Friday, July 10, 2015

Shades of Neo-Noir

L.A. Confidential, Get Carter, 
and Mean Streets: Do they hold up?

     TCM has been playing examples of film noir, which are the ‘40s and ‘50s Hollywood crime movies that hold up better than the prestige product of that period and neo-noir, which are the self-conscious, artistic movies of the ‘70s and later that, in part, refer back to those earlier works.  Some that have played recently are L.A. Confidential (1997), Get Carter (1971), and Mean Streets (1973).

     L.A. Confidential, directed by Curtis Hanson and co-written with Brian Helgeland from James Ellroy’s classic novel possesses one of
The Superb Art Direction of LA in the early 50s
the strongest plots of any crime movie.  There are no dangling plotlines in either the book or the movie, unlike many of such works from the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Amazingly, Hanson and Helgeland were able to cut out about two or three major plotlines from the book, including a bizarre one about a Walt Disney-type entertainment tycoon, without sacrificing Ellroy’s tone and worldview.   The most significant difference is that the book ends with the young white knight sharing responsibilities for the future of the LAPD with the avuncular figure of evil that has significantly corrupted the force; the movie ends with the white knight on his own, but in charge.  It’s more idealistic, but less pragmatic.

Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger
     As a movie, it holds up most significantly in the acting and the art direction, both of which were peerless at that time.  Why didn’t anyone cast Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger in another movie?  They were one of the great screen couples of the ‘90s and generated a deep connection between their characters.  They’re actually more persuasive than the book’s characters because we can see them and they seem more complex, which is probably because there is a stronger focus on them in the movie. Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, and Danny DeVito are excellent, but it’s James Crowell, who embodies the dual-faced sense of the book and of the L.A. Quartet.

     Get Carter, which was directed by Mike Hodges and adapted by him from Ted Lewis’ Jack’s Return Home, is probably considered a minor classic here, though it’s a pretty
Newcastle's Coal Mines
major classic in Britain.  Wolfgang Suschitzky’s cinematography holds up beautifully, especially the cold, gray blue tones and the inky black.  Not only does it take place in Newcastle, famous for its coal; it’s also implacably grim.  A coal tip plays a significant part in the tough ending.  
     There’s no Hollywood hope since producer Michael Klinger and Hodges intended this to be a contemporary Revenge tragedy that would fit in with the embers of the Swinging Sixties and the crime underworld, made famous by the Kray twins.  Carter is a mob foot soldier, who returns to where he grew up in the north to investigate his brother’s death.  He suspects it wasn’t an accident and his journey to prove that is the plotline for the movie.

Michael Caine
    The matter of fact attitude surrounding the mob and its leaders’ determination to connect with legitimate business and political concerns is both cold and startling.  A number of scenes are still squirm worthy:  the black and white, amateurish porno movies that play at the edge of some shots; an attempted drowning in a bathtub; the final chase scene in which the viewer realizes there’s another unseen agent of destruction lurking outside the camera frame.  The violence succeeds in this because it’s meted out sparingly and is never intended to ‘entertain,’ unlike so much that takes place in current ‘action’ or comic book influenced movies that I find revolting.

Dorothy White with Michael Caine
     Michael Caine proves yet again his supremacy as a screen actor.  Except for Connery, was there a better British screen actor of that generation?  About halfway through, it registered that he never blinks and he never quite looks anyone in the eye.  He is implacable and, though he might seem like an avenging angel, he turns into a messenger of death.  The rest of the cast – some of whom I remember from TV series in England during the ‘70s – look like regular English people, though ones that can perform really well.  Playwright John Osborne (Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer) does some very elegant work as the northern mob king.  The only weak spots are Britt Ekland, who feels like she was dropped in to build international box office and a character thrown from a multi-story parking lot that obviously turns into a dummy.

     Mean Streets made Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro stars.  The title refers to Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” thereby placing its Neo-Noir ambitions squarely in the title.  Scorsese reveals New York’s Little Italy, where he was raised, in an intimate and self-aware way that hadn’t been seen before, resulting in critical hype at the time.  Looking at it
The Red-lit Bar Set
now, it’s amazing how much of it takes place in one set – a red-lit bar that one of the four friends owns.  Whenever the characters got into a car and drove away (only about three times), I sighed with relief that they were out of an area that seemed inbred by its transplanted Sicilian mores, obsession with though not a reflection of the values of the Catholic Church, and over-reliance on Hollywood gangster clichés.

Robert DeNiro in His Star-Making Role
     I know I’m being hard on what is considered a classic.  I admired it more when I saw it in college, though even then I thought half of it looked like it was lit as a photography dark room.  The casual racism, sexism, and hypocritical homophobia just grate after a while.  These guys haven’t the patience for dealing with a gay couple they give a ride to, but their bromance and emotional hijinks aren’t much different.  Of course, I also realize they aren’t supposed to be self-aware enough, unlike their creator, to understand this about themselves, but why is stupidity considered admirable?

The Pool Hall Scene
     Yes, it was a blast in 1973 because it looks grimy New York right in its face.  It also doesn’t pull many punches, though I don’t know how the three characters survive the final car/gun chase (Scorsese plays the gunman).  Although the cinematography is by Kent Wakeford, Scorsese planned the camera movement and it’s spectacular.  One sequence in a pool hall in which the major characters get into a fight with other patrons after unsuccessfully collecting protection money feels like something Max Ophuls or Luchino Visconti would have done if they’d directed this material.

DeNiro had his choice of playing one of the four friends and he shrewdly chose the star-making part, rather than the leading role.  Just try taking your eyes off him as Johnny Boy, the dopey/volcanic best friend that also seems like a modern day trickster or devil doll.  Harvey Keitel, a really good actor
Harvey Keitel
in the lead, gets stuck playing a lot of Catholic guilt as his character tries to fit into his forebears’ expectations for him.  He seems very relieved to play with Amy Robinson as the woman he loves, but his family doesn’t approve of because she’s epileptic (Robinson became a successful film producer later).  David Proval and Richard Romanus play the adult and the incompetent friends, respectively.  (Proval is probably familiar from The Sopranos).

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