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Craig's Movie Club
Film/Video Reviews
Mystery/Suspense/Thriller

Suspenseful mystery thrillers reviewed with a discerning eye.


Blow Out (1981)

With Blow Out, Brian De Palma rips off Michaelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up and Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and comes up with a decent thriller about a film sound engineer (John Travolta) who records an automobile accident and becomes involved in a coverup when it turns out the driver was about to be elected President of the United States.

Jack Terry (Travolta) is on a city bridge recording ambient sounds for his latest schlock film's soundtrack when he hears a blow out and sees a car go off the road and into the lake. He dives in to find a woman, Sally (Nancy Allen), still alive in the car. He rescues her and takes her to the emergency room, where he finds out that the candidate was driving the car--and Sally isn't his wife. The police proceed to get Jack to "forget" what he saw.

Later, going over his tapes, Jack becomes convinced he heard a sound before the blow out--a gunshot. If there was a gun, then this was no accident.

After Carrie and Dressed to Kill, Blow Out continues Brian DePalma's reign as king of the Hitchcockian thriller/rip-off. Although style often triumphs over substance, often the style comments on the substance. His trademark split-screen (which specifically influenced Run Lola Run's Tom Tykwer) is used effectively to present two simultaneous sets of action that would otherwise be unknown. DePalma has also used this method of technical storytelling in Phantom of the Paradise and Sisters.

The acting is solid, as well, with Nancy Allen (then Mrs. DePalma) as the prototypical love interest (or is she?) and an early John Lithgow playing Burke, a homicidal maniac hired to take out Sally (as he takes out seemingly every woman who resembles her). DePalma would use Lithgow to greater effect in Raising Cain, and in Blow Out he shows the promise of that later film.

SPOILER BEGINS
I must comment on the ending and say that it is one of the most heartbreaking I have seen, and yet works entirely in the context of the film. It really could not have ended any other way, and I applaud DePalma for avoiding the typical Hollywood happy ending.
SPOILER ENDS
(and so does this review)



Diabolique (1955)

Hitchcock just missed filming the novel that became the Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear) masterpiece of suspense, Diabolique, which should give you an idea of the storyline. Even if you've seen the Hollywood remake. starring Sharon Stone, give this one a view. The more subtle texturing gives the surprises more kick.

Christina (Vera Clouzot, the director's wife) is a mild and frequently ill schoolteacher, married to the abusive headmaster (Paul Meurisse, obviously having fun as the villainous husband) of the boarding school Christina owns. She teams with his mistress (Simone Signoret, the French Marilyn Monroe) to kill him off. But once they return to the school, evidence seems to point that it didn't work and that he is pursuing them--including one child who insists on having seen him. Then the real fun begins, with twists and turns making you constantly guess what is really going on with the tension building up until the shattering climax.

The acting is wonderful. Even the one-note headmaster is perfectly cast. But the stars here are the women: Signoret as the stronger of the two and milquetoasty Clouzot playing their roles ideally, even as the tables turn.

I've probably given away too much of the story, but this is too good a film to miss. Diabolique is easily one of my top twenty.

(The authors of the novel--Celle Qui N'Etait Pas--on which this is based, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, after hearing that Hitchcock had been interested in their property, promptly wrote another one hoping he would buy it. This novel, D'Entre Les Mortes, became Vertigo.)



Dial "M" for Murder (1954)

Dial M for Murder has lost none of its original power. Ray Milland is an ex-tennis player (what is it with Hitchcock and tennis players, remember Strangers on a Train?) who has discovered that his wife (Grace Kelly) had a fling with an old friend (Robert Cummings). Ray wants her dead, partially for the money so he hires an old school chum (well, blackmails him, really) to do the job, shows him where the key will be...and things go wrong from there.

Dial M for Murder is not one of the Master's usual "wrong man" scenarios, but stunning nonetheless. It has more of a light-hearted feel, like an Agatha Christie mystery, and Grace Kelly uses her beauty to great effect. Ray Milland is one of my favorite actors since The Lost Weekend, and his skill at understatement really shines through. I saw this one on a Warner Brothers Night at the Movies series videotape. It included two newsreels and a Daffy Duck cartoon. Great fun. Skip A Perfect Murder and revisit the original.



Domestic Disturbance (2001)

I feel sorry for stepparents. It seems that they are used way too often in films as the villains. Domestic Disturbance is another one of those.

A 12-year-old boy's divorced mother (Teri Polo) remarries the owner of the town's brickworks (Vince Vaughn, once again playing the "Psycho"). The town thinks he is the greatest (as we are told in far-from-subtle scenes, including one presentation of an award from the Chamber of Commerce), so when the boy sees him kill someone, no one believes him except his poor boatbuilder father (John Travolta, once again playing the noble character--we know this because his first scene involves his selling of a boat below cost; the filmmakers make sure to spell out everything for us). The main reason for his not being believed however is that he lies (which we are told in no uncertain terms at least twice).

Despite Domestic Disturbance being not the most intelligent film, I was able to enjoy myself. It has tension in all the right places and good acting all around.


Enough (2002)

This Jennifer Lopez vehicle is certainly not one of the best films I've seen recently. Enough asks us to suspend disbelief in too many ways. First, I never believed Lopez as a mother. Her relationship with her "daughter" seemed more like that of a temporary caregiver than a permanent one. Also, Lopez, in her non-fictional incarnation, presents herself as someone who would never accept the abuse that her character is given here. And it is almost impossible to separate Lopez from her character.

Billy Campbell, as her husband, is quite good, but he's in a film that doesn't allow him to shine. Enough is Lopez's show all the way and, while she makes the most of it, she does not show any of the charm or style that she did in films like Out of Sight (when she was still trying to win us over). Also appearing in creatively cast cameos are Fred Ward as Lopez's estranged father and Juliette Lewis as her best friend.

Lopez plays an abused wife who decides to leave with her daughter and then fight back. The first half, which sets up the relationship and the abuse, is nearly laughable. It feels very much like a Lifetime movie-of-the-week. When she learns how to take her revenge, it picks up and the climax--with car chase and fist fight--is rather exciting. But then it end with really no resolution and we are left with little to remember, except a fine performance from Campbell and perhaps a few new defensive Krav Maga moves.

Enough seems to me like the writer envisioned the climax and then built a story to go around it, as that part is by far the best developed and was obviously the primary motive of the screenwriter in the first place. It is merely an action scene with a message movie written around it.



Evil Under the Sun (1982)

This was my favorite Agatha Christie adaptation growing up and I'm glad to see it has stood the test of time. Evil Under the Sun stars Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot (in my opinion far superior to Albert Finney's homuncular rendering in Murder on the Orient Express and anything David Suchet has done on television). Meeting a client on an Adriatic island, Poirot becomes embroiled in solving the murder of stage star Arlena Marshall (Diana Rigg).

The adaptation by Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) is pedestrian, but that is not a complaint because the main reason to watch these is the parade of stars: Maggie Smith, James Mason, Roddy McDowall, Sylvia Miles, Jane Birkin, Nicholas Clay. This was Ustinov's second appearance as the Belgian detective (after 1978's Death on the Nile) and by far the most enjoyable.

It was particularly entertaining, knowing the solution in advance, watching the clues appear throughout the film in preparation to the ending. Of course, as always, Christie doesn't entirely play fair with the audience, but that is a minor complaint because it is so much fun to watch Poirot dig through the suspects--each one of whom has an airtight alibi for their time spent doing Evil Under the Sun.



Firm, The (1993)

Okay, so Tom Cruise gets a job at a Memphis law firm, right? We've all read the book or seen the movie, so how does one recommend The Firm to the uninitiated?

Cruise puts in a solid performance, again playing his guy-who-doesn't-catch-on-for-a-while character he does so well. Sydney Pollack is a great mainstream director, and he pushes all the buttons, as well as giving us a great cast including Gene Hackman, Holly Hunter, Ed Harris, Jeanne Tripplehorn, David Straithairn, Gary Busey, Hal Holbrook, and Wilford Brimley.

Top-notch acting all around, with especially good turns by Brimley and Hunter, playing against type. Hackman is always good to watch and he does a terrific job of making Avery Tolar a likeable guy in spite of his faults. I suppose the most amazing job was done by David Straithairn, who, with less than ten minutes of screen time, paints an indelible portrait of Ray McDeere, Cruise's convict brother. He is the most likeable character in The Firm.

The plot is the standard rising-above-conflict stuff. Watch this movie (again) for the performances, or for the fine score from Dave Grusin and try to ignore the changes from the book (which I think were justified in making the ending more cinematic and Hollywood).



Manhunter (1986)

Manhunter is the film version of the first Thomas Harris novel to feature Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon. It involves an FBI agent Will Graham's (CSI's William Petersen) hunt for another serial killer, the "Tooth Fairy". Graham is the only person ever to grapple with Lecter and live; and he gained a scar (and Lecter's respect) as a result.

The way Graham catches killers is by thinking like them. This causes him no end of grief as he discovers things about himself. The Lecter link is the same as in Silence of the Lambs, he simply gives clues to the agent to help him find the killer.

Manhunter is not a terrific film, but it is very good. The mood is set from the beginning; even the romantic scenes with Graham and his wife are lit in blue to convey a certain "coldness." Petersen is the star here and his performance hits all the right notes. Graham portrays every common emotion and especially the uncommon ones, with great zeal. He's really working here. (In an interview he said that he had gone directly to another role, but still found himself "playing Graham.")

Tom Noonan gives a creepy, yet vulnerable, performance as Francis Dollarhyde, the "Tooth Fairy," and Brian Cox is sufficiently creepy as Lecter, although his acting is a different style than that of Anthony Hopkins (one tries not to compare the two, though it seems impossible given the circumstances), he still feels like the same character. In addition, Joan Allen shows her extensive ability here in an early role as the blind co-worker/lover/victim of Dollarhyde.

My only complaint is that Manhunter has a certain "TV" look and feel to it but one thing is for certain: you'll never hear Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida the same way again.



Mute Witness (1995)

I was very hesitant about renting Mute Witness because of the awful cover. It is overwrought and suggests nothing of the masterpiece within. In fact, it makes one think that it contains a cheap horror film, which this is definitely not.

Mute Witness is actually a good, solid thriller with a terrific lead performance by popular Russian actress Marina Zudina (or Sudina, I can't seem to find a consistent spelling). She is the heart of this film and without her it wouldn't work. The other actors are solid, but sometimes have a tendency to go over the top in their vocal inflections. Zudina's (or Sudina) role of mute special effects artist Billy doesn't allow her to do that, giving her an advantage over her co-stars.

The story involves Billy seeing the making of a snuff film. But when she gets the police involved, there's no proof. This leads the killers to hunt her down. The killers are led by "the Reaper" (played in a cameo role by a "Mystery Guest Star" who shot his scenes ten years before the rest of the filming).

Director Anthony Waller shows he knows something about the--dare I say it?--Hitchcockian school of terror. He also has the obligatory shots of Zudina's flesh, but they are done in such a humorous way that it does not feel exploitive. Twists and turns abound and just when you think it's over, he delivers one more shot. Let's hope he does something of the caliber of Mute Witness again (although I have to admit that after An American Werewolf in Paris, I lost quite a bit of hope). It's a little movie that deserves more attention.



The Player (1992)

Robert Altman doesn't exactly have the best track record when it comes to films, but a few stand out: M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, and The Player. The casting of Tim Robbins is particularly inspired--all the deviousness behind such a cherubic face.

Everything about The Player is self-conscious: from the 8-minute tracking shot where characters talk about other tracking shots, to the screenwriter and his brother playing a screenwriter and his brother, even to who is nude and why--everything is a commentary on Hollywood and on The Player itself.

Watch this movie not for the plot, which is a simple murder mystery thriller, but more for the in-jokes, the film references, and, most fun of all, for the Spot-the-Star game. Most of all, The Player is a load of fun for buffs and stands up to multiple viewings.



The Score (2001)

The Score is a good popcorn movie. Let's just say this: it does what it sets out to do.

The three main actors (DeNiro, Brando, and Norton) are all terrific, although Angela Bassett is wasted in the girlfriend role (perhaps she had more that was edited out). The Score (as is evident from the title) is one of the many recent "last big score" films and it is perfect. It doesn't make you think and it's entertaining. Had it been more action-filled, I might have suspected Jerry Bruckheimer's hand in it.

The Score also includes another amazing double performance from Edward Norton (see Primal Fear). Suspenseful, only marred by a fully predictable twist at the end.



Tailor of Panama, The (2001)

I never read the novel by John LeCarre (or any LeCarre as of this writing), so I was able to go into The Tailor of Panama fresh. I was rather impressed. Pierce Brosnan plays against type as a villainous spy who enlists Geoffrey Rush to lie for him in order to--well, I don't really know why. The movie got so complicated and the lies came so fast, that I didn't realize it was out of hand until the FBI showed up.

But, anyway, the ride is worth it, with excellent acting all around, including a cameo by writer Harold Pinter as Rush's old partner in tailoring with a secret. Rush is excellent as the titular tailor who is hiding something, and Jamie Lee Curtis is always good for a solid performance, and she does her best with the small role she plays here. But Brosnan is the surprise here, with a role that shows his range does not stop with James Bond (or Remington Steele, for that matter).

Not a classic, but The Tailor of Panama is certainly good for a fun time-filler.



Vertigo (1958)

I have heard people talk about great movies, saying, "I envy the person who is seeing this for the first time, because I'll never get to relive the pure awe I felt then." Well, that was me, seeing Vertigo for the first time. Pure awe. I, of course, being a film fan, had heard people laud this as Hitchcock's best film. But I would scoff and say "pshaw" go back and watch The Lady Vanishes again, or Shadow of a Doubt.

I really had no idea what I was missing.

Vertigo is a fascinating film. Not only because of the surprises thrown at you, but also because of the performances. Jimmy Stewart is cast against type (although he is still the everyman we identify with) as a man obsessed with a woman he fell in love with, and then lost to a bizarre suicide. Kim Novak is perfect as well in her dual role as the suicidal woman and her lookalike that Stewart sees walking along the street some days after and takes up with.

If you haven't seen Vertigo, I won't say any more, so as not to ruin the twists and surprises. I will say, however, that if you like Hitchcock, you should definitely add this one to your list.

If you are renting it, make sure to get the Widescreen version. It does make a difference.



  • ...more to come...

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