REVIEW – The Killing (1956) and Killer’s Kiss (1955)

FilmJuice have my twin review of Stanley Kubrick’s second and third films Killer’s Kiss and The Killing, which are getting an all-singing and all-dancing re-release next week at the hands of Arrow Films.

It was interesting to discover these films after reviewing the Masters of Cinema release of Kubrick’s first film Fear and Desire (apologies for nerfed formatting) as, like most people, my memories of Kubrick’s work are shaped by the classics he started churning out from the late-50s onwards. Of Kubrick’s first three films, The Killing is almost certainly the most accomplished and accessible.

However, while the heist is beautifully handled and provides the film with a strong narrative spine, the film’s real beauty lies in the character beats that provide the film’s real sources of tension. Based on a novel by Lionel White but scripted by the legendary crime novelist Jim Thompson, the film benefits from a cast of old B-movie hands who slot effortlessly into their assigned character types and go to town on the dialogue:

Marie Windsor plays Sherry as this wonderfully cynical drunk with a young lover and a hunger for money. Every inch the Femme Fatale dominatrix, she showers her husband with sarcasm and distain only to show him just enough attention to secure his continued loyalty and affection.

As I point out in my review, I felt that the film’s ending failed to live up to the promise of the film’s opening act but I have since learned that the film’s leading man Sterling Hayden was not a popular choice with the film’s studio backers and I wonder if Kubrick might not have left a few of his character beats on the cutting room floor. Either way, the film makes the mistake of driving home the idea that the character is a no-nonsense hard case only to try to elicit sympathy for him in the final scene. You can see how the film might have played out as Kubrick does soften the character in the opening scene but his failure to re-visit that softening and underline that duality results in a film that feels more bleakly nihilistic than it clearly yearns to be. Having said that, I compare the film to pictures like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and I stand by that comparison as this still a really fucking good film.

As well as some awesome extras (including an interview with a bearded, shirtless and resentful Hayden), the disc also includes Kubrick’s lesser-known second film Killer’s Kiss. Seldom revived during Kubrick’s lifetime, Killer’s Kiss is just as trippy and arty as his first film Fear and Desire but rather than deploying those tricks in the context of a war movie, Kubrick decides to deploy them in the context of an hour-long film about a second-rate boxer who falls in love with a woman in trouble. The narrative isn’t that interesting and the bloke playing the boxer is not what you would call charismatic but the film looks sensational, a bit like Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend complete with blurring of boundary between real and imagined:

However, look beyond the simple narrative and the desperately uneven acting and you will see a young director experimenting with a wide array of cinematic techniques. For example, whereas most Hollywood films of the period shot dialogue scenes with fixed cameras, Kubrick has his cameras move in and around the actors while they deliver their lines resulting in an odd, queasy feeling that feels a lot more subjective than realistic. Also interesting is the way that Kubrick makes the walls of the boxer’s kitchen pitch black except for a window looking onto his neighbour’s apartment creating the impression that the window functions almost like a comic book thought bubble in which the boxer visualises sounds overheard through the walls.

It is also quite interesting to see these two films get a release from Arrow films. Arrow have always been a damn fine home-release outfit but I have always associated them with the cult and horror titles they release under the Arrow Video label. I’m not entirely sure how long Arrow Academy has been around as a label but releases like this one and last year’s amazing Walerian Borowczyk box set would certainly position them as the emerging power in Britain’s premium home-video market. Masters of Cinema had better watch themselves!

Classe Tous Riques (1960) – Ten Paces Behind

I have often thought that there was a great book to be written about why it is that particular genres catch on in particular places and times. What is it about post-War America and Victorian Britain that made Science Fiction so vibrant? What is it about 1980s Japan that so perfectly fit the mood of Cyberpunk? How was it that post-War France seemed capable of producing one classic piece of hardboiled crime fiction after another? An answer to this final question can be glimpsed in the life of one Jose Giovanni.

Giovanni was an educated man who spent the War as a rural guerrilla. When France was liberated, Giovanni decided to put his Maquisard skills to use in the Parisian underworld where his presence at the scene of a murder lead to him being sentenced to death. While in prison awaiting Madame La Guillotine, Giovanni made the acquaintance of a man named Abel Davos, a gangster and collaborator who went on the run with kids in tow. In 1947, Giovanni attempted to escape from prison but while the escape ultimately proved unsuccessful, it did not prevent either the lifting of Giovanni’s death sentence or his eventual pardon and successful retrial. Upon release from prison, Giovanni began writing and rapidly produced books that would go on to be adapted for the screen as:

  •  Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (1960)
  • Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques (1960)
  • Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966)

All three films draw directly from Giovanni’s life story and all three films are classics of cinematic noir. While I have a good deal of affection for both Le Trou and Le Deuxieme Souffle, the most puzzling and least generic of all three films is the long-forgotten and recently-rereleased Classe Tous Risques directed by Claude Sautet and starring Lino Ventura as a man on the run with kids in tow.

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REVIEW – The Killers (1964)

The-Killers-Blu-rayFilmJuice have my review of Don Siegel’s The Killers, an awesome character-based crime thriller starring Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan.

Based on a short story by Ernest Hemmingway and originally made for American television, The Killers poses the question as to why someone would refuse to run when confronted by two men who had been sent to kill him. Unlike the original short story (which is minimalist to the point of being nothing but negative conceptual space), Don Siegel’s adaptation functions as a kind of therapeutic process that buries into the past of a murder victim and tries to make sense of the decisions that lead him all the way to that refusal to run.

It is difficult to watch The Killers without becoming a tiny bit obsessed with Marvin’s performance. A former marine and infamous drunk, Marvin spent the 1960s carving out a reputation as a cinematic tough guy. What made him so special is that, unlike most of his contemporaries who depicted violence as an unpleasant but occasionally necessary part of a heroic vocation, Marvin let the spirit of violence seep into his bones and tried to depict it with as much realism as possible. Fifty years on and Marvin’s interrogation of the blind receptionist is still incredibly difficult to watch… it is too real and too unapologetically sadistic. Brilliantly, Siegel embraces the visceral character of the opening scene and uses it to set the tone for the entire film; The Killers is not just about hooking up with the wrong woman, it is also about the huge psychological cost of violence and how the threat of violence can grind you down, wear you out and drive you to acts of madness in a bid to escape. The solution to Hemmingway’s question is contained in the look of terror on that blind receptionist’s face.

In the few weeks since I wrote the review, the thing that has remained with me is the threat of violence. Most thrillers wear their violence and law-breaking on their sleeves and derive most of their tension from the idea that violence and law-breaking might be deployed unsuccessfully: Will the heist fail? Will the hero walk away from the gun-fight? The Killers is very different in this respect as all of the film’s tension comes from the threat of violence. Though much of this threat is down to the film’s astonishing opening sequence, I have now come to realise that Marvin’s presence in the film would not have been half as effective if it hadn’t been juxtaposed against that of the wonderfully nervy and unconstrained Cassavetes. Done up in pitch-black shades and a steely-grey suit, Marvin broadcasts the same violent nihilism that followed him from film to film and made his career. Cassavetes, on the other hand, hides absolutely nothing: When he’s a race-winning driver, he swaggers. When he’s in love, he floats. When he’s afraid, he can’t keep still. The Killers is an incredibly tense film because we can see the fear of violence in every move Cassavetes makes. Brilliant.

REVIEW – Blood Simple: Director’s Cut (1998)

BloodSimpleFilmJuice have my review of Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film Blood Simple. Or rather, the slightly shorter director’s cut that was released about fifteen years after the original film.

I found this review quite difficult to write as while I have seen and enjoyed most of the Coen Brothers’ films, I’m also acutely aware that their work invariably seems less substantial the more you think about it. Though some of their films are easily dismissed as more-or-less enjoyable tosh, some of their films feel like substantial dramas. Indeed, both A Simple Man and The Man Who Wasn’t There seemed intellectually robust when I first saw them but I am now hard pressed to remember anything about them aside from a couple of throwaway gags. Blood Simple felt very similar in that it is a film that does a great job of looking smart even though it is really little more than a pastiche:

Clearly inspired by such hardboiled crime novels as Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, Blood Simple takes a collection of film noir clichés, drives them out of the city and deposits them in a crummy bar at the tail end of Texas. Stripped of their tilted fedoras and artfully crumpled raincoats, the clichés valiantly attempt to start new lives but eventually find themselves sliding back into old familiar habits.

Watching Blood Simple, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the fact that the dividing line between a ‘smart’ film and a ‘dumb’ film is often a question of viewer charity as a charitable viewer is more likely to detect meaning and symbolism than someone who is bored out of their tiny mind. Indeed, skilled directors know that it is possible to make a film seem smarter by using some of the visual and stylistic cues that people associate with smartness. For example, even though Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises do not actually say anything substantial about either the War against Terror or the Occupy movement, visual references to both of those real world events goaded critics into assuming both films had elaborate political messages. Similarly, art house films such as Eugene Green’s The Portuguese Nun and Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light are so good at looking like serious intellectual films (long takes, lots of silence, beautiful photography, impressions of interiority) that many critics simply assume that they were in fact serious art house films filled with deep and meaningful truths.

Blood Simple is very much like a Batman comic in so far as it looks really dark, twisted and psychological but that look is ultimately all it has to offer. Watching Blood Simple I began to think about whether No Country For Old Men is a smart film or merely a film that looks smart… is there any difference? Does ‘smartness’ actually exist outside of the audience’s heads?

Chew… Stripp’d

Gestalt Mash have my latest column on John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew.

The comic uses two different devices to pursue its themes.  The first is that, following an outbreak of avian flu, the US government has made it illegal to raise and eat chickens.  However, because people still crave the flesh of the bird, an underworld of poultry-based speakeasies has emerged forcing the government to crack down on civil liberties.  The second device the comic uses is that its primary protagonist has a rare psychic power that allows him to learn about things by eating them.  The comic uses these two genre elements to investigate our increasingly problematic relationship with food and how we simply do not want to know how stuff arrive on our plates:

The uneasiness we feel about food is such that many of us have turned to superstition as a means of making sense of it.  Our money flows into the pockets of charlatans and quacks who claim that all of our problems arise from spurious allergies and a failure to eat like a caveman, a pharaoh or a 17th Century Italian peasant. Many of us even go so far as to define ourselves in terms of our dietary problems, broadcasting them to the world as though they were sources of empowerment. Nascent ethnicities birthed in diarrhoea and unsightly rashes. Tomorrow’s politicians will take pride in the words “Ich habe ein lactose intolerance”.

Chew is still appearing in monthly form and has, thus far, been collected in three trade paperbacks with a fourth due out soon.  Weird, grotesque, smart and occasionally very very funny, Chew provides a fascinating insight into our love-hate relationship with food.

Three to Kill (1976) – The Infinite Gives the Sniffles

Georges Gerfaut is a man very much like you or I :  He works a mid-level office job that involves plenty of meetings and no manual labour.  He has a wife and kids who put up with his little foibles.  He loves West Coast Jazz.  He drinks a little bit too much.  Georges Gerfaut is a man very much like you or I.  In fact, he could very well be you or I.  Georges Gerfaut will soon kill three men.

One night, Gerfaut is driving home when he witnesses an accident.  Gerfaut is concerned enough to take one of the survivors to hospital but not so concerned that he bothers to leave his name.  Did he do the right thing?  His wife is unsure, Gerfaut is not.  Either way, two men approach Gerfaut while he is on holiday and attempt to strangle him.  Then shoot him.  Then blow him up.  Without a second thought, Gerfaut takes flight.  Leaving his wife and kids completely alone.  He must kill the men who tried to murder him.

Originally published in French under the title Le Petit Bleu De La Cote Ouest, Three to Kill is Jean-Patrick Manchette’s seventh novel.  Shamefully, it is also one of only two works by Manchette currently available in English.  At a little over 130 pages, Three To Kill is a lean and minimalist work of behaviourist hard-boiled crime fiction.  However, despite its relative brevity, Manchette’s novel is a work of considerable grace and challenging profundity as it seeks to answer the question of what Kurtz would have done with his life had Marlowe managed to bring him back to civilisation alive?

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REVIEW – The Second Wind (2007)

Videovista has my review of the rather puzzling remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966).  On paper, this is a bold and interesting production : it has big names, it has striking cinematography and it has a director who is experienced enough to remember the good old days of French crime films.

The result is a film that does not quite work but it is, at least, an ambitious failure (and the story and characters are pretty much idiot-proof anyway).