The pale, anaemic skin tone of Walken’s Frank White bleeds through the chiaroscuro urban nightscapes of New York. We first see Frank, a capitalist vampire, in prison which acts as his tomb, and in exile from a kingdom from which he has become disconnected. Frank’s return to a city which he calls home is undermined by a sensibility brought on by institutionalisation, suggesting he is no longer part of the living. ‘Back from the dead’ he remarks to his friends. This is one of the many lies Frank is beholden to, perpetuating an illusion of insanity that terrifies those around him. The gangster figure draped in black, a conventional iconographic idiom clashes with the jaunt paleness of Frank’s face, projecting a vampirish image that becomes immortalised in a sordid milieu of hypocritical middle class parasites. Frank’s world is populated by an individualism typifying the American crime film and its propensity to insidiously forge a twisted sympathy for the devil. Conflated with the image of dread is the fatalism of noir, mapping out a trajectory of doom that is debilitating for Frank. Although in the words of Warshow, Frank is a man of the city, he also drifts through spaces and places leaving a ghostly residue, positing an asynchronous attitude that he masks with a terrifying pathos. Frank White may in fact be the only socialist gangster in the American crime film yet this is strictly not a crime film, it is Ferrara’s uniquely capitalist vampire fable. If the vampire is immortal then it is not surprising Frank envisions he will be remembered for a late socialist cause to save the local hospital from closing. The desire to be seen legitimately in the eyes of society is recognisably connected to the gangster’s image in the genre. King of New York is a signature film for Ferrara and the fusion of crime with horror produces a singularly unique genre film that is more vampire than gangster, perhaps finding an iconographic connection with films like The Addiction.
Genre readings of Michael Mann’s debut feature film Thief are relatively inclined to explore both the crime film and neo noir which seem to intersect as a form of postmodern existential hybridity. Mann could have easily worked in the Hollywood studio era since he works specifically within genres. Separation for Mann from his contemporaries especially when it comes to the crime film is authorial preoccupations are lucid, intellectual and existential enough to transform the most ordinary or formulaic of situations into a kind of poetic rapture. Thief is a virtual template for Mann thematics he would regularly explore in the crime film genre. Yet in the midst of a narrative that could only be described as an urban western, Frank’s refusal to conform and to be assimilated into a much wider capitalist system of working class exploitation requires further elucidation as an early marker of Mann’s politics.
One of the more interesting exchanges in terms of political dialogic occurs towards the end of the film between Frank, the worker in this case, and Leo, the master and boss. Having completed his final job as a high line safe cracker, Frank comes to see Leo, his new friend, for his cut. However, when Frank looks through the envelope full of cash he realises Leo’s idea of friendship is cynically unveiled as a form of ownership antithetical to Frank’s very existence. Frank’s defense of his ideological position is very revealing as it harbours a semi Marxist tone: ‘I can see my money is still in your pocket, which is from the yield of my labour’. When conflated with his ‘state raised’ background, a picture emerges of the proletariat rallying against the exploitation of labour which he must sell in order to survive and function in a capitalist American society. In many ways, this is Frank at his most political and the resistance he vigorously demonstrates to the humiliating demands of Leo, who wants to own Frank and thereby control him, is an extension of such a working class protest. Notably, Frank also furthers his argument about working class exploitation, saying: ‘You’re making big profits from my work, my risk, my sweat’. Oddly enough the tone of Frank’s criticisms concerning profits and his sweat is overly familiar in the context of corporation exploitation and most significantly the element of greed. Although Leo could be interpreted as the domineering crime boss, his conflict with Frank at this point in the film becomes an ideological one and thus can be a symbolic extension of the capitalist system attempting through initially coercion and finally violence to subjugate the consciousness of the proletariat spirit. Leo’s response to Frank is glib, condescending and politically loaded, ‘Why don’t you join a labour union?’, he says.
Existence in the world of Mann for the male loner is defined by anonymity. By partnering with Leo, Frank realises he is jeopardising the anonymity he has struggled to protect but he is also putting at risk his belief system. Unsurprisingly, Frank’s proletarian politics become a source of ridicule. Leo feels threatened by Frank’s unwavering professionalism and deadening adherence to a strict moral code and by rubbishing his politics, Leo tries to humiliate Frank in every way possible whereby he is made into a relic in an age of corporate power. However, Frank resists. The resistance exemplified at the end appears like uncontrollable rage. Framed politically as an act of proletariat protest, the violence unleashed by Frank sees him annihilating a fragile past forged on a notion of personal integrity now tainted by Leo’s betrayal. By destroying the house, the bar and the car lot Frank’s self destruction read ideologically becomes a politicised act of symbolic resistance since he does not want Leo, the zealous corporate capitalist, to claim and exploit the ‘yield of his labour’. In fact, an indifference to conformity is what sets Frank apart but by walking away at the end sets him up as an outcast doomed to drift like the cowboy on the margins of a society that disgusts him. In other words, Frank is a worker, a stand up guy and that counts for everything in the films of Michael Mann.
|Brad Pitt as enforcer/hit-man ‘Jackie Cogan’|
‘And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope…’
– President Obama’s acceptance speech, 2008
Killing Them Softly revels in the cynicism of its central character of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a hit man who stalks the noir lit streets of an urban American society suffering from a monstrous moral and economic decadence. It’s not a fantastical decadence but one rooted in a stark contemporary reality in which the terms recession and capitalism have led to a social crisis of confidence. The absence of morality is nothing new to the crime genre but here it seems to be absolute in the way Jackie views his role of the hit man nothing more than a professional service. With Jackie, all that exists is the job. He has no external life to speak of and trades in death. He also occupies a universe of unsavoury characters that collectively represent a dispiriting American underbelly often found in some of the more nightmarish visions of America from 1970s cinema. The fact that we find no difference between the amorality of Jackie from his victims is what makes the film’s representation of American society so powerfully dark. We have no one to root for in the film and in many ways we become observers rather than traditional participators. Such an observational and at times detached spectatorial position underlines the way director Andrew Dominik chooses to foreground ideological concepts over more visceral conventions associated with the genre.
Most of the film hinges on extended conversation sequences while in the background we hear America’s transition from Republicanism to Liberalism (punctuated with speeches delivered by Bush and Obama) as a nothing more than historical spectacle, stressing the continuing empty promises made by politicians. In many ways, Jackie is a twisted metaphor for the contemporary entrepreneur and although he deals in death his violent preoccupations are a pale reflection of successive American leaders. However, what separates Jackie from someone like President Obama is the refusal to use hypocrisy as a form of persuasion. For Jackie, his profession as both an enforcer and hit man is devoid of such traditional forms of political hypocrisy; instead he deals in a reality based on choices and ultimatums, thus avoiding any potential personal guilt. In fact, Jackie is unique in the pantheon of cinematic enforcers/hit-men since existentialism is traded in for an ideological bent. Such ideological musings transforms Jackie into a vicious political metonym and repressed voice for disillusionment with the establishment that stretches back to the 1970s.
Just as The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford offers a revisionist dissemination of the western genre, Killing Them Softly also undermines audience expectations associated with the crime film genre. The plot is perfunctory and offers little variation in what we have seen before in the American crime film. Two desperate criminals hold up a card game run by the mob, resulting in the entrance of enforcer Jackie Cogan who takes on the job of resolving the crime. The film is adapted from a 1974 novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’ by George V. Higgins who also wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Dominik updates the story to 2008 but such prescient political and economic parallels exist between the two eras that I doubt if the film really loses any of the 1970’s context. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by Peter Yates, features one of Mitchum’s greatest performances as an ageing small time criminal who becomes an unlikely police informant. The patina of romanticism often found in some of the more celebrated American crime films is largely absent from the writing of Higgins. Dominik appears to remain faithful to Higgin’s unglamourous depiction of the criminal underworld by opting for a neo noir aesthetic echoing the dirty, bleached out look that defined films such as Taxi Driver, The Outfit and Thief. Absent also is the traditional face of the crime boss who oversees the hierarchical power structure. Such a choice means that the action stays firmly rooted in the urban milieu of peripheral low life characters typically marginalised in crime or gangster films.
The film isn’t wholly devoid of action, with a stand out assassination sequence involving hypnotic slow motion, shattered glass, shell casings travelling through rain and the sounds of Kelly Lester’s ‘Love Letters’. Perhaps the defining moments of the entire film is the final scene between Jackie and the ‘middleman’ (Richard Jenkins). Staged in a bar and brilliantly juxtaposed to a television set broadcasting the acceptance speech of the newly elected President Obama, Jackie’s cynical diatribe on the state of America as defunct, individualistic and pathologically obsessed with money may seem somewhat polemical and unexpected for a crime film but its power comes from watching A list film star Brad Pitt deliver such words, and all with an eloquence and clarity. With Assassination of Jesse James and last year’s Tree of Life, Brad Pitt certainly doesn’t need to convince the sceptics of his growing capacity as a fantastic actor and Killing Them Softly offers yet another brilliantly charismatic performance, if not, his best to date. As Jackie Cogan, Pitt is scary, charming and deeply pessimistic, modelling his washed out grungy appearance on a decrepit Elvis.
This is an angry and prescient piece of cinema that could in time be considered a masterful addition to the American crime oeuvre. One of the films of the year for sure.
Masahiro Shinoda directed Pale Flower in 1964 for the prestigious Shochiku film studio. Shinoda’s remarkable film was part of the 1960s Japanese New Wave cinema and the film’s iconoclastic temperament led to it being banned. In 2003 Home Vision Entertainment released Pale Flower on DVD whilst this year Criterion issued their version on both DVD and Blu-ray. I’ve not come across Shinoda’s work before and my encounters with Japanese cinema have tended to favour popular auteurs. I’m beginning to realise the vastness of Japanese cinema in terms of output stands alone in many ways when compared to other film industries. Shinoda’s loose, elliptical approach and dynamic visual style bears close parallels with the work of Seijun Suzuki. Pale Flower would work superbly as a double bill alongside Suzuki’s demented Branded to Kill. In many ways, the initial narrative set up of Pale Flower in which a hardened Yakuza gangster Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) is released from prison, having killed another member of a gang, invokes the memory of American crime and noir films. It is a familiar convention – the gangster or criminal who is released from prison but realises he cannot fit into society anymore and slowly becomes more and more withdrawn. Whilst Shinoda adopts this narrative convention, he decides to choose an entirely different path altogether for his central male protagonist. On his release, Muraki seems more bored than alienated with the world around him. It is Muraki’s entanglement with a mysterious young woman Saeko that subverts such a narrative expectation because it becomes a mutually destructive relationship.
Symbolically, the woman’s addiction to drugs/gambling represents both the corruption of Japanese youth and the rise of a new kind of modernity whilst Muraki’s allegiance to a code is ideologically conducive of an old, fading Japanese culture. In many ways, Muraki is like the antiquated cowboy who looks out of place in the new society and for Muraki the retreat to the sanctity of the prison gives him seclusion from a world that has little meaning for him anymore. Visually, Shinoda’s film is stunning to look at and the striking monochrome cinematography gives the imagery a very clean yet noir like aesthetic. The performances by Ryo Ikebe and Mariko Kaga are compelling throughout. A film like Pale Flower was a direct manifestation of the changing sensibilities in Japanese cinema during the 1960s but unlike The French New Wave which challenged dominant mainstream conventions, from the outset The Japanese New Wave seemed more ideologically engaged. It was only much later that The French New Wave became much more of a political cinematic entity. Nevertheless, compared to Nagisa Oshima, Shinoda’s cinema was less political than his contemporaries and there is no denying that Pale Flower has been influential in the development of the Yakuzka gangster film in Japanese cinema. Director Masahiro Shinoda produced most of his best and most acclaimed films during the 1960s.