This is a gem of a film. Written and directed by Shane Black (who wrote all the Lethal Weapon movies), and starring Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan, it is a hilarious "fusion of buddy movie and hardboiled noir" (-DVD case), that charmed me with its unpredictable twists and turns, and it's clever dialogue ("She opened the door and had nothing on but the radio."). It has got to be one of the best neo-noir films out there, thanks to the dark yet colourful atmospheric cinematography of Michael Barrett, and the creative direction by Black. But most of the praise should be rightly accorded to Downey and Kilmer, both of whose performances are hilarious, touching, and quite dynamic. Downey plays petty criminal Harry Lockhart, who, in New York City, literally on the run from the police, storms unknowingly into an audition room, where he delivers what the producers read as a stunning grief-stricken performance. Lockhart is then sent to LA for screen tests where he is teamed up with Perry (Kilmer), a gay local private detective who also serves as a consultant for studios and actors. Harry and Gay Perry go out on a job, and soon get wrapped up in a mystery fit for a Raymond Chandler novel, with twists and turns, several bodies, and a severed ring finger. Everyone seems to have at least one gun and bodies appear around seemingly every corner as the plot unravels itself.
Robert Downey Jr. as Harry Lockhart.
Val Kilmer as Gay Perry.
Shane Black impressively keeps it all on track and coherent, and also draws some fantastic performances from his leads. Robert Downey Jr. plays Harry perfectly, taking a page right out of the pulp novels of the 1940s, playing his thief/actor/P.I. as a wounded man (both emotionally and physically) with tenderness and wit. Val Kilmer is also brilliant in what is most likely one of the best roles of his career. Kilmer could have taken this role way over the top, but he plays it perfectly; he is so subtly gay and quite sly, and he's also tough and doesn't take any crap from anyone. And when these two are put together their back and forth banter and altercations hint at a genuine growing friendship. They also just plain look like they had fun making this film. Downey does double-duty by also taking on the role of our very self-aware narrator, who directly talks to the audience, making references to how well he himself is doing on the narration, and politely asking us to suspend our disbelief in different scenes with lines like "I know this is kind of a stretch, and I hate it when they do this in movies, but honestly, this is how it really happened!" They've found a loop-hole for the narration, where Downey can make light of some potential flaws in the film. It kind of walks a line which could easily go wrong, but here it works, because Downey is so charming in the conversational way he talks to us.
It's no wonder that so many film noirs--old and new--are set in Hollywood. It is such an interesting city in the way that it lures countless people from all over the continent with promises of fame and fortune, and by it's very nature is set to disappoint 95% of them. Obvously, this leads to some already very eccentric people experiencing fleeting moments of success, and the resulting rollercoaster of emotions and substance abuse, which Kiss Kiss Bang Bang touches on. It's a ruthless place; beautiful, bright and warm on the surface, yet underneath a cold, depraved city of greed and egos. The sheer desperation people arrive at in the hope of "making it" is kind of upsetting, but it's also perfect for a satirical film.
Michelle Monaghan as Harmony Lane.
This is one of my favorite movies right now, thanks to the homage to film noir of old, the skewering of contemporary Hollywood, it's Saul Bass inspired opening credits, and most definitely the stellar performances by Downey and Kilmer. (Sidenote: It also features Angela Lindvall in a miniscule role as Flicka, an airline hostess. You may remember Angela Lindvall as Valentine/Agent Codename Dragonfly from Roman Coppola's CQ, one of my favorite films of all time!) But see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it is such an enjoyable romp through neo-noir Hollywood and a worthy homage to the noirs from the Chandler-Huston-Bogart-Bacall era. Brilliant!
It's been a while since I was smitten with anything, even cinematically, but I think I have just fallen in love with a new old movie: Claude Lelouch's "Un Homme et une femme" ("A Man and A Woman"--not to be confused with Godard's "Une femme est une femme," which I also love). It's kind of bittersweet falling in love with a movie like this, on the positive, I feel like I have foudn some gem from the past, and somehow rescued it from obscurity. It also reminds me that there are still some fabulous movies out there in the past just waiting to be rediscovered. But it's also frustrating when it happens to something older and slightly obscure because then it just takes that much more energy to convince others to see it. Also I feel like I'm so into it that when I try and write about it I blurt out a bunch of crap that I don't feel like does it justice. You really just have to take my word for it and see it. But anyways, here goes an attempt at why I like it.
It is a wonderful French film (they make the best films) from 1966 (the best films are from the 1960s) about a couple of widowers who fall in love. He, Jean-Louis (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant), is a racecar driver. She, Anne (played by the incomparable Anouk Aimee), is a script-girl (what we call a script-supervisor in North America). If you enjoyed love stories like Richard Linklater's Before Sunset I think you might enjoy this. It is so patient, tender, dreamy, and beautifully shot. The music is wonderful. Wonderful! It has some awesome car racing scenes from the Le Mans 24 Hour race, as well as the Monte Carlo Rally, featuring the Ford GT40 (one of the greatest and sexiest cars ever) and the Ford Mustang, respectively. It has some really nice hand held and intimate cinematography. There is a part where the couple embrace on a cloudy and windy beach and then it cuts to a dog running around happily on the beach. I love that. There are two really cute kids. The performances are all true and genuine. The character's names are the same as their real names, which I also like. The dialogue feels real, and says no more or less than it needs to. It is very nicely edited, between flashbacks and present, quite seamlessly and it never disorients you. The pacing is also perfect too, the scenes take as long as they have to, and even a scene over a meal with the two leads and their children, while kind of long, is just so good to watch because the kids are so cute. There is a subtle use of both colour film and black and white film. The whole mood of the film is like the sunset poking through the clouds after a cold, wet, and stormy autumn afternoon on the Atlantic coast of France. I'm in love with it. Oh yeah, and it also won the Grand Prix at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, it won Oscars for Best Foreign Film and Best Original Screenplay in 1967 (also nominated for Best Director and Best Actress), as well as won Anouk Aimee a Golden Globe for Best Actress, and Best Foreign Film that same year.
I hesitate to include the scene below because it is so great to see in the actual film, but at the risk of spilling some of the proverbial beans, if you watch this clip and anything in it at all grabs your attention, go and find this movie! It is available from the Vancouver Public Library, but I'm sure you could find it at most respectable video stores.
I like how in France in the 1960s you could drive your car anywhere, like on the beach or on a pier. Vive la France!
UPDATE: I now own this movie, so if you know me, I can lend it to you!
They don't call him the Master of Suspense for nothing.
His explanation to Francois Truffaut of surprise versus suspense.
"There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story."
From Truffaut's exhaustive interviews with Hitchcock, which can be found in the book "Hitchcock-Truffaut: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut." I love when two filmmakers I love and admire get together to talk shop.
Directed by John Huston.
If you are a fan of Humphrey Bogart and have only seen films the likes of Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep, then you owe it to yourself to see The African Queen for many reasons. Those previous three films are three of my absolute favorite films, all due to Bogart's spellbinding performances as Rick Blaine, Sam Spade, and Philip Marlow, respectively. While each of those performances are different and fun to watch, they all kind of fall into the same category of a blunt, witty, alcoholic, emotionally wounded man with a hard exterior and a soft interior, all men "who stick their neck out for nobody" (-Casablanca). But The African Queen is a different story.
Bogart: A changed man.
Set during the beginning of the First World War, it follows two opposing characters: Bogart's dirty, alcoholic riverboat captain Charlie Allnut, and Katharine Hepburn's prim and gorgeous Christian missionary, Rose Sayer. Together they journey down the Ulana River in the Congo, and Rose convinces Charlie to use his boat to torpedo a German gunboat stationed down-river. While the gun-boat is the mission, the focus of the film is the developing relationship between the two stars. At first clashing, mostly over Charlie's alcoholism (solved by Rose pouring out 15 bottles of gin into the river), they grow to like each other, and eventually love each other. They also learn a lot and push each other to do things outside of their comfort zones.
Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnut.
While Hepburn's Rose is at first quite high maintenance seeming, she quickly shakes that and gets involved in the operation of the boat. She, at first quite hesitantly, takes the tiller, and before they know it she is helming the small steam boat over the rapids. While she retains some of her ladylike behaviour and her love of afternoon tea, she steps it up and helps Charlie fix the propeller (underwater), and gets out to wade in leech-infested waters beside Charlie as they pull the small boat through a particularly thick bit of reeds.
In the reeds.
Bogart's performance as Charlie is just as interesting. I'm pretty sure that this is the first film I've ever seen with Bogart in colour, everything else has been in glorious black and white. It's neat to see him in technicolour though, and in a way it helps set aside his legendary noir roles of the 1940s. Charlie is generally a happy person, he's not consumed by a broken heart like Rick Blaine, he carries no chip on his shoulder like Sam Spade or Philip Marlow, and he is not consumed by greed like Dobbs of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Instead, this is a slightly older Bogart, a slightly more mature and content Bogart. He's found a place that he loves (Africa), he's found a way of life he is happy with, and now he's found a companion in Rosie. There is something more positive, more upbeat about this character. Even when he has the occasional angry outburst (as Bogart is so good at), it doesn't seem as seething, and seems to pass more quickly. This is probably due to the character of Charlie Allnut being a Canadian!
The African Queen: the little boat that could!
Aside from a handful of very peripheral characters, the film is carried by it's two stars, as well as the river. Much of the film was shot on location in the Belgian Congo in the early fifties and it sounds like it was quite a shoot. This was the time of the communist witch hunt and the Hollywood blacklist era, and director John Huston, Bogart, and Hepburn, all being rather left-leaning, decided it would be a good idea to get out of dodge for a little while and left for Africa to take on this incredible project. The crew literally drifted down the river on a assembly of rafts and barges for weeks, and faced the real challenges of Africa: Malaria, wild animals, insects, food poisoning.
On set. Apparently director John Huston, with rifle, really wanted to shoot an elephant.
The "Making of" on the DVD shows how while Hepburn was extremely high maintenance and had her own personal WC raft, Bogart was the opposite; during down time he would find a quiet place and lay down for a nap in the shade, wherever he was out of the way. Having worked on set as a PA, part of me appreciates this! Actors, and even low-level ones on Movies-of-the-week are often whisked away back to their trailer when there is the slightest amount of down time. Real stars, like Bogart, are there to do their job, and that is to act, not to tax the film crew with unnecessary duties! Bogart's wife, and movie star in her own right, Lauren Bacall was also on set the whole time. While you would think that she would fall into the Hepburn category of maintenance, she actually was more like Bogart. Like being on a working boat, Bacall understood that if she were to occupy a place there she had to make herself useful, and useful she was, acting as cook and nurse, taking care of those who were sick and wherever else she was needed. Props to Bacall!
Behind the scenes: Bacall (centre) makes sandwiches for the crew.
Down-time: Hepburn, Bacall, Bogart.
So go rent (or borrow from the library, like I did!) The African Queen for a number of reasons:
-Bogart, Hepburn (in their only film together), and the Belgian Congo in beautiful Technicolour
-Bogart as a Canadian!
-It's a major part of the extensive collaborations between Bogart and director John Huston (also including The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Beat the Devil, Across the Pacific, and Key Largo).