Tuesday, June 19, 2012


The dominator.

The Setup
Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker) is a hardened criminal of considerable repute who’s about to receive early release from a lengthy prison term. The film begins on his last day inside, and shows him to be confident, decisive and in control — not only of his fellow inmates, but of the undermanned and unmotivated guards as well. But as soon as Bannion walks through the gates, it’s as if a switch has been flipped. He’s edgy and needlessly aggressive when his old running mate, Mike Carter (Sam Wanamaker), comes to greet him. He churlishly spoils his homecoming party when his uninvited ex-girlfriend, Maggie (Jill Bennett), arrives and starts pushing his buttons. Bannion has been inside too long to be able to quickly reorient himself to being outside.

This existential discomfort also pervades Bannion’s professional life. He further alienates Carter and other partners in crime while pulling off a racetrack robbery based on information from a former cellmate. The heist is successful, but Bannion balks at paying the new, exorbitant rate being charged by the money-changer. He hides the takings where no one can find them and, worse, commits the cardinal sin of using some of the stolen money to buy a bauble for his latest conquest, Suzanne (Margit Saad).

A stoolie's fate.

In short order, Bannion is sold out by the jealous Maggie and the duplicitous Carter, the latter eager to supplant him in the criminal hierarchy. Bannion is duly hustled back to prison, and quickly realizes that things have changed. Having transgressed underworld codes, Bannion is no longer top dog behind bars, and encounters nothing but betrayal and confrontation. Carter works behind the scenes to pressure Bannion to turn over the money: he has Suzanne kidnapped and arranges for Bannion to receive a working over from a couple of brutal inmates.

Frank Saffron (Gregoire Aslan), a high-ranking gang boss who is now top man in the jail, eventually convinces a reluctant Bannion to cooperate. Saffron orders up a prison riot, but organizes it so that it appears Bannion has helped the guards to quash it. Bannion’s pariah status necessitates a prison transfer to ensure his safety, during which Carter’s men effect his escape. Despite the odds stacked against him, Bannion still thinks he can have his cake and eat it, not realizing he’s in over his head and that all his dreams are about to be permanently deferred.

The savage is loose. 

The Payoff
The Criminal marks a transition between Joseph Losey’s genre works of the 1950s and his art films of the 1960s and ’70s. It’s the movie in which Losey (arguably) more or less “became” Losey. It also represents a milestone in the development of the British crime film. The tension between its realist narrative impulses (courtesy of Alun Owen’s razor-sharp script) and Losey’s intoxicating mix of cinéma vérité camerawork, Eisensteinian montage and Brechtian flourish began a process of genre transformation that would reverberate throughout modernist successors like Kaleidoscope (1966) and Performance (1970). 

The film was likewise a key one for Stanley Baker, whose character (a nod to Dave Bannion in The Big Heat?) finds himself increasingly marginalized in a newly treacherous underworld, and fighting a losing battle to retain a sense of control in or out of prison. With his raptor-like visage (fellow Welshman and friend Richard Burton described him as a “terrifying old boot … with a face like a clenched fist”), Baker projected a sense of danger unequalled in British cinema at the time, Sean Connery included. (Baker was, in fact, offered the role of 007 in 1961.) However, the actor’s brutish persona masked a latent sensitivity, one that Losey was quick to exploit. Baker delivers a powerful and nuanced performance, full of unbridled aggression, but counterpoised by hints of self-doubt and vulnerability. He would deliver equally accomplished work in the subsequent Losey films Eva (1962) and Accident (1967).

Corruption in uniform.

The prison scenes are among the film’s strongest, especially during the opening sequence, in which a despised police informer is transferred into Bannion’s cell block. The convicts make clear their collective loathing and are about to administer rough justice before Bannion stops them with a word. The stoolie will indeed receive his just reward (a vicious cell beating masked by the prisoners’ community singing of a child’s nursery rhyme), but on Bannion’s time and terms. Ironically, it’s the last time he will enjoy such unquestioned authority.

Script and direction present a gritty and realistic portrayal of prison life, and proffer some telling sociological observations about how society runs on both sides of the law. But it’s primarily a character study, which, to its credit, isnt confined to the leads. Owun’s script generously invests a dozen or so supporting characters with stories of their own, which adds immeasurably to the film’s verisimilitude and emotional impact. The crowning touch is Robert Krasker’s beautifully harsh black-and-white photography, which gives the film a palpable sense of place and texture. The most memorable shot comes at the end, after Bannion has escaped from Carter and makes a desperate attempt to recover the money he’s buried under a frozen, snow-covered field. As Carter’s jackals converge, Krasker frames a bird’s eye perspective that pitilessly observes and punctuates Bannion’s ultimate nullity. While not a perfect film, Losey, Baker and their collaborators make The Criminal a thematic arabesque of corruption, deceit and despair.

Bannion and Carter no longer speak the same language.

The Lawless
Johnny Bannion likes the high life: swank bachelor pad, posh birds and lots of hot money in his hands. He’s even got a portable sunlamp with which he tans himself while lying in bed. This aspect of his character anticipates the materialist attitude that would sweep Britain in a few years time. Yet he’s as hard as nails and without pity towards those who cross him. Bannion is old school, prone to doing things his way and brooking no interference, putting him at odds with the changing face of British criminality. Baker plays him with feral intensity, and in fact modeled the character on Albert Dimes, a notorious underworld gangster and one of Baker’s drinking mates.

Mike Carter represents the criminal as organization man: deferential to his superiors, condescending to his subordinates, quick to betray a friend. Carter is basically devoid of character and human feeling, and willingly sells his soul on behalf of the corporation: “We belong to a proper setup. We’re important, yes, but things would go on without us.” 

Prison playmates.

The Law
Patrick Magee plays Barrows, the prison warden who runs the cell block with an iron hand, but who knows when to let the convicts let off much-needed steam. He’s deeply religious, and becomes visibly emotional while attending chapel services. But he’s also a bit of a sadist, turning a blind eye to a stoolie’s beating, and is quite probably corrupt as well, conveniently placing Bannion in a cell with his would-be assailants — just where Carter wants him.

Bedlam behind bars.

Most of the film’s violence takes place inside the prison. The thrashing of the prison informer is memorably filmed with expressionistic lighting and editing, and rather chillingly plays out against the collective cell block singing of the familiar children’s refrain “nick-nack paddywhack.” During Bannion’s second incarceration, he’s put into a cell with a couple of intimidating Irish thugs planted there to make him reveal where the money is. Bannion regards them contempt. “If you think a couple of shebeen rats like you could frighten me, c’mon … and learn.” He then proceeds to teach them both a painful lesson. The prison riot is the film’s big set piece, a stunning tour de force that evokes a nightmarish scene like something from the 16th century Bedlam mental hospital.

Confession time for Johnny Bannion.

The Vernacular
Quantock: “You were big inside.”
Johnny Bannion: “Oh, yeah. Big enough to be three in a cell all through last year’s stinking summer.”

Snipe [as a prison stoolie is mercilessly beaten]: “I hope he doesn’t mark his face.”
Johnny Bannion: “Clobber’s a neat worker.”

Mike Carter: “Your sort doesn’t fit into an organization. So we can’t have you running about messing things up, now can we, Johnny?”

Figures in a landscape.

End Titles
Director: Joseph Losey; screenplay: Alun Owen, Jimmy Sangster; producers: Nat Cohen, Stuart Levy; music: Johnny Dankworth; cinematography: Robert Krasker; editing: Reginald Mills

Stanley Baker (Johnny Bannion); Sam Wanamaker (Mike Carter), Patrick Magee (Barrows), Margit Saad (Suzanne), Gregoire Aslan (Frank Saffron), Kenneth Warren (Clobber), Jill Bennett (Maggie), John Van Eyssen (Formby), Patrick Wymark (Sol), Brian Phelan (Pauly Larkin), Paul Stassino (Alfredo Fanucci), Tom Bell (Flynn), Neil McCarthy (O’Hara), Nigel Green (Ted), Murray Melvin (Antlers)

Monday, November 15, 2010


Tajima hates yakuza.

The Setup
Tajima (Jo Shishido), is a cocky, resourceful private eye who owns the Detective Bureau 2-3 of the title. For reasons never explained, he manifests a deep-seated hate for the yakuza, an emotion that primes his motivational pump throughout the film. “If there are less yakuza, the world will be a better place,” he tells Captain Kumagaya (Nobuo Kaneko). The film kicks off with a yakuza gang making an unauthorized munitions withdrawal from an American military base, only to be ambushed by a competing gang riding atop a Pepsi-Cola delivery truck. The blistering gun battle leaves a score of bodies and dozens of bottles of the world’s second-favorite soft drink riddled with bullets.

Yakuza have no love for Tajima.

With the police seemingly unable to deal with the carnage, Tajima sees an opportunity to show them up and wreak havoc among the criminal ranks. He convinces a skeptical Kumagaya to issue him a gun and a fake ID so he can infiltrate one of the gangs battling for control of the local gun-running trade. Posing as an ex-con, he befriends mid-level criminal Manabe (Tamio Kawachi) in order to get close to yakuza boss Hatano (Kinzo Shin), whose criminal potency is offset by his sexual impotence. Tajima plants a microphone on Hatano’s unsuspecting girlfriend Chiaki (Reiko Sasamori) to gather evidence on the gang, even as she keeps him under surveillance. His sleuthing ultimately leads him to Beniki, Hatano’s superior, who finds buyers for the guns under his guise as a respectable businessman.

Following a number of surreptitious schemes, stylish shootouts and sexual subversion, Tajima’s cover is blown and he’s marked for elimination. The quick-thinking detective hastily improvises a new backstory for himself, but Hatano isn’t buying. He locks Tajima and Chiaki (who’s revealed her hatred of the mob boss) in an underground garage, pumps gallons of motor oil into it and sets the mother on fire. However, Hatano doesn’t realize that he’s just handed Tajima a fuse with which to ignite a battle royal between the gangs — a ferocious encounter fought with guns and samurai swords that brings the film to a spectacularly convulsive conclusion.

Tajima wins the staredown.

The Payoff
The early 1960s was a transitional period for Seijun Suzuki. After churning out numerous yakuza films for Nikkatsu throughout the 1950s, the director began to rebel against the creative limitations imposed by the studio. Fed up with clichéd scenarios and adherence to stylistic conventions, Suzuki began infiltrating anarchic visual flourishes to make things more interesting for himself and his audiences. Nineteen-sixty-three is widely regarded as the year Suzuki started to became Suzuki with the release of Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! Although it doesn’t scale the delirious heights of Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967) — the latter’s visual and narrative anarchy got him fired from Nikkatsu — the film still turns the yakuza genre on its head through Suzuki’s hyperbolic approach.

Manabe’s girl engages in psychosexual foreplay.

One of the supreme visual stylists of 1960s Japanese action cinema, even his lesser films are filled to overflowing with ingenious, dynamic compositions that would do Orson Welles proud. Suzuki was an undisputed master of the widescreen format, and he displays that gift from start to finish in Detective Bureau 2-3. Consider the shot early in the film when Tajima is trying to sell Captain Kumagaya on his undercover scheme. Suzuki places the actors’ heads aggressively close to the camera and at opposite ends of the frame, allowing the empty space in the middle to evoke the huge gulf of their mutual antipathy and mistrust. In less capable hands such framing would be inert and stilted, but Suzuki makes it work through the intensity of the performers and the precisely judged rhythm of his cutting.

Similar examples abound — amazing corridor images that seem to play with the laws of physics; shots crammed to bursting with obdurate faces; surreal compositions of guns and disembodied hands; a shattered mirror reflection of Chiaki that evokes her emotional disaffection; a beautifully composed shot of Tajima hiding in a toilet stall that embraces the abstraction of empty space. Suzuki even throws in a Sergio Leone-like extreme close-up on the baleful eyes of a yakuza heavy — one year before Leone’s first spaghetti western.

Mexican standoff — Japanese style.

The director’s lighting and color schemes were also becoming more daring and surreal by 1963. In this respect he was abetted by cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine and lighting director Kyosuke Yoshida. The scenes in the apartment where Manabe and his girlfriend meet for their romantic trysts are imaged in super-saturated yellows and reds. The flagrantly unrealistic colors dazzle the eye and underscore the sexual heat and perversity of the characters’ relationship. Elsewhere, Suzuki and his collaborators turn a jazz club into a riot of red, lending a disturbing visual frisson to Tajima’s attempt to keep Chiaki off balance by pretending to make love to her.

Suzuki further pushes the narrative envelope through his sardonic, tongue-in-cheek attitude. Much of the action is imbued with outlandish black humor: When Manabe is about to be released from police custody, dozens of rival gang members wait openly outside police headquarters with long-range rifles to pick him off on sight. And the director conjures up a magical bit of business by having Tajima and Manabe aim their guns at one another in the kind of point blank standoff made famous years later by Jean-Pierre Melville and John Woo. 

Bad guys wear the coolest shades.

The Lawless
Hatano is one of the more memorable villains in Suzuki’s filmography. Played by the cadaverous, evil-looking Shin, he projects guile and avarice in equal measures. Hatano is rightfully suspicious of Tajima from the start; he not only has his men check on his bona fides, he also sets Chiaki to spy on him. Like any good yakuza boss, he keeps his thoughts to himself and his emotions under control. That is, until he learns of Chiaki’s betrayal, when he finally lets down the mask to reveal his jealousy, anger, frustration and impotence. One almost feels a twinge of compassion for him until he ignites the inferno that threatens to melt her poutingly sexy features.

A mid-level soldier in Hatano’s crew, Manabe fulfills the narrative function of allowing Tajima to insinuate himself into the gang. But Suzuki is more interested in filming Manabe’s sadomasochistic liaisons with his girlfriend. “My love! I was so worried,” she greets him upon his release from prison. Manabe throws her to floor, curses her, accuses her of betrayal, then flings himself on top of her as they make uninhibited love under Tajima’s jaded gaze.

Guns don’t argue.

The Lawful
Shishido was already an established action star by 1963, thanks in part to cheek-augmentation surgery that altered his features for a fuller, more rounded look. In addition to his striking appearance, Shishido was versatile enough to play out-and-out villains as well as enjoyably tarnished heroes. Like Suzuki, he was frustrated with routine scripts, and always tried to inject something extra into his performances. This made him the perfect leading man for the iconic director. He plays Tajima with confident swagger, taking obvious enjoyment in posing as a yakuza while playing both ends against the middle. Shishido shows his hipster side, too, particularly in a nightclub scene where his ex-girlfriend is the featured attraction. Fearing that she might recognize him and blow his cover, he jumps onstage and joins her in an extended song-and-dance number, singing lyrics that shatter the fourth wall to comment sardonically on the situation. It’s absurd and astonishing, and one of the coolest moments in the film. The remaining actors provide competent support, but the film is thoroughly dominated by Shishido’s manic energy and cynical charisma. Coupled with Suzuki’s supercharged aesthetic, it all adds up to 88 minutes of combustible, eye-popping fun.

Color-coded killing.

• Suzuki signs his name in a bold pre-credit sequence distinguished by its sudden violence, confident staging and whiplash editing. His subversive genius is manifest in the bullets that enfilade the Pepsi-Cola truck, a shining symbol of postwar American colonialism.

• Another dynamic shootout takes place in a scrapyard where Hatano’s men attempt to kill the now-exposed Tajima and the suddenly expendable Manabe. The skirmish gains added drama from its nocturnal setting and Suzuki’s unfailingly inventive camera setups. While not quite in the John Woo bullet ballet class, it’s miles ahead of most other crime films made in 1963. And the hot lead-cold steel showdown that concludes the film is a glorious example of the director’s super-heated, over-the-top action aesthetic.

• Manabe, on the run, flees to his girlfriend’s pad to hide out. Even though he’s under threat of death, he’s so caught up in the thrall of their depraved role-playing that he fails to spot the unseen gunman in the room. He soon finds out while embracing her, however, when a shot suddenly rings out and flings him to the floor like a rag doll. His girl gets one too, plus one more for good measure, as she joins her man in the afterlife.

Who ordered takeout?

The Vernacular
Tajima: Hi, Captain!”
Captain Kumagaya: “Here to peddle tips? Jackass!”

Hatano [after Tajima has pulled a gun on him]: “What are you doing?”
Tajima: “I was wrong. I thought you were going to kill me.”
Hatano: “One should not kill someone useful.”

Beniki: “Can we trust him?”
Hatano: “Trust? It’s impossible.”

Chiaki: “Don’t look at me like that. I’m a virgin, but my heart is that of a prostitute.”

Tajima [to Chiaki]: “Tonight, he was smarter than me.”
Beniki [eavesdropping]: “Exactly. I heard your conversation. Finally, I’m going to win. You’re going to burn up along with the proof. Until then, enjoy yourselves!”

Chiaki reflects on her unhappy past.
The End Credits
Director: Seijun Suzuki; screenplay: Gan Yamazaki; producer: Shozo Ashida; music: Harumi Ibe; cinematography: Shigeyoshi Mine; lighting: Kyosuke Yoshida; editing: Akira Suzuki

Jo Shishido (Tajima); Reiko Sasamori (Chiaki); Tamio Kawachi (Manabe);
Nobuo Kaneko (Captain Kumagaya); Kinzo Shin (Hatano); Naomi Hoshi; Asao Sano; Yuko Kusunoki; Kotoe Hatsui

Sleuthing and smoking.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Nice work if you can get it.

The Setup
Charles (Jean Gabin), an aging but still ambitious criminal just released from prison, returns to his home in a northern Paris suburb to find his neighborhood has been converted to government housing projects. His modest little house now stands alone amidst a profusion of anonymous concrete high-rises, a sobering reminder that the world is passing him by. His wife Ginette is there to greet him, but their perfunctory reunion does little to elevate his mood. Even more uninspiring is her desire to sell their house and buy a small hotel in the south of France. Charles envisions a somewhat grander retirement. One purchased with the proceeds from the job he’s been planning for years — knocking off a big casino at Cannes.

His ex-partner is past his prime, so Charles calls upon his ex-cellmate Francis (Alain Delon), a thief whose physical agility will complement Charles’ criminal ingenuity. Francis is a trustworthy, albeit erratic character whose impetuous nature is at odds with his partner’s old school professionalism. Charles also enlists Francis’ brother-in-law Louis, an unassuming mechanic who could use a million extra francs, to do the driving. After checking in at a five-star hotel, they spend considerable time casing the casino and going over Charles’ meticulous plans. Francis is tasked with posing as a rich playboy and becoming sufficiently intimate with one of the casino’s dancers so he can hang around backstage without arousing suspicion. From there he will have access to the casino roof and the air-conditioning vent that will take him to the elevator shaft and into the casino vault. Francis will rely on his nerve, the element of surprise and a machine gun to get the job done.

After five years in prison, Charles seems less than spellbound by his wife’s allure.

Despite some tense moments, everything goes like clockwork, and the group’s unlawful conduct is rewarded to the tune of a billion francs, cleverly hidden in the poolside changing room Francis has rented. Fate, however, which strikes unexpectedly and often in the crime film firmament of the 1960s, is lurking in the margins of this picture as well. Francis unknowingly has his picture taken by a society photographer working the casino on the night of the robbery. Said photo is plastered right below the next morning’s newspaper headline trumpeting the crime, forcing Charles to radically alter his plans. Instead of lying low for a week, they must attempt an immediate getaway. He instructs Francis to grab the money and meet him at the hotel’s pool, so that they might escape via their rented Rolls. Unfortunately, the swimming pool becomes the staging area for an ironically inspired denouement that’s as beautiful to watch unfold as it is bitter for the protagonists to swallow.

Francis applies his callous charm.

The Payoff
While its measured pace might put off modern viewers weaned on high-octane celluloid vacuity, crime cognoscenti will appreciate the confident deliberation with which Any Number Can Win plays out. Director Henri Vernuil and screenwriters Michel Audiard and Albert Simonin understand that fleshing out the events leading up to the heist only enhances its suspense quotient. It also allows time to exploit the slightly soiled glamour of the French Riviera, with its inveterate gamblers and sunburned sexual adventurers. There’s a notably frank and nonjudgmental attitude towards sex and the pecuniary motives behind its application. A very French attitude, naturellement. The filmmakers also indulge in a series of character-defining narrative detours:

• Francis arrives at the swank hotel while the advice Charles previously gave him is heard in voiceover: “You don’t tip the guy who shows you your room. Instead, say the bathroom smells bad, the room’s too small, you don’t like this or that color. The important thing is to fuss. It’s called ‘having class.’”
• The barman at the hotel swimming pool gives Francis the lowdown on how much it will cost to score with the hotel’s sexually amenable female guests. The Polish countess? “30,000, but it’s negotiable. With or without dinner, as you wish.”
• Francis is undone by his lack of experience when he fails to maintain the requisite emotional detachment during his seduction of the dancer. He becomes genuinely upset when she throws him over, and goes to the casino to cool off. His lack of concentration results in the candid camera moment that throws a kink into Charles’ carefully laid plans.

Pajamas and machine guns.

The heist sequence runs for nearly half an hour, most of it sans dialog in the manner of Jules Dassin’s classic caper Rififi (1955). It’s beautifully filmed, with each shot precisely framed and perfectly timed. The best moment occurs when Francis comes to an open-grille section of the air-conditioning vent. Verneuil films this with an overhead shot showing Francis’ black-clad body silhouetted against the brightly lit casino below him. Should any of the gamblers happen to glance up....Verneuil also creates suspense by cutting back and forth between Francis’ progress in the vent and the transportation of the money to the vault. And the entire sequence benefits enormously from the fact that Delon is plainly doing his own stuntwork — negotiating the castellated casino roof, crawling through the cramped ventilator duct, rappelling down the inside of the elevator shaft.

But the real climax of the film occurs after the robbery. Verneuil’s mise-en-scene is impeccable during the last 15 nail-biting minutes, as Charles and Francis, sitting on opposite sides of the pool, sweat it out while dozens of police search the area, armed with precise descriptions of the cases used in the holdup — cases that are resting on either side of Francis’ chair, in plain sight for the first sharp-eyed cop to notice. Francis and Charles conspicuously pretend the other doesn’t exist, yet one can almost hear them mentally shouting at each other in the electric silence. Verneuil’s tracking shots define the inexorable movements of the police as they unknowingly close in — the camera literally anticipating the moment of discovery — as Francis takes the only course open to him. What happens next leads to one of the greatest twist endings in any crime film of the era.

Director Verneuil (who was born Achod Malakian to Armenian parents in Turkey) was a criminally undervalued French director whose large and diverse body of work includes some of the most memorable thrillers of the 1960s and ’70s, including the super-cool The Sicilian Clan (1969), which also paired Gabin and Delon; and the gritty Fear Over the City (1975), which starred Jean-Paul Belmondo. Although he never got the props accorded to the likes of Jean-Pierre Melville (or Jacques Deray, for that matter), Verneuil made popular and intelligent crime thrillers with a consistency rivaled by few of his peers.

Francis about to make a surprise appearance.

The Lawless
Despite his arrogance and impulsiveness, Francis does have the potential for stepping up into Charles’ class. He exhibits plenty of energy and nerve during the heist, and unimpeachable style immediately afterwards. Having safely stashed the money, he slips into his tux, saunters onto the street as if he hadn’t a care in the world, and casually lights up a cigarette as a convoy of police cars speeds past him towards the casino. The barest hint of a sardonic smile plays on his lips. The moment recalls the opening of Goldfinger, when Bond coolly ignites his cigarette just as the explosive charges he’d set in a drug factory go off. Delon’s effortless sangfroid clearly points to his imminent superstardom.

Gabin is even more compelling as the sixtyish, cynical Charles, especially when he dons his Ray-Bans and stalks the casino floor like a hungry shark. He seems able to actually smell the money that’s being won and lost all around him. The sunglasses effectively symbolize the way Charles has shut himself off from the rest of the world. His emotional aridity is established early on through his relationship with his wife, and continues unabated until the end. The only thing that excites him is the thought of the big score. He seems most fully alive when he’s in the vault, stuffing banknotes into a valise, but Gabin lets us see that Charles is already dead, he just doesn’t realize it.

Charles intimidates his fellow gamblers.

The Lawful
The character of Louis (Maurice Biraud) is accorded an unusual measure of depth for the relatively minor role he plays in the film. Working-class through and through, he’s initially seduced by the cut of one million francs Charles offers him, but his conscience eventually gets the better of him. He tells Charles that he’ll still hold up his end, but he wants no part of the money, fearing it will corrupt him and tempt him into doing further extralegal jobs. Maurice has no wish to step up into a life of crime, even if it means substantially improving his lifestyle. Wanker.

• The violence in this film is primarily emotional, as when Francis employs deliberately cruel tactics on the girl he’s trying to seduce. Having played nice guy for several dates, he suddenly erupts when she refuses to sleep with him and leaves her stranded at a remote restaurant. The look on her face manifests infinitely more pain than if he’d physically struck her.

• Francis can dole out physical abuse when necessary, although he’s certainly no thug. But when a casino employee doesn’t open an access door fast enough to suit him, Francis brutally knocks him to the floor, even though the man appears to be in his sixties. Bastard.

Countus interruptus.

The Vernacular
Francis: “Listen, Charles. You’re putting me on a job, right?”
Charles: “You got any objections?”
Francis: “You’re not afraid you might be traveling a little light? We were cellmates for a year, but you’re still taking a risk. You could be making a mistake with me. I’m not even sure I can pull my weight.”
Charles: “I’m sure. A bum would have said yes right away. A bum always says yes to anyone at any price.”

Francis [to a Polish ‘countess’ trying to hustle him]: “Don’t waste your breath, sweetheart. We’re in the same line of work.”
Countess [to bartender]: “I must be getting old. I can no longer tell a gentleman from a pimp.”

The End Credits
Director: Henri Verneuil; screenplay: Michel Audiard, Albert Simonin; producer: Jacques Bar; music: Michel Magne; cinematography: Louis Page; editing: Francoise Bonnot

Jean Gabin (Charles); Alain Delon (Francis Verlot); Viviane Romance (Ginette); Carla Marlier (Brigitte); Maurice Biraud (Louis); Claude Cerval (police commissaire); Henri Virlojeux (Mario); Jean Carmet (swimming pool barman); José Luis de Villalonga (Grimp); Germaine Montero (Mme Verlot); Rita Cadillac (Liliane); Ann-Marie Coffinet (Marcelle); Dominque Davray (Léone); Dora Doll (Polish countess); Georges Wilson (Walther)

Charles in charge.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

TONY ROME (1967)

The eponymous hero about to experience a little Miami mayhem.
The Setup
Miami private eye Tony Rome (Frank Sinatra) is minding his usual pursuits — cruising on his live-in boat, gambling, drinking and ogling stuffed bikinis — when he receives a call from his ex-partner Ralph Turpin (Robert J. Wilke), now working as house dick at a seedy hotel. Seems the daughter of a socially prominent businessman is sleeping off a bender at the “hot pillow shop” (so-called because of all the hookers who do business there). The hotel is on the law’s s**t list, so Turpin asks Tony to take the girl home in hopes of avoiding public scandal and official trouble. Rome smells trouble, but agrees for old times’ sake and a couple of hundred bucks.

He duly delivers Diana Pines (Sue Lyon) to her father, Rudy Kosterman (Simon Oakland), and her stepmother Rita (Gena Rowlands). While hanging about he also meets sexed-up divorcée Ann Archer (Jill St. John), who takes one look at Rome and immediately bats bedroom eyes at him. They flirt in that grown-up way that people used to flirt onscreen as Rome gives her a lift home. That same evening Rome is minding his own business when a couple of hard cases pay him a visit, give him a chloroform cocktail and tear his boat apart looking for a diamond pin they think he might have. Diana shows up the following morning and hires Rome to recover the pin, which belongs to her. Meanwhile, Rudy engages Rome to discover the reason behind Diana’s recent strange behavior. Then Rita gets into the act, asking Tony to give her first dibs on whatever information he uncovers, prompting him to quip: “If you had a bigger family, I could retire.”

Rome’s multiple investigations quickly embroil him in all kinds of Miami vice, including larceny, blackmail, bigamy, drugs, sex and murder. Along the way he gets beaten up, shot at and framed for murder. His pal on the Miami police force, Lieutenant Dave Santini (Richard Conte) pressures Rome for information, while the perpetually in heat Archer does her best to get him between the sheets. The plot has more twists than a bag of bar pretzels, but the numerous threads eventually cohere with seamless precision, Rome having traced all the trouble to a mysterious underworld figure from Rita Kosterman’s less-than-reputable past.

Rita Kosterman: a woman with two husbands — and no divorces.

The Payoff
Frank Sinatra established his reputation as a serious actor in the fifties, his Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity (1956) just one in a string of justly acclaimed performances. Life behind the camera wasn’t quite so swinging in the first half of the sixties, however. With the exception of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Von Ryan’s Express (1965), Ol’ Blue Eyes alternated between Rat Pack potboilers, limp comedies and indifferent action pictures. He was still hitting high notes as a recording artist, but his cinematic endeavors more often than not came up snake eyes.

Enter Rome. Tony Rome, that is, the first of three consecutive pictures Sinatra made with producer Aaron Rosenberg and director Gordon Douglas, men well equipped to deal with Frank’s mercurial personality. Rosenberg had recently survived two films with serial ego-tipper Marlon Brando, while Douglas had worked with Sinatra twice before, and elicited good performances from the temperamental star. Douglas was a vastly undervalued craftsman whose visual flair elevated many a picture from the mundane to the memorable. He could block out action sequences as well as any other Hollywood director, and brought the most mundane dialog scenes to life through shrewd camera placement and empathetic rapport with actors.

Aided by ace cinematographer Joseph Biroc (who deftly captures Miami’s day and night contrast), Douglas fills the film with eye-catching, thematically rich compositions. In one pungent shot, Rome fills the bottom foreground of the screen lying fully dressed on a beach recliner in front of the Fontainebleau Hotel, the very picture of male entitlement and contentment. Intruding into this sybaritic tableau is Ann Archer, having just emerged from the surf like a 20th century Venus in a sexy blue bikini. The opposition of horizontal and vertical figures — one clothed and dry, one damp and nearly naked — is charged with a powerful dynamic of sexual tension and promise, dominance and submission.

“Well, Tony Rome. Don’t you ever sleep in a bed?”

Another key contributor was veteran screenwriter Richard Breen, whose tight adaptation hews faithfully to the complex narrative and hard-boiled aesthetic of Marvin H. Albert’s source novel. Breen also added a sophisticated vulgarity daring for its time. The numerous double entendres are sharp, sardonic and more than a little salacious. When Diana’s milksop husband angrily asks Rome, “Just what’s your connection with my wife?” Tony zings him with: “She’s nothing but a $200 stranger to me.” And no one who has seen the film is likely to forget Rome’s jaw-dropping reply to a homely would-be client who wants him to find out why her “pussy” (as in pussycat) no longer smiles.

The hard-edged fight scenes are cut with precision by editor Robert L. Simpson, who gives the film a visual rhythm that’s finger-snappingly brisk. The musical rhythm is taken care of by Billy May, arranger of numerous Sinatra albums, whose swinging soundtrack is as smooth as a bourbon on the rocks. Speaking of music, the title track is sung by none other than Nancy Sinatra, who applies her inimitable vocal styling to the era-defining lyrics: “Mothers lock your daughters in. It’s too late to talk to them. Cause Tony Rome is out and about. And Tony Rome’ll get ’em if you don’t watch out.”

A figure of ill will extends an unwelcome invitation.
The Lawless
Vic Rood (Lloyd Bochner), a gay drug pusher whom Rome rather gratuitously slaps around. Granted, Vic comes at Tony with a knife, and if you’re going to mess with mean dogs, don’t cry when they bite you.

Catleg, an imported hit man who pops in and out of the narrative to take pot shots at various and sundry characters, including our man Rome. Played by nightclub comic Shecky Greene, Catleg has been arrested so many times he’s able to recite his own rights when he’s nabbed by the cops.

Jules Langley, a not-quite-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is middle-aged criminal in league with a crooked jeweler-cum-fence who swapped the diamonds on Diana’s pin for imitation stones; and his younger, tougher partner Oscar. Lloyd Gough and Babe Hart put just enough ambiguity in their performances to raise the possibility their characters might be more than just partners in crime.

Lt. Santini isn’t falling for Rome’s charm.

The Lawful
In Tony Rome, Sinatra could not have found a character better suited to his own personality. The hero of Albert’s three Tony Rome novels exemplifies the ring-a-ding lifestyle the singer made famous. Comfortable in any situation yet basically a loner, Rome is a compulsive gambler and womanizer, chain smokes Luckies and drinks whatever’s handy, as long as it contains alcohol. He’s equally comfortable interacting with the cream of Miami society and the lowest rungs of its criminal underworld. Add the fact that there is no cooler name than Tony Rome, and it’s no wonder Sinatra found the role a perfect fit. For the first time in several years, the actor seemed to enjoy himself onscreen, his trademark swagger and insolent manner ringing fresh changes on the private eye genre. Some critics thought Sinatra was simply emulating Bogart, but such comparisons are misleading. Sinatra’s flip, hip detective is far removed from Sam Spade’s tight-lipped fatalism. Free of existential angst, Rome reacts to the seamy underside of life with an ironic “that’s life” shrug of the shoulders. Just one year later, Frank would reprise the role in the overtly comic Lady in Cement.

Richard Conte provides excellent support as Lt. Santini, who has no patience with Rome’s cavalier approach to legal niceties, but grudgingly admires his friend’s ability to crack the toughest cases. He and Sinatra have wonderful chemistry and convey their characters’ prickly relationship with total conviction and believability. Although Conte’s Hollywood career was winding down at this time, his charisma and talent were undiminished, and he would go on to do first-class work in numerous Italian crime films during the seventies.

Rome swings into action.

• While snooping on Diana Pines, Rome follows her to a run-down estate, where he sees her giving money to a drunken woman later revealed to be her biological mother. His surveillance is rudely interrupted when Sam Boyd, the slow-witted brother of Diana’s stepfather, sneaks up from behind and puts a chokehold on the shamus. Rome deftly cannonballs the two of them away from the wall and onto the floor, then manages to free himself and land a few vicious punches. Sam’s size advantage is too great, however, and Tony is on the point of being strangled to death when Adam Boyd calls off his sibling. They tangle again later in the film, but this time Rome gets the jump on the not-so-gentle-giant, sucker punching him in the groin, then finishing the job with a shot to the back of his neck. Impressively, the 52-year-old Sinatra convincingly does all of his own stunt work in these no-holds-barred brawls.

• Rome pays a nocturnal visit to Langley’s home, but Oscar gets the jump on him and marches him inside at gunpoint. Langley receives Rome in the bathroom, where the body of the jeweler lies fully clothed — and very dead — in a tub full of water. Captors and captive repair to the living room, where Langley asks questions while Oscar punches Rome in the kidneys and kicks him while he’s down on the floor. Langley then holds Rome at gunpoint while Oscar prepares a fresh bath for the private dick, but Tony distracts Jules’ attention, smashes a vase in his face, grabs his gun and sends a few well-aimed bullets into the path of the rampaging Oscar.

These boots were made for walking — and kicking Rome into submission.

The Vernacular
Diana Pines [to Ann Archer]: “Slut!”
Ann Archer [to Tony Rome]: “Now that I’ve been introduced, who are you?”

Ann Archer: “You know, it’s the damnedest thing. People like me are called FMs.”
Tony Rome: “F what?”
Ann Archer: “Formerly married. We’re divorced women. We can’t claim to be the town virgins, and we can’t afford to be the town tramps. What do we do?”
Tony Rome: “Well, you could hang a sign on yourself. It says ‘occasionally promiscuous.’”

Jules Langley: “We can knock you out with a gun butt if you prefer. It’s up to you. Or the chloroform.”
Tony Rome: [pointing to bottle]: “Oh, I’ll have some of this....When!”


Oscar: “The gun. Thanks.”
Tony Rome: “Why not? Yours is bigger than mine.”

Tony Rome: “You check on Oscar and Langley?”
Lt. Santini: “Yeah, I checked. You didn’t kill much.”

Tony Rome: “You won’t get far. They’ll box you in for Turpin.”
Catleg: “I doubt it.”
Tony Rome: “The crime lab’ll prove the bullet came from your gun.”
Catleg: “What gun? There’s ten billion gallons of water in Biscayne Bay. If the crime lab can find that gun, I’ll sit in the chair and pull the switch myself.”

Surveillance with style.

The End Credits
Director: Gordon Douglas; screenplay: Richard Breen; producer: Aaron Rosenberg; music: Billy May; cinematography: Joseph Biroc; editing: Robert L. Simpson

Frank Sinatra (Tony Rome); Jill St. John (Ann Archer); Richard Conte (Lt. Dave Santini); Gena Rowlands (Rita Kosterman); Simon Oakland (Rudy Kosterman); Jeffrey Lynn (Adam Boyd); Lloyd Bochner (Vic Rood) Robert J. Wilke (Ralph Turpin); Virginia Vincent (Sally Bullock); Joan Shawlee (Fat Candy); Richard Krisher (Donald Pines); Sue Lyon (Diana Pines); Lloyd Gough (Jules Langley); Babe Hart (Oscar); Elisabeth Fraser (Irene); Rocky Graziano (Packy); Shecky Greene (Catleg); Jeanne Cooper (Lorna Boyd); Harry Davis (Ruyter); Stanley Ross (Sam Boyd); Templeton Fox (Mrs. Schuyler)

Paisans, on and off-screen.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

CAPE FEAR (1962)

Rumble in the jungle.

The Setup
Convicted rapist Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) has just been released from prison after doing eight years hard time, and he’s out to deliver payback to attorney Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), the man whose testimony put him in the hole. But it’s not just Sam he’s after; Cady also has unhealthy designs on Sam’s sexy wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and 14-year-old daughter Nancy (Lori Martin). As the title credits unfold to the portentous strains of Bernard Herrmann’s music, Cady struts into the Savannah, Georgia courtroom where Bowden is trying a case. The look on his face spells bad intentions writ large. As Sam gets into his car afterward, Cady suddenly materializes and re-introduces himself. “Hello, counselor. Remember me? Baltimore. Eight years, four years and 13 days ago.” Just to let him know he’s back. Just to start f**king with him a little.

Cady’s psychological war of attrition has begun. The next salvo is delivered at a bowling alley, where Cady sips a cold one while watching the Bowdens play. He makes sure that Sam knows he’s there, and by his attitude alone conveys an unspoken yet tangible threat to the family. Bowden subsequently puts in a concerned call to Sheriff Dutton (Martin Balsam), who also happens to be his best friend. Cady is picked up at a waterfront bar (where he’s working his sleazy mojo on the local talent), but when Dutton threatens him with vagrancy, Cady produces a bank statement attesting to his solvency.

Cady has a fatal attraction for the opposite sex.

The ex-con soon raises the ante, feeding Nancy’s dog a fatal dose of strychnine and threatening legal action over a pattern of police harassment. Cady’s game is now clearly apparent, and Bowden is just as clearly helpless. He can’t have Cady arrested for something he hasn’t yet done, even though Bowden knows damn well it’s going to happen sooner or later. While he chews on that disquieting bone, Cady meanwhile brutally assaults the sluttish pickup he’s been sleeping with since he hit town. Nothing personal, it’s meant as a warning to Bowden of what’s in store for his wife and daughter. Cady increasingly targets the latter, visually undressing her at the marina where the Bowdens keep their boat, and sending her into terrified hysterics when he shows up at her school.

Following a failed, desperate attempt to buy Cady off, Bowden finally crosses the legal line, hiring some local muscle to teach Cady a lesson. Only they’re not tough enough, and after Cady has put them in the hospital, the deadly game of cat and mouse enters its final phase: Bowden uses his family as bait at a remote cabin on the Cape Fear River in hopes of luring Cady into the open so he can kill him. Things don’t turn out quite like Sam plans, however, as Cady manages to get the upper hand and force each member of the Bowden clan to confront the unthinkable.

Confronting the unspeakable.

The Payoff
Nearly 50 years after its release, Cape Fear has lost none of its visceral impact. Rarely has a mainstream Hollywood movie so openly confronted the prospect of child rape. Even though the words “assault” and “attack” are substituted throughout, the filmmakers leave no doubts concerning Cady’s depraved intentions. Thanks to the dark brilliance of director J. Lee Thompson and screenwriter James R. Webb, the film is nearly as tough and nasty as the John D. MacDonald thriller it’s based on.

Thompson was fresh from his triumphant direction of The Guns of Navarone (1961) when Peck’s production company approached him to helm Cape Fear. His decision to make it in black and white added immeasurably to its atmosphere of moral instability and primal fear. His subtle handling of the film’s violence, suggesting more than he shows, makes it much more palpable and disturbing. And his practice of letting the audience know what’s about to happen before the characters do effectively contributes to the escalating tension.

The final confrontation reaches an almost unbearable pitch as Cady corners his young victim in a swampland cabin while her parents drift helplessly downstream in their rented houseboat. It’s as dark and despairing a moment as the cinema has given us.

Cady channels his inner beatnik.

The Lawless
Robert Mitchum rarely played out and out villains, but when he did, the results were spectacular. No one who has seen Night of the Hunter (1955) is likely to forget his murderous preacher with the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles. The actor brought equal intensity to his role as Max Cady, whose heavy-lidded, baleful stare hints at barely repressed psychotic undercurrents. Mitchum’s powerful physique, on frequent display throughout the film, holds the promise of unstoppable violence. He imbues Cady with a reptilian quality that evokes nothing so much as a ravenous crocodile as he pursues the Bowden family through Georgia swampland in the film’s final minutes.

The revelation of Mitchum’s performance, however, is its redneck hipster quality. Cady is without doubt one of the most visceral predators ever burned onto celluloid. But he’s also an undeniably cool cat, a sociopathic Jack Kerouac, if you will. Cady’s sartorial style — chinos, sport shirt, windbreaker and, most distinctively, a sporty Panama hat tilted back at a cocksure angle — immediately sets him apart from the conservative citizenry of the small Southern town where the story unfolds. Cady doesn’t walk, he saunters. His body language is arrogant and knowing, and his face is set in a perpetual smirk, as if he’s enjoying a secret joke at the expense of all the rubes around him. He’s also a fount of sardonic humor, delivered in streetwise jargon that nicely counterbalances the film’s visual and thematic darkness. His first words in the movie, addressed to an elderly black janitor, are: “Hey, daddy, where does Sam Bowden hang out?” Although Cady uses the word “daddy” as a casual form of an address to an older man, the term also harbors racial and sexual implications that possibly relate to his life in prison. The viewer has already pegged Cady as an unregenerate sleazeball, so anything’s possible.

But what really makes Cady cool is how easily he dominates people and situations. When he’s arrested in a cocktail bar on the orders of Chief Dutton, he doesn't meekly submit, but first ambles over to the sexy girl he’s been eyeballing, tosses a contemptuous glance at her male companion, and says, “I’m going to give you just one hour to get rid of your friend.” “Are you trying to pick me up?” she asks. He relies with a knowing leer and emphatic “Yes,” pushes the brim of his hat down Sinatra style and strolls out like the arrogant badass he is.

Bowden faces his worst nightmare.

The Lawful
It’s a testament to Peck’s physical charisma and acting talent that he holds his own against Mitchum’s malefic magnificence. Peck projects the decency and integrity that were part and parcel of his onscreen persona, but adds some dark shadings to his character. Bowden is a family man and upstanding citizen, but he isn’t above using his police connections to have Cady rousted. He willingly jeopardizes his career when he pays to have Cady beaten up. And his plan to trap Cady not only puts his family directly in harm’s way, but amounts to little more than premeditated murder, no matter how justified.

Cady makes short work of his attackers.

• Thompson adds dramatic weight to the scene in which Cady fends off the men hired to work him over by filming at night and in the isolation beneath a waterfront pier. As the surf relentlessly pounds the shoreline, Cady unleashes his brute force upon his would-be attackers, prevailing even after being slammed in the midriff with a length of bicycle chain.

• When Cady traps Peggy Bowden aboard the houseboat, he slowly backs her against a counter, then suddenly plucks a raw egg from a dish and crushes it in his fist, sending yolk flying everywhere. (Thompson improvised the startling visual metaphor on set.) As Mrs. Bowden tries to recover from her shock, Cady obscenely smears the yolk onto her chest, adding even more disturbing overtones to their encounter.

Cady introduces Peggy Bowden to the pleasures of egg yolk.

The Vernacular
Max Cady [undergoing a strip search at the police station]: “Here, you better check that shirt. I got a coupla jolts of horse stashed under the collar.”

Diane Taylor [the tart Cady sleeps with and later assaults]: “Max Cady, what I like about you is...you’re rock bottom. I wouldn’t expect you to understand this, but it’s a great comfort for a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower.”

Max Cady: “Hey, buster, you got some salted peanuts — salted in the shell?”
Bartender: “Not in the shell.”
Max Cady: “Okay, forgit it. I see I’m gonna have to educate this town.”

Max Cady: “You just put the law in my hands, and I’m gonna break your heart with it....I got somethin’ planned for your wife and kid that they ain’t neva gonna forget! They ain’t neva gonna forget it, and neither will you, counselor!”

Robert Mitchum [in a telegraph to Peck and Thompson after initially turning down the role]: “I’ve had your bourbon. I’m drunk. I’ll do it.”

Little girl lost.

The End Titles
Director: J. Lee Thompson; screenplay: James R. Webb; producer: Sy Bartlett; music: Bernard Herrmann; cinematography: Sam Leavitt; editing: George Tomasini

Gregory Peck (Sam Bowden); Robert Mitchum (Max Cady); Polly Bergen (Peggy Bowden); Lori Martin (Nancy Bowden); Martin Balsam (Police Chief Mark Dutton); Jack Kruschen (Dave Grafton); Telly Savalas (Charlie Sievers); Barrie Chase (Diane Taylor); Paul Comi (George Garner); John McKee (Officer Marconi); Page Slattery (Deputy Kersek); Ward Ramsey (Officer Brown); Edward Platt (judge); Will Wright (Dr. Pearsall); Joan Staley (waitress)