I've just been given the keys to the Aston Martin.
At least, that's what
it feels like to write this column for Cinema Retro's new and improved website. It's a responsibility I
don't take lightly -
unlike 007's flippant rejoinders to Q's lectures on the DB5's capabilities. Editor
in chief Lee Pfeiffer has (perhaps unwisely) given me license to fill this space with whatever wayward
and outrageous reflections strike my fancy, as long as I keep the steering wheel pointed more or less in the
direction of cult film and television. I just hope he never feels the urge to trigger the ejector seat.
While meditating on what to write about for the first installment of this column (under
the influence, I confess, of several shaken, not stirred beverages), I came across a news item regarding
Bollywood superstar Sanjay Dutt's November 28, 2006 conviction stemming from a 1993 weapons possession
charge. The actor was arrested that year in connection with an investigation into a series of deadly
terrorist bombings in Mumbai. Indian police found a pistol, three assault rifles and 25 hand grenades at
Dutt's house, and he subsequently spent 18 months in jail before being released on bail. But it could
have been worse. In handing down its sentence, the court found Dutt innocent of terrorism and conspiracy
charges. He was awaiting a sentencing date at the time this column was turned in.
notoriety of the case helped rather than hindered Dutt's career. The hard-drinking, drug-abusing,
skirt-chasing, underworld-affiliated bad boy of the Indian film industry is on the biggest roll of his
career, with two recent hit films to his credit and a slew of projects on the way. In the eyes of the
common man he's atoned for his sins, said Indian Express film critic Shubhar Gupta.In India there's a
great tolerance for bad guys with good fathers.
The Dutt story brought to mind a number
of parallels with another transgressive film icon.
French actor Alain Delon. After achieving
international stardom in such art films as Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard and The Eclipse, Delon
embarked on a transition to crime film icon in Jean-Pierre Melville's classic 1967 noir Le Samourai.
Delon's enigmatic charisma resembled an angel on good terms with hell and
made him ideally suited to
playing a wide range of hard-bitten criminals and cops.
Delon's tough guy persona acquired added potency when his friend and bodyguard Stevan Markovic
was found shot to death in a garbage dump on the outskirts of Paris on October 1, 1968. The subsequent
investigation mushroomed into a huge scandal inclusive of sex, drugs and blackmail and threatened to
engulf numerous show business personalities and politicians. The affair was eventually hushed up and
Delon cleared of criminal complicity, but not before he confessed to longstanding ties to the Marseilles
underworld and direct involvement in gun running.
In the wake of the Markovic Affair, as
it came to be known, audiences avidly embraced the harder edge Delon displayed in a number of excellent
crime films directed by the likes of Melville (Le Cercle Rouge, Un Flic), Henri Vernuil (The Sicilian
Clan), and Jacques Deray (Borsalino). Unfortunately, most of Delon's '70s thrillers -
many of them
have never been seen in the United States, either in theaters or on home video. Happily,
the good folks at Kino (www.kino.com) have made three of Delon's best films of that decade available on
"Kill me fast!"
After making a killing with the 1970 blockbuster
Borsalino (in which he was paired with France's other reigning film icon, Jean-Paul Belmondo), Delon and
director Deray returned several years later with the underrated sequel Borsalino and Co. (1974). Delon
not only starred in but also produced this ambitious crime film that combines elegant period detail,
gripping action and a compelling storyline.
Delon reprises his role as Roch Siffredi, a
stylish mob boss who controls the vice and gambling operations in prewar Marseilles. The film opens with
the funeral of Siffredi's partner, murdered by a fascist-backed Italian gangster named Volpone who's
trying to muscle in on his territory. When Siffredi retaliates in kind, the Italians unleash a series of
savage reprisals, killing Siffredi's lieutenants, terrorizing his stable of call girls and torching his
nightclub. When Siffredi appeals to the police commissioner to intervene, the latter responds with a
sardonic comment on the city's attitude toward the warring factions: "Youu know me. I only watch and keep
There follows the swift collapse of Siffredi's empire and his kidnapping and
torture by the Italians. Volpone arrogantly chooses not to kill Siffredi but to engineer his public
humiliation and incarceration in a mental institution. With his rival safely out of the way, Volpone
quickly assumes control of the city's criminal trade. Yet Siffredi refuses to lay down without a fight.
After recovering from the shock of losing his empire, he engineers an ingenious escape and embarks upon
a spectacular and bloody vendetta.
With its Art Deco opulence, lush cinematography and
lavishly mounted set pieces, Borsalino & Co. has the grandeur and romanticism of The Godfather, but
without that film's emotional posturing, phony sentiment and fetishized violence. Deray handles the
action with verve and restraint, and maintains a masterful command of visual rhythm and framing. The
script, co-written by Deray and Pascal Jardin, is likewise tough and knowing, and the multi-layered
characters accept their respective fates with the sort of existential acceptance typical of French
cinema. Typical is this exchange between a triumphant Volpone and a bowed but unbeaten Siffredi:
Volpone: "Killing my brother was a mistake. You forced me to resort to your methods and I know
how! I trust you realize that. Anything to say?" Siffredi: "Kill me fast."
naturally, the film's dominant performer, running the gamut from cold-blooded arrogance to spiritual
debasement to something resembling triumph. Yet he is also uncommonly generous, never upstaging his
fellow actors but giving them plenty of space to make their own impressive contributions. Particularly
noteworthy are Riccardo Cucciolla as the vicious, predatory Volpone; Catherine Rouvel as Siffredi's
mistress; and Daniel Ivernel as the cynical commissioner. Unfairly neglected, Borsalino & Co.
deserves a place in the French crime film pantheon.
"He's at the point of no return."
Delon and Deray again joined forces for Flic
Story (1975), a gritty thriller about the real-life exploits of Emile Buisson, postwar France's most
notorious criminal. Having escaped from a mental hospital in 1947, Buisson embarked on a vicious and
protracted crime spree that both repelled and fascinated a country only recently liberated from the Nazi
The screenplay by Deray and Alphonse Boudard is based on the memoir of Roger
Borniche, the detective at the heart of the manhunt for Buisson. Borniche, played by Delon, is an
ethical, by-the-book detective given to reprimanding subordinates for brutalizing suspects. Yet the
longer Buisson eludes capture, the more the pressure mounts on Borniche to produce results, eventually
forcing him to bend the rules to nail his prey. During the film's penultimate scene, he even risks the
life of his wife (ex-Bond girl Claudine Auger), in a calculated gamble to put an end to Borniche's reign
Delon gives a nicely shaded portrayal of a man struggling to maintain his code of
ethics in the face of hostile peers, an unsympathetic bureacracy and a seemingly unbeatable foe. Buisson
is presented as more of an enigma, yet Jean-Louis Trintignant's nuanced performance suggests the man
behind the monster, and the film spends considerable time exploring his charismatic hold over
accomplices and ordinary citizens alike. One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is the subtle
dynamic that develops between Buisson and Borniche when they finally meet towards the end of the film.
Despite their adversarial relationship, the men develop a grudging respect for each other's
professionalism that approaches but never crosses the line to outright friendship.
trademark terse visual grammar lends the interpersonal scenes a dynamism lacking in many thrillers. He
also infuses the genre's classic elements -
stakeouts, chases, shootouts-
with a bracing directness and
emotional honesty that elevates them above the level of clichï¿½. Deray may never have attained the
profundity of Jean-Pierre Melville (who remains the undisputed master of French crime cinema decades
after his death in 1973), but he could always be relied on to deliver solid visual craftsmanship and
narrative integrity. Flic Story is at once a satisfying police procedural and incisive character study.
It also conveys, with subtle and subversive efficiency, the ambiguous mood of a country and an era in
which betrayal is but another form of survival.
"Once a Crook, Always a Crook."
familiar refrain of policemen the world over is given an added twist in Two Men in Town (1973), in which
Delon stars as Gino Strabliggi, a paroled ex-safecracker determined to go straight. Problem is, not only
does Commissioner Goitreau, the man who put Gino away, think he's still in the game, so do his old gang
members. Their persistent efforts to lure Gino back into their fold serve only to confirm Goitreau's
Gino, however, is sincere about his reformation. He and his wife move to a small
town in the south of France where he embraces a new life as a law-abiding citizen. His tranquil
existence is shattered, however, when a senseless car accident claims her life. Gino somehow maintains
his resolve and subsequently moves to Montpelier, unaware that Goitreau has also relocated there.
Despite the objections of his superior, the dogged cop obsessively begins a campaign of harassment and
intimidation that targets Gino, his employer and his new girlfriend Lucie (stunning cult actress Mimsy
Farmer). With each turn of the screw, Gino finds it harder to keep his cool, despite the support of a
prison reformer played by legendary screen icon Jean Gabin. Eventually, Goitreau's slimy tactics push
Gino over the edge, with tragic consequences for all concerned.
Co-written and directed by
ex-death row inmate Josï¿½ Giovanni (who also scripted the powerful prison drama Le Trou ), Two Men in
Town doesn't fit the template of the typical crime film. It argues powerfully for prison reform and
against the death penalty (which France abolished in 1981), yet never indulges in cheap sentiment or
bludgeons the viewer with its socially progressive message, despite its harrowing and unforgettable
The even-handed screenplay and Delon's faultless performance ensure that Gino's
faults as well as virtues are depicted. There's a standout scene in which a group of aggressive
neighbors berate Gino for playing his radio too loud on a Sunday. He faces them down with admirable
restraint but also a bemused contempt he doesn't bother to hide. Delon says more with his eyes in these
few moments of screen time than most actors do with an entire film's worth of dialogue. Giovanni makes
it clear that Gino's eventual fate results not only from society's inability to forgive and forget, but
also from his failure to conquer his own personal demons.
The movie marks the final pairing
of Delon and Gabin, who also appeared together in Any Number Can Win and The Sicilian Clan, both
directed by Henri Verneuil. It's also notable for a cameo appearance by a young Gerard Depardieu. A
brief scene in which he and Delon verbally square off crackles with repressed tension, and seems like a
passing of the torch from one generation's screen icon to another.
IN MEMORIAM: GERARD BRACH
Gerard Brach's name will forever be linked with that of Roman
Polanski, having co-written no less than 10 films with the iconoclastic Polish-born director. When they
embarked on their creative partnership in 1963, Brach was an obscure budding screenwriter, while
Polanksi's star was already on the rise thanks to his 1962 feature Knife in the Water. The films they
made together were marked by caustic black humor, keen psychological insight and a sense of the absurd
worthy of Samuel Beckett.
Their first significant screenplay,
titled Waiting for Katelbach, would eventually be filmed as Cul-de-Sac (1966). However, financing was
not immediately forthcoming due to the story's transgressive mix of genres and bizarre
characterizations. But thanks to Polanski's art house rep, the pair soon attracted the attention of the
Compton Group, a film production company whose owners, Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger, were eager to
move beyond their soft porn beginnings. Compton agreed to finance Katelbach if Polanski would first make
a low-budget horror film. Polanski and Brach subsequently wrote the script for Repulsion (1965) in just
17 days. Starring Catherine Deneuve as a frigid young woman whose gradual mental collapse leads to
murder, Repulsion's heady mix of suppressed sexuality and shocking violence led to worldwide commercial
Polanski and Brach were now free to make the Pinterish Cul-de-Sac, which
examined the physical and psychological collision between a dysfunctional married couple (Donald
Pleasance and Francoise Dorleac) and a pair of comic-bizarre gangsters (Lionel Stander and Jack
McGowran). In this razor-sharp classic, Brach and Polanski pushed to further extremes their aesthetic of
alienation and anxiety. Polanski described their working process in his 1984 autobiography: "We would
read dialog aloud to each other, testing every stress and intonation, pruning every superfluous
Brach co-wrote many other
Polanski films, including the cult classics The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and The Tenant (1976),
plus more mainstream fare like Tess (1979) and Frantic (1988). He also enjoyed considerable success
writing for other directors. Among the most notable of these credits were Claude Berri's The Two of Us
(1966) and Jean de Florette (1986); Michaelangelo Antonioni's Identification of a Woman (1982); and Jean
Jacques Annaud's The Name of the Rose (1986). Brach also directed two films that traversed the same
psycho/sexual terrain he first mined with Polanski.
The claustrophic atmosphere common to
many of Brach's screenplays may have partly resulted from his agoraphobia. He rarely ventured outside of
his Parisian apartment during the last decade of his life. He died on September 9, 2006 at the age of
20 DVDs I'D LIKE TO
If you're like me, you've doubtless lost patience with the philistines running the major
studios for not releasing your favorite '40s noir, '50s sci-fi, '60s thriller or '70s euro-shocker on
DVD, especially considering the junk that currently gluts retailers' shelves. Here's a short, subjective
list of overlooked films (and television series) deserving of digital disc preservation. Ace in the Hole (1951) Billy Wilder's bleak and bitter film about a reporter (a brilliant Kirk
Douglas) willing to cross any moral and ethical line in pursuit of a career-making story. A commercial
flop in its day, but now considered one of Wilder's best films. (Good news- This has been scheduled for release by Criterion-Ed.)
The Breaking Point (1950)
Michael Curtiz directed this adaptation of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not with greater fidelity to the
novel's fatalistic tone than the better-known Hawks/Bogart version. Garfield excels as the disillusioned
fishing boat captain who compromises his integrity with tragic results.
Cry of the City
(1948) Director Robert Siodmak was Hollywood's uncrowned king of noir, and this taut thriller, starring
honest cop Victor Mature and cop killer Richard Conte as childhood friends turned adult antagonists, is
one of the jewels in the filmmaker's canon.
Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966) Jean-Pierre Melville's
superb heist picture is also a gripping character study of a veteran ex-convict struggling to preserve
dignity and integrity in a new-look criminal world rife with ambiguity and betrayal.
Devils (1971) With its graphic, hallucinatory depiction of witch hunters, sexually obsessed nuns and a
maverick, anti-authority priest (played by the great Oliver Reed), Ken Russell's blistering study of
religious corruption and hypocrisy has long generated equal parts controversy and critical acclaim.
The Glass Key (1942 )Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake make beautiful celluloid music together in this
glittering noir based on Dashiell Hammett's novel of political and moral corruption.
of Lost Souls (1933) Mad scientist Charles Laughton turns animals into horrific beast-men in this
atmospheric interpretation of H.G. Wells' famous novel. And who can forget Bela Legosi's immortal line:
"His is the House of Pain!"
It Takes a Thief (1968-1970) Let me get this straight.
You can purchase freaking Alf on DVD, but not the hippest action-adventure series ever made? As master
thief Alexander Mundy, Robert Wagner practically defined the word ï¿½coolï¿½ for all time. And the theme
tune has never been bettered.
The Jokers (1967) Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford play
anti-establishment brothers who steal the crown jewels of England strictly for laughs. Reed's
oft-neglected gift for comedy is given full expression in this cult classic directed with pace and
panache by Michael Winner.
RELEASE OF "THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER"
The List of Adrian Messenger
(1963) John Huston directed this engrossing mystery thriller about a charismatic sociopath played by
Kirk Douglas who systematically knocks off his relatives to claim an inheritance. George C. Scott is the
dogged inspector on his trail. Additional fun comes from trying to identify cleverly disguised cameo
appearances by Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra.
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.
From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968) Open channel D(VD) already! Makes you wonder if T.H.R.U.S.H. hasn't taken
over the studio that holds the rights to this seminal sixties spy show.
The Man Who Could Cheat
Death (1959) Little-seen Hammer outing about a doctor who has found the key to immortality via gland
transplants from young, if unwilling, donors. Anton Diffring's nuanced lead performance conveys
ruthlessness and vulnerability in equal measure.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) "If only
it was the picture that was to grow old, and I remain young. There's nothing in the world I wouldn't
give for that. Yes, I would give even my soul for it."Hurd Hatfield shines as the title character in
this strikingly photographed, elegantly directed and beautifully acted version of Oscar Wilde's classic
Pitfall (1948) Adult, cynical noir about a restless family man played by Dick
Powell who learns a painful lesson when he indulges in extramarital hanky panky with sultry Lizabeth
Scott. Raymond Burr adds malevolent presence as a blackmailing private eye.
on Mars (1964) Paul Mantee stars as an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet who must rely on his
training, resourcefulness and a monkey named Mona for survival. The kind of intelligent and gripping
sci-fi that seems beyond the reach of contemporary Hollywood.
THE SATAN BUG
The Satan Bug (1965)
John Sturges' crackerjack thriller about the theft of a deadly biological weapon remains chillingly
relevant in today's post-September 11 world of terrorist paranoia. George Maharis heads an excellent
cast as the cool and resourceful investigator matching wits with a villainous Richard Basehart.
The Tall Target (1951) Riveting Anthony Mann film based on a real-life attempt to assassinate
Abraham Lincoln en route to his inauguration in 1861. Dick Powell stars as a government agent named John
Kennedy (!) who stumbles upon the plot and desperately attempts to foil the consipirators.
(1961) Samuel Fuller's searing crime drama stars Cliff Robertson as a small-time safecracker who
single-handedly topples the criminal empire responsible for his father's murder. Brilliant and
Villain (1971) A visibly going-to-seed Richard Burton stars as a London crime
boss who loves his mum, his sexual boy toy and creative applications of a straight razor in equal
measure. Burton modeled his character on the notorious Kray twins, who brutally ruled London's
underworld in the 1960s. A member of their gang gave Dickie the ultimate seal of approval, calling his
the most realistic portrayal of a British gangster ever committed to celluloid.
SEAN CONNERY AND GINA LOLLOBRIGIDA ON THE SET OF
"WOMAN OF STRAW".
Woman of Straw (1964) Sean Connery stars as
the amoral nephew of an ailing tycoon in this tight little crime drama. Gina Lollobridiga is the sexy
nurse he enlists in his scheme to gain control of uncle's fortune. Made between From Russia With Love
and Goldfinger, the film exploits Connery's range as an actor and makes one wish he'd explored the dark
side of his persona a little more often.
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