Re-Watching the Classics: Bullitt

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Bullitt is a movie based on the book Mute Witness by Robert L Fish.  Even though this movie is based on a book, it does not have an over whelming plot.  Luckily this movie stars the king of cool, Steve McQueen as Bullitt.  This film is definitely more style then story. The story starts out with Bullitt assigned to protect a witness, his team doesn’t do so well.  This turns Bullitt into a rogue detective, breaking some of the rules to find the people responsible.  The cars and the city of San Francisco are just as big of stars as the actors in this film. Peter Yates does a great job of making this film look interesting and real.  The editing flows well and won Frank P. Keller an Oscar.

Of course this movie is best known for its great car chase scene with McQueen in his Mustang and the bad guys running a Dodge Charger.  The scene has no music, just the sound of 2 American Big Blocks roaring through the streets.  Steve McQueen was known as a great driver and did some of his own driving in the scene.  If you’re a car nut you will love this car chase, maybe the most famous in cinema history.  I’m a Porsche guy so I personally love seeing Jacqueline Bisset drive McQueen down the highway in her yellow Porsche 356 Cabriolet.  For those that didn’t already know, Steve McQueen was a motorhead, he loved cars and motorbikes.  He owned many interesting vehicles, and Porsches where a big part of that collection.

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Interesting trivia on this film is McQueen was inspired by real life San Francisco Detective Dave Toschi for his character.  Toschi is most famous for being the lead detective on the Zodiac Killer Case.  He was portrayed by Mark Ruffalo in David Fincher’s Zodiac(We will review this movie in the future).  He was also the inspiration for Dirty Harry, one of Clint Eastwood’s most famous characters.

Besides McQueen, Bisset who plays Cathy, Bullitt’s girlfriend also stars.  I do wish she had more screen time in this movie, she is a very minor sub-plot.  We also see Robert Vaughn as a possible corrupt politician.  Some of the supporting cast highlights are Norman Fell as the police captain and my favorite, Robert Duvall as a taxi driver.

Bullitt is required viewing for noir buffs, car buffs, and movie buffs in general.

Review: Backstrom: He Who Kills the Dragon, Book vs Television

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I was given a copy of this book from Goodreads and Vintage Crime/Black Lizard publishing in exchange for this review. I entered to get this book, because I saw the first few episodes of the Fox Television series by the same name starring Rain Wilson.  Backstrom is the main character of author Leif GW Persson.  Persson was a professor of Criminology at the Swedish National Police Board from 1992 to 2012.  This may give him an edge on how things work from the inside of the police force.  This is interesting to me, I thought this book was OK, but it was 360 pages long to tell a story that I would think one of the current noir masters could have told in 200 to 250 pages.  I guess I would rather have a great story that is well written, rather than all the details of how the police have to operate.  The other problem with this book could be a culture issue.  Since this was originally written in Swedish and maybe it looses something when translated.  I’m not saying this book is a bad book, and I can see a lot of people who tend toward the more real and procedural type books will like this.

So how does this compare to the T.V. series?  There is not much the same between the two.  The similarities are few, first is the main character, Backstrom himself.  Backstrom is an overweight, out of shape, alcoholic, that tends to be a racist and sexist.  He is forced by his doctors to start changing his life or he isn’t going to live very long.  There is also a character named Nadia too.

Now the multiple differences, these are the ones I think would take away from a fans experience of either the T.V. series or the book series. Only the one book is available in the U.S.A. right now, and it is the second book in the series.  This series only has 3 books so far, so I don’t know why this is the one they published first.  There are a few references in this book that I assume is referring to the first book.  I bring this up because maybe some of the characters I really like in the TV series are missing in this book, but may be in the other two.  Back to our main character, Backstrom, though physically he seems about the same, but on the TV series he is a brilliant detective that can get into the heads of his suspects and figure out how and why they did the crime.  Because he is so brilliant the rest of the team lives with his short comings.  It seems in the book, he is more lucky than good.  He becomes a media darling, more because he is in the right spots at the right times, and his team under him is very skilled and he steals their credit.  This difference along makes the two very different in tone and feel.

The TV series takes place in Portland where the books take place in Sweden, that of course will give you a different feel.  The characters are very diverse in both book and series, but only one is the same, Nadia.  In the book Nadia is a character that understands Backstrom, she is an overweight Russian that works on Backstrom’s team, on the series she is a gorgeous blond that is a computer specialist played by Beatrice Rosen.  Over all I like the series characters as they develop over the course of time. Nicole Gravely played by Genevieve Angelson is the young detective that goes by the book, she was my favorite character in the first few episodes.  John Almond played by Dennis Haysbert is interesting as he is a pastor of a small church on the weekend and has conflict within his professional life because of his beliefs.  Thomas Dekker plays Valentine, Backstrom’s roommate and not always legit antique dealer.  We got other supporting characters like Backstrom’s ex played by Sarah Chalke.  I do wish the TV series would do 4-5 episode story arcs rather than one and done episode cases.  I wasn’t sure if I really liked the TV series at first, I will make a final verdict after the full season.  I seem to be liking it more and more each episode.

The only thing I really miss from the book that isn’t in the TV show is Annika Carlsson.  She is a bi-sexual that Backstrom warms to throughout the book.  I would like to see more of this character, but maybe not enough to read anymore of the books.

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In this battle I’m going to take the TV series over the book.  If you only watched the first few episodes to make your decision, you may want to watch a few more and see if it grows on you like it is me.

Review: Predestination

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Predestination is a SciFi Neo-Noir from The Spierig Brothers.  The brothers don’t turn out movies to fast, but they make good films.  Their first film was Undead, a zombie comedy, maybe a little ahead of its time.  Then they waited 6 years to do the very unique neo noir take on vampires in Daybreakers.  Then they waited another 5 years to release Predestination.  I look forward to seeing more from these guys, I just hope I don’t have to wait another 5 years.  The source material for this film is from my favorite science fiction author of all time, Robert A. Heinlein.  Heinlein has written some amazing novels in his career, they really make you think about the world you’re in, based on a world he created.  While watching this you will see a few Heinlein Easter Eggs in the film.  If you have not read Heinlein, please do not base your opinion of his work from the movie Starship Troopers. His story “All You Zombies” is an amazing plot for this film.  I have not read this short story yet, but will be hunting it down to read it as soon as possible.

I purposely did not read any reviews of this movie so I could watch it fresh and without spoilers.  As always I will not post any spoilers in this review so you can enjoy it fresh as well.  This is a movie about time travel, you can see influences from other great neo noir films with time travel, like 12 Monkeys and Looper.  The filming style in some parts of the movie reminded me of Dark City (another movie influenced heavily by Heinlein’s work).

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Though this may remind me of some of the best science fiction noir films of the past, it is something uniquely its own.

This movie has two great stars that have amazing performances in this.  Ethan Hawke is our big name star.  I got to say Hawke has one of the best track records so far this century!  He hasn’t been in a big Hollywood movie, probably since the mid 90’s.  Besides the horrible Selena Gomez vehicle, The Getaway, he has made nothing but above average to mind blowingly great smaller films.  Our other outstanding performance and really the one that steals the show is by Sarah Snook.  I have not seen Snook in anything else yet, but look forward to seeing this rising star in more movies. Noah Taylor plays a smaller role but a very pivotal one.

I seen an interview with Hawke about this film and he says something to the effect that you will not understand this film on the first viewing.  I have only watched this once, but Predestination is a film where, I think, the more you watch it the more little bits of information you pick up on and a film that maybe even better the second and third time you see it.

I highly recommend Predestination if you like science fiction mixed in with your noir.  A sure thing to be a cult classic.

Review: A Scanner Darkly: Movie versus Book

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Scanner Darkly is a book by Philip K. Dick, a SciFi legend in literature.  Dick may be one of the earliest writers to combine the science fiction genre with noir style.  If you are not familiar with Dick as an author you are familiar with his work.  His most famous work is probably “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” but you will recognize its big screen neo-noir adoption “Blade Runner.”  I hope to review both that movie and book on this blog at a later time.  Scanner Darkly may be less science fiction and more noir then his other works.  It is also his most personal and autobiographical book.  This book may disguise itself in a fictional world, but it is very close to Dick’s personal life under the influence of drugs.  Him and his friends are paranoid of everything and don’t know who to trust in their everyday lives. Substance D is the drug in the world of Scanner Darkly and our protagonist Bob Arctor is an undercover cop in this world.  This book, written in 1977 won many awards in the science fiction literary world.

I watched this movie back when it came out, recently read the book and then re-watched the movie to compare the two.  I can see why most thought this book would not be film-able.  The scramble suits would have been my main concern if I was a fan of this book in the 70’s and found out someone was going to try to put it to film.

Then enters one of the best directors in modern film, Richard Linklater.  Though Linklater doesn’t typically do much noir type films, he has made some of the best independent films of the last 25 years.  Linklater takes some risks, but I really liked the final product.  The biggest one is taking one of the biggest, most talented casts around, shots the film with them over the course of 23 days, then spends 18 months animating it.  This gives the film a very cool look, almost in the way black and white transformed the real world in the classic era of film-noir the animation transforms the modern world of southern California.

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The cast of this doesn’t get much better.  Robert Downey Jr. may be the biggest star in this film, but when it was made he was still doing little movies while he worked through his own drug issues.  This is great casting and if you like Downey you will like him in this part.  Our lead is played by Keanu Reeves, playing the undercover cop that maybe to undercover for his own good.  He is in love with Donna, played by Winona Ryder, unfortunately she may not feel the same way. Woody Harrelson plays a friend of Bob, that is also addicted to substance D.  Rory Cochrane, a Linklater favorite also plays a key role.

So should you read the book or watch the movie?  I will say if I had to choose one, I would go with the movie.  The book and movie are both great and if you can, I would look at reading the book and then watching the movie.  This is an interesting take on the underground drug world of the 1970’s, and a neo-noir classic.

Review: I Want to Live!

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I Want To Live! Is a film-noir from 1958 that looks at a story that ended a few years earlier in 1955.  This is the story of real life criminal Barbara Graham.  known as “Bloody Babs” in the press, Graham was a career criminal  and was a known prostitute earlier in life. She kept bad company and is said to have helped break into a house with 3 men to rob a wealthy older women in a wheel chair.  They ended up murdering her and were then arrested.  Some say this movie is pretty true to fact, but general consensus is this is a highly fictionalized portrayal.

The reason I got to see this movie is it is 28 Days of Oscar on TCM and this is on because of Susan Hayward’s great performance.  She not only won the Best Actress Award in 1959, she also won the Golden Globe and New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

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When Hayward signed on for this movie it wasn’t because she loved the script or thought it was going to be a great film. She did it to help out Producer Walter Wanger, Wanger was instrumental in starting Hayward’s career in film.  Wanger was making a comeback in film at the time because he had just got out of jail for shooting a man who was having an affair with his wife.  It was quite the scandal and Wanger had to reinvent himself.  Hayward was glad to help him.

This film is directed by Robert Wise one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history and directed many classic films in his long career.  Though Wise was never known as a film-noir director, he does a great job in this movie.  The off-center angles at the beginning are amazing and prison scenes are very well done.  Robert Wise really prepared well for this film, especially doing a lot of research to get the execution scene right.  The way this scene is shot, edited and doesn’t use music, but keeps it very silent and sparse is amazing. The end of this movie takes this film to another level.  This movie and Barbara Graham’s real life case went a long way in helping the anti-death penalty cause in California.  This doesn’t have your normal twists and turns we are used to in classic film-noir, but it is very dark and startling.

Review of a Forgotten Classic: They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross

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James Ross was a writer from North Carolina, he wrote some short stories and wrote for newspapers in the south.  This book intrigued me when I heard about it.  James Ross wrote this country noir book before country noir was a thing.  Daniel Woodrell cites this as an influence in his work.  They Don’t Dance Much was published in 1940 and received praise from his contemporaries, people like  Raymond Chandler, William Gay, and Flannery O’Connor loved the book.  Reviewers of this book often compared him to Chandler and even Dashiell Hammett.  You would think we had a noir literary pioneer on our hands!  And we should have, but Ross didn’t like the comparisons and wished he was in the same company of William Faulkner instead.  Even with the great reviews in its time and praise from other great authors, the book never found a big audience and was in and out of print since. Ross was so disappointed in the sales that he stopped writing novels.  Ross was one and out, but what a one.  It is a shame that he didn’t write more, I really enjoyed this book and can’t imagine what he would have written after this.  This takes a poor man who has lost his farm and takes up a job at a roadhouse.  There is a lot of troubling things that happen here, gambling, adultery, drinking, theft and eventually murder.  The writing is very good and even holds up today.  This book is now being printed by the Mysterious Press so it should be fairly easy to find a copy.

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If you want to read a cool book that is getting another chance, check it out.  This book still isn’t very widely read.  It only has 140 ratings on goodreads right now, but is well liked by the ones that have read it.  I hope you give this book a chance and find it as good as I did.

Review: Johnny Eager

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Johnny Eager is an early film noir from 1941 and is about a recent parole that is working as a taxi driver, so we think.  Johnny is played by Robert Taylor and catches the eye of Lisabeth, a student of sociology played by noir femme fatale legend Lana Turner.  Lisabeth is the step daughter of the prosecutor that knows Johnny isn’t on the level and wants to put him back in prison.  Johnny uses people more than violence to get what he wants and doesn’t mind doing it.

Though Turner is amazing as the jolted lover and Taylor plays the dapper hood well, the stand out in this film is Van Heflin.  Heflin plays Jeff, the right hand man of Eager, but he isn’t the usual muscle, he is quite original, and in 1941 there wasn’t many to compare him to yet. Jeff is a well-educated man who uses big words and quotes great literature, his one weakness is he has a problem with alcohol.  Jeff is Johnny’s conscience as well in this film, telling him when he is doing wrong by others or making the wrong decisions.  To bad Johnny never learns or listens to Jeff, Johnny always thinks he’s the smartest man in the room, but sometimes he isn’t.

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Van Heflin won best supporting actor for this portrayal and I can see why.  This classic film noir is not widely watched with only 1500 votes on IMDb and a good rating of 7.1 and no Rotten Tomatoes score.  This is a good film on its own, but if you’re a noir lover, I think you will really like the plot and Van Heflin and Lana Turner and worth the viewing.

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Book Review: Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

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Warren Ellis is a renowned graphic novel writer.  If you don’t read comics you may not know him, but you probably know his work.  His graphic novel Red was made into the movie of the same name starring Bruce Willis.  He wrote the graphic novel Iron Man Extremis that is a large part of the plot for Iron Man 3.  He’s also worked on many other titles for both Marvel and  DC.

Crooked Little Vein is his first novel and is an amazing noir story mixed with some humor and fantasy, he does come from a comic background after all.  This book will make you say “What the hell…this guy is sick!” while you are laughing out loud.  This book is not for the faint of heart and may disturb or disgust some, but if your into noir and on my site I think you will be OK.

This is about a private detective that has the worst luck and needs a big break to get back to even.  He finds it when the government hires him because of his bad luck, they figure he’s a magnet for it and can help them in ways the agents from the government can not.  He meets a femme fatale that is willing to help him, and our adventure begins.  They travel to some of the most underground scenes across this great country of the United States of America to find a book that only the President is supposed to have, but Richard Nixon lost years ago.  This is the reason the country has been on a downward slide ever since.

Like I said, this isn’t a straight up noir, but that just makes it a little more original and it is a great one.  It is a blast to read and I look forward to reading more from Ellis.  Gun Machine is his next noir book and I also plan to check out some of his graphic novel stuff.  I recommend it if you want to read something different then the norm.

Re-watching the Classics: A Fresh Look at Miller’s Crossing

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Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, the Coen Brothers, neo noir legends that have made so many classic modern noir films it’s hard to pick a favorite.  This is not me picking my favorite of Coen Brothers film, this is me reviewing the one I think is the most underrated.  After their debut Blood Simple and before the Oscar-winning Fargo, both classics, they made a small movie called Miller’s Crossing.  The Coen’s used a mishmash of noir legend Dashiell Hammett books to write this story.

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Gabriel Byrne plays our hero, a gangster with a gambling problem.  He’s the right hand man of the boss played by Albert Finney.  Both of them are in love with our femme fatale Verna, played by Marcia Gay Harden.  The plot is further complicated by Verna’s brother, played by John Turturro, who is always in trouble and Verna is using anybody and everybody to protect him.  A boxing match is being fixed by competing gangster Johnny Casper played by Joe Polito, but somebody is leaking the information.  We see cameo’s by Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand, Coen Brother favorites, and a cool cameo from director Sam Raimi.  J.E. Freeman as the Dane and Mike Starr as Frankie play great heavies.

This story is full of plot twists you don’t see coming in classic noir style.  It takes place in the late 1920’s maybe early 1930’s, we have corrupt cops, back stabbing gangsters, gamblers, murder, great dialog, and sets.  If you like the Coen Brothers and have not seen this movie it, do it!  Great film worth a viewing.

Review: Scarlet Street

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Scarlet Street is another great film-noir from Fritz Lang.  We have our everyday man and noir staple Edward G. Robinson in the lead.  Joan Bennett as our femme fatale and Dan Duryea as a con and thug trying to get ahead.  This story starts out with our hero at a company party for his 25 years on the job.  He leaves drunk and sees a beautiful women getting beat by a man.  He intervenes and stops it, he walks the women home and stops to have a drink with her.  He is infatuated with the much younger women and she seems to like him as well.  The only problem, he’s married to a battle-ax he can no longer stand.  You think you might guess the plot from here, but you would be wrong.  This is one of the most intricate plots, with so many twists and turns, I can’t believe they got all this story to fit into less than 2 hours of movie.  One of the surprising and shocking things of this movie is the abuse towards women, the way it is portrayed makes it look common and just part of life for the time.  The couple out to get ahead is very co-dependent and I found very disturbing.  This movie has no truly innocent or good characters, all are willing to do anything to get what they want.  None of them want the same thing, but use each other in a way that makes for one intense movie.

The other star of this movie is the art, it’s funny that this and my last film-noir review (See my review of Laura) have a portrait of the lead lady that is amazing.  I didn’t realize this when I watched them a couple of days apart, but is a cool coincidence.  The art in this film is very cool.

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This may be the darkest classic film noir I’ve seen thus far.  There is no gangsters and guns in this movie and that might be what makes this so dark.  I think this is my favorite Fritz Lang film I’ve seen so far.  This isn’t a widely watched noir but it should be.  This film has a 7.9 on IMDb with less than 9,000 votes, and 100% on Rotten Tomatoes but with only 13 reviews.  This film did fall out of copyright protection, so make sure you watch a good version of this that isn’t to cut up and distorted. I watched it on TCM, always a reliable source for classic films.