Widows (UK-US, 2018)

Doin’ it for themselves

Widows represents a further step into the mainstream for co-writer and director Steve McQueen. Ironically, given 12 Years a Slave was essentially an art movie, this is likely to be less financially successful than its predecessor. Business Insider attributes this to the November release date; whatever the reason it’s not for the lack of thrills within the film.

Based on Lynda LaPlant’s ’80s TV series the film centres around a heist undertaken, in desperation, by the widows of thieves. It has elements of a number of genres, including the heist movie, political corruption thriller and urban gangster. McQueen overlays a political analysis that is both specific to Chicago (the film’s setting) and, he argues in his Sight & Sound interview (November), the world. McQueen manages to both revitalise the car chase (the brilliant opening) and use sound in distinctive ways. An example of the latter is where Daniel Kaluuya’s psychopath is listening to Black Panther Alfred Woodfox, on the radio, talking about his 44 years in prison. This brings in the discourse of racial politics and, particularly in one scene, #BlackLivesMatter (not as convincing as a similar scene in The Hate U Give).

Sound is also to the fore when Colin Farrell’s conflicted politician, Jack Mulligan, leaves the Projects to return to his leafy home, barely a minute away. Whilst Mulligan rages on the soundtrack the camera remains on the car’s bonnet observing the shift in wealth of the environment.

It’s a stellar cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriquez, Liam Neeson, as well as the aforementioned Kaluuya and Farrell. Robert Duval plays Mulligan’s dad and leaves a lasting impression as a hate-filled demagogue. The budget, notwithstanding the immense financial success of 12 Years a Slave, was a meagre $42m so it’s obvious that the talent is keen to work with McQueen.

Given the director’s ethnicity I was surprised to see, once or twice, that Viola Davis’ face was less clear than the white actor in the scene. It’s difficult to shoot both clearly, though I imagine digital technology could ‘cure’ this, and it is commonplace to have the black face more undifferentiated than the white. I’d’ve thought McQueen, and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit, would have reversed the power relationship.

However the film is as much about gender as race and McQueen ensures we have no doubt about the evil of toxic masculinity. There’s one moment when Neeson screws up his face and wails about saving himself that is especially noteworthy. Davis portrays her widow as indomitable in the face of her circumstances and Elizabeth Debecki’s transformation of an abused wife to a self-contained woman is entirely convincing.

Unsurprisingly, Widows doesn’t have the power of 12 Years a Slave, the subject matter sees to that, but McQueen confirms himself to be one of the most imaginative directors on the circuit.

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The Boston Strangler (US, 1968)

Straining to be modern

By the late 1960s the old Hollywood guard must have known their time was past; Jack Warner’s attempt to bury his own film, Bonnie and Clyde, lasted six months when, on its re-release, it became a hit. The Production Code, that had pickled representations for over 30 years, went the way of the moguls and Hollywood grew up. The push was more economic than cultural, the audience was disappearing because Hollywood was no longer in touch with the zeitgeist. The ’60s was the age of the teen and Aquarius as the counter culture, fuelled by Civil Rights and atrocities in Vietnam, was where it was at. In cinema, the French ‘new wave’ had affectionately broken the binds of classical Hollywood form and, by the end of the decade, was washing over Los Angeles.

The formal innovations of the time can be seen particularly in The Boston Strangler through director Richard Fleischer’s use of split screen. It is especially affective when characters are knocking on a door in one half of the screen; in the other we can see the strangler’s corpse awaiting discovery on the door’s other side. The last part of the film, a fanciful interrogation by the lead detective and the suspect in a mental asylum, gets ever more abstract (so not classical Hollywood) with the whiteness of the setting and the use of flashbacks; ‘fanciful’ because the film is based on an actual case (that has reared its head in numerous films) and this dialogue never happened. The roles are played by classical Hollywood stars, Henry Fonda and Tony Curtis, respectively. Curtis is far more comfortable, possibly because he was playing out of his ‘persona’ comfort zone, a psychopath rather than a charmer. His difference fits with the difference of the film whereas Fonda ‘good guy’ plodding belongs to another era.

Unsurprisingly not all the innovations have dated well. When Fleischer splits the screen even more, into a mosaic, it becomes difficult to know what to look at. Not that it was confusing as the subdivided frame was serving as a montage, but it was nevertheless distracting. In addition, the psychology espoused in the asylum no longer rings true. Cinema’s representation of psychology often has a loose relationship with the discipline as it’s used for dramatic purposes.

However, the film remains worth seeing as an example of the transition between old Hollywood and the New Hollywood of the early ’70s. Of course, most of the films emanating from California at the time were standard genre fare not suitable for experimentation. The Boston Strangler strains to be modern which is better than not being modern at all.

Panic in the Streets (US, 1950)

Palance representing the noir virus

It’s a long time since I’d seen Panic in the Streets and I don’t think I appreciated its brilliance on first viewing. One of the continuing attractions of film noir, I think, is its modernity in terms of the ideas expressed. The sickness in the human soul that noir portrays hasn’t gone anywhere, indeed it may be taking the ‘upper hand’ at the moment. So to see representations of evil is both cathartic and a warning. Richard Murphy’s screenplay has more than a human evil, personified here by the outstanding Walter Jack Palance (as he was credited), as the bubonic plague spreading in New Orleans.

The screenplay’s good, but the plaudits must go to Elia Kazan for his extraordinary direction. Kazan’s roots in documentary are evident with the location shooting which helps make the threat of plague seem real (as does the casting of non actors, in small roles, as people who are just trying to get on with their lives). Richard Widmark plays the public spirited health official who fights the complacent cops to get them to understand that a serious epidemic is possible. Palance plays Blackie who believes there’s a ‘Maltese Falcon’  (something extremely valuable) being hidden and his search takes him to the plague carrier: a wonderful metaphor for venality.

Location shooting adds to the tension

It’s not just the location shooting that gives the film a realist edge; Kazan uses some extraordinarily long takes (for Classical Hollywood) that add to the intensity as the drama plays out (for a short time) directly before our eyes (no cutting to signify mediation). This requires great acting and there’s plenty on offer in the film: the aformentioned Palance, his sidekick Zero Mostel (all sweaty obsequiousness) and Barbara Bel Geddes as ‘the good woman at home’. In addition, Kazan doesn’t simply let the long take impress us, but sometimes actors and/or the camera moves and the resulting compositions continue to be aesthetically satisfying. Often when a director uses a handheld camera to signify realism the balanced composition is lost in favour of directness. Kazan offers us both directness and meaningful mise en scene.

Finally, deep focus compositions, which by their nature tend to be expressionist due distortions created by the lenses, add to the sense of panic by both showing the narrative world in detail whilst subtly displacing its fabric. Much of the film’s action takes place at night, giving plenty of opportunity for chiaroscuro lighting and so brings the noir into the everyday world.

In addition, J.P. Teloitte  in Voices in the Dark shows how eating runs as a motif throughout the film as a metaphor for appetite. Overall it’s a brilliantly constructed and executed film; one of the best noirs.

Walk on the Wild Side (US, 1962)

Fonda brings modernity to Hollywood

The film seems to be most famous for the Elaine and Saul bass designed title sequence with a slinky black cat on the prowl however, for me, it’s Jane Fonda’s performance and charisma that mark it as a movie worth seeing. It also includes Barbara Stanwyck in one of her (coded) lesbian roles and Laurence Harvey, an actor I don’t usually enjoy, is excellent as the naive boy with a heart.

It has a classy cast, though one of leads – Capucine – seems to be in the role at the producer’s insistence rather than for her acting skills, and it is directed (though apparently not finished as it was a troubled production) by ‘classic Hollywood’ great, Edward Dymytrk. By having a brothel as a prime setting, and a lesbian as a lead character, Walk on the Wild Side was a thoroughly modern production for its time. Though because of the Production Code it had to imply anything that would be deemed untoward. Of course having Stanwyck, playing Jo the madam, as a lesbian who is cruelly manipulative is hardly a statement of tolerance.

Fonda plays a troubled youngster who just wants to ‘have fun’, though her attempts to seduce Harvey’s Dove Linkhorn are rebuffed. It struck me that her acting style was different to the Hollywood veterans in the cast. Apparently she insisted on changing her dialogue, maybe to make it more naturalistic, and she’s a very physical actor; there’s no standing around waiting her turn for dialogue, she is always engaging with the scene. 

Wild Fonda

She’s only in the film at the start and end but grabs the eyes when she is (and that’s not just to do with how she looks). She was 25 when the film was released and had only just started appearing in movies, after a career on stage. The scenes she has with Anne Baxter, who does her best playing a Mexican gas station owner, show the contrast between the ‘old’ and ‘new’: Fonda wriggles whilst Baxter is stately.

Although obviously hamstrung by the Production Code, the ending is suitably downbeat with the ‘law of compensating values’ (the bad need punishing) only fulfilled as an afterthought on a newspaper front page that’s been discarded. 

Sudden Fear (US, 1952)

Plotting her reaction

It’s great at my age to find a mini-classic that I hadn’t even heard of never mind seen. Add to this the delight in seeing a remastered print (on Talking Pictures), so Charles Lang’s lovely cinematography can be appreciated to the full, Sudden Fear was a real treat. It’s a while since I’ve seen Mildred Pierce (1945), but it’s difficult to imagine Joan Crawford being better. She plays Myra Hudson, an heiress and successful playwright who has the misfortune to fall for Jack Palance, in all his battered-face glory.

As this excellent Film Comment piece suggests, Crawford draws on her silent era acting skills and there is a brilliant moment (when she knows of Palance’s plotting) where she hugs him and we see disgust on her face which is transformed into affection as the clinch ends, as he can now see her. She is more than matching his dissemblance. As the film progresses, Palance is shot less sympathetically, emphasising his angular facial features as an emblem of his monstrosity.

The film is not strictly noir as the plot lacks narrative convolutions and it is only toward the end that the chiaroscuro visual style kicks in. However, the ideas of noir are entirely in keeping with the story as Hudson’s life plunges from opulence to psychological despair. Miller’s direction is excellent and there’s a superb nightmare sequence.

Daringly we are given what is in effect a flashforward of Hudson’s plot for revenge. Whilst this seems dramatically compromising, as this is ‘classical Hollywood’ there’s no doubt that ‘justice will prevail’, the actual execution of it doesn’t go to plan adding to the tension. 

I can’t not mention glorious Gloria Grahame in one of her trademark ‘bad dame’ roles. She more than matches Crawford for screen presence and is the icing on a superb film.

The Hate U Give (US, 2018)

An apartheid state of mind

Hollywood and overt politics (‘overt’ because it’s directly engaging with the political) are unlikely bedfellows hence film buffs tend to celebrate anything subversive to come out of that commercial – hence conservative – institution because it ‘gives it to the man!’. This adaptation of a YA novel, written by Angie Thomas and adapted by Audrey Wells, is entirely political as it portrays racial discrimination in America in a gripping and highly intelligent fashion.

Amandla Stenberg plays Starr Carter (referencing Beyoncé who she name-checks?) a teenager from the ghetto whose protective parents enrol her in a suburban, ‘white school’. At the start of the film her dad is giving her ‘the talk’ but it’s not about sex, it’s about what to do if the police pull you over when you are in a car. Immediately the different world people of colour have to live in is made clear and the film filters Starr’s coming of age through the #BlackLivesMatter zeitgeist of America.

It can be difficult to make political statements when working in mainstream institutions (the film was distributed by Fox 2000) but the film’s brilliance is it manages to effectively convey the political message through the conventions of the ‘teen pic. So, for example, Starr’s ‘girlfriend’ problems, from her white friends at school, manifest themselves as incomprehension of what it is like to a person of colour. Starr realises that she isn’t seen as black because she is like her middle class peers at school; she hides her ‘ghetto persona’ as a survival mechanism. Her relationship with her boyfriend (a miscast KJ Apa who looks too old) is also subtly done as he’s sent to the margins at the climax; there’s no danger, in this film, of having ‘white saviours of black folk’.

The film reminded me of the great Boyz n the Hood (1991) which also dealt with ghetto life and had a keynote speech, delivered by Laurence Fishburn, where he explained that drugs in the ghettos were not an accident but a form of repression. The Hate U Give has at least three such speeches but they never feel like they are being delivered via a soapbox, they are fully integrated into the narrative and are crucial lessons for both POC and whites.

In a chilling scene Starr runs through a scenario, with her black cop uncle, about the different ways a white man in a suit would be treated compared to a person of colour if pulled over. The uncle’s response reveals the racist core of America (and any society tainted by racism – it was revealed last week that, in the UK, not one person on the 240-strong parole board is ‘minority ethnic’). With the bellicose Trump in charge that isn’t going to change soon but, after last week’s mid-term elections, there is a sense that the ‘times are a changin” – let’s hope so.

Whirlpool (US, 1950)

Jose Ferrer entangles Gene Tierney is his hypnotic web

Narrative implausibilities don’t matter too much in film noir as it is a genre that deals with often grim mental states rather than the ‘real world’. This is particularly true in the films from around the middle of the last century in America when Dr Freud’s ideas had passed, in some form or other, into the mainstream. That’s fortunate for Whirlpool as the way Charles Bickford’s lieutenant conducts his investigation more than beggars belief. Gene Tierney is mixed up in murder having been entangled by Jose Ferrer’s bad guy; Ferrer is brilliant in the role. The narrative allows the husband to question his wife in the presence of the cop, and vice versa, and this highlights the investigation is into a woman’s psyche rather than into crime.

Tierney’s husband (a miscast Richard Conte – he was a great heavy) is a psychiatrist so we can be sure that what ails his wife lurks in childhood. And it is this that makes the film particularly interesting as the psychological villain turns out to be patriarchy: her father and later her husband. There isn’t any ‘reading between the lines’ required to work this out for the film explicitly states this. Many noirs focused on male insecurity, particularly of veterans, and the femme fatales that brought them down. Whirlpool deals with female insecurity and the men that bring her down.

This insecurity manifests itself as an entirely patriarchal creation: the belief that women were weak and easily hysterical. Tierney’s character’s kleptomania also derives draws on the idea that women mentally were weak consumers.

Preminger restricts his use of chiaroscuro lighting and doesn’t offer expressionist angles but shoots the film efficiently enough. Arthur Miller’s cinematography looks great, as does Tierney even if her range as an actor was limited she does embody the part very well.