Category Archives: Crime

#331 The Departed

(2006, Martin Scorsese)

“When I was your age they would say we can become cops, or criminals. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”

Once upon a time, Martin Scorsese had a tendency to cast Robert De Niro in every movie he made. However, as De Niro got older and more cynical, Scorsese has latched onto another actor to be his lead man – Leonardo DiCaprio. And today, we’ll be taking a look at one of the first major collaborations between the two: The Departed, a remake of Hong Kong action movie Internal Affairs.

In an Irish neighbourhood in South Boston, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), head of the Irish mob, approaches a boy in a local shop and steadily trains him up to be a mole in the police. Cut to several years later, and the boy, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), has successfully made his way into the Special Investigations Unit of the Massachusetts State Police, where he leaks information to Costello to help him resist arrest.

However, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), a fellow new recruit, has been sent undercover to infiltrate Costello’s crew due to his own familial connections with organised crime. Gradually, both men become aware of each other and they race to discover the other’s identity before their own cover is blown.

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#320 The Big Heat

(1953, Fritz Lang)

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better”

Today I’m reviewing a film noir! Awwwww yeaaaaaah!

The Big Heat stars Glenn Ford as Dave Bannion, a police detective investigating the death of fellow officer Tom Duncan. After a woman named Lucy (Dorothy Greene) tips him off that the case may not be as open-and-shut as it first seems, she soon turns up dead. Bannion begins investigating further, and finds himself receiving threatening phone calls, and a confrontation with a local mob boss results in the death of his wife. Now Bannion is on the trail of the truth, both for justice and for revenge! Read the rest of this entry

#316 The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie

(1976, John Cassavetes)

“I’ve got a golden life. Got the world by the balls”

I’ve encountered John Cassavetes exactly twice before on this blog in two films from 1968, one starring him and another directed by him. In Rosemary’s Baby, he had the dubious honour of casually announcing that he’d raped his wife in her sleep, and his movie Faces was a drab, meandering mess of a movie that said nothing and spent too long doing that. So my hopes aren’t exactly high for The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt.

Ben Gazzara plays strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli, who goes out to celebrate being free of a mob debt and ironically ends up back in debt to the mob due to gambling too much of his money away. In order to pay his debt, the mob demands that Vitelli take on a hitman job, to kill a Chinese bookie who’s been causing problems for the mafia. Read the rest of this entry

#314 Serpico

(1973, Sidney Lumet)

“The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry – it just gets dirtier”

Corruption in the police isn’t a novel concept in film, and despite the 1001 Movies book asserting that it was new at the time of this film’s making, it really wasn’t (film noir was already a thing, and covered this ground several times). But the fact that this is a true story exposing real corruption, that’s something that Serpico has going for it. As a result, I was very excited to see this. Did it live up to my expectations?

Al Pacino plays Frank Serpico, a police officer with good morals and ideals, with the desire to help people and achieve justice through his position. After excelling in uniform, Serpico is eventually raised through the ranks to plainclothes, and then it all goes wrong from there, as it slowly becomes apparent that his colleagues aren’t as honest as he is. And so begins an attempt to expose the corruption and improve standards in the force, at the expense of his own happiness and success.

Serpico opens dramatically, with the titular cop bleeding after being shot in the face and being rushed to hospital as various people are informed about the incident and there’s a general sense of foreboding and action and shouting down phones and it’s all very exciting.

Imagine my disappointment that this is about as interesting as the film gets for much of its running time. After this, the movie flashes back to his days in uniform, and begins to steadily take us through his career. The problem is, the movie seems unsure of how to shove several years into the space of an hour, so does do by rushing through what it feels to be key points. The problem is, it’s not always clear that scenes have gaps of months and even years between them, and sometimes it struggles to stay focused on things that are important to the central plot.

The point where I realised things were rushing and playing wildly with timeframes was a scene where Serpico is informed that he’ll get to work in plainclothes, and the very next scene having a character say to him, “you’ve been with us two years now” and making me wonder what the hell just happened.

As for the extraneous things that don’t help, there is a lot of focus on Serpico’s personal life, as he goes on dates with women. From what I can tell, these scenes were supposed to flesh out his character and make us aware of how much he identified with the 1960s counterculture, which helped fuel the conflict in his life, but generally, everything felt rushed and poorly constructed, leaving the viewer feeling like these scenes were a distraction. In fact, I only found out that Frank Serpico identified with the counterculture movement through independent research for this review, and only then realised that’s what the film was going for.

When the movie remembers what it’s about and maintains a focus on his drive to expose corruption, there’s quite a bit to like here, but it’s so bogged down in external stuff that sometimes it made me wonder why I was bothering watching. It felt like there was ambition to tell a story about Serpico, but it wasn’t sure what to focus on.

It also didn’t help that often the corrupt cops were more of a faceless mass as opposed to individual characters, presented as Serpico and Those Other Guys. This made it harder to connect with Serpico’s plight. This made it harder to understand the corruption. We know the cops are on the take, we know they’re using impounded drugs, but the extent of all of this feels vague and almost imagined in Serpico’s eyes. The other cops felt like pantomime villains, not real people, and this is where I had a problem.

In addition, while Al Pacino did a generally good job of portraying the lead character, there were times when he veered far too much into silliness, especially as he got angrier, and as the movie progressed, while I recognised his goals as noble, I could no longer connect with him as a character.

Basically, all of this can be summed up by me stating that Serpico was a massive disappointment. I expected more. I wanted an exciting cop drama. I wanted a tense thriller. I did not want a lumbering, confused mess of a movie that consistently forgot what it was trying to do.

Starring Al Pacino
Written by Peter Maas (book) and Waldo Salt & Norman Wexler
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Roger M. Rothstein & Martin Bregman
Music by Mikis Theodorakis & Giacomo Puccini
Cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz
Edited by Dede Allen, Richard Marks, Ronald Roose & Angelo Corrao

Favourite Scene: Any time the movie actually got on with what it was supposed to be doing.
Scene That Bugged Me: Al Pacino slams a chair against the floor repeatedly in a rage. This was silly and unnecessary.

Watch it if: You like rambling stories about cops
Avoid it if: You want a clear account of Frank Serpico’s life

#296 Touch Of Evil

(1958, Orson Welles)
“In any free country a policeman is supposed to enforce the law”

Hey look, it’s another film noir! I’m getting pretty happy with how often these seem to be turning up these days, so today I’m particularly happy. This one is an Orson Welles film too, so hopefully it’ll come with a Citizen Kane level of sheen. Let’s take a look shall we?

Touch Of Evil is set around the US-Mexico border, with the star of the show being Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican drug enforcement officer newly married to Susie (Janet Leigh), an American. When a car explodes after passing onto US soil, an investigation is launched, headed up by Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a disgusting, overweight slob of a man. As Vargas assists with the investigation, he begins to question Quinlan’s judgement and suspects him of falsifying evidence for his own gains, causing him to launch his own investigation. However, this potentially puts his wife in danger.

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#284 Down By Law

(1986, Jim Jarmusch)

“America’s the big melting pot. You bring it to a boil and all the scum rises to the top.”

The last time I reviewed a Jim Jarmusch movie it was a Western, which probably wasn’t the best way to get introduced to him considering my track record with the genre. So maybe this movie will be better, since it’s a prison drama, and “prison drama” tends to evoke things like Shawshank Redemption and A Man Escaped, which I highly enjoyed.

Oh, the lead role is occupied by gravel-voiced blues singer Tom Waits? Well, um…I guess that’s not automatically going to make this bad, right? I mean, Björk was good in Dancer In The Dark, so being a singer doesn’t automatically make you a bad actor, surely…

Down By Law is about three men who meet in prison. Zack (Tom Waits), a radio DJ, and Jack (John Lurie), a pimp, have been set up, while Bob (Roberto Bengini) was arrested for manslaughter. The three men attempt to break out of prison and form an unlikely friendship.

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#280 Rope

(1948, Alfred Hitchcock)

“Nobody commits a murder just for the experiment of committing it. Nobody except us.”

It should be no surprise to anyone by this point that I’m quite fond of Alfred Hitchcock and his movies. So be warned, this is a Hitchcock review, so if you don’t want me to sit here and tell you how fantastic he was and why Rope is such a good movie, then feel free to sit this one out. Sound good? Okay, let’s get going.

Rope starts with the murder of David Kentley by his former classmates Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) in the duo’s apartment. They strangle him with a rope and stuff him in a chest in the lounge. Their reasoning is that they wish to commit the “perfect murder”, even going as far as holding a dinner party immediately afterwards. As the guests arrive, Brandon maintains a psychopathic calmness while Phillip’s panic and guilt threatens to reveal itself in front of the party. Cue the arrival of their former teacher, Rupert Cadell (James GODDAMN Stewart!), who begins to suspect them.

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#264 Thelma & Louise

(1991, Ridley Scott)
“You’ve always been crazy, this is just the first chance you’ve had to express yourself”

Feminism in film is often a thorny topic, one that centres on representation of women in cinema. Far too often, movies put men front and centre, leaving women to be side characters or leads in fluffy romantic movies only. It’s rare for women to be put front and centre in more demanding roles, and that’s before we even see some of the struggles women face and are still trying to deal with via feminism. But in 1991, Ridley Scott had a go at tackling the subject with Thelma & Louise.

In Arkansas, Thelma (Geena Davis) lives with an overbearing husband, causing her to be passive and withdrawn. Her best friend, Louise (Susan Sarandon), is much tougher and self-assured. Louise suggests a weekend away, and Thelma escapes and goes along. However, before their weekend can truly begin, Thelma is almost raped by a man at a bar. Louise saves her by shooting and killing him, leading the duo to go on the run to escape the consequences of this action.

Thelma & Louise is a sometimes-difficult movie to watch, from the uncomfortable rape scene to the realisation that Thelma’s naivety gets the duo into more trouble than it should. The rape scene does need to be mentioned, especially because of how unpleasant it is. I personally find rape one of the most reprehensible things a person can do, so I was not having a good time with that scene. Which I suppose means it did its job. But beneath all this difficulty is a very strong movie about friendship.

And what a friendship. Thelma and Louise are two very different characters that manage to bounce off each other incredibly well. Despite their vast differences, these two are believable as friends. It’s hard to say exactly what it is, but they do have excellent on-screen chemistry and it’s easy to see why Louise still sticks by her buddy despite the worst things that happen to them.

Both characters are also hugely sympathetic. Thelma is alarmingly ditzy at times, but her naivety has a degree of innocence to it, almost as if being with her controlling husband has reduced her to this state, especially with her increasingly coming out of her shell as the movie progresses. Louise is harder and sterner, but there’s a genuine affection for her friend, and the permanent sense that she’s been hardened through trauma. Both women are excellent characters played perfectly, and that was the main thing this movie needed to get right.

Performances are also excellent from the supporting cast. Brad Pitt is charming and sleazy in equal measure, Harvey Kietel is surprisingly sympathetic in his role as a “villain” and it’s hard to not feel sorry for Michael Madsen’s character for getting wrapped up in something he doesn’t know all the details of, but supporting Louise all the same.

The movie has had accusations of being “man-hating” and “anti-men”, and while certainly Thelma’s would-be rapist, Thelma’s husband and Brad Pitt (basically all men Thelma directly has to deal with, funnily enough) are all absolute shits, Kietel and Madsen are played sympathetically, which is especially odd with both of them famously playing amoral jewel thieves only a year later in Reservoir Dogs. There’s a balance between awful men and reasonably OK men. It’s just that everyone in this movie is a deeply flawed character, so it probably just seems that all the men are portrayed in a bad light. The heroines don’t get off much easier, after all. And in a world where everyone’s an asshole, isn’t that true equality?

The movie isn’t perfect. Some of the plot points are a tad melodramatic, and the increasingly extreme problems the duo face can get a little silly. In addition, Thelma’s naivety can get a little grating, even going as far as deciding that being on the run is the perfect time to get some sexin’ from a random man who openly admits to being a thief. This section of the movie also slows the pace a little too much in the context of everything else. But oddly, everything holds together well on the characterisation alone.

So, basically, the flaws are pretty minor. Thelma & Louise is ultimately an excellent movie about friendship, feminism and felonies, and I highly recommend it.

Starring Geena Davis & Susan Sarandon
Written by Callie Khouri
Produced by Mimi Polk Gitlin & Ridley Scott
Music by Hans Zimmer
Cinematography by Adrian Biddle
Edited by Thom Noble

Favourite Scene: Thelma pointing a gun at a police officer was pretty damn badass, it has to be said
Scene That Bugged Me: Seriously, now is not the best time to have sex with Brad Pitt!

Watch it if: You like road movies, revenge movies or movies about genuine female friendship
Avoid it if: You’re expecting a happy ending

#263 Strangers On A Train

(1951, Alfred Hitchcock)
“My theory is that everyone is a potential murderer”

Hello I am a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and this is often considered one of his best. Therefore today I am going to replace my normal review with a single sentence that says “it’s a Hitchcock movie, so yes”.

That’s a copout? Dammit. Fine, I’ll write a proper review. But only if you murder someone for me.

No, not really. But that is the plot of Strangers On A Train. Tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is looking to divorce his cheating wife Miriam (Laura Elliot) so that he can marry the more elegant Anne Morton (Ruth Roman). On a train journey, he meets a man named Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), and the two get talking. In the process, Bruno suggests the perfect murder – Bruno murders Miriam, Guy murders Bruno’s father, and neither will ever be suspected. Guy is naturally reluctant, but Bruno goes ahead and executes his part of the “deal”, and now expects Guy to uphold his end of the bargain.

When I first heard about the movie, the concept seemed incredibly implausible – who in their right mind would agree to commit murder with a random person on a train? But once I started watching, it made sense. One man is crazy and openly admitting to psychopathic tendencies and the other is reluctant and doesn’t know what to do about him, getting himself unwittingly involved in a murder without knowing.

The concept even manages to address its single plot hole – why doesn’t Guy just go to the police after some random man starts talking to him about murder? Granger’s performance makes it pretty clear that Guy is the kind of man who’d simply prefer to pretend it never happened, and that he was too awkward to approach the police. The fact this can be picked up rather subtly is a testament to the performances here.

Aside from Granger, who is an excellent everyman and hugely sympathetic for the bizarre situation he’s found himself in, Walker is also utterly terrifying as Bruno. He’s alarmingly polite and charming with an unmistakeable sinister edge, and he’s creepy as hell.

There are times, however, when he’s a little too over-the-top. There’s a scene at a party that Guy is attending and Bruno decides to crash where the latter skulks about being noticeably odd (which is commented on by other attendees) and even attempts to strangle a woman, but still escapes scot-free. It’s bizarre.

Then again, the conversation with the women that led to the strangling was hugely weird anyway. Casually discussing murder as if it’s some jolly romp and then allowing a random man to demonstrate strangling techniques on you is some strange form of ignorance that could only possibly exist in an alien civilisation that has no concept of murder or, I don’t know, the issues of letting a stranger put his hands on your neck!

Oddly enough, though, that scene was my only complaint. As is typical with Hitchcock movies, Strangers On A Train is tense and mysterious, drawing suspense not from a whodunit, but from wondering exactly what will happen to Guy if he doesn’t hold his end of the supposed deal. Will he do it? Will he try and escape? Where will this dangerous game lead?

And it all builds up to an incredibly dramatic climax involving a thrilling fight on an out-of-control carousel. It’s a little silly, but Hitchcock made it work within the film’s universe. The ending was also immensely satisfying and the final scene was another fine example of Hitchcock’s dark humour, and I loved it.

That said, it wasn’t as good as The Birds, Psycho, Rear Window or even Frenzy, but it certainly felt more tightly-woven together than Vertigo or Spellbound. It’s definitely somewhere in the middle, and it’s another example of why Hitchcock was one of the greatest directors of all time.

Starring Farley Granger, Ruth Roman & Robert Walker
Written by Patricia Highsmith (novel) and Whitfield Cooke, Czenzi Ormonde & Raymond Chandler
Produced by Alfred Hitchcock
Music by Dimitri Tomikin
Cinematography by Robert Burks
Edited by William H. Ziegler

Favourite Scene: When Guy appears to agree to hold up his end of the “bargain”, the movie is just dripping in tension and gluing me to the screen.
Scene That Bugged Me: That damn strangling scene! No, not the actual murder, the other scene!

Watch it if: You like Hitchcock, obviously
Avoid it if: You, for some reason, don’t like murder thrillers (what’s wrong with you?)

#259 Peeping Tom

(1960, Michael Powell)

“Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is? It’s fear”

We’ve talked about The Archers before. A British production duo consisting of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with Powell doing the directing and Pressburger doing the production, and the two of them sharing writing duties. Their films were typically very stuffy British movies about things like ballet and nuns.

That was until Powell decided to go solo and make Peeping Tom, a movie about a serial killer. So a detective movie then? A Hitchcock-style thriller of mistaken identity? Well, not exactly. The serial killer is the protagonist, and this controversial choice caused the end of Powell’s directing career as a result of the backlash the movie received. Interesting. Let’s take a look.

Peeping Tom follows Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), an amateur filmmaker in the process of making his secret masterpiece, a film about death that captures the expressions of women about to be murdered in gruesome detail. And how does he achieve these shots? Why, he goes out and kills women using a sharpened tripod, of course! Meanwhile, his neighbour Helen (Anna Massey) takes an interest in him and attempts to befriend him, unaware of his psychotic nature.

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