THE ENFORCER (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Bretaigne Windust & Raoul Walsh (uncredited), 1951 (Olive).
The Enforcer, the last movie Humphrey Bogart made for Warner Brothers, begins with one of the grimmest scenes in all of film noir. It’s night, deadly night. We are in the criminal courts building of a huge city. Bogie, as crime-busting assistant D.A. Martin Donovan, and his fellow cops (King Donovan and Roy Roberts), are holed up on one of the upper stories of the concrete tower, guarding their star witness, professional killer and murder manager Joe Rico (Ted De Corsia), from the pre-trial assassination Rico is sure is coming for him — engineered by his relentless boss, and Donovan’s defendant, Mendoza (Everett Sloane, who occupies a cell in the same building.
Rico is just outside Donovan’s office, surrounded by cops, But his knaveries are cracking, and they snap when rifle fire, from a Mendoza employee across the street , rakes the window of his “safety zone.” Soon, Donovan’s only witness, in the trial that will break the country’s biggest murder-for-hire racket, has bashed one of his guards, and broken out of the toilet window, trying to inch along an outside ledge to reach a nearby fire escape — a futile endeavor, from which Donovan at the window tries to dissuade him and that ends with Rico’s plunge to his death.
Frustrated, their case in ruins and the trial only hours away, Donovan and his cops begin to go over all the evidence again, searching desperately for the tell-tale detail that may yet trap Mendoza. It’s a horrific tale with a gallery of characters, killers and victims out of a nightmare (Sloane, De Corsia, Bob Steele, Jack Lambert, Michael Tolan, and the incredible young Zero Motel as semi-hysterical hit man “Big Babe” Lazick). With that hellish company, The Enforcer takes us on a tour of a moral nightfall as black and ruthless as the murder-for-hire corporation run by Mendoza.
That world is drawn at least partly from real life. Based on the then-shocking revelations of the American underworld uncovered by the Kefauver senate committee’s hearings on organized crime, The Enforcer plays like Sartre crossed with Jim Thompson and Mario Puzo. It’s both stylized cinema and brutally convincing. The Kefauver hearings, watched by much of the country on TV, were the events that first put the underworld slang terms of “contracts” and “hits” into the language, and we hear them for the first time in a movie here. The script, written by Martin Rackin, but the rubout operation in the movie is a portrayal of the real-life Murder, Inc., while Bogie’s character Donovan was inspired by real-life prosecutor Burton Turkus and De Corsia’s brilliant job as Rico by real-life Number One killer Abe Reles. (Peter Falk would later play Reles in the 1961 movie Murder, Inc.) Rackin’s script is far more adventurous than most crime movies, and it uses the familiar noir device of flashback narration, and flashbacks within flashbacks, to great effect.
The Enforcer is one of the most underrated of the classic ‘50s film noirs — perhaps because the movie isn’t usually credited to the man who was on set for most of the shooting, noir master Raoul Walsh. Walsh took over when the original director, Bretaigne Windust, fell ill after a few days of production and he shot the rest of the picture. (Walsh later refused all screen credit , because he didn’t want to spoil a colleague’s big career break.) Walsh didn’t do any of the preparation of course. But his impeccably hard-bitten, vigorous style and on-the-edge images are clearly recognizable throughout the film, and his collaboration here with Bogie is as memorable as their earlier teamings on High Sierra and The Roaring Twenties.
It’s also a familiar-looking Bogart performance. but familiar Bogart means classic Bogart — tough, savvy, sharp, clear as crystal – with all the tricks we never tire of. This was Bogie‘s last movie distributed by Warner Brothers, the studio that helped make him a film immortal, but that also often exasperated the hell out of him. Donovan may be a typical role for him, but typical Bogie is always top of the line. It’s also a fitting goodbye to his turbulent home studio, for film noir’s greatest actor and the fedora-hatted king of the Warner lot.
LES VISITEURS DU SOIR (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
France: Marcel Carne, 1942 (Criterion Collection)
One of the great French World War 2-era films, but little watched in America today (which is a shame), Les Visitors du Soir is another classic collaboration between director Marcel Carne and writer Jacques Prevert, the two romantic film masters who made 1939’s landmaark film Le Jour de Leve and the 1945 masterpiece Children of Paradise. Shot while the occupying Nazi Army and the turncoat Vichy government had France in chains, it’s a period film set in the middle ages, with visuals that remind you of illuminated manuscripts and a story often interpreted as an allegorical attack on the Nazis — something that went largely unnoticed (or uncommented on) at the time.
Les Visiteurs begins with two minstrels on horseback, Dominique and Gilles (Arletty and Alain Cuny), riding through monumental landscapes and approaching a huge castle — a towering palace where their physical charms and ballad-singing will conquer the court, then embroiled in an elaborate wedding. Their special victims are the susceptible ruler Baron Hugues (Fernand Ledoux) who falls for Dominique, The Baron’s flawlessly sweet and lovely daughter Anne (Marie Dea) who loves Gilles, and her sly husband-to-be Reynaud (Marcel Herrand), who becomes obsessed with Dominique. What none of the court realize, however, is that these wandering seductive minstrels are actually emissaries of the Devil, dallying (or are they?) with humans, and that The Devil himself (Jules Berry, perfect casting for the part) will soon show up to collect his due. (Or will he?)
It’s a beautiful film of course. The cinematography is by Roger Hubert and the splendid Middle Ages sets are by Alexandre Trauner, who worked incognito, since he was a Hungarian Jew, unemployable by the Nazis. The writing , by Prevert and Pierre Laroche, is the witty, poetic, elegant and earthy cream of the classic pre-New WaveFrench cinema. The acting is nonpareil. Les Visiteurs du Soir (usually called The Devil’s Envoys in English, was a huge hit in World War II-era France, and its success enabled Carne and Prevert. Arletty and Herrand and Hubert (and the still anonymous Trauner) to make Children of Paradise together. The two films are obviously connected; If you love one, you will almost certainly love the other. And love, as the devil‘s envoys here imperishably demonstrate, can triumph over fascism, the Devil’s creed. (In French, with subtitles.)
Extras: Documentary L’aventure des “Visiteurs du Soir” (2009); Trailer; Booklet with Michael Atkinson essay.
Oz, The Great and Powerful (Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Sam Raimi, 2013 (Walt Disney Home Video)
Let’s imagine a new version of one of the world‘s certifiably well loved movies: that beloved 1939 MGM classic, The Wizard of Oz. Let’s envision Oz, The Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raini, starring James Franco as Oz, a new movie (and now a new DVD-Blu-ray combo) from the Disney Studio.
How to you bring this old show up to date? Well, first you throw out Dorothy, or any kind of Dorothy little-human-girl-protagonist equivalent. (Makes sense , I guess, since anyone trying to walk in Judy Garland’s ruby red slippers, was bound to catch critic-flak. Who wants to be compared to the musical girl marvel of MGM?) Then you upgrade the Wizard of Oz character — Professor Marvel, as played with gloriously hammy eloquence by the great Frank Morgan in 1939 — from a supporting role to central star. To catch a younger audience, you turn Marvel into a sexy ladies’ man played by James Franco.
Then you surround Oz, or Oscar, as he’s been renamed here (avoid the obvious Oscar host Franco joke) with sexy star witches, Instead of a dithering moonstruck Billie Burke type as Glinda the Good and a ferociously cackling Margaret Hamilton type as The Wicked Witch of the West, you cast super-blonde Michelle Williams as Glinda, and ultra-brunette Mila Kunis as her antagonist Theodora. A.k.a. The WWW. You turn the three into a sort of romantic triangle — and you end up with Kunis doing Margaret Hamilton anyway.
Wait. There’s more. Not content with two sexy witches, you bring in another beautiful nasty lady, called Evanora, (played by Rachel Weisz), and have her stage a kind of palace coup before a cast of thousands. You give The Wizard a garrulous flying monkey named Finley as a sidekick. You dump the old Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Jr. and Bert Lahr parts of The Scarecrow, The Tin Woodman and The Cowardly Lion (or perhaps their granddads), because, again, who wants to be compared to Ray Bolger, Jack Haley Jr. And Bert Lahr?
You clutter up the landscape with Munchkins and Winkies and more flying monkeys and colors vaguely reminiscent of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds turned into a video game. You don’t write any new songs –except one that flitted by so fast I barely heard it. (Who wants to be compared to Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “If I Only had a Brain?“) You stage a big slam-bang climax, reminiscent of Ten Days that Shook the World, with Munchkins . You…
But why go any further? There’s lots of good stuff in Oz — production stuff from designer Robert Stromberg and cinematographer Peter Deming. But on a script level, do you have any real hope for this movie? You probably should have bailed out as soon as you heard that James Franco was the new Wizard of Oz. Instead of the smoothie con man patter of a Frank Morgan equivalent, or the quick-witted raps of Robert Downey, Jr. (reportedly the original choice for this movie), we get the lackadaisical seductive gabs of Franco, who is at his best playing rebels (James Dean, Allen Ginsberg) or laid-back, grinning stoner types (Pineapple Express). So why didn’t they give him equivalent of the ’39 movie’s stoned-in-the-poppy-field scene.
Maybe Downey, Jr. could have brought it off. But to take the world of a populist, feminist writer like “The Wizard of Oz’s” L. Frank Baum (who preferred girl heroines) and to put, at its center, Franco’s randy Oscar, surrounded by sexy witches, seems silly. The film isn’t bad — it has enough good people and colorful scenes to keep it floating along on a wave of semi-entertainment. But I’d suggest that a big-bucks Wizard of Oz prequel, without a Dorothy-style heroine, and without songs or much comedy, is barking up the wrong poppy field.
The movie was directed by Sam Raimi, who sometimes seemed closer to the spirit of The Wizard of Oz in the Evil Dead movies than he does in this new Oz. (Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell pops up as Oz‘s gatekeeper.) It was written by Mitchell Kapner (of the Bruce Willis-Matt Perry comedy The Whole Nine Yards) and —— Lindsay-Abaire (of Robots, Rise of the Guardians and Rabbit Hole). Together, with a good cast and splashy visuals, they‘ve made a spectacular Oz movie with precious little of the fun, funniness, charm, gaiety, exuberance, wit, songs, or tongue-in-cheek wit and wonder that the original had.
I should mention, of course, that the mass audiences went to this new Oz in droves.
Extras: Second Screen: “The Magic of Oz, the Great and Powerful”; Featurettes; Mariah Carey music video.
SNITCH (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Ric Roman Waugh, 2013 (Summit Entertainment
Snitch isn’t the movie you first think it’s going to be: which is probably a big, rough, clichéd, somewhat silly action movie, tailor made for star Dwayne (once “The Rock”) Johnson. In his day, Johnson has made some clichéd action pictures (The Scorpion King) and some silly movies — The Tooth Fairy and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. But, in Snitch, he and the moviemakers try to do something more sensible: a film with ideas and emotions as well as muscles and carnage.
It’s not completely successful. But it’s still a better movie than you’d expect — better written, better filmed, better acted (by Johnson and the rest of an unusually strong cast). Snitch, allegedly “based on a true story” — which is an exaggeration — is about a relatively ordinary American guy named John Matthews (Johnson), a freight truck company owner, whose son Jason (Rafi Gavron) is arrested for drug possession and intent to distribute (of a box of Ecstasy), and faces a 10 year jail sentence,
That unusually harsh punishment for a first time offender is thanks to the minimum sentences mandated by the War on Drugs laws, and the only way Jason can get a better deal is if he helps entrap somebody else (which is exactly what happened to him in the Ecstasy case). Jason however is no dealer; the only drug contact he has is the guy (the actual dealer) who set him up — and the prosecutor on his case (Susan Sarandon as Atty. Joanne Meighan) is pretty unsympathetic and harsh herself. She’s also involved in a heavy political campaign and wants whatever good press she can get. (“The liberals think I’m a bitch,” she explains. From what we see here, the liberals are right.)
And so John — who feels guilty because he remarried, and spends far more time with his new family, than with Jason and his mother (Melina Kanakaredes) — offers to help uncover some drug dealers himself, despite the fact that he‘s as much a stranger to this dark world as his son. Meighan, up for election and anxious for good publicity, gives him a shot, and, with the aid of one of his workers, an ex-con named Daniel James (played by Jon Bernthal) he wangles an intro to a vicious local dealer named Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams). Matthews offers his trucks as transport, and that suggestion involves him in smuggling cocaine and leads this “ordinary guy” to Malik’s boss Juan Carlos Pintera a.k.a. “El Topo’ (Benjamin Bratt) and to a job transporting a fortune in drug money across the Mexican border.
John, we soon realize, is in way over his head, as is James, whom John hasn‘t informed of his police deal and informant (or snitch) status. Both John and the prosecutors — who include Sarandon and Barry Pepper in a solid turn as the goateed vet agent Cooper — are working in a very gray moral zone. Not because they’re double-crossing the drug cartel, which is good riddance, but because the prosecutors are leading John into a situation that could almost certainly get him killed (and, at first, not telling him), and John is leading Daniel into violating his probation and endangering his family and freedom, something Daniel clearly didn’t want to do — at first. That moral question is what makes Snitch more interesting than it first appears to be.
Most movies like Snitch simply exist to have four or five big action scenes and a couple of scenes where the heroes glower and the villains chew the scenery. Snitch has action scenes — director-writer Ric Roman Waugh was a stunt man and stunt director for years, just like Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit). But there are only a few of them, only one that’s somewhat over the top (the last 16-wheeler chase) and anyway, these scenes don’t overwhelm the movie. Instead, what keeps you watching are the characters and the suspense whipped up by the sight of John and Daniel (and their families) getting into worse and worse danger. It’s a peril that we’re not sure that either of them can handle.
In the usual crime thriller (which often involves drugs), the hero can handle everybody and we never doubt it from the moment we read the credits. Here we’re not so sure that Johnson can get out of this alive or at least uninjured. In addition, we probably don’t like Meighan and we’re not sure of Cooper. John has a credible and sympathetic motivation: his love for his son and the guilt he feels about neglecting him. And suspense is also generated by Jason’s fear that he’ll be destroyed by prison life, and John‘s that he‘ll be found out.
The script for Snitch was co-written by Justin Haythe, who also adapted Richard Yates’ modern classic novel “Revolutionary Road” for director Sam Mendes. The dialogue is much better than usual for this kind of movie, and Johnson holds his own with an unusually strong cast. The director Waugh has a flotilla of stunt credits and some directorial ones, but he seems more interested in serious moviemaking than Needham ever was.
Waugh handles the action well, as you’d expect, but he’s just as good with most of the non-action scenes. There’s not a bad performance in the movie, and several of the actors — especially Williams, Bernthal and Pepper — are exceptional. I thought the movie’s color and framing sometimes looked too rough and ugly. But at least the cinematographer (Dana Gonzales) gives Snitch a style: neo-noir crossed with mock-doc.