Saturday, August 18, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: HOT PEPPER (1933)

Marine Corps Captain Jim Flagg (aka "the Admiral" or "His Flagship") and Sergeant Harry Quirt were created by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings for the 1924 play What Price Glory? The 1926 film version, directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Victor McLaglen as Flagg and Edmund Lowe as Quirt, was a blockbuster hit, in part because of the implicit invitation to lip-read dialogue far more risque than you could read on the intertitles. By the time Walsh made a sequel, The Cock-Eyed World, in 1929, talkies had arrived and there was no more silent subtext; you had to take the characters at face value. This, too, was a hit, and Walsh, McLaglen and Lowe carried on with 1931's Women of All Nations, which saw the boys fightin' round the world. Fox Film went to the well one more time, without Walsh, in 1933, finally rising to the challenge of what to do with Flagg and Quirt as civilians. John G. Blystone directed, and not badly, while a team including Dudley Nichols came up with the obvious solution to the big question. Flagg and Quirt would become gangsters.

There's an oddity in the billing, with female lead Lupe Velez, playing the title character, wedged in between top billed Lowe and third billed McLaglen -- though as you'll see in our movie ad, in some places Velez was the main attraction. Of course, women always did get between Quirt and Flagg but the hierarchy seems odd since Victor McLaglen is sort of remembered today while Edmund Lowe almost certainly isn't. Anyway, the boys are finally going to try their luck in civilian life. Quirt gets a head start by cheating Flagg out of a bankroll with loaded dice, but to be fair Flagg forced the dice on him, thinking that simpleton Olsen (the ever-enigmatic El Brendel) would carry fair dice but not knowing that Quirt had gifted Olsen the loaded pair. Three years later, despite this setback, Flagg has become a successful, limo-riding bootlegger with a chain of speakeasies and floozies on each arm, while Quirt is a shabby schmoe who nearly gets run-over by his old buddy's Olsen-driven vehicle. It develops, however, that Quirt is a master shakedown artist, taking advantage of the gullibility of gangland by flashing novelty-store badges, first at Quirt and then at crooked card player Trigger (Boothe Howard), in anticipation of big bribes.

Flagg soon has a bigger problem than Quirt. A stowaway on one of his rum-running ships can get him in trouble with the immigration authorities, who seem more threatening at least in this gangster's mind than all the enforcers of Prohibition. The stowaway is Pepper (Velez) in full spitfire mode, which is pretty much what you need to deal with such master mashers as Flagg and Quirt. Once Quirt gets wind of this situation it's just one more thing he has on Flagg, but he's willing to take a chance on Pepper in more ways than one. Stealing her away from Flagg, and tricking his erstwhile buddy into a short stay in jail, Quirt gets into the niteclub business with Pepper as his star attraction, even though the place has a French theme. Pepper puts on quite a show, pretty much giving Quirt a lap dance right in front of an irate Flagg, who's returned expected elite treatment but is getting set up for another rip-off. Alas, Quirt can't flaunt his triumph for long; he's tipped off by a war-buddy turned cop that there's going to be a clean sweep of all the speakeasies the next day, but before he can think of selling out he has to deal once and for all with both Flagg and Trigger, who still wants the ten grand Quirt took from him earlier in the picture. At first Flagg is willing to let Trigger give Quirt the works, but some Marine instinct kicks in and he can't allow his comrade in arms to be treated that way. This sets up a climactic brawl in which Flagg, Quirt, Pepper and Olsen lay waste to a small army of gangsters with more chair shots than an ECW wrestling show.That leaves only the matter of who gets Pepper, but when the boys decide to settle it peacefully with a coin flip, Pepper decides she doesn't want either of them. "You can't have this head or this tail," she says of herself before storming off. With Repeal imminent, as the film accurately prophecies, there's nothing left for Flagg and Quirt but to revert to warrior ways. They hire out to the Chinese army, ending the film on a slightly embarrassing note with the burlesque assertion that "Ah, Nuts" and "Ah, Phooey" are legitimate drill commands in Chinese.

In its amoral exuberance Hot Pepper is a textbook pre-Code picture, with Velez putting it over the top not only with her lap dance but also with an earlier scene where she seduces Flagg with a protracted striptease on a long, winding staircase, stepping out of frame to let the next bit of scanties come sliding down the bannister. As Flagg and Quirt McLaglen and Lowe are pretty much the definitive ball-busting frenemies, as purely comic a team as the Marx Bros. or Wheeler and Woolsey yet clearly capable of murdering all the competition in that category with their bare hands. You rarely ever see movie clowns so convincingly thuggish apart maybe from the Fast and Furious films. With those two and Velez dominating the action El Brendel is kept to an endurable minimum and the film is more enjoyable as a result. Strange, then, that while McLaglen and Lowe teamed up for several more films this marked the end of Flagg and Quirt (on screen at least; the actors recreated the characters on radio) until they were rebooted by John Ford in 1952. Maybe, as the end of Hot Pepper suggests, there was nothing more to be done with the characters but throw them back into the military milieu; and maybe Fox lost the rights to the characters. Whatever the studio execs were thinking, it probably was for the best because with Hot Pepper as a representative vehicle it's hard to imagine what would have become of Flagg and Quirt in the era of Code Enforcement, except to guess that it would not have been good.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

KNIFE OF ICE (Il coltello di ghiaccio, 1972)

For four years, and over four films, erstwhile Hollywood "Baby Doll" Carroll Baker was the muse of Italian director Umberto Lenzi. Knife of Ice was the last of their collaborations, and apparently an effort by the producers to get in, quite late, on the Edgar Allan Poe racket. The title is allegedly rooted in a Poe line describing fear as a "knife of ice," but if you google that phrase and the name Poe, all you get are references to the Lenzi film. Whatever. It looks like they took footage from Francesco Rosi's Moment of Truth to lend a touch of morbid spectacle to the opening credits as Baker's character, Martha, watches a bullfight. Lenzi spares Baker a trip to the dubbing studio this time by making her character a hysterical mute, traumatized since childhood by the death of her parents. I suppose it's because she's not deaf that she's never learned sign language, communicating instead mostly by pantomime, sometimes by writing notes, and on the telephone by rapping on the mouthpiece in a manner presumably intelligible to her intimates. She receives a gift in the form of a recording she made as a little girl, a morbid recitation about a trial and execution. In short order, people around her start dying.

Il coltello is more a whodunit than a giallo, as there are no setpiece kills. Rather, bodies are found after the fact and clues collected mostly pointing toward some local Satanic cult. When an irreverent hippie is caught skulking around he looks all too guilty, but as the killings continue he proves a red herring. There are more likely suspects, according to movie logic, in Martha's inner circle, from the family doctor to an uncle with eccentric scholarly interests. Martha herself seems to be losing it, constantly flashing back to eyes watching her and the friends and loved ones she's lost, as someone finally comes for her.

Who done it? Could it be Satan??? 

There's some nice suspenseful business toward the end as Martha, feeling threatened, tries to make noise to get the attention of a motorcyclist, only to have the sounds drowned out by his revving engine. As clutching hands close in on her, Martha finally screams, and for a moment I thought the film was going to prove a tremendous fakeout with people pretending to be murdered so the poor woman could get her voice back. It turns out, however -- take this as a spoiler warning -- that the restoration of Martha's speech is only a side effect, the real purpose of the final attack being to take the true murderer into custody. You see, Martha didn't like it that some people could speak while she couldn't and so, possibly unbeknownst to herself, she occasionally killed them, including a beloved niece. She could confess all this in writing, so the only benefit of getting her voice back is that now, apparently totally bonkers, Martha can recite the bit from her childhood recording. None of this explains why someone had to come at her like a strangler, but the idea there, of course, is to fake the audience out one more time. In the end, Knife of Ice is mainly an exercise in audience manipulation and misdirection. While handsomely directed, its gimmickry renders it little more than a trifle that will certainly disappoint anyone expecting stronger stuff from Lenzi.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Too Much TV: CLOAK AND DAGGER (2018 - ?)

The catastrophic failure of The Inhumans was the effective end of Marvel Studios' relationship with the ABC broadcast network. As Agents of SHIELD limps to its conclusion next year, Marvel seeks new small-screen fields to conquer, placing Runaways on Hulu and Cloak and Dagger on Freeform, the former ABC Family Channel and long-longago Christian Broadcasting Network.   Freeform targets a young adult audience and Cloak and Dagger fits that demographic quite snugly. Showrunner Joe Pokaski pretty much recreates the characters from scratch, their origin little resembling the 1980s comics written by credited creator Bill Mantlo.  Pokaski's work on Heroes has more immediate influence on the story and the tone of the show as the young protagonists struggle to figure out exactly what they've become, not to mention why.

Ty Johnson (Aubrey Joseph) is a private-school basketball player still haunted by the officer-involved death of his older brother on the docks of New Orleans. Tandy Bowen (Olivia Holt) is a drug-addict dropout grifter still haunted by the death of her father, a scientist for the Roxxon corporation, during a major New Orleans storm. These tragedies are simultaneous, and the kids first meet when Ty, trying to recover his brother's body, ends up rescuing Tandy from her father's submerged car. Something else happened that night that only becomes apparent when  the kids become teens and meet again. Ty can teleport, often involuntarily, and can project an extra-dimensional darkness that can consume people. Tandy can make daggers of pure light appear in her hands for stabbing or throwing. She can also access people's innermost hopes and ideals when she touches them, while Ty can access their deepest fears and darkest memories. When the kids touch, their powers can complement each other or they can blast each other in opposite directions. Initially suspicious of each other, they find themselves inexorably drawn together to solve the mysteries behind their loved ones' deaths and the industrial accident that, by one account, has made them the latest in a long line of tragic saviors of New Orleans.

As a teen-hero show Cloak and Dagger is much better than Fox's The Gifted, which is too enamored and yet too aloof from X-mythology for its own good. The early confusion of the young heroes is a welcome change from the glib knowingness of most superhero TV as Ty and Tandy try to figure things out with nothing like the typical hero support network. The young actors (both are 20) convincingly portray Ty's earnest anxiety and Tandy's naive cynicism. The writers do a decent job of slow-motion world building in their isolated corner of the Marvel universe, though they sometimes overdo the folkloric angle. The scenes with Ty's girlfriend Evita (Noelle Renee Bercy) and her voodoo-priestess aunt (Angela Davis) are heavyhandedly on the nose in a way that most of the show is not, while one whole episode practically beats us over the head with "hero's journey" archetyping as Evita attends a class on Joseph Campbell. All too many hero writers have been influenced by Campbell and Campbell-influenced English classes, but none have ever acknowledged it so brazenly. The archetypal stuff feels superfluous when the show has more interesting and obvious areas to explore, from the murderous doings of Roxxon to the the apparently systemic corruption of the New Orleans police department which chews up and spits out any officer that might grow friendly toward our heroes.  As far as super powers go, for the most part the show presents them in interesting ways that emphasize how disorienting they are to their users. It's only with the first season finale that we seem to reach a creative or budgetary limit as the kids have an uninspired running battle with rage-virus victims and combine their powers in some murky way to save the city. Cloak and Dagger will be better off not reaching beyond its grasp next season, nor repeating Heroes' fatal sophomore jinx. This show is at its best when it looks at ominous conspiracies from the limited but awakening perspective of youth. It should not try to grow up too fast.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

SWORD OF SATAN (Nemuri Kyōshirō 6: Masho-ken 1965)

Raizo Ichikawa played the Japanese pulp hero Nemuri Kyoshiro in a twelve films for the Daiei studio between 1963 and his 1969 death from liver cancer at age 37. The Kyoshiro films (marketed in the U.S. as "Sleepy Eyes of Death") aren't as well known worldwide as Daiei's beloved Zatoichi series. That may be because they don't have as simply grasped a gimmick as "blind swordsman," and it may also be because, at least as far as the U.S. and Europe are concerned, there's something xenophobic about Kyoshiro's origin story. A typical wandering "rogue," his father was a "lapsed Christian" who apparently went to the dark side and performed satanic black masses. In Adventure, the sixth film of the series, we see Kyoshiro kill a lapsed Christian who uses the black mass as a cover for abortions. It's the sort of stuff that may make western audiences uncomfortable, but it's not the main story of this particular picture.

In the main story, Kyoshiro is propositioned by a prostitute who wears a Noh mask. He learns that she is a fallen aristocrat and spurns her advances. When he learns later that she has killed herself, he blames his own bad karma, due to the circumstances of his birth, for her sad end. He becomes embroiled in the fate of her young son, raised by a carpenter's family but now in line to inherit a rich fief. Needless to say the typical greedy local clan leader wants control of the boy and the fief, caring little what happens to the carpenter or for what the boy really wants, but Kyoshiro intervenes, fulfilling whatever debt he may owe to the suicide by making sure that her son can choose his own future. At the same time, he has to fend off repeated attempts on his life by Orin (Michiko Saga), the sister of a bandit Kyoshiro had killed a few films earlier. Orin is ineffectual but persistent, attacking with shuriken,snakes and much more, and for a time joins forces with the evil clan until she discovers the limits of her own villainy while holding the boy hostage.

Ichikawa gives Kyoshiro an almost self-pitying quality covered by his dedication to honor and righteousness. Between this film and the first in the series, The Chinese Jade, which I saw many years ago, I didn't get much sense of the hero's character beyond being a hero, but I give the actor credit for a heroic presence. Nemuri Kyoshiro may simply not be as well-developed a character as Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi is. By comparison, Kyoshiro is more gimmick than character. The defining thing about him is his special sword attack, the "full moon cut," which in this film's climactic fight with the typical honorable-but-fighting-on-the-wrong side samurai looks more like cheating than skill, since sunlight reflecting from the hero's blade nearly blinds his enemy. Kyoshiro's running fights with flunkies are more one-sided but are more impressively staged with long horizontal tracking shots through a forest. It's all for a good cause, I suppose, and my criticisms aside I found this Kimiyoshi Yasuda film (he directed many Zatoichis as well as Daimajin) entertaining. I may just be easy to please when it comes to jidaigeki movies, but Daiei's programmers are consistently well made, in my experience, and this one was no exception.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

DVR Diary: TAMANGO (1958)

On one hand, John Berry's Tamango feels like a film about a decade ahead of its time in its blunt treatment of slavery and resistance. On the other, it might be of a piece with such contemporary pictures as Salt of the Earth and A King in New York, gestures of nothing-to-lose leftism from filmmakers blacklisted or effectively exiled from Hollywood. This was a time when the film mecca could still produce stuff like Band of Angels with Clark Gable as a sympathetic slaveowner. In Europe, Berry and a team of writers adopted a story by Prosper Merimee, the original author of Carmen, about a blighted romance between a slave ship captain and his black mistress Ayesha -- she who must obey. The girl is Dorothy Dandridge, going farther afield in search of work after Hollywood failed to do much with her. The captain is that improbable international he-man, Curt Jurgens. She thinks she has a privileged position as the captain's lover, but is told he plans to dump her and get married when he finishes the current middle passage, his last. That is his plan, but he finds Ayesha more difficult to dump than he thought. Meanwhile, a captive warrior, the title character (Alex Cressan) appeals to her sense of morality and racial solidarity. When Tamango leads an uprising, Ayesha must choose between her white lover and the outgunned but adamant Africans. She chooses the Africans, which is to choose death.

Jurgens carries the film, making his slaver something more subtle than a seaborne Simon Legree. He has a great scene when he tries to cajole some hunger-striking prisoners to eat. He addresses them patiently, soothingly explaining how good the food is. When one still refuses to eat, he lets it slide, merely suggesting that he might try it later. But when the next man knocks his bowl away, the captain gestures to his crew and the victim is abruptly grabbed and unceremoniously thrown into the sea. It's a great shock moment to remind the viewer that lethal force never lies far below the slavers' civilized surface. During the revolt, he's determined above all to make sure that Ayesha survives, and you can see some quiet agony as it becomes clear to him that she won't leave the hold and prefers to share the rebels' fate. Yet it seems he can write her off all too easily after he orders a cannon fired into the hold. Dandridge has a much more flamboyant moment of agony moments earlier as Ayesha's survival instinct struggles with her conscience, with a feeling that she should not abandon the rebels even if it means her death. In a way it's a camp moment out of classic cinema, almost out of silent cinema as she marches toward the steps to the deck while the rebels chant some sort of defiant death song. She's about to climb up as the song seems to possess her. Haltingly she babbles the syllables, almost not knowing what she's saying, until finally she gives in completely as if ironically liberated by her choice of certain death. I can't quite say hers is a great performance, but that's a great melodramatic movie moment. It's right, however, to close the film with Jurgens and the cannon in Berry's abruptly matter-of-fact fashion. Snuffing the romanticism of Dandridge's big scene that way drives home the indifferent injustice of slavery in effective fashion. Tamango's grim finish helps make it seem more like a Sixties of Seventies film than the Fifties film it is, though Dandridge's histrionics are more in keeping with that decade. Compared to later slavesploitation cinema, Tamango is arguably more politically correct because it insists on the dignity of the enslaved in a way more hard-hitting treatments of the peculiar institution would not. That doesn't make it a better film than, say, Farewell Uncle Tom, but Tamango definitely deserves more attention from movie buffs than it's received in the last sixty years.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

FROM THE ORIENT WITH FURY (Agente 077 dall'oriente con furore, 1965)

Overshadowed by the nation's spaghetti westerns, Italian spy films of the 1960s are seen as poor knockoffs of the James Bond franchise rather than the creative revision of a genre. If the "Eurospy" genre has a Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci, I don't know of him. It's definitely not Sergio Grieco, or "Terence Hathaway," as he called himself when making spy films. He has neither the bold eye of Leone nor the dark dynamism of Corbucci. Nevertheless, filming on location in Paris, Madrid and Istanbul, he invests the routine proceedings with a certain seedy authenticity. You get the feeling that his settings might be where real spying would take place.

Grieco's "Agent 077," Dick Malloy, is American actor Ken Clark, a blond lummox who previously starred in Attack of the Giant Leeches. He carries himself with a certain self-amused arrogance as we find him fighting around the world until his boss calls in the middle of a barroom brawl. It's up to Malloy to rescue Professor Kurtz (Ennio Balbo), the inventor of the disintegrating "beta ray," who has been kidnapped by Goldwyn, (Franco Ressel), some sort of supercriminal -- he's not a commie because they only show up much later -- burdened with the same haughty voice that often dubbed authority figures in peplum movies.

The hunt for Kurtz involves a lot of pulpy details. Told to listen to a Beethoven record, 077 finds a clue inside the record sleeve. Important information changes hands when the two jagged halves of a coin are mated. More importantly, Malloy meets many women on his quest, including the doctor's daughter (Fabienne Dali) and Goldwyn's moll (Evi Marandi), as well as a wealthy Spaniard who joins the chase for awhile on a lark and a female agent from 077's organization first encountered in a shower. The category of pulchritude is easily where the 077 films are most competitive with the Bond movies.

From the Orient (no further east than Turkey, actually) arguably anticipates later Bond pictures in creating vignettes spotlighting comical cameos. In this case, spaghetti stalwart Fernando Sancho struggles to steal his scene as a Spanish tourist in a Paris dive who mistakes Malloy's brawl with Goldwyn's goons for an exciting floor show. Thinking of it as entertainment doesn't stop him from getting involved in the action himself, which pretty much kills whatever dramatic tension the scene was meant to have -- though to be fair, there may have been no dramatic tension intended. As early as 1965, the year of Thunderball, there was already more than a hint of parody in many of the Bond imitations.

This film is still more action than comedy, though the  line blurs quite a bit at the climax, when Goldwyn, previously a model of evil reserve, cackles like a maniacal child with a new toy as he blasts everything in sight with Kurtz's death ray. When it comes to just plain fighting Clark handles himself reasonably well; he at least looks plausible as a semi-suave goon. He and Grieco clearly had some sort of rapport, as they made five films together during the spy craze. This is the second of three 077 films they made (the third was a collaboration with Alberto de Martino), and while From the Orient is nothing extraordinary I enjoyed the location atmosphere and energetic idiocy enough to be willing to try another.

Monday, July 23, 2018

THE LURE (Córki dancingu, 2015)

Imagine a cross between an AIP beach movie and All That Jazz and you come close to Agnieszka Smoczyńska's perhaps unwitting contribution to the urban fantasy genre. From a different perspective, perhaps it belongs in the same category as Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a near contemporary film and another quirky woman's take on familiar horror tropes. It's a vividly grungy fantasy with the tragic quality of many an authentic fairy tale, and it clearly has something to earn almost instant canonization in the Criterion Collection, if only Janus Film's involvement in its U.S. distribution last year.

Set in a time approximately contemporary with Splash!, The Lure tells what might happen if that film's protagonist, a mermaid, made a wrong turn on her way to America and ended up in a decadent Communist bloc country. This film is twice as good, however, because there are two mermaids! In fact, Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) are on their way to the U.S.A. when they're drawn to some Polish shore by a trashy rock trio jamming on the beach. These three could be father, mother and son, though they probably aren't. They perform regularly at the sort of trashy nightclub you might not have expected to exist in a Warsaw Pact nation, and recognizing the significance of their catch, they propose adding the finny girls, naturally topless to their act.  The mermaids can transform their tails into simulacra of human legs, but lack sex organs in that state, though they do not lack sexual desire. They could be a global cultural phenomenon but appear content to be, so to speak, big fish in a small pond.

Above, the mermaids show their true faces. Below, for a 1980s nightclub act they look a lot like a 
Commander Lexa tribute band. 

While Golden (the one who isn't blond) still sees people, with apparently one exception, as food, Silver (the blond) falls for Mietek (Jakud Gierszal) the boy in the band. He tells her he can only think of her as an animal, but she can take steps, so to speak, to correct that. Silver is your classic Hans Christian Andersen/Walt Disney mermaid, willing to sacrifice her identity and risk her existence to win a landlubber's love. She opts for a preposterous lower-body transplant. Even more preposterously, it works, though Mietek gets grossed out by her all over again when they try sex before she's fully healed. A singer in another band lures her away, putting Silver in mortal peril. By the rules of her kind, if you love a man but he marries another, you turn to sea foam -- unless you eat him, as Golden urges her to do.

In an interview, Smoczyńska says that the mermaid story was the hook that enabled her to make a movie about the seedy show-business milieu she grew up in. The result is inevitably more fantastic than whatever she originally intended, but I suppose there was something fantastical about that milieu of people struggling to live their dreams or embody other people's dreams. Perhaps liberated by the fantasy element, she makes her film a full-blown musical by staging a classical-style set piece with people bursting into song into a surprisingly well-stocked (for 1980s Poland, I presume) department store as the mermaids take their first-ever shopping trip. That exuberant excess makes The Lure more tragicomic than tragic, but also more opera than musical comedy. Inevitably more prickly than quirky than any American approach to the subject you can imagine, it still feels like a genuine 21st century fairy tale. Playing here in 2017, it makes an interesting companion piece to The Shape of Water and makes that film look like pure Hollywood pap by comparison. That's not to say that The Lure is the better film by any standard, but it's definitely the more grim fairy tale of the two, if that's what you're looking for in your sea-creature romances.