Tag Archive | neo-noir

The Getaway

In 1972, famed Western and action film director Sam Peckinpah helmed a neo-noir heist film adapted from a novel by the hardboiled pulp author Jim Thompson. Peter Bogdanovich was originally slated to direct the film and Thompson to adapt his own novel into screenplay format. However, the two butted heads early on in the production as Bogdanovich approached the property as an opportunity to direct a Hitchcockian thriller, despite that approach being fundamentally antithetical to Thompson’s source novel rife with surreal motifs and procedural, hardboiled narrative.

The Studio, sensing problems ahead given the current state of things, fired both men and thankfully replaced Bogdanovich with Peckinpah, and Thompson with Walter Hill. Thankfully in the case of Peckinpah as his approach to filming has always been appropriate to action films than Bogdanovich (despite the latter being a great director in his own right). And thankfully in the case of Walter Hill as the writer of a novel is typically overprotective of their property when adapting a screenplay and often has difficulty cutting the fat from their own work, which means an outside voice was necessary to shape the text into a workable script. In this case, they chose one of the best screenwriters one could imagine as Walter Hill would later go on to write and direct a number of classic films including The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Streets of Fire, and Crossroads, demonstrating his ability (at least in his early career) to really spin a yarn.

Along with Walter Hill, Peckinpah employed his then-favorite cinematographer Lucien Ballard who had previously worked with him on five projects including the television series The Westerner, and the films Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and Junior Bonner (which was released after The Getaway in later 1972 despite being shot prior to it). Ballard was something of an old hand by the time he began working with Peckinpah in 1960 and was close to retirement by 1972 on The Getaway. But prior to this period, he had worked with some of the greatest directors of Westerns during the classical Hollywood period including Budd Boetticher (on the Ranown Cycle film Buchanan Rides Alone and the TV show Maverick) and Henry Hathaway (on his classic Westerns The Sons of Katie Elder and True Grit).

The film follows the exploits of a couple of bank robbers named Carter (Steve McQueen) and Carol McCoy. Carter begins the film holed up in a maximum security prison for holding up a bank. However, he’s up for potential bail on good behavior and should be released any time now. Therein lies the crux of the problem as he inexplicably is never released. His old crime boss, Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson), pulls the political strings that could have Carter freed, but Benyon wants something in return before he cedes this freedom to his past employee: a sexual experience with Carter’s wife Carol. Obviously Carter is against the whole thing, but realizes this may be his only chance to escape prison for some time. He asks his wife to do the deed and she complies.

Benyon holds up his end of the bargain and uses his influence to free Carter. As Carter is starting over once again and needs some bread, Benyon also gives him a new job on a minor bank heist. He hires both McCoy’s and two goons of his own who turn out to be rather unprofessional. One man is gunned down during the heist itself as he gets trigger happy and lets loose the first kill, thereby inciting cops to fire back. The second man tries to pull a fast one on Carter at the meet-up point, but Carter is quicker to draw and plugs the man, Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri), four times in the chest. Unfortunately for the McCoy’s, Rudy was wearing a bullet-proof vest, survives and spends the rest of the film tracking them down in an effort to kill them both and reclaim his cut of the heist money (and the McCoy’s cut as well for good measure).

Added to this problem, is the complication of Benyon. During their intimate evening together, he and Carol agreed to take out Carter when the heist was over and he returned to Benyon to deliver the money and take his cut. Carol has once again grown close to Carter, however, and triple crosses Benyon. She changes her aim, and my god, is her aim true. She plugs Benyon, her and Carter run off with all of the money, and now Benyon’s men and his brother are out for revenge as well.

Finally, the cops initially have no clue that Carter and Carol are in on the heist. But eventually, through a series of unfortunate mishaps, they are identified as the prime suspects in the case of the heist, and in the multiple murders surrounding it. So now, with an assassin, a crime family, and the police on their trail, they must trek halfway across the country, stealing cars and hiding in garbage trucks all along the way to escape, they hope, to Mexico. But this wouldn’t be a Peckinpah film without a climactic final shootout with their aggressors, their pursuers. And unlike in The Wild Bunch wherein the death of our heroes signifies the death of the West and an ideological move into a more complicated, less honorable, forthright society based on law and technology, and wherein our heroes must therefore die off as dinosaurs of a time long gone, Carol and Carter are ultimately characters who must continue to survive.

And survive they do. With the help of a sympathetic ex-con (Slim Pickens) who drives the couple over the border and into Mexico, and eventually sells them his truck for the hefty sum of $30 grande: their offer. This shows the relative good faith and decency of the couple who never wanted to hurt anyone, but were dragged into impossible circumstances through problematic turns of fate. And turns of fate that would kill just about any other duo any less smart, or half as hard.

The resultant picture was critically maligned at the time, which is bewildering today upon the re-viewing it. The Getaway is a just a good little heist picture with plenty of action, nihilism, humor, and good-spirited fun. A picture every bit deserving of the box office numbers of drew (more than ten times its budget of $3 million USD), and one of the biggest grosses of any film in Steve McQueen’s career. The biggest of Peckinpah’s. And not even a Western.


Cody Ward

[Check out another one of my Peckinpah film reviews here: Major Dundee]

The American Friend

Wim Wenders’ 1977 film, The American Friend, was one of his first films with a large English-speaking cast although various characters speak German and French throughout the film as well. Although an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s then-as-yet-unpublished novel Ripley’s Game, Wenders incorporated elements, scenes, characters and themes from some of her earlier works in the Ripley series. He transposed many of the locations in the book from Hamburg to Paris, and vice versa, whilst also shooting portions of the film in neither place (specifically in New York).

The film is an ode, an homage to film noir, though it is not strictly a neo-noir and fits more succinctly within the arthouse cinema that Wenders and directors like him were working to develop through the 60s, 70s, and 80s in the New Hollywood Movement and the New German Cinema. This burgeoning cinema was inspired by auteurs of the Hollywood system in the 40s and 50s who created noirs, but it was just as strongly inspired by the French New Wave,  Surrealism, the Western, the Thriller, and the film forms that helped to spawn film noir in the first place like Expressionism, Exploitation, and Poetic Realism. As a sort of constant reminder of Wender’s influences and contemporaries, he decided to cast them, mostly directors in their own rights, as the mobsters in his film.

Influences included the casting of the film noir auteurs and Hollywood pariahs: Samuel Fuller (as Pogash, a forger of paintings by a deceased fictional artist named Derwatt) and Nicholas Ray (as The American: a mob figure representing the American syndicate), each of whom had in his own way contributed greatly to the grammar of film noir. The former left Hollywood during the blacklists and later had a long and esteemed career in French cinema as a director and a darling of the Cahiers writers and the French New Wave, which later emerged from that critical movement. The latter was cast out of Hollywood due to his unstoppable substance abuse and his perceived lack of interest in the commercial appeal of his films, which obviously irked his producers.

Contemporaries included the French directors Gerard Blain (as Raoul Minot, a sympathetic crime boss) and the great Jean Eustache (as a Friendly Man within the syndicate) who helped move French cinema beyond the New Wave during his short, but impactful career. Swiss director Daniel Schmid (Igraham) and British director Sandy Whitelaw (a Doctor in league with the mob) round out the European contemporary crowd along with Wender’s New German Cinema counterpart Peter Lilienthal (as Marcangelo).

Finally, to fully round out the class of mobsters for the film, Wenders needed to find his Ripley. He first broached the idea of playing the role to American independent filmmaker John Cassavettes (whose work was influential on the French New Wave, on the very concept of Independent filmmaking, and on auteur filmmaking throughout the world). But as Cassavettes was busy making a film at the time, he told Wenders to consider casting Dennis Hopper instead. Hopper, one of the visionaries and first big voices of the New Hollywood cinema of America, was just coming off of work Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now (one of at least three including The Godfather and The Godfather II). During that film he had immersed himself so deeply into his character using stimulants and hallucinogenics that he had to go through a short stint in rehab before he could even act again for The American Friend.

Besides directors, the few remaining roles were cast with Wenders regulars, as well as an American Folk Singer named David Blue (in the role of a Texan man who buys one of the forgeries by Pogash) and the second principal character of Jonathan Zimmerman, which was played by Bruno Ganz, a veritable force to be reckoned with within German, and European, cinema for the next thirty years. But at this time, Ganz was known solely as a theater actor of great force. Wenders admired him and had seen his few teleplays and the one film adaptation of a play he had performed in for an Eric Rohmer film, as well as dozens of his performances on the stage, and decided that he would be perfect for the role. Ultimately, he would become the face of Wenders’ cinema in much of the same manner that Klaus Kinski had for Wenders’ contemporary Werner Herzog.

The film tells the story of Jonathan Zimmerman, a restoration artist and framer of paintings and photographs, who slights Tom Ripley at an auction by refusing to shake his hand (knowing that Ripley is a fraud and a cheat of forgery racket ilk). Zimmerman is dying of a rare blood disease and is unsure of how long he has left to live. This makes him into a sometimes ornery fellow, which doubly explains his initial irritation with Ripley, though he will later apologize to him for his rude behavior and the two will become friends. But this friendship begins all too late as Ripley punishes the Zimmerman for his earlier slight. Ripley is offered a hit job on two men in the mafia, which he turns down and decides to recommend Zimmerman for. He spreads rumors that Zimmerman has not much longer to live and that his condition has reached the terminal stages, which means he could use the money from the wet jobs to support his family after he is gone. The news spreads quickly and even has Zimmerman wondering whether he is actually dying and just hasn’t been alerted by his doctors. He begins to reflect on life and death more seriously and eventually comes to the decision to take on the job.

After the first assassination, which is done pretty sloppily and would probably leave Zimmerman open to police suspicions, if the man he killed wasn’t a low-life mobster that the cops didn’t care about, Ripley finds out that Zimmerman took the job. He has become friends with Zimmerman and formed a bond of sorts, and as such, on Zimmerman’s subsequent hits, Ripley tags along to help out (he does this also because he feels responsible for Zimmerman’s current predicament). His aid proves indispensable as the next event is complicated by multiple bodyguards constantly watching and protecting the target. But they pull it off. As the murders commence and the job looks finished, somehow news of the identity of the man who ordered the hits, Raoul Minot, gets out to the remaining mafia bosses and Minot becomes a target. Ripley and Zimmerman, who previously imagined that they were through with the whole matter, must now scheme to protect their boss, and by proxy themselves. Because if he goes, they’re next in line as the assassins who actually carried out the hits.

The film is at times very organic and fluid like the handheld camera style of the French New Wave and the New Hollywood movements, at other times the stylization of the piece is more expressionistic and traditionally noir, veritably oozing with mise-en-scene. Sometimes the acting of Ganz reaches a fever pitch of traditional dramatic acting and pathos, and at other moments, like the glorious sequence at the end of the film as Zimmerman and Ripley drive along a secluded beach to burn the bodies of their victims, the sky and the reflective sand are nearly indiscernible and it appears as if the cars are floating across a landscape of waves and clouds. This mode is an ethereal vision of cinema, which is part of arthouse style Wenders helped to develop. This sequence probably comes closest to pure cinema and cinema as painting and sculpting time than anything this side of Tarkovsky and Bergman, and is a style that would return to greatest effect in Wender’s classic arthouse film Wings of Desire.

Much of the experimentation and mixing of styles on the film came from the various inspirations of the directors casted as actors in the film. The greatest direct influences came from oft-time shot and approach advice by Samuel Fuller and the inspiration of Dennis Hopper who pushed Wim Wenders to greater and greater experiments and incorporation of ideas and happy accidents into the finished work. But none of it could have been captured in the manner it was without Wenders’ cinematographer Robby Muller with whom he had worked with as early as 1970 on Summer in the Citywould continue to work alongside until 1995 on Beyond the Clouds, and who provided wonderful work especially on this film, and on Paris, Texas years later. Muller would also collaborate with American director Jim Jarmusch on five films between 1986 and 2003 including his classic Mystery Train, with Lars Von Trier on Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, as well as with numerous other directors both in Europe and in America on independent and large studio productions. But The American Friend is Muller at top form (he even developed the use of fluorescent lighting for films on this work): a level he would astonishingly reach many more times throughout his career as a cinematographer who can safely be ranked amongst the top 50 cameramen of all time.



Cody Ward

Le Cercle Rouge

Le Cercle Rouge is the the consummation of french-director Jean-Pierre Melville’s career. The 1970 film would not be his last, 1971’s Un Flic would be, but it was final great picture before his death in 1973. And ultimately, it was his most expansive, the one work that pushed farther toward masterpiece than any other in his esteemed career as prototype for the French Nouveau Vague in the 40s to his work as a neo-noir filmmaker with uniquely American themes and genre formulas.

The film opens with a quotation, presumably from a Buddhist sutra though actually a Melvillian invention: “Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: ‘When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle’.” The sentence structure is a little unfamiliar to texts of the orations of the historical Buddha and strikes one who has studied the teachings of Buddha as a definite fabrication. It is less Buddhism, than characteristic noir fatalism.

The film is heist film in which a small group of figures cross paths, as they meant to do as it were, and develop an idea to hold up a store specializing in fine gems and jewelry. Corey (Alain Delon), just freed from prison, visits his old boss, takes the money he his owed for doing time in his employ, and after killing one of his boss’ cronies, drives off in an new car through the countryside toward Paris. Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) is a revolutionary or terrorist (the same thing defined differently through which party in political conflict wins in the end) who has been captured by the police and is being escorted by a supercop, Inspector Mattei (Andre Bourvil), to court for his case. He escapes and manages to circumvent a huge series of police road blocks by hiding in Corey’s trunk. Once they near Paris, Corey opens the trunk, knowing inexplicably that he has had a stowaway since his stop at a cafe earlier that day. The confrontation looks as if it could turn deadly, but eventually turns friendly as Corey tells Vogel that he too is a criminal, and shows him his release papers from earlier that morning. They team up, and Vogel re-enters the trunk, making sure to keep himself hidden from police.

Before they reach town, Corey is pulled over by more of his boss’s men who are ready to execute him. Just in time, Vogel exits the trunk and using the two handguns Corey had hidden a briefcase, eliminates Corey’s would-be killers. The bond is sealed and the two drive into Paris. Once there, the two add a third member to their party: Jansen (Yves Montand), an ex-cop who was fired for being unable to kick his alcoholism. He is a sharpshooter whose skills in the upcoming heist are necessary to its success, and the heist’s success necessary for Jansen to pull himself out of his DTs and back into a respectable frame of mind. Meanwhile, Mattei is on Vogel’s trail and by proxy, on everyone else’s as well. The heist goes off without a hitch, but the target was so high profile that their pre-established fence won’t take the goods. Mattei works with Santi, Corey’s old boss, as his inside man in the underground to find out who pulled the heist, and eventually Mattei presents himself as a fence, undercover.

The heist itself is an interesting phenomena. Coming in at almost half an hour long and in complete silence, the sequence mirrors Jules Dassin’ earlier heist sequence in 1955′ Rififi. Another famous heist sequence that Melville knew and liked was in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, a 1950 film noir that was a huge influence on Melville’s filmography. However, Melville envisaged his heist sequence in the same year as that film was released, in 1950, and he didn’t see it until 1951. When he did, he decided to put off making his own heist film. Then Rififi appeared and Melville waited another 15 years before he felt confident enough to create his own heist sequence powerful enough to stand on its own. Just as the characters circled around and met with their fates in the red circle, so too did the concept for the film’s core sequence circle around in  Melville’s mind and alongside film noir classics for twenty years.

Fates sealed, all are within a circle, pre-ordained, and destined to meet and turn it blood red. Just as the great french filmmaker, Jean Renoir, before him, Melville liked to use strong quotations to sum up his film’s ethos and ethical-moral or metaphysical framework. Renoir’s most devastating and poignant came in his classic Rules of the Game, where he has a character say “Everyone has their reasons,” meaning that no one has evil intentions, everyone is a moral being, and hence, evil is something other than pure evil that most understand it as. Evil is banal, evil is following orders, evil is the consequence of interpretation of unwanted outcomes resulting from overwhelmingly good intentions. For Renoir, he has Mattei state that “all are born innocent, but it doesn’t last.” Everyone is guilty in the end and thereby no tragedy is undeserved.

Melville was the director’s birth name, he copped it from the inestimable Herman Melville, quite possibly the greatest American writer who ever lived. Melville was an enigmatic figure and a great man of french cinema whose importance in that medium may be just as protean and influential as Melville’s was and has been within his own. Melville wore a cowboy hat, aviators, and a trenchcoat. He watched American films and recognized the brilliance of American auteurs within the studio system before Andre Bazin and the theorists in Cahiers du Cinema who would become the French New Wave. He saw American cinema as both beautiful and extremely morally problematic, as both “the sublime and the abominable,” the genesis of some of the most beautiful films ever made and many which were the creations of auteurs with such powerful imprints that their visions and personalities came alive even through the crushing Hollywood system. But also a place in which racism and discrimination were rampant, a society in which lynching was common, with a history of genocide and slavery as its foundation, a beautiful, erupting society with an extremely dark shadow.

Le Cercle Rouge hints at France’s dark past of colonialism. It shows the dark underbelly of French society, a criminal base that is always there, waiting to erupt out into the open air. Or at least an imagined base that Melville found interesting, or even inevitable. The film is large, sprawling, more than two and half hours. The man who made it was likewise enigmatic and complex, too large a figure to sum up in any number of words. Protean. And like that other great American writer, Walt Whitman, both the film and its creator certainly contain multitudes. Multitudes I will most certainly be interpreting and peeling back for years to come, if not the rest of my own life, however amorphous and undefined at this early period it happens to be (and I mean that with regard to both referents). [Not quite Derridean, but I may be moving in on something close to it yet]

Drive: Neo-Noir, Synthpop, Tone Poetry

(Check out my previous Refn essay on Valhalla Rising if you haven’t already.)

2011’s Drive was Nicolas Winding Refn’s first true Hollywood Feature. The screenwriting and much of the casting was done before he joined onto the project, and this itself was only achieved because the film’s star Ryan Gosling (Driver) would only join the project if he could choose the director. This arrangement seems odd to me, but is actually pretty common on large Hollywood productions. Refn checked out the script and put his own spin on it thematically and focused it while also beginning to apply his own visual sense of what the film should look like.

He elicited the help of a cinematographer he had never worked with previously in Newton Thomas Sigel. Their collaboration on Drive was their first and as of 2018, their only work together, though it bore fruit and created what Refn’s most beloved, most well-received film he has made to date. Sigel previously had a career spanning six decades from the 70s to the 2010s and had worked on dozens of major productions including Platoon and Wall Street with Oliver Stone, The Thin Blue Lin with Errol Morris, The Usual Suspects, Casino, and most importantly for Refn, Lucifer Rising with Kenneth Anger, a film that was a big influence on Refn’s previous film Valhalla Rising. The film is a neo-noir drama with high contrast color cinematography and near chiaroscuro. He applied a zone theory approach to the framing of subjects that makes the film visually potent in a directed and consistent manner unlike previous stylized Refn productions like Fear X or Bronson.

Most importantly, arguably, to the overall sense of power of the film’s mise-en-scene is the soundtrack and how it’s pulse-pounding synthpop sensibilities often heighten our sense as viewers of the alienation of Driver and the desolation of his world, as well as giving potent emotional elevation to scenes of warmth, of paranoia, and of intense violence (such as the absence, or dropping out, of sound in the infamous elevator scene). Most notable is Kavinsky’s great opener Night Call, which has since become something of a synthpop, ambient, House, and even pop classic for millions of people. Two works by Bronson composer Johnny Jewel also feature prominently in Under the Spell by his band Desire and Tick of the Clock by his band The Chromatics. Jewel was initially hired as a composer just for the purpose of setting the right mood for the shooting of film sequences, but a second composer, Cliff Martinez, was later hired to write new music in the same vein as Johnny Jewel’s and Kavinsky’s songs that were chosen for the production. Martinez proved a great choice as he has a background working within multiple musical genres and is something of a chameleon in this regard. He had previously played for Captain Beefheart, The Weirdos, and The Dickies, among other groups. But he had been a film composer for years and has worked on around seven Steven Soderberg films, most notably Traffic, Contagion, and Sex, Lies and Videotape. The latter of these put the final nail in the coffin for Refn who chose Martinez mostly on the strengths of just this one work.

And just as Sex, Lies, and Videotape won the Palme d’Or, the greatest prize in the entire film world, back in 1989, Refn would win best director at the Cannes film festival in 2011 for Drive. The film was made on a $15 million USD budget, but more than quintupled its money in the Box Office with a final total of around $78.1 million USD, more than Refn has made previously from all of his films combined, and on a budget only about double that of his previous box office flop Valhalla Rising. Most of the reason here seems to be in the marketing of the film by distributors as another Fast and the Furious blockbuster, all brawn, no brains film. But this film had both and appealed mostly to an arthouse crowd. So, while many viewers expressed discontent over the film’s even pace and downer mood, legions of others hailed it as the best film of the 2000s to date.

In my own mind its the best film since 1982, since Blade Runner, and it comfortably sits at #2 in my all-time favorite film list. Gosling’s performance in the film is subdued mostly but occasionally extreme violence seeps out, which colors the character by allowing him to contain multitudes. He speaks little and acts with his face and body language often, but every acting choice seems to fit perfectly within the mood of a scene and a sound. Refn and Gosling went on to collaborate again on the 2013 film Only God Forgives, as did composer Cliff Martinez. Gosling’s roles in these two films, and especially in this film, were in most minds, the reason why he was cast as Agent K by Denis Villeneuve in Blade Runner 2049. He brought much of Driver into that role and strengthened the film, which bears many similarities to Drive as a neo-noir about alienation, existentialism, and the question of what it means to be human. Both films are gems and masterpieces of evoking a certain mood and allowing one to think about deeper issues of identity in the Industrial, post-Industrial, and Future ages, as I think they will continue to do in coming years for people of all ages. As long as the viewer has the mental fortitude to give the film’s their time and to avoid projecting “action thriller” upon what are in essence tone poems and essays on the human conditions.


Cody Ward

[Check out my earlier thematic essay on the Parable of the Scorpion and the Frog in Drive]

[Next up: Only God Forgives]

Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death

(To check out my essays on the other Pusher films here are some links: Pusher, Pusher II)

Pusher III was released in 2005, two years after the former film Pusher II. Refn was still trying to rebuild his name as a marketable arthouse filmmaker after his disastrous box-office bomb, though critically-acclaimed and excellent film, Fear X. He had moved back to Denmark to make his films on smaller budgets and in the vein, thematically, of the film that put him on the back: Pusher.

On the third and final Pusher film within the trilogy, Refn continued to use the talents of cinematographer Morten Soborg whose style and techniques were somewhat within the Dogme 95 standards as I’ve discussed before. This third film is no different in the fluidity of the camera work and the emphasis and creation of emotional mise-en-scenes that map out and exteriorize the interiority of characters within the narrative. But on each successive film, the arthouse sensibilities seem to have diminished slightly in favor of more conventional modes of storytelling and  a stream of consciousness style of recounting that loses its ability to focus in deeply on dramatic and powerful moments (There are dozens of such moments in Pusher, and the subsequent film Bleeder even ups the ante in this regard, but in Pusher III, I only witnessed two such moments).

The film follows Serbian drug lord Milo during a day in Copenhagen in which everything goes haywire. He is dealing heroin these days and has a shipment coming in from some Albanians. But when the shipment arrives, they only find ecstasy, which Milo does not know how to sell. Milo confronts the Albanian contacts he has in Denmark who assure him that they will send a new shipment of dope in the following days. Milo decides to buy the dope later and to buy and sell the ecstasy now. He pawns it off on a low-level drug dealer and friend, Muhammad, and demands a cut of the money when his own deal goes through. He will then use that money to pay off the Albanians.

Unbeknownst to Milo and Muhammad, the ecstasy is actually just vitamin pills that were sent to screw over a different dealer, the one who got the heroin shipment in the initial transaction mix-up. Muhammad tries to sell the stuff, but is laughed at after the ecstasy is revealed as fake. Muhammad thinks Milo sold him out and does not contact him that day. Meanwhile, the Albanians press Milo for the money for the ecstasy and Milo tries to track down Muhammad to get his money. He sends out a corrupt cop friend of his to arrest Muhammad on bum charges and bring him to him.

The Albanians press their favor with Milo in exchange for giving him more time to wait on the money. They commandeer his house and turn Milo into a servant. While there, they attempt to sell an underage girl to a local Prostitute-turned-pimp Jeannine (The Duke’s, of Pusher II, ex-wife), but she recognizes the trickery and leaves without making a deal. One of the two Albanians leaves to go do some business, while his Polish friend sticks around and orders Milo around in the process. The girl tries to run off when the Polish man exits the room momentarily, Milo catches her and brings her back inside, the Polish gangster starts to beat her, Milo kills him with a hammer, she leaves, the other guy (the Albanian) comes back, Milo kills him. the corrupt cop shows up with Muhammad bound and gagged, and Milo puts him into the trunk of his car and spirits him away to his friend and ex-muscle Radovan’s restaurant, where they commence torturing him, find out about the bad deal, put him into a meat locker to freeze to death, and go back to Milo’s to clean up the bodies.

All the while, Milo is dealing a heavy drug addiction that is taking a bigger toll on him as he ages. He has been going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but the stress of these bungled deals and his daughter’s upcoming marriage, as well as the reception party for the event (during which he must cook and provide services for guests), all lead to a relapse after Kurt the Cunt, just returned from hiding out in Norway (from The Duke whom he owed former debts that were later dissolved when The Duke wound up dead by the hand of his own son Tonny in Pusher II), gives him some cocaine as a gift and fealty offering.

In Pusher, we see Frank’s world crumble before his eyes over the course of a few days through bad luck, bungled drug deals, and an inability to get the money he needs to pay Milo for debts outstanding. He narrowly escapes Denmark at the film’s close and may ultimately be the winner of the situation, as he now must live a quiet life somewhere far off and keep his head. But he may be able to find a more honest way to make a living in the process and redeem himself. In Pusher II, Tonny is under similar circumstances and eventually puts himself on a pretty long shit-list as well. He escapes the underworld with his infant son and we as viewers hope he has a successful future living in obscurity much like Frank, whilst simultaneously raising his son outside of the criminal underworld that shaped himself so negatively. But in Pusher III, there is no redemption. Milo is god-damned professional and finds a way out of the most intractable of situations. But he is ultimately still trapped by his drug addiction and his tumultuous life of crime, which seems inescapable, and one day, not so far away, when he is no longer so spry and witty, the underworld may become the death of him.

The fear of the first film represents to me something of an amateur’s fear of beginning the art of filmmaking. It was Refn’s first foray into film and he had no clue before its release whether or not it would make money and he would be able to secure funding to continue his career in that direction, or if he would fail and end up a janitor in a movie theater instead. The hope of the second film represents a response to that film’s history as well. Refn had failed to garner the box office receipts he needed on his previous two films and his production company went bankrupt in the process. It was now or never and if this film did not please investors, all could end once again, but he approached that future much more hopefully, and the film’s ending was much less bleak than the endings of his two previous films.

But just as he began slack artistically on each successive Pusher film, the feeling of the third film is jaded. The film ends with the camera’s sustained gaze on Milo standing above an empty pool, in the cool Scandinavian morning air, smoking a cigarette, and seeming pretty crushed by everything around him. He seems hopeless and tired and ready to die and I believe that this might reflect Refn’s thoughts at the time. Not to say he was jaded and suicidal in general, but that his only successful films hitherto had been the Pusher films and any time he had tried to inject more artistic sentiments into his films, and thereby more of himself, audiences did not respond enthusiastically enough to save the films financially. He seems to have taken a break from filmmaking at this time, as his next film, Bronson, would not premier for another three years. But after this period of reflection on his career, he managed to create a powerful film that re-establish Refn’s name as more than just Danish crime film sensation, but as a real potential heavyweight within arthouse circles.


Cody Ward

[Next up: the 2006 documentary on Refn’s career up to this point, Gambler]

Dressed to Kill

Brian De Palma’s 1980 erotic thriller is one amongst a number of classics in the genre by Hitchcock’s greatest student. In the 70s and 80s during the high point of De Palma’s career he created quite a few powerful films including Sisters, Blow Out, Body Double, Carrie, Scarface, Phantom of the Paradise, and Obsession.  His greatest works, those discussed constantly by critics and academics today, were then decried as mere stylistic exercises drawing their whole method from Hitchcock. De Palma always made it apparent that he was influenced by the master of suspense, but consistently pointed out that Hitchcock did almost everything one can do within the medium. De Palma’s focus was to take the thriller genre, whose motifs and methods Hitchcock helped to cement, and add new thematic elements like racier sexuality, gorier murders, new knowledge of psychology and psychosis, and a European approach to cinematography and sound design more akin to arthouse filmmaking of France or Germany.

In Dressed to Kill, these elements are all there, in spades. The film is the first in his career to move from accentuating erotic moments to becoming a full-blown erotic thriller. In the film, Angie Dickinson plays Kate Miller, an unhappy housewife who is sexually frustrated by her husband’s lack of ambition or skill in the sack. In the film’s opening scenes she has a troubling nightmare about being sexually assaulted whilst taking a shower. The scene is shot with pretty gratuitous nudity for the time, outside of pink films, as a body double (Penthouse’s 1977 Pet of the Year model Victoria Lynn Johnson) plays up the nudity for assuredly high erotic response in viewers.

Later, she meets a man in the Met while viewing paintings and taking some time away from home life. A man sits next to her and the two seem attracted to one another right away. She takes off her glove in an attempt to show some more skin and unveils her wedding ring by accident, thereby prompting the man to get up and leave. She hastily gets up to follow him, but drops her glove in the process. As they circle around the museum in a beautifully choreographed, sexually-charged cat and mouse game, he picks up her glove, sneaks up behind her, and places his hand on her shoulder, hand in glove. She storms off, feeling his abrupt gesture to be rude, but does not notice the glove until later. She again follows him, but is unable to find him until leaving the Met. He is entering a taxi cab. She follows and says thank you for the glove that he gives back to her, but suddenly he pulls her inside and the the two begin their one-night stand, except in mid-day, in a New York taxi cab.

After the events in the cab, the two return to his flat and late into the evening she awakens, dresses, and plans to leave, but finds some paperwork in his desk showing that he has recently contracted gonorrhea and syphilis. She leaves and is inexplicably murdered by a woman in the building’s elevator. Local prostitute, Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), finds the body and witnesses the end of the murder, but escapes as the elevator doors close. Like Psycho, our endearing female protagonist is killed in the first thirty minutes of the film, but now we have a murder mystery on our hands as police officers, Liz Blake, and the son of Kate Miller go on the beat and follow leads to track down the murderer. What they find is a man suffering from severe psychosis and split personality, a man with two personalities: one as a cis male, and one as a trans male. These two personalities conflict and lead to murder as sexual desire and identity try to establish themselves against one another in a deadly tango danced on the knife’s edge.

Rounded out with great performances by the film’s two female protagonists and the therapist Dr. Robert Elliot (Michael Caine), a beautiful sound score by Pino Donaggio almost on par with his masterpiece score of Blow Out, and underexposed night-shots somewhere between classical noir and the neo-noir of a modern film like Drive or Locke, the film is an artistic tour de force and stands pretty stably as one of the greatest erotic thrillers ever made, as well as one of De Palma’s top ten films. For its depictions of female sexuality, the boredom of a life of domesticity, the hardness of a life of prostitution, the complexity of sexual assault, mental illness, and personality psychology in a disturbed mind, the film is a nexus for analysis on matters important in the modern American discourse. As a piece of film, it’s a testament to the power of great cinema to transcend its own time and place and remain accessible for generations to come, just as this film has for 37 years so far.


Cody Ward

Minority Report: Cinematography

(To check out the previous essay in this month’s Sci-fi series click HERE)

I’ve just had the pleasure of being initiated into the Minority Report experience. I’ve heard a lot about this film over the years and had a DVD copy of it in my room for about six months now. People constantly praise the look of the film, the story, the tautness of its action, how fast the film feels for its two and half hour run time. It’s an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story and some of the greatest sci-fi films of all time have likewise been adaptations of his works (Blade Runner, Total Recall). Plus, the film was directed by Steven Spielberg, whose classic Sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind I consider amongst the top ten sci-fi pictures ever made (And if you missed seeing it in theaters this year for its 40th anniversary, you missed possibly the most important film event of the year). Needless to say, I had high hopes.

Right now, I’m in the process of interning as a grip for a small film production studio in Shelby, North Carolina in the States called Electric Films. I’ve been learning the ropes, how to operate our Red camera, and picking up a bit of editing in the process. The name Janusz Kaminski constantly comes up in conversation as the favorite director of photography for both of the owners and his work on big Hollywood features, and especially with Spielberg, is pretty extensive and impressive as one of the best at his level (on par with Roger Deakins). Kaminski was cinematographer on Minority Report and did quite a few interesting technical things to make the film look unique as possible.

But first, just what is the look of the film? Taking the neo-noir moniker of cyberpunk films really seriously, the filmmakers immersed themselves in classics of film noir like The Asphalt Jungle and The Maltese Falcon. Spielberg was so influenced by film noir that he placed a cameo of a classic film noir sequence into the background of a scene in the film (though I am unfamiliar with the particular film and can regrettably find no reference to which one it is online). But in the modern era of filmmaking, big budget Hollywood pictures with $100 million on the line need to be in color and film noir gains its aesthetic grittiness from black and white. Furthermore, the chiaroscuro, dutch angles, expressionistic lighting, and high contrast between light and shadow in a film noir are much easier to capture in a stylish and pleasing manner in the black and white medium. Minority Report is not a Black and White film, but it evokes film noir and its techniques by using rich shadows and dark colors, de-saturated film, and extremely high contrast photography.

Throughout the film, there are examples of daytime scenes when lighting is more straightforward, most color seems like it has been sapped from the film leaving a black and white aesthetic on top of a color palate that merely evokes color while being subtly monochrome. Most scenes are shot in this manner, but there are extreme variations and interesting experimental shots in the film even beyond this off-putting neo-noir experiment itself. for instance, when the psychic precogs have a vision of a future crime in the film, and the sensors in the DC PreCrime Division render them visually for the PreCop’s analysis, the scenes are anamorphic-like and squished-in on the sides. They are even less clear and more noir than the normal style of the film and seem to have been shot with handheld cameras emphasizing movement and a subjective viewing state. The scenes are erratic with quick cuts between shots, no establishing shots, lack of clarity of detail, and an overall feeling of intense emotional disturbance and pain on the part of the precogs who are fated to experience visions of future murders all their lives.

John Anderton (Tom Cruise) often watches clips of his past when he is alone. These are videos of past experiences with his disappeared child and his ex-wife. They are also the only the scenes in the film with regular color photography. This emphasizes the vibrancy of Anderton’s past life in an idyllic world with violence, but freedom, before PreCrime changed American society into a surveillance state in the early 2050’s. It also emphasizes the difference between his life back then as a romantic romp of innocence and his new life as a single man whose son was taken from him years ago and who has experienced significant mental and emotional traumas because of the process, thereby leading him to seek ‘clarity’ in an illegal pill form on the streets and live in dejected gray world.

The scenes of the precog visions were created by a team of pick-up photographers for the film, while the color cinematography was probably shot by Kaminski. These are easy to understand in terms of technicality and the process of their making. However, the overall regular look of the film was achieved using a process unique to the medium the film was shot on that needs some explaining. Spielberg usually shoots all of his films on filmstock, even in the age of digital, and even with the higher costs of film today. This allowed Kaminski to create a new look for Minority Report by doing what is called bleach-bypassing. In this process, as i understand it, the lab skips the normal step of bleaching out silver emulsion in the processing. This leaves the silver in the final photograph, thereby leaving a black and white photo on top of the color photography underneath. This silver retention leaves the film looking grainier and increases the contrast, just as one would like in a film noir.

Furthermore, the process reduces saturation of the color photography underneath, thereby decreasing brightness and colorfulness of the final photography. This part of the process makes the resulting cinematography more matte and higher contrast and produces a better picture when the original work was slightly underexposed (as again, much film noir originally was). But even with this process, the colors in the film were too saturated for Kaminski’s and Spielberg’s tastes in this case. So later, in editing, they reduced the color by around 40%.

The resulting cinematography is highly unique and fits the maxim of the best cinematographers: Don’t approach a film with a style, fit a style to the film’s needs. Of all modern cinematographers, Janusz Kaminski (and Roger Deakins) seems to be the best at this approach. And the proof is in the pudding as they say. Look at the featured image for this essay. That’s not just a beautiful promotional photo for the film, that’s actually in it.


Cody Ward

[Next up: Outland]

Drive: The Scorpion and the Frog

In Orson Welles 1955 film, Mr. Arkadin, he relates a variation of on an ancient tale (but a modern Welles rewrite) about the inscrutability and unchangeability of character, of one’s nature. The Russian count Arkadin hosts a party where he tells his guest about the scorpion and the frog.

A scorpion has sojourned along the desert and reaches a stream. If he attempts to cross the stream, he will drown as the water is too deep. He finds a frog who he asks to carry him across. The frog demures and voices his distrust of the scorpion who may sting him if he gets too close. The scorpion calls upon the frog’s sense of logic and states that if he stings the frog while he is crossing the stream, then the scorpion will drown. The frog decides to carry him across the stream and about halfway into the trip, he feels a sharp pain in his back. “Why have you done this scorpion?” “I am a scorpion, it is in my character.”

Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 masterpiece, Drive, takes this parable as its central theme. Ryan Gosling plays a mechanic who works as a stunt driver in Hollywood part time. At night, he rushes through the neon and shadows of a Blade Runner-esque, but pre-dystopian, Los Angeles, carrying criminals from their marks and into safety (This role is probably the reason Gosling was cast as Officer K in Blade Runner 2049). After one of the tightest, most atmospheric opening sequences of any action film I’ve ever seen, the narrative focuses on the development of his relationship with single mother, Irene, whose absent husband, Standard, is in prison. Driver (Gosling) finds himself in an odd situation when Standard succeeds in an appeals court and returns home, criminal baggage in tow.

Driver will find himself trying to defend Irene and her son from the mob activities that have followed Standard. A local mob henchman is blackmailing Standard and wants him to do a robbery job for them in return for their protection while he was prison. Driver offers his help to make the situation go smoothly, but everything turns out wrong, Standard is killed, Driver is hunted down and forced to fight for his life, and he now has a bag with a million dollars, property of a local mob boss Nino (Ron Perlman).

Driver has no past. He seems to act on instinct alone until he meets Irene and a new motivation, regard, finds him unwittingly. His attempts to shed his cold exterior fail time and again. Nino’s lackeys track him and in a bold, slow-motion, and extremely moving and brutal scene, he kisses Irene for the first time and then commences to beat to death and crush the skull of a mobster sharing the elevator with them.

One by one, he tracks down bigger and bigger mobsters until he drowns Nino in the sea and reaches the top of Los Angeles’ largest criminal organization, Bernie (Albert Brooks). The camera glides across a parking lot and the cityscape of LA as Driver talks with Bernie. He asks Bernie if he has ever heard the story of the Scorpion and the Frog, and relates that Nino didn’t make it across the river. Driver picks up his jacket and heads out to meet Bernie to settle the score for good. There is a large, yellow scorpion on the back of the jacket.

Even when the scorpion attempts to keep its head low, to stay out of trouble, trouble follows him.

The Driver meets Bernie and a bit of ultraviolence ensues. The Driver escapes alive, but just breathing. No longer on the lam, score settled, but unable to return. Irene knows what Driver is now and he has realized fully the inevitability of impossibility of connection between himself and another. His nature precludes all safety and comfort. And he rides off into the sunset with Kavinsky synths swelling in the background.


Cody Ward

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