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Angie Dickinson

Review: The Outside Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]

The American cinema owes the French cinema—which is to say French critics and audiences as well as French filmmakers—an enormous debt. And so do any American cinephiles whose cataracted vision began to clear only after Gallic enthusiasm pointed the way to a discovery of our national cinematic treasures. Why, the film noir, one of the richest veins in our movie mines, bears a French moniker; and French cinéastes have emulated that particular tradition time and again, from the commercial likes of Borsalino to the more personal genre work of the recently deceased Jean-Pierre Melville to the radically stylized, self-aware poetry of Godard’s Breathless, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, and Pierrot le fou. The progression syntactically implied there is stylistic rather than chronological: Borsalino, an enjoyable piece of period fluff concocted by Jacques Deray, postdates the others. It would be nice to say that Deray’s first American-made film added new dimensions to the genre; that a foreign filmmaker practiced in shooting French-based derivations of our native genre might reveal to us unsuspected strains of exoticism gleaming out of the domestic bedrock. But no.

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Blu-ray: Two takes on Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’

killersBDThe Killers (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is an ingenious double feature: Two crime classics inspired by the Ernest Hemingway short story. Criterion originally released a DVD double feature over a decade ago. Both films have been remastered in HD for the set’s Blu-ray debut and a new DVD edition.

The first 15 minutes of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) remains the most the most faithful Hemingway adaptation ever put on screen. Two gunmen from the city (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) take over a small town diner to wait for their target. When he doesn’t show, they take the hit to him, and he just waits, broken and hopeless, for them to come and finish him off. Burt Lancaster made his film debut in the role of Swede Anderson and his entrance—a close-up of a haunted face doused in shadow with slashes of light catching his wounded expression as he lay back down on his bed, awaiting his execution with doomed resignation—is one of the greatest screen debuts any performer has received.

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Blu-ray: ‘Point Blank’

When documentary filmmaker John Boorman made the leap to feature filmmaking with Catch Us If You Can (aka Having a Wild Weekend, 1965), a low-budget rock-n-roll vehicle for the Dave Clark Five, he transformed the quickie into a surprisingly biting satire of popular culture set to a bouncy soundtrack, displaying a remarkable sophistication and creativity unexpected from such a project. It was enough to land him his first American film, Point Blank (Warner) where he revealed an even greater ambition and talent.

Based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark (a pen name for Donald Westlake), Point Blank shuffles the lean, straight-forward story of a gunman named Walker (Lee Marvin), who is double crossed by his partner in crime and returns (seemingly from the dead) for revenge, into a surreal, abstracted crime drama. The plot is faithful to original novel, a hard-boiled piece of crime fiction reimagined for the underworld culture of the sixties, but Boorman and Marvin, who requested the young director and supported his unconventional vision for the film, refract it through a modern lens. Walker’s odyssey from Alcatraz in San Francisco to the underworld of Los Angeles is splintered with short, sharp shards of memory that cut through his story, as if reflecting Walker’s attempts to put the pieces of cause and effect together in his mind.

Boorman views L.A. through an alienated lens and edits it more like a European art film than an American crime thriller, but fills it with offbeat, ultra-stylized scenes of violence.

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MOD Movies: Jean-Louis Trintignant is ‘The Outside Man’

The Outside Man (MGM Limited Edition Collection) is out-of-town contract killer Lucien Bellon (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a Paris gunman hired to take out a Los Angeles mob boss, which he does with no fuss or loose ends. Or so he thinks, until he realizes that he’s considered a loose end when a local hitman (Roy Scheider in a largely unspoken performance) targets him as he prepares to leave the country.

Though set and shot in Los Angeles, with a largely American cast (including Ann-Margret as the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold who helps Lucien out, Angie Dickinson, John Hillerman, Alex Rocco, Talia Shire, and Georgia Engel) and a distinctive score with funky soul guitar and wah-wah pedal, this gangster movie turned cat-and-mouse thriller is a French production with a European sensibility shot on the streets of Los Angeles.

Director Jacques Deray may not be the best French crime movie filmmaker of his era but he has way of taking his time and methodically playing out his situations. He isn’t so much interested in action as atmosphere and his portrait of American culture gives the crime movie conventions a distinctive sensibility. Deray and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière are fascinated with the urban landscape of Tower Records and hamburger joints and busy streets, and the perspective is as much from their perspective as it is of the Paris hitman abroad. Lucien runs across hippie hookers and a Jesus freak hitchhiker, checks the news on coin-operated TVs in the bus station, and takes refuge with a single mother and her bratty son (a very young Jackie Earle Haley), where they watch “Star Trek” reruns over dinner.

The script is clever and woven through with witty asides and blasts of dark humor, and if it never really tense or suspenseful, it features a superb cast (including Michel Constantin as Trintignant’s Paris connection, who flies in to help settle the score), some very clever set pieces, and a great look at American urban culture from a European perspective. And the obligatory third act payback, a matter of honor and obligation doomed to mutual destruction, is both perfectly American and utterly French. Some gangster movie conventions are universal.

Available by order only from the MGM Limited Edition Collection, from AmazonScreen Archives Entertainment,Critics’ Choice VideoClassic Movies NowWarner Archive, and other web retailers.

Talking and Doing in “Rio Bravo”

[Written for a November 14, 1972 showing of the film in a University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series on Howard Hawks. Reprinted in an all-Westerns issue of the film journal The Velvet Light Trap.]

John Wayne as Chance, Angie Dickinson as Feathers

I can remember my reaction to Rio Bravo upon its initial release in 1959.  I liked it, I guess, but I was rather distressed by several factors: everything happened in this Southwestern town, John Wayne spent entirely too much time coming out on the wrong end of conversations with Angie Dickinson, and everybody talked all the time.  Somewhere along the line I had been given to understand that Westerns ought to be full of chases and display a great deal of scenery, that love interest was usually imposed obligatorily on action scenarios, and that any movie in which the actors gabbed all the time was not a movie but a photographed play.  Besides, these people all talked so oddly; and because they sounded odd, I decided they were technically inept performers.  And oh yes, Ricky Nelson — Dean Martin didn’t bother me, but it was simply axiomatic that anyone associated with so many insipid televideo memories as Nelson could only pull a movie down, as for instance in obliging this Howard Hawks fellow to throw in a song interlude just to get his money’s worth and to please “the fans.” (Who were “the fans” who imposed all these strictures anyway? — no one I knew, but they were always Platonically ideal to have lurking in the background as an excuse for one’s peeves.)

Actually I wasn’t guilty of quite all the foregoing stupidities, but I harbored enough of them to make me (or my teenage alter ego) bear the additional symbolic burden of those other exclusionist theories I’ve run across subsequently.  I’m for Rio Bravo today, to put it mild­ly, and if I had to select just one film to demonstrate what Howard Hawks is all about, it would vie at the top of the list with Only Angels Have Wings.  Both pictures embody the essen­tial Hawksian rhythms of danger and security; clearly exemplify the strong bonds of respect and reliance that sustain the small society of professionals contained within the larger and scarcely seen society of undistinguished, uncommitted workaday types; suggest why love is as dangerous and as necessary to personal wholeness as flying or gunfighting; file lucid and affectionate briefs for good, personal, ritualistic humor and the healthier forms of craziness; and relate language, speech, and reason to action more definitively than any other films in the canon.  If Only Angels Have Wings is the foremost masterwork of the director’s early peri­od, Rio Bravo is that of the later, even more genial years.

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The Gangster Mamas (and Other Lady Outlaws) of Big Bad Corman – DVDs of the Week

Big Bad Mama / Big Bad Mama II Double Feature (Shout! Factory)
Crazy Mama / The Lady In Red Double Feature
(Shout! Factory)

One of the less recognized genres that director/producer/indie-exploitation movie mogul Roger Corman adopted as a minor specialty was the depression-era gangster movie. As a director he turned out Machine Gun Kelly (1958), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and (most importantly for the purposes of this piece) Bloody Mama (1970), his perversely Oedipal take on the Ma Barker story with Shelley Winters as the machine gun mama leading her sons through a bank-robbing spree and keeping them a little too close for comfort on their days off.

Angie Dickinson in the driver's seat of "Big Bad Mama"

Jump ahead a few years and Corman, now retired from directing to run his own independent studio, turns back to the period gangster thriller with a femme-centric twist (which proved so effective in Boxcar Bertha, the 1972 feature he produced for AIP and with an up-and-coming young filmmaker at the helm taking first shot at directing a real Hollywood film: Martin Scorsese). Bloody Mama and Boxcar Bertha are the two godmothers of the four films featured in a pair of double features from Shout! Factory, including three that carried on the legacy of Corman’s gangster Mamas: all previously available but newly remastered for posterity presented at good prices.

Angie Dickinson takes the driver’s seat in the getaway car of Big Bad Mama (1974) and powers the low-rent Bonnie and Clyde as the feisty Wilma McClatchie, a sexy and strong-willed depression-era widow with two teenage daughters blossoming into sexual creatures. Angry, outspoken and determined to take back her share (and a little more) from the fat cats and corrupt authority figures that took everything from her, she puts a stop to her daughter’s wedding with a rabble-rousing speech about social injustice and then hits the road with a fun-loving bootlegger on the run from the Feds (one of them played by Corman familiar Dick Miller). It’s the just beginning of her outlaw education on the road to bigger and better crimes, from small-time robberies and race track heist to high society capers, with two new partners: rough and ready bank robber Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt) who literally has his bank robbery hijacked by Wilma and smirking con man William Baxter (William Shatner) who seduces Wilma right out of Fred’s arms. Her girls, Billy Jean (Susan Sennett) and Polly (Robbie Lee), are quick to fill the void in Fred’s bed. He’s nothing if not adaptable.

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