Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Book into Film: WARLOCK (1958-9)

Here is the back cover of a fifty year old paperback novel. It's a movie tie-in edition of Oakley Hall's Warlock, a finalist for the 1958 Pulitzer Prize. The book is battered but intact, surviving my recent reading easily enough. I found it in a Troy used book store and paid a dollar for it last year.

The book interested me because I had seen the movie, first in fleeting glances on AMC, then in full on DVD. Edward Dmytryk's film impressed me as one of the superior "adult" westerns that Hollywood cranked out during the 1950s. What I liked about it was the emergence of Richard Widmark's reformed outlaw as the real hero of the story, in ultimate opposition to Henry Fonda's Earp-like super gunfighter. I also enjoyed the variations on the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday archetype played out by Fonda and Anthony Quinn, and I was pleasantly surprised by a DeForest Kelley supporting turn that nearly steals the picture at times. The novel was recently reissued by the NYRB Press, sporting a blurb from no less a literary personage than Thomas Pynchon, but I guessed that I could find a used copy for less. I finished the book over the weekend and decided to look at the movie again for the sake of comparison.

Warlock is primarily the story of John "Bud" Gannon, a former member of Abe McQuown's San Pablo cowboy gang and his repudiation of their outlaw ways. Neither fully trusted by the townspeople of Warlock nor any longer respected by most of the cowboys, including his brother Billy, Gannon becomes a deputy sheriff, the highest ranking law enforcement official the town can have. This makes him a theoretical ally and eventual rival of Clay Blaisedell, a famous gunfighter hired by a citizens' committee to act as marshall and crack down on the McQuown gang. Blaisedell is accompanied by Tom Morgan, a gambler and fellow gunfighter who seems a less principled figure. Morgan shows his true colors by killing a man on the way into town and letting some cowboys (who coincidentally were in the process of robbing the stage the man was riding in) take the blame for it. Morgan had guessed that the man was coming with his and Blaisedell's nemesis, Kate Dollar, to kill Clay in revenge for his earlier killing of Kate's fiancee. As suspicions of his involvement spread through town, Morgan becomes impatient for Clay to leave town with him, but Blaisedell has fallen for the "miners' angel," Jessie Marlow and begun to think of settling down. The defeat of McQuown's cowboys is only the prelude to two climactic confrontations, Morgan against Blaisedell and Blaisedell against Gannon.

Henry Fonda as Blaisedell and Anthony Quinn as Morgan in Edward Dmytryk's

The novel weighs in at abut 450 pages in modest-sized type, while the film just makes it over the two-hour mark. Inevitably, producer-director Dmytryk and writer Robert Alan Arthur had to cut things. What they cut was the middle of the novel, a long section dealing with the repercussions in town of a bitter miners' strike. Warlock is episodic enough in structure that doing this does not render the climax incoherent. But because the novel develops as a kind of slow burn toward the ultimate showdowns, the movie has to simplify things a bit. Important characters from the novel, like the violently senile territorial governor, General Peach, are eliminated. Others, like Dr. Wagner, who is a rival of Blaisedell's for Jessie's affections as well as a leader of the miners' strike in the novel, are reduced to insignificance.

Dmytryk and Arthur have to exaggerate Morgan's personality in order to condense his crucial character arc. If you've read any commentary on Warlock, you've probably seen it said that Morgan, at least as interpreted by Anthony Quinn, has some sort of homoerotic feeling toward Blaisdell. The film really gives you more cause to think this than the book, which isn't to say that the novel gives none, by making Morgan more dandyish and yet more grotesque. Quinn is burdened with a limp that Morgan does without in the novel, and in the film he is made to say, in explaining his intense friendship with Blaisedell, that Clay is"the only person, man or woman, who looked at me and didn't see a cripple." Compared to the novel, this is out of the Lon Chaney Sr. school of characterization. The movie Morgan is also inclined to quote Shakespeare and is more interested in the interior design of his gambling hell than the movie would have you think is strictly manly.

But in the book the key to the gunmen's friendship is Morgan's claim that he alone accepts Clay Blaisedell for what he is rather than expecting him to play some kind of role as hero, lawman, etc. However, the question of what Blaisedell is hangs over the whole novel. Clay is only ever seen from the outside, from the viewpoints of Morgan, Jessie, Kate, Gannon and the running commentary of Henry Holmes Goodpasture's journal. Blaisedell is meant to be an enigma, perhaps even a human void, but a movie character can't be the same kind of enigma. On the screen we can't get into some characters' heads and not others unless the producers opt for voiceovers. Instead, Dmytryk and Arthur try to flesh out Blaisedell's character in order to give Henry Fonda more to do than be godlike. The movie Clay ends up being a more righteous and moralizing man than the original, quicker to come into conflict with Morgan. He also ends up more of a tragic figure, since we know his desires for domesticity and retirement, while we never really know them as certainly in the novel.

But while there's a lot of tweaking of Morgan's character, including messing with his motivations toward the end, Blaisedell ends the story exactly as he does in the book. In the film, Morgan becomes irrationally hostile to Gannon, goading Clay to kill him and threatening to do it himself. This is because Gannon's success as deputy seems to threaten Blaisedell's heroic public standing. Movie Morgan says Clay must destroy Gannon to reassert his dominance, since "if you're not the marshal you're nothing." Quinn is threatening to kill Gannon when Blaisedell meets him for their fatal showdown. But in the novel Morgan has actually locked Gannon in his own jail so the deputy won't risk his life interfering in his intended suicide-by-Clay. He protects Gannon to fulfill a promise to Kate Dollar (called Lily in the movie for no good reason), who has fallen for the deputy. At the same time, Morgan has decided to destroy himself as a last resort to give Clay an opportunity to settle down with Jessie. He was jealous of her earlier in the story but ends up convinced that she, like him, can accept Clay as he is. Morgan originally meant only to provoke Blaisedell into driving him out of town, since he was planning to leave anyway, so that Clay would be able to retire as a hero if he chose. But Blaisedell wouldn't rise to the bait the first time around, even though murder was involved, so Morgan felt forced to raise the stakes. The movie offers a very simplified version of Morgan's thinking, as Quinn decides to sacrifice himself in order to re-establish Blaisedell as an "important" person, and dies declaring "I win."

But Blaisedell's reaction shows that neither Morgan nor Jesse nor anyone else had won. In book and movie alike, he goes berserk with grieving rage, forcing the townspeople to do homage to Morgan's body, kicking the crutch out from under self-righteous Judge Holloway, and finally burning the saloon down over the corpse in a sort of landlocked Viking funeral. If Quinn's performance gives viewers cause to wonder about Morgan's sexuality, this hellacious sequence (marred only by an apparent budget shortfall that prevented Dmytryk showing a full-scale fire) should make people wonder about Blaisedell.

"I win."

John Gannon starts the novel already separated from the McQuown gang. He comes into Warlock on his own looking for work, and it's explained early that he quit the cowboys because of a massacre of Mexicans they took part in. That event is referenced in the movie, but the film starts with Gannon still part of the gang, albeit clearly feeling alienated. He trails behind the rest whenever they ride into town. The massacre weighs on him, he reveals later, but for movie purposes his breaking point with the cowboys comes when he prevents his personal enemy Jack Cade from backshooting Blaisedell during a standoff between the marshall and the sardonic Curley Burne. Seeing that Abe McQuown condoned the attempted treachery, Gannon decides to stay in Warlock, eventually becoming the deputy.

Gannon and Blaisedell stand for opposing ideas of law and order. Blaisedell embodies order maintained by force and charisma, while Gannon, following his moral epiphany, clings doggedly to the idea of a rule of law. In the novel, Gannon is frequently denounced by his former friends and by others who see him as "cold." This is because he has come to put the law above personal ties. Abe McQuown hearkens back to a time when no one needed the law because people had friends to back them up in any scrape. Gannon seems to point toward a modern day when people can function as individuals without depending on kin or gang membership. He represents a new kind of honor, opposed to an older code that seems tied to an implicit death wish. In the novel, Gannon speculates that bad men often get themselves recklessly into gunfights as a way of inviting punishment for themselves, and Hall gives examples throughout the story (including Morgan) that hint that Gannon is right. This seems to explain why so many men feel compelled to challenge Blaisedell, especially when he posts them out of town. Gannon himself doesn't presume to post people that way, though he finally finds himself forced to with Blaisedell himself. The outcome seems to vindicate Gannon's ethical vision, but the novel and the movie actually come to different conclusions.

While Gannon's integrity is the core of the story in both versions, the movie portrays Gannon's triumph less as a victory for individual conscience than as a victory for the town as a whole. Blaisedell also looks forward to the day when Warlock won't need him, and in an optimistic moment in the film Fonda says, "It looks like Warlock's growing up." The movie holds up an idea of settlement and domesticity that the novel never quite endorses. It renders Blaisedell a tragic character because he finally can't settle down and become a husband and father. He becomes an equivalent to Ethan Edwards in The Searchers standing outside the closing door, or John Wayne's character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: a violent man who is necessary for one moment of history but unfit for the next stage. The movie leaves you with a sense of certainty that Warlock will go on without him.

Oakley Hall closes the novel with a disillusioning epilogue in the form of a letter written in 1924, more than 40 years after the main events. In this short coda, Henry Holmes Goodpasture explains that Warlock became a ghost town not long after the story following the failure of the mining industry. The town died, but not before John Gannon, shot in the back by his arch-enemy Jack Cade -- a character Gannon kills in the movie. This was clearly more than the producers thought moviegoers of 1959 could take, so the film leaves us in a moment of tragic optimism, the apparent triumph of civilization counting for more than Jessie's unhappiness or Clay's journey to likely oblivion.

So as is often the case, a movie adaptation looks wanting after you've read the source novel. But let me stop the criticism to say that Dmytryk's Warlock is still an excellent film and one of the best of the mature 50s westerns from the pre-spaghetti peak of the genre. From location work to art direction it is a "mighty" film, as the paperback promises.

It's also one of the best ensemble casts you'll ever see in a western. Having Fonda, Quinn and Widmark together rather guarantees mightiness, and Dorothy Malone is also formidable as Lily Dollar, though perhaps less than Kate Dollar should have been. The fifth above-the-title player, Dolores Michaels as Jessie, doesn't quite hold up her end, but that character is very much underwritten compared to the book. On the other hand, it's time to give props to DeForest Kelley for what's probably his finest cinematic hour playing Curley Burne.

We like to think of Kelley as a doctor, not an actor, but some people are qualified for certain genres, and Kelley seems to have been meant for westerns. Curley is a clown with a little bit of unflappable crazy courage. He's unafraid to taunt Blaisedell several times over, but his sense of humor seems to be linked to a fundamental though much submerged moral sense that finally prevails when he saves Gannon from being backshot during a showdown. In the novel, Curley Burne accidentally kills a man, gets posted out of town by Blaisedell, and gets killed challenging the marshall in one of those encounters that look a lot like suicide to Gannon. I like to think that Dmytryk saw what Kelley was doing with the role and decided not just to spare Burne but turn him into a good guy at the end.

Warlock also boasts one of my favorite scenes in any western. A highlight of both book and movie is the attempted lynching of the cowboys (including an unbilled Frank Gorshin as Billy Gannon) accused of the stagecoach murder. Blaisedell takes command of the scene in an awesome moment when he basically commands a ringleader of the mob to step forward and get clubbed on the head with a gun butt. It's a great moment on film but even greater in the novel when, after already clubbing one man down in a melee, Blaisedell orders a second man to step up and get clobbered. He is obeyed. But even what we get on film is awesome.

Then again, I thought it was awesome when Blaisedell knocked down the judge and made him crawl out of the saloon. If anything, the scene is more hardcore in the movie, in which the judge is merely a self-righteous blowhard rather than an often-pathetic yet sometimes astute drunkard who might be thought to have it coming. Fonda is required to be benign in more romantic scenes but at his best here he is fearsome in what was probably an unwitting audition for Once Upon A Time in the West.

I recommend both the book and the film to anyone who likes westerns or the actors involved. My advice is to watch the movie first. After that, reading the novel is like a "director's cut" full of deleted and expanded scenes that enrich the story. Once you've done both, you'll want to give the filmmakers credit, despite my criticisms, for getting so much of the essential story right.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

GATE OF FLESH (Nikutai no mon, 1964)

Seijun Suzuki is a rare international example of the sort of director you usually associate with Hollywood: a victim of the studio system. He spent a decade in the Japanese cinematic wilderness after his home studio Nikkatsu fired him following the release of his surreal yakuza saga, Branded to Kill. That was in 1967. Suzuki's offense was that his films had become too gratuitously artistic and were alienating and confusing the genre audience. Branded definitely is a weird film, and it has the same effect in our time. I found it in a used book store a few years ago. You don't usually find a Criterion DVD in such a place, and since I found Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter there at the same time I can only assume that someone had decided that the director wasn't his or her cup of sake. So you can see where Nikkatsu was coming from -- but on the evidence of Gate of Flesh, the studio had more tolerance than they're given credit for.

Nikutai no mon follows the struggles of Maya, a young homeless woman in early postwar Japan who joins a little autonomous guild of prostitutes. With yakuza protection they can do without pimps, and they depend on themselves to enforce their territory between Yurakucho and Kachidoki Bridge. They cater to the American occupation troops and those Japanese with money to spare. The arrival of more troops inspires a spirited display of wares from the women of the shantytown near the U.S. base.

Each of the ladies dresses in a particular color -- one in red, another in purple, a relatively zaftig one in yellow -- and Maya's color is green. Her new pals are cynical and irreverent, determined to "spit on everything," but they keep one rule very strictly: no freebies!

No such rule is enacted in the movies unless it's going to be broken, and in this sort of movie no such rule is broken unless someone's going to get punished for it. Machiko is the guilty party initially, giving the gals cause to discuss proper disciplinary technique. "You gotta beat her on the ass for it to sound good," one advises. Maya finds herself strangely aroused by the ritualistic caning, and seeks release by joining in on the punishment.

This shot is a good example of Suzuki's technique. Instead of cutting from Machiko's ordeal to Maya's reaction shots, he figures: I've got a pretty wide screen, so let's play with some superimposition. It's actually quite effective and expressionistic at the same time. You'll note that since it's still only 1964, Suzuki must arrange his lighting carefully to keep the naughty bits mostly in the dark. He doesn't succeed all the time at this, but it really enhances the stylized eroticism of the story. Here's another example from the same scene.

Think of Gate of Flesh as poised stylistically somewhere nearly halfway between Michael Powell (intense cinematography and art direction) and Russ Meyer (frenetically edited sleaze). The film could be seen as a kind of antithesis and ideal second-feature to Powell's Black Narcissus. In that film, a self-governing community of women (nuns) are disrupted by the presence of a man. In Gate of Flesh, the solidarity of prostitutes is threatened by the bull-in-a-china-shop presence of Shintaro ("Shin") Ibuki a veteran turned thief and smuggler who takes refuge in their headquarters after stabbing a GI. Disillusioned by Japan's defeat, Shin vows, "I'm gonna live for sex and food."

Joe Shishido also starred in Suzuki's Branded to Kill. He's noted for his chunky chipmunk cheeks, on display here.

Even wounded, he proves his mastery by shaking off a chair attack and beating up Sen, the red-clad de facto leader of the women. From that point, the women start competing for his favor, including the now-exiled Machiko. Maya has the hots for him, too. Thinking Machiko a demon for trying to seduce him, she says, "I'll become a demon, too." She practices by seducing the black Catholic priest who tends to the fallen women, ultimately driving him to kill himself.

Chico Roland, who plays the priest, will probably be best known to American audiences for his quite different role in The Street Fighter

Shin aspires to be the Harry Lime of the shantytown. He's allegedly hoarding some stolen penicillin, and he's capable of stealing a cow virtually from under the nose of its owner in order to prepare (gruesomely) a feast of beef for the ladies. Everybody gets drunk, Shin sings some old army songs, and the girls note with amusement that "Something's crazy when our bodies cost the same as beef [40 yen per pound, we learn]." Speaking of crazy, perhaps you can see where our story's headed. Maya is turned on by Shin. She's turned on by punishment. Everyone is drunk, hot and sweaty. But we're going to do this the Seijun Suzuki way. That is: Maya invites him to take her. He checks her out. Cut to black and white stock footage of batteries of rockets firing. Cut to him taking her in passionate soft focus.

Maya is willing to pay the consequences because she intends to rendezvous with Shin after he makes his big score. Meanwhile, the Americans and the yakuza are closing the net on the man who's made quite a nuisance of himself through a rapid-fire montage of muggings earlier in the picture. Maya does indeed pay the consequences, since Suzuki would hardly have a movie otherwise, but as for the rest...

Gate of Flesh definitely belongs to the "style over substance" category, but for a director like Suzuki the style is the substance of the movie. The story counts for less than the way it's told. Historically, producers tend to worry that style gets in the way of story and alienates the audience. But when you get to genre films (and I'd classify this one as such), genre itself is a style superimposed on events that might be portrayed differently by a documentarian or even a director of a different genre. A director like Suzuki takes style to the next lurid level -- one that isn't necessarily inappropriate for his material, which may be why Nikkatsu didn't fire him this time.

I think that students of style and students of sleaze alike would enjoy Gate of Flesh. Suzuki tried to make a work of art and a work of exploitation in one stroke, and it's a pretty good try. If you want to see some of the images above in motion, here's the trailer. I chose an untranslated one so the subtitles wouldn't get in the way, and I hope I've given you an idea of what you're looking at. If not, have fun and fill in the blanks yourselves.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

TREASURE OF TAYOPA (1974): "Now you've put a gun in the hand of a fool!"

Stoddard: Well, Kathryn, I understand what you mean, and I agree with you, but when you hired me to lead this expedition and to hire these other men, I hired the men I could find. You know, you don't find the men to do this kind of work in the ivy covered universities back East. You find them in the border towns and the backwash of life. I didn't have a lot of time to look and these are the best I could find.

Probably without meaning it, screenwriters Robert Mason and Phillip Michel comment eloquently on their own profession during a quiet moment of Treasure of Tayopa, the only writing credit in either man's career. It's also the only directorial credit for Bob Cawley, whose only other credit of any kind is for producing an Anita Bryant TV special in 1980. For the majority of the actors, also, this was their only chance, and one gets the sense of a group of people finding each other in the backwash of life and banding together in search of cinematic fortune. Treasure shows signs of ambition all over the place as a wannabe epic dominated by a gigantic performance billed like a future star's introduction that was his first and only bow.

Narrator: Since the 17th century, a legend, part fact, part fiction, has become shrouded in the mists of time, and although Tayopa is of the past, it is the dream of men and women searching today, and making plans to search tomorrow.

So says the one celebrity in the cast, "Host/Star" Gilbert Roland, the Cisco Kid of the 1940s, flaunting some sort of beverage as he introduces the story. He recounts the historical legend of Tayopa, a mine of gold and silver operated by Jesuit priests, the location of which was lost when Indians slaughtered the padres.

Before the opening credits we were introduced to the characters in our story: the treasure hunters Tom Stoddard, Felipe and a man named Sally who complains, "I'm hot, I'm cold, I'm cold and I'm hot" while waiting for their leader to land a plane. He and Felipe are stunned to learn that their leader is no El Jefe but a La Jefa -- Kathryn Delgadillo (Rena Winters), the daughter of a dead treasure hunter whose map to Tayopa she has memorized.

We see her mourning in flashback as one of the movie's original songs plays over:

I took a ride on a train of thought through the valleys of my mind.

Down along the forgotten track to a day when time was kind.

Oh I sat by the window with memories in my head,

Taking a trip on the train of thought back through the years I sped.

Now the train of thought is the only one that runs through yesterday.

The only way to turn back time; there is no other way.

Rushing by my memory the past went rolling by.

I wondered where the time had gone when life was mine to try.

But a man doesn't think of time and tomorrow's far away

When the sun of life is going down we turn to yesterday,

Well, it's good to see gold mines again [inaudible] with the past,

But don't try to stay too long, the welcome will not last.

The songs are meant to give the film that extra epic quality, I suppose. Director Cawley also strives to give the story some sweep with some good use of landscape and occasionally impressive successive dissolves to convey the movement of the expedition. On the other hand, he's also a little too fond of pointing his camera directly at the sun. Two factors work against Cawley, however: his writers and his actors. Both groups try their best, but lack something. Bob Corrigan, who plays Tom Stoddard, sounds like a radio announcer or the sort of voice you might hear calling professional wrestling matches. He often seems to be improvising his lines, but while his delivery is natural, the voice comes out processed. Rena Winters tries to convey authority and forcefulness but really seems a little too old for this stuff. There's even less to be said for the rest, especially the gang of idiots playing a trio of stereotypical Mexicans -- the kind who actually say things like "Ay, Caramba!" and talk Spanish to the Americans but English to each other. The one glowing, indeed radioactive exception to this often drab crew is the man who gets an "Introducing" credit, the one and only Phil Trapani as the man named Sally.

Sally is the real catalyst of the film, lusting after yet competing for leadership with La Jefa. Their conflict is established early when he urges her to "tell Mr. Manners [Tom] that it's time to get my protection." Does he want a condom? Of course not; he wants a gun, even though he already has a crossbow. "It's silent, it's accurate, it's deadly and it's my friend," he explains.

Sally's the one most irritated when the Mexicans give them a hard time on the trail. While the others tell him to forget the teasing, Sally can't let go of two overpowering facts: "They pulled my hair and pushed my horse," he says, "No one does that, Stoddard!" At his first opportunity Sally goes back and slaughters the three Mexicans, ripping into one repeatedly with a machete while crying out, "Bleed, damn you!" But there's a fourth Mexican, Andreas, who had encountered our heroes earlier, who discovers Sally's incriminating hat at the murder scene. "Gringo bastardo!" he cries, and the stage is set for a terrible vengeance. As it turns out, his vengeance consists largely of horse stealing and voyeurism.

It's Sally whom Stoddard's talking about in the quote I opened with. "Now Sally," he continues, "Sally's got problems." To which Kathryn responds, "I think Sally's sick." Tom agrees, but insists that Sally's an excellent metal detector man. "If there's anything out there to be found with a metal detector, Sally will find it," he promises. Kathryn isn't reassured. "It's just a feeling I have in my heart," she insists, "I feel that the seeds of tragedy are sown among this group, and that in time it will touch us all, even you."

It's definitely Sally's ambition to touch La Jefa. While Andreas watches her skinny-dip from afar, Sally moves right in, urging her to leave Tom and Felipe and team up with him. "You're strong, Kathryn," he says, "strong like the gold and silver of Tayopa!" Tom shows up to drive him off at gunpoint before he can come on too strong, but this was just to prime us for the explosion to come.

But let's have another song, first:

Another morning sunrise.

Darkness leaves the sky.

Another morning sunrise.

Another day to try.

Well, the sun is coming up.

Fate has let us have one more tomorrow.

With the new dawn of the day,

Will it bring with it our fortune or our sorrow?

Our lust for gold, it has no rest.

We survive to pass the test.

Of magic yellow gold I speak:

A treasure cursed by death we seek

With another morning sunrise....

Sally's the lucky one to actually find the Treasure of Tayopa, and he uses his good fortune to get Kathryn's guard down. She tries to rebuff his advances, insisting that "I'm the leader of this expedition," but Sally answers:

No, no, you're not leader. You're a woman, a woman that needs to be tamed. After I tame you, after I tame you, I'm going to take you, and then -- heheheh -- then we're going to share Tayopa!

Sally shows his good faith by flinging Kathryn into the water, stripping the back off her blouse (singing, "I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are NOT FORGOTTEN!!!"), flogging her with his belt and pressing her face into the mud. He takes her lucky Tayopa talisman, meant to guard her from "the curse of the snake," and proceeds to slaughter Tom and Felipe.

Convinced that he's killed Kathryn too, Sally rises to heights of Lugosian rapture as thunder rumbles overhead: "Now they're all gone. I'm the richest man in allll the world! Not even God can take Tayopa!"

But he hasn't reckoned upon La Jefa's resilience and implacable wrath. As Sally gathers coins while kissing and sucking on the talisman, Kathryn closes in with primitive vengeance on her mind.

There's more to the story after this, but unless the notion of Rena Winters wandering deliriously through the wilderness (and why wander away from Tayopa, for Christ's sake?) and eating raw rattlesnake meat attracts you, the main attraction is already over. Phil Trapani's is, as far as I know, literally a once-in-a-lifetime performance of naive genius. Whether he operated on instinct or was guided by director and writers, he seems to have understood that in low-budget exploitation cinema, it's up to the actors to become special effects. The difference between movies that are really bad and movies that are so bad that they're good is that the ones that are just bad are boring. Trapani doesn't allow Treasure of Tayopa to be boring. He fully earns that special billing, and it's actually too bad he didn't work again. I think there would have been a future for him playing psychos just when there was a major demand for the type.

But I shouldn't treat the movie as if it were a one-man show. This is one of those bad movies that has a poignant quality because you can tell that nearly everyone was really trying hard, and sometimes the incompetent doing their utmost accomplish more, or at least do things more memorably, than more skilled or gifted people who are content to coast contemptuously through their work. Any connoisseur of "bad" cinema is sure to enjoy Treasure of Tayopa for Trapani's work alone. But I'm going to let Gilbert Roland have the last, Criswellian word.

Somewhere in old Mexico, high in the trackless Sierra Madres, the greatest treasure of all awaits discovery. Who knows, senor, maybe ... maybe you will find Tayopa, or maybe it will be me. Who knows?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Night in "Forbidden Hollywood"

Warner Home Video's "Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3" collection by all rights should be called The William A. Wellman Collection, but it's not such a sad fact that "Forbidden Hollywood" (i.e. "pre-Code" cinema) is a more bankable label than Wellman's name. Three volumes means there's a market for the pre-Code stuff, which is good news for anyone interested in seeing the major studios push the envelope during the early 1930s. But for whatever reason, the new set focuses exclusively on Wellman, including two documentaries on the man.

How's this for a reason: from 1931 through 1933, Wellman was on fire at Warner Bros. He's credited with seventeen feature films over this three-year period, along with substantial uncredited work on an eighteenth production. His best know work is the epochal gangster film The Public Enemy, which was James Cagney's ticket to stardom. Wellman gave a preview of what he could do with Cagney in Other Men's Women, which I saw on TCM last night as part of the channel's admirable but perhaps counterproductive airing of all the films (and one of the documentaries) in the new collection. Cagney is fourth-billed for a tangential role in this hokey romantic triangle, but Wellman gives him two awesome entrance scenes, one walking on top of a moving train, the other arriving at a dance hall, stripping off his soaking work clothes to reveal evening clothes underneath, and dancing his girlfriend onto the dance floor. After those you're supposed to care whether Regis Toomey or Grant Withers gets Mary Astor? But never mind them: the film itself is a delight to watch for its grungy social realism and a terrific climax involving driving rains and floods, trains on a shaky bridge, and a blind man trying to remember his way across the dark, wet tracks.

Wellman dug rain and he dug trains. Trains are a major feature of his furious Depression expose, Wild Boys of the Road. This 1933 effort follows teenage boys and girls on the bum because their parents can't support them anymore, forming small armies of tramps who prove quite capable of organizing themselves, whether to start a self-governing community made of giant industrial pipes, fight off smaller armies of club-wielding railroad detectives, or lynch a rapist played by Ward Bond. Wild Boys is a relic of that utopian time when a major Hollywood studio would focus on the struggles of working class people (criminal or not) almost as a house style. The film ends up as political propaganda for the New Deal as a judge with an NRA (not the rifle association) sign behind his chair tells our protagonists that things are going to get better now, but Wellman and Warners are unafraid of saying that things stink pretty bad right this instant.

The other film I watched (curse me for lacking DVR with nothing but laziness to blame!) was an odd Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, The Purchase Price. Wellman goes out on location to simulate rural Canada for this story of a torch singer who hires out as something like a mail-order bride in order to avoid an overbearing gangster boyfriend. The main pre-Code element of this one is seeing Stanwyck in her undies, but the main entertainment value is in its portrait of rustic barbarism north of the border. George Brent is a dork of a leading man redeemed by the revelation of his college degree and his innovations in wheat cultivation, but he does have a nice fight scene with Lyle Talbot near the end. Brent and Stanwyck spend the film sending mixed signals to one another, but there's enough else going on to make Purchase Price worth at least a look.

These movies are called "Forbidden Hollywood" because some of their contents would soon be forbidden once serious Code enforcement kicked in after 1934. You wouldn't be likely to hear Joan Blondell call herself a member of the APO ("Ain't Puttin' Out") for a long while afterward, for instance. But I was left wondering whether some of the subject matter might still be forbidden from major studio products, or more forbidden than it was seventy years ago.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

THE BOXER (Un Uomo Dalla Pelle Dura, 1972)

Robert Blake and Ernest Borgnine's careers both seemed to be on the upswing in 1972, so what are they doing in this Italian crime movie filmed in Albuquerque? Only their accountants know for sure, I suppose, but it looks like the film didn't open in America until after Blake made it big as Baretta on TV. This movie (whose Italian title translates very roughly to "A Man of Tough Skin") was directed by Franco Prosperi on a break from his collaboration with Gualtieri Jacopetti of Mondo Cane and Goodbye Uncle Tom fame. The Mill Creek edition on the Suspense Classics set is a pan-&-scan copy that sounds like it was edited for television, since the sound drops out whenever Blake's character is about to swear.

Our star plays Teddy "Cherokee" Wilcox, a small-time club fighter who breaks violently with Whiskey, his manager, over an $800 purse. He heads to New Mexico, where he encounters a generic-looking hippie at a Texaco station. The hippie promises "the kingdom of heaven" if Teddy gives him a lift, but Cherokee has problems of his own and drives off. He ends up at a diner where the waiters ignore his request for a cheeseburger. In protest, he spills condiments, cigarette butts and coffee on the counter.

He tells the waiter, "I made a swimming pool for you," and is about to put the man's face in the pile when Mike Durrell recognizes Teddy. Mike is a successful sportswriter, an assistant editor at the local paper. "You got a good job," Teddy says, defining the film as a period piece.

Mike invites Teddy to hang out at his place, but our hero grows restless. "If I relax anymore I'm gonna go bananas," he protests. So Mike hooks him up with Nick (Gabriele Ferzetti, "Mr. Choo-Choo" from Once Upon A Time in the West), a fight trainer who promises to "make boxing what it used to be." And Teddy rises through the rankings until a voice on the telephone tells Nick that his fighter has to lose his next bout, or Nick will die.

Meanwhile, the mysterious hippie has turned up at the training camp, where a fellow named Ching invites him to bet on the upcoming fights. "I never bet," the hippie demurs. "It's pretty hard to win that way," Ching observes. "You're wrong," the flower child replies, "I always win."

At the fight, Teddy is having his way with Joe Louis Tucker, a top middleweight contender. I pity the TV audience for this bout, since they're stuck with an incompetent announcer who identifies Tucker as "Joe Louis" and tells viewers that we'll be soon "beginning into" the next round. The technicians just seem baffled by the fact that the fight's still going on, as if broadcast time had run out during the feature bout. Anyway, between rounds, Nick rubs some gunk into Teddy's eyes to blind him. Prosperi illustrates this by blurring his image just slightly. Somehow, Teddy survives the round, realizes what Nick's done, goes berserk, throws him out of his corner, cleans his eyes out, and finishes Tucker in the next round.

Later that night, Nick invites Teddy to his place to explain what happened, unaware that an archetypal Italian black-gloved killer is in the house, poised to attack with a special pugilistic variation on the generic motif. He strikes when Teddy arrives, leaving Teddy laying and Nick dead. Teddy comes to and flees the scene, but not before bumping into Nick's daughter (Catherine Spaak) on the stairs.

Borgnine is Captain Perkins, the cop who leads the investigation. No fool, he instantly suspects Teddy, but Mike gives his pal a fake alibi. This leads to a tense exchange in Perkins's office.

Perkins: His file here reads like a cheap novel....Look at this: almost killing a university professor.
Teddy: Just a minute! He happened to be raping my girl at the time.
Perkins: That's not what she said at the trial.
Mike: See if it says anything about him being decorated for Vietnam.
Perkins: We've got that, too. Here, this will interest you. He was decorated for killing thirteen men.
Teddy: Yeah, well, they paid me to do it! You taxpayers!
Perkins: Are you still convinced, Mike?
Mike: If you've got a Bible I'll swear to it.

Ernest Borgnine in his opulent office, from The Boxer

Teddy is a pretty early example of the 'Nam vet as a troubled protagonist, an ex-con before the war and nothing but a fighter afterward. Blake plays him as a psychologically wounded but essentially sensitive soul rather than a psycho. Curiously, the psycho of the story is the hippie, but the movie is ambivalent about what he represents. Hippies were scary in their own right to some moviegoers who couldn't tell the difference between the corner pothead and Charles Manson back when hippies weren't yet the embodiment of ineffectuality. But the script eventually decides that our villain is not an authentic hippie, but "that phony who dresses up as a hippie." Whatever he is, he's a strange character.

After Nick's daughter (whom I don't recall ever being named) refuses to identify Teddy in a police lineup, she finds the hippie hanging out in her home. He idly clips his nails while questioning her about a mysterious notebook. He knows about the notebook, he explains, because his finger tells him things when he sticks it in his ear. So what about Nick's death?

Spaak: Do you know who killed him?
Hippie: Maybe. One thing's for sure. They killed him dead, all right.
Spaak: But why?
Hippie: Poor thing. I'm sorry, but he was a very stupid man. And what is worse, he thought he was clever.
Spaak: Why did you come to see me?
Hippie: To decide.
Spaak: Decide what?
Hippie: You're an orphan, right? I want to decide if you're going to be a live or a dead orphan.

Pseudo psycho hippie or the genuine article? Who is this actor, anyway?

Teddy realizes that the girl could change her mind about identifying him at any moment, so he has to solve Nick's murder to avoid the rap. Problem is, the people he turns to for help -- his old manager, a film crew with fight footage -- tend to suffer death by black glove, which only further implicates Teddy in Perkins's eyes. Only Mike is lucky enough to survive a murder attempt by the bad guy -- but why was that by gunfire rather than gloves? And why did Nick's daughter spare Teddy? Could it be so she can kill him herself? Can Robert Blake's desperate emoting and appeals to empathy save him? Can he punch his way to the truth while major twists remain in the plot? If the hippie is only a phony, on the sole evidence of Teddy's intuition, then what is he, after all? I'm afraid you'll have to see all that for yourself, but here's just one hint of the outcome.

While Borgnine coasts through his role, getting one amusing moment when he complains that there aren't enough cons available to fill a line-up, Blake seems to give the film his all, which may be more than the script deserves. He and the hippie make The Boxer worth watching, and I imagine it'd be more so if it could be seen in the right aspect ratio. I should acknowledge that Catherine Spaak makes it pretty watchable, also. Movie fans may know her from Dario Argento's Cat O' Nine Tails, which just happens to share a side with The Boxer on a Suspense Classics disc, in case anyone wants a mini festival. Perhaps this parting shot will inspire you.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

MEN AT WORK (Kargaran Mashghoole Karand, 2006)

Iranian cinema has come into its own since the 1990s. Critics dig it because of the general neo-realist vibe and, I suspect, because of the vivid contrast the movies offer to the western world's imagination of the Islamic Republic as some dystopian desert bastard of Islam and Orwell. I've liked what I've seen from Iran so far, particularly the work of Jafar Panahi, whose Crimson Gold and Offside I'd rank among the best films of this decade. But I've always wondered whether we're seeing what the average Iranian does. My understanding is that the government bans certain films from domestic distribution, but lets them circulate internationally for the sake of prestige and, probably, revenue. So how well do the art-house dissidents represent Iranian cinema as a whole? I imagine there has to be a popular cinema of slapstick comedies and heroic action films with manly Iranian heroes blowing away 1)Americans 2)Israelis 3)Iraqis or Sunni Muslims in general or4)All of the Above.

Men At Work seems to be halfway between the art cinema we usually get from Iran and the trash that's got to be out there. To my knowledge, this film was not banned or censored in its home country. While the story comes from art-cinema kingpin Abbas Kiarostami, director Mani Haghighi probably deserves credit for the film's misanthropic goofiness. For all I know, Kiarostami probably scribbled a bare concept -- "a group of idiots try to push a big rock off a cliff" -- and Haghghigi came up with the rest.

What we have here are four middle-aged idiots eager to watch an Iran vs Japan soccer game. They stop on a mountain road so one of them can relieve himself. He's mesmerized by the site of a strange upright rock formation at the side of the road and the edge of a cliff. All of a sudden the foursome, guys of the sort you might see anywhere on earth, get the notion of knocking the thing down.

They try pushing it. They try charging it with a large tree branch as if they could joust it off the cliff. They buy a donkey from a passing peasant on the theory that if it pulls while they push, the rock will wobble and fall. The peasant is concerned that the rock falling might take the poor beast over the edge, but money seems to calm him.

One of their wives shows up and seems to have the right idea.

But she's soon caught up in the mania. She makes the sensible suggestion that a lever might tip the rock, but some of our crew, in the midst of their determination to throw down a rock formation of who knows what geological or historic value, balk at the notion of chopping a tree down for the lever. Later, one of our heroes has a better idea: uproot a municipal road sign!

In the meantime, the woman goes off to get a chainsaw for the tree, and another group of travelers briefly become a competing demolition team, equally futile. If the rock formation immediately evokes the 2001 monolith, inviting an alternative title of "2006: A Roadside Travesty," and the attack on the rock reminds one of Shane or Pale Rider, the escalation of obsessions on a mountain road suggests It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World in microcosm. Except that the comedy in Men At Work isn't as broad or over-the-top. It works because you know the types of idiots who might embark on such an asinine project. In the end, Haghighi opts for a realistic dwindling of enthusiasm until there's one madman left, first trying to ram the rock with his car, then staying in danger of freezing to death in order to dig and undermine the damned thing until it topples....

The easiest way to appreciate the virtues of Men At Work is to imagine how Hollywood would remake it. Most if not all the scenes you're imagining with trepidation are not in the Iranian film. Strange to say, a more faithful adaption might look a little like a Jackass movie in its cinema-verite style and because the characters are jackasses -- just not as completely as their American counterparts might be.

Men At Work is part of the Film Movement international DVD-of-the-month club, which serves up a foreign or independent feature plus a short subject every month. The Albany Public Library has a bunch of these, and this was the first one I tried out. Thanks to this movie, I may try more.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

THREE TOUGH GUYS (Uomini Duri, 1974)

"International junk of no interest, by far the worst film yet produced by Dino De Laurentis since he left Rome to make movies in this country."
VINCENT CANBY, The New York Times
March 16, 1974.
* * *
On the violent streets of Chicago, crime is the heresy and
Lino Ventura
is a one-man Inquisition.

Who is the former cop
Who fights crime 'cause he just can't stop?
Academy Award winner Isaac Hayes.

Hayes did the same math you just did. The "preacherman" and the "po-lice man" add up to two tough guys. So what did they do, have a kid? No, it just turns out that after the film was shot and Hayes had turned in his score and theme song, Signor De Laurentis and his partners at Paramount Pictures realized that their movie's bad guy, Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, had become bankable. Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem had come out the year before, and That Man Bolt was opening around the same time as Duccio Tessari's Italo-blaxploitation combo, 35 years ago this month. So just because the man Tenebrous Kate calls "the Black Shatner" is a bad guy this time, that doesn't mean he's not a tough guy, too. The two qualities sort of go together. So here's how they sold the film.

Williamson is "Joe Snake," the owner of the Red Rooster bar and a pinball arcade/bowling alley in Chicago's grindhouse district. He's harboring Tony Red, a survivor of a robbery of Mob money. It's a tense situation, since the only reason Snake keeps Tony is around is because he knows where the loot is, but Tony won't tell him because "I like living." Unfortunately for everyone, Tony is shot down during a meeting with insurance investigator Gene Lombardo, who dies with him.

Lombardo's demise brings Father Charlie into the story. I didn't catch the name of his church, but let's call it St. Pugnacious, where they hand out beatings like sacraments. The bit you saw with the Father bitch-slapping first a parishioner, then a fellow priest, sets the tone for Lino Ventura's entire performance. Imagine James Cagney playing Father Flanagan of Boys Town as if he were Cody Jarrett from White Heat and you may begin to get the idea. Whatever subtleties Ventura mastered in films like Classe Tous Risques (see below) are set aside like worldly things for this occasion. St. Pugnacious features what a bishop calls an "ex-voto arsenal" of guns turned in by repentant thugs. It's a constant temptation to what Father Charlie calls his "flock of starving wolves," but he's confident that no one would dare steal from him.

For the sake of the widow, Father Charlie decides to find out who killed Lombardo. Nobody expects this kind of inquisition, least of all the Red Rooster bartender. In mufti, the Father invades the bar, shows off his strength by squashing a bottle cap between his fingers, follows the bartender into his office, and strangles the sucker with a phone cord until he gets the answers he wants.

There are thugs waiting for him outside, but his fists and some timely bike fu make short work of them. He's finally overpowered on his way to see Tony Red's girlfriend. The goons put him into a serial-worthy predicament, meaning to feed him to a factory furnace, when the mystery man who's been following the Father around steps in to clean house. This is Tough Guy No. 2, Lee Stevens, a disgraced former police captain. He was blamed for Tony Red's robbery because he had left his post for a woman. Now he lives in poverty, frying eggs on an iron. But he knows everything about Father Charlie: an erstwhile juvenile delinquent on a typical Lino Ventura career track (crime, then death) until a religious experience in prison set him on the priesthood path. The iron also comes in handy to press the Father's pants. In return, Charlie gives Stevens $28 to get his gun out of hock.

Now partners in investigation, the Two Tough Guys find the Red Rooster closed due to the proprietor's death by truck. They take their inquiries to the grindhouse district, making possible priceless footage of Chicago movie houses circa 1973. A local with access to the Tribune and Sun-Times could probably tell us the week when these scenes were filmed from the titles on the theater marquees. Prostitutes provide more local color. Father Charlie fends one off by saying "I played with dolls as a boy." To which the hooker responds, "Good, I have a kid brother. He got to make money too."

Finally they enter the arcade where Joe Snake is keeping Tony's girlfriend Fay (Paula Kelly) -- who just happens to be the woman who seduced Lee Stevens before the heist. Payback time!

After she tells what she can, the TTG face some more goons in a parking garage. This is the bit from the trailer when they force their enemies to jump into the river, sarcastically telling their leader that they're so scared that they'll piss themselves. The punch line: our heroes prove their truthfulness by actually pissing on their victims.

Fred Williamson has a high standard to meet if he wants to be considered a Tough Guy in this picture. But Joe Snake finally asserts himself past the halfway point as he manipulates Fay into recovering the loot (she knew where it was all along), only to take it from her by force. After she desperately calls Stevens for help, Joe clubs him down, shoots Fay, and fixes to frame Stevens for the murder. The cops nearly have him before Father Charlie pedals to the rescue with an "unloaded" machine gun from his sacred arsenal. Pondering Fay's fate, Stevens reflects: "He must have been some kind of freak to shoot her that way."

Fred or Freak?

All that remains is an incredible final showdown at the arcade that obviously influenced the making of There Will Be Blood. Indeed, Lino and Isaac do everything but drink poor Fred's milkshake. He may already have been top-billed elsewhere, but the Hammer was still paying his dues at this point. This film may well have helped convince him to take creative control of his career in order to avoid such humiliation in the future. As it is, he might console himself by noting that it took two tough guys to even knock him out, and then with the use of foreign objects.

* * *

The "Two Tough Guys" theme to Three Tough Guys sets the tone for a film that isn't quite coherent. Tessari, a versatile genre veteran, struggles to please disparate audiences: the Europeans who presumably wanted to see Lino Ventura invade America, and the Americans who almost certainly had never heard of Ventura but were curious to see Isaac Hayes's acting debut opposite Fred Williamson. Ventura is top billed on the poster and in the actual film, while Hayes is named first in the trailer. Hayes was clearly learning a new craft but has a natural authority, while Ventura was most likely dubbed. If so, the voice actor is smart enough to use a foreign accent, but it sounds too scratchy and crabby to match what I've heard of Ventura speaking French. I suspect that Americans didn't know what to make of Lino. While he was close in age to Charles Bronson, then on the brink of long-awaited superstardom, he simply had no history here (apart from playing opposite Bronson in The Valachi Papers) to make him meaningful to grindhouse audiences.

But isn't Vincent Canby's grim verdict just a bit exaggerated? He seems guilty not so much of snobbery but of reverse philisitism, a refusal to recognize any aesthetic values but his own, as if there were only one legitimate way to be entertained by a movie. No interest? By my standards, it has even more interest now than it did then, as a document of its time, an experiment in international genre crossover, and a battle of blaxploitation behemoths. Sometimes you just want junk food, and for me, Three Tough Guys is a roll of SweeTarts: pure cinematic magnesium stearate with colors you can taste, and a Lino Ventura beatdown with every bite.

Of course, my copy of the movie from the infamous Grindhouse Experience collection is more like a 35 year old roll of candy. You can judge for yourself from my screencaps. It looks like it was just hauled out from the basement of one of those Chicago theaters, after it was imploded. But I can't hold my breath waiting for a letterboxed version of this movie. This may be the best edition we ever get, so let's treasure it.