Noir melodrama: Violent Saturday (Richard Fleischer, 1955)

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Violent Saturday mixes small-town melodrama with film noir. Bisbee, Arizona stands in for Bradenville, a place with an oddball on every corner. Boyd (Richard Egan), a wealthy boozer, drinks away his sorrows while his wife Emily (Margaret Hayes) sleeps around. Nurse Linda (Virginia Leith) is brazen about wanting Boyd, and happy to take on Emily to get him. Bank manager Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan) is a full-blown peeping tom. Librarian Elsie Braden (Sylvia Sidney) snatches purses to pay off her bank loan. Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) is comparatively normal, but his son is upset that Shelley’s an engineer, not a war hero.

In the midst of all this fetid to-ing and fro-ing step three crooks, played by Stephen McNally, J. Carroll Naish, and Lee Marvin. They’re planning a bank heist on Saturday, which is going to turn violent whether anyone likes it or not. An Amish farmer will be the only one who can save the day—good thing he’s played by Ernest Borgnine.

The hiest and its aftermath are reasonably entertaining, generating a certain amount of suspense. Marvin’s sadistic but insecure Dill is good sick fun (the moment where he steps on a child’s hand is rather nasty). His confrontation with Borgnine is not their best (how could it be?) but it’s a memorable one.

The melodrama is where the film falls down. Few of the characters are likeable, and most aren’t written or acted vividly enough to leap off the screen. Harry’s deserved come-uppance never arrives – which would be less egregious if Linda didn’t forgive him for spying on her at night. That this scene comes right before a sappy moment between Shelley and his son just doesn’t mix well.

Violent Saturday‘s genre play and eclectic cast make it a worthwhile curio, but it doesn’t measure up as a strong example of anything much.

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Formative years: Another Country (Marek Kanievska, 1984)

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If Another Country seems like the backstory for a John le Carré character, this speaks to that author’s espionage experience and knowledge: the film is based on the life of Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Five Soviet spies. Adapted by Julian Mitchell from his own play, it stars Rupert Everett as Guy Bennett, who’s coming to realise he’s not going to grow out of his attraction to other boys. Meanwhile, his Marxist best friend, Judd (Colin Firth), longs for an uprising against the British class system, and their school is unsettled by the suicide of another homosexual student.

Another Country verges on being a slight film, based more on picturesque settings and an attractive cast than anything else. The pace is slow and the story feels play-like, not just because it’s talky, but because its progression and resolution rely more on dialogue than action.

What saves the film, however, is the broader-reaching implications of the characters’ actions. Where these schoolboys remain loyal, compromise their ideals, tread upon others to get their way, or choose to simply conform, they’re clearly displaying the behaviour they’ll carry into their political and beaurecratic careers. When Guy blackmails the students he’s had liaisons with, he’s even fulfilling the fears surrounding closeted homosexuals in the Cold War. These students are Britain’s future.

Guy initially has no interest in Marxism. He’s a selfish character who only turns on Britain when he realises it won’t accept him. Judd is the one who wants to overturn the status quo; his arc is about realising where to be less rigid. He and Guy make for a complementary pair; Guy’s romance with Harcourt (Cary Elwes) has far less depth. Everett superbly captures Guy’s weak and soulful qualities, but Firth (shockingly young) all but steals the film with his dry humour.

Off the trail: Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

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Meek’s Cutoff has an esteemed cast, an original premise, and laudable goals. All of this is obscured, however, by the approach director Kelly Reichardt took in making it. As a story about settlers struggling to reach Oregon, the film concentrates far too much on the drudgery and frustration of the experience, severely trying the viewer’s patience.

The settler party is led by Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) and guided by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Despite Meek’s inability to find fresh water, let alone a trail, only Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) is able to express her lack of faith in the mountain man. When the group captures an Indian (Rod Rondeaux), the group must decide whether or not to put their survival in his hands.

Meek’s Cutoff’s overriding theme is the lack of agency given to women in this historical place and time. Conversations between the men are filmed from a distance, the sound low, while the women watch. At a crucial point, the men vote on a decision and exclude the women (who work as hard as the men) as a matter of course. Emily refuses passivity, however, taking action wherever possible. She can handle a gun and challenge Meek in an argument. She repairs the Indian’s shoes to try and obligate him to her. Eventually, she will have the final say over the Indian’s life.

In all of this, Meek’s Cutoff is an intriguing film. More intriguingly still, it keeps the race relations involved in this situation complex and on edge. Emily may need the Indian, but that doesn’t stop her from having contempt for him. Meanwhile, his trustworthiness remains in question. Some of his dialogue, when translated, gives clues about his intentions, but even then, we don’t know if this is a true alliance.

The film has little dialogue, distancing the viewer. Scenes that give further background to the characters appear briefly in a making-of featurette, but most of these did not make the final cut. Many scenes simply show the settlers walking, with a wagon wheel emitting a continual, irritating squeak.

Meek’s Cutoff has a strong sense of realism, and this sometimes adds to the storytelling. When Emily first sees the Indian and shoots into the air to summon the men, the time it takes her to reload adds tension to the moment. Similarly, the process whereby the settlers belay their wagons down an incline is painfully slow and difficult, with the cost of failure high. This is as exciting as Meek’s Cutoff gets, however. Want to watch the likes of Williams, Greenwood, Shirley Henderson and Paul Dano cook, sew and move wagons about? That’s mostly what this film is.

The viewer’s time could be paid off if the film had a conclusive ending. Conversely, its final ambiguity could be worthwhile if all that proceeded it had some sense of dynamism. As it stands, however, Meek’s Cutoff offers little reward and leaves a sense of wasted possibilities.

A wuxia curio: The Delightful Forest (Chang Cheh & Hsueh Li Pao, 1972)

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The Delightful Forest is a Shaw Brothers wuxia film that probably won’t win over anyone new to such things. It’s one of several movies the studio made based on the epic Chinese story The Water Margin, a tale easily long enough to support all of these. While the first, The Water Margin (also directed by Chang Cheh and Hsueh Li Pao in 1972) involved a huge cast of characters, TDF focuses on just one of them, acting as a prequel.

Wu Sung (Ti Lung) is renowned for killing a tiger with his bare hands. When he also kills his sister-in-law and her lover, to revenge his brother’s death, he is imprisoned. He is aided by the prison owner’s son, Shi En (Tien Ching), in return for ridding the town known as The Delightful Forest of the brutish Chiang Chung (Chu Mu). Getting rid of Chung isn’t so easy when he has a corrupt official on his side.

While The Water Margin is a film long enough to do its plot justice, TDF feels stretched out, moving slowly, with little sense of tension. Moreover, Song is not a complex character, and his superhuman feats are often rather silly. For most of the film, there’s no doubt he’s going to win every battle.

TDF’s strongest aspect is Lung himself. One of Shaw’s best martial arts stars, he’s pure class, strong both at acting and in action. He wrings everything he can out of the role.

This film is curious for a couple of other reasons. The soundtrack is taken straight from Morricone’s spaghetti western scores. That’s not uncommon for Chinese films of this era, but the tracks are used badly here. Meanwhile, it’s a laugh seeing Ching in this role – he tends to play sneaky characters (including in The Water Margin!) and it’s quite a change for him to have some moral fibre here.

Although most of the fights in TDF are not inspired, and there’s a couple of jarring edits, the last battle is excellent in its own right. It takes place in a wealthy household, with Song fighting Chung, two beaurecrats and a host of guards. Chang Cheh films often show their heroes fighting their way through hundreds of extras, but this is more believable in such close quarters. The fight unfolds with elegance and brutality. It’s a shame that the story has been so thin, without developing any emotional investment.

Song could quite plausibly not walk away from this fight. However, the film ends with him donning the monk’s disguise that the character wears in The Water Margin and its sequel, All Men Are Brothers. And so, TDF fails as a standalone film, ensuring that completionists are its best audience.

Ham-fisted action: The Professional (Georges Lautner, 1981)

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Not to be confused with Leon: The Professional, this film stars Jean-Paul Belmundo as Josselin Beaumont, a hitman betrayed by his own government. At times, Beaumont almost seems to be framed as the French Rambo, which is rather silly considering that Belmundo was, by this point, 48 years old. Worse, the film itself is meandering, dull and repulsively sexist.

The film has a few interesting aspects that are not well followed-through. The plot begins as a reasonable commentary on France’s post-colonial international meddling: Beaumont’s target is an African president whose political standing with France has little to do with how tyrannically he rules his country. The film also attempts to create in Beaumont a world-weary figure who, having lost his ideals, has no reason to live other than revenge (and getting laid a few last times).

Beaumont is difficult to sympathise with. His insistence on visiting his wife, Jeanne (Elisabeth Margoni), brings her to the attention of Inspector Rosen (Robert Hossein), who Beaumont knows full well will treat her brutally. Elisabeth faces some physical violence and is almost raped by a WPC (a shameless excuse to get the actress naked, and to use lesbianism in a pandering way). Beaumont exacts revenge on her behalf, but the fact remains that she only had those experiences because of him. As he proceeds towards his goal, the film still pretends that Beaumont’s likeable, but guilt doesn’t seem to be reason enough for old and new friends to help him.

Visually, The Professional looks lacklustre, barely above a TV production. This carries through in the action scenes, which are almost all clumsy. The comedic touch they often receive detracts from any sense of tension or from the bleak outlook the film attempts to portray. Beaumont’s original jail break is so poorly staged that it’s complete nonsense. A car chase in which some quite good stunt drivers tear through Paris streets, even below the Eiffel Tower, is the one bit of decent action in the film.

The last straw is that way The Professional uses Ennio Morricon’s “Chi Mai”. It is, in a word, incessant. It might have been enough to ruin the movie – if the movie was any good to begin with.