From Bouchercon 2011: Shadows Rising – Films for Crime Fiction fans
An embarassment of riches, that is what I was faced with when attempting to organize my film panel with Megan Abbott, David Corbett, Russel McLean, Todd Ritter and Wallace Stroby.
No matter what concept we looked at, time was an issue. And while I am happy with the response we received from the audience, we presented a mere fraction of the planned presentation.
So here is the complete panel: Each panelist has picked three films deemed essential, from several periods of time.
ROARING TWENTIES (1939)
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
M (1931) Director: Fritz Lang; starring Peter Lorre
The reason this is my top pick is because it provides one of the greatest performances on screen, ever: Peter Lorre’s confession as the child killer during the trial sequence near the movie’s end. This feverishly impassioned monologue is one of the most psychologically and morally complex in all of film, combing dread with self-pitying manipulation and the very real horror of helpless self-recognition. The film also fuses a brilliant story with a stunning visual technique without sacrificing a gritty urban realism. The irony at the heart of the film—that a child killer so energizes the police, without making them efficient, he obliges the city’s criminals to search for him themselves—is compounded with the resonance of the rise of Nazism. M is by no means an allegory—Lang was far too sophisiticated a storyteller for that—but on reflection, even as one continues to root for the criminals, who seem to provide the ironic moral anchor for the film, it’s hard not to recognize an unsettling subtext: The social element that proclaims to want to protect children (while secretly pursuing its own illicit agenda), that goes about it with efficiency and skill and even with the trappings of due process, may in fact be, well, a bunch of criminals. (The fact Lang’s first film in the US after fleeing the Nazis, Fury, would focus on mob justice is hardly surprising.)
Remaining Two of Top Three:
LE JOUR SE LEVE (1939) Director: Marcel Carné; screenwriter: Jacques Prévert; starring Jean Gabin, Arletty
From the same director/screenwriter team who created Les Enfants du Paradis, a beautiful, tough love story that begins with a murder and ends (surprise!) tragically.
SCARLET STREET (1945) Director: Fritz Lang; starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea
Another offering from the great Fritz Lang, this one made in America, and a gritty, uncompromising remake of Woman in the Window (1944), which Lang felt had been sentimentalized and sanitized by studio bigwigs.
THE PUBLIC ENEMY
No list is complete without it.
MURDER MY SWEET Dick Powell brings a very different kind of Marlowe to the iconic one we all know from Bogie’s performance.
THE MALTESE FALCON
With apologies to all those who have recently jumped on the cool-to-bash-the-falcon bandwagon
SHADOW OF A DOUBT
Hitchcock’s warped love letter to small-town America. Joseph Cotten has never been more menacing and Theresa Wright never more plucky.
Fritz Lang’s dark procedural makes criminals the cops on the hunt for child killer Peter Lorre in pre-war Berlin. No one comes out looking good.
THE THIN MAN
As effervescent as champagne and as snappy as a stick of Wrigley. The plot is a throwaway. The keepers here are the dialogue and the chemistry between Myrna Loy and William Powell.
THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931)/ DEAD END (1937):
Crime in a social context: Prohibition and the Depression, and how American gangsters are made.
THE MALTESE FALCON (1941):
Dashiell Hammett’s world view invades popular culture. An obvious pick, but any film you can easily name multiple characters from 70 years after its release deserves to be include
Cold War Crime (1946-1965)
IN A LONELY PLACE (1950)
NAKED KISS (1964)
IL BIDONE (“the swindle”—1955) director: federico fellini; starring: broderick crawford, richard basehart, giulietta masina
Filmed between the shooting of La Strada (1952) and Nights in Cabiria (1956), it tells the story of an aging smalltime hustler plagued by his own feckless past who seeks to redeem himself by supplying the money for the schooling of a daughter he has rarely met. The story was inspired by anecdotes Fellini heard from a petty thief on the set of La Strada. Bogart was Fellini’s first choice for the film’s “intense, tragic face,” but the actor’s lung cancer made that impracticable. The director recruited Crawford after seeing his image on a poster for All the King’s Men (1949). Plagued by Crawford’s alcoholism, shooting was difficult and critical reception scathing. The film did miserably in Italy and was not distributed abroad until 1964. Pity—it’s a rare gem.
Remaining Two of Top Three:
NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950) Director: Jules Dassin; starring Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers)
Seriously, might be my favorite from this era. A visually stunning film with crackling dialog and mesmerizing performances from some of the greatest British character actors you’ll ever see. But it’s Widmark’s film, and he’s incandescent.
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) Director: Alexander Mackendrick; starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis
Okay, it’s not a crime movie, so shoot me. It sure feels like one. Criminals could learn a few things from J.J. Hunsecker (modelled after Walter Winchell) and Sidney Falco. Absolutely some of the best dialog ever written. (“The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.”… “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie filled with arsenic.”) Stunning visually, with Lancaster and Curtis in their best roles.
With apologies to Todd but to my mind its a goddamn perfect movie.
The heist is perfection.
A TOUCH OF EVIL
Yes Charlton Heston plays a mexican, but what an opening…
Hitch’s finest hour, with James Stewart and a never-more-luminous Grace Kelly watching the neighbors across the way. Pure cinema. Pure fun. Pure suspense.
THE THIRD MAN
A zither-scored tour of war-ravaged Vienna, full of shifting alliances and looming shadows. Orson Welles’ entrance is one of filmdom’s most memorable.
Gloria Swanson’s titanic performance anchors this dark-as-night Hollywood noir. Maybe the most cynical movie about the movies ever made.
RIFIFI (1955): Influenced by American gangster dramas, this brilliant French heist film (directed by a blacklisted American from a French novel) went on to influence a generation of crime novelists (Donald E. Westlake, etc.) and filmmakers (Stanley Kubrick), who in turn influenced more French films, etc., etc.
KISS ME, DEADLY (1955): Atom-age noir: Thuggish detective Mike Hammer chases the “Great Whatsit” and nearly unleashes the Apocalypse.
THE KILLING (1956): The heist as a complex machine, slowly breaking down. Stanley Kubrick plays with time, directing a cast of noir veterans in a script co-written by Jim Thompson.
MEAN STREETS (1973)
CHINATOWN (1974) Director: Roman Polansky; starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
My one safe, obvious pick. But it’s a no-brainer. Polansky and screenwriter Robert Towne argued violently over the ending, and parted ways. Polansky’s ending won, and became iconic. (Towne mocked it as “the tunnel at the end of the light,” but decades later conceded it was the right choice.) The story is based in part on Oedipus, with art direction that makes the most of the self-blinding that serves as the core metaphor of the Sophoclean version (note how many times eyes, eyeglasses, windshields, etc., are key to the story—and the ending). But the most important and impressive aspect of the film is the way it turns the detective genre on its head. Instead of the PI hero digging deeper and deeper until he uncovers the truth, we see him as intrinsically self-deluded, uncovering clues and unraveling the scam but always missing an essential truth, until he winds up once again in Chinatown as though driven by Nietzsche’s dictum of eternal return.
Remaining Two of Top Three:
MICKEY ONE (1965) Director: Arhur Penn; starring Warren Beaty, Franchot Tone, Hurd Hatfield
Two years later, Penn would direct Beatty again in the spectacular Bonnie and Clyde. But this remains a sentimental favorite of mine. I saw it maybe five times over a marathon weekend of TV showings in LA, and was mesmerized. Beatty’s performance is every bit as electric as Widmark’s in Night and the City, but in much tighter confines. He plays a stage comic who—for reasons he’s never able to determine—alienated someone in the Detroit mob, forcing him to flee. He’s trying to pick up his career in Chicago, hoping for the impossible—that he can both be a success and not be noticed. Guess what happens.
THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976) Director: John Cassavettes; starring: Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel
Admittedly, Cassavettes is one of those directors you’re supposed to like even if you don’t. The “art as medicine” metaphor—even if you hate it, it’s good for you. And parts of this film are damn near unwatchable. (If you ever go to a strip club in LA and a guy named Mr. Sophistication is introducing the girls? Run.) But the film is also genuinely frightening in ways more conventional films never get to. The emotions are genuine and therefore shocking in places—as when, at an underground casino, a wife derides her dentist husband when they’re brought before a roomful of gangsters to discuss the extent of the man’s losses. She’s clearly terrified, and her contempt for her putz of a hubby bristles. So too, the actual murder scene and the subsequent attempt by the gangsters to clean up a situation they thought they had under control—they generate a kind and a level of fear I just don’t feel often at the movies. So I forgive a lot of cinematic sins that maybe I shouldn’t, especially given how many other great films came out during this era (like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarecrow, Cool Hand Luke, King of Marvin Gardens, Serpico, The Godfather—all brilliant.)
Lee Marvin embodies the tough guy aesthetic in a way no one else can match.
The ultimate in so-called Brit Grit – “Your eyes haven’t changed, still two pissholes in the snow”
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT
They call me MISTER Tibbs – a perfect film that’s stood up to the test of time, imo.
Forties noir as seen through the haze of the seventies. The script is genius, Polanski’s direction rules and Nicholson and Dunaway have never been better. A masterpiece, pure and simple.
Sound is a character in Coppola’s other classic from 1974. Captured the paranoia of the Watergate years right as it was happening.
DRESSED TO KILL
Violent and absurd. There’s not a subtle bone in Brian De Palma’s body, and thank God for that. A film worthy of the era in which it was made.
GET CARTER (1971): Brit gangster Jack Carter (Michael Caine’s greatest performance) comes home to Newcastle to avenge his brother’s death. An almost perfect film, without a single false note.
MEAN STREETS (1973): DEAD END, ‘70s style. Smalltime hoods in Little Italy make choices that seal their fates.
ROLLING THUNDER (1977): Vietnam vet returns to a world he doesn’t understand, hits the vengeance trail with a sawed-off shotgun and a sharpened hook for a right hand. Half arthouse, half grindhouse.
Reaction: Reagan, Glasnost and the Tech Boom (1980s & 1990s)
BLUE VELVET (1986)
DRESSED TO KILL (1980)
BELLMAN & TRUE (1987) Director: Richard Loncraine; screenplay: Desmond Lowden; starring Bernard Hill, Derek Newark, Richard Hope
I have sung the praise of this film, and the novel on which it’s based, before on Murderati. It’s not just one of my top five favorite crime films, but one of my top five favorite films of any kind. A British bank caper with a father-son love story at its heart, it’s smart, brisk, iconoclastic and moving, with gripping and at times heartbreaking performances from a cast comprised largely of character actors, and a script that strips bare the folly in all human longing but leaves the odd, chimerical if shabby dignity of its characters fully if tragically intact.
Remaining Two of Top Three:
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992) Director: James Foley; screenplay: David Mamet; starring: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Jonathan Pryce, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey)
Again, not really a crime film—though, unlike Sweet Smell of Success, a crime actually does occur and get investigated in the course of the story—but it qualifies because it strips bare the greed, hunger, envy, deceit and rage that motivate so much of the behavior we think of as criminal, reveals how embedded that behavior is in human affairs—specifically business—and show us how intrinsically human, if also shameful and repellant, those motivations are. When I first saw this movie, I told a friend, “I just saw a horror movie, and all the monsters were salesmen.” Substitute “crime” for “horror” and “criminal” for “monster” and you’ll see why I include it in this list.
GARDE À VUE (1981) Director: Claude Miller; starring: Michel Serrault, Lino Ventura, Romy Schneider
Another tense, poignant, gripping film that shamefully remains an obscurity. A wealthy socialite, dragged in his tuxedo from a New Year’s Eve Party, is interrogated for the murder of a teenage prostitute. It was remade as Under Suspicion with Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, but this version is almost unwatchable. The remake removes the key element that makes the original so compelling: It takes place almost entirely at night in the cramped confines of the police station. The claustrophobic effect of that setting is crucial, especially with the chiaroscuro lighting and the spider-with-a-fly patience of the cops. Heightening the tension is the portrayal of the socialite by an arrogant, restless, übermasculine Michel Serrault, most famous (ironically) for his quirky, super-femme turn as Albin in La Cage aux Folles.
One of my ultimate comfort movies.
D’you think I wouldn’t sneak a scots film on here? For my money the only truly decent film Danny Boyle made.
Filming the unfilmable and doing it well.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
Much ink has been spilled about the cat and mouse game played between Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. The emotional resonance, though, comes from watching Foster as a damaged striver facing down inhumanity everywhere she turns.
The thriller that defined the eighties. It wouldn’t be nearly as good without Glenn Close, who infuses a madwoman with humanity while simultaneously scaring the shit out of every American male with a libido.
The greatest movie Russ Meyer never made. Look past the lesbian liplocks and teacher-student threeways and you’ll see a film that sets the bar low but clears it by a mile. Brilliant.
AT CLOSE RANGE (1986): Crime as a family affair. Sean Penn and Christopher Walken give two of their best performances as father and son criminals who come to a violent parting of the ways.
GOODFELLAS (1990): The greatest film about workaday gangsters ever made. Brutal, funny, invigorating, exhausting.
THIEF (1981): Michael Mann’s first look at the inner life of the high-end professional criminal, vastly superior to his later HEAT.
The Reign of Terror (2000 to present)
MULHOLLAND DR. (2001)
AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)
AMORES PERROS (2000) Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu; starring: Gabriel Garcia Bernal, Emilio Echevarría, Goya Toledo
This film, despite having so many elements of a crime picture—bank robberies, corrupt cops, underground dog-fighting with gang members putting their pit bulls in the ring, and a former revolutionary turned hired assassin—is actually a drama of the human heart. (I seem to possess an undying quest to see a crime film where none exists.) But like the other great films from this director—21 Grams and Biutiful—without the crime elements, the movie would lack much of the tension that makes it work. Narratively ambitious—without the preciousness that sometimes mars Tarantino’s efforts—it’s a multi-layered, intertwining story of two couples and a broken father, all searching for, trying to preserve, or hoping to reclaim the great loves of their lives. As the title suggests, it takes an almost dog-like ferocity to pull it off.
Remaining Two of Top Three:
THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2009) Director: Juan José Campanella; starring: Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Guillermo Francella
This time period (2000 to present) presented my biggest problem in picking a top film, because so many of the good films were great, and equally stunning. I love this picture, and consider it almost flawless. Its wedding of past and present into a single seamless narrative, and its subtly underplayed portrayal of political events at the time of the Peron restoration in Argentina, give the film its intelligence, while the love stories at its core, one tragic, one bungled but not yet lost, give it an elegiac heart. Ricardo Darín, like Vincent Cassel, is one of those leading men in the Bogart tradition with an intrinsically flawed face you can’t take your eyes off of. His performances (see also El Aura and Nine Queens) are understated, intelligent, witty and mesmerizing. But it’s not just Darín who makes this film work. The performances are stellar across the board—especially that of Guillermo Francella, an Argentinian comedian in his first dramatic role; and if you don’t fall in love with Soledad Villamil, you just might be an alien life form.
SEXY BEAST (2000) Director: Jonathan Glazer; starring Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShame, James Fox
Another flawless film, imho. The old trope of the gangster who’s left the trade only to get sucked back in gets a stellar makeover in sunny Spain and rain-drenched London. Witty, brutal, gorgeous, with some of the best dialog ever written and Ben Kingsley’s most stunning performance ever—call it the anti-Ghandi—it’s another British bank caper but so much more. Just slightly less narratively innovative as Memento (which came out the sasme year), it nonetheless moves in and out of present and past with deft fluidity, creating suspense, not confusion. Ian McShane has never been so steely or menacing, James Fox more weasly, Ray Winstone more endearingly rough—and Amanda Redman, as “Dirty Deedee” Dove, will steal your heart, even after the shotgun scene (maybe because of it).
Not so much about murders than about how those crimes can burrow into the consciousness of a city and stay there for years. Gorgeous and terrifying in equal measure.
Woody Allen transplants the plot of An American Tragedy to modern London and lets our anti-hero get away with it.
Wonderful weirdness from David Lynch. It could be seen as the flipside to Sunset Boulevard. Or it could all be a dream. I don’t know, and I don’t care.
THE PUSHER Trilogy (1996-2005): Three films about the Danish drug trade, following different characters in the same environment, hot-wired and supercharged by “Drive” director Nicholas Winding Refn.
ZODIAC (2007): Real-life noir, scrupulously faithful to the facts of the case. It gets under your skin in a way few movies do, not immediately, but stealthily and insidiously. A puzzle without an answer, a door without a key, an obsession with no catharsis.
GOMORRAH (2008): The real Godfathers. A multi-storyline crime epic, based on a nonfiction book, about how organized crime corrupts nearly every strata of Italian society.
KISS KISS, BANG BANG
Perfection – the Russian Roulette scene alone is worthwhile.
The kind of gritty crime drama it feels like we’ve forgotten how to make now.
Essentially an update of POINT BLANK in style – – Stamp’s the toughest guy on screen since Marvin.
Sacred Cow I Would Most Like to Gore:
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
REAR WINDOW (1954) Director: Alfred Hitchcock; starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr
My problems with Hitchock are that his films, despite their flawless pacing, brilliant cinematography, heart-stopping surprises and witty repartee, are too cerebral, too contrived, too conspicuously “artful” for my tastes. I rarely stop realizing I’m watching a movie. (I have this same problem with a lot of Tarantino’s films, and with Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, even though I enjoyed them all.) As I said on the panel, Hitchcock has never broken my heart—though he came close in Vertigo—and this for me is the bright line between very good and great. Admittedly, he’s scared the bejeebers out of me once or twice, largely because I know he doesn’t give a damn about human beings, and will toss a character off a cliff—or Mount Rushmore, or the Statue of Liberty—in a heartbeat. But in Rear Window he completely lost me. I just don’t care. It’s all set-up without a payoff I can buy into, a contrivance not a story, too precious, too neat. I don’t hate it. I just don’t care if I never see it again, and wonder why everyone else seems to venerate it. (And Hitchcock’s taste in blonds tends toward the impeccably bland. I loved a woman who called herself a dirty blond mutt, and she was sexier in a heartbeat than Grace Kelly, Kim Novak and Janet Leigh combined.)
The movie that typifies Mel Gibson’s career; a film that somehow blinds people to how truly muddled its plot is and more importantly how clearly awful Mel is in a part that might have been amazi is given to another actor – say Bruce Willis or Jeff Bridges. Its just a mess, and I will never understand how people could have fallen for it at the time and how it spawned so many goddamn (increasingly worse, too) sequels.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Sometimes a movie should deviate from the book, even if said book is written by Cormac McCarthy.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995): Half-smart, and nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. Doesn’t play fair narratively. A piffle of a film, hanging on a single fine performance by Kevin Spacey.
Little Known Film Worth Seeking Out:
Well, my whole list seems to fall into this category. But for the sake of adding one more—because few joys are greater than discovering something rare you never knew about, but wonder how you missed it:
CRY TERROR (1958) Director: Andrew L. Stone; Starring: James Mason, Rod Steiger, Neville Brand, Jack Klugman, Angie Dickinson, Ingrid Stevens
How, I hear you ask, did a film with a cast like this ever fall between the cracks? Blame the vagaries of corporate distribution. I forget the particulars, though Eddie Muller explained them to me once, but it had something to do with the rights lapsing and the successor not asserting ownership so no one knew who had the rights to the film—ergo, it languished. Pity. Eddie’s shown it twice at the LA Film Noir Festival, and I saw it on TV when I was a kid. Rod Steiger leads a group of extortionists who kidnap a whole family to recruit the husband/father (Mason) into their scheme. Neville Brand has never been more subhumanly creepy (with Ingrid Stevens in a slip), Rod Steiger scarier, James Mason more haplessly heroic. And Angie Dickinson as the moll: Now there’s a blond you can sink your … teeth … into. Good news: The film’s once again available, on DVD, as of September 30th. (I’ve already pre-ordered my copy.)
An ignored 1996 film that you either love or hate but which is one of my great secret loves of film – – a film that shouldn’t work in any way but truly does thanks to a great enesmble cast including Jeff Goldlum and Richard Dreyfuss.
Before the Wachowski brothers entered the Matrix, they gave us this sultry film noir about a money launderer’s girlfriend who crosses paths with a lesbian ex-con. Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon burn up the screen as this unlikely couple, but the film rises above titillating exploitation with crackerjack plotting and smart dialogue.
ONE FALSE MOVE (1992): Flawless blend of character and action in Arkansas-set crime story about a trio of killers coming home one last time, and a local sheriff who’s in way over his head.
Some of the panelists have gone into detail on these films and others that came to mind because of the panel:
David Corbett talks about the panel and offers more detailed thoughts on Muderati.