Think of good movies as being part of your education. That’s how I look at cinematic art.
One of the joys of the cinematic experience is stumbling on some forgotten gem that may have unfairly tarnished with bad reviews. Good movies can catch us on a bad day, and vice versa. I’m a fan of old-school, dark noir films, and I thought readers would want to hear of a couple suggestions that are worth their while.
If you find yourself saying, “There just aren’t that many good movies out there now,” I’d recommend you check these two out.
Cutter’s Way (1981)
Director: Ivan Passer
Cast: John Heard, Jeff Bridges, Lisa Eichhorn
No one has heard of this tense and unsettling study of obsession, self-destruction, and class distinctions. When it was first released in 1981, the studio chose the remarkably inept title Cutter and Bone, and (unsurprisingly) people thought it was a comedy about surgeons.
Bad marketing didn’t help things. To add insult to injury, the studio inexplicably (United Artists) spent only about $60,000 on promotion before the film’s release in New York City. Even in those days, this was a paltry sum.
As a result, critics got the impression that the studio lacked confidence in the movie. Their reviews reflected this, and were almost uniformly bad. Sometimes critics just like to torpedo a movie, for the fun of it. But it’s amazing what a few decades can do. This is a great film. It’s dark vision of humanity matches the mood of our own times much better than the world in 1981. It has, as one might say, come of age.
The plot: Cutter (John Heard) is an alcoholic, crippled Vietnam vet who believes he has witnessed a crime. His suspect is a rich, yacht-owning party boy named Bone (Jeff Bridges). The pair also happen to be friends.
The film is awash in ambiguity, and this is one of its strengths. Cutter’s wife may be having an affair with Bone; Bone may in fact be a criminal; and Cutter may be clinically insane, a man with a death wish. We are just not quite sure. Everyone uses words to conceal his true feelings, and everyone is nursing some hidden agenda.
But Cutter’s rage is real, and it escalates with coordinated precision: this is a masterpiece of sustained tension. At the same time, these characters are not just cardboard cut-outs: they are believable, and their struggles resonate with us. Cutter is on a downward spiral, and knows it. Everyone around him seems to know it as well, and yet no one really does anything. This has the ring of truth: in real life, we often just go with the flow, and the consequences can be deadly.
This being a noir film, we know it can hardly end well. Paranoia, delusion, and repressed rage make for a toxic mix, and this is a masterful study of the dark corners of a wounded psyche.
Night Moves (1975)
Director: Arthur Penn
Cast: Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Melanie Griffith, James Woods
The 1970s were a golden age for American film. Gene Hackman came into his own with The French Connection and The Conversation, and continued his winning streak with this dark little detective story.
Has there ever been a better film noir set-up than the detective story? The hapless investigator who is lied to, and sent off on a quest that ends in the darkest of revelations? This is classic noir, but told with a 1970s twist. We know the detective formula, but we still can’t resist watching.
The Plot: An obnoxious former football player (Gene Hackman) becomes a private detective. He is plunged into a murder mystery whose outlines are fuzzy and whose characters are all bottom feeders.
Hackman, of course, plays a flawed character driven by his own inner demons. In his case, he has an explosive temper, likely compounded by frustrations at having had to quit his athletic career. He seems to hate everyone and everything; this, of course, just makes things worse. Hackman is best at playing characters with volcanic temperaments, and this makes him perfect for this role.
And herein we have one of the classic noir motifs: a wounded protagonist unable to connect with the world, driven by internal demons, and hurtling towards ruin. He knows he has issues, but lacks either the will or the capability to reach out to others for help. This is why noir resonates so well in today’s environment: it is the perfect way to express the modern man’s frustration, confusion, and alienation.
Hackman is on a quest to find a runaway daughter (a very young Melanie Griffith in her prime). Hackman may, or may not, be a voyeur; but he seems to spend a lot of time chasing down his father and spying on his ex-wife. James Woods also appears in one of his first film roles.
As often happens in private eye noir films, the plot is just an excuse to probe the psychological motivations of the characters. And that is what we get here. As in Cutter’s Way, dialogue does not so much reveal intentions as it does conceal them.
The ending is, in many ways, far ahead of its time. It anticipates the empty futility of the 1980s and 1990s, and strikes the viewer as far more intellectually honest than most of the overly optimistic films of the era.
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