Saturday, January 28, 2017
(December 1973, U.S.)
Sometime between September 1976 and February 1977, I can recall watching a piece of a television crime drama called SERPICO. I was just a nine year-old kid, so this type of show did little for me (CHARLIE'S ANGELS the true exception!). Of course, I had no idea the show was based on a successful 1973 film and the book by Peter Maas that preceded that. I had much to learn. I knew nothing of the film's outstanding talent of Al Pacino, nor it's exceptional director Sidney Lumet. Hell, I knew nothing of its basis of truth and fact of the real Frank Serpico, the New York City polic officer who gained attention for blowing the whistle on police corruption in the late 1960s and early 1970s (his actions prompting then NYC Mayor John Lindsay to establish the Knapp Commission to investigate the NYPD. Serpico's fame really came after the film's success, however. I didn't actually see SERPICO until I was in college, and by then, I had long established myself as a serious admirer of Al Pacino's craft and Sidney Lumet's feel for the streets of New York City (think also DOG DAY AFTERNOON and PRINCE OF THE CITY).
The film begins by introducing us to Frank Serpico as a simple uniformed patrolman, just having recently graduated from the police academy. Inexperienced and very "wet behind the ears", Frank has much to learn about the streets and the unspoken understandings and grafts between cops and those that pay them off, even with just free lunches. As a witness to acts of corruption that include violence and payoffs, Frank simply tries to live with these incidents without becoming directly involved. In the world of these cops, however, one who won't accept money is not to be trusted. Lack of trust turns to threats and harassment by his peers. When the pressure becomes too much to deal with, and repeated transfers don't work, Frank inevitably decides to expose what he's seen. But even that decision proves futile at first because it would seem the "higher-ups" don't want to hear about it or are simply too lazy to do anything about it. One good cop's dedication to law and justice can ultimately prove near fatal when Frank is shot in the face because his fellow officers simply would not come to his aid when he needed it in the face of a criminal's gun pointed at him. Frank is safe nowhere, not even in his hospital bed with two cops standing outside his room. After finally testifying before the Knapp Commission, Frank receives an NYC Police Department Medal of Honor for his bravery, but is forced to resign from the force and relocate his life (and his huge sheep dog) to Switzerland (the man himself is today an Italian citizen).
As with many other films, Al Pacino playing a cop rings true and hits home (keeping in mind that SERPICO is his first time in such a role). Pacino has always possessed a street smart and street wit (complete with the traditional Pacino yelling) about him that allows us to not only enter his world of crime and danger, but also the personal hell such a man experiences in his private life with women, children, etc. As Frank Serpico, Pacino knows how to effectively embody the rough side of police corruption and the consequences of being an outsider to it. But more than that, he can truly exploit himself as a man scared of what may be around the corner of his life in a world seemingly filled with too few honest cops. Frank knows, as do we, that it's not paranoia at work here. The dangers are real, as are the men who bring it into his life. Because at a time of urban life in New York City when crime was at its worst, there's a sense of dread in knowing that the cops were just as bad, and even a man like Frank Serpico could likely do little to truly bring it all to a positive resolution. In fact, there's a black and white image from the film that seems to perfectly spell it all out for me...
And yet, even with all of this fear and uncertainty around him, Pacino knows how to play Serpico as a man of playful silliness when the time is right. Kind of makes you wonder if the real Frank Serpico acted like such an occasional fruitcake, complete with ballet lessons and a small white mouse, at times.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Frank Serpico: "You stupid fuck! You didn't know me? You fired without a warning, without a fucking brain in your head? Oh, shit! If I buy one, motherfucker, I ain't buying it from you!"
Saturday, January 21, 2017
(April 2006, U.S.)
Apparently, it's necessary for me to specify the release year of this film because in 1977, there was a horror film by Michael Winner also called THE SENTINEL, which I've never seen (though I suppose now I'll have to check it out, just to satisfy my curiosity). Just wanted to make that clear.
After Al Pacino, there's no one I enjoy watching play cop (or in this case, a veteran Secret Service agent) like Michael Douglas (just watch BLACK RAIN and BASIC INSTINCT to know what I'm talking about). The man has a hard edge that naturally compliments such a role. In this film THE SENTINEL, which by definition, is a soldier or guard whose job is to stand and keep watch, he's not only a loyal bodyguard for the current President of the United States and the First Lady, but as history (fictionally) shows us, he took a bullet for Ronald Reagan the day he was shot by John Hinckley Jr. in March 1981. However, it seems that even while he's protecting the First Lady, he's also having an affair with her (ballsy motherfucker, ain't he!). They appear to be in love, as well.
When a fellow agent is assassinated in front of his home, it becomes evident that there's a traitor, or a mole, somewhere inside the Secret Service, and (naturally!) mounting evidence points to Pete Garrison (Douglas); in particular, the fact that he failed a polygraph test in which he was forced to lie in order to conceal his affair with the First Lady and ultimately protect her. I say "naturally", because it's always the good and loyal man who's inevitably framed for something like this, and (naturally) he'll stop at nothing to keep from being caught and proving his innocence, and (naturally) the mole usually turns out to be the last guy you'd suspect. Pete's estranged friend and former protégé David Breckinridge (played by Kiefer Sutherland) has no trouble suspecting his former mentor for his own personal reasons. You see, it seems that David once concluded that Pete was sleeping with his wife (when in actuality, he was screwing the First Lady), which lead to their divorce and his resentment toward Pete. So now David is not only out to fry Pete for treason in which he's innocent, but clearly looking to settle a score with him, as well.
A thriller such as this will always rely on cliché, particularly the manner in which the hero will finally prove his innocence and save the day (and the President). However, in a post 9-11 world of government and security, there are moments that are tense (as well as thrilling) in which we're also forced to consider the dangerous time we lived in back then, and still do now. Watch closely the moment when the presidential helicopter is suddenly shot down by an enemy's surface-to-air missile outside Camp David (though neither the President, nor the First Lady are on board, as it turns out) and tell me you don't get a slight chill down your back in knowing that such a thing could happen, or at least can happen, even on film. We're reminded that no one is safe, not even our most protected people. Not too unlike Clint Eastwood in IN THE LINE OF FIRE (1993), Douglas remains loyal, faithful and determined to protect our Commander-in-chief at all costs, even if it means his own skin. And of course, the bad guys, our terrorist enemies of a foreign land, must go down in the end. They do.
THE SENTINEL was one of the last films of Michael Douglas that I truly enjoyed before he announced that he was diagnosed with throat cancer (and while Gordon Gekko is always a welcomed character, I can't honestly say the 2010 sequel to WALL STREET was anything that special). Since then, his career has become lackluster, at best, for my personal tastes. Kiefer Sutherland is naturally effective in his own hard-ass role, even for someone like myself who has never watched an episode of 24 in his life. Eva Longoria, while always being a nice piece of ass to look at, serves virtually no purpose in this film except to clearly define the woman's role of equality in a man's world of the Secret Service...while being a nice piece of ass to look at!
Favorite line or dialogue:
David Breckinridge: "You're late."
Jill Marin: "It's a minute past."
David: "Yeah, and that makes you late."
Saturday, January 14, 2017
(June 1936, U.S.)
When you own a convenient DVD collection of Alfred Hitchcock's early British films of the 1930s, the ones that have fallen into the public domain, you get the big and better known titles like THE 39 STEPS, THE LADY VANISHES and the original version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. You also get the so-called "fillers" of less known titles as RICH AND STRANGE, NUMBER 17 and SECRET AGENT. Admittedly, this film is not the best of the lot in terms of suspense and intrigue, but it manages to hold its own merit as a story of mystery in a world of spy activities during the First World War. Our hero, Edgar Brodie, aka Richard Ashenden (played by John Geilgud, whom my generation will know best as Hobson in 1981's ARTHUR) is as pure British as they come; prim, proper, righteous and a man of high morals and ethics, even as a spy who must ultimately kill his enemy to complete his secret mission.
Based on an original story by W. Somerset Maugham (not the 1907 novel by Joseph Conrad. Hitchcock's SABOTAGE was based on that), the film is filled with the political premise of spies, lies, deception, fronts, mistaken identity and murder that predate anything author Ian Flemming may have come up with later for his literary character of James Bond. While in pursuit of an enemy agent, Ashenden is forced to play false husband to fellow spy Elsa Carrington (played by Madeline Carroll) even while the rather silly American man in her life, Robert Marvin (played by Robert Young), is constantly hitting on her. Aided by a ruthless killer played by the always creepy Peter Lorre, the team is lead to believe that they have their man by the simple act of an identifying button that appears to match that of the enemy they're after. Although it's not particularly graphic in any way, there's a rather original premise in the way the enemy is disposed of atop a high snowy mountain in Switzerland. Alas, though, it appears as if Ashenden and his killer sidekick have knocked off the wrong man (Hitchcock did love the concept of the wrong man!). Unlike so many other motion picture spies, however, Ashenden is overcome with guilt for what he's been a party to and so is his wife-in-practice.
Like many of tales of mystery and who dunnit or who is it, it's ultimately the man you suspected the least who turns out to be the film's enemy. Robert Marvin is no longer so silly as when he's holding Elsa (whom Ashenden has fallen in love with, by the way) hostage with a gun on a moving train. Hitchcock surely loved placing his suspenseful premises on trains (see also NUMBER 17 and NORTH BY NORTHWEST). The film's climax not only involves a predictable train derailment, but also attack from the air with bi-planes, sent by Ashenden's superior called 'R' (think Bond's "M") to save the day and rescue his people. You see how proper and upstanding the British are - they never leave their loyal people out in the dust to perish as part of the business. They seems to care and know the value of loyalty; at least that's how it was in the spy films of Alfred Hitchcock.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Edgar Brodie: "Oh, I'm to have an assistant, am I?"
'R': "Yes, and in the circumstances, a very useful one. We call him the "Hairless Mexican"."
Edgar: "Oh? Why?"
'R': "Well, chiefly because he's got a lot of curly hair and isn't a Mexican. You can call him The General. He isn't a general, but he'll appreciate the compliment."
Thursday, January 5, 2017
(September 1989, U.S.)
The decade of the 1980s were not kind to Al Pacino. William Friedkin's CRUISING (1980) was largely panned by critics and blasted by the gay community. AUTHOR! AUTHOR! (1982) was considered by many to be a lame and unfunny attempt at ABC-TV's EIGHT IS ENOUGH and Hugh Hudson's REVOLUTION (1985) completely bombed at the box office (I've still never seen it). Brian DePalma's SCARFACE? Well, sure we all love it now and it's become a great gangster classic with a true cult following, but don't forget that when it was released in 1983, it was largely criticized for its excessive violence, profanity and drug use. For the latter part of the decade, Pacino took a four year hiatus and fans like myself couldn't help but wonder when and if we were ever going to see him on screen again.
Then came SEA OF LOVE, which in many ways, plays out a whole lot like Paul Verhoven's BASIC INSTINCT (1992) in it's tale of the hard-edge city cop who uncontrollably falls for a woman who is suspect in murder, and a woman who may very well be out to kill him. But remember, SEA OF LOVE was released three years before BASIC INSTINCT. Initially, there's no one I enjoy playing a cop more than Al Pacino; from SERPICO to RIGHTEOUS KILL, the man in his character knows the streets and how to work and survive them. Though hardly like the no nonsense character of Vincent Hanna in Michael Mann's HEAT (1995), Frank Keller in SEA OF LOVE is a very flawed cop. Having just completed his twenty years with the NYPD, Frank is going through a midlife crisis filled with alcoholism, feelings of regret toward his ex-wife and physical rage toward the man she married, who also happens to be a cop in Frank's department. Still, Frank is dedicated to his job and it's his idea to entrap women answering ads in the personals when two men are found shot dead by what appears to be an angry and jealous woman. He'll have help, too, from a Queens cop played by John Goodman who's really not much of a cop at all, but rather just a very fat sidekick and comic relief (just watch him dance and remove his jacket while singing "Sea of Love" and you'll see what I mean).
But let me back up for a moment. One of the first things this film does is attempt to create the initial setup of New York City being a dangerous environment in which anybody can encounter trouble. I'm not necessarily talking about the kind of urban hell depicted in a film like DEATH WISH (1974) in which gangs, muggers and murderous creeps are behind every corner. The film creates the environment of risk and danger in that you simply never know who you're going to meet on any given night and what that person may be all about. Dating is bad enough these days, I'm sure, with endless websites that offer the convenience of a person's picture and profile even before meeting them. Can you just imagine how crazy it was at a time before the internet when all you had to go on was a person's words in newspaper personal ads? The scene where Frank is dating, screening and deceptively getting the fingerprints of multiple women on their wine glass just reminds me of how disgusting a process dating truly was for me back in the 1990s. But even more than that, it also takes me back to the time of 1989 when I was not only living in Brooklyn and experiencing the harsh realities of urban life, but also experiencing true loneliness in a city filled with millions of people while trying to get over a girl I had (unwittingly) fallen in love with. Yes, sometimes a movie can really hit home for you on an emotional level, whether you expect it to or not.
So now enter Ellen Barkin as Helen Cruger (no relation to Freddy!), our Femme Fatale and key suspect in the film whom Frank has found himself in a highly intense sexual relationship with. Interestingly, at the time, Barkin may have seemed like the perfect piece of ass for a psychological, sexual thriller like this, even with visual moments like this...
However, as the years went on, other screen figures in similar roles like Sharon Stone and Demi Moore would make Barkin look stale by comparison, in my opinion. I even question whether that isn't a body double rubbing up naked against Pacino's backside? As for Pacino himself in a role as this beyond the cop, I've always considered the man too tough and too hard to play love and affection in any believable way. I can't fully explain it, but somehow I just don't picture Al Pacino as the right man to be kissing a woman or even getting naked with one. He's usually too busy battling and destroying his enemies. Think about it - in three GODFATHER films, did we ever once see Michael Corleone really get down and physical with a woman beyond just a simple kiss? We did not.
Yet, even as I mildly criticize Pacino in his role here, it's truly he who carries the film with his traditional brand of wit, sarcasm and cynicism toward his daily grind and life in general. Even as he gets deeper and deeper involved with Helen and we continue to be unsure of whether or not she's the psychopath shooter, we're still made to understand that in the end, love or not, great sex or not, he'll take her down because that's simply his job. In the end, however, it's the cliché of the jealous, raging ex-husband who's at fault (and who ultimately dies) and love shall truly triumph in the end scene that is an almost direct copy of the end of TOOTSIE (1982), New York City sidewalk, and all. Perhaps what we're meant to take away from SEA OF LOVE is that in a city filled with millions of flawed creatures, some of whom may potentially hurt us, there lies hope for two flawed individuals who would like to try and get beyond their flaws and give love a chance...even if it begins again with a simple cup of coffee in 1980s New York City.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Helen Cruger: "But I found something out. There are very few mistakes in life that can't be corrected...if you got the guts."
(I'm still trying to correct some of mine!)