Love is Colder than Death: a study of nihilism and individuals’ relationships in a mercenary society

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Liebe ist kälter als der Tod / Love is Colder than Death” (1969)

Gangster films might be an unusual choice for film-makers to explore questions of the nature of an individual’s relationship to society, the place of freedom and free will, and how people are thwarted by others and by their own desires and weaknesses from achieving what they need, yet a surprising number of such films has been made. R W Fassbinder’s debut full-length explores issues of freedom, desire, the place of outsiders in modern bourgeois society and the conflicts that arise when these intersect. A crime syndicate attempts to recruit a small-time pimp, Franz Walsch (Fassbinder himself), into its ranks but he refuses and prefers to go his own way. The syndicate sends stylishly dressed mobster Bruno (Ulli Trommel) after Franz and Bruno decides to throw in his lot with Franz and his prostitute girlfriend Johanna (Hanna Schygulla). The three live together in Franz and Johanna’s apartment and carry out various robberies and murders.  The bonds among the three prove to be their breaking point: Johanna, jealous of Franz and Bruno’s growing closeness, informs the police of the men’s plan to rob a bank and her action leads to tragedy for Franz, Bruno and herself.

The plot and the look of the film are very minimal. Even the acting and the dialogue seem stripped right down. The entire world in which Franz, Bruno and Johanna live looks very artificial and formal: nothing, it appears, happens by accident and every action seems rather studied. The low budget allocated to the film is rather obvious:  the gangsters’ weapons look like painted plastic models, indoor sets are very spartan and black-and-white film stock is used. Settings are stark and highly expressionistic. The main characters are stylishly dressed, Bruno’s sartorial style in particular based upon that of gangster Jef in Jean-Pierre Melville’s film “Le Samouraï” which had been released a year previously before Fassbinder’s debut.  The deliberate decision to pare down the plot details to fragmentary and the dialogue to only the most essential to drive the plot on has the effect of highlighting the characters’ loneliness and the emptiness they feel in their lives to the extent that they care very little for mainstream society – and ultimately one another. They reject even the overtures of the criminal syndicate to form a business relationship with them. Long silences emphasise the underlying conflicts within the unusual love triangle. The film’s apparent amateurish quality as demonstrated by the way it is edited, the props used and the overall minimal style throw weight onto what is (or may be) unsaid, the characters’ feelings about one another and the pressures of modern life and social isolation bearing down on them.

Fassbinder pays homage to a great many influences: the French New Wave cinema of the 1960s is one influence as are also Hollywood gangster and film noir films, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and German Expressionism. Avant-garde film techniques are used: in one scene the camera slowly pans to the left, then back to the right, then left again, right again, back and forth as a minor character paces a room. Static shots are often emphasised and a two-dimensional painterly effect is often achieved. At times it seems that Fassbinder is in love with Bruno, or his clothes and fedora hat at any rate, as the camera sometimes freezes on Bruno and makes him appear as a sculpture and work of art. The music soundtrack is very distinct and out of the ordinary: wobbly vibrating violins in some parts of the film may draw viewers’ attention away from the slow action, and in a couple of scenes demented harpsichord-like music enhance the fantastical ambience and cynical mood of the film.

Characters express a nihilistic view of the universe in their ruthless behaviour towards one another and others, with devastating results for everyone. In the end, the main characters’ attempts to get what they want or need come to nothing and audiences are uncertain as to what will happen between Franz and Johanna after Bruno departs from their lives.

The film can be quite confusing to watch as the plot is so threadbare that viewers must work to pull all its pieces together. The important elements are the characters, their relationships, their attitudes to themselves and life generally. Through this film, Fassbinder expresses contempt for a society in which such characters with a cold, calculating approach to life can exist and thrive.

The Thin Blue Line: a subjective film on subjectivity and a film on injustice that led to justice

Errol Morris, “The Thin Blue Line” (1988)

Originally intended to be a documentary about another person who appears briefly in the film, “The Thin Blue Line” is an investigation into how an innocent man was convicted of the murder of a police officer and sentenced to death despite almost overwhelming evidence pointing to another person by a criminal justice system operated by incompetence and stupidity. In 1976 a drifter, Randall Adams, rolls into Dallas with his brother and a couple of days later meets a 16-year-old boy, David Harris, who offers him a lift in his car. (Adams does not know that Harris stole the car.) The unlikely pair smoke some grass, watch a drive-in movie and drive off. A police patrol car pursues the two as the car’s headlights are off. Both cars stop and one of the police officers, Robert Woods, approaches Harris and Adams. Stopping by the driver’s side of the car, Woods is immediately shot several times and falls to the ground, dying. Harris and Adams immediately race off while Woods’ partner fires at them.

The film examines the police investigation of Woods’ murder and Adams’ arrest and trial, based largely on interviews with Adams, Harris, Adams’ defence lawyers, various Dallas police officers and witnesses. The narrative is driven entirely by recollections and testimonies of the interviewees who reveal their biases and prejudices against Adams or shoot holes in the evidence that was presented in the original murder trial. Re-enactments of the murder scene, repeated over and over in a fragmented way, underline what the interviewees say until viewers can almost believe they themselves are watching Woods’ actual murder. Newspaper clippings interspersed between interviews help to delineate aspects of the murder, Adams’ arrest and charge of murder and his subsequent trial and further treatment by the Dallas justice system.

The film does not condemn its interviewees but forces viewers to make their own judgements about them. The detectives are hungry to wrap up and close a murder case that’s dragged on for too long for lack of credible evidence – because the murder took place late at night and Woods’ partner could not remember the details of the stolen car accurately – before the Christmas season. The police determine very quickly who they believe to be responsible for killing one of their own and shape the evidence to fit their beliefs and narrative to the extent that the real murderer escapes and goes on a crime spree for several years. The judge wants to retire with his reputation for sending the right people to jail 100% intact. Two witnesses perjure themselves in court because their daughter is going on trial a week after Adams’ trial and they need money. The prosecuting psychiatrist Dr Grigson is keen to maintain his reputation for helping to send riff-raff to the electric chair. Self-interest on the part of most people who were involved, even in minor ways – the stenographer who takes down Adams’ testimony changes it when typing up his statement (suggesting that s/he is either eager or compelled to conform to the detectives’ say-so) – piles up incrementally until the sum of it takes on a life of its own and an innocent man falls into the maw of an indifferent bureaucracy from which he may never escape.

The film questions the role and accuracy of memory and the importance attributed to eyewitness accounts by the US and Texas legal systems of the time. In 1976, the techniques and methods of criminal investigation were still quite crude and liable to error by current (2014) standards. Police and courts depended much more on eyewitness accounts and in this dependence, Morris shows how the culture of Texas, its prejudices towards outsiders like Adams, the casual racism and the mediocrity such a culture encouraged and bred in people become a running commentary underlying Adams’ case. The thin blue line that the police supposedly represent between order in society and anarchy becomes a thin line between truth and justice on the one hand and lies and corruption on the other. Ironically in questioning such aspects of the Robert Woods murder case, the film itself becomes subjective and subjectivity becomes one of its dominant themes.

Although quite dry and perhaps lacking in energy, the film feels tight and focused. Its style is noirish and the re-enactment scenes might have come straight out of a David Lynch film. The interviewees are not portrayed in flattering ways yet neither do they come across as idiots. One can see how a culture of conformity and prejudice can bear down on individuals and influence their beliefs and behaviours. Though David Harris turns out to be a loathsome psychopath without remorse, an event from his childhood and his description of the relationships within his family illuminate the inner trauma and torment that led him into a life of violence and his eventual execution in 2004 for another murder. We can only wonder at the kind of person he might have turned out to be had his family not suffered the tragedy of his brother’s drowning at the age of four or if they had all received the appropriate counselling after the child’s death.

“The Thin Blue Line” was to have an impact on the way crime documentaries are made and also on the case of Randall Adams himself: the film led to the overturning of his conviction and his release from jail. Adams wrote a book about the trial and became a protester against the death penalty. Dr Grigson was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association for unethical conduct of the type that Adams describes in the film when he discusses the way in which Grigson interviewed and tested him, and then testified in court over the likelihood of future criminal behaviour. Since the film was originally meant to be about Grigson, I’ll end this review with him.

El Aura: a complicated heist noir film of spooky mystery, escape and reinvention

Fabián Bielinsky, “El Aura / The Aura” (2005)

While promoting this film, Fabián Bielinsky died from a heart attack so “El Aura” and “Nueve Reinas / Nine Queens”, a clever heist classic, are all the full-length movies he has left to Argentine cinema. And a very excellent legacy Bielinsky has left behind too: cleverly made with complicated if not entirely serious plots and featuring considerable suspense and tension. “El Aura” is notable for its sweeping Patagonian desert and forest landscapes and the eerie atmosphere they possess, promising spooky mystery and potential for change and renewal. Spooky mystery and change leading to renewal are a-plenty in this suspenseful, almost existential psychological noir piece about the role fantasy and memory play in forging a new identity and changing people’s lives.

The action takes place over a week and the beginning and the ending of the film are almost much the same. Taxidermist Espinosa (Ricardo Darin) has a fantasy about committing the perfect crime and relates his fantasy to a friend who invites him on a hunting trip. Since Espinosa’s wife has just walked out on him, Espinosa agrees to accompany his friend. They drive to a remote bed-n-breakfast place run by Diana Dietrich (Dolores Fonzi) and her teenage brother Julio (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). The two men go hunting and have a disagreement so they separate. Espinosa has one of his epileptic attacks in which his past, present and future all meld together; just after this attack, he sees what he thinks is a deer and ends up shooting … Diana’s husband (Manuel Rodal). This unfortunate incident leads Espinosa to investigate Dietrich’s affairs and uncover the man’s secret: Dietrich is a career criminal specialising in holding up armoured vehicles and stealing all their money. Suddenly Espinosa has the opportunity to take over Dietrich’s work and carry out another heist with Dietrich’s partners and Julio.

The film is leisurely paced, allowing viewers the time to admire and immerse themselves in the wide desert vistas, the quiet green forests, the rundown factory town Cerro Verde and above all the plot. Darin plays the loner Espinosa to perfection: this taxidermist is very much an outsider, ill at ease in the world around him, who lives in the world of his mind which turns out to be quite vivid and which saves his skin on several occasions in the film despite the epilepsy. The plot and Espinosa’s character develop steadily with room for laughs as well as suspense and sudden violence. The cinematography is beautiful and never more so when Espinosa suffers a fit: the turning camera captures vividly the visions that Espinosa has, his feeling of being apart from everything yet of it and the final black-out he experiences – this might be the closest cinema has come to delineating what an epileptic fit might be like to experience vicariously.

While astute viewers can almost predict how the plot turns out – I got the feeling early on that Espinosa will release Diana from the mental and physical prison her father and Dietrich placed around her and that Dietrich’s two partners will come to a grisly end – the gradual and confident unfolding is a pleasure to follow and keeps the viewer spellbound all the way to the end. If you subsist on a diet of Hollywood cinematic and TV thriller fare though, you may find “El Aura” slow and low-key as thrillers go.

Escape and reinvention are constant themes throughout the film: all characters desire or achieve escape of one sort or another though it may not be the kind of escape they desire. Even Espinosa, for all his wishful thinking, finds that escape through fantasy does not quite translate well into real life; priding himself on his ability to remember detail, there is one detail he fails to remember which becomes relevant to the heist that Dietrich and his friends were planning together and which he, Espinosa, stumbles upon and takes over. He eventually retreats from escape and is left with Dietrich’s sinister wolf-like pet dog. Perhaps the only person who achieves a successful escape and who may be able to achieve a new identity is Diana. Chance plays a major part too: it is by chance that Espinosa kills Dietrich and by chance several times during the film that Espinosa manages to escape death himself. This brings an aura (ha!) of dread and apprehension over the film itself. Espinosa’s alienation from the world and his laconic hang-dog expression add to the morose, insular and paranoiac atmosphere.

The conclusion may or may not come as a surprise though on reflection it should not really be a surprise: Espinosa finds he has bitten off more than he can chew, the world does not conform to his perceptions and expectations and even the experiences he has just before and during his epileptic fits and the visions he sees in those brief unsettling moments when he steps outside temporal reality are of limited help to him. The character may or may not have been changed by his experiences – viewers must decide for themselves if he has. Even when everything seems all wrapped up and no loose ends have been left behind, an uneasy mystery remains. “El Aura” is well-named.

 

Frantic: a cool and not at all frantic lightweight homage to Hitchcock

Roman Polanski, “Frantic” (1988)

For a film proclaiming itself “Frantic”, this suspense thriller is surprisingly cool, calm and collected as it follows its hapless protagonist doctor with an air of bemusement. This is definitely not one of Polanski’s better films: the plot, stretched out over two hours, is very lightweight and its characters are more representative of various stereotypes than real people. The film works as both homage to Alfred Hitchcock and a comic expression of a theme dear to Polanski’s heart: the outsider, displaced for some reason in a society that treats him/her with indifference and sometimes hostility, having to navigate his/her way through that society and come to grips with it in order to solve a problem.

Dr Walker (Harrison Ford) and his wife (Betty Buckley) have just arrived in Paris to attend a conference. While settling in their hotel room, trying to cope with jet lag, the couple find they have the wrong suitcase. They make some calls to the lobby and the airport and then Walker decides to take a shower. While he cleans himself, the missus answers a call at the door and disappears. Initially Walker thinks his wife has popped out for a while but as the time passes by, he realises something is amiss. His realisation soon turns into alarm and he reports her missing to the police and then the US consulate but the authorities treat his plight with blank-faced unhelpfulness. Walker takes matters into his own hands and searches for his wife despite not knowing how to speak French and brushing up against the local people’s assumptions about Americans being stupid and crude. With the help of a young woman Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner), whose case was swapped accidentally at the airport with his wife’s case, Walker discovers he and his wife have stumbled into an amoral underworld of spies trading dangerous secrets for money and using innocent and ultimately disposable people. Not only is his wife’s life in danger but Walker finds that he and Michelle are also targets for intimidation and violence.

Several familiar Hitchcockian ploys and devices are at play here: McGuffin elements are plentiful and Dr Walker represents a fairly typical if very middle class everyday man thrust suddenly and unexpectedly into a world (indeed, two worlds) unfamiliar to him. He first has to navigate the world of nightclubbing, easy drugs, prostitution and lax morality to find the first clues that lead him to Michelle and then tread warily through another even more secret corrupt and violent world of espionage. Unfortunately this scenario is treated rather unevenly and superficially, and viewers get no sense of Walker ever having to question the perhaps narrow and conservative morality he was brought up with and takes for granted. There is also no sense of Michelle being forced to question the values and morality of her world; she remains essentially a feral child throughout the film.

A major problem with this film is the one-dimensional characters who are more symbolic than real. Ford does what he can with his role as middle-aged and respectable white Anglo-American tourist of somewhat limited horizons thrust into scenarios both embarrassing and helpful to him. In order to find his wife, he must rely on a young woman of dubious reputation and mix with her social scene. This pairing of unlikely opposites is worked for comic effect in some scenes in which Walker and Michelle come across his medical colleagues who think the two are having an affair. As the film proceeds from Walker’s point of view, we are not treated to scenes where Michelle’s friends think she’s got a rich sugar daddy and try to press her to get money off Walker. Now that would have been amusing to see! Michelle initially presents as a stereotypically defiant goth girl who fell in with a wrong crowd as a teenager and survives by her wits and taking on quite dubious jobs like being a drug mule; she sort of has a heart of gold beneath the cynicism. Her streetwise instincts however become her undoing. Ultimately there’s no sense at all that Walker and Michelle have changed much as a result of meeting each other and having to work together to get what they want. All other characters are essentially props that help the action along and flesh out the scenery.

Polanski’s mischievous sense of humour is evident in scenes that involve a small statue, a replica of a much larger one familiar to New Yorkers, carrying the detonation codes for a nuclear bomb and Walker’s attempt to negotiate with some American diplomats. However the humour is not much comfort in a film that seems very hollow and which Polanski could have done better had it carried more fire about the duplicity and corruption of the world of espionage, and how it endangers the lives of innocent people who are accidentally caught up in it.

 

Metaphysics goes to the movies with “On Meaning and Purpose: ‘Blade Runner’ Frame by Frame”

Ray Younis, “On Meaning and Purpose: ‘Blade Runner’ Frame by Frame” (The University of Sydney / Centre for Continuing Education, Saturday 8 February 2014)

Not often does a person get an opportunity to attend a discussion on metaphysics and its central concerns based on a dissection of a science fiction film so of course when I found out about this particular one-day seminar, I just had to go! I have attended quite a few of Ray Younis’s one-day adult education courses in the past at the University of Sydney so I had high expectations of what he would talk about and I was not disappointed in this respect.

Younis is quite an avid fan of Hollywood sci-fi films that dwell on issues like meaning and purpose to life, what it means to be human and the nature of freedom and free will. If there was money to be had in combining film reviewing and philosophy in an online or print newspaper column, he ought to be there. Unfortunately not even the ABC, SBS or Guardian Australia is quite up to this level of sophistication. The class basically ran through a screening of the entire film in its director’s cut version and particular scenes were analysed in detail with respect to cinematography, the genres that were referenced (science fiction and film noir) by the film, the use of lighting and shadow, and the scenes’ relevance to the film’s themes and the philosophical concepts and values expressed.

Metaphysics refers to the discipline of philosophy that deals with abstract concepts outside the physical world such as whether God exists and what the nature of that god might be, whether humans or their souls survive death and/or have immortality, and questions of freedom, free will and what it means to be human. The issues that “Blade Runner” addresses are those of what makes a human being human, what is the purpose of individual human beings, and what are worthwhile goals of human beings as opposed to mere beings. Tied up with these issues is the issue of how human beings should conduct themselves within a community of other beings, some of whom might qualify as “human” and others not by the standards of the community’s leaders, and whether those standards are fair or unfair, moral or immoral. How should humans behave towards others and live lives of purpose and integrity in societies that operate on principles and with values that are clearly at odds with living with purpose, dignity and respect for others?

The film portrays a hierarchical society with enormous social inequalities and a complicated class structure in which a small human-only elite dominates a vast underclass of both humans and replicants (cyborg beings created to perform the most dangerous or disgusting work). The human characters throughout the film, and the blade runner (professional killer of runaway or rebellious replicants) Deckard in particular, are portrayed as ciphers content with their allotted status in life and not knowing anything more than what is necessary for them to do their jobs and survive. The replicant characters are complex beings who know more than what they should, who have achieved self-awareness and can quote poetry, play chess and plan chess strategy, and talk philosophy. They thirst for more life because they are all too aware that their life-spans are limited and time is running out for them. Though the plot is fairly standard – Deckard hunts down the runaway replicants and manages to dispose of most of them – the narrative turns the plot elements on their head: the hunter becomes the hunted, humans are shown as dehumanised and the replicants end up teaching Deckard what it means to be human and to have a worthwhile purpose in life.

Pivotal scenes in this respect (and these were discussed in the class) were those in which Deckard confronts Zhora, Leon, Pris and Roy Batty in turn: what these characters say and do to Deckard is important as a wake-up call to him. Zhora is shown as a trapped prey during Deckard’s pursuit of her in the crowded Los Angeles streets. Leon’s last words to Deckard are  “Wake up, time to die” before he himself unexpectedly is killed. Pris chooses to go down fighting even though she knows she has no chance against Deckard. Batty resists his programming as a replicant designed for combat and assassination duties by saving Deckard’s life and shows Deckard that he too can choose a new path in life and resist orders from an oppressive authority. Deckard is reminded of what he has lost in his career as a blade runner: honour (he killed two women in the back in cold blood), mercy and compassion for others weaker than he is.

Significantly though the replicants know they are going to die, they insist on choosing the mode of their deaths and if they have to die violently, they face their deaths as bravely as they can. Zhora, a combat model, keeps running for as long as she can and exhausts Deckard in the process; Pris, a pleasure model (and presumably not programmed to resist), fights Deckard hard with whatever resources she has; and Batty perhaps even accelerates his death by using up his strength to rescue Deckard from a fall, then calmly faces the inevitable with Deckard as his witness. In acting as they do, they go beyond their programming and exercise choice and will: they finally realise what it is to be human.

Other important scenes include Batty’s confrontation with Eldon Tyrell in which he converses with his maker on genetics and Tyrell tells him patronisingly that a life that burns twice as bright is only half as long. In his few scenes, Tyrell comes across as smug and somewhat slimy: the irony is that as the de facto ruler of the new Los Angeles, he is also constrained by his role and status and becomes less of a human than the creatures he created.

The frame-by-frame analysis of the film allows viewers to appreciate the ways in which elements of the film noir genre was employed to suggest the panopticon-style society that characterises Los Angeles in 2019: the use of flashing lights  in certain scenes reinforces the 24/7 surveillance and the prisons, both mental and physical, that bound Deckard’s character as he hunts down the replicants. Various motifs such as eye images, the repetition of musical melodies at particular points in the film, blue lighting, hazy atmosphere and the film’s setting in a dingy, rundown part of the future Los Angeles help to paint a picture of a complex yet brutal society in which just about everyone is an insignificant being of some sort.

Although there wasn’t much mentioned about the film’s themes that I wasn’t already aware of – for me, the film possesses great clarity – I did appreciate additional insights about aspects of the film’s messages that either reinforced or challenged my views.

My original post of my views about “Blade Runner” can be read here.

 

Branded to Kill: existentialist yakuza thriller parody of the corporate rat-race and its values

Seijun Suzuki, “Branded to Kill / Koroshi no Rakuin” (1967)

After his previous gangster flick “Tokyo Drifter”, director Suzuki fell afoul of his bosses at Studio Nikkatsu who were irked that this particular worker bee was refusing to obey their orders to churn out formulaic fluff. They punished him by forbidding him to work with colour film among other things. Hence, follow-up film “Branded to Kill” is in B&W film. Apart from this restriction, Suzuki gleefully snubbed his employers by parodying corporate loyalty, ambition and conformity in his film about a hit-man who is not content with being Olympic bronze-medal status in the hierarchy of assassins – no, only the gold medal (and probably breaking a world record) will do.

Professional assassin Hanada (Jo Shishido) and his wife Mami (Mariko Ogawa) land in Tokyo and meet a former hitman Kasuga who wants to rejoin the killing profession. The three decide to team up and go to a club where they receive orders to escort a client from yakuza boss Yabuhara. Yabuhara tells Hanada that he, Hanada, is the Number 3 hit-man in Japan and then reels off the names of other top hit-men; Number 1 hit-man however remains unknown. The men take off with the client and Yabuhara seduces Mami who is staying behind. On their trip, Hanada, Kasuga and the client are ambushed twice and though the incompetent Kasuga ends up dead, Hanada manages to finish off Numbers 2 and 4 on his hit-list. On the way back to Yabuhara and Mami, Hanada’s car breaks down and a mysterious woman, Misako (Anne Mari), who nurses a death-wish, gives him a lift.

Yabuhara hires Hanada for another job in which he must dispose of a customs officer, an oculist and a jewellery store owner. Hanada does away with the trio in fine style, the oculist most memorably when Hanada in a basement undoes the drain pipe leading to the oculist’s wash-basin and shoots the oculist dead through the pipe when the man leans over the basin to wash an artificial eye. After killing the jewellery store owner, Hanada ingeniously escapes by climbing through a window and flinging himself onto an advertising balloon that fortuitously happens to be passing by! Not long after, Misako appears at Hanada’s front door with a job: he is to kill a foreigner whom she will indicate to him. Hanada reluctantly accepts the job and, if a butterfly hadn’t landed on his gun sights, would have successfully executed the foreigner. An innocent bystander dies instead and Hanada, his reputation in ruins and fearing for his life, has to go on the run. Mami leaves him and burns down their apartment. Hanada, dazed after Mami has attempted to kill him, visits Misako in her apartment where he seduces her.

Hanada goes after his wife, kills her and then chases down Yabuhara who is discovered dead with a bullet hole in his forehead. Hanada goes to see Misako again at her apartment and discovers a film playing in which she is being tortured. He is given a message to go to a breakwater where he is forced to engage in a gun battle with various hit-men. He gets rid of them all and then the mystery Number 1 (Koji Nanbara) turns up and challenges him to a duel. The preparations for the duel are quite arduous as Number 1 subjects our man to divers trials and tribulations that take them both to a boxing ring in a darkened gymnasium in the early hours of the morning.

Now those dastardly bosses at Studio Nikkatsu thought they had thwarted Suzuki by denying him the use of colour but instead Suzuki turns the B&W format to his advantage by nicking German Expressionist ideas about shadow and creating mystery and sinister ambience with contrasts of light and dark. He also uses film negatives in a few scenes to express Hanada’s paranoia when he is trapped by Number 1 and animated cut-outs of birds, butterflies and abstract illustrations of rain showers when Hanada mentally torments himself over Misako. The camp noirish world Hanada and his associates inhabit has its own soundtrack of jazz and Sixties pop which heighten the surreal atmospheres and emphasise the eccentric characters. And boy, are they ever eccentric! – Hanada is sexually aroused by the smell of boiling rice, Misako decorates her apartment with butterflies pinned to the walls and ceilings, and Number 1 is 110% dedicated to the craft and Tao of The Professional Assassin. The plot travels in some rather peculiar and comic directions and many gunfight scenes stretch the boundaries of credibility as Hanada single-handedly dispatches several hit-men all at once even though they have all the advantages of being many against one.

The editing can be strange and choppy and the effect is to give the film a fragmented narrative in which everything happens as an episode in the life of your everyday average Number 3 hit-man. At times the plot can be hard to follow; it seems deliberately to want to lose its viewers if only to see how they manage to grasp and pick up the gist of the plot. This further heightens the sense of being in a unique world where all the people worth knowing are gangsters or their molls and where the usual societal values are turned upside down on their heads and made fun of. Hanada determines that he will be the best hit-man in Japan and works as zealously as if he were a typical corporate sarariman in a huge Japanese conglomerate.

Shishido with his cheeks stuffed with cotton wads to give him a distinctive chipmunk look is very memorable as Hanada and his female co-stars give him a run for his money in the acting (or maybe over-acting) stakes. In line with the outrageous levels of violence, there are several explicit sexual scenes and a lot of female nudity. Japan’s famous censorship laws which permit almost every kind of sexual perversity but don’t allow exposure of female pubic hair are in force here.

For all Suzuki’s assertions to interviewers that his films were just for entertainment, there appear brief moments in the film where Hanada confronts what might be profound existential moments about why he exists and what is the purpose of his life. Choosing to strive for the Number 1 spot would be a worthy goal in any other occupation but as it is, the path is literally strewn with many obstacles and dead gun-men and viewers can sense a mile away that being Number 1 won’t be what it’s cracked up to be for Hanada. The climax in the boxing ring is beautifully done from an existentialist point of view, a perfect illustration of the futility of seeking the top dog spot and how ephemeral and empty is the joy of achieving it before eternal darkness descends.

The film is a joyous and wacky ride through Sixties pulp noir-crime cinema with a lot of energy and humour to spare. For making this film, Suzuki was fired by his bosses and blacklisted for a long time. He was reduced to making TV shows and did not direct another film until 1980.

 

Tokyo Drifter: surreal pop-art gangster flick riffing on corporate loyalty and surviving in a corrupt world

Seijun Suzuki, “Tokyo Drifter / Tokyo nagaremono” (1966)

A tale of larger-than-life characters grappling with their consciences and their loyalty to their superiors and the life they have known since youth – even if it is a sordid life of gangland killings and unrelenting violence – against a background of surrealism and pop-art excess infused with improvised and experimental filming methods and techniques, all set off with a rebellious attitude: this is the quirky “Tokyo Drifter”. Employed as a hack director by Nikkatsu film studio which expected him to churn out formulaic flicks, Seijun Suzuki set out to snub his bosses by adopting a maximalist style of telling the story of young yakuza Tetsu determined to leave behind his life of beating up and killing people, shaking up bystanders for money and enforcing mob rule among the seedy night-clubs of Tokyo … only to find that his past keeps following him around like a mangy dog. Tetsu’s boss Kurata has just disbanded his gang and Tetsu decides to go straight. Rival boss Otsuka tries to recruit Tetsu but, failing that, sends a hitman after him to stop Tetsu from interfering with a building ownership scam that involves Kurata.

After one shoot-out, Kurata, desirous of benefiting from Otsuka’s scheme, sends Tetsu away and the young man travels by train to Sasebo in Kyushu, but not before Otsuka’s best sniper Viper Tatsu has tried to kill him. Tetsu arrives at a Wild-West saloon club owned by Kurata’s friend Umetani and quickly makes himself at home when a group of drunken sailors try to harass the singer there and mayhem breaks out. Viper Tatsu is killed and Tetsu is warned that Kurata is seeking to kill him. Another ex-gangster, Kenji, tries to befriend Tetsu, warning him that the life of a drifter can be very lonely indeed. Tetsu returns to Tokyo where he takes on Otsuka and his men in a final gun battle. So far Tetsu has led a very charmed life, escaping death in ways unexplained and most improbable, but will he survive the bullet-storm and will he renounce the life of a masterless ronin and claim night-club Chiharu as his bride?

The threadbare and inconsistent plot has more holes than the many rooms where Tetsu and his enemies waste never-ending rounds of bullets. Continuity is often awry and Tetsu himself is blessed with more lives than your average cattery has cats. Characters are one-dimensional stereotypes that parody corporate notions of hierarchy and loyalty in 1960s Japan, then on the ascendant as a country emerging from the ashes of World War II and vaulting its way into First World status with manufacturing ships, cars and other machinery, and claiming the Olympic Games in 1964. For all the service Tetsu has given to Kurata, he ultimately turns out to be a disposable retainer and it’s no wonder that he cuts himself off from all his old ties to the underworld to forge a new life.

The look of the film is stunning: Tokyo is a hyper-idealised city of bright lights and mean streets that promise the fulfillment of dreams but turn out to be cruelly capricious. Many are those who come with stars in their eyes and end up broken and disillusioned. The film sets burst with colour, youthful energy and bubbly zest: the scenes in the night-club, usually bright yellow and white save for those velvety black scenes near the climax just before Tetsu enters, when Otsuka is threatening Chiharu, resemble a beautiful dream-world. Indeed, every scene in the film, whether it takes place in a snowy countryside criss-crossed by railway lines, or on the streets at night, or in traditional wooden houses, seems to have a high-gloss sheen over it: outlines are crisp and clothes, no matter that their styles are 50 or so years old, always look fresh and youthful. Interior sets boast of having been fussed over by the film crew: one nightclub has several friezes of Roman artwork across its walls. Young women parade in bright Sixties fashions, their hair in bouffant style and often impossibly long. The men slouch about in bright suits with sharp tailoring and even Tetsu’s mortal enemy Otsuka looks suave and uber-cool in his bright red suit and black shades.

The music plays a significant role in the plot: Chiharu sings the theme song early on and parts of it are repeated throughout the film – Tetsu whistles it in the saloon scene and sings it while jumping from train to train on his journey to Sasebo. The swanky, sometimes acid-toned music helps to establish the film’s mood and its suggestion that in the modern Japan, the old ways are dying out, notions like loyalty and love count for nothing, and everyone has to reconcile himself or herself to the new culture with its obsession with surface gloss and shallow values. Being and looking cool and hip serve to mask over the alienation people might be feeling in the new Japanese society. The film draws inspiration from the Western genre, celebrated in the saloon fight scene where everyone is engaged in punch-ups, furniture is tossed about, a balcony collapses but no-one actually dies, not even characters shot in the back.

Avant-garde filming techniques are used to emphasise the urban environment – the film makes use of photographic stills to establish mood – and there is plenty of zooming backwards and forwards as the camera follows the action closely. Gunfights are choreographed and Suzuki pays a lot of attention to stylising the action. Artifice becomes a normal part of the film’s universe. The final scene takes inspiration from old German Expressionist films of the 1920s with its angular Gothic set and the shadows cast by the lights in the corridor. Colour is employed for shock and to help shape the film’s ambience and its insouciant attitude.

The film deliberate disregards conventions of genre, plot narrative, characterisation and style, adopting what it wants from different genres for visual effect and fun, and crafts from its eclectic selection a fun and engaging cartoon film noir classic.

 

The Ghost Writer: a straightforward story that deals fleetingly with the nature of US-UK relations

Roman Polanski, “The Ghost Writer” (2009)

Circumstances surrounding this film were peculiar enough in themselves: in travelling to the Zurich Film Festival as a special guest for the film’s opening, Polanski was arrested by Swiss authorities and held in house detention pending possible extradition to the US for evading jail time back in 1977 over unlawful sexual intercourse with an underage teenage girl. (I have reviewed a documentary on this case by Maria Zenovich, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” elsewhere on this blog.) Polanski’s awareness of the corrupt conduct of the judge presiding over his case surely informs “Ghost Writer” with a substance the novel on which it’s based may not have. Both the film and book are based on recent events involving former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997 – 2007) which included his decision to join US President George W Bush in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, ostensibly to punish and remove that country’s president Saddam Hussein for continuing to possess chemical weapons.

Directed with Polanski’s usual aplomb, “The Ghost Writer” is driven almost entirely by its story and characters. It moves quickly and smoothly – maybe just a bit too smoothly – to its climax. Moments do exist where the action might seem a bit forced but the logic of the narrative and some thinking on the audience’s part assure their relevance. A mediocre writer (Ewan McGregor) is commissioned by a book publisher to ghost-write an autobiography for former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), reviled by the public the world over as a lapdog of the US and for taking his country into a disastrous invasion and war that cost hundreds of British soldiers’ lives and thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of other people’s lives. The ghost-writer, never named, discovers that a previous ghost-writer who worked on the autobiography recently died in very strange circumstances and that he has to pick up where this writer left off. He (our hero, that is) discovers various anomalies in Lang’s past history while researching and as he follows the trail of irregularities, he realises that his predecessor must have been murdered and that Lang, wanted by the International Court of Crimes for war crimes, must have been an intelligence asset for the US and the CIA which points to an important question: who recruited Lang and who was his handler?

The plot turns out to be straightforward and astute viewers will be able to finger the culprit long before McGregor’s writer does. It’s the actors who hold the audience spellbound throughout the film. McGregor plays a not-too-bright writer who initially is uncommitted in most aspects of his life: he broke up with his girlfriend years ago and drifts along; and if he had any misgivings about working for a war criminal, they were on semi-permanent vacation when he took on the job. However his basic decent nature and his curiosity drive him on, eventually his sense of justice is aroused, and he determines to uncover the truth. In short, in true Hitchcockian tradtion, the ghost-writer is an ordinary person like you and me thrust suddenly into an unreal world where good and evil can’t be distinguished from one another and he must choose one side or the other. The stakes are high and everything rides on making the right decision. As the ghost-writer delves deeper into the mystery behind Lang’s recruitment, dark forces begin to move against him. McGregor is surrounded by good actors who relish the opportunity to play ambiguous characters: Olivia Williams is good if a little histrionic as Lang’s estranged and dissatisfied wife and Tom Wilkinson is suitably creepy as the CIA recruitment officer. Brosnan injects a little Ronald Reagan into his portrayal of the Blair-like Lang and though he does not have a lot of screen time, this role might actually be seen in the years to come as one of his best if not the best in a career that’s mostly been full of Hollywood fluff.

With Polanski at the helm, the film employs plenty of black humour and viewers will notice deliberate parallels with Hitchcock plot elements: there’s a car chase, there are McGuffin characters and elements not important in themselves but which set the ghost-writer on his path and point the way, and there is a blonde woman who may or may not be on the side of angels. The music soundtrack carries a wry, somewhat amused attitude as if distant gods on Olympus are watching the little insects scurrying below them with interest and are placing bets on the likely outcome. Throughout the film there is a sense of paranoia and suffocation in the world that McGregor’s character has entered, and it’s also very insular: the man who assassinates Lang turns out to be a former soldier who appears at least twice earlier in the film protesting the loss of his son in one of Lang’s wars.

Due to the film’s emphasis on characters focused solely on their own self-interest and the small world which they inhabit, “The Ghost Writer” cannot deal with any larger issues arising from those it and its source novel touch. There is never any mention of the suffering of the Iraqi people or of the reasons the US, the UK and other nations combined to invade Iraq. The “special relationship” that exists between the UK and the US is never mentioned, let alone examined or criticised. Only McGregor’s character grows in moral stature and viewers are likely to warm to him as a future hero. Unfortunately this being a Polanski film, Polanski has a Chinatown-type ending waiting for the ghost-writer: that’s not very Hitchcockian!

Hell Drivers: under-rated classic of British 1950s social realism and commentary on a society in transition

Cy Endfield, “Hell Drivers” (1957)

An interesting and very much under-rated example of 1950s British noir / social realism, “Hell Drivers” is probably better known for its cast, mostly unknown when the film was made, but later to carve out stellar careers in UK cinema and television and even beyond in Hollywood. Stanley Baker plays Tom Yately, an ex-prisoner looking for work: he turns up at Hawtell Trucks looking for a driving job in haulage. The boss Cartley (William Hartnell, of later “Doctor Who” fame”) takes him on and Yately quickly acquires a reputation as an excellent driver and diligent worker. He is befriended by Gino (Herbert Lom, of later fame in the Pink Panther series of movies) who warns him against competing with fellow truckie and foreman Red (Patrick McGoohan, of later fame in many TV series) who is proud of his record of averaging 18 deliveries of gravel a day between Hawtell Trucks and a local quarry. Through Gino, Cartley’s femme fatale secretary Lucy (Peggy Cummins) and the local boarding-house mistress, Yately ingratiates himself into the local community but quickly comes up against the tight little social network within Hawtell Trucks that’s headed by Red. Yately refuses to accept his place at the bottom of Red’s hierarchy and the other truckies begin to bully him. Lucy develops romantic feelings for Yately and he feels rather conflicted between his feelings for her and loyalty towards Gino who regards Lucy as his girlfriend.

An intense rivalry quickly develops between Yately and Red over who is the better driver and who delivers more loads from the quarry each day. The bullying intensifies and Yately and Gino plot to escape the work. Gino swaps truck numbers with Yately. Yately soon leaves work but hears news of Gino having an accident in truck 13 (his old truck). When Yately later realises that the accident was meant for him and Lucy tells him of the arrangement between Cartley and Red to fleece him and the other truck drivers of the pay they’re entitled to, Yately determines to expose the two men’s racket – but Red and Cartley have other ideas for him …

The tight budget for the film explains various aspects of the film, such as the emphasis on character development at the expense of the rather basic plot and the very patchy and abrupt conclusion after the climactic chase scene through an abandoned limestone quarry. Most of the special effects budget was used up in the spectacular crash scene in which a truck falls into a hole and explodes into flames. Some of the dialogue and the scripting can be mawkish and comic, especially in a hospital death scene, and the romance between Lucy and Yately looks a little too Hollywood. The cast is excellent: Baker acquits himself well as the ex-con, very much his own man and made of stern inner moral fibre – you wonder how he came to be in prison in the first place. McGoohan as the main villain oozes evil from every pore and through his cigarette which he constantly chews. Herbert Lom steals much of the show with his sensitive portrayal of Gino: a silent scene in which he sees Lucy and Yately together and seems to be upset at what he witnesses is a highlight. The minor roles in the cast are taken up by actors who would go on to become mainstream and cult stars of the acting firmament: David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, Sid James, Jill Ireland (the future wife of McCallum and Hollywood actor Charles Bronson) and Sean Connery with more hair than he would ever have again are just some of the names who appear.

The Dodge trucks themselves are no slouches either in the acting department: they look cheap and loosely welded together but hold their own as Formula One manqué racers burning up country lanes, nearly taking on a cow or two, tearing up greenery and leaving behind a trail of flattened badgers, hedgehogs and the odd rural vicar or two. Early in the film when Cartley explains to Yately what he has to do to stay in the job, we learn what to expect: the drivers have to break the speed limits and wear the consequences if caught; they must repair the trucks themselves; and the high casualty rate is par for the course as part of the high staff turnover. The police know their place and stay out of the way. One early scene suggests that only local gangsters dare to challenge the truckies for rulership of the roads. The genteel world of Agatha Christie’s country-house mysteries with its neat and tidy resolutions and clean-ups of murder and mayhem that restore order and tradition, has no place here in this grimy working-class universe of Fifties rock’n’roll, fisticuffs and drifters and other outsiders exploited by others only one rung above them in a vast and mostly indifferent social hierarchy: one that ignores them all yet relies on them for essential post-war reconstruction work.

Cinematography is excellent: viewers get driver viewpoints of how dangerous the work is and the use of rear shots and unusual angles helps to drive up tension and the intense rivalry between Yately and Red.

The plot strides ever onwards at a cracking pace and the escalation of tension is steady and well-handled. The film portrays class tension in microcosm: the town-hall dance scenes show the antagonism between the middle class and working class participants as working class men snatch up middle class women for dances and a fight breaks out over who can dance with whom. There’s good social commentary on the changing roles of women, the plight of immigrants, ex-prisoners and other outsiders trying to gain acceptance into an insular and hierarchical world while trying to evade a past that catches up with them, and the pathetic scenario of working-class people exploiting others and putting their lives in danger just for a bit of extra dough and what that says about the get-rich-quick mentality bred by an oppressive social system.

The film has historic value as a snapshot of English culture in transition from a staid conservative society in which everyone knew his/her place to one in which social mobility became easier and more available to wider sections of society and old ways of thinking and behaving were being discarded. The fact that several actors in the film went on to fame and glory in very different ways underlines this transition.

Confession of Pain: glossy tale of vengeance long-planned with an implausible plot

Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, “Confession of Pain” (2006)

Ain’t no bad time like Chinese New Year for a police officer to come home one night and find his girlfriend has just topped herself but that’s exactly what happens to Detective Bong (Takeshi Kaneshiro) while on duty arresting a bunch of hoodlums in his apartment. Grief-stricken, he leaves the force and becomes a private detective, indulging his sadness in drink. Former buddy Hei (Tony Leung) and his wife Susan (Xu Jinglei) try to snap Bong out of his sorrows and give him a reason for living by enlisting him to investigate the brutal murder of Hei’s filthy rich father-in-law Chow. Hoping that the work will assuage the loss he feels, Bong agrees to help Hei and quickly finds the murder has the characteristics of a revenge killing that has taken years to plan and execute. During the course of the investigation, strange things happen to Hei and Susan, culminating in a mysterious gas explosion at home that severely injures Susan and sends her into a coma from which she might not recover.

The plot turns out to be ridiculous beyond words and one wonders why Hei would hire Bong to investigate if he knew that Bong is just too good at chasing leads and finding his man. One might think also that there should be various obstacles put in Bong’s way so as to lead him away from the killer/s, several of whom are mysteriously done away with lest Bong arrests them and forces them to confess. The movie pulls off its closed-loop plot through the work Takeshi and Leung do in their good cop / bad cop routine: both actors are restrained in their emotional expression and reveal quite deep feelings and conflicting motivations beneath impassive countenances. Leung especially maintains a poker face throughout the film even when Susan rejects him. Their respective roles don’t give them much to do other than run around a lot but the actors do their job efficiently. The rest of the cast also have very little to do and a sub-plot that revolves around Bong and a new girlfriend (Shu Qi) isn’t substantial enough to counterbalance the main plot other than to suggest that life must be lived if one is to find meaning and a reason to go on living.

The film’s style is low-key minimal and glossy with many moody shots of Hong Kong at night and most parts of the plot taking place in expensive and fashionably furnished interiors. There are a few scenes lasting several minute each in which there is no dialogue, just action, and the camera lovingly focuses on the city’s urban landscapes, revealing the metropolis’s energy and hinting at hidden and desperate secrets beneath the shiny glittering surface. Editing can be sharp and there is quite good use of special effects and black-and-white filming to show flashbacks in time when Hei was a young boy witnessing the murders of his parents and sister. Bong also “relives” the scene in which Hei’s father-in-laws dies in gruesome black-and-white detail. Graphic depictions of violence are par for the course in HK action thriller films.

There is an overall theme of loss (of loved ones, of identity) and how characters cope with that: some come to terms with it and find their way back to living life in full, others must construct new identities to cope, still others dwell on their loss and try to avenge lost loved ones – with disastrous results. The city of Hong Kong is also portrayed as dealing with loss of some kind: loss of a past identity and adjusting to a new one as a part of China; loss of an older, perhaps more human way of life and its replacement by a cold, shiny corporate culture in which gleaming style is a thin veneer for dark secrets.

The packaging may be beautiful to look at and the cast and crew do what they can but the bulk of the film is an implausible soap opera affair and no amount of lacquered sheen can hide that.