2010s, British cinema, Film Noir

Brighton Rock (2010)

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Director: Rowan Joffe

By Roderick Heath

Perhaps Graham Greene’s best-known novel, 1938’s Brighton Rock, was filmed first in 1947 by John Boulting and proved a foundation stone for the British strand of film noir. Greene’s survival and ascension to become one of the most recognised and admired writers from his era says something about the durability of Greene’s no-nonsense prose and capacity to blend serious thematic and psychological investigation with solid storytelling. Perhaps Greene’s durability depends in part on the fact that he knew the cinema well and understood its likely impact on audiences for literature as well, sensing intuitively how the two arts would eventually help define each other. Boulting’s film hinged on the capacity of young star Richard Attenborough to project baby-faced menace and oily charm in equal measure. The new version of Brighton Rock seems much more a work laden with a self-conscious sense of legacies—of Greene, of British and classic film noir history, and of director Rowan Joffe, the son of ill-fated faux-auteur Roland Joffe. Joffe the younger makes his feature directing debut with the film after two telemovies and some strong screenwriting work, like his admirably curt script for Anton Corbijn’s The American (2010). Joffe’s script retains the storyline and moral permeations of Greene’s novel, but his cinematic tone is rather different to the sort of dry, unadorned compactness Greene specialised in.

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Sam Riley, the young star of Corbijn’s overrated but sturdy Control (2009), takes over Attenborough’s role as Pinkie Brown, young psychopath and emblem of troubled youth and Catholic angst. Joffe’s adaptation is reset in 1964, the year of the infamous Mod-Rocker riot previously depicted in Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (1979). Pinkie is the sort of youth who keeps a drawer full of weapons of pain and carries a vial of acid in his pocket. Initially, he’s an minor stand-over man for a bookie, Bell (Danny Banks), who is semi-accidentally stabbed to death in the opening scene by rival hoods led by Colleoni (Andy Serkis). That opening is shot in boldly expressionistic style by Joffe, with rain, abstracted architecture, silhouettes, and pooled source lighting, and punctuated with blasts of menacing Inception-style horns that suggest things of great and terrible import are about to occur. Here Joffe announces his seeming intent to return a bit of old-school cinematic vigour to the contemporary screen.

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Bell’s small crew, including the aging, vexed Spicer (Phil Davis) and hulking Dallow (Nonso Anozie), plan moderated revenge upon Bell’s killer, Hale (Sean Harris). Pinkie finds Hale in a public toilet, but his hesitation allows Hale to fake him out and then disarm him. Pinkie and the rest of the crew track him to Brighton Pier, where he is chasing girls and trying to pick up mousy Rose Wilson (Andrea Riseborough). When Spicer finds him, he, Hale, and Rose are snapped by a pier photographer, who gives Rose a ticket to claim the picture later. When Pinkie chases down Hale and gets a cut on the face from his knife, Pinkie tackles him and beats his head in with a rock. Shocked, Spicer orders Pinkie to get close to Rose so he can steal the ticket to claim the photograph.

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Rose works as a waitress in the tea shop of Ida (Helen Mirren), a hardened, independent woman. A friend of Hale’s and of independent bookie Phil Corkery (John Hurt), Ida catches wind of Pinkie’s killing of Hale and sets out to nail him, especially when she learns of Rose’s swiftly forming infatuation for him. Rose is immediately compelled by Pinkie’s air of intensity and because he appeals to a budding masochistic streak in her: “You can keep doing that…if you like it,” she whispers as he fiercely twists the skin on her hand in a moment of pique. Rose quickly enough realises Pinkie’s outlaw status, but digs it: chafing against the dowdy parsimony of working-class life, she interestingly contrasts Ida, a woman with a wholehearted, yet unwholesome romanticism. The change in milieu then interestingly reconfigures the asocial impulses of Greene’s young characters from the ’30s, where they were violently out of place, into one in which they fit, if darkly—the ’60s youth movement. Pinkie and Rose contrast their older doubles, Spicer and Ida, whose dreams and expectations are small-scale self-realisation: Spicer wants to own a pub in the north, and Ida enjoys her no-strings coterie of “gentleman friends” that excludes the sort of transcendent ardour and emotional outlet the younger folk seek at all costs.

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It’s peculiarly telling then that Joffe’s version of Brighton Rock sees Rose rather than Pinkie become its most affecting character. That’s not entirely deliberate: both Joffe’s awkward script and Riley’s surprisingly one-note characterisation conspire to limit what ought to be Pinkie’s impact, considering that he was the prototypical version of Alex DeLarge, the main figure of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, as lightning rod for everything sexy and amoral about dangerous youth. Whilst he’s effective enough in early scenes as Pinkie begins to grow swiftly in sensing his power—legally endangered and religiously damned and yet psychically liberated by his killing of Hale—Riley spurns the vulnerable, quicksilver sensitivity he showed in his performance as Ian Curtis in Control, which might have effectively permeated this role. It becomes hard to see just why Rose falls so heavily for him: he’s just too much the knit-browed young psycho. The result eventually seems cartoonish in portraying pathetic neediness and masochistic impulse meeting a perfect illusion-spinning antihero.

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This lack of finesse is apparent on several levels in Brighton Rock as it quickly proves that Joffe has less an inherent sense of the classic film styles he tries to evoke, and more a serious case of that tragic malady known as The Director Thinks They’re Hitchcock Syndrome, a disease that strikes one out of ten young directors. Pointlessly florid crane and tracking shots, and hammy Herrmann-esque orchestral sounds threaten to drown the felicities of his better ideas. Joffe’s film school cinema embroiders but hardly suits the carbolic hiss of Greene’s writing, which was far better put across on screen by cold-blooded bastards like Carol Reed and Otto Preminger.

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Rather inevitably, but in a well-staged fashion, a riot features in a set-piece sequence. This comes when Pinkie decides to have Spicer killed after he rats him out to the police (the excellent actor Maurice Roëves appears for about 30 seconds as Pinkie’s grilling police detective). Having received and accepted an offer of partnership from Colleoni, a smoothed-over overlord ensconced in the Brighton Grand Hotel, Pinkie arranges to have Colleoni’s men kill Spicer under the pier. But the mods are streaming into town, and in Joffe’s best moment, Pinkie gives Spicer a lift to what he thinks will be a business meeting on his scooter and finds himself surrounded by a flotilla of such vehicles, menacing music droning as the oncoming tide of dark energy enfolds and briefly includes Pinkie’s life arc. But he swiftly finds himself outside it again as Colleoni’s boys try to kill him as well, and he finishes up fleeing stiletto-wielding thugs amidst a landscape of convulsive violence as the youth armies begin to battle. Such a moment nods to both Roddam and also the equally helter-skelter depiction of the collapse of Cambodia in papa Roland’s The Killing Fields (1984).

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The film introduces early on Pinkie’s strange version of Catholicism where Hell is much more vivid and literal to him than any notion of paradise, willing on perdition and the resulting sensation of gloriously evil he gains from this notion and which Rose is attracted to. “I don’t want to be good!” she shouts at Pinkie, to his retort, “No, I’m bad, and you’re good. We’re made for each other.” Sadly, Joffe underscores the point in a sequence in which they get married, with Pinkie cast in shadows and Rose aglow in a shaft of sun. An equally snigger-worthy interlude comes when Rose visits church and Joffe indulges the inevitable Catholic fetishism with massed candles. It’s like an early Madonna video.

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The incapacity of Joffe to get a solid grip on the deeper dimensions of the story, which are pretty old-hat at the best of times, and the way both Pinkie and Rose get off on their calculated blasphemies, mean that his film never successfully elevates itself above relatively factotum bad-boy melodrama. Brighton Rock offers the standard refrains of the British gangster flick in which the scary-sexy monster compels and alarms those around him but located in a quaint period setting. Those refrains were probably largely instituted by Greene’s work and its influence on Burgess’s, but with strands going back to Oliver Twist’s Bill Sykes and Nancy, and reproduced in quite a lot of British gangster films in recent years, including Sexy Beast, Essex Boys, and Gangster No. 1, all from 2000. Still, Joffe and Riseborough conspire to pull off one excellent moment late in the film, in which Rose succumbs to temptation and steals ₤10 to buy herself a hip dress, twirling with oblivious, pitiable pleasure before Pinkie, who’s furious at a visit from Ida and who is becoming convinced Rose will sell him out. Joffe also at least does right in his recreations of period squalor and depression, particularly in a scene in which Rose takes Pinkie to meet her father (Steve Evets), from whom he basically buys Rose for ₤150. This is the shitty world hidden behind the glitz of the Brighton waterfront and the castlelike Grand Hotel which keeps its toffy clients well protected from the grim grittiness of the street and which gives ambient context to the rage and frustration of the kids who aren’t alright.

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The usually reliable Serkis unfortunately delivers a sorry piece of archness in his appearances as Colleoni, seated upon a chaise lounge and petting its fabric with erotic menace. Mirren’s role and performance are both rather clichéd, indicating Joffe fell prey to the problems of celebrity casting. Joffe utilises a vicious couplet of sequences added by Greene to the script of the 1947 film, and recreates them almost exactly the way Boulting shot them. Rose, beaming with hopeful ignorance through the glass of a recording booth in which Pinkie, cajoled by her to put his voice on vinyl, records a gruesomely abusive message for her; she can’t listen to the message because neither of them has a record player. When Rose finally gets hold of a player at the end, after she’s been cast into a borstal for her complicity in Pinkie’s crimes, the disc skips and keeps repeating a part of the message, “I love you,” over and over. In the 1947 film, this was clearly linked to a rather cute but affecting piece of transcendental reassurance on the behalf of a nun; here the ramification is much less clear, suggesting that Rose is more a hopeless self-deluder and emotional junkie, and the very last shot seems weirdly inexact and hammy. The problem of Joffe’s constantly indebted style is finally sharpened to a point; his film comes across like a system of borrowed affectations and meanings without ever quite developing a personality of its own. By the time its rather overwrought finale rolls around, in which Pinkie expires rather fittingly with a face full of his own acid before plunging over a white cliff of Dover, Brighton Rock is already too clearly a failure in ambition, substance, and style. The better scenes, Riseborough’s and Hurt’s excellent performances, and John Mathieson’s lively photography, do suggest what a more mature cinematic talent might have managed.

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1950s, Blogathon, British cinema, Film Noir

Hell Drivers (1957)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Cy Endfield (as C. Raker Endfield)

By Roderick Heath

This post is part of For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon.

My second blogathon entry allows me to write all at once about British film noir, a favourite field for me and one that hasn’t had much attention so far, and about Cy Endfield, one of whose films we’re raising money to restore. Hell Drivers, a far too little-known, rip-roaring gem of a melodrama, is one of the best British films of the 1950s, all the more admirable these days for its galvanising mix of action and realism, and lack of pretension.

Pennsylvania-born Endfield was a magician and inventor who got into filmmaking after impressing Orson Welles with his sleight of hand and being allowed then to watch him make films. His directing career was gaining momentum when the McCarthy era intervened, and after making his last American film, Tarzan’s Savage Fury (1952), a final indignity, he took an offer of work in Britain. He made over a half-dozen films and did some TV work in his new homeland, usually under pseudonyms, in the four years after his arrival. Today, Endfield is chiefly remembered for his collaboration with Ray Harryhausen on Mysterious Island (1961) and his one epic, Zulu (1963), one of the few war films ever made that manages to celebrate courage and dedication without also celebrating militarism and nationalism. Endfield’s mixture of admiration and ambivalence for such qualities is a defining trait of his highly uneven career, which even after he’d reestablished his credibility as a director, continued to be buffeted by the problems of movie financing. His career finally petered out in the late ’60s with De Sade (1969).

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Hell Drivers kicked off his five collaborations with Welsh actor-producer Stanley Baker, a rare, bonafide movie star in 1950s British cinema who’s unfortunately not well remembered — look at how Zulu is promoted these days on DVD covers and in commentaries using not Baker but Michael Caine as the hook. But Baker, who had risen as a star playing scene-stealing louts and villains to become one of the first of a new breed of more explicitly rough-trade British movie star, put a lot of effort into fostering a strand of gritty, punchy, often socially relevant cinema. This made Endfield an ideal collaborator.

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1957 was something of a watershed year for British cinema after many uncertain years following World War II, with David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai winning notice for prestige cinema, and Hammer Studio’s breakthrough with The Curse of Frankenstein signaling potential for the more disreputable kind. Meanwhile Brit-noir, under the powerful influence of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949), had percolated through the late ’40s and ’50s, often in very-low-budget thrillers and sometimes edging into war movies, with distinct imagery and themes that developed simultaneously to the American variety. Endfield followed in the tracks of his predecessor Jules Dassin in cross-breeding the two strands. Whilst, like American noir, the British variety had been powerfully influenced by Expressionism and French poetic realism from before the war, it also borrowed the veracity of Humphrey Jennings and John Grierson, documenting the waning days of imperial trade and industry amongst grimy streets, depleted shipyards, bomb sites, lingering austerity, and crummy jobs. Heroes were often relentlessly hounded.

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One thing about Hell Drivers that catches the eye from a contemporary perspective is the number of future stars and cult figures in the cast: the first Doctor Who William Hartnell, the first James Bond Sean Connery, Danger Man and The Prisoner Patrick McGoohan, Man from U.N.C.L.E. costar David McCallum and his future wife Jill Ireland, Carry On alumnus Sid James, and Inspector Clouseau foil Herbert Lom. Hell Drivers also maintains a spiritual link to classic Warner Bros. social realism in the guise of punchy genre stuff, especially the likes of Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940) and Manpower (1941). Endfield’s film, adapted by him and John Kruse from Kruse’s short story, commences with defeated and desperate Tom Yately (Baker) looking for a job at Hawletts, a construction company that employs drivers to cart loads of ballast gravel from a nearby quarry. Tom meets the agent who hires and runs the drivers, Cartley (Hartnell), who’s explicitly contemptuous, but seems vaguely impressed by Tom’s grit when he suggests to him, “You’re looking for a sucker, aren’t you?” Cartley is willing to turn a blind eye to Tom’s lack of credentials and self-evident status as a recent jailbird, just as Tom is willing to play the company’s game of driving heavy loads at dangerous speeds along narrow, rough, rural English roads for the sake of unusually high pay. Yately moves into a boarding house run by “Ma” West (Marjorie Rhodes) and is initiated into the circle of Hawlett’s drivers who all live there, too.

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The drivers are mostly unruly roughnecks from various walks of the British working class, including Cockney wit Dusty (James), Tinker (Alfie Bass), a Scotsman (Gordon Jackson), Welshman Kates (Connery), and others. This collective is dominated by their pacesetter and foreman, “Red” Redman (McGoohan), a bristling, violent punk who keeps the team moving in the direction he wants with a mixture of physical bullying and showy, aggressively garrulous leadership. The only human amongst the drivers is Emmanuel Rossi (Lom), who, as an Italian, is stuck with the nickname Gino. A former prisoner of war who stuck around in England after the war, his essential decency is the chief reason he’s managed to snare the affections of Lucy (Peggy Cummins), Cartley’s denim-clad secretary who’s inevitably lusted after by all the boys. Once she slaps eyes on Tom, though, her affections transfer irrevocably, and Tom is equally attracted, but he maintains his distance as he becomes good friends with Gino. They form a partnership in an attempt to unseat Red as the pacesetter. There’s a reward in this effort: Red waves a cigarette case worth ₤250 in front of the crew’s noses each night, to be awarded to the man who can make more runs than Red, and Tom’s determined to be the man. With a chip on his shoulder after his prison stay, ostracised by his mother (Beatrice Varley), and hungry for self-respect, Tom wants both the cash and the glory. But he finds the odds against him lengthened when Red and the boys start a brawl at a social dance in the nearby town. Because Tom walks out on them, wishing to avoid trouble with the cops and disdaining that behaviour, Red labels him “Yellow-belly” and he faces relentless sabotage and insults from the team. This builds to a head when Gino convinces Tom to change truck numbers with him so that Gino absorbs the abuse and Tom has a clear field. Tom decides to leave town when Lucy breaks up with Gino and comes on to him, but Gino still goes ahead with the number swap, and is mortally injured when someone rides him off the road.

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Hell Drivers is one of those films that feels like the beginning of something that would later gain momentum, with the emphasis on high-speed thrills that would be fulfilled in the car-chase craze of ’60s and ’70s genre films, through to the likes of The Fast and the Furious (2001). And yet it’s also the kind of film that virtually no one seems to be able to make anymore, in that it manages to effortlessly be many kinds of movie at once. It’s a pulp melodrama. It’s a character study. It’s a portrait of group dynamics, social processes, and ethical vices. It’s a neorealist, detail-driven portrait of people who actually work for a living, and those at the very fringes of modern Western society. Endfield’s angry, anti-establishment mood would prove to be the vanguard of a rich, new cultural zeitgeist. Most irresistibly, it’s obviously a vehicle for Endfield to express his outrage and frustration at the conspiracy of ostracism that chased him out of Hollywood. Whilst the story is bound up in a certain required amount of genre cliché, the deep motivations of the film, the emotional force of the underlying anger at being taunted and ridden into the ground by forces that are outrageous enough at first glance but hide an even more malevolent impetus, is palpable. Tom is blacklisted by the drivers for refusing to play along, and indeed by almost everyone else in his life. “For us it’s a life sentence!” his mother spitefully informs him when he returns home to visit her and his brother Jimmy (McCallum), eaten up by the ignominy. Notably, much as Endfield had worked under different names, Tom does, too—he first gives his name is Joe—and so is Gino, who obviously channels Endfield’s exile status.

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It’s Endfield’s riposte to Elia Kazan’s squealer apologia On the Waterfront (1956) and his harder-driving, rebellious answer to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fatalistic The Wages of Fear (1953). That it was personal for Baker, too, is signaled when his character says he comes from a town in Wales named after a mountain above his own real home town. Climbing to the top of British cinema, which was still grooming its young would-be stars to be proper young gentlemen and ladies, must have indeed felt like climbing a mountain or outracing the bastards to Baker, his friend Richard Burton, and their followers, like Michael Caine and Albert Finney. Baker himself was a committed socialist. The film’s plot is explicitly about the exploitation of workers, a point that deepens when Tom finds out through Lucy that the scheme is a scam run by Red and Cartley, who is hiring fewer drivers than he’s budgeted for and pocketing the difference, and the “competition” Red inspires is to make sure the men make up for the lack of numbers. Red’s domination is due to the fact that he takes a short-cut across a dangerous abandoned quarry, and those who have tried to follow him across have often ended up dead, including Tom’s predecessor, whose “dead man’s shoes” Tom all but literally steps into. Tom’s troubles with Red and the gang commence long before he learns about the scam, however. Red’s first gesture in the film when he appears is to kick the chair upon which Tom sits out from under him. He’s committed the cardinal sin, set up as a vicious joke by the others, of sitting in Red’s place.

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Red is embodied by McGoohan with bristling, oversized force. Chewing on cigarettes, sporting a sheepskin jacket when driving, and willing to do anything to maintain his bullish supremacy, McGoohan resembles some variety of Vandal or Viking strayed into the modern world, radiating physical power with his slightly hunched, apish shoulders signaling his perpetual readiness to pummel someone who gets in his road. It’s not a subtle performance, but it is a tremendously energetic, entertaining one that pushes both Yately and the plot along, and there is a truth in its vivid conflation of everything unattractive about the macho bully. Balancing it is Baker’s quietly excellent simplicity, apparent particularly in the scene in which he accepts his mother’s spurning with a momentary contemplation, and then, after a few unfussy words, leaves. He’s great playing a man who picks and chooses the battles he fights with great care, whilst refusing to let his mixture of shame and his desire to assert himself lock him into immobility. His and Red’s differing styles of arch masculinity finally, after endless provocation, erupt into fisticuffs. Yately roundly defeats Red, who puts the victory off onto some imaginary unsporting move of Tom’s. Red needs to maintain the image of the unbeatable man of action to keep the others in line. Gino, running interference for Tom during their efforts to unseat him, parks his truck in front of Red’s at one point: Red gets out and marches over in a rage to haul Gino out, only to open his door and see the huge spanner Gino is holding in readiness. Red gets a big laugh out of this challenge, even if it doesn’t disarm him in the slightest.

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Around the central drama is an intricately described world, from Tom picking up a discarded spark plug from the Hawlett’s yard and kissing it like a rosary for luck, to Ma West getting Tom to do up the straps on her spine-supporting corset, to the small Catholic shrine Gino keeps in the vacant room Tom moves into in the boarding house, hiding it from the gaze of those who might laugh at him for it. There’s the seedy diner across the street where Jill (Ireland), Ma’s quiet young daughter, works. Jill’s crush on Tom is dashed when she sees the crackle between him and Lucy. Lucy is defined by an unusually determined independence, which fazes Tom, who hardly expects to be getting the hard word from a woman, least of all one his new best friend wants to marry. She vengefully stalks into the dance hall dressed to the nines and sparking the drivers to act like a pack of howler monkeys. Later, when Lucy breaks up with Gino, she comes to visit him whilst he works on his truck. Their flirtation suddenly combusts in a saucy moment as Tom kisses her neck and fumbles to put away the work lamp he’s holding, plunging them into dark. The dark is then broken, in an inspired and moody scene transition, by Gino’s lighting a match in the pitch darkness of his room in the boarding house: you can feel his solitude and humiliation, as well as the solace of the darkness. The triangle between the three is easily the film’s most superfluous element, but it’s worth noting that Lucy’s love is for Gino, much the same as Red’s cigarette case is for Tom, an illusory spur to a goal always out of reach.

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Endfield’s feel for the American tradition is given away by the Western references in the storyline, from some of the occasional transatlantic slang that creeps in and character names, like Dusty and Red, that would pass in a Horse Opera, to the High Noon-ish final joust of Red and Tom. But the diner, the boarding house, the dance hall with its tacky swing band, the ramshackle Hawletts yard and the rural landscape dotted with industrial detritus, all fairly reek of the still-lingering depression and exhaustion of post-war, pre-Beatles England, a milieu that recurs again and again in Brit-noir. It’s not hard to sense why Tom, for all the reasons not to, hurls himself into the high-speed duel with Red and the system to try to win an edge, and the terse, get-on-with-the-job milieu has an unfussy honesty that feels a lot like the war is still being waged psychically. That’s especially telling on the only occasion the “officer” class appears, one of the senior managers of Hawletts, who arrives to break up Red and Tom’s fight. Tom, asked by Lucy if the rumours about his incarceration are true, retorts with refreshing honesty and refusal of pathos: “Yes, it’s true. And I wasn’t framed, and nobody talked me into anything. And the judge didn’t give me a raw deal!”

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The kinetic force of Hell Drivers, introduced by a first-person camera charging along the roads in the opening credits, is quite remarkable for a film of the period. Although the under-cranking of the footage to boost the impression of the trucks’ speed gets a bit obvious in places, the pace and sharpness of the editing isn’t to be denied, and it’s also admirable that there isn’t a moment of back-projection in the film. There’s one quickly glimpsed bit of model work, but the rest of the movie is utterly three-dimensional. There’s a particularly riveting sequence early in the film in which Tom is shown the ropes by Hawletts’ old-timer mechanic Ed (Wilfred Lawson), who pulls out his stop-watch to time Tom’s run from the gravel pit to the yard. Even after Tom crashes off the road, forced to swerve by two other oncoming trucks, Ed reminds him the clock’s still ticking. If there’s a major fault with the film, it’s that the subplot about Cartley’s malfeasance and collaboration with Red in screwing over the drivers is introduced too late, and Red’s forcing Cartley to join him in his final attempt to kill Tom whilst he traverses the old quarry is a bit too convenient a way of knocking off both baddies. Also, Lom’s Italian accent is-a bit-a hard-a to take-a.

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A key aide to Endfield’s rigorous cinema is cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. With his grandiose work on the likes of The Lion in Winter and 2001: A Space Odyssey still well ahead of him, his work here with Endfield sees VistaVision frames filled with islands of casually brilliant deep-focus photography, capturing shots bustling with actors and variegated source lighting, and interesting levels of action diffusing throughout those frames. When Red first appears, Endfield situates McGoohan not in the rear of a frame, or emerging into the shot, but front and centre in a deeply composed, almost painterly shot in which he lifts his head from a washtub in the back of the diner, with the dining table loaded with the other drivers and Tom seated in Red’s chair in the background and Jill and the diner owner in the mid-ground. Red turns, observes the drivers, Jill eyes Red, speaks a warning to him; Red patronisingly cups her chin and then walks over to Tom. Red’s physical potency and eye on his target are all immediately conveyed. Later, there’s an equally sharp moment in which Tom, fleeing town, stands in a phone booth, calling his brother and making arrangements to contact his old criminal pals again. In the background, Lucy enters and flurries about barely noticed for several seconds before spotting Tom and racing forth to extract him. The use of the focus here is as good as that of Wyler and Mizoguchi, confirms what Endfield had learnt from Welles, and anticipates the intelligence of the widescreen work of Zulu. Another felicitous moment sees Tom and Lucy, waiting for word of Gino’s condition in the hospital; the shot peers along the centre of the corridor, but Tom and Lucy are crowded by their own guilt and worry to one edge of the frame.

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Even in the fairly regulation climax, there’s a great little succession of almost throwaway detail: Red doesn’t realise it, but he’s taken Tom’s sabotaged truck to chase him down, for Tom has gone off with Red’s. Red only just realises this a moment before his brakes fail, pitching him and Cartley off the side of a cliff, one of their bodies hurled out the windscreen as the truck hits the bottom in a lovely punitive flourish. The tension doesn’t let up until literally the final moments, as Tom revives within his own smashed truck, which is hanging on the edge of the cliff, waiting for the gravel in the tray to slowly pour out before he scrambles out of the cab. The chains of cause and effect here are both naturalistic yet intricately plotted. Endfield and Baker reunited a year later with Sea Fury (1958), where they tried and failed to repeat the elements of this film, but still came up with a strong action climax. In any event, Hell Drivers is British noir at its gamey best. It’s worth noting, however, that the British Free Cinema, which would soon rise up and displace this sort of melodrama whilst also taking up some aspects of it, would offer up characters like Albert Finney’s in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), who act in ways rather closer to Red than to Tom, starting fights in dance halls and getting wasted, and yet were the heroes.

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2000s, Blogathon, Crime/Detective, Film Noir

Miami Vice (2006)

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Director/Screenwriter: Michael Mann

By Roderick Heath

This post is part of For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon.

In looking for a film to write about for the Film Noir blogathon, I initially felt most motivated by what I wanted to avoid. Film noir was a dark, nasty, immediate kind of cinema movement that sprang out of artistic and real-world inspirations that were crucially of their moment, reportage from the front lines of domestic landscape of the Depression and World War II eras. It was really a style more than a genre, though tropes of crime fiction have become inextricably associated with it, blended and mediated through a specific range of clichés and metaphorical niceties that were exhausted with great speed. The intervening half-century of pop culture has often threatened to render that vital and spiky cinema a powerful magnet for nostalgic fetishism and arbitrary appropriation. Thus, I began to think more about what film noir had evolved into. I thought about what could be called the noir revivalism since the ’80s, some of which, like Wim Wenders’ Hammett (1982), Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), or Brian de Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006), preoccupy themselves in recreating the tangy milieu of noir but also employs a grittier portrayal of things more tangentially explored in the older genre works—sexuality, drugs, race, the whole shebang. And there are other films that, like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), the Wachowskis’ Bound (1996), Rian Johnston’s Brick (2005), and the oeuvre of John Dahl, took the basic precepts of classic noir and played them out in a contemporary context.

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Only a few current English-language directors have, however, truly kept the ethos of noir alive without a hint of retro cute. Since his debut with 1981’s Thief, the most high profile is Michael Mann. Miami Vice, a bristling prestige project that had a troubled production and proved a surprise semi-failure on release, is nonetheless a genuinely evolved noir film. Adapted from the slick ’80s television series created by Anthony Yerkovich, for which Mann was executive producer and unofficial artistic mastermind, this Miami Vice refused to be nostalgic even for the ’80s. Mann signals his take fairly early when a nightclub pulses with Felix da Housecat’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”: the song is old, the beat is new. Mann built upon the stylish minimalism William Friedkin and Peter Yates had brought to crime flicks in the ’60s and ’70s, but his fascination with pared-down, art moderne visual textures was something new: existential haute couture. Mann’s stylistic reinventions have often outpaced audience receptivity throughout his career, and many of his early films, including the now-lionised Manhunter (1986), were bombs.

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Miami Vice shows quickly enough how little interest it has in going through the niceties of adapting a TV show. Mann tosses the viewer in medias res with “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell), Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), and the members of their undercover squad, including Tubbs’ paramour Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris), Gina Calabrese (Elizabeth Rodriguez), Stan Switek (Domenick Lombardozzi), and Larry Zito (Justin Theroux), busy trying to sting pimp Neptune (Isaach De Bankolé) in that nightclub. Crockett is drawn away by a frantic phone call from informer Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes), who’s charging across the city in his sports car, hoping to make it home. His wife has been taken captive by the mob of drug-dealing white supremacists after Alonzo had arranged a meet-and-greet between the criminals and some FBI agents. Alonzo spilt the beans to the racists, and FBI agents are brutally, summarily gunned down by the white supremacists’ military-level firepower. Crockett and Tubbs manage to intercept him on the freeway and get him to pull over and explain, but when word comes through that Alonzo’s wife has been found murdered, Alonzo steps in front of a semitrailer. The boss of the blown FBI operation, Fujima (Ciarán Hinds), approaches Crockett, Tubbs, and their boss Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley), because they’re the only people he can now trust with a mole certainly within his own operation.

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Crockett and Tubbs swing into action, using their knowledge of who’s shipping what in and out of Miami and their willingness to bend the rules. After Trudy carefully falsifies criminal records for them, they destroy the high-speed boats being used to ferry in the gang’s dope. Then, using another criminal interlocutor, Nicholas (Eddie Marsan), the duo shop themselves out to the supply end of the business, represented by arch narcotics entrepreneur José Yero (John Ortiz) and the shadowy Isabella (Gong Li) from their base in Ciudad de Este in the Brazil-Paraguay-Argentine borderlands. Both are merely senior employees for the glowering kingpin Francisco Montoya (Luis Tosar), an internationally powerful, stateless monarch whose final approval Crockett and Tubbs have to gain to run a drug shipment into Miami. They pull this off and get a second, larger contract, hoping to learn as much as possible about Montoya’s operations. Crockett enters a swiftly combusting romance with Isabella, who is Montoya’s lover but also a nominal free agent. Yero, ruthless, paranoid, and suspicious of these too-efficient newcomers, uses this affair to convince Montoya they should nullify their deal with the Americans and let their Nazi business partners take care of them.

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Unlike most of the neo-noir I mentioned above, Miami Vice maintains the defining aspect of noir: the visual style is an aesthetic unit with the story’s preoccupations and the overt and covert themes. Mann’s film burns like liquid nitrogen, laying out the eponymous city as a sprawl of lights drenched in darkness and populated by swashbuckling law enforcers and monstrous villains. The film’s imagery often resembles modernist painting and varieties of experimental photography. Such affectations retain a quality that was part of the punch of classic expressionist-influenced films, retaining a definite link with the way directors like Lang, Welles, Hitchcock, and many others could twist a cinematic frame so that the elements within it became somehow abstracted. Mann shoots faces, bodies, technology, and architecture in such a way that they hover in a kind of electrified, yet impersonal beauty, sometimes with a crisp distance redolent of Jeffrey Smart or David Hockney, sometimes so close as to lose all sense of proportion and form. I particularly love the glimpse of the colossal white-supremacist thug festooned with tattoos and resembling some kind of humanoid brontosaur ransacking a refrigerator, while Alonzo’s wife’s slain form lays lifeless in the background. Another, very different moment of wonder comes when Sonny and Isabella flirt, their foreground faces blurred, but the background landscape sharp, perfectly communicating the almost drug-like intensity of their attraction.

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The result is one the few genuine stylistic masterpieces of modern American film. Refining the aesthetic he’d developed in Thief, Manhunter, Heat (1995), and The Insider (1999), Mann pushed it to a limit here. Miami Vice’s terse, deterministic approach to the usual beats of the action-crime genre, as opposed to the operatic prolixity of Heat, is one of the things I like most about it, but this also perhaps made it bewildering for many. Mann tries to explicate as much of the drama as possible through the behaviour of the characters rather than through what they say to each other, and he pushes the notion that action is character to a rare level. The shot in which Crockett notices that Montoya and Isabella are wearing his-and-her watches turns casual detail into revelation, opening yawning abysses of subsequent uncertainty. That Crockett and Tubbs trust in each other completely is a matter chiefly communicated through how they stand and sit together, and the later concern Tubbs has that Crockett might be falling under the spell of Isabella and the potential imperial wealth he could accrue with her is as much about eye contact as talk. At the heart of this story, obviously, is one of the oldest motifs of the crime genre: the shifting no-man’s-land between cops and criminals. One of Mann’s most distinctive refrains in his crime stories is not just the porousness of the boundaries between good and bad, lawman and criminal, but also what keeps them polarised.

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A significant difference between the hazy outsider parables of classic noir, with their losers, lone knights, femme fatales, and fatalistic sense of social hierarchy (and the insidious evil of fascism always sharply remembered as a then-recent phenomenon), and the sorts of TV dramas on which Mann cut his teeth, including Starsky and Hutch and Miami Vice itself, was that such cop shows drew their heroes as guys doing a job and enjoying their lives when not working. This paved the way for how most modern cop shows are more about workplace dynamics than crime and its social dimensions. Mann’s concerns since starting his film career have been more classical, repeatedly pondering how people on both sides of any border, but usually a legal one, can have startling similarities as well as telling differences. “There’s undercover, and then there’s ‘which way is up’,” Tubbs notes at one point, firmly placing the film’s concerns back in classic noir territory. The real impetus there is found in the two concurrent, defiantly now-fashioned stories of Sonny and Isabella and Ricardo and Trudy, and narrative urgency is not sourced in any tension that Sonny and Tubbs might be seduced by the dark side, but in what their dedication might cost them and those they love. The early scenes portraying the grisly fate of Alonzo’s family and the FBI agents lay out the threat as almost gothic in scope and menace, especially the startling moment in which the racists’ high-powered weapons smash apart the agents.

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Eventually, of course, they have to face down the same threats, when, double-crossed by Yero, they have to first extract Trudy from the hands of the racists, who have yoked her with plastic explosive (a charged image in more ways than one), and then work out a way of extracting Isabella and taking down the baddies without getting themselves annihilated. The story is necessarily simpler than the sorts of intricately woven political, social, and personality strands in some of Mann’s later-career films, like The Insider (1999) and Ali (2001). Yet his attempts to create a modern kind of noir film encompassing global networks of information, transport, permeable borderlines between national borders and even settled ethnic and sexual identities mediated throughout the flow of imagery both extends and, to a certain extent, subverts some of the given elements in classic noir films like Force of Evil (1948), The Big Heat (1953), Underworld USA (1961), in which crime organisations became metaphors for a sinister side to Western capitalism itself. In the course of the narrative, Mann traces the colossal drug-dealing project from end to end, possibly to make up for the epic he had wanted to made about the drug trade that was forestalled by Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2001). This holistic vision of worlds within worlds makes Miami Vice a much darker, denser film than one expects. Almost all classic noir films are about the subterranean link between mean streets and the mansion on the hill. The original inspiration for Yerkovich’s series was a story he’d read about how the seized assets of drug dealers were being employed in operations against them. Such is the reason why Crockett, Tubbs, and the rest of their team are able to live lifestyles seemingly far above their pay grade. The sheer scale of money and clout the likes of Montoya can call up, and the lifestyle they can enable, is pretty seductive.

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Mann is superlative at changing the tone and pace of his films with strange reversals, like the famous sleeping tiger scene in Manhunter and the coffee-drinking scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. Here it’s in a scene where Isabella, after making a deal with Crockett and Tubbs, succumbs casually to Sonny’s come-ons and gets him to take her out for a spin in a borrowed-for-the occasion speed boat. She convinces him to take her to Havana for a drink, and they speed off across the waves. It’s as if he’s suddenly driving the movie into a hazy fantasy, a high-end commercial or space-age version of an Ernst Lubitsch film where ritzy people casually do ritzy things at the drop of a hat. And yet it cleverly and seductively illuminates the film’s biting perspective on a 21st century in which money, and what it buys, has become its own continent. Where once Friedkin’s hero Popeye Doyle had stood on a corner in the cold and watched his quarries stuff their faces, Mann’s are much more comfortable. But this, in its way, proves more dangerous.

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What follows is an extended romantic interlude that deliberately echoes the earlier one between Ricardo and Trudy. Both couples shower together in moments of eroticism, but the disparity between the moments is impossible to ignore. Whereas Tubbs and his girl are clearly, easily in accord on all levels to the point where Ricardo can get away with a cheeky premature ejaculation gag and it’s just part of the fun, the layers of truth and deception in Sonny and Isabella’s relationship (Is his anecdote about his roadie father true? Why is he trying to make the super-profitable deal with her?) are all too telling. Add to this, of course, the obvious, suggestive disparities—Sonny the white trash rendered slicker by experience and ambition, romancing Isabella, a Chinese woman with a Spanish name and a mother who was a translator killed in Angola. Mann’s odd, fascinating games with racial coding expresses itself in Isabella and, in less germane style, with Fujima, played by an Irishman. Such seems to be his way of both subverting the clear-cut boundaries of the original series’ drug war geopolitics and simple fascination with watching the world’s wanderers find each other. Professionalism is another of the few meaningful yardsticks in Mann’s films, and, of course, Crockett, Tubbs, and team are arch experts; but so are Isabella, Yero, Montoya, and even some of the white supremacists.

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That sort of chitinous professionalism that hides a hidden psychic cost is also, of course, another long strand in noir, back to Hammett and Hemingway, the latter being one of noir’s biggest nongenre sources. Mann’s embattled individualists, searching for their own ways of living and often rejecting those that don’t smell right, certainly belong to that tradition, and his version of The Last of the Mohicans (1992) sifted out their link to an even older tradition (and notice Crockett’s name, “sonny” of another frontiersman legend). And yet some of the most fascinating moments in the film are far smaller and human, like Sonny’s care in doing up Isabella’s seatbelt in the speedboat, or the beat in which Isabella waits for Montoya to speak after she casually informs him she slept with Crockett, and he only wants to know more about what she’s gleaned of his business plans.

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The cops-vs.-robbers business here is traditional men’s stuff, of course, but also one, Mann repeatedly emphasises, in which modern women are more often a part. Isabella, Trudy, and Calabrese are fully engaged members of what used to be purely masculine fields of endeavour, in a modern sense, and yet when push comes to shove they’re rendered pawns by the baddies. Isabella is no traditional femme fatale, in that her purpose is not consuming destructiveness of herself and others, in spite of the fact that she’s most definitely a criminal; “She’s one of them,” Tubbs states categorically to Sonny to remind him of the demarcations of their world. But she’s really more a kind of brutally pragmatic yuppie, jetting off to Geneva when business calls. I like Li’s performance in the film in spite of her initially inelegant command of English, and in part because of it, for the way Li relaxes and responds to Farrell’s Crockett with her entire physique and manner.

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Crockett and Tubbs are, finally, old-fashioned white knights, going down those mean streets. Tubbs’ first specific gesture in the film comes when, infuriated by seeing Neptune manhandle one of his young hookers, Tubbs chases after him and breaks the fingers of one of his bodyguards. Later, when Trudy is endangered, Tubbs gains a personal motivation. Perhaps the true femme fatale is Calabrese, who has what is actually the film’s greatest bit of tough-guy business. She confronts the white supremacist holding the trigger for the bomb around Trudy’s neck, and informs him how she’ll shoot him in such a way that he can’t reflexively detonate the bomb; “Fuck y-” is all he gets out before her bullet does exactly that. The scene in which Tubbs and Calabrese invade the trailer of the creeps holding Trudy—the most-low-rent end to an international conspiracy imaginable—is borderline brilliant, not only for the bit mentioned above, but also for Tubbs’ own no-bullshit handling of the situation. You know all those films where you groaned when a hero failed to stop a villain by neglecting to put a bullet in his head when he was down? Not this one. But then, the nasty twist: Yero remotely sets off the explosive, seriously injuring Trudy just at the point all seems well.

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After that, naturally, comes a walloping showdown between the cops and Yero’s coalition of paramilitary enforcers and the white supremacists. Sonny and Isabella are literally caught in the middle, and Ricardo chases down and blows a hole in Yero. The action here anticipates the mix of naturalism and first-person force Mann would again muster in his follow-up, Public Enemies (2009), a film that intriguingly attempted to avoid the usual affectations of the period movies comprising much of the noir revivalist oeuvre. That Crockett and Tubbs’ ethics are at a slight remove from the strictures of their job is not shocking, but it is important, as Crockett, with Tubbs’ silent assent, bundles Isabella away from the battle scene to make her escape. Real heroism in Miami Vice is finally being able to tell the difference between right and wrong, and also to make the compromise between wish and reality. The film ends on much the same unfinished note with which it began, with Trudy merely recovering from her injuries, the standby villains defeated, but with Montoya having escaped.

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Miami Vice is such an inherently visual film that it’s damnably hard to write about and demands multiple viewings, but I’ve come to love it as well as admire it. The acting is of a very high calibre, with Farrell and Foxx acquitting themselves exceptionally well; I particularly enjoy the unblinking deadpan fashion with which Tubbs asks of Yero, “Are you with the Man?”, a line that might have defeated many other actors. But it’s often the supporting cast, especially Tosar, Henley, and, above all, Ortiz, who truly galvanise the film. The result is one of my favourite films of the new millennium and one that keeps something of noir’s crumpled romanticism alive amongst the high-tech and unforgivingly modern.

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2010s, Film Noir

The Killer Inside Me (2010)

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Director: Michael Winterbottom

By Roderick Heath

Michael Winterbottom is one of the most restless and protean of contemporary directing talents, and that has made his oeuvre both consistently surprising and oddly invisible when it comes to audiences and awards. He was probably the most talented of the many interesting British auteurs to emerge in the early ’90s, but he’s been happy enough to keep on searching for new pastures so long as he’s financially and artistically able. In spite of the many different styles and types of stories he’s engaged with, his career has taken on its own sort of shape. Whether reinventing classic literature or composing semi-improvised docudramas, he imbues his work with a fearless physicality and an unflinching comprehension of the mortal and moral cost of many human transactions, balanced by a contradictorily ironic coolness in terms of narrative urgency, and dedication to authentically portraying a context that is as vital as the surface drama to the overall substance of the work. The Killer Inside Me hardly met with universal acclaim or much financial success when it was released earlier this year after enduring some ill-directed controversy, a real pity considering that it is one of the best films of the last 12 months.

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In basing a film on Jim Thompson’s 1949 novel, one of the works that earned Thompson the sobriquet of “the pulp Dostoyevsky,” Winterbottom tackles one of the major cult writers of modern letters. It’s also Winterbottom’s tribute to a down-and-dirty kind of Americana, with nods to Sam Peckinpah, the Coen brothers, and David Lynch, and the morbid strains of American roots music, in addition to the classic pulp refrains. The splendid opening titles evoke the period as Little Willie John’s version of “Fever” accompanies ’50s-style typeface and colour effects printed over stills of the actors, a touch that might seem more playful than the movie that follows. But the choice of song is crucial: in The Killer Inside Me, everybody’s got that fever.

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With its first-person focus on the twisted psyche of central character Lou Ford (Casey Affleck, back in Robert Ford mode), The Killer Inside Me is foremost a study of a man whose traits are violently at odds with the maxims and expectations of his world. Lou is a deputy sheriff in a small Texas town during the same period setting as the novel’s writing, his drawling voiceover reiterating his cynical, alien perspective on the human interactions around him. He’s one of those characters without whom the noir genre wouldn’t exist—the bad seed, the freakish weed sprung from the same soil as all the healthy legumes—but here he’s the core protagonist and not some rugged neon knight. His strange thought processes, perverted psychology, empathy-worthy gripes with the world about him, and his contemptible predilections take centre stage.

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Lou is called upon to do some of the less dignified housekeeping around town. When he’s sent to give Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), a hooker who’s set up shop on the edge of town, her marching orders, she demands he leave her house and smacks him in the face. This infuriates Lou sufficiently to cause him to drag her into her bedroom and whip her backside with his belt until it’s bloody. This, mordantly enough, proves to be a rather perfect introduction for this sadomasochistically inclined duo. Lou’s also sleeping with his long-time girlfriend Amy Stanton (a splendidly bovine Kate Hudson), but she’s only conventionally naughty. Lou, although theoretically an aberration in such a locale, soon starts to resemble an inevitable by-product of its secrets and sullen cruelty. He’s got an axe to grind with local oil bigwig Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), who may have set up Lou’s adopted brother for a fatal fall because his brother did jail time for the rape of a small girl, a crime Lou actually committed. Chance puts Lou in what strikes him as the perfect position to gain revenge and a windfall when he’s asked to facilitate a payoff that Conway’s thick-witted son Elmer (Jay R. Ferguson) wants to make to Joyce, whom he wants to marry. Instead of agreeing with Joyce’s proposal that they run away together after she’s been paid, Lou beats her to a bloody pulp and then shoots Elmer to make it look as if Elmer assaulted her, and she killed him in self-defence before expiring herself.

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Lou’s attempts to become a master criminal leave him locked in a bad dream of proliferating loose ends: accidental witnesses, suspicious bystanders, and interested parties force him to ever crazier, more self-destructive ends. The money he wanted to steal was marked. He shot Elmer an excessive number of times, confusing and alerting investigators, led by imported detective Howard Hendricks (Simon Baker). His suspicious actions were witnessed by an itinerant (Brent Briscoe), who had good reason to remember Lou, since Lou jammed a lighted cigar into his hand for kicks one night. Lou plays out the basic capitalism-as-murder brief from so many noir tales as a kind of ideal. And yet it becomes clear that Lou’s efforts were never really about enriching himself, or even revenge, but a strange attempt to come to terms with his own nature. His masochistic mother had encouraged him to slap her backside, a dirty secret that infected his erotic nature and psyche with a fascination for violence as a form of self-expression that’s continually threatening to corrode his bland façade. Joyce’s fondness for his physical cruelty is partially a metaphor for the sorts of privileges we allow to loved ones we’d never dream of allowing to other people, but it’s also about a basic reduction that suits an archly macho, capitalistic, power-inflected world that reduces all people to two basic types: those who get hit, and those who do the hitting. For Lou it’s a mere yardstick on the way to achieving a proper consummation of his violent fantasies. He’s an existential void waiting for a time and place to arrive as a creation of pure nihilism. His world alternates between the glare of daylight and the inky sparseness of the night, when his real work begins, a world of dashboard glows and red tail lights, brutality and supple assassination.

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The peculiar thing about The Killer Inside Me is that Winterbottom isn’t at first glance the best fit for such a grimy, overheated psychodrama. Where Winterbottom’s instinct is to cool things down even when watching worlds disintegrate, the storyline of Killer cranks up to a finale that’s like the gotterdammerung of Our Town, so bizarre as to possibly be a hallucination. But what makes The Killer Inside Me a particularly vital visit to the classic noir canon is its willingness to dig into aspects of the genre that are still often elided, as in works like Curtis Hanson’s weirdly clean and spiffy adaptation of LA Confidential (1997), particularly violent misogyny, aberrant sexuality, and the underground cable linking private madness and social malfeasance. It’s closer in many ways to being a less overtly surreal Blue Velvet (1986). Winterbottom’s unerring, unmannered widescreen compositions observe the aridity of the town’s environs and watches Lou beat Joyce’s face in with the same clinical dispassion. Part of The Killer Inside Me’s peculiar brilliance is indeed the way it completely sidesteps the usual assumptions of these tales, for there’s no urgency to the efforts to stop Lou.

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On the contrary, there’s a horrid fascination in watching him quietly annihilate all standards and presumptions. The most defiant quality of the tale is that Lou’s efforts to escape detection and bluff his way out inspire their own kind of unwilling audience identification. He’s the “hero” in all respects, except that he’s an atrocious psychopath. He’s not even a charming or devilishly clever one, like Hannibal Lecter. He’s just an ordinary man. He’s even, in his way, playing out a version of the frustration experienced by James Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life: a young man who wants to escape his small town rut, but feels compelled to play out a battle with a local plutocrat as a kind of vehicle for exploring his own selfhood. His supple melancholy, his bewilderment about the disparity between his nominal duties and affections and his readiness to trash them all, become the keynote of the film, as if he’s trying to work his way towards some state of total revelatory catharsis that remains out of reach. Lou travels to Fort Worth with Conway, who wants to make sure Joyce survives her coma so he can make sure he sees her “fry” for killing his son, but that relative metropolis is glimpsed tangentially through curtained hotel windows and out of cars, as if there’s a world out there from which Lou is perpetually cut off. That Lou hides secret seams of incongruent grandiosity is signaled by his love of opera, but this proves not that he’s a secret übermensch, but merely a self-dramatist.

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Lou’s assault on Joyce is grotesque and unsettling, but a large part of the point is that Winterbottom emphasises what incredibly hard work it is to try to kill someone with one’s hands, perhaps indeed the best lesson in such difficulty since the murder in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1965). Murder is no aesthetic prop or pop culture game here. Lou’s pummeling of Joyce exhausts him after seeming minutes of constant battery, until he’s sweating and puffing like a man during a workout, and she’s still not dead by the time the rest of his plan is completed. Of course, the real kicker is that Joyce, half-bewilderedly, half-expectantly, murmurs repeatedly as his fists mangle her pretty visage, “I love you.” Here, romantic love is a kind of Calvary where one can choose a quick or slow expiry. By contrast, the way Lou kills Elmer with a gun is stunningly quick. The idea that sex and murderous hate are oft-entwined isn’t a new one, but Lou seems driven to push the notion to the limit in his attempt to kill Joyce. Lou doesn’t hate Joyce; in fact, he has great affection for her. Subsequently he’s beset by flashbacks to their happy bedroom shenanigans, not so much in sadness for what he threw away, but in disturbed curiosity as to why, when she did make him happy, he still felt no compunction in disposing of her. The recurring irony of the story is that Lou perceives himself as victimised, all springing from his childhood “mistake,” and that he offers up anyone, regardless of their place in his life, as a kind of stock character or commodity to play a part in his life script.

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Lou will also drive his boss and father figure, Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower), to suicide. He murders his young friend, gas station attendant Johnnie Pappas (Liam Aiken), in his prison cell, after setting him up as a suspect and trying to make his death look like suicide. We don’t see his killing, but we do see something that’s possibly crueler: as he did with Joyce before killing her, Lou explains very calmly and intimately to Johnny what his game is. Lou is taunted and tailed by several men who all suspect the truth, though they can’t prove it. Hendricks (Simon Baker) is the familiar dogged investigator, who’s usually the narrative focus. He sees through Lou’s smoke screen and tries to prove it, but he’s weirdly ineffective in his righteousness. Local union boss Joe Rothman (Elias Koteas) is sure Lou is a killer, but his confronting Lou is aimed not at bringing him to justice, but making sure Lou hasn’t provided Conway with a charge he can set Rothman up on. The insidiousness of the locality’s vice and corruption are normal; only Lou’s grandiose desire to cut through it all like a marauding shark is abnormal. The vagrant tries to blackmail Lou. Lou responds by killing Amy with a few well-delivered body blows that leaves her expiring in a pool of her own urine, so as to set the vagrant up for her murder. There’s a truly abyssal humour in the peevishness with which Lou shouts at the vagrant over Amy’s broken body, “You stupid son of a bitch! I was gonna marry this woman!” as if really saying, “Now look what you made me do!” That’s a prelude to the sight of him relentlessly pounding the man after he’s been shot dead by one of his fellow deputies (Matthew Maher) with the fury of a man who genuinely believes this poor patsy was responsible for Amy’s death.

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Hendricks throws Lou in jail and tries to break him. That doesn’t work, but Lou soon confesses to his posturing, preacher-like attorney Billy Boy Walker (a surprising Bill Pullman) after Walker gets him out: the need to externalise the truth of the strange odyssey he’s been on trumps his good sense, as they drive across terrain where the telephone lines look like ranked crucifixes. Lou’s efforts prove entirely self-defeating, but Lou’s distanced sense of cause and consequence builds to the crucial psychic epiphany, after being beset by flashbacks to his bedroom pleasures with Joyce, and his frankly carnal rutting with Amy, that they’re special to him, and yet not finally important at all. There’s a blank carnality to the sex scenes as well as the violent ones.

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Lou, in bed with Amy, even covers her face as he screws her, seemingly trying to pretend she’s Joyce, but finally seeming more as if Lou senses that everyone, under the assumed manners of human civilisation, is actually just another version of the same basic animal that eats, fucks, and dies. Finally, Lou learns how Sartre’s maxim “Hell is other people” applies to him: he can’t elude their suspicions forever. Winterbottom doesn’t quite pull off the mad conclusion, but there’s still the extraordinary image of Joyce, who’s been kept alive but under wraps by Conway, with her face now a patchwork of scars and stitch marks, still stumbling pathetically towards her abuser/lover, his very own Frankenstein’s monster welcoming the knife he plunges into her belly before Lou’s world explodes in very literal flames. l

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1970s, Fantasy, Film Noir, Foreign, French cinema

Duelle (une quarantaine) (1976)

aka Twhylight

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Director: Jacques Rivette

By Roderick Heath

Unlike most of the New Wave directors to emerge from the critical collective at Cahiers du Cinema, Jacques Rivette’s most admired work came in the early ’70s, a time when compatriots like Truffaut were either negotiating with the mainstream or in total retreat from it, like Godard. Rivette seemed energised by the mood of the waning days of the counterculture and concurrent intellectual flowerings of post-modernist and feminist theory, and he made his best-loved movie, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), in this period, as well as his highly regarded made-for-television epic Out 1 (1971).

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As if rejecting all explicable comment or interest in the fallout of political revolts and the New Wave itself, Rivette began to celebrate imagination, play, and ambiguity of the self as a counteraction and commentary on a repressive backlash in contemporary life. Rivette embarked on what was to be a quartet of films titled “Scenes from a Parallel Life,” each playing on a generic mode and employing a peculiar unifying concept—a war between two goddesses, daughters of the sun and the moon, over a cursed jewel. Rivette made only two of the films before suffering a breakdown and experiencing harassment by authorities, and the completed works were barely screened. Those two films, however, Duelle and Noroît (1976), have a status as hidden treasures.

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Rivette’s cinema is an acquired taste, but for anyone who can adjust to his wavelength, which isn’t so much obscure as merely reticent, he’s an alluring artist entirely dedicated to realising the most beautiful effects through the simplest means. Rivette’s fascinating, if still embryonic debut, Paris Belongs to Us (1960), introduced many of the elements he found intriguing: the dynamic exchange between life and art, ties of family threatened by worldly trials, and an ironic juxtaposition of humdrum reality and fantastic theorising, arch paranoia, and forces of power. The goddesses whose war Duelle describes embody the anxiety over the place of everyday humans between blocs of power and favour that can be associated with the counterculture shadow-enemies of Paris Belongs to Us.

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Rivette had come a long way since his debut, for Duelle is a carefully paced and utterly controlled work, all the more fascinating because like many of Rivette’s films, a high level of spontaneity was utilised in its production, if not quite as much as he often otherwise favoured. This time Rivette had written a story outline and created the characters and situations rather than give his cast all the room to invent their own, but still did not actually write the scenes until a few hours before they were performed (the scripting credits are given to Eduardo de Gregorio and Marilù Parolini). This edgy, happenstance energy infuses the performances even whilst Rivette’s camera maintains a balletic grace. Rivette, like all the other New Wavers, was also an inveterate film buff, and Duelle sports a magpie’s selection of tropes lifted neatly from favoured films of French poetic realism and Hollywood noir.

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The initial model was the great Val Lewton/Mark Robson horror film The Seventh Victim (1943). This is immediately apparent in the way Rivette renders his Paris, like Robson’s New York, a depopulated, magic-realist space full of poets and changelings, dreamers and sufferers. Duelle’s basic plot is slowly fleshed out, and the era it is set in only hazily defined, evoking a Paris where dance halls and gambling clubs unchanged since the heyday of Jean Gabin rubs shoulders with more definably modern locales and styles. It begins on “the last night of the new moon for this winter.” A woman calling herself Leni (Juliet Berto) approaches a young hotel clerk, Lucie (Hermine Karagheuze), searching for an Englishman named Max Christie who stayed at the hotel a year before. Leni claims to be his concerned sister, and pays Lucie to dig up what she can about where he’s gone. Lucie suggests Leni talk to her predecessor at the hotel desk, Elsa (Nicole Garcia), who now works as a taxi dancer at a decrepit nightclub called the Rumba. Leni, in an entirely different guise, approaches Elsa, who recalls Max’s expansive joie de vivre and tells Leni to look up his companion, Sylvia Stern (Claire Nadeau). Another mystery woman, the jaunty Viva (Bulle Ogier), and her helpmate Elizabeth (Elizabeth Wiener), trail Lucie’s brother Pierrot (Jean Babilée) and Sylvia when they return by train from Amsterdam. Later, Viva pays Pierrot’s debt when he loses at cards and ensnares him in her plans to locate the “Fairy Godmother,” a legendary cursed diamond that Max, Pierrot’s former partner in shady deals, had first turned up.

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When Leni tracks Sylvia to an aquarium, Sylvia babbles to her about how Max had “fought and defended,” and that he suffered and has recently died. Sylvia is wracked with guilt and sees herself as heir to his struggle. Leni runs off when Pierrot arrives, and shortly after, Lucie receives a phone call asking her to come to the aquarium. When Lucie arrives, she finds Sylvia dead, with a bruise or burn mark on her neck. Lucie hides when Viva enters the aquarium and bends over Sylvia’s dead body, and trails Viva back to a gambling club she frequents, where the two play roles and try to elicit information. Viva theorises that Lucie was brought to the aquarium to set her up. Elsa, whose real name is Jeanne (she felt her real name was vulgar), is falling in love with Pierrot, who promises he can give himself to her completely now. And she discovers the Fairy Godmother itself, attached to a choker band now in Pierrot’s possession, and fondly places it around her neck, setting in motion a fresh chain of contest, decay, and death.

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“Duelle” is an invented word, a feminised version of “duel,” and it’s with good reason the film has such a title: the story is strung along by a series of intimate pas de deux between competing characters who exhibit and swap places of command and submission, desire and pathos. Every sequence up until the very central one is dominated by interactions of only two characters; in that centrepiece, a crucial sequence in both the literal (as the 15th of the film’s 30 individual scenes) and narrative sense, as the core characters encounter each other in the Rumba and William Lubtchansky’s gliding camera absorbs them as they chase, challenge, flirt and dance with each other. It’s here the story finally becomes less opaque, whilst, ironically, the cinematic technique becomes more overtly surreal; The Fairy Godmother works an influence on Pierrot, who approaches a mirror, raises his hand—as Elsa recalled Max once doing—and cracks the glass with magical force. This gesture reveals to him the two demi-goddesses, Leni and Viva, in their true forms, approaching each other in ritualistic style and pledging to continue their metaphysical contest for the jewel, holding their hands up like Pierrot’s gesture. This, it seems, indicates the mirror-image, dualistic bind of the two supernatural forces (even if, in their disco-glam outfits, they look like they’re about to start singing “Dancing Queen”).

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Lucie, the first and last person we see in the film, is glimpsed initially looking fearful and unsteady on her feet—it proves she’s trying to keep her balance atop an inflatable ball—with Pierrot helping her remain steady. It’s a superb metaphor for both their relationship at this point, a conflation of the film’s parable of human life, and its tenuous, reinventing-the-wheel approach to cinematic form. Leni’s recurring line, “You’ll see me again,” is, at first, a throwaway, but becomes a phrase laden with threat; the intrusion of the goddesses into the everyday lives of the protagonists heralds annihilation in a situation that works in cruel cycles and seems to have happened before, with Max and Sylvia having played out the parts of Pierrot and Elsa—indeed, the drama is built around a pantheistic rhythm, linked to seasonal shifts.

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And yet Duelle’s unique approach plays out nearly straight according to the dictates of a noir narrative: the characters battle over an emblem of wealth and steadily annihilate each other and themselves in the process. The Fairy Godmother jewel plays the same poisoned-chalice device at the heart of The Maltese Falcon and especially the Great Whatsit of Kiss Me, Deadly: like that manifestation of raw, consuming power, the jewel leaves marks upon the flesh of those who encounter it and spells inevitable doom. However, Rivette’s dialectic removes standard, dependable props from those familiar arcs, rendering the tale overtly mystical and inexplicable, and the spaces have to be filled in with intuition. Rivette begins with a familiar theme of his, Lucie’s desire to save her brother who’s enmeshed in a mystery (a la Paris Belong to Us), and plays her honest naïveté against the femmes fatale, Viva and Leni. The familiar economic and social parables of noir are present: Lucie, Pierrot, and Elsa/Jeanne all come from a low social bracket and are desperate to rise; the demi-goddesses live and pose as aristocrats, and the jewel is what they all covet.

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Such aspirations shade into less modest ambitions, to take on gods and transcend fate and nature. Viva and Leni’s prize in gaining the stone is a chance to live like a mortal for longer than their allotted 40 days in winter: “I’ve been young for far too long,” Leni confesses sadly to Pierrot. As Jonathan Rosenbaum cogently pointed out, the goddesses seem purified metaphors for the idea of movie stardom itself, locked in perpetual, pristine shape. The conceit of employing supernatural drama is on one level amusing and defiantly ludicrous, and yet Rivette, an aficionado of ancient Greek drama (several of his films revolve around attempts to stage the works of Aeschylus and Euripides), employs the idea of gods taking on human form and interacting with mortals with the same blithe tone as those classical works, and for similar ends. Rivette simultaneously exploits the way his characters encapsulate refined concepts often conceived in the traditional binary oppositions of mythical works—male/female, power/impotence, desire/hate, mortality/transcendence, and so on, beginning with the utterly archaic dialectic of sun and moon—and also deliberately evoking the wider pantheon of sexual identity inherent in pagan traditions. Thus, the characters constantly alter the parts each plays in relation to each other. This dedication to fairytale logic is reflected by a recurring motif, a quotation from Cocteau’s play Knights of the Round Table, in which Merlin explains a breakdown of purely mathematical and physical logic: “Two and two no longer make four / All walls can be shattered.”

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Similarly, in Duelle, people, within themselves and in relation to others, contain multitudes. Pierrot changes personas with the various women according to their natures (and vice versa), caring and soft with his sister, firm and solicitous with Elsa, challenging and aggressive with Viva, and finally, with Leni, both combative and in sympathy—both of them love Elsa and yearn to escape their lot. Pierrot’s the only major male character in the film, both with the potential to defeat them all and yet also at their mercy. In a droll sequence, Viva, who otherwise is the more constant of the two goddesses, sheds her imperious Marlene Dietrich-ish suits and air of utter command to play the ditzy, seductive drunk to tie Pierrot closer to her. Berto’s Leni alters from genteel fragility in approaching Lucie at the outset, to trenchcoat-clad femme fatale with Sylvia, to seductive butch with Elsa. There’s a vein of tongue-in-cheek costume-play here, one that emphasises the teeming talents of its actresses, but also constantly smudges settled sexual and social identities. Both Berto and Ogier affect ambiguous looks and roles throughout the film as they contend for control, and a crackle of sexual attraction lies underneath all the characters’ dealings with each other, except for Pierrot and Lucie, whose relationship is forlorn in its anxious sibling protectiveness and anxiety. A strange empathy runs between all the characters, alternating with a determination on each person’s part to emerge victorious—that is, alive.

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Rivette is a classic art house director, of course, but as I’ve noted before in my review of Fascination, Rivette’s aboveboard filmmaking in works like this bears many similarities to Jean Rollin’s underground horror (the aquarium scene particularly resembles a similar one in Rollin’s Lips of Blood), and I’m starting to wonder if there’s a phrase that can describe this specifically French style of fantastic cinema, airy, beautiful, but deliberately lacking in artifice: perhaps “surrealist-naturalism” would cover it. Rivette’s deconstructive approach is perhaps most amusingly, and oddly manifest in utilising pianist Jean Wiener to provide only source music, at the Rumba Club but also in other, rather more bewildering situations. The links with other traditions are equally apparent—Rivette revealed the depth of homage to Cocteau not only in quoting him but in casting the sinuously graceful, very cool Babilée, who had danced in Cocteau’s stage productions of the 1940s, and his character possesses the kind of haunted taciturnity wielded once by Louis Jouvet in Marcel Carne’s Hotel du Nord. His death—he is put down out of pity by Leni as he begins to succumb to the stone’s corrosive influence—exudes delicate tragedy.

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Rivette avoids standard forms of suspense-building, and yet Duelle constructs an increasingly tense atmosphere that comes to a head in brilliantly simple and riveting sequences, like that in which Pierrot, working with knowledge given to him by Viva, attempts to trap Leni by dazzling her with light, confronting her like a gunslinger in a hotel corridor and driving her back, locked in momentary shock as he opens room door after door, and, finally, when Viva chases down Lucie, threatening her with a sword-cane and teleporting her to a different location thanks to the pure magic of a jump-cut. In such a fashion, Rivette manages to both deconstruct how cinema creates excitement and still generate it. Finally, Lucie, apparently the weakest element, emerges ironically as the victor in this war, when she accidentally discovers the power of the Fairy Godmother to annihilate the incarnate goddesses when drenched with her blood, a trick that firsts destroys Viva after she stabs Lucie and her spilling blood reveals this power. With certain, vengeful purpose, Lucie catches up with Leni in the park where she was to duel with Viva, and wipes her out, leaving Lucie to dazedly recite the Cocteau poem, her fate, and indeed what is now her status — victim? hero? new demigod? — entirely ambiguous. Either way, it caps a tantalising experience. l

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Film Noir

Border Incident (1949)

Director: Anthony Mann

By Roderick Heath

Like many, my first sight of Ricardo Montalban, who died January 14, was in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1981), where his glorious, high-camp performance elicited the most immortal of enraged screams from William Shatner (all together now: Khaaaaaaaaaaan!). Other associations were just as cheesy: Fantasy Island and Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Montalban’s name became like, say, Doug McClure’s, associated with good-natured crap. Part of this was due to his being a willing and peerless self-satirist, beginning in 1969 with Sweet Charity (“Do you ever watch your own movies?” “I like to think I have better taste than that.”) through to his bad guy in The Naked Gun (1987). Montalban, who fought very hard early on to raise the profile and respect of Latino actors, ultimately was swamped by the kinds of cliched images he had long sought to subvert.

Montalban.jpgIt was hard to imagine that when he was beginning his film career that Montalban could be an intelligent, intense, but carefully modulated, stereotype-rupturing actor. His accent, later so plummy, was clipped and steely; his eyes had the keen attention of a hunting dog. Having made several Mexican films in the mid 1940s, he made the leap to starring roles in Hollywood with Fiesta (1947) and other asinine musicals with Esther Williams. His inevitable niche casting as the Latin lover or some other dubious ethnic type continued in stupid film after stupid film. But three works in a row at the crux of the century promised a career that otherwise never came about: Border Incident, for Anthony Mann; Battleground (1949), for William Wellman; and Mystery Street (1950), for John Sturges. There’s no cheese in those movies and none in Montalban, who seems as poised and talented here as any of the more famous male movie stars of the era.

The best of these films is Border Incident, a diamond-hard little noir classic, the cornerstone of Mann’s shift from film noir to westerns, and a prescient work that anticipates both the cold, violent bent of modern thrillers and the worldly concerns of works like Babel and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. It begins and ends with one of those pompous, propagandistic voiceovers—that shorthand of the time intended, as handheld cameras are today, to establish an air of docu-veracity—detailing the necessity of Mexican migrant labour (the braceros) for harvesting in the Imperial Valley and, thus, the American way in general, and how everything will be all right—a stance the film ruthlessly interrogates. The prologue segues quickly enough into a startling sequence in which illegal braceros try to sneak back across the border into Mexico, only to be intercepted by killers on horseback who slaughter them and dump their corpses into a marsh in the aptly named Canyon de la Muerte.

It’s a singularly eye-catching opening, not least because of Mann’s ironic use of Fordian framings of the horsemen arrayed against a mottled-cloud sky and rugged cliffs, beginning on a vast plain and resolving in the bleak vision of the victims’ faces sinking into the mud. Someone’s importing illegal workers, paying them off, then having their henchmen wait to round them up, rob their wages, and knock them off. Being as they are illegal, they are unprotected by law, as fatuous U.S. official John MacReynolds (Harry Antrim) reminds Rafael Alvardo (Martin Garralaga) and Pablo Rodriguez (Montalban), the two Mexican federal agents who come to consult with him. Nonetheless, a joint operation is set up in which Pablo will work in coordination with FBI agent Jack Bearnes (George Murphy).

Pablo and Jack set about entering the belly of the beast. Pablo poses as a bracero and makes friends with Juan (James Mitchell), a worker with a wife and child who waits in line hopelessly every day to be chosen for a work crew. Pablo asks Juan how he might make it across the border illegally, and Juan tells him how, joining his new amigo quickly enough in approaching the agents of a people-smuggling racket run out of the tavern of the sleazy Hugo Ulrich (Sig Ruman!). Knocking on his door is visually and morally akin to entering the underworld. It’s fitting for Mann’s highly tactile sensibility that Pablo immediately stumbles because the racketeers have an old woman feel the hands of every prospective bracero: she immediately recognises that Pablo is no farm labourer. Threatened, Pablo says he’s a gangster desperate to hide out from his boss’s minions after filching his money, a story they eventually swallow. Pablo’s soon rushed over the border along with Juan and other workers in the not-so-tender care of roughneck Jeff Amboy (Charles MacGraw).

Jack, meanwhile, poses as a man wanted by the FBI for stealing what the traffickers desperately need: fake work permits that can be given out to the braceros. Jack gets a worse time of it than Pablo, tortured with electric shocks from a car battery by Ulrich and his goofy but deadly thugs Zopilote (Arnold Moss) and Chuchillo (Alfonso Bedoya). Jack holds out long enough to gain access to the mastermind of this scam—Owen Parkson (Howard Da Silva), a pastoralist, human trafficker, and all-round Machiavellian creep. He makes a deal with Jack for the permits, but soon finds through his net of precautions who Jack really is, prompting a singularly vicious revenge from which Pablo can’t rescue him. Jack is left crippled on an open field and a tractor plough driven over him.

Jack’s death is a teeth-grinding sequence, as both camera and tractor gets closer and closer to Jack, until the frame is filled with the hulking mechanisms of the tractor and an ultra-close-up of Jack’s anguished face. It’s the kind of Mann-ly moment that so singularly distinguishes his films among mid-century genre films with its harsh violence, disrespect of familiarity, absence of sentimentality, and deliberate kick to the teeth of the audience. It’s supposed to be the likable ethnic sidekick who gets it in the neck, not the likeable yank. It’s far from the only moment of nascent nastiness in the film: Jack was tortured earlier with electric shocks from a car battery, and there are shootings, beatings, knifings, and an all-round sense of the utter expendability of life where Pablo and Jack are sent by their bosses. A recurring image is of Chuchillo’s hunting knife being pressed against a face: first it’s Jack’s, and later, Juan’s, as Juan and Chuchillo engage in a life-and-death battle (of course Chuchillo will get it in his own neck).

The fiercely well-staged finale fulfills Mann’s flawless sense of dramatic antagonism channeled through characters presented in binaries, battling in a pitiless physical environment, and tying in with the film’s very core—the border and the mirror reflections found on either side. Everyone has an opposite and counterpart: Pablo and Juan as Mexicans battle their evil countrymen Zopilote and Chuchillo, their evil gringo counterparts Amboy and Clayton Nordell (Arthur Hunnicutt). Amboy also reflects Parkson as he becomes ambitious and contemptuous of his boss (after he’s fooled by Jack), turning against and assassinating Parkson in order to supplant him. Amboy’s wife’s (Lynn Whitney) hard loyalty contrasts the quiet stoicism of Juan’s wife. Jack and Pablo are only the most obvious examples, as partners in fighting crime, though also in some cheeky ways: having worked together before, they even shared a “girl we picked up” on a previous case. “The last I heard of her she was getting much less beautiful in a prison,” Pablo informs Jack.

Except for right at the start and right at the end, Mann dispenses entirely with music except for background sources, so that the central hour of the film is defined by a remarkable quiet: the hushed, menacing, shadow-laden space of Ulrich’s tavern and the incredibly claustrophobic quality of the wide-open border country, mostly at night. The film is so tightly wound that even in its brief 93-minute running time, it offers memorable adorning vignettes, from Juan’s quietly intense farewell to his wife in a church after listening to another bracero’s account of nearly being murdered to Zopilote and Chuchillo exploring the unfamiliar modernity of Parkson’s office, to Parkson’s habit of playing chess to learn how his opponents think. (“No don’t do that, you’ll lose your queen,” he warns Jack. “Well I did it, let it stand,” Jack decides, like his own fateful choices.)

Border Incident never loses its monomaniacal focus, and yet conjures depth in its social and character milieu. Although it’s chiefly memorable as a model of Mann’s talent, the film is given all the more grit by having an actual Mexican actor play Pablo (rather than someone like, say, Charlton Heston). Montalban is cool and physically graceful, quick-witted, and persuasive without being too pasteurised: like the film, he does what he has to, and no more. He outclasses Murphy, who comes across in acting as he later became in politics—the second-string Ronald Reagan. But the rest of the cast is peppered with a fine selection of character actors, amongst whom the igneous grit of MacGraw is a standout. It all comes together in the kind of package that to me embodies everything tough and rich about classic film noir with not much of the soft. Although that damned voiceover tells us everything will be all right, that’s not what you remember. It’s that tractor grinding ever closer and closer…

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1950s, British cinema, Film Noir

The Long Memory (1952)

Director: Robert Hamer

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By Roderick Heath

The great works of British film noir are far less well known than the American, but it was one of the few genres that thrived for the British film industry after WW2, providing a needed counterpoint of down-and-dirty contemporary angst and grit in a period of British cinema remembered mostly for stoic-heroic war films and Ealing comedies. Of these works of distinctive British noir, by far the most famous is Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), given a mighty boost in notoriety thanks to its Graham Greene screenplay and American stars. But Brit-Noir is a rich seam of the genre lode, with some individualistic and parochial charms that distinguish it from the brand being made across the Atlantic. Where the expressionism-stoked American noirs of the ‘40s pushed towards hyper-stylisation and neurotic intensity, the British genre is far more restrained and naturalistic, absorbing the lessons of neorealism in a slightly different fashion. If the American films are driven chiefly by psycho-sexual anxiety, with their proliferating femme fatales and mentally twisted antagonists, and barbed portraits of the American dream of power and money, the British films tend to be about ordinary people put through the torment of having their sense of stability drop out about them. Hitchcock, of course, was the first major British director to riff on those themes, but Brit-Noir would take it in different directions. A startling number of Brit-Noir films feature a finale where the villain or hero—it doesn’t matter much which—is, like Harry Lime, hunted into a tighter and tighter corner by relentless authority.

The Long Memory portrays Britain as it was then—depressed, hungry, worn out by war, and full of the poor, dispossessed, transient, and criminal. It’s a relic from a time and world not so long past and yet almost vanished in many respects, like the film’s casual yet endlessly fascinating depiction of London as one of the world’s busiest ports, the Thames riverside in which the action unfolds clogged with the detritus of decades of capitalist adventuring, imperial trade and triumph, now left piled in the muddy fringes. The Long Memory was Robert Hamer’s follow-up to the success of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), the signal Ealing comedy and one of the driest black comedies ever made. Hamer wrote the script for this thriller with Frank Harvey, adapting a novel by Howard Clewes. At first glance, the about-face from a period satire to a contemporary thriller is startling, but both films are most definitely about trying to survive in a world that is set up not to care about you, fuelled by the hypocritical divides of English society. Both are dramas of insiders and outsiders, with powerful undertones of class rage, and studies in forms of painful love. It’s also riddled with Hamer’s richly understated humour. John Mills plays Phillip Davidson, just released from an eight-year stretch in prison for murder. Looking for a place to be forgotten by the world, he holes up in an abandoned barge laid up in mud in the Thames estuary, with only a wandering hermit who claims ownership of the barges as his unwelcome company.

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But Phillip has a mission. He wants to track down the people responsible for his imprisonment—Captain Driver (Fred Johnson), his daughter Fay (Elizabeth Sellers), and Tim Pewsie (John Slater)—who stitched him up for the murder of the malignant people-trafficker Boyd (John Chandos) to hide their own involvement in Boyd’s crimes. Boyd had actually clubbed one of his customers over the head in a fight over payment, and then seemed to drown when Driver’s boat caught fire and sank. Only one charred body was found, and the guilty trio reported only Boyd was present and that Phillip killed Boyd in a fight. Phillip was only present to ask the Captain if he could marry Fay.

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After his release, Phillip finds that Captain Driver drank himself to death, Fay has married the detective on the case, Bob Lowther (John McCallum), and become a middle-class housewife, and Pewsey, a middle-aged wreck, has recently left his own wife (Thora Hird) for a younger mistress (Mary Mackenzie). Phillip also soon finds himself the target of two more pieces of unwanted attention—one from a newspaper reporter, Andrew Craig (Geoffrey Keen), who finds himself in an ethical bind in needing to please his noxious editor (Laurence Naismith) but becoming increasingly disturbed about harassing an already tortured man and the other from Ilse (Eva Bergh), a refugee girl who works in the incredibly sleazy nearby diner, whom Phillip saves from rape by a sailor. It’s the first kind thing anyone’s done for her in years, and Ilse falls hopelessly in love.

The Long Memory is fascinating for many reasons, not the least of which is its gloriously seedy evocation of a post-industrial, post-war wasteland inhabited by wronged men, waifish but gorgeous refugees, brain-addled palookas, dim-witted waitresses, braying-voiced tarts, effeminate hermits, shadowy criminal networks, and rancid alcoholics. The estuary is a smoky, lonely, flat, muddy place, a literal vision of the mood of desolation that fuelled the post-war work of Samuel Beckett. City lights twinkle in the distance. Ships pass by constantly, their horns singing of far-off places. In the diner, everyone has a mystery concealed by raincoats and hunched shoulders— Phillip with his dark mission, the policeman following him, the agents for the mysterious criminal activity swirling about the estuary. This world is contrasted starkly and incisively with the middle-class realm that Lowther inhabits and defends, and to which Fay has married up. Hoping to hover in dutiful nicety, Lowther and Fay are slowly dragged back down into the muck by secrets and guilt. Hamer brilliantly cuts between two couplings in separate beds—Phillip and Ilse, who forlornly attempts to break through Phillip’s shield of misanthropy, and Fay and Lowther, with Lowther prodding at and finally breaking her shield of lies. The contrast in the surroundings—the first couple’s squalor, the second’s refined security—cruelly highlights the similarity of their interactions.

Like many true noir films, The Long Memory is about people trying to cling to existence and their humanity; crime is a negative expression of their desires. There’s the suggestion Captain Driver fell into the most disgraceful end of his business, having started off aiding IRA soldiers. The most humorous scene in the film shows Hird’s Mrs. Pewsey barging in on her husband and his lover to rub down his chest to relieve his yearly attack of allergies. Her brusque devotion contrasts with his grousing: “Women! Bad enough having one, now I’ve got two of ’em!” The film is driven as much by Lowther’s pained attempts to both do right by his job and wife as it is by Phillip’s narrative, building to a key moment. The superintendent paces his bedroom, musing sadly that he probably always knew Phillip was innocent, and later confirms to Fay that “I stood on that corner three weekends running,” hoping to bump into herl. Ilse struggles to find the inherently kind man in Phillip that keeps emerging briefly (in the flashback, Phillip was wearing a cricket jumper, shorthand to tell us what a naïve middle-class git he originally was).

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When he discovers Fay’s duplicity, Lowther feels bound to make things right for Davidson, even if it means him losing his job, her imprisonment—the total devastation of their bourgeois security. “We don’t want anything as a large as (justice),” Ilse states, in riposte, “just the right to exist.” It also anticipates the modern shift from viewing the media as heroes to media as muckraking scum. Craig at first gets on the wrong side of Phillip when, irritated by his manner, he makes a snide joke. Phillip gives him a shove and plunges into the hold of the barge. But Craig has a wryly idealistic view of his job. “Do you realise that we represent the two great guardians of the public interest?” he asks Lowther, whose dour reply is “We’ll talk about that some other time,” and later considers having arresting him as a nuisance. As Craig becomes more affected by the story, he finishes by snarling at his editor, “People’s lives add up to more than a few lines of print!” The editor snidely responds, “Don’t forget to take your halo with you,” before telling another journalist (Peter Jones) to make Davidson’s story into “something to read on a rainy afternoon.” The journalist does that by feeding Phillip Fay’s address. Ironically, Phillip loses the urge to take violent revenge, encouraged by his growing attachment to Ilse. “I suddenly realised,” he states to Fay, “all this time I’d been nursing a hatred for a great villainess, but when you opened the door, I only saw a tawdry little coward.” Phillip has already terrorized Pewsey into making a statement of his innocence simply by standing outside his door all night.

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The emphasis of the film is on Phillip’s journey from glowering, vengeful outcast back to a man of moral fortitude and love of life, but it also offers a last twist to ensure an action climax. Phillip discovers that Boyd is still alive and running the shady smuggling activities simmering in the background. When Phillip confronts Boyd, he sets about beating the crap out of his nemesis, but can’t follow it through. “Revenge is just not worth it. It makes you feel just as filthy as the other fellow. And I’d hate to feel as filthy as you.” It’s a near fatal hesitation. Boyd shoots him through the arm and pursues him to his barge home. The two men battle cat-and-mouse in the grimy, hulk-littered mud, as Lowther, Ilse, Craig, and the police race to the rescue.

Mills had previously played a neurotic noir hero in the superb The October Man (1947), penned by Eric Ambler, giving him a thankful break from playing bright-eyed Cockney lads and upright military heroes. But Mills is at his most down-and-dirty in The Long Memory, convincingly embittered and more often than not a jerk, yet still unable to completely suppress his charm and likeability. The main weakness of the film is Elisabeth Sellers as Fay. Although Sellers was a fair actress and does Fay’s foundering despair well, she couldn’t effectively portray the opportunist scrubber lurking underneath Fay’s bourgeois enamel—in the flashback she’s a dull caricature of the girl your mother told you to stay away from. John McCallum, who was married to ’30s starlet Googie Withers, is a prime portrait in English psychology, affecting as the appropriately tight-assed and yet strangely ardent Lowther. Around them, some of Britain’s great character actors (Hird, Keen, Naismith, Chandos) prove why they are great.

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