Three of the great icons of French crime cinema team up for The Sicilian Clan (France, 1969) (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD). Jean Gabin is Vittorio Manalese, the head of the Sicilian Manalese clan in Paris, Alain Delon the reckless, amoral French criminal and killer Roger, who hires Vittorio’s clan to spring him from custody, and Lino Ventura Commissaire Le Goff, the man who captured Roger. After Roger escapes, Le Goff struggles with is efforts to give up smoking.
The film opens with a terrific escape, not from prison but from prison transport in the chaos of a traffic snarl, in a nicely-engineered sequence crisply directed by Henri Verneuil. No guns needed here—the Manalese clan doesn’t kill during their capers—and Vittorio is wary of Roger, a loner who has killed more than one cop in his robberies, as he puts him up in a private apartment above the family home. But when Roger brings a big jewel heist his way, he agrees to partner up and proceeds to find a New York partner and case the target: an exhibition hall in Rome with state-of-the-art security. Vittorio meets up with distant New York mob cousin Tony Nicosia (played with dapper charm by Amadeo Nazzari), who he hasn’t seen for thirty years, and they slip into instant rapport and easy friendship as if no time has passed as they case the Rome exhibit. When they find the new technology impenetrable, Vittorio comes up with a new plan: hijacking the flight delivering the jewels to New York City in a genuine family affair.
Is Mildred Pierce (1945) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) film noir or melodrama? I say why choose? Film noir is almost entirely associated with crime stories and life in the shadows and at night in the city and sure enough Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, opens with death and darkness and the twilight of the soul. But there’s a subset of noir rooted in melodrama or the women’s pictures, as they were called in the 1940s and 1950s, films about the lives of women as they reach for their American dream, or at least the one promised them in love, marriage, and family. Mildred Pierce offers both, almost as two separate films that converge in the final act
It opens squarely in film noir territory (not that there is anything square and simple in noir), with a point blank murder and grotesque dying convulsions of a man who, even at first glance, convinces us he’s an oily, unclean manipulator who surely earned his terrible death. It’s Zachary Scott in a lounge lizard mustache playing his trademark gigolo with weasely insincerity—almost too perfect for our opening victim. We’ll get back to the corpse but first we leave the beach house scene of the crime for a seedy part of the boardwalk and a woman in fur (Joan Crawford) gripping the rail with every indication of a suicidal plunge into the surf. There’s a gaudily colorful bar with a Polynesian theme owned by Jack Carson, appropriately attired in a white tux that screams new money and no taste especially next to the elegance of Crawford, a nightcap, and what appears to be a neat little frame for murder that sweeps all of our characters into the police station for questioning.
You don’t think of Michael Curtiz, the great house director of Warner Bros. spectacles and prestige pictures, as one of the great noir directors but the opening twenty minutes or so is a master class in film noir directing, in part thanks to stunning nocturnal images by cinematography Ernest Haller (his work earned an Oscar nomination, one of six that the film racked up).
Deluge (1933) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the original end-of-the-world thriller, is a curious and often fascinating artifact. Produced in 1933, before the production code came down on Hollywood, on a relatively modest budget, it imagines not just the destruction of civilization in (unexplained) earthquakes and cataclysmic storms but life after the flood, so to speak. It’s based on a popular 1920s science fiction novel by the now forgotten Sydney Fowler Wright and can claim the title as the first disaster movie.
Scientists are in a panic as barometers plunge and reports of cities flooded in tidal waves and hurricanes are breathlessly reported in radio broadcasts. In these opening scenes, however, the only destruction we witness is the lavish house in the woods of Martin and Helen (Sidney Blackmer and Lois Wilson), crushed under trees blown over by high winds while Martin carries them off to safety. Then the real spectacle begins: New York collapses in primitive yet evocative miniatures that are more expressionistic than realistic, like an avant-garde short dropped into a science fiction thriller. Crude travelling mattes put people amidst the destruction, fleeing collapsing buildings or getting crushed by the debris, and a magnificent miniature gives us a God’s eye view of New York City swamped in a tsunami. By modern standards it’s not all “realistic” but it’s mesmerizing in part because it’s a cinematic imagining of something no filmmaker had attempted on screen before. It’s a first pass at the kind of disaster spectacle we now take for granted and these technicians create it all from scratch, not just the technical matter of the physical special effects but the very visualization of the end of the world.
We think of the cinema of activism in documentary filmmaking as a relatively modern phenomenon, something first awakened in the 1960s and 1970s and popularized by the likes of Michael Moore and Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney. But the success films like Bowling for Columbine (2002) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006), both Oscar winners and box-office hits, not to mention such devastating investigative documentaries as The Cove (2009), the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War (Independent Lens, 2012), which directly led to a change in policy towards the prosecution of rape in the military (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015), were built on a tradition that goes back decades.
Here are some of the landmarks in the cinema of advocacy and activism: documentary as investigative journalism, as an educational tool, as exposé of injustice and inequity, and as a vehicle for political or social change. [Note: All these films are available on various streaming services and DVD rental, while the first two are in the public domain.]
The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) / The River (1938)
In The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both directed by Pare Lorentz and funded by the U.S. Government, two currents of non-fiction filmmaking met: the educational project and the propaganda film. These were pro-New Deal films but they addressed the dangers of over-cultivation of American farmland. The Plow casts its lens to the Dust Bowl and The River on the Mississippi River, each documenting the specific conditions that caused the ecological devastation of the regain and offering a more sustainable approach to farming. Both films are in the National Film Registry, and Lorentz now has a filmmaking fund named after him. [Watch The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River]
Betty / Torment / The Swindle: 3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol (Cohen, Blu-ray) – Claude Chabrol has been called the Gallic Hitchcock because of his fascination with the Master of Suspense (he co-authored the first groundbreaking study of Hitchcock with Eric Rohmer in 1957) and his career-defining work in the suspense genre.
But where Hitchcock is fascinated by doubles and guilty innocents, by the everyman rising to the challenge when his very existence is questioned and redefined and spinning out of control, Chabrol is more interested in the killers and their loves ones, in the inner lives and the possibilities that may save them from themselves, and in the ambiguous relationships and emotional connections between victims and victimizers. At their best, his films reveal characters with complex psychologies and often destructive and unhealthy relationships. This collection presents three Chabrol films from the 1990s that emphasize the psychological troubles of the characters.
Betty (France, 1992), based on a novel by Georges Simenon, stars Marie Trintignant as the boozy title character we meet at a bar: her eyes sunken, her expression blank, a dead smile greeting the man who inadvertently introduces her to the two people who will get her through her suicidal depression: the maternal Laure (Stéphane Audran), a middle-aged widow living in a Versailles hotel, and Mario (Jean-François Garreaud), owner of the restaurant that seems to give strays a home.
Throughout the years of Noir City’s Seattle residency, the programming has taken brief detours from the mean streets of hardcore noir to explore side alleys, from early influences on noir to noir influences on other genres. The 2017 festival, which runs February 16-22 and is the biggest to date (20 films in seven days), takes more leeway than usual for “The Big Knockover,” a week of capers, heists, and holdups. A lot of the films don’t qualify as pure noir. The heist genre occupies its own corner of the crime movie universe, sometimes embracing the dark heart of film noir’s world of corruption and desperation and doom, just as often skipping into lighthearted crime comedy or slipping into cool, calculated caper spectacle. You could say that the heist film is the original antihero team endeavor, the supervillain squad combining their unique skills to a common cause—in this case, the impossible robbery. This is one of those times when we root for the bad guys.
Most of the time, anyway.
John Huston essentially launched the heist drama as a genre of its own with The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Constructed around the meticulous planning and execution of a caper, it transformed the crime drama into a mission movie featuring shady soldiers of the urban underworld: mercenaries seeking redemption through one last gamble of action, trust, talent, and sacrifice. It’s a model of elegant construction, street-level tragedy, and poetic justice, with Huston’s wry fatalism providing the noir sensibility.
Ruth Negga earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance in Jeff Nichols’ intimate drama.
Loving (2016), Jeff Nichols’s portrait of Richard and Mildred Loving, does more than put a face to a landmark Supreme Court decision. Their 1958 marriage was a crime in the state of Virginia because Richard (played by Joel Edgerton with a terse determination) was a white man and Mildred (Ruth Negga, vulnerable yet hopeful) was a black woman. But this is not the portrait of a defiant couple protesting all the way to the Supreme Court. The title is more than just a form of shorthand or a clever double-meaning. It is the core of the film. This is about a marriage, a couple deeply in love and devoted to their family, who just want to live together in their home state.
Their courtship is presented in snapshots yet from the beginning it’s like they’ve been together forever, laying in one another’s arms with a natural intimacy. They live in an integrated pocket of blue collar families that could be a planet away from the segregation of the cities. When Mildred tells Richard she’s pregnant he beams with a rare smile, like it’s the sign he’s been waiting for, even if they have to sneak across the border to Washington D.C. for the ceremony and set up a household in secret. Negga earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance as Mildred and Australian actor Edgerton received a Golden Globe nomination for the stolid Richard, a man who looks like a redneck stereotype under his buzz cut and tight mouth yet is like a member of her family even before they marry.
Not to be confused with the Jonathan Demme screwball comedy/thriller by the same name, the 1962 Something Wild (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is an unusually frank drama about a teenage girl recovering from rape.
The film opens on the assault, a non-explicit scene that communicates both the violence of the rape and the terrible sense of violation and helplessness felt by Mary Ann (Carroll Baker), a New York middle-class girl who is attacked on the way home from school. Director Jack Garfein, who adapted the screenplay from the novel “Mary Ann” with author Alex Karmel, presents the ordeal in impressionistic fragments and discomforting close-ups and the aftermath, as she picks herself off and shuffles home, in a long, wordless scene sensitive to the nuances of her experience. The tactile presentation of the physical details (a skirt shoved up over her thigh, a sharp rock poking into her leg, bending to pick up the modest crucifix ripped from her neck and tossed to the ground) doesn’t just channel the sensory experience, it suggests the fragments of the ordeal that Mary Ann’s mind latches on amidst the horror of violation. More than fifty years later it is still startling and affecting, a simple yet evocative cinematic suggestion of ordeal too terrible to show.
His Girl Friday (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) should really be listed as a double feature, for the “bonus” movie—a new edition of the original screen version of The Front Page, adapted from the snappy, cynical, double-barrel Broadway hit by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur—is not just a home video debut but a major discovery.
The Front Page (1931) stars Pat O’Brien as the crack reporter Hildy Johnson, ready to leave the beat for marriage and an office job, and Adolph Menjou as the crafty editor who pulls every trick to keep Hildy on the job to cover a breaking story: the execution of a convicted killer who is more addled everyman than rabble-rousing radical. The film opens on a test drop from the scaffold that is to hang Earl Williams, then the camera glides over to the reporter’s room where the thick-skinned gentlemen of the press prove that they are no gentlemen.
Is this the stuff of comedy? It is in the hands of Hecht and MacArthur, former newspapermen with plenty to say about the cutthroat tactics of journalists.
Long Way North (Shout! Factory) is a gorgeous French-Danish animated feature about a 15-year-old girl from an aristocratic family in 1880s Saint Petersburg who flees her palatial home for the far north to search for the lost ship of her explorer grandfather Oloukine. He disappeared in his attempt to conquer the North Pole in the “unsinkable” ice breaker “The Davai” and is assumed by all to have sunk but Sacha, the aristocrat with the heart of an adventurer, finds clues in her grandfather’s papers that suggests he took an alternate route and she seeks out a ship to search for the ship. There’s a handsome reward for its recovery, which is what finally convinces a Captain to take on her search, but she’s driven by her adoration for her grandfather and her desire to rehabilitate his reputation.
First-time director Rémi Chayé was an assistant director and storyboard artist on the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells and the lovely French feature The Painting and he brings a strong, sure sense of design and layout to the film. This is traditional hand-drawn animation with an unconventional visual style, less drawn than painted with big, bold fields of color and details suggested in splashes of shadow or small, simple lines.
D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is inarguably one of the landmarks of American cinema. The distillation of the storytelling techniques, editing ideas, framing and visual composition, and nuanced approaches to performance that Griffith spent years exploring and experimenting with in short subjects and mid-length films, it was the longest and most ambitious American ever made when it was released in 1915 and it took American audiences, critics, and filmmakers by storm. It also features demeaning caricatures of African American characters (all played by whites in blackface) and grotesque distortions of the post-war Southern history and it portrays the Ku Klux Klan as the saviors of white culture in the face of emancipation. It is, in the words of journalist Jelani Cobb, “The most pure, honest, unfiltered distillation of white racist thought of that time.”
The Independent Lens film Birth of a Movement is a reminder that criticism of Nation‘s racist politics is not a recent phenomenon.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of John Huston’s rare forays into the genre that would later be called film noir. His first, The Maltese Falcon (1941), helped set the template of the PI noir. Ten years later, working from an adaptation of the caper novel by W.R. Burnett scripted in collaboration with the author, he essentially launched the heist film as a genre of its own and set the blueprint that all subsequent heist dramas built upon.
Sterling Hayden took his first leading role as Dix Handley, the former country boy turned angry urban thug in self-destructive cycle of small-time robberies and compulsive gambling, and he’s hired to be the muscle in a crew put together by heist mastermind Doc (Sam Jaffe), who has just been sprung from prison with a massive jewelry robbery he’s been waiting years to put in action. He inspires his brotherhood of thugs (Doc’s team is filled out by getaway man James Whitmore and safecracker Anthony Caruso) to reach for the stars—the biggest haul of their career—with a meticulously worked plan that calls on each of them to do what they do best, and do it better than they ever have before.