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Old School Review: “The Naked City” (1948)

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!

Final Score: 8 Million Stories

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Old School Review: “Le Deuxième Souffle” (1966)

*Warning: There will be spoilers in this review*

Title translation: “Second Wind”

Written by José Giovanni and Jean-Pierre Melville, and directed by Melville, “Le Deuxième Souffle” is a crime thriller adapted from a novel also written by Giovanni. Of the three films I’ve seen from Melville at this point, this is my new favorite from him. While the cinematography isn’t as showy as previous films, the story and characters are far more engaging and rapturous. The story is mainly focused on recently escaped and infamous Parisian criminal Gustave Minda (Lino Ventura), or “Gu” for short, and the expert Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse) who relentlessly pursues him. Now, the plot and story at hand may seem familiar, but it is Melville’s stage direction, camera framing, and restrained performances that he pulls from his actors that make this noir film stand out from the crowd. So, after “Gu” breaks out of prison with two others (one unfortunate prisoner missed his jump, the second was eventually chased off a cliff by the police), he heads to Paris to see his loyal sister Simone (Christine Fabréga), who goes by her nickname ‘Manouche’ throughout the film. She and her bodyguard, Alban (Michel Constantin), work various aspects of a bar called “Ricci’s”. Manouche and Alban get caught in the crossfire of an orchaestrated attack on the bar before “Gu” arrives in Paris, but Alban fends them off from behind the bar while Jacques (Raymond Loyer), Manouche’s admirer, is found to be the only casualty. When “Gu” does arrive back in town he takes his sister’s blackmail problems into his own hands. “Gu” catches two more men sent to Manouche’s house after the attack and kills them with his trademark technique. With the blackmail settled, the three of them, Manouche, Alban, and “Gu” plan to smuggle the infamous criminal to Italy by way of Marseille.

Meanwhile, Inspector Blot is all over every possible trace of evidence connected to the infamous Gustave Minda’s recent escape from prison, and in fact, he’s the first person on the scene of the attack at Ricci’s. Though no one there will give Blot any verifiable accounts of the attack, he knows their game all too well and makes his presence well known, for while the attack didn’t resemble “Gu”s handiwork- Blot knew the old gangster would be heavily invested in the safety of his sister. Blot, for his part, is a damn crafty Inspector and knows all the ins and outs of the criminal underworld- he calculates his risks seriously, and his deductive reasoning is unparalled in the world of this film. To fund the escape to Italy, “Gu” decides to join up with a crew for a heist with a gigantic payout, much to Manouche’s objection. “Gu” finds this opportunity through another old friend of his, Orloff (Pierre Zimmer), who was originally asked to be a part of the heist, but declined due to the risk associated. “Gu” finds himself in familiar company with the crew assembled as Paul Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin), brother of Jo Ricci (Marcel Bozzuffi) who owns the bar Ricci’s, is the lead organizer of the operation. Gustave doesn’t find out until later that it was Jo Ricci who blackmailed Manouche at the beginning of the film, though when he does, he lets Paul know that his brother ‘isn’t on the up and up‘ and decides to let it go due to their friendship. The heist is pretty simple as far as heists go, an armored truck carrying one million francs worth of platinum in its cargo has a long route out through the country with two armed police motorcyles escorting it. Once the armored truck and police motorcade enter the mountainous terrain where the gangsters lay in wait, the heist goes surprisingly well. The motorcade is dispatched effectively as planned and the truck drivers are stowed in a nearby shed. The only diversion is a passerby who stopped because he thought he heard shots- but “Gu” solves the issue and tosses the onlooker into the shed with the others. The crew returns and hides the platinum until they can find an approrpriate seller.

Unfortunately for “Gu”, he’s kidnapped in broad daylight and tricked into revealing that Paul Ricci was involved in the heist as Blot’s team impersonated local gangsters from Marseille with insider information. Inspector Fardiano (Paul Frankeur) of the Marseille Police department receives the two gangsters, they’re heavily tortured as they attempt to break both “Gu” and Paul, though eventually “Gu” escapes. Jo Ricci wants revenge for his jailed brother, and to get “Gu”s portion of the platinum’s revenue. Jo Ricci works the other two members of the crew in the heist and convinces them to side with him, fearing that “Gu” could give up their names to the cops as well. After escaping the Marseille Police Department, “Gu” tracks down Inspector Fardiano and kills him after obtaining a written confession that Gustave Minda did not inform on anyone, and the details of the torture techniques they used in their “information gathering”. The film comes down to a shootout between “Gu”, the two remaining heist members, and Jo Ricci as he takes Orloff’s place in a meeting and shows up with two pistols and a whole lot of righteous criminal honor to uphold. All are killed in the commotion, with Blot arriving just as “Gu” dies on the staircase. Blot heads out of the crime scene and into the crowd, as he does, he purposefully leaves Fardiano’s confession at the feet of a journalist- Blot played by the rules, and Fardiano was just another bad cop to be swept under the rug.

This was another really solid noir film from Melville and it only encourages me to seek out more from the Godfather of the French New Wave film movement. Classic genre tropes with tough guy gangsters, prison escapes, heists, shootouts, this film cleverly includes all the usual ingredients of a typical noir film, but the genius here is in the execution. Yes, the film is two-and-a-half hours, but for me at least, the pacing was very manageable and I was engaged for the whole film’s runtime. If you’re looking for a great rivalry between an unflappable Detective and an infamous Gangster then look no further, you’ve found it! Enjoy!

Final Score: 200 Million Francs

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Old School Review: “Le Doulos” (1962)

*Warning: There will be spoilers in this review in order to more effectively discuss the film.*

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and adapted from a novel written by Pierre Lesou, “Le Doulos” is another criminal caper from Melville that examines the paranoia and uneasy friendships between gangsters and thieves. This was an interesting film that effectively utilized confusion and intentionally misleading filmwork to hide the true intentions of the characters involved. It reminded me a lot of “Inherent Vice” or “The Big Lebowski” where the plot can seem fuzzy and incoherent, but the magic comes through when looking back at the film as a whole. This film isn’t exactly about the double crossings, who did what at which location or even at what time, this film feels a bit looser than say “Bob le Flambeur” in its details. “Le Doulos” is more concerned with the look of a gangster in a trenchcoat at night, in the rain, with a snap-brim hat and a slowly burning cigarette hanging from the corner of the shadowy figure’s mouth. That’s not to say the character work isn’t good fun, but it all feels like mere dressing for the actors’ to look cool and be gangsters that are both aloof, yet highly invested in their code of criminal honor.

Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) has just gotten out of prison after serving a six year sentence for a previously botched job, and he’s out for revenge. Maurice makes his way to Gilbert’s (René Lefèvre) place initially. While Gilbert, the fence, and Maurice were once close friends, Maurice found out that Gilbert had his girlfriend killed after he was sent to prison just to make sure she wouldn’t talk to the cops, and thus, Gilbert had to go. Maurice quickly takes the money, jewels, and Gilbert’s gun and buries it all next to a lamppost not far away from the murder scene. Maurice then moves on to a small and uncomplicated robbery in a wealthy suburb and gets in contact with his old friend, Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who helps provide a few essential tools for the low level heist. Silien’s burden in the underworld of crime is his reputation for being a “doulos” (or informant) for his friendship with inspector Salignari (Daniel Crohem). Unfortunately for Maurice and his partner in crime, Remy (Philippe Nahon), their burglary was interrupted by the police and ended with a shootout in which both Remy and Inspector Salignari are shot dead with Maurice only getting a bullet in the shoulder as he ran for his life. This results in the best cinematography of the film in which Maurice darts away from the shootout scene and the camera stays pointedly fixed on him as it keeps pace with him which makes the world racing by seem all that more frantic and fuzzy. Maurice runs until he collapses and a mysterious car pulls up before a cut to Jean’s (Philippe March) apartment, a friend of Maurice’s, in which neither he nor Jean’s wife Anita (Paulette Breil) knows how he got there. There’s a few scenes in which it’s not initially easy to identify if we’re looking at Silien or Maurice at times as the characters are dressed similarly in the stereotypical Noir film ‘outfit‘, and that plays very much into the assumptions the audience builds about Silien throughout the first half of the film. We see Silien tie up and interrogate Maurice’s current girlfriend Thérèse (Monique Hennessy) and tie her to a radiator at one point, we also see him find and take the money, jewels, and gun that Maurice buried at the beginning of the film, and we also get the recurrent theme of the gangster performing a few last tasks before ‘getting out of the game for good’. Due to his plans to get out of the underbelly of Parisian crime, we get a scene with Silien courting the girlfriend, Fabienne (Fabienne Dali), of a notorious local gangster Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli). She wants out from under the thug’s thumb, so she agrees to a plan formed by Silien. During this time Maurice is furious at Silien as he thinks that his friend could be the only one to have sold him out to the cops, and after the cops previously shook down Silien earlier in the film Maurice was fingered for Gilbert’s death but he couldn’t be pinned down for it so he was returned to jail for refusing to give up information. While in prison Maurice meets Kern (Carl Studer), whom he hires to kill Silien for this transgression.

So, while Maurice is in prison, Silien enacts his plan with Fabienne. They lure Nuttheccio and his business partner Armand (Jacques De Leon) into coming to Nuttheccio’s office where Silien lay hidden in darkness and kills them but not before getting Nuttheccio to open his safe so Silien can plant the money, jewels, and Gilbert’s gun to make it look like they killed each other over the spoils accrued from Gilbert’s death. Fabienne backed up the account of their deaths and Maurice was set free. However, since Maurice still believed that Silien sold him out in the first place, he , Jean, and Silien all meet at a cafe where Silien explains himself, and how the real informant was actually Thérèse- who was mysteriously killed by Silien earlier in the film when he pushed her in a rolling car off a cliff. In truth, Silien was actually looking out for Maurice the whole time. His only two friends in the world were inspector Salignari and Maurice, whom Silien went to great lengths to help out, after all, he had to uphold his honor as a fellow criminal. Silien announces his intent to move out to the country with Fabienne, and then happily departs the cafe. However, it dawns on Maurice that he still has a hit out on Silien and rushes back to his friend’s place to tell Kern that the hit is off. He beats Silien to the house and walks through the doors only to be mistaken by Kern for Silien and is shot immediately. Silien arrives shortly after and finds Maurice dying on the floor who warns him that Kern is there hiding behind the screen divider as he dies in Silien’s arms. Silien then fires into the wooden screen as Kern stumbles forward and falls to the floor- but in the flash of an eye as Silien turns back to Maurice, Kern raises his arm and shoots Silien in the back before dying. Silien stumbles, and haphazardly makes his way to a mirror before adjusting his hat and falling over dead.

This was a solid noir film, and if you’re looking to learn more about the essentials of the sub-genre then I’d highly suggest this one. It’s not the most easily digestible Noir film out there though, if you’ve gotten a lot of the American classics down then this will be a welcome addition. However, if you have not seen a lot of Noir cinema I suggest seeking out “The Maltese Falcon”, “Chinatown”, “The Third Man”, or “Touch of Evil” first. Those will give you a great foundation before bounding deeper into this corner of film history.

Final Score: 2 cases of mistaken identity

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Old School Review: “Bob le Flambeur” (1955)

Written by Auguste Le Breton, and Jean-Pierre Melville and directed by Melville, “Bob le Flambeur” is a French noir film from the oft described Godfather of the infamous New Wave filmmakers who would burst onto the scene with radical new filmmaking techniques in just a few short years. Most of the French films I have seen at this point haven’t quite connected with me as much as I had expected, or even hoped for. That changes with this film however. Recently I noticed that a bunch of Jean-Pierre Melville movies were set to leave the Criterion Collection’s streaming service at the end of February, and I had been meaning to check them out. There’s nothing like a fast approaching deadline to give you a sense of focus. I must say that I loved this film, and I cannot wait to run through more of Melville’s filmography. “Bob le Flambeur” follows Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne), a former Parisian gangster before the war, and now a well known gambler among the many nightclubs and bars of the night life in Paris. Even the cops know Bob, a man of honor and luck, he once saved the life of the local inspector (Guy Decomble) and they forged a long friendship. The owner of the corner bar, Yvonne (Simone Paris), bought the place with a loan from Bob, and with it her loyalty to him. And then there’s Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), an eager young man who hangs around, as his father was a great friend of Bob’s. We get most of our information about Bob by the way people greet and react to his presence and how they speak about Bob when he’s around and when he’s not.

We follow Bob as he moves from room to room throughout the latest hours of the night and the earliest of the morning, as the narration by Melville informs us “in those moments, between night and day … between heaven and hell.” He ends up losing most of his remaining funds, in fact throughout the whole first act Bob never seems to win at all. It isn’t until he hears about a potential heist with a score big enough to offset the risks that he begins to win at games of chance. It is here that a refresher on French vocabularly might be worthwhile; The word being “Flamber” (verb): To wager not only the money you have, but the money you don’t have. This is the epitome of who Bob is at his core. He is a gambler through and through, always rolling dice, flipping coins, and pulling the levers on a slot machine. Risk and chance are the fuel of his existence. Which is why the old gangster perks up when a friend mentions that the safe in the Casino in Deauville occasionally holds extraordinary amounts of money. They quickly begin to assess the situation and start gathering a crew of people with the essential skills and connections that could allow them to pull off this feat. It’s here that movies involving heists over the next fifty plus years have looked back upon for inspiration in the examination of a heist’s plan. Melville was aware enough of the conventions of the genre and chose to have his criminals forgo the usual charts and blueprints used to elaborate on the specifics of the plan. Instead, Melville had his crew go to detailed lengths to plan out their heist by spraying the outlines of the casino’s floorplans on an empty field and having his men walk through the steps. They also get some reconnaissance by driving around the Casino’s walls and having one of the crew accurately sketch the outlines and specific features of the building. They hire an expert safe cracker and acquire an exact replica of the safe they have to crack for practice. Which is all well and good, but I must direct your attention to the side characters who are all given adequate background information and motivations for their choices within the film. First, there’s Anne (Isabelle Corey), a young woman on the verge of falling into the clutches of the many pimps on the streets of Paris. Bob hates pimps, and he goes out of his way to make it known to Marc (Gérard Buhr), a down on his luck former gangster-turned-pimp early in the film. Unfortunately for Bob, Marc’s also dogged by the cops who will let him slide on smaller infractions if he gets them some good insider information from the criminal underworld of Paris. Anne floats around from Bob’s place (he allows her to stay if she has nowhere else to go), to several career paths, into and out of the lovesick arms of poor Paulo, and eventually back to Marc- who is denied her business as a prostitute, but given all too valuable information by accident.

In the end, Bob gets comepletely sidetracked by gambling at the casino. He almost forgets his schedule entirely, but runs out of the tables and into a gunfight. While he earned himself extraordinary wealth, he also missed the worst of the violence and gets there just in time to catch Paulo as he dies in his arms. Tragedy, sparked by an optimistic and oddly cynical note that by becoming so wealthy that he may avoid all jail time with the right lawyer for the right price. It’s one of those eternal ironies that comes through in the third act that adds just the right mix of cinematic magic to the whole affair, you see, Bob had promised his first partner in the scheme that he wouldn’t gamble until after the job had been done, but the allure of the casino was just too much for him. It’s just his nature, as the film likes to remind us. Beyond the plot, the cinematography caught me as something almost mythic in certain shots. That may seem strong, but the farther we get from the black and white films of the twentieth century, the closer that time feels to becoming as large and impenetrable in the cultural zeitgeist as say, the American West in the 1800’s. Maybe it’s just me, but I also love it when a film’s lead character travels through an environment and becomes dwarfed by the landscape, be it man-made skyscrapers or small towns, or natural like trees or mountains. Putting man on the scale of the world in your framing makes humanity seem small in comparison to the world around it- but it makes our acomplishments that much more powerful too.

If you’re looking for some good old school noir and are willing to read subtitles, I highly suggest checking this one out. For fun, try to spot all the people who aren’t smoking onscreen- once you notice it, it’s hard to miss the massive amount of people and time that smoking takes up onscreen. Otherwise, look forward to some more reviews on the films from Jean-Pierre Melville. ‘Til next time film nerds!

Final Score: 800 Million Francs

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Old School Review: “Shoot The Piano Player” (1960)

*As this film is sixty years old, there will be spoilers.*

Written and directed by François Truffaut, “Shoot The Piano Player” is an adaption of the noir novel “Down There” by David Goodis. Ironically, this was Truffaut’s 2nd film after “The 400 Blows” and the second film of his I’ve seen (The first being “Breathless” which is also reviewed on this blog). This film has heartened me to the infamous French ‘New Wave’ filmmaker far more than “Breathless” did, which isn’t to say that I disliked that film, “Shoot The Piano Player” simply kept my attention far easier. Perhaps this is due to Truffaut wanting to showcase the influence American films had on his work, or because of it’s non-linear story structure that reveals character development and evolution through elaborate flashbacks. Either way, I rather enjoyed this film by Truffaut.

The film opens with a man in a trenchcoat being pursued for unknown reasons through the streets of Paris at night. We get a short conversation between the man and a stranger who’s helped him off his feet after a short tumble. They stride in a casual pace and ponder the intricacies of love and marriage before the stranger turns off another street and our focus rips back into a hurried flurry as our man enters a small, dingy, jazz bar filled with dancing patrons. There we discover that the man we’ve followed here is Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy), brother of the pianist Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour), who is irked when Chico flippantly calls him Edouard in a teasing manner. Chico’s on the run from a couple of gangsters that he’d scammed out of their share of a heist, and they’re onto him. He pleads for Charlie’s help, but Charlie’s uninterested- he left his family behind awhile ago- but he still stalls the two thugs when they barge into the bar anyways. Eventually the two gangsters track down Charlie and the waitress Léna (Marie Dubois) from the bar, as they saw him with her later that night, and they nab both off the street at gunpoint. They escape with the help of an inquiring police officer and flee before the film takes a huge flashback that encompasses (what feels like) most of the second act. Léna then takes Charlie back to her apartment to hide out where she reveals that she always knew of his past as Edouard Saroyan, famous piano player that sold out concert halls all over Paris.

We’re then treated to a lengthy deep dive into Edouard’s past as he began practicing piano, courted a waitress, Thérèse (Nicole Berger), at a local diner and eventually married her before he got famous as a world class performer. Eventually they grow apart with the wealth and fame going to Edouard’s head as they continually fight over seemingly trivial issues that are actually clues to the much deeper issues growing between them. A few surprising reveals later and we discover the source of Edouard’s inner sadness and general melancholy towards the world around him before cutting back to the present. After they decide to quit the bar life Edouard and Léna work towards rescuing Fido (Richard Kanayan) the youngest Saroyan brother from the two gangsters. Unfortunately for them, Plyne (Serge Davri) the lummox tending the bar, has become enraged at Edouard’s advances toward Léna. A fight then breaks out between them that ends in the back alley with Edouard stabbing a knife into Plyne’s back! Though Edouard had tried to stop the fight, Plyne would not yield- the women had seen him take up such a cause and he was committed to finishing it, quite the bad luck. Thus, with blood on his hands, Edouard decides to head out to the old Saroyan farmhouse with Chico and Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), the eldest Saroyan brother. It’s not long before the two gangstera arrive with Fido in tow to confront Chico and retrieve their portion of the stolen money. There’s a shootout in the snow and everything essentially gets resolved with Léna informing Edouard that the police absolved him of his crimes as multiple neighbors had seen him try to stop Plyne in the fight. It was self defense after all. Unfortunately, Léna got caught in the ensuing crossfire and didn’t make it back to Paris. Fido was reunited with his brothers though. The film ends with Edouard returning to that same dingy dive bar and sitting back down at his crummy piano to play once more, while staring blankly into space as the film fades out.

This film had a more playful edge than “Breathless”, despite carrying heavier plot points overall, but I believe this helped to buoy the film more evenly as a whole. You can definitely see the influence of American Noir films here in Truffaut’s second film, but more specifically you can feel the presence of Alfred Hitchcock clearly and knowingly. So while this is most certainly a French film in the 1960s (Multiple instances of smoking in bed, sensations of nihilism sparking into poetic manifestos before swinging back into nonchalance, and a very loose and undefinable playfulness when concerned with intimacy and sexuality), you can rest assured that the film has a destination at the end, with a more focused narrative- which might just be preference- but it worked for me! Check this one out if you can.

Final Score: 2 Gangsters

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Old School Review: “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957)

Written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets and directed by Alexander Mackendrick, “Sweet Smell of Success” is a noir thriller that focuses on the cutthroat world of New York City Columnists and the Press Agents that supply them with articles designed to praise or attack their subjects to the whim of those in power. This is the third film of Mackendrick’s that I’ve seen thus far and while he may not have been the auteur “personality” filmmaker of his day, he was a damn good filmmaker that got the job done with efficiency and skill, and I admire that. This film, is a different caliber of quality than “The Ladykillers” or “The Man in The White Suit” however, it’s got an edge to it that his previous films lacked. There’s an urgency about our protagonist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent whose voracious appetite for power and status propels the film’s momentum along swimingly. However it isn’t Falco alone that holds our interests, for Falco is but one half of one of the more interesting symbiotic relationships in film history. That other half is J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the most powerful columnist in Broadway whose ability to crush or knight stars, musicians, and performers alike keeps him atop the throne.

The crux of the conflict in “Sweet Smell of Success” is a fascinating evolution between both Falco and Hunsecker who both admire and despise each other. Sidney starts the film trying to recapture J.J.’s favor- as he’s failed to disrupt the relationship of the powerful J.J.’s younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a local Jazz Musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Renewed with fresh tenacity Sidney gets to work from his apartment/office by biting at leads and brainstorming a way back into Hunsecker’s column, if he can’t get his clients work into Hunsecker’s column, his bills don’t get paid. Eventually Sidney gets creative and blackmails J.J.’s rival to publish a character assassination on Dallas by claiming that he’s a marijuana user and a commie, but Sidney goes one step further and plants a joint in Dallas’ jacket to further complicate the young lovers’ predictament. Once J.J. hears of Sidney’s plan, the two work together with their slimy aggression in the third act and it’s almost scary how efficient and ruthless the two men are when they have shared goals. In the end though both men lose, with Sidney getting a beatdown in the streets for his sins and J.J. losing the only connection to his family left when his sister utterly rejects him. Sidney’s “Dog-Eat-Dog” mantra comes full circle by the time the film’s final scene ends, quite fitting for world established in the film.

What really stood out to me with this film wasn’t just the stellar direction choices (everything feels highly analytical but yet authentic for the later 1950s), but rather the characterization paired with the writing. These characters aren’t only memorable, they’re realistic. Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is only a Column organizer on Broadway- but the way he’s depicted and how he manuvers through his world makes him feel as threatening as a mob boss or a calculating killer. Not to mention Sidney Falco, Tony Curtis’ acting choices and snappy, snarling, nature make him feel both charming and yet as dangerous as a sniper in war. You may not see him from his point of attack, but his accuracy is deadly. I also have to take the time to mention Mackendrick’s particularly sharp blocking choices. Even when he’s got Falco darting through his office like a shark as he’s working the phones, he has Falco’s secretary working as the foil character, asking him all of the questions any audience perspective character might be asking- but Falco barely acknowledges her questions as he works, giving only half answers and nods. It’s like Mackendrick’s telling the audience, “Don’t worry, I know you’ve got questions but just trust me”.

If you’re after another classic American film and haven’t caught this one yet, I highly recommend it. As with most of my older film watching habits, I caught this one through the Criterion Collection’s streaming service as they had a recent collection of Burt Lancaster films, and I again must endorse the Criterion Channel and their many offerings. It’s an especially fun film to throw in the mix if you’re going through a Noir phase. Check it out!

Final Score: 1 Press Agent, 1 Columnist

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Old School Review: “The Bad Sleep Well” (1960)

Written by Hideo Oguni, Eijirô Hisaita, Ryûzô Kikushima, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “The Bad Sleep Well” is a scintillating and scathing rebuke of the cut-throat, corrupt, climate that plagued Japan’s post-war corporations. Most of Akira Kurosawa’s films seem to fit into one of two categories, either his films take place in feudal Japan where Samurai and warring city-states engage in bloody battles, or they’re in the modern day Japan of it’s time and focus on the issues of the day, usually placing a heavy hand on the scale of morality. “The Bad Sleep Well” falls in the latter category and pulls a lot of it’s imagery and style from the American Noir crime genre. This time around, Kurosawa plays with a loose adaption of Hamlet set against the shadowy world of corporate espionage.

Though he may be mute for the first half hour, we’re eventually introduced to our lead in Kurosawa’s frequent collaborator, Toshirô Mifune as Kôichi Nishi. Mifune enters here with less swagger than Sanjuro or Yojimbo, but trade his usual aloofness for a pure and focused sense of revenge and Mifune’s Nishi transforms into a modern day, clean-shaven, Ronin in a three piece suit. His quest is to avenge his late father, who was forced to jump out of a window of the corporation building he worked in to safeguard his superiors and make it look as though he had committed suicide. The film opens with Nishi’s wedding with the daughter of the vice president of that same company, an unwitting innocent of collateral damage in Nishi’s shadow war against the powerful. In the wedding we’re introduced to the majority of the supporting players of the film as Nishi’s well researched scheme come to bits of fruition. Several potent accusations against leading members of the company (which lures the ravenous media to follow the high profile wedding), leads to the police arriving to take several high ranking board members in for questioning- but there’s also a large wedding cake brought in that’s an exact model of their corporate building, with a rose in the window that Nishi’s father was forced from. A perfect storm of shame and attempts at saving face for the company, which is played for comedic effect in brilliant form by Kurosawa.

It’s a good note to start out on considering the dour realities of the third act. In fact, until about the last twenty minutes of the film, it seems as though Nishi’s carefully calculated plans will have won the day. But I’m getting ahead of myself, the majority of the film is spent with three figures of the Dairyu company reacting to the scandals erupting around them as they act to diffuse and smother the growing ramifications of their destructive deeds. After the wedding, Tomoko Wada (Kin Sugai) returns from weeks of questioning by the police only to be given orders from his superiors to jump into the nearby volcano and resolve them of his misfortune, but Nishi stops him, and converts him to the side of justice. With Wada’s help, and his covert partner Itakura (Takeshi Katô), the three set forth a plan of attack consisting mostly of using the ghost of Wada to horrify and panic Shirai (Kô Nishimura), the official that held the most sensitive secret information. The next rung up on the corporate ladder belongs to administrative officer Moriyama (Takashi Shimura) a more unflappable and calculating underling of vice president Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), the major player of the film. Who just so happens to have Nishi as his ever present assistant, plotting the downfall of the Dairyu executives that organized his father’s killing.

Eventually, Moriyama deduces that the only factor relating to all of their troubles is Furuya, Nishi’s father. Further digging reveals Nishi’s true parentage, and while Nishi captures Moriyama for a time in the ruins of a bombed out factory from World War Two, it is too late- Moriyama had already informed Iwabuchi before being captured. There’s a bit more to the story, but that’s the essential facts of it. Nishi’s found out and killed off-screen before we even know what’s happened, and Iwabuchi restores order to the Dairyu corporation- even if it means the death of his daughter, and his own son’s rejection after discovering the truth. It is a cold reminder that fighting against the machine can be frought with peril, and sometimes, people get caught in the grinding gears. With a pensive and sobering tone, one of Nishi’s last lines after discovering his true lack of progress against the corporation was, “I guess I don’t hate them enough“…

Final Score: A 7-story plummet

*Linked below are two more sources on the subject, the first is the YouTube channel, “Every Frame a Painting”s video analysis of Kurosawa’s use of geometry concerning the blocking of Actors in the film. The second is a piece of well written analysis of the film from the Criterion Collection. Enjoy!

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/409-the-bad-sleep-well-the-higher-depths

film

Old School Review: Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956)

Written by Jim Thompson and Stanley Kubrick and directed by Kubrick, “The Killing” is a noir heist movie that follows a gang of criminals poised to rob a racetrack during a high-stakes horse race with a large sum of cash in play. Last week the Criterion Collection had a sale on their stock of films so I took the opportunity and found a few new curiosities. Stanley Kubrick has always been a fascinating film director, but I haven’t always loved his films. Thus, I take every chance I can get when it comes to finding more of his work so I can form a more complete picture of the man’s filmography. I had never heard of “The Killing” and a Kubrick, Noir, Heist film was too tantalizing to avoid. I likely hadn’t heard of the film because it was only Kubrick’s third full length film release, but he considered this one to be his first mature feature.

The main force propelling the plot along is Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), the architect of the heist and the only one that knows all of the moving parts of the plan. Johnny gathered this gang of desperate and foolish rogues through well researched intel and earned trust. George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) and Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) work at the track as a teller and bartender respectively. Both are in need of funds for their women at home, though each for vastly different reasons. Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani) and Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey), a chess playing strongman and a farmer who’s a crack shot with a rifle, are the two major diversions designed to create chaos and panic during the heist as Johnny palms the bills in the back during all of the confusion. There’s also Leo the loan shark (Jay Adler) and the poor schmuck of a cop Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) that got in deep debt due to Leo’s high interest rates. Together, these criminals attempted to forge a fool-proof heist in the hopes of netting a cool two million dollars for their troubles.

The film has a methodical nature to its layout, the audience simply isn’t involved in all of the details until the heist is in play. The writing, editing, and narration (which was a fountain of nostalgia laced with a fond notion of the simpler times in film) all work in tandem of executing the most tension within each scene as the film glides through its runtime. We meet the cast of characters well before knowing their exact roles in the heist, figuring out how all of the pieces fall into place was half of the fun of the film anyways. Johnny’s entire plan is based on the exact schedule of events and the knowledge that each member is executing their role at the planned time, without flaw. Thus once we get near the event we backtrack to various members and their roles as they execute them. The film was far more suspenseful than expected with this technique, it keeps you guessing as to where or when the gang will foul up their plan, because once we meet enough of the players and get a peek into a select few’s personal lives- it becomes clear that the plan will fail at some point.

I won’t spoil the fun for you by ruining the film’s third act, but I will give it a hearty recommendation. If you’re hankerin’ for a fun old school heist flick, give this one a shot! It’s only about an hour and twenty minutes, and an excellent way to kill the moody blues of a rainy afternoon.

Final Score: 2 Million dreams of the crooked and the desperate