Swell Dames and Death Wishes

Death Wish. A wet-dream for closet vigilantes. In the opening scenes, the wife and daughter of a New York City

Death Wish. A wet-dream for closet vigilantes. In the opening scenes, the wife and daughter of a New York City professional (Charles Bronson) are raped and murdered by a couple of errand boys from the local grocery. Bronson can't get any satisfaction from the law; this is the City, where things like this happen every day, remember? But Bronson has never been one to take pointless injustice lying down, nossir. So he takes the law into his own hands, and the fans go wild. No kidding: I saw this movie on New York's upper west side, and every time Bronson popped another mugger or bag-snatcher in the chest the audience gave him a standing ovation. Which is to say that "Death Wish" will cater to your basest instincts. But it's cathartic, you'll say, harmless, really. Tell me about it. "Liz," the slick soft-core porn feature playing downtown, has more socially redeeming features than this flick. The only thing neutral you can say about it is that at least you know it's fantasy: New York's subways have never been so clean in real life.

The Big Sleep. Let's get this straight: it's the nymphomaniac younger sister, played in this film version by Martha Vickers, who finally turns out to have murdered the missing Irishman and to have set off this story's complex web of blackmail and murder. That's the answer to the question, asked whenever this film is brought up, of who comes out as the culprit in the end. At least that's the answer in the book; whether it actually carried over into this screenplay is not at all clear. One of those great rumors has it that Faulkner, who was out in Hollywood taking his day in the sun touching up this script, could make neither heads nor tails of the plot-line and got in touch with novelist Raymond Chandler for some clues. "Beats me if I can figure the story out," Chandler said. Maybe your luck will be better. Or maybe you won't much care, since Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, as the undauntable Philip Marlowe and the seductive older sister, make for such an entertaining romantic tandem as to make the detective element peripheral. Maybe Chandler should take the credit--but, like Altman's "The Long Goodbye," this film manages to be technically flawed and almost incoherent in spots, and yet still infinitely more enchanting and memorable than many a slicker package.

The Maltese Falcon. Don't call it a thesis, but it seems that some of the most talented directors of American films have done their finest work the first time out. I'm thinking especially of Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane" and John Huston, who produced this hard-boiled masterpiece on his first feature assignment for Warner Brothers. Like Welles, Huston grew up around the greasepaint. And like Welles, Huston came to films with a gleeful yet prodigiously discriminating eye for characature and atmosphere-creating jargon. He handles Humphrey Bogart perfectly in the role of Sam Spade--by letting Bogart do Bogart, but without the "sentimentalist" soft spots of Rick in "Casablanca" or the nervousness of the hunted criminal in "Petrified Forest." Bogart is nothing more nor less than leather-skinned in this role: cool, jaded, manipulative. Dashiell Hammit included a last scene in his book during which the reader really grasps what a contemptible specimen Spade is. But Huston thankfully understood that a film version could dispense with this redeeming moralism especially at the expense of Bogart's persona. A remarkably sophisticated insight for a director so seemingly wet behind the ears.

Los Olvidados. Bunuel made this film in exile in Mexico in 1950, on a shoe-string budget after more than ten years of enforced retirement from making movies. Dealing with street gangs in Mexico City, Bunuel displays here the same sardonic sensibility (combining psychoanalytic and sociological perspectives) which distinguishes the best of his later films, especially "Belle de Jour" and "Viridiana." This film, though technically more primitive, has the most raw emotional power, and contains perhaps the most effective dream sequence in any film I've seen.

With Taxi Driver, Martin Scorcese delivers us an up-dated twist on "Notes From the Underground," with sophisticated ballistics thrown in. Blown out by a decade of Vietnam and assassinations, Dostoyevsky's "man of consciousness" has become Scorcese's man without a conscience and body without a past: Travis Bickle, a taxi driver and ultimate nobody. Robert DeNiro gapes and mumbles into this challenging role, and somehow (DeNiro really astounds me at times) manages to convince us that not only his past but his entire identity has indeed slipped his mind.

DeNiro's kooky, then homicidal aimlessness comes on very right for the times, but the world Scorcese has him encounter comes off very wrong. It seems that Scorcese figures that anyone who isn't down and out these days has turned into a plastic offspring of Madison Avenue. (Hence Cybil Shepard as the Tab-drinking campaign worker DeNiro falls in love with and the slick, wind-up presidential candidate he tries to assassinate.) So with nothing else but Barbies and Kens to identify with, Scorcese saves the film by throwing DeNiro into the arms of today's real myth-maker, the ever-violent tube. The gorey ballet of blood that follows DeNiro's foiled assassination has all the trappings of a cathartic end to a Greek tragedy. Only the Greeks examined what happens when a man tries to imitate the gods; Scorcese shows what happens when a taxi driver tries to become "The Man From Uncle."

Outrageous! Only Woody Allen at his best could outdo some of the one-liners in Richard Benner's brilliant comedy about a female impersonator's rise to stardom and the whacked-out woman behind his success. Craig Russell's unabashedly gay hairdresser has graced us with a character we will not soon forget, completely stealing the show in the movie's plot and the movie itself. His series of famed singers and actresses belting out "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" will bring down any house, so carefully honed are his Channings and Ellas. Co-star Hollis McLaren is inevitably overshadowed by Russell's stagewise presence, but the delicate treatment she gives to her Crazy Liza perfectly complements her outlandish buddy.