The Maltese Falcon is generally regarded as one of the ‘proper’ film-noirs, and almost certainly the first ‘classic’ one. It’s a status that is well-deserved: first-time writer-director John Huston guides the film with the kind of classical economy that would make him one of the best American directors of his generation, allowing his four principal actors—Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre—to do what they did for a living. And goddamn. It might not be as finely polished as other noirs that came later such as Double Indemnity or The Big Sleep, but it doesn’t need to be. The Maltese Falcon is a deeply cynical, nasty film about deeply cynical, nasty people, and a classic of the American cinema.
An early Elia Kazan picture, sitting somewhere between the work of a solid journeyman studio director of the time and the more renowned sense of theatrical realism we would come to expect from Kazan’s later work. Boomerang! stars Dana Andrews as a state’s attorney responsible for prosecuting the murderer of a popular local priest. Yet, as he analyses the facts closer, he begins to realise that the man is innocent, and the murder is being used as a show trial to boost the re-election chances of the local political establishment (the entire plot is apparently based on fact). Often billed as a film noir, it only occasionally presents itself as such; Boomerang! functions better as a fine legal drama, depicting rival factions and political intrigue in small-town America, a precursor to the paranoia and political show-jumping of McCarthyism. Extra credit goes to a variety of fine performances here from a number of excellent character actors of the time working in the US system.
Martin Scorsese has always cribbed from pulp influences in his work, be they gangsters, vigilantes, or madmen, twisting them towards his own personal ends, but Shutter Island is quite confidently one of his most thunderously over-the-top and preposterous films—a pure pulp B-movie buoyed by big actors and a big budget. The plot is majestically twisting (and finely tuned to the point where it can be read completely coherently in two ways) and Scorsese’s handling of it is loaded with style and enthusiasm. Most of the performances are excellent too, even if Leonardo DiCaprio does overexert himself as per usual. Finally, Shutter Island features plenty of men standing in trenchcoats in the rain smoking cigarettes, and I’m always a sucker for that.
Pedro Almodóvar’s weakest 21st-century film so far (with the possible exception of the entertaining but lightweight I’m So Excited), Bad Education’s considerable promise and exploration of queer identity is ultimately undercut by its own internal Byzantine complexity. Of course, Almodóvar’s films are known for being preposterously complex and intricate in their plotting, but simply put, here he overreaches. Whereas the litany of flashbacks and framing devices used in All About My Mother, Talk to Her or even his latest film Julieta all always pointed towards a final emotional conclusion, here it ends up obfuscating what should be the film’s most poignant elements, instead wasting what is truly a herculean effort by Gael García Bernal to juggle multiple identities and characters into one whole, cohesive performance. That said, it still looks gorgeous.
Basic Instinct is classic Paul Verhoeven, delivering the most preposterous of films with the most knowing of smiles. All of Verhoeven’s subtly take the piss out of their clichés and propositions whilst wholly inhabiting them; just as Total Recall was a pisstake of filmgoers’ wish-fulfilment fantasies, so too was it a wish-fulfilment fantasy; just as Starship Troopers was a pisstake of militaristic and fascistic messages in war movies, so too was it a militaristic war movie. Basic Instinct takes the piss out of American cinema’s lifelong hyperventilating fear of (and moth-like attraction towards) female sexuality onscreen, whilst also being a film about a cop (Michael Douglas) who evidently is utterly terrified of and attracted to potential serial killer Sharon Stone. Cue famous bush-flash shot and a noir plot so hardboiled you could break Raymond Chandler’s nose on it, and Verhoeven’s still back there laughing at the absurdity of it all.
Director William Castle’s two films with everyone’s favourite murderous scientist/widower/moustachioed Victorian amalgamation Vincent Price are both entertainingly preposterous campy 50s horrors right at home in that era’s B-movie aesthetic, with gimmicks and schlock aplenty. The Tingler (1959) has an edge of thematic subtlety that allows it to blossom into a genuinely brilliant film, but House on Haunted Hill is still an amusing trip. The scares are hardly more developed than your average funfair ghost train, but they’re delivered with enough of a knowing wink to make the film worth watching, particularly with Price to hold things together. Admittedly, watching it at home means you miss out on the gimmick that Castle deployed at the time: during the appropriate scene, a skeleton held up by wires would pop out of a box by the screen and start hovering over the audience. Oh the fun we’ve missed.
Polyamorous teens, witchcraft, science-fiction conspiracy theories, shoegaze soundtrack galore…yup, it’s a Gregg Araki film. Often shifting between nihilistic dramas and sprightly, wildly post-modern comedies, Araki is certainly one of the most unique and undervalued directors working today, and I honestly think that may have something to do with the sexually frank nature of his films, which embrace all types of experiences, something that’s too much for the sexually repressed nature of Western European civilisation. Kaboom is an amusing and well-crafted film with plenty of sly reference points. It’s a light work, but it hides a good deal of psychological complexity just beneath the surface, particularly in the way it depicts displaced anxiety over sexual identity and the supposedly liberating process of college in the US. A rushed and badly thought-out ending notwithstanding, this is a fine film from Gregg Araki.
The best film-noir ever made outside of the genre’s golden era in the 40s and 50s. Roman Polański is at the peak of his powers as a director, controlling scenes and pushing the story through with the kind of consummate ease and confidence that one barely notices just how deeply we get sucked into the film (helped along of course, by Robert Towne’s excellent screenplay). Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway turn in some of the best performances of their respective careers, really getting down into the alienating loneliness of a beautifully evoked 1930s LA. And of course, that haunting, sparse score by Jerry Goldsmith, instantly draping the film in a cover of melancholy and listlessness…
Broken Embraces offers a good overview of many of the elements of latter-day Pedro Almodóvar – the complex flashback narrative, the heightened melodrama, and the Douglas Sirk-by-way-of-Hitchcock visual stylings – and as ever with the great director, it’s a fantastic showcase of a man in such control and confidence in his abilities that it is impossible for much to go wrong. It’s also a superb vehicle for the versatile talents of Penélope Cruz; where she played a tough but empathetic mother in Volver, the pair’s previous collaboration, here she channels the glamour and timeless beauty of many a great Hollywood starlet from Audrey Hepburn to Rita Hayworth to Marilyn Monroe with aplomb. Broken Embraces isn’t quite top-tier Almodóvar in the way that Talk to Her or All About My Mother are, but it is a fine example of one of the greatest directors of all time simply doing what he does best: telling stories.