Category Archives: Crime-Thrillers
Tommy Lee Jones stars as Dave Robicheaux, small-town Louisiana sheriff investigating a murdered prostitute named Cherry Leblanc. On top of that, he has to deal with drunk film star Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard) and his more-responsible girlfriend (Kelly McDonald) roaring around the backwaters, who stumbled upon a chain-encrusted corpse on their set. Said corpse belongs to Dewitt Prejean, a young black man who “escaped” jail into the bayou, where he was shot by two men—a scene that’s etched into the memory of Dave, who happened to see the event as a tween.
As Dave continues his investigations—digging up a troubled past to find Prejean’s history, and finding that Leblanc is just the start to a chain of serial killings—he finds that they’re not as disparate as he thought they were. Instead, the crimes are linked. And that investigation will unearth the twisted and diverse history of this small backwater of Louisiana swamp… ranging from ghosts of Confederate generals to the 1960s racial tensions.
The cast does an admirable job. Tommy Lee Jones hands in a solid performance, better than some of his phoning-it-in roles (Captain America) even though you’ve seen him play this character before. Peter Saarsgard is great, but woefully underused; Kelly MacDonald does just as well in her small role. John Goodman is hamming it up in fine form. Very good performances, and the use of local talent is excellent—legendary guitarist Buddy Guy is the weak role in the acting department, but makes up for it with atmosphere and local flavor.
The film has plenty of interesting bits to play with. There’s some post-Katrina allegory here, with the local Mafia (run by John Goodman) buying up property, and commentary on the relief efforts; some social consciousness using the Jim Crow-era’s racial tensions as a touchstone; and a healthy dose of Southern Gothic and magical realism revolving around the Civil War, to go with its neo-noir mystery-thriller parts. Plus the big-city/rural divide, with the Robicheaux family and their neighbors contrasted with the hot-rodding actors and snide film crew. Safe to say, there’s a lot of great stuff going on.
If only the film knew how to use it. As a Franco-American production, the film has more of a European subtlety to it, eschewing the big-bang Hollywood techno-wizardry and action in favor of moody setting. After using all those pieces, crafting that fine plot, and layering that thick atmosphere, the film leads slowly to an underwhelming finale and a twist ending that wouldn’t have made it into a bad Twilight Zone episode. (We’re talking Outer Limits mediocrity with the ending.)
The use of long, slow shots is beautiful for atmosphere, and that subtle touch is masterful. It’s a soft, delicate, but deliberate pacing—the film knows where it’s going, and moves with ambient grace. But instead of bringing it home for a satisfying conclusion, the plot blows away with the wind, and the film’s beauty fades away in lost possibility. In The Electric Mist starts out with an excellent noirish miasma, looking like a clear-cut winner. But when it comes time to seal the deal, it slipped on its own lack of initiative. It’s not a bad film, but the blase ending failed to deliver on the buildup’s promises.
I wonder if the original novel is more satisfying, or if the longer director’s cut was improved—it saw theatrical release oversees; the shorter US version went straight to DVD. Which is what it feels like: an artsy European film that went straight-to-DVD in the States. And I wonder how its production woes, which delayed its release to 2009 after a 2007 shoot, affected the film.
When I say “The Seventies was the best decade for crime films,” your answer should be “No shit, Sherlock.” The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather, The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three, Night Moves, The Gauntlet, pretty much anything with Michael Caine… speaking of whom, was in a classic of crime cinematography on the border year of 1969. That would be The Italian Job, a heist flick known for its classic car chases.
So, The Italian Job. After an intro scene where the Mob bumps off some guy in Italy, dapper gentleman gangster Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) is released from prison, and immediately sets off on a new job. This time, a heist in Italy, finishing the job planned by the guy killed in the opening sequence: making off with $4 million in gold bars the Chinese are delivering. With the aid of Mr. Bridger (Noël Coward), still living in a luxuriant prison cell, and his girlfriend Lorna (Margaret Blye), Croker assembles a team to pull off this heist. It includes a number of screwballs, such as Professor Peach (Benny Hill), a computer whiz with a thing for large ladies. They’re walking a fine line, avoiding both the police and the Mafia; with the roaring of engines and crashing of the Italian transit system’s mainframe, they’re off.
What strikes me most is how you can’t make a movie like this any more. Never mind the costumes and so-very-’60s music, I’m talking about the plot and setup: the entire movie is so-very-’60s. Everything is set up, through perfect planning and careful legwork, so that the heist goes in the Brits’ favor. And while there are some surprises for them, it ends up with madcap chase sequences going in favor of Caine’s crew, the Italians stumbling around confusedly, crashing into walls, wrecking their cars, and so on.
There’s no sense that the robbers are in any kind of trouble; the Mafia thread purports to some trick ending, something related to Caine’s girlfriend, but that never appears; and up until the literal cliffhanger, there’s no sense that these guys aren’t going to make off with four million in gold bricks. Part of the problem is that a proposed sequel never appeared, but I was struck by how short the film was—making it shallow in both plot and character development, and its lack of emotion detracts from its attempts to build tension or drama.
Of course, that’s not why you’re watching this movie. You’re watching to see a well-coordinated planning sequence turn into Mini Coopers driving up, through, and over buildings—down into a subterranean mall, into a church, through a sewer system, on a roof, etc. And it’s a fine chase sequence, even if it’s pure Mini glorification, something that the remake latched onto to the point where it was the best two-hour ad for Minis ever made.
And because of that well-executed heist—and chase—the film is deservedly a classic. It’s nice to see an old-fashioned heist go well for the heroes, and the chase scenes are entertaining for their madcap nature, blazing through every kind of location imaginable. But I guess the dark old film noir and gritter late ’60s/early ’70s flicks are more my cup of tea; while I liked The Italian Job as an enjoyable lighthearted romp, with good characterization and fantastic car chases, I thought it was too straightforward, with a feeble plot lacking in suspense or depth. To each their own.
To reiterate (and copy/paste), I’ve been reading Ed McBain’s (really Evan Hunter’s) 87th Precinct novels lately (more reviews on the way). And I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did several of them become feature films, but two are also on Netflix streaming. Yay for me! Movie execs weren’t ones to let grass grow on their feet, and bought up the licenses to McBain’s first few novels in 1958, McBain having published the first 8-7 novel in 1956. So, here they are, in all their glory: Cop Hater and The Mugger. I already dealt with Cop Hater, so next up:
The Mugger (1958)
There’s a new mugger in town preying on women within the 87th Squad’s jurisdiction, and he doesn’t seem to be letting up. Having stumped the detectives, psychiatrist and former detective Dr. Pete Graham (Kent Smith) comes out of pseudo-retirement to try and crack this nut. Graham is also contacted by an old friend, who wants him to look into his troubled young sister-in-law; she’s acting like something’s wrong, but tells Graham she doesn’t have any problems. Then she’s found stabbed to death in a city park, with the mugger’s trademark sunglasses crushed in her hands, and Graham has a personal motivation to catch this killer.
Whereas the book and Cop Hater were more character-driven police procedurals, The Mugger is more of a low-key psycho-detective analy-gation. It doesn’t break down into psycho-analyzing witnesses or anything—that’s just a fringe thing—but it doesn’t go as heavy into the detecting, either. In fact, the film just sort of muddles around without any sense of character or depth. Graham looks into several potential suspects and works around the mystery of the girl’s death while he keeps up his relationship with his wife Claire; meanwhile the 87th is continually stymied, and eventually tries luring the mugger out using a female detective as bait.
Now, I have read this novel, and it’s one of the best books in the 87th series, which is nothing like the film. And the changes are for the worse. The protagonist was originally a young cop—Bert Kling, see the first movie—and he met his on-off college-student girlfriend Claire Townsend during the course of the investigation, where in the film they’re married and working out of the same building. Note cop, not criminal psychiatrist; that sounds like a horrible change made to play up the contemporary growth of psychiatrists. And I should emphasize young, because I think the changes didn’t work, because the film then proceeds to point out how every loose woman in the world thinks this middle-aged, psychologist Kling is the sexiest man on Earth.
The film lacks any kind of detective/investigation work until near the end, which then results in a very unconvincing car chase (perhaps at speeds up to forty miles an hour!), and while the villain’s ending is suitably gory, there’s no real reason or lead-up to it. (In the book, it ends with the perp nailed and arrested and jailed, not brutally slain.) And the mugger himself was amped up from socking women to cutting them, probably to inflate the drama/tension needlessly. All in all, a tight, taut fraternal order of detectives with a strong sense of character was lost into a banal, featureless film. The things that were kept from the novel include the mugger, the general plot about the younger sister, a beatnik informant, a few of the set-pieces (like the female detective bait sequence), and some of the character names.
Again, McBain’s 87th was strong because it had a large, rotating cast of characters, and each subsequent novel made them feel more fleshed-out and developed. Losing that humanist approach makes the film feel shallow and lifeless, and gives it a strong emotional distance: we don’t even see the murder victim long enough to make her death anything more than a plot device, which I’m pretty sure would have irked McBain. It’s hard to incorporate that developing texture in film; Cop Hater gave it a good try, while The Mugger avoids it completely. You can tell it had a shoestring budget from its lack of characters and cheap-o sets.
Unlike Cop Hater, which wasn’t bad, The Mugger was nowhere close to good. The film is sluggish, listing, and banal, lacking any sense of character or plot depth to result in monotonous and shallow tripe. That also means it’s short—74 minutes—so there’s a reason for its lack of anything; that brevity is something of a plus. The change in character could have worked great, but instead we’re left with a rather bland psychiatrist-detective with a rather bland wife and some uninspired coworkers; the most interesting characters are the bit-players and suspects. Kent Smith was no newcomer to crime/detective cinema, and while he doesn’t phone his role in, he doesn’t seem very enthusiastic either. The film as a whole just didn’t do anything for me.
I’m unsure this film will please hardcore McBain readers given all the alterations that were made, nor did it blow me away as a standalone police mystery, so I’m unconvinced this film has enough of an audience to give it some rediscovery comeback: it’s just not that good.
I’m blazing through Ed McBain’s (really Evan Hunter’s) 87th Precinct novels of late, and was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did several of them become feature films, but two are also on Netflix streaming. Score! Movie execs weren’t ones to let grass grow on their feet, and bought up the licenses to McBain’s first few novels in 1958, McBain having published the first 8-7 novel in 1956. So, here they are, in all their glory: Cop Hater and The Mugger. First up:
Cop Hater (1958) – MGM
On the hottest, steamiest summer in the City’s recent memory, somebody is out killing cops. Detectives of the 87th Precinct are getting gunned down while off duty. One murder is problematic and depressing; two is an endemic. The rest of the 8-7 cops are uneasy, on edge, unsure how or when this cop hater will strike again. Detectives Steve Carelli (Robert Loggia) and Mike Maguire (Gerald O’Loughlin) are put on the case, and are racing against the clock before another cop dies. Meanwhile, a nosy reporter is trying to uncover dirt to blow this story wide open, and rookie detective Bert Kling has a rough few days on the job.
McBain’s novels have a strong character-driven, humanist approach as their centerpiece: these are average, everyday guys, blue-collar-workers with guns kind of thing. They’re not the super-exaggerated detectives of most noir fiction; combined with McBain’s inclusion of real technique, procedures, and documents, it gives his 87th a very realistic feel.
That’s important to realize since the film follows the same approach. We see Maguire and Carelli hanging out and drinking, going for a night on the town with their wives; we see their two respective home lives, which have a major impact later on the plot. They’re also an interesting parallel. Carelli’s engaged to Teddy, a deaf-mute; two young lovers kind of thing. Maguire is the older cop, with a slightly burnt-out home life; you get the feeling his wife Alice (Shirley Ballard) really wants something more in her marriage now that the spark is flickering out.
The film deals with some very heavy adult themes for the ’50s; the deaths have a lot of weight and grit—murder, after all, of the protagonists’ figurative brothers—and we see a lot of sexual tension and implications without any real detail. Alice dresses quite provocatively—at one point she models her new swimsuit—and Teddy’s later caught in nothing more than a bath towel. Meanwhile, we have a trip to a brothel, and a large subplot about a youth gang who might include suspects, and who are antagonized by the reporter’s grilling. (Juvie gangs are so nostalgically ’50s, when the corruption of our youths’ innocence to violence and drugs was the second greatest threat to our civilization, behind Communism.)
I haven’t read the novel yet, but from what I can tell most of the pieces are there. Aside from Carella becoming Carelli, all the big-name characters still here; “Carelli’s” wife Teddy is still a deaf-mute; the City is no longer McBain’s nameless amalgam but is more clearly New York. Many of the huge cast of detectives with bit-parts in the series are rolled into faceless characters here; that’s understandable, given the difference between the two forms of media, and there’s a large cast of nameless actors in the Precinct’s offices to create the illusion of a large, overworked police squad. Everything I see is accurate enough, though I don’t remember seeing Maguire in any of the book reviews or synopsis I’ve read, so there’s that.
So what we end up with is a good, well-rounded film, yet one that’s overall unexceptional, not much more than drive-in fare; it’s a little too short, and it feels rushed when its credits are rolling over the action to save time—seriously, people are talking and running around while names, and later The End, fill up the screen. It looks like a B-movie, and feels like a B-movie, even as it sticks to the rigorous authenticity of life as a detective. That said, I thought it was very enjoyable for what it was, and is worth checking out for the noir/crime/detective movie fan. I liked it well enough.