The Asphalt Jungle

(USA 1950)

I expected crime noir classic The Asphalt Jungle to be something of a cheesefest: stiffly acted, overly melodramatic, and maybe a bit hamfisted in its morality, like The Hardy Boys for adults of the Greatest Generation. Thankfully, John Huston’s film adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s 1949 novel is none of that.

No sooner is Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) out of the big house when he hatches a plan to do what he does best: steal. Like, a million bucks or more in jewels from a jewelry store (not Jared’s). Yes, a jewel heist. He pitches his plan to Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a two-bit gambling bookie, who puts him in touch with Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a rich but shady attorney. Emmerich buys in, not just providing financial backing but also agreeing to handle disposing the booty for cash.

Doc assembles a crew of petty thieves consisting of a “box man,” or a safecracker (Anthony Caruso), a driver (James Whitmore), and an all-important “hooligan” (Sterling Hayden) to execute the plan. The heist goes off without a hitch, mission accomplished. It’s smooth; uneventful, even. That is, until a stray bullet accidentally hits one of the crew members.

This is where the plot gets really interesting, as human nature and a slew of bad decisions rear their ugly heads. It doesn’t help that at the same time, sundry troubles that have been brewing alongside all the planning are coming to a boil. Soon, it’s every man for himself in a sticky web of deception, doublecrossing, and death.

The Asphalt Jungle is an exquisitely layered and calibrated drama that’s tough to turn away from — and tough not to appreciate. Written by Huston with Ben Maddow, the screenplay is tight. The characters — a collection of urban lowlife thieves, thugs, private detectives, crooked cops, and good looking dames — all have dimension. Interestingly, what would probably be the most intense scene in most movies — the break-in — isn’t; the intensity and the drama come from what happens after that. A manhunt that ends in Cleveland and an attempted swindle serve as the ticking clock here. This is the perfect thriller for a hot summer night in the city. Bonus: The Asphalt Jungle features a young but unmistakable Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest roles.

In 2008, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Asphalt Jungle “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Jean Hagen, John McIntire, Barry Kelley, Teresa Celli, William “Wee Willie” Davis, Dorothy Tree, Brad Dexter, Helene Stanley, John Maxwell, Strother Martin, Jack Warden, Tim Ryan

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

112 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) A-

Noir City

https://www.warnerbros.com/asphalt-jungle

Two Men in Manhattan [Deux hommes dans Manhattan]

(France 1959)

In his cool noir mystery Two Men in Manhattan [Deux hommes dans Manhattan], director Jean-Pierre Melville in his only starring role is Moreau, a cheerless and jaded reporter with Agence France-Presse. As he’s leaving work one night, his boss (Jean Lara) asks him to investigate the whereabouts of one Mssr. Fèvre-Berthier, the French United Nations delegate, who curiously has gone M.I.A.

Moreau heads straight to the flat of a frequent collaborator, hardened alcoholic photographer Pierre Delmas (Pierre Grasset), and yanks him out of bed—never mind the girl there with him. Delmas is the archetype paparazzo: cold-blooded and motivated by money. He knows his way around Manhattan.

The two men trail Fèvre-Berthier through a number of female associates: his secretary (Colette Fleury), a two-bit actress (Ginger Hall), a jazz singer (Glenda Leigh), a burlesque stripper (Michèle Bailly), and a high dollar whore in a high class brothel (Monique Hennessy). They find out what happened to him, but the story is scandalous.

Moreau doesn’t want to print it, but Delmas insists otherwise. A strange car following them around may persuade them to do the right thing—whatever that is.

With enough trench coats and fedora hats to clothe a newsroom, Two Men in Manhattan reflects Melville’s characteristic minimalist neo gangster movie style. The personal ethics here are all grey, which fits nicely with the night scenes, especially the exteriors shot on Times Square by cinematographer Nicolas Hayer. Aside from the exteriors, Manhattan never looked more fabulously fake: most of the interiors—the subway, a bar, a club, a theater, a hospital, a diner—were shot in a studio.

Part detective flick and part morality play, the tone shifts quite a bit between drama and waggishness, leading me to conclude that Melville didn’t take Two Men in Manhattan very seriously. It’s a minor work that comes off tongue in cheek, which makes it fun to watch—it compensates for Melville’s rather thin script. Plus, the whole thing sure is pretty.

With Christiane Eudes, Paula Dehelly, Nancy Delorme, Carole Sands, Gloria Kayser, Barbara Hall, Monica Ford, Billy Beck, Deya Kent, Carl Studer, Billy Kearns , Hyman Yanovitz, Ro. Tetelman, Art Simmons, Jerry Mengo

Production: Belfort Films, Alter Films

Distribution: Columbia Films (France), Mercurfin Italiana (Italy), Cable Hogue Co. (Japan), Cohen Media Group (USA)

85 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

Breathless [Á bout de souffle]

(France 1960)

“After all, I’m an asshole.”

—Michel Poiccard

The third time is a charm: after seeing Jean Luc-Godard’s first full length feature film, Breathless, I now understand the love-meh relationship I have with his work.

On one hand, he’s got a remarkable grasp of human behavior and what motivates it. He’s got a snarky sense of humor. He’s stylish. His technique is gutsy for a lot of reasons. His characters are flawed. His subject matter is cool. He knows how to make a film look pretty, and most of them might as well be deemed official historical documents of the places where they were shot. Seeing a Godard film is like traveling back in time, an incidental bonus he probably never considered. I love all of this.

For all his strengths, on the other hand, a Godard film can be so damned…boring. Merde!

Fortunately, that’s not quite the case with Breathless, which I actually enjoyed. Godard and François Truffaut developed the story—I won’t call it a script or a screenplay because they made up much of it as they went along. Plot is always a loose construct with Godard, but there’s enough of one here to follow along fairly easily. Ugly cute guy (or is he a cute ugly guy?) Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a drifter car thief who fancies himself a French Humphrey Bogart, steals a car and drives it through the countryside. He shots and kills a policeman who pursues him.

With nowhere else to go, he heads straight to his American girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg), an expat student who sells a newspaper, the now defunct New York Herald Tribune, on the Champs-Élysées—that’s kind of weird—and writes articles here and there. She brings Michel to her apartment, where he hides out. He doesn’t mention anything to her about what happened. They get it on, or at least it’s implied that they do. She’s tells him she’s pregnant. One extended scene involves them lying around, talking.

Michel becomes a marked man, which he discovers soon enough after he leaves the apartment with Patricia and sees a newspaper with a headline about him. I won’t ruin the ending, but it doesn’t bode well for him—especially after Godard himself sees Michel.

Breathless is a psuedo noir thriller that’s low on action but loaded with morally vacant characters who lack any redeeming qualities. There’s a nihilistic sexiness to it. The narrative moves along in a jazzy free-form way, and the imagery here is every bit a part of the story as the characters. The ending is not a happy one. If nothing else, Breathless is a visual stunner—black and white cinematic candy. The restored digital version I saw literally glowed.

I can handle more films like this one.

With Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet, Roger Hanin, Van Doude, Liliane David, Michel Fabre, Jean-Pierre Melville, Claude Mansard, Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Balducci, Jacques Rivette

Production: Les Films Impéria, Les Productions Georges de Beauregard, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC)

Distribution: Films Georges de Beauregard, Les Films Impéria, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC), Euro International Film (EIA) (Italy), Pallas Filmverleih (West Germany), British Lion Film Corporation (UK), Cinematográfica Azteca (Mexico), Ciné Vog Films (Belgium), Wivefilm (Sweden), Films Around the World (USA), Rialto Pictures (USA), Criterion Collection (USA)

90 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) B

http://www.jean-lucgodard.com/films.html

https://www.criterion.com/films/268-breathless

Night and the City

(UK/USA 1950)

“Harry is an artist without an art.”

—Adam Dunne

Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is a fine example of classic film noir. Filmed in smoky black and white mostly at nighttime on location in London, Dassin takes us slumming through the seedy underworld of nightlife, wrestling, and organized crime.

Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is a hard-bitten, ambitious, streetwise American con artist living in London. Always on the lookout for a quick buck, he can’t seem to catch a break. Ever. Literally running for his life in the opening scene, his latest career endeavor has failed, and his girl, Mary (Gene Tierney), is losing faith in him—stealing from her will do that.

Things brighten one night after a failed hustle at a wrestling match: Harry crosses paths with famous retired Greek wrestler Gregorius the Great (real life professional wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko) and his prodigy, Nikolas of Athens (Ken Richmond), who both walk out of the arena in a huff. Gregorius is furious with his son, Kristo (Herbert Lom), who organized the fight, a low-end sort of WWE-like affair that he finds tacky.

Harry schmoozes Gregorius and learns that Kristo is a mobster who controls wrestling in all of London. He devises a plan to create a promotion startup, aligning himself with Gregorius to get around Kristo. He secures funding by double dealing with Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), the owner of the Silver Fox Club where Mary works, and Phil’s wife, Helen (Googie Withers). She has plans of her own she doesn’t want Phil to know about.

The whole thing looks like it’s actually going to work despite Kristo’s threats, a plot to murder Harry, and Phil pulling his backing from the project. Harry gets so far as setting up a real fight between Nikolas and the Strangler (Mike Mazurki, also a real life professional wrestler). A miscalculation unravels everything—not just for him but everyone involved.

Jo Eisinger’s screenplay, based on Gerald Kersh’s novel Night and the City with contributions from Austin Dempster and William E. Watts, involves morally bankrupt lowlife characters who lack any redeeming qualities. All of them are scamming for one thing or another, and none of them—except maybe Mary—evokes any sympathy. This plays out nicely with the motifs of money, masculinity, and blind ambition that give this story its dark and bitter hue. It’s suspenseful. Ultimately, evil prevails in this dirty little story, which had to be revolutionary if jarring when this came out.

The backstory here is as interesting as the plot: during the production of Night and the City, Dassin was blacklisted for being a Communist. Pushed into exile, he infuses a strong sense of betrayal and fear into this film (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jules_Dassin).

Night and the City is desperate, chilly, and magnificently bleak—and it looks it thanks to Mutz Greenbaum’s shadowy and dramatic cinematography. Of the nitrate prints that screened this year, this was a standout. According to the festival program, this pre-release print is ten minutes longer than the UK version and 15 minutes longer than the US version.

With Hugh Marlowe, Ada Reeve, Charles Farrell, Edward Chapman, Betty Shale

Production: 20th Century Fox

Distribution: 20th Century Fox, Criterion

111 minutes (pre-release print)
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) B

Nitrate Picture Show

https://www.criterion.com/films/933-night-and-the-city

Blue Velvet

(USA 1986)

Who hasn’t seen Blue Velvet? Even though David Lynch was already established by the time it came out, it’s the film that introduced me to him. I saw it once or twice in late high school or early college, definitely on VHS. The River’s Edge was the only comparison I had, and that was a weird film but…not on the same level. I found Blue Velvet totally watchable because it’s very dark, very sexual, very fucking weird, and very voyeuristic.

That was then, this is now: Blue Velvet is still all of those things, but I don’t remember it having the sense of humor it does. It’s curiously funny. It marks the start of Lynch’s style as we know it: not just surreal (he had already done Eraserhead), but macabre and perverted underneath the innocuous and mundane premise. Lynch sets up his narrative in pieces that refer back and forth, like a moving puzzle. It’s brilliant, and it’s a formula that’s served him well.

Blue Velvet starts with a severed ear on the ground, bugs crawling all over it. A local college kid turned stalker (Kyle MacLachlan) proves a bit too curious when his minor obsession with a night club singer (Isabella Rossellini) leads him into a sadomasochistic nightmare that neither he nor we viewers can turn away from. The whole bizarre and sordid story goes full circle back to where it started: that ear. 

Dennis Hopper as Frank, the gas-huffing sociopath who ends every sentence with the F-word, colors the mood here. None of it would work, though, without Rossellini’s vulnerability, which is crucial. 

Lynch considered Molly Ringwald instead of Laura Dern and Val Kilmer instead of MacLachlan. Thank goodness it happened how it did; what a different film Blue Velvet would have been. For a movie that relies so heavily on nuance, that could’ve ruined Lynch’s career. It didn’t. 

With Hope Lange, Dean Stockwell, George Dickerson, Priscilla Pointer, Frances Bay, Jack Harvey, Ken Stovitz, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance, J. Michael Hunter, Dick Green, Fred Pickler, Philip Markert, Leonard Watkins, Moses Gibson, Selden Smith, Peter Carew, Jon Jon Snipes, Angelo Badalamenti, Jean Pierre Viale, Donald Moore, A. Michelle Depland, Michelle Sasse, Katie Reid, Sparky

Production: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

Distribution: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 20th Century Fox (UK), Transmundo Films (Argentina), AMLF (France), Concorde Film (Netherlands), Concorde Filmverleih (West Germany), Finnkino (Finland), Hoyts Distribution (Australia), Shochiku-Fuji Company (Japan)

120 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B+

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

Mulholland Dr.

(USA/France 2001)

“No hay banda, il n’est pas d’orchestra. It is all an illusion.”

—The Magician at Club Silencio

The perfect opener for a retrospective on its director, Mulholland Dr. is an inimitable film that’s really hard to write about. You can look for answers online all you want, but even after seeing it multiple times you still don’t know what happens in it.

Not unless you’re David Lynch. That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, though.

I’ve seen Mulholland Dr. maybe three times, and I’m not sure. I have my theories. Maybe they’re right, maybe not. Who cares? As with any of Lynch’s best films, the draw to Mulholland Dr. is that it’s a puzzle. He makes you work to solve it, or at least try to. He gives you just enough to go on but leaves the whole thing open to interpretation. At points, he gets you so frustrated, you lose patience and you hate him. But you don’t want him to stop. It’s artistic sadomasochism.

What began as a project for television is a mystery mindfuck tailored to the big screen. Dreamlike, hypnotic, and erotic, Mulholland Dr. is visually demanding and aesthetically worth every minute. The premise is deceptively simple: perky and wide-eyed blond actress Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in Hollywood and bumps into beautiful young brunette Rita (Laura Harring), who can’t remember who she is after a car accident on Mulholland Drive.

As the two set out looking for clues to Rita’s identity, Lynch throws in a bunch of random characters, muddled subplots, and perplexing events. The narrative arc he puts us on comes to an abrupt halt with a small blue box the girls acquire at a night club. This is where Lynch pulls the rug out from under us.

Mulholland Dr. is definitely a love story—one fraught with competition, petty jealousies, one-upmanship, and ultimately murder. Lynch’s trademark sense of humor flickers here and there, but this is still dark stuff. I see Mulholland Dr. as a denouncement of Hollywood and all its ruthless superficiality. It’s a town that eats you up and spits you out.

Motifs of filmmaking, commerce, ego, vision, and of course the color blue stand out. Rebekah Del Rio’s performance of “Llorando” is beautifully forlorn and eerie. I would be remiss not to mention Peter Deming’s cinematography, which makes Mulholland Dr. shine.

Sadly, Lynch hasn’t done a proper film since 2006. He’s the one living filmmaker whose work I miss the most. Mulholland Dr. is a testament to why: like the street where it takes its name, this film is twisting, treacherous, and ultimately breathtaking.

With Jeanne Bates, Robert Forster, Brent Briscoe, Patrick Fischler, Michael Cooke, Bonnie Aarons, Michael J. Anderson, Ann Miller, Angelo Badalamenti, Dan Hedaya, Daniel Rey, Justin Theroux, David Schroeder, Robert Katims, Marcus Graham, Tom Morris, Melissa George, Mark Pellegrino, Vincent Castellanos, Rena Riffel, Michael Des Barres, Lori Heuring, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tad Horino, Missy Crider, Melissa Crider, Tony Longo, Geno Silva, Katharine Towne, Lee Grant, Lafayette Montgomery, Kate Forster, James Karen, Chad Everett, Wayne Grace, Rita Taggart, Michele Hicks, Michael Weatherred, Michael Fairman, Johanna Stein, Richard Green, Conti Condoli, Lyssie Powell, Scott Coffey

Production: Les Films Alain Sarde, Asymmetrical Productions, Babbo Inc., Canal+, The Picture Factory

Distribution: Universal Pictures

147 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) A-

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.lynchnet.com/mdrive/

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

(USA 1982, 2007)

Ridley Scott is hit or miss with me, Harrison Ford bores me, and I tend to eschew science fiction. So, neo-noir sci-fi drama Blade Runner doesn’t seem like something that would appeal to me. It does, though—in fact, I love it.

Like Alien, another gem by Scott, Blade Runner succeeds on so many levels. Executed near flawlessly, its themes and narrative, its structure and pace, its sets and technical aspects are all polished, eloquent, and downright cerebral. It cuts right to the heart of humanity—what’s beautiful about it and what isn’t, and what it is to be human.

Los Angeles, November 2019: six rogue artificial humans known as replicants that were banished to an “off-world” work camp in space return to Earth in a desperate attempt to extend their life. Created by tech behemoth Tyrell Corporation, this particular model, the Nexus-6, is the smartest and strongest replicant. However, it has a lifespan of only four years—and the meter is ticking. Fortunately for them, replicants are indistinguishable from real humans, except for their emotional responses. It takes a lengthy question-and-answer test to positively identify them.

Burned out former cop Rick Deckard (Ford), whose job as a blade runner was to track down replicants and “retire,” or kill them, is persuaded—okay, extorted—out of a self-imposed furlough to find and get rid of these troublemakers. Stat. The job isn’t an easy one, particularly where charmingly weird and conniving Pris (Daryl Hannah) and invincible badass Roy (Rutger Hauer) are involved.

As Deckard searches for his targets, he meets and gets to know the rather severely formal Rachael (Sean Young), assistant to replicant inventor Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel). Rachael doesn’t know she’s a replicant. Tyrell asks Deckard to retire her as well, but there’s a problem: Deckard realizes he’s falling for her.

Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—with the title taken from Alan E. Nourse’s novel The Blade Runner, which had nothing to do with Dick (https://www.neondystopia.com/cyberpunk-movies-anime/the-story-behind-blade-runners-title/)—Blade Runner is dark in every sense of the word. Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography is stunningly bleak. The setting might be Los Angeles, but Scott slyly references Metropolis—only he refits it to Hong Kong or Tokyo. Many of the ideas explored here are eerily relevant today, especially the way morality plays out with corporations, genetic engineering, a police state, the environment, and hierarchy of life and life forms.

Blade Runner is a weighty movie, but seriousness aside—I found myself entertained with a number of things that simply aren’t present today: PanAm, Atari, and TDK. Smoking indoors. Pay phones. Photographs. Even urban decay. I was also floored that one of the replicants was “born” 20 days after this screening. Plus, Roy is a bionic Ken doll and Pris looks like a club kid from Party Monster. Still, Blade Runner is timeless; I’ll see it again in three or 33 years and still swoon over it. Yes, it’s that good. The Final Cut is Scott’s own finetuned version of the original theatrical release. It kills me that after all this time, a sequel that I probably won’t see is coming out later this year.

In 1993, the United States Library of Congress deemed Blade Runner “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, William Sanderson, Brion James, Joanna Cassidy, Kevin Thompson, John Edward Allen, Robert Okazaki

Production: Ladd Company, The Shaw Brothers/Sir Run Run Shaw, Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers

117 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) A

https://www.warnerbros.com/blade-runner

Nocturnal Animals

(USA 2016)

Tom Ford is a Virgo, and everything he does reflects textbook traits of his sign: his products are sharp, observant, and meticulous. He exhibits impeccable style and substance. He’s a perfectionist, and it shows. His films are no exception, and his aesthetic serves them well. I seriously dug A Single Man, but I figured it was a one-off project after a few years passed without a follow up. I’m glad Ford proved me wrong: Nocturnal Animals is great. It’s also different; A Single Man is in essence a gentle and compassionate love story, whereas Nocturnal Animals is a bitter tale about a bad romance, regret, revenge, and closure with a comment on how art mirrors life. Certainly not a breezy endeavor, it offers quite a bit of food for thought.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a study in contradictions, has all the material trappings of the glamorous life—too bad none of it brings her happiness. A rich and successful Los Angeles gallery owner, she hates what she does for a living. Her husband (Armie Hammer) is dashing but absent, offering more of an arrangement than a marriage. Part of the problem might be the bankruptcy he alludes to in one of their conversations early on. Or maybe it’s the transcontinental affair he’s carrying on in New York City. Their home is a chic box in the hills; Susan is alone in it—except for the hired help, of course.

A package arrives out of the blue from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). They haven’t spoken in years; their relationship did not end well. A simple guy she knew from growing up in Texas, she broke his heart with three horrible things she did—not the least of which was telling him he lacked what it takes to be a writer. Edward sent her the manuscript of his forthcoming novel, Nocturnal Animals, which he dedicates to her. He included a note stating that he will be in town and wants to meet her out.

Susan opens it and starts reading. Immediately, the story seduces her. Edward’s novel, depicted from her imagination as a film within the film, is a tragically violent work of pulp noir. Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) is driving down a dark desert highway in Texas with his wife (Isla Fisher) and their daughter (Ellie Bamber) when a band of hicks runs them off the road. Facing a menacing proposal, Tony tries to talk his way out. Sensing weakness, nefarious psychopath ringleader Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) exploits the situation and separates Tony from the girls. With one potential shot at saving his family, Tony blows it and ends up seeking help from the police. Officer Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a pithy cowboy with a badge, can’t comprehend why Tony didn’t put up a fight, but he helps track down the bastards so Tony can exact revenge.

Ford adapted his screenplay from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. What’s both interesting and distracting about Nocturnal Animals is the way he presents the story: he bounces back and forth between Susan’s present reality, her past, and Edward’s work of fiction that ties both together. It’s a very tricky feat, but he absolutely nails it with smooth transitions and masterful use of imagery and symbolism to connect the three narratives. Like most people (I suspect), I was far more interested in Tony than Susan even though Susan’s past and present are necessary to understand the story: Edward’s novel is a metaphor for his relationship with her. Many have complained about the ending, which is open to interpretation. I found it both realistic and satisfying whether Edward says “fuck you” to Susan or lets her off gently.

Visually, Nocturnal Animals is flawless. Ford’s sets, props, clothes, colors, and staging all work together with Seamus McGarvey’s dark and lovely cinematography to create a striking realm where naked fat ladies, a hick taking a dump, a bloody papercut, and discarded corpses are all things of beauty. The acting is superb all around, but Laura Linney is particularly exquisite in her brief role as Susan’s Lone Star Republican mother. All big-haired and dripping pearls and superiority, she sips her martini at an exclusive restaurant and urges Susan to forget about marrying a weak man like Edward. Fabulous!

116 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B+

http://www.focusfeatures.com/nocturnalanimals

Private Property

(USA 1960)

Private Property, a weird and fascinating psychological thriller written and directed by Leslie Stevens and shot over the course of five days in 1959, is the best film I never heard of. Believed “lost” for decades, a print was recently discovered in the UCLA film archives, restored, and shown for the first time in more than half a century just this past May at the TCM Classic Film Festival (https://hqofk.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/2016-tcm-classic-film-festival-private-property-1960/)(http://filmfestival.tcm.com/programs/films/private-property/). It is, in a word, a treat.

Duke (Corey Allen) and Boots (Warren Oates) are two shady Southern California vagabonds who subsist by stealing, usually intimidating their victims into giving them what they want—orange soda, cigarettes, a lift to Beverly Hills. All it takes is Duke’s thinly veiled threats delivered in his cold, menacing manner and a flash of their knives. The boys are sitting on the sidewalk outside the gas station on the Pacific Coast Highway where they just scored some loot when Ann Carlyle (Kate Manx), a beautiful kept housewife in a Corvette, pulls in to ask the attendant for directions. Duke is clearly intrigued by Ann, and he immediately hatches a demented plan to follow her and get Boots, a virgin, laid for the first time.

Ann unwittingly leads them to the Hollywood Hills, where she lives a seemingly idyllic life in a gorgeous home with her husband, Roger (Robert Ward), an insurance executive. Duke and Boots scope out the area and find an empty house for sale right next door to Ann. They squat there and spy on her from an upstairs window as she sunbathes, swims, gardens, eats, and comes and goes throughout the day.

In the privacy of their home, it becomes plain that Roger is more interested in work than in Ann, who not so subtly throws herself at him—splayed out on the living floor with her legs spread in one scene, and all dolled up in a negligee (no doubt from Frederick’s) in another—but can’t seem to get him to take a bite of her apple, so to speak. She stands in front of their bed and cries when she emerges from her dressing room ready for love one night, only to find him sound asleep.

Duke, who deduces that she’s unfulfilled, devises an introduction with Ann: he knocks on her door after Roger leaves for work and poses as a day worker looking for someone else’s house—the Hitchcock residence, of all places. He makes small talk about landscaping and offers to do some gardening work. The exchange sets off an unsettling connection that culminates in a bizarre lunch date in the back yard when Roger flies to San Francisco for the day.

Even with its flaws, I absolutely loved this film—it completely lured me with all it’s got going on. Simmering with sexual tension, ambiguity, and mystery, Stevens lets the plot unfold slowly, step by eerie step—very much like Hitchcock or, much later, David Lynch. It works: Duke is a psychopath, and watching him plot his next move made my skin crawl as much as it kept me glued to the screen. Boots is gay. His relationship with Duke is strange and undefined: it’s not clear whether they’re lovers, but Boots is definitely the submissive one. Roger is asexual. Manx, who has a sweet Barbara Eden thing about her and who was married to Stevens when Private Property was shot (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/obituary-leslie-stevens-1159807.html), brilliantly depicts the gamut of feelings Ann goes through: frustration, confusion, longing, hope, and loneliness. She’s a vulnerable character, and it hurts to watch her at times. Side note: knowing that Manx committed suicide a few years later makes her performance here all the more tragic (http://mobile.nytimes.com/1964/11/17/kate-manxactress-is-suicide.html). Ted McCord’s shimmering black and white cinematography and camera work add a ton of character to an already stylish and unusual film.

Promoted as “the boldest story of a planned seduction ever to scald the screen,” Private Property had to be scandalous in its day. It promises the kind of smut in a pulp paperback. It’s simultaneously groundbreaking—for its time, anyway—with its subject matter, yet surprisingly inoffensive. Sex is not shown—it’s all implied. Ann never says she’s horny—she shows it, for example, by rubbing along her neck the big phallic stopper of a huge perfume bottle and lying in bed with Duke’s belt under a towel next to her (oddly, she also puts his belt around her neck at one point). Profanity is whitewashed—in one of the film’s most ludicrous moments, an exasperated Duke utters, “What the flop?” He doesn’t call Boots “gay” or even “homosexual”—the closest he gets is something about finding a daddy.

The ending is disappointingly predictable, but it’s not so bad that it ruins the wonderfully suspenseful ride that brought us to it. From a historical perspective, Private Property stands as a seething criticism of post-War American values. It’s also got great exteriors of a long gone Los Angeles. I won’t forget this one.

79 minutes
Not rated

(Facets) A-

Private Property

Blood Simple.

(USA 1985)

“If you point a gun at someone, you’d better make sure you shoot him. And if you shoot him, you’d better make sure he’s dead. Because if he isn’t, then he’s gonna get up and try to kill you.”

—Ray

 

“I ain’t done nothing funny.”

—Abby

 

“Well, ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.”

—Loren Visser

I snagged tickets for the first screening when a theater near me announced a brief summer run of the Coen Brothers’ debut Blood Simple. A sharp 4K digital restoration, I’m not sure whether this is the original version—a few minor edits and cuts have been made over the years, and a song (The Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song,” appropriately enough) was taken out and put back in. It doesn’t matter, though, because whatever changes were made are imperceptible, as least to me. This version is exactly as sordid, labyrinthine, and suspenseful as I remember.

Written by both brothers with Ethan as producer and Joel as director, everything about Blood Simple. is unique and masterful. The story starts out simple: set in rural Texas, bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects that his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand), is having an affair and hires a private investigator, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), to find out whether he’s right. He is: Visser follows Abby and one of Marty’s employees, Ray (John Getz)—a bartender, of course—to a motel and takes photos of them in flagrante delicto. Soon after, Ray quits his job, provoking Marty to reveal that he’s onto Ray and Abby. Marty asks Visser to kill them, and that’s when things get complicated.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

Visser, you see, is a con man: he takes Marty’s money but doesn’t really kill Ray or Abby—instead, he doctors one of the photos he took at the hotel to look like they’re both dead; he paints on bullet wounds and gives the finished photo to Marty. A brilliant series of events all stemming from misunderstandings—like an episode of a demented Three’s Company—ensues, dragging all four characters into a murderous downward spiral.

Initially shown on the film festival circuit during autumn 1984 before a wide release in January 1985, the Coens’ clever mix of psychology, film noir, and seriously dark humor is unparalleled by anything else from its day—the top three films of 1984 were Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, if that says anything (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=1984). Blood Simple. exhibits the Coens’ distinctive penchant for ridiculously well developed and eccentric characters, perfect dialogue, flawless plot layering and pacing, fierce tension that makes you squirm, misanthropy, and an innovative use of clichés—all hallmarks of their work. This film, which launched not just their careers but also those of McDormand (it’s her first gig in a movie) and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, is done so well it succeeds without a big budget. It’s a solid debut that serves as a blueprint of what was to come from these guys.

95 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) A+

http://www.janusfilms.com/films/1815