Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Thrillers - Leah Young ""

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Underrated Thrillers - Leah Young

Leah Young is an ex-acting, ex-film student who writes about film noir here: http://hardboiledgirl.wordpress.com/and twitters about mostly film noir @hardboiled_girl. She's also obsessed with horror movies, Golden-age Hollywood, 60's pop music and taxidermy.
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Beware My Lovely (1952)
Robert Ryan. Ida Lupino.
In case you needed to know more than that, Beware My Lovely is a taut, somewhat odd little thriller produced byLupino's production company. Lupino plays a kindly widow Helen Gordon, who, after seeing her long-time boarder off, has the misfortune of hiring handyman Howard Wilton (Ryan) for a day's work in preparing her hulking Victorian home for Christmas. We know he's on the run, after seeing him flee his last place of employment after discovering a dead body and it is quickly apparent that Howard is dangerously unstable, oscillating from clumsykindness to snarling, murderous rage. Make no mistake,Beware My Lovely is solely a vehicle for Howard's unpredictability as her terrorizes Helen, but with performances of this calibre, what more do you need? As an actor, Robert Ryan was gifted with an ability like no other to play unpleasant characters- villains- who were so precisely rendered that they were frighteningly relatable, and this film is no exception. His Howard is confused and troubled then aggressive and tortured, often within a few frames. There's plenty of artistic photography, Lupino is characteristically excellent, and at a lean 77 minutes, Beware My Lovely is a marvelous golden-age roller coaster. Remember it next time you're home for the holidays.

Dead of Winter (1987)
“Haunting weather,” Dr. Lewis observes in the final act of Arthur Penn's box office flop Dead of Winter. He's right,part of the novelty of the story is the harsh beauty of the punishing New York winter. In the least credible sounding job offer this side of Craigslist, Mary Steenburgen stars as a struggling actress who's been offered the opportunity to take over a lead role in an independent film, provided she'll hole up in a remote mansion in the – you guessed it, dead of winter to prepare for the role by cutting her hair short and shooting an audition tape with two complete strangers. Turns out, our ill-fated actress is a dead ringer for a kidnap victim they've killed. The plot doesn't break any new ground, but what makes the film such a delight is the relationship between Jan Rubes as the sinister wheel-chair bound doctor, and Roddy McDowall as his fawning assistant. It's so much better than it needs to be. Like many thrillers, the script requires a high suspension of disbelief – you have to be willing to buy into the fact that Steenburgen's character is painfully naive, but McDowall is so disarmingly genial that he lights up every scene. Without him, it's hard to imagine the film working as well as it unexpectedly does. With Dead of Winter, you come for McDowall, but you stay for the idiosyncratic flourishes – the gas station that gives away free goldfishes, the onion cutting scene, the hot cocoa, the player piano. Night Moves may be the last great Arthur Penn movie, but Dead of Winter proves he still had 'it'.

White of the Eye (1987)
Oh my God, White of the Eye. Set in an affluent community in Arizona (basically a post-apocalyptic wasteland with some really nice houses), DonaldCammell's supremely strange serial killer film opens with murder scene which plays like a giallo perfume ad; there's a goldfish stuck in the ribcage of a plate of pork, wine spilling, flowers, plastic wrap everywhere, and pulsing synthesizer from Pink Floyd's Nick Mason. We are then introduced to happily married couple Paul White (David Keith) and his wife Joan (Cathy Moriarty). Paul is a master installer of high-end stereos who happens to have a set of rare Baja tires on his truck, implicating him in a string of bizarre murders on wealthy housewives. In addition to being Arizona's preeminent stereo equipment guru (he can vibrate sound in his sinuses), could he also be harbouring a murderous secret? Probably, but going through the fine points of White of the Eye isn't important. Calling it merely a serial killer film undersells the layers and layers of cinematic weirdness – sort of a MTV exploitation art film by way of a giallo, with misplaced Americana filtered through the lens of an Englishman. Possibly the only thing missing from White of the Eye is a role for Dennis Hopper. Believe it or not, by the time we've hit the car chase, the best parts of White of the Eye are in the rear view, as if the standard Hollywood car chase is the only way to resolve the narrative. Basically, we're left with a man in samurai make-up and dynamite strapped to his chest chasing a woman in a peacock coat, with her ex-boyfriend and his shotgun going on about the TV in his head. As the detective remarks while surveying the initial crime scene, “I know a goddamn work of art when I see one.”

A Perfect Murder (1998)
Okay, hear me out on this one. I don't know whether I have a weak spot for the high-gloss sexy thriller trash of the 90s, but I kind of love A Perfect Murder. It's not even the best of the Indecent-Fatal (I know, 80's)-Basic-Disclosure-Attraction movies, but there's just something about Andrew Davis' marble and mahogany remake of Hitchcock/Frederick Knott's Dial M for Murder. Despite some major structural changes, the premise is more-or-less the same – Michael Douglas, after years of perfecting the surly capitalist role, hits pay dirt as Steven Taylor, the ultimate morally bankrupt cuckold. He offers the edgy ex-con artist boyfriend (Viggo Mortensen) of his wife Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow) a cool half-million to kill her. Blackmail, deceit, and double-crossing ensue. The three leads are all particularly good, Douglas and Mortensen are especially nuanced with some clunky dialogue (not to mention some unexpected black comedy), and Paltrow sees to it that Emily never becomes caricature. There's a shallowness atA Perfect Murder's slick, nasty heart - nothing really deeper at work here than some bad people living in good apartments, but it sure holds up as an unsentimental thriller with some satisfying twists. Alas, for Hitchcock purists who hated this film on principal, '98 got worse – that year also saw the release of Gus Van Sant's dreadful Psycho remake.

Ne le Dis a Personne (Tell No One), (2006)
Eight years ago, the wife of Dr. Alex Beck (FrancoisCluzet) found was murdered near a pond – Alex was there, but he was knocked unconscious, falling back into the water. Hit so hard he was in a coma for three days, though mysteriously pulled out of the pond and left on the dock. Though he was the prime suspect at the time, eventually the murder was attributed to a prolific serial killer. When two bodies turn up buried on Beck's property, the police are prompted to re-open the case. A deceptively simple set up gives way to full-tilt Hitchcockian madness.Strange e-mails from someone who may be his wife. A murder. New evidence. Shocking secret photos. A conspiracy. Horses. Street thugs. Faintly erotic photography. Soon enough, the wrong-man-chase situation gives way to something much larger. Tell No Oneisn't just a cracking good thriller; it's a marvel of craftsmanship – if it wasn't so consistently paced, well-acted, and so tightly plotted, it would be easy to lose the story in the constant plot turns and switchbacks. As dense with details and information as Tell No One is, it manages not to be overwhelming – just sit back, pay attention, give director Guillame Canet the benefit of the doubt, and watch the puzzle play out. It's rare to see a thriller that leaves zero loose ends - this is how it should be done, folks. (Incidentally, I hear there's a completely unnecessary American remake in the works.)

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