Tag Archives: crime film

The Glass Key

The Glass Key

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 19 September 2016

Distributor: Arrow Academy

Director: Stuart Heisler

Writer: Jonathan Latimer

Based on the novel by: Dashiell Hammett

Cast: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy

USA 1942

86 mins

Masculinity is the true focus of Stuart Heisler’s noir tale of crime, power and lust.

Power, corruption and lies are at the burning heart of The Glass Key, with lust adding fuel to the fire. It’s election season, and local power broker Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) has unexpectedly decided to throw his weight behind the reform candidate Ralph Henry, turning his back on his own shady interests and his gangster cohorts. The reason: Henry’s beautiful, clever daughter Janet (Veronica Lake), who’s more than happy to take advantage of Madvig’s intentions to help her father’s campaign.

But events are complicated further when Janet’s gambling-addicted brother Taylor, in debt to Madvig’s former partner-in-crime Nick Varna (and also secretly involved with Madvig’s sister Opal), turns up dead, his body found by Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), Madvig’s right-hand man. The death becomes a pivotal moment in the power struggle between Varna and Madvig, with Beaumont’s involvement, rather predictably, ensnaring Madvig, Janet and himself in a love triangle. It’s classic noir territory, although Stuart Heisler’s 1942 adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel doesn’t quite sit as easily alongside some of the greats from the genre, due to its slow, muddy start.

Donlevy plays Madvig as something of a clown, his romantic volte-face derided by his opponents, while everyone seems to know that Janet is playing him for a fool. Veronica Lake is icy in her demeanour, all chiselled cheekbones and glossy, smooth hair, any feelings she has buried beneath her cynical exterior. But The Glass Key is really Alan Ladd’s picture (despite some good lines, Lake is criminally underused in the film). Beaumont comes into his own after Taylor’s death; though initially a suspect himself, he’s canny and connected enough to get himself off the hook, using guile and misdirection to figure out who is behind the murder. But Varna is clever too, sensing blood when Madvig emerges as the most likely suspect.

Everyone is in somebody’s pocket, including the local newspaper owner and the district attorney, with everyone looking after their own skin. It’s these sleazy back-room deals that make the film compelling, the tension increasing as Beaumont finds himself in increasing danger. The Glass Key really picks up after Varna decides to get to Madvig through Beaumont, taking a satisfyingly dark turn that leads to the film’s most explosive and powerful scenes. While Ladd fails in this as a romantic lead, with some wooden acting in his scenes with Lake, and, through no fault of his own, some laughable soft-focus close-ups, he excels as a man fighting for his life. In the end, the most compelling relationship in the film is the one that develops between Beaumont and one of Varna’s thugs, Jeff (William Bendix), who is full of admiration for his opponent’s fighting spirit.

In the end, it barely seems to matter who murdered Taylor, the film more concerned with the themes of honour, loyalty and masculinity. Despite its early failings, there are moments when The Glass Key really shines, with some classic cinematography, plenty of innuendo, and some standout performances, especially from the minor characters.

Sarah Cronin

Sheba Baby

Sheba Baby
Sheba Baby

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 8 February 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: William Girdler

Writers: William Girdler, David Sheldon

Cast: Pam Grier, Austin Stoker, D’Urville Martin

USA 1975

90 mins

Pam Grier’s third outing as a tough 70s Blaxploitation action lady is fun although not as exhilarating as Coffy and Foxy Brown.

After the breakout success of Coffy and Foxy Brown, Pam Grier had become hot property in mid-1970s Hollywood, with studios keen to snap up the head-turning Blaxploitation star. She was, after all, the first African-American woman to become a bona fide leading lady – and she kicked serious butt.

Sensing they might lose her, American Independent Pictures (AIP) ensured she retained lead billing status, with this third round of low-budget action pandering to some extent to her request for less sleaze and more story. As a result, it lacks the gritty charm of those previous outings, although Grier still holds her own with ease.

The story, such as it is, pitches Grier as a private investigator out to beat a local crime pin (D’Urville Martin) who is plotting to do in her dad. The action is set in the director’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Helped by her father’s business partner (Austin Stoker), who has a soft eye for her, Sheba’s pursuit of justice ensures car smashes and explosions galore, with some neat gun play between the sexes along the way. It is as one would expect: fast, frothy and funky (Monk Higgins’s score works well).

Although it received mixed reviews upon its original release in 1975, Sheba, Baby marked the peak of Grier’s screen career, prior to her return in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown more than 20 years later. Blaxploitation became increasingly divisive among the black community with its stereotypes and motifs, before being hijacked by the studios in the years that followed, with stories perpetuating sexual violence and slavery (Mandingo and Drum) signaling the death knell for the genre.

Grier, who began her career as a receptionist at AIP, has endured as the popular face of Blaxploitation over the years. Even this relatively lightweight vehicle shows the star in her element, delivering a series of no-nonsense responses to thugs that dare cross her path. It’s a shame that no one has managed to match her on screen in the decades that followed. Even more than that, it’s depressing and familiar to consider that her starring roles all but dried up after her brief flurry of hits – and that her leading lady status never quite materialised as it should have.

Still, as a companion piece to Coffy and Foxy Brown, it’s worth a spin. Grier is always great value and, as Tarantino knows only too well, a hugely underrated talent. This anniversary set comes with a high definition print of the film, plus a commentary and interview with screenwriter-producer David Sheldon, and featurettes on Grier and the film from critics and enthusiasts.

Ed Gibbs

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Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 11 January 2016

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Takeshi Kitano

Writer: Takeshi Kitano

Alternative title: Fireworks

Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi, Susumu Terajima, Tetsu Watanabe

Japan 1997

103 mins

Takeshi Kitano’s 1997 masterpiece wonderfully mixes ruthless violence and heart-breaking melancholy.

Although his international profile has waned somewhat in recent years, the contribution made to contemporary Japanese cinema by the multifaceted media personality and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano remains incontestable. Having directed a unique series of festival hits throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Kitano was perhaps the most internationally successful and visible Japanese filmmaker of the era, at least outside of the J-horror boom. Working in conjunction with Office Kitano, Third Window Films is revisiting this golden age in the director’s career by releasing three newly restored classics, starting with what many consider his best: 1997’s Hana-bi, winner of the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Film Festival.

Tender and thoughtful, but punctuated with sudden bursts of ultra-violence, Hana-bi is a wonderful synthesis of the conflicting styles of Takeshi Kitano: the pensive auteur, and his more thuggish screen persona, ‘Beat’ Takeshi. Kitano channels both the brutality of his early directorial efforts, such as Violent Cop (1989), where he plays… well, a violent cop, and the observational sensitivity of quieter works like A Scene by the Sea (1991) or the sorely overlooked Kids Return (1996).

In Hana-bi, Kitano stars as Nishi, a former police officer still reeling from a disastrous stakeout that saw one fellow officer killed and another seriously injured (Ren Osugi). His terminally ill and silent wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) is discharged from hospital after the doctors admit that there is nothing more they can do. Owing money to the yakuza, Nishi decides to rob a bank to pay his debt, give reparations to the widow of the slain officer, and use the rest to take his wife on one last road trip before she dies.

Those looking for a slice of straight-up Japanese cops-and-gangsters action may be dismayed by Hana-bi, as ‘auteur’ Takeshi wins out over ‘Beat’ Takeshi. The film moves at a relaxed, contemplative pace, even finding the time to include a secondary narrative focused on Osugi’s character, who, bound to a wheelchair as a result of his injuries, has taken up painting as a means of passing the time. These images seem to offer some sense of accompaniment to the main narrative, which is beautifully realised (the paintings seen throughout the film, incidentally, were done by Kitano himself).

Another aspect that takes precedence over the less salubrious moments is Nishi’s relationship with his wife, who, it’s implied, has not spoken since the unexpected death of their child some time earlier. Despite having hardly any meaningful dialogue, Kitano and Kishimoto form a very strong bond as they quietly visit various tourist spots in rural Japan. Kitano manages to twist the psychopathic qualities of his ‘Beat’ Takeshi persona and imbue his character with a pathos that perhaps first reared its head in Sonatine (1993), but is here fully formed, making his violent streak all the more potent and unexpected. It’s a subtle but marvellous performance from a media personality who, in Japan at least, was perhaps better known for clowning about – see, for instance, Kitano’s extended cameo in his zanily polarising comedy Getting Any? (1994).

That’s not to say that, in Hana-bi, Kitano has shed all humour in the pursuit of serious drama. His wry visual wit is present and accounted for: revelation through juxtaposition; taking the time to follow up on incidental characters after they no longer have any bearing on the narrative (one example being the man who tries to put the moves on Nishi’s wife on a beach and is beaten for his insolence; he is seen later by the roadside, drying his clothes and licking his wounds). Kitano also manages to find the right balance between the overall calm pacing of the film and its short bursts of ruthless physical brutality (including, at one point, some nasty business involving a pair of chopsticks), with the two styles gelling together better than one might expect.

After nearly two decades, Hana-bi remains a high point in Japanese cinema’s renaissance of the 1990s. Despite its (pleasantly) meandering quality, it retains enough toughness to appeal to those coming to Kitano’s body of work from other more genre-orientated contemporary Japanese filmmakers. Naturally, if you’re a Kitano fan, you already know what to do.

Third Window Films will be releasing two more films by Takeshi Kitano, Kikujiro (out on 22 Feb 2016) and Dolls (out on 14 March 2016).

Mark Player

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Black Mass

black mass
Black Mass

Format: Cinema

Release date: 27 November 2015

Distributor: Warner Bros. UK

Director: Scott Cooper

Writers: Jez Butterworth, Mark Mallouk

Based on the book by: Dick Lehr, Gerard O’Neill

Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane,
Adam Scott, Dakota Johnson

USA, UK 2015

122 mins

Scott Cooper’s violent thriller about Boston criminal Whitey Bulger fails to engage.

** out of *****

Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: The United States of America V. James J. Bulger (2014) is a modern masterpiece. It tells the same story as Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, a derivative ultra-violent homage to Goodfellas, which it desperately wants to be (failing miserably in that respect).

Berlinger’s picture is an alternately terrifying and heartbreaking documentary exposé of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, his protection at the hands of the FBI and the suffering of his hundreds of victims. It’s the victims who give Berlinger’s film oomph. Cooper’s picture does little more than blast through key high points of Bulger’s ‘career’. Bulger was an asshole and psychopath of the first order. This places Black Mass immediately at a disadvantage. There’s clearly no room for redemption and the only change of any consequence is just how appalling Bulger’s actions become.

Focusing too superficially on the family dynamic between Bulger, his State Senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and their tough, accepting Mom (Mary Klug), the movie mostly targets Bulger’s 30-year history as a federal informant via old neighbourhood chum, FBI agent John Connolly (superbly played by Joel Edgerton). Bulger is given complete immunity to commit horrific crimes so the FBI can get the dope on the Italian mob whom our ‘hero’ is attempting to rub out so his Irish Winter Hill Gang can completely control all criminal activities in Boston. Seeing as Bulger is so ruthlessly reprehensible (sans the perverse fun Scorsese injects into his pictures), so much of the proceedings are humourless and just plain unpleasant.

Much will be made of Depp’s performance as Bulger and he does indeed seem to be having the time of his life mugging malevolently under a variety of insane makeup designs. His flamboyant excess delivers prime entertainment value, but only to a point. It eventually becomes tiresome. I’ll take Depp’s work as Tonto in The Lone Ranger over this any day.

The biggest problem is a screenplay that doesn’t provide a strong enough adversary for Bulger to play against. This wasn’t a problem in Berlinger’s great documentary since Bulger’s prime victim was the protagonist, genuinely fearing for his life (and indeed getting rubbed out during the film’s shooting and subsequent Bulger trial). What drives the world of Black Mass is Bulger’s enablers, henchmen and virtually faceless rivals whom he stylishly dispatches. It’s the human factor that’s missing right across the board. Humanity is what makes great crime

Greg Klymkiw

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Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly

Format: Cinema

Dates: 21 September 2012

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: Entertainment Film

Director: Andrew Dominik

Writer: Andrew Dominik

Based on the novel by: George V. Higgins

Cast: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Sam Shepard

USA 2012

97 mins

Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to his sublime meditative Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) is a return to the small-time criminal fraternity that he made his name with in his fantastic debut Chopper (2000). Brad Pitt plays professional mob enforcer Jackie Cogan, who gets called in when a mob-run poker game gets robbed. Suspicion immediately falls on the unlucky Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who has form in knocking off his own games, but Cogan knows someone else is responsible and sets about finding them.

With his elderly colleague (Sam Shephard) wasting away, Cogan is living in a world that he is increasingly at odds with. The mob he works for are a bunch of timorous second-guessers, not even appearing in the movie but working through the intermediary of an unnamed driver, played by the ever reliable Richard Jenkins. Likewise, an old acquaintance whom Cogan calls in to assist, Mickey from New York (James Gandolfini), is an ageing drunk and no longer seems up to the job.

Based on an old George V. Higgins novel, the film refuses to run along regular generic lines. The plot is by the by. We know whodunit right from the get-go, as does Cogan. There’s a slippery sense of inevitability as the various men trundle through the film towards their fate. Dominik seems far more interested in creating a real, believable small-scale criminal underworld. Cogan is a professional surrounded by incompetence and naivety, but he also has a code by which he abides and a philosophy as convincing as it is chilling. In fact, it is the expounding of this philosophy against Richard Jenkins’s objections that provides much of the entertainment. Working well with a director he obviously likes, Pitt gives another mature and nuanced performance, allowing much of the first half of the film to go by, listening to others, just an audience to a series of great performances from the ensemble cast, before staking his claim and taking it over. ‘Very few guys know me,’ he tells a guy in a bar, and Pitt manages to exude a cool (and cold) threat without posturing, a murderer with a heart of gold and an opinion about everything, who doesn’t like killing people but will do whatever it takes to get his money.

From a wider perspective, with its run-down litter-strewn streets and boarded-up shop fronts, the film places us in a world of creeping failure, a country in irredeemable decline, a country where even the criminal fraternity lack energy, imagination and balls.

Killing Them Softly is an explicit ‘No you fucking can’t’ to the bland optimism of Obama’s America. ‘America’s not a country, it’s a business,’ Cogan declares. And according to this film, it’s a failing one at that.

John Bleasdale



Format: DVD

Release date: 20 September 2010

Distributor: Second Sight Films

Director: Richard Fleischer

Writer: Richard Murphy

Based on the novel by: Meyer Levin

Cast: Orson Welles, Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman

USA 1959

103 mins

The Big Important Lawyer is making his final speech. Around him, the court officials and the people in the public gallery sit, their eyes closed, like dreamers. Not a scene from a film, but from the making of one. During the shooting of Compulsion, a moody melodrama based on the Leopold & Loeb murder case, star Orson Welles, a showman afflicted with an intermittent and idiosyncratic form of shyness, told his director that he could not act with all these people looking at him. And so Richard Fleischer, not quite believing what he was doing, asked the extras to close their eyes.

It’s a nice image, complementary to the oneiric intensity of the film.

This particular murder case has inspired several films, from Hitchcock’s Rope to Tom Kalin’s Swoon. The attraction is obvious: apart from the kinky tickle of the two gay killers, and the socially shocking fact that they were from wealthy homes, there’s the idea of murder for the sake of art, to demonstrate one’s superiority from the herd. The Nietzschean angle is central to both Rope and Compulsion, and both films assert a humanist or Christian principle to oppose it.

Compulsion forms the first of an informal trilogy of excellent true-life crime thrillers made by Fleischer, continuing with the baroque, stylish The Boston Strangler, and concluding with the seedy and tragic 10 Rillington Place. The superiority of informal trilogies over the planned kind is their organic nature. (Another, inferior case history made by Fleischer, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, rather spoils the neatness of this scheme.)

In this version of the story, the names have been changed to protect - who, exactly? Twentieth Century Fox, one presumes. But Dean Stockwell’s Judd Steiner is as easily recognisable as Leopold, nervous and sensitive, as Bradford Dillman’s Arthur A Straus is as the cocky, psychopathic Loeb. And Orson Welles even used make-up, including a trademark false nose, to look like Leopold and Loeb’s defence attorney Clarence Darrow (called Jonathan Wilk here), whose closing speech is quoted verbatim. So why the roman í  clef dressing?

All three stars deservedly won awards at Cannes. While the script can’t quite decide on its central character and offers up dull norms Martin Milner (a decent actor with the face of a petulant baby) and Diane Varsi for us to ‘identify’ with, Stockwell sucks us in. Undeniably beautiful, his face moodily modelled by William C Mellor’s low-key lighting, Stockwell tells the story with his eyes more effectively than the over-eager exposition of Richard Murphy’s script. Dillman brings a puppyish enthusiasm to his deadly killer, and Welles threatens to sink the whole thing with a theatrical turn that bodily wrenches the story into a whole different genre.

Every crime story should have a Clarence Darrow in the third act. Unusual in being a defence attorney as cinematically popular as the murderers he defended, Darrow’s presence in a plot brings showbiz dazzle and intellectual rigour to the scene. Here Welles is opposed by the far less colourful, but nevertheless riveting performance of EG Marshall, whose clever investigation wins sympathy that must then be dispelled as the filmmakers now require us to root for the over-privileged, cold-blooded murderers to escape the death penalty. And we do!

This is a humane film with a strong liberal agenda, and if Fleischer never quite attains the jazzy style that invigorates The Boston Strangler with its Mondrian panels of split-screen images, or the tawdry atmosphere that reeks from 10 Rillington Place, he nevertheless delivers numerous striking images and moments. Anticipating Psycho by mere months, he surrounds Stockwell with stuffed birds, tilts the camera madly in a nod to The Third Man, and shoots one conversation reflected in a pair of eye-glasses, perhaps influenced by Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock hovers over the film, a benevolent blimp, and when Fleischer has an actor walk right into the camera, blocking it with his chest, following the technique Hitch used to hide reel changes in the supposedly single-shot Rope, one can imagine the master smiling indulgently.

David Cairns