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


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.

10 to Midnight (1983) 

 The Cannon group excelled at producing relatively low budget action movies, bordering on the line of exploitation, with the stars of yesteryear. As part of this enterprise, Charles Bronson and J Lee Thompson were something of a team for Cannon in the 1980s.

“10 to Midnight” is maybe the best of that collaboration. It’s a brutal picture with lashings of nudity of both the killer and his victims. In sophisticated film circles, it’s regarded as a vulgar piece of 80s sub-culture alongside much of the Cannon group’s offerings. But I wanted to write something against this opinion, because to me it’s childishly wrong.

Yes, this film is over-the-top.Yes, it’s an oddball mix of action and slasher. Yes, there’s an eye-popping degree of nudity for the time. And most importantly, yes, Bronson chews the scenery.  But things are not so straightforward. 

It’s worth remembering that J Lee Thompson was the director of 1962’s Cape Fear, and I see some of the themes in that movie here.  There’s a rallying against the perceived injustices of the legal system and the dubious morality of men who fabricate evidence to convict the dangerous when the system will not. Critics interpret “10 to Midnight” as a right-wing tirade against the ‘liberal’ law system but I feel this is to see the film in too much of a linear way. Bronson’s character may be a hero but he’s a fallen one; in conflict with those around him who are painted in a heavily sympathetic light (including his younger partner Andrew Stevens).

Secondly, the murder sequences are shot stylishly. It’s hard to see why this aspect of the film was flippantly dismissed as gruesome exploitation, but the director’s skill with the camera is quite evident for those willing to look. This is a pretty, if grimes, presentation of mayhem. Furthermore, the film’s violence could be seen as brave and its ilk soon became a characteristic of the genre’s highest-flyers – think David Fincher’s Seven (1997), which also shares a killer’s pursuit of the investigating detective’s family.

Thirdly, there’s an unusually interesting supporting cast here – Geoffrey Lewis as a slick defence lawyer and Wilfrid Brimley as the police chief struggling to contain Bronson’s increasingly vengeful cynicism. Gene Davis plays the good-looking killer with a dictionary definition of ‘creep’; a performance often mistaken as wooden is actually a solid attempt at portraying the autistic awkwardness of a psychopath. 

Once you throw in the pulse of an 80s synth and Bronson’s cold, cold eyes “10 to Midnight” is a decadent thriller and a memorable addition to cult cinema. Watch out for the knockout final scene with a killer punchline from Bronson.

Hotdog rating: 8/10

The oddity of Dead of Winter (1987) 

Arthur Penn’s Dead of Winter (1987) is a film best-described as an elaborate – if silly in terms of plot – suspenser which primarily benefits from style behind the camera and a seasoned cast. 

Roddy MacDowell and Jan Rubes are the filmmakers hiring Mary Steenburgen’s struggling actress to replace another whose left their small production. Invited to the producer’s isolated home, the film is an increasingly disturbing game of cat-and-mouse between Steenburgen and her ‘hosts’, set against an ongoing blizzard. MacDowell plays the part of an innocent but creepily resourceful manservant to the hilt and Jan Rubes is the wheelchair-consigned producer whose wit and charm soon slide to reveal a malicious streak. Mary Steenburgen spends most of the screentime as a petrified woman unable to fathom what is happening to her. 

The film starts off with a sweetly choreographed murder sequence, which could be straight out of a DePalma or Hitchcock picture. Penn stays with these directors in terms of theme; there’s a sense of VERTIGO (1958) throughout with the idea of a doppelgänger and dual intendities featuring as prominent plot devices.  Out of nowhere really, the threat-level jumps during the last 40 minutes when previous pacing has led us slowly into a mystery more than a thriller.  To be sure, one of the film’s big successes for me is this transition away from a poignancy which had earlier characterised Steenburgen and MacDowell’s relationship. 

For an 80s movie, the film just feels bizarre. It’s an old-fashioned approach which relies on the strength of its characters and the draw of its photography. The decade’s excesses seem a million miles from the proceedings here – and it’s all run in something of a parallele universe, dominated by the rich and famous playing games with one another. Indeed, a perceived lack of realism was one of the reasons Dead of Winter achieved a hit-and-miss critical reception. It’s an unfair criticism of a film which is more interested in the fantastical than the real.

Well worth your time.

Hotdog rating: 7/10

DePalma’s BLOW OUT (1981)

A movie about movie-making. That’s how I would best describe this Brian DePalma film. First time around, BLOW OUT disappointed at the box office but has since undergone a revival which I reckon is mostly down to critics and cult movie fans.

The film is popping with genre references and homages, exquisitely photographed and fluidly shot; I’d argue that this is DePalma’s technical best with full credit also going to cineamtographer Vilmos Zsigmond. We are treated to the full arsenal of tricks from DePalma’s cinematic circus: split screens, deep focus photography, slo-mo steady cam and crane shots are all lovingly in here. But it’s not simply the director’s technical toolbox which make BLOW OUT a stand-out piece of cinema; the cast are also very strong. John Travolta, John Lithgow and Nancy Allen are on top form whilst Dennis Franz’s sleazy photographer is a cringingly good bit-part. More specifically, Lithgow is undeniably unnerving and deliciously creepy in his role as the killer; Travolta gives one of the best performances of his career, particularly in the film’s depressing ending and Allen is charming naive as cheap escort caught up in a conspiracy. 

There are some elements of the film which are exhilarating for the fan-boys. The pre-credits sequence, really a ‘fake’ start to the film as we watch a low-budget horror film (Travolta is providing the audio for this piece of horror trash), is a joy and almost like an ‘easter egg’ hidden within the film itself rather on on a DVD menu. The shots in this segment are out of the sync, the acting reprehensible, the steadi-cam anything but and the music bluntly unimaginative. It’s a ‘bad’ movie filmed magnificently well by DePalma. 

At its heart, BLOW OUT is really about film identifying truth in the world – it’s the production of a film along with audio which is key to exposing the corruption of the elite, and it’s also highlighted that the abuse of this medium can have serious sequences. In terms of the relationsthip to DePalma’s other thrillers, BLOW OUT is less violent than both 1980’s DRESSED TO KILL and 1977’s THE FURY.  On the other hand there is one scene which I found particularly horrific and that’s where Lithgow garrottes a prostitute over a toilet stall, her feet panickily jamming against the wall. It’s not that you see this graphically in front of your eyes but it’s the hint of the concealed visuals which are most unsettling.

If you’re look to pick holes in BLOW OUT, I guess you can take issue with the unsophisticated nature of the story and the script. This is clearly one of the more straightforward thrillers – in terms of narrative – of all the films in DePalma’s cannon. Does that really matter though? Not when a film is this well put-together and executed. 

Thinking about White of the Eye (1987)

Donald Cammell’s film was more-or-less marketed as a psychological thriller / slasher movie; or in other words, a non-Italian Giallo. To be sure, a rudimentary description of the plot would lead you to such a conclusion but that’s a rash way to assess what films are really about. On the face of it, the movie concerns a serial killer – diligently working his way through the rich ladies of Arizona – and his family. Underneath its slasher overcoat, White of the Eye hides a sensory marvel and, from what I can gather at least, an involved tale of the passion to destroy and its grip on the male psyche. This is all built on a bedrock of the age-old story of infidelity, the spark which lights the film’s tinder box.

Cammell is a cinematographer by trade and it’s the visual aspect which is clearly the focus of his energies. The opening murder sequence, whilst substantively inspired by Argento’s set-pieces, is a tour-de-force of ocular technique. The sequence uses a grand total of 55 shots fitting into 140 seconds, all blanched with exotic colour and off-the-wall imagery. The film doesn’t let up from here and Cammell’s camerawork stays true to the standard established in the first few minutes. The visuals are so stark that much of the picture feels like a music video driven by Nick Mason’s compositions and with the score sounding somehow aligned with another dimension, it gives sun-baked Arizona a hue of an alien and foreign land.Not only are the exterior shots so convincing and enjoyable but the attention to detail in the set-design and voyeur-like perspective of Cammell’s camera make the interiors of Arzona’s well-healed community quite hypnotic. 

At its naked least, White of the Eye is a pitifully sad movie and I liked the genuinuity of  a husky-voiced Cathy Moriarty as Joan White – wife to David Keith’s deranged killer. I note that others have been less kind to her performance, but it’s her acting which gives the love story within the film its heart. Indeed, one of the accomplishments of Cammell’s film is to drastically shift the focus from David Keith’s killer to Cathy Moriarty’s wifey in a seemless way. That said,the mood completely disjoints from a tortured marriage tale in the finale and we end up with sticks of dynamite, blazing guns and Apache legend – all thrown together in an ending which evokes some reminiscing of Kubrick’s The Shining. It has to be said that Cammell did not achieve a balanced movie here. 

 Furthermore, patches of the story are undeveloped and some key characters are left looking unwanted. The frustratingly sporadic use of Art Evans as a homicide detective with a gut instinct for White’s madness gets me down; but there’s also a healthy serving of mumbo-jumbo scriptwriting likely to put some viewers off.  Whether I will ever go to the bottom of some of the mumbo jumbo, I really couldn’t say but what it does do is hook you to the film’s themes in a manner which can only illicit repeated future viewings. With multiple ways to interpret the events and motive depicted on screen, this is a film to revisit time and again. To be certain, I am still asking some perplexing questions as to the meaning of some of the sections in this film.

In summary and having seen this film a number of times in the past few years,  White of the Eye’s aesthetic glare gives an oddly scary example of what can be done with a camera. For that alone, seek it out and all the better if you can immerse yourself in the guttural themes on display. If you decide to do the latter please do get in touch, I have some ideas I’d like to test with you about some of the subliminal and not-so subliminal messages.

Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration (1980)

William Peter Blatty will forever be known as the author and writer of The Exorcist, but it’s his 1980 directorial debut which is arguably the more interesting contribution to cinema. To date, Blatty has directed only one other film; the deeply intelligent and thought-provoking “Exorcist 3” (1990).

Often thought of as a mysterious slice of eclectic cult cinema, Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration is based on two versions of his earlier novel “Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane”. It’s a film hard to assign to any particular genre, embodying elements of a psychological thriller and the darkest of comedies. Ostensibly, the plot is based on a US army psychiatrist, Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), who is sent to a gothic castle housing officers claiming to be crazy; his task to ascertain whether these patients are truly insane or whether they are ‘faking’ it to avoid tours of duty. Blatty confidently pitches the whole thing as a pseudo mash-up of “Once Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” with the meta-physical themes of good and evil seared into his Exorcist mythology.

Initial impressions of the film usually focus on the vibrant selection of actors that make up the cast of patients. First up is Capt. Cutshaw, played by a wild-eyed Scott Wilson in a career defining performance. Here’s a former astronaut whose crisis of faith drove him to abort a NASA mission to the moon during take-off (“And what if I got there – got to the moon – and couldn’t get back? Sure, everyone dies but I am afraid to die alone, so far from home. And if there’s no God, then that’s really, really alone”). Then there’s Jason Miller’s ‘Reno’, something of a side-kick to Wilson’s Cutshaw character and his idiosyncratic condition leads him to canine recreations of the works of Shakespeare.  Robert Loggia as a cerebrally batshit lieutenant and Moses Gunn in a superman costume are delightful additions and that’s without the cameo of Joe Spinell. The staff at the facility include the ever-dependable Ed Flanders as the medic and a youthful Tom Atkins as one of the guards. 

This is a mighty collection of character actors, clearly having fun with the flinchingly funny script and the theatrics of it all. Despite the feel of a screwball farce, there’s heavy symbolism beneath the comedic charade. The film asks some resolute questions about man’s motivations for good and his relationship with a seemingly uncaring and detached God. It may be difficult to imagine genuine celluloid tension emanating from these kinds of venturesome themes but Blatty pulls it off, demonstrating an incredulous ability to build suspense from the philosophical dialogue sequences peppered throughout the screenplay. Here’s a choice-cut of dialogue from early on in the movie:

Colonel Kane: You’re convinced that God is dead because there’s evil in the world?

Capt. Cutshaw: Correct!

Colonel Kane: Then why don’t you think he’s alive because of the goodness in the world?

Much of this antipathy is developed in the confrontational scenes between Keach and Wilson who play the dynamic brilliantly with Wilson’s Cutshaw probing Keach’s Colonel Kane to find just one example of genuine, self-less goodness. But really it’s the ‘bar scene’ in the film’s final 15 minutes which earns the greatest accolade for suspense as Keach hits breaking-point to validate the motivation of goodness in this world.

We later find out – SPOILERS – that Colonel Kane himself is not quite who he appears to be but is instead a cold-blooded killer who returns from Vietnam under the mental illusion that he’s his brother, a real army psychiatrist (and castle medic Ed Flanders), in order to cope with his mental instability after he’s gone full-postal in Vietnam. The staff apprevehensively let Kane act this fantasy out in the hope that it will give an indication as to how to cure both himself of the evil he’s committed and act as a remedy to his fellow patients’ delusional parananoias. 

This would all be sufficient to make a timeless film but aesthetically it also gives in spades. The photography on display and visual imagery throughout the film is arresting and dashingly beautiful. The most obvious example being an iconic and jaw-dropping lunar crucifixion of Jesus, but it’s difficult to single out one scene when so many showcase the aesthetic skill of Gerry Fisher’s cinematography. The gothic ambience of the castle’s exterior – executed in the highest-order during the film’s opening credits – may suggest the picture’s horror credentials, but they are just a canvass for a movie which is resolutely not out to scare you but to exercise your mind. 

The closing coda is touching and brings the film full-circle, perhaps authenticating the idea of a life after death; albeit with some ambiguity depending on the cut of the movie you’ve seen.

The Ninth Configuration is spunky, it’s deep and often unfathomable but it’s a film to dwell on, perhaps for life. 

Hotdog rating: 10/10

The Invitation (2015)

Logan Marshall-Green  (some may remember him from Prometheus) stars as Will, a man invited to a dinner party by his ex-wife, Eden, and her new partner. Amongst other guests are their shared friends and two new additons his ex met on holiday in Mexico.  There’s a harrowing sub-plot as to why Will is no longer married but that’s not let on early. 

Gosh, this a tense picture. From the awkward prologue in which a couple run over a coyote on a hillside there’s a a seat-shifting awkwardness to the proceedings which doesn’t let up. In that way, you can draw parallels with Joel Edgerton’s THE GIFT (2015) although this movie is more straightforward in terms of narrative. 

Giving out too much information before you see the film will diminish what is a rare occurrence these days – a thriller which slowly but surely walks up your spine. This is one of the most suspenseful films I have seen in years. The reason the gambit works is that it feels so realistic and although I am quite sure many will find its tortoise-like pacing arresting, stick with it because there is a quick-fired payoff in the final 15 minutes.

With quite a few red herrings; long dialogue sequences of debate and one completely stand-out set piece, the film feels like an inverted cocktail of Hitchcock’s SUSPICION, 12 ANGRY MEN and something out of a Stephen King short story.  Technically there’s some glorious photography and set-design, showing just how the rich elite in the Hollywood hills can live but it’s the completely believable cast and torturing score which propel it over the finish line. I’d single out Michael Huisman who plays Eden’s partner David as one of the charmingly creepiest guys I have seen on screen in a long while. 

The one drawback is that when the twist does come, it’s not as unpredictable as earlier parts of the movie where Marshall-Green’s paranoid performance is sufficient to sow the seeds of doubt in the mind of the audience.  But I am picking holes in a B-movie picture which kicks the socks off 95% of the thrillers put out by the major studios.

Cool, unnervingly realistic and solidly gripping from start to finish. I don’t know what more you can expect from an independent thriller.

NB: The film is available on Netflix in the UK at the moment.

Hotdog rating: 8/10

The Bravados (1958) & the best of CinemaScope 

The Bravados is a “vengeance” Western starring Gregory Peck and about as far removed from a “popcorn” Western as can be. Peck plays ‘Jim Douglass’, a brooding and unhappy cowboy, who journeys to a small town in order to watch the hanging of four outlaws. Why>? Well, Peck believes they raped and murdered his wife. When the outlaws break free of the town jail the stage is set for the quintessential chase for which many films in the genre are known.

Peck gives a tormented turn as a man completely consumed by ill will. That alone is worth the running time but there are a number of reasons why this movie is so different to standard horse-opera fare.  The film was shot in CinemaScope and looks emaculate. The lighting and set-design is out of this world; with much of the action taking place at night the utilisation of blue-filters gives the picture an atmospheric hue which is more or less unparalleled in the genre. There are some perfectly composed shots which frame our characters beautifully in this kind of light.  The first half an hour is nothing less than an exercise is the display of ravishing visuals, set to a haunting score. 

The depth here is also unusual for the time – there’s a strong theme of Catholic retribution and soul-searching which pours out of the film’s late plot twist:  our four outlaws are actually not responsible for the death of Peck’s wife, despite the fact that Peck has already executed three of them. These outlaws are well-cast; Stephen Boyd is the nastiest of the bunch, although when he meets his end at the hands of Peck’s unforgiving gun in a Mexian cantina, he has the look of a frightened boy.  Genre stalwart Lee Van Cleef plays the villain most on-edge and casts a woefully-panicked figure as he is blown away whist praying at Peck’s feet. Henry Silva is the most sympathetic of the group whose unflinching honesty – surrounded by his young family –  finally convinces Peck of the gang’s innocence. 

Parts of the film are near incredulous, most obviously the huge church which looks more like a small cathedral than a house of God in a dusty border town. Joan Collins is also rather unbelievable as Peck’s old flame – she never could act – but these are minor gripes. This is an alluring and resplendent picture, which can be sold on its aesthetics alone.