Tagged: crime thriller

French Connection II (US 1975)

'Popeye' Doyle arrives in Marseilles on April 1st  when the police are dealing with an April Fool joke – a fishy story?.

‘Popeye’ Doyle arrives in Marseilles on April 1st when the police are dealing with an April Fool joke – a fishy story?.

This sequel came out four years after the success of The French Connection. The only characters who carry over into the second film are the drug dealer Charnier (Fernando Rey) who escaped at the end of the first film and Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman), the New York cop who first uncovered Charnier. The follow-up was written by Alexander Jacobs and Robert Dillon, both with crime thriller experience, and they invented what might have happened if Popeye went to Marseilles. The director too is changed. John Frankenheimer was an important filmmaker in the 1960s and into the 1970s. He lived (and worked) in France for a period and he spoke French. Apart from film editor Tom Rolf and composer Don Ellis (repeating his stint from the first film), the cast and crew are French with the distinguished cinematographer Claude Renoir and set designer Jacques Saulnier as the most notable figures.

Frankenheimer offers an audio commentary on the DVD telling us that he was a big fan of the first film and that he wanted to keep to the same documentary-style approach to shooting the film. But then, as he explains what happened, it becomes apparent that the film is slightly different in style – and very different in terms of the story. The story is simple. Charnier is still operating out of Marseilles and Doyle arrives in the city, on his own, with the intention of finding the dealer and closing the case. Of course, he expects to be working with the local police. But they don’t seem particularly willing to help him and he doesn’t speak French. Early on we learn that Doyle may be being set up but we are never introduced to his superiors in New York and we don’t know how ‘official’ his investigation is. (Also, we don’t know why he hasn’t got his partner with him.) With his porkpie hat, Doyle is very visible and is soon kidnapped by the villains. What follows is a tour de force by Gene Hackman – a character study of a man under great pressure. Doyle is a boorish lout but also a committed investigator. When the local police Inspector finally sets out to help him, Doyle will still be able to deliver the goods.

In his commentary Frankenheimer speaks of his huge admiration for Hackman’s acting. He explains that Hackman is often seen in longer shots (i.e. Medium Long Shot or Long Shot) because to frame him in closer shots would mean losing his expressive use of his body. Because of these long shots – emphasised sometimes by the visible use of zoom lenses – Marseilles plays a similar but differentiated role as an extra ‘player’ compared to the part played by Brooklyn in the first film. Frankenheimer is a master of large scale crowd scenes and the chase sequences here are more like those in vintage Hitchcock than the more tightly-focused chases in Friedkin’s film. We do get the chases through the streets (with an athletic Hackman doing his own stunts), but also we see tiny figures framed in wide vistas of the harbour and sea-front. Overall, the combination of cinematography, set design and choreography of action is excellent. The heart of the film, however, is the focus on Popeye when he is held by the drugs gang – reminding us that Frankenheimer was the great director of men under pressure in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seconds (1966).

In the first third and the last third of French Connection II, this does feel like a possible sequel to the first film, but in between it becomes something else. This is emphasised by a key decision. Whereas in the first film, the French dialogue between members of the drugs gang was subtitled, here there are no subtitles – we experience the world as Popeye does. French conversations are not translated and Popeye flounders in his attempts to question suspects (the Poughkeepsie joke survives from the first film and becomes even more surreal). This works very well when Popeye is told by the Police Commissioner (in French) to pack his bags. “Do I need to translate?” says the Inspector. Popeye shakes his head – he isn’t so dumb that he can’t ‘read’ intonation and facial expressions.

As I’ve argued many times, French and American crime films are often in dialogue with one another. Here, Popeye abuses French police officers, the French language, French culture generally and causes mayhem with his violent methods. But his hosts do accept that his loutish behaviour is accompanied by persistence, bravery and single-mindedness as well some good investigative skills. Most of all, they admire his vitality – not a bad representation of American-French cultural relations, perhaps?

The 2014 French film The Connection (La French) offers quite a different take on the original ‘true story’ – and on representations of Marseilles – review to follow.

The Drop (US-UK-Australia 2014)

Bob (Tom Hardy), Marv (James Gandolfini) and the Chechen mobster (Michael Aranov)

Bob (Tom Hardy), Marv (James Gandolfini) and the Chechen mobster (Michael Aranov)

Here’s a global film in the form of a Brooklyn-set crime story. The script is by Dennis Lehane, who has expanded his own short story, and one of the four leads is James Gandolfini. The other three comprise a Brit, a Swede and a Belgian and the film is directed by another Belgian, Michaël R. Roskam. We are back in the territory of the Europeans taking on the American crime film. The fact that the story is American distinguishes The Drop from Guillaume Canet’s Blood Ties but it still might be useful to think about the two films together as they both seem to channel the 1970s New York crime films of Sidney Lumet et al. Matthias Schoenaerts also appears in both films and here is reunited with the director (plus Nicolas Karakatsanis the cinematographer and music composer Raf Keunen) of Bullhead (Belgium 2011) which I really should put on the ‘to watch’ list.

Most audiences will go to see this film thinking it will be an American crime story dominated by Gandolfini and Lehane’s script. I suspect that many will end up feeling that the film belongs to Tom Hardy in another stunning performance. Hardy disappears into roles so much and so effectively that he’s hardly recognisable from one film to another. Here he is Bob Saginowski, the seemingly long-suffering bartender of a Brooklyn joint known as ‘Cousin Marv’s Bar’. It’s Bob’s voiceover at the beginning of the film that tells us that this is one of the bars used by organised crime gangs as a collection point for laundered money. Marv is played by James Gandolfini and in reality he doesn’t own the bar which is now one of the fronts for a gang of Chechen criminals. Marv is on the way out and it’s a fitting role for James Gandolfini whose last film appearance it turned out to be. When the bar is robbed and the Chechens demand their money back, Marv and Bob have to find it. The triangle between Marv, Bob and the Chechens is a familiar trope of the crime film and Lehane’s story here simply supplies the framework for the more interesting triangle (rectangle?) involving Bob and the pitbull puppy that he finds badly injured in a garbage bin. The bin belongs to the waitress Nadia (Noomi Rapace) who helps Bob care for the dog. It takes a while before we realise that the dog was probably put there by the disturbing Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts) who seems to be unusually interested in how the couple’s relationship develops. Lehane’s original story was ‘Animal Rescue’.

In one sense the film is like a genre exercise in constructing a film narrative. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to note that Lehane reveals the link between the separate elements via a line delivered by the local police detective who notices that Bob attends mass every week but never takes communion. “They never see you coming” he suggests to Bob at one point. And indeed Bob appears to be perhaps mildly autistic – giving the impression that he is a slow, dependable worker, speaking carefully, working methodically and always holding himself in check. Does he really find social interaction to be arduous – or is his self-restraint a cover?

Bob, Rocco and Nadia (Noomi Rapace)

Bob, Rocco and Nadia (Noomi Rapace)

In terms of how this all works out and what it means as a film narrative I have to largely agree with the Sight and Sound review by Matthew Taylor. Like Taylor, I think that all the constituent parts of the film work well. The performances are all good – though Noomi Rapace is under-used – and individual scenes and sequences are efficiently and economically presented. My feeling is that the script is the weakness in not giving us a compelling crime story to match the melodrama of emotional relationships. I’ve seen reviews that dismiss the film completely as too inert. I wouldn’t go that far but another reviewer who suggested that the film’s ending was more like the beginning of another more interesting story does make an interesting point. So, perhaps it’s back to those 70s movies – a Bob Rafelson film? I would have liked to see much more of Bob and Nadia and how they get on together. Overall though I did enjoy watching the film.

I’m not sure how Keith will get on with the film but I am sure he’ll like the dog – named after Saint Rocco, the patron saint of dogs. The church of Saint Rocco is about to be closed down and sold to a property developer. The appearance of the statue of Saint Rocco is also a reference to the feast day parade in Godfather II when a statue of the saint is carried through the streets of Little Italy.

Wikipedia suggests a budget of $13.5 million – low for Hollywood but high for a European film. There appear to be several companies involved in a co-production which I’ve classified as ‘independent’.

Betibú (Argentina-Spain 2014)

Mercedes Moran as 'Betibu', the crime novelist turned investigator.

Mercedes Morán as ‘Betibú’, the crime novelist turned investigator.

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680This was perhaps the most enjoyable film to watch in my festival selection. It’s a solid mainstream investigative thriller with some interesting characters and a twisty plot. It’s the kind of film that would work well in BBC4’s Saturday night European crime fiction slot.

The title refers to the Spanish name for the cartoon character ‘Betty Boop’ and it was affectionately given as a nickname by Jaime Brena (Daniel Fanego), a crime reporter for a Buenos Aires newspaper, to a leading crime novelist Nurit Iscar (Mercedes Morán) some years ago. Brena is now being pushed out of his job and Iscar is reduced to more mundane writing after her last novel failed to please the critics. But when a wealthy man is found with his throat cut in a gated country club community, Brena and Iscar become involved in investigating the murder. Brena’s boss discovers that the newly-appointed young graduate crime desk chief needs guidance and lacks useful contacts and Brena is back on the job. Iscar is hired to write a ‘colour piece’ on the crime scene – but this is also a ruse by which the editor can attempt to rekindle a relationship with her. The subsequent investigation unearths a story which can be traced back to events many years ago involving wealthy families in Buenos Aires and the narrative has a darker ending than might be expected from some of the earlier exchanges.

The Argentinian production company behind the film (the wonderfully-named ‘Haddock Films’) is best known internationally for The Secret in Their Eyes (2009). That was a much more adventurous film and more clearly concerned with the dark political history of Argentina. Betibú suggests that the dark past can be kept dark by ‘The Organisation’, but there are certainly similarities with The Secret in Their Eyes in some of the settings. The film’s director is Miguel Cohan whose first film was the well-received No Return (Argentina 2010). Betibú is an adaptation of a novel by Claudia Piñeiro.

Daniel Fanego and Mercedes Morán are excellent and I could have taken much more of them. Fanego underplays to great effect and Morán is convincing as a writer-investigator (and quite different to the well-known Angela Lansbury character Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. but I would have to agree with The Hollywood Reporter review which suggests that the two roles taken by Spanish actors, the editor and the young crime desk chief, are both underwritten and not up to the level of the two central characters. This raises the question of co-productions and the extent to which Spain and Argentina/Mexico/Columbia etc. need each other to be involved in a production. Betibú looks great and it looks like a certain level of production funding was required. It may also be that ‘pan-Hispanic’ distribution is helped by co-production. However, many of the other co-productions I’ve seen make much better use of Spanish actors.

Warner Bros. distributed the film in Argentina but I haven’t seen any indications of European or North American distribution as yet. Overall I’ve been impressed with the quality of Argentinian productions in the last few years and I hope this does get a wide distribution. It’s probably for older audiences who, I think, will enjoy it.

Gone Girl (US 2014)

Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck)

Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck)

Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl was an immediate bestseller on its appearance in 2012, generating considerable discussion in mainstream and social media. Now she has written the screenplay for David Fincher’s film adaptation, her ideas about modern marriage and her presentation of an array of female characters – most of them perhaps unlikeable but nevertheless dominating the narrative – are again at the centre of public discourse.’Gone Girl the film’ is being hailed as one of the possible saviours of the 2014 box office in both the UK and US. It has also become the focus of a number of hostile reviews and claims that it is in some ways ‘anti-feminist’.

I decided to run a public event on Gone Girl on the basis of the initial interest in the novel. I’m not a David Fincher fan, though I respect his filmmaking skills. My reactions to his last two cinema features, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo were not particularly positive. I’m aware that Fincher has many fans but I’m not really clear what it is that is supposed to distinguish his approach. His previous films have often been relatively expensive productions which haven’t always attracted audiences in the numbers that might be expected. Box Office Mojo suggests that Fincher’s second feature Se7en remains his most popular film so far (when adjusted for inflation). I wondered therefore if Gone Girl would be a box office winner and if Fincher’s style would suit the material. Given that most of Fincher’s films have been ‘action’ orientated, including the two with female leads (Aliens 3 and Panic Room) I did further wonder if Fincher was the most appropriate director for a film which is ostensibly about marriage.

Having watched the film twice (all 149 minutes of it!) in two days and discussed it with several regular local filmgoers, I’ve come to some conclusions. First, my overall opinion of David Fincher as a director hasn’t really changed. Gone Girl is well-made. It looks good, it moves at a good pace, the performances are very good and it provides genuine entertainment (although if you have read the book, the film narrative of course doesn’t offer the same level of surprise). For me, Gone Girl was a ‘clever’ book – and I mean that in a complimentary way. Gillian Flynn knows what she wants to do and she does it skilfully. It’s also a long book with many characters and several sub-plots. There is no way that everything in the book could arrive on screen – or that the central ideas in the book could be thoroughly explored in a film that wants to include all the exciting action. Fincher himself said this about the book in a Screendaily.com Interview (20/9/2014):

“The thing I thought was profound and has not been articulated in this way is that we construct a façade of ourselves, an image for people to deal with us and understand us and hopefully we learn from teachers, parents, siblings how to present the best version of ourselves.

“Then we go out into the world as adults and mate, couple and seduce people with this projection of ourselves. Often, completely oblivious to the fact that that person is doing that too, and there comes a point where one who enters into this contract says I can’t keep it up. I’m not interested in being the man of your dreams or the woman of your dreams anymore. I don’t know what to tell you. This movie was about the resentment that might engender.

“A marriage is hard and really hard under the glare of 10,000 watt magnified 24-hour a day news cycle. No one can survive it.”

I agree with him. This is an interesting observation and that should be at the core of the film. Unfortunately, I think it takes second place to the psychological thriller/noir mystery aspects of Fincher’s film. All the ingredients are there but they didn’t have the impact I expected. Overall, my small group discussing the film concluded that it was an entertaining film, but it didn’t really tell us much about marriage – and it didn’t project a sense of Fincher’s personal style (whatever that might be). It felt like it could have been made by any mainstream experienced Hollywood director.

I’ve purposefully not mentioned the plot so far since the film has been so heavily promoted. Let me just point out that it is a story about a married couple told throughout by each marriage partner in turn from the moment when the husband discovers that the wife is ‘missing’ with some evidence suggesting that she has been abducted. He is immediately under suspicion and a tabloid media storm ensues in which he is effectively accused of her murder. The narrative twist is that Amy (Rosamund Pike) tells her story through diary entries that start seven years previously when the couple first met – she disappears on their 5th wedding anniversary. Nick (Ben Affleck) tells his story starting from the day of her disappearance. Amy is an ‘unreliable narrator’ via her diary entries. Nick’s version is told in the third person in the sense that we watch him and his actions – but we also listen to what he says to the police and others.  A second and third part of the story are narrated in a similar style but with the time differences between the two narrations shifting. I won’t ‘spoil’ the narrative twists.

I suspect that our discussion group is not representative of the mainstream audience. Mark Kermode in the Observer offers a much better analysis of how the film might work with a popular audience. He links it to the popular/populist successes of Paul Verhoeven/Joe Eszterhas in the ‘erotic thriller’ stakes, naming Basic Instinct to go alongside Fatal Attraction and references to Hitchcock, Clouzot etc. I think he is probably right. I think he is also correct in this observation:

Shooting in handsome 6K digital widescreen, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth keeps the visual tone cool and detached even as events heat up, eschewing the tics and flashes of yore. This is a picture-perfect world, presented with the untouched clarity of a crime scene, fine-tuned and framed by Fincher . . .

Gone Girl is a conventional American thriller that should please mainstream audiences. I think that in its presentation it comes across as more of Flynn’s film than Fincher’s. I’m not a fan of Ben Affleck but in some ways he was well cast and he played the role well. But he typifies a problem with American leading men. He’s so buffed up with bulging muscles in arms and thighs that he just doesn’t look or feel right for a man who seemingly does very little and eats badly. Rosamund Pike is just terrific in every way.

In the end the important debate about Gone Girl should be about the array of great roles in the film for female actors – and the debate about the importance or not of so many female characters who are presented in a ‘negative’ way. But then, apart from Nick’s sister Margo, the investigating detective Rhonda and the lawyer (played by Tyler Perry) almost every other character is there to be the subject of criticism. As a Guardian reader I’ve been taken aback by the ‘op ed’ pieces by Guardian journalists online and in the paper – they don’t seem to have seen many films and read this one in very black and white terms. I wish they would think a bit more before they submit copy.

Gone Girl won its first weekend in North America. Nothing is certain these days, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t still around in a few weeks time, going on to be Fincher’s biggest hit.