The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Posts Tagged ‘crime film’

The Lookout (Le Guetteur, France 2012)

Posted by des1967 on 20 July 2014

Le-Guetteur-affiche-2

Le guetteur is a ‘polar‘ or crime film (see Roy’s post on the French polar). The benefit of this term is that it covers all varieties and sub-genres of crime films, eg, police procedural, gangster film, noir, heist film, etc). It has long been one of the staples of the French film industry and, as Roy’s piece argues, they do it pretty well. How does The Lookout stack up against this rich tradition? Well, fair to middling. The cast is mainly French but it is directed by an Italian, Michele Placido (I’m only familiar with his 2005 film, Romanzo Criminale (2005), which shows at least that he can handle action sequences pretty well).

Although a good translation of the word ‘guetteur‘, ‘lookout’ is a bit misleading, suggesting a fairly passive role. In fact, the lookout in question is a ruthless, highly skilled and enterprising criminal. The opening scene takes a typical bank heist gone wrong, and then gives it a fresh twist. Chief Inspector Mattei has received a tip-off that a major heist that is set to go down in Paris and assembles a large team of armed police. However, the police operation is disrupted when a sniper, who is perched some distance away on a rooftop, opens fire on the squad of arresting officers, killing and badly wounding several of them. Mattei’s connections lead him to discover that he is a former soldier and is high on Interpol’s wanted list but there is also a hint of undercover work for the French security services which might make it more difficult to track him down. But Mattei does discover his identity, Kaminski, the heist being shown in flashback as the film actually begins with Mattei interrogating a prisoner in custody. Kaminski refuses at first to answer Mattei’s questions, holding his gaze impassively, but eventually he asks to see his lawyer (with whom he has had a relationship in the past and who is willing to renege on her professional scruples to help her ex for whom she still holds a candle). The fact that Kaminski is played by the co-star and is in custody early in the first act (the film does seem to follow a three-act structure) suggests that he won’t be inside for long. In the initial heist, one of the robbers is badly wounded and (a nod to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) and many other examples of the genre) must be attended by a defrocked doctor. Usually in the genre, this is a minor character but in The Lookout the doctor, Franck, at first a marginal character, turns out to be by far the nastiest criminal in the film and who takes the narrative in the direction of misogynistic horror.

One of film’s main strengths is the terrific set pieces like the one described above which lasts about seven minutes (and another one which ends the film) which rival Heat which it also resembles in terms of plot in the way that it is structured around a central conflict between the leading cop and the leading criminal. In the second act, Mattei is marginalised as the focus of the plot shifts to the criminals falling out with each other and here the screenplay (by Denis Brusseaux and Cédric Melon) seems to have an attention deficit disorder. It wants to do too much and the film becomes overwhelmed for a while. The number of characters – including the thieves, Kaminski’s lawyer, prisoners on detention, a (slightly stereotypical) gypsy, the hard-nosed wife of the wounded gangster – means that there are too many sub-plots (of short duration) and obfuscate the film’s central conflict between Mattei and Kaminski. There is a late-stage revelation (no spoilers) which functions to complicate the backstory between the two key conflicted protagonists which I thought worked quite well.

Casting is one of the film’s strengths, Mattei being played by Daniel Auteuil. He can sometimes seem as if he plays each role in the same register, that of angst-ridden gruffness (except when he plays parts requiring him to speak in his native Southern accent such as in Jean de Florette  Jean de Florette or The Well-Digger’s Daughter/Le Puisatier), or even in comedies like Le Placard. But it’s a register he does better than any of his contemporaries. Mathieu Kassovitz, whose career alternates between directing (La haine/Hatred (1995) is his best-known film) and acting, shows that he can hold his own as a downbeat action star.

The creepy Franck is played by Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet whom I have seen mainly as a regular of the Dardenne Brothers (such as Le Fils/The Son in 2002) but he is beginning to have prominent parts in French films and played the leading role in L’exercice de l’État/The Minister (2011). The director has a brief cameo as garage owner with a sideline in supplying crooked passports to the criminal underworld and Fanny Ardant, one of the leading French actors of the last 35 years (she played, for example, in Truffaut’s La femme d’à côté/The Woman Next Door in 1979 and Marion Vernoux’s Les beaux jours/Better Days Ahead this year – who says women over 60 don’t get sexy roles!), has an even briefer one with about 20 seconds of screen time. I wasn’t sure if it was her as the part is uncredited but imdb.com confirms her presence.

Fanny Ardant cameo

Fanny Ardant cameo

Here’s a trailer (no English subs):

 

Posted in French Cinema | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Classe tous risques (France/Italy 1960)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 12 November 2013

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This could be an image from a neo-realist film on the streets of Milan.

The BFI’s reissue programme with its gleaming restorations distributed as DCPs is doing wonders for the reputation of classic European cinema – and Keith will be pleased to learn that this example is in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. Claude Sautet, who died in 2000, was known in his later career for dramas like Un coeur en hiver (1992) and Nelly et M. Arnaud (1995) but in his earlier career as a writer and director he worked on genre films including this classic polar. Polars are crime films of various kinds and this is one of the very best featuring Lino Ventura in his prime and Jean-Paul Belmondo just getting established (his earlier film with Godard was also released in 1960).

Lino Ventura (Abel) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Eric)

Lino Ventura (Abel) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Eric)

The Franco-Italian co-production (a growing industry practice in the early 1960s) starts in Milan with Ventura as a career criminal and a wanted man who has killed trying to get home to France. (The title has been claimed as a pun on ‘Tourist Class’ but I prefer to think of it as a man who travels ‘at all risk’ – there is no quarter if he is caught by the police as he faces execution by guillotine.) The film includes a journey between Nice and Paris (with Belmondo as driver) which had become almost de rigeur in the polars I have seen. I was reminded of the Jacques Demy film La baie des anges (1963). Class tous risques is a relatively long film for the time (115 mins) and Sautet uses the screen time to great effect in developing the characters. The main commentaries on the film mention three things, linking it to film noir, neo-realism and the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. I don’t think this is a film noir, either in terms of the mise en scène or the theme. For one thing it doesn’t have the misogyny associated with the femme fatale. There is a woman who would betray Abel (Ventura), but she is a not a femme fatale. The women are mostly loving and supportive. It is not like a Melville polar – it’s far less romantic and instead veers towards neo-realism in the authenticity of both settings and relationships – the author of the original novel, José Giovanni had himself experienced the criminal life. It begins with a terrific chase sequence in Italy and includes passages in which Ventura must look after his young children.

I love the cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet and the music is by the ever reliable Georges Delerue. One of the things that makes the film great is its complete lack of sentimentality and its devastating ending. This is a sure-fire classic. Now I must dig out my copy of Touchez pas au grisbi, in which Ventura makes his debut down the cast list with Jean Gabin as star. If Classe tous risques comes your way via an inspired film programmer, rush to see it.

Posted in French Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Filth (UK/Sweden/Germany/Belgium/US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 14 October 2013

Bladesy (Eddie Marsan) and Bruce (James McAvoy) on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg.

Bladesy (Eddie Marsan) and Bruce (James McAvoy) on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg.

This is a thoroughly entertaining film. It’s scabrous, perverse, surreal and offensive but nonetheless engaging. You need to know that is an adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel and that therefore there will be sex, drugs, violence and various obscenities. Nothing is to be taken seriously. In strict Aristotelean terms this is possibly a tragedy rather than a comedy – but even then the ending is ambiguous.

I haven’t read the Welsh novel, but a glance at Wikipedia’s page suggests that the adaptation has changed several aspects of the narrative and this may be a problem for Welsh fans. Non-Brits should be aware that ‘Filth’ is a slang term for both the police (‘Polis’ in Scotland) and for pornography as well as more properly for ‘dirt’. The anti-hero of Filth is a Detective Sergeant in the Edinburgh CID, Bruce Robertson, played by James McAvoy. Robertson is put in charge of a murder case which he must solve in order to gain promotion – and win back his wife and child who have left him. But this is a policeman who has a serious mental health problem and who is declining rapidly under a regime of cocaine, alcohol and obsessive sex. He is haunted by a childhood memory that begins to haunt him after he becomes involved in a street incident. Ironically this incident offers Robertson a possibility of some form of redemption but he is already set on a path of destruction which will damage all his colleagues.

Director John S. Baird is not an innovator matching the Danny Boyle of Trainspotting and there is nothing too surprising in the aesthetics of the film, but those of Welsh’s ideas that have made it into the film adaptation added to the array of fine performances by a truly stellar cast carry the film through: Baird keeps the pace going at a fair lick. It’s perhaps invidious to pick out only one or two actors and many of Scotland’s finest are here including Gary Lewis, Kate Dickie, Shirley Henderson, Martin Compston and John Sessions. You can’t really go wrong with talent like that, especially when you throw in the English stars like Eddie Marsan, Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent and Imogen Poots. But above all there is James McAvoy. I’ve previously questioned his casting in action roles but here he is unassailable, generating viciousness, self-loathing and gleeful pleasure in tricking his colleagues.

This production is a good case study for an investigation of ‘British independent’ production in 2013. Despite the the Irvine Welsh connection (or perhaps because of it – two other adaptations after Trainspotting failed) and the excellent cast, money was hard to come by and the producers appear to have been in that classic position of paying the actors out of their own pockets at one point. Once again Europe comes to the rescue with public funding from Film i väst in Sweden and various funds in Germany and Belgium. This explains the insertion of a trip to Hamburg in the narrative. It looks like an injection of cash from Trudie Styler’s company topped off a £3 million budget. That’s about twice the size of a ‘domestic’ UK movie budget these days but it does appear that the money has been well spent on cast and effects plus music. Clint Mansell is in charge of music and though I have no real knowledge of the tracks used in the film, I think that they work pretty well. I’m sure that eventually there will be a fan community analysis of the music.

After three weekends on release (the first only in Scotland) Lionsgate are probably fairly pleased with the box office returns, especially given the ’18’ certificate in the UK and distribution to certain overseas territories has been finalised. Censorship will keep it out of India and North America might be a problem but in Northern Europe I think it will play well. So far the UK total is just over $4 million with only a 25% drop in Week 3.

It’s been a good couple of weeks for Scottish films with Sunshine on Leith and the specialised offering For Those in Peril. Here’s the shortest of many official trailers for Filth:

Posted in British Cinema, Comedies | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Place Beyond the Pines (US 2012)

Posted by keith1942 on 25 April 2013

THE-PLACE-BEYOND-THE-PINES-Poster

USA 2012. In colour and anarmorphic. Director Derek Cianfrance.

This film has received good reviews and appears to be doing well at the box office. A younger, savvy friend of mine suggested this to be mainly down to one of its stars, Ryan Gosling. Ryan Gosling also starred in Cianfrance’s earlier film Blue Valentine (2010) and I think the two films are the best of his performances that I have seen. In fact the two films cross over thematically in their stories of failed love and problematic parenting. I don’t want to write about the plot because the film contains one of the most impressive reversals that I have seen for ages.

The narrative comes in three parts or acts, separated by in each case by a black screen. Each part focuses on a different leading protagonist. But the plotting constantly draws parallels across time and space, in character actions, in settings and mise en scène and in the central themes, especially of fathers and sons.

Early in the film I thought we would end up in Rebel Without a Cause territory (1955). Then I gradually realised that the film is in fact a thematic variation of Steinbeck’s great novel, East of Eden. I think this is a conscious parallel as the film also reminded me of Elia Kazan’s great cinematic adaptation (1955). There seem to be numerous narrative, character and visual parallels between these art works.

Beyond the Pines was shot on Kodak film stock, and it looks great. There are many fine settings and landscapes and there is impressive use of a Steadicam and some excellent tracking shots. The parallels across the characters and their lives are reinforced by visual motifs. The most intriguing of these is the US Stars and Stripes. I did not notice one in the first part but I suspect logically there should be one. In part two a carefully framed shot draws attention to a Stars and Stripes as four men [policemen] leave a house on a dubious errand. In part three there are two shots of the flag at houses which seem mainly part of the settings. Then in the closing shot the flag is again discernible in the mid-distance. Two supporting themes in the film relate to gender and “race”, and these seem unresolved by the closure. However, the flag possibly signals an ironic and critical take on this aspect.

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Gangs of Wasseypur (India 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 11 March 2013

gangs-of-wasseypur_UK_Banner

This 2-part, 320 minute gangster epic is notable for many reasons. It’s a well-crafted film telling a universal story of two extended families engaged in a long-running feud and it’s enjoyable and provocative at the same time. For film scholars what is most interesting is that it uses all of the elements of Indian popular cinema developed over at least the last forty years and yet it isn’t a ‘Bollywood’ film in the normal sense – in other words the popular Indian film audience knows that the film is ‘different’.

Produced, co-written and directed by Anurag Kashyap for his own company with backing from Viacom 18 and its ‘Tipping Point’ brand, Gangs of Wasseypur is based on true stories about gang warfare in the North Eastern state of Jharkhand (previously part of Bengal and then Bihar). It begins in the early 1940s when Shahid Khan, a Pathan in a Muslim village decides to improve his family’s chances by robbing goods trains in the guise of the local gangleader from the dominant Qureshi family in the village. The Qureshis are not amused and a feud begins, quickly to be complicated by the intervention of a third party, a Sikh businessman/politician who runs the local coal mine and who becomes a powerful figure when control of the mining industry passes into Indian hands after the end of the British Raj. Over the next seventy years or so, this three-cornered fight continues sporadically and we get to know more about the principal characters.

I’d argue that the two main ‘differences’ about the film as popular Hindi cinema are firstly in its ‘realist’ representation of a very specific region – quite unlike the idealised India of much of mainstream Hindi cinema – and secondly the refusal of a conventional narrative drive with clearly defined ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters. The story is linear, except that it is told mainly in flashback from 2004 – from when it will eventually move forward to 2009. There is an ending, but it isn’t a complete resolution as the possibility of some kind of continuation is left with the audience. This in itself is not that unusual. Having noted both these points, the same elements could be discerned in Kashyap’s first work for Hindi cinema, the script he co-wrote for Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya in 1998. The focus on families and the ruthless rise of specific male characters in settings like this is there in much of Varma’s work and in Tamil cinema in the form of Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987) and Thalapathi (1991). As far as I can see (i.e. I haven’t seen enough), Varma remains largely within a Bollywood context whereas Ratnam has a much wider range and includes more gritty and locally-defined backgrounds – but both Varma and Ratnam use major stars in their gangster stories. The link for all three directors inevitably seems to be Coppola’s Godfather in terms of characters, relationships and story elements.

Kashyap recognises the Godfather influences but he himself refers to Goodfellas, possibly because of the basis in documented gangland activities – and also the use of narration, which in Gangs comes from Nasir, the last survivor of the extended Khan family from the 1940s. This character is rather like the Robert Duvall character in The Godfather – accepting his place in the clan and looking out for the family as a whole. It’s not unusual to see these kinds of nods towards Hollywood in popular Indian films, but I wonder if Kashyap has seen Gomorra (Italy 2008)? Or the films of Johnnie To and John Woo? I would expect so and it would be good to place Gangs of Wasseypur alongside those films (plus City of God) as an example of international crime cinema. So Gangs is ‘global’ and ‘local’ – it is very much an Indian film and its street scenes are the most ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ that I have ever seen in an Indian film. The locations include the cities actually mentioned in the text: Dahnbad, Wasseypur, Varanasi and also Kolkata, Ranchi, Allahabad etc.

Manoj Bajpayee as Sardar Khan and behind him Jameel Khan as Asghar Khan

Manoj Bajpayee as Sardar Khan and behind him Jameel Khan as Asghar Khan

Characters

The long film works because of the strong characters, played mainly by a group of ‘character actors’ in Hindi cinema or by relative newcomers. Part 1 is dominated by the standout performance of Manoj Bajpayee as Sardar Khan, the son of Shahid Khan. Bajpayee is actually from Bihar and he is completely believable. The character is interestingly vulnerable in terms of his sexual weakness (“led by his dick” as his wife tells him) as well as ruthless as a gang leader. Part 2 is dominated by Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Faizal Khan, Sardar’s second son. Siddiqui appears to be on the cusp of star status in Hindi cinema – he’d already had thirty film and TV appearances by 2012, some in parallel cinema. The actor at the centre of both parts of the film is Tigmanshu Dhulia as Ramadhir Singh, the politician businessman. A well-known producer/writer and director, Dhulia had barely acted before and his performance is excellent. He is the most affected by the very long ‘story time’ of the film since he has to play a character from his early 20s until his mid 80s. It’s impossible of course but Kashyap manages to keep the audience hooked on action long enough not to worry about this.

Huma Qureshi as Mohsina and Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Faisal Khan

Huma Qureshi as Mohsina and Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Faisal Khan

Gangster films like this tend to push the female characters to the edge of the frame but at least in Gangs there are strong performances for the three principal female roles. Sardar Khan’s sexual appetite means that despite marrying Nagma, he also sets up a home with Durga, a Bengali Hindu woman. Richa Chadda and Reema Sen are both very good as the strong women the script demands. In a very different role (I suppose it’s the Diane Keaton role in The Godfather) Huma Qureshi is equally good as Mohsina, wife of Faisal Khan. The long running time of the film means that we get to see courtship, seduction and weddings as well as marital discord. These three actors are each either relatively inexperienced or in Sen’s case coming from mainly Bengali and Southern Indian cinema productions.

Music

For me, one of the most entertaining aspects of the film is the music. There is a great range of songs across the five hours plus from folk songs and a reggae mix (or is this ‘chutney’?) through atmospheric scoring from Sneha Khanwalkar to frequent use of Hindi filmi songs, especially from the 1980s and 1990s. Some of these are performed live by a singer who turns up at weddings, political rallies etc., others are heard on the radio or in one of several visits to cinemas. There are five or more ‘song sequences’ but these are not much like traditional choreographed dance sequences, involving instead people working or celebrations (like weddings) with a performer. The ‘presence’ of Bollywood as a popular film institution is everywhere, especially in Part 2 with posters on walls and constant references in dialogue. Most pointedly, Ramadhir Singh claims that his longevity (survival) is because his head is not filled with film heroes who might cloud his judgement. At the crucial moment in 2004 (when the film narrative begins in flashback and when we return to it layer on) the Khan family are watching a TV soap opera.

‘Playfulness’

One aspect of the film that has infuriated some Indian critics are the narrative digressions. One critic picks out Sardar’s seduction of Durga – which I thought was one of the highlights of the film since it is important in establishing a sub-plot – and because it strengthens the representation of both characters. More understandable and, I assume, deliberately provocative is a ‘Tarantinoesque’ discussion over mobile phones about buying different kinds of vegetables when three gang members are stalking their prey through the market. One of the scriptwriters, Zeishan Quadri, actually appears in this scene as ‘Definite’, Durga’s son. I have to conclude that there is a real sense of play here. But perhaps there is also a real point in the scene where Faisal is puzzled by the name Definite for his step-brother. What does it mean he keeps asking (his own younger brothers are ‘Perpendicular’ and ‘Tangent’, but these are just nicknames. Definite is Definite! The point here is that unlike Bollywood, the characters in Gangs don’t speak English. At least not until the post 2002 period when the formation of Jharkhand as a new mineral rich state draws in ‘chancers’ from further afield. These references to politics and economics enrich the film for me and it is the gradual accretion of elements like this that takes Gangs of Wasseypur away from mainstream Hindi popular cinema and help to create whatever it is we wish to call it – Indian independent cinema, ‘New Bollywood’ etc. or as one actor described it in an interview “a blurring of the boundaries”.

Gangs of Wasseypur is very bloody and full of subplots with a huge cast of characters. It’s also 320 mins long, but I think it’s worth the effort. I’m not sure about the distribution policy of Mara Pictures in the UK – a couple dates here and there – but there are still showings up to late April/early May and you can check them out on the Mara Pictures website.

Interesting Indian review

Trailer (no English subs, but it gives the flavour of the film and its music):

And as an example of the music track, here’s the reggae-inspired ‘Hunters':

Posted in Indian Cinema, Indian independent | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

LFF 2012 #6: Dreams for Sale (Yume uru futari, Japan 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 21 October 2012

Kanya and Satoko

Writer-director Nishikawa Miwa was in attendance for this screening and through the excellent interpreter, whose name I didn’t catch, she was able to give the audience plenty to think about. It’s quite a long film (134 mins) and we didn’t leave NFT2 until around a quarter to midnight. I enjoyed every minute.

Dreams for Sale is a fascinating comedy-drama with two excellent lead performances by Matsu Takako (the teacher in Confessions) as Satako and Abe Sadawo as Kanya– Mr and Mrs Ichizawa, the central couple. At the beginning of the narrative, a fire in their restaurant as Kanya is preparing food destroys their investment and shakes their confidence. Satako recovers quite quickly and goes to work in a noodle bar but Kanya, the chef, is hit badly and starts to drink. However, a chance encounter with a woman he knows provides access to a new sum of money. At this point, we realise that we’ve seen this woman before in a sequence which seemed inconsequential at the time. This is a strategy Nishikawa develops through the film. The audience needs to stay awake to remember everything they have seen and link scenes together.

Satako is at first upset that her husband has got something from another woman, but then she starts to recognise that her husband, though not conventionally handsome, has a charm that seems to attract vulnerable women and she begins to work out how to use this quality to ensnare women with access to money. The couple will eventually become an adept pair of ‘marriage fraudsters’. Posing as his sister, Satako finds women and prepares the way for Kanya to seduce them into ‘pledging’ money for marriage – or simply because they will do anything for him.

Nishikawa Miwa told us that she had researched marriage fraud in Japan and that it was a significant issue. The obvious course would have been to make the film a crime story – how will they be found out, what will happen to them? There are also comic elements to exploit in the suspense as the stories of deception become more difficult to set up and control and we imagine all the duped women turning up at the same time. Indeed, some reviewers see the film as a very controlled farce. However, though there are elements of both crime film and comedy, Nishikawa plays it much more like humanist drama. What she really wants to do is to explore love and marriage – what does the deception do to the couple, what do they find out about themselves? They are not ‘bad people’ and most of the women they defraud have money to spend and they are getting something from the deal. Satako and Kanya also want to spend the money on a new venture, telling themselves that they will pay everything back. This doesn’t make the crime acceptable, but it does point us towards thinking about the current state of society in Japan and in a way the film fits in with the long-running series of stories about unemployment amongst skilled workers in the face of a stagnant economy. In some ways the film attempts something similar to Villain, the very successful awards winner in Japan that failed to find audiences in the UK. I think Dreams for Sale is probably a better offering for UK audiences.

This is a very good film that reveals its many qualities gradually and makes some demands on audiences who are repaid handsomely in the way in which the narrative develops. I hope it gets wide distribution and I recommend it highly if you get chance to see it.

Posted in Comedies, Festivals and Conferences, Films by women, Japanese Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Killing Them Softly (US 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 30 September 2012

Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy as the rather gormless petty criminals in Killing Them Softly. Image © The Weinstein Company

I watched this with Nick in a nearly empty specialised cinema. It’s an intelligent and very well-made film but it doesn’t work for me and in some ways it seems indicative of the problems with contemporary American cinema. Box office has actually been OK in the UK during the opening week – I think that it has probably drawn bigger audiences in multiplexes (but there have also been walkouts according to IMDB so the second week drop-off will be interesting). On the other hand, the three big foreign language films this week had much higher screen averages. The film doesn’t open in North America until November 30th.

The source material is a George V. Higgins story. Higgins was a highly-admired crime novelist who was also a journalist, a high-ranking lawyer and an academic. The only other Higgins novel that was adapted for Hollywood was The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) with Robert Mitchum. 1970s Hollywood remains the benchmark for intelligent, grown-up popular cinema and Eddie Coyle is a lost gem, now hard to find on DVD. You can easily see what attracted Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik to Higgins’ 1974 story Cogan’s Trade. Pitt plays Cogan, an efficient assassin brought in by ‘the mob’ to restore ‘order’ to the illegal poker schools which have protection. Cogan is professional, but everyone else in this scenario is either too stupid, too inexperienced or too fucked-up to function properly. This isn’t therefore an action film or a mystery. The film’s ending is inevitable from the opening scenes onward. Instead, this is a character study set in the sleazy world of crime that Higgins knew well from his experience as an attorney in Boston.

Dominik as screenwriter has chosen to shift the location from 1970s Boston to post-Katrina New Orleans and to make the timing very specific in the weeks around the presidential election of 2008. I confess that I didn’t twig that it was meant to be New Orleans. I didn’t notice any local references and now I think back there are no African-American characters or indications of Cajun culture – nothing in fact to suggest the crime world as envisaged by a writer like James Lee Burke and his New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux. I’d just assumed that the film was set in some run-down Northern industrial city. Dominik presumably wants to suggest a kind of mythical setting, so the characters drive ancient models of cars. (I know nothing about US car models, but it was surprising to see the character played by Ray Liotta using a key to lock his car.) The music, by far the most pleasurable aspect of the film for me, is suitably ancient going back to at least the 1950s and probably the 1940s. A great Johnny Cash track is perhaps the most modern recording and Ketty Lester’s classic ‘Love Letters’ from 1962 the most evocative for me. Is Dominik trying to rival Scorsese’s use of popular music?

Given these touches, the heavy emphasis on speeches by Obama and George W. Bush on the financial crisis seems out of place. On several occasions, TV and radio broadcasts are presented high in the mix – in situations where they wouldn’t normally dominate – such as on a TV set in a bar or  in an airport arrivals hall. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps they do in the US, but even so, the use of these speeches seems clumsy and a final speech by Cogan/Pitt sums up the central message of the film in the closing scene. Many crime fiction fans are attracted to the genre because it expresses a political discourse beneath the action and the procedural elements, but usually it’s achieved in a more subtle way.

There’s something odd about a standard-length feature (97 minutes) that feels much longer – my attention drifted in some of the long conversations, especially the two between the Pitt character and another assassin/enforcer played by James Gandolfini as a washed-up alcoholic addicted to hookers. On the other hand, the slow pace allowed me to compare the performance styles of Brad Pitt and Scoot McNairy. In a scene at a bar, Pitt plays as film star, exuding confidence as a dominant character while McNairy ‘acts’ a role as the dumb criminal whimpering and almost crying. I like McNairy – though it took me a while to recognise him from his roles in Monsters and In Search of a Midnight Kiss. In this kind of film, I think the star should be in the downbeat role. The Pitt character Cogan is too much the dominant character.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle was directed by Peter Yates at a time when European directors were taking on American subjects (e.g. Karel Reisz (The Gambler, Who’ll Stop the Rain?), Jacques Deray (Outside Man), Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way) etc. Perhaps the Antipodean Dominik would have been better off looking towards these guys rather than wandering into Tarantino territory? But the main production company behind this appears to be Brad Pitt’s Plan B. The weight of the Weinstein Company as distributor is also there, so rather than a straight studio movie this is one of those star-driven ‘super-indie’ films that gets sent to Cannes and then hits the multiplexes flexing its star power. It occurs to me that it also resembles Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive with Ryan Gosling – another well-made film that uncertainly bridged the mainstream/specialised cinema divide. Both films contain sequences that are much too violent for me, but Refn’s works better overall. None of my reservations about Killing Them Softly can detract from Andrew Dominik’s talent – I need to go back and look at The Assassination of Jesse James a second time.

Posted in American Independents, Hollywood | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Man on the Roof (Mannen på taket, Sweden 1976)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 7 March 2012

The media on the street during the climax of The Man on the Roof (screengrab by DVD Beaver)

Nordic crime fiction is one of the major trends in contemporary film and television with successful Nordic titles often prompting swift American remakes. If you want to go back to the source of many of the celebrated elements of the Swedish police procedural, the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö offer a good place to start. This couple, good Marxist socialists both, wrote ten immensely popular police procedurals in the 1960s and 1970s featuring a Stockholm detective and his team. The stories all manage to critique what the authors saw as the flaws in Swedish social democracy. It is this political imperative which has survived in the work of Henning Mankell and others. All the books were made into films or TV series in Sweden and overseas. The best of the films is often said to be this 1976 adaptation by the celebrated Swedish director Bo Widerberg. Widerberg was the young turk of the Swedish ‘New Wave’ in the early 1960s and one of the more radical directors who was critical of Ingmar Bergman’s status within Swedish film culture.

The novel’s title is The Abominable Man – a reference to a police lieutenant who is lying in a hospital bed when he is attacked and brutally murdered, almost filleted with a bayonet. Martin Beck and his colleagues begin an investigation but just as they solve the mystery, the murderer takes to the rooftops with a selection of powerful snipers’ rifles and the police authorities have to devise a safe way of disarming him.

Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt as Martin Beck. Eastwood or McQueen he isn't, but not a police inspector to underestimate either.

The key feature of the film is its realism. Widerberg shoots on location and the action sequences in the film have a strong documentary feel which is also evident during the long police procedural sequences. The casting of a leading Swedish comedian of the period Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt as Martin Beck and the sheer ‘ordinariness’ of the rest of the team adds to this ‘realism effect’. (Lindstedt was the son of a Social-Democratic Party politician and started his career in a socialist youth theatre group according to Wikipedia.)  The film is generally very well thought of – bearing comparison with the best Hollywood crime films of the 1970s (comparisons are made with The French Connection). The critique here is not of police corruption in the Hollywood sense (i.e. drugs, extortion etc.), but something more akin to the systematic failure of police teams to do their job properly – and then to cover up the evidence with collective amnesia and a refusal to take complaints seriously. This approach shifts the focus from a single rogue to the system itself.

Overall I was very impressed with this film (presented on a Swedish Region 2 DVD with English subs bought online from Play.com). The quality of the transfer to DVD is very good. I was a Widerberg fan in the late 1960s and early 1970s but I don’t remember this getting a UK release. I did feel that one or two of the decisions during the sniper incident seemed a bit odd, but then I reflected on how Hollywood would have played it and concluded that the bungling of the Swedish approach is much more like real life and the mistakes we all make. It might be interesting to compare this with some of the other Martin Beck adaptations. After watching this, it doesn’t seem so surprising that Walter Matthau should have played Beck in the US adaptation of another Sjöwall/Wahlöö novel The Laughing Policeman (novel 1968, film 1973). The setting is changed to San Francisco and the character names are changed but the cast looks strong Louis Gossett Jr, Bruce Dern and Joanna Cassidy in a small role. Anybody seen it?

Posted in Nordic Cinema, Swedish Cinema | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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