Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Pickup on South Street

(1953, 80 min.)

Starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willis B. Bouchey.

Directed by Samuel Fuller.

Widmark plays Skip McCoy, a pickpocket who, just hours out on parole for the third time, is back to his old tricks. He lifts the wallet of a woman named Candy (Peters) on the subway, but unbeknownst to him (and her as it turns out) there’s some microfilm in there that her weasely ex-boyfriend Joey (Kiley) has enlisted her to deliver to Communist- excuse me, I mean, Commie spies, though she has no idea exactly what she’s mixed up in.

What’s more, a couple of feds were following her with the intention of picking up whoever she passed the goods to and they witnessed the theft. They go to the police and meet Captain Tiger (Vye), who calls in Moe (Ritter), a professional info-peddler who sells ties as a front and whose only ambition is to buy a burial plot so she won’t spend eternity in Potter’s Field. She leads them, and eventually Candy, to Skip, who realizes that with all the interest people are showing in what he’s got, he may have finally stumbled onto his big score – and he intends to make it pay off.

This is a violent, suspenseful thriller that offers plenty of hard-boiled delights; if only it held up a bit better under scrutiny.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. Much of it, unfortunately, revolves around Ms. Peters. She’s fine in the role, and she looks great, but, while I realize characters in these films fall in love awfully quickly all the time, Candy’s affection for Skip is doubly hard to buy given that the first time she lays eyes on him, he robs her, and the second time, he slugs her in the jaw. Granted you can say that she’s playing him at first, trying to get him to give her the microfilm, but that dewy look creeps into her eye in pretty much the very next scene. Additionally when things turn tragic there are several instances, including one right in front of Skip, of Candy weeping and blaming herself, the worst part being that the smarmy creep lets her do it and even affirms her blame a little bit, regardless of the fact that in truth, the whole damn thing is his fault. (He does eventually acknowledge some responsibility, and does a damn good deed in the process, but still…)

But there’s so much about this movie that works I’m willing to forgive that which doesn’t. Fuller infuses the film with a thorough sense of urbanity. One of the small entertainments of metropolitan life is the out-of-the-way places that exist on the fringes of which most people don’t take notice, so it’s a great conceit that Skip lives in a shack on a dock down by the seaport, keeping his beer cold by lowering it in a box down into the East River. His secluded, solitary accommodations make a nice contrast to the packed claustrophobia of the subway cars where he makes his living.

The film is in part about the subculture of small-time hustlers, and it could have stood to use a bit more of this. Its eighty-minute running time keeps things taut and precise, but doesn’t leave much room for embellishment, so aside from Skip and his schtick, all we get in this respect is the great scene with Lightning Louie and his chopsticks, and Moe, the latter of whom represents one of the film’s greatest achievements. Many films about grifters feature a stock character who has been doing whatever it is they do for far too long and wants out, but as played by Ritter, Moe is the utter embodiment of this concept. Moe is tired: tired of being alone, tired of being bitter, tired of having creeps for friends, tired of having to fink on said creeps for a living. The fact that she is literally looking forward to death is a marked difference to Skip’s devil-may-care attitude towards his own way of life, and is the one thing that ends up lending him a conscience in the end, and in a rather courageous way for Fuller to have depicted it. Or rather I should say possibly courageous. (Note: A pretty important spoiler follows.)

Being the treasonous leftist that I am, I have always chosen to attribute Skip’s eleventh hour conversion from opportunistic asshole to buster of iniquitous jaws to his regret and guilt over Moe’s murder, rather than some sort of patriotic awakening. Now it could be argued that since Moe dies because of her refusal to play ball with a “commie” her resolve is just as much a part of his turnaround as his remorse, suggesting that patriotism does have something to do with it. Watch the scene where she faces down Kiley and it makes for a compelling case, but I still prefer my interpretation. For one thing Skip is consistently resistant to people “waving the flag” at him, and it’s nice to think Fuller had the balls, given the tenor of the times, not to give into what pressure probably existed then to go as up-with-America as possible. For starters the movie’s anti-communist enough without needing to drive it home by making Skip “see the light”, and to me it’s far more dramatically satisfying to have the ending, which incidentally climaxes with a bang-up brawl in a subway station (the film coming full circle perchance?), come from something deeper than a standard morale straight out of your run of the mill propaganda film.

But frankly, jingoistic or not, it doesn’t change the fact that this is a compact thriller and one of my personal favorite noir pictures.

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One Hour Photo

(2002, 96 min.)

Starring Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Dylan Smith, Gary Cole, Eriq La Salle.

Written and directed by Mark Romanek.

Williams plays Sy Parrish, a discount supermarket photo clerk who has developed, both mentally and photographically, a severe fixation on what he believes to be the perfect life of the Yorkins, a family who have been bringing their business to him for years. I was back and forth on whether I wanted to see this or not. On first hearing about it I was intrigued, especially as descriptions of it were couched in the reports of Williams attempt to flex his acting chops after his much-talked-about descent into twee-ness. I’ve always liked Williams and always felt there was a dark side to his humor, and as such would welcome a return to more mature fare for him. But after time I began to wonder what exactly the film could bring to the obsessive psycho genre, not exactly a fresh idea at this point in history. I’m happy to say that my interest won out over my skepticism, and I was rewarded in the process. Though flawed in ways, the film offers a portrait of a deeply sad and lonely individual who reinvents his reality through photographs

Writer/director Mark Romanek got his start in music video, and as such he pays a lot of attention to the visuals, all the more appropriate here being that pictures are a central theme of the story. Scenes and scenery are stylized to fit into this motif, such as the cool sterility of the supermarket where Sy works, which is used to particular effect in a startling dream sequence. But Romanek also brings depth to his story, especially in as much as it is about perception, from both scientific and psychological standpoints. He actually hits this mark a few too many times, shoehorning it in at points, but he still manages to twist the theme around, playing not only with Sy’s perception of the Yorkin family, but with the audience’s perceptions of Sy. On the one hand Sy’s life revolves around photography and yet he is also tormented by it. Sy idolizes the Yorkins for what he believes to be their charmed life, and yet in voiceover he himself points out that photo albums tend to whitewash one’s existence. And, in what I think is one of the film’s most inspired little variations, Sy, as any classic stalker does, has convinced himself that he knows the family, except in this case, in a manner of speaking, he actually does. All of this serves to give the film an enduring air of uneasiness, as does the fact that the director uses a few neat tricks to keep us guessing as to the actual depth of Sy’s psychosis.

But as nice as it is to see an unconventional approach to what is at this point in history a fairly conventional story, the ultimate drawing point here is Williams’ performance, a career redefining turn that was unfortunately overlooked award-wise. It’s hardly surprising given that many committees shy away from celebrating characters who dwell mainly in the gray areas, and there’s no denying that the sympathy Williams makes us feel for Sy stays fast even as his actions become more and more frightening.

While it’s left ambiguous at the end whether Sy has ruined or in a strange way saved the life of the Yorkins, he has in either case become an indelible part of their lives. If the film’s final shot needs any explanation, perhaps it’s that. Or perhaps it’s an indication that in this day when visual trickery is as commonplace as the stark, cold cereal laden shelves of discount markets, reality, particularly for someone as desperate as Sy, is more subjective than ever.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Monkey Hustle

(1977, 90 minutes)

Starring Yaphet Kotto, Rosalind Cash, Rudy Ray Moore, Kirk Calloway, Randy Brooks, Debbi Morgan, Carl Crudup, Fuddle Bagley, Thomas Carter, Donn Harper, Frank Rice, Lynn Caridine, Patricia McCaskill, Lynn Harris, Duchyll Smith, Steven Williams.

Written by Charles Johnson, from a story by Odie Hawkins.

Directed by Arthur Marks.

Two years earlier than this, director Marks had helmed two other blaxpo pictures, Bucktown with Pam Grier and Fred Williamson and Friday Foster with Grier and Kotto. Despite belonging to the same genre, these were two rather different films. Bucktown was a rough and mean story of corruption and almost Shakespearean betrayal, while Friday Foster, based on a comic strip (imagine a black Brenda Starr and you’ll pretty much have the idea), had a much lighter tone. Foster also differed from Bucktown in as much as, while still fairly violent, it tempered the brutality by scattering bits of humor throughout. As if this weren’t variety enough, the following year saw the director making J. D.’s Revenge, a blaxpo horror film about a man possessed by a murdered gangster. Marks may have weighed in on these efforts and decided he liked the light touch of Foster, so much so that he would consider going even further in that direction. At least that seems to be what was on his mind when he made this likeable enough, but strangely empty comedy about a Chicago neighborhood populated almost exclusively by smalltime hustlers.

There’s a bit of a plot about a block party the locals throw to protest the building of a freeway through the neighborhood, but most of the film is taken up by the little scams perpetrated by the characters, mostly on each other. (I don’t know if this is supposed to be some kind of statement or if it’s just a comic device). Kotto plays Big Daddy Foxx, a kind of father figure to the up-and-comers, and he describes what they do for a living as the ‘monkey hustle’ of the title. As fun as all of the scheming is, it leaves precious little time for anything else, and as a result, the characters are so thinly drawn, it’s hard to care about them on anything more than the most perfunctory level. (Interestingly enough, though not well-developed either, the most diverse character is The Black Knight (Rice), the local cop, who is portrayed alternately as a law enforcer, a co-conspirator in the scams, a bumbling fool easily tricked by the young hustlers and, ultimately, a part of the stolid community facing down ‘the man’. One almost wonders if screenwriter Charles Johnson was merely trying to cover all bases with one character, given the sharply divided opinion of the time regarding police officers.)

The cast is not to blame for the rather hollow tone as they all do their best. The wonderful Kotto is as engaging as ever and genre fave Moore (Dolemite), while not given that much to do, still manages to add some flamboyance to the proceedings.

It has been one of my own little pet musings to imagine what might have resulted if the people behind this genre had tried to make a film using the ideologies of the Italian post-war neo-realist movement. Given the over-the-top nature of much blaxploitation and the definitively anti-style stance of neo-realism, it might have resulted in disaster, yet on the other hand, it also might have provided a more contemplative portrait of urban black life than these films tend to. This is actually one place where this film succeeds a bit more than its counterparts. You do get a real feeling of the community at large, which incidentally makes the slightly hackneyed rally scene at the end easier to take. But this is a case of seeing the forest despite the trees and I can’t help but wonder how much more poignant it would have been had we had really solid characters to attach ourselves to.

This will not satisfy those looking for blaxploitation’s trademark sex and violence quotient, but it does stand as an unusual variation. Pity it couldn’t have been a more thoughtful one.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Miracle in Milan

(1951, 95 min.)

Starring Francesco Golisano, Paolo Stoppa, Emma Gramatica, Guglielmo Barnabo, Brunella Bovo, Anna Carena, Arturo Bragalia, Erminio Spalla, Jerome Johnson

Written by Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini, from a novel by Zavattini, with additional material by Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Mario Chiari and Adolfo Franci

Directed by Vittorio De Sica

An older woman, Lolotta (Gramatica), finds a baby in her garden and raises him as her own. When she dies he’s placed in an orphanage, from which he emerges a stunningly idealistic young man, Toto the Good (Golisano). Having no prospects and nowhere to go, he takes up with a ragtag band of homeless, whom he encourages to build a shanty-town, the residents of which include a man who thinks himself better than all the rest and gets along with no one, a family with similar airs, who are ultimately just hucksters and who have a housekeeper who takes a shine to Toto, and a black man and a white woman who must pretend not to be a couple owing to their mixed races.

A rich man buys the property the town rests upon, and while he is open and understanding about the plight of the residents at first (partially out of fear of them), when it is discovered that there is fuel to be had under the land, it isn’t long before he’s called out the cavalry to move them out and start drilling. Fortunately for the residents, Toto’s dead adopted mother pays him a visit to give him a heavenly dove that allows him to grant wishes. It’s very effective in driving away the capitalistic forces that darken their doorway, but it also, to no surprise, begins to corrupt the very people it was sent to save.

De Sica was one of the founders of the Italian Neo-Realist movement, which was a post-war school that strived, much like the Dogme 95 movement spearheaded many years later by Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier, to slough off film conventions established by Hollywood through the use of a handful of particular facets meant to alter the very face of cinema. The Italians weren’t quite as assertive as the Scandinavians (whose fervor was built right into their name after all), at least in as much as they didn’t bother to write up a manifesto, but their aim was clear: to construct a cinema that looked like real life, more in step with what the viewer’s eyes actually see when they’re not confined within the theater’s walls, and, in the process, give a voice to the trodden underclasses.

It’s further interesting to note that it didn’t take long for both schools to begin bending or even casting aside their own rules, this film being a perfect example of De Sica’s break from form, at least in terms of tone. Working from a script written by, among others, Cesare Zavattini, who adapted from his own novel, De Sica uses the story as a way of expressing his own contempt for that often astonishingly shown towards those whose lives had been decimated by the war. But instead of the heartbreaking pathos of such films as his classic Bicycle Thief, he infuses the story with fantastical whimsy, from as early on as the few short opening scenes when he establishes the relationship between the old woman and her charge with remarkable adeptness and economy. The shanty town and the magical defense thereof provide him the opportunity for numerous sight gags and truly funny bits (I got a particular laugh out of the opera-singing soldiers). Of course, in true post-war Italian fashion, and as befits the story, it’s not all fun and games. The resolution of the mixed race couple’s situation is like something co-penned by O. Henry and Rod Serling. Still, overall, this wouldn’t be a bad film to start with if you wanted to try to get a kid interested in foreign cinema.

I will add one caveat, and expose my inherent cynicism in the process. I deliberately neglected to mention that when Lolotta finds the boy in her garden, he is, in fact, in a cabbage patch. Yes, Toto is a literal cabbage patch kid. And while the abiding cutesiness that bygone fad may conjure up doesn’t stain this film, there is a streak of ‘spirit will prevail’ up-ness similar to the one that runs through films like Lasse Halstrom’s Chocolat, for example. Your tolerance for such untrammeled optimism may color your enjoyment of the film. And while it’s been correctly pointed out that the film’s final image (and perhaps Toto’s starry eyes in general) can be seen as an expression of deep cynicism, it’s presented so joyfully it almost seems churlish to cast it in such a light. Perhaps after the utter bleakness of films like the aforementioned Thief, and such other neo-realist touchstones as Rossellini’s Open City and Visconti’s La Terra Trema, some good will was what De Sica, and the Italian moviegoers, simply needed.

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