BOUND (1996)

Apart from perhaps CLOUD ATLAS (which is technically a Wachowski/Tykwer film adaptation), the Wachowski sisters’ BOUND is probably their most under-seen and under-appreciated work which, sure, given it’s their first film, but still! It a very queer neo-noir that, while stylish, doesn’t rely on the gonzo effects of their later films. In fact, one of the most effective shots simply involves buckets of white paint, squibs, and a body.

The fact that it isn’t heralded more is a shame because it’s certainly an iconic queer film, and it’s also my favorite of theirs.

I’m getting ahead of myself. BOUND is a very simple neo-noir with a small cast, smaller locales — almost all of it takes place in two Chicago apartments which, I’ll note, has appropriate trim — and some smoldering, absolutely perfect casting.

Corky (Gina Gershon) is a very butch ex-con who served five years and is now reworking apartments for the mob. She meets the apartment’s next-door neighbors, the sexpot femme Violet (Jennifer Tilly, doing what she does best) is entangled with low-level mobster Caesar (Joe Pantoliano before he was on THE SOPRANOS). Corky and Violet get lustily involved via a number of very heated scenes and, as always, watch how they handle hands. Violet decides she wants to leave Caesar and be with Corky, so Violet fills Corky in on Caesar’s task to pick-up and hand-off over $2.1 million dollars to his mob bosses.

Corky brainstorms a plan to steal the money from under Caesar’s nose. It sounds like the perfect plan.

As this is a noir work, it is not the perfect plan. Matters escalate, and quickly.

It’s worth noting that half of this film works because Gershon and Tilly have amazing chemistry and an amazing wardrobe and suits each perfectly: Corky is all leather, tight white t-shirts and dirty pants and Violet is often dressed like Marilyn in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, all glamor dresses and finely coiffed hair. The other half is because of the Wachoswkis’ script — which is far more funny than I remember — but also because of the way they visually frame Corky and Violet’s tryst; it’s restrained, knows when to linger and when to cut away, but is still tantalizing.

I’ll grant that you can see a lot of the Coen Bros. in BOUND, from some Sonnefeld zooms and heightened close-ups to the humor, but out-of-the-gate you can tell these are more-or-less nods, and that the sisters have their own voice and approach.

Lastly: as usual, I saw this at the Music Box Theatre — it was a personal print from the Wachowskis! — as part of the Music Box’s ‘Rated Q’ series, which explicitly is — in the words of Rated Q’s programmer/director Ramona Slick — “A Celebration of Queer, Camp, & Cult Cinema”.

At the time of writing this, it’s Pride month and Chicago’s Pride parade is only a few days away.

Obviously, the screening was completely overflowing with queer folk and it was glorious.

The screening opened with a pre-film, brazenly and enthusiastically over-the-top drag show in the main theater: a lot of torn clothing, a lot of skin, and folks stuffing bills into the performers’ works or throwing money at them. (I’m not 100% sure that the Music Box is zoned for all that I saw, but I will not complain!) The audience was so, so very game for it.

When the film started? Folks went bonkers but, as is the Music Box way, no one ruined the experience for everyone; there was a lot of hooting, a lot of laughter, a lot of veiled recognition at foreshadowing and villainous characters, and a lot of clapping (and even some snaps). In other words, the perfect communal viewing experience.

If you read the interview with Rated Q’s Ramona Slick, they discuss how formative cult and queer films were for them, as they lived in a small town without much of a queer community. Now they’re helping to introduce others to these films in a way that interweaves performance with projection. It also gives a venue for those who love these films and want to see them with likeminded folks instead of alone in a scuzzy dorm room on a tiny cathode ray TV and an exhausted VHS tape.

I know I endlessly beat this drum, but the Music Box has been firing on all cylinders as of late. They’ve slowly pushed back to being a repertoire theater instead of a new-release indie theater, and it’s paid off handsomely for them as practically every older film I’ve attended there has been packed to the ceiling. While that’s not the Music Box I grew up with — they have been around since 1929, and their repertoire period pre-dates the late 90s — I embrace the change. It fills a much-needed absence in the local film scene, and every screening has been a delight.

Corky: “Know what’s the difference between you and me?”

Violet: “…no.”

Corky: “Neither do I.”


(YouTube) I caught DESIRE AND HELL AT SUNSET MOTEL (1991) as part of a triple Sherilyn Fenn feature during the recent David Lynch complete retrospective. While it conflicted with the last Swanberg Secret Screening at the Davis, I couldn’t resist — there’s only one print, and no one apart from the organizer of this retrospective will probably care enough about the film to jump through the hoops to screen it again. There are plenty of LaserDisc and VHS copies available via eBay (and a copy on YouTube if you look for it) but, apart from the home market, it went mostly unseen, and will probably continue to do so.

That’s a goddamn shame, because this is a wildly fun bit of throwback color noir, perfectly framed with beautiful blues all around that makes it ideal for the big screen, and it makes the most of Sherilyn Fenn’s abilities.

To summarize: husband and ‘small toy seller’ Chester (Whip Hubley) travels out for a company conference to California with his wife Bridey (Sherilyn Fenn), and stay at the Sunset Motel, managed by a leering voyeur (the always delightful Paul Bartel). Chester suspects that Bridey is cheating on him, so he hires someone known as Deadpan (CUBE’s David Hewlett) to shadow her while there. Meanwhile, Bridey has finagled a dude she’s lead along known as Auggie (David Johansen/Buster Poindexter) to meet her there to kill Chester with his own gun. Matters escalate, then completely fragment as Bridey’s memory starts to falter.

The story barely holds together and the dialogue is overly colorful in a way that almost feels like a parody of hard-boiled patois, but despite all that, it is a thrilling ride that leans into its frenzied plotting. However, it mostly succeeds because Fenn was born for these sort of retro-noir films, exuding danger and seduction not just with her stark hair and beauty mark, but her demeanor and poise; Ava Gardner reborn.

M (1990-1992)

(Comics/Graphic Novel) You may not think you need to read a comic book adaptation of Fritz Lang’s classic serial killer horror noir M (1931), but this adaptation is from Jon J. Muth, who literally reframes much of Lang’s imagery with his unique, haunted painterly style.

It was initially published as a four-issue mini-series over two years — once you see Muth’s work, you’ll understand why it took so long — but quickly went out-of-print until it was collected into a trade paperback in 2008.


(FLIX FLING/YouTube) Every film noir nerd has their own definition of what constitutes a ‘noir’ film, and I’m no different. To me, what makes a film ‘noir’ isn’t hard-boiled dialogue, severe chiaroscuro cinematography, or moral detective stories, but that the protagonists are considered deviants or ‘cultural misfits’ and the forward thrust of the noir then focuses on removing them from society. The appeal of noir, at least for me, is in the acknowledgement that there are a subsect of folks that will never mesh with mainstream culture, no matter how hard they try, and they’re almost always eradicated via conviction or death.

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, while being an oddity in that it’s ‘spy noir’, embodies that through unruly women, flawed men, and a shit-ton of political chicanery. It’s all about the fringe elements of society, despite (or perhaps, exacerbated by) the fact that it’s framed by an FBI investigation.

It’s worth noting that PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is getting a proper Criterion release in June!


Full film via YouTube:

Turner Classic Movies Film Festival: Part Two (2021)

The second part of highlights from this year’s TCM (virtual) Film Festival, this time focusing on ‘Classics Curated By TCM’ available to stream via HBO MAX.

It’s worth noting that I have no idea how long these will be available to stream. If I had to guess, I’d say they’ll be available until May 11th.

Full ‘Classics Curated By TCM’ HBO MAX lineup:

BALL OF FIRE (1941): A lesser known Howard Hawks screwball classic, featuring Gary Cooper as a stodgy professor and Barbara Stanwyck as a nightclub singer in trouble with both the police and the mob. It’s classic TCM fare in that it airs rather regularly and I find it endless re-watchable. (If you don’t have HBO MAX, it’s also available via kanopy.)

THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981): Directed by Penelope Spheeris (BLACK SHEEP, WAYNE’S WORLD) not only is THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION a great music doc about the Los Angeles punk scene of the late 70s/early 80s — including Black Flag, X, and Fear — but also a brilliant doc in general, one which resulted in two more iterations that are also worth your time.

HARLAN COUNTY USA (1976): Director Barbara Kopple’s in-depth look at striking Kentucky coal minors. It’s a classic, an important piece of American history. (I’ll note that it does run regularly on TCM and Criterion’s streaming service.)

THE MELIES MYSTERY (2020): A doc detailing the restoration of over half of silent film auteur Georges Méliès. I haven’t seen it, but can’t help but imagine any self-respecting film nerd wouldn’t want to watch it.

THE NAKED CITY (1948): Previously recommended! (Also, it’s easily available on any non-TCM fest day.)

SCARECROW (1973): This Jerry Schatzberg film is completely new to me — I’ve only see THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK — but it features Gene Hackman and Al Pacino as two misfits trekking across the U.S., so I doubt it’ll completely waste my time.

SO THIS IS PARIS (1926): Lubitch directed more than several handfuls of silent films before helming talkies such as NINOTCHKA and DESIGN FOR LIVING. While I’ve never seen it — I’m largely unfamiliar with Lubitch’s silent work — it’s a new restoration, heavily features folks dancing the Charleston, and Myrna Loy makes an appearance.

THE THIN MAN (1934): Previously recommended! (That said, if you’re pressed for time, it’s easy enough to watch any old day.)

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER (1990): Charles Burnett (whose first film is the the fantastic KILLER OF SHEEP) weaves this tale of an old acquaintance (Danny Glover) who pops back up in a family’s life and slyly disrupts them. It’s a remarkably surreal but grounded film, chock full of great little scenes, performances, and intriguing tracking work.

I hope some of you can catch these while you can, and that the next TCM Fest has both virtual and physical screenings!


(Criterion/IndieFlix/VOD) Yes, another film with Orson Welles, albeit directed by Carol Reed (who had previously directed the stellar noir ODD MAN OUT). It’s not just one of my favorite noirs but one of my favorite films period. For example, I snuck in excerpts from the soundtrack it into my wedding playlist. (I’ll note it was the dining playlist, not the dance playlist.)

While I love everything about it — the zither-centric soundtrack, the clever use of post-wartime occupied space, the amazing chiaroscuro work and canted angles supplied by Reed’s go-to cinematographer Robert Krasker, Holly Martins’ (Joseph Cotton) writerly self-deprecation, and obviously Welles as Harry Lime and the marvelous scene construction of the cuckoo clock scene — I came to it far later in life than I should have. While other films have liberally borrowed from it — notably BRAZIL with its zither use and own Harry Lime — and while it’s widely considered one of the greatest British films ever made, I have the impression that it’s a film that is rarely watched by anyone apart from cinephiles and noir nerds like myself. It’s not a film you hear friends say ‘Oh, I saw that with my mom (or dad)! They absolutely loved that film. Let’s watch it again!’ Casual filmgoers don’t seem to speak of it with the reverence they would of, say, CHINATOWN.

Perhaps it’s because Cotton lacks the enigmatic charisma of Bogart, even though I can’t see Bogart as Holly Martins. Perhaps most people hate zither music. Perhaps I’m wrong, and youths organize weekly watch parties for it. Regardless, it is rich and substantial, and a film that folks should see far earlier in life. It captures a very specific time in a way that few movies do, and the fact that it has a complicated male relationship, an exceptional villain, and a thrillingly extraordinary chase scene, should be more than enough to merit anyone’s attention.

Or, perhaps I’m entirely wrong about all of the above and maybe it has aged terribly, now considered to be completely overrated. Watch and see for yourself. All I know is that I’ll never stop loving it.


(DVD/HBO MAX) I love Curtiz’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s MILDRED PIERCE — he certainly knew how to work the material to fit Joan Crawford — but it’s Todd Haynes’ (CAROL, FAR FROM HEAVEN) version that is truer to Cain’s novel. Yes, most of Cain’s works are lurid and pulpy crime tales, sensational enough to be banned, but MILDRED PIERCE is the exception. Cain paints a detailed portrait of a difficult mother with an even more difficult daughter, both of whom get wrapped up with a exploitative cad. It’s an epic character piece that deserves every minute of the approximately six hours that Haynes gives it.

Haynes enlists Kate Winslet who plays the role with a muted air — not quite the hysterical, over-protective mother that Crawford portrayed — while Evan Rachel Wood brats it up as her daughter, and Guy Pearce gleefully tears into inhabiting a genuine shitheel playboy. As you’d expect from Haynes, the cinematography is lush, the production design department spared not one piece of patterned wallpaper, and everyone’s stitched to the nines.

Most importantly, Haynes knows how to let scenes breath. Cameras track contemplatively, gazes wander, and characters sit with themselves, processing the ramifications of their actions. While it may not be as fondly recalled as the initial adaptation, or even any of Haynes’ prior works, it’s a mini-series that merits the extra time.


(Criterion) Filmed directly after Robert Montgomery’s extraordinarily gimmicky first-person POV adaptation of Chandler’s THE LADY OF THE LAKE, Montgomery jumped back in the noir saddle again with an adept take on the lesser-known Dorothy B. Hughes (IN A LONELY PLACE, THE EXPENDABLE MAN) novel RIDE THE PINK HORSE. This adaptation doesn’t try anything fancy — no first-person perspectives here, just quality lighting and framing. While it alters Hughes’ gritty noir in a handful of places, it mostly follows a similar path for the same purpose until, well, it doesn’t.

The story is simple: a stranger known as Gagin (Robert Montgomery, directing himself) arrives in San Pablo, New Mexico, looking for a mobster named Frank Hugo.

Unfortunately, Gagin arrives in San Pablo during its annual weekend-long fiesta. The streets are packed with people partying and every single hotel is booked, turning what Gagin thought would be a simple overnight act of catharsis into a sleepless game of endless pursuit, which only grows more surreal when he encounters an FBI agent from his past.

One can’t discuss RIDE THE PINK HORSE without noting that, given it’s a late-1940s production depicting indigenous festivities, they didn’t really take the time to get it right which, sadly, contrasts with Hughes’ novel, explicitly drawn from her time spent in Santa Fe. The brownfacing of Wanda Hendrix of is especially egregious, not to mention she’s also far too old for the role. (She’s a pre-teen in the novel and the film’s script tries to abide by that, but Montgomery’s gaze says otherwise.) Regardless, she still manages to steal just about every scene she appears in, as does Thomas Gomez who plays Gagin’s guide.

While the performances are top-notch, it’s the overstuffed frames from cinematographer Russell Metty (who at this point had shot many classics, but would also go on to shoot TOUCH OF EVIL and SPARTACUS) that really bring RIDE THE PINK HORSE to another level. Cramped and sweaty, Metty is able to deftly handle shooting a noir that often takes place in broad daylight.

One last qualm about the adaptation: my favorite part of the novel is that the protagonist is essentially homeless and constantly fretting about his appearance, wondering how he’ll clean himself up, trying to hustle his way into bathrooms or temporarily empty hotel rooms. Sadly, this facet is mostly lost in the film.

“That’s the kind of man I like — the man with no place!”

If you’d like a bit more background, Eddie Muller’s TCM Noir Alley introduction is well worth five minutes of your time:


(DVD/Blu-Ray) While Marlene Dietrich’s breakout film was THE BLUE ANGEL (1930) and the first of several films she’d make with director Josef von Sterberg, and while Sternberg’s MOROCCO (also 1930) was her first American film — and also featured her in a tuxedo — it’s Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) that I think of when I think of Dietrich. It’s the pinnacle of his layered use of sets and textures and Dietrich’s unique ‘butterfly’ lighting style, resulting in a film that looked like nothing anyone had seen at the time, and is often copied, especially the film’s use of netting, feathers, lace, etc.

(More on butterfly lighting: )

Warning: certain facets of this film have not aged well, as you may be able to glean from the trailer or, hell, just the film’s title.


(VOD) Another undersung Bogart film, this time coupled with Bacall. Based on David Goodis’ novel — which, sadly, I have yet to read — it’s a far more sophisticated first-person noir than the gimmicky adaptation of Chandler’s THE LADY IN THE LAKE (also 1947). Burton’s infamous Joker reveal scene in BATMAN (1989) was absolutely cribbed from DARK PASSAGE.