May Mysteries and Thrillers
By Kristin Battestella
There’s nothing like a sudden Spring thunder buster to get one in the mood for some intellectual foils and heart pumping thrills! Here are a few old school staples, modern mysteries, and some foreign intrigue to shock and delight your inner whodunit.
Classic Must Sees
Strangers on a Train – Passengers Robert Walker (Since You Went Away) and Farley Granger (Rope) plot to switch crimes in this slightly unloved but oft studied 1951 Alfred Hitchock (Psycho, people, I’ll just stop there!) thriller. All the complex atmosphere and psychological analysis needed is here in duplicate. Do we all have it in us for the anonymous kill? What can drive a man to take such latent impulses into action? Infidelity? Shame? Peer pressure? Where does the wronged Average Joe end and the sociopath begin- and which of our men is which? How far can one take such crime and battles of seemingly pure versus the corrupt and expect to get away with it? Hitchcock’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel offers plenty of dual debate and subtextual suspense for the enthusiast as well as the uninitiated viewer. And on a side note, it’s so nice to see a fine DVD presentation and subtitles for the classics!
Three Days of the Condor – Sure, the music is a little dated, and you need some knowledge of seventies politics and sentiments of the time. But this 1975 spy thriller directed by Oscar winner Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, Out of Africa) and starring Oscar nominee Robert Redford (The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), Best Actress Faye Dunaway (Network, Mommie Dearest), Actor nominee Max von Sydow (The Exorcist), and Best Actor Cliff Robertson (Charly) is still intelligent, taut, well played, and mentally entertaining. Whew! On a visual note, it’s great to see the young cast. Both the 70s bad- look at those huge glasses!- and good- the World Trade Center figures significantly in the plot- are a lot of fun. The end is a little abrupt, but that is also kind of the point. You’ll also notice I’ve said nothing about the plot itself. That’s the point, too.
The Wrong Man – Academy Award winner Henry Fonda (Grapes of Wrath, Mister Roberts, On Golden Pond, 12 Angry Men) is accused of a crime he did not commit in this 1953 Hitchcock thriller ripped from the headlines of the day. Also starring Vera Miles (Psycho, The Searchers), Fonda- though Italian- is a little as miscast as his mixed up everyman titular role- Emanuel Balestrero, really? We don’t actually think of Fonda as ethnic or a young musician, do we? But of course, he’s effing Henry Fonda, so despite the WASPness and stereotypical Italian implications, we root for him to get out of the downward law and order spiral nonetheless. Besides, a case of disastrous mistaken identity is the point, isn’t it? Ah, the unreliability of eye witness testimony! Oh the hysteria, and if everyone would just calm down, and how we’re all caught up in the system and can never get above the bills! Hitch keeps it all too close for comfort then and now, and we’re still on the edge of our seats, cringing at every turn as the hole gets deeper and deeper.
Arlington Road (1999) – Are Jeff Bridges’ (Crazy Heart) nice, new neighbors Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption) and Joan Cusack (Working Girl) really terrorists up to no good? Though both very nineties and a potentially touchy view in today’s global climate, director Mark Pellington (The Mothman Prophecies) and his fine cast keep the suspense on form and the doubt high. Once you’ve already seen this one a few times, it can loose its luster, yes. However, rewatching with a virgin viewer adds new intrigue and debate. Comparing what folks could get away with then that they can’t now or observing the preposterous impossibilities of film is also fun, too- especially against the scary notion of how easily we can be fooled, used, and abused.
The Machinist – Before he starved himself into Oscar glory, Christian Bale’s (Newsies, people, Newsies!) disturbingly skinny abilities stole the show in director Brad Anderson (Transsiberian) and writer Scott Kosar’s (The Crazies) 2005 thriller. Yes, it is a bit predictable, even obvious to seriously observant viewers. However, this one really is about from where Bale is coming and how he gets to where he needs to be. The subjective viewing; the muted, dreamlike palette and design; the clues for a careful viewer to find; and the intelligent interpretation keep The Machinist captivating despite the skeletal distractions- and yes, I was finally made to watch this one after praising that other skinny-fest, Hunger.
Resurrection – Okay, so there needs to be a built-in explanation for his French accent just like Jean-Claude Van Damme, but Christopher Lambert (Highlander) is wonderfully compelling here as a conflicted and faithless Chicago cop investigating a seriously twisted and disturbingly religious serial killer. You wouldn’t know this was just a 1999 HBO original movie thanks to the fast paced look, sickeningly glorious crimes, and solid support from Leland Orser (The Bone Collector), Robert Joy (CSI: NY), and Rick Fox (you know, the former L.A. Laker, who knew?). Even once you figure out this complex and intelligently referenced and written caper, the viewer can watch again for the emotion and strong character intensity and depth.
Poirot: After the Funeral – I hadn’t seen Agatha Christie’s famed Belgium detective in quite awhile - in fact, my sister always preferred the series more to my favored Columbo. However, this 2006 TV installment has been the first film to totally fool me in a looooong time! While tight and complete in its presentation and intellect, After the Funeral takes at least three viewings to fully catch all the great wit and subtleties of crime and character. The thirties period style is also excellent and Sachet is in charming form along with a wonderful supporting ensemble including Geraldine James (Little Britain), Robert Bathurst (The Pillars of the Earth) and a young but no less juicy Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class).
Red Road – After enjoying her sophomore Cannes success Fish Tank, I took in a viewing of writer and director Andrea Arnold’s 2006 debut. Though quiet to start and seemingly routine and mundane; taut, distorted, and intimate camerawork turns what seems so innocent into something wonderfully intriguing but no less voyeuristic and perverse. The lines that normally define the viewer and players Kate Dickie (Prometheus, Game of Thrones) and Tony Curran (Underworld: Evolution) are blurred. We just know this unsolved drama is going to take us some place as ugly, dangerous, and as seedy as the downtrodden Scottish landscapes. The videotape usage and payphones also provide old familiarity to go along with the trapped monotony. Red Road’s kinky is definitely not for kids, and may seem slow or confusing to Americans. However, the seriously good story trumps our commonplace expectations for typically action packed thrillers that place shock and awe over the heartfelt realism here.
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking – Though it has been some time since I read me some Arthur Conan Doyle, it seems there have been several competing, rebooting, and/or capitalizations of Sherlock Holmes again recently. In this 2004 BBC television production, Rupert Everett (An Ideal Husband) portrays Holmes as a bit of an ass- but somehow keeps him witty and likeable all the same. Ian Hart’s (Dirt) Dr. Watson and his rapport with Everett’s titular detective are also great fun. There’s no glossing over of Holmes’ dark side, drug use, or egotistical ways, either. And also, again I simply have to say the youthful charm and thespian abilities of Michael Fassbender shine here, too. The period London production is what we’d expect, and though important, the onscreen fog is annoying. Thankfully, the detective work is a good mix of modern sensibilities in keeping with Edwardian expertise. This is an original story from Allan Cubitt (who also penned the 2002 BBC adaptation of The Hound of Baskervilles) but the fun twist here works nicely in the culminating act and definitely captures the spirit of the famed detective.
The Woman in White (1997) – The ladies Tara Fitzgerald (I Capture the Castle), Justine Waddell (Dracula 2000), and Susan Vilder (Trainspotting) in this Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel are a little wooden, yes. Thankfully, James Wilby (Lady Chatterley), Simon Callow (Shakespeare in Love) and Ian Richardson (House of Cards) are far more interesting. The atmosphere is also a little lightweight, but perhaps I expected more gothic brooding and melancholy then warranted. The mystery, of course, is juicy and delightful, with the viewer an outsider speculating on all the hidden questions. The Victorian style and English locales are great as well. Though perhaps a little slow for Americans- especially until the final half hour- all the revelations come in due time and are well worth the wait.
And One to Avoid…
Dorian Gray (2009) – Despite a fine ensemble cast including recent Best Actor Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, Bridget Jones’s Diary), Emilia Fox (Merlin, Silent Witness), and Ben Chaplin (The Truth About Cats & Dogs) along with a finely stylized Victorian production; this remake of Oscar Wilde’s famous tale falls flat in character appreciation and psychological analysis. Weak lead Ben Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia), stereotypically modern direction from Oliver Parker (Othello), and more confusion than care ruin what is usually such a fine and timeless story.