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Rating History

Spellbound
Spellbound (1945)
3 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Much of Alfred Hitchcock's work in the 1940s is characterised by his tempestuous working relationship with producer David O. Selznick. The period between 1940 and 1947 saw the continuous clash of these two almighty reputations - Hitchcock's being founded on his 1930s output, such as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, and Selznick's being based largely on the success of Gone With The Wind. The partnership's output varied greatly (Rebecca on the one hand, The Paradine Case on the other), with its greatest legacy being Hitch's experimental work in the late-1940s.

In an interview on the legacy of Hitchcock, Kim Newman described Spellbound as "the one that Selznick won"; he argued that Selznick's interest in psychoanalysis drove the project, whereas on Notorious Hitchcock had more room for manoeuvre to make the film as he wanted it to be. It is quite true that Spellbound is not a thorough-bred Hitchcock film, in that it is not an entirely singular vision (thanks in part to the involvement of Salvador Dali). But it scores out over Notorious by more consistently maintaining the suspense it generates, resulting in a rounded and very enjoyable work.

Like Notorious, Spellbound's trump card is the often fractious nature of its central relationship. Even in magnificent works of the period, like Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death, it can be frustrating when two people fall so deeply and unquestioningly in love after only a few minutes of screen time. Hitchcock uses Ingrid Bergman's naturally combative sensibility to his advantage, setting up her character as someone who seeks to explain love as a rational phenomenon and thereby resist any of its impulsive qualities.

Gregory Peck doesn't have to do much to oppose her, since she is fighting against herself, something which is both entertaining and serves to deepen her character. But it would be wrong to presume that he was coasting. Peck has a fantastic ability to be restrained and understated without looking like he is forcibly reining himself in. He has the same earthy yet magnetic presence that he had in To Kill A Mockingbird nearly two decades later, and unusually for a Hollywood leading man, he has no qualms in going all out in the more vulnerable moments of his character.

As a director, Hitchcock was usually more interested in how best to tell a story than what the story was about. Many of his films are more fondly remembered for the camera tricks they pulled or the iconic scenes they created, to the extent that the story of even some of his stronger works tends to be more easily forgotten. His approach to the source material, The House of Dr Edwardes, is akin to the approach that would later be applied to the James Bond series; he takes the bits that interest him, or which he thinks would make for exciting viewing, and ignores or discards the rest.

To this end, Spellbound combines efficient storytelling on the one hand and a brilliant use of props and setting to create tension on the other. If such a film were being made today, the status of Peck's character as an amnesiac (a twist on Hitch's beloved 'wrong man' motif) would have been stretched out for ages. Hitchcock, by contrast, treats it as just another piece in developing the story, and introduces it before we're half an hour in. Equally, the envelope scene is a great example of turning a simple piece of dialogue into a moment of great tension for the audience; the police are standing on the very item which tells them Peck's location, with Bergman having to simultaneously watch it closely and not look as though she is watching it.

That's not to say, however, that Spellbound is merely a mechanical exercise with nothing between its ears. It is as topical for its time, reflecting the growing interest in psychoanalysis in America, as Notorious was in focussing on Nazis hiding out in South America. Hitchcock is assisted in this regard by Ben Hecht, who also worked on Notorious as well as writing the original version of Scarface. While the use of psychoanalysis and dream logic to solve a mystery may seem quaint to modern viewers, raised on The Sopranos or Woody Allen's back catalogue, this was one of the first films to treat the subject seriously and use to tease out deeper themes.

The film is very interested in the scientific approach to love, and the clash between reason and emotion. Bergman's character is so devoted to her scientific principles that she forbids any form of personal preference or feelings which could cloud her judgement. Having been surrounded by men to whom she felt no affection (call them father figures if you must), Peck's arrival slowly causes such an attitude to crumble - just as her persistence and devotion causes a breakthrough for him too. To save him she goes against her profession, including her mentor, who states that her attitude is "the way science goes backwards".

Spellbound is also adept in its exploration of how memory works and how recollection of events can be triggered. Again, if you were brought up on something like Memento, this will all seem pretty basic, but even as an historical document the film holds up in a surprisingly naturalistic way. The film takes the principle of memory being fragmented or tied to a particular place, action or symbol, and uses it to make the plot flow better; the frustration of the characters, and the inherent stop-start pace that it brings is more believable than Peck suddenly remembering everything out of nowhere.

This brings us on the famous dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali - and it isn't hard to spot his signature touches. It contains big references to Un Chien Andalou, particularly the recurring motifs of eyes and blades, and the whole experience is like wandering through a moving version of his painting The Persistence of Memory (the one with the melting clocks). But while the imagery is compelling and tied up in a neat way, it's edited in a slightly disappointing manner. Rather than playing out in one go, like the dream sequence in Vertigo, we have three interruptions to endure, which don't benefit the storytelling or make the sequence more exciting.

Dali's dream sequence may be the film's most striking part, but it is not the only example of visual beauty on offer. The skiing sequence is much more convincing than the version in The Man Who Knew Too Much, being more physically believable and composed in a more attractive manner. Likewise the ending with the revolver is interestingly staged, foreshadowing the first-person work that Michael Powell would later use in Peeping Tom. Both examples give Hitchcock the means to barrel through exposition or plot twists while keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.

There are a couple of flaws with Spellbound which prevent it from being first-rate Hitchcock. Even taking the values of the period into account, the central relationship is slightly hysterical, and sometimes the script over-emphasises the stress and strain at the expense of moving on to the next important event. Likewise, there are moments of contrivance where you can feel Selznick's meddling hands on the script; it would make no sense for a couple who are wishing not to be seen by anybody to go to the busiest station in New York and think they could pass unnoticed.

Spellbound is a finely assembled thriller which has largely stood the test of time and represents one of Hitchcock's more successful pieces of the period. For all its melodramatic moments, it handles its subject matter with sufficient dexterity and his direction brings out the best in the two central performers. While Hitch's greatest work was still ahead of him at this stage, it's an example of the master slowly continuing to refine his craft in spite of the efforts of lesser talents.

GoodFellas
GoodFellas (1990)
10 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

In my review of The Untouchables, I argued that Hollywood has struggled to do justice to Al Capone because he had effectively "become the cliché of the Hollywood gangster". By extension, American cinema has all too often succumbed to the dangers of 'big man history'; it get so easily seduced by the often exciting mythology of famous individuals that its depiction of said people loses all semblance of reality or believability. Even in cases where truth is stranger than fiction, Hollywood often presents it in a way which makes us suspect that we are not being told the truth at all.

When Nicholas Pileggi wrote Wiseguy, he said that he wanted to "get hold of a soldier in Napoleon's army". He wanted, in other words, the observations of an ordinary player in the drama, stripped of all the spin and legend-making that surrounds the leading men. Martin Scorsese as a director has often excelled in finding the remarkable, striking or shocking in ordinary surroundings, and of using subtle changes in storytelling (including his patented use of music) to wrong-foot his audience. The combination of these two talents is thereby a match made in heaven, and when you marry it to three cracking central performances, Goodfellas becomes a truly great film.

There is a very fine line in cinema between depicting something in painstaking detail and glamourising it. Films as varied as Green Street and Death Wish have fallen into the trap of praising something utterly wretched and despicable in their (alleged) desire to be as accurate and realistic as possible about the people involved. So often criminals in crime dramas or thrillers are set up in the beginning as the people whom we should revile, but their exciting exploits and rebellious attitudes (as written by Hollywood) can often make them more exciting than the law-abiding citizens (especially when Kevin Costner is involved).

Goodfellas, like Killing Them Softly more than two decades after it, succeeds because it rejects any rose-tinted picture of a life on the wrong side of the law - and does it without it feeling like a moral lesson being hammered into our heads. But where Andrew Dominik's film set its criminals up as lowlifes and then made them sink lower, Scorsese pulls us in slowly, offering us the romantic or stylish side to Italian-American crime and then pulling the rug from under our feet when it's too late to run away. Starting the film in media res with the death of Billy Batts is not just a way of avoiding it being a run-of-the-mill 'rise and fall' story: by starting at the point at which things turn, we know from the outset that however good it seems, it won't last and it won't pay.

Any romance that remains within Scorsese's film is very much ironic, with his attention to detail and knowledge of his own heritage being used to make the more violent and graphic aspects ring all the more true. With The Godfather and its sequels, there was always an element of nostalgia for 'the old country', for the traditional structures of Sicilian life and the Mafia's role in preserving that order. Goodfellas acknowledges this heritage (and, through De Niro's presence, the influence of Francis Ford Coppola's work), but the families it presents are dysfunctional and undesirable; the man are aggressive, unfaithful and two-faced, while the women are either downtrodden, air-headed or too drugged up to care.

One of the most common themes of crime films is the idea of people turning to crime because living a conventional, law-abiding life doesn't bring the comfort or level of luxury which people crave or covet. Films about con artists, such as Catch Me If You Can or The Sting, often set up straight-ahead characters as being fundamentally feeble, poor and undesirable in a bid to make the lifestyle of their leading characters seem more attractive. Goodfellas cuts straight to the chase in this regard: Henry Hill becomes a gangster because he likes the riches it brings, and because making a lot of money by robbing or scamming people is easier than working an honest, badly-paid job. The film tricks us into rationalising Henry's actions, so that we berate ourselves when things go south, cursing that we should have seen it coming.

In a further comparison with The Godfather, Goodfellas is very interested in the way that criminals operate like dysfunctional families. There are the same concerns about blood and race (Italian vs Irish), the same rivalries and jockeying for position, and the same mix of respect and dread which surrounds the paternal figure. But where Michael Corleone is an insider desperate to get out of the family business, only to be pulled back in repeatedly through his loyalty, Henry is an outsider for whom Paulie serves as a surrogate father. In both cases the leading men feel pressured to act a certain way or fulfil certain roles based on the expectations of the father figure, backed up by tradition and their shared values.

So much of what makes Goodfellas great lies in the manner of its storytelling. In the excellent making-of documentary Getting Made, Pileggi and Scorsese discussed the importance of Ray Liotta's voiceover, with the emphasis being on the language used rather than its use to move the plot along. Rather than being used to "patch a little crack in the script", as Pileggi put it, the voiceover gives us a detailed insight into Henry's thought process; by giving us the little details and observations about daily life, he feels more like a real person. As his reactions grow more believable, he becomes more relatable and we get pulled further in, going along with his decisions even as the fear eats away in the background.

This approach is further reinforced by the use of music. In the post-Quentin Tarantino world, where using unusual, sometimes incongruous pop songs to accompany a scene is practically normal, it's easy to forget just how skilfully Scorsese marries music and moving images. His seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge means that he very rarely goes for the obvious or mediocre choice, and his taste is excellent. No-one else would have chosen to put Cream's 'Sunshine Of Your Love' as the backing to the sequence where Robert De Niro decides in his head to do away with those involved in the Lufthansa heist. Watching it back several times, it makes the scene all the more complete, to the point where it doesn't work without it.

In his review of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Mark Kermode said that all of Tim Burton's films were "attempting to burst into song." Scorsese may not have made a bona fide musical since New York, New York, but he has retained his intuitive understanding of how music can convey a character's innermost thoughts. Even when he's cantering through a lot of plot to move things forward in a montage, it feels deft and personal rather than being padding. There is no better example of this than the sequence designed around 'Layla' by Derek and the Dominos: it flows perfectly, possessing the spot-on timing and choreography that Stanley Kubrick achieved with his SteadyCam shots, but without being clinical or drawing attention to the artifice of the situation.

The whole film looks excellent, thanks in part to the cinematography of Michael Ballhaus, who had previously worked with Scorsese on After Hours, The Colour of Money and The Last Temptation of Christ. He captures the period feel to a tee, bringing out just enough of the colours and styles of the setting without it feeling like a pastiche. His understanding of Scorsese's visual style was so precise that very often little coverage of a given scene was needed; shots like the long track through the restaurant were shot multiple times from the same position, rather than shooting with multiple cameras at once and then stitching the best bits together in the edit.

The central performances in Goodfellas are first-class, with each of the three leading men being given a chance to shine. Ray Liotta is terrific as Henry: you can see and appreciate the amount of research and preparation which he put in, and yet it's not mannered or restrained - he lets loose when he can and is just guarded enough when he needs to be. Robert De Niro is great as Jimmy Conway, bringing all his familiar skills to the party but working hard in every scene to be true to the character rather than just leaning on past successes. And Joe Pesci, who won an Oscar for his performance, is a firecracker, managing to be impulsive and dangerous without seeming over-the-top. The supporting cast is also excellent, particularly Paul Sorvino as Paulie and the smashing Lorraine Bracco, who beautifully balances Karen's desperation, jealousy and feeling of being in slightly over her head.

Goodfellas is a great crime film and one of the highest peaks in Scorsese's illustrious career. While it does lose a little momentum in the last 15 minutes, everything up to that point is nigh-on perfect, with great performances being matched by a tight script and highly proficient direction, creating a compelling cinematic experience which more than holds up to repeat viewing. It remains one of the greatest films of the early-1990s and one of the benchmarks against which all subsequent crime films must be measured.

Kill Bill: Volume 2
39 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

When Kill Bill: Volume 1 came out, some critics made the point that it would be difficult to judge how well the film worked until Volume 2 was out in the open. Because the two films had been created by splitting an existing work in half, rather than it being a direct successor, or the two being filmed back to back like The Matrix sequels, they argued that it would be unwise to write off Volume 1 until Volume 2 had been given the chance to finish the story.

In my own reviews, I have always maintained that films should be able to stand on their own regardless of their relationship to any predecessors, successors or any other relation. The individual instalments of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for instance, are perfectly successful films in whichever order you choose to view them - and it is interesting that the same critics who defended Kill Bill did not necessarily take the same line with Peter Jackson's work. Both by itself and in relation to its predecessor, Kill Bill: Volume 2 is a big disappointment, making many of the same errors as Volume 1 but dragging things out until the whole experience becomes almost completely insufferable.

To some extent, this state of affairs is not entirely surprising. Because Quentin Tarantino did not originally intend to split Kill Bill into two films, we should expect the tone and approach to storytelling to be broadly similar. And if Volume 1 had been successful in all of the areas in which it ultimately fell short, this consistency would have been a source of well-earned praise. On the other hand, the pause between the two films' release would have given Tarantino ample time to address some of the criticisms that were made of Volume 1 - its episodic story, lack of three-dimensional characters, needless editing gimmicks and so on. If nothing else, he could have gone back into the editing booth and tried to cut it down to around 90 minutes.

What we get instead, in light of the critical and commercial success of Volume 1, is a film which is longer, baggier and more needlessly wordy than its predecessor - in other words, a film which has all the faults of Volume 1, but which is more boring to boot. All of the errors of the first film become all the more difficult to tolerate the longer they stick around, and because they lack the novelty of the first film we lose patience with Tarantino much quicker. If the first film raised concern than the 1990s wonder had dropped the ball, this transitions that feeling into a grim realisation that the good days are firmly behind him.

On the good side, there are a number of aspects to Volume 2 which are watchable in their own right. One of them is the performance of Daryl Hannah as Elle Driver. Hannah was given too little to do in the first film, and she does her very best to make Tarantino's samey, show-off, adolescent dialogue feel as though it could have come from her character's mouth. Like her work on Blade Runner two decades previously, Hannah brings a balance of panic and confidence to the role, and both Elle and Pris are ultimately undone by acts of violence. Her performance is arguably the best in the whole film, and it's just a shame that her fate is ultimately handled in a rather cack-handed way.

The black-and-white sections of the film, which depict the build-up to the Bride's wedding, are also handled pretty well. Tarantino has made no secret throughout his career of his love of westerns, remarking to the AFI that the black suits worn by his characters in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were his equivalent of the dusters in Sergio Leone's 'Dollars' trilogy. He manages to successfully recreate the ominous stillness of the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West, and the dialogue between the Bride and Bill is pretty well-written; we pick up on things that are unsaid and why the characters don't say them, which is a sign that we are at least somewhat invested in their situation.

For the most part, however, these moments are lost in a narrative which remains episodic, distracted and needlessly non-linear. When Tarantino showed the events of Reservoir Dogs out of order, he was making a valid and interesting point about the way in which crime thrillers were constructed, and how much we take elements of Western cinematic storytelling for granted. By comparison, there is no real reason why the backstory involving Pai Mei's tutelage should not come before the Bride is buried alive - it's Tarantino being non-traditional for its own sake, and it neither adds to the emotional impact of her escape nor makes the storytelling more efficient.

Because the narrative is so episodic, it's very easy to remember Volume 2 (like its predecessor) as nothing more than a collection of bits. Some of them have unusual or fleetingly interesting arcs within themselves, which hint at a greater film lurking somewhere in the undergrowth. But while scenes like the showdown with Elle or the wedding can be effective in their own self-contained way, Tarantino never knits them together into a narrative that builds to an appropriate climax. The burial sequence exists only because Tarantino really likes The Vanishing, and it handles that element of the plot about as badly as that film's English-language remake. Likewise, for all the talk of the showdown with Bill (when it finally arrives after far too much time), his death is a total damp squib, with far too little catharsis and making too less sense.

The lead-up to Bill's death sheds light on just how self-important and self-interested Tarantino has become as a writer. The long monologue about comic books and Superman's secret identity takes an awfully long time to say something which could have been handled in a couple of lines, without adding anything particularly profound or bringing new insights on the popular culture it is referencing. David Carradine is a fine actor, and his casting is a nice if overworked nod to his long career in exploitation cinema. But try as he might, it still sounds like Tarantino boasting in vain about how clever he is, and has none of the gravity of, say, the watch story from Pulp Fiction.

The longer he talks, the more we keep coming back to the central plot hole of the two films - if Bill was so confident that the Bride would kill all his other assassins, why go through with it? Why allow them to die if he was so convinced that he was doomed, instead of letting them waste away (as Budd certainly would have done) or thrive on their own (as O-Ren Ishii was)? The film makes no effort to set him up as a guilt-ridden old master, who accepts his fate to atone for past mistakes, nor does it have the ingenuity to have him go down all guns blazing. All we get is a long, slow winding down with very little in the way of a pay-off.

One of the big talking points about Volume 1 was its supposedly feminist credentials, or lack thereof. I argued in my review that simply putting Uma Thurman's character in traditionally male situations did not constitute by itself a subversion of genre or gender expectations - her character was still essentially "Bruce Lee in a dress", talking like a man and acting like one. Volume 2 tries to amend the situation by playing up the Bride's maternal side, focussing on the relationship with her daughter and how her motherhood empowers her. But this only causes the film to lean further on cliché and female stereotypes without challenging them, and the pregnancy test scene is either just plain silly or a really poorly executed attempt at comedy. Germaine Greer wasn't wrong when she branded Tarantino as being "about as feminist as Wagner".

All of which brings us back to arguably the biggest problem with Volume 2: we don't care about any of the characters, because they don't feel like believable people. Without any sense of empathy towards the Bride, even after being forced to spend so much time in her company, she becomes a hollow cipher, made all the more hollow by Thurman's blank performance. Get Carter works as a revenge thriller because Mike Hodges had the confidence to make us subversively root for Jack and then show how his violent acts destroy him in the iconic, near-perfect ending. Volume 2 ultimately falls into the same trap that Zero Dark Thirty would nearly a decade later: it presents us with an empty person, asks us to see them as the guardian of all that is right and just, and then provides no evidence to support that claim.

Kill Bill: Volume 2 is a disappointing conclusion to an already underwhelming story which leaves us either completely cold or frustrated at what it could have been. For all its moments of visual poetry or the odd flash of interesting character construction, it ends up being more of a letdown than its predecessor by virtue of being longer, duller and more talky. Tarantino has since made worse films (Death Proof being his worst by quite some distance), but there is still precious little here that is worthy of praise.