Serpico – Al Pacino plays the only honest cop in New York City in this Sidney Lumet film that’s based on real life but nonetheless feels pretty fake. It’s not the corruption that’s unreal, nor Officer Serpico’s honesty and perseverance, but rather his total shock that this kind of corruption (mostly cash payouts by small-time mobsters) existed in the NYPD and the lengths the film goes to to create the sense that his moral outrage is uniquely heroic. The film at times seems to want to explore Serpico’s paranoia, but never goes so far as to suggest that he might himself be flawed in some fundamental way (his fears are justified and he’s always the victim of bad cops in his professional life and women who dare to demand too much from him in his personal life). I don’t know what the actual facts of the case are, but whether or not everything in the film is fact, the film fails to convey that verisimilitude. Pacino’s performance is pretty solid, cluttered as it is with a collection of truly bad hats, and it seems the performance from this era that he went back to most often during his early 90s comeback (his characters in Glengarry Glen Ross and Heat sound a lot like Frank Serpico and almost nothing like Michael Corleone). Lumet films the story in his gritty, on location in the mean streets of New York, not entirely TV-like style that mostly just stays out of the way of the big actor in the middle. The #16 film of 1973.
Exiled – Another quirky gem from director Johnnie To is this gangster film about a guy who wants to go straight and live a normal life with a wife and a baby. Unfortunately for him, his escape plan involved a failed hit on the boss and now, a pair of his old friends are after him, with two other old friends showing up to help him out. The five shoot it out for awhile, then team up to fight the really bad guys. The bulk of the film is extended action sequences as they try to raise money for their escape and run into a lot of bad luck along the way. The film isn’t as dark as Election 2, nor is it as whimsical as Sparrow, nor quite as upfront about its formal games as Mad Detective or Written By (both of which were written and directed or co-directed by Wai Ka-fai, unlike this film) it occupies an emotional terrain more akin to The Good the Bad & the Ugly (perhaps the source of its otherwise mystifying Netflix comparison to Spaghetti Westerns). As always, To’s action scenes are excellent: he’s essentially John Woo with a sense of humor and with a total lack of self-importance. The #7 film of 2006.
Bigger than Life – James Mason plays a mild but happy schoolteacher pater familias who contracts an arterial inflammation for which he is prescribed the new wonder drug cortisone, which cures his pain but has the unfortunate side effect of turning him psychotic. This being both a 1950s melodrama and a Nicholas Ray film, his insanity manifests itself as an incisive critique of 50s suburban repression and ideas of family and masculinity and capitalist success etc etc. The key question: is Mason’s psychosis purely a result of the drug, or does the drug merely set loose the latent evils trapped in his everyday-guy mind? I think it amplifies what was already there, twisting the average James into a megalomaniacal tyrant. Mason, always a favorite here at The End, is tremendous in the role, both as the nice guy and as the scenery-chewing lunatic. Ray’s direction is a bit too obvious at times (a shattered mirror stands out), but one can chalk that up to generic imperatives, especially when so much of the film is so uniquely Ray in look and feel and the way profoundly complex emotional responses are elicited out of the simplest material. The #7 film of 1956.