Archive for category film noir

Penn #5 – Night Moves (1975)

How does this movie work? It must be something in the water.

The Story

The hunt for a runaway teen (Melanie Griffith) lures P.I. Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) away from Los Angeles and his unfaithful wife, to the sweaty shores of the Florida Keys, where the teen is boning her way through a community of stuntmen and cargo pilots. Blame the heat; before he can even book a flight back to Cali, Harry falls for the girl’s guardian, Paula (Jennifer Warren). An underwater corpse forces Harry to rethink paradise, and he soon learns that little—in fact, pretty much nothing—is as it seems. Harry’s search for the truth uncovers a conspiracy and a smuggling ring, but a cryptic last reveal suggests the whole story will elude Harry forever.

The Production

There’s a hole in Arthur Penn’s film career. For a period stretching from 1970-1973, Penn didn’t work and retreated into his personal life. He directed no TV or theatre, and his only film was a short contribution to the documentary Visions of Eight. Penn didn’t like to speak about the gap, saying only that he was motivated by something deeply personal. Was it the Olympic massacre, something he witnessed firsthand while filming in Munich? Was it the death of Bobby Kennedy, who Penn liked and had spoken to in person soon before he was assassinated? Whatever the cause, it’s clear that by the time Penn returned to directing, his mood had darkened.

Penn claimed that he chose Night Moves more or less at random, grabbing “the first script [he] had to hand” when he was ready to work. The story, then titled The Dark Tower, had been written by Alan Sharp (Rob Roy) and nearly helmed by Sydney Pollack before the project’s implosion dropped the script fortuitously within Penn’s reach. Penn saw in the film a chance to establish a new kind of film detective, one not rooted in the hard-nosed, grayscale film noirs, but who reflected his confused, uncertain times. It was Penn who suggested the new title, forever saving Stephen King geeks a lifetime of answering questions with the words “no, the book.”

But it couldn’t stop this single “gunslinger” joke.

The writers’ strike of 1973 halted revisions with the production date looming, and Penn found himself shooting an unfinished screenplay on a tight deadline. Penn predicted the chaotic shoot would result in a flop, and audiences agreed. Night Moves was a sizable failure for the studio, derailing Jennifer Warren’s career and landing the first half of a two-punch fatality that Penn never truly recovered from—his next film was the colossal bomb, The Missouri Breaks.

Still, the ever-trusty European critics immediately hailed Night Moves as a masterpiece, and American critics soon joined the cry. Today, Night Moves is widely regarded as one of the great neo-noirs, a bleak indictment of the Watergate era, and one of Penn’s greatest films.

And, incidentally, Melanie Griffith’s.

The Issue

Night Moves is a very different kind of detective story. Written after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, shot at the peak of the Watergate scandal, and released after President Nixon’s resignation, Night Moves reflects its troubled times by suggesting easy answers are a thing of the past, or at least that we’re too screwed up to find them. Penn disliked the leering nature of detectives—especially in the shadow of Watergate—and used the troubled Harry Moseby to make a simple case: don’t hire a person to look through your baggage, because they’re sure to bring some of their own.

The Scene

The best scene is the film’s finale, which gets more attention below. Instead, I’d like to point out this excellent runner-up that somebody was nice enough to post up on YouTube. Harry’s reaction to his wife’s affair provides the emotional juice of the film’s first half, but it also reveals just how problematic Harry is as a hero. What should a man do when he finds he’s been cuckolded? Flip out and go crazy? Admit defeat? Harry’s unusual choice is to simply watch. Watch, and wait. The subsequent confrontation is equally bizarre and confounding.

Overall

Night Moves is a great film, one of the best neo-noirs and kin to heavyweights like Chinatown and Se7en. It’s also a very challenging film. The story is a maze of convoluted twists and turns with no solutions. The photography is sun drenched, but feels somehow devoid of warmth or open spaces. The tension seems to resolve itself, stall, and then roar back to life before dying altogether because, spoiler alert, it’s ultimately meaningless. The movie is all jab and no left hook, but then the bell finally sounds and we realize we’ve just been beaten within an inch of our lives.

By a plaAHHH!

Night Moves was one of a loose collection of films from the early ‘70s, movies that seemed to reflect the escalating paranoia and anxiety that audiences were feeling about the world around them. (Today, we just make louder giant robots.) Gene Hackman starred in three of the best. From 1970-1975, ironically the same years that Arthur Penn took his hiatus, Hackman starred in films like The French Connection, The Conversation (a close thematic cousin to Night Moves, and a great double feature), and this film. His performance is starkly different in each, and equally essential. He was in the spring of his career, and his work in this loose trilogy could rate against the best work of any actor in the history of the movies. He’s that good. His portrayal of Harry Moseby is brash, furious, and occasionally vulnerable. Harry is a fairly unlikable character—a detective who is shitty at his job—but Hackman makes him real. We empathize with Harry when he loses everything: the girl, the case, the man in the plane. We sense that he won’t recover, that this was his chance to become whole, and he blew it.

Protip: Betting against James Woods is always a bad idea.

This downer ending is still remarkably satisfying and one of the all-time greats, often overlooked but no less powerful for its anonymity. The finale acts as a Rosetta stone, the key that deciphers the rest of the film, although it works in reverse. Rather than the ending suddenly making sense of the plot, we are made to realize that, in fact, the plot was never meant to make sense. When I first saw the big reveal, I initially thought that it made perfect sense. Later, I found the holes and tried to piece it together again. I have a working theory of the plot now, but I wouldn’t call it seaworthy. That’s the mad genius behind Penn’s film. It pretends to tell you a secret, but its secret is that there are always more secrets. Those who seek are left to drift, aimless in the currents. To go forward is to go around again and wind up where you started. The only escape is to drown.

If that sounds grim, well then that’s noir. We all remember Humphrey Bogart solving the case of the funny looking dingus, but the best noir stories always played out under a death shroud, as if the characters had glanced up and seen the swords hanging by a string above them. In Out of the Past, Jeff redeems his mistakes, but there’s a price to pay in blood. Mike Hammer works so hard to find the great whatisit in Kiss Me Deadly, but his effort is just so much tinder for the fire.

Night Moves is cut from the same black cloth, but flips it over. Penn and Sharp set Harry Moseby on a case that he’s ill-equipped to solve, and he never stands a chance. The title is a play on words, referring to a series of “knight moves” a great chess champion failed to see, costing him a crucial match. Harry saw the match, replays it on his board, second guesses the chess player, but still fails to see the knights surrounding him. Perhaps he believed he was invulnerable, like the detectives of old. In the ‘40s, Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe would have turned the tables on the table turners. But the year is 1975, the world has changed, and Harry is left to spin circles in the sea.

The Arthur Penn Project

14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)

13. Four Friends (1981)

12. Target (1985)

11. Dead of Winter (1987)

10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)

9. Inside (1996)

8. Alice’s Restaurant (1969)

7. The Chase (1966)

6. The Left Handed Gun (1958)

5. Night Moves (1975)

4. ???

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Kubrick #11 – The Killing (1956)

Even when it all goes right, it still goes wrong.

The Film: Johnny (Sterling Hayden) plans to get out of the heist business, and all he needs is One Last Job. He hatches a plan to steal two million dollars in racetrack money and hires a Mission: Impossible-like team of crooks to pull it off: a sharpshooter, an inside man, a corrupt police officer, and a Soviet wrestler who looks remarkably like Vladimir Putin.

The plan is solid, but frays at the edges. The inside man, George (Elisha Cook, Jr.), has an evil wife with “a dollar sign where her heart should be.” She pries the plan from hapless George, then convinces her lover to swipe the cash as soon as it arrives. The heist succeeds, but the B-heist doesn’t, and pretty much everyone winds up shot. Johnny realizes the plan has collapsed and moves to skip town, but a mishap on the runway scatters his plans literally to the winds. Johnny, resigned, waits for the police to close in as the credits roll.

The Production: Following the modest success of Killer’s Kiss, Stanley Kubrick finally made it to Hollywood. The Killing, an adaptation of Lionel White’s novel, Clean Break, was Kubrick’s first official studio job, with all the packaged benefits and drawbacks. For the first time in his career, Kubrick had a budget (an anemic $320,000) and a big-name actor (Hayden) on board. Union rules, however, prevented Kubrick from exercising his notorious control, forcing him to cede camera duty to cinemtographer Lucien Ballard, a talented lenser who would go on to shoot classics like True Grit and The Wild Bunch. That didn’t stop Kubrick from getting into Ballard’s way repeatedly with “helpful suggestions,” and there was nearly mutiny on set.

“Putin SMASH!!!”

Best Moment: Film noir earned its name, and was often characterized by, the general bleakness of its themes and stories. Like classic tragedy, no matter how hard a noir hero (especially a crooked one) struggles to succeed, an invisible hand intervenes and blocks the hero from his goals. All crimes are punished. You could interpret this as the actions of a moral god at work, and some audiences clearly did. In reality, it was Hollywood’s Hayes Code, an ethics guideline that ensured high moral standards in American film. According to the code, no movie criminal can succeed at crime, ever.

Not even the 1950s power of racism could keep this cop from winning.

This led to a focused pessimism in classic noir as characters struggled and raged against a force literally too big for them to defeat: morality. My favorite example is the noir classic Detour, in which the hero accidentally (really) murders two people and leaves pretty much zero evidence behind. He’s in the clear with 30 seconds to go in the movie, when the police simply arrive and arrest him, with no motivation or evidence. The End.

Johnny suffers a similar fate in The Killing, but it’s handled with considerably more skill. It’s the end of the picture and Johnny has seemingly gotten away with his crime. He’s on the runway, ticket in hand, and his money case is nearly on the plane, but then a series of random elements conspires to take him down. We know that his suitcase has a faulty latch. We see the female passenger and her yappy dog. We see the wind whipping at coats and jackets. Even before it happens, you can see the fatalism in Johnny’s eyes. Despite his near victory, his face still suggests crushing defeat. Moments later, when his money is blown to the winds, Johnny doesn’t even try to run. He knows his plight is hopeless. After all, it’s noir.

Lasting Impact: It gave Kubrick a career. While the studio balked at the finished film and buried it in a double-feature with Robert Mitchum’s Bandido, audiences who saw The Killing realized that it was the better of the two pictures. Actor Kirk Douglas took notice and brought Kubrick onto his new war picture, Paths of Glory. That worked out OK.

Yes, dude’s carrying a puppy at a gun range. Why? I don’t know.

Overall: I have a rule of thumb with heist movies that never fails. If the audience doesn’t know how the heroes plan to pull off their robbery, it will go off like a charm. When the heroes outline each step of the process in detail, well, that’s when you worry. The Killing pulls this trick on its audience twice. The heist plan is laid out in detail and goes predictably awry, but then Johnny executes his backup plan and nearly gets away a second time until fate (played here by a yappy dog) executes a Rube Goldberg device to beat him. Poor Johnny, if only he’d kept his plans to himself.

The Killing wasn’t the first heist movie, or the first movie to sympathize with criminals, but The Killing is one of the first films to execute its robbery with such precision, and its modern grandchildren (the Ocean’s Eleven series, or even The Dark Knight) owe it a huge thanks.

I’ve read descriptions of The Killing that describe it as “economical.” That’s a kind way of saying “cheap,” which it was. Kubrick’s second straight go at noir had an higher budget, although one still below the going rate, and corners were cut so tight that the film almost rolls over (ba-dum-bum.) It’s only the film’s experimental approach, and Kubrick’s attention to detail, that keep it on the road.

At first look, The Killing seems like any other pessimist crime drama about characters who wear their fedoras down low and spit zingers through clenched teeth, but the film is surprisingly innovative and unique for its time. Kubrick plays with storytelling conventions here, to promising results. A lot has been written about the way The Killing picks through the timeline, showing whichever scene delivers the most dramatic impact at that moment, and then jumping forward or backward in the robbery, looking for the next big punch.

Pictured: moments before the Joker’s bus busts through the wall.

It’s a great idea, but the movie only holds together thanks to an impartial newsreel-like announcer that informs the audience of exactly when and where they are, a gimmick that adds more than perhaps intended. What may have been simple logistics transforms into a sage doomsayer of sorts. Like the then-popular Dragnet, the officious voice foreshadows a final, unhappy fate for the characters and contributes to the feeling of grim inevitability that drips from every frame. Function turns into form.

When I watch The Killing, I can’t help but get wrapped up in the fate of these sad sack characters. They each have their own petty dramas and obligatory backstory — one owes money to a loan shark, another wants to retire from the criminal life — but Elisha Cook, Jr. (the “gunsel” from The Maltese Falcon) nearly steals the movie with his pathetic pursuit to please his manipulative wife, to validate their marriage. He defines himself by the very idea that this woman would love him, refusing to believe what everyone else sees plainly; she’s no good and she’ll bring him a bad end.

This attention to character is an unusual trait for a Kubrick film. The director was often criticized for favoring the visuals or the metaphors over the people in his work, but here he’s downright chummy with Johnny and his gang. The only hint of his usual cynicism comes from the (mostly unintelligable) mouth of wrestler Kola Kwariani. I’ve linked his scene (one of the film’s most famous) below.

For those who had a hard time understanding him, and that would be all of you, he actually says:

“You have not yet learned that in this life you have to be like everyone else – the perfect mediocrity; no better, no worse. Individuality’s a monster and it must be strangled in it’s cradle to make our friends feel confident. You know, I’ve often thought that the gangster and the artist are the same in the eyes of the masses. They are admired and hero-worshipped, but there is always present an underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory.”

The Killing is happy to oblige.

The Stanley Kubrick Project

10. ???

11. The Killing

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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Kubrick #12 – Killer’s Kiss (1955)

Kubrick didn’t burn this one, so there’s that.

The Film: Hard-luck palooka Davy (Jamie Smith) takes his latest embarrassing defeat as a sign from the boxing god that it’s time to pack his stuff and move to a new life in the Pacific Northwest. His only roadblock is Gloria (Irene Kane), his neighbor and a dancer for mobster Rapallo (played with a vague ethnic menace by Fear and Desire‘s Frank Silvera.) Davy spies Rapallo making an unwelcome pass at Gloria, thuds across the street to save the day, then hugs and makes nice with the mobster, meaning, of course, that Rapallo immediately orders his men to murder Davy. A case of mistaken identity leaves another man dead in Davy’s place and lands Gloria back in Rapallo’s custody where, since Rapallo’s team is beginning to look like the safest bet, she realigns herself with her former boss and ditches Davy. Davy flees across the New York skyline, leading Rapallo inside a mannequin factory where the men kick each other in the teeth until Davy wins. Davy soon returns to Plan A and tries to make the train to Seattle, but Gloria suddenly appears at the train station and the happy couple share a (killer’s?) kiss.

Pictured: totally not a metaphor

The Production: Stanley Kubrick’s experience on Fear and Desire could have sent him back to still photography for the rest of his natural life, but the young director wasted no time in getting his shit together back on the horse. This time, Kubrick wisely shed Desire‘s layers of message and metaphor for a straightforward page-turner about lust, murder, and, not insignificantly, boxing. Kubrick set the production up right by working within a marketable genre, tightening the story to three primary characters, and using real world locations close to his home in New York. He also focused the story around boxing, a sport he had extensive experience shooting for both Look magazine and his own short A Day at the Fight.

“Which one of these is the %*#^& bathroom!?”

Kubrick shot Killer’s Kiss as a guerrilla operation, filming in alleyways and rooftops without insurance or permits. He shot footage from moving vehicles and negotiated with vagrants to stay out of his frame, at least until he had his shot. After a new round of sound troubles, Kubrick fired his audio crew and filmed silently. This accidentally doubled the budget as a soundtrack was painstakingly laid in and actress Irene Kane, unavailable to dub her role, had her voice replaced by actress Peggy Lobbin.

Best Moment: Killer’s Kiss is a blatant attempt at film noir, already a dying genre in 1955, and by then a very easy one to imitate. In other words, Kubrick didn’t have to try very hard. A murder here, a femme fatale there, cut, print, and go home early. But right in the middle of the film, Killer’s Kiss takes a time-out to explore a moment of actual cinematic beauty.

Davy has just rescued Gloria from the evil Rapallo and the two decide to share back stories. Davy runs through his quickly, but Gloria spins a long and sad tale about her sister, a ballerina who defied their overbearing father to pursue her dream onstage, a dream that was cut tragically short when the father got sick. Gloria’s sister abandoned her career to return home and watch over him, dying early having never accomplished her dreams. Gloria hints at a link between the sisters, that dancing reminds Gloria of her sister in all the wrong ways, and that she hates herself for doing it while finding it nearly impossible to walk away.


The standard move would have been to linger on Gloria during the speech to drain maximum emotional currency from the scene, but instead Kubrick tells the entire tale while focused on a ballerina, presumably Gloria’s sister, dancing. It’s an effective moment, and one almost too awesome for the movie it belongs to.

Lasting Impact: Negligible. Killer’s Kiss hit the right beats in the proper order and rated as an inexpensive, but possibly profitable, buy for a distributor. And thus, Kubrick scored his first major sale and finally opened the Hollywood doors for himself. The film, however, is mostly forgotten and rarely appears on any list of the director’s best.

Overall: I’ve always looked at Killer’s Kiss as a humble film, a movie that proved Stanley Kubrick was paying attention to the greater world he was working hard to enter. This isn’t always the case for young directors, especially the talented ones. For every respectful, intelligent up-and-comer, there are a dozen Troy Duffys, seething with ego and entitlement while choking on their own talent. These are the guys who think they are beyond the system or, worse, that they are the system now, and when they can’t cut it, they wind up on the outside, frothing and blaming the people inside for their exclusion.

“Oh, Jack, you’re my only friend.”

Kubrick dodged that. He was obviously talented; anyone could see it. Of course, then, he made Fear and Desire, a movie constructed for the sole purpose of announcing his arrival to the planet. But the film didn’t work, it didn’t resonate, and unlike so many filmmakers in his position, Kubrick seemed to get that. He retreated, thought through his mistakes, then returned to make a movie that people actually wanted to see. Killer’s Kiss was, if absolutely nothing else, commercial. When the time was right, Francis Ford Coppola made a little gangster picture. Kubrick made a noir.

Selling out? Not a chance, because Kubrick didn’t compromise. As I see it, the mark of a truly great filmmaker is the ability to work within a genre and to make it his or her own. Kubrick did so. I’ve already talked about the ballet sequence, but the movie is littered with great little bits, from the gloomy alley murder to the Freudian nightmare battle between Davy and Rapallo in the mannequin factory.

Unfortunately, these great moments don’t really bring the film together. Killer’s Kiss is still a bit of an amateur effort, with lighting and sound issues that show the strings but still lend a clunky charm to the proceedings. There’s some interest here for the serious Kubrick nuts, but as Kubrick himself described it: “While Fear and Desire had been a serious effort, ineptly done, Killer’s Kiss…proved, I think, to be a frivolous effort done with conceivably more expertise…”

The Stanley Kubrick Project

11. ???

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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