#333- Le Samouraï

Quick recap: Jef Costello is either a great hitman or a really terrible one. After completing a job he almost immediately gets picked up by the police and questioned. He manages to weasel his way out, only to find himself in trouble with the guys who hired him. What’s a hitman to do?

maybe start by wearing different clothes than the ones that literally EVERYONE identifies you in.

Fun (?) fact: The quotation about samurai at the beginning of the film is entirely fictional. This movie actually has nothing to do with samurai.

and everything to do with looking cool

My thoughts:  Crime movies are a dime a dozen on this list, but very few of them come from France. And of those, this is the only one where I could’ve kept watching for several more hours and at the same time almost lost my sanity because of the incessant bird chirping.

Director Jean-Pierre Melville borrows much of the aesthetic for Le Samouraï from America at the time- slinky jazz clubs, dapper people running around everywhere. And yet, this is very much a French arthouse film. The first 10 minutes have no dialogue whatsoever and yet, the scene is so enthralling. I also loved that there is a mystery about who this hitman is and who hired him but I knew from the beginning that I wouldn’t be getting any answers. Le Samouraï exists within himself. It’s even impossible to figure out whether or not he is a ‘bad guy’. I mean, he killed someone, yes, but that guy could’ve been evil or something. So I ended up dividing my time between wanting the guy to come out on top but also wanting him to get caught and pay for his crimes. It was a rare feeling to not know how I’m supposed to feel about characters.

One reason the characters are so confusing is because the audience is just thrust into the story. We don’t know how many years the hitman has operated or what business the people who hired him have. In the first few scenes, the hitman sets out creating an alibi for himself before he commits the murder. He visits a woman, Jane, and expects her to lie for him, which she does, when the police call her into question. It is assumed that these two have some sort of relationship but it could also just be that she works for him specifically for this purpose. And the police themselves make this plot even more complicated. I could never figure out whether the hitman was really bad at his job and that’s why he was caught so quickly or if the police were really good at their job and it was only a matter of time. Once again, it was hard to know who to trust.

But above all, there is that stupid bird. God, I hated that bird. I recently lost some of my hearing due to sickness and it’s been both a blessing and a curse. But watching this movie, I heard every single chirp. EVERY. SINGLE. CHIRP. I’m sure there is a fancy French reason to put that in so many scenes but I don’t have the patience to find out. I’m not a fan of hurting or killing any animal but when the guys broke into the hitman’s apartment to leave a recording device, I half hoped they would put that poor bird out of its misery. I’m sure he hated his life as much as I hated hearing him but enough is enough.

Final review: 4/5

Up next: Night and Fog

 

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#325- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Quick recap: An aging senator recounts his younger days in the town of Shinbone and the tale of the man who shot Liberty Valance.

Is THIS the man who shot Liberty Valance??
No. That’s actually Liberty Valance

Fun (?) fact: There’s no set reason why director John Ford chose to film in black in white but the prevailing idea is that both John Wayne and James Stewart were playing characters 30 years younger than their actual ages and it would’ve really shown in color.

You’d think this would be the man who shot Liberty Valance because here he is shooting a gun but once again, WRONG

My thoughts: I’m afraid I’m starting to get a little burned out on James Stewart. He always seems to play the good guy, even when he’s accidentally an asshole. This film is perfect proof of that. Spoiler Alert: Stewart, who played Ransom Stoddard was not actually the man who shot Liberty Valance. To his credit, he didn’t know about it initially and the man who ACTUALLY did the killing gave him his blessing to go on being the legend, but still. Tom, played by John Wayne, was the real man who shot Liberty Valance and this story is about him.

As far as I can tell, having watched a total of two John Wayne films to date, Tom is your basic character. This movie is even the first time Wayne refers to someone as ‘pilgrim’ so that was a fun surprise. And it made sense, because Ransom made a pilgrimage to Shinbone after his run-in with Valance, albeit against his will in the beginning. Tom is a tough guy with a heart of gold and all he really wants is to settle down with his girl Hallie, who SPOILER ALERT, is not his girl at all. Much to everyone’s surprise, apparently, she is a strong independent woman who would like to choose her own destiny. Destiny that leads to Ransom. So, really, this is a classic case of jealousy but the weird kind of jealousy that involves shooting and allowing someone to continue on to Washington to become a decorated senator while you die drunk and alone.

Unlike the moral ambiguity of the paragraph before, Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance is a straight up evil guy. Absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Like, he truly terrified me and that’s saying something. His comic opposite was the Marshall Link, who had some funny spots but when you stop and think about all the people he allowed to die because of being a coward, is much less funny.

Although Westerns typically all follow the same format of good guy/bad guy fight, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance manages to weave in a bunch of moral questions. Lee Marvin is absolutely bad but are Tom and Ransom absolutely good? Does it matter? And what does that do to one’s legacy? In a way, this is the western for people who aren’t too sure about westerns. Give it a chance.

 

Final review: 5/5

Up next: Badlands

 

#318- Night of the Living Dead

Quick recap: Surviving hysterical women and zombies, a black man still can’t manage to get a break. 

Ben knows he’s on his own keeping these idiots alive

Fun (?) fact: Night of the Living Dead is ripe with amazing facts, from the chocolate sauce used for blood to Reader’s Digest warning watching the movie would inspire cannibalism. My favorite, however, is that the word zombie is never used in the film. Not even once.

My thoughts: I typically only fear zombies on a case by case basis. Fast moving ones? nope. Super decomposed ones that groan and like to fight plants? not really. Lumbering ones who look like they have just died and their only purpose is to devour you? Totes. And that’s what Night of the Living Dead had, which is why it worked so well for me. I saw the movie years ago but I don’t remember it having the same impact as it did when I rewatched it this time. Maybe it’s these trying times we are currently in or maybe it was the fact that my cat chose to bite my finger during a particular jumpy scene, but Night of the Living Dead got to me.

So, a few stray observations:

  • I know that almost every horror movie draws inspiration from this film but the opening scene is just like Rocky Horror Picture Show, except that Johnny will never be as annoying as Brad.

Dammit, Johnny

  • Ben is a much nicer person than I would’ve been to Barbra. She was useless the entire time, which I get because of the whole ‘brother eaten by zombies’ thing, but still it made it hard to really root for anyone but him.
  • Zombie children are adorable but they use their cuteness to be absolute savage. Judy never stood a chance

I love how low budget this film is, yet it makes its point so clearly. The scene where the zombies chowed down was gross but it was the scenes where they just stood there hanging out that really bugged me. For something that unnerving, you don’t need millions of dollars to tell a story. The true punch, though, came at the end when Ben is gunned down by police. Those final still shots of the police taking his body using hooks is beyond chilling. If I had watched only that scene, I wouldn’t have been able to tell whether I was watching a horror film or a documentary on police brutality. Director George Romero might not have meant to make such a powerful statement about race, but he did and that’s why this is film is such a true classic.

Final review: 5/5. Essential viewing

Up next: More Horrorfest!

#307- Spartacus

Quick recap: Born a slave in Roman times, Spartacus leads a rebellion to free all people.

Look, no one’s denying that it’s torture. But jumping over blades is a great workout, I bet.

Fun (?) fact: Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, feeling saucy, originally wrote a scene in which Crassus seduces Antoninus by asking if he preferred ‘snails to oysters’. Seeing as that is blatantly sexual, the whole thing was cut until the restoration in 1991. Although the film had survived, the audio hadn’t. Tony Curtis, who played Antoninus was up for dubbing the lines but Laurence Olivier, who played Crassus was not, seeing as how he was dead. His widow remembered that Anthony Hopkins did a spot on impression of him, though, so he filled in the few lines.

Just a dude oiling another dude and talking shellfish. No biggie.

My thoughts: My movie opinions are absolutely swayed by how I choose to view them. A movie watched on a cell phone late at night is not the same as sitting in a dark theater. There have been plenty of films on this list that I would’ve given a much higher rating to had I watched them with an audience or at least somewhere on a big screen. Spartacus is proof of this. I had the privilege of seeing at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, a wonderfully old place. Before the movie started, we were treated to a man playing the organ, which set the mood for the epic we were about to watch. From the second the names flashed on the screen, people clapped and cheered and I knew I was in the perfect place. I wish all movie experiences could be like this one was.

At over a 3 hour run time, Spartacus is a true epic. It’s directed by Stanley Kubrick which I never would’ve guessed, although his attention to detail is very obvious here. I was entertained every second, which is a very difficult feat to pull off in these long films. I can’t think of any scene that felt out of place or filler material. The acting was phenomenal, of course, especially Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) who was able to make me forget about his chin for a few moments.

The more I stare at it, the weirder it looks

I didn’t know much about the movie going in, except for the famous ‘I am Spartacus’ scene ( which was kind of cheesy,tbh), so I had no idea how it would end. After the big battle, I kept expecting a miracle to happen, maybe with Varinia saving the day or something. I loved how dark it got in that final scene, Varinia holding up their son to a dying Spartacus on the cross. As much as I would’ve loved for them to live happier ever after, it was so much more powerful this way. And, honestly, it makes the film Braveheart look like garbage. The plot is basically the same with both heroes sacrificing themselves at the end, but I really sympathized more with Spartacus, who felt a need to free his people, compared to William Wallace who only fought once his love was killed.

Spartacus is meant to be seen like I watched it a few nights ago. I can imagine Stanley Kubrick spitting in disgust at the thought of how we mostly watch movies now. It should be an experience. Something to value.

Final review: 5/5

Up next: Pickup on South Street