Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Killers (1946) – Review



The Killers is widely recognised as one of the great classics of what is now known as film noir – although that term had only just been coined by French critics at the time of its release in 1946. Not only is it one of the great classics, but it also includes many of the genre’s quintessential elements, and was made with the involvement of several of its foremost exponents.

Behind-the-scenes contributors whose names will be familiar to any film noir fan include director Robert Siodmak (The Dark Mirror, The Spiral Staircase, Christmas Holiday, Phantom Lady), a German √©migr√© who, along with others such as Fritz Lang, had fled to America from the Nazis, bringing a German expressionist sensibility to his Hollywood projects; writer John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle), who supplied the screenplay uncredited while moonlighting from another studio; cinematographer Woody Breddel (who had worked with Siodmak before on Christmas Holiday and Phantom Lady); and legendary score composer Miklos Rozsa (Double Indemnity, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Secret Beyond the Door, The Naked City). In front of the cameras, amongst an excellent cast, the stand-out performances come from two of the movie’s leads, Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster, both of whom would go on to become big stars – although at the time, Gardner was a virtual unknown, and this was actually Lancaster’s screen debut.

The movie was billed and promoted as ‘Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers’, but in fact the Hemingway source was a short story that provided only enough material to fill the first 12 minutes or so of the narrative. That opening segment is in some ways the most memorable part of the movie. It features the arrival in a small rural town of two sharply-dressed big-city hit men – one of them played by William Conrad, who would gain fame decades later as corpulent cop Cannon in the American TV series of that title – who have been sent to kill Lancaster’s character, a former prize-fighter nicknamed the Swede. The high-contrast lighting here, as the killers approach and enter a roadside diner, is classic film noir, the two menacing figures passing from deep shadow to bright light and back into deep shadow. In a nicely circular piece of cross-pollination, the design of the diner exterior set is clearly influenced by American artist Edward Hopper’s famous 1942 painting Nighthawks, which itself had been inspired by Hemingway’s original short story 'The Killers'. The design of the gas station opposite the diner, where the Swede works as a mechanic, likewise seems to have been drawn from another Hopper painting, 1940’s Gas. The only negative point of these early diner scenes is that some of the dialogue here, drawn directly from Hemingway’s short story, arguably works less well on screen than on the printed page, seeming somewhat affected and overdone by comparison with the more naturalistic approach of the remainder of the movie.

That remainder, storylined uncredited by Richard Brooks before Huston was brought in as writer (the credited writer, Anthony Veiller, who received an Oscar nomination for the script, actually had little to do with it, bar overseeing Huston’s work), presents us with what has been described as a kind of jigsaw-puzzle of a plot, as we see insurance investigator Jim Reardon, played by Edmond O’Brien, look into the Swede’s murder, and the action unfolds by way of a series of flashbacks – a typical film noir technique. The central scenario involves a heist – the theft of a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of staff wages from a hat manufacturing company (a credible idea in 1940s America, when it was virtually unthinkable for a man to go out without wearing a hat!) – and sees the Swede caught up in a web of criminal activity and double-crosses. This is largely due to his infatuation with Gardner’s character, Kitty Collins, a dark-haired femme fatale who, in typical film noir style, lures him away from a blonde-haired good girl character, Lilly Harmon, played by Virginia Christine.

If I’m completely honest, The Killers is a movie I’ve always admired a little more than I’ve loved. As absorbing as Huston’s script is, it is difficult to empathise with any of the characters, and there isn’t as much on-screen chemistry as one would like to see between the Swede and Kitty Collins. There is, nevertheless, much to enjoy and appreciate here – in addition to the well-written script, the fine performances and Siodmak’s superb direction, there are excellent production values, with a surprisingly high-budget look to the sets – and this is such a key film noir movie that no fan of the genre can afford to be without a copy in their collection.

Blu-ray presentation

Unlike many other film noirs, The Killers is a movie that has already appeared in an excellent high-quality transfer on earlier DVD releases – the best version being a still-available Region 1 Criterion Collection DVD from 2003 that came packaged with a (much lesser quality) copy of Don Siegel’s 1964 remake and had a strong extras package, including an audio reading of Hemingway’s short story, and the only other screen version of that story, an early student film project by famed Russian director Andrei Tarkovski. The picture and audio upgrade offered by this new Arrow Blu-ray release is therefore not as great as might otherwise be the case – although it is still noticeable, the only glitch I spotted being a faint tramline that appears down the screen for a couple of minutes in a couple of places – and the extras are actually less extensive than those of the Criterion Collection DVD, including neither the Siegel remake nor the short Tarkovski version, nor even Hemingway’s short story. However, this is still a terrific package.

As with the Criterion Collection DVD, there is an isolated music and effects track, a gallery of stills, posters and promotional material, and an American radio adaption of the movie – which somewhat bizarrely featured Siodmak himself in a supporting actor role, alongside Lancaster and, stepping into Gardner’s shoes, Shelley Winters, another actress with established film noir credentials. Also included are a couple of more tangentially-related radio spots not found on the Criterion Collection release. More substantially, there is a roughly hour-long specially-produced piece in which film noir expert Frank Krutnik explains the movie’s background. This fulfils a similar function to an interview with a different expert on the Criterion Collection release, but is superior in that it includes a commentary on several key scenes, offering some excellent insights and only occasionally resorting to simply describing the on-screen action. The other main specially-produced extra is a piece based on a previously-published academic essay looking at the theme of heroic fatalism, as demonstrated by the Swede’s death in the movie. This is also very interesting, although (perhaps inevitably) there is some significant overlap with the information provided in Krutnik’s interview. Rounding off the whole package is a nicely-presented 40-page booklet including lots of information relating to the film, illustrated with some nice black and white stills – a good extra in its own right.
All things considered, this Arrow release, making an outstanding film noir available in Blu-ray quality for the first time, is highly recommended.

Stephen James Walker

Thursday, November 27, 2014

More Merchandise from Tarco

Tarco, who produced a rather nice range of Vending Machine figures last year, have several more items now available, with more to come in 2015.

Available now is a Sticker Set collection, comprising 6 different boxes, each containing 20 stickers.

A Dalek box
A Tardis Box
A Mixed box with Tardis, Vastra, Sonic screw driver and Vastra / Strax
A Cyberman box
A Stax box
A Weeping Angel

Each box is tiny (it has to be in order to fit in the vending machine ball) and around 4cmx3cmx2cm. Thus the little stickers inside are also tiny. Each box contains 5 each of 4 different designs, and despite the teeny size, they are all very nice indeed.

Just released is a second set of figures:

Weeping Angel

Unlike the first set of figures, which were based on the more stylised characters from the animated game, this second set are screen-designs and thus more accurate.

They are all very nicely modelled and painted - again each is only around 4cm high! The Cyberman is a little stylised, with a large chest and tiny waist, and the Adipose is of course just cute!  I like that the TARDIS is slightly smaller at the base, giving it a sort of stretched look - but this just makes it unique!

And coming late December/early January is a set of little mini-viewers, each containing 8 screenshots from the shows transmitted during 2013:
The Time of the Doctor
The Day of the Doctor
Nightmare in Silver
The Angels take Manhattan
Cold war
Asylum of the Daleks

These items are rather lovely. Each is a little tiny viewer - and those with long memories will remember the old Viewmaster sets of years past. Again the viewers are minute - around the 4cmx3cmx2cm mark, and have a small viewing hole through which can be seen the slides which are moved on by pressing a button on the top - its a mechanical action though - no batteries!

All the episodes chosen were part of the 50th anniversary year, and take in all the current staples of Daleks, Cybermen, Angels, Ice Warrior and of course the Doctor.

For just £1 each, these are rather lovely, and a nice way to remember the episodes in question.



Saturday, November 15, 2014

Doctor Who: Finale!

Finally succumbed and got round to watching the two-episode WHO finale last night ... and it wasn't as bad as I feared. In fact, I quite enjoyed it. The plot made sense (of a sort) and the elements which were a little 'mad' were no 'madder' than things that the show has presented before - at least pretty much everything was explained (sort of - there are some niggles from earlier in the season which were not resolved). I liked the female Master idea, and was pleased that she wasn't as bat-shit-crazy as John Simm played him - and as the Master doesn't have a 'real' body any more anyway (after the TVM when he was a plasma snake which could take over other people's bodies - an extension of what we saw at the end of KEEPER OF TRAKEN) then there's no reason why he couldn't have a female persona. I like the 'Dark Water' idea and the Cyber-reveal (even if it was only there for that purpose), but the idea of the Cyber-nanites reanimated all the dead was a little silly - surely after a time, the bodies would have decayed to the point that there's nothing left but bone, and that's not really of much use to create a Cyberman. Likewise the Dark Water only revealing skeletons would have been better if there had been other organic tissue revealed as well - there's more in those suits than just bone (as we saw when Danny-Cyberman was revealed at the end. Their voices had changed again (as per tradition I suppose) and were more like the Judoon now ... still not a patch on the sixties ones. I thought the Brigadier bit was silly mainly because there was no explanation as to why, of all the millions of Cybermen, it's only Danny and the Brigadier who can still think independently ... and if it was *all* of them could do this, then I suspect the Cyber-invasion would never work in the first place. Unless of course that the Master's mad plan is basically fatally flawed in this regard ... in which case they should have explained that.

What the conclusion didn't do, was to explain any of the plot holes and flaws of the earlier episodes. which rather suggests that they were plot holes and flaws rather than being part of some master plan ... So overall, for me, this is certainly the weakest season of WHO ever transmitted. While Capaldi as the Doctor was brilliant, he was sidelined by the scripts and not allowed to shine. The plots were far more in fantasyland than ever before (and with no reason for this, they stand out like a sore thumb) and lacked decent conclusions and feasible (or even any) explanations throughout. The whole Clara/Danny subplot kept bubbling to the fore when it should have remained a subplot, and genuine excitement was replaced by angst and talky schmaltz ...

I can see that I need to steel myself and re-watch the season (including the episodes I've not yet seen) so I can pen a proper review of it ... noting the elements which didn't work for me and trying to explain why that is ...

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Doctor Who: Deep Breath / Into the Dalek / Robot of Sherwood

Goodness me, it's been a long time since I posted anything here ... things have been very busy however - we moved house, madness ensued, lots of work, lots of things to keep me busy and away from blogging about anything ...

But now we're settled in, and we've been watching some great stuff on telly and on DVD (I need to talk about CATWEASLE in another post!) but this one is about the new WHO on telly of course ... and trying to catch up a little.

So we have a new Doctor in the very Scottish form of Peter Capaldi. Nothing wrong with that ... Tom Baker was from Liverpool, as was Paul McGann, Sylvester McCoy and David Tennant were Scottish, and Chris Eccleston was definitely from 'The North' ... but this is the first time that we have had such a Scottish Doctor ... with an accent broader than the actor's normal voice (whereas David Tennant used an English accent for the role).

I was sort of okay with the casting choice. I'd long thought it was time for an older Doctor anyway, and this was certainly a step in the right direction. I was interested to see how the Doctor/Companion relationship would develop since just about every one since 2005 had been a girlfriend/boyfriend sort of vibe, with the companion yearning after the Doctor like a puppydog. Not so good for the WHOish Drama, but brilliant to get character identification among the target audience who seemed to be teenaged girls ... Strange that, as all of the merchandise was targeted at pre-school kids or boys ...

Anyway, I was looking forward to it all ... so 'Deep Breath' (see what I did there?) ...

Oh it was awful. A feature-film length story which could have been so so good, but which was a mish mash of ideas and themes and old characters which ended up dragging interminably.

Dinosaurs swallowing the TARDIS and appearing in Victorian London where robots are harvesting people to use to repair themselves so their spaceship can take off again, while Mme Vastra (a Silurian), her 'friend' Jenny (a human) and Strax (a Sontaran) run about revealing themselves to everyone without even a murmur of surprise (I thought Vastra wore the veil to disguise her true nature), the robots taking the Dinosaur's optic nerve, people spontaneously combusting (caused by the robots), and a new Doctor who Clara seems so wary of (why? She knows he can change his appearance and has met several of his earlier incarnations even if you take on board the apparent idea that all her memories are like a dream to her), and Clara flirting with a bloke at School for no reason, and gratuitous violence as the robot man falls to his death impaled on the spire of a church ... and then there's the rubbish with another Scottish character called Missy ... really I could care less about that.

It was all so rushed in the wrong places, convoluted and complicated, boring as heck in other places and very uneven.

About the only thing I like was the Doctor, but even here he seemed ill at ease, stumbling through the wreckage of a plot seeking some enlightenment.

I watched the episode with several other people, and all agreed it was awful.  The next day we all watched 'Spearhead from Space' and all agreed it was brilliant and so much better than the plotless thing that we had seen the night before. It too introduces a new Doctor (Pertwee) and has monsters harvesting parts to complete themselves, it also has a coherent plot, motivation, and a Doctor who takes charge and is always watchable, even in the comic scenes ...

So not too impressed with the season opener there ... but maybe things will get better, and with Phil Ford's 'Into the Dalek' they did. Now this episode I loved. Of course we'd been here before with 'The Invisible Enemy' (when it was the Doctor's body that the minaturised Doctor and Leela have to get into - you need to watch the story to understand how and why) but here it is a Dalek which needs to have some internal corrections made, and so the Doctor, Clara and a bunch of soldiers are miniaturised and head off inside it.

The idea of a lone 'good' Dalek had been done before as well (in 'Dalek') and antibodies had been done before (in 'Let's Kill Hitler') but the script made sense, and the acting was all top notch - I loved seeing Michael Smiley as a Colonel here and loved him too as Tyres in SPACED ... What I could do without was all the rubbish with Clara and Danny Pink ... I'm just not interested in their relationship or how it develops. I'm also not at all interested in who Missy is or what this Heaven place is that dead people go to ... it's all too maguffiny for me, and obviously leading somewhere ... but I'm strangely just not bothered.

So the story pans out nicely, but the Doctor is very grumpy ... I'm not sure why he's so against the soldier girl travelling on with him just because she's a soldier ... a strange reason. But I assume that the Doctor is as he is being portrayed because of some deep seated traumas of all the events of the last few years ... including of course having his own timeline turned inside out, and having to cope with multiple Doctors and rescuing Gallifrey from a three dimensional painting, and defeating the Daleks (again) or something like that ...

I felt that the second episode should have been the season opener, it was much better plotted and paced, and actually felt like it achieved something ...

And then we're off to merrie olde England and Sherwood Forest for an adventure with Robin Hood, who shouldn't exist, but does ... and so the Doctor and Clara become embroiled in an adventure in tights, with an evil sheriff and mysterious robots.

What is it with robots this season - every story seems to feature them!  Anyway, due to public sensitivities about what was happening in the real world, a beheading was cut from the story, and with it the explanation of the title - that the Sheriff was a robot as well as the robots, and they all wanted to get gold to escape from the Earth - using the metal to melt down and create power boards for their spacecraft.

And thus the most rubbish element of all comes into play. The thought that you could actually shoot an arrow made of gold in the first place ... it would be far too heavy to go any distance at all, regardless of the skill or strength of the archer. And second ... why does shooting it into the side of the ship make any difference at all. The gold that powered the ship was made into plates - we saw them doing it earlier in the story!  So even if the arrow could hit the ship ... why did it give it more power.  This is an example of the frankly awful plotting that WHO seems to have this season. Things happen for no reason. The arrow could have hit a vital component and made the ship explode. It could have hit and killed the pilot (shades of 'The Time Warrior' - this season is borrowing from past WHO all the time, so one more would make little difference) ... indeed anything other than the explanation they gave would have worked ... very disappointing.

But overall I liked the episode. The acting is good, the characters well thought out, and the direction exciting and dynamic.  Did they ever explain just how Robin Hood - a fictional character - was alive and well though?  And while the Doctor 'flicking the bird' at Robin when he encounters him on the log is nice, is it something the Doctor would do?

So overall, two hits and one massive miss in the first three episodes of the season ... but how will the rest fare. I have to say that as a long term fan, it would really take a lot to make me stop watching ...