This Friday the rambling, lolloping, uncategorizable “Inherent Vice” (and we mean that in the best way, it was our 10th favorite film of the year) from director Paul Thomas Anderson rolls into theaters in a cloud of pot smoke and lens flare. You can read our review here to get a flavor of the kind of offbeat, elliptical, blissed-out, occasionally impenetrable ride you’re in for, or you can mosey into your screening with no preconceptions and no particular expectations. Or there’s a third option: take a spin through some of the following films that, whether in style, substance, or spirit, provide a kind of primer for PTA’s movie.
Many of the following titles were featured in a terrific, 24-film-strong season at Brooklyn’s estimable BAM Cinematek called Sunshine Noir, whose centerpiece was a special screening of “Inherent Vice.” Indeed that might be the closest anyone has really come to categorizing the Thomas Pynchon adaptation—it has some of the trappings of film noir in its central gumshoe character and missing-persons mystery, but is planted firmly in a beachy, bleached-out LA, and owes a huge stylistic debt to the films of the 1970s from which many of these Sunshine Noirs are drawn.
Yet each of the following, like the film that inspires the list, is also its own thing. Whether a stone-cold classic or a neglected gem, whether a 1950s black and white or a 1980s neon-noir, these are ten films worth watching, or rewatching, be it in preparation for “Inherent Vice,” or for no particular reason other than the love of a good, weird, atmospheric, offbeat trip.
What to say about Roman Polanski’s best film that hasn’t already been said a million times over? Maybe a fresh approach would be to list the film’s flaws…Well, that didn’t take long. Our passion for this film is undying (even highly personal for some). It’s a true American masterpiece and one of the finest films from maybe the finest decade in cinema history. With a deserving Oscar awarded to Robert Towne for his sly, one-great-line-after-another script (though the legendary screenwriter disagreed with Polanski on the film’s eventual bleak ending and was, thankfully, ignored on that point), it’s the best kind of cinema: both artful and entertaining. The aforementioned ending really is the (rotten) cherry on top a near-perfect film, but as sad and nihilistic as it is, it is the appropriate way (and feels, in retrospect, the only way) for it all to end. What’s remarkable is how the bleakness never feels like a “fuck you” to the audience, but an entirely earned, tragic, minor-key gut punch, that is somehow exquisitely beautiful in its randomness and cruelty. Were it even a slightly lesser film, the temptation to draw neat parallels between its themes and the tragedies and tribulations of Polanski’s all-too-public private life would be overwhelming, but this is a film that transcends even his compelling biography. With a flawless, and arguably definitive, performance from Jack Nicholson (can you believe he and Al Pacino from “The Godfather Part II” lost Best Actor to Art Carney for “Harry and Tonto”?), and Polanski’s deft handling of the complex narrative, everything you’ve heard and read about “Chinatown” is true. Unless you heard it was bad.
“Straight Time” (1978)
An inexplicably compelling tale of a small-time thief’s inevitable devolution back into a life of crime after prison, “Straight Time,” directed by underappreciated theater/film director Ulu Grosbard, is a prime artifact of 1970s cinema and the peculiar, loose-limbed magic that the independent American films of that decade weaved so effortlessly. Magnetized around what is undoubtedly one of Dustin Hoffman’s greatest performances, the film also boasts a to-die-for supporting cast in Harry Dean Stanton, M Emmet Walsh, Gary Busey, Kathy Bates (proving she was young once), and a naturally stunning Theresa Russell. Wading through the same fraught, complex, antiheroic moral waters that so many defining works of the ’70s did, Hoffman plays Max Dembo, released from a stint for armed robbery at the very start of the film. After the briefest of dalliances with the idea of really going straight, Dembo (as we’re led to infer he often does) takes a perceived injustice against himself as an excuse to lapse back into criminality, hooking up with his old crew and knocking over a grocery store, before graduating to a bank then a jewelry store. Along the way he falls for good girl Jenny (Russell), who falls right back, and yet this is not the story of the redemptive power of the love of a good woman, nor about any sort of redemption at all, really. Instead it’s about how character is destiny, in even the most obviously self-defeating ways, as Dembo’s tit-for-tat idea of justice, loyalty, and betrayal leads him to commit some truly unforgivable crimes. With an ending, and a perfectly fatalistic last line that allows this riveting character study to end on a brief note of self-awareness, “Straight Time” is a small, yet perfectly formed portrait of grim fate and dumb luck and the things a man might do in the name of a perverse but pervasive code of personal honor.
“The Long Goodbye” (1973)
Perhaps there’s no greater exemplar of the cinematic genre revisionist than one Robert Altman, and it’s not a popularly held opinion, but to some of us, “The Long Goodbye” just may be his finest hour. The 1953 Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, updated by Leigh Brackett (who also scripted “The Big Sleep”) and recast in Hollywood in the 1970s, was directed by Altman as if the story and its lead character emerged from Cheech and Chong’s smoked-out weedmobile. But Altman had a serious gift for setting his far-out ideas up against tired genre tropes, all against a backdrop of mundane and yet compelling reality, as is the case here. That collision creates the tension: Philip Marlowe (a perfect Elliot Gould) was rather noble in his previous incarnations up to that point, exuding a cool professionalism and honor fitting the era in which he was originally created. Dropped into the shambolic ’70s, however, he’s unable even to successfully feed his cat, and wanders around mumbling to himself. The deconstructionist satire elevates the material until it transcends mere noir and becomes truly great cinema—’70s-style. The film’s bleak ending, in which we see Marlowe commit a cowardly act, is the perfect stamp on the entire story, at once offending Chandler purists (“Marlowe would never do that!”) but also bringing the modern update full circle. Things change, people can devolve into lesser versions of their former selves, and Altman seemed to be saying as much by concluding this way. The real world has a way of altering even our favorite, and most deeply-held, genre cliches.
“To Live And Die In L.A.” (1985)
A more hi-octane look at west-coast crime than “Inherent Vice,” “To Live And Die In L.A.” is director William Friedkin‘s other great cop movie (alongside “The French Connection,” obviously—if your mind went to “Jade,” we genuinely worry for you). Based on a novel by ex-Secret Service-er Gerald Petievich (who also co-wrote the script with the director), it sees renegade agent William Petersen teamed with a new partner (John Pankow) when the old one is killed in an attempt to bring down ruthless genius counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). The story is admittedly full of cliches, from the small number of days before Petersen’s partner’s retirement (three) to the we’re-the-same-you-and-I links between cop and criminal, but, as with his earlier policing classic, Friedkin gives a procedural authenticity to the movie that makes it richer and deeper than most entries in the genre, and he knows how to upend the cliches too, particularly when it comes to a brutal late-in-the-game twist. More importantly, like the Michael Mann precursor that it so clearly is (it seems like an influence on everything the director made, up to and including casting Petersen in the following year’s “Manhunter“), it’s shot through with style, thanks to killer action sequences—the car chase, again, is one of the best ever—stunning photography from Wim Wenders regular Robby Muller, and a none-more-’80s score from Wang Chung. It’s a film where the atmosphere is as important as anything, and Friedkin, as the title might suggest, is painting a picture of a city as much as of people, with the real, glamor-free Los Angeles getting one hell of a showcase.
“In a Lonely Place” (1950)
While the New Cinema movement of the 1970s, from which Paul Thomas Anderson undoubtedly drew a great deal of inspiration for “Inherent Vice,” delighted in a kind of deconstructionist approach to genre, there are examples of surprising, often self-conscious riffs on genre tropes all the way back to when the studio system was thriving. In fact, 1950 may have been a banner year for the meta Hollywood/celebrity culture satire masked as mystery or melodrama, with the release of “Sunset Boulevard” and “All About Eve.” And what those touchpoint classics did for their genres, Nicolas Ray’s terrific, deceptively strange “In a Lonely Place” may have done for the film noir. Casting Humphrey Bogart as its compromised protagonist is its first stroke of inspiration. Bogart, whether romantic lead, hard-bitten gangster, or hard boiled ‘tec (he’d already played both Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe), always played a man with a code, and man who would do what he must even when circumstances turned against him. His ‘Lonely Place’ character, by contrast, is a man of letters rather than action, a successful screenwriter who becomes mixed up in a murder plot by sheer happenstance, and who cannot resist succumbing to his worse nature as those around him, especially his bit-part actress lover, played with tremendous brittleness by Gloria Grahame, start to doubt his innocence. Decidedly among the most complex, conflicted, and nuanced roles Bogey ever played, his Dixon Steele also takes on some of the attributes of the femme fatale—it is he who is the lure to Grahame’s Laurel, not the other way round, it is she who is cast into danger by him, and also she on whom gradually dawns the realization that he may not be “good.” Innocence and guilt, storytelling, mythmaking and flat-out lying, and the desire, however much denied, for celebrity and peer respect, all these things come together in a fascinating stew of muddy morals and ambiguous motivations. Mostly, though it’s a great yarn told with Ray’s customary style, about how, no matter the layers of sophistication we may paint over them, the cracks of our true characters will always show through. And in that, it feels frighteningly modern.
It takes a certain amount of bravado to attempt a remake of the one of the most influential and innovative films in cinema history, and it’s probably fair to say that “Breathless” isn’t a match for Godard‘s “A Bout De Souffle,” the French New Wave classic that inspired it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not without worth, not least as a great Los Angeles crime picture, if not necessarily a great film. The premise is about the only thing they share: the relationship between a supercool petty criminal who’s just killed a policeman (Richard Gere this time around) and his young student girlfriend (newcomer Valerie Kaprisky), albeit with the nationalities reversed from the original, where Jean Seberg played American. There isn’t much stylistically in common, but writer-director Jim McBride‘s clearly been taken by the original’s attitude, as he captures the swagger and confidence of Godard’s film without necessarily shamelessly imitating it. Indeed, the film’s specificity—Gere’s character is obsessed with The Silver Surfer and rockabilly music in place of Jean-Paul Belmondo‘s love of Bogart—doesn’t just help the film stand apart, it also prefigures the pop-culture-happy pictures of the 1990s, and not surprisingly Quentin Tarantino is among those who helped to restore the movie’s critical standing after it was mostly dismissed on release. It’s a little empty, but Gere in his prime is a surprisingly acceptable replacement for the iconic lead of the original, and McBride shoots everything with a sense of playfulness, vibrant colors, and a woozy, dreamy haze that certainly makes it an apt warm-up for “Inherent Vice,” even if the two films are ultimately pretty different.
“The Nickel Ride” (1974)
There’s no doubt that the precise milieu and trajectory of “To Kill a Mockingbird” director Robert Mulligan’s “The Nickel Ride” were more successfully and memorably staged elsewhere, specifically in “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” with which it shares quite some DNA, but it still deserves to be better remembered than it is. Starring Jason Miller (Father Karras in “The Exorcist” the year before) as mid-level crime boss Cooper, the film is unusual in its portrayal of low-level mobsterism as about as glamorous and exciting as corporate wage slavery. Cooper is a mild-mannered, intelligent man with a lovely girlfriend (Linda Haynes) who is so popular on “the block” that is his small dominion that the locals throw him an unwanted surprise birthday party. But at the same time, he’s being squeezed from below, unwilling to strong-arm old confederates who’ve lost their taste for fight fixing, and from above as his superiors, themselves feeling the pinch of new economic realities, pressure him to deliver a slicker, more ruthless operation. Caught in this untenable situation, Cooper starts to get paranoid—or does he?—imagining his bosses are plotting his demise via affable cowboy-hatted underling Turner (Bo Hopkins). From there, the film’s reality, expertly shot, starts to fray a little bit into the absurd (the repeated Beckettian motif of turning up for a dinner reservation that doesn’t exist) and the surreally foreboding (a portentous dream sequence foretells the film’s finale, but as a jumbled-up version of what really happens). Often films set in the corporate world draw more or less unequivocal parallels with the world of organized crime, and it’s unusual to see a crime flick in which that dynamic is essentially reversed. But “The Nickel Ride” makes its point eloquently: where often the ’70s antihero turns to crime as a way to undermine the system, what do you do when the system’s hierarchies and crushing impersonality become an inescapable part of the criminal world too?
“California Split” (1974)
Robert Altman is always to be found in the DNA of a Paul Thomas Anderson film somewhere, and while “The Long Goodbye” is the most obvious comparison point for his new movie, there’s plenty of Altman’s lesser-known “California Split” in the “Inherent Vice” genome. Originally intended to be the feature directorial debut of Steven Spielberg before “Sugarland Express” came along, the project eventually came to Altman, and the result was the kind of experimental studio movie that would never get made these days, and one of the finest and most authentic gambling movies ever produced. George Segal and Altman regular Elliot Gould play Bill and Charlie, two compulsive gamblers in California (as you might have guessed from the title) who become friends after being robbed by someone they’ve beaten in a poker game. As is often Altman’s wont in this time period, the film is virtually plotless. Bill gets more and more hooked, gets in debt, is on an amazing winning streak, and then suddenly falls out of love with it. It’s a study of character and plot, and thanks to Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue (the film was the first non-Cinerama picture to use eight-track recording techniques, meaning that the director’s soundscape could be even more cacophonous than ever), it’s just about the most unglamorous and authentic take on the subculture that you could ask for (Joseph Walsh, who also features in a supporting role, wrote the script as a deliberate reaction against more manufactured gambling movies). As you might imagine, it’s really Segal and Gould’s show, and both are terrific, giving among their finest performances. It’s not an easy watch and needs your total attention, but invest enough and you’ll certainly find it worthwhile.
“The Limey” (1999)
After rejuvenating his career with another sun-kissed (or at least partly sun-kissed) crime picture with Elmore Leonard adaptation “Out Of Sight,” Steven Soderbergh called on the influence of ’60s crime films, particularly the 1967 film “Poor Cow,” for “The Limey,” a daytime noir with some distinctly New Wave storytelling. Serving as something of an unofficial sequel to that Ken Loach drama (from which Soderbergh even uses clips for backstory sequences), Terence Stamp lends his weathered, fascinating visage to his strongest role in years, as a Cockney thug named Wilson released from prison into a world he knows nothing about. With minimal fuss, this man out of time makes a beeline to the West Coast, where his daughter was last seen in the arms of an unscrupulous record producer (Peter Fonda, who reportedly referred to his character as The Slimey). Soderbergh uses fractured storytelling methods to enliven a threadbare crime story, moving chronology back and forth and still bringing the story in under 90 minutes, showing an appreciation for the quiet moments of Wilson’s contemplation and the cacophony of older men using their toys (guns) to protect their other toys (high living, supermodels). With a jazzy, terrific score from Cliff Martinez, “The Limey” slinks and grooves to its own beat, like its idiosyncratic, often nonsensical protagonist, providing a near-perfect action vehicle for those who like their genre flicks slick and economical.
“Cutter’s Way” (1981)
If ‘70s American cinema took its unique shape largely from the end of the studio system, and its themes from the end of political, social, and moral innocence connoted by the Vietnam War and Watergate, among other upheavals, Ivan Passer’s neglected-though-gradually-reviving touchpoint “Cutter’s Way” is perhaps the film that best encapsulates the end of those endings. Made, appropriately, in 1981 with one eye still on the decade just past and another looking to a future not yet set, the film certainly owes a great debt to the ’70s paranoia filmmaking of Pakula, Pollack et al. But it also has different, more uncertain notes—where conspiracy thrillers, among which it can nominally be counted, do thrive in a culture of distrust in authorities and institutions, they tend to be quite sure of that distrust. But nothing and no one is sure or certain in “Cutter’s Way,” not Jeff Bridges’ Bone, who may or may not have witnessed a local bigwig murder a young girl, not the dead girl’s sister who drifts in and out of his increasingly harebrained schemes, not even Bone’s firebrand, alcoholic, maimed Vietnam vet best friend Cutter (an easily career-best John Heard). And there are deeper, more mythic resonances too—“Moby Dick” is a touchpoint referred to more than once, with the alleged murderer becoming a symbolic white whale; not only a personal nemesis for Cutter and Bone, but a figurehead for the systemic evil known as The Man. With so much going on, powered by some sort of internal logic that is all but impenetrable from the outside, the film, like “Inherent Vice,” is both dense and light, both grim and gritty and oddly fanciful. And it culminates in a final sequence so strikingly weird and ambivalent that “offbeat” scarcely does it justice—it’s downright surreal, and a totally unique cap to a gloriously idiosyncratic film.
That’s it for now, but if this list leaves you hankering for more in a similar vein, do check out the other titles in BAM’s Sunshine Noir series, or take a spin through some of our own related features like 10 Great Overlooked 1970s Movies, 15 ‘70s Thrillers You Might Not Know, or 5 Great ’70s Crime Movies. And feel free to shout out any titles we might have missed altogether: we love doing features like this and will no doubt return to this arena soon.
— Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton, Erik McClanahan