Friday, December 15, 2017


In the late 1950s, on the strength of Roger Vadim's ...And God Created Woman and Dick Powell's The Enemy Below, Curt Jurgens became an international film star. Apparently a real-life "good German" during World War II, Jurgens seemed to Hollywood to be the next Emil Jannings, to the extent that he was cast in a remake of The Blue Angel. Star he may have been, but he's still a tough sell as the two-fisted he-man hero of Lewis Gilbert's shot-on location sea saga. Mark Bertram Conrad (he's half-English) is a gruff, belligerent alcoholic, the former captain of a junk confiscated by the Chinese government after the communist revolution. Ordered deported by the British government of Hong Kong for starting a brawl in a nightclub that may have influenced the opening scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Conrad is put on board of the Fa Tsan, a ferry operating between Hong Kong and Macau, to be dumped in the Portuguese colony. When Macau rejects him as an undesirable, Conrad becomes a kind of flying dutchman, making a makeshift home on the "Fat Annie" and making life miserable for its captain while befriending some of the regular passengers, especially algebra teacher Liz Ferrers (Sylvia Sims) and her schoolgirl charges, and renewing his acquaintance with ship's engineer Skinner (Noel Purcell), who keeps separate families in each city. As the captain grows desperate in his efforts to remove Conrad, the old reprobate gradually redeems himself, pressuring the captain to rescue survivors of a burning junk, then overriding the captain's orders to steer the ferry to safety during a typhoon, and finally organizing the resistance to a takeover by Yen, the Chinese pirate (played by Britain's answer to Tor Johnson, Milton Reid).

Jurgens is more convincing as a surly bum than as an action hero, but previous roles as military men presumably qualified him for such a part. But if you find him unconvincing in the hero's role, consider the alternative. According to Wikipedia, the original plan was for Jurgens to play the ferry captain -- a role originally intended for Burl Ives, who ended up playing something like it in Ensign Pulver -- while the man who actually did play Capt. Cecil Hart was supposed to play the hero. His name was Orson Welles.

A Rank Organization executive, presumably examining Touch of Evil, insisted that his lead actors switch roles. While this may have spared us a reprise of the Wellesian action hero as seen (and worse, heard) in The Lady From Shanghai, his new role gave the great man even greater temptation to indulge his hobby of silly accents. The discrepancy in quality between Welles the director and Welles the actor may not be as vast as in the case of, say, Quentin Tarantino, but when Welles was bad he was horrid, and he's pretty bad here. He reportedly had only himself to blame, since according to Gilbert and Jurgens Welles did his usual thing and rewrote his own dialogue to make his character more comical. This reportedly caused conflicts with Jurgens -- Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that this was the only time he feuded with a fellow actor while performing in a picture -- who wanted to keep the picture a straight drama, regardless of whatever impression he himself made on the audience.

Ferry may well feature Welles's worst-ever performance. His British accent is erratic, veering from a Charles Laughton impersonation to a more plummy approximation of Richard Haydn. If the latter name means nothing to you, think of the professor who makes super carrots that turn Bugs Bunny into a superhero. The voice actor, presumably not Mel Blanc, was imitating Haydn and doing a better job of it than Welles does. The characterization also sprawls all over the place, as Welles can't seem to make up his mind on whether Captain Hart is merely a pompous ass or a complete nincompoop. The film itself, on Welles's initiative or Gilbert's, resolves itself in favor of the captain as a nincompoop to a cartoonish degree -- he even gets blown up in classic cartoon fashion, largely unharmed but left dirty and disheveled -- before treating him with more pathos as the erstwhile Singapore Cecil loses his ship but redeems himself somewhat toward the end. At worst, he gets to wear a plank stuffed down the back of his shirt as a back brace. His recovery and redemption are signified by the removal of this impediment so he may bop a pirate on the bean with it, while Conrad's complete redemption, after leading the rout of the pirates, depends on a final fight with "the dragon." He's fallen in love with the algebra teacher, but as the film closes their union must wait until he cleans himself up fully. His decision not to enter the Dragon nightclub where his recent troubles began is our assurance that a happy ending will follow the actual ending at some point.

At least the location work is nice and Otto Heller's cinematography is often nice. Gilbert could write this nautical adventure off as a tryout not only for his subsequent Sink the Bismarck! and Damn the Defiant but also for a run of James Bond pictures, including a reunion with Jurgens in The Spy Who Loved Me. Fans of Orson Welles have mostly, and fortunately, forgotten this film, which presumably got some more of Don Quixote filmed, if nothing else. There probably were the makings of a better adventure film in the Max Catto novel Gilbert and others adapted, but a proper film required a sharper clash of stronger personalities than Ferry actually delivered. In the end, Welles's grotesque antics are the film's most interesting, if not most entertaining feature.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

National Film Registry Class of 2017

The Library of Congress yesterday made its annual announcement of films added to its National Film Registry for permanent preservation. With more than 120 years of American film history to glean from, the Registry list is once again strangely heavy on films made after 1960. This has struck me as a dubious idea given the priority of preserving older films, but it always makes sense from a publicity standpoint, since websites can headline the fact that a film most people have heard of has been canonized by the government. For that audience, the highlights of this year's list are such pop blockbusters as Titanic, Superman, Die Hard and The Goonies. Older but still familiar, and with a remake in the works, is Dumbo from 1941, while 1960's Spartacus owes what fame it has less to disaffected director Stanley Kubrick than to potentially deathless star and producer Kirk Douglas; it'll be in the public consciousness at least as long as he is. Every list includes films that are more classics than greatest hits, and most classic move fans will applaud this year's canonization of Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. They may not be as sanguine about Elia Kazan's Gentlemen's Agreement (1947) but that film may have an unassailable claim as a Best Picture Oscar winner, as all such may have eventually. As always, the Registry strives to compensate for its arguably excessive attention to pop hits by including documentaries, art films and other non-feature or non-narrative items, as well as films of ethnically specific historical interest. Of this year's crop, the film that elicits a "what took them so long?" response is Winsor McKay's 1918 wartime propaganda cartoon The Sinking of the Lusitania -- though I must confess that I neglected to include that when I compiled a list of eligible and deserving films in 2015. After three from that list were canonized last year, none of the remaining 47 were tapped this year. You can see the complete list for 2017 here.

Of course, my perception of the Registry's presentism is influenced by my age. My feeling has been that the Registry should prioritize older films, but there are plenty of people around today who think of films from 1978 or 1985 as "old" when I have a hard time doing so. From a certain perspective, all the films added to the registry, even Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) are old movies, and given the attitude many people have today toward any entertainment option they can label as "old," I wonder whether the Registry's apparent strategy really has the effect its compilers hope for.

For historical and entertainment purposes, here's a copy of The Sinking of the Lusitania with an original soundtrack, as uploaded to YouTube by Tina Chancey:

Monday, December 11, 2017

DVR Diary: BAD LANDS (1939)

Robert Barrat is one of the relatively unsung heroes of the Pre-Code Warner Bros. stock company, a versatile character actor who enlivened many of the studio's pictures of that golden period. He only really got started in 1933, recreating his Broadway role as a psychopathic German strongman in Lily Turner but quickly escaping any accented typecasting to portray a variety of types, from the hypocritical Marxist tinkerer in Heroes For Sale to the benign judge in Wild Boys of the Road. It was a pleasant surprise to see Barrat get top billing in Lew Landers' RKO B-western, and Bad Lands is an interesting film in its own right. Reportedly a western remake of John Ford's The Lost Patrol, and a contemporary of Ford's Stagecoach -- and, for what it's worth, featuring the director's brother Francis as one of its posse -- its conceptual DNA makes it a very grim western for its time and a precursor of the next generation's "psychological westerns" in its attention to obsessions and irreconcilable personalities. Barrat plays a sheriff leading a posse in pursuit of the renegade Apache Jack, and as a relatively mild-mannered pipe-smoking authority figure he ends up something of a straight man to the more dramatic personalities in the cast. Rather than the star, Barrat is no more than first among equals in an ensemble cast that includes Noah Beery Jr., Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and Columbia comedy star Andy Clyde as Francis Ford's sidekick. The characters aren't copies of the Lost Patrol; there's no counterpart, for instance, to Boris Karloff's religious fanatic. The nearest thing is a Mexican-American (Fred McDonald) obsessed with avenging the wife Apache Jack killed. Instead, the Bad Lands posse clashes over the relative courage and cowardice of its members and over the possible division of a massive "mountain of silver" they discover while tracking Apache Jack. The mine may as well be a trap, since their presence there exposes them to attack from Jack's unseen Indian cohorts. The 70 minute picture details the inexorable breakdown and virtual annihilation of the posse, until Barrat's sheriff is the sole survivor rescued by the cavalry, possible driven insane by his ordeal. It's possibly the most hard-boiled western the genre produced between the advent of Code Enforcement and the emergence of "adult westerns" a generation later, but its lack of star power and its obvious B status have consigned it to obscurity it doesn't really deserve. A money-loser at the box office, Bad Lands may have looked like a dead end in its time, but it shows, in theory at least, what westerns were capable of by the late Thirties, with a little infusion of new elements.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

On the Big Screen: THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017)

In American pop culture, the label "worst film ever made" is almost an honorific. It's an acknowledgment of, or a backhanded tribute to, unintentional entertainment value unlikely to be found in whatever the worst film really is, if the worst can be defined objectively. If it can, it would most likely be the least entertaining of movies -- and most likely an unfunny comedy -- yet defining the worst by a failure to entertain is problematic when entertainment can be seen as unintentional and recognized as the result of an arguably objective failure of technical competence or artistic verisimilitude. Is the bad film we laugh at better or worse than the bad film we don't laugh at? It depends on whether you're laughing at or with the film and its filmmakers. People may say that certain cult films, like Tommy Wiseau's The Room, are "so bad they're good," but once such a film acquires a cult following people definitely are laughing with it. The Room is an unusual candidate for Worst Film for people of my generation, who are used to the worst being films whose auteurs' reach exceeds their grasp: fantasies like Plan 9 or Robot Monster, without resources or conventional screenwriting. Wiseau's film is a domestic drama, theoretically in the manner of Tennessee Williams, though the auteur, trimming his sails, now describes his screenplay as a parody of some sort. Its entertainment value is based entirely on Wiseau's audacious incompetence as actor, writer and director. In some ways Wiseau is the antithesis of Ed Wood; he seems to have had a limited imagination but limitless financial resources. They're two of a kind, however, in their struggles to convey basic human thoughts and emotions through scripted dialogue. Their appeal may lay in the way they inspire in audiences a recognition of how difficult that task actually is -- or how artificial conventional screenwriting is compared to the raw, idiosyncratic authenticity of those bad movies that earn cult followings as moments of personal expression rather than as imitations of life. Parody as a genre has had the same appeal for just about as long as movie comedies have been made. The truly worst films, those that fail to entertain in any way, may be those that don't stray far enough from convention and don't fail spectacularly enough. If anything is worse than "the worst," it's mediocrity.

Wiseau and Wood, neither a mediocrity by any measure, now occupy the same spot in movie history as the objects of biopics, though James Franco's Disaster Artist is less a biopic -- since Wiseau remains something of a mystery man to this day --  than one of that emerging subgenre, the "making of" movie (e.g. Hitchcock, Saving Mr. Banks, etc.) As a result, there's something inescapably formulaic about the picture, which was written by Michael H. Webster and Scott Neustadter. The eccentric, difficult artist (Franco) realizes his dream against all odds and after numerous conflicts with collaborators. Unlike in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, we can't really face Wiseau directly, so the writers give us a point-of-view character in the convenient form of Wiseau's roomate and star Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), whose memoir of his experience gives this film its title. Disaster Artist thus becomes a buddy film or bromance, with Wiseau going through a betrayal experience -- Sestero moves out of his apartment to live with a girlfriend -- echoing the narrative of The Room -- yet reconciling with his onetime protege when Greg explains to him that audiences laughing at (or with) Wiseau's picture are actually showing their appreciation of a unique cinematic achievement. If Disaster Artist is to be more than a cult film about a cult film -- about half the people in the theater where I saw it had seen The Room, laughed at the mere sight of its characters entering beloved sets, and often recited dialogue ahead of the actors -- it's up to James Franco, whom some may see as a Tommy Wiseau who had better luck in the genetic lottery, to entertain the uninitiated as an actor.  He does so in championship fashion, managing to disappear into the Wiseau role -- the subject's signature mop of hair helps a lot here -- while giving one of the funniest performances I've seen in a long time. He'll probably win most people over in his very first scene, set in an acting class when, in response to the teacher's (Melanie Griffith) demand for emotion, turns the "Stella" scene from A Streetcar Named Desire into a sprawling, wall-climbing, furniture-tossing conniption fit that anticipates his Room performance. It sets the tone for a character for whom acting is synonymous with acting out, who justifies his neglect of convention (or common sense) with appeals to "real life," and whose self-pitying screenplay is ultimately a protest, as one bemused collaborator suspects, against his betrayal by the universe.

Wiseau, who sees himself as an all-American hero type, is betrayed by his own embodiment, partly voluntary, in a form reminiscent of a "vampire rapist" and a voice no one accepts, despite his insistence, as a product of New Orleans. Someone like him should never dare aspire to movie stardom when the odds are against even the geniuses, but the fact that he does dare, damning the consequences with a paradoxical contempt for the masses he aspires to entertain, makes him a kind of typically American hero, even when he behaves like a bully or a clueless ass, and earns The Room a measure of respect, the kind arguably reserved for the "worst films," as an act of pure will. Part of the appeal of the worst movies, I've long suspected, is their potential to inspire the rest of us to imagine ourselves making movies, bad or otherwise, and an all-round auteur -- or, if you prefer, a pretentious pretty boy -- like James Franco probably can't help empathizing with that feeling. His Wiseau is both a freak and an everyman in his innocence of craft who allows you to laugh with or at him with equal enjoyment. Once he wins you over, everything else is a bonus. The Disaster Artist may be the best of the "making of" movies so far, simply because the making of such an astoundingly bad film is easily more compelling than the making of a presumed masterpiece against whatever odds. It looks especially good in comparison with something like The Man Who Invented Christmas, which I only know from its trailer but looks, from that nauseating evidence, like something Tommy Wiseau could only improve upon.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


During the late 1950s, before he was rescued by Walt Disney and redeemed by Billy Wilder,  Fred MacMurray had been relegated to B-western stardom. To be fair, his films probably qualified as B+ westerns, but they were definitely programmers. The Oregon Trail, the last of that run of films, was a collaboration between writer-director Gene Fowler Jr. and co-writer Louis Vittes, who had worked together on their own run of movies including I Married a Monster From Outer Space, the early Charles Bronson vehicles Gang War and Showdown at Boot Hill, the juvenile delinquency drama The Rebel Set and the aviation adventure Here Come the Jets. That's a pretty eclectic filmography, and Oregon Trail has a few idiosyncracies of its own, as well as serious structural flaws.

The film is inspired, in a peculiar way, by Francis Parkman's travelogue of the same name, which is credited in the script with inspiring people to take the dangerous westward journey to Oregon. The filmmakers overstate their case just a little. Their film, set in 1846, opens with the aftermath of an Indian attack on a settler family. Amid the wreckage is a scorched copy of Parkman's book. The problem with this is that while Parkman had already published his narrative in serial format, The Oregon Trail wouldn't appear in book form until 1849. Parkman, who isn't a character in the film, is denounced by newspaper editor James Gordon Bennett, who perceives a greater danger on the trail to Oregon. He assigns ace reporter Neal Harris (MacMurray) to join a wagon train and investigate whether the U.S. government is infiltrating troops into Oregon for a showdown with Great Britain, which disputes the border between Oregon Territory and Canada. As it turns out, Bennett is right. President James K. Polk assigns Captain George Wayne (William Bishop, who was dead within months of the film's release) to make his way to Oregon with the very same train in which Harris is traveling. So far, so nearly the stuff of Seventies conspiracy films.

Harris and Wayne meet a variety of characters in the train, including a potential love interest for either man in Prudence Cooper (Nina Shipman), the grizzled guide Seaton (Henry Hull) and the eccentric Garrison (John Carradine), for all intents and purposes the legendary Johnny Appleseed. There's also the obnoxious Brizzard (Tex Terry), who likes to pick fights with Harris and favors a bullwhip. As Harris grows suspicious of Wayne and his sidekick, who can't help calling Wayne "Sir," the party encounters the grisly remains of the massacred family from the prologue and has to go on short water rations when a waterhole Seaton depends on finding turns out to have gone dry. Brizzard goes berserk when he sees Garrison watering his baby apple trees, assuming that the old crank is stealing water when he's actually sacrificing his own ration to keep the trees alive. Harris comes to Garrison's defense and brawls with Brizzard until a sudden rainstorm resolves the matter. The scene closes with an amusing, almost Brueghelian moment as the pioneers scramble to catch rainwater in any available basin while Harris and Brizzard, still brawling, roll obliviously through the fresh mud in and out of the frame, until Garrison finally breaks things up with a swat to Harris's rear.

After a while you wonder what the film is building up to, what the consequences might be of Harris exposing Wayne and the stealth American military buildup. The filmmakers themselves seem to have wondered about that before finally giving up and starting a virtually new story for the last half hour of the picture. At Fort Laramie, the troops are leaving to take part in the newly-declared Mexican War ("What's an Alamo?" a fur trader left behind asks) just before the sinister squaw man Hastings (John Dierkes) arrives with his half-breed daughter Shona (Gloria Talbott) in tow. The film doesn't hold anything against squaw men as a class; Seaton was one and a good guy, but Hastings, brusque with his daughter, quickly proves vicious, offering to shelter Harris, who'd been driven from the wagon train by Wayne, among his Indian friends, only to leave him to be tortured (alongside erstwhile enemy Brizzard) while pocketing the reporter's bankroll. Hastings decides that the cavalry's departure creates a perfect opportunity to play the red man's champion by organizing a massacre of the fort's civilians. However, he hasn't reckoned upon Shona's rebellious, righteous nature, expressed by stabbing an Indian guard in the back and freeing Harris so he can warn the fort of the impending attack. Despite the warning, Wayne and the handful of soldiers left behind at the fort are fooled by the reappearance of Brizzard, pressed into driving a Trojan wagon full of Hastings and hostiles through the gates to start the slaughter.

For much of the film Henry Hull guides the brave pioneers through the dangers of the great outdoors (above) 
and the perils of the 20th Century-Fox soundstage (below).

The Oregon Trail is an often brutal picture that doesn't flinch from the idea of showing children getting killed, though much of its grim spectacle is only suggestively gruesome. It has a maddeningly erratic look, mixing some effective location work -- and, I assume, some stock footage from more expensive westerns -- with miserably unconvincing studio sets with painted backdrops. The film's biggest problem is a screenplay that, unlike the pioneers, set out with no clear destination in mind. While Dierkes makes a good maniacal villain in his brief time onscreen, you could believe that his whole storyline was added just so Harris could get a girl of his own, Shona, after Fowler and Vittes decided to keep Wayne and Prudence together. While Oregon Trail has its moments and MacMurray was at worst a serviceable western star in this period, it's ultimately too much of a mess to recommend in good conscience.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

DVR Diary: THUNDER BAY (1953)

The fourth collaboration between director Anthony Mann and star Jimmy Stewart is set in 1946 and thus doesn't get the admiring attention of their classic run of westerns, but it's probably the nearest thing to a western of their team-ups outside the genre. It has the same sort of driven Stewart hero the westerns have, though he has no vengeance agenda to drive him. Instead, Steve Martin -- no relation to the American journalist who covered Godzilla's rampage through Tokyo a few years later -- is a heroic if somewhat ruthless entrepreneur. Down to his last dime -- if that -- he and his sidekick Gambi (Dan Duryea) have to convince an oil baron (Jay C. Flippen) to finance the construction of an oil rig off the coast of Port Pleasant LA. Steve clearly knows his stuff but there's still something of the huckster, if not the con man, to him, but that hustling quality earns him the oil baron's sympathy. "You've never had the pleasure of gambling your last dollar on a dream," he chides his corporate bean-counter, recognizing a kindred risk-taker. Steve doesn't earn the trust of the locals so easily. They're shrimpers and worry about the oil riggers disrupting the shrimp beds. Worse, the educated daughter of one of the shrimpers (Joanne Dru) spreads the impression that oil workers are trash. She seems to speak from personal experience, but Gambi, a party animal, doesn't help the oil men's case by promptly stealing another shrimper's girl. They shouldn't worry, since Dan Duryea is pretty much a good guy for once, but the conflict continues to escalate as the shrimpers make repeated efforts to sabotage the drilling while Steve's backers run out of money and patience.

Thunder Bay arguably was ahead of its time in portraying a conflict between energy prospectors and locals concerned about the environmental impact of oil drilling, but as a product of the 1950s it predictably reconciles all conflicts, revealing a harmony of interests as the drillers actually make it easier for the shrimpers to harvest a rare, valuable catch. This is actually one of the most pro-oil films you'll probably ever see, since the writers found it necessary to have Steve defend his drilling with a speech bluntly announcing America's dependence on oil. Without it, he says, the country begins to die, including the shrimpers. That speech may give the film a retroactive camp quality, or worse, for the politically or ecologically sensitive, but it really only makes the film a document of its time, dating it relative to Mann and Stewart's more timeless westerns.

Take away the stark landscapes that give those westerns an outdoor-expressionist quality and for a while Mann looks like a more ordinary filmmaker. Thunder Bay doesn't really come to life until the oil rig is built, and then Mann takes every advantage of his new toy. The picture's visual highlight is a fight between Steve and one of the shrimpers, the man who lost his girl to Gambi, who tries to plant dynamite on the rig just as a hurricane bears down on the site. Mann and cinematographer William H. Daniels give the fight an elemental quality, making the most of his rain effects and the roiling waters below. They achieve something similar when the riggers have to stop a salt-water blow and, on a more exhilarating note, once the well comes in and an oil-soaked Stewart shrieks with joy. This may not be a western, but it's definitely not as tame as The Glenn Miller Story or Strategic Air Command. It's not as good as the westerns, either, but those who love the westerns may still like this one a bit.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


Junko Fuji starred as Oryu, the Red Peony, in a series of eight films from the Toei Studio from 1967 to 1971. These are romanticized yakuza films of the sort that might have made Kinji Fukasaku vomit in his mouth. At the least, they make a distinction between good yakuza, the sort who run honest gambling parlors, and the less savory sort who, as in this second installment, prey on ordinary people through loan sharking and running sweatshops. The setting is the "Middle Meiji period," approximately the turn of the 20th century, so that characters use pistols, telephones and other nearly modern devices and a contrast can be drawn between people who go too modern, like this film's big-bad who goes back and forth between Japanese and western dress, and characters like Oryu who, despite her pistol, embody traditional values in their dress and demeanor.Oryu is a yakuza and, in theory at least, the oyabun of a clan inherited from her father, but unlike some women of the milieu, she doesn't flaunt her outlaw identity but dresses and behaves modestly, until forced into violent action. She can shoot, stab, slash and do judo throws like a champion, but while she travels around learning the gambler's trade and the ways of honorable yakuza, she remains somewhat ashamed of her vocation. She doesn't show off her yakuza tattoos, and only displays them to a female friend in this picture in order to warn her, in effect, "Don't end up like me." Badass Oryu may be, but like many wandering heroes of Japanese cinema, her life often seems like a curse, or at least an unhappy destiny.

Gambler's Obligation is helmed by cult director Norifumi Suzuki, who gives the proceedings plenty of widescreen panache. Oryu's having a good time as the film starts, working for the benign oyabun Togazaki and merrily banging a festival drum as the opening credits roll. A skilled gambler, she's able to shut down the winning streak of Oren (Mari Shiraki), a tattoo-flaunting women who recurs through the picture as a road-not-taken version of Oryu herself. Togazaki sends Oryu away for her own good when he decides to deal with his wicked rival Kasamatsu, which allows this sequel to reintroduce the comedy-relief yakuza clan from the first film, headed by Tomisaburo Wakayama. When Togazaki the elder is killed in the battle, Oryu returns to help the old man's son and daughter-in-law hold on to their businesses as Kasamatsu, backed by the quietly menacing Shiraishi (Bunta Sugawara), muscles in. Acquiring her own little band of followers along the way, Oryu travels to Tokyo to plead the Togazaki cause with a yakuza conclave, but the tide seems to be flowing inexorably against them.

This film does a good job establishing Kasamatsu as a real scumbag villain. He invites Oryu to decide the Togazakis' future in a dice game, with Oren as his proxy, whom he forces to cheat. Naturally, Oryu catches her at it, and Kasamatsu has the hapless woman beaten viciously for it. Then he does some additional cheating, convincing Togazaki's wife that her husband, whose liberation from prison has already been arranged by Oryu, can only be freed by her signing away the family carriage business -- and submitting to rape. She ends up disgraced, and poor Togazaki ends up getting killed after everything everyone's done for him. That only means it's time for Oryu to settle accounts with all the bad guys.

While the Japanese clearly liked badass fighting heroines before they really became a thing in the U.S., Gambler's Obligation doesn't quite go as far as fans might expect or hope. Everything seemed to point toward a battle between Oryu and the Bunta Sugawara character, but the way things actually play out makes you suspect that someone at Toei didn't think audiences would buy Junko Fuji beating Bunta in a fight. Instead, they bring in Koji Tsuruta in a glorified cameo as a good-guy interloper with his own reasons for fighting Kasamtasu. He gets to kill Bunta, while he and Fuji share in finishing off Kasamatsu before a random enemy blows him away, since Oryu does need to be the last person standing when the smoke clears. Despite this disappointment, Fuji certainly more than holds up her end of the action while lending her character the swan-necked dignity and superficial stoicism Oryu requires.

This first sequel ends on a sad note as Oryu returns to the site of the opening-credits festival. Many of her fellow celebrants are dead now, and it's a lonely climb to the tower where she beat the drum so happily before. Now she beats it again in mourning for all the friends she's lost, if not also for the hope for a normal life that seems just a little more lost now. Earlier, the Tsuruta character had explained to her the history of her rival Oren and her lover. They seem to lead a miserable life, but Tsuruta observes, almost with a note of envy, that they'll never leave each other. If in some ways Oren seems like an Oryu gone wrong, the film suggests that, despite all Oren suffers, she has something Oryu doesn't and may never have. There are many films to go in this series, but I doubt that this will change.