POINT BLANK: THE CONCRETE CULVERT (1967)
YOU CAN imagine Lee Marvin as a boy. You probably knew a kid who looked just like him at school. Head like a brick. Flat snub nose. Hair so short and precisely level it looked as if even the family barber was initimidated by him. All in all, a hard little bastard. Not a troublemaker, but somehow trouble always found him. He just met it face on and, usually, nutted it.
So it was with Lee Marvin. There were heroes far more heroic, creepier creeps, more psychotic psychos. But nobody played hard like Lee, and Lee never played hard better than he did in Point Blank, which was itself a film so hard you could use it to cut diamonds. No movie has ever looked more modern, or more modernist. It was all right angles, sharp corners and rough surfaces, Piet Mondrian in concrete, a clinically fetishistic ode to the brutal space-age architecture of Sixties LA - where Marvin's slablike bonce fitted right in.
The hardest scene in this hardest of movies finds Marvin in a massive drainage culvert, dry and terrifyingly bright. It has an almost sci-fi edge to it, as if the camera has relocated to a planet where nothing exists but flat cement and blue sky. It expresses perfectly Point Blank's own cruel, amoral landscape. Again and again we see soft - and by extension, weak - bags of human flesh being brought into grisly contact with walls, floors, pavements, pillars. It's not man against man, it's man against stone, and Lee Marvin's semi-supernatural Walker certainly seems to belong in the latter category.
In the culvert everything is levelled to a hot and pitiless expanse on which men are easy pickings and hiding places are few. Walker, suspecting he's been set-up as a sniper's target, has abducted the perpetrator from a high-tech, high-security office (he's nothing if not proactive, Walker) to use as bait. Sure enough, the malefactor staggers into the light to meet a savage death by the assassin he himself hired, invisible against the sun.
The scene has echoes in the closing of Get Carter, one of the few films to match it for sheer, unblinking toughness; and the premise behind the movie was later horse-opera'd wholesale by Clint Eastwood. Like the High Plains Drifter, Walker is apparently back from the dead, seeking vengeance like some blond and dead-eyed Golem. But brilliant as those other films are, nothing in them, and nothing since, has so effectively portrayed the ruthless indifference of that which cannot die - metal, concrete, Lee Marvin - towards that which is just about to.
WINGS OF DESIRE [aka Der Himmel über Berlin]:
TURNING HUMAN (1987)
IT'S ONE of those films you have to be in the right mood for. Romantic. Deeply sentimental. Very European. Very, to be specific, German. Old school German - we're going back to Goethe and Beethoven and purity of heart here, before the Nazis turned up and befouled Teutonic romanticism for ever.
If you're not in the mood, then Wim Wenders' masterpiece may strike you as cloying and distinctly over-egged. The antithesis of his earlier film, The American Friend. True to the spirit of Patricia Highsmith, from whose Ripley books it was adapted, The American Friend was harsh, hollow and misanthropic, its message that death shrugs in the face of virtue. Wings Of Desire, conversely, is about angels watching over us. It's about spirits who, unseen, brighten our dark nights of the soul. It's about the triumph of love over time and mortality. It's a great film to take girls to.
Set in Berlin before the wall came down - a sundered city with a vast and dark mystique - Wings follows one angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), who falls in love with a circus girl and gives up his seraphic status to become human. But no sooner has he done so then - hankies at the ready - the circus leaves town, leaving just a muddy patch of waste ground. A metaphor for any doomed affair, surely? Well, not quite. Because for the first time, the angel has tasted life. Not to mention coffee. In the film's exquisite closing sequence, a passing stranger buys Ganz a cup of joe from a nearby stand. Thus he experiences, in short order, elation, loss, heartbreak and kindness, as well as his first physical sensations - the biting cold of the Berlin winter; the cup steaming in his hands, the bitter sweet (of course) flavour of the drink. And instead of bemoaning his decision, he quietly rejoices in it. This is what it's like to be alive
Shot in sepulchral black and white as it follows the angels about their business, Wings Of Desire blooms into colour at key moments such as this, when earth takes over from Elysium and the gentle sound of snuffling fills the cinema. Leaves you feeling cleansed, so it does. If you're in the mood.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI: TURTURRO IS JESUS (1998)
THE COEN Brothers' movie oeuvre hasn't a single dull moment in it - an achievement they share only with the makers of hardcore pornography. Even The Big Lebowski, one of their lesser films, is full of glorious scenes; the Dude's (Jeff Bridges) hallucinatory dream sequences, or his unbalanced buddy Walter (John Goodman) frothing with indignation at the hapless Nihilists: “Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.”
But of all the brilliant set pieces the Coens have come up with over the years, nothing touches John Turturro's brief appearance in Lebowski. This is quite possibly the greatest cameo role in the history of cinema. With a total screentime measured in seconds, Turturro steals not only the movie but the script, the set, the studio and your wallet. Go on, check. See? Gone.
Other films may have featured a camp, sinister, mincing, Hispanic nonce who wears a pink jumpsuit and a hairnet to a bowling alley. But if so, this writer has somehow missed them. Jesus Quintana is a perfect creation, a creature so vile, yet so self-assured and, by his own scrambled lights, so immaculately stylish, that it's impossible not to be dazzled by him. Watch as he sashays up to the bowling lane. Observe as he displays his superb form with the ball. Wince as his lycra-clad buttocks execute a little thrust of triumph when the pins tumble. As the Dude is forced to confess, “Fucking Quintana, that creep can roll, man.”
The loathsome Quintana excels himself when he stands up, in his own despicable way, to Walter. Walter is an outsize looney-tune convinced, against all available evidence, that he is (a) a Vietnam vet and (b) Jewish. Walter is in the habit of threatening fellow bowlers with his pistol for innocent breaches of the rules. But Quintana is not impressed. Having been legally obliged to go door-to-door in the famously rough LA community of Venice, informing his neighbours that he's a sex offender, he is not easily alarmed.
“Let me tell you something, bendeco,” he smirks. “You pull any of your crazy shit with us, you flash a piece out on the lanes, I'll take it away from you and stick it up your ass and pull the fucking trigger till it goes 'click'.”
Walter is, for once, gobsmacked. And so are we. So is the Dude. “Jesus!” he mutters.
“You said it, man,” leers Quintana. “Nobody fucks with the Jesus.”
Doesn't that appear somewhere in the New Testament?
GLADIATOR: ROME VERSUS THE BARBARIANS (2000)
“PEOPLE SHOULD know when they're conquered.”
And these people clearly don't. But then, from the look of them, they haven't a clue about very much at all. To call them a rabble would be blatant flattery. They are the barbarians of Germania, facing down the Roman army. By far the most disciplined, modern, highly equipped, superbly led, strategically gifted fighting force the ancient world has ever known. The Romans have catapults, archers, cavalry, armoured infantry, incendiary devices. The barbarian have swords, spears, unruly hair and angry expressions. They look like a bunch of deeply vexed Hawkwind fans. And they stand about as much chance against the Romans as a crew of pissed-up Millwall supporters storming onto Salisbury plain, determined to administer a good kicking to the Royal Artillery.
This is the battle in which Maximus (Russell Crowe), the Romans' inspirational Spanish general, and future gladiator, embarks on his long journey to the Coliseum. It is the most breathtaking opening of any movie in recent memory. And oddly, the limitations faced by director Ridley Scott in avoiding an adults-only certification help to make it so. The battle is pure carnage, close-up violence of astounding and strangely intimate savagery. Any lingering shots of the burnings, skewerings and decapitations meted out in combat would have killed off Gladiator's market as a family film. So Scott slices up the footage with equal dexterity and speed. The horrors flicker past in less than the blink of an eye. We have no chance to dwell on them. There's a certain authenticty to this, or so you'd guess. We're seeing things the way a soldier like Maximus might do, with his lightning-swift reflexes, and his uncanny knack of dealing with things in his peripheral vision; screaming Goths bent on slaughter, for example.
Exciting as Gladiator is - and it rarely flags throughout - it never surpasses these first few minutes. It puts us in the thick of the battle, gives us a convincing taste of what the fighters endured. It may not be as shocking as Saving Private Ryan (and after all, death in our era is far worse, to our way of thinking, then death all those centuries ago.) But it reminds you that some things don't change. War always has been hell, and filth-encrusted mobs with duff haircuts have always been bad news. Somebody ought to tell the crusty anti-capitalists. People should know when they're conquered.
DAY OF THE DEAD: THE MONKEY FARM (1985)
THE LOOK is, at first, hard to place. An institution, certainly. The wide, flat hall. Metal, cement and damp, grey brick. A prison? A madhouse? A research lab? It is, of course, all of these. But not until the imperturbable Frankenstein strides in, nonchalantly bloodstained, his coat flapping white and red against the dingy walls, does the real identity of the place come to you. An abattoir. That's what we're looking at here.
Frankenstein (Richard Liberty) is a truly outstanding mad scientist, a creation to rank with his original namesake. This is the third of George A Romero's Living Dead movies, the bleakest, the most violent. And yet for all the spectacular gore and rending of flesh, it's this scene - no action, all dialogue - which sticks in the mind afterwards. Holed up in a bunker off the Florida coast, besieged by ravenous zombies, are what may well be the last living humans on earth: soldiers, scientists, a radio operator, a pilot. Dr Logan - Frankenstein - heads up a team of boffins trying to figure out how to get the dead back into the graves, or failing that, to “make them behave.”
“What,” snarls Rhodes, the ranking soldier, “does that mean?”
“It means,” says the unflustered Frankenstein, peering over his round glasses with a little smile, “getting them to stop wanting to eat us, for one.”
The showdown between this pair of nutjobs is a thing to marvel at. Rhodes is frightened, raving, a petty warlord in a tiny, claustrophobic domain. His “soldiers” are no more than a scruffy bandit militia. Frankenstein's particular lunacy is to be poised and pragmatic in what is patently an insane situation. “This is a fucking war!” screams Rhodes, played by Joseph Pilato in the kind of Al-Pacino-goes bonkers fervour which Pacino himself wouldn't get round to until The Devil's Advocate, some 12 years later. “They outnumber us 400,000 to 1,” notes Frankenstein, seemingly amused by the thought, and more than a little peckish after sawing up some rather lively corpses. “Is there food?”
This is more than Rhodes can take. “I'M RUNNING THIS MONKEY FARM NOW, FRANKENSTEIN,” he howls, immortally, “AND I WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE FUCK YOU'RE DOING WITH MY TIME!”
And that, really, is impossible to top. It's the sort of line that makes you want to be in charge of something, just so that one day, you may get a chance to use it.
THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE:
THE HIJACK (1974)
A GROUP OF men gather to attempt an audacious crime. For the sake of anonymity, they are identically outfitted, and refer to each other by colour-coded pseudonyms: “Mr Blue”, Mr Green” and so forth. Their careful plot is doomed to fall apart on them amid distrust, accusations, double-crosses and gunshots. You've recognised it already. It's unmistakable. The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three.
It's not the only movie Tarantino filched for Reservoir Dogs; he was also up to his armpits in hock to Kubrick's early noir masterpiece The Killing, and Ringo Lam's ultra-violent Honk Kong thriller City On Fire. Which is no criticism of Tarantino; his own film was a match for any of its begetters. But it's a shame that Dogs' success didn't revive the reputation of Pelham, one of those moody, gritty, naturalistic cop-versus culprit flicks which America perfected in the early Seventies. Its most consistent pleasure is seeing Walter Matthau's bloodhound chops finally cast in a real bloodhound role. But before that, we can relish watching the gang convene.
The man in the beige overcoat, with his green-grey porkpie hat, heavy-rimmed black glasses, leather gloves and Mr Rusty moustache, is not in himself all that remarkable as he boards the New York subway train. It's only as three apparent clones turn up, one by one, that we get an inkling of what's going down here. Then we notice that the details differ, ever so slightly. Each conspirator has adapted the uniform to what we will come to see as his own character. Mr Grey, the vain, swaggering youngblood, has chosen a peaked cap. The hard nut, Mr Brown, favours a tidy 'tache and check pattern on his coat. So, with the added jauntiness of a turned-up collar, does the ringleader, Mr Blue, portrayed with a certain chilly charm by Robert Shaw.
Mr Blue never hesitates, never flinches and never loses his cool. He calmly puts a gun to the head of the driver and says, “I'm taking your train.” The film cuts neatly between his understated efficiency and the hysterical, hypertensive, effing-and-blinding New Yorkers who run, after a fashion, the subway system. Mr Blue suffers fools and grumblers not one whit.
“I think,” moans Mr Green (Martin Balsam), afflicted by a heavy cold, “I'm going to die today.”
“That's entirely possible,” replies Mr Blue.
It's Matthau who gets the defining line. “The guy has a heavy English accent,” he warns. “He could be some kind of fruitcake.” Well, naturally. Now it all makes sense.
CON AIR: MORE RABBIT THAN SAINSBURY'S (1997)
“PUT THE bunny back in the box.”
Of all the many and brilliant action flicks assembled by producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Con Air must rank right at the top. The script is needle sharp, with more genius quotes than could be collected in ten times the space we have here. The cast is dazzling - Cage, Cusack, Malkovitch, Buscemi, Rhames, gleefully sinking their teeth into it, one and all. Every scene is a humdinger. So to pick just one set-piece out of this wondrous array is no simple task. But the bunny takes it. Never before has a stuffed rabbit been invested with this level - or indeed any level - of menace.
In short, the nastiest and most savage criminals in America have commandeered a plane carrying nice Nic Cage - aka Cameron Poe - and his bunny. Here's what Poe is up against. Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovitch), who “likes to brag that he killed more men than cancer.” Diamond Dog, a black militant who blew up an NRA meeting because “it represented the basest instincts of the white race.” Garland Greene, who once drove through three states wearing a little girl's head as a hat. And the bunny-mauler himself, Billy “Bedlam” Bedford, “He caught his wife in bed with another man. He left her alone. Drove four towns over to her family's house. Killed her parents, her brothers, her sisters, even her dog.” So what chance does the bunny stand?
“I said. . . put the bunny back in the box.”
Poe is down in the hold, where earlier he scribbled a message to the cops on a dead man's T-shirt and pitched the body out the cargo hatch. It landed, with the kind of delicious detail which fills this movie, on the world's safest car, a Volvo. The bunny is a gift for his daughter, and that beastly Billy Bedlam is manhandling it. No self-respecting father would stand for that.
The bunny is under constant threat. In time, Cyrus will hold a gun to its fluffy ears and grin, “Don't move or the bunny gets it.” Cyrus is the arch-villain, and as such, not so easily disposed of. But Billy Bedlam is small fry, and Poe makes short work of him, impaling him on a loose metal pipe.
Alone among the passengers, Poe is not a killer by nature. “Why,” he demands of the corpse, more in sorrow than in anger, “couldn't you put the bunny back in the box?” Why? Because in this kind of movie, character is destiny. The bad guys, God love 'em, will never put the bunny back in the box.
BILL AND TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY: DICING WITH DEATH (1991)
HAS ANYBODY you know ever actually watched The Seventh Seal all the way to the end? Ingmar Bergman's Nordic gloom-fest is to the movies what the widely unread Don Quixote is to literature. We're all familiar with the imagery: a man playing chess with Death for possession of his soul; the skinny knight and his fat little friend tilting at windmills. But it's second-hand wisdom, because, let's face it, none of us are likely to plough through either supposed masterpiece.
Screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon were plainly convinced that enough of us would remember Bergman's chess-playing Reaper to make it worthwhile reviving him, after a fashion, in Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey (original script title: “Bill And Ted go To Hell”). Bill and Ted remain their usual dopey, good-natured selves, and this sequel has, if anything, even greater charm than the original “Excellent Adventure”. But there's no arguing that Death steals this movie; he simply grasps it in his bony talons, tucks it beneath his sinister robes and walks away with it.
The Devil may have all the best tunes, but Death gets all the best lines. You may remember him as a rather austere figure, possessed of a necessarily morbid sense of honour. Not William Sadler's Death. This is a vain, swindling, ignoble Reaper, hardly a Dark Angel of his word. Like the noble Swede of yore, Bill and Ted must gamble for their souls. And so they face Death across the board of that game, a game of cunning and determination and skill, which since time immemorial has symbolised the stratagems of mankind. And win.
“You have sunk my battleship,” intones Death. Mournfully. As you might well expect.
“Yes!” exult the duo.
“You must play me again,” decrees the bamboozling blackguard.
“What?!” they cry.
“Uh,” says Death, “best two out of three.”
Death is, frankly, a cheat. He cheats at bets, he cheats at battleships, he cheats at Cluedo.
“Colonel Mustard did it in the cellar with the candlestick,” he asserts.
“Sorry, Death,” Bill replies. “It was Profesor Plum. You lose.”
“I said Plum!” lies Death. “Uh, best three out of five.”
Which just goes to show what Bergman wouldn't admit, but the rest of have guessed all along. Death is a bastard.