Tag Archives: heist film

A Note on The Asphalt Jungle

I’ve seen this great heist film, one of the very darkest of noirs, before. What makes this noir different from all the others is that each character is not only mired in an underworld of greed, corruption and crime but also possessed of a kind of grace, be it Dix Handley’s (Sterling Hayden) code of honour in relation to his friendships and his dignity, or the kindness that’s at the core of Alonzo D. Emmerich’s (Louis Calhern) elegant putridness.

What struck me most this last viewing were the following:

a)It hadn’t quite registered before how striking and original are the compositions of the images in the film. I’ve included a selection below; everything is elegant but also off-kilter, like throwing a curve to the classical; motivated, expressive, almost standard; but by not quite being so making one see things afresh. Often, the camera is placed quite low so one’s always looking up at characters that loom but that are also hemmed-in by ceilings, lamps, shades, doorways

 

b)I was struck anew by Sterling Hayden’s handsomeness in this film. His Dix Handley is someone who once had it all but lost it, doing his best to get it back but also prone to quick excitement and danger, making a quick buck with a gun but losing it just as quickly on the track. The scar on his face a symbol of the scars he carries inside. The combination of Hayden’s handsomeness, the sadness in his eyes, and the elegant resignation of his bearing evoke fatality (see below). A man dreaming of the fields and horses of his youth but taking a detour on the road to nowhere.

 

c) Seeing Marilyn Monroe, in one of the first roles in which she made an impression — the other this same year was as a graduate of the Copacabana School of Acting in All About Eve — one is struck again by her charisma. She commands attention and gives this odd impression of being at once amateurish, inept — her line readings are hesitant, artificial — and authentic; of completely being that young girl using herself up with old men who can buy her the things she hopes will make her happy. She’s both fake and real, and at each instance sparks a dialectic where through the falseness she evokes something real and true, the surface but a pathway to depth.

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Marilyn

d)I’d forgotten that the ‘Doll’ in the film is played by Jean Hagen, later to be everybody’s favourite character from Singing ‘in the Rain, the immortal Lina Lamont (‘I caiiin’t staaanhd it’). If, like I, you’ve wondered why the purveyor of such a great performance never became a star, you’ll find your answer here. Her ‘Doll’ is needy, loyal, desirious. The film gives her great moments, like the one below where she turns to Dix and takes her eyelashes off. But she also comes across as studied, and artificial, she’s ‘acting’ her carefully considered performance and comes across as too much and too coarse next to Haydn’s pointillism. She’s a better actress than Monroe but her ‘Doll’ comes across as less authentic, real and believable than Monroe’s Angela Phinley.

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Jena Hagen

e) What struck me anew watching the film is how beautifully fleshed out all the supporting characters are. Thus Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) is not only a safe-cracker but a family man with a child that’s ill and a wife who wants him out of the game. Good at his job, part of a large extended Italian family, a guy who’s kept awake nights by the health of his baby and not by the dangers of his profession. Or Dix’s pal, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), not only loyal to a fault but strong also, protective of the weak (his kicking out of the truck-driver who hates cats); victim of a life-long derision and abuse due to his being a hunchback (the conversation with Ciavelli’s wife) and putting his whole body into railing against injustice (the jail scene). Each character is given so many facets that when they come to the fore in the moments they´re given,  they do so on top of carefully textured depth and evoke a character in a world that is connected to but also distinct from the film’s main narrative. Of these, the one that stands out most is Sam Jaffe’s Doc Irwin Riedenschneider, the mastermind of the heist: intelligent, cool, a man who goes about his business weighing the odds calmly until distracted by a pretty girl. The role and Sam Jaffe’s performance of it are surely one of the treasures of film history.

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Sam Jaffe as Doc Irwin Riedenschneider

f) The last thing I wanted to comment on here was the symbolism of the final shot. The whole film has taken place at night, in the darkness, viewed only through shafts of light, in the city, the Asphalt Jungle. Dix’s drive has been to return home, to the horse and the farm that were taken away from him. He admits this history to Doll, this past that’s sparked a longing much stronger than his for her, a desire for a place —  whether she’s in it is by the bye –a quarter of the way through the film. The only moment of greenery and light is in that shot. He reaches the farm only to die on it, the horses that were his dream and his friends, now licking his corpse. Is it heavy-handed? I don’t think so. For Dix what drove him into the Asphalt Jungle was that loss, regaining the farm and the horses has been what’s propulsed him through the narrative; and in a world where there’s no way out, it makes sense that the only way he’ll reach that farm is as a corpse.

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The Asphalt Jungle gets greater with each viewing.

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 95 – King of Thieves

A heist movie for the twinkly wrinklies, with a nostalgic and homophobic angle we disliked. Based on the true story of the 2015 Hatton Garden burglary, King of Thieves features an all-star British cast and one joke: they’re all old.

Mike is keen to give the film credit for its charm early on, as well as its sensitive depiction of the sense of loss felt by Michael Caine’s recent widower. But the film is uninspiringly shot, incompetently and unwisely edited – it’s absolute mayhem – and when it swaps its charm for aggression after the heist, it loses all interest. Ray Winstone comes in for particular criticism from José, and Mike explains why he found The Theory of Everything wanting.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, USA, 1959)

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A heist film where the heist itself is secondary to the exploration of racism, of which there is no greater indictment in 1950s American Cinema than this great Robert Wise film, Odds Against Tomorrow. According to Phillip French in The Guardian, ‘This was the favourite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw it 120 times before directing his noir masterwork Le deuxième souffle’.

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‘You little pickanninny’

 

The film’s noirishness comes not only from depicting lives being lived underground, mainly at night, in jazz bars and seedy hotels; where the edges of criminality are crossed and re-crossed, in a black and white often filmed in infra-red stock so that the skies themselves seem black, but also by making race the film’s over-arching theme: from the moment an ex-con affectionately picks up a young girl playing on the sidewalk and says, ‘you little pickanniny, you gonna kills yourself playing like that, yes you are!’, the first line spoken in the film,  to the last one, where two policemen look at the charred bodies of the two failed bank-robbers played by Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte and say, ‘which is which, take your pick’.

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Every noir trope in the book

In the grand scheme of things the colour of one’s skin might not matter, but in the day to day it can push you out, kick you over and burn you up to the point of extinction. Odds Against Tomorrow depicts that trajectory in a noir style, using practically every noir trope in the book, making the most of the black and white photography it deploys and experiments with, and making black and white the very subject of the film.

 

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A film in which even a child’s playground is rendered a world of shadows and violence

The plot revolves around a heist organised by Burke (Ed Begley), a disgraced cop who feels he’s got a sure thing pulling a bank robbery in a small town in upstate New York with a big enough pay-off to dig him out of the hole he finds himself in: ‘They sure changed the colour of your skin when they rehabilitated you at Sing Sing’; ’50 grand can change it back!’

To get the job done, he brings in Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) for muscle and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to drive the getaway car and also to impersonate the diner delivery boy who is the key to opening the back door of the bank. Both initially refuse but are then driven to accept: Earl due to the self-hatred incurred by living off his girlfriend’s money; and Jonny by the mob’s setting of a deadline on which to pay his gambling debts or risk violence to his ex-wife and child, something to heed as this is a film in which even a child’s playground is rendered a world of shadows and violence (see above). The trio, tenuously held together by greed at the beginning, is fatally fractured by Earl’s racism: ‘You didn’t say nothing about the third man being a nigger!’. This is a film in which racism infects and destroys everything, even a bank heist.

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Central Park

Has New York ever seemed so bleak, lonely, alienating?  Has Central Park ever been so empty? Wise and cinematographer Joseph C. Brun show an external world of skyscrapers, with puddles full of junk, and the junk that doesn’t end in puddles windswept past our protagonists, often pictured alone in empty streets, framed against black skies and looming skyscrapers.

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Empty Streets

Indoors, people tend to be filmed from a low angle looking up at characters cramped in by life’s burdens and low ceilings (see below), and in wide-angles that distort the edges of this world whilst highlighting the spaces between people.

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cramped in by life’s burdens and low ceilings

There are a lot of zooms also, deployed here not only to show us what the characters see but to emphasise the great distance between people, barely within sight and far away but connected, coming into view from great distance.  Even upstate New York’s normally majestic countryside is here used to isolate the characters, and when we get a closer look we see that here too people’s lives are framed by flotsam, jetsam, barbed wire, shadows (see below).Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 13.43.03

In what must be one of the earliest instances in the history of Hollywood Cinema of a black star packaging their own films, Harry Belafonte produced and gave himself a great, multi-layered and spectacular role. His Johnny is a man of great talent and beauty, catnip to women but angered by the knowledge that, as he sings in the last line of the clip below, ‘I just can’t make that jungle outside my front door.’

Johnny refuses the assimilationist tendencies pursued by the ex-wife he still loves, angered by what he sees as her bringing up their child believing in another white man’s con. He’s torn by a love of a fast life he can’t afford — his white sports car, the clothes, the clubs, the horses — and his attempts to at least be a good father. In this tension he’ll be brought so low that even a punk faggot messenger boy on the edges of the mob will feel he’s got enough power over him to make a pass. The clip of that moment excerpted below — a rare moment of gay visibility in in one of the few genres that would accommodate it — encapsulates  a contest of power and conflict by two types of subalternity in which power, desire and anger commingle, and is one of the many great moments in the film.

 

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Robert Ryan as Earl: At ease with his body and confident in what he’s got to offer Gloria Grahame’s character

The extent to which men’s bodies are put on display — and the various ways in which that display is made meaningful — is extraordinary. One would expect Harry Belafonte’s looks to be made much of. How could a film starring one of the handsomest men of the 1950s avoid that? However, see also Robert Ryan’s Earl Slater in the two clips with Gloria Grahame excerpted below. Earl’s an aging con, out of prison and unable to find a job because of that. He’s being kept by his girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters) who’s crazy in love with him. He knows it too, and there’s a suggestion that he’s not without feelings for her. But as he says, ‘I spoil everything I can’t help it. I just have to spoil everything’. He spoils it with her when he so much as tells her that what she likes about him is the fucking she gets but what will happen when he gets old? ‘You’re already old!’ she says as she flees the room crying. After that he feels free to get it on with the upstairs neighbour he’d turned down earlier, the glorious Gloria Grahame, who makes the most of her two short scenes here (see clip below).

First meeting with Gloria 

Earl’s  a man whose only power has been that which his big and powerful body has afforded him…and he’s ageing. He’s worried about getting old but know he’s still got enough power to beat the young soldier at the bar (a young and skilled Wayne Rogers in one of his early roles, over a decade before M*A*S*H made him famous). In the clip above, see how the camera shows him taking his shirt off, first for us and then so that Gloria Grahame can make her usual memorably sexual entrance and say, ‘what’s going on in there, an orgy?’ And you get the sense that, if there was, she’d like to join in; and if there wasn’t, she’d like to start one with him.

In the second clip excerpted below note how this time Earl is receptive, sweet-talks her into coming into the apartment and then note the way he sits on the chair, showing her the body he’s got to offer, and his confidence in what that body can do to and with her. It’s a scene full of sexual tension and danger that emanate from a male body on display, a male body powerful enough to have killed a man.

Second Meeting with Gloria

One of the things that makes this film so great is that it is patterned and cohesive but also that the expressive rendering of those elements that clearly contribute to the whole leave room for the ineffable. The scene below is about the emotional strain Johnny’s under. As Annie (Mae Barnes) tells us at the end of the sequence, ‘that boy is in big trouble’. But the reason he’s in big trouble is not just that he owes money he doesn’t have to the mob, it’s that loving his child and ex-wife as he does makes him vulnerable. ‘Don’t Ever Love Nobody,’ he screams at the crowd. Thus the song, ‘All Men Are Evil’ points to the way that Johnny is and is not. It dramatises the ambivalence, the way human beings are complex, multifaceted, with feelings and impulses that are often contradictory. But joy in the ineffable offered by the clip below is to me simpler and more complex than that. It’s the movement in Mae Barnes chest and shoulders as she moves to the music before beginning to sing her song. What does that convey: confidence, sass, ease, defiance. I’m not sure why I love it so.

There are many other things one can discuss about this film: It was written by Abraham Polonsky,  my favourite writer of hard-boiled dialogue in the Studio Era (e.g. ‘life is just addition and substraction — everything else is conversation’, from Body and Soul). Polonsky was blacklisted in those years and had to use a front. The film was credited to John O Killens before Ponlonsky’s credit was restored in 1996.

In a very interesting piece for Sight and Sound, filmmaker Paul Ticknell also discusses the film’s relation to the heist film. ‘Odds Against Tomorrow is best described as a noir-ish heist movie,’ he writes. ‘The heist movie often concerns itself with process – a minute but exciting examination of some spectacular robbery or kidnap. It also likes to linger over the fallout when the job goes wrong. But Odds Against Tomorrowshows little interest in the planning and mechanics of its heist – a bank robbery in a small industrial town outside New York. What really distinguishes the film is its concentration on what goes wrong beforehand – so much so that the robbery only occurs at the very end of the film’.

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Gloria eyes Robert Ryan

The film also features the most extraordinary use of the vibraphone I’ve ever seen in film and the jazz score for the film continues to be highly praised. The film was screened as part of a restrospective featuring great jazz scores at MOMA in New York and J.B. Spins’s review noted:

Effectively supporting the film is a moody, dramatic score composed by pianist John Lewis, best known for his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet and his Third Stream jazz-classical innovations. There were actually two official Odds Against Tomorrow LPs, both involving John Lewis. The first was the actual soundtrack of Lewis’s jazz-flavored orchestral themes and cues. It was recorded by a large ensemble, including Jim Hall, Joe Wilder, and Lewis’s three colleagues from the MJQ (Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay), with Bill Evans filling the piano chair.

The MJQ with Lewis on piano also recorded a full jazz album in which they stretch out and elaborate on some of his Odds themes. The soundtrack album is pleasant enough, but the MJQ record is an underappreciated classic, at times much more upbeat than its original source material (let’s hope for another reissue in the near future). Not appearing on either record is a brief vocal performance by Mae Barnes appropriately singing “All Men are Evil.”

It’s aspirations are evident in what it borrows from, and we can see how the ending is an homage to/ borrowing from Cagney’s great last gasp in the marvellous White Heat (see below). But there it was all ‘Top of the world, Ma’; here it’s race can’t be discerned from charred corpses, inside we’re all the same.

Odds Against Tomorrow is a great work that, in spite of all the praise heaped on it recently, remains relatively neglected and deserves to be more and better seen.

 

José Arroyo

Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan (Henri Verneuil, France/USA, 1969)

 

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I was amused to see that in the opening menu of the French DVD for Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan, we’re invited to click on ‘Lecture du film’, instead of ‘Main Film’ or merely ‘Film’, thus inviting us to read, or engage in a reading. Of course, viewing always involves making sense of things, but ‘a reading’ also implies that there are depths, interpretations that need to be unearthed, complexities that need to be unravelled.

I found it rather funny because all of the pleasures that Le clan des Siciliens offers are shallow ones, which is not to say that they are not worth experiencing, or that they are so shallow as to not constitute pleasure at all.  Indeed the film offers many pleasures, all superficial, and each a  joy, beginning with the stars:  The publicity for Le clan des Siciliens advertised ‘Ensembles les trois grands du cinéma français’, ‘pour la première fois réunis à l’écran/ ‘French cinema’s three greats, together onscreen for the first time,’ a slogan which must have at least annoyed Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo and all the other French male stars who weren’t Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Lino Ventura.

Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan is very rewarding to look at as a genre piece; it is to a degree inspired by the jewellery heist genre, and the modish way of filming it, that made The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, USA, 1968) such a big hit the year previously. It also contains the hijacking of of an airplane that would feature so prominently in the Airport films and help turn them into some of the biggest blockbuster hits of the 70s. The film also foreshadows the interest in the Mafia that would  find such extraordinary expression in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films in the years to follow. And last but not least, in France it would revive popular interest in the ‘polar‘, the French crime thriller, an interest that has yet to wane.

The plot revolves around Roger Sartet (Alain Delon), a lifelong thief who Commissaire Le Goff (Lino Ventura) has finally brought to justice after many years. Sartet gets indicted but on his way to jail, he manages to escape the armoured and guarded vehicle transporting him there with the help of Vittorio Manalese (Jean Gabin), the head of a Sicilian clan with international connections operating from Paris. Manalese is just about to retire to his land in Sicily when Sartet comes to him with the perfect crime. Sex, double-crossings, money, jewels and the survival of the family itself will be at stake; all with Le Goff chasing Sartet’s tail and finding in the Manalese clan much more than even he bargained for. But though the plot is serviceable, it’s not what makes Le clan Sicilien such an exhilirating, if superficial watch. Here are some illustrations of the aspects of the film I loved most:

 

a) A mise-en-scène of various kinds of stardom, carefully deployed, and designed to be put to meaningful use, visually, narratively, and taking into account audience expectations to maximise the pleasures on offer.

b) Every shot is interesting to look at (far left), expressively lit (middle) and artfully composed (far right)

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c)  The shots, pretty, artful and beautifully lit as they are, are also composed to allow for plot and narration. Here, for example, director Verneuil and cinematographer Decaë — one of the very greatest —  create a composition that allows for the whole Sicilian clan to be seen. You see the grandmother, off-screen but relflected in the mirror knitting in the upper left hand corner, his children and son-in-law at table discussing the heist, Gabin centre and the recipient of all light, engrossed in the tv, a source of light, that will spur his grandchild, seen coming through the door-way with his mother, to reveal something he saw that will transform the narrative, that will twist the preceding events into the tailspin that will follow to the end. Significantly, the only one in the room but not onscreen will be the source of the trouble that will follow, the cause of the decimation of this ‘happy family’. It’s the work of at least very highly-skilled craftsmen

 

d) The kind of film that makes you want to find out where one can buy the accessories

 

 

e) The security system is what’s being discussed, the grand jewellery, by some of the greatest design houses of the century — Chaumet, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and others —  is what’s being shown

 

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f) A hint of the perverse within the clan, at least homophile if not homosexual

g) a truly great score by Ennio Morricone. I’ve put extracts below with and without images so you can hear the sound itself, and how dialogue is then interwoven with it. But later also the sound accompanied by images so you can see how expressively put together it is. Who cares that Gabin is the least convincing Sicilian ever? He’s clearly head of the food chain in every other department, rightly head of the clan, and the flute and that ‘Boing Boing’ sound — so distinctive but one I can’t name the source of — will so memorably accompany, announce and dramatise his fate and that of the other protagonists.

– sound

Lino and Gabin filming the last scene with Verneuil

– what Verneuil and Decae manage to achieve with the help of Gabin, Ventura and the other filmmakers in terms of sound and image

Le clan des Siciliens was a blockbuster success, with 4.8 million spectators in France alone. The film probably benefitted from the publicity generated by Alain Delon being involved in the Marković affair, where Delon was questioned for the murder of his bodyguard, Stevan Marković. As you can see in the wiki page for it, it’s a scandal that implicated the highest levels of government, not only murder but also a soupçon of sex, and threats that nude pictures of the wife of the future president of the republic would be exposed. Alain Delon was often suspected of having connections with the Corsican mafia, and that extra-textual knowledge, along with the recent scandal, undoubtedly helped make Delon believable as a mafioso. He’s a pleasure to look at but it is Lino Ventura and Gabin (even with his accent) that give the performances worth watching. They, the set-pieces and the way the film looks and move are what made the film a blockbuster hit and continue to be the source of the many pleasures the film offers, shallow as they might be.

PS

 

In Les mystères Delon Bernard Violet writes of how the hijack scene on the plain is considered a great moment in film history/ un grand moment du cinéma; and how Delon himself is described as ‘secret, élegant, doué, consciencieux, mûrissant’/ secretive, elegant, talented, conscientious, maturing’/; grave, inquiet, inquiétant, volontaire, beau’/ serious, troubled, troubling, willing, handsome’; ‘félin, secret, inquiet, lucide, désenchanté’/ feline, secretive, troubled, lucid, disenchanted’; séduisant, élégant, mystérieux, audacieux, maître de soi/ seductive, elegant, mysterious, audacious, master of himself’ 1. Not bad.

 

José Arroyo

 

All qyotes from Bernard Violet, Les mystères Delon, Paris: Flammarion, 2000, pp. 288-289