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A Conversation with George Pelecanos: Part II

Part II of the conversation with George Pelecanos celebrating the publication of THE CUT, which the Chicago Sun Times recommends, “Soak it up.” The Washington Post praises Pelecanos’s ability to “maintain a remarkably high level of intelligence and style” and the Los Angeles Times appreciates that “Pelecanos has made Washington his literary stomping grounds, and he gets granular in THE CUT…as clear as if he’d drawn you a map.” If you missed Part I, start reading here.

WALLACE STROBY: I think, for a certain generation of writers, a lot of our work has been influenced by films we saw during our formative years in the 1970s. What are your five favorite crime films of the ‘70s, and why?

GEORGE PELECANOS: THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971). Not just a film wrapped around a car chase, but an evocative time capsule of ‘70s New York, and an unflinching look at an obsessive cop.  Like the up-on-coke sequence of GOODFELLAS, Friedkin’s kinetic style puts us directly into the fevered mind of Popeye Doyle.  And there’s that chase.

THE GETAWAY (1972). Peckinpah directs the Walter Hill adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel with signature style. Steve McQueen is believable as a tough guy who just got out of prison and wants his due.  With a flawless supporting cast and a bang-up climax involving shotguns, an old hotel, gunmen arriving in a big convertible, and Al Lettieri, the screen’s greatest vulgarian. I know all about Thompson’s ending versus Peckinpah’s, but no one should bitch about the film’s last scene; it’s damn near perfect.

ROLLING THUNDER (1977). Vietnam vet William Devane returns home to a world he no longer understands and gets his hand shoved down a garbage disposal by home invaders. Devane sharpens the hook on the end of his arm, cuts down a shotgun, and goes to work. John Flynn, directing from a Paul Schrader script, crafts a slow-building actioner and elicits ace performances from all concerned, most notably blaxploitation veteran Linda Haynes, Luke Askew as Automatic Slim, and Tommy Lee Jones as Devane’s damaged, loyal war buddy. Watch Devane and Jones blow the shit out of their enemies in a whorehouse at the film’s climax. “I’ll just get my gear.”

CHARLEY VARRICK (1973).  Don Siegel’s thief-unwittingly-steals-from-the-mob movie is first-rate entertainment featuring the director’s crackerjack stock troupe of character actors.  Walter Matthau plays the title role with understated cool, and Joe Don Baker is memorable as a killer named Molly. I proudly own a T-shirt that reads, “The Last of the Independents.”  It’s written on Charley’s flight suit, which figures prominently in the film’s last shot.

DIRTY HARRY (1971).  Siegel again, directing Eastwood. Yeah, it was popular, but there was a reason it hit a public nerve. A studio film with this kind of lead character was truly anarchic and would never be greenlit today. Pauline Kael trashed it, which made me want to see it twice.  She hated STRAW DOGS, too.

Continue reading “A Conversation with George Pelecanos: Part II”

’70s paranoia thrillers and why we need them now more than ever . . .

It was never going to last that long. Golden ages rarely do. But for a while there in the 1970s, that’s what we had.

Ten years after Richard Hofstadter coined the phrase “the paranoid style” (in a lecture he delivered just days before JFK was assassinated), the national traumas of Vietnam and Watergate were in full swing. Hofstadter’s point was that “they” weren’t out to get you at all — you really were being paranoid. But by the early ’70s, this paradigm had been shattered. The point now was that they really were out to get you, whether you knew it or not, and generally you didn’t until it was too late.

This dark mood of suspicion and disillusionment was reflected at the time in a glorious run of movies — including Alan J. Pakula’s great troika Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men; Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor; and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. In an almost fetishized landscape of impersonal architecture and encroaching technology (with taut, dread-laden scores, usually by Michael Small or David Shire), these movies chart the gradual alienation and disempowerment of the individual in modern society, the stripping away of privacy, and the growing influence of shadowy power structures.

Although very different from these, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (sun-drenched 1930s L.A., unforgettable noir score by Jerry Goldsmith) is perhaps the greatest of them all. That moment at the end when Lieutenant Lou Escobar instructs Loach to handcuff J.J. Gittes to the wheel of a car, thus rendering him powerless to determine the outcome of events, was a major psychological turning point in American cinema, and it mirrored the greater shift going on outside the movie theater. It was like a changing of the guard. Here, suddenly, were serious, challenging stories where the individual had no moral compass anymore and could casually be crushed by malign, unknown forces.

Continue reading “’70s paranoia thrillers and why we need them now more than ever . . .”

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