Rating: The Good – 77.5 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 73 mins Director: André de Toth Stars: Gene Nelson, Sterling Hayden, Charles Bronson
Another top class crime thriller from the annals noir, this one coming courtesy of maverick director André de Toth, who fought tooth and nail with Jack Warner so that Sterling Hayden could take on the role the latter wanted for a certain Humphrey Bogart. Hayden stars as the cynical detective on the tail of two escaped prisoners who are forcing an ex-con gone straight and his wife to help them in a bank robbery. Ted de Corsia is the brains of the nasty outfit, a young Charles Bronson is the volatile brawn and a host of other gnarly faces of the time (including an even spacier than usual Timothy Carey) provide the backup. Needless to say, Hayden chews the scenery about as much as does the toothpick sticking out his mouth in place of the cigarettes the doctor has banned. There’s rarely been a more grizzled character actor so well suited to gritty street noir but he tempers that nicely here with a veiled compassion for the two victims at the centre of the tale. Relatively unknown at the time, Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk are genuinely excellent as that couple and provide the perfect platform to connect both sides of the law. Crane Wilbur’s hard bitten screenplay simply oozes class and funnelled as it is through de Toth’s focused momentum, it gives the movie a palpable energy. Choosing to shoot on location in LA, de Toth dresses his film in that priceless atmosphere that was an unfortunately rare feature of the majority of studio shot thrillers of the day. From the first person perspective of the daytime driving sequences to the fleeting shadows of the nighttime encounters, he turns Crime Wave into the cinéma vérité masterclass of the LA noir.
Rating: The Good – 90.9 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 85 mins Director: Stanley Kubrick Stars: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards
We shouldn’t be too surprised that the director who gave us the best science fiction film ever made, the best period piece ever made, the best black comedy ever made, one of the best horrors and one of the best war films (Paths of Glory) ever made is also responsible for one of the very best films noirs. Sterling Hayden is dynamite as the man with the genius plan to rip off a race track whilst staying ahead of security, the cops, the insecurities of his men, and the deviousness of their wives. The story has all the usual multiple threads of a film noir but it’s the way Stanley Kubrick brings it all together that is so fascinating to watch and indeed so compelling. The Killing is perhaps the earliest indication of the breadth of the great director’s confidence and the stunning innovation that came with it. Watch how he dollies the camera through the walls of the apartment (something Scorsese and Tarantino would go on to recurrently use to splendid effect) and revel in his exquisite and visionary lighting which he uses to disguise faces, eyes, and entire characters even when they’re speaking. And then there’s that electric screenplay with Jim Thompson’s seminal dialogue that went on to inspire some of the coolest films of the 90’s. And last but not least, it’s is also a chance to see the ingenious yet completely eccentric Timothy Carey in one of his more memorable cameos as “the shooter”.
Rating: The Good – 93.1 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 88 mins Director: Stanley Kubrick Stars: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, George Macready
“If those little sweethearts won’t face German bullets, they’ll face French ones!” A truly astounding piece of cinema, Stanley Kubrick’s most poignant anti-war statement was like no other war film before it and is perhaps the most visceral cinematic critique of the mindless trench warfare employed on the battlefields of WWI. The movie opens as George Macready’s grotesque General Mireau professes an unwavering dedication to his troops only to agree to turn them into cannon fodder just moments later as his superior waves a promotion under his nose. As he proceeds to take a tour of the trenches to deliver the news that his troops will attempt to take an impregnable German position, we are given an ever closer insight into the man’s hypocritical and egotistical nature. With the inevitable failure of the assault, the humiliated general is left fuming and orders three of his troops to be randomly selected for court-martial under penalty of execution. However, much to his chagrin, his regiment commander, Colonel Dax, refuses to let these men suffer a straw trial and takes it upon himself to defend his men in court.
Paths of Glory is a deeply touching film, which places you right inside the frustrated and desperate mind of Col. Dax played marvelously by Kirk Douglas. It’s also one of the most visually engaging war movies as Kubrick constantly contrasts the opulent mansions the officers and generals inhabit with the near squalor of the trenches, prisons, and barracks occupied by the soldiers. The former are in particular framed with Kubrick’s usual perfection as his wide shots are defined by the symmetry of the palatial rooms. Conversely, Kubrick’s close claustrophobic tracking shots from inside the trenches do wonders in setting the completely opposite tone but with the same precision symmetry as before. Remarkably, for a war movie which is chiefly remembered for its drama, the most powerful and magnificent scene comes as Col. Dax leads his troops over the trenches and onto the killing fields. This phenomenal sequence shows us the very best of Kubrick: the perfect balancing of his sweeping camera with his near overbearing yet subtly hypnotic use of sound. As the shells rain down to form an unforgettable auditory pattern, the immaculately staged advance of the troops is caught in all its terrible horror. Douglas’ Col. Dax is the focal point of this advance and Kubrick uses him perfectly as such.
Douglas for his part was rarely better and he as much as Kubrick is responsible for the way in which the military aristocracy’s despicable and hypocritical cowardice is shoved back down their throats. Douglas revels in some of his lines and the resulting precision delivery echoes the internal primal scream of the viewer. And as if all this was not good enough, Paths of Glory closes in a profoundly contemplative manner as Kubrick’s future wife melts the hardened exterior of troops and viewers alike.
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.