Category: Gangster film

Eastern Promises (2007)

Eastern Promises (2007)

Brutal violence in London’s underbelly in Cronenberg’s formal and chilling dark fairytale

Director: David Cronenberg

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Nikolai Luzhin), Naomi Watts (Anna Ivanova Khitrova), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Semyon), Vincent Cassel (Kirill Semyonovich), Sinead Cusack (Helen), Mina E Mina (Azim), Jerzy Skolimowski (Stepan Khitrov), Donald Sumpter (Inspector Yuri), Raza Jaffrey (Dr Aziz), Josef Altin (Ekrem), Tatiana Maslany (Tatiana’s voice)

Big promises shipped back to Russian villages, telling women about dreams they can make reality in the bright lights of London. Those are Eastern Promises – but the reality, of sexual slavery and abuse in Russian Mafia controlled houses is horrifyingly different. Set in an underbelly of London just under grand restaurants and red buses, Eastern Promises is a typically tough and bloody gangster fable from David Cronenberg, which plays out like a nightmare fairytale.

It’s the nightmare of midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts). When a pregnant Russian teenager dies giving birth, the only clue she has to who her daughter’s family might be is a Russian diary and a business card for a Russian restaurant. Anna – whose family are Russian immigrants – is offered help by grandfatherly restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Seymon is all pleasant insistence that he can help, even as asks after every detail of her life. Because Seymon is a ruthless Mafia kingpin, with a hapless son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) leaning on the emotional and practical support of his imposing, heavily tattooed driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). As Anna is pulled further and further into Semyon’s deadly world of death, could she have a surprising saviour?

Cronenberg’s film, sharply scripted by Steven Knight, is shot with a traditional stillness and a palette of strong colours – all of which reassuring visual language is utterly at odds with the skin-slashing violence at its heart. Eastern Promises opens with a Russian gangster practically having his head sawn off with a switchblade, in the hands of a mentally-handicapped nephew of a minor Turkish gangster. There isn’t a single gun in Eastern Promises – after all that would be breaking British law! – instead violence is meted out with the violent intimacy of a knife across the throat.

The film’s formal structure and framing – angles and cutting are kept simple, almost static – works brilliantly. As we watch throats slashed, grim sexual encounters or moments of imposing menace, the matter-of-fact presentation of these become more-and-more chilling. Eastern Promises feels like a bogey-man fable. Seymon’s restaurant – all class and bright red walls – an ogre’s cavern that leads us into an ever-grimmer world of violence and mayhem.

It’s a world Anna is unprepared for. Determined and resilient, Naomi Watts’ Anna is also undone by her politeness. How can she refuse an offer to help from someone as polite as Seymon? Watts does extremely well with a slightly under-written role, a woman on a quest who slowly realises how terrible the world she is peeking into is, but stop from trying to force through what she believes is right. Her disbelief – and out-of-place semi-innocence and sense of moral duty – make her stand out all the more in this terrible underbelly world, full of ogres and secret codes.

At the centre of is a monster. Armin Mueller-Stahl looks like your favourite uncle, but he quietly exudes cold, remorseless villainy. He’s the sort of man who delights in cooking the finest borsch, playfully teases his granddaughter’s violin playing and doesn’t bat an eyelid about ordering a rival to be dismembered. Mueller-Stahl is terrifying as this man the audience instinctively knows is dangerous and will stop at no moral boundaries to get what he wants (watch the steely eyed kindness he asks Anna where she works, lives and who she knows during their first meeting).

The obvious moral void in Seymon makes the unreadable Nikolai even more intriguing. Played with an extraordinary physical and linguistic commitment by Mortensen, Nikolai’s body is a tattooed walking advert of his past and capacity for violence and he’s the sort of relaxed heavy who is as unfussed with stubbing a cigarette out on his tongue as he is with snipping fingers off a corpse. Mortensen’s skill here is to make us constantly unsure where the moral lines are for Nikolai. He is a confirmed killer, but he takes an interest in Anna. Is this sexual or protective? What does he make of his bosses’ brutality towards women? What does he think of his direct superior Kirill?

Kirill is played with a larger-than-life weakness by Vincent Cassel in a thrilling performance that constantly shifts expectations. At first, he seems like a drunken blow-hard with a capacity for thoughtless violence. But Cassel makes clear he is a weak man with some principles, bullied by his father (to whom he is a constant disappointment), desperate to prove he is more capable than he is. He has an emotional reliance on Nikolai laced with sexual fascination (he can barely keep his hands off him).

Nikolai seems to accept this. But we don’t seem to know why. His actions are constantly open to interpretation. Ordered to have sex with a prostitute, he almost apologises to her after – left alone with her after Kirill has watched their sexual encounter, he’s strangely tender. He urges Anna to keep her distance but follows orders with calm disinterest. How far will he go? What moral qualms does he have, if any? Mortensen’s carefully judged performance is a master-class in inscrutability in a film that plays its cards very close to its chest as to why he (and others) do the things they do.

Cronenberg’s entire film is structured like this. Is the dragon a dragon or a potential knight? Can Anna emerge from this semi-Lynchian nightmare world and return to normal life – or will everything connected to her be destroyed by this world. Cronenberg’s study of this shady, heartless world is masterful. The “rules” and code of this brutal Russian Mafia world are excellently explored. And the film’s formal style culminates in a stunningly violent but beautiful (if that’s the right word) fight between a nude Mortensen and two knife-wielding Checians in a Turkish bath that is a brutal model for how these things can be done.

Eastern Promises resolves itself, after twists and turns, into something more comforting and traditional than you might expect. But is it a fairy tale ending to a nightmare? Either way, Cronenberg’s mix of formality and unflinching gore is masterful and in Mortensen it has a performance both relaxed and full of tightly-wound violence. Tough but essential.

Get Carter (1971)

Get Carter (1971)

Brutal, dark and nihilistic British gangster film removes any chance that you might fancy trying a life of crime

Director: Mike Hodges

Cast: Michael Caine (Jack Carter), Ian Hendry (Eric), John Osborne (Kinnear), Britt Ekland (Anna), Brian Mosley (Cliff Brumby), George Sewell (Con McCarty), Tony Beckley (Peter the Dutchman), Glynn Edwards (Albert Swift), Alun Armstrong (Keith), Bernard Hepton (Thorpe), Petra Markham (Doreen), Geraldine Moffat (Glenda), Dorothy White (Margaret)

It’s probably the finest British gangster film ever made. Get Carter is a cold, dark, grimy film – a punch to the solar plexus, which completely rejects any sense of charm in its gangster characters. Michael Caine called Jack Carter a shadow Caine, the man he could have become if his life had broken out slightly differently. It’s set in an unremittingly bleak Newcastle, but it feels like it might be happening in an anti-chamber of hell, with its thoroughly amoral lead barely aware he’s spiralling towards destruction. It’s a sociopathic, Jacobean revenge tragedy set among the dirt filled suburbs of Newcastle.

Jack Carter (Michael Caine) is a professional fixer for London gangster brothers. He returns to his childhood home of Newcastle after the sudden death of his brother. But he’s not satisfied with the official explanation. Instead, he dives into an investigation, in which he cares not a jot about the collateral damage he causes or the likely reaction of the underworld powers that be as he rocks the boat to destruction, trashing the lives of everyone he meets, good and bad.

Powered by an extraordinary performance of blank nihilism and cold, unexpressed fury by Caine, nominally Jack is a man motivated by the harm done to his family. However, Hodges film is so cold-eyed and realistic about the mentality of gangsters, we know it’s just an excuse. Carter is never heart-broken, he’s annoyed. His brother may have been punished and his niece (it transpires) misused, but fundamentally what motivates Carter is the affront. By taking a pop at his family, he feels they really think they can take a pop at him. How dare they: he’s Jack Carter.

Any charm Carter has, solely comes from residual affection for Caine. By any measure, Carter is an awful man (even if he has a good turn of phrase). He is a sociopath with no concern for anyone. When friendly Keith (a young Alun Armstrong) is beaten black and blue for helping Carter, how does our hero respond? Tosses a few bank notes on his bed and tells him “buy some karate lessons”. Carter sees the world solely as made up of debts, which can be discharged by money, never mind the situation. His niece throws beer over a friend? He’ll pay for the dry-clean. Keith gets bashed up: take a roll of twenties, what’s your problem?

Carter directly kills four people (and is responsible for several other deaths), all with a blank-eyed lack of reaction. There isn’t any sadism to what he does – the deaths are mostly efficient and to his mind, justified, because by taking actions against his family they disrespected him. When he locks a woman in the boot of his car, and a pair of heavies push the car into the Tyne he doesn’t bat an eyelid at her inevitable death (never mind he slept with her hours before). People who find themselves close to Jack, or drawn into his circle, suffer terribly and he literally couldn’t care less.

Get Carter is the bleakest of all gangster films, shot with an imaginative kitchen-sink beauty by Mike Hodges, which actually carries a lot more visual glory than you might expect. Drained out colours abound – there are virtually no bright primary colours in this, with the whole of Newcastle a mix of muddy browns, soot-stained greys and filthy charcoals. Hodges’ film is also dynamic and fast-paced: he throws in striking aerial and crane shots (there is a beautiful shot that follows a car chase from a bird’s eye view), but also gets down and dirty in this grainy world.

It’s an urgent, lean and mean film constantly kicking you in the shins, but told with skill and artistry. Hodges pieces together a marvellous early scene, where Carter visits local heavy Kinnear (a suave, chillingly well-spoken John Osborne): simultaneously, in one single location, two scenes (both with vital information) play out at the same time – Carter chats to Kinnear’s moll Glenda (Geraldine Moffat), picking up vital information while on the same sofa Kinnear beats his guests at cards. Everything though is perfectly clear: masterful stuff. It’s also a film crammed with small details that reward careful viewing: Carter’s bed has a cross-stitch of “What would Jesus say?” above it (I dread to think) and on his train journey, look out for a fellow passenger with a distinctive ring.

So confidently is this put together, it’s amazing to think Hodges was a first-time director. This is a film dripping with menace, but also a horrifyingly immersive camera. We are frequently thrown into the midst of the action. Carter frequently looms over the camera or is filmed in violent motion moving towards his next goal. There is not a jot of romanticism around the film: neither about the gangsters or the bleak world they operate in. Newcastle is pre-Thatcherite hellhole, with precious little glamour. Even the gangster locales – the clubs and pubs – are bashed-up and unpleasant.

Across the board, the gangsters are exposed as cruel, heartless and vile. Touches of class are ruined by everyone’s fundamental lack of class. Cliff Brumby’s (Brian Mosley) planned classy restaurant sits atop a concrete multi-story car-park. Kinnear’s (John Osborne) fancy country house is the setting of the grimmest, most depressing orgy you’re likely to see. Carter is trying his best to dress classily, but his cruelty always punctures the illusion. He’s introduced watching a porn film with his bosses in London and the film revolves around the seamy underworld of homemade porn.

The women in the film are primarily used by the gangster as props for these films, and Get Carter doesn’t shy away from the exploitative fate for women in this world. However, you can’t disagree that it takes in a bit of exploitation itself. Britt Ekland has high billing for her single scene, where she lies mostly naked on a bed pantily having phone sex with Carter (who goes about this, as all things, with a functional efficiency, at least as interested in the excited reaction of his middle-aged landlady who is sitting in the room with him while he chats on the phone). It’s undeniably a moment for us to gawp but it still feels less cold and cruel than those awful porn films.

Carter discovers his niece has found her way into these. He even sheds a tear over this: but he doesn’t care because of what has happened to her. Again it’s all about him: Carter couldn’t care less about the morals and is perfectly happy for porn to soak up other women. He’s not really that interested in his niece: it’s all about the damage to him, that a “made man” like him should have a member of his family getting boffed like a slag for others entertainment. How bloody dare they?

Get Carter understands this is a dark and soulless world, and is a film bereft of hope. Its hero is a revenge obsessed sociopath, who only smiles in the film after he has burnt everything around him down. Gangsters destroy everything they touch and care about nothing other than themselves. All debts can be settled with money, all women are toys to be used and thrown away. Death means nothing and the world is a drained-out hell of shabby houses and dirty clubs. It’s the grimmest and finest British gangster film out there. Who would want to be gangster after seeing this?

Drive (2011)

Drive (2011)

Neon, darkness and shades of grey fills the screen in a film that’s practically the definition of cult

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn

Cast Ryan Gosling (Driver), Carey Mulligan (Irene Gabriel), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose), Oscar Isaac (Standard Gabriel), Christina Hendricks (Blanche), Ron Perlman (Nino Paolozzi), Kaden Leos (Benicio Gabriel)

Impassive and supernaturally calm, the Driver (Ryan Gosling) sits with the car engine purring. In this five-minute window he is the get-away driver who will go to any length. Outside of that, criminals are on their own. Its one of the simple rules he lives by. He never compromises. Until, of course, he finds something worth compromising for. That would be his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), trying to make ends meet while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. The Driver helps them – and feels compelled to go on helping them when newly released Standard (trying to go straight) does one more job to get out from under the thumb of his criminal friends. That last job is always the worst one isn’t it? Particularly when crime lords as ruthless as Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) are involved.

Drive won Refn the best director award at Cannes (after a huge standing ovation). It’s not hard to see why. This film is so overflowing with style, uncompromising cool and unreadable enigma it was practically a cult classic before it was even released. Layered in a mix of 70s and 80s chic – with its electric pink titles, John Carpenter-ish Los Angeles visuals and counter-culture smarts – it echoes cutting-edge crime drama from the punk years of Hollywood (it’s practically a remake of The Driver for starters!), by way of touches of Melville crime drama and Spaghetti Western anti-hero. Scored to a mix of ambient beats and electronic rock, it’s the dictionary definition of style.

It keeps you on your toes from the start. Its opening not only explores the Driver’s incredible skills (speed, manoeuvring, ingenious evasions and knowing when to go slow, he can do it all) it also sets us up for the whole film. Shot largely alongside the Driver in the car, we zip through streets and understand the determination (and hints of danger) under his impassive surface. That prologue is the whole movie in capsule – a careful wait, a sense of a fuse being list, touches of humour to distract us (the Driver’s precision with his gloves) and brilliant misdirection when his focused  attention to listening to a football game on the radio pays off in spades when we see his plans revealed.

Much of the first 40 minutes carefully develops the Driver’s surprisingly contented life: his happy acquiescence in the racing dreams of his fixer and mechanic boss Shannon (an ingratiating Bryan Cranston), who the Driver likes so much he doesn’t care that Shannon regularly swindles him; a soft, unspoken half-romance with Irene (Carey Mulligan, truthful and with a strength beneath the vulnerability); and a big-brother bond with her son Benecio. In another world this could have been a film where a loner learns to make a connection and finds love.

But it ain’t that film. The troubles start with Standard’s release from prison. Skilfully played by Oscar Isaac as well-meaning but essentially hopeless, Standard’s problems become Irene and Benecio’s problems. That one last job goes south – as they always do – in an orgy of cross, double cross and increasingly graphic violence. And the burning propulsive energy that lies under Drive, just like that purring engine in the films opening, is let rip.

What we get in the second half is dark, nihilistic and violent. Oh, good Lord, is it violent. Bone crunchingly, skull shatteringly, blood spurtingly violent. Because when gangsters get pissed off, they play for real. And it turns out, when the Driver finds something to care about, he plays for real as well. Refn’s eye for violence is extremely well-judged. We see just enough for it to be horrifying, but the worst is done via sound and editing (the Driver’s almost unwatchable assault on a goon in a lift puts almost nothing on screen, but the squelches and crunches on the soundtrack leave nothing to the imagination).

Refn’s trick is to combine lashings of indie cool and ultra-violence with a deceptively simple story that allows plenty of scope for interpretation. Drive has a sort of mythic, Arthurian quest to it, with the Driver as a sort of knight errant, defending a damsel in distress. But it’s also a grim crime drama, with a man at its centre who brutally kills without a second thought. This all depends on the enigmatic Driver at its heart. No other actor alive can do unreadable impassivity like Ryan Gosling – this could almost be his signature role. He’s ice-cool and professional, but also rather child-like and gentle.

Is he a guy dragged down by his own worst impulses? His jacket has a large scorpion on its back, echoing the old fable of the frog and the scorpion. Rather than one or the other, the Driver feels like both in one. A frog who wants to carry everyone over the river, but whose poor instincts and capacity for violence acts as the scorpion that destroys him. Where does he come from? What is his past? The film ends with a series of enigmatic shots that, to my eyes, suggest a supernatural quality to him. I sometimes toy with the idea he’s a sort of fallen angel, constantly protecting the wrong people like he has a scorpion curse on him. Refn’s gift is to craft pulp with psychological intrigue.

Drive is a very cool film – and Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling’s careful playing gives it a lot of heart, just as Albert Brooks’ marvellously dangerous gangster gives it a sharp, unpredictable edge. It rips its eye through the screen, with pace, speed and iconic imagery, all splashed with a pop art cool. But it’s not just a celebration of style: it’s also a dark romance, a tragedy and an exploration of a character who may be his own devil or may not even be human at all. Either way, its intriguing and exciting. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Widows (2018)

Widows (2018)

Sexism, racism and corruption get mixed in with crime drama in McQueen’s electric heist film

Director: Steve McQueen

Cast: Viola Davis (Veronica Rawlings), Michelle Rodriguez (Linda), Elizabeth Debicki (Alice), Cynthia Erivo (Belle), Colin Farrell (Jack Mulligan), Brian Tyree Henry (Jamal Manning), Daniel Kaluuya (Jatemme Manning), Jacki Weaver (Agnieska), Carrie Coon (Amanda), Robert Duvall (Tom Mulligan), Liam Neeson (Harry Rawlings), Jon Bernthal (Florek), Garret Dillahunt (Bash), Lukas Haas (David)

A getaway goes wrong and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his criminal gang all wind-up dead and their loot burned up. Their last job was cleaning out the election fund of gangster-turned-electoral-candidate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning believes he’s owed a debt by Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis). On the hock for millions, Veronica has no choice but to recruit the widows of Harry’s gang to help her pull off the next job Harry planned: cleaning out the campaign fund of Manning’s electoral rival Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell).

Adapted from an 80s British TV mini-series, Widows has been run through Steve McQueen’s creative brain, emerging as a compelling, beautifully shot crime drama mixing social, racial and gender commentary with blistering action. It takes a traditionally masculine genre – the crime caper – and places at its heart a group of women motivated by desperation and survival rather than the lure of lucre.

What’s particularly interesting is that none of these women fit the bill of the sort of person you expect to arrange a daring heist. Viola Davis’ Veronica is a retired teachers’ union rep; Elizabeth Debicki an abuse victim, treated terribly by her husband and selfish mother; Michelle Rodriguez a shop owner desperately trying to give her kids a chance, despite her husband’s reckless gambling. Even the driver they hire, played by Cynthia Erivo, is a hairdresser and babysitter. These women are a world away from the ruthless criminals you’d expect to pull off this kind of operation.

It’s probably why they are routinely underestimated and patronised by men. Veronica is advised clear her debt by selling either everything she owns and disappear. As with the rest of the women, the world expects her to put up and shut up. These are women defined by their husbands and the expectation that their needs are subordinate to others’. Debicki’s Alice is all-but pushed into escort work by her demanding mother, while Rodriguez’s Linda is blamed by her mother-in-law for her husband’s death. But these women have a steely survival instinct that makes them determined and (eventually) ruthless enough to take this job on.

Davis is superb as a determined and morally righteous woman, whose principles are more flexible than she thinks. She efficiently (and increasingly sternly) applies her organisational skills to planning the heist, pushing her crew to adapt her own professionalism. Davis wonderfully underplays Veronica’s grief, not only at the loss of her husband but also the recent death of her son (shot by police officers while reaching to answer his phone behind the wheel of an expensive car – in front of a wall of Obama “Hope” posters, a truly striking visual image).

Her co-stars are equally impressive. Debicki has mastered the mix of vulnerability and strength behind characters like this (how many times has she played suffering, glamourous gangster molls?). Her Alice gains the self-belief to push back against those exploiting her. Rodriguez beautifully balances grief at the loss of her husband with fury at the financial hole he has left her in. Erivo gets the smallest role, but makes Bella dry, loyal and sharp. All four of them use the way men underestimate them – seeing them as widows, wives, weak or sex objects – to plan out their heist.

The reversal of gender expectations crosses over with the social political commentary McQueen wants to explore. This sometimes works a treat: the flashback to the shooting of Veronica’s son is shockingly effective. But the film’s dives into the Chicago political scene and the deep class divisions in the city don’t always have the impact they should. There is a marvellous shot – all in one take, mounted on the car bonnet – as Farrell’s Mulligan travels (in a few minutes) from a photo op in a slum back to his palatial family home, emphasising how closely extreme wealth and poverty sit side-by-side in America.

Both candidates are corrupted in different ways. Jamal Manning – a knife behind a smile from Brian Tyree Henry – is a thug talking the talk to line his pockets. Farrell’s Mulligan has more standards – and you wish for more with this fascinating put-upon son part on-the-take, part genuinely wanting to help. His domineering dad – an imperiously terrifying Robert Duvall, who wants to backseat drive his son in office – demeans his son, shouts racial slurs and bullies everyone around him. Politics: your choice is the latest off-spring of a semi-corrupt dynasty or a literal criminal.

But the film doesn’t quite find the room to explore these issues in quite as much detail as you feel it could: it’s a strong hinterland of inequality, but you want more. McQueen however, does have a gift for unique character details that speak volumes: the women’s operation is shadowed by an electric Daniel Kaluuya, as Manning’s calm yet psychotic brother, who listens to self-education podcasts on Black history and shoots people without a second thought. He, of course, underestimates the women as much as everyone else. That’s as much of a political statement as anything else: none of the men in this film seem to even begin to think that they could be in a world which is truly equal.

The film adds a late act reveal that doesn’t quite work – and the film as a whole is trying to do a little too much – but it’s a confirmation of what a gifted and superb film-maker Steve McQueen is. McQueen shoots even conventional scenes in unique and interesting ways – check out his brilliant use of mirrors throughout – uses editing superbly to set tone and is brilliant at drawing the best from talented actors. Widows is crammed full of terrifically staged scenes and gallops along with pace and excitement. It’s a fine example of a great director turning a genre film into something deeper.

Bugsy (1991)

Bugsy (1991)

Old school glamour is the order-of-the-day in this luscious but slightly empty gangster film

Director: Barry Levinson

Cast: Warren Beatty (Ben “Bugsy” Siegel), Annette Bening (Virginia Hill), Harvey Keitel (Mickey Cohen), Ben Kingsley (Meyer Lansky), Elliot Gould (Harry Greenberg), Joe Mantegna (George Raft), Bebe Neuwirth (Countess Dorothy de Frasso), Bill Graham (Charlie Luciano), Lewis van Bergen (Joe Adonis), Wendy Phillip (Esta Siegel), Richard C Sarafian (Jack Dragna)

Las Vegas: the city of dreams for gangsters. As Ben (“Bugsy” – but don’t call him that) Siegel (Warren Beatty) tells a room full of gangsters when he’s pitching for their investment, like a hyper-violent Dragon’s Den: build the largest city in a state, you own the state, own the state and you own a slice of America. Imagine how the money can come rolling in then. It’s fair to say the mobsters aren’t so certain – and maybe Las Vegas would never have been a huge success if Bugsy had run it rather than being whacked – but God knows their investment paid out millions of times over.

The dream of building Las Vegas is at the centre of Beatty’s passion project (in this one he just played the lead and produced, dropping a couple of hyphens compared to Reds), a Golden-hued, romantic biopic of notorious gangster (and killer) “Bugsy” Siegel. Siegel sees what no-one else could see: how a city in a law-lax desert could become a mecca for gamblers, and crime could reap the profits. But the project goes millions over budget – not helped by girlfriend Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) creaming millions off the top. Trouble is Bugsy’s investors aren’t the sort of guys who shrug their shoulders at failed investments.

You can see what attracted Beatty to Bugsy. For all it’s about gangsters, I couldn’t escape the feeling Beatty sees Bugsy as something akin to a fast-talking movie producer. Bugsy spins elaborate stories for his backers of how their investment will pay-off, builds fantasies on a huge scale, won’t accept any compromise (a load-bearing wall should be knocked down if it’s blocking the view of the pool!), pouring his heart-and-soul into every detail of his vision. It doesn’t feel a world away from the same control-freak energy Beatty poured into Reds (Bugsy is basically financier, manager, backseat architect and marketing man for his dream).

Bugsy feeds a lot off the fascinating two-way admiration street between Hollywood and gangsters. Beatty’s Bugsy is enamoured with Hollywood, even shooting a (terrible) test reel to try and break into the movies. He’s thrilled to be hanging around with old pal George Raft (a muted Joe Mantegna), who seems equally jazzed to hook up with notorious criminals. Hollywood laps up the notoriety of criminals, both on-screen and off. For his Flamingo launch, Bugsy wants to stuff the place with stars (to his fury, bad weather prevents them arriving), and schmoozing celebrities is at least part of what is going to make the City of Sin such a fun place.

Levinson’s film is shot with a romantic lusciousness, a sepia-tinged nostalgia that wants you to soak up the glory of the costumes, sets and the cool of being a quick-witted gangster who gets all the best girls. It’s very different from the real Bugsy, a brutal killer with a huge capacity for violence. The film tries its best to match this, but can’t escape the fact that Beatty is way more suave and charming than Bugsy deserves. For all we’re introduced to him gunning down a cheating underling – and we see him brutally beat others for bad-mouthing Virginia or using his loathed nickname – he never feels like a brutal criminal, but more like a flawed, romantic dreamer with a temper.

It’s hard not to compare Bugsy with the best works of Scorsese from the same era. Goodfellas knew that, under the surface glamour, this was a dog-eat-dog world and that there was no romance at the end of a bullet. Casino (which followed a few years later, a sort of semi-sequel) sees the true vicious sadism and greed at the heart of this city-building operation, while Bugsy sees it more as a lavish dream and a tribute to a sort of visionary integrity. Even seeing Bugsy gunned down in his own home by a sniper, doesn’t carry  with it the sort of inevitability it needs. As Scorsese understands, this way of life is like playing Russian roulette forever – eventually the chamber is going to be full. For all Bugsy literally plays roulette, it never feels like he’s playing with fire, more that he’s reaching slightly beyond his grasp.

Perhaps Levinson doesn’t quite have the vision to make the film come to life or stamp a personality on it. It feels like a film that has been carefully produced and stage-managed to the screen – and Levinson deserves credit for marshalling such an array of commanding personalities together to create such a lavish picture. But it’s muddled in its message. Is Bugsy actually worth making a film about? What are we supposed to understand from this: was he a killer out of his depth, or an unlucky dreamer? Bugsy wants him to be both, but fails to make a compelling argument for either.

Beatty is impressive in his charisma though, for all he never quite seems to have the edgy capacity for instant violence the part needs. He does capture Bugsy’s desire for self-improvement, from the Hollywood dreams to the eternal elocution lessons he repeats over-and-over like a mantra. His desire for glory even manifests as a bizarre fantasy that he is destined to assassinate Mussolini. It also perhaps explains why he’s drawn to Virginia, a would-be starlet. Annette Bening gives arguably the most impressive performance (but, inexplicably, was practically the only major figure involved in the film not to pick up an Oscar nomination) as a woman who is an unreadable mix of devoted lover and selfish opportunist, leaving us guessing as to her real intentions and feelings.

There is good support from Keitel (hardly stretching himself as Bugsy’s number two Mickey Cohen), Kingsley (an ice-cool but loyal Meyer Lansky, unable to stop Bugsy destroying himself) and, above all, Elliott Gould as Bugsy’s hopeless, pathetic best friend. Bugsy though, for all it’s entertaining, feels like a mispackaged biopic that wants to turn its subject into a romantic figure, unlucky enough to be rubbed out before he could be proved spectacularly right. This soft-soap vision doesn’t ring true and misses the opportunity the film had to present a more complex and nuanced view of the era and its crimes.

Calm with Horses (2020)

Calm with Horses (2020)

Irish gangsters manipulate a violent but needy boxer in this well-made debut

Director: Nick Rowland

Cast: Cosmo Jarvis (Arm), Barry Keoghan (Dymphna), Niamh Algar (Ursula), Ned Dennehy (Paudi), Kiljan Moroney (Jack), David Wilmot (Hector), Anthony Welsh (Rob), Simone Kirby (Jules)

In rural Ireland a former boxer, Arm (Cosmo Jarvis), has found a new outlet for violence as an gang enforcer. But Arm is, at heart, a gentle soul, and his desire to belong and be part of a “family” is effectively exploited by the gang, especially his weaselly, bullying boss Dymphana (Barry Keoghan) who treats him like an affectionate pet-dog. His ex, Ursula (Niamh Algar), mother to his autistic son Jack, wants him to change his ways or stay out of their lives. But can Arm change?

Rowland’s film has a deliberately seedy quality to it, shot with a grimy intensity and crawling along on its belly among the mud and filth of Irish crime gangs. It’s a thrilling expose though of how crime takes and takes and is never satisfied. It’s turned Arm into a shell, throwing him the odd bone of inclusive comfort, then ordering him out like a rabid dog to hand out another beating to anyone who has crossed the family.

The main target is a man the heads of the family suspect of raping their teenage niece – although whether this was genuine sexual assault or simply a question of perverse family pride is left open. Arm opens the film by handing out a vicious beating – albeit one where he carefully lays out the ground rules with his victim before going about it with a punch-clock sense of duty. It’s what Arm is used for – a not that bright, piece of muscle who, despite his intimidating presence, will do (almost) anything for anyone who makes him feel wanted.

Even if the main person who does is as a dastardly as Dymphana. Keoghan is very good as a snide, insidious small-time crook, who openly calls Arm his dog and fills his head with prejudices and suspicions designed to keep him in his place. If he’s the dark angel, then Ursula is the good one: Algar equally brilliant as a decent, kind, supportive person who has come to the end of her tether with a man who she now feels is a danger to the fragile temperament of her autistic son.

It’s the fate of this son that will penetrate through the dead exterior shell that surrounds Arm, and make him start to question his own life. There is more than a hint that the fragile, timid, surly Arm – beautifully played, with a haunting gentleness under the violent exterior by Cosmo Jarvis – suffers from a similar condition to his son. Like him, he finds rage he can’t control bubbling up inside him (Arm is hopelessly ill prepared for helping his son during Jack’s emotional outbursts). He at times lacks an emotional intelligence to understand how people are treating him and why. It’s something Ursula knows and recognises – and why she gives him as many chances as she does.

Like his son, Arm finds himself calmed by engagement with animals (the title comes from Jack’s therapy sessions, horse riding). He also, buried somewhere in him, has a strong sense of right and wrong and eventually finds the courage to question his orders, as he begins to understand he really belongs not with them but with his ‘true’ family. His motivations shift from simply pleasing his masters to finding the money Ursula needs to move to Cork and place Jack in a special-needs-school, a need for his son that he slowly learns to place above his own wants and desires.

Eventually this explodes into scenes of retributive violence, shot by Rowland with an immersive intensity (there are some particularly uniquely filmed country-lane car-chase scenes, with the camera mounted on the car at an unusual angle). The violence that has lurked only just beneath the surface of the crime family, bubbles savagely to the top as it’s made clear that even the slightest deviation from what the family wants or expects from its enforcer will never be tolerated.

At times, Calm with Horses is a little too reminiscent of other crime dramas: for all its intelligent and skilful construction and playing, there isn’t a lot that feels really original here. Its influences are plain, but what it has is an intelligent empathy for its characters, and their situations, that constantly rewards you. At times, these characters surprise you with how far they will go: at others they disappoint you with their selfishness. But, thanks to the acting and direction, they always feel real.

Calm with Horses is an impressive debut, confident and exciting. Jarvis is superb as an inarticulate, unaware gentle-ish giant, with Keoghan and Algar outstanding in support (both were BAFTA nominated). It’s grimy, matching the dangerous world its set in, but it also has flashes of hope and understanding in it, little moments of calmness that pepper the darkness. It’s a fine crime drama.

The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection (1971)

A ruthless, obsessed (of course!) cop chases down a drug kingpin in this Best Picture winning crime drama

Director: William Friedkin

Cast: Gene Hackman (Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier – “Frog One”), Roy Scheider (Detective Buddy “Cloudy” Russo), Tony Lo Bianco (Salvatore Boca), Marcel Bozzuffi (Pierre Nicoli – “Frog Two”), Frédéric de Pasquale (Henri Devereaux), Bill Hickman (FBI Agent Bill Mulderig), Ann Rebbot (Marie Charnier), Harold Gray (Joel Weinstock), Arlene Faber (Angie Boca), Eddie Egan (Captain Walt Simonson), Sonny Grosso (FBI Agent Clyde Klein)

Cops and criminals: do they have more in common than we’d like to think? In Friedkin’s Oscar-winning The French Connection, the lead cop and criminal are both obsessive, single-mindedly ruthless and locked into a cycle of actions that isn’t going to be change with one big bust. Look at them in isolation and its hard to tell at times which is which: the French drug dealer is a suave cosmopolitan type, unfailingly cultured and polite, but remorseless; the cop is a border-line racist and narcissist who doesn’t give two hoots about collateral damage, kills without remorse and whose life is one of tunnel-visioned obsession.

Based on a true-story – the model for Doyle, Eddie Egan, has a cameo playing his own boss – the film covers the arrival in New York of French heroin dealers, led by Alan Charnier (Fernando Rey) looking to make a killing with their prime product. Opposite them is narcotics officer Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), who’s practically the dictionary definition of anti-hero. Doyle and Charnier engage in a battle of wits and force across New York during one blisteringly cold few days in Winter, and never mind who gets in the way.

The French Connection is about masculinity, and that no matter what many men don’t like to lose. Getting beat is certainly the main concern for Doyle, who I’m not sure has ever really thought twice about the impact of drugs (he’d be just as passionate chasing down coca-cola or stamps if you banned those). Neither has Charnier, with his reassured cool of old Colonial Europe, which just knows better than the nouveau Americans. (there is an underlying subversive fear of America being undermined by this suspiciously metropolitan Frenchman, the country’s best defence being a loud-mouthed, son of the streets).

Played superbly by Gene Hackman, Doyle is presented as a man we are invited to make up our own mind about. He’s obviously an effective detective and he doesn’t just go the extra mile: the job is a night-and-day obsession. He’ll spend hours pounding the streets, staking out a hotel on a rainy street, walk miles tailing a subject and barely spend a minute off-duty. He’ll also drive cars wildly though crowded streets, shoot a man in the back, rough-up suspects and treat others with an abrupt anger, xenophobia or both. As a model for the society he’s sworn to protect, he’s a disgrace – but is he the effective agent of crime-fighting we need?

Friedkin’s film largely aims to present Doyle as he is, within its documentary realism – although I’d argue the film repeatedly looks at his commitment and never-say-quit-energy with barely veiled admiration. The film is assembled with an on-the-streets immediacy reminiscent of The Battle of Algiers – added to by the casting of many non-actors in key roles. It’s shot with a drained-out series of muted colours (even more drained-out in Friedkin’s egotistical blu-ray remastering). All shot on location, it captures the slummy flavour of the rougher ends of New York. Right from the off, we see Doyle and Russo roughing up an informer in something between a slum and building site (including the famous “do you pick your toes in Poughkeepsie” exchange, a classic bit of psychological messing with criminals – incidentally check out Scheider trying not to corpse as Hackman roars through this.)

The investigation proceeds with a muted sense of grounded realism. There is a lot of time-consuming following, watching and taking notes. Word is picked up by informers. Careful surveillance work fills out the gang and its members. Doyle is constantly frustrated by bureaucratic demands, not to mention turf-war squabbles with the FBI (who, in addition, think he might be next door to a dirty cop which is pretty fair). Similarly, the criminals go through careful negotiations around timing, testing the purity of the goods and working out the best way of dodging the cops.

Friedkin’s film is so wrapped up in a perfect “slice of life” documentary realism shell, that it gets away with much of the second half being a piece of pure filmic flair. First and foremost is its famous car-chase. Narrowly surviving an assassination attempt from “Frog Two”, Doyle requisitions a car and hares through New York at 100mph trying to beat the elevated train “Frog Two” is escaping on, to the next station. In this superbly cut sequence, Friedkin pioneers the sort of low-angled front bumper shots that would be a staple of car chases for years to come. It’s pounding, gripping and brilliantly assembled, a raw slice of action that uses the film’s documentary style to trick you into thinking it’s something akin to the realism elsewhere.

But it’s a bit of filmic fantasy – and wouldn’t be out of place in Dirty Harry, the other 1971 film about a morally-complex cop. Doyle is certainly a less attractive person than Callahan – with no real moral feelings just a love of winning. Winning is what motivates him in this car chase: he has little interest in questioning the shooter (who has, to be fair, taken out several civilians, including a mother of a young baby) or preserving public safety and way more about getting revenge. He tears through the streets, sending civilians flying, scares Frog Two into killing two more people and finally caps it by shooting his unarmed would-be-killer in the back after a cursory warning. (Not the first time he’ll pull the trigger after only the most slender of warnings).

Winning is all that matters though. Charnier is just as bad. He ruthlessly exploits a patsy and has no concerns about bodies piling up. Fernando Rey’s impish smile and campily cool little wave to Doyle through the subway doors, after he has managed to shake him off in a marvellous sequence in a subway station, is all about enjoying a smug triumph. No wonder Doyle repeats the same gesture to him late in the film when the tables are turned.

It’s the way Friedkin’s film mostly doesn’t ask us to blindly root for Doyle that really makes it stand out. In many ways the film is less exciting – or even less intriguing a character study – than Dirty Harry. It uses its documentary realism heavily at times, to justify showing the sort of shocking, exploitative material (at one point, the camera lingers on the incidental victims at a car crash scene at distasteful length) that you would expect to find in Dirty Harry or Shaft. What Friedkin’s euro-inspired style – and Hackman’s committed playing – managed to do was make itself feel like it was making a higher artistic statement than those films, which played a much more conventional hand.

That and the sense that nothing has really changed. Early in the film Doyle and Russo charge into a bar – a bar by the way with an entirely black clientele, who Doyle delights in abusing – to seize whatever drugs people seem to have on them. It’s a basic clean-up and shakedown – but hours later you can be sure it will be look nothing happened there. Similarly, the film’s end credits reveal all involved basically dodged charges (except for the patsy for the smuggling of course), while the cops got transferred. We’ve got one small win at the cost of at least five lives.

I seem to change my mind on The French Connection every time I see it. Sometimes I think it’s not that different from a host of other police actioners released at the same time (add Bullit to that list). At others, I get gripped by its edgy mise-en-scene and Friedkin’s challenges to conventional morality. And I guess, a film that can make you switch your mind constantly, should be seen as some sort of classic.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

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Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe make comedy gold in Some Like It Hot

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Marilyn Monroe (Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk), Tony Curtis (Joe/“Josephine/“Shell Oil Jnr”), Jack Lemmon (Jerry/“Daphne”), George Raft (“Spats” Colombo), Pat O’Brien (Agent Mulligan), Joe E Brown (Osgood Fielding III), Nehemiah Persoff (“Little Bonaparte”), Joan Shawlee (Sweet Sue), Dave Berry (Mr Bienstock), Grace Lee Whitney (Rosella), George E Stone (“Toothpick” Charlie)

It’s the funniest comedy that ever started in a hail of bullets. It’s the best chick flick to stare two men. It’s probably Billy Wilder’s sweetest comedy and it’s almost certainly its most beloved. They say Nobody’s Perfect, but you can be pretty sure this film gets as close to it as possible.

In 1929 in Prohibition Chicago, down-on-their-luck musicians saxophonist Joe (Tony Curtis) and double bass Jerry (Jack Lemmon) can’t get a break. First the speakeasy they are playing gets busted by the feds. They’ve lost all their money at the dog track. And, oh yeah, they accidentally witness gangster “Spats” (George Raft) eliminate his competition in a hail of bullets. They’ve got to get out of town incognito and quick – so what better option but joining an all-female band as “Josephine” and “Daphne”? Problem is, playing at a hotel in Florida, Joe and Jerry find themselves in all-sorts of romantic entanglements: Joe is wooing lead singer Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) in the guise of heir to an Oil fortune, while Jerry is wooed by smitten millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E Brown). And if that’s not bad enough – guess which hotel the mob are having their annual convention at?

Wilder’s comedy is a fast-moving, brilliantly written (by Wilder and IAL Diamond) buddy comedy with a twist that dives into a whole world of gender and identity concepts that puts it way ahead of its time. Shot in luscious black-and-white (Wilder’s preferred style, and colour exposed all too strikingly the drag act look of Curtis and Lemmon), every scene has at a zinger and our heroes fall into one a string of madcap situation through misfortune and rank incompetence.

But the film’s real interest is in how far ahead of its time its gender awareness was. When they first appear disguised at the train station, the camera pans up their legs and behinds in just the way you would expect it to do (and indeed it does seconds later with Monroe) to ogle the women, only to reveal it’s the men striding their way down the platform. Both of them comment (and complain) on the objectification and unwanted physical attention (from slapped bums upwards) from men – “it’s like a red rag to a bull” Joe describes their feminine appearance, before he and Jerry complain they can’t wait to get back to being the bull again. It’s part of the fine tight-walk the film works, where the men are both men and women, victims and hypocrites, open-minded and conservative.

Dressing as women seems to give both of them a new perspective on things. Lothario Joe seems to gain a new sympathy for women – while at the same time, passing himself off as a millionaire to seduce Sugar with a string of lies – and comes to see himself as exactly the sort of lousy bum he probably has been. For Jerry the whole experience is a revelation. It’s part of as fascinating debate as to how much this film is aware of transgender and homosexual urges, and how much it’s just a very wittily delivered joke that’s so respectfully done it can be embraced by one and all. But for Jerry, the whole experience seems to redefine his own internal perception of himself.

It’s there from when he first glances Monroe at the train station: after tripping in his heels, he’s stunned when she works past, not by her looks, but by the ease she moves, his eyes not starring at her behind with lust (as Joe’s does) but with envious admiration. On the train he takes the blame for Sugar’s illicit bourbon – is it a sense of fellowship, or a bizarre way of making a pass at her? This leads to a slumber party in his bunk with the whole band, all in their nightwear – through which he constantly forces himself to remember he’s a boy (seemingly out of sexual excitement). But we very rarely see Jerry out of some layer of feminine disguise: and later confusion seems to abound during his courtship from Osgood, where he delights in the dancing, the jewels and the engagement and has to disappointingly remind himself that he’s a boy. After initial doubts Jerry finds a sort of freedom in dressing as a woman, that Joe never does.

How much is Some Like It Hot aware that it is playing around with fluid gender perceptions, and how much is it a stunningly well delivered joke? It’s not clear – and I doubt any film-maker in 1959 would even have the vocabulary to begin to conceive the sort of conversation the film provokes today.

But does it really matter when the jokes are this good and the performances so brilliant? Jack Lemmon is superb here, the sort of career-defining performance actors dream about. Anxious, fussy, slightly whiny, Jerry becomes the more playful, sassy Daphne – and what Lemmon does brilliantly is make both personalities fully-formed yet existing consistently within the same character. That’s not mentioning his verbal and physical comedic gifts and consistently perfect timing, his performance comedic but not a broad drag act. He makes Jerry/Daphne a living, breathing person anda comedic character, someone we can never imagine meeting in real life but also would not be surprised to sit down next to on a bus. This is skilful acting on another level.

Which is not to do down Tony Curtis, who is very funny as the lothario Joe uncomfortably squeezed into feminine attire. While Jerry comes to relish some of the accoutrements of ladies clothing, Joe is never as comfortable – for him it is practical solution. That doesn’t change Curtis’ hilarious comic timing – or his wicked Cary Grant impersonation (“No one talks like that!” Jerry complains) when taking on a third disguise as a Shell Oil heir, which also seems like a sly parody of Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. Curtis’ comic timing is as faultless as Lemmon’s, and the two actors produce such a sparkling double act, it’s a shame they didn’t work together again.

As the third wheel, Monroe was never so radiant, culturally iconic and luminous than she was here. Reports are rife of the troubles she caused on set – the hours waiting for her to turn up, the lines she couldn’t or wouldn’t learn, the dozens and dozens of talks she demanded for the even the simplest scenes (this in particular drove Curtis – an instinctive actor whose performance declined with retakes – up the wall – it’s fun to spot how little they actually share the same shot during the film). Wilder later commented she was a terrible actor to work with – but a God-given talent up on the screen. Can’t argue with that, and she turns a character who, on paper, could be a dumb blonde joke into someone very sweet, endearing and lovable, who we never laugh at (Monroe is a generous enough performer to never worry about making it clear to the audience that she is smarter than her character is, or treat her with contempt).

Wilder brings it all together with his genius behind the camera. He cuts the film with superb comic timing – the intercutting between the seductions of Joe/Sugar and Jerry/Osgood are masterfully done – his sense of the momentum is spot-on and he is as skilled with flat-out farce as sophisticated word-play. That’s not to mention the wonder of the tone – he makes a concept that had the suits sweating in 1959, easy to swallow without ever once treating the idea as a revolting perversion, making it funny but never humiliating. The film’s sweetness is partly why its become so loved.

Possibly the funniest film ever made – and it’s also littered with gags about old-school gangster films, taking advantage of its inclusion in the cast of the likes of Raft and O’Brien enjoyably sending themselves up – it’s won a place in the hearts of film buffs and casual moviegoers for generations. And it’s going to continue to do so. With one of the greatest closing scenes ever, it’s always going to leave you wanting to come back for more.

West Side Story (2021)

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Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler are star cross’d lovers in Spielberg’s triumphant West Side Story

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Ansel Elgort (Tony), Rachel Zegler (Maria), Ariana DeBose (Antia), David Alvarez (Bernardo), Mike Faist (Riff), Rita Moreno (Valentina), Brian d’Arcy James (Officer Krupke), Corey Stoll (Lt Schrank), Josh Andres Rivera (Chino), Iris Menas (Anybodys)

Was there actually a need to remake West Side Story? It’s the question everyone was asking before the film’s release. Judging by the disaster at the Box Office (also connected to our old friend Covid), it’s a question people are still asking. Well, you remake it by refocusing and partially reinventing it while remaining loyal to the roots of what makes this one of the greatest 20th century musicals. Spielberg’s triumphant film does exactly this, in many places even exceeding the Oscar winning original. This West Side Story is full of toe-tapping, heart-breaking numbers, gloriously choreographed numbers and scenes of high emotion and social insight.

In 1957 in Manhattan’s West Side, it’s the dying days of the San Juan Hill district, which is being slowly bulldozed to build the Lincoln Centre. Scrambling to retain control of what’s left are two gangs of youths: the Jets, a group of white rough kids led by Riff (Mike Faist) and the Sharks, a migrant Puerto Rican gang led by would-be boxer Bernardo (David Alvarez). The two groups plan a ‘rumble’ to settle matters forever. A fight that ends up carrying even more importance when both communities are outraged by the burgeoning romance between former Jet leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler). Will love triumph over hate? Well, it’s based on Romeo and Juliet, so I’ll leave it to you to work that out.

The original, Oscar-laden, West Side Story is a ground-breaking and brilliant musical. Based closely on the triumphant original Broadway production, it showcased earth-shatteringly brilliant choreography by Jerome Robbins. The sort of grace, power, passion and beauty in movement that very few productions of anything have got anywhere near matching. Spielberg’s remake can’t match that – and wisely doesn’t try, rejigging and reinventing the choreography with touches of inspiration from Robbins’ work. But, in many ways, it matches and even surpasses the other elements of the original.

The musical’s book is radically re-worked by playwright Tony Kurshner to stress the racial and social clashes between these two very different communities. Helped as well by the racially accurate casting (memories of Natalie Wood passing herself off as Puerto Rican are quickly dispatched), Spielberg’s film transforms West Side Story into a film exposing the kneejerk jingoism and xenophobia of the Jets (who are often deeply unlikeable) and the touchy, insecure defensiveness of the Puerto Rican Sharks.

Everything in the film works to establish the difficulty the Pueto Rican community had in settling in America. From language problems – most of the characters are still mastering English, with Spanish exchanges untranslated – to the obvious bias of police officers like Corey Stoll’s bullying Lt Schrank (officers and others frequently order the Puerto Ricans to “speak English”). Maria and Anita no longer work in a dress shop, but as cleaners in a department store. Racial slurs pepper the dialogue (Spic and Gringo litter the dialogue). The Jets are first seen defacing a mural of a Pueto Rican flag. Loyalty to your community – both of whom see themselves as under siege – is more important than anything. The film bubbles with an awareness of time, place and the dangers and troubles faced by migrant communities far more than the original.

For that choreography, Justin Peck keeps the inspiration of Robbins, but mixes it with his own fast-paced, electric dynamism. The big numbers dominate the screen, from opening confrontation of the Jets and Sharks to the carnivalesque America, the playful Office Krupke, the frentic Gym Dance and the ballet inspired Cool. The choreography is earthier and punchier (in some cases literally so) more than Robbins, with a rough and tumble physicality and strenuous attack that contrasts with the balletic perfection of the original. It’s both a tribute to the original and also very much its own thing – and works perfectly.

Balancing tribute and forging its new identity is also at the heart of Spielberg’s brilliant direction. He’s confident enough to shoot many of the musical numbers with a Hollywood classic style – which allows us to see and admire all the choreography. But he also mixes this with sweeping, immersive camera work, thrilling tracking shots and beautiful images – there is a great one of Tony standing in a puddle surrounded with apartment window reflections, which looks like he’s surrounded with stars. Spielberg brings the demolished buildings very much into the visual design, part of making this West Side Story, earthier and rougher. The film is electrically paced and lensed with an expert eye.

The film’s two leads are both superior to the originals. Ansel Elgort is a fine singer (with a heartfelt rendition of Maria) and dancer (he excels at Cool), even if he at times struggles to bring his slightly bland character to life. He gives Tony a puppy dog quality – that does make hard to believe this version of the character killed a man in a brawl – as well as a wonderful sense of youthful impetuousness. Opposite him Rachel Zegler – plucked from YouTube by an open casting call – is sensationally wide-eyed, youthful radiance as Maria, naïve and in love, a superb singer.

Even better though are the supporting roles. Finest of all is Ariana DeBose, for whom this film feels like the unearthing of a major talent. Her singing and dancing is awe-inspiring, but it’s DeBose’s ability to switch from warm and motherly, to flirtatious and sexy, to grief, rage and confusion and all of it feeling a natural development from one to another is extraordinary. Her major songs are the films main highlights, stunningly performed. David Alvarez is a passionate, head-strong Bernardo, convinced that he is acting for the best (like DeBose his singing and dancing is extraordinary). Mike Faist is brilliantly surly and enraged (and struggling with repressed feelings for Tony) as Riff.

And, of course, there is Rita Moreno, now playing Valentina, a re-invention of the original production’s character of Don. Moreno worked closely as a consultant with Spielberg and Peck, and gives her scenes a world-weary sadness and desire for hope. She sparks beautifully with Elgort and to see her save Anita from gang rape (still a shocking scene, as it was when Moreno played it) and then angrily spit her contempt and rage at these boys is very powerful.

West Side Story needed to justify its existence. It does this in so many ways. Wonderfully performed by the cast, Spielberg pays homage to the original and classic Hollywood musicals but mixes this with electric film-making and a far greater degree of social and racial awareness (without ever hammering the points home) that allows you to see this tragedy from a new perspectives. It reimagines without dramatically reinventing and sits beautifully alongside the original. It’s more than justified its existence: in many ways it’s even better than the original.

Miller's Crossing (1990)

Gabriel Byrne (and hat) is outstanding in the Coen’s brilliant gangster pastiche Miller’s Crossing

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen

Cast: Gabriel Byrne (Tom Reagan), Marcia Gay Harden (Verna Bernbaum), Albert Finney (Leo O’Bannon), John Turturro (Bernie Bernbaum), Jon Polito (Johnny Caspar), JE Freeman (Eddie Dane), Steve Buscemi (Mink Larouie), John McConnell (Bryan), Mike Starr (Frankie)

In a forest clearing, a black hat dances in the wind; sometimes it almost touches the ground before another gust lifts it up again. What does it mean – Who can say? That hat is the heart of the Coen Brothers marvellous pastiche of, and tribute to, gangster films – probably the only early Coen brothers film I really like (and the one I’ve seen the most). The Coens, bless ‘em, always liked to claim it was just a film about a man and his hat. But it’s also a rewarding, complex, jet-black film noir comedy about ethics and morals, with intriguingly unknowable characters. And lots of hats.

Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is the friend and fixer of Irish crime boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who runs a prohibition era city. Cool, calm and collected Tom is the smartest guy in the city – and a compulsive gambler with a self-destructive streak a mile wide. Leo’s rival, Italian gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) wants to whack crooked bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), who’s spreading the word on boxing matches Caspar has fixed, making Bernie a packet and eating into Johnny’s profit. Problem is Leo says no – because he’s in love with Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden, very good), a ruthless femme fatale, who also happens to be sleeping with Tom. When Leo finds out, Tom finds himself in the middle of a struggle to control the city – and forced to play both ends against the middle to save his skin.

Miller’s Crossing is a masterpiece of pastiche. Shot with a coolly steady-hand by Barry Sonnenfield – deliberately apeing classic film noir– and production designed within an inch of its life to look like the perfect Hollywood idea of a 1920s-era gangster film, it’s a perfect mix of everything from Hammett to Chandler to Puzo. It’s a sort of hyper-remake of Hammett’s The Glass Key, where a crooked boss and his fixer are split apart by a woman, but fundamentally remain loyal to each other. Everything you could expect from a classic gangster film appears, but dialled up to eleven: from the grandiose design, to bullet-spraying Tommy gun ruthlessness and the bloody mess left behind.

Miller’s Crossing is great because, unlike those other early Coen films, it combines loving pastiche and quirky humour, with a genuinely gripping story and fully rounded, complex characters. You can enjoy it as a homage, but also on its own terms as a compelling piece of story-telling. It’s sense of atmosphere is faultless, with a delightful mood of whistful regret behind all the killing that comes from Carter Burwell’s pitch-perfect score, riffing brilliantly off Irish folk songs. The film is crammed with brilliant sequences, ranging from comedy, gun-toting action and stomach-churning tension.

It opens with an obvious, crowd-pleasing Godfather homage, with Caspar sitting across from Leo entreating him for action. But take a listen to what Caspar is talking about as he asks for the right to kill Bernie: Ethics. Ethics is what the film is really about. Every character in Miller’s Crossing makes a choice about their moral stand. Because, even in a world of killing and violence, man (and woman) gotta have a code. That’s not about right and wrong, but simple rules you live by.

A code is what Tom has. Superbly played by Byrne – Hollywood handsome, but world-weary with a touch of self-loathing and tired of always seeing several steps ahead of everyone else – Tom is one of the most intriguing enigmas in a Coen film. How can someone this smart be such a mess? He owes thousands to bookies and he’s screwing his best friend’s girl. For all his smarts, and ability to see all the plays (something he proves time and again), there is something fragile about Tom. The Coens remind us of this with their running joke of Tom being smacked about endlessly (every major character lands a blow at some point on him). For all this, Tom very rarely fights back: not only does he not like getting his hands dirty, there is also a sense of sado-masochistic guilt about Tom. Like he’s smart enough to know he’s in a dirty business, and deserves all this physical abuse.

The thing that makes Tom’s world work is ethics – in his case loyalty to Leo. Not even being kicked out by his furious friend changes that. Miller’s Crossing has a strangely sweet bromance at the heart of it, gaining a lot from Finney and Byrne’s natural chemistry and forging a relationship that’s part brotherly, part father-and-son. Of course, a girl can’t come between them. Tom’s clings to his loyalty to Leo – the thing that makes him able to exist in this world – and no threat from Berne or promise of a good deal from Caspar will make him compromise. Rather he will play all of Leo’s enemies (and Leo himself) off against each other, to make sure his friend emerges on top.

It’s all symbolised by that hat. Tom dreams about that hat dancing in the wind – his literal nightmare is losing that hat (his ethics) in the wind. In so many scenes, Tom keeps in constant contact with his hat, balancing it on his knee or rolling it around his hands. When Verna wants to grab his attention, it’s the hat she steals back to her apartment. It’s a physical representation of his grounding, of his contact with reality. Without the hat he’s vulnerable: it’s inevitably tossed away before a threat or beating.

Tom’s not alone: every character has their own ethics. Bernie is an appallingly mercenary, selfish, two-faced, cheating little rogue – but he’s just made that way, it’s nothing personal it’s how he gets ahead. Caspar is obsessed with loyalty, justifying to him the amount of violence he hands out. Leo has a little boy’s loyalty to old friends and family, the sort of guy shocked when bad things happen to friends but who is happy to literally shred people with a tommy gun. Verna is out for herself, but wants to protect her brother. Even the ruthless Dane is loyal to Caspar and to those he’s “soft on” to the bitter end. All these characters justify their actions by adherence to ethical rules they’ve made for themselves.

But only Tom is really worried about getting his hands dirty. That’s something Bernie exploits in the film’s pivotal – and most famous – scene as Tom is unwillingly forced to prove his new ‘loyalty’ to Johnny by executing Bernie in the woods. In a tour-de-force by Turturro, Bernie begs, pleads and weeps for his life urging Tom to “Look into your heart”. It’s the first – and only – decision Tom makes for sentiment in the film. Naturally, it comes back to bite him. Tom’s journey in the film is perhaps to remove sentiment and heart from the equation – after all it’s all leading to a Third Man-ish ending where our hero is left standing alone while the only person he cares about walks away.

Aside from Byrne, the film is crammed with sublime performances. Finney is excellent as a big puffed-up, violent Teddy bear. Polito is hilarious as a wound-up ball of violent energy and poor judgement. JE Freeman is terrifyingly sadistic but also strangely loyal. Harden is a nightmare image of a femme fatale, ruthless to an extreme. There is a great cameo from Buscemi as a fast-talking fixer. Best of all is Turturro – grasping, selfish, cowardly, cocky, weasily and brilliantly amoral.

It’s all superbly directed by the Coens, even if sometimes their delight in shocking violence goes too far (like the childish delight in seeing bodies shredded by bullets) – not only do they get the mood perfect, but if you have any doubts about their ability to direct a set-piece take a look at Finney’s masterful Danny Boy scored shoot-out. Their script is also a knock-out of pastiche gangster parlance, as well as building a fascinating exploration of how we use morals to justify any actions we want. Miller’s Crossing is about those fatal moments where we decide whether we can justify to ourselves the actions we take and the people we have become. Or maybe it is all just about a hat.