Wicked violence, wild beauty permeate classic ‘Badlands’

By Mike Wilmington

Badlands/1973/Warner Bros./94 min.

The late 1960s and early 1970s, in America, were marked by violence and loneliness, war and craziness, and wild beauty. We see a portrait of a lot of that trauma, in microcosm, in Terrence Malick’s shattering 1973 classic, “Badlands.” Set in the American West of the 1950s, it’s the story of two young people on the run: Kit, who works on a trash truck and tries to model himself after James Dean, and Holly, a high-school baton twirler with a strange blank stare, who thinks Kit is the handsomest boy she’s ever seen.

These two moonchildren run off together after Kit tries and fails to reconcile Holly’s mean, smiley-sign-painter father (Warren Oates) to their relationship. Then, plumb out of arguments, Kit shoots him dead and burns his house down. It’s probably Kit’s first murder; he’s such a weirdly polite guy that it’s hard to envision it otherwise. But soon he develops a taste for slaughter. And he and Holly embark on a savage cross-country trek by stolen cars, one that includes the massacre of many people, including Kit’s best (only) friend Cato (Ramon Bieri).

Kit appears to be killing not out of need or fear, but out of some perverse pleasure he gets from pulling the trigger and making a soul disappear from a body. “He was the most trigger-happy person I’d ever seen,” says Holly, in her flat, unemotional voice.

Kit and Holly are played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, the first lead roles for either of them.

Kit and Holly are played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, the first lead roles for either of them. They are a couple of beautiful but amoral (at least in Kit’s case) American eccentrics who seem to have gotten most of their ideas about love and romance from the movies. Kit keeps constructing his own dream world, even as the real world is falling apart below their feet. They build tree houses, they dance at night by the lights of their stolen car to Nat King Cole’s achingly romantic ballad “A Blossom Fell.”

Kit and Holly were inspired, to a degree, by real people: serial killer Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. The pair went on a murder spree in 1957-58 and wound up killing 11 people, some of them with a cruelty that surpasses anything we see in Malick’s movie.

Kit is a born killer and we’re probably more afraid of him than any of the jolly Barrow gang.

“Badlands” was also inspired by Arthur Penn’s 1967 masterpiece “Bonnie and Clyde,” another movie where unsavory real-life characters, the Clyde Barrow-Bonnie Parker gang, become likeable and sympathetic, even glamorous. Bonnie, Clyde, Kit and Holly are stunningly attractive, which is a cinematic short-cut to sympathy and something we see in other films like the 1950 film noir classic “Gun Crazy,” directed by Joseph H. Lewis. But Clyde is more of a businessman who’s chosen crime as a profession; Kit is a born killer and we’re probably more afraid of him than any of the jolly Barrow gang.

There’s something else that “Badlands” and “Bonnie and Clyde” share: a true, piercing sense of the rough-hewn beauty of the American landscapes and of the American physiognomy. And while Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway have A-list knockout looks (the kind of faces moviemakers use to draw us to the screen and what the movies themselves sell) Sheen and Spacek have a different kind of good looks: an outsider sexiness, a tender and beguiling charm.

Kit and Holly were inspired serial killer Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate.

Sheen and Spacek are alluring, and so is the film: a series of gorgeous landscapes, images that can fill us with delight and awe. (“Badlands” went through three camera artists: Tak Fujimoto, Brian Probyn and Stevan Larner.) In his next film, “Days of Heaven,” Malick would also get incredible beauty in exterior shots. But “Badlands”— shot on a minuscule budget in what Malick has called an outlaw production — has something madder, freer. It’s a darkening vision of two naïve kids in love and flight, but it’s also the head-shot of a killer, picking out his targets. He’s there, smiling, with a gun in his hand, almost before you know it.

The question “Badlands” poses, like “Bonnie and Clyde,” is the riddle of which is more deadly: society or its outlaws. We think we know the answer, but we don’t. Both movies, made in the Vietnam era, are about the struggle between the establishment and its outlaws. Both deliberately blur the boundaries between what we see as good and evil.

“Badlands” is about the America and the people we think we know but really don’t, the people we hear about from afar. It’s about that car racing along the road against the night-sky, those twisted childlike lovers, looking for freedom but finding darkness and death, and the soft, fleeting sound of Nat King Cole on the car radio.

Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray releases of “Badlands” include a number of outstanding extras.

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Neo-noir ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ is a pretty tone poem that skimps on story

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints/2013/IFC Films/105 min.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” by writer/director David Lowery, opens with a quarrel between a pair of young lovers, ambling along the hills of desolate central Texas. Ruth (Rooney Mara with a Plain Jane, ’70s vibe) frets that her restless boyfriend Bob (Casey Affleck) is going to take off on his own and leave her behind.

He reassures her but her fears are not unfounded – when a robbery goes wrong, Bob goes to jail and Ruth must fend for herself. But knowing that Ruth is pregnant, Bob determines to escape and return to his wife and child.

Lowery creates and sustains a languid mood tinged with loneliness, frustration, guilt and longing, underscored by steady dread, thanks particularly to cinematographer Bradford Young’s pretty camerawork and Daniel Hart’s plaintive music. The director also draws subtle performances from Mara as a teen transformed by motherhood and a tenderly expressive Ben Foster as the cop who forms the third side of the love triangle.

Lowery’s work essentially belongs to the lovers-on-the-run tradition that mixes film noir, poetic realism and grisly fairy tale – presumably attempting to join the ranks of movies like “Gun Crazy,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Badlands.”

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” has impressed many critics, but I found it hard to connect with and the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. Lowery seems uncomfortable letting a simple tale unfold. Several narrative threads felt clunky and tacked on, without adding anything of substance. Some of the storytelling was hard to follow; other parts were boring (though, to be fair, action isn’t the aim here) and hollow.

Pretentious and plodding more than heartfelt and contemplative,“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” failed to move me.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” opens nationwide today.

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The Noir File: Beatty and Dunaway go gun crazy in ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ Arthur Penn’s 1967 noir gangster classic

By Michael Wilmington & Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir, sort of noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All movies below are from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty are the noir lovers on the run.

Bonnie and Clyde“ (1967, Arthur Penn). Monday, Feb. 4, 8 p.m. (5 p.m.). It begins with a sexy small town pickup – a fast-talking ex-con named Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) talks a bored blonde waitress named Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) into taking a stroll, witnessing an armed robbery, and then taking a spin in a stolen car that he steals right in front of her. It ends with one of the most emotionally overpowering scenes in all of the movies. In between, we watch Bonnie, Clyde, Clyde’s cornball brother Buck (Gene Hackman), Buck’s wife Blanche-the-preacher’s-daughter (Estelle Parsons) and a wayward gas station jockey named C. W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), run amok in the south and middle west, often accompanied by banjo picker Earl Scruggs’ rousing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” in one of the movies’ great crime sprees and gang sagas.

Among the inspirations for Robert Benton and David Newman’s script, which they intended for one of the ‘60s French New Wave directors, like Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard, were the ’40s love-on-the run film noirs “Gun Crazy” and “They Live By Night,” two classics also based on the legend of The Barrow Gang. Director Arthur Penn, at his peak, turned the movie into an ironic blend of twisted love story, dark comedy, caustic social portrait and breezy romantic crime thriller, with Bonnie and Clyde as a pair of deadly innocents, caught up in the poverty of the Depression and the turbulence of the ’30s gangster period. The movie is shot by Burnett Guffey in a style reminiscent of Depression-era photographer Walker Evans.

Gun-toting Bonnie and Clyde are sociopathic criminals but attractive, likable, mostly unmalicious ones. (Beatty’s Clyde believes naively that they’re helping the poor by robbing banks that are foreclosing mortgages.) Bonnie and Clyde are also, in a way, counter-culture stars – creating their own real-life movie as they race along. What they’re racing toward, though – something poetess Bonnie realizes – is the end of the line. With Gene Wilder, Denver Pyle and Dub Taylor. Oscars went to Parsons (Supporting Actress) and Guffey (Cinematography). [Read more...]

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Stylish and subversive, ‘Gun Crazy’ showcases Lewis’ talent

Gun Crazy/1950/King Brothers Productions/86 min.

Peggy Cummins at the TCM festival screening of “Gun Crazy” on Saturday. Photo by Jason Merritt

Peggy Cummins as Annie

It’s pretty much a given in film noir romance that red flags go unheeded and wake-up calls are ignored. An unforgettable example: the protagonist in Joseph H. Lewis’ groundbreaking noir “Gun Crazy” (1950) in which John Dall plays Bart Tare, a World War II vet who’s gifted with guns. After a circus clown tells Bart that he’s “dumb about women,” Bart simply shrugs and rushes off to do his femme fatale’s bidding, which in this case means robbing banks and living on the lam.

To be fair to Bart, however, this is a femme fatale like no other: rodeo performer Annie Laurie Starr (Irish actress Peggy Cummins) loves guns as much as Bart does but whereas he doesn’t want to kill anyone, she’s cool with that possibility. Blood-chilling and unfailingly bold, this svelte blonde ranks as one of the hardest women on the screen.

Cummins appeared last weekend at the TCM Classic Film Festival’s screening of “Gun Crazy” and spoke with Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation. Muller described Cummins’ interpretation of Annie as “the most ferocious female performance in American cinema.”

Bart (John Dall) and Annie (Peggy Cummins) prefer guns to roses.

Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century-Fox brought Cummins to Hollywood in 1945 – she was 98 pounds and had an 18-inch waist, she said.

When the opportunity arose to portray a bad girl for Lewis, Cummins said she was ready. “I loved the idea of it. The tendency was then if you’re a bit short, blonde and reasonably pretty, you were always playing rather pretty-pretty little parts. But this was a meaty part. I always wanted to play all the Bette Davis parts and I was never offered one. She was too good.

“An actor is always so thrilled to get a chance to play against what their character may be or the sort of person they are.”

It was Cummins’ most famous part (Dall is best remembered for this picture and 1948’s “Rope” by Alfred Hitchcock) and the film, as subversive as it is stylish, influenced directors for decades to come. In fact, it is one of the primary bridges between classic Hollywood movies and the French and American New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” from 1960 and 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde” by Arthur Penn.)

On the run, playing it straight with some studious specs.

Director Lewis was a solid B-movie director and, with A-list status eluding him, he took advantage of the freedom lower-budget Bs offered to experiment, innovate and break cinematic rules. In his time he was underrated but, because of his inventive style, he was rediscovered and praised by American and French critics in the ’60s.

In “Gun Crazy” when the pair robs the first bank, Lewis shot on location and used real people to play the bystanders. And leading up to the crime, Lewis (via cinematographer Russell Harlan) uses one long, unbroken shot taken from the backseat of the getaway car, from the criminals’ point of view, immersing the audience in the robbers’ subjective reality. During this scene, said Cummins, she and Dall improvised the dialogue.

MacKinlay Kantor and Dalton Trumbo, one of Hollywood’s finest scribes, wrote the screenplay based on a short story of Kantor’s. But when Trumbo was blacklisted, his work on this film was credited to Millard Kaufman.

Annie’s got some great lines, for example, when she explains her aspirations: “Bart, I want things, a lot of things, big things. I don’t want to be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts. A guy who can laugh at anything, who will do anything, a guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.”

Renamed “Deadly is the Female” for its British release, “Gun Crazy” is insanely good noir.

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