Archive for The Big Sleep

A Hard-boiled Oeuvre

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2013 by dcairns

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For the first half of PEEPER (1976) I was almost convinced I was watching a neglected classic. The script, by W.D. Richter (BUCKAROO BANZAI) from a Chandler pastiche by sci-fi author Keith Laumer, served up a constant sizzle of snazzy dialogue and cynical VO, the latter delivered by Michael Caine in a straight reprise of his delightful manner in Mike Hodges’ PULP. As that film had wound up with a walk-on by a Humphrey Bogart impersonator, so this movie begins with one, narrating the opening titles in a piece-to-camera presentation that’s giddily audacious. Director Peter Hyams seems to be on top form, and his cameraman Earl Rath, who lensed the astonishing proto-steadicam shoot-out chase in Hyams’ earlier BUSTING, steeps the art-deco locations in acidic greens, achieving a distinctly 1970s neo-noir look.

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I had thought that the really hip 70s noirs had either mixed things up by going back further in time, or had updated their stories to the modern day. CHINATOWN does the former, but adds such a wealth of modern attitude — political, sexual — as to seem furiously contemporary, while THE LONG GOODBYE really squeezes every ounce of anachronism to be had from the conceit of Marlowe in modern L.A. Dick Richards’ 1975 FAREWELL, MY LOVELY remake with Robert Mitchum seems a stale exercise in nostalgia by comparison. But then I think of the late Michael Winner’s incomprehensibly Brighton-set version of THE BIG SLEEP, and I have to conclude that there are no rules except that good filmmakers are more likely to make good films. Bad ons, not so much.

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Anyhow, PEEPER starts great, the cast is very nice, Caine has chemistry with Natalie Wood, and then it all somehow goes to pot. Liam Dunn is a great comedy antagonist, but Timothy Carey and Don Calfa, excellent actors and types, are also reduced to stooge status, depriving the whole thing of necessary tension. Necessary even in what’s virtually a comedy. Oh, we also get the wonderful Liam Dunn — Mr Hilltop in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, the judge in WHAT’S UP DOC?, as a typically decrepit, wonderfully weaselly character, the only guy Caine can convincingly push around.

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When the climax involved Wood fighting aboard a lifeboat, I got a horrible sense of why the film doesn’t tend to get revived much. But maybe it just isn’t good enough — the plot never reaches an extreme state demanding drastic action, but peters out in some confusing twists. A major sympathetic character is murdered and goes unavenged. The long takes lack the dynamism of Hyams and Rath’s BUSTING work, and sometimes merely looks as if they didn’t have time to get adequate coverage. It’s a shame, since the first half is a real delight. They could make a whole series of sequels to that first half. I kind of regret they made the second half at all.

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Thugs with Ugly Mugs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2008 by dcairns

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Every private eye’s office should come equipped with a kookalorus to throw crazy shadows on the walls when the lights are dimmed. Standard equipment, along with the snap-brim fedora and raincoat.

My copy of THE BRASHER DOUBLOON turned out to be not exactly pristine. The 20th Century Fox logo looked like it had been filmed underwater, in murky conditions, which was a first, and the rest of the movie had a grubby, dirt-streaked quality as if I was watching it with dirty, dirty eyes.

“…Bunker Hill, which used to be the choice place to live in Los Angeles. Nowadays, people live there because they haven’t got any choice.”

It’s Philip Marlowe! Hello Phil. Phil’s looking a little different because he’s not Humphrey Bogart or even Dick Powell or James Garner or Robert Mitchum, he’s George Montgomery, handsome but not particularly characterful. But his private eye voice-over marks him out as Marlowe alright.

John Brahm, following in the footsteps of Edward Dmytryk’s FAREWELL MY LOVELY and Howard Hawks’ THE BIG SLEEP, does certain film noir things by the book, so Marlowe has a neon sign outside his office window, and a voice-over, and never manages to grab some shut-eye except when he’s sapped on the head, which is often. Also, someone is always pulling a gun on him and he’s always pulling a fast one on them. On the other hand, he smokes a pipe, which seems positively aberrant behaviour for a shamus.

“When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”  — Raymond Chandler.

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Brahm may not have the stars or the originality, but he has a vibrant compositional style, and a great eye for bit-part casting. Even the great, chunky and enervated Fritz Kortner pales alongside some of the rogues’s gallery he’s surrounded by here. I can think of few movies before Leone where the supporting bad guys and background schlubs have such grotesque and inspiring kissers. Maybe Fritz Lang’s M, and maybe some Sternberg. And Kurosawa — such care taken with minor creeps and losers in THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

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This fellow, with his straw boater and vaguely Mittel-European accent, is like a debauched ancestor of Polanski’s little bruiser in CHINATOWN. The sleepy eye is a winner. He’s an amazing physical actor too (who the devil is he???) — even his body language has a foreign accent.

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This raddled old coot actor rejoices in the name of Housely Stevenson. Houseley, there’s a name you don’t hear nearly often enough. Looking at his credits, I see he played the role of “Old Man” quite a bit. It’s good to have a speciality to fall back on.

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A face only a mother could love, and even then, only when viewing it through a welder’s helmet.

One could go on, but there is a fine line between appreciating a bit-part player and mocking the afflicted. I enjoyed Brahm’s film muchly (I read The High Window, the book it comes from, years ago), although viewed today, Marlowe’s eagerness to cure Nancy Guild of her phobia of being touched strikes me as a little more than professional. It’s the Dr. Louis Judd  method. The story comes off as more silly and contrived than I remember in the book, as does the whole movie, but “silly and contrived” is Brahm’s preferred mode — you don’t look to him for subtlety or depth. He’s Mr. Panache.

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Marlowe’s hit-on-the-head POV shot. Since this shot also appears in THE DEVILS, a Ken Russell comparison suddenly seems intriguing, except I think Mad Ken is more clever than Brahm, although he often pretends not to be.