A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Surveillance, dames and shocking twists

In cult film, drama on May 13, 2009 at 2:23 am

One of cinema’s most traveled tales are about a guy who was either hired to find a girl, or who has to use a girl as his contact to solve a mystery and then the plot twists to reveal the killer, or the hero goes to the darkest place they never thought possible. It goes from CITIZEN KANE, with the journalist trying to figure out the life of Charles Foster Kane up to both versions of INSOMNIA – one starring Al Pacino and the Norwegian original starring Stellan Skarsgard – where a detective with a questionable past is brought to a small, isolated town where guilt overwhelms him in multiple forms, whether it’s the never-ending sunlight, or the taunting by an actual killer who saw our hero make a mistake. 

So, making a small detour from how I usually write these things, I’m going to kind of do a list-like thing of some movies that follow in this tradition and that I would recommend. This is all because I had watched a movie – that I’ll start the list with – and when thinking of other movies to recommend; there were just too many! And I kind of felt like I needed to expound a little more on each of them. 

So first of, is a movie by a master of 70’s suspense-thrillers; Alan J. Pakula. With movies like THE PARALLAX VIEW, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and of course THE PELICAN BRIEF; KLUTE is kind of a standout movie, being that it is a detective story, but even more-so it’s a character study of a woman who is trying to better herself, by acting or modeling but always tends to find herself pulling tricks to make her money. This woman of course, Bree Daniels – as played by Jane Fonda (in an Oscar winning performance) – is eventually teamed up with hired investigator John Klute. Klute, as played by Donald Sutherland, is a very stoic character. He starts off as all business, he’s kind of built up as being a little unexperienced in working on “missing persons” cases. 

The interesting and wonderful thing about this movie is that its named after one of the main character, but we spend most of our time with the other. We follow Bree as she goes to modeling try-outs, pulls tricks, speaks to her therapist; and every now and then we cut away to Klute in the background, watching her. Slowly they build a relationship beyond just subject and detective; with a number of scenes where she in a move  to try and defend herself from falling for Klute tries to sabotage their building relationship. She’s cruel, she’s frantic and of course manipulative. But, in the end she does wind up in his arms. 

The other interesting thing about this movie is how it’s score works. For the most part the only music  we hear is source (meaning that the music is actually being played in the scene, like in a dance club) and the only time we really get some of the amazing music by Michael Small – who has also provided the soundtrack to THE MARATHON MAN, THE STAR CHAMBER and THE STEPFORD WIVES – is when our mysterious villain is shown or during the ending. And it actually made me jump in a couple of instances, because the lack of music really kind of draws you in, making you listen to the characters, looking at their faces. And unlike movies that just keep the score poring in, to try and make you feel a certain way, this movie works with that absence.

So, the movie that KLUTE made me initially think of was THE CONVERSATION, the Gene Hackman starring, movie about Harry Caul; written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola (I’m not listing his other movies…You should know who he is!). Harry Caul is a surveillance expert who at the beginning of the movie had been hired to follow a woman whose husband believes she’s cheating on him. And in the opening scene, we are giving the basis that the title of the movie comes from, and the one object that will continuously played over and over and each time given a new and different meaning. This trope has been used many, many times in movies – from Michaelangelo Antoniotti’s BLOW UP; the similarly themed BLOW OUT by Brian De Palma and starring John Travolta and even in the recent movie DUPLICITY, where a certain speech is repeated a number of times. 

Of course, throughout the movie Harry is put through a number of scenarios that lead him to believe that he’s being unwilling dragged into a plot and that he is being spied upon. Leading to him secluding himself from his friends and in the end – in really one of the most sad and traumatic scenes – him ripping his apartment apart, looking for a “bug” that we’re left wondering is there or not. 

But, the movie is great for it’s use – and kind of meant to show off the sound editing skills of Walter Murch, the father of modern sound design. With the repeated playing of the conversation, we get new clarity with each repetition and it plays with our senses on whether we’re – in the viewer’s reality – just reading something new from it, or if we’re actually hearing a different reading of the lines meant to manipulate us.

Next is a more of a super-natural noir thriller, ANGEL HEART, written and directed by Alan Parker – having made a diverse amount of movies but all have an impactful story at it’s heart, like MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, THE COMMITTMENTS and undervalued THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE – and starring a still fairly young Mickey Rourke as Private Investigator Harry Angel. Of course, you can’t mention this movie without talking about the mysterious character Louis Cyphre (say it outloud…you’ll get it) played wonderfully, and totally aloof, by Robert DeNiro. 

But, the story is of Angel being hired by Lucifer…er I mean, Louis to find a missing musician named Johnny Favourite. In his search he meets a young creole girl named Epiphany, played by Lisa Bonet – who after this went on to do THE COSBY SHOW. There’s murder, there’s beautiful set design and the deliberate showcasing of fans and just seeing how sweltering hot it is. 

The ending of this movie is pretty jaw-dropping and I know a couple of people that have different interpretations on how this movie reads. But, during the final credits we have a wonderful moment with Rourke’s character getting on an elevator going down…and down, and down. To well, you can imagine where.

Sort of in the same vein – and look – to ANGEL HEART is CHINATOWN, starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Roman Polanski. The story of Jake Gittes, Nicholson’s character, who is hired by a wife to find out whether her husband is cheating on her, soon finds himself in the middle of a political struggle for the city of Los Angeles, as well as a family drama, that really gives us one of the most shocking endings in movie history. 

Polanski’s movies all have the thriller kind of feeling to them. Mostly in how, like Stanley Kubrick, his movies tend to have an emotional separation from the characters that we’re watching. You feel for the characters, but you’re kind of struggling for it. There’s also a slow and steadiness that also helps to draw us into the movies – sort of like with KLUTE, but he does use music.

The movie also has a great, great performance from Nicholson. His character is a slime-ball but definitely seems competent and the movie really rests on his curiosity and kind of being pissed about being used and drawn into the story. A reluctant, anti-hero, really. Then there’s the performances of the supporting characters, including a seductive and mysterious Faye Dunaway and John Huston as the wealthy and villainous Noah Cross – and Dunaway’s father in the movie. And it’s their few minutes on screen together, at the end, along with the revelation to Gittes by Dunaway’s character that is just heart-breaking and leaves you sitting, watching the screen. 

To go even further back to a classic in this genre, THE BIG SLEEP, stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Bogart plays Philip Marlowe, a detective who is hired by a rich family to keep an eye on the youngest daughter, and soon falls for the older sibling – played by Bacall (which had lead to a real-life romance between the two in a previous movie.) 

The movie is famous for an ending that gets so convoluted that not even the writers and director are sure what happens! Scripted by William Faulkner – you may have heard of him, Leigh Brackett – who was one of the writer’s on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and wrote RIO BRAVO, and directed by Howard Hawks, who has directed a multitude of classic westerns, that’s kind of crazy that that they lost track of their own movie. Of course, the story goes, that not even Raymond Chandler – the author of the original novel – after looking through the book, couldn’t even tell what happened to certain characters.

Moving on from that, but keeping in tradition with the femme fatale that maybe – just maybe – has to do with whatever crime our “hero” is looking into. (You may not get what the connection is to THE BIG SLEEP, but like I said it gets so convoluted that I’m not even going into it – okay, Marlowe sets up a meet, gets there early in order to ambush the “bad guy”, Bacall’s character says maybe she “did it” and Marlowe dismisses it. He shoots bad guy, bad guy runs outside, gets shot by his own man, police come and Bogart and Bacall hide in the woods. Does that work?) So, in BODY HEAT also starring a raspy – yet sexy – voiced actress in the form of Kathleen Turner, we have William Hurt playing a small town lawyer Ned Racine who meets and develops a relationship with Turner’s Matty Walker. Sort of in the vein of Double Indemnity, she eventually convinces him to murder her husband in order to get his money. Her husband, of course is played by Richard Crenna. 

The movie, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan – who has created classics (loved or hated) like THE BIG CHILL, SILVERADO and of course wrote the screenplays for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  – made his directorial debut with this movie, and it’s become sort of, I think, and underrated modern(-ish) film-noir. It’s also similar to ANGEL HEART in a couple of ways: one in that it uses heat as a large theme through the movie, and secondly we actually get a few minutes of Mickey Rourke. And the ending to this movie is great in that one character goes to prison for the murder of another that in the final moment we see is still alive and living the life of luxury.

And then in the first of the most modern movies on the list – in 1999, Joel Schumacher did his best to redeem himself after the catastrophe that was BATMAN & ROBIN with a movie called 8MM, starring Nicolas Cage as private investigator Tom Welles who is hired by a widow of a rich man that found a film reel of a purported snuff film. And she wants to know whether the film is authentic or who the girl is that seems to have been killed. This movie that ventures into some very dark material, and in the end drives Cage’s character to the brink of madness when he is confronted by porn makers that have threatened to kill his wife (played by Katherine Keener) and his young child, if he doesn’t back off. As our bad guys we get three great performers; Peter Stormare, James Gandolfini and the lesser known character actor Chris Bauer (TRUE BLOOD the HBO series), all of which are fantastic and horrible in each of their roles. 

The movie is written by someone who is sort of a guarantee of messed up stuff and bleak darkness, Andrew Kevin Walker (also wrote SEVEN, Tim Burton’s SLEEPY HOLLOW and  the upcoming Benicio del Toro’s THE WOLFMAN) and in 8MM he delivers again. This movie, which is fairly disliked a lot because of it’s extremely dark subject matter, is I believe a fantastic representation of modern noir. We also, I have to mention, get a great supporting role by Joaquin Phoenix as a porn shop clerk that sort of becomes Tom’s sidekick and guide through the underworld of esoteric pornography. 

But, there is one scene that is really fantastic and tense – almost in line with the scene from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS where Clarice is in the dark stalking after Buffalo Blue – where Tom Welles is in the house of the masked man that stars and perpetrates the crime in the snuff film, called Machine. And there’s this loud music, and Tom is slowly moving through the house and in the end the character of Machine is unmasked and made to be so pitiful and is sort of what today could be a metaphor of the sort of culture of anonymity that the internet has allowed us, but in it’s time period…well, just kind of stands for the same thing, minus the internet.

And lastly, not quite as dark, but just as good and possibly one of my favorite movies on this list is ZERO EFFECT. The movie written and directed by Jake Kasdan – the son of BODY HEAT’s writer/director – and starring Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller. This movie which is sort of a modern day Sherlock Holmes story, is about prolific, and reclusive private investigator Daryl Zero (Pullman). And in the story we follow him on in this movie, he’s hired by a man who is being black mailed for something he might have done – but is very secretive about – long ago in his past. The victim in this case is played by Ryan O’Neal (currently showing up every now and then on BONES).

Zero quickly solves the main crux of the case – O’Neal’s character believes that his blackmailer has stolen his keys, to which he as a key to his safe-deposit box – and the rest of the movie is about figuring out exactly what this crime was that he might have committed that would be blackmail worthy. In a great subplot – which manages to work it’s way back into the main plot – we get a female companion to Daryl Zero, played by Kim Dickens (she’s been on LOST, DEADWOOD as Joanie Stubbs). Along with these two plots, we have Stiller’s character who is Zero’s assistant – and kind of face to the public – who has to deal with Daryl’s personality quirks (the thing is that on his own Daryl Zero is a social-misfit and completely unable to connect to anyone; meanwhile when he’s working he’s smooth and charming) as well as having  to continually meet with O’Neal’s Gregory Stark, questioning him and confronting him.

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