Is it too sweeping to call Jack Terry, the B-movie soundman of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, John Travolta’s best performance ever? So be it. Who knew that De Palma—a director still more often than not dismissed as a technician with a Hitchcock obsession, a facility for bravura camerawork and a penchant for split screens—would be the director to best showcase Travolta’s talents? Or that Travolta would help bring out the best in De Palma? Fresh off the success of his psycho-sexual dream cinema of Dressed to Kill, Blow Out takes us out of the sleek, stylish, rarified worlds of the affluent and drops us into the working class and street culture of urban Philadelphia, where the flag-waving bash surrounding the Liberty Bell Bicentennial comes off like a small town civic celebration blown up by a big city budget.
Blow Out arrived in 1981 as the end of the seventies run of political conspiracy thrillers like an aftershock. Critics were quick to jump on the connections to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (it’s not like the title or the premise made it hard to come to that conclusion) and the echoes of Chappaquiddick, Watergate and various political assassinations of recent history. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation was brought up far less frequently, though it’s easily as important a wellspring for De Palma’s transformative work, and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, perhaps not so much an inspiration as a fellow traveler in the underside of conspiracy cinema, not at all
De Palma’s story is built on Jack Terry, the B-movie soundman played with easy amiability and modest professionalism by John Travolta. Front and center is the actor’s easy likability and screen warmth, a regular guy in the right place at the wrong time as an earwitness to a car accident and a gunshot. What was to be a humiliating scandal involving a political candidate veered into assassination, with our hero saving a hooker (Nancy Allen) from a drowning car and the police hushing the entire incident up. Not out of knowing complicity, mind you, simply playing ball to protect a political reputation in death. At first it galls Jack, and then, as evidence is destroyed and witnesses murdered, it scares him. He’s the blue collar everyman, less an idealistic champion of justice than a guy tired of being lied to. Plus, as long as the truth is buried, he’s a target of the self-styled “Liberty Bell Killer,” the façade our sinister and unstable political operative (a slim, unsettlingly non-descript John Lithgow) appropriates to cover up his real endgame.
The story of a boy and his bird, Kes is something of a small cinematic treasure in Britain.
Set and shot in the North of England and cast overwhelming with non-professional locals from the area, it cast its lens on the dreary life and hopeless future of a scrawny, fatherless teenager, Billy Casper (David Bradley), grinding out his last days in a miserable public school where discipline and regimentation trumps education and encouragement. Bored and bullied (by students, teachers and his bitter older brother), this curious, restless boy is inspired to capture and train a young kestrel that he captures from a nest in a nearby ruin, all that’s left from a medieval castle in a nearby field, and the film soars with Billy’s joy and exhilaration as he trains and exercises the young kestrel.
Though considered uncommercial by British distributors, it was a surprise hit embraced by the public when it was finally released in 1970 and, more recently, it was voted as one of the ten greatest British films of all time in a poll conducted by the BFI.
Kes is second theatrical feature by director Ken Loach, who came out of British television as a socially and politically committed filmmaker who now as then focuses his lens on the poor, the working class and the disenfranchised. In this film, based on the novel “A Kestrel For A Knave” by Barry Hines, he immerses us in the culture of a coal town where the kids have little hope of escape. Billy swears that he will not go “into the pits” like his brother but he has no illusions that he’ll end up in some dead end job he hates. Yet for all the misery around Billy, from his chilly home and the bed he shares with his bullying older brother to the tyrant of a principal who gives out corporal punishments like its part of the daily schedule, and the often impenetrable Yorkshire accents and dialects of the soundtrack, Kes is a lovely and touching film. Loach appreciates the cheeky wit and energy of its scruffy, scrappy hero and, in a classroom scene where he’s roused to tell this classmates about training the bird, he brings Billy to life with an outpouring of excitement and love.
Claire Denis’s debut feature, Chocolate (1988), took on the legacy of French colonialism in the West African country of Cameroon through the eyes of a young French woman recalling her childhood growing up in the tensions of race, class and dislocation. Thirty years later she returned for White Material, which takes on many of the same issues from an older, more experienced perspective, both in terms of the artist and our protagonist.
Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial, French by ancestry, African by birth. Denis was raised in Cameroon until the age of 13 and the experience still clearly haunts her, but Maria is no stand-in for Denis. Maria is a woman in an unnamed West African trying to hold on to her family coffee plantation that her family no longer cares about while a civil war rages around her.
The film opens in the midst of chaos and fear as rebels advance on this dusty patch of country and Maria defies the tide of evacuation to return to her farm. Huppert’s incarnation of the intensity and will of Maria, beyond logic or safety, powers the film. She is maddeningly single-minded, risking not just her life but her family and the day workers she rounds up to help harvest the crop when her employees run off. She refuses to acknowledge the danger and hides the truth of the situation from everyone else. Meanwhile armed child soldiers wander the property, looting the “white material” of European habitation, and rebels close in as one rebel leader (Isaach de Bankolé) bleeds out in a corner of the plantation.
Martin Scorsese’ incendiary masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision in all of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most courageous and passionate portraits of the American underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and revisiting the film on its Blu-ray debut, mastered from the brand new digital restoration currently making the rounds on the festival and repertory cinema circuit, only confirms the power of the film to, after all these years, sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.
Directed by the ambitious young Scorsese, who confesses that he was driven to make this silent scream turned psychotic explosion of a script by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, it is a primal portrait and uncompromising vision carved out of the New York night, the summer heat and the garbage of the Times Square cesspool. Bickle, a character inspired by would-be assassin Arthur Bremer and Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel “La Naussee” as well as Schrader’s own spiral into self-obsessed urban loneliness, is no hero. The restless, insomniac Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift and muses over the urban cesspool that he wanders through in his nocturnal prowlings in a hateful gutter poetry has convinced himself that he’s “God’s lonely man,” the self-appointed avenging angel out to clean up the garbage on the streets.
DeNiro reads his journal entries in a near monotone voice-over, a matter-of-fact racism and homophobia and contempt for wide swathes of the human race creeping into his unexamined musings. His unacknowledged racism and intolerance (seen in his reflexive expression of contempt every time he catches sight of an African American on the street) becomes his excuse to unleash his anger in a violent spree under the guise of heroism and vigilante justice. And film’s final, sour irony is that the world believes his delusions of chivalry as much as he does.
Abandon logic, all ye who enter Dario Argento’s Inferno (1982). The second film of his “Three Mothers” trilogy (the first was Suspiria, the biggest American success of the Italian director’s career) opens with a deluge of exposition on the perhaps-not-so-mythical Three Mothers, which Rose (Irene Miracle), an American girl in a very stylized version of New York, reads from an ancient text. As she turns detective, suspecting that one of the evil figures lives in her very own apartment house (an elegant old building with impossibly lavish spaces), a mysterious, black-gloved figure (unseen but for those hands, which prove to be wizened like a fairy-tale witch beneath the black cloth) goes about collecting copies of the ancient book and killing everyone connected with them. Jump to Rome, where her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student, receives a letter where she shares her suspicions and discoveries. Before he can finish reading it, a gray-eyed beauty with a white cat distracts his attention and a freak windstorm blows the letter into the hands of another student (and a entirely new subplot), and he flies back to New York to find that she has disappeared, spurring him to embark on his own investigation.
This is a mystery with the logic of a dream. Vague clues (“The key is under the souls of your feet”) send characters in impulsive journeys through mysterious, maze-like passages. A trip down into the building basement sends Rose on a midnight swim through an underwater ballroom, where a gruesome corpse floats through nearly crystal-clear water. A chance reading of her letter sends one girl searching for the rare tome in a library and into what appears to be an alchemist’s laboratory hidden in building’s basement labyrinth. A bent old bookseller with a distaste for cats (which prowl and growl all through the film) is attacked by rats in a Central Park that looks more like a haunted fairy tale forest. A seemingly innocent bystander is suddenly inspired to turn homicidal maniac. It’s a world touched by malevolent magic, which transforms everyday locations into hostile environments of spikes, splinters, knife edges and broken glass, all conjured to pierce flesh, draw blood and take lives.
Jose Mojica Marins created Ze do Caixao (Jose of the Grave), known to English speakers as Coffin Joe, in 1963 with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. This bizarre figure, a darkly fascinating mix of Dracula, demon, and Nietzschean superman who became kind of horror folk hero in his native Brazil, appeared in a number of films through 1979 but was the protagonist of only two films: Midnight and This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967).
Embodiment of Evil (2008) is Marins’ belated conclusion of what is being called the “Coffin Joe Trilogy,” following the mad killer as he’s freed from the psych ward of a high security prison after serving 40 years. Now he’s also the dark priest of a Manson-like cult and, aided by hunchback assistant Bruno (Rui Resende), he picks up where he left off, looking for a perfect woman to bear his child. Taking up residence ostensibly in a favela on the outskirts of Rio (which looks more like an inner-city slum than the honeycombed hills of shacks and stairs of the crime-infested favelas seen in City of God), the film at first looks like he’s going to go all Walking Tall as he stands up to both the gangsters and the corrupt cops of his new home. But soon enough he’s back to spreading his terror and torture to anyone in his orbit. Coffin Joe is indeed an equal opportunity predator.
Imagine Aleister Crowley by way of the Marquis de Sade with a theatrical flamboyance, a voracious blasphemer in a Catholic culture who torments and tortures women (both willing and unwilling) ostensibly to test their worthiness to bear his spawn but probably more because he’s just a sick SOB. He sews one woman up in a corpse of a pig, feeds another a raw steak sliced off her own naked flank which she devours eagerly (that may just be a drug-induced hallucination, but then you could say that about the whole film) and sews their eyes and mouths shut. And those are the members of his cabal. His enemies he hangs from flesh-piercing hooks and skins alive.
Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments is quite the landmark for the director. While not technically his first historical epic (that was the 1916 Joan the Woman), it was his first Biblical pageant and his first financially successful epic.
But it is also DeMille in the midst of his transition from the lively, witty director of sex farces and sexy romantic comedies with jazz-age sensibilities to the humorless director of white elephant epics, where he’s simultaneously become both more lurid and more pious, reveling in the sins of his characters and then punishing their excess to provide a lesson for us all.
DeMille spends a mere 45 minutes (of the film’s 135-minute running time) in ancient Egypt with Moses the Law Giver, who has already unleashed nine plagues as the film opens and exits after destroying the tablets in face of the blasphemy of his followers. For the rest, we dissolve to the present (circa early 1920s) to find a white-haired old mother reads from the good book to her two sons, one lost in the glory of the lesson (the all-American Richard Dix as John, a humble carpenter, of course), the other a restless, modern and cynical jazz-age kid (Rod La Rocque as Dan), bored with all “that bunk” of the Bible lessons. “No one believes in these commandment things anymore,” he sneers to his shocked old mother, and he marries another modern girl (Leatrice Joy as Mary, naturally) with a pledge to “live our life in our own heathen way.”
There’s plenty of decadence in both sides of this split identity production, from the orgiastic sin spectacle of hysterical partying and blaspheming with a false idol of the ancient section to Dan systematically breaking all ten commandments in his rapid rise to wealth (and, naturally, his precipitous fall) as a corrupt contractor whose reckoning comes when he builds a church with rotten concrete.
But DeMille’s trademark sensibility (revel in sin for the spectacle, then punish the transgressors for a moral lesson) aside, they two sections illustrate what the director gave up in his transformation into epic moviemaker. The section with Moses in the Holy Land is, dramatically speaking, little more than an epic version of a biblical pageant. Stodgy and stiff and as old fashioned as an early D.W. Griffith spectacle, it’s a series of tableaux with old man Moses (Theodore Roberts), in flowing white hair and madman beard, doing a lot of posing and pointing as he threatens the Pharaoh, leads his people into the desert and brings the wrath of God upon the Egyptian slavers and soldiers. But DeMille is a showman and he makes a show of this otherwise moving illustrations of bible stories with stunning special effects: the parting of the Red Sea (using the very same techniques as he did thirty years later in his 1956 edition), the wall of fire, the great balls of fire pyrotechnics for the will of God as he delivers the commandments to Moses.
The myth and legend of King Arthur has long been a favorite fascination of popular culture, the source of countless novels and movies and the inspiration for an iconic Broadway musical that became the nickname for John F. Kennedy’s too-short inspirational time as American President: “Camelot.” Forget the real-life history, the very mention of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table conjures up images and ideals of chivalry and honor, of magic and myth, of the shining light of hope in the midst of the Dark Ages. It’s a rousing tale of a lowly boy rising to become beloved King, a tragic love story, a thrilling adventure and an inspirational spiritual quest to heal the wounds of war and hate by finding the Holy Grail.
John Boorman’s magnificent and magical Excalibur is, to my mind, the greatest and the richest of screen incarnation of the oft-told tale. Filmed on the rocky coasts and in the emerald forests of Ireland, Boorman turns this landscape into a primal world hewn out of stone and wood and mud by blood and iron. The primordial quality hits us from the opening scenes, as Merlin (Nicol Williamson), part ancient sage and part court sorcerer, draws the magic out of the dragon that is earth from a Stonehenge-looking monument on a hill overlooking a battleground of clashing knights in armor. It’s beautiful yet brutal and Merlin’s attempts at civilization are thwarted by the primal drives of the primitive Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne), but from his blood and flesh is born the once and future King Arthur (Nigel Terry), raised a squire but destined to be king.
This is the Arthur legend at its most primal, romantic and tragic, human and supernatural, set on the cusp between the old gods and the Christian God. Boorman and writing partner Rospo Pallenberg rework Thomas Mallory’s tale into an ur-myth of magic and men in the transformation of the world into the age of mankind’s dominion over the Earth through laws and reason and ideals. Every frame suggests the ancient world of wonder and primeval power; even the Christian wedding of Arthur and Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) is set in the midst of a forest, the power of nature overwhelming the Christian imagery while the cloaked religious figures look as much like Druid priests as Christian soldiers.
[First published in 1982, in “This Sceptr’d Isle” Autumn Quarter Film Series, Office of Cinema Studies, University of Washington.]
The Quarry, a 75-minute film for the BBC (early 1960s): A sculptor named Arthur quests for a very particular kind of stone, amid many references to King Arthur, Merlin, and magic.
Point Blank (1967): On some level, a conventional tale about betrayal and revenge among corporate gangsters and their women. This strange film, in which time slides backwards and forwards, begins in a deserted, decaying Alcatraz, where a man named Walker (provocative name for a quester) is doublecrossed and seemingly murdered by his wife and best friend. Reborn or resurrected in the waters of San Francisco Bay, he sets out to pay them back and to find out who ultimately “runs things.” Guided by Yost, a Merlin-like figure, Walker passes through a sterile city encased in plastic, metal, concrete, and glass. Nature is buried, love and friendship dead, and only the greedy accumulation of “things” and sensations a thriving concern. The film comes full circle back to its beginning, at a disused San Francisco landmark described as “safe as a church” and used for a gangland money-drop. Walker finally discovers the identity of the corporate puppetmaster: Yost/Merlin himself. Walker, a mindless, primitive force—perhaps a zombie—recedes into the shadows, back into his own dream, thwarted by a world in which the unconscious is an anachronism.
The Lord of the Rings (1969): An abortive project in which Frodo was conceived as a young King Arthur and Gandolf as Merlin. (Boorman’s Merlin script deemed “too expensive” to film by United Artists.)
Deliverance (1972): Four city men trek into a Southern forest and down river rapids with the notion that nature can test a man benignly. Where the land is to be “drowned” into a lake by the construction of a dam, primitive forces and emotions are loosed, and the four friends fall into terrible knowledge of themselves and their environment. They try to bury that knowledge, but the corpse’s hand that thrusts up out of the dark lake at the end of the film signals the futility of such repression.
Zardoz (1974): Its title an elision of The Wizard of Oz, this film takes place in a 23rd-century wasteland devastated by nuclear war. Survivors who have regressed into brutality are kept in check and occasionally exterminated by the Eternals, sexless, immortal intellectuals who cannot sleep and therefore never dream, but consider themselves the “custodians of the past for an unknown future.” A hand—holding a gun—explodes out of a heap of golden grain: thus Zed, a time-bound catalyst of evolution, is “born.” Three women assist Zed in his quest for the Creator—a scientist, a visionary, and his eventual mate. May, the scientist, warns him when he opens his mind to her knowledge, “It will burn you”; he replies, like Excalibur’s Morgana, “Then burn me.” The “wizard,” only a lesser god, turns out to be one Arthur Frayn, part show business con-artist, part magician, who professes admiration for Merlin and T.S. Eliot. Paradoxically, Arthur insists that he has “invented” Zed even as his intelligent primitive wrecks the godhead, kills the Eternals, and flees into the natural world, a new Adam with his Eve, promising to be fruitful and to multiply. In the last moments of the film, the couple make love in a cave and then, in a series of dissolves as they stare at the camera, at us, they pass from youth to age to death, and finally into dust. The cycle of birth and death, frozen by the Eternals, moves again and the earth is satisfied. All that remains of Zed is a hand painted on the cave wall and a rusted gun, symbols of making and destroying.
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977): A child once possessed by the Devil becomes the best hope of salvation for humankind. This strange messiah is guided by a lapsed priest who must journey to Africa, where man began, to seek renewed faith and knowledge from a scientist who, in visions, sometimes becomes a primitive and powerful native priest.
The above is offered in evidence that John Boorman did not come to Excalibur unfamiliar with archetypal patterns of myth, especially as they are embodied in the legend of King Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table. Boorman is a literate man who has actually read those literary, philosophical, and critical works that inform, directly or by allusion, nearly all his films. Sometimes that’s made for a problem: too much self-consciousness about mythic ideas and images can retard the movement and impact of a visual narrative. People begin to say things so Significantly and take action that is so Fraught with Symbolic Weight that after a while there isn’t any life left in the old story—and myths are nothing if they aren’t alive and kicking us into new ways of seeing and being. Boorman has said that he wanted to make Excalibur “as if it is the story—not a retelling of the myth, but the very events on which the legend was based.” In this, I believe, he succeeded—as he had not done so completely in any of his previous films.
“Every woman would sell her soul to stay so young,” remarks smarmy, troubled Stefan (John Karlen) to his newlywed wife Valerie (Danielle Ouimet). He’s referring to the impeccably poised Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig), who sweeps into the off-season luxury hotel they previously had all to themselves. Elegant and ageless, looking like some out-of-time aristocrat from Weimar cabaret high society, she could be a soul sister to Marlene Dietrich in her prime in perfectly coiffed hair and a deep red gown that radiates both opulence and taste. Stefan doesn’t know how right he is.
Poised on the shadowy margins between art cinema and sexploitation, Harry Kümel’s elegant and sexy vampire film draws on the legend of Hungary’s Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the notorious “Blood Queen” accused of murdering innocent maidens to bathe in their blood, and mixes it with the lesbian vampire story “Carmilla” and the new freedoms of seventies genre cinema ushered in by the lurid Italian thrillers and Hammer’s sex-and-blood horrors of the late sixties and early seventies. Delphine Seyrig, famed as a frosty beauty of art cinema (she appeared here between making The Milky Way and The Discreet Charm for the Bourgeoisie for Luis Bunuel), brings dignity and cool grace to the film with her imperious presence, and Kümel places this jewel of an actress in a perfectly elegant setting: a grand but empty hotel, the ominous mood of the Belgian coast in winter, the handsome medieval architecture of Bruges, where a day-trip brings the newlyweds face-to-face with another in a string of murdered women, all young, beautiful and drained of blood.
“I love this dirty town.” The first and only time that Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker drops the cynical twist from his clenched smile and allows genuine appreciation cross his face in Sweet Smell of Success is when he drops that line while strolling down the nighttime streets of Broadway. It’s not a proclamation or even necessarily a compliment. He loves this town because he rules it from his tower of newsprint and television, making and breaking careers with a line and starving enemies into submission by conspicuous neglect.
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick (a master of deftly-played character comedy with an edge of social satire for Britain’s Ealing Studios), written by rising screenwriter Ernest Lehmann (drawing from a career as a New York press agent) and rewritten by the acclaimed playwright Clifford Odets (who is credited with tightening the action and giving the dialogue its edge), Sweet Smell of Success is one of the most lacerating and vicious visions of the predatory urban world in the American cinema, and one accomplished without a single murder, gunshot or pulled knife. This is Broadway Noir, the dark side of the intersection of show business, politics and social register in the era when newspaper columnists and television personalities held sway over a nation and not just a slice of the demographic.
New York is the world for J.J. Hunsecker and he rules this with an iron fist and a vindictive ferocity, hovering over the film long before Lancaster even appears on screen. Hunsecker is a classier, more cultivated version of Walter Winchell for late-fifties Broadway culture and Lancaster is smooth, silky and subtle, controlled and controlling in social situations, using silence and the threat of his voice behind the words as weapons in the power struggle of conversations. There’s not an exchange where J.J. fails to remind his listener what he has on them, and what they owe him.
Operatic, painterly, theatrical, musical. Senso (1954), the fourth feature from Luchino Visconti, is all of these, but ultimately this lush, lavish melodrama of a self-destructive love affair set against the idealistic passions of the Risorgimento (the fight for the unification of Italy) is the very definition of cinematic.
Senso opens in La Fenice, the magnificent Venice opera house, during a production of Verdi’s “Il Travatore,” and as the aria ends with a climactic call to arms, the upper balconies explode with their own call to arms with a hurricane of three-color leaflets (red, green and white, the colors of the Italian flag) and bouquets showered upon the soldiers on the floor. The sequence is a visual symphony conducted masterfully by Visconti: art and life mirrored in the dramas on- and off-stage, political action battling social decorum and conformism for dominance in a communal hub where everything is a matter of etiquette and codes of behavior, the occupying army an island of Teutonic white uniforms in the center of Italian color and culture.
Visconti maintains the tension between the personal—the cagey flirtation begun by proud Venetian Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) to save her revolutionary-leader cousin from a duel with Austrian officer Franz Mahler (Farley Granger), a ladies man of a lieutenant in a crisp white uniform—and the national march toward revolution and unification. (Valli and Granger were not Visconti’s first choices—the original script was written with Marlon Brando and Ingrid Bergman in mind, but Bergman turned it down and the producers reportedly turned down Brando for Granger.)
“Kansas City Confidential” (HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest)
The first of three collaborations between Phil Karlson, a director who graduated from B-movies with a strong storytelling punch and a tough, two-fisted sensibility, and John Payne, a former light romantic lead and bland song-and-dance man of Fox musicals, was a career changer for both of them. Payne was already reinventing himself as a hard, taciturn lead in the westerns and action films when he connected up with Karlson and (according to the director) they came up with the story: “he and I loaded with a bottle of Scotch. We wrote the entire script and then we turned it over to a writer to put it in screenplay form.”
Kansas City Confidential opens on Preston Foster, a mystery man with a stopwatch and a checklist casing a bankfront, piecing together his plan and his crew, a real rogues gallery of desperate thugs all but blackmailed by this mystery man in a mask into filling out his strike force. The robbery is executed with clockwork timing and Karlson directs the scene with terse efficiency, snappy momentum and crack timing. It’s also where we get our first real look at delivery man Joe (Payne), the hard-luck working class guy flipped off by fate when the armored car heist uses his florist deliveries as cover and leaves him to take the fall: a patsy to give them camouflage and the cops a distraction as they make their getaway. He’s a decorated soldier and survivor, a war hero who took the hard knocks that came his way and rolled with the punches, but is almost knocked down for the count with this sucker punch. His name is smeared in the press and his livelihood stolen by suspicion, but he’s resourceful, resilient and unflinching when it comes to taking the hit. He follows his only lead out of the states and into a sleepy little Mexican vacation spot where a payoff already complicated by double-dealing and double crosses gets a new player.
The hoods in this film are a triumvirate of essential B-movie thugs with attitude and an edge of psychosis: a beady-eyed Neville Brand, a smiling cobra of a Lee Van Cleef and a skinny, sweaty Jack Elam, who later played his cock-eyed looks for shaggy humor but here works his gargoyle face for underworld shiftiness. They give the film a shot of raw menace, a trio of thugs who are quick with a gun and slow to trust anyone and would just as soon solve a problem with a bullet. Foster, never the most dynamic of screen professionals, doesn’t exactly radiate authority as a criminal mastermind but part of the film’s fun is the play of false identities and double lives and Foster’s ex-cop with a grudge is all about appearing innocent while pulling the strings behind the scenes. His revenge on his forced retirement is a doozy that, if all goes to plan, will leave both rich and a hero.
A student of Marcel Marceau in Paris, a founder of the surrealist theater Panic Movement in Mexico City, a Zen Buddhist, playwright and comic strip author, the Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowsky made his fame as a cult film director with his sprawling, symbolic, surreal films El Topo and The Holy Mountain, brutal and strange allegorical odysseys written and directed by and starring Jodorowsky that became staples on the midnight movie circuit and artifacts of the head film culture. They are also crude and grotesque productions that revel in the metaphysical mix of the sacred and the profane.
Santa Sangre was made more than fifteen years after The Holy Mountain (and after the collapse of his attempt to bring Dune to the screen”) and his skills as a filmmaker and storyteller have improved with time. Whether or not this is the most accessible of Jodorwsky’s films (he also dabbled in more mainstream filmmaking), it is certainly the most accessible “Jodorowksy film,” a vision filled with circus imagery, surreal scenes, grotesque violence and psycho-sexual trauma. The director casts two of his sons as Fenix, his mad protagonist—Axel Jodorowsky as the grown man (introduced as an inmate in an asylum, regressed to savage behavior and pre-verbal existence) and Adan Jodorowsky as the young boy (a junior circus magician in tux and fake mustache watching the grotesque conduct of adults around him)—and then sends us into the psychodrama that sent him to the asylum. In flashback we watch his alcoholic brute of father (Guy Stockwell in slobbering degenerate mode) take time out of his knife-throwing act to seduce the voluptuous tattooed lady and his tempestuous trapeze artist mother (Blanca Guerra, all burning eyes and hissing fury) take her vengeance in a particularly personal way. In the present, he is drawn into the urban world for a field trip and wanders off to his waiting mother, who has plans to use his arms as the instruments of her continued revenge. Think of it as Jodorowsky’s Psycho by way of Fellini on shrooms.
Don’t let the title throw you. The heroes of Robert Guédiguian’s based-on-a-true-story French war drama are not The Dirty Dozen unleashed on the Nazis but a remarkably effective resistance cell formed of French Jews, communists and immigrants—the very “undesirables” targeted by the Nazis for the camps. Guédiguian’s previous films—at least ones I’ve had the good fortune to see—have been small dramas about communities of immigrants, underemployed and outcasts that pull together and to maintain their identities. Army of Crime offers a much bigger canvas—and a setting with profound resonance—for that theme to play out, and Guédiguian invites members of his stock company to fill out major roles.
Simon Abkarian is the Armenian poet, Communist and pacifist who leaves a concentration camp with a lie and takes up arms to lead a team of members not known for following orders, Virginie Ledoyen his devoted wife and partner and Robinson Stévenin and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet the reckless but passionate daredevil partisans under his command. Their stories play out slowly, the better to let the oppressive culture of occupied Paris (and of the widespread collaboration of police who support the racial policies, if not the authoritarian structure, of the Nazis occupation) sink in while sowing the tensions between the Communist leaders of the resistance and the non-Communist soldiers who fight for their own reasons: vengeance, defiance, love of country and the simple act of self-preservation under a regime dedicated to eradicating their existence. By the time the unit forms, you are ready for them to take the offensive, even as we know how it ends: the film opens with a spoken memorial to their sacrifice.