Alley next to Pike Street Public Market, Seattle, WA

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Christine (1983)

It was inevitable that the King of Horror fiction in the 1970s and 80s Stephen King and the King of Horror films in the 1970s and 80s John Carpenter would unite at some point for a film adaptation of one of King's novels. I was a huge fan of Stephen King and John Carpenter in high school. I had read most of King's early novels (check my book shelf) including Salem's Lot, The Shining, and The Stand. I loved Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and THE THING (1982). Yet the one King novel that Carpenter would choose to direct was the one King novel that I snubbed and refused to read. The novel and then movie was CHRISTINE (1983).

You would think I would want to see a film named after my wife (even though I didn't know her at the time CHRISTINE was released). But I didn't (she spells her first name with a K by the way). Until recently, I was never into vintage cars. The Christine in CHRISTINE is not a woman but a 1957 Plymouth Fury. Lastly, the cast for CHRISTINE was not on my who's who of actors I had to race to a theater to see on the big screen. Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul.  All fine actors but unknowns that I wasn't aching to watch for 110 minutes.

Having now watched CHRISTINE a couple of times, it's a taut, atmospheric film by director John Carpenter.  Carpenter creates a sense of dread as CHRISTINE becomes more and more powerful. Themes and motifs emerged from CHRISTINE that appear in other Stephen King novels (and film adaptations). CHRISTINE provides us with another ugly duckling (like Sissy Spacek in the title role of 1976's CARRIE) who discovers a power that won't end well for them. King also introduces a new type of evil, not a hotel or a town, but an automobile with a mind and agenda of its own. My initially not wanting to see CHRISTINE as a teenager might have been prophetic as CHRISTINE would not be a box office hit.

CHRISTINE was adapted by Bill Phillips based on King's novel. The film opens with the origin of Christine. From George Thorogood's Bad to the Bone playing on the soundtrack, Carpenter tells us that Christine was a bad seed from the moment she came off the assembly line in Detroit in 1957. Her hood clamps down on a worker's hand, mangling his fingers. Later, a manager sits in the car, smoking a cigar, a butt falling on it's nice leather seat. He's found dead a few hours later, the Fury's radio playing "Not Fade Away" by Buddy Holly.  Jump ahead to 1979. Rockbridge High School football star Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell) picks up his nerdy best friend Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) as a new school year begins. Dennis and Arnie are an unlikely pair. School stud and school geek. But some things never change. In shop class, Arnie is terrorized by school bullies Buddy Reperton (William Ostrander), Moochie (Malcolm Danare), and Don Vandenberg (Stuart Charno) until Dennis comes to the rescue.

On their way home from school, Arnie sees an old piece of junk car sitting in a deserted lot. It's a 1958 Plymouth Fury. Arnie buys the car from the lot's owner George LeBay (Roberts Blossom). Against his mother Regina's (Christine Belford) wishes, Arnie keeps the car and takes it to Darnell's Do It Yourself Garage run by the cantankerous Will Darnell (Robert Prosky). Arnie sets about restoring the Plymouth. As the Plymouth undergoes a transformation from junk to cherry, Arnie begins to change. He's no longer the nerdy, unsure teenager. He becomes confident, dark, dangerous. He's taken on Christine's evil persona.

Arnie begins dating the new girl in high school Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul) to the surprise of jock Dennis.  Arnie and Leigh watch Dennis's football game, leaning on Christine.  Dennis is injured, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. Dennis begins to look into Arnie's metamorphosis which began as he refurbished Christine. Dennis revisits George LeBay and discovers that LeBay's brother and family all died inside Christine.  Arnie treats Christine like a girlfriend.  At a drive-in movie theater, Leigh almost chokes in the car.  Christine has become jealous of Arnie's friends like Dennis and Leigh.

Buddy, Moochie, and Don sneak into Darnell's garage one night and vandalize Christine.  Horribly disfigured, Christine supernaturally rebuilds herself on her own. Christine stalks the vandals, killing them one by one . A local police detective Rudolph Junkins (Harry Dean Stanton) begins investigating. He first looks into who vandalized Arnie's prized car but soon has to deal with the deaths of Buddy and his gang and the garage owner Darnell. Meanwhile, Dennis confides with Leigh that they need to destroy Christine to save Arnie.  They lure Christine and Arnie back to Darnell's garage for a final battle between car and Caterpillar tractor.

I imagine Stephen King (and possibly John Carpenter) may have been outcasts in high school, uncool to the regular crowd. King's stories often focus on underdogs and the disadvantaged that rise up to confront evil. Corey Haim in a wheelchair confronting a werewolf in his town in SILVER BULLET (1985). Little Danny Lloyd fighting off deranged Dad Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING (1980). The four young boys from STAND BY ME (1985) beating the bullies to see the dead teenager's body first. The Losers Club in IT (2017) battling Pennywise the Clown. But King also makes some of these cast offs and ugly ducklings have unique powers to deal with bullies and evil incarnate. They don't always handle their new found powers very well. Drew Barrymore using her telekinesis to start fires in FIRESTARTER (1984). Sissy Spacek in CARRIE destroying her entire high school and classmates with her vengeful telekinesis after they humiliate her one time too many. In CHRISTINE, it's Keith Gordon as Arnie transforming from geek to cool dude only he's possessed by the demonic Plymouth Fury he restored. Christine is overprotective. She's one jealous girlfriend. Arnie takes on Christine's persona, killing and maiming anyone who gets in their way.

King and Carpenter have both dealt with pure evil before in their works. In Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (1978), the killer Michael Myers is evil personified, seemingly indestructible. In THE THING, it's the alien stuck in the Arctic, hiding in various human host bodies, attempting to reach civilization and end the world. For King, we've seen evil living in a mountain hotel in THE SHINING or a vampire bringing horror to a small Maine town in SALEM'S LOT (1979).  In CHRISTINE, it's a classic 1958 Plymouth Fury that represents evil.  She becomes attached to her owner and hurts anyone that tries to come between her and Arnie.  Arnie starts out a nice, awkward teenager but becomes transformed into a brooding, angry dangerous person.  Arnie and Christine become one.

Stephen King's choice of car for CHRISTINE is a good one.  The Plymouth Fury, in a way, resembles a shark.  Big tail fins, teeth like grill, and twin headlights that flash on like big eyes.  The Fury is cherry red, almost like the color of blood.  If Satan had a hot car, it might be a '58 Plymouth Fury.  The console lights up with a creepy green glow, the supernatural life force of Christine. Carpenter makes the car like a predator especially when it's on the prowl, hunting the hoodlums that vandalized it.  Buddy's death is especially wicked, the flaming Plymouth following Buddy down the road like a wolf until it runs him over, Buddy's body roasted.

CHRISTINE is the perfect union of Stephen King and John Carpenter.  Besides both men ruling the horror genre, both King and Carpenter are big rock and roll fans. CHRISTINE has plenty of vintage rock and roll music in the film. King played in a rock and roll band made up of other writers.  Carpenter made the TV film ELVIS (1979) with Kurt Russell.  Christine pumps out classic 1950's Rock and Roll tunes to convey what she's thinking by the likes of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Dion & the Belmonts, and Little Richard.  Carpenter along with Alan Howarth composed the music for CHRISTINE. CHRISTINE returns Carpenter to suburbia where he scared the living daylights out of people with HALLOWEEN. Instead of scaring us with empty sidewalks and hedges that could hide a killer in HALLOWEEN, Carpenter gives us dark driveways and streets where CHRISTINE lurks.

We've talked about one type of hero in Stephen King stories.  The handicapped kid, the nerd, the overweight kid or the kid with asthma fighting evil.  But CHRISTINE gives us Dennis (John Stockwell), the typical hero. Good looking, ladies man, star athlete. Yet Dennis is to some degree a failed or flawed hero.  Early on, Dennis sticks up for Arnie in front of Buddy and his gang. But then Dennis suffers an injury during a football game (did Christine influence it by distracting Dennis?). He has to have crutches. He's handicapped in his ability to protect Arnie or Leigh. Arnie becomes the alpha male and Dennis the weak one. When he's called a hero by Detective Junkins, Dennis laments, "A real hero could have saved Arnie." It's a nice juxtaposition between weak Arnie and strong Dennis. They switch roles as the film progresses.

Stephen King has been intrigued by the idea of cars (and other vehicles) having a mind and soul of their own previously.  King wrote a short story called Trucks about a world where cars and trucks and all types of vehicles ruled mankind.  In his only directorial effort, King would write and direct a film version of the short story called MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986) starring Emilio Estavez. The movie would be a flop. My hunch is CHRISTINE materialized from King's Trucks story but on a much smaller scale. The granddaddy and best movie of this sub-genre is still DUEL (1971), a TV movie directed by a young Steven Spielberg and written by horror/science fiction master Richard Matheson about a semi-truck menacing Dennis Weaver. One last bit of car trivia. CHRISTINE'S production team used 28 Plymouth Fury's for the film.

I honestly didn't want to see CHRISTINE earlier in my film watching career primarily because of the three leads.  They were mostly unknowns. I liked Keith Gordon in Brian DePalma's DRESSED TO KILL (1980) but like his character in that film and CHRISTINE, Gordon is more of a nerd than a matinee idol.  After watching CHRISTINE, I discovered that I thought John Stockwell who plays Dennis was John Pankow, an actor who I never really liked (even though he's in a film I like 1985's TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. directed by William Friedkin).  I found Pankow to be an irritating actor.  But Stockwell is actually very good in CHRISTINE. It turns out Stockwell also appeared in TOP GUN (1986) and would later become a director himself, directing INTO THE BLUE (2005) starring Paul Walker and Jessica Alba. For Alexandra Paul, CHRISTINE was one of her first films and it shows.  Her acting is hesitant and not very assured early on. She's supposed to be the new beautiful girl on campus but I didn't find her alluring until the end of the film when hair and makeup finally made her look stunning.  Paul would go on to star in TV's BAYWATCH from 1992 to 1997.

Making up for his young talent, Carpenter wisely casts two veteran actors in CHRISTINE who chew up their supporting roles.  Harry Dean Stanton (ALIEN, PARIS TEXAS) plays the small but vital role of Detective Junkins.   Junkins is one of the few positive adult role models in the film. Stanton worked with Carpenter on ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.  Robert Prosky (THE NATURAL) as Will Darnell has fun as the ornery garage owner who lets Arnie rebuild Christine in his facility. William Ostrander who plays the lead bully Buddy Repperton is terrifying but looks much too old to be in high school (he was 24 when the film was made).  But then we all went to high school with kids who looked older than their age, right?  Look for a young Kelly Preston (TWINS) in a small role as high school cheerleader Roseanne.

Stephen King was a hot commodity in the early 80s.  I began to stop reading his novels after Misery. King was branching out into new types of horror stories but I didn't find them as compelling. Like CHRISTINE, you can't keep a good horror storyteller down (although King never really went away). Today, Stephen King novels and short stories are popping up in the theaters and television like never before.  The blockbuster 2017 remake of IT, GERALD'S GAME on Netflix, and a new version of THE STAND in the works to name but a few. Some of King's adaptations have been hits like CARRIE or THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994). Others like CUJO (1983) or THE DARK TOWER (2017) flopped. CHRISTINE falls into that in-between category. Having John Carpenter direct CHRISTINE made the film more interesting than if someone else had directed it.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

It was Christmas season and I was at my best friend's annual family Christmas party, the best Christmas party I've ever been to. We all got presents, the parents drank too much, and Santa Claus would make his yearly visit looking very much like my Dad's best friend Art.  But one year, I was more dazzled by what was on television than holiday gifts or egg nog or Santa Art.  DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971) was on television and I couldn't pull myself away from it.  Sean Connery was back as James Bond, this time in Las Vegas, battling his nemesis Blofeld once again only it was a different actor playing Blofeld (Charles Gray instead of Donald Pleasence or Telly Savalas).  There were car chases and sexy assassins Bambi and Thumper and oh yes, the voluptuous red head Jill St. John. I was in double O seventh heaven.

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER is the swan song for Sean Connery in his last appearance in a Broccoli/Saltzman production of James Bond. Connery had appeared in five of the first six Bond films so far (George Lazenby stepping in as Bond for 1969's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE). Most of DIAMONDS takes place in Las Vegas which seems like a perfect location for the gambling/womanizing Bond. It's directed by Guy Hamilton who directed GOLDFINGER (1964), probably the best Bond film to date. The screenplay is by Bond veteran Richard Maibaum and newcomer Tom Mankiewicz who would bring some fun and levity to the Bond series. And some of the best talent involved with the Bond series are along for the farewell including Production Designer Ken Adam, Cinematographer Ted Moore, Composer John Barry, and the great Shirley Bassey (GOLDFINGER) who sings the catchy "Diamonds Are Forever" theme song over the opening credits.

For the first three quarters of the film, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER is a funny, action packed, globe trotting Bond film that I rank as one of my favorites. The finale is a bit of a let down, perhaps the filmmakers hands tied by the location (an oil platform off the coast of  Baja) and some lazy direction and staging. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER opens with James Bond (Sean Connery) chasing down leads on the whereabouts of his arch-nemesis Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Charles Gray). Bond finally tracks him down at a South American spa where Blofeld is attempting to make duplicates of himself. Bond disrupts the plot and supposedly kills Blofeld under a blanket of mud.  Back in London, Bond and M (Bernard Lee) meet with Sir Donald (Laurence Naismith) who is troubled by a rash of stolen diamonds in South Africa.  Instead of appearing on the black market, someone is stockpiling the diamonds. Even more distressing, everyone who touches the stolen diamonds ends up dead, courtesy of possibly cinema's first gay killers Mr. Kidd (Putter Smith) and Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover).

Bond's pursuit of the diamonds takes him from Amsterdam where (posing as a diamond courier) he picks up the stolen gems from the beautiful Tiffany Case (Jill St. John) to Las Vegas where he's nearly cremated at the Mort Slumber mortuary after delivering the diamonds (only Bond brings fake stones as insurance for his life). Teaming up with CIA agent Felix Leiter (Norman Burton, the 4th different actor to portray Leiter), Bond turns his attention to hotel and casino magnate Willard Whyte (singer and sausage spokesman Jimmy Dean), a Howard Hughes like millionaire who hasn't been seen in years.  Tiffany outfoxes the agents and gives the real diamonds to a confidant of Whyte, German scientist Dr. Metz (Joseph Furst). Bond follows Metz and the diamonds to one of Whyte's holdings, an aerospace company in the desert outside of Las Vegas.

Metz takes the diamonds to a lab to place on a satellite he's working on for Whyte.  After escaping through a mock Moon landing set, jumping into a moon rover, and chased by ATV's, Bond reports back to Felix his findings. When they return to the desert facility, it's empty.  Bond decides to pay a visit to the reclusive Willard Whyte catching a ride on top of  Whyte's private elevator to the top of his hotel where he supposedly resides. Inside, Bond discovers it's Blofeld who has hijacked Whyte's operations and impersonated Whyte (courtesy of a voice scrambler). Blofeld is behind the stolen diamonds and satellite. Blofeld still has another version of himself but Bond dispatches one of the Blofeld's leaving just one Blofeld remaining. After escaping yet another attempt by Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd to kill him, Bond and Felix raid Whyte's summer home  where they find the real Willard Whyte held hostage by Blofeld's female bodyguards Bambi (Lola Larson) and Thumper (Trina Parks).

Blofeld sends Whyte's right hand man Bert Saxby (Bruce Cabot) to kill Whyte at his summer home but Saxby's shot instead.  Blofeld sends the satellite into space, the diamonds used as a laser to destroy military targets and even cities unless his global extortion demands are met. Bond and Whyte return to the Whyte House (Whyte's hotel) to figure out Blofeld's whereabouts. When Bond mentions Baja, Whyte exclaims, "Baja! I haven't got anything in Baja!" Cut to an oil platform off the Baja coast where Bond parachutes in to defeat Blofeld and save Tiffany while Felix and several U.S. Army helicopters fire missiles to destroy the control center that operates the diamond laser satellite.

So what is it about DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER that captured the imagination of a young CrazyFilmGuy and kept him from participating at his favorite Christmas party? DIAMONDS has a fun, breezy vibe to it, moving from set piece to set piece, location to location at a good clip, not taking too long to unfold plot like THUNDERBALL (1965). It's very much in the same style as director Hamilton's previous Bond outing, the fantastic GOLDFINGER. The film has a nice helping of cleavage and fascinating characters one would expect to find in Las Vegas.  Although DIAMONDS is full of fights, chases, and explosions, it's the dialogue, puns, inside jokes, double entendres and sexual innuendos that might be the best in the series. We know we're in for a good time from the beginning when a bad guy at a blackjack table tells the dealer "Hit me" and Bond gives him a right cross to the face.

We have a great opening prologue in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER that could serve as the finale for any Bond film with Bond supposedly dispatching Blofeld in a bubbling mud pool. But it's only a tease. We've got  two excellent Bond vehicle chases. First, we have Bond hopping into a moon buggy and chased by three ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles) out in the desert. Then, there's Bond and Tiffany racing a Mustang like Steve McQueen around downtown Vegas, chased by the local redneck cops (shades of LIVE AND LET DIE'S Clifton James to come) with Bond flipping the Mustang up on its side to escape through a narrow alley. DIAMONDS is the beginning of some great practical vehicle chases in Bond films after too many rear projection chases in the older films.

Assassins and killers also come in two's in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. We have the gay, odd assassins Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd who dispatch dentists and little old ladies with aplomb and wit. Wint and Kidd are like a murderous married couple. They will get their comeuppance on a cruise ship in a perfect ending to the film. Then, we have Go-Go girl killers Bambi and Thumper. These acrobatic hit women nearly kill Bond in their bikinis and short shorts as they hold Willard Whyte hostage. DIAMONDS reminds us that women are just as lethal as men in the world of James Bond.

Screenwriters Maibaum and Mankiewicz make DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER one of the more humorous Bond films in the series. The double entendres and inside jokes are fast and furious. When Tiffany asks Bond if he prefers blondes or brunettes, Bond remarks, "As long as the collar and cuffs match." Don't worry. I had to ask someone what it meant as well but the answer will make you chuckle. Later, when Bond hides the diamonds on the body of the dead courier at Customs, CIA agent Felix Leiter can't find them until Bond makes a crack about family jewels. I believe new writer Tom Mankiewicz brought a lot of these jokes to the film. He would continue the one liners and sexual innuendos when Roger Moore took over the Bond role. Mankiewicz would also write LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974).

The filmmakers also have fun with an enigmatic legend of Las Vegas and a conspiracy theory.
Reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes (HH) lived in Las Vegas, owned hotels, casinos, and aerospace companies, and stayed out of the limelight later in life. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER gives us millionaire hotel, casino, and aerospace magnate Willard Whyte (WW) played by Jimmy Dean who we hear about through most of the film but never see until toward the end.  We're led to believe the enigmatic Whyte may be up to no good. But his allusive nature stems from a more sinister reason.

Around the late 60s and early 70s, conspiracy theorists postulated that NASA and the government faked the moon landing, filming it instead on a television sound stage possibly by director Stanley Kubrick. This has never been proven . DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER has fun with this conspiracy at Whyte's aerospace facility. When Bond is discovered to be snooping around, he's chased by security guards. Bond stumbles across a soundstage where two astronauts are walking around a moon set. Bond almost does a double take before jumping into the moon rover to escape. It's a funny bit.

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER is a nice nostalgic viewfinder of Las Vegas circa 1970s. The car chase around the night time streets and casinos of Main Street was the main strip.  Now it's known as the old section of Las Vegas circa 2017. Hotels that appear in DIAMONDS like Circus Circus, the Mint, and the Tropicana no longer exist, torn down by demolition and expansion. In their place have risen modern hotels and casinos like the Wynn or the Monte Carlo. My first visit to Las Vegas in the early 80s, I specifically went into Circus Circus because I had seen it in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. Sadly, neither James Bond nor Tiffany Case were anywhere in sight.

The Bond films have always had inspired casting from Miss Universe beauty queens such as Daniela Bianchi (FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE) to former wrestlers like Harold Sakata in GOLDFINGER. With the series making its most significant foray into the United States, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER has some of its most eclectic casting. Who would have imagined country western singer and sausage spokesman Jimmy Dean as the seemingly reclusive millionaire Willard Whyte? But it works. Jill St. John as Tiffany Case makes the jump from B movies like THE LOST WORLD (1960) to the first American actress to play a Bond girl. St. John is flirty and has good chemistry with Connery. The supporting Bond girl Lana Wood who plays Plenty O'Toole in DIAMONDS has an interesting six degrees of separation with St. John. Lana's sister was actress Natalie Wood. When Natalie Wood drowned off Catalina Island in 1981, she was married to actor Robert Wagner (PRINCE VALIANT). Wagner would later Jill St. John, making St. John and Lana Wood sisters-in-law (which would not go well).

Some familiar faces from the golden age of cinema also appear in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. Bruce Cabot who would battle King Kong for Fay Wray in KING KONG (1933) plays Whyte's traitorous lieutenant Bert Saxby.  And film noir veteran Marc Lawrence (THE ASPHALT JUNGLE) appears as one of Blofeld's henchmen.  Even Las Vegas comedian Leonard Barr makes a brief cameo as Shady Tree, another colorful Vegas performer working for Blofeld. Look for actress Valerie Perrine (LENNY) as one of the showgirls standing next to Shady Tree during his opening act.

This would be Sean  Connery's last go around as James Bond in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (unless you count his return as Bond in Irvin Kershner's 1982 NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, a remake of THUNDERBALL). James Bond would make Sean Connery an international movie star. Connery would define the James Bond role. He would make white dinner jackets, martinis shaken not stirred, and Aston Martins forever popular. In my opinion, he will always be the best 007. Connery gives his best for his final performance in a Broccoli/Saltzman Bond production, tongue firmly in cheek. Connery would continue to have a fantastic career appearing in hit films like John Huston's THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975) and Brian DePalma's THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987) in which Connery would win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

I had raved how great Donald Pleasence was as Blofeld in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967) but I have a soft spot for Charles Gray's take as Blofeld in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. Pleasence's Blofeld was more cold and sinister with that vertical scar across his eye. Gray's Blofeld is a bit more cuddly, white haired and urbane, with a better sense of humor and irony (again I feel writer Mankiewicz's hand involved). Because of the whole plastic surgery subplot, Blofeld can look different in DIAMONDS. He doesn't have the bald dome or scar (Sam Mendes' SPECTRE would reveal how Blofeld received that scar). If DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER had come out a few years later, Blofeld could have just cloned himself instead of creating surgically altered doubles. Charles Gray also appeared in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE as Henderson, a British agent over in Japan. It was a very brief appearance i.e. he's killed quite quickly. Gray's Blofeld is a memorable role and one of the main reasons I love DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER.
As enjoyable as DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER is for three quarters of the film, the climactic siege of Blofeld's oil platform is a let down of epic proportions.  YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE had huge explosions and somersaulting stunt men. DIAMONDS has poorly choreographed action and stunts.  Blofeld's security is as lax as his tongue when Bond parachutes onto the platform. Blofeld is overly confident and pretty much lets Bond sabotage his master plan. It's a bad lapse in judgment by the filmmakers.  They redeem themselves with one final scene as Bond sniffs out (literally) the deadly team of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd on his cruise with Tiffany, disposing of the gay assassins.

Although the final climactic battle is weak, the majority of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER is the perfect film to wrap up Sean Connery's portrayal as British agent James Bond. After countless fights with assassins like Red Grant and Oddjob, numerous confrontations with arch villains like Dr. No and Ernst Stavros Blofeld, and endless romantic encounters with the likes of Honey Ryder, Pussy Galore, and Tiffany Case, it was time for Connery to move on with the next stage of his career and hand over the reins to the Bond series to the next James Bond -- Roger Moore. I wonder if SPECTRE sent Connery any balloons or a singing telegram or a cake to bid their sworn enemy goodbye.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

I loved Ray Bradbury short stories growing up but I was kind of a snob about the great science fiction writer's novels.  I loved Bradbury's short stories like The Sound of Thunder, Marionettes Inc, or The Green Veldt. But his novels like Something This Wicked Way Comes or Fahrenheit 451 did not catch my imagination like his short stories.  Maybe it was the publisher's fault for not being more creative with its jacket cover description of Bradbury's novels.  More likely, I just wasn't mature enough to grasp the significance or power of Bradbury's longer stories. I did like Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles but that was more a collection of stories about man's colonizing the red planet than a straight narrative.

A few years ago, a former co-worker of mine Jeff was reading Fahrenheit 451 on his break. He raved about how even 64 years since it was published, the book was as relevant today as back then. We had a copy in our library at home, my wife's father's copy.  I decided to finally give it a try and read it.  It wasn't quite the book I was expecting.  It was set in the future but not an entirely far away future. There were no space ships or robots (except for the Mechanical Hound). But the hook that sticks in your mind is that firemen no longer put out fires.  Firemen burn books. The written word is forbidden. Books are dangerous to read. That is the terrifying future of Fahrenheit 451.

I would have expected the film version of FAHRENHEIT 451 to have been made in the United States by an American director, maybe John Frankenheimer or Arthur Penn or Sidney Lumet. The turbulent 60s seemed like a perfect time for FAHRENHEIT 451 in America. Surprisingly, it would be French New Wave director Francois Truffaut (THE 400 BLOWS) who would not only co-author the screen play with Jean-Louis Richard but also direct his first and only English speaking film about this dystopian world. Although the film never explains where it's located, Truffaut would film in England with a mostly English cast except for Austrian actor Oskar Werner in the lead. Although considered Science Fiction, there's very little to differentiate from the present save for the stormtrooper like firemen, the same omniscient television host on everyone's flat screen television, and the repressive society that fears individualism. There is no appearance by the Mechanical Hound. Truffaut lets the audience know right away in FAHRENHEIT 451 that the written word is taboo. The opening credits are spoken to us by an unseen narrator instead of appearing superimposed on the screen.

The title FAHRENHEIT 451 refers to the temperature fire needs to reach to burn a paper book. In the world of FAHRENHEIT 451, books are banned.  Books are forbidden to be read let alone owned.  Books give people ideas which in this oppressive society is a crime. Firemen are sent to suspected violators homes to confiscate the books and burn them. The firemen carry flamethrowers instead of firehoses.  Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) is one such firemen. On his way home on the monorail from a book burning, he meets his inquisitive neighbor Clarisse (Julie Christie), a schoolteacher who questions why he burns books. Montage responds it's the law but her question begins to nag at him.

Montag arrives at home to find his wife Linda (also Julie Christie) watching an interactive television program where a TV host (Gillian Lewis) drones on. Casting Christie as both Montag's neighbor and wife fits in with this world of conformity. Same haircuts, same houses, be equal, no individualism. When Montag and his crew led by Captain Beatty (Cyril Cusack) confiscate and burn more books, Montag sneaks one book back home with him.  At night, he reads Charles Dickens David Copperfield.

Montag skips work one day to spend time with Clarisse who doesn't seem to conform like everyone else. Montag's suspicious co-worker Fabian (Anton Diffring) sees Montag playing hooky.  Clarisse takes Montag to a house owned by the Book Woman (Bee Duffell) filled with hundreds of books. Moved by the Book Woman, Montag returns home, interrupting a party Linda is having with her girlfriends. He reads to them from a book, upsetting Linda and her friends.  Montag's fire brigade is sent to the Book Woman's house. Captain Beatty orders her book collection and house to be burned to the ground. But the Book Woman refuses to leave.  She stubbornly stays and goes up in flames with her hundreds of books, an event that upsets Montag, changing him forever.

Beatty and Fabian become suspicious of Montag. At night, Montag hears sirens next door.  His neighbor Clarisse disappears along with the other inhabitants of her house. Montag breaks into Beatty's office to find out what happened to Clarisse.  He reunites with Clarisse who tells him that outside the city is an underground group known as "the Book People."  If he ever wants to join them, he needs to follow the river out of the city.  Montag decides to resign but Captain Beatty takes  him on one last raid, this time to Montag's house.  As Beatty lectures Montag on hiding books and urges him to burn them, Montag turns the flamethrower on Beatty and the other firemen.  Montag flees the city, arriving in the woods where the Book People including Clarisse are memorizing entire books so that they live on -- Jane Austen, Plato, Machiavelli, even Ray Bradbury. Montag joins them choosing to memorize Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

At first glance, FAHRENHEIT 451 feels like Truffaut got it all wrong. It feels like it should be an American film, set in the Midwest (Bradbury was born in Illinois). It should have American actors, not English and German ones. But about a quarter through the movie, FAHRENHEIT begins to feel right. It's a universal story. FAHRENHEIT 451 could happen anywhere in the world. Book burning did happen in Nazi Germany. Libraries in the U.S. South banned certain books. Truffaut, as we know, was a lover of films but he's a lover of books, of the written word too. Who better to make this futuristic cautionary tale than Truffaut? Truffaut makes sure we see the classics torched: Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer; Danie Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, William Shakespeare's Othello to name a few. Truffaut even wickedly shows Hitler's Mein Kampf and the French movie magazine Cahier du Cinema which he used to write for go up in flames.

For his first color film, Truffaut uses color very effectively in FAHRENHEIT 451. Red represents fire. The fire station and fire truck are crimson red, almost like blood. But red shows up prominently throughout the film. Cars, doors, kiosks all painted in a garish red. Red equates to the burning of books. Hundreds of books are burned by the firemen's flamethrowers. Black is another significant color, signifying evil. There's no mistaking the parallel between the firemen in FAHRENHEIT 451 with their black uniforms and boots and the Nazis in the 1930s.  Montag even makes a Nazi like salute to his superior Beatty. Is it a coincidence that Austrian actor Oskar Werner and German actor Anton Diffring are both cast as book burning firemen (English actor Terrence Stamp was originally going to play Montag but backed out at the last minute)?

It should not come as a surprise the influence of Hitchcock on Truffaut's visual style and other choices for FAHRENHEIT 451.  Truffaut was a huge admirer of Hitchcock and had done an extensive interview (which became a 1967 book) with Hitchcock prior to Truffaut filming FAHRENHEIT 451. Truffaut has several long tracking shots and a zoom in, dolly back shot that echo Hitchcock's work in VERTIGO (1958). The biggest nod to Hitchcock is Truffaut's decision to have composer Bernard Herrmann compose the score for FAHRENHEIT 451.  Herrmann had written some of Hitchcock's best music in films like VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), and PSYCHO (1960).  Hermann's score for FAHRENHEIT 451 is haunting and melancholy, different than anything he did for Hitchcock, with some notes that harken to the TV show THE TWILIGHT ZONE which Herrmann also worked on. As much as I like Herrmann's scores for Hitchcock, I rank his score for FAHRENHEIT 451 as one of his best. Hermann would score one more film for Francois Truffaut, the 1967 Hitchcock like thriller THE BRIDE WORE BLACK.

For his first and last English speaking film, Truffaut surrounded himself with excellent technicians.  Besides composer Bernard Herrmann, FAHRENHEIT 451 is photographed by Nicolas Roeg who would go on to become an acclaimed director himself with the psychological thriller DON'T LOOK NOW (1973) starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland and the Sci-Fi THE MAN WHO FELL FROM EARTH (1976) with David Bowie. Roeg gives the film a slightly off kilter feel that fits with FAHRENHEIT 451 society. The film's finale, shot during an unexpected snowfall in England, with the Book People wandering through a forest memorizing books is pure poetry thanks to Roeg.  FAHRENHEIT 451 would be editor Thom Noble's first credit but he would go on to work with directors Ridley Scott, Peter Weir, and John Milius.

Films are difficult to get made. Truffaut's persistence and patience to make FAHRENHEIT 451 is nothing short of incredible. To start with, Truffaut was a French speaking director working with an entirely English speaking cast and crew. Truffaut barely spoke English (although he did have an interpreter with him). Truffaut's first choice to play Montag was Terrence Stamp (who would have been brilliant). But Stamp pulled out of the film at the last moment when he learned Julie Christie would have two roles in the film (ironically, Stamp and Christie would act together the following year in 1967 in John Schlesinger's FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD one would presume because Christie had just one role). Truffaut would then choose Austrian actor Oskar Werner to play Montag. Truffaut and Werner had worked well together in Truffaut's 1962 film JULES AND JIM.

But Werner's ego had exploded since JULES AND JIM. He considered himself a big star now. He didn't want to listen to Truffaut the second time around for FAHRENHEIT 451. The director and actor butted heads throughout the film. Werner even tried to sabotage the film in the finale when he got an entirely different haircut then what he wore for most of the film (it's not that noticeable). Yet through it all, Truffaut persevered and created a profound adaptation of Ray Bradbury's novel that may be more appreciated today then when it was released in 1966. FAHRENHEIT 451 is not only Truffaut's only English speaking film but also his only Science Fiction film. Truffaut would act in a Science Fiction film when he appeared eleven years later in Steven Spielberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), a far different film than FAHRENHEIT 451.

We've seen that history often repeats itself but one hopes that the Nazis burning books will never repeat itself again. FAHRENHEIT 451 should be recommended viewing, a cautionary reminder. FAHRENHEIT 451 is not a perfect film but French director Francois Truffaut gives the story all the benefits of his original and eclectic vision, using color and visual effects to great effect.  For if society ever does decide to ban books and the written word again, then CrazyFilmGuy could no longer (THIS BLOG HAS BEEN BANNED. PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR COMPUTER. THANK YOU.)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

I can remember it like it was yesterday. A film about UFOs visiting earth called CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) had been released and I wanted to see it. I was a believer in Unidentified Flying Objects back in 1977. My Poppa (grandfather) was visiting from Bend, Oregon with my Nanna (grandmother). Poppa offered to go to the movie with me. I sat through the film filled with wonder, loving the story and special effects. When the film was over, my Poppa and I walked out into the afternoon sunshine. He turned to me and said, "What was that all about?"

Close Encounters of the First Kind is a sighting. Close Encounters of the Second Kind is evidence. Closer Encounters of the Third Kind is contact. The film CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was my first encounter with a young wunderkind director named Steven Spielberg.  I had tried to see Spielberg's previous work JAWS (1975) as I have chronicled before but my parents would have none of that. But they had no issue allowing me to see a film about man's first contact with extraterrestials. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS had such a profound affect on me that when my family and I moved back to Oregon from Massachusetts in 1996, I made us detour to the northeast Wyoming landmark Devil's Tower (featured prominently in CETK) to see where the spaceships landed. I saw no government base but plenty of ground squirrels and cows.

Spielberg's early films like JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND exhibited his promising technical prowess. But they were also very grounded and organic, showing a deep understanding of the family unit warts and all. His early heroes like Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) in JAWS, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), and Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS are funny, sort of brave, and vulnerable in the face of man eating sharks, head hunters, or huge spaceships. They're all adults grappling with their inner child.

I'm going to focus on the original, theatrical version of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, the version I saw with my grandfather in the theater and the definitive version.  Columbia Pictures and Spielberg would release two other versions. CETK: SPECIAL EDITION altered or deleted a few scenes and took the audience into the Mothership. My favorite addition was the UFO trackers finding the giant freighter Cotopaxi in the Gobi Desert that vanished en route from Charleston, South Carolina to Cuba in 1925. Then, Columbia released a DIRECTOR'S CUT that put back most of the original version and kept some of the Special Edition scenes, proving the original is probably the best version.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND begins with a trademark opening from writer/director Steven Spielberg that would become his signature. It's mysterious, breathtaking, and sets the tone for the rest of the film. A group of scientists led by Claude Lacombe (French director Francois Truffaut) and his interpreter/cartographer David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) arrive in the Sonoran desert of Mexico to find eight pristine World War II fighter planes known as Flight 19. The planes disappeared on a training mission off the Florida coast in 1945. So why are they in the Mexican desert three decades later? This is a close encounter of the second kind. Evidence. A close encounter of the first kind (sighting) occurs when a commercial airliner reports encountering a UFO over Indiana. The pilots decline to register the sighting.

In Muncie, Indiana, strange lights visit the farmhouse of Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her son Barry (Cary Guffey). Electronic toys turn on by themselves. Barry runs off, chased by his mother. Across Indiana, the power grid ebbs and flows. Line man Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is sent out to investigate a power outage in one of the counties. Roy has an alien encounter at a railroad crossing. He follows the lights to a ridge where he, Jillian, and many others watch three spacecraft fly by and disappear into the night skies. Roy tries to explain to his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) what he saw but she's skeptical. This UFO encounter begins to affect him.

Roy and Jillian begin seeing a shape that means something to them. In shaving cream or mashed potatoes, Roy keeps trying to make a mountain, an image left with him from his brief alien probe (if they had Google back in 1977 he would have found that image in seconds). Lacombe and his team travel to India where a village had an encounter with visitors from the sky, singing the same musical motif over and over again. Lacombe and Laughlin figure out the notes are actually map coordinates. The aliens are signaling they wish to make contact in northeast Wyoming.

The UFOs return to Indiana and steal little Barry away from his mother Jillian. Jillian goes to the government about her kidnapped son. At a press conference, the Air Force debunks the UFO theories while the government creates a fake railroad car disaster to block off Devil's Tower where the UFOs plan to land. Roy sees the news footage of Devil's Tower and realizes that's the image he's been seeing in his mind. Roy leaves his family and drives to Wyoming where he meets up with Jillian again. They manage to escape Lacombe and General "Wild Bill" Walsh (Warren J. Kemmerling) and climb close to Devil's Tower to view the first contact between extraterrestials and humans. The giant mothership arrives, unloading dozens of people "kidnapped" by the aliens including the WWII pilots of Flight 19 and little Barry. Lacombe offers Roy the chance to be one of the first humans to return with the aliens to their planet.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was only Spielberg's third feature film (he had directed episodes of TVs NIGHT GALLERY and the well received 1971 TV movie DUEL). It's a film filled with exuberance and bravura as the youthful Spielberg continues to find his cinematic footing. It's not a perfect film. The middle section with Roy's breakdown as he tries to make sense of the mountain image in his head runs a little long (hence the deletion of much of that sequence in the SPECIAL EDITION version). But it's Spielberg realizing that story is as important special effects. We need to be totally on board to Roy's almost breakdown (hence the return of the full scene in the Director's Cut).

Whether the aliens are good or evil in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is kept a secret for most of the film, Spielberg keeping his audience in suspense. At times, they seem playful and curious.  But when they return and kidnap little Barry, we're not sure what they're intentions are, John Williams score terrifying and frightening. Probe? Autopsy? Child slavery? Luckily, CLOSER ENCOUNTERS is about the wonder of making contact with beings from another world, uniting and exploring for a common good.  Barry will be reunited with his mother Jillian, none the worse for wear. Visual Effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) brings Spielberg's vision to reality with spaceships we've never seen before.

Speilberg draws influence from some old masters in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as well as hints at future films he will make.  The overlapping dialogue of the air traffic controllers has the feel of dialogue in a Robert Altman movie like MASH (1970).  Roy and Jillian's escape toward Devil's Tower (a National Monument) reminds me of Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint in Alfred Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) as they stumbled around Mt. Rushmore. Even John Williams's score during that scene hearkens to Hitchcock's favorite composer Bernard Herrmann.  And Spielberg gets to stage a huge scene at a train station a la David Lean (DR. ZHIVAGO) with thousands of extras as Roy and Jillian reunite in Wyoming.

Spielberg would revisit extraterrestials and humans co-mingling on a smaller, more intimate scale with his E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTIAL in 1982.  Later, an older more cynical Spielberg would remake H.G. Welles tale of bad aliens wreaking destruction on earth in WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005). The scenes of toy monkeys, vacuum cleaners, and other electronic gadgets turning on by themselves (with help from the aliens) in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is a harbinger of some similar set pieces in the Spielberg produced ghost story POLTERGEIST (also 1982) directed by Tobe Hooper (with some uncredited direction by Spielberg himself) especially the clown sequence and some other mischief by the angry poltergeists.

Disney's PINOCHHIO shows up several times in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Roy's toy train crashes into a Pinocchio toy early in the film. Later, Roy wants to take his kids to see PINOCCHIO (1940)instead of playing Goofy Golf. Roy and Spielberg are still boys like Pinocchio who are not ready to be men just yet. Composer John Williams will even insert a small riff of 'When You Wish Upon A Star' from PINOCCHIO  as the scientists gaze at the Mothership which itself resembles a colorful, twinkling star.

Richard Dreyfuss catapulted to fame with Spielberg's JAWS but CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND further established him as a rising star.  He exudes awe and astonishment as Roy Neary but also sorrow and pain when his wife and kids leave him. Dreyfuss would have a great run winning an Academy Award for Best Actor in Herbert Ross's THE GOODBYE GIRL (also 1977) and starring in the successful STAKEOUT films with Emilio Estavez in the late 80s/early 90s.

I don't know if it was a Hitchcock blonde thing but Spielberg cast blondes at the beginning of his career. Goldie Hawn in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974), Lorraine Gary in JAWS, and later Dee Wallace in E.T. THE EXRATERRESTIAL. For CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND he went with two blondes. Melinda Dillon as Jillian and Teri Garr as Roy's wife Ronnie Neary.  Dillon and Garr were sought after actresses at the time.  Dillon appeared in SLAP SHOT (also 1977) and ABSENCE OF MALICE (1981) both with Paul Newman. Dillon will forever be remembered as Ralphie's Mother in Bob Clark's A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983). Garr showed her comedic talents in Mel  Brooks YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) and played the jilted girlfriend of Dustin Hoffman in Sydney Pollack's TOOTSIE (1982). In CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, Garr has a more dramatic part, trying to hold her family together as her husband Roy appears to be losing his mind.

What inspiration by Spielberg who was leading this American New Wave movement of young American directors (like Coppola and Scorsese) in the 70s to cast one of the leaders of the French New Wave film movement of the 60's director Francois Truffaut as research scientist Claude Lacombe. Lacombe is as child-like as Roy in his search for the truth as he crosses the globe following the extraterrestials path and signs. Like Truffaut, Spielberg shows great skill for directing children whether it's Cary Guffey as little Barry in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND or Henry Thomas in E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTIAL or young Christian Bale in EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987).

Spielberg also shows a knack for casting actors who look like nerdy scientists and government officials. Bob Balaban as Lacombe's interpreter Laughlin, J. Patrick McNamara as the Project Leader, and Merrill Connally as the Team Leader are all uniformly square looking and perfect.  And look for familiar faces Lance Henricksen (ALIENS) and Carl Weathers (ROCKY) in small roles in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.

After hits like JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, the world was Spielberg's oyster.  But as often happens when success comes quickly (see Michael Cimino), Spielberg would hit a bump in the road in 1979 with his next project, the over budget, very loud, out of control World War II comedy 1941 about an imagined Japanese attack on the west coast of the United States. It would be a bomb and nearly sink Spielberg.  But George Lucas would step in and hire Spielberg to direct an idea he had based on the adventure serials he loved as a kid called RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981). Spielberg would learn from Lucas how to be economical and practical and stay on budget and the rest is history.Spielberg would never look back and go on an incredible run of blockbuster hits.

When I decided to review CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, I had no idea that this would be its 40th Anniversary in 2017.  As I said at the beginning, it seems just like yesterday that I went to watch it with my grandfather.  Like STAR WARS (1977), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS was another joyous film watching experience for me.  Watching it again, that feeling hasn't changed.  I guess the only that that has changed is my belief in UFOs.  With all our camera phones and dashboard cameras and Go-Pros, no one has been able to capture a credible photo of a flying saucer or large bulbous-headed alien. I want to believe there is life out there. And filmmakers want to believe it too.  More recent films like INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996) and ARRIVAL (2016) were inspired by CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and continue our fascination with the possibility of alien life.  The working title for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was WATCH THE SKIES. I guess all we can do is continue to watch the skies. And wish upon a star that someday we will meet visitors from another planet or galaxy.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Driver (1978) and Drive (2011)

When it comes to heist films, the getaway driver usually gets the short end of the stick. Like a drummer in a rock band, the role of the getaway driver is overlooked. The flashy parts go to the brains of the operation or the muscle or the trigger man.  The driver is often portrayed as a stooge, discarded quickly after the robbery is pulled off like in Sam Peckinpah's THE GETAWAY (1972). Poor Bo Hopkins. He doesn't even make it back to the hideout after the bank robbery before Al Lettieri shoots him.

Two films have given the getaway driver his due: Walter Hill's THE DRIVER (1978) and Nicholas Winding Refn's DRIVE (2011).  Although not a remake (but definitely inspired by), DRIVE is like a first cousin once removed to THE DRIVER.  THE DRIVER is gritty and urban. DRIVE is slick and glossy. Both films are set in Los Angeles (makes sense with all the highways and streets available in the City of Angels). And ironically, both leading men who play drivers are named Ryan: Ryan O'Neal in THE DRIVER and Ryan Gosling in DRIVE.

It's not surprising that writer/director Walter Hill came up with the idea and made THE DRIVER.  Hill wrote the screenplay for THE GETAWAY which starred Steve McQueen.  Hill must have remembered he dispatched the getaway driver early in that film.  Without a good getaway driver, the whole robbery could be over before it started if the driver's not there on time. He needs to know all the escape and backup routes. He has to be adept at handling a car while chased by cops or double-crossing partners or mobsters. Director Hill even borrows (or steals) using a similar train station locker, bait and switched locker keys, and pursuit on a train scene in THE DRIVER that he wrote for THE GETAWAY.

Ryan O'Neal has no name in THE DRIVER. He's just the Driver (although Bruce Dern likes to call him Cowboy). The film opens with the Driver waiting for two bag men to emerge from a casino they have just robbed.  A group of casino patrons including a woman known as the Player (French actress Isabelle Adjani) watch as the Driver peels away with the two crooks.  The Driver exhibits his skills as he avoids five police cars in pursuit.  But he's done with the bag men.  They were late exiting the casino almost resulting in the Driver getting apprehended.

In pursuit of the Driver is the Detective (Bruce Dern). The Detective is obsessed with catching him. He brings the Player in to ID the Driver at a line-up but she won't give him up (the Driver has paid her off to be his silent alibi).  So the Detective tries to set up the Driver, extorting a hot head criminal named Glasses (Joseph Walsh) and his accomplice Teeth (Rudy Ramos) to hire the Driver to help them rob a bank so the Detective can catch him after the fact. Glasses reaches out to the Connection (Ronee Blakley) to contact the Driver about the job.  The Connection meets with the Driver but he doesn't want to work with shooters (aka bank robbers with guns). The Detective challenges the Driver, dares him to pull off another heist.

The Driver takes the bait. But he doesn't want trigger happy Teeth to join them.  So Glasses and the Kid (Frank Bruno) pull off the job.  The Driver takes them to a warehouse picked by Glasses but away from the Detective. The Driver smells a set up.  The Driver shoots Glasses before Glasses can return the favor. The Driver takes the stolen cash and puts it in a locker at the train station. He needs to launder the hot money. He contacts the Player. She can help him change the stolen money for new money.

The Player sends one of her accomplices the Exchange Man (Denny Macko) to switch bags and keys with her. The Exchange Man hops on a train, pursued by the Detective. Teeth steals the Player's purse with the correct bus locker key.  The Driver and the Player chase Teeth through the dark urban streets culminating in Teeth crashing his car in a large warehouse. The Driver retrieves the key.  When they return to the train station, the Detective and a gaggle of cops are waiting.  Will the Detective catch the Driver red handed this time?

Hill's THE DRIVER takes place in a stylized world.  No one has a first or last name. It's just a description: the Driver, the Detective, the Connection, or Glasses. The city is never named but it's all downtown Los Angeles (director Hill would use many of the same locations in his 1984 retro action film STREETS OF FIRE).  The Driver never appears to have any other type of job or skill besides his driving.  The Detective doesn't appear to have a supervisor or follow any laws or rules (although his partner Red Plainclothesman played by Matt Clark does have a conscience and would like to see the Detective fail). For the Detective, it's all a game.  You either win or lose. The Detective thinks he's on the winning team.

The Driver does have a set of rules that he follows (as does Gosling's Driver). The crooks he drives for need to be on time. A few seconds late could get the Driver arrested or worse killed  The Driver doesn't like gun happy robbers.  He's probably seen THE GETAWAY himself. The Driver has his code but inevitably he breaks it, risking his life and livelihood for one last big payoff. In breaking his code, the Driver endangers his very existence.

THE DRIVER is all machismo and muscle, much like the cars the Driver uses. In an impressive scene, the Driver literally wrecks a Mercedes Benz to prove to a skeptical Glasses he's good at driving. The Driver winds through a parking garage, scraping fenders off walls, breaking doors off their hinges as Glasses and his crew scream in fear.  Ryan O'Neal (BARRY LYNDON) and Bruce Dern (BLACK SUNDAY) are excellent as adversaries.  Cat and mouse. Their battle is with words and posturing, not fists. The Detective never chases the Driver once in a car. Even the female leads are masculine in THE DRIVER. French actress Isabelle Adjani (NOSFERATU and THE STORY OF ADELE H) and Ronee Blakley (NASHVILLE) could almost be male characters.  No gowns or dresses for these women. Adjani barely blinks as she bounces around with O'Neal in his various getaway cars (okay she screams once when they're shot at). Blakely as the Connection gives up the Driver's plans to Teeth at gunpoint but takes a bullet like a man for her betrayal.

Ryan Gosling also plays a getaway driver with no name (although Bryan Cranston calls him "the Kid") who lives by a code in the more recent DRIVE (2011), directed by Nicholas Winding Refn and written by Hossein Amini based on a novel by James Sallis . I had heard a rumor several years ago that French director Luc Besson (LA FEMME NIKITA) was going to remake THE DRIVER. Instead, it turned out to be Danish director Refn (BRONSON and VAHALLA RISING) who made DRIVE inspired by THE DRIVER but not a remake. Refn and Gosling would later make ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013) set in Bangkok with Gosling this time as a drug smuggler.

Like the opening of THE DRIVER, DRIVE begins with the Driver (Gosling) waiting for two hooded men to break into a warehouse. "There's a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don't need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you're on your own. Do you understand?" The Driver evades a couple of police cars and a police helicopter before ditching the hooded men and the car in a sports arena parking lot as a Lakers basketball game ends. But the Driver does more than drive.  He's also a stunt driver for movies and he works as a mechanic for his handler/stunt coordinator/exploiter Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Shannon dreams of owning a stock car with the Driver behind the wheel.  He goes to a mid-level gangster and former B-movie producer Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and borrows three hundred grand to do it.

But the Driver's world turns upside down when he falls for his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) who's raising her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos) while his father Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac) finishes up a prison sentence. When Standard is released from prison, he promises to make amends. But he's soon beat up by a vicious hoodlum/pimp Cook (James Biberi) who wants Standard to rob a pawn shop to pay off protection money that Standard owes Cook.  The Driver decides to help Standard pull off the robbery, hoping this final heist will settle Standard's debts so Irene and Benicio can live safely.

Standard and his accomplice Blanche (Christina Hendricks) rob the San Fernando pawn shop while the Driver waits in the parking lot. But the robbery goes awry. Standard is shot and killed.  A second car shows up and chases the Driver and Blanche. They hold up in a motel, waiting for Cook but two killers show up. Cook and his boss Nino (Ron Perlman) have double-crossed the Driver, trying to rob the initial robbery to hide Nino's intent to steal from an East Coast mobster who owned the pawn shop. The Driver manages to dispatch the hitmen but he's injured. The Driver goes to Shannon to find a doctor to patch him up before extracting revenge.

The Driver finds Cook at a strip joint, breaking the pimp's fingers with a hammer until he tells him who ordered the double cross. Bernie learns of Nino's mistake and vows to clean up his mess. Only Shannon and the Driver can pin the crime on them. The Driver chases down Nino next while Bernie takes care of the unlucky Shannon. The Driver tries to give the one million dollars to Irene but she refuses.  The Driver and Bernie Rose meet at a Chinese restaurant to agree to a truce and an exchange but like everything in DRIVE, even that plan doesn't work out well for either men.

DRIVE is ultimately about a group of people on the fringe of normal society who have bad luck and broken dreams: a B film producer turned gangster, a stuntman/mechanic falling in love, a sweet waitress with bad boyfriend choices, a dreamer who can't buy a break, an ex-con trying to go straight. Shannon is a father figure to the Driver but he exploits the kid as well. The fact that stunt coordinator Shannon has a limp (the result of a broken pelvis courtesy of a deal gone sour) is not a good sign. The Driver is just a younger version of Shannon, another dreamer with bad luck.

Like Ryan O'Neal's Driver, Gosling's Driver is also a loner who follows his own personal code. He gives his customers a short window to complete their illegal deed.  If that deed runs past five minutes, they're on their own. With his racing gloves, tooth pick, and Scorpion emblem on his gold jacket (a nice reference to the Scorpion and the Frog fable that comes true later in the film), Gosling's Driver is a free spirit seemingly with a sweet heart.  But also like O'Neal, Gosling's Driver can be violent and vicious when provoked.  He lives life one day at a time.   But he breaks his code, trying to be a knight in shining armor, to protect Irene and Benicio's future.  This fairy tale has a bad ending. He makes a deal to drive without his mentor Shannon's involvement. This choice will have dire consequences for everyone.

Like the mentor/protégé relationship between Shannon and the Driver, gangster Bernie Rose and his partner Nino also have an interesting relationship, mirroring the Driver and Shannon.  They like to bust each other's balls but they're a team.  But then Nino tries to pull off a deal on his own, stealing from a East Coast gangster who Nino feels doesn't respect him, not consulting Bernie on the heist.  Like the Driver, Nino's actions have devastating results for him and his partner Bernie.

European director Refn brings a freshness to DRIVE making the over-filmed city of Los Angeles look new and unique.  One of my favorite new composers Cliff Martinez (CONTAGION) provides the pulsating musical score. Like directors Scorsese and Tarantino, Refn gives us brief, shocking moments of violence. A fork in a pimp's eye, a hammer breaking a pimp's fingers, the Driver stomping on the face of a hitman. Grisly moments but he doesn't linger, the point made in one or two quick shots. Refn also gives us brief flashes of happiness: the Driver spending the day with Irene and Benicio or Standard's 'Welcome Home' party.  But these feel good scenes are fleeting.

DRIVE'S cast is impressive with an array of excellent actors playing roles they're not typically cast as. Ryan Gosling as the Driver continues his stint of bouncing between tough action films like DRIVE and GANGSTER SQUAD (2013) and comedies or musicals like CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE (2011) and LA LA LAND (2016).  Gosling plays his Driver like O'Neal's with very little dialogue and plenty of smoldering stares. British actress Carey Mulligan (FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD) surprises as the angelic Irene.  The biggest surprise is comedian Albert Brooks as the brutal boss Bernie Rose.  Brooks is better know for comedies like LOST IN AMERICA (1985) and BROADCAST NEWS (1987).  But he hinted he could play darker characters with his performance as a white collar criminal in Steven Soderbergh's OUT OF SIGHT (1998).

Rounding out the excellent cast is Bryan Cranston as the Driver's handler and father figure Shannon. Cranston, also know for comedy early in his career (TV's MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE), shocked audiences when he revealed his darker side in the  breakthrough AMC series BREAKING BAD (2008 - 2013) as teacher turned meth maker Walter White.  In DRIVE, Cranston's Shannon is the most heartbreaking sympathetic character, at heart a good guy that can't get out of the way of his dreams and ultimate bad luck. Oscar Isaac as Irene's husband Standard, another down on his luck character, was the young hot up and coming actor when DRIVE came out appearing in small roles with Leonardo DiCaprio in BODY OF LIES (2008) and Russell Crowe in ROBIN HOOD (2010). Isaac has now exploded into leading man roles since with the Coen Brothers INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013) and as Rebel fighter Poe Dameron in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015).  Ron Perlman (HELLBOY) as Nino and Christina Hendricks (TVs MAD MEN) also play pivotal supporting roles.

Although both THE DRIVER and DRIVE are about getaway drivers and crime, neither film has non-stop car chases.  Both films have two major car chase set pieces but they are effective scenes. Both films open with a car chase, exhibiting each Driver's skills.  Walter Hill puts the camera inside and outside the car in THE DRIVER giving it a very visceral feel.  Nicholas Winding Refn shoots the second car chase in DRIVE much like Peter Yates BULLITT (1968) with the camera speeding alongside the two cars in pursuit of one another as they hopscotch around other cars. Steve McQueen would have been proud (ironically director Hill wrote THE DRIVER with McQueen in mind. McQueen felt he had already done enough car chase films and declined). So Ryan O'Neal got the part.

Both films prove that a good getaway driver doesn't have to just drive fast either.  They have to drive smartly. At times the Driver's best choice is to stay put. Turn off the headlights and hide under a bridge or behind a parked truck until the police have gone by. THE DRIVER and DRIVE are excellent case studies for focusing on one key individual of a crime.  And our fascination of fast cars and the getaway driver has not gone away.  This summer Edgar Wright's BABY DRIVER (2017) is released about another young getaway driver named Baby who teams up with criminals to pull off a heist while falling in love with a waitress. Sounds like Wright has seen both THE DRIVER and DRIVE. So fasten your seatbelts and enjoy two similar yet different takes on the life of a getaway driver.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Crossfire (1947)

Film Noir hit its stride post World War II with tales of lust, murder, gangsters, and femme fatales mixed in with the disillusionment and cynicism that followed the Great War. To be fair, there were Film Noir films before the war. The term Film Noir just hadn't been coined yet. But with the war over, there were new characters to introduce to the genre, war veterans wading through a corrupt or immoral landscape instead of a battlefield. THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946) had one of the first characters who suffered from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Edward Dmytryk's CROSSFIRE (1947) is filled with several psychologically troubled demobilized soldiers including one who may have murdered a Jewish man.

CROSSFIRE is not your ordinary Film Noir.  Written by John Paxton based on a novel The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks (who would later become a writer/director of films like ELMER GANTRY and THE PROFESSIONALS), CROSSFIRE deals not only with war veterans struggling to return to ordinary life but with racism particularly anti-semitism.  No stranger to the Film Noir genre, Dmytryk (who directed 1944'S MURDER, MY SWEET based on Raymond Chandler's novel) casts a who's who of Film Noir actors in CROSSFIRE including the three Robert's.  He gives us Robert Mitchum (OUT OF THE PAST, THE BIG STEAL), Robert Ryan (THE SET UP, ON DANGEROUS GROUND), Robert Young (SECRET AGENT), and my favorite Film Noir femme fatale Gloria Grahame (IN A LONELY PLACE, THE BIG HEAT).

CROSSFIRE is a taut, briskly plotted Film Noir that begins like a punch to the gut ... literally. We see a man brutally beaten in an apartment. The killer is hidden in the dark, a lamp knocked over so we can't see the perpetrator. The killer grabs another semi-conscious man slumped on the sofa and they flee the murder scene. Investigating the murder is pipe smoking police detective Captain Finlay (Robert Young).  He has few clues until a soldier named Montgomery (Robert Ryan) shows up at the door looking for his friend Corporal Arthur Mitchell (George Cooper). Mitchell's wallet is found on the sofa. Montgomery tells Finlay that Mitchell had an argument with the dead man named Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene) earlier that evening at a bar.

One of Mitchell's buddies not at the bar with him is Sgt. Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum). Keeley is playing cards in Mitchell's room at the Stewart Hotel. Keeley is called in to be questioned by Finlay and learns Mitchell was out with Montgomery, not one of Keeley's favorite people. Keeley begins playing detective on his own separate from Finlay's investigation. Keeley sends the rest of the soldiers playing cards out to find Mitchell. Director Dmytryk provides flashbacks and differing viewpoints of the night in question from Montgomery, another soldier Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie), and later Mitchell. We see soldiers Montgomery, Mitchell, and Floyd have a few drinks at a bar. The dead man Samuels is at the bar with his girlfriend Miss Lewis (Marlo Dwyer). Another soldier Leroy (William Phipps) spills a drink on Miss Lewis who leaves to change. Mitchell is having trouble readjusting to civilian life. He's homesick for his wife Mary Mitchell (Jacqueline White). Samuels notices Mitchell's anxiety. They talk and Samuels invites Mitchell back to his apartment for a drink. Montgomery and Floyd follow and invite themselves in.

Back in the present, Mitchell shows up at the hotel, staked out by Finlay, unaware of what's transpired. Keeley's men cause a diversion and Keeley whisks Mitchell out of the hotel to a dark movie theater. Keeley warns Mitchell that Montgomery is trying to pin a murder on him. But Mitchell can't recall the evening. Flashbacks take us on Mitchell's journey from the bar to Samuel's apartment and after. Mitchell shows up at a club called the Red Dragon where he meets a prostitute Ginny Tremaine (Gloria Grahame) from Virginia. They dance and kiss. She feels sorry for Mitchell and gives him a key to her apartment where he falls asleep. He's awakened by a mysterious man (Paul Kelly) who turns out to be Ginny's ex-husband Mr. Tremaine. Mitchell flees Ginny's apartment. Keeley tells Mitchell to stay put at the theater.

Finley knows Keeley is also trying to find the killer and convinces Keeley to work with him. Mitchell's wife Mary arrives in Washington D.C. Keeley tells Finlay and Mary they can find Mitchell at the theater.  Mitchell recounts his night at Ginny's. Finlay and Mary go to Ginny's apartment to check on his alibi. At first, Ginny's not cooperative but she and her ex husband confirm Mitchell was at her apartment. With Mitchell's whereabouts cleared, Finlay sets a trap, cleverly tricking the killer into showing up at an apartment where he had strangled Floyd, the one eyewitness to Samuel's murder.

CROSSFIRE has many interesting angles that make it a cut above most Film Noirs. Set in Washington D.C. (home of the military and our nation's capital) it shows us demobilized soldiers, back in the real world after WWII but still serving their country, many wearing their civilian uniforms. But some of these soldiers came back with psychological wounds from the war. Arthur Mitchell is melancholy, homesick. He hasn't seen his wife since he returned and he's nervous and anxious about it, drinking himself into a stupor. Montgomery has anger issues with a racist bent. Whether Montgomery is spewing hate toward the Jewish bar patron Samuels or his fellow southern soldier Leroy for his Tennessee drawl, he's a powder keg ready to blow. Even Ginny's ex-husband Mr. Tremaine seems troubled, disillusioned. He enlisted to escape her but he can't live without her.
Dishonorably discharged, Mr. Tremaine hangs around, knowing his wife is a tramp (his words not mine).

I liked that we have two parallel detective stories going on in CROSSFIRE, one by the police and one by the suspect's friend. Capt. Finlay is calm, procedural as he smokes his pipe and methodically tracks the clues and interviews witnesses. But Mitchell's friend Keeley also begins investigating, not trusting either Finlay or the key witness Montgomery to save his friend's neck. Only when Keeley finds Mitchell and learns the truth does he need to unite with Finlay to catch the killer. Usually murders in Film Noirs are committed for lust or money. But CROSSFIRE introduces a new motive, a hate crime, a rare subject for a late 1940s movie.

Interestingly, in the novel, the victim is a homosexual, killed by a homophobic soldier. But the Hays Code which enforced decency in motion pictures protested that story point so the character was changed to a Jewish man in CROSSFIRE and the soldier a racist. You can see subtle hints of the homosexual storyline as Samuels goes over to talk to Mitchell at the bar and later invites him back to his apartment for a drink. But the filmmakers give Samuels a girlfriend (Miss Lewis). The three of them are supposed to go out for dinner but Leroy spills a drink on Miss Lewis and she leaves to change. Samuels was also in WWII (honorably discharged after getting wounded) so he recognizes Mitchell's anguish as he settles back into society after four long years of war.

Racism is still a strong theme to tackle for a Film Noir like CROSSFIRE.  The filmmakers pepper the movie with strong statements about intolerance.  When Montgomery complains to Finlay about people who played it safe (meaning they didn't enlist) "Some of 'em are named Samuels, some of 'em have funnier names" Keeley responds to Finlay "He oughta look at a casualty list sometime. There's a lot of funny names there, too."  Finlay later ruminates that "Ignorant men hate what they don't know."  But Finlay's most powerful speech comes when he tries to convince Leroy to help them catch the killer. Finlay draws from his own experience dealing with hate. "My grandfather was killed just because he was an Irish Catholic. Hating is always the same, always senseless. One day it kills Irish Catholics, the next day Jews, the next day Protestants, the next day Quakers. It's hard to stop. It can end up killing people who wear striped neckties."

The three Robert's -- Young, Mitchum, and Ryan - are superb in CROSSFIRE. I remember  Robert Young who plays pipe smoking detective Finlay when he was older as Dr. Marcus Welby in TVs MARCUS WELBY, M.D. (1969-1976). But Young had been a leading man in the 30s and 40s, appearing in Alfred Hitchcock's SECRET AGENT even. As Finlay, Young brings a measured coolness to his character. He doesn't jump to conclusions or burst out in anger when Keeley interferes with his investigation. He waits for the facts to sort themselves out. CROSSFIRE is one of  Robert Mitchum's earlier films. Produced by RKO, CROSSFIRE may have been the springboard to leading man status for Mitchum as he would appear in his breakout role as Jeff in Jacques Tourneur's 1947 Film Noir classic OUT OF THE PAST (also by RKO).

And no actor (except maybe Michael Douglas) has played more morally conflicted, agonized characters than Robert Ryan. Whether as the brutal cop in ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952) or the conflicted lawman chasing his old partners in THE WILD BUNCH (1969), Ryan was perfect at playing conflicted men.  In CROSSFIRE, it's a role of a lifetime as the racist soldier Montgomery. Ryan told the book's author Richard Brooks he would play the role of Montgomery because he knew bigots like him. In real life, Ryan was an active civil rights champion, nothing like his character Montgomery.

And then there's the beautiful, seductive Gloria Grahame in one of her best roles as Ginny Tremaine. With her pouty lips and blonde hair, Grahame could make a man do almost anything in a Film Noir film. Grahame only has a couple of scenes in CROSSFIRE but she's mesmerizing, one moment sexy and flirtatious, the next moment an alley cat with her claws out. Grahame stood out in a minor role as George Bailey's childhood friend Violet in Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) and went on to bigger roles in Nicholas Ray's IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) opposite Humphrey Bogart and Vincent Minnelli's THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952) with Kirk Douglas. in which she took home an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. One other actor to note is Paul Kelly as Ginny's current or ex-husband (we're never quite sure) Mr. Tremaine. In any other Film Noir, Kelly would be the man committing murder to have Grahame. In CROSSFIRE, Kelly's Tremaine is a pathetic man who watches different men come into his ex-wife's apartment. He observes but does nothing, having once been one of those men himself. But Kelly's Tremaine manages to do a decent thing amongst all the terrible things that transpire that night. It's a small but memorable role.

Director Dmytryk and his cinematographer J. Roy Hunt give CROSSFIRE the Film Noir look with a brutal murder silhouetted in black, low lighting spilling through bannisters and stairs painting the walls like prison bars, and plenty of dark streets and police offices. CROSSFIRE was a delight to discover and should be ranked higher on Film Noir lists as one of the best of the genre.  With a knockout cast and crackerjack dialogue, CROSSFIRE is a must see for its mystery as well as tackling a social issue not covered much in movies let alone a Film Noir movie in 1947.