CineSlice

A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: November, 2015

“The October Man” (1947)

"British Noir" cover art(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, wherein I’ll be taking on each of the films in Kino’s British Noir DVD collection throughout the month of November. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)

 

"The October Man" poster

 

Life hasn’t been the same for Jim Ackland (John Mills) since the accident. When a child in his care became one of many victims in a horrible bus crash, he was damaged in more ways in one, his body broken and his soul overwhelmed with feelings of guilt. After an extended stay in the hospital, Jim is released in hopes of picking up his life’s pieces, and for a while, it looks like he’s on his way. Between finding a new job and a new love (Joan Greenwood), Jim’s emotional wounds seem to have finally healed…until an awful new incident opens them right back up. After a neighbor is found strangled to death, all eyes are on our man, whose sketchy psychological background has made him the prime suspect. Could Jim’s mind have forced him to kill after all, or could a murderer be setting him up to take the rap for his or her own homicidal urges?

Stories centered around mentally-anguished leads tend to be dicey in execution, but The October Man puts on a suspenseful show without seeming gimmicky or unfair. While several other films have used unreliable protagonists as license to excuse whatever wild plot twists they yanked from their hindquarters, this one organically incorporates Jim’s condition into the narrative. Much of the time leading up to the big murder is spent dwelling upon the stigma resulting from Jim’s stay in the hospital, with gossip and hearsay bearing down on the poor gent before the dirty deed is done. Such rumors are used against him after the act is committed, and with so little evidence supporting his innocence, we can’t help but feel small twinges of doubt towards a character we’ve otherwise come to trust and sympathize with so deeply. But although the answers are ultimately revealed with around twenty minutes left on the clock, The October Man continues to enthrall viewers in ways that don’t betray its paranoid atmosphere for a second. Even as signs of his complicity in the killing pile up, Mills effortlessly relates Jim’s inherent pain and sways our concern over to his camp, while the supporting cast (which includes Edward Chapman and Joyce Carey) comes off as a peculiar bunch that keeps the audience guessing as to who’s friend or foe. The flick also saw the feature-length debut of England’s Roy Ward Baker, a filmmaker who proved plenty capable of handling high emotions and spooky scenery without going over-the-top even this early in his legendary career.

People like to ascribe the term “Hitchcockian” to thrillers of all colors, but it suits The October Man rather nicely. The means by which the movie toys with our feelings and those of its harried hero can be downright devious, yet no matter what sort of ending caps off the story’s nail-biting journey, the impact it leaves will have been more than earned. Heartbreaking and masterfully moody, The October Man is one noir that does its mother genre proud.

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“Hardware” (1990)

"Hardware" poster

 

As a guy who spent much of the early 2000s frequenting horror message boards, believe me when I say that 1990’s Hardware had a downright messianic reputation. You could barely click on a thread without seeing this grungy slice of cyberpunk’s praises being sung, its visionary genius hailed and initial dismissal by critics and viewers alike condemned. Hardware was, by virtually all accounts, a mistreated masterpiece for the ages, so it’s little wonder that yours truly just had to seek it out and satisfy his angsty, teenaged curiosity. While the film didn’t do much for me when I finally secured a copy, the tenacity of its image in the horror community convinced me that perhaps my own heightened expectations were the problem. However, revisiting it again years later has made it able to determine that while Hardware is a picture committed one-hundred percent to its boldly bleak style, such doom and gloom is all it has going for it. Although made by a clever crew of talented folks who know better, the flick instead comes across as the product of its most impressionable demographic: angry young kids who mistake being oppressively dark for being deep.

Our story unfolds in a world that’s long since flipped its lid. From technology to social order, just about everything is stuck in a state of decay, with those not roaming the vast deserts where cities once stood crammed together in pathetic excuses for what’s left of civilization. This is what soldier and scavenger Mo (Dylan McDermott) reluctantly calls home, stopping by for the occasional hook-up with his sculptor girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis). For Christmas, Mo gifts his beloved a robotic head bought from a nomad, but little does he know of what horror this kind gesture will bring down upon them. What the lovers assume is a leftover part from a maintenance drone actually belongs to a military prototype, a machine with one objective: wipe out everything it sees. Once the bucket of bolts becomes activated, its programming kicks in, trapping Jill in her own apartment and engaging in a most deadly game of cat and mouse. But not only is this metal monster smart, it’s also incredibly resilient, using each time it’s supposedly dismantled to evolve into an even more blood-curdling form.

It’s easy to root for a movie like Hardware — or, more specifically, its director. The unfair shakes that filmmaker Richard Stanley’s been dealt are the stuff of legend, from the editing woes suffered by 1992’s Dust Devil to the avalanche of wrong that was his temporary time on the set of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. Wanting to position Stanley as a hero whose vision seems to be under constant fire is only natural, especially given his debut feature’s very un-Hollywood tone. Hardware presents its dystopian society as a joke, with laughably little regard paid for what’s left of government, law, or basic human decency. Rules are scarcely-enforced, and the populace is doomed to perish from radiation poisoning at one point or another, so hope is simply something this tale does not trade in. This nihilistic attitude is further reflected in the picture’s junkyard chic production design and constantly-pulsing heavy metal soundtrack, but aside from being very good at feeling exceptionally grim, nothing else about it comes off as terribly gripping. In establishing a setting so devoid of reasons people should care about anything, Stanley eliminates the viewer’s motivation to become invested in the story, failing to grab us via compelling social commentary, protagonists with fascinating backgrounds, or what have you. Many have found this punk rock, “screw everything” philosophy utterly absorbing, but all this posturing can’t help but feel meant to cover the full shallowness of Stanley’s main narrative.

Plus, while unpleasant aesthetics are what Hardware is all about, it does backfire on the film from time to time. To simultaneously pinch pennies and ratchet up the intensity, Stanley confines most of the action to Jill’s apartment, where his staging is difficult to watch for all the wrong reasons. There’s keeping your big bad monster in the dark to build up suspense, and then there’s outright not making up your mind on what the thing looks like or what it can do, to the point of leaving the audience more confused than petrified. Hardware‘s chief threat is, at certain times, this unwieldy goliath of gears that stomps after Jill like a bull in a china shop, yet on other occasions, it can move about as stealthily as can be and even hide behind a set of window blinds completely undetected. You never grow to fear the robot or what it represents, because you’re too busy trying to figure out what the hell its deal is, and the more carnage Stanley has it perpetrate, the more viewers are enticed to call shenanigans on what would otherwise be waved away by the all-powerful hand of movie magic. There also isn’t much to say about the picture’s human element; William Hootkins is loving every perverse minute of his role as a peeping tom, but while McDermott and Travis themselves give fine performances, their wistful delivery of Stanley’s dismal dialogue doesn’t make it sound any more deep.

Hardware goes for broke and makes no compromises in its pessimistic view of things to come, and for that, it’s absolutely commendable. It’s hard for any flick to wholly adhere to a downer mindset, so for Stanley make nary a concession to mainstream moviegoing tastes is no small feat. Ugliness is necessary in cinema, but where Hardware stumbles is in being so depressing, it ends up with nothing interesting to say.

“They Met in the Dark” (1943)

"British Noir" cover art

(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, wherein I’ll be taking on each of the films in Kino’s British Noir DVD collection throughout the month of November. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)

 

"They Met in the Dark" poster

 

A vessel in Her Majesty’s navy. A German U-boat. A fateful encounter that the Allied Forces barely escaped with their lives. Commander Richard Heritage (James Mason) swears that he didn’t have orders to serve as the downed ship’s escort, but he’s nevertheless assigned blame for the incident and swiftly dismissed from his post. His reputation in peril, Heritage decides to retrace his steps and track down the mystery girl who might have the answers for how this tragedy came to be. Unfortunately, our man’s investigation lands him in further hot water, as being caught in close proximity to a fresh corpse by Canadian visitor Laura Verity (Joyce Howard) brands him a killer. Now armed with even more motivation to prove his innocence, Heritage continues digging deeper and deeper for the truth, only to uncover a sinister conspiracy that not only wants to see him dead but millions of innocents, too.

They Met in the Dark bears a closer resemblance to a breezy espionage caper (a la The 39 Steps) than to a dyed-in-the-wool film noir. The set-up is certainly there (what with focusing on a man accused of awful crimes he didn’t commit), but save for a few instances of moody photography, there isn’t anything terribly spooky or mysterious about this flick. However, while exhibiting a frothier tone is just fine, They Met in the Dark is almost aloof to a fault, playing itself so cool that the stakes lose nearly all their urgency. Despite being charged with treason and sabotage during wartime, Heritage never appears that worried; it’s a move meant to give the character a witty and unflappable edge, but when he looks like he couldn’t be less concerned with saving his own skin, how can we accept him wanting to save the world from those pesky Nazis? The audience rarely feels the weight of a global threat pressing on the characters, and Verity’s string of comedic misunderstandings come off as forced and only serve to make her seem like an unnecessary ditz. That said, the actors do share a playful rapport (with Mason proving particularly suave), the story’s many turns become more intriguing as things progress, and at least a couple scenes embrace the noirish qualities the film would have been better off emphasizing as a whole, rather than unintentionally undermining its own heavy themes.

You could say that They Met in the Dark is The Tourist of its time, ninety minutes of attractive people getting involved with spies, secrets, and all that jazz that are promptly forgotten about moments after everything wraps up. That’s not to say this isn’t a dapper production with a handsome cast and a few good times to be enjoyed, but it isn’t impressionable in the slightest, with its inconsistent comedy and thrills barely enough to get you through an inaugural viewing, let alone compel you to make a return visit years down the road. Although it looks and sounds just fine, They Met in the Dark isn’t likely to inspire any strong feelings within the hearts of noir fans, be they of joy or dread.

“Targets” (1968)

"Targets" poster

 

The circumstances behind the creation of 1968’s Targets are akin to the sort of cinematic dare that’d leave a grin on Lars von Trier’s puss. When a young Peter Bogdanovich sought to make his directorial debut, the one and only Roger Corman agreed to finance, albeit with some caveats. Boris Karloff had to be cast (having owed Corman a couple days of work), and footage from Karloff’s previous spooktacular The Terror had to be incorporated somehow. Filmmakers who only wanted to get their feet in Hollywood’s door would have handed in a rush job without a second thought, but Bogdanovich was more ambitious than that, using this opportunity to bridge the gap between the horrors of the screen and those which we live alongside unwittingly. Targets exposes the men behind the monsters, both reflecting the cynicism with which many view chintzy old fright flicks and using it to embolden those same people against the real life nightmares next door.

Byron Orlok (Karloff) has had enough with show business. Though his name is still in high demand, the famous horror star is fed up with the movies and wants to retire with as much dignity as he can. But while the big-screen boogeyman’s cohorts try convincing him to stay in the game, a very real threat is about to strike within the heart of suburbia. Now is when Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), a friendly and unassuming young man, has chosen to put his sizable arsenal to use and embark on a shooting spree. From members of his own family to random passersby, no one is safe from Bobby’s sights, with the inevitability of his capture serving as all the motivation he needs to see his plans through to their full, deadly extent. Eventually, the cold-blooded killer makes his way to a drive-in theater where Byron is set to make his last public appearance, an arena where the two figures will confront one another and show what these “monsters” are made of.

Targets displays a prescience that’s preserved its chilling nature for almost fifty years. Just as the debate over what makes seemingly “normal” people commit heinous acts of violence rages on to this day, Bogdanovich doesn’t pretend to have the answers for why Bobby snaps, nor does he exploit the scenario for cheap, ripped-from-the-headlines thrills. His primary goal is to capture the confusion and stark terror that results when such a rampage is perpetrated by the most harmless-looking individuals, and he succeeds. Plainness is this picture’s greatest ally, as its bids for authenticity pay off with the absence of any unnecessary elements instructing viewers how to feel and when. Bobby’s spree is carried out in an eerie silence, with no clichéd musical cues or dialogue explaining the man’s inner workings in earshot. The casual way in which he picks off innocent motorists comes off every bit as frightening as Bogdanovich intended, and yet it works well with the levity Byron’s subplot provides. He spends the bulk of the film resigning himself to the fact that no one finds him scary anymore, which is Bogdanovich’s means of preparing us for the climax, wherein Bobby, for all the horror he’s unleashed over the past ninety minutes, is shown to be the pathetic coward that he is deep down.

Still, for as cleverly as Targets weaves these two narrative threads together, the picture’s storytelling can be a bit on-the-nose at times. As hands-off as he is where Bobby is concerned, Bogdanovich frequently has the players in the Byron side of the plot directly explain the themes they’re trying to get across to the audience. Some extra subtlety would have been a big help, but it’s hard to argue with the compelling results yielded from what the movie does accomplish. Karloff is an absolute delight as Byron, a performer convinced that he hasn’t any intimidating bones left in his body, only to prove otherwise the closer Targets creeps towards its conclusion. He even sells you on Byron’s self-deprecating view of his career, only for a scene as simple as a spooky fable told to his entourage to blindside and remind you of the hypnotic sway he held over viewers until the very end. O’Kelly, on the other hand, is a man of decidedly fewer words but no less of a magnetic presence, turning in a terrifyingly grounded performance as Bobby. His murderous tendencies aren’t so telegraphed that you can’t see him passing for an otherwise upstanding citizen before the shooting starts, but you get enough of an idea as to how his everyday life could push him over the edge, without having to be given an explicit motivation. The scariest villains are the ones we never see coming, and O’Kelly truly gives us one for the books.

It’s a bummer that Bogdanovich never made anything else like Targets, as he’s a total pro at conjuring nigh-unbearable tension with seemingly little effort. The young director didn’t just surpass expectations given his budgetary limitations; he swung for the fences and knocked a movie as observant as it is suspensefully crafted out of the park. One part thriller and one part showbiz satire, Targets remains captivating from its comedic first frames to its white-knuckle finale.

(Targets is available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.)