BRUBAKER (Dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1980)

Along with Cool Hand Luke, Brubaker is one of director Stuart Rosenberg’s most popular films in a career which is criminally undervalued. Rosenberg seemed to have a knack of using genre to craft genuinely gutsy political cinema. However, a lot of his loosely structured films which are fuelled by a particular ambience, would easily see him being labelled as a hack, which of course is far from the truth. In the case of Brubaker, Rosenberg revisits the territory of prison and reform, and unlike Cool Hand Luke, as much a vehicle for Newman’s beaming charisma, this sentimental polemic not only aligns itself with the liberal politics of Redford but adopts a totalizing leftist stance that scorns the concept of political compromise, a concept that is situated as abhorrent and counter-productive to the development of a fair and civilised society. Rod Lurie’s 2001 The Last Castle, also starring Redford on auto-pilot, pays reverence to Rosenberg’s film, at times even parodying the anti-authoritarianism of Brubaker.

Rosenberg is arguably one of the few American filmmakers to have succeeded in detailing the morbid intricacies of prison life, often adopting a sort of quasi neo-realist approach in which action is supplemented by revealing political conversations, an undeniable star quality of W. D. Richter’s Oscar nominated screenplay. Perhaps even more terrifying is the ways in which the powers that be which Brubaker comes into conflict with, namely the prison board, and essentially a manifestation of capitalist corporate machinations, align themselves against his attempts to reform a system of perpetual dehumanization. The final catharsis of Redford’s sordid tears as the prisoners clap in unity is unreal, delirious and prodigiously orchestrated by Rosenberg’s characteristically intimate close ups.

BLACK WIDOW (Dir. Bob Rafelson, 1987)

The enigmatic Debra Winger was a reluctant film star who maintained a low public profile, evading the gaze of the media, perhaps to the detriment of longevity. A career restricted to just one decade, Winger seemed to fade out of view by the early 1990s. With a tightly written script by Ron Bass, steely cinematography by Conrad Hall, Black Widow is a finely nuanced 1980s neo noir thriller, a late entry in the career of director Bob Rafelson, an auteur associated with the Hollywood new wave of the 1970s. In many respects, what makes this work quite exceptional is a script tailored for two women, a highly polished star vehicle for Winger and Theresa Russell, something of an anomaly in Hollywood mainstream cinema.

A complex study of the limits of obsession is exemplified in the concept of mirroring, a thematic convention that typifies some of the best noirs. Green, both luminous and sickly, becomes an abiding colour, repeated throughout, a key, unifying visual design that symbolises the jealousy of Winger while the intertextual allusion to Vertigo reminds us of the underlying influence of Hitchcock. The interchangeable roles of the government agent and man-killer cross both ways, mutating and blending with a psychological playfulness that emerges as resolutely character driven piece in which there is a disinclination to moralize.

If you look past the outmoded eighties décor, Black Widow is a distinctive and richly satisfying modern noir, crafting a narrative dénouement that pays homage to the traditions of film noir, the woman’s film and melodrama.

NARROW MARGIN (Dir. Peter Hyams, 1990)

This uncomplicated hot garbage from solid genre filmmaker Peter Hyams who often gets overlooked in the oeuvre of competent Hollywood mainstream cinema plays more like an updating than a remake of Fleischer’s original 1950s noir. Hyams is careful not to stretch this out, steering clear of letting it become a two hour overcooked melodrama, which it clearly could have morphed into. The premise is paper thin and overly conventional; an incorruptible, hard ass DA has to protect a witness from getting murdered by the mob on a train. However, what ensues for roughly ninety minutes is a hypnotically enjoyable cat and mouse thriller in which Gene Hackman foils the efforts of two sinister hitmen who roam the train carriages in cowboy boots with semi-automatics.

The weak link is the presence of Anne Archer who was pretty rubbish in most of the things she starred in and the zero on screen chemistry with Hackman. None of that really matters though considering Hyams, also on camera duty, succeeds in creating a sense of real time action, along with the idea of a narrative deadline taken to its natural extremes while dispensing with dialogue in large parts of the film. In some respects, where the film falters is when the script is allowed to speak, reiterating a litany of clichés. Moreover, the final sequence in the courtroom seems unnecessary, tacked on simply to let Hackman’s earlier gag regarding the ‘tightening of shirt collars’ come to fruition with a ridiculous visual confirmation. A diligent, underrated exercise in the economy of genre.

THE GOLDEN CHILD (Dir. Michael Ritchie, 1986)

Not strictly vintage Murphy, The Golden Child was made at a time when he was the biggest film star in the world. Undeniably a star vehicle for Murphy’s loud mouth antics, when the film was released back in 1986, the poster deliberately alluded to Beverly Hills Cop, and was pitched in a similar vein by the marketing execs. Of course, all of this couldn’t have been further from the truth since The Golden Child was essentially an expensive B-movie pastiche, that shared a lot in common with another decorative Oriental Hollywood hybrid released in the same year – John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little Chinatown. Unlike Carpenter’s tongue & cheek cult film, and which is endlessly watchable, The Golden Child is a bloated relic of the 1980s with some of Murphy’s lamest gags and Charlotte Lewis as a bot who is undeniably boring, lifeless and severely miscast.

The film was released with a PG rating, and sort of strange today, considering Murphy’s mischievous star entrance sees him eavesdropping on an overweight businessman perving at a porno mag titled ‘Chunky Asses’ and to which Murphy reads out loud ‘Butt Pies’. Moreover, the shot of blood seeping through a pan of porridge is one of many sickly images that conjure a latent tone of dread, subversively so, that often resided in many Hollywood films that were supposedly aimed at children. Charles Dance as a demonic shapeshifter would be joyfully resurrected and parodied in McTiernan’s sublimely overlooked The Last Action Hero.

With hooey allusions to the Dalai Lama, a contemptuous product placement of Pepsi complete with a musical skit, the film’s limited pleasures rests largely on one quite vivid dream sequence in which Murphy’s sarcasm is deconstructed in the presence of a live audience, a self-reflexive gesture. Not terrible, just underwhelming.