will I see you tonight, on a downtown train?

While Boston didn’t get it as bad as the rest of the East Coast, nine inches of snow fell on us from late Saturday night into early Sunday afternoon. This wouldn’t have been enough to dissuade us from jiu-jitsu (grr! we’re tough!), but since Watertown declared a snow emergency, we couldn’t have parked on the street our dojo sits on (we obey the law!).

That sounds like a mis-translated Shaw Brothers movie, actually: Tough Guys Who Obey All Laws. Starring Gordon Liu and Sun Chien; directed by Chang Cheh.

So I stayed inside all day Sunday and watched movies. Including and limited to:

Get Carter: Brutal and compelling, of a style that found frequent imitators through the 70s and 80s but retained little of the source’s art. A young Michael Caine (whom Matt W. told me I resembled once, back when my hair was curlier and my sideburns longer, plus I was carrying a shotgun and slapping around the proprietor of a Newcastle B&B; only now do I get it) plays Jack Carter, a London mob enforcer who goes north to investigate his brother’s death. He sinks waist-deep into a genuine mystery, popping pills and assembling clues until he uncovers the predictable, yet still galling, truth.

What puts Get Carter a head and shoulders above its imitators (including Tarantino) is its art. The cinematography is excellent: from the opening shot of Carter, backlit in an apartment window and staring over London with a drink in his hand, to the crane shot that follows him as he flees pursuers on foot and jumps into a waiting car, to the film’s tense climax. Midway through the film, a local youth group parades down a main street in full mufti. They play some stirring march in a kazoo chorus. The cookie-cutter rowhomes of the street they march on frame a massive factory and burbling smoke stacks at the bottom of a hill. ThinK Pittsburgh without the charm: it’s a beautiful juxtaposition.

Jack Carter is a psychopath. He lets the people who help him get beat up, robbed or even killed without much in the way of tears. He holds nothing sacred except family. And even that, we feel, is not out of some duty to the hearth but as a way of redeeming his past. “Frank wasn’t like that,” he yells at one point, shaking his listener by the shoulder. “I’m the villain in the family, remember?” Carter wants proof that the sadism he engages in is a choice, not in his blood. The fear that his family – his brother Frank and Frank’s daughter Doreen – might have fallen as far terrifies him. And like a terrified dog, he bites and never lets go.

Strangers on a Train: One of Hitchcock’s sharpest. Two men meet on a train ride from New York to D.C.: a handsome young tennis player, Guy Haines, and a rich, idle bachelor, Bruno Anthony. The two get to talking – Haines reluctantly – until it comes out that Guy wants to divorce his unfaithful wife, while Bruno chafes under his father’s thumb. Bruno suggests that two people who’d met by accident – like he and Guy – could swap murders and solve each other’s problems. Guy patronizingly agrees in order to get away from Bruno. But when he arrives in D.C. a day later, he discovers that his wife has been murdered …

All the usual elements are here: a man falsely accused. A woman uncovering a mystery. A maniac with a twisted relationship with his mother. Odd psychological contrivances. Races against the clock. Climactic battles in odd locales.

Example: In the film’s climax, Guy must win a tennis match as quickly as possible in order to hop a train to Connecticut. While avoiding the police who are tailing him. So he can catch Bruno planting evidence. But at the same time, through Hitchcock’s genius we find ourselves rooting for Bruno as well. We hope that nobody spots him, or that he doesn’t lose the crucial piece of evidence – because that would deflate Hitchcock’s meticulous ending into an anti-climax. Compare this to J.J. Abrams, whose idea of cranking up tension involves making everyone run (q.v. Star Trek, Mission Impossible 3).

Robert Walker as mama’s boy Bruno Anthony is the real gem here. He wavers between harmless eccentricity and casual brutality in a way that Anthony Perkins – to say nothing of Anthony Hopkins – must have mirrored. We find him fascinating in the way that a snake fascinates a rat. Sadly, Strangers on a Train was his last film. In August 1951, he suffered an acute allergic reaction to a dose of sodium amytal, administed by his psychiatrist for nerves. He died (like Brittany Murphy, who just passed this Sunday) at age 32.

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2 Responses

  1. I actually had the scene where Caine is marched out into the street naked in mind, but I’m glad you finally see the resemblance.

  2. Stand on your porch nude with a shotgun one time – one time! – and you never live it down.

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