Criterion Sunday 568: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

One of the great 1950s noir films, this fits neatly into the wave of post-atomic paranoia films that were popular at the time (many being in the science-fiction and monster movie genre), though for much of the running time you wouldn’t really suspect it was anything outside the usual kind of setup. Hard-nosed detective Mike Hammer gets caught up with a mysterious lady (Cloris Leachman in her film debut), who happens across his sporty little car late one night on the California roads. The next thing he knows, they’ve been captured, she’s tortured to death, and he’s pushed off a cliff in his beloved car and comes to in a hospital. The rest of the film is him piecing together the mystery, visiting the kinds of people and places that are largely lost now (it’s set in the Bunker Hill neighbourhood), a shady underbelly of ordinary Los Angeles and its assorted characters — like the Greek car mechanic whose catchphrase is “va va voom”, or various denizens of the city’s nightlife. Hammer’s quest is all filmed in a typical noir style, and much of the film’s denouement has been cribbed for many other famous movies over the years (it will all seem very familiar), but this is a hard-boiled detective story that still very much holds up.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Aldrich; Writer A.I. Bezzerides (based on the novel by Mickey Spillane); Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo; Starring Ralph Meeker, Wesley Addy, Maxine Cooper, Gaby Rodgers, Cloris Leachman; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wed 6 June 2001, and at a cinema, London, Wed 10 February 2010 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 8 September 2022).

Criterion Sunday 564: 乾いた花 Kawaita Hana (Pale Flower, 1964)

This is a stylish movie. It’s a take on a film noir, and it ticks all the boxes: moody black-and-white atmosphere, deep pools of darkness picked out with light, a femme fatale, characters hardened by life continuing to throw it all away on the chance of some thrill that might enliven lives propelled at breakneck pace towards self-destruction. You can see why it was a genre that captured filmmakers’ imaginations, and it pays dividends here — not that I quite follow the gambling game they most often play here, but the point seems to be the ritual of the thing. Ritual is important to this film, the codes of the gangsters, the understanding they all share about the necessity of their crimes, even as they are also fully aware of the futility of it all. And that’s carried over into the gambling, and even the love affair of sorts, though really it’s more of an avuncular relationship, between this gangster (Ryo Ikebe as Muraki, recently released from prison for murder) and a mysterious young woman, Saeko (Mariko Kaga), who seems to be from the upper classes and motivated by boredom, though the film takes pains never to be too clear about her background, which is another noir move, to shroud everything in mystery. It’s a great film about people throwing it all away, albeit with all the cool in the world.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masahiro Shinoda 篠田正浩; Writers Masaru Baba 馬場当 and Shinoda (based on the short story by Shintaro Ishihara 石原慎太郎); Cinematographer Masao Kosugi 小杉正雄; Starring Ryo Ikebe 池部良, Mariko Kaga 加賀まりこ; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 25 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 562: Blow Out (1981)

Brian De Palma is one of the great American filmmakers whose work I’ve never properly explored. I believe he has many great, stylish, compulsive films and he certainly likes to dwell in the sleazy byways of American culture, and amongst those this may be one of the strongest. After all it’s about a filmmaker — well, a man who works capturing sounds to soundtrack sleazy horror slasher movies. In style, it’s 80s through and through but with a core of 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller, like Blowup or The Conversation. Yet despite being so uncannily reminiscent of those earlier (great) films, it holds its own as a stylish thriller, not least because of Travolta’s central performance as a haunted man desperate to find out the truth, and not something you’d expect the man as he is now to be doing. That said, De Palma’s camerawork is pretty slick, and he always knows the good angles to capture the mood he wants. The film never lets up its taut focus, making it another quality addition to this genre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Brian De Palma; Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond; Starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 555: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Watching this is very much an exercise in looking for the glimmers of hope and possibility in a story about people whose lives (all of them, really) have been derailed or sidelined, and who have turned to anger and sarcasm to get them through their lives (well those as well as drinking, lashing out, the usual kinds of things). It’s a film set in East London, not the trendy cool bit, but the Essex bit, out in Dagenham and Barking and beyond, stuck in a place where there doesn’t seem to be much of a way out. There’s an emaciated horse, the hope of five pounds stashed away to buy a few cans of super strength cider, dancing in parking lots with your friends, a sunny day away to a reservoir. Still, Andrea Arnold keeps it all moving along, just on the right side of hopelessness as our teenage protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis) struggles to find some way to connect; Michael Fassbender as her mum’s boyfriend Conor seems to offer some hope for their family to come together, but then it turns out he’s just another rotten one, perhaps the worst, but yet somehow catalyses some feeling of change for Mia. You don’t want to watch it at times, but it hurtles forward with the brash energy of youth.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alexander Mackendrick; Writers Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (based on Lehman’s novelette Tell Me About It Tomorrow! in Cosmopolitan); Cinematographer James Wong Howe 黃宗霑; Starring Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Susan Harrison; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 23 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 541: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

If I were in a less generous mood I would see this as a noble failure, a strange blend of folk horror and exaggerated camp that leans far too heavily into its fairy tale register, and to be honest it does often come across as faintly absurd while it’s playing out. But I’m not feeling grumpy today and I think the very staginess of the undertaking is exactly right for what it’s trying to do, which is not to scare in a traditional sense, but to evoke a mythic sense of dread that is as much a part of the canon of fairy tale literature as it is part of 20th century film history. Needless to say it wasn’t exactly embraced on release and probably prevented its director Charles Laughton from ever making another film, but what he does here with his collaborators (both in the writing and especially the monochrome cinematography by Stanley Cortez) is to evoke a curiously timeless — partially because in some senses it remains accurate — portrait of America, with its fascination with guns, religion and children and the way these three elements combine.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are plenty of bonuses stretched over two Blu-ray discs, so it may take me a while to watch all of them, but I did look at the 15-minute piece on the BBC show Moving Pictures which has a few short interviews with various key cast members (Mitchum, Winters), some behind the scenes people like a producer and a set designer, as well as archival footage of Gish, speaking to the enduring power of the film sometime around its fortieth anniversary as well as the excellence of its director in bringing everything together.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Charles Laughton; Writer James Agee (based on the novel by Davis Grubb); Cinematographer Stanley Cortez; Starring Robert Mitchum, Billy Chapin, Lillian Gish, Shelley Winters, Sally Jane Bruce; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 6 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1999 and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 6 June 2022).

Criterion Sunday 448: Le Deuxième souffle (1966)

The year before Le Samouraï and Melville’s last film in black-and-white. They may all be wearing trenchcoats and being laconic in both films, but it’s incredible the way this feels like another era, a holdover from the 40s. There’s something almost Bressonian in the way that the early scenes unfold (though that’s perhaps no surprise given it’s a prison break): no music, just people going through the motions, wordlessly and almost like a dream. Gu (short for Gustave, and played by Lino Ventura, a stocky stand-by of the gangster film since Touchez pas au grisbi) has just broken out of jail and is now looking to retire, but — as is the way — is sucked back into one last job. How badly could it go? Have you ever watched a movie? You know how badly it could go. For all that, Melville is clearly starting to strip back his style, such that the trenchcoats and the hats, the Gallic sangfroid, the guns and the gangsters, the deep expressionist shadows of the film noir genre, all of these things seem to hold more depth in them than the plot itself, though it’s all very well done, and by this point in his career Ventura has an iconic energy that is perfectly channelled here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel by José Giovanni); Cinematographer Marcel Combes; Starring Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Raymond Pellegrin, Christine Fabréga; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 9 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 428: Blast of Silence (1961)

A pretty taut and bleak film noir which distils a lot of the generic conventions down to the kind of format in which they’d be parodied for generations to come: the hard-boiled voiceover, the heavy sense of existential angst, the bleak futility of all actions, the duplicity of men (and women), all exemplified by a heavy-set tough guy. In this film, the tough guy is played by the director and this is all firmly in the finest low-budget moulds, with plenty of location shooting in New York City, including a climactic pursuit filmed during a hurricane, which certainly helps with the sense of overcast threat. The whole film has a great sense of place, and a deft way with moving its hero through the plot in such a way as to maintain momentum even as we know, right from the start, that he is surely and certainly doomed.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Allen Baron; Cinematographer Merrill Brody; Starring Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy; Length 77 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 427: Muerte de un ciclista (Death of a Cyclist, 1955)

It’s natural to want to try and read films made under fairly repressive governments as being veiled criticism of that regime, but I’m not the person to try and do that with this film made during Franco’s Spain. It’s about collective guilt, about mistrust, and about the things that shame and the fear of being found out do to desperate people. Perhaps when you’ve killed once, even accidentally, and especially when it seems you’ve gotten away with it, it becomes easier to do it again, is at least one of the questions which is raised here. But there’s a lot going on in this tale of two lovers who, as the film begins, knock down a cyclist on a darkened street, apparently unseen, and quickly flee the site when it becomes clear to them that there’s nothing to be done, and the fact that they’re in an adulterous affair means they don’t want to be found out. Things spiral out from there, as the film has the feel of a film noir but filtered through the melodramatic framing of a film from the golden age of Mexican cinema. It has a certain European froideur to it, as these two navigate their own complicated feelings towards the accident as well as their behaviour, but it’s never less than stylish and beautifully composed in stringent monochrome.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Juan Antonio Bardem; Cinematographer Alfredo Fraile; Starring Lucia Bosè, Alberto Closas, Otello Toso, Carlos Casaravilla; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 14 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 399: House of Games (1987)

For better or for worse, there are films that I’ve only watched because they’re in the Criterion Collection and I’m engaged in this project to watch them all in spine order. There’s nothing specifically I have against David Mamet or his films — I’ve seen quite a few of them already as it is — but I’m not really seeking out any more of his particularly aggressive masculine energy in cinema, and so there was little likelihood of me checking out his debut as a director for any other reason. It’s certainly accomplished, and I don’t regret watching it, but the quality that puts me off seeking out his films is also what makes me wary of this one. At the heart of the film is Lindsay Crouse, introduced in none-more-80s power fashions as a famous psychotherapist (she’s written a book), famous enough it seems to make her a mark for a bunch of shady guys (chief among them Joe Mantegna) playing their confidence tricks in the belief that they’re smarter than her. Things take various turns that I’m not interested in spoiling here, but needless to say there are all kinds of games being played here, not least perhaps on the audience. Maybe Mamet himself is a kind of conman, but there’s enough that’s pleasurable about the construction and payoff in this film to make me want to think the best of some of the behaviour, which I assume is largely because these characters live with a sort of in-built misogyny as part of their film noir-like hardboiled worldview, in which some people are just born marks to their shady skills.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Mamet; Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía; Starring Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Lilia Skala, Mike Nussbaum; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 14 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 396: Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951)

I’m sitting here, late at night, trying to figure out what to write because I have a bit of a blind spot for classic era Hollywood films of the past (even the slight failures, as this one was, at least commercially, though I gather contemporary critics didn’t much like it either). Billy Wilder is very much a great Hollywood director, particularly known for his comedies, and while this does function somewhat as satire, it can also be nasty and manipulative when it needs to be, because it’s about cynical people gaming a system that is, sadly, very much still in place. In fact the idea of reporters twisting the truth to make newspapers (or the media in general) more saleable to the public is pretty much the dominant paradigm now, and though this film would have us believe there were honourable men (they’re always men) in positions of power, I’m not quite sure that’s ever been the case, which probably makes me even more cynical than the film. Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum, who is very clearly a Bad Guy, but he’s charismatic and, though not likeable particularly, gets results because he’s pushy and persistent. Generally I think the film hits a lot of targets, and does so very capably, but it can be hard going perhaps precisely because of how well it captures a media circus, even a hard-boiled film noir 1950s one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Billy Wilder; Writers Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels and Wilder; Cinematographer Charles Lang; Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 7 February 2021).