Category Archives: Seventies American crime films

Hardcore Horseman

The Horseman is about the transformation of a balding 44-year old small businessman into a killing machine as he tracks down the men he holds responsible for the death of his daughter. She died after participating in a hard core porn film, a video cassette of which mysteriously appears in his post one day.

This 2008 film, which only got local release in Australia in 2010, taps into a rich vein of movies about tightly wound white men who’ve played by the rules all their lives but finally snap over one injustice against them (perceived or real) too many.

It immediately reminded me of Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, which featured a conservative mid-west businessman (played by George C Scott) who ventures into the sordid LA underworld to look for his run-away daughter now making porn movies. But although both films are about men taking justice into their own hands when the police prove ineffectual, The Horseman is a very different beast to its 1979 counterpart.

The Horseman opens with the central character, Christian, a pest exterminator, beating up a man with a crowbar. After extracting a few answers, Christian douses the man’s house in petrol and sets it on fire, presumably with his victim still inside, changing from his work clothes as it burns in the background.

Christian spends the rest of the film traveling up and down the Queensland coast, his journey interspersed with memories of his daughter as a child, locating the men connected with the movie. Each encounter gives him just enough information to move to the next.

He confronts and for the most part kills the men he comes into contact with, including the distributor, the cameraman, and the actors. There is genuine ambivalence in his first decision to kill but it quickly becomes easier and his methods get more and more extreme. This is fueled by the fact that virtually none of the men are repentant and their taunts that Jessie, the daughter, came to shoot of her own free will. It’s the one thing Christian absolutely does not want to hear.

The only break in the killing occurs when Christian reluctantly picks up Alice, a young runaway, to whom he can be the sort of father figure his biological daughter rejected.

The film, populated by an almost completely Queensland cast, was shot by first time Australian director Steven Kastrissios on a budget of eighty grand. Not too shabby an effort in anyone’s books.

Critics singled out the violence for particular criticism. There’s certainly no shortage of it; knives, pliers and a blow torch are some of the weapons of choice. There are a lot of fight scenes, some of them unnecessarily drawn out.

That said, the film is well shot and Kastrissios gets good performances from his unknowns, particularly Peter Marshall. As Christian, he brings the required everyman quality and look to the role although his rapid transformation into a cold-blooded super killer able to hold his own against hardened criminals undermines this authenticity.

The contrast with Hardcore’s Jake Van Dorn, couldn’t be greater. Van Dorn’s violent side emerges gradually and the results are mild compared to Christian’s killing spree.

Van Dorn hires a cheap private eye, Andy (another fantastic performance by Peter Boyle), to find his daughter after she goes missing on a church retreat in California. Reluctantly, Van Dorn makes the decision to enter the world of pornography by masquerading as a porn producer casting actors in order to get close to his daughter.

At the conclusion of Hardcore, the daughter willingly accompanies her father home. Even if Christian’s daughter were alive you get the feeling there’d be no such happy ending. It soon becomes clear Christian doesn’t really want to understand what his daughter did, he just wants to punish the people he holds responsible.

The DVD extras on The Horseman contain a couple of deleted scenes that would have added a lot to the film. This includes a confrontation between Jessie and Christian in which she taunts him over the affair with his secretary that presumable led to the dissolution of his marriage, and threatens to move out. There a palpable sense the daughter is already involved with the men who will eventually contribute to her death.

The two films have a number of other interesting differences.

It’s been a while since I watched Hardcore, but I vividly remember the scene where Andy, in an attempt to explain to his client what has happened, takes Van Dorn to a sleazy porn theatre screening the film with his daughter in it.

It’s a throw back to the time when you had to physically go into a cinema to watch porn film rather than just click three times on your computer mouse. These days, anyone with a hand-held camera and some willing participants can make it and load it onto the web.

The setting for Schrader’s film is the sleazy world of theatres, sex shops and peep shows that used to inhabit the inner urban sections of many cities. The danger in The Horseman lies in the outer suburbs and the bush along the Queensland coast, home to pockets of entrenched disadvantage and one of the most casualised workforces in the country.

Indeed, it’s easy to see Christian as one of the army of independent contractors who flourished over the decade of conservative rule in Australia before being hit hard by the financial crisis in 2007. His wife has left him, business probably sucks, he’s got mortgage stress up to the back teeth and his daughter hates him.

Perhaps this was part of the point Kastrissios was trying to make. If so, he doesn’t quite get there.

This review is the second in a series looking at Australian crime films of 2010. The first, Red Hill, can be viewed here. The third, Animal Kingdom, will appear before the New Year.

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The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Of the crime films coming out of the United States in the early seventies, it’s hard to think of one that’s tougher and grittier than the 1973 neo-noir, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

Set in Boston’s criminal milieu, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a no frills depiction of desperate men doing whatever they have to do to stay one step ahead of each other and the law.

And none of them is more desperate than Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle (Robert Mitchum). A 51 year-old ex-con, a gun runner and Christ knows what else in his criminal career, Coyle’s got a wife, three kids and the prospect of a three to five-year jail stretch for being caught driving a truckload of stolen whisky.

We first glimpse Coyle getting his coffee and slice of pie in an all night diner before sitting down to talk business with the young Turk, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), from who he gets his merchandise.

The punk gives him lip and Coyle has to set him straight with the story about how he got his nickname and an extra set of knuckles on one hand, courtesy of a gun deal gone wrong.

“You can’t trace these guns, I guarantee that,” whines Brown.

“You better, or neither of us will be able to shake hands,” deadpans Coyle.

Coyle will do anything to stay out prison but all he’s got to trade is information. What he has to figure out is how to parley it into a get out of jail card without giving away everything he knows and turning into a full-time snitch.

And he knows a lot.

In particular, he knows about the gang of professional bank robbers to whom he’s been supplying handguns sourced from Brown. We see the gang in the film’s opening (led by Alex Rocco – Moe Green in the first Godfather movie – a former Boston criminal underworld habitué), tailing the manager of one their intended targets as he leaves his plush suburban home.

Coyle has other friends, notably Dillon (Peter Boyle), who supplements his day job working in a bar by doing hits for the mob and informing to a cop named Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), for 20 dollars a week.

When Coyle discovers Brown is planning to sell machine guns to a couple of criminally inclined hippies, he gives Foley the information in return for the policeman’s promise to talk to the judge about his upcoming sentence.

Foley arrests Brown with the machine guns, then tells Coyle that the judge wants him working on something else before he’ll consider letting him walk on his jail sentence, something to prove he’s rehabilitating himself.

“You telling me they want me to turn permanent fink,” says Coyle, realising the trap he’s fallen into. “Permanent god damn fink.”

“You go someplace and have yourself a glass of beer and a long talk with yourself,” replies Foley unruffled. “The only one fucking Eddie Coyle is Eddie Coyle.”

“I should have known better than to have trusted a cop,” says Coyle. “My own god damn mother could have told me that.”

“Everyone should listen to their mother.”

In his essay for the Criterion re-release of the film, critic Kent Jones describes it as “a succession of clandestine encounters conducted in the least picturesque parts of Greater Boston area during late fall going on winter”.

It’s a triumph of less-is-more filmmaking. Apart from a couple of quick bank heists and the scene when Brown is arrested in the car park of a large shopping mall, the film is about criminals talking about the process and mechanics of their work, delivering life lessons, sending a man to jail, ordering the killing of another with barely a raised voice between them. Director Peter Yates (best known for the 1968 hit, Bullitt) makes virtually zero effort to explain to the viewer what is going on or who is connected to whom.

With his fading looks, bad haircut and cheap clothes, Mitchum is fantastic as Coyle.  He totally inhabits the persona of an anonymous low life, “a heavy set guy, looks like a Mick,” as Brown describes him.

Supporting Mitchum is a fantastic group of character actors.

Keats’ Jackie Brown is all twitchy paranoia and testosterone in a flash car and funky wardrobe. Jordan is also excellent as a slick cop prepared to cut a few corners to make an arrest. Turning on the charm one minute, twisting the knife the next, he’s easily as ruthless as the criminals he’s up against.

Boyle displays not a shred of personality as Dillon. His barman cum mob hit man is a question mark, a blank slate. He gives Foley the details of the gang who’ve been robbing banks, lets Coyle get the blame, then agrees to kill him at the bequest of some nameless mafia operative, all without a flicker of emotion. His only qualm is whether he’ll be paid up front or not.

“You just get the envelope up here,” Dillon says into the phone as an unsuspecting Coyle sits only metres away at the bar. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The film’s other big draw is the dialogue. Sourced from the book of the same name by George V. Higgins, the script drips with jaded wisdom and criminal ennui.

“One of the first things I learned is never ask a man why he’s in a hurry,” Coyle tells Brown in one of the film’s pivotal scenes. “All you got to know is I told the man he could depend on me because you told me I could depend on you. Now one of us is gonna have a big fat problem. Another thing I learned, if anybody’s gonna have a problem, you’re gonna be the one.”

“You finished?” says Brown impatiently.

“No, I am not finished. Look, I’m getting old. You hear? I spent most of my time hanging around crummy joints with a bunch of punks, drinking the beer, eating the hash and hot dogs and watching the other people go off to Florida while I’m sweating out how I’m gonna to pay the plumber. I’ve done time and I stood up but I can’t take any more chances.”

It’s clear from the very beginning of the film that with friends like his, Coyle ran out of chances long ago.

Cutter’s Way: post traumatic noir

American crime films in the seventies and early eighties were littered with the damaged veterans of the Vietnam War.

They appear in most of the key crime sub-genres: the revenge film (Rolling Thunder), the road movie (Electra Glide in Blue), the drug sub-culture (Who’ll Stop the Rain, the adaption of Robert Stone’s novel, Dog Soldiers), and Blaxsploitation (the 1973 film, Gordon’s War, to name just one of many).

Film noir’s contribution is the 1981 movie, Cutter’s Way.

As Woody Haut argued in Neon Noir, his book on contemporary American crime fiction, Vietnam not only damaged the body politic it blurred the line between the perpetrators of crimes and the people who investigate them. In Cutter’s Way the quest to avenge a young woman’s murder is left to the rejects and outsiders who populate the underbelly of post-Vietnam American society.

Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges), a part-time gigolo and boat salesman, is returning from a late night assignation when his beat-up car stalls in an alleyway. Another vehicle pulls up behind him and in the heavy rain and headlight glare we see a man get out and throw something into a nearby rubbish bin. The car speeds off, nearly hitting Bone in the process. As he walks off in disgust, the camera pauses on a stilettoed female foot protruding from the bin.

Bone returns to the Santa Barbara house he shares with Cutter (John Heard) and his wife, Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). Mo is a sharp-tongued alcoholic. Cutter has a face full of scar tissue, only one arm and a permanent limp from his tour in Vietnam. He’s a ball of barely contained bitterness and fury.

Next morning garbage men find the young woman’s body. Of course the fact that Bone’s car is parked nearby makes him a suspect and the cops bring him in for questioning.

They attempt to sweat a confession out of him, going into how the victim died (badly), even wheeling in her sister, Valerie, to try and guilt trip him in admitting to the crime. However, in the face Bone’s protestations all he could see through the rain was a dark shape in sunglasses, the cops are forced to kick him loose.

Later, pausing with Mo and Cutter to watch a passing parade in celebration of Santa Barbara’s Spanish heritage, Bone thinks he sees the man who might have been the one dumping the body. He’s shocked when Cutter informs him the person he’s fingered is J.J. Cord, a local business big shot.

Cutter slowly starts to put together pieces of evidence linking Cord to the crime. Cord’s burnt out car was discovered in another location on the same night as the woman was murdered. The last place she was seen was a disco across the road from a hotel function attended by the businessman, “a little reception for some oil people”.

While these are at best circumstantial, to Cutter they are evidence of a much greater conspiracy, or at least an opportunity to make money – we’re not sure which yet – and it’s not long until he’s pressuring Bone to come in on a plan he’s hatched with Valerie to blackmail Cord, then turn him in to the cops regardless of what he does.

Bone tells Cutter the scheme is crazy and he should be careful. Cutter replies it is Bone who should be careful, as he is the only witness to the crime, a fact that’s been conveniently splashed across the front page of the local newspaper.

Cord is one of the those guys who are a staple of hard-boiled noir; the tough as nails businessman who has dragged himself up by his bootstraps, an ex-wildcatter who made a fortune in the oil business. His power and liking of casual violence – in this case directed at young female hitchhikers – are matched only by the impunity with which he gets away with things. The kind of man you don’t want to mess with.

Bone eventually agrees to deliver the blackmail letter. We see him walking into Cord’s anonymous Los Angeles corporate office while Cutter and Valerie wait in the car. Only later does he admit he was only bluffing and never intended to deliver anything.

While Bone returns to Santa Barbara, Cutter remains to follow through his plot, ringing Bone to gloat he’s dropped off the blackmail letter. Meanwhile, Bone sleeps with Mo then slinks off into the night, only finding out next morning that their house has been burnt to the ground with Mo inside it.

Standing amid the smoking ruins, an image that strongly evokes Vietnam, Cutter is in no doubt who the culprit is. Putting aside their grief and anger at each other, he and Bone team up to confront Cord at a party at his mansion.

They’re a sight, Bone dressed as a chauffeur ferrying a formerly attired Cutter armed with a pistol in the backseat of a limo. The act gets them past the front gate muscle and eventually into Cord’s house for the film’s bleak ending.

With its ambiguous plot, minimal action and lack of (then) name stars, it’s a wonder Cutter’s Way ever got a release. The director, Ivan Passer was a virtual unknown, as was Jeffrey Alan Fiskin, who shaped the screenplay from the 1976 novel Cutter and Bone by cult author Newton Thornburg. The film bombed at release. The studio only persevered with it following a persistent campaign by a number of film critics.

Bridges plays Bone as a dissolute lounge lizard. His character and Lisa Eichhorn’s sultry booze drenched Mo dance around each other for most of the film, repelling and attracting each other in equal parts. “I don’t like you when you’re stoned,” says Bone. “Hey Rich,” she replies without hesitation, “I don’t like you when I’m straight.”

But it’s the underrated John Heard (remember him as the washed cop in the Sopranos?) that steals every scene he is in. Cutter is a tragic figure one moment, a self-pitying bigot who is more than happy to use Vietnam as an excuse for his behaviour, the next. After deliberately trashing the neighbour’s car on a drunken spree, he goes inside his house to put only his military duffel coat so he can play the wounded veteran routine when the cops arrive.

But although he’s prepared to play the Vietnam card when convenient, the injustice of his experience is not lost on him. In response to Bone’s questioning about why he’s so keen to pin the murder on Cord, Cutter replies, “Because he’s responsible”, if not for the death of the girl, then for the war. “Because it’s never his arse on the line. Never. It’s always somebody else’s.”

A key theme in Thornburg’s books is retribution for the young who fall prey to the dangerous and amoral lure of post-Summer of Love California. Another of his books, To Die in California, centres on a cattle farmer from Illinois who sets out to discover how his son died in California, the only witnesses to the boy’s apparent suicide and a fixer for an ambitious political fixer and a rich but idle woman.

Cutter’s Way portrays a corrupt and paranoid world, where government, big corporations and the political elite are responsible for much of society’s wrongs, whether it is dropping napalm on peasant villages or killing a 17-year old girl, and justice is at best pyrrhic.

As he aims a pistol at Cord in the very final scene of the film, Bone says, “It was you.”

Cord just smiles, puts on his sunglasses and says, “What if it were?”

This article originally appeared in Back Alley Noir’s Film Noir of the Week in August 2010.