The Two Faces of January isn’t just a movie set in 1962; it’s a movie which feels like it was made then, and somehow kept in a sealed casket till now. And I don’t mean that they expertly captured the little tics and signifiers of the time. There have been a lot of movies recently which dived into the recent past and tried to capture its feel. No matter how well they got the look of the era, they were still modern films with a modern sensibility; to take a case in point, American Hustle evokes the 70s perfectly, but it would never have been MADE in the 70s. The Two Faces of January could have made right in the time it depicts; it’s faithful to Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel in all the right ways.
I’d have enjoyed it even if it hadn’t been very good. Half the dialogue is in Greek, and I still find spoken Greek strangely comforting. I think it’s actually supposed to make us feel uneasy and out of our depth like Chester and Colette, not knowing who they can really trust or even whether they’re being sold out by the people they’re talking to. But since I could follow all the dialogue - at least up until the action moved to Istanbul - I was probably missing out on part of the atmosphere. Didn’t matter. Had fun. Greek cheers me up.
It’s a three hander; middle aged dodgy stock dealer Chester and his younger wife Colette are in Greece on what’s either a grand tour of Europe or the slowest getaway in the history of getaways; Colette certainly doesn’t know which, but sometimes it seems that even Chester isn’t sure. They fall in briefly with Rydell, an American kid scraping along on a mixture of his savings and whatever he can scam from credulous tourists when they fall for his spiel as a tour guide and are dumb enough to let him do the negotiating with Greek traders. Rydell seems at first to be another Highsmith’s amoral young Americans wreaking heartless havoc in Europe, and I spent the first half of the movie waiting for him to Ripley Chester and Colette to an early grave. But before long Chester’s dodgy past catches up with him and they’re relying on Rydell to get them out of Greece one step ahead of a murder hunt. And it’s obvious from the get go that Rydell’s about one page ahead of them in the big book of how to get out of Greece with the cops on your tail. He’s no Ripley, and while Chester doesn’t know Greece, nor is he a helpless target.
Clearly, it’s all going to end badly for somebody, maybe for everybody, but the tension lies in trying to figure out just how bad it’s going to get, and for who. Making all that work is down to good writing and three strong performances in the centre; the movie works because they could each of them believably go either way, towards redemption or the dark side, and the actors are good enough to make it matter which way it will go.