Feature: Modern Noir–Brick

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Brick (2005)

Brick (2005)

Being a fan of classic films makes it difficult not to want to talk about contemporary movies that take more than a casual influence from screen gems of the past. Brick is one of those examples: a present-day murder mystery whose characters are nearly all high school students. The approach is not as juvenile as it might sound, however, as the relative age of our characters would be forgotten without the occasional reference to parents and class –neither of which are depicted.

The story is fast-moving, with an opening on our protagonist, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), stooped across a massive storm drain from the face-down body of a blonde girl. Flash back to two days prior and our story really starts. This girl, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), slips a note in Brendan’s locker asking him to rendezvous at an intersection at 12:30 p.m. There he goes and there he picks up the ringing pay phone. On the line a distraught Emily tries small talk but, pressed for the meaning of the call, begins to rattle on about a “bad brick”, “poor Frisco”, “Tugg” and “the Pin”. Her dialogue suggests to Brendan that Emily is nearby and the girl hurriedly ends the call when a black Mustang flies down the street. A cigarette is flicked from the car with a distinguishing arrow mark on the paper. This will be a clue not realized until much later.

From here Brendan flies into detective mode and immediately consults with The Brain (Matt O’Leary) looking for the skinny on the words in that conversation he did not understand. He also asks for info about Emily and who she’s been “eating lunch with” –a repeated reference to the characters’ social groups. Emily and Brendan once dated but she broke it off three months ago when she tried to take up with a group known as “the upper crust”. She also hung around at one point with the drama “vamp” who is also a Brendan ex and the modern day stand in for a prostitute/stripper/slut type. That is where Brendan takes his questions next.

Brendan manages a final meeting with Emily before her demise. He tracks her down after questioning –and pounding on– hash-head Dode (Noah Segan) who insists the girl is with him now. He follows the druggie and sees him hand Emily a slip of paper. Brendan will get his hands on this note after meeting with the distraught Emily who conveys she is in trouble but insists Brendan must let her go.

Through his interrogations, Brendan gets wind of the involvement of drugs and encounters the tempting Laura (Nora Zehetner). This member of the upper crust comes on to the sleuth, but he cannot trust her. After a series of fights with a football playing, drug buying member of the upper crust and a white trash thug named Tugg (Noah Fleiss), Brendan is finally delivered to The Pin (Lukas Haas), who is the 26-year-old head of the drug dealings in the area. Brendan manages to weasel his way out of a knee-breaking and into the The Pin’s circle in almost a consigliere-type role. Emily was involved directly with The Pin’s outfit and was connected with a brick of heroine that went missing. In the end, however, she was not killed because of the brick.

The plot of Brick is clearly convoluted as many detective stories of classic film could be. However, I spent my entire time watching this movie last night wracking my brain trying to decide what type of mystery the story emulates. In many ways, Brendan embodies the noir private detective who is approached by a distraught blonde who ends up dead. But unlike those stories, our protagonist has a history with the victim. This regular-guy-turned-sleuth approach is more in line with Hitchcockian plots that excluded police from the crime-solving. But Brendan seems to have a certain kind of case-solving skill that the everyman might lack. His story also seems similar to the reporter-as-detective movies that always result in the newspaperman getting in over his head in a case while on the hunt for a story. Brendan’s infiltration of the criminal gang –in this case with many mob-like aspects– brings yet another element of crime-solving to the fore. Lastly, his verbal wrap up of the story’s elements at the flick’s close harkens back to Nick Charles’ speciality.

I labored over trying to put Brick in one of the standard mystery categories, but perhaps it is just what it seems, an amalgamation of them all. Regardless, the story is mesmerizing. It is not without its comedic moments, however, particularly where The Pin is concerned. This mob leader has a club foot and walks with a cane while wearing a cape. He rides in the back of a furnished van complete with a 70s style table lamp. Best yet, however, is that he lives with his mother. The Pin, Tugg and Brendan are treated to cereal and orange juice at the kitchen table while the young adult’s business deals take place in a half-finished basement.

In addition to a wonderful story and fantastic acting, the movie is also very artistic in its cinematography. The occasional jump cut and plenty of below-waist shots create a visual masterpiece. The dialogue is also rife with creativity. The DVD even came with a booklet defining some of the slang used by the teens. When Brendan provides a particularly intelligent response to the school vice principal, he is complimented, leading to a discussion of a particular English teacher. The language can be difficult to follow at times, and at others might seem a bit pretentious, but it is pulled off swimmingly.

Brick was the first full-length movie by director and writer Rian Johnson, who just this summer put out is latest masterpiece, Looper. The genius has only these two and The Brothers Bloom to his feature film credit, with a couple television episodes in the meantime. His movies are released with quite a repose in between, but if that is what it takes to come up with such masterful movies, I’ll be content to wait.

Feature: Hitchcock’s Recipe

I discovered this brilliant video on the ModCloth blog. It was apparently created by students at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Hannover and is wildly entertaining and insightful, for those who are well versed in the ways of Alfred Hitchcock. Seeing as my blog is named after a technique of the great director, I thought it only fitting to share it with you. It’s certainly worth watching more than once to enjoy all the details contained therein. Enjoy!

Assignment–Paris

Ring a Ding Ding

Assignment–Paris (1952)

If we are to believe old movies, the occupation of a reporter was essentially synonymous with that of a detective. It’s the whole investigative journalist angle that often landed newspapermen in a heap of trouble trying to snare a story a.k.a. find the culprit. In Assignment–Paris, however, reporters go one step farther and become, in a word, spies.

George Sanders leads the pack of reporters in a story that if I hadn’t told you their occupation, you would think the characters are government agents. The paper in question is the New York Herald-Tribune’s Paris edition. Sanders as the editor in chief Nick Strang is finding out his new import is a bit of a wildcard but a great reporter. This Jimmy Race (Dana Andrews) tries to secure an interview with the Hungarian Ambassador at the same time the lovely Jeanne Moray (Marta Toren) is doing the same. Race is unaware she works for the same new outfit.

Race opts to romantically pursue Jeanne, who has declined to answer a proposal from Nick, but that is not what this story is about. Jeanne is a Hungarian who has just returned from Budapest on Nick’s request, but she leaves before she could get her hands on a photograph that is the only proof of a meeting between Hungarian Prime Minister Andreas Ordy and Yugoslavia’s President Tito. Jeanne is being followed by Hungarian agents, however, who suspect she has such evidence.

The plot also surrounds the spy trial of an American named Anderson, who is convicted and recorded admitting his crime in Hungary. Race is sent to Budapest to investigate further, and through clandestine means, ascertains that Anderson is dead. He cannot freely relay information back to Nick and instead telephones a coded story with the news. Race also manages to get his hands on the damning photograph. He is arrested by Hungarian authorities and tormented in days-long interviews. His words are recorded and edited to make it sound like he admits to being a spy.

The Hungarian authorities are also after a man in hiding in Paris, Gabor Chechi (Sandro Giglio), an escaped Hungarian national. In order to save Race, Gabor Chechi and the newspaper must make sacrifices.

Assignment–Paris is quite the exciting plot. It can be on the convoluted side, but keeping track of all the mentioned and actual characters is not as difficult as it might sound. As in most of these reporter-as-detective stories, both Jeanne and Race act like their duties come as no surprise and don’t differ from their usual activities. Being something close to a spy comes easily to Race as he finds a way to relay the photograph back to Paris.

The story is a bit much if we are to believe we are watching newspapermen. Sanders behaves as a top government official would, ordering his agents here and there to do more than objectively discover the truth, but to root it out to the ruin of a nation’s leaders. I’m not sure we ever see an actual newspaper with Race or Jeanne’s stories in it, further diluting their roles as reporters. I am not complaining, though. The high-stakes story is enthralling and goes miles beyond what reporters do today, not that I am advocating for their integral involvement in international politics.

The performances are excellent. Andrews is probably less sexy than some of this other roles, but he is still a great performer. Sanders is his usual, professional type character, but Toren brings the spice. This Ingrid Bergman-like exotic is gorgeous and captivating and does a great job as both a strong professional and a desirable woman. TCM has her listed as only appearing in a dozen movies, this being her third to last, which is too bad; she was quite a treat to watch.

The Gay Falcon

Gasser

The Gay Falcon (1941)

Despite the middle-of-the-road rating I feel compelled to give The Gay Falcon, the movie about retired freelance sleuth Gay Lawrence is far from dull. George Sanders brings a fun liveliness to the lead character who is comically rude to the women in his life and amusingly insulting to those around him.

The Gay Falcon was the first of four movies about the crime solver known as The Falcon that would star George Sanders (The later nine movies would start Tom Conway, Sanders’ brother, as Tom Lawrence, The Falcon’s brother.) But the origin of The Falcon character is suspiciously linked to Leslie Charteris’ The Saint. This movie was made after Sanders made five films as Simon Templar aka The Saint, who was a rogue crime solver who although on the side of the law, worked independently of the police. The story about Gay Lawrence not only featured Sanders and costar Wendy Barrie again but also the same writing crew at RKO that was responsible to the Sanders Saint movies. Charteris sued RKO claiming it had stolen his character. The final disposition in the suit has not be discovered.

But onto the story. Sanders’ Gay Lawrence is attempting to hold down a legitimate office job to appease his fiancée Elinor (Anne Hunter). When the duo go to a party, however, Lawrence is drawn into a case involving jewelry thefts all occurring during parties hosted by Maxine Wood (Gladys Cooper). While dancing with everyone but his fiancée, Lawrence is slipped a large diamond ring from Mrs. Gardiner (Lucile Gleason) and told to protect it from criminals who wish to nab it. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Gardiner is killed.

Helping Lawrence on the case is Maxine’s secretary Helen (Barrie), who is more interested in nabbing the Falcon as a romantic partner than in accomplishing anything. Her continual presence at Lawrence’s apartment and her answering of the phone there, drives Elinor into a constant furry, and she chums up with a Manuel Retana (Turhan Bey) to make her beau jealous.

Meanwhile, The Falcon’s sidekick Goldie Locke, played by Allen Jenkins, is arrested for the first murder for being the only witness on the scene, and for the later killing of one of the suspects. Lawrence also gets himself on bad terms with the police and eliminates his snazzy manner of dress in exchange for a slobbish disguise. The Falcon will solve the case and make his choice of a female partner.

The Gay Falcon brings all the usual elements we expect in a detective (or in this case non-detective) story, but adds a great degree of humor. Although probably not as witty as The Saint, The Falcon sure knows how to toy with women. Barrie is extremely amusing as the sort-of-dumb and definitely worthless partner ever at Lawrence’s heels. Much of the dialogue is outright laughable, but in a good way. Compared to Sanders’ The Saint movies, I would say The Gay Falcon is far less serious, with Sanders having more fun in the role. I will still always prefer his Simon Templar pictures as being of just overall higher quality in terms of plot and performance.

Sources: Ben Mankiewicz, TCM.com

Feature: A Movie Through Its Posters — Psycho

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Psycho is one of those movies that is known worldwide and still revered as a great piece of horror history. In no way is that more evident than by the sheer extent of foreign movie posters for the flick.

Hitchcock was the “master of suspense” but his movies did not really fall into the horror category before Psycho. The movie was controversial and met with a lot of pushback from the Hayes Office but Hitchcock managed to make compromises –giving up one scandalous aspect to allow another to stay in. The movie nevertheless is well known for Janet Leigh‘s undergarment outfits at separate instances in the film’s start. This part of the film certainly did not escape notice to those individuals who create movie posters worldwide. Six of the posters above feature the scantily clad Leigh, which probably proved a selling point for the flick.

Also prominent in the posters is the horror-stricken face of Anthony Perkins upon discovering a body in his hotel’s bathroom. The lead-up scene also was a source of controversy with the short takes assembled to give the impression we are seeing nudity. Including Perkins on the posters in this manner certainly would have lulled the audience into believing his character’s innocence, fueling one of the movie’s twists.

My favorite of these posters is the German one. It is simple and striking with its bold teal color and large Perkins facade. I love that shot of Perkins, and I think this poster uses it to its greatest effect. Which do you like best?

White Zombie

Gasser

White Zombie (1932)

Zombies certainly are all the rage these days. Made a weekly activity by “The Walking Dead” and further celebrated through marathon/obstacle course events involving zombie attackers, even I sometimes think ahead to the zombie apocalypse. But before zombies were flesh-eating, contagious, reanimated dead, they were dormant individuals affected by voodoo magic. Movies such as I Walked With a Zombie and The Serpent and the Rainbow classify themselves in the horror genre, but flicks about voodoo zombies don’t bring with them the same gore as our contemporary concept of the living dead.

White Zombie is the same way. Rather than creatures to be feared, the zombies in this picture are made into such creatures to work as indentured servants without causing a fuss. The monster in this movie is Bela Lugosi‘s voodoo priest who threatens to transform you into such a soulless, mindless form.

As with other of these classic zombie concept movies, the setting is Haiti. Here a betrothed couple has newly arrived. They had planned to be married upon leaving the boat, but were persuaded by Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) to wait. Beaumont desires the young Madeline (Madge Bellamy) for himself and will go to extreme lengths to secure her.

Madeline and fiance Niel (John Harron) encounter their first set of zombies on the way to the home of Mr. Beaumont. A group of the mindless men march in the darkness having just finished a day’s work at “Murder” Legendre’s (Lugosi) sugar mill. They, along with an encounter with Murder, frighten Madeline, whose scarf is snatched away by the voodoo master.

Neil and Madeline are married in Beaumont’s home, but the girl is given a potion that causes her to seemingly drop dead at dinner. Murder and Beaumont exhume her body and transform her into a zombie. Beaumont does not like the creature Madeline has become, however, and asks Murder to bring her back to life. Murder refuses, having his own ideas for the girl whom he will later command to kill Neil. A battle will ensue among the various parties until we discover the only way to break a zombie trance is to kill the one who holds power over the undead.

In some ways I think the voodoo concept of a zombie is more personally frightening than the undead we see in today’s films. Whereas the contemporary zombie is a person who has died and whose body merely comes back to life with only animalistic instinct remaining, the Haitian approach conveys the torture of losing control of your body via a spell. I think most mythology along these lines suggests the person never really dies but appears to have passed, leading to their burial (In The Serpent and the Rainbow a potion “kills” a person for 12 hours and when he regains his senses is already buried. The lack of oxygen causes brain damage, so when exhumed, the person is quite different.). Madeline retains all her beauty and vibrancy but her eyes are blank of emotion or acknowledgement of those around her.

Whereas the grotesque zombie of today is required to be written off by loved ones as no longer the same person, Neil is ever-more frustrated because his wife looks the same but refuses to acknowledge him. He knows there must be some way to revive her but cannot find the way himself, so the voodoo approach is also much more emotionally draining for loved ones.

  • White Zombie is set for 5:15 p.m. ET Oct. 31 on TCM.

Feature: Movie Posters from France

I have done posts in the past comparing U.S. movie posters for American films to those advertisements that were produced internationally for the same flicks. Italy has proven to be a good source of interesting posters (see this post for examples), but France is no slacker when it comes to out doing the Americans on the artsy side. The following are some comparisons between the American posters and French. Which versions do you prefer? If you have your own favorite French posters, please share.

FRANCE VS. AMERICA

The American poster is not bad for Touch of Evil, but the French one is even more dramatic. While the U.S. made the poster suggestive via the embrace between Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston, the French more subtly suggested the bedroom action by framing the characters with a bed post. The foreign version might actually convey to audiences that Heston is responsible for the horrible bed-based action Leigh will suffer in two different settings, whereas the American version is a bit more romantic.

You can see the similarities between where the French and the Americans were going with the poster for Operation Petticoat. Both are provocative with the woman’s legs, but I must say the French had a bit more fun with the depiction of the men’s reaction. I’m laughing more at the French one than the American.

Another sexy movie with two different posters approaches is The Lady from Shanghai. All versions of the American poster featured that same pose by Rita Hayworth, but the French version certainly has a more interesting and artistic quality. This might be a matter of taste. What do you say?

Now for some comedy/war fun. Although the American version assures us there will be laughs to be had, the French poster draws a very serious picture. It is not bereft, however, of two men dancing together, so a close enough look sheds some light into the elements of Stalag 17. However misleading, I do appreciate the artistry of the French approach.

This difference might be my favorite. The Lost Weekend approaches both emphasize the seriousness of the film, but where the American take crowds in unnecessary elements, the French took a simplistic view. For those who have yet to see the picture, the bat surely will present some confusion, and it references only a minor, yet memorable, scene in the movie tracing an alcoholic’s helplessness under the influence of drink.

What it your analysis?

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