Archive for the ‘crime films’ Tag

Slither (1973): No Snakes on the Plains   Leave a comment

James Caan polishes his comedy chops in this meandering story about an ex-con who takes a field trip with a gang of oddballs.

Dick Kanipsia (Caan) and Harry (Richard Shull), two cons just released from prison, head to Harry’s house to drink a few beers, have a sandwich, and relax in front of the TV. As soon as they start to get comfortable in the ramshackle cottage, gunshots ring out. Neither of the men can tell who’s shooting or where the gunshots are coming from and let’s just say things go poorly for Harry.


Harry and Dick in happier times.

Soon, Dick’s on the road, hitchhiking. He gets picked up by nutty Kitty Kopetzky (Sally Kellerman), whose manic behavior belies an off-center brand of innate logic, and the two begin a quasi-romance. Dick wants to keep moving though because he has a destination in mind. You see, Harry dropped a name and hinted about a big payday, so when Kitty takes a little too much speed and pulls a gun at a truck stop, Dick takes off again in search of Harry’s fortune.


Their denim game is strong in this.

Dick contacts Barry Fenaka (Peter Boyle), Harry’s old friend, and Dick, Barry, and Barry’s wife, Mary (Louise Lasser) hit the road in Barry’s Airstream camper.


“Mary who?”

Pulled by his shiny red Cadillac, the trio take off followed by an ominous black super van.


Got your copy of Catcher in the Rye?

I recently recorded a podcast (The Forgotten Filmz podcast) to discuss Slither and I stick by my theory that the mission to find the missing money is just a MacGuffin. The real point of this film is to let us meet and get to know these offbeat characters. It’s one of the reasons I love 70s films so much. In quite a few of them, the characters are the plot. Eccentric characters meet haphazardly, and because of their idiosyncrasies, they get into mischief. Their weirdness either extricates them from their problems or gets them in deeper. That’s a 70s film. By the time the film ends, you either love them, hate them or mourn them, but you’ve long since stopped caring about their quest.


“Course it’s a good idea!”

Another great thing about 70s films is the natural look of the actors. They’re not all shined up with perfect teeth and zero body fat. They look like regular people. They wear bellbottoms and jeans shirts and crappy poly blend sports shirts with white belts. They have average complexions and sticky-outy teeth. Slither has that in spades. It’s hard to shine up Allen Garfield and Alex Rocco, who, by the way, is billed as Man with Ice Cream. Man with Ice Cream! The year before, Rocco was Moe Greene, who was making his bones when you were going out with cheerleaders!


“I got a business to run. I gotta kick asses sometimes to make it run right.”

Slither is a weird, slice-of-life film with a road trip thrown in. Howard Zieff, who also directed The Main Event, House Calls, and Private Benjamin, keeps the structure loose even as he ramps up the tension. I mean, who are those guys in the scary black vans? The dialogue was natural, quick-witted, and perfect for Boyle and Caan, who have more comedic ability than they get credit for. The screenplay, an original by W.D. Richter, who also wrote the screenplay for Home for the Holidays and adapted Big Trouble in Little China for the screen, was a mix of road movie, crime film, and madcap adventure.


“Just one more thing.”

I have to admit, this film was completely off my radar before Todd Liebenow of the Forgotten Filmz podcast suggested it. I’m glad I saw it. I will say, Slither is a misleading title for a road movie. There’s not a single snake in this. I can only assume they called it Slither because of the labyrinthine plot. OK, I guess. I wonder if a gang of folks came to this film hoping to see Marjoe Gortner wrestle a boa and left scratching their heads.


Marjoe does not appear in this film.

Sidenote: There is a made-for-TV version of this film, directed by Daryl Duke ( The Silent Partner) starring Barry Bostwick and Patti Deutsch, made one year later. I have not seen this, but now I must.

Please listen to the Forgotten Filmz podcast  to hear the always gracious, Todd Liebenow and I discuss Slither. Find Todd @ForgottenFilmz and me, @echidnabot on Twitter.


Serpentine!

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The Nice Guys or Not the Bees!   5 comments

When a film starts with a topless porn star crashing her car into a house to the tune of the Temptations song Papa Was a Rolling Stone, it sets a tone you hope the characters and plot can keep up with. Fortunately, The Nice Guys keeps up the irreverent mood and fast and unexpected pace.


“Look up! Is that Dave Chappelle?”

Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling) are both hired, separately, to look for and protect a young woman. Healy is a hired goon who beats people up for a living and March is a mercenary private detective who drinks so much he has his thirteen-year-old daughter drive him around. They start out as adversaries, but end up teaming up to solve the complicated case.


“It says here, Colonel Mustard, in the drawing room, with a candlestick.”

Set in 1970s Los Angeles, The Nice Guys deals with the porn industry, car makers, the Department of Justice, and even President Nixon. It even has a big bee. Despite the kitchen sink approach to plot, the film moves along and holds your interest thanks to its three leads.


Two out of the three leads and a big bee.

I get a big kick out of this film. Healy and March are cool characters that don’t fit into the standard private detective mold. Healy knows he’s a thug-for-hire, but you can tell he has a cool backstory and Crowe gives him some charm and even a little depth. March and his daughter, Holly, played by the talented and appealing Angourie Rice, have a sweet relationship. In some ways, she’s more mature than her dad, but the film never goes full Paper Moon and Gosling has some nice moments. I wish we got to know them all better, but the film places its emphasis on its overly intricate plot. Don’t get me wrong. The Nice Guys is entertaining, but I would have preferred a little more character development.


“There’s no sequel?”

The dialogue and performances in The Nice Guys are what make it work. Keith David’s henchman has a natural world-weariness and Lois Smith is always a pleasure to see. Matt Bomer must have enjoyed making this film too. He has a fun part with a few terrific lines. Gosling makes a potentially goofy character seem human and real. Crowe is the one we really want to learn more about. He’s a tough guy who lives above a comedy club and has a word-a-day calendar. I’m curious about how he got there.


“Lugubrious.”

Ryan Gosling has some winner lines too. In describing how bad Lois Smith’s eyesight is, he says, “She has actual Coke bottles for glasses. You paint a mustache on a Volkswagen and she says, boy, that Omar Sharif sure runs fast.” Good stuff.


“It’s 9am somewhere.”

Shane Black directed The Nice Guys based on a script he wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi. The plot and characters have a Get Shorty meets The Long Goodbye vibe with a little Pulp Fiction philosophizing thrown in. That’s not a bad thing.


“Royale with cheese.”

The best thing aside from the performances of Gosling and Crowe is the teaming of Gosling and Crowe. Seriously, I could watch a lot more of this duo—and these two characters. The Nice Guys is a fun movie.


“Say what again!”

Thief (1981)   4 comments

thief

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

 Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, (1624) by John Donne

Frank (James Caan) works alone.  He and his partner, Barry (James Belushi) case the joints, research the electronics, have the proper equipment made, and pick up the ice themselves.  They’re professional, sharp, and technically adept.  They’re also thieves. After each robbery, Frank assesses the worth of the stolen diamonds and negotiates with a fence for a percentage of the street value.  It’s a tidy operation.  Frank funnels his end into a car dealership, a bar, and other businesses.  Frank and Barry keep a low-key profile. Neither is flamboyant, violent, or prone to criminal outbursts.  It’s the ideal set-up for a guy who likes control.

caan

All these successful, high-end heists attract the attention of Leo (Robert Prosky), a crime boss with connections.  At first, Frank declines Leo’s offer to work for him.  Frank likes running the show.  Leo’s offer to provide Frank with organized jobs, equipment, and backing proves too tempting though and Frank throws in with the syndicate.  The avuncular Leo charms Frank, who lives a solitary life, but longs for something more.  Frank’s desire to have a family and join the human race allow him to make moves that will connect him to people.  For a man who understands the power that caring about nothing provides, these actions are risky.  When Leo’s true nature comes to light, Frank has to decide how to extricate himself from his problems.

pro
“Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.”  Oops, wrong show.

The underdog concept has always made entertaining films, but in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the lone man fighting the system became a genre.  Somewhere along the line, the establishment changed from comforting father figure to micromanaging bureaucrat and often the little guy got stomped on.  LONELY ARE THE BRAVE shows Kirk Douglas tilting at windmills he doesn’t understand just because he won’t live the way everyone else does.  In BULLITT, Steve McQueen solves crimes his way, even if he has to butt heads with crafty superiors like Robert Vaughn.  In the most obvious comparison, CHARLEY VARRICK stars Walter Matthau as “the last of the independents”.  He’s a crop duster and amateur bank robber who has to improvise to escape the wrath of the mob.  Again, like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane, Jack Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy, and James Caan’s Frank, Varrick has the odds against him and only his wits on his side.  THE CONVERSATION, THE DRIVER, SERPICO, and the futuristic ROLLERBALL pit loners against criminals, police, entrenched corruption, and even John Houseman’s corporation simply because they want to live life on their own terms.  Sean Connery even does his best lone wolf as a sheriff on one of Jupiter’s moons in OUTLAND, the HIGH NOON of space movies.

out1
Sean on Jupiter

Despite the fact that THIEF leans on often-used themes, its take on the independent man breaks ground with the main character.  Frank isn’t a cuddly guy, but he’s sharp and driven and a straight-shooter.  As odd as it sounds, he’s honest.  As an honest thief, he expects others to be square with him.  When they’re not, Frank’s anger is palpable.  He doesn’t lose control. Instead, he’s strong and menacing at times.  In one of the best parts of the film, Frank is underpaid for a job and demands the rest of his cut. “My money in 24 hours or you will wear your ass for a hat.”  James Caan revels in this role.

jam
“Quit calling me Sonny.”

Michael Mann directed, wrote the screenplay, and executive produced THIEF, his first theatrically released film.  The slick, stylized look later became a Mann trademark in the MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY series and in films like MANHUNTER and HEAT.  More than a simple action film, THIEF touches on larger themes of the connectedness of society and to what lengths a man will go to remain free.  THIEF looks great too.  Much of the film takes place at night, but director of photography Donald Thorin makes it work and the action and nearly wordless heist scenes are choreographed meticulously often with the music of Tangerine Dream adding texture.

th

Not quite a nihilist, Frank believes in nothing but himself and his own abilities.  When he gets to that point, he knows no one can touch him.  He knows he’s free.

fire

This piece appeared originally in the Brattle Film Notes.  Here’s the link.  THIEF  The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts shows an odd assortment of classic, cult, independent, and foreign films in its cozy Harvard Square theatre.  If you’re ever in the Boston area, you owe it to yourself to drop in for a film.  It’s a lovely place.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)   Leave a comment

king of marvin gardens

David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) writes fiction loosely based on his life and reads it on his late night Philadelphia radio show. He lives with his elderly grandfather and goes through the motions of living. After an emergency call from his brother, Jason (Bruce Dern), David travels to Atlantic City and gets sucked into Jason’s world of lowlifes and get rich quick schemes.

The decaying boardwalk and scuzzy locales of Atlantic City in the 1970s serve as a perfect backdrop for the desperate wheeling and dealing Jason, his lady friend, Sally (Ellen Burstyn), and her daughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson) have to do to get by. Jason works for local mobster, Scatman Crothers, but dreams of an empire of his own on a Hawaiian island. His charisma and charm have gotten him this far, but his bravado and lack of business acumen threaten to derail Jason’s plans. He’s also playing fast and loose with the two ladies in his life which almost never ends well.

As he did in Five Easy Pieces, director Bob Rafelson paints a sad picture of frustration, loneliness, and promise unfulfilled. Nicholson underplays his role as the smarter, sensible brother and Burstyn shows great range as the aging beauty queen who knows she’s past it, but tries to muddle through anyway. It’s Dern who transfixes though and you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s all energy and spontaneity and you want to believe in his dreams, realistic or not. For a film without a lot of action or even crackling dialogue, The King of Marvin Gardens held my interest if only to see what these odd characters would do and how these terrific actors would show it.

kingmarvin

The Iceman (2012)   Leave a comment

iceman poster

I enjoyed this film. I’ve read reviews calling the direction, by Ariel Vroman, flat but it seemed to me that the director kept the mood as repressed and unemotional as its subject, Richard Kuklinski. The Iceman takes place over twenty years in the life of a notorious hit man/serial killer. I found it a fascinating look at a man who murdered people for a living, then took his daughters roller skating. Michael Shannon underplayed Kuklinski and Winona Ryder surprised me with her performance. Ray Liotta stands out as usual and I wish he had more screen time. David Schwimmer is passable as a lowlife hood and James Franco appears for some reason. Stephen Dorff and Chris Evans shine in their small character roles. I would like to have seen more of them.

iceman shannon

Get Carter (1971)   Leave a comment

Get Carter 1971 movie poster

Jack Carter (Michael Caine) hears of his brother’s death and heads up to Newcastle from London where he works as a mob hit man. As he speaks to his brother’s friends and coworkers, Carter suspects the car accident that killed his brother Frank was no accident at all. Inconsistencies in people’s stories along with their unwillingness to talk about Frank’s last day convince him to look deeper. As Carter digs we see how much the local gang wants him to stop looking and go home to London. We also see how ruthless he is. He doesn’t care who gets hurt in his quest for answers about a brother he hasn’t seen in years.

We also get some idea of why Carter left for London in the first place. He rose above this second-tier town. Seedy and low-rent, Newcastle’s bars, betting parlors, and rooming houses serve as the perfect backdrop for the story of a pretty serious bastard picking through the low-lifes to find the lowest one. You don’t love Carter, but he’s fun to watch. He maneuvers around the local thugs like a sort of hoodlum James Bond. Violent and single-minded, Carter has no qualms about using his friends to get the answers he wants. An interesting scene in a local bar gives some insight into Carter’s personality and the atmosphere in Newcastle. A pub singer kisses a male customer as part of her act and a jealous woman attacks her. The two women roll on the floor fighting as the patrons look on, cheering. It’s one of the few times in the film when Carter smiles.

The character of Carter and the story “Jack’s Return Home” by Ted Lewis appealed to Michael Caine and his business partner, Michael Klinger, so they bought the rights to it and chose Mike Hodges (Terminal Man, Croupier) to direct. Caine had been searching for a vehicle since he found his last few films disappointing. He had to be happy with this one. Get Carter showcases Caine’s assets spectacularly. He gets to be crafty, sardonic, and even cruel as he muscles his way toward the real story behind his brother’s death. This is Caine at his best. He outsmarts the goons hired to rough him up while throwing out great lines. After going to the wrong man’s house, he attempts to leave quietly. The man starts to fight with Caine/Carter who says, “You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape. With me it’s a full-time job. Behave yourself.” Carter slugs him and leaves. Even while chasing a man in order to kill him, Carter has some great lines. As the man falters trying to escape Carter says, “You couldn’t win an egg and spoon race, [name*].”

I loved Get Carter. It had a strong story and an incredible performance by Caine. The direction was no-nonsense and very Don Siegel-like which suited the material perfectly. I haven’t read the story so I don’t know how much material Mike Hodges added when he wrote the screenplay, but choice bits abound. During one scene, Carter has phone sex with his mistress Britt Ekland while staring at his landlady. The camera stays on Carter in the background on the phone and the landlady in the foreground in a rocking chair. As the conversation gets more heated, the rocking quickens. Later, Carter has sex with the landlady under a sampler that reads ‘What Would Jesus Say’. Priceless.   BAFTA nominated Ian Hendry for best supporting actor, but skipped Michael Caine entirely. Since he dominates the film, his omission stuns me. Caine acts in every scene and I couldn’t take my eyes off him for a second. The plot, atmosphere, supporting cast, and especially Michael Caine’s performance makes Get Carter one of the best crime-related films I’ve seen.
*including the name would be a spoiler

get carter still
“Alfie who?”

 

 

Charley Varrick (1973)   Leave a comment

Small-time cropduster, Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau), his wife, Nadine (Jacqueline Scott), and his partner, Harmon (Andy Robinson) figure they’ve been working for scraps long enough, so they decide to rob a small, local bank. Things don’t go as planned. When the robbery turns violent, Varrick has to devise a plan to extricate himself from a deadly situation.

Varrick and fellow thief Harmon (Andy Robinson) return to his trailer home after their getaway to discover the simple bank they’ve robbed is not so simple. What happens next pits Varrick’s smart amateur against a cadre of professionals led by baddies Joe Don Baker and John Vernon. Of course the police want Varrick too, but the law, led by sheriff, William Schallert and detective, Norman Fell don’t concern him. John Vernon’s oily organized crime honcho and Joe Don Baker’s nasty hit man do.

Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry) directs Charley Varrick without flourish. His spare style suits the material and we watch as Varrick maneuvers deftly and makes it up as he goes along. He’s not a martial arts expert or a master of disguise, but he makes some cunning moves. You can see the wheels turning in a couple of scenes when Varrick has to think on his feet. He’s the self-taught version of Robert Redford’s character in Three Days of the Condor. Both men are thrown into dangerous positions and both maneuver using brains instead of brawn. Stalwart character actors abound in Charley Varrick. Sheree North and Woody Parfrey round out the cast of usual suspects and the entire film has that cool and gritty 70s feel. Varrick’s motto, ‘the last of the independents’ rings true. Charley Varrick, Lonely Are the Brave, and Absence of Malice belong in the ‘little guy goes it alone’ film hall of fame. All feature men caught, for entirely different reasons, in tight spots and let us watch as they try to escape. The results differ, but you can’t help but root for them to come out on top. The quirky characters, complex plot, and solid acting in Charley Varrick make me wish they still made 70s films.

varrick

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