Friday, December 19, 2014

Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014), Nazi Agent (Jules Dassin, 1942)

Things that go 'bump!' in the night

Nightcrawler is Dan Gilroy's apparent attempt to 1) do a dark satire on the media's vampiric thirst for lurid videos and 2) do the Nighttown sequence of James Joyce's Ulysses only set in Los Angeles (aside from similar imagery and the idea of a man roving a major city, Jake Gyllenhaal's character is named Louis Bloom). Just for the effort I give the director props; though local TV's propensity for tabloid journalism is hardly news, Gilroy does achieve moments of crawly discomfort that are of value--a reminder of what we're being spoonfed twenty-four hours a day.

That said, one reason not to watch the picture would be the fearless intensity with which Jake Gyllenhaal throws himself into the role. The character as conceived is so extreme and overwrought it loses credibility; I mean--Bloom's whole business depends on him selling his videos. Would you buy from him? If he demanded to sleep with you in exchange, would you agree? Especially when the man radiates 'serial killer' all over? I don't know. 

The question snaps into focus whenever Bill Paxton's Bill Loder steps onscreen--Bill is every bit as driven as Louis, but knows how to sell; he's reasonably able to connect with fellow human beings (his pass at Bloom was I thought skillfully done), and doesn't sound like a bad parody of a motivational book (it's that last bit of verbal mannerism that really threw me off: people who sell so hard rarely do make a sale, especially not with me). Even Leonardo DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort had to incorporate some amount of charm into his pitch. Gyllenhaal's Bloom has none whatsoever--he has anti-charm, if anything. 

The movie has been compared to Taxi Driver and I suppose the comparison can be justified (again the lonely figure--both psychopaths--wandering through a big city), but with this crucial difference: Scorsese's film works, stays more or less within what's psychologically plausible. Travis Bickle walks up to Betsy and yes he's a loner, yes he's a psycho but he's also smart enough to deliver a pitch that touches her disdain for conventional folk, her sense of being special, her essential loneliness. He's not smart enough to maintain the relationship (A porn theater? Really?) but that move costs him, as it should; when Bloom reveals himself to be as sleazy he wins out, and that I found unconvincing--a false achievement meant to move the plot along

Gilroy does a fairly good job of directing; almost the entire film takes place at night, and he has talent enough to give that night a sickly blue-green glow. He's not as successful with car chases--suffers from a tendency to shoot too close in, and the editing is an unholy mess--but you do feel a free-floating anxiety whenever Bloom's video camera trespasses into dangerous territory, or Gyllenhaal's  face contorts into a fright mask (which is part of the problem--it remains a mask, never for a moment comes to life as a believable human being). Often effective and sometimes even funny thriller, but best of the year? I don't know...

Faced with a face like that, I'd be slowly backing my way to the nearest exit.

Seeing double

Call Jules Dassin's first directorial feature second-rate Hitchcock, call it a brave if uninspired debut, whatever; I call it a lot of fun. Not only do we get Conrad Veidt, most famous for playing the villain in classics such as Casablanca or Thief of Bagdad, we get two--count em--two Veidts for the price of one! Yes, Veidt plays identical twins (one of which happens to be one of his rare sympathetic performances), and as you might know from my personal life I'm a complete sucker for twins on film

Nazi Agent starts off with what looks like documentary footage of Nazi saboteur activity,  gradually settles down into a drawing-room drama about two brothers who haven't seen each other for years, the one (Baron Hugo Von Detner) determined to force the other (Otto Becker, both played b Veidt) into collaborating with him on his terrorist plans. Then the hook: Becker kills Von Detner while the latter's goons wait downstairs.

Dassin doesn't quite show the mastery in neorealist noir that he so coolly demonstrated in Naked City and Rififi, but he does manage the odd canted angle here and there, does throw the odd menacing shadows on the far wall. Better yet Dassin keeps to Becker's point of view, which is fairly omniscient (he is after all brother to the German Consul / secret head of the Nazi intelligence apparatus in the United States)--he knows most of what's going on (omniscience being one of Hitchcock's most basic techniques for generating suspense), but does he know everything? Does he know enough? 

It's eerie to watch Veidt here. You're used to seeing him sneer with a thick German accent (he does here too, or at least Von Detner does in the film's first half) but as Becker that thick accent comes with a softer more expressive growl, and his eyes have a haunted cast to them--as if he could peer across the ocean and see the atrocities the Nazis are committing in Europe, the atrocities they intend to commit in  years to come.

More haunting still is the ending, which on one level is unbelievable--no one can be so selfless!--on another eerily fits into Dassin's gallery of protagonists (Joe Collins; Harry Fabian; Le Stephanois) with an unspoken death wish, or at least some kind of complex fascination with death. It's at this point I'd say Dassin steps away from The Master of Suspense's shadow--Hitchcock had the box office to think of; with Dassin you sensed a darker more distant figure, possibly standing behind the railings of a suspension bridge, possibly looking back at him. And you. 

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