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Movie Reviews: Crime in Our Time

Zodiac (2007)

One of my absolute favorites.  Though it could still be called a “crime film,” it’s more accurately an investigation story, or a detective story.  What’s brilliant about it is that the investigative element of the movie is the most thrilling part of it.  There are a couple heart-stopping scenes of the serial killer at work, but my favorite moments in the movie are when the characters who are reporters and detectives sit around and discuss the possibilities.  I love how incredibly complicated the movie was unfraid to be; it upsets what we have come to believe is the natural order of things (the CSI way, you might call it) in which the investigation takes a single, direct path and ends conclusively with an arrest.  The real-life crimes of the Zodiac killer occurred all over the state of California, in multiple jurisdictions, and the movie dramatizes the difficulties of sharing information and case files in a pre-digital world.  In just over two hours of run time the movie also zeroes in on at least three different suspects, convincing the audience that this time they’ve definitely got their man, only to scrap everything—not necessarily because they’ve proved someone innocent, but just because the evidence is inadequate.  Finally—and this is seriously a narrative accomplishment—despite the fact that no one has ever been prosecuted for the murder, the movie manages to close its story out in a satisfactory way.  It feels closed.  It has incredible period music (“Hurdy Gurdy Man”!), dynamic direction by David Fincher, and some unexpected humor mostly courtesy of Robert Downey Jr.  Also stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, and about a billion “Hey, it’s that guy”s.

Gangs of New York (2002)

I really think this movie would have made more of an impression on me if I had seen it when it first came out (before The Departed, instead of after).  Doesn’t it seem that Scorsese was repeating himself just a little bit?  You’ve got Daniel Day-Lewis playing the Jack Nicholson role, Leonardo DiCaprio playing the Leonardo DiCaprio role, Cameron Diaz pointlessly playing the pointless Vera Farmiga role.  You’ve got the mole plot, the young man who engages in a mentorship with someone he intends ultimately to take down.  The woman who is only there to sleep with both of them and complicate things.  I love The Departed, frankly, and it’s too bad for Gangs of New York that I didn’t see it first, because I might have loved Gangs instead.

What I did really like about this is the historical angle: the immigrant life, the warring factions all trying to build a society out of lawlessness and gain power out of poverty.  The opening fight scene was pretty incredible, as were the sets, like the underground catacombs where the Irishmen hung out and plotted.  And Daniel Day-Lewis is pretty much always a barn-burner, preferable even (dare I say it?) to Nicholson.  Also, the closing shot (which time-lapses into present-day New York) is amazing.

The Killers (1946)

I loved this one!  It was based on an Ernest Hemingway story (also called “The Killers” and you can read it here) which I didn’t even remember reading until the movie began and it was strangely familiar.  The movie added a lot, necessarily, because the story itself is incredibly short.  The movie takes a character from the story—who is a huge mystery to all the other characters, who have no idea about his motives or his past, and makes the movie an investigation about his murder.  Edmond O’Brien plays the investigator and Burt Lancaster plays the guy who got killed—but WHY?

This film doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention—most of the other crime films I’m writing about here have popped up on ‘best’ lists, unlike this one—but maybe that’s partially what I liked about it.  It was a little bit under-the-radar.  It was also complicated and twisty, and, like Zodiac, it featured investigation that was just as fascinating as the crime.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

I think I tried to watch this one three times before finally making it through to the end, and even still I can’t tell you exactly how the heist played out or what was going on at any given moment.  It may have just been extremely complicated for my simple intellect, or it may have just been entirely too low-key.  The movie seemed to be made up of nothing more than people in rooms talking and threatening each other.  Sure, it worked for Reservoir Dogs, but here it just made me sleepy.  I guess I could try it again—really try to tease out the nuances of this guy and that guy and so on—but I’ve got a lot of other movies to watch.

I do know that Sterling Hayden is a pretty effective bad guy, entirely based on the weird, aggressive snarl he has on his face in every single scene.

The Killing (1956)

Hey, Sterling Hayden again!  He’s such a good criminal.  Here again he’s a heistmaster, and I vastly preferred this movie to The Asphalt Jungle.  The plot itself was better, the heist more unusual.  Here a big gang of guys decide they’re going to rob a racetrack, complete with inside men and even a sharpshooter outside the race gates who, at a preestablished moment, is going to shoot one of the racing horses to create the necessary distraction.  This is the Ocean’s 11 of the 50s.  (And much better than the actual Ocean’s 11 from the 60s, both in terms of heisting and in moviemaking.)  The day of the guys’ big hit plays out very suspensefully, moving forward and backwards in time, following each of the guys as they set their particular dominoes into place.

Hold on through the final moments, which are appropriate, but strangely devastating.

Lady in the Lake (1947)

This was a weird one, with almost the entire movie existing in a point-of-view shot (the camera never shows the main character, Philip Marlowe—the camera is his eyes, and when he looks from one character to another, then out the window, then at the clock, the camera follows that exact trajectory.  We only see the guy when he looks in a mirror).

Other than that interesting little filmic feature, the movie was a pretty standard crime pic.  Robert Montgomery, who also directed the movie, doesn’t exactly have the same verve as Bogart, who also played Marlowe in The Big Sleep.  I mean, not a lot of movies can compete with The Big Sleep, so that’s not a dealbreaker.  But he was kind of a blank, just considering how much a detective in a detective story is supposed to be manipulating the tale.  (The detective moves the story forward by following threads, making connections, all in service to a conclusion in which the killer is unmasked.  This is why I love detective stories.)

Weirdest bit: the opening credits, which are in cheerful script, made up to look like a Christmas card, and soundtracked by Christmas music.  It’s almost too odd for irony; it just seems like a mistake.

Everyone who reads my blog knows that I LOVE greatest movies lists, like those released by the AFI.  I’ve been making my way through the Top 10 of 10 list (10 greatest films in 10 classic genres) and I recently made a clean sweep of the 10 Best Gangster Films.  Here were the last three I saw:

The Public Enemy (1931)

“It is the ambition of the authors of The Public Enemy to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal.  While the story of The Public Enemy is essentially a true story, all names and characters appearing herein, are purely fictional.”

… “ ‘The Public Enemy’ is not a man nor is it a character—it is a problem that sooner or later WE, the public, must solve.”

Crime films of the 30s were fascinating little cultural time capsules.  American cities were overrun with organized crime in the 1920s (thanks in no small part to Prohibition) and as a result gangsters became glamorous.  People flocked to see these movies and to be equally appalled and titillated at the violence.  And many of these movies, being pre-Code, do not disappoint in that area.  Cagney’s character, Tom Powers, puts bullets into a lot of people in The Public Enemy, as well as an unlucky horse.  He’s full of rage, but it’s not passionate—it’s cold and cruel.  He succeeds at the business of bootlegging because he’s ruthless, but it makes him inhuman.  That’s the “message,” if there is one—and the opening and closing statements I quoted above suggest that there is, or at least that the filmmakers wanted the public to believe that there was.  I’ve done some reading on pre-Code Hollywood and the joke was that the filmmakers could show as much debauchery as they wanted so long as the character reformed (or died) at the end.  Because then it had a moral.  Personally I think the moral is as much about selling the experience of the movie as it is about shining a harsh light on violence in society.  What can I say, it works on me.  The movie is astonishing—even to me, and I know what 1930s Hollywood was capable of.  Like White Heat, which also starred Cagney (and came in at #4 on the Gangster films list) it would be well-worth the price of admission if it was onscreen at the cineplex today.  (I reviewed White Heat here.)

Scarface (1932)

This was a real classic.  The 80s-era remake, of course I have also seen, but I had understood it to be a remake in name only.  In fact, not so.  The storyline of this Scarface was borrowed almost beat for beat by that Scarface—subbing in Cuban immigrants for the Italian ones here in the original, and the drug trade for the Prohibition-era booze trade.  The story here is equally high-stakes—the plotline with the protagonist’s sister and best friend plays out basically exactly the same, for those of you who know the Pacino version—and the ending, while not involving the expression “say hello to my leetle friend” in any capacity, is still explosive and shocking.

The film dramatizes certainly real-life occurrences (notably the St. Valentine’s Day massacre) but also fictionalizes a great deal.  Paul Muni, an actor I had never seen in anything before, is incredibly charismatic in the lead role.  He carries himself with this loose-limbed charm, the most utterly likeable crime boss you’ll maybe ever see.  Watch the scene where he flirts with the crime boss’s lady friend.  He’s almost self-deprecating.  It seems weird, like it shouldn’t work, but thanks to Muni, it does.

Little Caesar (1931)

This one was a little less bloody, a little less flashy than The Public Enemy and Scarface.  Perhaps because I am a shallow person, I found it the least compelling of the three.  Edward G. Robinson is terrific in Double Indemnity–another crime classic–but here he didn’t really make too large of an impression on me.  The story, with shifting loyalties and rises to power, is nothing new now—the fact that this film pioneered that story should garner it some credit.  Still, not my favorite.

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  1. October 20, 2010 at 12:02 am

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