Sunday, November 29, 2009

Champion (1949)

Champion is usually described as a cautionary tale about the bitter price of success and the perils of ruthless ambition. Rubbish. The character of Midge Kelly is heroic, admirable, and downright glorious. A son of a bitch? Certainly. But I envy him, and you should too.

Champion airs from time to time on TCM and has been available on DVDfor a decade, so this essay assumes the reader knows the film. Besides, Champion is difficult to consider if the ending is ignored. For those who need a refresher, the story goes like this: Michael "Midge" Kelly and his brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy) are heading west in search of their fortune when they get rolled and are forced to hitch. They cadge a ride from a pug (John Day) on his way to fight a main event in Kansas City. Hoping to earn a few bucks Midge takes a fill-in spot on the undercard. He's beaten badly but attracts the attention of manager Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart), who offers to help him become a real fighter. When Midge and Connie reach California and discover their prospects vanished they are forced to get jobs. Both are attracted to a waitress, Emma (Ruth Roman), who Midge is forced to marry in the wake of a tryst. Feeling trapped, Midge abandons Emma for Los Angeles, and takes Haley up on his offer. Midge's toughness and ambition make him a natural fighter, and after a while he rates a bout with number one contender Johnny Dunne - the same fellow who taxied him into Kansas City. Midge is ordered to take a dive in exchange for a legit title shot down the line, but he stuns everyone when he quickly knocks out an unsuspecting Dunne. Although irate gamblers viciously beat Midge, his refusal to cheat makes him a public hero and he gets a title shot anyway, which he wins. Midge the champ is able to have all the things he ever wanted, though he alienates everyone that ever helped him. When Midge gives Dunne a rematch, he takes a terrific beating - until the jeers of the crowd and the ringside announcers spur him to KO Dunne out in the last round. A triumphant Midge returns to his dressing room where he collapses and dies.

Everyone involved scores points for making a great picture about an asshole, but Kirk Douglas deserves the lion's share of the credit. His Kelly is one the most interesting and complicated boxers in screen history, which is a significant accomplishment considering how droll the character likely would have become through the interpretation of a lesser talent. Champion was a landmark film in Douglas' early career and justly earned him an Academy Award nomination. Most of what has been written about the movie praises his virtuoso performance or affirms the film's status as a morality tale of a man. While Douglas is indeed the stuff of legend, the "What Price Fame?" angle just doesn't wash. Champion is a harshly cynical movie about a hard-as-nails man; made during an era when all the little kids didn't get a trophy. If it were merely a cautionary tale it would have ended differently - after all, in those movies the hero eventually discovers the error of his ways and seeks redemption, even if in death. The character of Midge Kelly isn't redeemed at the end of Champion - redemption isn't required - if anything, he dies in a state of grace. Let's come back to that later, first Douglas deserves his due.

Kirk Douglas was a great performer who if nothing else understood what made him a movie star. He was blessed and cursed with a hyper-magnetic screen presence - everything about him was exaggerated on screen. No actress could wrench the spotlight from him, which is why he isn't remembered as one of the great romantic leads. Don't believe me? Next time you watch him in a romantic scene and things start to heat up, take note of who grabs your attention. I'm betting your eyes will be fixed on Douglas. That was his great gift - he was bigger than the story, bigger than his cast, bigger than his directors. While this occasionally kept him out of some parts normally played by the pretty boys, it made him ideal for others - the grittier roles - the guys who exist closer to the razor's edge and maybe even tread it from time to time. Spartacus, Vincent Van Gogh, Chuck Tatum, Doc Holliday - and Midge Kelly.

Let's get back to Midge. Here's a kid who came up tough - physically and emotionally. His father took a powder when he was a small child. His mother, unable to care for both sons, sent Midge to the orphanage and kept the Connie at home. Midge grew up abandoned and institutionalized. When he reached adulthood he did what every other young man did: he fought the war - and eventually returned home to what? A loving family? What could he possibly owe to them or anyone else? Midge had been dumped on all of his life. He'd been rolled, robbed, cheated, chastised, taken for granted, and swindled. How was he expected to treat others? Still, Midge took on the thankless role of provider for his mother and brother, and bore them no grudge. Sure, he stepped on people along the way, but didn't he get stepped on first? Didn't he just treat people as life taught him to treat them? Remember this as well: We are the ones who have a problem with Kelly's behavior, not him. He didn't agonize or feel guilt, didn't beat himself up. He's probably the most upbeat character in the film. He raised himself out of a hellish upbringing through his own grit and force of will to become champion of the world. All he wanted out of life was the respect of other men, which success in the ring offered. Boxing exacts a steep price in exchange for that success, and Midge knew better than those around him that he alone had to pay it.

Who gets hurt? The story places Midge in three romantic entanglements. First with Emma, the waitress who he deserts after being forced to marry. Of the film's three women she's the most innocent and most deserving of happiness. She eventually finds it - though with Connie, who pined for her since they first met. Although she gave herself to Midge she knew he didn't love her. Her mistake with him caused much short-term distress, but it was through him that she met Connie and eventually found what she was looking for. Midge's second woman was the aptly named Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell), a good-time girl who treats fighters like Kleenex. She is an opportunistic user who meets her match in Kelly. The idea that he could wound someone who herself is so despicable is silly. His final girlfriend is Palmer Harris (Lola Albright), the naïve, spoiled, and slumming wife of Kelly's fight promoter. Their romance is brief, and ends when Kelly barters their relationship for a bigger percentage of the gate. Undoubtedly one of his more cold-blooded choices, but it bears repeating Midge is poorly equipped to make a woman happy, especially not one already married. Quite frankly, Midge is a pig when it comes to women and he never tries to hide it. All the women in the story are well rid of him, and none were so far gone as to suffer enduring harm.

That leaves the brother and the trainer. Arthur Kennedy's Connie is the sympathetic conscience of the film. And while he seems perpetually exasperated with his brother, he displays little gratitude for the one who paid his ticket, and shows even less guilt for having not been sent to the orphanage. Hell, Connie survives the film and gets the girl - what does he have to grouse about? As for the trainer, Tommy Haley is the only guy in the picture who knows the score all along. He knows that he'll be dropped when the bigger purses come, yet still returns to train Midge for his climactic title defense. As he says time and again, "I can't keep away from it, I like to watch a good boy in action." The idea of a fighter leaving one trainer for another happens as often on screen as it does in real life. It's a cliché in both worlds. It's important to realize that both Connie and Tommy want Midge to take the dive, they want him to cheat. Champion is a noir film in which none of the characters come away clean.

If the movie has a flaw it's that it doesn't fully depict the harsh realities of the prizefighter's life. The fight scenes themselves are beautifully photographed, but the story's preoccupation with the crooked aspects of the sport doesn't do justice to the extraordinary talent and effort required of fighters. The film features a Rocky-esque training sequence, but the tone is surprisingly comic. In Champion the victories and accolades seem to come quickly and easily to Midge, while in reality the achievement of a world's championship, or even a spot on the undercard of a championship bout, was a pipe dream for most pugs. Take for instance the story of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. The real-life LaMotta is somewhat similar to the fictional Midge Kelly (though LaMotta really did throw his fight), a not-so-nice guy whose exploits were credited more to the ferocity of his will than to his talent. Yet for all LaMotta's grit and tenacity, it still wasn't enough to exceed Sugar Ray. To achieve at such a level required a man of extraordinary talent and will - especially in those days when boxing was king. Champion's failure to give boxing its due damages Midge in the eyes of the audience. It's hard to generate sympathy for a character when we aren't fully aware of what he must endure.

Douglas is miraculous in his final scene. Bloody and victorious, having returned to his dressing room after ferociously pummeling Dunne, he leers and gesticulates at the camera, his battered face a desperate reflection of his maimed but resilient soul. Kelly's life comes full circle with his defeat of the man who opened the door to a life in the ring - a dichotomous life that offered not only the illusory pleasures of fame, fortune, and women; but more importantly the respect and legacy Midge craved. Cinematic convention keeps us expecting that he'll see the light and turn a Scrooge-like corner at the end, yet he never does. His refusal to compromise or live on anything but his own terms is a worthy valediction, and imbues his life with a strange and unexpected integrity. It also makes him an iconic hero of film noir. It's fitting that Midge's should die after he wins the final fight; he has nothing in the world left to prove. We can see as plainly in Champion as in Raging Bull that some men are not meant to suffer old age.


Written by The Professor

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Without Warning (1951)

“In the annals of crime of any great city, there is always one case that for sheer savagery will never be forgotten. No professional criminal could ever match its fury, for it is the record of murder without reason, of fear and of terror of a killer who strikes without warning.”

So begins the story of the garden shear wielding love-killer, at large in 1951 Los Angeles, who has a murderous penchant for blondes.

Originally released through United Artists, on DVD by Dark Sky Filmsas part of their “lost noir” series, directed by Arnold Laven, this is a little-known gem that I find unique for many reasons, which I will be discussing below.

Opening outside a motel with blaring jazz music, the police are investigating the murder of a lovely blonde who was killed by a large pair of gardening shears. It is determined that the woman was in her twenties and married, although her husband is clearly not in the picture. As the cops probe the scene, our love-killer, boyish gardener Carl Martin (Adam Williams, North By Northwest), collapses into bed, awakening the next day to head to a local gardening supply store, where he spots the owner’s comely daughter Jane (Meg Randall) who is helping out her dad while her husband is overseas. (And let me just add, there is a little girl, Carmencita, who has the tendency to show up in some of the most inopportune moments for Carl). The police, meanwhile, think that the latest murder is linked to one a month earlier - the similarities are striking. While the authorities do everything and anything they can to stop and identify the murderer (including having pretty blonde decoys accompanied by plainclothed cops in an attempt to lure the psycho into a trap, studying torn fabric from the suit he was wearing at the time of the motel killing), Martin is still able to claim two more victims, but not before the police psychiatrist makes his diagnosis. The love-killer is a less than confidant guy who fell head over heels in love with, and married a woman (you guessed it, a blonde) who left him high and dry for another man. So the women he chooses as victims are prototypes of his ex-wife. Blonde, attractive, married but estranged from their husbands for whatever reason. He was unable to punish his wife so instead he punishes other women. Although Martin does pick up one of the decoys, while driving to an out of the way place, he notices that they're being followed and promptly drops her off - alive - but not before delivering a quick little speech regarding morals. It seems that he may be cunning enough at times to stay one step ahead of the law, but he's bound to be found out or exposed - it's just a question of when and how. By the time the detectives discover Martin’s identity and that he is a gardener by profession, it may be too late for Jane, who finds herself alone with Carl as his murderous rage is about to explode - again.

Adam Williams spent most of his career in television, and I can’t help but think that had he had more film roles, if his portrayal here is any indication, he may have become a star in the Richard Widmark mold. His smile could go from sweet to chilling within seconds, his demeanor and facial expression drastically change just by spotting a gal with blonde tresses or noticing any trace that could lead to his capture. When Carl searches for prey in shady nightclubs, or when he stalks Jane, you can feel his eyes on his targets. When he finally tells Jane that she reminds him of his wife, she (and the viewers) know that it's not a term of endearment. You don't know what will set him off, and that makes for on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Without Warning is also a very interesting viewing experience because it introduces some investigative techniques that have become much more prevalent and advanced in recent years - analyzing crime scenes, fabric fibers, cigarette butts, soil and criminal profiling. While not exactly what you’d see on CSI today, the determining of the type of suit the perpetrator was wearing and what motivates him to commit his crimes makes this early 50s noir a cut above the rest that I’ve seen. Also, Martin seems to get a perverse kick out of reading about his savage mayhem in the papers, and along with his clean-cut, seemingly “normal” exterior his inner rage simmers, his murderous intent could explode suddenly or could have him meticulously planning his next move. I couldn’t help but think of Ted Bundy in that respect - Martin, like Bundy, seems on the surface to be last person you’d suspect to be capable of such savage killings.

Of course, I can’t review this film without addressing what critics and fans of the genre have debated - whether Without Warning should be considered film noir or not. And I’m going to answer that as honestly as I can - yes and no. At times, it seems that the movie can’t decide what it wants to be - a noir, a detective story, or a documentary-style thriller. It has very strong elements of all three, but I do think that it does earn the title of noir, even if it is missing some of the better known ingredients (femme fatales, hard-boiled detectives), and only a handful of scenes take place at night - which is usually considered a noir staple. The rest of the action (including a dramatic chase as Martin evades police after claiming his third victim, and the climax) takes place in broad daylight. The police detectives, while dedicated to their jobs, seem to be rather average Joes apart from it and there is no insight into their personal lives. Even Martin’s primary target, Jane, is a regular gal who just wants to help out her father and innocently bide her time until her husband returns. However I suppose it doesn’t matter that Jane is not a two-timing dame, because all attractive blondes of that age are the same in Carl Martin’s eyes. The narration is on hand pretty much throughout, giving the story an air of realism.

The DVD transfer looks very good, crisp and clear for the most part, although one of the night time sequences shows some specks in the top corners. English subtitles are provided on the disc menu along with a photo gallery of lobby cards. The cover art (taken from one of the original posters) and the synopsis on the reverse side of the case made me think of the detective magazines of the era (which I was lucky enough to find in flea markets and/or second-hand stores).

In conclusion, Dark Sky films did an excellent job in restoring and making this “lost noir” available. Check it out if you can.

Written by NoirDame


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Riffraff (1947)

There's an intimidating number of books written about classic film noir. One of the most underrated is Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir. Arthur Lyons lists only B-movies - skipping over major-studio classics like Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon and others. He concentrates on mostly forgotten, low-budget films. Over the past few years I have managed to dig up copies of most of the movies written about in the book. Many of these cheapies are probably best forgotten by all but the most serious noir completest. Others are absolute gems. One of Lyon's picks in the book stood out. Riffraff.

"… This all-around entertaining film has … exceptional cinematography. In the first five minutes of the movie, one of filmdom's absolute classic beginnings, not a word of dialogue is spoken!"

After reading about it I impatiently tracked down a copy of the movie. (it's been released on Laser Disc and VHS in the past) I was blown away by the intense opening dialogue-free 6-and-a-half minutes. Riffraff starts during a middle-of-the-night rainstorm at a small airport. The storm makes Slattery's Hurricane look like a summer day. As the rain drowns out all other sounds, men wait in quiet anticipation for the second of two passengers to arrive. He finally does - clutching a briefcase he's clearly protecting. The drenched pilots board, start the engines, and muscle the prop plane - carrying supplies including live chickens as well as the two men - through thundering clouds heading toward Panama. A man is killed in the most dramatic way possible on a plane slicing through a 3am rain storm. Eddie Muller calls the open “as good as any in noir” and I agree.

After the rainy night opening, director Ted Tetzlaff down-shifts gears. The movie becomes a very familiar detective story. Every 40s-private-detective cliché is used in a story involving a missing map showing the locations of rich oil deposits in South America. A rogues gallery of familiar RKO faces are after the map that was taken off the plane the night of the storm. Private detective Dan Hammer (Pat O'Brien) - donned in a wrinkled white suit, fuzzy panama hat and matching white shoes- is hired by Charles Hasso (Marc Krah) as a body guard. Hammer doesn't know anything about the valuable map and certainly doesn't know Hasso killed a man to steal the document. When Hasso first met Hammer he hides the map in plain sight in Hammer's unlocked dump of an office when Hammer isn't looking. (Lyons' book points out that this is “the old Purloined Letter gag”) Hammer drops Hasso at a local hotel. Only hours later the detective is hired by a second man -shady oil businessman Gredson (Jerome Cowan)- to find Hasso and the map. Before the thrifty Hammer - now playing both sides for the biggest pay out- can return and cash in on his client, Hasso is tracked down by hired killer Eric Molinar (played with spice by Walter Slezak). Hasso is killed and his corpse is found by Hammer in the hotel bath tub. Gredson - not trusting Hammer with the priceless map -- orders his girlfriend Maxine Manning (Anne Jeffreys) to get close to Hammer. The nightclub singer gets too close and the two start up a romance. Molinar- who turns out to be also hired by Gredson who was clearly covering all his bases -sees the value of the map ends up killing his employer and beating Hammer to a pulp. Eventually Hammer comes out on top thanks to the fact that everyone in Panama City knows him and owes the detective favors.

Hammer is helped along the way by his scruffy dog and a loyal taxi driver Pop (Percy Kilbride). These characters and several other light touches makes Riffraff a breezy film noir. One running gag about private dicks wearing ties has a satisfying payoff too. The snappy dialogue - especially when delivered by O'Brien - and some amazing visuals makes Riffraff one fun film.

Pat O'Brien made a name for himself in the 1930s when Warner Bros. were churning out fantastic gangster films. O'Brien was usually second banana to guys like Bogart and John Garfield - and most often and successfully with James Cagney. O'Brien and Cagney appeared in many films together including Angels With Dirty Faces and Cagney's swan song Ragtime in 1981. In the 30s O'Brien was usually seen in movies playing cops, priests, newspaper editors and wardens. O'Brien brought a strong sense of morality and strength to his characters. In the hands of lesser actors his WB characters would probably come across as horribly pious. O'Brien could always be relied on to deliver when playing beneficent men. In 1947 O'Brien was past his prime and certainly an unlikely leading man. O'Brien - balding a looking much older and heavier than Bogart who was born the same year - is charming in Riffraff. He delivers his lines with just a hint of the Irish brogue - which is no doubt part of his charm. It's also surprising to see O'Brien play a bit of a con man so convincingly.

His chemistry with co-star (and almost 25 years his junior) Anne Jeffreys is fun to watch. Alan Rode recently talked to Jeffreys about her role in Riffraff:

“The climatic fight in Pat O'Brien's office took three days to film. Anne Jeffreys told me that she had fun jumping on top of Walter Slezak although that bookcase falling down almost got both of them. She also recalled a wrap party at O'Brien's house where he jumped into the swimming pool and capsized everyone who was riding on a pool raft. She enjoyed making the film and it shows.”

Jeffreys was the long-time wife of veteran actor Robert Sterling. They were probably best know together playing a pair of debonair ghosts in the 1950s sitcom Topper.

Riffraff was Ted Tetzlaff's second picture as director. His first feature -a comedy filmed before WWII - was apparently a stinker. Just a year before making Riffraff Tetzlaff was cameraman for Alfred Hitchcock's classic Notorious. Clearly some of Hitch's style rubbed off on Tetzlaff. Going into Riffraff Tetzlaff had a reputation as a good technician but it was not known if he could make the transition to being a creative and competent movie director. Riffraff proved that he was a capable film helmsman. His background as an exceptional cameraman is apparent too. There are some beautiful black-and-white visual images including some playful shots of Venetian blinds transitioning from one location to another. The drip of bath water leaking from a floor above onto a dead man's signature on an open hotel registry is also clever. The first image in the film is of a brave Texas horny toad perched on a rock just outside a rainy airstrip. Some credit for the unique visuals should probably also go to veteran lensman George E. Diskant who was no stranger to shadowy film noir (Port of New York, Desperate, They Live by Night, The Narrow Margin and so on).

Tetzlaff's best film as director (and best noir) is The Window -filmed the same year as Riffraff's release but held for release for two years by RKO chief Howard Hughes. Tetzlaff gets a decent performance out of wide-eyed child star Bobby Driscoll. However besting all is Tetzlaff's use of Paul Stewart as the creepy villain. The Window- about a boy with an overactive imagination who witnesses a murder but no one believes him - is a wholly original film. Not long after its release Hitchcock made Rear Window similar in plot to The Window. Both films were based on stories by Cornell Woolrich. Was Hitchcock inspired by his former cameraman's film?

Riffraff is a good candidate for the Warner Bros DVD archive. It's a great film noir but it doesn't have any major stars or known talent behind the cameras making it a nearly forgotten film. If you see Riffraff playing at a film festival or on late night TV do yourself a favor and catch it.

Note: Noir fans probably wonder if Dan Hammer has any connection to the eerily similar Mickey Spillane detective Mike Hammer. Riffraff was released in the summer of '47, the same year the first Mike Hammer book I, The Jury was published.

Also, the movie posters for the film calls the movie
Riff-Raff... but it's one word in the movie's opening credits.

Written by Steve-O


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Romeo Is Bleeding (1993)

Hell is the Choices We Make

“You ever wonder what hell is like?
Maybe it ain’t the place you think.
Fire and brimstone?
Devils with horns poking you in the butt with a pitchfork?
What’s hell?
The time you should’ve walked…but you didn’t.
That’s hell.
You’re looking at it.”

How right Al Capone was when he said, “Once corrupted always controlled,” and this maxim comes into play in the marvelous 1993 neo-noir film, Romeo Is Bleeding. The film is from director Peter Medak who created the phenomenal film The Krays (1990), the true story of the infamous Kray twins, who ruled London’s East End crime world until things spiraled out of control. Medak also directed Let Him Have It (1991), the back drop story of Derek Bentley who was executed in 1953. Both The Krays and Let Him Have It are examinations of British crime viewed through a working-class point-of-view. While at first glance, Romeo Is Bleeding may seem quite different from The Krays and Let Him Have It, it’s a portrait of a working-class egoist who becomes trapped in a web of corruption and sex through his lust for wealth.

Romeo Is Bleeding is a frame story, and the film opens with a character named Jim Dougherty (Gary Oldman). It’s May 1st and Jim sits alone in the Holiday Diner, a café stuck out in the middle of the Arizona desert, and he reminisces through a photo album about “a guy” named Jack Grimaldi. The film then flashes back to the past and the life of its New York protagonist, a cocky, corrupt police sergeant named Jack (Gary Oldman):

“Jack was a romantic guy. Big dreams. Problem was there was always a little daylight between his dreams and his wallet. He was a working stiff. 56 Grand a year and never made it past sergeant.”

Using a strong narrative voice-over, the script written by Hilary Henkin, shows that Jack’s problems stem from exposure to the lavish sex-soaked world of gangsters. These are men with expensive tastes who wear designer suits, live in palm-tree lined estates, and sport with beautiful women. Jack envies these men and the lives they lead, and as he watches the orgies between middle-aged, grey-haired gangsters and gorgeous, scantily clad women, Jack thinks he deserves that kind of life too. After all, he reasons, what do these men have “that old Jack ain’t got?” The voice-over makes the point that while most men would stop at envy, Jack goes beyond that: “Inside he wasn’t like anybody. He was doing something about those big dreams.” And when the film begins, Jack isn’t on the slippery moral slope-- he’s thoroughly corrupted.

A sense of admiration radiates towards Jack from his fellow cops, and they’ve nicknamed him Romeo. He regales them with tales of his latest conquests with a deadpan, self-assured manner that generates more than a little envy. One of the cops asks: “How come nobody loves me like that?” and Jack’s sarcastic reply underscores his notions of superiority. But Jack’s private life is overly complicated, and it’s about to become impossible. Not only is he terminally unfaithful to his sexy, beautiful wife, Natalie (Annabella Sciorra), but his simple-minded, pathetically eager-to-please mistress, waitress Sheri (Juliette Lewis) is trying to pressure Jack for more than a quick grope. Sheri is in love with Jack, but she’s wasting her time. Someone should have told her that Jack’s biggest love affair is with himself. Jack thinks he’s really something--from his back street affairs, his joking with the boys, to the way he’s on the payroll of local heavy, Sal (Michael Wincott), trusted henchman of mobster, Don Falcone (Roy Scheider).

Jack’s problems begin when he informs Sal of the whereabouts of Nick Gazzara (Dennis Farina). Nick, safely stashed and busy stuffing his face at the Monte Carlo Hotel, is about to sing for the feds about Don Falcone in exchange for immunity and a new identity in the witness protection program. Jack’s job is simple; he tells Sal where Nick is and is then amply compensated for his trouble: “a quarter goes into a phone booth and 65 grand comes out.” To Jack, it’s all about “feeding the hole” in the back garden where he keeps his payola from the mob. But this time the hit against Gazzara is carried out by “that Russian bitch” Mona Demarkov (the gorgeous, gravel-voiced Lena Olin), a woman who “don’t give a fuck about nothing.” According to Sal, Demarkov is “very modern” and “she wants it all. You know the kind.” Demarkov is now in custody for the hit on Gazzara, and that makes her a liability. Sal offers Jack his usual 65 G to inform on Demarkov’s location…

The film establishes that Jack has two vulnerabilities--women and money--although just which vice is number one to Jack can be argued. But while he has a healthy respect for money and the things it can buy, Jack sees women as brainless playthings to be toyed with and then discarded. Some women go along with that attitude, and some women don’t. Sheri for example, works hard at brainstorming sex fantasies for Jack’s self-centered needs--dancing, stripping, a little B&D--all interspersed with plaintive, disappointed, and tired questions, such as “is it hard yet, baby?” The plot cleverly juxtaposes the lavish sex fantasies of the rich with Jack’s working class version--an overworked waitress pretending to be a lusty Budweiser girl during her coffee break.

Jack accepts all of Sheri’s efforts with an air of boredom and entitlement, and while he’s moderately nicer to his wife, Natalie, there are dangerous undercurrents in their trivial conversations. In one scene, Jack arrives home (late as usual), to dinner and a bottle of wine sitting on the table. He bitches about the meal mumbling that he wishes she’d stop reading those cooking magazines and ending with, “whatever happened to meat and potatoes?” And this is, of course, a dangerous leading question that Natalie zones in on as she edgily replies: “I don’t know Jack, you tell me?”

Jack’s love affair with himself allows him to operate in the grime and the double cross with the idea that he’ll come out ahead because he’s surrounded by idiots. While this may be true in the case of Sheri, it isn’t true about the other women in his life, and when he becomes involved with Mona Demarkov, “he wondered how smart she was.” He should have stuck with that thought, because against Demarkov, Jack is wildly outclassed. Not only is Mona Demarkov extremely intelligent, she’s a lethal, irresistible combination of Jack’s two vices: money and sex. When the amazingly sexy Demarkov makes her moves on Jack, it’s impossible to say whether he’s ultimately seduced by a case full of money or her garter belt. Since Demarkov drapes herself half-dressed over the money, she knows quite well that Jack cannot resist the double lure--and predictably Jack is mesmerized by the sight of the greenbacks and her black lace stockings.

Since Jack lacks a moral core, he isn’t capable of making a decision based on morality, and as an egoist, Jack is only concerned with his own self-interest. Falcone, like Demarkov, understands Jack and makes the point: “You know right from wrong. You just don’t care.” And Falcone’s assessment of Jack is dead right. Jack makes his decisions based on what he thinks is best for Jack, and unfortunately, he interprets that to feeding his self-interest with women and money. Of course with that operating principle it’s just a matter of time before Jack lands so deep in the muck, he can’t climb back out. As the story continues and Jack switches employers, he fails to see the warning signs, underestimates his enemies, and fails to ask himself the appropriate questions.

Jack gradually slips from his power spot as corrupt cop, unfaithful husband, and much-envied Romeo. His physical deterioration parallels his loss of power and control. Whereas in the beginning of the film the males appear to hold the power roles (Sal, Jack and Falcone), with the females trapped in the roles assigned to them, the appearance of Demarkov subverts male dominance. The script hints that Falcone and Demarkov were once romantically involved, and of course, it’s impossible to imagine Demarkov in any sort of relationship--let alone one with a male as the power broker. Once Demarkov is unleashed, and Jack begins to lose control, all the other female roles shift in an unspoken revolt of sorts. Sheri takes a stand (or tries to), and Natalie, the long-suffering wife has some surprises of her own.

In classic noir, women are usually seen as trapped in the roles assigned to them by the males in their lives, and of course then bored and sexually frustrated, women turn to seduction and enroll men as muscle in the plan for murder (Too Late for Tears, Double Indemnity). Sheri and Natalie accept the roles assigned to them by Jack--not that they are happy about it, but they continue to function in relationships in which they exist solely to keep Jack fed, pleasured and in clean laundry. Sheri, in spite of being cast as the floozy girlfriend, isn’t the femme fatale. Instead she’s just seen as another one of Jack’s sad little victims, shoved into an unsatisfying role. Romeo Is Bleeding offers an updated femme fatale in Dermarkov--an intelligent psychopath, a lone she-wolf, who prefers to do her own killing. Jack’s wife, Natalie is also intelligent--far more intelligent than Jack realizes. Jack’s pathetic double-life as a Lothario was never as secret as he imagined, but he was too busy admiring himself to stop and wonder what went on in her head. While Natalie is supportive, faithful and fairly docile up to a point, her subsequent actions counterbalance Demarkov’s extraordinary violence and explosive power-grab.

Romeo Is Bleeding is non-stop neo-noir action complete with flash-forwards and a nightmare sequence. It’s a morality tale of sorts--a man who had everything--except it wasn’t enough, ends up with exactly what he deserves. By the end of the film, in a conclusion that echoes shades of Sartre’s No Exit, Jack is left to rot in a living hell full of memories. Stuck at the Holiday Diner--the planned destination for Nick Gazzara, he’s “better off dead.” The voice-over, sometimes a belated conscience and sometimes a vehicle of regret, makes the point that “A man don’t always do what’s best for him.” And in Romeo Is Bleeding’s character-is-fate scenario could Jack have done anything differently?

Written by Guy Savage


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