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• ONE FALSE MOVE (1992): Holy Moses. I’m downright embarrassed I didn’t catch this Carl Franklin banger until now. It was given a perfect score by Ebert. Gene Siskel named it his favorite movie of 1992. And like an asshole I didn’t watch it until 2016. Co-written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, ONE FALSE MOVE is a pitch-perfect, southern-fried crime thriller. Bill Paxton’s career best in my book. He plays a small-town sheriff who gets involved with an interstate murder investigation tracking Billy Bob and the amazing Cynda Williams. Director Franklin strips the tension down to its most raw elements and the result is a remarkable crime thriller that’s more about characters and emotion than plot twists (which there are plenty of too).
• IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY (1947): An exceptional British noir, Robert Hamer’s IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY is equally heavy on dreary post-war social realism and thrills. Googie Withers stars as a housewife doing her best to tend to her husband and his two teen daughters from another marriage. Her former lover, played by John McCallum, is an escaped convict who hides out in their air-raid shelter. The film is set on one Sunday, as Withers tries to keep the fugitive hidden from the tightening police net and her family. There are some subtly erotic moments between McCallum and Withers (who married soon after filming) and it all gets wicked dark in the end. One of the most interesting things about it is how, through flashbacks and other narrative tricks, it parallels the life of a prisoner to that of a housewife.
• AT CLOSE RANGE (1986): Based on the true story of rural Pennsylvania criminal Bruce Johnston, James Foley’s AT CLOSE RANGE tends to be overlooked when discussing 80s crime flicks. Maybe because the film is so unsentimental, so unglamorous in its depiction of blue-collar criminals with no moral code whatsoever. Christopher Walken plays Brad Sr., estranged father to Brad Jr. (Sean Penn) and Tommy (Chris Penn). The sociopathic patriarch shows up out of the blue one night and tempts the ever-longing hell out of his sons with a life of crime. The tug-of-war that unravels within the family is brutally tense and culminates in one hell of an emotional wallop (until the Madonna music kicks in, woof). Walken is at his restrained best here. The promise of violence is always there when he’s on screen – and he does it all with his eyes instead of his trademark psycho-inflection. The Penn brothers are fantastic too, with the most heart-wrenching moment going to Chris.
Best line of the film: When his mom’s new boyfriend threatens to “Beat the Jesus out of” Brad Jr., he replies, “Ain’t no Jesus in me.”
• ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959): This is the type of crime tale I really, really love. Fatalistic and nihilistic with ice water running through its veins. Just dig that title – ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW - you can bet the odds are not good. The minute Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte (who also produces) are in the room together, it’s clear these two are never going to pull any caper off without killing each other first. Ed Begley, who’s got a surefire robbery planned, brings them together, despite knowing Ryan’s character is racist as all hell. There’s pure venom in Ryan’s voice when he speaks to Bellafonte’s Johnny Ingram. And Bellafonte gets to flex his badass muscles as well.
There’s an amazing music scene with Bellafonte where he’s playing a moody jazz number on the xylophone and a effeminate hoodlum tosses some veiled threats at him form the bar. Bellafonte plays through it with the meanest look on his face.
• TWO MEN IN TOWN (1973): The last film where Alain Delon and Jean Gabin shared the screen, this Franco-Italian crime flick is a fantastic “going straight” story. Delon plays bank robber Gino Strabliggi, fresh out after a 10-year bid and determined to go straight with help from his social worker (Gabin). He’s not just saying that, like most crooks in most crime films. He really wants to just live a chill life with his girl – work in a machine shop and not have to worry about the trappings of being a criminal. But his former gang and the inspector who put him away keep needling him to the edge. TWO MEN IN TOWN is wicked understated in its depiction of how society limits the lives of ex-cons – especially the honest ones. This one is so goddamn bleak.
It was written/directed by former criminal José Giovanni, who was at one time sentenced to death for triple murderer. He also wrote CLASSE TOUS RISQUE and LE DEUXIEME SOUFFLE.
• FAT CITY (1972): Most boxing movies are all about that climax. That final round suspense where the underdog draws from some hidden strength to win. The music swells, the crowd cheers, you know the deal. John Huston’s FAT CITY has none of that. I guess I wouldn’t even call it a boxing movie. There’s plenty of that. But like the Leonard Gardner’s heralded book that it’s based on, FAT CITY is about the choices its two protagonists make and the shit hole path it sends them down. Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges are phenomenal as they go from point A to point A in this sort of bastardized mentor story. The booze-soaked scenes between Keach and Susan Tyrell are disturbingly real.
• OLEANNA (1994): David Mamet’s dialogue is like crack to me. The staccato rhythm, the elliptical nature of characters going back and forth in a dance of miscommunication. It’s downright hypnotizing, but tough for some actors to pull off in a way that sounds remotely natural. William H. Macy is one of the greats who can actually do it. In OLEANNA (based on Mamet’s play of the same name), Macy stars alongside Debra Eisenstadt. They’re the only two people in the film. He plays a college professor and she a student unhappy with a grade. Their meeting in his office turns into an emotional, sometimes heated discussion about the nature of his role as professor, and hers as a student. The following day Macy learns that she has accused him of sexual harassment, which will cost him his tenure. The conflict between them becomes one of audience interpretation. It’s not pulled off entirely well (mainly because of Eisenstadt’s forced performance), but Macy is so fascinating to watch as he interprets Mamet’s words.
• SLAYGROUND (1983): Extremely loosely based on Richard Stark’s Parker novel of the same name, Terry Bedford’s SLAYGROUND is pretty damn formidable as far as low-grade 80s action/horror goes. Peter Coyote has got to be the weakest on-screen depiction of Parker (renamed Stone), but he has a great thousand yard stare. What they basically did was take the fundamentals of Stark’s book and then structure it like a slasher movie, with a mysterious, almost supernatural hit man killing off everyone in Stone’s crew that was involved with a botched heist that led to the death of a child. There are some great set pieces, like the car wash kill and the Fun House climax, but it does take nearly half the run time to get to the good stuff.
• LIGHT SLEEPER (1992): The third film in Paul Schrader’s trilogy about night workers (with TAXI DRIVER and AMERICAN GIGOLO), LIGHT SLEEPER is a big-time brooder where the plot is pretty much insignificant. It’s more about showing the weary lifestyle of mid-level drug dealers in ’92 NYC. Willem Defoe plays Letour, a small-time, hand-to-hand dealer working under Ann (Susan Sarandon). He doesn’t sleep much, instead, he chain smokes and writes in journals. When the journal’s filled up, he tosses it in the trash. Letour’s also desperate to show people that he’s a good person, that he can help them if they weren’t so turned off by his occuptation. Defoe and Sarandon are terrific across the board and Schrader brings an authentic eye to lives of dealers, addicts, and the people they hurt along the way.
• THE STICKUP (2002): Written and directed by Rowdy “ROAD HOUSE” Herrington, THE STICKUP is a twisty, wicked entertaining caper starring James Spader in his poker face prime. He plays Parker, a man laying low in a sleepy mountain town that’s just had its bank robbed. Herrington has loads of fun toying with the traditional heist narrative and expectations. We’re shown the robbery from different points of view, vantage points, on different security footage, etc. and the truth is kept hidden until the final third. Parker shacks up with a sultry, sharp-witted nurse played by Leslie Stefanson. Her and Spader married the year THE STICKUP was released, so I guess they met on set. It’s no surprise, since their chemistry is boiling on screen. In between banging in the bathtub and bedroom, they volley some absolutely fantastic banter back and forth (“You’re no girl scout.” “I used to be, now I’m an accessory to murder.”) as the web of lies and double-crosses tightens around them. This was a blind-rental on Amazon streaming for me and while it’s only available in SD, it’s worth every red cent.