Category Archives: crime

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Let’s face it, though, this really is more like the thing, not to mention a strong argument against the oft-made claim that remakes always suck. Given that two previous versions had bombed just a few years earlier, though, why did Warner’s go for a third one? Apparently because Jack Warner had promised John Huston could choose whatever story he liked for his directorial debut… Anyway, third time proved to be the charm, and watching this again right after the previous two attempts it becomes clear that it overtook them for good reasons (quite apart from the others just not being available for decades). Almost as soon as we see Bogart on screen, he just seems… definitive somehow. This is hardboiled stuff pretty much from the get-go, the sense of threat is stronger, Bogart feels a bit more desperate to get the cops off his back, and the overall tone of the film is constantly darker than that of the Cortez version. And Huston’s secondary cast of crooks is also rather more interesting than the 1931 mob, particularly Sydney Greenstreet, a stage veteran making a terrific screen debut. Huston apparently planned and storyboarded the film to within an inch of its life, and the end result looks like the work of an experienced hand, not a directorial novice, far smoother and slicker than either previous version. And yet I spent years not liking this film. Maybe it was because my first experience of it was the colourised print (shudder). Maybe I just wasn’t fully prepared for the knots the plot gets tied in (cos I know I got lost in it quickly when I first saw it). Took me a while to get it, but I’m glad I do. The 1940s have never really been my top movie decade, but this is the sort of film that mounts a good argument for those who do consider it a golden age.

Satan Met a Lady (1936)

I was interested to learn that this second attempt at The Maltese Falcon came about cos Warner’s couldn’t reissue the 1931 version (which would’ve no longer passed the Production Code), so they just remade it. As a screwball comedy. As the film went on, I began to think it was as if Warner’s had decided that since Hammett’s Thin Man had been a big hit for them in 1934, why not retool Hammett’s earlier book in similar fashion, changing the title, character names, other not unimportant details… The end result has, I gather, much the poorest reputation of the three Falcons, loved by neither the critics, nor the people who made it (least of all Bette Davis); but, while there are a number of things about the film that don’t work, I actually found myself enjoying this frankly odd film much more than I’d thought I would. I quickly worked out that it helps if you try to ignore that it is, in fact, The Maltese Falcon we’re talking about (and, to be sure, Warner’s did their best to hide the fact by downplaying Hammett’s original authorship in the credits by not even mentioning the book’s name). Admittedly, this is not easy; it’s hard enough to not compare the 1931 Falcon to the 1941 version without trying not to compare either of those films with Satan Met a Lady… but it’s still interesting to see this material done as farce rather than tragedy, and it could be argued it actually does some things better than either (e.g. staging the showdown over the horn fairly quickly at the harbourside rather than at great length in the apartment). I don’t think I liked it quite as much as Marilyn Ferdinand did, and I don’t think it can be seriously claimed as a “lost classic”, but I found it rather more enjoyable to watch than it seems to have been to actually make.

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

Humphrey Bogart’s a hard act to follow, even if you actually preceded him. This is the problem facing Ricardo Cortez, playing Sam Spade in the original Maltese Falcon a full decade before Bogie: even though Cortez got there first, I suspect virtually anyone who’s seen the 1931 version has only seen it after the 1941 version. That the latter is no less than the third version of the tale is a fact probably better known now than it used to be, and all three have been handily compiled into one box set. Obviously I’m looking at all three in their release order here, but it’s still hard to escape the fact that the first film really comes after the later one in real terms. And taken on its own terms (as near as is possible) it’s not that bad; it’s of a piece, I suppose, with other Warner pre-codes I’ve seen since I first saw this nearly a decade ago, especially in terms of sex (Huston’s film had less choice about complying with the production code than del Ruth’s). I’ve seen other reviewers complain that Cortez’ somewhat smirking performance deflates any sense of menace, but I think that’s unfair; there’s a nastiness behind the smile which gives the character and the film a certain edge. But there is also an overall kind of light tone to proceedings, you couldn’t really consider the 1931 Falcon as being film noir as you can the 1941 version, and I suspect that stems from it being, let’s face it, a 1931 talkie directed by someone who wasn’t really a master of cinema; the pacing is problematic, and the contusions of the plot aren’t always well-handled. And it does give the sense that Hammett’s novel could just as easily have been made into a play as into a film, it’s pretty stagebound stuff. As I said, not bad, though I don’t think you can say it’d be better known if the 1941 film hadn’t displaced it; this was a box office failure 80 years ago, and without the Bogart film it might not be known at all now.

The Killing (1956)

What a leap forward from one film to the next in such a short time. If Killer’s Kiss was the talented amateur, this is the work of the professional, working with a still small but more substantial budget, proper actors, a proper crew, and an honest-to-god/dess published author (Jim Thompson, whose books I really need to reread) working on the script. In short, a “proper” lower-level Hollywood product. The book was found by Kubrick’s producer, James Harris, who says in the DVD interview that Frank Sinatra also wanted to make the film; Frankie’s loss was very much Kubrick’s gain, though. It’s a classic heist situation, recently released crook Johnny Clay planning a spectacular racetrack robbery to fund life on the outside,  but the telling of the story is what makes the thing interesting; I didn’t realise the film’s rather fascinating structure of overlapping scenes originated in the novel as well, which gives an amusing cast to the behind-the-scenes stories of the script (and indeed the finished film) being too complicated and Sterling Hayden’s agent claiming Kubrick had ruined his client’s career. Since then, of course, Quentin Tarantino’s made a career out of ripping that technique off. What’s notable about the film, especially when viewed immediately after its predecessor, is how much more generally confident it is… it’s as if, with superior resources available, Kubrick himself felt the need to lift his own game to match the people he now had around him, though he evidently had his own particular vision that he imparted to the film. But the pleasure of the film really is the structural unfolding of the plot, watching the plan get built up, then watching complications set in fairly quickly, and watching things finally turn to shit. In some respects this is always the joy of films like this, seeing the best laid plans fall apart, but there’s something especially delightful about how The Killing depicts it. It’s still B-movie pulp, but of a particularly good and entertaining kind.

More D.W. Griffith shorts (1911-1914)

Much to my own surprise, Silent Sunday returns for its second epic week (though I’m thinking after this I may reserve it mainly for rewatches rather than first viewings, since I have a fair bit of unwatched stuff that I don’t want to drag out over weeks and months, though we’ll see how that goes; at the moment I’m just impressed I’ve stuck to it into a second week. This idea might actually work). Continuing, therefore, with the second disc of Kino’s selection of David Wark’s early work…

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D.W. Griffith shorts (1908-1913)

In a possibly vain attempt to institute a regular feature here at The Cameraman’s Revenge, I bring you Silent Sundays, wherein each Sunday I shall have a look at some aspect or other of silent cinema and post about it here. Wonder how long this‘ll last. Kicking us off, therefore, this selection of the early work of young Mr Griffith…

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Vengeance is Mine (1979)

After the spectacular non-success of Profound Desires of the Gods, Imamura retreated into documentary making for a number of years, before finally returning to fiction features with a film based on fact. It’s a true crime story, to be more precise, looking at the adventures of a man who killed five people in Japan in 1963 and eluded police for several weeks thereafter. Plotwise I suppose the film actually is that simple, and as far as I can tell from my limited knowledge I don’t think the film takes any great liberties with events other than changing the names of the actual people involved (which were changed anyway in the novel that Imamura based the film on); the complications come from the film’s chronological structure involving, technically, flashbacks within flashbacks (which, for the most part, didn’t phase me that much, though admittedly I had to rewind the disc a few times when I felt I’d missed something), and also the psychology at work. Cos Imamura never really gives reasons for Enokizu’s acts; there’s obvious daddy issues at work (with an additional helping of Oedipus), stemming from seeing his father humiliated by an imperial officer in 1938, when Enokizu was a child, but there’s also a feeling that this is too simple an explanation for what he does; Enokizu is a clear bundle of confused instincts (his religious background—part of Japan’s Roman Catholic minority—being just one) and it’s probably too easy to pin his deeds down to just one factor. As for weird relationships, well, I suppose Dad’s fascination with his son’s wife (and vice versa) doesn’t really count as incest per se, but it’s still dubious. I don’t think I liked this as much as the other Imamura films I’ve seen (the length doesn’t help), but it’s still good. I regret now that when I taped it off SBS years ago I never watched it at the time (I was terrible for taping stuff then not watching it), cos otherwise I’d have latched onto Imamura a lot sooner than I have…

The Harder They Come (1972)

Admission of hypocrisy time. Coming from a Scottish background, few things shit me more than subtitles being applied to films like Trainspotting (usually for the benefit of Americans). They’re not speaking a foreign language, they’re speaking bloody English, just with an accent. You’d understand them if you could be bothered listening. Having said which, I must admit my own gratitude for the subtitles on this film, parts of which would’ve been indecipherable without it (mind you, a few of the subs suggest that whoever made them occasionally had similar problems breaking through the Jamaican patois). I’m not exactly consistent with these things, am I. Whatever. The first Jamaican feature film almost always seems to be talked about in terms of its famous soundtrack, which played a major role in bringing reggae to an international audience and is, I think, rightly acclaimed (which I say as someone who’s not actually into reggae, though I used to be partial to a bit of dub). That makes sense, cos it’s probably done a lot more to sell the film than its story does (based on actual events of the 1940s)… young man from the country moves to the big smoke—does Kingston actually constitute much of a “big” city?—tries to make it big in the music business but finds himself shut out by that particular criminal operation and moves into bigger-scale criminality instead. I just wish I’d felt a bit more engaged by the film, the pacing struck me as kind of off, and as far as the DVD itself goes, well, buggered if I can understand why you’d go to the expense of an HD restoration and then not give the film an anamorphic transfer to disc… Still, the soundtrack is still remarkable and on the whole it’s not actually bad or anything, just not quite as good as I was hoping. Anyway, I only paid $12 for it, so not exactly a big loss…

Police (1985)

So I said I would explore Maurice Pialat further, and tonight I have done precisely that… somewhat randomly selecting Police, largely because it was immediately available at Abbey’s when I went there recently, also because, frankly, I don’t know what the “best” course through Pialat’s oeuvre is. At any rate, I gather this is, in some respects, the odd man out in that oeuvre, being on the face of it a genre film of the sort he doesn’t exactly seem to have specialised in, and which seems to have been a somewhat deliberate attempt on his part to crack the mainstream. The end result, though, is hardly your average policier; even though the story—cop engaged in busting drug ring becomes involved with girlfriend of ringleader, compromises ensue—is one that you can imagine being told in conventional Hollywood style (very easy to picture it as a 50s noir), Pialat seems determined to avoid those conventions as far as possible; Catherine Breillat (who had yet to blossom into the person responsible for probably the worst film I’ve ever seen, Anatomy of Hell; if you believe her, the fairly unhappy experience of working with Pialat apparently made her the filmmaker she later became) claimed to have taken the lengthy interrogation scenes from actual police interrogations she witnessed, and there’s a suffusing air of “realism”, comparable to that in La gueule ouverte, through the whole film that’s miles away from what even a “realistic” Hollywood telling of the story would likely be. And yet, and yet… I don’t know, something about it somehow never entirely connected with me. It’s well enough acted and all that, it’s certainly infinitely less harrowing than Gueule was, Sophie Marceau and her fluffy 80s hair are never exactly hard to look at. I just feel for some reason that I should’ve liked this more than I probably did, and I’m not sure why.

The Third Generation (1979)

How amusing that just the other day I was talking about how sound in film is something I don’t normally pay much attention to, and yet here’s a film where the soundtrack is kind of hard to ignore; the almost overdriven sound of this film is a big part of it, full of background noises and voices, a lot of what seems to be sounds from the television or radio, that sort of thing (parenthetically, would this have been one of the very first films in which a VCR featured prominently?). There’s just so damn much of it that even I had to notice it. The story this background noise underscores is about terrorism, which was, of course, the hot topic in Germany at that end of the 1970s thanks to the activities of the RAF/Baader-Meinhof mob; Brian Gibson’s commentary on the Madman DVD often talks about play-acting, and that’s kind of what Fassbinder’s characters are doing (Gibson uses the scene where they break into a government building in “gangster” clothes as an illustration; cf. also the climactic kidnapping and the scenes of disguising themselves to escape capture—oy, some of that “facial hair”!—play-acting at being different people, “I’m not Edgar any more”)… they’re not “real” terrorists, they just think they are. And, unbeknownst to them, they’re being underwritten by a figure who they adopt as their target at the end, a corporate boss who needs them to commit some atrocity to try and boost his own business in selling computers. This was a hard film for me to get a grip on at first cos the cast of characters is so large and not easily kept track of; however, the rather black vision at the heart of it—of terrorism essentially being co-opted by the powers that be to prop up their own existence—makes it an interesting watch, and, obviously, the relevance of the subject hasn’t lessened any in the last decade…

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