Showing posts with label crime. Show all posts
Showing posts with label crime. Show all posts

Sep 14, 2020

DILLINGER (1973)


In 2009, Michael Mann had hoped to tell the definitive story of the most famous bank robber ever—Public Enemies. With Johnny Depp as the John Dillinger, Marion Cotillard as his love, and Christian Bale as “G-Man” Melvin Purvis, the potential was there for not just another solid crime thriller from the director of Heat and Collateral, but for a new classic to stand alongside the great period crime films like The UntouchablesRoad To Perdition, and more. Unfortunately, Public Enemies proved to be, er...the nice way of putting it would be an underwhelming disappointment, when taking into account the pedigree involved in bringing it to the screen.  It’s hard to gauge how much of Public Enemies’ audience was aware that the story of the John Dillinger Gang had already been told nearly forty years prior, written and directed by John Millius. It’s also hard to gauge how many people realize just how much better Dillinger is. The film opens with a sequence which sees this version of John Dillinger, played by Warren Oates, ordering a bank teller to make with the cash, even though he’s at this moment breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience. “Nobody get nervous, you ain’t got nothing to fear,” he tells us. “You’re being robbed by the John Dillinger Gang—the best there is!” This opening scene alone is better than the best parts of Public Enemies.

Back-to-back viewings of Dillinger and Public Enemies will tell a pretty similar story, though in different ways, and utilizing a different timeline of events. Like Public Enemies, however, Dillinger presents its title “character” as a charming, lively, no-nonsense bank robber more interested in stealing from the federal government than from the pockets of the individual. Oates’ take on Dillinger might be a bit more true to life, presenting him as someone who takes what he wants—including women—by force. The start of the union between himself and Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips) ain’t exactly romantic, as it’s more akin to a kidnapping, and the black eye she later sports is dismissed as a “marital disagreement,” The usual suspects are there: Homer Van Meter (Harry Dean Stanton), Harry Pierpont (Geoffrey Lewis), Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly), Baby Face Nelson (an irascible Richard Dreyfuss), with Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) pursuing them all.


Dillinger unfolds in a docudrama fashion similar to Roger Corman’s period Chicago gangster flick The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, relying on voice-over to provide fact-based narration that propels the narrative forward (supplied by Johnson’s Purvis). Being that more time is spent with the gang than with the FBI agents hunting them down (very little time is spent on investigatory techniques; mostly these confrontational scenes begin with the agents already at the scene), it’s easy to determine that Millius was infatuated with these criminals and less so with “the law.” 

Ben Johnson offers a gruff performance as Purvis—one punctuated with glee each time he takes the life of a criminal and lights a cigar in celebration. In fact, one of his final scenes has him promising the woman who ultimately gives up Dillinger's location that “no harm” will come to him, with Pruvis stating he wants to take him in peacefully. Whether this is something the real Purvis had promised and subsequently defaulted on, or was a cinematic creation to heighten Millius’ seeming skewering of the FBI of that time period, that moment pushes Johnson’s Purvis from a relentless law agent to an Ahab-like figure pursuing a personal vendetta. (Historically, Purvis does not fire the fatal shot.) (Also, interesting, two historical accounts slightly differ in Dillinger’s final moments—some claim he realized the agents were there and attempted to pull a gun from his coat pocket; another claims he did successfully retrieve his gun and ran into a dark alley, intent on shooting his way out of the situation. Both Dillinger and Public Enemies have him being shot down in the street with no attempts to take him alive. This, likely, leans closer to history than what “history” claims.)


Dillinger’s post-Little Bohemia shootout finale takes a bit more time to draw to a conclusion, as we see each of the Dillinger Gang’s surviving members disperse and attempt to elude authorities, and it slows the film’s pace somewhat, but the before mentioned theater assassination punctuates the film and allows it to end on a somewhat somber (and violent) note. (The whole film, in fact, boasts much more violence than Public Enemies—with no cheap CGI blood to offend the eye.)

The John Dillinger Gang story has been told numerous times already, and it’s safe to assume Public Enemies won’t be the final word on the subject, all the Depps and Bales notwithstanding. Dillinger, however and so far, is the best attempt. Historical inaccuracies and somewhat broad character archetypes aside, it’s a captivating, violent, well-made, and mostly accurate account on the John Dillinger Gang—the best there is.


Apr 27, 2020

SUPER FLY (1972)


In the pantheon of the Blaxploitation movement, Super Fly was considered a top-tier title, boasting the most recognition and all around favorable reputation second only to Shaft, which was rebooted once in the early 2000s and again last year. A remake, Superfly, was released in 2018, produced by Joe Hollywood himself Joel Silver, and featuring a cast of actors who, outside of Michael Kenneth Williams, I’ve never heard of. 

Super Fly follows that age-old tale of a criminal/hero, in this case the bad-assedly named Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal), as someone tired of the game and looking to secure one last big hit before retiring from his life of crime for good. Of course, such things are never so simple.

Super Fly’s plot isn’t wholly engaging, and its effort to look raw, gritty, and realistic leads to scenes going on too long in an effort to capture their authenticity. (In fact, a real New York City pimp who lent the filmmakers his “tricked out hog” to use on screen eventually made his way into a scene playing…a pimp. His unpolished acting skills are prevalent, but, again, it lends to the authenticity.) And as far as the grit and rawness, one of the first scenes sees Priest chasing a would-be robber all the way back to the robber’s apartment where a woman and several small children cower in a corner on top of a mattress sat on the floor. Priest retrieves his cash and brutally kicks the man several times in the stomach, causing him to vomit — all the while, the chipped, peeling paint and dingy gray interiors of the apartment imbue that kind of New York nastiness that permeated much of 1970s cinema.


There’s also an emphasis on showcasing New York black culture with the appearance of Curtis Mayfield in a small, smoky club where our characters gather at one point. Long, unbroken takes of Mayfield performing one of his most well-known songs, “Pusher Man,” make up a large portion of the scene, with the entire club — including our hero — rapt with attention. In fact, “Pusher Man” is such a dominant presence in Super Fly that it’s used three different times.

Ron O’Neal is a striking looking actor, and his mixed heritage lends him an atypical look that was usually bestowed upon most of the male Blaxploitation characters of that era. It’s easy to dismiss his performance at first as uninspired and flat, but as time goes on you begin to see that O’Neal is manufacturing an almost untouchable mythical figure who knows only one emotion: fury. Cross him and he’ll make you pay, and in the scenes where he’s laying to waste a character who needs a furious verbal reprimand, he absolutely commands the screen.

Super Fly has rightfully earned its place in Blaxploitation history; it’s one of the few from the sub-genre that was able to transition from the screen and permeate pop culture, inspiring a long line of actors, hip-hop artists, and even halfhearted, big-budget reboots.



Apr 24, 2020

SEXY BEAST (2000)


An aging group of retired criminals are enjoying their life under the Spanish sun when that old adage comes calling: the one last job, the one big score, the one final hurrah. Only it's not coming to them through one of their own, but rather through a man whose reputation proceeds him; a man who has the ability to cause grown hardened British gangsters to tremble in fear just at the utterance of his name, or to repel direct eye contact when he's in the same room.

Gal (Ray Winstone), a prominent safe-cracker, has no choice but to host the arrival of Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), the man with the plan, to hear him out and find a way to decline his latest robbery scheme. Agonizingly, Gal refutes Don's plan repeatedly, explaining over and over that he's retired and he's out of the life and frankly, doesn't even know if he's capable of such things anymore. Don won't hear of it, and each time he refuses Gal's no, he becomes more and more unhinged, exploding into tirades of threats, physical violence, and heinous, putrid condemnations. Despite Gal's every attempt, things don't go according to plan, and he eventually finds himself taking part in Don's scheme - whether he's up to it or not, and all the while keeping a very big secret.


A film perhaps best described as the U.K.'s answer to Goodfellas, 2000's Sexy Beast is a force. It is chaos cinema with a nailed-down camera. It's near unconstrained madness somehow comprised of still shots and the misleading sense of safety brought on by its cast of middle-aged British thespians. It has all of the humor and non-hip hipness of a Tarantino film with none of the pretentious swagger. It has, straight out of your nightmares/Roger Corman's desk drawer of unused concepts, a screaming, hurling, hairy, mutant bunny-beast that lives entirely within the confines of Gal's imagination - his worst fears realized in a storybook monster grasping MP5s and shrieking in the desert.

And...it has one more thing: one mega storm within the reckoning force that is Sexy Beast.

One unassuming face wearing gaberdine slacks and your father's shirt.

Ben Kingsley as Don Logan, who delivers an absolutely maniacal, show-stopping, awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, magically unhinged performance.

To watch his iteration of Don Logan is to witness the embodying of sociopathy. To know that this is coming from the same man who gave a career-defining and Oscar-winning performance as Mahatmas Ghandi - a man who was peace personified - only bolsters the appreciation you have for how completely off the rails Kingsley is capable of going. Dishwashers, heed my warning: if you see Don Logan coming, run, very fast, the other way.


Even Kingsley himself says on the commentary track on the flick's various video releases:

Acting with one's self in the mirror is something that I've never, never done in my life, and it was very disconcerting to see the monster that I'd created, the monster Don, staring back at me. The first time I came to the mirror to do that sequence I completely dried up on my dialogue. I was so scared of my own face - [of] that psychopath looking back at me.

Say the words "British gangster" and inevitably people think Snatch, and maybe Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels, which is a shame. Though the U.K. hasn't produced a lot of notable modern crime thrillers (much like Hollywood, their cinema scene has certainly softened since the '70s), at the very least it can fully claim ownership of Sexy Beast, not just one of the all-time greatest, but the best crime film from across the pond since 1980's The Long Good Friday.



Nov 26, 2019

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974)


To lean on an overused expression, they really don’t make films like The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three anymore. The remake from 1998 with Vincent D’Onofrio, and the other remake from 2009 with Denzel Washington and John Travolta and directed by Tony Scott, proved that with ease. Because the uniqueness of the original is very much a product of the time in which it was made.

As has already been proven, the future has a bad memory. Over time, individuals who were once prominent actors, or filmmakers, slip into the ether. Names like Walter Matthau or Robert Shaw, celebrated during their time, may or may not survive the pop culture purge that’s currently in progress with the generation just below our own. Names like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, who died young, beautiful, and tragically, will always live on, while some of their colleagues will become trivia in board games and movie theater screens just before the ads for Hyundai. For some, those names are already forgotten, but for those who still remember, it might still come as a surprise that Walter Matthau, best remembered for his lifelong friendship and multiple on-screen couplings with Jack Lemmon, did his fair share of roles in the 1970s where he played kind of a badass. Not Schwarzenegger or Stallone levels of badass, mind you, but a different kind of badass. With his roles in The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, or Charley Varrick, or The Laughing Policeman, the lanky and limber Matthau exuded that 1970s version of a badass without the egocentricity of ridiculous musculature or an array of militaristic weapons. Matthau could be a badass only with a look, or a wry smile, or a perfectly timed cutting remark. His resistance to authority, his disdain for bureaucracy, and his insistence on always getting his man made him a less showy but just as effective “action” hero.

As for the villain (well, the lead villain), Robert Shaw’s menacing, icy, and subtly funny take on Mr. Blue (yep, Tarantino steals from all over) is a perfect foil to Matthau’s Lt. Zachary Garber. He is very much no-nonsense, at times treating the hostages in his subway car with more respect than his fellow heisters (brought to life by the likes of Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and yes, Earl Hindman, aka Tim Taylor’s neighbor, Wilson, in nine years of Home Improvement). When one uses the term effortlessly cool for actors from this era, the names Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood come to mind, but Robert Shaw out-cooled them all. Perhaps best remembered as Quint from JAWS, followed by his villainous turns in The Sting and From Russia with Love, his untimely death at 51 is one of the worst tragedies to befall the art of cinema, as it robbed us from so many more potentially great roles from the underrated British actor.


Two strong lead actors aside, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three’s greatest strength is its screenplay, based on the novel by John Godey (Johnny Handsome) and adapted by Peter Stone (Charade; 1776). Channeling Die Hard before Die Hard existed, the majority of Matthau and Shaw’s scenes together are shared via radio between the New York City subway operations hub and the taken train car, and despite this, the men manage to show a tremendous rapport, anyway. Helping this is the cracking, sharp-witted dialogue, which comes off as both cinematic and realistic at the same time. Add to that a slice of political incorrectness (it’s true—in previous eras, it was okay to laugh at the things that made us different) and a ground-zero look at how different facets of city culture react to a terrorist event (topical!), and the end result is The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three—one of the only times domestic terrorism was fun.

Director Joseph Sargent (White Lightning; JAWS: The Revenge) matches the thrills with the laughs, presenting an old-fashioned good time with one of the best, ironic, and expertly executed endings of all time. And to forgive another overused expression, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three’s DNA lives, breathes, and bleeds New York – to the point where the city is not just another character but the main character. In fact (move over, Spike Lee), The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three just might be the most New York film ever, from the emphasis on local actors for bit parts, to bigger-than-life New York attitudes, to iconic city geography, and to how ably Sargent captures the city, warts and all. The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three takes place in several not-so-glamorous environments. Much of the film, understandably, is subterranean, spent in gritty and dank locations like malfunctioning train cars or subway tunnels and platforms, but this only adds to the film’s appeal. Having set The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three in any other city would have stripped away its identity, its wryness, and most importantly, its sense of humor.


Much of The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is dialogue driven, but composer David Shire’s musical score complements the subtler and less bombastic moments outside of scenes of gunplay or car chases. (Shire has amusingly described his earlier attempts at scoring The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three as “bad Lalo Schifrin” and “bad flute jazz.”) Scenes set underground on the subway tunnels or platforms benefit from echo and station ambience, exuding the New Yorkness of New York, and working perfectly alongside Sargent’s intent to make this a New York story.

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is a classic of the genre, the sub-genre, or however you want to catalog it. It exists in a simpler time, both historically and cinematically, when all you needed for something to go so wrong was a handful of homegrown men with a plan, and all you needed to right that wrong was someone on the opposite end of the radio to ensure those men never reach the last stop.


Jul 8, 2019

BLU-RAY REVIEW: GRINDHOUSE RELEASING'S 'THE TOUGH ONES' (1976)


One of the most popular European cinematic sub-genres of the ‘60s and ‘70s was the giallo — a hyper-stylized approach to filmmaking pioneered by Italian filmmakers Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and largely credited as the inspiration behind the slasher sub-genre. Another movement also came to prominence during this time, spearheaded by European filmmakers less interested in depicting the ghastly crimes and more in the ensuing police investigations that looked into them—poliziotteschi: dark and gritty cop and crime thrillers that often offered the same kind of pulpy thrills and graphic violence, but in far less amounts. In American terms, films like Dirty Harry and The Laughing Policeman would fall under the poliziotteschi label, even though they were less graphic than their European colleagues. While poliziotteschi weren’t necessarily graphic with horrific imagery, they often could be.

Enter 1976’s The Tough Ones (aka Rome Armed To The Teeth – god I love Italian movie titles), directed by Umberto Lenzi (the giallo Seven Blood-Stained Orchids). Leaning back on the prior example of Dirty Harry, The Tough Ones tells your typical story of a police detective making it a personal mission to stop a killer while skirting “official channels” and “the book” in order to make that happen. Detective Leonardo Tanzi (the Frank Nero-looking Maurizio Merli) is that official channels skirter, furious with a system that coddles instead of punishes, and will absolutely, positively get his man -- by any means necessary. That man? The very Scorpio-ish Vincenzo Moretto (Tomas Milian), a hunchbacked slaughterhouse worker involved in much bloodier business than merely slicing cows down the middle, and who somehow manages to out-ooze Dirty Harry’s Andrew Robinson. (“I shat this out just for you,” he tells Tanzi at one point, holding up a bullet that Tanzi forced him to swallow in a total act of male dominance earlier in the film. Talk about having explosive poop! I’m sorry!)


The Tough Ones is hard-hitting and angry. Everyone is angry at everyone else. Tanzi hates Moretto, who hates him back. Tanzi and the police chief share an equal and mutual hatred. Tanzi, at times, even seems to hate the very woman he’s dating (Maria Rosaria Omaggio), as she basically represents the liberal society that releases all of the criminals he arrests on a daily basis. Like other films from this time period, and especially with it being an Italian production, The Tough Ones is very much indicative of its era. It’s impatient and cynical like lots of ‘70s cinema, with the added discomfort of pure misogyny, perpetrated against every single female character, and often at the hands of our lead hero. At the worst of them is a random rape attack committed by a group of thugs, most of which is thankfully left to the imagination, along with a disturbing insinuation that, post-rape, the victim was additionally sexually assaulted with a tree limb. There’s more than one instance of a woman being slapped, or talked down to, or outright threatened – not a single female character walks away unscathed in some form or another. Most cinephiles already well versed in this era of filmmaking likely won’t be surprised or turned off by this, but for those of you just getting started, best prepare yourself now.

Most importantly, Lenzi knows how to stage exciting action sequences, with the standout being an extended car chase that directly leads into the finale. The chase never reaches the heights of the graceful automotive ballet Bill Hickman achieved during his stunt driving in the likes of The French Connection, Bullitt, and The Seven-Ups, but only because Lenzi wants the car chase to look manic, gritty, and very dangerous instead. Leading up to that is an impressive barroom fight, which sees Tanzi taking on a Van Damme level of henchmen and reigning supreme. (A punk gets his head smashed through the glass top of a pinball machine and it’s the most satisfying thing.) The shootout during the climax, also, gets that blood pumping – that fun, unrealistically bright kind not seen since Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead. Like most Italian genre flicks, the plot doesn’t fully gel, and the editing can sometimes make the film’s events hard to follow, but, like Bullitt, the plot of which is near incomprehensible, Lenzi’s visceral way of presenting the story and the action make up for the weak cohesiveness. 


From a technical perspective, The Tough Ones looks and sounds fantastic, lovingly restored for a 4K presentation. The release comes with both English and Italian audio tracks, along with English subtitles for the Italian track only. You can attempt to watch English with English, but the subtitles barely match; the intent is the same, but the dialogue is always different. (One of the best examples of this is when someone calls someone else a “dummy” onscreen, but the subtitles replace it with “proletarian,” which I found very amusing.)

As typical for a title from Grindhouse Releasing, this new edition of The Tough Ones comes absolutely packed to the gills with special content, not the least of them being a third bonus CD of the film’s soundtrack by Franco Micalizzi. Most viewers will likely start with the new interview with director Lenzi, which runs 55 minutes in length. Lenzi starts at the beginning of his career, talking about how he got started, along with his admitted comfort in working in the crime genre over horror, despite his having contributed several titles to the latter. But if there’s a must-watch supplement on this release, it’s the 90-minute(!) interview with Tomas Milian. He explores similar ground as far as his start in filmmaking and acting, but his interview begins with a deeply personal and sad account of his childhood at the hands of loveless and abusive parents. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be hooked on his every word following this stunning admission.


The complete list of special features included on this release is as follows:
  • NEW 4K RESTORATION OF THE UNRATED AND UNCENSORED DIRECTOR'S CUT OF THE FILM
  • Optional Italian language soundtrack with optional English subtitles
  • Audio commentary by Mike Malloy, director Of Eurocrime! The Italian Cop And Gangster Films That Ruled The 70s
  • NEW in-depth interviews with director Umberto Lenzi, actors Tomas Milian, Maria Rosaria Omaggio, Sandra Cardini, Maria Rosaria Riuzzi and Corrado Solari, screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, and composer Franco Micalizzi
  • Special tribute to Maurizio Merli with appearances by Enzo Castellari and Ruggero Deodato
  • Vintage VHS intro by cult movie superstar Sybil Danning!
  • Original international theatrical trailer
  • Liner notes by Italian crime film expert Roberto Curti
  • Deluxe embossed slip cover
  • BONUS CD – original soundtrack album by Franco Micalizzi – newly remastered in stunning 24 bit/192khz sound from the original master tapes
  • AND OTHER SURPRISES...
  • LIMITED BONUS - Custom 30-Caliber Metal Bullet Pen – Strictly Limited to 2500 Units

The Tough Ones is now on Blu-ray from Grindhouse Releasing


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]