Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Thrillers - John D'Amico ""

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Underrated Thrillers - John D'Amico

John D'Amico is a New York City based filmmaker and theorist who
writes for and On Twitter @jodamico1.

He did a list of underrated Action/adventure  films and westerns for my previous series which you should have a peek at:

Premonitions of John Carpenter in this portrait of paranoia on a polar research station, it leans a little too heavily on the presumption of tension that's not really there, but solid dialogue and great performances by Culp and Eli Wallach sell it. Smart economical filmmaking typical of the best ‘70s TV movies, which are a good vein to mine if you’re interested in under-the-radar thrillers. Their budget-imposed unity of space and time lends itself readily to the genre.

Another movie of the week! A couple stops at a roadside diner, the husband walks into the men’s room and never comes out. It’s a solid foundation of rural paranoia (the setting is a lot like Duel) elevated by a smart script by the always reliable Richard Matheson and strong performances by Cloris Leachman and Ned Beatty. Like The Incident and A Cold Night’s Death, much of its power comes from its refusal to take its characters out of an ugly and cramped location.

H-8… (1958)
Croatian cinema’s masterpiece, a true story about a reckless driver who causes a fatal car crash between a bus and a truck one rainy night. After a breakneck prologue brings us to speed on the situation, we spend the balance of the film cutting between both vehicles eavesdropping on the lives of the passengers. The camera wrings every inch out of the cramped setting, constantly moving back and forth, side to side, popping in and out of conversations like an other passenger. Hitchcockian in its exploration of tight spaces, de Sica-esque in its study of regular people trying to survive. This one is just waiting for a Criterion or Masters of Cinema to scoop it up and bring it to a wider audience.

I'm the weirdo who prefers Enzo Castellari to Leone, and this one is as good an explanation as any. It’s an essay in tension from absurdity, with mobile bouncing cameraowrk going from fete to docks to golf course to back alley. It's got a dark heart with some tough violence but it's buoyed by a proto-Tarantino sense of quirky humor. James Whitmore is fun here, a million miles from Them! and Shawshank.

André Antoine is the forgotten poet of early cinema, this story of diamond smugglers on the canals of France marries the earthiness of poetic realism with the dark compositions and aggressive editing of the Russian school. Really impressive filmmaking, ahead of its time.

Pelham One Two Three is, with good reason, THE subway movie, but this ultragrim black and white thriller gives it a run for its money. We follow two young crooks (including a pre-Badlands Martin Sheen) as they block the doors of a subway car and pass a night by harassing, abusing, and finally assaulting the trapped passengers. Some of the beatnik posturing hasn't aged well but beneath the veneer there's a powerful and relatable relentlessness, anchored by a fine cast and strong sense of place.

In 1984, sixteen years before Memento, director James Bridges, who cut his teeth on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, had a crazy idea for a somber crime thriller which played out in reverse order. Test screenings were a DISASTER. Popcorn-era ‘80s cinema wasn’t ready to embrace something so challenging and emotionally fraught. The studio hauled it in for re-editing, hammering it into chronological order. It’s a big blow to the world of film, but lucky for us, even in this compromised form, Bridge’s Antonioni-esque travelogue of loneliness of one of the few truly great neo-noir films, brought to greatness by elegant washed-out cinematography and and absolutely stunning performances by Debra Winger and Paul Winfield. I’d give anything to see the original cut, but the version we have is still a must-see.

One of the only crime movies to match the sadness and poetic inconsequentiality of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the underused (and Pulitzer Prize winning!) Jason Miller shines as a bum criminal in a rapidly souring deal. I'm working on a crime film now, and this is a major touchstone for me.

Haunted, bizarre film noir which gets impressive milage by merely moving its hard-boiled detective story to Mexico. It tackles head-on the post-war malaise that the rest of the genre only pokes around at. The straightman detective gets a couple local sidekicks, who elevate the film with their folksiness in a fun and uncondescending way. Beautiful black-and-white camerawork and a smart script by Ben Hecht, who also penned the classic Notorious, Strangers on a Train, and The Thing from Another World.

New York underground filmmaker Amos Poe’s best movie by a country mile (though Alphabet City is worth a look), it’s a shambolic trip through seedy 1980s New York, following a sax-playing murderer. It’s got a seediness comparable to Abel Ferrara’s New York stuff, but with a hard-to-define surrealism keeping it interesting - the killer is played interchangeably by two different actors! The best scene belongs to Susan Tyrrell, who powerfully portrays a junkie in the throes of addiction. One of a kind.

Nail-biter about a failed assassination attempt on Abe Lincoln is as tense as its premise is counter-intuitive. There’s a strong historical sense here, the powder-keg feeling of America’s most troubled era is fully realized by a surprisingly great ensemble (Ruby Dee! Adolphe Menjou!) and the typically tight direction of director Anthony Mann, best known for his noir and western work - both skills come in handy here!

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