Film Review – POINT BLANK (1967)

POINT BLANK (1967, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., USA, 92 mins, Colour, 2.35:1, Mono, Cert: 15, Crime Action Thriller) ∗∗∗∗
     Starring: Lee Marvin (Walker), Angie Dickinson (Chris), Keenan Wynn (Yost/Fairfax), Carroll O’Connor (Brewster), Lloyd Bochner (Frederick Carter), Michael Strong (Stegman), John Vernon (Mal Reese), Sharon Acker (Lynne). James Sikking (Hired gun), Sandra Warner (Waitress), Roberta Haynes (Mrs. Carter), Kathleen Freeman (First citizen), Victor Creatore (Carter’s man), Lawrence Hauben (Car salesman).
     Producer: Judd Bernard, Robert Chartoff, Irvin Winkler; Director: John Boorman; Writer: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, Rafe Newhouse (based on the novel “The Hunter” by Richard Stark); Director of Photography: Philip H. Lathrop (Metrocolor); Music: Johnny Mandel; Film Editor: Henry Berman; Art Director: George W. Davis, Albert Brenner; Set Decorator: Henry Grace, Keogh Gleason; Costume Designer: Lambert Marks, Margo Weintz.

point-blank-coverAdapted from Richard Starks’ 1963 novel this is the tale of a gangster (Marvin) seeking revenge on his partner (Vernon) who double-crossed him, stole his wife (Acker) and left him for dead at a money drop at Alcatraz. In his search Marvin finds his wife dead from an overdose and subsequently blows holes in the middle of organised crime with the help of his wife’s sister (Dickinson), who has also hooked up with Vernon.

Shot on location in San Francisco and Los Angeles – being the first to make use of the then recently closed Alcatraz prison – the story is a simple take on an oft-told story. But what elevates the film is Boorman’s vision – dialling up the psychological impacts on Marvin’s character working with editor Berman in introducing strobe-like flashback techniques to show the scars on Marvin’s psyche. A little disorienting and distracting at first, the cutting style increases in effectiveness as the film progresses and it is used more sparsely. Marvin is cold and clinical in his portrayal of a man driven by nothing more than the need for retribution, showing what a good actor he was when not being asked to ham up his own image. He is given strong support by Vernon, Dickinson and O’Connor. An excellent example of the experimental film making in the sixties it has grown in reputation over the years along with Boorman’s cult status as a director.

A further adaptation of Stark’s novel was produced in 1999 as PAYBACK starring Mel Gibson.

Film Review – BIG BAD MAMA (1974)

BIG BAD MAMA (1974, Santa Cruz Productions, Inc., USA, 87 mins, Colour, 1.85:1, Mono, Cert: 18, Crime Action Thriller) ∗∗∗∗∗
      Starring: Angie Dickinson (Wilma McClatchie), William Shatner (William J. Baxter), Tom Skerritt (Fred Diller), Susan Sennett (Billy Jean), Robbie Lee (Polly), Noble Willingham (Uncle Barney), Dick Miller (Bonney), Tom Signorelli (Dodds), Joan Prather (Jane Kingston), Royal Dandy (Reverend Johnson), William O’Connell (Crusade preacher), John Wheeler (Lawyer), Ralph James (Sheriff), Sally Kirkland (Barney’s woman), Wally Berns (Legionnaire).
      Producer: Roger Corman; Director: Steve Carver; Writer: William Norton, Frances Doel; Director of Photography: Bruce Logan (Metrocolor); Music: David Grisman; Film Editor: Tina Hirsch; Art Director: Peter Jamison; Set Decorator: Coke Willis; Costume Designer: Jac McAnelly.

big_bad_mama_uk_dvdRoger Corman produced this low-rent BONNIE AND CLYDE clone in which the attempts at comedy seem ham-fisted and ill-conceived when played alongside some often violent and bloody action.

Angie Dickinson stars as Wilma McClatchie who along with her teenage daughters targets 1932 small town Texas with her criminal schemes and daring robberies. Along the way she is aided by a couple of misfits in Skerritt and Shatner and remains one step ahead of the law until the film’s conclusion.

Carver doers conjure a nice sense of period and Dickinson, as ever, is capable in the lead role. The film was shot quickly (in 20 days) and the rushed nature of the production is evident on screen. But where the film mainly falls down is in its shifting tone between comedy and drama. These troubles stem from Norton and Doel’s script, which lacks focus and is episodic, merely shuffling from one set-piece to the next mixing violence and slapstick without enriching the characters or giving us anyone to root for. Alongside the problems of plot and characterisation, Dickinson’s exploitation of her seemingly young daughters (Sennett and Lee) feels a little ill-judged by today’s standards. Corman also exploits the virtues of Dickinson, Sennett and Lee as they seduce their various male accomplices in order to manipulate their involvement in their criminal activities.

Whilst the film has attracted a somewhat dubious cult status, this is primarily due to the exploitative content rather than artistic merit. A sequel, BIG BAD MAMA II, followed in 1987.

Film Review – ONE SHOE MAKES IT MURDER (TV 1982)

ONE SHOE MAKES IT MURDER (TVM, 1982, Fellows-Keegan Company / Lorimar Productions, USA, 95 mins, Colour, 1.78:1, Mono, Cert: NR, Mystery) ∗∗∗∗∗
      Starring: Robert Mitchum (Harold Shillman), Angie Dickinson (Fay Reid), Mel Ferrer (Carl Charnock), José Pérez (Det. Carmona), John Harkins (Smiley Copell), Howard Hesseman (Joe Hervey), Asher Brauner (Rudy), Bill Henderson (Chick), Cathie Shirriff (Caroline Charnock), William G. Schilling (Cab driver), Sandy Martin (Gloria), Grainger Hines (Garage attendant).
      Producer: Mel Ferrer; Director: William Hale; Writer: Felix Culver (based on the novel “So Little Cause for Caroline” by Eric Bercovici); Director of Photography: Terry K. Meade (Metrocolor); Music: Bruce Broughton; Film Editor: Jerry Young; Art Director: Donald Lee Harris; Set Decorator: Ernie Bishop; Costume Designer: Thomas E. Johnson, Joy Tierney.

51KgLaMyjzL._SX200_Robert Mitchum made his TV debut in this old-fashioned mystery. Hale’s movie echoes the noir films of the 1940s and 1950s without ever conjuring the atmosphere to match, despite Mitchum’s world-weary voiceover and Broughton’s retro music score.

Mitchum is a washed-out ex-cop hired by a rich Nevada casino owner (Ferrer) to find his wife (Shirriff) who went missing at the same time as the casino was shut down by the authorities. Along the way Mitchum also meets up with Dickinson, an ex-hooker turned good, who takes a shine to him and helps him out. When Shirriff falls from a balcony, after she has been traced to San Francisco, Mitchum suspects foul play whilst the police suspect Mitchum.

The plot unfolds in familiar fashion from here with a small cast in which both Ferrer and Pérez standout. Whilst Hale fails to inject any real rhythm to the story and it at times feels laboured, both Mitchum and Dickinson hold our interest by turning in performances which play heavily on their iconic status. Culver’s screenplay adaptation could have been tighter and the limitations of TV budget scaled back the production.

Whilst this fails to hold a candle to genre classics it remains an entertaining enough mystery on its own terms and is worth exploring by genre fans.

Film Review – ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976, The C K K Corporation, USA, 90 mins, Colour, 2.35:1, Mono/DTS 5.1, Cert: 15, Action Thriller) ∗∗∗∗
      Starring: Austin Stoker (Lt. Ethan Bishop), Darwin Joston (Napoleon Wilson), Laurie Zimmer (Leigh), Martin West (Lawson), Tony Burton (Wells), Charles Cyphers (Starker), Nancy Loomis (Julie), Peter Bruni (Ice cream man), John J. Fox (Warden), Marc Ross (Patrolman Tramer), Alan Koss (Patrolman Baxter), Henry Brandon (Chaney), Kim Richards (Kathy).
      Producer: J. S. Kaplan; Director: John Carpenter; Writer: John Carpenter; Director of Photography: Douglas Knapp (Metrocolor); Music: John Carpenter; Film Editor: John Carpenter (as John T. Chance); Art Director: Tommy Wallace.

AssaultOnPrecinct13-blu-ray-814x1024The film that provided the light to the touch paper on the career of its writer and director, John Carpenter (who also handled the music score and editing duties). Carpenter had enjoyed some cult success with his comic sci-fi debut DARK STAR in 1974, but it was this film and its follow-up HALLOWEEN (1978) that cemented the deal.

Much has been said of the movies two major influences. The law under siege coming from Howard Hawks’ RIO BRAVO (1959) and the dialogue-free portrayal of the LA gangs as single-minded and almost zombie-like a nod toward NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). Carpenter’s use of a pseudonym for his editor credit and Zimmer’s character name acknowledged the former.

The result is an economical and highly entertaining B-movie, which moves at a fair clip. Whilst the cast lacks a certain star wattage, Carpenter gives the actors some memorable dialogue – most notably to Joston, whose running gag “Got a smoke” is another nod to Hawks and westerns in general. Carpenter adds to the tension with his electronic score, which through its simplicity of structure and phrasing heightens the atmosphere. The ice cream van scene is still talked about today for its shock value and is a prime example of how the director could keep an audience on its toes in the early films of his career. The first gun assault on the closed down precinct house was all the more effective for the gang’s use of silencers to avoid their assault being reported from the nearby neighbourhood. The pinging ricochet of bullets and the flutter of papers conveying the sense of danger in a different and more effective way.

Initially dismissed in the US, the film gained its reputation in Europe the year following its release. This led to a re-appraisal by American critics and a re-release when Carpenter’s reputation was sealed with HALLOWEEN. The film itself became the subject of a less effective remake in 2005 and Carpenter would re-work the siege theme in his remake of THE THING (1980) and the later GHOSTS OF MARS (2001).

Book Review – LAIDLAW (1977) by William McIlvanney

LAIDLAW by WILLIAM McILVANNEY (1977, Hodder & Stroughton / Cannongate Books Ltd., Paperback, 280pp) ∗∗∗∗
      Blurb: Meet Jack Laidlaw, the original damaged detective. When a young woman is found brutally murdered on Glasgow Green, only Laidlaw stands a chance of finding her murderer from among the hard men, gangland villains and self-made moneymen who lurk in the city’s shadows.

LaidlawWilliam McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy has found its way back into print courtesy of Cannongate. This is the first and introduces us to DI Jack Laidlaw, who is a maverick detective with more depth and heart than most. He is by no means perfect and has a troubled marriage, prolonged due to the deep love he has for his children. He is also involved in an affair with a hotel receptionist. He also has to blood in a new partner in DC Brian Harkness, whilst being involved in a feus with his colleague DI Milligan.

McIlvanney’s tale is simple, efficient, pacy and populated with characters of depth. He liberally uses Glaswegian slang in the dialogue, which adds a sense of place – although for non-Glaswegians, it can take some translating. The dialogue is also laced with a sardonic humour that nods to the noir classics of the past. As the various factions race-against-time to find the troubled murderer, Laidlaw finds time to lay down his heavy philosophies on Harkness and through this he earns a grudging respect.

This taut, well-written crime novel was highly influential on other Scottish crime and mystery writers such as Ian Rankin, Gordon Ferris and Craig Russell, whose works echo McIlvanney’s vision of the Scottish underworld. Highly recommended.

Film Review – FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975)

FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975, E. K. Corporation/ITC, USA, 100 mins, Colour, 1.85:1, Mono, Cert: 15, Mystery) ∗∗∗∗
     Starring: Robert Mitchum (Philip Marlowe), Charlotte Rampling (Mrs. Helen Grayle), John Ireland (Lt. Nulty), Sylvia Miles (Mrs. Jessie Florian), Anthony Zerbe(Laird Brunette), Harry Dean Stanton (Billy Rolfe), Jack O’Halloran (Moose Malloy), Joe Spinell (Nick), Sylvester Stallone (Jonnie), Kate Murtagh (Frances Amthor), John O’Leary (Lindsay Marriott), Walter McGinn (Tommy Ray), Burton Gilliam (Cowboy), Jim Thompson (Mr. Baxter Wilson Grayle), Jimmie Archer (Georgie).
      Producer: George Pappas, Jerry Bruckheimer; Director: Dick Richards; Writer: David Zelag Goodman (based on the novel by Raymond Chandler); Director of Photography: John A. Alonzo (Technicolor); Music: David Shire; Film Editor: Walter Thompson, Joel Cox; Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis, Art Director: Angelo Graham; Set Decorator: Bob Nelson; Costume Designer: Tony Scarano, Silvio Scarano, Sandra Berke.

Farewell-My-Lovely-DVD-69883Delightful version of Raymond Chandler’s classic 1940 novel, previously filmed as THE FALCON TAKES OVER (1942) and MURDER MY SWEET (1945). Mitchum is a perfect world-weary Marlowe, despite his age and Richards creates an authentic translation of the author’s prose.

Marlowe is hired by oversized ex-con Moose Malloy (O’Halloran) to trace the girl he has not seen for seven years. What follows is a twisting tale of deceit, spiced with witty dialogue and colourful characters. The period detail is also excellent with the dark photography (by Alonzo who also worked on the previous year’s genre classic Chinatown) and mournful music score adding considerably to the mood.

In a strong supporting cast, Miles (nominated for a supporting actress Academy Award) scores heavily as a booze-soaked ex-dancer and Ireland is imposing as the seemingly only honest cop, Nulty. Also impressive is Murtagh as the butch madam of a brothel who also gets the better of Marlowe physically. Some of the other performances are more variable – former boxer O’Halloran is physically imposing as Moose, but delivers his lines with a stiffness that matches his build. Rampling manages to create some sexual tension, but lacks the finesse for this type of role of a Lauren Bacall or Veronica Lake.

Richards’ pacing of the story is well-judged and his work on this meticulously designed film is supported by editors Thompson and Cox in retaining a sense of clarity and flow through the complex plot twists.

The film’s success led to Mitchum playing Marlowe again in the less successful remake of THE BIG SLEEP in 1978, which bizarrely switched location from 1940s LA to 1970s London.

Film Review – SHAFT (1971)

SHAFT (1971, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., USA, 100 mins, Colour, 1.85:1, Mono, Cert: 15, Crime Thriller) ∗∗∗∗
      Starring: Richard Roundtree (John Shaft), Moses Gunn (Bumpy Jonas), Charles Cioffi (Vic Androzzi), Christopher St. John (Ben Buford), Gwenn Mitchell (Ellie Moore), Lawrence Pressman (Tom Hannon), Victor Arnold (Charlie), Sherri Brewer (Marcy), Rex Robbins (Rollie), Camille Yarbrough (Dina Greene), Margaret Warncke (Linda), Joseph Leon (Byron Leibowitz), Arnold Johnson (Cul), Dominic Barto (Patsy), George Strus (Carmen), Edmund Hashim (Lee), Drew Bundini Brown (Willy).
       Producer: Joel Freeman; Director: Gordon Parks; Writer: Ernest Tidyman, John D. F. Black (based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman); Director of Photography: Urs Furrer (Metrocolor); Music: Isaac Hayes; Film Editor: Hugh A. Robertson; Art Director: Emanuel Gerard; Set Decorator: Robert Drumheller; Costume Designer: Joe Aulisi.

Shaft 1971Gordon Parks’ ground-breaking crime thriller stars Richard Roundtree as Ernest Tidyman’s iconic tough black New York private detective, John Shaft.

Shaft is hired by Harlem crime lord, Bumpy Jonas, to locate and rescue his kidnapped daughter. Bumpy tells Shaft he suspects she has been abducted by black revolutionaries, led by Ben Buford, when really she has been snatched by the Mafia as part of a turf war. When Shaft realises he has been set-up by Bumpy to enlist Buford and his men he ups his price before linking up with Buford to plan a rescue.

It is easy today to underestimate the impact of SHAFT today when black action heroes are commonplace, but in 1971 Parks’ film was a revelation. From the opening shots of Roundtree’s Shaft strutting his way through Midtown Manhattan to the closing sequence of the daring rescue the film oozes style. With Isaac Hayes’ funky theme playing over the credits a movie icon was born.

The bleak New York winter of 1970/1 helped provide a gritty urban backdrop to Parks’ realisation of Ernest Tidyman’s novel. In his first starring role Roundtree has such an incredible charisma he instantly makes the role his own brilliantly sparring with the police and gangsters alike. Moses Gunn is also commanding as Bumpy Jonas (renamed from Knocks Persons in the novel as a nod to real life Harlem gangster of the ‘20s and ‘30s Bumpy Johnson). Charles Cioffi is the epitome of world-weariness in his portrayal of Lt. Vic Androzzi, whilst Ben Buford is portrayed by Christopher St. John, but is less imposing than the more intellectual version seen in the book.

The film has a slow pace by today’s frenetic standards, but is punctuated by occasional bursts of violent action. Parks’ lack of experience comes through with the aforementioned pacing problems. The editing could also be tighter in certain scenes – although the rescue finale is well-judged. However, his visual eye is evident throughout in the way he captures New York in social decay. The bare tenements and littered streets come sharply into focus against the harsh winter backdrop.

The film’s greatest achievement, though, was the legacy it created, enabling new talent to thrive in a Hollywood that hitherto had been a largely white domain.

Two sequels – SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! (1972) and SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973) and a series of seven TV-movies (1973-4) followed. John Singleton attempted to re-launch the franchise in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft’s nephew (also named John Shaft) and Roundtree reprising his role in little more than a cameo appearance.

Film Review – CROSSFIRE (1947)

CROSSFIRE (RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., USA, 86 mins, B&W, 1.37:1, Mono, Cert: PG, Crime Thriller) ∗∗∗
      Starring: Robert Young (Captain Finlay); Robert Mitchum (Sgt. Felix Keeley); Robert Ryan (Sgt. Montgomery); Gloria Grahame (Ginny Tremaine); Paul Kelly (The Man); Sam Levene (Joseph Samuels); Jacqueline White (Mary Mitchell); Steve Brodie (Floyd Bowers); George Cooper (Corp. Arthur Mitchell); Richard Benedict (Bill Williams); Richard Powers (Detective Dick); William Phipps (Leroy); Lex Barker (Harry); Marlo Dwyer (Miss Lewis).
      Producer: Adrian Scott; Director: Edward Dmytryk; Writer: John Paxton (Based on the novel “The Brick Foxhole” by Richard Brooks); Director of Photography: J. Roy Hunt; Music: Roy Webb; Film Editor: Harry Gerstad; Art Director: Albert S. D’Agostino, Alfred Herman; Set Decorator: Darrell Silvera, John Sturtevant.

Crossfire 1947Detective Finlay (Young) investigates a group of soldiers who are accused of beating a man to death without an apparent motive in this well-directed and acted film noir based on Brooks’ controversial novel of a homophobic motivated murder (here translated into a hatred of Jews rather than homosexuals).

Dmytryk (also responsible for Murder My Sweet in 1944) directs with a sure and efficient hand giving the story sufficient room to breathe whilst keeping the plot moving along. Ryan conveys a fine balance of calmness in the early scenes and a descent into desperation as the net closes. Mitchum is solid and confident in an early supporting role, whilst Young displays a world –weariness that would become a signature for the noir police detective. Hunt’s photography is first-rate with most scenes set at night and being low lit giving ample opportunity for contrast and shadow. Paxton’s adaptation provides good dialogue for the actors and generally steers clear of the genre’s more obvious traits. Grahame has some memorable screen time as the painted lady caught up in events.

Whilst this is not a classic, the film is one of the better examples of the atmosphere and tension the genre could create with a gifted director at the helm.

Both producer Scott and director Dmytryk were later accused of communist sympathies and became the first two members of the “Hollywood Ten” who were blacklisted and imprisoned – although Dmytryk was later reprieved.

Film Review – UNDER THE SKIN (2013)

UNDER THE SKIN (2013, Film 4 / British Film Institute, UK/USA/Switzerland, 108 mins, Colour, 1.85:1, Dolby Digital, Cert: 15, Sci-Fi Thriller) ∗∗∗∗∗
      Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden, D. Meade, Andrew Gorman, Joe Szula, Krystof Hádek, Roy Armstrong.
      Producer: Nick Wechsler, James Wilson; Director: Jonathan Glazer; Writer: Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell (Based on the novel by Michel Faber); Director of Photography: Daniel Landin; Music: Mica Levi; Film Editor: Paul Watts; Production Designer: Chris Oddy; Art Director: Martin McNee, Emer O’Sullivan; Costume Designer: Steven Noble.

UnderTheSkinAn alien in the form of a voluptuous woman (Johansson) combs the highways of Scotland in search of isolated or forsaken men, luring a succession of lost souls into an otherworldly lair. There she seduces, strips and stores them in a dimensional trap. Then she takes pity on a deformed man, who she releases incurring the wrath of her male accomplice. She goes on the run and meets a drifter. Seemingly beginning to become aware of a soul within her human facade she becomes attracted to him. When she realises her alien biology precludes them from mating she escapes to a forest where further danger awaits.

To brand this film as unconventional would be an understatement. It is encouraging to see such challenging film-making in an era dominated by brainless blockbusters. The dense narrative, sparse dialogue and eerie soundtrack all serve to create an unsettling atmosphere. This is most notable in a scene on a beach where a toddler is left alone against the oncoming tide as his mother and father meet their fate whilst trying to rescue their dog, which has swum out to sea.

Johansson delivers an emotionally detached performance and yet still manages to create a seductive allure through her physicality. None of the human characters are given names but all the actors give credible and naturalistic performances. Watching the film makes the viewer feel voyeuristic rather than emotionally involved and as such its cold heart will alienate many. Despite the slow unfolding story I remained hooked until the rather disappointing conclusion, which left many of the interesting subtexts raised hanging in the air as if the filmmakers were merely asking the questions rather than sharing a viewpoint.

The end result, therefore, is an impressively technical film, but one without a soul.