The halcyon days of the nineteen-nineties saw a slew, relatively speaking, of Neo-Noirs unleashed upon us, and we thought we’d take a look at a few of them. How well do One False Move, Red Rock West, Romeo is Bleeding, The Last Seduction, La Cérémonie, Bound, and Insomnia hold up? Listen in and find out!
One False Move
One LA night, Billy Bob Thornton’s Ray Malcolm, Cynda Williams’ Lila ‘Fantasia’ Walker, and Michael Beach’s Lane ‘Pluto’ Franklin murder six people while searching for a dealer’s stash of coke and cash. Jim Metzler and Earl Billings Detectives are on the case, and soon uncover links to Star City, Arkansas, so get in touch with the local five-oh.
That means talking to Bill Paxton’s Sheriff Dale ‘Hurricane’ Dixon, a hooting yahoo who’s excited to get some real police work done, not breaking up drunken home disputes. As it becomes clear that the perps are indeed heading that way, Fantasia having grown up in those parts, the LA detectives head out to Star City to lay a trap.
However, there may be more to our Sheriff than there appears on the surface, which admittedly would not be hard, and his history with Fantasia provides what I’m sure was intended as some complicating texture to the story in the final act.
While One False Move isn’t the worst of these neo-noirs we’ll speak of today, it’s not doing a lot for me, which is a shade disappointing given the reputation it appears to have garnered since its release. I don’t think I have any conceptual beef with the narrative, or the atmosphere which I suppose are the foundations of the genre, but a lot of the charm of a noir comes from the characters. Here, there’s too many cluttering up the place, to no avail, and the one that is most focused on, I do not buy in the slightest. Sorry Bill, but you are the first in an episode-long repeated motif of characters I cannot take seriously in the slightest. I guess you did such a good job slathering on the backwood hillbilly that it’s too much of an ask to buy any excavation of the character’s depth as the film comes to an end.
As for the rest of the gang, whether they come off better or worse is a matter of perspective. Most of them are given so much less to do that it’s not the actor’s fault they come across as one note sketches, particularly our trio of criminals that get no development at all for the amount of runtime they consume. I believe it’s Pluto who’s referred to multiple times as some sort of genius, which is something very much told not shown, and there’s a similar lack of meat to the bones of everyone else, particularly disappointing in the case of Cynda Williams’ character.
There’s an interesting story here somewhere, but for my money it takes place over the course of an hour long conversation between the Sheriff and Fantasia, and probably on a stage somewhere. As for the film, it turns out the real One False Move was watching it.
Red Rock West
By chance we have two John Dahl-directed films in this episode, the first of which is 1993’s Red Rock West, starring Nicolas CAGE and Lara Flynn Boyle, JT Walsh and Dennis Hopper. Cage is Michael Williams, a drifter from Texas looking to get a job on an OIL DRILLING CREW IN WYOMING. When that doesn’t work out, he takes his last five dollars, gets some petrol and heads out on the road, EVENTUALLY STOPPING in Red Rock, where he WALKS INTO A BAR, and encounters JT Walsh’s Wayne. Clocking Michael’s Texas licence plate, Wayne assumes Michael to be Lyle from DALLAS, the OVERDUE HITMAN he expected last WEEK (OK; I think you get the joke, I’ll stop now).
Unaware at first of the nature of employment, but desperately in need of same, Michael plays along with the case of mistaken identity, playing it cool when receiving $5,000 and instructions to bump off Wayne’s wife, Suzanne (Flynn Boyle). He lets himself into Suzanne’s house with the key he was given, informs her of the contract, and receives double the payment from her to kill Wayne instead. But being a very moral man, Michael decides simply to take the money from the would-be murderers-by-proxy, write a letter to the Red Rock sheriff and leave town with no-one hurt, which seems pretty ethically sound to me. Unfortunately, Michael hits a man in the middle of the road outside of town, and is compelled to take him to hospital. Back in Red Rock.
Two further complications arise at the hospital: before being hit by Michael’s car, the guy in the road had already been hit by two bullets, and the sheriff arrives. A sheriff whose name so happens to be Wayne… Soon Michael and Wayne are taking a nice little car trip together, so skedaddle time for Michael at the first opportunity.
The real Lyle from Dallas (Hopper) turns up, dressed like Cage acts, i.e. ridiculously and exaggeratedly, and encounters Michael by nearly running him down in the road as he flees from Wayne. They at first bond over being Marines, but Lyle’s insistence on buying Michael a drink is complicated by this drink being offered at Wayne’s pub, and Wayne’s due any moment. Skedaddle, take two. But first he should warn Suzanne. And she’s not quite ready to leave town yet, so it’s back to Red Rock they go. The running-gag “Entering Red Rock” and “Leaving Red Rock” signs ought to have had their own credits.
The centre of the film is Cage, in a fairly toned-down role (look, everything’s relative): Michael’s not stupid, but also not the wily and cunning fox his situation often demands, with his honesty causing him more trouble than he may consider it worth after a while. He’s always playing catch-up to events, but is adept enough at bluffing until he gathers more information and formulates a plan, and watching Cage experience these situations is fun. JT Walsh is also an interesting villain, trying reason more often than intimidation, and more of him and less of Dennis Hopper would have been welcome. Talking of Hopper, on a scale of Dennis Hopper performances, this probably lands somewhere between Speed and Super Mario Bros.: make of that what you will. Sadly, Lara Flynn Boyle is out of her depth, though that’d be more of an issue if Red Rock’s tone was darker or more serious than it is.
Red Rock West is reasonably entertaining, but really serves more as an appetiser for our other John Dahl film, which outshines it in every way, particularly in its humour and its femme fatale. However, Dahl’s clearly a fan of the noir and Western genres, and he has a bit of fun with both, and this is definitely worth a watch.
Romeo is Bleeding
Because nothing says “noir” like a narrator, Gary Oldman stars in this 1993 affair from “Krays” director Peter Medak as corrupt New York cop Jack Grimaldi, spending almost as much time taking backhanders from the mafia as he does cheating on his wife Natalie (Annabella Sciorra). For sixty grand a pop Jack will happily shop the safehouse location of an informant or witness, and not think too much more of it beyond burying his cash in his back yard on the way to his dream of boat drinks. His latest tip, however, resulted not just in the brutal death of the witness but also his protective agents, about which Jack has at least an inkling of remorse.
Making his discontent known to mafia boss Don Falcone (Roy Scheider), Jack is informed the hit was the work of ruthless assassin and gangland figure Mona Demarkov (Lena Olin), and is offered the opportunity to eliminate her himself after she is caught and similarly safehoused.
It seems a simple enough job, however Demarkov is not your average gangster, proving to be every bit as manipulative and sadistic as she is seductive, which is quite substantially so. Demarkov begins to turn the tables on Jack, and as his whole racket of playing the middle threatens to collapse around him he finds himself making some very difficult and painful decisions.
I have always found there is a lot to like about Romeo Is Bleeding, and despite it having been quite some time since my last watch I was reassured to find there remains little to date it beyond some really bad 90s suits and a predictably over-baked Gary Oldman. It’s the kind of movie that could have been made any time in the last forty years, which I suppose can be as much a curse as it is a blessing, but Oldman and particularly Olin are clearly having so much fun with their roles that I find it pretty easy to forgive the movie its flaws. They are supported by a secondary cast which, on paper, looks absolutely nuts, and contains more than a couple of names you wouldn’t expect to find in largely blink-and-miss-it roles, but listen; if you can get Juliette lewis, Dennis Farina, Ron Perlman, James Cromwell and Will Patton to sign on for two days’ work apiece then more power to you. Maybe they were all big fans of Spandau Ballet?
Hungarian born British director Peter Medak had honed his craft mostly in television throughout the 70s and 80s, up until he bought himself some profle with 1990’s “The Krays.” His work here suggests a firm if slightly workman-like grasp of both the medium and the genre, and he keeps things moving along at decent enough lick and with enough momentum to paper over most of the cracks. If I had to pick one flaw I find it difficult to excuse I’d have to go with Oldman’s narration, which in common with 99% of movies featuring voice-over just isn’t necessary; nothing says “I don’t trust my audience to be as smart as me” quite like it. I’m pretty sure in Romeo’s case it was more of a stylistic choice, harkening to the Chandler-shaped shadow that has always loomed over the genre, but in this instance it has been pretty badly misjudged. The Jack Grimaldi narrating this movie is not the same Jack Grimaldi we see in it, adopting an oddly overblown vocal affectation so detached from Oldman’s on-screen performance it makes me wonder why it isn’t just attributed to a different party altogether.
It’s also disappointing that Sciorra and Juliette Lewis, who plays Jack’s mistress, aren’t given more to do, the former so fleetingly sketched as to make the stakes of Jack’s marriage feel somewhat incidental, the latter entirely superfluous to the plot besides shoring up the notion of what a total prick he is. Still, Olin’s presence is strongly enough felt to aleviate some of my concern that the movie is doing the fairer sex a complete disservice, and her character while not massively fleshed out beyond “psychotic, manipulative bitch” has certainly always been interesting enough to hold my attention on repeat viewing.
It will likely be another substantial period of time before Romeo once again comes into my orbit, but I have never not looked forward to watching it, and the same will no doubt be true of it then.
The Last Seduction
You can tell early on that Linda Fiorentino’s Bridget Gregory is not intended to be a sympathetic protagonist, as she runs a telemarketing outfit in Noo Yawk. Her husband, an apparently very mature medical student, Bill Pullman’s Clay Gregory, is a bit of a loser, deep in hock to a loan shark, but may just be turning things around after stealing a bunch of pharmaceutical cocaine and flogging them for seven hundred grand, apparently Bridget’s idea.
However, Bridget would rather have that cash for herself, so runs off with it, going into hiding under a new identity, Wendy Kroy, out in the sticks near Buffalo until a divorce can be arrange and the money suitably laundered. Clay’s not taking it lying down though, hiring a private detective to track Bridget down.
Meanwhile Bridget has started a relationship of sorts with Peter Berg’s Mike Swale, purely sexual on her side, but increasingly more unrequitedly lovely dovey on Mike’s end of things, making him a prime target for Bridget’s manipulations as Clay starts closing in on her.
The annoying thing about The Last Seduction, well, the primary annoying thing about it, at least, is a waste of potential. I’m entirely on board with a battle of wits, but this is one-sided at best. Even were Mike and Clay’s wits to be merged, they’d barely be a halfwit, so watching Bridget outsmart them akin to outsmarting a small child by stealing their nose.
It’s easy to forget that Peter Berg is sometimes an actor, mainly because his performances are so forgettable, and while that’s pretty much the case here, he can take comfort in not being Bill Pullman, who I think must have been told he’s in a comedy, or alternatively downed that supply of pharmaceutical cocaine before selling it.
Linda Fiorentino is not, I think, someone I have formed any fixed opinion about prior to watching this, and I’m not inclined to develop a positive or negative one on the basis of this flick, which means she escapes unscathed from a film I’m otherwise scathing about. Perhaps my mistake was taking this seriously, as I think this was primarily pitched as an exploitation skin flick and any other qualities it may have were either incidental or accidental. A complete waste of time and effort for all involved.
Oh, a correction, after the recounts, the primary annoying thing about The Last Seduction was in fact the soundtrack. I regret the error, and also watching the film.
We first meet Sandrine Bonnaire’s Sophie as she has an interview with the wealthy Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset) for a job as a housekeeper. She gets the job, and moves into the large country house, where Catherine lives with her husband, Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel), son, Gilles (Valentin Merlet) and stepdaughter, Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen). Despite Sophie being maddeningly unresponsive in conversation, things otherwise seem to go well at first, with her seemingly content and the family pleased with her work.
Sophie is hiding a secret, though (and it’s not that her hair was cut by a three year old when she fell asleep on the sofa, as that’s plain for all to see), but rather that she’s illiterate, which causes problems with some of the tasks she’s, not unreasonably, asked to perform. Resentment of the family begins to grow in Sophie, something hugely encouraged by her new, and only, friend, Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), the village postmistress, who seems to fancy herself something of a class warrior, as well as a gossip-monger (though it’s entirely possible that all of the gossip was also created by her, as there’s no evidence at all for the “strange things” she claims go on in the family’s house).
The first time that I saw this film I really liked it, and now I wonder if I was ill that day, but just not aware of it, because on this viewing I really didn’t care for it. At all. Some of that may come down to a hatred of Sophie’s hair (not a particularly rational thing, I’ll grant you), and some certainly comes down to a dislike for the inconsistency of Sophie’s handicap. The shame she feels because of her inability to read and write is understandable, but we’re supposed to believe she’s smart enough to have hidden it for decades and held down similar jobs, yet too stupid to have worked out which coins are which? And when faced with something mildly vexing – locating a file on a desk – she hides in her room with the TV turned up like a sullen teenager? No.
These childlike qualities are, it seems, supposed to serve to make her seem possible to manipulate by Jeanne, who herself acts like an overgrown child at times. She prods Sophie to stand up to the fascist oppression of her employers, employers who, at worst, may be a little patronising. Happy to buy their new employee glasses and pay for driving lessons for her, in addition to her wages? The monsters! And when Melinda helped Jeanne repair her broken down car, Melinda had the temerity to toss the hankie with which she removed some of the grime from the engine into Jeanne’s car!
The crisis point comes when, given her actions in attempting to blackmail Melinda into silence after she discovers Sophie’s secret, the family quite reasonably fire her. Returning to the house one evening with Jeanne to collect her things, they kill them instead. Why not? They were dressed up to watch opera on TV, the bourgeois pigs!
Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie takes its name from a ritual that preceded death by guillotine, and it does seem that class warfare, or at least tension, like that of the 18th century is at the heart of the film (I’ve not read the Ruth Rendell novel A Judgement in Stone, on which this is based, so I have no idea how much of that is in the source material), but in the end this film reads to me as “a couple of arseholes murder some people” (though I’ll mention again I really did not feel that way the first time I watched this). What were the family guilty of? Obliviousness perhaps? Not sufficiently checking their privilege?
Maximilien Robespierre wrote, “Le secret de la liberté est d’éclairer les hommes, comme celui de la tyrannie et de les retenir dans l’ignorance.” (“The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant”): when she discovers Sophie’s secret, Melinda seems entirely certain that her father would help her get the help and education she needs to learn to read and write. Quel tyran ! Off with his head!
I have only seen this in the one place (The New York Times), but I read there that “[Sandrine Bonnaire] said that Mr. Chabrol suggested she think of her character as a vegetable. She chose to imagine herself as a stiff and featureless leek”. If I tell you that I find that uncannily accurate you will perhaps understand why I find Sophie, and the film, so unsympathetic and unlikeable.
There was a widely held belief, which I now understand to be bollocks, that Bound, the low budget 1996 thriller from the Wachowski’s, was essentially a testbed for the sibling directorial duo to prove they could work a film set prior to being green-lit for The Matrix. To the best of my knowledge either one or both of the sisters have since discredited this, and in retrospect it seems pretty obvious that the business correlation between a $4m “lesbians vs the mafia” heist movie and a $70m sci-fi epic seems pretty…slim?
Jennifer Tilly plays Violet, a former waitress who is now the girlfriend of mid-tier mafia goon Ceasar (Joey Pants), though we soon come to learn she is essentially trapped in a cycle of holding court with a number of Ceasar’s associates within the mob. Looking for a way out of this life which denies her any number of freedoms, not least among them her sexuality, Violet seduces ex-con Corky (Gina Gershon), who has taken up employment as the mafia’s property maintenance expert, and together the pair hatch a scheme to relieve Ceasar of the $1m+ he and his associates have just recovered from an accountant on the skim.
It is a simple enough setup, satisfyingly executed, and remains so today even on re-watch number X, and there is still a sense in which this remains my favourite of the Wachowski’s movies. Somewhat sensationalised at the time, and subject to the late 90s, early 2000s scourge of “Uncut Version!” DVD sleeve proclamations, Bound’s fleeting portrayals of intimacy between it’s two female leads was always overblown, an artefact of its time augmented by Tilly and Gershon’s obvious appeal to the male gaze and subsequent accusations of lipstick lesbianism. Swap either female lead for a male character and neither the setup nor the supposedly explicit content would have given cause for anyone to bat an eyelid. Still, if sensationalism helped bring this movie to the attention of a broader audience then fine, for it was and is a good movie.
With a small cast and only two main locations, namely “a gangster’s apartment” and “the apartment through the wall,” it would be really easy for Bound to come across as stagey, but the notion never really crosses my mind during viewings as there’s enough of interest going on in terms of camerawork and sound design to distract from a script that could easily be retrofitted to resemble a Mamet play.
The performances are pretty solid throughout, though we’re dealing with characters and a world so detached from my perspective of day to day reality that I’m loathe to call judgement on their authenticity. If I were in the business of quantifying mafia cliches then I’d say I find Joey Pants engaging enough, but this is Tilly and Gershon’s show, and I really enjoy their performances here, at least partly because we have not one but two leads from a part of society which was until very recently cripplingly under-represented. I don’t know that either Tilly or Gershon was afforded much opportunity to demonstrate their talent until this point, and I have a narrow range of depressingly predictable assumptions as to why that probably was. I would have liked to have seen them afforded more high profile roles in the years following, but for either actor I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have come across their billing in the quarter century since.
As a calling card I think Bound holds up pretty well, and if it were true that this was essentially a demo reel then it’d be safe to say Warners got a bit of a bargain. Either way an interesting piece of low budget filmmaking, and one which, owing to its two leads, still feels surprisingly contemporary.
We round things off today with a trip to Arctic Norway, Tromsø in fact, where the 17-year-old girl Tanja has been found murdered. Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård) and Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal) are called in to investigate from down south, meaning that they’ll have to get used to the midnight sun of a city that never sleeps, unless they buy very dense blackout curtains. Sadly, their hotel did not, so Jonas struggles to rest, which I hope doesn’t affect his performance or judgement.
Oh noes! A plan to bring the murderer back to the scene of the crime goes horribly wrong, with one police officer being shot and wounded by the suspect, and through the mist Jonas mistakenly shoots and kills Erik. While perhaps still in shock, he doesn’t correct the assumption that it was the suspect that put a bullet in Erik, not Jonas. So begins a spiral of lies and evidence tampering that does not bode well for his mental health.
Particularly when the primary suspect comes to be revealed as crime author Jon Holt (Bjørn Floberg), who’s very much aware of Jonas’ deception and blackmails him into helping cover up his involvement and framing someone else for Tanja’s murder. Things, naturally, spiral from there, and if any justice is served in this sorry mess, it’s entirely by accident.
Saints alive, a film I liked in this episode. Call the authorities. I don’t believe I’d seen this previously, just the 2002 Chris Nolan remake, which I liked, but the original might have the edge on it. The central narrative is twisty without being outlandish, and the continual harsh light of day gives a very different feeling to activities normally best served by darkness, so it has a distinctive style and atmosphere.
It is however Stellan Skarsgård that makes the film a joy to watch, convincingly unravelling over the course of the piece in a way that makes for compelling viewing. I suppose you could argue that the supporting cast is rather less well served, but this a film that knows where the primary point of interest is and pursues it with dedication.
I don’t apparently have a great deal more to say about Insomnia, other than it’s good and you should watch it. So, do that, I guess.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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