Category Archives: 80s American crime films

Forget it, Stanley, it’s Chinatown: Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon

Year of the Dragon posterThe recent death of Michael Cimino saw an outpouring of positive critical and fan commentary about the director’s work. The two films most talked about were the controversial Vietnam War drama, The Deer Hunter (1978), and the sprawling revisionist Western epic, Heaven’s Gate (1980). The Deer Hunter was a hit and won five academy awards. Heaven’s Gate virtually destroyed Cimino’s career and nearly bankrupted United Artists, but has since gone on to enjoy a curious critical rehabilitation, a development which will no doubt be given a prod by the director’s passing.

Cimino did make other films, including The Sicilian (1987) and Desperate Hours, based on the Joseph Hanson stage play and first filmed in 1955 with an ageing Humphrey Bogart, and he penned the scrips for a handful of others. His passing is an opportune time to revisit one of his lessor discussed directorial efforts, the first film he made in the wake the Heaven’s Gate debacle, 1985 neo noir, Year of the Dragon.

Set in New York’s Chinatown, Year of the Dragon opens with the assassination of one of Chinatown’s elders and the murder of an Italian grocery store owner who resists an attempt to shake him down for protection money. The new head of the Chinatown command of the NYPD, Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) believes both deaths are the result of an upsurge in Triad activity.… Read more

‘Scorsese’ at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image

King of ComedySorsese, currently showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, is not exactly the exhibition that is advertised, and that is a very good thing. Martin Scorsese’s career has stretched over half a century and involves nearly sixty films. Yet anyone who has seen advance press and publicity forScorsese could be forgiven for thinking the focus is mainly on the early and more masculine examples of his oeuvre, Mean Streets(1973), Taxi Driver (1976), and Raging Bull (1980).

These movies are certainly compelling, both as individual examples of film craft and for the way they play into the myths and realities of 1970s American cinema, when Scorsese, along with fellow directors and friends Francis Ford Coppola, Stephen Spielberg, and Brian De Palma, tilted against the ailing Hollywood studio system and then become some of its leading lights. But these films in no way tell Scorsese’s whole story.

You can read my full review of ACMI’s Scorsese exhibition at the Australian Book Review Arts Update site here.

The marathon man: 6 great roles of Roy Scheider

Scheider 1I’ve been a long time fan of American actor Roy Scheider. But it was only after a recent viewing of his performance in the Alan J Pakula’s 1971 film, Klute, I realised despite having seen and liked him in a number of films I knew very little about his overall career.

I recently reviewed Klute on this site here, so I won’t go into further detail about the film except to say that Scheider is great as Bree Daniel’s former pimp, Frank Ligourin. His is not a large role, just one or two short scenes, but his presence elevates the entire movie and gives it an additional layer of malevolence. That’s Scheider in every movie I’ve seen him in. He elevates and heightens what’s already present.

Scheider could act and had a great presence, his ropey, perpetually suntanned body and his slightly askew, angular face with the broken nose, a legacy of his time boxing in New Jersey’s Diamond Golden Gloves Competition.The first time I can remember seeing him was when my parents took me to see Steve Speilberg’s Jaws upon its release in 1975. That was probably his best-known role but it was just one among many. He got his start in television and gradually moved into the big screen.… Read more

Chiefs

CHIEFS SLEEVEI’d never heard of Chiefs, a three part 1983 US television series, until recently.

But a recommendation from Overland Magazine deputy editor Jacinda Woodhead got me interested. Her pitch, which wasn’t too far off the mark, was that it has definite similarities to the recent hit series, True Detective.

Chiefs is about three generations of police chiefs in a small southern US town called Delano, each of who tries to solve a number of murders of young white men stretching from the early twenties to the early sixties.

Will Henry Lee (Wayne Rogers, better known as Captain John McIntyre from the hit show, MASH), is the town’s founding chief. A former farmer who can no longer make a living off the land, he is a decent, progressive small ‘L’ liberal and acts in his new job accordingly. Not long after his he takes the job, the body of a young white boy is found near train tracks on the outskirts of Delano. The boy was raped and there are signs he’d been beaten with a truncheon similar to that used by police. Soon, rumours surface about the disappearances of other young white men in the town’s vicinity.

The second chief is Sonny Butts (Brad Davis from the 1978 film, Midnight Express).… Read more

M Emmet Walsh and Blood Simple

Walsh“Well Ma’am if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.” 

The late Roger Ebert called it the “Stanton-Walsh Rule”. Any movie “featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M.Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can’t be altogether bad”.

I’ve always liked Walsh as a character actor. But it was only when I recently re-watched the Cohen Bother’s Blood Simple after many year, that I realised just how on the money Ebert was.

Walsh plays a seedy PI called Loren Visser. Visser hired by a rich Texan bar owner, Julian (Dan Hedaya), to kill his wife, Abby (a very young Francis McDormand), who is cheating with one of Julian’s employees, Ray (John Getz).

If you haven’t seen Blood Simple, it won’t spoil your viewing pleasure too much if I tell you Visser kills Julian, tries to frame Abbey for the murder, and all manner of hell is unleashed.

On one level, Blood Simple comes across as a fairly standard small town film noir. Characters chase their own shadows and do very bad things in an effort to extract themselves from an increasingly fraught and dangerous situation.

What really raises it about the pack of similar films is the Cohen brother’s signature brand of dark weirdness, which managers to be both restrained and shocking. … Read more