VIENNALE 2008 capsules (5/7):’Los Angeles – A City on Film’, incl.’Gone In 60 Seconds’ (1974) [8/10]

Published on: November 10th, 2008

Cisco Pike. Thuddingly blatant attempt to (A) cash in on the post-Easy Rider appetite for drug-themed, anti-establishment fare and (B) make a 'countercultural' movie star out of folk-singer Kris Kristofferson. It fails on the first front partly thanks to the wispy, contrived 'plot' (moody folk-singer-cum-drug-dealer's attempts to go straight are stymied by the machinations of a corrupt cop) and partly thanks to Kristofferson's rather glaring limitations. His lack of acting experience is cruelly exposed in his scenes alongside pros likes Gene Hackman (cop), Karen Black (our hero's hippy-dippy girlfriend), Antonio Fargas and movie-stealingly droll Warhol-protege 'Viva', all of whom are frustratingly underused.

City of Fear.
Companion-piece to Murder By Contract (below) is a more conventional drama, making less use of leading-man Vince Edwards (an intriguingly smarmy/macho missing link between Victor Mature and Mark Ruffalo.) This time he's a desperate San Quentin escapee who heads to Los Angeles with a canister he believes contains mega-valuable pure heroin – but which actually conceals an improbably deadly radioactive substance. Picture resembles Kiss Me Deadly in its combination of noir-thriller and atom-age paranoia, and location-sequences provide a fascinating panoramic tour of the sprawling metropolis. A succession of talky indoor scenes, however, bog down the pacing and near-fatally sap suspense-levels.

Crime Wave. Gritty policier is an unusually convincing peek into Los Angeles' mid-50s underworld. Three tough-nut prison escapees (including an improbably youthful Charles 'Buchinsky' Bronson as a leather-jacketed lout) hit Los Angeles, imperilling the straight-arrow life-style of nice-guy ex-con Gene Nelson – who's got broodingly cynical cop Sterling Hayden on his case. The story is a handy pretext to explore various atmospheric night-town locales, while the dialogue is vivid hard-boil with a few dashes of quirk.  Hayden, great value, lands just the right side of ham – with Jay Novello (drink-sodden animal-doctor) and Timothy Carey (scary-weirdo crim) effortlessly attention-grabbing on the sidelines.

Gone in 60 Seconds. One-of-a-kind action-comedy takes absolutely forever to get going – the early and middle stretches laboriously set up some kind of insanely elaborate car-theft plot via impenetrable, incomprehensible exposition, stiff performances, vile costumes/wigs, and oddly 'narrated' visuals. But then proceedings suddenly click into gear for a breathtakingly kinetic, exhilaratingly exhausting final half-hour: essentially one long, long, long, long cops-v-criminal demolition-derby car-chase. Thrills and hilarity come breathlessly thick and escalatingly fast in this poundingly entertaining triumph for  writer/director/star H B Halicki (who plays 'Maindrian [sic] Pace') and his editor Warner E Leighton – who learned his trade, appropriately enough, on The Flintstones.

Hollywood Boulevard. Rather like its has-been protagonist, this creaky Movieland satire hasn't aged particularly well – then again, even 1937's audiences would probably have identified deficiencies in numerous departments. Early focus on down-on-his-luck former matinee-idol (John Halliday, looking much older than his 57 years) promises a droll, more comic precursor of Sunset Blvd. – but then attention unprofitably wanders to the dullsville, hokey romance between the ex-star's daughter and a dashing young poet with screenwriting aspirations (Robert Cummings, tiresomely OTT throughout.) Even worse is a third-act shift into twisty melodrama – via a blackmail angle that's developed in off-puttingly clunky fashion. Disappointing.

Murder By Contract. Pleasingly offbeat, economic post-noir in which we follow the career of a taciturn, self-absorbed, hyper-professional hitman (Vince Edwards – see companion-piece City of Fear above) through his first Manhattan jobs and then cross-country to Los Angeles – where this insouciantly strutting bantam faces his toughest assignment. Reminiscent of Collateral, The Third Man and Point Blank at various junctures, but has its own divertingly distinctive flavour thanks to a judicious combination of thriller and deadpan-comic elements (the jauntily twangling/ambling guitar-score tips the balance towards the latter end of the spectrum.) Edwards, meanwhile, is a consistent delight as the icily self-contained killer.

Pit Stop. "This machinery owns us!" exclaims mechanic Ellen McLeod (E.Burstyn, billed as Ellen McRae) – and one gets the impression that no-one in this car-obsessed rough gem would have it otherwise. Certainly not cocky street-racer Rick (slowburning 'Dick' Davalos), whom scheming track-owner Willard (line-slurring Brian Donlevy) reckons might be just the chap to take over from maniacal, cackling Hawk (Sid Haig, an alarmingly uninhibited physical performance) as star of his smash-em-up figure-8 circuit. Like most of the autos on view, this is a modified kind of vehicle – atmospheric authenticity plus eccentricity-studded artifice – but the ride proves more than worthwhile.

The Savage Eye. Weird little psychological travelogue – a bit like Carnival of Souls without the ghosts – would work infinitely better a silent movie. This would enable us to pay full attention to the wonderful array of Los Angeles locales, mostly decidedly off-the-beaten-track, visited by our confused heroine – divorcee 'Judith X' (Barbara Baxley), fumbling towards self-realisation – without being constantly distracted by the poetic/philosophical drivel on the soundtrack. This consists of a sophomoric interior-monologue between Judith and a male presence whom the credits identify as 'The Poet' (Gary Merrill) but who'd be more accurately described as 'Verbose Spouter Of Pretentious Doggerel.'

Neil Young
9th November, 2008

CISCO PIKE : [3/10] : USA 1972 : B L ("Bill") NORTON : 94m F, 24.10
CITY OF FEAR : [6/10] : USA 1959 : Irving LERNER : 81m F, 22.10
CRIME WAVE : [7/10] : USA 1954 : Andre DE TOTH : 74m F, 27.10
GONE IN 60 SECONDS : [8/10] : USA 1974 : H.B.HALICKI : 97m F, 27.10
HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD : [4/10] : USA 1937 : Robert FLOREY : 75m F, 24.10
MURDER BY CONTRACT : [7/10] : USA 1958 : Irving LERNER : 79m F, 22.10
PIT STOP : [7/10] : aka The Winner : USA 1969 : Jack HILL : 92m F, 26.10
THE SAVAGE EYE : [6/10] : USA 1960 : Ben MADDOW, Sidney MEYERS, Joseph STRICK : 66m F, 24.10

VIENNALE 2008 index-page