Rating: The Good – 69.8 Genre: Thriller Duration: 117mins Director: Paul Schrader Stars: Richard Gere, Lauren Hutton, Hector Elizondo
Richard Gere plays a high class gigolo, Julian, who spends his days and nights escorting rich women around Beverly Hills until he becomes involved in a murder case and his clients begin to evade him. A film very much of its time, American Gigolo is Paul Schrader’s most visually accomplished directorial project. The set design, lighting, staging, and exterior locations all combine expertly to capture the comfort and skill with which Julian navigates the vivid world of 80′s Los Angeles. There are strong noir influences observable in both the lighting, plot, and dialogue as Schrader draws some inconspicuous (“all I can see is the frame”) and interesting parallels between the shadowy world of the 1940’s detective stories and the neon saturated counter culture Julian inhabits. On top of that, there’s a palpable sense of time and place as if this movie was made looking back at the 80’s retrospectively and as if Schrader was already perceiving the glossy vacuousness which was permeating the emerging Los Angeles of the time. This makes the film simultaneously nostalgic and prophetic and it gives Schrader’s central focus all the more thrust.
In the build-up, this sense of pervading vacuousness carries over into the story and makes the early scenes come across as somewhat insubstantial. Fortunately, however, much of this is offset by Gere’s curiously compelling performance. He’s both likeable and dislikeable and with reasonable subtlety gives us glimpses of Julian’s growing disenchantment with his lifestyle even though he still clearly enjoys the money and gifts that come with it. Lauren Hutton provides able support as the one client Julian seems to have genuine feelings for and the two work of each other well. American Gigolo is a unique film both visually and conceptually and despite a tendency to lose its way from time to time, it’s an intriguing piece of American cinema.
Alan J. Pakula’s first installment in his seminal 1970′s paranoia trilogy is a mesmerising exploration of power and control in the seedy underbelly of New York. Donald Sutherland plays Klute, one of cinema’s more ambiguous characters who is charged with locating a friend and wealthy corporate executive who has disappeared without a trace save some lurid letters which he may or may not have written to a New York prostitute.
Jane Fonda appears quite inspired in the role of the high class prostitute who avoids her insecurities by embracing her professional persona through which she becomes expertly adept at manipulating the men in her life. It’s a complex performance in which she strikes a subtle but believable balance between confidence, harshness, and vulnerability. However, good as she is, she is arguably outdone by Donald Sutherland’s finest ever turn as the inscrutable small town detective. At times, Klute appears lost in the big city and prey for anyone with an edge but at other times that ‘s turned on its head as he takes on a strength which destabilises and confuses those who were previously laughing at him along with the audience. This clever device could’ve been completely lost in the hands of a lesser actor so it’s to Sutherland’s eternal credit that he pulls it off. What’s more, the secret seems to lie entirely in a clear and robust conception of his character for the manner in which Sutherland uses his eyes when showing both sides to Klute’s persona convinces the audience this is genuine personal complexity we are witnessing rather than merely conflicted writing.
Klute is a very dark movie which feels more like a European film from that time thanks to the manner in which it’s structured and shot. Full of hard to make out images and psyche tapping sounds and music, Pakula scintillates us from reel one until the close and keeps us immersed in a murky world of contradiction and anxiety. There are few answers and it is very much left up to ourselves to decide where the characters end up. That of course, is the true strength to this fascinating piece of cinema and the performances which lie at its core.
Rating: The Good – 67.8 Genre: Comedy, Drama Duration: 99 mins Director: Paul Brickman Stars: Tom Cruise, Rebecca De Mornay, Joe Pantoliano
Risky Business is a terrific coming of age drama about a college bound teenager who figures out a quick way to make a buck while his parents are away. Cue prostitution, crazy pimps, and car chases in his father’s Porsche. This had the potential to become a zany comedy more in the mode of the later Ferris Bueller but it’s to director Paul Brickman’s credit that it plays out as a slightly less light-hearted and more contemplative piece. As with most films they’re involved with, Tangerine Dream’s score becomes a dominant force in setting the tone and pace of the film. More than anyone, they gave their films a dreamlike feel and this was nevermore pronounced than in this film as their soft electronica carries the viewer seamlessly from one scene to the next. Tom Cruise was perfectly cast in the lead role and it remains one of his strongest roles to this day. Not so preoccupied with his image as he was post-stardom, there’s a lot of personality in his turn and the more humble character with only hits of ego suited his talents more than the litany of ‘invulnerables’ he has played since. Rebecca De Mornay is equally good as the call girl with all the answers while Joe Pantaliano is in his usual scene stealing form as the wiseguy pimp who runs afoul of Cruise’s entrepreneurial efforts. Risky Business is a terrific little slice of the 80’s teen comedy. It has all the fun of the genre but still manages to fold back on its subject matter (young adulthood) to make some interesting and resonating observations.
Howard Hawks’ noir classic, The Big Sleep, has Humphrey Bogart taking on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in a blackmail case involving a wealthy retired army general, his two unruly daughters, mobsters, pornographers, and a host of other characters. If it sounds complicated, it is and if you miss a word you risk being lost for the rest of the film. But in this age of dumbed down blockbusters it’s very refreshing to find a film that makes you work to keep up. Bogart is brilliant as ever in a role which he came to define (although many have made strong arguments for both Powell and Gould in this respect). Even more than he did with Sam Spade, he exudes an ambiguity which adds substantially to the mood of the film. Lauren Bacall for her part is outstanding as the mysteriously motivated daughter whom he is trying to protect with one hand and protect himself from with the other.
William Faulkner’s adaptation of Chandler’s seminal story (which itself was based on three earlier and separate short stories of his) is utterly sublime and there’s a genuine menace to much of the more ostensibly benign dialogue. The types of verbal exchanges which have come to define the genre are championed in this version of The Big Sleep as they lyrically sweep us through the corkscrewing plot. Hawks of course puts all this together skilfully, creating a rich and dark atmosphere as thick as the ambiguity which surrounds each and every one of the main players. Like Lang, Hawks had a great eye for detail which suited the dark recesses of film noir sets and it was never better exemplified than here. He as much as Chandler, Faulkner, and Bogart is responsible for the sculpting and framing of the Marlowe we encounter here and as the result turned out to be one of cinema’s most iconic characters (not to mention one that became the template for many later Hollywood heroes), there’s little more that needs saying.
Rating: The Good – 87.7 Genre: Crime, Drama Duration: 135mins Director: John Cassavetes Stars: Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel
John Cassavetes’ crime thriller is as inspired and masterful a contribution to the genre as you’ll find. Steeped in the experimental spirit of 1970’s cinema, it tells the story of a proud strip-club owner who is ordered by the mob to murder a local competitor of theirs in order to square off a debt. Ben Gazzara is phenomenal in the central role bringing a level of improvisation and focus to his character which is comparable to what De Niro did with Travis Bickle. It’s a powerfully confident turn and it must surely go down as one of the most under-appreciated performances of that decade. Yes, he is surrounded by a fine support cast with the highly idiosyncratic and combustible Timothy Carey adding strongly to the spirit of improvisation and unpredictability as the mob’s enforcer. However, it’s the understanding between lead actor and director which allows this film to work.
Gazzara and Cassavetes seemed perfect for each other in style and sensibility and the latter’s use of the camera and sound is every bit as inspired and unconventional as the former’s acting. Unafraid to let the camera linger, Cassavetes’ focus here becomes the moments in between the lines of dialogue or in between the more overtly dramatic moments. Moreover, the sense of space he evokes and manipulates is palpable and whether it’s through the physical blocking of his actors’ faces as they deliver their lines in order to focus our attention on the reactions of peripheral characters or the angled framing of the main characters’ facial reactions, Cassavetes makes us intimately familiarity with the characters and their dilemmas.
The most rewarding aspect to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is in its focus. This film is about pride and modest ambition, themes rarely deemed exciting enough to explore in a crime genre. But through the integrity of the central performance and incisiveness of the writing and direction, these otherwise soulful meditations become a cast iron pretext for the more ferocious aspects to the film. Thus, just when you think it’s going to remain an art house examination of such personal quandary, Cassavetes throws a hand grenade of swift and slickly captured action into the mix which gels perfectly with the subjective perspective he had built so completely. All said and done, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a remarkable film even by the 1970’s standards and one that should’ve had a more profound impact on its genre.