Wednesday, April 19, 2006

It's Angie Dickinson Day! For today's blog-a-thon, I've decided to take a look at the diversity of her talents as expressed through three significant roles -- call it the Three Faces of Ange.

The Femme Fatale: The Killers (1964)

For this loose remake of the 1946 film, Don Siegel directs the proceedings with a brutal efficiency that mirrors the conduct of the two leads. As Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager (in a loose, scene-stealing turn) attempt to find a missing million dollars in the most stone-cold, matter-of-fact ways they can, Siegel's careful cutting and preponderance of close-ups make this feel stark and no-nonsense, like a punch to the gut. This is appropriate for the world which he creates, in which the manliest of men is systematically humiliated by the people with the real power (macho man vs. money man, if you will). John Cassavetes's swaggering alpha-male race car driver may think he's in control of his life ("Slide over. Nobody drives me."), but it's this confidence and defiant attitude that prove to be his ruination -- he gets in over his head with Angie Dickinson's money-hungry moll, and his male ego won't allow him to see himself being played for a sucker. (It also won't allow him to see the protective affection of his pit man Claude Akins, who's about as heavily queer-coded as he could be in this era.) Dickinson's depiction of this woman, the only female in a sea of males, is pretty canny; I had the character pegged as an inadvertent femme fatale a la Simone Signoret in Casque d'Or. Dickinson flaunts the sweet face and girl-next-door features just enough to make her character desirable, but not so much that it all seems like an act -- she instead seems like she genuinely likes Cassavetes, which makes the ending reversals all the more surprising. A casually amoral film, devoid of sympathy or hope (there's a great small moment near the end, when Ronald Reagan looks at the money that won't save his hide and gives a little smirk and a shrug, as if to say, "Well, I tried"). It's the kind of film where Angie can get slugged twice and hung out a window, like it was nothing; in other words, it's my kind of noir.

Grade: B+

The Love Interest: Point Blank (1967)

Dickinson and Lee Marvin reunited for this oddball New Wave noir, in which Marvin destroys an entire crime syndicate while looking for some money he's owed. It's a film filled with intentional hyperbole and supernatural overtones (watch Marvin disappear into the shadows at film's end!); any resemblance between this film and reality is purely coincidental. If you wanted to get really hoity-toity, you could call this John Boorman's Inferno, with Lee Marvin as the single-minded traveler descending into an irrational world in an attempt to struggle towards his great reward. (I don't know how far you could run with that, but I'd like to see someone try.) Dickinson functions as Marvin's respite from the insanity of his quest; she looks great, but I'm not sure she's right for the role. The other two roles mentioned here suggest a confidence behind the classic beauty -- she's not a woman to be underestimated. Here, though, she's stuck in a fairly superfluous role where gets to model clothes and act concerned, and she seems to chafe against the role. Granted, Boorman gives her some of the film's best bits of business as compensation (the shot of her by the pool while Marvin turns on the lights in Carol O'Connor's house is an astonishing one, and the scene where she whales away in frustration on a motionless Marvin, who looks more annoyed than in any actual pain, is a marvel of dry wit), but I still get the feeling that, if her role of elided, the film wouldn't change. Otherwise, a strange but well-made and compelling film, with an offbeat sense of humor and a performance by Marvin that's a study in stoicism; also, it contains a surprising anti-corporate slant (The Organization's unwillingness to pay Marvin, justified as "just business"), but it does not contain the leering gratuitousness that marred the Mel Gibson remake Payback -- the violence here is of a more matter-of-fact stripe.

Grade: B

The Butt-Kicking Independent Woman: Big Bad Mama II (1987)

This, in my eyes, is a role that showcases Angie Dickinson at her best -- she's spirited and sassy, but behind the twinkle there's a spine of steel. She's strong, but not in an off-putting or male-coded way like Sigourney Weaver in the Alien films; rather, she looks like she's having the time of her life, whether it be firing a gun or taking a bubble bath. She's sexy even in her 50s. If only the rest of the film were as fun to watch as her. Take Dickinson out and all you're left with is a crappy '80s tits-n-guns extravaganza, as cheesy as it is cheap. Stating the latter is obvious, being that this is a Roger Corman production and a follow-up to a popular '70s vehicle for Dickinson (unseen by me), but blaming the budget is just a bad excuse. Corman rarely had large budgets, and neither did the budding auteurs who worked under him in the '70s, but their films came out polished and entertaining anyway because they had talent. Latter-day Corman protege Jim Wynorski has a lot of filmmaking assets (limitless access to stock footage; an uncanny ability to talk almost any actress out of their clothes; the support of Corman), but talent has never been one of them. He'll accidentally stumble across an evocative image every now and then (check the late long shot of Angie cast against a majestically dark Texas dusk), but he'll also ruin a perfectly amusing robbery scene with Komic scenes of Danielle Brisebois wildly firing a tommy gun. He can't even be bothered to match up his stock footage -- there's a midfilm montage of robberies and getaways that uses footage from the first Big Bad Mama, including conspicuous shots of Dickinson looking a whole lot younger. Brisebois and Julie McCullough, as Dickinson's nubile daughters, are also major demerits, as their sole talent is shamelessness; between the two of them, they couldn't act their way out of a hall closet with a flashlight and a GPS device. This still might be worth seeing because, as bad as the film is (and it gets painful whenever it tries to introduce social commentary, with Dickinson and daughters set up as Robin-Hood figures fighting the Haves on behalf of the Have-Nots), it still allows a look at the best side of Angie (and I don't mean nudity -- she's got a body double here). Then again, you could probably just watch the first Big Bad Mama for that. So fuck this film.

Grade: D


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