#50: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) May 23, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Horror, Action, Thriller, 3 stars, 1970s, 2011 , add a comment
Assault on Precinct 13, it has always seemed to me, is an acclaimed cult classic of the action genre. I could probably find some references to support this — I know it’s on Tarantino’s list of the top seven exploitation movies, for starters — but for speed let’s just assume I’m right. Thing is, on initial impressions at least, I didn’t quite get that. It felt like an unexceptional low-budget ’70s exploitation B-picture to me.
It’s quite possible — indeed, it’s pretty much certain — that it is a low-budget ’70s exploitation B-picture, but one that for some reason stands above the others. I’ve not exactly seen many to compare. It’s reputation may also, I wager, be nostalgia based: what looked shocking or exciting or innovative to impressionable young audiences a few decades ago may not work quite the same now, when even cheap direct-to-DVD movies can afford some half decent CGI and the occasional actor you’ve actually heard of, never mind the feats a theatrical B-grade movie might pull off.
Anyway, back to the film in hand. It’s the last night at a rundown old police station. It’s manned by a skeleton staff because technically it doesn’t close ’til morning, but the phones have been disconnected and most of the equipment’s been taken, including the weapons. A prison transport arrives for a reason I can’t remember, wanting to put its handful of prisoners in the station’s cells. Then a man runs in the front door. No one in the police station ever finds out why he’s come (we do though, but I won’t say in case you’ve never seen the film), but following close behind him are a huge gang who lay siege to the cut-off station. So the cops and the prisoners must work together to fend them off.
Such is the plot, basically. Obviously there’s more to it, but I’m not aiming to explain the whole thing — the siege is the key element (note the “assault on” bit of the title) but doesn’t start until quite far into the film, hence the stretch of plot. The first third-ish of the film, where the ragtag group of people wind up in the station, is a bit random, but that’s also kind of the point: this group of people stand up to protect one man, even though they have no idea why he’s there. Very moving. Nonetheless, some of the machinations of the plot are a tad comical, like when the aforementioned man chases the gang: all but one of them run off for no good reason, letting him kill the one he’s after — by sheer luck, it seems — before they all come back to chase after him. Um, what?
The film is ostensibly an action movie, of which there is certainly some. The halfway shoot-out is an almost comedically repetitive symphony of bullet-ridden violence. Deliberately comedic, I wonder, or just laughable? By contrast, the finale feels rather short. Maybe it was to gloss over the implausible plan our heroes concoct, but there are a few jumps in there that feel a tad unnatural, like something’s been cut out. And how the cop is supposed to have made the impossible shot through all that smoke I don’t know.
I say “ostensibly an action movie” because there’s actually a fair dose of horror stylings in there too. The gang are real enough in theory, but they’re presented as a faceless hoard, performing voodoo-esque rituals, coming and going as if by magic, doing things our heroes can’t necessarily explain, attacking in almost random waves… They feel almost supernatural; one might go so far as to say they play more like zombies than an organised criminal force. It’s no surprise that Carpenter would next helm Halloween, a seminal horror movie if ever there was one, and later cement his reputation as a horror director with the likes of The Thing.
There’s a couple of good deliberately comic bits too, almost all of them coming from Napoleon, the main criminal, though they’re only good in a slightly cheesy ’70s action B-movie kinda way. Laurie Zimmer’s female lead, Leigh, is possibly the next best (or just best, but next-most-memorable) member of the cast. She’s only a secretary, but she’s a strong woman who holds her own, despite being shot in the arm. Seems it might be a shame her acting career was so short. I should probably also note that the main cop character is black and the main criminal is white, which I imagine was revolutionary in the ’70s. To be honest, it would probably go against the norm today — note how the remake reverted to (stereo)type.
More praiseful reviewers than I have described Carpenter’s film as “rough, raw” and “lean, mean, genre-defying”, which is true; others have noted that it’s “largely composed of borrowed pieces”, which might be right; and still others say there’s “no mistaking the modern racial and sexual politics encoded in the distinctly western elements”, which I also more-or-less agree with. And another says that, “like Night of the Living Dead, it offers a protagonist who is black, a morality that is grey, and social commentary in the guise of horror”. Neat. (All these quotes were quickly nabbed from Rotten Tomatoes; full attribution there.)
I can see why someone felt this was ripe for a remake. Critics soundly trashed that as “not as good as the original”, and that may well be the case; but maybe it’s just that a ’00s action B-movie couldn’t withstand the nostalgia attached to its ’70s counterpart. Or maybe this original represented something for its era that isn’t as present today — after all, most if not all of the most groundbreaking films of all time can/will look nothingy if watched many decades later without the appropriate context.
I did quite like Assault on Precinct 13 but, as has probably been made clear, didn’t quite identify with the love many hold for it. I suspect you had to be there.
See also my comparison of this and the 2005 remake here.
#43: Dog Day Afternoon (1975) April 16, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, Thriller, Crime, 5 stars, adaptations, 1970s, true stories, 2011 , add a comment
Director Sidney Lumet sadly passed away a week ago today. In tribute, I watched one of his many highly-regarded films…
On August 22nd 1972, John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturile attempted to rob a Brooklyn bank to raise money for Wojtowicz’s male wife to have a sex change operation. The ensuing hostage situation was watched live on TV by millions of New Yorkers. If you made it up people wouldn’t believe it — especially in the ’70s — which is why this film, closely based on those events, strives so hard for naturalism. And it succeeds, and then some.
There are multiple reasons it works so well, and I’m glad I for once got round to watching all the DVD extras because they reveal these factors very nicely. I’m going to use a liberal sprinkling of those facts as a way into my thoughts on the film, so if you’ve watched those features some of this may seem too familiar. Sorry.
Let’s start where all films do (well, should): the screenplay. Written by Frank Pierson, based on a magazine article about the true story, it was his screenplay that attracted both director Sidney Lumet and star Al Pacino to the project. It’s immaculately structured, from the excitement of the opening — a confused, amateurish bank robbery — through negotiations with police, emotional telephone conversations, and on to a nail-biting finale at JFK airport. The pace is well considered. It doesn’t rush through events but it never flags; the tension is maintained but important emotional scenes are never sped through. More on that in a moment. Importantly, the plot’s numerous reveals are well managed too — for instance, Sonny’s homosexuality and transgender partner are revealed quite far in, by which point we’ve already built a firm opinion of the characters. This was important for a ’70s audience (as Lumet suggests in his commentary), to try to circumvent built-in prejudices that would’ve adversely affected an audience’s reaction too soon. It still works now — it’s not a twist, per se, but it is likely to change one’s perspective on the film and its characters mid-flow, which is always interesting.
The dialogue is also spot-on, but that’s not all down to Pierson. While rehearsing, Lumet was so keen to capture a realistic tone that he allowed the actors to improvise the dialogue. This was working so well that he had it recorded, transcribed, and Pierson rewrote the dialogue based on the cast’s improvisation. (His scenes and their order remained intact, just the words were changed.) This, coupled with additional improvisation techniques used on set, lends a believable tone to the characters’ actions and words — they’re not speaking dialogue, they’re just speaking.
In terms of performance, this is a real showcase for Pacino. As Sonny — the movie’s version of John — the whole film rests on his shoulders, and he’s more than capable of bearing the weight. Some roles allow an actor to subtly be good throughout the film; others allow a few grandstanding set-pieces where they can Act; but Dog Day Afternoon gives Pacino both. The latter are, naturally, easier to recall: the way he works the crowd (”Attica!”), the pair of draining phone calls to his wives; but most of all, the will-writing scene. As the climax looms, Lumet allows the time for Sonny to dictate his will in full to one of the bank girls. Pacino is brilliant, understated but — in a combination of performance and writing (though, in this case, the text is taken from the real-life will) — revealing, cementing some of the conflicting forces that have pulled on Sonny throughout the film.
In trying to get a handle on the real Sonny when he was starting on the screenplay, Pierson talked to various people who knew him, but struggled to reconcile their conflicting accounts of the same man. The link he found was that Sonny was always trying to please people, and that’s what he used: in the film, he’s not just out for himself or his boyfriend, but also trying to placate and please his hostages, the police, the media, his partner, his mum, his other wife… Pierson and Pacino do indeed make him a different man to all of them, and this is one of the reasons Sonny is such a great character and a great performance: he’s genuinely three-dimensional. All of us behave differently, to some degree, when we’re with different people — we don’t necessarily realise it, because they’re all facets of the same us, but we do it — so to put that into a character is to make him real.
Pacino is propped up by a spotless supporting cast, all of whom get their moment(s) to shine and use them to excel. Of particular note is John Cazale as Sal, the other robber. It’s a largely quiet role, but he nonetheless conveys an awful lot with it. Lumet says that Cazale always seemed to have a great sadness in him, which you can always see come out in his performances, and he’s certainly right here. We learn very few facts about Sal during the film, but we still know him, you suspect, as well as anyone does.
Chris Sarandon is also superb (and Oscar nominated) as Leon, the gay wife who wants a sex change. Lumet was keen to avoid presenting a stereotypical homosexual type, throughout the film trying to avoid turning any of these unusual characters into freaks, and Sarandon pitches it right. He plays the truth of a conflicted, confused character; a man who is perhaps easily led but hard to please, I think. As with the rest of the cast, the little touches he brings — such as starting a sure-to-be-emotional phone call to a man currently in the middle of a tense hostage situation with “so how are you?” — sell the reality of the piece.
Capturing reality is clearly Lumet’s prime concern — it’s reiterated multiple times across all the special features — and I think he succeeds admirably. Some things we might not even notice — the film is lit with natural light outside, the bank’s real fluorescent lights inside, and the nighttime sequences by a genuine police van reflecting off the white front of the bank — while other things, like the complete lack of a musical score, are more readily apparent. I say that, but that’s not readily apparent: one may well notice, but it’s such a perfect decision that it never rears it’s head. Lumet argues that having an orchestra chime in to underline an exciting or emotional moment would have broken the realism of what we’re watching, and he was right — there’s not a single scene here that could be improved by music, but several that would have been damaged by it.
The way the film’s shot supports this too. This is from the ’70s remember, before the craze for faux-documentary and everything being handheld, so it still looks like a film, but it’s not one that’s been precision-staged. Indeed, quite the opposite. Everything is kept loose — sometimes actors block each other’s shots, or talk over each other, or the handling of a prop goes wrong, and so on — but Lumet leaved it all in, even plays it up at times, and makes it work to his advantage. Rather than being the obvious “we’re trying to make this look real” of today’s grainy shakycam stuff, this just feels real; the heart and truth of it come through, not the surface sheen of it being documentary footage. That’s more important.
There’s great editing by Dede Allen too, though most of the time it goes unnoticed: in keeping with the aim of letting the audience ‘forget’ this is a film, most of the cutting is simple and natural. Two examples leap to attention, however, and those are the two times (the only two times) guns are fired. Lumet and Allen recreate the confusion and violence of such an event with a smash of fast, sub-one-second cuts on both occasions. We see mindless fast cutting all the time now, but this incongruous example shows the effectiveness a fast montage can have when done by the right hands. The soundtrack also jumps with each cut, which is equally vital to the slightly disconcerting way it works — they’re not just smoothing over this series of flashing images, we’re being deliberately disorientated by them.
Remember earlier I mentioned Pierson’s pace? The editing plays a role in that too, naturally. After the film had been tightened for the final time, Lumet felt it had lost something, especially when it came to the will-dictating scene, which now felt slow. So with Allen he went back and added six or seven minutes of footage back in — as with his staging, making it a bit looser, more naturalistic, and in the process fixing the pacing issue and making the important will scene feel right again. Without being able to see that cut it’s hard to say just how necessary it was, but as the final result feels so right it seems his instinct was a good one.
Pierson’s screenplay won at the Oscars. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor and Editing, but this was the year of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest so that took most of the big awards. That’s another of those all-time classics I’ve not seen, so I can’t offer my personal take. What I will say is that it goes to show (as most of us I’m sure already know) that the Oscars are as much about the year you’re in as the film itself: Dog Day Afternoon is better than masses of films that have won the same awards before and since, but clearly it got an unlucky year.
I’ve written quite a lot here but, brilliantly, I’ve still only got a certain way beneath the surface — there’s plenty more in there. That’s always the mark of a good film. And there’s certainly more memorable anecdotes and interesting directorial techniques I learnt from the special features that I’ve left out. Lumet set out to make a believable film about an unbelievable situation, and I do believe he achieved that goal. These are normal human beings with normal emotions — not like you and I, perhaps; taken to an extreme, certainly — but in a very bizarre set of circumstances. It was important to Lumet that they didn’t come across as freaks and, with the help of Pacino and the rest of his cast, I think they’ve achieved that too.
The film treads a delicate line between drama, comedy and thriller, but doesn’t once tip too far in any direction. It’s got several genuine laughs, but none compromise its serious side or claim to reality — it’s tense and touching too. Anyone else making a film about an extraordinary situation, be it a true story or from the mind of a crazed writer, would do well to look at Lumet’s work here.
See also my review of the documentary short about the making of Dog Day Afternoon, which is also on the DVD, Lumet: Film Maker.Documentary, 4 stars, 1970s, films about films, Short, 2011 , add a comment
This ten-minute documentary short is made up of behind-the-scenes footage of some of the filming of Dog Day Afternoon, with the occasional on-set interview with some (to be honest, minor) crew members, snippets of audio interview with Lumet himself, and a voiceover narration.
Today it’s the kind of material that would come out as part of the EPK and be included on the DVD — it has a largely promotional tone, talking about how great Lumet is to work with, how great Pacino is, that kind of thing. From a modern perspective, much of the information is duplicated elsewhere on the DVD, but for those not interested in a two-hour audio commentary it’s here.
What it does still add is footage of Lumet at work. Based on what we see, you can well imagine how he managed to finish the shoot a whole three weeks ahead of schedule, and how he produced such an authentic-feeling final result. There’s the soundman, for instance, who humorously has to dash off halfway through his interview for the next setup.
It feels a bit daft reviewing what would today be just an EPK and/or DVD featurette. But as this comes from a time before those things existed, when it wasn’t designed to go straight to the DVD just for the interested (though I don’t know where it was shown — in cinemas as a kind of extended trailer, I presume? It doesn’t look like a TV special, especially at just ten minutes), it’s a “documentary short” — look, IMDb says it is.
But then, are feature-length DVD ‘making of’s a kind of film too? Lost in La Mancha would have just been the DVD extras, had the film not gone tits up. What about Hearts of Darkness, which is now, pretty much, placed as ‘just’ a Blu-ray extra?
#9: Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) March 26, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Anime, Crime, 5 stars, adaptations, 1970s, Adventure, world cinema, 2011 , add a comment
The Castle of Cagliostro, the second animated big-screen spin-off from manga-inspired anime TV series Lupin III, was the first film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, who even non-anime fans have heard of these days thanks to Spirited Away’s Oscar win (eight years ago now!) and Pixar’s recent championing of him.
I’m ashamed to say I haven’t see a great deal of Miyazaki’s output, so I can’t comment on how much of an indicator (or otherwise) Cagliostro is of what was to come, but it’s a fine film in its own right — Steven Spielberg reportedly called it “one of the greatest adventure movies of all time”, and I’m inclined to agree.
For starters, the action sequences are brilliant — exciting, inventive and varied. I don’t know if Spielberg saw this before tackling any of the Indiana Joneses, but you can feel the tonal connection. There’s also a similar amount of humour. The animation itself is very good — there are prettier examples of the genre, but the locations especially are beautifully painted, and it’s aged very well for a ’70s-produced animation. The score is rather dated though.
As I mentioned, this is the second spin-off film from a TV series, and at times it does feel like it: characters turn up under the impression the audience already knows who they are and what their connection is to the others. It’s not a major problem — most are introduced well enough within the context of the film that it can still be easily followed — but it’s there.
Is this a good film to interest non-anime fans? Maybe. The plot and structure are familiar (in a good way) from the wider adventure genre, and some of anime’s regular stylistic flourishes aren’t as much in evidence as in some other works. The genial tone may make it too “Saturday morning cartoon” for some — and by “some” I tend to mean teenagers or the teenage-minded, who would be better suited to something like Akira because it’s all Dark and Serious and Grown-Up; the kind of person who would’ve chosen a PlayStation over a Nintendo console because it was black instead of white/coloured and therefore Adult and Not For Children; childish idiots who think they’re Mature, in short.
Um, where was I? Oh yes: Indiana Jones; Roger Moore-era James Bond — it’s that kind of tone, more or less, and if you enjoy that kind of film then I don’t see why you wouldn’t enjoy this. Unless you think cartoons are for kiddies only (in which case, see the long sentence at the end of the last paragraph).
The Castle of Cagliostro is a fun and exciting adventure, and convinced me enough that I bought the only other Lupin III title currently available on UK DVD (the film that precedes it, The Secret of Mamo). And when the director of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park says something is “one of the greatest adventure movies of all time”, one really ought to listen.
The Castle of Cagliostro placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.
2 films about 3 or 4 Musketeers March 6, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, 1970s, 2011 , add a comment
Finally, some reviews!
And the title pretty much has this one covered, so…
The Three Musketeers
Where to begin? The action, I suppose. It’s loaded with the stuff. It puts later movies — from eras when we’re more accustomed to non-stop, regularly-paced action than the ’70s — to shame with its barrage of sword fights. And if you think they’d all be the same and become repetitive, you’re dead wrong.
The Four Musketeers
this second effort has less action, which could be fine, but more importantly it’s less fun. In and of itself such a statement doesn’t make it bad, but it consequently fails to fulfil the promise of the first film. It’s also a little more ramshackl… Considering Three Musketeers has a kind of endearing scrappiness to it, that a similar factor becomes a negative point here either means they took it too far or there was a certain luck to the first film hanging together.
Richard Lester’s Four Musketeers was shot at the same time as the previous year’s Three Musketeers, because it was originally meant to be one film that was split in two when someone realised how darn long it was. This split led to a legal battle over actors’ fees and, eventually, a new standard clause in actors’ contracts to prevent such two-for-one ‘cheats’ by producers in future.
The longer-lasting advantage of this is it made The Three Musketeers the film it is, because having Four Musketeers as a second half would’ve dragged it down.
Put simply, this second effort has less action, which could be fine, but more importantly it’s less fun. In and of itself such a statement doesn’t make it bad, but it consequently fails to fulfil the promise of the first film. It’s also a little more ramshackle — a common feature of sequels these days I suppose, when they’re rushed into production and overstuffed with characters and storylines. Considering Three Musketeers has a kind of endearing scrappiness to it, that a similar factor becomes a negative point here either means they took it too far or there was a certain luck to the first film hanging together.
It’s a bit grim too — Athos’ backstory with Milady; the murder of the Queen’s lover; the murder of Constance; the cold-blooded execution of Milady; and ending up with Richelieu still in power too — none of it sits well with the jolly swashbuckling tone that still dominates. There are some good action sequences nonetheless — for instance, the ice-covered lake; breakfast/siege in the ruined fort; and the burning-building finale — which go some way to make up for the shortcomings.
(As an aside, the cast & crew (some of them at least) returned a couple of decades later to film The Return of the Musketeers, an adaptation of one of Dumas’ sequels, Twenty Years After. For filming Twenty Years After about twenty years later they must at least be commended, and I shall have to track it down sometime.)
A shame that it couldn’t live up to its predecessor, though it still has moments to recommend it.
Comedy, Action, 5 stars, adaptations, 1970s, Adventure, British films, Historical, 2011 , add a comment
I like a good swashbuckler. I don’t know exactly what it is about sword fights, but they’re probably my most favourite kind of action sequence. The 1973 Three Musketeers, then, is a film I’m slightly amazed I’ve not seen before. Especially as I absolutely loved it.
Where to begin? The action, I suppose. It’s loaded with the stuff. It puts later movies — from eras when we’re more accustomed to non-stop, regularly-paced action than the ’70s — to shame with its barrage of sword fights. And if you think they’d all be the same and become repetitive, you’re dead wrong. Screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser (yes, he of the Flashman novels) and/or director Richard Lester (yes, he of A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Superman II and III) and/or the stunt team are constantly inventive in sequence after sequence.
It helps that most have a comedic bent, to one degree or another. This is no po-faced history lesson, but instead pure entertainment. Every scene has a lightness of touch, from screenplay to performance to direction, that never allows anything to take itself too seriously. Spike Milligan may appear as comic relief as a landlord-cum-husband-cum-spy, but he’s more than equalled by… well, pretty much everyone else. The humour might not be subtle — it’s mostly slapstick, often with a bawdy bent — but it is entertaining.
Thanks to this most of the fights aren’t strictly sword fights, I suppose. Indeed, Oliver Reed seems to dispense with his blade at the earliest opportunity and turn instead to sticks, wet towels, whatever else happens to be at hand. It lends a certain kind of organised chaos to proceedings; the kind that elevates a technically proficient duel into a funny, exciting, memorable segment of cinema. I would list standouts, but instead may I recommend you watch the film and, every time an action sequence starts, count it as one I mentioned. But particularly the one in the laundry and d’Artagnan and Rochefort’s lightbox-lit nighttime duel. And also— Now, this is why I said I wasn’t going to list any.
The star-smattered cast are, as noted, more than up to the task. The titular musketeers — played by Reed, Richard Chamberlain and Frank Finlay — may fade into the background a little while Michael York’s young d’Artagnan and the villainous pairing of Charlton Heston and Christopher Lee drive the story, but each makes an impression even with their limited screentime. The same could be said of the women, Raquel Welch as d’Artagnan’s love interest Constance and Faye Dunaway as the conniving Milady de Winter. York earns his place as the lead amongst such company, though, making a d’Artagnan who is by turns athletic, clumsy, hot-headed, loyal, and funny. As I said, everyone pitches the lightness just right, but York perhaps most of all — he doesn’t send up the youngest musketeer, doesn’t make him a pun-dispensing action hero, but finds all the humour in his actions and dialogue.
This film was shot alongside the next year’s sequel, The Four Musketeers — originally intended to be one film, it turned out so long they decided to split it in two. This feels like a wise decision. For one thing, the story seems to wrap up very neatly at this point. The villains may still be free and in power, but the diamond storyline is thoroughly concluded. I don’t know if any major rejigging occurred in the edit, but assuming not, it would surely feel like a film of two halves were it to just continue at the end of this one; the final action sequence is suitably climactic, the following scenes suitably rounded off. Secondly, it means it doesn’t outstay its welcome — while it’s all thoroughly enjoyable, you can have too much of a good thing. It also means the film ends with a sort of “Next Time” trailer, which feels very bizarre indeed, but is also a tantalising glimpse of what’s still to come.
The Three Musketeers is proper swashbuckling entertainment, with emphasis on… well, both words. It’s certainly swashbuckling and, even more so, it’s entertaining in the truest sense of the word. I loved it.