Repo Man (1984)

It’s no small miracle that Alex Cox’s Repo Man is even on anyone’s radar today, nevermind the fact that the weird little movie effectively jumpstarted the director’s entire career. It’s very possible that Repo Man could have slipped into obscurity and dragged Cox into the abyss along with it. There would be no late-night cult showings and, more shockingly, there would be no Alex Cox Director Series to presently grace your computer screen. Civilization would crumble beneath our feet and the decimated dregs of humanity would soon resort to cannibalism.

So be thankful that we have the junky, punky Los Angeles peopled by Emilio Estevez’s rookie repossessor Otto and Harry Dean Stanton’s Obi-Wan-esque speed addict Bud. The world of Repo Man is still freshly original, even today, still hilariously unique — a world where the beer is labeled BEER and the food FOOD, where repo agents are just car thieves that make a point of wearing seatbelts. Otto’s journey is one that goes round and round in circles, and the only semblance of plot in the film stems from a ’64 Chevy Malibu with some really hot contents in the trunk.

As noted by Roger Ebert in his original review, Repo Man follows none of the rules – there are simply no other movies about punk repo kids and radioactive aliens in Los Angeles. Detectives and secret agents pulled in for one last mission? Got ’em. Unlikely squirts finding the courage to overcome bully corporations? Yep. Repo Man, on the other hand, is damn near impossible to categorize. “It happens sometimes,” notes an investigator about a smoking bubbling puddle that used to be an upright policeman. “People just explode.” If these are the rules that Repo Man plays by, then the rules don’t matter much.

Cox was twenty-nine years old when he filmed Repo Man. He had a much larger budget than he’d originally envisioned and full control over the casting of the film, thanks to a measure of faith by Hollywood studio executives that seems outlandish today. It opened quietly and was pulled from theaters after a weeklong run. The soundtrack, though, chock full of “new” American punk, made a smallish comeback in the following months, prompting an eventual rerelease of Repo Man at a theater in New York City. From there, the film grew to the cult status it enjoys today.

And this still means that Repo Man has not had nearly the effect it should have — it could have — on modern cinema. Again, Cox’s career took off in a good direction as Repo Man gained traction — he went on to get the directing gig for Sid and Nancy in 1986, a movie which was well-received, followed by Walker with Ed Harris in 1987. Our Director Series takes proper looks at those later efforts, but suffice it to say that they’re quite different from this debut. Repo Man is important because it taps into and depicts a subculture so perfectly well. The pacing is so inviting and the tone so uncondescending as to bring nearly anyone along for the ride, in spite of the weirdo silliness unfolding before your eyes.

Simply put: we should have more movies like Repo Man. That silliness becomes a battle cry, becomes the entire world of the film, becomes something that challenges us to accept it rather than pining for our approval with tired gimmicks or recognizable characters. Once we accept the challenge we’re essentially in the car with the doors locked, doing 60 down the L.A. River. It helps that Repo Man is insanely quotable and that the running gags are so beautifully timed. What we might expect to be a sex scene is put on hold when Otto sits up straight in bed and says, politely: “Excuse me while I fold my pants.” Which he does.

So, in honor of Repo Man, one of the leanest and meanest and most straight-up fun director debuts in modern cinema: Let’s go get sushi and not pay!

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Half Moon Street (1986)

Half Moon Street is one of those movies that just doesn’t have a whole lot to say, despite the tendency to delve into “timely” issues throughout the first act. Sorta-kinda based on the Paul Theroux novel Doctor Slaughter, the film stars Sigourney Weaver as an American expatriate with a bright future. Soon, Weaver’s Lauren Slaughter becomes involved with a high-price escort service and a British diplomat played by Michael Caine.

Let’s get this out of the way and state that Half Moon Street is pretty boring. Wikipedia marks the film an “erotic thriller”; it is neither. In fact, the most thrilling parts end up losing all of their magic during the absurdly expository finale, which presents itself as a twist ending but doesn’t begin to pack the punch that it hopes to. The “eroticism”, I suppose, is relative to the viewer, and I certainly understand if some people find a big-haired mid-80s Weaver lecturing airily on Anglo-Arab foreign policy a total turn-on.

Back to the “thriller” part: the opening of the film shows an unidentified figure leafing through videotapes of Londoners, a short scene which is called upon later when Lauren receives a videotape in her mail. We are consistently shown the inside of Lauren’s apartment and shown outings with her male callers from a distance, and very often the camera pans lazily off into an empty part of the room. Increasingly, though, these shots become more and more foreboding. A shot from behind a bush on a golf course not only gives the clear impression that someone is watching Lauren, but that we are in the shoes of the voyeur. We again see the unidentified figure recording Lauren, taping her conversations with Caine’s character, and the longer this goes on without an answer the more interesting it gets.

But again, the ending pretty much blows it. It’s political espionage, of course, and they’re just trying to kill Caine’s character and his reputation (and they make a specific point of stating that they’ll kill both, which seems unnecessary…if you kill the man’s reputation, do you really need to actually kill the man?). The mysterious portions of Half Moon Street are better off left that way, because once they’re solved the entire thing is an utter letdown.

Unless you’re in for a few interesting cameos (Vincent Lindon!) or the impossible sexiness of Weaver’s baggy trench coat and Caine’s baggy mustache, Half Moon Street is one you can skip.

Nighthawks (1981)

Oh man! If you’re looking for a New York cop movie that absolutely screams “1980s”, you’ve found it in Nighthawks. The hair! The outfits! The slap bass-laden soundtrack! The lack of anything resembling actual police protocol! The Billy Dee Williams! The hair!

Sylvester Stallone stars as macho cop DaSilva, who spends his nights catching the bad guys “his own way”. He’s smart, say his superiors, but he’s got an authority problem. Shocking, says anyone watching the movie. Absolutely shocking. When famed and feared foreign terrorist Wulfgar makes landfall in the United States with a mind to kill UN delegates in NYC, it’s DaSilva (of course) who somehow gets put on the case.

Frankly, Rutger Hauer as Wulfgar is the only thing that saves Nighthawks from being 100% trash, and in fact his portions of the film are really pretty great. He’s having an absolute blast with the role, a perfectly evil-looking actor in a perfectly evil character, and his scenes seem totally at odds with the stupid “detective work” scenes (note that quoted term is used lightly). When Hauer’s Wulfgar takes hostages on the Roosevelt Island Tramway and parades around the car amidst the startled passengers, telling them in a menacing tone to “Back up against the window!” as he brandishes his gun, he’s sure to add to one man in particular, “I like your hat!”

Considering Blade Runner came a year later and The Hitcher followed in 1986, Rutger Hauer was basically the best villain of the 1980s. The way he slithers through a locked door in the final scene of Nighthawks is nothing short of terrifying.

Frustrating, then, that the police work that ultimately brings him down seems devised by an adolescent. The procedure of catching the terrorist quite literally consists of agreeing to the ludicrous claim that the killer “is known to frequent night clubs” – as if shooting the shit with the mass murderer in between tequila shots were a common occurrence – and then happening upon the one club in the entirety of New York City in which Wulfgar happens to be jamming out.

Meanwhile, there’s also a half-assed romance subplot for your viewing pleasure. An imminent terrorist threat in the heart of NYC is a big deal, but DaSilva’s gotta think about his own needs, too.

Once you accept the horrendous script and learn to kind of gloss over the macho bullshit at the precinct, Nighthawks is certainly enjoyable enough as a mindless action movie. There’s probably a reason Bruce Malmuth only directed a few other projects, though, and the directing here would be forgettable if it wasn’t so glaringly bad. Now scroll back up and bask in that glorious lion’s mane – if anyone on the crew deserved to use Nighthawks as a platform to fame and fortune, it’s the hair stylist.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Film violence is a strange beast that has evolved rapidly over the past half-century, stretching from a time when a drop of blood would cause an outcry to now, when characters hardly have enough time for dialogue between gunshots and explosions. The Wild Bunch, which turns 45 this year, still manages to hold a vastly important place along that timeline.

The violence at play here isn’t Tarantino gore or anything you’ll see in cinemas today, really. But in 1969 The Wild Bunch caused a big commotion with the unflinching depiction and sheer number of death-by-gunshots woven throughout the runtime. The opening and closing scenes approach a cacophony that becomes like a kind of polyrhythmic music that the cowboys seem to be dancing to, a thousand gunshots fired from a thousand different directions and no one quite sure who’s shooting whom even when the dust has settled.

William Holden’s Pike leads Ernest Borgnine’s Engstrom and the rest of the Bunch across the picaresque Mexican borderlands as they are pursued by bounty hunters employed by the railroad – if this sounds suspiciously similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (also 1969), it certainly is. Peckinpah and Co. rushed to get the film out ahead of Butch and Sundance, but while the plot points are undeniably similar the two films could not be more different. The Wild Bunch, aptly titled, is wilder, looser, grittier, and much more violent. Butch and Sundance shoot their fair share of people in order to survive; the Bunch do the same, but they revel in nearly every man killed.

And that’s another major difference in your typical “classic” Westerns of the period (those of Sergio Leone notwithstanding) and the brutal revisionist pieces that Peckinpah crafted: the Bunch, noble as Pike may seem at times and lovable as Engstrom may also seem, are without a doubt bad men. They steal, they corrupt, they kill, and they even take note of children watching as they continue in their vice. They are fighting for survival and we’re rooting for them – why the heck are we rooting for them? It’s interesting that screenwriter Walon Green is also credited years later on the brilliant Sorcerer, in which the “protagonists” are similarly despicable.

Each Peckinpah film seems to come complete with a Peckinpah anecdote detailing his often chaotic set conditions, and The Wild Bunch is no different. Peckinpah apparently wasn’t getting all he wanted out of a particular gunshot effect, so he snatched a live revolver and fired it without warning into a wall. He then took note of the shock on the faces of the crew around him, saying, “That’s the effect I want!”

But as had become apparent by the time Peckinpah made Major Dundee in 1965, the man knew how to direct a movie. Wild Bunch was notable for the realistic violence, but the cinematic techniques at play were also lauded as before their time. Several sequences of multi-camera, fast-cut action were unlike anything seen in a Western before, and the mix of regular- and slow-motion shots within a single thread were often flawlessly executed. The gunshots themselves, too, were designed to actually sound like the gun depicted on screen, rather than just a stock “gunfire” sound applied across the board to shotguns and revolvers alike. Attention to detail in this manner almost allows Peckinpah’s on-set behavior to be written off.

The Wild Bunch marked the arrival of a director who not only knew how to direct a movie but had a very particular kind of movie that he wanted to make. A Peckinpah film isn’t just a Western – it’s a Peckinpah Western. Studios didn’t always allow all elements of this singular vision to make the final cut, but Peckinpah was able to shine through the haze of Hollywood Executive Fog more so with The Wild Bunch than with any of his films to date.

Flame and Citron (2008)

Once you resist the temptations of masterpieces like Crocodile Dundee II and BoJack Horseman, Netflix tends to have a pretty sizable catalogue of foreign films for your viewing pleasure. Flame and Citron, while relatively well-known in Denmark (as Flammen & Citronen), passed without much notice in the States and elsewhere upon its release in 2008. Thure Lindhardt and Mads Mikkelsen star as Danish Resistance fighters Bent Faurschou-Hviid (“Flame”) and Jørgen Haagen Schmith (“Citron”), rogue assassins of Nazi officers who increasingly take matters into their own hands as WWII progresses.

Lindhardt is the real find here, as is director Ole Christian Madsen, while Mikkelsen will be much more familiar to American audiences from his roles in the ongoing Hannibal series and as the Bond villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. At the start of the film both men just want to serve their country by ridding it of evil men, and though Mikkelsen’s Citron certainly transforms throughout the film from a timid tagalong to a ruthless assassin, it’s Lindhardt’s Flame who goes on the real journey. “There is no just or unjust any longer,” the pair agree. “There is only war.” Flame embodies this sentiment completely – but interestingly, he does so in part by wrestling with it and ultimately defying it.

There are more than a few weak scenes throughout Flame and Citron, such as the seemingly obligatory meeting between protagonist Flame and the chief antagonist, SS Head Hoffmann, in which the latter seethes cliches like “We are the same, you and I” in snakelike tones. While the majority of the film – especially the very last scenes – feel authentic and true-to-life, moments like this feel much more like fabricated movie drama.

That ending, though, hits home in a very particular way. It’s obvious that Flame and Citron took many cues from Army of Shadows and other similarly-set WWII yarns, but there are deeper connections with more broad and classic tales of men at war – I’ll go so far as to relate Flame and Citron to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, at risk of reading too much into things. Like Coriolanus, Flame is filled to the brim with passion about his conduct in wartime, the conduct of the men and women around him, burning with rage at the way the structures of such a time demand he act in unnatural ways. Further solidifying the comparison is the depiction of Coriolanus in Ralph Fiennes’s 2011 adaptation, in which the great warrior is last seen being tossed into the back of a truck like so many pounds of lifeless meat.

Both Flame and Citron meet the exact same demise. For all of their battling on physical and emotional and moral fronts, for the sheer scale of their cause and the colossal sacrifices they both made in order to see that cause achieved, both men end up dead and lumped into the back of a truck. Nazi officers jump into the truck bed and sit smiling with the dead bodies as others laugh and photograph the posed corpses. Can such a dark ending be the central message of a WWII film made within the last decade? What goes on after these bodies are buried?

The answer, one may take away from Flame’s final soliloquy, is that it all goes on. There is no doubt that Flame and Citron ends depressingly for the men and their families. But the flame, the fire of resistance that these men stoked in each other and in men like them, is still lit.

Major Dundee (1965)

Major Dundee may be the threshold Sam Peckinpah crossed to get from amateurish filmmaking to successful, mature directing. His breakout (in terms of “mainstream” filmmaking in the way we’d deem such international success today) came later with The Wild Bunch, but Dundee is every bit as impressive when held up against Peckinpah’s earliest film effort The Deadly Companions and his follow-up Ride the High Country. Less tangentially: Major Dundee is the first Peckinpah film that’s truly worth revisiting.

Charlton Heston stars as the titular Union Major, disgraced after an unspecified maneuver and forcibly removed from his position close to the end of the Civil War. When he and his troops happen across a camp ravaged by brutal Apache, Dundee swears to shift his personal war onto the native tribe. Captured Confederate prisoners from the opposing side – best represented by Richard Harris’s Captain Tyreen – and a few drifting recruits with no allegiance in the actual War – best represented by James Coburn’s mountain man Samuel Potts – round out the field and unite under Dundee’s cause.

What ensues is essentially “Moby-Dick on horseback”, as some have labeled Dundee before with good reason. Dundee’s cause is not dissimilar from Captain Ahab’s in that his vision is singular and unshakeable, no matter the cost or danger to those under his command. Tyreen is a near-perfect analogue for Starbuck, questioning Dundee’s motives and his methods. The young bugler Ryan provides narration for the film and is a sort of Ishmael for the journeyers, while the Apache is largely absent from the film and thus fills the whale-sized shoes of Moby-Dick himself. Analogues aside, Dundee also captures the epic spirit of such Great American Tales in rare and exciting way.

As mentioned in our opening segment of the Peckinpah Director Series on The Deadly Companions, it was not uncommon for the sets of his films to be characterized by chaotic scheduling, mass firings, and no small amount of alcohol consumption on the part of the director himself. Heston famously stood by Peckinpah and all but saved his involvement with the project, while simultaneously claiming that Peckinpah would often wander off and leave Heston to direct in his absence. The difference here is that Dundee is a great film, while Companions really isn’t – at a certain point, the reasons why become unimportant.

Still, another unfortunate thing that characterized Peckinpah’s films (and specifically Dundee) was the tendency for his original cuts to be massively edited and chopped by studio executives. The runtime of Dundee is fairly long, but it’s nowhere near as long as it would have been if Peckinpah had had his way. Regardless, even the shortest cut available is worth a watch.

The triumvirate of Heston, Harris and Coburn is a major driving force of the film, and the character of Amos Dundee is certainly one of Heston’s most underrated roles. Odds are some moron will deem it wise to remake Major Dundee someday in the near future, updating it for the modern age by setting it in a postapocalyptic wasteland and casting Mark Wahlberg as Dundee. The Apache will be replaced by CGI’d robots. Actually, everyone will be replaced by CGI’d robots.

Until then, check out Major Dundee for an early look at a filmmaker on the cusp of international success.

Locke (2013)

The past few years have seen no shortage of films structured entirely around a sole character. 2009 had Moon, 2010 had 127 Hours and Buried, and the past year alone had two Oscar nominees in Gravity and All Is Lost. Each of these films hangs entirely on the neck of one actor or actress, usually with some help from the voices of unseen characters or a well-placed flashback. Gravity was helped along by the simple fact that it has what may be the greatest special effects of any space movie ever. Also: George Clooney.

Locke doesn’t have George Clooney. In fact, Locke doesn’t have the set-up that you might come to expect from a one-man show: no outer space VFX or otherwise stark settings, no survival story in a desert or on a boat or six feet under. All Locke has is a car, a bluetooth phone, and Tom Hardy in the central role of construction foreman Ivan Locke. Despite (or because of) the bare-bones constituency at work here, Locke is still easily as engaging as any of the aforementioned predecessors.

When Ivan Locke gets in the car and takes off on a two-hour drive to London, he has a list of calls to make and things to accomplish along the way. These items include breaking the news to his wife that he cheated on her and is en route to the birth of his child by another woman; fielding distressed calls from said woman as she endures complications in labor; training an underqualified drunk to complete the gargantuan tasks his foreman position requires while he absconds; and explaining his sudden absence to his children, his boss, his boss’s bosses, and pretty much everyone else he happens to know. His singular goal, you may have guessed, is to not have all of this go to shit.

Importantly, Locke himself is an extremely well-drawn character. Writer and director Steven Knight sits behind the camera for the first time with Locke, but his writing credentials include Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things. While Ivan could have easily just been a regular nobody in a car enduring the consequences of his mistake, we’re instead treated to a man who preaches precision, practicality, logic, reason. He’s an intelligent and levelheaded worker well aware of his own faults in the situation – the question is whether his mantra of exactness will create an exit to his predicament or force him deeper into the hole.

By portraying Ivan’s work life and his family life as two very distinct parts of the same character, Knight and Hardy answer that question twice. Yes, he loses his job – but the project he abandoned still has legs due to his careful steering of the players involved after his departure earlier in the evening. The proper trucks will enter the proper gates and pour the proper amount of the proper kind of concrete into the proper place, and all will be well.

A family and a home are a tad more complicated. Again, Ivan is a man who consistently speaks (and thinks) in the most accurate terms possible – he corrects his employee at the mention of 200 trucks (“218 trucks”) and his boss at the mention of his position of the past ten years (“nine years”). Later, as his wife comes to terms with the fact that Ivan has been unfaithful to her, she can only find one response to his insistence that it only happened one time: “The difference between once and never is everything.” Ivan, trapped in his ways, can only concede the point with silence.

Steven Knight is a writer to watch after Locke, as the details are more carefully attended to in this tight screenplay than any other in recent memory. Even Ivan’s last name “Locke” and his work associations with cement and concrete play into the themes of being steadfast, solid, immovable in the face of tough odds. It goes without saying that Tom Hardy more than pulls his weight in this film, and he continues to be an absolute force in the acting world – I’ll look forward to everything he does next, and to rewatching Locke in the future.

The Deadly Companions (1961)

The first of our Director Series will focus on the films of American director Sam Peckinpah, largely known for his revisionist Westerns and his notorious depictions of violence in nearly all of his films. “Bloody Sam” achieved wider fame following 1969’s The Wild Bunch and retained a strong reputation with efforts like 1971’s Straw Dogs and 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – as with all of our Director Series, we’ll take a look at some of the lesser-known Peckinpah films as well.

And more for the sake of completion than anything else, we begin with Peckinpah’s directorial debut The Deadly Companions. Brian Keith stars as a cowboy known as Yellowleg who accidentally kills the young son of Maureen O’Hara’s cabaret dancer Kit Tildon. To make amends (or to clear his own conscience, or for some unexplained reason) Yellowleg escorts Kit through dangerous Apache territory to the place where she demands her son be buried. Local bandits and murderous Apaches haunt their journey, as does a growing intimacy between the two leads.

Sorely disjointed and nearly robotic with regards to some of the dialogue, it’s certainly not Peckinpah’s fault that Companions is quite stiff. Still, while the plot and setting and characters all seem like elements Peckinpah would be attracted to, the film is devoid of nearly any of the stylistic flourishes that would become his trademarks. The director was untried with the cinematic format at this point in time, though, so perhaps Companions shouldn’t really be held up against the “good” Peckinpah movies.

Why would Kit almost instantaneously fall in love with the man who killed her son? Put aside the fact that Yellowleg killed the boy, and he’s still not offering a heck of a lot in the Lover Department. This is one of the many uneasy contrivances that could be the fault of the script but are more likely due to studio interference during the editing process.

In fact, Peckinpah allegedly vowed never to direct a film again after Companions unless he had script and editing control. The final product of this film, one would assume based on such a claim, is probably a far cry from what Peckinpah envisioned when he agreed to the project. The resistance he met with during the shoot would also come to characterize some of his later productions, and that clash is just painfully evident in the flow and pacing of his debut feature. Again, The Deadly Companions has all of the pieces of a Peckinpah classic – they just happened to be cobbled together into something that’s a lot less satisfying.

La moustache (2005)

“How would you feel if I shaved off my mustache?” So begins Emmanuel Carrère’s 2005 film La moustache, a dark and heartbreaking investigation of madness and identity. Marc has worn his upper-lip rag for the past 15 years, as his wife points out, so it might be a little strange if he shaves it off. But shave he does, whimsically, excitedly – and yet no one notices, not his wife nor his friends. In fact, as Marc’s wife tells him in a state of confusion, he has never had a mustache at all in the past 15 years…

Watching La moustache descend from that point onwards is not a task that will result in immediate satisfaction (it may, however, result in an immediate WTF). Marc says that surely their friends will vouch for his facial hair…leading Marc’s wife to inform him that the friends of whom he speaks are also nonexistent. Marc references his parents…and Marc’s wife slowly and cautiously reminds him that his father has been dead for years. Marc soon runs off to Hong Kong to get away from the crumbling world around him.

My interpretation leans much more to the abstract side, as I suspect most interpretations must. You could argue easily enough that a portion (or two, or three) of the fractured film is a dream or a hallucination on Marc’s part, or that the entire thing is imagined. You could just as easily argue that Marc is eminently sane and that an elaborate ruse à la The Game has been constructed by his wife, friends, parents, whoever. It’s respectable that Carrère (who first wrote La moustache as a novel) was able to build something very obviously open to warring readings, but the film as a whole begs a more involved interpretation; it nearly demands you come up with a theory and stick to it, otherwise La mustache just sits uncomfortably like an undigested meal.

While the whole movie is perplexing, the Hong Kong Star Ferry sequence is possibly the most eyebrow-raising: Marc is shown going back and forth on the ferry, arriving, departing, paying for his ticket, moving through the turnstiles, facing one way, facing the next, over and over. Is this a part of his actual existence, or at the very least a representation of how lonely he is? If so, the first chunk of the film could act as a construct wherein Marc has a loving wife, friends, a home, a life. Changing one element of this carefully constructed fantasy (i.e. shaving his mustache off) forces the entire house of cards down. Systems resist change by their very nature, and Marc’s fantasy is upset by a simple lack of hair on his face. He tries to hold onto this – going so far as to dig through the trash to retrieve the remnants of his mustache – but the change is irreparable.

Marc writes a postcard to his wife from Hong Kong, stating that he does not trust his own eyes but only what he sees through the eyes of his wife. At the end of the film, when Marc’s wife is inexplicably present in Hong Kong as if none of the previous conundrums had occurred, Marc disposes of the postcard that he never mailed. Perhaps he has found a new way to make his fantasy work by imagining his wife with him in Hong Kong, and he discards the postcard upon the realization that the original fantasy clashes with the new one.

This could very well be a weak interpretation of the first 95% of the film, but I think it’s one that lends the last 5% a particular beauty. Fully-bearded Hong Kong Marc asks his wife “How would you feel if I shaved off my mustache?”, and when he does it this time around she smiles, compliments him on the change, and invites him into bed. His efforts at change within such a lonely existence were met with impossible resistance over the course of the first acts of the film, obstacles that he alone had to endure and overcome. His pain, his conflicted sense of self, the overpowering sense that no one in the entire world is on his side – all of it seems to melt away when his wife recognizes the change that he has enacted.

Your reading may be very different. The fact remains that La moustache is a weird little movie, and one that will undoubtedly get you thinking. Vincent Lindon is fantastic as Marc, and his performance is one of the few indelible elements in a story about transformation of the self.

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Continuing our mini-retrospective on actor and director Richard Attenborough, one notices that Netflix only musters seven films with his name in the credits – three of which he directed, three of which he acted in, and one of which is a documentary. Shouldn’t there be more of a selection for a guy who acted in nearly 80 different projects and directed twelve feature films, one of which won a Best Picture Oscar? Shouldn’t he have at least half of the Netflix catalogue awarded to William Shatner? Anyway.

Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles is an interesting one to be included in that hors d’oeuvre-sized offering, and it’s a film in which Attenborough shines. Steve McQueen takes the spotlight, as Steve McQueen is wont to do from time to time, but Attenborough’s character serves as a perfect compliment to the protagonist. McQueen’s Jake Holman and Attenborough’s Frenchy Burgoyne are aboard a U.S. gunboat (The San Pablo, though pronounced by some as Sand Pebbles) in the heart of China in 1926. It’s a time of revolution and both men get wrapped up in local and national affairs during their long tour.

Attenborough has said Pebbles was the longest shoot he ever worked on, including the epic Gandhi, and that the cast and crew spent 8 months in Taipei filming. Wise spent a full four years bringing the project to fruition, and the time spent and the care taken is evident in the epic sweep of the final product.

The film is sluggishly slow in most places. McQueen’s Jake cultivates a relationship with the engine of the ship (in the picture above he’s just said “Hello, Engine. I’m Jake Holman”) while Attenborough’s Frenchy cultivates a relationship with a local Chinese woman. The characters couldn’t be more unlike each other, but they build a mutual respect and even loyalty as their tour progresses. Also, Attenborough sports one hell of a handlebar mustache.

The Sand Pebbles takes its time, but is worth watching to see McQueen and Attenborough in two of their most distinctive roles.