Blind Chance (1981)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 54min

Had the first and final shots of Blind Chance been cut, the film could have been a pure examination of three alternate timelines, branching off from a singular point in one man’s life when he is at his lowest and most impressionable. With context of these bookends, everything we see is reframed under the umbrella of impending mortality and heavy regrets which may flash past our eyes in half a second before our death. What small actions could have we done differently that might have set us on a different path, leading us away from our current lives? For Witek, this is a question that arises every now and again as a passing thought. What if he never reconnected with his old school friend and found God? What if he were not there to save that old lady from being run over? It is only when Witek ponders the greatest one of all – what if his attempt to catch a train years ago had turned him away from the path to his own demise – that the rumination over what could have been becomes an all-consuming thought, manifesting as fully developed realities.

The opening and closing shots of this film – everything else could be a vision conjured up in those dying seconds.

That fateful run towards a departing train is the tiny action upon which everything hinges for Witek. Or to narrow in even further, his outcome is even more minutely determined by his attitude towards a man carrying a beer, which only minutes earlier was purchased with a coin that he knocked from a woman’s hand while in a mad rush to get to the platform. Played three times over with minor adjustments, these nearly identical scenes either see Witek successfully catch the train, be arrested for causing a public disturbance, or miss it and go on with his life.

With this divergence of possible futures catching him at his lowest point when he is most open to embracing new ideologies, the broad swings we witness in his character are monumental. Should he make the train, he will meet an influential Communist thinker, and conform to the party thinking. Should he be arrested, he will meet a priest who drafts him into the anti-Communist resistance. Should he go on with life as normal, he will remain politically neutral, falling back into the medical school that he previously decided to quit, and eventually starting a family.

In each timeline, it is an older man who comes into Witek’s life as a patriarchal figure, offering the sort of guidance that he no longer receives from his recently deceased father. In his father’s ambiguous final words, “You don’t have to,” there is a vague absence of any specific instruction – he doesn’t have to what exactly? With the heavy weight of uncertainty leaving Witek aimlessly drifting, he finds himself lost in a modern world of competing priorities, distractions, and relationships, and thus looking for something to hang his identity on.

In 1981, Krzysztof Kieslowski was similarly on the verge of his own transition, contemplating a shift from the familiar realm of social realism to a more transcendent style with broader, more metaphysical ambitions. Blind Chance falls right in the midst of it, aiming to probe questions of fate just as much as it seeks to examine the radical political landscape of 1980s Poland. Inadvertently, it was these revolutionary sentiments which led to the film’s censoring by Polish authorities, from which it never fully recovered. Even today, there is a single unrecovered scene still missing from the final cut.

In exposing the flimsiness of such fervent followers, Kieslowski manages to rile up both sides of the political aisle, though in the mind of the dying Witek who safely straddled the fence, there is some question as to whether some sort of whole-hearted political commitment might have changed his life for the better. His life is not one of significant introspection, but with a director as thoughtful as Kieslowski behind the camera, fleeting hints of self-reflection manage to break through Witek’s mindless surrender of his own agency. Later in his career, Kieslowski would perfect the art of the symbolic cutaway and weave them in as constant motifs through his work, and here we see an early glimpse of that, following a slinky tumble down a set of stairs. “It’s like it died,” he reflects as it reaches the bottom, and perhaps in that moment he sees a piece of himself set on a rigid path that leads nowhere but his own death.

A cutaway to a symbolic slinky, representative of Witek’s path through life.

As each timeline ends in social rejection for Witek, Kieslowski begins to slow down the frame rate until they freeze entirely, anticipating the impending rewind that will take us back to the turning point at the train station. It is notable that he does not return to this device a third time as the last timeline approaches its conclusion. There, Witek arrives at an airport to disembark on a trip to Libya where he will deliver some medical lectures, and much like the ending of Three Colours: Red, he brushes past two characters whose lives he has come close to intersecting with. Given that we have only seen them in alternate timelines, they are simply strangers to him, though both times he does stop and notice their presences.

Kieslowski’s frame rate slowing down until it freezes at the end of the narrative strands, then cutting back to the train station where the new timeline begins.

At first it might seem that he is picking up on something familiar about them on a subconscious level. This is not an unreasonable assumption either, especially considering some of Kieslowski’s later films that imbue characters with intangible, mystical qualities. But if Blind Chance is to be read as a split-second vision conjured up between Witek’s realisation of his death and the explosion of the plane he is on, then perhaps at this point he is simply storing them in his mind as characters for his dream, ruminating over the alternate lives that might have saved him from his tragic fate. It is said that your life flashes before your eyes on the verge of death, and indeed that happens here in the fast-moving character introduction towards the start, but Kieslowski’s sights are not so much set on “what was” than “what could have been” – all those turning points that might have given us happier, or at least longer lives. But then again, what is the use of such regrets anyway if the paths upon which we travel are merely governed by blind chance?

Blind Chance is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Escape From New York (1981)

John Carpenter | 1hr 39min

It is 1997, and Manhattan has been walled off from the rest of America. To deal with a 400% increase in crime, the island has been turned into a giant maximum-security prison, though its inmates are not confined to cells. Inside, gangs and criminals run wild, turning the city into an anarchic playground brimming with violence and chaos. Such a concept as this is all too ripe for a master of genre filmmaking like John Carpenter. Escape From New York is a science-fiction, an action, but most of all it runs by the Western playbook, following those familiar conventions we have seen John Ford and Sergio Leone play out over decades of cinema.

In place of the rocky outcrops of Monument Valley though, we get hulking metal and concrete structures wasting away through an urban wilderness. Instead of dusty saloons with a piano playing in the corner, we get a giant theatre where prisoners take refuge and perform showtunes for the entertainment of others. And where we fight expect to see Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name swaggering through a sandy desert, we instead find Snake Plissken, a cynical, raspy-voiced Special Forces veteran assigned to rescue the President whose flight has crashed right in the middle of the island. Snake’s character design is entirely memorable, and even a little bit ludicrous given his eye-patch and giant snake tattoo, but with Kurt Russell’s terse, rugged performance grounding it with a sense of conviction, Escape From New York hangs in that sweet intersection between playfully outlandish and emphatically sincere.

A solid use of miniatures to create a dystopian New York in wonderful establishing shots.

With a timer strapped to his wrist counting down to his death should he fail his mission, and a stealth glider landing him on top of the World Trade Centre, Snake goes about tracking down the kidnapped President through Manhattan in the dead of night. From the gloomy establishing shots of New York enclosed by a prison wall to the harsh, metallic angles of its architecture, Carpenter accomplishes quite a feat of world-building production design. His work with miniatures to build towering cityscapes effectively deliver on the epic scale of Snake’s quest, though it is especially in the rundown streets lit only by stray fires and scattered with abandoned cars that we feel ourselves truly overtaken by New York’s labyrinth of concrete and steel monstrosities.

With his dystopian mise-en-scène offering itself up to striking compositions of our hero and his ragtag posse of oddball characters wandering the decrepit landscape, Carpenter crafts a hostile environment that, for all its misery and decay, is also a culture full of living people. On either side of the Duke of New York’s car, a pair of chandeliers stand as a small show of status, announcing themselves as sophisticated oddities in a wretched terrain. Back at his headquarters, death matches are conducted for the perverse pleasure of his gang members, asserting their own dominance over outsiders with what little resources they have.

Detail in Carpenter’s mise-en-scène – the turned over cars rising out of the landscape like outcrops, and the dilapidated architecture of New York closing around Snake and his gang like a labyrinth of buildings and bridges.

Across it all, Carpenter drenches his world in the pervasive darkness of night. It is telling that when the sun inevitably rises, Snake is conveniently knocked unconscious so we can cut straight to the following evening. Escape From New York thrives in its nocturnal setting, surrounding its plot with a powerfully grim atmosphere that creeps into the crevices between every action set piece and thrilling dramatic turn.

In the contempt that Snake holds towards the government officials that he is working for, we see a glimpse of the America that lies just beyond New York. That the wealthy elite care so little about what takes place inside the boundaries of this giant prison is evident in how willingly the President brushes off his experience afterwards, despite experiencing legitimate traumas. For Snake Plissken though, this bleak hellhole of urban ruin and chaos is where he finds himself most at home, wandering the most dangerous frontiers of modern society.

This wasteland is brimming with culture – death matches caught in these superbly blocked compositions.

Escape From New York is currently available to stream on Stan, Binge, and Foxtel Now, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Body Heat (1981)

Lawrence Kasdan | 1hr 53min

It is even before Body Heat reaches the pivotal murder upon which its entire narrative revolves that the Double Indemnity influence emerges in the sensual rhythms of its dialogue, with every line seeming to be either an innuendo or a coy setup for one. All of it seeps with sexual desire, the heavy flirting underscored by sleazy saxophone riffs which might seem heavy-handed if it didn’t so perfectly match the embellished eroticism of the performances and screenplay. Where Billy Wilder had to work within the strict Production Code of the 1940s to create Double Indemnity, Lawrence Kasdan abides by no such restrictions here, playing into both the literal and suggestive readings of his film’s title to draw us into its irresistible allure.

A pervasive red colouring through the lighting – heat and passion rendered cinematically.

The perspiration that coats the faces of every single character in Body Heat can be put down to the particularly intense heatwave rolling through South Florida, but when smooth-talking lawyer Ned begins a secretive affair with Matty, the wealthy wife of a successful businessman, the beads of sweat that roll down his naked body might as well be from the sexual workout and thick humidity of their steamy encounters. It is just as well he has two solid reasons to be so clammy all the time, because when his private entanglement takes a plunge into murder and betrayal, the sweat from his guilty conscience is well-disguised. It is with our own understanding of Ned’s tainted conscience that we can see the fear in his eyes, and William Hurt expertly balances this highly-strung apprehension with the cool charm of his vain, lustful lawyer.
 
But it is Kathleen Turner who truly runs away with this film, playing the Barbara Stanwyck to Hurt’s Fred MacMurray. Somehow though, this femme fatale is even more cunning and careful in her plotting than Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson. Like a true student of film noir, Kasdan illustrates character detail in his work with shadows and blocking, especially as he gradually reveals Matty to be the sort of untouchable figure twenty steps ahead of everyone else. As she walks away from Ned into the boathouse she has rigged to explode, she is consumed by the darkness, and yet within this void she glows brightly like an angelic icon, finally freed from the constraints of a life she has been trying to escape for years.

An angelic white figure disappearing into the darkness.

Perhaps the shocking ending which sees her emerge on top is Kasdan’s apologetic rewriting of historical genre conventions, which typically saw these intelligent women punished for their underhanded manipulations. Matty may not be a morally pure character, but who is in this world? If anyone is going to get their happy ending, why shouldn’t it be the one with the wits, charm, and patience to get it? Body Heat surely isn’t the first film to push the boundaries of the neo-noir, but it may one of the most overwhelmingly passionate, filling its air with a thick, humid wantonness that only one of its many characters truly knows how to navigate.

Superb blocking through Venetian blinds and mirrors.

Body Heat is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Blow Out (1981)

Brian de Palma | 1hr 48min

Less than a decade after newspaper journalists exposed the Watergate scandal, and almost two decades after the Zapruder film became an immortal reference point for the endless probing of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Brian de Palma’s Blow Out examined the growing power of evolving media technologies to expose government-toppling truths. Of course, there are all the usual de Palma watermarks present – gorgeous split diopters, point-of-view tracking shots, dizzying 360-degree camera pans, and a suspenseful, absorbing narrative. But the Hitchcock acolyte has rarely used all of these so perfectly and in tandem with thoughtful colour compositions to deliver such a thrilling interrogation of a uniquely American brand of political corruption.

Brilliant split diopters used throughout Blow Out to divide the frame in two – the voyeur and the subject of their voyeurism, the detective and the answers they seek.

When sound technician Jack Terry is out searching one night for sound effects to use in his latest movie, his accidental recording of a political assassination literally lands him in deeper water than he had anticipated. Two other tight-lipped witnesses are present at the incident, and Jack’s romantic interest in one of them, Sally, pulls him even further into an underworld of conspiracies and dirty, murderous politics. 
  
In an early scene before the incident, we watch Jack framed in a split screen working on a slasher film, while the broadcast television news plays on the other half of the frame. Two types of stories are being created simultaneously here – one aiming for escapism, the other aiming to inform – and yet as Blow Out progresses there is a sly inversion that takes place. Later as Jack returns to his studio with his recorded evidence, we spend a great deal of time sitting with him as he rewinds, slows down, and marks the audio tape, his artistic methods becoming a meticulous, painstaking search for truth. Meanwhile, the news media covers the event as a freak accident, maintaining the happy illusion that American politics operate on an honourable code of integrity.

Split screens telling two sides of one story, both presented in different mediums.

Like so many other directors before and after him, de Palma keeps coming back to a red, white, and blue scheme as a representation of his nation’s proud colours. It is there in the décor of a motel room’s bold, patterned wallpaper and the floats of a street parade, but it is even more dominant in his lighting, as it dimly illuminates a bar where Jack and Sally flirt, and later bathes a dingy parking lot in the glow of neon signs. 

Red, white, and blue all through the lighting and production design. Beyond the camerawork, a de Palma film has rarely been so gorgeous.

But it is in Blow Out’s climax where de Palma combines these patriotic primary colours with some of his most suspenseful editing in a slow-motion chase, and thereby delivers perhaps the greatest set piece of his career. The masses celebrating Liberty Day are unwittingly cast as worshippers at the altar of a giant, American flag, where the political establishment viciously sacrifices its most recent victim in the name of protecting their own interests. De Palma’s camera dramatically circles around Jack as he cradles a deceased Sally in his arms, the parade’s red and blue fireworks simultaneously lighting him up and drowning his anguish in a dazzling display of nationalistic spectacle. 

A sacrifice to America’s political establishment on this star-spangled altar – a magnificent set piece.

The tragedy of Jack’s loss comes with his devastating recognition that recorded evidence alone is not enough to expose the bedrock of innocent blood upon which America’s flag-waving “freedom” is built. Media certainly holds some influence in Blow Out, but the truth is easily concealed by mainstream news sources who work alongside the political establishment. Sally’s murderer, the “Liberty Bell Strangler”, is only ever spoken of as some sort of un-American aberration, though of course the cruel irony is that those people who condemn him also rely on his brutal actions to uphold their blissfully ignorant privileges. Those like Jack who survive encounters with such men simply wind up with nothing but the ultimate curse of knowledge – understanding the truth, but incapable of wielding it in any practical way, other than pouring it into their own indulgent, escapist fabrications.

Following up one great set piece with a shot to go down as one of the best of the 80s – an explosion of red and blue as de Palma dramatically circles his camera around Jack holding Sally, and a torturous knowledge of the truth.

Blow Out is currently available to rent or buy on the Microsoft Store.

Thief (1981)

Michael Mann | 2hr 2min

As an urban parable constructed out of criminal archetypes and moral dilemmas, Thief does not present us with an overly complicated narrative, and yet it is in this relative simplicity that Michael Mann provides a compelling canvas upon which he maps out a neo-noir world of clean-cut, towering skyscrapers and dingy neon clubs. In the light of day, thieves and gangsters run their criminal fronts inconspicuously, scoping out the architecture and layout of the city from a distance, formulating their covert schemes. And then each night when a cloak of darkness is thrown over the sprawling metropolis and the dim, downtown lights flicker on, these men silently gather to execute their plots with meticulous precision, their apparent insomnia fuelling both a bleary-eyed fatigue and a hyper-alert, mental focus.

Michael Mann’s night-time scenes certainly astound in his superb neo-noir lighting, but in the light of day it is worth noting how he uses the formidable Chicagoan architecture in an Antonioni-inspired manner.

Mann’s commitment to expressing both these psychological states in his patient editing and moody lighting in dark environments is beyond remarkable – it is the stylistic lynchpin upon which this morose, unpredictable world is fleshed out in all its complexity. His dedication to soaking the city streets between each take so that the neon signs, street lamps, and car headlights would bounce off its wet surfaces pays off massively in its aesthetic impact, giving the tarmac a metallic sheen much like the reflective windows and cars of the city. The radiance of these lights doesn’t go terribly far, but they do illuminate the grime of their surrounding environments which might otherwise go unnoticed under the bright light of the sun.

Mann’s lighting setups are just jaw-dropping, especially in the way he bounces them off metallic cars and wet city streets.
The dark cityscapes and sordid criminals of Thief are simply extensions of each other.

Meanwhile, the mesmerising pulses and drones of Tangerine Dream’s 80s synths fill the soundtrack with an electronic ambience, pulling us into the same groggy, sleep-deprived state of exhaustion that haunts these characters. Perhaps this dark, mangy setting is a result of the people who inhabit it, or perhaps they have been shaped by the sordid, corrupt cityscape of Chicago – but either way both are crooked extensions of each other.

Caught up in the centre of this world is Frank, an ex-convict who, like the rest of his associates, is a total professional when it comes to conducting high-stakes jewel heists. He is loud and brash, and yet he possesses a dissatisfied, unresolved tension between his hyper-intense lifestyle and his desire to settle down with a wife and kids.

On one hand, he knows he is good at what he does. One can’t help but be reminded of the heist from John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle in the sheer focus and precision of these sequences, as Mann similarly details each intricate step, displaying the precariously thin line that is drawn between success and total failure. The editing is also thoughtfully paced here, emphasising the laser-focused expertise which pierces through the fatigue of their world. Even later when Frank’s activity takes a louder, more violent turn, his concentration doesn’t sway from the task at hand, as explosions and shootouts are drawn out in stunning slow-motion.

Drawing these heists out in fine detail allows us to invest in these men as total professionals.
A pivotal diner scene shifting the direction of the movie, offering a glimpse of hope.

And then there is his relationship with Jessie. “I don’t mix apples and oranges,” he states matter-of-factly, believing he can compartmentalise such disparate areas of his life. But the darkness of the world outside is consuming, continuing to remain in the background during a pivotal conversation in a diner roughly a third of the way through where he commits to a life with his lover. This proves to be anything but a clean-cut break.

The direction that Thief goes in would return in later films as a major fascination of Mann’s, but here in his debut his artistic voice comes out bold and fully-formed, a rarity for any first-time filmmaker. In his examinations of the battle between law and crime that rages on inside the psyches of morally grey men, crowded urban spaces play an important role as settings for such characters to gather and conduct their schemes. In a more hopeful film, one might optimistically think that these environments could even inspire some form of comradeship. And yet as Mann sketches out so poignantly here in Thief, sprawling cities are not conducive to such healthy lifestyles. To escape these haunting metropolitan landscapes might bring some peaceful resolution, but such an effort may very well destroy you first.

Neon lights flicker through the scenery.

Thief is currently streaming on Stan and The Criterion Channel.