Tag Archives: crime film

Topkapi (1964)

I sat down to watch Topkapi based on a confluence of two events: I had just bought the DVD in an attempt to add to my Dassin collection, but with no particular plans to immediately watch it, and the film had just been admiringly mentioned in an episode of the TV show Bones. Not that that show could be called an arbiter of good taste (not even mine for watching what is, at best, a guilty pleasure), but the coincidence amused me and got me to pop in the DVD when a two-hour window of free time opened soon after.

As told in a somewhat psychedelic introductory sequence, an apparently wealthy “cougar” (Melina Mercouri) with few sexual or criminal inhibitions and a love for emeralds has her sights set on a new object of fascination: a jewel-encrusted dagger showcased in an Istanbul museum. To acquire it, she contacts an on-again-off-again lover (Maximilian Schell) and hatches a plan. It is decided to rely on amateurs instead of professional thieves to steal the weapon, in order to escape unwanted attention by investigators.

In a different movie, another reason for that might be that the more naive and inexperienced colleagues would make it easier to betray and dispose of them afterwards; this idea is briefly implied by the movie, but not spelled out explicitly or executed, and wouldn’t fit its tone, anyway, which is far too light-hearted for such a noir-ish twist. Continue reading


M (1931)

M announces from the get-go what the film is going to be about. Before we even see a moving image, we hear a child counting out a playmate with a gruesome rhyme about a bogeyman who will soon come grinding down those present. A woman who overhears the kids cusses them out, but that only stops them until she’s out of sight, upon which they resume their game. To them, it’s abstract entertainment with no connection to real life, a naivety that carries through the rest of the film. To her, it’s a reminder of the very real threat of a serial child murderer (played to great effect by Peter Lorre) on the loose in Berlin, then one of the largest cities in the world.

This beginning also signals the importance of sound to the internal structure of the film, one of Germany’s first using the new technology. There is no non-diegetic music, something that would have been weird for a silent movie, much less one that could finally play back the same background music in synch in every cinema showing it. In fact, there are even stretches of the film that are fully devoid of any sound: no music, no speech, no effects. Those are quite eerie, certainly for a modern viewer not used to complete silence in films, especially when briefly broken by individual sound effects. The lack of non-diegetic music also accentuates every moment in which music is being heard, mainly in the form of whistling. Most prominently and famously, Hans Beckert, the killer, whistles a portion from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt (1876) when in pursuit of his compulsion; while not heard in its entirety, only in broken segments, the full piece is played ever faster and more chaotic until its conclusion, a fitting melody for a man forced to kill by his inner demons. Continue reading

>Frank Sinatra as Tony Rome< (1967, 1968)

After being passed over for the lead role in the gumshoe film Harper (1966), Frank Sinatra made a handful of similar films in the late 60s, in two of which he played the same character: Tony Rome, Miami private eye. Rome, the opening song for the eponymously titled first film helpfully informs us (“mothers lock your daughters in”), is a ladies’ man. His attraction for the female form is made obvious by two close-up shots of ladies’ behinds that essentially bookend the first film and are echoed in the second. His own irresistibility to women is portrayed as mixed in the first film (a young heiress suggests she’d “do anything” for him to take her case, but Rome doesn’t actually score in the entire movie), but sheds all hints of irony in Lady in Cement (1968), the one-year-later sequel which sees Rome hit on by not one, but two exotic dancers as well as a wealthy socialite. A minor character in the second film reduces a dead girl to her potential for motherhood without pushback. Females in general have very little non-sexual agency, being pushed around by pimps, crime bosses and other men.

Beyond being a bit of an ego booster for a Frank Sinatra who was, by then, in his 50s, the films’ casual sexism as well as the more than casual homophobia seem to be part of an attempt by an older generation to adapt to the cultural changes brought by the 1960s. Tony Rome especially has a lot of dialogue that was probably deemed risqué for that time, but comes across as mightily forced (for instance, a female character freely admits that she’s used to and okay with being called a slut, there’s an extended bit with an old lady wanting Rome to pay attention to her pussycat, and a small subplot concerns the insatiability of a newlywed woman). Continue reading

Du rififi chez les hommes (1955)

My Blu-ray set makes a valiant effort to translate the word “rififi”, but can’t quite convey all of its aspects. That’s understandable if you consider that even the film itself requires a three-minute musical number to explain what it means, including an admission that it won’t be found in any dictionary. It’s Parisian gangster slang that expresses, among other things, violent conflict resulting out of a particularly male disposition for roughness and macho posturing.

Variations of “rififi” are plentiful in the film. It’s in the air in the very first scene, where a card game briefly threatens to spill over into violence because a character fresh out of prison doesn’t have enough money to continue playing. That individual, Tony, is the main character, an over-the-hill criminal who makes a half-hearted attempt to stay on the straight and narrow, but soon embraces his old life. The catalyst setting him on the path of wanting in on one last score is an encounter with his old girlfriend, who has naturally moved on to another underworld figure. Mildly apologetic, she expresses her willingness to help Tony out, which he takes as an invitation to whip her with his belt. In his eyes – and maybe in hers, since she just stands there and takes it -, that is the just punishment for her disloyalty. Having indulged in one kind of rififi, he’s ready for the next: the brazen burglary of a jewelry store with his old crew, who had just been waiting on his participation to get rolling.
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Dr Mabuse, der Spieler (1922)

Dr Mabuse, der Spieler (Doctor Mabuse the Gambler) is one of the oldest films I have seen, due to some unfortunate gaps in my education. I’m not completely unfamiliar with dramatic silent films, but I know fewer of them than someone who proclaims to love movies should. So I approached this film with a little trepidation, not knowing quite what I should expect and whether I would like it.

As if to silence timid doubters like myself, the movie starts off with a rapidly-paced heist scene that turns out to be an elaborate bit of stock market manipulation on the part of the villain (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). The sequence is tremendously exciting and doesn’t feel old-fashioned at all, lack of spoken dialogue notwithstanding. If anything, editing and special effects, limited though they are, impress as thoroughly modern and sophisticated.

The film can’t quite sustain that pace, but it doesn’t need to; the viewer gets hooked with the intro and is then along for the ride, which is doled out in discrete, 20 to 30 minute segments.
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Gone Baby Gone (2007)

When Ben Affleck decided to move behind the camera for his first feature film as director, it was treated by many as not just a career shift in the vein of Clint Eastwood, but something like a Hail Mary pass to stay relevant in the movie industry, a desperate move after a string of films that were either critically drubbed, box office disappointments, or both. Even before seeing Gone Baby Gone, I’d thought this estimation was a bit harsh. I don’t think Affleck is a brilliant actor, but he’s decent enough when given good material, and has proven in the past that he can provide his own good material when given the opportunity (as in Good Will Hunting, 1997, which he co-wrote). In that, he does resemble Eastwood. So I’ve been curious for years whether all the praise Gone Baby Gone got from critics when it came out was warranted or an overcorrection because their artificially low expectations were exceeded.

The film’s plot doesn’t take long to get set up: Helene McReady’s (Amy Ryan) young daughter disappears. The police (Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris) don’t have many leads, so the child’s uncle (Titus Welliver) asks private investigators Patrick (Casey Affleck) and Angie (Michelle Monaghan) for help. They canvass elements of the neighbourhood unwilling to cooperate with police and soon find a connection to a local drug lord.

As you can see from the many brackets, that’s quite a cast, and they have some interesting characters to play: Patrick, it is implied, is a former bad boy with anger issues who comes from the same neighbourhood as Helene. Morgan Freeman’s police captain once lost his own child to a murderer and struggles to honour that memory. Helene is crass and superficial and negligent, but she does appear to love her daughter, and what we hear of her background and how she is brought to life by Amy Ryan make her more sympathetic than maybe she ought to be.
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