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).

 

Columbia Noir: The Lineup (1958)

cnoirlineA case of saving the best until last (although both Drive a Crooked Road and The Gament Jungle make it a close-call) as Indicator’s excellent  Columbia Noir#1 boxset closes with its sixth film, Don Siegel’s crazed-hitman saga The Lineup. Based on a successful 1950s tv show, the film begins like the police procedural I expected it to be. At Pier 39 in San Francisco, a passenger ship arrives; subsequently whilst the passengers are disembarking a suitcase from the ship is stolen by a porter and handed off to a taxi that speeds away, running down a cop- the cops dying action shooting the taxi driver dead results in it crashing.  Two police inspectors arrive investigating the ensuing carnage, and discover that the stolen case belongs to an antique dealer returning from Asia, and that one of the items within it has a stash of illegal narcotics hidden inside. The inspectors deduce that drugs dealers are using tourists as unwitting drugs mules, hiding heroin inside items the tourists buy whilst on holiday in the Far East and tracking them until they arrive safely through US customs.

Unbeknownst to the police, two gangsters, Dancer and Julian, arrive in the Bay area tasked with tracking down the other tourists and relieving them of the hidden drugs. Dancer (Eli Wallach) is a crazy psychopath, being mentored by his elder partner Julian (Robert Keith) who is morbidly fascinated by the last words of Dancer’s victims, scribbling them down into his notebook: The Lineup takes an ingenious turn when it suddenly shifts from a police procedural setting up its premise to focus instead upon the twisted killer duo. Its almost like its two different movies and I have to wonder if writer Stirling Silliphant deliberately chose to write his twisted noir under the false pretence of a movie based on a TV cop show. By the time it hits its stride, the charmless police are forgotten and the crazy bad guys are suddenly the stars. Did the studio really appreciate the film Silliphant and Siegel were making?

This film reminded me so much of Kiss Me Deadly, that insane and violent  noir directed by Robert Aldrich that blew me away last summer. Both films are so very subversive, and so very noir, glorifying in their darkness and shocking in their violence. A particular pleasure of The Lineup is how it predicts thrillers that would follow like Bullitt, Dirty Harry and The French Connection, films that don’t visually nod to noir but nonetheless further the inherent sensibilities of noir. Dirty Harry of course was also directed by Siegel and set in San Francisco, and I imagine watching The Lineup and Dirty Harry together would make for a riveting and successful double-bill. As it is, The Lineup feels very modern and ahead of its time.

And to be certain, the violence is quite shocking in this film- the suddenness of it is quite harrowing, particularly the brutal conclusion of an exchange between Dancer and a villain in a wheelchair. I actually gasped at this scene, wondering if I’d actually seen what I thought I’d seen. Its wonderful when films do that, pulling the rug from under even seasoned movie-watchers such as I.

I understand Eli Wallach was a little dismissive about his role as the psychopath killer in this film, as if perhaps embarrassed by it or feeling guilty. I can see why the intensity of the finished film may have given him reservations afterwards but its in my eyes one of his very best performances (following a start in television, I think this was only his second movie). Quentin Tarantino practically made his career out of making films like The Lineup: I dare say this must be one of Tarantino’s favourite movies as it provided him a road-map for many of his own films. You can certainly see Pulp Fiction‘s Vincent and Jules in this film’s Dancer and Julian.

 

Out of the Past (1947)

out2Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) has spent the past three years running a gas station in the small Californian town of Bridgeport, where he dates a local girl Ann (Virginia Huston) to the disapproval of her parents and the local sheriff who is sweet on her. Its a quiet, small-town life, one broken when someone from Jeff’s past turns up in town, pulling him back into his old life and the troubles he thought he had left behind. The only person Jeff can confide in is Ann, so on a late-night drive to a rendezvous with his past, Jeff relates his story to Ann. Jeff’s real name is Jeff Markham, and he was once a private eye in New York. He was hired by gangster Whit Sterling (a charmingly threatening Kirk Douglas) to track down a woman, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer in the definitive femme fatale role). Kathie had shot Will and left with $40,000 of his money- Will wasn’t bothered about the money though, he just wanted Kathie back; “when you see her, you’ll understand better” Will told Jeff. And when he does see her, he does understand. And at that point, he’s doomed.

out1Out of the Past is one of the very best film noir, but deceptively so- indeed, it starts like any other 1940s melodrama, so much so you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching the wrong movie, with bright scenery of the sierras and idyllic small-town life, complete with gentle music score. Its quite the opposite of, say, Double Indemnity, another classic noir that instead wears its noir credentials from the very first titles.  Its only when Jeff relates to Ann the truth of his past that the film’s visuals turn towards the traditional nightmare dark of noir, as it relates in flashback the events that led to Jeff hiding away in Bridgeport. When we finally first see Kathie, as Jeff tracks her down to Mexico, she just looks like any beautiful woman, maybe even an innocent victim. There is a subtle ambiguity to her- when some noirs would frame her in shadows immediately revealing her true nature, Out of the Past prefers to suggest she may indeed be a victim. We have no idea, just like Jeff, that this woman will be his doom. Greer is simply astonishing as Kathie; beautiful, exuding innocence and sexiness at the same time, Kathie will do anything to survive, even fall in love, only later throwing greed and treachery into the mix.

out3Robert Mitchum is perfectly cast as Jeff- I’m not a big fan of Mitchum, but his real-life laconic, laid-back reputation bleeds into his onscreen persona well here, ignorant of the trouble he is in, always thinking he has a way out, a trick to play, yet always falling back into the mistakes that ultimately seal his fate. When he falls for Kathie he thinks he’s in control. His over-confidence is in his eyes, his smile.  At the end he realises he has no escape, his character finally reaching the stature of noir hero. What starts as a simple romantic melodrama slowly darkens into a labyrinthine plot of lies and double-crosses and deceit and murder; its fascinating to see this film turn from romantic melodrama into a completely different movie and earn its reputation as a classic film noir. Out of the Past is a very, very good movie. How strange to think I’d never seen it until now. Looks like that unwatched pile still has plenty of surprises…