Tuesday, October 6, 2009



Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Dir. Paul Schrader, 1985)

An appropriately florid attempt to capture onto film the essence of one of the 20th Century's most confounding artists, Yukio Mishima, who was, by turns, a great novelist in the tradition of Thomas Mann, a popular celebrity, a filmmaker, a libertine, a strident militarist, a self-styled samourai & a national joke. Such a wildly contradictory life, with so many confusing tangents, allow director Schrader (Cat People, American Gigolo, Hardcore, Auto Focus) a multitude of voices, both visually & narratively.

In 1972, before Schrader penned the script to Taxi Driver while living in the backseat of his car, he wrote a book called Trascendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, a seminal text suggesting that the films of the given directors, despite differences in locale & cultural landscape, aim to express, in a similar fashion, that which lies beyond human experience or comprehension. A famous quote from the book says that films "cannot inform one of the Transcendent, they can only be expressive of the Transcendent." While this expressive impotence could easily explain why so many film students find the films of Ozu, Bresson & Dreyer deathly dull, it could easily be used to describe the pitfalls in telling a life as enigmatic as Mishima's. Swap out the word Transcendent for Mishima in the quote & you'll see what Schrader was up against. Mishima is, perhaps, his most Transcendental film, and not just because he gets a chance to imitate the styles of his favorite directors, especially Ozu, whose influence is deeply felt in the stark black & white sequences of the author's childhood.

Between the writer's odd, secluded childhood & his black-comic ritual suicide in the offices of the Eastern Command in Tokyo (which bookend the various chapters of the film), we are treated to some of the most gorgeous, technicolor artifice since Douglas Sirk, scenes whose textures are so vivid as to demand a tactile response & performances (most importantly that of the brilliant Ken Ogata, as the older Mishima) that engage while only deepending the mysteries of Mishima's crowded life. Mishima is most certainly Paul Schrader's crown jewel as a director (Blue Collar running a close second), and it's a landmark of biographical cinema, a way of intimating instead of telling that will one day, hopefully, allow for a film treatment of the life of Celine. Most highly recommended.


The Night Stalker (Dir. Max Kleven, 1987)

Great Z-Movie hard-ass Charles Napier (Ed. Note: Too much crap for a parenthetical overview) stars as sweaty, alcoholic detective J. J. Striker (is that an, um, Dickensian name?) who, while protecting a whole gaggle (murder?) of prostitutes with hearts of cotton candy, becomes a big sweaty alcoholic juggernaut to track down a whore-killer who, for some reason, is impervious to bullets. It may have something to do with the very weird, phased-out, Alvin Chipmunk voodoo chants that fill his (and, by extension, our...) head when he's about to kill, kill, kill. Watching Napier drink in this film actually made me want to stop drinking altogether. Thankfully the flick was only 93 minutes long. Dodged a bullet on that one.

Classe Tous Risques (Dir. Claude Sautet, 1960)

Director Claude Sautet was primarily known for a series of launguidly paced, pellucidly lensed melodramas & equally drowsy comedies (usually starring the great Romy Schneider) virtually unseen by American audiences wedged as they were between the monumental works of Jean Renoir & Jean-Pierre Melville & the revolutionary cinema of the nouvelle vague. His clean, somewhat melancholy style, while always cerebral & artistic, didn't call much attention to itself in the clamorous rarefied air of post-war French film culture. Classe Tous Risques (The Big Risk) is the closest the director came to making a genre film and, for the most part, it breaks all the rules of the gangster noir. Most aberrent is the cool black & white cinematography of Ghislain Cloquet, whose aversion to closed, artificial spaces quite suavely undercuts the genre's predilection for shadowy, claustrophobic spaces.

French B-Movie staple Lino Ventura stars as Abel Davos, a gangster on the lam in Italy with his wife & two sons. In order to return to France, Davos & crony Raymond pull a gutsy, almost playful broad-daylight payroll heist & high-tail it home by boat. Upon reaching shore in the wee hours, Raymond & Davos' wife are killed by the police & the gangster must throw himself on the mercy of old comrades who owe him a great deal but find this debt tedious, to say the least. The scene-stealing actor who plays Raymond, Stan Krol, is a mystery. According to IMDB he only appeared in three films but he has all the presence & hulking charm of the young Lee Marvin. As far as I can tell, through some admittedly cursory internet research, little to nothing is known about Krol, but it's easy -- if you're unfamiliar with the film's more famous actors -- to assume at the film's outset that Krol is going to be the leading man.

Though Davos' underworld contacts have become banal bureaucrats (a common theme in late period crime films, coming to a glorious head in John Boorman's Point Blank, Don Siegel's The Killers & Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia!), they do manage to connect him with one of Raymond's old friends, Eric Stark (Jean Paul Belmondo, who made Godard's Breathless the same year). The film keeps coming to life around its peripheral characters. It's not that Lino Ventura lacks charisma. In fact, he balances the melancholy of a recent widower with a master criminal's ruthless cunning effortlessly. Still, Classe Tous Risques is always haunted by the death of Raymond & takes delirious flight when Belmondo is onscreen. The uncomplicated friendship between Stark & Davos serves as a beautiful counterpoint to the shadier environs of the Parisian mob. Raymond & Stark are represented by open fields, open windows, open waters, but his relationship with the other kingpins is all cramped rooms & low ceilings.

Sautet's film is a strange one. It keeps becoming different types of movies as it progresses (love story, light comedy, provincial soap opera), but it never grows tiresome or lags in tension & this odd meandering quality actually imbues the inexorable crime film ending with devastating gravity. An oddball classic & highly recommended. 

Inglorious Bastards (Dir. Enzo Castellari, 1978)

Critics have been frothing at the mouth about the re-release of this Italian war film on DVD, but it's a little underwhelming when it comes right down to it. Produced in 1978, a little late to cash-in on its obvious influences, The Dirty Dozen (1967) & Kelly's Heroes (1970), Inglorious Bastards is a favorite of Quentin Tarantino, who's remaking it as we speak, starring Brad Pitt, Simon Pegg & Eli Roth. While the movie's colorful, sometimes rousing & benefits from a decent budget, if you've seen a few irreverent war films of the late 60s & early 70s, there's nothing here that wasn't done much, much better in, say, The Dirty Dozen & Kelly's Heroes (you can throw in Where Eagles Dare & The Great Escape, if you need more evidence). 
Most of Inglorious Bastards' gags are nimble as lead, the characterizations are mostly impoverished borrowings from other films (especially Nick, the anachronistic hippie thief obviously modeled on Donald Sutherland's Sgt. Oddball in Kelly's Heroes) & the action set-pieces in the first 45 minutes are about as kinetic as action sequences from 1970s TV shows. These shortfalls are somewhat mitigated by likable performances from Fred Williamson (MASH, Black Caesar) & Bo Svenson (Walking Tall, Part 2 & Kill Bill, Vol. 2), a bucolic lake filled with naked, machine-gun toting bathing beauties, a weird B-Movie performance by Peter Hooten (coming off, for all the world, like a flaming homosexual, but voicing lines you'd expect from Telly Savalas), some cool slow-motion Peckinpah-style shootouts & a batshit crazy train crash in the final quarter & Bo Svenson disarming a V2 rocket with a pencil. 

As for the plot itself -- bound for prison, unorthodox renegade soldiers escape from custody & somehow wind up winning WWII for the allies -- the intrigue pretty much boils down to one line, uttered by Svenson: "Nick, Tony, Berle...Dress up like Germans & let's get out of here!" So the trick to viewing Inglorious Bastards? Stick with it, or liberally implement your Fast Forward device. 


The Perfume of Yvonne (D: Patrice Leconte, 1994)

Leconte's (Monsieur Hire, Girl on the Bridge) The Perfume of Yvonne is a tingling erotic homage to the best work of Tinto Brass, Jesus Franco & Radley Metzger, a sumptuous period piece that dabbles in politics, literature & art, but revels deliriously in desire. It's intellectual pornography (ala Georges Bataille or Alberto Moravia) of the first order...
Filmed in a mixture of the pellucid, sun-drenched style of 60s Italian & French cinerotica & the dark - almost noir - style of Italian gialli, Leconte's film delights in fetishistic surfaces, in starched white shirts, in blowing flags, drapes & sun dresses, in the rumpled tailored suits & scarves of European expatriates & the mottled brown leather of well-traveled suitcases. It's so vivid you can almost smell the blend of opium & sea brine. A lush orchestral score cries out for Edda Dell'Orso's wordless vocals, but shimmers gorgeously without it as well.

The story is relatively simple, though spiced with exotic mysteries that are - wisely I think - never quite resolved. Victor, a young Russian count adrift in Europe in 1958, living off of the intermittent sale of rarities from his family's renowned butterfly collection (shades of Nabokov), crosses paths with a cryptically beautiful actress named Yvonne & her elderly, flamboyantly gay, traveling companion, Dr. Meinthe. Jean-pierre Marielle, a veteran of 60s & early 70s sexploitation/giallo, shines here as the world-weary doctor who drinks his port wine with a straw, sports a Karl May fez & shouts to all within earshot that he's "The Queen of Belgium." Meinthe is equal parts George Sanders, Peter Lorre & William Burroughs, the sort of man who finds conscience distasteful, but is consumed by it nonetheless. Victor & Yvonne are soon in the grip of sexual obsession & while more heady themes of exile, film history & the onset of the Algerian conflict may fleck their bubble of mutual need, sex is the star here & it's most likely the copious nudity & enraptured love-making you'll remember about the film. Well, that & the not-so-good doctor.

This is pornography for people who like to read Marguerite Duras or Andre Gide aloud to one another before & after they screw.

The Killing Kind (Dir. Curtis Harrington, 1973)

Curtis Harrington is one of the great unsung Hollywood directors, notable for bringing underground & experimental inclinations (he worked with both Kenneth Anger & Maya Deren) to off-beat, low-budget drive-in fare such as Night Tide (a cult classic from 1961 starring Dennis Hopper), Games (a lost classic from 1967), How Awful About Allen (1970), What’s the Matter with Helen?, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo (both from 1971) & this sick tale of psycho-sexual perversion, starring Ann Sothern (TV’s My Mother the Car, Joseph Mankiewicz’s Letter to Three Wives, 1949), John Savage (1978’s The Deer Hunter, 1979’s Hair), Luana Anders (Night Tide, The Trip, Easy Rider), Ruth Roman (The Baby, Go Ask Alice) & an impossibly young Cindy Williams (Laverne & Shirley). Savage plays a very troubled young man with a deeply unhealthy mother complex who returns home after serving time for his negligible part in a gang rape. Between poolside glasses of chocolate milk delivered fawningly by his mother, Savage seeks revenge on his lawyer & the girl who framed him. Prison has also left our mama’s boy with some unhealthy sexual proclivities which he proceeds to inflict on the young women of Los Angeles, including his mother’s boarder, Cindy Williams, who actually finds the obviously deranged young man kinda cute. As with all Harrington films, there’s Hollywood gothic to spare in The Killing Kind, a tough, grim humor embedded in every twisted scene. Highly recommended.

The Velvet Vampire (Dir. Stephanie Rothman, 1971)

As bluesman Johnny Shines (in a great, atmospheric, uncredited cameo) plays some deep hoodoo in the shadows at a gallery opening in Los Angeles, a young couple meet & befriend a mysterious woman named Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall, excellent here) who invites them to spend a weekend at her house in the middle of the desert. Once there, both are plagued – well, perhaps “plagued” is the wrong word – with nightmares & feverishly erotic dreams involving their hostess. There are great touches of Manson-family paranoia folded chaotically into the otherwise fairly straightforward vampire tale & the desert locales add some eerie new ingredients to familiar grue. Director Rothman was one of the few women helming films in the Corman New World stable & she acquits herself beautifully here, in the previous year’s Student Nurses & in 1977’s directorial “pairing” with Curtis Harrington, Ruby. Recommended.

Play Dirty (Andre De Toth, 1968)

A late-period masterpiece from 50s genre director Andre De Toth, Play Dirty is an overlooked classic. De Toth, who helmed some of the great B-Westerns of the 50s & 60s, as well as a fine horror film (House of Wax) & a couple of inventive film noirs, re-emerged firing on every cylinder in 1968 for this ultimately downbeat, absurdist British war film. There are moments that prefigure Peckinpah (brutal violence & a scene where villagers watch a scorpion battle a bonfire), some reverential nods to John Ford (The Searchers & She Wore a Yellow Ribbon are referenced lovingly) & an utterly sophisticated manner of indulging Vietnam-era malaise while still making a riveting WWII action film. In fact, Play Dirty renders the anachronistic subcultural smirk of Kelly's Heroes (which I also love) seem patently juvenile & makes the anti-hero antics of The Dirty Dozen
seem polite & naively patriotic. More miraculous, De Toth captures the ennui without the tone of the film ever becoming self-righteously grim.

Set during WWII in North Africa, Play Dirty manages to include characters straight out of Paul Bowles' Tangiers stories -- two kief-addicted flaming homosexuals, cynical poppy-runner expatriates & a raft of other intelligent but lost souls who -- because they know the desert & have few qualms about the distinction between murder & warfare -- get caught up in the British campaign against the Nazis to avoid long prison sentences. Although Michael Caine is the ostensible star of the movie, it's Nigel Davenport (A Man For All Seasons, Look Back in Anger, Peeping Tom) who runs the military operation -- an epic, mordantly exotic trek across the desert to blow up a Nazi fuel hub. Michael Caine plays their Captain superior but we're almost an hour into this remarkable film before we see him as anything but an unwary prig, a chess--playing martinet not unlike Henry Fonda in John Ford's Fort Apache. Mostly unobtrusive, but often wildly expressionistic photography -- think the zoom-happy renegade verite chic of Altman films melded with the colorful artifice of early Nicholas Ray or Robert Aldrich -- from another revivified old-timer, Edward Scaife, turns the jeep ride across North Africa from surreal to infernal to hallucinatory without so much as one ragged seam. The scene where the outfit (only Caine is an actual British soldier) finally confronts the sandstorm-swept Potemkin's Village they've been sent out to destroy is equal parts Wizard of Oz & Samuel Beckett, a truly inspired set-piece unrivaled by any war movie this side of Douglas Sirk's Erich Maria Remarque adaptation A Time to Live & A Time to Die. There's even an ubiquitous late 60s rape scene that begins as unpleasantly as any 42nd Street Grindhouse roughie & then about-faces brilliantly into light humor.

This is highly recommended. One wonders why Quentin Tarantino would want to have a go at a piece of really sketchy cheese like Inglorious Bastards when this brutal, funny & often amoral war movie remains vastly unseen.

Crime Wave/Decoy (Dir. Andre De Toth, 1954/Jack Bernard, 1946)

Part of Warner Home Video’s Film Noir Double Feature series, this volume is the best of the bunch. It’s hard to believe Andre De Toth’s Crime Wave isn’t mentioned in the same breath as John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle, Joseph Lewis’ The Big Combo or Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat. What it lacks in intricacy & scope, it more than makes up for with a brutal linearity, startling Los Angeles location photography, and no-nonsense hardboiled performances from Sterling Hayden, Charles Bronson (then Charles Bunchinski), Dub Taylor, Jay Novello (amazing here as the bent, but dapper, Dr. Otto Hessler), Timothy Carey (performing, as usual, according to his own strange muse), and Gene Nelson, who’s better known for hoofing through frothy musicals than for this sort of hard-bitten anti-hero. Nelson plays an ex-con gone straight who’s caught between intractable cop Hayden & a band of escaped prison acquaintances engaged in the titular crime wave. Still, the best thing about this DVD is the commentary track by feral crime writer & L.A. historian James Ellroy. If there’s the shot of an alley in Crime Wave, he takes you down it & tells you which dumpster a real-life gangster moll’s corpse was found behind in 1950. Amazing. 

On the same disc is Decoy, a lesser gem that suffers from too much plot & too little money to make it tick & some pretty creaky performances by a cast of relative unknowns. On the plus side, there are some spooky German Expressionist touches throughout that make it worthwhile viewing. 

Crime Wave: Highly Recommended/Decoy: Recommended.

House of Games (David Mamet, 1987)

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet’s first film consolidates most of the motifs & most of the cast, for that matter, that he would continue to use in his next 10 or so pictures. Then-wife Lindsay Crouse stars as a renowned psychologist who approaches gambler Joe Mantegna in order to get one of her patients released from a gambling debt. But, as in all great Mamet plays/movies (Glengarry Glen Ross, The Spanish Prisoner, Things Change, Spartan), nothing is as it seems & the psychologist/author is lured into a world of elaborate artifice concocted by a genius con men (including the late, great J. T. Walsh & Mamet regular, magician Ricky Jay) who use her intellectual fascination against her. It’s an inventive, truly original directorial debut, filmed in a smudgy ashcan style (splendidly revived by this Criterion re-issue), and given strict momentum by the dangerous crossfire of all that rhythmic, elliptical Mamet dialogue. Recommended. 

Star Knight (Dir. Fernando Colomo, 1985)

I’m not sure this shoddy Italian production really needed to find its way from whatever vault junk like this hides in, but if you’re looking for a strange, light-hearted (though never intentionally funny), rapturously ill-conceived, no-budget cross between John Boorman’s Excalibur, Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky & Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this might wet your whistle. Benevolent court alchemist Klaus Kinski attempts to conjure a supernatural being to help him turn lead to gold & somehow conjures a spaceship instead. The vassals and serfs think the spaceship is a dragon because it sucks goats into the sky, flies through the night sky lit up like a disco ball & makes the swamp water roil. In order to win the heart of the princess, an incompetent knight played by – ready? – Harvey Keitel, sets out to kill the dragon/spaceship. 

Unfortunately, the princess has already fallen in love with the lone alien inside, a sad, anemic cross between David Bowie in Man Who Fell to Earth and Vanilla Ice, who speaks in ringtones & collects the spirits of pets from other worlds. 

For me, it was worth it to hear Keitel utter lines such as (and I’ve transcribed these verbatim) “Sire, surely thou cans’t not doubt my forceful courage – a hundred trials have I fought forsooth & triumphed over each one,” “Happy beats my heart when thou do I see,” & “Come out, ye dastardly poltroon! Art thou a man or a field mouse?”

THE ARRANGEMENT (Dir. Elia Kazan, 1969)

Half-John Cheever/Half-Jackie Susann, The Arrangement jumps off the starting blocks as one of the great screeds against the Organization Man, the button-down miracle-worker who haunts post-war Madison Avenue & Cape Cod, torn between Hemingway & Doyle, Dane, Bernbach. Kirk Douglas plays a second-generation Greek American who sells out his literary dreams to hawk cigarettes for a big advertising agency. He treats his matronly wife (a terribly wasted Deborah Kerr) like excess baggage, falls for his troubled young mistress (an altogether confusing Faye Dunaway) and goes completely haywire trying to live the American Dream. Unfortunately, by mid-film, The Arrangement loses all its sexy pop-art zip & degenerates into broad comedy, maudlin ethnicity, hysteria-pitched performances, and the kind of jarring, smash-mouth camera technique that make you long for the days when a jump-cut was a technical embarrassment. Frank Perry’s terse & bracing The Swimmer says as much in half the time. 

Bunny Lake is Missing (Dir. Otto Preminger, 1965)

A very creepy cross between Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and the Jodie Foster vehicle, Flightplan, Otto Preminger pulls out all the stops in this tale of a mother (Carol Lynley) and her troubled brother (Keir Dullea) searching London for Lynley’s missing daughter (the titular Bunny), who may or not have existed at all. We get great bit parts from Noel Coward (spouting De Sade like he knew the man), Laurence Olivier, Anne Massey & rock group, The Zombies. We get all manner of jokey clues as to the twisted psychology at play – a cuckoo clock chiming at opportune moments, a very eerie doll factory, a rocking horse. We get subtle hints of incest, plot revelations that will leave your mouth agape, and sinister atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Denys Coop & composer Paul Glass, who contributes a strikingly minimalist jazz score. This is this week’s Lost Classic from the ‘60s #1.

Cameraman’s Revenge & Other Fantastic Tales: The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912)/The Insects’ Christmas (1913)/Frogland (1922)/Voice of the Nightingale (1923)/The Mascot (1933)/Winter Carousel (1958) (Dir. Ladislaw Starewicz)

These sepia-delic films by the Russian pioneer of stop-motion animation still have the powerful ability to shrink you down to insect size and set your imagination loose in a glittering, nostalgic diorama. Like the work of Brothers Quay, Rankin-Bass & Art Clokey, there’s something about these films that enter the subconscious mind without being intercepted by reason, wit, or ego. Although it certainly seems oxymoronic, these shorts have a primal delicacy, and these anthropomorphized frogs, insects, bears, rabbits, Christmas ornaments, toys and demonic vegetables exist not as if in a dream, but as the dream itself. Rent these, take a couple of Vicodin, and see where the night takes you…


Desperate Teenage Love Dolls (Dave Markey, 1984)

Coming on like a good-natured Nick Zedd, Dave Markey & the boys from Redd Kross dive headfirst into this primal punk rock take on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls & defy you not to join the party. Despite zero production values and completely unhinged performances by unapologetic non-actors, Desperate Teenage Love Dolls gets by on rock’n’roll spirit alone. An underground classic that won’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

Lilith (Dir. Robert Rossen, 1964)

Lost Classic of the 1960s, No. 2. An unstable Korean War vet (Warren Beatty) returns to his hometown and procures a position at the local mental hospital where he meets and falls for the sexually omnivorous Lilith (Jean Seberg, luminescent and perfectly acting the fine line between naivete & feral carnality). It’s perfectly scripted, filmed immaculately in watery black & white, contains unforgettable performances by Beatty, Seberg, Peter Fonda, Gene Hackman (his eye-opening film debut), Kim Hunter, and Jessica Walter (the mother on Arrested Development), and makes you about as sexually uncomfortable as an American film could make you in 1964.

BAND OF ANGELS (Dir. Raoul Walsh, 1957)

If you long to see Gone With The Wind seedily groped by the grindhouse pleasures of Mandingo, here’s your chance. The sweaty subtleties of deep south literature almost invariably made it to the screen with one silk bra strap down the left shoulder and a leering old man (Burl Ives or Orson Welles -- your pick…) sipping juleps on the big veranda. In other words, unrecognizable as literature; wildly marketable as cypress sleaze.

Based on a sod-busting Robert Penn Warren novel (see Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men, 1949), this film boasts a voodoo-sexy performance by the late, great Yvonne DeCarlo (Lily Munster, for the uninitiated), and a star-making turn from Sidney Poitier that nearly preserves the novel’s hot-headed social consciousness.

CAPRICE (Dir. Frank Tashlin, 1967)

Hmm. I always feel like Frank Tashlin -- who gave us Porky Pig, Jayne Mansfield, Jerry Lewis and Tony Randall – directed films the way some people flounce scarves over bedside lamps and forget about the naked girl waiting anxiously under the covers. Like Roger Vadim, maybe. Caprice is particularly excruciating, because Doris Day is past her prime and Richard Harris would, quite obviously, rather be drinking with Peter O’Toole. Tashlin barely notices. To him, she’s Jayne Mansfield, or a meatier Suzanne Pleshette with wattles. He’s Cary Grant. Could we be happier?

And she’ll look fine in this mired-in-its-own-production-design thriller. When she gasps into a leather glove, it’s like she’s gasping into a floating French cuff. She may as well be Sandy Duncan. There was never a script, never an idea…just characters forced to walk through beautiful designs in outrageously-technicolored hats and gowns. If that’s where you hang your pill-box monkey usher hat, this is the re-issue for you.

LOOKER (Michael Crichton, 1981)

This marks the tail-end of Hollywood studios marketing paranoid, satirical thrillers (Winter Kills, Capricorn One, Stepford Wives, Three Days of the Condor, etc.) as irony-free action fare, and they didn’t expect these hijinx from a cash-machine like Crichton. While Looker is nowhere near as subtle as the aforementioned films, it still walks that giddy borderline between dark social satire and the science fiction menace Crichton had all-but perfected in Coma, Terminal Man, Westworld, and Andromeda Strain.

Looker is a confusing mess in any form. No amount of commentary or additional footage will turn this into the David Cronenberg film it so desperately longs to be. After performing suspect plastic surgery on two supermodels, surgeon Albert Finney is accused of murdering the both of them, and must take it on the lam with friend and model, Susan Dey (post-Partridge/pre-L.A. Law). Most of the once-troubling ideas in this film now seem quaint – the corporate homogenization of beauty, the plasticity of computer images, etc. Looker still has those ‘70s jitters, though -- oddball pacing, a truly disquieting car chase, and more than its share of puzzling, ragged edges that separate it entirely from the clean, precise speculative cinema to come. 

After Dark, My Sweet (Dir. James Foley, 1990)

The Jim Thompson novel on which this is based has one conceit I wasn’t sure if a movie version could pull off. A rogue’s gallery of observant characters who encounters “Kid” Collins, a punch-drunk ex-fighter, in the first part of the book notice immediately that he’s off-kilter, and often ask him outright how long he’d been in a mental hospital. Still, Collins has to be charming & handsome enough to be the hard-boiled protagonist. Jason Patric (Narc, Rush) pull it off, though, by turning his head to the side just so when he doesn’t understand the gist of the schemes going on around him, as if waiting (Anticipating? Longing?) for the 2 X 4 of bad luck to swing around once more & catch him in the jaw. And here his eyes reveal a capacity for masochism that, while utterly pathological, give him a distinct one-up on the dapper, eloquent kidnapper, Bruce Dern, and his lovely moll, Rachel Ward. Though they think they have Collins stringing along like a dancing bear, they have no idea what he’s capable of once he gets his thick head around said gist. This ranks – along with Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972), Stephen Frears’ The Grifters (also 1990), Maggie Greenwald’s The Kill-Off (1989) & Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup De Torchon (1981) – among the best of the Jim Thompson adaptations. It seethes with his brutally perverse narrative momentum, flexing dialogue & decidedly un-telegraphed violence. Recommended as hell.

Heavy Petting (Dir. Obie Benz, 1989)

Heavy Petting is a first class cultish, hipster peep show, featuring all manner of entertaining clips from ‘50s classroom sex & hygiene films, blue movie ephemera, and quaint, coy bits from old television shows, all strung together by revealing interviews with oh-so-hip beatniks (Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs), performance artists (Laurie Anderson), underground rock icons (David Byrne, Ann Magnuson) & fringe celebrities (Zoe Lund, Spalding Gray, Sandra Bernhard, Josh Mostel). This Who’s Who of “Who’s that?” talk with varying degrees of chronic glibness about their first sexual experiences and all of them are first-rate storytellers of the Downtown NYC art scene variety, peppering their anecdotes with just enough superiority to make sure you know the difference between their sex and, um, your sex. Most entertaining: Allen Ginsberg talking in flowery exclamation points about his love affair with Bill Burroughs, while Burroughs leans on his cane, rolls his eyes & hrrumphs like Mark Twain’s reanimated mummy.

Obsession (Dir. Brian De Palma, 1976)

A dull, tame, soft-filtered shrugging off of Vertigo & Rebecca by the undisputed master of adding ragged exploitation film sleaze & gore to Hitchcock’s perverse mathematical film-puzzles. If you’re looking for another lurid Body Double, Sisters, Blow Out, or Dressed to Kill, forget it. Despite the eyebrow-raising, but laughable, “surprise” ending, this is not only Hitchcock lite, but De Palma lite, and offers zero titillation & none of the cool De Palma set pieces that normally salvage even his most egregious projects. For God’s sake, he doesn’t even let the reliably hammy John Lithgow cut loose for our amusement. So dull even incest can’t save it.

Radio On (Dir. Christopher Petit, 1980)

This snail’s pace British road movie co-produced by Wim Wenders & lensed by Wenders regular Martin Schafer, has visual style to spare, but you may not want to watch it without a pot of coffee on hand. A London DJ drives to Bristol to investigate his brother’s suicide, finds more ennui along the road (despite a jarringly friendly interlude with fellow Eddie Cochran fan, Sting, at a gas station) & eventually treks back home. The black & white cinematography outright shimmers, as if the world were made of chrome & the beautiful soundtrack, from Kraftwerk, Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury, David Bowie, Lene Lovich, and others, floats in and out like radio transmissions from another world. It really is a gorgeous film, but it’s also slooooow going.

Silent Partner (Dir. Daryl Duke, 1978)

Elliot Gould plays a grossly underestimated shopping mall bank teller who finds a “practice” hold-up note on a bank receipt & begins playing a very dangerous cat-and-mouse game with sicko bank robber Christopher Plummer. Gould is perfect as the crafty schlub who begins to appear more attractive to everyone around him (fellow bank clerks Susannah York, John Candy, and bombshell Gail Dahms, as well as Plummer’s lady friend Celine Lomez) as the game progresses. Just when you start fearing the whole affair will surrender to antic playfulness, Plummer will beat a girl to death in a sauna or decapitate another using a shattered fish tank. The movie’s kind of a mess and we begin to wonder a little too soon whether career criminal Plummer is really any kind of match for Gould at all, but scene-for-scene it’s wildly entertaining and, best of all, unique in its shrewd approach to crafting characters & ability to shift tones on a dime without losing crucial momentum.

Steelyard Blues (Dir. Alan Myerson, 1973)

Despite a great cast of late-‘60s/early-‘70s stalwarts – Donald Sutherland, Peter Boyle, Howard Hesseman, Jane Fonda, and John Savage – it doesn’t take long for this shaggy dog tale to succumb to terminal whimsy. Oddballs, led by ex-con Sutherland, try to rebuild a scuttled twin-engine flying boat to escape responsibility, gainful employment, and THE MAN, here personified by Sutherland’s police captain brother, Howard Hesseman. The movie tries for a melancholy sort of madcap, but never once puts enough on the line for us to care about any of the people involved, and the vile sunshiny pop from Paul Butterfield, Maria Muldaur & Nick Gravenites? The less said about that, the better. It’s probably a bad sign in one of the movie’s first scenes when Sutherland has to revive his Hawkeye whistle from Altman’s M*A*S*H to get a laugh.

Billy Budd (Dir. Peter Ustinov, 1962)

Splendid adaptation of Herman Melville’s tale of a merchant seaman (Terence Stamp) impressed into service on a British naval vessel & accidentally killing a sadistic master-at-arms (Robert Ryan). The court martial proceedings are beautifully rendered & highly combustible, raising all of Melville’s philosophical concerns about good & evil without sacrificing narrative tension.

Cinderella Liberty (Dir. Mark Rydell, 1973)

Navy man James Caan, docked in Seattle for the night, wins hooker Marsha Mason in a pool game, and proceeds to fall in love with her, despite small drawbacks like her 10-year old mulatto son and, um, her job. Great, grainy atmosphere and a bang-up supporting cast (Eli Wallach, Sally Kirkland, Burt Young, Dabney Coleman…) make up for the usual strained performance from Mason, who always looks like she’s on the verge of spraining something. 

Cisco Pike (Dir. Bill L. Norton, 1972)

Just released from prison on drug charges, has-been rock singer Kris Kristofferson’s plans to go straight are seriously impeded by crooked narcotics officer, Gene Hackman, who blackmails him into selling $10,000 worth of stolen pot. Hackman’s slimy & sly as a swamp in June, Kristofferson plays lost honor with his usual clenched jaw and hundred-yard squint, Karen Black has the requisite world-weary sensuality, and Harry Dean Stanton, Joy Bang, and Doug Sahm give that fine 70s downbeat some crucial hangdog atmosphere. Recommended.

John & Mary (Dir. Peter Yates, 1969)

A one-night stand between a furniture designer (Dustin Hoffman) and an art gallery assistant (Mia Farrow) leads to much well-intentioned introspection (always so good on film) over the nature of love and attraction. Peter Yates gets fine, subtle performances from the two leads and the upscale NYC locations have the same reliably distancing effect they have in Mike Nichols’ Closer. It’s talky and slow-going at times, but gritty and real enough that you want to stay with it.

The Manitou (Dir. William Girdler, 1978)

Susan Strasberg (Psych-Out) has the fetus of a 400-year old Native American demon growing on her back. Doctors are flummoxed and so is her ex-boyfriend, phony psychic Tony Curtis. Only new-fangled medicine man, Michael Ansara (Day of the Animals, Dear Dead Delilah), can help. Completely enjoyable trash from the always enjoyably trashy Girdler (Grizzly, Asylum of Satan, Abby).



  1. Your comment about Burroughs in his two shot with Ginsberg is sooooo on funny and on target: "...Mark Twain's reanimated mummy". Excellent! Burroughs was a tough interview, really less than communicative, ascerbic, etc. But the wry clarity was all there.... Obie

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