Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Las Vegas Story (1952)

The Las Vegas Story is a 1952 RKO crime picture with some film noir flavouring.

I don’t know about you but personally I find the idea of Victor Mature, Jane Russell and Vincent Price together in anything noirish very attractive.

I love movies about Las Vegas, probably because I’ve never been there. For me Vegas is a city of the imagination. I’m sure it never was quite the way it’s depicted in movies but I don’t care. For me the Vegas of the movies and of my imagination is the real Vegas. Who needs reality?

Lloyd Rollins (Vincent Price) and his wife Linda (Jane Russell) have just arrived in Vegas. Lloyd is looking forward to some serious gambling. He’s a bit of a high roller. He can afford it. He’s extremely rich. Linda has a really nice necklace, a gift from her husband. It’s worth 150 grand. He’s extremely rich indeed.

Except that very early on Linda reads a wire addressed to her husband which suggests that maybe his financial position is not quite so secure.

Lloyd and Linda seem happy enough but something happened in the past that still casts its shadow over their marriage. It happened in Vegas, at the Last Chance, where Linda used to sing.

It involved Dave (Victor Mature). Dave was in the army then. Linda was his girl. Dave has always thought that she ran out on him. Perhaps she did. Dave is still in Vegas. Now he’s a detective lieutenant in the sheriff’s department. Naturally Linda runs into Dave. It’s a tense meeting. Dave hasn’t forgiven her. He’s very bitter. Maybe he’s still in love with her. Maybe she did love him and maybe she still does. It’s not easy to escape the past.

There’s plenty of potential here for some twisted romantic dramas.

Lloyd is losing lots of money at the gaming tables, money which he may not be able to afford to lose. That necklace becomes important again.

This is a crime movie and there will indeed be a crime. That crime will have consequences for Lloyd, Linda and Dave. And yes, once again the necklace is involved.

The crime could possibly involve several other people, like the former owner of the Last Chance and a smooth slimy insurance investigator. There are potentially quite a few suspects.

Victor Mature is such an underrated actor and he’s in fine form here. He plays Dave as an embittered man but a sympathetic character as well. He’s a decent guy but he got hurt real bad. It’s a fine nuanced performance.

Vincent Price was always superb in these kinds of movies. Lloyd might be a louse or he might be a loser or he might be a guy who’s just managed to get himself in a jam. He might be fundamentally decent. We can’t be sure. Price gives a wonderfully ambiguous performance.

Jane Russell was always good in noirish melodramas. Linda is another character with a bit of complexity. She doesn’t seen like a femme fatale, but she does seem like she might be a dangerous dame to know. She’s too beautiful and glamorous not to be dangerous. She’s not quite hardboiled but there is an edge to her. She’s a girl who thought she knew what she wanted but when she got it she wasn’t so sure.

Hoagy Carmichael makes an appearance and doesn’t just sing and play the piano but acts as well.

The black-and-white cinematography is not especially noirish but it does capture the seductive dangerous glamour of Vegas pretty well. There’s some nice hardboiled dialogue.

This is not really a film noir at all. Not even close. It is however a fairly enjoyable crime/romance melodrama. The Vegas setting and the three lead performances make it worth seeing.

The Warner Archive DVD offers a very nice transfer.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Marlowe (1969)

Marlowe is a 1969 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, with James Garner as Philip Marlowe. Stirling Silliphant wrote the screenplay and he obviously had the right credentials. It was directed by Paul Bogart, a guy with a very undistinguished career spent mainly in television.

What’s odd about Chandler is that there weren’t a huge number of adaptations of his novels back in the 40s but between 1969 and 1978 there were no less than four, varying wildly in both style and quality. They covered the spectrum from the sublime to the ridiculous (I’m afraid I’m not a fan of Robert Altman’s eccentric The Long Goodbye).

The Little Sister just happens to be my favourite Chandler novel.

These later adaptations all faced one problem - whether to go for a period setting or whether to put Marlowe in a contemporary setting. The 1975 Farewell, My Lovely was the only one that went for a period setting and it’s the best of the four. The 1969 Marlowe goes for a contemporary setting so early on we have Marlowe encountering hippies. There’s plenty of late 60s California decadence as Marlowe finds himself encountering the world of television.

James Garner was a pretty obvious choice to play Marlowe. Obviously Robert Mitchum would have been better but Mitchum had to wait until 1975 by which time he had to play an ageing Marlowe (which he did to perfection). But Garner did have the charisma and the role was well within his range.

Philip Marlowe is working on a very trivial case. A small-town girl from Kansas, Orfamay Quest (Sharon Farrell), wants her missing brother Orrin to be found. Marlowe has a lead but then there’s a corpse with an ice-pick in it and Marlowe isn’t keen on those kinds of cases so he wants to drop it.

Unfortunately there’s soon a second corpse, and a second ice-pick.

There are also some photographs, of the sort usually described as compromising. There’s obviously some blackmail going on. The photographs lead Marlowe to TV sitcom star Mavis Wald (Gayle Hunnicutt). Marlowe figures she’s in a jam and would like to hire a private detective to get her out of the mess but she’s not interested.

Someone else wants Marlowe off the case and hires a king fu expert (played by Bruce Lee in an odd, out-of-place but amusing cameo) to persuade him to back off.

The ice picks worry Marlowe. Rubbing guys out in that manner is a trademark of big-time gangster Sonny Steelgrave (H.M. Wynant).

Marlowe has a lot of women to deal with in this case and they’re all probably lying to him and they’re all potentially dangerous. There’s Mavis, there’s her stripper best friend Dolores (Rita Moreno) and there’s Orfamay. The connections between these women may not be what they seem to be. None are played as conventional femmes fatales which is refreshing. Marlowe also has a gangster to worry about, and a doctor with a possibly dubious past. And there’s missing brother Orrin who was mixed up in something shady. There are half a dozen quite convincing murder suspects so it’s no wonder Marlowe is bewildered.

The tone is somewhat erratic. The opening scene with the hippies comes across as a desperate attempt to pander to a youth audience. Chandler was not really a writer of noir fiction (although a lot of people think he was) and the only Chandler adaptation that comes close to being genuinely film noir is the 1975 Farewell, My Lovely. Chandler was however decidedly hardboiled (which is not the same thing) and Marlowe just doesn’t achieve that feel. In fact at times it seems like it’s trying to be tongue-in-cheek. Chandler could be very witty and amusing so that approach isn’t entirely wrong but this movie pushes it a bit too far.

We do have to address the question of plotting. There’s a popular perception that Chandler didn’t care about plotting. That simply isn’t true. Chandler saw himself as a writer of detective fiction and that’s a genre that requires a reasonably effective plot. Chandler put a lot of effort into his plots but they do tend to be very complicated and convoluted and sometimes confusing. That problem shows up in this movie as well. It’s not at all easy to keep track of what’s going on.

I don’t think that’s a major problem. Marlowe is supposed to be mystified and it doesn’t hurt if the audience is as well. As Marlowe slowly starts to make sense of the case we do as well, and we make the same wrong assumptions that Marlowe makes.

James Garner had huge success on television but was never a top-tier movie star. I suspect that’s because he made acting look easy. Critics like actors who make acting look hard. Critics also admire actors who seem to be having a miserable time. Critics are rather sad people. I’m quite OK with Garner’s easy-going performance here.

The other players are all pretty solid. Carroll O’Connor overacts less than usual as Homicide cop Lieutenant Christy French, who is (surprisingly) almost a nice guy. That’s something I like about this movie - the characters are not the stereotypes you’re expecting. Rita Moreno just about steals the picture with her very steamy strip-tease routine.

As director Paul Bogart does a perfectly competent job.

I have a few minor quibbles with Marlowe but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Highly recommended.

The Warner Archive DVD offers a very nice transfer. It would be nice to see this movie get a Blu-Ray release - it’s worthy of re-evaluation.

I’ve reviewed the two Robert Mitchum Marlowe movies, the superb Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and the much less successful but still rather interesting The Big Sleep (1978).

Friday, May 24, 2024

Pickup Alley (1957)

Pickup Alley is a 1957 British crime thriller directed by John Gilling. It’s a movie that has, quite unfairly, fallen through the cracks.

Gilling wrote and directed a huge number of modestly budgeted crime pictures in the 50s and then made a lot of movies for Hammer in the 60s. All of his 50s movies (in fact all of his movies) are worth seeing and some are very good indeed. Like this movie Gilling has been very unfairly neglected. He knew how to make consistently enjoyable movies.

Part of Pickup Alley’s problem may be the title which might lead the unwary to assume it’s going to be film noir. It isn’t. There’s also the fact that it has at times been released under a bewildering variety of tiles - Dope, Half Past Hell, The Most Wanted Woman and Interpol. Interpol was the original British title and has the advantage of telling us what the movie is actually all about.

Pickup Alley is a crime thriller that goes to great lengths to achieve an international feel. It moves from the U.S. to London to Lisbon to Naples to Athens. The multi-national cast also helps - the three leads include an American (Victor Mature), a Briton (Trevor Howard) and a Swede (Anita Ekberg). The international feel is achieved quite successfully and manages to persuade us that we really are in a series of exotic locations (and there obviously was some location shooting). I just have to mention that Gina travels to Lisbon by flying boat - I just love seeing flying boats in movies!

Charles Sturgis (Victor Mature) works for the American Bureau of Narcotics. His kid sister was murdered by an international dope peddler named McNally (Trevor Howard). McNally is a mystery man - nobody even knows what he looks like or what name he might now be using. Nonetheless there is a tenuous lead and Sturgis jets off to Europe to follow it up.

There’s another important murder early on. A sleazy criminal is shot to death by Gina Broger (Anita Ekberg). Gina is involved in McNally’s rackets and McNally assures her she doesn’t need to worry that the murder might be traced to her as long as she’s a good girl and does what he tells her. What he wants her to do now is to deliver a package to Lisbon.

Unfortunately for Gina Scotland Yard is not totally incompetent, and she left some fingerprints behind at the murder scene. Gina is now Sturgis’s best chance of tracking down McNally.

Unfortunately for Sturgis McNally isn’t totally stupid either, and Sturgis has been marked for elimination if he starts to get too close.

This is very much a police procedural, and a good one, with quite a bit of action thrown in as well. Gilling’s early films were well-crafted but low-budget and rather low-key. This movie offered him the chance to do something a bit more expansive and try his hand at action scenes (which he handles very skilfully). It was also an opportunity for him to demonstrate his ability to make a movie that looks much more expensive than it actually was.

This was a Warwick Films picture so it really did have a reasonable budget.

Victor Mature is excellent as the embittered and rather impetuous Sturgis. Mature has slowly gained some respect as an actor in recent years but he deserves even more. Anita Ekberg is very good and certainly adds glamour as the femme fatale-ish Gina. The movie however belongs to Trevor Howard. He’s dazzling - by turns charming, calculating, menacing and cruel. McNally is a great and extremely colourful villain.

Also helping things along is the presence of some of my favourite British character actors such as André Morell, Eric Pohlmann, Sydney Tafler and Sid James (yes, that Sid James, who was a fine character actor before achieving fame as a comic genius).

Pickup Alley is typical John Gilling - very well-made and very entertaining. Highly recommended.

The Arrow Academy Blu-Ray offers a lovely 16:9 enhanced transfer (the movie was shot in the ’scope ratio) and shows off the impressive black-and-white cinematography.

I’ve reviewed a stack of John Gilling’s movies, including the excellent crime film The Embezzler (1954), the underrated and somewhat noirish The Challenge (AKA It Takes a Thief, 1960) and the solid spy thriller Deadly Nightshade (1953). I’ve also reviewed what are arguably his best movies, his two 1966 gothic horror movies for Hammer, The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Reptile (1966).

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

King Kong (the 1933 original)

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong astounded audiences in 1933. It hasn’t lost any of its impact. 

It’s deservedly regarded as a classic, and it’s one of the most important movies in the history of genre cinema.

My full review can be found here at Cult Movie Reviews.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Borsalino (1970)

Borsalino is a 1970 French gangster movie which was a major box-office hit. Which is hardly surprising, given that it stars Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo who were at that time the two most popular, most charismatic and sexiest male movie stars in France. When you add to this the fact that the period setting looks completely fabulous and there are lots of fistfights and gunfights this was about as close as you could ever get to a surefire commercial success.

The idea originated with Alain Delon (who produced the movie). He’d just had a hit with La piscine (The Swimming Pool) directed by Jacques Deray and he was keen to do another movie with Deray. Delon’s star power attracted international financing and Borsalino looks expensive because it was.

It’s the story of two small-time crooks in Marseille, Roch Siffredi (Delon) and François Capella (Belmondo). They meet when they beat the living daylights out of each other over a girl, Lola (Catherine Rouvel). Having beaten each other to a pulp they become firm friends, and criminal associates.

Roch and François are ambitious but at first they don’t really have a master plan. They just don’t like being pushed around by the crime lords of Marseille. They eliminate one of these crime lords and take over his operations, and they just keep eliminating rivals until they reach the top.

Roch and François are very different but both are charming and magnetic in their own ways. This is a gangster buddy movie and the differences between the two are (as always) a major factor in making it work as a buddy movie. Both Delon and Belmondo deploy their unquestioned star power and their established screen personas. Roch is super-cool and self-contained and rather moody and brooding, things Delon did extremely well. François is hyper-active and cheerful with a playful approach to life, things that Belmondo did extremely well.

There’s crime and corruption here but this movie takes no interest in the moral implications. Roch and François are bad guys but they’re super-cool and they’re very much the heroes of the story. They’re not rebels. They’re unabashed gangsters and they’re violent and ruthless. Nonetheless the movie is very much on their side, not for political reasons but because they’re super-cool.

The movie-going public loved this movie. Critics were less happy with it, seeing it as a case of style over substance. You can always rely on critics to miss the point. In Borsalino the style IS the substance. This is an exercise in cinematic style. This is pure cinema. Critics, being critics, love looking for political meanings and subtexts. There aren’t any here. This movie ostentatiously avoids such things.

The costumes are superb. The costumes for the two male leads reflect not just the differences between the two characters but the differences between the screen images of the two stars. Delon’s clothes are cool and ultra-sharp. That was Delon’s image. Roch wants to look like a gentleman. François wants to look like a big-shot gangster, which reflects Belmondo’s more flamboyant slightly neurotic image.

The production design is terrific and reflects these differences as well. Roch wants his living quarters to look like a gentleman’s apartment. François’ idea of interior decoration is to have paintings of naked women on the walls.

There’s a lot of fairly graphic violence but it’s done in a very operatic way, in fact in an almost Italian way. The murders (and there are lots of them) are reminiscent of the emerging Italian poliziotteschi genre. This was a Franco-Italian co-production. I have no idea how well it did in Italy but I imagine it did well. It manages to be in tune with the visually extravagant approach of Italian film-making of this era while still feeling very very French.

American gangster movies probably had some influence on this movie but the French had their own gangster movie tradition which this movie draws on heavily.

The two stars are absolutely at the top of their game and they play off each other superbly.

Borsalino looks gorgeous, has a reasonable story, it offers plenty of action and it has style to burn. Don’t overthink this movie. Just wallow in the style. Borsalino is highly recommended.

The Arrow Blu-Ray offers a very nice transfer. Extras include a worthless audio commentary that tries to impose 2020s ideologies onto the movie. In general audio commentaries are best avoided these days.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

The Champagne Murders (1967)

Claude Chabrol’s The Champagne Murders was shot simultaneously in two different versions, an English-language version and a French version (released as Le scandale). Interestingly none of the main players are dubbed in either version. They all (including Anthony Perkins) spoke both French and English fluently. Naturally the more pretentious online reviewers insist that the French version is superior, even if they’ve never actually seen it!

Given Chabrol’s admiration for Hitchcock and the initial setup of this movie you might be expecting this to be a Hitchcockian suspense thriller. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is not even a genuine suspense thriller, much less a Hitchcockian thriller. The plot is included more or less as an after-thought. There’s no suspense at all. This is more of a social comedy or a black comedy. A couple of years earlier Chabrol had made Blue Panther, a spy thriller which turns out not to be a spy thriller at all. It’s more of a demolition job on the spy genre and an elaborate cinematic game. This is to a large extent what Chabrol is doing to the suspense thriller genre in The Champagne Murders. Chabrol must have been immensely amused that most critics failed to get the joke.

This was Chabrol’s only Hollywood movie. It’s almost as if he wanted to make sure he would never be asked to make another movie in Hollywood.

The Champagne Murders begins with two friends, Paul (Maurice Ronet) and Christopher (Anthony Perkins), who pick up a young woman. They end up being beaten up and the young woman is murdered. Paul never really recovers his mental equilibrium and spends a long period in a mental hospital. He is released but his mental state is still a little shaky.

By this time Christopher has married into money. He has married Christine Belling (Yvonne Furneaux). Christine owns a vineyard, which had belonged to Paul’s family. In fact she owns a champagne empire and she has been offered a huge amount of money for it from two American buyers. The problem is that the business is worthless without the trade name and Paul still owns that. Christine has to persuade Paul to sell her the name. She wants Christopher’s help. If he’s a good boy and helps her she’ll buy him a yacht - a huge ocean-going yacht. Christopher likes boats.

Christopher and Paul make a business visit to Hamburg. Hamburg was at this time regarded as the sex and sin capital of Europe. While they’re there the body of a young woman, a lady of the night, is discovered.

Christine is always plotting something, and we get the feeling that often it’s for the sheer pleasure of manipulating people. She doesn’t seem to have a totally coherent objective in mind. Christopher may be doing some plotting as well. He thinks there’s something he wants but he doesn’t seem to know what it is. Paul is just increasingly confused. He thinks he may have done something terrible but he has no idea why he might have done such a thing. Paul’s grip on reality is steadily loosening.

The plot really only matters insofar as it sets up the situation Chabrol wants - a group of truly awful, fake, treacherous, manipulative people none of whom can be trusted and at least one of whom might be mad. All of them are so fake that they’re in danger of confusing their own fake personas with reality. Their personalities are not just fake but also fragmented. They lack any real sense of personal identity.

The performances are all slightly odd. This is clearly deliberate. When you look at the cast these are all very fine very experienced acting talents. If their performances are off-kilter that is obviously exactly what Chabrol wanted.

This is not a realist movie. This is one of the ways in which this film is most definitely not a Hitchcockian thriller. Hitchcock dealt with madness and obsession at times and his movies were often visually stylised but they never abandoned reality altogether. With The Champagne Murders we’re much more aware that we need to suspect that there are times when the movie may in fact have crossed the line into non-reality.

When looking at movies from other time periods it’s essential to remember that every decade has had its own distinctive cultural obsessions. The cultural obsessions of the mid-60s bear no resemblance whatsoever to the cultural obsessions of today. Trying to view a 1967 movie in terms of 2020s ideologies inevitably leads to a total misunderstanding of the movie.

You also have to bear in mind the intellectual climate of the 60s. Marxism, Freudianism, absurdism and existentialism were major intellectual currents at that time. They might not have directly influenced every film-maker but they were part of the atmosphere that intellectuals breathed. You can see traces of most of these intellectual currents in this movie.

There was much more consciousness of class. The protagonists of this movie very definitely belong to the decadent bourgeoisie. I don’t think Chabrol had any overt political axe to grind in this film, but in 1967 people would certainly have noticed the bourgeois milieu in which it takes place. Bored amoral rich people who have everything but still manage to be miserable.

Most modern critics still insist on seeing this movie as Chabrol attempting to do Hitchcock and failing. But while he admired Hitchcock he wasn’t trying to emulate Hitch here. Online reviews also insist on seeing this as a whodunit. At the end you do find out the murderer’s identity, which in a whodunit would be a satisfying conclusion. In this film it just raises more perplexing questions. The neat whodunit solution isn’t the point at all. The really interesting questions are left without neat tidy answers. If you’re looking for a conventional suspense thriller you’ll find this movie exasperating. It doesn’t obey any of the rules of the genre.

If you accept that Chabrol is teasing and toying with the viewer and if you enjoying cinematic game-playing you’ll have a much better time with The Champagne Murders. It’s still an oddball movie but it’s fascinating in its own way. The more you think about it after you’ve watched it the more fascinating it becomes. Recommended.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray looks lovely and includes an audio commentary.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Un Flic (1972)

Un Flic (A Cop) was Jean-Pierre Melville’s final film. It’s sometimes described as a neo-noir but I’d be more inclined to see it as an existentialist crime thriller.

The opening sequence is extraordinary. It’s a very long build-up to a bank robbery. It was shot in a seaside town out of the tourist season. The streets are entirely deserted. The weather is bleak. It’s raining and there’s a driving wind. And there are these incredibly long vistas of sterile modernist architecture. The mood of alienation and utter emptiness is overwhelming. The robbers’ car (a big American car) appears to be the only automobile in the entire town. In fact, apart from the people in the bank, you could well believe that the town is uninhabited. The robbers are like dead men in a dead town.

Intercut with the robbery are scenes of a senior police detective, Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon), driving through the streets of Paris in a police car and being called to various crime scenes. But the first crimes we see him investigating have no connection at all with that bank robbery.

The key details of the plot and the relations between the characters are revealed very slowly and very gradually.

This is a very minimalist film. We don’t get any backstory on any of the characters, we don’t find out how they come to be connected, we get only the sketchiest outlines of the plans of the criminals. We discover nothing of the motivations of any of the criminals. By the end of the movie all we really know about Commissaire Coleman is that he’s a cop. We’re told only what we absolutely need to be told.

Simon (Richard Crenna) runs a night-club and he’s also the leader of the criminal gang. He and Commissaire Coleman are friends although we have no idea how that friendship came to be. Cathy (Catherine Deneuve) is Simon’s mistress. She’s also Coleman’s mistress. We have no idea how this romantic triangle developed and we have no idea of the extent of these emotional attachments.

The gang is planning a much more ambitious heist, on a train.

Coleman has a lead that suggests that something criminal is going to take place on the train but he doesn’t know that there’s any connection with the bank robbery and he doesn’t know that Simon is involved in any way.

Eventually the police get a break and Coleman starts to put some of the pieces together.

What’s interesting is that apart from the main characters we see very few people at all. It’s as if the central characters are just actors on an empty stage set.

Everything in this film seems to take place in slow motion. There are two major heists and while there’s plenty of suspense there’s no sense of action or excitement. The build-up is extraordinarily slow and there’s virtually no action pay-off. At every point where you’re expecting action it just doesn’t happen.

Again all of this would appear to be deliberate. This is a heist movie but if you’re expecting anything resembling an action thriller you’re going to be bitterly disappointed. This movie has the feel of a stately European art film rather than a thriller.

The most notable thing about this movie is the extreme level of emotional detachment. The triangle between Simon, Coleman and Cathy involves all sorts of betrayals. Simon’s criminal career could be seen as a betrayal of his friendship with his friend Coleman the cop. Coleman’s determination to push ahead with the case without being swayed by his friendship for Simon could be seen as a betrayal of that friendship. Cathy’s affair with Coleman could be seen as a betrayal of Simon. Cathy’s involvement in Simon’s criminal activities could be seen as a betrayal of Coleman who is after all her lover.

But there’s no indication that any of these things matter to any of these three people. They don’t seem to be driven to any significant degree by either love or friendship. They also don’t appear to be driven by lust. The Coleman-Cathy relationship is curiously un-erotic. In fact there’s not the slightest indication of any real erotic attraction between any characters in this movie. At no point in the movie is there any emotional or erotic connection between any of the characters. Simon and Coleman are supposed to be friends but they behave like casual acquaintances. Coleman and Cathy are supposed to be lovers but the one time we see them together there’s as much emotion as you’d get between a high-class hooker and a client.

As a result the characters are more or less puppets. We see them doing things but we have no idea why they’re doing those things. Perhaps they don’t know. Perhaps they really are empty inside. My impression is that this approach is very deliberate. It’s one of the reasons I see this as an existentialist movie. The lives of the characters seem to have no meaning or purpose. There’s also more than a hint of absurdism. All of the characters are absurd and pathetic.

The train heist is a very very long very intricate sequence but it’s irrelevant to the plot. These criminals have already made an unrecoverable error by bungling the bank job, after which it’s inevitable that the police will catch them. This whole sequence conveys a sense of utter futility, of people doing very complicated things that are in fact meaningless.

All of which strengthens my conviction that this is very much an existentialist movie. I kept being reminded of Camus’ The Stranger. These are three people who are all very much alone. I think the title, Un Flic (A Cop), is very significant. Coleman is a cop. That’s all he really is. That’s all he’s got. He does his job efficiently and without emotion. If people let him down he discards them and moves on. The meaning of his life is that he’s a cop.

Some critics have fallen for the temptation to see this as a movie about problematic masculinity. In my view that says more about modern film critics and the obsessions of the 21st century than about the actual movie and the obsessions of the 1960s and 70s.

The performances are completely flat. Catherine Deneuve projects a kind of Hitchcock ice blonde vibe. There’s a bit of Kim Novak in Vertigo in her performance.

I’ve already mentioned the stunningly brilliant opening sequence. The train heist is elaborate but totally artificial in its clumsy use of miniatures (I like miniatures work in general but in this case it really is clumsy).

That’s not to say that I hated this movie. It fascinated me in its radical rejection of every convention of the crime thriller genre, and its radical and uncompromising rejection of every convention of movie-making. It’s not a thriller. It’s a remorseless exercise in absurdism, existentialism, alienation and complete aloneness.

This is not a movie for thriller fans. It’s not a neo-noir. This is very much a movie for fans of highly and coldly intellectualised European art-house movies. If that’s your thing then Un Flic does it very well. So, recommended with some caveats.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

The Crowd Roars (1932)

The Crowd Roars is a 1932 Warner Brothers pre-code race-car melodrama directed by Howard Hawks and based on a story idea by Hawks.

If you have any familiarity with the movies of Howard Hawks then you know that he was fascinated by stories about men who put their lives in peril. In particular he was fascinated by men who do this not from a sense of duty (as would be the case with military service) but out of a psychological need to dice with death. Hawks made some of his very finest movies on this theme.

This movie fits that profile exactly.

The Crowd Roars is also a movie about the uneasy dynamics that develop when a woman enters this male world. Again, very Hawksian.

Joe Greer (James Cagney) is a very successful racing car driver. On a trip back to his home town he discovers that his kid brother Eddie (Eric Linden) has decided to follow in his big brother’s footsteps and has taken up race-car driving. Joe is initially not very happy about the idea but relents and soon Eddie is part of Joe’s racing team.

Joe has a girlfriend, Lee (Ann Dvorak). It’s obvious Lee would like to get married. There’s some tension between them. Lee thinks Joe is ashamed of her. Joe is certainly anxious to stop Eddie from finding out that there’s anything serious going on with Lee. It’s made fairly obvious that Joe and Lee have been living together (this is a pre-code movie) and Joe doesn’t want Eddie of any of the family finding out. Lee is also worried about Joe’s drinking.

Another complication is that Eddie gets involved with Anne, and that really angers Joe.

Lee’s best friend is Anne Scott (Joan Blondell). This might lead you to believe that this is yet another movie in which Blondell has merely a supporting role as the heroine’s pal. That’s not the case here. Blondell shares top billing with Cagney and she is certainly not a mere supporting player. The four main characters - Joe, Eddie, Lee and Anne - are all equally important although obviously Cagney and Blondell have the edge when it comes to star quality.

This is an exciting race-car action film with some thrilling racing footage. There are complex romantic dramas as well, with real people often driven by conflicting emotions.

It’s also the story of a man struggling with his personal demons. Joe is a difficult troubled man. He’s not a sympathetic character in a straightforward way. He’s quick-tempered. He has a bit of a nasty streak at times. He treats Lee badly. He’s stubborn and he’s obsessive when he gets an idea into his head. And something is about to happen that will add self-pity to the volatile mix.

Joe treats Eddie like a small child. He treats both Lee and Anne very badly. He and Lee are obviously sleeping together. That seems to be why he won’t marry her. You don’t marry girls with such loose morals. He really is ashamed of her. This is all monstrously unreasonable. But that’s the crux of the plot. Joe really isn’t a very nice guy. The question is whether he can learn to be a more decent human being before his behaviour leads to disaster. He is a very flawed hero indeed, but that’s what makes him interesting. We know he needs to change and we hope that he will.

Cagney relishes the opportunity to play a man at war with himself and he does a fine job. Blondell and Dvorak play women with a bit of depth as well. It has to be said that Eric Linden is rather colourless as Eddie. Frank McHugh is amusing and likeable as Joe’s driving team-mate and buddy Spud Connors.

It’s easy to overlook just how incredibly dangerous race-car driving was in the 1930s. Safety precautions were non-existent. Fatal crashes were commonplace. If your car caught fire your chances of survival were slim. That’s part of Joe’s problem. He has plenty of guts but he’s smart enough to understand the dangers, and he needs alcohol to face the risks. And of course alcohol increases the risks.

The racing sequences are impressive and manage took very dangerous. Filming them was indeed very dangerous.

This is all perfect material for Hawks and he makes the most of it.

Sadly this movie does not appear to survive in a complete form. The original running time was 85 minutes but existing prints come in at around 70 minutes.

The Crowd Roars is a grown-up action movie with some real depth. It’s an excellent and underrated Howard Hawks and it’s highly recommended.

The Warner Archive DVD release provides a pretty decent transfer.

I’ve reviewed Ceiling Zero (1936) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939), two other great Howard Hawks movies about men who choose to dice with death.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977)

Looking for Mr Goodbar was mildly controversial at the time of its release in 1977. It’s certainly sleazy enough and violent enough to make its X certificate understandable.

It was written and directed by Richard Brooks, based on Judith Rossner’s novel. Brooks has taken a fascinating story idea (a woman drawn by masochistic impulses into dangerous sexual games) and turned it into a meandering over-long utterly conventional morality play. The message of the movie is that bad girls get what they deserve. A bad girl being a woman who dares to flout the established conventional moral rules.

Diane Keaton plays Theresa. She teaches deaf children. On the surface she is a paragon of virtue but she lives a double life, cruising sleazy bars and picking up loser men.

This fascination with casual sex begins when she’s still in college and she has an affair with a married professor. He unceremoniously dumps her after he’s had his fun so she decides to devote herself to the pursuit of pleasure.

Of course it’s all her father’s fault. He’s a devout Catholic. He thinks his daughter is a whore and the spawn of Satan.

There’s an entirely pointless sub-plot involving Theresa’s crazy sister Katherine (played by Tuesday Weld chewing every piece of scenery she can get her hands on). In fact there are lots of pointless sub-plots. What might have been a tense 90 minute film becomes a bloated 136 minute mess.

Theresa gets involved with a social worker who annoys her by wanting a serious relationship. She also gets involved with a hyper-active nutter named Tony (played by Richard Gere chewing every piece of scenery he can get his hands on). Theresa becomes a hooker although she seems to be motivated more by an urge to revenge herself on Dead Old Dad than by money.

Theresa gets into some awkward situations but she just doesn’t learn.

According to this movie there was not a single decent sane human being in the United States in 1977. Every character in the movie is exaggerated to the point of parody.

There are intermittent brief fantasy sequences which are presumably intended to give us a glimpse inside Theresa’s mind. These sequences are an unnecessary distraction.

The acting on the whole veers between hysteria and extreme hysteria.

The one exception, and the movie’s one redeeming feature, is Diane Keaton. There’s nothing she can do about the weak script but she does manage to make Theresa reasonably believable. Theresa is confused and out of control and Keaton gets this across very effectively but she is also able to infuse the character with a certain degree of humour.

Generally speaking I despise the use of the term camp to describe movies but it’s about the only adequate way to describe this one. It’s camp in the truest sense - a movie that tries to take itself absurdly seriously but in fact cannot be taken the least bit seriously.

There’s also some half-baked Freudianism.

This movie manages to be incredibly heavy-handed and confused at the same time. The message seems to be that women should forget about sex and just settle down and get married and learn to be good girls. Otherwise very bad things will happen to them.

Looking for Mr Goodbar
has its good points. It is at least an attempt to deal with sexual subject matter openly and in a grown-up way even if it’s an attempt that mostly misfires. The ending is technically bold and striking.

And Diane Keaton’s performance is undeniably impressive.

Looking for Mr Goodbar is mostly a missed opportunity. It is fascinating in its own way and perhaps worth a look as an example of a 70s movie that really gets down and dirty.

This movie has a reputation for being difficult to track down. There was in fact a DVD release which is still obtainable. It’s letterboxed but as far as I’m concerned that’s OK. At least it’s not pan-and-scanned. And there are certain aspects of this movie that make it very doubtful that it will ever get a Blu-Ray release.

Friday, May 3, 2024

Cop Hater (1958)

Cop Hater is a 1958 American crime B-movie based on one of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels.

Since it’s a crime movie shot in black-and-white a lot of people have succumbed to the temptation to assume it’s film noir. It isn’t. Not even close. It’s a tough police procedural, just as the Ed McBain novels are police procedurals.

It’s a hot day in the city. Apparently all it takes is a hot day and everyone goes crazy and starts killing people. A cop named Reardon gets gunned down in the street. Reardon was a paragon of virtue, almost the perfect cop. Why would anyone want to kill him?

Then another cop gets killed. He was pretty much a candidate for sainthood. It doesn’t make sense.

The police are pretty upset. Murder is an everyday occurrence and it’s no big deal but cop killing is a very big deal indeed. The lieutenant in charge gives his men a speech about how cops are symbols of everything that holds society together. Kind of like the flag, and motherhood.

The cops figure the killer could be from a teen gang. After all these crazy kids today kill for kicks. So we get some prime 50s juvenile delinquent hysteria.

The police have no real evidence. They pull in lots of suspects who are really never serious suspects to begin with and the case is going nowhere.

The lieutenant in charge is getting frustrated. He’s a bit bad-tempered by underneath he has a heart of gold. All the cops in this movie have hearts of gold.

This movie goes through the motions of being a police procedural. They do some routine police work. They do some forensic stuff and they call on a few informers. These things go nowhere in plot terms. The plot relies on the hoary old device of the hero having a sudden inspiration. So as a true police procedural it’s a bit of a non-starter.

As a murder mystery it works fine although it suffers from a lack of a sufficient number of genuinely plausible suspects.

This is certainly not film noir. In fact with its worshipful attitude towards authority and its total lack of sympathy for anyone who is in any way an outsider it’s practically the antithesis of film noir.

Interestingly the police completely ignore suspects’ legal rights and rough up suspects but the movie treats this as a good thing. It means the cops are doing their jobs. They’re great guys and they do stuff like this to protect the public.

Director William Berke spent his career making B-movies. He had a reputation for churning out movies very very quickly. The job he does here is competent but uninspired, but we can be sure he brought the movie in on time and on budget.

The screenwriter was Henry Kane. Kane was also a prolific pulp novelist, his books including the rather good Frenzy of Evil.

Cop Hater does have its strengths. We really do feel the oppressive atmosphere of a heat wave. The low budget helps give the film a seedy gritty sweaty and at times sleazy feel. The acting is B-movie standard but that helps as well. There are no “star” performances. The cast is more like the ensemble cast you’d get in a TV cop show.

Overall Cop Hater is a decent crime B-movie. It certainly has an air of toughness to it. Recommended.

The MGM Limited Edition Collection made-on-demand DVD is presented open matte and the transfer is at best acceptable. There are no extras. Overall the DVD release is a bit disappointing.