One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the early days of the pandemic, Part 3
By Laurence Lerman
I was looking up something about Atomic Blonde, the 2017 espionage thriller starring the always-game Charlize Theron, and learned along the way that it was primarily shot in Budapest, which stood in for Cold War-era Berlin. Clicking away to see what else had been recently shot in Budapest, I came upon a trailer for that same year’s Budapest Noir, a title that was too juicy—at that moment—to ignore…
Written and directed by Hungarian-born Éva Gárdos, Budapest Noir offers all the stylistic flourishes that one expects from a noir—shadowy streets, smoky bars, slick back alleys, suspicious law enforcers and a hard-boiled reporter, here investigating the murder of a prostitute in 1936 Budapest where Fascism is slowly on the rise. The canted angles and evocative lighting are right on, but what’s missing in this one from Hungarian-born writer/director Éva Gárdos (a veteran editor whose directorial debut was 2001’s immigrant drama An American Rhapsody) is the cynical sense of fate that usually whirls around a noir protagonist as he tries to unravel the central mystery—or extricate himself from one. Still, Budapest Noir was a good-looking, engaging-enough “neo” descent into that ripest of cinematic genres. But I was now hungry for the genuine article…
Pushover from 1954 was recommended by a friend, who described it as “Double Indemnity Lite, with Fred MacMurray playing the same kind of role and Kim Novak looking like Kim Novak.”
He was right. In Pushover, MacMurray’s undercover cop falls for gangster’s moll Kim Novak, who he’s been assigned to shadow to track down a satchel of stolen bank money. Is it any surprise that she quickly convinces him that the two of them should make a grab for the stash?
No, it’s not Double Indemnity—not even close—but Pushover is noteworthy for being Novak’s film debut and there’s no denying that she brings an overwhelming Fifties-flavored femininity to her role, an approach that’s less hard-edged than Barbara Stanwyck’s in DI, but no less seductive. Notably, journeyman director Richard Quine (whose wide-ranging filmography includes everything from 1951’s Sunny Side of the Street to 1979’s The Prisoner of Zenda) mounts MacMurray and Novak’s early peeping-tom stakeout scenes with both tension and relish.
I ran aground from the flow of the stream when I learned of the sad death of the fine Indian actor Irrfan Khan at the age of 53 from a colon infection. A regular fixture in Hindi cinema (do I have to refer to it as “Bollywood?”) for more than 20 years, Khan became an increasingly visible presence on Hollywood screens over the past decade.
I’d seen and admired Khan in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006) and, later, in such notably bigger Hollywood movies as The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Jurassic World (2015) and Inferno (2016), the terribly titled third entry in the Da Vinci Code series. I wasn’t up on any of the dozens of titles in Khan’s Hindi filmography; a little research informed me that 2017’s Hindi Medium would be a good place to start.
A comedy-drama written and directed by Saket Chaudhary, Hindi Medium finds Irrfan Khan and rising Pakistani star Saba Qamar as middle-class parents trying to wangle an opportunity for their young daughter to be enrolled at a prestigious English middle school in Delhi. They relocate, they hire consultants, they fiddle with their societal standing—anything to get their little gal into the right school. The movie is a sweet one and Khan and Qamar’s performances are effortlessly charming. Angrezi Medium, a “spiritual sequel” to Hindi and also starring Khan, was released right before Khan passed and may make a future stream.
Right around then I decided that the striking 2012 Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s gorgeous and rewarding adventure tale that co-starred Irrfan Khan, deserved a second viewing (particularly as I had first seen it in its 3-D incarnation in the front row of a packed theater, and my senses were still reeling from the technological whirl of sound and vision). I stopped before I started, reconsidered the works of director Lee, and instead opted for his 1997 suburban drama The Ice Storm.
Its fantastic depiction of upscale, early Seventies suburbia aside (in this case, 1973 New Canaan, Connecticut), The Ice Storm puts together one of the finest ensemble casts of this decade, from seasoned performers Kevin Kline, Joan Allen and Sigourney Weaver to the fresh faces of Tobey Maguire, David Krumholtz, Elijah Wood, Katie Holmes and “veteran” child actress Christina Ricci. And then there’s the delight of those vintage steel ice cube trays, suburban key parties (my mother denies things like that ever happening in Central Jersey…) and a Richard Nixon latex mask used as a sexual prop.
The Ice Storm prompted an even deeper dive into Connecticut suburbia with The Swimmer, the strange 1968 drama based on John Cheever’s short story and starring Burt Lancaster, whose affluent middle-aged man dons a bathing suit and “swims his way home” through a bunch of backyard swimming pools.
Directed and written by the husband and wife team of Frank and Eleanor Perry, The Swimmer still clicks—a tale of a man who’s dissatisfied with his life as he steamrolls through middle age abetted by a whole bunch of cocktails, superficiality and self-delusion. Lancaster was in his mid-50s when he made The Swimmer, and if I looked as good as he did in his swimsuit at that age, I can tell you I wouldn’t have been that angst-ridden. But he does have his problems, as we later learn…or maybe they’re all just a dream? Oy.
Submerging for a refreshing dip takes a nastier turn in Swimming with Sharks, the 1994 Hollywood take-down starring Kevin Spacey and Frank Whaley concerning a brutal studio producer and his new young assistant. “You are nothing! If you were in my toilet, I wouldn't bother flushing it. My bathmat means more to me than you!” Spacey roars at Whaley at one point, foreshadowing Hollywood’s current feelings about two-time Oscar winner Spacey (he won his second for 1999’s American Beauty, a direct, gay-infused descendant of The Swimmer).
Benicio del Toro’s supporting bit as Spacey’s hardened, outgoing assistant in Swimming is funny and memorable, so I don’t know why I keep forgetting he’s in it. Until his breakthrough the following year in The Usual Suspects, Benicio’s distinctive presence has made an impression as Duke the Dog-Faced Boy in Big Top Pee-wee (1988) and, better, as cocaine kingpin Robert Davi’s henchman in 1989’s License to Kill, one of two James Bond movies starring Timothy Dalton.
License to Kill is the best Bond film of the Eighties (the decade that gave us the tepid For Your Eyes Only and A View to a Kill), with Dalton’s Bond going rogue and looking for payback from Davi for throwing Bond’s C.I.A. pal Felix Leiter to the sharks after killing his new bride. When Bond has his license revoked by MI6 while in Key West’s Hemingway House and he’s forced to surrender his Walther PPK handgun to the brass, Dalton sires forth all his RADA training to proclaim that “It’s a farewell to arms,” before bopping his way out of the tourist trap to take down the real bad guys.
Any post-Connery Bond inevitably sparks an interest to return to the Sixties, when the Cold War was at full chill and the Bond imitators were a dime a dozen. Matt Helm, Derek Flint, Bulldog Drummond, Tony Randall—Tony Randall?!? Yeah, if you can believe it. While I preparing to cue up You Only Live Twice, I bumped into Our Man in Marrakesh, a 1966 British spy caper with a lighter touch starring Randall as an oil exec who gets into a North by Northwest-ish situation while traveling to Morocco, forcing him to James Bond through a handful of car chases, pistols, fist fights and intimate scenes with Euro starlet Senta Berger (who previously fleshed out the 1964 Man from U.N.C.L.E. adventure The Spy with My Face and later shook it up with Matt Helm in 1967’s The Ambushers).
Our Man in Marrakesh was produced and co-written by Britain’s Harry Alan Towers, who was prolific force behind a wave of moderately budgeted “exotic” genre flicks in the Sixties and Seventies back in the day. This one didn’t quite click, though the site of Felix Unger getting chased through a Moroccan street market made the stream worth it.
It also demanded respect be paid to the indefatigable Felix Unger himself with a couple of episodes from TV’s The Odd Couple, featuring Randall and the great Jack Klugman—which, I swear, gets better with each passing year (unlike the Lemmon/Matthau film, which retains the purity of its simple premise but remains firmly entrenched in 1968).
It’s never a chore to return to one of my Seventies television staples—it’s more a question of which of the series’ 114 episodes I should watch. I went to the top this time out: Season Four’s “The Flying Felix” (“I-much-fear-there’s-trouble-in-the-fuselage-Frederick.”) and Season Three’s “Password” (“Aristophanes!”) If you’re baffled by the quotes, well, then I guess you weren’t aware of the known fact that Lincoln loved mayonnaise.
Don’t listen to me. Just watch both of them.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about.