Readers who’ve been following the column may have noticed a certain focus on the more testosterone-laden side of cinema. Put simply, I’ve written mainly about films starring (and aimed at) guys. But I cannot live on red meat alone, and neither should you.
If you’re in the mood to prove that a great director’s juvenilia is still better than most people’s best work: Boxcar Bertha (1972, Martin Scorsese):
After watching the Roger-Corman-produced “Boxcar Bertha”, John Cassavetes famously told a young Scorsese that the latter had, “wasted a year of his life making a piece of shit,” and that he should make something more personal on the next go-around. That next work, of course, was “Mean Streets”, but even if Scorsese hadn’t taken that advice to heart and stuck around in the ghettos of exploitation, I suspect he would still be talked about in some fashion. Much like Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat, Bertha is a shining example of a talented director taking a punch-press assignment and crafting something unique and vital from it.
The base outline sounds like a “Bonnie and Clyde”-style genre riff: The title character (played with bubbly gusto by Barbara Hershey) meets and falls for pro-union agitator Big Bill Shelley (David Carradine), and a series of events see them teaming with nervous gambler Rake (Barry Primus) and taciturn black muscle Von (Bernie Casey) to knock over a number of railroad payroll deliveries, with the ultimate intention of putting the railroad out of business. While he delivers the expected quota of firearms and flesh, Scorsese finds himself far more interested in the atmosphere of the time and the way the characters interact with each other; as such, the narrative develops with an offhand, low-key sense of hang-out rhythm, with the big heist setpieces played for dry comedy or otherwise marginalized. Check that ending, too – Scorsese, ever the tortured Catholic, isn’t keen to let his characters or his audience off the hook for their baser desires. (Interesting to see Hershey here at the climax and reflect on her playing Mary Magdalene for Scorsese fifteen years later.) “Boxcar Bertha” is an unexpectedly observational piece, a film that shows us characters with a drive to live so that it genuinely stings when that drive gets thwarted. “Piece of shit” or not, it’s a corker of a drive-in subversion.
If you’re in the mood for narrative trickery without cheapness or cheating: The Double Hour (2009, Giuseppe Capotonde):
There’s a real pleasure in seeing a complex story unfold — if properly rendered, it’s like marveling at a striking work of architecture. “The Double Hour” is a particularly satisfying work in this regard; the story folds in on itself and shifts directions enough times to keep even the most astute viewer on his toes. But as its secrets are many, I shall tread lightly. The film concerns Sonia, a hotel maid (Kseniya Rappoport) who meets Guido, an ex-cop turned security guard (Filippo Timi), at a speed-dating event. They become close, and one day he invites her out to the estate he guards for some quality time. While there, though, a group of men break in and, in the course of stealing everything in sight, a bullet is fired that kills him, passes through his body and lodges itself in her head. As she attempts to resume her life in the wake of this, things proceed in unusual and disquieting ways.
The directions the story takes end up being unexpected without feeling cheap. As clever as the story ultimately proves to be, though, with its buildups of truth and coincidence, it wouldn’t come off nearly as well without Rappoport’s terrific performance at the center of it. Rappoport uses small body-language signals and big, expressive eyes to suggest the placid, buried terror of someone struggling to keep up appearances in the face of the past’s refusal to die and losing out. As guilt over her role in Guido’s death keeps washing over her, and previously benign things (the leering nature of a superior, for instance) begin to exude an inescapable menace, the film slowly spins out possibilities (is she having some manner of post-traumatic breakdown? is she seeing ghosts? is something wrong neurologically?). The beauty of the performance is that any one of them could be correct, given a slight shift in perspective. And those eyes, those eyes: The final shot of “The Double Hour” is a slow zoom in to Rappoport’s eyes. What’s ultimately behind them? She’s even more guarded than expected. Those seemingly clear blue eyes hide opaque depths.
If you’re in the mood for an old-school soap opera minus any sense of decorum or taste: Three Bad Sisters (Gilbert Kay, 1956):
Few things in this world are as delightful, to my sensibilities, as full-throated trashy melodrama, and this little number is full-throated and trashy enough that it feels like it should be watched via a Something Weird DVD-R. The plot circles around the titular three Craig sisters – scheming bitch-on-wheels Valerie (Kathleen Hughes), sex-crazed vamp Vicki (Marla English) and timorous potential basket case Lorna (Sara Shane) – their dead dad’s sizeable inheritance, and roughneck pilot Jim Norton (John Bromfield), who at the outset is hired by Valerie to extricate the fortune from Lorna’s control. Once Norton arrives at the Craig mansion (ostensibly to convince Lorna to surrender the cash), the film revs its engines and becomes a squealing, bug-eyed carnival of drinking, conniving, back-stabbing, emotional cruelty and utter bitchery – a TV soap on a buck-fifty and a handful of Dexedrine.
Director Gilbert Kay pitches the bulk of this in such a frenetic register that the obligatory love story between Lorna and Jim becomes oddly refreshing, a modest oasis of normality that throws the gleeful, snarling debauchery of the rest of it into even more striking relief. “Three Bad Sisters” is the kind of film where people can say, with a smirk and a nasty twinkle in their eyes, things like, “An opportunist never walks away from a gold mine,” and where a cat-fight can climax with one woman literally horse-whipping another. People leap off cliffs and get punched out of windows and drive their cars into brick pylons. Every emotion is operatic and every gambit is a potential endgame. The women are blowsy, the men are rock-ribbed and the drama is as irresistible as the huge piles of dough that await the victor of the catty bloodsports. “Three Bad Sisters” is the sort of lurid thing that makes me unreasonably happy.
The Netflix streaming library is vast and daunting and mostly filled with crap. Steve Carlson is the Netflix video clerk, and every week he hand-delivers three awesome movies you’ve never heard of before. He’s been writing about movies in one form or another on the Internet since 2002 and co-hosts the Bad Idea Podcast. Someone once called him the lonely Magellan of exploitation cinema. He thinks that’s the best compliment he’s ever received.