Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Saturday, Feb 17, 2007


Coy “Cannonball” Buckman is an ex-stock car champion with a very shady past. Wrongfully incarcerated for the death of a young woman during a race, he’s recently been released from prison and is looking to reclaim his good name. Along with his best friend Zippo, Cannonball decides to compete in the highly illegal, underground car rally known as the Trans-American Outlaw Road Race. But he faces stiff competition for the $100,000 first prize. There is country singer Perman Waters, who hopes to use the contest as a way of publicizing his career. There is Wolfe Messer, a German Grand Prix driver who hopes to show up the Americans with his souped-up European automobile. Jim and Maryann are two surfers who hope to win the cash so that they can buy a beach house in Hawaii. And Sandy Harris has brought two of her waitress friends along for the get-rich-quick ride.


Even though Cannonball is the favorite to win, two conflicting elements conspire to keep the bold Buckman down. One is longtime nemesis Cade Redman, who wants Cannonball out of the race…at any cost. And the other, oddly enough, is Coy’s brother, Benny, who’s in debt up to his cement shoes with the mafia. If Cannonball doesn’t win, the entire Buckman family stands to lose…permanently. It’s a demolition derby between good and evil, life and death, as lean, mean automotive machines traverse the highways and byways of this great land of ours, hoping to be the next bicoastal racing champion.


Like a cool breeze blowing across a summer’s evening at the local drive-in, Cannonball is pure, unadulterated B-movie magic. Part cornball chase picture, part idiosyncratic comedy, this sequel of sorts to Death Race 2000 (the same creative team is involved, though the story is markedly different) is a randy reminder of why certain staid formulas seem to always work so well. No matter the premise (illegal race across the country) or personalities involved (hard-bitten ex-cons, hillbilly hick singer), a good old-fashioned land-speed story is entertainment at its most primal.


Call it male machismo moviemaking or a well-honed tapping into of America’s love affair with the automobile, but whenever you pit vehicle against vehicle in an all-out contest to the end/prize/death/revenge, the results are resplendent. Some films have forged their entire identity on such horsepower hijinx—The Blues Brothers, The Junkman, Gone in 60 Seconds—while others have traded on the epic pavement power struggle to underline their larger point (Bullitt, The French Connection, and Ronin are good examples of this supplementary ploy). But for some reason, Cannonball careens off the top of the pleasure dome to resonate with a combination of craziness and craftiness to circumvent all possible pitfalls—not to mention plot potholes. Certainly, this is a low-rent actioner with a budget to match its less than broad scope, and you’ve probably seen better bumper-to-bumper ballistics in modern TV cop shows. But there is a special sublime quality to this high-octane oddity that really gets down deep in your merriment manifolds, producing untold RPMs of rejoicing.


It all begins in the setup. David Carradine, fresh from Kung Fu and Death Race 2000, is the washed-up, recently paroled from prison stock car champion who hides a secret sin that burdens his hardened soul. Winning this cross-country grand prix will offer him redemption and a less tarnished reputation—especially with his correctional officer girlfriend (essayed by the beautiful Veronica Hamel). Naturally, there is a mechanic sidekick—with the great name of Zippo—who idolizes and worships the very seat Dave sits on, and the black cloud of doom hovering over this wide-eyed worshiper is so thick it’s like the near-solid sludge in a frozen crankcase. Add the no-good brother (Corman main man Dick Miller, as brilliant as ever) who’s in hock up to his hemorrhoids with the mob, and the insane maniac bad guy (genre giant Bill McKinney, Deliverance, She Freak) who wants to get back at Carradine for reasons that seem more crackpot than concrete, and the basic cornerstones of car crash bedlam are in place.


But the wonderful thing that director Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000, Eating Raoul) does with his retro road race is flesh out the subplots with conspicuous eccentricities. Indeed, it is the ancillary characters, the oddballs off to the side that really sell Cannonball as something more than a low-rent Smokey and the Bandit. While there is no one here as instantly memorable as Jackie Gleason’s foul-mouthed fussbudget Buford T. Justice, Bartel still gives us the Cole Porter–obsessed Mafioso, the atonal, quasi-talented country bumpkin singer (Gerrit Graham), the self-righteous Euro-trash champion (James Keach) and dozens of delightful cameos. Indeed, throughout the course of Cannonball, be on the lookout for such AIP stalwarts as Martin Scorsese, Sylvester Stallone, Joe Dante, Don Simpson, Mary Woronov, and the low-budget legend himself, Roger Corman.


Still, for all the acting chops and prickly personalities therein, a film like Cannonball is really a director’s medium. How well you respond to its road rage comes in direct proportion to how successful Bartel is in anchoring the action. Thankfully, the man’s skill with a camera is considerable, and while you’ve probably seen better highway histrionics in big-budget stunt flicks, you’ve never experienced the high-speed chase in quite the same way as he delivers it here. Bartel enjoys positioning the camera at or near street level, accenting the feel and flow of the road beneath the wheels. He then cross-cuts to aerial shots of the vehicles in strategic circumstances, allowing the curve of the concrete or the upcoming landscape to dictate the dynamics and suspense.


Certainly, the action sequence has exploded in the nearly 30 years since Cannonball was made (the superhighway surrealism of The Matrix Reloaded‘s freeway fracas comes to mind). But as an example of nuts-and-bolts, no-CGI engine block stunt work, including a couple of absolutely incredible sequences (the gap jump and the pileup), Cannonball has a nice revved-up reality. Sure, it is an over-the-top tapestry of spark plug parameters that pushes the envelope of believability as it roars toward the finish line. But within its muscle car madness breathes a true escapist delight. And what more do you want on a sultry August evening at the neighborhood passion pit than a mindless exercise in gearbox gratuity? While it is the lesser of Bartel’s street beat ballyhoo (Death Race 2000 is just a fantastic bit of futuristic foolishness), Cannonball still delivers the appropriate axle greasing.


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Friday, Feb 16, 2007


Phillip Wohl (“Philly” to his friends and family) is his mother and father’s pride and joy. He is also their overpowering yoke. The youngest of three children, the mentally handicapped man has never attended school, and barely left the Queens apartment where he lives with his overprotective parents. At 52, Philly is an extroverted exercise in overcoming personal limitations. In some ways, his parents are more limited by the effects of age and responsibility than Philly and his cerebral shortcomings. With his caretakers each in their mid-to-late ‘70s, Philly’s future is very much in peril. Without his family, there will be no one to take care of him.


Filmmaking cousin Ira decides to champion a change in Philly’s life (and document the journey along the way). Ira wants Philly to leave home, go to a special school, and be evaluated for placement in a group home. For Philly’s parents Pearl and Max, this news is greeted with begrudging acceptance. They want the finest for their son. But they also can’t imagine a time in their life when he hasn’t been an active, omnipresent part. Philly’s journey into an existence with more options and opportunities is really a story about letting go, having faith in humanity, and knowing that, no matter what happens, the young man you raised will always be your Best Boy.


One of the most remarkable portraits of a family unit in fundamental free-fall, Best Boy can easily be described as a last will and testament to the old fashioned attitude toward the mentally handicapped. Prior to the mid-1970s, those whom society deemed “retarded” or “slow” were often shipped off to homes and hospitals, hidden away like a dark secret in a back closet of the community. In such stark places, the level of care directly coincided with the institution’s idea of the patient’s practical usefulness. No matter what you may think of him in his present, proto-tabloid manifestation, Geraldo Rivera will always be sainted for saving the physically and developmentally disabled from the living Hell that was most state-sanctioned sanitariums. Rivera’s 1971 report on the New York snake pit Willowbrook (forever to be equated with horrifyingly unethical and inhumane treatment) opened the dialogue (and the legislative agenda) for a more principled and sympathetic handling of these sweet, special souls.


Over the years, while the mentally ill have been sidelined, viewed as victims of their own self-indulgent desire to remain insane, the intellectually challenged have gone from handicapped to “handi-capable”, seen as potentially constructive, contributing members of the human race. Best Boy is an allegory for this transition, a version in miniature of this shift in ideals. It admonishes the sheltering of those who are “special” from the rest of the populace, while advocating their eventual re-entry into the real world (even with all its bureaucratic and traumatic consequences). It’s a moving, magnificent window into a realm that most of us have never seen or had any direct contact with.


Best Boy is one of those rarities, a true-life documentary that transcends its basic subject matter and premise to say something universal about the human condition. Like Brother’s Keeper, Hoop Dreams, or Capturing the Friedmans, we soon learn that the initial reason we are watching these individuals has long since taken a backseat to the real interpersonal and character drama now playing out. As Philly moves from total dependency into the first few baby steps of autonomy, the impact on everyone is delightful and devastating. For the last half-century, Philly’s parents have known only caring for, and being the constant companions of, their son. Philly represents their life, their purpose for living. He has been everything from a burden to a bounty. When we meet Philly, he is in limbo, someone his parents rely on to clean the house or wash the dishes. Yet with all these indicators toward independence, his relatives will not relinquish control, considering the possibility of his leaving home unthinkable.


All of their own emotional issues are tied up in him. Philly’s father Max is so down and defeated, quietly pained by his son’s plight that medical maladies are literally eating him alive from the inside out. He is a skeleton of a man, a strong, silent, and stubborn stick figure in a constant state of reflection and rejection. Pearl, on the other hand, is a far more shrewd and suggestive entity, a woman who deeply loves her son while keeping the family spotlight solely on what best serves the adults’ needs, not just Philly’s. There are facets to her personality that reek of Jewish-mother stereotyping: she loves to guilt Philly into focusing attention on her, while subtly manipulates his decisions. You often get the impression that there is nothing between the elder Wohls except the age-old oppression of Philly. It’s interesting how the freedom of school and the excitement of the outside world devastates everyone other than the Best Boy himself. He loves it. The rest of the family can only resolve themselves with waves of weary finality.


But Best Boy is more than just a nuclear family fending off the final meltdown of mortality and change. There are greatly comic moments (Philly experiencing animals at the Bronx Zoo for the first time) and scenes of perfect emotional resonance (Philly meeting Zero Mostel backstage at a performance of Fiddler on the Roof is magical and moving). We never once feel that Philly is being exploited, and his camera-carrying cousin Ira never lets events turn maudlin or sappy. Death is handled with straightforward dignity. Loss is expressed simply and made to be understood. The same goes for happiness and harmony. Best Boy balances out all the emotions that come with change, and channels them into a marvelous statement about resilience and respect.


Much more a movie about aging and family responsibility than a tale of retardation, Best Boy doesn’t really tell a linear story, aside from Philly’s eventual address change. What it really resembles is a sacred scrapbook—a portrait of pain, promise, and persistence presented in animated movie clips. Scenes can and do contradict each other, and the flow is often tossed out of equilibrium by an inserted moment or lengthy shot. But there is a reason for this restlessness, this tone of untapped turmoil. Philly has spent 52 years isolated in a cocoon of smothering care, of “doing the best one can do” to manage an almost unmanageable circumstance. The newfound freedom Philly is feeling is peppered with clashing concerns for Pearl and Max. For them, Philly was everything. Without him, the void is next to impossible to fill. It’s the resolution to this reality that makes Best Boy more than a manifesto for the mentally challenged. At its basic level, it’s just a film about the family struggle over letting go.


Toward the end of Best Boy, Philly’s mother Pearl says that if God really wants to torture someone, He should give them a retarded child. Without blinking an eye, she adds, “You’ll never know the internal pain. Never.” While that may have been true when she said it, it’s hard to imagine that Philly is anything but an inspiration today. This is one special human who really deserves the title Best Boy.


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Thursday, Feb 15, 2007


Back when television was the only important cultural game in town, the notorious ratings period known as “Sweeps” actually mattered to the viewing public. They knew that, during this advertising extravaganza when networks and local affiliates pulled out all the scatological stops for that extra speck of viewership, something sensational was typically in the offing. Sadly, it seems that the modern concept of this carnival of creative programming is made up of more episodes of American Idol, extra installments of Dateline‘s “To Catch a Predator” and as many reality style shows as possible. Even the cable channels have pulled up stakes and refused to follow the undeniable hype. The choices for the week beginning 17 February are good, but not the kind of gratuitous grandstanding the concept of Sweeps evokes. Still, you’ll enjoy most of the choices, beginning with a certified SE&L favorite:
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Premiere Pick
Hustle and Flow


It may be tough for a pimp, but 2005 was a magical year for filmmaker Craig Brewer. With this look at a world-weary street hustler hoping to break out of his dead end life by becoming a rapper, the novice director delivered a staggering drama with real depth and heart. At the center of this sensational film is the terrific Terrence Howard, offering a star making turn as Djay. He brings real empathy and emotion to what could have been a crude cardboard cut out. Equally effective are the sequences where Brewer shows how hip hop tracks are formed – creativity culled from the bottom up, a combination of inspiration and ingenuity. It all works together wonderfully, melding effortlessly into one of the year’s best films. (17 February, ShowCase, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Longford


This made for British television biography of the Lord of Longford, a champion for controversial causes in the UK, comes to American cable thanks in large part because of The Queen. Indeed, Peter Morgan who wrote said reimagining of Elizabeth II’s battles with Tony Blair over the death of Princess Diana, also scripted this tale about a celebrated child killer – and Longford’s efforts to free her. (17 February, HBO, 8PM EST)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire


After the amazing work Alfonso Cuoran did with Prisoner of Azkaban, many in the Potter fanbase feared that Mike Newell, best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral, would be unable to rise to the challenge of this material. Luckily, those qualms were alleviated when Newell delivered what many consider to be the second best installment of the series. (17 February, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


The Wild


Get ready to yawn as Disney delivers yet another subpar cartoon cavalcade relying on the no longer novel element of CG animation to sell its shortcomings. Mimicking Madagascar, this tale of a ‘city’ lion accidentally shipped off to Africa and the group of wisecracking zoo friends who come to his rescue is so routine it grows stale before the middle act arrives. (17 February, Starz, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Lost Highway


David Lynch, hot off his success with Twin Peaks and the debacle that many considered its big screen incarnation, Fire Walk with Me, decided to abandon all pretense of mainstream acceptance, and instead focused on honing his already odd dreamscape style. The result was this amazing motion picture, as much a study in cinema as it is a look at character duality. Bill Pullman plays a man plagued by anonymous videotapes of his household – and a murder he may be responsible for. Before we know it, the story shifts, and Pullman is now Balthazar Getty, a young mechanic caught up in an affair with a mysterious mob moll. In between gorgeously shot sequences, a white faced demon (played by Robert Blake, of all people) haunts the characters, bringing the world of nightmares to Lynch’s illogical lushness. (18 February, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
Bomb the System


For those unaware of the phrase, “bombing” is old school ghetto lingo for graffiti. Back in the day, when urban youth had little to celebrate, spreading your name all over the city via spray paint and talent was a metaphysical escape. This fiction film does a good job of capturing the culture, and while Style Wars is the definitive documentary statement, this movie manages a close second. (20 February, Sundance, 11:30PM EST)

Walker


Alex Cox went from punk to politics when he followed up his sensational Sid and Nancy with this incredibly odd period piece. Ed Harris is the American mercenary fighting for the Nicaraguans in the 19th century, but it’s clear that Cox had more on his mind than this specific situation. Using a mixture of modern and antiquated imagery, it was really an attack on Reagan and his problematic El Salvador stratagem. (21 February, IFC, 10PM EST)

Short Cuts


The late, great Robert Altman took the short stories of Raymond Carver and turned them into a stunning portrait of LA at the start of the ‘90s. Using his standard interlocking narrative structure, and amazing performances from an all star cast, the director delivered what many consider to be his final major masterwork. As dense as any work of fiction and just as symbolic in its statements. (22 February, Sundance, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
All That Jazz


After a massive heart attack and more than his fair share of Broadway flops, director/choreographer Bob Fosse was looking for a way to battle his all consuming inner demons. His decision – make a thinly veiled autobiographical musical that exposed all his flaws and foibles, no matter how painful that might be to friends and family. The result was this stunning example of cinematic hubris, a classic song and dance fest deconstructed to focus on ideas like adultery, betrayal and death. Drawing on previous collaborators including Ann Reinking and Ben Vereen, and using real figures from his life (renamed and reimagined, of course) Fosse found the proper balance between backstage drama and esoteric experimentalism. It’s a brilliantly insular work of wounded genius. (22 February, Fox Movie Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Good Son


After years of playing the bratling hero, Macaulay Culkin (or more importantly, his dictatorial dad/manager) wanted to expand his thespian range. Too bad then that the producers went and hired Elijah Wood to steal every scene alongside Master Home Alone. What wanted to be a boys’ Bad Seed ended up being merely a bad career move on the part of a fading family film star. (19 February, Encore Mystery, 3:35AM EST)

The Serpent and the Rainbow


Zombies are real – at least they are in the veiled world of voodoo that is Haiti. Horror maestro Wes Craven, taking a break from the supernatural, used the non-fiction book by Wade Davis to discuss the ancient African religion, and the real possibility of creating “the living dead”. Light on flesh eating and heavy on authentic atmosphere, the results are creepy indeed. (20 February, ThrilllerMax, 6:35PM EST)

Clerks


By now, it’s randy reputation precedes it. It’s the film that started Kevin Smith’s career. It was awarded an NC-17 rating by the MPAA for filthy language only. It became a crazy cult unto itself, and spanned one of 2006’s best films. Now drink in the heady humor of this slacker celebration, a terrifically talky look at life and its failed personal promise. (21 February, Showtime, 12AM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Feb 14, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: Director Joe Sarno uncovers the seedy underbelly of scandalous suburban sex games.

Sin in the Suburbs/The Swap and How They Make It



On this quiet street in this exclusive neighborhood, the bored housewives are having a heavy petting field day. Mrs. Geraldine Lewis loves her workaholic husband, but the beefy martini drinker just doesn’t show her enough affection. So when he goes to work and her daughter heads off to school, Gerry invites friends over for drinks and naked debauchery. Next door, Lisa Francis is an equally efficient elbow-lifting lonely heart whose spouse won’t quit his job and stay home with her. She has to find a way to uncork her carnality, and random workmen off the road crew—or a full bottle of Jack Daniels—seem to do just fine. Further down the block, Mrs. Talman and her deviant brother Lewis look in on all the secret sexcapades and decide to make a mint off the salacious socialites. They start an exclusive swingers club and invite the entire borough to join in. All goes as planned until the partner swapping leads to those notorious “strange bedfellows.” Then taboos are broken like so many promises. It’s all part of the scandal, the shame, the Sin in the Suburbs.


Elsewhere, Mona and Karen are new in town and bored out of their gourds. Their aluminum-extruding husbands work all kinds of long hours, and the sequestered sweethearts are just squirming in their Capri pants. They need satisfaction and they need it now! While Karen jumps into the arms of a college jock joke, Mona visits her next-door neighbor, the bawdy Brooke, who tells her about the arrangement she has with her horny hubby. They both belong to “The Exchange,” a canoodling couples cooperative where marrieds make bargains for bonking with other like-minded enlightened lovers. All it takes is a phone call, and you can trade in your usually tame tryst for one night of naughtiness. After you join, the monthly parties consist of dancing, drooling, and dignity demoralizing. At first, everyone is in for the sin, and lovin’ every lewd minute of it. But when Karen cuts off Joe College, he gets all blackmail-ly and wants in on the sexual switcheroo. What our university-educated boy toy doesn’t understand is that adults like to protect their proclivities from prying eyes…and they are about to teach the silly student the real rules of The Swap and How They Make It.


With titles suggesting a sleazy peek into the sordid lives of salacious suburban swingers, and a gritty black-and-white style that further emphasizes the nasty noir of it all, Joe Sarno was, and remains, the Sultan of Sophisticated Smut. Sin in the Suburbs is one of his best films, a bold experiment in style and subject matter that would still be branded as borderline scum, even in today’s so-called tolerant environment. An exceptional exposé of the then-popular swingers’ scene of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, this perfectly plotted masterwork of story and shot selection is more like a post-millennial walk through the seedy side of society than a standard early exploitation film. There is barely any nudie and hardly any cutie to the events and individuals populating this perverted Peyton Place.


Fans will focus far too much attention - as lovers of exploitation usually do - on the Olga-meets-Ilsa dynamic in the movie (Audrey Campbell, the infamous Olga, plays Geraldine Lewis, while the She Wolf of the SS herself, Dyanne Thorne, essays the sleazy seductress Mrs. Talman). But this would be doing a disservice to the utter greatness of Sin. Long before Bob and Carol met Ted and Alice, Sarno was dealing realistically and effectively with the issues of swinging, swapping, and sex clubs. His details ring true, and his attention to tone makes everything feel authentic. Even with minimal nakedness, this movie absolutely sizzles with sensual Eros. When Thorne and another famous Olga, Alice Linville (playing daughter to mother Campbell) play their seductive game of lesbian suggestion, there is sure not to be a dry seat—or free hand—in the house.


On par with the perfection of Sin in the Suburbs, The Swap and How They Make It is another carnal classic from Sarno’s sour brain. Instead of the cult-like convolutions of the sex club scene, complete with masks and miscreant rituals, the focus this time is on an organized version of that water cooler joke source, wife swapping. With another excellent script full of character insight, and a dandy cast of performers, this movie matches Sin in intricacy and intimacy. Sarno employs a new kind of camerawork here, a mostly medium and close-up concept that renders the backdrops and settings insignificant. We never fully get our bearings as to where we really are, and the feeling of being lost lends a very dramatic air to the proceedings. Whenever actors interact, they come toward the camera and play out their scenes as if the lens was another witness, an innocent party to the prurient planning. The performances are again sublime, each individual finding that faultless balance between disconnected and dispirited to make his or her overripe desire seem that much more palatable. The narrative never sways—it builds to a climax of criminal corruption that is as shocking as it is shrewd.


You can sense Sarno’s intention to remove the focus from the acts and onto the people partaking in them. He knows that true drama derives from thoughts and personality, not bare butts bouncing around. The Swap also has one of the greatest sequences of obvious double entendres in the history of skin flicks. When Karen discusses “Dick” with her friend Mona, only using the name and no other personal reference, the implied explicit humor is hilarious. Along with a mostly drumbeat soundtrack (a truly novel and deranged choice) and an equally emotional tone to match its mattress machinations, Sin in the Suburbs and The Swap and How They Make It provides a one-two punch that will give any lover of the tawdry and the tainted right to rejoice.


 


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Tuesday, Feb 13, 2007


It’s a lesson in cultures to see how differently every country views and celebrates the crime thriller. Italy has its giallo, lurid details and sinful sexiness wrapped up in a mechanical shell. The Japanese bathe their tales of cops and robbers in age-old customs and the life or death notion of honor and pride. For those in China—and Hong Kong more specifically—mob bosses and assassins have been turned inside out, fueled by a hyperactive action style and belief that both sides, the legal and illegal, fight the same internal struggles with self and society. Oddly enough, it’s the West that seems to have taken a more caricatured approach to cops and robbers. A typical US gangster film sets up its parameters of bad versus badge, loads up the Tommy guns, and lets the reign of lead ensue.


Or other times, a sultry dame and a private dick try to sort out a case of minor intrigue while falling in and out of love and the web of the real killer. While it didn’t invent it outright, America sure made the mob movie operatic, turning it into Shakespearean tragedy of universal pain and pathos, be it Rico Bandello, Cody Jarrett, or Don Corleone. But leave it to the French to find a way of reinvigorating the crime and caper film. As pioneers (along with the Italians) of neo-realism and the experimental new wave, the filmmakers of Paris understood the nuances of the stateside immigrant epic and went about conceiving it through their own skewed perception. No one did it better than Jean-Pierre Melville. Over the course of a dozen or so films, Melville used the trench coat and hat of the Tinseltown thug/mug and turned him into a man of mystery, an enigma with a gun. And Le Cercle Rouge is one of his best examples.


Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) is heist film as existentialism. It’s a character study told with events, not words. It’s a stellar work of implied understatement and a remarkably profound look at the rather pedestrian, plebian world of crime and crime fighting. In this seminal 1970 French film, there is no clear division between the under and real world. All segments of society are seen as devious and divisive. The police are intertwined so completely with the local criminal element that they cannot solve cases without their help. Likewise, when seeking accomplices and co-conspirators for their acts of fraud and theft, the street thugs and mafia brute find friends in the dishonored and corrupt ex-members of the force.


As an experiment in fracturing the felon formula, Le Cercle Rouge relies heavily on the nuances and knowledge of past pronouncements on the subject of criminality. It also relies on the classics of noir and gangland sagas of the 1930s thru ‘50s to fill in blanks that it would rather leave un-addressed. It gets us to root for felons and failures and then makes us reflect on why we would champion such scum. Brilliantly directed by Melville, it’s a movie that moves at a deliberate pace, never wasting a shot or shifting its tone. While it does play like a symphony to sin, it’s also a sad story of men without place, people without a part in the normal social structure. We are visiting a forgotten realm in Le Cercle Rouge, a place were everyone knows everybody, even if they didn’t know it before.


This is a film told in sections, three stylistically differing acts (think GoodFellas or Blow before its time). Each movement here adds to the suspense and complexity of the film’s plot and narrative themes. At first, the scenes are all subtle precision, slow and near static, building one on top of the other to lay foundations and create dynamics. Methodically, director Jean-Pierre Melville adds textures and characterization, all the while pushing our protagonists ever further into the story. The second section begins as the plans for the heist commence. The use of wipes and dissolves speeds up the sequencing of events, showing us that, while the devil may be in the details, those specific elements are going to be assumed here. We aren’t supposed to see everything. We are to be given the essence of the job, the concept of crime as a workaday element in these men’s lives.


The final portion of the film, after the deed has been done and a fence is sought, is far more swift and scattered. The interlinking storylines and characters converge and crash into one another in a chaotic attempt at breaking out of the fateful bonds, the ever-present ring of red that constrains and condemns them. We jump from the police station to the gangster bar to a quiet and serene Yves Montand and then back to the cops. All the while, the tension is wound tighter. After the pins and needle necessities of the jewelry store heist, this randomized approach throws the audience off its guard, tossing us into the aftermath where anything can happen, anyone can drop dime and well constructed plans fall apart.


Le Cercle Rouge is all about planning and plotting, about time spent in jail cells or dingy hostiles bidding and trading on the minutes and hours. It is a film about disgraced men, about the lost lone male within society as the ultimate expression of freedom, depression and the anti-hero. We never see any women of substance in Le Cercle Rouge. When Alain Delon’s Corey confronts his old mob boss at home, we see a blousy red head, completely nude, wander up to a closed bedroom door to listen in on the exchange of words. She has some vague connection to Corey (he carries her picture in his wallet). But after robbing the Don, he places her photo in the now empty vault. He is giving her up—whoever she is—for the next phase of his life. Then there is the unsung bachelor amongst the underworld brutes: the dapper, determined police officer Mattei. A methodical man of habits (we see him coming home twice in the movie, and both times he goes through the same routine, even addressing his cats in a practiced fashion), he doesn’t have a wife (though we do see a photo of a woman on his desk) nor does he seem to need one.


Le Cercle Rouge is a movie ridding itself systematically of females once and for all. Certainly they make up a background element to the film: dancers in clubs, hookers, and hat check girls. But there is never a balancing feminine presence within the movie the way there is in standard Hollywood fare: no girlfriend with a heart of gold or accidental sex partner who grows into something more important. No, Le Cercle Rouge denies the obvious sexual representations in its title from the feminine perspective (lips, nipples, etcetera) and instead returns the focus to the guys: hard-hearted and psychologically lone rogues. It gives the story a decidedly tough exterior.


This doesn’t mean that the movie is not ripe with other, overt symbolism. Indeed, Le Cercle Rouge is constantly cluing in the audience as to the meaning behind the seemingly vague confrontations going on. When Corey discovers Vogel hiding out in the trunk of his car, the confrontation takes place in a horrible, muddy field. Corey is getting “dirty” again and Vogel is back to the “filth” he is known for (his exact crimes are never explained). The train taking Vogel to justice never enters its “tunnel” like most other extensions of “manhood.” It merely moves along the track, continually drifting further off into the distance. Montand’s alcoholic ex-policeman Jansen lives in a disheveled flat with a secret doorway in the wall that magically opens and disappears. It leads into a black void, much like his life. We have seen his detoxification hallucinations come pouring out of it, and we see him dread approaching it. Whatever he has done to have himself thrown off the force obviously hides in that closet/alcove, waiting and hungry, but we never discover the sinister source.


Indeed, we do not know what anyone is guilty of in Le Cercle Rouge. It’s as if the past crimes committed by these wayward men are no longer important. They are not beyond some manner of redemption, but they are beyond the grasp of innocence. They will never be pure again, no matter how straight they now walk or how hidden they become. They are forever tainted. As the Chief Inspector says to his lead detective on the case, everyone is guilty. We may be born without sin, but that quickly changes. And that is true about the trio of troublemakers in Le Cercle Rouge. They are men marked by their past and also by their destiny—their fate as part of the red circle.


All the acting here is first rate. Alain Delon confirms why he was such a stellar leading man of French cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s with his portrayal of Corey. Silent but sinister, there is a strength born of resilience in this ex-con. Similarly, Gian Maria Volenté simmers with a sinister stare as the ticking time bomb Vogel. But just like the dualistic nature of all the characters in the film (working both sides of the law for their own ends, living one way but believing another), he is a valuable asset in the controlled environment of the heist. Yves Montand probably has the showiest role (he gets to give the DTs a good primal scream or two), but he is also the most memorable, a man of principles who is trying to escape the deadening paralysis of alcoholism. While he is a disgraced cop and a pathetic rum head, he is also a dignified dandy, a suave showman with a sauced secret.


Even Bourvil, noted French comedian and songwriter, gives a remarkable performance as Mattei. Asked to essay the role of investigator, instigator, and calm center to a whirlwind of crime and corruption, this small, specific man with the funny hair and wicked smile makes his officer an example of duty torn by practice to forever walk the fine line between the legal and the illicit. These are the men who will be forever defined by the events in Le Cercle Rouge, the members of the sphere of violence and blood.


At its core, Le Cercle Rouge is all about fortune, about how it cannot be forced nor can it be avoided. It’s the answer to the question of why some people are destined to fail while others seem to glide to ever-higher accolades. It’s about place in the pecking order and how choice de-evolves into chance. It’s a story of three men hoping to make one final multi-million dollar score to salvage their otherwise wasted existences. But they learn a lesson that so many of us never even begin to comprehend. They are not meant to be profitable or pious. They are men of a certain trait, of the caliber of crime. And by using the very instrument for freedom that trapped them into a world of vice and lack of virtue, they are completing that bloody cycle, that red circle, that keeps dragging them over and over back into and around each other.


Perhaps we are not all evil, like the police chief thinks. Or maybe we can repent and wash ourselves clean of past mistakes. But once we have taken the steps into the looking glass, once we’ve entered the crimson realm of crime and punishment, we are forever linked to it. Like the social stigma of conviction (Corey), the public outcry of escape (Vogel), or the human misery of deflated hero worship (Jansen), everyone in Le Cercle Rouge wears a scarlet letter on their very soul. That letter is a circle, an “O,” which stands for too many things—outsider, offender, outcast. Certainly this is an entertaining, exceptional crime thriller, but it is philosophically and psychologically so much more.


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