Argento: Inferno (1980)

Imagine a horror film with no characters, no story and no real setting, just a series of suspenseful thresholds that grow more and more liquid as they unfold. In some ways, you’d be imagining Inferno, one of the most rarefied films of Dario Argento’s career, and about as close as horror cinema can come to abstract painting. Despite a nominal supernatural narrative that’s cobbled together from Argento’s previous works – the merest of narrative residues – the entire film is effectively an elaboration of a gigantic haunted house in midtown New York, by way of a series of stylised deaths that don’t advance plot or character but instead simply deepen Argento’s ambience and mise-en-scene through one precipitous descent after another. While the supernatural power of this house is never adequately explained – or important – what is clear is that it depends in some way on alchemy, inducing Argento to escort us through one alchemical threshold after another, which means positioning the entire film at the the gorgeous blue-red cusps that he made his own, finding a million different ways to flood the frame with the exact moment at which blood turns blue, until every encounter, interaction or conversation feels as deoxygenated, strangulated and suffocated as the silences that seem to dub every space they leave in their wake. As a result, everything in the film feels on the verge of transformation, or transubstantiation - there’s no other film in Argento’s career that captures the profound Catholicism of his vision quite as well as this monastic fusion of austerity and sensuality – in a kind of cinematic answer to Dante’s topology, even if it’s hard to conceive of Argento ever carrying his vision through to any paradisial or even purgatorial sequel. As with Dante’s exotic spatial imagination, too, a point is quickly reached at which these huge zones of abstract space and light quickly exceed the structures within which they’re housed, even if they’re still anchored – tenuously – in the antiquated fixtures that play such a pivotal role in Argento’s horror universe, a concatenation of taps, grates, locks, pipes and vents that transport us from one metaphysical boundary to the next. And while that strict spatial focus may remove any emotional attachment to the characters and their individual deaths, no death is redundant either, since every gruesome mise-en-crime-scene is seamlessly absorbed into the grotesque architecture of the mansion, a veritable killing-machine that adorns itself with its own prey. For that reason, it often feels like the pinnacle of Argento’s auteurism – or his most sustained case for himself as an auteur – right down to the ingenious climax, which bypasses any typical horror catharsis to introduce us to the supreme architect of the house, so dedicated to his craft that he’s morphed into it, and can only escort the film to its breathtaking finale by way of a giant, gialloesque sound studio concealed in the cellar: “I built this house, then I buried myself here. This building has become my body – its bricks my cells, its passageways my veins, and its horror my very heart.”


Brest: Going In Style (1979)

Before he became known as a director of glossy big-budget bromances, Martin Brest wrote and directed Going in Style, a decidedly unglossy comedy about a trio of New York seventy-somethings – played by George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg – who decide, one fine summer’s afternoon, that they might as well rob a Manhattan bank as spend another day at their regular park bench. After all, if they escape, they escape, and if they’re caught, they’re unlikely to get more than three years, with a mountain of social security checks waiting for them once they get out. What ensues plays out as a wonderfully witty denaturing of the intense, focused, cerebral silences so precious to heist and caper films, replaced instead with the profound synergy between these three men who’ve lived together for years and years – we never find out why – and have developed their own wordless rapport, a shared, offbeat oblivion and comfort with their own silence that transforms them into a single, elastic, kinaesthetic presence, as deft and malleable as any heist team, bypassing words in favour of the shared, affective, improvisational memory that Strasberg made the foundation of the Actors Studio. Yet where regular heist films elaborate the team by way of their respective strengths, here the ebb and flow among the trio is arranged more around their encroaching infirmities, with at least one of them quizzically vacant during most encounters, but still somehow present thanks to the slow-burning, spontaneous jouissance that sustains them as a whole. Continually folding and welcoming onlookers into their rapport, even or especially the kinds of identities you might expect to engender a certain kind of kneejerk response in a comedy of this kind - from a Chinese croupier to an African-American cab driver to a gay handbag salesman to a group of Jamaican street artists - they may not have travelled from Queensboro to Manhattan for years, but, in a kind of riposte to the middle-aged vigilante becoming so popular around this time, that only makes them more flexible and open in their attitude to the inner city, to the point where Brest has to choreograph them as much as direct them, as they dodge and skirt their way around a vision of old age that isn’t abject, traumatic or tragic, but simply boring, though not boring enough that the heist can’t alleviate it for a time. At times, they could almost be mistaken for some of Woody Allen's small-time crooks - clad in Groucho Marx glasses for disguise – but in the end they're too well-attuned to the agility of silence, too reared on silent cinema, to slip into Allen's cacaphonous, caperous vision of the Big Apple. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that instead of dealing with the aftermath of the crime in the same picaresque, irreverent register, Brest instead opts for a more sombre tone, such the film seems to visibly age as it proceeds, until we’re faced with a vision of old age that, finally, feels as sentimental and saccharine as that expounded a decade later in Scent of a Woman. Admittedly, there’s an attempt to recapture that picaresque spirit with a late sojourn to Las Vegas, but in the end that just seems to absorb the characters into a more conventional retiree community, just as the movement towards a blacker, darker tone only proceeds by eroding the contagious, charismatic communion that made the opening so special. In the end, the trio are never quite as fun as just when they’re sitting on that park bench, and the brilliance of the film, finally, is to shoot and craft the heist as if they’re still on the bench, suspending us in an offbeat zone between method and madness that feels as if it could or should have been directed by Strasberg as much as Brest. 


Neame: Hopscotch (1980)

Walter Matthau always brought an effortless relaxation to the films he starred in, but few of his films feel quite so relaxed as Hopscotch. Based on the novel by Brian Garfield, it opens in Berlin, where we’re introduced to Miles Kendig, played by Matthau, an American spy with unorthodox methods. Shortly after he lets the key Russian adversary go – in order to keep better tabs on him – he’s summoned back to Washington DC, where he’s peremptorily consigned to spend the rest of his career in the basement by his manager, Myerson, played by Ned Beatty. Faced with the prospect of a desk job – or worse, retirement – Kendig skips town and skirts around for a bit before bunking up in the Swiss Alps with an old flame, Isobel, played by Glenda Jackson – one of Matthau’s best foils – where he finally decides to release a tell-all memoir. What ensues plays out as a cat-and-mouse game in which Kendig sets out to release the memoir to key government agencies chapter-by-chapter while also securing himself a publisher for a more widespread release, all the while teasing and evading his American targets without ever putting the United States in serious danger. Moving from typewriter to typewriter, and from country to country, the whole film feels a bit like an extended prank, not least because Kendig doesn’t really seem to have any enduring political or personal vendetta – for all that it seems as if he’s exacting revenge for being retired, he already feels retired, in his manner and gait, long before he gets the call from DC. Writing and releasing the memoir, then, simply becomes a way of amusing himself during retirement, a way of absorbing the momentum of his previous life into a cosier, more sedentary sensibility, which makes the film feel homely despite the continual changes and location, not least because every single place is cloaked in the same muted palette, washed-up more than washed-out, clad in plaid and pastel sweaters. Against that backdrop, the story can’t help but feel like a vision of Matthau coming to terms with being typecast as a comic actor as well, retiring into the roles that would define the last period of his life while still managing to find sustenance in them as he graces the film with the peculiar, oneiric jouissance of an actor who’s acting solely for the sake of acting, generating the role as he goes, moment by moment, rather taking cues from a script, a director, or even the other members of the cast. And that, in turn, produces a delight in movement in and for itself, a taste for exhausting every transport or transit option as we follow Kendig from one placeholder identity to another, as if to update North by Northwest or Charade for this later moment in the Cold War landscape. With another actor, that incessant, incidental movement might give the film a bit of a pointless, unfocused feel – and at times it does verge on that – but Matthau’s charisma is resilient enough to riff on for a couple of hours, in what feels more and more like a one-man show, with even Jackson and Beatty reduced to fleeting, if memorable, cameo roles, mere satellites to the warm, comforting ambience that would take Matthau further and further away from his gritty 70s roles over the next two decades. Of course, there’s something poignant about that, but even in retrospect it doesn’t feel like a decline so much as Matthau setting in play a retirement plan that would sustain him right up until Hanging Up, an exercise in buoyance that ends, appropriately enough, with a screwy seaplane standoff that’s every bit as good as the ending of Charley Varrick. Like Wikileaks told as a series of dad jokes, you sense a capacity for seriousness behind the comedy, a capacity for gravitas behind the goofiness, a sense of something perpetually held in abeyance that perhaps explains why Matthau's most dignified roles were often his wackiest and silliest, a paradox that's peculiarly present and poetic in this exquisitely playful film. 


Bogdanovich: She's Funny That Way (2015)

As the critic-turned-auteur par excellence, Peter Bogdanovich doesn’t write dialogue so much as assemble quotations, most of them from the Golden Age of Hollywood. That gave his films scope to be quite moody and melancholy when his sources were only a couple of decades old, but now that classical Hollywood is no longer really part of lived memory, it’s a challenge to see how his cinephilic exercises could resonate as poignantly and poetically as they did in the 70s and early 80s. In some ways, his last film, The Cat’s Meow, was the last gasp, since it did what none of his previous films had ever dared to do – it enshrined the classical film industry as a period drama, thereby cementing it in the historical past, rather than celebrating it as an enduring part of the present. It feels right, then, that She’s Funny That Way – originally titled Squirrels to the Nuts, after a soundbite pulled from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1946 comedy Cluny Brown – is set in a version of the present that isn’t so much affectively indebted to classical Hollywood as anachronistically and defiantly shot as if we’re still living in classical Hollywood, in a kind of simulacral 30s that feels like even more of a definitive break from the embodied, corporeal, autobiographical nostalgia of, say, Paper Moon, than The Cat’s Meow. As in virtually any 30s film set in New York, Broadway is here presented as the nerve centre of an island in which everyone is an actor whether they know it or not, and every relationship in the city converges on the theatre. In fact, convergence is what the film does best, since most of the bit players – Owen Wilson as a director, Imogen Poots as a call girl, Rhys Ifans as an actor, Kathryn Hahn as another actor, Jennifer Aniston as a therapst – are all fairly underwhelming in themselves, and only really start to sparkle when they’re given the chance to work off each other’s energy. Combined with a story that's obsessed with artists and their muses - and offers a wonderful outlet for Wilson's musing mentality - that creating a genuinely ensemble experience that perhaps most differentiates it from Woody Allen’s latter-day jarring, dissonant and incongruous assemblages of celebrities. As a result, the film tends to play out across a series of ceremonial, performative, theatrical spaces – hotels, elevators, therapists couches, interviews – and is strongest when characters simply bump into each other – the perfect combination of spontaneity and theatrically – most memorably in an extended scene in which every member of the cast converges on a single restaurant, with delightful results. Certainly, that makes the whole film feels somewhat cloistered – one of the key scenes actually takes place in the Cloisters – but the effect is strangely one of expansiveness more than constriction, transforming Manhattan into the backdrop for a giant country house drama, drenched in a golden glow that that’s as ahistorical and self-containted as an Instagram photo, a tone and texture that makes even SmartPhones seem positively screwy. If anything does start to grate, it’s Poots’ abysmally historicised American accent – all the more unusual in that Ifans doesn’t seem under any pressure to conceal his Englishness – but there’s also something to be said for how enthusiastically the film revels in its sheer plasticity and implausibility, placing it front and centre with a framing device and voiceover that makes it feel as if she’s in every scene, and that every scene is bracketed by quotation marks more emphatic than those of any other film in Bogdanovich’s career, even or especially as nothing tangible or concrete is there to be quoted anymore. 


McQuarrie: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Although Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was praised for its extravagant set pieces, the Mission Impossible franchise has always had a particular affinity for set pieces, like the series before it, just as the formal challenge posed to the films has always really turned on how to translate that set piece structure into a feature-length narrative without making it feel like three TV episodes stitched together back to back. The situation is made considerably more difficult by the fact that the original and secondary series treated the set piece as a tool for taking us to the very threshold of the analog, physical world, as well as the threshold of the nation-state – a threshold that has greatly receded in the intervening decades, such that the murky, interstitial, post-national zones that were only ever horizons in the series are now simply taken for granted in the world that Ethan Hunt inhabits, a world in which stealth is no longer a specialisation but a general state of mind. In Ghost Protocol, Bird responded with a series of dizzying, vertiginous, incomprehensible post-spaces, all prevented from lapsing over into digital exhaustion by the analog, physical presence of Cruise’s body, the body of the last great actor prepared to perform his own stunts. Rogue Nation, by contrast, stays along that threshold instead of leaping over it, embracing the murkiness between analog and digital space that seems to define so much contemporary experience, which is perhaps why it also feels more interested in suspense than spectacle of the kind so sublimely expounded by Bird. In that sense, the film feels like a bit of a pretext for its central set-piece, which occupies most of the second act, and revolves around Hunt’s efforts to foil an assassination attempt that has been deliberately timed to occur during the climactic note of a performance of Turandot at the Vienna State Opera. Moving between virtually every component, inhabitant and network within the theatre, McQuarrie crafts a kind of tribute to The Man Who Knew Too Much that effortlessly glides between post-human sightlines and the palpably plastic, artificial spatiality of sets and costumes, with a deftness and dexterity for co-ordinating real-time, real-space imperatives with a digital space of flows that is, in the end what Hunt does best, not least because this picaresque, porous membrane is also a fairly absurd space, and a great backdrop for Cruise’s exquisite sense of comic timing. And that’s only exacerbated by the presence of Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust – another undercover agent and one of the best foils in the series – as well as by Christopher McQuarrie as writer and director, whose vision of Cruise in Jack Reacher as the only great action hero who hasn’t succumbed to self-ironisation – even or especially at his most comic and camp – is continued here with aplomb. Of course, there’s a story to undercut it all – as in Ghost Protocol, the twist is that something like a nation-state or at least a nation-syndicate does still exist – but the main emotional thrust of the film is a kind of paean to Cruise’s ability to age with dignity onscreen, in a kind of counter-narrative to that promulgated by the tabloid media. Earnestness tinged with just enough comic charisma to prevent it sinking over into saccharine sanctimony is a fairly rare commodity for an action hero these days, but Cruise has stuck to his guns with a conviction in the power and passion of acting even as his offscreen reputations – and misrepresentations - have forced him to fall back upon serial and genre roles as never before, which is perhaps why the Mission Impossible franchise has gradually morphed into one of the best contemporary tributes to cinema as an actorly medium, especially in this sort-of sequel to Jack Reacher. Certainly, all of the action scenes feel like workouts at some point, while Cruise - and Hunt - are just starting to glimpse the twilight of their acting careers, but that just makes their dedicated professionalism all the more endearing, all the more of a spectacle in itself, especially when coaxed, cushioned and curated as perfectly as McQuarrie has over the course of these two collaborations.