Noir

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

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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

Animal Kingdom

Writer-director David Michôd’s drama about a crime family in crisis wants to be a matter-of-fact rendering of deception, tit-for-tat murder, and police intrigue. By muting his story in mellow tones and an even mellower style, Michôd’s going for Roman Polanski’s bygone psychodramas – so he claims in the press notes (though, to me, his movie felt more in the vein of a ‘70s era Altman or Ashby). In any case, it’s all for naught because “Animal Kingdom” simply doesn’t have a compelling enough central character, and its story isn’t interesting enough to warrant our attention.

After his mother dies of a drug overdose, teenager Joshua (James Frecheville) moves in with his uncles Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford) and their doting mother Smurf (Jackie Weaver, and, no, she isn’t dyed blue). It’s a strange home, not least because of Smurf’s almost-Oedipal attachment to her sons. Theirs is a tight-knit cabal of bank robbers on the brink of unraveling: strung-out Craig has taken to moonlighting as a dope dealer, and the family’s oldest son, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is being hunted by the police. The robbers’ ringleader Barry (Joel Edgerton), smart and cautious, wants to go straight after his latest heist. But when the cops on Pope’s tail gun Barry down, Pope and Darren stage a retaliatory killing against the cops responsible. A murder investigation ensues led by a mustache-sporting Guy Pearce as the conscientious Detective Leckie.

Leckie zeroes in on Joshua as the most viable witness in an investigation riddled with corruption. The callow and terrified Joshua, however, struggles with where his loyalties lie. And once matters turn personal for him, he goes from pawn to player in the plot’s legal and criminal convolutions.

Michôd’s metaphor of the cops-and-robbers world as an “animal kingdom” is inviting but laid on rather thick. We want to scream “We get it already!” as Michôd offers up such images as Craig scampering away like a wild animal into the open veldt while a herd of rifle-toting police close in on him. And, later, when Leckie explains to Joshua how human affairs are a ruthless game of “survival of the fittest.” Such high-minded analogies only work in proportion to the power and persuasiveness of the story at hand. But “Animal Kingdom” is more a trip to the petting zoo than a foray into the treacherous savannah of high and low crime.

The direction, meanwhile, is a point-and-shoot affair, driven by an ethos to let the story emerge organically from the screen, like a sculpture in relief. Alas, what we get is a monochromatic watercolor of a bland subject as the story lacks the suspense and spark to hold our attention. Frecheville’s on-screen presence doesn’t help matters. The actor mugs and mumbles his way through what feels like a catatonic state, such is the lack for charisma and vitality in the performance. Thankfully for both Michôd and the audience, two performances partially compensate: The first comes from the always-excellent Pearce, and the other from Mendelsohn as the fugitive Pope. Mendelsohn masks Pope behind suburban niceties, when, in fact, his character is a serpent, venomous and eager to strike. The showcase role, perhaps, belongs to Weaver as the Lady Macbeth-like Smurf, all tenderness and motherly cheer on the outside, but on the inside, a lioness ready do whatever it takes to protect her pride. It’s a performance whose dichotomies show too easily, though, and which becomes another of the script’s crass attempts to expand its central metaphor.

Grade: C

Directed by: David Michôd
Written by: David Michôd
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver, Dan Wyllie, Luke Ford, Laura Wheelwright

The Element of Crime

Nearly incomprehensible but stylistically dazzling outing from von Trier, Europe’s answer to David Lynch and David Cronenberg. While deep in a hypnotic trance, a detective (Elphick) recounts his investigation into a series of murders. In trying to track down the killer, he applies the psychological tools picked up from his mentor –all of which the aging, eccentric mentor compiled in the titular criminal psychology manual. Suffused in irradiated brown-orange tones and superbly expressive visual tricks, von Trier succeeds in creating an apocalyptic tone, a sense that the unfolding story is but a figment of some fever dream. As impressive as that is, The Element of Crime is a strangely muddled affair, hardly compelling in terms of character and narrative drive, possessed of a dark, deviant sexuality and a nightmarish grittiness that seem to exist for their own sake, as an homage to the underbelly elements of noir. Element is definitely another entry in the Style Over Substance category of moviemaking; von Trier would have far greater success fusing his extraordinary aesthetic with a fully developed storyline years later in Zentropa.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Lars von Trier
Screenplay by: Tómas Gislason, William Quarshie, Lars von Trier, Niels Vørsel, Stephen Wakelam
Cast: Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Me Me Lai, Jerold Wells, Ahmed El Shenawi

Detour

This low-budget noir (the production truly looks held together by spit and string) from bargain-basement maestro Ulmer involves sad sack musician Al (Neal) caught in a web of circumstance while thumbing his way cross-country to L.A. to reunite with his girlfriend. Al’s luck goes from bad to worse when, after assuming a dead man’s identity, he gets tangled up with a femme fatale (Savage) who blackmails him into doing her bidding. Well-paced and forthright, Detour doesn’t boast a particularly sharp protagonist (Neal’s pouty-faced Al, in fact, is about as a resourceful as a kid lost in a carnival) nor a robust storyline–the events precipitate from one shouting match between conniver and victim in a connect-the-dots fashion. But, with its fatalism and conflating of sex and danger, this is quintessential noir territory. For fans of the genre, it’s a dark and lovely landscape that Detour hitchhikes through.

Grade: B

Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Martin Goldsmith
Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald

Brick

If wouldn’t surprise me if Brick was eventually canonized by film geeks as a cult classic in much the same way as Reservoir Dogs and Donnie Darko. Like those movies, Brick demonstrates an aggressively talented filmmaker making his feature directorial debut. Clearly enamored with ’40s-era hardboiled fiction, Rian Johnson cleverly grafts the lingo and tropes of that genre onto a high school setting, building a mystery thriller around the murder of a teenage girl. The girl’s lover–an ostracized student and loner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), still carrying a torch for his dead beloved–determines to investigate. His search leads him into the high school’s drug underworld, and into the clutches of its kingpin (Lukas Haas). More than anything, Brick is just an elaborate noir send-up, and an enjoyably kooky one at that. It’s a funhouse ride in which pubescent characters pop out of the darkness, spouting fermented hardboiled slang. But, ultimately, it’s just an inauthentic and pointless gag; more often than not, we get the feeling of post-modern actors dressing up and approximating noir roles in a high-school milieu: the jaded private dick, the capo, the heavy, the manipulative cop (a fantastic Richard Roundtree, by the way) and, of course, the femme fatale. They’re all here, going through the motions we might find in any of classical Hollywood’s Hammett-Chandler adaptations, but they can’t get their mouths around Johnson’s archaic dialogue. And without the snap and spunk of actors who know how to deliver that old-time verbiage, we’re left with a lot of incomprehensible, marble-mouthed blathering, uttered with tiresome hipster somnolence; the clash of the old and the new just doesn’t light any sparks. Still, Johnson’s connect-the-dots noir script gives him the chance to experiment with atmospherics, which owe a debt as much to Blue Velvet as to The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. When it’s over, though, and Brick’s novelties and stylistics have worn off, we’re still wondering what greater meaning any of this is meant to convey. Like his aforementioned indie-brat forebears, Johnson may be just another filmmaker with the resources to get his rocks off, but with nothing original or of any consequence to actually say.

Grade: B-

Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O’Leary, Emilie de Ravin, Noah Segan, Richard Roundtree, Meagan Good