Relentlessly melancholic film where chess pieces are moved through quiet back-dealings and dialogue exchanges infused with ever-maneuvering fatalism. Peter Yates’ camera gets deep into the grubby everydayness parts of Boston and its surrounding towns. Having lived in Boston during graduate school, seeing and recognizing the location work here was a high point. The camera acts as eavesdropper, always cautiously close to the proceedings. We see all relevant players and how they connect to each other and we’re never given a true access point. Because of this the film took a while to get into. But as it progressed, I found myself engaged. Robert Mitchum does some of his best work but my personal favorite was Steven Keats as gunrunner Jackie Brown (obviously Tarantino is a fan), with his neon green ride and considerable street instinct.
Walter Hill takes the stripped-down moral code, business-only characters and sparse dialogue of Jean-Pierre Melville and marries it into American crime films. Here is an instance of ‘using Melville as a prototype of cool to build off of’ which I mentioned in my thoughts on Le Cercle Rouge. The characters don’t have names; they are defined by their predominant role within the narrative; ‘The Driver’, ‘The Detective’, ‘The Player’. Dialogue is minimal, especially on Ryan O’Neal’s end, who speaks only when it’s essential and even then in as few words as possible. These characters seem to exist only within this scenario; Adjani’s character is the only one who talks about her past, or anything personality-driven, albeit briefly. These people are fused into a world where the rules are laid out. We respect The Driver because he never breaks his code within the lawless criminal world. We don’t respect The Detective because he does break his code, that being the law that he works for.
O’Neal basically replicates that Melville idea of ideal cool, which would then be replicated and slightly modified by, to name an obvious example, Ryan Gosling in Drive (as well as much of the film). Someone who is stoic, who never sweats, knows the score, and is always in control even when he’s not. It’s a type of masculine fantasy that always has a level of masturbatory wish fulfillment to it, yes with Melville too. But! it’s a preferred mode of idealized masculine cool over other oppositional hothead macho types. Though Hill tries to push Isabelle Adjani into the uncomfortable femme fatale role, I found myself saying ‘good on her’, as I tend to do when the women we’re supposed to see as bottom of the barrel for daring to betray men go on and do just that.
The Driver’s makeup is a bit less interesting than its whole. Far and away my favorite parts are the car chase scenes, full of skidding and squealing tire with front-view and rear-view shots from the cars involved. The street lights look like floating orbs and the gleam of the road give the visuals a finishing shine. Few things satisfy me more than a great cinematic car chase. The Driver has a couple of them.
1980’s American filmmaking gets an early peak with one of the most electrifying debuts ever made. Where The Driver and Le Cercle Rouge are atmosphere-driven studies in the controlled ‘cool’ of masculinity within criminal activity, Thief comes striking out from the opposite direction. It is the character study of Frank, ex-convict hothead and maker of his own destiny. His dream life exists in crumply collage form. In prison he was forced to attain a state of mind where time didn’t exist, where investment in one’s own life disappears. Now he wants a wife, children, a wealthy lifestyle. When he’s got those he’ll retire. But he’s spent enough time in prison and has to make up for lost time. He’s going to hightail his success through sped-up propositions and heisting skills learned in the cooler thanks to surrogate papa Willie Nelson. Its all over for Frank the minute he compromises his code, his independence.
There are so many things to talk about with Thief. Like the title supports, Thief defines and introduces Frank by his criminal occupation. The brand of heist work depicted in the film strives above all for authenticity and the hard-edged industrial machinery that parallels Frank’s rough-and-tough masculine nature.
I can quickly get bored/unnerved of studies in hotheadedness, mainly because there are countless films that explore this type of man and at a certain point it just gets tiresome. For a girl like me, dick measuring gets extremely uncool and boring immediately if there’s nothing to support it. And to be sure I wasn’t exactly a fan of Frank. But the minute understanding of his psychology and the fact that this is without a doubt James Caan’s best performance makes it work.
Michael Mann streaks the canvas with nightlights establishing his now well-known aesthetic right off the bat. He takes the glowing orbs and gleaming streets of Walter Hill’s nighttime and pushes it into an abstract realm where streetlights become fuzzy blurs and streets are always wet so light and color bounces off of the frame creating endless mixing pools. There is so much going on in his nighttime compositions and I spent a lot of time simply looking at the textures Mann was able to create.
The use of daytime and nighttime are used as a battleground for Frank’s hopes and realities. We begin with a lot of nighttime scenes but once Frank starts to fill in those missing domestic pieces, getting closer to what he wants his life to be, the film shifts to mostly daytime. By the end when it all (as it must go) slips through his fingers, he is dragged back into the alleys, the seedy dark. We end in the middle at ground zero. At night in a domestic setting; Leo’s house. With the only way men like this know how to settle scores; with firearms and bloodshed.
So with a neo-noir film about a guy like Frank made by Michael Mann of course the woman is a mere appendage. Something to acquire. Luckily, though this is her role, that objectifying is used to make a point about Frank’s psychology, by acknowledging the quickened and put-upon circumstances, which is at least better than this being the case without it serving any other means. And Tuesday Weld’s Jessie does get to participate in arguably the film’s highlight. That remarkable mammoth of a diner scene.
The Tangerine Dream score (one of about a billion things Drive lifts from this film but that’s not news to anybody) gives everything a hypnotic New Wave underscored hum. In a scene like the final heist, where close-ups of molten bliss combine with the electronic score and a hyper-attention to the process of thievery, Thief enters a separate standalone realm outside of its own story.
The quintessential postmodern noir in its direct inspiration from certified classic Double Indemnity and taking sexual foreplay through wordplay into the bedroom for some longtime coming release. The best femme fatale populated noirs where sexual tension provided energetic fuel still surpass the steaminess we see in Body Heat. But Body Heat is still damn steamy (those wind chimes! Hurt breaking through the door! Turner just standing there!) and writer/director Lawrence Kasdan even gives the sex a backdrop of Florida heat wave. There’s a washed out glow to the visuals whether drenched in sun, fog, or sweat.
It would just be a well-executed salacious throwback if not for William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. Hurt is the perfect womanizing stooge. You even feel kind of bad for him…actually, no you don’t. Kathleen Turner, in her film debut (!), husks it up. You get it. You just get it. She sells Matty’s supposed sincerity, her one-of-a-kind lure. The ambiguous ending is a highlight and it was nice to see a to-the-victor-goes-the-spoils end to the femme fatale for once. I’m still waiting to see a film told from the woman’s point-of-view that actually commends or at least complexifies their decision to dupe and manipulate sad sacks as opposed to simply representing the ultimate threat for men. But this was still a nice update. Matty is fabulous.
Body Heat is solid all-around. I added it to the end of my neo-noir set once I realized none of my choices took on femme fatale-driven noir. Plus, seeing Body Heat had been a long time coming anyhow.
A really basic introduction to the types of women in American film’s various phases up through 1965. Lots of generalizations and clips that go on for far too long, this was interesting but flat.
Noah Baumbach revisits the comical sharpness of his roots and the result is a youthful and delectable collaboration with new squeeze Greta Gerwig. Baumbach is an all-time favorite director of mine, and though I’m a massive fan of his more polarizing works, it’s nice to see that Gerwig’s involvement brings him around full circle to the Kicking and Screaming quarterlife crisis territory. More specifically, this one is about the intricacies and intimacies of female friendship and the slow emergence of self-aware maturity. And it ties the two together beautifully.
There are very few films, in the grand scheme of things, that are actually about the complex nature of intimate female friendship. All of us women have these friends in our lives; it’s a singular thing full of competitiveness, comfort, self-comparison, support, undying love and memories. Frances’ world basically starts to fall apart once her best friend moves out and the splinter effect takes hold. She’s too busy talking about getting her life together, judging her own life solely through the context of Sophie’s and unwilling to compromise herself in her own deluded fashion. It’s a tough thing to make a living as an artist, yes even if you come from a white middle-class place of privilege. As one character astutely and accurately points out, pursuing the arts in NYC to begin with is only an option for the rich (the reveal that Benji is writing a spec script for Gremlins 3 had me in near-tears). Frances has to realize that you do what you can when you can do it and that it takes time. Everyone else around you who says they have their shit together are putting on a show.
Frances Ha has a makeshift flighty structure completely coated in French New Wave sensibilities. It’s comprised of equal parts full scenes and montage where exchanges and moments are pared down to their minimum for maximum effect. It paints a fairy tale-like picture where the underlying sadness of it all can be overcome because let’s face it, the only thing holding her back from putting her best foot forward is herself. She makes some poor decisions along the way in order to live in the past and retain a sense of control but they are ill-advised. Has there been a more pitiful Paris excursion in film?
Greta Gerwig is the fuel, driving it forward in facial tics, dopey interactions, awkward overcompensation and a sunny infectious energy. If you aren’t a fan, boy oh boy are you out of luck. She is this film. The reliably static camera keeps on her as we watch Frances try and commit to moments.
Frances Ha is a reminder of how just purely satisfying Baumbach can be with his collaborative skills, relentless ear for dialogue and master of the art of modern social exchange. This would make an excellent double feature with Walking and Talking.
Two final notes: – Dean and Britta (!) show up again here and this time they have lines! I have to admit this was extremely distracting for me and I think I missed a lot of that long dinner scene because I was too busy gaping happily at the two of them. – I know we’re all justifiably fawning over the usage of “Modern Love” (though knowing there’s another usage featuring Denis Lavant out there makes me salivating for the latter), but can we stop for a second and appreciate the multiple usage of Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner”?