The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

the honeymoon killers 1970 film review

This is one of those films in which case the story of its production is more interesting than the film itself. Warren Steibel, a television producer, had an ambition to make a movie and convinced a wealthy friend to put up $150,000 to make it. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) had been released recently so Steibel suggested to his roommate, Leonard Kastle, a composer, that they make a film based on the true story of an obese nurse and a Spanish-American con man who fleeced and sometimes murdered women they met through lonely hearts clubs in the late 40’s. Steibel convinced Kastle to write the screenplay, arguing that he had the necessary experience since he had written librettos for his operas. They fabricated a screenwriter’s name for the producer’s sake while Kastle researched court records for the case and came up with the screenplay. After the producer read and approved the screenplay they revealed their ruse. Martin Scorsese was hired to direct but fired after a week when it became obvious that his approach to the film would cause them to exceed their limited budget. A few scenes that Scorsese directed were used in the film. Kastle ended up directing with assistance from cinematographer Oliver Wood, who has had the most illustrious career, besides Scorsese, of all those who worked on the film. Kastle detested Bonnie and Clyde due to its glamorization of violence and chose a quasi-documentary style for his film, making his characters and their deeds as unglamorous as possible. One of the advantages of using unfamiliar actors in a film is that the viewer is never sure whether they are acting or not which works especially well with Kastle’s documentary style. As one critic remarked, he forgot he was watching a film and felt he was peeping through a keyhole. I found it to be a bit like an early John Waters film minus the camp. It has its humorous aspects but overall one is left with a feeling of disgust which most likely was the intention. Despite writing several more screenplays, Kastle never made another film and refused offers to make a sequel or something similar to The Honeymoon Killers.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

The Honeymoon Killers  at imdb.com

As of April, 2017, The Honeymoon Killers is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.com.

Black Legion (1937)

black legion film review

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there has been an explosive rise in the number of hate groups in America since 1999. The numbers declined between the years 2011 and 2014 but rose by 14% in 2015 and though statistics for 2016 are not yet available it’s most likely that they’ve continued to rise as interest in white supremacist groups swelled thanks to the Trump campaign. Though Trump doesn’t belong to nor endorse any such group his comments on Muslims and other minority groups have energized hate groups.

The situation was similar in the 1930s. White supremacists in America encouraged by the rise of fascist and racist leaders in Europe and embittered by the dire economic situation in which competition for jobs was fierce flocked to hate groups like the KKK, the Silver Legion, the German American Bund, the Christian Front, and the group depicted in this film, a splinter group of the KKK, known as the Black Legion.  Some historians say that at its peak there were 60,000 to 100,000 members most of whom resided in Michigan and Ohio. Members included a former mayor, a city councilman, a chief of police, along with scores of native-born Protestant white men, many of whom had migrated from the South. Even anti-Semitic, union-hating Henry Ford is rumored to have been a secret supporter.  The Legion’s targets were immigrants, Catholics, Jews, blacks, nontraditional Protestant faiths, labor unions, farm cooperatives, various fraternal groups, and anyone deemed un-American by whomever was in charge of a local chapter.

Despite the disclaimer at the beginning of the film, the story is based on real events. In May of 1936 members of the Legion kidnapped and killed Charles Poole, a Catholic WPA organizer, for supposedly beating his Protestant wife. A group of twelve men were arrested and prosecuted. One of them, Dayton Dean, pleaded guilty and testified against other members thereby exposing what had been a secret organization which led to more arrests and the eventual demise of the group.

The film features Humphrey Bogart in his first lead role. It’s probably the only time he played a regular Joe with a wife and kid and probably the only time you will see him break down and cry in a role. After Frank Taylor (Bogart) loses a promotion at work to the son of an immigrant he gets involved with the Black Legion who, along with Frank, run the immigrant and his son out of town. Frank ends up getting the promotion but his nocturnal activities with the Legion begin interfering with his job and marriage. Frank Taylor starts out as a likable but easily misled character and Bogart manages to make him empathetic even when he is the most despicable. Many critics praised his performance and predicted his rise to stardom. Jack Warner, however, didn’t consider Bogart star material and didn’t cast him very often and the parts he did get were usually as a villain opposite James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. In fact, Robinson was considered for the role of Frank Taylor but deemed too foreign looking by Warner Brother executives. Of course Bogart eventually became a star after his breakthrough with High Sierra (1941).

Black Legion is one of several films from the 1930s that dealt with the issues of fascism and racism. Columbia Pictures’ Legion of Terror released in 1936 is based on the same story. Warner Brothers, which had been very successful with a string of gritty gangsters films beginning with Little Caesar (1931), was forced to produce more moralistic films when the Hays Code began to be enforced in 1935. So if you find the film too preachy or the message too blatant don’t blame the writers, blame Joe Breen! The Hays Code also didn’t allow the film to identify persons of any specific nationalities, ethnicities, nor religious affiliations as victims of the Legion which is one of the reasons there are no black people in the film, though they were certainly victimized by the group. The writers got around this as best they could by naming Frank’s competitor Joe Dombrowski, implying he was Polish and including a remark about his big nose hinting he was Jewish. Despite the efforts of the Breen Office the film still managed to offend some viewers and was banned in Austria, Switzerland, Cyprus, Finland, Trinidad, and France while the British and Australian releases were heavily censored. The KKK filed suit against Warner Brothers for using their insignia in the film but the case was thrown out of court.

The film ends with a speech given by the judge presiding over the trial of Frank Taylor and his cohorts. He ends his speech with a quote from an Abraham Lincoln speech which is as relevant now as it ever was: “Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.  The next two sentences from that speech were not included in the film but are especially relevant today: “Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage, and you are preparing your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of those around you, you have lost the genius of your own independence, and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises.”

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

Black Legion at imdb.com

As of January, 2017, Black Legion is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.com.

El infierno (2010)

el infierno 2010 film review

El infierno (Spanish for ‘Hell’) is Mexican writer-director Luis Estrada’s third installment of a trilogy of films on Mexico. The other two films are La ley de Herodes (1999) and Un mundo maravilloso (2006). In 2010 Mexico celebrated both the 200th anniversary of its Independence and the 100th anniversary of its Revolution. Ironically, El infierno, whose tagline is Nada que celebrar (‘Nothing to celebrate’), received funding from the government with the idea that the film would commemorate the dual milestones. The government denounced the controversial film but it practically swept the Ariels (Mexico’s Academy Awards) and made box office history. It tells the story of Benjamin Garcia (“El Benny”) who returns to his small town in Mexico after living in the U.S. for twenty years and finds that the only way to survive is to join up with one of the rival drug lords who happen to be brothers. Though the subject matter mainly concerns drug-trafficking, Estrada’s main target is the corrupt system that allows those with money to make their own laws, a scourge that afflicts just about every so-called civilized nation on the planet.

Despite the film’s biting political satire and tragic violence it is also darkly humorous in a way that calls to mind the films of the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino. But as Sam Adams points out in his excellent review Narcocorridos, the Scarface Effect and Hell on Earth, El infierno seems mostly to be influenced by Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Consider that in both films the protagonist’s name is Benny (Bennie in Peckinpah’s film), both are in love with a prostitute, and both have bosses who demand the heads of their enemies. Besides that, the actor who portrays Benny Garcia (Damián Alcázar) bears a physical resemblance to Warren Oates and sports a similar wardrobe. One of the key final scenes of El infierno could be seen as an homage to the climatic gun battle in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Like Tarantino, Estrada succeeds at making his protagonists likable in spite of their horrific deeds. In an interview he stated, “The important thing for me was to show some of the complexity of the phenomenon. This is not a problem about good guys versus bad guys like the government says.”

Several imdb reviewers who live in Mexico have commented that what this film depicts isn’t true for every town and city in their country. Indeed, that would be akin to watching one of Martin Scorsese’s gangster films and concluding that every American city is a mafia battleground. Estrada noted that many people tend to take the film as a documentary but he insists that it was never meant to be taken as realism. In his own words he was “trying to invite Mexicans to a collective reflection” on the state of their country and the War on Drugs which according to the Mexican government is succeeding. Even then president Felipe Calderón, though claiming he hadn’t seen the film, stated, “I would just ask that we be a bit more careful with Mexico’s name and image and we avoid demolishing national spirit.” Considering that homicides in Mexico were estimated to be over 164,000 between the years 2007 and 2014 it seems ridiculous to blame the film for tarnishing Mexico’s image. Mexico’s problems aren’t going to disappear by ignoring them. We need filmmakers like Estrada who aren’t afraid to tell the truth.

Some have credited the first film of Estrada’s trilogy, La ley de Herodes, with helping to bring about the defeat of the ruling political party which had been in power for 71 years in the 2000 presidential election. Unfortunately it seems that El infierno hasn’t had the positive effect that Estrada had hoped for. In spite of a few high-profile arrests of cartel kingpins new cartels have arisen, one of which, Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), has carried out attacks on the Mexican military. Vigilante groups formed to counter the cartels have begun fighting amongst themselves and sometimes even resorting to extortion, drug trafficking, and kidnapping just like the cartels with some of the vigilante groups suspected of being extensions of CJNG.

Here’s hoping that the film becomes better known in the U.S. and inspires some compassion for Mexicans who have sought refuge in America. After all, Americans are the Mexican drug lord’s best customers and complicit in their rise to power.

★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10)

El infierno at imdb.com

As of August, 2016 El infierno is available on DVD from Amazon.com

Last Known Address (1970)

last known address Dernier domicile connu film review

Last Known Address (Dernier domicile connu) is based on the eponymous novel, part of a trilogy of police procedurals featuring a police inspector and his rookie female partner by American writer Joseph Harrington. Lino Ventura plays the inspector, Marceau Leonetti, an efficient but sometimes brutal cop. An influential lawyer manages to malign his reputation which causes his demotion after Leonetti arrests his son for driving under the influence. Relegated to a position in a small town, Leonetti is paired up with novice Jeanne Dumas (Marlène Jobert – whose best claim to fame these days probably is being Eva Green’s mother) to catch perverts in movie theaters. Their work becomes more interesting and dangerous when they are assigned to track down a witness to a murder who has eluded the police for five years. The murderer, the head of a criminal gang, is due to stand trial in a week and his henchmen are out to kill the witness before he can testify. The suspense is built in and the noir atmosphere and downbeat ending make the film seem fresh despite its age though the investigations that turn out to be dead ends felt a bit repetitive. The only things that date it are some parts of the score, editing, and camerawork. The director, José Giovanni, whose real name was Joseph Damiani, was sentenced to death for collaborating with the Nazis, blackmail, and murder but ended up spending only eleven years in prison. Upon his release he wrote his first novel Le trou, based on his attempt to escape prison. Le trou and his third novel Classe tous risques were both adapted for films which were released in 1960. Dernier domicile connu is his third directorial effort.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

Last Known Address at imdb.com

As of June, 2016 Last Known Address is only available on a Region 2 DVD without English subtitles. However, a version with English subtitles is available for streaming at rarefilmm.com.

The Breaking Point (1950)

the breaking point film review

Ernest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not has been adapted to film several times. The first, and most famous, is the Howard Hawks film To Have and Have Not (1944) with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It has little in common with Hemingway’s novel other than the title, the name of the protagonist, and his occupation. The third cinematic adaptation was The Gun Runners  (1958), directed by Don Siegel with Audie Murphy in the lead role. The Breaking Point is most faithful to the novel and of all the film versions of his novels this was Hemingway’s favorite. The original setting in Florida during the Great Depression has been changed to California after WWII. Central character Harry Morgan (John Garfield) was a PT boat captain in the war who’s having a hard time fitting into the postwar prosperity bubble like many returning servicemen. He charters his boat for sport fishing but can’t seem to keep up on the payments on his boat and support his wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and two kids. Whereas the Hawks film transformed Hemingway’s novel into a tale of patriotism, The Breaking Point  is mostly about the post-war crisis of masculinity.

After a disastrous charter trip to Mexico Harry tells his wife Lucy to lay off him because he’s had a rough three weeks:

Lucy: Don’t give me that purple heart routine. You’ve got a wife and two kids to think about. Keeping us together, getting us enough to eat, clothes for our backs. That’s the biggest war there is and you better realize it.

Harry: It’s war all right and I’m scared.

It’s on that trip to Mexico that Harry meets Leona Charles (Patricia Neal), a good-time girl who tries hard to seduce Harry who truly loves his wife. Some reviewers felt the Leona character existed only to give the film some sex appeal but I disagree. When her attempts to seduce Harry are unsuccessful she has her own crisis of identity that mirrors Harry’s.  Her line, “I don’t like to think I’m not exciting, haven’t got much else” is echoed later by Harry’s: “All I got left to peddle is guts.” Their relationship is just as important to the film as Harry’s relationship to his wife.

Director Michael Curtiz who is best known for Casablanca (1942) also helmed Four Daughters (1938) which was Garfield’s screen debut that catapulted him to stardom. Garfield, born of poor Jewish immigrants, grew up in the Lower East Side of New York City and was a gang leader until he was introduced to acting in reform school. Lawrence Swindell writes in his biography: “”Garfield’s work was spontaneous, non-actory; it had abandon. He didn’t recite dialogue, he attacked it until it lost the quality of talk and took on the nature of speech.” He is considered a predecessor to Method actors like Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift. Garfield’s liberal political views caused him to be investigated by the HUAC to whom he refused to name names which put an end to his film career. Due to  a childhood case of scarlet fever, he had a weak heart and died aged 39 in 1951. Some say the investigation hastened his death. Ironically, after his death, the committee cleared him of any wrongdoing.

Warner Brothers did little to promote the film upon its release owing perhaps to the investigation. Due to a legal dispute the film wasn’t aired or released on DVD until 2011.  Perhaps now it will gain the wider appreciation that it deserves.

★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10)

The Breaking Point at imdb

As of March, 2016 The Breaking Point is available to buy on DVD or stream at Amazon.com.

Traffic in Souls (1913)

traffic in souls film review

Released at the height of the “White Slavery” panic, Traffic in Souls was the first in a series of films to capitalize on the sensationalism caused by reformers’ exaggerated claims that tens of thousands of young girls were being forced into a life of prostitution by criminal organizations. The real reasons women turned to prostitution had more to do with low wages, high housing costs, and a lack of educational and job training opportunities for young women in the early 20th Century. The reformers were also concerned by the upward mobility of young women who were living on their own without parental guidance and the rise of a dating culture where men and women mixed freely unchaperoned. They warned that sex traffickers lurked around dance halls, cinemas, etc. waiting for an opportunity to kidnap young girls and imprison them in a brothel. The film shows how this was supposedly done and like the reformers, suggests that the solution is to catch the crooks and send them to jail. Besides being extremely popular, the film was also very controversial and banned in many cities. The film industry was concerned about its image and had formed the National Board of Review in 1909 in response to the revocation of moving-picture exhibition licenses by New York City Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. who believed films were morally degrading. By self-regulation the industry sought to avoid governmental censorship. Though the Board passed Traffic in Souls after eliminations were made and citing its “educational” purposes by 1916 they refused to pass any films concerned with the theme of white slavery. This ban was continued by the Motion Picture Production Code which remained in effect until 1968.

Traffic in Souls is one of the first American feature length films and the first American feature film not based on a preextisting literary or dramatic work. It can also probably be considered the first feature length police procedural and exploitation film. In regards to the filmmaking style for the most part the camera is stationary and all scenes shot from the same angle. The acting is relatively naturalistic for 1913 though the female leads tend to be over the top while attempting to convey distress. Director George Loane Tucker adopts D.W. Griffith’s cross-cutting technique to keep things lively and build suspense. Many scenes were shot on location in New York City including Ellis Island.  The film’s commercial success wasn’t lost on Cecil B. DeMille who made a fortune directing titillating films about immoral behavior that were cloaked in the guise of moral edification.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

Traffic in Souls at imdb

As of December, 2015 Traffic in Souls is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.

The Grifters (1990)

the grifters film review

“Grifters got an irresistible urge to beat a guy who’s wise. There’s nothing to whipping a fool. Fools are made to be whipped, but to take another pro, who knows you, who has his eye on you, now that’s a score.” So says Mintz, Roy Dillon’s mentor in this adaptation of the Jim Thompson novel of the same name. Part of the fun of films about con games is the elaborate planning that goes into scamming the mark as in The Sting (1973) or in the complexity of the con as in House of Games (1987). The Grifters provides some of that fun when we’re shown how Roy operates his nickel and dime cons or in a flashback while we witness a more elaborate con which Roy’s girlfriend, Myra, was involved in or we see how Roy’s mother, Lilly, works the horse races. But when these three con artists turn on each other the story becomes dark and disturbing, “as if pulp fiction meets Greek tragedy,” as director Stephen Frears put it.

Dark and disturbing was Jim Thompson’s trademark. Also known as the “Dimestore Dostoevsky,” he often chose to write about grifters, losers, and psychopaths in order to express his nihilistic point of view. Other Thompson novels adapted to film include The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, and After Dark, My Sweet, the latter of those was also released in 1990. Thompson wrote the screenplays for two early Kubrick films, The Killing and Paths of Glory though he was not properly acknowledged for his work by Kubrick. Another screenplay written for Kubrick, Lunatics at Large, was misplaced and only rediscovered after Kubrick’s death. A film production is currently in development.

The film adaptation of The Grifters was the first product of Martin Scorsese’s own independent production company. Initially he planned to direct but brought in Frears so he could make Goodfellas instead. He also hired Donald E. Westlake, himself a prominent crime novelist, to write the screenplay. Westlake was nominated for an Oscar, losing to Michael Blake for Dances With Wolves. Anjelica Huston, who played Lilly Dillon, was nominated for Best Actress, losing to Kathy Bates in Misery. Annette Bening (Myra) lost Best Actress in a Supporting Role to Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost and Frears’ nomination for Best Director was trumped by Kevin Costner for Dances With Wolves.  The classy score by Elmer Bernstein (To Kill a Mockingbird) evokes the classic noir era without sounding old-fashioned.  Like After Dark, My Sweet, the film does not visually mimic classic noir conventions. Both are set in sunny Southern California though there are subtle suggestions of previous eras in The Grifters with wardrobes and interiors. Though critically acclaimed at the time, the film wasn’t a hit at the box office but has since developed a strong cult following. It’s plain to see that The Grifters had an influence on the pulp revival of the early 90’s, Reservoir Dogs (1992), with its ubiquitous sunglasses and skinny ties being one of the most obvious examples.

★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10)

The Grifters at imdb.

As of December, 2015, The Grifters is available to rent at Netflix.