Without Fear

Ryan K Lindsay – Writer

Category: film

Top 100 Flicks List

Man, this took me far too long to put together.

I’d take a few minutes each night to consider what my top 100 flicks of all time were, and the list filled up, I ran past 100 quickly and easily, but then I had to cull. And then I’d remember one I’d forgotten and things would shuffle. And then I could never align the order.

This list, right here and now, is correct at time of publication but can and will change instantly as soon as I hit Publish, and it should. Trying to line up where OFFICE SPACE fits on a list somewhere alongside APOCALYPSE NOW brings up all kinds of sweats. But the flick is definitely on my list, no question, so it becomes placing it in the ‘right’ spot. bah, like art, this list wasn’t finished, it was abandoned.

For all of this, I blame John Lees – the Scottish gent put up his 100 list and my brain wouldn’t let it go [go see his here – LINK]

This list is an insight into my brain. It’s a wholistic picture of things that inform me, that make me smile, and that I dig. This isn’t trying to state what’s ‘best,’ nor what should be here. This is me across ~200 hours of cinema. I hope you dig, and maybe find something new to tuck into.

100 AMERICAN HISTORY X
99 28 DAYS LATER

98 TRADING PLACES
97 PSYCHO
96 THE RUNNING MAN
95 THE SHINING
94 MOON
93 BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY
92 COMING TO AMERICA
91 THE ‘BURBS
90 SE7EN
89 OFFICE SPACE
88 A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
87 ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
86 WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
85 PREDATOR
84 DIE HARD
83 COOL HAND LUKE
82 DAY OF THE DEAD
81 BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID
80 THEY LIVE
79 FIRST BLOOD
78 ZODIAC
77 ZOOTOPIA
76 THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
75 THE SOCIAL NETWORK
74 THE CONVERSATION
73 THE INCREDIBLES
72 IRON MAN
71 ARMY OF DARKNESS

70 BOOGIE NIGHTS
69 DONNIE DARKO
68 THE EVIL DEAD
67 LOOPER
66 IN BRUGES
65 BONNIE + CLYDE
64 AMELIE
63 CITIZEN KANE
62 THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY
61 OUT OF SIGHT
60 FLETCH
59 CASABLANCA
58 BLACK SWAN
57 ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
56 THE PAPER
55 THE FLY
54 THE BROOD
53 ALIENS
52 SHAUN OF THE DEAD
51 APOCALYPSE NOW
50 STAND BY ME
49 LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL
48 GOODFELLAS
47 VIDEODROME
46 TRUE ROMANCE
45 12 ANGRY MEN
44 THE TOWN
43 FIGHT CLUB
42 THE IDES OF MARCH
41 BRAVEHEART
40 THE FRENCH CONNECTION
39 STAR WARS IV – A NEW HOPE
38 RESERVOIR DOGS
37 THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
36 THE DARK KNIGHT
35 GOOD WILL HUNTING
34 THE PRESTIGE
33 ENTER THE DRAGON
32 ALIEN
31 INCEPTION
30 ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
29 STAR WARS V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
28 HALLOWEEN
27 KISS KISS BANG BANG
26 REAR WINDOW
25 JFK
24 THE GODFATHER
23 CHASING AMY
22 RAGING BULL
21 THE BIG LEBOWSKI
20 RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
19 THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
18 BODY HEAT
17 [500] DAYS OF SUMMER
16 MEMENTO
15 INSIDE OUT
14 THE PROPOSITION
13 M*A*S*H
12 TAXI DRIVER
11 THERE WILL BE BLOOD
10 CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
9 VERTIGO
8 CHINATOWN
7 THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
6 AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON
5 JAWS
4 BLADE RUNNER
3 PAN’S LABYRINTH
2 MILLER’S CROSSING
1 THE THING

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What is Best in Life? – 2015 Edition

2015, I believed.

BEST COMIC

DEADLY CLASS by Wes Craig and Rick Remender

Just loved every single panel in this crazy messed up book. It’s a wild idea, wrapped up by a wide array of intriguing characters, in a $10 intro trade, with some of the most nuanced and superb comic making I’ve seen in a while. Just an utter joy to behold – well, in a sense of how it is made…most of the actual narrative is as bleak as leftover coffee the next morning.

BEST TV

HANNIBAL

Just the best in show for everything, really. This year was S3 and it closed out the show and did it so masterfully that I’m still in awe. This is one of the few things I just keep bringing up to people and gushing to them about. It’s a show I want to share because it represents so many things about storytelling I love, and I wish I could do.

I’d love more seasons but I also love how tight and wonderfully this is all stitched up. This year, everything else paled in comparison.

BEST MOVIE

INSIDE OUT

And I mean hands down, best flick of the year. I crazy loved the idea but the execution was better. With a simple narrative throughline, they then explore emotions in such a deliberate and delightful way that my 5yo man dug it but I was floored by it. I cried twice in the damn flick and then when I got home and tried to explain it to the wife I started tearing up again. She thought I must’ve had a stroke. So good, and who knew we needed HERMAN’S HEAD the kid adaptation so bad?

BEST MUSIC

NEW BLASKOOOO!

Yes, a new Sarah Blasko album dropped and she’s still amazing. ETERNAL RETURN has fuelled some words in the last few months.

BEST PODCAST

COMIXLAUNCH

Every time I listen to this podcast about using Kickstarter for making comics it inspires me to make some more comics. I just get the fire in the gut again. You need to have that fire, and stoke it, and shift it, and kick it, if you’re going to survive this stupid ride we repeat again and again making comics.

The ComixLaunch podcast is just gasoline all up in my bonfire of life. I was also on an ep, dig it, it’s all about kickstarting DEER EDITOR and doing a digital only campaign from Australia [LINK]

BEST BOOK

ELEKTROGRAD: RUSTED BLOOD by Warren Ellis

This ebook was like two bucks or something stupid and it was a tight, short, very interesting read. And I’m finding it hard to hang on to novels because they are taking me crazy amounts of time to get through so short novella stuff is just right and this book was aces [LINK]

Are there other best things from this year I should be considering? No app jumped out at me this year, and no way could I single out all the cool art I’ve been able to scope in my travels with collaborators, so I think this is it.

2015 was a building block year, and it built in me patience. Hopefully I can use it to calmly slaughter 2016.

NOIRVEMBER 029 ~ Chinatown

This flick only gets better with age, and you appreciate that vintage also the older you are. As such, I want to ensure we time it just right that CHINATOWN is the last flick I watch right before I die.

chinatown

A bunch of the 70s cinema new wave casting their hands over the old gumshoe trope was always going to be something interesting but no one could imagine how masterful they’d get with so many of the old toys.

Robert Towne wrote a script about a P.I. caught up in intrigue and sinister people involved in shady water dealings. From there, a tale unravels where the ugly beauty of the downfall is that it’s a noir for us all. It’s a real world spiral. Because the narrative should have us following the intrigue, the political mess, and Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes certainly does. But that’s not the problem. That’s not the problem at all.

The problem is that people are worse than you ever expect them to be, even the nice ones, and especially the bad ones. The bad ones become something nearly demonic. Roman Polanski touches upon this in ROSEMARY’S BABY where a husband sells his wife and unborn child to the devil and it’s all very theatrical and weird but here, in CHINATOWN, it still feels real. Hell, it could be ripped from today’s headlines quite easily if you know where you are looking.

And when bastard fiction starts to appear under our newspaper masthead then you know we’re all digging deep down.

Once this story moves past the water, we get to the incest. And it blindsides you, because it shouldn’t happen that way, but that’s sadly exactly how it happens. The real world doesn’t lay neat clues, and it doesn’t just do one bad thing and stick to it. The worst of us are Lernean hydras and we lash out indiscriminately, tearing flesh and spraying venom in glorious hi-def 360 leaving no one unscathed.

Jake Gittes thought he lived in a bad world, but one with rules, and by the movie’s end, he’s completely broken because not only are things worse, well, they’re also completely unmanageable, and he’s being told to just accept it. Because it is easier to not think about it, or to walk away. If you die on every sour headline or problematic retweet then your empathy is going to bury you early and hard. You need to armour up. You cannot be completely empathic because the world is an emotional vampire and you will be left as a husk of a human.

This is what stares Gittes in the face as he watches Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray keep on down the street, despite being slumped, probably dead, and definitely about to go unavenged for her trials.

CHINATOWN perfectly encapsulates the fact we all live in a noir globe, and we are slowly spinning down and down and around and around and we simply ride it out because what other choice do we have?

NOIRVEMBER 027 ~ The Town

This tale of Boston robberies and broken men is the sort of narrative you know is noir because you feel it in the creak of your bones. You and I know the score but everyone else could be forgiven for thinking this was just another Hollywood flick featuring some crime. I mean, it stars [and is directed by] Ben Affleck, a guy who seemed for a long time to be living out his own noir tale IRL. I don’t know where SURVIVING CHRISTMAS fits into a noir flick visually but we all know it’s one of the lower rungs in the spiral.

Yet THE TOWN sparked redemption for Affleck while only bringing a metal curtain down on his character and anyone he touches around him. Because Affleck’s character of Doug MacRay is god’s lonely man, he’s just very good looking so we don’t believe it straight up.

the town

He spends his nights sculpting his body – which we see in one scene that has no narrative relevance except to show us Affleck’s superb physique, though it also holds reason, because you have to wonder why would he bother? He’s an isolated man, he robs banks, and while he’s externally doing great, his inside is hollow. He is working towards nothing until one aspect of a score goes sideways.

Affleck and his crew are successful in their heist but they take a hostage, bank manager Claire Keesey. They ensure their safety, and her blindness to them, and they release her onto the sand and tell her to keep walking until she hits water and then she can stop and look. It’s a terrifying moment – or series of moments – for Claire and it’s a perfect way for her to meet Affleck, even though she doesn’t know that’s what she’s doing at the time. She is reduced to raw emotion, she is connected to the world in a visceral contact way, and she is assuming she is a second away from death the entire time. With him, this is all true and will be forevermore.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, Affleck begins a relationship with Claire after the heist and we instantly see the conflict this brings and knowing how volatile his best friend, Jem Coughlin played by Jeremy Renner, is then there’s no escaping the fact we are walking the plank blindfolded and waiting to fall much as Claire was on the beach that day her life changed.

Watching the love blossom in this bleak environment is hard because you want it to give you hope but the signals are all there to point to the rather more honest truth of where this is all heading. Through a tapestry of events involving the FBI, the crumbling heist crew solidarity, and the knowledge that the one main truth can shatter a relationship, none of this plays out well.

And it’s all Affleck’s fault. Because he chose crime over ice hockey as a youth. Because he sticks by his toxic friend when he should have cut him loose many years before. Because he is so intrigued by this woman that he thinks he can make the one thing work that’s the one worst choice in the world he could make after having used her as a hostage. Because he was nice to the local girl he used to make time with who had a kid and he wanted to help her out when he had no reason to do so at all.

Because he starts the flick alone, and he needs to end the flick alone. Because he’s made all his important decisions alone and he is god’s lonely man. And we get a crime flick that’s slick and violent and dark and is most certainly one of the modern noir masterpieces.

And this works as a slick double bill with Affleck’s later GONE GIRL, directed by David Fincher. Wherein he plays a husband investigated for the murder of his wife. It’s actually not the sort of story I’d want to spoil but I will applaud it for being a surprise in tone because the flick looks like yet another Hollywood thriller and instead it is very much a throwback to the lurid paperback days of old where shit got real and everyone sank under the waves by the final page.

It would appear Ben Affleck is another one of today’s noir stars, a different version from Joseph Gordon-Levitt but still as handy, and mostly because though Affleck’s size should make him an imposition, he rarely uses it in these flicks, and the realest noir is about decision anyway. It is Affleck’s handsomeness that works against him, that disarm people in the worst ways, and that lead his path between others and locations until he’s too far gone.

And if you are wondering, yes, this makes me excited to see him tackle an aging Batman on screen because we might just get the tone and ending we deserve.

NOIRVEMBER 025 ~ Memento

Noir isn’t about the bleak ending, it’s about every single direct step to that final crash onto your knees.

memento

So MEMENTO, from Christopher Nolan, took that concept up a level by giving you that final fall straight up, it’s the very start, but you don’t quite get it, and you certainly don’t feel it, so then you get the journey in reverse and everything slowly clicks into place and it breaks you up in different ways because it makes you confused and uncertain and it really puts you into the mind of our lead, Leonard, played with noir lead aplomb by Guy Pearce. Y’see, Leonard has a memory problem where he doesn’t hold new memories very well, hell, he even struggles to hold a train of thought for very long, and it’s just brutal to watch at times.

With this major flaw, this perfect noir flaw, Leonard sets out to track down one of the attackers who murdered his wife and we are given the case in small snippets in reverse order so we never know what came before, the same way Leonard doesn’t in each scene. It’s a bold way to fracture a narrative and in this case it works to enhance the art and the dread because told straight up this would be a great crime flick but in the manner in which Nolan delivers this we get nothing short of a masterpiece.

It is with every step taken forward, which is actually a linear step backwards, we discover a sliver more and then have to quickly cross-reference all new points of interest against everything we’ve seen thus far so as to retroactively build a new narrative on the fly for the entire flick. By the end of it, we are exhausted and as the final pieces slide into place everything becomes clear in one long moment of despair and there’s nothing we can do. Instead of watching Leonard get dragged down for 113 minutes, we stow 112 minutes of information and then run it into a tight spiral all in the final moments and the shotgun blast of noir catches us in the chest and throws us to the ground.

The result was me sitting back after first seeing it and needing to discuss it. Thankfully, I watched it with some mates at university and we spent the next few hours debating the flick until the middle of the night. Because this is the intricate nature of Christopher Nolan’s mind when he’s at peak. You can’t shake loose of him.

Now I won’t even spoil the intricacies of the story because it’s one of those things you really need to discover and feel and it’s also something you conceivably haven’t seen so I will tread lightly. Suffice to say, this flick is dark and the more that comes to light the darker it all gets. Pearce is suitably baffled and determined and certainly hard done by. He’s a guy acting certainly about things he can never truly be certain about. There’s no other story that would so readily have him as a noir.

Whereas Carrie Anne Moss’ Natalie steals the show in one sequence where she plays damsel and femme like sides of a coin and it’s chilling and is also the moment the ball drops into the inky depths and you know you will never hear it hit bottom.

From this introduction to the world, Nolan showed himself as a mastermind of cinema. A thinking man’s creator who is interested in small things and how they fit together and you can’t help but be invested every single damn time. I find myself again and again drawn into the works of Nolan purely because I want to see how these people react in the face of these terrible things, I want to know why they choose each step. And this is something Nolan has looked at, in variations, over his career.

THE PRESTIGE is a great example of noir as being representative of a human theme. Determination is the sort of thing that if staunchly stood by can lead you down the darkest of alleys. As you watch two magicians duel over years, and each of them die a little for their craft, it’s hard to imagine either of them ever getting a happy ending because that isn’t even what they are chasing. They are after something so ethereal that they’ll likely never achieve it and yet in that hunt they remain locked through sheer determination.

The final hook turns of THE PRESTIGE are also masterful and also things I will not spoil here because they are experiences in themselves, especially through the way Nolan reveals, and conceals, them. But mostly it is because these paths are very consciously chosen by both characters, and they continue to stay the path despite a series of disastrous results and that is the key to personal downfall.

Whereas that subtle end of INCEPTION where Leonardo DiCaprio’s spinner just keeps on turning is the sort of thing that hints at possible noir, he’s certainly built up to that moment to fall forever into the abyss, but the final sound cues mostly preclude that ambiguity if you really think about it. He’s a flawed man, and one also driven by lengths of determination but it would appear he is allowed to exhale in that final moment.

And as Nolan continues to experiment with film stock and style, with endings dark and neat, and as he gets better in so many ways, I’ll always be drawn back to that perfectly simple and dark ending, the one he thought to put right at the start.

NOIRVEMBER 024 ~ Vertigo

Hitchcock was a master of showing us the self-destructive things we do and why we do them.

Spoilers: we often do them for women.

I’d love to know the top ten worst decisions Hitch ever made for a woman. The guy clearly knew from bad life choices. Oh, he knew.

vertigo

In VERTIGO we follow James Stewart as a broken man having the shards of himself smashed to pieces by his own hand. He’s never really the one who breaks himself, the world does that, the shitty shitty world, but once broken he seems to methodically take himself apart and really grind each piece to small razor slivers just to see how it will feel and what will be left once he steps back to analyse things.

The opening of this flick is fantastic as we see Stewart chase a criminal across some rooftops until a fellow policeman slips and falls to his death right before Stewart’s eyes as he clings on desperately for his own life.

Our heroic lead is instantly broken by the world and we now have a major flaw to deal with as he develops acrophobia and vertigo which sends him into retirement and limits his own belief of self worth and function. So he’s out of the game for a while but he soon allows himself to get pulled back in, this is his choice, and here the true noir unfolds.

It’s fascinating to watch this noir play out and I mean that in a literal sense because Hitchcock as well as visual designer Saul Bass played with spirals and circles to make Stewart’s character feel adrift, which is in keeping with the sensation vertigo delivers to sufferers. It’s also an apt way to describe someone’s downfall, swirling, downward, as you watch. VERTIGO shows us a literal noir spiral in a story where our lead is most absolutely his own worst enemy.

There is also Bernard Hermann’s score to back this concept up as Martin Scorsese once described in an interview with Sight & Sound where he made parallels between the circular and spiral motion of the music as a representation of obsession and the need to revisit the same moment repeatedly. Everything on screen is a harmony of downfall. You could close your eyes and still not be able to escape it.

And the worst thing is we don’t even get to believe that maybe Stewart is doing it all for the best. We know the path he’s on very early and we have to watch it play out. Because that job he takes in his retirement, of course it goes south. He watches a woman die, he blames himself, and it fractures him that little bit more because for a brief while he falls for this woman, he feels, and this is so rarely helpful to us in the long run.

It’s not until he meets another woman, a doppelganger of the one he watched die, that he starts to feed himself to the beasts below. Or maybe he’s just feeding on himself. Either way, the result is the same, he’s being eaten alive one bite at a time. And there’s a chance he’ll heal enough between mouthfuls so the feast could go on for a very long time.

Watching Stewart transform Judy into the woman he lost, Madeleine, is difficult because we are shown that Judy is Madeleine, or was Madeleine, as she played the role to trick Stewart into believing the real Madeleine died in front of him. But now she’s free, and she does love him, and so she lets this pressured transformation happen. Which is the worst part, this is Judy’s noir, too.

As Stewart pressures her, she starts to crack and we follow two very broken people as they only set out to make themselves suffer, as if some form of self-flagellation is going to do anything but add rocks to their burden.

Stewart takes Judy back to the scene of Madeleine’s death, he takes her through the paces of the scene, the motions of the moments, and it’s horrific and unjustified, and ghastly to observe. It is Stewart blaming himself and projecting this tension onto the one person who might be able to save him, if he’d ever entertain the thought of allowing it to happen because he’ll never forget how he was unable to save her the first time around.

Noir, like suicide, can be a tough path to contemplate sometimes.

And in the end, against all odds, Stewart manages to hug Judy, to understand what happened, and maybe even why. This interpersonal shock therapy has yielded a result where Stewart is cured of his acrophobia/vertigo and he might even have a future with Judy. It’d be a messed up future but it would be something and something is mostly better than nothing.

But this is where the world steps in. And a figure approaches up into the top of the bell tower, a shadowed figure, and Judy is shocked, probably certain this is death come to deliver the only fair thing, and so she slips back and off the bell tower and to her demise, just like she did the first time when she was Madeleine. And again Stewart will need to live with this and it will be absolute because there will be no second woman to save him.

Knowing Stewart’s obsession at the end, I have no doubt his character lives for many more years before either falling off this location to his own demise, or perhaps before that he lures some other women up there and has them befall accidents. His spiral is going to circle this place and event until it finally does him in. To die any other way or in any other place would not seal that final noir buttonhook in on itself.

And with that, VERTIGO makes itself a cold-hearted noir masterpiece that’s not about love or hope or even justice, it is about how the world will force a crack in you and you’ll spend your lifetime pushing on it and touching it until you’ve spread it far enough to split you into pieces, and then you’ll repeat the process until you don’t exist anymore.

NOIRVEMBER 022 ~ Charlton Heston’s Trilogy

Tracking the downfall of a person is one thing, it provides a tight narrative spiral. It’s a clean execution. But describing the downfall of a society, now that’s a trick. And a challenge Charlton Heston has spearheaded thrice with great success.

planet of the apes lobby card

It all started with those damn dirty apes. Heston plays stranded astronaut, Taylor, who crash lands in the future on a planet ruled by many classes of the ape family and where humans have been subjugated. For the poor filthy wretches of this planet, the downfall already occurred. So it makes sense that Heston would arrive to lead a revival.

Unlike any of the other human creatures, Heston has language, and knowledge, and he won’t be caged. He challenges the civilised society of ape culture, their rules, their laws, and he demands human dominance be restored.

It’s exceptionally arrogant and that kind of headstrong resolve is exactly the thing you need to keep pushing against all barriers to enact your own noir ending. But sadly, Heston is so forceful he actually ends up triggering a second noir spiral that is unconsidered at first but is exceptionally sour when taken on its own context.

The tale of PLANET OF THE APES winds tight until the final sequence as Heston leads a group of apes into the Forbidden Zone where he reveals to himself and us that this planet is Earth in a far flung future and that civilisation as Heston hoped to be reconnected with has long been buried. He pounds the sand as the Statue of Liberty signals up while his heart tumbles deep deep down. This is Heston’s hell, his reward for being a pioneer of the new frontier. And he’s stuck in it, an outsider, alone, forever.

But take pause to consider the apes. For generations they’ve only known one way of life. And now that cradle of their civilisation is shattered. Their very ordered way of life has been turned upside by a truth hidden from them and one they were happier and more functional not knowing. Things can never be the same for them and just because they are hirsute does not mean they won’t feel this greatly.

the-omega-man-1971-poster

Heston would take a few years off from destroying societies but he would return in THE OMEGA MAN where he is instrumental in the downfall of humanity. This loose adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND novel changes the downfall of society from a bacterial infection to instead be a result of chemical warfare. This way, it is man orchestrating the demise themselves. Heston plays Robert Neville, a Colonel in the Army and as such someone connected to this terrible event. When he gets infected he experiments on himself and stumbles across a vaccine, though too late to save the millions of people turning into albino Luddite nocturnal freaks who will all soon rally against the lonesome Neville who comes to represent the old ways they loathe so much.

Neville spends his days wandering his city and hunting this new breed of person, called The Family. He has become the monster and it isn’t as if he can turn the tide and kill them all, and even if he did he’d be left all alone, so Neville is firmly planted in a futile situation. Until a woman arrives and they fall in love. Because of course you have time for love if it’s Heston you stumble upon.

Through a series of stubborn events, Neville gets Lisa’s brother murdered, and her infected, and he still won’t play nice and so he ends the movie slumped dead in a fountain with a spear through his side. As a hero, this is a pretty bad run of events and so should instantly be clear that Neville is not any kind of hero in this story. Not one bit. And so he gets no happy ending. There might be a happy ending for some of the other characters but Neville most certainly is buried because of his own actions, and he no doubt keeps a rift between the very few human survivors and The Family because of his actions born of frustration, fear, and closed-mindedness. He is the epitome of male stupidity and pride and it is his ultimate downfall. And a shame he insists on dragging others down with him.

There is no happy ending for THE OMEGA MAN and two years later Heston would make SOYLENT GREEN, a flick renowned for its horribly downbeat ending. Because in a film where people are being euthanized and food shortages are a common problem, there are always ways for Heston to make it all worse.

Soylent-Green-photo-2

The people of Earth face many problems but one isn’t what to eat, because Soylent Green is available and it’s got all the protein you need. Because of special plankton being farmed and turned into a wafer that’ll keep your system running. Though there isn’t much worth going more than a mild trot for. Society is fractured, only the 1% have anything of luxury – and those luxuries are things you and I take well for granted right now. Luxury is only convenience finessed up due to context of rareness. The world is a sad and small and oppressively hot place and Heston’s Detective Frank Thorn wants to do right. He’s investigating a murder and that rabbit hole leads him to a ghastly truth.

Soylent Green is people. It’s made from corpses. And in the movie’s final moments, with Thorn injured, he screams it to the masses, “Soylent Green is people!” And we close on a freeze frame of Heston’s bloodied hand in the air. It’s a hell of a close; poignant, grotesque, socially prescient.

It’s also as bleak as a week old corpse left to turn before becoming our next wafer of protein.

Y’see, what’s going to actually happen next? The only two ways my brain goes is to reckon either Heston’s public declaration gets Soylent Green production stopped, robbing society of the only real affordable and functional food source they have and driving a new societal collapse, and probably one where people turn to straight cannibalism once they realise what was happening all along. In for a penny, in for a pound of flesh, and all that.

Or maybe Heston changes nothing except for that he’s opened our eyes and we can’t just stay in our blissful ignorance of human body noshing. Every time someone cracks a wafer into their mouth they have to ‘know’ what they are doing. And that hardly seems fair.

Though I suppose they could just toss Heston straight into the production line and hope no one else believes the bleeding crackpot in the streets. This narrows the scope of the noir ending but it also highlights that no matter how you take it, SOYLENT GREEN, like THE OMEGA MAN and PLANET OF THE APES before it, all portray tales where Heston is around to watch the downfall of man, and the end of his own natural life, and if we wait long enough these sucker punches could be ripped from our headlines so we’re looking through a lens at the brick barrier we are all speeding into. Hrmm.

NOIRVEMBER 018 ~ Bonnie + Clyde

CRIME DOESN’T PAY is an old crime comic they used to put out and in it the criminals always had to come unstuck, or usually flat out die, just so the book wasn’t glorifying crime and criminals and fuelling a whole generational shift to just taking what we want because that Baby Boomer work ethic surely wasn’t going to stick, right?

It’s a pretty weird thing to consider such a mandate as if media has a totality of causation when it comes to making people do things. If so, why don’t a large majority of people live happily ever after like all the stories have told us will happen in the last few hundred years?

And every censor got it wrong anyway because while the comics caper of ensuring we only showed criminals biting the dust in the end would somehow lead to a positive lesson being learnt was no doubt done in earnest it was also all surely undone by one simple flick.

bonnie and clyde

Y’see, in BONNIE + CLYDE, the eponymous criminals are really not happy, they’re not very good at what they purport to do [“We rob banks!” they love to exclaim more than ever prove], and in the end they die in a rain of gunfire. Their story ends in that black warning of death and along the way we even see sexual dysfunction as Clyde struggles to be able to perform for the ever-willing Bonnie. The whole affair is actually quite cringe-worthy to observe and yet I can’t imagine this flick was the deterrent many old school hardliners might have hoped.

Why?

Well, there’s this little mental glitch whereby Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty are just so goddamn good looking that this big cross country mess still comes off as glamorous well before we consider the sad and silly and deplorable aspects. Dunaway wears this hat and she’s gorgeous. The fact she’s crippled by some low self-esteem and is clearly self-destructive is forgotten as we see her make holding a gun in a photo look badass.

Because the dirty little secret is that people will often make poor choices if they are going to look good along the way. Send them a hint of a promise at looking fantastic or mysteriously alluring or straight up sexy and people start trampling over the people they love just to line up to fall down. This is why noir works because we often do know it’s the wrong choice but we make it anyway for the immediate gratification. We trade off the outcome in the hope of living in the moment. Or we probably just know 9 out of 10 people will look back and still think it was all worth it for those glorious minutes.

It’s why crime isn’t short on customers. It’s a gamble, maybe you won’t get caught, but if you do maybe it’ll be worth it. You watch Bonnie and Clyde do their thing, pushing each other further and further into the bank robbery game until there’s nothing left but to double down, or so they feel. There are always options but the truth is they start to like it, and they see the end coming so that’s all the more reason to seize the moments because they are now a finite commodity. You’re not going to waste what little you have left feeling regret or remorse or just plain boredom.

Noir means you went in for a penny and now you’re down for a pound.

Warren Beatty plays that idiotic truth perfectly as he constantly bounces from one bad moment to another because he doesn’t know any other way, doesn’t trust himself to find a way, and so plays off owning the bad because that means he never failed at trying to be good. He’s an idiot, a child, and a firecracker and yet it’s all these things that make him so alluring. You can just as easily read his behaviour to mean easily pleased, spontaneous, and capable of anything. Bonnie certainly gets caught in his dangerous contrails and from there it’s all over for her.

As you watch, you see why these two fall for each other so easily and while you don’t feel it [mostly because you are removed from the situation and so can be analytical without the pressure] you can instantly see why it would happen. The acting, the deft direction from Arthur Penn, everything brings this tale of downfall together so you only ever feel sad for these people. The criminals. These thugs and violent idiots. You feel for them, like maybe you could help them, if only they’d just help themselves a little. But they won’t. And in the end, you can’t look away.

You’ll watch two people walk themselves across their nation into certain death because when noir is this pretty then it is not to be ignored.

NOIRVEMBER 016 ~ David Cronenberg’s The Fly

Is there anything more noir than the mad scientist?

The definition of hubris, they are nearly always their own downfall. And why? Drive, determination, a sense they should and can do good but eventually the world won’t let them. Physics won’t let them. And they know this. Because they are smart, but they push on anyways.

Maybe mad scientists are driven by hope. By faith. Natural breaking points of the scientific mind.

the fly jan 1987

In 1986, David Cronenberg was tasked with remaking a very pulpy old horror flick that was iconic but definitely goofy to its core. The original tale of a scientist swapping heads with a fly is a silly concept, in both ethereal thought as well as final execution, but redrafting it through the body horror lens of Cronenberg was pure genius. I’d like to believe it was producer Mel Brooks who thought to approach the Canadian master of nasty shocks.

Yes, THAT Mel Brooks.

So Cronenberg came in and the result is a movie that swerves very far away from camp and becomes a parable about the AIDS generation that’s both disgustingly ghastly and ferociously terrifying while also being a heartbreak of decimating proportions.

You can probably thank Jeff Goldblum for making Seth Brundle, Mad Scientist M.D. the perfect foil for himself in this flick. When Goldblum is charming he is world devouring and we instantly connect with Brundle. He is sweet and kooky and disastrously intelligent. He is a perfect storm for which Veronica Quiafe will fall into and we buy it in every moment because we fall there, too.

This noir is exceptional because Brundle isn’t hard boiled, Quaife isn’t a femme fatale, and the world they inhabit is one hopeful and we watch it stripped of hope.

It is all very very real, which isn’t something you’d assume would come to mind for this remake if you were there before it landed.

Teleportation technology is at Brundle’s fingertips and with it so close he has to push on. Many would slow down on the accelerator when they find true love but Brundle is the kind of scientist who was initially married to science and he was never going to divorce. He could have extremely passionate women on the side but this is his path. And that sense of being locked in is what makes everything that follows feel so locked in.

The moment the fly enters the transportation pod with Brundle we get that sense of dramatic noir where we know it’s all going to play out one way and then we have to struggle through watching Brundle try to swerve off this deadly track with no luck. And we quietly observe Quaife watch the whole journey, trapped in the boot, and we can only hope she survives the crash we know Brundle won’t.

As Brundle starts to change due to his melding with the fly, he has hope. He documents these changes and sees the positive side. The strength, the ability just to engage with such mad science. He is abuzz. We all know what happens when you meddle with the unknown. You get radiation poisoning. You destroy Japanese cities. You fall and everything about you, everything with you, all that you do it for, is strapped to you and so it falls also.

And Brundlefly, as he becomes, falls hard. His body changes in good ways that soon crest into horrific jokes on the physical form. His skin cracks, his system adjusts, and it’s never anything but destructive to him. To the man.

Through it all, Quaife loves him, and tries to help. She isn’t just out for herself, she isn’t going to walk. Love is the strongest tie that binds through noir. The second is lust. And they went from one to the other and now their fall is joined. His is to fall and hers is to watch.

Veronica comes to discover she is pregnant to Brundle and cannot be certain when they conceived. Though a dream sequence where Veronica is in a birthing suite and Cronenberg himself acting as the gynecologist produces a grotesque larvae from her loins is something that makes you certain she is in her own noir spiral, but it’s a wider angle, and it’s a slower velocity, but it’ll get her too and now she knows it.

By film’s end, we all know it’s coming. Brundlefly is done, he’s a biological wasteland of possible science turned into probable death. He tries to drag Veronica into one final teleportation, to join him, and when it goes awry he is left off even more damage, a man-fly thing shedding flesh and humanity as he melds with the telepod itself. The result a techno-organic disaster that it should have seen coming but it kept on dipping back into the inky well as if the cause of the problem would suddenly affect a solution.

Finally, the ever hopeful brain of Brundle has finally given up. He’s beaten. But he doesn’t want to drag anything or anyone else down with him. He has done enough in his quest for more and now, in his final moments and acts, he wants to do less. Less damage.

He grabs the barrel of the shotgun Veronica holds and aims it at his head and it’s hideous which only serves to make it more heart rending. He takes himself off and his noir fall ends in a wet thud.

The kicker of a noir coda is that Quaife is indeed still tethered. She is pregnant, and we don’t even need to see it play out, we know it’s not the happy ending anyone would ask for. It’s the noir of uncertainty, which can and will plague you until you die [or a sequel stars your child – shout out to Eric Stoltz].

And all because we want to rise up, we fall so low and hard. Brundlefly is an example of how drive is good but the directions we choose are more important. THE FLY is a beautiful elegy of caution, forever caution.

NOIRVEMBER 013 ~ Gene Hackman

In the early 70s there were two titanically superb noir flicks delicately placed into new cinema canon and while neither of them immediately front as a typical noir flick you can be certain they are bleak to their modern core. And their lead actor brings the hollow games to the fore because no one in the 70s played a man downtrodden by the world and yet still marching forward like Atlas than Gene Hackman.

the french connection lobby card

In THE FRENCH CONNECTION, the role of Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle is such a great updated turn on the old pulp detective leads, as they show his flaws, his determination, and his desire for progress no matter what barriers might be placed in his way. In the way he continually trudged onward, in a manner we can see is to his own downfall, makes him a perfect noir lead, but he’s also a new breed of this sad soul archetype. And this is because of societal boundaries towards narratives.

Doyle is, to put it bluntly, a scumbag. He’s beyond the loveable scamps of old, or even the hardboiled bastards, no, Doyle is a flat out terrible human being. He’s racist, abusive, a drunk, and his moral code isn’t broken, it’s just casually cast aside, buried over time, forgotten. Noir leads often march because they see the light, or they ignore the dark, but Doyle marches into the darkness and screams into it. He screams to master it. He’s a complex guy and at this time was somewhat indicative of a new way of telling stories. You could suddenly go real deep and dark with your leads and there was little filter.

This perfect cultural storm of time and inclination brings us this NYC detective who will go to any lengths to stop the roaring drug trade pouring into his city – which is about the one redeemable aspect of the character, his ultimate goal is something good. He’s just given far too liberal a set of tools and methods to make this happen.

There is little joy to be taken in watching Doyle, and his partner Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo played by Roy Scheider, beating suspects and owning the streets through impact and aggression. The job is not shown to be fun because at that time it was not fun – hell, it’s probably never ‘eff you en’ to be a beat cop of any level – and so we see how the sausages were made at this time. It’s hard work and while you want Doyle to win you almost don’t want to know how he gets it done. Which is exactly how practises like these are cultivated in the first place.

But you quietly urge Doyle to do just one more thing, terrible as it might be, if it’ll just get him to that shining light of victory. You lean forward, you allow, right up until you realise it’s not going to work. There’s only ever one outcome from this behaviour.

You see it plastered across the car chase, both what you see and how we now know it was made. It’s a reckless pursuit of something grander and even when it works you are left wondering what could have been the outcome had it not. And in that moment of blunder, would it all have been worth it? You know a single beat ‘no’ is the only answer. But you watch the chase, and you laud it, and it’s amazing. And, well, it does look pretty damn fine, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t love a fast car?

But is it amazing when a cop shoots a criminal in the back? Is that the moment you maybe start to turn away from Doyle? But do you condemn as you turn? Are we complicit in his noir downfall, or are we actually exhibiting the exact model that leads to societal downfall? We turn, but we allow. What else would Doyle do if he’s given rights to such barbarity by absence of reprimand or example? Or is this the necessary roughness needed to protect society from growing ill will and action? The poster tagline says Doyle is bad news-but a good cop. Do we hand off the responsibility of civil protection and then also hand across the right to complain when that job makes people sell their souls. It’s a set of super grey questions to ask which is the whole point of the flick. How far are we expected to go, and how far will we let others go for us? Never forget that we are at fault for helping Doyle fall, and all because we want to live in the good life his actions might possibly provide.

If he were successful in his goal. But the 70s were a great time in cinema to show us that the people promising you it’ll get better, the people promising you it’s worth the means to justify the end, are a bunch of bastards. And the bastards all quietly die on the inside, back when we thought people cared about that sort of demise. A flickering of the soul, a blackening of our hopes. All for the greater good.

Weren’t we all wrong?

Doyle is, and in the final sequence we see just how wrong when he chases drug kingpin Charnier into an old warehouse. Anyone half-familiar with cinema narrative structure knows this is the set up for the final reel showdown where the hero catches the villain, or perhaps is forced into killing him to end the madness. But this is not just noir it’s 70s cinema noir which means you have no idea what you are going to get.

Doyle is tracking this fiend when he sees a figure move, though can’t quite make out whom it is. He does the only heroic thing his dna understands and he opens fire. The figure is taken down but upon closer inspection we discover it is not Charnier, it is another federal agent. Doyle barely pauses, this should be cause for a broken career, no less a broken man, but Doyle processes it quickly and then moves on. He hasn’t caught his man so he needs to continue. It’s horrible in the most literal sense and it’s indicative of how black Doyle is on the inside. This friendly fire crime that’s cost another man his life doesn’t bother Doyle at all, he knows to do what he does he has to press forward.

Buy Doyle’s kind of forward is also very steeply downward.

Popeye Doyle is a bombastic noir lead, someone completely complicit in his every step down the path whereas 3 years later Hackman would play an entirely different noir man as Harry Caul in THE CONVERSATION. Caul is someone who has no idea the noir spiral is winding around him and he only feels it once it pulls tight, and it’s too late.

the-conversation-lobby-card

Francis Ford Coppola was hot off THE GODFATHER which swept some Oscars and is easily one of the best flicks of all time and while he was following that flick up with a sequel that some believe to be even better [I don’t] and just as many tout as the greatest sequel of all time [it’s gotta be right up there with DAY OF THE DEAD and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and ALIENS and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY] Coppola isn’t a guy who has ever wanted to be a one trick pony. Whereas most directors steer into the skid of the genre they initially dominate – and you get Scorsese’s crime flicks and Carpenter’s horror flicks – Coppola is the sort of guy who seems to engineer his career like he’s mapping his own professional noir as we see him go from being a master of the craft, a pioneer and innovator, to someone who is off the radar and disrespectfully forgotten, or ignored.

But before Coppola erased himself from history, he crafted a tale where someone was recording history and it led to their downfall. And now THE CONVERSATION stands as one of the finest pieces of quiet cinema you’ll find anywhere and you won’t quickly forget how Harry Caul’s world and mind are dismantled. Even though this team deliver a film you can instantly tell was destined to fail. Well, by that I mean it was destined to gain a lower gross and project a smaller tone so it so rarely gets held up against Coppola’s GODFATHER flicks or APOCALYPSE NOW. But it equally holds its own in that field.

It all begins with a simple task, record a couple walking and talking in the park. It’s mundane and even if it goes pear shaped you’d assume it’ll spill into a domestic problem. In a word: manageable.

So Harry Caul takes the job because he’s the best there is at what he does and what he does is peep on people and record their sound. He’s an aural kind of guy. But he doesn’t hear the thunder coming.

The fascinating thing about THE CONVERSATION is that from this initial premise, the story unfolds that what Caul thinks he’s listening to is not that, and it instead leads to the death of another man and a cover up whereby Caul can’t out the offenders. In the end, he’s left to stew in the belief he’s being kept under surveillance himself, his one true fear which we see early on that he safeguards against at all costs.

The narrative is thin because this was never about an epic governmental take down, this is the study of one man imploding. We watch Caul listen and relisten to one line from the conversation he stole and he’s peering into its abyss trying to work out what is down there. Suitably, he comes nowhere near cracking the code but watching how intently he draws focus and must prevail shows you how he gets led down in the end. He’s unilaterally afraid and yet has singular vision. A quality blindside – and it must be really high quality to work – completely takes him off the map.

You get the feeling if Coppola could have dropped another 45 minutes of Caul scrutinising the tape he would have. Because it’s that perfect vision of him not letting go and getting himself dragged down through tenacity and curiosity.

The story resolves with Caul hearing a playback of his own saxophone playing and realising he’s been tapped. He tears his apartment apart and there’s really no greater metaphor for noir.

The film closes on Caul alone, playing his sax, which is where the device most likely resides. He is utterly doomed to the bound and repressed life he has built himself.

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