This sort of thing can rapidly turn into a vanity project, so I will have to watch my step a little. Laudable as it is to try to bring to people’s attention some splendid films which they may not have seen, it can swiftly deteriorate into, “oh gosh, you haven’t seen Cube: Zero, what kind of film fan do you call yourself?”.
So the criterion here is not obscurity, nor necessarily five-star classic status, rather this is an effort at a simple introduction to a handful of rarely seen and perhaps under-appreciated films that you might want to catch when and where you can. I’ve tried to mix up the genres a little and so hopefully everyone can find something they will like.
1. A Better Tomorrow (1986) – Dir. John Woo
John Woo has been responsible for some of the most acclaimed and satisfying action films to ever see the light of day. Hard Boiled and Face/Off are very different propositions, but no less splendid for it. Before he made The Killer and long before he moved to Hollywood and all but lost his mojo, Woo gave the world Chow Yun Fat with a gun in each hand and A Better Tomorrow, arguably the best film on his CV, if not as balletic in its violence as Hard Boiled, or as sky-high in its conception as Face/Off. It’s certainly better than Hard Target and Mission: Impossible 2.
A Better Tomorrow finds Chow Yun Fat as a gangster, trying to mend his ways and reconnect with his policeman brother, though the path is a difficult one. It gives us the (now) trademark flourishes of a Woo set-piece, lots of guns, quite a lot of slow-motion, operatic themes, seemingly limitless ammunition and piles of dead bodies. As noted above, it is not as much of an adrenaline rush as some of Woo’s later output, but the characterisation is better, the performances more affecting and the denouement more satisfying. Catch it if you can.
2. Scarlet Street (1945) – Dir. Fritz Lang
This one really was a match made in heaven. A film noir, featuring a lead actor (Edward G. Robinson) who was tailor made for the genre (and has given us splendid iterations on both sides of the law in films like Key Largo, Little Caesar and Double Indemnity) and a director brilliant at exploring shadows, both photographically and thematically (The Big Heat, M, Metropolis). It must be admitted that this is a pretty obscure film, relatively unheralded in the oeuvre of Robinson or Lang, but it is no less worth tracking down for it. I caught it on the big screen during an extremely limited re-release back around the turn of the millennium and I am so very glad that I did.
The story sees Robinson as Christopher Cross (Chris-Cross?), a mild-mannered gentleman in the throes of a mid-life crisis who meets and befriends a young woman, whose fiance gets her to help try to con Cross out of a perceived fortune.
Unusually for Robinson, who tended to play characters with plenty of wit, nous and guile, he presents us here with a sad-sack of a man, downbeat, simple and gullible. He is easily duped, but wholly lacks the intellectual or emotional equipment to recover and we are left with a conclusion of devastating finality and bleakness. Fritz Lang is clearly entirely at home with the themes, character arcs and dour colour palate and perhaps the idea of a female character leading someone to their unwitting downfall resonated with him from one of the key elements of Metropolis.
The screenplay is by Dudley Nichols, who also gave us the scripts for Stagecoach, Bringing Up Baby and The Tin Star and is suitably economic and clinical, but in the end it is Robinson’s performance and his plight that most gets under the skin. Affecting and powerful. If you have the time, the whole film is embedded below:-