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.
THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)
David Lynch plays it–mostly–straight for this uncharacteristically heartfelt piece of Americana.
Okay, so the music accompanying the opening titles contains echoes of the theme from Twin Peaks. All right, within the first few minutes we see an overweight woman sunning herself in a pink chaise lounge. A little later on, a crazed mid-western woman motorist has a nervous breakdown after hitting her umpteenth deer on the highway. And near the end, we meet twin hayseed mechanics, one of which has something wrong with the lower part of his cheek, who carry the unlikely name of the Olsen Twins. We will give David Lynch a pass on these bizarro carryovers from the larger part of his directorial oeuvre. In fact, were it not for these few excursions into typically Lynchian imagery, the casual viewer would have precious little inkling that a Disney film about an old codger who takes a journey of several hundred miles on a riding lawnmower has been crafted by the same man who usually trades in things like severed ears and dead bodies wrapped in plastic.
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.
THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR (2000)
A complex and rewarding excursion into the collision and healing of two damaged souls.
Run, Lola Run, writer/director Tom Tykwer’s second domestically released feature, was a huge international hit and the quintessential tough act to follow. But it was indeed followed admirably by The Princess and The Warrior, which is actually a deeper, more complex film than its terrific and worthy predecessor. An earlier feature, the also notable Winter Sleepers, along with Lola and Princess makes a kind of hat trick of unique offerings by Tykwer (pronounced “Tick-ver”) in his native Germany. Working in Europe, the director seems much more able to produce the kind of indefinable hybrid movies in which he thrives than he has in the English-speaking arena (Heaven, Perfume, The International. Perhaps the upcoming co-directed Cloud Atlas will mark a return to something more distinctive.). The Princess and The Warrior is part heist movie, part psychological drama, part romance, part character study…a lot of parts, which are beautifully integrated into a cohesive whole. How much you enjoy this film will depend on how much you believe that each of us is trapped in a psycho-sexual prison of our own making, and that until we can escape it, we will never be whole.
The Internet is oft maligned, but it does provide opportunities for artists to share work with one another in a most interesting way. Such was the case with Henning Ohlenbusch, a talented singer-songwriter who contacted me after seeing this here series posted on my blog.
Performing under the name Henning, this gentleman has completed an entire album of songs inspired not just by the existence of the movies he has chosen, but their emotional and thematic content as well. It’s a wonderful project called Henning Goes to the Movies, and his repertoire is taken from all sorts of eclectic films, from science fiction to indie dramas to goofball comedies like Meatballs:
Here is the full list of songs on Henning’s album:
Joe Vs. The Volcano
The Straight Story
The Year My Voice Broke
Planes Trains and Automobiles
A great bonus of deciding to do this series has been finding out about movie-referencing songs that were not on my radar. First it was a song paying homage to John Cassavetes, and now this, a song honoring Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, by experimental pop legend (not to be confused with a governor embroiled in a recall scandal) Scott Walker. (Read about him here.) Thanks to YouTuber guidofski for the photo montage presentation.
Yes, sometimes being a colossal idiot can make Hollywood casting directors come running to cast you as a colossal fool. Not sure if it was coincidental that they gave it to Ringo to sing. The song was written by Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison and first made popular by Carl Perkins. I could not locate the Perkins original on the Internet for this series, but have included another of his tunes that the Beatles covered for the proper historical context, sans movie tie-ins.