Reel Life #25: The Old Man & the Gun, The Cranes Are Flying, and Halloween (1978)

Hey, this week I’m actually talking about something relevant to October for once! About time, isn’t it?

The Old Man & the Gun by David Lowery (2018)

Career criminal Forrest Tucker has escaped from jail at the age of 70. Now leading a team that call themselves the Over-the-Hill Gang, he has begun conducting a string of heists in Fort Worth, Texas that leave the public equal parts confounded and enraptured. His victims are particularly baffled by his polite demeanor, and though he carries a gun with him at all times, he is never seen firing it. Placed on the case is detective John Hunt, who himself is fascinated by Forrest’s dedication to his craft.

It wouldn’t be until I began watching the film that I realized The Old Man & the Gun is based on a real-life story. Forrest Tucker had been in and out of jail since he was first imprisoned at age 15. Throughout his career, he is said to have stolen over four-million dollars. This isn’t what makes him noteworthy, however – that would be the fact that he was a master escape artist, having broken out eighteen times successfully. His most famous escape was in 1979 when he broke out of San Quentin State Prison in California. He and to confederates built a kayak and simply paddled their way to freedom – all within sight of the guards. With twelve unsuccessful attempts, he had an amazingly high success rate for something even intelligent criminals couldn’t pull off a single time.

It is also notable for being the final film starring veteran actor Robert Redford. After this, he announced his retirement. The film managed to garner a lot of praise from the press, who had nothing but praise for Mr. Redford’s performance. Admittedly, I haven’t seen many of his films with a major exception being Captain America: The Winter Soldier |wherein he plays the villain|, but his performance in this film was solid. It’s a highly charismatic performance that really sells how this person can rob people of their money with nothing more than a gun and a pleasant attitude.

However, I also feel that the film glossed over aspects that would’ve made for a more interesting story than what is shown in the film. If one of the escape attempts was shown in its entirety onscreen, I felt it would’ve been more effective. As it stands, they’re only shown in a montage near the end of the film. Not showing the San Quintin escape in full was a bit of a wasted opportunity. This is the film’s greatest weakness; the subject of the film is very fascinating, but it’s as though the writers picked the least interesting part of his life to focus on. Despite this, I felt The Old Man & the Gun to be an above-average film overall and it was a reasonably high note to end a career on.

Rating: 6/10

The Cranes Are Flying by Mikhail Kalatozov (1957)

Boris and Veronika are a young couple from the Soviet Union madly in love with each other with the former even giving the latter the affectionate nickname Squirrel. Unfortunately, these good times are not to last. In an unexpected turn of events, Germany has invaded the Soviet Union, bringing the devastating Second World War to their front door. To Veronika’s sadness, her boyfriend volunteers to defend their homeland. She isn’t even given a chance to say goodbye before he is placed on the front lines.

The Cranes Are Flying is considered one of the greatest Soviet Union’s greatest films. Indeed, it is notable for being the only Soviet film to ever win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Naturally, having watched quite a few foreign films this year, I was interested in checking it out when I heard of its premise. I had seen World War II films from the perspective of the Americans, British, and even the Germans, but not the Russians, so I went into this with a highly positive attitude.

I’m glad I saw it because it is an amazingly good film. For historical context, The Cranes are Flying was released only four years after the death of Joseph Stalin. His death ushered in a period of liberalization in the Soviet Union. While a film made during his reign would be a propaganda piece glorifying the state, Mr. Kalatozov’s film has a mournful tone to it. For that matter, that aspect makes it stand out from the typical American production from around this time wherein war was glorified. It stands to reason – after all, the Soviet Union suffered far greater losses than any other nation in this conflict.

What I particularly like about this film is how it shows the horrors of war from the perspective of both the soldiers and the civilians. Boris fighting on the front lines is shown to be as unglamorous as was in real life, and he is suddenly killed in an unceremonious, realistic fashion. It is after this point that you realize Tatiana Samoilova, the actress playing Veronika, is the one who will carry this film to the end, and her performance is amazing. Though she doesn’t fight in the war, the trials and tribulations she goes through are every bit as traumatic.

To begin with, she and the rest of the civilians are forced to take refuge in the subway system once the German Blitzkrieg begins. During one such attack, Veronika’s parents, who refused to leave their apartment, are killed in the attack. It only gets worse for her from there because though Boris’s father, Fyodor, invites her to stay with them, she soon finds herself victim to the unwanted advances of Mark, the cousin of Boris. One implied sexual encounter shames her into marrying him, leading the family to believe she betrayed Boris. After that, she has to live in a shack in Siberia. Finally, at the end of the film when the war is over, she discovers that Boris is dead.

I give this film a lot of credit because while it puts its heroine though hell and though there isn’t a happy ending awaiting her, it doesn’t present this situation as a complete downer. Before that fateful moment, Fyodor having learned that Mark dodged the draft by bribing an official, kicked him out of the house. After learning of his son’s death, he comforts her, and she is ready to move on with her life, having accepted the reality she was presented with.

By dealing with these themes, The Cranes are Flying is a remarkably forward-looking film, allowing audiences at the time to finally come to grips with the fact that they lost millions of the population in the war. It’s easy to assume that it’s a propaganda piece given the time and place of its origin, but that’s an inaccurate assumption. Ms. Samoilova even recalled receiving a watch from her fans in East Germany. Inscribed upon it is a perfect summation of the film: “Finally we see on the Soviet screen a face, not a mask”. If you like films about World War II, this is certainly worth looking into. Even if you aren’t, it’s still worth watching if for no other reason than to gain that extra bit of perspective.

Rating: 7/10

Halloween by John Carpenter (1978)

On Halloween night of 1963 the town of Haddonfield, Illinois is disturbed upon learning of the murder of Judith Myers. The perpetrator of this horrific crime was none other than her little brother, Michael, dressed in a clown costume and mask. Fifteen years have passed since that incident. Child psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis arrives at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium along with Marion Chambers. To their surprise, they notice the patients wandering about. Marian is then accosted by a strange figure, though she is able to escape with her life. The figure then steals the car. Immediately, Dr. Loomis knows the person who escaped is none other than Michael Myers. Preparing for Halloween, Haddonfield remains unaware of its most infamous citizen’s homecoming.

The original Halloween can, at long last, be removed from that long list of films I had been interested in for the longest time yet never quite got around to seeing for some reason. Naturally, what motived me to finally take the plunge was when the 2018 version of Halloween was released. Much like how I saw the original Blade Runner around the time Blade Runner 2049 was released, I felt watching the 1978 Halloween was in order. Fortunately, from what I’ve heard, the 2018 Halloween ignores the treasure trove of sequels released within that forty-year timespan. I can’t completely fault executives for making that many sequels. After all, the original made over $60 million on a $300,000 budget |– not to mention the fact that it technically didn’t even have an ending|.

I’m glad I finally set aside the time to watch this film because I found it to be highly enjoyable. Halloween belongs in that same odd class of films as Animal House in that it proved highly influential, yet managed to stand above the works it clearly inspired. Though it’s shockingly tame by modern standards, I feel what allows Halloween to stand the test of time is that it actually reads like an ahead-of-its-time deconstruction of a typical slasher film. The main adult character is actively seeking out the killer, the violence is fairly realistic, and the local police actually take Loomis’s warnings seriously. The reason Loomis and Sheriff Bracket are rendered ineffectual in their stakeout boils down to a combination of bad luck and Michael’s unpredictable behavior.

Speaking of which, it’s impossible to talk about Halloween without mentioning its iconic villain. The first moment that took me aback was within the opening scene when Michael kills for the first time. It’s shown from Michael’s perspective, so I assumed his would-be victim would turn around and scream. Instead, she simply wonders why Michael is wearing a mask seconds before she is killed by him. This leads into what makes Michael Myers such an effective villain; we’re never given a clear motivation as to why he killed his sister or for his current rampage. It’s usually disappointing whenever a villain is evil for the sake of being evil, but this minimalistic approach renders Michael Myers more a supernatural force of nature than a character. When he is shown as a kid, he’s a perfectly ordinary-looking boy – a moment that is reflected at the end of the film when he is unmasked, revealing he looks like an ordinary-looking man in his early twenties. Yet it’s by giving him a plain name and unremarkable appearance that makes him terrifying. He’s the kind of evil person you could pass walking down the street without ever noticing.

While later slasher films would often deal with the paranormal, Halloween finds ways to make a horrifying situation out of mundanity. |The only abnormal thing about Michael Myers is that he can withstand a surprising amount of punishment, though he’s not quite invincible.| As it is, Halloween shows how much one can accomplish with the bare minimum of context. There’s a serial killer loose and the heroine happens to be babysitting at the time. It’s the kind of fear anyone could understand.

Rating: 7/10

One thought on “Reel Life #25: The Old Man & the Gun, The Cranes Are Flying, and Halloween (1978)

  1. Pingback: October 2018 in Summary: 2018’s Home Stretch | Extra Life

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