Petla (2020) ****

Ambitious young cop succumbs to corruption in a battle royal in Polish pimpland.

Director Patryk Vega is the bad boy of Polish filmmaking, a far cry from the austere heights of the arthouse-acclaimed Andrej Wadja (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958) or Krzysztof Kielowski (The Three Colours trilogy, 1993-1994). However, what’s often forgotten in our consumption of foreign films is that what we see are films that have been commercial hits in their own country – Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), for example, was the biggest film of the year in its native Italy. But, somehow, with the advent of the arthouse circuit that approach to distribution seems to have passed us by. Although huge hits in Poland, Vega’s films are not only hard to find on the big screen but rarely reviewed.

Petla follows second generation cop Danila (Antoni Krolikowski) from innocence to depravity to redemption in a high-octane thriller. Even Scorsese and Tarantino would wince at some of the violence shown here but then Vega is dealing with a more vicious type of gangster than even the worst of the American Mafia or run-of-the-mill nuthead and, equally, has little truck with the pretentiousness that often mars the work of these two. Vega wants to tell a story and he does John Wick-style it with verve and pace.

Danila wants to be elevated to the prestigious detective division without putting in a decade of plodding. So he recruits twin minor Russian gangsters, wiping clean their slate in return for inside information on bigger criminals, in this case terrorists. At this point he is an upstanding, courageous cop, dealing with ineffectual superiors and often idiotic colleagues. Married, his wife expecting their first child, he resists temptation of the sexual variety.

Initial success leads him into the Subcarpathian netherworld of sex for sale and he comes up with the bright idea of taking control of a brothel where he can spy on the rich and powerful clientele with the idea of exposing the ministers, businessmen, priests and government officials who use the premises. Soon high ideals turn into individual enterprise and, funded by the Russian GRU, he sets up a high class brothel, the Imperium, to film the goings-on and blackmail the clients. He begins a slide into excess that leads to paranoia and loss.

Getting to this stage involves a fair deal of elimination of the opposition, including an extremely violent Englishman, Ukrainian thugs and a prominent boxer. Sometimes pure violence is the optimum method but occasionally it is psychology, seducing, for example, the abused wife of the boxer in order to parade the romance, a technique that results in the mental disintegration of the seemingly invincible prizefighter.

But Danila has enemies. In true Vega style, these usually start out the film as friends or sexual partners. In this instance a female prosecutor Alicja (Katarzyna Warnke from Botoks) is on his case in revenge for being cast aside.  

One of the hallmarks of a Vega film is that women often come out on top, previous examples being Botoks (2017) and Mafia Women (2018). While there is certainly a lot of misogyny and in Petla, in particular, the whores are treated abominably, he has put the spotlight on a whole tribe of strong women who show as little remorse as their male counterparts and are as equally likely to endorse or participate in brutal acts of violence. Here, to get Danila’s wife to rat him out, the prosecutor arranges for the wife to be seduced by a handsome stranger.

Both genders are treated with compassion, another Vega hallmark. When Danila descends into paranoia, Vega cleverly switches the audience away from delight at this retribution into sympathy for his predicament once he begins to seek redemption. In truth, he has earlier been portrayed as a rounded individual, his delight at becoming a father very evident. Men are never so good at emotion as women and it is the shots of the distraught Alicja that put us firmly on her side even though she is originally portrayed as ruthless in matters of the heart, demanding that Danila cast his wife aside (“I don’t like competition”) before enjoying her sexual favors.  

And it would not be Vega without swipes at official incompetence and limelight-seeking bosses. Danila’s boss ignores his first anti-criminal triumphs because they were not media-friendly and at one point the entrapment and capture of a terrorist by said boss has to be done again because the cameras did not work first time round.  

Black humor is never far away, either. As a beginner cop, Danila is told never to look into the eyes of a dead person. So he is relieved to find that the first corpse he encounters has his head blown off. Farmers threaten to stab him with a pitchfork unless he gives the kiss of life to a dying man – blowing air into the man’s mouth only results in blood flowing faster from his wound. Cops routinely make stupid errors. Invading a thug’s house stun grenades missing the target deafen the cops instead.

And the film has a sting in the tail, the enterprise turning out not in the way it was surmised. Petla is based on a true story, although Vega has clearly taken liberties with the reality. Even if wholly fictional, it would be believable, Vega having the ability to invest the maddest of schemes with authenticity because the characters in his pictures are invariably so human and believable. the title, by the way, is translated as Noose.

There are a couple of anomalies in the film’s marketing. The poster is pretty explicit “sex is power” but the trailer focuses instead on Danila and his wife with sex and violence very muted.

Polish films are hard to come by on the big screen. Sometimes they only play a couple of days in a particular cinema. I saw this as the second part of my Monday night double bill this week – the other film being Bill and Ted Face the Music – but whereas I caught the first at the Odeon I had to high tail it to a Cineworld to catch the Polish film.

If you want to sample Vega’s wares before committing to a big screen outing you can see his debut Pitbull (2005) on Youtube.

Masquerade (1965) ***

Made just before director Basil Dearden embarked on Khartoum (1965), this is probably best-known these days for being screenwriter – and ace self-publicist – William Goldman’s first credit. It’s based on Castle Minerva by Victor Canning whose previous filmed books included The Golden Salamander (1950) with Trevor Howard, The Venetian Bird (1952)  with Richard Todd, and The House of the Seven Hawks (1959) with Robert Taylor.

I’d like to say this is a self-aware thriller with spy and comedic elements but it veers awful close to either a cult film or a mess. Basic story has Cliff Robertson hired by former wartime commander and now British intelligence agent Jack Hawkins to look after an Arab princeling who has been kidnapped by the British (so much for Brits always being on the side of the angels) to help seal an oil concession in the Gulf.

Theoretically, the kidnapping is for the teenager’s own good, to prevent him being assassinated before he ascends to the throne…see it’s getting awfully complicated already. Anyway, it turns out he actually has been kidnapped by Hawkins who has turned rogue in order to fund his retirement. The boy is held in some kind of fortress/castle in Spain and then another more sinister one.

Robertson, who looks half the time as if wondering how the hell he got into this, meantime falls for the seductive charms of Marisa Mell who he thinks is a smuggler intent on stealing his boat but a) is part of the kidnap gang and b) in love with him enough to help him escape when he in turn is captured.

Did I mention the film also included a circus, a clown act, a gunfight on a dam, characters left dangling on a rope bridge, a lady in red, a balancing act along a perilous ledge, entrapment in a wine tanker (huh?) and an animal cage (double huh?), a vulture, men in bowler hats…

It is enlivened by visual gags – ultra-large footprints (from somebody wearing flippers). The dialogue sparkles as when the prince, with an overactive entitlement gland, says, “I am practically divine,” to which Hawkins deadpans “Your Highness, you are irresistible.” Add to that various cliché-twisting scenes – the double-dealing Marisa Mell now overcome by love, says to Robertson: “Ask me anything you want and I will tell you the truth,” but every question he asks solicits the response, “I don’t know.” Then, imprisoned in a cage, after protracted cobbling together of lengths of bamboo to steal keys they turn out to be the wrong keys.

Throw in British propriety  – Robertson’s substantial fee for risking his life is reduced to a miserable sum once tax has been deducted. And a superb Arab charge on horseback with tracking cameras, either a rehearsal for Khartoum or the scene that got Dearden the gig.

Actually, the more I write about it the more fun it sounds and I wish it were, but it does not quite gel. Robertson and Mell don’t convince – Robertson talks through gritted teeth without suggesting he has much inner grit – although Hawkins and other British stalwarts like Charles Gray and Bill Fraser and Frenchman Michel Piccoli deliver the goods. It should have been a straightforward three-star job or – if qualifying as a cult – in the five-star class. It is definitely not an outright stinker. Perhaps best filed under “curiosity.”

The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl / La Louve Solitaire (1968) ***

Unless you were a fan of the more permissive pictures at the end of the 1960s or kept a close eye on the gossip columns – or for that matter Playboy magazine – you were unlikely to have come across slinky blonde Daniele Gaubert. A former teen model and supporting actress in a number of French and Italian films at the start of the 1960s, she had a brief brush with Hollywood as Yul Brynner’s girlfriend in United Artists’ Flight from Ashiya (1964) but then married Rhadames Trujillo, son of the Dominican Republic dictator. The year after The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl she starred in Radley Metzger’s provocative Camille 2000 which set pulses racing especially at the censor’s office. Then marriage beckoned again, this time to French Olympic triple gold medallist skier Jean-Claude Killy with whom she made her last picture The Snow Job (1972) also known, depending on where you lived, as The Ski Raiders and The Great Ski Caper.

She only made eighteen movies but The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl is by far the standout. A taut thriller with plenty of twists and stylish action scenes, the French-Italian co-production  was the only film of documentary film maker Edouard Logerau and that background helps shape the movie with many of the most thrilling sequences lacking musical accompaniment.

Female empowerment is not normally associated with crime, given that organized crime is generally organized by men. But burglary is a different matter, lending itself to non-gender-specific individual enterprise. Though there are safes to break, there’s no glass ceiling in this brand of thievery.

Gaubert plays a cat burglar ironically known as “the lone wolf” (as in the original title) who is forced to trade her freedom by stealing a cache of drugs for the police in order to apprehend a criminal mastermind (Sacha Pitoeff). (Maybe this notion inspired Luc Besson’s Nikita.)  Her sidekick is Michael Duchaussoy, seconded from his usual job as an embassy press attache, on the grounds that he can lip-read (which proves more than a gimmick as the plot unfolds).

Given that this was all shot “in camera” – Christopher Nolan’s favourite phrase – without the benefit of CGI or, so it would appear, much in the way of bluescreen, the burglary scenes are pretty impressive. For a kick-off, Gaubert is a sexy as you can get in a skin-tight cat-suit. Furthermore, her character calls on skills from her previous occupation as a trapeze artist. While the director doesn’t match Hitchcock’s in the tension-racking stakes, the sheer verve of the burglary takes the breath away. The first burglary – before she is caught – takes place at a fancy chateau where a party is in full swing (owners in residence less likely to take extra precautions to hide their valuables), Gaubert nips over a wall, slips up a tree,  uses a line thrower (a type of harpoon) to connect tree to building, and then proceeds to walk along the tightrope. Mission accomplished, she zooms off in a sports car, only stopping to remove false tyre treads and strip out of her costume before hiding her ill-gotten gains in a secret compartment at the back of the fridge.

High-wire act for the first burglary.

The police burglary is in an office block. She and the lip-reader are holed up in an apartment opposite watching via a telescope. Although they pass the time in gentle flirtation, especially as she favours revealing outfits, she is not quite as imprisoned as it might seem and is already hatching her own plans to outwit her captors. This burglary is even more dangerous, in the pouring rain for a start, across Parisian rooftops, and involving a trapeze and ropes.

Thereafter, plot twists come thick and fast after this. She escapes to Switzerland, pursued by lip-reader (to whom she has clearly formed an attachment), cops and furious drug runners. Eventually re-captured she agree to another official burglary as a way of finally trapping Mr Big.

The tone is lightened by repartee and some interesting characterization. The lone wolf turns out to have very strong principles that prevent her just running off. Mr Big is a stamp aficionado. A lava lamp is turned into a weapon. Instead of counting to five before killing someone, a bad guy does the countdown according to the number of people diving into a swimming pool. Gaubert fools her captors into thinking they have a flat tyre by dangling her handbag over the edge of the door until it bumps into the tyre and makes the thwock-thwock of a burst tyre. “Survivors give me goose flesh,” quips a thug.

The closest comparison is not Hitchcock but Danger: Diabolik (1968) featuring John Philip Law which has a definite comic book riff. And you might also point to Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966) or even, for a self-contained independent woman, to Raquel Welch’s Fathom (1967. But this lone wolf is ice-cold. Blonde is not enough. She is one step ahead of the law and the criminals. There are hints of a tragic past – a trapeze artists requires a partner, for example.

Chase across the rooftops of Paris for the breathless finale.

The last shot has Genault triumphant on a Paris rooftop. There is a nod to Hitchcock (think Rear Window) in the use of a telescopic framing device for many scenes, giving them a voyeuristic aspect. Sure, a bigger budget and a better supporting cast – and perhaps a more obvious romance – might have lifted the picture but Genault’s presence ensures that the film does not lack style. Definitely deserves a more appreciative audience.

Point Blank (1967)****

The Man With Half A Name doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as The Man With No Name. Lee Marvin’s professional thief Walker (first name absent) is a close cousin of the spaghetti western’s amoral gunslinger. But where Leone is disinclined to fill in the emotional blanks in his anti-hero’s story, British director John Boorman, making his Hollywood debut, feels obliged to look for redemptive features in keeping with American tradition.

Along with several unnecessary arty elements, that gets in the way of a brilliant character portrait. The movie also suffers from critical assessment, not in the manner of bad reviews, but from an irrelevant and misleading insistence on discovering  the film’s “true meaning.”

However, where Boorman gets it right, the movie is a cracker. The bursts of brutal explosive violence still shock, Walker a force as unstoppable as The Terminator, while representing the Mafia as a faceless corporation is a stunning concept. Walker refuses to recognize the dictum that there is no honor among thieves and expects repaid the money stolen from him by a Mafia henchman. In his mind payment will come either in cash or retribution. There is double-crossing aplenty, but Walker is ready for it.

Boorman’s palette is fascinating, the grey bleakness of early scenes giving way to yellow (even the pillar in a parking garage is painted yellow) and other colors. And he has learned from Hitchcock how to apply silence and use natural sound effects like footsteps.

But there are some changes to Richard Stark’s original novel that the movie can do without. The introduction of the abandoned Alcatraz, for a start, is an illogical nonsense, cinematically stylistic though it is. Walker, as shown in the original novel is far too clever to allow himself to be led to a place so open to ambush. Nor would he allow himself to be emotionally blackmailed into doing the job that caused the trouble; he would have walked away from someone as unstable as the double-crossing Mal Reese (John Vernon).

The ambiguous ending, where Walker appears to fade away, issues unresolved, also attracted odd critical theories when, having spent ninety minutes demonstrating the gangster’s destructive capacity, it seems more likely to me that the two Mafia gents left alone with him on Alcatraz would be in the greater peril.

That said, the rest of the picture has an inbuilt dynamic and Marvin’s laconic menacing performance is mesmeric. By comparison Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen was garrulous. The original novel was called The Hunter and Walker ruthlessly stalks his prey even though they are some of the most dangerous men alive. Angie Dickinson is dropped in to provide some emotional core and a scene of him as a younger man courting his wife is along the same lines. Ignore the arthouse elements and run a mile from critical theories and you are in for one hell of a ride.