Archive for the ‘crime’ Tag

Blood Simple. (1984)   Leave a comment

abby

“This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.”
RED HARVEST by Dashiell Hammett

Commit a crime, and the earth is made of glass. Commit a crime, and it seems as if a coat of snow fell on the ground, such as reveals in the woods the track of every partridge and fox and squirrel and mole. You cannot recall the spoken word, you cannot wipe out the foot-track, you cannot draw up the ladder, so as to leave no inlet or clew. Some damning circumstance always transpires. The laws and substances of nature — water, snow, wind, gravitation — become penalties to the thief.
COMPENSATION by Ralph Waldo Emerson

What if there’s a crime and no one’s sure who committed the crime or what the crime is? What if you think you know who committed the crime, but you’re wrong? What if you can’t find your windbreaker anywhere? Also, what if you failed Conversation 101?

The owner of a dingy bar in Texas, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating.  He hires lowlife private detective, Loren Visser (the excellent M. Emmett Walsh) to tail her and confirm his suspicions.  Abby may or may not have cheated in the past, but on her way out of town she gets chummy with Ray (John Getz), a bartender in Marty’s saloon.  Marty can’t live with the knowledge of his wife’s infidelity so he decides to do something permanent about it and asks Visser to help. He may have hired the wrong guy.

Dark, moody, and atmospheric, BLOOD SIMPLE moves at a steady pace and always moves forward. The plot isn’t complicated. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen don’t go off on tangents which allows them to focus on the four main characters and what they think is going on. That’s the point, after all. The audience knows the entire story, but each character sees only his or her part in it. With limited information, they make poor decisions. They’re not crazy or irrational, but miscommunication or lack of any communication at all leads each of the main players to make bad decisions that compound each problem and dig them deeper into trouble. It’s like a high-stakes version of the telephone game, except in BLOOD SIMPLE, that innocent exercise of passing, “Dasher and Dancer are my favorite reindeer.” on as “Ashes cause cancer. Want a beer?” becomes dangerous confusion about a possible murder.

The characters, handicapped by limited access to the whole story, talk to one another, but their conversations muddy rather than clarify and people walk away from each exchange with less information than they started with. Only the audience is privy to the entire thing. This causes tension and a desire to yell at the screen. It also makes it hard to look away.

Shot in Austin, Texas with a small budget that Joel and Ethan Coen collected door-to-door, BLOOD SIMPLE looks and sounds more expensive than it should. Barry Sonnenfeld’s shadow-filled cinematography along with skillful editing by Roderick Jaynes and Don Wiegman lift the film’s quality above the usual mid-eighties thriller. Creative visual effects and a fantastic Carter Burwell score will stick with you, as will the trademark Coen gore. This was the Coen brothers’ first feature film and Burwell’s first film score, but you’d never know it. Their clear vision ties a simple plot, a small cast, and spare sets together to make an inventive neo-noir classic.

The cast, led by Frances McDormand, all excel at restraint. There’s so much left unsaid in every conversation, the script must have consisted largely of stage directions. That said, McDormand, Getz, Walsh, and Hedaya are all wonderful character actors who can say a lot without words.  McDormand’s character, Abby, even mentions the lack of chit chat. After she says to Ray that he’s quiet like Marty, she explains, “When he doesn’t say things, they’re usually nasty. When you don’t, they’re usually nice.” That’s sweet and all, but if Ray could just finish a sentence… The dialogue we get is choice. When Visser warns Marty to keep their association to himself, Marty says,” I wasn’t about to tell anyone. This is an illicit romance–we’ve got to trust each other to be discreet. For richer, for poorer.” Visser comes back with,” Don’t say that. Your marriages don’t work out so hot.” The whole film is an exercise in understatement and it’s a subtle, brutal treat.

This piece appeared originally in the Brattle Film Notes.

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)   2 comments

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Rose Sandigate (Googie Withers) lives a drab, joyless life. Married to dull, but decent George (Edward Chapman), Rose keeps house for her husband, his two nearly grown daughters from a previous marriage, and their small son. She’s worn out from rationing, slum-living, and her uneventful life in the East End of London.

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“There’s another dead bishop on the landing!”

One Sunday, while preparing Sunday dinner, Rose finds escaped-convict Tommy Swann (John McCallum) hiding in her family’s air-raid shelter. Tommy was serving a prison sentence for a violent robbery committed years before on the day he was to have married Rose. He begs Rose to hide him until nightfall when he’ll make his escape. She tries to resist, but still loves him so she promises to keep him safely locked away in her bedroom for the day. As her husband and children go about their Sunday routines, Rose becomes more tense. She knows she should turn him in, but she loved him once. As the day progresses, Tommy tries to seduce Rose and his attention brings back thoughts she hadn’t entertained in years. Rose is torn. Should she give Tommy over to the police or chuck it all and go on the run with him?

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“Surprise!”

To complicate matters further, Rose’s stepdaughters, Vi (Susan Shaw) and Doris (Patricia Plunkett) are old enough to feel claustrophobic in her home and Vi, the elder of the two, can barely contain her resentment. As it gets closer to nightfall, Rose can’t take the pressure and starts picking fights with everyone in the family. The bickering reaches a fever pitch on a usually calm Sunday afternoon.

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“A noise? Nah. Must be your imagination.”

All the time Rose agonizes about having a convict under her bed, the law, led by Detective Sergeant Fothergill (Jack Warner) combs the streets for Tommy. Fothergill knows Tommy’s old criminal associates might have a line on where he’s holed up so he presses them for information. This adds to the overall feeling of pressure in the film. During Fothergill’s investigation we get to see the melting pot neighborhood where all this drama takes place. As the camera pans through the busy market, we hear a smattering of Yiddish among the English-speakers. It’s a working-class mix of different cultures with a lot of personality.

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Must be a special on eel pie.

It Always Rains on Sunday, listed as a crime drama or film noir, also resembles some French films of the 1930s. Films like Pépé le Moko, directed by Julien Duvivier and Le Règle du Jeu (Rules of the Game), directed by Jean Renoir, show people on the fringes of society living in despair. These films in the subset of poetic realism often have a cynical point of view and at least one character resigned to his own sad fate. The characters hope for love or fortune or something grand, but are often beaten down by a series of misfortunes or a set of rules they didn’t make. Though not technically of that French genre, this film shares composer Georges Auric with many of the films of poetic realism. The style of It Always Rains on Sunday influenced many of the British kitchen-sink dramas of the 1950s and 60s like Look Back in Anger (1956) and A Taste of Honey (1961). These films departed from the usual upper-crust British films by showing working class people stuck in dead-end jobs and living in squalor and dealt more frankly with sex, race, and poverty than films had up to that point.

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Poor is Hell.

Michael Balcon produced It Always Rains on Sunday and many other films for Ealing Studios. He also produced for Gainsborough Pictures, Gaumont British, and MGM British Studios and had a huge influence on British cinema. Director, Robert Hamer helmed this and Kind Hearts and Coronets for the studio. Ealing specialized in comedies and some of the locations look like those in the comedies The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe filmed It Always Rains on Sunday along with The Great Gatsby (1974), Rollerball (1975), and about eighty other films while collecting a basket full of Academy Award and BAFTA nominations and wins.

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Such a pretty shot.

Fleshing out the story are some terrific British character actors. Hermione Baddeley, Alfie Bass, Sydney Tafler, and Nigel Stock all play the kind of small parts that make any film more realistic.

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“It was a wombat, I tell ya!”

Watch It Always Rains on Sunday for the slice-of-life drama, the dingy, authentic atmosphere, and for the marvelous performance by Googie Withers. In the time it takes to make a Sunday roast, Withers unravels internally without going all Mystic River Sean Penn on us. She shows us just enough. It’s a restrained and artful take on what could easily have been melodrama. Withers also has great chemistry with John McCallum, who she later married so you know the steam is real. If you’re in the mood for a little gem of a film that’s a little bit noir and a little bit day-in-the-life, check out It Always Rains on Sunday.

Notes: Googie Withers and John McCallum were married for 62 years!

Googie means Little Pigeon and was a nickname her nanny gave the actress as a child.

Multiple Maniacs (1970)   6 comments

credits

Question: How do you know you’re watching a John Waters film?
Answer: When the film opens with a carnival barker luring unsuspecting victims into a tent full of fetishists so he can rob them, you’re in a John Waters film.

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Mr. David hawks the Cavalcade of Perversions.

Yup. Lady Divine (Divine) and her cohorts put cigarettes out on each other, sniff a topless woman’s armpits and eat vomit. Then, when the square suburbanites can take no more, Divine brandishes a revolver, robs the crowd, and shoots any dissenters, cackling all the while.

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“Say what again.”

After the robbery, the gang flees and we discover that Mr. David (David Lochary), the barker and lover of Lady Divine, has fallen for another woman. David keeps the affair a secret because Lady Divine threatens to tell the police he was in on the Tate murders. It IS 1970. Lady Divine, gets word of David’s betrayal and vows to kill him.

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Edith Massey drops a dime on Mr. David.

On her way to commit murder, two lowlifes accost her and drag her into an alley. Dazed from the attack, Lady Divine runs into a toddler dressed as the Pope who leads her to a church. Lady Divine prays for guidance. As she kneels in prayer, she meets Mink Stole who clearly has eyes for her. It’s a John Waters film so the two women have sex in a pew using a rosary. Now Lady Divine has an accomplice. The two lovers head to Lady Divine’s apartment to snuff Mr. David.

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Lady Divine walks with a tiny Pope.

Mr. David and his oversexed lover await the pair in Lady Divine’s apartment where they’ve accidentally killed Divine’s ever-topless daughter. Now there’s no turning back. There’s a nutty bloodbath with one survivor. As Lady Divine lies on the sofa surrounded by the bodies of her enemies and crowing about crimes to come, a huge lobster crawls into her living room and rapes her. I never thought I’d write that sentence. Anyway, stuff, like a crucifixion, happens after that, but who cares? A giant lobster rapes Divine. Needless to say, the scene catches you off guard.

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“Quick! Get the drawn butter!”

John Waters wrote, directed, produced, and shot Multiple Maniacs in his native Baltimore. During his introduction to the film at the Provincetown International Film Festival in June of 2016, he said he filmed the Cavalcade of Perversion on his parents’ front lawn. Waters cast friends Edith Massey, Mink Stole, Pat Moran, David Lochary, and Divine in lead roles. Friendship trumped acting ability, but that’s not important. This is not so much a film as a happening. It is also, as film critic J. Hoberman notes, John Waters most overtly Catholic film. Janus/Criterion just restored the film and it looks great. It’s also weirdly entertaining. Everyone is crazily over the top and the whole film is a riot. I watched Multiple Maniacs for the first time in a full theatre with John Waters in attendance and the place went nuts.  It’s vile, disgusting, and fun to watch.

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Rating: 4 Lobsters

His Kind of Woman (1951)   2 comments

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Until you watch His Kind of Woman, you might not realize Vincent Price is the star. You might believe the credits and think you’re watching a Robert Mitchum/Jane Russell vehicle full of mobsters who crack wise and a beauty who sings a little.

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“Is that a gun in your pocket?”

After all, up to this point, Vincent Price spent a lot of time in costume dramas or as the guy who didn’t get the girl. Gene Tierney threw him over for Dana Andrews in Laura even after she was dead and she dumped him again the next year for Cornel Wilde in Leave Her to Heaven. I’m not sure Hollywood knew what to do with the erudite actor. Handsome, articulate, and athletic, Vincent looked the part of the leading man, but had more to give. You might say he was too smart for his own good.

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“Snatch this revolver from my hand, Grasshopper.”

Male ingenue parts don’t show off your sense of humor much so studios plugged him into the role of the witty, yet evil count. A few films, like Shock (1946) allowed him to show more range, but it wasn’t until Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe phase in the 1960s that Vincent was really allowed to shine. The exception to that is His Kind of Woman. Vincent Price sinks his teeth into the Mark Cardigan role.

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“This is going to be fun.”

Don’t get me wrong. Mitchum and Russell steam up your glasses in this film, but what brings me back to John Farrow’s 1951 crime thriller again and again is the wonderfully over-the-top performance by Vincent Price as Mark Cardigan, the biggest movie star who ever swashed a buckle.

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“Did you close the garage?”

Cardigan travels from Hollywood to gorgeous, mid-century Morro’s Lodge in Baja California, Mexico to hunt and fish and woo his mistress, Lenore Brent (Jane Russell). His sporting ways do little to impress Lenore; she starts warming up to Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum). He’s in sunny Mexico for a mysterious, dangerous reason, which becomes clearer and uglier as the story progresses and we get to know the dastardly Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr). Nick’s a mobster, deported by the U.S. government, who wants to get back into the states. How does a famous and recognizable hoodlum get past customs, and where does the Nazi doctor fit in? Nick plans to use Dan—and I don’t mean he wants to borrow Dan’s passport. Dan, a teetotaler, still manages to intoxicate Lenore and the two begin a sexy little romance. I’ll admit; it’s fun to watch. Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell have terrific chemistry. That said, I still can’t watch this film without wishing it had more Vincent.

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“My Godzilla was the the best! Say it!”

As Mark Cardigan, Vincent, full of boyish charm, tries to get his friend excited about hunting with him, but encounters only sarcasm. He has all this fancy hunting and fishing gear, but no one wants to play. He’s sure Dan will be a sport, but he has mind on other things.

Mark Cardigan: “What about tomorrow morning?
Dan Milner: “All right, what about it?”
Mark Cardigan: “The hunting. I’ve got all the equipment you need. How about me rootin’ you out about five.”
Dan Milner: “Five?”
Lenore Brent: “He shoots them as they crawl out of bed.”

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“Wanna kill some stuff?”

Despite their best efforts, neither Lenore nor Dan can dampen Mark’s enthusiasm and off he goes to his favorite blind quoting Shakespeare. It’s that bigger-than-life, booming attitude that makes me smile every time I watch His Kind of Woman. A combination of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, and Ronald Coleman, Mark Cardigan has all the conceit of a matinee idol with some intelligence and a little humility to balance it out. Mark mentions the danger ahead of them and Dan promises that if his friend dies in battle, he’ll be sure to give him a big sendoff.

Dan: “Well, if you do get killed, I’ll make sure you get a first-rate funeral in Hollywood at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.”
Mark: “I’ve already had it. My last picture died there.”

The interplay between Mark and the other characters continues throughout the film. Actually, he doesn’t need anyone to play off. He spends a good portion of the film soliloquizing. What separates this film from others depicting actors forced to face reality is how Mark handles it. He accepts the challenge and the risk gleefully as if he thinks he’s still on stage 6. On his way to fight the gangsters, Mark arms himself and then stops to don a black cape. Fabulous! History abounds with films about self-absorbed actors blurring the line between fantasy and reality, but this is more fun than profound. Part of the reason may be that when Mark looks deeply into his soul, he likes what he sees there. His long-winded speeches about battles and heroes aren’t just for show. Deep down he wants to believe every word and surprises even himself when the bullets start flying. It’s thrilling and joyous and fun.

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“It’s 14 against 2.”
“We’ll take ’em.”
“How do you know?
“Bad guys can’t shoot.”
“Oh right.”

His Kind of Woman has a romance with great chemistry, a twisted bad guy with a taste for torture, a Nazi, and a brilliant, but bored actor dying to prove himself to himself.

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Nazi

I can’t picture another actor who could do the part justice as well as Vincent Price. He has the energy, athleticism, timing, and eloquence to pull it off. Who else could wax poetic while trussing a duck?

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OK. Maybe this guy.

Without delving too deeply into plot summation, I’ll say His Kind of Woman packs a lot into two hours. There’s a love story, a mobster attempting to foil immigration, a Casablanca-like sub-plot with Jim Backus sitting in for Claude Rains, and a Nazi. As Joe Bob Briggs says, “…too much plot getting in the way of the story.” Fortunately, the writers, Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard, along with the talented cast can handle it. This film’s success lies in the philosophy expressed by Jim Backus’ stockbroker when discussing movies in general. “People don’t go to movies to see how miserable the world is. They go there to eat popcorn and be happy.” Preston Sturges couldn’t have said it better.

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That jacket.

This article appeared originally, in a different form, in the Brattle Film Notes.

Maniac (1963)   Leave a comment

maniac poster

American artist Jeff Farrell (Kerwin Matthews) stumbles into an isolated village in the Camargue region of southern France and meets Annette Beynat (Liliane Brousse).  There’s obvious chemistry between them, but Annette gets blocked by her stepmother, the sexy Eve Beynat (Nadia Gray).  Eve’s still married to Annette’s dad, but he’s out of town so Eve makes a play for Jeff.  She’s very subtle.  After Eve and Jeff go horseback riding, she takes off her blouse and asks him to towel her off.

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“Jeff? Are we still on for tonigh…oh.”

It works.  Soon, they’re making the beast with two backs all over the place and Annette’s left out in the cold.  There’s just one little problem.  Eve still has that pesky husband.  I said he was out of town, right?  Well, he is.  He’s in an asylum for the criminally insane for using an acetylene torch to kill the guy who raped Annette years earlier.

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“Just a little off the eyes.”

And you thought ONE LIFE TO LIVE was complicated.  Eve says her husband has all his marbles.  He just went a bit overboard (a bit) and if Jeff helps him escape from the sanitarium, he’ll leave the country and start a new life leaving Eve and Jeff to do the horizontal mambo as much as they want.  Sounds logical, right?  Jeff, blinded by lust, says he’d love to help a torch-wielding maniac (TITLE-DRINK!) out of the booby hatch and can we do that toweling-off thing again, honey?  Anyway, cool asylum-escaping ensues, but things go a little twisty.  Will Jeff do crimey stuff?  Will Eve’s husband find his matches?  Will Annette get a little action?  Will Eve take Jeff horseback riding again?  Please?

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“An adjustment et voilà! Ready for your close-up!”

Writer Jimmy Sangster loved LES DIABOLIQUES.  He set MANIAC and SCREAM OF FEAR in France and added a bunch of plot twists in both.  He also cast women in lead roles and made them strong and smart.  Eve’s a real multi-tasker too.  She runs a tavern while hatching an escape plot and seducing a young stranger.  Way to go, Eve!  Sangster writes realistic dialogue and the plot hums along nicely.  Director Michael Carreras and cinematographer Wilkie Cooper keep the mood tense and the atmosphere noirish.  There are some terrific night shots around the inn and later, they film a nifty climax in a cavernous quarry.

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“This is the biggest version of Don’t Break the Ice I’ve ever seen.”

This film is a hoot.  Despite the over-the-top elements of the story, it’s all very natural.  It’s naturally gruesome, but MANIAC was made by Hammer so they have to have a soupcon of gore.  It’s in the contract.   I had fun watching this one.  The cast, screenplay, location, and complexity combine to make it a fun watch and Sinbad, uh, Kerwin is a cutie.

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“Anybody else see a Cyclops?”

 

Cash on Demand (1961)   Leave a comment

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Harry Fordyce (Peter Cushing!) manages a London bank. His micro-managing and general fastidiousness put him at odds with his staff who he belittles every chance he gets.

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“Smudges!”

When Colonel Gore Hepburn (Andre Morrell) from the bank’s insurance company arrives to inspect its security protocols, Fordyce sets out to impress him with his efficiency.  The thing is, the colonel is not from the insurance company and he has a cunning plan.

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Yes, THAT cunning!

Without giving the game away, I can say that CASH ON DEMAND’s director, Quentin Lawrence, knows how to build tension.  What starts out as a slice-of-life drama about a tight-lipped bank manager abusing his staff switches quickly to a race against time to save a family.  In the morning, Fordyce runs roughshod over his subordinates.  In the afternoon, he scurries to save his family, his job, and his freedom.  Writers David T. Chantler and Lewis Greifer adapted Jacques Gillies’ play for the big screen.  That this film started as a play makes sense.  It takes place in three sets, but could easily be done in two or even one.  The excitement comes, not from action, but from acting and a terrific script.

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“Where’s my stake?”

Cushing is brilliant as the mercurial Fordyce who finally feels what it’s like to be under the thumb of a person who has the power of life and death over him.  His transition from haughty to harried develops by degrees and we see his metamorphosis in the few hours the film documents.  Morrell’s Gore Hepburn is fabulous.  He’s sublimely at home ordering Fordyce around and making points with the staff while his devious plan moves along swimmingly.  What a wonderful pair to watch.  Richard Vernon made an impression too.  He plays Pearson, Fordyce’s number two who, because of a small error which was fixed quickly, might lose this position and any hope of finding another.  The entire cast does a wonderful job.

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“Did you steal that thumbtack?”

CASH ON DEMAND is another great Hammer non-horror.  I know Hammer is better known for vampires and busty maidens, but as I watch these smaller, less lavish thrillers, I wonder why they didn’t make more.  They’re wonderful.  I’m going to be sorry when I’ve seen them all.

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Helter Skelter (1976)   Leave a comment

aahelpos

On July 20, 1969, engineers at NASA realized a decades-old dream and landed the first manned mission to the lunar surface. As 500 million people watched, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Less than three weeks later, on August 9, another group realized their dream when they broke into the home rented by Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, and massacred five people.

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Outside the scene of the Tate murders, 10500 Cielo Drive, Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles.

The reasons for those murders and two more on August 11 were not typical ones. Sharon Tate and Voityck Frykowski didn’t welch on a bet.  Abigail Folger and Jay Sebring didn’t steal from the wrong people. Steven Parent wasn’t running around with the wife of a jealous man. Rosemary and Leno LaBianca didn’t get caught in a drug deal gone bad. Their killers didn’t get caught mid-burglary and decide to off the witnesses. No, what keeps us talking about the murders in Los Angeles that August is the bizarre motive and the even more bizarre people who thought it up.

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Spelling counts.

Vincent Bugliosi, the District Attorney of Los Angeles County at the time, prosecuted members of the Manson family for the seven murders and wrote, along with Curt Gentry, the brilliant true crime book, Helter Skelter about his experienceThe made-for-television movie of the same name doesn’t stray far from the book and that’s a good thing.  The book is a marvel of true crime/legal reporting. The film leaves out some details. It would have to or it would be ten hours long. In his book, Bugliosi spends a lot of time discussing his methods and the legal particulars of the case.

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George DiCenzo and Vincent Bugliosi

Director Tom Gries (Will Penny) keeps the story moving forward and makes you want to learn more.  George DiCenzo has the authority to play Bugliosi and I when I think of Charles Manson, I picture Steve Railsback. He IS Manson. It’s–if you’ll pardon the expression–witchy.

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“I said no olives!”

I remember seeing this on TV when it first aired. This was the time when everyone watched whatever big TV movie was on that week. Everybody talked about it. I know I couldn’t look away. Hearing Charles Manson’s theory for the first time was chilling. It was almost as frightening to realize that this scary little man could convince a group of lost people to kill total strangers for no reason. Highly recommended.

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One man’s family.

haunty

Harper (1966)   Leave a comment

harper

If gruff, anti-social private eye Philip Marlowe had come of age a few decades later, he’d have been Lew Harper. Sarcastic, flippant, and completely unconcerned with others’ opinions of him, Harper might have responded as Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe did when Lauren Bacall complained about his manners in the 1946 film THE BIG SLEEP. “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. I grieve over them on long winter evenings.” Paul Newman’s Harper could get away with that.

bacall greenhouse

THE BIG SLEEP comparisons don’t end with the protagonists. In HARPER, the private detective meets his invalid client, Mrs. Sampson under the hot lights of Sampson’s tanning room. In THE BIG SLEEP, Marlowe (Bogart) meets his wheelchair-bound client, General Sternwood, in a stiflingly hot greenhouse. Both films feature wealthy, rudderless people getting conned out of their money by pros. Both films feature glittering facades and gritty interiors. Both films show people succumbing to their baser instincts. This often ends poorly. In THE BIG SLEEP, gamblers and pornographers pull the strings. In HARPER, smugglers and religious charlatans have their hands out. Both Philip Marlowe and Lew Harper meander through labyrinthine plots to find people who may or may not want to be found. Both men use logic and horse sense to cut through the tangled web the bad guys keep weaving. Both men get roughed up a bit and both men do a little conning themselves. The most entertaining scenes in both films involve the detectives’ assuming different identities to get information. Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP pretends he’s a snotty book collector and Newman in HARPER feigns a Texas accent and an attraction to the vulgar, alcoholic Shelley Winters. Both actors manage to lighten up scripts filled with death and debauchery by using their natural charms.

paulshelley bogart

THE BIG SLEEP was based on the great Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel and adapted for the screen by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. The screenwriters managed to capture the dry wit and world weary attitude Chandler gave Marlowe in his novel. Marlowe’s a smartass with a brain. He’ll bend the rules, but he won’t break them. He’s true to his word and loyal to his friends. He knows the ropes. The good guys trust him and the bad guys can’t figure him out. Paul Newman’s Harper has the same sarcastic quality with a difference. The 1950s saw the beginning of the rebel as hero character and Newman plays the role as that kind of loner. In the 1970s, Bob Rafelson and Arthur Penn would use Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman as their loner/rebels.

Cameron Crowe and Peter Bart will host a free-wheeling discussion with panelists including Jon Voight, Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Diablo Cody, Haskell Wexler and Jeff Berg as part of special Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences salute to Oscar¨-winning film editor and director Hal Ashby on Thursday, June 25, at 7:30 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. The conversation will be followed by a screening of AshbyÕs 1971 bittersweet romance ÒHarold and Maude.Ó The salute also will kick off a weekend retrospective screening series at the Linwood Dunn Theater, featuring five new prints of AshbyÕs films from the Academy Film Archive. Pictured:  Jack Nicholson as he appears in THE LAST DETAIL, 1973.

Jack is not appearing in this film.

HARPER, based on Ross Macdonald’s novel THE MOVING TARGET was adapted for the screen by prolific writer William Goldman. In the transition from book to film, Lew Archer became Lew Harper. One reason for the switch is the change in leading man. Originally set to star Frank Sinatra in the title role, HARPER reportedly got a new name because of new star Paul Newman’s success with H films. THE HUSTLER (1961) and HUD (1963) helped establish Newman as a star who could act and HARPER and 1967’s HOMBRE reinforced the idea. Newman requested the change and the producers obliged.

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“Today’s film is brought to you by the letter H.”

THE BIG SLEEP and HARPER have casts filled with veteran character actors who can handle the witty scripts and fast pace provided by both Howard Hawks (HIS GIRL FRIDAY, RIO BRAVO) and Jack Smight (AIRPORT, DAMNATION ALLEY) respectively. Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Bob Steele, Regis Toomey, and Elisha Cook, Jr. add depth to THE BIG SLEEP. Julie Harris, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh, Strother Martin, Robert Wagner, and Shelley Winters contribute their considerable strength to each scene in HARPER. There are even connections between the characters in each film. Martha Vickers’ boozy flirt becomes Pamela Tiffin’s spoiled tease. John Ridgely’s gambling boss becomes Robert Webber’s smuggling impresario. One can even make the comparison between Elisha Cook, Jr.’s stand-up guy and Robert Wagner’s handsome fly boy.

wagner elisha

One of the things I like best about HARPER is its timelessness. With a slight change in music and wardrobe, HARPER could ride a TARDIS to the 1970s or even back to the 1940s. Written in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, HARPER puts a modern spin on the notions of tough dames, wise-cracking shamuses, and slimy con-men. With his role in HARPER, Paul Newman joins the ranks of Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, and Humphrey Bogart, all of whom played Philip Marlowe, by the way. The 1970s would see a resurgence of jaded private eyes with Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) and Dick Richards’ FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975) and give Elliott Gould and Robert Mitchum each a turn as the iconic Marlowe.

gould mitchum
“We’re next!”

HARPER did well at the box office, cementing Paul Newman’s star status and allowing him to take his pick of the best films offered him. The next year Newman would eat fifty eggs. In 1969, he’d pair up with Robert Redford in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, launching them both into superstardom. The success of HARPER also paved the way for a second Lew Harper outing in 1975 with Stuart Rosenberg’s THE DROWNING POOL, also starring Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward. HARPER is an entertaining and well-made film that succeeds in bringing fedoras (well, mental ones) and double scotches to sunny California. Through HARPER and its subsequent incarnations, the legacy of THE BIG SLEEP lives on.

harper jap

A slightly different version of this piece appears in the Brattle Film Notes blog.  The Brattle Theatre is a wonderful independent theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Here’s a link to the piece.  Brattle Film Notes

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)   5 comments

title

A lone, black candle burns against a black background as we join a séance in progress. The camera pans over the anxious faces of the circle of believers. A soft, reassuring voice breaks the silence. The medium, Myra Savage (Kim Stanley) soothes the unruly spirits.

candle
“I hear dead people.”

After the séance, the faithful step outside, blinking at the daylight and we meet the players. Myra and her husband, Billy switch on the lights to reveal a room full of overstuffed chairs and bric-a-brac. Shabby and overdone, it looks as if it’s been stuck in time for fifty years. As dominant, unbalanced Myra goes on and on about her ‘gift’ we see the weak-willed Billy. He listens to her quiet ramblings with the resignation of a beaten man. As the two discuss their history, Myra belittles Billy, not coarsely, but softly and gently with a sweet lilt in her pretty voice. Amid the ‘yes dears’ and ‘you’re probably rights’, we see that Billy kow-tows to Myra, but she’s dependent on him as well. Constantly seeking reassurance, Myra makes Billy tell her over and over that he needs her and loves her.

yesdear
“Tell me you love me, Billy!”
“Of course, dear.”

These two quiet, middle-aged people have a plan. You see, for years Myra has held her weekly spiritual meetings for pitiful pay and even less recognition. She craves attention and the means to pull herself out of her drab environment. They plan to commit a crime. Myra will use her psychic powers to solve it thus cementing her reputation as a medium and gaining them some spending money. It’s clear that Myra’s plan doesn’t sit well with Billy and he tries weakly to talk her out of it. Myra can’t be moved and the story begins.

chloroform
“Does this rag smell like chloroform?”

Their detailed scheme is set in motion as Billy goes out and Myra dispenses instructions from home. Even after the first part of the crime goes off without a hitch, Billy has reservations and the strain of it shows on his face. As the pair dive deeper into their twisted conspiracy, it’s clear that the plot, their marriage, and her sanity rests on a house of cards doomed to collapse.

kim
“Do you smell toast?”

Bryan Forbes (The Stepford Wives) directs Séance on a Wet Afternoon subtly with a slow, but deliberate pace that gives Stanley and Attenborough room to show off their prodigious talents. The dialogue sounds natural and the two experienced character actors paint us a picture of an immature, possibly mad woman and the compliant, dependent man who indulges her. The duo work in shades of gray allowing Myra and Billy to experience a range of emotions and pull us into their strangely touching relationship. Stanley and Attenborough are all restraint and give beautifully nuanced performances. Both were nominated by the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts).  Attenborough won. The Academy nominated Stanley and she won both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics’ Circle best actress awards. Forbes was also nominated for a BAFTA award for his screenplay based on Mark McShane’s novel.

paper
“Did they spell our names right?”

Gerry Turpin’s cinematography was also BAFTA nominated and deservedly so. The gorgeously shot black and white film has a look that screams 1960s Britain. Turpin contrasts the bleak English countryside and the dull interior of the couples’ home with the clean, modern home of the rich victims of their heinous crime. Forbes and Turpin chose beautiful tableaux to film and spend time there. There are no jump cuts. The suspense comes from the framing of the story and the understated performances of the two leads and the veteran actors like Patrick Magee, Mark Eden, Nanette Newman, and Gerald Sim working with them.

houseseance
This house, you have to watch it every minute. Wait, wrong movie.

The music and sound effects heighten the suspense as well. Much of the film has no music which accentuates the suffocating stillness of the Savage home. The sounds of nature coupled with John Barry’s (Yes, THAT John Barry!) spare score add to the quirky eeriness of this dark tale.

I recommend Séance on a Wet Afternoon. It’s a chilling character study that makes me want to see every British film of this era.

seance
“Yes, I know I Want to Hold Your Hand is number one. Yes, I know it’s a séance. You say that every time. Stop giggling.”

 

Victim (1961)   5 comments

opening

Boy Barrett (Peter McEnery) sees a police car pulling up to his job as a clerk on a construction site and runs. Desperate, he goes from friend to friend trying to borrow money or a car to leave London. Boy embezzled money and the police are on his trail. His friends console him and try to help, but Boy gets picked up at a roadside diner and police bring him to headquarters. There, sympathetic Detective Inspector Harris (John Barrie) and his assistant Bridie (John Cairney) attempt to convince Boy to talk to them. During their investigation into the missing funds, the detectives discover that despite his windfall, Boy lives simply and has no cash at his tiny flat. To the police, that means one thing: blackmail. That blackmail and those affected by it on both sides of the law are the focus of director Basil Dearden’s taut drama.

grilling

Early in the film we learn the reason behind the blackmail is Boy’s homosexuality and his desire to shield another from both blackmailers and police who could still arrest gays until 1967. When Harris finds clippings about a prominent barrister in a scrapbook Boy attempted to destroy, he summons subject Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) to the station to learn if Farr knew of the plot. When he hears of the police’s theory and the consequences, Farr decides to root out the cowardly criminals even if it means the ruin of his own highly successful marriage and career. We see Farr as a man of great integrity who lives by his principles. He has a lovely wife, Laura, played with restraint by Sylvia Syms (The World of Suzie Wong), a wide circle of friends, and a tremendous future in the law. His investigation threatens all that and yet he continues, trying to help others ensnared by the thieves without implicating them. As Farr learns more about the crimes, he sees many of the men victimized by the blackmailers and their reasons for paying off without seeking help from police. An older shop owner tells Farr he’s already been in jail three times and couldn’t bear it a fourth. A colleague of Farr’s must keep his activities under wraps or lose his career. A well-known stage actor, placed by Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets) just wants the whole thing to go away.
The film shows us the attitudes of those on the periphery as well. During Boy’s early attempt to flee, he meets friends who obviously care for him and one who find his sexual orientation loathsome. One of his true friends jokes “Well, it used to be witches. At least they don’t burn you.” One friend promises to send him money and another begs him to go to the police and offers to accompany him. In the pub where many of Boy’s friends congregate, we see knowing glances and rolled eyes along with sympathy and indifference. The two policemen on the case feel differently too. In response to Bridie’s negative comment about homosexuals Harris says “I see you’re a true puritan, Bridie, eh?”
Bridie: “There’s nothing wrong with that, sir.”
Harris: “Of course not. There was a time when that was against the law you know.” Farr’s family and close associates differ in their attitudes as well. His wife knows her husband’s history but trusts him. Laura’s heartbreak is based more on a feeling of betrayal and less about who Farr may have betrayed her with. Her brother, who shows disgust about Farr’s homosexuality makes a salient point. If Farr stays outside the law in his investigation of the blackmailers, he becomes as dishonest as those who would hurt him. These moral ambiguities make Victim a deeper, more satisfying watch.

wife

Written by Janet Green and John McCormick to call attention to a law the authors hated, Victim’s strength is that it shows homosexuals as people, and not stereotypes. The victims of the nasty blackmailers have families, friends, jobs, and feelings. They’re not portrayed as predators or corruptors of the young, but men who love other men, a fact which leaves them at the mercy of unscrupulous criminals. Characters in the film mention the law against homosexuality quite a bit. One of the victims says “Consenting males in private should not be pillaried by an antiquated law.” Later Detective Inspector Harris tells Farr “Someone once called this law against homosexuality the blackmailer’s charter.”
Farr: “Is that how you feel about it?”
Harris: “I’m a policeman, sir. I don’t have feelings.”

thought

Basil Dearden and director of photography Otto Heller shot Victim in glorious black and white and the Criterion version looks crisp and gorgeous. Phillip Green’s spare music with piano punctuation blends seamlessly with the action on screen. The acting by the entire ensemble of veteran stars and character actors including Norman Bird, Derren Nesbitt, and even an uncredited Frank Thornton (Are You Being Served) looks natural and never over the top. Dirk Bogarde plays Farr brilliantly. He is stoic, but not unfeeling. The calm, subtle way he speaks with his wife, the police, and his fellow victims belies knowledge of the tragic turn he expects his life to take. Bogarde as Farr shows great strength of character and his resignation makes you believe him. As Farr says to Laura when they discuss his uncertain future, “My friends are going to lower their eyes and my enemies will say they always guessed.” I love this film. A decent man risks everything to fight something he knows is wrong. It doesn’t get much better.

I wrote this review as part of the British Invaders Blogathon hosted by Terence Towles Canote on his site A Shroud of Thoughts http://mercurie.blogspot.com/
I write a blog called Prowler Needs a Jump: Films of Every Stripe prowlerneedsajump.wordpress.com
You can talk to me on twitter too @echidnabot

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