Thursday, March 24, 2016

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: The Killing (1956); High Sierra (1941); Mesrine (2008)

The Killing (1956)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

An uneven but fairly compelling early work from a film master, and a rather uniquely dark caper movie.

The title of the movie refers to the slang term of making a large amount of money in a short time, as well as the more literal reference to murder. Both meanings are appropriate for this film. The Killing is a caper tale centered on a group who plan to rob a horse track of two million dollars. The head of the group, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), is the only professional thief in the group. The others are racetrack employees who, for various reasons, are looking to make a lot of money quickly. Clay plots out a very thorough and meticulous plan which requires expert timing. Once the plan starts to unfold, various hiccups begin to make things even harder than they already were, with Clay doing everything he can to execute his big score.

The movie takes a hard look at the brutal and dark consequences of crime, as do all of the very best noir  movies. All but one or two of the most minor members of the thieving crew are shown to be rather selfish, callous men whose greed or general weakness leads them into ever-more-foolish decisions. Unlike lesser crime films, The Killing does nothing to glamorize the thieves or their unsavory deeds. There is the compelling nature of the plan and its execution, as with all good caper movies, but this hardly overshadows the crew's dark motivations.

The primary distraction in this movie is the dialogue. Many of the characters are constantly spouting off tough guy lines in a rushed manner that spoke to some weak acting and uninspired scripting. This was especially disappointing considering that legendary crime fiction writer Jim Thompson wrote the script. Despite this, had I been watching this movie with someone else, we almost certainly would have been having plenty of good laughs at the abundance of silly, forced lines.

A lesser but rather obvious merit of the movie is the cinematography. This might not come as a major surprise, given that Stanley Kubrick directed this movie. Still, The Killing was his first major, full-length feature film. The then-only-28-year-old Kubrick was already showing his uncanny eye for striking camera angles, lighting, and using visual grammar to tell stories. This alone makes it worth seeing, as it is a very early but major step along a genius's path towards film mastery.

High Sierra (1941)

Director: Raoul Walsh

A compelling basic story buried within some painfully dated dialogue and acting.

I love Humphrey Bogart. While I haven't seen the majority of the many films he was in, I have seen around a half dozen of his best-known and best-loved movies. From these, it's easy to see why he became and still is a movie legend. With this in mind, I was excited to watch one of his relatively early starring roles in a crime movie. I have to admit some disappointment, however.

The story is actually the stuff of very strong noir. Bogart plays Roy Earle, a bank robber who has just been released from prison and is already setting up his next major score. The hard-boiled Earle came from a small town in Indiana, and he seems to have a tiny soft spot for small-town folks. This is clear when he comes across a farming family making its way out to California, whom he helps in several ways. Outside of his tender spot for such people, Earle is a rather severe man who does not suffer fools lightly, and will not hesitate to use violence if he feels the need.

One part of the story revolves around Earle's current big score - a jewelry heist arranged through an old associate of his. His partners in the caper are a couple of young, hot-blooded hoods who Earle dislikes but tolerates. The other part of the tale relates to Earle's relationships with two women; one is a young member of the farming family, and the other is a weary and jaded former dance girl. Seeing Earle try to juggle all of these aspects of his life is the real meat of the movie, and the story takes some turns which are intriguing in their unpredictability. I admire how the movie steered clear of a nice, pat, Hollywood ending.

Unfortunately, I had to work rather hard to maintain my appreciation. Even more than the above-reviewed The Killing, the dialogue and much of the acting in High Sierra have aged horribly. While there are some memorable lines, far too much comes right from the cheap, pulp "dime store hood" handbook. Bogart was a great enough actor that he could sell some of the dialogue better than his supporting cast, but even Bogie could only do so much. Also, the storyline involving the farming family is fraught with completely inorganic and illogical jumps. I feel that this movie served as an earlier, less balanced attempt at what director Raoul Walsh would do far better eight years later with the classic White Heat. I'll watch that latter picture again any time. High Sierra, however, is not one I'll ever return to.

Mesrine (2008)

Director: Jean-Francois Richet

Absolutely brilliant, if grim, biopic of a larger-than-life arch criminal.

Mesrine is the story of real-life French criminal Jacque Mesrine (pronounced "may-reen"), one of the most irrepressible, vicious, and public felons in the 20th century. Mesrine took to crime fairly early in the 1960s, after a stint in the French Army. He quickly became a noted burglar, bank robber, and violent thug with an appetite for women and high living. Though he made attempts at leading a "straight" life, they were few and relatively short-lived. For nearly all of his adult life, Mesrine was committing serious and violent crimes, eluding capture, being captured, or escaping from prison. A fair number of his exploits played out in the public eye, thanks to an image he created of himself which appealed to certain sects of the French masses.

Prior to watching this 2-film epic, I had no idea who Mesrine was, but I was fascinated. The movie urged me to look up some facts about the man, and it would seem that the film does not embellish his wild life. His story is told with a vibrance and energy found in some of the best gangster movies, such as Goodfellas or Bonnie and Clyde. The main difference with Mesrine, though, is that there is even less whitewashing of the man's most despicable actions. While it's made clear that Mesrine possessed good looks and charisma enough to seduce women, fellow criminals, and the French public at large, it doesn't balk at showing that he was also a brutal murderer who would torture or even kill anyone who offended his massive ego. The actions which play out on screen can be terrible, but I still found them compelling, given what an outsized persona Mesrine fashioned for himself.

A classic knee-capping, true to the violent nature of the title
character. It's so brutal that you might fail to notice just how
masterful the colors and  lighting of the scene are. This is
typical in these two movies.
The technical aspects of the movie are impressive. The set design and cinematography are first-rate, casting the ugly but oft-exciting world of Jacque Mesrine's life into a palatable light. The acting is also exceptional, with Vincent Cassel turning in a phenomenal performance in the title role. Some of the transitions between time periods can feel a bit rushed, which is surprising for a movie released in two parts and adding up to over four hours. This may just be a function of the sheer quantity of curious activities in which Mesrine invovled himself. The creators could probably have justified adding a tad more to it and making it a mini-series or a trilogy, if they thought anyone could stomach another hour or two of a rather detestable figure like Mesrine.

Mesrine is one of the darker, harder-hitting gangster movies one is likely to see. For those who enjoy well-executed dramatizations of very real and very frightening criminals, though, this movie is difficult to top.