Repo Man

Repo Man

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 20 February 2012

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Alex Cox

Writer: Alex Cox

Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter, Miguel Sandoval, Fox Harris, Del Zamora

USA 1984

92 mins

There is a great joie de vivre in Repo Man (1984), the first feature made by film fan Alex Cox. But what followed was a convoluted story of official and unofficial sequels and spin-offs marked by discord and recriminations.

Unlike other ‘classics’ of the 1980s, Repo Man has aged well. Cox disingenuously lays much of the credit for this to cinematographer Robby Müller’s involvement, but the intriguing mix of elements - the punk soundtrack, Emilio Estevez’s brash performance juxtaposed with Harry Dean Stanton’s as his laconic elder mentor, Fox Harris’s mad scientist with an eye-patch and a radioactive car, the anonymous blue and white packaging labels of food and drink and so on - all add up to a unique experience that announced the arrival of an important new filmmaker.

Yet, Alex Cox never managed to sustain the reputation he gained with Repo Man: while its immediate follow-up, Sid and Nancy (1986), was relatively successful, subsequent films alienated and bewildered audiences. The 1987 double bill of Straight to Hell, with its inexperienced all-musician cast, and the America-baiting Walker sealed his fate as a ‘cult’ director. But although his budgets dwindled further and further, Cox has never made an uninteresting film.

Read the interview with Alex Cox.

The sequel to Repo Man, Repo Chick (2009), was released on the 25th anniversary of the original film and reunited half a dozen members of the supporting cast, including Cox regular Miguel Sandoval, with the director, who also cameos in both films. The breezy, if overlong, movie aptly takes a pot shot at reality TV, but replacing Estevez with a ‘valley girl’ and her entourage creates a less interesting dynamic than the one between Otto and his cohort. The film’s central MacGuffin - banks need to repossess everything in America from trains to ocean liners with the help of the new Repo team - has a certain absurd resonance in the current economic climate.

The CGI backdrops of Repo Chick were clearly inspired by Ralph Steadman’s ink-splattered hallucinogenic style, but the film’s micro-budget means its innovations, including shooting actors in front of a green screen then filled with unrealistic landscapes from cartoon to toy town, limited its audience. Steadman’s influence on Cox is also visible in the booklet included in the new Blu-ray, which reproduces the original four-page comic that was the first incarnation of Repo Man, expanded with the addition of further cartoon drawings by Cox, reminiscent of the style of the gonzo cartoonist.

In between the two Repo films, Cox wrote another instalment, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday, which he couldn’t film. Estevez’s character Otto is renamed Waldo, so he could stay incognito on his return from outer space (and probably also to keep lawyers happy if a different studio to Universal had made it). Waldo is even lighter on plot than Repo Man: the title character roams through an even more polluted LA, going from one haphazard set-piece to another. If Waldo had been made in the late 90s as intended, it could have been part of the trend for ‘yuppie in peril’ films that briefly flourished after Cox’s first feature, including Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) and John Landis’s Into the Night (1985).

Although the cast and crew of the original film were interested, Cox was unable to raise the money and so the script might have just remained typed words on a page, if the director hadn’t decided to allow others to have a crack at adapting it. A team of fledgling American filmmakers, helmed by producer-director Stuart Kincaid, showed an interest and set about filming it to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Repo Man. Unfortunately, there was some disagreement between Cox and them. When I spoke to Cox, he said they shot only a small amount, and his preference is clearly for people to experience Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday as the graphic novel that was released in 2008. But in a feature-length documentary on the matter, A Texas Tale of Treason (2006), the filmmakers claim they finished shooting the film in Texas in 2004, and that Cox told them to shut down production just as they were getting to post-production. With only a small amount of Waldo footage accessible online either in trailer form or as part of the documentary, it’s impossible to know how much Kincaid actually shot. If he did finish the film as Texas Tale attests, one hopes that he and Cox can eventually put aside their differences and let the movie see the light of day as the existing footage isn’t bad at all and I, for one, would be curious to see more.

Universal Studios retained the right to make a sequel to Repo Man, which they eventually exercised by releasing the similar sounding but unrelated Repo Men (2010) three years after it had originally been shot, muddying the waters when Cox was trying to get Repo Chick released. Understandably, Cox doesn’t have anything nice to say about Repo Men in his introduction to the new Repo Man Blu-ray, although the film’s actually quite good. It is best described as a cross between Blade Runner and Brazil as it was inspired by both Philip K. Dick and a Monty Python sketch about organ-legging (which appears on a TV in the film). Jude Law plays a Repo Man in a dystopian future, repossessing mechanical body parts from owners who need them to survive, with gristly consequences, and in some respects this is actually a better film than Cox’s own bona fide sequel.

Alex Cox talks of the unrealised Repo Man comic as ‘what might have been’ (he gave up after four pages because it was too much work – read the interview for more details) and an investigation into the sequels - finished, unfinished and adapted - makes that statement all the more poignant. With Repo Man available as a Blu-ray, it’s certainly time to re-appreciate the original film for its many great qualities and enjoy that at least, in the best home format it’s ever been.

Alex Fitch

Note on the Blu-ray extras:

The Repo Man Blu-ray includes excellent additional features: aside from the original comic there is also an amusing censored TV edit, with the immortal expletive ‘Melon Farmer’ replacing a more familiar expression with the same initials and number of syllables - the TV edit is almost as worthy as the ruder original because of the absurdity of the ridiculous language.



Format: Cinema

Dates: 24 February 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Oren Moverman

Writers: James Ellroy, Oren Moverman

Based on the novel by: Vera Caspary

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ice Cube

USA 2011

102 mins

Although James Ellroy’s novels have been turned into films before, most notably LA Confidential (1997) and The Black Dahlia (2006), Rampart is his first screenplay, co-written with director Oren Moverman, who also wrote Jesus’ Son (1999) and I’m Not There (2007). Ellroy claims the film is his most personal work to date, and the lead character, maverick LA cop Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), certainly resembles the author, with his balding buzz-cut and scabrous wit. He is the epitome of the Ellroy flawed anti-hero - like LA Confidential‘s Budd White (Russell Crowe), but without his intelligent and politically savvy counterpart, Guy Pierce’s Ed Exley, to guide him. This classic Hollywood masculine protagonist is the descendent of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956) and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971). Rampart is essentially a character study of this violent man of action who makes the world safe for civilisation but can never really be part of it.

Brown’s relationship to the home is at the core of the film, as much as his work in the streets of Downtown LA. Although such characters normally have no place in the ‘feminine’ civilised world, at the start of the film he is at least on its threshold. He lives next door to his family - two sisters with whom he has fathered two children (both daughters) - and is invited in for meals, but sent home again if he gets too aggressive. The famous last shot of The Searchers, when the door closes on John Wayne outside the home, is echoed here to heartbreaking effect.

Read Michael Almereyda’s text on The Searchers‘ final shot, illustrated by Sean Azzopardi, in The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology.

The film is shown from Brown’s point of view, with Woody Harrelson, dominating every scene and giving the performance of his life, somehow imbuing this violent, bigoted misanthrope with personality, charm and humour. Whether battering criminals, seducing women, endlessly smoking, looking old and vulnerable with reading glasses, panicked and paranoid, or off his head on drugs, we are given a real roller-coaster performance that should be showered with awards.

For a film that is all about the Hollywood (anti-)hero, Rampart gives him very little to do. James Ellroy’s convoluted plots and political machinations, which drive The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential, are discarded. The real-life ‘Rampart Scandal’ of the late 90s - a tale of police corruption and cover-ups in the precinct of that name - seems almost tailor-made for Ellroy, but is merely the backdrop here. Brown is never going to get to the bottom of such layers of intrigue; in fact he barely even scratches the surface of the mystery. He is left to rage impotently against forces he can neither stop nor understand.

Oren Moverman, directing his second feature (his debut was the 2009 Oscar-nominated The Messenger, also with Harrelson), shows what a great talent he is. The hand-held realism at first appears rough and ready. The natural lighting, provided by Californian sunshine, reveals why the film industry moved to Hollywood in the first place, while the overlapping dialogue and actual LA locations, complete with quirky piano bars and flamenco restaurants, further add to the film’s realist style. But the, at times, strikingly unusual framing and imaginative use of close-ups - putting us almost tangibly in the middle of the action (particularly disconcerting in the toe-sucking scene and the how-not-to-eat a burrito scene) - showcase Moverman’s great visual sensibility. He is also adept at building a convincing sense of confusion and paranoia, mostly by leaving much of the story untold.

Although it perhaps does not go quite as far as 1992’s Bad Lieutenant (a film Rampart has much in common with), this film takes the maverick cop character to its conclusion. It is a warts-and-all depiction, but with moments of real humour, and even pathos.

Paul Huckerby

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Format: Cinema

Dates: 24 February 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI

Director: Otto Preminger

Writers: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt

Based on the novel by: Vera Caspary

Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price

USA 1944

88 mins

The opening credits in Otto Preminger’s 1944 film noir roll over an oil painting of a beautiful woman; this is Laura, but as the story begins, she has already been found murdered. ‘I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,’ says Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in a voice-over, as the camera pans around his museum-like apartment, lingering on luxurious objects collected by the wealthy society figure, who delights in excoriating Manhattanites in his newspaper column and radio show. We soon learn that Laura has been shot in the face at close range, right in the doorway to her apartment, and Waldo is one of Lieutenant Mark McPherson’s (Dana Andrews) chief suspects.

So is Shelby (Vincent Price in an early role), something of a once wealthy playboy, now fallen on hard times. We discover through flashbacks, as their stories are recounted to McPherson, that the two men were engaged in a tussle for Laura’s affections. Lydecker ‘discovered’ Laura (played by the beautiful Gene Tierney), helping to further both her career and her climb up New York’s social ladder. So enamoured of his own status, Lydecker struggles to understand how Laura could fall prey to Shelby’s charms, failing to see the appeal in being with a younger, more attractive man (who also appears to have a lot to hide, including a love affair with Laura’s wealthy aunt).

This is film noir set in the rarefied milieu of the elite, rather than in the mean streets below the glittering penthouses. They eat out at the legendary Algonquin, not at seedy diners. Their world is beyond McPherson’s reach; his only chance at coming close to a woman as refined and elegant as Laura is through the - possibly distorted - imaginings of Lydecker and Shelby. Lydecker (who is given many of the film’s best lines, his caustic wit one of its highlights) in fact reprimands the detective when he crassly refers to Laura as a ‘dame’. For all of her success - she rises to the top of the advertising world, even hiring Shelby when he’s down on his luck - Laura is neither vamp nor moll, leaving McPherson and the audience to puzzle over her true character. What is clear is that McPherson finds himself seduced by the idea of Laura; and, in a terrific plot twist, it’s left to the audience to decide whether his desire for her, and with it his need to solve the case, is merely a fantasy, or something more real.

Always lingering beneath the genteel surface is the shocking brutality of the violent murder; Preminger makes the blistering case that the rich elite are capable of any crime if it means getting what they want. All of this makes Laura a thrilling, absorbing and original example of the genre; it’s also beautifully shot, pure escapist entertainment. It dates from a cinematic era when two characters could still fall in and out of love seemingly overnight, and when plots could be full of holes (common in the genre) without critics deriding the film as unrealistic. Despite some of the all-too-human mistakes that she makes, Laura is also a strong, independent and desirable woman, and an unusual, almost accidental femme fatale.

Sarah Cronin



Format: DVD

Release date: 20 February 2012

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Javor Gardev

Writer: Vladislav Todorov (based on his novel)

Cast: Zahary Baharov, Tanya Ilieva, Vladimir Penev

Bulgaria 2008

92 mins

Moth (Zahary Baharov), a would-be boxer and full-time loser, emerges from prison in the 60s, having missed out on most of his youth and a communist coup in 1944, serving time for a murder he didn’t commit, having taken the fall to protect his lover Ada (Tanya Ilieva) and their unborn child. He is barely out of the prison doors when he is abducted by army thugs and taken to be tortured by Slug (Vladimir Penev), once a small-time con man, now a commissar in the new hierarchy, hell-bent on finding a diamond that went missing after that murder decades ago…

Bulgarian neo-noir, anybody? Javor Gardev’s Zift makes no bones about the fact that it’s running on familiar rails. Ada’s femme fatale status is flagged up immediately when she is given the teenage nickname Mantis, and reinforced for those who haven’t got it yet when she reappears under the stage name Gilda in a slinky black number singing a tune that Rita Hayworth would find familiar. Moth is, of course, fatally drawn to his old flame. He seems to be smart enough to deliver the dry, world-weary voice-over, but not smart enough to avoid trouble, getting into the wrong car, falling into Slug’s traps. He spends the second half of the film as a dead man walking (with obvious nods to 1950’s D.O.A.) and the rain-sodden graveyard finale seems so inevitable that it feels oddly flat when it actually happens.

So Gardev, heavily assisted by screenwriter Vladislav Todorov and D.P. Emil Hristov, is serving us a very familiar brew, plot-wise, but, as if to compensate, goes mad on the decoration and delivery. Zift is full of inventive camera work and artful monochrome compositions. Moth staggers around in a sharp leather jacket and white shirt combo when he’s not naked and tattooed, his shaven scalp looking decidedly anachronistic for the 1960s (though various flashbacks tell us this is saving us from a coiffure that looks like a cheap carpet). His story is continually interrupted with grainy cutaways that illustrate other tales and ideas. What would be tense sequences in other films are undercut here by deliberately OTT touches, so an escape from Slug’s torturers results in Moth sliding on his arse through a Turkish bath full of screaming naked women chasing a glass eyeball. Elsewhere, it’s self-consciously cool in a way that reminded me of Europa-era von Trier and other art-house darlings of 20 years back, seeming to take place in its own hermetically sealed nightmare world. Well, either that or Bulgaria is a lot freakier than I think we all imagined. The clock is striking 17, 18, 19, and there are dwarf women selling insects in jars at flea markets in the woods, fart-lighting grave-diggers and creepy grinning nurses; everybody at a hospital seems compelled to tell stories of horror or embarrassment, and most of the cast seem prone to the kind of gutter philosophising that comes naturally to drunks or men serving hard time.

Zift comes to life in prison flashbacks and fever dream hallucinations, in its grotesques and non-sequiturs, and disappoints when it clambers back to its story. It’s hard to know how seriously we’re supposed to take all this: the off-the-peg plot and go-for-broke stylisation work against any kind of emotional tug. Are we meant to feel anything for these hard-boiled archetypes? Does it matter, when there’s all this neat stuff to look at? Ilieva is pretty damn sexy as Mantis. In a role that’s written as pure male fantasy, she manages to suggest that there’s more going on behind those eyes than Moth will ever comprehend. Baharov gives good lug as Moth, whose hangdog fatalism means that he never seems all that concerned by his own damnation. The whole thing is engaging and off-kilter and a little unsatisfying. It’s worth watching for those odd moments of Bulgarian business, but you can’t help wishing that all this invention and craft had been festooned around a story that needed telling.

Mark Stafford

Baby Face

Baby Face

Format: DVD Box-set Region 1

Title: Forbidden Hollywood Collection 1

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Director: Alfred E. Green

Writers: Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola, Darryl F. Zanuck

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Bent, Donald Cook, John Wayne

USA 1933

71/76 mins

Barbara Stanwyck’s role as Lily Powers in Baby Face (1933) was a great opportunity for the actress to show her range. The story begins with Lily living with her father in a speakeasy in Erie, Pennsylvania. Her father hires her out as a prostitute to the steel workers who use the bar, and the politician who keeps his bar open. Lily’s fate changes after her father is killed when his distillery catches fire and blows up. She moves to New York, keen to get what she wants out of life by using men as they have used her. Her vibrant face, fantastic figure and shrewd capacity to seduce men assist her as she exchanges sex for breaks at the Gotham Trust bank. She moves swiftly from barroom sass to jewel-dripping prowess as she rises up the social ladder of 1930s Manhattan. She finally falls in love for real and marries the director of the bank, Courtland Trenholm. In the final scenes, she realises just how much her husband means to her and her own capacity for love.

The film Baby Face itself has had more than one incarnation. In 2004, the original pre-release version was discovered by archivist Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress in the US, complete with five extra minutes of material. It was notorious at the time of release, presumably for its languorous shots of Stanwyck’s body and the supposedly loose morals of Lily Powers. The New York Board of Censors were disgusted and demanded that parts of the film were cut, not only the naughty bits, but some complex moments that give depth to Lily’s character and offer a social critique of the times.

The film existed in a climate of righteous reform for Hollywood cinema. Since 1930, Will Hays, the current head of Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), had been under pressure from a group of Catholic clergy and their supporters to ‘save’ the American people from the celluloid ‘muck merchants’, as Gregory D. Black writes in his article ‘Hollywood Censored: The Production Code Administration and the Hollywood Industry, 1930-1940’ (Film History Vol 3, No.3, 1989, p. 167-189). Hays had been attempting to enforce a moralistic Production Code but his actions were not seen as firm enough by this religious faction. In league with lay Catholic Joseph I. Breen, Hays set up the Production Code Administration, so that by 1934 no script was sanctioned and no film could be released unless it had PCA approval. Heavy fines of up to $25,000 swayed many writers and directors to fall in with the Code’s criteria. To briefly summarise, the Production Code included the banning of any nudity, explicit sexuality, any social mixing or marriage of people of different races. If any criminal or ‘immoral’ behaviour such as infidelity was seen, then it had to punished within the narrative. Another part of the stricture was that the industry permanently withdrew any films already distributed that were deemed immoral according to the code. Baby Face was one of many films to be extracted from circulation.

Thus came to an end what is known as the Pre-Code era in Hollywood. Since 1927, the industry had enjoyed relative freedom and had played up to the audience’s love for sauce and tempestuous violence. They also relished the space to present a commentary on American society, especially with regard to injustice because of class and race. Women were portrayed as having a will of their own and often sizzling sexuality, without necessarily being punished for it. Arguably, the religious fervour irrupted due to the new use of sound, which literally meant that the movies could capture the essence of the people’s voice. Black writes that the producers of the early 1930s rejected the idea that the American people needed to be sheltered and guided by film: ‘the American people were the real censors and the box office was their ballot box’ (p. 172). This was contrary to the desires of the church advocates, who wanted films to present the image of a model society that was pious, moderate and based on family values.

This self-governing enforcement of regulation is a key moment, not only in Hollywood’s history, but in the way that regulation has been used to create a standard of acceptance for the sexual mores and behaviour of women. This is illuminated by moving comparisons of the cut and uncut versions of Baby Face. In the uncut version, there is a sense of Lily’s strength and sexual power. Part of this is heralded by the music in the film, especially a key theme rendition of ‘St Louis Blues’, written by W.C. Handy in 1914. Here it is brassy, swinging and triumphant, played by the Vitaphone Orchestra conducted by Leo F. Forbstein. Every time Lily ‘engages the attentions’ of a manager higher up in the bank she gets a new job in their department. To signify this, with hilarious innuendo we hear the ‘St Louis Blues’ theme over a pan up the exterior of the art deco high rise. The department name is written in the windows: up, up we go, from filing to mortgages and mortgages to accounting. The music taps into Lily’s nonchalance and ambition as she gets one over the men she ensnares. She is also beautifully dressed and there is a pleasure to be derived from her Cinderella-like costume changes as she rises up, each move to a new department seeing her in newer and more lavish finery. Lily is upwardly mobile, not as a result of her commitment to the labour market, but to her own sexuality, and the shortcuts it allows. These I see as spectral clues to the light comic tone the filmmakers wanted to convey, and the titillation they did not want to hold back on.

As I watched the pre-release version, having just watched the censored version, I saw Lily Powers shift into a three-dimensional woman. I saw more of her reactions, wide shots of the places she is situated in and evidence of her being successful at her job. The paring down of Lily’s complexity and her social context in the cut version seemed lamentable, a kind of celluloid lobotomy. A comparison of the two endings is one way into these remarkable differences. In the censored theatrical release, right from the start Lily is warned that there is a ‘right way and a wrong way’ to make her way in the world, by her friend Adolf Cragg, an intellectual cobbler from home. [SPOILER] The ending, which was stitched on to please the censors, is depressing. It reminds us of the start of the film when we see Lily leaning out of the window of the speakeasy; dusting off factory smoke from her window box, she wants air, to escape the steel works and its men. A shot of the smoking factory chimneys lingers. Later, Lily’s biggest decision is whether to give up all her assets and money to Courtland when the bank starts to fail. Courtland attempts suicide and Lily saves him. The final scene of the theatrical release shows a company meeting of elderly men explaining that Lily and her husband have bailed out the bank and have returned to Erie and are ‘working out their happiness’. Courtland is now a labourer. We don’t see Lily; instead the film closes on the image of the chimneys. While it is allowed that Lily has finally found happiness and true love, she is back on the same treadmill, her father replaced by her husband, in a place she hates. The worthy message is clear: Lily has her punishment for cheating the system and doing so in sinful ways. [END OF SPOILER]

The uncut version offers an entirely different moral slant and an open ending. Restored is the extended exchange between Lily and Cragg early on in the film. The bit that was missing is Cragg’s elaboration of an extract from Nietzsche’s Will to Power (it should be noted that this is not a book actually written by Nietzsche, but a series of fragments from his notebooks edited together and published by his sister after his mental breakdown). Cragg suggests that ‘All life is exploitation’, and that Lily could ‘exploit herself’ and ‘use men to get the things [she] want[s]’. Presumably, this nihilistic philosophy and the exposure of the labour market system were too much for the censors, especially as they were used to rouse a woman to action. This exchange entirely shifts the emphasis, from ‘free yourself from systems of exploitation’ in the uncut version to ‘freedom can only exist in reference to pre-written moral codes’ in the cut.

The ending of the pre-release version is also much more interesting. [SPOILER] Lily and Courtland gaze into each other’s eyes as he comes round in the ambulance (this was cut: in the theatrical version, Lily just looks miserably at him), when the paramedic tells her to take care of her suitcase as half a million’s worth of stash is seen spilling out. She says, ‘it doesn’t matter now’, then the smouldering ‘St Louis Blues’ kicks in and the credits roll. To me, this open ending says that Lily now believes that real love overrides material wealth, but it also insinuates that the money might not matter right now, but it might in an hour or two when she wants to pay the medical bill and run away with her gorgeous husband.

Nicola Woodham

Gun Crazy

Gun Crazy

Format: DVD Region 1

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Writers: MacKinlay Kantor, Dalton Trumbo

Original title: Deadly Is the Female

Cast: Peggy Cummins, John Dall

USA 1950

86 mins

‘I want things,’ says Laurie Starr, anti-heroine of cult film noir Gun Crazy (1950). ‘A lot of things. Big things. I don’t want to be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts… a guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.’

She delivers these lines matter-of-factly, between putting on her stockings and part-challenging, part-seducing her new husband into joining her on a series of robberies [SPOILER] that will end in death for them both [END OF SPOILER]. The quote is frequently cited to demonstrate her near-psychotic acquisitiveness, her ruthless nature, her lust for power and skill for manipulating luckless partner Bart Tare, played by John Dall. But not only is her desire destined to be unfulfilled, it is also oddly unconvincing, spoken as if it’s what is expected of her, like much of the character’s minimal dialogue. Laurie never really gets any of her ‘things’; material gain from the couple’s crime spree is fleeting, and the guy isn’t up to much either. One senses that she knows this from the start, but cannot articulate the power of desire for desire’s sake; cannot admit to how much the violent process of satisfying that desire excites her.

Instead, Laurie Starr’s most memorable moments are non-verbal: flashes of action and intent from the mobile, expressive face and body of British actress Peggy Cummins, then in her early 20s - more tomboy than vamp, and exuberantly transported by action, violence and transgression, however hard her words might strive for conventionality. As the couple drive away from the scene of the film’s most celebrated heist, Cummins turns and faces the camera; as she sees the clear road behind them, her face blooms with pleasure, breaking into an impish and breathless grin. She wears the same cowgirl outfit in which we first glimpsed her performing a sexually charged shooting routine. Whether on a carnival stage or fleeing a bank job, she is rarely at ease. While Laurie shares some traits of classic noir women - not least a certain pragmatism and survival instinct - she is not presented as a femme fatale. She has none of the 40s temptress’s constructed mystique, nor her corresponding, closely styled appearance; her changeable moods and impulsive actions suggest that she is most of all a mystery to herself.

Frances Morgan will be discussing Gun Crazy‘s Laurie Starr and other femmes fatales with Nicola Woodham and host Virginie Sélavy on Resonance 104.4 FM on Friday 17 February, 5-5:30pm.

If Laurie Starr is an atypical noir heroine, Gun Crazy is no ordinary noir. Although it is directed by Joseph H. Lewis, best known for the classic The Big Combo (1955), and employs some of the severe angles, expressionist close-ups and shadowy pursuit scenes associated with the genre, it sometimes feels not like a noir at all. Gun Crazy is a film about modern sex, violence and poverty, but much of it has the slightly dreamlike, archetypal quality of a fable; its tone is at once ambiguous and highly moral. It offers some tantalising commentary on a lost, young underclass in post-war America, but never really dips beneath the surface. It chooses for its hero a man who seems reluctant to exist at all. Gun Crazy‘s most urgent and well-realised theme is one that, by necessity, remains heavily coded: that of transgressive, violent sexuality and fetishism.

The film begins as a teenage Bart is caught stealing a gun. In the court scene that follows, his sister and friends explain that while the kid loves guns, he is not violent - a fact demonstrated in a flashback in which Bart refuses to shoot at a mountain lion. Guns are objects of power for this disenfranchised, parentless young boy, but he is not a killer. When we meet Bart again in adulthood, he is a colourless, law-abiding character, whose slight melancholy and air of displacement are well realised in John Dall’s lanky frame and awkward smile. That smile becomes a charged, canine grin the night he and his friends enter a carnival tent to watch Miss Annie Laurie Starr’s performance, the climax of which is a shooting competition with an audience member. Of course, Bart volunteers, and narrowly wins, but this rather predictable sequence bursts into life thanks to the couple’s extraordinary chemistry. The play of heavily coded signals between the two - Bart’s triumphant smile; Laurie’s swaggering walk towards the target; the hits and the misses of both characters’ guns - sets up the power relationships they will play out as a couple. As an establishment of the erotic vocabulary of two fetishists, it is hard to beat, and is all the more effective for its air of secrecy: everyone in the room sees their attraction, but only Bart and Laurie seem to understand exactly its true nature. Like many deviant sexualities, it is both highly theatrical and very personal, and it is not surprising that Bart’s next step is to join the carnival himself.

Gun Crazy‘s slightly soporific atmosphere is only stirred up when it focuses on the two lead characters’ gun fetish. In an echo of both sexual role play and the characters’ carnival days, Bart and Laurie carry out a series of robberies in disguise. But there are no safety words for these scenarios, and the logical progression of their fantasy into the real-life trauma of murder and a fugitive lifestyle takes its toll on Bart’s already shaky sense of reality: ‘Sometimes it doesn’t feel like me. I wake up sometimes and it’s as if none of it really happened, as if nothing were real anymore.’ All Laurie can offer back is that she is real - which only serves to reinforce the lack of escape routes for them both. Later, after agreeing to separate after their last big heist (to avoid suspicion), they are unable to do so, turning their respective getaway cars around in a scene that is both highly camp and deeply sad. While the added back story ostensibly casts Bart as the lead, there seems no doubt in Lewis’s direction that they are in it together, whether that’s as star-crossed lovers or as victims of a shared delusion.

And yet the film’s alternate title was Deadly Is the Female, and many reviews of the film still cast Laurie as a deliciously wicked character, the driving force of evil, a violent woman whose already dangerous sexuality is exacerbated by the weaponry that she carries. But even if we accept such readings as dated, indicative of paranoid male fantasies of powerful women, and recognise the transgressive fun to be had in such stereotypes, it is a shame that sympathetic takes on Laurie are still rare. More understanding is reserved for her husband, a man who feels emasculated in a post-war society. Bart’s passion for shooting ‘things, not people’, while clearly in sexual thrall to a violent woman through whom he kills vicariously, is cited as evidence - in the film, at least - that he is inherently harmless, and blameless, when in fact it is close to sinister.

If Bart is emasculated, Laurie is even more so, yet she takes action, again and again. The film’s timing is crucial. Following the Second World War, women who had enjoyed a measure of power during the 1940s - and seen themselves reflected in strong film portrayals by Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell - began to fade once more from public life, which was echoed in the cinema in what Susan Faludi calls ‘the image of womanhood surrendered… Strong women displaced by good girls’ (in Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women). There is something both exciting and poignant in the way Cummins’s character inhabits her femininity and pushes against its constrictions at a time when the idea of femininity was undergoing a re-evaluation from active back to passive. In the film’s most action-packed and erotic sequences, Laurie moves and dresses in a masculine way: she is most capable in a cowboy outfit; at her best when running, driving, fucking and doing. When she dons a black dress and opulent fur for a last, romantic night out, it is moments before she’s on the run again, the fur dropped in a puddle, the high heels skidding on the pavement. It’s a direct contrast to the film’s last successful heist, in which she poses as a secretary. Dressed for practicality in trousers and flats, she is reprimanded by the head of the typing pool for her inappropriate office wear. ‘I hope to see you in a skirt tomorrow,’ says the manager, only to be gunned down by her typist minutes later. While Laurie demands ‘action’ from Bart, putting the onus on her male partner to take her where she wants to go, it is clear she has the will and resources to do it herself. As feminist critics of film noir have often stated, it is the agency of heroines such as Laurie Starr that makes such pleasurable viewing for women: just the very sight of a woman who acts, viewed separately from what those actions might be, is undeniably thrilling. [SPOILER] Laurie is eventually shot, not by the police, but by Bart himself, to prevent her killing his childhood friend. This jolting reminder that the male world is paramount is a response to the fact that, at her best (worst?) Laurie really does appear to pose a threat to that world. [END OF SPOILER]

Of course, Bart ends up dead beside her, the two slumped in the misty rushes like shot ducks. Both of them have been powerless from the start, as they move through the empty, tawdry settings of small towns, cheap rooms, fairgrounds and Vegas weddings. What’s striking, though, is Laurie’s commitment to turning this life around, however doomed the outcome. It’s tempting to imagine a parallel with the pragmatic, Poverty Row origins of the low-budget film itself, and in the odd, never fully realised career of Peggy Cummins herself, whose brief stint in Hollywood would end just a year later. She plays Laurie with an instinctive fierceness that a more A-list, experienced actress might have toned down; her accent, which swings from received pronunciation to an American drawl, marks her out as an outsider. Whatever big things Peggy Cummins was chasing, the unbridled, angry glee she brings to Laurie Starr suggests that, for the 30 days it took to make Gun Crazy, she managed to tap into the darkest essence of her character’s desires, in the process delivering one of the best power femme performances of the B-movie era.

This article was first published in the Winter 2009 issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

Frances Morgan

Falling: The Allure of the Femme Fatale in the World of David Lynch

To mark the complete David Lynch restrospective at BFI Southbank, which runs from 7 to 29 February 2012 and includes his early shorts, we have a comic strip on his femmes fatales. For more information, please go to the BFI Southbank website.

FALLING: The Allure of the Femme Fatale in the World of David Lynch. By Richy K. Chandler, who thanks Joan Chen, Sherilyn Fenn, Mark Frost, Sergeja Krajnc, Sheryl Lee, David Lynch, Mike Perschon, Isabella Rossellini, Shilla Solanki and Alanna Thain.

Rolling Thunder

Rolling Thunder

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 30 January 2011

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: John Flynn

Writers: Paul Schrader, Heywood Gould

Cast: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linday Haynes

USA 1977

95 mins

‘Once you take out the perverse pathology of these characters, rather than becoming films about fascism they become fascist films, and that’s what happened to Rolling Thunder.’ ~ Paul Schrader, screenwriter of Rolling Thunder (1977).

A few lines before this statement (which is true) in the book Schrader on Schrader, the screenwriter remarks that in the mid-70s he was writing screenplays at a fantastic rate because he was so full of ideas. Which one could, if one felt inclined, regard a little sceptically, since Rolling Thunder is in many ways the same idea as Taxi Driver, Schrader’s most acclaimed script: a Vietnam veteran goes on a campaign of vigilante violence culminating in a massacre in a whorehouse.

The differences here lie in the talents involved and the respect shown to the story: re-writing has purged both William Devane’s character in Rolling Thunder and Robert De Niro’s in Taxi Driver of their most overt racism, but Scorsese works with what he’s got to vividly evoke the prejudices of his protagonist. There’s a fascinating push-pull of attraction-repulsion to this psychotic protagonist, which makes some people uncomfortable, but at least shows minds working behind the camera.

Rolling Thunder is an altogether less thoughtful piece. John Flynn, the director, did make the commendable The Outfit (1973), with Robert Duvall and a rogue’s gallery of vintage film noir faces, which is one of the better attempts to put Richard Stark’s psychopath-hero Parker on screen, but the unreflective approach to the material in Rolling Thunder robs it of the chance to live up to its predecessor. Tarantino is a fan of its no-nonsense kick-ass attitude, but I must confess I was disappointed by the ending, in which the protagonists murder a building full of people, and we are left with no clue as to what the attitude of law enforcement is going to be. It’s typical of QT to be enthused by inventively violent, empty movies, and so I suppose a flick where a guy loses a hand in a garbage disposal grinder and then sharpens his hook so he can rip up his persecutors would appeal. And I’m not unsympathetic to the visceral appeal of those elements, but I want more.

Devane, no De Niro, is nevertheless effective, his dark little eyes as unrevealing with or without aviator glasses. But whenever his buddy Tommy Lee Jones is on screen, we get a glimpse of a far more disturbing film: that thousand-yard stare speaks of true alienation and death-wish drive. Linda Haynes is affecting and natural as the girlfriend Devane takes with him on his Peckinpah-inflected Mexican mission of madness, and it’s a shame to see her dropped from the plot, especially after she’s demonstrated the required sharp-shooting skills. An interview included as extra feature catches up with Haynes today.

The overall feeling is of a violent, nonsensical movie that happens to contain more intelligently filmed or played moments than you’d expect. The structure is peculiar, which suits the unpredictable 70s vibe, but the assumptions underlying it are, as Schrader says, extremely dubious: the Mexican characters are all sleazy stereotypes, and of all Devane’s opponents, only the white Texan shows any competence or intelligence. Once on his mission, Devane is able to get anything he wants by torturing or intimidating his enemies, and this works - nobody thinks to lie to him. And the inciting incident, the vicious attack that sets him on his path, is terribly unconvincing: having heard he has $2000, four thugs come to his house to get it, somehow correctly assuming that he won’t have banked it. These guys are willing to torture and kill for what will divide up into 500 bucks a head: desperadoes indeed.

David Cairns

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Format: Cinema

Dates: 3 February 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Director: Sean Durkin

Writer: Sean Durkin

Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy

USA 2011

102 mins

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) flees from a commune in the Catskills one morning and phones her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), whom she hasn’t seen in two years. Lucy drives her out to the lake house that she and high-achieving husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are vacationing in. But any hope of reconciliation, or explanation of what the hell Martha was up to in the years she went missing, are frustrated by her clipped, evasive replies to any questions. Worse, something has changed in her, it’s like she has unlearned normal human behaviour somewhere along the way. And while tensions grow in the uptight lake house we see flashbacks to the life Martha has fled, a cultish, coercive, sexualised world of disturbing mind games, which may not be willing to let her go…

Sean Durkin’s debut is a creepy, tense and ambiguous piece of work. Camera sound and editing combine to admirable effect, and Olson is a bit of a revelation as Martha, in a nuanced study of fear and concealment. The slowly emerging details of the Mansonesque commune convince. The acoustic guitars, encounter group smiles and counterintuitive psychobabble (‘death is pure love’) spouted by indie favourite John Hawkes as the charismatic, controlling leader never trip over the line into the lurid clichés they could be in clumsier hands. Durkin makes smart choices about what to leave out of his story; the flashbacks detail the emotional and personal moments of life in the Catskills, but we don’t know what the cult’s religious or political aims (if any) were, and have to fill in the gaps. We wonder whether Lucy and Ted are in real danger, to what extent Martha has ‘drunk the Kool Aid’, and what she is capable of. But whether all this impressively sustained threatening atmosphere pays off to anyone’s satisfaction will, I suspect, be the cause of much argument.

Mark Stafford



Format: Cinema

Dates: 3 February 2012

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Roman Polanski

Writers: Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski

Based on the play Le dieu du carnage by: Yasmina Reza

Cast: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly

France/Germany/Poland/Spain 2011

80 mins

As Martin Scorsese’s Hugo celebrates, cinema can sometimes be about escape, but occasionally it can be about confinement. From Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) to Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981), the jury room in 12 Angry Men (1957), to, more recently, Ryan Reynolds’s coffin in Buried (2010), claustrophobia makes of the big screen a small, tight and nerve-racking space. For a director, it can also be a technical challenge like some mad French novelist writing a whole book without the letter E.

Roman Polanski is no stranger to the possibilities of spatial minimalism. A sense of entrapment and isolation runs through many of his films from the apartments of Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to the self-imposed exile of The Ghost (2010). Carnage, based on the French play by Yasmina Reza, is an exercise in making the walls close in. Bookended by two long shots of a park in New York, the rest of the film takes place inside the well-to-do but not overly spacious apartment owned by the Longstreets, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), or the corridor. The Longstreets are meeting the Cowans, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet), to resolve some unpleasantness arising from a fracas between their respective sons, which ended up with the Longstreet boy in hospital. It is all very sensible and civilised, and despite some quibbles about language - ‘Why armed with stick? Why not carrying a stick?’ - the two couples are pleased with themselves for not having gone a more vulgar litigious route. But those quibbles are just the start, and minor irritations, Alan’s constant Blackberrying, Penelope’s smug liberalism, provoke increasingly vicious eruptions, until the film can’t help to both literally and metaphorically spew up what has been difficult to swallow and impossible to digest.

This is cinema as scab-picking and the characters are all cursed with an inability to let anyone else have the last word. They are trapped by nothing more than their inability to let go, dithering in the corridor, convinced that if they could just express themselves accurately all would be well. There is also the weird sense that, despite their own self-satisfaction, they are all deeply unhappy people, who, cathartically, need this punishment, need this argument. Outside of the apartment, they are going to have to get on with the rest of their lives, but here for a moment is an opportunity to take stock, to finally and once and for all, have it out.

The fight is not fair: Waltz’s Alan gets the best lines, the biggest laughs and gets to name the play, and is probably damned the least, whereas Jodie Foster’s Penelope is the kind of gross caricature of a liberal that liberals like to laugh at in order to feel radical and knowing. The casting plays into this: the earnest Foster versus everyone’s favourite Nazi. More an expression rather than a dissection of middle-class anxieties, the film never quite acts out the hyperbole promised by the title. However, the performances are masterful and, although it is no Chinatown (1974), Polanski’s craftsmanship makes this chamber piece one of his more accomplished films.

John Bleasdale