Archive for the ‘neo-noir’ 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.

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

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