Noir

Mr. Arkadin

An exasperating movie whose beauties need to be extracted from the mire of its bungling weaknesses. Mr. Arkadin is the cinema equivalent of a down-and-out scamp with an irresistible personality, a movie whose topsy-turvy production history is typically Wellesian: Shot in 1954 as a Spanish-French collaboration, Welles fiddled with editing Arkadin for months before his producer wrested it away and edited it as a conventional, chronologically linear story (contrary to Welles’s more intricate, Citizen Kane-like vision of it) and called it Confidential Report. That was, more or less, the release version of Mr. Arkadin until the Criterion Collection helped assemble what it calls The Comprehensive Version, that is, a version of the film as close to Welles’s vision as possible. The Comprehensive Version stays true to the flashback structure that Welles had in mind and posits about 15 additional minutes of footage in conformance with his original script. So, if you’re going to watch Mr. Arkadin, Criterion’s Comprehensive Version is probably the one best in line with what Welles would want you to see.

Welles himself dons the beard and opera cape of the titular Arkadin, an eccentric, pompous, egotistical billionaire (a variation on the kind of roles that Welles excelled at playing, beginning with the equally tragic, equally imposing Charles Foster Kane). Claiming amnesia, Arkadin enlists the services of Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden), an American ex-pat in post-War Europe, a black-market smuggler, to investigate his origins. Van Stratten’s job is to find out how Arkadin came to become Arkadin; that is, how a poor refugee from Poland rose from the ranks to become one of the world’s most legendary industrialists. It’s only as Van Stratten becomes aware of the trail of bodies lying in the wake of his investigation that he suspects that Arkadin has more up his ample sleeves than he bargained for, and that he himself is in line to be one of Arkadin’s victims or his fall guy. What links Van Stratten to Arkadin is the latter’s daughter, Raina (Paola Mori). Van Stratten is in love with Raina while Arkadin wants to shield his daughter from anyone with knowledge of his less-than-squeaky-clean past.

With its hectic, lurching pace, uneven (if not downright awful) performances and a hodgepodge of a script riddled with scenes that barely make dramatic sense, Mr. Arkadin wears all the battle scars of a movie hobbled by budget and a slapdash production (and post-production) made all the more tenuous by Welles’s capricious working methods. That his vision for Arkadin was never fully realized is less a surprise than Criterion being able to piece together the Comprehensive Version, thanks to meticulous scholarship and research.

As pulp noir, Mr. Arkadin is not particularly successful because it’s haphazard elements prevent any coherent sense of story and suspense. Van Stratten, as a character, is never very appealing; he never projects the authentic desperation and contained poise of a noir anti-hero, a fugitive in search of redemption, and there’s nothing romantic about his persona at all. What Welles needed was a strong, silent Robert Mitchum or Sterling Hayden type. What he got was someone closer to William Bendix by way of Andy Devine, garrulous and irritable.

Granted, Arden’s performance speaks less of his talent and more of Welles’s ill-thought-out direction of it. Indeed, weak or slapdash performances abound in Arkadin: Mori as Van Stratten’s love interest is neither particularly sexy nor charming, and she comes off as just a rich girl wearing the costume of a grown-up sophisticate; Patricia Medina as Mily, who also wants the goods on Arkadin, is so temperamentally all over the place, we can’t be sure if she’s a sly gold-digger or an innocent naif in a bad situation. In any case, Welles’s preoccupation seems to have been with his own role. Welles plays Arkadin with his always-amusing blend of kitschy, charismatic bravado; he’s a commanding presence eliciting either delighted chuckles from fans of his larger-than-life stagecraft or groans from those who’ve had enough.

Still, for all its flaws, Mr. Arkadin is a mesmerizing experience, a schizoid crime caper that’s half-potboiler and half-reverie. While the script threatens to implode with its incoherence, the acting can be awful and the pacing erratic, there are also scenes of pure cinematic bliss. And the last is why we come to Welles anyway. The scenes, for example, in Arkadin’s Spanish castle draw from Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in their expressive, geometric use of interiors and of the vast landscapes. The sequences in Munich, Mexico, North Africa and a terrifically oddball one inside Arkadin’s storm-tossed ship are all hallmarks of kooky expressionism (a la Carol Reed’s The Third Man) melded with a chic, ultra-modern visual posturing that presages Fellini and Antonioni.

A personal favorite is the scene in which Arkadin asks Van Stratten to investigate his past. The exchange takes place in what is presumably a secretary’s office, littered with filing cabinets, but, in the spell of the movie’s imagery and setting, this office becomes an obscure catacomb in some bizarre alternate reality. Watching this scene, I always wonder what secrets those filing cabinets contain, why there are no windows in this “office,” and ponder the room’s stuffy, claustrophobic atmosphere. Knowing that Welles shot the movie in scattershot fashion, the scene and space have a hit-and-run, spit-and-glue quality about them. It’s a scene in which we really have to play “pretend,” because Welles insists we do and the fact that we don’t fully buy what’s being sold on-screen only pulls us more insistently into the story.

I suppose that these details — some deliberate, some incidental, some subjective — are what sets Mr. Arkadin apart. Details packed into moments that combine to make Arkadin less a movie than a dream of a movie you thought you once watched. It’s that dream-like quality that makes this an eternal, ethereal experience, something that’s rarely felt at the movies. And only when the movies in question are conjured by the most wizardly of filmmakers.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles
Cast: Robert Arden, Orson Welles, Michael Redgrave, Patricia Medina, Akim Tamiroff, Paola Mori, Katina Paxinou, Gregoire Aslan, Peter van Eyck

Code 46

A futuristic film noir-love story with an Oedipal twist. That sounds like a devilish cocktail and it might’ve made for just such a movie. But “Code 46” by director Michael Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce is a muddy, strangely unintoxicating mix. A noir with no moral desperation, no clear-cut point-of-view and a love story whose eroticism feels about as urgent as yardwork.

This is not to say that “Code 46” lacks merit. Mark Tildesley’s production design and Alwin Kuchler and Marcel Zyskind’s photography ingeniously render a future-world that has ingredients of “Blade Runner” and “Mad Max” among other futuristic noir antecedents. Its soaring neon-lit towers and its smog- and dust-enshrouded landscapes are striking, but equally so is how the movie’s design—out of a need for economy and narrative expediency—is kept within the bounds of a recognizable reality. Those gleaming and ominous settings are modern-day Shanghai, Dubai and Hong Kong tricked out merely with lighting, filters and minimal art design.

Winterbottom and Cottrell Boyce postulate an endpoint to our age of rapid urbanizing and globalizing. Theirs is a George Orwell-meets- Phillip K. Dick dystopia where people’s mobility and behavior are heavily regulated and where overpopulated cities are separated by vast stretches of wasteland. “Code 46” itself refers to a reproductive law in which partners who share common genes are prohibited from mating—a way to keep genetically identical humans and clones from getting it on.

There’s the rub for William (Tim Robbins), a detective who arrives in Shanghai to track down who’s been manufacturing and selling counterfeit “papelles”— special permits needed to transit from one city to another. The culprit, he discovers, is Maria (Samantha Morton), a waifish, dreamy-eyed loner. He promptly falls in love and into bed with her. Soon after returning to his married life, William is alerted to a murder that leads him back to Maria. But her memory of William, their shared sexual history, has since been wiped clean by doctors, owing to a Code 46 violation. William learns that Maria was cloned from his own mother’s genes. Logically, I wondered why, if sex with such a clone were possible, aren’t there measures—identity cards, retinal scans, whatever—to preempt such an act. Why? Because logic would’ve overstepped “Code 46’s” entire second half when William, too smitten with Maria to care about their genetic relatedness, flies off with her for another illicit jaunt in the desert. Their cavorting, of course, comes to the lovelorn end we expect from this genre, but which registers none of its emotional payoff.

Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, two intelligent actors, are fatally unconvincing as lovers. As William proceeds to woo Maria, we continually wonder what he sees in her and vice versa. Sporting her close-cropped “In America” haircut, Morton pitches her performance somewhere between the crime-predicting humanoid of “Minority Report” and the mute wallflower of “Sweet and Lowdown”—not exactly a combination to get a man’s pulse racing. The foundation for all noirs is how it reveals a wounded world through the dark but ever-hopeful gaze of its detective-protagonists. “Code 46,” which poises itself as noir, fails utterly to lock us into William’s world-view; Winterbottom, instead, lingers on Maria’s pseudo-poetic interior monologues, conjuring dreamy moments that narratively amount to nothing. Below William’s cocksure surface, Robbins’ characterization is a milky mess, absent of any motive for his infidelity, let alone a personal desire to solve this or any crime.

“Code 46” is an ambitious but miscalculated affair, owing entirely to Cottrell Boyce’s unengaging script. It prompts more questions of logic and motivation than it bargained for, losing its actors and audience along the way. Winterbottom is a competent filmmaker known also for his prolific output. Were it not for his flair for mood and texture, “Code 46” might sink entirely. Nevertheless, he might better serve his stories—especially those as conceptually complex as this one—by slowing down and taking the time to tell them clearly and well.

Grade: C

Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Cast: Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Om Puri

The Underneath

The Underneath dates from when Soderbergh was making movies on the far edges of the Hollywood grid. This quirky noir concerns Michael Chambers, a ne’er-do-well gambler (played by a wry Peter Gallaghar) who skips town only to return still smitten with his old flame. In a bid to get her back and leave town together, he plots the robbery of an armored car, one that he’s driving, with the intention of making off with his woman along with all the stolen money, before going clean. The plan, of course, gets botched, Michael’s stepfather gets shot, and he himself lands in the hospital. Things go from bed, ahem, bad to worse when Michael finds himself abducted by Tommy, his by-now infuriated former accomplice (an icy-eyed William Fichtner), sending things into a betrayal-laced tailspin. Soderbergh wonderfully, at times hypnotically, paces this indie gem, and Elliot Davis’ photography is luminous; both director and cinematographer have a deft feel for how to meld a crime story into a character-driven melodrama. Underneath stands as one of Soderbergh’s more accomplished projects before hitting it big with Out of Sight. An absorbing, if an occasionally plodding, experience.

Grade: B

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Steven Soderbergh, Daniel Fuchs
Cast: Peter Gallagher, Alison Elliott, William Fichtner, Joe Don Baker, Paul Dooley, Elisabeth Shue, Shelley Duvall

Stray Dog

Mifune, young and charismatic, plays the rookie Detective Murakami of the Tokyo police. On one sweltering summer day, Murakami gets his gun stolen, an incident that leads him into a twisting and turning investigation through the underbelly of post-war Tokyo. The crook into whose hands the gun eventually falls into proceeds to use it in robbing and shooting his victims. Kurasawa uses this detective’s odyssey as a framework to depict about how some soldiers in post-war Japan became screwed-up and hopeless, turning to crime after their wartime experiences. The film’s pacing is typically slow (for Kurosawa), and Mifune is magnetic in the lead. Quite lurid and sentimental at times, Stray Dog also fascinates with it terrific visual touches and as a document of life in post-war Tokyo.

Grade: A

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji, Eiko Miyoshi

Sin City

My first fifteen minutes of Sin City can be summed up this way: Wow! Rodriguez and Miller really pulled it off, transfiguring Frank Miller’s black-and-white ink drawings into the stuff of cinema. Again, wow! This could be the most revolutionary thing to happen to film noir since Lars von Trier’s Zentropa. The remaining two hours of this movie quickly and decisively deflated these early exhilarations.

Miller may be a brilliant visual stylist, but he doesn’t have a grasp on storytelling. To make narrative cinema, you need three things: character, character, character. You take your character through a process of change from one turn to the next and come up with a conclusion that stays true to what your character has learned. In Sin City, the characters do not change, they learn nothing. In fact, the movie’s characters are just cheap knock-offs of noir staples (Chandler, Hammett, not to mention Bogart are all rolling around in their graves). Also, it is supremely easy to demonize politicians and priests–something we’ve seen way too much of in our popular culture–surely, we can move on, folks.

Also, what’s up with Miller’s obsession with decapitations, castrations, with disfigured men, and whores? Without a sense of reason or direction, the movie fails to thematically cohere its macabre spider-work into anything higher and greater. Any improvement on this fetishistic faux-urban nonsense would’ve taken a real storyteller, somebody who knew the ropes and could stay true to the narrative arc. There is no arc in Sin City — just a long flatline that takes its one-note protagonists from one grisly episode to the next and, satisfying every male adolescent fantasy along the way. Odd how the movie’s politics of gender, violence and sex is as monochromatic as its visual approach. But this is the new Hollywood, where semi-literate masturbations like Sin City pass for brilliant moviemaking. And you can’t tell me this is what noir is about. It isn’t. Read and watch the real stuff.

My own trajectory while watching Sin City –excited, bored, offended…back to bored…roll credits. What offended me was not the violence nor the sensationalism (it’s all been done before) but the sheer inanity of the storytelling. Tell Frank Miller to put a sock in it and check into therapy so he can address his infantile issues with women. He can keep drawing his pictures and put them in pretty little frames. I might even buy one then sell it to some gullible Ritalin-tweaking 13-year old for more money than it’s worth on eBay. But who’s listening, right? Not when you’ve got legions of brainwashed, sexually frustrated, violence-obsessed fanboys at your beck and call. It’s a sad day when stuff like this actually passes for “good.”

A royal piece of aesthetisized dogshit and a huge step backwards for Hollywood, for women and for brains.

Grade: D

Directed by: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino (special guest director)
Written by: Frank Miller
Cast: Jessica Alba, Benicio Del Toro, Bruce Willis, Elijah Wood, Brittany Murphy, Mickey Rourke, Powers Boothe, Michael Madsen, Rosario Dawson, Clive Owen, Michael Clarke Duncan

Match Point

Who would’ve thought Woody Allen would evolve into such a capable handler of suspense dramas? He proved it the first time in Crimes and Misdemeanors and he proves it again with the Dreiser-esque Match Point. The movie finds Allen stepping out of his Manhattan stomping grounds and into foreign territory, namely, contemporary London. The geography may be different but the social milieu is exactly the same: the white aristocracy.

Chris, a has-been tennis pro (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) finds himself ushered into the giddily moneyed world of Tom, one of his tennis students. Before long, he’s engaged to Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), and, with her influence, he’s climbing the corporate ladder at her father’s swish London company. Chris’s gravy train, though, is derailed by his own lust when he falls for a sultry American actress, Nola (Scarlett Johansson) who also happens to be Tom’s fiancée. Once the two get hot-and-heavy, Chris finds he’s in way over his head and that the implications of their affair endanger the rosy future he’s lucked himself into. What follows is a blow-by-blow of Chris’s attempts to silence Nola, to placate his own maternity-fixated wife and resume some semblance of a normal and upstanding life.

There’s no ground here that Allen hasn’t gone over before, but as a treatment of upper crust mores and, eventually, as a thriller, it’s compulsively watchable and generally well acted. What tires and troubles me, though, is Allen’s attitude towards women. Once Nola becomes a liability in Chris’s life, she degenerates into a hysterical bitch of the typically Allen-esque variety; even Johansson’s diction and delivery shifts from its seductive cooing to a shrill, hyper-articulate screeching, suspiciously akin to all of Allen’s fictional urbanized viragos. Likewise, Chloe (no accident that her name resembles “cloying”) is just a nagging shrew who latches onto her man and won’t let go. In Chris, Allen finds his moral doppelganger, but the morality here is simplistic. Chris cannot reconcile with where his actions lead him, but his inner conflicts amount to nothing more than the simplistic dualities of the sociopath. Allen seems content with simple conclusions and Match Point stays on that familiar and safe terrain throughout. What transcends the material, though, are the closely felt London settings, all beautifully filmed, and the ensemble of excellent performances. I’m no fan of the monotoned, glassy-eyed Johansson, but Emily Mortimer, Brian Cox, and Rhys-Meyers are all effective. James Nesbitt and Ewen Bremmer steal the show as a pair of sharp, slightly buffoonish detectives hot on Chris’s trail…or are they? Their affable presence makes up for Allen’s shortfalls as a social critic and storyteller and help make Match Point Allen’s worthiest effort in ages.

Grade: B

Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen
Cast: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Brian Cox, Matthew Goode

Zentropa

Beautiful, brilliant, hallucinatory filmmaking highlights this strange tale of Leopold (Barr), an American who goes to Germany in the days following WWII to work as a sleeping car conductor on the country’s railways. Leopold gets mixed up with neo-NAZI saboteurs through his romantic involvement with the railroad magnate’s seductive daughter. All the way through, this is dazzling filmmaking, embellished with Max von Sydow’s unforgettable, mesmeric voice-over: “On the count of ten, you will be in Europa…I say…ten!”

Lars von Trier makes deliriously inventive use of rear projection, mixed film stocks and atmospheric sound to bring his story to powerful psychological and emotional life. Among the movie’s one-of-a-kind highlights: Leopold’s underwater finale, when von Trier’s wields suspense like a slowly tightening winch, and the suicide of the old man in the tub, shot through the water with the droplets of crimson blood spreading over the black-and-white rippling of water. Zentropa is an awe-inspiring cinema experience, and my favorite von Trier film thus far: it’s an unusual mixed media synthesis, blending classical film techniques with a very forward-thinking experimental sensibility. Not to be missed by any film buff, catch this one on the big screen!

Grade: A

Directed by: Lars von Trier
Written by: Lars von Trier, Niels Vørsel
Cast: Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Erik Mørk, Jørgen Reenberg, Henning Jensen, Eddie Constantine

Le Samourai

Stoic, fedora-sporting hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon) botches his latest job and rouses suspicion among the police, in particular in a dogged detective (François Périer). Soon, Costello finds himself the target of both the police, and the organization that hired him. Jean-Pierre Melville’s spare script loses us in terms of character development and motivation — very little of either is really assayed — as Costello turns the tables on his mafia employers, and evades the Paris police. The climactic turns in the film are so elided that its final act feels strangely disembodied. Still, Nathalie Delon is a treat to watch, and Melville’s from-the-hip shooting style combined with astute editing rhythms prefigures Hollywood’s crime capers of the early ’70s (notably The French Connection). The object of great movie-geek adulation since its release, Le Samourai is, on balance, an enjoyably stylish entry in the French crime film tradition, but a decidedly minor one.

Grade: B

Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville, Georges Pellegrin
Cast: Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, Cathy Rosier, Jacques Leroy, Michel Boisrond, Jean-Pierre Posier

Kiss of Death (1947)

Former crook Nick Bianco turns informant so he can secure parole and look after his family. When he gets the goods on a psychotic hitman, Tommy Udo (Widmark), Nick testifies against him to maintain his parole. Trouble brews when Tommy beats the rap, and Nick finds himself and his family in his crosshairs. What really sets this noir apart–other than Hecht and Lederer’s sure-handed script–in a field crowded with them in the ’40s & ’50s is a combination of Hathaway’s deliberate craftsmanship and the small crackerjack ensemble led by Mature and Widmark. Movies like Kiss of Death and The Naked City spearheaded a new streetwise aesthetic to the crime genre. We find a documentary-like naturalism in its unadorned cinematography and production design–crisp, efficient, yet gorgeous in their simplicity. It takes a solid measure of confidence in front of the camera to accomplish Mature’s level of acting here. He takes time with each glance, gesture, and every word he speaks as Nick must weigh his love for family against certain peril to his own life at every turn; it’s a masterful performance from a generally underrated career actor. Mature’s gently mannered turn is overshadowed–understandably so–by Widmark’s more famous one as the combustible Udo, a guy who has no qualms about dealing out his brand of justice to old ladies in wheelchairs. With his unnerving sniggering, batty eyes, and sense of barely contained menace, Udo’s creepily clownish killer has stalked the darkened alleyways of noir lore ever since Kiss of Death’s release.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Henry Hathaway
Written by: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer
Cast: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray, Richard Widmark, Taylor Holmes, Howard Smith, Karl Walden

The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Scheming, betrayal and double-dealing abound in Writer-Director J Blakeson’s kidnapping thriller “The Disappearance of Alice Creed.” And if nothing in the plot seems particularly fresh, Blakeson’s film is still admirable enough for its stylish efficiency and crackerjack performances. The film gets off the blocks rapidly in a series of workmanlike and economical set-ups, cut together with no-nonsense editing, as kidnappers Vic (Eddie Marson) and Danny (Martin Compston) capture the daughter – the Alice Creed of the title – of a well-known multi-millionaire, and whisk her away, tied up and gagged, to their hideout apartment in the desolate outskirts.

Vic and Danny’s plan is to keep Alice alive (Genna Arterton) while they demand and arrange for a substantial ransom from her father. But don’t expect to see tense standoffs or shouting matches over telephones; such histrionics are by now tiresome and all-too-familiar. Thankfully, Blakeson’s script keeps them off-screen and irrelevant to the drama at hand.

The script’s focus lies in its secrets: Vic and Danny are in cahoots but Danny has an ulterior motive for the kidnapping. Indeed, Danny is the pivot on whom all of “Disappearance’s” secrets revolve: His familiarity with Alice, for instance, goes beyond merely having suggested her as their target. And while she and Danny share a private trust, Alice is, in fact, only one component in Danny’s triangle of duplicitous intimacy. Sexual politics figure prominently in “Disappearance’s” mind games and give a fresh twist to the well-known device of positing schemes above schemes as each character goes about turning the tables in his or her favor.

It’s not so much the duplicities themselves, but the relish with which Blakeson exploits his story’s hothouse atmospherics: A stand-out scene in which Danny tries to keep Vic from noticing a stray bullet shell while the latter spoon feeds a bowl of soup to their captive demonstrates the director’s penchant for suspenseful pacing, editing, and even sound as what we largely hear is the quickening clink of the spoon and the gulps of soup. This is effective, old-school filmmaking in which the fundamentals of the form are brought out from the cinematic toy box and cranked up again effectively enough as to evoke the classical masters (even The Master of Suspense himself).

What nags about Blakeson’s project, though, is its all-too-clever shape, one in which all the pieces are too precisely timed and fitted into place. It’s the by-plays between Danny and Alice, Danny and Vic and, finally, Vic and Alice, that drive much of the intrigue in the script, each occurring in an order and with an outcome designed to optimize audience reaction. “Disappearance” eventually becomes so manic and preoccupied by what it must hide and reveal that Blakeson’s contrivances eventually become a tad too conspicuous.

Thanks to a trio of terrific performances, however, the script’s weaknesses are smoothed over. Arterton plays Alice with a compelling mix of humor and feisty resilience opposite Compston’s suggestible but ultimately venal Danny. It’s Marsan, though, who commands most of our attention, portraying Vic as a tortured soul, driven by more than money. By turns, vulnerable and dangerous, Vic is what keeps us rooted and invested in the film’s machinations. Blakeson is clearly a talent to watch, a filmmaker versed in the elementals of style and of the noir form, and he’d be lucky to nab Marsan again should he wish to continue his explorations of the crime saga.

Grade: B+

Directed by: J Blakeson
Written by: J Blakeson
Cast: Genna Arterton, Martin Compston, Eddie Marsan