Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category
I’m really starting to dig the meek, outwardly-sheepish Edward G. Robinson of “Scarlet Street” and “The Woman in the Window” and “The Whole Town’s Talking” over the confident and bombastic Robinson of of “Double Indemnity,” “Key Largo,” and, well, “The Whole Town’s Talking” (even if his performance in “Double Indemnity” remains one of my all-time favorite performances), because while the ruthlessness of his Johnny Rocco in a film like “Key Largo” is as plain as day with no room for deeper interpretation, that sinister side is much more subtle and insidious in his more mellow roles; it’s a side that even his own character may not be aware is in him until he’s covering up a crime with no opportunity to turn back. It’s almost like he’s two different actors, if not for that obscure, dark instinct inherent in his characters. Here, that instinct is initially invisible as his Professor Richard Wanley enjoys teaching, sees off his loving, happy family as they head off on a vacation, and enjoys an evening with friends as they discuss the painting of the eponymous woman in the window next door to their little men’s club. It’s when that woman manifests herself in the form of Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) while he admires her portrait that his world comes crashing down, as an initially innocent rendezvous in her apartment to admire her other portraits turns into a death by self-defense. In the moments that follow, Robinson is fascinating to watch, as Richard almost immediately shrugs off his first inclination to call the police and instead methodically works out, out loud, how to dispose of the body and evidence. It’s as if this previously-infallible academic was born for a forbidden moment like this, had the entire plan swimming around in the deepest recesses of his head for years and decades, and he’s just realizing it as it happens, remaining calm, collected and professional as he tells Alice what to do and when to do it – he might as well be teaching one of his classes, doing his job without a second thought. And yet, a sense of excitement, of having fun, of arousal, is barely concealed by that matter-of-factness; as he gives both himself and Alice explicit instructions and she struggles to control her nervous hysteria and then becomes as calm as he is, this might as well be their version of sex, as if committing this crime is his unique version of, and only way of justifying, being unfaithful with that Norman Rockwell-esque wife of his. It’s an interesting commentary on what must have been the people of that time’s natural mistrust towards authority, that any intrusion on a previously-unblemished lifestyle had to be dealt with personally lest you inevitable get blamed. But in the here and now, it raises very interesting questions about Richard; if he can so smoothly transition from soft-spoken, girl-shy professor into self-assured death cover-upper, what else is lurking in that id of his?
Unfortunately, at least until the very end, that question isn’t explored all that deeply. Richard may have a yen for covering up a (justifiable) death, but that yen certainly doesn’t translate to skill, as he and Alice leave behind a trail of evidence and witnesses as long as eternity. Granted, that’s about what you’d expect for first-time offenders such as these two, but that’s where this interesting character study collapses, as Richard is generally out of the picture and Alice must deal with a blackmailing snake who witnessed the crime. It’s standard, even boring, noir shadiness and backstabbing, and I quickly lost interest and was eager for a resolution, disappointed that a reflection on a macabre shift in a character’s psyche became standard, forgettable pulp noir. At least it led to a downright astonishing final shot in which the blaring sound of a ringing telephone gradually mutes and the camera pulls into a glass: an abrupt punctuation mark of irony as this sordid saga that never needed to happen reaches its (extremely convenient and tidy…) conclusion.
Except it wasn’t the final shot, as an additional Hays Code-mandated five minutes nearly ruins even the best parts of this film. At the very least, it off-handedly reminded me of “Mulholland Dr.,” of all films, but otherwise it’s unforgivable (other than perhaps adding a shred of analysis to Richard’s psyche, but that’s really stretching it given the jarring change of tone from the 100+ minutes that came before). Just pretend that the pull-out from the glass and all that comes after it never happens, and the pull-in will, as it should, seal Richard into his self-made fate of guilt-ridden eternity.
For its duration, even as the focus not-so-subtly transitions completely from Rooney Mara to Jude Law, this is an unnerving, uncomfortable portrait of depression, and to a lesser extent a critique of our miracle pill-popping culture. Lesser, because the film deemed it necessary to shove it down its audience’s throat. Granted, the main players in the story are cogs of this industry, so obviously they’d be talking shop, but when every other word out of the mouths of Jude Law’s Dr. Banks and his colleagues in both medicine and the business side of pharmaceuticals concerns this funny-named antidepressant or that, the point is driven home early on, and the rest is monotonous overkill. But, when that critique of an industry’s over-reliance on a tiny pill becomes embodied by Rooney Mara’s depressed and suicidal Emily, we get Soderbergh at his very best. Muffled sounds, muted colors, and claustrophobically close and low-angle cinematography box this woman, her husband newly-released from prison, their previously-affluent lives shattered, into an stifling prison cell as invisible as her husband’s was visible. This is a deeply sick person, who any half-competent person will tell you cannot be cured with a simple dose of Ablixa, and one knife and blood-strewn apartment later, that point is driven home.
And then the last 15 minutes happened.
A lot of people will despise the big twist, most likely for its utter implausibility and how it practically undoes the aesthetically dynamic portrait of a mentally damaged woman. The biggest problem is its implausibility, how 7093274320987432839 things had to go right for this dastardly scheme of greed and lust to work out, and that Law & Order: SVU, 11th hour revelation-esque implausibility does to a degree distract from an overall message the film is trying to put across. But, if it does indeed completely alter Emily at the snap of a finger, if anything it’s even more of a testament to Soderbergh’s skill as a filmmaker, to so convincingly depict the mental agony of a character through simple filmmaking techniques, only to find out that Soderbergh, and Emily, fooled us the whole time. You could even argue that it was a necessary 180 for the character, a final step in completely transitioning the flawed protagonist role from Emily to Dr. Banks. Before we know the truth about Emily, Dr. Banks’ search for the truth is a draining one for the man, as embodied by his increasingly-visible stubble, increasingly-invisible home and professional life, and simple things like Jude Law’s hunched posture when being grilled by both the cops and the powers-that-be in the psychiatry field about his treatment of Emily. Even before the truth totally comes out, and particularly afterwards, it’s hard to deny that Dr. Banks’ obsession is more about his own self-preservation than the fate of his maligned patient, yet we’re still drawn into his plight, in a wouldn’t-YOU-want-to-save-your-own-skin? kind of way. This is one of Jude Law’s best performances, as a man who’s initially well-meaning but ultimately tangled in the flaws of his branch of medicine and his own very human desire for a quick solution and money, and ultimately fixated on saving himself above anyone else, with just enough of a twisted desire to see justice done to make his shoes big enough for us to fit in.
I think the plot twist’s ultimate benefit is its greatly expanding the scope of the film’s message. What began as a critique of legal drug culture, right down to those shrill and insulting TV ads, becomes a critique of the entire psychiatry industry surrounding those drugs. As a seemingly manically-depressed woman murders a loved one while in a drug-induced stupor, an industry’s lazy and profit-driven over-reliance on a quick fix has failed one whom it has sworn to help. As it’s revealed that that manically-depressed woman is actually a sociopath who has gamed the system and won a ticket to a mental facility, safely ensconced with the Get Out of Jail Free Card that is the double jeopardy law, so too has that industry’s failure extended to our legal system. Ultimately, that plot twist beckons us to go back and watch the whole thing again, both to pick up on clues like the camera focusing on the cop’s nametag, and to see how much Soderbergh screwed with us in general. If this is indeed his final film as he claims, it’s unfortunate we’ll never again see something new from the man, but at least we’ll have an opportunity to watch something a second time and find something new after all.
Pretty terrifying, and almost exclusively because of Jessica Walter’s acting. An Ally-like obsessive psychopath to be sure, but I like how little to no effort is made to explain, say, her past or any other reason for that madness. All we see is a quirky but cute girl who mixes an impossibly innocent/childlike smile and laugh with terrifying verbal outbursts and a surprising sexuality that contrasts completely with that innocence at the drop of a hat, all of which gradually descends into outright mania when she becomes more and more obsessed with Eastwood’s radio DJ Dave the more he pushes her away. The mystery as to why she’s so crazy makes the crazy that much more interesting. Eastwood doesn’t do his film any favors with his acting, with the same whispery/raspy voice as his Man with No Name just not really fitting in contemporary California, other than seeming custom-made for a radio show. However, look for instance at the odd little Adam and Eve, Roberta Flack interlude that sticks out like a sore thumb amongst all the Jessica Walter-centric suspense, as Eastwood and his girlfriend feel safe at last and make love in the woods. The whole time during this long, drawn-out sex scene, I was expecting Clint to lean his head down and kiss his girl, only for him to lift his head up and for us to see that it’s suddenly Jessica Walter, and then he wakes up all sweaty in his bed. That never happens, which arguably makes this scene out of nowhere seem even more out of place, but at the same time, I applaud Eastwood for refusing to use the long-unoriginal it-was-all-a-nightmare gag. In fact, that I was expecting something terrible to happen in this scene of utter idyll is testament to how Clint, directing a film for the first time, was able to combine a truly creepy performance out of Jessica Walter and a simple yet incredibly effective air of suspense (combining ‘is she watching him just off in the distance?’ stretches with sudden moments of jarring, shaky-camera, exploitative violence) to keep your attention from start to finish. Eastwood’s transition of power from the front of the screen to behind it made a great beginning here.
For much of this, Cliff Robertson’s Tolly is a lot like Lee Marvin’s Walker in “Point Blank,” never actually killing anyone, yet still causing the deaths of many men who’ve wronged him, the men who beat up and killed his father years before and have now risen to the top of the criminal underworld, making Tolly’s job of seeking revenge that much more difficult. Walker just wanted his 93 grand back, while Tolly wants to avenge his beloved father, so while Walker has this kind of ultra-cool aloofness as he stumbles his way through that criminal organization to avenge himself, Tolly tastes blood, and puts in a specific plan, not to kill these men himself, but to ingratiate himself with both the underworld and the law and then turn all sides against each other Red Harvest/Yojimbo-style, defying his outward appearance of a determined yet dumb hood with a rather ingenious plan where everything has to go right. As a result, Fuller’s film comes damn close to full-on glorifying the concept of revenge, as Tolly truly seems to live a charmed life as he implements his plan, as nothing goes wrong, and the girl/witness he rescues even falls for him despite his treating her like trash, and to this I objected while nevertheless having fun with what I was watching. But then, by the end, Tolly crosses the point of no return, learns that crime never pays, and all is right again with the world. But this is Samuel Fuller’s world, of tough-talking criminals, cigarette smoke, a fashionably scarred anti-protagonist, over-the-top jazzy musical scores, little girls getting run over to send a message to a potential witness, a corrupt police chief eating his gun in his own office in the middle of the day, and the drunk love interest looking right into the camera as she rants and rambles, so who the hell knows what’s right and what’s wrong in this world.
Even though I knew all about this film’s famous ending well, well ahead of time, the 100 or so minute lead-up to it was no less powerful and engaging. The bliss between the couple Rex and Saskia is so seemingly flawless and imperturbable that you think it HAS to end in tragedy, which of course it does, but that doesn’t make it any less believable, as their chemistry is high, making the sense of panic as Saskia goes missing in a crowded rest stop and Rex becomes more and more worried that much more palpable and tense. As the film soon cuts to three years later and Rex is no less obsessed not with finding Saskia, but simply what happened to Saskia, this would have been a decent-enough thriller examining one man’s obsession with finding the truth behind a tragedy…but then it defies all expectations of a traditional thriller. Soon we meet the outwardly charming and affable chemistry teacher Raymond – the man who’s responsible for Saskia’s disappearance, and no, that isn’t a spoiler – and suddenly this thriller is anything but a whodunnit. Raymond’s story is even more engaging than Rex’s, as he never delves into full-on eats-his-own-feces madness, but the vague signs of sociopathy are clearly there, and his subtle weirdness absolutely gets under your skin, from his quiet obsession with his resting heartrate to his just-as-obsessive fixation on getting his kidnapping procedure just right, to the point that he does a test-run on his unknowing daughter. “The Vanishing’s” form of comic relief, depicting Raymond’s increasingly humorous, failed attempts at kidnappings, is both morbid and bold. And the disjointed chronological structure, going from the time of the kidnapping to three years later to Raymond’s preparations well before the deed to Raymond’s childhood at drops of a pin, leave little doubt as to who the perpetrator is, but keeps you on your toes and force you to pay attention (even if a late flashback shows just how poor Saskia’s judgment is, to the point where I was taken out of the otherwise natural unfurling of events). Finally, when the inevitable Rex-Raymond showdown occurs, it’s far from the thriller-esque taking-revenge showdown we’ve been programmed to expect. Despite a good amount of philosophical, wordy mumbo-jumbo out of Raymond’s mouth that you’d unfortunately expect from a typically deranged villain, this little game between the two men show that Raymond, the sociopathically fascinated ringmaster, and Rex, the wronged rat in the maze, aren’t so far apart in their obsessions. Two sides of the coin of derangement, the only difference being that one of them gets more of our sympathy – and the gap isn’t as wide as you’d think.
Scorsese included this in this article/list he compiled of his favorite gangster/crime movies, saying that it was one of his primary influences for “Taxi Driver,” and from the opening minutes, that’s more than obvious. The protagonist, Claude, spends all day every day in his room, working out, pacing about, and every other solitary motion, much like Travis Bickle years later. In this case, Claude is waiting for a call from a prospective employer, that particular employ being assassin. No explanation is really given as to why Claude wants to kill people professionally, as we first see him requesting an unannounced audience with his potential, surprised employer, claiming this is just a new career direction he’d like to take and nothing more. I liked that about Claude. He’s introduced as a nice little blank slate, a loner with a tunnel-vision for self-betterment, whose only real difference from Travis Bickle is that he actually has a career ambition. As the film progresses, there’s less of a downright fetishistic focus on the protagonist’s daily, isolated routine than in the likes of “Taxi Driver” or Melville’s “Le Samourai”, making much more use of dialogue than those two films, or rather, monologue. Claude sure likes to talk a lot, and in that talk, he sure does like to project how highly he sees himself as a killer and as god’s gift to the human race, much to the chagrin of his two exasperated handlers / colleagues overseeing the particular job that takes up the bulk of the film. Moments like this drag the film’s pacing some – more often than not I just wanted to see Claude put his money where his mouth is – and overall there’s a weirdly comic tone to the whole proceedings, from the lively music to Claude’s two bumbling companions to Claude’s unexpected and darkly humorous failures in accomplishing this job, that’s sometimes compellingly satirical and sometimes just plain strange and off-putting and inappropriate. Nevertheless, Claude’s an interesting character to observe, even if we’re not directly observing the moment he’s getting paid for, as director Irving Lerner wisely – and innovatively – hints here and there at the fate of Claude’s victims, so that the killings themselves are either just off-screen or right after a scene cuts. It’s all about the preparation and the motions and the lonely lifestyle itself – an emphasis that in my opinion is put to better use in films like the aforementioned “Le Samourai”, for instance, but nevertheless raises “Murder for Contract” slightly higher than the B-exploitation film it could have been. Instead, I won’t say that it’s a character study since Claude remains so distant and mysterious – playful and mischievous one minute, terrifyingly serious the next – despite showing off his gift of gab, but rather a study of a day or two in a life. He says he objects to killing a woman because they’re too unpredictable, and thus demands double pay…is he really that callous and resentful of women, or is he trying to hide some kind of moralistic chivalry from his two partners to try to project the laid-back tough guy persona he seems to hold so dear? We’ll probably never know, he’s that attentive to concentrating on the job and his craft alone and emotionally divorcing himself from his victims for the sake of business, despite leading his partners on a days-long goose chase of fun ‘n sun throughout the city (for a very important reason, as we eventually discover), so maybe he did put his money where his mouth was after all.
It had potential to be, and often is, more than a typical one-last-heist story because of a particularly interesting sub-plot involving an old farmer and his crippled granddaughter that Bogart’s Roy “Mad Dog” Earle keeps going back to in the midst of planning that one last heist. Never mind the creepiness factor of the older Bogart wooing the obviously much younger girl through small talk, paying for her surgery without asking for a penny in return, etc., I’d say it was sweet if it wasn’t utterly bizarre…but it’s effective. Earle may say he wants to marry the girl and that he loves her, but that’s probably not true. He doesn’t want the innocent, naive girl, he just wants to get out of the fast, crime-ridden lifestyle he’s been drowning in. Ida Lupino’s wannabe-mob girl Marie won’t give him that ticket to the good, easy life, and he knows it, so the next best thing mustbe the young girl and her poor but honest family, by his logic. Marie, and Earle’s cohorts in the upcoming hotel heist, grow increasingly confused at Earle’s behavior as he keeps going back to that family, and indeed it sticks out like a sore thumb in the midst of all the heist planning and mobbish threats as penned by John Huston (the scene where Earle tells the job’s inside man the story of the gun, punctuated by the ‘taptaptap’, is great, showing a terrifying side to Earle that we’ll learn may be little more than a mask of his true self). That family is the specter and the symbolic embodiment of a good life, of the good person that Earle is fascinated by the prospect of becoming, that may even want to be…but is not to be. It’s upsetting that that subplot is all but abandoned as it soon becomes little more than Ida Lupino crying in the passenger seat with the dog in her lap while Bogart acts all manly and shut up-y, but in a way it makes sense. In a surprisingly disappointing screenplay by Huston, complete with the token dog, token black indentured servant with the funny voice and lazy eye, and the farmer’s family coming right out of a Rockwell painting, at least it’s bleak when all is said and done. Earle, from a philosophical and psychological sense, is arguably one of Bogart’s more interesting characters – desirous of a good, crime-free life as seen by his seemingly inexplicable fascination with the granddaughter and her family, and even seen as a good man despite being a criminal, the way he defends a lady’s honor when he sees a black eye, or honors an agreement with his superior despite that superior lying dead on his side, or has an unremovable soft spot for that pesky dog (Bogart’s dog in real life…makes sense when you see how attached it is to the man). Chivalry lives, but crime never pays.
Would’ve been so great if it was just those incredible shots of Fonda and Hopper cycling through the best landscapes America has to offer, with the occasional scene of the two of them waxing poor man’s philosophical around a campfire (of which this movie actually does have some – the one where Nicholson theorizes about aliens and UFOs is a particular highlight). But then the plot, and Hopper’s downright shockingly bleak worldview (seriously, this is the second of his directorial efforts I’ve seen after Out of the Blue, and both of them **MAJOR SPOILERS** end with the main character dying a horrific, violent, insanely over-the-top death due to the world and its grandmother being against that protagonist **END MAJOR SPOILERS**. What the fuck? ) had to come along
Overall, it’s a somewhat effective meditation on culture clash and the youthful generation’s feeling of isolation, desire for absolute freedom, and paranoia of being watched and judged by those who just don’t understand. Unfortunately, it just goes too far in trying to drive that point of generational differences home, with everything from a more-than-obvious symbolic comparison shot of Captain America and Bill fixing the bike while the old farmers hammer a shoe on a horse, to an abundance of shots of scary-looking rednecks looking at our heroes with either confusion or disgust or designs of evildoing, to the ending. Later road movies like “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “The Loveless” would perfect those ideas of youthful waywardness and isolation, and the allure of life on the road and its limitless freedom and lack of inhibition, and the differences between the rebellious youth and the more stand pat-ish older generation, but at least “Easy Rider” got the ball rolling with a new, adventurous and risk-taking form of cinema depicting a new, adventurous and risk-taking generation of human beings.
Is it possible that the simplest of tricks, an odd color hue, was enough for this film to wow me in terms of production value? Apparently. You’d think that the constant barrage of dark sepia tones would get old after a while, but I never got tired of it – this nightmarish wasteland in which the burned-out detective Fisher investigates the serial killings of little girls is truly nightmarish, from that color scheme to the constant night to the nearly-as-constant rainfall. Obviously, with the nightmarish, being-a-character-in-and-of-itself quality of the setting, as well as the premise of Fisher obsessively searching for a supposed dead man, von Trier borrows heavily from “The Third Man,” and obviously “The Third Man” is the far-superior film, but you can’t fault von Trier for trying to go above and beyond in bringing a place to horrific life. The story makes little sense, and that despite the supposed plot twist being more than obvious, but for me it was all about the setting, the sense of macabre dread that pervades every second of this film. Everything about this place is simply unnatural, and of course a lot of that has to do with the fact that the whole story is told by Fisher after a psychiatrist puts him under hypnosis. Is it an easy-way-out storytelling shortcut on von Trier’s part to possibly attribute the otherworldly qualities of this apocalyptic nightmare to Fisher’s mindset more than an actual depiction of a particular world? Sure, but it’s a cool way to do it, nonetheless. As the rain comes down in buckets, the archive room of police headquarters is completely flooded so that Fisher practically wades through a lake to get to some information (water is a heavy, heavy motif in this film), the faces of just about everybody comes out red and ominous, and houses, brothels, and just about every other place seem more like abandoned hovels and caves than man-made edifices, it becomes so arguably obvious that much, if not all, of the unnatural qualities of this world are a projection of Fisher’s tortured, mutilated mindset as he looks back on this story in hindsight. I would’ve been tempted to call von Trier’s barrage of gloomy imagery overkill, but that simple flashback, noir-ish narration gimmick turns that into a somewhat fascinating, if not utterly incomprehensible, look at how a time and place can affect a man’s mindset, as well as the opposite: how a man’s mindset can affect a time and place as he sees it.