Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Noir Gang

By Chris Herrington

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  Mid-September brings an intriguing confluence to the American screen. Two directors who established themselves in the early and mid-Nineties with pairs of accomplished, but not widely seen, noirish films are getting their first proper introductions to a mainstream audience. John Dahl, whose Rounders, released last Friday, is the first post-Good Will Hunting Matt Damon vehicle, and Carl Franklin, whose Meryl Streep-William Hurt-Renee Zellweger family melodrama One True Thing opens Friday, have taken odd career paths for directors allowed to helm major Hollywood releases.

John Dahl, until now, may have been our truest B-movie director. His first three films, the tough, nasty triplet of Kill Me Again (1989), Red Rock West (1993), and The Last Seduction (1994) seem the rightful heirs of classic, no-budget thrillers like Detour (1945) and Gun Crazy (1949). And, since there’s not much of a chance for B-movies on the big screen these days, Dahl’s films have found their initial audiences through the Nineties avenues for B-movies: cable and video. Both Red Rock West and The Last Seduction were first shown on cable (Red Rock West was even released on video), drawing critical acclaim that led to their theatrical releases.

Kill Me Again never found its way into theatres, which was probably for the best. With Val Kilmer as a small-time private investigator who gets sucked into an archetypal noir web of stolen money, deceitful women and violent criminals, Kill Me Again seems to be a warm-up for the more assured Red Rock West. Both are western noir – inhabiting the dusty highways and small towns of Nevada and Wyoming, respectively, with stops in Reno and Vegas for Kill Me Again – and both feature men brought down by a combination of bad luck and bad choices. In Red Rock West, Nicholas Cage is a drifter who a local bar keep (the much-missed J. T. Walsh) mistakes for a hit man hired to kill his wife. Desperate for money, Cage plays along, taking payments from both Walsh and his wife (Lara Flynn Boyle), only to have things get uncomfortably complicated when the actual hit man (Dennis Hopper doing his Dennis Hopper thing) shows up. With four greedy characters and a large sum of money, the plot mechanics are twisty but predictable for this turf, but Red Rock West emerges from the pack due to its fine cast (for a straight-to-cable movie) and the slyly mocking humor with which Dahl laces the film. Red Rock West is constructed, partly, as a series of unsuccessful attempts by Cage to escape the town, each time greeted, upon his return, by a sign saying “Welcome to Red Rock.”

The Last Seduction retains the wicked humor, but changes the milieu from the rural West to upstate New York. It’s perhaps the most modern of noirs, with Linda Fiorentino’s post-feminist anti-hero hatching her devious plots from corporate insurance offices and split-level homes on sun-drenched suburban streets. With the look of a young Lauren Bacall and the sexuality and attitude of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Fiorentino gives Dahl one of the decade’s most electric performances. As Bridget Gregory, a woman who steals $700, 000 from her drug-dealer husband, then goes to hide out in Beston, a small town outside of Buffalo, Fiorentino is deliciously unwholesome. She displays great annoyance when Beston residents insist on saying “good morning,” puts her morning cigarette out in her bedmate’s apple pie (right on the Post-It note reading “Love, Grandma”), and devours every man who gets in her way.

Where Dahl seems to revel in the small, gritty pleasures of the B-movie, Carl Franklin’s films are more cinematic: You sense an ambitious filmmaker trying to push past genre and budgetary limitations. Franklin began his film career as an actor with bit parts on film and TV (including a recurring role on The A-Team) before moving on as a director of exploitation quickies for Roger Corman. He made his mark with the 1992 crime thriller One False Move, then moved on to the relatively large-scale, if niche-marketed, period noir Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). With One True Thing, Franklin has become one of the few black directors to direct a white-oriented Hollywood project (Forest Whitaker with Hope Floats is another recent example).

Though his work, on the whole, has been more impressive than Dahl’s, Franklin hasn’t developed an equivalent reputation as an auteur. Franklin’s claim on authorship has been contested by that of the writer, star, and source material. One False Move may be one of the best American movies of the Nineties, but it’s probably better known for its screenwriters – as the best part (along with A Family Thing and Sling Blade) of what can be called the Billy Bob Thornton-Tom Epperson Arkansas Trilogy. And Devil in a Blue Dress is probably more recognizable as a Denzel Washington star vehicle or as an adaption (by Franklin, incidentally) of the Walter Mosely novel. But Franklin is the only thing those films have in common, and the trenchant, yet subtle, commentary on race in American culture, as well as the precise evocation of place found in each work are surely the result of Franklin’s direction. Taken together, they establish Franklin as a major filmmaker.

One False Move is a special film. It sets up two interracial groups of characters: three killers making their way from Los Angeles to Star City, Arkansas, where two of them have family, and three cops, two from L.A., one the local sheriff, waiting for them in Star City. The film intercuts between these two groups, building tension as the inevitable collision nears, and the thriller/noir plot machinations are flawless. But One False Move has more on its mind, using its group dynamics as studies of race and the rift between urban and rural culture. There is also a secret, gradually revealed, that unites the two groups in a way that far surpasses that of fugitive and pursuer, and that gives One False Move a denouement that borders on the tragic.

Devil in a Blue Dress is a revisionist, California period noir in the tradition of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential (which it preceded). Those are better films than Devil, but Devil adds a useful perspective to the milieu. If all three films portray the post-war American city as a series of zones divided by power and race, with corruption thick as the smog that would come later, then Devil in a Blue Dress gives a different take on the subject. Chinatown’s Jake Gittes and the cops from L.A. Confidential may have been witness to the corruption and racism of the city, but Devil’s Easy Rawlins, a reluctant black WW II vet drawn into private investigation out of financial desperation, feels it in his bones. Franklin and Washington show Rawlins’ awareness of his relation to power, his wariness and growing rage, that puts the smugness of private eyes from Phillip Marlowe to Sam Spade to Gittes in needed perspective.

If those two expert crime tales don’t inspire confidence in Franklin’s ability to handle the domestic concerns of One True Thing, then check out Franklin’s Laurel Ave. (1993), a two-part, made-for-HBO movie about a weekend in the life of an extended black family in middle-class St. Paul. Laurel Ave. contains the same racial insight and sense of place as Franklin’s theatrical releases, but with a lightness of touch and feel for the interactions of a family that is all its own. Watching Laurel Ave., one wonders why it wasn’t stretched into a full series, and strains to remember if a serious, black-oriented family drama has ever been seen on network television.

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