Tuesday, September 11, 2018

LETHAL WEAPON (1987)


From 1989 to somewhere around 1993, I was obsessed with Mel Gibson. There are a lot of people who know me now who don't know this fact about me. But there is probably no one who knew me during those years who doesn't know this fact about me. I turned 14 in 1989, and I was 18 in 1993. The years in between were spent in intense study of all things Mel Gibson.

The obsession was due primarily to the Richard Donner-directed and Shane Black-scripted trash action classic LETHAL WEAPON. The movie was released in 1987 when I was far too young to see it. I had an older cousin who saw it, though, and he said it kicked ass. When I finally saw it, I suspected it was the greatest movie ever made. At the very least, I knew for certain that it was the greatest movie I'd ever seen.

Now I'm a 43-year-old cinephile. I've spent most of the last 25 years or so obsessed with different kinds of films and filmmakers. Film noir. Westerns. Musicals. Bogart. Welles. Bergman (both of them). Judy fucking Garland. I've probably seen, at least once, a majority of the movies that would be considered serious classics of the cinema. Many of those, I've seen more than once. A few I've seen over and over and over again.

But if I had to wager on the movie I've seen the most times, I would have to sheepishly admit it's probably LETHAL WEAPON. And, keep in mind, I've only seen it maybe once or twice in the last ten years. That means that by the mid-nineties I'd watched it, what? 50 times? 60? I watched it with the passion of youth. I watched it the way some kids in the 90s listened to Pearl Jam or Nirvana albums.

These reflections were triggered by seeing the movie for the first time in a very long time at a midnight showing at Chicago's Music Box Theater.  It was like running into a friend you haven't seen since high school.

LETHAL WEAPON is an 80s action movie. In some ways, it's the ultimate 80s action movie. DIE HARD is an infinitely better film, but it was pointing the way out of the 80s. DIE HARD had a high tech sheen to it that seemed to herald the breakthrough of something like T2: JUDGEMENT DAY. LETHAL WEAPON, on the other hand, was all about guns, tits, and mullets. LETHAL WEAPON was 80s trash and proud of it. 

This post isn't about how I watched this dated 80s action movie and realized it's trash. I think I always knew it was trash--albeit, highly efficient trash. And it's been years now since I caught up to the fact that film is casually homophobic, racist, and sexist. None of this is still surprising to me.

What is surprising is how bad Mel Gibson is in most of it. Because Mel's a good actor. His performance in BRAVEHEART is appropriately epic, while he's tightly restrained in THE ROAD WARRIOR. His HAMLET wasn't an embarrassment. His best performances are as the imperiled fathers in RANSOM, SIGNS, and THE BEAVER (a truly weird film, sure, but there's no denying that Mel taps into a deep well of self-loathing and depression in it). Mel can, when he puts his mind to it, act. Just not here. More on that in a second. 

In LETHAL WEAPON Mel plays LA cop Martin Riggs. He's suicidal because his wife has recently died, so--for reasons that make no sense whatsoever--he's transferred from narcotics to homicide. Which is sort of like getting a promotion, but never mind. He gets paired up with family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and they set out to solve a murder that almost immediately leads them to a gang of Vietnam-era mercenaries turned drug smugglers. Together Riggs and Murtaugh kill all these assholes and Riggs learns to live again.   

Mel doesn't so much give a performance here as much as he does a kind of macho-vogue. He's beautiful in this movie. This is prime Mel Gibson as a sex symbol, with a flared mullet sculpted by a stylist simply credited as "Ramsey". In his first shot in the movie, we find Mel naked in bed, waking up with a lit cigarette in his mouth and a loaded 9mm on the pillow beside him. He gets up and drags a beer out of the fridge. Despite being a depressive who guzzles booze for breakfast he's got about 8% body fat and a perfect ass. The camera regards him like a rock star. His hair is sculpted and so's that ass. Mel's not here to act. Mel's here to project beauty and danger. He's here to kill assholes, to run down the street barechested with a machine gun, to jump, to fight, and to kill even more assholes.

[A long digression: We'll find out in LW2 that Victoria Lynn Riggs was actually murdered by drug dealers who covered it up by making it look like a car wreck. Of course. This will allow Riggs to kill some more to purge his pain. 80s action films always argue that the surest way through personal turmoil is the wholesale slaughter of assholes. Here's the thing, though, LETHAL WEAPON itself doesn't feel like it's supposed to be a franchise starter. It feels like Shane Black set out to make a movie, rather than part one of a series. This might explain the grittiness of the original film, like its subplot about a dead porn actress, or the weird sexual tension between Riggs and Murtaugh's 16 year old daughter. None of this would fly in a film today, especially a film that could potentially kick off a billion dollar franchise.] 

Here's the thing: on one level it's weird that a 14 year old religiously indoctrinated Arkansas kid like me became obsessed with this movie. LETHAL WEAPON is an LA movie. It's very LA, in fact. (And that aspect of it really pops on the big screen as the detectives go up into the Hollywood hills.)  It's an adult movie in the sense that it has a lot of adult material: nudity, profanity, violence, suicidal despair.

But every bit of it--even the despair--is pitched at the level of an eighth grader. LETHAL WEAPON is a big rock power ballad of a movie. It's got no depth, just emotional bombast. Riggs isn't just sad, he's suicidal, and he's not just suicidal, he's SUICIDAL, with bug eyes and flared nostrils to prove it. Mel Gibson's performance in this film is about as subtle as a kick to the jaw, but that's in keeping with the tone of the movie. You can't croon a rock power ballad, you have to belt it out. The scene where Riggs almost kills himself is probably the scene that made Mel Gibson a superstar. The rest of the movie's talk of suicide rings hollow and cheap (the showdown between Riggs and Murtaugh later on-- "Don't tempt me, man!" --is overdone and unconvincing), but this almost wordless scene is just Mel and a gun and all the emotion the actor can dredge up from his soul. It's the scene that made people think "That handsome son of a bitch can emote." Riggs kills 17 assholes in this movie and everyone of them is just catharsis, the releasing of the tension of the earlier suicide scene. That's the kind of thing my 14 year old self could hold on to.

The success of this movie launched three more sequels, and while it's interesting to see how the movie shifted into a series, it's also easy to see how the filmmakers lost touch with that series. LETHAL WEAPON 2 (1989) immediately starts to turn everything into a comedy. Shane Black wanted to kill Riggs off. The suits wouldn't let him. So Shane Black was out. No more talk of suicide and no more grit. It was time to start printing money. Consequently, LW2 is still hyper-violent but it doesn't linger on pain, and there are no torture sequences like the first film. It's bigger and broader, like a cartoon. (Indeed, the film starts with the Looney Tunes fanfare.) The body count goes over the top with glee, and there's longer and larger set pieces. (Riggs pulls down a house on stilts with his truck.) The heroes end up in each other's arms, laughing. The film also introduced Joe Pesci as comic relief in a movie already popping with jokes, and that was the end of LETHAL WEAPON. The tepid LW3 brought back Pesci for no good reason (and to diminishing returns), and in an R-rated movie it gave Mel a PG-love interest in Rene Russo. It made both the violence and the humor broader, which is to say that the film is neither exciting nor funny. It also tried, paradoxically, to get serious and deliver a hamfisted gun control message in between all the shootouts glorifying guns and all the jokes making light of police brutality. And LW4...well, shit, I don't really even remember it. Jet Li was the bad guy and he gets double-teamed by Riggs and Murtaugh, which always struck me as kind of a punk move on the part of the cops. Chris Rock, just emerging as the greatest stand up comic of his generation, is also in the movie to try to give someone, anyone, a reason to see it. It's all just...bad. And Riggs has short hair. What the hell's the point of a LETHAL WEAPON movie without a mullet?  

Since Donner directed all four movies and the principal cast returned for all four, the last movie ends with a group photo to underscore the family atmosphere on the set. Yet the films themselves reveal that, cut loose from Shane Black's trash-vision, Donner didn't really know what to do with LETHAL WEAPON. As the series went on it got more and more intellectually mangled. Donner tried to turn it into a kind of family comedy (the tits and ass and torture were out by LW3), while also trumpeting simplistic liberal "messages" (apartheid is bad, guns are bad, Chinese slave labor is bad). But those messages are stuffed clumsily into what is essentially the old DIRTY HARRY stroke-fantasy of good guy fascist cops gunning down dozens of people with righteous impunity because, after all, criminals are just a bunch of remorseless assholes.

I lost interest in all of this long before the final credits rolled on the last movie. The WEAPON sequels, to one degree or another, all feel superfluous. 

The original LETHAL WEAPON is different, at least for me. It's a relic of the 80s, which is to say that it's a relic of my own childhood. Why did I love it? Because in its dumb Joel Silver-produced way, it had a sense of loneliness and isolation. I certainly felt that in my teen years. It presented uncomfortable emotions I understood and it offered hyper-masculine remedies: Toughness. Rough humor. Male bonding. Violence.

Of course, as I got older I came to learn that these weren't exactly the best remedies to uncomfortable emotions. But when I watch LETHAL WEAPON I'm certainly not looking for moral instruction. I'm not even looking for entertainment anymore because when I watch it now, I can no longer simply see a trashy 80s action movie. Instead, I see the kid watching it and learning to love the movies, falling in love with their raw speed and fury. I see a kid awkwardly learning how to move, and not to move, through the world. I see, of all things, me.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

PICKUP (1951)



Hugo Haas was classic noir’s goofiest auteur. His films were melodramatic, overwrought, and often funny when they were trying—ostensibly anyway—to be dramatic. As a producer/director/writer, Haas created films around himself as an actor, and he usually created variations on the same story: sweet Hugo Haas meets a beautiful young blonde who sets out to kill him and take all his money. In film after film, he seemed to be doing his best to tell THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE from the point of view of Nick Papadakis.


Now, everything I just wrote has often been said as a way to dismiss Haas as a cut-rate hack. But this is where I disagree with critics like Arthur Lyons (who called Haas “one of the world’s worst writer-director-actors”). Haas is a goofy auteur, but he is an auteur nevertheless. His films have a personality, a point of view, and they have their charms.

Look at PICKUP, his first American film. It stars Haas as a railroad worker named Jan “Hunky” Horak. An amiable widower who lives alone at a secluded railway post, his life changes when he meets a sexy tart named Betty—and by ‘sexy tart’ I mean that everything about her from the first moment she appears onscreen screams ‘This woman is a sexy tart.’

Haas is not subtle, but, then again, subtly is only one among many potential virtues. Hunky and
Betty get married and descend into a marital hell that only gets hotter when a younger, hunkier (sorry, I couldn’t resist) guy shows up. PICKUP ain’t trying to be subtle. It wants to be simmering adultery yarn, part morality tale, part potboiler—and that’s pretty much what it is. PICKUP—like most of Haas’s films—has an almost classically burlesque quality to it. I think Haas takes his material seriously in the sense that he wants to put it across, but I don’t think for a second that he has any interest in what we would call “realism.” He isn’t doing a bad version of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. He’s doing a distinctly European caricature of the same kind of material—and I mean caricature here more in its 18th or 19th century sense of seriocomic grotesquery—and to understand this is to really enjoy Hugo Haas. More than most alleged auteurs, he actually was the controlling artistic influence on his films. There’s a certain Old World melancholy in his movies, like here when Betty asks if he got his American nickname because he’s Hungarian and he says, “No, I’m Czech, but to them it’s all the same.” There is real pathos in that line, and it comes straight from Hugo Haas.

But, god, he was goofy. PICKUP is the kind of movie that gets big laughs from audiences. As Betty, Haas cast the great Beverly Michaels. She chews the scenery from her first scene to her last. Our first view of her is a low-angle shot of her bouncing up and down on a Merry-Go-Round while a pack of men ogle her legs. This is sexuality-as-absurdity. You can’t not laugh.

There is, of course, a dark side to all of this. There’s an argument to be made that, goofy or not, this movie—like most Haas movies—has a misogynist heart. There are two women in this movie, Betty and her friend, Irma. Irma isn’t as big a floozy as Betty, but she’s cut from the same cloth and she’s only in the movie for a scene or two. After that, we’re left with Betty and Betty’s no damn good. Haas ends the movie on an ugly joke, with Hunky clutching a new puppy, saying “This is what I should have brought home in the first place.” With the bitch gone, in other words, now he has a good dog.

This hatred of the only real female character in the movie is ironic because, of course, as is so often the case, she’s the most interesting character in the film. PICKUP was the first starring role (after a scrappy supporting role in EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE) for its leading lady, and it would define the rest of her short career. Beverly Michaels had a mouth made for snarling, and she did a lot of it in her brief time onscreen. She made only a handful of feature films, and notched a couple of television credits, before she retired from acting in 1956, and in most of her movies she’s the meanest thing onscreen. After ’56, she married filmmaker Russell Rouse (who had directed her in 1953’s fantastic WICKED WOMAN) and then she more or less disappeared from public life. Even when she became a cult figure among noir geeks, she evinced little interest in stepping back into the spotlight before her death in 2007. That mystery woman quality, of course, has only added to her legend. Among film noir goddesses, she’s something special. Other goddesses are sadder (Lizabeth Scott), sexier (Audrey Totter), or meaner (Marie Windsor). No one, however, is tougher. You want to sum up Beverly Michaels’ noir ethos? She was a broad. A glorious, hilarious, tough-as-nails broad.

All hail the hard ass.

P.S. I wrote about Beverly Michaels and Russell Rouse for the e-mag NOIR CITY. You can buy that issue here.


Monday, August 20, 2018

I WALK ALONE (1948)



Byron Haskin started out in movies as a cinematographer and a special effects man—working his way up to head of the Special Effects department  at Warner Brothers in the mid-forties—but when producer Hal B. Wallis left Warner Brothers in the forties to start his own production company, Haskin followed his old boss and started a directing career (or restart, I should say; Haskin had made a handful of short films back in the silent days). His first film post-Warner was I WALK ALONE. It should have led to much better things.

I WALK ALONE tells the story of Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster), a hood who has just been released from jail after fourteen years. He’s back in town to look up his old partner, Dink Turner (Kirk Douglas), a shifty bastard who has spent the last fourteen years getting rich. Frankie wants his cut of the prosperity, and Dink is loathe to give it to him. Caught between these two raging alpha males are mild-mannered accountant, Dave (Wendell Corey), and sexy nightclub singer, Kay (Lizabeth Scott).

The script is by Charles Schnee, one of the best screenwriters of the era (THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, THE FURIES) from Theodore Reeves’ play “Beggars are Coming to Town”, and it is unusually intelligent and perceptive. One of the interesting angles of the story is the way Frankie finds that he is an anachronism in the new world of crime. Dink is a businessman now, and Frankie’s two-fisted approach is hopelessly outdated. When Frankie hires a bunch of thugs to help him storm into Dink’s office and demand his cut, he discovers that Dink’s empire is really an amalgam of three different corporations. The best Frankie can hope for is eight percent—maybe, even that will depend on a vote by the stockholders.

Lancaster and Douglas, in their first film together, are excellent. Both men are energetic, hypermasculine performers, but what makes their pairing interesting is the different effect each of them creates. Lancaster, even playing a goon, is an honest, sympathetic protagonist. Douglas, on the other hand, is one of the screen’s great bastards. His air of ruthless self-confidence is completely mesmerizing, and somehow his self-satisfaction never gets in the way of his appeal. Here these two actors already play together with the natural chemistry that would sustain their repeated collaborations for decades to come.

Their support, both in front of and behind the camera, is top rate. Wendell Corey, one of the most dependable of supporting actors, finds a nice wounded dignity in his character, and Lizabeth Scott, once again the morally questionable lounge singer (she must have played this role a hundred times in the forties and fifties) is as sad and beautiful as always. The film’s cinematographer is Leo Tover (who had just photographed Scott in DEAD RECKONING the year before) and his work here is evocative, classic noir photography. A sequence late in the film in which Corey is chased down abandoned streets by one of Douglas’ thugs is just about perfect.

If the film has a serious flaw it is that it resolves its story a little too neatly at the end (a common failing among films of the period, of course). Lancaster’s character takes a swerve in the last few minutes that feels false. But this is a minor quibble for a film firing on so many cylinders.

The following year, Haskin would direct Scott in the noir masterpiece, TOO LATE FOR TEARS, followed a few years later by an excellent John Payne picture called THE BOSS. While for most of his career, he focused on adventure stories and science fiction, his brief excursions into crime stories in the forties and fifties are enough to make his name notable in the genre. After you see I WALK ALONE, and after you see TOO LATE FOR TEARS and THE BOSS, you will find yourself wishing Haskin had dabbled in crime pictures a little longer.

PS. I'd only seen this film on the small screen until the showing last night at NOIR CITY CHICAGO, the film noir festival (now in its tenth year!) put on by the Film Noir Foundation and Music Box Theater. If you love film noir, do yourself a favor and make your way to one of the annual NOIR CITY festivals in San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, DC, and more.



Tuesday, August 7, 2018

WINTER LIGHT (1963) and FIRST REFORMED (2018)


I can't remember the first time I saw Ingmar Bergman's WINTER LIGHT. It was probably in the mid-90s, when I was fresh out of high school and found myself living in Little Rock just down the street from a particularly well-stocked Hollywood Video. I was watching everything in those days, and it was certainly during this time that I discovered Bergman. Yet I don't remember first discovering WINTER LIGHT, perhaps because I was so immediately floored by other Bergman films like THE SEVENTH SEAL and THE VIRGIN SPRING. Those films are rich in allegory and daring imagery. They grabbed me.

By contrast, WINTER LIGHT is small, tight, modest. It tells the story of Tomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a vicar in moral crisis. He's lost his faith and when a suicidal member (Max von Sydow) of his tiny congregation comes to him for some kind of help, Tomas has none to give. The man almost immediately kills himself.

Over the years, WINTER LIGHT became my favorite Bergman film. Again, it's hard for me to say just when and how this happened, except that the story of the lost priest has taken on greater resonance for me the older I get. The ending is fascinating. Tomas lashes out at his sometimes girlfriend, Marta (Ingrid Thulin), and returns to his work at the church. Algot, the crippled church sexton, asks Tomas about the suffering of Christ on the cross, speculating that God's silence at that moment was the worst of Christ's torments. Then the tiny church holds its service. Is there hope here? Any kind of redemption?

I've reacted to the ending differently over the years. Sometimes I read it as hopeful, with the hope resting not in a silent watchful god, but in the connection, however flawed, between people. Other times, I'm not so sure. By the time you get to Bergman's next film, THE SILENCE, it seems that all hope of human connection has been abandoned, along with God himself.



I was thinking of WINTER LIGHT a few months ago when Paul Schrader's FIRST REFORMED was released in theaters. In some respects, the film is Schrader's retelling of WINTER LIGHT. Ethan Hawke stars as Ernst Toller, the pastor of a 250-year-old Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York. The church barely functions as a congregation anymore, and Toller is little more than a tour guide for visitors interested in the building as a historical landmark. Despite outward appearances, Toller is a man in crisis. His son, encouraged by Toller to enlist for military duty, was recently killed in Iraq. Toller's marriage collapsed and now the minister goes through the motions at work while quietly drinking too much at night.

Then, as in WINTER LIGHT, he is approached by a pregnant young woman (Amanda Seyfried) and her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). The disturbed young man is consumed by fears about environmental collapse and even contemplates committing an act of terrorism against a rich industrialist polluter. Like von Sydow in Bergman's film, Michael seeks some kind of help and when he finds that the priest has none to give, he kills himself.

Here Schrader's film pivots away from Bergman's. Toller takes up Michael's lost environmental cause as his own and begins to fixate on carrying out Michael's suicide bombing. The film's ending is ambiguous, a last minute reprieve that might simply be the fantasy of a dying man.

For much of FIRST REFORMED, Schrader embraces the austere style of WINTER LIGHT. The camera work favors meticulously composed static shots, and the performances, especially Hawke's, are quietly measured. As the film enters its final act, which owes more than a little to Schrader's own TAXI DRIVER, the tone becomes more frantic. By this point in the film, the tightly wound pastor is operating at a state of near hysteria. 

WINTER LIGHT and FIRST REFORMED are very different films, though their points of connection are interesting. For instance, in both films there is an emphasis on the weakness of the body. In Bergman's film, Tomas is sick with the flu, while Marta has a bad rash and the sexton is disabled. In FIRST REFORMED, Toller is suffering from an aliment that might well be stomach cancer, evidenced by blood in his urine, and at the end of the film he tortures his own flesh by lashing his torso in rusty barbed wire. In both films, the body is a humiliating trap of disease and pain. Faith offers only fleeting reprieve from the problems of the flesh.

Each film is a work of its time. In WINTER LIGHT, the characters fear nuclear annihilation. In FIRST REFORMED, it is climate change. In each case, the danger is poised by the weaponized irrationality of humanity, and, again, faith, offers little in the way of hope against such forces. Indeed, in Schrader's the film, the church is financially underwritten by the same rich polluter who is poisoning the environment.

Schrader's film is more manic, less tightly controlled in its final act, yet the passion and fury in Bergman are simply encased under more Scandinavian ice. Both films are about existential fury turned inward. In Schrader's film, perhaps reflective of an America plagued by domestic terrorism and spree killings, the rage takes the form of suicidal ideation and the contemplation of mass murder.

What both films begrudgingly agree upon is that the only thing with the potential to save us is a connection to other people. Of course, that connection is fraught and fragile. But no one ever accused Bergman or Schrader of being purveyors of easy answers. Both of their desperate ministers have placed themselves above their congregations, only to discover, perhaps too late, that they need people as much as people need them. 

Monday, July 30, 2018

Dirty Sand and Eddie Bunker


The new issue of NOIR CITY is out and I have a couple of pieces in it. One is a look at the way beach culture was presented in film noir in the classic period in films such as THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, TENSION, IN A LONELY PLACE, and DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD.

The second piece is a book vs. film comparison of Edward Bunker's novel NO BEAST SO FIERCE and Ulu Grosbard's STRAIGHT TIME starring Dustin Hoffman. For more info on the issue, which includes an interview between James Ellroy and Eddie Muller, click here.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

HELL ON CHURCH STREET Arrives In Italy


I'm thrilled to announce that HELL ON CHURCH STREET is now available in Italy from Edizioni del Capricorno. I look forward to hearing what the good people of Italy make of the book. 

Friday, April 27, 2018

MAIGRET AND THE HEADLESS CORPSE



I have a new post up at Criminal Element looking at Simenon's 47th (jesus) Maigret adventure, MAIGRET AND THE HEADLESS CORPSE. This is part of a rereading series I'm doing for CE, looking at my six favorite Maigret books. This one might well be my favorite, if only because it's the one that made me a fan.
Check out my post here.