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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Beatty and Penn make ‘Mickey One’ an arty nightmare

By Mike Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and  pre-noir 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 

Mickey One” (1965, Arthur Penn). Friday, May 24, 12:30 a.m.  (9:30 p.m.)

In “Mickey One,” Warren Beatty plays a Chicago comic who has angered the mob.

The man on the run in “Mickey One,” Arthur Penn’s and Warren Beatty’s nightmare of a 1965 neo-noir, is a Chicago standup comedian  trapped in an urban world of disorientation and fear. It’s one of Beatty’s most offbeat roles: a smart-ass hipster Lenny Bruce type who’s  gotten on the mob’s list for  a transgression  that he doesn’t remember (that possibly doesn’t even exist) and now feels himself in danger every time he walks out on stage. Mickey is a prototypical film noir outsider, lost in the big city night, in a darkness interrupted by neon guideposts to Hell.

Donna Michelle

Around the terrified comedian is a gallery of bizarre characters who might have been assembled for some noirish Wonderland:  Hurd Hatfield (who once played Dorian Gray) as a devious club owner, Franchot Tone as Mickey’s elderly mentor, Alexandra Stewart as the girl who loves him (maybe), Playboy Playmate-of-the-Year Donna Michelle as the babe of babes, Teddy Hart as Mickey’s pint-size agent-manager, Jeff Corey as a club guy, and Kamatari Fujiwara (who was one of the two squabbling peasants in  Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress”) as a conceptual artist.

This neglected film, written by Alan M. Surgal, is one of the artiest and most experimental of all ‘60s black-and-white neo-noirs. And though Surgal’s script is pretentious to a fault, “Mickey One” is beautifully made, a classic of ‘60s razzle-dazzle film technique – often more reminiscent of  early ‘60s foreign art film style than anything out of the Hollywood mainstream.

The movie was stunningly photographed by Ghislain Cloquet, who shot some of the French film masterpieces of Alain Resnais (“Night and Fog”) and Robert Bresson (“Au Hasard Balthazar”).  And the picture has one of the finest jazz scores in the movies, written and orchestrated by Eddie Sauter and improvised by saxophone genius Stan Getz.

One thing “Mickey One” doesn’t have is funny jokes. Mickey’s act couldn’t make a hyena laugh. But maybe that’s the point. The next time Penn and Beatty got together, it was to make “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), which does have funny jokes, as well as  violence and beauty. Here, the director and his star may fail, but they fail grandly, with ambition, daring, style and images that stay in your head.

Wednesday, May 22

3:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m.): “The Blue Gardenia” (1953, Fritz Lang), Working girl Anne Baxter lets her guard down and gets mixed up in the murder of slimy Raymond Burr. (As the girls in “Chicago” say, “He had it coming.”)  The rest of the lineup includes Ann Sothern, Nat King Cole and George “Superman” Reeves. Not Lang’s best, but you won’t want to miss it anyway.

10:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m.): “The Outfit” (1973, John Flynn).  Here’s another adaptation of one of Donald Westlake’s (alias “Richard Stark’s”) ultra-hard-boiled “Parker” novels – the series that inspired “Point Blank.” This time, Robert Duvall plays the “Parker” character, and just as unstoppably as Lee Marvin did. Out to avenge his brother, aided (maybe) by Karen Black and Joe Don Baker, Duvall is up against villain Robert Ryan. The  stellar noir cast includes Timothy Carey, Marie Windsor, Jane Greer, Richard Jaeckel, Sheree North and Elisha Cook, Jr. The movie is underrated too. You’ll be surprised at how good it is – unless you look over that cast list again.

Saturday, May 25

4:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m.) “Foreign Correspondent” (1940, Alfred Hitchcock). With Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, and George Sanders. Reviewed on FNB February 20, 2013.

Tuesday, May 28

8 p.m. (5 p.n.): “Hard Times” (1975, Walter Hill). Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the illicit world of back-alley, bare-knuckle fighting during the American Depression. (Bronson is the boxer, Coburn his manager.)  With Jill Ireland and Strother Martin. Tough stuff.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Bullitt” (1968, Peter Yates). With Steve McQueen, Jacqueline Bisset and Robert Duvall. Reviewed on FNB October 27, 2012.

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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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Brian De Palma’s ‘Blow Out’ sometimes makes us roll our eyes and sometimes holds us spellbound

Having received good feedback from the winner of April’s giveaway – the prize was Criterion’s rerelease of “Blow Out” – I realized it was high time to run the review. ;)

Brian De Palma/1981/ Filmways Pictures/107 min.

Michael Wilmington

By Michael Wilmington

“Blow Out,” Brian De Palma’s 1981 neo noir about a movie sound man (played by John Travolta), who stumbles into a political conspiracy and a string of murders, is a movie for connoisseurs of trash and movie art. One of this movie’s strongest critical admirers (and one of De Palma’s) was Pauline Kael, and one of Kael’s most famous critical essays is called “Trash, Art and the Movies.” We get all three of them here, in a film that sometimes makes us roll our eyes and sometimes holds us spellbound.

“Blow Out” probably took its title partly from Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup,” which is about a swinging ’60s London photographer who stumbles on what may be murder. And it centers around one of Travolta’s sexiest performances, as Jack Terry the lone-wolf Philadelphia sound-effects man, who is working on a sleazy slasher horror movie.

The director is dissatisfied with the scream Jack has supplied for one of the victims. The movie within the movie is a terrible, inept picture, which De Palma stages as a send-up of “Halloween” and other teen slasher pics. But Jack is a pro. He takes his equipment out that night to get more ambient night-sound on a suburban bridge.

Nancy Allen

That bridge is an unusually well-populated one, considering the lateness of the hour. There are crickets and an owl, who stares at us disturbingly, and there’s another filmmaker named Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), who’s got his camera set up somewhere near Jack (but whom Jack doesn’t know and doesn’t see), and finally there’s a speeding car, carrying, amazingly, the current front-running candidate for president of the United States, Governor McRyan, (John Hoffmeister) together with a hot blonde named Sally (Nancy Allen).

Jack hears a couple of bangs (and catches them on his recorder) and the governor’s car plunges through a fence and into the river where it quickly sinks. Jack dives in and is able to rescue Sally, but not the possible next president.

Soon we’re at the hospital, where Sally is groggily coming to. The police, reporters and some political people, visions of Chappaquiddick perhaps dancing in their heads, seem to want Jack and Nancy to just clam up and go away. He won’t. She wants to, at first, but decides she likes Jack.

Then Manny and his Zapruderish film turns up, and ex-Philadelphian De Palma turns the city into a house of horrors more violent than anything in ex-Philadephian David Lynch’s neighborhood, craning and swooping and whirling his camera all around a world gone seemingly mad. There’s a deadly plot of some kind afoot, and its bloodiest agent is a phony telephone company worker named Burke (played with a truly evil stare and icily smug expression by John Lithgow), a cold-blooded killer who seems willing to depopulate half the town to keep all the guilty secrets safe.

If that sounds like a pretty absurd plot, it often plays pretty silly too, though just as often it’s imaginatively over-the-top and hellishly exciting. I‘ve always thought De Palma should avoid solo-writing jobs on his own movie scripts. And “Blow Out” as well as “Raising Cain” and “Femme Fatale” (and 1968’s “Murder a la Mod,” which is included in this Criterion package) are good demonstrations why. “Blow Out” is never boring. But a lot of the time it doesn’t make any bloody sense.

So why did Kael call it a great movie? Mostly, maybe, because she very much liked De Palma’s work, because this movie is made with such great feverish style, and also maybe because she had a crush of sorts on Travolta, as she had on Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Warren Beatty.

The style is what we remember about “Blow Out” – not the ideas, which are mostly shallow or obvious, or the story, which is both predictable and illogical, or the characters who are mostly overdrawn and somewhat stereotypical (or archetypal, if you prefer), or the movie itself, which is basically a set of ingeniously orchestrated suspense set-pieces, strung together in clever, artful ways that defy plausibility with an almost cheerful impudence. [Read more...]

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On the radar: TCM Classic Film Festival starts next Thursday in Hollywood; big cats on the big screen; crime does play

One week from tonight is the TCM Classic Film Festival, which runs from April 28 to May 1 in Hollywood. There will be more than 70 screenings, as well as special introductions, guest appearances, panel discussions and other events. The red-carpet gala screening on Thursday is “An American in Paris.”

Marlene Dietrich

But naturally I’m more excited to see the 10:15 p.m. screening of Josef von Sternberg’s “The Devil is a Woman” from 1935 with Marlene Dietrich. Katie Trainor, film collection manager for the Museum of Modern Art, will introduce the film.

TCM host and film historian Robert Osborne is the official host of the festival. Peter O’Toole, Kirk Douglas, Leslie Caron, Mickey Rooney, Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, Warren Beatty, Alec Baldwin, Angela Lansbury, Hayley Mills, Richard Roundtree and Roger Corman are just a few of the notables slated to appear. Can’t wait!

Big cats: The nature doc “African Cats” opens Friday (Earth Day). For the first week, a portion of every ticket sold will go to the African Wildlife Foundation. Disney and Jordin Sparks, who did the movie’s end-title song “The World I Knew,” are also donating to the foundation.

Score hard: The “L.A. Noire” video game, featuring “Mad Men” star Aaron Staton’s voice and vibe, launches May 17. “L.A. Noire” will screen Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival, the first video game to snag that honor. Brendan McNamara is the writer/director.

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