Saturday, October 14, 2017

Claude Sautet's DICTATOR'S GUNS reviewed

DICTATOR'S GUNS
L'arme à gauche 
1965, Something Weird Video
100m 41s, $10 DVD-R, $9.99 download

Reviewed by Special Request! 
While it's probably not the first thing that crosses anyone's mind when they think of Something Weird Video, the SWV catalogue is arguably the best resource around when it comes to finding English-friendly copies of European crime pictures. Eddie Constantine! Alain Delon! Jean-Paul Belmondo! Peter van Eyck! Roger Hanin! Giorgio Ardisson! They've got 'em all - just go to their online catalogue and browse the section called "Spies, Thighs and Private Eyes."

One of the very best examples of this genre, and one of the legitimately best films carried by SWV, DICTATOR'S GUNS is a French adaptation of an American novel called AGROUND, written by Charles Williams - whose hardboiled fiction has also been filmed by the likes of Orson Welles (THE DEEP, 1969; based on DEAD CALM - a suspenseful sequel to AGROUND revisiting the two principals), François Truffaut (CONFIDENTIALLY YOURS, 1983; based on THE LONG SATURDAY NIGHT) and Dennis Hopper (THE HOT SPOT, 1990; based on HELL HATH NO FURY). This is the English-dubbed version, which was never released theatrically in the United States, so it had to be culled from a cropped 16mm television syndication print. (The English version was theatrically released in Great Britain as GUNS FOR THE DICTATOR.)

 
If this film is ever properly rediscovered and accorded an official release by Criterion or some other arthouse label (which could well happen, as its director Claude Sautet also helmed such pictures as CÉSAR AND ROSALIE and Un Coeur en Hiver), it would almost certainly be issued only in French with English subtitles - which would be a tragedy, because this version is the only place to hear and savor the robust villainy of American actor Leo Gordon, who receives what may be his finest dramatic showcase in this picture. (As a curious footnote, Sautet also had an important screenwriting career, which included early work on Georges Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE - before Boileau-Narcejac got involved - which places him as one of the likelier suspects to have written the novel of the film credited to "Jean Redon.") This film shares its slowly ratcheting sense of suspense, which Franju likened to twisting the viewer's head off.

 
Lino Ventura plays Jacques Cournot, an out-of-work skipper sarcastically addressed as "Capitan," who is hired in Santa Domingo by a businessman to inspect a boat called "The Dragon," which is up for sale. He returns to the man who hired him, a playboy type named Hugo Hendrix (Alberto de Mendoza), and gives a positive report and recommends that he propose a counter-offer to Mrs. Rae Osborn (Sylva Koscina), the owner of the vessel. Hendrix claims to have sent a check for $65,000 to Mrs. Osborn but she denies receiving it, and Cournot soon finds himself embroiled in police business for his participation in the deal, as Hendrix disappears along with "The Dragon." Rae asks to meet with Cournot and together they decide to track the boat by hired plane. They find it run aground on a small island in the Caribbean, inhabited not only by Hendrix but also a group of armed smugglers led by Art Morrison (Leo Gordon), who stole the ship to transport seven tons of guns, rifles and ammunition. His cohorts include Ruiz (Antonio Martín) and the expert knife-thrower Keefer (played by someone billed in English as Jack Leonard - who is not the American comedian Jack E. Leonard, as the IMDb misreports). 

Once the film's action reaches the boat, it remains limited to the boat and a small island, where the men proceed to laboriously unload more than 30 crates of arms in an effort to lighten the boat and get it back into the water. In the process of this arduous work, some characters die or are injured, and there are also attempts by Cournot and Mrs. Osborn to escape and/or outwit Morrison, who is eventually trapped on the islet in possession of all the weapons and ammunition, which make "The Dragon" something of a shooting gallery that our protagonists must survive while simultaneously brainstorming ways to move the boat to move out of harm's way. It would be wrong to describe what these maneuvers are; it's best to let the film and its nerve-jangling suspense surprise you. That said, the film is equally remarkable for holding one's attention despite being staged with extreme economy, and for braving the elements as its does. The boat setting and the rising tension recalls Polanski's KNIFE IN THE WATER at times, but this is anything but a psychological drama; think ARGOSY Magazine pulp made with the directorial finesse of a PURPLE NOON. This is a Something Weird title that I can unreservedly recommend to anyone.


(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.
 

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