Big Bad Bob: Robert Mitchum in MAN WITH THE GUN (United Artists 1955)


cracked rear viewer

Rugged Robert Mitchum is pretty much the whole show in MAN WITH THE GUN, a film by first  time director (and Orson Welles protege) Richard Wilson. It seems a strange choice at this juncture of Mitchum’s career. He was just coming off four big films in a row (RIVER OF NO RETURN, TRACK OF THE CAT, NOT AS A STRANGER, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER ), then makes a low budget Western that harkens back to his days making ‘B’ Zane Grey Westerns at RKO. But that was Mitchum; always the maverick who did things his way.

The film itself isn’t bad: Mitchum plays a notorious gunslinger, a “town tamer” hired by Sheridan City to clean things up from the clutches of boss ‘Dade Holman’ (who isn’t seen til the end, but whose influence is everywhere). There’s a subplot with his ex-wife Jan Sterling, now running the dance hall girls at…

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Film Review: Al Capone (dir by Richard Wilson)


The year is 1919 and a brutish young man named Al (played by Rod Steiger) has just arrived in Chicago.  He’s got a new job, working for the city’s top mobster, Johnny Torrio (Nehemiah Persoff).  Torrio is the second-in-command to Big Jim Colosimo (Joe De Santis) and is impressed enough by the young Al to take him under his wing.

It’s an exciting time to be a gangster in Chicago because prohibition is about to become the law of the land.  Alcohol is about to become illegal, which means that there will soon be an unregulated underground of people smuggling booze into the United States and selling it in speakeasies across the land.  Those speakeasies are going to be need men to watch the door and to toss out troublemakers and it turns out that’s a perfect job for someone who isn’t afraid of violence.

Someone like Al, for instance.

It’s while Al is working as bouncer that he receives a long and deep gash across his face.  When the wound heals, it leaves him with the scar that will come to define him for the rest of his life.  As much as he hates the nickname “Scarface,” it’s what Al Capone will be known as.

The 1959 film, Al Capone, follows Capone as he works his way up the ladder of the Chicago underworld until he eventually finds himself sitting atop an empire of corruption and crime.  Along the way Capone kills the majority of his rivals and finds the time to fall in love with Maureen Flannery (Fay Spain), the widow of one of his victims.

Well, perhaps love is the wrong word.  As played by Rod Steiger, Al Capone isn’t really capable of loving anyone but himself.  This film does not provide us with the superslick or diabolically clever Capone that has appeared in other gangster movies.  Instead, Steiger plays Capone as almost being a caged animal.  Capone comes to power through violence and betrayal and he uses the same techniques to hold onto power.  The film suggests that the secret of his success was his complete lack of conscience but that the same arrogant stupidity that makes him so fearsome also leaves him doomed to failure.  There’s really nothing subtle about Steiger’s performance but then again, there was probably nothing subtle about Al Capone, either.  Steiger’s tendency to overact every moment works well in the role of a man who constantly seems to be striking out at anyone who makes the mistake of getting too close to him.

Though many films had featured characters based on Capone, Al Capone was the first biographical film to actually be made about the infamous leader of the Chicago Outfit.  (Up until the mid-50s, the Hollywood Production Code expressly forbade anyone from portraying a “real” gangster in a movie.)  With the exception of the character of Maureen Flannery (who was a heavily fictionalized stand-in for Capone’s then-living widow), Al Capone is fairly faithful to the know facts of Capone’s life.  The film not only includes most of Capone’s violent acts (i.e., the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) but it also explores both how Capone was protected by Chicago’s corrupt political establishment and how prohibition actually enabled the activities that it was meant to prevent.  Director Richard Wilson directs in a semi-documentary style and the film’s harsh black-and-white images capture the idea of a shadowy world hidden away from “respectable” society.  It’s a fast-paced film and fans of classic character acting will be happy to see James Gregory as an honest cop and Martin Balsam as a not-at-all honest reporter.

If you’re looking to put together a quick cinematic history lesson about the origins of the Mafia before you watch Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman later this year, Al Capone is a worthwhile addition to your curriculum.

Review: The Proposition (dir. by John Hillcoat)


When I first saw John Hillcoat’s film The Proposition I was literally shocked and dumbstruck with what I had just witnessed. As a long-time aficionado of the horror genre I could say that part of me has become desensitized to onscreen violence and nothing really shocks me. Even though I’ve seen films with more violence throughout its running time, The Proposition just had a heavy sense of despair, moral ambiguity, and a Miltonian feel throughout. The film felt like how it would be if one accepted an offer from one of the damned to stroll down to the Nine Circles of Hell. As much as I didn’t want to accept that offer the curiosity of what I might see won out. That’s how I was able to sit through the entirety of Hillcoat’s ultra-violent and nihilistic tale of lawless and amoral individuals in the untamed wilderness of 1880’s Australian Outback.

I must agree with several critics who have said The Proposition seemed to mirror another dark and violent tale. Hillcoat’s film shares so much the same themes and tone as Cormac McCarthy’s brutal novel, Blood Meridian, that one almost wondered if the film was adapted from McCarthy’s great novel. But similarities aside, Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s (director and writer respectively) film can clearly stand on its own two bloody legs.

The film begins with a bloody siege and shootout and we’re soon introduced to two of the three Burns’ brothers. We soon find out that both brothers, Charlie (played by Guy Pearce) and Mikey (played by Richard Wilson), are outlaws wanted for a multitude of heinous crimes with a recent one the senseless rape and murder of the Hopkins family. One Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone) who acts as law in this particular area of the Outback also happens to be friends of the unfortunate Hopkins clan. When he finally apprehends the two brothers after the siege gives older brother Charlie a proposition. He’ll spare the younger brother’s life from the hangman’s noose if Charlie finds their older brother Arthur (played with Kurtz-like menace by Danny Huston) and kills the outlaw leader. The quest is set as Charlie accepts and sets out to find his elder brother. Whether Charlie will go through with killing his older brother Arthur is one thing the audience won’t find out until the final minutes of the film. Even though there’s no love-lost between Charlie and Arthur, there’s still the traditional bond of family that makes Charlie’s quest a complex one.

We realize early on that Charlie is very protective of his simpler, younger brother Mikey and would do anything to save his life. Guy Pearce does a great performance as the conflicted and brooding Charlie Burns. There’s a quiet intensity in Pearce’s performance. He’s pretty quiet through most of the film, but one could feel the palpable rage just roiling beneath his brooding countenance. Pearce’s Charlie is one who is only a trigger away from exploding into outright violence. Charlie is definitely a child and creation of the lawless Outback the film is set in.

Arthur Burns on the other hand comes in introduced as an almost warrior-poet (though in this story it would be more like a charismatic-sociopath) who would watch the sun set and spout poetry as easily as gun down an innocent or slice a man’s throat without missing beat. Danny Huston does a bravura performance as the charismatic and wholly amoral Arthur. His performance easily matches that of Pearce’s scene for scene. Another performance that I must point out as being very strong in the film is Ray Winstone as Capt. Stanley, the Ahab of the tale with his obsession to bring civilization to the lawless Outback and to bring Arthur Burns to ultimate justice even if it means dealing with the lesser evil that is Charlie Burns.

The Proposition will be talked about alot for its unflinching look at violence onscreen. Though there’s been films that have more violence per hour than Hillcoat’s film, but the extreme brutality of the killings, maimings and rape in The Proposition has such an air of realism to it that one cringes at every gunshot wound and knife slashing. Like Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, this film’s scenes of violence makes one want to rush into the shower and cleanse off the dirt, grime and stink of the film. It’s in this unflinching and realistic portrayal of death and violence that the film shares alot with McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The images are difficult to watch, but our curiosity makes us look through squinted eyes to see the full breadth of the violence. In time, just through the audiences acceptance of the oncreen violence do we soon become complicit in whats going on the screen.

It is a shame that The Proposition had such a limited release in the US. Even since it’s release on video it’s a film that still seems to be underappreciated. I think this film would’ve done as well as Eastwood’s Unforgiven in giving the audience a different, darker side of the Old West mythology (though its really the Australian Old West). John Hillcoat has crafted himself a brutal and nihilistic film that’s very hard to watch but also difficult to ignore. The Proposition is a film I highly recommend as it is the type of film that helps redefine a whole genre.