Columbia Noir: Walk A Crooked Mile (1948)

walk1Not, as the title might suggest to our more sequel/prequel/reboot-cynical eyes, a prequel to Columbia’s 1954 noir Drive A Crooked Road, this is a pretty mundane espionage thriller that’s shot in a semi-documentary style, as if its a dramatic re-enactment of contemporary events. Unfortunately that documentary style, peppering the film with a distracting, incessant narration, dilutes the film of any actual drama – it simply doesn’t work properly as a dramatic film. Indeed when watching the film I wondered how this would work on its original theatrical release, regards whether audiences back then more readily accepted being preached at and warned/informed of a horrible Red Menace. I guess its just a case of a film being of its time.

Russian spies have somehow infiltrated atomic research facility Lakeview Labs, the FBI stumbling upon a nefarious scheme stealing crucial atomic formulas out of the country, shipping them to London (and then onwards to Eastern Bloc locations unknown) hidden inside oil paintings. Thanks to the London link, Scotland Yard ‘exchange agent’ Scotty Grayson (Louis Hayward) has come to America to assist his colleagues in the F.B.I. in bringing down their common Red enemy. Partnered with F.B.I. agent Dan O’Hara (Dennis O’Keefe), Grayson works to uncover and bring down the spy network before it can steal all Lakeview Labs research and possibly use its formulas against the Free World. 

As you can possibly imagine, there is a lot of preaching in this film- its practically a propaganda piece and full of paranoia; audiences likely lapped it all up back then but it feels very forced and more than a little unpalatable now. That said, though, one has to remember here in the UK we recently had the situation of the Salisbury poisonings so maybe films like this are a timely reminder of how little has actually changed for the better. I can only imagine how the high-tensions of this films era would have reacted to such events back then (American citizens actually poisoned by chemical warfare? Yikes!).

How much this film qualifies as noir is debatable. It has some visual noir references and naturally all the subversive menace it accounts is a typical noir staple. What I always get from films like this is a great appreciation from seeing what is essentially a Lost World, especially with this films semi-documentary style allowing us here a pretty candid, realistic look at San Francisco’s 1940s streets, decor and fashion. I just have an endless fascination with the Time Machine aspects of films like this- the mood and tensions of the era, the ‘look’ of the world back then. Walk A Crooked Mile may not work as a film as films should, but its does give me a glimpse of another world that is quite enthralling and seductive. Also, spotting locations from other films is always a bit thrilling- I believe I glimpsed the apartment building from which Scottie tails Madeleine Elster in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (Brocklebank Apartments, 1000 Mason Street on Nob Hill) through a car window in one fleeting shot.

Even better then, is that Indicator’s new release (this film first up in its latest Columbia Noir boxset) features an intriguing documentary short Routine Job: A Story of Scotland Yard (1946) portraying the routine work of detectives in the London of its day, a world as much science fiction now as anything in a James Cameron Avatar movie.  Filmed in real London locations and featuring what does seem to be real people its a more rewarding watch, to me, than the main feature, and one of those cases of special features outweighing what should have been the main draw. And hey, you can even watch it here for free on good old YouTube if you have no interest in the noir box. I’m dubious that I’ll be rewatching Walk A Crooked Mile very often, but this short feature will likely pull me back with its hypnotic window to the past and its own long-gone city and people. 

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

lady2I first watched this film back in 2017, when I bought the Indicator Blu-ray- I didn’t write a review about it at the time because I honestly didn’t know what to make of the film. I decided to wait for a second viewing, not realising that it would take as long as it has, but having just seen Rita Hayworth in the brilliant Gilda it seemed its time had come at last.

Second time around then, what did I think? Well, I think I’m in about the same frame of mind as I was first time around: there’s something very wrong with Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, a film that continuously veers from melodrama to farce, is peppered by brilliance but seems to waste all its promise as it routinely slips from jittery noir to black comedy to unconvincing romance to weak drama, as if there’s four different films fighting for dominance and none of them wins.

The thing I love, and find endlessly fascinating, regards film noir is that for the most part, however stylised they may be with expressionistic, nightmarish lighting etc, they are gritty, down-to-earth, realistic tales with believable, albeit flawed characters. Very often the worlds of the 1940s and 1950s may look and sound very different from our own but they are always convincing, there is always a sense of truth to them. The Lady of Shanghai deliberately bucks this approach, as if Welles was deliberately usurping Hollywood tropes, to the point at which the courtroom sequence towards the end is practically a mockery of Hollywood courtroom scenes (really, it almost seems disrespectful). The main characters, too, are far from realistic- quirky, camp, irreverent and often annoying, they don’t feel ‘real’ at all (what in the world is going on with Glenn Anders monstrously misjudged George Grisby, a central character to the plot who grates throughout?). Its hard to empathise with what is essentially a freakshow, and harder still to believe anything they do or say.

The central problem I have with the film, and its a fundamental one that it can never really recover from, is the frankly bizarre performance by Orson Welles in the role of the central protagonist, Michael O’Hara. I’m not exactly sure what Welles was trying for, and believe that as he was the writer, producer and (the oddly uncredited) director of the film, perhaps he should have hired another actor better suited for the role. He’s really pretty awful as the Irish adventurer, utterly unconvincing and painful to watch: I just didn’t ‘get’ him at all: perhaps individual mileage varies, but its hard for a film to recover when central casting derails everything. I suspect that Welles was being deliberately contrary, an intellectual approach to the role perhaps that doesn’t at all come off. Chiefly its the odd accent but to be honest, there is something wrong with the character in general: aloof, noncommittal, he doesn’t feel convincing, and most  damning of all, there seems little if any chemistry between Welles and Hayworth, who were married at the time (albeit estranged, I understand) – perhaps the state of their failing marriage surfaced in their performances. As it is, the lack of chemistry is like a black hole at the heart of the film, for all the pouting and panting Hayworth attempts here (compared to the sexual fireworks between Hayworth and Ford demonstrated in Gilda, its a bleak chasm that the film can’t climb out of).

Hayworth, of course, was ‘the Love Goddess’ of 1940s Hollywood, and her transformation from Gilda to how she appears here as femme fatale Elsa Bannister is quite astonishing, and indeed caused some consternation at the time. Gone were Hayworth’s long red locks, replaced with a short platinum-blonde hairstyle – she looks like the archetype for Kim Novak’s Madeleine from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Considering that this film came out just a year after Hayworth’s seminal role as Gilda in Charles Vidor’s classic noir, the change is breathtakingly brave (or recklessly foolish as studio head Harry Cohn believed, horrified by what Welles had done to his star performer).

Alas, Elsa isn’t nearly as fascinating as Madeleine would be a decade or so later. Certainly Hayworth is as beautiful as ever, but the character is underwritten and I suspect this too was deliberate by Welles, bucking the traditional femme fatale role. Hayworth isn’t given anything with which to chew up the noir scenery as the scheming temptress the film needs her to be. Partly this issue is down to enabling the ‘twist’ that it doesn’t want us to see coming, but this scuppers what could have been a memorable and even iconic role – Hayworth looks the part but has to play a trapped wife and insipid, romantically frustrated victim for most of it. If she’d been more of a traditional femme fatale it might have helped Welles’ Irishman to have been more convincing, too, his role then more of a traditional luckless noir hero seduced by a beautiful woman- but again, Welles isn’t making that kind of noir here. 

Welles, perhaps true to his own nature rather than as professionally workmanlike as he should have been, wasn’t looking to be traditional, and this is hardly traditional noir (brave indeed perhaps but when it undermines a film working as well as it should, perhaps actually pretty foolish). The fact that this film even IS noir is mostly down to its remarkable, visually audacious ending in a hall of mirrors (if you haven’t seen it, you’ve certainly seen some film mimicking it). After the failure of Citizen Kane and Welles subsequent loss of final cut and his troubled films after, its unfortunate that Welles couldn’t just make a more traditional, ordinary, moody noir. I’m sure it would have been spectacular (Kane itself is proof enough of that). But for some reason -likely sheer ego, it was Welles, after all- Welles seemingly couldn’t be a director for hire and play by the rules, he had to do his own thing like some crazy maverick in the studio system. Inevitably, he wouldn’t be able to find work in that studio system for long; this, the man who made Citizen Kane, arguably the finest (certainly most influential) film of all time. Turns out Welles was probably his own noir hero; how ironic is that, on the evidence of the horribly flawed The Lady From Shanghai?  

lasy3

 

Columbia Noir: 5 Against the House (1955)

cnoir5Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), the smartest of four college students who have spent a night at a Reno casino, is excited by the challenge of robbing it. Its the intellectual challenge that inspires him, seeing it as a prank, intending to inform the police of where the money is once he’s stolen it- but one of the four friends, traumatised by his experiences in the Korean war, has no intention of returning any money.

I didn’t really click with this one. The premise is very promising, but its not really the tense thriller that the title or the synopsis would suggest: indeed, the tension really doesn’t come from the heist (which takes most of the film’s running time to even get to), rather coming from Brick going off the rails. For some reason -presumably the source novel by Jack Finney- the focus is largely on Brick, with an awkward aside to Kim Novak’s sexy dame who seems shoehorned in (the film crunching to a halt for her to sing a romantic song or two). Its really a very odd feature, and hardly much of a traditional noir- instead it feels like a genre mash-up, stuck in-between the dark heist thriller I expected and the light-hearted caper film that harkens more towards Oceans 11 (that would arrive five years later). It has its moments, particularly its genius finale set in what I can only describe as an automated parking garage in which cars are parked vertically in columns above each other – absently predating the finale of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Its an early feature for Mathews, a familiar face from films I watched in my childhood (particularly his Harryhausen films, which possibly did his career more harm than good as he’d later become rather typecast with those matinee swashbuckler adventures that quickly slipped out of fashion). Curiously, Matthews will also turn up in the next film of this Indicator noir set, The Garment Jungle, in a superior role that would indeed suggest better things should have lay ahead of him.

I quite like this kind of thing, the links between films, connections of sorts: Nina Foch of course appeared in the first two films of this set, another is that this film’s screenplay was co-written by Stirling Silliphant, who would later write the sixth film in this set, The Lineup. It was an early feature for Kim Novak (her second credited role, I believe), who, unlikely as it might seem from this film, would go on to appear in one of the greatest films ever made, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, just a few years after. Both are Matthews and Novak fine, as is Brian Keith who plays Brick, the war-vet student who goes off the rails in rather melodramatic fashion. One curious piece of trivia for viewers of a certain age is the appearance of William Conrad in a minor role, who would later star as Cannon in the hugely popular tv series of 1971-1976, and notable to geeks like me as the narrator of the 1977 Making of Star Wars tv-documentary and the voice that opened every episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1980). Those were the days.

Last week…

Still working from home, close on six months now. As we slip towards Autumn, it looks like there’s little rush getting the team back into the office, at best it may be for just two days each week, and that’s still some time off.  Its not lost on me that after all the fair weather we’ve had, the time I’m going to finally be expected to commute back to work will be when the frosts return/bad weather/possibly snow etc.

Meanwhile Covid 19 numbers are climbing, particularly here in the Midlands, and our Governments latest desperate roll of the dice, the ‘rule of six’ (limiting the number of people at any social gathering to just six people) begins tomorrow. A rule that can’t possibly be policed,  simply dependant on the public happily following the rule… I mean, its not as if its Mega City One and some Judge will be kicking the door down if there’s more than six perps chatting in the lounge or back garden. Mores the pity with some of the idiots out there. Regards Covid, so many people seem to be in denial, or just bored of it, and think everything is back to normal. Hence the numbers rising? All I can see is lots of idiots out there, most of them proving the (ironically old) adage of too young to know better. The next few weeks seem to be crucial. The days are shortening. Winter is Coming. Hang on, that didn’t end well, just ask HBO.

Anyway, last week. You may have noted that I had a busy/productive week regards watching films: i’m thinking of ending things, Under Suspicion, Bumblebee, City That Never Sleeps, The Man Who Finally Died. I didn’t get around to reviewing Under Suspicion– a thriller starring Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Monica Bellucci, Thomas Jane… a great cast, but wasted in a pretty lousy film that almost had me hitting that abort button. Only the great Gene Hackman kept me stuck with it: one of my favourite actors.

ohmssRegards re-watches, I managed two. The first was one that…well, we lost Dame Diana Rigg on Thursday, which was an awful shame, and I’ve been meaning to watch On Her Majesty’s Secret Service again for awhile now. Its an awful reason for doing it, but Dame Diana Rigg’s passing was the push that I needed; I reached for that Bond 50 Blu-ray set. OHMSS is my favourite Bond movie; its the film when the Bond franchise grew up and yes, graced with the best Bond Girl of all, the one that got Bond to the altar. But what a downer at the end. This time I watched it, it just seemed so remarkable, such brass balls of the producers to close out a film -and a Bond film at that- on such a huge emotional downer. And in a film with a new Bond, too. Talk about loading the dice for a serious gamble, like a real-life Casino Royale moment. Dropping George Lazenby and breaking the continuity (OHMSS really needed such a proper sequel with Bond out for revenge) was a terrible error, I think, and it would take Bond decades to grow those brass balls again.

vertigo1The second re-watch was the 4K UHD disc of Vertigo, that graces the four-film Hitchcock 4K set that was released last week. The film looks utterly gorgeous in 4K, really something special. We’ve seen some great 4K releases for classic films this year and this is one of the best, I think. Mind, is it just me, but as I get older, does Vertigo on subsequent viewings just get more disturbing, and James Stewart’s obsessive Scottie more repellent?  As a deeply flawed character who proves difficult to root for, he reminds me of Robert De Niro’s character in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America. The difficulty in revisiting films with such doomed, self-destructive characters is that you have to re-experience it all over again, with the knowledge of hindsight that the character itself obviously lacks. There seems something deeply personal, of both Leone and Hitchcock, in these two films, and I’m sure that’s part of each films endless fascination. Glimpses of flawed humanity’s darkness. Vertigo is such a powerful film, exquisitely filmed and scored (by the great Bernard Herrmann), and really so daring, its one of my favourite films and it feels a blessing to be able watch it again in this kind of quality. I’m building quite a collection of (hopefully definitive and final) editions of some of my favourite films in 4K, with some great additions this year.

dunetrailrLast week also brought us the first trailer for Villeneuve’s long-anticipated  Dune. Mind, it seems we will have to wait longer for the film itself, as word has it that the film will be delayed to next year now, with Wonder Woman 1984 being moved to the Christmas Day slot (Tenet‘s box-office woes causing much consternation for a troubled film industry struggling to manage the Covid crisis). Of course the Dune trailer looks great and pretty much everything we might have hoped for. I was a bit surprised that it looked, visually at least, like a Blade Runner 2049 sequel set Off World, it seems to share so much of the monochromatic, brutalist ‘look’ of his previous sci-fi epic. I’d hoped for something a bit wilder, more ‘out there’ and unusual, but we’ll see. There’s so much, after all, that we didn’t see.

Speaking of delays, news broke last week that Vangelis’ latest album, Juno to Jupiter, accidentally released on digital by a UK store over a weekend a few weeks back before being hurriedly pulled, has been officially delayed (again?). This is so frustrating, its a great album, one of his best in decades, but it seems so strangely (and unfairly) blighted by mishaps. Possibly its just a Covid thing effecting marketing etc, but I sincerely hope that perhaps this delay will facilitate a simultaneous physical and digital release, rather than the latter first (which was the original plan, and which possibly led to that premature release foul-up).  Its a great piece of work, and I was gearing up to finish my track-by-track review… well, I’ll just join the pack and let my review suffer another delay. Hey, its just so Covid, man.

I just hope that the Super-Deluxe of the Prince classic album Sign o’ the Times isn’t going to get delayed. Its only two weeks away now so seems to be all on track. Certainly review copies are out and some reviews have been released, track breakdowns on forums etc so my only worry is problems with stores getting stock out. Hope springs eternal- I’m actually on leave from work the week it gets released, and naturally I’m going nowhere, so the opportunity to just relax for a few lazy days, chill with that box of peach and black goodies is the nearest thing to Christmas I’m actually likely to see this year.

Bunny Lake is Missing

bunny1This was a strange, weird film – vaguely like Hitchcock, or certainly more Vertigo-like Hitchcock, in that on the surface it seems a psychological thriller but there’s always a feeling (for me, at least) of some murkier subtext underneath, in this case the vaguely incestuous implications of the brother/sister relationship that proves the centre-point of the film. Maybe I’m ‘seeing’ too much into it, can’t tell if the 1960s were more daring or more innocent than now (I suspect the former, it certainly seems of late that you could oddly ‘get away’ with more years ago now than today).

Its the first film I have seen directed by Otto Preminger, whose name is familiar to me from reading about Blu-ray releases over the years. While I don’t expect his other films to be similar to this odd movie, its certainly made me rather curious about seeking some of them out. I was quite impressed by much of the location photography in Bunny Lake is Missing, some of the camera moves were surprisingly mobile and kinetic- not that they took me out of the movie, but quite a few times I noticed a clever camera set-up or framing (albeit I watched the film recorded from the Sony Movies channel on Freeview and it was unfortunately cropped/zoomed in, a practice that I thought had been abolished in these wiser  times). Its a very well-made film, done a disservice by its treatment here (Indicator released the film on Blu-ray awhile ago, I expect it looks much better on that disc).

An American single-mother, Ann Lake (Carol Lynley),  recently settled in England is busy moving house when she hurriedly drops off her daughter, Bunny, for her first day at school. When she returns later that afternoon to pick her up, Bunny can’t be found, and nobody at the school has any recollection of her or record of Bunny being registered there.  The police are called in (a frankly magnificent understated performance by Lawrence Olivier here as the leader of the investigation, Superintendent Newhouse) but their investigations reveal no trace of the girl- indeed, upon further inquiries they find no sign the girl even existed, with no trace of her (clothes etc) at her home, and no photographs of her. Suspicion arises that the girl is only a fantasy of Ann’s, something hinted at by her brother Steven (Keir Dullea, rather removed from the 2001 role of his that I’m most familiar with) seemingly by accident. Is Anne indeed mentally disturbed or is something else going on?

bunny2In what is clearly the genius positioning of the film, the opening sequences are framed and edited so that when Anne is at the school dropping off her daughter, we never actually see her daughter (and to be honest, dumping a girl at a new school without finally saying a goodbye prior to leaving did seem odd) so that when suggestions arise that she ever existed, as a viewer it does seem to become a growing possibility. A few Hitchcockian misdirection’s are scattered through the film- Noel Coward’s mesmerising performance as the frankly unhinged landlord Horacio Wilson offers a few tantalising possibilities, from the supernatural (the spooky African masks on the apartment walls) to the frankly obscene (his frequent touching of Anne, overtures to her and his own flat with objects referencing the Marquis de Sade and torture fetishes etc) and the knowledge that its his apartment that Anne is renting so he has access to it makes him an area of suspicion. Comments from forensic scientists going through Anne’s flat remind us of the grislier possibilities of what happened to Bunny, and there is a frankly batty old lady living above the school full of odd possibilities herself.

It is indeed a very odd and rather fascinating film. When the final twist comes and we realise what is really going on… well, I find the need to be obtuse here, oddly enough, considering that this film is well over fifty years old so unlikely spoiler-territory fodder. But I think its here, when the film falters into traditional genre thriller mode, that it also becomes possibly more interesting, certainly even darker into Vertigo-like territory. Some of it is quite disturbing (there is a scene midway thought he film when Steven is in the bath and Anne walks into the bathroom, casually chatting to him while he’s naked in the bath and she lights him a cigarette, that felt odd to me and foreshadowed the twist).

A nod to Clive Revell here, who would later turn up in one of my favourite films, Billy Wilder’s Avanti!. Actually, overall I’d say the film features a great cast. I haven’t seen much of Carol Lynley before other than her role in The Poseidon Adventure of all things, and appearances in tv show guest spots in the 1970s  but she is very good here- and Keir Dullea really does feel far removed from the cold robot of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. All round a very interesting, even mildly disturbing, film.

 

Phantom Thread

phantom3Phantom Thread, like its protagonist, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), does not give up its secrets easily, always reserved and distant. In this way it seems the most Kubrickian film I have seen since, oh, the passing of Kubrick himself. It even rather feels like it has the presence of Kubrick, like a ghost, running through it. The film maintains its own pace, and like in Kubrick’s films, each shot has a tendency to linger a little too long, making each feel a little uncomfortable, and perhaps hinting at meanings that might not even be there. Also like in Kubrick films, tradition and ceremony seems to hold import- in Phantom Thread, this is mostly in breakfast, an absent routine for many turned here into almost precise ritual, an exercise in power and control.

The films art direction, too, is so finely curated it feels like another character. I suspect one could return to this film in five, ten, twenty years, and like each time one returns to Kubrick films, it will return something new, some new insight. It is evocative of an era that is as alien to us as the surface of the moon, and is intoxicating and infuriating, warm and cold. I loved it and hated it: so very Kubrick.

But this is not a Kubrick film, of course: this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film; I adored his early films, Hard 8, Boogie Nights, Magnolia but was disheartened by There Will Be Blood, feeling as if it had broken some spell, so painful a film that I only saw it once and dared never to return to it. Indeed, I haven’t seen a film by the director since- both The Master and Inherent Vice have been temptations I shied away from. As a film-buff, it felt like a broken love affair, and while sometimes tempted, it always felt wrong, going back.

phatom1Phantom Thread is set in postwar London, and the strange, frankly alien world of 1950s haute coutre, a tale of obsession and control and love that reminded me of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (no small praise, as Vertigo is one of my very favourite films- will Phantom Thread prove as timeless?).  I expected a film about art and  fashion in the strange world of 1950s haute coutre, but it is actually a bizarre oedipal romance, a man haunted by his mother, trying to shape his muses to his whim and being finally undone by a muse that in turn shapes him to her own.

Or maybe I read it wrong. Maybe its a film about toxic masculinity, of a man in his 60s abusing his status and position, taking advantage of a young woman in her 20s (how sad that this feels so timely). Maybe its a film just about a man ruined by his mother, whose ghost literally appears before him, confirming his fancy that she is always watching him, perhaps always judging him. Maybe its an adult fairy-tale, of the Beast being undone by Beauty. Perhaps it will be a different film each time I see it. Phantom Thread is a complex web, a gorgeous film quite Out of Time, so unlike anything you usually see today. Indeed, how very Kubrick. I hope Paul Thomas Anderson would take that as praise.

Phantom Thread is currently showing on Netflix in the UK, and is of course available on DVD and Blu-ray. I suspect the 4K UHD is quite sublime.

Party Like it’s 1989: Batman (4K UHD)

Its difficult for me to seperate the memories of that summer of 1989, and how big an ‘event’ film it was, from Tim Burton’s Batman itself. Its all wrapped up in the same thing- Batdance playing in the charts, Prince’s Batman album, the news reports about its release Stateside, all the marketing/tee-shirts/toys etc. I don’t know what the marketing budget was, but Batmania was huge that summer, with the Bat-logo seemingly everywhere. In some ways the film was a corporate juggernaut, from the casting choices to the use of Prince etc; it’s a testament to Burton’s efforts that the film still feels like it has a singular voice and vision in spite of the demonstrably hands-on studio behind him. 

Batman was the first film I saw in a cineplex, when the Showcase opened up nearby and consigned the old dilapidated ABC cinema in town to history forever (and eventual closure). So Batman remains more a memory of time and place than just a movie that could ever be judged on its own terms- it’s the quintessential ‘event’ movie, in the same way as Star Wars was and Jurassic Park was. Some films are never ‘just’ films.

Its also worthy to note that Batman wasn’t influenced by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, as later versions were (Miller’s opus cast a long shadow over Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Snyder’s Batman v Superman). Instead, it definitely appears more focused on the very first comic books prior to Robin featuring- something evidenced particularly by its oddly 1940s ‘look’ which seems to set the film in some strangely timeless world, a curious mix of period fashions and art deco sets and futuristic gadgets mixed will all sorts of retro stuff. In this respect, it’s a lot more like Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, which itself had a very dreamy, almost lost-Americana feel in which even the films ‘present day’ had a strong sense of early-1970s kitsch even in 1978. Both films of course are commended for taking the original sources very seriously indeed- thanks to endless re-runs on tv of the camp 1960s show, Tim Burton’s film in particular had a big weight around its neck in this regard which is possibly hard to envisage now, all these years later.

The production budget for the film was $35 million, which in today’s money would equal something around $75 million- not as high as might be expected in this age of $150 – $200 million budgets, perhaps indicating the surprisingly smaller scale of the Burton film compared to the later versions (Batman Begins was budgeted at $150 million in 2005, about $198 million in today’s money). The scale of the film is also impacted by the technology of the time. The CGI of the post-Matrix era has really enabled film-makers to open up the possibilities and trickery in superhero films, leaving Burton’s film rather dated with its matte paintings and model shots.

But of course films are always of their time, and I recall even in 1989 being underwhelmed by some of the visual effects and opticals; Batman was always an old-school, overwhelmingly analogue film even in 1989, with obvious nods to German expressionism in film and Citizen Kane and Vertigo. In this respect it remains a certain achievement and a curiously beautiful artifact.

Indeed, it looks damn gorgeous on this amazing 4k release- I’m really quite astonished at how beautiful this film looks now in 4K. Sure much of the fakery still looks fake, but some of the matte painting extensions of Gotham are just breathtakingly beautiful to look at, with new detail and colour breadth. And the sets. Good grief the sets. The interiors are pretty astonishing in detail and lighting (the HDR really benefiting the shadow detail) and the exteriors are really a wonder (the Gotham streets built on the Pinewood backlot and shot at night really impress here with all the added detail). In some ways this Batman is one of the most impressive catalogue 4K UHD discs I’ve yet seen- the HDR isn’t distracting (you’re not blinded by bright lights etc like you can be in some rather revisionary remasters) but simply increases the sense of depth and detail throughout. Its really tastefully done, clearly retaining the intentions of the original film-makers but looking, frankly, better than it ever has, even during its original theatrical presentation in 1989.

An interesting thing rewatching this film after so many years (I really can’t recall when I last saw it, but it was possibly on DVD) is the casting- after seeing Heath Ledger’s Joker, I expected Jack Nicholson’s version to pale in retrospect, but Nicholson’s Joker still impresses, surprisingly still perhaps the definitive Joker so far. There’s something real and fascinating and gritty about him- of course Nicholson is a great actor with real charisma in front of the camera- it’s almost magical here. Jack Napier is clearly a Bad Guy, a self-centered criminal working his way up the crime-syndicate ladder who becomes distinctly unhinged once he becomes the Joker, with what I assume are Nicholson’s ad-libs elevating the movie in just the same way as Robin Williams Aladdin several years later. His Joker is mean and scary and funny in a really fine performance, and yeah, he actually kills people in this- I was surprised when watching this again to see both Joker and Batman kill people. Its a surprisingly violent film considering it also lacks some of the CGI hysterics/stunts etc that later contemporary superhero films are afforded now. Burton actually wanted to cast Brad Dourif as the Joker- boy would that have been a different movie.

Jack Palance of course is brilliant, the only problem with his Carl Grissom is that he’s not in the film enough, Palance having a huge weighty gravitas in the few minutes of screentime he has. Kim Basinger and Jerry Hall remind us just how old the film is/when it was made, Basinger reduced to just screaming damsel in distress most of the film and Hall simply a trophy moll, it’s clearly all stuff they wouldn’t get away with today (Basinger replacing Sean Young as original choice for Vicki Vale, how weird would that have been for me as a Blade Runner fan). I always liked Robert Wuhl as reporter Alexander Knox, a finely tuned comic performance that is quite measured and successful considering its in the same film as Nicholson’s Joker. Wuhl has always been one of the things I liked most in this movie.

Batman is curiously dated- as I have said, it was dated even in 1989 in some ways, and hasn’t ageed well since, but I did enjoy rewatching it. The saddest thing is that so much was dropped/changed when the sequel was made, and while many seem to think Batman Returns is superior I really don’t like it. I preferred the originals big Pinewood exteriors and interior sets, and really hurt by how much of the cast that we lost (I always thought Batman 2 should have reprised Billy Dee William’s Harvey Dent and featured Two-Face as the villian, it’s such just a lost opportunity). Batman Returns just felt like too different a film, and the title oddly ironic, as it wasn’t the return of the Batman I had so enjoyed in 1989- it actually felt like a reboot.

You will have noticed I haven’t mentioned the biggest issue I always had with this film- Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne and Batman. His Wayne is okay I guess, but his Batman really seems limited. Maybe it was the suit. It looks okay but it was clearly a bitch to shoot, it looks like he can hardly move in the bloody thing. The cape is almost a funny throwback to the 1960s show how it flaps around much of the time, and any fighting sequence is hampered by the suits inability to actually do anything in it without falling over. I always watch the film thinking about Spielberg’s ordeals shooting the mechanical shark Bruce in Jaws and feel that Burton must have had similar sleepless nights with that damn Batsuit. They managed to light it okay in most scenes, with the film’s expressionistic approach and deep shadows helping hide many of its failings, but it’s not the suit a real crime-fighter would employ without being put to death by the first serious super-villain. Its one of the things that dates the film really, but what the hell, it was 1989 I guess.

And of course, even as a big Prince fan, it really does seem weird, his music featuring in this. With it 1940’s looks it always seems funny to see Joker’s goons lumbering around with a 1980’s boombox and Partyman blasting out of its speakers. But yeah, what the hell, it was indeed 1989 afterall. Party on.

 

A Nocturnal Vertigo

noct12017.44: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

This film may not be perfect, and it may not completely reach for what it strives for, but goodness me, I have to salute the ambition behind it, which is a rare enough thing to find in film these days. If anything it is this very ambition that may undermine it- crafted like a work of art as much as a mainstream movie, the film is exquisitely shot and framed but there’s a sterile coldness to much of it -likely deliberate- that distances the viewer from it (although it’s certainly not as emotionally detached as a Christopher Nolan film, say). Just getting through the main title sequence would be too much for some (and what it even adds to the film, or says, is a matter of conjecture).

Suffice to say that this film is no less than a modern-day Vertigo; a romantic, psychological thriller laced with awful sadness, regrets and loneliness that may leave you thinking about it for days. To complain that it doesn’t reach the heights of Vertigo (sic) is of course nonsense- Vertigo is a timeless classic that we may never see the likes of again. At least Nocturnal Animals aims high enough to deserve comparison – a fine compliment as it is.

noct2Nocturnal Animals is structured as a film within a film within a film- a fascinating puzzle to explore and obtain meaning from. In a sterile environment of empty spaces, Amy Adams is Susan, who lives a life of wealth and comfort as an art dealer, with a luxury home, beautiful (if increasingly distant) husband, servants and personal assistants. She seems to have it all- but seems to be realising she lacks fulfillment. A package arrives one morning containing the proof copy of a book written by her ex-husband, Edward, entitled Nocturnal Animals, which is dedicated to her. Having a quiet weekend whilst her husband leaves on business to New York (we soon learn this is a cover for his affair with a mistress), Susan reads the book, and we witness her minds-eye picture of the book as a film within the film. This book/film is a noir-ish pulp potboiler of tragedy and revenge in which she pictures her husband as the protagonist and her younger self as his wife. Bookended throughout all of this are her recollections, triggered by reading the book, of her past relationship with her husband -how they met, their affair and how their marriage painfully (for him) ended,  a timeline which is almost third film in itself. The difficulty in weaving these three timelines so well, so each informs and reveals things about the others, is something that deserves some consideration, and it’s  quite a feat that it works so well and that we always seem aware of ‘when’ things are happening, what is real and what is the book’s fiction. Actually, now that I think about it, that ‘real’ is pretty much subjective in itself, as the reality is Susan’s reality, the past as she sees it, just as the book is how Susan sees that. Revelations slowly unfold until we arrive at a painful finale that is both discomforting, frustrating and yet somehow perfect. There is a revenge in the real-world just as there is in the novel.

Amy Adams. What can I say? Another amazing performance which, like the same years Arrival, deserved but somehow didn’t get a nomination. Perhaps there is some truth to the theory that having two deserving performances actually did her a disservice by spitting her vote?  Nonetheless these two films have raised her to some kind of remarkable level of craft and leave me keenly anticipating any film she appears in.

Special mention to Abel Korzeniowski’s beautiful, soulful score- as major a character in this film as Herrmann’s score is to Vertigo, performing much the same function. It’s a haunting work that is sparse but incredibly powerful. Korzeniowski is some kind of genius at this kind of stuff, whose romantic, haunting and yearning music served similar duties in the excellent Penny Dreadful tv series. It reminds me of John Barry as well as Herrmann. If only this quality of music was the norm and not the exception to film-scoring these days! This is of the quality we used to get in the 1970s, richly emotional, layered scoring. The film would be much lesser without it.

 

 

Raging at Cain

cain2017.11: Raising Cain (1992), Blu-ray

Brian De Palma is some kind of crazy guy. He’s like Hitchcock without the ‘Caution’ button. I mention Hitchcock because De Palma is obviously so devoted to mimicking him through so many of his films. Hitch fashioned these great thrillers full of manipulation and sleight of hand but he knew where to draw the line, whereas de Palma has always happily crossed it, hopelessly inspired/devoted to making bizarre dreamscapes of Hitchcock movies. They don’t feel real, don’t even feel like films Hitchcock might have made, but rather films Hitch might have dreamed in his sleep after a night in the wine cellar. The same way that De Palma’s Obsession feels like a drunken nightmare version of Hitch’s Vertigo.

I’m in two minds about Raising Cain. Which is quite apt really, as its a film about multiple personalities. I should start at the outset by stating that I watched the director’s cut (or to be more precise, the non-director’s reassembly of the theatrical cut) and only afterwards watched some of the theatrical to get a grip of the changes. Basically, the theatrical cut is pretty much a chronological edit of the events of the story, whereas the other cut moves sequences out of order, heightening the mystery and sense of dreamlike weirdness. Neither version makes for a great film, although De Palma aficionados might maintain the directors cut is a great De Palma film (something else entirely?). It is generally considered to be the definitive version, which is why I elected to watch it first.

Fans of David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn might find much to enjoy in Raising Cain. There are many viewers these days quite happy to watch obtuse, lazily written and nonsensical films, as if not having plots or old-fashioned arcs or believable characters is actually a bonus, and style is everything. It pretty much sums up De Palma at his worst. His direction is never subtle, and his sleight-of-hand, such as intense distorted close-ups and off-kilter camera angles and slipping into slow motion now and again, always draws attention to itself, as if the style is the be-all and end-all. Which might be used as an excuse for the lazy writing and underwritten characters. The dreamlike sensibility of this film is only exacerbated by characters never behaving remotely normally. The cops, for instance, never talk or act or ever convince as being cops.

The story is.. well, what is it? Three arcs seem to run through the film and neither of them convince, neither have any foundation. Carter Nix (John Lithgow),  is a child psychologist who ‘suffers’ from having several personalities in his head, one of whom is a serial killer. His wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich) is a doctor slipping back into a previously-aborted affair with a child patients father. And then there’s something about children being kidnapped for psychological experiments by Carter Nix’s own father (also played by Lithgow) who is believed to have died years before. There is no chemistry between Carter or Jenny, and her tryst doesn’t really convince either. Lithgow does a sterling job at chewing up the scenery in his three (or is it four?) roles. Davidovich blankly stumbles around like a horny frustrated wife in a permanent mills & boon daydream. De Palma runs amok with his POV camera and weird shots and film speeds. Nothing ever feels remotely real. We don’t understand why Jenny feels the need to stray or is unfulfilled with her husband, we don’t understand why Carter is even with her or why he does what he does, we don’t understand why the cops are so clueless or disinterested (some retired ex-cop seems to hang around the office until he barks up about a past case involving Carter’s father that kicks the ‘plot’ forward). Or why some guy in a van with a harpoon sticking out the back keeps moving backwards and forwards in a carpark waiting for the inevitable to happen. Or why it is prefigured by Jenny having a dream of losing control in her car and getting impaled by a statues spear.

So as a ‘normal’ film the film  doesn’t work at all. But as a dream put on film -unfocused, slipping forwards and backwards in time, repeating moments with dreams within dreams, it does offer a rather strange and compelling experience. Its like something De Palma dreamed one night turned into a movie, or what it would be like if we could plug into, Brainstorm-like, into someone’s dream. Is it Jenny’s dream?  I’m certain this film has its fans, as well as its detractors. I’m just not sure which camp I’m in yet. Its either utter rubbish or a work of genius.

In A Lonely Place (1950)

lonely22016.96: In A Lonely Place (Blu-ray)

One of the pleasures  of being a film-fan is discovering old films that you haven’t seen before and simply falling in love with them. Its like they’ve been waiting all those years just for you. In the case of Nicholas Ray’s film noir masterpiece In A Lonely Place it’s been 66 long years- it’s in like those movies where a character asks “where have you been all these years?”, it seems incredible that this film has been out there and I’d been ignorant of it. Thanks to Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release of this classic noir, and subsequent rave reviews that got my attention, I’ve finally fallen under its spell.

(Its the ‘magic’ of disc releases of catalogue titles; many of them don’t seem to appear on tv anymore and its only through these releases, like so many by Warner Archive and Arrow Films, Eureka etc., that these older films get my attention. It’d be such a shame if disc releases get replaced by streaming and downloads, as I’m sure these older films will suffer. You can’t rely on late-night television screenings anymore (they just don’t seem to happen these days)).

lonely3The genius of In A Lonely Place is that while its film noir, its really a story of a doomed romance, a tragic love story. Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a washed-up screenwriter with a vicious temper. He becomes the prime suspect in a Hollywood murder, and his alibi proves to be his seductive, beautiful new neighbour  Laurel (Gloria Grahame). The two of them are lonely, broken souls and they start a passionate affair while the police continue to try to pin the murder on Steele. As the film continues, the romance is clearly good for Steele- he gets back to writing again, and gets a whole new zest for life, but Laurel’s happiness starts to unravel as she begins to witness Steel’s temper and his hair-trigger for violence. Doubts start to form in her mind -and in the audience- regards Steel’s innocence. Are the police right after all?

Its all very dark and complex, with elements that would later surface in Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo a few years later. Indeed it very much feels like a film noir Vertigo, and in some ways In A Lonely Place seems actually superior to that classic, concluding with a similar dark and tragic inevitability. Of course, as Vertigo is one of my very favourite ‘Top Ten’ movies, it’s inevitable that I would fall in love with this noir masterpiece that shares so many of that film’s themes.

lonely1Bogart delivers a brilliant, complex and subtle performance, displaying both a vulnerability and a simmering darkness. Grahame is equal to Bogart with a sultry swagger that slowly becomes something more tender and then fragile. Both are phenomenal, both are perfect- its one of those films where you cannot possibly imagine any other actor inhabiting the roles they take. Bogart is not an actor I ever had much interest in when growing up; other than his early  gangster roles I was pretty much ignorant of his films- I only finally caught up with Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon this year. I think I’ve been missing out on something. I think thats something I will have to rectify.

In anycase, In A Lonely Place may be 66 years old, but its one of the very best films that I have seen all year. Its one of those films that lingers in your head for days- “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” Dialogue and sentiments like that, in tragedies like this, it’s pure Hollywood magic. If  you are as ignorant of this film as I was a little while ago, really, this film is not to be missed. Its simply brilliant, and I can hardly wait to watch it, live it, all over again.