Dark City (1998)

I stumbled into the late-90s sci-fi curio Dark City with the best contextual background info possible: none. I picked up a used DVD copy of its Director’s Cut from a cat-rescue thrift store in Metairie, knowing only that it’s a divisive work from a director I don’t typically care for: Alex Proyas (Gods of Egypt, The Crow). I didn’t even know what decade the film was initially released in, assuming that it must have arrived at least five years later than it had – if not twice that. In retrospect, it was incredibly rude of this shameless decade-late Matrix rip-off to arrive a year before The Matrix, further confusing my understanding of what I had watched. Dark City is an infinitely faceted mystery. It initially establishes the mystery of what’s even happening in its futurist-noir plot, something that doesn’t become fully apparent until a third of the way into its runtime. Once its worldbuilding cards are all on the table, the questions only snowball: How is this much parallel thinking with other sci-fi works of its era even possible? Is it a masterful work of speculative fiction or just a fascinating mess? How did Proyas, of all people, stumble into creating something so worthy of continued personal interpretation & debatr? These mysteries are best experienced in a contextual vacuum, a self-discovery blind-watch. In other words, you should not be reading this review if you haven’t already seen the film for yourself.

Oddly, the audiences least equipped to see Dark City with the necessary blank slate were the people who caught it during its initial theatrical run back in 1998. At producers’ insistence, the initial theatrical cut of the film opened with a narration track that spoiled the central mystery of its sci-fi premise – dumping key information that’s carefully trickled out in the Director’s Cut with one intense flood. I’m genuinely glad I waited the twenty years necessary for the film to find me in the wild, rather than jumping on it in a time when it was less special and, apparently, self-spoiled. Whereas Dark City feels like a bizarro anomaly in retrospect, it was a victim of a crowded field of parallel-thinkers in the late-90s. Remarkably similar titles like eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, and The Matrix (a movie that, like Dark City, was curiously an American-Australian co-production) were all released within a year of Proyas’s curio. It’s tempting to blame Dark City‘s financial failures on New Line Cinema’s decision to open it on the same weekend as James Cameron’s cultural behemoth The Titanic, but the truth is that only one of these films succeeded in their time, regardless of their opening-weekend competition. Contemporary audiences seemingly only had the capacity to love one simulated-reality sci-fi spectacle in that era, allowing the test of time to sort out the rest to varying results – eXistenZ rules as a video game era update to Videodrome; The Thirteenth Floor is a “You Had to Be There” snoozer; and Dark City is a confounding headscratcher that’s equal parts glaringly Flawed and mesmerizingly Ambitious.

If you haven’t guessed by all this repetitive Matrix referencing, this is a science-fiction film about simulated reality. Whereas the Wachowskis approached that topic through a cyberpunk lens, however, Proyas dialed the genre clock back to 1940s noir. The titular Dark City looks like a physical recreation of Gotham City as it appears in Batman: The Animated Series. Only, the towering metropolis shifts & reconfigures like a malfunctioning Rubik’s Cube, controlled by an unseen force that only reveals itself to the audience once they lose control of the game. The characters shift around just as easily as the buildings. That’s because an alien race known only as The Strangers have abducted an entire city-sized population of human beings and quarantined them in a human-scale rat maze, a closed-off city with no exits. Their experiments on human behavior are hinged on nightly resets where The Strangers transplant memories from one human test subject to another, reassigning different personalities & roles to arbitrarily selected specimens as if they were a rotating theatre company cast instead of “real” people. The goal of the experiment appears to be settling the Nature vs. Nurture debate, determining whether a person’s life path is defined by their lived experiences or their set-in-stone soul. The undoing of the rat maze simulation is very similar to the one in The Matrix: one of the rats gains the seemingly magic ability to alter the physical environment that contains him, becoming just as powerful as his captors, if not more so. We watch a confused protagonist start off as a Hitchcockian archetype who’s wrongly accused of murder discover an even greater mystery in the effort to clear his name: Nothing is real.

Since it understandably takes a while for this high-concept premise to fully reveal itself (at least in its narration-free Director’s Cut), Dark City‘s strongest asset is its creepy mood. Not only does it borrow the late-hour, back-alley atmosphere from the noir genre, it pushes that stylistic influence to the point where the only sunlight depicted onscreen is in billboard advertisements. Characters half-remember sunlight being A Thing, just like they remember trains that actually leave the city and childhoods that were entirely fabricated by The Strangers. Watching them grapple with the slow realization that everything they see & know is Fake is genuinely disturbing, no matter how many times that theme was echoed in similar contemporary works. It helps that The Strangers themselves make for deeply creepy foes, chattering their teeth when agitated and dressing up like Nosferatu G-Men. Those alien super-creeps are maybe the only truly idiosyncratic element at play visually, as the film blatantly borrows a lot of influence from the production design of preceding works like Brazil & City of Lost Children. Dark City mostly distinguishes itself in how its familiar noir archetype characters and retro-futurist cityscapes shift around—both physically and spiritually—into chaotic, unstable configurations. It’s a continuous sensation of having the rug pulled from under you as you attempt to get a sturdy footing in established, solid reality. That sensation has its thematic justifications rooted in an Early Internet era when online personae & communication were starting to supplant The Real Thing, which might explain why so many of these simulated-reality sci-fi pictures all arrived in the same year. More importantly, it’s effectively creepy, at least enough so to carry you through the mystery of its plot.

Unfortunately, I can’t quite match the enthusiasm of Dark City‘s most emphatic defenders (most significantly Roger Ebert, who repeatedly declared the flop his favorite film of 1998). Besides suffering the same Macho misinterpretation of noir that most of the genre’s throwbacks perpetrate (sidelining Jennifer Connelly of all people and mostly casting women as half-naked prostitute corpses), the movie also makes a major mistake in how it unravels the rat-maze experiment of its premise. I don’t know that I needed a fatalistic worldview where there’s no escape from The Strangers’ wicked manipulations of their victims’ memories, but that option certainly would have fit the mood of the piece better than transforming its running-from-the-law protagonist into a Chosen One superhero archetype. The more our amnesiac anti-hero uses his newfound superpowers to bend his rat-maze surroundings to his will (materializing doorways in brick walls, shaping the geography of the buildings to his convenience, fighting off The Strangers with his Professor X mind powers, etc.), the more they deflate the film’s creepy mood. It doesn’t at all help that Dark City accurately predicted the very worst impulses of the 2000s-2010s superhero blockbuster in its abrupt climactic battle, where our hero squares off against the top Stranger in mind-powers combat while the city crumbles around them in shoddy CGI. This genre shift from atmospheric noir to superhero spectacle isn’t a total mood-killer, but it does fall just short of “It was all a dream” in the least interesting paths the movie could have chosen. At least, that’s how it feels watching this after a solid decade of MCU dominance over mainstream culture.

The benefit of watching Dark City for the first time all these years later is that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be interesting or worthwhile. Its need to compete with contemporary triumphs like The Matrix or eXistenZ continues to fade with time, even if its year-early arrival before those sci-fi classics remains a mysterious curiosity. I found the movie glaringly flawed & confounding from start to end, and yet I’m increasingly fond of it the more I puzzle at it. It’s a deeply strange, beautifully hideous film that’s totally dislodged from its place in time.

-Brandon Ledet

A Return to Panic in the Streets (1950) in the Time of COVID-19

Last Spring, Shotgun Cinema projected the 1950 health-epidemic noir Panic in the Streets large & loud for a free screening at the Marigny Opera House, as part of that season’s Science on Screen series. As a shot-on-location noir set in New Orleans and an Elia Kazan-directed procedural drama, Panic in the Streets proved to be a solid genre entry, but not much more. As a historical act of local people-watching, however, it carried a lot of clout as something exceptional, and I was glad to have shared that experience with a live, local community. There was a warm, electric feeling in that room as the movie offered a time-machine vision of our city’s past in an entertaining genre film package.

Once the movie concluded, however, the crowd gradually disbanded before the screening was officially over. The Science on Screen series included a post-film lecture and Q&A with specialists on each particular movie’s topic, and as that night’s guest scientist began their spiel the once-enraptured crowd gradually trailed off into the night one at a time, out of apparent collective disinterest. In retrospect, we all should have stayed & listened to that lecture. Hell, we all should have been taking notes. Panic in the Streets is specifically about a plague spreading through the streets of New Orleans, where current new case rates for COVID-19 are exceptionally high, and the lecture was about how epidemics of that nature tend to spread through communities like ours. We had all gathered that night to marvel at a vision of our city’s distant past, but we were also unknowingly looking into our not-too-distant future.

Usually, when a Hollywood production is shot on-location in New Orleans, the expectation is that the audience will be doing some tourist sightseeing. 80s & 90s thrillers like The Big Easy & Hard Target were especially shameless about this, setting scenes in conspicuous tourist spots like Tipitina’s, Mardi Gras parade float warehouses, and Bourbon Street strip joints for easy, sleazy atmosphere as they drunkenly stumbled around the city. Panic in the Streets aimed for an entirely different kind of local seasoning. Directed by Kazan shortly before he fired off major hits like A Streetcar Named Desire & On the Waterfront, Panic in the Streets was something of an experiment & a gamble for the Studio Era way of doing things. The prospect of exporting productions to shoot entirely on-location in far-off cities wasn’t business as usual yet, which might explain why Kazan didn’t think to make use of the New Orleans locale in the now-traditional ways of visiting famous clubs, capturing Mardi Gras crowds, or just generally making a big deal about the environment where the action is staged. There are a few familiar shots of French Quarter exteriors (that haven’t changed at all in the last 70 years) and the film eventually concludes in a shipping dock warehouse setting that feels unique to its chosen location, but most of its drama is confined to the city’s interior spaces, which are familiar but not entirely unique.

The novelty of shooting a Studio Era film entirely on-location did lead to a different, less frequently travelled path to local authenticity, though. Over 80% of the hired cast & crew for Panic in the Streets were local to New Orleans, which is still an unusual way of doing things by big-budget Hollywood standards, even with all the productions that film down here for the tax credits. It may not do much to document what the city itself looked like in the 1950s, but the film offers something a little more precious instead: documentation of and collaboration with the city’s people. The local cast & crew sported neither the thick Y’at nor Cajun accents typical to Hollywood productions set here and it was nice to hear a movie character pronounce “New Orleans” correctly on the big screen (a rarer occurrence than you might expect). Even without that local connotation, though, there’s just a natural authenticity to the movie that arises from casting real-life characters in a majority of the roles, so that very few faces on the screen are the pristine, homogenous brand of Hollywood Beauty we’re used to seeing at the movies.

Outside its context as a New Orleans peoplewatching time capsule, Panic in the Streets is a fairly standard noir. Its central hook promises something novel beyond the standard antihero lawmen vs. wise guy criminals dynamic that usually defines the genre, but the film ultimately still adheres to those tropes. NOPD detectives and representatives from the federal US Public Health Service reluctantly team up to track down a murderer who is now patient zero in a potential city-wide epidemic of the pneumonic plague, thanks to a comprised victim. This unusual medical angle to the crime thriller drama does allow for some distinctive detail unusual to the genre: scientific jargon about “anti-plague serums,” wry humor about tough-guy cops who are afraid of taking their inoculation shots, an excuse to burn all the evidence with the infected-and-murdered man’s body just to make the mystery killer’s identity tougher to crack, etc. Mostly, the plague angle is merely used to build tension by giving local cops & federal officials a tight 48-hour window to catch their killer before his contagions become a city-wide threat.

There are some conflicts built around “college men” health officials and blue-collar detectives flaunting their authority in the investigation, but those confrontations mostly amount to angry macho men yelling about Jurisdiction at top volume, which feels standard to most cop thrillers. The rest of Panic in the Streets is a faithful amalgamation of classic noir tropes: post-German Expressionist lighting, witty retorts muttered under hard-drinking cops’ breath, a villain who looks like he was plucked from a Dick Tracy lineup, more sewer-grate steam that New Orleans has ever seen, and so on. Anyone with a built-in appreciation for noir as a genre won’t need much more than the plague outbreak premise and the New Orleans locale for the film to be of interest, but it still doesn’t go very far out of its way to distinguish itself beyond those novelties – especially considering the prestige Elia Kazan represents behind the camera.

At the time of last year’s screening, I thought of Panic in the Streets as a curio that would only be of interest to locals, but I’ve seen a huge increase in outside audience’s interest surrounding it in recent weeks. Of course, most of the film’s draw all these months later has nothing to do with its ability to satisfy noir genre beats nor its value as vintage New Orleans tourism. In the time of COVID-19, many audiences are scrambling to uncover older film titles that explore the horrors & social mechanics of large-scale health epidemics. If the goal of these coronavirus-inspired excursions into plague cinema past is to cathartically indulge in the scariest possible fallout scenarios of our current global health crisis, you’re probably better off watching a modern thriller like Contagion or Outbreak instead. If anything, Panic in the Streets’s depiction of a citywide viral contamination is almost reassuringly quaint compared to our current circumstances. Containing the epidemic is just as simple as catching a few low-level criminals who’ve been passing it around among themselves, which is antithetical to how we understand the seemingly uncontainable, exponential spread of contamination that’s playing out in charts & graphs on the news this very minute.

Speaking even as someone in New Orleans (where new case rates for COVID-19 are exceptionally high thanks to massive Mardi Gras gatherings’ ominous presence in the not-too-distant rearview) who recently watched it in a crowded room, this movie is a comforting vision of an easily conquerable epidemic. I very much wish our current real-world crisis could be boiled down to just a few no-good scoundrels who need to be cornered at the Mississippi River docks. There’s a comfort to that simplicity. Instead, we’re in a much more complex mess of irresponsible disinformation campaigns, economic exploitation, and the deaths of our communities’ most vulnerable comrades – one where there cannot be a clear, decisive victory over the enemy when this is all “over.” A few dozen movie nerds remaining in their seats for the full lecture after that Shotgun Cinema screening wouldn’t have been enough to prevent these current helltimes, but it couldn’t have hurt for us to enter them better informed.

-Brandon Ledet

Mr Klein (1976)

It sometimes feels as if the canon of Cinematic Classics has already been set in stone, as if there’s no major discoveries left to be found that haven’t already been exulted by cultural institutions like The Criterion Collection or The Sight & Sound Top 100 list. That’s why restorations of forgotten, discarded gems like Mr. Klein are so vital to modern cinephilia, keeping the hope alive for decades-delayed discoveries. Directed by HUAC-backlisted American ex-pat Joseph Losey in the grim, grimy days of the 1970s, Mr. Klein has been shoddily distributed in the decades since, to the point where it’s been effectively backlisted itself. Maybe some of its initial critical reluctance in France was due to its American filmmaker going exceptionally hard on targeting French authorities for cooperating with Nazis while under German occupation (still a fresh wound at the time of its initial release). Maybe the film was simply just considered not particularly great, just another vanity project for its tabloid-friendly leading man Alain Delon in the titular role; maybe its exceptional qualities only became apparent with time & distance away from Delon’s peak star wattage. Whatever the case, it’s a great work that deserves great respect, the exact kind of discarded gem that self-serious film nerds cream their jeans over when it’s rescued for the digital restoration treatment. Rialto Films isn’t only keeping Mr. Klein alive with this restoration; they’re also keeping alive the thrill of the hunt.

Delon stars as an unscrupulous art dealer who makes a fortune off the Holocaust’s slow intrusion into German-occupied France. As doomed Jewish citizens seek the road money necessary to escape Nazi rule, Mr. Klein lowballs them on the worth of their precious art collections, profiting off their terror. This unseemly business is disrupted when Klein is mistaken by French authorities to be Jewish himself, as he shares a name with a much less wealthy French citizen who’s on the path to be exported to a German concentration camp. Arrogantly convinced that his wealth & public stature will protect him, Klein decides to address this mix-up through official, administrative channels instead of fleeing France himself. His delusions that he can remain uninvolved in the plight of French Jews makes him more involved than ever. As he falls down a Kafkaesque bureaucracy rabbit hole in an attempt to clear his name, he effectively become both a Nazi and a Jew himself: hunting down the “real” Robert Klein to bring them to “justice” and being treated like a lousy criminal by the Nazi-complying French authorities because of an arbitrary criterion beyond his control. It’s clear from the start where the story is headed, as the movie largely functions as a Twilight Zone-style morality tale, but the point is less in the surprise of the plot than it is in the ugly depths of Klein’s authoritarian, self-serving character. This is a damn angry film about the evils of Political Apathy, and a damn great one.

Where Mr. Klein might frustrate some plot-obsessed viewers is in its predictability, it more than makes up for it in eerie mood. Its Kafkaesque bureaucracy nightmare and fits of uncanny horror almost suggest that Klein’s plight will tip into supernatural fantasy at any moment, as if he has a genuine doppelgänger roaming the streets of Paris in wait of a violent showdown. Mostly, though, the film operates like a grimy 1970s throwback to the heyday of noir. Klein’s late-night investigations of shadowy figures, dangerous dames, and widespread political corruption recall a wide range of classic noir tropes, right down the trench coat & fedora of his costuming. By the very first scene, he already tips the archetype of the noir anti-hero into full-fledged villainy, as he’s introduced fleecing a devastated Jewish man while dressed in an obnoxious silk bathrobe in his luxurious apartment. His villainy only worsens as he pursues the “real” Robert Klein instead of fleeing France himself, something he’s easily equipped to do. What’s his ideal success story here? That he clears his own name by condemning a Jewish man to death in a concentration camp? Klein is convinced the French authorities will clear his name through proper channels in time, yet he only becomes guiltier in the eyes of the audience and in the eyes of the Nazis the more he fights his designation as a Jewish citizen. Like all great Twilight Zone plots, it’s the story of a morally defunct man getting his cosmically just deserts, with plenty of uncanny chills along the way. It just happens to be dressed up more like a spooky noir film than an outright horror.

I hope that this restoration of Mr. Klein rescues it from its relative obscurity to present it as one of the era’s great works. If nothing else, there are isolated images from the film that continue to haunt me the way all Great Cinema does: a Nazi phrenology exam, a mansion left empty by pilfered artwork, the world’s most horrific drag brunch, etc. Whether that critical reappraisal is imminent or not, just the chance to see it projected on the big screen with a totally unprepared audience at this year’s New Orleans French Film Festival was enough of a wonder to justify Rialto Films’s restoration of this forgotten gem. Our modern-day audience was thrilled, chilled, and traumatized by the experience, which is just as validating as a proper entry in the Great Cinema canon.

-Brandon Ledet

Mildred Pierce (1945)

After the William Castle psychobiddy Strait-Jacket, Mildred Piece is the second five-star, all-timer Joan Crawford film I fell in love with last year that starts with a violent murder. Unlike the late-career hagsploitation camp fest where Crawford maniacally wields an axe, however, Mildred Pierce is a much classier affair. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1946—including Best Picture—and won Ms. Crawford her own first Oscar statue for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Even its opening murder is much classier: an elegantly staged shooting with a revolver at an upscale beach house, adorned with impossibly tall ceilings & drastic noir lighting. Still, even with all the Old Hollywood elegance classing up the joint, Mildred Pierce manages to land some perfectly outrageous fits of drama & dialogue that outshine even the over-the-top fervor of her post-Baby Jane psychobiddies. That combination of the refined & the obscene is exactly what makes it such a joy – an exquisite clash of violence & melodrama.

Crawford stars as the titular Mildred Piece (duh), a wealthy woman being interrogated by the police for the murder of her husband – a crime to which her ex-husband has already confessed. We cut from this noir frame story to Mildred’s past as a proto-June Cleaver housewife, dutifully keeping house & selling home-baked pies on the side to keep her family’s finances afloat. As to be expected, all the men in Mildred’s life are scoundrels & jerks: the adulterous first husband who leaves her for another woman, the family “friend” who constantly tries to talk her into bed, the new husband who exploits her go-getter work ethic for frivolities & play money, etc. What really distinguishes this melodrama, however, is that none of these selfish brutes emerge as the movie’s central villain. That dishonor belongs to a young girl, Mildred’s own brat of a daughter. The movie (and its source material novel) could have totally still been worthwhile if it had chosen any one of Mildred’s beaus to stand out as her ultimate nemesis; it can never be reinforced enough that men are awful. Opting to pit Mildred against her own daughter instead makes for a much more distinct, idiosyncratic experience, however, a memorably outrageous source of conflict.

Veda Pierce (played with expert icy cruelty by a young Anne Blythe) rivals The Bad Seed‘s Rhoda Penmark as cinema’s greatest brat. Imagine a child so spoiled that their self-serving greed has its own body count. While Mildred claws her way up from neighborhood pie saleswoman to diner waitress to Lady Boss restauranteur, her efforts are entirely focused on raising her kids above her financial means. Still, Veda’s wealth envy knows no bounds. Like the murderous fop of Kind Hearts & Coronets, she’s bitter that she wasn’t born into the immense inherited wealth of royalty, and she’s ruthless in manipulating her way to achieving as close to that ideal as possible – often at the expense of her mother’s labor & health. The resulting clashes between Mildred & Veda are some of the most outrageously violent battles to ever reach the screen, even though instead of bullets & punches they trade cruel insults like “common frump,” “It’s your fault I’m the way I am,” and complaints about the stench of fried chicken grease. It’s just as much an Oscars-caliber showcase as it is soaringly over-the-top melodrama – a pure pleasure to behold.

There are plenty of other, smaller pleasures to soak in throughout Mildred Pierce: the comic relief of Mildred’s coded-lesbian business partner; the German Expressionist maximalism of the noir set pieces’ lighting & production design; Mildred’s costuming’s transformation from housewife drag to a pile of jewels & furs, etc. Yet, the main draw of the film is clearly the outrageous conflict of its central mother-daughter rivalry. The movie touches on themes of class envy & financial desperation, but at its core it’s just as much a horror film about mothering a seemingly evil child you don’t even like as recent titles like Goodnight Mommy, The Babadook, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. If Mildred were entirely focused on the bullying & exploitation of the various shithead men in her life or if the murder mystery investigation were the sole source of intrigue, this would still be a solid Old Hollywood relic (even if a pedestrian one). By focusing on a viciously cruel mother-daughter rivalry instead, it stands out as one of the all-time greats, yet another masterwork from Ms. Crawford’s immense catalog of troubled, fierce women butting heads with their equally ambitious nemeses.

-Brandon Ledet

New Orleans Uncensored (1955)

The Prytania has been running an unofficial William Castle retrospective over the past few months as part of their ongoing Classic Movies series. That programming choice made a lot of sense around October, when Castle’s iconically kitschy team-ups with Vincent Price – The Tingler, The House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, etc. – where a perfect celebratory lead-up to Halloween. One Castle title just before that run stood out like a sore thumb, though, as it predated his infamous theatrical horror gimmicks and instead fell into a genre Castle isn’t often associated with. New Orleans Uncensored is a cheap-o, locally shot noir about corrupt shipping dock workers, much more in tune with films like Panic in the Streets than anything resembling the Percepto! or Emergo! horror gimmickry that later made Castle a legend. The director does find stray chances to exhibit his eye for striking, attention-grabbing imagery throughout the film, but for the most part his presence is overpowered by New Orleans itself, making the film more of a worthwhile curio for locals than it is for Castle fanatics.

Originally titled Riot on Pier 6, this film mostly concerns the organized crime rackets that had quietly, gradually overtaken hold of the second largest port in the U.S. Amazingly, it frames the suggestion that New Orleans government & business might be susceptible to corruption as a total shock; sixty years later it’s as obvious of a fact as the sky being blue. The docks themselves are portrayed as gruff working-class playpens where fistfights often break out en mass to the point where workers are recruited for professional boxing careers and assigned nicknames like “Scrappy.” This wild, bully-overrun schoolyard is controlled from behind the scenes by a few Dick Tracy-level mobster archetypes who tend to fire bullets instead of throwing punches, the cowards. We watch a naïve outsider who hopes to start his own legit shipping business at the docks get seduced by the power & convenience the existing mafia structure offers him instead; he then eventually helps the fine folks at the NOPD take those criminals down once he realizes the full scope of their corruption & violence. It’s all very surface-level, familiar noir territory.

The one distinguishing element of New Orleans Uncensored is the visual spectacle of its locale – a 1950s New Orleans backdrop that looks almost exactly the same half a century later. Whereas Panic in the Streets was a document of local faces & personalities, Castle’s film is actively interested in documenting the physical locations of the city like an excited sight-seeing tourist. Panic in the Streets was mostly contained at the shipping docks and backrooms that concerned its plot, while New Orleans Uncensored goes out of its way to capture as many of the city’s cultural hotspots as possible: Pontchartain Beach, The Court of Two Sisters, Jackson Square, French Quarter nightclubs, Canal Street float parades, etc. In one particularly egregious indulgence in sight-seeing, a couple shares a nightcap beignet at Café du Monde, claiming the ritual is “a traditional New Orleans way of saying goodnight.” It’s practically a tourism board television ad. Of course, as the title suggest, the appeal of this local sightseeing to outsiders is the city’s national reputation for sin & debauchery. The film’s plot about corrupt shipping dock companies getting their due punishment for their transgressions against social order is mostly an excuse for displaying as much sex, drunkenness, and Cajun-flavored merriment as the Hays Code would allow. That becomes a major problem in the snooze of third act when the tourism is sidelined to resolve the much less engaging mafia plot, but it’s fun while the good times last.

There isn’t much room for William Castle to show off this unique touch for attention-grabbing gimmickry & cheap-o surrealism while ogling “The Mistress of The Mississippi.” Outside an opening credits graphic where a disembodied hand stamps the word “UNCENSORED” on a map of the city and a drunken montage depicting an all-nighter of a couple partying until dawn in French Quarter nightclubs, Castle is fairly well behaved in his visual stylings. The closest the film comes to touching on his iconic gimmickry is the way the movie is presented as if it were a documentary instead of a fictional drama – bolstered by stock footage & news reel voiceover. However, that choice often reads as an Ed Woodian means of cutting financial corners more than some deliberate artistic vision. If anything, the movie does function as a genuine documentary, as its sightseeing record of a 1950s New Orleans is far more valuable & purposeful than its criminal conspiracy drama or its William Castle visual play. The history & personality of the city is far more pronounced than Castle’s here, and if the movie maintains any value as a cinematic artifact it’s in that local tourism.

-Brandon Ledet

Under the Silver Lake (2019)

The very first line of spoken dialogue in Under the Silver Lake is a verbal reference to Turner Classic Movies. Every character’s shithole Los Angeles apartment in the film is lined with Old Hollywood movie posters. The score (from the director’s return collaborator Disasterpeice) is an oppressive Studio Era composition that swells & overwhelms the soundtrack in playful nostalgia. A pivotal scene in the protagonist’s amateur investigation of Hollywood’s seedy underbelly is staged at the foot of Hitchcock’s grave. This is a movie that very much wants to be understood as a prankish, tongue-in-cheek throwback to noir thrillers of ancient Old Hollywood past. The problem is that all that influence signaling is a flagrant misdirect. Under the Silver Lake plays much more like an echo of 1980s Brian De Palma oddities like Body Double & Blow Out than it does any Hitchcockian thriller it pretends to riff on. Since De Palma himself was already prankishly subverting Old Hollywood tropes, this continuation of that tradition is essentially a copy of a copy, twice removed from any detectable sense of purpose. It also suffers the misfortune of continuing De Palma’s leering heterosexual perversions into an era when they’re decades out of date, removed form any possible “It was a different time” excuses. Worse yet, it suffers the worst fate any film could ever stumble into: it’s a comedy that isn’t funny. Still, I found myself on the verge of enjoying it in nearly every scene, frustrated that I could never quite get there.

I was majorly disappointed by this film. It’s difficult to imagine there will be a bigger disappointment all year. The drop-off in quality between David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature It Follows (Swampflix’s favorite film of 2015) to this straight-to-VOD follow-up is about as steep as any I can remember from any director. And yet, if someone told me they saw a Southland Tales-level messterpeice in it I’d almost believe them. I don’t at all blame A24 for quietly dumping it into home-streaming distribution after purchasing it at the height of its festival-circuit buzz, but I can almost understand what its apologists see in it if I squint from the right angle. This is a twisty, farcical fantasy piece about a hipster LA loser (Andrew Garfield) who follows his own vanilla tits-and-ass prurience into a vast, impossible conspiracy network that secretly runs the entertainment industry (and, by extension, the world). Pop music cults, hobo royalty, serial dog murderers, and an ancient succubus assassin are major players in a vast, mysterious organization that the movie deliberately sets up to provide no possible satisfying answers. It’s a horned-up, surrealist, Madlibs-style approach to storytelling that I’d normally find majorly exciting, but in this case fails to entertain in two significant ways: its jokes are not funny, and it’s impossible to care about its fuckboy protagonist. Many people had issues with the logical & tonal inconsistencies of It Follows, but that film at last has a strong grasp on its sense of atmosphere & a main character whose wellbeing we’re actually invested in, whether positively or negatively (with the added bonus of using that POV for an identifiable thematic purpose). By contrast, Under the Silver Lake is just a sunshine-noir moodboard where things just kinda happen, until they don’t. It eats up two and a half hours of your time and then it’s over. You just move along with your day, case closed.

As with De Palma’s seedier works, the major question at the center of this titties-obsessed Madlibs mystery is how much its depiction of a mediocre man’s lurid, vanilla sexuality is a shameless participation and how much is open mockery. We spend the entire film looking through the eyes of a listless, cigarette-smoking slob who’s absolutely dogshit at having sex. He’s the kind of just-rolled-out-of-bed, low-effort hipster that makes you want to shout “Take a bath!” at the screen, yet when he actually does take a bath the result is entirely unsatisfying. That disgust is intentional, as everyone he encounters on his amateur sleuth trail makes a point to comment on his stench. This is a man who punches children, slags the homeless, and peeps on his undressed neighbors through his Hitchcock Brand™ binoculars. It’s doubtful that we’re supposed to think of him as an upstanding citizen. Still, the default-misogyny of his POV works its way into the film’s DNA. No woman’s breasts or buttcheeks will grace the screen without a proper close-up. Bikini-clad hotties bark like rabid dogs in go-nowhere nightmare sequences. Sex workers & actresses are both coveted & mocked for the supposed degradation of their trades. This is a movie that gets its kicks by indulging in the male gaze, then has a character verbalize the phrase “the male gaze” just so you know the exercise is self-aware. At least when De Palma indulged in the same self-aware prurience his own sexuality was mildly kinky & risqué. Under the Silver Lake’s sex drive is the microwaved leftovers of a mid-afternoon trip to Hooters; it’s the faux intellectual titties-fetish of a Playboy Magazine collector; it’s the inner sexual life of someone who still wears cargo shorts in the 2010s. It’s boring, it’s scared of women, and yet any commentary on the sexuality of American pop culture you can derive from what’s onscreen would be meeting this shapeless mess more than halfway.

For every pointless scene throughout this journey into Juggs Magazine mystique, I found myself genuinely straining to enjoy myself. There’s almost a Greasy Strangler quality to its repetition, awkwardness, and ham-fisted interpretation of genre where noir = window blinds & missing dames. I just wasn’t amused, or aroused, or intrigued in the ways the film wanted me to be, which ultimately made this feel like a lot of effort for zero payoff. Kudos to anyone who managed to have Southland Tales-style Messterpeice Theatre fun with it, because I’m truly jealous. The only line in the film that resonated with me in any significant way was “It’s silly to waste your time on something that doesn’t matter.” This move does not matter, and I feel very silly indeed.

-Brandon Ledet

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)

I’ll admit upfront that I was highly skeptical of the new “live-action” Pokémon movie when it was first announced. It’s not the Pokémon property itself that had me rolling my eyes. To the contrary, I was excited to see a CG Pikachu go on a seedy urban adventure in the real world, encountering a vast array of fellow pocket monsters along the way. It was the announcement of Ryan Reynolds’s casting as the voice of Pikachu that had me worried. Detective Pikachu is specifically adapted from a Pokémon videogame in which the electric-rodent yokai is voiced by a hard-boiled detective, finding humor in the contrast between his cutesy appearance and his tough-guy demeanor. Personally, I’d much rather see these same CG characters & world designs treated with a straight-forward, genuine sentient true to the series’ kawaii beginnings. Covering up those cutesy impulses with a joking, above-it-all snark from the most sarcastic wisecracker in the business seemed like preemptively apologizing for making a Pokémon movie in the first place, as if it were embarrassing that adults would want to see something so cute & nerdy without a smartass celebrity there to hold our hands and reassure us that it is Cool. Basically, I was afraid that Ryan Reynolds was going to transform Pikachu into Lil’ Deadpool.

I’m happy to report that Reynolds’s mood-ruining smartassery only distracted from Pikachu’s cuteness to a minimal degree. This is a movie where Pikachu makes sex jokes (including an alarming one about people nonconsensually sticking fingers inside of him), refers to strangers with pet names like “Sweetie” & “Doll,” and constantly pressures his human partner to flirt with women. I would have much rather had the electro-rat in question only say its own name in cutesy Pokémon tradition to the annoyance of a tough-guy human detective partner (as if its Who Framed Roger Rabbit? lineage couldn’t be any clearer), but you take what you can get. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a compromise for everyone who dares enter. No one who is disinterested in Pokémon’s inherent kawaii appeal is going to give the movie a short based on Ryan Reynold’s voice acting, nor based on the film’s Baby’s First Noir plot in which a young teen finds himself (and his missing father) in a futuristic Tokyo. Those inconveniences are just obligatory concessions to get a Pokémon movie greenlit by studio executives in the first place, so that the already-converted could all get a gander at our favorite pocket monsters on the big screen (and, in my case, in 3-D). I do think the concessions are worth the effort, though. No matter what you must put up with to get a look at them, the pokémon themselves remain very, very cute.

Detective Pikachu is pretty damn cute overall, but in every single frame where there weren’t any pokémon I was thinking “Where’s the pokémon?,” so I guess it could have been cuter. Squirtles, Psyducks, and Mr. Mimes (along with pokétypes I’ve forgotten the names of in the decades since I really enjoyed this stuff as a kid) all get their chance to shine alongside brand-ambassador Pikachu, but I greedily wanted more. The movie starts off in the deep end of pokélore with references to Mewtwo, the personality differences been fire & water types, and all kinds of other series-specific jargon that would confuse anyone outside A Certain Generation who grew up with this nonsense. It even eventually follows Pokémon movie tradition in claiming themes against the capture, subjugation, and battling of pokémon despite those morally bankrupt practices all being essential to series lore (to the point of referenced in its theme song). Still, it ultimately settles into a serviceable, but forgettable neon & synths noir that distracts from its higher purpose: parading as many cute-as-fuck pokémon across the screen as it can in under two hours. The absurdity of enlisting Ken Watanabe for its pokénoir proceedings was amusing, but I even would have traded that living legend for another few seconds of pokémon cuteness, preferably without Lil’ Deadpool’s incongruous horniness spoiling the mood.

-Brandon Ledet

Saboteur (1942)

If there’s anything I’ve learned from regularly attending the Classic Movies series at the historic Prytania Theatre on Sundays, it’s that even the “lesser” Hitchcock titles are not to be missed. After falling in love with the Marlene Dietrich sultriness of Stage Fright & the gorgeous Technicolor sex humor of To Catch a Thief, any & all Hitchcock titles have become appointment viewing — whether or not they match the iconic prestige of films like Psycho, Rear Window, or Strangers on a Train. The Prytania’s latest Hitchcock selection, Saboteur, was no exception to the rule. At first glance, Saboteur appears to be a noir thriller B-picture that’s only distinguishing detail is a co-writing credit from Dorothy Parker (who did a punch-up treatment on its dialogue). Only Alfred Hitchcock’s name in the “directed by” credit vouches for the film being anything more than that, but his is a name that consistently delivers. Even as much credit as Hitchcock gets for elevating genre filmmaking to the level of fine art, I’m beginning to question whether I’ve still been taking him for granted as one of the greatest directors of all time. He’s starting to cross the line from widely-praised cinematic icon to beloved personal favorite; the only question is why it took me so many years & just a few screenings of his “lesser” titles for me to get there.

In Saboteur, a couple of Air Force do-gooders attempt to put out a fire started by a foreign subversive at their base, and are punished for their heroism. One soldier dies in the fire, while the other is framed for the act of terror that killed his best friend & put national security at risk. What follows is a twisty, suspenseful mystery of grimy noir aesthetics & deep political intrigue as the surviving soldier travels the country in an attempt to thwart the terrorist syndicate who framed him and to clear his own name. At least that’s what’s promised on the tin. Instead, Hitchcock mostly delivers a weirdly patriotic road trip comedy about a hitch-hiker on the lam and the various weirdos who shelter him until he’s free of police scrutiny. Saboteur operates with a peculiar, admirable form of patriotism that loves America, but hates cops (as is right & proper). As our hero in peril finds comrades in billboard advertisement models, the disabled, working class truck drivers, and circus freaks while traveling by thumb across the country, Saboteur establishes a beautifully, radically inclusive definition of who & what is America. The enemies of that vision, by contrast, are wealthy pontificators who would sell the country to literal Nazis just to make another buck and ineffectual, brutish police officers who can’t determine the rightful target when enforcing the law. The crime thriller element promised in Saboteur‘s advertising is mostly just an excuse for this off-kilter version of war-time patriotism, one that course-corrects patriotism’s usual nastiness with a sense of humor & empathy the audience is not at all primed to expect.

Of course, Saboteur‘s surprises in tonal & narrative trajectory can only carry the film so far; they would amount to very little if it weren’t for Hitchcock’s visual craft & prankish spirit, both of which are on full display here despite this film’s modest budget & bevy of screenwriters. When crafting a noir thriller in the earliest stretch, the director casts sharply defined shadows of dangerous figures against stark white walls. When the inciting fire breaks out it’s announced with a thick black smoke projected against the same stark background, creeping into the frame with menacing intent. Incredible stunts & sound stage set pieces give the illusion of men crumbling in fires, jumping from bridges into wild rivers, and hanging from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Although the accused’s hitch-hiking trip across the country is broadly informed with cheeky humor & outlandish character work, Hitchcock builds genuine tension in the feeling that he is trapped and will be caught at any second. Saboteur starts in the contained, dingy menace of a Poverty Row noir, but expands to deliver everything you could want to see on the big screen: comedy, romance, adventure, visual spectacle, shocks of terror, etc. You can feel Hitchcock straining behind the camera to elevate the material to match his own meticulous standard. In that way, it’s almost easier to see his merits as a director in these “lesser” works than in his better-funded, better-respected masterworks where everything is arranged in its proper place & tone.

I’m not sure that I would call Saboteur “essential viewing” for everyone with a passing interest in Hitchcock. For all of its charmingly skewed patriotism & admirably crafted spectacle, the film is still somewhat hampered by a dull lead performer (Robert Cummings) and an unsatisfactorily abrupt ending that prevent it from being Great Cinema. However, the way the film gradually reveals itself to be a wild, playfully cruel road trip comedy & popcorn movie after initially coming across as just another cheap-o noir truly feels like watching Hitchocck getting away with something, like he’s pulling a fast one on his producers. The dangerous thing about Saboteur is that it suggests that all Hitchcock titles might be essential viewing, that even his least-respected, lowest-profile works are not to be missed – especially if you have convenient access to seeing them on the big screen.

-Brandon Ledet

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The common wisdom about Bugs Bunny is that he was modeled after Old Hollywood hunk Clark Gable; the only reason we even have the misconception that real-life rabbits love to eat carrots is because Bugs Bunny parodied Gable doing so in It Happened One Night and the image stuck. However, Gable’s slick, fast-talking, devilish pranksterism is just as much of a reflection of Studio Era sensibilities as they are a personal quirk. His rapid-fire dialogue delivery screams “Turner Classic Movies” more so than seeming specific to him, as if he were speaking a language called “Old Movie” that just happens to sound a lot like sped-up English. I’m saying this mostly because Bugs Bunny was the only thing I could think about while recently watching The Maltese Falcon for the first time, even though that’s a film that stars Humphrey Bogart, not Gable. The Maltese Falcon is a film with an absurdly prestigious pedigree: it’s the directorial debut of Studio Era legend John Huston; it’s cited as the first “major” film noir (as opposed to the smaller, independently produced noir pictures that preceded it); it’s one of the most defining examples of the MacGuffin as a literary device; etc. Still, all I could think about for the entire duration of the film was how funny Humphrey Bogart was in the lead role, and how much he reminded me of Bugs. Bogart is fluent in the same Old Movie language Clark Gable speaks (Bugsy Bunny also parodied him in the Casablanca poof Carrotblanca), and I feel as if I already owe the film a re-watch, not being able to keep up with each joke as fast as they were flying at me in Old Movie dialect.

As the film’s reputation of typifying a MacGuffin may suggest, the plot of The Maltese Falcon does not matter all that much. Bogart stars as a hard-drinking detective who gets sucked into a thieves’ quarrel by a dangerous dame (Mary Astor). At the expense of his partner, his freedom, and potentially his life, he aids this sultry stranger in their quest to obtain a highly valuable ornament ([whispering to my date while watching The Maltese Falcon when The Maltese Falcon first appears on the screen] “That’s the Maltese Falcon”) while avoiding the bullets of a small ring of thieves who also desperately desire to possess it. Casablanca’s Sydney Greenstreet, The Killing’s Elisha Cook Jr, and everyone’s favorite pervert Peter Lorre round out the main cast as that trio of gun-toting thieves, each taking turns backing Bogart into a corner so he can promptly talk his way out of it. It’s Bogart lashing out in that fight-or-flight position that makes The Maltese Falcon such a consistently fun watch. Whether talking to the dame, the cops, or the crooks, Bogart’s hardboiled detective delivers long strings of uninterrupted sass at a machine gun’s pace. Bogart knows he’s being lied to & bullied from all directions, but he finds the danger & mystery of that set-up to be a gas, taking great delight in calling everyone out in their deceits as his hypersensitive bullshit detector goes haywire. When Sydney Greenstreet’s would-be criminal mastermind repeatedly tells Bogart, “You are a character,” out of a gamesman’s delight, it the most honest sentiment shared by any of the film’s various players. This is a film built entirely on Bogart being a comically oversized character, in the colloquial sense of the word.

I don’t want to oversell The Maltese Falcon as a laugh-a-second yuck ‘em up comedy. Based on a very serious crime novel, the second adaption after a 1930s original (Hollywood remake culture has gone too far!), the film’s surface-level details deliver everything you’d want to see in a classic noir. Our “hero” is a hard-drinking adulterer who inserts himself into deadly criminals’ schemes for amusement & personal profit. He dons the classic suits & fedoras combo that inspire those wretched “Men used to dress classy” MRA memes. He’s framed with the intense lighting & drastic angles of classic noir while simply rolling a cigarette or pouring himself a drink, a handsome personification of gruff masculinity. This is directly contrasted with the fey, sexually devious energy of Peter Lorre, playing a character explicitly described as homosexual in the source material. Bogart gets into some S&M play with Lorre (who is introduced practically fellating the handle of his cane), dominating him with some Kung Fu action and barking “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” There’s a serious, even tragic romanticism to this Alpha Male masculinity, typified by his fawning secretary’s plea “You always think you know what you’re doing, but you’re too slick for your own good.” Unfortunately, that macho posturing was something that trickled down into the zeitgeist just as much as Bogart’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” pranksterism, influencing descendants as disparate as the wise-cracking meatheads of French New Wave staples like Breathless and 1980s action spectacles like Commando. There’s a danger in making your troubled antiheroes out to be such slick charmers; they end up being so lovable they’re practically children’s-entertainment cartoon bunnies.

At this point, you probably don’t need to hear from me or any amateur film blogger that The Maltese Falcon is well-made & worth seeing. Catching it for the first time on the big screen (thanks to The Prytania’s Classic Movies series) mostly just confirmed for me what I had already assumed from its name recognition & its heavy rotation in corners like TCM: it’s a handsome, well-crafted noir with a talented cast & a distinct Old Hollywood charm. The only thing I didn’t know to expect was that it would be so damn funny. Even its score often reinforces the humor of the dialogue, with chipper flights of orchestral whims incongruously accompanying a murderous plot about greedy, gun-toting thieves. It’s practically the same accompaniment you’d expect to hear in a Merrie Melodies cartoon while Bugs Bunny cracks wise in an Old Movie cadence to talk his way out of getting shot by Elmer Fudd.

-Brandon Ledet

Panic in the Streets (1950)

Usually, when a Hollywood production is shot on-location in New Orleans, the expectation is that the audience will be doing some tourist sightseeing. 80s thrillers like The Big Easy & Hard Target where especially shameless about this, setting scenes in conspicuous tourist spots like Tipitina’s, Mardi Gras parade float warehouses, and Bourbon Street strip joints for easy, sleazy atmosphere as they drunkenly stumbled around the city. The 1950 health-epidemic noir Panic in the Streets aimed for an entirely different kind of local seasoning. Directed by respected dramatist Elia Kazan shortly before he fired off major hits like A Streetcar Named Desire & On the Waterfront, Panic in the Streets was something of an experiment & a gamble for the Studio Era way of doing things. The business of exporting productions to shoot entirely on-location in far-off cities wasn’t business as usual yet, which might explain why Kazan didn’t think to make use of the city in the now-traditional ways of visiting famous clubs, capturing Mardi Gras crowds, or just generally making a big deal about the environment where the action is staged. There are a few familiar shots of French Quarter exteriors that haven’t changed at all in the last 70 years and the film eventually concludes in a shipping dock warehouse setting that feels unique to its chosen location, but most of its drama is confined to the city’s interior spaces, which are familiar but not entirely unique. The novelty of shooting a Studio Era film entirely on-location did lead to a different, less frequently travelled path to local authenticity, though. Over 80% of the hired cast & crew for Panic in the Streets were local to New Orleans, which is still an unusual way of doing things by big-budget Hollywood standards, even with all the productions that film here for the tax credits. There may not be much documentation of what the city itself looked like in the 1950s here, but the film offers something a little more precious instead: documentation of and collaboration with the city’s people.

Outside its context as a New Orleans peoplewatching time capsule, Panic in the Streets is a fairly standard noir. Its central hook promises something novel beyond the standard antihero cops vs. wise guy criminals dynamic that usually defines the genre. NOPD detectives and representatives from the federal US Public Health Service reluctantly team up to track down a murderer who is now patient zero in a potential city-wide epidemic of the pneumonic plague, thanks to a comprised victim. This unusual medical angle to the crime thriller drama does allow for some distinctive detail unusual to the genre: scientific jargon about “anti-plague serums,” wry humor about tough-guy cops who are afraid of taking their inoculation shots, an excuse to burn all the evidence with the infected-and-murdered man’s body just to make the mystery killer’s identity tougher to crack, etc. Mostly, the plague angle is merely used to build tension by giving local cops & federal officials a tight 48-hour window to catch their killer before his contagions become a city-wide threat. There are some conflicts built around “college men” health officials and blue-collar detectives flaunting their authority in the investigation, but most confrontations mostly amount to angry macho men yelling about jurisdiction at top volume, which feels standard to most cop thrillers. The rest of Panic in the Streets is a faithful amalgamation of classic noir tropes: post-German Expressionist lighting, witty retorts muttered under hard-drinking cops’ breath, a villain who looks like he was plucked from a Dick Tracy lineup, more sewer-grate steam that New Orleans has ever seen, and so on. Anyone with a built-in appreciation for noir as a genre won’t need much more than the plague outbreak premise and the New Orleans locale for the film to be of interest, but it still doesn’t go very far out of its way to distinguish itself beyond those novelties – especially considering the prestige Elia Kazan represents behind the camera.

One noticeable auteurist touch Kazan brings to the table is an interest in this port city’s immigrant Greek population, which feels unique to him given that the director himself was born in Constantinople to Greek parents. Besides the expected police stations, race tracks, and shipping dock locations that naturally arise by setting a noir here, one of the few vintage local spots the film takes a documentarian interest in is a Greek-owned restaurant named Athena’s, presumably now long-gone. The rest of the local cast & crew are much less conspicuous, sporting neither the thick Y’at nor Cajun accents typical to Hollywood productions set here (or, at least they weren’t undetectable to this local’s ear). It’s nice to have a movie character pronounce “New Orleans” correctly on the big screen (a rarer occurrence than you might expect) and it’s a little funny how the plague victims’ dazed stumbling resembles the drunken zombie tourists of Bourbon Street, but most of Panic in the Streets’s local people-watching is just as subtly played as its minor deviations from the noir template. There’s a natural authenticity to the movie that arises from casting real-life characters in a majority of the roles, so that very few faces on the screen are the pristine, homogenous brand of Hollywood Beauty we’re used to seeing. For my taste, there are far too few women with substantial roles to paly in that dynamic (especially for the genre that effectively invented the femme fatale), but for the most part I was riveted just picking faces out of the crowd anyway. Shotgun Cinema projecting the film large & loud for a free screening at the Marigny Opera House was a major help in that regard. As a shot-on-location noir and an Elia Kazan procedural drama, Panic in the Streets is a solid genre entry, but not much more. As an act of local-history people-watching, however, it carries a lot of clout as something exceptional and I was glad to have the opportunity to share that experience with a live, local community.

-Brandon Ledet