Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pre-Code Parade: HEROES FOR SALE (1933)

A few months ago I caught half of the William Wellman films included in Warner Home Video's Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3 box set when TCM ran them all. A couple of weeks ago I finally broke down and bought the set because I thought the three I saw were pretty good and the others sounded promising. I was most interested in Wellman's film about the plight of war veterans, which stands in retrospect as a kind of companion piece to his youth-on-the-bum picture of the same year, Wild Boys of the Road. There's one important difference, however. Wild Boys is all about the Depression, while Heroes For Sale is set mostly in the 1920s -- and therein lies its particular message.

People in 1933 might already have begun idealizing the 1920s as a golden age compared with their present plight. Wellman and screenwriters Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner are out to set them straight. They follow the adventures of Thomas Holmes (Richard Barthelmess), a soldier in World War I, and his buddy Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott), his social superior in their home town. They're sent out on a dangerous mission with Roger in command, but Roger screams and chickens out under machine gun fire as a dead body falls on top of him. Cursing Roger out as a "dirty yellow son of a b--," Tom accomplishes the mission but gets hit in the back with shrapnel. Figuring himself finished, he turns his prisoner over to Roger who, presuming the same, leaves Tom for dead.

Roger is instantly declared a hero by his comrades. He tries to tell the truth, but he's too weak-willed to assert himself. Meanwhile, the Germans find Tom still alive and take him behind their lines for medical treatment. They do the best they can (an example of the equanimity shown toward the former enemy in films from this period, when many if not most people felt that the Great War had been pointless), but they advise Tom to take morphine to cope with the pain. Released upon the Armistice, he ends up on the same troop ship back home as Roger, who now begs Tom to maintain the charade of Roger's heroism.

As a civilian, Tom works as a cashier at the bank owned by Roger's father, but his morphine addiction is making him sloppy on the job. He has to get the drug from a clandestine dealer because a medical prescription would require a shaming public admission of his condition. An increase in the underground price due to a drug raid makes Tom increasingly desperate. He warns his doctor that he'll turn to crime if he can't get what he needs. The doctor sees no alternative to making Tom's addiction public, costing him his job and relegating him to several months at the state narcotics farm. He comes out cured but disgraced and leaves home for good.

Tom meets his dealer, (Tammany Young, left), in Heroes For Sale.

Tom ends up in Chicago, and takes a room upstairs from a diner where Pa Dennis (Charles Grapewin) the proprietor spends the day in friendly arguments with Max Brinker (Robert Barrat), the local Communist. Despite the presence of a virtual flophouse next door, Pa thinks that times are getting better -- the year is 1922. Max disagrees.

Pa: Look at how much longer people live.
Max: I admit that, but it only prolongs their suffering.
Pa: Why, if you think life is so awful, why don't you cut your throat?
Max: Because I can't afford to buy a knife!
[Pa produces a very large knife]
Max: Aw, you are schtupid, my friend. That's why you can't accept the doctrines of Communism, why you endure class servitude. You are a fish, a timid little lamb, a sleeping mouse afraid to fight. And what have you to lose, I ask you?
Pa and Max (together): Nothing but your chains!

Pa's daughter Mary (Aline MacMahon) calls the place "a regular bureau of misinformation" thanks to those two, but the movie isn't really interested in criticizing Max's communist doctrine. He's mostly a comedy relief character, meant to be seen more as a crank than as anything else. He's one of the Dennises' boarders, as is Ruth Loring (Loretta Young), who's the building's main selling point as far as Tom is concerned. He finds work as a laundry driver, and soon displays enough entrepreneurial talent to win a promotion.

Loretta Young makes her entrance.

As luck would have it, Max is an inventor with experience in the laundry business back in Europe. He convinces Tom (who soon marries Ruth) to invest in his new labor-saving laundry machinery, which they franchise to Tom's employers on the condition that no one loses a job as a result. As they prosper, Tom starts a family while Max quickly renounces his Communist beliefs, explaining that he talked that way only because he had no money back then.

Things turn for the worse when the owner of the South Park Laundry dies suddenly (you bastards!) and the business is taken over by a large corporation that tears up the old agreement with Tom and Max and starts laying people off. The workers think that Tom has sold them out but he tells them he's resigned in protest. They want to smash the machines (as Max tut-tuts in the background) and march toward the laundry building as Tom tries to talk them out of it. He's at the head of the line when the workers face a police barricade, and caught in the middle when his people start tossing bricks and the police ride in with clubs and tear gas. The year is 1928.

Fearing for Tom's safety, Ruth rushes to the scene. This was a mistake.

Arrested as a ringleader of the mob, Tom is railroaded and sentenced to five years in prison. While Max has become a less sympathetic character the more he shows contempt for his former comrades in poverty, he continues to do right by Tom, dutifully investing his royalties from the laundry machine into a fattening bank account. As a result, Tom steps out of stir into the trough of the Great Depression with something like $50,000 in the bank. Reunited with his son, whom the Dennises had been raising, Tom sees that they've turned their diner into a soup kitchen, but can't accommodate everyone. On impulse, he turns his entire bank account over to Mary to finance a larger operation. At practically the next moment, two men from the city's "Red Squad" show up to warn Tom to keep out of any radical activity.

While Heroes For Sale mocks Max's hypocritical communism, his character isn't necessarily a reflection on communism itself. There'd been a Red Scare immediately after the war, with a bigger one to come after the next war, but in 1933 no one felt it necessary to refute Marxism. On the contrary, the Red Squad goons who intimidate Tom are by far the most menacing characters in the movie. Lest anyone think that Tom is just a victim of mistaken identity, we see the same cops grab probably harmless Italians out of their homes and off the streets after reports of labor violence. Whatever you think of Max by the end of the picture, you're certainly meant to agree when he calls the cops "cossacks." Tom is caught up in the same dragnet and thrown out of town.
Now, at last, with about ten minutes left to go, we have a proper Depression movie about a man without a job on the bum. We see Tom wander across the map, only to be turned away everywhere. The story comes full circle, rather implausibly, when Tom encounters Roger Winston (and Ward Bond) in a rain-soaked hobo jungle. Turns out that Roger's father had been ripping off depositors, with Roger's help, and had killed himself when found out. Roger himself did two years in prison before getting dumped to fend for himself. Tom's first impulse is hostile, to call Roger a "son of a b--" again as Bond warns him not to get "high-sterical." But he finally decides that it's a funny thing that both of them have ended up in this spot after one started so high and the other relatively low. Roger's a little less amused. "We can't go on like this," he says of the country as a whole, "It's the end of America." Tom's more optimistic. In a moment of pure New Deal propaganda he cites FDR's inaugural address and reminds Roger that it'd take more than an economic "sock on the jaw" to finish a nation like ours. His optimism continues even as they're driven out of their shelter, because at least the rain has stopped....

Roger and Tom reconcile in the rain before departing for uncertain fates in Heroes For Sale.

Heroes For Sale has two main points to make. The first point is that plenty of people were suffering before the stock market crashed. The movie doesn't say so, but you could be excused for inferring that veterans suffered more than other people during the Twenties, not just in the pretentious "Lost Generation" fashion but in physical and economic ways as well. The other point that puts the film in line with New Deal optimism is that Tom shows audiences how to bounce back from severe adversity. He had it as rough in 1922 as anyone had a decade later, but if he could come back, can't everyone?

What to make of Richard Barthelmess? I'd only seen him before in what are probably his two most famous roles: the noble Chinese missionary in D. W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms and the disgraced pilot seeking redemption in Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings, his would-be comeback film. In 1933, Barthelmess was one of the big silent stars who was on his way out. His problem, I guess, was that he looked and sounded weak. Though a native New Yorker, he seems to drawl when he talks. He isn't a fast-talker in what was becoming the Warner Bros. style, and it's hard to imagine him in any of the studio's definitive gangster films alongside Cagney, Robinson or Bogart. But any of those stars would probably have been a disaster playing Tom Holmes. This sort of plucky "little man" character was a good fit for Barthelmess, who seems like the sort who could succumb to addiction, but also bounce back. The same goes for co-star Gordon Westcott, with whom I wasn't familiar before watching this film. That's probably because he died only two years after this film in a polo accident, with his career already in something of a decline. For good or ill, careerwise, he also projects the sort of weakness that these troubled characters need, and I think he did a good job here. Loretta Young has little to do but look good and die here, while Aline MacMahon gets bigger billing as the plain girl who sort of pines for Tom herself. The other standout in the cast is Robert Barrat as Max, who manages to play his role broadly enough that we probably never really dislike a man who has (to some people) odious beliefs at one point or another in his life.

Let's check our pre-Code scorecard. The big naughty element in Heroes For Sale is Tom's morphine addiction, a detail that would be restricted to the depths of exploitation cinema for decades once code enforcement really kicked in. Also, after 1934 he wouldn't be able to get away with even his abbreviated "son of a b--" outbursts. The code might insist on a more benign portrayal of the police than we have here, as well. On the sex front there's little salacious here. Tom and Ruth have a proper courtship, albeit in relatively close quarters. The most risque detail in the whole show is probably the sight gag in the shelter next door to the diner, where a sign advises "Have You Written a Letter to Mother?" Below the sign, we see a man apparently writing at the table, but this is the result:

But let's not miss the forest for the trees. In Heroes For Sale we get war, drug addiction, brutal labor violence and an espousal of communism, all in 71 minutes and in stark, rain-slick Wellman style. It isn't equal to the fearsome peaks of The Public Enemy and Wild Boys of the Road, but it's consistent with the formidable standard of "Wild Bill's" pre-Code work. I've watched it twice, once last week and once again today before writing, and I liked it better the second time. I guess that's a recommendation. But let me leave you for tonight with a question that Warner's Depression films can't help raising. If you think we have hard times now, where are the movies that say so?

One more thing: the trailer, which somewhat deceptively suggests that all the action happens in the desperate "present," rather than just before, and is none too flattering to its actors by stating that the film "taxed" all their dramatic talents. They still knew how to sell a film back then, though.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


Gianni Garko made five films between Blood at Sundown, in which he played the villainous Sartana Liston, and "Frank Kramer's" film, including one western in which he played "Django," so we can guess he was used to the Italian style of exploiting popular character names. Wikipedia says that Se incontri Sartana prega per la tua morte was inspired by the success of Blood at Sundown, but it still seems strange that the producers (and Garko, who reportedly had script control in his contract) should want to evoke a character who was pretty much the diametric opposite of their new hero. Sartana Liston is scruffy and often hysterical. The new Sartana is neater (though his hair is longer than his precursor's) and exudes the existential calm of the typical spaghetti western hero.

The series Sartana has been described as a heroic character, but the protagonist of Se incontri Sartana seems as amoral as they come. I got no sense that he was a good guy, but the character may have a different sense of his purpose. His famous entrance line, uttered after he rises from playing dead to confront a gang that has just murdered a stagecoach driver and its elderly passengers, is "I am your pallbearer." For some reason that reminded me of the Blood at Sundown Sartana's utterance that "the right to punish is mine," but the new Sartana is never really as pretentious as that through the rest of the film. Like us, he's probably too busy trying to wrap his mind around the plot to maintain an attitude.

Se incontri is a nihilistic riot of backstabbing and backshooting. It opens modestly enough with Klaus Kinski taking pot shots at the stagecoach, but things get stranger with the next robbery, in which a plant inside the stage shoots down the mayor of Gold Spring, an innocent woman, and a priest, only to be shot down by another gang led by lead villain Lansky (William Berger) who could give Heath Ledger's Joker pointers on how to run a criminal gang. After his men take out the first robbers, he tells them to meet him at a rendezvous point where he wipes them out with a Gatling gun. He takes possession of a treasure that proves to be a box of rocks.

If I understood things correctly, some of the city fathers, namely Stewall (Sydney Chaplin) and candy-loving Holman, are conspiring with Mexican bandit chieftain El Tampico to commit insurance fraud with fake robberies (including real murders) in order to get the insurance money and keep the allegedly missing gold. It's in the conspirators' interest to have Lansky annihilate as many of the people involved as possible, though he's a risk himself as he begins to demand more money and sees the blackmail potential of the situation. Morgan is his right-hand man, handy with the throwing knife, but Sartana eliminates him in the "vestibule of the beyond," the dark workshop of Dusty, once an acclaimed sculptor and now a rummy coffin maker. Franco Pesce aims for a Walter Brennan effect but looks more like Pappy Yokum, for those who know their comic strips.

Sartana's role is to study the situation, figure out who's doing what to whom, and exploit the confusion. He messes with Lansky's head by playing a musical pocket watch left behind at the second stagecoach massacre. Poor Lansky suffers from mighty swings of mood. He feels the exhilaration of having lured some of his foes into a house full of dynamite so he could blow them up, only to lose it when the seemingly invisible Sartana opens what must be a really loud watch to spook our villain. But despite this psychological warfare, Sartana apparently likes Lansky because he's plainly decided to kill him last. Maybe that's because he figures the man with the Gatling gun is most likely to be the last man standing and the one who can lead Sartana to the gold.

Lansky celebrates killing five men with one shot. The irrational exuberance
of William Berger in
If You Meet Sartana, Pray For Your Death.

It's a good bet, because the other villains are busy backstabbing one another while trying to eliminate Lansky. Ultimately it's down to Lansky and Holman's wife, who's just done Holman in with intent to run off with the bad guy. This sets up an eerie finale in the "vestibule of the beyond" that teases a possible supernatural quality in Sartana ("I knew it!" Lansky says, "You're the d--") but finally offers a mundane (not to mention slightly derivative of Fistful of Dollars) explanation for our hero's miraculous survival.

If You Meet Sartana is an entertaining start to the official Sartana series. It's a more typical spaghetti than Blood at Sundown, which aspired to the psychological depth of Fifties U.S. westerns, but it's better than average thanks partly to the large cast of villains led by the frenetic Berger. I think he's actually on screen more than Garko is, and while he never qualifies as a sympathetic character he succeeds in keeping you interested in seeing what he's going to do next. Garko does without the scenery chewing that dominated Blood at Sundown. His performance is more a matter of style than anything else. He has the look and he has the manner, and he also has some neat toys, like his little four-barreled pistol that fires one shot at a time. I don't know what good that really does him, but it's so cute! He also has a top with the suits of the card deck on it that he likes to spin frequently -- and which proves to have an important alternate purpose.

The film is part of Videoasia's Spaghetti Western Bible Vol. 2: Sartana, the Complete Saga set. Like Blood at Sundown, the Videoasia copy is improperly letterboxed and probably copied from VHS, though it doesn't have tracking issues like Blood does. The next three films look considerably sharper, since they were apparently copied from German DVDs. I'll have a review of Have A Good Funeral My Friend, Sartana Will Pay sometime next week.

And here's the English language trailer, uploaded by Mart85

Friday, May 29, 2009

TIMECRIMES (Cronocrimines, 2007)

When people think of Spanish horror today they're probably more likely to think of Guillermo del Toro and films like The Orphanage rather than of Paul Naschy or the Blind Dead. What about Spanish science fiction? Actually, I hadn't thought of it lately, and I don't think many people have outside the country, or in it. As far as I know, Nacho Vigalando is blazing his own trail with his low-budget time travel story, though it has a hint of horror to it. If you think of time travel as closer to fantasy than sci-fi, then Cronocrimenes might fit into one or another of the country's cinematic traditions.

It's a pretty simple story with a minimal cast. Hector is married to Clara. One evening while sitting in his yard after taking a weird phone call he spies a woman taking her top off in the woods. After his wife goes shopping, he decides to go exploring. He finds the girl naked and deathly still. He throws small sticks at her to see if she reacts. Then some dude stabs him in the arm with a pair of scissors.

Hector runs and hides and takes a look through his binoculars. He sees a bandaged-up bloody mess of somebody miming like he has binoculars, too. Now Hector really runs for it. As darkness falls, he makes it to some building that seems to be a lab. He finds a walkie-talkie and talks to a technician who tells him to get to an adjoining silo. Inside, the guy tells him to get into some sort of tank. ZAP. A moment later, Hector comes out of the tank, and it's morning. "You've been here before, right?" the techie says, "We've seen each other before, right?" He tells Hector that it isn't tomorrow morning, but an hour before the present. That tank was a time machine. "Hector 2" coexists with his past self, but the techie says that if "Hector 1" does exactly as "Hector 2" remembers, but they keep him out of the tank, things will go back to normal and there'll just be one Hector again, as long as Hector 2 doesn't run loose and mess things up.

So of course he does. Hector 2 goes out for a drive and quickly finds himself destined to become the bandaged guy who chases his original self. He meets the girl and has to make sure she does exactly what he remembers so that the original Hector will follow the pattern, even while the girl is increasingly eager to escape an apparent madman. We learn that the girl wasn't dead when Hector found her naked, but that only complicates things further. Looking for shelter, she flees to Hector's house. Instead of chasing himself like he's supposed to, Hector 2 goes after the girl, but the result makes it imperative that Hector 3 come out of the tank with a head start to set things as right as possible....

Cronocrimenes moves along with commendable clarity. You understand why the different Hectors do all the odd things they do. It all seems to make sense until you ask yourself why the whole cycle begins. Why does Hector 2 already exist at the start of the movie when Hector 1 is more or less minding his own business in the yard? There's the barest hint that the techie's mere turning on the time machine before schedule may have messed with reality, but you have to reach for that answer yourself. That hole in the plot may be enough to render the film a fantasy rather than proper science fiction, while the ending takes our hero to an amoral place that may leave scrupulous audiences shuddering a bit. But Vigalando (who plays the techie) does a good job of establishing Hector's multiplying desperation. and Karra Elejalde does a good job expressing it. The bloody, bandaged Hector is a primal scary image, though Vigalando undermines the impression a little by calling him (in the subtitles, at least) a "pink mummy." Available in an English dub as well as with subtitles as a Magnolia DVD, Timecrimes is a modest effort that effectively holds your attention for an hour and a half, though you may find yourself thinking through the implications for a while longer.

No, you're bloody well not okay, but the film is.

Here's a trailer with English titles, uploaded by trailerman123

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Literal Mindedness Around the World

Here's an anecdote from Lawrence Rosen's Varieties of Muslim Experience: Encounters With Arab Political and Cultural Life from the University of Chicago Press.

Some years ago a group of young men in the Moroccan city where I was working asked me if I would join them at the showing of an American film so that I could explain anything they did not understand. When I asked the name of the film, they told me that it was West Side Story. I decided to go along. At first the young men were captivated by the film. Two gangs approached each other. Then one man pulled a knife. Then someone from the other group pulled a knife. And then they both began singing. The Moroccans turned to me in astonishment: What kind of men do you have in America, they asked, who start singing when they should be fighting? My attempt to explain musicals was a complete failure. Films, they insisted, are lifelike, and therefore they must be "true" -- they must show things as they are; otherwise they are just "lies."

Musicals don't often come up for discussion in the blogs I follow, but the attitude Rosen encountered in Morocco reminded me of the resistance often offered to genre cinema in general, or to any movie that opposes a sense of spectacle for its own sake to the prevailing linear, literary or simply literal-minded standards of popular taste. The Moroccans' American counterparts might not denounce certain movies as "lies," but they will call a lot of stuff "stupid" for basically the same reasons. It might be a musical, it might be science fiction, or it might be an Italian giallo, but the response will most likely be the same. To the extent that it deviates from conventional narrative expectations or a complacent sense of the "real," it's stupid, or worse. I'm not trying to say that there's no such thing as a stupid movie or even a stupid concept -- only that many people's standard of stupidity is, well, pretty stupid.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book into Film: THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1971-3)

Read the novel by George V. Higgins or watch the movie adaptation by Paul Monash, directed by Peter Yates, and it's like you have the Rosetta Stone in front of you. It's as if you've found the proverbial missing link grazing on the savanna. Cinematically you have Robert Mitchum and his whole film noir heritage integrated almost seamlessly into Seventies cinema. Add a remarkably faithful screenplay and you may get a glimmering of what I'm getting at. But go back to the novel (Higgins's first) and it really hits you. The dialogue is the key. It's discursive, digressive, anecdotal, and Higgins tells his story almost entirely through this kind of dialogue. Let me give you a sample:

"Now there is a strange thing," he said, "When I came up here I more or less take the long way around, to see if anybody else is interested and who that might be, you know? So I walk along and then I cross the street and come on back down past the pair of them there and the woman says: 'Unless you accept Jesus, who is Christ the Lord, you shall perish, perish in the everlasting flames.'
"Now who am I to think about a thing like that, can you tell me that?" Dillon said. "Couple weeks ago these two gentlemen from Detroit came in and had a couple of drinks, and then they sort of look around and the next thing I know they inform me that we are going partners. They give me some time to think about it, you know, and while I think I make a few phone calls. So that when the few minutes are up I had maybe six or seven friends of mine in there and I took the opportunity to go out in the back and get a piece of pipe that I keep around. I hit them a couple of good ones and we throw them out in the street in front of a cab.
"Then two nights ago I get five of these Micmacs come in, real Indians, for a change, and they have a little firewater and begin to break up some of the furniture. So me and a few friends hadda use the pipe on them. "So this broad hollers at me there, just a few minutes ago, about the everlasting flames, and I consider myself a fairly intelligent guy and all that, pretty good judgment, I get drunk once in a while now and then, but I got this strong idea that I would like to go up with that piece of pipe under my coat and say: Well, what do I do about those fellows from Detroit, you want to tell me that? The Indians too. Jesus going to punish me for that? And then whack her once or twice across the snout to bring her to her senses."

Remind you of anything? How about this?

"He didn't show up," Foley said, "I sit there for about half an hour, and I have a cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee. Jesus, I forgot how bad a thing a cheese sandwich is to eat. It's just like eating a piece of linoleum, you know?"
"You got to put mayonnaise on it," Waters said. "It's never going to have any flavor at all unless you put some mayonnaise on the bread before you put the cheese on."
"I never heard of that," Foley said, "You put it on the outside, do you?"
"Nah," Waters said, "you put it on the inside. You still put the butter on the outside and all. But when the cheese melts, there, it's the mayonnaise that gives it the flavor. You got to use real mayonnaise, though, the stuff with the eggs in it. You can use that other stuff that most people use when they say they're using mayonnaise, that salad dressing stuff, you can use it. But it isn't going to taste the same. I think that other stuff scalds or something. It doesn't taste right, anyway."

It goes on further. You shouldn't exactly have a total flash of recognition, because Higgins's style is, as I said, a kind of missing link. It might be more clear if the gangster in the first excerpt or the cops in the second started talking about movies or TV shows, but this is a matter of form rather than content. What I'm suggesting is that Higgins is like the Old Testament of the bible that is Quentin Tarantino's writing style. Higgins's style has a clear purpose. Like Tarantino, there's rarely such a thing as purely expository dialogue, just as there rarely is such stuff in real life. People ramble and digress. But in Higgins it's clear that this manner of speaking is also a form of sociability, a kind of code of etiquette. It allows people who are always on the verge of stabbing one another in the back to communicate with one another, to have something to say to each other besides that they don't trust each other. As Higgins ultimately illustrates, it's a way to shield your true feelings or true intentions. You keep up this kind of bluster to keep a man from knowing you think he's a rat, for instance, or that you're planning to kill him. It's a code that lets people act as if they're all friends when they aren't.

The "friends of Eddie Coyle," for instance, include Dillon the bartender, who seems at first to be an eccentric go-between who relays messages among the real criminals, and Dave Foley the police detective, who hints that Coyle might avoid a two-year stint in stir if he informs on some of his other friends. Dillon and Foley are friends as well. Some more friends of Coyle are the gang of bank robbers for whom he's buying stolen guns. More like an acquaintance is Jackie Brown (see!), from whom Coyle buys the guns. They might be friends, but Brown has got to prove himself, and Coyle is the kind of friend who might pay for his guns but then tell the cops that Brown has machine guns to spare for sale to student radicals.

Steven Keats as the original Jackie Brown

If Foley is a friend, that might be enough for him to convince the judge up in New Hampshire to go easy on Eddie. If it isn't, or he isn't, Coyle has other friends he could mention. But he's never the only person out to share information with friends, though he might be the one you want to blame when The Man says someone should pay. And yes, this is the 1970s, and there is someone called The Man to whom the wiseguys answer. Don't doubt that The Man gets his way, either.

Eddie Coyle is a lifelong loser down to his last chances. He's a little older in the movie than in the novel, and Robert Mitchum is a few years older yet than the character he plays. This is one of his Seventies performances that proved that Mitchum could still bring it, but it's no star turn. Coyle is no hero, though the film makes a little more effort to make him sympathetic by showing a little more of his home life than Higgins does and emphasizing more the prospect that imprisonment would mean his family goes on welfare. Mitchum brings authority to the role while demonstrating that Coyle has no power to speak of. Second-billed Peter Boyle seems like the only person who could play the Dillon character from the novel (though the Criterion liner notes state that Monash and Yates originally wanted Mitchum for that part). They're supported by a bunch of familiar Seventies faces, including Richard Jordan as Foley and Alex Rocco as the lead bank robber.

Having read the novel over the weekend and watched the DVD tonight, I can say that apart from some structural alterations this is one of the most faithful adaptations of a novel that I've ever seen. The dialogue is just about all straight from the novel, though a pre-Tarantino sensibility makes it inevitable that Monash cuts bits that might have stayed in now. Some added elements include an opening-credits sequence that shows the bank robbers casing the commute of a bank manager and an abortive car chase (perhaps mandatory from the director of Bullitt) involving Jackie Brown and the police. The only noteworthy omission is a change in who actually rats out the robbery gang, an alteration that virtually eliminates one of the novel's very few female characters while making a major male character more of a villain than he already was. The essence of Higgins's story remains the same: in an underworld of constant deal-making and double dealing, any slip can be fatal. You won't know it from the way people talk to you, but you're finished.

With the story very fresh in my mind, I didn't expect to experience much suspense during the film, but Yates and editor Patricia Lewis Jaffe do a great job elaborating on Higgins's descriptions of the robberies and the stakeout that nabs Jackie Brown. The action scenes are crisply done, even with the violence kept to a minimum, as in the novel. The location work and Victor J. Kemper's cinematography are outstanding. I always get a kick out of period actuality footage, and whether we see an old-school strip mall or the old-school Boston Garden with the "Broons" playing and Mitchum and Boyle in the crowd, it's all a bonus as far as I'm concerned.

Pictorially speaking, it's a Criterion disc, so draw your own conclusions. There might have been more extras beside a still gallery and Yates's commentary track, but I guess I didn't mind paying ten dollars less -- I'd just gotten paid for a project and treated myself. Any fan of Seventies cinema and the American crime genre will probably feel the same way when they see this, again or for the first time.

Criterion wouldn't even spring for a trailer, but UQBAR8 found one to post on YouTube last week, so here it is.

Monday, May 25, 2009

VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST (Vudu Sangriento, 1972)

Dominguez: Do you know what a mummy is, my son?
Rookie: No, sir.
Dominguez: At first, you will think it's a human being like you or me, but later you will realize that it's not, and that's when you will tremble.
Rookie: Yes, sir.

Here is a tale of a love that spanned the ages. One thousand years ago, approximately, and somewhere in West Africa, again approximately, Getanebo the studly bald man loved Kenya, who was married, I think, to another man who looked a lot like the cleaning person who used to work at my neighborhood coin-op laundry. This man discovered the lovers cavorting on a beach, attacked Getanebo with a spear, and died in battle. For this, Kenya was decapitated and her head fondled by the local mob, while Getanebo was jabbed with a secret formula that reduced him to a state of living death. After perhaps being gang-raped in his immobile state by the bare-breasted women of the village, the perpetrator was placed in a sarcophagus and left in a cave. A prophecy was spoken of the lovers:

Happenings and life repeat themselves, Within a thousand years, two thousand, Getanebo will seek Kenya, blood will be spilled, terrible things will happen again and start again, begin again.

In A.D. 1972, or thereabouts, 300 years after Getanebo's sarcophagus was first rediscovered and deposited in a museum, it was transported via cruise ship to Port-au-Prince, where the eminent Dr. Kessling would open it and display the mummy inside on live television. On board the ship, a fire-eating interpretive dancer pantomimed an ancient ritual, as explained by the professor.

Your head will burn, and your body will dissolve into nothingness. Wait for the spirit to descend....We have no eyes, but we see; no ears, but we hear your voice; no legs, but we ascend to heaven as particles of God.

There must have been some magic in that dirty dance she did, 'cause when she went to shake that thang, he began to... well, suffice it to say that he went for a little walk. His skin is a little lumpy, but he isn't that much worse for wear, really, and a little exposure to sunlight improves his complexion drastically. Better yet, he gets an eyeful of Dr. Kessling's assistant Sylvia.

Manuel Cano's rendering of the story in the Spanish film Vudu Sangriento, retitled a few years later to exploit both blaxploitation and The Exorcist in American theaters, confuses the story a bit. According to IMDB, Sylvia is played by Eva Leon, while Kenya is played by another actress whose only film this was. If Cano went to that trouble, you might expect him to cast a black actress for the African part, but Kenya sure looks like a woman in blackface to me. Anyway, despite the fact that we supposedly have two different actresses involved, the reanimated Getanebo (Euro stalwart Aldo Sambrell) instantly makes Sylvia as the reincarnation of Kenya. That's the good news. The bad news is that the sight of Sylvia also inspires some red-tinted flashbacks of Kenya's execution. The trauma reverts poor Getanebo to his former muddy self, and he beats a retreat back to his sarcophagus.

A little later, he ventures out again, now clad in a swanky gold Nehru jacket. He soon discovers that he's hit some sort of karmic jackpot. Dr. Kessling's assistant Freddy is a dead ringer, albeit slightly paler, for Kenya's husband. Getanebo quickly converts him to an obedient servant by jabbing his curare-laced ring into the man's neck. A ship's steward answers to the description of the executioner who killed Kenya. Getanebo explains the arcane significance of dice to this man before decapitating him.

Getanebo: If you try, number four will come out three times. Do you know what that means?
Steward: What does it mean?
Getanebo: That someone will have their vengeance.

The mummy (or shall I call him the "voodoo black exorcist?") makes Sylvia (Eva Leon) an offer she can't refuse.

The mummy offers the severed head as a furtive love token to the sleeping Sylvia, declaring, "Your killer is dead. I bring proof of my vengeance, O Kenya, most beloved of women." Getanebo realizes, however, that he'll have to be more subtle in the future. Learning that Dr. Kessling expects to meet Dr. Craig, "the foremost authority in matters of African primitivism," whom he's never actually seen, our incorrigible romantic hurries off the ship, eluding the plodding Detective Dominguez, intercepts Dr. Craig, and has Freddy run him over with a steamroller. This is a pretty good play on Getanebo's part, as he is something of an expert on African primitivism himself. Dr. Kessling, Sylvia, meet Dr. Craig!

Kessling: Your documentation is amazing. But Dr. Craig, I disagree with you on the pantheism of this voodoo religion.
"Craig": Why?
Kessling: They never invoke a single god. Rain or shine, good or bad, all depends on the loas.
"Craig": You know nothing. The loas are intercessors between men and God. God is lost in the universe and can't be invoked. He's nothing but a threat.
Sylvia: That's not what you said in your last book.
"Craig": However, that's how it is.
* * *
"Craig": Sylvia is your name now.
Sylvia: It's always been the same.
"Craig": My, that's strange. You deserve a prettier one.

Before Sylvia can ask what "Craig" has in mind, we cut to another conference between the mummy and the doctor. By now, Kessling has realized that he isn't dealing with Dr. Craig, but he takes the news like a trouper. After all, his new colleague is quite forthcoming about the details of his existence, explaining that his complexion and temperament is altered by the sun and "various cosmic factors." Kessling notes that Getanebo speaks English quite well. "300 years in museums," the mummy explains, "I have learned many, many things."

Thus begins an awkward collaboration. For some reason Getanebo feels obliged to cooperate with Kessling's live TV program. This imposes farcical complications on him when he gets the urge to go out into Port-Au-Prince and kill a documentary director and the exotic dancer from the ship. In mid mayhem the mummy realizes that it's almost showtime! He has to scramble back to the museum-studio and into his sarcophagus in time for Kessling to make the big reveal.

Kessling soon inflicts greater discipline on his charge, chaining up the sarcophagus so Getanebo can't open it from the inside. But as the security guards watch in something like bemusement, Freddy cuts the chains so his master can emerge and instruct him to "Find Kenya!" Now one security guard leaps into action, dashing through hallways to intercept Getanebo in back of the museum. The time has come for one of the most extraordinary battles you'll ever see on film as the guard goes after the mummy with a fire hose, Birmingham style. Getanebo desperately blocks the powerful stream with a wooden crate, which he finally throws to disarm his opponent. Then the mummy renews the struggle, swinging a vicious coil of rope until the guard goes down. Then the mummy goes down. The guard gets a few good kicks while Getanebo struggles to recover. Finally gaining the advantage, the mummy bangs the guard's head into a metal door a few times to finally take him out.

Then it's off to a desperate cavern rendezvous with Freddy, who has kidnapped Sylvia out of a shower and dressed her up for presentation to his master, even as Dr. Kessling, Detective Dominguez (a self-described "fat old cop" who's "not used to thinking so much") and some flamethrower-toting cops close in for the rescue....

The Psychotronic Video Guide gives this film quite a write-up as a strange, inept film. Looking at the pan-&-scan Mill Creek edition from the Drive-In Classics box set. I can see that it was once a fairly handsome picture with nice shipboard cinematography and location work. The original Techniscope prints clearly had some good widescreen arrangements that are pretty much lost on the DVD. Aldo Sambrell definitely deserves some props for his all-around performance, from his Lex Luthor looks to his unusually frantic interpretation of an already unorthodox mummy concept. Yet the screenplay by Santiago Moncada, a veteran of such films as Hatchet For A Honeymoon, All the Colors of the Dark and A Bell From Hell, is outrageously stupid at points. I don't know whether he or director Cano must be blamed for the inexcusable blackface work in the prologue, the howling lameness of Getanebo's battle with the security guard, or the annoying repetition of the flashbacks to Kenya's none-too-convincing severed head. Cano gets all the blame, however, for a moment cited by Psychotronic when you can see the camera crew in a mirror as the mummy bitch-slaps the dancer.

The idea of transplanting the standard Imhotep-inspired story of monstrous reincarnated love to an Afro-Caribbean setting deserves some credit for creativity, though I wonder whether Getanebo isn't really a zombie rather than a mummy. Overall, Vudu Sangriento offers an odd, occasionally enthralling mix of ambition and amateurishness that results in plenty of probably unintended entertainment for the discerning trash enthusiast.

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