Anybody who has had a glimpse of the magnitude of my personal movie collection has long suspected that I have a problem. And they would be right. My collection is enormous thanks to the lethal combinations of my completionist streak, the increasing availability of disposable income, and the general collapse of the home video market. Nowhere is that more apparent than in my personal Criterion collection. For the uninitiated, the Criterion Collection is a home video company that specializes in producing high quality releases of classic and art films, usually with a whole slew of special features specifically made for their releases. As you can imagine, that makes them highly appealing to a movie fan like myself. And twice a year, they hold a flash sale for 50% off which is basically catnip for me and I have amassed way too many films from them as a result. Given the fact that I also write this blog in which I currently devote columns to “Best” lists (which frequently require revisiting some films), films directed by women, and Netflix releases, as well as trying to keep up with contemporary releases I realized that I needed to create a specific column for these Criterion movies or I would never get around to watching them. So here it is, the inaugural entry into “Adventures in Criterion”. This month I’ll be focusing on crime movies, but future entries may or may not have themes to them. Let’s dive in:
TOKYO DRIFTER (1966) dir. Seijun Suzuki
Seijun Suzuki’s cult thriller is the epitome of style over substance. It is at base level a gangster story about a loyal member of a recently disbanded yakuza group who finds himself first being courted by a rival gang and then eventually pursued by them. But really, any attempt to hang onto the plot of this movie will be an exercise in frustration. Instead this movie, which was originally written as a feature length adaptation of a popular Japanese song, is a collection of surrealistic imagery, fantastic set-pieces, bathed in a maze of technicolor, and a showcase into the swinging sixties in Japan. Suzuki, who famously got into trouble with his studio bosses for how ridiculously out-there the movie is, is an unlikely champion for art film lovers because by his own admission, he had no intention of making a surreal yakuza movie. Instead he just wanted to make it as fun and entertaining as possible. And if you are willing to let go of your usual requirements for plots that make sense, this movie is exactly that.
RIFIFI (1955) dir. Jules Dassin
The base elements of this movie border on cliche: Four crooks from different walks of life and with different skills join forces to pull off one big job by robbing a local jewelry store. But to call this movie cliche would be a grave error for Rififi is in fact the blueprint from which every other modern caper film found its inspiration. It marks the first picture made by American director Jules Dassin following his blacklisting from Hollywood, where he is forced to make do without his usual Hollywood budgets and actors and coincidentally produces his best crime movie in a career littered with great crime movies. The calling card of the movie is the unbroken thirty-minute heist scene in the middle that takes place without any dialogue or soundtrack and is a tour-de-force of sustained tension and scene construction. It was supposedly so accurate in its depiction of a caper that governments banned the movie because they feared it was an instruction manual for would-be thieves. And yet as great as the actual caper is, it works because Dassin takes the time to make us care for the plight of the four thieves, placing us the viewer firmly in their camp, willing them to succeed in their illegal activities as they plan their crime, bond with one another, and ultimately try to get away with what they have done and get away from their pursuers. Sometimes it can be a bit of a curse being the iconic progenitor of a genre, as the newer and shinier movies threaten to make the original look tame and outdated by comparison. Fortunately this is not the case for Rififi, as it simply reveals that the new kids on the block still have a lot to learn from the old master.
THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948) dir. Nicholas Ray
This debut film of Nicholas Ray reveals much of the directing instincts and understanding of youth culture that would eventually lead him to create his seminal work Rebel Without A Cause. Yet while They Live By Night points to this future potential, it also is rather rough and unrefined around the edges. The movie begins with the promise of a typical film noir as a youthful Bowie (Farley Granger) escapes from prison with two buddies and basically goes on the lam from the feds. But that noirish beginning quickly gives way to melodrama as Bowie finds refuge in a gas station and then soon falls in love with the gas station’s daughter turning this nori into a full-on weepie. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing especially when it is executed properly, but the problem with the premise is that it forces the weight of the story to fall on the shoulders of the two leads Granger and Cathy O’Donnell and they are unfortunately not up to the task. Granger especially, whose odd nervousness was put to great use by Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train and Rope, just reveals here that his range is extremely limited oscillating between overly sincere and overly terrified. So without his leads to rely on it is up to Ray to keep things interesting and fortunately he manages to make a decent movie out of it. But it ultimately could have been so much more.
THE KILLING (1956) dir. Stanley Kubrick
From the second the pulpy narrator’s voice begins to detail the beginnings of the crime we know exactly what kind of movie we are watching. The setup is familiar: Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is a veteran criminal who wants to go straight and settle down with his girl. But before he does he needs just one more job, a big one, to send him on his way. This particular job is an attempt to rob a racetrack and as far as jobs of this size go, he needs a crew to put it together. The crew is a mix of hardened criminals, corrupt officials, and people just desperate enough to turn to crime. And of course, there is a dame involved, threatening to gum up the works. It has all the ingredients of a heist film and the movie carries out more or less how you might expect a movie like this to. But if there are no real surprises in the plot, it matters little as Kubrick’s direction propels you effortlessly through complicated schemes, many moving pieces, twists in the tale, and an explosive finale. All the signs are there in this early Kubrick picture that his directorial career would be one to watch and take notice. And his subsequent iconic movies just prove that his mastery on display in The Killing is no mere fluke.
MILDRED PIERCE (1945) dir. Michael Curtiz
The enduring legacy of Mildred Pierce lies in its slippery hold of genre. Framed like a classic film noir, the movie begins at the end in which Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) has been brought in by the police because her second husband has been found murdered while the police have captured their key suspect, who just happens to be Mildred’s first husband. These first twenty minutes or so are a perfect encapsulation of film noir, with the shocking opening murder, the investigation carried out by fast-talking cops, and in Mildred, an extremely suspicious character who seems to be hiding something. But then after this initial dark opening, the movie begins to be told in flashback and the movie does a whiplash change in genre by becoming a much more traditional melodrama in which we learn of Mildred’s life story. Here her relationships to her two husbands are fleshed out, but we also learn of Mildred’s entrepreneurial endeavours (a surprising trait to explore in the 1940s), and more importantly her contentious relationship with her daughter Veda. Through a typically sweeping score, this section of the films evokes classic melodramas like Stella Dallas (1937) than anything out of the film noir playbook. Of course this section of the film is also more consistent with the actual source material and it is somewhat ironic that Michael Curtiz and crew had to introduce the film noir crime element in the film in order to get the original novel’s more salacious material to fly past the Hayes Code. Under usual circumstances this approach really shouldn’t have worked, but thanks to a magnetic performance by Crawford and assured direction by Curtiz this movie manages to pull of both styles effortlessly. And in so doing, it also becomes the most efficient way to introduce someone to two of the mainstream genres of classic Hollywood.
LE SAMOURAI (1967) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
I doubt there has ever been a cooler movie made than Le Samourai. This is evident in the first frame as we see a man lying on his bed in an austere room, the only sign of movement being the cigarette smoke that slowly wafts to the ceiling, captured magically by the light streaming through his window. It is an opening frame that reveals the utter coolness of the glacial hired killer Jef Costello (Alain Delon) and the effective assuredness of director Jean-Pierre Melville. The story is austere and efficient. Costello is an assassin who is hired to kill the owner of a popular nightclub. With meticulous detail he establishes his alibi, kills the owner, and then evades all the best efforts of the cops to bring him in, all the while barely registering any sign of emotion or concern. All goes well until it becomes apparent that his employers don’t intend to follow through on their promise of payment and instead want to get rid of all signs of their involvement in the killing. This sets up a tense movie in which Costello plays a game of cat and mouse not just with the cops but with the gangsters who hired him. But unlike lesser movies that will attempt similar material, what makes Le Samourai stand out is the incredible restraint and austerity in storytelling. There are no grand speeches or action set-pieces. There is no romantic subplots, or at least no romantic subplot that might satisfy conventional moviegoing requirements. Instead there is the singular focus of a killer who has been wronged, and the quest he undertakes to balance the scales of his sense of justice. And that is enough.