Monday, January 11, 2010

9) Wolfen (1981)

9) Wolfen (1981) Dir: Michael Wadleigh Date Released: July 1981 Date Seen: January 10, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

Wolfen is a striking predecessor and more than likely an under-appreciated influence on Michael Mann's signature style of hyper-sensual filmmaking. Wolfen was released three years before Mann's Miami Vice began and five years before Manhunter, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Wolfen, especially in the latter film's action sequences and director Michael Wadleigh's use of ultra-violet photography to show what Manhattan looks like through the eyes of a lycanthrope. The very concept of having predatory creatures, especially wolves, roaming the streets of Manhattan and pouncing on people in slow motion while Det. Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) and a few good men, in this case unconventional cops that use heat vision scopes and new sound technology to help them sense things that wolves perceive naturally ("You got your technology but you lost your senses"), learn to identify with the wolves and accept them, has Mann's name written all over it.

What separates Wolfen from Manhunter, which is still one of his most stylistically mature and engaging films, is the fact that the former film strikes a more emotive and infinitely more seductive pose. Wolfen has a very pulpy heart, having been adapted from Whitley Strieber's novel by David Eyre and an uncredited Eric Roth, and it breaks down rather neatly along dime novel conventions (The fact that we alternate between Wilson's POV and the wolves' is especially striking; it's a sleazily literary trope that works better on cheap paper than on the silver screen). Wilson is a wisecracking, sour dick on the outs with the police force that plays by his own rules and shares his insights with partners Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) and Whittington (Gregory Hines). He's New York's answer to Dave Robicheaux: outwardly sleazy but thoughtfully analytic and armed with more connections than he needs. The film's anti-climactic ending leaves room* for future stories with the character, drastically diverting the trajectory of the investigation from identifying and explaining the recent rash of murders in the city to understanding how they affect Wilson, the man investigating them. The answers Eyre and Roth provide aren't particularly enlightening as they conform to Mann's tendency to have his characters look terribly ruminative to reflect their skin-deep world-weariness. But detective stories are never about answers so much as they are about acquiring them.

Wolfen is a slick little procedural that walks like a horror flick. Wadleigh turns Mann's characteristic displays of relatively raw sensory stimulation on its head. Here, the inability to construct an intelligible picture of the world according to the wolves beyond a beautiful, ever-shifting pool of cascading noises and liquid hues, is terrifying. That kind of overloaded aesthetic is seductive, yes, but it's also tainted with emotional excess. Our view of the city as a wolf oozes with sensation and hence isn't sensibly coherent because it's a flood of lights and sounds, making it an exciting and memorably gaudy view of the city after dark.

*I'm not going to say that it sets up another story with Wilson but it does allow the viewer to think that there could be more stories where Wolfen came from. I really wish that were true.

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