Thoughts on: Criterion's Neo-Noir Collection
I have written up all 26 films* in the Criterion Channel's Neo-Noir Collection.
rw - rewatch; a movie I had seen before going through the collection
dnrw - did not rewatch; if a movie met two criteria (a. I had seen it within the last 18 months, b. I actively dislike it) I wrote it up from memory.
* in September, Brick leaves the Criterion Channel and is replaced in the collection with Michael Mann's Thief. May add it to the list when that happens.
Note: These are very "what was on my mind after watching." No effort has been made to avoid spoilers, nor to make the plot clear for anyone who hasn't seen the movies in question. Decide for yourself if that's interesting to you.
Cotton Comes to Harlem
I feel utterly unequipped to asses this movie. This and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song the following year are regularly cited as the progenitors of the blaxploitation genre. (This is arguably unfair, since both were made by Black men and dealt much more substantively with race than the white-directed films that followed them.) Its heroes are a couple of Black cops who are treated with suspicion both by their white colleagues and by the Black community they're meant to police. I'm not 100% clear on whether they're the good guys? I mean, I think they are. But the community's suspicion of them seems, I dunno... well-founded? They are working for The Man. And there's interesting discussion to the had there - is the the problem that the law is carried out by racists, or is the law itself racist? Can Black cops make anything better? But it feels like the film stacks the deck in Gravedigger and Coffin Ed's favor; the local Black church is run by a conman, the Back-to-Africa movement is, itself, a con, and the local Black Power movement is treated as an obstacle. Black cops really are the only force for justice here. Movie portrays Harlem itself as a warm, thriving, cultured community, but the people that make up that community are disloyal and easily fooled. Felt, to me, like the message was "just because they're cops doesn't mean they don't have Black soul," which, nowadays, we would call copaganda. But, then, do I know what I'm talking about? Do I know how much this played into or off of or against stereotypes from 1970? Was this a radical departure I don't have the context to appreciate? Is there substance I'm too white and too many decades removed to pick up on? Am I wildly overthinking this? I dunno. Seems like everyone involved was having a lot of fun, at least. That bit is contagious.
Across 110th Street
And here's the other side of the "race film" equation. Another movie set in Harlem with a Black cop pulled between the police, the criminals, and the public, but this time the film is made by white people. I like it both more and less. Pro: this time the difficult position of Black cop who's treated with suspicion by both white cops and Black Harlemites is interrogated. Con: the Black cop has basically no personality other than "honest cop." Pro: the racism of the police force is explicit and systemic, as opposed to comically ineffectual. Con: the movie is shaped around a racist white cop who beats the shit out of Black people but slowly forms a bond with his Black partner. Pro: the Black criminal at the heart of the movie talks openly about how the white world has stacked the deck against him, and he's soulful and relateable. Con: so of course he dies in the end, because the only way privileged people know to sympathetize with minorities is to make them tragic (see also: The Boys in the Band, Philadelphia, and Brokeback Mountain for gay men). Additional con: this time Harlem is portrayed as a hellhole. Barely any of the community is even seen. At least the shot at the end, where the criminal realizes he's going to die and throws the bag of money off a roof and into a playground so the Black kids can pick it up before the cops reclaim it was powerful. But overall... yech. Cotton Comes to Harlem felt like it wasn't for me; this feels like it was 100% for me and I respect it less for that.
The Long Goodbye (rw)
The shaggiest dog. Like much Altman, more compelling than good, but very compelling. Raymond Chandler's story is now set in the 1970's, but Philip Marlowe is the same Philip Marlowe of the 1930's. I get the sense there was always something inherently sad about Marlowe. Classic noir always portrayed its detectives as strong-willed men living on the border between the straightlaced world and its seedy underbelly, crossing back and forth freely but belonging to neither. But Chandler stresses the loneliness of it - or, at least, the people who've adapted Chandler do. Marlowe is a decent man in an indecent world, sorting things out, refusing to profit from misery, but unable to set anything truly right. Being a man out of step is here literalized by putting him forty years from the era where he belongs. His hardboiled internal monologue is now the incessant mutterings of the weird guy across the street who never stops smoking. Like I said: compelling! Kael's observation was spot on: everyone in the movie knows more about the mystery than he does, but he's the only one who cares. The mystery is pretty threadbare - Marlowe doesn't detect so much as end up in places and have people explain things to him. But I've seen it two or three times now, and it does linger.
I confess I've always been impressed by Chinatown more than I've liked it. Its story structure is impeccable, its atmosphere is gorgeous, its noirish fatalism is raw and real, its deconstruction of the noir hero is well-observed, and it's full of clever detective tricks (the pocket watches, the tail light, the ruler). I've just never connected with it. Maybe it's a little too perfectly crafted. (I feel similar about Miller's Crossing.) And I've always been ambivalent about the ending. In Towne's original ending, Evelyn shoots Noah Cross dead and get arrested, and neither she nor Jake can tell the truth of why she did it, so she goes to jail for murder and her daughter is in the wind. Polansky proposed the ending that exists now, where Evelyn just dies, Cross wins, and Jake walks away devastated. It communicates the same thing: Jake's attempt to get smart and play all the sides off each other instead of just helping Evelyn escape blows up in his face at the expense of the woman he cares about and any sense of real justice. And it does this more dramatically and efficiently than Towne's original ending. But it also treats Evelyn as narratively disposable, and hands the daughter over to the man who raped Evelyn and murdered her husband. It makes the women suffer more to punch up the ending. But can I honestly say that Towne's ending is the better one? It is thematically equal, dramatically inferior, but would distract me less. Not sure what the calculus comes out to there. Maybe there should be a third option. Anyway! A perfect little contraption. Belongs under a glass dome.
Night Moves (rw)
Ah yeah, the good shit. This is my quintessential 70's noir. This is three movies in a row about detectives. Thing is, the classic era wasn't as chockablock with hardboiled detectives as we think; most of those movies starred criminals, cops, and boring dudes seduced to the darkness by a pair of legs. Gumshoes just left the strongest impressions. (The genre is said to begin with Maltese Falcon and end with Touch of Evil, after all.) So when the post-Code 70's decided to pick the genre back up while picking it apart, it makes sense that they went for the 'tecs first. The Long Goodbye dragged the 30's detective into the 70's, and Chinatown went back to the 30's with a 70's sensibility. But Night Moves was about detecting in the Watergate era, and how that changed the archetype. Harry Moseby is the detective so obsessed with finding the truth that he might just ruin his life looking for it, like the straight story will somehow fix everything that's broken, like it'll bring back a murdered teenager and repair his marriage and give him a reason to forgive the woman who fucked him just to distract him from some smuggling. When he's got time to kill, he takes out a little, magnetic chess set and recreates a famous old game, where three knight moves (get it?) would have led to a beautiful checkmate had the player just seen it. He keeps going, self-destructing, because he can't stand the idea that the perfect move is there if he can just find it. And, no matter how much we see it destroy him, we, the audience, want him to keep going; we expect a satisfying resolution to the mystery. That's what we need from a detective picture; one character flat-out compares Harry to Sam Spade. But what if the truth is just... Watergate? Just some prick ruining things for selfish reasons? Nothing grand, nothing satisfying. Nothing could be more noir, or more neo-, than that.
Farewell, My Lovely
Sometimes the only thing that makes a noir neo- is that it's in color and all the blood, tits, and racism from the books they're based on get put back in. This second stab at Chandler is competant but not much more than that. Mitchum works as Philip Marlowe, but Chandler's dialogue feels off here, like lines that worked on the page don't work aloud, even though they did when Bogie said them. I'll chalk it up to workmanlike but uninspired direction. (Dang this looks bland so soon after Chinatown.) Moose Malloy is a great character, and perfectly cast. (Wasn't sure at first, but it's true.) Some other interesting cats show up and vanish - the tough brothel madam based on Brenda Allen comes to mind, though she's treated with oddly more disdain than most of the other hoods and is dispatched quicker. In general, the more overt racism and misogyny doesn't seem to do anything except make the movie "edgier" than earlier attempts at the same material, and it reads kinda try-hard. But it mostly holds together. *shrug*
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (dnrw)
Didn't care for this at all. Can't tell if the script was treated as a jumping-off point or if the dialogue is 100% improvised, but it just drags on forever and is never that interesting. Keeps treating us to scenes from the strip club like they're the opera scenes in Amadeus, and, whatever, I don't expect burlesque to be Mozart, but Cosmo keeps saying they're an artful, classy joint, and I keep waiting for the show to be more than cheap, lazy camp. How do you make gratuitious nudity boring? Mind you, none of this is bad as a rule - I love digressions and can enjoy good sleaze, and it's clear the filmmakers care about what they're making. They just did not sell it in a way I wanted to buy. Can't remember what edit I watched; I hope it was the 135 minute one, because I cannot imagine there being a longer edit out there.
The American Friend (dnrw)
It's weird that this is Patricia Highsmith, right? That Dennis Hopper is playing Tom Ripley? In a cowboy hat? I gather that Minghella's version wasn't true to the source, but I do love that movie, and this is a long, long way from that. This Mr. Ripley isn't even particularly talented! Anyway, this has one really great sequence, where a regular guy has been coerced by crooks into murdering someone on a train platform, and, when the moment comes to shoot, he doesn't. And what follows is a prolonged sequence of an amateur trying to surreptitiously tail a guy across a train station and onto another train, and all the while you're not sure... is he going to do it? is he going to chicken out? is he going to do it so badly he gets caught? It's hard not to put yourself in the protagonist's shoes, wondering how you would handle the situation, whether you could do it, whether you could act on impulse before your conscience could catch up with you. It drags on a long while and this time it's a good thing. Didn't much like the rest of the movie, it's shapeless and often kind of corny, and the central plot hook is contrived. (It's also very weird that this is the only Wim Wenders I've seen.) But, hey, I got one excellent sequence, not gonna complain.
The Big Sleep
Unlike the 1946 film, I can follow the plot of this Big Sleep. But, also unlike the 1946 version, this one isn't any damn fun. Mitchum is back as Marlowe (this is three Marlowes in five years, btw), and this time it's set in the 70's and in England, for some reason. I don't find this offensive, but neither do I see what it accomplishes? Most of the cast is still American. (Hi Jimmy!) Still holds together, but even less well than Farewell, My Lovely. But I do find it interesting that the neo-noir era keeps returning to Chandler while it's pretty much left Hammet behind (inasmuch as someone whose genes are spread wide through the whole genre can be left behind). Spade and the Continental Op, straightshooting tough guys who come out on top in the end, seem antiquated in the (post-)modern era. But Marlowe's goodness being out of sync with the world around him only seems more poignant the further you take him from his own time. Nowadays you can really only do Hammett as pastiche, but I sense that you could still play Chandler straight.
Eyes of Laura Mars
The most De Palma movie I've seen not made by De Palma, complete with POV shots, paranormal hoodoo, and fixation with sex, death, and whether images of such are art or exploitation (or both). Laura Mars takes photographs of naked women in violent tableux, and has gotten quite famous doing so, but is it damaging to women? The movie has more than a superficial engagement with this topic, but only slightly more than superficial. Kept imagining a movie that is about 30% less serial killer story and 30% more art conversations. (But, then, I have an art degree and have never murdered anyone, so.) Like, museums are full of Biblical paintings full of nude women and slaughter, sometimes both at once, and they're called masterpieces. Most all of them were painted by men on commission from other men. Now Laura Mars makes similar images in modern trappings, and has models made of flesh and blood rather than paint, and it's scandalous? Why is it only controversial once women are getting paid for it? On the other hand, is this just the master's tools? Is she subverting or challenging the male gaze, or just profiting off of it? Or is a woman profiting off of it, itself, a subversion? Is it subversive enough to account for how it commodifies female bodies? These questions are pretty clearly relevant to the movie itself, and the movies in general, especially after the fall of the Hays Code when people were really unrestrained with the blood and boobies. And, heck, the lead is played by the star of Bonnie and Clyde! All this is to say: I wish the movie were as interested in these questions as I am. What's there is a mildly diverting B-picture. There's one great bit where Laura's seeing through the killer's eyes (that's the hook, she gets visions from the murderer's POV; no, this is never explained) and he's RIGHT BEHIND HER, so there's a chase where she charges across an empty room only able to see her own fleeing self from ten feet behind. That was pretty great! And her first kiss with the detective (because you could see a mile away that the detective and the woman he's supposed to protect are gonna fall in love) is immediately followed by the two freaking out about how nonsensical it is for them to fall in love with each other, because she's literally mourning multiple deaths and he's being wildly unprofessional, and then they go back to making out. That bit was great, too. The rest... enh.
The Onion Field
What starts off as a seemingly not-that-noirish cops-vs-crooks procedural turns into an agonizingly protracted look at the legal system, with the ultimate argument that the very idea of the law ever resulting in justice is a lie. Hoo! I have to say, I'm impressed. There's a scene where a lawyer - whom I'm not sure is even named, he's like the seventh of thirteen we've met - literally quits the law over how long this court case about two guys shooting a cop has taken. He says the cop who was murdered has been forgotten, his partner has never gotten to move on because the case has lasted eight years, nothing has been accomplished, and they should let the two criminals walk and jail all the judges and lawyers instead. It's awesome! The script is loaded with digressions and unnecessary details, just the way I like it. Can't say I'm impressed with the execution. Nothing is wrong, exactly, but the performances all seem a tad melodramatic or a tad uninspired. Camerawork is, again, purely functional. It's no masterpiece. But that second half worked for me. (And it's Ted Danson's first movie! He did great.)
Body Heat (rw)
Let's say up front that this is a handsomely-made movie. Probably the best looking thing on the list since Night Moves. Nothing I've seen better captures the swelter of an East Coast heatwave, or the lusty feeling of being too hot to bang and going at it regardless. Kathleen Turner sells the hell out of a femme fatale. There are a lot of good lines and good performances (Ted Danson is back and having the time of his life). I want to get all that out of the way, because this is a movie heavily modeled after Double Indemnity, and I wanted to discuss its merits before I get into why inviting that comparison doesn't help the movie out. In a lot of ways, it's the same rules as the Robert Mitchum Marlowe movies - do Double Indemnity but amp up the sex and violence. And, to a degree it works. (At least, the sex does, dunno that Double Indemnity was crying out for explosions.) But the plot is amped as well, and gets downright silly. Yeah, Mrs. Dietrichson seduces Walter Neff so he'll off her husband, but Neff clocks that pretty early and goes along with it anyway. Everything beyond that is two people keeping too big a secret and slowly turning on each other. But here? For the twists to work Matty has to be, from frame one, playing four-dimensional chess on the order of Senator Palpatine, and its about as plausible. (Exactly how did she know, after she rebuffed Ned, he would figure out her local bar and go looking for her at the exact hour she was there?) It's already kind of weird to be using the spider woman trope in 1981, but to make her MORE sexually conniving and mercenary than she was in the 40's is... not great. As lurid trash, it's pretty fun for a while, but some noir stuff can't just be updated, it needs to be subverted or it doesn't justify its existence.
Brian De Palma has two categories of movie: he's got his mainstream, director-for-hire fare, where his voice is either reigned in or indulged in isolated sequences that don't always jive with the rest fo the film, and then there's his Brian De Palma movies. My mistake, it seems, is having seen several for-hires from throughout his career - The Untouchables (fine enough), Carlito's Way (ditto, but less), Mission: Impossible (enh) - but had only seen De Palma-ass movies from his late period (Femme Fatale and The Black Dahlia, both of which I think are garbage). All this to say: Blow Out was my first classic-era De Palma, and holy fucking shit dudes. This was (with caveats) my absolute and entire jam. I said I could enjoy good sleaze, and this is good friggin' sleaze. (Though far short of De Palma at his sleaziest, mercifully.) The splitscreens, the diopter shots, the canted angles, how does he make so many shlocky things work?! John Travolta's sound tech goes out to get fresh wind fx for the movie he's working on, and we get this wonderful sequence of visuals following sounds as he turns his attention and his microphone to various noises - a couple on a walk, a frog, an owl, a buzzing street lamp. Later, as he listens back to the footage, the same sequence plays again, but this time from his POV; we're seeing his memory as guided by the same sequence of sounds, now recreated with different shots, as he moves his pencil in the air mimicking the microphone. When he mixes and edits sounds, we hear the literal soundtrack of the movie we are watching get mixed and edited by the person on screen. And as he tries to unravel a murder mystery, he uses what's at hand: magnetic tape, flatbed editors, an animation camera to turn still photos from the crime scene into a film and sync it with the audio he recorded; it's forensics using only the tools of the editing room. As someone who's spent some time in college editing rooms, this is a hoot and a half. Loses a bit of steam as it goes on and the film nerd stuff gives way to a more traditional thriller, but rallies for a sound-tech-centered final setpiece, which steadily builds to such madcap heights you can feel the air thinning, before oddly cutting its own tension and then trying to build it back up again. It doesn't work as well the second time. But then, that shot right after the climax? Damn. Conflicted on how the movie treats the female lead. I get why feminist film theorists are so divided on De Palma. His stuff is full of things feminists (rightly) criticize, full of women getting naked when they're not getting stabbed, but he also clearly finds women fascinating and has them do empowered and unexpected things, and there are many feminist reads of his movies. Call it a mixed bag. But even when he's doing tropey shit, he explores the tropes in unexpected ways. Definitely the best movie so far that I hadn't already seen.
Cutter's Way (rw)
Alex Cutter is pitched to us as an obnoxious-but-sympathetic son of a bitch, and, you know, two out of three ain't bad. Watched this during my 2020 neo-noir kick and considered skipping it this time because I really didn't enjoy it. Found it a little more compelling this go around, while being reminded of why my feelings were room temp before. Thematically, I'm onboard: it's about a guy, Cutter, getting it in his head that he's found a murderer and needs to bring him to justice, and his friend, Bone, who intermittently helps him because he feels bad that Cutter lost his arm, leg, and eye in Nam and he also feels guilty for being in love with Cutter's wife. The question of whether the guy they're trying to bring down actually did it is intentionally undefined, and arguably unimportant; they've got personal reasons to see this through. Postmodern and noirish, fixated with the inability to ever fully know the truth of anything, but starring people so broken by society that they're desperate for certainty. (Pretty obvious parallels to Vietnam.) Cutter's a drunk and kind of an asshole, but understandably so. Bone's shiftlessness is the other response to a lack of meaning in the world, to the point where making a decision, any decision, feels like character growth, even if it's maybe killing a guy whose guilt is entirely theoretical. So, yeah, I'm down with all of this! A- in outline form. It's just that Cutter is so uninterestingly unpleasant and no one else on screen is compelling enough to make up for it. His drunken windups are tedious and his sanctimonious speeches about what the war was like are, well, true and accurate but also obviously manipulative. It's two hours with two miserable people, and I think Cutter's constant chatter is supposed to be the comic relief but it's a little too accurate to drunken rambling, which isn't funny if you're not also drunk. He's just tedious, irritating, and periodically racist. Pass.
Blood Simple (rw)
I'm pretty cool on the Coens - there are things I've liked, even loved, in every Coen film I've seen, but I always come away dissatisfied. For a while, I kept going to their movies because I was sure eventually I'd love one without qualification. No Country for Old Men came close, the first two acts being master classes in sustained tension. But then the third act is all about denying closure: the protagonist is murdered offscreen, the villain's motives are never explained, and it ends with an existentialist speech about the unfathomable cruelty of the world. And it just doesn't land for me. The archness of the Coen's dialogue, the fussiness of their set design, the kinda-intimate, kinda-awkward, kinda-funny closeness of the camera's singles, it cannot sell me on a devastating meditation about meaninglessness. It's only ever sold me on the Coens' own cleverness. And that archness, that distancing, has typified every one of their movies I've come close to loving. Which is a long-ass preamble to saying, holy heck, I was not prepared for their very first movie to be the one I'd been looking for! I watched it last year and it remains true on rewatch: Blood Simple works like gangbusters. It's kind of Double Indemnity (again) but played as a comedy of errors, minus the comedy: two people romantically involved feeling their trust unravel after a murder. And I think the first thing that works for me is that utter lack of comedy. It's loaded with the Coens' trademark ironies - mostly dramatic in this case - but it's all played straight. Unlike the usual lead/femme fatale relationship, where distrust brews as the movie goes on, the audience knows the two main characters can trust each other. There are no secret duplicitous motives waiting to be revealed. The audience also know why they don't trust each other. (And it's all communicated wordlessly, btw: a character enters a scene and we know, based on the information that character has, how it looks to them and what suspicions it would arouse, even as we know the truth of it). The second thing that works is, weirdly, that the characters aren't very interesting?! Ray and Abby have almost no characterization. Outside of a general likability, they are blank slates. This is a weakness in most films, but, given the agonizingly long, wordless sequences where they dispose of bodies or hide from gunfire, you're left thinking not "what will Ray/Abby do in this scenario," because Ray and Abby are relatively elemental and undefined, but "what would I do in this scenario?" Which creates an exquisite tension but also, weirdly, creates more empathy than I feel for the Coens' usual cast of personalities. It's supposed to work the other way around! Truly enjoyable throughout but absolutely wonderful in the suspenseful-as-hell climax. Good shit right here.
The thing about erotic thrillers is everything that matters is in the name. Is it thrilling? Is it erotic? Good; all else is secondary. De Palma set out to make the most lurid, voyeuristic, horny, violent, shocking, steamy movie he could come up with, and its success was not strictly dependent on the lead's acting ability or the verisimilitude of the plot. But what are we, the modern audience, to make of it once 37 years have passed and, by today's standards, the eroticism is quite tame and the twists are no longer shocking? Then we're left with a nonsensical riff on Vertigo, a specularization of women that is very hard to justify, and lead actor made of pulped wood. De Palma's obsessions don't cohere into anything more this time; the bits stolen from Hitchcock aren't repurposed to new ends, it really is just Hitch with more tits and less brains. (I mean, I still haven't seen Vertigo, but I feel 100% confident in that statement.) The diopter shots and rear-projections this time look cheap (literally so, apparently; this had 1/3 the budget of Blow Out). There are some mildly interesting setpieces, but nothing compared to Travolta's auditory reconstructions or car chase where he tries to tail a subway train from street level even if it means driving through a frickin parade like an inverted French Connection, goddamn Blow Out was a good movie! Anyway. Melanie Griffith seems to be having fun, at least. I guess I had a little as well, but it was, at best, diverting, and a real letdown.
Surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. Terrance Stamp flips on the mob and spends ten years living a life of ease in Spain, waiting for the day they find and kill him. Movie kicks off when they do find him, and what follows is a ramshackle road movie as John Hurt and a young Tim Roth attempt to drive him to Paris so they can shoot him in front of his old boss. Stamp is magnetic. He's spent a decade reading philosophy and seems utterly prepared for death, so he spends the trip humming, philosophizing, and being friendly with his captors when he's not winding them up. It remains unclear to the end whether the discord he sews between Roth and Hurt is part of some larger plan of escape or just for shits and giggles. There's also a decent amount of plot for a movie that's not terribly plot-driven - just about every part of the kidnapping has tiny hitches the kidnappers aren't prepared for, and each has film-long repercussions, drawing the cops closer and somehow sticking Laura del Sol in their backseat. The ongoing questions are when Stamp will die, whether del Sol will die, and whether Roth will be able to pull the trigger. In the end, it's actually a meditation on ethics and mortality, but in a quiet and often funny way. It's not going to go down as one of my new favs, but it was a nice way to spend a couple hours.
Trouble in Mind (dnrw)
I fucking hated this movie. It's been many months since I watched it, do I remember what I hated most? Was it the bit where a couple of country bumpkins who've come to the city walk into a diner and Mr. Bumpkin clocks that the one Black guy in the back as obviously a criminal despite never having seen him before? Was it the part where Kris Kristofferson won't stop hounding Mrs. Bumpkin no matter how many times she demands to be left alone, and it's played as romantic because obviously he knows what she needs better than she does? Or is it the part where Mr. Bumpkin reluctantly takes a job from the Obvious Criminal (who is, in fact, a criminal, and the only named Black character in the movie if I remember correctly, draw your own conclusions) and, within a week, has become a full-blown hood, which is exemplified by a lot, like, a lot of queer-coding? The answer to all three questions is yes. It's also fucking boring. Even out-of-drag Divine's performance as the villain can't save it.
'sfine? I've still never seen Silence of the Lambs, nor any of the Hopkins Lecter movies, nor, indeed, any full episode of the show. So the unheimlich others get seeing Brian Cox play Hannibal didn't come into play. Cox does a good job with him, but he's barely there. Shame, cuz he's the most interesting part of the movie. Honestly, there's a lot of interesting stuff that's barely there. Will Graham being a guy who gets into the heads of serial killers is explored well enough, and Mann knows how to direct a police procedural such that it's both contemplative and propulsive. But all the other themes it points at? Will's fear that he understands murderers a little too well? Hannibal trying to nudge him towards becoming one? Whatever dance Hannibal and Tooth Fairy are doing? What Tooth Fairy's deal is, anyway? (Why does he wear fake teeth and bite things? Why is he fixated on the red dragon? Does the bit where he says "Francis is gone forever" mean he has DID?) None of it goes anywhere or amounts to anything. I mean, it's certainly more interesting with this stuff than without, but it has that feel of a book that's been pared of its interesting bits to fit the runtime (or, alternately, pulp that's been sloppily elevated). I still haven't made my mind up on Mann's cold, precise camera work, but at least it gives me something to look at. It's fine! This is fine.
Mona Lisa (rw)
Gave this one another shot. Bob Hoskins is wonderful as a hood out of his depth in classy places, quick to anger but just as quick to let anger go (the opening sequence where he's screaming on his ex-wife's doorstep, hurling trash cans at her house, and one minute later thrilled to see his old car, is pretty nice). And Cathy Tyson's working girl is a subtler kind of fascinating, exuding a mixture of coldness and kindness. It's just... this is ultimately a story about how heartbreaking it is when the girl you like is gay, right? It's Weezer's Pink Triangle: The Movie. It's not homophobic, exactly - Simone isn't demonized for being a lesbian - but it's still, like, "man, this straight white guy's pain is so much more interesting than the Black queer sex worker's." And when he's yelling "you woulda done it!" at the end, I can't tell if we're supposed to agree with him. Seems pretty clear that she wouldn'ta done it, at least not without there being some reveal about her character that doesn't happen, but I don't think the ending works if we don't agree with him, so... I'm like 70% sure the movie does Simone dirty there. For the first half, their growing relationship feels genuine and natural, and, honestly, the story being about a real bond that unfortunately means different things to each party could work if it didn't end with a gun and a sock in the jaw. Shape feels jagged as well; what feels like the end of the second act or so turns out to be the climax. And some of the symbolism is... well, ok, Simone gives George money to buy more appropriate clothes for hanging out in high end hotels, and he gets a tan leather jacket and a Hawaiian shirt, and their first proper bonding moment is when she takes him out for actual clothes. For the rest of the movie he is rocking double-breasted suits (not sure I agree with the striped tie, but it was the eighties, whaddya gonna do?). Then, in the second half, she sends him off looking for her old streetwalker friend, and now he looks completely out of place in the strip clubs and bordellos. So far so good. But then they have this run-in where her old pimp pulls a knife and cuts George's arm, so, with his nice shirt torn and it not safe going home (I guess?) he starts wearing the Hawaiian shirt again. So around the time he's starting to realize he doesn't really belong in Simone's world or the lowlife world he came from anymore, he's running around with the classy double-breasted suit jacket over the garish Hawaiian shirt, and, yeah, bit on the nose guys. Anyway, it has good bits, I just feel like a movie that asks me to feel for the guy punching a gay, Black woman in the face needs to work harder to earn it. Bit of wasted talent.
The Bedroom Window
Starts well. Man starts an affair with his boss' wife, their first night together she witnesses an attempted murder from his window, she worries going to the police will reveal the affair to her husband, so the man reports her testimony to the cops claiming he's the one who saw it. Young Isabelle Huppert is the perfect woman for a guy to risk his career on a crush over, and Young Steve Guttenberg is the perfect balance of affability and amorality. And it flows great - picks just the right media to res. So then he's talking to the cops, telling them what she told him, and they ask questions he forgot to ask her - was the perp's jacket a blazer or a windbreaker? - and he has to guess. Then he gets called into the police lineup, and one guy matches her description really well, but is it just because he's wearing his red hair the way she described it? He can't be sure, doesn't finger any of them. He finds out the cops were pretty certain about one of the guys, so he follows the one he thinks it was around, looking for more evidence, and another girl is attacked right outside a bar he knows the redhead was at. Now he's certain! But he shows the boss' wife the guy and she's not certain, and she reminds him they don't even know if the guy he followed is the same guy the police suspected! And as he feeds more evidence to the cops, he has to lie more, because he can't exactly say he was tailing the guy around the city. So, I'm all in now. Maybe it's because I'd so recently rewatched Night Moves and Cutter's Way, but this seems like another story about uncertainty. He's really certain about the guy because it fits narratively, and we, the audience, feel the same. But he's not actually a witness, he doesn't have actual evidence, he's fitting bits and pieces together like a conspiracy theorist. He's fixating on what he wants to be true. Sign me up! But then it turns out he's 100% correct about who the killer is but his lies are found out and now the cops think he's the killer and I realize, oh, no, this movie isn't nearly as smart as I thought it was. Egg on my face! What transpires for the remaining half of the runtime is goofy as hell, and someone with shlockier sensibilities could have made a meal of it, but Hanson, despite being a Corman protege, takes this silliness seriously in the all wrong ways. Next!
Homicide (rw? I think I saw most of this on TV one time)
Homicide centers around the conflicted loyalties of a Jewish cop. It opens with the Jewish cop and his white gentile partner taking over a case with a Black perp from some Black FBI agents. The media is making a big thing about the racial implications of the mostly white cops chasing down a Black man in a Black neighborhood. And inside of 15 minutes the FBI agent is calling the lead a k*ke and the gentile cop is calling the FBI agent a f****t and there's all kinds of invective for Black people. The film is announcing its intentions out the gate: this movie is about race. But the issue here is David Mamet doesn't care about race as anything other than a dramatic device. He's the Ubisoft of filmmakers, having no coherent perspective on social issues but expecting accolades for even bringing them up. Mamet is Jewish (though lead actor Joe Mantegna definitely is not) but what is his position on the Jewish diaspora? The whole deal is Mantegna gets stuck with a petty homicide case instead of the big one they just pinched from the Feds, where a Jewish candy shop owner gets shot in what looks like a stickup. Her family tries to appeal to his Jewishness to get him to take the case seriously, and, after giving them the brush-off for a long time, finally starts following through out of guilt, finding bits and pieces of what may or may not be a conspiracy, with Zionist gun runners and underground neo-Nazis. But, again: all of these are just dramatic devices. Mantegna's Jewishness (those words will never not sound ridiculous together) has always been a liability for him as a cop (we are told, not shown), and taking the case seriously is a reclamation of identity. The Jews he finds community with sold tommyguns to revolutionaries during the founding of Israel. These Jews end up blackmailing him to get a document from the evidence room. So: what is the film's position on placing stock in one's Jewish identity? What is its position on Israel? What is its opinion on Palestine? Because all three come up! And the answer is: Mamet doesn't care. You can read it a lot of different ways. Someone with more context and more patience than me could probably deduce what the de facto message is, the way Chris Franklin deduced the de facto message of Far Cry V despite the game's efforts not to have one, but I'm not going to. Mantegna's attempt to reconnect with his Jewishness gets his partner killed, gets the guy he was supposed to bring in alive shot dead, gets him possibly permanent injuries, gets him on camera blowing up a store that's a front for white nationalists, and all for nothing because the "clues" he found (pretty much exclusively by coincidence) were unconnected nothings. The problem is either his Jewishness, or his lifelong failure to connect with his Jewishness until late in life. Mamet doesn't give a shit. (Like, Mamet canonically doesn't give a shit: he is on record saying social context is meaningless, characters only exist to serve the plot, and there are no deeper meanings in fiction.) Mamet's ping-pong dialogue is fun, as always, and there are some neat ideas and characters, but it's all in service of a big nothing that needed to be a something to work.
So much I could talk about, let's keep it to the most interesting bits. Hommes Fatales: a thing about classic noir that it was fascinated by the marginal but had to keep it in the margins. Liberated women, queer-coded killers, Black jazz players, broke thieves; they were the main event, they were what audiences wanted to see, they were what made the movies fun. But the ending always had to reassert straightlaced straight, white, middle-class male society as unshakeable. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy demanded, both ideologically and via the Hays Code, that anyone outside these norms be punished, reformed, or dead by the movie's end. The only way to make them the heroes was to play their deaths for tragedy. It is unsurprising that neo-noir would take the queer-coded villains and make them the protagonists. Implicature: This is the story of Leopold and Loeb, murderers famous for being queer, and what's interesting is how the queerness in the first half exists entirely outside of language. Like, it's kind of amazing for a movie from 1992 to be this gay - we watch Nathan and Dickie kiss, undress, masturbate, fuck; hell, they wear wedding rings when they're alone together. But it's never verbalized. Sex is referred to as "your reward" or "what you wanted" or "best time." Dickie says he's going to have "the girls over," and it turns out "the girls" are a bunch of drag queens, but this is never acknowledged. Nathan at one point lists off a bunch of famous men - Oscar Wild, E.M. Forster, Frederick the Great - but, though the commonality between them is obvious (they were all gay), it's left the the audience to recognize it. When their queerness is finally verbalized in the second half, it's first in the language of pathology - a psychiatrist describing their "perversions" and "misuse" of their "organs" before the court, which has to be cleared of women because it's so inappropriate - and then with slurs from the man who murders Dickie in jail (a murder which is written off with no investigation because the victim is a gay prisoner instead of a L&L's victim, a child of a wealthy family). I don't know if I'd have noticed this if I hadn't read Chip Delany describing his experience as a gay man in the 50's existing almost entirely outside of language, the only language at the time being that of heteronormativity. Murder as Love Story: L&L exchange sex as payment for the other commiting crimes; it's foreplay. Their statements to the police where they disagree over who's to blame is a lover's quarrel. Their sentencing is a marriage. Nathan performs his own funeral rites over Dickie's body after he dies on the operating table. They are, in their way, together til death did they part. This is the relationship they can have. That it does all this without romanticizing the murder itself or valorizing L&L as humans is frankly incredible.
The pitch: at the funeral for his father, wealthy Vincent Towers meets his long lost half brother Clay Arlington. It is implied Clay is a child from out of wedlock, possibly an affair; no one knows Vincent has a half-brother but him and Clay. Vincent invites Clay out to his fancy-ass home in Arizona. Thing is, Vincent is suspected (correctly) by the police of having murdered his father, and, due to a striking family resemblence, he's brought Clay to his home to fake his own death. He finagles Clay into wearing his clothes and driving his car, and then blows the car up and flees the state, leaving the cops to think him dead. Thing is, Clay survives, but with amnesia. The doctors tell him he's Vincent, and he has no reason to disagree. Any discrepancy in the way he looks is dismissed as the result of reconstructive surgery after the explosion. So Clay Arlington resumes Vincent Towers' life, without knowing Clay Arlington even exists. The twist: Clay and Vincent are both white, but Vincent is played by Michael Harris, a white actor, and Clay is played by Dennis Haysbert, a Black actor. "Ian, if there's just the two of them, how do you know it's not Harris playing a Black character?" Glad you asked! It is most explicitly obvious during a scene where Vincent/Clay's surgeon-cum-girlfriend essentially bringing up phrenology to explain how Vincent/Clay couldn't possibly have murdered his father, describing straight hair, thin lips, and a Greco-Roman nose Haysbert very clearly doesn't have. But, let's be honest: we knew well beforehand that the rich-as-fuck asshole living in a huge, modern house and living it up in Arizona high society was white. Though Clay is, canonically, white, he lives an poor and underprivileged life common to Black men in America. Though the film's title officially refers to the many stitches holding Vincent/Clay's face together after the accident, "suture" is a film theory term, referring to the way a film audience gets wrapped up - sutured - in the world of the movie, choosing to forget the outside world and pretend the story is real. The usage is ironic, because the audience cannot be sutured in; we cannot, and are not expected to, suspend our disbelief that Clay is white. We are deliberately distanced. Consequently this is a movie to be thought about, not to to be felt. It has the shape of a Hitchcockian thriller but it can't evoke the emotions of one. You can see the scaffolding - "ah, yes, this is the part of a thriller where one man hides while another stalks him with a gun, clever." I feel ill-suited to comment on what the filmmakers are saying about race. I could venture a guess about the ending, where the psychiatrist, the only one who knows the truth about Clay, says he can never truly be happy living the lie of being Vincent Towers, while we see photographs of Clay/Vincent seemingly living an extremely happy life: society says white men simply belong at the top more than Black men do, but, if the roles could be reversed, the latter would slot in seamlessly. Maybe??? Of all the movies in this collection, this is the one I'd most want to read an essay on (followed by Swoon).
The Last Seduction (dnrw)
No, no, no, I am not rewataching this piece of shit movie.
Here's my weird contention: Brick is in color and in widescreen, but, besides that? There's nothing neo- about this noir. There's no swearing except "hell." (I always thought Tug said "goddamn" at one point but, no, he's calling The Pin "gothed-up.") There's a lot of discussion of sex, but always through implication, and the only deleted scene is the one that removed ambiguity about what Brendan and Laura get up to after kissing. There's nothing postmodern or subversive - yes, the hook is it's set in high school, but the big twist is that it takes this very seriously. It mines it for jokes, yes, but the drama is authentic. In fact, making the gumshoe a high school student, his jadedness an obvious front, still too young to be as hard as he tries to be, just makes the drama hit harder. Sam Spade if Sam Spade were allowed to cry. I've always found it an interesting counterpoint to The Good German, a movie that fastidiously mimics the aesthetics of classic noir - down to even using period-appropriate sound recording - but is wholly neo- in construction. Brick could get approved by the Hays Code. Its vibe, its plot about a detective playing a bunch of criminals against each other, even its slang ("bulls," "yegg," "flopped") are all taken directly from Hammett. It's not even stealing from noir, it's stealing from what noir stole from! It's a perfect curtain call for the collection: the final film is both the most contemporary and the most classic. It's also - but for the strong case you could make for Night Moves - the best movie on the list. It's even more appropriate for me, personally: this was where it all started for me and noir. I saw this in theaters when it came out and loved it. It was probably my favorite movie for some time. It gave me a taste for pulpy crime movies which I only, years later, realized were neo-noir. This is why I looked into Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and In Bruges. I've seen it more times than any film on this list, by a factor of at least 3. It's why I will always adore Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It's the best-looking half-million-dollar movie I've ever seen. (Indie filmmakers, take fucking notes.) I even did a script analysis of this, and, yes, it follows the formula, but so tightly and with so much style. Did you notice that he says several of the sequence tensions out loud? ("I just want to find her." "Show of hands.") I notice new things each time I see it - this time it was how "brushing Brendan's hair out of his face" is Em's move, making him look more like he does in the flashback, and how Laura does the same to him as she's seducing him, in the moment when he misses Em the hardest. It isn't perfect. It's recreated noir so faithfully that the Innocent Girl dies, the Femme Fatale uses intimacy as a weapon, and none of the women ever appear in a scene together. 1940's gender politics maybe don't need to be revisited. They say be critical of the media you love, and it applies here most of all: it is a real criticism of something I love immensely.
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