Category Archives: Crime Thriller Films

The Long Goodbye-1973

The Long Goodbye-1973

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Elliott Gould

Scott’s Review #830

Reviewed November 14, 2018

Grade: A

Nearly a full-fledged character study of one man’s moral fiber, The Long Goodbye (1973) is an edgy piece of direction by famous mastermind Robert Altman. The setting of the Los Angeles underbelly is fabulous and effective as is dim lighting and excellent camera work prevalent throughout. The film is not cheery and rather bleak which suits me just fine given the smart locale. Perhaps a more obscure Altman offering, but the film sizzles with zest and authenticity.

The film is based on a story written by Raymond Chandler in 1953. Altman, however, opts to change the setting from 1950 to present times- 1970’s Los Angeles and present a film noir experience involving deceit and shenanigans where all is not as it seems. I think this is a wise move and I could not help but draw many comparisons (mainly the overall story) to Chinatown (1974), released the year after The Long Goodbye, but a film much better remembered.

Elliott Gould is wonderful as Phillip Marlowe, a struggling private investigator and insomniac. He is asked by a friend, Terry Lennox, for a ride to the Mexico border one night and agrees to do the favor. This leads to a mystery involving police, gangsters, and Eileen and Roger Wade, after Phillip is questioned regarding his connection to Terry, who is accused of murdering his wife Sylvia. The seedy side and complexities to several characters are revealed as the story unfolds and the plot gradually thickens.

My favorite aspects of The Long Goodbye are not necessarily the primary storytelling, though the writing is filled with tension. As the film opens an extended sequence featuring a “conversation” between Phillip and his cat is both odd and humorous. The finicky feline refuses to eat anything other than one brand of cat food. As Phillip tries reasoning with the cat through talking and meows, he is forced to venture out in the middle of the night to an all-night grocery store. Altman, known to allow his actor’s free-reign for improvised dialogue, appears to allow Gould to experiment during this scene.

Phillip’s neighbors, a bundle of gorgeous twenty-something females, seems to do nothing except exercise on their balcony, get high and request he buy them brownie mix for a “special occasion”. As they stretch topless, usually in the background and almost out of camera range, they are a prime example of an interesting nuance of the film. The girls are mysterious but have nothing to do with the actual plot adding even more intrigue to the film.

In one of the most frightening scenes in cinematic history and one that could be straight from The Godfather (1972), crazed gangster, Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), slices the beautiful face of his girlfriend to prove a point to Marlowe. In a famous line he utters, “That’s someone I love. You, I don’t even like.” The violent act is quick, unexpected and fraught with insanity.

Finally, the film’s conclusion contains a good old-fashioned twist worthy of any good film noir. In the end, the big reveal makes sense and begs to raise the question “why did we trust this character?” In addition to the viewer being satisfied, Marlowe also gets a deserved finale and proves that he cannot be messed with nor taken for a fool.

The Long Goodbye is undoubtedly the best film of Gould’s career. With a charismatic, wise-cracking persona, the chain-smoking cynic is deemed by most as a loser. He is an unhappy man and down on humanity, but still wants to do what is right. He lives a depressed life with few friends and the company of only his cat. While he is marginally entertained by his neighbors, he goes about his days only barely getting by emotionally. Gould is brilliant at relaying all these qualities within his performance.

The addition of the title theme song in numerous renditions is a major win for the film and something noticed more and more with each repeated viewing. The ill-fated gangster’s girlfriend hums along to the song playing on the radio at one point, and a jazz pianist plays a rendition in a smoky bar. This is an ingenious approach by Altman and gives the film a greater sense of mystery and style.

There is no question among cinema lovers that Robert Altman is one of the best directors of all time. In his lengthy catalog filled with rich and experimental films, The Long Goodbye (1973) is not the best remembered nor the most recognizable. I implore film fans, especially fans of plodding mystery and intrigue to check this great steak dinner of a film out.

Witness-1985

Witness-1985

Director-Peter Weir

Starring-Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis

Scott’s Review #754

Reviewed May 7, 2018

Grade: A-

Witness (1985) is a slick crime thriller that may at first glance seem like just another by the numbers genre film, but instead is well above average. As the plot unfolds there are key nail biting and edge of your seat scenes that build the tension in such a way that suspense master himself, Alfred Hitchcock would be proud. Decades later it is tough to watch the film and not notice a slightly dated quality, but at the time it was well regarded and terrifically paced. Charismatic Harrison Ford and novice child actor Lukas Haas make the film more than it could have been.

The setting of the film is twofold and presents two different cultures- rural Pennsylvania’s Amish country and the bustling metropolitan Philadelphia. The death of her husband leads Amish woman Rachel (Kelly McGillis) and her son Samuel (Haas) to the big city to see her sister. While transferring trains Samuel witnesses a brutal murder in the men’s room- unbeknownst to the killers. This riveting scene (explained more below) triggers the rest of the story.

When Detective John Book (Ford) is assigned to the case and questions Samuel, he is unable to determine who the assailants are. After Samuel fingers an unthinkable suspect, events escalate and John uncovers a mighty corruption circuit within the police force. John, now targeted, must assimilate into the Amish culture as he strives to protect both Samuel and Rachel (as well as keep himself alive), while embarking on a relationship with Rachel. The story wisely focuses on the differing lifestyles of the principle characters.

What I enjoy most of all about Witness is the nice mix between both types of people and different cultures and how they can learn from one another. John is so used to and desensitized by being in the midst of the rat race that he often forgets the nicer things in life- peace and quiet or even love. Rachel and Samuel, of course, are highly sheltered, living in a bubble, and are fish out of water amid the bustling streets of Philadelphia. The counter-cultures offer a nice balance in this masculine film with female sensibilities.

Not to be usurped by purely romance, Witness is at its core, a fleshy, male driven crime thriller. Adding some softer edges, Weir pleases both male and female audience members and appeals to the masses. John’s precinct, filled with detectives, police officers, and criminals, gives the film appropriate “guy elements”.  So director Peter Weir offers a good balance here.

I like how Weirs chooses to portray the Amish- not caricatures, stereotypes, or to be made fun of, they are sweet, stoic, and intelligent, accepting of John into their lives. As John learns more of the Amish culture and becomes one of them, this is even more prevalent as an immersing of different cultures- a good lesson to even apply to other differences between peoples.

The acting is a strong component to Witness. Charismatic and handsome, Ford is believable as a fast paced, busy detective. To add further substance, Ford transforms his character (written as one note in typical films of this nature) into a sympathetic and inspiring man as he slowly becomes father figure to wide-eyed youngster Samuel and falls in love with Rachel. Ford is the standout, but the film would not work with lesser supporting actors. Both innocent and gentle characters, McGillis and Haas add layers to their roles with pronounced toughness  and resilience- saving John as much as he saves them.

Two scenes are pure standouts and successfully elicit tension and dramatic effect. As Samuel witnesses the murder in the bathroom, he is seen in a stall peeking through a crack with only one eye exposed. When he makes a slight noise the assailant violently goes through each stall intent on shooting whatever he finds. Samuel must think quickly to avoid being caught. The camera goes back and forth between Samuel’s looks of panic and the assailant getting closer and closer to catching him. Viewer’s hearts will pound during this scene.

Later, as Samuel sees a newspaper clipping framed among a case of awards, he recognizes one man as the assailant. In this scene Weir shoots it in slow motion so that the reactions of John and Samuel characters are palpable and effective. The scene is tremendously done and cements the bond and trust between these characters.

Thanks to a wonderful performance by Ford and the cast surrounding him, Witness (1985) successfully widens the traditionally one-dimensional masculine crime thriller into something deeper. Providing slick entertainment with a great story and substance, the film crosses genres and offers a substantial cinematic experience woefully needed in the mid 1980’s.

No Country for Old Men-2007

No Country for Old Men-2007

Director-Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Starring-Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin

Scott’s Review #745

Reviewed April 19, 2018

Grade: A

No Country for Old Men, made in 2007,  is arguably Joel and Ethan Coen’s greatest work save for the amazing Fargo (1996). Achieving the Best Picture Academy Award and appearing on numerous Top Ten lists for its year of release, the film is clearly one of their most celebrated. Containing dark humor, offbeat characters, and fantastic storytelling, adding in some of the most gorgeous cinematography in film history, No Country for Old Men is one of the decades great films.

The time is 1980 and the setting western Texas as we follow dangerous hitman, Anton Chigurh, played wonderfully by Javier Bardem. He escapes jail by strangling a deputy and is subsequently hired to find Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a hunter who has accidentally stumbled onto two million dollars in a suitcase that Mexican smugglers are desperate to find. In the mix is Sheriff Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is pursuing both men. Moss’s wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) in turn becomes an important character as she is instrumental in the web of deceit the chain of events creates. The film subsequently turns into an exciting cat and mouse chase with a dramatic climax.

The crux of the story and its plethora of possibilities is what make the events so exciting to watch. As characters are in constant pursuit of each other the viewer wonders who will catch up to whom and when.  One quality that makes the film unique with an identity all its own is that the three principal characters (Moss, Bell, and Chigurh) almost never appear in the same scene adding a layer of mystery and intrigue. The hero and most well liked of all the characters is, of course, Sheriff Bell- a proponent of honesty and truth while the other two characters are less than  savory types, especially the despicable Chigurh.

My personal favorite character in the story is Chigurh as he is the most interesting and Bardem plays him to the hilt with a calm malevolence- anger just bubbling under the surface. One wonders when he will strike next or if he will spare a life- as he intimidates his prey by offering to play a game of chance- the toss of a coin to determine life or death- he is one of cinema’s most vicious villains. With his bob cut hairstyle and his sunken brown eyes, he is a force to be reckoned with by looks alone.

True to many other Ethan and Joel Coen films the supporting or even the glorified extras are perfectly cast and filled with interesting quirkiness. Examples of this are the kindly gas station owner who successfully guesses a coin toss correctly and is spared his life. My favorite is the matter of fact woman at the hotel front desk, with her permed hair, she gives as good as she gets, and her monotone voice is great. It is these smaller intricacies that truly make No Country for Old Men shine and are a staple of Coen Brother films in general.

Many similarities abound between Fargo and No Country for Old Men, not the least of which is the main protagonist being an older and wiser police chief (Marge Gunderson and Tom Bell, respectively). Add to this a series of brutal murders and the protagonist being from elsewhere and stumbling upon a small, bleak town. Of course, the extreme violence depicted in both must be mentioned as a comparable.

Having shamefully only seen this epic thriller two times, No Country for Old Men is a dynamic film, reminiscent of the best of Sam Peckinpah classics such as The Getaway or The Wild Bunch. The Coen brothers cross film genres to include thriller, western, and suspense that would rival the greatest in Hitchcock films. I cannot wait to see it again.

Escape from Alcatraz-1979

Escape from Alcatraz-1979

Director-Don Siegel

Starring-Clint Eastwood

Scott’s Review #656

Reviewed July 2, 2017

Grade: B+

Made during the heyday (the 1970’s and the early 1980’s) of a slew of action and thriller type films to star popular actor, Clint Eastwood, Escape from Alcatraz is a gritty, guy-focused film with not one single female character in sight. The film is directed by Don Siegel, who also directed Eastwood in several previous films, most notably, Dirty Harry in 1971, and contains a grittiness frequently used in this genre of film during the time period.

Reminiscent in style to 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest in its authority repressing and taking advantage of  the victimized common man, the film itself is also a good historical account of one of the most famous prison escapes ever achieved, in 1962. Having recently visited the long since shut down Alcatraz prison near San Francisco, California, the film was wonderful to watch at this time as much of it was shot inside and around the actual prison grounds.

We immediately meet Frank Morris (Eastwood) as he is unceremoniously led to the infamous Alcatraz prison on a stormy, chilly night in foggy San Francisco. The dark, harsh weather perfectly sets the tone for the dreary prison experience he will face. Morris is stripped, searched, intimidated by the warden and the guards, and paraded around naked, finally taken to his tiny cell, where he will presumably spend the rest of his life. Interestingly, the film does not reveal what crimes Morris has committed to warrant his tenure in Alcatraz-in this way the character is more sympathetic.

Slowly, Morris befriends other inmates and formulates an idea to escape the impossible prison by digging through the cement walls with spoons and escaping through pipes. The other inmates featured in the film are the Anglin brothers, in for robbery, a kindly older man named Doc, who fervently paints the time away, nervous Charlie Butts, and English, an intelligent black man in for two life sentences for killing two white men in self defense. All of these men in some way aid Morris in his escape from the torturous Alcatraz.

A side story involves a bully named Wolf, who has designs on Morris from day one. Whether Wolf is actually gay or merely a menace is unknown and not explored. Throughout the film, Wolf and Morris fight and spend time in solitary confinement and their rivalry is an interesting sub-plot.

The film clearly wants the viewer to be on the side of the prisoners and I am not sure if in real life the prisoners would be as sympathetic as portrayed in the film. Most of them seem to be confined to Alcatraz for robberies or for crimes they did not do or circumstances deeming the crimes inevitable in some way. Furthering a liberal slant to the film is the friendship between Morris and English. An interracial friendship between the men reveal that our hero Morris is progressive thinking and a “good guy”.

Conversely, most of the guards and certainly the Warden (Patrick McGoohan) are written as terrible, unsympathetic people. When an inmate drops dead of a heart attack, the warden coldly remarks “some men are destined never to leave Alcatraz-alive”.  In this way, and other examples, the Warden is the clear foil of the film and in the final scene the warden gets a bit of comeuppance when a mocking souvenir is left for him . To further compare Escape from Alcatraz to One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, the Warden is a similar character to the infamous Nurse Ratched in their mutual, diabolical sadism.

I am unsure if in “real life” the distinctions between the prisoners and the authority figures were so black and white, but it sure makes for good film drama. In a sense, it is “the heroes versus the villains” but in reverse.

The inevitable escape sequence is predictable, but highly compelling as Morris and company enact their escape plot during an overnight. The usage of papier-mache dolls to fool the guards is heavily dramatic and compelling.

Escape from Alcatraz is not high art, but works as a historical account of a real-life incident in one of the most discussed prisons in United States history. The film is also a perfect starring vehicle for Eastwood as he is well cast in the gritty, yet likable role of prisoner Morris. The film is a good, solid, late 1970’s thriller.

The French Connection-1971

The French Connection-1971

Director-William Friedkin

Starring-Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider

Top 100 Films-#69

Scott’s Review #342

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Reviewed January 9, 2016

Grade: A

The French Connection had the notable distinction of being the first R-rated film to win the coveted Best Picture Oscar back in 1971. This praise, similar to The Silence of the Lambs being the first horror film to win Best Picture in 1991, is well worth pointing out and is quite honorary. The film succeeds, both for myself and other critics, because of the unique style of the camerawork, shot documentary style and using quick edits. It is much more intricate in every way than the traditional crime thriller.

Gene Hackman stars as the feisty detective, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, who along with his partner, Buddy “Cloudy” Russo, (Sheider) are determined to crack the case of a huge heroin smuggling syndicate from France. The narcotics are flowing into New York City and the duo are determined to get to the bottom of the drug ring, figuring out who is the mastermind and defeating their foe. The primary culprit is a suave French drug lord named Alain Charnier, brilliantly played by Fernando Rey. Throughout the course of the film the action is non-stop, traversing throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, via subway, and car, as Popeye becomes more and more obsessed with the case.

Director William Friedkin, who also directed the legendary 1973 film, The Exorcist, deserves a heap of praise for creating a film of this caliber. The French Connection can be enjoyed by all and is well beyond the limitations of a “guy film”- it is much more than that. The editing and frenetic pacing works wonders for the film, all the while not ruining the experience or overshadowing the good plot. Quite simply, the film is a chase across New York City. Friedkin distinguishes the boroughs by making Manhattan seem sophisticated and stylish, and Brooklyn dirty, grizzled, and drug laden. The settings are perfect.

The best scene in the film is the well known car chase throughout New York City. Popeye is determined not to lose his man, the man riding in a subway on an elevated platform. Popeye steals a car and proceeds to chase the subway narrowly missing pedestrians, including a woman with a baby carriage, as he recklessly weaves in and out of traffic at a high speed, to keep pace with the train. This is a phenomenal scene as the excitement and tension continue to build.

The conclusion of the film and the final scene in fact, is cynical and also leaves the audience perplexed and unsure what has transpired. In this way The French Connection is open to good discussion and even interpretation, a novel aspect of the action film.

Providing a tremendous glimpse into 1970’s Manhattan and Brooklyn, The French Connection is an exciting film that oozes with thrills, car chases, and good story. The film is unique in style and still holds up incredibly well- one of my favorites of the action genre.