Dirty Harry (1971)

I am so glad that I finally crossed this classic off my watchlist. How on earth had I not seen Dirty Harry before? I don’t often watch action films in this vein but when I do, I question why I don’t watch more of them. I’d say that this classic is worth it.

A mad killer nicknamed Scorpio is stalking the streets of San Francisco,  the character being loosely based on the Zodiac killer of the same period. Police Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), nicknamed ‘Dirty Harry’ for his unconventional reputation on cases, is tasked with catching the murderer. Directed by Don Siegel, this would be the first of five films following Callahan on the job (most notably 1983’s Sudden Impact, you know, “make my day”).

In an age (as if it ever ceased) of cases where police officers have both mistakenly and deliberately gunned down innocent people and endless stories of the failure of the justice system to properly punish criminals, it’s actually kinda nice to see a member of the police force doing his unorthodox best to catch a killer. This is Eastwood at his best – cool and iconic with a sharp tongue. It’s a joy to watch. The debates on the morality of the character and the ideologies espoused in this film are honestly endless, and it would be imprudent for me to analyse them so pathetically here. Nonetheless, there’s plenty to talk about, so here’s my six little things about Dirty Harry.

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1) This film is a pretty bleak portrayal of American society in the 1970s – a curiously entertained crowd gathers to watch a man who is threatening to jump off a building, the seedy strip joints call to mind the New York of Taxi Driver (1976) and a sign reading ‘Jesus Saves’ dazzles in neon lights. Dirty Harry is a vision of a self-destructive American society in tatters after the turbulent 1960s and the conservative backlash personified by the election of Nixon in ’68.

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2) It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book but the whole ‘loner inspector is dismayed to find that his new partner is a college boy, only to discover that they work well together’ schtick is a nice addition to the storyline. Make no mistake though, this is Eastwood’s film.

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3) Callahan’s boss tells him, “You know, it’s disgusting that a police officer should know how to use a weapon like that.” This personifies everything that I loved about Callahan – he has an understanding of how these criminals work and cuts through the bureaucracy that can have fatal consequences in police departments. That, and his previous act of apprehending a naked man who was chasing a woman through a dark alleyway with a butcher knife.

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4) This was a really interesting shot – Callahan is torturing Scorpio who screams ‘I have a right to a lawyeeeeeeer’ as the camera zooms out across the field. It’s almost grotesque, much like most of the film that left me feeling uncomfortable.

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5) Speaking of, can it get anymore grotesque than Scorpio maniacally forcing the school bus of children that he’s just kidnapped to sing tunes such as Row, Row, Row Your Boat on repeat?

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6) Finally, could I possibly talk about Dirty Harry without mentioning this scene? I love watching a film that I haven’t seen before and yet feeling that scenes like this are etched into my memory, word for word. “You’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” While this early scene establishes Callahan’s credentials as an unconventional hard man, you look back and wonder if it was necessary. But maybe that’s just because it’s now folklore.

What better way to end this review than with an excuse to post music, here’s Dirty Harry by Gorillaz.

 

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Shanghai Express (1932)

Well, it’s been a long time between drinks but today I’m going to be reviewing Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932). The film calls to mind two movies that I’ve seen, Grand Hotel (1932) and Hitchcock’s later film The Lady Vanishes (1938). All three make great use of famous ensemble casts, and the latter film is similar to Shanghai in its interesting blend of suspense and comedy.

Shanghai Express is set on, wait for it, a train travelling from Beijing to Shanghai in 1931. There are people of various backgrounds on this train, including the notorious courtesan Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) and British Captain Harvey (Clive Brook), who have a “”past””. China is facing civil war and the train is attacked by rebels, with the passengers taken in to be questioned and used by the rebels’ leader. What follows is an entanglement of love, betrayal and misunderstanding, which I won’t go into for the benefits of space and spoilers.

Before I get into my six little things, I’d like to address the film’s race issues. Clearly, this is an American film (albeit directed by Austrian von Sternberg and starring the German Dietrich) from the early 1930s, and there is some heavy Oriental stereotyping going on here. It’s certainly cringeworthy and a little uncomfortable so I think it’s extremely important to recognise this serious issue. There’s a neat little line near the beginning where a multiracial character (played by Swedish actor Warner Oland in yellowface, ugh) is asked by an American to explain whether he’s ‘Chinese or white’. The character promptly dismisses and condemns his white ancestry. I thought it nicely conveyed the struggles of being caught between two worlds as well as an awareness of the outright rudeness of people. Unfortunately, this is ultimately undone when the character turns out to be the antagonist shortly after and hence he’s the stereotypical ethnic bad guy. A blog post by Kartina Richardson discusses the race issues of Shanghai Express very well.

Anyway, here are my six little things from Shanghai Express. (Fair warning: my copy of this film isn’t the greatest).

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1) “It took more than one man to change my name… to Shanghai Lily.” BOOM! Big, dramatic line delivered with aplomb, that’s what I like to see in an early 1930s drama.

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2) Two fabulous and provocative women, Magdalen/Shanghai Lily and Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), sharing a train berth because of the uppity moral disgust of their fellow passengers. I was getting envious just watching them smoke cigarettes and listen to Magdalen’s gramaphone. Unfortunately, Wong is severely under-used in this film. She doesn’t say much, as the contradictory kind of docile but suspicious Chinese stereotype, but Hui Fei is still an important character. She pretty much saves the day. All the awards for Hui Fei. Finally, I recommend learning more about Anna May Wong because her story shows the hardships of being one of the first, if not the first, Asian American film stars.

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3) This kiss between Magdalen and Captain Harvey that cuts away to the train whistle blowing its steam. Ah, how I love Pre Codes. (Just a reminder that the Hays Code also brought in the 3 second rule for kisses, which would remain for decades).

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4) The cut between Magdalen and Captain Harvey after their deceptive interaction. You can almost see the cogs turning in their heads as they plan their next move, Harvey wondering what to think and Magdalen trembling as she smokes. No dialogue, just the sound of the train running along the tracks.

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5) Shanghai Express won the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1932, and it’s not hard to see why. The chiaroscuro look, the use of shadows and light in this film, are striking and give moments such as this a very intense atmosphere. I could also make a whole blog post about Dietrich’s dazzling costumes in this film but I’ll restrain myself.

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6) The ending. It’s a nice, sweet relief from the tension of the film, although it is a bit jarring when contrasted with the rest of Shanghai Express. Perhaps a little disappointing.

I realise that this post has almost solely focused on the relationship between Magdalen and Harvey in the film, as well as a little on Anna May Wong’s character. To be honest, they’re my favourite elements and what I consider to be the most interesting parts of Shanghai Express. It’s worth a look for these reasons, along with the enjoyably tense plot.

Buffalo ’66 (1998)

I won’t lie, I prepared myself to hate Buffalo ‘ 66. Director Vincent Gallo’s films have been described as borrowing from David Lynch and John Cassavetes, although he says that this is false as he doesn’t really like either of them. Gallo has a pretty bad reputation as a sex-crazed narcissistic racist, and he ended up alienating most of the people he worked with on this film. With this film described as ‘semi-autobiographical’, I expected a misogynistic, narcissistic grungy piece. And yeah, I got that but I also ended up kind of adoring it.

I found myself trying to explain this film to my mother, as she’d caught part of the scene at Billy’s parents’ house and was intrigued. It was actually difficult to describe what happens in Buffalo ’66, because there’s so many little details that make the film what it is. A bare bones description of it would involve Gallo’s character, Billy Brown, leaving prison, kidnapping a girl (Christina Ricci) to be his fake wife in front of his parents and looking to kill the footballer who lost the Super Bowl for the Buffalo Bills, inadvertently sending Billy to prison. That synopsis leaves out so much of the magic of this film, which I’m going to now try to examine as six little things.

Just a note on this: I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions that I’m very cautious about calling this film a ‘love story’. I know that film is often about escapism but let’s not try and escape the fact that Billy Brown has kidnapped Layla and does a number of rather unsavoury things in general. This is very male-fantasy, Beauty and the Beast kind of stuff. That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable or a good piece of filmmaking, but rather something to keep in mind.

(Spoilers ahead).

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1) “If you make a fool out of me, I swear to God, I’ll kill you right there. Boom! Right in front of Mommy and Daddy. And I’ll tell you something else, you make me look bad… I will never ever talk to you again, ever.” It was from this darkly humourous point early on that I realised that there was more to Billy Brown (and indeed Buffalo ’66) than met the eye.

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2) Billy’s mom (an interesting performance by Anjelica Huston) laments missing the Buffaloes’ first Super Bowl win in 30 years because she was giving birth to Billy, “I wish I never had him”. To bring it home, you can hear the commentator from the TV saying “He’ll have to live with that for the rest of his life.” Combined with the animal abuse, the neglect and paranoia, you’re realising that Billy didn’t exactly have a normal, loving upbringing.

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3) The musical interludes. Whether it’s father Ben Gazzara miming to an old record (yes, more Ben Gazzara) or Layla’s little dance at the bowling alley, it almost feels as if we’re getting a look into the other characters’ mind and taking a break from the main story, considering this is a film definitely dedicated to its protagonist.

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4) Most of us have had that uncomfortable moment where we’ve bumped into someone from our past and felt embarrassed about it. Billy’s encounter with old crush Rosanna Arquette at Denny’s is awkward, and provides us with a further link to the film’s storyline as well as Billy’s life, down to his choice of Layla’s fake name.

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5) Sure, there’s probably a number of more subtle ways to show Billy’s thoughts but the little box fading out back into reality is an interesting concept. (Also, this is a fantastic sequence in general).

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6) That ending. Buffalo ’66 seems to be on a constant, narrow trajectory towards disaster up to the final 4 to 5 minutes. And it’s only when that doesn’t occur that you realise what a relief it is. Billy Brown is certainly a difficult character to understand, let alone like. But it’s as if being on this journey with him for the day has helped the audience understand him a little better, and I like that.

It’s clear from the backstory of Buffalo ’66 that Billy has been through a lot and has pretty warped perceptions as a result. Is that used to excuse his criminal and downright immoral behaviour in kidnapping Layla? Maybe, but in some ways I don’t think so. With this in mind, I think that’s why Buffalo ’66 works so well. I could talk for hours about all the little parts in this film but I should probably leave it there.

Husbands (1970)

I have to say that I was a little disappointed by this film. I’ve seen a number of John Cassavetes’ movies, and I’ve enjoyed them. Despite not having a strong plot, I think that Husbands is the most conventional Cassavetes film I’ve seen, apart from Opening Night. Although there’s a few odd camera angles and rambling scenes, I don’t think that there’s much to set this film apart as something truly special, which is a shame.

For those of you that haven’t heard of this film, here’s a basic rundown. Three friends, Gus (director John Cassavetes), Archie (Peter Falk) and Harry (Ben Gazzara) are mourning the loss of their friend, Stuart, who has suddenly died of a heart attack. Cue a two day bender. On returning home, Harry has a violent argument with his wife and decides to go to London – his friends join him. More drinking, gambling and awkward encounters with women. In essence, this is a film about male, middle-class, mid-life crises.

There’s a lot of Cassavetes’ signature scripted improvisation (worked through with Falk and Gazzara) and I could appreciate that, particularly early on. However, I felt that the film began to decline around an hour and 20 minutes in, when the men returned to their London hotel with their respective love interests. It was a little difficult to understand what was happening as their voices overlapped and it got a little boring. Perhaps that was the point but I think that this has been seen better through some of Cassavetes’ other films such as Faces.

Anyway, here’s six little things that I noted from Husbands (bear with me, this is the first time I’ve organised my thoughts this way!):

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1) Cassavetes doesn’t mind a little Jules et Jim reference.

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2) The singing contest at the bar. It turns a simple ‘drinking’ scene into one that is much more engaging. There’s just something about the three characters sitting there, judging people on their voices and whether it’s ‘speaking’ to them that says a lot about the men. What it says I’m not quite sure, but it’s fascinating anyway.

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3) Ben Gazzara in that little hat he’s stolen off a lady at the bar. Actually, let’s just say Ben Gazzara in general. Yeah. It’s been intriguing watching his work – and his character in this film is quite sensitive in comparison to his friends but also the most prone to violence.

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4) That short scene where Gus encounters an extremely nervous patient at work, after his bender. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve recently had dental work myself but I thought this scene was great. It conveyed the near-hysteria of nerves as well as Gus’ personality or current state of mind (in that he almost seemed to play along with the patient, rather than make her stop) really nicely.

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5) I’m going to break my own rule here and go with a ‘big’ thing. The lengthy scene whereby we witness the men’s awkward bedside interactions with English women is almost excruciating at times. It was hard for me to understand whether Gus and Mary were playing a game of cat and mouse or if she was an unwilling participant, and that made it difficult to watch.

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6) “Order Coca-Cola and then give me tongue!” Peter Falk’s inability to express himself in Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence (“It’s in the air! There’s a lot of babies around!”) makes his characters seem almost pathetic at times.

Husbands is still an interesting look at the lives of middle class men in late 60s suburban America for all its faults but I felt that it could have been executed in a neater fashion. Cassavetes would work again with both Falk (A Woman Under the Influence) and Gazzara (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night) so I’d suggest watching those films for a better idea of their work.

I’m going to leave you with an interview that the three did on The Dick Cavett Show to promote the film. Cavett called it his ‘worst ever show’ and although it’s not hard to see why, the three’s behaviour actually kind of highlights what Husbands is about, better than if they simply explained the premise of the film.

Six Little Things

This blog has been set up for film reviews and perhaps a little creativity and other stuff along the way. The namesake involves my attempt to describe ‘six little things’ about the films that I’ll be reviewing – they may be good, bad or just purely elements that interest me.

Interaction and requests are welcome!