Archive for the ‘crime’ Tag

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.

harper sign
“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.

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“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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The Laughing Policeman (1973)   Leave a comment

laugh2

An unknown man wielding an automatic weapon massacres the passengers on a city bus. San Francisco detectives Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Val Avery must use their expertise and the crime scene evidence to find the killer. Complicating the investigation is the fact that one of the victims is Walter Matthau’s partner. The detectives, led by Matthau hit strip clubs, stoolies, and drug dealers in search of the elusive spree killer. Along the way they butt heads with their lieutenant, the always impressive Anthony Zerbe, and the criminal low-lifes they see every day. The film focuses on Matthau and his new partner, Dern, who has a talent for rubbing people the wrong way. From the beginning the two clash as Matthau refuses to communicate and Dern, new to the unit, wants to jump into the fray.

We see the differences in the styles of the two men as the story progresses. Matthau’s ranking officer leads and instructs naturally while Dern’s aggressive nature puts him at odds with the rest of the squad. They find common ground in their desire to close the case and even though they have different reasons for doing so, it works. Dern wants to solve the murders to prove himself to his new partner and squad and check another case off the list. Matthau has a gut feeling these murders relate to an old unsolved case and feels guilty because his obsession with it may have led his partner to risk his life to solve it. Never close to his partner, Matthau’s feelings made me think of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade toward Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon.
“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

Since they’re cops and this is the 70s, Matthau and Dern disobey orders and follow their own instincts. While the case serves as the central point of the film, it’s the people we want to watch. Chock full of talented character actors, The Laughing Policeman has that cool 70s vibe that says these actors look like they do because of DNA, not teeth whitening and plastic surgery. Along with those I’ve mentioned the cast includes Cathy Lee Crosby, Albert Paulsen, Joanna Cassidy, Clifton James, and Gregory Sierra. The seedy joints and their back room denizens give the film a realistic look and the acting let’s you relax and ease into the story.

Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, The Pope of Greenwich Village) directed The Laughing Policeman by standing back and letting his stellar cast go to work. As American as the story seems, it comes from the Swedish novel Den skrattande polisen by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. The Laughing Policeman made me smile. It starred Bruce Dern and Walter Matthau, had a compelling story, complex characters, and some great lines. At one point Bruce Dern comments on a suspect’s influence by saying “…probably got enough juice to get a sodomy beef reduced to following too close.”

How can you not like a movie like that?

laugh3

The Grifters (1990)   Leave a comment

grifters

Based on a pulp novel by Jim Thompson and adapted for the screen by Donald Westlake, The Grifters tells the story of three con artists, their ways of getting on in the world, and the often tragic ways their lives intersect. Lilly (Anjelica Huston) works for a mob guy back east decreasing the odds on long shots at the race track in La Jolla. Whenever she sees long odds on a horse, she puts money down on it thus decreasing the odds and therefore the pay out. Lilly decides to visit her son Roy (John Cusack) in Los Angeles just in time to save him from a life threatening injury and put her in danger of one from her boss, Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle in a scary and effective role). Lilly and Roy have an odd, hinted at relationship so when Lilly meets Roy’s love interest, Myra (Annette Bening) sparks, albeit understated ones, fly. Roy keeps his livelihood a secret from the two women, but the audience knows he’s on the grift as well. He makes his living nickel and diming bartenders while presenting himself as a good citizen. Mom knows he’s no salesman and Myra suspects, but neither can prove it until Roy and Myra, who’s no saint herself, take a trip to La Jolla and Myra sees Roy in action. She confronts Roy who admits he’s a con man and then asks him to go in with her on a big con. Myra recounts her experience with major league grifting and thinks Roy would make a great partner. Myra’s description of her former life stars the always fantastic J.T. Walsh and is easily the best part of the film. Roy won’t bite though claiming the fact that he’s small-time and has no partners has kept him alive and out of jail. Myra is convinced that Lilly’s dislike of her keeps Roy from the big con so she sets out to take Lilly out of the picture. What happens next pits the three opportunists against each other in a fight for survival.
Set in late 1980s California, The Grifters could easily take place in the 1940s or even in ancient Greece with its Oedipal twinges and tragic events. The characters are world weary and tough and exist in boarding houses, race tracks, and bars. Despite their living outside the law, they live within the law of their own society and know the penalties of transgressing there. A host of tremendous character actors including Eddie Jones, Charles Napier, and Henry Jones gives this film the atmosphere of a classic noir despite its setting. Directed by Stephen Frears and produced by Martin Scorsese, the film’s glossy look contrasts starkly with the dark lives the main characters live. The Grifters is a well done neo-noir which combines the intricacy of a good con artist film with the brutality of a more modern crime drama. The only fault I find with the film is that it didn’t delve deeply enough into the lives and crimes of its characters. Perhaps giving us only a glimpse into these lives was the point though because it made me wonder about what happened before and after this episode. I enjoyed The Grifters overall and I’m glad I finally got around to seeing it.

huston grifters

The Driver (1978)   Leave a comment

TheDriver_Yugoslavian_MPOTW

Ryan O’Neal drives a mean getaway car.

His talent for helping robbers and eluding the police creates a following on both sides of the law. Gangs want him to drive for them, while the LAPD, especially detective Bruce Dern, wants him to do time. In Walter Hill’s (The Long Riders, The Warriors) spare crime film, we see O’Neal, The Driver, as a professional who lives by a code of ethics. He chooses who to work with based on this code, then delivers. Dern, billed as The Detective, is his polar opposite. Arrogant and sleazy, Dern wil do anything to bust The Driver. To catch O’Neal, Dern proposes a deal with the leader of a second rate gang. In exchange for dropping the charges on a botched robbery, Dern wants the gang to rob a bank, hire O’Neal to drive, and then set him up to get busted. Unfortunately, the gang Dern chooses has a violent streak and as the bodies pile up we’re left wondering who the real bad guy is.

The Driver boasts some great car chases and Hill has fun panning from O’Neal’s deadpan expression back to his passengers’ panic stricken faces as he careens through the busy streets of Los Angeles. Stark and emotionless, The Driver shows an honorable man retaining that honor despite pressure to give in. It would be great paired with Michael Mann’s spare crime film, Thief. Both films pit loner crooks against the system and both feature good bad guys who break the law, but still have a moral compass.

The two female characters also fight temptation and threats to turn stoolie. Both Ronee Blakley, The Connection, who brokers The Driver’s gigs, and Isabelle Adjani, The Player, who refuses to identify The Driver in a line-up, are morally superior to Dern’s dishonest cop.

I like The Driver. It reminds me of good modern architecture. It has clean, simple lines but doesn’t look sterile.

driver

Rope (1948)   Leave a comment



Alfred Hitchcock exchanges his usual cinematic style for a more playlike one as he puts his own spin on the Leopold and Loeb thrill killings in Rope. John Dall and Farley Granger star as Brandon and Phillip, sons of privilege, who decide that killing a classmate they deem inferior and getting away with it is proof of their intellectual superiority.


“We’re better than you.”

The film opens with the camera moving from a placid street scene and into the students’ palatial flat, closing in on Brandon and Phillip strangling their victim with the eponymous weapon. The two have a drink and discuss their evening plans. As Robert Mitchum says in Out of the Past, the pair are “a little cold around the heart”.


“Oh, you wanted a Windsor knot?”

They don’t stop with their ghastly crime. To further reinforce the belief in their Nietzschean Übermensch status, they hold a cocktail party on the day of the murder and invite the victim’s parents. They even serve dinner on a chest containing the body. Sweet.


The corpse makes it tasty.

Based on the real life Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924 in which two wealthy University of Chicago students kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks just to prove they could, Rope begins during the murder and follows Brandon and Phillip as they prepare for the party, bicker, and attempt to hide their crime. Filmed on a single set using long uninterrupted shots of up to ten minutes at a time, Rope breaks a few established rules of cinema to great effect. As the evening progresses, the killers’ facades of control erode and the apartment seems to shrink. That sense of claustrophobia grows as Brandon and Phillip feel cornered by their former teacher and idol Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart). At first Rupert appears to be cut from the same cloth as the killers, but as Rupert observes the pair, the audience sees his suspicion and anxiety. It’s fun to watch Rupert inveigle his way into the guests thoughts and the hosts insecurities.


“The something of something.”

Since we know what happened to Leopold and Loeb, we can guess as to the fate of Brandon and Phillip, but it’s still a good time and the dialogue, written by Hume Cronyn and an uncredited Ben Hecht, is witty and dark.


“To murder!”

I love Rope and despite or perhaps because of the film’s divergence from the director’s usual path, it’s my favorite Hitchcock.


Hitchcock always won at Rock-Paper-Scissors.

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