Sunday, 6 April 2014

Happy Mother’s Day, Love George (1973)

aka Run, Stranger, Run

The lone feature film directed by TV star Darren McGavin, made at the same time he was working on his great The Night Stalker franchise, Happy Mother’s Day, Love George is something of a lost, unpolished gem amidst the enormous panoply of ‘70s horror cinema. McGavin, who starred in the Robert Clouse-written Something Evil in the same year, here adapted another Clouse script, set in a small town in coastal New England. Ron Howard plays Johnny, a teenage hitchhiker who arrives in town on a mission slowly unveiled during his ambling yet silently purposeful wanderings in the town. He visits a diner managed by Ronda (Cloris Leachman) and her boyfriend Eddie (Bobby Darin), and then hovers outside the manse of Ronda’s estranged sister, the patrician Cara (Patricia Neal). When Ronda sees Johnny in the diner she immediately realises that he is her son, whom she gave to a travelling preacher and his wife and paid them to raise him. 

Young Johnny, having accidentally learned his identity when he discovered a stash of Ronda’s letters kept by his adopted mother, has come not just to meet his biological mother but also to learn the identity of his father. This however proves a secret so disturbing that Ronda can’t reveal it. Johnny is picked up by the local sheriff, Roy (Simon Oakland) because the town has been beset by a series of missing person cases recently, but as Roy extracts the details of Johnny’s identity, tries to browbeat the lad into leaving unsatisfied because his coming will inevitably stir up old traumas, traumas Roy partly understands because he grew up with Cara and Ronda. But Johnny verbally outsmarts him, and Roy reluctantly releases him. 

Like some of the best examples of ‘70s horror cinema, including Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) and Communion (1976), Happy Mother’s Day, Love George starts with eminently normal characters and situations and deftly charts their personal quandaries before edging into darker generic territory. Here the story and setting, emphasising old frustrations, deep repressions, and familial dramas, seems close to Edward Albee or William Inge, or films about small town weirdness like Peyton Place (1957) and Home From the Hill (1960), or indeed modern, earnest studies like Secrets and Lies (1996). Unsurprisingly for an actor turned director, McGavin’s chief pleasure clearly lies in exploring his characters’ interactions and mining his impressive cast’s gifts, teasing out patterns of behaviour welded in place by time and attitude, and flavourful vignettes that illustrate his characters, like Johnny seating himself down in a prim New England church and singing along to a hymn with the outsized gusto for his adopted father’s tent shows. 

Particularly vivid is Neal’s deliciously arch, crusty Cara, who treats Roy like he’s still the delivery boy he once was, and exchanging barbed wit with her carelessly randy neighbour Piccolo (Joseph Mascolo), whose open displays of carnal joy with his girlfriend offend Cara but also please her in giving her something to carp about. Johnny’s reunion with his distraught mother, well-played by the ever-excellent Leachman, is played for traditional pathos, although charged with undercurrents of Johnny’s half-admitted anger and determination to solve all the mysteries plaguing his sense of self. “Get on with the business of your life,” Roy tells Johnny, but he retorts, “This is the business of my life.’

Cara, meanwhile, is disappointed by her lunky son Porgie (Ron Applegate), who’s lowered himself to working on a fishing boat and marrying the indolent Yolanda (Gale Garnett), but most of Cara’s interest goes towards her daughter Celia (Tessa Dahl), who’s been schooled by a tutor and left with a toffy-nosed English accent. Whilst Cara apparently worries about Celia’s virtue, Celia herself is quickly revealed as incredibly dirty-minded: when she spots Johnny she adopts him like one of the stray kittens living in the tool shed, and tries to seduce him, after spying enthusiastically on Piccolo’s love life. McGavin lets his film quietly build with a rigorous sense of mystery, both emotional and circumstantial, and conveys blend of wistful melancholia and free and easy moodiness that defined a lot of early ‘70s filmmaking, reinforced by the folky soundtrack. 

The direction is generally graceful and competent throughout, and occasionally striking; particularly in a series of intimate, encircling shots that dissolve one into the other as Celia and Johnny hide together in a closet from Cara, charged with protean eroticism and unease. McGavin simply but rigorously creates an atmosphere of solitude as experienced from different viewpoints, Johnny on the street and Celia from her high window, quietly discerning between Johnny’s investigation and Celia’s voyeurism as Johnny contemplates unknown interiors, potential homes and hidden traps, whilst Celia dreams about freedom to indulge erotic raptures. Veteran cinematographer Walter Lassally’s evocative photography helps, keen to the atmosphere of the place, opening and closing the film with panoramas of the town as night becomes morning, and skilfully capturing the starkness of figures and buildings upon the edge of the ocean that charges the film with a sense of alienation. 

The mirroring of Johnny and Celia continues with increasingly dark intent as the narrative swerves after threatening to turn into one of those ‘70s films about quirky outsiders and whacko clans – Harold and Maude (1970), Something for Everyone (1970) – or a middling family drama, into horror territory. McGavin’s direction fumbles a little in setting up this segue, although the film is dotted with signs of menace under the surface, like a shot early in the film that shows Johnny strolling past a skeletal hand jutting from beach sand, a child uncovering a skull later on the same beach, and a shot in the twilight of Johnny approaching Cara’s house with Celia slipping away in silhouette behind him with a mysterious bag of tricks. The film takes a long time – too long, probably, for most genre aficionados – to show its hand, and the very non-horror movie-like title bespeaks a certain level of unease about 

McGavin seems happier emphasising casual and everyday forms of brutality and cruelty that pepper our lives, anticipating Stephen King in that regard, in vignettes like the plebeian Eddie, incensed that Ronda will take in Johnny at his expense, catches the lad and beats him up. Still, the horror does come, with the film turning towards a covert slasher movie at an unexpected juncture and wrought in a very unexpected perpetrator, albeit one that makes perfect sense in terms of the film’s meditation on the slow poisoning effect of repression and intimately coded family grievances: Celia is not just exasperatedly horny and adolescently perverse, but actively psychotic, propositioning men around town and killing them if they reject her. 

Cara tries to put this down to her own failed, masochistic attempt to abort her as a foetus after Cara killed her husband, the eponymous George, for his affair with Ronda, which of course produced Johnny. But the overwhelming impression is of innocence distorted by the half-hidden gravitational forces of adult strangeness and brutality. McGavin also stages the eruption of horror well when it finally comes, as Piccolo, encouraged by his lover Crystal (Kathie Browne) to meet with Celia at Cara’s beach house to get her to stop throwing him rude propositions. Crystal waits outside, and, after Piccolo doesn’t return, ventures within the house to discover a grossly morbid tableaux of bloodied and rotting victims, and Celia herself, having swapped her dirty old man’s dream of a schoolgirl outfit for blue flannel and a colossal gore-smeared meat cleaver Such is Crystal’s panic that she kills herself trying to leap out of a second-floor window, crashing into the mirror she was admiring herself in moments before, whilst McGavin interpolates a brief, almost subliminal flash cut back to Celia within the house, not giving chase but standing dazed repose, like the serial killer’s equivalent of a post-coital fugue, dreaming of shattered bodies satisfying outsized appetites.

The performances are uniformly strong, particularly Leachman, Neal, and Darrin, whose last film this was before his death in open-heart surgery. Howard is surprisingly effective in playing Johnny, who has a slightly wilder, desperate, more furious edge to him than the other teens he usually played at the time. But Dahl is the film’s wondrous wild card: Neal’s real-life daughter with Roald Dahl, she dabbled in acting for a time before becoming a writer and mother to model Sophie Dahl, and inhabits Celia with humour and affecting pathos, as when she desperately unclothes herself in hoping to coax Johnny into bed, cringing in neediness, a neediness she secretly exorcises in bloody rituals in secret. The revelation that Celia is the killer is, indeed, sadder considering that Celia’s seems the most empathetic character in the film (‘70s horror films, by the by, were a strong time for female killers: see also Jose Larraz, Jesus Franco, and Dario Argento, before slasher films made them almost universally male). Celia remains empathetic, however, even as she knifes her mother to death and roasts kittens, because Dahl never stops playing her in a key of sex-struck gaucherie, even calling out with painfully anxious enthusiasm as Johnny walks by her in the back of a police car. McGavin only really fumbles at the climax, with a clumsy and unnecessary use of slow-motion and a disorientating jump cut that makes the resolution momentarily unclear and generally anti-climactic, when the film might easily and happily pushed into more gaudy, insane territory: many genre auteurs would have started where McGavin leaves off. But the quality of homely tragedy resonates at the end as everyone’s efforts to satisfy their deepest needs leaves them dead or cut off from ever answering those needs, in an intriguing, uncommon film.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Cairo Road (1950)

British Noir cinema took off on the back of Brighton Rock (1947) and The Third Man (1949), and starkly monochromatic crime dramas remained popular for much of the 1950s. This vintage police thriller fits neatly into the run of Brit-Noir of the time whilst also echoing some recent Hollywood works, like The Asphalt Jungle (1949), from which it steals the “it never ends” coda in contemplating policing as a bleakly existential business, and Border Incident (1949), recalling that film's terse blend of faux-docudrama and shadow-flooded melodrama, whilst not achieving Anthony Mann’s sense of narrative force. Cairo Road also feels anticipatory, even prototypical, in downplaying action and melodrama in favour of trying to explore the mechanics and personal dynamics of policing. It looks forward to later, definitive cop flicks like Bullitt (1968), The French Connection, and Dirty Harry (both 1971), whilst eschewing their flashy violence, and serious TV police dramas like Hill Street Blues and The Bill, in its interest for both the psychology and the methods of crime-fighters as the subject and source of drama, rather than making them, as had been general practice in '30s and '40s gangster films (although, of course, not always), competent blank slates representing state and community force set to bring down energetically charismatic criminals. Or, if they were corrupt and bad guys, one-dimensional creeps. The setting is peculiar, Egypt before Nasser nationalism, and the detail piquant. Eric Portman is cast, unusually but effectively, as Col. Youssef Bey, the boss of the Cairo narcotics bureau, whilst Laurence Harvey is Lt. Mourad, his new subordinate who’s shifted from Paris with his wife Marie (Maria Mauban). Eager to prove his smarts, Mourad finds Bey a roadblock in his approach to policing, seemingly as arid and impersonal as the desert around the city: Bey’s mantra, mocked by Mourad, is “Let’s keep the facts tidy in our minds, never mind the theories.” 

The young go-getter soon comes under the older man’s wing however, as they follow a thread of inquiry that leads from a murdered man in a dingy Cairo apartment to a drug smuggling ring operated by the fabled Pavlis brothers. One of them, Edouardo (Karel Stepanek), is about to be released from the prison Bey put him in, whilst the mysterious other is orchestrating a big new three-pronged drug shipment. Such is the grudge that the Pavlis brothers hold against Bey that they use his portrait as the trademark on their product. Director David MacDonald, who still had the lamentable Devil Girl From Mars (1954) in his future, nonetheless had talent in the crime genre, and this could be his best, shot in sharp etchings of black and white courtesy of the director of photography, the recently late and lamented Oswald Morris: this was his second film, after his impressive debut as with The Golden Salamander (1950) which similarly built its visual drama around the scourging contrasts of light and dark on North African shores. His Egyptian urban and natural landscapes are all inky black recesses of turpitude against the hot whites of whitewashed Cairo walls and desert sand. MacDonald mingles noir's traditional palette with neo-realist flavours, aided greatly by location shooting as well as the compulsory Brit-Noir edge of restrained Expressionism. Such is particularly strong when one of the Pavlis’ agents, Anna Michelis (Camelia), is killed on board a tramp steamer by an assailant who wants to make sure she doesn’t talk to the policemen: the silhouetted killer looms in horror movie fashion as he closes in. Michelis is left for dead but survives, and Bey, in a sequence loaded with telling anticipations, interrogates her in her hospital bed whilst her doctor (Ferdy Mayne) hover outside in increasing disquiet before deciding to intervene. 

An interview with a nervous wreck who used to work for the Pavlis brothers avoids showing the ruined man’s face, but rather cuts between Bey’s imperious investigator and the man’s twitching hands. MacDonald deftly leavens a potentially overwrought sequence, in which Bey takes Mourad to a hospital ward full of burnt-out and crazed former drug addicts, and avoids sensationalism by focusing on Bey as he waits for Mourad to emerge with a newly sobered affect, but whilst Mourad is seeing the horror show, Bey without is viewed in a long shot of the hospital hallway, striated with barred shadows and locked doors, that suggests his psyche has long become a cage from seeing the horror show once too often. One sequence fascinatingly depicts a smuggling party with camels stuffed full of heroin crossing the Suez Canal at night, whilst another shows the police scanning the camels of an arriving desert caravan to see if they have metallic objects in their bellies: the moment the alarm goes off, a mad scramble for escape starts. 

Robert Westerby’s script interweaves nuts-and-bolts cop business with its insights into the nature of that peculiar field of professionalism, depicting Mourad’s steep learning curve under Bey, who recognises the younger man’s smarts but tries to corral his enthusiasm to the necessities of the job, which demands focus on its own particular priorities of keeping junk off the streets as much or more than bringing heels to heel. Mourad gains Bey’s interest when he shows a gift for following the thinnest threads of investigation. He identifies the corpse whose discovery kicks off the investigation via its shoes, which prove to have been made by the same knock-off artist as his wife’s: this in turn quickly leads him and Bey to the Pavlis brothers. But Mourad screws up badly as he chases after the Pavlis’ lieutenant Lombardi (Grégoire Aslan) rather than helping Bey in securing a dope shipment, and plays into the hands of the secret drug kingpin, who uses him as the perfect tool to escape the manhunt Mourad is unaware of. Portman’s particular gift for playing rigid and repressed figures with secret lodes of pathos is well-exploited, face steely and cheerless but with eyes that display finite feeling, revealing flickers of paternal affection for Mourad and searching his assigned corner of the world with morally exhausted hope for signs of decency, bound to be constantly dashed.

Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) and many a more modern study in the lawman as emotional shell are prefigured as Bey tells Mourad about how his zeal for his job cost the life of his wife, as she got between a vengeful killer and her husband and caught a bullet. Amidst the film’s strung-out chain of vignettes, the most affecting sees Bey faced by a young Bedouin camel driver (Oscar Quitak) who pathetically begs him to spare his own hand-raised camel from a cull to extract the drugs in their bellies: Bey agrees, but when faced with evidence of the lad’s duplicity coldly orders the animal’s death. “I trusted you!” the boy screams in a tantrum, before Bey rips open his shirt and reveals the heroin satchels hidden on his person, and brushes him off with the simplest and starkest of life formulas: “I trust no-one.” Harvey is fresh-faced and tolerable in one of his more likeable roles as the talented but fallible Mourad, who’s propped up emotionally by his wife after he makes a fool of himself.

Acting honours, however, go to Harold Lang, a British character actor who appeared in quite a few Brit-Noir and horror works through to the ‘60s, including Robert Hamer’s The Long Memory (1952), usually investing his roles with a brand of streetwise insolence and shrewdness mixed with an almost fey, sexually ambiguous menace. Here he plays Humble, a glibly charming Cockney car motor importer who is caught up in the net of suspects after Anna’s assault: he later proves, not at all surprisingly, to be the psychopathic Rico Pavlis, calmly throttling a disappointing underling in punishment for his failings and using the oblivious Mourad to spirit him past checkpoints. Mourad redeems himself with a dangerous venture into the enemy’s lair, a deft little-build up as Mourad ascends a shadowy staircase whilst MacDonald cuts to his fellow policeman watching and waiting, each glimpsed in islets of chiaroscuro tension, and resolves in a shoot-out that is only heard, news of the result delayed a few brief, teasing moments, making for a conclusion that feels half-hearted. The film’s chief lack is a sense of specific propulsion, as paperback pulp story, essay in procedural detail, character musing, and travelogue don’t quite mesh with the force they might, leaving a tale that feels episodic and disjointed. Nobody ever gets into quite enough danger, none of its characters are tested quite enough. The usually impressive and specific quality of Brit-Noir, its restrained, deceptively cool but actually rather neurotic temperament, here means that excitement never really combusts in a fashion the flavourful setting and substantial story some all too ready for. But Cairo Road is still a worthy deep cut from the archives of British cinema.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Take2 Guide to Steven Spielberg

A little shameless promotion of self and others here, folks. Take2 Publishing is a new venture encompassing a genuinely interesting and worthy goal, collecting the best words published about films and filmmaking online, a form of writing that doesn't ever really die and yet is usually lost fairly quickly to the internet ether, for a series of ebooks. Their first project was a suitably big name, Steven Spielberg, and my articles on the director's works, suitably revised and edited, are included -- over 25,000 words on eight movies -- along with over 70 contributors, including Matt Zoller Seitz and Jonathan Rosenbaum, and some heroes of internet film writing like Dennis Cozzalio, Greg Ferrara, Ed Howard, and Sam Juliano. Adam Zanzie, wunderkind proprietor of Icebox Movies, was our fearless editor. So buy it, guys, it's only US $10, a small chunk of change for such a colossal work (nearly 1,000 pages), and comes in multiple formats. Here it is at Take2's own sales page, and at Amazon.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Blood and Black Lace Podcast at Cinefantastique

A couple of weeks ago I engaged in conversation with Steve Biodrowski of Cinenfantastique and Keith Hennessey Brown of Giallo Fever for Cinefantastique's spotlight podcast on Mario Bava's seminal chiller Sei Donne Per L'Assassino, known most commonly in English as Blood and Black Lace. And in spite of our painfully mismatched time zones and troubles communicating via Skype (with Steve in California, me in New South Wales, and Keith in Scotland -- ah, the wonders of the modern world!), an extremely enjoyable experience it was. Follow this link to tune in and hear me expounding semi-coherently on this classic of genre cinema.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Zombies of Mora Tau (1957)

Edward L. Cahn made his debut as a director in the early 1930s with gangster and western films: his 1932 take on the OK Corral shootout Law and Order was much admired. Cahn soon found a niche directing Hal Roach’s hugely popular Our Gang series of short comedy films, and these works or others in a similar vein filled up most of the late ‘30s and ‘40s. When the series lost steam and the film market began to alter in the age of television, Cahn moved successfully into low-budget features, mostly making the sorts of movies he’d begun with: crime thrillers and horse operas. As the ‘50s progressed however, he inevitably handled a lot of films in that decade’s most disreputably popular genres: teen delinquent dramas, rock ‘n’ roll flicks, and horror and sci-fi movies, and he packed in an extraordinary number of films in the last few years before his death in 1963. Cahn was the sort of experienced, committed artisan whose rock-like steadiness was desperately needed in a turbulent industry, and his sober, simple, yet fluidly paced, visually coherent style proved resilient in spite of often working with poverty-row budgets, silly scripts, and leaden actors. His small oeuvre of fantastic films is a general delight, in a similar fashion to what some have seen in his equally cheap noir films. The gleefully weird Creature With the Atom Brain (1955) and Invisible Invaders (1959) seem like they’ve been conjured straight from the pages of the era’s most lurid pulp mags or comic books, as does his seminal, influential It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958), the progenitor of Alien (1979). The She Creature (1956), Curse of the Faceless Man (1958) and Zombies of Mora Tau are comparatively becalmed in their sonorous evocations

Zombies of Mora Tau isn’t a film I’ve ever seen treated with respect, even by horror and B-movie specialists and apologists, and people who like to laugh at older horror films will undoubtedly find sources of mirth here. It was produced by the infamous Sam Katzman, doyen of the cheapjack epic. And yet it’s one of the bright spots in the generally sparse and dismal ranks of ‘50s American horror films, and a singular little by-product, a starkly atmospheric, expressionistic morality play set in an entirely psychological Africa, where there doesn’t seem to be any black Africans, and daylight rarely comes. A vintage luxury car cruises shadowy dirt roads, a European mansion rises by the sea, and zombies lie boding time in a dark deserted crypt in the midst of the back-lot jungle before strutting out to find pretty girls to claim and stalk the ocean floor in an unceasing guardianship. Victor Halperin’s legendary independent horror film White Zombie (1932) seems to have been an influence, particularly for the opening sequence, in which young ingénue Jan Peters (Autumn Russell), fresh from a rational American schooling, returns home only to have the family chauffeur Sam (Gene Roth) drive straight over the top of a man standing on the road. This proves the rudest possible reintroduction to a land where ignoring the corpses reanimated by the theft of history is an everyday necessity. 

Like Halperin’s film, too, Cahn’s work manages to situate itself somewhere in a dream-state without any affectations of doing so. Autumn’s widowed grandmother (Marjorie Eaton) is the keeper of old legacies and secrets, maintaining her colonial manse in the face of teeming proof that the colonialist project has become a self-defeating, existentially agonising mockery, symbolised by the zombies, which include her dead husband Captain Peters, who are cursed for trying to steal a cache of diamonds from a nearby temple. The diamonds are trapped in a safe in the wreck of Peters’ ship, just off the coast, and Widow Peters has maintained her vigil over all with boding knowledge. She tries to pass on this knowledge to the latest in a long line of adventurers after the legendary diamonds: in a delightfully odd sequence, she gives them a guided tour of a graveyard crammed with their predecessors over five decades of fortune hunting, all of whom met sticky ends at the hands of the zombies. 

The new party aren’t easily persuaded, however, even after one, Mona Harrison (Allison Hayes), tumbles into an open grave, freshly dug for the new arrivals, in mordant anticipation of such fate awaiting these new adventurers. Mona’s husband George Harrison (Joel Ashley) is the shady guy bankrolling the venture. Mona is a hardboiled, sensually and fiscally greedy moll with a barely concealed yen for Jeff Clark (Gregg Palmer), the team’s hunky diving expert, whilst Dr. Eggert (‘50s sci-fi stalwart Morris Ankrum) is on hand for a thin aegis of archaeological cred. Mona, constantly twisting in her ultra-tight ‘50s clothes like she can’t sit properly for the overpowering strength of unsatisfied libido, stirs the pot: in the team’s first appearance, Mona prods Jeff for a friendly kiss she tries to turn into a full-on make-out session, to her husband’s chagrin but not distraction. 

Hayes was a damnably cool and sexy actress who, for a time in the late ‘50s, carved out a niche in B-movies, including for Roger Corman (Gunfighter and The Undead, both 1956) after small roles in higher-profile films earlier in the decade; like fellow Corman alum Susan Cabot, she had a lode of eccentric power that manifested best in playing lawlessly wanton and variably evil ladies, but lacked Cabot’s wounded air, possessing rather surprising ferocity. Here she’s a hoot in a relatively small role as the unrepentant Mona, a trophy wife for George although she’s no prize, stirring up the men in competition until George loses his cool, belts her around, and chases her into the jungle night. Mona is later found zombified in the eerie crypt, surrounded by her undead brethren, but this doesn’t so much alter as divert the object of her disposition, still as coldly, mindlessly motivated by a desire to possess. Rescued by the company, she is only, finally and amusingly, pinioned to a single bed by many candles, as fire is the one thing the zombies are afraid of. The zombies have a minatory charge with their shambling gaits, creepy pallor and shoestring ghoulishness, looking forward to the even cheaper, yet indelible ghosts of Carnival of Souls (1960) as well as, more obviously, Night of the Living Dead (1968). 

Indeed, Mora Tau is one of the very few zombie movies its era, and perhaps the first modern one. Earlier zombie films like Halperin’s White Zombie and Revolt of the Zombies (1939) hew more towards parables for dictatorship in the time of totalitarianism, as the zombies are mostly anonymous whilst the necromancer villains feel the temptation to suborn all to their will. Mora Tau looks forward to George Romero, Lucio Fulci, and others in depicting the terror of lost identity and the resurgence of repressed forces, the zombies here only animated by abstract forces for the sake of protecting a taboo. Some of Cahn’s effects are visceral for the time, like Jeff planting a knife up to the hilt into a zombie’s chest as it tries to kidnap Autumn but failing to cause more than distraction. Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979) is anticipated in exploiting the nature of zombies as not beholden to physical limitations and thus capable of living under the sea. Cahn realises this idea however not with clever underwater shooting but the device, at once sublimely tacky and amusingly resourceful, of having his actors in hard-hat diving suits pretend to be underwater with bubbles gurgling from their helmets to mimic escaping air, whilst the actors playing zombies tackle them. These scenes are usually cited as the film’s fatal weakness, and yet they don’t much disturb or contradict the stylised atmosphere, and indeed strengthen a quality inherent in the film from the start, that harks back to the painted sets and eerie starkness of early cinema or stage melodrama, and Cahn’s imagery is still striking as the zombie horde lurch out of the murky dark.

How to get the diamonds from the wreck is the problem preoccupying the would-be fortune hunters, as the zombies launch themselves at Jeff when he tries entering on his own. Inspired by widow Peters’ trick of warding them off with fire, Jeff gets George to hold them off with an underwater welding torch. Like a lot of films in the horror and scifi genres of this period, the fantastic elements coexist with other genre elements, particularly the gangster film-like figuration of tough, resourceful Jeff clashing over a cut of the loot with George and Mona rattling their cages with lust. A familiar moral – riches are less important than safety – is mixed with a quiet but definite commentary on labour relations and capitalist greed: proletarian Jeff (like John Carpenter, Cahn frequently stressed his heroes' blue-collar cred) forces George to increase his cut of the profits by threatening to withdraw his needed physical services, but once he has what he wants, George cuts Jeff out at gunpoint. Jeff gravitates towards bland Jan on the way to be converted from purely mercenary interests, and his eventual casting away of riches saves lives. 

Cahn’s tone is, however, more oneiric than sociological, and moments of fairy-tale delight dot the film, from the men trying to rescue Mona from the zombies’ tomb, where the inhabitants march forward like some ungodly line dancing team, and the undead Mona wandering out from her room and casually knifing a sailor to death in his bed, after which she’s exiled on her own bed, dazzled and caged by candlelight, looking perversely regal and animalistic in her blind fear and purpose all at once. Once the seekers have their treasure, they have to fight off an invasion of their ship by the walking corpses, and engage in a thoroughly pointless battle, highlighting another of the film’s odder aspects: the zombies are quite unstoppable, amenable to no human interaction. When Mona finally escapes her bed and treads out to obey the same purpose as her fellow zombies, George still believes she’s his wife, but with all the casual precision of a cook cracking an egg, she bashes his skull in with the treasure box he’s sought to such cost. Such an apt and brutally concise end to their twisted marriage is contrasted by the widow Peters tearfully begging her husband’s animated shell to at last give up its vigil. Such are the outlandish and effervescent beauties of this elegantly threadbare film. 

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Something Evil (1972)

A telemovie most notable as Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to Duel (1971), and another milestone on the young director’s frighteningly rapid rise up the industry totem pole, Something Evil undoubtedly showcases the young cinematic savant’s emergent talent and vivacity. But it’s also worth noting as a prototype for a modern branch of the horror film, the tale of ghostly haunting that revolves specifically around family angst and intensely metaphoric psychological anguish: Kim Darby’s trip into the black depths in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), the familial auto-da-fes in the Amityville series, and the supernaturally claimed mothers of The Others (2001) and The Orphanage (2009) are anticipated here, as is, most obviously, Spielberg’s own writer-producer work Poltergeist (1982). The basis here however is Robert Clouse’s script, composed a year before Enter the Dragon (1973) defined Clouse forever as an action director, whilst Spielberg’s own gift for the destabilising menace of the horror style would also be obscured by his own success in, and temperamental accord with, more broadly appealing genres. 

Sandy Dennis is Marjorie Worden, wife to advertising executive Paul (Darren McGavin), but with one foot still planted in the realm of airy, arty, slightly cuckoo bohemia. She’s a painter and arts-and-crafts wiz with a fascination for esoterica, like the design of an old home-craft cabalistic sign to ward off evil she spies affixed to the barn of a rural house she paints during a weekend trip. Taking a shine to the house, she talks a reluctant Paul into buying it, and they move in with their two kids, Stevie (Johnny Whitaker) and Laurie (Debbie and Sandy Lempert). Echoes here of John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) and its similar meditation on folks fleeing urban decay for the sticks, only to find other forces of decay and disturbance working, and also anticipation of the Brodys' lot in Jaws (1975). The dogged power of folk traditions and city-country divides percolate in the story, but family problems are central here: references to Marjorie’s febrile psyche as the thing not talked about, with the potential to spark stiff-necked irritation in her husband, nudges the film into proto-feminism and tales of domestic suffering, even as the plot embraces irrationalism. 

Idyllic repose seems possible in the new house at first; so ideal it is indeed that McGavin even turns it into a perfect set for an orange juice commercial celebrating bogus rusticity, except the model playing the corn-fed farm girl can’t sing the jingle, the recording equipment picks up strange sounds, and the mood seems subtly off, like a joke badly told. Marjorie becomes friends with a cooking writer, Harry Lincoln (Ralph Bellamy), who believes in the supernatural and feigns mild deafness to fend off the unsympathetic, and this in turn stirs the weak wrath of Harry’s solicitous nephew Ernest (John Rubinstein). Marjorie takes offence to her neighbour Gehrmann (Jeff Corey) sacrificing live chickens on her fields for the sake of warding off evil. A baby’s wails are heard in the night, luring Marjorie out repeatedly to investigate. Jars of perverse matter bubble and glow in recessed shelves of the barn, like carefully preserved remnants of black mass births. Windstorms roar out of nowhere to kill unwitting farmers. Two of the ad crew die in a car crash caused by a strange pulse of energy cracking their windscreen, and Marjorie begins to unravel as, similar fashion, strange impulses crack the fibre of her secure existence. But is she possessed by the devil that seems to lurk on the farm, or is she being driven crazy by the unseen force through another medium? After attacking and beating up her son in a frenzied rage at mild brattiness, she becomes convinced of the former case, and begins to contemplate self-annihilation. 

Some have favourably compared this with Duel; I can't support that, for it isn't as compulsively paced and simply thrilling. Something Evil betrays some of the limitations of both a TV production of the period and Spielberg’s own developing craft: the pace is uneven and draggy in points, whilst the lack of special effects and polish to the production, as well as the general toothlessness of the TV-friendly horror, hampers much of the impact (today Duel has the advantage of usually being seen in its extended, punchier, more rounded theatrical cut). Spielberg’s direction here, as in Duel, certainly looks and feels cinematic, not particularly hampered by a more visually and conceptually limited format and quietly ebullient in technique: certainly, unlike a lot of TV-trained talent who had arrived prior to him in American movies, even John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn in their early film work, Spielberg arrived fully formed as a cinematic talent. And yet Spielberg’s sense of shot-for-shot fastidiousness and compressed, motivated narrative flow perhaps owes more to his TV training than his latter-day image as the doyen of big Hollywood filmmaking might indicate, and Something Evil offers the chance to see him working through some hesitations as well as showing off talent. Something Evil is also a suitably ambitious and thematically apt follow-up to Duel, one that coherently presents the inverse of the predecessor’s narrative: where there the suburban man, playing the role of hunter-gatherer, was in need of a shock lesson in real hunting, here the central figure is the young mother whose maternal strength has calcified into phobic alienation and uncertainty. Dennis is sterling, offering a measured, slow-burn edition of her patented crumbling neurotics, whilst McGavin gears up for his ride as Carl Kolchak. 

In the film’s eeriest sequence, Paul is shown test reels from the ad shoot in which a pair of glowing, demonic eyes are glimpsed in the window behind the model: it’s a great touch, and anticipates recent horror films like Paranormal Activity and Lake Mungo in grasping the evocative power of accidental evidence of the uncanny captured through recording mediums. But one can imagine the more practiced Spielberg presenting this moment of revelation with far more precision of placing in the narrative, as well as staging, than here, where it’s almost lackadaisically introduced. Clouse’s script is laced with echoes of the theme of women being driven crazy for sinister ends, so popular in the ’40 (Gaslight, Dark Waters, My Name is Julia Ross) but the faith those films purposefully offered that the demons were figments of misogynist plotters has given way to free-floating malevolencies, one reason why Something Evil, like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, conveys the bleakness of the fear of collapse into irreparable mental illness.

There’s also a dash of subtle humour to proceedings, as the Wordens find themselves all the more enthusiastically accepted by the local community after the deaths of their two advertising friends, as it gives everyone something to talk about. With its emphasis on supernatural entities tormenting average people and exposing rifts in the parent-child relationship, the following year’s The Exorcist is clearly anticipated, and indeed Something Evil was produced as a quickie cash-in on the novel's success, able to beat the film version into release. But Spielberg and Clouse reject the traditionalist hierarchism inherent William Peter Blatty’s tale argued as the cure for modern ills. This diary of a mad housewife comes down on the side not just of the mad housewife, but also finally recognises her as a figure of great but misdirected spiritual power, who fights back effectively by embracing and mastering the subversive power of the folk magic emblems that others have taken as symbols of her lunacy. 

Spielberg inverts the sense of threat posed by the forces within the house so that forces outside, like Ernest, seem to be threatening Marjorie within, whilst a jump-cut from the demon’s eyes as revealed in the ad footage to Marjorie’s viewpoint looking out from the same position within her house entwines her perspective with the demon’s, confirming her fear of the outside is itself a contrivance of the evil presence. Spielberg looks forward to the same motif of terrifying forces surrounding and invading a family home found in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). The theme of troubled maternal affection evoked in both of those films, as well as in The Sugarland Express (1974), is present and also closely matched with this motif of external threat. Marjorie negotiates her house and grounds as a trap where her emotions seem to become uncontrolled and her senses are twisted in corrosive self-doubt: she seeks to defend the boundaries of her world, but the evil is within those borders. 

Spielberg worked here for the first time with cinematographer Bill Butler, and the strength of their technical partnership in dealing with the boxy TV format is readily apparent, even as some of young Steven’s visual tricks pass sophomoric. Bold multi-plane framings and forced perspective shots signal Spielberg’s dynamic emerging, particularly in a shot of Stevie being molested by the demon in his sleep, face thrust close to the camera in an intense wince as if he’s dreaming of invisible claws hooking his flesh, a moment that conveys a disturbing sense of invasion and torment and queasily invoking the anxiety over child abuse underlying the narrative. The film builds to a silly scare moment when Marjorie finds the jar of satanic goo from the barn suddenly residing in her kitchen cabinet, but the cheesiness of this doesn't dispel the bravura build-up to it: the early, carefully intimate mobile camerawork has given way to forcibly disorientating movement, as the lens remains fixed on Dennis’ face as she moves with increasing franticness around the kitchen, vision matching her churning distress. 

Point-of-view shots recur too, a bit goofily when Spielberg has the camera adopt Marjorie’s perspective as she searches in the dark with a torch, mounting the torch on the camera. Far more effective are the crashing alternations of Dennis and Whittaker’s faces during Marjorie’s crazed chastisement of Stevie, filmed in whirling hand-held shots, physically conveying the hysteria and disorientation but also suggesting the link between frenzied mother and provoking son. A sequence where the demonic presence torments Harry conveys threat with lunging overhead crane shots looks forward most obviously to the more literal predatory eye of Jaws. In spite of the lumpy pacing, moreover, Spielberg builds sufficient tension and ambiguity that when the final twist in style and plot arrives, the film erupts with new force and virtuosity: Corey hauls Dennis back from the edge in a moment that successfully conveys rescue that feels like attack. Marjorie, so self-mortifying in the face of her own presumed threat, proves renascent and ferocious when it comes to defending her own in a battle for her children, although she realises she’s endangered them precisely through her attempts to save them from herself, and the narrative reverses from parental neurosis to problem child angst as mother has to wrestle her possessed son into the safety zone she’s created. The family, the first of many in Spielberg’s oeuvre, reforms in the eye of threat, something Duel’s protagonist never quite got to. But much in the same way he was left perched on the edge, transfigured by his elemental battle, so too here the young son gazes back on the house he’s leaving with the suggestion of hauntings to continue.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Battle of the Japan Sea (Nihonkai daikaisen, 1969)

Seiji Maruyama’s epic film about the Russo-Japanese war, a pivotal event of early Twentieth century history that climaxed in the Battle of the Tsushima Straits in May 1905, has much in common with other big ‘60s sagas. Sweeping in scope but essayed essentially as a series of interlocked vignettes held together by Toshiro Mifune’s star presence as Admiral Heihachiro Togo, Battle of the Japan Sea is an awkward but intermittently strong film that seeks to sustain a simultaneously grand, but also nuanced approach to the subject matter: for a film about a great national victory, this is a surprisingly thoughtful, restrained work. Patriotic arousal is the ultimate goal, but not before a lengthy and serious scrutiny of Japanese history at a crossroads, at a time when it was an international underdog set to stun the world with a fast and powerful leap into the Twentieth century’s epoch of ironclad war. Toshio Yasumi’s script presents episodic incidents describing the schism between personal emotions and scruples, and adherence to the peculiar national warrior code as well as versions of patriotic duty.

The main problem with Maruyama’s film is that, like many works from this period of cinema that tried to encompass big military campaigns as a subject for epic cinema, we get lots of scenes of uniformed men hanging around offices delivering exposition via strategic arguments. As most of them are Japanese officers, they’re extremely stiff and dignified whilst doing so. Yasumi’s script is frustratingly weak in integrating plot detail into dialogue scenes and character exchanges, and the semi-constant narration overlays many scenes affects a cool, docudrama approach, but often feels at once pedantic and pointless. In a couple of scenes, most notably as the narrator continues to recount dry military factoids obliviously over footage of soldiers dropping like flies before Russian guns and lying scattered across a field, a sight reminiscent of the climax of Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), there’s a deadpan disparity that recalls Okamoto’s skilful use of the ploy of an ironically detached voice-over in Samurai (1965). But the narration continues relentlessly even through the climactic battle, which puts explanation of the nuances in battle tactics ahead of action thrills.

But Maruyama’s historical recreations are colourful, enjoying the late Meiji era vibe with the fascinating blends of Victoriana and Asian styles in clothing and setting giving visual punch to the portrait of a world at crossroads, inscribed in painterly colours and crisp widescreen framings by Hiroshi Murai’s photography: Maruyama, via the special effects team’s work, repeatedly offers a telling motif of the early battleships with their ungainly armour and hedgehog-like bristling guns silhouetted against the low sun, visualising the dawn of Japan’s invasion of modernity, poised at the edge of nihilistic greatness. Whilst the film’s episodic illustrations of the war’s progress sit fairly easily in the company of contemporaneous works like The Longest Day (1962), Is Paris Burning? (1966), and Battle of Britain (1968), as a blend of realist affectation, panoramic drama, and big-budget hubbub, cumulatively the film sneakily builds some of the power Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and through similar method, watching its patriotic heroes go through emotional wringers and building tension through apprehension and threat of loss, before the taciturn fearless leader leads his men into the do-or-die battle. The film moves in fits and starts as it tries to sustain the air of factuality, commencing with the Emperor (Kôshirô Matsumoto) and his cabinet contemplating struggle against the Russians, as they’ve snapped up Japan’s mainland possessions in the free-for-all following the repression of the Boxer Rebellion. 

When the Russians ignore their entreaties, war is declared and Togo is appointed as Admiral of the Fleet, facing the unenviable job of facing down a far larger military, and the immediate task of shutting down the fortified Russian-controlled Port Arthur, as bottling up the Tsar’s Pacific fleet becomes the first nut to crack. Initial attempts to block the harbour with scuttled ships are unsuccessful, as the shore artillery sinks each ship sent in for the job too soon, so troops are landed and Togo is promised by the army commander, General Maresuke Nogi (Chishû Ryû), that he’ll capture the forts. But the Russians have machine guns, still alien to the Japanese, and Nogi’s soldiers fall by the thousands, whilst Togo’s navy is badly depleted by disasters. Things start to look desperate for the Japanese cause, especially as news comes through that the Russian Baltic Fleet has been dispatched and is steaming slowly half-way round the world to crush Togo. The lynch-pin character and hero, Togo, is presented as a dignified but determinedly “modest” man, not prone to demonstrations but keeping a lid on smouldering anxieties and gut-twisting qualms, even as he coolly and rationally plans war. He almost boils over under the expectant pressure when talking with a subordinate on the eve of hoped-for battle, and prays as an anonymous friend at a blind newsagent's personal shrine for her son, killed in the war.

Mifune, who with greyed beard and close-cropped hair closely resembles Togo, gives a performance reminiscent of Laurence Olivier’s as ‘Stuffy’ Dowding in Battle of Britain, insofar as both men successfully quell their stardom to play stoic, anti-charismatic military men, complete opposites to the George Patton mould; at one point the narrator of this film quips about Togo carrying around his lunchbox, and his moral credo, that one must be modest even in victory, permeates the film as message. He’s counterpointed with several other figures torn by duties that clash with private sensibilities, and as the cost of war mounts, the narrative vignettes gain in cumulative power. Cmdr. Takeo Hirose (Yûzô Kayama) is assigned the important mission of blocking Port Arthur. He’s spent time in Russia on military exchanges before the war, and is troubled by the risk he takes of permanently alienating his Russian friends whilst fighting for his homeland, even to the extent of trying to write apologetic missives on the block ships. Hirose dies because of his deeply conscientious determination to avoid any deaths in his seemingly suicidal missions under the enemy guns. After lagging behind to search for a missing crewman, he's clipped by a shell as he and his remaining crew row away, a bleakly ironic twist for an officer who was determined to resist the death-or-glory sentiments around him. 

His friend, Maj. Genjiro Akashi (Tatsuya Nakadai), with whom he debates personal ethics and warfare early in the film, is assigned to the Japanese legation in Paris and fosters war aims by financing Russian revolutionary groups to destabilise the country and gain sources of intelligence, but has to dodge assassins who gun down one of his contacts. Navy commander Kamimura, assigned by Togo to patrol vital waters, takes the brunt of disapproval when an unescorted ship is sunk and he’s condemned by the public for inaction, with his house being stoned. He bluffs his way through a meeting with subordinates with shows of hearty disinterest, but when they remain glum, he orders them out, and then sobs shamefully in private. Nogi, pushing for desperately needed victory in his siege to ensure Togo can face the Russian fleet, sends off elite troops to tackle impossible targets, but the spectacle of needless death plus his anxiety at letting Togo down drives him to almost suicidal gestures, like standing up under enemy fire. 

A British military advisor (Harold S. Conway) captains a Japanese war ship only to be killed in a sneak attack, whilst his officers commit seppuku in the flaming wreckage of their vessel after burning their war banner, with all the perverse beauty of the warrior death cult. Maruyama occasionally cuts to the Russian viewpoint, but without much conviction. The actors playing the Russians were mostly expatriate Americans (not surprisingly, the Soviet Union wasn’t in a hurry to cooperate in production) and their dialogue is understandably stilted. One officer of the attacking Western power disdains their opponents as barbarians, a tart and relevant point of historical perspective, but the final lesson is one of respect and mercy. Patriotic sentiment isn’t restricted to the officer classes: one Japanese private soldier, before marching off to certain death, asks Nogi to personally take his money and send it to his family, whilst villagers on a remote island, the first to see the Russian fleet steaming in, band together and row for nearly a full day to get to the nearest telegraph office and warn Togo.

Maruyama offers pleasure for buffs of Japanese film in seeing Ryû, reputed from his many appearances in Yasujiro Ozu’s films, and Mifune, share the screen, and Ryû perhaps gives the film’s most affecting performance as Nogi, his stoic, hirsute façade subtly displaying the torments of his job, with understated relief coming when Togo visits Nogi and quietly congratulates him on his good work. Nakadai doesn’t have much to do, but seems to have fun as the glib, breezy spymaster who counterbalances his friend’s Hirose’s internationalist guilt with a pragmatic enjoyment of destabilising foreign governments, happily stroking his black cat and dodging gunmen with blasé skill. Arguably the real star of the film, however, is special effects creator Eiji Tsuburaya, for his excellent naval battles: Tsuburaya, who died not long after making the film, had his claim to lasting fame as the maestro of the Godzilla films and other kaiju eiga works. Whilst ropy in places, Tsuburaya’s recreations of pre-dreadnought battles on the high seas are a treat, surpassing then-recent example of such effects in Hollywood works like Sink the Bismarck! (1960) and In Harm’s Way (1965), and wind the film up in suitably spectacular fashion. Smoke billows, seas boil, steel buckles, men break in a maelstrom of fire and grey metal, and gnawing doubt gives way to crushing victory. But this, in turn, concedes to a muted coda, as Togo gifts the wounded Russian admiral with flowers in his hospital bed, and sadly walks out of the film with, the narrator tells us, the conviction that even victory in war is sad. Such touches ensure that, whilst certainly uneven, Battle of the Japan Sea is an intermittently superb piece of work.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Seven-Ups (1973)

The simultaneous hits of The French Connection and Dirty Harry (1971), and the former film’s Oscar-garlanded prestige, sparked a small tsunami of similarly gritty cop thrillers. These dramas, like the concurrent but seemingly oppositional Blaxploitation genre, which had its birth pangs the same year with Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, confronted American urban life as it began to decay rapidly in the grouchy and cynical ‘70s, as old social truces were called off, and drug culture found fertile soil in that decay as well as unpleasant synergy with counterculture. Among the glut of cop flicks was one official sequel to The French Connection, in 1975, but there had already been two unofficial continuations. Badge 373 (1973) detailed further adventure of Eddie Egan, the real-life avatar of Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, whilst Egan’s former partner Sonny Grosso, on whom Roy Scheider’s Buddy Russo was based, penned the story for The Seven-Ups, which marked the sole directorial outing of French Connection producer Philip D’Antoni. D’Antoni also employed much of the same crew, including a similarly jangly, eerie score by Don Ellis, and mimicked Friedkin’s touch. Long wordless sequences of setting up stake-outs and sting operations maintain the brand, as do strong similarities in style and location shooting, full of inquisitive zooms and forced-perspective shots of giant ‘70s cars cruising tight, dim New York streets, and fringe wastelands where rubbish and human refuse collect. The Seven-Ups isn’t quite a classic, but it stands on its own two feet as a gritty drama of the period, and after an awkward first half-hour begins to hum.

The title refers to the small unit of detectives who have been given a certain amount of leeway by their superiors because they’re gifted at inventive takedowns of major criminals. Hence the team’s name, which refers to the “seven years and up” sentences they chase. The Grosso stand-in, again called Buddy and played by Scheider, leads three others in the team, Barilli (Victor Arnold), Mingo (Ken Kercheval), and Ansel (Jerry Leon). At the outset, the team bust a counterfeiting ring operating through an effete antique store. This op proves to have been enabled by Buddy’s childhood pal Vito Lucia (Tony LoBianco), who’s now a mid-level wiseguy, eager apparently to sell information to Buddy because his wife’s illness has left him cash-strapped. At the same time, a pair of brutally effective hoods, Moon (Richard Lynch) and Bo (Bill Hickman), kidnap a mob money-lender, Max Kalish (Larry Haines), and shake him down for $100,000. The duo forestall attempts by the ransom couriers to confront them via a witty expedient of ordering the bagmen to drive through a carwash, where they lurk amidst the spinning brushes and shooting jets of water. They handcuff the car door handles, and then jimmy open the boot to remove the cash, the mob soldiers reduced to slapstick buffoons as they try to crawl out the windows only to get spraying soap in the face. As in The French Connection, and surely reaped with a sense of authenticity from Grosso’s experience, there’s a fascination for method and process on both the cop and criminal sides here, the interplay of ingenious devices and ruses involved in such action, which fleshes out the film’s bare-boned approach to crime fighting with an element of systemic analysis. One salty touch is the sign written, jokingly we hope, on the inside of a blind in the Seven-Ups’ offices, warning to keep the blinds down in case of snipers.

D’Antoni’s work doesn’t, however, approach the stature of Friedkin’s. The circumlocutory method acting and fuzz-tongued dialogue are more mannered and less biting, and the pacing less compulsive. The filming lacks the same sense of storytelling savvy, the vivid edge derived from Friedkin’s New Wave-accented technique with layered sound and hand-held photography that helped keep Friedkin’s sense of environmental and moral straits in constant volatility. Whereas Barry Shear’s Across 110th Street (1972) constructed a superlative cross-breeding of the neo-realist cop thriller with elements from Blaxploitation, The Seven-Ups is much more conventional in dramatic stakes and worldview. Grosso’s story, worked into a screenplay by Albert Ruben and Alexander Jacobs, maintains a sociological edge, insofar as it deals with the zone where organised justice and organised crime via shared roots and shared emotions of their all-too-human members: Buddy and Vito circle each-other with the wary amity of men who know the other’s pain and problems, as well as sharing fond and not-so-fond connections, as when the pair overlook their old school, now sitting under the shadow of two alien spaceship-like towers blocks, and recall old beatings by nuns. Time-honoured gangster movie cliché is acknowledged as Buddy returns to his old neighbourhood, as he sprang from the same soil as many of the Mafia types he’s after, and gets information from an old barber (Frank Macetta). 

The Mafia dons themselves are irate but intriguingly ineffectual, far from the usual portrait of them as ruthlessly efficient and omnipotent avengers: several of them tell Kalish not to bother trying to hunt down his tormentors. But the actual plot only involves action between tough men, without the wider socio-economic problems Friedkin’s film invoked: the idea of cops and gangsters both chasing wild card villains could have fit neatly into a Starsky and Hutch episode. The kidnapping duo prove to actually work for Vito, who’s been sending them after each mob name Buddy gives him to investigate, as this lets him know they’ve got the cash to pay up big. Things go south quickly when Moon and Bo take another boss hostage against Vito’s advice, using their favourite device of pretending to be cops. Kalish, furious and hell-bent, uses a funeral to argue over a course of action with other mob bosses, some of whom have suffered the same treatment. The Seven-Ups stake out the funeral, unaware that the mobsters believe their persecutors are detectives: when Ansel, who’s posing as a chauffeur, is made as a cop, Kalish assumes he’s gathering information for the kidnappers, so he’s tricked inside, beaten, and bundled into a car trunk. The mobsters hope to swap him for the current hostage, but these colliding elements combust as the kidnappers shoot and wound Ansel’s courier, Coltello (Lou Polan), thinking he’s pulling a cross, and blast the hapless cop in the trunk. Buddy and Mingo arrive at the bloody scene, and Buddy gives chase to the two fleeing hoods. 

Here the film erupts into its raison d’etre, a car chase sequence that obviously tries to top all previous examples. It is a breathtaking example of that variety of action scene, the shooting and editing emphasising lateral lines of movement and cutaways only motived by obstacles and manoeuvrings, as opposed to the collage-like form preferred today, exemplified by Paul Greengrass's work on the Bourne movies. Buddy pursues the murderous duo across the city, over the George Washington Bridge, and into the leafy, wintry highway landscape, as Moon tries to blast him with a sawed-off shotgun. The chase ends with Buddy almost being turned to raspberry jam as his car rams the back of a truck, only his reflexes in ducking down saving his life. The detail of such an epic chase ending in humiliation and near-death for the hero is a bit of a twist. Buddy returns to the hospital to find his friend dead and superiors delivering frustrating new that the Seven-Up unit’s going to be shut down until investigated. Buddy refuses to listen to this, and embarks on a campaign of coercive force to wring suspects for the location of Moon and Bo.

Here the French Connection's model of mixing in some unpleasant and critical aspects of policing in with the action is maintained for some real substance, as the question of how far Buddy and his team will go for payback is raised. This aspect is presented with a matter-of-fact attitude, one that suggests less political outrage than a pervasive sense of gruelling, mentally and physically manifesting weltschmerz. Perhaps the film’s most bleakly affecting moment comes when a petty criminal Toredano (Joe Spinell), who seems connected to the kidnappers, shows off his knobbly, distorted fingers as the Seven-Ups prepare to give him the third degree, reporting, with a hint of resigned bravado, “I been here before. Do what you gotta do.” Buddy and Barilli steal into Kalish’s house at night and terrify both the mobster and his wife into coughing up details of the crimes, and Buddy torments Coltello into giving details by repeatedly yanking loose his oxygen feeder. In context, this stuff is gruelling and not worked for sadistic thrills, but it does follow Dirty Harry in laying out a trope of modern thrillers in which supposedly righteous heroes so often engage in forms of torture and humiliation to work their ends. All Buddy learns from this, eventually, is that he’s been made a fool of by Vito, as he realises the list of kidnapped gangsters matches his own wallet’s load of mug shots. The scene is set for Buddy to manipulate Vito into accidentally delivering his men into a shoot-out. 

This plays out, as was practically de rigeur in the ‘70s crime thriller, in a location of urban and industrial detritus, here a peerlessly squalid patch of ground where it feels like all the city’s junk and shit have been left to slowly rot in the rain and sun. Lynch, in his second movie, laid down the groundwork here for a career playing villains in films and TV, for which his blonde hair and peculiar looks, which might have once been good but seemed to have been gnarled to a feral glaze by bad luck or sad life, and, made him a sneakily charismatic representative; as Moon is caught in a maze of detritus he turns from confident rascal to trapped rat, in the great Harry Lime tradition, genuinely scared for his life and expiring under a hail of Buddy’s bullets, Ellis’ music droning in stark communication of his death throes and Buddy’s nausea. Here, as in the rest of the film, a hazy, mostly unspoken yet unavoidably pungent melancholia pervades the landscape, a miasma only dispersed by hard action. Perhaps, indeed, that's why Buddy and others like him keep doing their job, for the same reason the audience was presumed to want to such grim films: now and then, something gets the blood pumping, the soul kick-started, in the face of a scummy universe. Buddy early in the film is reduced, by contrast, to inertia and depression by mild criticism of his methods, and at the end, his confrontation of Vito sees D’Antoni pulling off his last and best directorial touch: with Buddy pledging artful revenge, he turns his back on his pal. Vito’s pleadings fade to nothing, street noise rises up, the camera retreats before Buddy, creating a dragging, druggy sensation, making each step away feel like a decisive but painful severance from Buddy’s past amities and last sentiments. Whilst the film as a whole is more generic than the best examples of its type and style, it nonetheless represents that style quintessentially.