Friday, February 19, 2016

There's something about a paranoid thriller : Dollars (1971)

Dollars [DVD]. Columbua Pictures; produced by M.J. Frankovich; written and directed by Richard Brooks. Columbia Pictures: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment,[2008]. Originally released as a motion picture in 1971. Music, Quincy Jones. Performers: Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn, Gert Frobe. Summary: A call girl teams up with a security expert to steal money from the safety deposit boxes of three crooks.

style ***1/2
substance ***

“Every big crime’s supposed to say something about the time we live in”

I’d never even heard of Dollars till I caught it the other day on getTV and found it to be something of an undiscovered gem: not quite a masterpiece but a darn good, eminently entertaining yarn, consummately executed by those in front of and behind the camera.

While I admit it’s a stretch to place this in the paranoid thriller category, it has enough similarities as to both style, content, and era to - just barely - merit inclusion in this rather artificially created genre. To wit, there are mysterious, alternatingly menacing and comic, bad guys who drift in and out of the story. One who has a penchant for wearing sunglasses in particular projects an oily malevolence.

Dollars has a Euro style, you-are-there feel to it, a certain urban grittiness, if you like, punctuated by the mod Quincy Jones score which is complemented by tunes sung by Little Richard and Roberta Flack. It’s all a jangly, cinema-verité style, to be sure, which may not be to all tastes but impossible to ignore.

The film - a sort of  synthesis of Oceans 11, Day of the Jackal, and a James Bond flick - is very much of its time, but also prescient, by several decades, in its cheeky sendup of Big Money, the black market, and American economic imperialism (it was set and filmed in a most unappetizing Hamburg, the same city that provided the backdrop for the much more recent, and superior, A Most Wanted Man, with which it has certain similarities).

Writer-director Richard Brooks is in top form and keeps things moving forward with a lively but steady hand. Our nominal stars Beatty and Hawn have great chemistry but the quirky supporting cast which features familiar faces but not a lot of familiar names is if anything even more delicious. We even have Mr. Goldfinger himself Gert Fröbe, who plays a well-intended but rather slow witted bank executive. My only criticism of the film is the edge-of-the-ledge chase finale, which, albeit skillfully done, goes on a bit too long.

Time has been kind to Dollars:  while some of its atmospherics show signs of age, its message and basic truths are right on the money even today.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Body Double (1984)

Body Double [DVD]; Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2004; screenplay by Robert J. Avrech and Brian DePalma; produced and directed by Brian De Palma. Originally produced in 1984 as a motion picture. Music, Pino Donaggio; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by Jerry Greenberg.
Performers: Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith, Greg Henry, Deborah Shelton. Summary: a voyeuristic, unemployed actor spies on a neighbor's nightly disrobing and sees more than he wants to. A grisly murder leads him into an obsessive quest through the world of pornographic film-making.

style ***1/2
substance ***

Watching Body Double is not a warm experience. Hardly. In fact it’s a seedy, downright sleazy experience, but that’s part of the fun. And it can be enjoyed with a certain smugness and a minimum of self-inflicted guilt simply because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Gaudy? Sensationalist? Yes, absolutely. Irresistible? Well, maybe, and maybe not. But it has a high gloss patina and is somehow very easy to watch, in a cringeworthy sort of way – is that perhaps the working definition of a guilty pleasure? In any case for the viewer who fancies this kind of over-the-top thriller, one could do a lot worse on a cloudy, rainy night.

Director Brian De Palma has been called an acquired taste, and indeed considering all the polarized reviews of BD floating around the ‘Net this would seem to be an understatement. His admiration for and borrowing from the original suspense master Alfred Hitchcock has been much commented on so we won’t belabor the issue here, except to note that Body Double, as some of Hitchcock’s films tend to be, is more about style than substance. And the story itself, with its heavy doses of voyeurism, romantic obsession, reality and illusion, and lots of camera trickery, is a kind of commentary on the art, uses, and sometimes abuses, of filmmaking.

Thus Body Double also invokes, albeit faintly so, those cinematic behind-the-scenes critiques of the film industry, so memorably invoked in arguably – in some cases definitely – artistically superior films like Sunset Blvd., The Player, The Oscar and A Star is Born. True, the film ventures perilously close to pornography, and by implication, trash, but somehow it has a quirky elegance that at least partially redeems the tawdry subject matter. Besides, the film never really lapses into graphic porn, since it generally suggests more than it actually depicts.

Whatever his flaws as a director, De Palma has a great sense of camera angles as well as flair for soft, rich colors, and one of the joys of his movies is the fine visuals. Even if the content falters, the story is always presented in a visceral way, edited and filmed for maximum emotional impact. As to the cast, Craig Wasson, one of the most forgettable of actors, here as the flawed (non)hero, is perfectly cast precisely because of his numbing ordinariness and forgettableness, and he delivers a serviceable if not exactly brilliant performance. Both our leading ladies Deborah Shelton and Melanie Griffith are very easy on the eyes and Melanie in particular is appealing as the porn star with a heart of stone.

Eminently 1980s and especially enjoyable for the Hitchcock references, Body Double is a fun watch,  and in its way much recommended, with the usual not-for-all-tastes caveat for this kind of material. It may not be a masterpiece per se and may not even be De Palma’s masterpiece, but it’s a quintessential erotic thriller and certainly deserving of its status as a top-shelf cult favorite.