Tom Jolliffe looks back at four must see cult classics…
Whilst perusing a few episodes of Mark Kermode Uncut I stumbled upon an episode focused on a film I’d been meaning to see for a fair while. Firstly, it was directed by William Friedkin, a cinematic great. Secondly the film is scored by Tangerine Dream. Both those aspects made Sorcerer a film forever on my watch-list. It wasn’t until seeing a ringing endorsement from Kermode however that I was compelled to shift it ahead in the queue.
This then kickstarted a marathon of films with connective strands. I will tell you exactly why each film was chosen (as far as the Michael Mann portion the two are long term favourites of mine) and indeed the resultant viewing experience. The films I watched were Sorcerer and To Live And Die In L.A. by Friedkin followed by Thief and Manhunter from Michael Mann. The connective strands being William Peterson who appears in both To Live And Die In L.A and Manhunter (and a small role in Thief), whilst Tangerine Dream’s music envelopes Sorcerer and Thief.
So here’s the run down on each film, with the express purpose of thoroughly endorsing the viewing of each film, particularly given that they (the Friedkin films in particular) have slipped under the mainstream radar for decades.
A remake of Wages of Fear (and based off the novel by Georges Arnaud), this was a passion project for Friedkin which came about after he’d been on a hot-streak throughout the 70’s (with The Exorcist and The French Connection). The film bombed, but in no small part suffered from not only a misleading title but going toe to toe with a little film you may have heard of called Star Wars.
The premise here is simple but brutally effective. A group of outcasts hiding out in South America for differing reasons take on the job of transporting highly volatile nitroglycerin across rugged mountain and forest tracks, knowing the slightest jolt could cause the whole stockpile to explode and kill them instantly. The original is a great film, but this is a rare remake that manages to tell the story again in its own and equally effective way. Friedkin’s direction is compelling, taking cues from his documentary beginnings to great effect.
Kermode described the film as being muscular. That is makes you feel the dirt, the strain and the sweat. It’s true. You will feel this film. It’s utterly gripping. The sweat almost drips off the screen. It’s heart in mouth stuff in some truly exceptional set pieces. If you’ve seen some of the most epic challenges on Top Gear for example, one can’t help but feel they were inspired by Sorcerer. Whether it’s treacherously narrow mountain passes or rickety rope bridges across wild rivers in typhoon weather, these ticking time-bomb trucks must slowly be navigated across. The set pieces are done for real in the pre-CGI age. The score from Tangerine Dream is pulsing and tense when used but when it’s not the film relies on sound. If you want to learn about sound design and its importance. Watch this. The sound work in Sorcerer is utterly impeccable.
The cast are great but a particular shout out must go to one of the most overlooked actors of that era, Mr Roy Scheider. He has of course been in Jaws, and The French Connection and been nominated for two Oscars, but people don’t seem to hold him in the regard he deserves (given he often played second fiddle). Scheider was an exceptional actor and he’s immense in this.
To Live And Die In L.A
Whilst Sorcerer was pure tension and slow building with a gritty and grounded approach, To Live And Die In L.A is a film of excessive style (in large parts, over substance). In fact when you watch this you won’t be able to shake the feeling that at some point Michael Bay sat naked and sweaty watching this with a rock hard rod-on (before mimicking all the style, without paying any attention to any of the more considered aspects).
This film looks amazing. It continues Friedkins long love affair with the synth score too. This time Wang Chun take on the musical duties on both soundtrack and score. It’s pure unadulterated 80’s that’s somewhere between Tangerine Dream and Harold Faltemeyer.
This one was fairly low-budget, so the principal cast were largely unknown at the time. William Petersen would later appear in Manhunter of course, but more famously in C.S.I. Willem Dafoe is a fantastic villain in one of his earlier roles here. The film is a really nice, underrated gem with some great action and it’s savagely brutal, pulling back every now and again from that 80’s gloss to have a bit of 70’s style grit. This is well worth checking out.
Michael Mann’s first feature remains a cult favourite but still largely under the radar. This plays out almost like a pre-cursor to Heat, with several thematic lines that would be replayed in the Pacino/De Niro classic. There are notable similarities between the titular thief here (played with career best brilliance by James Caan) and De Niro’s character in Heat.
Mann’s trademark style is evident (at least before he moved to digital and changed his approach). This is beautifully framed with near forensic attention to detail with his frame composition. Likewise Mann would begin his career with an intense focus on realism. Everything involved in the staging of the robbery scenes and safe cracking is intricately laid out before us on-screen. There’s a documentary level approach to content but a perfectionist and artistic lean to the cinematic visuals.
Tangerine Dream deliver a great score. Probably one of my favourites. It’s still in the relatively early and industrial sounding stages of the synthesiser. The mechanic drones that bass out the more arpeggiated and harmonious pulses above play well against the dirt, raw heat and power of the mechanical tools used for the safe cracking or indeed the vehicles and weapons for the other scenes. The finale, engulfed by what seems like a lengthy ode to the Comfortably Numb guitar solo is also fantastic.
As I say, Caan is enthralling. James Belushi shines in an early role and the ordinarily cuddly and cheery Robert Prosky is a brilliant villain. He starts off playing to type before flipping brilliantly as the facade drops and we realise the brutality required to be in his position.
Right. I’m going to say it. I’m going to be one of those guys…THIS is the definitive Hannibal Lector film (or Lektor as he is known in this). Michael Mann’s gritty, dark, grimy but supremely stylish crime noir, which is more loosely based on Thomas Harris’s novel than Red Dragon say, is underground cinema at its finest.
The film is layered with a great soundtrack and features once again in my marathon, a synth score. This time from Michel Rubini. Mann’s direction, like Thief, and indeed Heat, is this great mix of intense focus on finding the symmetry between style and substance. He strikes the balance well. Some critics have often focused so much on the style that they seem to automatically disregard any substance, even though it is clearly there. From a psychologically complex lead, played with great conviction by William Petersen, to once again the acute levels of detail given to the forensics etc that appear in the film. This in fact is a great pre-cursor to C.S.I for Petersen.
As far as the villains go, Hannibal Lektor isn’t the scenery chomping and theatrical villain that was so brilliant in Silence Of The Lambs before being turned into a caricature in subsequent sequels. Here, as played by Brian Cox, he is secondary to the plot but he’s cunning, intelligent and manipulative. It’s a great performance. More grounded in a reality than Hopkins and equally effective in Cox’s style. I love both. They’re a completely different style of villain.
However, if we take every Harris big screen adaptation, I would have to say my favourite villain performance by a way is Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde (aka The Tooth Fairy). There’s something disturbingly authentic, haunting and terrifying about his performance. It’s not cinematic, or theatrical or Hollywood. Noonan was incredibly intense on set by all accounts, and kept a distance from the other cast and an air of intensity. It’s not to say he turned into a raving maniac of course, but he really invested into the role, finding a dark place. Not only that he didn’t merely emphasise the villainous side, the resultant violence etc. What made this villain truly great and one of the most under-appreciated in cinema history, is that he portrayed the inner turmoil, the humanity deep beneath this socially retarded outcast. It’s an exceptional and affecting performance, ably given the greatest of platforms by Mann’s dazzling direction and choice of soundtrack.
With that, I will leave you all to marinade on the above and hopefully you will watch (or re-watch) any of the above. I thoroughly recommend all of them and most certainly fans of synth scores. Please let us know your thoughts on any of the above in the comments below.