THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN (Lewis Milestone, 1936) the third film on the first disc of Universal’s Gary Cooper collection, and while it definitely suffers in comparison with Hathaway’s PETER IBBETSON and Lubitsch’s DESIGN FOR LIVING (both covered in Auteur Files #15), it still has quite a lot working in its favor. Milestone is one of numerous prestige directors that ended up in the late studio-era doldrums; most notable to casual film fans as presiding over ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and THE FRONT PAGE, by 1960 he was helming the original, unexceptional OCEAN’S ELEVEN and working in episodic TV. He gets lambasted rather strongly by Sarris in THE AMERICAN CINEMA (Less Than Meets the Eye, natch) but maybe the nastiest denigration of Milestone’s talents that I’ve read (at least recently) was courtesy of Bertrand Tavernier in the Dec ’63-Jan ’64 issue of CAHIERS DU CINEMA. Yet even he, working in the once infamous polemical mode of early Auteurist criticism, admitted that Milestone exhibited talent in his “less ambitious or less celebrated productions”, naming GENERAL as one example. And it’s indeed a fun, somewhat kooky bit of business, essentially an espionage pic set in mainland-China with a gun-running Cooper finding himself at odds with a Feudal warlord played by Akim Tamiroff. With a screenplay by Clifford Odets, it comes as no surprise that Coop is dealing weapons on behalf of The People against the evil murderous tax-levying exploiter that is Tamiroff’s character. Frankly, I can relate to the sentiments expressed, but the occasional platitudinal sermonizing does create some dissonance in what’s generally a strong script. Admirably, GENERAL wastes no time getting into the thick of things, and Milestone’s visual scheme is quite appealing if not mind-blowing, particularly a nicely executed dissolve early in the film. Later, there is a magnificent if brief multi-screen segment that justifies the time spent with GENERAL all by its lonesome. For the most part however, the direction is spirited and efficient, matching the tone of the story, which Western Union touches aside, is loaded with double-crossing, nicely building intrigue and even some lovey-dovey stuff. Along the way I was very impressed by Milestone’s handling of a complexly structured hotel room scene, with control shifting, characters intruding, guns toting and missing loot hiding-out right underneath everyone’s nose. And the cast is peppered with quality players; William Frawley (aka Fred Mertz) as a mean and drunken gun dealer, Porter Hall as a squirrelly and doomed lackey for Tamiroff, the gorgeous Madeleine Carroll as Hall’s daughter and Coop’s love interest, and the great J.M. Kerrigan as a wily and mercenary thief who interjects himself into the thick of things and pulls off the shrewd trick of embodying two seemingly opposing qualities, being unlikeable and magnetic at once. Writer John O’Hara also has a bit part as a reporter, and he’s as wooden as a cigar store something or other. The ending is perhaps mildly disappointing in how it makes a large point about the vanity of tyrants, but that’s not a big deal. A bigger deal is the film’s employment of ethnic caricature; did I mention that THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN is burdened with yellowface? I didn’t? Okay then; THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN is burdened with yellowface. Specifically, Tamiroff as General Yang and Dudley Digges as Mr. Wu play Oriental grotesques that stand out even more because they mingle with supporting players who are of authentic Asian ancestry. Every cinephile’s sensitivity varies in relation to questionable or downright objectionable content, particularly if the offense hits close to home. For me, GENERAL’s racial stereotyping is a definite weakening factor, but it doesn’t sink the ship; Tamiroff and Digges are off-screen a whole lot. But your fuel economy might differ. And on one hand the script’s progressive qualities jives not a bit with the ol’ Chinaman shtick, but on the other this ideological incongruity lends the film a certain historical accuracy; true progress is always problematic. The racism here is also in plain sight, which to me helps in neutralizing its toxicity. The trickier, subtler, occasionally subliminal racist qualities that afflict certain contemporary films are a much bigger problem (And yes, my perspective on this whole issue comes as a white male, likely the least discriminated against group in the planet’s history). In my estimation THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN has paid the price; it seems to be a film often mentioned but rarely talked about at length, at least in the polite company of the internet. Honestly, I only watched it because it was included on a disc with the Lubitsch and Hathaway flicks. I needed to bone up on my Milestone and figured what the hell. Well, I’m glad I did yellowface issues and all. GENERAL is no masterpiece, falling just shy of classic status for me, but any quality film is a welcome one. Milestone will likely never climb beyond mid-level in my personal hierarchy of directorial esteem, but I can’t deny that his early stuff is pretty agreeable.
DRIVE (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) the critical reaction to this arty crime flick has generally been positive, with a few dissenting voices speaking up to lend some needed perspective. I liked it a lot, though it has a few non-fatal flaws; for a start, Carrie Mulligan is miscast as the love interest of Ryan Gosling’s Driver. While it didn’t totally strain the bonds of credibility, I simply didn’t buy that he would be so taken with the pretty but also somewhat plain mom living next door. Was the fact that she’s easily the most fundamentally decent character in the movie supposed to convince me to Gosling’s attraction? Well, no; that’s just too easy. Furthermore, this is a film purposefully and effectively dominated by male performances, but I could have stood more screen time from the electric Christina Hendricks. She was totally convincing as the type of tough bird who’d rob a pawn shop without blinking an eye. Gosling is quite solid in his role, but I think the best performances in DRIVE belong to Bryan Cranston as a hard-luck garage-owner perennially trying and failing for bigger things, Oscar Isaac as Mulligan’s just sprung from prison husband, a role/portrayal that could’ve easily been one-note but is invested with a real sense of human dimension as a guy stuck between a butt-ugly rock and an impossibly nasty place, and Albert Brooks as a fearsome crime-boss whose persona lands squarely between no-nonsense and excessively talkative. But the real star of DRIVE is Refn. This is a meticulously crafted film, as self-conscious an auteur maneuver as I’ve seen lately, with the good far outweighing the bad in its construction. It opens with a thrillingly concise bit of action as exposition then settles down into a long stretch of existential narrative atmospherics that get punctuated and eventually overtaken by bursts of extreme violence. Refn knows how to film action and he’s a bold stylist, so he also knows how to film inaction. DRIVE’s color scheme alone is worthy of commendation, and in general the movie is a visual feast. Some commentators have taken the long view, making references to Yates’ BULLITT and Melville’s LE SAMOURAÏ. This doesn’t seem inappropriate, but the more accurate connection is to ‘80s flicks like Mann’s THIEF and Friedkin’s TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. A big reason for the comparison is the use of color (and a font bluntly cribbed from Brickman’s RISKY BUSINESS), but an even bigger signifier comes through a rather heavy-handed synth-pop score; if Refn’s intention was to repeatedly hit a note of cheesiness as homage, well he certainly succeeded. I forgot to check the credits to see if the recurring tune with the almost parodically banal lyrics was indeed titled “The Driver’s Theme”. If not, it should’ve been. But while some of the music definitely registers as a flaw (the more ambient stuff is actually very good), it does ultimately assist in illuminating Refn’s personality and significance as a filmmaker. DRIVE may reference the abovementioned films, but directorially, at least here, Refn feels more in league with Quentin Tarantino; BULLITT, THIEF and even LE SAMOURAÏ are movies with reputations that built slowly, developing cults of cool that grew as more people experienced the films. By contrast, DRIVE is very deliberately telegraphing its coolness so the impact is felt long before the tuchus leaves the seat. And the music makes this point quite clear. The work of Lalo Schifrin for Yates and Tangerine Dream for Mann is now revered in soundtrack circles, but again, this didn’t happen overnight. The pop song elements in DRIVE are obviously attempting a hip retro vibe, but the tactic flounders to my ear, feeling instead like a descendant of Berlin’s work for TOP GUN. Oh well, nice try. In the end, DRIVE has far less in common with the films it references and is more appropriately comparable to Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF. Two car movies yes, but more importantly, two films with blatant, inherent surface debts to filmic precedent that are actually intrinsically contemporary. Don’t know if Refn deserved the Best Director Award at Cannes, but DRIVE is an assured, high-quality piece of work.
HELL’S HALF ACRE (John H. Auer, 1954) inspired by the inaugural entry in Dave Kehr’s new FILM COMMENT column “Further Research” (July/August issue), a typically well written text on Auer, I streamed this low-budget Republic Pictures entry in the rather substantial if generally unavailable filmography of a widely ignored director; he signed his name to dozens of pictures from the 30’s through the ‘50s, yet until Kehr’s article I hadn’t encountered anything of substance devoted pro or con to the guy’s work. But if HELL’S HALF ACRE is representative of Auer’s style, he was a very interesting and unusual talent. Hawaiian noir is what’s happening, with a low budget and an abundance of energy; Wendell Corey plays Chet Chester, an island émigré with a shady past going clean with his gorgeous island gal Sally Lee (Nancy Gates). We’re introduced to the pair via the nightclub of Roger Kong (Phillip Ahn, who also appeared in THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN), a native that just happens to be an ex-partner in sketchy dealings with Chester. He’s throwing a party in Chet’s honor, and before the couple can sit down to order dinner another ex-partner enters the story (Robert Costa), sitting by his lonesome and glaring menacingly with the intention of blackmailing Chester. Kong gets on the house PA to announce that the evening’s shindig is a premier party for a song, specifically an ode to the islands, which Chester wrote and recorded. This is where things really get interesting; as the tune fills the nightclub and floods the soundtrack, we are confronted with Chester’s disembodied voice as part of the music while the person delivering the words sits mutely at his table. And in the club a choir sings, musicians play and dancers dance. Chester’s words are spoken not sung, feeling like narration as we are simultaneously asked to read (along with Sally Lee) the blackmail note from the glowering nogoodnik, whose seat is now conspicuously empty. She excuses herself from the table, tracks down the dude and follows him to a small side room where they bulldoze through a bunch of necessary exposition; with Chester’s background and the nefariousness of this character’s scheme fully illuminated, Sally shoots him in the forehead with blunt efficiency and then returns to Chester as his weird singing/narration reasserts itself, the voice detailing the islands as a near utopia, an opinion that’s been handily undercut by the story in under ten minutes of running time. A bit surreal? Yes. Impressive? Oh, very much. From there Chester insists on taking the fall for Sally because he’s convinced he’ll get off light. It’s the least he should do. And then all sorts of twists and turns occur. But enough about story, the real star here is the direction. While I liked some of Auer’s decisions concerning camera movement, particularly one bit that made me think of Preminger visiting Poverty Row, HELL’S HALF ACRE’s best quality is its evocation of seedy atmosphere; the film’s title relates to the unsavory section of the islands, and Auer is quite successful at making tenement apartments look like dives and an under-populated dancehall reek as just the kind of joint where a smattering of down-on-their-luck dames might make a few extra coins paying attention to some schlubby heels. It becomes readily apparent that Auer was a director able, at least on this film, to turn the constrictions of budget to his distinct advantage. I’ll add that ACRE is more of a thematic noir than a pictorial one, though this shouldn’t register as a slight to the film’s visual strategies. It’s ultimately a story about what one guy perceives as a paradise curdling into something resembling his own personal hell; yes, archetypally noir, and it helps that nothing like redemption is in the cards for our protagonist. Also on the plus side is a strong cast, particularly Corey, Elsa Lanchester as a lovably eccentric Irish cabbie, Keye Luke as the police chief, the great Marie Windsor at her cold-hearted best and Jesse White as her booze-addled scumbag husband. Oh, and Evelyn Keyes, who turns up from Californ-i-aye as Chet Chester’s long lost wife. Did I say the story had some twists in store? But for all the quirks of narrative, ACRE never feels convoluted. Auer packs a lot into 90 minutes, but he’s not afraid to linger if needed; he gets good mileage out of two person conversations that advance story, strengthen character and deepen mood. Thematic comparisons I’ve read to THE THIRD MAN are on the money, and it’s very nice to see a flick set in an exotic locale that strikes a depiction of the indigenous population that’s not stereotypical, condescending or otherwise misguided (it’s a safe bet that Ahn preferred this role to the one in GENERAL). In conclusion, my investigation of John H. Auer has gotten off to fine start. Netflix streaming is currently the only place where HELL’S HALF ACRE, apparently never released on VHS or DVD, can be seen. It’s a print of surprisingly high quality for its vintage and it’s presented in the proper aspect ratio, something Netflix (or, to be fair, their suppliers) aren’t always conscientious about. Not sure where or when I’ll get to see more Auer, but I’m definitely keeping my eyes open.
THE CRAZIES (George A. Romero, 1973) one of William Lustig’s many gifts to film fans via his company Blue Underground (sort of the Criterion Collection of grindhouse/exploitation/hyper-violent/otherwise-transgressive cinema if you didn’t already know) was giving this long hard to find early Romero effort a DVD release. Since then, the pretty good Breck Eisner directed remake has helped to somewhat increase the profile of its inexplicably neglected source material, a movie of low budget and high aspirations; it’s about a virus outbreak in a small town and the attempt by the military/government to contain it. THE CRAZIES is very much a film of its time. Specifically, it posits that something is inherently bad about authority, certainly an unsurprising Vietnam/Watergate-era mindset, but in pitting the denizens of the town against the intruders from the Army Romero goes to great lengths to cloud the waters. For example, the movie’s most charismatic if not necessarily sympathetic performers fall on the side of authority. Amongst the townspeople we find an implicitly racist sheriff and a grandstanding mayor, both figures of local importance whose power is usurped by the invading group. Romero’s main objective is delivering a tightly-wound horror-thriller, but anybody with basic knowledge of the man’s work understands that his films reliably feature a surplus of ideas. Unlike the sluggish, soporific zombies of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the afflicted in THE CRAZIES are an unpredictable lot; once infected the carriers of the virus end up displaying a terrible combination of lunacy, anger and aggression. The movie’s first third depicts with hyperactive discipline the struggle between a roughshod and desperate (if at its core, well intentioned) group of military and the confused, panicky townspeople as they react in different ways to being placed under martial law. As violence between both factions comes to a head, the film’s mid-section additionally details the interior friction on both sides; the military with their government advisors, the local population simply amongst themselves. These storylines play out in THE CRAZIES’ final third, further complicated by building issues with identity. For one instance, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between the truly infected and those simply breaking down under stress. Like many a smart low-budget filmmaker, Romero knows how to ratchet up suspense and conflict through dialogue; when combined with the well-executed fast-cutting strategy THE CRAZIES achieves an admirable intensity. Normally, when I see a film with this much editing I start to get uncomfortable, thinking the makers have something to hide, and in this case Romero is effectively hiding his lack of budget, admitting as much on the DVD’s commentary track. But since his objectives are clear and his artistry genuine, this strategy works very much in the film’s favor, being the polar opposite of Hollywood’s recent tendency to get all coverage drunk in an attempt to cover up a poverty of filmmaking skill. From an editing standpoint this movie is by no means perfect, with Romero and Lustig actually pointing out a few mistakes as they chat on the commentary (though I didn’t notice them beforehand), but it is far more successful at delivering a kinetic yet coherent experience in storytelling than are so many recent over-budgeted and underwhelming filmic disappointments/disasters. When this common-sense visual approach is combined with a well-written, all-business script the narrative effect is something like fertilizer hitting a huge industrial fan. People are yelling and doing strange things and it all keeps getting worse. Probably because nobody really knew who he was in ’73 and LIVING DEAD had yet to become a cornerstone of modern horror, Romero didn’t hesitate to reuse/reconfigure LIVING’s classic opening sequence, and to strong result; this is what happens when the anxiety of expectations is essentially absent or overwhelmed by the cold hard facts of just having to get the job done. The opening of THE CRAZIES is by no means a carbon-copy of DEAD, but it does use a similar trope for no other reason than its blunt efficiency. In contrast, Romero’s fine casting of black actor Lloyd Hollar as Col. Peckham feels like a much more conscious decision, again likely based upon the precedent of LIVING, but in this case with a far less weighty influence on the film’s mechanics. Those well familiar with DAWN OF THE DEAD will immediately recognize actor Richard France, here playing a military scientist with the hammy chutzpah of the kind of dude constantly perceiving himself as the smartest person in the room, and yet not unlikeable for that fact. The three way arguments between France, Hollar and Harry Spillman as Major Ryder are a study in how to advance story and heighten tension all in one scene, one room in fact. But THE CRAZIES does so many things well it’s easy to overlook the occasional flaw. One such misstep is its foray into “funky police-drama chase scene” soundtrackery, a decision that really stands out in comparison with two of the movie’s superb and subtle sound maneuvers; a near constant ambient hum of machinery in the scenes from the military headquarters, and a fantastic howl of feedback pealing from a CB radio to sharply punctuate a line of dialogue and serving like the canned brass & strings from a film thirty years its vintage. There is also a wildly inappropriate credits song (penned by Carole Bayer Sager and Melissa Manchester) sporting a mournful Earth-Mother vibe, but that’s easily overlooked. Wisely, the big reveal that the virus was lab-created comes early, helping to establish the government as the true villains of the story. The scenes taking us to a conference room full of bickering suits where we are ultimately shown via video monitor the back of the President’s head could be characterized as ill-advised, but I really like how they embody the film’s desire to go all the way with its material, reminding me a bit of fellow ‘70s genre-mechanic Larry Cohen in the process. But where Cohen much more habitually hangs out on limbs of eccentricity, Romero is generally as sober as a steamroller (with the occasional accent of dark humor). After three viewings THE CRAZIES has entered my personal top tier from this brilliant director. Back in the day, blurb reviews in various movie guides would consistently underrate or mock this film as a misfire; sadly, I was never able to locate one of the VHS editions to decide for myself. Catching up with it in 2011 has proven quite illuminating. While he’s not quite at the peak of his game (that would be DAWN, a movie I consider one of the true masterpieces of post-studio-era American filmmaking), he’s awfully close, and with far fewer resources at his disposal.
DEATH WISH (Michael Winner, 1974) This is a bad movie. I could leave it at that, with a bluntly ambiguous dismissal, and in a sense that’s what this film deserves, for a lack of complexity is one of DEATH WISH’s biggest problems. Because there isn’t anything wrong with making a vigilante flick (like say Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER) and because there isn’t anything wrong with making a movie that’s pro-gun ownership (such as Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, though I’m sure some will disagree with my characterization), and because there isn’t anything wrong with making a film that skewers liberalism as being soft on crime (how ‘bout Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY or Karlson’s WALKING TALL [which come to think of it sits in my memory as a fine example of a no-nonsense vigilante movie]?). But Winner’s picture suffers its biggest setbacks by being overrun with one-dimensional characters that never develop into anything more than stunted representations of ugly, cartoonish inhumanity. Street thugs are drugged-out, visibly depraved and barely able to compose themselves between crimes. This sort of cardboard characterization has been a part of storytelling for a long time, exploitation cinema being particularly indebted to the practice, and there is nothing especially wrong with it in operation. But DEATH WISH, in the end, is only half an exploitation flick, though it gets off to a good start; its story consists of an avenger, some victims, a city full of potential targets, criminals running roughshod, and law enforcement going through the motions of maintaining a semblance of control. Anything in the movie that can be linked with the problem of urban decay is skewed toward the exploitative. That’s basically rampant vandals, muggers and rapists, along with ineffectual, callous cops and the poor people who clutter up the city and make it look ugly. And DEATH WISH is a very ugly looking film, though I think on purpose; I consider Winner to be a bad director, but I’m not sure I’d call him an inept one. However, in contrast to the movie’s exploitative portraiture of its bad-guys, the character played by Charles Bronson (Paul Kersey) along with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and a few associates are afforded a level of humanity in their affluence, even if its depiction is all rather tritely executed. It’s sort of like Reefer Madness meets the characters in an undistinguished TV Movie of the Week circa ’74 or so. And this ultimately brought to mind one of the best lines from Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, when the old lady who’s putting up a fight against Alex says something close to “I’ll teach you to break into real people’s houses”. DEATH WISH draws the lines between the real people and the murderous, thieving, sub-human hoards pretty clearly. Mingling with this inconsistency is Winner’s direction, which possesses a brutal artlessness. It’s almost as if he deliberately designed shots to communicate a canvas drained of aesthetic qualities while being sure not to disrupt the film’s narrative flow or its function as a commercial piece of rock ‘em sock ‘em cinema. I counted maybe three shots in the whole movie with appealing composition. One was at a funeral in a snowstorm. This tactic, if that’s indeed what it is, turns the early home-invasion scene into a particularly repellant passage, a strategy that makes some sort of ideological sense; ugly actions like rape and murder shouldn’t be pretty to look at. But the whole movie is burdened with this sensibility. From the beginning the editing is choppy, and some music cues are so blunt as to become alienating. Other long sequences either falter into the visually drab or look like rejected footage from some junk-ass contemporaneous police drama. And yet DEATH WISH has other issues. One is the nagging problem of race. I’ll be clear that in no way is the movie explicitly racist. But this is a film that definitely has race (and how that connects to the issue of class, and how that connects to the issue of urban crime) on its mind. Earlier I almost typed that DEATH WISH is a picture totally devoid of subtlety. But no, that’s wrong. WISH is actually fairly nuanced in how it promotes a certain circular equation: CRIMINALS = POOR PEOPLE = NON CAUCASIAN PEOPLE = CRIMINALS. When the topic of Bronson’s mystery vigilante being racist gets broached and briefly debated at a party the movie seems to be attempting to stamp down accusatory controversy before it begins, but in so doing it just can’t help exposing its mindset perhaps a bit too much. If DEATH WISH was a person, it would likely be that jerk at the bar informing the unfortunate patron next to him that “I’m no racist” before uttering the inevitable “but…” and then plunging into an odious and longwinded screed. So yeah, DEATH WISH’s other big problem is that the half that’s not an exploitation flick turns into a message movie, with the message being: well-to-do Whitey is under siege in warzone New York City due to poverty and darker skin-tones breeding a pestilence called Crime, and the only way to beat this situation is to start taking matters into our own hands, because the cops, lawyers and judges are more interested in job security than in keeping well-to-do Whitey safe. Message movies on the left are very often just excuses for self-congratulatory back-patting (see Paul Haggis’s CRASH, amongst many others). Right wing message movies like DEATH WISH are often just excuses to identify a problem and then fantasize over how it should be dealt with, if only those soft-hearted liberal pansies didn’t muck-up the works. Meanwhile, violent crime statistics, particularly in urban areas, are nothing like they were in ’74 and haven’t been for a long time, and that’s not due to every Tom, Dick and Dirty Harry flying off the handle like wannabe-Bronsons. Fact is, the NYC of this movie is an absolute fabrication, feeling like an urban battleground in some arid science-fiction future, and in retrospect it’s a bit embarrassing that Vincent Canby (he of the home-team NY Times) reacted so strongly against it, taking the bait hook, line, sinker, poll and Michael Winner’s right arm for good measure (and to be fair Canby was far from the only one stirred up). But DEATH WISH has become a period piece in regard to its message and its violence (yeah, even that home invasion/rape/murder) and the reactionary mindset it espouses, both having been outdone many times over, its attitude even figuring into some films I happen to like a whole lot more than this one. Christopher Sorrentino, noted author of the novels SOUND ON SOUND and TRANCE (and son of the late great Gilbert, he of MULLIGAN STEW and many others) has a new book out, part of a series of short ditties from the Soft Skull Press that enthuse on less celebrated films, and he picked DEATH WISH as the subject for his entry. I’m pretty stoked to read it, largely because I know he’s going to have a very different viewpoint than I do. It’s doubtful I’ll ever consider DEATH WISH to be a good film, but never underestimate the powers of persuasion. We’ll just have to wait and see.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION (William Friedkin, 1971) an undeniably influential policier that I happen to like a lot, even if it can be accused of lacking mise en scène in exchange for a perhaps slightly overdone gritty urban realism. Given the choice between enhanced reality and smartly constructed fiction, I will almost always take the latter, but FRENCH is so well done that it becomes near impossible to resist. The story is a fairly simple one. Two narcotics officers stumble onto the attempt to smuggle a huge amount of heroin into the country. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider are the cops, Fernando Rey the smuggler, Tony Lo Bianco is the middleman for the buyer. Friedkin uses this setup based on real events to deeply examine the complex tug-of-war between criminality and law enforcement while offering up a portrait of New York City that’s hyper-gritty and constantly abuzz with intensity. The director has detailed how he placed his camera-people into situations that produced a deliberate spontaneity. It’s been described as a documentary look, but another way of putting it is that FRENCH eschews composition and design for rugged, moody atmosphere with an emphasis on realist detail. Along the way things get blurred a bit. Hackman’s character, James “Popeye” Doyle, is a bit of a shit, albeit a fascinating one, with an abrasive personality, a racist streak and a skewed ethical compass as just three of his problems. Rey’s trafficker, while bluntly depicted as a criminal with ties to murder, is also shown as a man of culture and manners who behaves decently as a husband and cultivates an image as a respectable businessman. Doyle, with the more reserved Buddy Russo as played by Scheider seemingly keeping him from going completely off the rails, is a study in obsession. As the film speeds along, Hackman’s behavior feels far less motivated by the desire to do good than to simply emerge victorious in the struggle with those on the other side. THE FRENCH CONNECTION isn’t very subtle in the points it wants to make, but it also isn’t heavy-handed; during the extended surveillance scenes a frigid and miserable Hackman is depicted suffering not only the weather but undrinkable coffee while Rey and his henchman/hit-man enjoy a multi-course meal in a classy, warm restaurant. The contrast is obvious but again not overstated. One of this scene’s functions is to tip audience sympathy toward a rather difficult character, but I like how Friedkin doesn’t force the issue. I ultimately don’t sympathize with Hackman; it’s true his blustery and somewhat odious persona has become a staple of the contemporary law-enforcement procedural, e.g. the dirty cop aka the rule breaker that gets things done, but what quickly becomes apparent is just how deeply his obsessiveness and need for adrenalin combine into the pathological, again becoming far less about right and wrong and almost entirely about winning and losing. As such, Scheider’s Russo is far more sympathetic, especially when he’s stuck between his partner and a sour, perpetually spoiling for a fight fed agent named Mulderig (Bill Hickman). THE FRENCH CONNECTION is justifiably famous for its centerpiece chase scene, and it’s certainly a great one, but in delivering the visceral thrills it really emphasizes just how unconcerned Hackman is with the concept of public safety in the pursuit of what he wants, the sequence culminating in the moral ambiguity of Rey’s hit-man accomplice getting shot in the back. Also, it’s been pointed out that Friedkin really whittles away at the film’s expositional properties and yeah, that’s on target. While far from the first to recognize the filmic literacy of his audience, Friedkin did however seize upon the era’s changing mores to craft a picture with the understanding that the viewer (or most of them anyway) would implicitly apply certain elements from past experience as movie-going convention: good cop/bad cop, the friction between different law-enforcement jurisdictions, the foreboding ambiance of the drug trade. And yet this process of elimination is selectively applied, and to positive effect. A conversation between Hackman and a street informer could’ve been handled much more perfunctorily, but instead becomes one of the best sequences in the film. In the end, even though I consider THE FRENCH CONNECTION to be a great achievement, I do think it’s a bit overrated, particularly after catching up with such major, unfairly neglected ‘70s films as Yates’ THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE and Culp’s HICKEY AND BOGGS. But upon re-watching this I liked it a lot more than expected, and I’ll give Friedkin credit for not getting stuck in this docu-realist mode in his subsequent films. I’m suddenly very interested in catching up with SORCERER.
BORN TO WIN (Ivan Passer, 1971) many pre-DVD home video consumers may recall this movie being peddled rather shamelessly on ultra-cheap-o Extended Play VHS-tapes as starring a young Robert De Niro, who in reality plays a fine if undistinguished supporting role to George Segal’s junkie and Karen Black’s slumming gal who can’t help falling for him. Passer, a Czech New Wave figure and Milos Forman associate who defected his home country for the States after the Soviet invasion of ’68 is an artist probably most notable today for the Jeff Bridges-starring cult item CUTTER’S WAY from ’81. I’ve wanted to catch up with WAY for a few years now but have stubbornly resisted, hoping to get an opportunity to see ‘65’s INTIMATE LIGHTING, Passer’s feature debut in the desire for the potential clarity of chronological development. Well, no dice, since LIGHTING is currently unavailable in the US. It’s true I’d already watched BORN TO WIN circa ’93 or thereabouts, but so much time has passed that I retained only the vaguest of memories about the substantial quality of its qualities. Sort of a hybrid of dark comedy and the “going-down-slow” slice-of-life dramas that were quite common in the early ‘70s, Passer’s film actually strikes a workable balance between the two, with his camera documenting turn of the decade New York as a place so ingrained with low-rent seediness that it starts to border on bland, the style raw but not-undisciplined and able to naturally capture a specific period reality without slipping into stilted or gaudy datedness. As such, I value BORN TO WIN over De Palma’s largely unsuccessful HI, MOM! and much more than Schlesinger’s terribly overrated MIDNIGHT COWBOY. Ex-hairdresser on the needle Jay Jay (Segal) meets Parm (Black) while trying to steal her car. They engage in some witty if obviously typewritten repartee that nails him down as a bullshit artist with a certain downtrodden charisma and a heart of if-not-gold than surely something resalable on the open market and situates her as a sort of divining rod made flesh for the fundamental decency in flawed, complex characters, which is to say they talk, then go back to her place to talk some more. Along the way the movie introduces us to Jay’s wife Veronica, a fellow addict turned prostitute embodied by Paula Prentiss as the type that can’t resist maudlinly apologizing while high for some perpetually undefined offense. Her pimp, The Geek, played with calm menace by Hector Elizondo, is also Jay’s dealer and occasional employer in illegal activities. As junkies are wont to do, Jay runs afoul of the law and attempts to betray The Geek, his lack of success plummeting him deeper into a quagmire and making plain that his biggest problem isn’t heroin but the near inability to do anything right. BORN TO WIN catches some crap for being a comedy about drug addiction, but I’ll credit this dicey blend as sincere and remarkably consistent; Jay Jay’s unshakable sense of failure is as ingrained in this story as it is in some early film comedy, though like in those movies his character also has an occasional fleeting success. To wit, the scene where he escapes the clutches of some adversaries by flashing neighbors through a window wearing a frilly nightgown, effectively luring the cops and allowing him to abscond (temporarily) victorious, is delivered with an audacity reminiscent of a screwball from 30 years previous. In this, BORN TO WIN is only really a “dark” comedy because it has tracks running up and down its arms and that it ends not with a swing into redemption or good fortune but with a fitting bleakness. Again, Passer’s visuals are low on flash and lack attention grabbing elements, instead favoring the accumulation of urban ambiance, and its druggy theme makes me want to lump it in with (and re-watch after too long) Schatzberg’s PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK, Morrissey’s TRASH and Van Sant’s DRUGSTORE COWBOY, but maybe the film’s best attribute is its outsider’s perspective on America, shedding light on the crummy underbelly of freedom. This element really places BORN TO WIN in a more interesting context, lining it up with Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT, Wim Wenders’ PARIS TEXAS and Wong Kar-Wai’s MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS, all films by non-native directors that are about America to differing but significant degrees. Interestingly, Passer’s film is the only one of these four to not encompass some manifestation of the West, being almost entirely set in New York City, though a futile trip to the beach by Jay and Parm links it to the others in presenting movement as an intrinsic aspect of American allure (if things get too bad, just pickup and go somewhere else). I’ll add that the performances here are uniformly strong (I really like Jay Fletcher as Billy Dynamite, Jay Jay’s ill-fated junkie sidekick), and further speculate that the film’s public domain status has actually contributed to its relative neglect. Some of those VHS covers were brutally shoddy, simply oozing fast-buck opportunism, the movie becoming sorta notorious back in the day as “that flick about a junkie that De Niro’s in for ten minutes”. I reacquainted myself with it through Netflix Streaming, though it’s also available for free through the auspices of the Internet Archive, and I think it’s a great, somewhat misunderstood film from a director whose career has suffered more than its share of bad breaks. Highly recommended.