Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - April 2004
Mack Sennett
Comedies Vol. 2
The Hunchback
of Notre Dame (1939)
Gaslight (1940)

Metropolis (1927)
The Threepenny Opera (1931)

Flicks - March 2004
Under Capricorn
Love Me Tonight
Come and See


KING OF NEW YORK (Abel Ferrara, 1990).

A young crime boss named Frank White (Christopher Walken) is released from prison, and sets out to eliminate his rivals and become the city's top drug lord. Opposing him is a quiet, doggedly persistent cop (Victor Argo), who is determined to bring him down.

The gangster movie is one of film's oldest genres -- this one is based on the "Scarface" model of an amoral figure's escalating hubris. White wants to fool people (or perhaps himself) into thinking that his motive is to renovate a children's hospital in a poor neighborhood -- an obvious dig at the self-serving moral grandstanding of politicians. But everything in his words, manner, and lifestyle reflects either a brutal thirst for power, or sheer hedonism.

Ferrara creates some stunning action setpieces, culminating in a violent shoot-out and car chase that is guaranteed to get your heart rate up. The film's method is more effective than anything Tarantino or his imitators have ever done, but the same objection applies to King of New York -- it's ultimately empty of meaning, unless you find it interesting that criminals and cops are both violent.

The most entertaining work is done by two of the supporting players. The performance of Laurence Fishburne as White's right-hand thug goes gleefully over the top, and David Caruso plays a half-crazed, volatile cop with manic intensity. In general, though, characterizations are weak and the script (Nicholas St. John) is implausible and full of holes. The picture is one of the earlier symptoms of an overall trend towards increasingly elaborate and baroque scenes of violence, coupled with a cynical view of human nature. With the possible exception of Argo's stolid detective, there's no one to admire in the film. Everyone is sordid, vicious, and full of hatred.

Walken strolls his way through the movie with characteristic cool. His character is brazenly fearless and contemptuous of rivals, but we never get a sense of why this story needed to be told. After all the numbing carnage, Ferrara does manage one fine sequence: the last one, involving Walken in a taxicab. But a good ending alone does not a good film make.

THE IRON HORSE (John Ford, 1924).

This was Fox's answer to Paramount's extremely successful Western epic from the previous year, The Covered Wagon. In terms of spectacle and authenticity, it fails to come up to the standards of its predecessor, but in most other respects -- acting, editing, production design, and directorial style -- The Iron Horse is superior.

The film depicts the building of the transcontinental railroad through a rather fanciful romance involving a young surveyor (legendary hunk George O'Brien), his love for a childhood sweetheart (Madge Bellamy) who is engaged to the project's chief engineer (Cyril Chadwick), and the efforts of a wicked land baron (Fred Kohler, Sr.) to sabotage the railroad so it will have to go through his property. The plot mechanics seem forced and even ludicrous at times, but the acting is generally restrained by silent film standards.

This marks the first big budget assignment for Ford (who goes strangely uncredited), and although the style is less distinctive here than in his pictures of even a few years later, it definitely has its rewards. The crowd scenes and other panoramic elements are striking. A scene in a saloon, leading up to a fight, is pulled off with marvelous energy and humor. It even has Irish workingman comic relief, represented by Francis Powers and J. Farrell McDonald, playing a pair of squabbling, hard-drinking soldiers -- a motif that, like it or not, would be a part of John Ford films for the next four decades. Also of note is the "bar of likker and justice" in which a bartender (James Marcus) doubles as a judge, temporarily suspending the drinking in order to deliver summary verdicts.

The film starts far too slowly, with a dull prelude involving the surveyor as a kid living in Springfield (Abe Lincoln is a neighbor). Overall, the film's story and pacing leave something to be desired. But it's one of the best looking movies of its time, and its financial success cemented Ford's reputation as one of Hollywood's most reliable directors.

BOB LE FLAMBEUR (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1955).

Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne), an aging gambler who has done time for bank robbery, runs into a streak of bad luck. To avoid financial ruin he puts together a team of criminals and devises a plan to rob the Deauville casino.

Although inspired by John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, the film is remarkable for being almost entirely concerned with atmosphere rather than plot. We are introduced first to the streets and nightclubs of Montmartre. We are then made gradually familiar with Bob's strange lifestyle -- traveling about to different card and craps games throughout the night, until he comes home to sleep at 6 A.M. -- and his various eccentric and seedy acquaintances. It's only after quite some time that anything resembling a story starts to take shape. Even then, Melville lingers overs the details of the characters' rooms, or their casual conversation, while the heist plot develops in what seems an almost throwaway manner. Seeing it now, years after the French "New Wave," we are more familiar with such methods, but in 1955 this style must have seemed very different indeed. In fact, Melville's elliptical camerawork and staccato editing were a strong influence on the New Wave, as well as his playful sense of homage to other films.

The white-haired, somewhat portly Duchesne plays the part of Bob as if he were living it, with a slightly weary air and a sense of complete comfort and familiarity with the nocturnal world of the gambler. One of the film's charms is that all the characters seem a bit "off" -- Bob's nephew and protege (Daniel Cauchy) seems more like a goofy kid than a tough guy, and the girl (Isabelle Cory) that Bob takes under his wing (and secretly wants, although she sleeps with the nephew) is scarily self-possessed, yet somehow vacant as well.

It's as if Melville wanted to see how the characters in a film noir might actually behave, with all the stretches of ordinary time and events that a Hollywood film would leave out. It's a bizarre idea, and the picture has an odd, laconic rhythm that takes some getting used to. Even the ending, which features an ingenious and amusing plot twist that ties all the film's themes together in a single stroke, is depicted without dramatic emphasis, as a momentary, flippant irony. Although Bob le Flambeur tells the story of an older man reaching the end of his rope, it's a youthful film -- brash, experimental, a bit too cocky for its own good, but with a style still fresh and novel, after all these years.

COUP DE TORCHON (Bertrand Tavernier, 1981).

Philippe Noiret plays Lucien Cordier, a colonial police chief in a small West African town in the 1930s. He is genial and witty, but ineffectual -- no one treats him with respect, he's hen-pecked by his wife (Stéphane Audran), and he's powerless to prevent the white colonists from abusing the blacks, who are considered non-human. An encounter with a cynical officer from the capital inspires him to change course, and he starts to kill off the people who have been making life difficult for him. No one suspects him, because he's the police chief, and he still plays the role of a harmless buffoon.

Tavernier, by transposing a Jim Thompson novel from the American South to French West Africa, gets to explore the Conradian idea of the loss of moral perspective in a colonial environment, where absolute power over others is a given. But this social theme is only a kind of background to a philosophical puzzle represented by the police chief. He seems like a genuinely kind and caring man -- a bit of a rogue, but not a malicious one. Yet it is only when he discards his ethical compunctions that he starts to attain his desires and experience some happiness. The audience might tend to go along with him at first, given the despicable nature of his victims, but as time goes on, rationalizations kick in, and Cordier's character becomes more and more ambivalent, a fact of which he seems completely and eloquently aware.

Tavernier's style flows marvelously at times, and he creates a vivid sense of place. But sometimes the film seems overwrought and melodramatic. Motivation is one of the movie's troubling weaknesses -- Cordier's shift in behavior is, to tell the truth, sudden and unaccountable. The picture is more enjoyable as a character study than as a coherent story.

The fact that Coup de Torchon works more often than not is entirely due to one major element: Philippe Noiret. He's in almost every scene, and he becomes this character so totally that you believe in him, even if you don't completely understand him. He plays an overweight, unshaven petty official who walks around in a long-sleeved undershirt with a loose scarf around his neck, but he projects such intelligence and charm that you understand why women would fall in love with him. (Isabelle Huppert plays a battered wife who ends up having an affair with Cordier, and she's excellent, as usual). This is one of those dominating performances that make a film worth seeing despite any other flaws it may have. In addition, the picture does raise intriguing questions about the relationship between power and ethics, and how goodness can easily be confused with self-interest.

ROBERTA (William A. Seiter, 1935).

RKO wasn't yet sure what it had in the team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers when it produced Roberta. The duo had starred in The Gay Divorcee, a wonderful film, the year before, but for their third team-up the studio hedged its bets by second-billing them to a more established star, Irene Dunne. The result is a mish-mash that is disappointing whenever the dancers are offscreen, but shines when they are on.

Randolph Scott plays an aw-shucks kind of guy, who for some reason manages a dance band that features Astaire as its leader. The band ends up in Paris and out of work, so Scott looks up his aunt, who runs a women's fashion company called Roberta, to see if her connections can help the band find a gig. He falls in love with the aunt's assistant, played by Dunne, while Rogers shows up as an old flame of Astaire's who is now a stage star pretending to be a countess. Rogers gets the band hired, while Dunne and Scott have an on-and-off relationship complicated by the arrival of Scott's snooty former girlfriend.

It's hard to complain about a film with songs by Jerome Kern, but the trouble is that the romance between Dunne and Scott isn't very interesting, especially when you've had a taste of the wonderful dancing and chemistry between Rogers and Astaire. Dunne isn't given much to do except clench her teeth, look lovely, and hit high notes when she sings ballads. Her rendition of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" seems interminable -- in fact, she was a good singer, but lacked warmth. The plot's fashion angle is also boring -- far too much time is devoted to models displaying the latest dresses of the day, although if you're curious about 1930s fashion, you might enjoy gaping (or laughing) at the outlandish outfits.

What we are left with, then, are the Astaire and Rogers dances. There are only three of them, but they do not disappoint. "I'll Be Hard to Handle" is one of their joyously fast numbers, with Rogers in a pants suit -- a very complex, exhilarating tap routine. You can even hear them laughing, just enjoying themselves. The dance to "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" is absolutely elegant, lovely, and romantic -- everything you'd want from an Astaire-Rogers number. Astaire also does one of his jaw-dropping solo numbers, "I Won't Dance," and later the two of them reprise the song in the marvelous (yet too brief) dance that ends the film.

The upshot is that, after you've seen Roberta once, you'll probably just want to fast-forward through the Irene Dunne-Randolph Scott sections in all future viewings, so as to avoid boredom, and just concentrate on the two stars who should have been the film's real focus. That same year, they proved that they deserved top billing in their next film, the great Top Hat, and they never relinquished it afterwards.

©2004 Chris Dashiell