A corrupt police force intersects with the glamour of Hollywood in L.A. Confidential, the tightly-plotted neo-noir that won the Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress in a year dominated by Titanic, and established the status and careers of Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey. Over twenty years since its enormously successful release, does it hold up? We discuss its basis in the real history of L.A. and its sense of place, whether the screenplay deserves its plaudits, how it functions as a noir and more.
As likeable as it is incoherent, Jade oozes style and steaminess. David Caruso’s assistant district attorney, searching for the killer of a businessman, finds himself delving into a world of kink, prostitution and power, in which Linda Fiorentino, his former lover, is embroiled.
William Friedkin’s attraction to the taboo is at home in the world of the erotic thriller, but as enjoyable as Jade is, it’s a film you watch with one eye on its substantial problems. It’s a film in which everything is done for effect, and damn the consequences – especially the final twist, which turns the film’s sexual liberation and power dynamics on their head, for no good reason. Still, it’s a film we were both happy to watch twice, and as superficial as it may be, that surface is highly polished and glossy.
To Live and Die in L.A., William Friedkin’s 1985 neo-noir, is kinky, colourful, offbeat and as much a Los Angeles film as The French Connection is a New York one. A young and androgynous Willem Dafoe plays a notorious counterfeiter pursued by two Secret Service agents, one by the book, the other corrupted. We discuss the film’s style and tone, its subject matter and setting in L.A.’s liminal, casually confrontational criminal underworld, its sensuous cinematography, and how it reflects and contrasts with The French Connection, particularly in the context of the films’ morally cloudy protagonists.
José has a soft spot for To Live and Diein L.A. despite acknowledging several problematic facets to it; Mike can’t say he loves it, finding little satisfying to bite on other than the extraordinarily expressive imagery and Dafoe’s captivating presence. Still, it’s a bold, evocative work of very, very Eighties noir, and deviant enough to keep you on your toes.
A classic of Hollywood crime, The French Connection paints a bleak picture of life and justice in America, as Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle demonstrates that no matter how low the drug dealers he pursues, he can sink lower. We ask what its depiction of New York’s underbelly and the accuracy of Doyle’s hunches despite his revolting behaviour says about the filmmakers, and consider Pauline Kael’s assertion that the film is “what we once feared mass entertainment might become”. Underneath the iconic style and unforgettable chase, is there anything meaningful to The French Connection?
(You can see Mike’s film, which for some reason he doesn’t mind comparing to The French Connection, below.)
We conclude our dalliance with Jean-Pierre Melville with 1970’s Le Cercle rouge, a heist film with an impressive cast of Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, and Yves Montand. We discuss how genre conventions operate in the film – the shortcuts an understanding of genre provides allow details to make the difference, Mike suggesting that it all comes out through character relationships and quirks.
In discussing Le Cercle rouge, we think back on what we’ve learned about Melville’s style, themes and interests. For Melville, emotional attachment is dangerous and makes one vulnerable; it’s a rather bleak outlook, but José argues that his films aren’t without their romantic aspects. Mike remarks upon the way in which Melville’s style has been interpreted and appropriated by the filmmakers he influenced, noting that the vivacity with which, for instance, Quentin Tarantino effuses about Melville is not reflective of Melville’s films themselves, which are slower and more pensive than you might be led to expect. To José, it’s existentialist cinema through and through, and, naturally, he loves it.
We visit another Melville, 1963’s Le Doulos, about a network of criminals searching for an informer in their midst. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays his thief with such assuredly French swagger that it’s no wonder why Quentin Tarantino names this film as a significant influence, though we also pick up on the story’s similarity to Reservoir Dogs, in particular the botched robbery and snitch mystery.
The film has clearly been preserved beautifully, the crispness of the images on Mubi’s stream simply breathtaking. As with Un flic, we consider the characters’ alienation, emphasised here through composition and framing, and their decisions, including the idea that all these men try to do the right thing by their particular code.
Despite looking for things to like, Mike is ultimately nonplussed and a little bored by Le Doulos, preferring, on reflection, Un flic, while José, as ever the spirit of sunshine, beams with praise for it. We can at least agree that it looks fabulous.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s final film, Un flic (A Cop), has a bleak feel, its characters isolated amongst harsh architecture and the neverending business of cops and robbers. Alain Delon’s cop follows the trail of Richard Crenna’s thief, whilst handling informants, other cases, and an occasional relationship with Catherine Deneuve.
It’s a film in which feeling shows through small actions, glances, and behaviour. The cop has seen the worst of humanity and carries a weariness with him, but that just makes his capability for generous gestures more meaningful. Mike remarks upon the similarity between cop and thief, both going about their work with a sense of lifeless inertia. We also note the central heist sequence’s clear influence on the climactic set-piece in Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, comparing the ways in which the scenes work and what their intended effects may be, and José comments on the film’s blue-tinged look, something that contributes greatly to its sense of melancholy.
An assured debut feature from director Melina Matsoukas, Queen & Slim is a romantic, fugitive road movie with a state-of-the-nation feel. After an awkward first date, a traffic stop escalates out of hand, resulting in one dead police officer, shot in self defence, and two black civilians on the run. Their escape sees them take a tour through Ohio, Kentucky, Louisiana and Florida, their public profile growing, their actions inspiring both admiration and dismay amongst those they encounter.
It’s a confidently made film, evocative of a bygone era though set in the modern day, slow and tonally adept, with two wonderful performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith. We discuss whether it’s a noir and Turner-Smith’s unwitting femme fatale, the characters’ changes of costume, the way in which a variety of music expresses different elements of black culture with the effect of unifying them, the details and suggestions that build a holistic, believable world, what effect the reveal of the characters’ names has, and what significance faith might play.
Queen & Slim is a beautiful film that effortlessly expresses the struggles and oppressions of black Americans within a set of smoothly combined genres. It’s a true original, and a great experience.
Independent filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie team up with Adam Sandler for Uncut Gems, an energetic, evolving crime thriller set in Manhattan’s Diamond District. By the time we meet Sandler’s Jewish jeweller, Howard, he’s already embedded within a web of competing interests, desires and debts, as well as a gambling addiction – and the tension only mounts as problems grow worse.
The Safdie brothers and Sandler are all Jewish New York natives, the writer-directors in particular growing up, in part, around the Diamond District, where their father worked. There’s a specificity to the location and culture that the film captures beautifully, a richness to Howard’s characterisation, and the world he inhabits, that feels authentically observed. Howard’s need to take risks never allows the tension to settle – he can’t help but invite further trouble upon himself, so neither does the film let us calm down for a second.
Uncut Gems is a complex, character-oriented, engrossing work of edge-of-your-seat genre entertainment, and a terrific follow-up to the Safdies’ 2017 thriller Good Time, which we discuss a little bit (but not too much because José hasn’t finished it yet). Both Good Time and Uncut Gems are available on Netflix, and well worth your time. The Safdie brothers might not just be good – they might be greats.
Guy Ritchie returns to the guns ‘n’ geezers mine with The Gentlemen, a caper with a beautifully dressed and enjoyably playful cast. We discuss his stylish direction, ability to work with actors, the audiences that adore his work, how the film functions as fantasy, and its issues with being casually offensive.
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