Category Archives: Mystery

Stormy Monday (1988, Mike Figgis)

Stormy Monday is beauty in despondence. The film is set over a few days in Newcastle, where the local businesses have given up hope on any economic recovery of their own and instead are letting shady American businessman Tommy Lee Jones spearhead an “American week.” You get a discount for being American, there are U.S. flags everywhere, the radio is playing American music. There’s even a scene where Jones addresses politicians and businesspeople and tells them there’s no hope but for them to embrace the American way of… not life, exactly, but mode of corruption. Jones wants to build a development.

The only thing standing in his way is Sting, who owns a little jazz club. Turns out Sting isn’t what he appears (and Jones is less than he appears). They’re playing a chess game against one another, though neither are fully aware of it. Not at the start at least.

But Sting versus Jones for the economic and development future of Newcastle-upon-Tyne isn’t the main plot of Stormy Monday. The main plot is Sean Bean and Melanie Griffith falling for each other. Bean’s new to town and finds a job at Sting’s night club. Griffith is a waitress, but also under contract as Jones’s femme fatale. She convinces politicians for him. When the film starts, it’s been a while since they’ve seen each other and Griffith’s kind of done with it.

Figgis–who, in addition to writing and directing, did the music–has a very gentle hand when it comes to exposition. Bean’s backstory is a note in a read fast or it’s lost shot in the beginning montage. There’s some dialogue, some setup, but for at least ten minutes of Stormy Monday, it’s just Figgis arranging some of the chess pieces with protracted narrative distance, set to an expository radio program. Bean and Griffith are both listening to it on headphones, walking around town, cut off from the world, but–unknowingly–connected to one another.

There’s another plot line involving a Polish jazz ensemble who’s going to be playing at Sting’s club. One of Bean’s first job tasks is to get them from the airport. Coincidence will have them show up in Jones’s story line (they’re all at the same hotel), but eventually Andrzej Borkowski–as the band’s manager–and Dorota Zieciowska, as a Polish woman living in Newcastle, become familiars in the supporting cast. They have their own romance narrative running alongside the main plots. It’s one of the film’s truly lovely details, as none of the principals have much illusion about the unpleasantness around them.

Bean and Griffith pursue romance knowing that unpleasantness, actively working against it, dreaming against it, juxtaposed against Borkowski and Zieciowska’s hopeful one. Not naive though. One of Stormy Monday’s other themes is how ignorance isn’t just bliss, it’s simultaneously dangerous and necessary.

But Figgis never talks about it, of course, because Figgis never really talks about anything. Griffith and Bean will have these intense moments, deep moments, with short dialogue exchanges and endless mood from Figgis (as writer, director, and composer), cinematographer Roger Deakins, and editor David Martin. Deakins’s contributions to the film are outstanding, but don’t define it in the same way as Figgis and Martin’s cutting of scenes, cutting of sound. Stormy Monday is never rushed; there’s tension, there’s danger, but Figgis never races to get there. Even when he’s got a brisk pace, he’s more interested in keeping the established tone and making the dramatics fit into it.

Everything is precise; the film’s just over ninety minutes and Figgis, not changing the tone (which he sets in those first ten or fifteen minutes), employs numerous subtle devices for exposition and plot development. For example, how Figgis handles Sting’s character development (Stormy Monday is Sting’s story, we just don’t follow it). Bean’s fortunes change once he overhears a couple of Jones’s hired goons–James Cosmo and Mark Long, both terrifying–talking about confronting Sting. So Bean’s at Sting’s house for breakfast, telling him about it (information the audience already has; audience actually has more information it turns out), and Figgis does the whole thing from Prunella Gee’s perspective. She’s Sting’s wife. It’s her one scene. But it’s more character development than Sting gets almost anywhere else.

Figgis sets up the audience’s narrative distance, which is different than Bean’s, different than Griffith’s. Even though Bean and Griffith are the leads, co-protagonists. Well, after the first act, Griffith mostly takes over. I’m also using first act rather loosely. Figgis is as exuberant as he can be–stylistically–about breaking plotting expectations. Not plot expectations so much, Stormy Monday has some predictable twists (or maybe more not it just doesn’t have twists as much as reasonable developments), but how the plots run concurrent and where they intersect.

The acting is all good. No one’s particularly spectacular. Figgis doesn’t really ask a lot from his cast in terms of performance; they serve the film, which Figgis is going to precisely cut, precisely score. Lots of silent, thoughtful moments for Bean and Griffith, who both essay them beautifully. For their characters, the saying isn’t as important as the hearing, the sitting with what’s been said. It even comes up as a minor plot point later.

If Figgis’s ambitions for the narrative were stronger, Stormy Monday might be singular. Instead, it’s a phenomenal style exercise (with a solid script). If it were more narratively ambitious however, Jones and Sting would probably be liabilities. Sting gets a lot of help from Figgis’s direction, while Jones always seems like he’s just about to be exasperated with the thinness of the part. Figgis knows how to pivot to a better angle on the character, always implying more depth.

Stormy Monday is a masterfully, exquisitely, intelligently made film. It just doesn’t want to be anything more. Figgis fills it with content–good content–but no potentiality.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Mike Figgis; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by David Martin; music by Figgis; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; produced by Nigel Stafford-Clark; released by Atlantic Releasing.

Starring Melanie Griffith (Kate), Sean Bean (Brendan), Sting (Finney), Tommy Lee Jones (Cosmo), Andrzej Borkowski (Andrej), Scott Hoxby (Bob), Dorota Zieciowska (Christine), Mark Long (Patrick), Prunella Gee (Mrs. Finney), and James Cosmo (Tony).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 5TH ANNUAL RULE, BRITANNIA FILM BLOGATHON HOSTED BY TERENCE TOWLES CANOTE OF A SHROUD OF THOUGHTS.


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A Cry in the Night (1956, Frank Tuttle)

If it weren’t for the cast, there’d be very little to distinguish A Cry in the Night. John F. Seitz’s black and white photography is often–but not always–quite good, though director Tuttle struggles with the composition. He composes for the squarer Academy ratio, not widescreen. Cry in the Night is widescreen.

And David Buttolph’s music is all right. It never quite lives up to the promise of the opening title music; it’s still all right. It rallies at the end for the showdown.

Of course, maybe the title not having any bearing on the film should be an indicator of the inevitable problems–the source novel has a different title. There is no cry in Cry in the Night. Sure, Natalie Wood screams when Raymond Burr kidnaps her. He’s a peeping tom who assaults Wood’s fiancé, Richard Anderson, after Anderson confronts him. Then Burr grabs Wood and drives off in Anderson’s car. Wood screams, but since they’re at a makeout point, the other youngsters who overhear it just yell back to hit her some more; girls like it.

Cry in the Night has a lot of gross moments; that one is probably the worst. The film’s opening narration focuses on what those teenagers are doing all by themselves on makeout points throughout the country, but the film never actually blames Wood (or Anderson) for poor judgment. It lays the blame some other places, not necessarily better, but never there.

Anderson gets hauled in by the cops, who don’t care he’s bleeding and confused. They think he’s a drunk. Luckily there’s a saintly doctor (Peter Hansen) who has to argue with the cops to reexamine the concussed man. The movie runs seventy-five minutes yet is full of treading water moments like police captain Brian Donlevy whining at Hansen about reevaluating Anderson only for Donlevy to immediately change his mind when it’s time for the next scene.

Wood is a cop’s daughter. Not Donlevy, who’s stiff but lovable compared to her dad, Edmond O’Brien. O’Brien isn’t stiff. He’s wild, desperately in search of something to chew on for his part. He’s an overbearing, overprotective, insensitive misanthrope control freak. He’s got constant energy. Only there’s nothing much to be energetic about. Certainly not when Tuttle is shooting in his boring, ubiquitous middle two shot. The actors are slightly angled in profile. They talk to each other, standing just to the left of center. Over and over again, the same shot, no matter the location, no matter the actors, no matter the scene content. By the time the film gets to the third act and Tuttle doesn’t use it as much–there aren’t the same opportunities for two shots–it’s an actual shock. About the only one in the film.

Half the movie is Donlevy, O’Brien, and Anderson looking for Wood (and the identity of her kidnapper), half the movie is Wood trying to survive Burr’s attention. He takes her to his lair in a deserted factory; it’s where he hides from his overbearing mother (Carol Veazie). David Dortort’s screenplay is never more godawful than when dealing with the mental conditions of Burr and Veazie. It’s painful at those times.

Wood tries reasoning with Burr, she tries escaping him, she tries confronting him. Even though O’Brien has explained he raised her to know what to do in crisis situations, turns out she doesn’t, because then there wouldn’t be a movie. She’s a damsel in distress, nothing more, which is an utter waste of Wood’s performance. She gets squat to do in the opening scene–really, after she watches Burr lay out Anderson she’s really going to go over and ask why Burr did it–before Burr knocks her out. She faints later on too, when Dortort can’t think of any reason to keep her awake.

The movie keeps it moving until the finale, when it just doesn’t go anywhere; O’Brien has a rude awakening about his controlling behavior from the other women in his life–wife Irene Harvey (who’s so much better than the material) and spinster sister (because O’Brien drove her suitors away) Mary Lawrence. Lawrence gets a crap scene but she’s not better than it. Cry in the Night goes into the finale following the film’s worst scene.

Donlevy’s stiff but fine. Who knows how his performance would’ve played if Tuttle weren’t so dedicated to those lousy medium two shots. O’Brien and Wood just needed better material. Anderson’s fine. Burr’s a lot scary before he starts talking. Veazie is creepy, which is an achievement given her scenes are terribly conceived, written, and directed.

The attempts at making the investigation seem ultra-modern with the constant radio calling around the police precinct are also goofy.

Director Tuttle and screenwriter Dortort sink A Cry in the Night. They make a narratively inert kidnapping thriller; the film’s set over what ought to be four or five unbearably tense hours. And they flush all the potential the material gives the actors. It’s a waste.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Tuttle; screenplay by David Dortort, based on a novel by Whit Masterson; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Folmar Blangsted; music by David Buttolph; production designer, Malcolm C. Bert; produced by George C. Bertholon; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Natalie Wood (Liz Taggart), Richard Anderson (Owen Clark), Raymond Burr (Harold Loftus), Edmond O’Brien (Capt. Dan Taggart), Brian Donlevy (Capt. Ed Bates), Irene Hervey (Helen Taggart), Mary Lawrence (Madge Taggart), Peter Hansen (Dr. Frazee), Charles Kane (Sam Patrick), and Carol Veazie (Mrs. Mabel Loftus).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE NATALIE WOOD BLOGATHON HOSTED BY SAMANTHA OF MUSINGS OF A CLASSIC FILM ADDICT.


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Futureworld (1976, Richard T. Heffron)

Futureworld ends with a ten minute chase sequence. It feels like thirty. The movie runs 107 boring minutes and I really did think thirty of them were spent on Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner battling evil robots. And not even Danner. Fonda. Just Peter Fonda running around giant underground maintenance rooms.

Fonda and Danner play reporters on special assignment to cover the revamped Delos resort. A few years earlier–in Westworld–all the humanoid robots went crazy and killed guests. Fonda wrote the expose on it. Danner is the TV newswoman who used to work for Fonda and he fired for not being newsy enough. He calls her “Socks.” The film is one long diss to Danner. It gets worse as it goes along; the “Socks” thing takes a while to get introduced and then the script uses it every sixteenth word.

Neither Fonda nor Danner appeared in the first film. The only returning actor is Yul Brynner, who appears more in footage from Westworld than he does in Futureworld footage. Behind the camera, composer Fred Karlin and cinematographer Gene Polito (sharing credit this time with Howard Schwartz) both return. Karlin’s score is godawful. Polito and Schwartz’s photography is adequate. It’s not their fault the movie’s a bore.

Mayo Simon and George Schenck don’t have much of a story. Fonda suspects something is wrong at the reopened resort, Danner doesn’t. Company man Arthur Hill assures them everything is fine. But mad scientist John P. Ryan is actually doing bad things. It’s unclear for a while what the bad things are, but they’re bad in the montage sequences so they must be bad. There are a lot of montage sequences in the first half of Futureworld. It’s scene, montage, scene, montage. It seems budgetary–get to the exposition sequences as fast as possible, skipping any action sequences.

It helps Futureworld (the resort) only shows up in the first third of the movie. It’s a cheesy futuristic bar with holographic chess a year before it got to a galaxy far far away. It’s silly, but not fun. Because Futureworld isn’t any fun. Director Heffron plays it all straight, something Fonda can’t do and Danner seems unclear about.

Fonda is not good. It’s not entirely his fault, his character spends the beginning of the second act devolved into an even more patronizing jackass (to Danner) than before. The situation changes when Stuart Margolin shows up. He knows the dirt on the robots (or something). It’s a terribly paced, poorly written sequence. But Margolin’s at least likable.

Danner’s kind of sympathetic. Not her character, because she doesn’t have on, but Danner. You feel for her being in this movie. Towards the end, you sort of assume Fonda agreed to do it stoned but why did Danner agree. She should’ve fired her agent. Especially since the movie ought to be a relative no-brainer.

Killer future robots instead of killer Western robots.

But there isn’t much robot action in Futureworld; though the script fixates on the possibilities of robot sex in the first act. It’s not really a thing afterwards, even when there’s robot sex. That robot sex features one of the only two robots in the second half of the movie (of consequence).

The script does a lot to increase its efficiency (like taking place entirely underground–or on obvious sets–in the second half). With a better script, better production, better director, better actor (no script was going to make Fonda’s performance better, he’s a miscasting epitome), Futureworld might be able to work.

Instead, it’s a dull attempt at cheap “intellectual sci-fi.” It’s long, goofy, and never professional enough to take seriously. It’s strange Westworld creator Michael Crichton gets zero credit on the film, but reasonable. Who’d want their name on it?

Though, heavy John P. Ryan as a subdued bad guy scientist is at least interesting to watch. The material’s all bad, but Ryan’s a strange enough casting choice seeing how he essays it… it’s mildly diverting. As opposed to Hill, who eventually gets some Danner-esque sympathy. Not as much, but some.

Futureworld’s bad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Richard T. Heffron; screenplay by Mayo Simon and George Schenck, based on characters created by Michael Crichton; directors of photography, Howard Schwartz and Gene Polito; edited by James Mitchell; music by Fred Karlin; produced by James T. Aubrey and Paul N. Lazarus III; released by American International Pictures.

Starring Peter Fonda (Chuck Browning), Blythe Danner (Tracy Ballard), Arthur Hill (Duffy), John P. Ryan (Dr. Schneider), Stuart Margolin (Harry), Jim Antonio (Ron Thurlow),and Yul Brynner (The Gunslinger).


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Dirty Harry (1971, Don Siegel)

Dirty Harry only has one significant problem. It has a bunch of little problems, but it gets past those–sometimes manipulatively, sometimes just nimbly thanks to director Siegel and star Clint Eastwood–but the big one. It can’t overcome the third act. Villain Andy Robinson (I can’t forget to talk about him) has kidnapped a bunch of school kids. Eastwood’s got to stop him. It should incorporate the film’s (significant) stylistic successes–the big scale action sequence (Siegel loves shutting down a city block with Eastwood playing super-cop) and the harrowing thrills (the middle of the film has this phenomenal sequence where Robinson’s running Eastwood all around San Francisco from pay phone to pay phone).

Instead, the finale has neither. It feels tacked on, sure, but a lot of Dirty Harry feels tacked together. And I’m not just making that observation because I know from director Siegel’s memoir he, Eastwood, and screenwriter Dean Riesner literally sat around and taped scenes they liked from the various failed drafts of the script. Most of the time the tacking works–it leads to strange, nice scenes, usually giving Eastwood some depth–but not at the end. At the end, it flops. The big final action sequence? Well, it’s not big, but it should be. But it doesn’t work. Even if the film’s final shot, with the beatific, haunting Lalo Schifrin music, is awesome.

The film starts in the daytime–literally, with Robinson killing his first victim on a sunny, presumably warm day–and gradually moves the action to night. Much of the second act is at night. Most of the second act, counting screen time and not present action elapsed, takes place at night. Nighttime is where even affably, charmingly churlish super-cop Eastwood gets to be scared. The movie works up to it, establishing Eastwood as much of a caricature as it can–doing a good job of it, of course, and doing the occasional aside to make sure the audience knows he’s their kind of bastard.

The finale’s not at night. It’s during the day. A very, very problematic day. Plot holes galore in its timing. Plot holes really shouldn’t matter in the last fifteen minutes of a serial killer thriller.

So the daytime throws Siegel off a bit with the finale. As does the setting. As does the pacing (he’s only got about ten minutes to wrap things up). But he also seems to let editor Carl Pingitore take a break, which is a big mistake. Pingitore’s editing intensifies as the film does, through the first and second acts; it’s incredible during the nighttime suspense sequences. Siegel, Pingitore, cinematographer Bruce Surtees–Dirty Harry is often breathtakingly well-made. Often set to the perfect Schifrin score.

Plot holes, Siegel’s lax direction, and daylight timing aren’t the finale’s only problem. Dirty Harry’s big little problem–and one of its most surprising successes–has its (muted) blow-up at the end: how can these silly cops and politicians not get over their liberal sensibilities and understand Robinson’s dangerous?

By the end of the film, Robinson’s killed a wealthy, beautiful, young white woman, a ten year-old boy, a fourteen year-old white girl (who he raped), a cop trying to stop him (Robinson shot him up with an assault rifle), and maybe someone else. Maybe not. But definitely those four. Yet mayor John Vernon and district attorney Josef Sommer want to make sure Robinson’s “rights” are “protected” more than anything else. Double quotation works because, while the rights are specific, how to ensure their protection isn’t. Anyway, even worse, they’re convincing Eastwood’s boss–Harry Guardino in a nice, ruffled performance–they’re right.

Eastwood’s new partner is a pre-affirmative action but come-on hire. Except, after working a couple nights with Eastwood, college educated, Hispanic Reni Santoni comes to understand not just the reality of the street but also how much no one listens to Eastwood. How could they? Their characters are too thin to have ears.

Harry’s coats its dog whistles in beautiful filmmaking, but it doesn’t do anything to disguise any of them. So when it turns out the reality of the street is Eastwood’s rampaging super-cop basically gets along with the bad guys. Even when they’re black guys. It’s all in the game, though sort of in a pre-cop movie, post-Western sort of way. It can even make for likable Eastwood moments.

It just doesn’t add up when Robinson’s the villain. He’s a proto-incel gun nut who fantasizes about killing marginalized people. The film frequently dehumanizes the character with these whiny, squealing wails. It’s supposed to make it okay for Eastwood to torture him. But it also makes the character even more unlikable because Robinson’s wails are so good, you just want Eastwood to kick him in the face until he shuts up.

It’s also kind of okay because at that point in the film he’s killed two adults and two children in a variety of circumstances and methods. Harry’s other problem with making its political statement is how ill-suited it integrates with the story. Dirty Harry doesn’t have much character development. In its place is this subtext about the problems with liberal intellectual politicians letting pedophile, cop-killing spree killers literally run wild. At least be invested in that subtext.

Until the third act, the film does a pretty good job of integrating that subtext. It usually gets loud for a moment, then quiets down for a while. In between are some great scenes. Getting over that thin aspect of the script is one of Dirty Harry’s successes, because Siegel and Eastwood are able to leap and bound over the thinness. Until the third act.

So Dirty Harry doesn’t finish as strong as it should. It’s hard to imagine how it could. Aside from the final action sequence actually being suspenseful.

There’s a lot of good acting–Eastwood, Guardino, Santoni, Robinson (kind of until the third act), John Vernon (ditto). Amid all those third act problems, Ruth Kobart gives the phenomenal performance in a small role. The film’s expertly made. Siegel’s Panavision direction–with Surtees’s photography–is outstanding. Those great Pingitore cuts, that great Schifrin music.

It’s just got a bad finish.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, and Dean Riesner, based on a story by Fink and Fink; director of photography, Bruce Surtees; edited by Carl Pingitore; music by Lalo Schifrin; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Harry), Harry Guardino (Bressler), Reni Santoni (Chico), John Vernon (The Mayor), Andrew Robinson (Killer), John Larch (Chief), Josef Sommer (Rothko), John Mitchum (De Giorgio), Mae Mercer (Mrs. Russell), Ruth Kobart (Bus Driver), and Woodrow Parfrey (Jaffe).


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