Long before Tom Cruise decided to patent the running on screen just to look cool thing, Kurt Russell was busting similar sprint speed marathons in many of his films. In The Mean Season, Russell really goes for it, bombing it through the streets of Miami so he can try and save his girlfriend from the clutches of a marauding copycat serial killer played by Richard Jordan. Russell was never really a major film star but he often put in some notable, overlooked performances.
The Mean Season, a pulpy Miami noir is perhaps one of his meatiest roles as an opportunistic, narcissistic journalist, who is contacted by a serial killer working his way through a spate of grisly murders. Concocting a sleazy ambience, makes for an exceedingly atmospheric work which is sadly somewhat at the expense of the mechanics of constructing an effective thriller.
The Mean Season begins with some promise, framing the media as a parasitic force but it lacks subtext, gradually taking a conventional route whereby the unmasking of the killer is not only anti-climactic but lacks the bite to make this genre piece altogether brilliant. Andy Garcia shows up as a disgruntled cop but is so much better in a similar role in later films like Internal Affairs and Jennifer Eight. Also, this film may have been a key influence on Fincher’s Zodiac (2007).
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.
Released in 1954, Lewis Gilbert’s The Good Die Young, a neglected British-American hybrid noir, relates a post office robbery through a series of flashbacks in which we are introduced to the four central protagonists who collectively come to signify a masculinity in crisis; a new post war malaise. It is worth noting that Gilbert’s noir preceded Kubrick’s The Killing, a film which is considered to be far superior and more revered. And in some respects, Gilbert’s film likely influenced The Killing expressly in the ending where the last of the four protagonists meets his death on the airport tarmac while clutching banknotes in a heavy handed symbolic gesture. Kubrick repeats this doomed ending but with greater clarity and imagination.
While the flashback structure in The Killing is resolutely mechanical and the fatalism resonates with a tangible brutality, Gilbert’s approach bears an equivalent pessimism about post war Western society, much of it amplified through the slimy figure of a posh playboy and sociopath essayed by Laurence Harvey with a venal, rascally delight. With a strong cast populated by the likes of Stanley Baker and Richard Basehart, Gilbert’s noir holds its own against classic noir films such as The Killing and could arguably be shoe horned into a cycle of films that preceded the British New Wave film movement that was to emerge in the late 1950s.
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.