The last Flick of the Week post I did was back on (ahem) 27 June, which makes this the most overdue one of these posts I’ve ever done. For those who have only been reading this blog for a few weeks, the premise is that I link from one movie to another by way of a member of the cast or crew. I started with North By Northwest; 41 films later I was at Gosford Park. They are meant to be done once a week – they never are. But Flick of the Week sounds better than “Flick of the whenever I get around to it”. This week’s Flick of the Week takes us with Clive Owen, who played the butler who did it in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park to his role as super bank robber, Dalton Russell in Spike Lee’s most commercially successful film, Inside Man.
When this film was made, Owen was in the middle of a period where he was jumping to, if not the A List, at least to the “this guy makes every film better” list. He also seemed to be in just about every film at the time. He was certainly one of the hardest working stars going around. In 2002 the year after Gosford Park he was in two films (one of which was a small but vital role in The Bourne Identity); in 2003 he was in another two, in 2004 he jumped to above the line status with his starring roles in King Arthur and Closer, in 2005 he was in another two films – including the freakish Sin City, by 2006 he had settled into a nice pattern and so did another two films – Inside Man and the amazing Children of Men. In 2007? Well how about another two films. In 2008 he took a year off, only to come back in 2009 with three films. The guy likes to work.
One of the good things about Clive Owen is that going in you know you are going to be treated like an adult. His films are not for teenagers. They may have elements of action in them, but these are not comic book movies – the closest he gets is the graphic novelesque Sin City. His characters are men. Perhaps only George Clooney’s characters are as manly – not in a muscle bound sense, but in a these guys have put away childish things sense. Like Clooney (and their forebears like Cary Grant and Bogart) they exude so much charisma, they let everyone know they are the star just by walking across the screen. Owen spends much of the film wearing a mask and glasses, and yet his performance is not hindered in any way.
Inside Man had Owen surrounded by actors – and a director – who also make movies for adults. Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster will never be battling transformers (if we forget Washington’s role in Virtuosity) and Spike Lee has never been called the African-American Michael Bay. Lee’s films have an edge and sensibility to them that virtually repels the mass teenage audience, but here at least he took on a conventional film almost you think just to show Hollywood he can do it.
The story, written by Russell Gewitz (who has gone on to write only one other film – Righteous Kill) involves Owen as bank robber Dalton Russell. The film is mostly told in flashback as we see Russell and his gang take a group of people hostage, and Washington as Detective Keith Frasier is called in to negotiate. Washington as Frasier is attired like some postmodern mesh of a 1940s noir film detective by way of the 1970s.
The 1970s vibe runs through the film both in look and also from the explicit reference to Sidney Lumet’s bank hostage classic, Dog Day Afternoon, and the narrative which harkens somewhat to The Marathon Man.
The film in essence is a caper film, and like all good films of this type, the joy is not in the goal but watching them get there. I have watched this quite a few times on DVD, and though I know the ending, I am perfectly content to watch Owen and Washington match wits, and chewing some fun dialogue:
Keith Frazier: Oh, please, do not say proposals... my girlfriend... she wants a proposal from me.
Dalton Russell: You think you're too young to get married?
Keith Frazier: No, I'm not too young... too broke. Maybe I should rob a bank.
Dalton Russell: Do you love each other?
Keith Frazier: Yeah, yeah, we do.
Dalton Russell: Then money shouldn't really matter.
Keith Frazier: Thank you, bank robber!
The essential element of a good caper film is that you like the bad guy; and Russell certainly fits that bill. He belongs in that glorious gallery of rogues who you forget are actually breaking the law – such as Clooney’s Jack Foley in Out of Sight. The plan is also a good one – devilishly good in fact. It took me a good three viewings before I was able to grasp who were all the bad guys, but even now I struggle to pick them – so many red herrings does Lee throw at the audience to put them off.
The narrative structure is quite complex – the entire is a flashback, but within it are flash forwards of Washington interviewing suspects. It means you have to pay attention (a sure sign you’re watching a film made for adults).
It also features a secondary narrative which (of course) becomes intertwined with the primary bank robbery one. This narrative involves Christopher Plummer, as the owner of the bank being robbed, and Jodie Foster in the role of a Ms Fix-it (the kind of role that would be played by Harvey Keitel in a Tarantino film). Foster, I have to say, steals the movie from the guys. As “Miss White” she lives up to her name – dressed in white suits, blonde hair pulled back tightly, and exuding an almost sub-zero coolness. And she does this all the while walking around looking like she knows she could get every guy on the planet to do whatever she wants.
Her job is to ensure that Plummer’s secret about his involvement with the Nazis is not discovered (there is evidence in one of the bank’s safety deposit boxes). This is perhaps the only flaw in the film – not because the storyline is poor, but because the maths is starting to get too hard. This film surely should mark the end of any modern day story involving a Nazi or Nazi sympathiser. Given that a 20 year old in 1945 would now be 85, it is starting to get a bit hard to feature such a character doing anything other than sitting in a retirement home wondering if he should fess up to what he did 65 odd years ago.
But putting that to one side, the storyline adds a nice depth to the usual caper film denouement of “how will they get away”.
The film is most certainly not deep – despite Lee’s attempts to make a comments about New York’s interracial society post September 11, but geez it is fun – intelligent fun.
It is also one of those films that lets you know you’re in safe hands right from the get go. Owen has a great opening monologue, and then in cuts the sounds of “Chaiyya Chaiyya”. The music immediately sets the films apart from the run of the mill action/thriller.
Sure it’s not Chinatown, but it is definitely one of those films you wish they made a hell of a lot more of.
Here’s the great opening (sorry it does cut out at the end rather abruptly):
Previous Flicks of the Week:
Gosford Park – Robert Altman
The Player – Tim Robbins
Bull Durham – Kevin Costner
Field of Dreams – Ray Liotta
Goodfellas – Samuel L Jackson
Pulp Fiction – Frank Whaley
Swimming with Sharks – Kevin Spacey
Working Girl – Sigourney Weaver
Aliens – Bill Paxton
Apollo 13 – Ron Howard
American Graffiti – Richard Dreyfus
The Graduate – Dustin Hoffmann
All the President’s Men – Jason Robards
Once Upon a Time in the West – Henry Fonda
Mister Roberts – Jack Lemmon
Some Like it Hot – Billy Wilder
Witness for the Prosecution – Marlene Dietrich
Touch of Evil – Orson Welles
The Third Man – Trevor Howard
Brief Encounter - David Lean
Lawrence of Arabia – Claude Reins
Casablanca – Humphrey Bogart
The Big Sleep – Howard Hawks
His Girl Friday – Cary Grant
Charade – John Williams
Schindler’s List – Liam Neeson
Love Actually – Emma Thompson
Sense and Sensibility – Ang Lee
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Michelle Yeoh
Tomorrow Never Dies – Pierce Brosnan
The Thomas Crown Affair – Renee Russo
In the Line of Fire – Clint Eastwood
Where Eagles Dare – Richard Burton
Zulu – Stanley Baker
The Guns of Navarone – Peter Yates
Breaking Away – Dennis Quaid
The Right Stuff – Ed Harris
The Rock – Sean Connery
The Longest Day – Richard Beymer
West Side Story – Ernest Lehmann
North By Northwest - The first one