Friday 24 September 2021

Chinatown (1974)



I am a big fan of film-noir. Those 1940’ies noir are just awesome, even if some of the private-eye themes are bordering cliché. The neo-noir genre tries to reanimate the look and feel of the original noirs, usually with a twist, and few does it better than “Chinatown”.

“Chinatown” is a Roman Polanski movie, the last he made in Hollywood. It recreates a 1930’ies private eye scenario in Los Angeles where the former cop, now private investigator, specializing in extramarital affairs, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by Mrs. Mulwray to look into her husband’s infidelities. Gittes and his team tails him and shoots some nice pictures of Hollis Mulwray with a girl. The pictures get publicized and Mulwray is publicly crucified.

Immediately after, Gittes is approached by another woman (Faye Dunawaye) who claims she is the real Mrs. Mulwray. Gittes realizes he has been duped, but before he can find Mr. Mulwray, he has been murdered. Something very fishy is going on.

Hollis Mulwray was the Chief Engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and clearly this goes a lot deeper than infidelities. Gittes is a character straight out of a Hammett or Chandler novel and insist on digging into it only to find out that nothing is what it looks like, and nobody are straight.

Polanski took special pains to make this look like the 30’ies and with the saturated colors and almost stylized sets there is almost a cartoonish texture to the cinematography. This is underscored by an almost perfect moody jazz score. The layered and convoluted plot where we are always caught off-balance and not entirely certain what is going on, also harks back to the noir originals.

Where Chinatown deviates from this formula are in two particular elements.

Gittes may look as if he is in control and he certainly wants to make that impression, but he is not. Everything he learns tells him how wrong he was before and though he has the audacity to get into places and obtain information others would not get, it is often too late or too little because he is missing information. He may be two steps ahead of us, like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, but he is also two steps behind the events unfolding. He is not an antihero, but an insufficient hero.

Secondly, the catastrophic ending. Without spoiling too much, I can say we get a spectacular ending, but not in the way you would expect. This ties in with the first exception. Gittes is insufficient and the case is bigger than him. The bad guys are overwhelmingly strong and there really is no stopping them. This moves “Chinatown” very much from the 40’ies to the 70’ies. It is a breaking of illusions and a political statement, really. Chinatown here is a metaphor for lawless corruption. Gittes tried to get out of Chinatown, but Chinatown caught up with him.

The combination of the 30-40’ies pastiche and the political implications of the conclusion makes for a strong and unique combo. I was totally sucked in, experiencing that combination of love and horror and I have to say this is one of the best neo-noirs ever. This is powerful stuff and extremely well crafted. Polanski has made a lot of great movies, and this is among his best, seriously.

Chinatown won one Academy Award (Best Original Screenplay) and was nominated in another 10 categories, including all the big ones. In a year without “The Godfather II”, it could have swept the table.

Strongly recommended.


Monday 20 September 2021

Young Frankenstein (1974)


Frankenstein Junior

I was certain I had seen “Young Frankenstein” before, it is a title I am very familiar with, but I quickly realized that I must have mixed it up with something else and instead this became an unexpected first view for me. I cannot complain, this was a lot better than I thought it would be.

“Young Frankenstein” is a Mel Brooks comedy and for better or worse, his trademark is silly jokes. Especially in his later movies there is an infantile streak that, well, makes it a Mel Brooks movie. “Young Frankenstein” is funny and silly, but it is also something more. There is a heart in it. A love for the old Frankenstein movies by James Whale and a restraint from going totally overboard. An explanation was offered when I discovered that the original idea was Gene Wilder’s and that he co-authored the screenplay. This movie is, simply put, more than a Mel Brooks comedy.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is teaching medicine in America. Sober and scientific medicine, not the mumbo-jumbo of his infamous grandfather. When he inherits the old family castle, he travels to Transylvania (inexplicably misplaced in Germany…) to check it out. He is met by Igor (Marty Feldman), an assistant, Inga (Teri Garr) and the housekeeper, Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman) and together they set out to create their own monster (Peter Boyle).

Everything in this movie is made with an eye to “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein”, whether it is the black and white cinematography, the gothic laboratory (the original set from the thirties!) or the various scenes. We get the brain mix-up, the life-by-electrocution scene, the little girl with the flowers and the blind hermit. Even Elsa Lancaster’s hairdo is recreated with the white stripes. But where the original was having religious elements such as a human as the Creator, “Young Frankenstein” largely replaces that, rather serious, element with a lighter father-son theme, about acceptance of the father role.

Most of all though, it is a comedy. Igor has fantastic bug-eyes and frequently breaks the fourth wall with Monty Pythonic comedy. Garr as Inga is a revelation in comedic timing, often stealing the scenes and Wilder himself does the Gene Wilder thing, but more controlled than how he usually appear. It would have been easy to take him totally overboard, but he actually stays believable throughout. Amazingly enough.

In the extra material it was explained that every comedic stunt in the movie has a straight guy, though the role of straight guy may change mid-scene, and that is why the jokes usually work. If Feldman is funny, Wilder is straight. If Wilder is funny then Garr is straight, but suddenly they reverse and so on. Sounds simple, but I believe that is the successful recipe.

The only time they cross the line and take the silliness too far is when Wilder and Boyle, as Frankenstein and Monster, stage a musical piece, “Putting on the Ritz” in front of a dignified audience. Curiously, not a Brooks stunt, but Wilder’s idea. Luckily though, the movie quickly returns to form from this intermezzo.

I had a great time watching “Young Frankenstein”. It is funny and quotably. Silly and witty but with a heart and a respect for the original story that make you feel like you watched a complete and coherent movie and not just a string of theme jokes. Warmly recommended.

As a bonus, see if you can spot Gene Hackman.


Tuesday 14 September 2021

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)


En kvinde under inflydelse

I am no expert on mental illnesses. I think it is scary what illnesses in the brain can do to you and I am quite certain I would not be good at handling a person with such an illness. Yet, this is exactly what Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” invites us to do. For two and a half hours we get to live with the Longhettis.

Mabel (Gena Rowlands) is suffering from some illness, though I am in no position to tell what it is. There is some indication she is bipolar, but I could be very wrong. She seems very nervous and slips into a fantasy world where she will act strangely hyped and say and do odd things. The last thing Mabel needs is someone too stupid, selfish or hot tempered to deal with her illness, but that is exactly what her husband Nick (Peter Falk) is. Shouting and bullying is his way of handling things, force them into submission and show who is the boss. He is the kind of guy who will shout at people to have fun and if they do not, a slap may help them on their way.

Frankly, if I was in Mabel’s shoes I would also want to retire into my own little world where Nick could not reach me and that makes me wonder how big a hand he may have in her illness.

Plotwise, it is not as if a lot is happening over the course of the movie. Mabel is slowly getting worse and in a scene with a particularly lot of shouting, Mabel gets hospitalized. Half a year later she comes back, but her welcome home party disintegrate when Nick starts shouting and Mabel suffers a relapse.

It is clear to me that Mabel is very much alone. People see her as an ill and potentially dangerous person, and she has nobody to rely on. In a crucial scene near the end, she asks her father if he will not stand up for her, but he deliberately misunderstands her instead of coming to her help. And Nick, man, he may mean well, but he is downright abusive. Again, near the end, when Mabel is feeling most vulnerable, she asks him if he loves her, and he cannot commit. He simply has no idea what she needs. In his eye, she just needs to be normal, dammit, and it probably works better if he shouts it.

As such, this is a painful movie to watch. There is no doubt that both Rowlands and Falk act their asses out of their pants (an expression that works better in Danish…) and it feels very real, but it is not enjoyable to watch. Like a train wreck in slow motion. I cannot help thinking of the children who must grow up scarred for life and I get so upset watching Nick and both set of parents.

Does that make it a good movie or a terrible movie? I guess it depends on which standard you use. It feels important and it makes you question things in yourself, though it might be difficult to handle this any worse than Nick does. Would I want to watch it again? Well, I do not think I would do that to myself. Once is plenty enough.

Wikipedia writes that it was difficult to sell the movie. Cassavetes was told that “No one wants to see a crazy, middle-aged dame”. I think the real question is, who wants to see an insane middle-aged man go crazy on his mentally ill wife? It is spectacular, maybe even important, but also very, very painful.


Wednesday 8 September 2021

Vampyres (1974)


Off-List: Vampyres

Sex and blood is a combo that always seems to work. Or the idea is that it is meant to work. An appeal to something primeval or something like that. Teenage vampire movies are the natural consequence and Heaven knows we are swarmed with those. The ultimate milking (pun intended) of this combo however must be the movie “Vampires”.

When I was browsing for off-List movies for 1974 I found a movie with the description “Vampyres is a 1974 British erotic/lesbian vampire horror film”.  Okay… I have to see this. This would either be fantastic or a complete disaster, both of which qualifies it for my list.

It actually turned out to be… neither… or a bit of everything. Certainly, it is not your average movie.

It is a story that barely adds up. Fran (Marianne Morris) and Miriam (Anulka Dziubinska) is a lesbian couple who was shot to death and now, as vampires, pick up strangers by the wayside, posing as hitchhikers, and take them to their gothic mansion where they seduce their victims, get them drunk and drink their blood. The corpses are placed back in their cars posing as mock car accidents. And yeah, there are a few holes in that premise…

Here is the thing: Fran and Miriam are very pretty, and the “seducing” part is… very explicit and so is the killing afterwards. There was some tongue kissing there that literally look like they are already eating each other, and it blends directly into a blood frenzy that looks more like cannibalism than the sanitized blood letting in a teenage vampire movie. This is Sex and Blood at full throttle.

Beside the girls and their random victims there is Ted (Murray Brown), a “victim”, easily seduced by Fran, who the girls for some reason do not kill. Just tap a bit of blood each night. Maybe Fran likes the sex too much. In any case, when Ted is starting to realize something sinister is going on, he is strangely unable to leave. Don’t ask why.

Also, there are the campists, John (Brian Deacon) and Harriet (Sally Faulkner), who have setup their caravan next to the manor and see a lot of strange shit.

There is a little twist at the end (or a few if you like), but really, this is all about Sex and Blood. Lots of Sex and Blood.

On the one hand the production value here is actually reasonably high. There is some decent acting, and the set is spot on. Then on the other hand, this is a story with gaping holes and only there to set up the sex and the gore. So, I guess it is a movie that actually delivers what it sets out to do. It is not outright porn and it is not an amateurish production, but the scary elements often bent to camp and exploitation, so I am not entirely certain it counts as horror either. What it is, is a movie that dares to go all in instead of beating around the bush. It is unapologetic about what it does and despite its trash agenda there is something liberating in that.

You want sex and blood? You got it.


Saturday 4 September 2021

The Mirror (Zerkalo) (1974)



This is, once again, one of those situations where I feel like a plebeian idiot. I am so confused having watched “Mirror” and I have very little idea what it is I have just been watching. There was some extra material to the movie including a scholar analyzing the movie and I got just as little from that. Clearly, I am an idiot and not at all the target audience.

What is going on here? Well, the structure of the movie is a stream of consciousness rather than a plot. In fact, there is no plot as far as I can tell. We get a number of settings spread out in time and often we are reverting to those settings. Some are fairly easy to place, there is something in the thirties or forties taking place in rural Russia and some “modern” (1970’ies) scenes, presumably in Moscow. Some scenes are dream sequences identified as such by being in black and white and some scenes I just cannot place: dream or reality? Present or past? It is not helping that the same actors seem to have multiple roles and there is a strange blur in time.

I also got that Tarkovsky plays a significant role in the movie. Sometimes we see things from his point of view as if all this is taking place in the mind of Tarkovsky himself. Following that thought, the child in the “past” sequences is likely himself and the woman his mother, who incidentally is also his wife in present time. There is also a boy, Ignat, in the present scenes with an uncertain function.

Another dominant feature is the pervading sense of gloom. The score is beautiful and range from funeral music to grand, melancholic drama, always with a slant of sadness. It is the most accessible element of the movie and the one thing I liked about it. Whether it is a personal doom, a memory of loss or something larger I do not know, but if this is somehow meant to describe Russia, I am starting to understand why they need a lot of vodka.

This is as much as I can describe this movie. As I have already indicated I have no idea what is going on, so I suspect that it is a movie that require an analysis, to have a key to unlock it. That is sometimes fun, but in this case it is as if the movie is trying to avoid my attention. I am constantly drawn away rather than into the movie. I am simply not interested enough to make that extra effort to understand it and as a result it becomes just random, incoherent pictures.

And that places me in the group on plebeian idiots and not among movie scholars. “Sight and Sound” rank it as the 9th greatest movie of all time, and it has a 9.2 score on Rotten Tomatoes. Apparently, this is a really great movie. Well, maybe I like my movies just a tad more accessible.