Monday, 20 May 2013

Robert Mitchum, To Rome with Love, and Gollum moonwalking - Reviews #160

Last time I forgot to include any films where you can hear what the people are saying. Sorry! #pre1927fail. This time around I've made no such mistake.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum, 1973)

"Count your fuckin' knuckles."
"All of 'em?"
"Count as many as you want. As many as you got, I got four more."

So goes my favourite exchange in this uniquely flavourful, downbeat crime classic, which topped my "to see" list for a good five years from 2003 onwards, and even then exceeded my expectations when a copy dropped in my lap. Second time around - and on Criterion! - it's even better.

Bob Mitchum, that cobra-lidded titan of the screen, who more than anyone personified the laconic anti-hero of the film noir, is Eddie "Fingers" Coyle. He's a low-life, he knows it, and with friends like his, who needs enemies? Some of them are bank robbers, one of them's an arms dealer and another is a permanent fink (Peter Boyle), peddling information to an ambitious young cop.

George V. Higgins' source novel received instant acclaim for the authenticity of its dialogue, steeped in the vernacular of the '70s underworld, and attuned to its lazy rhythms and repetitions, but with perhaps a dash more poetry. Those in the know say he took the praise so much to heart that he proceeded to flood his subsequent novels with extraneous chatter, causing them to sink without trace. Here, the balance between story and yakking is spot on: there are five great suspense sequences and, around them, a wealth of rich characterisation, much of it devoted to the mighty Mitch.

Bob was one of David Lean's favourite two actors (the other was William Holden) and for me he's the outstanding male screen star of the 20th century. Though he's best known today for one of his worst performances - offering only pantomime theatrics in the otherwise transcendent Night of the Hunter - he gave dozens of great performances across five decades: like his philosophical fall guy in Out of the Past, his jaded ex-rodeo champ in The Lusty Men (pervy title by Howard Hughes!) and a trio of great performances during a mid-'70s renaissance. This was the first of the three, and it's the best of the three as well, the finest crystallisation of his world-weary persona, because this time he's got plenty to be weary about. He's no honourable ex-detective looking for redemption in Japan (The Yakuza) nor an aged, smart-aleck Philip Marlowe (Farewell, My Lovely). He's just a two-bit con who gets around so much, "you'd think he was some fuckin' stray dog", who "works about as much as Santa Claus", and who's thinking of climbing into bed with the cops, now he's facing three-to-five. (And if you're wondering about his knuckles, someone slammed his hand in a drawer.)

Mitchum's only on screen for around half the running time, but he couldn't dominate the movie more completely if it was a direct-to-camera monologue. His every utterance and gesture rings true, whether twinkling with Irish charm, throbbing with menace or stinking of pure desperation. It's a testament to Yates' sure-footed direction and that spirited ensemble that the other set-pieces stand up around such bitter majesty. Mitchum is so good, his dialogue so bleakly, swearily lyrical, that it takes something special to stop you from just wishing he were back on screen. Perhaps there's a smidgen of that - I just can't help myself - but the rest of it is extraordinarily original, unsentimental and apparently realistic, full of ingenious details about the minutiae of law-breaking, coloured by an unrelenting gloominess, and - since it's the 1970s - populated by grubby men with big sideburns wearing brown, and meeting in vivid, sometimes hideous Boston locales. The best of the supporting bunch is surely Boyle. I won't say I've never seen him give a bad performance, because he was in Everybody Loves Raymond, but he was certainly among the best character actors of his age.

The '70s produced a slew of great crime movies. This one doesn't seek to mythologise its characters like The Godfather, bathe your eyes in blood and beauty like Badlands, or gleefully obliterate genre archetypes like Chinatown and The Long Goodbye. Instead, it shows the criminal world at its most grasping, desperate and dishonourable. There's no code of ethics here, no sentiment and no heroes: even Coyle drops the n-word in the first five minutes, shops a contact and is tempted to sell out his best mate. This is real life. But with better dialogue. (4)


State of the Union (Frank Capra, 1948) - Idealistic industrialist Spencer Tracy runs for president, though can you really trust a man who's married to Kate Hepburn but wants to boff Angela Lansbury? Capra's adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play hasn't been dulled by decades of similar fare. Even aside from its staginess, it has its flaws: some incongruous comic relief, Van Johnson's irritating wisecracks (though the scene in which he gives Hepburn a peck on the forehead is lovely) and a tiresome aviation scene full of broad visual humour, but it's powerful, savvy and chock-full of snappy dialogue, while much of the acting is first-rate. Spence is impressive, if not quite at the peak of his powers, as the politico selling out his ideals for a shot at the White House, while Adolphe Menjou makes for an agreeably slimy kingmaker, and Lansbury is icily imposing in a less than nuanced role. It's Hepburn who steals the show, though: she's simply mesmerising, as she so often was in those early days. Few actresses could match her when it came to quick-fire badinage, and fewer have ever possessed such rich emotional articulacy in either delivery or facial expression. To be honest, she bypasses my critical faculties altogether, and goes right for the tear-ducts: not just here, but always. Her speech at the end of Stage Door absolutely destroys me, every single time.

For those familiar with the Tracy-Hepburn story, there's also an added feeling of melancholy to the scenes of marital strife. The pair began a long-term relationship in 1942, while filming Woman of the Year, but never married, as Tracy's Catholic beliefs prevented him from getting a divorce. It's not for me to say who was right, but knowing that all that is bubbling under the surface gives it an added kick: they were a couple who could only ever play at being married, on a movie-set. The film is also, of course, a fascinating companion piece to that landmark of American political cinema, Capra's Mr Smith Goes to Washington. This one's less iconic, perhaps less optimistic, and makes you wait just as long before releasing the pressure valve, but it's up there with the best of the Hepburn-Tracy collaborations, fuelled by that cocktail of idealism and cynicism upon which all great political dramas run. It has a couple of lulls across its two hours, but incredible high-spots too: that night-time heart-to-heart, the bitter scene on the plane, and the knock-out ending, in which Tracy takes centre-stage for a "fireside chat" with the electorate. Ultimately it's a film in which the forcefully articulated message will always ring true, that parties should appeal to the best, not the worst in people. And obviously Raymond Walburn is in it, because he is in every film about crooked politicians. (3.5)


Zombieland (Ruben Fleishcer, 2009) - An excellent horror-comedy, a bit light on plot, but with a couple of good performances and a hysterically funny script that finds time for romance, pathos and an awful lot of zombie-killing. Jesse Eisenberg is brilliant as an anxious nerd and zombie apocalypse survivor who joins forces with gun-totin' warrior-of-vengeance Woody From Cheers (in fine form), before stumbling across foxy Emma Stone and her sister (Abigail Breslin), who are in all sorts of trouble. Stone isn't as great as usual - and has had an inexpicable image overhaul - Breslin is disappointing, and the movie isn't very scary (not that I like scary movies) until its cleverly-conceived finale, but it's a fun, pacy ride with some neat directorial flourishes and a multitude of big laughs, many from a slyly post-modern slant. My favourite gags are Eisenberg's line: "Someone's ear is in danger of having hair brushed over it", his attempt to ride to the rescue, and Harrelson's amazing farewell speech, probably the hardest I've laughed at a film this year. And then there's that cameo. (3.5)


This picture is tiny, but it's also brilliant.

13 Going on 30 (Gary Winick, 2004) - What a lovely film. I'm a sucker for these sorts of body-swap movies, and if it's not quite the equal of 17 Again, this one's still great fun. A 13-year-old girl hides in a closet during her disastrous birthday party and, thanks to some wishing dust (I'm not sure whether this is a real thing), wakes up to find that it's 17 years later - and she's 17 years older; in fact, she's Jennifer Garner, a magazine editor and a bit of a bastard. Sometimes the film calls to mind Diana Lynn's withering line to Ginger Rogers' child impersonator in The Major and the Minor - "You're 12, you're not six" - by overplaying the central character's naivety, and occasionally it trips up on girly fantasy or excessive triviality, but for the most part it works, helped no end by Garner's unusually charismatic, appealing performance, an injection of pure class from The Gruffalo as the (rather dreamy) best friend she hasn't seen in years, and a story that has a few surprises, some positive things to say about female role models and the way we treat other people, and an atypically mature appreciation of life's missed opportunities and disappointments. There's a great soundtrack too, which inspires a memorable recreation of the Thriller dance - including The Gruffalo hoofing and Gollum moonwalking - and a John Hughes-ish framing device that works an absolute treat. (3)

See also: All of Me and Big are a pair of '80s body-swap movies.


To Rome with Love (Woody Allen, 2012) - Is this a Woody Allen film? Yes it is. Is the main story about a nervy, neurotic Jewish chap becoming smitten with his steady girlfriend's best mate, a flirty, neurotic culture vulture? Yes it is. And does this latest European excursion resume the torrent of cinematic disappointment momentarily stilled by the rather excellent Midnight in Paris? Incredibly not.

For while it starts poorly, suffers through its fair share of dud lines and developments, and remains a long way from vintage Woody, To Rome with Love is nonetheless a decent entertainment, with three story strands of varying interest and amusement, and a little beauty featuring Roberto Benigni as a middle-class clerk who becomes an instant celebrity for no apparent reason, much to his perpetual confusion.

The stories, which are told alternately but never interweave, are these:

- In the most typically Woody-ish segment, Jesse Eisenberg falls for girlfriend Greta Gerwig's flighty friend Ellen Page, while cynical observer Alec Baldwin - returning to Rome after 30 years - sits in on their scenes, offering his jaded, suspicious, post-modern commentary on proceedings. I don't really care for Baldwin (who in his earlier incarnation as a thin, sleepy-looking young man had a very effective bit in Woody's 1990 movie, Alice), but he's pretty good here. Page, who I like very much, struggles to walk the line between intriguing and irritatingly capricious, cast in the recurring role of the attractive woman in her 20s who has to spend her time essentially saying, "I fancy men who are like Woody Allen", while Eisenberg is a fair if uninspiring surrogate Woody. It's all been done a lot of times before - usually by Allen - but it's OK.

- A retired opera director (Woody Allen), come to Rome with his acerbic wife (Judy Davis), finds that a prospective in-law has the greatest voice of his generation. But only in the shower. It's a one-joke bit, and that joke is rather pilfered from Chuck Jones's One Froggy Evening, but it's mildly amusing, and the back-scrubbing gag works every time. Woody, on screen for the first time in a decade, is less agreeable. He has one very funny bit in which he keeps saying that he won't mention the singing again, then does, but the overriding impression is that he either hates his own dialogue (and much of the time here, who can blame him), or has been out of acting for so long that he's forgotten how to speak properly. He also creates a first: negative chemistry, his interactions with the usually excellent Judy Davis so awkward that you suspect one of them may have been green-screened in. It's the weakest of the four narratives.

- The most ambitious and interesting storyline follows a pair of newlyweds from a small Italian village, who arrive in Rome, where they'll meet his wealthy family and try to get a foothold in the business world. Instead, she wanders off to get her hair done and ends up in a movie star's bed, while he introduces a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) to his wife. The influence of Fellini is felt throughout - the seduction performed by the actor recalls Masina's meeting with Amedeo Nazzari in Nights of Cabiria, while finding oneself in a movie set is pure 8 1/2 - though the segment also recalls Lubitsch, particularly The Marriage Circle (musicalised as One Hour with You), and there's a laid-back sexiness about the pay-off that really reminds me of Rohmer. Hardly original, then, and filled with contrivance, but also light, appealing and with a sense of place that's sorely missing from the rest of the film, aside from its brief bookends.

- The best chapter, and the one given least screentime, deals with the obvious (people who are famous for being famous) in inspired fashion, as Robert Benigni's everyman suddenly finds himself a phenomenon, whose choice of breakfast and underwear is the stuff of news programmes and talk shows. I'm not sure that we need the heavy-handed wrap-up - which follows a delightful explosion of desperation - or that the moralising really makes sense (being a celebrity is better than not being a celebrity? How... profound?), but it's a minor gripe about a rather wonderful little diversion that recalls Woody's "early, funny" films. Lots of people hate Benigni. I don't, I think he's great.

Woody is arguably the greatest writer-director in the history of American cinema (surely only Preston Sturges and Buster Keaton come close), but his powers began to fade in the mid-'90s, then fail in the next decade, resulting in absolute toss like Cassandra's Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. To Rome with Love doesn't rank with the classics he could churn out in his sleep in the 1980s, but it's better than most of his films since his last truly great one (Sweet and Lowdown).

He has a tin ear for other cultures and generations (Italians refer to "blocks" as if they were Americans, Page utters the immortally dreadful line, "There's something attractive about a man who's sensitive to the agonies of existence"), but Woody seems to have regained his zest for filmmaking. Yes he still wants to work with any pretty young woman who happens to wander past, and remake Annie Hall with them as the star, but compared to what we've had to endure over the past 10 years, To Rome with Love is a light, lively affair. Its tone is frequently sunny and carefree, its sense of humour doesn't rely solely on bad aphorisms (though there are a few), and then there's Benigni, yelling "white and baggy" in the middle of the street as he shows everybody his boxer shorts. That would have enhanced Cassandra's Dream no end.


Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944) - "Mitchum was film noir," Martin Scorsese once said of a certain sleepy-eyed leading man. But for other fans of the genre, the star has competition from a namesake: Robert Siodmak, the director who devoted most of the '40s to making vividly-shot, expressionistic crime flicks. When they worked - like The Killers, Cry of the City and Criss Cross - they were simply extraordinary. And when they didn't quite, they still had their compensations: like seeing Gene Kelly as a murderer and Deanna Durbin as a prostitute in the bizarre Christmas Holiday.

Siodmak's first excursion into the genre came in '44, the year that produced such cynical, shadow-drenched fare as Double Indemnity and Murder, My Sweet, and, at its best, Phantom Lady is a match for either, with two sequences as distinctive and arresting as noir ever produced. In the first, steely Ella Raines sits, unmoving, on a bar-stool, like some furious, one-person flashmob, as the world whirls around her. Then she starts to shadow her prey - a balding bartender - haunting him like his conscience, only for the tables to turn at a deserted railway station. The second is the film's infamous "sex" scene, in which lascivious drummer Elisha Cook, Jr bashes out a jazz number in a dingy basement, with the most alarming look on his face.

Raines is unequivocally fantastic as a secretary who sees her boss - and prospective partner - wind up on death row, after he's accused of strangling his wife and can only offer a flimsy alibi about a woman in a funny hat who's disappeared into thin air. What follows is a crackling thriller: a sour, sweaty suspenser with all those Siodmak trademarks. There's the stripping away of the heroine's safety net that we see in The Spiral Staircase, the same seedy milieu as The Dark Corner, and that habit of drawing fine performances from overlooked actresses which enhanced the work of Durbin, Ava Gardner and the naturalistic leads of his astonishing debut, People on Sunday.

The plotting's not perfect and Franchot Tone rather overdoes it as the villain, but, shot by Woody Bredell and replete with hard-boiled dialogue in the best genre tradition, it's an atmospheric, nerve-shredding noir that offers still more proof of its director's singular gifts. Now who's going to tell Scorsese? (3)


Thanks for reading.


  1. Ruffalo makes Joan Crawford look like Fred Astaire.

  2. Haha! How dare you. Nice use of Joan Crawford, though.