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
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
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
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
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
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