Written by Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald, based on a story by Wald, and directed by Jules Dassin, “The Naked City” is a police procedural that follows the NYPD Homicide department as they investigate the murder of a beautiful young woman who was drowned in her own bathtub. This dogged detective story was a delightful surprise, the film seems to have been ahead of its time in several departments, perhaps most notably with it’s depiction of darker content alongside a sort of docu-fictional representation of New York City and the many characters who populate it’s streets and buildings. Though the film has a huge cast of smaller roles that layer the story quite well, we chiefly follow Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) the head of the Homicide department, and the latest recruit in Detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) who does most of the legwork on the case.
Mark Hellinger, producer of the film and former journalist, had a lot to do with the production. Not only did he conceive the idea of shooting the film on location instead of on a Hollywood set (revolutionary at the time), he’s even our omniscient narrator that pipes in throughout the film to give our heroes and villains prodding suggestions and commentary. While the narrator can be a bit dated and cheesy at times, the film does use narration in inventive ways that keeps the pace trotting along at an amicable pace. I was also surprised to hear the narrator give the villain words of encouragment in the third act after he’s been outed, which was an interesting touch- I wouldn’t have expected the narrator to care about the health of our murderer at all. Indeed, the film doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of criminality and that only makes the investigative work of the NYPD that much more dire as they put their feet and their minds to work in sniffing out the culprit. Inbetween shots of children playing in the open fire hydrant, women chatting while window shopping, and mothers tending to their crying babies, the film also shows us criminal partners offing each other in the east river and cleverly hides our villain in plain view several times. Muldoon’s gallows humor also supports this notion while subtely showcasing his years of experience in handling tragic cases such as this.
This film may have been the originator of many staples of the police procedural genre, so it’s worth a watch in that regard, but really it’s the character work that makes it noteworthy. Muldoon and Halloran make an excellent team but the ensemble work is where the film truly shines. The tiny flourishes of individuality given to all of the major players are something special, like the suspicous Frank Niles (Howard Duff) who’s brought in for questioning early on in the film- but is quickly found out to be a spectacular liar. You can find this film on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service (the criterion channel) or in their shop if you’re looking to purchase a physical copy. At an hour and a half, this was a charming and enjoyable noir-lite Detective tale that I encourage you to check out!
This article will mark the end of my own quarantine as I’ll be returning to work in the near future. I’ll still watch and write about films here on this blog but the ‘series’ of Rapid Fire Reviews will be coming to an end with these six movies whose only commonality is that I probably should have seen them before now. I’ll likely return to the more in-depth single film review style of the past, but variations could occur! The past six months and 78 movies (84 total, counting this piece) have made the circumstances more meaningful and I’ve learned a lot in that time. I’ve filled a lot of gaps in my film knowledge and library, and in a time when travel was restricted and we were all a bit more solitary than usual, film allowed me a respite and passport to other worlds and times. I don’t want to get too caught up in flowery verbiage about the power of film- but there is truth to the immersive properties of a good movie. If you’ve been reading along with me these past months, then I hope you enjoyed your time here and that you found new films, actors, directors, and stories to engage with beyond this blog. If nothing else, this blog exists to encourage you to take a chance on cinema and watch something unexpected, learn something new, or to simply be entertained.
Top Gun (1986)
Written by Warren Skaaren, Jim Cash, and Jack Epps Jr. and directed by Tony Scott, “Top Gun” is the action drama that sealed Tom Cruise’s superstardom after several other performances in other hit films earlier in the 1980’s. By now, “Top Gun” is one of those movies that has so permeated the culture that you may already know the beats and hits of the story well before they happen. It’s one of those movies that, if you grew up in the wake of it’s release you’ve heard the famous lines “I feel the need, The need for speed!“, or know about the rivalry between Maverick and Iceman (Val Kilmer) etc. Regardless, it was time, especially given that the sequel was supposed to be released this year before the pandemic hit. What was most surprising about the film on my first watch was just how much Tom Cruise has evolved since this film. His acting has improved significantly since his time as Maverick, particularly in the romance department. Whereas Cruise’s most recent films’ romantic threads in have been at least believable, here it was pure cheeseball- I actually outright laughed at several scenes with Cruise and Kelly McGillis. Which was unexpected given the film’s reputation. However, there were some charming sequences between Maverick, Goose (Anthony Edwards), and Goose’s wife (Meg Ryan) and kids. While Maverick and Goose may have been overly confident and loose cannons early in the film, Maverick eventually embarks on a transition from total ego and machismo to one of loss and uncertainty, and the film gets credit for injecting some humanity into the action and bravado. The dogfighting in the third act was also quite thrilling, so there’s that. I recommend this one with the caveat that some aspects of the film haven’t aged quite as well as the film’s reputation would have you believe.
The 400 Blows (1959)
Written and directed by François Truffaut, “The 400 Blows” is Truffaut’s first feature film and one of the founding films of the French New Wave, which is widely regarded as the transition between classic and modern cinema. I was initially hesitant to dive into the French New Wave films as the stereotypes that had cropped up regarding old black and white French films didn’t make them seem that appealing. It also doesn’t help that my first French New Wave film was “Breathless” by Jean-luc Godard. No offense to anyone that loves that film, but it wasn’t for me and seemingly embraced all the stereotypical aspects of French cinema that I was hoping to avoid on my first outing in the New Wave. This is my second time watching a Truffaut film, and I have to say his style is growing on me. While I may have enjoyed “Shoot the Piano Player” more than this film, I respect the hell out of it. “The 400 Blows” is partially autobiographical in an adaption of some aspects of Truffaut’s childhood and the title reflects that as it’s roughly translated to the idiom “Raising hell”. The film follows Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) as a young teenager navigating the chaos of that oh so pivotal time in life. Between being lost in the magic of cinema at the movie theater, getting caught with a pinup calendar being passed from hand to hand in class, or accidentally setting fire to a personal shrine of famous French author Honoré de Balzac- the film keeps a fine balance of Antoine’s increasingly bad luck with authority and his actual earnest nature like when he returned the typewriter that he stole with a friend only to get caught in the act of returning it. This film helped cement François Truffaut as a new favorite filmmaker of mine, and I look forward to seeking out more of his films. Highly recommended. Below I have linked Roger Ebert’s review of the film for greater context regarding Truffaut.
Written by Chris Morgan and directed by Justin Lin, “The Fast and The Furious 3: Tokyo Drift” is the end of the initial era of the Fast and Furious movies. Before the second wave of ‘Fast‘ movies that retroactively changed some events and the overall timeline of the series, ‘Tokyo Drift‘ feels like a movie both perfectly suited for, and uniquely divergent from, the rest of the series. This was the only film out of the ‘Fast‘ series that I hadn’t yet seen, and I wanted to catch up before the ninth film came out- so here we are. All of the generic boxes that define a Fast and Furious movie are checked, but with some added flair. Beautiful women, fast cars, and criminal activity on the sidelines of illicit street racing. Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is a wayward grease monkey in high school that eventually broke too many rules and drove too fast for society. So, they sent him to live with his father in Tokyo. Sean’s quickly indoctrinated into the drifting race community and befriends Twinkie (Shad Moss aka ‘lil Bow Wow‘) a military brat and fellow American. Obviously, Han (Sung Kang) from later F&F movies shows up and is his usual aloof self, he helps out Sean and teaches him to drift so that he can works his way up the ranks of the drifting circuit. Of course, there’s a villain called Takashi, but he’s known as D.K. ‘The Drift King’ (Brian Tee) and he’s got a girlfriend, Neela (Nathalie Kelley), that Sean gets involved with in a predictable love triangle situation. The racing is pretty fun, but the real reason to give this one a watch is to focus on director Justin Lin’s influence that would go on to shape the series for years to come. Lin would return to direct the next three sequels in the series, and has directed the next film ‘F9’ and, personally, I’m looking forward to it! Recommended for ‘Fast‘ completionists, but there are more well rounded entries in the franchise than this.
Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Written by Nicholas Meyer and Jack B. Sowards, and directed by Nicholas Meyer, “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan” is the first Star Trek sequel and widely considered to be the best film of the series. After recently watching several of the Star Trek films from the Next Generation era of the series, I had nearly lost all hope that there could be a good Star Trek movie, but luckily this one came through for me. Rather than transforming into a faux capital “A” Action movie like “First Contact” or drastically altering the core personality traits of key characters as in “Generations”, “Wrath of Khan” relies on the strengths of the series and focuses on a tactical tit-for-tat series of mind games between the crew of the Enterprise and Khan (Ricardo Montalban) himself. After being marooned on Ceti Alpha V due to the events of the episode “Space Seed” from the first season of the original series, Khan and his ‘supermen’ from the twentieth century make their move for vengeance once Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) of The Reliant mistakenly beam down to Ceti Alpha V. The crew of The Reliant were planning on evaluating Ceti Alpha VI for the potential to implement a test of the Genesis device, a tool that could transform dead matter into habitable worlds. They did not know that some time after Khan and his men were marooned on Ceti Alpha V, the neighboring planet Ceti Alpha VI exploded and resulted in the deaths of some of his people, including his wife. Thus once Chekov and Terrell arrived, Khan struck quickly, put mind control space worms into their ears, and swiftly took control of The Reliant. Once the stage is set between the two ships, Khan and Kirk (William Shatner) trade barbs and maneuver to outwit each other to the great benefit of the audience. This was an excellent outing for the Star Trek franchise and I highly recommend it- but with the caveat that you should probably watch the episode “Space Seed” to be caught up with the story beforehand.
Léon: The Professional (1994)
Written and directed by Luc Besson, “Léon: The Professional” is a thriller starring a hitman with a craggy exterior and a heart of gold underneath. Léon (Jean Reno), is a hitman working for the Italian Mafia in New York City. He calls himself a ‘cleaner‘ and outside of his work he’s a methodical and simple man, sleeping in the corner with his clothes on at the ready, seemingly surviving on milk alone. One day on his way home after completing a job with harrowing precision, he meets a lonely young girl in his building, Mathilda (Natalie Portman). Mathilda, clearly, does not have a great home life as we meet her smoking on the stairs hiding bruises on her face. After a couple chance meetings like this the two establish a neighborly camaraderie. Mathilda’s family is wrapped up in the drug trade and early on the threat of the movie is established when a corrupt D.E.A. official (Gary Oldman) pays her father a visit and convincingly threatens their lives, promising swift retribution if they don’t find his missing cocaine within 24 hours. The next day Mathilda meets Léon in the hallway and she offers to pick up some milk for him and while she’s out the D.E.A. kicks down her family’s door and slaughters them all. It’s a brutal and horrifying scene, one that Léon witnesses from his peephole down the hall. When Mathilda returns, she has the awareness to walk past her door with armed men and go to Léon’s instead. He hesitates, but eventually lets her in. After some disagreement they agree to work together to seek revenge for her family. This film was a joy to discover, I’ve enjoyed the work of Luc Besson before, but this one had always been elusive to me, but I’m incredibly glad to have finally sat down and given it a watch. The opening scene of the film, in my opinion, is perfection. It clearly establishes Leon’s deadly accuracy and skill, which heavily informs the rest of the film. This excellently matches with later scenes of Leon being changed by Mathilda’s presence in his life, Léon teaches Mathilda how to be a “cleaner” and Mathilda shows Léon what he’s missing in life, family, a sense of normalcy. The scenes of Léon learning to play and Mathilda learning how to aim a gun pair to give the film a unique sense of charm. Highly recommended.
Rear Window (1954)
Written by John Michael Hayes and based upon the short story by Cornell Woolrich, and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “Rear Window” is ultimately the perfect film to end my quarantine series of film reviews and analysis. L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is a globe trotting, and often adventurous, photographer who’s been restricted to a studio apartment in Chelsea, Manhattan for weeks, bound to his wheelchair while waiting on a broken leg to heal. During his time he’s visited by Stella (Thelma Ritter) the nurse sent from his insurance agency, and Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) his well-to-do socialite girlfriend. Jefferies spends most of his time peering out his window which overlooks a courtyard, watching his neighbors go about their daily lives. He’s come to know the many players of the neighborhood, a young ballet dancer across the way, a middle aged sculptor that lives below her, a single lonely woman, a couple that sleep on the fire escape and lower a tiny dog into the courtyard periodically, a young frustrated composer, a newlywed couple, and a quieter middle aged couple nearly directly across from Jefferies. One night Jefferies is awoken during a thunderstorm by a woman screaming “Don’t!” and glass shattering. He doesn’t see much commotion and falls back asleep, but is awoken again by the storm later in the night when he sees Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), the husband of the quiet couple, leave his apartment in the middle of the night with a large suitcase. This prods Jefferies to keep an eye on Lars, and it isn’t long before he brings his friend and NYPD detective Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) in to investigate the suspicious activities witnessed by Jefferies. This was another (surprise!) excellent film from Alfred Hitchcock. While maybe not as impressive or thrilling as say “Psycho” or “North by Northwest”, it was a slower paced, engaging, thriller that kept me immersed in the mystery of how the story would unfold. James Stewart always works for me as the old school everyman character actor, and while he may be a bit too ‘awe shucks corny‘ in the first half of “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” (for example) here he’s an affable, but stubborn, photo journalist that has a dogged tenacity to seek out the truth- and that works well for the actor’s skill set and range. This is a fun one-location thriller that will relate to anyone who’s been forced to stay in one place for more than a month- and this year’s had more than enough of that! Highly recommended.