Thursday, February 26, 2009
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
"We defy traditions of moviemaking." the trailer announces, promising an unprecedented combination of terror, comedy and kung fu. Quantitatively, at least, Sammo Hung's milestone film delivers the goods. Here's the preview.
A decade or so before his "Marshall Law" days in America, Hung is "Bold Cheung," whose bravery, he claims, "is known far and wide." He suffers from scary nightmares in which undead spirits chew on his flesh. These fail to impress his wife, who says, "Being chased by ghosts is better than sleeping with you." He seems happier hanging out with his cronies, who challenge him to the Peel Apple game, which is just an excuse for his pal Ah Dooh to scare him. As it happens, Ah Dooh is pulled into another world through a mirror by a real ghost who nearly gets Cheung before his house falls apart. This outburst of supernatural horror has nothing to do with the rest of the movie.
Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, Cheung is a carriage driver for Mr. Tam, a rich mayoral candidate whom our hero comes to suspect of sleeping with his wife. He doesn't manage to catch Tam red-handed, but his suspicions could complicate Tam's political ambitions. Cheung must die, and "it has to be a clean job," but the target's kung fu skills may make things difficult. How about witchcraft, then? As Tam's flunky suggests, "If it didn't work it wouldn't be so popular here." So the flunky hires out a shaman, Master Chin, who figures that he's saved so many lives with his talents that there wouldn't be anything wrong with taking a life if the pay was good. His colleague Tsui disagrees, putting the mystics on a collision course, with poor Cheung in the middle.
No synopsis can do justice to the escalating absurdity that follows. Chin piles on the rituals, muttering gibberish all the while, in a way that I presume Chinese audiences found as ridiculous as I did. It seems like a parody in advance of the more straight-faced supernatural movies like The Boxer's Omen that were appearing around the same time. For every spell Chin perpetrates, Tsui has some equally outlandish remedy to offer Cheung. Hopping vampires, for instance, can be repelled if you throw eggs into their coffins when they try to get out -- but only chicken eggs will work. Doing this actually does more damage to Chin, who operates the undead by remote control, than to the hapless vampires. If you find that your lazy grocer has given you duck eggs when chicken eggs are essential, you can always throw dog's blood on the monster to really hurt his shaman master.
You'd think we had material enough for an exploitation epic here, but on top of this, Cheung gets framed for the murder of his wife and pursued by a dogged inspector. He takes refuge in yet another haunted house where the resident corpse has a habit of imitating the motions of the living, even when Cheung has to relieve himself against a wall. Cheung tries to trick the dead thing into braining itself with a brick, but gets it in the head himself and concludes that the corpse is too smart for him.
Zombie see, zombie do. Sammo Hung (right) and friend in SPOOKY ENCOUNTERS.
(screencap from www.loveandbullets.com)
Later, in a precursor of Evil Dead II, Chin takes control of one of Cheung's arms, making him do kung fu on himself before Tsui can save the day by wrecking Chin's latest altar. Tsui then takes over the inspector's guards and makes them fight him while Cheung escapes from a restaurant known for its ribs and rice. Everything is building toward a double showdown, as Cheung tracks down the owner of an incriminating shoe found in his house, while Chin and Tsui get into the ultimate shamanistic pissing contest of whose altar is bigger. Chin's newest model is several stories high, but Tsui's is mobile and can be cranked upwards to match Chin's in height. From their elevated positions they wage mystic combat while infusing Cheung and Tam with the spirits of ancient warrior deities and spirits. This makes Cheung fight and talk like a monkey, or like an alien baby, depending on what's possessing him at the time. The climax extends to a man-on-fire high dive and an attempt at reconciliation by Mrs. Cheung, who did not die but gets a well-deserved but still shocking comeuppance to end the film.
To be honest, I felt that Spooky Encounters (also known as Encounters of the Spooky Kind) was a little longer than it needed to be, though it definitely picked up the pace once it really got going. The hopping vampire scenes seem to drag at first glance, but in retrospect their slow pacing is a good way to gradually acclimate the audience into the realm of the spooky. A film like this needs an over-the-top finish, and got it, though it's perhaps too brutal a finale for a comedy, at least to modern American tastes. But you have to laugh when the hero tells a dying man that his must have been a nasty fall, and is told, "Why don't you try it?" before the victim expires.
The movie never gets more gory than its initial dream sequence, when a ghost takes a realistic divot out of Cheung's leg. From that point, the violence is slapstick in nature, even though the players are playing for keeps. For the first half-hour or so, the film isn't that funny, but once the business with Cheung's cronies is put out of the way and the real story begins, you'll probably feel vindicated for sitting through the the slow start. Kung fu vs. the undead should be a winning combination, especially with voodoo kung fu (we may as well call it that) on the side, and if Spooky Encounters doesn't quite hit the jackpot, it's at least partially rewarding to the right kind of viewer.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Early talkies fascinate me. They are victims of rapid technological development, obsolete within just a few years of their first appearances, and in many cases lost to history. Because of limited sound-recording technology, the early talkies are derided for their primitive camerawork and clumsy narrative techniques. They often are pretty awkward, but that quality assures them of that accidental-documentary status that arouses my interest. Because they're compromised by limited technology, they can be relegated almost by default to the "cinema of attractions" outside the classical tradition of seamless narrative and the invisible directorial hand. At the same time, they're documents of the late 1920s, an early high point in American pop culture, and among their attractions are Art Deco production designs and the music of Tin Pan Alley. On top of all that, The Great Gabbo features the talking debut of Erich Von Stroheim.
By 1929 Stroheim was already a living legend twice over, first as "The Man You Love to Hate," the portrayer of evil Prussians during World War I, then as the archetypal tyrannically extravagant movie director. Hollywood itself had a love-hate relationship with him. The studios frequently fired him from movies in mid-production, but kept taking chances on him because, when everything came together, his pictures could be big hits. Here, however, he is only an actor, albeit the star of the film. He was directed by a man best known for the first epic Western film, The Covered Wagon. Stroheim regarded Cruze as a friend, and explained his approach to acting in another man's project by noting that, as he knew how to command as a director, he also knew how to obey.
Stroheim is Gabbo -- we never learn if this is a stage name or his real last name. He's an ambitious ventriloquist who shows off his talent by eating, drinking and smoking while Otto, his dummy, sings and jokes. He's also a struggling ventriloquist, performing in Paterson, New Jersey as the film opens. He has a tense relationship with his assistant, presumably also his girlfriend. He deals with his anxieties by playing the tyrant with her (and by indulging in superstitions), but Otto often expresses his conscience and his tender side. After Mary, the assistant, drops a prop on stage, his rages drive her to leave the act. She challenges him to explain why he's playing small towns if he's so great, and urges him to think more of others. As she leaves, Otto laments her departure, and Gabbo snaps, "Shut up! You know we can't call her back."
A theater couple have been listening in the adjoining dressing room. Wondering why Gabbo is angry so often, the woman speculates, "Must be something wrong with his stomach." "Stomach, nothing!" her husband scoffs, "Something wrong with his skull. He's got a screw loose, sure."
Time passes, and the same couple are at home, the husband reading Variety. He learns that Gabbo has become a success after all, performing in a Ziegfeld style revue in New York. Maybe Gabbo is better off as a one-man act. "I could do a single myself," hubby reflects, "But he was cuckoo." "I wish you'd get as cuckoo as he is," wife replies.
Go figure. Maybe Mary was holding Gabbo back, although it seemed like she was the only thing holding him together. Success though he is, Gabbo isn't above doing publicity stunts to promote the revue. He arrives at a nightclub in a limo, attended by chauffeur and footman, and takes Otto to dinner. He dines enthusiastically as Otto sings and mocks the waiters. And who should happen to be in the same club? It's Mary, who has also succeeded, though not alone. She has a male partner in a musical act that's part of the same revue Gabbo stars in. Frank comes across as a real jerk, instantly jealous of Mary's renewed attention to the newly suave Gabbo, who gets the house band to play, "I'm In Love With You," a tune from the show, while a spotlight shines on her. While Frank powders his nose or something, Mary visits Gabbo's table, where Otto tells her that "No one ever combs my hair like you," and Gabbo assures her, "Yes, Marie, we both miss you very much."
The remainder of the film is set during a performance of the revue. Elaborate musical numbers filmed from multiple camera angles are intercut with the plot, with Frank growing still more jealous as Gabbo sends flowers to Mary's dressing room. Gabbo prepares for his own act, very friendly toward Louis, his dresser until told that it's time to go onstage. It's as if his old anxiety hits him and he suddenly starts yelling at the dresser. finally firing him on the spot.
On stage, Gabbo is masterful. As "The Greatest Ventriloqil Exhibition of All Times," he's dressed like an old-school diplomat down to his medals and knee-breeches, as if to sell that he'd performed before the crowned heads of Europe. The act is actually a pretty standard one. Otto is your typical irreverent dummy who ribs Gabbo and subverts his pomposity. Unfortunately, Otto's voice (not Stroheim's) is too mild and childlike when it should be sharper or more raucous, and his rendition of his theme song, "I'm Laughing," is cloying. Overall, though, the act is amusing, as Otto taunts his master with zingers like, "If I keep quiet we both starve to death. Put that in your smoke and pipe it." When Gabbo stuffs his mouth with a handkerchief while Otto sings, the dummy comments, "Last year he used to swallow a tablecloth." But when Otto demands a hot dog from Gabbo's overloaded dinner plate, the star retorts, "Since I'm you, I'm eating enough for both of us."
The volume of musical numbers increases as the romantic plot approaches its resolution. This brings in some eye candy, as we see chorines changing costumes, briefly revealing their scanty undies, and some of the showgirls standing on pillars, seen only from a distance, seem to be nude. This was still tolerated, if not necessarily permitted, in 1929. There's also time for some Deco-psychedelia in the "New Step" number.
The drama comes onstage as Mary and Frank argue while performing the movie's most bizarre (surviving) number, "Caught In A Web of Love." It kicks in just past the 3:00 mark of this YouTube clip.
Seeing the tension, Gabbo thinks he has a chance, and wants it. But what Frank has been pressuring Mary to spell out to Gabbo, we finally learn, is that they're married. Gabbo's behavior from this point is actually quite understandable. Regardless of what the filmmakers intended, Mary comes off as an offensive tease here. The right thing to have done would have been to put Gabbo straight at the nightclub. But the writer apparently wanted to have a big shocking revelation at about this point.
I was expecting Gabbo to go into Tod Browning territory at this point, with the mad ventriloquist attempting to destroy the show and the stars, but mere destructiveness wouldn't let Stroheim go berserk as he does here. Let him show you how to laugh as only he can.
Given the movie's awful reputation, The Great Gabbo unsurprisingly ends up better than I expected. As a musical it's definitely nothing great, but even these pre-restoration clips should show that Cruze filmed them fairly creatively for the time. He shouldn't be punished forever for not being Busby Berkelely. On the DVD, the image is quite crisp and glossy and the sound quality is possibly as good as it ever was. But the main attraction is Von Stroheim, who proves that, as they said in those days, he "had a voice." It's more of a growling drawl than the stock Prussian accent people may have expected from him, and he's fluent enough in English to make himself sound both pompous and plebeian as he needs to be. He can also handle the emotional range from hopefully repentant to insane rage, though he succumbs occasionally to the early-talkie tendency to talk...more... slowly...than...he really... has to. People who know him only from Sunset Blvd. should check this out (you can see the whole thing for free online, albeit in pieces) to see what he could do at full power as an actor.
When I ran advertising and publicity at Columbia Pictures in the late nineteen-seventies, the marketing team worked for the production team. The studio chief and his head of production decided what movies they would make, along with their budgets and cast. We marketers were handed movies and told to sell them. Those production executives chose movies because they loved the stories and believed in the talent, without slavish reference to target audiences and high concept. Their movies were indisputably more varied and complex, artistic and controversial, and they made money. Marketing is a hugely important part of the movie business. But, by becoming so dominant, it has taken the focus off what really matters -- passion.
Monday, February 23, 2009
It opens over children's drawings and with the classic words "Erase una vez" -- Once upon a time. The time is the early 1940s, and the movies are coming to a small Castillian town. Is it a horror movie? A cowboy movie? Right the first time: it's James Whale's Frankenstein, as announced by a female town crier. But before the show, we're introduced to a beekeeper, Fernando, and his wife Teresa, who we find writing a letter to someone close whom she left behind because of the war.
Frankenstein plays at City Hall, on a bring your own chair basis. Edward Van Sloan makes his customary introduction in dubbed Spanish, which when re-translated into English comes out rather different from the text I remember. The kids in the audience are held rapt by the Monster, especially his encounter with Little Maria by the lake. Recall that this is almost certainly the censored version of Frankenstein, so that the children don't see Karloff dump the girl into the water. But they do see Maria's father carry the dead girl into the middle of the wedding festivities, and this sight disturbs one little girl in particular. This is Ana (Ana Torrent), and she and her slightly older sister Isabel are Fernando and Teresa's children.
One night, the air around the barn crackles with gunfire. The next morning, Fernando is summoned by the police. They want to know why the dead fugitive has his coat and watch. At the family table later, Fernando's suspicions grow. On her next visit to the barn, Ana is stunned to discover that her new friend is gone. When she sees bloodstains on the ground, and discovers that her father had followed her, she draws a terrible conclusion and flees. There follows a torchlit search through the woods out of a movie while Ana seeks shelter by a stream. In the moonlit water she sees a familiar face. In the dark of night rather than daylight, the Monster meets another little girl....
It takes a little while for The Spirit of the Beehive to define itself, but once it adopts Ana's perspective, it becomes a powerfully evocative story. It acquires a patient pace to accommodate her struggles to understand what's going on. This pays off in the scene in which Isabel plays dead. We ought to anticipate that she's pranking her sister, but Erice plays the scene out at such length that we, like Ana, begin to worry about what we're seeing. The director also has a strong sense of proportion, best illustrated in the walk across the field, where we're able to appreciate the vastness of the field compared to the tiny figures of the girls, who we can still see distinctly from a great distance walking across. Erice has an impressive sense of depth and distance. Throughout the film, Ana is the focus and balance of composed images that reinforce her vulnerable smallness and the potentially threatening bigness of everything around her. The result is a constant sense of anxiety that the world might swallow her up. The actress, seven year old Ana Torrent (who grew up to be a fairly attractive woman and award-winning actress who still works in movies, including last year's The Other Boleyn Girl) is one of the best child performers I've ever seen. She's not precocious in any way or inordinately charming, but quite convincing as a confused little girl under the spell of a great movie.
The "spirit of the beehive" is explained in something Fernando has been writing, in which he predicts that anyone who examines the glass beehive he's built and the "mysterious maddened commotion" inside will feel "indescribable sadness and horror." The honeycomb pattern on the door panes in Fernando's house invite an analogy with a large beehive, and Ana has seen both commotion and horror, some fake, some fraudulent, some all too real. A doctor says she'll "begin to forget" her experiences, but the final scene suggests that they'll leave their imprint just as Frankenstein did -- that they'll be superimposed together for a long time yet. The Spirit of the Beehive may leave a similar imprint with people who watch it in the right spirit. The trailer will tell you what to make of it, but you should be able to draw your own conclusions.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
As in the bygone days of vaudeville, if anything or anybody meets with your approval, we hope you will applaud. Somewhere, ghosts may be listening.
Across the lives of madcap Mabel and jolly Fatty alike were to pass the shadows of scandal, ill fortune and early death, but that, too, was the undreamed-of future in those early Keystone days.
It was like a trumpeter reaching for a celestial high note beyond human range. Audiences stopped laughing, and the little fellow slipped into oblivion.
Friday, February 20, 2009
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
This is another film of which I had only dim childhood memories before the DVD release, mostly of the posh theme music, which turns out to be the work of mondo maestro Riz Ortolani. He knows how to stick a theme in your head, because the opening music was just as I remembered it. Of the story (or stories) I remembered virtually nothing, except for the obvious, that the film was about the adventures of a particular car. But unlike the coat that links the stories of Tales of Manhattan, for instance, the car has no special quality that charms the lives of its owners -- though the manufacturer might disagree.
Anthony Asquith's film of Terence Rattigan's screenplay is an odd collection of star couplings, starting off with Rex Harrison and Jeanne Moreau. He's a diplomat and horseman who's perhaps not as attentive to the wife as he should be, but wants to make up for it by buying her a certain car. She ends up using it for a tryst with her paramour. You might understand Jeanne Moreau straying from "Sexy Rexy," -- but with Edmund Purdom? I've seen The Egyptian and the man is a block of wood. I suppose he may be a pretty block of wood, but I'm not qualified to judge such things. In any event, Rex discovers her and is heartbroken despite his horse winning the big race, and Jeanne is stricken with guilt, for she does love her husband, after all. Harrison ends up sending the car back to the RR showroom because "it displeases me."
After 20,000 miles, including mentioned but unrecorded ownership by a gambling-addicted maharaja, the car ends up in an Italian showroom, where it's purchased by Paolo Maltese, an Italian-american gangster who's come with his moll and his flunky to marry the former in the old country. George C. Scott is the gangster, Shirley MacLaine the moll, Art Carney the worldly-wise flunky, and Alain Delon is a young hustler with a street-photographer racket. The interplay among the Americans is the highlight of the film, and Asquith seems most inspired by filming on location all over Italy. This seems to be the only episode of the film in which characters actually ride in the car on location. Much of the first episode is done on soundstages, but this middle segment, the longest, takes full advantage of the widescreen scenery. Ortolani also seems more energized on his home ground, and with MacLaine as a muse (see also his score for Woman Times Seven). MacLaine is initially bored by the tourist bit despite Scott's belligerent enthusiasm, but when Scott has to speed back home to take care of business, Delon's charms awaken her sensual appreciation of all Italy has to offer -- including a rather fake looking grotto set where Delon woos her most ardently. She and we also learn the difference between immoral and amoral (pronounced "ah-moral") personalities from Carney, whose good work here makes me wonder why we didn't see more of him in movies in this decade.
I nearly forgot about the car. Once again it's used for a romantic tryst, but that big moment might as well have taken place anywhere. The unifying concept of the film is undercut by the lack of any sense of magic, even metaphorically speaking, in the title vehicle. Unless we really are meant to be simply awed by the presence of an actual Rolls Royce automobile on our movie screens, the car has little to contribute and can hardly be called a "character" in any episode. You might at least perceive a common thread in the car being a site of tragicomic trysts, for that's how the second episode turns out, too, but there's little tragic or comic about the final segment.
By 1941, the yellow Rolls has fallen on hard times in Trieste, but can still be banged into shape for use by a famously wealthy American widow, played by Ingrid Bergman. Learning of a coup in neighboring Yugoslavia that has overthrown the pro-Nazi regime, she decides against advice from the American consulate, in the not exactly authoritative form of Wally Cox, to cross the border and pay her respects to the new regime. Bergman's political sympathies are hard to grasp. She seems happy at the change of government in Yugoslavia, but otherwise seems to be a reactionary and a hater of FDR. Reluctantly she allows a Yugoslav national with a shadowy agenda to accompany her. This is the ethnically versatile Omar Sharif, adding a Slovenian, I believe, to his repertoire. He and Bergman are to be a couple, for a time, but there is no chemistry between them. She is radicalized when the Germans dare to bomb her hotel during dinner, forcing them to serve herself from the salad bar. She's also a take-charge person with a humanitarian bent. Her natural impulse is to help the wounded and injured, and that instinct inspires her to use the YRR to ferry Sharif's partisan pals back and forth along dangerous roads. Here I was expecting a heroic demise for the car, if not for the characters, but there is no such consummation, and the film ends with the venerable vehicle arriving in New York for further domestic service.
By its nature The Yellow Rolls Royce is a mixed bag. The middle episode could almost stand alone with a little elaboration, while the first one isn't really bad but seems constrained by its brevity, and the closer is just silly. I would recommend it most enthusiastically to people who like a certain kind of 60s glossiness, including the music. Ortolani got a kind of hit out of the song "Forget Domani," which sounded more familiar to me as an instrumental than with lyrics. Overall, though he lets it rip a little in the middle episode, this is a relatively tepid score, though the theme still has its grandeur. The film as a whole aspires to grandeur but works best when it aspires least.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Saturday, February 14, 2009
SIGN OF THE PAGAN (1954). Jack Palance as Attila the Hun, directed by Douglas Sirk. I think I first saw this on WOR from New York City, around the time that my family first got cable TV. That was a golden age for incipient movie fans, since we got WOR, WPIX and WNEW when they were all independent stations with copious movie schedules. Here's a role Palance was born to play. The hero is actually Jeff Chandler, an actor I've never cared for who seemed singularly inauthentic in period work. His presence didn't even register with me when I first saw this movie. I was preoccupied with Palance's seeming spiritual struggle with a prophecy that a cross or a shadow of a cross would mean his doom. This guaranteed a troubled relationship with Christianity and a reticence when it came to sacking Italy that disgusted Attila's peers. "He fears his holy Leo!" is a line I well remember, Leo being the Pope who had persuaded Attila to spare Rome. I also remember the payoff that fulfilled the prophecy, and Attila's final request to "Bury me deep." Whatever budget this Universal costumer had, Palance was a spectacle unto himself.
Here's a clip from a Greek fan. I can't vouch for the subtitles.
TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE (1959) Back when American Movie Classics was a worthy and sometimes superior rival to Turner Classic Movies, the station had the rights to all the Tarzan movies. That gave me my first opportunity to see Gordon Scott as Tarzan, including this penultimate effort, which revolutionized the series. Director John Guillerman and screenwriter Les Crutchfield finally abandoned the "primitive" archetype that MGM had imposed on the character with Johnny Weismuller, permitting Scott to become a fully articulate Tarzan while at the same time giving him a more rugged story to perform in and pitting him against an incredible roster of villains including Anthony Quayle and Sean Connery. Scott rose to the occasion as "the man who lives in the jungle." He struck me as more of a Natty Bumppo type than a noble savage, though this film is arguably quite savage compared to previous kid-oriented efforts. I was knowledgeable enough about movies by the time I saw this to realize, once I saw the climactic fight between Scott and Quayle, that this was probably the nearest we'd ever get to an Anthony Mann Tarzan movie. Scott reprised this interpretation in Tarzan the Magnificent before trying his luck as a peplum star -- a career dead end, as it turned out. If the topic were top movies of my imagination, one would be the third Scott Tarzan for Sy Weintraub, a full-scale transposition of The Last of the Mohicans into post-colonial Africa. Think about it, then take a look at the trailer.
HOUSE OF CARDS (1968). I remember seeing this one fairly frequently on one of the local channels in Albany. John Guillerman returns to direct a thriller set in Paris and starring George Peppard and Orson Welles. About the story I actually remember very little. What I do recall is a very memorable score, which I learn was the work of Francis Lai, and a climactic scene on a bridge in which Welles tries to goad a brainwashed child into shooting Peppard, only to end up going over the side himself. Perhaps because it involved a killer kid, or a kid intended to be a killer, that scene made a strong impression separate from its actual cinematic merits, which we cannot verify today. While the reviews on IMDB, based on longer memories than mine, are mixed, the cast and crew list and the bare description of the story make me think that this particular landmark of the wild world of cinema might be reopened profitably. No trailer for this one, I'm afraid.
CRAZY JOE (1974). This is another item I remember seeing on WOR, usually during their 4:00 p.m. weekday movie slot. Carlo Lizzani's film about mafia renegade Joe Gallo has a natural exploitation angle. Peter Boyle made his name in a film called Joe, so why not Crazy Joe? I don't remember very much about it apart from liking it and watching it every time it was on. It was good and violent and had a unique angle of a mafia guy teaming up with black gangsters led by none other than Fred Williamson. I think I remember a kind of disco version of the song "Mona Lisa" playing over the end credits. It had a current-events quality about it, being based on a recent gang war, that gave it a quality distinct from the Godfather films, which I didn't see until the "novel for television" later in the decade. The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Gangster Film partly corroborates my favorable memories. Dating the film to 1973, the reviewer credits Crazy Joe with "an almost operatic intensity" and calls it "an enterprisingly off-beat film." As my appreciation of Italian crime cinema has grown over time, I'd really like to give this film another look. This trailer brings a lot of the memories back. I remember the assassination scene quite vividly now.
I hope I've managed to stake my own territory of absence with this post. I may return to the general subject with a different emphasis on films that I've never seen, but would like a chance to see. Until then, Jeremy has a running list of contributors to the topic at Moon In The Gutter, where he's adding to his own list on a regular basis. I highly recommend a visit.
Friday, February 13, 2009
Let's nail down the genre up front. Some call it a giallo, I suppose, but it hardly qualifies. As I understand it, gialli are all about creative ways of killing people. Five Dolls, however giallesque [?] the title sounds, is all about finding bodies that have already been killed, except for a few very conventional shootings at the end. Bava is said to have liked this least of all his work, and the lack of creative killing may be the reason. Still, he found ways to occupy himself, and the film is a triumph of style over substance. I suppose we could also call it a body-count film, since apart from ogling the scenery -- outdoor, architectural and female -- there's not much to do but count bodies. But body-count films are always sort of a subset of black comedy, given how audiences usually respond to them, and we're clearly meant to laugh at this film.
How couldn't you? We have ten people in the cast, four couples and two singles. The island belongs to George Stark, married to Jill, and his guests are Nick and Marie Chaney, Jack and Peggy Davidson, and Fritz and Trudy Farrell. They're gathered so George, Nick and Jack can schmooze Fritz, a professor, into selling them his important secret formula for three million dollars. The prof. isn't interested in selling; a pall hangs over the formula for him because a colleague died while they were working on it. The men's united front doesn't last long, as Nick angles to get exclusive rights to the formula and urges Marie to seduce the Professor, while people start dying, starting with Jacques the houseboy. George's yacht has vanished and his wireless telephone isn't working, so there's no way off the island and no way to communicate with the mainland. There's nothing to do but put Jacques in the meat locker, wait for other people to die, and drink. Nick does most of the drinking, since "Death makes me thirsty." He has opportunities to get quite sloshed.
So who's the killer? Is it Isabel, the lone single female, who we see shooting the Professor with a rifle during a break from romping on the beach and stalking people? Well, this is the sort of movie where seeing someone shoot somebody else pretty much guarantees that she didn't kill everyone else -- or does it??? Any further elaboration of the synopsis would only spoil a plot that's pretty gamy already. This isn't the sort of film you watch for the story, and if efficient storytelling is your sole criterion of cinematic quality, you may as well stop reading.The reasons to look at Five Dolls are the lush outdoor scenery, photographed by Bava and Antonio Rinaldi, the colorfully decadent indoor sets, and the uniformly luscious female cast, from Justine Galli as Isabel to the great Edwige Fenech as the particularly depraved Marie Chaney. The date is 1970, but this is still very much the swinging 60s, put to music by Piero Umiliani's swanky lounge score. It's still the era when it was hard to find an Italian film in which the music, at least, did not sound good. And Bava can't help but make the whole production look much more lavish than it actually was. However he felt about the story, he gets in a few excellent set pieces, including the mock human sacrifice bit at the beginning and a later sequence where we follow some spilt glass balls from the scene of a drunken fight down a flight of stairs into a bathtub where we find the latest victim. There's also one big scare moment near the end when Isabel has to nab a piece of microfilm (I think that's what it is) in the aftermath of a shootout in the meat locker -- which by that point is very well populated.
This is a body count film where you're almost certainly meant to root for nearly all the characters to die. They're such scumbags, such cartoonish incarnations of the idle yet greedy rich, that you most likely will cheer on whoever's doing the killing. But at the same time you can revel in their depravity, from cavorting on a rotating circular bed to puffing a cigarette from between a woman's bare toes. This film is eye candy: pure cinematic junk food that won't make you fat -- and it's okay to laugh. If you didn't, I'd wonder....
Try this clip on for size. It's Edwige Fenech dancing, stripping, and playing the sacrifice for Kraal. While I saw the Anchor Bay DVD in Italian from the Bava Vol. 2 box set, this clip is dubbed into English for your enjoyment.
Rickert in maturity, as "Gilda the Golden Girl"
(photo from www.streetswing.com)
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Francis is raised in a Catholic orphan asylum and becomes an industrious bootblack and boy of all work for one of the local pool halls. He's running with the wrong crowd, but that doesn't stop him from stepping in when the gang menaces a harmless Jewish boys. Their anti-Semitic sensors seem to be off, though, because Steve McQueen hardly seems like a Jew. Frankie saves him by putting him down with one punch, which Steve, who we'll call Marty Cabell for our purposes, appreciates as a reasonable alternative to a protracted beatdown. Marty invites Frankie to his place to teach him how to box. Frankie also gets to meet Marty's sister Julie (Lita Milan). Those clever Jews: Julie doesn't even look or sound like she's from the same country as Marty. Frankie, however, is unprejudiced, for who could be prejudiced against such a dish.
Two representative men of the 1920s: Steve McQueen thanks John Drew Barrymore for knocking him out in NEVER LOVE A STRANGER (photo from www.mcqueenonline.com)
I have to remind you occasionally about the time frame of our story because the film itself can confuse you. Unless you look at the cars, you could hardly tell from how the people look that the story's taking place sometime earlier than 1958. Neither Steve McQueen nor our actual star, John Drew Barrymore, looks right for the period. They are neither Fop nor Dapper Dan men. I owe you an account of young Barrymore. He is the missing link, if you please, between alcoholic master thespian John Barrymore and alcoholic actress-producer Drew Barrymore. John Drew was pretty much just alcoholic. Not long after this starring role in a low-budget Allied Artists release, he was supporting Steve Reeves in The Trojan Horse across the big water, and it was further downhill from there.But whereas his father could still earn money by shamelessly parodying himself, and his daughter can claim to be a successful show-business survivor, JDB finished his career literally as a bum. But don't blame Never Love A Stranger for that. He lacks intensity, but has some of the family charisma.
Things are looking up for Frankie on both the romantic and criminal fronts until a shocking discovery is made. The old landlady finally hauls Frankie's mom's suitcase out from behind the closet, and inside finds a book written, as Frankie puts it, "in Jewish." A terrible mistake has been made! The well-meaning authorities seem to think it was unfair of them to raise as a Catholic someone who should have been a Jew, but Frankie sees it all differently. "I don't want to be a Jew!" he cries, and rather than face transfer to a Jewish school, he hops a freight, leaving behind a bankroll he's been keeping for his mentor Silk Fennelli (erstwhile Mike Hammer Robert Bray), with instructions for Julie to return it to Silk. Fennelli shows his gratitude by making her a nightclub singer and kept woman, while Frankie has timed his hobo adventure for the advent of the Great Depression, and lean years follow for him.
As Frankie, he returns to New York to take a WPA job, during which he is hit by a truck during a moment of inattention. He's hospitalized just as Marty, a rising young prosecutor, is visiting the building. Marty gives his old pal $20 to get him started again, and once on his feet Frankie restores himself to Silk Fennelli's service as a most trusty gunsel. After three years as Silk's right hand, Frankie's impatient to take over and establish some order in the underworld. He makes his move at a gang conference, clobbering Silk into submission and declaring himself the guarantor of peaceful crime. For reasons known only to Harold Robbins, Frankie does not exterminate Silk, but retains him as an underling while reclaiming his relationship with Julie. It will be increasingly apparent that Frankie is sort of soft.
He runs the New York bookmaking operations from the safety of New Jersey, where newly-minted special prosecutor Marty can't touch him. Marty is not exactly Thomas Dewey. His campaign to defeat Frankie consists largely of meeting him at restaurants or calling him on the phone and asking him nicely to turn himself in. Otherwise, he waits for Frankie to slip up and step across the river. Meanwhile, Silk looks for some way to avenge his humiliation. He doesn't like Frankie's indulgence toward Mosh, a Jewish numbers man who wants to retire. Silk thinks Mosh should die because there's too much chance of him turning rat, but Frankie trusts the old man. Finally, Silk weaves a plot to eliminate Mosh, Frankie, Marty and his sister in one Corleonian swoop, with help from Flix the hitman (Peckinpah stalwart R.G. Armstrong). I'll skip to climactic details except to bring us back to that careening car from the opening, then forward once more to another birth and the continuation of the Kane lineage.
I think this is meant as some sort of gangster tearjerker. Everything from the omniscient narration and the lachrymose theme song to the sentimental score by Raymond Scott (otherwise a powerhouse composer) and the circle-of-life finale point that way. It certainly tries harder at that than it does to recreate the 1930s on screen. Maybe the filmmakers thought the period was close enough to the present that people wouldn't notice anachronisms, but more likely they just lacked money. The director, Robert Stevens, worked mostly in television. IMDB credits him with 44 episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock show. Going to 90 minutes may have been beyond his powers. His direction here is efficient but uninspired, lacking forcefulness or momentum.
The acting throughout is pretty green. If you didn't know McQueen on sight you might not accuse him of stealing scenes. His job is to be dully earnest and he earns his pay. He is at least competent. It's hard to judge Barrymore apart from the implausibilities of the character he plays, but I think he could have handled better material. Neither actor embarrasses himself, but they look pretty silly anyway, trapped in such a silly story. The title should have told me not to expect anything really raw or violent, but the DVD did hint at something like that. This film probably exists in digital form only because McQueen is in it, playing what's apparently his first billed role, so it's historical interest is obvious, but I'm afraid that there's little of interest apart from that unless I've made it sound campy enough for an unintended laugh.
Of the book, its original publisher reportedly said: "it was the first time he had ever read a book where on one page you'd have tears and on the next page you'd have a hard-on." If so, Robbins did not do justice to his own work this time.