HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948)
A taut police procedural from the days of noir, keeping Los Angeles in the forefront and taking us literally underground for its finish.
“Spend an hour or two here and you will think the whole city has gone berserk.” So speaks the narrator of He Walked By Night, a terrific lesser-known film noir that will enrich and darken your movie-going life. The narrator’s quote refers to the City of the Angels, and his stentorian tones guide the viewer through the inner workings of a typical Los Angeles police department in 1948. Yes, it is dated now, this newsreel-style voice keeping us up to date on the progress of a criminal investigation–but believe me you will hardly notice it once you are caught up in this riveting procedural about the hunt for a strange, unfeeling cop killer who knows how to elude the arm of the law.
THE AURA (2005)
From Argentina comes the haunting, final film of a cinematic original who might have told us many more remarkable stories.
I have never done a guided meditation, but you can’t turn a corner in Los Angeles without hitting someone who has. And from what I hear, one of the things meditation encourages one to do is to focus on one’s own breathing. From Argentina, then, comes The Aura, a movie that manages the same feat: it concentrates on its own breathing, and it will have you realizing you’ve been holding yours. In and out, in and out, the movie’s scene-by-scene pace creates a low, throbbing hum that is mesmerizing and hypnotic. Not the usual directorial choice for a thriller, but it is exactly this disconnect that makes writer-director Fabián Bielinsky’s film not only hum, but sing.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947)
Con artists in a creepy traveling carny show fuel a terrific noir about greed, faith and a doomed anti-hero.
Storytellers have long tapped into the tale of Oedipus Rex for inspiration. They are drawn not only to the more lurid revelations of murdering one’s father and marrying one’s mother (neither of which, sorry to disappoint, occur other than obliquely in this film), but to the time-tested themes of arrogance, denial of fate and a spiraling downward once the horrible truth of one’s sins is revealed. The film noir was always, of course, a great place to explore a fall from grace, and Tyrone Power’s Nightmare Alley character, the carnival mentalist Stanton Carlisle, takes one of the more complete and inglorious falls of anyone in the genre when his bogus conjuring of spirits degenerates into a slap in the face of God. At one point, when it is mentioned to Stanton that he seems to really enjoy the fortune-telling racket, he replies, “Mister, I was made for it.” Nightmare Alley is a great lost noir that goes deeply into the double meaning of that line of dialogue: what the unrepentant Stanton is also ‘made for’ is his inevitable slide into hell.
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981)
Steve Martin, Herbert Ross and Dennis Potter use the musical to make art that hits where it hurts
What if there was a musical that was more like one of the tough-minded independent directorial visions of late 1970’s cinema, a musical that was more like a film noir, a musical that plunged the viewer straight into a troubling dreamscape of metaphors for all the lies a nation can tell itself in order to survive? That musical has happened, though it came and went over twenty-five years ago, and it was called Pennies From Heaven. With perhaps only Cabaret as a predecessor, but distinct from that film in its strange hybrid vision (the musical numbers are all fantasy sequences and not part of the story in the traditional sense), Pennies hit screens in 1981 and baffled audiences who were fresh off Steve Martin’s ‘wild and crazy guy’ and starring role in The Jerk, as well as director Herbert Ross’s more widely known work on charming Neil Simon romantic comedies like The Goodbye Girl and California Suite. MGM, the studio known for its musicals, chose to make this their first one in almost thirty years. With all this in mind, nothing could have prepared filmgoers for the work of art at which cast and crew were clearly at the top of their game making—an excursion into a Depression-Era America fraught with broken dreams and man’s inhumanity to man. Even today, one needs to settle into this astonishing filmmaking achievement by buckling in for a bumpy emotional ride.
The script is a pared-down version of Brit TV phenom Dennis Potter’s multi-part series of the same name that had Bob Hoskins in Steve Martin’s role. Potter wrote the screenplay and was nominated for an Oscar for it, though apparently unhappy with the condensation. But Ross’s film is so well done that it comes across as its own streamlined, cogent and just-as powerful entity. Martin seems an unlikely replacement for Hoskins, but he does a terrific job as Arthur Parker, a deluded traveling sheet music salesman based in Chicago, who develops a wandering eye as a way of lashing out at his wife’s stultifying sexual repression and refusal to satisfy him. Jessica Harper is nothing short of gut-wrenching as Joan Parker, and the representation of the expectations regarding male and female sexuality that grew out of the late 1970’s are smartly explored through her painful marriage to Arthur in this decades-earlier setting.
On an out of town jaunt to sell the latest song sheets to retailers, Arthur is instantly smitten with prim schoolmarm Eileen (Bernadette Peters, in an assured and understated performance of great depth), and pursues her, claiming to be unmarried. Not surprisingly, he then deserts her after making her pregnant. When she is fired from her one-room schoolhouse as a result, and enters a life of prostitution (courtesy of Christopher Walken’s Tom, chilling in just one key scene), Arthur begins to see her as the sexually open creature he has always wanted and she, for her part, cannot deny her ongoing attraction to him. It is messy and complicated in a way hardly any films, let alone musicals, ever dare to be. Further complications come via a homeless man whom a smug Arthur treats to a meal (the haunting Vernel Bagneris, who treats us to the title song in a wondrous set piece) but who ends up implicating Arthur in the crime that proves his undoing. In the end, Arthur becomes a hunted man not only because of the murder he is suspected of committing, but because of his reportedly deviant sexuality.
But, of course, it’s his own fault. Martin’s Arthur gives us a vision of our country at its worst: the embodiment of a bumbling, heedless fool, carelessly hurting others, driven by childish desires and subject to change at the slightest whim. Adding insult to injury, Arthur routinely professes his belief that popular songs tell the truth, and that he has been waiting his entire life for them to come true. In a neat little bit of symbolism, the film’s opening shot depicts Arthur in bed, literally not wanting to wake up. He never does, of course, and, the script seems to be saying, we never have either.
The integration of the song and dance sequences in Pennies From Heaven involves a startling break from the film’s action, as opposed to the kind of further embellishment provided by most musical numbers. At key moments during scenes, the characters not only burst out into song (as is the convention), but do so by lip-synching the actual records of the 1920’s and 30’s, sometimes with the genders reversed. It is a wildly imaginative spin on tradition, but also provides a sad undercurrent, as we begin to see that these tunes represent not what the characters are really feeling, but what they cannot feel, and must funnel into popular music in the hopes of coping with the longing they never express. As with every other aspect of this still rather groundbreaking work, it requires a full investment of our psyches.
And it is evident in every frame that everyone behind the scenes made that same investment during production that they would require of us at screening time. From Gordon Willis’ rough-hewn photography (including a couple of dead-on duplications of Edward Hopper paintings) to Richard Marks’ seamless editing to Philip Harrison’s spot-on (and unpretentious) production design, along with of course Danny Daniels’ choreography and the perfectly modulated performances, here is a film that grabs and does not let go. And, even now, it resonates in many ways, not the least of which has to do with a nation in the grip of economic hard times. Sometimes the most powerful films are powerful because they ask us to take a hard look at ourselves and call it entertainment. Pennies From Heaven does that, but it does not do so lightly. It gives you lasting art as a reward. As its title suggests, it pays off big time.
Read more reviews of the Best Films You’ve Never Seen here.
THE MINUS MAN (1999)
A one of a kind indie movie that is effortlessly unsettling and human
Released the same year as American Beauty and with a far more subtle and unsettling indictment of suburban angst at its core, Hampton Fancher’s The Minus Man is one of those miracle movies that the conventional wisdom says should not have been allowed to happen. Fancher, co-writer and co-Executive Producer of Blade Runner over fifteen years prior, already 60 years old and writing his screenplay based on an obscure novel, then attaching the not-yet-household name Owen Wilson to star…such a combo hardly seems the slam-dunk package that would have made investors, even indie investors, drool. No, this sure feels like one of those projects that clearly had everybody, starting with its producers at the Shooting Gallery, believing in it from the get-go. And to anyone who grooves on intelligent, offbeat cinema that defies categorization, it is easy to see why.
Wilson plays Vann, a genial tabula rasa of a guy who is tooling along the California coastline in a pickup, politely explaining to people like inquisitive park rangers that he fell asleep in his truck and sorry, ma’am, it won’t happen again. Shortly thereafter, he charms a train-wreck of a female barfly (Sheryl Crow, who acquits herself quite well in a small role) at a local watering hole and drives off with her. But sex is the furthest thing from his mind. Vann much prefers slipping folks a little fast acting poison. Our drifter is a killer, you see, and that’s what makes his inscrutable, nice-enough-guy persona so damn chilling. In adapting Lew McCreary’s book, Fancher, to his everlasting credit, never invites those chills with anything but the everyday; so we can see, clearly and without question, how and why Vann is able to so seamlessly, and with such goodwill, weave himself into the fabric of the next small town he visits.
There, he rents the upstairs room of a house, occupied by a bedraggled married couple (Jane and Doug, masterfully played by Mercedes Ruehl and the estimable Brian Cox) whose daughter is “gone” in some way that is never fully explained but that is capable of intermittently provoking gut-wrenching grief in her parents. Since their new boarder is a blank upon whom one can project any aspect of themselves that they want, the lonely, misunderstood Doug immediately takes a fawning liking to Vann and scores him a part-time job at the post office during the Christmas rush. And Jane, as is (shall we say), touched upon throughout the story, may have some kind of Oedipal thing developing with her new houseguest, too. Meanwhile, the young man’s mirror-you magnetism also leads to an insta-crush from his new co-worker Ferrin (Janeane Garofalo in one of her better, more nuanced performances), blind as she is to the layers of sexual dysfunction that Vann not only keeps so well hidden but sublimates with his nefarious extra-curricular activity. Said activity is soon continued in the town, and Vann barely even needs to keep a low profile; he is hardly even there to begin with.
This is fertile ground for an exploration of the superficiality of most human interaction, the pent-up pain carried by so many outwardly normal people, and the slow deaths some of us opt for rather than be forced to stare at ourselves for very long. And Fancher, a real actor’s director (he is a working actor himself), gets just the right tone out of his cast to make sure these themes are scratching at the walls of their psyches, revealing much without explicitly stating anything. The more we learn about Vann’s landlords, Jane and Doug, the more we wonder who among the three of them is actually carrying more violence around inside. Vann’s audio diary also supplies a thought-provoking narration track (wonderfully read by Wilson) that is peppered throughout.
Narration is something that can sink a film simply by existing, but it is carefully considered here and adds to the shudder-inducing vibe. Only slightly less successful are some recurring fantasy sequences in which Vann endures questioning by Dennis Haysbert and Dwight Yoakam (both very good), who play the imaginary FBI agents that he suspects will one day catch up to him. In a movie that has so many nuances, these scenes are interesting but vary in effectiveness, noticeably trying to be David Lynch-like surreal and/or hitting things a little too hard on-the-nose. Another small shortcoming is the poorly planned depiction of Vann’s postal service job, which smacks of being a little shy on authentic details of day-to-day mail operations, but this can be overlooked in light of the story’s lingering impact which is, make no mistake, a gets-under-your-skin achievement.
Owen Wilson is really, really good as Vann. It isn’t so much that you can see why people like him, because that is not the territory Fancher is exploring; no, it is that you can see why people see nothing when they see him, and so live through him in a weird and troubling way. Wilson brings just the right combination of guilelessness and boyish, aw-shucks enthusiasm to his interpretation; in fact, you might want to take a moment to go back to the first few moments of the movie after you’ve watched it all the way through. In them, Vann is getting into his truck, leaving somewhere, heading somewhere else and giving a smile and a wave to an unseen person as he departs. Where was he? How had that earlier person become enmeshed in his nothingness? These are questions the film is asking before we even know where we are and what is going to happen. And such well-thought out touches are details that reveal the richness in the material, which is nicely complemented by Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography and Marco Beltrami’s unobtrusive score.
This film is nothing more than a detached, casual observer to its own dark, frightening and often painfully sad events. In lesser hands, being casual about such disconcerting stuff could send things off the rails. But The Minus Man is right on track, and it is, like Vann himself, waiting for you to come on board and lose yourself inside it.
Read more reviews of the Best Films You’ve Never Seen here.
Director of Casino Jack, Mayor of the Sunset Strip, the original short film Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade, Emmy winner for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse…as is often said, the list goes on. October of 2010 saw the passing of George Hickenlooper, and this review of one of his most complex and thoughtful films is my year-end tribute to a writer/director that left us quite a bit too soon.
THE MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS (2001)
Most dramatic movies about writers usually, let’s be honest, suck. (One that doesn’t is mentioned in the next paragraph. Perhaps you, dear reader, can comment upon some others and set me straight.) The rub here is that it is hard to get people on board for the plight of a struggling writer when it is treated dramatically (Throw Momma From the Train is another story altogether). We all have lives to lead, and some poor schnook who can’t hold down a real job and agonizes over formulating the proper sentence just doesn’t seem like anyone we can get behind.
The trick, then, if one is dead-set on exploring this territory, is to make the tale as universal as possible by weaving the writer’s whiny little plight into a more complex exploration of human need; and if it all comes unexpectedly full circle to illuminate what a writer’s life truly is, so much the better. And it is quite a bit better in The Man From Elysian Fields.