Monday, September 30, 2019

Ronin (1998)

Directed by John Frankenheimer; produced by Frank Mancuso Jr

A team of five mercenaries (Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Sean Bean, Stellan Skarsgård, Skipp Sudduth) is recruited by an Irishwoman (Natascha McElhone) to steal a briefcase from whom she describes as men determined to prevent just such an occurrence. Though the team works well together, they find that their actual objective may be the easiest part of the assignment, as they face betrayal, murder, deceit and divided loyalties at every turn.

Ronin is a straightforward action film, with a few twists to the plot that add to the excitement but don’t really complicate the story. The direction is excellent; Frankenheimer’s best movies involve less gunplay and fights, and more political or personal conflict, but he is nonetheless in fine form here. There are a couple of thrilling car-chases - the second in particularly puts the viewer on the edge of his seat. Ronin is a violent movie and no mistake, though not gory or bloody, but bullets fly in every direction and fast cars become battering rams. This should satisfy the viewer who likes battles with more realism than he would find in a Rambo flick.

Characters are not neglected here, though it is principally those of DeNiro and Reno that are developed. These two form a friendship and trust based on their own kind of honour and professionalism, and that provides some decency in the story amid the shifting alliances and uncertain devotion of practically everyone.

The lack of concern among the mercenaries for the safety of by-standers is rather off-putting - Skarsgård is so amoral even his former colleagues in the KGB are aghast at his behaviour - but it is also, I suppose, to be expected. The cast is well-chosen: the mercenary group is what one would probably find in real-life, men who look like anything but hardened warriors. DeNiro could be a businessman, Reno a bureaucrat; overweight Sudduth and bespectacled Skarsgård hardly fit the image of hired soldiers.

The writing is neither good nor bad, but adequate, and the contents of the mysterious case are never important, as the movie is about the chase - the journey, rather than the destination. In the end, it will be the thrills and excitement that will be remembered in any event. Ronin won’t tax the intellect but it will stimulate the nerves.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Albuquerque (1948)

Directed by Ray Enright; produced by William H Pine and William C Thomas

A Texas cowboy (Randolph Scott) travels to the title town in the New Mexico Territory to take up a job offered by his uncle (George Cleveland). Very quickly, however, his eagerness and delight at his new prospects are disappointed by the discovery that his relative is a ruthless and criminal businessman, intent on using whatever means required to maintain and expand his power. In short order, the newcomer switches sides and throws his support behind his uncle’s rivals (Catherine Craig, Russell Hayden).

Though the basic story Albuquerque is fairly routine, it is enlivened by some interesting novelty in the script and a few exciting scenes. Before the inevitable gun-battle at the climax, there is a struggle between the two factions in the town, under-handed and covert tactics distinguishing this conflict from more obvious ones in some other westerns.

The characters are not particularly deep. Scott travels by stage-coach almost three hundred miles to accept from an uncle he hasn’t seen in decades an indefinite job; one suspects that in the book from which the movie is adapted, more of the protagonist’s history is revealed. Unfortunately, such an aspect, if it existed, was not elaborated upon here. It’s telling when the comic relief, portrayed by George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, is one of the more interesting characters.

The cinematography was promising during the opening shot, depicting a vast panorama of desert and mountains, but this is not followed through in the movie itself. Much of the action takes place in a standard ‘western’-style town, except for an exciting wagon ride without brakes down a steep incline. This uses matte-paintings but the direction is capable and makes for a tense moment.

Albuquerque is pretty standard fare, as far as a western film goes, though it has enough to lift it a bit above the average. Scott is always dependable in the lead, and there are some decent scenes and plot twists to propel the story. While I cannot write that it is one of then better examples of its genre - or even one of the better Randolph Scott movies - it will provide a mildly entertaining evening.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Silent Partner (1978)

Directed by Daryl Duke; produced by Joel B Michaels and Stephen Young

A nondescript bank teller (Elliott Gould) accidentally learns that his bank is going to be robbed and, later, by whom. Anticipating the crime, he steals $50,000 from the bank himself and, when the robber (Christopher Plummer) makes his move, surrenders only a pittance. Though he thinks he has gotten away with his action, the banker is soon faced with the murderous robber, a sadist who will stop at nothing to retrieve what he thinks he should have had in the first place.

In the 1970s, the Canadian film industry was still very small. It had great potential, but any actor who wanted to expand their career, actors such as Plummer, and Donald Sutherland, had to work in Britain or the United States (or France, if they were from Quebec) to do so – though they often continued to remain professionally true to their homeland, as well. To someone such as myself, though a youngster at the time, Canadian movies seemed made for art rather than for entertainment. While laudable, this thinking guaranteed a very limited audience and a thin future.

The Silent Partner was very different. On a par with some of the best bank-robbery films, its story is original, its characters three dimensional and its direction sharp. Gould gives an excellent performance as a likeable man who sees his one chance “to start over”, and takes it, finding then that the consequences are far different than what he had expected. Unusually, his character develops noticeably and realistically during the story. While this may, in less capable scripts, have been ascribed simply to having sudden wealth ($50,000 was a lot more in 1978 than it is now), Gould’s personality realises its potential seemingly through the ordeal of having to outwit, if he can, the not unintelligent – and limitlessly ruthless – Plummer. He finds his strength as he goes along.

Plummer, for his part, is not just a generic crazy criminal. He brings true menace to his character. He doesn’t kill whenever he feels like it; he knows he cannot get away with everything. His temper is explosive, but he is cunning, and has patience; he even admires what he sees as similar qualities in Gould. His is a believable creation, and thus frightening.

The supporting characters, Susannah York and Céline Lomez as women who become a part of the drama, are strong, too, though with less opportunity to show it. They grow as well, thanks to Gould’s predicament, though their growth is not always beneficial to them.

The script is smart and the direction produces true tension, notably in a confrontation conducted by telephone, a brutal fight in Gould’s apartment, and the climax, the end of which most viewers likely will not expect.

While nudity and expletives give The Silent Partner a 1970s gloss, the movie could have come straight from the golden age of film noir, and, in black and white, had perhaps Dana Andrews in the lead, and a villain a la Richard Widmark, in Kiss of Death. The Silent Partner deserves to be ranked with some of the best of the genre.

Monday, September 9, 2019

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Directed by Terence Fisher; produced by Anthony Nelson Keys

Two friends, the Duc de Richleau and Rex van Ryn (Christopher Lee, Leon Greene), meet after an absence and discover that a third acquaintance, Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), has become involved in a satanic cult. Though Ryn is sceptical, Richleau is aghast, knowing that the power of the devil-worshippers is not just superstition. They embark upon a two-days’ adventure of danger and death, in which the souls of all concerned are at stake.

Based on the Dennis Wheatley novel of the same name, and scripted by Richard Matheson, The Devil Rides Out benefits first of all from an excellent script. There is no tongue in the cheek here (which would have been fatal) and the characters behave realistically within the context of the story. They are well-written, and, while Greene’s part may be seen as a dull but dependable sidekick whose main purpose is to have things explained to him, he also provides a more sobre angle, keeping the story grounded.

The movie is not frightening; it should not be seen as a horror film. Indeed, the original novel (one of a series involving the same characters) was intended as a thriller; so is the movie. In this, it succeeds. The action is fast, alleviated by moments of expostulation, and at times quite suspenseful. The climax, in which the forces of righteousness must defend themselves within a protective circle, is tense.

The acting is commendable, and it was refreshing to see Lee playing a good guy. He has played a few in his time but his Richleau is probably the most sympathetic: definitely someone you want on your side. It can hardly be claimed that his career would have been bettered by more such roles, but they would have been fun to see. Charles Grey is as excellent playing the villain. His smug confidence and slimy evil makes the viewer want to chuck him down a flight of stairs - which is an indication of his skill. The supporting performers, except for Greene, have less to do, or less range in which to do it, but all enhance the film. Paul Eddington, soon to become a much-loved staple of situation-comedies, has a dramatic role here.

A straightforward tale of good versus evil, with some doubt as to who will survive and how it will all end, The Devil Rides Out is an entertaining movie, the sort that would have been ruined in the twenty-first century by excessive gore or sex. As it is, it is a minor classic of its kind.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Devil's Doorway (1950)

Directed by Anthony Mann; produced by Nicholas Nayfack

An aboriginal veteran (Robert Taylor) of the U.S. Civil War returns to his home in the Wyoming Territory of the late 1860s. After genially greeting old acquaintances, he begins to learn that while everyone treated him as an equal for the previous three years, now, he is seen as a member of an inferior race. Furthermore, the land that he and his family had thought they owned is, by law, open to homesteading. His battle for his home has just begun.

A very early cinematic exposé of the racial and legal discrimination against American Indians, Devil’s Doorway is also an exciting action film. Taylor’s performance is very good, his character slipping from hopeful optimism to grim resentment and determination as the film progresses. It is a realistic character. If the movie suffers from anything, however, it is that his is the only part that really stands out. The acting from the other performers is good, but there isn’t much they can do with their parts; each character does what it should to propel the story, but that’s it.

This problem may seem to be a criticism of the writing, but is not; the writing is laudable, but – consciously, I think – sacrifices depth in the majority of the characters to allow Taylor to tell the story. This story has the usual bar-fights and gun-battles expected of westerns, but there is an underlying history lesson that drives the plot. The barriers thrown up against Indians were many and formidable at the time, and Taylor’s reactions make their effect on people palpable. The scene in which he learns that Indians are not U.S. citizens but wards of the state, like parentless children, is almost heart-breaking.

But one of the advantages of Devil’s Doorway is that it makes neither whites nor Indians, as such, villains. The arrival of sheepmen, needing grazing and water for their flocks, precipitates a conflict, but the newcomers are mostly reasonable people. Nor is Taylor made flawless. His intransigence, when his lawyer urges compromise, also contributes to the problem. But we are shown both sides of this particular argument: while the sheepmen demand water and grass for their animals, with the alternative being ruin and starvation, Taylor sees negotiation as the abdication of his peoples’ rights, and therefore their ruin.

There is of course the bigoted white man (Louis Calhern) to act as a catalyst. His motives in prodding the two sides toward battle are not given, though as a former regular Army soldier, probably an officer, he likely had fought Indians in many a combat. He is more a representation of a certain type than an individual. And the female lawyer (Paula Raymond) Taylor hires is an anachronism: woman lawyers began practicing soon after this movie’s time-period. This does not prevent a good, brief scene showing Taylor so shocked at the idea of a female lawyer that he actually flees her office, only to return when he silently muses on the irony of discriminating against her because of her gender.

The treatment of Indians in westerns is, stereotypically, a bad one. Yet, in many examples of the genre, aboriginals are treated sympathetically if two-dimensionally as the victims of unscrupulous whites – usually individuals and rarely the government as a whole. Often they are depicted as simple, sometimes even child-like, but just as often, their bellicosity appears as the result of ill and unfair treatment. Devil’s Doorway was one of the first to show how such treatment was entrenched in official policy, and how anger over it could frequently have only one outcome.

A tragedy historically and dramatically, Devil’s Doorway is almost bleak in the inevitability of its story. Nonetheless, it is an eminently watchable film that will appeal to fans of westerns and action flicks, and maybe to those who like to see fictionalized history on film.