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Knuckling Down


In 1975, Walter Hill’s austere “Hard Times” bucked the zoom-happy excesses of that chaotic decade with a combination of rock-solid mise-en-scene and a brilliantly laconic performance by Charles Bronson — one of the few times this major star appeared in a major film. Reissued in a fine new Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, it’s the subject of my review this week in the New York Times.

I’m back from Bologna and “Il Cinema Ritrovato,” a bit late thanks to a bad transfer on Lufthansa that gave me the bonus experience of spending the night in a barracks-like hotel in a suburb of Frankfurt.

I’d like to express my deep appreciation to Antti Alanen for keeping me posted on what was happening on the blog when it proved to be impossible to get a sustained internet connection in my hotel in Bologna (Italy is a wonderful country but you don’t go there for the WiFi), and I was gratified to find that it took at least a week for the conversation to lumber back around to John Ford, as opposed to the usual 24 hours. The audiences in Bologna — a mixture of professionals, visiting cinephiles and students from the area’s many universities — are truly amazing; the Allan Dwan series I helped to organize attracted audiences of two to three hundred for even the most esoteric films on the program, and the atmosphere was one of respect and open-mindedness.

Even the difficult “Most Dangerous Man Alive” — Dwan’s last film (released in 1961) and saddled with its share of awkward lines and amateurish performances — played without a single bad laugh, something that would never happen in the United States. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there was the pleasure of seeing “Up in Mabel’s Room” unleash its impeccably timed waves of hilarity in a full house — the sort of experience seldom available in this age of isolated video viewings. Kevin Brownlow offered a program of clips and personal reminiscences of Dwan, as well as screenings of his personal prints of “Manhandled” (a new digitalization of Kevin’s unique 16-millimeter print), “The Iron Mask” and the one-reeler “The Mormons” from 1912. My profound thanks to Peter von Bagh and Guy Borlee for making it all possible.

270 comments to Knuckling Down

  • DK,

    Hurray for RAW MEAT! Here we are treated to an unusual Donald Pleasence performance: rather than the apologetic, reserved Englishman he specialized in, his Inspector Calhoun is cheeky, boorish, bordering on obnoxious – yet he’s the closest the film has to a hero.

    Instead of DEATH WISH, however, how about the terrific subway scenes in Ferrara’s KING OF NEW YORK?

    And a resounding YES to Chunnel films. Three cheers for Maurice Elvey’s TRANSATLANTIC TUNNEL (1935), with its still-spectacular sets and f/x work. And of course the Melies masterpiece LE TUNNEL SOUS LA MANCHE OU CAUCHEMAR FRANCO-ANGLAIS.

  • Oh, and del Toro’s MIMIC. I dearly love LAST DAYS OF DISCO, and when I showed it to a class once made them “love train” out the door.


  • alex

    There seems to be quite an extensive underground level to the popular cinema!

    But how devilishly little sense of transgression there ‘s been in response to my warning against venturing out into the infinite expanses of surface rail transport….

    …why just titular example (SHANGHAI EXPRESS, TWENTIETH CENTURY, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN …and, turning from the sublime to the ridiculous,… SILVER STREAK, THROW MOMA FROM THE TRAIN….

  • Robert Garrick

    There are dozens more subway appearances in film, but here are two that should not go unmentioned:

    First, Griffin Dunne’s experience with a token clerk (who is first avuncular, then hostile) on a rainy night in Manhattan in Kehr-favorite “After Hours” (1985).

    Second–and this is surely the first appearance the New York subway makes in a color feature–Donen/Kelly’s “On the Town” (1949). The sailors see a poster for “Miss Turnstiles,” and the search is on.

    The people ride through a hole in the ground.

  • David Cohen

    not a subway movie, but TV – the “Seinfeld” subway episode that includes a scene of Jerry waking up on a train across from a very large naked person always makes me laugh.

  • Foster Grimm

    More subways
    Anthony Harvey’s DUTCHMAN. Set in NYC, filmed in London on a set.
    Melville’s TWO MEN IN MANHATTAN. Brief scene actually filmed on a subway and at a station
    (59th St.) Lots of great location shooting.

    The El
    Benedek’s PORT OF NEW YORK. Scene on a platform. Lots of location shooting.

    And let us not forget all those Japanese directors and their love of the rails.

    And, finally caught up with HARD TIMES. Everything said about it here was true.


  • Robert Garrick

    I was about two-thirds of the way through Tony Scott’s “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” (2009) when I thought: “Is this film a big Christian allegory”?

    Mostly I was making a joke with myself, but the joke played out. The film ends with John Turturro looking down from the heavens at the terrestrial tableau below, savoring the souls he has saved. There is guilt; there are confessions; there are pleas for redemption. There are crosses. I imagine there’s more, but I only saw the film once.

    This is one religious film that you won’t see at a church dinner. The script is carpeted with creative profanity–far more so than in any real-life situation–and it keeps you on edge with a grab-bag of fast edits, cross-cuts, and zooms. The mise-en-scene is so busy that you barely have time to wonder what it’s supposed to mean.

    Jamie is correct about the allusions to current events. The film’s bad guy–he’s the Devil, at least for a while–is associated with the big banks. The passengers on the train are linked to the passengers on United 93.

    It seems urgent and important. I wasn’t bored, but I felt curiously disengaged from the proceedings.

    Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (and star Denzel Washington) have been down this road before. Their 2004 film “Man on Fire” (which I have not seen) was also infused with Catholicism, as was “Deja Vu” (2006), which was not scripted by Helgeland. Critic Michael J. Anderson calls “Deja Vu” “the director’s masterpiece” and “one of the great films of the decade.”

    Of “1 2 3” he writes that “Scott, once again, produces a Christian allegory out of his terror-inspired subject. And as with the earlier film, a new life will be offered to one of the film’s characters. While in Déjà Vu this required the re-writing of the past, of ‘fate’ through its science fiction conceit, Scott and Helgeland have effectively classicized their solution in Pelham 1 2 3.”

    Well I don’t know, but at least Anderson has done some serious thinking about the film and about Tony Scott. His review is here:

  • Robert Garrick

    Excuse me, Jaime, for misspelling your first name in the post above.

  • Richard T. Jameson

    Since there has been complete and total precedent for referencing train scenes not having to be underground, and we’ve honored favorite El stations, take a moment to recall the exhilarating racket and shattered light of the real-thing, early-talkie train station in Mamoulian’s APPLAUSE — one of those technical/stylistic/metaphysical landmark moments that never lose their peak-in-Darien thrill.

  • THE INCIDENT. BANANAS, with a young Stallone.

  • APPLAUSE fascinates with its many location-shot scenes of 1929 New York.
    I love seeing films shot in the great cities of the world. Their wonderful subways and train stations are part of this.
    Hint to filmmakers: wish someone would set a comedy-mystery on Manhattan’s High Line.

    Religious symbolism turns up in the most unexpected places.
    Was watching THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (William Wellman) last night.
    At the end of this airplane-suspense film, the airport landing lights are turned on. They form a huge illuminated cross. It is quite overwhelming, like a collaboration between Jordan Belson and Saint John of the Cross.

  • Robert Garrick

    Mike: Also as John Wayne lands the plane, he says “Now I lay me down to sleep.” Wellman wasn’t being too subtle, but I do think the ending of “The High and the Mighty” works, even if much of the rest of the film doesn’t.


  • alex

    I ‘m glad to see Tony Scott getting a little repect, and mosr especially to see his DEJA VU singled out for praise. However, I suspect that whatever durability Scott’s oevre may have will have far more to do with his skill at intensifying the adrenalin thriller by means of what Bordwell dubbed his “intensified continuity “–while retaining an unusual degree of rational consistency with genre piece of a sort prone to flying off their rails — than for Christian allegories.

    On the other hand, Anderson does comes close to composing a parodic masterpiece of allegorical interpretation — indeed realizes one if we assume that the parody is not unwitting.

    RIP, Tony Scott.

  • OFF TOPIC:Spiderbaby plagiarism case Robin Wood has been dragged into the Lianne Macdougal plagiarism case. The intro, or book proposal for her book GRINDHOUSE GIRLS, due shortly from St. Martins, shows lifts from the late Robin Wood’s work on horror.

    Mike White, who has been on this case like white on … Er …. He posted the proposal or intro at one of the few horror fan threads willing to confront the matter:

    Another one is:

    By the way, researchers at these sites have identified at least 50 victimized writers of Macdougal’s plagiarism.

  • Now all that’s needed is some six-degrees-of-separation connection between Lianne MacDougall and Robert Clark Young (aka ‘Qworty’, the 6-year, 13,000-edit plague of Wikipedia), whose equally egregious activities have recently been uncovered, and we’ll have the stuff of an Errol Morris documentary.

  • John Heath

    This plagiarism case is depressing on so many levels. I can only imagine how cheated the writers she ripped off must feel, but as someone who admires great film criticism, it’s depressing to see how bland the pilfered product was. The modest changes she made eliminated whatever value and personality existed in the original writings she exploited. She was winning awards for this passionless twaddle? Film criticism must be in worse shape than I realized.

  • Bill DeLapp

    Sleuths and subways: The San Francisco subway is used in the finale of the 1971 Sidney Poitier/Virgil Tibbs sequel THE ORGANIZATION. There’a slso a death scene in the Manhattan subway during the 1968 George Peppard outing PJ; the re-edited syndicated TV print rendered the scene incomprehensible, but there is a complete version floating around on the Internet.

    Very off topic but relating to a Christopher Nolan mention somewhere in the middle of this thread: A longtime comics writer offered this observation to me: “MAN OF STEEL is a Superman movie made by people who hate Superman.”

    Back on topic: Walter Hill’s EXTREME PREJUDICE is currently on the Cinemax channels, presumably looking much better than its full-frame DVD incarnation. And maybe Hill is just the auteur that struggling action hero Jason Statham needs.

  • And let’s not forget the subway dual fight scene in the recent FAST AND FURIOUS 6.

  • Paul Duane

    Joining up the Hill and Scott threads, I’ve always felt it odd that Alien is rarely considered as part of the Walter Hill oeuvre. I’m not saying that Ridley Scott didn’t direct it, but Hill had a great deal of say in the handling of the material. Compare the pared-down style, the use of cryptic, deliberately audience-frustrating dialogue, the overall simplicity and clarity of the mise-en-scene with any of Scott’s other films, and then look at the film in the light of Hill’s career….