Sunday 28 April 2019

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Bonnie og Clyde
One of the classical themes in American movies is the criminal couple who roam the country stealing and shooting left and right. “Natural Born Killers” and “Thelma and Louise” are some of the famous examples, but the mother of this sub-genre is “Bonnie and Clyde”.

Coming out in 1967, “Bonnie and Clyde” was on the crest of the wave changing American movies in those years. Heavily inspired by the French New Wave and exploiting the dissolvement of the Hays code, director and producer were free to make a wilder version of this story than would have been possible just a few years earlier. The editing is very modern, there are sexual references that for its time was surprisingly frank and the violence was brutal and visual in a way that would have surprised audience in the day, though to a modern viewer perhaps not so much. However, the theme and the progression of the story, meandering as it is, are probably the major news from this movie.

Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde (Warren Beatty) meet up in the opening of the movie in a love-at-first-sight moment. Bonnie is bored and need to get away and Clyde is charming as hell. That he openly declares that he robs banks seems only to be a plus. Off they go to rob some banks. On their way they pick up driver and mechanic C.W. (Michael J. Pollard) and later on Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), making a Barrow gang of five members. While the guns and a few shots were always part of their modus operandi, things become more serious when people start dying from their shooting, especially policemen.

Most of the movie is the gang constantly shooting their way out of the traps laid by the police and to the credit of the movie none of that shooting is presented as particularly glamorous. On the contrary, it is frighteningly real. People die painful deaths or are wounded in horrible ways. Yet, “Bonnie and Clyde” also dabbles in the comedic genre with silly scenes and bantering or serious scenes that becomes involuntarily comic, such as robbing a bank that is already bankrupt, or having sandwiches with the owners of the car they have just stolen. I am not as confused by these changes in style and theme as it may appear, this is after all almost a trope by now, but it is jarring in another way.

My problem with “Bonnie and Clyde” is the theme itself. This sub-genre has never held any appeal to me and I cannot get my head around the fascination there seems to be with outlaw couples shooting their way through the land. I get that there is something about ultimate freedom and anarchy and also an anti-authoritarian element, but this is not Robin Hood fighting a cause, but simple criminals. That Clyde is charming and Bonnie is pretty does not really change that. Getting to know them does not make me sympathize with them, they only get pity from me, something they seem incapable of toward their victims. In that sense, the lighter tones of the movie feel almost insulting. When they die is a hail of gunfire I am not as much horrified as sighing in relief that it is ended. As you may have guessed I never seek out this type of movie if I can avoid it.

Having said that there is no denying the production value in “Bonnie and Clyde”. Everything technical is top notch. The pictures are gorgeous and knife sharp and makes me appreciate the Blue-ray format. Acting performances all round are great. All six main actors were nominated for the Academy award and Estelle Parsons won in her category. But as mentioned above, the novelties in storytelling that this movie introduced to American cinema is probably the greatest achievement of the movie. You watch this movie and it does not look 52 years old.

I was surprised to find how many actors got their breakthrough with this movie. Faye Dunaway, Gene Hagman and Gene Wilder were practically new to cinema and went on to become some of the greatest names.  Only Warren Beatty was an established actor at the time but rather than being a vehicle for him, “Bonnie and Clyde” is an ensemble movie that let all of them stand out. It is not often that five actors get nominated from the same movie.

For those who are into this genre this is a must-see. For us few who are not, we can at least enjoy the technical achievements of “Bonnie and Clyde”.


Friday 12 April 2019

Wavelength (1967)

Rarely have I met a movie with this much praise. Wikipedia: “Wavelength is often listed as one of the greatest underground, art house and Canadian films ever made”. The Book: “… a vital, important and necessary work”. Both continue to reference a lot of praise from elsewhere.

I can only think, wow, this is going to be interesting.

When I was a child television would only be available certain hours each day. Outside that time there would only be a test signal. This would be a static image with a lot of colors, a digital watch and a constant (and hideous) narrowband tone. You could not look and listen to that for long, but it was used to ensure the fine tuning of the pick up of the channel (a manual affair back then). This is also a fairly precise description of “Wavelength”, except this goes on for 45 minutes, longer than I have ever endured the test signal.

The camera spends 43 minutes looking into a room slowly zooming in on a picture on the opposite wall, while a narrowband tone gradually increases in frequency from 50 Hz to 12 KHz.

Yeah, that is about it.

Apparently, a murder takes place in the room, but I never noticed.

Ah, I almost forgot, in the beginning, before the tone starts, we get a highly distorted version of Strawberry Fields.

Now I am supposed to explain why this is a super important movie and a vital and necessary watch, but I am stunned for words. I simply have no idea. Yet, having an empty shell it is very easy to fill meaning into it. As we do not understand we can try to give it meaning and make this scene full of nothing express something profound. Beside the utter boredom watching this movie I was thinking of being sucked into a black hole, that gradually the world gets smaller and smaller, eventually becoming a singularity. Why not?

But then I could also get some meaning out of the television test signal.

“Wavelength” I would only recommend to those who love obscure art and masochists. There is a reason we try to avoid narrowband tones in machinery.


Thursday 11 April 2019

Point Blank (1967)

Point Blank
I am a fan of film noir. As a genre, film noir has all the elements that makes movies cool and interesting to watch and the List has plenty of examples. By 1967 film noir as a genre is passé and instead film noir is something you reference to. We already had a very successful example in “Le Samourai” and “Point Blank” is another such neo-noir.

Given my unabashed love for the genre I am surprised to find that I did not love “Point Blank”.

My main concern, I believe, is that “Point Blank” is so concerned with being “neo” that the format detracts from the movie. Especially the first fifteen minutes of the movie have such a messed-up chronology that I had to look up a plot summary to find out what is actually happening. Then we have frequent jumps between an inner vision, what is going on in Walker’s (Lee Marvin) head, and external vision, our view. While probably intended to help us understanding his thinking, they often make things very confusing. Still confusion is part of the game in a film noir so I guess this is just a different take on it, confusing the viewer with sudden jumps.

When we then get down to the actual story it is actually very simple. Walker joined his friend Reese (John Vernon) and wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker) on an ambush on the courier for a crime syndicate because Reese needed the money. Only, Reese and Lynne double crossed him, took the money and left him for dead. Walker, however, was not dead and now he wants his money.

One by one Walker searches out members of a crime syndicate hierarchy. He finds Lynne who kills herself, he kills Reese, then his superior and so on, all to get his money. Each step reveals the next in a bloody treasure hunt. In this quest he gets some assistance from Lynne’s sister, Chris (Angie Dickinson) who is somehow also involved.

Walker’s motives, revenge and his money, seem too simple. Is that really it? His background is completely non-existent, was he criminal before the ambush? How did he become an elite gangster, outsmarting an entire crime syndicate? And the reveal in the end, what can we really use that for? It seems to indicate that Walker was used, but is that really it. Not to mention the role Chris has in the plot. Frankly, her only purpose is to be an unnecessary love interest for Walker. Normally women have a pivotal role in film noir, but here Chris is just filler.

It is not to say that this was a crap movie. Yes, it is pretentious, but there are also very advanced elements that point forward. The griminess of the underworld is very seventies and the realism in many of the takes has European New Wave written all over it. The level of brutality in the action is also very… adult.

Then of course it is impossible to hate a movie with Lee Marvin. He does bring some oomph to any movie.

If you are looking for a neo noir, pick “Le Samourai” first. Need more, sure, add some “Point Blank.


Friday 5 April 2019

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Skrappe Luke
Prison movies is one of the larger genres on the List and many of them are pretty good. They typically fall into three categories: a) the horrors of prison, b) escape from prison or c) both. “Cool Hand Luke” is both or maybe it is actually none, because the story may be about something altogether different.

A few, unspecified, years after second world war, Luke (Paul Newman) gets arrested for cutting parking meters off their poles while drunk. I am not an expert in law, but unless Luke is a repeat offender such a crime is a fine and a slap on the hand. Not so in this story. Luke is sentenced to two years of hard labor in a chain gang. A bit harsh.

The chain gang is supposed to be somewhere in the South and is populated by mean ass staff and a rowdy group of inmates. As is often the case in this type of movie the staff appears to be far worse people than the prisoners. Their intent is obviously to break the prisoners of their free will so they become manageable and know their place. And here is the problem: Luke refuses to be broken and get up every time he is beaten. Rules and regulations sit poorly with him. We see that spelled out when Luke and Dragline (George Kennedy) has a boxing match. No matter how often or how hard Dragline hits Luke, he keeps coming back up. He simply refuses to give up. In the poker game and the legendary egg eating contest Luke is so outside the norm that he gains the respect of the other inmates, especially Dragline who becomes his close friend. Even the staff seems to respect Luke.

That only lasts till Luke starts running away. They always catch him eventually, but in the process the prison warden and his staff are humiliated. Their projection of being all powerful and untouchable are repeatedly shattered by Luke and their attempts at breaking him are futile. That makes them manic with rage and their revenge on Luke is gruesome.

This movie is all about challenging the system. That it takes place in a prison is merely a coincidence. Luke is the challenge and the prison staff cannot deal with the challenge, because in their understanding they cannot be challenged. This makes a lot of sense when you then consider that this is a 1967 movie, a time period where the system, any system, is being challenged. It is early in that process and the system fights back, but characters like Luke are rallying point for rebellion against the system, whether it is the educational system, anti-war and arms movements, women’s or minority rights and so on. The weaker part can bend but not break and so the system eventually losses its moral high ground if it wants to maintain that it cannot be challenged.

Paul Newman is phenomenal as Cool Hand Luke. He owns that role. But what is amazing here is how the producers went out of their way to cast even minor roles. There are so many characters in this prison, on both sides, that in no way all of them can take an active part, yet every single one of them is a distinct individual with a story and a personality. You feel there are plenty of stories here and we are only scratching the surface. We are also getting a number of memorable scenes and quotes, the most famous of which are probably the egg eating scene (at which point I realized I actually saw this movie some time, ages ago) and the “This is a failure to communicate”. A brilliant quote which transcends the movie and describes the situation where the system reacts violently instead of talking because talking would be to admit to being challenged.

Then of course there is the beautiful filming which made me happy for my Blue-ray edition. The vistas are set in stark contract to the dismal lives of the prisoners and every scene is intelligently thought out.

Highly recommended.

Monday 1 April 2019

The Godson (Le Samourai) (1967)

Ekspert I drab
There are not that many samurai in this Jean-Pierre Melville movie, but that is okay because we get an über-cool hitman in the shape of Alain Delon’s Jef Costello.

Jef Costello goes around in his trench coat and fedora with an expressionless face and economic movements. He rarely says anything but is focused to the exclusion of all else. His apartment is as spartan as it gets and his only concession to comfort is a birdcage with his little bird. Likely a picture on his own life. Jef is a hitman and we see him execute his job in painstaking detail. Getting a car, changing the license plates, getting a gun, securing an alibi and then, finally, go the nightclub to shoot the target.

Then the police move into action led by the superintendent (Francois Périer). Again, we follow in painstaking detail how the procedure moves along and how they are narrowing in on Jef Costello. Calling in the usual suspects, testing the alibis and keeping Jef under surveillance.

Jef Costello is betrayed by his clients as they fear he will lead the police to them and so he is fighting off both police and gangsters with him the pastrami in the sandwich.

This is a slow-moving movie. Over the 105 minutes running time not a lot is actually happening. The plot is very narrow. That is not a problem at all because this is all about style and coolness, and man, it is cool. Alain Delon, who is usually the pretty-boy in French and Italian movies, manages to be so cool that he is practically stylized. He is the epitome of a film noir character combined with a Sergio Leone quiet hero and a Kobayashi cat like elegance. This is not James Bond smooth. The Paris here is rainy and grey and the apartment is minimalistic and barren. The powers that rule are ruthless and dark and in the shadows of jazz clubs, things are happening that are only hinted at.

I watch this and think “Blade Runner”. Maybe “Blade Runner” was heavily influenced by “The Samourai” or maybe both borrowed deeply from the Film Noir heritage. When Jef is wounded and treats himself in the kitchen it is exactly like watching Harrison Ford do the same. The quietness broken by small monologues are also copied as is the soundscape and the rainy grayness.

There is a mystery in the night club pianist (Cathy Rosier). Is she actually together with the gangsters? And what is her relations to them? Is she sympathetic to Jef? And when he goes to shoot her there are no bullets in the gun, what does that signify? There is also the unexplained relationship between Jef and the girl, Valérie (Nathalie Delon), who provides him with alibi and is loyal to him in face of adversary. There are layers here that are only hinted at that makes the simple story a lot more interesting than it appears.

The police who tries diligently to uncover the mystery only sees very little of what goes on. When they take Jef in the end they realize they have uncovered nothing at all.

I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would, and a lot more than it seems to deserve. The style and the depth are tremendous assets and I cannot recommend this movie enough. It you, like me, is a long-time fan of “Blade Runner” and Film Noir then this is a must-see movie.