The Reckless Moment

James Mason and Joan Bennett

Melodrama lush and silk-wrapped in The Reckless Moment, a typically opulent film from Max Ophüls, billed almost inevitably as Max Opuls in the four films he made in the USA, of which this was the last.

He’s best known for Lola Montes and La Ronde, and for a strange fascination with female characters whose name began with the letter L (it was Léocadie, played by Simone Signoret, in La Ronde, no prizes for guessing who it was in Lola Montes). Lucia is his L of a gal in The Reckless Moment, Joan Bennett showing what an all-rounder she was in a role that’s several rungs up the social ladder and a moral universe away from the vamp characters that had made her name.

As recently as two years earlier, in The Macomber Affair, she’d been playing the femme fatale, but here she’s a very mumsy mother living in a high tone beachside community. Discovering that her 17-year-old daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks) has been seeing older lothario art dealer Ted Darby (a scaly Shepperd Strudwick), Lucia takes matters into her own hands, drives into LA and orders him to back off. He suggests a payoff, the heel.

A quick bit of plotting later, and Darby is dead, having been killed accidentally by Bea, and mother steps in again, to cover up what’s happened.

Enter James Mason as Martin Donnelly, a silken-voiced Irish blackmailer who has incriminating letters Bea wrote to Darby and will hand them over to the police if Lucia doesn’t come up with $5,000. Here beginneth the lesson.

Lucia and the emotional Bea
Lucia and the emotional Bea

What develops is a fierce and fascinating film full of liminal characters on the verge of being something they’re not. This extends from Lucia (the staid mother and loving wife suddenly disposing of a dead body and bargaining with a blackmailer), Bea (the girl becoming a woman), her brother David (hitting puberty), her father Tom (hitting senescence), even the family’s maid, Sybil (threatening at any moment to become properly immersed in the action). But most of all blackmailer Martin, whose initially cooing demands start as a mocking parody of the way blackmailers are meant to behave but morph gradually into something else entirely.

Lucia’s husband is away on business in Berlin and, in a telling handful of symbolic exchanges – Martin chides Lucia about her smoking, carries groceries for her – their relationship becomes one that’s almost husband and wife.

In fact the only person in this film who is unequivocally what he seems to be is Nagel (Roy Roberts), Martin’s hard-as-nails boss, a cold-hearted crook through and through (Nagel is German for nail, and Ophüls was German, so the name may be no accident).

A love story then? Not quite. Nor quite a blackmail story. Nor one about an accidental death. It’s all set in the run-up to Christmas, so add it to the list of Christmas movies if you like. Put a feminist spin on it too, if you want – woman grabs agency, sorts shit out. Or an anti-feminist spin – woman’s husband goes away, everything starts falling apart, until another man, Donnelly, steps in to save the day. Choose your weapons.

Both Bennett and Mason play it all ways, and their performances are properly dense and intriguing. Ophüls, meanwhile, worries away at the surface detail (his films are always beautiful) while Burnett Guffey does the sort of deep focus camera trickery and superb lighting that made him popular with everyone from John Ford (The Informer) and Alfred Hitchcock (The Foreign Correspondent) to Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity) and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde).

If you’ve seen the 2001 film The Deep End, starring Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic, you’ve seen an update of the same story. The Reckless Moment eats it for breakfast.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Catch the Fair One

Kali Reis as Kaylee

Catch the Fair One is a game of two halves kind of movie, absolutely the wrong metaphor for a story incidentally set in the world of boxing, and starring a boxer in her acting debut. Kali Reis not only plays the similarly named Kaylee, but also co-created the story, with director Josef Kubota Wladyka.

Who came up with the fractured chronology is less clear and it doesn’t help a film that could most easily be described as a young woman’s search for her lost sister. Wrinkles come courtesy of the fact that Kaylee is also a female boxer and that her sister is the real daughter of a Native American mother, whereas Kaylee is a black Cape Verdean and most likely adopted – what this film leaves unexplained definitely adds to its power.

The chronology though… A for-instance. We meet Kaylee preparing for a fight. Bandaging the hands, shadow-boxing with her trainer, Brick (Shelly Vincent, who has the boxer physique and features because she used to be one) – “up, down, one two, one two” – and then cut to Kaylee in prison. What is she doing in prison? Is this before the fight? After it? Why is this tough boxer afraid to go into the shower on her own? Why has she got a razor blade secreted inside her mouth?

Kaylee and two people tied up
Don’t get on the wrong side of Kaylee

Best not dwell on all that. Instead let’s follow Kaylee as she follows a lead that missing sister Weeta might have disappeared as part of some massive operation involving the sex trafficking of young women. Kaylee turns sleuth and follows the increasingly warm trail from one sleazy locale to another. Wladyka does scuzziness well – grim motel rooms with smeared mirrors, deserted industrial areas, a truck stop, the negative space under a freeway, aided by a muted colour palette by DP Ross Giardina suggesting dirt smeared across every surface.

Reis is a good addition to a familiar type – the busted-flush detective – but truly comes into her own when the movie pivots at the halfway point into something that’s also familiar but a different type of offer. Once Kaylee has worked out who’s responsible for the disappearance of sister Weeta, the cinematography suddenly loses its milky edge, everything sharpens up a touch, the pace gets into a higher gear and the ghost of Liam Neeson and his special set of skills start to stalk what’s become more a revenge movie.

Nothing wrong with that. Who doesn’t want to watch a deranged badass waterboarding a suspect (for starters), while his wife and child look on? The transformation is incredibly unlikely, especially considering that earlier sequence establishing Kaylee as being timid in jail. Unless, of course, all that stuff happened after this stuff, which might be the case.

It’s confusing. Best, again, to just stick to the plot, which is simple and enjoyable and propelled by Reis, who’s convincing and likeable – the multiple piercings and extensive tatting coming over as a case of protesting a bit too much. She’s a nice young woman really. The casting of minor characters really add to the atmosphere. Daniel Henshall, Kevin Dunn and Lisa Emery don’t say an awful lot but give off a real belt of venal menace as the family at the centre of the trafficking. And Tiffany Chu, as the wife of one of the traffickers, spends most of her time with duct tape over her mouth yet manages to suggest that she’s perhaps more of a victim than she appears.

Inadequate white men do the strangest shit is the guiding idea behind Catch the Fair One, though Kaylee’s semi-detached membership of a Native American family does its best to disturb a narrative that seems driven by race.

There’s good stuff in here. Good performances. It’s well made. Telling its story straight wouldn’t have hurt it at all. It works for Mr Neeson.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

Captain Kronos rests against a tree

There’s a bat stuck “splat!” on to someone’s face at a certain point in Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, which just about sums up this film made in 1972 (released in 1974), an attempt by writer/director Brian Clemens and his crew to breathe new life into the vampire genre and the Hammer Studio’s output.

Clemens was the moving spirit behind the British TV spy-fi series The Avengers, which had ceased production in 1969 after an eight-year run. Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, in the interim he’d created the comedy series My Wife Next Door, and written for TV shows The Champions and The Protectors, and also penned the screenplay for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

Busy, busy Clemens specialised in pastiche and spoof, as did TV generally, borrowing ideas from the cinema as if taking hand-me-down garments from an older sibling. Here, Clemens takes the Dracula story – worn translucent by Hammer in around a dozen films since 1958 – and gives it a couple of tweaks. First up, vampire-slaying Van Helsing is now two, if not three separate people – handsome dashing, man-of-action Captain Kronos (Horst Janson), his more cerebral loremeister and sidekick Grost (John Cater), plus Dr Marcus (John Carson) who has called on the services of his old friend after his village has been troubled by a puzzling phenomenon – young women suddenly hideously aged into old crones after a kiss from a mysterious stranger.

Vampires come in many forms and varieties, Grost helpfully informs Dr Marcus (ie us). We, meanwhile, look around the locale for anything suspicious going on. There is, for example, the local lady of the manor (played by Wanda Ventham in little more than a cameo), who seems suddenly much older than she had been, perhaps prematurely aged by the recent death of her husband, perhaps by something else. Other contenders? Her children, the unbearably entitled duo of Paul (Shane Briant) and Sara (Lois Daine), heads held high, never walking into a room when they can stride into it etc etc. Er, that’s about it.

Clemens was never known as much of a one for plot, preferring (often eccentric) character to story, which makes for an enjoyable if inert film. In Captain Kronos Not Much Happens. Kronos and Grost visit a local inn where a belligerent ruffian (Ian Hendry) and his sidekicks are taken down a peg or 12, Dr Marcus meets Lady Durward while she visits her husband’s grave and is shortly thereafter touched by a mystery affliction. Again, that’s about it.

Caroline Munro
Caroline Munro as Carla

Thank god for Caroline Munro, who is introduced as a feisty young local woman who’s been put in the stocks for dancing on a Sunday. After being freed by Kronos, Carla becomes another of his band, pouting, tossing her mane and swishing her way attractively through the rest of the film.

The “big idea” is youth – the boomer generation’s hang-up – and the word is lent a special emphasis throughout. Kronos is your hippie type, long of hair, an indulger in “Chinese herbs”, the sort of vampire slayer who lets it all hang out right up to the point where he needs to gather it all back in again to actually do his job.

Clemens likes words, which gives the film its zing. And he doesn’t mind being ridiculous here and there – see The Avengers – like the bit where Kronos and Grost go out and deposit dead toads in boxes around the woods. If the toad comes back to life at any point, sayeth ye olde lore, it’s an indication that a vampire has “bestrode” the box. “Bestrode” because it rhymes with toad. Everyone keeps a straight face.

Take it at that level and it’s vastly entertaining. The sparse, almost Shakerish production design (by Avengers old hand Robert Jones) is better than it might have been, the soundtrack by Laurie Johnson (another Avengers hire) injects some needed pace and DP Ian Wilson shoots it in that “all the lights on” early 1970s way. It’s bright, it’s clear, and thanks to a recent restoration, it’s sharp as hell. A good looking production.

This was Clemens’s first and only go at directing a film, which was meant to be the first of a series of Kronos adventures. The box office said no. And so that was that. Captain Kronos was put back in his box.

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022


Stefani and Zola

A nasty-ass neo-noir, Zola is based on the true story of Detroit dancer and waitress A’Ziah King, Zola to her friends. Over 148 tweets written in a clear and vivid prose style she laid out how her new stripper friend Stefani had tricked her into taking a job as a prostitute. Tweet one starts, “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?”

The tweets went viral and the story got picked up by Rolling Stone, who turned it into a feature: Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted. Movie offers followed. At what point James Franco came on board is unclear but he was slated to direct until harassment allegations started circulating, which is how Janicza Bravo ended up with the gig. This is probably “a good thing”. In a film sprawling all over the issues of cultural appropriation and sexual exploitation, a black female director mutes at least one or two sections of the Twittersphere.

Bravo silences another, the racist cohort, by doing a brilliant job of directing this very dark Alice in Wonderland story about a sweet black girl hoodwinked by her new white best friend, and ending up somewhere down in Florida, where a funky apartment and a string of mostly middle-aged white men await with their tongues, and much else, graphically lolling. On the fringes, waiting menacingly, is Stefani’s pimp, X (Colman Domingo), a Nigerian American, and her boyfriend, the dweeby Derrek, played by Nicholas Braun, whose turn as ingratiating lickspittle Greg in Succession seems to have been a warm-up for this.

Nodding to its origins, little Twitter “woohoo” noises pop up now and again adding punctuation and indicating direct lifts from the original Twitter material. A sober voiceover by Zola (Taylour Paige) either signals an important development or decodes some bit of specialised language. Translating something Stefani says at one point, a freeze-frame and Zola’s world-weary voice explains, “Mm. ‘Take care of me’ in stripper language means he is her pimp… I am not here for that.”

Derrek, Stefani, Zola and X
Derrek, Stefani, Zola and X

Old white fucks like me will probably need a few minutes to acclimatise to the street-speak, the Instagram “I”m so hot” values, the every-sentence-ends-with-bitch-ness of it all, but there’s a payoff to this shock immersion. Urgent storytelling. Stefani is Hitchcock’s unexploded bomb, and Zola is the innocent unaware it’s about to go off and that she’s being played by a friend who, blaccent dialled all the way up, urges her on, to Zola’s increasingly discomfort.

“Black people can’t be racist,” was a provocative line from Dear White People, a whole territory of enquiry that Zola also explores in Stefani’s appropriative street-bitch attitude but also in X’s regular shifts out of his American accent and into a Nigerian one, especially when he’s bigging up the threatening side of himself. Can black people culturally appropriate? Discuss.

There’s something seamlessly just about perfect about Zola. The sense of jeopardy runs through it like a sweat stain, Bravo’s grungey direction and the seedily glamorous production design finding a human equivalent in Riley Keough, who’s been never less than brilliant in a string of films and TV shows since she broke out in 2016’s American Honey and does it again here, as a kind of empress of skank.

As said, Zola herself is the Alice in this unhappy Wonderland, the only sane and sorted person on a Ship of Fools full of dimbos (loved how the epithet “homeschooled” was used as a synonym for “stupid” in relation to Derrek), whackos and downright nasties. Like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, she’s the boring one bearing witness to the excitement around her – she’s us, in other words. A thankless role, to some extent, but Taylour Paige does it with dignity.

At one level there’s nothing to see in Zola – girl gets tricked into hooking, has bad time, the end – at another it’s a demonstration that great writing (Jeremy O Harris along with Bravo), sharp characters and having something to say can descale and upscale any old idea and make it shiny and new. And relentlessly tense and unpleasant.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Woman in the Dunes

The entomologist and the Woman in bed

Whether you call it Woman in the Dunes, Woman OF the Dunes, or go with the original Japanese title, Suna No Onna, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s wildfire success from 1964 (arthouse wildfire – it’s relative) is surely unique in being the only absurdist erotic Japanese drama.

Tarkovsky rated it as one of his top ten films, and you can see why from almost the first shot, which announces that there’s going to be less a narrative, more a poetic approach to the storytelling with an image of a boulder that in fact turns out to be – as the camera pulls back, back, back – just one among millions of grains of sand, sliding, flowing, rolling relentlessly downwards. Tarkovskian, we might now call it.

The movement is ironic, because the film is all about being stuck, physically, and with the pitiless and pointless repetitive stasis of the human condition – as set out in Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, which asks how humans should face an existence of utter repetitive futility (by lightening up, dude?).

Simple plot. An entomologist (not named until the end, when it turns out that Eiji Okada has been playing a man called Niki Jumpei) collecting bugs in sand dunes misses his last bus back to Tokyo and is helpfully guided by a passing local villager towards overnight accommodation in the home of a local widow, who lives at the bottom of a hole Niki has to reach by rope ladder.

“Old hag,” the villager ungallantly calls out to her, as he guides Niki down the ladder and into the home of the woman, never named. She’s not an old hag at all, rather a pretty young woman whose eyes seem to feast hungrily on the new arrival, whom she feeds and waters and entertains, positioning an umbrella over the table while he eats to keep off the sand, which never stops sifting into the charmingly and rather artisanal dwelling.

He awakes the next morning and is greeted by the sight of the sleeping naked body of his host across the room, her skin speckled with sand. He prepares to leave, only to find that the rope ladder has been pulled up. And there he stays, in what he instantly realises is a trap, in spite of attempts to escape, eventually falling in with her in her nightly task of digging sand, putting it into boxes and then sending the boxes up to the villagers, who wait up top, and reward the diggers with food, water and “rations”.

The bug hunter hunts bugs
Hunting bugs

While they sleep more sand pours down, and so the next day the task repeats, ad infinitum, ad absurdam. See Becket, Ionesco or Pinter, or any number of plays featuring two people stuck on a stark set addressing the pointlessness of human existence in a world without god. You could also look to TV and Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner – man trapped by villagers, no idea what they want, no means of escape – the cult hit of three years later. He’d surely seen Woman in the Dunes.

There’s Bergman, too, in the deep focus stark cinematography of DP Hiroshi Segawa, whose background in documentaries serves him well in this confined space, though he’s also got a keen eye for the many varied textures of sand. There’s a lot of it.

Torû’s Takemitsu’s score is particularly effective. “Mocking” is how Roger Ebert described it. Yes, but also exclamatory, ejaculatory – look at this, look at this, look at this, it seems to shriek, howl and roar at key moments when the tension is mounting.

That’s the remarkable thing about this film, in fact. Considering how simple the setup – two people, one location – it is a tense film, skilfully constructed so the psychological pressure is always mounting, until, in a bizarre confrontation between the villagers at the top of the hole and him and her at the bottom, things come to a climax in a scene of frenzied music, whipcrack editing and high emotion I won’t ruin by explaining too much.

They’re a fine pair of actors, him and her. Okada expertly playing the naive, sexist bug hunter being introduced to a few home truths about the world and his privileged place in it as the story progresses, and learning what it is to be as stuck as one of his boxed and pinned insect specimens. Kyôko Kishida is even better as the more complex Woman – simple but not a simpleton, wanton but not loose, resigned to her fate, but out of a love for where she lives rather than meek acceptance. She’s the response to Camus’s question.

Watch the Criterion version, if you’re going to watch it. The 2016 release is restored and sees the movie back to its original 147 minute running time, rather than the shorter theatrical version that earned Teshigahara an Oscar nomination, the first Japanese director to have got one, amazingly, considering Ozu and Kurosawa were working at full power at the time.

Perhaps even more amazingly, Raquel Welch bought the rights in the 1970s, with a US remake in mind. It never happened. What might have been.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022


Jay, Malik and Bobby

Close Encounters? No, just Encounter, though the choice of title is deliberate. Instead of Richard Dreyfuss on the road, heading towards alien contact, Encounter offers Riz Ahmed’s Malik on the road with his two sons, heading towards something… or perhaps something else… or perhaps nothing at all.

It’s all a massive tease, really, and it’s Michael Pearce doing the teasing. He was the writer and director of Beast, a similarly playful story all about innocent people who might not be innocent, strapped to a slightly sensational (if you live in Edwardian England) story about a pretty young woman (played by Jessie Buckley) of some status going all Lady Chatterley with the possibly murderous, dirty, low-rent (but oh those horny hands) Johnny Flynn.

Pearce starts off Encounter with a macro shot of something blazing into the Earth’s atmosphere and follows up swiftly with a micro shot of an insect boring into a human host and spawning inside the host’s body.

Sci-fi/alien invasion seems to be the idea, yoked to a slightly sensation plot about Malik, a former military guy, abducting his own kids and taking them out on a prolonged road trip. Malik is convinced that tiny parasitic invaders are about to get all of them if they’re not careful, and have already invaded the bodies of their mother and her new beau.

The aliens manifest themselves in microscopic ways invisible to most people but thanks to his extensive research in actual books about alien parasites, Malik is ready for them. They show up in the pupils of anyone who’s infected, changing their behaviour slightly to make them more belligerent, less welcoming.

The sci-fi invasion/parasitic alien insectoid takeover is an interesting idea, and allows Pearce to wrangle with aspects of the culture war, albeit in a way that generates more heat than light. The reason why other people hate your liberal-elitist/conspiracy-theorist guts is not political, it’s because an alien insect has taken control of their body and mind.

Encounter reverses the proposition of Close Encounters but actually shares more of its DNA with two films by Jeff Nichols, both starring Michael Shannon – 2011’s Take Shelter (is he mad or is there an apocalyptic storm coming?) and 2016’s more sci-fi tinged Midnight Special (dad on the road with possibly kidnapped son).

Possibly having been given a talking to by co-writer Joe Barton, Pearce blinks at a certain point and decides he’s gone down this sci-fi road far enough.

To the sound of brakes being sharply applied, enter Octavia Spencer as Malik’s parole officer, a woman convinced that Malik is an OK sort of guy who’s kidnapped his own kids because his brain’s gone slightly on the fritz. The FBI, on the other hand, led by decent, “just plain Shep” West (Rory Cochrane) think Malik is a potential “family annihilator”, the sort of guy who kills his kids just before killing himself.

Octavia Spencer as parole officer Hattie
The cavalry? Octavia Spencer as parole officer Hattie

Why hire the unceasingly excellent Spencer and then not really use her? It’s one of many puzzles in this unsatisfying film which reactivates that bit of memory about how unsatisfying the central section of Beast also was, before it all came good in the end.

Pearce tries to bring it all good in the end here too, with a grand, stand-off finale in which everything could go one way or another and which is, small mercies, genuinely tense.

Ahmed is a skilled actor well used to playing characters compromised but battling on – see Mogul Mowgli (rapper struck by mystery illness) or Sound of Metal (musician suddenly goes deaf) – for two recent examples. And as Malik guns his car and boys across empty vistas towards the inevitable showdown with fate, Ahmed is plausible as the dad nervously filling every pause in his kids’ conversation with something new and exciting, for fear his boys will start to whine that they want to go home.

The revelation is Lucian-River Chauhan as Malik’s older son, Jay, who convincingly grows up in front of our eyes and starts to put together the puzzle that is his dad, the pieces falling into place with little flicks of Chauhan’s eyes. Nice work.

Nice work all round, in fact. Ahmed, Spencer, Cochrane, Chauhan, plus Aditya Geddada as Malik’s very young boy, Bobby. Benjamin Kracun’s lensing of America’s unforgiving desert wastes is also worth a little recommendation for reflecting the desperate corner into which Malik is driving himself.

Encounter starts with an interesting idea then fumbles it. The dangle – is Malik unstable or are aliens among us? – just doesn’t work and so it turns from being a potentially fascinating film into one that’s boring and predictable. And it’s way too long.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Force of Evil

Joe and Doris at a club

Though tricked out in an almost offhand way like a film noir, Force of Evil is actually something else entirely, an old school Greek tragedy, featuring a noble hero cursed by a fatal flaw in his character, one which will first be exposed and then cause his downfall.

John Garfield plays Joe Morse, a lawyer working for the boss of an illegal numbers racket. As the curtain goes up on a story that isn’t always that easy to follow, boss Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts) is trying to turn his business legit, but first he wants to bankrupt all of the smaller rivals also running numbers rackets so he can come through the other side not just smelling of roses but smelling of greenbacks. Joe is onboard with part one of this plan (going legit) but doesn’t quite know how to react to part two. He’s a decent guy at bottom, but he’s in so deep that he’s lost track of almost everything except the dollar signs.

On the other side of town, Joe’s estranged older brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) runs one of these small numbers operations, unaware he’s going to be ruined in the morning. Suddenly the good guy, Joe heads across town to warn Leo, setting in train a series of events that will end badly for everyone concerned, but most of all Leo.

As if to make us aware that something ancient and classical is going on in the background, writer Abraham Polonsky’s screenplay goes in heavily on the flowery language, especially in the scenes between Joe and love interest Doris (Beatrice Pearson), the sweet young thing who works for Leo and who is smitten with this pugnacious man’s man from the moment she claps eyes on him. And he is with her. Her innocence stirs something long dormant inside him.

Meanwhile, straight out of the film noir workbook, here’s boss’s wife Edna Tucker (Marie Windsor), a vamp with the hots for Joe, and who gets a scant scene to both introduce herself and make her move. Watch her as in she sails through one door, only to shortly sail right out of the other. She’s there as a reassurance that we’re firmly in the world of noir, but the way she’s dealt with suggests we’re not not.

Garfield and Polonsky had worked together before, on the previous year’s Body and Soul – Garfield’s hugely successful boxing drama – but this is Polonsky’s debut as a director, and he matches his elevated language with geometric framing and unusual camera angles, adding a classical spin to the visuals as well as the verbals. A lot of critics at the time (Variety, notably) didn’t go a bundle on either.

Thomas Gomez as Leo
Scenestealing Thomas Gomez as Leo

What critics did seem to like was the frisson between Garfield and the incredibly effective Pearson, and their scenes together – heavy with suggestions of what he’d like to do to her and she to him – are still as sexy as hell. There’s one, in the back of a car, which must be one of the most erotically charged every committed to screen in the High Hollywood era.

Also electrifying is Thomas Gomez as the luckless Leo, a man with a heart condition, sweat always breaking out on his brow. Perhaps emboldened by Body and Soul, Gomez goes toe to toe with Garfield in all their scenes together and threatens to steal the film.

Garfield would be dead four years later, aged only 39, and reminds us here what a powerful yet nuanced actor he was. His funeral was mobbed, such was his popularity, but the years have not been kind – he died too young to have fully made his mark, but his smart, funny, rough-edged quality is exactly what’s needed in a character who needs to punch through the film’s big weakness.

Hang on to the performances, the elevated language and the lovely cinematography by George Barnes – the shots of deserted New York streets are particularly handsome – because the film itself is saddled with a tragic flaw. It can’t seem to differentiate between illegality and immorality.

Early on there’s an exchange between boss Ben Tucker and Joe Morse, during which Tucker points out that lotteries are perfectly acceptable in civilised countries like Ireland or Cuba, and that what they’re doing in the USA might be illegal but there’s nothing really that immoral going on. Polonsky, having got this out there, then has Joe, and more acutely Leo, wrangling with their consciences for the rest of the film, convinced that what they’re engaged in is all wrong, rather than just against the rules. Their characters are both smart enough to know the difference and the fact that they don’t destabilises both them and the whole drama. Force of Evil is the title. Evil? Really?

Force of Evil – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Red Rocket

Strawberry and Mikey on a fairground ride

Red Rocket is the latest news bulletin from Scuzzville USA by Sean Baker, who gave us bitching transexual sex workers in Tangerine (the one “shot on an iPhone”) and the travails of motel-dwelling poor white trash in The Florida Project.

Both of those flirted with poverty porn and so does Red Rocket, more literally this time with the story of busted porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), who returns to his Texas hometown to re-ingratiate himself with his his estranged wife Lexi, who lives with her mother in however you designate a dwelling that’s one up from a trailer.

Constant background noise, or something big and ugly hovering at the edge of the frame, seems to be a feature of Baker’s films, and in Red Rocket it’s a gigantic chemical refinery providing sound, motion and regularised human activity in what would otherwise be a fairly static town of welfare handouts.

The first scenes set the tone and introduce us to the main characters – Mikey, arriving on a bus with nothing but the clothes he’s dressed in, knocking on the door of his wife’s mother’s house and getting the sort of dead-eyed, who-the-fuck reception it’s hard to deal with if you’re anyone other than Mikey, a born hustler with a mouth in constant motion.

They’re all great performances – the task of playing the snaggle-toothed, semi-whacked-on-meds Lil going to Brenda Deiss, a newcomer in her 60s (I’m guessing). Daughter Lexi, undoubtedly called Sexy Lexi at school, played by Bree Elrod as a mixture of the hopeful and the forlorn. And Mikey himself, around whom the entire film is built, mouth flapping, deep as a puddle, eyes alive for a main chance, clothes on and off, is a remarkably unsavoury yet charming turn by Rex, who in his youth did indeed do some porn, and has the sort of buff body you’d expect along with the professional eagerness of the camera-ready performer. Simon Rex has to be a porn name, yes?

Mikey on a bike
Freewheeling Mikey

Slightly more familiarly structured than The Florida Project, there is a dangle dropped into the middle of Red Rocket, a will-he/won’t-he opportunity for Mikey to change his ways – or not – in the shape of Strawberry (Suzanna Son), the sweet girl who works at the donut shop who Mike imagines might be his way back into the porn biz. But surely he isn’t going to take this cute 17-year-old, corrupt her and ruin his one shot at redemption as he does so?

In the meantime, while Baker teases us with the proposition of Faust and Mephistopheles as one character, we’re introduced to some of the town’s other inhabitants, all also brilliantly played with character to the max – local mini-drugs baron Leondria (Judy Hill), and her daughter June (Brittney Rodriguez), with a face like a raised middle finger, next-door neighbour and hopeless sap Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), who’s useful to the mercenary Mikey because he has a car, Ms Phan (Shih-Ching Tsou), owner of the donut shop, who says barely a word but her reluctance to make eye contact with Mikey speaks volumes. All are newcomers, apart from Tsou, who is also Baker’s longtime producer (and also had small roles in Tangerine and The Florida Project). There is no bad acting in this film. Baker should run masterclasses for other directors in how to pull performances of this quality out of people, some of whom have never acted before and will never do it again.

Like The Florida Project, Red Rocket seems to last longer than its (2hr 10mins) running time. Tangerine’s running time of around 90 minutes would be ample to tell Mikey’s story, and there’s also the suspicion (also there in The Florida Project) that Baker doesn’t like his characters that much. In Tangerine those were miserable, bitching, flaky transexual sex workers but they were warm and loveable with it.

But there’s still lots to like, not least Baker’s colour choices – acid greens, pastel pinks, warm oranges – the road to damnation in Red Rocket is a pretty one. The title is apparently slang for a dog’s dick.

Red Rocket – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Shoot the Piano Player

Charlie plays the piano

How do you follow a classic like The 400 Blows? With another one, if you’re François Truffaut. Shoot the Piano Player (aka Shoot the Pianist, or Tirez sur le pianiste in the original French) debuted in 1960, one year after 400 Blows had made Truffaut’s name as a director. Just in case there was any doubt about his talent, he’d also written Breathless (A bout de souffle), another classic, with Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol in the interim.

Let’s get the story out of the way, because in a way it’s not interesting, though the way Truffaut tells it is. Charles Aznavour plays a concert pianist called Edouard Saroyan who meets a young woman, falls in love and gets married, gets an agent and becomes famous, before his wife tells him something that destroys his life. Edouard, suffering what amounts to a breakdown, disappears, renames himself Charlie and takes a job in a bar playing honky tonk tunes for drunk customers.

Truffaut tells the story as if it were a gangster thriller, with the action opening as a man is chased down dark streets and into the bar where Charlie is playing. The man, Chico (Albert Rémy), turns out to be the brother of Charlie (aka Edouard) and he’s on the run because he’s stolen some money from some gangsters, who will spend the entire film attempting to recover it, from Chico, from Charlie, or from anyone Chico or Charlie knows, including Charlie’s son, Fido (Richard Kanayan).

Truffaut isn’t just messing with the chronology, starting the film halfway through the story and then ducking back in time to flesh out the story of Edouard and Thérèse (Nicole Berger), he’s also messing with genre. This isn’t a thriller and that opening gangster element of the running man and the faceless bad guys after him is a Hitchcockian device – think Cary Grant in North by Northwest – whittled back to the slenderest thread capable of supporting his story, which is more about human relationships and an artist’s relationship to celebrity. Any relationship to Truffaut’s sudden celebrity status surely not accidental.

Daniel Boulanger and Claude Mansard
Daniel Boulanger and Claude Mansard

It was written as it was being shot, on the fly, with the lithe camera of DP Raoul Coutard (a New Wave fave) alighting on characters as if it had just accidentally happened upon them in a cafe. There’s a bricolage quality to the entire thing, emphasised by the fact that Charlie and Chico are names out of comedy (Chaplin and Marx) and the gangsters trade lines about women’s underwear rather than who they’re going to waste next. Here Truffaut is laying down a scent trail for Quentin Tarantino and his loquacious bad guys. Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger) could easily be repurposed as characters in Jackie Brown or Pulp Fiction.

Lively, fast moving, playful and free, it’s a visually driven film full of New Wave stylistic tics like jump cuts, but Truffaut also throws in split screens, cutaways reminscent of silent-era comedies, thought bubbles, and sudden close-ups. Even without the gimmicks, this is a film that’s amazingly fast on its feet. Compare it to a Sam Fuller film from the same era (Truffaut was a big fan), like Underworld USA, and Truffaut is streets ahead.

The magic, the radicalism of what Truffaut is doing has been absorbed away into the mainstream over the years, which leaves us able to focus more on the content than the style of Tirez le pianiste. A second order magnificence asserts itself – Aznavour’s minimalist performance as Charlie, an avatar of the painfully shy Truffaut, a troubled man being buffeted by life and paying the price for his lack of agency.

Shy maybe, but a hit with women – the wife Thérèse (Nicole Berger), Léna, the café waitress Charlie later takes up with, and Clarisse (Michèle Mercier), the prostitute who acts as a surrogate mother to Charlie’s/Edouard’s son and shares Charlie’s bed. Sex, and nudity (this is where the arthouse/porn crossover starts) being all part of the lively mix. Add in a few jangly tunes on the old piano, and, well, vastly entertained.

Not bad at all, considering it’s a tragedy that ends in death.

Shoot the Piano Player – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Labyrinth of Cinema

Two lovers silhouetted against a red moon

At a certain point words won’t do. So it is with Labyrinth of Cinema, a wild kaleidoscopic three hours designed as a farewell by an old man to an art and craft he has loved, and to the world he’s been living in for around 80 years.

The man is called Nobuhiko Ôbayashi and he’d been making films since 1944 – his first one minute short – when he was eight years old. In 2016 Ôbayashi was diagnosed with terminal cancer while making his previous movie, Hanagatami, and told he had only three months to live. He finished that film and, amazingly, started work on this next one, designed as a vast summing up of the whole damn thing and a wave goodbye with a song in his heart.

Here’s where the words start to fail, though things start out straightforwardly enough. A cinema in the city of Onomichi (the director’s home town) is closing down and decides to go out with a bang with an all-nighter of war movies. (Ôbayashi has spent his career making anti-war movies, and so this is all part of his cosmic joke.) A quick introduction to several characters – the aged owner of the cinema, her dedicated old-school projectionist, a pretty teenager called Noriko (Rei Yoshida), a film buff called Mario (Takuro Atsuki), a former monk who’s now a street punk called Shigeru (Yoshihiko Hosoda) and an academic film historian called Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada).

At a certain point, after we’ve already noted that Ôbayashi is slathering on the montage and working his way through every effects setting in Final Cut Pro, Noriko suddenly finds herself inside the film instead of in the audience watching it, and is closely followed by Mario, Shigeru and Hosuke, in a development reminiscent of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, though to more ambitious purposes.

Ôbayashi sets to with a young man’s enthusiasm for an old man’s passions, recreating the genres of his youth – the musical, the samurai epic, the yakuza movie, a geisha drama – inserting his characters into each and then yanking them out again and sitting them back in their seats. Gradually it becomes clear that Ôbayashi is most interested in the war movie and its representation of several significant conflicts. The Boshin War, or Japanese Civil War, of 1868, the Sino Japanese War of 1894 and eventually the Second World War.

Shigeru, Hosuke and Mario
Into the labyrinth: Shigeru, Hosuke and Mario

Ôbayashi slides between three vantage points – his heroes are either sitting in their seats watching the action on the screen, inside looking on or, increasingly, inside taking part. The occasional character from “inside” also escapes into the outside world, just to mix things up a bit more.

The most remarkable thing about the film is Ôbayashi’s command of tone. Labyrinth of Cinema starts out in a register that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of The Monkees. Zany, quickfire, amusing, irreverent etc, with Japanese wartime xenophobia acting as a sort of running joke. But as Noriko, Shigeru et al find themselves becoming more involved in the on-screen world, gradually Ôbayashi wheels the entire film around, as if turning a supertanker. And with the first mention of the name Hiroshima things step into more elegiac territory and a terrible sense of foreboding is established, made only more poignant by the fact that Noriko, on screen and off, seems to have fallen in love. Cinematography and soundtrack follow suit, swapping out discord for beautifully framed and lit imagery, and a score that surges plaintively like something out of Brief Encounter.

Here, as Ôbayashi abandons his arch playfulness and replaces it with a tenderness that’s almost too much to bear, the misgivings fell entirely away. Tying together fact (the cinema audience) and fiction (what they’re watching), the present and the past, Ôbayashi is working at a meta level but also insisting on specifics – not for nothing are a film historian and a film buff on hand, and even over the end credits a voiceover is telling us the name of the song we’re listening to, who wrote it, sang it etc.

Simultaneously massive and yet operating on a simple human scale, it’s a remarkable achievement and a hell of a way to go. That’s the director, with his back to us at the end, tinkling away on an old out-of-tune piano. By the time most audiences got to see his film in 2020, he was dead. Labyrinth of Cinema is his requiem.

Labyrinth of Cinema – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022