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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Ramrod, Killing Them Softly

RAMROD (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Andre de Toth, 1947 (Olive)

Andre de Toth, a second-row master of the Western (Springfield Rifle), the war movie (Play Dirty), and the film noir (Pitfall, Crime Wave), directed this interesting example of the post-Stagecoach ‘40s “adult Western.”  Adapted from a novel by Western specialist Luke Short, it’s a black-and-white noir-tinged range war tale in which upright ramrod Joel McCrea (a perfect role for him), finds himself battered in the social and psycho-sexual turbulence of the clashes among  the various sides in the war headed by an old rancher (Charlie Ruggles), his ruthless daughter (Veronica Lake, withough her famous peek-a-boo hair style), and the murderous cattle czar who wants a  monopoly on the “open range” (Preston Foster). Except for the formula ending (an improbably fast embrace following the climactic showdown), it’s unusually moody and grim.

The character drama here is just as important as the action (gunfights, stampedes, ambushes), and the action and camera work are unpretentious but quite stylish. The movie begins with several long one-take tracking shots that suggest Max Ophuls in a brawling nocturnal Western town. (Okay, they’re closer to John Carpenter. But De Toth, remember is the second unit action man who shot the great train attack for David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia.) The rest of the fine, salty cast includes Donald Crisp as an honest sheriff, Lloyd Bridges as a dishonest cowboy, Arleen Whelan as the “good woman,”  and Don DeFore, in one of the best roles and performances of his genial and mostly forgettable career, as McCrea’s Trampas-like good-bad best friend. (That’s the Trampas of  the movies of The Virginian, not the TV show.) The ambivalent morality and psycho-sexual undercurrents in most of the characters in Ramrod is what makes this an unusual Western — and the Hungarian émigré de Toth a sometimes remarkable director.

By the way, Veronica Lake was married to de Toth, when she played this mean role for her hubby. And ramrod is the job Clint Eastwood had, as Rowdy Yates, in “Rawhide.”

Extras: None

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

U.S., Andrew Dominik, 2012 (Starz/Anchor Bay)

Hard-boiled, high-style. That’s the name of this game.  In Killing Me Softly, a crime movie without alibis, people die suddenly and meanly, very meanly — sometimes with their blood and brains splattering like a Sam Peckinpah death ballet across the dark frames, sometimes after being kicked and beaten almost senseless, sometimes fast and straight up, with a shot in the head. We’re in Hell, U.S.A. It’s an ugly world, sometimes a funny one and a brutal one, even when Ketty Lester’s heart-tearing rendition of Victor Young‘s “Love Letters“—with Floyd Cramer jabbing unforgettably on piano—is on the soundtrack. And it’s a greedy world revolving around money and power, with a lot of the mayhem coming from a cool deadly guy named Cogan. (You gessedi t: Brad Pitt.)

Cogan is the cynical hit man played by Pitt in this movie. He was also the main character in  “Cogan’s Trade,” by George V. Higgins, the classic 1974 crime novel from which New Zealand-born writer-director Andrew Dominik fashioned  the scenario for Killing Them Softly—which is as bleak and rough a modern neo-noir as I’ve seen recently: two years, three years, a while. Pitt plays him as a deadpan-sexy, no-nonsense, sometimes acid-tongued killer who insists ”very few guys know me.” (Damn straight. Not healthy.) He has been hired to kill two dumb low-life crooks who made the mistake of knocking over a mob-run poker game. The hapless pair: a gabby driver named Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and an out-of-control Aussie junkie named Russell (Ben Mendelsohn),

Other guys will have to get whacked too, including Frankie and Russell’s boss Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) who runs a legit dry-cleaning business, and who made the mistake of hiring these two irresponsible jerk-offs to pull the robbery. And there‘s also the guy who runs the poker games, Markie Trattman (Goodfella Ray Liotta), who made the mistake of robbing his own mob-run game one other time in the past, which means, for the sake of public relations, Markie has to get iced too.

You need a painstaking workman to handle multiple stuff like this. So the mob, through their dourly efficient attorney Driver (Richard Jenkins), engages the classy operator Jackie Cogan, who farms out one of the jobs to his friend, the once-first class killer Mickey (James Gandolfino). Mickey though, has lost it. He’s turned maudlin drunk and hooker-happy and he has to be  replaced. Cogan is up to that too. He’ll do it himself.  (“I like to kill them softly, from a distance,” he says, explaining his modus operandi.)

All of this, in Higgins’ novel, took place in the Boston criminal underworld, a realm that Higgins, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts (and a prosecutor, defense lawyer, newspaper columnist and teacher) knew very well. While investigating local criminals and sending some of them to stir, Higgins listened to them—soaked up their clipped, brutal lingo—and that’s maybe where we get  this movie‘s terse zingers and brass-knuckle gems.

For financial reasons (apparently), Killing Them Softly, the movie has been transplanted to New Orleans and the year changed reset from 1974 to 2008, which puts it in  in the post-Hurricane-Katrina, post-financial crash period. (We see President George W. Bush and presidential candidate Barack Obama on CNN in the local bars, instead of sports, which seems a little off.) The place we’re in, dark and barren and a real City of Night, is more generic, an Everycity. The streets are in New Orleans, but the people and their talk, the verbal rhythms and the nasty slang, still remind you of Boston. Now, you ask me, I think they should have spent the extra money and shot the whole thing in Beantown, or even recreated Boston on a sound stage in L.A. (or New Orleans) . But then, I‘ve never been good with money. Neither was George W. Bush.

It’s not a bad movie though. Pretty damned good, you ask me. George V. Higgins was one terrific damned angel S. O. B. of a writer. And this is one of his top books. Elmore Leonard no less called “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,“ Higgins’ first novel—or his fifteenth, if you count the fourteen he says he wrote earlier and threw away—the best crime novel ever written. (You’ll recall that Peter Yates made Friends of Eddie Coyle into a terrific 1973 movie, with Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle nd Peter Boyle, as a friend.) Higgins is famous for his realistic stories and characters, his flawless Boston atmosphere, his understated style—and his beyond-Hemingway dialogue, which almost everyone thinks is great. (Me too.)

“Cogan’s Trade” is first-class material. And Dominik can be an ace hard-boiled, high-style director. (“Hard-boiled, high style”: That’s the essence of noir.) I liked his last movie, the grim, artful 2007 Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which also starred Pitt, as Jesse James, Casey Affleck as Ford, and had the same gray, violent, cheerless, murderous feel as this movie. So it didn’t bother me that Dominik’s show has a lot of talk and relatively little action, that it has a sense of character and that it didn’t have a shootout every 20 minutes. Who needs all that shit anyway? I hear the original cut was two and a half hours, more like Jesse James, and I bet the long cut was better and I bet that it even plays faster. Sometimes you don’t make a long movie go quicker by cutting it. You just screw up the connections and make it slow. Remember Once Upon a Time in America? I rest my case.

Greig Fraser’s cinematography is Altonesque neo-noir stuff. (That’s John Alton, for you civilians.) Hard-boiled; high style. But the script carries the movie, and the acting. Gandolfino is super. Jenkins: nobody plays a pill like this guy. Liotta: give him more lines. And, as for Pitt: the guy can act definitely and he‘s a movie star, definitely, and wait until you hear him say the line about America isn‘t a country, it‘s a business, now pay me. (May not even have been a Higgins line, but is expresses the what-the-fuck, the gestalt. It sounds right, smells right, bleeds right.) Nobody could say that line better, not even that showboat Clooney. Well, Mitchum would have said it better, but he had a deeper voice, and he was better at accents, you know. So who cares, there’s not more shooting? There’s enough, you know? Hey. that’s 1,000 words. Now pay me.

Extras: None.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon