Mackenzie: The Long Good Friday (1980)

In some ways, the greatest British science-fiction film of the 1980s was The Long Good Friday, a gangster thriller set in a version of London that still feels futuristic some thirty-five years later. Opening with a thrilling extended montage sequence depicting what appears to be a set of co-ordinated killings, the narrative gradually – very gradually – centres in on Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins), a London crimelord who has chosen Good Friday to introduce an American investor to his plans for a Docklandsesque housing development designed to stimulate cashflow into the capital. Accompanied by his aide, Victoria (Helen Mirren), Harold introduces himself first and foremost as a neo-imperialist gangster, determined to helm “the decade in which London will become Europe’s capital once again," as he unfolds a business strategy for reinvesting London with the technologial sublime it commanded during the Golden Age of Empire, with most of the key negotiations taking place on a luxury liner that seems to reclaim the Thames as the gateway to the world before the deal has even been done. As that might suggest, London is very much the main character in the film, as John Mackenzie sketches out a city that feels almost entirely extrapolated from Heathrow and devoid of anything resembling an urban core, the world city glimpsed but never properly consummated during the actual Age of Empire. Inhabited or at least propelled by a demotic criminal underclass, the film plays out in the space between the proletarian earthiness that launched Hoskins’ screen persona and a synthetic, propulsive, histrionic score that often makes it feel like a precursor to Guy Ritchie’s kitchen-synth dramas or, more distantly, the millenial London of Sherlock, even as it surpasses both. If you could imagine an expansion to Fallout set in London, it would probably look a bit like Mackenzie’s Savoy Grill, as we alternate between dense narrative clusters and synthetic montage sequences that are crystal-clear in their production but more opaque at the same time, a hyper-London that commands your attention only to deflect it into each new sensation. The result is a synthetic gaze that’s initially and then pervasively associated with gay cruising, sending a diffuse homoerotic ripple through the film that situates every encounter between men in the breathless space between cruises, as Harold starts to realise that some shadowy entity has started to out-surveil him, picking off his crew one at a time as he scrambles to contain the threat while assuring his prospective business partners that nothing is wrong. Of course, something is wrong, and the genius of the film lies partly in the way that Harold's nemesis morphs from a local crime syndicate into the IRA, as what seems like a petty vendetta gradually discloses itself a more amorphous terrorist presence, challenging Harold for supremacy over the coal face of globalisation even as its own attacks become ever more specific, targeted and localised. And in his ballooning elasticisation of a simulacral London that has eclipsed the actual city, his elaborate networks of surveillance and counter-surveillance, and his nocturnal synthesized noir, Mackenzie finally offers something of a counterpoint and complement to Ridley Scott’s globalised Los Angeles in Blade Runner, except that in this case the future is already present in the present, which is perhaps why it still feels like the future in our present as well. 


Zieff: Private Benjamin (1980)

If one thing could be said to characterise 80s comedies as a whole, it was a sense that upward mobility had once again become a viable mode of American picaresque. Obsessed with weird and wacky ways of rising to the top in a new Reagonomic climate, these frequently neoconservative outings were strangely individualistic and militaristic at once, enjoining viewers to discover the self-discipline required to follow their own most personal desires with an audacity that often brought them quite close to the self-help literature that flourished around the same time. Nowhere is that clearer in Private Benjamin, a Goldie Hawn vehicle that in some ways feels like the first true 80s comedy, as well as one of the films that most captures Hawn’s uncanny ability to impart a kind of offbeat absurdity to every utterance while tugging on the heartstrings for all she's worth. Here she plays Judy Benjamin, a cloistered Jewish WASP – at least that’s how the film presents it – who finds herself enlisting for the “new 80s army” after two marriages fail to provide her with any fulfilment. Rocking up at Fort Biloxi in a designer outfit, she quickly learns a new kind of rigour, but also learns to have enough confidence in herself to pursue one-night stands, impulse romances and, eventually, orgasm, all the while exuding a lazy, slightly tipsy complacency that makes it feel as if the film has never left that opening wedding reception. As Benjamin travels around the United States and then to France, drifting between her recruiting officer (Harry Dean Stanton), best friend (Mary Kay Place) and memories of her late(st) husband (Albert Brooks), an odd vision of the US military emerges as the place where the self-explorations and sexual liberations of the 60s Left can still carry on unimpeded, which perhaps makes it something of an object lesson in how the military-industrial complex – the ultimate hippy enemy – contained, commodified and militarised the hippy impulse, but also results in one of the most effective advertisements for the US army ever committed to screen, rivalling Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge for sheer small-town cosiness and small-bar conviviality. Unlike Eastwood’s outfit, however, this is very much a post-historical US army, utterly jettisoned from the Vietnam crisis that solidified the hippy movement, let alone its own Cold War backdrop – particularly important once Benjamin arrives in France and is prohibited from dating an ex-communist – which is more or less reduced to a stylistic flourish, an exotic trim around the edges of Camp America. Still, the army does genuinely feel like a viable line of flight at moments as well, only shedding some of its grittier overtones in the name of a utopian workplace that women can fall back upon in lieu of the nuclear family, part of a broader deflection of hippedom into young professionalism that perhaps places the film with comedies like 9 to 5, Working Girl and Big Business more than any army dramas, in a kind of precursor to Runaway Bride that nevertheless anticipates how that film should have ended. And in any case, there’s something about Benjamin’s hippy energy that exceeds the way the army motivates it, just as there’s no film in which Hawn’s own inextricably hippy lexicon and languour feels so powerfully present. For a film that’s all about leaving marriage behind to join the army, then, it’s refreshingly free of any sense that the army is just another husband, which is perhaps what finally gives it such a unique tone – jaunty, but never jingoistic, patriotic but never platitudinous, and feminist without ever falling back upon the feminist apologias that characterise so many so-called liberal dramas from this period. 


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.