Playing Catch-Up 4

Crash (1994)

crash posterWhy, yes, why SHOULDN’T I start the (hopefully) last of these compressed reviews with another odd, hard-to-categorize movie? Is it not traditional, at this point?

The 90s were a strange time for David Cronenberg. His acclaimed adaptation of the play M. Butterfly was bookended by movie versions of two “unfilmable” books – William S. Burroughs’ taboo-busting Naked Lunch, and this equally sui generis piece, just as controversial, by J. G. Ballard.

James Spader plays James Ballard (yes, that’s his name in the novel, too), a film director who is a little too prone to trying to do organizational work while driving. This results in his head-on collision with another car, a dead man through his windshield, and the sight of Helen (Holly Hunter) in the other car, her breast exposed. He recovers in the same hospital as Helen, and that is where he also meets Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a lab-coated fellow walking with Helen during her therapy. Vaughan is carrying color photos of other peoples’ injuries and seems very interested in the metal sticking out of Ballard’s fractured leg.

james-spader-and-elias-coteas-in-crashHelen and Ballard meet again while examining their respective wrecked cars, and Ballard finds himself following Helen into Vaughan’s world of people fetishizing car wrecks, the violent intrusion of hurtling metal into the human body. Vaughan restages famous auto wrecks with stunt drivers (we first see this as James Dean’s death is recreated in front of an admiring crowd in bleachers, like a Little League game).  Ballard and Helen integrate into a strange group of fetishists – a cult, really, under Vaughan’s guidance – which includes Rosanna Arquette, practically armored in a set of braces and harnesses holding – perhaps even cradling – her damaged body together. It even begins coloring Ballard’s troubled sex life with his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger).

crash71The movie is a series of episodes which somehow does not feel episodic, but more like the story is slowly gathering speed and headed toward an inevitable collision; the sex becomes more polymorphous and perverse as the story continues. Catherine and Ballard are both shown having brief sexual flings before his accident, but neither seems as satisfying to them as the dark encounters that come afterward, starting with Catherine talking dirty to Ballard about Vaughan during sex, and progressing through the almost inevitable coupling of Ballard and Vaughan. The box copy uses the word “omnisexual” to describe the movie’s characters, and that seems more fitting than a simple “bisexual” – these folks are moving beyond gender and into flesh being penetrated by metal at high velocities. Crash is possibly the most un-erotic of erotic movies, willfully perverse – and absolutely unique and fascinating.

Also, naughty Holly Hunter is the best Holly Hunter.

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Lady Snowblood (1973 & 1974)

This may surprise you young’uns, but some of us actually knew about Lady Snowblood before Quentin Tarantino became a thing.

A couple of years earlier in Japan, the Lone Wolf and Cub movies had done good business, so making a movie based on another kinetic manga series written by Kazuo Koike only made sense. Even for that writer, the setup is unusually dense: in the waning years of the 19th century, as Japan ramps up its drive to become a major military power, four criminals are running a scam on a farming village, taking money to supposedly excuse the local young men from the draft. A new elementary school teacher arrives with his wife and child; the villains frame him as a conscription officer, and the villagers murder him and his boy. The wife is raped and kidnapped; she eventually kills her tormentor, but is arrested while hunting down the other three. She seduces every guard in the prison until she finally gives birth to the daughter that will carry on her vengeance, naming her Snowblood.

Whew.

Film_790_LadySnowblood1_originalThe first movie, simply named Lady Snowblood, gives us that origin story, her training as a swordswoman, and her hunting down of those last three villains, twenty years after the fact. She’s grown up to be Meiko Kaji, capitalizing on her success in the Stray Cat Rock movies and Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41. Snowblood’s gimmick is her sword hidden in an umbrella – we first get to see it as she plies her trade as an assassin while tracking down her three targets.

The only real problem I have with the movie is director Toshiya Fujita’s over-reliance on handheld camera work, which is generally pointed out – favorably – as giving the movie a documentary feel. All it does for me is remind me that there is a movie camera in the streets of 1895 Japan. That’s a small complaint, though, as the story barrels along. And barrel it does; Fujita plays fast and loose with the timeline, which keeps things interesting, and the challenges to our heroine varied. This movie is a major inspiration for Kill Bill Vol. 1, and watching the Criterion blu-ray it is possible to go Um hm, I recognize that now at various points. That Fujita doesn’t seem to mind cribbing an idea or two himself only seems appropriate in that context.

screenshot_2_18861Fujita had been previously known for making popular movies about disaffected youth, which was something of a hot ticket in Japanese cinema at the time (note their inclusion in a couple of Zatoichi movies made in the same time period). That does color the presentation of the story in ways interesting enough to differentiate them from the Lone Wolf movies.

For the next year’s Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance, we have the same personnel, though in the extras of the Criterion blu-ray, screenwriter Kazuo Kamimura says, somewhat proudly, he strayed from the manga. I have no idea how true that is, but I can testify that Lady Snowblood all but vanishes from her own movie for a large portion of its running time.

Lady Snowblood 2 beach fightSnowblood is captured and condemned to hanging for her various murders, but she is sprung by the head of the Secret Police, so she can go undercover as a maid to the house of an anarchist rabble-rouser and find a secret document which would spell disaster for the current government if it were ever made public. Snowblood understandably finds the anarchist and his cause much more sympathetic than her murderous and corrupt employer. One machination leads to another, the anarchist is arrested, Snowblood spends the next hour or so recovering from a gunshot wound, only occasionally peeking in to witness the plot major involving marital betrayal, the black plague, entire ghettos burned down, and other antisocial activities before picking up her umbrella and Snowblooding a bunch of assholes.

ladysnowblood2-hr_1349613056_crop_550x368Now, admittedly the only Koike series I’ve read in depth is the Lone Wolf and Cub series, and this is a device he does employ – a human interest story taking front and center before Itto Ogami clears the board, but at least his son Daigoro is usually more involved – having your solo heroine sit out most of the story, only cropping up time to time to look sad is not terribly dynamic.

So I fear I’m rather ambivalent toward the two movies, though obviously I find the first one much more satisfying. That one, at least, I can recommend.

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Andrei Rublev (1966)

Andrei Rublev poster 1I admit that I sneaked my way into the Andrei Tarkovsky camp, with Solaris, reportedly the most un-Tarkovsky of his movies. It took me a bit longer to seek out more, probably because finding more takes some effort, compared to other directors’ work (though not, happily, as hard as finding copies of the work of Klimov or Ptushko!). So when Andrei Rublev was all but thrust into my hands, it became sort of an imperative, though I will be honest and also admit that the three hours and forty minute runtime was… daunting.

That being admitted, I must follow up with my initial reaction, which was Idiot! Why did you wait so long?

First, for the non-history majors: Andrei Rublev is considered to be the greatest of the medieval icon painters in the Russian Orthodox Church in the late 14th to early 15th century.

Andrei Rublev_PrologueNow that I’ve told you this, I will now tell you that the first section of this movie begins with a medieval thinker who is hurriedly attaching himself to a hot air balloon made of animal skins and the like before a mob of villagers stop him. He manages to fly for a few ecstatic minutes before he crashes to earth.

This segment is never brought up again, and has no apparent connection with the rest of the movie.

And that was when I knew I was going to like it.

maxresdefaultThe rest of the movie is going to follow Rublev (Anitoliy Solonitsyn) through several great swaths of his life… sort of. How he becomes assistant to another famous icon painter , Theophanes the Greek, with whom he will argue about theology; his commission to paint the Last Judgement in a church in Vladimir, outside Moscow, and his delaying the task for months because he does not see the point in terrifying believers, finally painting a great feast, just in time to survive the sacking of Vladimir by the villainous Tatars, in alliance with a treasonous Russian prince. His forsaking of painting and a vow of silence sworn to atone for his killing of a man during the attack, and his witnessing of the casting of a massive bell for the Crown Prince, which will rekindle his faith and show him the necessity of using his God-given talent.

andrei-rublevYou can rest assured that in the attempt to gain a worldwide audience, this movie was cut to shreds, and showings in New York resulted in reviews “comparing it unfavorably to Doctor Zhivago.” I read that with a bit of satisfaction – not because Andrei Rublev got ripped, but because that was a comparison I had made myself, while the movie was in progress. There are great swaths of story where Rublev vanishes from our sight (rather like Love Song of Vengeance, but it leads to a higher level of storytelling than that). Both movies are about a man buffeted about by history and forces beyond his control – a major difference, though, is Rublev doesn’t try to paper over that history with a love story (a love story based on betrayal, but that’s a complaint for another time) (obviously, I am no great fan of Zhivago). Rublev feels like it is truly more about Mother Russia than Zhivago could ever hope to be, its ability to withstand invasion after invasion, sea change after sea change, yet it and its people still remain.

screen-shot-2014-08-26-at-4-53-16-pmThe imagery is outstanding, the black-and-white cinematography often reminding me of Sven Nykvist’s work, and that is not a comparison I make lightly. Andrei Rublev‘s nearly four-hour runtime rumbles along like a glacier, but it truly feels like it’s earned it. Even that lengthy final section, with the forging of the bell, delivers an emotional payload that proves entirely logical in completing the story. There are a lot of overly-long movies in this world, but Andrei Rublev is not really one of them.

(Also, you need to see this movie for the Bawdy Jester – that guy is magnificent.)

Buy Andrei Rublev on Amazon

Playing Catch-Up 3

Performance (1970)

performanceWhat the hell is with me starting these posts off with movies that possess impenetrable narratives? Is it an unconscious drive to get “the hard one” out of the way first, so the rest of the column flows smoothly?

If I ever figure that out, I’ll let you know.

James Fox (cast against type and blowing doors out with his performance, pun unintended) plays Chas, an enforcer with a London protection racket that enjoys his work way too much. When he takes it upon himself to discipline an old rival, the door is opened for assault, murder, and suddenly Chas is on the run from his own mob. While searching for a place to lie low, he lucks onto a flat being rented in the basement of reclusive retired rock star Turner (Mick Jagger). Mind games ensue.

Performance takes its time setting up Chas’ world and how he moves in it, so the sudden immersion into the drugged-out anarchy of Turner’s world is exactly as puzzling and off-putting as it is to Chas; at first Turner refuses to give him refuge, then reverses that decision. Though Chas tries to pass himself off unsuccessfully as a musician on tour, one of Turner’s live-in lovers, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) will tell him that Turner is keeping him around because the musician “lost his devil” and is seeking to resurrect that driving force with Chas’ presence. To that end, Chas is given psylocybin mushrooms without his knowledge (“That’s insane!” says a surprised Turner when Pherber tells him how much), and the two men’s characters begin to bleed into each other.

053-anita-palenberg-theredlistIt is damnably hard to categorize Performance, if that’s even possible or, more to the point, desirable. It is an intriguing time capsule for London in that period, blossoming counterculture and Kray Twins gangsters. References to Jorge Luis Borges abound (in this world, even the gangsters read Borges), and, indeed, this may be one of the best adaptations of Borges’ work that wasn’t actually written by Borges himself. The blending of Chas and Turner is probably best represented by the movie suddenly becoming a music video for Jagger’s “Memo from Turner” (a definite high point) in which Turner becomes the head of the mob Chas has left. Afterwards, Chas is more rock star than enforcer – even the second of Turner’s live-ins, a French waif named Lucy (Michele Breton), who was before frightened by Chas, is now sleeping with him. Turner, on the other hand, has become uncertain and aware of encroaching doom, resulting in one of those final movie shots that has no possible explanation, but which people will nonetheless argue about for years, and have.

Performance was shot in 1968, but delayed for two years after a test screening resulted in the wife of a studio executive vomiting in disgust. History doesn’t record what it was that pushed her tender tummy into revolt, but there is a lot of transgressive stuff here, not just the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. For instance, the homosexual tendencies of the gangsters, which starts out subtle but becomes much more obvious and matter-of-fact as the movie moves on.

pallenberg-and-cammell-425Co-director Donald Cammell took the picture for re-cutting (the other co-director, Nicholas Roeg, was in Australia filming Walkabout), and what he returned with is the Performance we are familiar with today, with its opening scenes now possessed of almost avant-garde cross-cutting, and noodling about by Jack Nietzsche on one of the first Moog synthesizers.

Performance is definitely not for all markets, but it is novel and intriguing. I remember many a midnight movie showing billing it as a rock movie, and can only imagine the stunned and puzzled stoners staggering out of the theater into the dead of night.

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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

swierzy_sunsetbvWhich brings us to yet another unique picture. Unique if only for the fact that the story is, rather famously, a flashback told by a corpse floating in a Hollywood swimming pool.

The corpse is Joe Gillis (William Holden) a down-on-his-luck screenwriter desperately trying to get up enough money that he can save his car from the finance company (in L.A., if you don’t have a car, you might as well be a corpse floating in a swimming pool). Circumstances lead him to concealing the car in the garage of what he thinks is an abandoned mansion; the mansion is, in fact inhabited by silent film queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her devoted manservant Max (Eric von Stroheim). Once Norma discovers Joe is a writer, she hires him to rewrite her comeback script, Salome, moving him into a garage apartment, then the mansion, and finally, into her bedroom.

evesunset_4Joe’s downfall and sideways-seduction into the easy life of a gigolo is countered by a chance relationship with studio reader Betty (Nancy Olsen), who spots a worthwhile section of one of Joe’s old scripts, and he begins to meet with her clandestinely, to collaborate on a project that could revive Joe’s career and move him out of Norma’s mansion. Naturally, Joe and Betty are going to fall in love, and Norma is going to find out, and that is going to lead to Joe burning all his bridges, to Betty for her own good, and to Norma for his own good – which will lead to Joe getting three slugs in the back and one of the most iconic final scenes in movie history.

Chad Plambeck told me that if you consider Sunset Boulevard a film noir, then Joe is the villain, but if you approach it as a horror movie, Norma is the villain. This is perfectly true, but I hold that what writer/director Billy Wilder has created here is an absolutely novel genre, throwing light onto a subject that would be harvested again and again in series like The Twilight Zone and the book Hollywood Babylon – a sort of tabloid scandal character study shot through with melancholy and condemnation.

Sunset-Boulevard-1950-Wallpapers-2The amazing thing is it exists at all, and that Paramount studios was willing – and in fact, apparently pleased – to be a character in its own movie. Cecil B. deMille himself has an extended cameo (in which it has to be admitted that he comes off pretty damned well, in a movie so critical of the starmaker machinery). Wilder pretty much invents meta-fiction here, with Norma watching her old silent movies, which we are told later were directed by Max – and the movie being shown is Queen Kelly (1929), starring Gloria Swanson and directed by Eric von Stroheim. Norma has frequent bridge parties attended by friends of the old silent days, and I am ashamed I had to look up two of them (Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner). Buster Keaton I managed to recognize on my own.

(I have to mention Jack Webb, because he’s Jack Webb, playing the most un-Jack Webb character I’ve ever seen, Joe’s assistant director pal Artie Green, effervescent, constantly smiling, and Betty’s fiance – oops! Sorry Jack!)

61730-050-981B6E1BRoger Ebert said of Bette Davis that the smartest career move she ever made was getting older, and that also goes for William Holden. This was his most significant role in the 11 years since his breakthrough, Golden Boy, and his experience in the intervening years has tempered him (and Good Lord, can the man wear a tuxedo. Not everyone can pull off white tie and tails, and he does so with panache). His career only rose from here, and it is in recent years that I find myself really appreciating his work in the 60s and 70s, and the way he so effortlessly projected a sort of vulnerable, weary masculinity in his roles.

But there is no denying that this movie belongs to Gloria Swanson, who was only 50 at the time the movie was made, but was harshly lit to make her look older – talk about bravery in an actress! She applies exactly as much over-the-top to Norma Desmond as is required of a character who considers her life to be one long silent film. Alternately delusional, grandiose and pathetic, this is a role for the ages. and of course, Hollywood being what it is, it offered her nothing afterwards except different versions of Norma Desmond.

Sometimes the meta is a little too close to reality.

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Ms. 45 (1981)

ms_45A very common thread in my postings here is “Why did it take me so long to get to this movie?” but this time the cause is easier to determine – it simply wasn’t available for some time. I had a close friend who ran one of those grey market VHS mail-order services and for literally years his big seller was Ms. 45, off a videotape he’d bought even further back. He’s since moved on to less grey pursuits, but it wasn’t until only recently that Drafthouse Films put out a legit version of it on blu-ray, a strange thing for a movie that is praised in many movie history books as a classic.

Zoe Lund (Tamerlis) plays Thana, a mute woman working in a small sweatshop in New York’s garment district. On one particularly bad day she is raped twice – once in an alley (by director Abel Ferrara) and then again in her apartment, where she gains the upper hand on the burglar and beats him to death with an iron.

maxresdefaultInstead of going to the police or her admittedly terrifying landlady (Editta Sherman), she hacks up the body in her bathtub and stores the trash-bag wrapped pieces in her refrigerator. She carries the dead man’s gun around with her as she distributes the body parts around the city, and winds up killing a cat-calling schmoe who was trying to chase her down with one of the bags; after that, Thana’s mind begins to go seriously south as she tracks down males she feels are predacious and takes them out of the gene pool forcibly, even walking though Central Park at night to find targets. Her choices become more questionable as her mind deteriorates, leading up to a slow-motion massacre at a Halloween party where it is deemed good enough that the recipients of her bullets are simply male.

9401851.0This was Ferrara’s follow-up to his proto-slasher film, The Driller-Killer (which predates Friday the 13th by a year or more). Doing a distaff version of 1972’s Death Wish is kind of a no-brainer for exploitation filmmakers, but Ferrara’s approach to the subject matter is what has helped its reputation endure for decades. The disposal of the body parts – a continuing thread throughout the movie – is handled with much dark humor and cleverness. I would normally say that the movie provides a good document of the streets of good old bad old New York, which it does – but a cursory search of YouTube will net you videos of women being catcalled and propositioned in the street, and those videos are a few months old, not years. Nothing has changed.

ms-45Ms. 45 is often mentioned in the same breath as Bo Arne Vibenius’ Thriller, A Cruel Picture, another iconic rape-revenge movie, but Thriller is a lot more interested in brutalizing the viewer as much as its protagonist, and the revenge segment of the story feels episodic and unfocused. Ms .45′s vengeance cuts a much broader and less discerning swath, edging it into the realm of horror movies, and its episodic nature feels more like a solid directorial choice. I doubt I’ll ever watch Thriller again, but Ms .45, equal parts Death Wish, Taxi Driver and still its own creature – possesses more than enough artistry to deserve another look.

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Boss (1975)

MV5BMTc4MzE1MzM2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzY5NDcxMw@@._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_AL_The question is how, in this day and age, do you distribute a movie with a deliberately inflammatory title? The answer turns out to be very simple, in that you simply excise the inflammatory part. You know the title of this is Boss Nigger. I know the title of this is Boss Nigger. once you get into the opening credits, the movie certainly knows its title is Boss Nigger. But all things considered, I’m perfectly happy just calling it Boss.

Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and D’Urville Martin are black bounty hunter in the post-Civil War West (The Hammer is only referred to as “Boss”), and they find out one of the members of their latest group of bounties is carrying a letter from the corrupt Mayor (R.G. Armstrong!) of a nearby town, naming the bandit the new Sheriff. Boss rides into town and claims the office as his own, hoping to flush out their big bounty, the gang leader Jed Clayton (William Smith).

imagesThis was released a full year after Blazing Saddles worked a similar setup for laughs, and Boss works it from the opposite direction; most of the townsfolk are dismayed that the new Sheriff is not at all white, and Martin’s gleeful posting and enforcement of fines related to racial epithets and other forms of rudeness is played for any comic possibilities; the oppressed become the oppressors for a bit, then Boss remembers it has a story to tell. The script, written by Williamson, meanders too much for its own good, but is fairly entertaining in a weekend afternoon sort of way.

Boss

He’s also carrying Steve McQueen’s gun from “Wanted Dead or Alive” – Coolness Factor +10

Williamson’s schtick may have been somewhat limited, but he is very good at it. Martin, Armstrong and Smith are all reliable character actors. Probably the most valuable player of all, though, is veteran director Jack Arnold, who at this stage of his career was directing mainly episode TV. There’s a steady workmanship that keeps Boss moving even when the script is being improbable, and if there is a negative, it’s that Boss feels like a TV movie, with a little more swearing and more dropping of the N-word. A lot of outlets, including the IMDb, describe Boss as a comedy, but a Shakespearean body count at the end – all the bad guys, damn near all the sympathetic characters, black and white, and even Boss’ survival in question – sorta belies that.

Entertaining enough, and a welcome change to the typical blaxploitation formula; but alas, no classic.

Buy Boss on Amazon

 

 

 

Playing Catch-up 2

Inland Empire (2006)

inland-empire-version6-movie-posterTime has been an issue with updating here, to be sure, but I also have to admit that the concept of having to say something coherent about David Lynch’s last theatrical movie to date possesses a reverse magnetism that does not exactly draw me to the keyboard.

This much I can tell you: Laura Dern is Nikki Grace, a Hollywood actress having a bit of a lull in her career. Her comeback movie is a script based on a… I think it’s maybe Polish?… movie called Vier Seben,  which was never released. It is reportedly cursed, causing the death of its stars. Nikki begins falling into the character of her role, Susan Blue, and scenes from the original movie keep inserting themselves into her life, and she even sometimes finds herself in the real-life incidents that inspired the original story and there’s some prostitutes and a woman who claims she was hypnotized into stabbing someone to death with a screwdriver and oh hell I give up.

This movie was born when Lynch called up his pal Dern and asked her if she’d like to “Come over and experiment”. Lynch was playing with the new generation of digital video cameras and kept writing short scenes to film while he messed around with the new technology and discovered the amazing amount of freedom the smaller, versatile cameras allowed. The scenes had nothing to do with each other until Lynch started sensing connecting tissue between them and suddenly we’re all sitting through three hours of what the living fuck.

Inland_Empire_17-720x340Some people were turned off by the digital photography. Some didn’t like sitting through three hours of what the living fuck. I can understand all these stances, which is more than I can say for the plot – if such ever existed – for Inland Empire.

2013-06-15-inland-empire-rabbitsI like Lynch. I like that he’s challenging. I like that you absolutely cannot intellectualize his movies, you have to respond to them on a deeper, instinctual, intuitive level. Needless to say, given my babbling, Inland Empire is a major example of this. Ask stars Laura Dern and Justin Theroux what the movie’s about, and they are not going to be able to give you an answer. I’ve seen some remarkable analyses, and now I need to find those again, now that I’ve seen the movie because at the time it seemed like hallucinatory babbling. It may have been.

Past that, the terrifying existential TV show with the bunnies, impromptu production numbers, that damned red lampshade from Mulholland Drive… I got no idea. Watch at your own risk. I actually sort of  prefer just experiencing and surviving this sort of thing to picking it apart.

Here’s the Italian trailer. I don’t think English would have helped.

I’d tell you to buy Inland Empire on Amazon, but it’s out of print in America

Memento (2000)

MV5BMTc4MjUxNDAwN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDMwNDg3OA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_As you’ve figured out by now, it takes me years to get to some movies.

Guy Pearce plays Leonard, a man who a) is vengefully tracking down the burglar who raped and killed his wife, and B) after that assault (and his own injury) is left unable to form new memories. His life is now a patchwork of tattoos and polaroid instant pictures annotated in Sharpie, as he continues the quest, each day starting fresh.  His current life is complicated even more by Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who claims to be an undercover cop helping him (though his polaroid portrait says “Don’t believe his lies”) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) who may be his lover but maybe not or maybe she’s the femme fatale in this strangest of films noir?

mementoDirector Christopher Nolan made quite the splash with this, only his second feature. His first, the rarely seen Following, was released on disc by the Criterion Collection a couple of years ago, and features an earlier version of Memento‘s fractured timeline and layered deceptions. This is one of the few times I have regretted watching a director’s films in chronological order, because Following prepared me for the twists and turns of Memento. In the final analysis, that’s no big deal, really, because Memento is still quite remarkable in its concept and execution. The setup is similar to Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist – truly the most elegant example of Wolfe’s penchant for the unreliable narrator – but admirably trimmed down to tell a complete and intriguing story, even if that story is told in reverse order.

I love Nolan when he’s left to his own devices. He rewards and in fact demands attention be paid. There is apparently a remake being planned. You can despair at this new lack of originality in Hollywood, or you can stop and realize that there were three versions of The Maltese Falcon made in ten years. The only real difference is that they stopped when they got it right – and Nolan got it right the first time.

Buy Memento on Amazon

Ace in the Hole (1951)

I thought I was being all kinds of clever when I posted this Tweet:

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Ace-in-the-hole-posterOh, quite quickly was I informed that this was not a good movie for that purpose, no, not at all. Perhaps I would like to try some other Billy Wilder movie, like Sabrina, perhaps?

This is just one more example of why we need a font that signifies sarcasm. Like this was my first Billy Wilder movie.

Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-luck expatriate New York journalist who talks his way into a job at a small New Mexico newspaper. A year later, he’s going stir crazy, unable to find the big story that will jump-start his career and get him back into the big papes. Assigned to cover a “Rattlesnake Festival” at a nearby small town, he stumbles upon his big chance: Leo (Richard Benedict), the owner of a cheesy diner and trading post, while mucking about in a nearby ruined cliff dwelling for “genuine Indian artifacts” has been trapped in a cave-in.

By the force of his own brash personality and a cagey partnership with the local corrupt sheriff, Tatum quickly takes possession of this human interest story (the original title of the film), even to the point of interfering with the rescue process by forcing the crew to take a more laborious, time-consuming approach to the trapped man. Tatum needs the story to play out over a week or more for maximum drama and circulation.

ace-in-the-holeHis manipulation extends to the owner’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling, holding her own and occasionally surpassing Douglas), who first sees her husband’s entombment as a chance to split a no-win situation for her, then cashes in on the media frenzy that follows Tatum’s ballyhoo, charging for parking and even admitting a carnival to entertain the flood of bystanders and gawkers crowding the area. Tatum, who started out insufferable, only becomes worse as his power over the story is consolidated, but the inevitable outcome of such hubris is not long in coming. Leo contracts pneumonia and Tatum’s conscience comes roaring back, dooming him as he discovers his insistence on drilling through the cliff to rescue the man has rendered any chance of a speedier recovery impossible.

Ace in the Hole is based on the 1925 death of spelunker Floyd Collins and its ensuing media frenzy, and it may represent Wilder at his most cynical, but certainly at his most perceptive: this movie presents Truth with a capital T and it has aged damned little over the course of 65 years. A few hours after Leo’s death, the crowded field between the highway and the mesa is empty, except for windblown garbage and Leo’s mournful father – Lorraine hitched a ride out in the exodus.

bw-Ace-in-the-HolePerhaps as contrition on my own part after that duplicitous first Tweet that caused so much concern on the part of so many, I bookended the experience with this Tweet:

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)

In-the-heat-of-the-night-cartelSpeaking of finding oneself in the present day…

A nighttime patrol finds a dead man in the sleepy streets of Sparta, Georgia late one night. An impromptu dragnet nets an unfamiliar black man waiting at the train station, and as it is 1967 in the Deep South, he is immediately taken into custody. However, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Portier) is a homicide detective from Philadelphia, just trying to get home. When local Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) calls Tibbs’ superior to confirm his identity, said superior offers Tibbs’ services to the Chief, seeing as how there’s a homicide and all. Gillespie doesn’t want Tibbs’ help, and Tibbs would just like to be rid of this town and its cracker population – but the real sticking point is the dead man was a rich industrialist from Chicago who was planning to build a factory in Sparta, and his widow (Lee Grant) threatens to cancel the project unless the “Negro officer” remains on the case.

This movie was very much a cause celebre in my youth, and how the hell I managed to go so long without actually seeing it is one of those puzzles I’d probably need Virgil Tibbs’ talents to unwind. The pedigree of the film is impressive, even outside the two stars: Directed by Norman Jewison, written by Sterling Silliphant, cinematography by Haskell Wexler edited by Hal Ashby, music by Quincy Jones. It’s one of the few winners of the Best Picture Academy Award that I can totally agree with (Steiger, Silliphant and Ashby also took home statues. But not Portier. Don’t be absurd, he wasn’t even nominated).

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, 1967

The script never takes the easy route, and fully exploits the thorny and dangerous difficulties of the set-up. Tibbs is playing Sherlock Holmes without a Watson, against a roomful of Lestrades; Gillespie twice makes the wrong arrest based on partial information. Even then, it’s the character of Gillespie that actually makes the story work so well. Though he verges on stereotype several times (and the rest of the police force is squarely in that category), Gillespie is determined to do the right thing, and however unwillingly, becomes a strong ally. He’s almost as much an outsider in the town as Tibbs, unpopular and threatened with dismissal by a City Council that’s dismayed their Chief didn’t shoot Tibbs when he returned  a rich white planter’s slap.

In-the-Heat-5-Slap(That is one spoiler I’m glad I avoided all these years. Evidence points to the murder victim having been on the planters’ property the night of his death, and when the planter (James Patterson) realizes he’s being interrogated, he slaps the uppity nigra and Tibbs immediately slaps hims back, stunning not only the planter, but Gillespie and the black manservant. That scene must have hit like a thunderbolt in urban theaters in 1967, and I’m glad I had no idea it was coming because it is fucking awesome.)

Steiger is nicely complex as Gillespie. Sidney Portier, as ever, is America’s foremost portrayer of capable black men in difficult circumstances (also in the aftermath of that slap scene is the revelation that Tibbs is concentrating on the planter as a suspect to “bring that fat cat down”, and Gillespie’s quietly surprised “You’re just like the rest of us, man.” It’s a brave script on many levels). Portier would return to the character twice more, in They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and The Organization, and I’m curious enough to check those out. Warren Oates, as the officer who discovers the body, arrests Tibbs, and eventually becomes a suspect himself, continues to hone his reputation as America’s foremost portrayer of hapless motherfuckers that you somehow still can’t bring yourself to hate.

inTHOTNThere’s no real open reconciliation between Gillespie and Tibbs, no sudden buddy-buddy, but there is a quiet, realistic respect between the two at the end that feels earned. It really is a stunning, vital piece of 60s cinema, and I have no idea how they managed to make a TV show out of it. Nor am I that interested, even though the cast is full of actors I like; the movie has made that much of an impression on me.

Buy In the Heat of the Night on Amazon