Ace In The Hole (1951)

April 10, 2009

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“This is pitch black”

Last month I watched Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch.  I said then “I never feel that  Wilder was truly comfortable making sex comedies. There is a bitterness and cynicism within them… this corruption at the core of the films that make them resonant and pertinent to this day”.  Well if I thought Sunset Blvd. was dark, then this is pitch black.

Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tattum; a journalist who has been kicked off various big newspapers and is working for a small circulation newspaper in Albuquerque.  He stumbles across a story that he can exploit as a means of getting him back into a prestigious job.  That the story has only a limited shelf-life and needs Tattum to involve himself in machinations to keep it going is the basis of the storyline, that those machinations involve risking a man’s life and capitalising on his suffering give the film its thematic thrust.  Douglas is excellent, his performance is not only thoroughly convincing but is necessarily ambiguous at certain points.  Throughout the film you hope that Tattum will see the immorality of his exploitation of Leo Minosa’s suffering and have a change of heart which is hinted at again and again- at one point he learns that unless he makes a change that Leo will die the next morning and he starts putting those changes in motion.  This is it you think, he’s seen the light.  Then he explains that Leo’s death will ruin his human interest story.  Even at this stage, faced with effectively murdering a man in order to get a big newspaper story he is unable to see past his own self-interest.  It may not have all of the ingredients of a typical noir thriller but films don’t get any more noir than this.

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One of those key film noir ingredients is the femme fatale figure and Jan Sterling’s role as the unsettled wife of Leo Minosa who aims to capitalise on his misfortune and then leave him typifies that.  She isn’t the Eve to Kirk Douglas’s Adam (see how I follow a snap of her eating an apple with that?  Oh yes!) as he was rotten to start with, but she is corrupt and corrupting- all heavy-lidded beauty and actions without remorse.  That said, I wasn’t thrilled by her performance at all.  I understand that her portrayal is highly regarded but for me it was flat and obvious: she starts corrupt and scheming and ends corrupt and scheming, there’s no arc, no nuance, no stand-out moment.  I just wanted to grab her by the shoulders and scream “Act damn you!”.  I guess I’m on my own on this one, but the opportunities she has to steal the film (stopping Leo’s mother praying for his rescue because her help is needed to serve customers, brilliant dialogue like “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons”, the scenes with Douglas where his character may win the argument but she gets more to do as a result ) are really wasted.

And that is what stops the film being absolutely perfect because, quite frankly, in every other aspect it is.  Ace in the Hole is cynical and brutal and pointed and merciless and utterly uncompromising.  There is no hero, there’s no-one to root for, there’s no-one even to like.  Everyone in it is self-serving, nasty or cynical, or else weak, cowardly and thoroughly unsympathetic as a result.  There isn’t even a happy ending.  Billy Wilder’s cynicism here isn’t confined to the newspaper hacks who keep the story going.  He focuses upon the corrupt officials who allow this to happen, the travelling hawkers and peddlers, the rubber-neckers, the travelling vigil-holders, spectators, vultures and ghouls, the contractors who take the more lucrative long way around, the sideshow entertainers and the local entrepreneurs.  Everyone wants to indulge in the Leo Minosa tragedy- it’s a human interest story!  Watching this in the wake of the Jade Goody carnival funeral, it can’t help but strike me how close to reality the whole thing really is almost sixty years later.

Only an idiot would say this film isn’t perfect and then give it 10/10.   10/10.

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Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)

March 31, 2009

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It’s mad this.  I love it, but I’m aware of how mad it is.  Veteran B-Movie actor Eddie Constantine reprises a regular role as private detective Lemmy Caution in a Jean-Luc Godard film set in the future.  Bonkers.  Brilliant.

As with any film Godard makes the emphasis is very much on realism.  And so you have a sci-fi film noir thriller set in a dystopian future (is there any kind of future in the movies?) which is filmed in mid-60s Paris featuring actors wearing contemporary clothing and driving contemporary cars.  In fact, if it weren’t for the dialogue you would have no idea that this was set in the future.  It could almost be a French version of What’s Up Tiger Lily?  And yet, it is very realistic because Godard chose the most futuristic parts of Paris and Coutard shot them in such a way that it works.  We’re not talking a Buck Rodgers future here but a terrifying vision of a very real, very near future.  The film begins by telling the viewer that it is “24.17 Oceanic Time” which will really, really strike a chord with anyone who has read Orwell’s contribution to the genre 1984.  Or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  And those source materials are a pretty important touchstone for the film referenced throughout- with the omniscient central government, dehumanised population and deliberate shrinking of the language.  It is telling for me that Godard’s sci-fi film is the antithesis of the gaudy, style-over-substance, effects and costume-heavy movies which dominate the genre.  Strip away the trappings, he is saying, and there must be more to the film than mere window-dressing.  He must have hated the Hollywood of the last three decades.

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The film opens with Lemmy Caution arriving in Alphaville under the assumed identity of a newspaper reporter from Figaro-Pravda (that is simply delicious by the way).  The wonderful Misraki B-movie soundtrack accompany Caution as he enters an Alphaville hotel, checks in, gets the lift to his floor, negotiates the winding corridoors and arrives at his room.  This is all achieved with one tracking shot including the lift sequence (the camera goes up in one glass elevator, Caution in another alongside it) it takes four minutes in full.  Amazing.  I can’t emphasise that enough.

Alphaville is a harsh, cold, loveless and remorseless place.  Five years on from À Bout de Souffle,which was in part a love letter to the city of Paris, Godard’s view appears to have completely changed.  Caution’s disdain for Alphaville simply gives voice to Godard’s for Paris: “Everything weird is ‘normal’ in this damn town” he says at one point.  What Paris is and what it is becoming informs much of the movie thematically.  This also makes Constantine’s uncomfortable performance work really well, he isn’t a natural or polished and his clunky accented delivery and hesitant body language is perfect for the role of discomfited outsider.  He is taking the whole thing super-seriously  as a spy thriller and seemingly ignoring the philosophical or futuristic bits that he doesn’t quite get.  It’s a great case of a Director using an actor brilliantly in spite of the actors limitations, I love Eddie Constantine in this (and, in the interests of balance, I should say that he also does a pretty good job in The Long Good Friday).  Godard makes the most of Constantine, his ‘interesting’ face and world-weary manner- he is in almost every shot, certainly every scene.

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And yet he isn’t the key figure in the film.  The film is, in many ways, a love letter to Anna Karina.  From the first moment that she appears- accompanied by a beautiful score for strings and lit with great sensitivity- she is objectified as being of almost preternatural beauty.  Her performance justifies this treatment too, she is sensational in this.  The moment at the climax of the film where she says for the first time and with a new understanding of the gravity of her words “I love you” is one of those heart-meltingly rare cinema moments that stay with you.  She speaks as if these are the first words she has ever said, the music swells, fin.  Truly beautiful. 

Love is one of the things which can save Alphaville.  During the execution scene- a man is executed for acting illogically- he wept when his wife died, his final words are: “Listen to me normal ones!  We see a truth that you no longer see.  A truth that says the essence of man is love and faith, courage and tenderness, generosity and sacrifice.  Everything else is an obstacle put up by your blind progress and ignorance!”.  The execution itself is odd (the prisoners are shot by firing squad beside a swimming pool and retrieved by synchronised swimmers who are applauded wildly by spectators) and this bizarre method is in keeping with the bizarre reason for the execution.  Godard is mocking the concept (and indeed the conceit) of this future.  He goes further in the following scenes and reveals that in the face of dehumanisation, poetry is the answer.  When Alphaville’s super computer (and by the way Alphaville’s super computer has a voice like a frog vomiting) interrogates Lemmy Caution, it asks “do you know what turns darkness into light?” to which he responds poetry.  And reading a book of the poet Éluard’s poetry entitled ‘The Capital of Pain’ (presumably chosen for the title as much as the content) reawakens the humanity within Karina’s character.  Yet it is here that the film falters to a degree, as with all of Godard’s work, there is a heavy philosophical element and the longer-than-it-seems sequence on anti-linguistic theory (“unless words change their meanings and meanings change their words”- that kind of stuff) is a step that the film could really do without.  The film isn’t serious enough to do such conceits justice- that’s my feeling anyway.

Aside from that interlude (which I would probably have tolerated much better if I hadn’t been too tired to understand it all) this is typical Godard, he doesn’t piss about with unnecessary pauses, he just puts relevant scenes and events on screen in an innovative way subverting everything which has gone before.  He even depicts a fight in still photos to avoid unnecessary and untidy camerawork.  A film about the resurrection of tenderness and of love.  8/10

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I Confess (1953)

March 20, 2009

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There is nothing Hitchcock loves more than a man who is under suspicion for a crime he didn’t commit.  He probably loves it even more than he loves melodramatic film titles, which is- as the Velvettes would tell you- really saying something.  The wrongly accused man is his key theme (three years later another of his many films on the theme would be called simply The Wrong Man) and the way it is used in this film could have made it the best of all of his takes on the concept.

Montgomery Clift plays Father Logan who is not only under suspicion and entirely innocent but he heard the guilty man’s confession and he knows who the real murderer is but is bound by his vows and cannot say- even in the face of the gallows!  It’s a great concept, truly it is and Monty Clift gives an extraordinarily tortured and yet restrained performance as Logan.  I don’t know too much about Clift, other than he died prematurely in sad circumstances and that his homosexuality had led him into alcohol and drug dependency, but I do know that when he was young he had it all- he was beautiful (not sexy or handsome but actually beautiful) and talented with a wonderful voice.  I bet he could even play darts if he’d put his mind to it.  In I Confess we are seeing the young, pre-accident Clift and his ability to express a thousand thoughts with fleeting expressions or a shift of his eyes is striking.  The scene where he hears O. E. Hasse’s confession is dazzling.  Hitchock knew he had something special here and he made the most of it.  It’s a wonderfully memorable scene.  What follows from there succeeds where it does because the audience is totally with Clift and that’s the hook.

The downside of this concept, however, is that the underlying uncertainty in Hitchcock’s other great innocent suspect films cannot happen here.  We never truly know until the climax whether Rear Window‘s Lars Thorwald really killed his wife or not, but we know that Clift is innocent without any lingering doubts about whether a further twist awaits us.  We also know- as seasoned movie-goers- that there is not a chance in a million that an innocent priest would be sent to the gallows in a 1953 Hollywood film.  If that was the ending, the film simply wouldn’t have been made.  And that kind of kills the suspense.  My wife’s uncle says that he’ll never watch a James Bond film “there’s no point” he claims “if you know that he isn’t going to die”.  And that’s a little of what happens here.  That element of doubt is missing and so as great a performance as Clift might give, it still isn’t quite enough.  I also didn’t think that Dimitri Tiomkin’s score aided the process as it should.  The best advert for the talents of Bernard Herrmann are the Hitchcock films which he didn’t score, that’s always been my opinion.  Tiomkin’s music is competent without adding colour to what is on screen, it lacks magic.

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One of the interesting things about this film, though, is the way that Hitchcock presents it visually.  This is almost a film noir with it’s exaggerated shadows and many dramatic low-level outdoor shots of Quebec buildings.  The noir motif of light streaking in through venetian blinds was brilliantly played upon in the confession box scene too- Hitchcock had great fun there.  There is even an extended flashback sequence, another noir staple.  And yet one of the things a noir needs- at least according to my understanding and opinions vary- is a degree of tension and conflict that is the staple of the vast majority of the great man’s work and yet is sorely missing here.  Clift’s stoical determination to uphold the sanctity of the confession box is so great that he doesn’t even appear to try and push Keller (the real murderer) into confessing.  And this lack of tension makes the film sag, especially around the extended flashback scene.  I remember thinking ‘this goes on a bit’ only halfway through that, by contrast the courtroom scenes flashed by in an eye-blink.  The change in Keller’s demeanour through the course of the film from distraught to relieved to cocksure should have ramped up the tension just as Clift’s turmoil and fear should have.  But it didn’t.  While Clift is angst-ridden and Keller’s manipulative remorselessness should make for spectacular exchanges, their scenes together are flat.

And none of the sub-plots really add to the drama, though at the same time they don’t offer relief either, they merely exist alongside the main story.  Ruth and Pierre Grandfort’s marriage may be going through the wringer and Alma Keller may be struggling to hold it together, or even to want to hold it together, for her husband but the viewer isn’t grabbed by these.  As extensions on the false accusation/trust and honesty theme they are simply mentioned, they aren’t explored or even properly introduced.  This is Hitchcockian thriller without the trademark Hitchcockian thrills.

We get some wonderful little sequences like the party scene opening on a glass and then opening out to reveal that it is being balanced on a man’s head as part of a party game, but they aren’t sufficient to do more than remind you that this is Hitchcock, but not vintage Hitchcock.  It’s a shame because Hasse, the ever-reliable Karl Malden, Dolly Haas as Alma Keller and Montgomery Clift all deserved a better film for their efforts.  Good, not great.  5/10

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Ooooh, something occured to me in the night that I’d probably need to check up on but given the politics of the time with McCarthyism and all, how significant was it that Hitchcock’s hero refused to speak up?  I know that Hitch was no lefty, but is this an alternative perspective to Kazan’s On The Waterfront?


Made in U.S.A. (1966)

March 9, 2009

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During this film the phrases “a Disney film with Humphrey Bogart” and “a Disney film with blood” are used.  And you can see what is meant by that.  This is super-stylish and, like all of Jean-Luc Godard’s finest films, mixes the personal and the political into a simple yet complex take on Film Noir.  The simple yet complex theme is evident in the dialogue as well as the construction of the film.

Godard’s work at this point seems far more overtly political than his earlier films and is almost an expression of his doubts and uncertainties with regard to left wing politics and how they can be reconciled with contemporary society.  There are overtly political visuals (the grafittied- there’s no right way to spell that is there?-  phrase Liberté gets machine-gunned) and dialogue (political tracts recounted by tape recorder as a clue in the case).  As an expression of what was happening in the world in general and France in particular (the Paris student riots were about two years away) Made in U.S.A. shows Godard to be both a product of and a leader of his times.

And it is, of course, an homage to the American B-movies that Godard references throughout.  If not made, this film was certainly conceived in the USA- if a country can also be a state of mind and I’m not getting all up my own pseudy arse with this!  The film features Anna Karina tracking down the murderer of her ex-lover.  The murder was the result of his involvement in or at least knowledge of a political assassination.  Karina, as was mentioned above, is a contemporary version of Bogart’s noir persona- uncompromising, hard-headed and thoughtful.  She is being tracked by a criminal and his callow, hapless accomplice (much like Wilmer Cook in The Maltese Falcon).  As far as a linear plot goes, that’s your lot.  Non-linear plot elements are the constant pop-culture allusions, the tape-recorded monologues on the French political situation and a discussion on perspectives and how they shape our view of the world.

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Being a Godard film, of course, it looks marvellous- the constant juxtaposition of stark white internal scenes with bright primary colours, the beautifully lit exteriors which seem so fresh, the long fixed-lens close-ups, the reflections of Karina barely visible in a photograph frame behind the head of the subject, the twins in the gymnasium- his visual inventiveness is indefatigable.  And it sounds marvellous, with real-life intervening in the form of sirens, telephone rings and overhead planes.  The influence of all of this on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films is obvious (the basic storyline, Karina’s appearance, the name hidden by a sound effects etc) and is further testimony to the power of the film to extend beyond itself and take on an importance beyond merely being a piece of cinematic art.  There is a scene where Karina and László Szabó sit down and describe what happens in the next part of the film rather than acting it out- this constant deconstruction of the cinematic myth (the dialogue constantly talks about movie scenes, characters, events, the mise-en-scène– hell even the characters are named after actors or directors) serves to remind us that Godard is making statements that go beyond the simplistic storyline.  The story is not what the film says, it is merely a vehicle to express the director’s statement.  Has the auteur theory ever been supported in so stark and blatant a way?

This is a film that needs to be seen and re-seen for things to make sense.  At present it’s a 7/10 but that should improve as the references become clearer with further viewings.  Of course, the whole thing could be a vacant pop-culture act of pretension, but I don’t believe so.

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Night and the City (1950)

February 10, 2009

Greed, deception and unrequited love.  What more could you want?  Richard Widmark leads as an American wide-boy trying to get rich quick in post-war London, hustling friends and strangers alike with the promise of “a life of ease and plenty”.   His success in the role is patchy, his manic desperation as the film progresses is of pivotal importance but he doesn’t convey charm anywhere near as well as Machiavellian quick-wittedness.

The speed with which the story moves is amazing considering the depth which is achieved.  The film opens with Harry Fabian (Widmark) running and seems to move at the same relentless pace right through to its climax.  He even says at one point “I’ve been running all of my life”.  It is a very Graham Greene-type story filled with impressive minor characters- Figler the King of the Beggars, Googin the Forger, Anna O’Leary and Molly the Flower Lady- and teems with anger and frustration (expressed in every Widmark moment) and a resignation that the underworld will proceed with little obstruction by the force of law.  There is no-one in the film to root for, they’re all bad.  Even the non-criminal characters, Mary and Adam (Gene Tierney and Hugh Marlowe) are sappy and unappealing.  At least the hoods have a spark of life in them!

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The film, by Jules Dassin- a personal favourite of mine, features a number of memorable scenes including a tremendously realised wrestle between Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and The Strangler (Mike Mazurki), a wonderful sequence from the rear of an open-topped car as one of Kristo’s hoods spreads a message to street dwellers and the final chase through the dimly lit and foggy backstreets of London is perfect noir.  The narrative is clear but never condescending and the mood is consistent throughout with great performances and really well designed and exeuted shots.

In the supporting roles, Herbert Lom (brooding magnificently as Kristos) and Francis L. Sullivan (Mr Jaggers from David Lean’s wonderful Great Expectations) are crucial as counterpoints to Widmark.  His unchannelled ambition and enthusiastic self-promotion are contrasted nicely by the men who he wants to rival, intimidating and ruthless with the quiet confidence of men with power they show Fabian up for the callow chancer that he is.  That Sullivan’s character (the bizarrely named Nosseross) is also in a loveless marriage of convenience that he desperately wants to transform into a real love affair simply adds further depth to his performance.

Unrequited love and the exploitation of it is another theme which Dassin depicts in all it’s sordidness.  Nosseross, as I’ve said, loves his wife- though he does describe her at one point as “bought and paid for”- and she exploits this with no kind feelings.  When she leaves him he says to himself “No, Helen, you’ll come back. And I’ll want to take you back”.  Fabian exploits Mary’s love for him and even she in turn doesn’t share the feelings that Adam has for her.  This is an uncompromising and bleakly cynical film full of unsympathetic characters without scruple or conscience.  A great uncovering of a very real underworld culture.

The bleakness inherent in this film- and perhaps all great noirs- is beautifully expressed in its expressionistic use of dramatic monochrome staging.  A tremendous picture- 8/10.

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The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

January 30, 2009

Being a black and white caper-gone-bad movie with a gang led by a recently released prisoner with a plan and a largely silent robbery sequence, I couldn’t help comparing this to Jules Dassin’s marvellous Rififi and of course it pales in comparison.  But this pre-dates Rififi by five years and is a damn good example of the genre in its own right.   In fact, I doubt I’d have Rififi to marvel over (or Kubrick’s The Killing for that matter) without this seminal movie.

John Huston directs a strong cast well bringing out excellent performances from Sterling Hayden (forever known to me as ‘the cop that Michael whacks’ despite his long and varied CV), Louis Calhern and especially from a scene-stealing Sam Jaffe.  The minor characters stand up well- including an early Monroe performance- and add colour and depth, from the hunchbacked James Whitmore to the lip-licking greed of Barry Kelley.  The story moves along at pace with intelligence covering all bases and adding depth and clarity to the characters’ actions and putting the later plot developments into context. 

My only real qualms about the movie are the neatness of its conclusions- things are a little too convenient for the investigating officers, hardened criminals wilt under little pressure etc- the hammered-home pro-police propaganda speech from John McIntire which is very much out of keeping with the tone of the film and the genre and the happy-sad ending which really didn’t do it for me.

So, flawed but recommended.  Noteworthy for its influence on the Fim Noir genre and smashing as a film in its own right – 7/10


Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

January 15, 2009

As snappy as the clicked fingers on the hip jazz soundtrack, this film peels away the layers to reveal the seedy side of the glamorous New York scene.  It looks fantastic, moves like a great Billy Wilder film, has a heart and conscience and wit, great dialogue and a neatly complete storyline.

There is a saying that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ and that runs to the heart of this film.  Both lead characters are slimy, Machiavellian and unprincipled but only the one with authority appears irredeemable.  I’ve said before that I usually don’t like Burt Lancaster and in this film, there are and aren’t reasons why: his delivery of dialogue is horrible, a mish-mash of abrupt glottal stops and lingering esses at the end of sentences and this can render some snappy lines as rehearsed and implausible.  On the other hand his brooding, muscular, arrogant-yet-insecure screen presence is perfect for the part of J. J. Hunsecker.

The star, though, is Tony Curtis- again an actor I’ve little time for, other than his tongue-in-cheek cameo in ‘Paris When It Sizzles’- but here he really comes into his own as the aspirational press agent who is prepared to use his charm, good lucks and even to pimp out his sometime girlfriend to get to where he wants to be.  The restaurant scene where he stands up to Hunsecker and then relents when a juicier carrot is dangled is the key scene in the movie with both men at their best.

I loved the New York at night skyline and the razor-sharp black and white cinematography that made this film-noir at its best (in spirit if not necessarily structure) too.  All in all an impressive film from Alexander Mackendrick 8/10.