The Trial: brave and visually striking attempt to bring classic Kafka dystopia to screen

Orson Welles, “The Trial” / “Le Procès” (1962)

This film is a visually striking adaptation of the famous Franz Kafka novel. Welles’s directorial approach tries to incorporate as much of the spirit of the novel and its themes if not exacting faithfulness to the novel’s plot and the result is a work that is very heavy on dialogue which can seem mumbo-jumbo at times with much symbolism and not a little humour that can be missed by viewers. The style of the film is film noir / thriller: the plot proceeds as straight drama and lead actor Anthony Perkins plays the unfortunate anti-hero Josef K in a near-heroic, tight-jawed way while other actors play their roles in styles that may be called comic or parody. The look of the film is formal and stylised with an emphasis on over-imposing office or public buildings in modern brutalist, neo-classical or Gothic styles and exterior scenes empty of pedestrian and vehicle traffic that give the world where Josef K lives the appearance of a 20th-century police state relying on technology and bureaucracy to bolster its rule.

Josef wakes up, as if from a dream, in his apartment and is immediately apprehended by police on charges of having committed a crime of which details they don’t inform him. They then leave him and he embarks on a series of adventures to find out what he’s been accused of and to clear his name. Each incident in which he tries to get information ends in vain though he has quite memorable sexual encounters with various women. His uncle and guardian Max takes him to the family lawyer Hastler (Welles himself) who’s of no help whatsoever and Josef sacks him from his case. In the meantime the case proceeds through secretive layers of the court system and Josef is informed by a priest (Michael Lonsdale) and later by Hastler that he has been condemned to death.

The episodic nature of the film, in which Josef’s encounters with the legal system appear as more or less self-contained skits, contributes to the lack of tension and the impression that a plot as such doesn’t really exist. The climax appears as just another skit that conveniently ends the story. Welles could have added other skits not in the original novel or left out skits and the movie could have been 90 minutes or even 3 hours long without changing the general thrust of the plot. The comedy aspect is too subtle for a general audience and the potential for absurdism, for commenting on the craziness of society, especially one governed by techno-bureacratism, remains mostly unrealised. The timing of the film is unfortunate: made in the early 1960s when society was repressed and repressive, the sexual comedy is very muted; had the film been made a few years later with the same actors in a different and more relaxed social climate, able to look back on its past and realise how stultifying it had been, the sexual comedy with Hastler’s nurse Leni (Romy Schneider) and Josef’s neighbour Ms Burstner (Jeanne Moreau) seducing our hero might have been more open and a lot funnier with the characters in various states of undress in situations that could have segued into further embarrassments for Josef.

Another problem with the film is the way Welles tried to shape the character of Josef into something more heroic and positive for a general audience, standing as a lone defender of truth and justice in a corrupt society, than leave him as a distracted everyman while at the same time throwing him into an existential hamster-wheel to remain true to the novel as he (Welles) saw it. Perkins never seems to settle down into any particular interpretation of Josef: by turns he is nervous, scared, discomfited, full of bravado, malicious and righteous. At times he seems to be channelling US actor James Stewart in his more assertive scenes and not succeeding well at all, otherwise in scenes where his character is out of his depth, especially with women and young girls who represent aspects of the system, Perkins becomes touchingly vulnerable. Swinging from one behavioural extreme to another, and not fitting in completely, the actor is more brave than effective but then that’s the point: Josef is condemned to die because he never fits into his society but insists on sticking out like a sore thumb.

The oppressive yet perplexing society is portrayed well with staged Expressionist scenes that highlight contrasts in light and shadows and the skilful deployment of unusual camera angles, long tracking and deep focus that Welles had used in “Citizen Kane”. In particular interior scenes which take place inside abandoned buildings, in buildings where furnishings appear to have been ripped out to expose pipes and frameworks or in places of disarray or where structures have been set up in haste convey the chaos behind the façade of order strenuously maintained by police and legal authorities. (This of course suggests that the passage of Josef’s case through the courts doesn’t proceed smoothly or logically and the decision to execute him itself is irrational and based on a line of reasoning riddled with errors, false assumptions and plain malice.) Overall the look of the film and the way the camera is used complement the straight film noir drama genre approach Welles used though perhaps using film noir as straight drama doesn’t quite suit “The Trial”; a more ironic and parodic film noir approach, such as was used by Jean Luc Godard in “Alphaville” which looks very similar to “The Trial” in its use of modern office buildings as the setting for a similar technocratic dystopia, might have been more appropriate. Nice to see Amir Tamiroff appearing in minor roles in both films too!

Welles departs significantly from the novel in two scenes: the first such scene is one where Hastler screens an animated film, “Before the Law” to Josef and the two then talk about the film (which viewers have seen already in the prologue to “The Trial” proper in pin-screen animation format), at the end of which Josef defies Hastler and Hastler then appears to make his mind up about Josef; we may infer that Hastler plays some part in sentencing Josef to death. The other scene is Josef’s execution which, unlike the novel, gives Josef a chance to escape death while allowing his executioners an excuse that they are not directly responsible for his death. The implication is that Josef would prefer to die while being true to himself and his values rather than continue to live in a dysfunctional society with others who don’t share his desire for an honest life.

“The Trial” is a brave if not successful attempt to bring Kafka’s novel in its thematic entirety to the screen. Other adaptations of the novel including a 1993 film version starring Kyle MacLachlan and Anthony Hopkins have been even less successful so any faults in Welles’s film are as much due to the novel being all but unfilmable in its structure and characterisation. If Welles hadn’t tried to force the film into a form agreeable to mainstream audiences but instead made the kind of film he and only he plus a few close friends wanted to see, “The Trial” still wouldn’t be perfect but it would have come closer to “perfect” – the black comedy might have been more obvious and that in itself might even have made the film a celebration of a brief life in a depressing dystopia.

The Matrix: film trapped in formula Hollywood action-thriller matrix of convoluted plot, trite message and flat characters

Larry and Andy Wachowski, “The Matrix” (1999)

Strip “The Matrix” of its sci-fi trimmings, its computer FX and choreographed martial arts and gunfight scenes and what do we have left? We have a bare film that conforms to the Hollywood matrix of convoluted plot and plot twists, most of which come near the film’s end, a bit of romance here, some philosophical mumbo-jumbo there in parts, undeveloped character stereotypes and a banal message about being your own person, making your own rules, living your own life and having the freedom to do that without restrictions imposed on you by society. Computer programmer / corporate wage slave Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) who moonlights as hacker Neo has long been puzzled by messages about “The Matrix” appearing on his PC. He visits a club and meets a fellow hacker Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who can introduce him to Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) who in turn can reveal what The Matrix refers to. Sinister agents led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) turn up to prevent Neo from meeting Morpheus. After a few upsets caused by these guys, Neo meets Morpheus who encourages him of his own free will to know more about the world he lives in before he, Morpheus, can reveal what The Matrix really is.

Not surprisingly the revelation about Neo’s real world is very disheartening and he agrees to help Morpheus and Trinity change their universe. Of course, being a newcomer, Neo must undergo training and discover what abilities he has before he can be thrown into the deep business end of saving humanity from its oppressors. As the story progresses, the film’s pace quickens and its atmosphere changes from grungy noir to bright and colourful. No wonder the good guys and bad guys alike insist on wearing boring black shades and clothes for most of the film – all that sudden light and colour must hurt their eyes and fashion sense.

While watching Neo beating the crap out of Weaving’s Smith and his myrmidons is fun and the computer animation is slick and smooth, I did find the film very empty of substance in both plotting and characterisation. Of course with an action film featuring a winding plot, character development tends to take secondary priority – there’s too much plot for viewers to follow to pay any attention to how actors interpret and portray their characters – and the demands that Hollywood studios make of films these days to turn over loads of quick bucks don’t favour slow-burn character development. As a result the quality of acting is neither here nor there as all that’s needed from the actors is to go from A to Z and the whole cast does that smoothly. At least Fishburne does passingly well doing nothing in a late scene where he is tied up with electrodes attached to his head. The early oppressive noir atmosphere drops away once Neo re-enters The Matrix as a rebel and the film slips into pow-pow-pow action mode with kung fu fights and shooting sprees breathlessly piling on one after the other with no let-up in pace. As for tension, there’s no tension at all: the Wachowski brothers have no idea how to meld music and editing techniques to the story and action and the film’s characters are so blank that they invite no viewer sympathy for their sufferings and travails.

The premise behind “The Matrix” at least poses some interesting thoughts about the nature of reality and the role of religion and philosophy in everyday life. “Reality” for most humans turns out to be a computer construct created by machines which itself calls into question the nature of the relationship between humans and technology. Neo discovers his role in life is to enlighten his fellow humans about their “reality” and their role in it. Morpheus and Trinity believe without hesitation that Neo may be a messiah prophesied by a mysterious woman called the Oracle (Gloria Forster) and this plot development in itself throws up a paradox: Morpheus and Trinity have fought to get out of The Matrix only to willingly enter into another “matrix” which, like The Matrix, limits their thinking and behaviour. Neo also falls into this new “matrix” and experiences some inner struggle to get out of it in order to save Morpheus’s life. Reeves portrays little of the angst Neo goes through to convince himself and Trinity that they should be thinking for themselves and not simply follow what Morpheus or the Oracle says; Reeves’s blankness throughout the film may be a deliberate decision on the Wachowskis’ part to show how Neo, saviour or not he may be, is still close in psychology to the machine world he grew up and was nurtured in. The film could have delved more into Morpheus and Trinity’s belief about Neo and Neo’s discomfort with the trust they place in him and turned the threesome’s differences into an underlying conflict and investigation about religious faith and how some if not all individuals seem to need religion or belief in an external power to give meaning and motivation to their lives. A minor character, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), serves as a counter-balance to Neo, Morpheus and Trinity in that though freed from The Matrix, he actually desires to return there, seeing it as more real than the depressive reality that he endures rather than lives, and throws in his lot with Agent Smith to betray the other rebels.

As it is, all “The Matrix” can say is that people shouldn’t allow themselves to be bound up by rules they don’t understand or care much for. Problem is, if you’re traipsing along and a fence appears in front of you and you want to leap over it or tear it down, at least you want to find out why it’s there before you jump over it … and land straight on top of a buried landmine that blows your legs off. With freedom, there come consequences and responsibility to yourself and to others … and the ways that Neo, Morpheus and Trinity deal with their freedom are treated too lightly by the Wachowskis compared to the attention the directors have given to the look of the film, its technical aspects and its adherence to the action thriller formula. Needless to say, Neo and his friends and enemies alike, having escaped one Matrix, are trapped in another Matrix they have no hope of escaping from … the Hollywood Matrix that forces them to slave  in a tired plot stereotype peddling an overdone and trite message for big bucks.

One useful lesson viewers can take away from “The Matrix” is that the world we live in and take for granted itself may be as much of an artificial construct based on lies and propaganda designed to keep a small elite in power while the rest of us slave away and fill our lives with cheap pleasures, as is Neo’s world. As more people question the actions and motivations of politicians, corporations, the global banking and finance industry and other “leaders” in social, cultural, political and economic forums, it becomes clearer that we are indeed living in The Matrix where concepts of democracy, freedom, security and equality among others are exploited to keep us as ignorant and infantile slaves.

The Third Man: excellent character study of people coping with a changed world where old certainties are subverted

Carol Reed, “The Third Man” (1949)

Here’s an excellent movie character study about the testing of loyalties and trust in a world that’s just come out of a long war where such notions as brotherhood, friendship, doing what you believe is right and the ethical concerns that might arise from personal action are subverted and corrupted, and people end up living and surviving for selfish reasons alone. An unemployed American writer, down on his luck and burnt-out from writing too many trite Western horse-opera stories, comes to Vienna at the invitation of a friend just after the end of World War II. Already the city has been partitioned into four zones by the victorious Allied powers which are now squabbling among themselves. The writer, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), goes to meet his friend at his apartment only to be told by the porter (Peter Horbiger) that he has just seen the friend, Harry Lime, die in a road accident. Martins attends Lime’s funeral where he meets two British Army police officers Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee) and Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). The writer is contacted by Lime’s friends who had picked him up after the road accident. As time goes by, Martins is struck by the differences in the stories the porter and Lime’s friends and doctor tell him about Lime’s accident – in particular, the discrepancy between the number of men who attended Lime at the accident scene – and determines to find out how Lime really died and if his death had been an accident.

While investigating Lime’s disappearance, Martins meets an actress, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), whom Lime had helped escape from Czechoslovakia with forged papers, and develops feelings for her. He learns from Calloway about Lime’s trafficking of diluted penicillin on the black market and how this has created a public health catastrophe for Viennese children. Martins decides to leave Vienna but then catches a glimpse of Lime (Orson Welles) who has been living in Vienna’s underground sewer network. Martins reports Lime’s exstence to Calloway who then orders the man’s grave to be exhumed; the men discover another body in Lime’s coffin. Russian police officers come for Anna to take her back to Czechoslovakia and Martins tries to negotiate safe passage for her in return for helping Calloway catch Lime.

The plot is fairly straightforward though second and viewings may be necessary to understand all its details. There are no hackneyed twists to manipulate suspense and tension into a rollercoaster ride and the dilemma that Martins faces in doing what is right and ethical at the cost of betraying a friend and losing a loved person supplies the bulk of the tension in the film’s second half. All the action and thrills occur in the prolonged (maybe too prolonged) chase scene in the city’s sewer system. Joseph Cotten deftly underplays the would-be hero who hardly understands what he gets himself into and is out of his depth coping with life in Vienna; he achieves a good if difficult balance of making Martins look capable when he isn’t without making the character look too bumbling. Viewers see how Martins came to be in the situation that he finds himself at the beginning of the film: he can only write trashy fiction because he lacks self-knowledge and understanding of human psychology, and is basically superficial and ignorant.The baby-faced Welles plays his dubious Harry Lime role very well indeed: initially he seems callous in his dismissal of the children’s deaths caused by his black market activities in his “cuckoo clock” speech that compares the cultures and histories of Italy and Switzerland but one might consider his motives which may be selfish, altruistic or both in stealing a wonder medicine from military hospitals and selling it to hospitals desperately needing it to treat children, and in assisting Anna and maybe others like her flee Communist rule. He delivers the film’s best acting performance in his lone scene where he is trapped on a staircase; weakened by a gunshot wound, the strain showing on his face, he makes desperate efforts to escape the police and Martins homing in on him. Valli plays the basically passive Anna subtly and gives the impression of a complex woman who has moral depth but can also be naive about human nature. Mention also should be made of Howard as Calloway: he plays his part straight but turns out to be as much a master manipulator of Martins as Lime himself.

Taking Martins’s point of view, the cinematography by Robert Krasker emphasises many shots taken at crazy angles to reflect the man’s bewilderment and failure to connect with and appreciate the world he has just flown into. Vienna itself becomes a significant character with otherwise purely historic and harmless buildings made to look sinister and menacing due to camera placements and streets at night denuded of traffic and pedestrians so as to resemble an American Wild West ghost-town of Martins’s imaginings, where stand-offs and shoot-outs could occur. Some scenes are filmed at a considerable distance to emphasise some aspect of the plot or the relationship between characters: the film’s closing scene in which Anna walks past Martins contemptuously is filmed at a distance from them both to show Martins’s alienation in a world he has failed to understand and which now rejects him.

The musical soundtrack by Anton Karras, composed almost entirely on zither, has a Western flavour that comments ironically on the film’s setting in post-WW2 Vienna, on the edge between the capitalist West and the Communist East, a place of promise and opportunity but also a hive of vice and corruption, just as towns springing up across the American West in the 1800s as a result of mining and farming booms could either be successful cities or abandoned ghost-towns. The sharp, vigorous melodies don’t behave as a musical soundtrack should do, accentuating tension where needed and bringing it down: instead, the music can be abrupt and intrusive to the point of being annoying. The purpose is to encourage viewers to “see” the events as Martins might be seeing them through a familiar mental framework that allows him to participate in them. The possibility that he might end up wrecking his life and the lives of others doesn’t occur to him.

By film’s end though viewers have no sense that Martins has really learned anything from his experience: he appears to want to resume a relationship with Anna and seems genuinely puzzled when she ignores him. The reasons she rejects him are many and could include resentment at being used as bait or anger that someone she loved, however flawed he was, is gone. Although the film is very much of its time and deals with issues springing from a particular historical event, its enquiry into misplaced loyalties and betrayal, and how people cope with changed circumstances in which good becomes bad and bad becomes good, remains relevant to modern audiences in a world where the political and economic order established by the United States in the immediate aftermath of World War II has been breaking down for a long time and might now be in its death throes.

Klute: crime thriller / psychological character study about personal control, paranoia and saving face

Alan J Pakula, “Klute” (1971)

Ostensibly a crime thriller about a prostitute who assists a small-town private investigator in a missing-person case, this film is better seen as a noir / psychological study of loneliness, paranoia and control. John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is hired by a friend Peter Kable (Charles Cioffi) to investigate the disappearance of an executive, Tom Gruneman, at Kable’s company. The only person who is likely to have any information as to how and why Gruneman disappeared is a call-girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) who initially is suspicious of Klute when he comes snooping around her apartment but she later agrees to co-operate. Klute relies on Daniels to chase down her pimp Frank Ligourin (Roy Scheider) and another prostitute Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan) to pump them for clues and leads and as the investigation progresses, Daniels becomes a kind of investigative partner for Klute and a romance blossoms between them. After Page dies mysteriously, Klute deduces her death is linked to the death of another prostitute Jane McKenna and that Gruneman most likely died also. He painstakingly works out who the real killer is – perceptive viewers will have worked out already the killer’s identity – and realises that Bree’s life is in danger.

Frankly the plot is dumber than dumb and begs a few questions about why Klute was hired in the first place (Kable  should have made sure he was incompetent at his job) and what sort of investigator he is who leaves his personal ethics at home in Tuscarora in Pennsylvania and allows himself to fall in love with Daniels who should be considered a suspect in Gruneman’s disappearance and possible murder among other things. If viewers assume that the whole film is about loss of personal control – and Bree, Klute and another significant character lose control of some aspect of their personal lives – then the plot becomes a little more credible. A slow pace and a too quick and choppy resolution in which a character conveniently ties up all plot ends and then commits suicide do not help either. The film is most credible as an exploration of Bree’s character: she alternates between being strong, confident and in control when turning tricks with her clients (though she is incapable of orgasm because that means losing control of herself in front of her client), and being fragile and frightened when falling in love. Various scenes show Bree’s need for love, reassurance and acceptance which she tries to ignore or repress by running away from Klute and doing drugs with Scheider at a party, or by making appointments to see an elderly client who runs a clothes factory. Fonda turns in an excellent performance that may be partly improvised, especially in scenes where Bree visits her psychiatrist and tells the woman her fears; the stand-out scene is near the end where she breaks down in tears while listening to a tape recording of Page being murdered. Though Fonda was a poster-girl at the time of the film’s making for feminism and other politically liberal stands on various issues, her character Bree is not a feminist figure: her issues are too personal and her desire to be independent and in control of herself is a compensation for the loneliness and emptiness she feels in her life. It should be said that her loneliness isn’t necessarily to be equated with wanting a man.

Sutherland’s diffident and enigmatic Klute is straight-man foil to Fonda’s Bree: his under-acting highlights Bree’s actions which are contradictory though they make sense in the context of her complex personality. He allows Fonda to dominate the screen when they are together but his performance seems all the stronger and more thoughtful for its deliberate under-playing. Cioffi and Scheider are suitably sinister in their respective roles and Jean Stapleton provides welcome comic relief in a very brief role as secretary to Bree’s elderly factory-owner client.

The cinematography creates a suspenseful and tense atmosphere, especially in an early scene where Klute pursues what he thinks is a rooftop stalker in the dark: the camera follows him, taking his point of view, showing nothing but blackness and spots of light that dash here and there as Klute flashes his torch about. Odd camera angles in various shots throughout the film emphasise issues of control and keeping up appearances for various characters: for example scenes in which Kable appears, whether in a high-rise building or in a helicopter, are shot in ways that stress his puppet-master persona which he obviously favours but loses control over once Klute is on his trail. Kable, Bree and Klute are also interested in maintaining their particular façades and it might be said also that New York City where the action plays out is a place where people pretend to be one thing (stylish, mod, cultured) but keep their real selves with all their insecurities and vulnerable points hidden. Even a prostitute like Bree, in the business of servicing clients’ unmet needs and providing psychological as well as sexual comfort and relief, has hidden needs that must be met or assuaged by others, either personally or through the exchange of money.

As a study of character and a reminder that once upon a time Jane Fonda really was a good actor, “Klute” is worth watching. Students of film noir may find it interesting also in that the film adheres to noir conventions and stereotypes but subverts them into something that should have made for a richer viewing experience had the plot been more logical and carefully developed. The deadpan private eye investigator, an outsider whose character never changes, takes a flawed and fallen woman under his wing and tries to save her from falling any lower in an uncaring and corrupt world; the woman is conflicted between wanting to get out of her horrible life and being attracted back into it; the woman’s involvement with the private eye endangers her life and he must rescue her from their enemies: all these conventions play out in “Klute” in a way that updated and made them appear fresh and relevant to a 1970s audience. Apart from obviously dated aspects such as clothing and acting styles, the film does not look too bad and the noir conventions hold up well. Indeed the noir conventions could have been updated even more so that Klute and Bree would have become true partners who support and care for each other.

Exiled: gangster movie about honour, loyalty and brotherhood celebrates life in the face of a chaotic and indifferent universe

Johnnie To, “Exiled” aka “Fong Juk” (2006)

Set in Macau territory just before its return by Portugal to China in 1998, this gangster film is a well-constructed and stylised work drawing on film noir and Westerns in its investigation of honour, loyalty, brotherhood and self-sacrifice. Gangster Wo (Nick Cheung), in exile for trying to kill Boss Fay (Simon Yam), has just settled in Macau with his wife (Josie Ho) and newborn child. On hearing that Wo has returned from overseas, Fay orders Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Suet Lam) to kill him but their efforts are thwarted by Wo’s pals Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung). After a brief fight in Wo’s new house, the four men reconcile with Wo: it turns out all five of them were childhood friends who grew up together and became hitmen together.

Hiding from Boss Fay who is furious that Wo is still alive, the five men take on an assignment to kill Fay’s rival Boss Keung but this fails spectacularly in two highly choregraphed series of bullet blasts. Wo is severely injured in both attacks and his friends rush him back home where he dies. Wo’s pals then flee and by happy accident pull off a gold heist at Buddha Mountain – a job they had rejected earlier in favour of killing Keung – and the foursome look set to retire from a life of criminality permanently. Unfortunately in the meantime Wo’s widow has embarked on her own form of vengeance against her husband’s friends by establishing contact with the brothel owner who gave them the assignment to kill Keung. Fay and Keung immediately take her and her child hostage and threaten to kill them both if Blaze, Fat, Tai and Cat don’t return. The quartet don’t even think twice that they’ve been set up – they know they must save Wo’s widow and son.

The film’s style is very artistic with carefully staged sets and action: even the neighbourhood where Wo lives is very picturesque though depopulated in the manner of a ghost-town in Western movies where everyone hides beneath the windows in saloons, saddlery shops and stables though here they’d be hiding behind doors of tea shops, video rental places and consumer electronics retailers. Unusual camera angles including bird’s-eye points of view and slanted viewpoints where people have to look down or look up are a feature as are also camera shots that emphasise shadows and drawn curtains in night-time scenes of suspense. Viewers are continually aware of the environment Blaze and his gangster pals move in, whether it is the lavish hotel with its internal balconies, the grim desert they flee to in a stolen car after Wo’s death or the semi-tropical greenery at Buddha Mountain where the men hijack the van carrying the gold bars. Of course the shoot-outs are carefully choreographed, often in slow-motion as if to mimic the highly theatrical sword-fights of Chinese historical dramas, but the artwork isn’t done to excess and the gunfights are over in a matter of minutes and look fairly realistic, at least until people get up and viewers realise the professional hitmen are either incompetent shots or deliberately avoided hitting certain folks like, you know, the main characters. The preceding stand-offs may be done to excess jokingly, with several camera shots of hands sliding soundlessly into holsters to pull out guns, particularly in the restaurant and underground clinic scenes.

The overall effect of To’s direction and the film’s theatrical style is to create a self-contained universe where self-interest and greed rule, and gangland networks are riven by shifts in loyalty and rivalry, and to survive in and make sense of such a world where anything and everything can happen, and luck determines whether one lives or dies, men must make and stick to their own code of ethics that emphasises blood-brother friendships and loyalties even though this can be used against them (as happens in “Exiled”) and may lead to their own downfall and death. Constant and unexpected plot twists stress the random and capricious nature of the universe in which people must find and give meaning to their rat-race lives; the whole film becomes a series of sketches with each sketch having consequences that set up the next sketch. Coin flips drive the point home rather too obviously; this viewer had the impression that the coin-flip results simply legitimise what the gangsters have decided to do anyway. A running gag with two cops emphasises the ineffectiveness and corruption of police in this world and the heist scene where Blaze and Co co-opt a guard shows how casually ordinary people can slip into a life of crime when the wider world is so suspicious and indifferent to the individual that a person can be judged a criminal just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One would expect with the emphasis on plot that characters will be cardboard stereotypes and the acting correspondingly bare-bones minimal and efficient. Even the clothes worn conform to gangster-movie stereotypes with Blaze wearing the obligatory sunshades and tan-coloured trenchcoat and his mates in black leather. With most of the cast the minimal acting is the case but Wong stands out as the world-weary and cynical tough-nut Blaze despite doing and saying very little that’s out of the ordinary for his character. Ho as Wo’s wife is the other main acting highlight – she has a silent scene to herself which is heartbreaking in its anger, sorrow and sense of wasted life – and her personal pursuit of Blaze and Co, while not well defined, is a subplot that parallels the quartet’s quest for justice for Wo. Like the men, the women in the “Exiled” universe must make their own way and secure their niche in life in whatever way they can, often by prostitution or by becoming gangsters’ molls: either way won’t necessarily provide long-term security and comfort but it’s often the best the women can do.

The musical soundtrack is a mix of urban blues, Spanish-style acoustic guitar melodies and plaintive harmonica tunes that link “Exiled” to its Italian spaghetti Western inspirations. Other sounds in the film such as the thud of dropped bullets are beefed up in volume to sustain suspense and tension; they may also be a referential joke on To’s part that recalls previous Hong Kong gunfight action flicks.

For all its references, influences and cardboard cut-out people inhabiting a familiar noir world of bureaucratic and police corruption and complacency, mafia communities that make huge demands on one’s loyalty but give little in return and individuals who try to come to grips with the chaos that abounds in this world, “Exiled” never feels like a stale stitch-up job and is actually very absorbing. Perhaps it’s because in spite of their circumstances, Blaze and his fellow gangsters live life to the full in the knowledge that the next five minutes may be their last. The reckless way in which they live their lives and throw caution to the winds doesn’t guarantee a long life expectancy but they do it with enthusiasm and child-like enjoyment. The film finds room for slapstick comedy that serves to defuse tension and which makes pertinent social comments about police conduct and definitions of masculinity. Perhaps surprisingly for a gangster movie filled with violence and bloody deaths, “Exiled” is a celebration of life.

Blue Velvet: satirising American suburbia as cartoony more important than plot, characters and issues of exploitation

David Lynch, “Blue Velvet” (1986)

A beautiful film to watch with noirish elements and a lot of symbolism yet oddly not very suspenseful or satisfying. “Blue Velvet” is set in some vague representation of 20th century small-town America with a mix of white picket fences surrounding wannabe Cape-Cod houses with manicured green lawns and lush gardens. A middle-aged man watering his patch suddenly suffers a stroke and keels over. The camera tracks down close and low and fixes its gaze on a horde of ravenous beetles tearing at a carcass deep in the garden’s undergrowth amid a soundtrack of roaring chainsaws. The message is clear: no matter how gleamingly clean and tidy a community looks, its core is bound to turn out grimy and seething with corruption. The early scene is a metaphorical introduction to the community of Lumberton, a showcase of Tidy-town suburban Americana, and it’s here that college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns on hearing that his father is in hospital. He visits Dad and is relieved to see he’s recovering so he goes home, cutting across a field. He discovers in the field a severed ear and brings it to the attention of a police detective (George Dickerson) whose daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) he meets for the first time. Sandy already knows of the Case of the Severed Ear – the police seem unable to solve it – and tells Jeff that a night-club singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) may have a connection to the ear. Egged on by Sandy and keen to investigate and solve the case himself, Jeff poses as a pest exterminator to enter Dorothy’s apartment and steals the singer’s spare key; he uses this key later to enter the apartment again late at night while it’s vacant but Dorothy comes back early and catches him. She attempts to seduce him but then a strange man, Frank (Dennis Hopper), enters the apartment so Jeff is quickly stashed into Dorothy’s wardrobe. Through slats in the wardrobe doors, Jeff watches Frank, an apparent drug addict and local criminal, abuse and rape Dorothy. Perhaps at this point Jeff realises amateur sleuthing is going to be more difficult than a diet of crime mystery novels and thriller movies has led him to believe.

Quite why Jeff believes he can succeed where the police have failed isn’t explained; maybe he’s studying forensic science and psychology at college and wants to put his knowledge to work. His involvement however takes him into the town’s underworld of violence, trafficking of illegal substances, kidnapping, blackmail and exploitation of women dominated by Frank’s gang, the local brothel owner (Dean Stockwell) and a police officer Jeff calls the Yellow Man; but the real underworld may be in his own psyche as uncovered by Dorothy when she attempts to seduce him a second time and begs him to beat her. Jeff resists at first but goaded by Dorothy, he ends up slapping her. From this point on Jeff is torn between two women, Sandy and Dorothy, who are polar opposites in many ways, and must choose one or the other if he is to fight Frank and a corrupt police force to solve the Severed Ear case .

An overarching meta-theme of polarities is evident everywhere in this film: good paired with evil; perfection paired with decay, corruption and rot; innocence paired with its loss and the psychological burden that fills the vacancy left; the good girl paired with the bad woman; love and romance paired with oppression and exploitation leading to violence. There’s a suggestion that if one of the pair exists, the other also exists. In trying to do good, Jeff also has to confront his dark side; he can keep it in check but this demands vigilance. Sandy presents as the “good woman” – loving, caring, forgiving, supportive – but perhaps also bland and sexually unadventurous; Dorothy the “bad woman” awakens Jeff’s sexuality and makes him aware of his own potential for violence and corruption. The acting reflects the love triangle as presented: MaLachlan and Dern are understated to the extent of appearing wooden though there are occasions in the film when they both break down and cry and it’s then you realise they’re not bad actors, they’re just following director’s orders. Rossellini puts in a credible performance though she seems awkward in her role: as a night-club singer, she’s a better model and reporter (Rossellini’s former occupations before she took up acting) and her early encounter with Jeff looks clumsy. Perhaps this is due to her character being a disturbed and frightened woman forced to submit to degradation in order to save her husband and son. The film never explains why Frank is holding the family hostage.

A plot filled with holes, loose ends and discontinuities (like severe knife-cuts to the face healing in less than 24 hours without leaving scars) eventually leads to a definitive resolution and a happy and idealised coda which jars with the ideas and themes presented. The forces of evil are held at bay, temporarily perhaps. Dorothy appears healthy and happy with her son; in real life, without therapy and support, she’d just find another Frank and the vicious cycle of exploitation and degradation will start again. Jeff might be sadder and wiser but keeps his feelings and thoughts in check as Sandy drags him from resting in the garden into the kitchen to look at a robin with a beetle in its beak. Has Jeff become sloth-like and domesticated? Might he not welcome the occasional secret tryst with Dorothy behind Sandy’s back? Lumberton appears as squeaky-clean as ever but would Jeff be satisfied living a life with Sandy, having tasted something of the world Dorothy has revealed to him?

The film’s style is low-key in keeping with MacLachlan and Dern’s underplayed characters who dominate the film. The early half of “Blue Velvet” tends to be quiet with not much background music, lending the plot an air of oppressiveness. Most of the action takes place at night when the town is asleep and the underworld awakes; the film emphasises dark colours, greys, shadows, hints of things unseen but lurking in the background. Dorothy’s apartment may have pink walls but the colour looks muted, even dark, and the red curtain by the open window is always moving. Maybe it’s fidgety. Maybe it’s a metaphorical invitation to sexual activity. Maybe the whole apartment represents a womb. Scenes in the apartment involve voyeurism, a tableau of two dead men and one scene where all the action happens in the bathroom right at the back of the set viewed in the left-hand corner of the screen while nothing happens in the foreground. Throughout the movie shots of industrial decay and close-ups of machines or objects are inserted into the action for no apparent reason other than to remind the audience that death and decay are ever present behind life and perfection. Perfection itself is presented in clear and bright though saccharine colours and imagery which suggests a view of Lumberton and its prevailing culture as perhaps childish and dumbed-down; the other more likely possibility is that Lumberton denies that corruption exists within its boundaries at all.

For all the foregoing, the film is remote and lacks suspense. The plot degenerates into a predictable series of highs and lows culminating in a stand-off between Jeff and Frank over Dorothy which astute viewers can see coming from a mile away. In spite of the film’s forays into voyeurism, the deliberate and subdued woodenness of Jeff and Sandy’s characters make viewer identification with them difficult and their odd behaviour at certain points in the movie – kissing each other just after a murder right in front of them? – might leave not a few viewers cold. The happy ending is unrealistic for characterrs like Jeff and Dorothy: you simply can’t imagine them, after all they have gone through, settling into tranquillity unless they undergo brain transplants. The symbolism present and the importance of close-ups of machines and various objects to the plot may easily pass over audiences’ heads.

It seems that Lynch is more interested in sending up small-town suburbia and exposing what rot and corruption may exist behind it – as if other directors before had never thought to do anything the same or similar – than in crafting credible characters to demonstrate the corruption, how it affects their psyches and behaviours towards others, and call attention to how exploitation and abuse of others plus their consequences occur in the absence of love and empathy. This does an injustice to Rossellini and Hopper in particular who were willing to play highly disturbed characters whose actions and experiences could have affected the actors deeply. Indeed Lynch didn’t even have to invent an underworld for Lumberton to find a dark side – the cartoony Tidy-town character of Lumberton itself is a symptom of social and cultural decay – but then I guess there’d be no “Blue Velvet”.

Rififi: godfather of heist movies with a morality tale of redemption

Jules Dassin, “Rififi” (1955)

A film about a technically perfect crime, only for its participants to be totally undone by one small action by one of their number, “Rififi” is outstanding mainly for its 28-minute heist centrepiece during which there is absolutely no dialogue or music and the only sounds heard are those that are a natural consequence of the criminals’ actions. Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais), a jewel thief, has just been released from jail and is contacted by his friends Jo (Carl Mohner) and Mario who are interested in stealing some baubles from a jewellery store in a Paris locality. At first Tony refuses but after looking up his old girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret) and discovering that she has moved in with his old enemy Grutter (Marcel Lupovici), owner of “L’Age d”Or” night-club, he changes his mind after beating her and joins his friends on the condition they hire a safe-cracker. Mario suggests his friend César (director Jules Dassin under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) who’s happy to oblige.

Much of the first hour of the film is about the four men making their contacts and preparing for the crime. Tony and his men stare daggers at Grutter and his men at the night-club where singer Viviane (Magali Nol) performs the song that gives the movie its title. The heist, when it comes, is a great piece of film-making: taking place at night with the men trying to balance their use of light so as to avoid detection yet striving to finish the job and collect the jewels before daylight, the crime gives many opportunities for Dassin to play with contrasts of white, black and all shades of grey in-between, literally and figuratively. Cutaways from the thieves’ actions of drilling a hole in the floor to a clock-face or to the night-sky and back help to illustrate the arduous and time-consuming nature of the crime; the thieves drill the hole for two, three hours before they have a hole big enough to put a rope through and climb down to where the safe is kept. They collect all the debris in an umbrella. While Tony plugs up the security alarm with spray, César gets to work opening the safe and he needs another hour or so to do that. Close-ups of the men’s perspiring faces reveal strain and uncertainty. You find yourself hoping that the men can get the jewels, zip out through the hole again, pick up their tools and escape before daylight comes! Suspense and tension, unrelieved by music or dialogue, build and pile up to an almost unbearable level. A patrolling policeman passes by, stopping to examine a piece of litter, then he goes on his way – whew! When the first rays of the sun appear, the men are already scrambling to clear out; César pauses to take a ring for Viviane.

Sure enough, news of the theft is all over the papers the next day and not long after Grutter sees the injured Mado clearing out of his place and spots César giving the ring to Viviane. He now knows that Tony and César pulled off the heist and he puts his men onto them both. César is captured and forced to reveal the names of his co-conspirators. From then on it’s downhill for all the men who were involved in the heist. Suffice to say that pushing daisies, not pulling them, is the only thing all the men including Grutter are able to do when the dust clears for the last time. From this viewers can infer that crime pays only if people are total cold-blooded cerebral machines that can suppress their natural inclinations to rejoice and share their bounty.

A gangster code of loyalty complicates Tony’s life which leads to a second outstanding montage of scenes, also done without dialogue, in which he rescues Jo’s small son Tonio from Grutter’s men and despite being seriously wounded frantically drives the child back to his mother through countryside and Paris streets. Heroically if foolishly Tony battles city traffic, flagging consciousness and an unrestrained child (the last one not really) to race to Jo’s apartment and the camera sympathises with him, showing Paris landmarks and the bare branches of trees flashing by, street scenes zooming in and out of focus as Tony strives to avoid hitting people and cars. Multiple points of view are shown from inside the car, outside and front in a series of quick edits, emphasising the urgency, speed and delirium of Tony’s last quest to redeem himself by saving a life before his own blacks out. Some viewers may find this last sequence ludicrous (why would a gangster even think of saving a child’s life?) but after what we have seen of Tony before – a jaded, cynical man with self-interest as his only goal – the series of image shows Tony as he might have been once and becomes in the last moments of his life: a caring human being who sacrifices himself for others and who perhaps sees in Tonio (note the similarity of the name to Tony) the potential which in himself was wasted. Tony’s rescue and return of Tonio becomes the film’s true climax.

As Tony, Servais who had a history of alcoholism before making “Rififi” is suitably bleary-eyed and wears seen-it-all weariness as a second skin. The acting overall is more efficient than outstanding but it suits the structure of the film and its purpose as a heist flick hiding a moral tale. The women in the film serve to illustrate aspects of the thieves’ lives as caring husbands and family men; only Tony behaves as a stereotypical hard-man, hitting and scratching Mado for being unfaithful to him, and forcing Jo and Mario to change part of their plan to rob the jewellery shop.

The film’s pace can be uneven: it’s slow for much of the first hour with Viviane’s singing and the silhouettes of a man and woman dancing in the background the main items of interest; then it picks up during the heist scene and is very fast in the film’s last 45 minutes. Director Jules Dassin’s structuring and portrayal of the heist and Tonio’s rescue lift “Rififi” from being a run-of-the-mill film-noir movie into the realm of film art so in that respect the movie is worth watching, if for nothing else. The morality aspect can be heavy-handed as bullets fly and the body count piles up; no-one survives to learn any lessons, making the post-heist part of the plot superfluous in a way. What’s the point of the shoot-out if there’s no-one at the end to make sense of it all?

Recipe for Murder: an entertaining look at thallium poisoning craze in society traumatised by post-war social changes

Sonia Bible, “Recipe for Murder” (2010)

Contrary to what most people think about the 1950’s, the decade or the early part of it at least wasn’t a halycon period of peace, stability and prosperity for people in most Western societies. The Communists had come to power in China in 1949 and were soon fighting a proxy war against the US and its allies in Korea. The Soviet Union had tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949 and there were fears worldwide that that country and the US would soon fight a war with nuclear bombs which would result in deadly radiation spreading over the planet. In the US itself, Senator Joseph McCarthy and others had tapped into fears about Communist subversion to pursue an agenda of finding and eliminating opinions and points of view that dissented from or were deemed dangerous to a narrow conservative political agenda that privileged corporate business interests over others.

In Australia there were fears of invasion from China or the newly independent Indonesia, headed by President Sukarno who then was considered in much the same way as Libya’s Colonel Gadhafi is now: a maverick, crazy despot with suspect loyalties and ambitions. In such a jittery, nervous context, the mood was ripe for a scare, however laughable it might look today, and in 1953 Sydney was caught up in a thallium-poisoning frenzy which is the focus of Sonia Bible’s droll and entertaining documentary “Recipe for Murder”. This hour-long feature mixes dramatisations, old newsreel films, a terse narrative by Dan Wyllie and a talking-head style of interviewing (in which viewers see historians, crime writer Peter Doyle, witnesses and retired police talking to an offscreen interviewer asking unknown questions) into an informative mix that captures something of the panic of the time and flavours it with a hard-boiled detective crime fiction feel. Several social issues such as the position of women generally, society’s attitudes to marriage and domestic violence, and stereotypes of how women should behave and the public reaction to news of women who didn’t behave demurely, in a period in which women had worked in factories during World War II and were expected to give up their jobs and independence and retire quietly back into domesticity when the fighting was done, are briefly investigated.

The documentary is structured around the cases of three Sydney women who were arrested in 1953 and charged with murder or attempted murder by thallium poisoning. At the time, a rat plague had broken out and there were fears that the bubonic plague scare which erupted in 1900 would do so again. Rat poison in which thallium – a soft white metal toxin banned elsewhere in Australia at the time – was the main ingredient was commonly used, being slow-acting and having no smell or taste that would warn wily rats. The first murder case was that of Yvonne Fletcher who was charged with murdering two husbands; her trial was followed closely by the tabloids and the Sydney Morning Herald which diligently (though perhaps inadvisedly) printed details of how the poisoning was carried out and what the symptoms of thallium poisoning were. Next up was Caroline Grills, a kindly aunt who made tea, cakes and biscuits for relatives and in-laws, and inherited some of their properties whenever they died. Grills was charged with murdering four people, all of them related to her in some way, and of attempted murder of a fifth person. The third and most sensational case was of Veronica Monty, charged with the attempted murder of her son-in-law, local celebrity football-player Bob Lulham, with whom she was having an affair; she admitted she had tried to kill herself but had accidentally given her laced cup of tea to Lulham.

Stylish and minimal re-enactments of the three women’s lives in the manner of film noir, emphasising the circumstances that led to their actions and arrests, combined with old photographs and recreations of newspaper headlines, illustrate the gritty tenor of life in Sydney and the severely limited range of options available to women in trouble. Fletcher’s two husbands had been alcoholics prone to violence; Monty likely suffered from depression as, two years after being acquitted of attempted murder, she took her own life; as for Grills, nothing is known of her motives for killing her stepmother or her in-laws, but probably she harboured repressed feelings of rage and revenge under a warm and smiling mother-hen facade. Fletcher and Monty are tragic figures, victims of a set of beliefs that decreed married women must put up and shut up and bear their burdens stoically; in addition, Fletcher had a reputation as a floozy and no doubt many people saw her conviction and death sentence as fit justice for previous bad behaviour. As for Grills, her case could well be the stuff of genteel whodunnit mystery fiction if it hadn’t been real; indeed, in the manner of whodunnits, the first person to suspect her of poisoning her victims isn’t a trained detective but her son-in-law. The case is very disquieting and, if we knew of Grills’s motives for dispatching her relatives with poisoned tea and cakes, could be blackly hilarious, sinister and malevolent, depressing or even all of these. Serial killers don’t usually come in the form of middle-aged grandmothers offering warm scones and biscuits and cups of tea!

The whole program is very tight and breathlessly packed with information and memorable images that mimic the sensational reporting of the time. It seems much shorter than its hour-long length and the individual stories and their social and cultural context, not to mention the dark mirror they hold up to society and its assumptions about women and family life, perhaps deserve a deeper treatment than what the documentary is able to give. The publicity the three trials attracted encouraged other people to use thallium either as a murder weapon or a method of suicide until eventually its sale as rat poison was banned. The two detectives Ferguson and Krabe who worked on the three cases are intriguing characters in their own right: feted as celebrities and heroes in the press, they later came to be known as two of the most corrupt police in New South Wales. You wonder what it was about Sydney, its people and culture, and the nature of crime there, that made these men’s star fall so low.

Se7en: well-made if not great film about good and evil in an indifferent universe

David Fincher, “Se7en” (1995)

“Se7en” is a well-made film with some excellent acting performances and an ingenious if implausible premise of a literate serial killer who plans and executes murders of undeserving people, or at least those he considers undeserving. What prevents “Se7en” from being a really great movie is a script that takes its leisurely time building up significant characters and the relationships among them only to try to come to a quick resolution in the last 30 minutes by bringing in the murderer who then has to rattle off on how the series of murders will be completed. The slow build-up is appreciated but perhaps it could have been cut back a bit to allow for a fuller development of the serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in his character and motivations, and his relationship to the detectives on his trail, William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt).

The action takes place in a generic city of grimy derelict buildings and social problems of poverty, crime, prostitution and drug-dealing networks. Rain falls constantly on this city and occasionally the weather brightens up to reveal a bit of sunshine but the sleaze and filth remain after repeated clean-up attempts. Here, Somerset has been investigating and solving crime but after many years he is planning to retire and move to a less crime-ridden place. In its infinite wisdom worthy of a cosmic joker or Hollywood TV crime show writers, the police department pairs him with rookie cop Mills, a recent transfer from out of town, who proves to be the complete opposite of Somerset in personality, character and approach to the job: where Somerset is level-headed, keeps his cool and does meticulous research at libraries as well as in police files, Mills is hot-headed, acts before he thinks and rarely delves into a world beyond pop culture. While sorting out their good cop / bad cop routine, the two have to grimace their way through and make sense of three crimes, two of which involve murders, each illustrating one of the Seven Deadly Sins referenced in Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”. A montage sequence in the movie that flits back and forth between Somerset and Mills doing their separate investigations establishes the two men’s differences nicely.

The detectives track down a man called John Doe to his apartment; he starts shooting at them and flees. Mills gives chase through the building and outside but is outwitted by Doe who holds him at gunpoint. Inexplicably Doe spares his life and leaves the scene. The detectives later determine from examining books and papers in Doe’s apartment that he is planning a fourth murder but they are too late to prevent it. They then discover a fifth murder which doesn’t tell them anything new about the killer.

Between investigating the crimes, Somerset becomes acquainted with Mills’ wife Tracey (Gwyneth Paltrow) who warms to him as a father figure and confidante. She tells him she is unhappy with Mills’ recent transfer and reveals that she had thought of leaving him but is pregnant. Learning that Mills hasn’t been told of the pregnancy, Somerset offers his opinion that the city isn’t a good place to raise a child and tells Tracey he once convinced an ex-girlfriend to abort her pregnancy. The diner scene in which Paltrow and Somerset talk together is very moving with Paltrow’s acting demonstrating considerable if restrained emotional depth in the short film space she is given. This scene is a pivotal one in the film as Tracey herself becomes involved in the series of seven crimes.

Freeman brings substance to a role that admittedly makes few demands on his experience and skill as an actor. Perhaps if he had played the role less straight-faced and enjoyed investigating the crimes – and perhaps the film could have shown him receiving the odd cryptic note or two from Doe about the crimes or future crimes so that there’s an indication that the two might be knowingly sparring together – Freeman’s performance might have had more depth as Somerset becomes a more morally ambiguous and questionable character and that in itself would have pushed the actor to give more to the role. Pitt plays Mills in a straightforward manner, to the point where the character becomes stereotyped, until the film’s climax where, wrestling with his emotions and Somerset’s warnings, he gives way to his impulses and literally becomes a broken man. Pitt’s performance here is at once emotional yet restrained as his character struggles with giving in to his anger and controlling himself. The scene is artfully set up: Mills ends up behaving as his nature dictates and becomes Doe’s unwilling accomplice and executioner, yet finds hollowness as his reward. The setting in which the climax takes place is significant: for some reason never revealed to the detectives or the audience, Doe has arranged for the detectives to pick up a box at a site in the open countryside far from the city near some towers. The sky is blue and the sun shines strongly. Yet the most shocking manipulation and crimes, involving the killing of innocents and Mills’s “forced” participation, occur on a bright and beautiful day just dawning.

Of the minor roles, Paltrow provides the movie’s heart and soul as a woman trapped in marriage to a selfish child-man with anger management issues and Spacey is chilling and excellent as the cold-blooded yet ordinary-looking sociopath who frees her from her particular hell. I’d have liked to see Doe’s relationships to Somerset, Mills and his wife more clearly established throughout the film: Somerset as Doe’s intellectual equal and sparring partner who understands Doe’s literary and cultural references and where he is coming from; Mills as Doe’s unwilling plaything; and Tracey as an idealisation of what Doe desires and envies. There is irony in that Doe believes Mills and Tracey have the perfect married life when in fact one of the two feels imprisoned and wants out.

There are plot details that aren’t entirely consistent and Doe must have moved around at lightning speed in the early hours of the final morning of the 7-day period over which the movie takes place. Some of the police procedural and forensic collection details may be dicey in their accuracy too. The theme of the movie – that good people can’t just walk away from the evil that exists in the world but must do what they can to resist and fight it – is strong yet the characters and events that occur constantly subvert it. Doe sees himself as a crusader who must sweep away the filth he sees: his early victims are people who have exploited others or encouraged others to sin; his choice of later victims suggests he wants the police to see that they too are corruptible and can commit sin as well. As a mentally disturbed sociopath, Doe is as self-serving as Mills is self-centred and Somerset is removed from ordinary human affairs; in a twisted way, Doe forces both Mills and Somerset to get more involved with the world as it is with all its imperfections and messiness, and perhaps to see their place in it. Mills ends up broken and Somerset reconsiders his decision to leave the police force. The world is awash in filth and grime, and what is good and what is evil may not be clear-cut and might even mimic each other, but people whose motives are uncorrupted must do what they can to make the world a better place.

Worth seeing at least once for those of strong stomach as the murders, though they occur off-screen, are gruesome and the detectives’ reactions on seeing the bodies are as upsetting as the scenes themselves. The film’s emphasis is on following Mills and Somerset’s investigations into the murders, the choices and decisions they make, and how these reflect their different personalities and characters; the result is a movie that can be slow in building up to the climax and then rushing it once Doe approaches the detectives. This could have been a great film about how well-intentioned but fallible people must try to combat complex and protean forms of evil in an indifferent universe but as it is, it’s quite a good effort when I consider that this was Fincher’s second movie after the debacle that was “Alien 3”.

M (dir. Fritz Lang): an ordinary film with sharp social comment

Fritz Lang, “M” (1931)

During the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Germany played unfortunate host to some extremely vicious serial killers, one of whom, Peter Kürten, inspired this psychological thriller drama by Fritz Lang. Kürten terrorised the city of Düsseldorf with his hideous murders of men, women and children that sometimes included drinking their blood; he was convicted of nine murders and was executed for his crimes in 1931. The reality that was Kürten is considerably toned down in “M”: the serial killer Beckert, played by Peter Lorre, preys on young schoolgirls in the city of Berlin and most of his crimes have already occurred when the film opens and he is seen buying a balloon and sweets for his latest victim. The movie concentrates on the search for Beckert by both police and organised crime gangs: the police believe Beckert is hiding among underworld criminals and put pressure on them to yield him; the criminals, feeling the heat and concerned for their reputation(!), try to find him and mete out their own justice.

The film does drag out during the search for Beckert who is captured by the criminals about 80 minutes into the movie: the pace is slow and leisurely and there’s no sense of rising tension as Beckert becomes aware of the pursuit and hides in an abandoned office building with both police and crooks on his trail. At least viewers can see how police in the 1920’s conducted their investigations into serial murders: finger-printing was still a new science then and forensic methods based on the use of DNA were in another universe altogether; all the police could do in those days was comb through known criminal networks and perhaps find out from psychiatric hospitals or prisons if they had released anyone or reported any escapes before the killings began. Naturally the police search is hardly scientific; indeed, it’s not even well co-ordinated as two police officers argue and fight over the case, and the inspector himself is sloppy in the way he oversees it. The criminals are faster and more efficient if more violent and thuggish in the way they find Beckert and promptly haul him before a kangaroo court baying for his blood.

Visually the film is a treat: the influence of 1920’s German Expressionism is strong in the use of shadows to suggest menace and suspense, and in one bizarre shot of the inspector talking on the telephone that forces audiences to look up his trouser legs at his face! There is one very good montage sequence of scenes in the disused office building where the criminals have rampaged looking for Beckert, with a voice-over of a police officer exclaiming at the destruction left behind. Another excellent montage sequence indirectly shows a victim’s assault: the montages show the empty place at a dining-table and a play area where the victim should have been had Beckert not attacked her. The mood throughout the film as suggested by the images is one of paranoia as Berlin is gripped in fear by the vicious murders and the police resort to intrusive searches through flop-houses and other places where underworld elements and society’s various down-and-outs and other outsiders frequent.

The film picks up during the mock trial scene in which Beckert confesses his guilt and admits to deep, primal instincts that drive him to kill even as he is revolted by them. Lorre delivers an incredible if hysterical and screechy performance of a man compelled by an inner sickness to carry out gruesome acts. Beckert is not entirely insane; he is lucid enough to remind his accusers that they exercise free will in carrying out their crimes while he is beholden to forces he can’t understand or fight.  His “defence lawyer” pleads on his behalf, arguing that Beckert can’t be held fully responsible for his crimes on the basis of his psychology. The mob, swept up in its hysteria and triumph at capturing Beckert, and not at all pleased at being told the plain truth about itself, proclaims the death sentence on him and prepares to carry it out. Astonishingly, viewers will find themselves in sympathy with Beckert, creepy and abhorrent he might be, having to face the fury of an emotional crowd locked in groupthink. Lorre’s acting virtually carries “M” from just another so-so cat-and-mouse chase to a movie that’s worth watching: there can’t be very many other films made since motion pictures began whose reputations rely so much on one actor’s performance in one scene. Unfortunately Lorre’s role as Beckert was to typecast the actor permanently as a sinister or creepy villain for the rest of his career.

As cinema, “M” doesn’t rate well in telling its story: the plot is self-explanatory yet surprisingly threadbare and so for most of its running time, the movie lacks direction, tension and pace. As a medium for social comment, the film makes pointed barbs about how the less privileged strata of society are targeted by the police for investigation and punishment whenever something out of the ordinary occurs, and how easy it is for the rights of individuals to be crushed totally, whether by institutions of law and order or by vigilante groups, especially in situations they can take advantage of and benefit from. The society as portrayed in “M” is one easily swayed by emotional frenzy and irrationality in a context of chronic stress, insecurity and fear for the future, and as a result is a society whose sympathies could be exploited and directed by an individual, an organisation and an ideology for more murderous gain than even Beckert and his demons can achieve. The parallels with the situation in the United States after the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001 are not at all hard to see.

Not long after making “M”, both director Lang and lead actor Lorre fled Germany for Paris (Lang in 1934, Lorre in 1933) when the society so portrayed in the movie became reality.