My apologies for missing last week’s Cool Things. My kid got sick and then I wasn’t feeling well and I went to bed early and no words were written. I’m doubling up this week to make up for it. We are still in the midst of Noirvember and I found several classics and new (or neo, if you prefer) noir to watch and enjoy. Plus, a bunch of other stuff, so let's get to it.
With FilmStruck dying at month’s end, I’ve been trying to watch as many movies on there as I can. The thing I love about FilmStruck is that it has tons of classic films that I love but that it's also stocked with films I’ve never heard of but that are quite interesting. Time and time again, I’ll pick some random film and it turns out to be outstanding. Try that with Netflix or Amazon or any other streaming service and you’ll wind up with a screen full of crap.
Browsing through FilmStruck’s crime genres, I tumbled onto Mona Lisa, a neo-noir from Neil Jordan starring Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine. Hoskins plays George, a low-level gangster who just got out of prison and figures the boss (Michael Caine) owes him something for doing his bit and not sqwaking. Caine has him driving for a high-class prostitute named Simone (Cathy Tyson). The boss wants George to get Simone to tell him about one of her clients, but instead George falls in love. Simone asks George to help her find her friend who was last seen with a violent pimp. Into the dirty underground of prostitution, pornography, and drugs goes George.
Hoskins gives an Oscar-nominated performance (he lost to Paul Newman in The Color of Money) that is both ferocious and tender. Cathy Tyson is fantastic as well. A surprise film for me, but a good one.
The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers
I’ve been trying to go back and forth between classic noir and neo-noirs. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers falls directly into the classic territory. Made in 1946, it stars Barbara Stanwyck as Martha, a woman with a dark secret - when she was but thirteen years old, she murdered her domineering aunt but made it look like an accident. She was helped in this task by her tutor and the tutor’s son Walter, Jr. (Kirk Douglas in his film debut). When their childhood friend Sam (Van Heflin) returns to town, Martha and Walter (who are in a loveless, but powerful marriage) fear he will either tell the cops or blackmail them as they believe he witnessed the murder.
I won’t spoil it any further for one of the many joys of the film is letting the many twists unfold without knowing where it will go next. The cast gives great performances, including Lizabeth Scott in her second feature film who holds her own against heavyweight Stanwyck. It's filled with clever dialogue and the cinematography is dark, shadowy, and perfect.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor
Mr. Rogers is my hero. This is a man who essentially hated television but became an icon of the medium for multiple decades, by using it to teach kindness and empathy. He made a kids show that tirelessly fought against prejudice and hate. He showed millions of children that gentleness and love were more powerful than anything. As a documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor is pretty basic stuff. It covers most of Fred Rogers' life but never digs that deep or does anything all that interesting in terms of cinema. Unlike most documentaries of this sort, it never shows the dark side of the man its covering. That’s because Mr. Rogers didn’t have a dark side. He was the man you saw on the television screen. He got angry sometimes, and sad, but never treated anyone with malevolence. The most controversial thing the film uncovers is the time he blew up a picture of one of the show’s back stage workers mooning the camera. Yet what the film lacks in controversy and excitement, it more than makes up for in demonstrating that in these dark times we still need men and women like Mr. Rogers, fighting the good fight with kindness.
Freedomland by Richard Price
Richard Price writes crime stories that aren’t really crime stories. Oh, the law will be broken and cops will investigate, all of which are the engine upon which his novels move, but his books are about so much more. He writes movingly, realistically about life in the inner city. He tells stories of people often ignored in a manner that makes you live a moment in their shoes. In Freedomland, he tells the story of three people - a cop, a reporter and a lower-class white woman who is hiding something tragic, so that we get inside their skins, we understand who they are. When he’s good, he’s better than any crime writer still putting out books.
Freedomland isn’t his best. He gets a little too bogged down in the lives of these characters and forgets the story he’s telling. These are interesting people, but not 650 pages of interesting. I often find that I love the beginnings and endings of Price’s books, but that they sag a little in the middle under the weight of too much - too much story, too much character development, too many themes. Freedomland sagged in the middle and then again in the end. The crime is solved and then there is another 100 pages to go where he details the price of the crime on the city these people live in. It's just a little bit too much for this reader. But when it doesn’t sag, it's pretty golden.
Rest in Peace Stan Lee, William Goldman and Roy Clark
We lost three very different but vastly important artists these last few weeks. Stan Lee wasn’t the creator of Marvel Comics, but he helped create many of their most famous characters (Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and more) and became the face of the company as it became a multi-media, worldwide phenomenon.
William Goldman was a playwright, novelistm and screenwriter who penned such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (for which he won the Academy Award), Marathon Man (based upon his novel), All The President’s Men (for which he won the Academy Award), The Princess Bride (also based upon his novel), and many others. He was one of the handful of screenwriters who was also a household name.
Roy Clark was best known as the host of the popular syndicated variety show Hee Haw, but he was also an incredible musician, playing guitar, banjo, and fiddle in a variety of styles including country, bluegrass, classical, and pop. He was massively influential and a member of both the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
All three of these artists will be missed.
The Big Combo
I’m always ready to praise FilmStruck but Amazon has proven itself to be quite handy when it comes to classic film noir. A lot of old noirs have more or less been forgotten by everybody except classic film buffs and noir nerds so I imagine they are pretty cheap to get the rights to, especially if they haven’t been cleaned up and released as special editions on Blu-ray. Whatever the reason, if you are looking for them you can find some great noirs on Amazon.
The Big Combo was a low-budget crime movie that was never supposed to do anything but make a buck and disappear. Two things stopped it from doing so: its explicit (by 1955 standards) sex and violence and its exquisite photography.
There is one scene of torture in which the gangster puts a hearing aid into the hero’s ear and turns up a jazz drum solo so loud it makes him pass out. There’s another one in which the boss gangster starts kissing the femme fatale. He kisses her cheek, her neck, her arms, and then moves further down off screen. We see her look of disgust and then total pleasure. Again, not explicit by today’s standards but in 1955 even a hint of cunnilingus was more than enough to get the censors blood boiling. Both these scenes, and many more were shocking at the time, but so well shot and performed they have stood the test of time.
John Alton’s cinematography is the stuff that noir are made of - he create a world full of shadows, spotlights and horror that’s jus tragic to see.
One of the many fun things about becoming a film noir fan is the endless discussions of just exactly what makes a film a noir? Classic noirs are relatively easy to make out, especially since they fall within a limited time period, but there is still constant debate amongst those. Neo noirs are much more difficult to define. They rely on at least some of the hallmarks of classic noir, but not all of them and they are usually in color (though they do tend to use color in imaginative ways) and tend to be crime thrillers with dark themes, but again not always.
When I tweeted that I was watching The Hit, a crime thriller directed by Stephen Frears and starring Terrence Stamp, John Hurt, and Tim Roth, as part of Noirvember, I immediately got push back for it not being a noir. Set in sun-baked Spain, it was hard to argue the point. But it's still a darn good movie.
Stamp plays Willie Parker, a London gangster who squeals on the boss. Ten years pass and he’s hiding out in Spain living a pretty good life. Hurt plays a seasoned hitman with Roth playing his young protege out on a job for the first time. The Hit plays like a road movie with the three slowly driving towards Paris getting into adventures. This includes meeting Maggie (Laura del Sol), a prostitute who was living with a man who was shacking up in one of the gang’s hideouts unbeknownst to anyone. Stamp plays Parker as smooth as silk, as cool as a cucumber. He acts like he’s out on holiday and the hitmen are his guides. All the while, he spreads discord amongst them.
It has some of the tropes of noir including the violence, a woman who is sort of a femme fatale, and the darkness of the soul, but it's also toying with noir hallmarks by placing it in bright sunlight and making Parker into an upbeat, lively character. Whether you want to call it a noir or not, it is well worth seeing.
For Your Eyes Only
After the ridiculousness of Moonraker, they opted for a more serious tone with Roger Moore’s fifth outing as James Bond. Well, as serious as pre-Daniel Craig Bond films ever got anyways (this one still finds him punching out a squad of hockey players, fighting a man in a robotic suit at the bottom of the ocean, and getting into a ski chase with a motorcycle on a bobsled track). It relies less on crazy gadgets and silly sight-gags and ups the action and sex appeal.
The plot is pretty standard issue, convoluted Bond plot and there is no real need to go into it here. The exotic locales look beautiful, as do the women who, some of which actually manage of bit of agency and intelligence. The action is ridiculous but entertaining. Sir Roger Moore is an old hat at Bond by this point and plays his part admirably. It's not the best Bond but it is a lot of fun and that’s really all I need.
Touch of Evil
Everybody talks about the opening tracking shot of this Orson Welles film, and it is a stunner, but this watch I noticed a different scene, a different shot that was just as intriguing. The scene takes place in a bar. Welles plays Quinlin, the police chief of a small town on the U.S.-Mexico border. He’s the kind of cop that doesn’t mind taking short cuts or planting evidence, if it brings the right man to justice. He’s done just that in a car-bombing case much to the chagrin of a Mike Vargas, a straight-laced Mexican official played by Charlton Heston. Vargas has threatened to turn Quinlin in and ruin his reputation and career.
He’s in this bar meeting with a drug-running gangster who says he has a way to stop Vargas from blowing the whistle. Quinlin is a big man, both physically imposing and the guy who calls the shots in town. Welles often shoots him from below and close-up, making him larger than life and utterly imposing on the screen. In this bar, with everything on the line, Welles shoots him at a more level angle, pulled back a little. He’s still large, but just a little smaller than usual. Quinlin has to this point stated several times that he quit the drink some time ago. The gangster hands him a whiskey and Quinlin drinks it without thinking. He’s handed another and starts to state his usual line that he doesn’t drink then he looks down and realizes he just had a shot. The camera moves. It pulls up high. Suddenly, Quinlin is small. He’s about the same size as the gangster. We are now looking down at them both.
Welles doesn’t over emphasize this. You won’t notice it unless you are paying attention. I’ve seen it at least three times and this is the first time I’ve noticed this. It's a fairly simple camera move, but it's important. We never see Quinlin the same way again. By taking that drink, he’s lost, and the camera knows it. Welles never ceases to surprise me.
Toy Story 4
Toy Story 3 ended in such a perfect manner that there is a small part of me that is disappointed that they are making another one. But then I watch this teaser trailer and I’m nothing but excited. I love these characters so much I’ll keep watching their films until they stop making them.