At the heart of Miss Sloane—and a cool heart it is—lies a question. Why does the title character walk out on her lucrative career as one of D.C.’s highest-paid lobbyists to join an underfunded nonprofit in its quixotic attempt at changing some gun laws? The question keeps the movie from falling into the easy do-gooder outline of Erin Brockovich. Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain, all stiletto-heel precision) might possibly be stirred by a sense of social justice, but she might also just want to win a game that everybody tells her is unwinnable. We’re talking about an alpha female who isn’t content with mere victory—she gives you the impression she also wouldn’t mind hearing the lamentations of women (and men) on the field of battle. It’s crucial to this movie’s crisp watchability that we’re not sure what motivates her battle plan. Maybe battle is just her thing.
[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
Film directors have come from many backgrounds, in the past more so than today; but with Electra Glide in Blue a new source has been tapped. James William Guercio is a prominent record producer. The influence of his background in the recording industry becomes immediately apparent when, in the first several minutes of the film, we witness a “suicide” while a weepy piano tune plays on a hand-cranked phonograph. Guercio has a feeling for music and film, and he blends both into an expressive statement. Certainly one of the most poetic of these expressions is a chase scene which begins slowly, the characters in floating telephoto shots seen through waves of heat rising from the pavement and the sands of the Arizona desert; with the addition of music to the soundtrack it becomes a ballet that moves inexorably toward its climax.
[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
The new Siegel is characteristically clean, fascinatingly and unfussily detailed, beautifully paced—a model of movie craftsmanship and a pointed affront to those slovenly wrecking derbies and indiscriminate bloodbaths that have been passing for contemporary action thrillers the last year or so. Indeed, to anyone who has alternately yawned and fidgeted through shapeless and soulless dreck like Badge 373 and The Stone Killer, wondering what it was doing to general audiences and—through them as an economic factor—what it was doing to the future of the genre, the first quarter-hour of Charley Varrick is deeply exhilarating: not only a superior exercise in suspenseful narration but also an up-to-the-moment demonstration that they still can make ’em the way they used to.
The spirit of film noir lives on in Johnny Ma’s Old Stone, a downward spiral set in contemporary China. In the outline of the classic noir, a person makes one wrong move which sets in motion an inexorable series of disastrous events: Fred MacMurray sells a fishy insurance policy to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity; Tom Neal picks up a good-looking hitchhiker in Detour. The bitter irony in Old Stone is that this particular spiral is set in motion when a man makes a right move—or at least a generous, unselfish one. His gesture, in trying to save someone’s life, brings down a rain of Biblical calamities.
On Dangerous Ground (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) (1952), directed by Nicholas Ray from a script he developed with A.I. Bezzerides and producer John Houseman, opens on the urgent yet fractured dramatic score by Bernard Herrmann, a theme that rushes forward anxiously, pauses with quieter instruments, then jumps again as we watch the nocturnal city streets in the rain through the windshield of a moving car. This is the view of the city as seen by Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), as an obsessive, tightly-wound police detective who works the night shift on the urban streets of an unnamed city filled with grifters, hookers, and petty crooks. He’s as dedicated as they come—he studies mug shots over his meal before the start of shift—but he has no family, no girl, no hobbies, as a quick survey of his Spartan apartment shows, and his single-minded focus on the job has twisted the compassion out of him. When his anger boils over into violence once too often, he’s sent out of town to help with a murder case in the rural countryside.
I Wake Up Screaming (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) is not just one of the great movie titles of classic cinema, it is one of the films that established the distinctive style and attitude of film noir, from the blast of a headline shouting BEAUTIFUL MODEL FOUND MURDERED to the third degree given to swaggering sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) under the glare of a blinding lamp in a rather suspicious room of worn brick and cast-off furnishings, more of a cell than an official interrogation room. Mature is lit up in the center of the screen while hard shadows assault the walls and slashes of light and looming silhouettes give the cordon of cops wrapped around him a look more like intimidating mob hoods than New York’s finest. On the other side of the dungeon door is the public side of the detective’s room where Jill Lynn (Betty Grable), the victim’s sister, is treated more gently, but she’s just as trapped. When the camera swings around we see a cage around her. The picture opens with a punch and the backstory is quickly filled in with jabs of flashbacks, jumping back and forth between the smart mouthed dandy of a promotor and the demure young woman as they lay out the events leading up to the murder of ambitious Carole Landis, the hash slinger promoted to celebrity success by Mature like a noir Pygmalion.
The House on 92nd Street (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), a 1945 World War II espionage thriller based on a real life FBI case, launched what would become the semi-documentary strain of film noir. It opens with the authoritative narration of Reed Hadley (uncredited but omnipresent in the genre) insisting on that this is an accurate dramatic treatment of a true story shot on locations where it occurred and slips into procedural about a German-American scientist (William Eythe) who is recruited by the Nazis for their bomb project and goes undercover for the FBI to find the mole giving A-bomb research to Germany. It’s produced by Louis de Rochemont (producer of the March of Time newsreel series) and directed by Henry Hathaway with a rather flat style, which isn’t helped by the blandness of Eythe or the archness of Lloyd Nolan as the lead agent. It’s an interesting film for all of its detail and location shooting and use of real FBI agents in minor roles and it launched the docu-noir style that was picked up and developed in films like T-Men (1947), The Naked City (1948), and Hathaway’s own Call Northside 777 (1948). Signe Hasso, Gene Lockhart, and Leo G. Carroll co-star.
Warren Beatty turns 80 next year, and he’s been talking about directing a film on Howard Hughes for decades. So we’re allowed to assume that Rules Don’t Apply might have the air of a grand opus about it, that it would wear the sobriety suitable to an Oscar-winning filmmaker and elder Hollywood royalty. And that assumption would be wrong. Because whatever else is going on with this movie, it’s quick, jokey, and lively as hell. At times it seems as daffy as the oddball billionaire depicted, but it generally has something thoughtful to say—when it comes to Hughesiana, it’s a more original project than the Scorsese/DiCaprio Aviator.
[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]
The Mattei Affair affords one of the year’s most peculiar film experiences. I think most people who see it will agree with that, whether or not their personal reactions to the picture closely resemble my own (possibly very subjective) response. For about half the film’s running time I was conscious of enduring the movie more than experiencing it. It offers few of the conventional compensations. For one thing, its subject is highly political—and not only political but also, as it appears for a while, narrowly regional. Who is—was—Enrico Mattei? An official in an Italian state industry who concerned himself with realizing the oil and especially the methane resources of various impoverished sectors of the country, and who died in the mysterious crash of his private jet in 1962. The movie opens, Citizen Kane–like, with Mattei’s death, presented fragmentarily through the points of view of a farmer who’s awakened by the crash, the airline personnel routinely monitoring the flight, and various media contingents who leap into action to cover the event. Immediately the case is fragmented even further: there is a flashback from the discovery and aftermath of the crash to the crash actually occurring; and then time and place and point-of-view become still more problematical. A bank of TV screens gives back diverse images of Mattei at various stages of his career, images of newsmen commenting on Mattei, images of other people being interviewed about Mattei—and some of the screens are just full of static; more or loss constantly, at least one of them glows with the words ENRICO MATTEI, as though The Truth were lurking, “Rosebud”-like, Executive Action–like, amid this welter of available media documentation.
Private Property (Cinelicious, Blu-ray+DVD) – Put this 1960 film in the “Lost and Found” category. The directorial debut by Leslie Stevens, a playwright and screenwriter and protégé of Orson Welles, it’s a neat little sexually-charged psychological thriller set in the sunny California culture of affluence and trophy wives and drifting hitchhikers crossing the stratified social borders.
Corey Allen and Warren Oates are Duke and Boots, the George and Lenny of angry drifters, and Kate Manx is the beautiful trophy wife that Duke spots on the Pacific Coast Highway in a white Corvette. They coerce a travelling salesman to follow that car and trail her to her Hollywood Hills home, taking up residence in a vacant home next door. They ogle her through the second floor window as Anne sunbathes and skinny dips, and then they insinuate themselves into her home. A student of the Method school, Allen plays Duke as an angry young con man who has perfected the sensitive soul act, while Manx, who was Stevens’ wife at the time, is a limited actress who Stevens directs to an effective performance. Oates is the revelation, walking that tightrope between loyalty and suspicion, slowly figuring out Duke’s games but slow to act until practically pushed into action.
A United States where ignorance has the upper hand, where leaders revel in their bigotry, where average Americans taunt each other with proud, unfiltered fury. The year is 1958—what did you think I was referring to?—a time when Richard and Mildred Loving became criminals because of their marriage. They are the subjects of Jeff Nichols’ Loving, one of those historical films that come along to remind us of the distant past. And, sometimes, of the present.
Richard was white and Mildred was black and Native American, and their home state of Virginia had laws against interracial marriage (like 23 other states at the time). The Lovings were legally married in Washington, D.C., but by returning to their home in rural Virginia, they violated the state’s grandly named Racial Integrity Act. Years passed and the Lovings eventually enlisted the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union to take up their case.
Watching people simply go about their business can somehow be one of the most fascinating things in the movies. The Berlin Award–winning Ixcanul (Volcano), Guatemala’s entry for last year’s Oscars, is an absorbing, unpretentious look at a culture not often shown, whether capturing how the characters can carry a forest’s worth of firewood on their heads without missing a step, or witnessing them getting their pigs drunk on rum in hopes of speeding up the mating season. By the time someone nonchalantly remarks on the unpleasant smell of their snake repellant, the sense of transportation is complete.
Aquarius is large but intimate, political but personal; it’s frank in its ambition to explore The Way We Live Today, but also mysterious and elusive. I’ve seen few films this year more fascinating. The second feature by Brazilian writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighborhood Sounds), this movie clocks in at a leisurely 142 minutes—some urgent, some curiously relaxed.
We are in Recife, a city of beaches and history. Living in view of the beach is Clara, a writer now in her mid-60s. She comes from a comfortable background and is a widowed cancer survivor, her three children all in adulthood. Clara owns a condo in a gorgeous Art Deco building—the status of which will provide the movie’s backbone.
Clara is played, radiantly, by Sonia Braga, and this is an important part of watching Aquarius.
Taxi Driver: 40th Anniversary Edition (Sony, Blu-ray)
Martin Scorsese’ incendiary 1976 masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most visceral portraits of the American urban underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and almost forty years later it still has the power 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 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.
There are strong, original things in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, and there are things that would fit in a cautionary ABC Afterschool Special. Sometimes the film’s style is muscular and striking, and sometimes it’s flat. But Jenkins got one thing right: He really knows how to build. By the time Moonlight reaches its third and final act (it’s explicitly divided into chapters), the film has gained power and a slow, steady momentum. The last few scenes consist of two people sorting out longstanding issues between them—and barely managing to do that—but the suspense is formidable.
We follow one troubled character from childhood to adulthood, so it’s one of those movies with three different actors—all haunting—playing the same role.