Monday, August 16, 2021

The Stranglers of Bombay [dir. Terence Fisher]

The Stranglers of Bombay is one of the more exotic productions from Hammer Studios, set not in Victorian-era England or Europe, but in India during the British rule (of course, economically recreated in Bray Studios and some external locations). The stranglers of the title are a large gang of thugs / highway robbers with a propensity to strangle their victims using an ingenious cloth noose. The film is loosely inspired by the actual history of Thuggee cults, and relies on the writings of the British official WH Sleeman who had worked towards their eradication during the 1830's.

But make no mistake, Hammer did not set out to make a documentary feature, their interest lay purely in generating lurid thrills from the material. Even the title is somewhat strange since the film is not set in Bombay at all, but somewhere on the eastern side of India. Like Fritz Lang's 2-parter Indian Epic released in the same year, Stranglers... is not particularly sensitive in its depiction of Indian culture. The production design is not a model of authenticity either, the vision for India seeming to incorporate elements of the Arabian Nights. Ah well, at least this one doesn't show the Indians gobbling creepy-crawlies stuffed inside snakes or chilled monkey brains.

The lead character is a Captain Lewis (played by Guy Rolfe) who has been studying the crimes perpetrated by the thugs and hopes to head an investigation to capture them. Instead the task is handed over to the son of a new blighter his Colonel went to school with. Obviously both the Colonel and the freshly-arrived Captain Connaught-Smith (Allan Cuthbertson) pooh-pooh all of Lewis' reports as excess imagination. The thugs on the other hand have infiltrated the local society surrounding the military settlement, and with their swift and brutal methods of punishing mistakes (cutting off of limbs and gouging of eyes is par for the course here) efficiently run their trade while keeping a low profile; only Lewis has even the vaguest idea about them. Will he be able to root them out before they commit more serious crimes or will he be destroyed by the cult forms the bulk of the ensuing narrative.

Stranglers... is directed by stalwart Hammer helmer Terence Fisher, but doesn't deliver the impact of his top-tier films for the studio (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Devil Rides Out). Even with all the savagery an sensationalism on display, the film is lacking in the propulsive energy Fisher is known for. Perhaps Guy Rolfe in the lead is too bland and fails to make us feel for him the way a Peter Cushing could. Perhaps the use of B&W stock instead of color makes the sensational elements less so. Stranglers... is still serviceable (and moments like when Lewis' wife opens a package to see a severed hand or when the robbers carry out a stealth operation to kill off all the members of a caravan are thrilling in isolation), but not as barnstorming as it could have been.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Running Time [dir. Josh Becker]

Seeing Running Time (1997) directly after the French crime noir Le Doulos (reviewed HERE)  might appear repetitive on face, it being another black and white crime caper, but in tone and feel Josh Becker makes an entirely different sort of movie. It has more of a Quentin-Tarantino-meets-Kevin-Smith feel, but with none of the obnoxiousness such a combination might suggest.

Everyone's favorite cult movie star Bruce Campbell gets a rare chance to play in a non-horror film and he is a big part of why this movie works. Campbell plays Carl Matushka, just released from prison early for good behavior, and rewarded by the warden himself with a warm farewell and a box of Havana cigars. But Carl has other plans than walking the straight and narrow path. In fact, his first move after he exits the prison doors and meets up with long-time friend-in-crime Patrick (Jeremy Roberts) is to put in motion his plan to rob the place responsible for laundering the warden's dirty money - there is some poetic justice in this, since the warden runs a profitable laundry service using prison labor at below minimum wages. An old safe-cracker (William Stanford Davis) and a junkie getaway driver (Gordon Jennison) are the other parties involved in this heist. Early indications suggest that the caper is unlikely to go as per Carl's plan and this proves to be the case. A major scene has Carl and Patrick indulging in a verbal spat about their respective deficiencies in the presence of hostages, while the safe-cracker is trying desperately to finish his job. Later there are gunshots and chaos, they must go on the run from cops. Somewhere in all this Carl also catches up with a former flame (Anita Barone) he is looking to resume acquaintance with.

Running Time's USP is the attempt to frame its narrative in real time, which is to say, we see the events entirely as they unfold (Becker cites Alfred Hitchcock's Rope and its unbroken shot effect as his inspiration; of course, one recalls that just a couple of years before, there was a real-time Johnny Depp movie called Nick of Time). To achieve that end, Becker goes for long takes with steadicam, and skillful obscuring of cuts. This of course means that the actors  (and other shooting crew) need to be continuously on the ball. It is extremely helpful that the main roles are aptly cast, and the performers are enthusiastic. 

Campbell's Everyman Hero charisma is beautifully tapped into, and one really wishes he had been able to make greater inroads into mainstream Hollywood; but then one has to also wonder if that would have made him less accessible to indie directors like Becker and Don Coscarelli (Bubba-Ho-Tep)? He also has great chemistry with his co-actors, mostly notably with Barone, which is critical because in shorthand they have to establish a relationship history and a rapport that makes us root for their togetherness. Running Time is a film of modest scope but it is a labor of love and the final product conveys that admirable, plucky spirit to the audience.

A terrific article on the making of the movie, written by the director himself - LINK

For those interested, a couple of words on the blu-ray from Synapse Films:

Running Time is a low-budget independent effort and the 4:3 B&W transfer reflects those gritty roots. The limitations of contrast and details are those baked into the original natural light location shoot. Similarly the stereo sound ably conveys the film's ambience. Extras include a conversation with the always chatty Bruce Campbell who provides a lot of insight into both his old friend Josh Becker and the making of the film. It is extremely clear that the star is fond of this film and happy to see it get a new audience. An archival recording captures Becker and Campbell chatting extempore with a group of students as they wait for a video screening of Running Time. There is an audio commentary track with Becker and Campbell that promises to be interesting and a trailer that gives a small taste of the real-time storytelling style.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Le Doulos [dir. Jean-Pierre Melville]

The opening screen of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos clarifies that the title is street slang for 'Hat-wearer' but it also refers to a police informant (what in vintage American crime slang is called canary or stool pigeon). But before we meet the Doulos, we are introduced to Maurice (Serge Reggiani), a gangster just out from prison. Maurice is uneasy about a new job, discussing it with a friend, a jewelry fence who seems to be very understanding and generous to him, willing to lend him money and even a gun...which Maurice then uses to shoot him.

Next we see Maurice being visited by his friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a man everyone else seems to dislike / distrust. Silien has his own agenda, and he is also revealed to be Le Doulos in cahoots with the police. In a series of suspicious actions, Silien seems to be setting his friend up to be hauled in by the law, and also taking care of some other people to clear his own path. He is seen as a cold-blooded snakily ambitious sort with no scruples about how he achieves his aims. Later the film pulls out a dramatic reveal that wants us to re-evaluate many of the characters' actions.

Le Doulos is one of Melville’s early efforts in the crime genre he was best known for (Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge). We see the familiar stylistic tropes: The adoption of American noir fedora and trenchcoat fashions, the shadowy cinematography, the male bonding, the essential loneliness of the lead characters. But as a film, it comes across less smoothly. The twist reveal seems labored in its explanation, and some scenes like the one between Belmondo and Michael Piccoli are hard to swallow (you’d think a seasoned gangster would know an obvious frame-up and even at gun-point would realize that obeying the instructions would anyway lead to his death). The climax also seems more clumsy and drawn out, diluting the irony.

Le Doulos does have its good moments, like the shocker where a smiling Belmondo rough-houses “buddy” Maurice’s girlfriend (Monique Hennessy) for motives as yet unknown. The technical values are also fine for a low-budget independent production. On the whole this is still an interesting progenitor to, if not as well-constructed and smooth as, Melville’s later crime flicks.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Gold [dir. Reema Kagti]

Gold is the story of the the first post-independence Indian hockey team playing in and winning the gold medal at the 1948 Olympics conducted in Britain. It is one of those "loosely based on true events" stories, meaning just about everything other than the bare outline is made up. The fact that the real Indian team  thrashed Britain 4-0, while here we are shown a cliffhanger climactic match in which they manage to, at the very end, snatch victory from an unfair opposition tells you what kind of biopic this is.

It would be okay if it was at least made up in an interesting way. Sadly, Reema 'Talaash' Kagti's film pays a lot more attention to detail and verisimilitude in the production design than in the writing. Even as a fictional character the story of Tapan Das, a man who surmounted all manner of obstacles, including his own demons of alcoholism, to put together and guide the team that won the medal, might have been worthwhile if it had been invested with more layered characterization and entrusted to a gifted performer (Manoj Bajpayee, Irrfan Khan, Nawzuddin Siddique - any of them could have owned the part). Here it is wasted on Akshay Kumar dropping yet another whacking big smelly deshbhakti turd. He is supposed to portray a Bengali with a drinking problem; neither aspect carries the required conviction. Mouni Roy as the stereotype nagging-but-affectionate wife only draws attention for her lips, injected with so much silicone they resemble baggage handles.

The supporting cast is talented, but let down by flimsy development. The most notable are Amit Sadh as an affable but egoistic blueblood, Sunny Kaushal as the hothead working-class Sikh who resents him, and Vineet Kumar (Mukkabaaz) as a Muslim player who, shortly before the Olympics, opts to shift to Pakistan. Kunal Kapoor as a former captain turned coach is limited to looking noble throughout and his character is an all-too-obvious deus ex machina. Atul Kale plays the jealous sports official de rigueur in almost every Indian sports drama. The bickering between the players, the lessons they learn, the quick-fix remedies for serious issues, the speechifying about setting aside individual egos for national pride...everything is so rote, there's little joy in watching the drama unfold. Lagaan and Dangal were also stories that followed a predictable path, but in building up of little incidents and the peculiarities of their characters, they made us care for what happened. Here, the story of a team that came together for a common (ha!) goal is subverted into a self-serving glory piece for a fictional character purely because he is played by a box-office draw. The makers of Gold would have done better to paraphrase JFK's famous line, "Ask not what your film can do for your star, but what your star can do for your film".


Thursday, August 5, 2021

A Good Marriage [dir. Eric Rohmer]

While The Aviator's Wife (reviewed HERE) had a certain sweetness, A Good Marriage (Le Beau Mariage) - Eric Rohmer's second film in his Comedies & Proverbs series, falls into slightly disturbing territory.

Sabine (Béatrice Romand) is an almost pathologically wilful and impulsive woman. At the start of the story she decides, after her married lover takes a call from his family while they are having sex, to renounce the bohemian life and get married herself. Of course, it will have to be the ideal marriage to the ideal person. Sabine's best friend Clarisse (Arielle Dombasle) sets up a meeting with her cousin Edmond (André Dussollier), a good looking successful lawyer. In less than a couple of meetings, Sabine decides he fits the bill and tells all who will listen to her about the impending marriage, other than Edmond himself.

If it were to be made in 90's Hollywood, this would have been a Julia Roberts / Drew Barrymore starring rom-com vehicle and ended with the couple being joined in blissful matrimony. Thankfully, Rohmer's script is more nuanced: it recognizes the darker edges to Julia's self-obsessed worldview and there is a far more naturalistic vibe to both the development of her relationship with Edmond and its denouement. The only distracting factor is Clarisse, who seems to be blind to her friend's emotional insecurities and lack of perception towards other people while fixing a match for her.

A Good Marriage is still a comedy but a more restrained and observant one. Apart from the writing, the performances of the actors go a long way to carrying the drama, and the old-world French architecture seen in many of the outdoor sequences makes for a pleasant backdrop. I am not sure if I will revisit this one, but it is still a worthwhile watch.

Interesting vintage trailer that 'explains' the film to American audiences: