Tag Archives: Dennis Hopper

Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray)

For a film with pioneering use of widescreen composition–the shot with the cars moving past Natalie Wood–and one of the better film performances (James Dean), Rebel Without a Cause is a curious failure. It’s loaded with content–there’s the stuff with Dean and his parents, the stuff with Wood and her father, the gang, Sal Mineo, the police, the stuff with Dean and Wood, Dean and Mineo, Mineo and his home life. It goes on and on until it finally gets to the ludicrous conclusion. The film’s entirely nuance-free. It’s probably the finest example of “Technicolor filmmaking.” Even if it was shot in Warner Color.

There are countless problems with the film’s details–like Corey Allen’s affable gang leader, Wood going from amoral sociopath (cheering on the bullies, something she never shows any regret for–her actions towards Dean, yes, but not the ones she supported). Then there’s the film’s almost unimaginable lack of subtext. There’s a frequent and rather misogynistic conflict between Dean’s parents, Jim Backus and Ann Doran. Dean’s constantly suggesting Backus needs to assert himself more and it leads to Backus sitting on the couch in a flowered apron trying to defend him. It’s like the film’s parodying itself (but it is not).

For every second he’s on screen–which is thankfully most of them–James Dean commands the film in a perfect performance. He’s in the first shot and from there on in, I don’t think there’s a single scene where Dean doesn’t do something amazing with his performance. The script occasionally gives him great material–the early scene with Edward Platt, some of the scenes with parents Backus and Doran (Backus’s browbeaten husband gets to be a bit much very quickly), and most of the scenes with him and Wood. Wood’s got a story arc all her own–the film drops it after a while, which is a bad move; the fast forward romance between her and Dean is well-acted by both, but it comes off false. The film opens with Dean, Wood and Mineo at the police station, all three with some definite problems–as the story progresses, it forgets about Dean and Wood’s problems and concentrates solely on Mineo’s, given their Cinemascope potential. The conclusion for Dean and Wood comes off goofy, but Rebel‘s been goofy for almost an hour and a half so it’s not exactly a surprise, but it is a disappointment….

The film has two conceptual failings–first, it’s a teen gang movie where we’re supposed to believe Allen’s a scary tough guy (not to mention gang fights happen at scenic spots, cheered on by a dozen middle class kids); second, it’s a continual present action. The film takes place over a day and a half. There’s the whirlwind friendship between Dean and Mineo, the whirlwind romance between Dean and Wood–both of those can get a pass (it’s a movie, after all), but the film forgets these people have been up for thirty hours. Stern’s script, so strong in the first act, kills off a kid in front of twenty other kids, none of whom freak out–no crying, not even from the kid’s girlfriend. It’s an abject oversight–Rebel Without a Cause would have been a much better film if it’d taken responsibility for that plot development and dealt with it, instead of ignoring it for the Mineo emphasis.

The story problems do bring down the film, but they can’t really vandalize Dean’s performance (or Wood’s to some degree). Like I said before, Dean’s enthralling. But Ray doesn’t keep him on screen enough, talking enough, to camouflage the plot deficiencies (the frequent, poor scenes with the teen gang on the loose jar). But Ray does a great job directing Rebel Without a Cause and that achievement–significant as it may be–doesn’t overcome the writing. Maybe because the film came from Ray’s story, so he’s embracing all the shortcomings.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Stewart Stern, based on an adaptation by Irving Shulman of a story by Ray; director of photography, Ernest Haller; edited by William H. Ziegler; music by Leonard Rosenman; production designer, Malcolm C. Bert; produced by David Weisbart; released by Warner Bros.

Starring James Dean (Jim Stark), Natalie Wood (Judy), Sal Mineo (Plato), Jim Backus (Frank Stark), Ann Doran (Mrs. Carol Stark), Corey Allen (Buzz Gunderson), William Hopper (Judy’s Father), Rochelle Hudson (Judy’s Mother), Dennis Hopper (Goon), Edward Platt (Ray Fremick), Steffi Sidney (Mil), Marietta Canty (Crawford family maid) and Virginia Brissac (Mrs. Stark, Jim’s grandmother).


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The Hot Spot (1990, Dennis Hopper)

One of the most important things about a film noir is the ending. It has to be perfect. It doesn’t matter what comes before, the ending just has to be right. The Hot Spot is a film noir. It’s not a neo-noir. There’s an important distinction. Hopper seems very aware of that distinction; everything he does in the film engages it. But The Hot Spot‘s in color and the frame isn’t academy ratio–when it comes down to it, these differences are showier than the more obvious ones. What Hopper does is present a hard-boiled film noir with everything explicit–it’s not just the sex, it’s the violence. Neither are implied or hinted at–Hopper shows them both in detail. By the first violent scene, that angle completely overshadows the graphic sex. It’s so violent, it’s like he’s going too far (but it’s only fair, given how far he took the sex).

Oh, the ending. I kind of forgot about it (I wish I could).

The Hot Spot‘s ending is a dismal failure. The film’s shockingly good until the end. I never thought I’d be comparing Don Johnson to Robert Mitchum (before I even read the script was written, in 1962, for Mitchum), but he’s like Robert Mitchum here. His delivery of the dialogue is perfect. He’s got a real lack of affect–his eyes don’t emote–and it plays perfectly here. Watching his seemingly soulless character fill with hopes and dreams… it’s wonderful. Too bad about the end.

What happens at the end–and The Hot Spot takes a hit with its final pseudo-scene. A real big hit. Before, it’s already impaired, but the last shot is just rubbish. Anyway, what happens is simple. Dennis Hopper seems to think Virginia Madsen is giving a good performance and she should have more material. Madsen’s performance–and her Texan accent–is laughable. If it weren’t for Jennifer Connelly’s laughable performance (and Texan accent), it’d be stunning. It’s like Hopper casted both women based on their willingness to do nude scenes. Connelly’s character spends a lot of time being quiet and demure, so that awful accent isn’t popping up all the time. Madsen can’t shut up. Yap, yap, yap. It’s embarrassing to both Johnson and the film.

The end falls apart because Hopper relies on Madsen. I have no idea how it would have played with a good actor in her role–because, by the third act, it’s impossible to imagine anything but the horror of Madsen’s performance. It’s excruciating.

Hopper’s direction is excellent. Ueli Steiger’s photography is good (Wende Phifer Mate’s editing is lacking). The supporting cast–Charles Martin Smith especially–is great… Barry Corbin, Jerry Hardin. Only William Sadler (mostly because of his bad accent) is weak.

Until the last fifteen minutes, The Hot Spot was a veritable joy to watch. The ending’s such a misfire, it’s hard to believe no one said anything about it while they were filming. Like a rigger looked up from plugging in some lights and said, “This is terrible.”

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Dennis Hopper; screenplay by Nona Tyson and Charles Wiliams, based on a novel by Williams; director of photography, Ueli Steiger; edited by Wende Phifer Mate; music by Jack Nitzsche; production designer, Cary White; produced by Paul Lewis; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Don Johnson (Harry Madox), Virginia Madsen (Dolly Harshaw), Jennifer Connelly (Gloria Harper), Charles Martin Smith (Lon Gulick), William Sadler (Frank Sutton), Jerry Hardin (George Harshaw), Barry Corbin (Sheriff), Leon Rippy (Deputy Tate), Jack Nance (Julian Ward), Virgil Frye (Deputy Buck) and John Hawker (Uncle Mort).


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The Osterman Weekend (1983, Sam Peckinpah)

Very few filmmakers have a good last film. Kubrick was incredibly lucky. Hitchcock was not. In general, directors tend to wane in their later careers–Clint Eastwood’s blossoming into such an artist aside–and, depending on their popularity and influence, they live into the era they inspired and no one wants to listen to them anymore. Orson Welles once accepted an award for Citizen Kane and told his granters he loved getting an award when he couldn’t get money to make a new film. Peckinpah’s producers on The Osterman Weekend took it away from him in editing, while Peckinpah was hospitalized no less. Still, there was nothing for Peckinpah to fix.

I’ve actually read the novel by Robert Ludlum–in eighth grade or something–and Ludlum writes big books. The weekend of the title doesn’t even start until forty minutes into the film, after a lengthy setup and a car chase. Peckinpah had lost the touch, recycling his Wild Bunch style for the chase scene. It’s still somehow effective in a few parts–the slow motion and the regular speed sound–but it’s a desperate attempt to thrill and it doesn’t work. The slow motion comes back in the end, during a fight scene between Rutger Hauer and Craig T. Nelson. Craig T. Nelson knows kung fu in The Osterman Weekend. Unbelievably, Nelson turns in the second best performance in the film too. Hauer made an excellent leading man, even if he didn’t have his accent totally smoothed out in this film.

I didn’t get interested in Osterman for Peckinpah though–his work, starting in the mid-1970s, gets pretty terrible (though The Osterman Weekend is better than Cross of Iron). I got interested because of the writer, Alan Sharp, who wrote Night Moves. The dialogue is adequate, the scenes are dull. Combined with the direction, it’s like watching a TV movie–one you can’t believe you’re still watching. However, nothing–not the script, not the sad attempt at action (woefully lacking the content Peckinpah infused to such success)–could survive the producers. The Osterman Weekend looks cheap. It looks cheap in the main house set, it looks cheap in the CIA headquarters (where poor Burt Lancaster embarrasses himself), and it looks really cheap in John Hurt’s CIA techno-van. The two clowns producing it went on to do Highlander and condemn the viewing public to Christopher Lambert.

A few scenes in Osterman did look familiar, like someone saw the film. In particular, the drive-in scene from Heat has an obvious precursor here, if only the location. I think there was another one, I just can’t remember. So people did keep watching Peckinpah, but it’s shocking how little he had to say by the end of his career.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Peckinpah; screenplay by Alan Sharp, adaptation by Ian Masters, based on the book by Robert Ludlum; director of photography, John Coquillon; edited by Edward Abroms and David Rawlins; music by Lalo Schifrin; production designer, Robb Wilson King; produced by Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Rutger Hauer (John Tanner), John Hurt (Lawrence Fassett), Craig T. Nelson (Bernard Osterman), Dennis Hopper (Richard Tremayne), Chris Sarandon (Joseph Cardone), Meg Foster (Ali Tanner), Helen Shaver (Virginia Tremayne), Cassie Yates (Betty Cardone), Sandy McPeak (Stennings), Christopher Starr (Steve Tanner) and Burt Lancaster (Maxwell Danforth).


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