#195: Strangers on a Train. Another Hitchcock, another perfect murder. Guy Haines is on his way to New York when the unbelievable happens right before his eyes. A stranger, called Bruno, starts talking to him. Out of nothing. On a train. No one does that. Is this science-fiction? They somehow manage to sustain an extensive conversation – the director must have completely lost touch with reality at this point – upon which they recognise a similarity between them. Each of them has a person in their lives whom they wouldn’t mind to be permanently disposed of. Bruno hates his father, while the buds of Guy’s new love and engagement to an influential senator’s daughter are endangered by his current wife Miriam’s reluctance to agree to a divorce. Enthusiastically, Bruno suggests to swap murders, arguing that he killing Miriam and Guy killing Bruno’s father would leave both of them without motive and the police without a clue. Guy, however, is distinctly taken aback by Bruno’s sudden fervour and not quite willing to stomach the thought of murdering someone. He leaves his new acquaintance with an angry remark, which Bruno either misinterprets as assent or simply doesn’t care about. Either way, Miriam is dead soon afterwards and Bruno appears in front of Guy’s house, demanding that he keep his side of the bargain. As memorable and original as the plot might be, the only convincing acting comes from Robert Walker (Bruno) while our good guy protagonist seems stiff as a board, delivering his lines as if he was reading them straight from the script. Interestingly, he did a lot better when he was allowed to play the role of the psychopath himself a few years earlier in Rope.
#194: Sin City. I have distinct memories of liking this movie when I was younger. Sometimes list entries tempt me to write reviews purely from what I can recollect about them if I had already seen them anyway, such as in this case, but another viewing of Sin City completely changed what I originally wanted to put down. As far as the visual adaptation of Frank Miller’s source material is concerned, the results are still phenomenal and feel genuinely unique in their style to this day, Mickey Rourke is a perfect cast for Marv, and apparently Nick Offerman scored the miniscule supporting role of a bald assassin (the realisation of this minor detail might just be the only positive outcome of the whole affair). First dents in the casing become visible when we are meant to believe that the hearty apparition of Bruce Willis was the best choice for portraying Detective Hartigan, who may be tough and foolhardy but is also over sixty years old and plagued with a debilitating heart condition, though trifles like these aren’t yet enough to hurt the movie overall. The ridiculous dialogue amply takes care of that. Its quality varies between the plot lines for a fair amount, since Marv’s and Hartigan’s are slightly more agreeable, but some of the tainted gems let off during Dwight’s scenes (“Miho. You’re an angel. You’re a saint. You’re Mother Teresa. You’re Elvis.”) made me bury my face in my hands with disbelief about my younger self’s taste. From what I could gather about the comic itself, the film basically did not tamper with the original lines at all but at the same time completely abandoned their ironic delivery, and instead opted to fully concentrate on a gritty, dead serious representation of Sin City. Now, by all means, when you need to change one aspect to get it to work on screen, don’t just leave everything else in unaltered just for the sake of staying true to the source if it becomes so much worse for it.
#193: Gandhi. Some movies like Species, The Last Legion, Prince of Persia, A Sound of Thunder, Thunderbirds or BloodRayne (!) I will thankfully never have to talk about, because they are atrocious and would never make the list. All of them, however, share the property of having Ben Kingsley among their cast members, who is arguably one of the most accomplished actors we have and remains to be so even though he clearly exhibits a tendency of choosing terrible movies to work on almost as a hobby. One of the reasons why we’re not meant to hate him for it is Gandhi. As you correctly might have concluded, Ben Kingsley is Gandhi in a biographical film about the life of Gandhi. It is well-made and there really isn’t much wrong with it. Kingsley’s portrayal is convincing to the point of making the movie appear to be a documentary (though I do suspect part of its fascination stems from the fact that the two men simply look alike after the application of enough makeup). So is it worth watching? Acting prowess isn’t everything, and the simple answer to the question is: If you’re interested in Gandhi, go watch Gandhi. However, if you don’t, you will not die less happy only because you missed it.
#192: Stalker. Some people suggest that an accurate way to measure the influence of a movie is to count how often it is cited by other works. The range and focus of the reference does not even have to be uniform, meaning that everything from the mention of a book character watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre while ironing their shirts to the production of an entire parody series about Scream counts as a citation. Stalker (the movie) is a bit more astonishing in this respect, at least to me. Stalker (the protagonist) is a supernaturally gifted tour guide offering to take visitors past military cordons and into the Zone, a place where an unseen influence plays tricks on the minds of those who enter, usually in search for a room at its center which is supposed to grant wishes. The premise alone seems eerily prophetic: Inexplicable things, confined to an uninhabitable zone, are caused by a power that humans are unable to fathom completely. Andrei Tarkovsky shot this film in 1979, seven years before the meltdown of Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant which created a place almost exactly like the Zone. I can’t even begin to imagine what this means for Stalker’s significance, basically having your plot cited by history, but it must be close to the feeling rock musicians might get when they rummage through all the women’s underwear thrown on stage during a show and realise that the Queen’s own knickers are amongst them, complete with EIIR embroidery.
Some people also suggest that this movie is boring. These people are only half right. Stalker does admittedly have a slow pace, and I wouldn’t call it entertaining in the common popcorn-munching sense of the word. However, if you should find yourself bored you are probably not paying enough attention. There are hints everywhere about what’s going on in the vicinity of Stalker and his group, they are just barely noticeable. Tarkovsky usually reserves the bottom part of the screen to show them…
#191: Les diaboliques. Michel is an incessantly abusive man and, what makes it even worse for the general public, the headmaster of the Delasalle Boarding School for Boys ever since he married its headmistress Christina Delasalle. Christina is surprisingly well acquainted with her husband’s current mistress (not to be confused with headmistress) Nicole, and they both agree that Michel is a terrible human being who deserves to die. Under the pretence of wanting to arrange a divorce Christina lures him to the distant village of Niort, where Nicole has an apartment, and the two women drown him in a bathtub. Unfortunately, Christina is not only a devout Catholic and soon begins to entertain remorse over their deed, she is also inflicted with a debilitating heart condition (yes, another one – heart conditions seem to be infectious in this part of the list) reducing her to a nervous, shaking wreck at the most inconvenient moments and which results in Nicole having to do the majority of the gruesome work on her own. Then, just as everything finally seems to be under wraps, the headmaster’s corpse mysteriously disappears from his unceremonious burial site in the school’s muddy swimming pool… By the standards of the 1950s this is to be considered a horror film, and a markedly clever and subtle one at that. Almost until the very end, I was convinced that I was merely waiting for the conclusive downfall of the two scheming women, possibly by the hands of someone who found the body and was now playing his own cruel jape. However, Les Diaboliques ends with a turn of events which caught me absolutely unawares, a fact the staff obviously take pride in since I was explicitly asked in the credits not to spoil the unexpected ending to my friends.
Having said that, I wrote down the final plot twist anyway, and just in case you don’t consider yourself one of my friends (say, temporarily) feel free to read it by highlighting the following: Michel never drowned in that bathtub. The actual two diaboliques are him and Nicole who plotted to kill Christina in order to have Michel inherit the school and her wealth and then live off the spoils together. With Michel being a proficient swimmer and Christina’s condition leaving her pretty much comatose at crucial moments, the procedure was convincing enough to make her believe that Michel really died. After his body had supposedly disappeared, Michel could then walk around and haunt Christina which ultimately caused her to have a stroke. However… she did not die because a few days before, she met the retired Detective Fichet at the morgue who promised her to find out what happened to her husband. His method of investigation, extremely similar to what would later be made famous by Peter Falk’s portrayal of the Detective Columbo, quickly allows him to see through Michel and Nicole’s machinations and he catches them red-handed after Christina’s alleged death.
sneaked-in #229: Prisoners. Are you interested in child abduction? Well, look no further…! One particularly rainy Thanksgiving, Keller Dover and his family visit the Birches‘ home to celebrate together. The adults allow themselves a few moments of indulgence, the teenagers retreat to watch television, and – poof – Anna and Joy, their youngest children, go missing. Prisoners comprises a plot that is constantly twisting and turning on itself, so to tell you more than that the vague outline of the rest of the film is about finding the two girls (‘ mortal remains?) would probably spoil too much already. The fairly extensive runtime (it takes about an hour before we even get to know why the film is called Prisoners) is topped off with a grand revelation at the end, not unlike the kind that got so popular with The Sixth Sense or The Unusual Suspects. Nevertheless, its director Denis Villeneuve actually did something really clever to set his movie apart from these earlier mysteries. One problem of Sixth Sense and Usual Suspects has always been their singularity, because the final plot twist is virtually the only factor holding up the suspense and if you isolate it there is little redeeming quality left for the rest of the movies. Not only does Prisoners do this differently since it essentially contains not only one but three layers of plot twists, but in addition to that one of them is sustained by Keller’s wayward decision to take matters into his own hands and exists on an independent level. So while The Sixth Sense is actually an orange that just looks like an apple, Prisoners is an orange that looks like an apple, until you cut it open and realise it’s actually a walnut – swimming in gravy. No wait, it’s cream.
Niklas was catching Parabolic Hyperflies while writing this article.