Crimewave’s Slapstick Noir

crimewavepicOk this was pretty horrible. I think Sam Raimi’s Crimewave created a whole new film genre that I’d call Slapstick Noir and killed that ill-thought genre stone-cold dead. What a terribly bonkers movie.

And yet… isn’t Crimewave everything that Spielberg’s 1941 was, too, except that Spielberg’s farce was a big-budget WWII comedy and Raimi’s a low-budget 1980s-set crime comedy? I really disliked 1941 though I know it has its fans, but really, all the daft excess and slapstick humour in 1941 is so similar to that of Crimewave they could be filmic cousins (they even have dance-numbers). 1941 is clearly the better movie, because at least it maintains an even tone and kind of works as a comedy, whereas Crimewave is very uneven, is all over the place tonally and mostly falls flat as comedy (there’s nothing worse than a comedy-film where the comedy itself crashes with a repeated horrible thud). Crimewave is awkward and (mostly) unfunny with the oddest performances (I’ll never watch Brion James in Blade Runner in quite the same way ever again).

The best thing regards Crimewave is that its such a 1980s movie: it has that cinematography and cast and style and fashion that marks it of that decade and that’s something I really warm to anyway. The film doesn’t work at all, really, but it just oozes that 1980s feel, so much so that while I watched it on Indicator’s new Blu-ray edition, I could imagine the tape reels rattling when holding a VHS cassette, putting it in the player and hearing the gear mechanism pulling the tape into the player. The film even has the old Embassy Pictures logo at the start. It almost feels wrong, somehow, owning and watching this film on something as fancy as a Blu-ray disc.

So anyway, Crimewave: I should probably note what it is about (if its about anything at all, but here goes). The films opens on Death Row with inmate Vic Ajax (Reed Birney, an actor who here alarmingly resembles a young Les Dennis (no, really)) about to be executed for murder. While Vic protests his innocence, we see several Nuns tightly wedged into a car racing through deserted streets, a clearly unusual image and some indication of the tonally off-kilter film to follow. As Vic is escorted to the electric chair he whines about his ill-fortune and tells his story, the film going into flashback to tell the story proper. Vic’s boss, Ernest Trend (film producer Edward R. Pressman), has stumbled upon a scheme of his business partner to sell their store to a sleazy heel, Renaldo (Bruce Campbell), who intends to turn it into a strip-joint/bar, and leave Trend with nothing. Trend hires an Exterminator business out of the phonebook (!) to exterminate both his partner and Renaldo: these Exterminators are crazy maniacs Faron Crush (Paul L. Smith, who I instantly recognised as the Beast Rabban from Lynch’s Dune) and Arthur Coddish (Brion James) whose murderous pitfalls prove the central drive of the film when their murder-spree gets out of hand. Vic gets caught up in the nightmare whilst trying to date the girl of his dreams, the beautiful albeit disinterested Nancy (Sheree J.Wilson), with the help of a pocketbook how-to guide.  As the film progresses, the body count ramps up and Vic ends up blamed for all of it. If only the Nuns can save him…

The thing is, written up like that its the kind of thing that inevitably pulls in the curious. Its not a bad story- wildly implausible of course but that’s partly the point. The performances though are so wild and all over the place, and the humour falls flat so often with such heavy thuds, that it really is something of a disaster. It only dawned on me mid-way through the film (I must have been slow on the uptake last night, but it had been a long day) that the film is really a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon. Smith and James seem to ‘get it’ and are the most successful elements (albeit possibly most off-putting, personal mileage may vary) in the film, crazy cartoonish caricatures chewing up the scenery with wild abandon, accentuated by dubbed dialogue and sound effects. Something like that Joe Dante section in Twilight Zone: The Movie. Once the viewer grows accustomed to what’s going on and what the film is intending to be to tell its tale, then one can accept and possibly even enjoy the film on its own terms. Certainly I could see a lot of the wild humour of the Evil Dead films: unfortunately while the Evil Dead flicks had their horror and gore to form their bedrock and perspective, Crimewave doesn’t, unable to establish what it is- indeed its clear the filmmakers themselves possibly didn’t have a clue themselves.   

That said, in the filmmakers defence, the production of the film was an utter mess and Sam Raimi himself, and indeed many of those involved, disowned the movie entirely. Their first major studio click, the filmmakers were completely at odds with the Embassy Pictures executives, the indie-film freedoms of The Evil Dead leaving them unprepared for everything entailed with a studio picture with its the union system. Their choice of lead was refused (Bruce Campbell intended to play Vic but relegated to minor player Renaldo), the filming went out of control with some of the cast purportedly worse for wear due to drug problems, and the studio took over the picture in post, vainly trying to save the film in the editing room. 

crimewave indicatorIndicator’s Blu-ray is typically high quality- it embarrasses better films with its wealth of supplements which include two audio commentaries and various interview featurettes, most of which I’ve barely skimmed through. I’ve written before that some bad films can be more interesting than good ones, and while that’s not entirely true here, I am certainly curious about listening to the commentary tracks (what I have heard of them from a brief sample seems very interesting). Its definitely difficult to recommend a film like this- I am sure it has its fans but I’d caution anyone coming to this film blind as I did. Still, one can’t have enough Bruce Campbell films in their collection, can they? Besides, Brion James alone is worth the price of this disc, possibly the strangest and most horrifyingly nuts performance I’ll see all year… hopefully (I don’t think I could stand another one).

 

One, Two, Three (1961)

oneOh dear. I suppose all directors have their ‘off days’, Hitchcock did (particularly in his later years), so has Spielberg, Ridley has had a few (although his have always looked pretty) so its understandable that the great Billy Wilder would too. Its just that, although I haven’t seen everything -or indeed even the majority- of his output, certainly nothing pre-1940, this is the first of his films which has had me responding with a “ugh, that was pretty terrible.” Indeed, with Wilder’s track record and all the great films of his that I have enjoyed, this film really came as something of a shock, how bad it was. No, I really didn’t care for this one at all. So it would seem that Wilder was only human after all.

I think part of the problem may be its age- a typically sharp-witted comedy, I’m sure, I think part of the problem with this film is that its cultural references, no doubt topical at the time, are inevitably lost and puzzling to viewers such as myself coming to it fresh with the perspective from 2020. Its been close to sixty years, after all. Its still disappointing though- I don’t think the comedy of Some Like It Hot, The Apartment or the Fortune Cookie, for instance, have dated pretty much at all since they first came out. But One, Two, Three just feels dated, anachronistic. Maybe its the madcap pace of the thing- its deliberately a rapid-fire comedy, Wilder and his regular script partner I A L Diamond consciously pushing the pace as far as they could- its relentless really, and ultimately quite tiring, exhausting. When the one-liners drop like lead it just makes the fast pace increasingly irritating. The heightened pace is equalled by the heightened caricatures of the characters, the exaggerated performances. Crucially however, considering its supposed to be a fast-paced comedy, it commits the sin of simply not being at all funny.

Really, I find it quite alarming that this film is how Wilder followed his magnificent The Apartment, one of my favourite films.

I don’t know why, but I find myself comparing this film to Spielberg’s 1941, it seems to suffer the same pitfalls, the exaggerated characters and general hectic pace of the storyline. Maybe you either buy into it or not, maybe its one of those ‘marmite’ films, and maybe One, Two, Three has its fervent fans in just the same way as 1941 seems to, but its telling I didn’t enjoy either of them.

Still, speaking as someone who will defend the oft-maligned Irma La Douce against its detractors, it was a big disappointment. I think its telling that Irma followed One, Two, Three because I can tell it shares some of its irreverent humour and style, you can see a connection between the two. So why does Irma work for me and One, Two, Three doesn’t? Is it as simple as the casting of Jack Lemmon? Maybe it is. I can’t say I was particularly enamoured by James Cagney in his leading role in One, Two, Three at all- indeed none of the cast really caught my eye, they all felt ‘off’ somehow. Everything in this film feels ‘off’, its like nothing works at all.

1941 (1979)

1941a2016.52: 1941 -Extended Cut (Blu-ray)

1941 isn’t bad. Its terrible. This extended cut is no improvement either- there’s  146 mins of badness compared to the theatrical version’s 119, so there’s just even more bad movie, which of course cannot possibly be a Good Thing unless you are, inexplicably, a fan of this film. There are fans of this film, right? There must be (every film has its fans, after all), but I’m certainly not one of them. 1941 is supposed to be a comedy, and it isn’t even funny. Thats some kind of crime, surely.

Every great director has a bad movie inside of them and I guess this was Spielbergs- maybe there’s a few other films of his that might contend for this dubious accolade but I can’t really think of one, unless maybe the excesses of Hook or the romantic schmaltz of Always gets your blood boiling.  For me I think 1941, the whole misguided, badly-executed mess of it, is Spielberg’s Folly, just like George Lucas’ Howard The Duck a few years later. Films that… well, the idea of them is interesting but the execution is sadly pretty woeful and dire.

You wonder why some great ideas for films never get made and turkeys like these do instead, but at the time its all about the clout of the director- and after Jaws and CE3K, Spielberg was on a roll and he could have gotten a documentary on Kleenex greenlit. So 1941 was made.

I’d love to have been on-set during filming. What on earth made the cast and crew think that shooting guns and yelling loudly amid big explosions constituted the very heights of cinematic humour? I mean, thats about all that 1941 is- blazing guns and huge explosions, and Japanese soldiers disguised as Christmas trees. The prologue’s nod to Jaws is nice of course but its all downhill from there. John Belushi’s Capt. Wild Bill Kelso is just plain nauseating, strutting around onscreen as if he is somehow funny rather than just plain irritating, and the film wastes huge impressive sets and a fine 1970s cast, and -worse- a vintage John Williams score completely.

Sure, the dance hall set-piece is technically impressive but Spielberg would do all that so much better -and funnier- in the prologue of Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom. That latter observation is telling, because the one good thing about 1941 is that it apparently educated Spielberg, made him a better (and more frugal) director. Its likely we owe 1941 that at least. But thats about all, frankly.

I bought this damn thing on disc (cheap, mind). But yeah, I bought it. Makes ET look like Shakespeare or something…

 

1976, the year it all started…

1976. Simpler times, especially if you were a kid. Batman was being re-run on the telly. I was reading Marvel Comics like crazy. Starsky and Hutch on Saturday nights on BBC. There was a drought that long hot summer. And there was that damned scary shark…

When all is said and done, I write film reviews on this blog, and you read them, because we love movies. I was wondering the other day about just when it all started for me. For most of us it’s an easy thing to state when we fell in love with movies, we know the moment well. Its usually a key moment when we ‘click’ with a certain movie, when it makes an impact on us on an emotional level. ‘Emotional’ because that’s the real kicker with any movie, at least for me- you can rationalise, on an intellectual level, the quality of a film, but where any film makes its real impact is surely on an emotional level; how it moves you, that’s where any movie really leaves its mark on you. Its why an undisputed classic like Citizen Kane may not be your favourite film- Kane is a great film easily admired but it may not have touched you in quite the same way as an intellectually inferior movie like a Ghostbusters or ET or Great Escape or Ben Hur did. Favourite movies are not always great movies, but they are often the reasons why we love movies.

JAWS1For me, it started with Jaws. Those of you who moan about waiting three months for a home release and are accustomed to simultaneous (or near as damn it) world theatrical releases might be alarmed at the Cinematic Dark Ages of the previous millennium when cinemagoers had to wait months just for films to cross the pond from America into our cinemas. American summer releases were often winter releases over here. So it was with Jaws, not arriving until 1976 here in the UK (It think it was actually Boxing Day 1975 for London, but it would take some months for it to eventually move out into the rest of the country… things were so slow back then!). So 1976 was when all this movie nonsense started for me. I was ten years old.

Of course, I’d seen many films as a kid but this was something else. My Aunt Lydia (now no longer with us, sadly) and her boyfriend (later husband/uncle) took me along on a Saturday afternoon to see the film. By this time the film was a massive phenomenon, merchandise was everywhere (I recall I was reading the paperback around the time when I saw the film) and it already clearly had a huge cultural impact- the delayed release over here actually only prolonged and intensified this. That delay -and films running at cinemas for a much longer period back then- has made me think. Nowadays films come and go in hardly any time at all, so we don’t seem to get such a scale of media saturation now. FIlms seemed to stick around longer back then, funnily enough, and home video releases now seem to have made films more disposable. I was in a supermarket the other day and quite recent films were already in a bargain bin of DVDs, which quite alarmed me. Jaws was a huge cultural event, and even some years later when it had its first tv premiere, I remember it still being a huge media event, featuring on the cover of the TV TImes. Films seemed a Bigger Deal back in the day. In my life, I think the only other film with a similar cultural impact as Jaws would be Star Wars a few years later (well, 1977 in America, 1978 over here).

I’ll never forget that Saturday afternoon. Indeed, to this day I cannot watch Jaws divorced from those memories, those feelings that screening engendered in me- everytime I’m pulled back to that cinema experience. Its funny how sophisticated audiences are now, everyone seems to laugh at the rubber shark, but it was never like that for me or indeed most audiences at the time. For us that shark was real. Of course, the film scared me shitless. But it wasn’t gore or anything graphic, it was more the anticipation, the fear of the unseen, the threat in those watery dark depths. I think the sophistication of audiences now… well I think they’ve lost something. Everything is so literal now. Thanks to cgi there’s no need to tease or hint, everything can be visualised up on the screen and from a storytelling standpoint and audience experience I think something has been lost. Sure it’s great to see such huge impossible things on screen these days but does it really now have to be so… complete?

The genius of Jaws is in its editing, and what is unseen. Most of this wasn’t at all intended, it was rather a triumph against adversity. The shark didn’t work, and many of the shots Spielberg wanted couldn’t be done, even with the shoot extending from some 55 days to 159 days. The shoot was a nightmare and Spielberg worried his career was already over. But all the disasters and technical problems that resulted in the production being forced into working around a non-functioning fake shark proved to be the making of the film. John Williams turned in an incredible score that provided all the tension that the fake shark couldn’t- you didn’t need to see the shark; you could hear its threat just in the music; it’s Pure Cinema, something much more effective than a contemporary authentic-looking cgi shark might ever be. Indeed Jaws is one of Spielberg’s best films simply because it has to be held back by its technical limitations; Jaws is Speilberg in Hitchcockian mode and he’s all the better for it. He can’t fall back on Douglas Trumbull or ILM excess to carry the picture. Consider the difference between Jaws and the excess of 1941. Needless to say, Jaws is my favourite Spielberg film- maybe not his best film, I appreciate that his later films have their merits- but certainly my favourite. When the film got released in cinemas a few years ago (2012 was it?) I naturally made sure to see it on the big screen again.

kk1It was such an intense experience back on that Saturday afternoon in 1976. Is it any wonder that it triggered an interest in that magical artform that has continued to this day? It was surely no accident that later that year I bought a paperback copy of Logan’s Run with the films gorgeous artwork catching my eye, or a paperback book about the making of that year’s remake of King Kong. The latter would prove to make a particular impression on me, as it would open my eyes to all the behind-the-scenes stuff that happened in order to get those films made. The following year I’d start buying magazines like Starburst which regularly featured making-of articles and interviews with directors and actors. But 1976 is when it all started. And of course, a little film titled Star Wars was just around the corner…