Posted on DVD Beaver, July 2007; I’ve updated the links when necessary. — J.R.
Some genres are a lot more elastic than others. Our notions of what a Western or a musical consists of are reasonably firm. But thrillers tend to be all over the place, overlapping at various times with crime films, adventure films, heist films, noirs, mystery stories, spy stories, melodramas, and even comedies, period films, and art movies —- to propose a far from exhaustive list.
In order to demonstrate this overall versatility, I’ve come up with 18 recommended titles that I’m listing and briefly describing below, in alphabetical order. A dozen are in English, three are in French, and one apiece is in German, Italian, or Japanese. All but two are currently available on DVD, although in at least one case you’ll have to go beyond American sources in order to acquire it. And ironically, the two that are unavailable are both Hollywood classics —- one more indication of the degree to which some of the major studios and/or the inheritors of their treasures still don’t have a very clear idea of what they possess and keep out of reach.
(NOTE: CLICK ON TITLES, COVERS OR UNDERLINED TEXT FOR LINKS)
Bad Day at Black Rock. My favorite John Sturges picture, an MGM CinemaScope release of 1955, pits a slightly disabled Spencer Tracy (he has use of only one arm, but knows karate) against virtually an entire small southwestern desert town. The bad day commences when he arrives at the sleepy train station, seeking to find out what happened to a Japanese friend of his, a World War II buddy, and nobody wants to talk to him. Ernest Borgnine plays one of the local toughs who tries to dissuade him from his quest by pouring gobs of ketchup all over his food in a greasy spoon diner, and what Tracy winds up doing in self-defense — a burst of violence as neatly choreographed as anything you’d find in Howard Hawks —- is alone worth the price of admission. But Tracy’s main adversary proves to be Robert Ryan, and it takes most of the movie’s 81 minutes for all of the town’s baroque entanglements to be revealed.
Big Deal on Madonna Street. The only pure comedy on my list is also the only pure heist movie (unless one counts 5 Against the House, a secondary recommendation), and so influential that that you’ve probably already encountered certain gags from it. (See, in particular, Crackers, the American remake — probably the worst film Louis Malle ever made — as well as Woody Allen’s massive borrowings in Small Time Crooks.) This is only fair, because Mario Monicelli’s hilarious 1958 farce about a team of bungling burglars trying to break into a safe full of jewels is itself an elaborate parody of two very popular heist films of the 50s, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955), the second of which was clearly influenced by the first. Like many of the best Italian movies, this is strong above all for its characters, and the cast —- which includes Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, and Vittorio Gassman —- is first-rate.
The Conversation. This is perhaps the best-known item on my list, but as the best of all thrillers about surveillance —- specifically, about an “electronic surveillance” sound technician working out of San Francisco, played by Gene Hackman in what may be his greatest performance —- it deserves to be still better known. (It didn’t “perform” all that well at the box office when it came out in 1974, which may account for its relative obscurity.) Francis Ford Coppola wrote, directed, and produced it, and it remains my favorite of his films, even though it’s possible to conclude, after listening to the DVD commentary of both Coppola and his brilliant editor Walter Murch, that Murch may be the film’s true auteur. Atmospheric, morally troubling, and often suspenseful, this is the sort of movie you’re likely to carry around with you long after you’ve seen it. The excellent secondary cast includes John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, and an unexpected early bit part by Harrison Ford.
Les Espions. In contrast to The Conversation, this is possibly the least well known of my selections, and a film I discovered only recently, when I ordered a DVD of it from England. It’s directed and cowritten by Henri-Georges Clouzot, the only filmmaker responsible for two of my 18 selections (see The Wages of Fear, below) —- a kind of French Hitchcock whose view of the world was even blacker and bleaker than Hitchcock’s. The title is French for “The Spies,” and the setting of this very strange and caustic 1957 picture is a run-down mental asylum with very few patients in the sticks. The head doctor there is offered a large sum of money from the U.S. military in order to shelter a mysterious physicist, and after he reluctantly agrees, a good many international spies turn up as patients in the establishment as well, and the paranoid Cold War conspiracies keep growing from there in both size and complexity. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, Clouzot’s oddity may come closer to the absurdist humor of Franz Kafka than any of the literal adaptations of his work, such as Orson Welles’ version of The Trial, and the secondary cast is especially memorable: not only Clouzot’s wife Vera Clouzot (who also figured in his better-known Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, but also Hollywood actor Sam Jaffe (The Asphalt Jungle), English actor Peter Ustinov (Lola Montes), and
German actor Curt Jurgens (Bitter Victory).
Family Plot. As long as we’re on the subject of Hitchcock and Hitchcockian suspense, consider this a special plug for his underrated 53rd and final feature, frequently written off as “minor” because it takes the form of light comedy (which is also the case with his less suspenseful but equally underrated The Trouble With Harry). Yet unlike Hitchcock’s other late films (Torn Curtain, Topaz, and Frenzy), which tend to break up into set pieces, this is all of a piece—-a superbly integrated and intricate as well as charming piece of mischief built around two romantic couples (Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris, Karen Black and William Devane) and a “double” plot. The script is by Ernest Lehman, who scripted the very best of Hitchcock’s breezy comic thrillers, North by Northwest—a title I’ve omitted here only because, like my other Hitchcock favorite, Rear Window, it’s too well known to need anyone’s recommendation. When the French critics of the New Wave (Chabrol, Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, and Truffaut) insisted on taking Hitchcock seriously long before anyone else did, one of their key pieces of evidence was Hitchcock’s very intricate use of stories involving double plots and rhyming shots, such as Shadow of a Doubt (as analyzed by Truffaut) and The Wrong Man (as analyzed by Godard). Family Plot places this concept front and center, and Hitchcock plays with it brilliantly, like a perfectly composed piece of music.
5 Fingers. This is one of the rare movies by Joseph L. Mankiewicz where he doesn’t take a writing credit. The script of this ingenious and entertaining spy thriller of 1952, another Cold War item, is credited to Michael Wilson, and it’s a wonderful showcase for its cast —- James Mason (in one of his best roles), Danielle Darrieux, and Michael Rennie. An extra bonus: The score is by Bernard Herrmann.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. There are two versions of John Cassavetes’ postnoir masterpiece — first edited and released in 1976, then recut and re-released in a shorter version two years later after the first one failed miserably at the box office. (Lamentably, the second version failed as well.) It’s hard to choose between them, but I tend to opt for the earlier, longer, and, until recently, harder to see of the two versions, both of which are now available in Criterion’s excellent Cassavetes box set. The hero, Cosmo Vitali — a flashy owner of a Los Angeles strip joint, beautifully played by Ben Gazzara, both a stupid asshole and a kind of saint — gambles his way into serious debt, and finds he has to fulfill a contract to bump off a Chinese bookie in order to settle his accounts. This leads to one extended suspense sequence, but basically this movie can also be read as a personal allegory by Cassavetes, a self-portrait about himself as an embattled impresario and father figure to a precarious showbiz collective who has to do dirty stuff in order to keep his family afloat (much as Cassavetes had to act in Hollywood pictures in order to finance his own movies, including this one). It even concludes — self-consciously but magnificently –- with Cassavetes’ self-adopted theme song, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” clearly the motto of his entire work as a filmmaker.
M. As far as I’m concerned, Fritz Lang’s first talkie (1931) remains not only his greatest film but also the best serial killer movie ever made by anyone. It also has the best performance to be found in any Lang film —- Peter Lorre as a crazed murderer of children who terrorizes a city to such a degree that ultimately both the local gangsters as well as the local police have to pool their resources in order to track him down. The suspense we expect from such a story is certainly present; but it’s also, as in the best Hitchcock films, a kind of moral ambiguity designed to trouble and provoke us into reflecting where we belong in Lang’s scheme of the way the world works. The geometry of the plot, compositions, and editing is as breathtaking as Lorre’s terrifying portrait at the dead center of the film.
Miami Blues. The cult crime-thriller writer Charles Willeford crowned his career by writing four superb novels centered around a Miami-based homicide detective, Hoke Moseley: Miami Blues (1984), New Hope for the Dead (1985), Sideswipe (1987), and The Way We Die Now (1988). Individually and collectively, they do almost as good a job of describing “the way we live now” as John Updike’s four novels about Rabbit Angstrom, written over a much longer period. My favorite among the Hoke Moseley novels —- certainly the scariest, and possibly the best constructed — is Sideswipe. But Miami Blues is the first, and George Armitage’s 1990 film adaptation is one of the best literary adaptations I can think of. The cast is perfect: Alec Baldwin as an ex-con and small-time thief who arrives in Miami, hooks up with a local prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and winds up stealing the gun, badge, and dentures of Moseley (Fred Ward) to pose as a cop while pulling off more of his jobs. The humor and pizzazz of this, as well as the use of locations, call to mind Godard’s Breathless.
The Newton Boys. Many people have declared Richard Linklater’s first big-budget movie (1998) — a period recreation of and tribute to the most successful bank robbers in U.S. history, brothers from Texas, who thrived between 1919 and 1924 —- to be anything but thrilling. I obviously don’t agree with them, but I have to admit that the very notion of a gentle and relatively non-violent movie about bank robbers who never killed anyone is almost a contradiction in terms, at least when it comes to generic thrillers. This is part of Linklater’s point —- a nongeneric point, one might say — and it’s why, when I originally reviewed this film for the Chicago Reader, I compared it to Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, which has a similar light and elegiac touch There’s also something about Linklater’s fascination with the way American looked in the teens and 20s that inspires meditation rather than suspense. But insofar as suspense in any movie is partially a matter of eagerly awaiting what comes next, I have to say that this is a thriller that continues to thrill me.
99 River Street. One of the most underrated thriller and noir specialists in American cinema is Phil Karlson, the Chicago-born director of Tight Spot (1955), 5 Against the House (1955), The Phenix City Story (1955), and The Brothers Rico (1957), among many other gems. The first of these features Ginger Rogers as a sassy convict; the second is an ingenious Jack Finney adaptation and sexy Kim Novak vehicle about a bunch of college jocks who contrive a way to rob Harold’s Club in Reno; and the third is my candidate for the best movie ever shot on location in Alabama, while the fourth, as I recall, is an excellent thriller about a former Mafia bookkeeper (Richard Conte) trying to go straight. Only the first of these is available (in Japan or the UK!), and a particularly regrettable absence is the earlier 99 River Street (1953), which follows the unpredictable and exciting adventures of a boxer-turned-cabbie and cuckold (John Payne) over one crazy night in New York City. Critic Dave Kehr once aptly called it “an example of the kind of humble brilliance that often emerged from the American genre cinema”; it costars Evelyn Keyes.
Odd Man Out. James Mason, again at his near best, plays an Irish revolutionary on the run in Belfast, meeting with a broad spectrum of human responses ranging from indifference to empathy (once again, over a single night). Carol Reed’s 1946 English thriller, adapted from a novel by F.L. Green, is the artiest of all the films I’ve selected, and it’s come to have a mixed reputation due to its allegorical pretensions and some of its fancier visual conceits. But as James Agee pointed out, it catches the feel of a city at night with indelible poetry and intensity, and Robert Krasker’s black and white cinematography is good enough to make you think of Orson Welles’ work with Gregg Toland and Stanley Cortez on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. The secondary cast —- including such standbys as Cyril Cusack, F.J. McCormack, Robert Newton, Dan O’Herlihy, and Kathleen Ryan — is sublime.
Panic in the Streets. Before Elia Kazan became famous as a film director (he was already a seasoned stage director), he made a couple of interesting and effective thrillers shot on locations — Boomerang (1947) in Connecticut and this taut tale, which is even better, about a public health doctor (Richard Widmark) trying to track down a bunch of thieves who may be infected with bubonic plague, in New Orleans. Edward and Edna Anhalt won an Oscar for their original story, and the backup cast includes Barbara Bel Geddes, Paul Douglas, Jack Palance, and Zero Mostel.
Pistol Opera. Odd Man Out may be arty, but Seijun Suzuki’s belated 2001 color sequel to his 1967 hitman thriller Branded to Kill is positively insane. It’s also beautiful enough to take your breath away; the opening credits alone pack in more gorgeous, graphic inventiveness and dazzle than one is likely to find in most features. Several generations of hitwomen comprise most of the major characters, with top honors going to the ravishing Makiko Esumi as Stray Cat — contriving to shoot her way from third to first place in an obscure hierarchy of assassins as she proceeds through city and country settings and various theatrical stages as well as dreamy studio sets. Even if you can’t follow the story of this choreographed pop fantasy —- and I managed to only at odd junctures —- this is so deliriously pleasurable to look at and listen to that you may not care. The subtitled Japanese dialogue, incidentally, shifts on occasion to English, at least long enough for recitations of Wordsworth and “Humpty Dumpty”.
Point Blank. One more arty thriller —- the last one, I promise. But it’s still John Boorman’s best feature, even though he made this in 1967, and it stars Lee Marvin in one of his ripest performances as an ex-con who stoically emerges from prison looking for revenge, often looking incongruous in various chic L.A. surroundings. The handsome ‘Scope compositions and the tricky, Alain-Resnais-like cutting are mainly what make it arty, along with some occasional hints of allegory and/or parable. But much of this, especially the violence (against objects as much as people), is deliberately laugh-out-loud funny, and Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Vernon, and Carroll O’Connor all place the various shenanigans squarely in the American vernacular. Godard’s working title for Alphaville, Tarzan Versus IBM, would apply just as well to this movie.
The Tall Target. It’s 1861, 90 years before this movie was made. Abraham Lincoln has just been elected President, and an embattled police detective (Dick Powell) boards an overnight New York train bound for Washington to foil an early plot to assassinate him in Baltimore the following day. Even though we know in advance that this won’t happen, this being a paranoid, action-packed, atmospheric thriller directed by noir and western specialist Anthony Mann, and densely plotted, there’s all kinds of nasty skullduggery on this eventful train ride. There’s no musical score, salty period dialogue, and wonderful black and white cinematography by Paul C. Vogel, full of steam, shiny rails, and claustrophobic enclosures; Adolphe Menjou and Ruby Dee are especially good. Too bad that no one has yet seen fit to make this MGM classic available.
The Unfaithful Wife. Claude Chabrol’s La femme infidèle comes from 1968, when he was specializing in celebrating while caustically undermining French bourgeois family life. The setup is classic: a cuckolded husband (Michel Bouquet) calmly sets about plotting the murder of the man sleeping with his wife (Stephane Audran). Much of this is deliberately as slow as molasses in its pacing, but never boring. Chabrol’s ease with this material, and his way of bringing more and more depth and insight to his subject, never falters, and the ending manages to be both profound and unexpected.
The Wages of Fear. Finally, the film I would pick as being the most suspenseful of all the thrillers I know —- as well as one of the most grueling in terms of gritty details. It centers on four desperate and unemployed Europeans (Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli, Peter Van Eyck) stranded in a dingy South American village that’s exploited by a greedy American oil company. They agree to drive two truckloads of nitroglycerine over 300 miles of bumpy, primitive roads in exchange for $2,000 apiece —- at least if they’re alive at the end of their run to collect it. When this 1953 existentialist shocker originally opened in the U.S., 43 of its 148 minutes were missing (including much of the agitprop about the oil company), but the action was so strong that it was still a major hit.
Practically all its footage has been restored on DVD, and now it plays even better. There are things here one can certainly object to —- misogyny, snobbery, and racism among them —- as well as things one can applaud because of Clouzot’s skill and audacity. (Among other things, this is a passionate love story between two of the men, Montand and Vanel). And it’s been so influential that films as various as Cy Endfield’s Sea Fury and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch would have been unthinkable without its example.