J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for the ‘Mystery’ Category

The Big Sleep

Posted by J on December 24, 2008

The Big Sleep is at least two movies.  The first is a typical private detective story.  Another is the detective-225px-bigsleep2as-superstud story, in which Humphrey Bogart flirts with seven or so females who only appear in one scene, while mummering one-liners each time somebody whips out a gun.  Somehow this combination of narrative objectives works, though the categorization of this movie as “great” or “American classic” is silly because that’s mostly on the basis of Bogart looking cool and scoring chicks.

Maybe we’re just making this up, but the script is all over the place, seemingly because William Faulkner plus two other guys worked on it.  You can hear Faulkner coming through in weighty lines that includes phrases like “the flesh of men,” which doesn’t refer to skin, but to original sin.  But the hipster pizazz in this movie doesn’t seem Faulknerian at all.  Maybe he put in all of the self-referential lines about movies.  One character pulls out a gun, and the other character says, “Are you going to count to three, like they do in the movies?”  Thus the movie sometimes makes fun of itself, even though it is deadly serious most of the time.

This movie is all Bogart’s.  He is Philip Marlowe, private detective on a case for a rich old man.  The old man has two daughters, one of which is a proto-Britney Spears.  The other is married, though her eyes are on Bogart all the time.  We know what will happen, so never mind.  Marlowe’s case seems easy: a simple problem of who is blackmailing the old man.  But then someone is murdered.  Then more murders.  At one point the case  seems wrapped up, but for one reason or another, Marlowe decides to investigate the tangled web of crime without pay.  He’s either after the girl or ultimate truth.  Since there is more than one movie here, it is hard to say which.

The private detective, presaged by the Dupin character in some of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, is a truth-seeker and truth-revealer.  There is serious Christian theology in characters like this, so little wonder that G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers embraced the detective figure in their fiction.  Since Bogart’s onscreen detective is a massive flirt — there would be plenty of sex and an R rating if this movie were made 40 years later — there is conflict in exactly what his ultimate mission is.  The Marlowe character here seems to settle for something in the middle: score lots of chicks while bringing the wicked into the light.

It’s a wonder that libertarians haven’t picked up on this movie and given it their blessing.  Here there’s a major contrast between the private detective, working on behalf of his contractor, and the official city police.  Most of the time, Marlowe is way ahead of all the policemen, but he seems held back by having to work with them.  There is a fine scene where Marlowe has to explain to the district attorney why he knows so much about the murders at hand.  It is clear that private enterprise, Marlowe in this case, works far more efficiently and effectively than the bumbling police.  In the end, the economic becomes the personal, as Marlowe doesn’t just work for the rich old man’s family anymore, but practically becomes one of the family.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 7


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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Posted by J on October 9, 2008

“Ah, those were the days! Halcyon days.”  So one character sighs in the six-episode Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  We couldn’t agree more.  The world was a simpler place when they were commies and we were capitalists.  The USSR was the ultimate baddie and we, the forces of good, were its opposite.  Nowadays the world is integrated, complicated, a giant hodgepodge of corporate conglomerates and individual consumers.  What happened to the exotic world of spycraft and a firm knowledge of what good and evil are?

But Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy explodes this myth of what the bygone days of spycraft were like.  We couldn’t be more wrong, so the miniseries tells us.  We weren’t necessarily the good guys.  We operated a Department of Espionage, a bureaucracy of spies that was as self-serving as it was essential to national affairs.  There is not necessarily a good guy in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, though there is a master detective who solves the crime.  The men who are spies hide secrets, push and make way for their own self-interests, and blind themselves to good, ultimate goals.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a 1979 miniseries put out by the BBC, based on a novel of the same name.  It is a miniseries that requires lots of work on the part of its viewers.  All of its characters assume a level of knowledge that viewers won’t attain until at least the fourth episode.  We advise keeping a scorecard of names and relationships.  There is only one action scene, in the first episode, and every scene after that is dialogue-only.  This is a series whose engine is words and only words (not visuals).  Thankfully, it is probably one of the best acted miniseries ever made.

The series begins with the head of the British spy organization plainly stating, “We have a mole.”  But which British agent is working for the Russians?  It is at least one of five men, all at the highest levels of “the Circus,” the pet name for Britain’s spy bureaucracy.  It might be more than one of them.  One of these men — George Smiley, played by the wonderful Alec Guinness — is chosen to find out who the mole is.  So begins Smiley’s investigation, which requires plenty of cooperation and coercion, and lots of sly, subtle dialogue.  One of the pleasures of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is analyzing the way these characters talk to each other.  They hint, imply, feint, pretend, but never reveal.  Smiley has quite the task.  Good thing he is a mastermind.

There are even suggestions that Smiley himself is the spy.  Why, after all, was he pegged as a suspect?  Where is his wife, Ann?  Why do we never see her?  Her name may be code for something else.  In this miniseries, any word or gesture may be a code that we viewers are unaware of.

The point is that, as viewers, we can trust no one.  All of the British spies work for themselves.  They all understand the lure of money and power.  They understand and sympathize with their Russian counterparts, who alone know what the Brits are going through.  These spies operate on the border between nations, the muddy in-between where anybody can be loyal to anybody, as long as they are being paid a sufficient amount of “chickenfeed.”  As one of them says, “I’m a good socialist, always looking to make a buck, and a good capitalist, always ready for the revolution.”

Does Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy really deserved to be called “Great”?  Probably not.  It will be out-of-date soon, when generations who know nothing of the Cold War mature.  But as an example of a provocative series constructed almost entirely out of dialogue, it is far more engaging than you’d think.  Just stick with it through Episode Three.  And remember to keep a scorecard.

Though the series offers little in the way of redemption, even though the mystery is solved, each episode ends with a shot of a cathedral.  In the background, choir boys sing a traditional hymn.  The point, if anything, is that the world of spycraft needs Christ too.  Otherwise, Smiley’s mission to out the mole is all for nothing.

Entertainment: 5-9  (depends on the episode)

Intelligence: 7

Morality: 7 (one risque scene in Episode 2)

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Rope (1948)

Posted by J on September 30, 2008

Rope is the Reader’s Digest version of Crime and Punishment.  It even knows this because it mentions Dostoevsky’s famous, famously bloated novel.  You see, there are two guys who want to commit a murder just for the thrill of it.  They do incredibly stupid things–like have a dinner party ten minutes after murdering their victim, with the corpse inside a chest, which serves as the dinner table.  They even tell stories about one another.  “Hey,” one of them asks a guest, “did you know that Johnny used to strangle chickens back home on the farm?”

The point is that these two young men have been influenced by the high philosophy of the equally stupid.  Privileged men, they say, have a right to kill.  After all, “good” and “evil” are mere constructs.  This is what Jimmy Stewart’s character, Rupert Cadell, has been espousing his whole life.  He’s the teacher of these two murderers, and the intellectual catalyst for their dirty deeds.  So Rope’s simple message is, bad ideas have bad consequences. Words of wisdom, grasshopper.

Cadell gets suspicious at the dinner party pretty quickly, in fact too quickly.  He’s supposed to be an aloof professor who preaches amorality in the classroom, but when he gets to his New York dinner parties, he’s apparently on the lookout for subtle clues that point to lurking criminals.  In order to reach its resolution, Rope needs to expose the murderers.  But unlike Crime and Punishment, the murderers don’t deliberately turn themselves in.  No, there’s no conscience for these fellows.  Instead, it’s the professor who’s the hero, the one who converts in mid-movie from nihilist to moralist.  We suppose the converted Cadell is what the American general public would like its professors to be: champions of truth, freedom-fighters for free speech and inquiry of mind, devotees to ancient wisdom and morality.  Cadell’s conversion is a total fantasy–ever seen a Marxist or an atheist  recant all he’s ever espoused at a dinner party?–but the fact that our storytellers even dream up this fantasy tells us something about who and what we value.

It’s obvious that the two murderers are homosexuals.  These days, we’re all aware of the subtleties.  Back then, in 1948, surely not everybody was.  They could only make the movie with no obvious innuendo back then, which gives whiners today reason enough to complain about the days of Draconian censorship.  Of course, censorship today is worse, in its own way. They couldn’t make this movie at all in 2008.  Not unless they wanted to depict homosexuals as murdering nihilists who delight in strangling others for the pleasure of it.  Nope, then everybody’s P.C. alert button would go off, like an armored knight walking through airport security.

In our opinion, Hitchcock got a little too cute with Rope.  All the action takes place in a small apartment, and the movie’s shot so that it looks like one continuous shot.  It probably wasn’t, but since it looks like that, our Hollywood-induced ADD kicked in.  We’ve seen too many movies like Transformers and Armageddon, where there’s a cut every two seconds.  Rope has seemingly no cuts in 80 minutes.  Put a bunch of people in one room watching this movie, and you’ll have a roomful of fidgety maniacs in fifteen minutes.  So get a straight-jacket and some tranquilizer before you press “Play.”

Entertainment: 5.5

Intelligence: 4

Morality: whatever

Posted in Mystery, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again | 4 Comments »

Strangers on a Train

Posted by J on September 11, 2008

There is nothing about Strangers on a Train that is not corrupt.  There is not one good person in the movie, maybe except for the innocent witnesses.  And the entire movie is based on a twisted scheme.  Bruno Anthony, a disturbed man who wants to murder his father, suggests to star tennis player Guy Haines that each of them murder the other’s inconvenient attachment.  Haines, you see, has a wife, and the wife is in the way of Haines’ ability to marry his glamorous mistress.

Yet Strangers on a Train succeeds marvelously at exposing the immorality of its own audience, we viewers.  Throughout the movie we are caught rooting for Haines to resist Anthony’s temptations.  When Haines gets sucked into Anthony’s schemes, we desire him to get out.  And we feel sorry for Haines’ mistress, who looks like the girl next door.   What makes us feel this way is the skill of Hitchcock’s direction, which provokes us to care when we should want to remain distant.

But Haines’ adultery makes our sympathies with him a huge problem.  What kind of hero cheats on his wife and really does want to get rid of her?  Ultimately, once yoked with Anthony’s horrendous evil, there is no escape for a petty sinner like Haines.  He cannot turn to the law, and he cannot turn away from darkness.

When the movie finally ends, Haines has seemingly freed himself from Anthony.  We are supposed to feel good about the happy ending.  And yet Haines has gotten away with adultery, and has become a worse man for it.  In the final moments, he kisses his partner in adultery and shies away from the Christian minister who asks him an innocent question.

Strangers on a Train shows the dark underbelly of the 1950s, a decade portrayed in recent pop culture as an innocent time of cool cars, bobby pins, and mom-and-pop soda joints.  But innocent it surely was not.  How else could it produce the disatrous war and the rebellious counterculture of the next decade?  Something was terribly wrong then.

Most people really do love murder, just in socially acceptable ways.  Most of Hitchcock’s movies–and this is the first of his that we have recommended on this site–expose this love.   There is great evil in the hearts of men.


Intelligence: 8

Morality: see above

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Shadow of a Doubt

Posted by J on November 17, 2007

The central conundrum of this movie is, who is Uncle Charlie? Let’s try to figure this out before the movie starts. Here are the facts:

  1. This is an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

So the answer is obvious.

By the time you get to the point that Uncle Charlie has revealed himself as Uncle Charlie, you realize that an hour of your life has slipped by. By the time that Uncle Charlie tries to do what Uncle Charlie has done many times before, you realize that two hours of your life have slipped by.

There is a two-minute ending that attempts to say that Uncle Charlie was bad. Well, no kidding!

Entertainment: 1
Intelligence: 7
Morality: 2

Posted in Mystery, They Spent Millions on This? | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Anatomy of a Murder

Posted by J on September 19, 2007

At the beginning of the murder trial in Anatomy of a Murder, defense attorney Paul Biegler (played by Jimmy Stewart) receives a note about his fellow prosecuting attorney. It reads:

The prosecutor is from the state Attorney General’s office. He’s a real hotshot. Look out

Unfortunately, no one was told to look out for Biegler. Anatomy of a Murder pits two slick lawyers head-to-head, both of whom are more interested in performing and winning than arriving at truth and justice. After taking on the case of a soldier who killed a bar owner because the the bar owner supposedly raped the soldier’s wife, Biegler does all he can to get his client off the hook. He winks and nods at his client, provoking the soldier to decide that he in fact killed the bar owner in a fit of temporary insanity (an obvious lie). Biegler then finds a psychiatrist who will back up the temporary insanity claim by saying that the soldier could do nothing other than kill; in a fit of extreme psychobabble, the soldier is diagnosed with “Irresistible Impulse.” Biegler then finds a 70-year old court case that allows that ridiculous diagnosis a legal precedence. Then comes the show trial. Biegler plays the jury. When his client asks why Biegler would ask a question that could be struck from the record, Biegler replies that “it’s a moral point. No jury can ignore it, even if they’re told to.”

So the trial goes. Biegler and the prosecutor play courtroom games constantly, in a movie where the trial takes up two-thirds of the running time. Even though the case and the charge are about murder, the trial turns into a long, drawn-out query as to whether the soldier’s wife was raped. Does the soldier know more? Was the wife cheating on her husband? Are the witnesses who know the bar owner concealing key information? We never find out the answers to these questions, even though it’s hinted at repeatedly that there’s more to the case than meets the eye. Anatomy of a Murder does not really mind that either. Throughout, Biegler is portrayed as a sort of hero. And in the end, when the soldier is declared “Not Guilty” for reason of temporary insanity, we’re supposed to feel good about it. But given the monkey trial we just watched and the unjust actions of the characters, the movie’s sentiments are totally ridiculous. Biblically speaking, this is calling evil good.

Looking up Anatomy of a Murder on the IMDB database, we discovered that Jimmy Stewart’s father was so outraged when this movie debuted, that he took out an ad in his local newspaper, telling people not to go see it because of its immorality. That’s an action we’d call brave. Not only does this movie not care about the morality of the procedures of its courtroom drama and the final outcome, but the idea of prurience is always in front of us. The soldier’s wife, for example, wears tight outfits, and the dialogue and the camera closeups tell us to look at them over and over (especially one key scene where she reveals her golden hair in the courtroom). Also, a key piece of evidence in the court case happens to be her underwear, which we also hear about constantly. Other words unusual for 1950s films come up: “sperm” and “intercourse,” for example. The movie’s obvious excuse is that discussion about rape and sex were necessary to in this particular court case. However, it’s quite obvious that the sexual talk was written into the script for its own sake, to give a little shock and jolt to prudish audience members, including Jimmy Stewart’s father. In this regard, Anatomy of a Murder is a lot like a 10-year old who just learned a “dirty” word; he’ll find any excuse to be able to say it. But at least a 10-year old would know better than to consider Jimmy Stewart’s character a sort of hero, which is more than can be said for the fools who wrote and directed this movie.

Entertainment: 7
Intelligence: 3
Morality: 0

Posted in Mystery, They Spent Millions on This? | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

The Prestige

Posted by J on August 15, 2007

Note: The second paragraph contains spoilers. You will NOT want to know about the ending of this movie beforehand.

If show-business is the art of deception, then Christians must beware of it. Entertainers can be tricksters, which the origin and connotation for the word “hypocrite” (“actor” in Greek) demonstrates. The Prestige is about two entertainers in competition with each other, which is often a morally dangerous situation in a fallen world. As stage magicians in early 20th century London, the two warring magicians, Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, strive to win audiences and to improve their art by creating increasingly more daring tricks. Competition has its benefits; in The Prestige, it spurs creativity and innovation that promises to improve ordinary lives. The price of competition, however, is covetousness that turns into revenge. The Prestige, in its representation of revenge, has a low view of competition, which takes place not only between magicians, but also amongst wives and mistresses and rival scientists. Everyone is a deep sinner here, and this is probably the first story in which Thomas Edison is a villain.

The film distinguishes between the two at-odds magicians. Borden, it shows us, is morally a better man; he’s a deceiver but an ingenious artist. Angier is a fine entertainer but an uncreative thief. Both become murderers, but the problem with The Prestige is that it justifies Borden’s final actions and makes Angier the greater monster. This might seem sensible to some. Angier implements technology in a monstrous way (reminding us of C.S. Lewis’ warnings in The Abolition of Man). He clones himself and murders his own clones just to wow his audience, and his pseudo-resurrections are used for diabolical purposes. From the movie’s perspective this seems more vicious than Borden, who, given his wrongful imprisonment and relationship to his daughter, is the more morally complex of the two magicians. Still, in the end Borden is allowed a pass even though his deceptions resulted in four deaths, including his own wife’s suicide. This seems backwards. The devil is not the abuser of technology, but the father of lies.

Thanks in part to its two trick endings, The Prestige is a symbolically rich movie. There are a number of foreshadows, doubles, and replications and variations on themes in this movie–not just the birds, balls, tanks, hats, and cats, but the multi-level commentary as well. The construction of this movie is much like the story it tells. Just as the characters themselves are multiplied by Nikola Tesla’s machine, the main actors play multiple roles and two brothers penned the script. The Prestige is clever because it warns us to beware of the deceptions of entertainment while trying at the same time to be as entertaining as it can be through deception. The story comments upon its own telling. Though viewers might be confused in the early going by the chopped-up chronology–the movie tells its beginning and end and middle sections in a jumbled order–for thoughtful viewers it will be worth persevering to the end. The Prestige ought to and will provoke reflection upon the morality of both its story and its story-telling.

Entertainment: 6
Intelligence: 9
Morality: see review (not recommended for most viewers)

Posted in Clever but Immoral, Mystery, Period Drama, Pretty Good | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Rear Window

Posted by J on July 3, 2007

Every story has a point, and this one’s was obvious: it’s good to spy on your neighbors. There’s little else one can get from this film, made during an era of Communist scare. In Rear Window Jimmy Stewart is an old grump, and his extravagant young girlfriend whines about his grumpiness. And then she whines further about the fact that he won’t marry her. Makes perfect sense. She’s so upset at his reluctance to marry that, in order to provoke him, she spends the night at his apartment. And here we thought people in the 1950s were moral prudes.

It is, of course, impressive that all the action takes place in one locale, the camera hardly moving from one spot in Jimmy Stewart’s apartment, and that even despite this the movie is supposedly so harrowing as to be ranked #13 all-time on IMDB.com. But the fact about the limited camera movement is ultimately a novelty. And we were greatly hoping it would move, too, because we were tired of seeing the barely-clad blonde do calisthenics in her window. This kind of female obsession is more than a fault in Hitchcock movies, viewer beware.

The villain of Rear Window turns out to be just the kind of murderer you expect: a middle-class Norwegian, (the sort of person in a group with one of the world’s lowest murder rates, but since Norway is so close to Russia and we’re dumb Americans, we were thinking he was a Commie Pinko all along anyway). The movie, of course, reveals no motive for our knife-wielding Norseman. And for almost all of the movie, all we have is purely circumstantial evidence to judge him on. In Rear Window, the Biblical principle of having two or three witnesses is discarded in favor of Jimmy’s Stewart’s one-man-band assumption that the guy across the way is a murderer. Meanwhile, the characters over and over ask the movie’s lone moral question: what is the ethics of Stewart’s window observation? At the end we receive a clear answer: spying is okay, because we’ve got to watch out for middle-age Norwegian males. Thanks for the tip, Mr. Hitchcock. We’ll be on the lookout for Thor and Lars next time.

Entertainment: 6
Intelligence: 3
Morality: 1

Posted in Clever but Immoral, Mystery, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »