wonderfully wicked.

In the story’s first few moments of being in his office, we begin to learn a little about the means Gittes uses to appease his clients. Then, his newest client walks through the door, a Mrs. Mulwray, who wishes for him to tail her husband. And so he does, just like that, and he’s pretty good at it too. Hollis Mulwray (an anagram for Mullholland) happens to be an integral part of the L.A. Department of Water and Power as the chief engineer. From what Gittes sees, the bespectacled Mulwray seems to have his scruples, but he also has a secret girl, who the P.I. is able to snap some incriminating photos of.

chinatown2Back at the office, another woman shows up, a Mrs. Mulwray, but this time the real one. She wants to slam J.J. with a lawsuit, but he realizes he got framed, and in the end, she quickly drops her case. Pretty soon Gittes former colleague Lt. Escobar digs up Mulwray’s body and the cause of death is the height of irony. He drowned during a drought, a cruel demise, and his body is joined by that of a drunk, who also was wandering around the local reservoir. It’s time for our nosy P.I. to do a little more snooping, but he is scared off by two security guards from Water and Power who give him a deadly nose job.

None worse for wear aside from a small cast, J.J. knows the department is diverting water. It’s more than a little runoff like they contend. He gets lunch with Noah Cross (The great John Huston), who is the father of Mrs. Mulwray and the former business partner of the deceased. Like J.J., he’s curious about finding the mysterious girl, and he sweetens the pot for the P.I.

A bit of detective work takes Gittes to the hall of records and then a vast acreage of orange groves where he is mistaken for a member of the Department of Water and Power. They aren’t too happy to see him, but Mrs. Mulwray is able to bail him out. They check up on an assisted living home and tie it into the whole conspiracy. Someone is buying up land under the names of the unknowing residents.

chinatown3But as it turns out, Mrs. Mulwray is hiding a major secret of her own that she’s been keeping. Another girl is murdered and since he’s found at the crime scene, Gittes is in a tight spot with a police and so he wants to get thing straightened out. But he doesn’t quite understand what he’s gotten himself caught up in. At the last minute, he decides to take the heroes path, but it’s to no avail. The good is snuffed out, the bad walk away free, and corruption still runs the streets of L.A. There’s not much the cops can do about it either.

chinatown4So many people remember the films final words which epitomize this place of confusion, corruption, and helplessness. The final words of Jake are just as illuminating, however, because he repeats the words he spoke to Mrs. Mulwray earlier when she asked what he did when he worked a beat in Chinatown, “As little as possible.” It’s so pessimistic and yet it’s the truth that everybody knows. He must resign himself to doing nothing because there is no way he can win, no way to overcome the forces that be. It’s a haunting conclusion, but ultimately the most powerful one we could hope for.

Earlier I alluded to the fact that every time I watch this film I pick on things that I missed before. For instance, within Robert Towne’s script are some interesting instances of foreshadowing. The first comes in the form of a pun uttered by the Chinese gardener who is constantly muttering, “It’s bad for the glass/grass.” Then, while they are in the car Mrs. Mulwray dejectedly drops her head on the steering wheel and it lets out a short honk. This acts as an important portent to the end of the film along with the blemish in her left eye. If you have not seen the film yet, this might sound very cryptic, but if you keep your eyes open these little details are rewarding. Chinatown is a fascinating place to return to again and again after all.

5/5 Stars

Point Blank (1967)

225px-PointBlankPosterJohn Boorman and Lee Marvin came together as equal parts in this venture called Point Blank and it’s quite something. You can call it neo-noir, you can call it a revenge story, a crime film, but nothing quite sums up what you end up with.

It’s a brutal, stark, psychedelic trip at times that never falters to any level of convention that we are used to. You have the clip clop of shoes on the concrete. Solemn, self-assured, repeating and ultimately deadly. There’s a man named Walker (Lee Marvin) on a seething rampage. He personally totals a car with the victim inside scared out of his wits. He’s shooting up victims all across kingdom come. Watching, waiting, then acting.

Point Blank is full of repetitive, reverberating sounds and images. Time too is repeating and evolving; fractured shards of the past followed by the present. It does not always line up or add up. Walker’s past is being fed to us through his own memories.

We get to pick up the pieces as he pushes forward on his vendetta. His wife is dead and he is after a man named Mal Reese, who double-crossed him, stole some of his money, and his girl. But the hunt doesn’t end with Reese. That would make too much sense and it would be too easy. Walker keeps going. Keeps hunting until it leads him to the next man and then the next. He gets together with the older sister (Angie Dickinson) of his wife Lynne (Sharon Acker). She is the repetition of Lynne who is now dead, just as each one of these targets is the new Reese.

pointblank2There’s a point where we must beg the question? What does Walker even want now if all he gets is $93,000? What is going on in this world? Why does it tick in such a way, because to be honest, it doesn’t always add up? Is the Alcatraz we see and then the L.A. landscape true reality or is this a dream that Walker has created so he can act out his revenge? After all, he was shot, right? It might be a long shot, but the plan of Walker in itself is a long shot. He just continues pushing on and the hunt leads him back where he was in a perfect circle.

Now what? Reese is gone. Lynne is gone. Every single middleman is gone. He has a load of money laying out at Alcatraz for him and perhaps Chris is stilling waiting for him. We don’t know. That’s where Point Blank finds its conclusion and it’s just as vague as where we jumped in.

pointblank3It’s understandable that it has gained a cult status over the years since Lee Marvin is an uber-cool gunman and his journey is hard to figure. His world is a bleak cityscape of 1960s L.A. and S.F. We can never hope to fully understand him or this world either and that’s the beauty of Point Blank. There is a degree of ambiguity that is fascinating. Heck, we don’t even know this man’s first name and yet we invest time in his story. I want to see Point Blink again because it’s not just your typical shoot ’em up action film. It makes you think and it has such a cool aurora and style. It deserves another viewing at some point soon.

4/5 Stars

Body Heat (1981)

Body_heat_ver1In his directorial debut, Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter for Empire Strikes Back and Raiders) brought us a neo-noir burning with passion and positively dripping in sweat. Quite the combination indeed.

It opens with the seductively jazzy score, courtesy of John Barry, dancing over the credits. It brings to mind cool afternoons with cool drink in hand. The first shot we are met with is a man driving in his convertible, top down and shades up. He’s a cool and collected looking young man, but we know that there must be something lurking underneath all of this. This exterior is soon dropped and we are met with a reality that is heavy with humidity and sticky days.

Our protagonist is Ned Racine (William Hurt) who is a struggling lawyer working in Florida during an especially sweltering Florida heat wave. One indelible evening he has his first encounter with a beautiful, cool blonde named Matty (Kathleen Turner) whose temperature runs a little hotter than most. He makes a pass or two even after finding she is married, and she rejects his attempts at first. However, during a point of no return, the two give into their cravings and spiral into a passionate tryst. Their affair is fairly easy to keep hidden from Mr. Walker (Richard Crenna), but an old high school friend of Matty’s and Matty’s niece unwittingly find them out one way or another.

They’ve had enough of secrecy and Racine resolves they must kill Walker so that Matty might be freed and so she might also get money due to his impending death. Not satisfied with that, Matty wants to alter the will so she gets more. Racine is completely against that idea.

The night of the murder comes and they act it out with precision and Racine gets rid of the body.  He finds out only afterward that Matty had a new will drawn up and he doesn’t like it one bit, but he is forced to play along. The prosecutor and police detective involved in the case (Ted Danson and J.A. Preston) happen to be friends with Ned through work. They spend many a sweaty afternoon chatting it up at the local diner. That’s what makes it hard when all the facts begin to pile up and slowly but surely Ned’s involvement becomes more suspect. His alibi and the degree of his relationship with Ms. Walker is being questioned.

Meanwhile, he and Matty must find a pair of glasses that might incriminate them. It becomes clear all too soon that things are not as they seem. Matty ultimately abandons Ned, and he winds up behind bars, happier without her. In one final revelation, he starts to put some of the pieces to together in prison. He’s a hot mess.

It’s difficult not to make comparisons between a film like this and classic noir such as Double Indemnity. In both films, there is a man who seems fully committed to going through with a crime, but it is really the woman who has the most to gain from the situation. Furthermore, Ned as the Walter Neff character has his Barton Keyes in the form of Lowenstein and Oscar, who are friends but also the ones who must bring him to justice. However, Body Heat can get away with more, such as sexuality and allowing certain crimes to go unpunished. It’s a rather surprising ending that is nonetheless very interesting.

Body Heat also has the cigarette prevalence of a film-noir (which Ted Danson comically will not take part in). It’s as if Lowenstein is the only character who realizes this habit is out of place in a world of 1980s sensibilities, not to mention crimes of passion.  It was odd seeing Ted Danson in a pre-Cheers role gulping down ice tea after ice tea. Kathleen Turner and William Hurt were a good fit as the gorgeous siren and her partner in crime. They are two attractive people and yet that did not put them outside of the law as they would find out. Body Heat certainly wrenched up the heat a couple of notches and never let off. It positively burns with frenetic energy and unbridled passion.

4/5 Stars

The Long Goodbye (1973)

LongposterIn the storied tradition of film-noir comes another film in the canon and yet another depiction of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. However, the world with which Robert Altman places his private eye is far different than any place the character has ever inhabited before. Whereas another neo-noir such as Chinatown followed the storied tradition of noir in many ways, The Long Goodbye is often more of a satire than a new addition to the genre.

Elliott Gould as Phillip Marlowe has the smoking down like Bogart or Dick Powell, the garb, and even the car, but his environment is the 1970s, making him quite anachronistic, and that seems to be just fine with Altman. He subverts the genre by placing Marlowe in a world he does not seem to fit in and yet he himself does not seem to question it.

The girls next door are hardly your typical girls-next-door. The police station looks like it could be out of The Rockford Files. John Williams and Johnny Mercer’s title song pops up in all places from the elevator to the car radio. His tail Harry is an incompetent joke. Passing cars give the security guard time to practice his best movie star impressions. Marlowe as well proves he is not much of an animal guy with a cat that he loses and a dog that hates him.

The drama is not much better in that regard. Two murders take place (including the death of a friend), which are later followed by a man’s suicide and his beautiful wife fleeing the country. All the while, on the case Marlowe is scrounging around and coming up mostly empty. The cops bring him in, an unhappy thug roughs him up over some money, and he can get very little out of the drunken writer Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) or his wife (Nina van Pallandt) before she disappears.

By now we know better than to compare this Marlowe to any predecessor. He gets smashed about by the waves trying to stop a suicide and ends up in the hospital after getting bowled over by a car. He seemingly does his best detective work in a stupor, and he somehow escapes a chilling confrontation where everyone is removing their clothes. All these scenarios make little sense and even with the twisted conclusion to the mystery, there still is no explanation for the way things are. Altman gives us a surprising end but no answers as we watch Gould dance off into the distance playing a mini harmonica. Marlowe can often be heard saying, “It’s okay with me.” It’s the story of his life and if he is fine with it, I suppose his audience will just have to accept it too, even if they do not quite like it.

4/5 Stars

The Grifters (1990)

b2415-grifters1When you have Martin Scorsese producing and Stephen Frears directing you are bound to get something intriguing, and The Grifters is just that. It’s a Neo-Noir starring John Cusack (no Lloyd Dobler), Angelica Huston and Annette Benning. It’s got everything you can expect with a title like that from small-time swindling and horse races in La Jolla to deadly Femme Fatales with shady intent.

The film really has three stars in the above, but at the center of it is young grifter Roy (Cusack) who has been doing nicely for himself ever since he went off on his own. But his type of life does not come without a price. Lilly (Huston) is an old vet who has worked all the angles for a long time and now she is in the service of one tyrant of a bookie named Bobo. She hasn’t seen her son for 8 years, and all of sudden she comes back into his life finding him in need of medical attention. Their reunion is far from civil.

Then last but not least is the despicable Myra (Benning) who seduces her way into the hearts and the wallets of many men. Now she’s with Roy but before there was another con man and she is far from exclusive using her sexual wiles to get anything and everything she wants. It’s not surprising Lilly can’t stand her guts. No one could. If he’s honest not even Roy. Soon enough Lilly poisons him towards Myra and the seductress wants revenge and she seemingly gets it.

What follows involves lots of blood, lots of money, and a descent deeper towards a hellish conclusion that feels hollow and cold. Elmer Bernstein’s score accentuates the mood with a tense and altogether creepy string section.  As far as character dynamics, go this has to be the strangest triangles around. Each one of these confidence tricksters is a grifter and each one has a slightly different angle. However, when it’s all said and done only one of them can come out on top even if they didn’t want it to end that way. That’s just the way things go. There is no turning back, only running away for dear life.

The three leads played their roles to a tee and The Grifters proved generally engaging even if all the questions were not answered with loose ends still to be tied up. It also blends the general themes and outlook of noir with a setting that almost feels anachronistic at times. It’s hardly a complaint though and maybe things are better this way anyhow.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Blade Runner (1982) – Final Cut

edd47-bladerunner1“Too bad she won’t live but then again who does?”

It’s the year 2019 in Los Angeles but this is a far cry from the world we are used to as you will soon see. Blade Runner is a hybrid neo-noir, dystopian, and sci-fi film. The Tyrell Corporation has successfully created humanoids called replicants that are near perfect copies of humans except at one point some went rogue and special policemen called Blade Runners were called in. Their services are still required to get rid of a few remnants

Unlike your typical Noir, the film is not in black and white but it still is faded, dank, and dreary. It’s a world-weary L.A. that doesn’t see the light of day anymore. The sterile environment is filled with unnaturally bluish light, old technology, and spaceships coupled with neon lights. The 1980s aesthetic actually adds to the atmosphere which fills all the more dilapidated and old by modern standards. It is weirdly sci-fi while also being time worn. On the ground, it has the appearance of a Chinatown where it is perpetually raining. There is a melding of cultures, time, and place. The ultimate melting pot.

This is the strangely foreign earth that four replicants escape to. One of the fugitives soon blows away a Blade Runner and thus, the best man for the job is brought in: Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). Finding 4 so called “Skin jobs” is like finding needles in the proverbial haystack. But Deckard has the experience.

Initially, he pays a visit to replicant mastermind Dr. Elden Tyrell and does a test on the woman Rachael (who appears to be a replicant but without any knowledge of it). Deckard proves his skill to Tyrell and heads off on his investigation. Meanwhile, two of the replicants Roy Batty and Leon interrogate a replicant eye manufacturer (James Hong) who points them to one J. F. Sebastian. Another replicant Pris pays a visit to the hapless man named Sebastian and he invites her into his home.

Deckard’s search leads him to snake scales and his first target. He gets to Zhora by putting on an act as a dweeby member from the American Federation of Variety Artists (reminiscent of Bogart in The Big Sleep). She has none of his pitiful guise but he soon pops her. One down. But Leon sees what happens and is ready to make Deckard pay for his deeds. Luckily the Blade Runner gets some much-needed help. Two down. Two to go.

The leader of the replicants, Roy Batty goes with Sebastian to the lair of Tyrell. Batty meets his maker literally and they trade some choice words. In a strangely horrifying instance, he gives his father a kiss before proceeding to cave his head in. A modern reincarnation of Frankenstein and his creature. Except Batty cannot take his life yet.

Deckard finds his third replicant and barely notches his third kill. Now it’s only Roy and Rick left to duel it out. What ensues is a game of cat and mouse where a frantic Deckard is playfully stalked by a seemingly deranged Batty. At times both men seem inhuman (I thought you were supposed to be good. Aren’t you the “good” man?), but it is ultimately Batty who remains the unfeeling one. That’s what makes his quiet death all that surprising. Deckard is left looking on bewildered as Batty’s dripping head hangs limp. Four down.

Deckard returns one last time for Rachael. He has fallen for a replicant, but he could care less. Then again, she might not be the only one left. If Gaff’s origami unicorn and Deckard’s dream mean anything at all. The identity of Deckard is one of the many ambiguities that is left for the audience to mull over. That is the beauty of Blade Runner because, with the many different versions, there are various interpretations that can be made. You be the judge of which one is correct. I still say they should have kept the name “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” but then again what do I know? Blade Runner will continue to befuddle me as well as others and that’s probably a good thing. If all movie mysteries were solved and tied up nicely with a big bow they would all but lose their allure. Not so with this one.

4.5/5 Stars