Criterion Sunday 176: The Killers (1946/1964)

This Criterion release bundles together two adaptations of the Ernest Hemingway short story from 1927, each separated by almost twenty years and with a different generation of Hollywood direction, though it’s the first adaptation that really sticks out. After all, there’s something immensely satisfying about this key early film noir picture, and it’s not just the high-contrast shadows thrown across the screen, or the world-weary way that Burt Lancaster’s “Swede” meets his death (that’s not a spoiler by the way: that’s the set-up of the film). It’s not in the writing either (although excellent) and not just the first scenes in the diner (which are the ones taken from Hemingway’s short story) which leads into a backstory of intrigue that as it unfolds doubles-down on its double-crosses by piling them on thick and fast. No, what’s satisfying is that all of these elements come together with the excellent noir acting, all that heavy-lidded sense of fatalistic doom conveyed by Lancaster and Gardner but also all the character actors who round out the cast. Even when the plot’s events start to seem like they’re getting out of hand, the film keeps it all in check, and all the character types that seem so familiar to us now are all presented new and fresh.

Don Siegel’s remake may not perhaps be the equal of the Siodmak film (which the producer originally wanted Siegel to direct, apparently), but there’s certainly something to Don Siegel’s reimagining. Despite the film’s title and trailer, there’s not very much left of Ernest Hemingway’s original short story here except the sense in which a man fatalistically accepts his own death at the hands of the title’s killers. Thereupon these two, primarily Lee Marvin (always excellent), take it upon themselves to find out why he was killed, and uncover a ring of gangsters led by Ronald Reagan. The film’s plot takes about half the movie to kick in, and as a film, it feels quite different — less a noir than a doomed romance. It also proves that Reagan was much more convincing as a bad guy, a sad realisation to come with his last performance (maybe if he’d tried it earlier and found more acting success, we all could have been spared his political ambitions). Still, as a film this is a watchable piece of high-toned 60s murder mystery which seems to pave the way for Marvin into the greater, yet somehow stylistically reminiscent, Point Blank a few years later.

Criterion Extras: Joining these two is a film primarily known now as Andrei Tarkovsky’s first (student) film from 1956, although it was co-directed by three film students. It takes on only the events of the short story (clearly influenced visually by Robert Siodmak’s 1946 adaptation) and re-presents it, including some of the racist language that Siodmak’s work had omitted. Indeed, the scenes with the black(face) cook, even at this remove, seem pointlessly racist, but as a film this still shows some flair with its staging.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 22 October 2017
The Killers (1946) || Director Robert Siodmak | Writer Anthony Veiller (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway) | Cinematographer Woody Bredell | Starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien | Length 103 minutes

The Killers (1964) || Director Don Siegel | Writer Gene L. Coon (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway) | Cinematographer Richard L. Rawlings | Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Clu Gulager, John Cassavetes, Ronald Reagan | Length 95 minutes


Criterion Sunday 172: Pépé le Moko (1937)

I’d already reviewed this film before embarking on this Criterion-watching journey, so my comments there still stand, though on second watch I’m prepared to be a bit more generous towards what it achieves. After all, as a classic of a certain genre (‘poetic realism’) and an antecedent for so much else (film noir, hard-boiled romantic leads, beautiful nihilism), this should really be more famous than it is. Jean Gabin is on fine form as the existentially ennui-laden yet dashing crim of the title, who falls for an upper-class woman slumming it in the Casbah of Algiers, and lets that lead him to lose his edge. The poetry comes through in the odd framing, an expressive use of the camera with a bit of soft focus and some nice little bits of montage (most notably when he first meets Mireille Balin’s femme).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Julien Duvivier | Writers Henri La Barthe (as “Détective Ashelbé”), Julien Duvivier, Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson (based on the novel by La Barthe) | Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Jules Kruger | Starring Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin | Length 90 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 19 July 2013 (and most recently at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 27 August 2017)

Criterion Sunday 161: Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930)

A fascinating early sound film from René Clair, which could properly be described as a musical-comedy, I suspect, although a bittersweet one at best. There’s a love triangle featuring a beautiful Romanian woman (because the actor, Pola Illéry, was born there), within a story of working-class people whose lives are often a shade away from criminality, enticed here by the dubious moustachioed crim named Fred (Gaston Modot). The sound is used only sparingly, presumably because of the limitations of the nascent technology, but there’s a freshness to the enterprise that belies its generic themes. It’s something Clair would develop further in the following year’s Le Million and À nous la liberté but it still impresses here on this early sound outing.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer René Clair | Cinematographer Georges Périnal and Georges Raulet | Starring Albert Préjean, Pola Illéry, Gaston Modot, Edmond T. Gréville | Length 96 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 June 2017

Criterion Sunday 151: Traffic (2000)

Well, first up, I can’t really deny Soderbergh is a skillful director. He has a way with cinematic narrative that puts him up there with that other sibilant Steven of Hollywood preeminence. Despite a two-and-a-half-hour running time, Traffic (like the British television mini-series it’s based on) is never boring; it’s well-paced, tightly structured and it has plenty of fine performances (not least from Soderbergh regulars like Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman as a pair of cops investigating a mid-level drug dealer, Miguel Ferrer — also excellent). It’s just, at a fundamental level, I’m not sure at some of the hand-wringing arguments being made here about drugs, not least the racialised aspect of it. I mean quite aside from the Mexicans (they’re all corrupt, all of them), there’s the weirdly morally judgmental descent of Michael Douglas’s daughter (played by Erika Christensen) — he’s a high-flying government drugs czar, she’s privately-educated (and hangs out with Topher Grace of all people), her nadir apparently being sleeping with a black drug dealer. I mean maybe I’m reading too much into it, though I found the attitude towards the teenagers generally a little condescending. Also, Soderbergh was deep into his own addiction to coloured lens filters (Cincinatti is BLUE, Mexico is YELLOW, and at least DC and LA are sort of normal), which gets trying too. Anyway, it’s enjoyable enough, but I wouldn’t call it his masterpiece.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steven Soderbergh | Writer Stephen Gaghan (based on the television miniseries Traffik by Simon Moore) | Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”] | Starring Benicio del Toro, Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Catherine Zeta-Jones | Length 147 minutes || Seen at Manners Mall Cinema, Wellington, Sunday 25 March 2001 (and again on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 13 July 2017)

Heremias: Unang aklat — Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak (Heremias: Book One — The Legend of the Lizard Princess, 2006)

Right, you probably all know this film is long: it’s Lav Diaz, and events will unfold as they will. Once you get over that — and the title which playfully suggests some kind of mystical/fantasy epic poem — the movement of time isn’t really an issue, and there’s necessarily a sort of documentary effect to the extreme length, as we watch our titular protagonist (Ronnie Lazaro) trudge along endless roads with a group of vendors selling their wares from ox-drawn carts. Heremias at length peels off on his own, and, at length, gets caught in a typhoon, from which he takes shelter. When he wakes, his cow has gone and his cart is burnt. By this point, we’re at around hour four and this is the mysterious crime he’s trying to unravel (after a fashion), but things go off track again and there’s a criminal conspiracy which reveals the limits of power in an autocratic society. So there are political themes (present in much of Diaz’s work that I’ve seen), and then there’s the repeated motif of roads stretching off across the landscape, into which (or from the horizon of which) Heremias trudges, seemingly endlessly. At great, great length.

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer Lav Diaz | Cinematographer Tamara Benitez | Starring Ronnie Lazaro, Sid Lucero | Length 510 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Friday 3 February 2017

Criterion Sunday 115: Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, 1955)

This film is generally acclaimed as a classic of the heist genre and justifiably so. Indeed, there are some pretty clear reasons, chief among them the impressive way in which an extended, almost silent, sequence of the gang breaking into a safe is handled. Nevertheless, for all writer/director/star Jules Dassin’s nous behind the camera — and indeed in front of it, decked out as he is in a stylish bowtie (why can’t gangsters have that kind of style anymore?) — the film devolves into a morality play for its last half that feels a little backwards looking. Again, it’s all classic genre stuff nowadays: the criminal gang divided amongst themselves, fractured not just by the investigations of the police but by internecine squabbling over the lucre. Still, the style and the performances of Rififi carry it ably.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin | Writers Auguste Le Breton, Jules Dassin and René Wheeler (based on the novel by Le Breton) | Cinematographer Philippe Agostini | Starring Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Carl Möhner, Jules Dassin | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (streaming), London, Thursday 4 August 2015

Criterion Sunday 113: I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street, 1958)

Apologies for this remarkably brief review; I watched it in a state of half-sleep, though I found it likeable, I don’t really have much to contribute…

A jolly Italian farce modelled on Rififi and the like, in which a bunch of fairly incompetent criminals try to take on a job they’re not really equipped to do. There are some good comic turns, and it moves along at a clip.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mario Monicelli | Writers Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Suso Cecchi D’Amore and Mario Monicelli | Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo | Starring Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni | Length 111 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 August 2016

Criterion Sunday 107: Mona Lisa (1986)

Bob Hoskins once again plays a Cockney gangster, and though my initial instinct is to assume his character (who begins the film recently released from prison) was locked up just after the events of The Long Good Friday (1980), given he seems surprised his street now has a large number of black residents, maybe he’s been locked up since the 1940s. Perhaps the filmmakers just took ‘film noir’ a bit literally, but underlying it is a well-meaning attempt to grapple with societal changes that must have seemed like a chasm following a series of race-based riots in the early-1980s. I’m not convinced all the racial politics really hold up (and how many films do after a few decades?) but at least there’s representation, even in the form of that filmmakers’ favourite stereotype: a high-class prostitute and her pimp (who incidentally is played by a much younger Clarke Peters from The Wire, albeit with no dialogue that I noticed). It’s strictly geezers and seedy London locales, and it’s by no means a badly made or acted film. Hoskins, along with Cathy Tyson as the titular character — and even Michael Caine as a gang boss — do good work. Let’s just say it’s of its High Thatcherite era.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Neil Jordan | Writers Neil Jordan and David Leland | Cinematographer Roger Pratt | Starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 18 July 2016

The Violators (2015)

There’s been a lot of talk amongst my friends recently of hating other people in this country — for the way they vote, and for the opinions they seem to trumpet (or latch on to) — but desperate people have very little power and the more they’re ignored, left out in the cold with no options and no jobs, the more society will split apart. Now this isn’t immediately relevant to this film, first screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2015, but the film does give a vivid sense of life lived on the margins, and I think that’s always good to think about. If looked at as a story about the emotional toll of various forms of abuse (whether the societal burden placed on those without means, or, more immediately germane to the plot here, sexual), this is a persuasive film about one young woman (Lauren McQueen) living in a poor Northern town. It’s just that the film takes a swerve towards something more contrivedly ‘gangster’ towards the end, not to mention featuring a supporting character, a rich young woman called Rachel (Brogan Ellis), whose relationship to the lead is pretty confusing and the plot contortions that bring them together aren’t particularly persuasive. But even if it lost me a bit, it does set up a strong sense of a specific environment, and that’s worth something.

Director/Writer Helen Walsh | Cinematographer Tobin Jones | Starring Lauren McQueen, Stephen Lord, Brogan Ellis | Length 101 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Wednesday 22 June 2016

Criterion Sunday 83: The Harder They Come (1972)

The soundtrack for this was a mainstay in my household during my formative years, so I can attest to the excellence of the music in this apparently first Jamaican feature film. Indeed, music features heavily in the life of its protagonist Ivan, as you’d expect given he’s played by recording artist Jimmy Cliff. He’s a small-town country boy moved to the big city after the death of his guardian, where he hopes to make it in the music business, but is swiftly derailed by the corruption of the system. It seems like it’s going to be a film about achieving your dreams, but the socio-economic circumstances of his life pushes him towards criminality, and that’s where the film finds its groove. I would shy away from calling it gritty or realistic — it plays around with plenty of gangster genre tropes — but it certainly does give a vivid sense of the shantytown geography of the poorer parts of Kingston. It also doesn’t avoid the local dialect, to the extent that I found it much easier to follow by putting on the English subtitles. In any case, it has the charm of a young industry flushed with the possibilities of the format, and most of all an incredible, pulsating soundtrack, whether the hit song of the title which Ivan is seen recording, or the incidental music that follows his progress throughout the film.

Criterion Extras: Aside from those handy English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, there’s a short interview with Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, an instrumental figure in the popularisation of reggae in the Western world.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Perry Henzell | Writers Perry Henzell and Trevor D. Rhone | Cinematographers Peter Jessop, David McDonald and Franklyn St. Juste | Starring Jimmy Cliff | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 March 2016