Happy Father's Day, everyone. There's a new chapter of my infrequently updated web comic, Dekpa and Deborah, online. In this chapter, Deborah's father is very much on her mind. Enjoy.
Also, Happy Birthday to Setsuko Hara and M.C. Escher.
Happy Father's Day, everyone. There's a new chapter of my infrequently updated web comic, Dekpa and Deborah, online. In this chapter, Deborah's father is very much on her mind. Enjoy.
Also, Happy Birthday to Setsuko Hara and M.C. Escher.
It seems at the beginning of the 2013 Doctor Who audio play Daleks Among Us that it's going to be a nice, paranoid tale about an Orwellian dystopia. The aftermath of the humans winning against the Daleks on Earth eerily has the governing humans enforcing a constant rewriting of history and now Daleks can't even be mentioned. This is justified by the fact that humans turned on each other after the Daleks were supposedly gone over recriminations aimed at Dalek collaborators. But the story ends up going in a far more conventional direction and at best is an echo of Jubilee. But it's always nice to hear Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor and he does a great job.
Coming after Persuasion and Starlight Robbery, Daleks Among Us forms the final part of a trilogy in which the Seventh Doctor is travelling with the sort of former Nazi, Elizabeth Klein (Tracey Childs), and the new UNIT scientific advisor, Will Arrowsmith. The Daleks are involved now, trying to get their suction cups on the Persuasion Machine introduced in the first story, a device that controls people through powerful hypnotic suggestion. This story goes back to the original concept involving Nazis and makes the not entirely novel thematic connexion between Daleks and Nazis. Yes, they do have a lot in common--belief in themselves as the master race, ideas about eugenics, and so on.
Davros (Terry Molloy), the creator of the Daleks, also features in this story and, as very often seems to happen in the audio plays, is forced to work with the Doctor and his companions after the Daleks have turned on him. But apparently this was the first audio play that paired Davros with the Seventh Doctor--sadly there are no allusions to the great "rice pudding" speech from Remembrance of the Daleks.
The latter half of this audio play features entertaining drama dovetailing confusion about clones with confusion about time travel and writer Alan Barnes comes up with some amusing dialogue. Ace makes a sort of appearance at the beginning in the form of a nude statue of herself with a baseball bat. That's something much easier to get away with in audio format. The word "Liberty" is engraved at the base of the statue on which the Doctor remarks, "A liberty is what she'd have called it."
Do you know how important your corgi is? If criminals and scientists are chasing it you should probably take note, a lesson Spike Spiegel ought to have learned in the second episode of Cowboy Bebop.
Session Two: Stray Dog Strut
So we move from Western noir to screwball comedy and an undignified chase that introduces us to some bad Martian neighbourhoods. Again, I just have to marvel at how much work went into background details and minor characters. From the kids at the canal to the fortune teller with his bird that picks cards.
The episode's villain, Abdul Hakim (Ryuzaburo Otomo), even stops to consult the fortune teller when he's frustrated in tracking the animal. Many who have written about this episode have suggested that Abdul is meant to be a homage to Blaxploitation. Maybe. It's a more convoluted issue than it at first seems, probably intentionally so, but it begins with the simple question: is Abdul black?
This is his appearance before his latest plastic surgery--it's unclear how many he's had. As you can see, this mugshot identifies his race as "Negloid", a term which, as you might expect, is a big can of worms for people discussing the show in the U.S. to-day. Is it a misspelling of "Negroid" resulting from the Japanese language not distinguishing between the L and R sound? Maybe--and certainly even many of the most prominent anime productions have been guilty of "Engrish" from time to time, though Cowboy Bebop generally seems to have proper English spellings. Everything else seems to be spelled right in that screenshot though the wording of "Today's the first person" is a bit off. If whoever wrote these words didn't know English very well, they might have used a spell-checker, which would again make it unlikely "Negloid" is an unintentional spelling.
The Japanese term for a black person is "黒人" or "kokujin", literally "black person" but according to Japanese Wikipedia, "ネグロイド", "Negroid" is still a politically acceptable term, as it is in many parts of the world--and apparently in some scientific fields in English speaking countries. When I googled the term "Negloid" I found an entry in Urban Dictionary that claims it's a slang term for black people in Japan--and cites Cowboy Bebop as its only source. I'm not inclined to trust this site's insight into Japanese colloquialisms. In a conversation on Reddit, I saw one guy suggesting that the term is an indication of a new recognised race based on a blending of "Negroid" and "Mongoloid". Which I think is a fair guess. Whatever the case, after the first episode's deliberate mixing of familiar cultural and ethnic markers, I think Abdul Hakim is ultimately meant to frustrate familiar categorisation than conform to it.
I thought his name was maybe a reference to Kareem Abdul Jabbar. He's certainly tall and the animators do a good job making him seem threatening at the beginning of the episode. Which makes the absurdity of he and Spike (Koichi Yamadera) running after a corgi all the funnier. What a well animated dog, too.
Ein clearly looks like his animators have studied corgi anatomy and movement and on top of that have given him a distinct personality. Usually animals in anime, particularly from the past five or so years, tend to move like people in costumes.
The episode also features a mention of Spike's love for Bruce Lee. Together with the amazing fight sequences in the first episode, it's a harbinger of some great action to follow.
Twitter Sonnet #1124
With feather helmets noisy birds arrive.
A battle picked and picking beaks commence.
Flamingos 'gainst the ostriches'll strive.
But wheeling vultures offered no offence.
The evening heat entrapped a candy gem.
A tide belayed a party sitting late.
The candle in its glassy berth was dim.
The wind condemned the island lot to wait.
A crystal found its way to breakfast food.
A lowered grill increased the summer heat.
The metal waves produced a frying mood.
A sitting glory faded with the seat.
A punching thought reserved the apple hat.
Excessive clubs delay the next to bat.
We got a little closer to solving the case on last night's Expanse--or closer to finding out what the case even is. There were plenty of cool special effects but the performances were my favourite part.
Spoilers after the screenshot
Especially Elizabeth Mitchell as Anna. Even though from the moment that Methodist officer looked a little stung that he wasn't getting Anna's undivided attention I knew he was going to kill himself and it was going to be entirely to exacerbate her internal conflict. I saw the complete manipulative plot device from ten billion miles away but I was willing to eat it because of what Mitchell was serving.
I liked how she didn't completely ignore him, that she asked him directly how he was doing. But we can understand her guilt when she feels like she should have known better. The break in her voice when she says the story about his gun accidentally going off is a "terrible euphemism"--played just right. You can see her internally counselling herself at the same time she's questioning whether she's even qualified, all while being subtle enough you believe the other characters aren't picking up on it.
The other new good actor also had some nice scenes with the added bonus of being better written. David Strathaim makes Klaes Ashford seem cagey as hell making his flustered reaction when Drummer (Cara Gee) calls him on what he's doing all the more satisfying. She has to get through several layers for it, too--when Ashford had talked about the importance of obeying the captain, I thought it was the plot setting up his predictable mutiny, but this time we had a character, Drummer, who could see just as far as those of us at home. Very nice.
You are taking your bath, mister! Golly, he's a muscular man.
And, of course, we find out Miller (Thomas Jane) really is Miller and not just a figment of Holden's (Steven Strait) imagination given life by the protomolecule. But, of course, many of us caught on to the fact that Holden had never seen Miller's hat. A nice subtle clue.
How much volition is involved in the ways people become important to one another? Presumably it varies on a case by case basis, which is one of the things that makes Seijun Seisuki's 1991 film Yumeji a bit dizzying. A post-modernist nightmare version of a biography of painter and poet Yumeji Takehisa, Suzuki portrays the artist lost in a reality where the relationships between people constantly shuffle in significance, at the mercy of his restless and capricious muse. It's an interesting take on the story but nothing about the film is as great as its compositions.
We meet Yumeji (Kenji Sawada) shortly after a sequence where a crowd of women toss balloons up and down in the air below an elegant woman standing up in a tree with her back to the viewer. Then Yumeji shoots a man in a top hat and so we have a nice visual transposition of his quest for inspiration.
Who is the man in the top hat? Probably Yoshio Harada, who at first claims to be a man named Sokichi Wakiya, but after his wife, Tomoyo (Tomoko Mariya), insists her husband is still dead, he fervently insists he's a nameless person. Has Tomoyo become too used to the idea of his death? She's certainly beautiful standing in the yellow boat on the river where he drowned.
Or maybe she's simply right, maybe he's not really Wakiya. How can a poet or painter even begin when the basic premise won't straighten itself out? Yumeji has his obsession with women's beauty. The argument between objectifying women and celebrating their beauty through art is obsessed over throughout the film. In one scene, a woman's leg is scrubbed with a pile of daikon radishes before she's thrown into a stew.
The frustration comes through--how can one do the work of creating beauty when analysis has endeavoured to render the process so banal? Yumeji continues to obsess over it. He asks an older woman to pose for him but when she leaves the room for a moment he encounters two demonic versions of himself and all the film's female characters appear while he recites a litany of contemporary American actresses (Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson) in voice over. When the old woman returns to the room in her best kimono, excited to have her portrait painted, she finds the artist screaming his own name over and over.
It's an effective portrait of how an artist can hit a stumbling block but the real star of the film is Suzuki's inventiveness for visual arrangements. My favourite is a crane shot behind four characters pissing that rises so the screen is almost filled with a washed out grey building and then the camera swings down to show there'd been a row of raw meat and stuffed crows between the people and the building, hidden by the grass.
Let him that is no coward nor no flatterer
But dare maintain the party of the truth
Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me
So speaks one of the parties in the origin story William Shakespeare imagined for the War of the Roses in his Henry VI: Part I. It's not considered one of Shakespeare's best plays--in fact, not considered altogether a Shakespeare play but widely believed to be a product of collaboration, possibly with Thomas Nashe and Christopher Marlowe--but there's plenty in it that rewards reading or, as I did last night, viewing a production. I watched a 1983 production directed by Jane Howell. It's significant that a woman directs the production as it is a play in which its handling of gender has been a topic of much analysis. It's one of the chief points of interest in it alongside a neat depiction of how superficial rivalries can lead to substantial harm.
The play's also noteworthy as the earliest appearance of Sir John Falstaff, though he's generally not regarded as being the same character as the one who first appears in Henry IV: Part I. The Falstaff who appears in the Henry IV plays, and later in The Merry Wives of Windsor, is generally considered one of Shakespeare's greatest creations--some have said his greatest--while the man of the same name who figures into Henry VI has only a couple brief, undistinguished scenes. And, of course, chronologically the Falstaff of Henry IV would be dead by the time of Henry VI, though I would say this is no argument since The Merry Wives of Windsor is apparently set in Shakespeare's time. Falstaff does not seem a man bound by temporal physics, so I say one might as well regard the one in Henry VI as one and the same. Jane Howell evidently was of the same opinion because, like the Falstaff of the more famous plays, her Henry VI Falstaff is fat and has a big beard.
She also includes a broad comedic moment for him where he flees a battle and starts to snack on some bread when he thinks he's at a safe distance. But while the Falstaff of Henry IV has no direct historical analogue, the one in Henry VI seems to be based on the real Sir John Fastolf--in fact, some editions of the play spell the character's name "Fastolf"--who had a reputation for cowardice now considered to be undeserved. He certainly seems to have had the respect of one of the ablest commanders among his adversaries, Joan of Arc, who demanded her forces be wary of his approach to Orleans. She's recorded as saying to a subordinate, ". . . as soon as you hear of the arrival of Fastolf you will let me know, for if he gets through without my knowing it, I promise that I'll have your head cut off."
Henry VI: Part I also takes some liberties with Joan of Arc though the play accords her more valour and skill than it does Falstaff. Brenda Blethyn plays Joan in Jane Howell's production with a broad northern English accent emphasising her provincial background. Her lines often have the quality of clear common sense next to the male French commanders whom Powell portrays as a gang of bumbling buffoons, including the French Dauphin, Charles (Ian Saynor), whose devotion to her is portrayed as a bug eyed puppy love.
Far from the devout soul heart-breakingly portrayed in Carl Dreyer's film, this Joan turns out to be every bit the witch the Inquisition condemned her for being and a hypocrite, too. In her final scene she first calls herself a virgin then tries to save herself by claiming to be pregnant. Whether or not Shakespeare and his collaborators are really trying to smear Joan is more debatable than one might think, though. For one thing, it's the Duke of York who sneeringly condemns Joan, played in this production effectively by Bernard Hill (wearing a wig that seems to be trying to get away from him).
He's one of the two faction leaders in that garden scene where noblemen choose between red and white roses after a seemingly trivial argument turns ugly. York's pride and posturing are matched by Somerset's (Brian Deacon) and histories of rivalries and loyalties come to a head over flowers. The King who, despite lending his name to the play has a fairly minor role, tries to make peace by mingling York's cavalry with Somerset's infantry when sending them to France but this has the result of both taking it as an excuse to blame the other for not reinforcing Talbot. Their inaction leads to Talbot's defeat.
Portrayed in the play as the epitome of a great English knight, Talbot's defeat is a poignant symbol of the dangers of infighting. Trevor Peacock plays him in Jane Howell's production and really elevates the role, appearing world weary and heroic in battle scenes and humorously awkward and out of place in the king's court and the home of the Countess d'Auvergne (Joanna McCallum) who tries to entrap him--a scene Howell wisely plays again for comedy. The first part of the play has so much rapid actions and plot developments on top of each other that they do seem best suited for a sort of Keystone Kops tone, though this does sit oddly with more straightforward dramatic scenes later on.
Joan's attempts to save herself in the end could be ranked alongside Falstaff in their heights of cowardice and yet Falstaff's cowardice has been a fertile point of interpretation and reinterpretation over the centuries. Falstaff's speech condemning honour in Henry IV is seen by many as profound, including Orson Welles whose respect for Falstaff was clearly great. One could also interpret Talbot and his son's final scenes, in which both refuse to flee a battle as a point of honour and thus both perish, as another subtle argument against that kind of devotion to honour. I think it would be fair to see Joan as a more nuanced character.
Twitter Sonnet #1123
Approaching plans cement the silly bank.
The fishing tackle formed the brains of this.
As Terry-Thomas counts his teeth and rank.
As fragrance heaves ashore enforcéd bliss.
From air impressions build a golden chain.
Illusion's metal prised the place of wood.
The seeds for ants descend as palid rain.
Yet ev'ry leg could say just where it stood.
In silver orbits crickets jumped for Mars.
A tinsel building brought recurring dreams.
A billion people wait in idling cars.
Unwieldy stitches seal the jacket's seams.
A want of colour yet was brightest hue.
A light condemns the shapes to kinds of true.
Cowboy Bebop turns twenty years old this year. Since its premiere in 1998, its audacity of style, its inventiveness combined with an evident work ethic have remained unique. There are plenty of other great anime series but none have so successfully divested themselves of any established genre, something its creative team did quite intentionally as the original release featured the tagline, "a new genre unto itself." It is in fact, as many people have noted, a mixture of genres; predominately space opera, cyberpunk, western, and film noir. To properly pay tribute to this twenty six episode series (and one movie) in which every episode has the scope of a stand alone story, I'm going to be writing about individual episodes, or "Sessions" as the series refers to them, throughout the rest of the year.
Session One: Asteroid Blues
Many people regard cyberpunk as a definitively post-modern genre but Cowboy Bebop demonstrates why I like to call cyberpunk "post-postmodern". I've heard recently there's a misconception going around that post-modernism invariably has a leftwing political component but it doesn't. Post-modernism simply refers to a work of art that requires the audience's familiarity with existing cultures or works of art and often requires an audience that is happy to not get lost in fiction--that is, an audience who enjoys a work without suspending disbelief. There's a lot in Jean-Luc Goddard's Alphaville, for example, that doesn't make sense in terms of any internal logic of its own universe but it all does make sense as a commentary on film, particularly film noir. In the first episode of Cowboy Bebop, "Asteroid Blues", we see how the show takes one of the typical qualities of a post-modern work--taking familiar symbols out of their original contexts and applying them elsewhere--but breathes life into it for its own sake.
Our protagonists visit an asteroid named Tijuana. It's not the Tijuana we know, it has some aspects of our Tijuana, including a reputation for criminality and desperate people. But from the people who live there and its location we know it's not the same place--it may have been originally a comment on the original place but now it's its own place. This is highlighted by three old men; Antonio, Carlos, and Jobim (their names themselves references to the great jazz musician Antonio Carlos Jobim) who reminisce about the hard work of building the place when they were younger. "Tijuana" isn't just some kind of subversive reconfiguration to get you to think about what Tijuana really means. It's a lived in place, its a sincerity that grew up organically on top of an appropriated symbol; it's post-post-modern.
Oh, the detail in the backgrounds. The stories we don't hear are evident in little slices of action, like the kids running across the street with loaves of bread. The main plot itself avoids the direct route--normally the first episode of a series is about the main characters. Instead, "Asteroid Blues" is predominately about two characters we never see again--a rogue gangster named Asimov and his girlfriend, Katerina.
Theirs is a film noir story, not unlike Sterling Hayden and Jean Hagen in The Asphalt Jungle--a woman devoted to a desperate man who's going down the wrong road. We meet two of Cowboy Bebop's main characters, Spike Spiegel (Koichi Yamadera) and Jet Black (Unshou Ishizuka) as relatively minor characters in Asimov and Katerina's story. They're two bounty hunters after the bounty on Asimov's head, though Spike seems to have some sympathy for Katerina after he accidentally-on-purpose collides with her while she's carrying groceries. She catches him trying to steal most of the contents of her bag.
Spike describes himself as an old fashioned cowboy. We eventually learn a lot more about him but apart from a brief unexplained flashback at the beginning of the episode we don't get much about Spike more literal than this. From the way he says it before telling her he's going to allow her and Asimov to walk away it suggests he espouses a certain chivalric code. As the episode allows us to learn about Spike and Jet entirely through their reactions to the two criminals (as well as to mundane phenomena like food and sleep) the characters grow organically on top of the symbols they present much as Tijuana grew up on top of its symbols. Spike and Jet, like everyone else, are both collections of appropriated and lived in symbols. They both speak Japanese (unless you're watching the overrated English dub) but they have western names. Their clothes are amalgamations of various cultures in our present but they have histories that grew up organically in their reality. Asimov and Katerina are apparently Hispanic but their names are Slavic.
As interesting as Asimov's trouble is with the strange "red eye" drug he takes that gives him super speed and strength, I doubt anyone regrets its Spike and Jet we're left with by the end of the episode. We know next to nothing literal about them--they present cool visual character designs along with voice performances and dialogue that's laid back but also somehow grave like Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past or Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West. They make us want to know more about them even as what they do give us to start with argues for the value in their immediate state of pure impression. Instead of being merely a reference to old films noir and westerns, it sincerely adopts the virtues of the old storytelling techniques.
In love and relationships, passions run so high and people have so much pride on the line, each party in a dispute may be fully committed to a different version of reality. Many comedies and dramas have been written from this premise, including the charming 1957 musical Les Girls. Featuring songs by Cole Porter that don't rank among his best they're adequate for the film because lovely visuals and a great cast more than pick up the slack. The screenplay isn't Rashomon but it's not bad, either, and director George Cukor exercises his formidable storytelling instincts.
The man with the sandwich board wanders a crowded street outside a courtroom in which the sensational trial everyone's talking about forms the film's framing story. A wealthy society woman named Sybil (Kay Kendall) has written a scandalous memoir and she's been taken to court for it by Angele (Taina Elg), with whom Sybil once worked as a dancer on stage in Paris. The film's divided into three parts for three versions of events and in the first one Sybil tells us about Angele's torrid affair with their manager and co-star, Barry Nichols (Gene Kelly).
This was my favourite part of the movie as we're introduced to the three flatmates who banter engagingly about life in Paris and devotion to work. In this, Sybil's version of events, Sybil is a composed, sensible woman; Angele is reckless and romantic; and rounding out the trio is the ever chipper but somehow unobtrusive Joy (Mitzi Gaynor). Despite their misgivings, Sybil and Joy help conceal Angele's affair with Barry even when they're not supposed to know about it themselves. Angele and Barry go through a thin pantomime of greeting each other for the neighbours' benefit and then take off together in a car around the corner.
This sequence has the best song, "Ca C'est L'amour", in a really lovely scene where Angele and Barry relax in a row boat.
Angele's fiance is incensed by Sybil's account so Angele takes the stand to tell the story of an extravagantly alcoholic Sybil torn between Barry and a wealthy Englishman--Sybil's present day husband. Finally, Barry himself takes the stand to set things straight--it was Joy he'd been going with the whole time. But as Joy herself remarks, there's too much in Sybil and Angele's stories they couldn't have made up so by the end of the film there's a reasonable argument for the veracity of any one of the stories.
Supposedly the alternate points of view are motivated by Sybil and Angele each believing that the other had tried to commit suicide over the impossibility of being with Barry. Barry's story offers an explanation for the confusion but really doesn't clear things up.
There's a terrific dance sequence at the end seemingly modelled on The Wild One--minus the emotionally authentic portrayal of misfit youth but with a great heat of its own. It follows a tradition in musicals of the 50s and late 40s wherein there's at least one big dance sequence that has nothing at all to do with the plot. The movie resolves on a nicely uncertain note, allowing the audience to contemplate the insoluble puzzle of tangled romance.
One positive thing about The Deadly Assassin being one of my least favourite Doctor Who serials is that I haven't watched it as many times and there were still ways in which it felt relatively fresh when I watched it this past week. I enjoyed it a lot more this time, too.
The first Doctor Who serial to spend a significant amount of time on Gallifrey, it establishes a glimmering Emerald City look I really like. Sadly, this was abandoned immediately in the next Gallifrey serial the following season, The Invasion of Time, and was never seen again. I suppose the shiny green is a bit dated but I love it even more for that somehow.
There are three reasons I generally don't feel like watching The Deadly Assassin--the Doctor has no companion in the serial, its a serial featuring the Master whom I used not to like as much as I do now, and there are no women in it. It's really only the last aspect that still disappoints me. Not for any political reasons, I just like having women around. Certainly it seems improbable that in the whole capital of Gallifrey we see not one Time Lady. There's quite a crowd, too, when the Doctor (Tom Baker) walks into being framed for assassinating a retiring president.
Tom Baker is good as always despite having no companion to explore a chemistry with. The closest the serial has to a companion is the man in charge of investigating the murder, Castellan Spandrell, played by Czechoslovakian actor George Pravda.
He's certainly interesting. He seems to have a little trouble remembering his lines but his delivery has a refreshing quality of coming from a different acting background than most everyone else on the show. He and Baker never play off each other in an especially interesting way, though--Pravda's rapport with a Time Lord engineer played by Erik Chitty, who died the following year, is a little better. They come off as two men who bond over their shared age and experience while mildly chiding each other on the inefficiencies of each others' roles.
The matrix composed of brain patterns overseen by Chitty's character is a nice concept, leading to the scenes the occupy most of the middle two episodes where the Doctor enters the dream world (of course a quarry) and becomes a target in a "Most Dangerous Game" style story. There's not much for director David Maloney to do to make the quarry look like a strange nightmare realm--it certainly never stacks up to The Mind Robber--but I appreciate his framing Tom Baker's face with little pink flowers.
My appreciation for the Master has grown since last watching this serial. Peter Pratt, who assumed the role here after Roger Delgado's untimely death, is hidden behind an impressively gruesome mask, the bare, bulging eyes serving as a fitting illustration for the Doctor's comments regarding the Master's tenacity.
Twitter Sonnet #1122
Some disembodied hair rejoined the scalps.
Composure met the swirling world in time.
The jewel of coughing crests the vapour Alps.
At last the moon became a fruitless lime.
In vanished pictures milk was counterfeit.
In noticed cringles bulges top the cook.
We all assumed the mop would handle it.
A salsa pool assured a moistened look.
A novel sparrow spies escaping whales.
A vanished clock contained a master skull.
The sea the thieves conveyed in em'rald pails.
Reminders tally lone upon the hull.
A quote becomes a speck of sugar dust.
The perfect steel acquires perfect rust.
I don't know much about Anthony Bourdain, the widely loved celebrity chef who committed suicide this morning. I have a lot of friends who love his work and I've seen a thing or two from him I liked. His death naturally has provoked a lot of discussion online to-day--I've seen a few comments along the line of depression being a mental illness and that suicide doesn't have any causes external to the person who kills him or herself. I don't think it's that cut and dry, I think there are people more prone to commit suicide because of mental illness, but I don't think it's a coincidence suicide rates increase after terrible events. Under certain conditions, suicide is arguably a very sane choice. It's certainly a brave decision.
One thing of Bourdain's I read that I liked was his top ten list he came up with for Criterion in 2011. I love most of the movies on his list, including his number one pick, the 1973 film noir The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which Bourdain called a "bleak masterpiece of low-level criminality."
Set in Boston in autumn, the film centres on a gangster played by Robert Mitchum at the end of his career. He has to be in New Hampshire in a few days to face charges and he's looking for a way to cut a deal with the cops so he won't have to do time. But like a lot of movie gangsters, he still has an aversion to being a rat.
There's a lot of irony in the title. Although Mitchum's character, Eddie Coyle, is at the centre of the story, the film spends a lot of time focusing on weapons dealers, small time robbers, and other gangsters. It creates a very credible network of cops and crooks who speak to each other with well worn patterns of language. A crooked barman played by Peter Boyle only has to say that he's been talking to people on the phone before the cop he's with knows to give him twenty dollars to hear about the people he's been talking to. There are all these people who understand the game and need each other for the roles they play but fundamental to everything is distrust.
There's a gang of bank robbers--who wear some of the creepiest masks in the history of crime films--who have a very good, sure routine of taking bank managers' families hostage. But at base everything is done without any real plan for what to do when the latest score runs out. Everyone acts like there's some kind of normality to this life but Eddie's anxiety growing too big to be contained by Mitchum's trademark cool reflects how precarious it all is. Yet at the same time there's a feeling of stasis in the film for its minimal soundtrack and its quiet scenes of people just talking. Meanwhile, it's all set in some of the most beautifully autumnal environments committed to film, reflecting death going on all around however stable it might seem.
Most of the movie people are wearing shades of rust and grey. Splashes of colour like the bright yellow car of the weapons dealer or the neon cutting through the great black 70s night scenes only serve to emphasise the film's general autumn. It is certainly bleak, more Brian Eno bleak than Slayer bleak. Its an inexorable, steadily worsening reality, a portrait of people who talk themselves into a slow burning hell in the hopes of finding one swiftly delivered salvation.