Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Naked City (1948)

Jules Dassin’s half-noir, half-documentary reserves its romance not for its characters but for the city of New York itself. Introduced by Mark Hellinger’s playful narration, the film pays a moving tribute to the city that never sleeps. In terms of plot, everything is pretty straightforward, avoiding the convoluted stories of its genre companions. The cast’s performances are solid and Hollywood stalwart Barry Fitzgerald nearly eats the scenery with his over-the-top leprechaun of a cop, being a real joy to watch.

The genuine heart of the film is a depiction of everyday New York – on location – and the workings of a ‘real-world’ police investigation into one of the many stories the city has to offer. The themes on display are still relevant today – a city both gives and takes in equal measure with the daily pleasures and vibrance hiding a dark underbelly which is unforgiving once entered.

Given the aim here is representing authenticity, not necessarily aesthetic, it’s even more surprising that the film is so good to ogle.

Image result for the naked city 1948 staircase

Specifically, the film has two mighty shots, although they are not related to the on-location shooting which perhaps make the movie best-known. The first is a well-framed sequence where the rural parents of our murdered dame bemoan the vulgarities of city life, beautifully set against a glowing moon above the riverside. The second, near the film’s conclusion, is a stunning vertical shot of a spiralling staircase as our detective chases the murderous wrestler – a debuting Ted De Corsia – responsible for all the trouble. This shot seems an early forerunner to Hitchcock’s own use of these camera angles in Vertigo (1958).

Overall, a picture whose pseudo-documentary feel uniquely identifies it as something of a classic; but the modestly timid approach to plotting means The Naked City (1948) isn’t a timeless one.  The film also lacks some of the defining characteristics of the noir genre: there’s no femme fatale, expressionist lighting nor morally unsure anti-heroes. In contrast, Dassin’s Rififi (1955) goes the full hog and is a step above. That said, by disregarding the comic book aspects of noir, this is still one of the most accurate attempts to showcase real police work in 40s cinema.

Hotdog Rating: 7.5/10

 

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Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much ‘remake’

The Man Who Knew Too Much remake is a professional job, as Hitchcock said in his own words. For sure, the set piece play is some of the great director’s best.  The early scene in a hectic Marrakesh marketplace and the extravagance of the finale at the Albert Hall are stand-outs. Both work as odes to Hitchcock’s earlier career in silent film by eschewing dialogue and relying on the visuals and score alone to tell the story; indeed the Albert Hall sequence even shows the characters mime their scripted lines as a crescendo of concert hall music drowns out the panicked conversations between Stewart and Day, who are desperate to avoid a murder and save their son.

These set-pieces are what we’ve come to associate with Hitchcock’s brand of suspense. I recently saw this film in public and was quite taken aback by the audience’s shocked reaction when, from behind a scarlet curtain, a gun is pointed at a young boy’s head – just when we think we’ve reached the happy ending. A testament to the power of the film that even today you can get kind of reaction to a film over 50 years old.

The technicolour images here are also something which grab your attention. Hitchcock had not actually made too many colour movies when he shot this reworking, yet his grasp of the colour medium was already requisite masterful. For me, the best images are those shot in Stewart and Day’s Moroccan hotel room as they entertain the mysterious Frenchman whose bathed in a kind of navy hue light.

On our leads, James Stewart is compulsive viewing and Doris Day puts in a good turn subject to caveats that I’ll come on too. But it’s the assassin, Reggie Nauder’s character, who just LOOKS like a hitman but has few spoken lines, that remained most memorable to me (he also played “Mr Barlow” in Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Salem’s Lot (1979)).

But for its many positive, there are some drawbacks here. Hitchcock’s remake dwells for far too long on Doris Day’s musical numbers and after a time these just serve to grate with the audience. The remake is also (unapologetically) slower than Hitchcock’s original 1934 blaster of a movie. This 50s version is at its strongest in Morocco and once the action transfers to London, Hitchcock seems less tight with his pacing and gives the impression that he’s not quite sure where to go next. As an example , there’s some rather senseless to-and fro-ing around Day/Stewart’s London hotel room which, honestly speaking, adds little-to-nothing to the picture. It seems to take a long time to get to the Albert Hall…

For many its superior technique and polished look will make the remake the better of the two versions, which to emphasise is not an indefensible view by any means. But I prefer the rough diamond that is the 1934 original, primarily because of the dynamism inherent in the fast-paced screenplay but also due to Peter Lorre’s intoxicating villain “Abbott”.

Soavi’s cinema: The Church (1989)

Michele Soavi, heir apparent to the ‘soon-to-falter’ Dario Argento, was one of most talented directors working in the italian horror genre during the late 1980s. Soavi’s contribution here is one of the more visually stunning films of the era. Not so subtle in terms of subtext, the film is literally about a church built on the roots of a heinous crime.

From a gregarious opening sequence depicting the slaying of a village – supposedly of devil worshippers – by the teutonic knights, the aesthetic is sublime. Soavi shoots some of this through the viewpoint of the cross-shaped visors in the knights’ helmets. After this disquieting beginning to proceedings – which involves a horse trampling a baby stored safely away in a basket – Soavi carries out a fantastic tracking shot from the basement of the church which houses the tomb of the villagers right through to the modern interior and exterior of the church. This shot transposes us straight from the middle ages to the present day (well, 1989 Germany to be exact).

Thematically similar to Michael Mann’s oft-forgotten The Keep (1983) with a touch of Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), Soavi disregards plot coherence and leads us through a succession of gothic alchemy. The scene in which the cathedral’s ‘security device’ turns on to entomb those inside looks like something of a nightmarish version of The Goonies (1985) and there’s a real coup-de-grace moment as the mount of the undead rises up through the floor of the church during the finale. 

Whilst originally intended as the third film in the “Demoni” series, Soavi neglects the gore-infused zombie chaos of those films and relies on the power of the suggestive through hallucinations experienced by the ‘possessed’. The end result being the film is much the better for it.  As in Soavi’s earlier Stagefright: Aquarius (1987), the score pays in spades. Controversially, a very young Asia Argento has a pivota role – slain in the village – but  apparently re-incarnated as the daughter of the cathedral’s sacristan. Soavi implies that she is some kind of eternal witness to the demonic acts of humanity.

This film showcases just why we hold the Italian filmmakers in such a high regard. It all makes so little sense (“the secret is buried in the architect’s mouth!” – eh?) but it’s gorgeous cinema.