IN THE FRAME, by Vince Keenan


    I picked up a copy of Total Chaos not knowing anything about author Jean-Claude Izzo or the school of “Mediterranean noir” that he helped shepherd into being.  I simply responded to the book as an object.  Europa Editions puts out a handsome trade paperback.  By the time I finished reading it, I knew I had visited a world that I would return to again and again.

    Police detective Fabio Montale grew up on the mean streets of Marseilles.  His two closest friends Ugo and Manu never really left them behind.  When Ugo dies after attempting to avenge Manu’s murder, only Fabio is left to seek justice.  He’s determined to do so even if it means going outside the law: “I wasn’t thinking like a cop.  I was being swept along by my lost youth.  All my dreams belonged to that part of my life.  If I still had a future, that was the way I had to return.”

    The satisfyingly twisty plot involves Mafia chieftains with old scores to settle and police department politics, but it’s practically beside the point.  There’s so much else to savor, like descriptions of Marseilles so drenched with atmosphere that they make the city the book’s protagonist.  Or they would if Montale weren’t so vital a guide to his world’s every dark corner.  A cop who has allowed his career to stall by working the largely Arabic slums that surround his hometown, Montale is also a connoisseur, soaking up jazz, devouring fine meals, offering cogent critiques of the rap music that he uses to decode the world of Marseilles’ underclass. 

    Izzo’s many pop cultural references are delivered in an offhand manner that maximizes their impact.  A prostitute looks “like Diana Ross at the age of twenty-two,” a police department sniper has a “face like Lee Marvin. A killer’s face, not a cop’s.”  Chaos veers between that uniquely Gallic brand of romantic fatalism and a desperate sensuality. I t’s shot through with pain, longing, and an insatiable desire for life.

    Howard Curtis does a marvelous job of translating Izzo’s 1995 novel, retaining the supple intensity of the prose.  It’s hard to believe that this marks the first American appearance by Izzo, who died in 2000.  Europa Editions plans to publish the other two installments of his “Marseilles Trilogy” in 2007.  I’m not sure if I can wait that long.

    Joe Gores made history in 1970 by becoming the only person to win two Edgar awards in the same year, for best short story and best first novel.  That stellar debut, A Time of Predators, is now back in print (March 2005, hardcover, Forge).  Revenge tales were then all the rage, with Brian Garfield’s Death Wish and the dumbed-down 1974 film adaptation being perhaps the best-known examples.  Gores’ take on the form is savage, relentless, and not for the faint of heart.

    The wife of college professor Curt Halstead takes her own life after she is brutally beaten and raped by the gang of teenage hoods she saw commit another assault.  When the police investigation reaches a dead end, Halstead pursues his own vengeance on these “predators,” no matter the cost to himself.

    The book bears a few signs that betray it as the work of a young author, like thickets of adverbs and characters who ‘bark’ and ‘snap’ their dialogue.  But Gores’ talent for plotting was already in evidence, as was his ability to shed light on even the darkest of hearts.  There’s a magnificent early sequence, told from the perspective of Halstead’s wife as she prepares to kill herself, that packs an entire lifetime of disappointment and regret into just six pages.  A  great career began with this novel.  It’s about time it was in circulation again.


    Some film projects may have too much talent involved. Consider, for example, 1983’s HAMMETT.  It begins with an ingenious premise: struggling pulp author Dashiell Hammett draws on his old Pinkerton days to investigate a crime, encountering some of the tropes and characters that would inform his groundbreaking fiction.  It’s based on a novel by the aforementioned Joe Gores, who followed in Hammett’s private-eye-turned-writer footsteps.  Gores, Brian Garfield and many others labored on the script, ultimately credited in part to Ross Thomas.  Behind the camera was Wim Wenders, the wunderkind of the New German Cinema who had already demonstrated his skill in the genre with the sly Patricia Highsmith adaptation THE AMERICAN FRIEND.  Serving as godfather: producer Francis Ford Coppola.

    The collaboration of that many luminaries generally yields one of two outcomes: an instant classic or a legendary train wreck.  That HAMMETT, now finally available on DVD, registers as a mere disappointment is a testament to the power of Gores’ original idea.

    Not that the movie taps into that power.  The first half belabors the set-up to a meandering mystery involving a missing girl.  By the time the film begins to play with the iconography of Hammett’s writing, introducing characters meant to be the inspiration for Caspar Gutman and his gunsel Wilmer in THE MALTESE FALCON, it has squandered too much of its energy and the audience’s good will.  There are incidental pleasures: Frederic Forrest’s charismatic performance in the title role, Forrest’s equally charismatic hairstyle, the presence of veteran characters actors Elisha Cook, Jr. and Sylvia Sidney, an amusing Ross Thomas cameo.  San Francisco locations bring the 1920s to vivid, seedy life.  But even these sequences have a drawback: they’re so effective that they give the many scenes filmed on soundstages a static, almost airless quality.

    The absence of extra features on the DVD is the real crime, considering HAMMETT’s tortured production history.  Coppola and Wenders disagreed so violently over the original cut that Coppola took over the project; by some accounts, only a third of the finished film is the work of the credited director.  Wenders’ version featured Brian Keith and not Peter Boyle in the key role of Hammett’s ex-Pinkerton crony Jimmy Ryan.  Sylvia Miles, whose presence was touted in the film’s press kit, was cut out of the movie entirely. 

    Any of that early footage would have made for fascinating viewing.  Perhaps Wenders said all he needed to say with his next movie, which he made while Coppola was reshooting HAMMETTTHE STATE OF THINGS is about the trials of a European director working for an American producer.  Both films reached theaters at approximately the same time, which is a lesson in itself.

    The plot of THE HUNTER by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake) is as stripped-down as they come.  A professional thief left for dead by his double-crossing partner kills his way to the top of a criminal organization, seeking only the money he feels is rightfully his.  The story survives intact in the 1967 film adaptation POINT BLANK, but director John Boorman, fracturing the narrative and using one startling visual composition after another, transforms it into a nearly-abstract tale of obsession. 

    The film’s legions of fans have been clamoring for a DVD for years.  They have every reason to be satisfied with the disc released by Warner Home Video.  POINT BLANK has never looked better.  Watch the Los Angeles skyline, punctuated by horizontal palm trees, roll past in the windshield of Angie Dickinson’s car for proof.

    The two vintage featurettes on the disc focus on the movie’s use of Alcatraz as a location.  The principal extra is the commentary track with Boorman.  He’s interviewed by Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh, who begins by saying how often he’s stolen from the film.  (Soderbergh’s 1999 crime drama THE LIMEY, with its looping structure and innovative use of Southern California settings, is in many respects a spiritual successor to POINT BLANK, although Soderbergh himself has described it as GET CARTER directed by Alain Resnais.)

    As might be expected when two directors talk shop, the conversation tends toward the technical.  No mention is made of the novel that inspired the film, although the word ‘stark’ comes up more than once thanks to Boorman’s austere visual scheme.  Boorman makes clear his disdain for PAYBACK (1999), the Mel Gibson film also based on THE HUNTER, as well as his affection for star Lee Marvin, who clearly wielded a great deal of influence over the production.

    The most interesting digressions come whenever Soderbergh raises one reading of POINT BLANK that has become the cinematic equivalent of an urban legend: that Marvin’s character is actually killed in the opening scene and that we are watching his vengeful spirit settle accounts.  Boorman never quite endorses this interpretation, but he is quick to point out the many directorial choices that make it a viable one.  The commentary is a valuable road map to a movie that demands multiple viewings.

    Every film history I’ve ever read has devoted at least a few paragraphs – if not entire pages – to Robert Bresson’s PICKPOCKET (1959).  It is the rare acknowledged classic of world cinema that has never been widely available on video.  The Criterion Collection rectified the situation in late 2005.  At last, I thought as I placed the disc into the DVD player, the chance to experience this masterwork for myself.

    Personally, I didn’t care for it.  Your experience may differ.

    The film is about a crook, a cop and a girl, but it’s not a thriller; the opening crawl makes that clear.  Bresson is more interested in what he calls the atmosphere that surrounds a thief.  Martin LaSalle plays a detached young man who becomes a pickpocket as a way of declaring himself to the world, believing that “talented men should be free to break the law.”  What follows is an existentialist portrait of a criminal that hews closely to the work of the first crime novelist, Dostoyevsky, right down to a closing scene that echoes that of Crime and Punishment.

    PICKPOCKET brims over with ideas, but few of them are conventionally dramatized.  As a result, I found the film more interesting to think about than to watch. Bresson’s minimalist, intellectual technique keeps emotion at a remove.  So does his reliance on non-professional actors.  LaSalle’s utterly deadpan persona makes him seem like a pod people version of Montgomery Clift. 

    Bresson was prompted to make the film after seeing Samuel Fuller’s film about a pickpocket, the galvanizing PICK-UP ON SOUTH STREET (1953).  They’re an odd pairing; Fuller, a born entertainer who packed every frame with energy, is Bresson’s stylistic and temperamental opposite.  (I reviewed the Criterion DVD of SOUTH STREET in Mystery*File #45.)

    Filmmaker Paul Schrader championed PICKPOCKET during his days as a critic, and has frequently cited it as the inspiration for writing TAXI DRIVER.  His impassioned introduction on the DVD, praising Bresson’s ability to use “the film medium against itself” to depict “a soul in transit,” had me reconsidering my own opinion.  No matter what your take on the disc’s main attraction, the other extras – including a 2003 documentary that tracks down the cast members and a 1962 variety show performance by the film’s technical consultant, sleight-of-hand artist Kassagi – are a delight.

    Note: Other installments of In the Frame can be found be going here.


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