Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Mesrine and why Robert Mitchum was in the dark - Reviews #51

Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman, 1985) is an appealing, unconventional film about a shy, put-upon young married woman (Rosanna Arquette) who swaps places with a free-spirited man-eater (Madonna) after a bump on the head. A dated dramatic device, perhaps, but it's such a sweet, sassy and otherwise well-plotted affair we'll let it slide. The film inhabits a similar universe - and employs the same neon aesthetic - as Scorsese's ever-underrated comedy After Hours, but this is an altogether gentler affair. Sure it plunges its heroine into a seedy world dominated by shady, peroxide hitmen and amorous conjurors, but it's in many ways preferable to the yuppie nightmare she's been living with all-time wanker Mark Blum. At least here she's got love on her side, courtesy of kind-hearted Aidan Quinn (the psychotic drug-addled baddie in the Richard Dreyfuss-Emilio Estevez buddy movie Stakeout). Arquette, who played the lead in the classic John Sayles romcom Baby, It's You, is perfect as the doormat desperately seeking excitement, and while Madonna isn't a great actress, she's both hugely charismatic and ideally cast as the manipulative, posing, sex-obsessed Susan. Also look out for John Turturro in an early role as a nightclub compere. A little gem from out of left-field, this one, with an engaging storyline, memorable characters and a disarmingly peculiar sense of humour. (3)

Trivia note: The new Madonna song on the soundtrack is Into the Groove. Not one of her best singles of the period, but still pretty damn decent.


MGM's scoring supremo of the '50s Andre Previn said producer Joe Pasternak had "the gift of mediocrity", fashioning unchallenging musicals that satisfied a mass audience. That's underselling the films Pasternak created around Canadian singing sensation Deanna Durbin at Universal in the late-'30s, and his finer pictures after pitching up at MGM, but the words do have a certain resonance when you watch something like Hit the Deck (Roy Rowland, 1955). Employing the "sailors on leave" template familiar from Follow the Fleet, Anchors Aweigh (that's the one where Gene Kelly dances with Jerry Mouse) and On the Town, the film sees Tony Martin, Vic Damone and Russ Tamblyn finding love with Ann Miller, Jane Powell (another Pasternak protégée) and Debbie Reynolds. It's rarely exceptional, as Pasternak's rival Arthur Freed's films so often were, but the plot is easy to take and there are a handful of enjoyable numbers, headed by Miller's sizzling 'Lady from Bayou' and Tamblyn and Reynolds' number in the scary fun house, which offers a spin on the celebrated routine in RKO's Damsel in Distress. The male leads are far less interesting than their female counterparts (Martin is no Sinatra and for all his talent Tamblyn is no Gene Kelly, though Danone may be preferable to Jules Munshin), but the support cast is particularly strong, with Walter Pidgeon excellent as Tamblyn and Powell's father - his near-arrest is very amusing - and an unrecognisable J. Carrol Naish playing an Italian flower shop owner. Gene Raymond, a minor leading man in the '30s (see him in Flying Down to Rio, the first Astaire-Rogers teaming, or The Smartest Girl in Town), has a thankless role as a cad. (2.5)


This is getting really boring now.

Federico Fellini delighted in the fact that his name had "become an adjective". It was a myth he bought into, but the more Fellini-esque he became though - creating dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness films that were freewheeling, freeform and fatally flawed - the less interesting the result. 8 1/2 has some stunning moments, but every time it starts to get good the director seemingly tires of an idea and curtails it. Don't worry if the next diversion isn't to your taste, though, there'll be another along in a minute. Fellini's Roma (Federico Fellini, 1972) has the same (lack of) structure, but the opposite problem, with several weak sequences that go on forever. A portrait of the capital shown through the imagination of a young boy, the wide eyes of an adolescent and the jaded viewpoint of a 50-year-old, it promises much but delivers relatively little. The scenes of the younger Fellini are mostly very good, particularly the richly-evocative music hall sequence, while the "fading frescos" set-piece - set in the modern day - is an absolute knockout, loaded with symbolism. But the unbearably tedious traffic jam is a sign that it's not all going to hit the mark, an impression hammered home by the artless scenes of exposition utilising the film crew (a terrible stock device), the never-ending prostitute conveyor belt and a final half-hour that's almost exclusively rubbish. It's difficult to know if the misfiring sequences are simply too personal to make sense, or just self-indulgent rubbish (perhaps those two things are the same), but the film reaches a particular nadir with the clergy-on-the-catwalk fiasco. Is it supposed to be a comment on the wealth of the church? If so, it's simultaneously vague and heavy-handed. If it's a hark back to the gleeful subversion of Bunuel's L'age d'Or, shouldn't it be funnier, or in some way satirical? And does it really have to take 15 leaden-paced minutes? I admire Fellini's originality, his vision and his unconformity, but not his speechifying, self-satisfaction and pointless post-modernism. It's the latter traits that take precedence here. If Fellini-esque refers to Nights of Cabiria, it's high praise indeed. But if it's Roma, then perhaps not. (2)


I know it's small, but I'm afraid I have to use this picture.

Topkapi (Jules Dassin, 1964) is among the highlights of the '60s caper-comedy boom, which also produced Charade, Gambit, Arabesque and How to Steal a Million. Helmed by Jules Dassin, the French filmmaker behind heist movie blueprint Rififi (with its legendary silent central set-piece - all 20 minutes of it), it's clever, stylistically showy and deliciously tongue-in-cheek. Maximillian Schell is the criminal mastermind who recruits a team of amateurs as he plots to steal a priceless emerald-studded dagger from an Istanbul museum. He's nicking it for Melina Mercouri, his nymphomaniac former lover, whose fondness for men is exceeded only by that passion for jewels. Schell's protegees include alarms expert Robert Morley, strongman Jess Hahn and human fly Gilles Segal, while whimpering, half-Egyptian tour guide Peter Ustinov and drunken servant Akim Tamiroff (one of the great character actors of the Golden Age, whose fans included Orson Welles) also buzz around. Ustinov's an unwilling plant for the cops, who thinks the group are terrorists. Tamiroff comes with the villa where they're staying; he's convinced they're "Russische spies". It takes a little while for the film's disparate pieces to slot into place, and the variety of European accents can be a struggle, but the second half is utterly superb, with a heist sequence that's tense, funny and mirth-inducingly ingenious, and a gem of an ending. Ustinov got an Oscar for his hilarious turn as the incompetent Arthur Simpson, but the whole ensemble does a neat job, and Tamiroff is very amusing as the bitter, suspicious, misguided, constantly slurring would-be informant. Particularly when he starts talking about fish. (3.5)


Mesrine: L'instinct de mort (Jean-François Richet, 2008) aka Mesrine: Killer Instinct is a fast-paced, stylised biopic charting the rise of Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), the murderer and media manipulator who became France's most wanted man. It begins with a methodical, initially cryptic sequence set in 1979, then flashes back, tracing Mesrine's service in the Algerian War and his relationship with his father, whom he derides as a collaborator, before enquiring: "Do balls skip a generation in this family?" Mesrine is hard to root for, beating women, spouting racist epithets and sticking a loaded revolver in his wife's mouth, while the movie's mid-section follows the crime/punishment film template too rigidly to be truly gripping, but the piece builds to a truly gobsmacking, nerve-shredding climax with a lo-fi prison escape that consists simply of the hero attempting to snip through surrounding fences with wire-cutters. Cassel is absolutely excellent in the lead, carrying the film on his shoulders and compensating for a script that sometimes skimps on its characters' motivations. Gerard Depardieu, as Mesrine's mentor, is a little underused, but adds weight to the supporting cast, his first meeting with Cassel being particularly memorable. (3)


Mesrine: L'ennemi public n°1 (Jean-François Richet, 2008) aka Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 goes one better, with deeper characterisation and an incisive narrative laced with pitch-black humour that examines Mesrine's escalating egomania, fuelled by a troubling relationship with the press. The suspense sequences are expertly mounted and seamlessly incorporated, while Cassel's vivid central performance builds on his impressive showing in the first film, fairly twinkling with danger. Sleight him and he'll either josh with you or whack you - frankly there's no guessing which. The first movie was exciting and well made without always displaying a coherent viewpoint. This second part is altogether more satisfying: an impressive evocation of spiralling malevolence that's also largely honourable in its presentation of Mesrine - necessary when you're accusing the media of complicity in his crimes. Richet looks like one to watch; Cassel has been for years. (3.5)

For a review of Cassel's breakthrough 1995 film La Haine, go here.


The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1945) isn't blessed with the neatest mystery or the strongest script, but it contains one unforgettable performance and several scenes of mounting terror that are among the most intoxicatingly frightening ever filmed. Dorothy McGuire is a mute house servant who starts to believe that a serial killer is living in the place. Offing B movie favourite and future creator of the autograph fair Myrna Dell in the opening credits, the murderer targets women with disabilities (Dell had a limp), making the silent, traumatised McGuire a likely target. At first just the killer's Lugosi-ish eyes are shown, eerily made up in the silent movie manner. That's no accident - Siodmak expertly exploits the possibilities of having a heroine who can't speak, particularly in the film's greatest sequence, where McGuire runs to the top of the house, smashes the windows and screams, only for no sound to come out. The systematic removal of her character's safety net - her doctor boyfriend goes out on a call, her ailing guardian is asleep, the maid is passed out drunk - is skilful, leaving just McGuire, the killer and the director's boundless imagination. The film isn't as well-scripted as Val Lewton's '40s horrors, but there's an obvious parallel in the way it reaches a dizzyingly zenith during the brilliantly-constructed set-pieces. The erratic Siodmak, who did great work on The Killers, Criss Cross and Cry of the City, while also lending his talents to misfires like Christmas Holiday and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, is probably more closely associated with film noir than any other director. He certainly brings a noirish sensibility to this fusion of crime picture, horror film and gothic melodrama, aided by Out of the Past cinematographer Nicolas Musuraca, who Robert Mitchum famously said "lit by matches" ("The fact was that the high-priced stars back at the studio like Cary Grant, they got all the lights, so ours were lit by cigarettes," he said later, by means of sardonic elaboration). There are a pair of backwards tracking shots that follow Rhonda Fleming and later McGuire through a cellar that are just incredible. It's not the technical proficiency itself that's impressive, but the cranking up of the viewer's unease through a really smart, unobtrusive little trick. Indeed, the whole film is stuffed with imaginative ideas, like the shocking moment where we see a mouthless McGuire through the killer's warped gaze. But even Siodmak's considerable magic wouldn't count for much were it not for her remarkable central performance, as good a turn as you're ever likely to see. She's touching, ethereal and utterly heartbreaking, lending the inspired ending an emotional wallop. Stage legend Ethel Barrymore, who went on to play a similar part to her one here in the Frank Borzage noir Moonrise, is excellent in her key role, and Elsa Lanchester provides slightly unsuitable comic support (her patter worked better in The Big Clock), while George Brent - an actor I struggle to like - Kent Smith and Gordon Oliver round out the cast. It's a shame Siodmak and McGuire weren't handed a mystery quite befitting their talents - you can solve this one about 20 minutes in - but the results are still frequently astounding. (3)

For a review of the extraordinary Elia Kazan film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, featuring Dorothy McGuire as the mother, please go here.


SHORT: Field and Scream (Tex Avery, 1955) is a hunting-themed cartoon made near the end of Avery's stint at MGM, with a very high hit-to-miss gag ratio. As a wooly, lentil-eating pinko, I found the subject matter a bit uncomfortable, but there's no questioning the quality of the jokes. (3.5)


That is not what this is.

SHORT: The Fall Guy (Pete Smith, 1955) - No Smith short has really ever lived up to the first one I ever saw, Sports Oddities, but this collection of clips culled from earlier shorts and featuring his stuntman of choice, Dave O'Brien, is diverting enough. It was A Smith Named Pete's last Specialty film. (2.5)

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