The Driver

Bruce Dern and Isabelle Adjani in The Driver (dir. Walter Hill, 1978).

None of the characters have names. Takes place in downtown LA. Lots of car chases. Excellent.



Dane Clark in Blackout (dir. Terence Fisher, 1954).

"What kind of a city is London if someone like you gets lonely?"

"The last time Miss Opportunity knocked on my door I let her in ... now I haven't even got a door."

"You even smell like money."

"I wanna be wherever things are smooth ... you know ... plate glass, chrome, expensive furniture...."

"Be a detective...? I could do that. I've seen enough movies."

"You sound like a recording--only you don't look mechanical at all."

"For a minute I thought your voice was changing."

"I didn't hit her; she fainted."

"He's got a rug in his office like an uncut lawn."

"It's a big jump from garbage cans to mink."

"I have a very peculiar habit: breathing."

"Played any more games with automobiles lately?"

"Thanks for the gun."

"What do they call this stuff--'Kiss of Death'?"

"I hadda hit her a little too hard."


Stolen Face

Annoyed at the opera: Paul Henreid and Lizabeth Scott in Stolen Face (dir. Terence Fisher, 1952).

More Hammer noir: a plastic surgeon in love with a woman he can't have tries to surrogatize her by reshaping a disfigured criminal's face in the original woman's image and then marrying her. Oh wait, it turns out he can have his real love, and the ex-con isn't so ex- after all. Oops! The Pygmalion element anticipates Vertigo, though Paul Henreid is no Jimmy Stewart: he can't convincingly reconcile the discrepancy between his romantic leading-man self and his obsessed mad-doctor self for the audience. It's like he just has a momentary lapse of professional judgment, rather than that he goes completely insane and tries to turn another human being into his domestic love puppet. The whole thing's pretty laughable, but Fisher shows a hint of the bent neo-Gothic flair that he'll bring to the Frankenstein films.


Man Bait

Diana Dors in Man Bait (dir. Terence Fisher, 1952).

The first Hammer noir, and the first Hammer film directed by Terence Fisher (Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, etc.). British title: The Last Page. The main setting is a bookstore. Featuring the Prince of Dullness George Brent as the hapless store manager, and Marguerite Chapman as his long-suffering ex-nurse who is terribly in love with him but he has this invalid wife, blah blah blah. Peter Reynolds' portrayal of the sociopathic shoplifter/murderer is very Hitchcockian--maybe an attempt to evoke Robert Walker's sinister Bruno from Strangers on a Train, released the previous year. The real center of attention, though, is Diana Dors, the titular man bait. She's all pouty and bratty and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and stuff.


Walking Tall

Leif Garrett and Joe Don Baker in Walking Tall (dir. Phil Karlson, 1973).

Like much low-budget shock horror from the same period (e.g., Last House on the Left, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), this southern-fried revenge drama is one of those movies that takes on a strange resonance as a result of its shoestring production value and un-self-consciously awkward deployment of an out-of-date filmic grammar. The film's images insert the current events of the day into a generically constrained narrative context that re-translates them as heroic pathos (a pathos that increases as it approaches, but does not quite embrace, an anti-heroic conclusion). Civil rights, Vietnam, and economic recession are interpreted as occasions of private violence and mourning--and their climactic manifestation takes the form of a distorted life/death mask (Buford Pusser's plaster facial cast) very much like Leatherface's in Chain Saw. The visual shock of bloodied expressionlessness becomes a symbol for national trauma. Johnny Mathis' melancholy ballad intones its elegaic equation over the end credits: "when too long becomes too late."

Bad Blonde

Barbara Payton in Bad Blonde (dir. Reginald Le Borg, 1953).

This is one of a dozen or so low-budget noirs made by Hammer Films before they took up horror as their primary genre. The British title was The Flanagan Boy, making the emphasis Tony Wright's character--a beefcaky young boxer, and the other bad blonde of the film. This emphasis is in keeping with the camera's continual focus on Wright's physique, which is highlighted at every turn, in both boxing and swimming trunks. But for US audiences, they changed the title to refer to the femme fatale of the picture--or, perhaps not entirely unconsciously, to Barbara Payton, the American actress who plays her. Payton was a tabloid sensation for a while: you can read all about it in her 1963 autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed (published four years before her death at the age of 39). The movie itself is a mostly negligible rehash of Body and Soul and The Postman Always Rings Twice, but it has some visual style, and even though Payton is not an especially expressive or subtle actor, she has an icy yet somehow vulnerable presence that is fairly affecting.


Blazing Saddles

"Fifteen is my limit on schnitzengruben": Madeline Kahn and Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles (dir. Mel Brooks, 1974).

I laughed my ass off when this first came out (I was twelve or thirteen). Now it feels almost melancholy, like a sardonic funeral elegy to the old Hollywood. It's hard to tell whether the racial and sexual jokes are daring compared to today's humor, or just naive. The gags that fall flat now are often the ones that seemed funniest to me as a kid--maybe because they've been imitated so often that they've become cliches. In 1974 it was a real novelty to see preachers and little old ladies swearing like sailors. This time around, the thing that amused me the most was that Madeline Kahn recites the opening lyrics to Cabaret ("Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome") when someone knocks on her dressing room door--not once but twice.



Jesse Logan and James Coburn in Looker (dir. Michael Crichton, 1981).

Dated thriller which advances the laughable idea that media technology could somehow be used to control people. Actually, it is a pretty silly flick. Albert Finney acts with his hairpiece, and nobody else in the cast can act at all. Even a little bit. Certainly not Susan Dey. And no, not even Coburn. God, no. Still, there's a gleeful satiric energy to the fake commercials, broad as the strokes may be, and the central device of the ray gun that makes you stupid is in its own way clever (get it: ray gun, Reagan...?).


The Blue Gardenia

"Can I get high on one of these?" Anne Baxter and Raymond Burr in The Blue Gardenia (dir. Fritz Lang, 1953).

If this weren't a Fritz Lang film, I'd probably consider it a minor treasure. But knowing that this is the same director who gave us Fury, Scarlet Street, and The Big Heat (to say nothing of M, Dr. Mabuse, Metropolis, etc.), makes it a little disappointing. Still, I will watch even the worst midcentury noir with a big fat contented smile on my face, and this is by no means near the worst. Contains a nice little "music video" of Nat King Cole singing the title song, and a priceless moment when reporter Richard Conte's editor hands him a press pass for an assignment, saying "Front-row seat at the next H-bomb blast--on the house."


Broken Lance

Robert Wagner and a painting of Spencer Tracy in Broken Lance (dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1954).

Stately technicolor western that is almost sort of but not really a retelling of King Lear. Some relatively sophisticated thematics of race, class, and gender (okay, maybe there's nothing that remarkable about the gender thematics). An especially deft race/class interface voiced by Jean Peters to "half-breed" Robert Wagner: "I thought you were worried about being an Indian; you just don't like being Irish."


People Will Talk

Gaudeamus igatur: Cary Grant in People Will Talk (dir. Joseph Manciewicz, 1951).

Strangely morbid romantic dramedy containing the following plot elements: a young female cadaver, an unwed mother, an attempted suicide, a disabled man living off the charity of his anal-retentive brother, a dog mistreated to the point of viciousness, a young doctor who works out of a butcher shop, and a murderer who survives the hangman's noose to become a kind of indentured servant for life to the man who had intended to experiment on his dead body. And all with nary a smidgeon of gothic overtones. Weird. Or not that weird, which is what makes it weird.



John Ireland and Sheila Ryan's shadow in Railroaded! (dir. Anthony Mann, 1947).

Like Kansas City Confidential, the last film I reported on, Railroaded involves an innocent delivery man being framed for a crime. Weird that I just happened to watch two films in a row with that same story element.

John Ireland, as a sociopath who perfumes his bullets: "People shouldn't scream."


Kansas City Confidential

Jack Elam in Kansas City Confidential (dir. Phil Karlson, 1952).

Heist-o-rific hard-boiled noir action. Tough fall guy hero John Payne, crooked ex-cop Preston Foster, ethereal nice girl Coleen Gray, slinky senorita Dona Drake, two-bit hood Jack Elam, womanizing hood Lee Van Cleef, and gum-chewing hood Neville Brand.... This is the stuff.


Winter Kills

Winter Kills (dir. William Richert, 1979).

I had hopes that this would be a hidden subversive gem of decadent late-seventies Hollywood, but it's just an unbelievably tedious mess, despite actors John Huston, Sterling Hayden, Eli Wallach, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, Anthony Perkins, and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond and music by Maurice Jarre. Wants to be a cross between The Manchurian Candidate and Dr. Strangelove, is more like a cross between ... between some really ineptly made movie and some other really ineptly made movie. Love the Pinto and the tanks, though.