Prizzi’s Honor (Huston, 1987)

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This wry black comedy was the penultimate film of legendary director John Huston, made just two years before his death in 1987. A master of the old school, he was also the member of a famous family which has left its mark on three generations of Hollywood filmmaking, beginning with his father Walter as an actor in America’s Golden era.

With landmarks like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951) decades behind him, Huston was still able to bring to the big screen a faithful, sardonic adaptation of Richard Condon’s bestselling novel. Condon himself collaborated with Janet Roach on the screenplay and it proves to a perfectly pitched one, with astute casting a major factor in its success.

It begins with Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson), a dim-witted hitman for Chicago’s dominant crime family the Prizzi’s, falling head-over-heels for a gorgeous blonde he spots at a wedding. She turns out to be the strictly non-Sicilian Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner), and after a whirlwind romance of just two days, Charley impulsively proposes marriage!

Little does he know that she’s already married and his latest assignment involves carrying out a contract on her husband. Charley’s confusion at this turn of events almost overwhelms his limited mental capacities, and he confides to past girlfriend, Maerose (Angelica Huston), and granddaughter of Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey), that he doesn’t know whether to “marry her or ice her!” Irene is full of surprises herself and turns out to be employed in the very same field as her new lover!

There are plenty of neat twists and complications along the way as Irene is secretly hired to carry out a hit, commissioned by a vengeful member of the Prizzi’s, on Charley himself. There’s also some stolen money to account for, a kidnap and extortion that leaves the family disjointed, and rancorous counter-murders from the Prizzi’s competitors to worry about.

Swept along by its clever narrative, witty observations and deadpan humour, Prizzi’s Honor is a pleasure to revisit. Boiling down to a contest between love and family, there’s really no contest at all, it seems, when murder – regardless of the target – can be shrugged off by the Prizzi’s as “business – only business!”

Nicholson is in great form, a tiny padding beneath his upper lip to make it protrude slightly – and combined with that dead look in his eyes – giving Charley the perfect combination of streetwise efficiency and witless malcontent.Turner, following her head-turning star roles in Body Heat (1981) and Romancing the Stone (1984), is absolutely luminous as the wily Irene who has more hidden depths and talents than our first provocative, persuasive impressions of her would suggest.

The staggering quality of the support cast is what aids the film’s enduring appeal as well, with John Randolph hilarious as Charley’s father Angelo, the eccentric William Hickey unforgettable as the corpse-like Don Corrado, and the director’s daughter Angelica – in her Oscar-winning turn – as the bitter and lovelorn Prizzi granddaughter with the classical looks who takes extreme countermeasures to win Charley back and circumvent his union with Irene.

It’s impossible to underestimate John Huston’s contribution to cinema. Even at the tail end of his career he displays the ability to keep pace with the times, and Prizzi’s Honor, made 44 years after his debut behind the camera, is a vintage black comedy/drama which has aged just as well as any other great film from this great director.

 

Capricorn One (Hyams, 1977)

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Toss an arm-load of rotten eggs into a crowded street and chances are five out of every ten’ll hit a conspiracy theorist convinced we never went to the moon at all. I’m still not convinced about that. What I do know is that O.J. Simpson nearly made it to Mars. Yes, nearly. That is, until powerful men from On High decided to shut an almighty trapdoor on his face with compatriots Sam Waterston and James Brolin buried deep in the hole with him.

Back in 1978 these great actors – well, two great actors and O.J. – were venerated astronauts, but their long-awaited mission to Mars became an expenditure the American government could no longer justify to itself. Of course, that didn’t stop them orchestrating an elaborate pantomime to appease the flag-waving multitudes, and running with it to the bitter end.

They hijacked the three patriots – perplexed but unafraid at first – from the Capricorn One, secreted them in an old military warehouse for months on end and let the American public believe in the ‘reality’ of unexplored outer limits of space being breeched by mankind for the very first time.

A kindly doctor is charged with explaining the situation to our three heroes and he bemoans the quirks of fate in an eloquent manner, levering his argument with that old standby: this is for the Greater Good of the world’s greatest nation.

Quite a production this would be, sealing a trio of men in the tomb of a makeshift set made up of tinfoil crafts and red sand. They denied them access to the outside world naturally – even their blissfully unaware families who would wait, biting their trembling nails, for every minute detail of the flight to be relayed back to them.

Then something horrible happens: many months into this elaborate hoax, this simulation that even NASA officials believe to be real, a heat shield separates aboard the imaginary shuttle. Normally this would mean death for its occupants. Suddenly three astronauts sequestered in the desert are having their corpses described to the rest of the world via news reports.

Yes – it’s time to run! And they do, though not getting very far at first in a plane with mere droplets of fuel in its tank. So into the desert they race on foot, spreading out on different routes to avoid a mass capture. Will they be eliminated one by one? Or can at least one of them reach even a tiny, forlorn pocket of civilisation so that the biggest conspiracy in history can be blown wide open?

Director Peter Hyams either had a very vivid imagination or he knew something the rest of the world could only conceive of in their most outlandish, probably drunken, speculations. But Capricorn One, like his later, equally entertaining films Outland (1981) and The Star Chamber (1983), is slick, superior entertainment with a smart screenplay that defies the illogicality of its set-up to become something entirely plausible.

His casting is crucial to the film’s effectiveness, with Sam Waterston and James Brolin providing real authority. True, it’s hard to hold your own against the method stylings of O.J. and that dazzling array of empty, inscrutable glares he can seemingly conjure at will, but somehow they pull it off.

A fine – and for once, tempered – Elliot Gould plays reporter Robert Caulfield who becomes drawn into the conspiracy when his lowly NASA console-operating friend Elliott Whitter (Robert Walden) gets wind of processes at work on the ‘flight’ that don’t quite compute. When his nosy queries become a little too irksome to Dr. Kelloway (a brilliant Hal Holbrook), he’s made to disappear like smoke as if he never existed. An effective form of elimination unless the apparent illusionist’s most trusted confidante is a nosy journalist. Even Telly Savalas turns up in an inspired and hilarious small role late in the game as an abrasive crop-dusting pilot.

Exceptional widescreen cinematography from Bill Butler, who was fresh off Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) at the time, and a punchy, militaristic score from the greatest film composer in history, the legendary Jerry Goldsmith, complete the package. Though spread over two hours, Capricorn One still feels remarkably tight, assiduously cutting back and forth from the plight of the astronauts to the strained efforts of the elite few attempting to uphold the monstrous façade at whatever the cost. This remains fantastic B-grade fare from a decade that rarely disappoints.

Bad Day at Black Rock (Sturges, 1955)

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Nobody comes to Black Rock. Not ever. Barren, washed-out, and desolate – that’s what it is. And home to a terrible truth carefully concealed beneath its dusty exterior. Until now, perhaps, for here comes a train, hurtling through the desert in its direction; for the first time in four years it stops at this remote place, ejecting a lone figure into the cauldron of a summer’s day. He’s John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), a one-armed man on a mission, soon to instil fear of the unknown into the stilted and menial lives of the town’s few inhabitants.

John Sturges’s 1955 masterpiece Bad Day at Black Rock rolls across the screen like distant thunder, slowly accumulating existential force. Macreedy’s arrival is such an anomalous occurrence he immediately draws the fascinated attention of the suspicious locals. Figuring intimidation will be the most effective means of uncovering his closely-guarded intentions, they set about testing his mettle, to see if he’s got “any iron in his blood.”

Macreedy is a fascinating, complex character: cagey, cool, but above all, dignified in the face of their torment and scare tactics. Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), a landowner and figurehead of the town, who walks over the presiding sheriff (Dean Jagger) as if he doesn’t exist, is cordial and amenable to Macreedy, whilst using his heavies, Hector (Lee Marvin), and the dimwitted Coley (Ernest Borgnine) to unnerve the stranger and scatter his secret into the light of day.

Black Rock is guarding a nasty secret, openly acknowledged by pensive stares and the whispered query of their inner circle’s weakest link, Pete Wirth (John Ericson), begging “What if he finds out?” More than anyone, Smith is alert to the danger signs and potential ramifications, for it’s beginning to feel as though Macreedy is some insidious and rebellious part of their collective conscience, arriving with the express purpose of opening their wounds and exposing them to their guilt. But what exactly are they guilty of?

Macreedy’s queries revolve around a Japanese farmer who lived some ways out of town but seems to have vanished. Under the nervous scrutiny of Smith and his men, he visits key figures: the pathetic, ailing sheriff, the lone female (Anne Francis), the mortician (Walter Brennan); on each occasion extracting tiny measures of discord from what remains of their weakening defences – a barrier constructed against any conscious acknowledgment of the past. The guilt, he finds, is a pervasive force, clinging to their thoughts like dust to their lapels. At first outnumbered, he finally uncovers the allies who might help him thwart Smith’s plans to bury him deeper than the Japanese farmer.

Bursting with portentous meaning, Sturges’ film, based on a story by Howard Breslin and adapted by Don Maguire and Millard Kaufman, remains a screenwriter’s masterclass. Set in 1945, just months after the end of the war, it’s overflowing with wordy interplay; sharp, caustic dialogue that zings off the page, illuminating the tortured souls of Macreedy and his combatants with bleak insights and jagged poetical allusions.

Tracy’s portrayal of Macreedy is one of his most memorable roles and the film’s heart and soul. He arrives in this godforsaken place broken and disillusioned, regarding himself as no longer a viable member of the human race, and yet, in drawing out the ugly details of a terrible dark allegiance – forged in blood and a deep-seated racism – he rediscovers a resolve to preserve his own mortality.

At an economical 80 minutes, not a word, not a gesture, is wasted or misplaced. This magnificent film, shot in glorious cinemascope by William C. Mellor and featuring an ominous and, at times, propulsive score from Andre Previn, works its timeless magic again and again. With every viewing it’s like revisiting an old friend but with more knowledge and depths discovered anew. A truly must-see cinematic experience.

 

 

I Confess (Hitchcock, 1953)

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Torn between conscience and duty, what is Fr. Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) to do when the shadow of suspicion falls on him rather than the man who confessed to murder in his confessional? In Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), a tortuous internal struggle begins for the young priest, especially considering that the guilty man, Otto (O.E. Hasse) is a friend and worker in the rectory of his Quebec parish.

Only Logan and Otto’s wife, Alma (Dolly Haas) know the truth, but there’s another complication eating away at the young priest – the victim was a sleazy lawyer attempting to blackmail him and former flame, Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter) for a liaison that the lawyer stumbled upon before the war and Logan’s ordination into the priesthood. With the past threatening to fall like the Sword of Damocles upon their heads, Logan and Ruth feel relief at this fateful intervention but before long, lead investigator, the wily Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) has his suspicions raised by the testimony of two young eyewitnesses claiming to have seen a priest in the vicinity of the crime.

Under sufferance, Ruth reluctantly spills their back-story to Larrue, hoping to expunge her own torment whilst exempting Logan from any blame; sadly she only provides the police with an even stronger motive for suspecting Logan’s involvement. For his own part, Logan remains committed to offering as little useful testimony as possible, sworn to preserving the sanctity of revelations unburdened in the confessional.

An increasingly unstable Otto makes life exceedingly difficult all round however; the cowardly act of a marginal man of no consequence, his theft-turned-murder eats away at his own conscience but is overruled by his instinct for self-preservation.

Hitchcock’s film, though a far cry from his later masterpieces, remains a remarkable entertaining film, full of quality in every department. As ever under the master’s tutelage, the performances are first-rate, though detractors of Clift may disagree; his intense gaze, as always, is present, as is that barely-moving visage, renowned as a model of self-containment. But there’s always been something hypnotic about Clift as an actor; perhaps the turmoil endured in his personal life made his portrayals of men like Logan somehow more compelling, those wounded eyes ensuring an empathetic response every time.

Malden pitches his performances perfectly; rather than overplaying him as a wearied soldier or a man capable of excessive insightfulness, he ensures Larrue is a believably efficient, formidable force. Baxter evokes sympathy as Ruth, the woman torn between her long-nourished flame for Logan and her happy loveless marriage to the accommodating Pierre (Roger Dann).

Hasse deserves special mention as the increasingly reprehensible Otto who becomes more so the closer he gets to believing he might get away with his crime, his callous moral neglect – even allowing Logan to take sole responsibility and lying under oath – taking on treacherous, monstrous proportions by the end.

Finally, Hitchcock employs two brilliant artisans to complete his vision: the effortless ingenuity of often-used cinematographer Robert Burks, who provides the visual polish with atmospheric, noirish nightscapes complimented by a host of ominously tilted low shots aimed at the city’s gothic spires; then there’s veteran composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s classy running musical commentary, perhaps over-emphasising emotions at times but igniting the film with a dramatic boldness that becomes a defining force as the suspenseful, strangely moving conclusion nears.

 

Killer’s Kiss (Kubrick, 1955)

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Stanley Kubrick’s second film barely qualifies as a feature at just 64 minutes but despite the director being at the base of a steep learning curve that would see his status elevated to that of a cinema giant in the coming decades, Killer’s Kiss (1955) is a strong indicator of what was to follow.

The plot is a fairly hackneyed one: a well-intentioned good guy falls head over heels for a pretty blonde but he can’t have her – not unless he extricates her from a tight spot. Her boyfriend, you see, is a slimy gangster who likes to rough up her edges and doesn’t take fondly to the attentions of other men.

Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) is a boxer at the end of his string; his glory days are memories long stored in cotton wool. But Davey can’t help taking an interest in the attractive woman, Gloria Price (Irene Kane), who lives in an adjacent Manhattan apartment. With visual access to her through his window affording the hint of violence within, he feels compelled to intervene after his latest fruitless bout leaves him licking his wounds and a little ga-ga to boot.

There’s nothing especially polished about any of the performances; in fact, they generally verge on mediocre. The reason for watching Killer’s Kiss, of course, is Kubrick. A young director experimenting with form – and acting as his own cinematographer – he manages to create a series of brilliant visual moments.

Davey’s fight provides the first highlight; it’s shot with genuine intensity, mostly from canvas level, and littered with plenty of fast cuts. Blink and you’ll miss some of the best bits, like a glove point-of-view shot as it delivers a savage blow. Numerous scenes in which Kubrick scrutinises his performers from close range can be admired for the clever composition and interplay of light and shade.

A scene in an alleyway, as Davey’s manager is about to be mugged by a couple of underlings dispatched by Rapallo (Frank Silvera), is a brilliant evocation of textbook film-noir aesthetics as interpreted by Kubrick; in a moment of clever disorientation, he creates an impression of fluid, flesh-and-blood silhouettes converging on their hapless victim.

Kubrick saves his best for last though, with a rooftop chase against a stunning New York skyline followed by a final confrontation in a mannequin factory. Here, primal, masculine forces come to the fore, with dialogue virtually eliminated. After all is said, the outcome boils down to brute force to settle the stakes, the eerily vacant stares of the asexual witnesses hemming the combatants into a fight neither can escape without risking their life.

Killer’s Kiss is not vintage Kubrick by any means; placed side by side with his later work, it may even be regarded as downright mediocre. But aided by a superb Gerald Fried score, it remains a compelling work nonetheless; a film to savour with the wisdom of hindsight, for here was an early flash of genius revealed in miniature.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Mankiewicz, 1947)

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A sparkling combination of drama, fantasy and comedy, this archetypal Hollywood concoction from 1947 is one truly deserving of its decorated status. Arguably the finest achievement of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s stellar career, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir features the faultless casting of Gene Tierney as Lucy Muir, the lonely widower who becomes enamoured of Rex Harrison’s ghostly sea captain, Daniel Gregg. Together they bring to vivid life the classy screenplay adaptation of R.A. Dick’s novel by Philip Dunne.

Lucy is looking for a new start one year after the death of her husband; desperate to separate herself from her in-laws she decides to give in to a lifelong calling of the seaside. She chooses Whitecliff and won’t be deterred by a jittery real estate agent from taking up residence in the supposedly haunted Gull Cottage.

Rather than fearing the prospect, Lucy is intrigued by its supernatural reputation; even disregarding the first booming cackle which marks the salty Captain’s initial appearance, she decides to move in, bringing her young daughter Anna (played by a 9-year old Natalie Wood) and housekeeper Martha (Edna Best) with her.

There’s friction at first between Lucy and Captain Gregg; she’s upset by his brusque, confrontational manner, whilst he’s still peeved by his accidental demise, widely reported in the community as a suicide. The pair begins to see eye-to-eye after a while however and their fascinating conversations take on greater significance as they discover common ground, mutual respect and even a strange cross-dimensional attraction of sorts.

Soon Gregg has a brainstorm and enlists her help to bring his ultimate project to fruition: he wants to dictate his colourful memoirs to Lucy, who he affectionately dubs ‘Lucia’, recollections of a spirited life spent roaming the high seas, which she will present to a publisher upon completion, taking full credit for.

The third piece of the equation is completed when, at the publisher’s office, Lucy runs into children’s author, the suave and charming Miles Fairley (George Sanders) who’s immediately besotted by Lucy and begins to court her. This inspires the angry protestations of the jealous Captain who does all he can to dissuade her from falling for the wily manipulations of a man he labels “a perfumed parlour snake!” Of course, Gregg denies any notion of jealousy, noting that it’s securely a “disease of the flesh.”

Torn between the corporeal and spiritual realms in what is one very strange love triangle, Lucy must decide where her future lays, a decision that seems surprisingly difficult given the paucity of realistic options. Mankiewicz’s almost flawless film survives the transition of years as the finale is reached, the ethereal fantasy of the final frames leaving an indelible imprint.

The gorgeous Tierney, a great but undervalued actress of her time (consider her equally unforgettable turns in both Laura (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945) for starters) displays that perfect mix of strength and vulnerability here; Lucy is an intelligent but vulnerable character, thus craving our empathy, especially when she becomes a victim of heartless deceitfulness.

This is probably my favourite Rex Harrison role; he’s unforgettable as Gregg, the indignant but decent Captain whose roughened voice and proclivity for colourful turns of phrase belies the romanticism stirring his own lonely heart. He has nearly all the best lines too, but the best is saved for his penultimate appearance, a stirring farewell monologue to the uneasily sleeping Lucy – an acknowledgement of how the only means of providing her with a chance at a real and rewarding life is to vanish forever and cease his relentless haunting.

Two further monumental creative forces cinch the film’s greatness: composer Bernard Herrmann whose glorious score combines glittering embellishments of his main thematic material with hypnotic mysterioso writing for the early scenes prior to Gregg’s substantiation; his love theme is a pearler and atypical for him in a career steeped in the psychological probing, through bleak atonalities, of tortured characters.

Then there’s the exemplary work of cinematographer Charles Lang, one of great artisans of his chosen field. Anyone who’s witnessed the magic he conjured with light and shade in films such as The Uninvited (1944), and his work for Billy Wilder, Ace in the Hole (1951), Sabrina (1954), and Some Like it Hot (1959), will know what to expect here. He often uses an eerie confluence of artificial and candlelight to convey mood and tension and a series of meticulously crafted interiors to compliment stunning backdrops of the seaside, often evocatively shown at night.

This magnificent film with its intelligent, literate screenplay, full of whimsy and witty humour, is a delight from first frame to last. An artistic highpoint for all concerned it hasn’t aged in any significant way, remaining a timeless fantasy, the perfect cinematic encapsulation of idealized love.

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Thief (Mann, 1981)

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With its heavily accented male viewpoints, Michael Mann’s 1981 heist drama has style to burn, and proves typical of the director in numerous ways. Also on display here is his penchant for unique visuals and endearingly left-of-centre musical accompaniment. Thief, starring James Caan as Frank, the crim of the title, is a fascinating early landmark in Mann’s career; it was his first major cinematic release and even without the precision of execution seen in his later work, it still carries all the early signatures his devotees have come to admire. Though technically an 80’s film it feels like a carryover from the previous glorious decade of American cinema with its stark, gritty story – hardly an original one, certainly, but carried off with such conviction that it becomes a compelling experience by the end.

Frank has spent a lot of time in jail but with a new relationship blooming with waitress Jessie (Tuesday Weld) he’d ideally prefer to settle down if financial security can be arranged. He works as a freelancer, self-employed, with an able right-hand man in Barry (James Belushi), and with a job as a car salesman by day as a front. After complications ensue from his latest job, however, when the man transporting his money ends up dead, he finds himself confronting the temptations offered by underworld kingpin Leo (Robert Prosky).

Frank decides to seize the opportunity offered, claiming a stake in one last massive job with a large haul guaranteed, before hoping to ride off into the sunset with his lady and a life of luxury and financial security assured. But as you might expect not everything goes to plan as Frank discovers, the job behind them, it’s a lot more difficult than you imagine to extricate yourself from under the thumb of the man pulling all the strings. The consequences for both sides, trying to assert their primal dominance, will be bloody.

Caan makes Frank into a rough but charismatic anti-hero, a belligerent and dangerous man to those who get in his way. There are mannerisms Caan adopts that faintly annoyed me initially though I was beginning to turn down the stretch. Tuesday Weld is excellent as the tough but vulnerable Jessie, whilst Prosky shines in an unusual role for him. Belushi is fair support but given little to work with whilst Willie Nelson has a couple of good scenes as Frank’s dying mentor in prison.

Mann’s screenplay, based on a book by Frank Hohimer, feels slightly undisciplined and random, a little rough around the edges at times, but I like its hardness and he fashions a handful of classic moments – especially the interplay between Frank and the cops on his tail, a series of scenes that comes to a head in a brutal but humourous interview room beating. Visually the film is superb, the highlights being the glittering night-time scenes on slick wet Chicago streets which dominate the action, the empty urban darkness lit starkly by the slowly saturating neon. His point of view shots give certain scenes a resolute immediacy.

Mann’s musical sensibilities have always been a reflection of his peculiar subjectivity and Thief is no exception. Here he employed synthesizer band Tangerine Dream, who were popular for a few years at that time amongst filmmakers, to overlay long scenes with their dreamy, though simplistic, ambient soundscapes; it’s not something I’d listen to on CD but it has an undeniably hypnotic impact and works to great effect at times – though not when actual themes are called for, as for a family life montage towards the end when their approach dates the music badly. The last scene of the film too, with electric guitars introduced, sounds like it was scored by Pink Floyd.

Thief is a wonderful early effort from the director; though he’s undoubtedly surpassed it on numerous occasions – Heat (1995) for example feels like Thief‘s imposing older brother – but it’s hard to avoid falling in love over and again with the stylish, noirish texture of the film and, of course, the infinitely rich era of cinema it comes from. Anyone looking for a nostalgic filmic experience or who is a recent Michael Mann convert will find this a mostly compelling and exhilarating ride.