House of Bamboo (1955)

bamboo3One of the attractions of film for me is the the way it freezes time and place, a time capsule, in effect. Curiously this even works for science fiction films and their visions of the future; Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the future seen through the prism of the optimism and ambition of the1960s, one of many movie futures that never happened (we’ll be lucky to see Kubrick’s space station wheel or moon-base before 2101, a century ‘late’, and we have yet to see 2019’s flying cars of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner) but the point is, those future visions inform us of the times when a film was made and those visions created, something increasingly interesting as they become more removed from us.

But certainly the sense of films being time capsules applies chiefly to films of old, and its almost incidental to the storytelling process. A British film made and set in the 1960s is just a film made in the 1960s, they weren’t concerned with recording their milieu for posterity, but that’s what they have done- 1960s London being very different to that of today, and likewise Klute, French Connection or Taxi Driver all have visions of a New York of their time but now offering glimpses of a city long gone, for better or worse.    

Which brings me to one of the more arresting and fascinating aspects of Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo, a thriller set and filmed in post-war Japan. Its clear that Fuller seized the unusual opportunity with relish, because the location filming is quite extensive, offering a sense of time and place that is quite tangible. I would imagine that someone living in Tokyo today would find this film almost a revelation. Indeed a ‘locations then and now’ featurette, albeit prohibitively expensive would have been so fascinating (those types of featurettes are something I always gravitate to first if they are on a disc). I’m not sure how staged the locations were, but they certainly feel authentic, adding a docudrama feel to the film: there’s a sense of reality to it.

Which is perhaps just as well, because the film is quite bizarre otherwise, featuring an American gang of ex-servicemen who seemingly speak no Japanese, in charge of the Tokyo underworld, and the powerless Japanese authorities needing the help of American military police to root them out. Based upon an earlier Fox film, The Street With No Name, its a mob scenario like so many gangster noir films but transposed to the Orient – vividly filmed in glorious CinemaScope colour, its like no noir I’ve yet seen, and magnificently photographed.

The ‘hero’ of the film is Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) who arrives in Tokyo stirring up trouble until he is brought to the attention of Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) who’s the mastermind of the American gang. Stack is a blank, really pretty woeful with a one-note performance which must be what he approximates as a ‘Tough Guy’ but never really convinces. Did Stack always just get by with poor performances like this? Or is it possible its a deliberate commentary on the stereotypical rugged American hero stuck in a milieu where he doesn’t belong (shades of Michael Douglas in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain decades later), finding him wanting? 

bamboo2The film is thankfully saved by Ryan’s cool and collected criminal czar: I’ve seen Ryan in several films of late and he continues to impress- he’s not, as one might expect, chewing up the scenery here but is instead calmly threatening, and there’s a weird homoerotic undercurrent that I’ve noticed before in other noir. Its subtle enough that viewers won’t necessarily notice it, but its evidently deliberate as Fuller remarks about it in the booklet that accompanies this Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release. Sandy takes a sudden liking to Eddie, who’s quite oblivious, but it becomes clear to us something is going on- Sandy’s rule that any injured gang member must be shot dead to avoid giving anything away to the authorities, is shown in action, but when Eddie is injured Sandy orders him carried to safety. Eddies standing in the gang rises, and he becomes Sandy’s righthand man, usurping  the increasingly irritated Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Sandy’s attraction to Eddie blinds him to the fact that Eddie isn’t who he seems- he’s actually Eddie Kenner, a military policeman posing as Spanier, a criminal who is still serving time back in the States. Kenner seeks to destroy the gang from within, but doesn’t himself realise that a mole in the Japanese police will leak to Sandy there is a mole in his operation, setting up a tense last heist…

Along the way there are some remarkable moments, like when Sandy, realising he has been betrayed, dispatches Griff in error- shooting him dead while he’s in a wooden bathtub that, riddled with bullets, starts leaking bath water while Sandy walks over and cradles his victims head, explaining why he just killed him (explaining himself to his past lover/confidant?). Or seeing original 1960s Star Trek‘s DeForrest Kelley playing one of Sandy’s henchmen; it just feels so incongruous seeing Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy as a bad guy .Or indeed any scene featuring the rather forced and unlikely romance between Eddie and Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) the Japanese widow of one of Sandy’s deceased gang members.

bamboo1But despite the inherent silliness of much of the plot and the hackneyed performance of tough-guy Stack, the film works, and much of this is thanks to the sheer fascination/eye-candy of the locations. The action finale in an amusement/theme park on the roof of a Tokyo tower block, children and parents rushing everywhere while bullets are flying and the city of Tokyo sits oblivious below, is as strange and visually arresting as it should sound (what Scott could have made of it in his Black Rain one can only imagine). I thought the setting for that last gunfight was quite extraordinary and a major achievement. House of Bamboo is a thoroughly odd film but one that just constantly rewards, I really enjoyed it and look forward to listening to its two commentary tracks (viva physical media!).


Cowboy Bebop (2021)

cowboy1Considering what seems to be prevailing opinion, I appreciate I’m in the minority when I state I really quite enjoyed Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop show. I’m a big fan of the original anime (had it on R1 DVD, then Blu-ray, have all the soundtracks etc) and couldn’t believe anyone would ever think a live-action remake or spin-off could ever be a Good Idea– in just the same way as a live-action Akira or Neon Genesis Evangelion, two other projects which are mooted now and again. The anime are what they are. They don’t need remakes or live-action versions.

So I approached this new Netflix edition with severe caution. But I liked it. Maybe it was a case of low expectations, but as I gave the show time it started to grow on me. Of course, most of my initial enjoyment stemmed from it using the original Yoko Kanno music -such an intrinsic part of the Bebop experience- but as the show progressed, I realised there was so much to enjoy. The cast is surprisingly spot-on (even the departures from the anime make sense, but at any rate, John Cho is brilliant), the sets and art direction feel authentically Bebop, the stories had that irreverent, off-kilter style that runs through the anime… I just came to the opinion that the good outweighed the bad.

I’ll qualify this point by adding that one of the things I loved about the original anime is how much it reminded me, back when it was a blind-buy of volumes on R1 DVD import long ago, of my beloved 2000AD comics of the late 1970s/early-1980s, in particular some of my favourite strips (Robo-Hunter and Ace Trucking Co.): it’s clearly something unintended but, in just the same way as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets feels like a Heavy Metal strip thrown onto a cinema screen (no matter its actual faults as a film), the Cowboy Bebop anime always felt like an early 2000AD strip, back in that comics black and white, pulp paper, wild, new-wave, punk heyday. Its just a particular vibe I loved and I think this is carried through to the Netflix show- its like watching a 2000AD strip on Netflix.

I also loved -absolutely LOVED- how deftly it seemed to capture the cheesy, slightly daft feel of a 1960s or 1970s genre show: it was a little like The Champions or Blakes 7, not in content exactly, but there was just this vibe of a vintage genre show, like whenever I watch The Prisoner. It doesn’t feel contemporary, somehow, it seems like television from another decade. Which might be horrifying to most, but I rather like it. Right from the title sequence, the slightly skewed camera angles, the unsophisticated almost bizarrely cheesy sets. Its a whole lot of fun. Some of it felt like a Gerry Anderson puppet show turned to live-action.

Now clearly many fans of the anime are appalled by the live-action version and they may have many valid reasons: mostly I suspect that its because it just isn’t the Cowboy Bebop they adore.  Faye isn’t sexy enough, Spike isn’t tall or dark enough or… well I’m certain there are myriad reasons. But I wasn’t expecting it to be Cowboy Bebop; I’m enjoying the departures and the changes. Why, after all, should one expect the anime to be transferred whole to live-action? I suppose the flipside is the Blade Runner: Black Lotus show (which I haven’t seen and may not ever), where the reverse is the case; the live-action Blade Runner universe transferred into an anime series. If I ever do watch it, I’ll have to be open to liberties being taken, simply because of the change of format etc. Its missing the point to criticise something for what it isn’t. Or maybe I’m indeed missing the point, maybe it should be wholly faithful and authentic.

cowboy2I suspect a lot of the current Internet rage regards this show is just video-bloggers hating an easy target or blowing expectations to the high winds: YouTube bloggers don’t get hits from scoring something a ‘5’ they get the hits from the extremes of ‘1’ or ’10’, its just how things are now, and why so many obsess over Star Wars or Marvel shows on Disney+. Films or television shows are either terrible shit or excellent, there’s no in-between for the influencers or those with huge followings, and yes geeks can be vehemently passionate regards their favourite franchises. For the curious, I’d score Netflix’s Bebop incarnation a cheeky ‘7’, which is probably one or two points too many but I was just so fond of how each joint felt out of time (forgive me a pointless spin on PKD’s Time Out of Joint). Why can’t a sci-fi show be pleasantly silly, why do they have to be dark and serious? I love my BSG reboot or Babylon 5, but not everything has to be epic and self-consumed with meaning: sometimes an episode of the Adam West Batman tv show can hit the spot, even for those of us who enjoy Affleck’s Batman or Nolan’s Dark Knight films.

I figure the Netflix show did something right, though because my wife Claire sat through it all with me and enjoyed it too- and she absolutely hates anything anime. She was reluctant to watch it but came around after the first few episodes, gradually falling for the fun weirdness of it. Maybe Claire enjoying it is exactly reflective of so many Bebop anime fans disliking/hating it passionately, and how Netflix is obviously trying to attach this Bebop to a new audience (how successfully they have done it without alienating the anime fans too much is debatable, mind). I suppose those fans can go back to their DVD and Blu-Ray sets, which will always be there, and pretend the Netflix show never happened, in just the same way as I can sometimes watch Alien pretending that Prometheus never happened. But maybe they should also just have an open mind and enjoy this show for what it is.

I very much hope we get a season two, because where this first season ends, the show is evidently departing ever further from the anime, hopefully becoming something wholly different, leaving the anime well behind and clearly being its own thing. Colour me excited, and relatively hopeful, considering some of the travesties which Netflix do greenlight (the second season of Another Life in particular).

Born to Be Bad (1950)

born2bHa, this was kind of fun, if only to imagine the moral outrage of audiences back in 1950 watching Joan Fontaine’s Christabel Caine use her feminine wiles (were men such schmucks back then?) to work her way through wealthy socialites and betray the woman who took her in, and desert the woman who raised her, to get the riches (and man) she feels she deserves. Oh the horrible duplicitous cow. So sly! So rude! And worst of all, even at the end she can’t see how bad she is, doesn’t see the error of her ways and goes onto her next target feeling wholly unrepentant.  What a thoroughly unpleasant little minx. I though bad girls were supposed to get punished by the end of these moral fables?

Nicholas Ray’s 1950 melodrama has dated pretty badly and in reality its really not that good a film- its pretty predictable but its enlivened greatly by a fine cast, particularly Robert Ryan (yeah, him again, he’s becoming quite a regular on my television) as Nick, aspiring writer who’s besotted by Christabel but is just a (lower) rung on the ladder she’s climbing. Ryan has some great one-liners, delivered with great gusto (“I love you so much I wish I liked you”) and has a wonderfully irreverent, somewhat Bohemian outlook that becomes quite endearing as the film goes on. Fontaine is possibly ill-suited for the role, hardly the manipulative femme fatale the character really should be, but in a weird sort of way, the casting rather works- she looks so sweet and nice one can imagine her hoodwinking everyone around her until finally her over-confidence undoes her, although, as I have noted, the film strangely lets her get away with it, seeing her moving onto other victims in the films coda. Its all daft fun, I suppose, and largely inconsequential, but the fact that she apparently goes unpunished gives this harmless melodrama a certain dash of noir.

Reminiscence 4K UHD (2021)

rem1Lisa Joy’s tech-noir thriller Reminiscence is a film which, like a few this year, I unfortunately missed at the cinema, which annoyed me as it seemed right up my street – someone went and made an adult, intelligent sci-fi thriller and I didn’t get to see it, and like BR2049 it bombed spectacularly. So I was really looking forward to seeing it when it came to home video, and naturally I went the full 4K UHD route (with hindsight its a pleasant surprise it has turned up on the format at all), but it proved rather disappointing.  It turns out that, for all it does well -and it does indeed do some things very well- its badly flawed, unfortunately. It’s not bad, exactly- it just doesn’t tie together somehow, it doesn’t really work, overall, which is frustrating because some elements are very good indeed. Its a case of being clumsy where it really needed to soar, and perhaps being overly familiar.

So many films and tv shows one sees these days, if they aren’t actually remakes or reboots, they still often seem to be a combination of the ‘greatest hits’ of someone’s DVD collection. Maybe its the entertainment industry’s sincerest form of flattery, or a reminder that there really is nothing new under the sun.

Reminiscence is hitched upon the central conceit that an invention enables people to re-live some of their past experiences which can be visualised for others to see and record, and this also enables access to forgotten memories or the ability to vividly recall things otherwise only dimly remembered. The law enforcement agencies use this machine to interrogate suspects who can be prosecuted by the evidence their memories reveal – an inversion of the ‘future crime’ of Memory Report, then, but similarly projecting crimes for others to see and record for evidence, criminals being betrayed by their own memories or those of witnesses.   

The seductive aspect of reliving good memories, especially in the distinctly dystopian world which Reminiscence proposes, reminds one of another tech-noir thriller, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, and its device which enabled the recording of events for others to experience, itself similar to Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm of some years before. Some characters in Reminiscence are doomed to endlessly  return to and re-experience good times in just the same way as Ralph Fiennes’ Lenny in Strange Days, and indeed this is something mirrored by the ultimate fate of this film’s main character, Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), who can’t let go of his muse, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) any more than Lenny can shake off his obsession over his own lost love. So Reminiscence seems to come to us now third-hand, almost, rather than be anything actually new, ironically leaking reminiscences of other films-  I don’t really mind that if its done in some new and interesting way, but this is where the film slips up.  While there is some political subtext and a crime to solve, Lisa Joy treats that as secondary to its romance woven through the narrative, and its that which doesn’t entirely convince. Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson are very good actors but they just seem a little too ‘perfect’ to convince as the flawed, haunted characters that Joy wants them to be. There is a feeling that we are always watching beautiful people merely approximating what desperate, hungry and haunted characters might be like were they a little more, well, ordinary like the rest of us. Perhaps this is always true of Hollywood product. 

There is, to be sure, a really great film in here, somewhere. Considering recent world attention on Climate Change and rising sea levels, seeing a film portraying a possible nightmare scenario spun off of that -in this case a half-submerged Miami and days so hot that everyone sleeps in the day and spend the majority of their waking hours during the night-as vividly as this film does is something timely and fascinating. And the reliance of the survivors upon the new technology to re-experience memories and experiences of better times as an avenue of escape is very interesting, and similar to how people during the pandemic have eulogised old pre-COVID traditions and pursuits like, hey, going to the cinema like we used to, or perhaps re-watching films that remind us of better times. There is perhaps a subtext there upon fantasy and escape and what catharsis films themselves provide us, and what a dead-end that may be. 

So what goes wrong exactly? I think its partly the romance that doesn’t wholly convince, and as that’s the central interest for Lisa Joy that’s a pretty fundamental failing. The crime that hangs in the background concerning a wealthy family, an illegitimate child, a bent cop and resultant murders just doesn’t interest either, really. Maybe its just too many balls to juggle in the air; I rather suspect that Lisa Joy has more success with so many narrative threads when she’s spacing them over an eight or ten-episode series on HBO rather than a two-hour movie, and films always tend to need cohesive, satisfying endings, not more mystery boxes. 

As someone who has watched quite a few film noir lately, I also think that Reminiscence could have possibly done without its narration, a noir device that doesn’t, to be honest, really work for me here. I always prefer film-makers to show me, don’t tell me, and the best noir, no matter how complex they may be, can often manage just fine without a voice explaining it all. Maybe I’m wrong and don’t appreciate that post-millennials are lazier. 

Maybe Reminiscence is just another victim of dystopian films just not appealing to audiences right now- maybe we’re swerving back to the days of post-Vietnam 1977 and audiences just want escapist fun. We’re living in a dystopian world as it is, and we know the future increasingly looks bleak; we don’t necessarily need films to remind us, or show us how bad it might get. Or maybe we just want better movies.

Carmilla (2019)

carmillaThe only thing worse than a bad horror film is possibly an arthouse horror film. This new Carmilla, a modern, revisionist take on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 vampire novella, drops the sexy, exploitation/ titillation of the Hammer cycle of films that it ‘inspired’ in the 1970s (The Vampire Lovers, Lust For a Vampire and Twins of Evil) and replaces it with a more intimate tale of sexual repression. This is less a tale of resisting the temptations of vampirism and more one of the temptations of lesbianism. Which is fine, and this is certainly graced with great performances from a genuinely very good cast, but in losing the vampirism, its rather missing the point and clearly dropping all the horror for something much more intellectual. I’ve been here before with this kind of ‘modern’ horror film- its as if the film-makers are embarrassed by being associated with something as potentially puerile and embarrassing as a horror flick and try to make something else instead. But surely that’s missing the point? 

Certainly, for the first half of this film -pacing issues aside, something I’ll return to later- the film works pretty well and promises much. Lara (Hannah Rae) is a sensitive teenager on the brink of womanhood, living a comfortable, almost idyllic life in the English countryside under the tutelage of her governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). Here are women of their time, behaving in a world that expects them to behave in a certain way, a formal code of conduct which Miss Fontaine seeks to instil upon her sometimes struggling, wayward pupil. There is a tension running through the film, between Lara’s suppressed emotions and Miss Fontaine’s own buried passions (she seems to enjoy punishing Lara with a caning a little TOO much?). 

Into this awkward status quo is thrust the enigmatic Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau), the sole survivor of a nearby carriage crash who is brought to the house and given shelter and rest. Carmilla says she cannot remember who she is or where she is from, but is clearly a more, ahem, confident and liberated girl than she pretends to be, raising Miss Fontaine’s suspicions while covertly pursuing Lara with furtive glances, suggestions of a Sapphic passion which Lara clearly finds exciting. We hear second-hand testimony of local girls mysteriously falling ill and wasting away, and indeed Lara herself becomes pale and weak as she spends more time with Carmilla. It appears that this film’s vampirism is less blood-letting and more a draining of life energy from proximity (a little like Lifeforce then, but minus that far superior film’s wildly Hammer-like sense of fun).

The film has two problems here- the pace is glacial, and the grace viewers may give it to enable the film to solidify its sense of time and place soon turns to frustration once Carmilla arrives and the viewer is still left waiting for SOMETHING to happen. Indeed, when something does happen, that’s the film’s second problem- it doesn’t know what should happen, or the conviction of its own genre for it to happen, graphically or with a sense of horror. Again, that’s the arthouse movie either forgetting its based on a horror tale or too embarrassed by it. The erotic charge between Lara and Carmilla isn’t fulfilled or realised. Instead, the strict Miss Fontaine enjoys an impromptu tryst with local doctor Renquist (a terribly wasted Tobias Menzies who could/should have been a great Van Helsing-type adversary of Carmilla), which oddly seems to transplant the audience-awaited explosion of Lara/Carmilla’s passions to the supporting cast; a baffling decision. 

I suppose what the film may have been getting at, was telling a tale of two girls finding a forbidden love together, and that being so ‘horrific’ to the ‘normal’ members of the more unenlightened society of the time that it was then turned into some demonic, vampiric legend – so the film shows us the ‘true’ story later bastardised into a camp vampiric horror tall-tale. If that’s the case, its a pity that it had to be so, well, toothless and boring.

Carmilla is currently streaming on Amazon Prime here in the UK

Scandal Sheet (1952)

ScandalshI loved this. Right from the gritty, opening location shoot outside a tenement building to its inevitable, perfect end, I just loved it. A case of watching the right film at the right time, or a film just ticking all the right boxes. The cast- Broderick Crawford (who I’d recently seen in Indicator editions of Convicted and The Mob, but was much better here), the lovely Donna Reed (whoever didn’t have a crush on her from watching It’s A Wonderful Life must be dead inside), Griff Barnett who really impressed in little more than a cameo, and some other familiar faces like John Derek and Harry Morgan – are all great, the script based on Samuel Fuller’s (supposedly semi-autobiographical) novel is full of twists and turns… Phil Karlson’s direction is exemplary… its a great film and one of those great discoveries one sometimes makes, trying a film on a whim (Amazon Prime’s algorithm brought me to it based upon me watching Crossfire a few nights before). Such discoveries tend to give me such a buzz.

Indeed, watching this on the not-so-great stream on Amazon Prime, as the film ended I looked online to see if the film was ever released on DVD or Blu-ray. You know how it is when you see a film you really, really enjoy, so often you just want to own a copy in order to re-experience it, in better quality and possibly (thanks to many DVD/Blu-rays) learn more about it from featurettes etc. Anyway, I was quite surprised to discover that Scandal Sheet had actually been included on Indicator’s Sam Fuller boxset a few years back, since OOP and now available on one of their standard releases in a double-bill with Shockproof, a film that like Scandal Sheet I had never heard of only a week ago. Well I nearly went for the standard release but I managed to find a sealed copy on eBay of the original box-set for a little less than its original retail price (some of the other listed prices were the usual eye-watering ones), and Claire suggested getting it for my Christmas present, so there you go- looks like I’ll be investigating the charms of Sam Fuller’s work in 2021, as a divergence from my noir preoccupation. 

So while I would usually press on with a review of the film here, I’ll just summarise that I really enjoyed it and that I intend to write a proper post about it when I get to re-watch in decent quality on Indicator’s Blu-ray, presumably early next year (where did 2021 go?). Consider this post a teaser for a forthcoming attraction, be still your beating hearts, eh?

Devil’s work…

devils men bluI have the distinct, and very strange feeling, that I’m being trolled by a boutique label- the fine folks at Indicator have announced that in February next year they are releasing on Blu-ray disc The Devil’s Men, a film which regular readers here (or anyone clicking the link in the title) may recall I saw last month and deemed it the worst film featuring Peter Cushing that I have ever had the misfortune to see. When I saw this announcement in my inbox I did such a double-take, I couldn’t believe my eyes: its is such a strange world sometimes.

As usual, Indicator is being generous with attention and quality- a 2K remaster from the original negative, two versions of the film (the ‘uncut’ version I watched and the edited-down American cut carrying the alternate Land of the Minotaur title) and plenty of extras including a commentary track and an archival interview/lecture with Peter Cushing at the National Film Theatre in 1973. Now, their release a few months ago of another horror film, Corruption featuring Cushing  compelled me into a blind-buy because it had an audio recording of a Cushing lecture from 1986 at the NFT (shamefully, I haven’t heard it yet- damn all these distracting noir). Certainly compared to The Devil’s MenCorruption is a far better film no matter Cushing’s own distaste for it, so was a worthy blind-buy and a lovely package with rigid slipbox and substantial softcover book with essays etc. but the idea that Indicator deem The Devil’s Men even worthy of any release at all, never mind one of their bells-and-whistles numbers…

As a Cushing fan, these archival audio pieces are tremendously tempting to me for obvious reasons. the actor unfortunately passed away before any enterprising laserdisc or DVD producer could enlist him into commentaries for some of his films, so any material of him discussing his work at length is priceless. But this time, its like Indicator are just daring me. The Devil’s Men is a horrible film, clumsily directed and poorly scripted, bizarrely carrying a Brian Eno score and also starring fellow horror-movie legend Donald Pleasance. I can read Indicator’s announcement imagining them stifling a guffaw as they write “this offbeat horror film… an eccentric, bloody cult shocker” as if the words ‘offbeat’ and ‘eccentric’ are euphemisms for ‘shite’ and ‘diabolical.’ Ha ha, its like they watched a different movie or are just testing me with some ghastly jest: they know, they KNOW that I’ve credit enough at their shop from past purchases to cash it in and get this film for ‘free’ but really, I’ve got more self-respect than that, haven’t I? Extraordinary move, Indicator- you are the Devil’s Men indeed.

Clearly the decent thing to do if ever someone from Indicator reads this is to respond by sending me a copy gratis..

The Racket (1951)

racketHot on the heels of Crossfire comes another noir thriller starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan – Hollywood was a pretty small world back then when actors were signed to studio contracts, and they sure were kept busy. In 1951 alone, Ryan appeared in five movies (including the wonderful On Dangerous Ground), Mitchum in three and co-star Lizabeth Scott appeared in four herself that year; one of the pleasures of watching these noir is seeing familiar faces turning up in all sorts of roles and movies (Scott for instance appeared in Dark City and I Walk Alone, two noir which I saw last year).

I actually first watched The Racket in early September, but although I enjoyed it didn’t write about it at the time  – after having seen Crossfire with Ryan and Mitchum onscreen together again, I decided it might be timely to give The Racket a re-watch, and hey, then opportunity to finally write a post about it. 

The Racket is a crime thriller, in which mobster Nick Scanlon (Ryan) has become increasingly marginalised as his turf has become amalgamated by a high-level organised crime syndicate, more prone to hire corrupt officials and law officers to manage its will rather than resorting to Scanlon’s old-school violence. This is a familiar theme in noir during this period (711 Ocean Drive is an example) – the idea of a nameless criminal syndicate operating across the nation, led by unseen masterminds corrupting the system from within and rendering the law powerless seems to have been perfect for the increasingly paranoid, reds-under-the-bed, enemy-within times. Science fiction films of the time suggested alien menace, while many noir suggested faceless criminal threats and communist espionage, but it all feels very similar and a reflection of the Cold War era. 

racket2Scanlon’s foil in this film is incorruptible police captain Tom McQuigg (Mitchum), who has been repeatedly sidelined to ever-more backwater precincts by corrupt superiors in the pay of the Syndicate in order to undermine him doing his job. Ryan is brilliant as the fiery mobster getting angrier and angrier at being reined back by his Syndicate superiors, bristling and ready to explode, but Mitchum possibly proves to be the films weakest link. To be fair his relentlessly honest police captain is sadly one-dimensional, but Mitchum just seems happy to stride around like a cowboy from one his western flicks transplanted onto the then-modern day streets. His whole demeanour (walk, sneer and drawl) is so much that of a cowboy its a little irritating, but one has to remember Mitchum wasn’t a trained actor (at least that’s what I gather from what I’ve read) but seems confident that he can get by with just his sheer physicality alone. He’s ruggedly handsome, tall and powerfully built: he looks the part of a cinematic hero and it seems that was enough: guys wanted to be him, girls wanted to be with him, its a familiar story in Hollywood. 

Unfortunately while its a competent crime thriller, The Racket has the air of almost comfortable routine- its cinematography doesn’t look as arrestingly imaginative as, say, that of Crossfire did, the script doesn’t surprise too often and the last reel fails to generate the tension it needs to. It certainly isn’t as edgy and dark as the best noir prove to be. This is a police procedural morality tale of an honest police captain inspiring one of his men, and a reminder of the supreme price some lawmen (and their wives) have to pay. A tale of corruption and frustrated lawmen trying to clean the dirty streets, unfortunately for the film those lawmen are awfully plain and unmemorable compared to the bad guys like Ryan and, in a nice sleazy turn William Conrad as an openly corrupt Detective, Turk. Strangely enough, its the latter who struck me as likely inspiration for Tim Burton and one of his films corrupt cops ( Lt. Eckhardt) in the 1989 Batman movie: it seems quite evident that Burton likely looked at films like The Racket for inspiration for the gothic noir look of his comicbook film that enabled its own timeless look. 

I think its safe to say that The Racket is Ryan’s movie though- he seems perfectly suited to playing ruthless, hardboiled bad guys and having seen him in a few films lately, he’s really caught my attention and impressed me. Maybe the reason Mitchum seems so lazy and seemingly uncommitted in this, is that he knows that its a waste of time trying any harder, Ryan is stealing every scene- mind, to be fair, the villains always tend to steal movies, and Mitchum would play some memorable ones himself (The Night of the Hunter, for one).

Crossfire (1947)

crossfire4Well we’re back to noir and the 1947 drama Crossfire starring Robert Mitchum (Out of the Past), Robert Ryan (On Dangerous Ground) and Robert Young. Directed by Edward Dmytryk (The Sniper, Bluebeard) the film also features Gloria Grahame (It’s A Wonderful Life, In a Lonely Place, The Big Heat) in a supporting role. That’s quite a pedigree, and also so many connections to other films I’ve seen; how could it fail?

Well, it can’t fail, really- as far as noir films go, this one looks utterly gorgeous, photographed by J.Roy Hunt, whose work here is simply high-art; its so beautiful (I only wish I had watched this on a Blu-ray, instead of an off-air recording). Although the script and acting are very good, its how the film looks that really struck me. Regular readers of this blog will know I’ve watched plenty of noir, particularly over the last year or so, so I’ve plenty to compare it to, and this film’s visuals compares with the best. Its moody, atmospheric and full of all sorts of creative and imaginative touches, painting with light indeed.

Police investigating the brutal death of Joseph “Sammy” Samuels (Sam Lavene) find that the evidence leads towards a group of demobilized soldiers, “Monty” Montgomery (Ryan), Arthur “Mitch” Mitchell (George Cooper), Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie), and Floyd’s friend Leroy (William Phipps) who were seen with Samuels in a bar – particularly Mitchell whose wallet is found near the body, and who has gone missing. Capt. Finlay (Young) of the police department is approached by a fifth soldier, Sergeant Keeley (Mitchum) who is convinced his friend Mitchell is incapable of murder and sets out to investigate the crime himself, and try track down Mitchell before the police do.

Crossfire is a very atmospheric and gripping murder mystery telling the tale partially via seperate flashbacks of the events leading to Samuels murder, which we see in the immediate post-titles sequence but in such a way that we cannot identify the assailant. Gradually the film reveals to the audience who the murderer is and how he intends to cover up his guilt, instead pointing the blame upon Mitchell, and from that moment on it becomes a drama regards if the police or Keeley will discover the truth. The film is very good, with plenty of twists and turns, featuring some memorable characters and simply superb acting, particularly from Robert Ryan whose work resulted in him Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Gloria Grahame, whose turn as Ginny, a girl from the wrong side of the street resulted in a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

The film received five Oscar nominations in all, perhaps indicating just how well the film was regarded at the time, and its aged very well, except for when it becomes, for me, a little too preachy towards the end. That last observation really is just a personal viewpoint, films back then, as I have mentioned before concerning films of that period, had an habit of preaching messages at the audience and sometimes its just, well,  a little too forced, as I thought it was here, in the form of a long monologue from one character to another but clearly intended direct to the audience: I half-expected the speaker to directly face the camera. I’m not contesting the moral point that is voiced at all, the film carries a worthy and important  message that’s unfortunately as timely now as it was back then, its just that I would have preferred more subtlety, but as I say that’s a personal view and many will likely have little problem with it.

Other than that, the film is pretty much perfect, and I hope a Blu-ray release arrives over here in the UK so that I can watch it again in better quality. Its funny; noir films have been well represented on Blu-ray over the past few years and its clear I’ve been rather spoiled. It just goes to further prove just how important home video releases on physical media really are for older, classic films such as this, especially HD and 4K.

Red Notice (2021)

rednoteThere’s two ways of considering this film, and its rather like a Rorschach test for film fans. Either you see it as a harmless bit of mindless, leave-your-brain-in-the-kitchen bit of fun to while away a Friday night via Netflix, or you see it as an annoyingly typical, horribly insulting waste of $200 million that only further exemplifies the current state of the entertainment industry and film as an artform. 

Where do you think I sit on either side of that fence? Have a guess.

Somehow this stupid film cost more than Villeneuve’s Dune? How is this even possible? Well, maybe a lot of that has to do with the three stars allegedly each pocketing an absurd $20 million, that’s $60 million gone straight away. Hey, score one for diversity, at least the girl has gotten paid as much as the boys, and as far as screen-time is goes, she’s actually gotten paid more than them as regards a dollar-per-minute ratio is concerned, so hey, go girl. But none of the three is actually making any effort in this- its almost a distressingly cynical effort from all concerned (does effort go out the window whenever one learns that Netflix is footing the bill? Or was this picture actually destined to be a normal theatrical release at one point?). Ryan Reynolds plays Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson plays Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot plays Wonder Woman sorry Gal Gadot. There’s no acting in this. Mind you, in their defence, its possibly true there’s no characterisation actually fleshed out in the script which any of them could have worked with, but all the same, they are phoning all this in in the grandest Bruce Willis tradition. They turn up, look gorgeous, speak their lines, and move on. The attention to craft of someone like, say, Robert De Niro when he appeared in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull etc seems like a lifetime away. 

It exemplifies all the very worse of Netflix. The platform does some good stuff, as does Amazon etc but really, if Netflix finances/buys this kind of rubbish simply to compete with the big boys or pretend its a player like any of the Hollywood major studios, its missing the point of playing the game. Or maybe it isn’t, maybe I’m fooling myself. Netflix’s biggest issue is that it doesn’t really care how good anything it puts up streaming on its service actually is (a second season of Another Life is proof enough of that), it just cares about subscriber numbers. And the brutal truth about subscriber numbers is that, as Disney is possibly learning, they don’t actually have anything to do with the quality of what you are streaming, its more about just having new content streaming and the perception of the service having a steady flow of something new to watch on a Friday night.

In my depressed moments, I’m resigned to the fact that as far as the mass average of Joe Public that is Out There in suburbia, nobody actually cares whether something is any good or not. None of this stuff is even going to be remembered in five or ten years time, and hell, at some point probably the streamers will start pulling content because what is the point having it there hidden away behind all the algorithm’s of the service front end if only two or three people watch any of it, never mind all of it, during January 20th 2027? Films are disposable, just like streaming music and television shows etc. its all a passing distraction for people numbed by the banality/pressures of life in the 21st Century. 

What any of this has to do with Red Notice, I’m not sure. Or maybe it has EVERYTHING to do with Red Notice. In any case, I’ve wasted far too much time writing about this nonsense already. I only wish I’d bought that 4K box of the Indiana Jones films, I’d love to be able to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark tonight in glorious 4K to remind myself of the good old days when even a fairly modest love letter to simple b-movie matinees of old could turn into a classic for the ages. Films like Red Notice may pretend to be ‘homages’ to adventure flicks like Raiders but really, they are kidding themselves, they are nothing like. Raiders is 40 years old now and still a film I love to re-watch; who on Earth will be re-watching Red Notice in 40 years time? Who will even remember it exists?