Saturday, April 6, 2013

Guilty As Sin

Year 5, Day 96 - 4/6/13 - Movie #1,398

BEFORE:  Lucky yet again, John Forsythe from "In Cold Blood" was also in "And Justice For All" with Jack Warden.  Maybe that's not really luck, since Jack Warden was in a lot of films.

THE PLOT:  A female lawyer takes an accused wife-murderer as a client, but finds herself morally compelled to betray him one way or another.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Jagged Edge" (Movie #763)

AFTER: Well, at least this film's in color - I just watched 5 films in black and white this week, so it's nice to see something a little more visually exciting. I think I've determined that I'm 73% more likely to fall asleep during a black and white film, maybe my retinas get bored or something.

But I barely know where to begin in tearing this one apart, or even breaking it down - it's just so blatant in its stupid obviousness.  Even if I apply everything I've learned about the legal system so far (mostly from "Law & Order", but what the heck...) this fails to make much rational sense.  IF a man kills his wife (I'm not saying he did, but come on...) then he shouldn't even tell his lawyer that he did, no matter how good the lawyer is.  The lawyer has attorney/client privilege, of course, but in order to enter a plea of innocent, he or she has to believe in the client.  Otherwise they're supposed to plead "no contest" or something like that, right?

Here the lawyer doesn't even want to take the case - but this concerns a client who won't take "No" for an answer.  Apparently he asked his wife, "Do you want to be thrown out of a 10th floor window?" and she said "No", and you can guess the rest.  And he's such a Don Juan (Spanish for "Don Johnson") that he's always got another rich older woman lined up to either sleep with, pay for his defense, or both.  And no one seems to notice his pattern, despite all of their unexplained disappearances.

The actors practice two schools of emoting - either over-the-top, or comatose.  And it's hard to believe this was directed by Sidney Lumet, who also directed legal thrillers like "The Verdict" and "12 Angry Men" - somehow "1 Angry Client" doesn't seem like it's in the same league. 

Some have pointed out the similarities to "Jagged Edge", although with that film there was some question about the accused man's guilt - here, not so much.  Is he a stone-cold killer or just a charming, manipulative man?  Well, both, really.  It's just as blatant as the film's title. 

Also starring Don Johnson (last seen in "A Boy and His Dog"), Rebecca De Mornay (last seen in "The Three Musketeers" (1993)), Stephen Lang (last seen in "Avatar"), Ron White, with a cameo from Luis Guzman.

RATING:  2 out of 10 fingerprints

Friday, April 5, 2013

In Cold Blood

Year 5, Day 95 - 4/5/13 - Movie #1,397

BEFORE:  Linking from "Compulsion", Orson Welles was also in the film "The Black Rose" with Robert Blake. 

THE PLOT:  After a botched robbery results in the brutal murder of a rural family, two drifters elude police, in the end coming to terms with their own mortality.

FOLLOW-UP TO:  "Capote" (Movie #674)

AFTER: A lot of similarities to last night's film - two male killers, an implied sexual relationship between them, committing murder together.  There's also an implication that the two men, acting together, create this sort of third personality, or group mind, that takes over.  I'm not sure if I've heard of this before, but it kind of explains the actions of criminal partners during bank heists and such.  Also, both films were based on novels that were written about prominent real-life murders.

It feels like I saw a version of this same story as the making of this movie was referenced in "Capote" - they showed Truman Capote meeting with and interviewing convicted killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock.  You get the feeling that he was perhaps interested in their story because some implied connection, possibly a homosexual one - some kind of relationship between the two killers is hinted at here, but not directly shown.  Perhaps it's just because they were in jail, and we all know what can happen there.

Other than that, this is a rather straightforward story about two killers on the run - only they're not really running, because they seem fairly sure that they've gotten away with their crime.  They don't make much effort to stay out of Kansas, for example, even though for one of them, entering that state constitutes a parole violation.

What I'm struggling with is the passage of time in the film - the time spent avoiding the police after the murder and before the arrest was about a month and a half, and constitutes the vast majority of this film.  By contrast, the killers were incarcerated for five years, (SPOILER ALERT) which constituted several stays of execution, and this period passes by in about 5 minutes of screen time.

The film succeeds, however, in getting into some of the WHY of a murder, rather than just the WHAT.  At first we learn that the criminals are staking out the house in order to rob a farmer's safe, and later, after the full details of that night are eventually revealed, it also delves into some of the mental motivations that may be driving them.  A lot of that seemed to be missing from "Compulsion".

Of course, you can't look at this film now without thinking about Robert Blake, who was later accused in the killing of his own wife.  I should point out he was acquitted at his criminal trial, but then held accountable in a civil trial (Hmm, where have I seen that combination before...?)  It's tough to determine whether life imitated art, or vice versa - or perhaps it's just coincidence.  Killing one's spouse and killing a family on a farm while robbing them could be two vastly different things, after all...(or, maybe not?)

I'd be remiss if I didn't make some reference to the fact that Roger Ebert died yesterday - a true movie reviewer, which is what I am not, nor what I claim to be or hope to become.  Anyway, my paltry 1,397 "reviews" (which, really, they're not) are a drop in the bucket compared to Roger's stats: 7,202 reviews, 3 screenplays and 1 Pulitzer.  I never met the man, but he was a friend of a friend (F of my BFF), so I felt connected tangentially (sorry, Roger, I met him first).

For a much more professional review of today's film, please visit:

In 1968, Ebert said this film was "fantastically powerful despite its flaws" and that "the story itself emerges as bleak and tragic as the day the murders first occured".  He also said that "the actors, Robert Blake and Scott Wilson, are so good they pass beyond performances and almost into life".  It's impossible for anyone to see the future, but whaddaya know - he nailed it.

Also starring Scott Wilson (last seen in "In the Heat of the Night"), John Forsythe, Jeff Corey, Charles McGraw, with a cameo from Will Geer.

RATING: 5 out of 10 deposit bottles


Year 5, Day 94 - 4/4/13 - Movie #1,396

BEFORE: Speaking of Orson Welles, he's in tonight's film somewhere...  Now I know there was a way to link from "Ten Little Indians", what was it?  Ah, Hugh O'Brian was in a film called "The Brass Legend" with Robert Burton, who's got a role in "Compulsion".   A compulsion is an overwhelming, uncontrollable urge, like the need some people have to find links between things.

THE PLOT:  Two wealthy law-school students go on trial for murder in this version of the Leopold-Loeb case.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Murder By Numbers"  (Movie #175)

AFTER:  This is a great opportunity to learn who Leopold and Loeb were - two law students from the University of Chicago who killed a 14-year old boy in 1924, with the apparent motivation to commit the "perfect crime".  That is, to leave no evidence to connect back to them - how did that go?  Since the world knows their identities, I'm guessing not so well.

Both were child progidies, both seemed exceptionally intelligent, both came from affluent families - all of which didn't seem to add up to "murderer" in most people's eyes.  But they got their thrills from committing crimes, starting with petty thefts and working their way up.  Er, down.

Their trial caught the attention of the country in the 1920's, along with the Lindbergh kidnapper and I think the Sacco and Vanzetti case, it was one of those "trial of the century" deals - and they were defended by Clarence Darrow (see also: "Inherit the Wind" and the Scopes monkey trial), famous for his opposition to capital punishment.

Darrow took advantage of a strange quirk of the law - by advising his clients to change their pleas to guilty, he avoided trial by jury (which they probably would have lost) and forced the judge to hear the case and take their mental conditions into account.  

Richard Loeb died in prison, killed by an inmate who claimed he was fending off a sexual advance.  This led Ed Lahey of the Chicago Daily News to create this great obituary line: "Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition."  (This joke KILLS among historical grammarians, or grammatical historians...)  Leopold was released on parole after 33 years in jail.

The film seems to stay pretty true to the real-life story, with Orson Welles in the Clarence Darrow role, while looking a lot like Benny Hill. And by changing only the names of the parties involved they pull the same duplicity that was later made famous by the "Law & Order" franchise - which promotes their shows by claiming the stories are "ripped from the headlines", but then also run a disclaimer stating that the story is not based on real events.  Huh?  Which is it - you can't have it both ways!

As for the motivation of the killers, I'm not sure if I'm buying it.  If their goal was to experience everything in life, including the feeling of killing someone, why not save that one for last?  There are so many other good things to experience - great deli sandwiches, the love of a good woman, cruises to exotic locations.  But if you get caught for murder, you don't get to experience all the other things.  If these guys were so smart, why didn't they realize that?

Also starring Dean Stockwell (last seen in "The Manchurian Candidate" (2004)), Bradford Dillman (last seen in "The Way We Were"), E.G. Marshall (last seen in "Call Northside 777"), Martin Milner (last seen in "Desk Set"), Richard Anderson, Gavin MacLeod (last seen in "Kelly's Heroes"). 

RATING: 4 out of 10 typewriter keys

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ten Little Indians (1965)

Year 5, Day 93 - 4/3/13 - Movie #1,395

BEFORE:  The tie-in with "Witness For the Prosecution" is that both films were based on Agatha Christie novels, although this one seems to be more of the suspense-driven murder mystery she was famous for, not just a prominent trial.  For a direct acting connection, Charles Laughton was also in the 1936 film "Rembrandt" with Wilfrid Hyde-White (last seen in "Oh, God! Book II"), who appears in tonight's film.

THE PLOT:  Ten people are invited to an isolated place for the weekend, but one by one, they are being knocked off according to the poem of "Ten Little Indians".

AFTER:  Before I go any further, a note to the IMDB and to Hollywood in general - the title of this film should be "Ten Little Indians", not "Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians".  Certain authors and directors enjoy something that marketers call "name above the title", which refers to their positioning on the movie's poster.  This does not mean that their name belongs WITHIN the title.  A title is a title, and a person is a person - they should not be intertwined.

You might think I'm being too strict about this, but if you let this one slide by, then eventually you end up with "Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion" which has entirely too many apostrophes in it, and also "Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor", which is wrong on so many levels, including being much too long.  What I'm trying to say here is that Tyler Perry's name should never be considered as part of the title.  Is the film "Citizen Kane", or "Orson Welles's Citizen Kane"?  I rest my case - if an egomaniac like Welles can keep his name out of his film's title, then so can everyone else.

The problem with "Ten Little Indians" is this factor of 10.  Ten potential murders?  Something's getting lost here, and I think it's the individual murders themselves.  Murder is a BIG deal - the taking of a life, even if that person deserves it, according to your moral code.  An entire film, such as last night's, can be built around ONE murder, and here we've got XX (I'm witholding the actual number, since it's kind of integral to the plot's ending).

This is why I don't watch most horror films - at least not the modern splatter variety (ASIDE: Has someone in the horror genre produced "Splatter-Day Night Fever" yet?  Just putting that out there.).  As exciting as it can be to see someone snuffed out on film, I think it should be used sparingly, for maximum impact, and Hollywood apparently disagrees.

The key thing to bear in mind here, is that all of the people invited to this mountain chalet are there for a reason.  They each have something to hide, in many cases it's the fact that they caused the death of another person - but it's a little unclear who the mysterious owner of the chalet is, or how he knows all of these other people, or how he knows about their past sins.

And this is where the "suspense" angle sort of loses me - the mystery man informs the group (via recorded message) why they're each here, and the famous (and quite racist) nursery rhyme "Ten Little Indians' seems to suggest they're all about to meet their maker in some order, and in some clever and semi-ambiguous ways. 

This is a terrible way to spend one's vacation - if you're constantly being reminded of your mortality by witnessing the deaths of others, and wondering when and how you're going to be killed, just how are you supposed to enjoy your ski trip?  And for God's sake, why do these people continue to spend one more minute in this place?  Wouldn't they all rather be on a cruise or something?

The logic (and the math) gets odder as the film progresses.  If last night's film was a precursor to "Law & Order", then this is the original "Survivor" - though here when they get voted out of the tribe, there's no chance of them being talkative during the reunion show.  That said, however:

NITPICK POINT: As the numbers of living people in the house decrease, the chances of each person being "the killer" increase - but this is only if they believe that the killer walks among them.  Which is only a possibility, not a certainty.  There's still the chance that the killer is operating behind the scenes.  If the killer is definitely masquerading as one of the guests, then an odd thing happens when there are three people left, and an even odder thing when there are two.  Think about it.

Also starring Hugh O'Brian (last seen in "Twins"), Shirley Eaton, Stanley Holloway (last seen in "The Lavender Hill Mob"), Fabian, Leo Genn, Daliah Lavi, Dennis Price, and the voice of Christopher Lee (last seen in "Alice in Wonderland").

RATING: 4 out of 10 snooker balls

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Witness for the Prosecution

Year 5, Day 92 - 4/2/13 - Movie #1,394

BEFORE:  The next logical film would be "The Postman Always Rings Twice", since that was also written by James M. Cain, but I don't have a copy of that one.  So, I'm surrendering to a somewhat more random process of selecting the next film - murder is still involved, but I'm not sweating the details.  And I still get lucky - Edward G. Robinson from "Double Indemnity" also appeared in the 1942 film "Tales of Manhattan" with Charles Laughton (last seen in "Mutiny on the Bounty"). 

THE PLOT:  Agatha Christie tale of a man on trial for murder: a trial featuring surprise after surprise.

AFTER: It's not your typical Agatha Christie story, we're all more used to her detective stories featuring Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot - but what is a trial but a detective story played out in a courtroom?  Actually, this film shares quite a bit of plot with "Double Indemnity", which had a woman killing her older husband after taking out an insurance policy on him - here a man is accused of killing his older girlfriend after being named beneficiary in her will.  We'll just replace "claims adjuster" with "judge" and set the thing in the British court system.  Which is great, if you're into the powdered wig thing.

This film was like the original "Law & Order", although once again I'm struck by the appalling lack of criminology on display in the late 1950's.  This was well before DNA was used in court cases, so it's a wonder anything got sufficiently proven.  Great, you found blood type "O" at the scene - which places this guy at the scene, or any of 2 million other people in the U.K. who have that same blood type.  Nice work.  It's also a wonder that anyone commits a crime these days after watching "CSI", which leads you to believe that with half a fingerprint they can identify your second cousin and the street you lived on as a child.

Anyway, without the benefit of DNA or any hard evidence, lawyers (barristers) had to be a lot more crafty and ask all sorts of those twisty questions, hoping to cause the defendant to have a hysterical breakdown and shout "It was me, OK!  I did it, now stop asking me all these tricky questions!".

I could have done without the World War II flashback, which added nothing to the story that we didn't already know.  And the lawyer's heart condition seemed quite a bit over the top.  And then there were about 18 reversals near the end, so that's maybe a few too many.  Finally we get to the truth (or, do we?) and everyone's true nature is revealed - too bad it's off the record.  Now everybody who worked on the case can go on a cruise!  (or, can they?)  Do you really want to see Charles Laughton in Bermuda shorts?

Also starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Elsa Lanchester,

RATING: 4 out of 10 love letters

Monday, April 1, 2013

Double Indemnity

Year 5, Day 91 - 4/1/13 - Movie #1,393

BEFORE:  There's part of me that's already on vacation in some ways - I'm not buying too much food so the fridge will be closer to empty, I've done laundry with an eye toward what I'm going to wear for the next 2 weeks, and I'm working out how to control my DVR with my phone so it doesn't get all filled up with the wrong shows.

I worked my way back to Edward G. Robinson, after a few extraneous crime films - maybe I should have put this right after "Robin and the 7 Hoods" but this kicks off a whole chain of calculated murders.  This is also a certified classic, it's on the AFI list of Top 100 films, plus the "1,000 Films to See Before You Die" list. 

 THE PLOT:  An insurance rep lets himself be talked into a murder/fraud scheme that arouses an investigator's suspicions.

AFTER: I'm not exactly thrilled with excitement over this one - sure, it's a classic film noir, but I'm either not a big fan of the genre, or there are ways where it hasn't aged well.  Generally I look back on all those Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett stories from the 1930's and 1940's and think they're all rather silly.  Everyone apparently walked around in overcoats all the time, and hats, and called women "dames" and carried concealed pistols.  In many ways I find science-fiction films more believable. 

The speech patterns are really odd - the guy from Medford, Oregon says things like, "I'm from Medford, Oregon, and in Medford we like to take our time and not rush things.  Did I mention I'm from Medford, Oregon?"  Yeah, thanks, we picked up on that. Where are you from, again?  The other people all use that old-timey gangster slang, the kind that (I think) only existed in the movies, and on one block in Brooklyn.

The title refers to an insurance clause that pays out double if certain conditions are met.  But even though the mastermind of the scheme is an insurance expert, it still looks shady if you take out a double-payment clause on a particular thing, and then that thing happens just 2 weeks later.  Did the insurance expert really think that wasn't going to arouse suspicion?

So insurance expert falls for a married woman, and they take out this policy on her husband, then dispatch him (takes place off-camera, the film didn't say exactly how they did the deed), and then wait to collect on the policy.  I don't think you could pull this kind of scheme today, because forensics have gotten so good that a medical examiner could say, "Hey, this guy's injuries are inconsistent with the way we think he died - and what's with these hand-shaped bruises on his neck?"

Of course, this film was released back in 1944 (though it's set in 1938 for some reason - maybe because during the war all that everybody talked about was the war) - so it portrays a U.S. society that's very different from today's.  Divorce was a social stigma, but (apparently) killing one's spouse was more socially acceptable.  Claims adjusters accepted or rejected claims based on their "gut feelings", rather than a careful examination of the facts at hand. 

I'll admit the plot is sufficiently twisty - almost overly twistly, but I guess not.  By the end you might not know who exactly is taking advantage of whom, and maybe that the way it should be, and maybe that's what makes the film a classic, at least in its genre.

Huh, the novel this is based on was based on a real 1927 murder case, from Queens, NY, in which a woman persuaded her boyfriend to kill her husband, right after taking out a big insurance policy on his life - with, you guessed it, a double indemnity clause. I won't go into the production details over casting and filming here, but they're fun to read about, since the director had to work around the Hays code.  This explains the over-use of weird metaphors in place of actual sexy talk, and the demand that justice in some form gets doled out to the guilty parties at the end.

Also starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Porter Hall, Jean Heather.

RATING:  6 out of 10 matchsticks

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Mulholland Falls

Year 5, Day 90 - 3/31/13 - Movie #1,392

BEFORE: Moving from 1930's New York to 1950's, L.A. - but "crime" is really too generic of a subject matter, so I had to kind of break things down a little more, which is tough to do when I haven't seen the films before.  (Though I confess I've seen PARTS of this one before, mostly the parts involving Jennifer Connelly - whatever I said about Nicole Kidman last night, just double it for J.C.)  So I'm dealing with whatever basic crime/gangster films are left on the list first, then it's a week of "mostly murder", which will take me right up to Spring Break.  When I get back from vacation, a couple of random crime/action films will ease me into serial killers, which will lead into hitmen, which should lead into spies.  That's the plan, anyway.

There should be multiple ways to link from last night's film - Steve Buscemi from "Billy Bathgate" was also in "New York Stories", and so was Nick Nolte (last heard in "Zookeeper").  That's one way to go.  Could have also gone through "Con Air" to Malkovich, for example.

THE PLOT:  In 1950's Los Angeles, a special crime squad of the LAPD investigates the murder of a young woman.

AFTER:  This movie shares a lot of the same DNA as "L.A. Confidential", in fact it was released just a year before.  They both feature L.A. cops in the 1950's, one of whom has anger issues, and a number of beautiful women involved in a sex/blackmail scheme.  So why does one get rewarded with Oscar nominations, and the other one just gets a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actress (I can't believe IMDB counts that as a "win" - don't they know a Razzie Award is a BAD thing?).

Apparently, it's all in the execution.  Something about that film with Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce really struck a chord with people, and this film with Nick Nolte et. al. just didn't.  Sure, the plot here is kind of confusing, getting tied up with nuclear bomb tests, filmed sexual trysts, and police brutality - but was "L.A. Confidential" any less confusing, with hookers that looked like starlets, race-based kidnappings and police corruption?

What I end up judging is how the pieces come together, or perhaps fail to.  This one has a number of pieces, but how well do they connect with each other?  When we learn why the woman in question was killed, does it make sense?  Are we satisfied with the answer?  We want to know that a person's death has meaning, and wasn't just some random killing.  Yes, I know that in real life there isn't always a "why", but in a film we like to see some kind of resolute answer. 

What's odd is the conflict of interest here - Nolte's character clearly knows the murder victim, but tries to act like he doesn't.  Wouldn't it greatly speed up the investigation if he mentioned that he knew her name?  Of course, considering the extent of his relationship with the woman, he really should remove himself from the case - but that would reveal too much too soon, and put his character in an embarrassing position.  Still, I'd think that a cop would try to move the investigation forward as quickly as possible.

And this film highlights the difference between a crime film set in the 1950's from one set in modern times - the modern police would rely much more on forensics and lab work, while the 1950's cops apparently relied more on fisticuffs.  I'm not quite sure why the "Hat Squad" had four members, since two of them were extremely under-utilized.  The same story could have been told with just a central cop character and his partner.

There's a much smaller use of flashback here to reveal key details of the story, but it's still in effect.  And the use of the film-within-a-film serves as a stand-in for flashback sequences, since they serve the same purpose.  Both are types of story crutches, in my opinion.  

Also starring Melanie Griffith (last heard in "Stuart Little 2"), John Malkovich (last seen in "The Killing Fields"), Jennifer Connelly (last seen in "The Dilemma"), Chazz Palminteri, Michael Madsen (last seen in "Thelma & Louise"), Chris Penn (last seen in "The Darwin Awards"), Treat Williams, Andrew McCarthy, Daniel Baldwin, with cameos from Kyle Chandler, Titus Welliver, Bruce Dern (last seen in "All the Pretty Horses"), Rob Lowe, William Petersen (last seen in "The Contender"), Louise Fletcher and Aaron Neville.

RATING: 4 out of 10 lock-picks