The Informer 2020 ****

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Set for a U.S. release in January 2020, The Informer is a tough, old school crime opus that’s been delayed several times, but is well worth the wait. Andrea di Stefano’s thriller is sold on its connections to Sicario and John Wick, but there’s a down-and-dirty feel about the espionage featured here that’s located somewhere bwteen Homeland and John le Carre. Joel Kinnaman plays Peter Koslow, a special ops undercover agent who is embedded in an FBI mission to shake-down drugs elements in the NYC/Polish community. Koslow has a wife (Blade Runner 2049’s Ana de Armas) and kid to protect, so when a routine pick-up of a diplomatic bag full of drugs goes south, Koslow is forced to witness the death of a cop. This brings in interest from the NYPD’s Grens (rapper Common), who is keen to find out how the cop died and who is responsible; Koslow’s handlers (Rosamund Pike and Clive Owens) seek to contain the mess, but Koslow engineers his own passage out via an audacious prison break. Based on the novel Three Seconds by Roslund/Hellstrom, The Informer’s generic title hides a sober, intensely gripping thriller that’s something of an antidote to much of the silver-screen’s childish fare; the fights are brutal and the stakes are high. Look elsewhere for choreography and stunts, because The Informer makes a virtue of feeling like a real-world story. With a well-known cast well used for once, The Informer’s hard-as-nails attitude makes it one of the best thrillers of the year.

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The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion **** 1970

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The titles of classic 1970’s giallo can be quite abstract, so it’s something of a relief when Luciano Ercoli’s Barcelona-set drama turns out to be about forbidden photos of a lady above suspicion. The lady in question is Minou, played by Dagmar Lassander, who is introduced planning to tell her industrialist husband Peter (Pier Paulo Cappoli) that she’s leaving him for another man; she sees this as a way of keeping him keen. Before she can get this plan into action, she receives a warning that her husband is a murderer, and is guided to a cassette-recording of him ordering the death of a man using the decompression chamber essential to deep-sea divers. But that’s only the first piece of bait in an elaborate blackmail plot; but who is responsible? Does mutual friend and lover Dominique (Nieves Navarro) have anything to do with it? The prolific Ernesto Gastaldi is the screenwriter here, and he weaves a story of unusual restraint for a giallo; violence and murder take a back seat to intrigue and suspense, and a conclusion that’s both surprising and inevitable in Mametian terms. There’s also an air of sexual expression that’s fairly wild; women invite each other over to watch projected slideshows of their latest nude photographs. Incidental pleasures include a nightclub straight out of Austin Powers and a groovy lounge-core score from Ennio Morricone. If some giallos seem a little nasty, Forbidden Photos is a good example of a non-exploitive one; there’s a touch of Breaking The Waves about the way the female protagonist links her own degradation to her husband’s well-being. It’s a stylish, perverse entertainment, and looks great on this fresh transfer, currently streaming on the Arrow channel.

Bad Times at the El Royale 2018 ***

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Writer and director Drew Goddard offers up an all-star, single-location thriller that looked like a Tarantino-lite knock-off from the trailer, but mines it’s own unique seam of neo-noir drama. A number of different parties converge on the remote and isolated El Royale Hotel, including suspicious priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), Charles Manson-like serial killer Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) and an assortment of others including John Hamm, Dakota Johnson and Cynthia Erivo. There’s buried treasure at stake, but the hotel itself, built over a state border and previously used for nefarious surveillance purposes, has a few secrets of its own. At nearly two and a half hours, Bad Times at the El Royale has a few longeurs, and there’s also some big revelations and genuine tension, particularly in the first half when motivations are still obscure. Goddard’s slow-burn tension doesn’t require any comparisons; he’s flying a flag for old-fashioned crime fiction, and approached in the right mind-set, the twists and turns of El Royale are well worth following

Blood and Black Lace 1964 ***

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One of the less celebrated entries in Mario Bava’s canon, Blood and Black Lace is a sure-footed thriller that deserves to be compared to Hitchcock; the sequence involving a handbag containing a crucial clue to a murder, left unattended during a fashion show, is as tense and elegant as any of Hitchcock’s post-Psycho work. Contessa Cristina (Eva Bartok) and Max (Cameron Mitchell) are attempting to run a swanky fashion house when a serial killer strikes, and find themselves amongst the suspects. Light on violence but heavy with tension, Bava’s 1964 film is an ideal starting point for giallo fans; beautifully made, it’s an absorbing mystery with the director’s trademark flourishes all in evidence.