Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Big Steal (1949)

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*. Does the plot here make any sense? Why does Blake think that Duke has the money if he was in with Fiske on the heist from the start? If Seton and Fisk are staying at the same hotel in Veracruz, why doesn’t Fiske just give him the money there instead of driving across the country to his secret hacienda? What is Fiske’s relationship with Joan? Why does a guy with a suitcase full of $300,000 want to con a girl out of a measly two grand? And when did he hook up with her in the first place?
*. This was Don Siegel’s third feature, but he’d been working in the business for a while and knew what he was doing. What really stands out is his ability to fashion exciting and creative action scenes. Even the fistfights are made pretty interesting, what with Duke kicking Blake into a pillar that knocks him out, and Fiske kneeing Duke in the head when they tussle in the hotel room. Then, in the final showdown, instead of sucker-punching Duke, Fiske crosses an elbow into his face. Surprise!

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*. Then there is that long car chase through the mountains. Yes, it suffers from the usual rear projection effects, but overall it’s pretty darn thrilling. Those mountain roads don’t look safe at any speed, and the cars dart through traffic in a heart-stopping manner. A sheep and a cow are only barely avoided and at one point a chicken attempting to cross the road is smashed into a pinwheel of feathers. I don’t think you’d get away with a shot like that today. Animal rights activists would be all over you.
*. Basically the entire movie is one long chase, a cat-and-mouse game played out on the highway, with a constant command for others to “get out of the way!” It’s just one obstruction after another.

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*. I wish the Mexican police Inspector-General (played by silent star Ramon Novarro) had a larger role. I was really expecting him to appear at the end and save the day. I think that would have made a better ending. Instead, he’s simply dropped.
*. Robert Mitchum. David Thomson calls him “one of the best actors in the movies” but registers the negative first impression he usually makes, introducing him as “the man mocked throughout his career for listlessness, inertia, hooded eyes, and lack of interest.”
*. I tend to side with that casual first impression. Mitchum rarely gives me the sense of any of those deep waters supposedly running beneath the still surface. In The Night of the Hunter you know Harry Powell is only acting the part of a preacher, and as he gets closer to all that money the dreary façade starts to crack. That’s what makes the role work. But here Duke Halliday is in the more familiar Mitchum mold. He should be a man on the edge. He’s desperate and on the run, yet the only evidence of strain is an occasional untidiness in his hair after a fistfight. Even when Fiske gives him the slip and Blake is closing in all he says to Joan is “I’m dead.” He does so with both hands in his pockets and with an air of total nonchalance. Then it’s Greer who has to think of a way out.
*. Those were the days. Just before filming Mitchum was busted for possession of pot. The actress originally slated to play Joan backed out because appearing alongside a felon might have been damaging to her career. So in stepped Greer, who had just starred opposite Mitchum in Out of the Past.
*. Mitchum’s jail term caused some problems with the shooting of the film as well, outlined by Richard Jewell in his commentary. The script had to be streamlined and parts of the movie had to be shot around his not being available. This might also have led to some of the plot incongruities already noted.
*. I was surprised to hear Jewell say on the commentary track that there isn’t much action in this film. There’s a lot. At least four big fights, a very long car chase sequence, and a gun battle. All in only 71 minutes.
*. Why would cash be considered “hot” goods for an experienced fence like Seton? A pile of money of any size should be no problem for him to handle, and yet he makes it out to be a huge inconvenience. Were the bills marked? Why would they be? And so why would “getting rid” of the money be more trouble than dealing in those ancient artifacts (presumably stolen, or at least suspiciously acquired) that he collects?
*. It’s unfortunate that a lot of people get hung up on the noir label when discussing this movie. Are the labels that important? I don’t think so, but I’ll play along. For the record, I don’t think this is noir at all. The only good reason for considering it as such is because it rides in on the coattails of Out of the Past with the same stars. The reason I disqualify it isn’t because of the lack of night-time scenes or noir lighting, but the absence of noir themes and the noir sensibility. Mitchum is not a conflicted, morally dubious or compromised character and Greer is not a femme fatale. The good guys are good guys here, and the bad guys bad. It’s an action comedy that’s fast and full of fun, handled with professionalism throughout and quite entertaining.

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Out of the Past (1947)

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*. Little remarked upon at the time of its release, Out of the Past is now, in the words of Jim Hillier and Alastair Phillips, “firmly established as an archetypal, indeed quintessential, film noir.” The essential elements are all there: the gumshoe in the trench coat, the femme fatale, the dramatic lighting, the wisecracking patter, and the plot too complicated to follow.
*. So, being a big fan of noir, I wonder why I don’t like this movie more.
*. I think it begins with the structure. The long flashback seems to me to be a mistake, wrong-footing the start of the movie and frustrating any notion of suspense.
*. Also frustrating is the plot. Now noir plots are famous for being muddled, but I honestly can’t sort this one out. To start out with a couple of small things: Why does Jeff drive with Ann all the way up to Emerald Lake when he goes to see Whit? Couldn’t he have driven up alone?
*. Another: Why would Kathie run out on Jeff and leave her purse, of all things, behind? This seems uncharacteristically dim on her part.
*. A couple of bigger things: Whatever happened to that $40,000 Kathie stole from Whit? And what was going on with the business involving Leonard Eels? I understood none of that subplot, or why they had to introduce Rhonda Fleming’s character, Meta. I’m not sure the writers knew what to do with Meta either, as she sort of disappears later, and when we think we’re going to see her next it turns out that her part in the scheme has been taken over by Kathie.
*. Bosley Crowther: “the pattern and purpose of it is beyond our pedestrian ken. People get killed, the tough guys browbeat, the hero hurries — but we can’t tell you why. . . . If only we had some way of knowing what’s going on in the last half of the film, we might get more pleasure from it.”
*. Well, does it make a difference? Do we care if it doesn’t make sense? Crowther cared, and so do I. Complexity is one thing, but the loose ends here seem like sheer sloppiness.

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*. Kirk Douglas’s second movie. Why don’t stars play heavies and villains more often? He’s so good playing Whit, it reminds me of his son breaking bad as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. But I guess you make more money playing the hero than the heel.
*. Pauline Kael: “It’s empty trash, but you do keep watching it.” I’ll give it that much. There are some great lines and some beautiful photography. But it seems to me a movie that never quite gets into gear.

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*. Another problem the film has is Jane Greer’s Kathie. What’s driving her? What’s her game? Does she really want to run away with Jeff? Would she have been content to live the rest of her life with him, betting on the ponies and letting that $40,000 slowly drain away? I don’t believe it for a minute. I see her as being sort of like the character of Amy in Gone Girl, just an erratic psychopath who wrecks lives, sailing into different ports with every storm.
*. There’s an essential element to noir that I left off the list I gave earlier, and that’s the emphasis on fate. There’s something ineluctable in the fatal attraction between Jeff and Kathie, reinforced by lines like his telling her “Baby, I don’t care” when she asks him if he believes her. Because nothing he says or does or believes in makes any difference. He’s building his own gallows high, and he knows it.
*. I think this is also part of what Stephanie Zacharek means when she writes about how Kathie is “the woman who makes him most alive” (unlike the coddling and domesticating Ann). In their relationship she is the active principle, leaving him to follow her lead. Again, one thinks of Gone Girl. Kathie is writing the script here, Jeff is just playing a part.
*. David Thomson is a fan, but I don’t like his review. “Everyone loves Out of the Past . . . ” is how he begins. He describes how the movie opens as “two thugs drive by . . . quite by chance” and discover Jeff in Bridgeport. There’s only one thug and I don’t believe he finds Jeff by chance. I assume Joe’s patter about just passing by is the usual wise-guy irony, because how would he recognize Jeff’s assumed name?

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*. That said, I think Thomson puts his finger on something when he says that it’s “asking a great deal for us to buy Robert Mitchum as so supreme, so omniscient, so lone and secure, and such a chump, too.” “Jeff needs to be several degrees more vulnerable or mortal.” Either that, I would say, or nastier.
*. Of course we all love noir lighting, perhaps because it’s so dramatic and unnatural. It’s quite striking in this film, but I was often wondering where all the crazy shadows were coming from.

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*. I don’t usually groove to Mitchum’s minimalist acting style, but it fits with Jeff’s tragic passivity here, and he does have a few great moments. When Kathie asks Jeff if he can forgive her, the very slight widening of his eyes and shake of his head that accompanies his response (“I’m not going to try”) is priceless.
*. The one really unconventional sequence is the use of the fishing pole to dispatch Joe. I think this must have been the inspiration for the similar use of a rod in The Parallax View.
*. Aside from that, this seems like a very conventional film to me. It’s very well done in all departments, but I feel more like taking notes than sitting back and enjoying it. And finally there’s just too much going on that doesn’t add up.

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The Avengers (2012)

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*. This was how you spent 220 million dollars in 2012. And this is what you spent it on.
*. And this is how much money it made: $1.518 billion.
*. That’s all the important stuff out of the way.
*. The curse of the comic book movies, or MarvelCrap, is inflation. Not just in terms of budget, though this is certainly an issue. Each new movie has to blow the last out of the water. It has to have more. And unfortunately what this often means is more superheroes and more supervillains. The original Batman cycle paved the way, upping the ante from a first film that had Batman facing off against the Joker, to the second where he was taking on Max Shreck, the Penguin, and Catwoman, to later entries where he was joined by Robin and Batgirl and was taking on Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, Bane, and whoever else was ready to suit up.
*. Marvel learned the lesson. How many bad guys did Spider-Man have to take on in the third of that series? The Green Goblin, the Sandman, Venom . . . was that what the “3” stood for? And the X-Men franchise gave us superheroes facing off against each other in what looked more like a football game than a cage match.
*. But once locked into this kind of inflation there’s nowhere to go but up. And so, clocking in at 143 minutes, here we get a crowded cast of heroes who, when they aren’t fighting each other, are taking on an army of baddies from another dimension. More, more, more. This movie is fat.
*. You’d think it would all be incredibly complex, but it’s not. This is because it doesn’t make a bit of sense. The plot is a throwaway. Loki, a troublemaker out of Asgard, steals the “Tesseract,” which is a powerful crystal that can open a gateway to another world, letting in a bunch of crazy aliens known as the Chitauri (a bit of information I had to look up, by the way).
*. Come on. You’re going to spend over $200 million on a picture and you can’t come up with a premise more original than that? Why not throw in a magic spear for Loki to carry around too. Yes, just like that one . . .
*. But this is only what makes the plot clichéd. Let’s move on to the nonsense. The Chitauri, for starters, disappoint me. They have all this power and advanced technology yet when they get flushed into Earth’s dimension what do they do? Tear around on their scooters blowing shit up? Go breaking into office buildings and frying the workers, or destroying streets and blasting taxis into the air? They came all that way for this?
*. Even in a comic book, are we really supposed to believe that Iron Man and Captain America can fix the flying aircraft carrier or hovercraft thing as it’s crashing to the ground? But I guess they do. Sort of. I don’t know how they kept it in the air, to be honest.
*. What exactly was Loki’s plan in getting caught? He had the Tesseract already, which means he could have just gone ahead with his plan without going on to the hovercraft. So what was the point of all that?
*. Why are the Avengers so concerned about rescuing people from that city bus when the Chitauri are busy tearing up all of Manhattan, and presumably killing hundreds if not thousands of people already?
*. All the talk about freedom and human nature is awful. Couldn’t they have come up with something simpler, about taking over the world, without bringing in the political philosophy?
*. The effects in these films are becoming predictable. When did tearing up a canyon-style street (usually in Manhattan) become the de rigueur set-piece for CGI overkill? Godzilla? I’m getting tired of it. And keeping in mind the note I began with about inflation, where do you go from here?
*. The cast is the best part. They seem into it and play well together. When Mark Ruffalo says the Avengers won’t be a team but “a chemical mixture that makes chaos” he is presumably giving us Joss Whedon’s formula.
*. I don’t think it’s very well structured. For example, what a lot of fanboys will presumably be waiting for is Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Hulk, but this comes at an awkward moment where he doesn’t save the day but only gets into a fight with Thor. Then the second time he transforms it is so fast it doesn’t build any buzz.
*. The actual fights between the different superheroes are also starting to get a bit old. People get slammed around and punched through buildings while having big things thrown at them, but they just keep popping up again.
*. Is it a dangerous film? I don’t want to answer that question yet. Maybe after another few rounds of MarvelCrap I’ll come back to it, because I think it may be important. But I’ll say here that I don’t mean by this that there are any fascist overtones to this sort of action film. The politics we get are a comforting muddle where nobody is in the right and everyone is compromised somewhat. What I mean is that these are movies that are not just unconcerned with real people. These are movies that don’t like real people, and perhaps even despise them. At best, humanity is given the role of a slack-jawed, child-like, and quivering mass audience to these marvelous happenings.
*. A ten-minute credit roll at the end. With a couple of extras for those in no rush to go anywhere. As if we hadn’t had enough already! But more is more is more is more . . .

Orca (1977)

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*. What a bizarre movie. It seems to have begun life as a straightforward Jaws rip-off, with Dino De Laurentiis telling producer Luciano Vincenzoni to “find a fish [sic] tougher and more terrible than the great white.” De Laurentiis had just produced King Kong the previous year and was clearly only interested in going big or going home.
*. From these immodest beginning things take a strange and totally unexpected turn, as the killer whale became something far more than Spielberg’s great white killing machine. You see, this monster of the deep is both superintelligent and possessed by a very human spirit of vengeance.
*. The “science” behind this nonsense is set out for us in Professor Rachel Bedford’s ludicrous lecture on killer whales. There’s a long history of these utterly bogus scientific lectures in movies, but this one really takes the cake. Dr. Bedford throws out dubious assertions (like the killer whale’s monogamy), some giant stretches (a killer whale’s fetus is like that of a human, as is its brain), and at least one true puzzler. This occurs when Dr. Bedford tells us that whale song contains fifteen million pieces of information, whereas the Bible only contains four million. What does this mean?
*. Sticking with Bedford, how many movies has Charlotte Rampling ever appeared comfortable in? She always seems out of sorts at being on screen, especially given such bad material.

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*. Richard Harris, on the other hand, revels in such parts. As David Thomson observes, “he is most at home in terrible films.” It’s where his particular brand of hamminess belongs.
*. I believe this was Bo Derek’s first movie. A few years later she would re-team with Harris in her greatest role as Jane in Tarzan, the Ape Man.
*. But back to the nonsense. How much of it are we to take seriously? William Sampson’s Umilak gives the stereotypical wisdom-of-his-ancestors speech, but then admits that these are old stories and no longer apply. Rampling confesses near the end that while she does believe killer whales are intelligent, she was just making the stuff up about one of them carrying out a vendetta. And yet that is clearly what we are led to believe is going on.
*. There were logistical problems. Jaws had logistical problems as well. Comes with the territory. It’s clear right away that many of the shots of the killer whale were taken of a whale swimming in a tank. It’s also the case that a lot of the whale’s most spectacular kills are cut so that you don’t actually see anything.
*. That said, for a film of this time the final effect isn’t all bad, and the last part, set amidst the polar ice, looks pretty good, even beautiful at times.

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*. What turns it from a silly rip-off into something more (something even sillier, as well as something better) is its crazily operatic sensibility. Harris’s Captain Nolan is less Quint than Ahab, his struggle with the shark taking on epic overtones, right down to the theme song “My Love, We Are One.”
*. The man vs. whale duel reaches its bizarre peak as Nolan rejects using his rifle in the final battle, saying he wants a “fair fight, on equal terms.” You have to wonder what form a fair fight, on equal terms, between a man and a killer whale would take. We never find out because Harris does decide to keep the gun.
*. Do you think a killer whale could really push an iceberg that size against the current, and shove it with enough force into the side of the ship to sink it? I’m being silly just asking, aren’t I?
*. Ennio Morricone’s score gets a lot of praise, but I’m not sure it really goes that well with the kind of movie this is. The slack direction by Michael Anderson (fresh off of the similarly uninspired Logan’s Run) doesn’t help much either. This film is usually described as a horror film, but there isn’t a single scary or even suspenseful sequence in it. Which makes it all pretty dull. Some of the photography is very nice, but aside from that this is neither good nor bad enough to be worth a recommendation.

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L’Age d’Or (1930)

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*. Scorpions. And you think of the opening of The Wild Bunch. Man is a rat to man.
*. There’s also a convention of comparing the segmented body of the scorpion to the structure of the film, with the poisonous tip at the end. I think this is a stretch.
*. It’s just footage culled from a nature documentary. Found poetry? Not really. More like found anti-poetry.

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*. Should we envy Buñuel’s generation for having cultural institutions and values that were so easy to shock and offend? Or should we feel happy that we live in a time when the old stultifying forms and hypocrisies have all broken down? Or at least seem to have broken down. We have our own hypocrisies now, of course.
*. Apparently the removal of the monstrance from the limousine caused outrage among some audiences. Today I think there will be few in the audience who even know what it is, much less take offence at how it is treated. Times change.

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*. A shift from Un Chien Andalou. This film is more political, broader in scope, and has a greater interest in society than in individual states of consciousness. It also permits a thread of narrative where the earlier film was just a series of unrelated visions.
*. For an assault on the bourgeoisie it had odd origins. Basically it was born of the popular success of Un Chien Andalou (a movie intended to alienate audiences), and funded by a wealthy aristocrat as a birthday present to his wife. They subsequently pulled it from circulation.
*. And just what about this movie is communist, or bolshevik? It’s anti-everything, without any clear political message aside from breaking down the current order.
*. For such an early sound film the use of sound is quite inventive and experimental. Buñuel seemed to feel under no constraint to provide a “realistic” soundtrack, and was quite playful with the score, the dialogue that continues even when no one is speaking, and noises like the cow bell and the barking dogs that are used almost musically.

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*. The structure is that of Old Comedy, the young couple who have to get together despite all the maddening interventions and obstacles set in their way by an overly formal and old-fashioned society. The music from Tristan und Isolde is ironic.
*. Yes, I’m put in mind of The Wild Bunch and Rules of the Game. But it mostly made me think of Monty Python, and in particular The Meaning of Life (Gaston Modot even looks a bit like John Cleese). What I’m mainly thinking of is Bunuel’s penchant for sending up the tyranny of appearances and formalities. The point is that no matter how shocking things gets (a cow in your bed, a groundskeeper shooting his son, your host with flies all over his face) you can never show shock, or indeed any reaction at all.

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*. Only it’s not really imperturbability that is being satirised so much as indifference. People no longer have the capacity to be moved by tragedy or absurdity. They are only interested in themselves (the woman’s mirror reflecting the heavens). Instead of feeling outrage we look away. There is no empathy for tragedy. This was very much a Modernist concern. A lack of affect is often seen as something they cultivated or pursued, but I think it was something that really disturbed them. They were trying to sound an alarm.

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Un Chien Andalou (1928)

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*. People still wonder if it’s too much. I ask: Is it enough? I’m not referring to the running time (around 16 minutes), but the concept itself. Are you satisfied with a parade of strange and unrelated images?
*. Put another way: do you return to this movie? Is there any point in watching it twice? If none of it has any meaning, and Buñuel and Dali were emphatic that none of it did, then once you’ve “seen” it once, is that all there is to see?
*. Are these fair questions? I don’t know.
*. David Thomson has a complicated response to this film, seeing it as a prime “indicator that the history of movie is the history of whether or not we can come to terms with sexual existence.” That is, will sex or cruelty triumph? Because (I think this is what he means) if we can’t come to terms with sexual existence then we’re going to cut the ones we love into tiny pieces.
*. Buñuel throws both sex and cruelty up there on the screen, but is it multiple choice? As I see it, surrealism’s emphasis on dreams and the subconscious pretty much loads the deck for sex and violence, the rulers of our primordial, reptile brains. Dig down deep enough and that’s what you’ll find.
*. But is that enough? I mean, Hostel works on the same level. Aren’t we just listening to someone tell us about one of their bad dreams? And how interesting is that?
*. It’s not a movie I return to very often. The point was to shock and unsettle us, and it still has that power. But it doesn’t seem to represent anything aside from the primitive poetry of raw images, the rhyming of the senses. A cloud cutting across the moon is like a razor blade slicing an eyeball. Feeling a woman’s breasts is like feeling her ass. Musical instruments in a silent film are just objects to be lugged or kicked about.
*. For Dali this was enough. Buñuel wanted something more. This may have been the reason behind their falling out over L’Age d’Or. In the event, Buñuel would go on but for Dali this was pretty much the end.