This is our most desperate hour. Help us Santo—you're our only hope.
We were dubious toward Santo when we learned of his movies, but after screening three features the guy has really grown on us. So last night we watched Santo contra los asesinos de otros mundos, which was known in English as Santo vs. The Killers from Other Worlds. You know the basics—Santo is a Mexican luchador who is also an ace international crimefighter. Which is convenient, because an evil mastermind named Malkosh is demanding a fortune in gold bars from the Mexican government or he'll unleash a monster on the populace. This terrifying blob, which in the script has been somehow derived from moon rocks, in reality is three guys huddled under a giant shammy. Doubtless bumping heads and asses while crabwalking under this thing, the poor guys move at about the same speed as traffic in central Mexico City. But no matter—the blob is a whiz at triangulation, and its victims are agility challenged. Whoever it chases inevitably finds himself or herself trapped and, after futilely heaving staplers and coffee cups, consumed down to a skeletal state.
Santo's crimefighting technique is often to be captured. It's never intentional—it just works out that way. And just as form dictates, Malkosh snares Santo, but rather than kill him outright forces him to fight Spartacus style against ever more deadly opponents, an entertainment that of course backfires when the third gladiator accidentally flamethrowers a guard, allowing Santo to grab a machine gun and get the drop on everyone. You have to wonder why these villains toy with him so. The man is well-known as the most lethal crimefighter in Mexico, if not all of the Americas, yet the crooks insist upon underestimating him. Maybe it's just hard to be awed by a guy in a gimp mask who's wearing the drapes from a Guadalajara whorehouse as a cape. Even so, Santo's record speaks for itself, which means you ignore the brief at your peril. Malkosh, foolish lad, dies ignominiously, screaming even, but not before Santo learns from him that the moon blob grows like federal overreach. And indeed, soon there are four guys knocking body parts under the shammy, then five, looks like.
The rest of the film tracks Santo's efforts to find Malkosh's partner Licur, who has imprisoned a Professor Bernstein, the only person on Earth who knows how to corral the lunar abomination busily scuttling across the landscape. Locating Licur involves a bit of Holmesian deduction, at which point Santo gains access to the top secret high security lair by scaling a low wall. In the subsequent fistfights, he's ferociously pounded about his face and semi-soft body, yet his gimp mask never slips and his whorehouse drapes never rip. Finally he squares off against Licur himself, who proves to be no match, and at that point all that's left is to defeat the beast, now about the size of a Winnebago. We'll leave the last bit as a surprise, but suffice to say Santo is always one step ahead. In the end, the film was another satisfying outing, with all the hallmarks of the series—terrible dialogue, poorly staged fights, truly atrocious acting, and a script conceived during a blinding mezcal bender. What's not to love? Queue it. Watch it. Santo contra los asesinos de otros mundos premiered in Mexico today in 1973.
You got anything to eat around here? I'm famished.
Even she doesn't know it yet, but she's a danger junkie.
The Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco closes tonight. We couldn't be there, living as we do across the ocean, but like last year we screened some of the films at home and that has been a treat. We said at the end of last year's group of write-ups that we probably wouldn't do it again, and that turned out to be a lie. Next year we definitely won't do it. It's fun, but makes the website almost like actual work, which isn't what this is about at all. It isn't you, Noir City, it's us.
Tonight's final entries on the festival slate are Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, which we've discussed below, and the film for which see two promo posters above—Victoria. The hook here is the movie is shot by director Sebastian Schipper and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen in one take—not many takes digitally spliced, but a single analog take about two hours and fifteen minutes long, beginning in the wee Berlin hours and extending into dawn. Schipper has said in interviews that he had three chances to get it right, and the finished film the is the result of the third effort.
It tells the story of Spanish millennial Victoria (Laia Costa), whose lonely existence is changed when she meets local boy Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his three friends during a night at a disco. Sonne seems like a nice enough guy, and Victoria leaves with him and his buds for a sojourn along streets and a rooftop that ends with the two agreeing to meet again. It's at that point one of the friends get sick from all the booze he's ingested, and Sonne desperately asks Victoria to drive the remaining trio somewhere. Why? Because wherever they're going there are supposed to four of them and three will not do. Uh oh. Where are the boys going? To commit an armed robbery.
Victoria doesn't know this at first. It becomes clear soon enough, but only after she's in too deep and stuck as a getaway driver. Of course, the audience knows she's in trouble long before that. If there's a flaw with the movie it's merely that Victoria doesn't seem lonely, reckless, or clueless enough to get herself into this mess. But maybe that's a function of the movie's nature. We can't know her in two hours, filmed in real
time,with no structural concessions for subplots, flashbacks, or any of the standard expository digressions. We have to take her at face value, and accept her as revealed to us. If you do, then the blossoming of her inner danger junkie is logical and seamless. Victoria is really an astounding achievement, and not just because of the single take. Schipper is almost twenty years older than the cast he directs, but he's made a generational landmark of a film.
Nobody can hurt you quite like your own family.
Noir City ticketholders are in for a nasty treat with Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Made in 2007, well reviewed but under appreciated, it doesn't tick the film noir box but it's a top level thriller, gripping from explosive beginning to crushing end, with timelines restarting to drip feed plot twists to the viewer. And “drip feed” is apropos as a descriptive, because it's like water torture watching the lives of the family at the center of this film come apart.
It all starts when Philip Seymour Hoffman—in desperate need of cash—convinces his little brother Ethan Hawke—also in need of money—to knock off a jewelry store. Neither are criminals, but the potential robbery is too easy to resist. The store, you see, belongs to their hardworking parents. It's literally a mom and pop operation, located in a quiet suburb, insufficiently guarded because there's never been an instant of trouble in all the years the place has been in business.
Hawke is good as a man who is never remotely in control of his circumstances, and Hoffman is brilliant, but Albert Finney drives the movie with righteous anger and unbearable heartbreak. Critics'fave Michael Shannon has a crucial role, Oscar winner Marisa Tomei is perfect as a woman in the middle of a mess she can only barely discern, and fourteen-time nominee Sidney Lumet directs with austere precision.
We originally saw Before the Devil Knows You're Dead years ago and always planned to rewatch it, but kept shying away from doing so because we knew it would be difficult to sit through again. Yeah. It's like that. Hard to watch—even with Marisa Tomei in it—when you know what's coming. But since you have no idea how it unfolds you'll get through it fine. We highly recommend that you queue this one up.
You mess with the bull you get the horns.
Expert safecracker Gal Dove, played by Ray Winstone, has retired to sunny Spain, but criminal associates back in England want him for a job. Arriving in the Costa del Sol to make the pitch for them is the persuasive—and psychotic—Ben Kingsley, who terrorizes Gal and his close circle in an effort to bully him into partnering up. The movie mainly focuses on the battle of wills between a man trying to move on with his life and a monster that won't take no for an answer. For a long while it looks as though there won't be a heist at all, but the film circles around to that eventually, showing the event in montage form. And though this robbery is unique in execution it's ancillary plotwise, because Sexy Beast is less a heist film than a psychological drama about how difficult it is for a talented crook to get out the rackets, and how his former self and past sins are never deeply buried. Made in 2001 and directed by a man who clearly knows his film noir in Jonathan Glazer, this is both the most straightforward film showing at Noir City, and also the one—with its dialogue driven pacing and shorts bursts of violence—we can most easily imagine as a 1940s production. Dark, quirky, visually dazzling, and fun.
Just being able to survive feels like success.
Tonight the Noir City Film Festival is screening the urban drama Blue Collar, possibly the best film on the ten-day slate. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and the underrated but indispensable Yaphet Kotto star, but this is Pryor's show, his star turn. A trio of Detroit auto workers are driven by financial desperation to rob their own union hall. They end up netting three-hundred dollars. Trouble is the union, seeking insurance money, claims it was twenty thousand. The organized crime guy who backed the job isn't interested in stories about a three hundred dollar take—he's owed ten percent and that's two grand. But there's hope—the robbery also netted a notebook filled with information on illegal loans, and if Pryor and company can sell it maybe they can come out on top after all. But just how likely do you suppose that is?
Blue Collar is a brilliant work of art. Cinematic maverick Paul Schrader directed it, operating in a gritty milieu that would become his trademark. But the pressurized lives of the working class heroes are truly brought to life by the cast. Keitel studied under Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, as well as at the HB Studio, while Kotto is a guy who studied at the Actors Mobile Theater Studio and made his professional acting debut in Othello, but Pryor the stand-up comic outacted them both, using self-contained fury, razor sharp humor, and just the right amount of improvisation. The man was a once-in-lifetime talent. His comedy was fused with desperation and pain, but Hollywood tried to harness the funny Pryor and jettison the rest. It was like removing his heart. He truly shone only in serious films, where he would break high tension with moments of humanizing comedy. Blue Collar was the best of the lot.
By today's movie standards a couple of thousand dollars hardly seems like much to fret over. Audiences are used to crime films dealing with millions. But the small amounts here make the movie feel real. A 2016 study showed that half of adult Americans would not be able to come up with $400 in an emergency—they would have to sell something, borrow money, or not pay. Back in 1978, when Blue Collar wasmade, real wages in the U.S. were higher than they are now, so the movie depicts travails among working class people who were better off than working class people are today. Let that sink in. We think this is a perfect movie to show in San Francisco in 2017, a city overrun by tech workers contentedly pushing longtime residents out. The movie won't change anything in the city. But it will be remembered by the ticketholders at the screening.
The only thing as hard as being in prison is being out.
In Straight Time Dustin Hoffman plays a parolee having a hard time adjusting to life on the outside. Things go well initially. He gets a job. He meets a woman (Theresa Russell, so excellent work there). He stays out of trouble. But civilian life is difficult to navigate, especially when his nosy parole officer (the impressively slimy M. Emmett Walsh) expects the worst of him. It doesn't take long for Hoffman to fold under the pressure, and just like that he's back in the rackets, robberies specifically, and of course they escalate until he's aiming for a big score.
Straight Time is Hoffman doing his thing after brilliant efforts in Little Big Man, Straw Dogs, Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, All the President's Men, and Lenny. In other words, he's at the height of his abilities and he turns the story of a con making bad choices into a viscerally believable ride. He would move on mainly to less gritty roles the rest of his career. For example, the next year he did Kramer vs. Kramer, and a couple of years after that came Tootsie. So Straight Time is worth seeing just to witness Hoffman in a mode he was moving beyond. If that isn't enough enticement, well, the movie is great.
Eastwood tries to teach a new dog old tricks.
Squirrelly young criminal Lightfoot, played by Jeff Bridges, is just the kind of guy you want to smack. Always running his mouth, never paying attention, totally wrapped up in himself. He picks up John Doherty, played by the older Clint Eastwood, and the two form a bromance. During their travels, Lightfoot learns that Doherty is a famed bank robber known as the Thunderbolt, for his usage of an anti-aircraft cannon to penetrate a bank vault. Thunderbolt has two ex-partners on his trail who are seeking a cache of hidden money from a previous job. The money is hidden behind a blackboard in an old, one-room schoolhouse, but when Thunderbolt and Lightfoot travel to the site of the school it's been replaced a modern new building.
The angry ex-partners eventually corral Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but when they learn the money is gone, rather than exact revenge, they decide to pull off the same job, the same way, and maybe the loss of the other cash will be forgiven. The only snag is they have no way to finance the robbery—particularly the acquisition of another cannon. So they do what any career criminals would do—get jobs. They drive an ice cream truck, groom dogs, anything to earn cash. The question is never really whether they'll finance the heist, but whether their fragile coalition—which is strained by mistrust from the loss of the previous bank loot, as well as by Lightfoot's grating antics—can hang together.
Jeff Bridges' Oscar nominated performance is a reminder that Millennial, Generation X, Beat Generation, et al, are just marketing terms used for social engineering. Every young generation is infuriating to the older ones. It's genetic, not social. Lightfoot is impatient, oblivious, andrude—like someone raised on mobile devices, only decades before those existed for people to focus their ire upon. A constant underlying concern is whether he will finally go too far and get his ass seriously beaten, or maybe even get killed. He's likeable, of course, but he's also a protagonist. If you met him on the street you'd wonder if he was ever dropped on his head as an infant—and then proceed to drop him on his head. And no—he doesn't turn out to be secretly a criminal genius. He's exactly the constant annoyance he seems.
Though Thunderbolt and Lightfoot isn't film noir, it's full spectrum entertainment, with laughs, thrills, and a touch of sex, as well as just enough menace to keep viewers on edge. But we don't think Noir City patrons will walk away from the screening 100% pleased. We get that they're being asked to think outside the box, but there's a pretty wide gap between noir, with its beautiful visual palette and nostalgia invoking cultural stature, and a ’70s road thriller, with its dusty look and twangy country music soundtrack. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a great movie in the wrong festival, in our view. As a side note, the promo poster, which we're sure you've noticed is high quality, was painted by Ken Barr, who was a respected comic book and promo artist for many years. You can read a bit more about him here.
Delon and company play cops and robbers in the City by the Bay.
Once a Thief opens with a San Francisco nightclub drummer playing a cracking solo, cymbal crashes synched to quick edits, and we immediately think we're in for some sort of revolutionary beat generation noir, with the edgy rhythms and nervous energy that idea entails. But the movie quickly subsides to conventional pacing, telling the story of a former thief gone straight suspected of a recent murder, and the cop determined to put him away—guilty or innocent. Alain Delon plays crook-turned-family man Eddie, and Ann-Margret is his wife Kristine. Even if the movie doesn't live up to its jazzy opening, getting Sweden's hottest actress and France's hottest actor together should be a can't-miss proposition.
Though Eddie is innocent of the murder, police harassment costs him his job. But when you're broke you can always count on family—to make things worse, that is. Eddie's criminal brother shows up and wants help with a bank robbery. After a few fraternal preliminaries, Eddie decides to partner up with his erratic bro, which is when his troubles really start, because his darker nature emerges and it isn't a pretty sight. Ann-Margret, working from the hysteria-as-acting playbook, is not pleased with these developments and over-emotes her displeasure at every opportunity. Even if criminal conspiracy doesn't do Eddie in, marital strife might.
Once a Thief oozes cool, but in the end it's a middling heist drama that asks a bit too much of its principals. It didn't do well in 1965, and we suspect it'll be the least liked offering at Noir City. Audiences may respond to a few aspects, though: there are some nice San Fran exteriors, Lalo Schifrin's soundtrack is top notch, and character actor John Davis Chandler knocks his role of the druggy hepcat villain Jimmy Sargatanas out of the park, over the promenade, and into McCovey Cove. His line, “I don't dig women,” paired with a sneer and a fatal gunshot, will probably bring the house down. As for Delon and Ann-Margret, well, at least they look good.
Jo Shishido is too cruel to be schooled.
By now you've noticed this year's Noir City slate concerns heists—all the films so far have involved foolproof plans to make a big score. 1964's Kenjû zankoku monogatari, aka Cruel Gun Story is about a crew that wants to rob a race track, same as in Kubrick's The Killing. Japanese superstar Jo Shishido leads his minions on a caper that goes wrong almost immediately and eventually erupts into pyrotechnic violence. If there's a lesson here it's don't get on Shishido's bad side. Though he's preternaturally cool (really, we can't think of another star who could make exchanging close quarters gunfire while smoking a cigarette look believable), restraint in the face of aggression isn't his strong trait. When he has something serious to say, it's going to come from the muzzle of a gun. This is another Noir City offering that most sites don't label as film noir, but the influences are certainly there, and in fact the film is part of The Criterion Collection's five film Nikkatsu Noir DVD box set. We've seen Kenjû zankoku monogatari described as Nikkatsu Studios' crown jewel. We don't know about that. We'd call it an imperfect but entertaining effort.
Making a killing at the track is harder than they think.
Tonight the Noir City Film Festival is also screening Stanley Kubrick's 1956 crime procedural The Killing. The title refers not to murder but to making a killing—i.e. a highly profitable score. Sterling Hayden leads a cast that includes Coleen Gray, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Marie Windsor. Hayden and crew hope to rob a race track, and to do this they lay out a precise plan that includes causing a brawl at the track bar as one distraction, and shooting a horse mid-race as another. What could go wrong, right? But the crazy plan makes sense, and if you have trouble following it a stentorian narration breaks down the action for you. We didn't mind that so much—the entire premise of the movie is that it's a faux-documentary, so the voiceover is something you have to accept. But the trumpets and tympani on the soundtrack—wow—are way overcooked. Still, this is a nice piece of noir, occasionally running on parallel timelines, with plenty of directorial style from a twenty-eight-year-old Kubrick. Some might take issue with the film's heavyhanded irony, but it's all somewhat redeemed by the perfection with which Hayden delivers his final line. The Killing didn't do well at the box office, however as often happens with films from directors who later become icons, opinions have shifted over the decades. But even if modern day critics are in agreement that The Killing is a top effort, it still won't be everyone's cup of tea. You'll just have to judge for yourself.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1986—Jimmy Cagney Dies
American movie actor James Francis Cagney, Jr., who played a variety of roles in everything from romances to musicals but was best known as a quintessential tough guy, dies of a heart attack at his farm in Stanfordville, New York at the age of eighty-six.
1951—The Rosenbergs Are Convicted of Espionage
Americans Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage as a result of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. While declassified documents seem to confirm Julius Rosenberg's role as a spy, Ethel Rosenberg's involvement is still a matter of dispute. Both Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953.
1910—First Seaplane Takes Flight
Frenchman Henri Fabre, who had studied airplane and propeller designs and had also patented a system of flotation devices, accomplishes the first take-off from water at Martinque, France, in a plane he called Le Canard, or "the duck."
1953—Jim Thorpe Dies
American athlete Jim Thorpe, who was one of the most prolific sportsmen ever and won Olympic gold medals in the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, played American football at the collegiate and professional levels, and also played professional baseball and basketball, dies of a heart attack.
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