The Hot Rock

Robert Redford in The Hot Rock (dir. Peter Yates, 1972).

Robert Redford is miscast at the most basic level as Donald Westlake's career thief Dortmunder: the role calls for a Harry Dean Stanton or a Bruce Dern, someone congenitally shifty and undernourished. The book, light comic fare that it is, retains a touch of the same convincingly seedy criminal underworld that Westlake explores (under the pseudonym Richard Stark) in his Parker novels; the film is all bright proto-Sting Hollywood shenanigans, and just this side of TV-movie squareness. It's meant to be rousing good fun, but it feels restrained, even lethargic. The New York locations inject a little color and vibrancy, especially during the unearned buoyancy of the final scene.


Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan, and Marisa Tomei in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (dir. Sidney Lumet, 2007).

It's to Sidney Lumet's credit that I got all the way to the end of this before I realized how bad it was, and why. The film looks great, the cast is phenomenal (well, except for Ethan Hawke), and Lumet treats the material like it's worthy of his and our attention for some reason. The end result is a feeling of being profoundly cheated out of what this cast and crew (minus screenwriter Kelly Masterson, who has got to be some producer's kid or something), might have done if they had had a decent script to work with. The tremendously talented Amy Ryan is treated the most unconscionably by the script: all her lines are some variation on "Pay your fucking child support." Even Albert Finney's heroic attempt to express pain at the loss of his character's wife is compromised by the flat dialogue he's forced to recite.

One of the many problems with said script is that it begins with the premise that people behave heartlessly towards each other, which is a fine first step, and then goes absolutely nowhere beyond that. The premise stops being a premise and becomes just a stunted point of view. Nothing anyone says in the film suggests the smallest grain of moral awareness. Which is the same as saying that when one of them is cruel to another, we neither believe in their cruelty, nor in the pain others feel as a result of it. Nor is there any wit--any--to counteract the unwavering sourness. Some critics have called the film nihilistic, but this is giving it too much credit; the characters' depthlessness evinces not a world view, but simple writerly ineptitude.

Marisa Tomei is the most telling register of the story's bankruptcy. I'm not sure whether she can really act or not, and this has never kept her from being one of my favorite actors. But this movie forces her to express feelings that aren't there to be felt, and you can see her sniffing around for them like a deer in the forest, finally giving up and resorting to a series of pouts and nose-wrinkling maneuvers. Those will be what I remember most about this film, for better or worse.



Silvia Pinal and Fernando Rey in Viridiana (dir. Luis Buñuel, 1961).

Carnality vs. spiritual devotion.

A perversion of the Last Supper.

Buñuel's Viridiana astounds on many levels, one of the most surprising of which is its restraint: from scene to scene, the narrative movement is almost entirely conventional. It's only cumulatively that the progression of events takes on its most strikingly surreal dimensions (as opposed to the minor surrealism of individual shots or tableaus, such as Silvia Pinal's hand reaching for a cow's teats, or the Rabelaisian beggars trashing their benefactor's mansion in the manner of profane apostles). The plot summary at IMDB ("spoiler" alert), supplied by a Swedish viewer, manages to capture the obliquity of the total plot trajectory:
Don Jaime lives alone in his manor. His wife died from a heart attack on the wedding night. He has paid the gift and education so that his wife's niece Viridiana could become a nun, and wants her to visit him for a few days before she takes her final vow. She strikingly resembles her aunt and is persuaded to take on her wedding dress. Then he asks her to marry him. When she refuses, sleeping pills are put in her coffee. Jaime only decently fondles her. One the next day she leaves but is brought back by the police. Jaime had made a trap that might lead to another marriage. He acknowledges his "bastard" son Jorge, writes a will making his manor the common property of him and Viridiana, and hangs himself. Jorge starts modernising agricultural methods. Viridana gives free food and housing to many beggars. When Jorge and Viridiana must go away to see a lawyer, the beggars succeed in entering the locked great house. They make a banquet, but eventually beat asunder many things. When the owners return, most beggars leave the house forever. But one of them binds Jorge to a wall-cupboard and tries to rape Viridiana. Jorge promises another beggar money if he kills the rapist. He does so. One later evening when all is calm Viridiana goes to Jorge.

Somehow this description is all the more accurate by virtue of its English-as-second-language-ness.

Silvia Pinal glides through the film in the title role with the aloof, static blondness of a Hitchcock heroine: in particular, the thin layer of non-responsiveness and repulsion she continually threatens to rupture makes me think of Tippi Hedren in The Birds or Marnie (which came out around the same time or a little after). The closing sequence gave me that feeling I occasionally get of excited emotional collusion with the director: "is he going to end the movie here? yes, yes, do it, end it here! he did it! he's ending it here!"

Buñuel, as was often his custom, cast people off the street in the roles of the beggars, including one mentally deranged man who gives a shatteringly disturbing performance. Bunuel's treatment of these dissheveled, incapacitated poor is entirely unsentimental, if not downright cynical: their disenfranchisement has rendered them incapable of ethical agency (whether the more privileged characters possess such agency is, of course, one of the film's provocative opacities). This is my favorite thing about Buñuel's artistic-political sensibility, actually: its conflictedness. In the interview included with the Criterion DVD, he more than once mentions his guilty love for American conveniences, for clean streets and modern amenities. If his leftism were not so often compromised by his weakness for material comfort--and its aesthetic pleasures, which he takes pains to distance himself from, but does not fool anyone--he would not be such a compelling artist. Watching him talk with his interviewer, I felt something like the affective glow of deep friendship, intermingled with a mild bemusement that can never turn into contempt, but only makes the glow burn a little brighter.


Street Kings

Keanu Reeves in Street Kings (dir. David Ayer, 2008).

Street Kings seems to be doing pretty good box office, despite being mostly trashed by the critics. This in itself is no big deal--the same could be said for, say, 10,000 BC or Scary Movie 7 or what have you. But in this case, since it's not the sort of movie that pleases crowds by sheer spectacle or soothing idiocy or star appeal (Keanu Reeves can't really bring in that many viewers on his own now, can he?), I think the critics have missed something. There's no doubt that the dialogue is sometimes outrageously cliched and stilted. Reeves still can't really act (though age is giving his face some interesting gravity). The plot is so predictable they might as well have started with the ending and worked back. And yet, rather than sinking the film, I think all these things actually contribute to its appeal. It all feels like a 50's B-movie, full of square jaws and sincere speeches and cut-rate action. Reeves is perfect for this sort of hackery, and James Ellroy knows what he's doing (up to a point) with his mannered script. He works with the genre conventions so literally and flatly that they effectively become pastiche.

I say "effectively" because in truth I'm not entirely convinced Ellroy knows what he's doing, here or in his novels. Part of what I find interesting about his work is just how repressed and lacking in true self-knowledge he comes off as, despite all his autobiographical mythologizing in both his fiction and memoirs. For example, I honestly have no idea whether he's conscious of the homoerotic strains in his work. And I don't just mean homosocial, I mean homoerotic. I mean big guy buddy or old boss daddy guy takes in young guy wonder-hungry rookie as charge and shows him the he-male ropes or betrays him like cruel stud horse-breaker and there's also always some younger smooth Adonis kid who's just a hunk of heartbreak. All it would take to make any Ellroy story into queer niche-fiction is the addition of a few explicit guy-on-guy scenes. They could replace the rare, unconvincing hetero sex scenes, which always suggest that Ellroy has never been in the same room with a woman, let alone had any fleshly interest in one. The bizarre cartoon hound-dog noises he makes in interviews when the subject of attractive actresses comes up do little to hurt my case here. I'm sorry, is this all turning very ad hominem? I'm just trying to get at what makes Ellroy such a distinctively odd writer, and again, interesting.

So, as in the books, Ellroy's world in Street Kings is one of smothered drives, urgent sublimations, confounding blindnesses of personal motivation. It's very compelling, and whether it's intentional that it's all dressed in a bad-movie suit or not, the semblance of ironic distance thus obtained is palpable. Ellroy knows what he's doing on one level of pacing, scene-setting, all that craft stuff. But it's the combination of this skill with all those elements he doesn't know what he's doing with that's fascinating, that's disorienting, that smells like art.


Joy Ride

Steve Zahn and Paul Walker in Joy Ride (dir. John Dahl, 2001).

Roadside graves.

"Caaandy Cane...."

John Dahl is one of the notable torch-bearers of neo-noir in the last twenty years, though he's had only a couple of totally solid genre successes. Joy Ride is Dahl well after falling from his peak, having a little resurgence of inspiration. It's not particularly inspired inspiration--the best moments are almost still shots, showing Dahl's considerable feel for atmosphere and framing. Part of what these moments drive home is that even at his best, in films like Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, Dahl's noirish vision was that of a talented student: once he got the form down, he had no ideas of his own where to go with it. Thus he became yet another creator of competent but forgettable Hollywood not-quite-thrillers like Rounders. Joy Ride does deliver some real scares, however, especially in its first half; after that, the formulaic turns come too routinely, and the comfortable conventions of the buddy movie defuse the dread that's been built up. The DVD's special features contain about a billion alternate endings, all of which are exactly the same despite their elaborate differences.


Breakheart Pass

Charles Bronson and Archie Moore in Breakheart Pass (dir. Tom Gries, 1975).

This midseventies Charles Bronson vehicle feels greater than the sum of its parts to me, maybe partly because I remember seeing it when it first came out, and how it completely satisfied on that popcorn matinee level of midseventies Charles Bronson vehicles. Ben Johnson has so much presence that it's easy to overlook how fundamentally uninteresting his character is. Robert Tessier is a terrifying villain, but he's only in the film for a few minutes total. All I really remembered from my first viewing--what stuck with me over the years--was the train (as well as the fight on top of it) and the northwest locations. The constant shots of the train barreling toward its destination, a prosaic sense of snowy danger and stock costumes.


The Long Night

Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes in The Long Night (dir. Anatole Litvak, 1947).

Vincent Price.

Henry Fonda.

I haven't seen more than a couple of clips from Marcel Carné's 1939 Le jour se lève, but I've seen enough to determine that The Long Night is damned to American remake purgatory (can one be "damned" to purgatory? you know what I mean). One's knowledge of the inevitable compromises and dilutions made by Litvak's film diminishes its real uniqueness and power. Contemporary viewers and critics didn't appreciate the stylized sets and striking use of background miniatures to create illusions of distance and scope. They just thought it all looked fake. And I'm sure they had no idea what to make of Vincent Price's lizard-like performance as Maximilian the magician. American audiences in the forties weren't ready for their melodrama to turn a conscious eye on its own latent surreal neuroses, though it tried now and then (Welles' Lady from Shanghai is another piece of evidence).

I'm not claiming that The Long Night is a masterpiece, or without serious flaws. There is some dissonant casting (Fonda, particularly, though he gives it all he's got, never quite finds his character's violently jealous pulse), and it's clear that the climactic logic required by the story is betrayed for the sake of studio approval. It has a look all its own, however, and it gets at that compelling pseudo-occult seediness I associate with the stage-magic industry of midcentury: a kind of two-bit theatrical perversion without a clear audience, half hermeticism, half con game, somewhere between Satanism and door-to-door vacuum sales.

Ann Dvorak is a peach-in-the-rough as Price's disgruntled assistant, and Elisha Cook Jr. and Charles McGraw appear too briefly in too-small roles.