Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Thrillers - Jen Johans ""

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Underrated Thrillers - Jen Johans

A three-time national award-winning writer and walking movie encyclopedia, Jen has braved the adventures of cinematic and arts criticism online for eight years via Film Intuition ( where she has penned over 2,200 reviews ( 
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Too Late for Tears aka Killer Bait (1953) Considering the fact that Byron Haskin is best known for helming movies that drew heavily on his extensive background as a Warner Brothers special effects head (including Disney’s first feature length foray into live action via Treasure Island and the 1953 Orwell adaptation of The War of the Worlds), it’s no wonder that his late ‘40s thrillers get lost in the shuffle. However, Noir fans would do well to seek out the one-two punch of I Walk Alone and Too Late for Tears that Haskin executed prior to Island which teamed him up with under-utilized B-movie actress Lizabeth Scott for a pair of potent pictures. Seduced by the enviable cast including Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (in an early turn fresh off his impressive work in Out of the Past), when sought out by genre scholars, most of the ink has been spilled about Walk. But when compared side by side, in truth it’s the less flashy 1949 public domain gem Too Late for Tears (also known as Killer Bait) that’s far worthier of cult classic status alongside other low-budget public domain favorites such as Quicksand and Detour. Easily the more compelling of the two, Tears also sets itself apart by centering the entire film around a female antihero – which in retrospect helped anticipate the ‘80s and ‘90s revisionist Neo-Noirs that harked back to genre classics while giving women much stronger roles. Following an accidental money drop which finds a bag filled with sixty thousand dollars erroneously tossed into Lizabeth Scott’s car, the quick-thinking blonde decides to do everything in her power to play finders keepers, even if that means bumping off her straitlaced husband (and anyone who crosses her path) to get her way. What could’ve been a fairly straightforward crime melodrama about the evils of greed (as predictably one misdeed follows another) turns into a surprisingly complex web of comeuppance, calculation, and intrigue as new players appear out of the woodwork changing the rules and adding new layers to the already escalating plotline. Based on a serial from The Saturday Evening Post and adapted by its author Roy Huggins (who would go on to create TV’s The Fugitive, Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip), Tears offered both Scott and former bit player turned I Walk Alone actress Kristine Miller two of the best written roles of their careers. Likewise the film not only helped anticipate the future directorial success of Haskin but also offers an early glimpse of the same character driven multifaceted plotting that would hold viewers captive for decades once Huggins took his mind for murderous mysteries to the small screen.

The Gazebo (1959) A major change of pace for MGM musical screenwriter George Wells who adapted Alec Coppel’s hit 1958 Broadway play for the The Blue Dahlia director George Marshall, The Gazebo plays equally well as a comedy and a crime thriller thanks to its stark black-and-white cinematography and the terrific chemistry of leads Glenn Ford and Debbie Reynolds. Similar in tone to Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry, which the filmmakers get plenty of mileage out of throughout the film that involves a body that won’t stay buried and a darkly comedic script that adheres to Murphy’s Law, The Gazebo centers on a show business couple whose livelihood is threatened by a blackmailer. Having managed to keep his wife (Reynolds) out of the loop so far, crime show television screenwriter/director Ford runs out of patience and money when the insistent blackmailer tells him he plans to release nude photos of his now successful actress wife. Following a “hypothetical” creative meeting with a police officer friend and a few improvisational words of wisdom gleaned from a phone call with Hitch, Ford decides he’s going to get rid of the scoundrel once and for all, especially after his wife unknowingly gives him the perfect place to bury the body beneath a gazebo she’s just purchased. Filled with surprising plot twists and frequently funny mishaps beautifully played by Ford in a standout performance that keep this fast-paced film firing on all cylinders, The Gazebo has been beautifully remastered by Warner Archive, giving viewers weaned on the Coen Brothers a chance to see a vintage crime comedy that still crackles with wit and suspense. 

The Last of Sheila (1973) The ultimate film for puzzle lovers, this Edgar award winning screenplay about a scavenger hunt turned deadly by Psycho villain Anthony Perkins and Broadway titan Stephen Sondheim took its inspiration from the real-life scavenger hunts the two hosted for their show business friends. Underlined three times, The Last of Sheila was included at the very top of a short list of “must see murder mysteries” given to me as a young film buff and writer by the bestselling author husband of my ninth grade English teacher after she’d heard me rave one too many times about The Usual Suspects. Sheila was not only the only work he’d included that I’d never seen (let alone heard of), it was also the one that sent me on an extensive scavenger hunt of my own from one video store to another in order to track down the sole VHS copy in a thirty mile radius… and to this day I am glad that I did. Like Suspects, Final Analysis, Frantic, Memento, The Game, and Red Rock West, The Last of Sheila is one of those films that acknowledges its influences in cleverly crafted homage from start to finish yet it also manages to go above and beyond its roots as a post-Hitchcockian Noir. Transcending the limits of genre so that it’s also a very self aware Tinseltown parody filled with in-jokes about type casting and larger-than-life Hollywood personas, Sheila is equal parts thriller and black comedy, directed by Herbert Ross, who was as much at home directing Neil Simon comedies as he was handling dramas. Not only respecting but demanding the intelligence of its audience to be sophisticated enough to accept a work that doesn’t neatly fit into any one category, Sheila turns its viewers into party-goers who’ve traveled aboard the yacht of an eccentric film producer who’s celebrating the one-year anniversary of his wife’s hit-and-run death by unmasking the secrets of his guests in a week-long game. A film where even the most throwaway dialogue has the potential to payoff unexpectedly, although the case is solved by the final frame, Sheila only grows richer with repeat viewings where you can see the way that point-of-view, subjective edits, and even the most innocuous of props hide in plain sight as clues to be both savored and discovered. While it’s a masterwork of mystery in a script that’s sure to evoke envy in crime writers, the way it encourages and utilizes cinema-literacy in its sleight-of-hand makes Sheila underrated on a filmic level – teaching viewers about the importance of framing, cutting, and juxtaposition as well as any Film Studies 101 course. From the playful command of “dissolve” that dissolves into a flashback to showing us the same scenes shot a few different ways, Sheila is that rare Hollywood in-joke movie that celebrates its craft as smartly as its skewers its stereotypes. 

Red Rock West (1993) Inspired by neo-Noir masters David Lynch and the Coens, writer/director John Dahl proved he could handle Noir terrain in his own right with the excellent Red Rock West. The film finds wounded war veteran Michael (Nicolas Cage) in the middle of the western desert looking for work that keeps eluding him because of his bad leg and his honesty about it in interviews. When he’s mistaken for someone else, Cage agrees to a job from bar owner Wayne (J.T. Walsh) before realizing that the man thinks he’s the hit man he’s hired to kill his young, sexy, unfaithful wife played by Lara Flynn Boyle. Boyle gives Cage even more money to get Wayne out of the picture and he figures he’ll take the money and leave town before a number of ridiculous but believable events make it impossible for him to leave Red Rock, such as the arrival of the real hit man played by the always over-the-top but affable Dennis Hopper. Like Michael, Hopper’s Lyle is a former veteran of the war and there are some minor political implications throughout the work along with excellent uses of the environment for irony. A Hitchcockian wrong man thriller, Dahl has fun with this influence in a nod to North By Northwest that finds Michael nearly run over by a car similar to Cary Grant’s battle with the crop duster. Red Rock West also pays tribute to Rear Window given the film’s treatment of the disability to serve as a symbol of Cage’s “impotence” as a man without power a la James Stewart in Window. A treat to watch, the film-literate script penned by John and his brother Rick Dahl has a blast taking archetypes like Boyle’s femme fatale, Cage’s unlucky mark, and Hopper’s thuggish villain and making them vastly more complex as each evolves in a multitude of ways from one act to the next. Likewise, it serves as wonderful study for aspiring screenwriters as we watch our refreshingly relatable main character Michael time and time again doing things that viewers themselves think they might do (like writing a note to authorities, etc.) but yet keep getting stuck in that dark, Noir town in the middle of nowhere. Poorly handled in its initial release by producers unsure if a western Noir would ever catch on, the film (which played on cable before being released overseas) happened to strike a chord with the right viewer at the right time, bringing it to the Toronto International Film Festival where another fan picked up the baton to serve as its champion. Released in a few theaters in San Francisco where it broke records, Red Rock West became a critical and word-of-mouth hit just weeks before it was slated for its original video release, forever making it an underrated treasure worthy of cult status as one of Cage’s best pre-Oscar performances and John Dahl’s best film. 

The Leading Man (1996) A dramatic thriller with twinges of dark comedy and psychological suspense, one of the reasons director John Duigan’s film flew under the radar was because nobody could figure out precisely how to classify the work and pitch it to an audience. I say forget about trying to fit it into a neat little box and just enjoy the ride. Rocker Jon Bon Jovi turns in a terrific performance as Robin Grange, an enigmatic American actor who – rumor has it – was kicked out of Hollywood because he wound up in the wrong studio head’s wife’s bed. In London to try his hand in the theater, Robin befriends acclaimed playwright Felix Webb (Lambert Wilson) who is caught in a love triangle of his own. Desperately in love with a young aspiring actress (played by Thandie Newton) who he’s just cast in his opus opposite Robin, Felix’s devotion to Netwon’s Hilary is put to the test when his tempestuous wife, Helena (Anna Galiena) begins to catch on. Pushed to his limit by Helena’s latest stunts lashing out against her absentee husband by taking a scissors to his wardrobe and his hair as he sleeps – the frazzled Felix agrees to a bizarre proposition by Robin wherein the American will seduce his wife in order to get her off his back. A gentleman’s agreement pitched by Robin as a favor to a friend and with the added caveat that since his wife is beautiful “it won’t exactly be a chore,” Felix gives into the man even if in the back of his mind he doesn’t suspect it will work. Determined to get into character “for a proper love affair,” Robin begins studying Helena’s habits and tastes, working overtime for a role that audiences realize may not stop with just Helena. Wondering exactly what Robin has in mind, what his gun is for and just who the mark is and what is the motive, when the plan gets underway and begins to involve Hilary as well, the playwright realizes he may have gotten himself into something he can’t write his way out of by final curtain. A modern day twist on the parable of being careful what one wishes for, while the script (by the director’s sister Virginia Duigan) could benefit from one more twist in the last act, it’s a fascinating tale of karmic revenge that is that much more effective given its theatrical setting.

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