Buried Treasures, Hidden Gems: Cops And Robbers
Movies Due For a Revisit…
It’s probably just the warped perspective of a faulty memory and nostalgia, but I seem to recall when stories about people who perpetrate crimes and people who pursue them were one of the most common kinds of thrillers. They came in all shapes and sizes, from the near-abstract (Point Blank, 1967)to an almost cinema verite grittiness (The French Connection, 1971); from the comic (The Hot Rock, 1972)to hard-as-nails cold-heartedness (Thief, 1981); from those that grappled with the issues of the day beyond the usual criminal mayhem (In the Heat of the Night, 1967), to those that were near-existential in their worldviews (Chinatown, 1974). There were stories that came from the street (Mean Streets, 1973)to the uppermost levels of the criminal (The Godfather, 1972)and law enforcement hierarchy (Serpico, 1973).
My point is there was a steady stream of them, for a while anyway, and in a variety offering something for every taste (or for those who had a taste for everything). But over the last twenty-thirty years or so, we do seem to have lost our appetite for them. Maybe the rise of the superhero movie with caped crusaders of all sorts usurping the crime fighter role from street cops made them more or less obsolete.
Oh, every once in a while, someone gets a hunger for the way the cops & criminal game used to be played; life-sized, plausible (more or less), something that (and maybe this was the buzz generator in them) could happen in the same universe we live in. I’m thinking Narc (2002), The Irishman (2019), Heist (2001)… They’re out there still, but they tend to come off the indie circuit rather than mainstream releases from the majors. When something does come out from a major, it tends to be some over-the-top affair like Smokin’ Aces (2006) or 3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) or a Lethal Weapon (1987)/Beverly Hills Cop (1984) clone or a Guy Ritchie bizarro-fest (don’t get me wrong; they can be fun, but let’s face it; they’re comic book crime stories).
With such a rich vein extending from that boom time in the 1960s-1970s and weaving in and out of glitzier, more spectacular thrillers to today, inevitably some Old School crime/cop flicks have been overlooked or crowded out of the marketplace, or maybe people just didn’t “get” what the film was doing. You hear crime meller, you go in thinking punch-outs, shoot-outs, a body count, and instead, you get a mood piece where someone is pondering the value of their existence. That’s going to be you running for a train running east and accidentally catching one running west; a mismatch.
Because this is my favorite category, it’s going to take us two visits to get through this list of what I always thought were nifty flicks about characters on either side of the law that deserved a better box office fate than they got (in my opinion), and that you might find provide you with something a bit different from what dominates the usual multiplex marquee.
Electra Glide in Blue (1973)
d. James William Guercio
w. Robert Boris, story by Rupert Hitzig
John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) is a motorcycle cop and along with his buddy Zipper (Billy “Green” Bush), they patrol a lonely stretch of desert highway on their Harley Electra Glides (hence the movie’s title), handing out tickets for this and that, hassling the occasional longhair. But Wintergreen’s ambitions are bigger than his partner’s whose big dream is to blow a wad on a chrome-drenched, pimped-out Harley. Wintergreen wants out from that “elephant under my ass” to wear a fine suit, shiny boots, an expensive Stetson, and use his brain as a detective. He gets his chance when he correctly deduces an apparent suicide as a murder and is taken under the wing of hot-shot homicide detective Harve Poole (Mitchell Ryan). But this is the 1970s and things never work out well; Wintergreen will come to find that his heroes, his friends, and his ambitions are – as he tells one of his fallen idols – “full of horseshit.”
The plot is a bit slim, at times underwritten, but Electra Glide works less like a mystery or even a drama than as a tone and character piece, carried by Blake’s wonderful performance (at the time, there was talk of a possible Oscar nomination until the movie crashed and burned at the box office, but the film still managed a nomination for Cannes’ Palme d’Or) and Conrad Hall’s breathtaking cinematography; Electra Glide is easily one of the most pictorially beautiful movies you’ll ever see (I’m not sure even a big screen TV will do it justice). If you Google up posters for the movie, it’s clear United Artists was completely at a loss as to how to market the film. Poster images range from making it look like an action thriller to noirish brooding, but they never understood what they had. My thinking is it was an art-house movie before there was much of an art house circuit, and that damned it.
There’s an interesting behind-the-scenes story to the movie. Director James William Guercio, who prior was the producer for the rock band Chicago (a lot of members of the band appear in the film and also perform on the movie’s impressive score), pretty much commandeered the movie away from producer Rupert Hitzig, but one does wonder how much the movie owes to Guercio. It looks great, it sounds great, there’s good actors doing fine work…but Guercio never directed another film. Point to ponder.
d. John Dahl
w. David Levien, Brian Koppelman
Matt Damon is Mike McDermott, a Texas Hold ’Em ace who has never quite gotten over being gutted by shady Teddy KGB (a creepy John Malkovich) in a club game, but who has decided to put his “rounding” days behind him and is now a law school student. But old buddy Worm (Edward Norton) shows up, just out of prison, owing a ton to thuggish Grama (Michael Rispoli), and looking to Mike to help him out by getting back on the poker circuit.
Worm is one of those ball-busting, can’t-keep-their-mouths-shut-when-they-really-need-to old friends cloning Robert De Niro’s screw-loose Johnny Boy from Scorsese’s Mean Streets. By the time of Rounders, the character type was already a too-familiar plot device to derail a guy trying to go straight. Still, like grandpa used to say, whaddaya gonna do? It may be a creaky hinge, but it still swings.
Damon nicely captures someone torn between a tribal loyalty to his friend, his commitment to his fellow law student lady friend (Gretchen Mohl in bit of a thankless role), and trying to defy his own nature. Worm may be a bad influence but he’s right about one thing; at heart, Mike isn’t a law student, he’s not even very good at a relationship. The only place where he’s a natural fit is at the poker table in a return bout with Teddy KGB.
John Dahl is one of those directors who should’ve had a better career. With Kill Me Again (1989), Red Rock West (1993) and The Last Seduction (1994), he looked like the new torchbearer for neo-noir, but despite critical buzz those flicks never clicked at the box office. Rounders should’ve turned things around; not since The Cincinnati Kid (1965) have I seen anybody as able to turn a card game into edge-of-seat suspense as Dahl does here, and he also does a fine job of capturing the grubby world of underground poker clubs. Why this movie never caught on I’ll never know, but it’s another fine neo-noir from Dahl.
FYI I had the great good fortune to interview Dahl back in 2010. His affinity for noirs came from – as I wrote then – the attractiveness of “…the form’s trademark moral ambiguity/ambivalence. Right and wrong were rarely clear, even less rarely constant,” and that signature runs through Rounders. “That kind of moral complexity, says Dahl, is hard to find today in a movie mainstream dominated by big budget action-driven movies targeting a young audience…‘Movies have become more of a thrill ride and a spectacle’.”
Road Games (1981) aka Roadgames
d. Richard Franklin
w. Everett De Roche, original story by Richard Franklin
That Richard Franklin was, at the time, considered the Australian Hitchcock was truer than Down Under reviewers at the time knew. Franklin had been inspired to get into filmmaking by a viewing as a kid of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and Road Games was a deliberate attempt to transfer the voyeuristic dynamics of Rear Window (1954) to the lonely highways of the country’s Outback.
Stacy Keach is Quid, a long-haul trucker carrying sides of pork cross-country to Perth. Quid fancies himself something of a poet of the road, well-read, always in heavy conversation with his pet dingo Boswell. Percolating in the background are radio reports of a serial killer. Quid crosses paths several times with a van he begins to suspect may be connected to the killings. He picks up a young, pretty hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) he nicknames “Hitch,” (another salute to ol’ Alfred) and the two of them begin to speculate about the driver of the van who keeps popping up on Quid’s route. As their suspicions gain more weight… Ahh, well, don’t want to give too much away.
I stumbled across the movie accidentally on cable some years ago and what held me then is what I find so delightful now: its deliberate, slow accumulation of suspicions, possibilities, and for much of the movie, an element of doubt: is Quid on to something or has he just been on the road too long? There are points where the movie seems to lean one way…but then veers toward the other.
Keach and Curtis play nicely off each other for most of the movie an acting duet, the Australian backcountry setting is refreshingly unique, and Franklin and De Roche do deliciously keep you guessing.
Despite mostly positive reviews (and it’s even more well thought of today gauging by Rotten Tomatoes), the movie bombed both in Australia and here at the time of its theatrical release. It may not be Rear Window, but it’s a fun echo of it.
Killing Them Softly (2012)
w./d. Andrew Dominik based on the George V. Higgins novel, Cogan’s Trade.
Full disclosure: I’m biased. I’m a huge George V. Higgins fan and have been since I saw the 1973 close adaptation of his first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Higgins was famous for his dialogue which he perfected listening to surveillance tapes of Boston hoods during his time as an assistant district attorney in the city. Higgins not only mastered the sound of street guys, but the mentality, the worldview, the distorted morality of their arbitrary “rules.” But it is his dialogue – a kind of street hood music – that has always been his signature, and which fills this movie.
Brad Pitt is Cogan, a mob enforcer hired to deal with the robbery of an underground high-stakes poker game. But nothing in this crooked universe ever moves along straight lines. Violence spreads out from that single act like fallout from an atomic blast falling on pawns, players, and bystanders with equal lethality, with Cogan periodically philosophizing – often in Higgins’ lyrically profane and immoral prose — on the nature of what he does with the tweedy middleman (Richard Jenkins) who is his pipeline to the larger organization. All of this takes place against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis.
I could give you the tone of the movie in the speech which closes the movie when Cogan is told by Jenkins’ character that some of his promised payment is going to be held back. The two are in a bar, on the TV Barack Obama is delivering his election speech. Cogan:
“My friend, Jefferson’s an American saint because he wrote the words, ‘All men are created equal.’ Words he clearly didn’t believe, since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He was a rich wine snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So yeah, he wrote some lovely words and aroused the rabble, and they went out and died for those words, while he sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community. Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.”
Dominik and Pitt had previously worked together on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), and like that film, Killing Them Softly was a critics favorite but not so much with audiences. Killing Them… may not be as electrically visceral as Scorsese’s mob pics, having the more reflective rhythm and tangled cross-plotting texture of The Sopranos (the film has echoes of both with its cast including James Gandolfini and Vincent Curatola from Sopranos as well as Goodfellas’  Ray Liotta). But Pitt heads up one of the most colorful gallery of screen rogues since Sopranos, andthe violence manages – even in this day and age – to shock.
Flesh and Bone (1993)
w./d. Steve Kloves
When I first saw Steve Kloves’ name showing up as the adapter of most of the Harry Potter films, I shook my head wondering if it was the same Steve Kloves. It’s a mark of his versatility that he could turn out something like the bittersweet The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), this moody Texas noir, and the Potters.
Dennis Quaid is Arlis, a man haunted by his childhood involvement in the mass murder of a family perpetrated by his home-invading dad (scary-eyed James Caan). Now he tools around the Texas back country servicing his business of vending machines and arcade games, living out of motels, eating in roadside eateries. When he does a good deed taking Kay, the pretty young thing that popped out of a cake at a party and then passed out, back to her house, he stumbles into a domestic dispute between her and her partner and winds up taking Kay back to his home base motel. But then dear ol’ dad shows up, peppered with buckshot from a caper gone back, accompanied by his grifting young girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow). Caan comes to the same realization that Quaid has already begun to suspect: that Kay was the baby who survived that mass killing all those years ago, and Daddy Caan cannot abide even the possibility that she ever could/possibly/might be a threat to him.
While the plot hangs on a number of coincidental crossing of paths, like Baker Boys, Flesh and Bone is more of a combination of character study and mood piece, and Kloves – as he’d already proved with his first film – is a master of mood. The Texas backcountry becomes a near-empty place with damaged people drifting here and there, rootless, some hungry for connection but defeated by their own inner wounds, others prowling the roads like sharks.
Flesh and Bone received the proverbial “mixed reviews” when it came out, and some considered it a disappointment after the romance-with-an-edge of The Fabulous Baker Boys. It’s not a crowd pleaser, it demands a bit of patience and a taste for texture over a driving plot. I suppose one way to look at it as the characters of Flesh and Bone could easily inhabit the same Texas universe as those of No Country for Old Men (2007) without missing a dramatic beat.
I always thought it was a shame Kloves never directed another film. Maybe some day.
As I’m writing this, I see a certain consistency between Flesh and Bone, Electra Glide in Blue, and Road Games, a kind of road hypnosis, the attraction – and the quiet threat – of the open road. The lesson here: never travel the back roads without your GPS, a full tank of gas, an air-filled spare, and no matter what, for God’s sake, don’t ever stop.