The Killers

December 16, 2012

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Nothing much to say about The Killers (1946), a Siodmak gem with Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster. This picture tells the whole story. He’s remarkable for his strong masculine appearance joined to an aura of total vulnerability and victimhood.

Kitty Collins looks nice even when she’s not being the fatal woman, or trying not to seem like one.

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M for Metropolis!

December 3, 2012

Fritz Lang, who made that fabulous Ur-noir, M, made Metropolis (1927) as well, but until the last few years, it was never seen in its original form. The restored version, including lost footage retrieved from a full print found in Argentina, is available on Netflix, and it is glorious.  A sci-fi fairy tale with ominous Art Deco sets and art production, a full-on tale from the Germanic medieval Apocalyptic tradition, and an Expressionist masterpiece, it awakens in me a deep understanding of the older name for movies, motion pictures.  The images, each one, are fabulous, and they are given life through the technology of cinema.

Lang expressed distaste for his masterpiece later in his life.  He felt that it was politically naïve and simplistic.  His feelings may have had something to do with the fact that his collaborator on the work, his then-wife, Thea von Harbou, went on to embrace the Nazis, leading to their divorce soon after, and to his exile to Hollywood where he made several excellent film noirs, including Human Desire, Scarlett Street, The Big Heat.  It’s hard for me to watch this film and not think about the conflagration to come to Germany, and Europe, ten years later.

The melodramatic plot concerns Joh Fredersen, The Master of Metropolis, the city that he built on the backs of his workers.  The city is a brilliant aerial extravaganza: the workers live underground in dismal blocks of flats that look like the work of a dropout from the Bauhaus architecture school.  His magnificent brain produces the ideas and directives that keep the city humming, and his every word, utterance, and gesture is attended to with slavish awe by his subordinates.

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The children of the rich frolic in pleasure domes at the top of the city towers that look like something out of Hieronymous Bosch, if he had gone to Hollywood.  Maria, a teacher from the worker’s world, brings some of her charges up on a field trip.  One wonders what were the guards who let her in thinking?  That begins the ruin of all of them.

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Freder, The Master’s son, is transfixed by the sight of Maria, and decides he must go down to the depths of the worker’s city to find her. She is regarded as a spiritual leader by the workers, and restrains their violent tendencies, telling them that a Mediator will come, to join together the Head (The Master) and the The Hands (the Workers.) The allusions and similarities to New and Old Testament language and imagery are deliberate and consistent.

Freder is appalled by what he finds underground.  He witnesses an explosion at the main machine that kills many workers, and he has a vision of the infernal engine as a Moloch devouring the people. From then on, he refers to his father’s city as The Tower of Babel.

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He goes in search of other knowledge, and comes upon a man killing himself with the effort of manning his post.  He is part of a crude feedback mechanism, and he must manually move the arms of the machine to point to the lights on the outer circle as they blink.  They change often, and he is worn out with keeping up, but if he does not, disaster will ensue:  He looks like a man crucified. Freder relieves him and takes his place and his worker’s clothes. He sends the man up to the city and to wait for him at a friend’s apartment, but the worker ends up spending his type at the city’s casino, a decadent fleshpot.  So much for the virtuous proles!

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In another part of the city, in the only building that retains a pre-modern appearance, a tall, ancient mansion, lives Rotwang, the mad scientist- inventor.  It is obvious from his artificial hand that Dr. Strangelove owes something to this movie, as do so many others!

Rotwang's House

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There’s a back story here:  Frederson’s wife, Hel, is dead, but it seems that both Master and Madman loved her.  The inventor maintains a shrine to her memory that Frederson  contemplates when he pays a visit to his main technological adviser and mentor. (These images are from restored footage, and they are grainy, and cropped differently.)

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Rotwang reveals that he has been developing a mechanical man to reincarnate Hel, and Frederson is horrified, but intrigued.

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Knowing that his workers are being roused to rebellion by Maria, he commands Rotwang to fashion her in the image of Maria, and send her among the workers to sow chaos and discord.  Instead of Maria’s message of peace and reconciliation, the mechanical-Maria will preach insurrection and violence.  Joh Frederson will have a perfect excuse for retaliating brutally and teaching the proles their proper place.

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Rotwang kidnaps Maria and uses her in his deranged experiment…

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…which ends up being rather successful.

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The transformed Maria is presented to Frederson, and he sets his awful plan in motion, not knowing that his son is in love with the real woman, and is living among the workers.  The guys on the top just don’t know what’s going down…

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Freder sees his father with the false Maria and is stunned and horrified.  He swoons, and is put to bed, where he has an extended  vision along the lines of Revelation, ending with his cry, “Death come to the city!”  I have created an animated GIF of his vision, below, that you can click to activate.

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click to animate and view in full

Meanwhile, the false Maria carries out her mission of evil among the workers.

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Freder tries to unmask her as the impostor he knows she must be, but the workers turn on him as a member of the ruling class.
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Talk about a femme fatale!

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Roused by her calls to violence, the workers storm the engine rooms, and overcome the foreman, who occupies a rather difficult position in the class hierarchy.  He is a worker, but he is at the top of the class, a sort of craft-union type, and he knows the mob is wreaking destruction on itself!  He shuts the gates to hold off the mob, but The Master, with his own long game in play, orders him to raise them.  He obeys, the engines are smashed, the pumps stop, and the workers city begins to flood.

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The workers do an infernal dance around the smoldering ruin of the main engine, but the foreman breaks the spell, demanding of them, “Where are your children?”  Indeed, they gave no thought to them as they went on their rampage, and the foreman makes clear to them their utter dependence on the machines that they have smashed.  Luddite he ain’t.

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The real Maria comes to the rescue, herding the children left behind to the alarm station where she is ringing the bell.

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Meanwhile, the false Maria declares, “Let’s watch the city go to the devil!!” an parties with the city élite.

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Like Hugo’s novel Notre dame de Paris, the center of the city, even of the godless machine-metropolis, is the cathedral.  It symbolizes the mediating heart between head and hands.  And as in that novel, a climactic struggle between Good and Evil takes place on the roof as Freder fights with Rotwang.

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Down in the square, the foreman leads the action, roping the false Maria to a stake for burning in the good old fashioned way.

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With purifying flame comes the revelation of her true nature.

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Finally, Freder emerges with Maria and his father, and mediates an uneasy reconciliation between the foreman, speaking for the masses, and his father.  Happy ending for ruler and ruled!

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How real is real?

September 28, 2012

Bart: … It’s just that everything’s going so fast. It’s all in such high gear, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like me. Does that make sense?
Laurie:  When do you think all this?
Nights. I wake up sometimes. It’s as if none of it really happened, as if nothing were real anymore.
Next time you wake up, Bart, look over at me lying there beside you. I’m yours, and I’m real.
Yes, but you’re the only thing that is, Laurie. The rest is a nightmare.

Those crazy kids from Gun Crazy (1949).

She only shoots people when she gets really scared, but I think she likes it more than she says.


Va va va voom!

September 17, 2012

Angel Face must be added to my list of film noirs featuring ladies with black hair, big eyes, who are out of their minds.  Robert Mitchum, cool, but not so smart, and Jean Simmons (she ain’t doin’ Shakespeare here) weirdly magnetic, do a pas de deux that ends up in reverse.  Not a very compelling storyline, but as the critics all say, Otto Preminger does it very well.  You can’t get that final acceleration out of your mind. 

Everything in their relationship is centered around this sports roadster and the throaty roar of its engine:  their meetings; their lovemaking; their future; his past; and the denouement.


Big Eyes, Black Hair, and Out of Her Mind

September 12, 2012

This is a post about one film, Where Danger Lives (1950), and by extension, all those  femme fatale sisters to Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue) that prey on weak, flawed, emotionally impotent young men.  Oh, and they’re nuts too.  I am thinking of  Ann Savage in Detour, Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and Ann Byth as Veda, the helium voiced neurotic daughter of Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford).

Where Danger Lives was directed by John Farrow, married to Maureen O’Sullivan, who has a small and awful part in the flick, and father to Mia.  The story seems too slow at times, and it almost veers into comedy on a few bits.  What stays with you is Margo’s character, her looks,  and the fantastic scenes with noirish lighting.

Robert Mitchum is Dr. Jeff Cameron, a fine young man who lives to help his patients.  The film starts with his tender ministering to a girl in an iron lung, and a young boy with a neck brace.  His girlfriend Julie (Sullivan) helps, and looks on approvingly. We hardly see her out of her mask.  A young woman is rushed in, an attempted suicide, and Cameron is put on the case.  The big hunk saves the helpless beauty’s life, but who is the strong one?

As she wakes from her stupor, Margo notices the big handsome guy taking her pulse, and she  instantly takes his, so to speak. Clasping his hand, she whispers sultry nonsense while nurse Julie gives Cameron the eye.  She takes off for home before Doc can look in on her next morning, and sends him a telegram, begging him to visit her:  she owes him an explanation.

That cat on the doorstep will be important later on…and not in a good way.  She looks healthy enough; so much so, Cameron forgets all about Julie.    Still, for the moment, he’s just being the doctor, trying to make sure she doesn’t try to kill herself again.  She’s so weak, needs his protection, his help…

Margo refuses to submit to proper care, so Cameron goes for the phone, and grabs her wrist when she tries to interfere.  You can tell by the look on her face that she’s thrilled to have her arm twisted by him.  “You’re hurting me!”  She says it like an invitation to sex.  The good doctor still has a few wits about him, and he’s thinking, “What’s with this dame?

We learn later that Cameron is not, repeat not a psychiatrist, so how could he tell that Margo is totally crazy?  Perhaps her eyes distracted him?  He’s a man who is easily diverted from the straight and narrow, a classic noir type.

Next thing we know, Cameron is walking through a club in a very long tracking shot filled with extras coming and going.

He sees Margo’s back, waiting for him in a booth.  Lots of shots with windows and mirrors in this one.  He bends over behind her to greet her…

She turns, and begins to slip the mink stole from her shoulders…

This action, as the mink drops away, is as close to stripping as you can get without actually doing it.

We learn that they have been seeing each other for a week.  She says her father insists that she leave that night for the Bahamas:  she must obey, or she’ll be cut from his will and have nothing!  He only wants her, of course.  Oh, it’s not to be. After a last kiss, he gets drunk, and gets an idea.

A totally drunk Cameron takes a cab to the house to retrieve Margo.  Claude Rains has one scene in this film, and he makes the most of it.  He’s Frederick Lannington, father…er…the husband of Margo, and he wants to tell Cameron what a “long road” he’ll be going down, with “no turning back,” if he runs off with her.  He sees right through Cameron, saying “her clinging vine act makes you want to protect her.”  Margo pulls out the stops, pretending that he bloodied her by ripping an earring off her.  Cameron responds on cue.

A fight ensues, and Lannington beats Cameron with a poker before he’s knocked out with a fist.  Cameron goes to get some water to revive him, but he’s suffering from a concussion.  He’ll be in and out of lucidity for the rest of the picture, a damaged, weakened male, in thrall to la belle dame sans merci.  While Cameron’s out of the room, Margo finishes off  hubby with a pillow

Only in his concussed and lust-besotted state would an intelligent doctor with a thing for helpless people listen to Margo’s pleas and decide to flee with her to the Bahamas.  She’s convinced him that he killed Lannington with his punch, accidentally, of course.

Their escape has several vignettes that border on screwball, and includes a lot of sharp characters and ironic misunderstandings. They flee the airport at the sight of some cops looking for Lannington (Cameron poses as him.) but they are only trying to deliver a bon voyage message.  Later, they narrowly avoid a police blockade, supposedly set up to catch them, but it’s just the agriculture department looking for contraband vegetable imports. They end up in a scruffy border town where they are ‘arrested’ by a bunch of cowboy types who inform them that because they are not wearing whiskers, they must make a donation to the local fire department…or get married.  They choose the latter.

Things don’t go well when they share a room.  Margo rips the power cord out of the radio:  she doesn’t want Jeff to hear the news – he’ll learn that she has a long history of hospitalization for mental illness.  She doesn’t like to be pitied!

When they finally make it to a seedy border town, they are tricked into giving up their last valuables to pay to be smuggled across the border.  Jeff begins to have his doubts, about her, and about whether he’ll survive his head injury.

He tries to talk sense to her after she finally admits that she killed Lannington.  He’s too weak to restrain her as she follows her own ideas, and decides to smother him the way she did hubby.

Margo thinks Jeff is dead, and she goes out to cross the border on her own.  She didn’t do the job right, though, and he follows her. She shoots at him, and is shot by the police.  Cameron gazes pitiably at her dying figure while the cops say he’s the accomplice.

Ha!  A final dollop of scorn from the dangerous woman as she informs the police that he could never kill anyone!  Didn’t even have the sense to know that she had done it!  (Ah…Jeff is in the clear now!)  No way he could ever have given her what she wanted, what she needed.  She loathes him. “Nobody pities me!”  She dies…

Steve recovers from his concussion, and in the last scene, Julie returns to him.  Uh…why?  Because somebody said they needed a happy ending.

I never posted about Mildred Pierce, so here are two images of Veda the Destroyer in all her glory.

Click for the action!


Coketown Liebestod

June 17, 2012

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) is generally classed as a noir, but it certainly did not seem like one for the first thirty or forty minutes: so much so, that I almost gave up on it. Instead, we are presented with a pretty standard melodrama of class, childhood oppression, and murder most foul hushed up in exchange for climbing the social ladder. At Film Noir of the Week, the reviewer says it sometimes seems like Grand Opera. (Its conclusion is close to Wagnerian.)  Despite its slow start, after the set up is over, the story takes a dive into pure, blackest noir, thematically, if not stylistically.  That is, the lighting, music, narration, and the like don’t have much to do with film noir, but the characters and the story…Yes!

The plot has many complications, but it is rooted in the lives of three youngsters in Iverstown, a mill-town, presided over by Martha’s mean aunt, who has made Martha her heir.  Martha is not grateful, because the aunt despises Martha’s dead parents: her father, a former mill worker, and her mother who was fool enough to marry him. Walter is the “scared kid with glasses,” desperately in love with Martha, and Sam is the rough kid from the poor side of town for whom Martha feels a magnetic attraction.  And so, one fatal night, Martha lets her Aunt have it, Walter sees all, Walter’s father hushes it all up so his son can grow up to marry Martha and finally bring some wealth and class into the struggling petty bourgeois O’Neil family.  Just one thing:  the kids think Sam saw it all before he hightailed it out of town, but he didn’t see anything in fact.

Walter does grow up to marry Martha, but he remains the scared kid with glasses, even as he is running for attorney general and getting tough on crime.  Martha calls all the shots – what she says in town goes, while Walter spends his free time in a melancholic, drunken stupor.  His election is a sure thing – no point in taking odds on it.

What makes this movie go is the characters, and the great actors who create them.  Van Heflin is Sam Masterson, the kid who skipped town, and ends up coming back after seventeen years, purely by accident.  He’s an interesting character:  sterling war record; wandering gambler; heart of gold, but he beat a wrap for manslaughter.  He’s no goody two-shoes.  He frequently twirls his fingers in an odd way when he’s conversing, which emphasizes his observing, somewhat aloof, outsider nature.  He’s not afraid to take a rough revenge on a private dick who tried to scare him out of town on O’Neil’s orders.  And he seems to be irresistible to women:  O’Neil’s secretary just melts under his gaze.

Toni (Lizabeth Scott playing an innocent this time) is one of the girls drawn to him.  He meets her coming out of the building where he grew up.  She’s not quite as pure as she seems, but a nice kid, and he’s the perfect gentleman, it seems.  She has parole conditions to meet – he helps her out by getting her a room at his hotel.  Their rooms share a bath.  He recommends reading Gideon’s Bible, and he loves to quote the story of Lot’s wife:  a nice noir theme – don’t look back.  To me, this all seems pretty racy for 1946:  adjoining rooms after a cozy dinner, Toni rapturously showering, washing away her not so pleasant past and being reborn into a new future…with Sam.  Were they just reading, or like Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s poem did they read no more that evening..? Then Sam is awakened by two sleazy police detectives who are obviously working on O’Neil’s orders.  They’ve jailed Toni on phony charges – a bid to dig us some dirt on Sam.

Barbara Stanwyck is Martha, who is revealed during the film as a full-blown femme fatale, but one who plays it classy.  She doesn’t usually need to go for the throaty, seductive talk – she has the power and the money to get what she wants.  But she is also a prey to her own desires, and they are pretty strong.  She wants what she wants.

She builds her inheritance up into a gigantic financial empire.  She transforms the mansion into a place of white and pink instead of gloomy brown and black.  She holds her own against Sam’s attractions at first.  Later, she comes to Sam’s hotel to pick him up for a “business dinner,” and it’s like the scene in The Ten Commandments when Pharaoh’s wife visits Moses in his slave hut:  Oh, the furniture, the bottle of scotch!  Just how I imagined such an ordinary hotel room would be!

Kirk Douglas is marvelous as Walter, a man consumed by self-loathing and his hopeless love for Martha, whose love, if not her body, is unattainable.  She plays him like a fiddle:  alcohol is his solace.  Their relationship is one of submission, domination, and perversion.

The only romantic coupling (only implied, of course) that is wholesome, is that of Toni and Sam.  The violent sexual nature of the bond between Sam and Martha is displayed when they revisit the woods where they used to hideout as kids.  They find a campfire, which ignites old memories.  The conversation that ensues reveals to Martha that Sam knows more than she thought about a lot.  She isn’t happy.  Her passion aflame, she tries to follow through on it.

She’s no match for Sam, physically, sexually, or morally.  But he just can’t resist her.  A real film noir pickle.

As their combat becomes sexual conflict, then submission, her hand relaxes, and drops the fiery brand into the fire.  The flames rise up violently: the next shot shows the smoky ashes.  The deed is done, the battle over, for now.  The movement of her hand will be echoed in the Love-Death finale.

In this complicated story, things take a while to come to a head, but the three kids find themselves together again, at the head of those fateful stairs.  Drunken Walter falls, and Martha sees a chance to rearrange her living arrangements, if she can just convince Sam to go along.  It worked once before, long ago.

No dice.  Sam is essentially decent, and he leaves, intending to never return to Iverstown.  And he leaves Walter and Martha to their private hell.  Walter knows the score now:  he sees that Martha is really a sicko, but he loves her.  “Kiss me, Martha.

He knows there is only way way to end this for both of them.  She feels the gun in her gut…and she does not fight it.  It feels right.  She pulls the trigger herself.

A puff of smoke.  She is done with this awful life.  She looks up, to the beyond, almost ecstatic.  The music swells.  It’s Tristan und Isolde in Coketown.

Sam hears the shot, turns to look back, sees the murder-suicide run to its conclusion.  He is sick.  Best to leave town, and not look back.


Alpha Noir

March 8, 2012

Alphaville (1965) is Jean Luc Godard’s noir-sci-fi mash-up, and it’s pretty darn good.  The film seems like a stylistic riff on those genres, with a hunk of surrealism thrown in, and at times it has, I think, its tongue in its cheek, but always just so:  the control of tone never wavers.  Sort of like Flaubert… Those French!

I don’t quite understand the use of music in French films of the 50s and 60s.  I commented on The 400 Blows that I thought its music was intrusive:  In this film, the soundtrack is purposely so, but sometimes it borders on romantic schmaltz.  But then, there’s that ironic, stylistic mash-up again…

A noir thriller with a main character called Lemmy Caution (Not sure, but I think there was a series of films or books with that character in France at the time…) played by an American expatriot actor whose face looks like it’s seen a lot of action, that ends with the destruction of an entire city.  Well, maybe not.  “Maybe all the inhabitants will heal and it will become a happy place,” Lemmy tells us as he drives away with his princess who saves herself and ends the movie by speaking the words she never learned, “I love you!

The story begins with Lemmy, aka Ivan Johnston, a secret agent from the Outer Countries, running around Alphaville in a fedora and raincoat looking for Dr. von Braun.  He snaps pictures of everything with a cheap camera, pretending to be a journalist.  The film is shot in haute and not so haute moderne architectural sites around Paris.  Part of the near-campy weirdness of the film is that it’s supposed to be in the future – not sure how far – and it’s supposed to be on another planet, but everyone talks as if they just got off the subway in NYC.  Lemmy drives American cars, of course.

Things happen that don’t make sense, but since it’s  a noir, it’s all rather deadpan.  A man breaks into Lemmy’s room, and Caution, not being too cautious, shoots him.  Later, interrogated by the Alpha 60 computer that runs the city, he says he was nervous and doesn’t take chances.  How was he to know it was just a psychological test?  Lemmy is pretty quick with a gun at the end, shooting people right and left with aplomb as he decommissions Alpha 60 and sets the city on its ear.

Lemmy is a hard-boiled type.  He knows his way around the hi-tech world, but he prefers old technology.  I concur – you won’t catch me with a smart phone.  He finally catches up with von Braun who tries to bribe him with gold and women, the two things Lemmy told the central computer he cares about.  But he was probably fooling – he’s a romantic under his tough exterior.  He tells von Braun he’s used to living with the fear of death:  “For a humble secret agent like me, it’s a constant companion, like whiskey.”  Hard-boiled, indeed!

 

Of course, women in Alphaville are mostly at the disposal of men, and come in various seductress levels, with numbers tattooed on their necks.  Lemmy isn’t tough enough to resist this one (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife), his own femme fatale who reminds me of the one from Zamyatin’s We.  Lemmy even says she has “sharp teeth” like the characters in old vampire movies.  She’ll betray him, of course.

When Lemmy goes on the rampage against the computer, we aren’t quite sure what he does, but it all begins with him speaking illogically about love.  The shot below is a portent of 2001.  With Alpha 60 on the blink, the citizens literally start to climb the walls, acting like termites in a nest where the queen has died.  Alpha 60, like Hal 9000, speaks, but with a voice that is distorted with a synthesizer.

Typical sights in Alphaville…huh?

The use of sites is very clever.  While we hear narration about the ways non-normals are executed, we see a theater with banks of seats that are rotating into a recess in the floor, and learn that a large group was electrocuted while watching a show.

Ivan/Lemmy is a cool customer with a semi-automatic, and he uses it without hesitation.  The thugs disarm him, however, by commanding the girl to recite story No. 434, which gets a laugh from Lemmy:  then they pummel him into submission.  Still, isn’t this film the forerunner of other noir-sci-fi faves, such as Blade Runner?  Maybe not – it’s so French.  Readings from the surrealist poet Paul Eluard’s Capital of Pain figure prominently in the narrative (every Frenchman with pretensions to cool would have known the text), and there is much abstract talk of love, conscience, humanity, and such existentialist cliches…

Mission accomplished, the girl rescued, Lemmy drives off on the ring road to inter-sidereal space, returning to his own galaxy in the Outer Countries.


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