Movies Due For A Revisit
In our last look at unjustly forgotten or skimmed over films, we spent a lot of our time on long ribbons of two-lane blacktop stretching across backcountry, seemingly empty lands that still managed to conceal the most lethal of threats. But those threats were intimate, one-on-one, and carried out off in the Great Nowhere. Even in Rounders (1998) and Killing Them Softly (2012), we were confined to seedy little private gambling clubs populated by low-rent hoods; an invisible demimonde, a universe as alien to us as the Australian Outback or desert highways.
But this time around…
The Sugarland Express (1974)
d. Steven Spielberg
w. Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, story by Steven Spielberg
When people write about the career of Steven Spielberg, his 1971 made-for-TV movie Duel usually gets some nice attention as the first major showcase of his talent, then there’s a perfunctory mention of The Sugarland Express before jumping to the biggie: Jaws (1975).
Look, I get it. Spielberg’s been on the Universal lot paying his dues directing routine episodes for network drama series like Marcus Welby, M.D. and Columbo, but Duel was a hey-who’s-this-kid? the moment for him, and, of course, Jaws not only provided his career breakout, but – along with Star Wars two years later – began the biggest reshaping of the American motion picture industry since the collapse of the old studio system. The nuclear glow from those two career milestones has always blotted out poor Sugarland and that’s a shame because the storytelling and craftsmanship in that film are as good as anything else in Spielberg’s oeuvre, and I would argue the dramatic content and moral complexity of the movie has got more meat to it than that of Jaws. That Spielberg managed all this with a veteran’s sure hand is all the more remarkable in that he was only twenty-six at the time and had never directed a big screen feature before.
Spielberg had come across the true story of a young couple in Texas, both petty felons, who after capturing a highway patrolman, led police on an O.J. sort of slow-motion chase for hours across the state in an attempt to visit their two kids who were living with their grandparents. The chase snowballed with as many as 150 police cars in the caravan and became a national media event. Working with his screenwriters, Spielberg expanded the hours-long event into a two-day pursuit, softened the characters, and then persuaded producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown to let him use the piece as his feature film debut. No doubt the wonders Spielberg had done with Duel helped persuade Zanuck/Brown that this ambitious kid could handle the complex logistics inherent in the piece. But could he do the drama?
Shooting episodic TV can be a near-thankless endeavor for a director. The recurring characters and their dynamics are already set, the director rarely has much input into the script. But a one-off, like Duel, can give a director a platform on which to strut his/her stuff. If Duel showed what Spielberg could do visually with nothing more than a tanker truck, a car, one actor (Dennis Weaver) and a lot of empty highways, Spielberg’s contribution to the TV anthology movie Night Gallery (1969) showed he was just as good with performers as he was with the camera. Night Gallery (which would later be spun into a weekly series) consisted of three short stories of the supernatural written by Rod Serling. Spielberg directed the shortest of the three, “Eyes,” a tense little drama about a bitter, blind millionairess (Joan Crawford) who blackmails a doctor (Barry Sullivan) into performing an illicit operation which will grant her just a few hours of sight but at the expense of the donor’s vision. Spielberg’s visual flair is second to the then twenty-three-year-old’s ability to guide two Old Hollywood veterans to rich, textured performances. Said Joan Crawford of her experience at the time: “It was immediately obvious to me, and probably everyone else, that here was a young genius.”
Goldie Hawn is Lou Jean Poplin, a petty felon judged an unfit mother and whose toddler son has been taken away and placed in a foster home in the Sugar Land community (no, I don’t know why the real place is written as two words and the title as one). To get her son back, Lou Jean coaxes her husband – another petty felon – into escaping from pre-release even though he only has a short time left on his sentence. They stumble into an encounter with a state trooper (Michael Sacks) and using him as a hostage, head for Sugar Land, attracting a fleet of police officers from all over the state (and from out of state) in the process. Trying to keep the whole affair from descending into violent chaos is state police captain Tanner (Ben Johnson). As the slow-rolling pursuit moves through the state, it gains major media attention, and the Poplins pass through small towns where they’re viewed as folk heroes.
Although the film was greeted with generally positive reviews, a few slammed The Sugarland Express for the very thing that I think showed Spielberg’s surprisingly mature dramatic dexterity: a gradual and believable shifting of tone from the lightly comic to something a bit darker and eventually to a dread feeling of unavoidable and inevitable tragedy.
Hawn, at the time trying to prove her dramatic chops, was justly praised for her performance as the dogged if short-sighted Lou Jean, Atherton is just as good as the pliant husband who, at some point, sees this can’t end well but can’t bring himself to buck his wife, and Sacks, as the young cop who sees the inevitable more clearly than either of his captors, fills out a perfect trio.
As for Ben Johnson, Spielberg finds in that weathered, craggy face the quiet angst of a man pulled in one direction by the obligations of his badge, and the realization that what he’s dealing with are “…just a coupla kids.” It’s a wonderful performance of subtle pain and resignation.
The climax of the movie – a last, desperate dash for the Mexican border – is Spielberg at his best: a perfect blend of visceral exhilaration, visual excitement, and heartbreak, pulse-poundingly supported by John Williams’ emotionally ascending score. This was Spielberg’s first collaboration with the composer, and Williams’ often quiet, rustic score for Sugarland is an impressive shift away from the big-sounding brassy tracks he’s done for so many blockbusters.
The movie did make some money, but it obviously wasn’t the box office thunderclap Jaws was. Still, you’d be doing yourself a favor by taking a ride on The Sugarland Express.
Prime Cut (1972)
d. Michael Ritchie
w. Robert Dillon
For a while there – the late 1960s into the 1970s – Michael Ritchie looked to be becoming one of American cinema’s foremost social commentators. He deglamorized Olympic sports with his feature film debut, Downhills Racer (1969), took on the packaging of political candidates in one of his most memorable – and, sadly, still relevant – films, The Candidate (1972), delivered an acidic take on suburban mores and the bullshit therein with Smile (1975), took on the dark side of kids’ sports in his biggest hit, The Bad News Bears (1976 – that dark side being parents), and then went after America’s addiction to self-help philosophies and all that bullshit therein with Semi-Tough (1977).
But early on in that string, sticking out like a Hell’s Angel in a Disney parade, is a hardball of a gangster thriller, Prime Cut. And while at first glance the flick seems out of character for what Ritchie was turning out at the time, look a little closer and you can see his signature socio-political pin-pricking at work.
Lee Marvin is Nick Devlin, an enforcer for the Chicago Mob, sent along with a posse of rookie hoods to Kansas City to college a long overdue debt from Mary Ann (Gene Hackman), whose meat-packing business is a front for his criminal enterprises including sex trafficking. Devlin comes demanding the money, Mary Ann refuses to pay, and you can pretty much guess the arc of escalating violence from there.
While the overall plot configuration is hardly novel, what gives the movie its electric snap is what today I suppose we would describe as a graphic novel kind of sensibility: characters with bizarre names, macabre imagery (one of the most disturbing images in the film is that of young, naked girls, doped-up and on display in animal pens as buyers peruse Mary Ann’s goods as if they were at a cattle auction), and a fun comic book hierarchy of morality among the hoodlum community (the Chicago Mob are “good” bad guys, while crude, brutal, flesh-peddling Mary Ann is a “bad” bad guy).
And while we weren’t thinking in terms of Red States and Blue States in those days, Ritchie together with Robert Dillon’s screenplay captures the City v. Farm Country divide that makes the film seem even more relevant today in graphic novel terms: suited Chicago mobsters shooting it out with blond farmer types in overalls banging away with shotguns.
But Ritchie – whom no one would ever mistake for an action director – delivers on the cathartic thrills, too, the best being a duel between a Cadillac limousine and a hay baler, and Devlin punching through Mary Ann’s defenses by crashing a semi into a massive greenhouse.
I’m not making any kind of case that this is a lost crime story classic, but it’s as fun as the genre gets, delivered with some unique spins by Ritchie and Dillon. No ground around here, but some FDA choice Prime Cut.
w./d. Michael Mann, based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.
Before author Thomas Harris, aided and abetted by Hollywood, turned the character of Hannibal Lecter into a franchise milked until there was nothing left but a withered husk, Lecter was only a supporting – if intriguing – character in Harris’ novel, Red Dragon.
The novel – only Harris’ second – was a change of pace for the author. His first modestly successful novel, Black Sunday, was an entertaining if mechanical thriller about a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl which, in 1977, was turned into an entertaining if mechanical big-screen thriller. But with his more successful and well-reviewed Red Dragon, Harris explored psychological fears rather than the visceral ones of Black Sunday in a suspenser about the pursuit of a serial killer – the Tooth Fairy – who doesn’t kill individuals but massacres entire families in an effort to make real a fantasy of self-actualization.
To nail down the procedural aspects of the story, Harris sat in on classes and interviewed FBI agents at the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico, Virginia. The killers featured in his novel – the Tooth Fairy and Lecter – were composites of real-life serial killers which gave Harris’ storytelling, when combined with his FBI-related research, an appropriately queasy authenticity.
Legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis picked up the movie rights with an eye toward having David Lynch direct (would’ve been something to see what Lynch, with his affinity for the outre, would’ve done with this material!), but Lynch passed feeling the content was too grotesque even for him (this from the guy who, two years later, would turn out Blue Velvet  – go figure). The directorial and adaptation chores went to Michael Mann. An intense, deep-thinking filmmaker with an obsessive hunger for authenticity and layered storytelling, as well as a hell of a cinematic eye, Mann would turn out to be the perfect choice to translate Harris’ psychological thriller to the screen.
Will Graham (William Petersen) is a retired FBI profiler. His gift for being able to get inside a serial killer’s thinking had gotten him so buried in “…the worst thoughts you can imagine,” he suffered a breakdown and subsequently left the Bureau. But then agent Crawford (Mann favorite and one-time real-life Chicago PD detective Dennis Farina) comes to him to emotionally arm twist Graham into coming back for one more case: the Tooth Fairy (Thomas Noonan). To get the mindset back, Graham visits Hannibal Lecter, a serial killer he helped put away and is now held in maximum security in a mental hospital. Lecter teases Graham with the possibility of help and amuses himself poking at Graham’s still sensitive psychological wounds. As Graham races to stop the Tooth Fairy from slaughtering another family, he tries to walk the line between working the case and, again, falling into that abyss of “worst thoughts.”
Mann’s adaptation streamlines Harris’ novel a bit, but generally stays pretty close to the source material, even to much of the dialogue. But what makes Manhunter stand out from the usual chase-the-bizarre-killer entry is his execution: unnaturally regimented compositions, pastel colors that emotionally “code” characters and scenes, an alt-rock soundtrack, and subtle, low-key performances. All those elements – visual and aural – create a sense of unease, of a world somehow, subtly not right, bringing the viewer into a psychological battleground of mindfuckers and the mindfucked.
It is because Mann so well creates a headspace where the usual moral rules don’t apply that he even manages, at certain moments, to create an almost-sympathy for Francis Dollarhyde; the Tooth Fairy. Emotionally alienated from the people around him, Dollarhyde finally makes a connection with a blind co-worker (Joan Allen). But one night when he stops by to see her, he mistakes a gesture by the man who drove her home as something else. Mann gives us what Dollarhyde’s warped mind sees, and Noonan’s performance in that moment deftly manages a mix of the pain of every schoolboy’s thwarted crush with psychotic distortion and terrifying vindictiveness.
It’s fun to compare Manhunter with Jonathan Demme’s comparatively more naturalistic approach to the adaptation of Red Dragon’s sequel, Silence of the Lambs (1991). Probably the biggest delineator is the portrayal of Lecter. In Silence, Anthony Hopkins gives an Oscar-winning, fun performance, but it’s much showier – an obvious performance – than Brian Cox’s quiet, silky, deceptively innocuous portrayal in Manhunter (supposedly, Cox based his performance, at least in part, on his fifteen-year-old son). I suppose the best way to make my point is when I show compare-and-contrast scenes to my film appreciation and screenwriting classes and ask the question, “If you were looking for a doctor and you got to sit with each of these guys, which one would you feel comfortable with treating you?”, almost universally, they agree Hopkins’ Lecter gives them the creeps from the outset, while what unsettles them about Cox’s Lecter sneaks up on them. Cox does (in my view) as much with a simple statement like, “Dream much, Will?” aimed at Graham’s unhealed psyche than Hopkins does with that (in)famous “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chi-AYN-ti” line.
The best example of Mann’s visual muscle (and another striking comparison with Demme’s vision) is Graham’s only face-to-face meeting with Lecter. Lecter is held in isolation, his cell – even down to the bars – colored in white on white with even Lecter dressed in white. The unnatural bleakness of the visual tickles the viewer’s mind in an unpleasant way. In Silence, in contrast, Lecter is kept in what looks more like a medieval dungeon.
Extrapolating from these examples throughout both movies I would argue (keeping in mind this is purely a matter of subjective taste) that Demme’s movie is the more fun of the two, but Mann’s is the smarter, slyer, more stylistically adventurous one.
And then there’s William Petersen, who shows how effectively small you can play inner torture, making the point without showboating histrionics. He also manages a moment I’ve rarely seen an actor pull off. Graham is looking at home movies of the two murdered families trying to figure out how the Tooth Fairy chose his victims…and then it comes to him. I watch this moment over and over because you can see the realization crystallize in Petersen’s face. Mann is such a strikingly visual director I don’t think he gets enough credit for the performances he draws out of his actors.
So, what happened to Manhunter? Well, it took hits from several flanks. De Laurentiis’ company was having financial problems which led to weak marketing support, the initial reviews were mixed, often calling it an exercise of style over substance (not recognizing that, in this case, the style is part of the substance), and, frankly, I’m not sure the general audience plugged into what Mann was doing. The movie wasn’t a complete flop, but the returns were – in that favorite word of the movie trade – “disappointing.” And then, of course, the blockbuster success of Silence of the Lambs seemed to erase any remaining memory that there’d been a predecessor five years before.
Interestingly, when Demme’s movie came out, I do remember a number of reviewers, while praising Demme’s take, thought Manhunter was the better film, and the latter’s critical standing has risen with time. Today, on Rotten Tomatoes, both movies have an almost equal standing among critics: 93% positive for Manhunter, 95% for Silence of the Lambs. That Manhunter is the more demanding, less viscerally-appealing watch, however, shows up in the audience reviews: 77% vs. 95%.
After the breakout Oscar-winning success of Silence, Thomas Harris began turning out Hannibal novels which veered further and further from the authenticity of Red Dragon into the realms of super-villaindom, each the basis of equally out-there (and justifiably critically hammered) movies: Hannibal (2001) and Hannibal Rising (2007).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Manhunter remake Red Dragon (2002) which was about as blatantly mercenary as Hollywood gets. After milking the popularity of Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter in Hannibal, there being no other Hannibal novels at the time, Hollywood went back to the well with Red Dragon, an almost line-for-line remake of Manhunter except delivered with characteristic stylelessness by director Brett Ratner, but with the Lecter part beefed up to give Hopkins and his showy Lecter more screen time.
Don’t waste your time. Hunt down Manhunter and you’ll see the seeds of every serial killer-hunting movie and TV series that’s come down the Hollywood pike since…but after you watch the original, you’ll realize they’re all just copycat killers.
Layer Cake (2005)
d. Matthew Vaughn
w. J. J. Connolly, adapted from his novel.
I’ve been a big fan of British crime movies ever since I caught The Long Good Friday (1980) when it jumped The Pond and introduced us Colonials to that fireplug of an actor, Bob Hoskins (I still remember Gene Siskel, in his thumbs-up review, describing the short but formidable Hoskins as looking like “a suit full of bowling balls”). Since then, while most American crime films seemed to fall into the categories of Scorsese, Scorsese clones, and flyweight heist flicks, our Brit cousins have kept up a steady stream of hardboiled, ruthless, blackhearted portraits of a decidedly unglamorous underworld which makes American noir look like a sunny day in the park.
I’m thinking movies like Gangster No. 1 (2000), The Krays (1990), and maybe the noiriest noir ever, Get Carter (1971). Inject romance and it was, at best, bittersweet (The Crying Game ) or just bitter (Mona Lisa ). Play it for laughs, as in Guy Ritchie’s crime flicks i.e. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Snatch (2000), et al., and even then there was always hovering over the proceedings the threat of violence (often grotesque) and real lethality; Ritchie’s laughs always came with a body count.
Brit crime seems to come across The Pond to us in waves. A breakout flick – like Get Carter, The Long Good Friday, Animal Kingdom, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – sparks a surge in the appetite for our UK cousins’ particular brand of mayhem, eventually subsiding until the next breakout. I think one of the biggest surge kick-offs was Sexy Beast (2000) which generated gallons of ink in the trade press thanks to a screen-searing performance by Ben Kingsley as a sewer-mouthed thug who psychologically, emotionally, and physically bullies retired thief Ray Winstone into one more job.
I’d gotten a feeling from some of the initial write-ups on Layer Cake that it was looked at as the next surge sparker, taking the baton from Sexy Beast with a story and characters which could easily exist in the earlier film’s universe, but it never quite generated the same attention. Maybe it was because it didn’t have the same star power in the lead with a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig instead of an Oscar-winner, and particularly an Oscar-winner doing a 180 degree turn from the kind of saintly role (in Gandhi ) that had won him the statuette (how Kingsley didn’t grab a second Oscar for Sexy Beast I’ll never know although he was nominated). Maybe it was that mushy title. Whatever it was, crime flick fans missed out on a colorful, dynamic, propulsive crime thriller.
Craig is the unnamed narrator/lead, a successful middleman in the London cocaine trade. Playing, as he says, by simple rules, his small, smooth-running operation is lucrative enough that he plans to retire in a few years. But the next guy up the criminal hierarchy, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), asks him for two favors…except that in this world, it’s not a request and it’s not a favor; it’s a command and an obligation. Price tasks him with finding the missing, coke-addicted daughter of crime kingpin Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon), and to make a deal for a crate of ecstasy pills the out-of-control Duke (Jamie Foreman) stole from an operation in Holland run by ruthless Serbs. As a consequence, Craig finds his neat little underworld unraveling in chaos, betrayal, and double-dealing.
Matthew Vaughn had been Guy Ritchie’s producer and he cribs a lot of tactics from Ritchie: a restless, express train plot riddled with flashbacks, flash forwards, parallel cuts, an eclectic soundtrack of obscure (for we on this side of the big water) pieces ranging from pulse-pounding rock to ethereal faux opera. Connolly does a hell of a fine job converting his novel’s dense plot to the screen, keeping several balls in the air at all times. Ever hear the writer’s axiom that, in a thriller, every scene should move the plot forward? In Layer Cake, most scenes move several plots forward. You may not even get it all in one viewing.
Vaughn is served by a sparkling gallery of Brit character actors behind Craig (supposedly, Layer Cake is one of the reasons the actor got the call to do Bond). Besides Craig, keep your eyes open and there’s a familiar face or two: Tom Hardy in a small part as one of Craig’s crew, Colm Meaney, one-time Star Trek: The Next Generation player as a quietly threatening Jimmy Price henchman, Dexter Fletcher who showed up in Band of Brothers as a U.S. Ranger.
It’s a fun, richly populated, don’t-turn-away-or-you’ll-get-lost bit of fully-packed storytelling. As for that title? Gambon’s Eddie Temple explains the dynamics of underworld life to Craig after the plot takes one of its many — for Craig — unhappy twists:
You’re born, you take shit. You get out in the world, you take more shit. You climb a little higher, you take less shit. Till one day you’re up in the rarefied atmosphere and you’ve forgotten what shit even looks like. Welcome to the layer cake, son.
d. Richard A. Colla
w. Evan Hunter, adapted the novel by Ed McBain.
There’s an age-old dynamic in Hollywood: find something that works – a formula, a genre, etc. – and then beat the hell out of, flog it until it lies limp and lifeless, not an ounce of blood left in it.
In the late 1960s-early 1970s, a few humongous hits in the police thriller vein – Bullitt (1968), Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1971) – detonated a massive surge in cop stories. Some were terrific (Serpico ), some dug deep into cop culture to come up with a very different kind of tale (Report to the Commissioner ), and a lot of them were routine by-the-numbers stuff (Busting ). Most of them seemed to fall into one of two strains that continue to this day:
The Rogue Cop. This is the maverick, the rule-breaker, the guy who knows the only way to bring justice is to forget about the out-of-whack system, cut through the bullshit, and do whatever it takes to bring the Bad Guy down, the Constitution be damned. Think Dirty Harry, any movie where Charles Bronson was a cop, the Beverly Hills Cop flicks.
The Odd Couples. Partners, as mismatched in personality as screenwriters could conceive (homophobic cop and gay partner – Partners ; loud-mouthed American cop and terse Russian cop – Red Heat ; slovenly rule-breaker and anal retentive cop with multiple personality disorder – Loose Cannons ; racist heart transplant recipient/ghost of black heart donor – Heart Condition  – and no, I’m not making these up). This reaches a kind of quintessence with the Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys flicks.
Fuzz doesn’t do any of that. It’s something of a rarity: an ensemble piece, with its focus spread around a half-dozen members of the detective squad of the 87th Precinct and the several crimes they’re working on simultaneously, in a mix of workplace comedy and police procedural. I think the closest comparison I could make is to the 1970s TV series, Barney Miller, except that where Miller leans heavily into the comedy, Fuzz keeps the chuckles (for the most part) life-sized and secondary to the crime-solving.
This was director Colla’s only theatrical effort, but he gives Fuzz a sooty, urban feel (McBain’s series of 87th Precinct novels were set in a fictional city resembling New York; the movie deftly changes the setting to Boston) that was common to the grittier cop flicks of the day and that we – sadly, in my view – lost with improved film stocks.
Having read most of McBain’s novels, I can attest that the movie is perfectly cast, and Colla gets top-notch work from his actors who capture, on the nose, the lived-in feel of chops-busting co-workers who’ve worked together for years. Although Burt Reynolds toplines the cast, he’s working shoulder-to-shoulder with a colorful collection of Familiar Faces: Jack Weston, Tom Skerritt, Raquel Welch, James McEachin, Steve Ihnat, Dan Frazer, Don Gordon…even the smallest parts seem to pop. And then, of course, there’s the villain: Yul Brynner as The Deaf Man – a recurring character in the McBain novels who may be a little bigger-than-life than the rest of the movie…but it still works.
The plot is as fully-stuffed as the cast with the detectives of the 87th working on a plague of the homeless being set on fire, a serial rapist, a liquor store robbery, and an extortion plot. One of McBain’s signatures was finding a credible way to have the various plotlines collide and Fuzz is no exception.
Screenwriter Evan Hunter brings it off smoothly which should come as no surprise since Ed McBain’s was one of several pen names under which Hunter wrote. Here’s a fun curio: the credits list the screenplay by Evan Hunter adapting the novel by Ed McBain (who is really Evan Hunter!).
If most cop movies fall into one of those two strains I mentioned above, think of an ice cream store only serving vanilla and chocolate. Then one day you’re told they’re going to start offering strawberry. That’s Fuzz…and you order a double scoop…with sprinkles.
- Bill Mesce