crime

READ THE WORLD: Mali – The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampâté Bâ

Translated by Aina Pavolini Taylor.

Set in the early 1900’s, The Fortunes of Wangrin follows the life of Wangrin, and interpreter for the French colonisers who hustles both the colonial French and his own people in order to make money and to get the life he wants.

Wangrin as a character is one of those loveable rogue kind of characters. He’s charming, corrupt, a grifter, and an opportunist. It’s admirable in a way how he thinks up these schemes that uses his privileged position of power, being an interpreter means he’s very close to high-ranking French officials and has access to the booking, records and other official documents that he can sneakily use as he wishes.

Part of Wangrin’s ultimate downfall – like almost any corrupt and opportunistic character – is that he’s greedy. He makes a lot of enemies, some with a lot more power than him, and when there’s moments where he should stop looking for the next big money-making scheme, or stop trying to manipulate someone one, he just ignores them and carries on. It’s like he’s so confident in his own abilities that he can’t foresee anyway what he’d lose.

I liked the fact that part of The Fortunes of Wangrin was set during the First World War. Being a Brit a lot of the media I’ve consumed featuring WWI is from a British or Western prospective but here, it’s seen from the French point of view, and from the point of view of the colonised. In history class we briefly learnt about how people of various British colonised countries were (or weren’t) involved in the conflict so seeing it from the French colonised citizens point of view was interesting. How Wangrin didn’t have to go and fight due to his job but so many other Black people were sent to the coast to fight but also for the white Frenchmen in charge, the day-to-day aspects of running this country wasn’t that affected by the war.

I liked how The Fortunes of Wangrin shows the realities of a colonised country. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a story set during the colonial period and seeing how Wangrin has to deal with white bureaucrats, and balance the religion and culture he grew up in with the new set ideals by the French was interesting. He’s smart and sneaky but that can’t always save him from the double standards imposed by the colonisers on him and his fellow countrymen.

The Fortunes of Wangrin is an interesting read. It’s also often surprisingly funny as Wangrin can be witty and talk himself out of conflicts in an amusing way. The humour makes it easier to read as some of the language and writing style can be a bit dry.

READ THE WORLD – Luxembourg: Dr. Mabuse by Norbert Jacques

Translated by Lillian A. Clare.

Set in 1920s Germany, Dr. Mabuse is a greedy anarchist who assumes many guises and controls a legion of henchmen (both willingly and unwillingly) through money, power, and telepathic hypnosis. State prosecutor Norbert von Wenk gets put on Dr. Mabuse’s trail after strange things happen at gambling halls and so begins a game of cat and mouse.

Dr. Mabuse is a great villain. He’s truly evil and is a power-hungry master-manipulator. He can hypnotise people to do what he wills, whether it’s cheating at a game of cards or even taking their own life. The way the hypnotism is described by one of he’s victims is very unsettling and uncomfortable, especially when he’s forcing his will upon a woman. It is for all intents and purposes rape of the mind and body. He’s also great at disguises and putting on different personas so at times von Wenk and Dr. Mabuse are in the same room and may even be talking to one another but von Wenk has no idea that it’s the man he’s after until later.

The writing style of Dr. Mabuse is that typical late nineteenth century style. The language, the mystery, and the action reminded me both of Sherlock Holmes and Raffles at times. If you like stories about those characters – though they’re both far more heroic than Dr. Mabuse – then you might like this one too.

Dr. Mabuse is a fun, pulpy, mystery. It’s full of twists and turns and though some of them are unbelievable – how this man manages to evade capture at some points incredible – but it just goes to show how Dr. Mabuse is the kind of criminal mastermind that’s always a few steps ahead. Though it goes to great lengths to show how smart Dr. Mabuse is, it doesn’t do so at the detriment of von Wenk. He’s a pretty smart and capable man himself, and has enough pull with the law to get police officers (and a lot of them) where he needs them quickly. It is fun seeing von Wenk put things together and try and solve the case. There’s a lot of surprises and when some of Dr. Mabuse’s accomplices would rather die than say anything about him, von Wenk faces a lot of dead ends.

Dr. Mabuse is a pretty enjoyable read and being set in 1920s Germany it’s interesting to see the effects of the First World War on the German citizens and society. They were often only passing mentions but it helped make me understand the place that Dr. Mabuse was operating in. 4/5.

T is for The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The trouble with Harry is that he is dead and, while no one really minds, everyone feels responsible. After Harry’s body is found in the woods, several locals must determine not only how and why he was killed but what to do with the body.

Because some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most well know films like Psycho, The Birds, and Rear Window (only one of which I’ve seen but their reputations precede them) are horror or thriller films, I always get a bit surprised when I watch one of his films and find it’s a comedy. There’s still a dead body and the mystery of who killed him, but The Trouble with Harry is a much more light hearted film than I expected.

While everything does revolve around a murder the dialogue is often quite witty. As the characters try and figure out what happened to Harry and who was really to blame, the situation surrounding Harry’s body gets more absurd as by trying to save themselves, they might actually be making themselves look more and more guilty.

The Trouble with Harry is Shirley MacLaine’s first feature film and it’s so interesting to see her in a role like this when all the films I’ve previously seen her in she’s been a cranky and/of humorous older lady, granting wisdom or causing mischief. It’s clear she had her comic timing from the beginning and she has good chemistry with John Forsythe – even if their characters romance seemed a bit rushed. Though that’s probably because the events of The Trouble with Harry all take place across just a couple of days, meaning any reveals or blossoming romance between characters does feel a bit quick.

Even though there’s a corpse at the centre of The Trouble with Harry, thanks to where it’s set and all the scenes outside, it feels like a very autumnal film. It has a charm to it that I wasn’t expecting and is a very family friendly murder mystery. 3/5.

R is for Rope (1948)

Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) attempt to prove they’ve committed the perfect crime by hosting a dinner party after strangling their former classmate to death.

I’ve currently only watched like three Hitchcock films but this is definitely my favourite. It has so many tropes I love like the plot just being contained to one location and disaster gays because yep, this film from the 1940s is one of the gayest things I’ve ever seen. Honestly, I went into Rope knowing nothing about it and 10 minutes in I had to pause it and google “Rope Hitchcock gay” as I wasn’t sure if I was reading too much into it from a modern perspective but nope, turns out it was understood to be pretty gay in the 40s too.

This comes from the relationship between Brandon and Phillip, two friends and flatmates. Dall and Granger have great chemistry and their relationship is fascinating. While Phillip slowly starts to unravel as the guilt and tension gets to him, Brandon relishes in their crime and the fact their dinner guests are unaware that the missing guest is currently dead and in a chest in the middle of the living room they’re all sitting in.

Rope is so gripping as you spend most of the film in the murders shoes and not wanting them to get caught because they are both very likable. Brandon’s effortlessly charming, though he can make a biting comment now and then, and Phillip is sweet and as he gets stressed about their situation, so do you.

It’s Rupert (James Stewart), their former school housemaster, who poses the biggest threat to the murderers. A lot of the theories about morality that Brandon buys into he learnt from Rupert and as he knew them both when they were younger, Rupert is likely to be the one to figure out when something’s not quite right.

Filmmaking-wise Rope is just great. It’s just set in their New York apartment and so much of the action takes place in the living room, with the chest with a body inside a presence in the room that as the viewer, you’re always aware of. Rope is comprised of a lot of long takes, each are often five minutes long or more, and it’s so interesting when you realise what’s happening. It makes the film feel like everything’s happening in real time and therefore the tension builds organically. The way the camera and actors move around the set is like a dance and a lot of the cuts are “hidden” so it zooms into the back of someone’s jacket before moving out again or something similar.

While obviously Dall, Granger, and Stewart are the main focus of Rope (though Stewart doesn’t actually appear on screen until almost 30 minutes into this 80-minute film) the supporting cast are a good too and the characters feel and act as they would at a slightly awkward dinner party. I loved Janet (Joan Chandler), Phillip and Brandon’s friend and the girlfriend of the missing party guest. She has a wry sense of humour and isn’t afraid to call out Brandon’s sly comments.

Rope is just a really interesting film. It’s a tense film with a great cast and the homoerotic subtext between Brandon and Phillip just adds extra layers to it all. 5/5.

P is for Psycho (1960)

Secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a young man with a domineering mother.

Due to pop culture osmosis, I knew the general gist of Psycho and a lot of the twists before watching it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t surprise me though and I was thoroughly gripped throughout. Seeing how those famous pop culture moments unfolded was probably just as thrilling as if I knew nothing at all about it.

As soon as the opening titles appear accompanied by that iconic score by Bernard Herrmann I was enthralled. The fact that it starts with that unsettling and creepy music puts you on edge from the very beginning. The music, along with it being a Hitchcock film, makes you unsure who to trust long before anything really bad or suspicious happens. When Marion is leaving town with the money and encounters a police officer, the way he’s framed and the fact she can’t see his eyes because of his sunglasses makes it feel like he’s always watching her. His presence makes her act more nervous and guilty and that makes his presence felt even more.

Anthony Perkins is just brilliant as Norman Bates. He’s young and good-looking, and he has that boy next door kind of charm to him so when he does become serious it feels more unnerving. He does a great job of juggling the various shades of Norman’s personality and Psycho is one of those films that wouldn’t have worked so well with someone else in the role.

It’s kind of fascinating watching Psycho now, sixty years after it was made because it’s clear that it’s the inspiration of so many other films and the filmmaking feels ahead of its time. The silent by imposing police officer reminded me of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and so many of the scares have been riffed on in other films and shows but seeing the original now just demonstrates how great it actually is.

I’m very pleased I’ve finally watched Psycho. It’s a classic that lives up to its reputation; it’s creepy, foreboding and just fantastic filmmaking. 5/5.

M is for Matchstick Men (2003)

Phobia-addled and compulsive con artist Roy (Nicolas Cage and his protégé Frank (Sam Rockwell) are on the verge of pulling off a lucrative con when Roy’s teenage daughter Angela (Alison Lohman) shows up on his doorstep.

Matchstick Men is one of those films I’d heard of but knew nothing about the actual plot. I’d heard of it in the sense I’d seen it be mentioned as an underappreciated Nicolas Cage movie, and having now watched it I kind of agree. It’s really a hidden gem of a film when it comes to Cage and Rockwell and their performances.

But the real standout is Lohman. Gosh, she’s incredible and really holds her own up against Cage who she shares just about every one of her scenes. The relationship between Angela and Roy is so sweet and awkward as he is completely out of his depth talking to a teenage girl. He suddenly has someone else in his home, making a mess when he has everything clean and orderly, and it is clearly a struggle for him. They both have their issues with trust and letting each other in, but it’s clear from pretty much the outset that they care about one another.

While Matchstick Men is a sort of heist film and features a few different cons as well as the long con Frank and Roy are working on, it’s more about the relationships between the characters. The cons, while interesting and at times fun, take a backseat so the characters become what you’re invested in more than the con.

Like any good film with a con, Matchstick Men surprised me. It’s funny and weird at times thanks to Cage’s eccentric but never over the top performance, but it’s also sweet and kind of sad too. All the characters are looking for some sort of connection while also trying to keep their heads above water.

So yes, I join the ranks of calling Matchstick Men an underappreciated film. Whether you’re a Nicolas Cage fan, a Sam Rockwell fan, or a Ridley Scott fan because that’s who directed this odd but great film, there’s probably going to be something for you to enjoy here. 4/5.

D is for Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)

Richard (Paddy Considine), a soldier, returns to his small hometown to get revenge on the small-time drug dealers and thugs who tormented his mentally challenged brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) while he was away.

Dead Man’s Shoes is one of those DVDs that has been sitting on my shelves for years. Honestly, I could have had this film for close to ten years without watching it. Now I finally have and boy was it an intense but great viewing experience that I don’t think I’ll want to repeat anytime soon.

Paddy Considine is just fantastic. The fact he’s nearly always calm and measured when talking to people means he’s unsettling and threatening but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is exactly about him that makes you feel this way. He has all this bottled up rage, just simmering underneath the surface and the moment when you can see the rage in his eyes you know someone is about to suffer.

Toby Kebbell also does a great job portraying Anthony who is a bit simple, naïve and trusting. It’s hard for actors and scripts to portray this kind of role well and realistically, without becoming an insensitive cliché but Kebbell manages it.

What really pulled me in was the dialogue. The script is great as all the dialogue between the gang members especially feels natural and conversational and the actors’ performances are naturalistic too. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised by that as it’s a Shane Meadows film and he is a director who can get natural and engaging performances from his casts. You definitely don’t feel sorry for the gang members as Richard gives them a taste of their own medicine but it’s easy to feel caught up in their desperate bid to survive even when everything is falling apart around them.

While it’s clear they are horrible people, Dead Man’s Shoes treads a fine line to begin with as Richard’s brand of justice almost seems disproportionate to what we see happened to Anthony in black and white flashbacks. But as his quest for revenge continues, we see more and more of what Anthony went through is revealed you start to wonder if there’s a limit to the violence Richard is willing to dish out.

Dead Man’s Shoes is brutal and intense and a very well-made film. The cast is brilliant and script that feels real and honest about how strong a brother’s love can be and Considine’s powerful performance really does anchor the whole thing together. 5/5.

C is for City Heat (1984)

Kansas City, 1933. After his partner is murdered, private investigator Mike Murphy (Burt Reynolds) tries to solve the case and take down the mob while his former friend Lieutenant Speer (Cint Eastwood) does the same.

City Heat is marketed as a buddy comedy set in the prohibition era and if often feels like it’s not a particularly great parody rather than an entertaining action comedy. I say parody as there one scene in particular where Speer shoot a guy multiple times and he continues walking and shooting far longer than he realistically would be able to. Yes, realism isn’t always there in action films (people never running out of bullets or stopping to reload) but this was super noticeable.

The small moments of comedy that worked for me was when there was a play on words. For example, when threatening one of the mobsters Speer asks, “You know what an ‘ilk’ is don’t ya?” and he replies, “A big deer?” and I don’t know why but that really tickled me. The more physical comedy didn’t work for me at all but Eastwood’s dry delivery of some lines did make me crack a smile.

A main selling point of City Heat probably was Reynolds and Eastwood and having these two genre legends share the screen. Unfortunately, they don’t actually do that a lot. While it might be marketed as their solving the crime together, they’re actually both individually trying to figure out what happened and, bar the opening scene and the final showdown, their paths only briefly cross now and then. A lot of the time they shoot a couple of barbs at one another, refuse to be honest about what they know and then go off to follow their own leads. The opening sequence did have some potential as it showed off the difference between Murphy and Speer. Murphy likes to think he’s a smooth talker and a charmer while Speer is more stoic and drier. It was a cliched juxtaposition that worked but then they spent the next hour barely together at all.

Murphy’s partner Dehl Swift (Richard Roundtree) does a whole load of double-crossing various people including mobsters. Because all of these members of the mob were dressed the same and looked similar, it was kind of hard to keep track of who’s who and who was the guy at the top of the food chain. The fact that I found myself not particularly caring about the plot or the characters probably was part of the reason I wasn’t really following who was who and instead was getting bored.

The women in City Heat aren’t that great as most of them are there to be love interests or to be kidnapped – or both. But I have to say I did like Addy (Jane Alexander), Murphy’s secretary and friend, a lot. She was smart with a great wry sense of humour and her comedic timing was probably the best out of everyone.

One decent character and a few dry quips from Eastwood doesn’t make City Heat a worthwhile watch unfortunately. The plot is often incomprehensible and dull and a lot of the shootouts are long, repetitive and just not interesting to watch either so when the action starts you’re still not entertained. City Heat tries to be an action film and a comedy and it doesn’t really achieve either. If Reynolds and Eastwood were on screen together more then the little sparks of chemistry seen when they were together might’ve made it more enjoyable but alas, they weren’t so it wasn’t. 1/5.

B is for Blue Steel (1990)

Trigger warning for rape and domestic abuse.

After an armed robbery goes awry, rookie cop Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) finds herself as the target when a witness (Ron Silver) becomes obsessed with her.

I went into this film knowing very little, in fact the reason I had a DVD of it was because it’s directed by Kathryn Bigelow and I’d been meaning to watch more of her films.

Blue Steel is a bit of a strange film in a way. It’s mostly framed as a typical cop action/thriller but as it progresses it almost becomes a slasher film – having Jamie Lee Curtis, Final Girl extraordinaire herself, as the lead sure does help cement that feeling.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Jamie Lee Curtis does give a great performance as Megan, showing her vulnerability as well as her strength, but it’s a bit difficult to understand Megan’s motivations for becoming a police officer. Anytime someone asks her reasons she makes a quip about shooting people or shoving them face first into a wall. It seems like she wants to have power and some of her actions are questionable. The villain of the film alludes to the fact that they aren’t so different and you can see some of those similarities he’s talking about. It makes her as a hero interesting, because sometimes it’s almost as if you want her to survive just because that’s how the general narrative of these sort of films usually work, not because she’s a character you become attached to.

The slasher element comes when Megan is being stalked by the witness. He makes himself a part of her life before showing her who he really is, though very few people believe her. He is suitably creepy and unsettling as you’re never sure what he’s going to do next. Plus, as bullets start flying, he almost seems to be indestructible as he shakes off injuries pretty quickly and just keeps coming after Megan. He puts her some mental and physical torture. The way in which he doesn’t stop is reminiscent of the slasher villains who never seem to stay dead. This kind of stretches the realm of plausibility as for the most part Blue Steel seems grounded in reality.

I in no way mean this as an insult but the score from Brad Fiedel is a great example of a 90s thriller/action score. The sound of it kind of encapsulates that time period and those kinds of films. It’s an unsettling score at times and compliments the action on screen, amping the tension well, but it also feels like a product of its time. It just instantly made me know what kind of film I was watching and when it was made. It’s quite the skill really.

Clancy Brown as the leading man is different (he played a detective and Megan’s reluctant partner) though I didn’t really believe in his relationship with Megan. It seemed to move too fast and was almost contrived. I think that’s the thing with Blue Steel, its ninety-minute runtime helps cover some of its flaws, as does the performances from the leads, but the story doesn’t really follow real world logic. If you think about it too long, you’ll probably like it less. 3/5.

As a side note, Blue Steel is one of those films I get enjoyment from just because of the cast. There were so many actors in this where I was like, “I recognise him” before realising that I was used to seeing them with white hair and looking 30 years older.

A is for Absolute Power (1997)

In the middle of committing a crime himself, master thief Luther Whitney (Clint Eastwood) witnesses a woman being murdered and none other than the President of the United States (Gene Hackman) is involved.

Directed by Eastwood, Absolute Power is a pretty decent and often fun cat and mouse game. As Detective Seth Frank (Ed Harris) looks into the murder he finds that there may have been more than one person in the room when the victim died, and some of them may not have even been the murderer. Meanwhile the members of the Secret Service and the Chief of Staff (Judy Davis) who were there that night are looking into who could’ve witnessed the crime and are doing everything in their power to protect themselves and the President.

One of the most interesting scenes was between Detective Frank and Luther. Frank goes to Luther to try and figure out if he was involved with the murder and to learn how a thief would get in the home. It’s one of those great scenes where both characters think the other knows something, but aren’t revealing everything and each have their own motivations. Seeing actors like Harris and Eastwood bounce off one another is never not entertaining.

As I was watching Absolute Power, I was reminded of a film that came out 10 years later, Shooter directed by Antoine Fuqua. Having them as a double bill would be interesting as they’re both films about a guy either being set up by the government or being hounded by it and the cat and mouse game that ensues as slowly those he cares about gets caught up in it. With Absolute Power that’s Luther’s estranged daughter Kate (Laura Linney). I thought their relationship was interesting as they’re not close because he’s a career thief but it becomes clear that Luther still cares about her in his own way. Won’t lie, was a bit worried when Luther and Kate first met as I didn’t know he had a daughter and thought for a horrible moment Absolute Power would be another film with a big age gap between Eastwood and his love interest but thankfully this wasn’t the case.

Whether or not Absolute Power is a particular memorable film is to be seen but it’s a pretty interesting and fun thriller. 3/5.