The Adventures of the Falcon January 29, 2007Posted by jackal in : Films , 1 comment so far
BBC2, in the spirit of Christmas giving, decided to broadcast 10 of the 13 RKO Falcon movies last month. I’d seen a couple of these 1940s “B”s before, but in sitting down and viewing the series in order (not that there’s a great deal of continuity) these past weeks, I’ve become a real fan of the playboy sleuth’s adventures.
For those unfamiliar with the series, it began in 1941 when George Sanders starred in RKO’s The Gay Falcon (as Leonard Maltin says in his review, the title refers to the Falcon’s name, not his sexual inclination ). With its mixture of intrigue, light romance and playful comedy, little was different from Sanders’ previous RKO series The Saint apart from his character’s name change. Sanders returned as Gay Lawrence for A Date with the Falcon and The Falcon Takes Over, but his blossoming film career in “A” pictures led to him demanding to be released from the role. RKO’s novel solution to the problem? Sanders returned one last time, for The Falcon’s Brother, in which The Falcon passes the torch to sibling Tom Lawrence, played by Sanders’ real-life older brother Tom Conway.
Conway took the opportunity and ran with it, playing this new Falcon in a further nine outings before the RKO series came to a close with The Falcon’s Adventure in 1946.
What makes these films so enjoyable, then? After all, they’re merely 60-70 minute potboilers, each entry sticking pretty much to the same formula: the Falcon finds himself roped into helping solve a murder (or two) at the behest of a beautiful young girl whose interest in him isn’t purely professional. The case will often take him out of the city (as the series progressed we had such entries as The Falcon in Hollywood, The Falcon Out West, The Falcon in Mexico, etc.). Along the way he’ll outwit the bumbling cops (who normally suspect the Falcon at some point), have to juggle a couple of girlfriends, and comic relief is never far away in the form of his trusty sidekick, who changes actors more times than you can count.
The template is never too restricting, though: The plots are generally well-constructed and involving, and the trend, in later films, of changing the locale helped prevent any staleness from creeping in. However, there’s no denying that much of the credit for the continued entertainment value of the series is thanks to its stars. Both Sanders and Conway fitted the role (or roles, to be fussy) of The Falcon down to a tee, strolling through one mystery after another without ever dirtying their suit or knocking a hair out of place. The Falcon was one cool cat, but there was a playful glint in the eye of both men that said they knew the whole thing was nonsense; they were just having fun with it. My personal favourite of the two is Sanders; to me he just seemed to be enjoying it that little bit more, but there isn’t much in it. Hopefully Warner Bros will see fit to release the series to DVD in R1 land; I’d love to see them spruced up and looking better than the distinctly average BBC2 prints.
Pushover (1954) January 23, 2007Posted by jackal in : Films, Film Noir , add a comment
An ambitious and easily manipulated cop; a seductive young femme fatale; a bank robbery; a suitcase full of money; murder. Sound like a familiar bag of tricks? By 1954, all the noir trademarks were well-established, even if it wasn’t yet termed film noir. Pushover blends all of the above elements into a derivative but entertaining picture; with Fred MacMurray in the lead, it plays like a sort of Double Indemnity-lite.
Opening with a dialogue-free bank robbery in which a cop is shot dead, the film then segues without explanation into a self-consciously smooth sequence in which MacMurray and Novak meet cute and trade innuendo-laden lines before ending up at his place. The connection is soon made clear: MacMurray’s interest in Novak is (at least partly) professional. He’s a cop investigating the bank robbery, and Novak is the on/off girlfriend of the chief suspect. Hopeful that he’ll slip up and contact her, MacMurray’s Lieutenant (E.G. Marshall) assigns the investigating team to stake out Novak’s apartment.
There’s just one small problem with this plan: MacMurray and Novak swiftly fall for each other. Blinded by the thought of making off with the girl and the bank robbery loot, MacMurray hatches a scheme to take care of Novak’s criminal boyfriend on the QT and discover where he’s stashed the money. As events begin to slip away from him, however, he has to think on his feet as he clutches desperately at his dream of love and money …
As mentioned at the outset, the plot isn’t terribly original, but it’s craftily put together for maximum tension (almost all of the action takes place in and around the confines of Novak’s apartment building), and creates sympathy for MacMurray’s character that lingers even as his actions become more and more irredeemable. It also deserves credit for following the story through to its logical ending, with no pulled punches. “I guess we didn’t need the money after all,” MacMurray muses regretfully.
The noir look is pleasingly strong throughout, with MacMurray in particular frequently draped in shadows as he chain smokes his way from one crisis to the next. Fred, playing a smarter guy than Double Indemnity’s Walter Neff, if no less greedy, makes a solid lead (and I only counted one use of ”baby” ). Novak, in her debut, gives a stiff performance, but she’s so gorgeous that’s it’s a decent enough trade-off.
Pushover, as a Columbia picture now owned by Sony, is unsurprisingly unavailable on DVD. Perhaps the best chance for a release is here in the UK, where Sony has recently shown a *slight* interest in noir, releasing Tight Spot and Affair in Trinidad in recent months.
It ain’t over ’til it’s over January 19, 2007Posted by jackal in : Films , 4 comments
By succeeding in his quest to get a sixth and final Rocky movie made a full sixteen years after the previous instalment, and creating a critical and box-office hit in the process, Sly Stallone finds himself riding a career comeback worthy of his fictional Philly fighter. In recent years Stallone’s stock has plummeted in Hollywood, and one can understand the reluctance of studio executives to greenlight yet another Rocky movie, in which the long-retired champ comes back for one last fight - at almost sixty. On paper it’s laughable, and yet Stallone’s passion for the character and belief in the story elevate Rocky Balboa to much more than just another silly boxing film. It’s an inspiring story about redemption, about never giving up on your dreams, proving your worth in a changing world, and how “it ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
With key cast members returning from the previous films (Burt Young, Tony Burton) and familiar music from Bill Conti, Rocky Balboa slips easily back into the groove of the franchise. Stallone himself, as if writing, directing and starring weren’t enough, continues to train himself into fantastic shape for each successive Rocky. I have huge respect for the guy: at the age of sixty he remains in phenomenal condition. Other stars may go to seed or cut back training to become Governor of California, but Stallone just keeps right on going like he forgot he was supposed to get old.
The film itself exceeded all my expectations. From the opening scenes, it recaptures the same everyday, working-class Philadelphia of the 1976 original, and the numerous nods to past events as well as return appearances from long-forgotten characters are welcome. Stallone tells his story simply and slowly, infusing it with gentle humour throughout, but crafts Rocky’s emotional journey beautifully: this is what gives Rocky Balboa its heart. The movie isn’t about the flashy fight, the adrenaline-pumping training montage, or any of the other trademark touches; all of these are present, and excellent they are too, but at the movie’s core is Rocky. It’s all about the two-bit heavy from Philly who made a name for himself back in the day and now, ageing and facing life alone, finds that the only way to prove his worth to the world - and to himself - is to return one last time to the thing he does best. Cue: the training montage to end all montages, and a climactic fight sequence against the reigning world champion that so perfectly ends Rocky’s 30-year journey, all but the most cold-hearted viewer will have a tear (or several) in his eye by the end.
Rocky Balboa is Stallone’s baby. This is the character that brought him fame, and has remained the closest to him of all his screen creations. He’s said that after the disastrous Rocky V he couldn’t just sit back and let his favourite character go out with a whimper. Well, he got his final chance and against all the odds, he hit it for a home run. This isn’t a ‘great’ film as critics would rate ‘em, but it’s truly great entertainment, a movie for the fans, straight from the heart. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Rocky, Jr: ”You’re crazy!”
Rocky: ”What’s crazy about standing toe-to-toe and saying I am?”
The poor man’s Bogart … January 15, 2007Posted by jackal in : Films, Film Noir , add a comment
On the one hand, his screen persona was tough, taciturn, no-nonsense; on the other, he was wooden, his performances frequently one-note and unchanging. Despite that, I have to admit to being an unashamed George Raft fan. For me, he’s a convincing tough guy partly because of his lack of range; there isn’t a lot of emotional depth on display, but it helps to give him a certain air of menace, even with his oversized suits and slight build.
After his fall from top-tier pictures in the 1940s, Raft starred in a whole gang of crime and mystery pictures, most of which would now be loosely bundled under the film noir umbrella. They’re relatively minor pictures, forgotten and unreleased on DVD, but surprisingly (at least to me), many of them are actually quite good. Granted, there’s the odd stinker like A Dangerous Profession, a desperately dull tale of murder with Raft and Pat O’Brien as bail bondsmen, that not even the ever-radiant Ella Raines can save.
By and large, though, Raft made some thoroughly entertaining movies after his peak: Nocturne and Johnny Angel are two obscure yet excellent noirs, deserving of a wider audience, along with the solid Rogue Cop. Johnny Allegro and Intrigue are fun crime pictures, and better than you might think. In the past week I managed to catch up with another couple and once again found myself pleasantly surprised.
Loan Shark isn’t going to change your life; it’s perhaps the very definition of ‘routine crime drama’, but Raft’s presence brings it up a level, while Paul Stewart as the bad guy is an added bonus. Better yet is Red Light which, despite some grating religious overtones, gives Raft one of his best roles of later years. As a grieving businessman hunting down his brother’s killer, he actually gives a decent performance, and is aided by strong noir cinematography and a stellar supporting cast of Virginia Mayo, Gene Lockhart and Raymond Burr at his slimiest. Not available on home video in any format, and only surfacing recently in a decent bootleg copy, Red Light isn’t exactly a forgotten classic, but it’s a minor gem worth seeking out.
All of which leaves me with just a few Raft noirs still to check off my list. A Bullet for Joey, Whistle Stop and Race Street are on hand, but I’ll Get You For This is still MIA. But hey, where’s the fun in getting everything you want?
If it worked the first time … January 3, 2007Posted by jackal in : Films , add a comment
I know, I know. As Randy the film geek once declared, “sequels suck”. But I have a shameful admission to make: I like ‘em. Actually, I bloody love ‘em. Not the bargain basement, straight-to-video variety - you couldn’t pay me enough to sit through the likes of From Dusk till Dawn 2 (or 3). But the full-blown, big-budget, get-the-stars-back, stick-faithful-to-the-original type sequels? Nothing I like better. Would the world really be a better place if T2 had never been made? Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? Aliens? The Empire Strikes Back? And so, in the week that it was announced Indiana Jones 4 is really, truly gearing up for production, I thought I’d run through my most-anticipated cinematic followups:
1. Indiana Jones 4
Yep. 17 years later - FINALLY, Goddamnit! - Spielberg, Lucas and Ford have a script they like, a start date for shooting (June) and a release date (May 2008). Also, one hopes Calista remembered to buy Harrison that gym membership for Christmas. In around about 16 months, the sky will seem that little brighter, the birds will sound that little sweeter, and all will be right with the world once Indy has his last hurrah. Until then, somebody posted a nice montage of the first 3 movies on Youtube. Makes me feel like a little kid again.
2. Live Free or Die Hard
From the evidence of the teaser trailer, it doesn’t look, well … very ‘Die Hard’. No John McTiernan (or even Renny Harlin) directing, no Michael Kamen score (RIP), no Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, William Atherton, no “Yippee-kayee”, McClane with a shaven head, too … But, hell, it’s a teaser, comprised largely of one extended chase sequence by the looks of it, and a little early to be panicking. Besides, to actually see Bruce back in action as John McClane puts a big silly grin on my face.
3. Rocky Balboa
On paper it sounds laughable: another damn ‘Rocky’ movie, now with a 60-year old actor/director. Against all odds, however, Stallone appears to have pulled off a remarkable comeback - not only for his fictional fighter, but also his own career. Made for a paltry $24 million, Rocky Balboa has grossed double that in its first two weeks at the US box office, and has generated a (very surprised) warm critical reaction. I like the ‘Rocky’ movies just fine, but what really excites me about the latest (and unquestionably last) is Stallone’s incredible achievement in a) getting the damn thing made at all, and b) managing to produce a critical and box-office hit in the process. The parallels with Rocky’s own underdog story are irresistible.
4. Rambo IV: Pearl of the Cobra
Scheduled to begin filming shortly, Stallone has now turned his attention to this swansong for his other iconic screen character. It will most likely not be that intelligent. It will probably feature numerous explosions, well-choreographed fight scenes against nameless bad guys, some pretty bad dialogue, and maybe a red bandana. Count me in. Who wants to watch intelligent movies all the time, anyway?
5. Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End
You did indeed read that correctly - I am looking forward to this movie. Why? Because as middling as part II was, I still hold out hope that the concluding chapter will recapture the sense of fun that made The Curse of the Black Pearl such a great summer popcorn movie. And even if it stinks, there’s always Keira to watch.