Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Redneck Apocalypse of Ron Ormond: IF FOOTMEN TIRE YOU, WHAT WILL HORSES DO? (1971)

After Rev. Phantom was generous enough to post the entirety of Cannibal Mercenary in installments, and Nigel Wales posted the early shockumentary Beyond Bengal on I Spit On Your Taste, it only seemed fair for me to offer something to the movieblogging public. It just so happens that the work of an American visionary is available on Google Video.

It is a film I first saw about ten years ago, when a neighbor was giving me an intensive education in cult cinema. It's both unintentionally funny and, for all that it intended to horrify, almost unintentionally horrifying. It was made by Ron Ormond, a veteran exploitation producer whose works ranged from Mesa of Lost Women to The Monster and the Stripper. It's said that Ron found religion after surviving a plane crash. He found it in the form of Rev. Estus Pirkle, a modern-day prophet who warned of America's vulnerability to takeover by Communists on horseback if there wasn't a revival in short order. However Ormond felt about his earlier work, now he was pursuing an inspired vision of red doom descending on the sports-jacketed America of 1971. In the first of three films he made with Pirkle, Ormond concentrated his faith and anxiety into less than an hour of terror rendered more brutal by his guileless ineptitude of execution.

So take an hour this weekend to see Americans shot down like clay pigeons(6:15), shot down like flies, as the Commies take over our nation with "jet age speed." See the hordes of Fidel Castro brainwash our youth by plagiarizing James Clavell's Children's Story(19:00). Learn about the mortal perils of dancing and TV cartoons. Watch as "we puncture your ears so you cannot hear the word of God.(23:30)" Observe authentic Communist brainwashing methods and learn that "Communism is good...Christianity is stupid." (34:25)Witness the machine gunning of whole congregations (43:50)and the decapitation of a child(45:50). "Do these things seem farfetched to you?" "Does this turn your stomach?" If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

LE GITAN (1975)

A few weeks ago the local Barnes & Noble was holding a sale on "art house cinema," including 40% discounts on a bunch of recent Lionsgate box sets. What to choose? I went with the Alain Delon set mainly on the strength of my interest in this film, which was written and directed by Jose Giovanni, the ex-con and crime author behind such French faves of mine as Classes Tous Risques and Le Deuxieme Souffle. Delon himself is an icon of the French crime genre thanks to Le Samourai, Le Circle Rouge and much more besides. I had no idea whether Giovanni was any good as a director, but I liked the dispassionate yet empathetic sensibility he brought to other films. This also figured to be a genuine piece of French pop culture rather than the more artistic stuff the country has always tended to export to America.

A scruffy looking Delon is Hugo Senart, the titular "gypsy" and one of the Senart clan. Giovanni opens his film with a long, vast helicopter shot panning from a beach across an industrial landscape to the local gypsy camp. Right away there's an odd detail for American viewers. The gypsies are playing the music of legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, a gypsy himself. To my ears, Reinhardt says "France," but it may be that to French ears he says "gitan" and thus sounds fundamentally alien in a way outsiders can't appreciate.

The flics are looking for Hugo, who's broken out of prison and is running amok with two accomplices. But before we see what he's up to, we look in on a safecracking job perpetrated by an old hand, Yann Kuq. Things go sour for him when he comes home to hear his young wife confiding in her lover -- a flic. He beats her with his belt, driving her out to the balcony, where she threatens to jump, only to lose her balance and fall accidentally to her death. Now he has to go on the run as a murder suspect, though the police, led by Inspector Blot (either a recurring character or a recurring name in Giovanni's stories) aren't sure how to handle the hunt, since they don't want the public to learn about a flic having an affair with a criminal's wife.

Meanwhile, Hugo and his pals are doing pretty well, knocking over an armored car and bikejacking one of the guards so Hugo can get away. Now Blot is hunting for both Hugo's gang and Yann. While Hugo seems oblivious of the coincidence, Yann is well aware that Hugo's unwitting proximity is putting him in danger. Worse, the whole criminal element is annoyed with Hugo because the flics are raiding their clubs in search of him. It seems like an M-style criminal vs criminal showdown is looming, but Hugo pre-empts this by setting up the Rinaldi Brothers with a false tip on his whereabouts and later slaughtering them. It only confirms Hugo's chauvinist attitude that only gypsies have honor. They'd never rat anyone out to the flics, at least.

Hugo sees himself as some sort of gitano partisan, using his ill-gotten gains to further the gypsy cause. At the same time, he's basically a loner, an outsider playing hooky from conventional life, as he confides in a kid he finds fishing one afternoon. In yet another coincidence, the kid is fishing with gear that Yann left him shortly before. Hugo's ready to break up the gang, which only means that his two partners will soon be caught, and one of them killed, but not before they can warn Hugo of what's coming. The cops close in across the street from the inn where Yann's hiding out. Reassured that they're not after him, he strolls out through the back gate, and practically into Inspector Blot's arms. Meanwhile, Hugo sets up a peculiar escape mechanism by which revving up his motorcycle will fling open a courtyard gate and slingshot him through the police. Perhaps because this is an Alain Delon production, this actually works, though he takes a couple of bullets getting away.

After recuperating with help from a saintly veterinarian who refuses to take any pay, Hugo heads back to the gypsy camp while Blot holds Yann Kuq beyond the legal limit in order to make him confess something. "Watching the way you work would give anyone the urge to throw you bastards a well-aimed Molotov cocktail," Yann remarks. Eventually Blot has no choice but to let Yann go. By now Hugo has caught up with the newspapers and learned about Yann's predicament. He blames himself for Yann getting caught and decides to meet him and apologize. Yann in turn is surprisingly congenial, inviting Hugo to stay overnight. Perhaps it's the mutual respect of professionals, and perhaps Jose Giovanni needs them to be in the same location when the police finally get the evidence they need to nab Yann for that safecracking job....

That almost hard-boiled attitude I identify with Giovanni definitely pervades Le Gitan, but it also has some of the reek of an Alain Delon vanity production. You might call Giovanni's sensibility fatalistic, but there's no fatality in the cards for Hugo Senart. In fact, sometimes the character seems to get away from his pursuers much too easily, as if the flics aren't even making a real effort to catch him. At least it seemed to me that there'd be more dramatic car chases had this been an American or Italian film from the same period. But the only proper chase in the picture (and it's short but halfway-decent) is the one where Hugo's buddies get caught.

I also had a problem with the plot. It's just underwhelming that the interweaving of Hugo and Yann's paths was more or less purely coincidental. I had assumed that Hugo was keeping close to Yann for some reason, and I was expecting that Yann would take action against Hugo to take the heat off himself, but it's probably not inconsistent with Giovanni's matter-of-fact approach to the crime genre that their interconnection was pretty much accidental. I might appreciate this more on a second viewing, but this time around I felt disappointed by a build-up in my own imagination to a rather anticlimactic finale. There's more neatness in other Giovanni-scripted films in which the main criminal dies, and a moment here when Delon says, "It isn't in the cards for me to live long" makes me wonder whether the novel Le Gitan has a different finish. I don't know enough about Delon to guess whether he'd demand to be left alive Fred Williamson style or otherwise influenced the direction of the film, but something seems wrong here in a way that makes it not unreasonable to blame the star.

Overall, I found Le Gitan modestly entertaining. Delon does the badass act pretty well and he seems ably supported by some faces who've become familiar to me as I've watched more French crime films. Paul Meurisse as Yann and Marcel Bozzuffi as Blot (a role played by Meurisse in Le Duexieme Souffle) are especially good just as a matter of presence, since I can't judge their delivery of dialogue. It's probably unfair to say that Jean-Pierre Melville could probably have made a better film of this story since Melville is the king of the French crime genre, but when the first such films you see are probably the very best of their kind, you can't help but judge everything else by that standard. If you see this one without memories of Melville, or from the perspective of Alain Delon fandom, you may think more of it.

Here's how the film tried to sell itself to the native audience in a trailer that is not included in the no-frills Lionsgate collection. I don't know if there's such a thing as an English-language trailer for Le Gitan, since I'm not sure if it ever got an American theatrical release. But you should get the essence, if not the idea, from this footage.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Pre-Code Parade: THE CHEAT (1931)

If imitation is a form of flattery, than Universal Studios Home Entertainment is flattering Warner Home Video's money-making talents by issuing its first Pre-Code Hollywood Collection as part of the new Universal Backlot series. It follows closely the third set in Warner's Forbidden Hollywood series of pre-Code selections, which must have been selling well enough for Universal to take notice. That's fine by me because I dig the pre-Code stuff, but I notice that Universal imitates Forbidden Hollywood very closely in its emphasis on women's pictures. Warners themselves are getting away from this a little with the third set's focus on William Wellman and the inclusion of tougher material like Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes For Sale. But "pre-Code" seems to signify liberated womanhood, at least in the minds of marketers, so all the items in the Universal set have a heavy femme interest, starting with George Abbott's sleek 67-minute melodrama.

The 1931 version of The Cheat is Paramount's second remake of Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 shocker, a film that made Sessue Hayakawa of a pioneer Asian Hollywood star (42 years before Bridge on the River Kwai) and gave C.B. his early reputation as a slick sleaze merchant. A 1923 remake starring Pola Negri is considered a lost film. The original screenplay was a racial bombshell in its portrayal of an Oriental forcing himself on a white woman, but I suppose it's also one of the first films to be touched by what you could call political correctness. Hayakawa's character was, like himself, a Japanese in the original release. When Paramount re-released it in 1918, Japan was America's ally in World War I. It was thought unseemly to make an allied national look villainous, so title cards were altered to identify Hayakawa's character as Burmese. In the 1923 version, the villain has a double identity as Claude Mace and Prince Rao Singh, and is played by Charles de Roche, a white man.

The talkie departs further from the original screenplay. This time the villain has no double life, but is just plain Hardy Livingstone, to the extent that anyone played by Irving Pichel is "just plain" anything. Pichel was a busy character actor who took up directing early on, sharing credit with Ernest B. Shoedsack on The Most Dangerous Game, co-directing She for Merriam C. Cooper, and later making Destination Moon for George Pal. As an actor he's most likely best known for playing Sandor, the fatalistic and creepy servant of Dracula's Daughter. In that film he's done up in pale makeup that made my younger self wonder whether Sandor was a vampire himself. In The Cheat he's glammed up as much as possible, and demonstrates that he contributed the creepiness to Sandor.

But let's take the movie from the beginning. Our heroine is Elsa Carlisle (Tallulah Bankhead), the loving but irresponsible wife of Jeffrey, a struggling young businessman. They've been married four years, and Jeffrey's cronies find the fact that he still loves her "disgraceful" and "indecent." After what we'll see, "saintlike" seems a better word. One of the first things we see is Elsa losing $5,000 at the card table of a society party. She bet on impulse after overhearing Mr. Livingstone mention that tigers are lucky animals. On impulse, she makes a double-or-nothing bet with the dealer and loses. Now she's ten grand in the hole. Multiply that by at least ten to put that in modern perspective. And this is the Depression; money isn't that easy to recover. As Jeffrey says, "You'd think from the way everyone talks downtown the whole country was going to be put up for sale cheap in six months."

Depressed and ashamed, Elsa takes a walk on the beach. Livingstone follows her and learns that he's indirectly responsible for her loss. To cheer her up, he invites her to his house to inspect his collection of Oriental curios. In his shojo room, his "holy of holies," he parts a Buddha panel to reveal Yama, god of destruction. In another cabinet, he displays his gallery of ghosts: dolls modeled on past lovers, with his personal crest (the Japanese character for "I possess") branded on the base of each. Behind a sliding panel, Japanese musicians perform. This is clearly not a Burmese person. This may all be very impressive, but when Livingstone comes on a little too strong, Elsa demands to be taken back to the party, and he complies.

I'll try to condense the plot down. Elsa has to repay her gambling debt, but doesn't want Jeffrey to know why she owes money. He hasn't any to spare because he's having a hard time closing a business deal, and she's already run up a huge tab on clothes. When she hears an insider stock tip from one of Jeffrey's friends at the local speakeasy, she tries to make a quick killing, but needs funds. So she embezzles the money that's being raised for the Milk Fund Ball and invests it in United Copper, which tanks despite the tip. Now she has to pay her gambling debt and restore the Milk Fund money, but still can't bear to tell Jeffrey what's happened. Her only choice is to turn to Livingstone, who wants her to wear a special Siamese costume to the Oriental-themed ball and "be a little nicer to me" afterward. She agrees, and wouldn't you know? The morning after, before she has to fulfill her end of the bargain with Livingstone, Jeffrey's ship comes in, and the Carlisles are rich. Whew! Elsa thinks she can just return the check Livingstone wrote for her and that's that. But Livingstone doesn't roll that way. He's not expecting any money back.

"We didn't make that kind of bargain," he protests. He made a pre-Code type bargain, and he accepts no substitutes. "If you're trying to appeal to my better nature it's hopeless," he growls, "for I haven't any." Faced with the Fate Worse Than Death, Elsa starts to like Death. "I'll kill myself," she says. Livingstone calls her bluff, takes a pistol from a drawer and gives it to her. Suddenly she's not so eager, but by now Livingstone is more disgusted than lustful. He smashes the statuette he had made of Elsa in Siamese costume, and decides to let her go -- "but you'll carry my mark on you!"

Livingstone, you mad fool! Did you ever consider that a person might not like to shoot herself, but could be perfectly happy to shoot you, especially after you've branded her? Offended womanhood strikes back!

Unfortunately, Elsa only wings him before fleeing. An already-suspicious Jeffrey stumbles upon the scene, only to be discovered by Livingstone's servants, to whom he admits shooting their master. Elsa goes home to bed, and it's not until tomorrow morning paper arrives that she learns that hubby has taken the rap for her -- and that Livingstone is perfectly willing to let him. Like I said, "saintlike." But men were somehow expected to do things like this in those days. It was part of putting women on pedestals, I guess. But Elsa doesn't play by the rules, and despite the men's coincidental collusion in framing Jeffrey, Elsa has a bit of evidence up her sleeve -- way up -- that could change the course of the trial....

Abbott's Cheat almost completely reversed my expectations. Before I realized that the film would have a white villain, I was expecting a riot of anti-Asiatic racism, but Harry Hervey's screenplay comes across like a satire on Oriental stereotypes in American culture. A superficial reading of the film might interpret Livingstone as someone corrupted by the Orient, but you could just as easily see him as someone with a corrupt view of the Orient, someone who might just keep a Yama idol hidden behind a Buddha panel. Some of the first words out of his mouth are asinine comments on the East: "The oriental woman isn't a slave," he tells fellow guests, "she's just very well trained." That's not the movie's judgment on the Orient. It's Hervey and Abbott's way of telling you early that Livingstone is a creep.

My other evidence for the film's satirical intent is the Oriental ball, a goofy parade of every "Oriental" cliche in circulation. Revelers strut around in characters ranging from samurai to shieks, while a troupe of Balinese dancers provide a typical pre-Code distraction in their diaphanous blouses. In telling contrast, the one Oriental character that has a real speaking part is Livingstone's head servant, who testifies in court wearing modern dress and speaking fluent albeit heavily accented English. This is Hanaki Yoshiwara in what was apparently his only film role. His dignified appearance exposes the "Orientalism" of the idle rich and stupid for the idiocy the filmmakers probably understand it to be.

This is the youngest I've ever seen Tallulah Bankhead, who I know from Hitchcock's Lifeboat, various radio shows, and her final role as a Batman villain. She looks pretty good, but the character of Elsa Carlisle is hard to stand, as is the notion that men were meant to bear crosses like her and sacrifice their freedom and careers for her. It's one thing to give her first place on the lifeboat, another to go to jail for her harebrained misadventures. Perhaps ours is an unchivalrous age and I'm a mere modern cad to think as I do, but the unthinking (dare I say samurai-like) reverence Jeffrey displays for Elsa is probably a harder sell for modern audiences than any of The Cheat's Orientalisms. For all that I think Bankhead played the character well once she got at least one archetypal "darling" out of her system.

I remember seeing George Abbott on talk shows in the 1980s and 1990s showing off his mind-boggling longevity. The man lived to be 107, but didn't do too many movies. He had a burst of activity in the early talkie days, but went back to Broadway after The Cheat, returning only for a 1940 movie and Damn Yankees! in 1958. I'd be interested in seeing more of his work from 1929-31, because this one has stylish art direction and efficient storytelling in its favor. It always astonishes me how Hollywood could once tell a complete story in just over an hour without the audience feeling, well, cheated. Abbott's film is a good example of how it's done, as well as being a fairly representative bit of pre-Code salaciousness. It's a good start to the Universal collection (which consists entirely of Paramount films, by the way) and makes me look forward to the rest of the set.

Here's a second opinion from a blogger who got to see it on the big screen last year, and a third from just last week.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

REDNECK (Senza Ragione, 1973)

Don't let Silvio Narizzano's name fool you. He is a Canadian who has worked in Britain for most of his career. His best known film is Georgy Girl, though he also directed Die, Die, My Darling! for Hammer. I doubt if any of his prior filmography would prepare anyone for this insane Anglo-Italo crime film, which makes up in sheer nuttiness and madcap acting by its American star what it lacks in the usual bloody trappings of an Italian genre film.

It begins with a bungled robbery of a jewelry store by a two-man gang. One partner is an expatriate American named Memphis, the title character for American audiences. This son of the Old South is played by none other than Telly Savalas toward the end of his pre-Kojak Euro sojourn, a period that gave us indelible work like his Cossack chieftain in Horror Express and the sinister butler in Lisa and the Devil. Those are great performances, but Memphis tops them both. His partner in crime is Mosquito, played by the industrious Franco Nero -- who gets to speak his own English dialogue this time. The Movieflix synopsis describes Mosquito as "mindless," but this is unfair, though anyone might seem to lack personality alongside Savalas in full rant. Rant is practically all he does in this picture, though I use the term broadly to cover hymn singing and a vocalese rendering of the can-can in collaboration with Nero.

Anyway: because the proprietor manages to close off the vault, Memphis and Mosquito are only able to get away with a few cases of valuables. A standard Italian car chase ensues, resulting in a standard Italian car wreck that forces the duo and their moll Maria to switch cars. Their modest carjacking proves to be a kidnapping, as unbeknownst to our criminal masterminds there's a boy inside the stolen car. He turns out to be Lennox, the son of a prominent UN official. As Memphis calculates, Lennox is also their "passport" out of Italy. Not only can they claim ransom for him, but the cops will hold back in their pursuit rather than risk the kid's life.

Lennox rather than Maria proves to be the movie's third main character. He's played by Mark Lester, that brat from Oliver!, now in his early teens but still an impressionable youth. He gets the only real character arc in the story, since Memphis is consistently insane and Mosquito is, in theory, mindless. He seems to have been a neglected child, his father being hard pressed to think of a "pet name" for him when questioned by the police. As he overcomes his initial terror, and releases some nervous energy by kicking Memphis in the nads, the boy begins to form a strange attachment to both criminals, and his ordeal begins to seem like a big adventure.

They are soon a threesome rather than a foursome when Maria splits, not liking the direction things are going in. She's Mosquito's girlfriend, but when Memphis sees her leave, he tracks her down. While they're off, Mosquito and the kid wake up, and "mindless" Mosquito assumes that he's been abandoned by his partners. Lennox has to set him straight after a failed attempt to leave the kid by the side of a road -- Mosquito couldn't find a road. Maybe mindless is right, after all.

The storylines diverge for a bit as Memphis tracks down Maria. We've had it established that he has an itchy trigger finger when he shot a shepherd kid off a bridge who was watching him chase Lennox earlier in the picture. Maria is understandably eager not to provoke such an outburst. So she spreads a fur coat on the ground and offers herself to him. The next thing we see, Memphis is dragging her dead body into a car and pushing the car down a steep hillside, all the while singing, "Just As I Am."

Meanwhile, Mosquito and Lennox find shelter in a mansion where the lady of the house doesn't suspect their identities. There follows an unsettling bit of father and son style bonding as Lennox watches Mosquito shave. In reviews posted to IMDB there's a controversy over this scene regarding whether Lennox is simply watching Mosquito shave or, as the audience is invited to do, watching Franco Nero's naked butt.

Consider this dialogue before answering.

Lennox: Mosquito, are we just friends?
Mosquito: Yes, we are friends.

I think I heard it right. Anyway, how many kids have watched their father figures shave and imagined the day when they'll be able to? But how many of those then strip down themselves and pretend-shave with their boyish butts hanging before the camera, only to be watched through a window by Telly Savalas? At least give the boy credit for being frightened.

Fearing an unhappy reunion, Mosquito and Lennox flee into the woods, but Memphis catches them. Fortunately, the kid manages to defuse the situation (as if negotiating between parents?) so that they're a team again. Their trek through the woods takes them into the campground of a vacationing German family. "Krauts. Damn Germans," Memphis drawls, "You know, my folks have been fighting them for two generations." So before you can say "funny games," the gang has stolen the family's food, Memphis has loaded them into their camper after singing "Rinky Dinky Parley Voo" and thanking them for their "Southern hospitality," and the camper has accidentally come unmoored so that it rolls helplessly into a rushing river. Memphis is distraught, though the word hardly does justice to Savalas screaming "Why? Why?" and throwing himself into the river, only to come up for air crying, "It's not my fault!" and blaming Lennox for the disaster.

The funny thing is, Lennox believes this himself. The funnier thing is, he doesn't really feel guilty about it. In fact, he tells Mosquito that he found it all "exciting" while musing, "I wonder if they're bloated now?" The boy now wants to stay with his kidnappers, since he considers himself a criminal. Memphis himself sees "real potential" in him -- enough to be a light sleeper while Lennox plays with a switchblade and ponders cutting Memphis's throat. This tender scene is interrupted by Mosquito returning from the Franco-Italian border town he'd been sent to on an errand to find some conveyance for Memphis, who claims to be busted up inside and incapable of walking further. He found a sled to drag Memphis in, a circumstance that reminds the Redneck of the Flight into Egypt. Seeing his friends' confusion, he notes, "I can tell your religious training has been neglected."

We're set for a climax that has Mosquito bolting off on his own as the carabineri close in, with Memphis threatening to kill the kid if Mosquito doesn't come back. I'll leave you some suspense, but I must note that the very end of the picture, with a hymn-singing Lennox emptying a pistol into empty space, is icing on a pure nuttiness cake.

Franco Nero deserves a lot of credit for managing to maintain a pretty memorable performance, straight man though he is, in the teeth of the hurricane that is Telly Savalas in this picture. He has one mad scene to himself in a junkyard where he smashes cars in frustration over friends' failure to rendezvous with him, and he shares a good long Peckinpavian laugh-out with Savalas when they discover that they've stolen cutlery instead of jewels. But this is indisputably Telly Savalas's show.

Savalas isn't often listed among the champion American scene chewers, but he should earn a mention in the discussion with this turn. I don't know if Cameron Mitchell or Dennis Hopper or anyone else who comes to mind could keep it going at full throttle the same way Telly does here. It may be because he's not as closely identified with genre pictures or thespian madness as other actors that Redneck isn't as well known as it probably should be.

Here's the only English-language clip from Redneck I could find. A Savalas hymn and a car wreck do make for a representative sample, though.

Narizzano has made a morally rugged picture and taken advantage of outdoor locations to portray Lennox's descent from presumably pampered civilization into a moral wilderness. The crappy copy you can see on Movieflix, which comes with Dutch subtitles, makes you wish for a proper DVD restoration, especially since there's a few minutes' discrepancy between the advertised running time and what Movieflix shows. A DVD would probably also do justice to what IMDB alleges to be the one and only movie score by Marizio Catalano. I thought it sounded pretty good.

Redneck doesn't have the pile-it-on momentum of the more authentic Italian product, but it does have a more cumulatively sinister effect than some more effects-laden efforts. Savalas is the real special effect of the picture, and anyone who appreciates extreme thespianism will probably get a kick out of it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Wild World of Cinema, Live on Stage!

In the "There's something you don't see every day" department, here's the Troma-sanctioned Toxic Avenger Musical.

I've read a grudgingly favorable review in The New Yorker. John Lahr, the reviewer, cites some promising lyrics, like these from "The Legend of the Toxic Avenger."

Lemme tell you a story 'bout
A man with a strange complexion.
He killed a lot of folks
And made a love connection.

Elsewhere in the metropolis, the magazine notes a new production by the Wooster Group of the 1641 opera La Didone. The wild-world-of-cinema angle here is the superimposition upon the musical tale of Dido and Aeneas of the plot, dialogue and costume design of Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires (Terrore Nella Spazia) Here's a photo, and here's a link to the Wooster Group site, where you can see an excerpt from the show.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

THE CAT'S-PAW (1934)

"The blind man, lest he stumble in darkness, welcomes the guiding footsteps even of an ass"
--LING PO.--

Watching the talking picture career of Harold Lloyd is rather like watching the German army retreat across Europe. Here is a still-powerful force, often displaying incredible skill, professionalism and innovation, yet utterly doomed. The films running from Welcome Danger (1929) through Professor Beware (1938) are Lloyd's war against obsolescence. Like Chaplin, he had the resources to wage such a war, and his efforts were often brilliant, perhaps no more so than here, where he breaks with his familiar screen persona. While critics and biographers often rank his previous film, Movie Crazy (1932) or his next one, The Milky Way (1936) as his best talkies, I find The Cat's-Paw his most fascinating sound film. In many ways it's a product of a very specific moment in movie history, and in others it seems decades ahead of its time.

Lloyd seems safe in his ranking as the "third genius" of American silent comedy, while Chaplin and Keaton still vie for the top spot in posterity. He seemed to have made a safe transition to sound with Welcome Danger, which he post-synched and reshot on the fly, but stumbled with his next films, Feet First (in part a do-over of his definitive climbing act from Safety Last) and Movie Crazy. History's verdict is that Depression audiences repudiated Lloyd's brash but naive go-getter persona, and the man himself seemed to agree. As his own producer, he decided to do a more detailed script than usual, based on a magazine story he'd purchased. For the first time in ages, he would not be "Harold" on screen.

Instead, he is Ezekiel Cobb, the son of China-based American missionaries. While his parents spread the gospel in the Middle Kingdom, Ezekiel immersed himself in Chinese culture. When he is sent to America to find a bride, he is, in manner, more Chinese than American, polite to a fault and prone to quote his favorite poet, Ling Po. He is also out of touch with modern society. He doesn't know how to use a telephone, doesn't understand slang (even the meaning of "two bucks") and is confused when he hears his name being broadcast from a car radio.

Ezekiel goes to Stockport, where he's supposed to stay with Rev. Junius P. Withers, who dies before Ezekiel can introduce himself. Withers was the perennial mayoral candidate of the city's Good Government League. As one leader puts it, "he was the best candidate we ever had. He never had a chance." To clarify: he was the best because he never had a chance. The GGL is a kind of dummy organization secretly patronized by Mayor Ed Morgan, the corrupt political boss of Stockport. It exists to present the semblance of a competitive election, lending legitimacy to Morgan's regime, which has presumably shut out real competition. When GGL leader Jake Mayo discovers Ezekiel and learns that he's a protege of Withers, the League decides that young Cobb is an ideal losing candidate. Mayo explains Cobb's background to a skeptical colleague:

"Say, what is this missionary racket?"
Mayo: "Sort of cleaning up a joint, you know."
"Oh, the old reform gag, eh?"
Lloyd has made a perfectly modern film for 1934, embracing the decade's irreverent, hard-boiled sensibility. As this is the last "pre-Code" year, he allows himself to cavort clumsily on a nightclub stage with a stripper and a band of scantily-clad chorines. This actually wins over a crowd inclined to despise a reformer. Better yet, he gets into a fight with the drunken mayor after the chief executive knocks down a newsboy. All this impresses his fellow boarder Pet Pratt (Una Merkel), who runs a hotel cigar and newsstand. Pet's not her real name, but "They call me Pet because they know I'd slap 'em down if they used my right name." So I'm not telling. She's the one who first warns Ezekiel that he's being used as a "cat's paw" by Mayo and Morgan. But as with Mayo, Pet's initial contempt for the guileless Cobb is tempered by an instinctual respect for his inherent honesty.

Publicity over the incidents at the nightclub leads to an upset victory for Ezekiel, who didn't want to win. Assured initially that he had no chance to win, he didn't understand why he wasn't supposed to until everyone's anger clues him in. He never expected to serve, but he's shamed by Pet into accepting the victory. Once he does this, he can't help but be his own man. He eventually makes a real ally of Mayo (who has the virtue of being honest about his own dishonesty), but has the rest of the Stockport political establishment against him. Undeterred, he vetoes pork-barrel spending, cuts salaries and fires corrupt officials. He's fearless in the face of threats from Morgan's goon Strozzi (Nat Pendleton), who's scared off by the coincidental display of an ancient Chinese sword. Ezekiel makes a mental note of this.

Morgan uses the stripper and a corrupt district attorney to manipulate Ezekiel into a career-killing scandal that guarantees his removal from office by the governor. Notified that he has 24 hours left as mayor, Cobb resolves to take drastic action to ensure that "the rulership of this city [will] not revert to these gangsters and racketeers." Repudiated by the GGL, Ezekiel declares himself "my own political organization, a party of one." Conceding that "I'm destroyed," he vows to destroy his enemies in return. With Mayo's help, he pulls off one part coup d'etat, one part coup de theatre in a last-ditch effort to terrorize the Morgan machine into submission.

The Cat's-Paw blends two popular motifs of early 1930s cinema. Ezekiel Cobb is a kind of "cinderella man" of the kind introduced in Frank Capra's Platinum Blonde and perfected in Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. The cinderella man is an ordinary (albeit usually mildly eccentric) person elevated into prominence by a media establishment that seeks to exploit him, first by making a fool of him, then by ruining him through scandal if he starts to rock the boat in any way. Cinderella men and wisecracking women are also prominent features of screwball comedy, which was on the way to defining itself in 1934 with films like Twentieth Century and It Happened One Night.
In its political aspect, Lloyd's film (directed by Sam Taylor) is part or parody of the "fascist" tendency in films like the messianic Gabriel Over the White House and Cecil B. DeMille's elusive This Day and Age. Ezekiel Cobb comes to think of himself as a dictator and instructs his police chief to disregard the law while rounding up the criminal element. When told that habeus corpus writs will spring the arrested men from jail, he orders them confined in Chinatown instead, where the courts presumably can't reach and Cobb will be able to deal with his enemies with maximum ruthlessness. It probably goes too far to call The Cat's-Paw itself a fascist movie. It is a comedy, and as such is probably self-consciously aping the extreme measures of other films without necessarily endorsing them for real-world use.

More than a "cinderella man," however, Ezekiel Cobb will strike modern viewers as a character type better known as a "fish out of water," the stranger who is always underestimated for lacking proper sophistication, yet prevails over the slickers because of some native virtue. Given the popularity of this kind of character and story in the 1980s, it's not unreasonable to say that The Cat's-Paw was as much as fifty years ahead of its time. Its portrayal of Chinese culture may seem backward, and its overuse of American actors in Chinese roles definitely is, but the presentation of that culture is always respectful, as if Lloyd were atoning for his awful portrayal of Chinatown crime in Welcome Danger. As 1934 was around the peak of Charlie Chan's popularity, it probably isn't surprising to see a China-bred American portrayed as a pillar of unshakable virtue. Arguably, were a comedian to remake The Cat's-Paw today, the depiction of Chinese culture might be more offensive. If the film were remade, Ezekiel would almost certainly know kung fu. This might have seemed like a natural direction for a physical comedian to take in Lloyd's time, but from all I've seen martial arts were identified almost exclusively with Japan (judo, ju-jitsu) in those days.

The film benefits from a snappy screenplay full of hard-boiled wisecracking, vintage romantic cynicism and possibly record usage of the word "chink." It has an adorable romantic lead in Una Merkel, whose southern accent makes her seem almost as alien in Stockport as Cobb.

Best of all, Lloyd gives a thoroughly focused performance, rendering Ezekiel Cobb a real character rather than a thin mask for Lloyd's usual clowning. With help from his writers, Lloyd conveys that Cobb is an essentially alien personality, as much prejudiced in his own way as he is naive. His sexism may not have seemed so offensive then, but given Una Merkel's sympathetic performance as a wise woman, Ezekiel's attitude is clearly meant to look stupid. "Why is it that all American girls are so lacking in individuality?" he asks Pet tactlessly, "They all look alike: big eyed, pasty faced and, well, one exactly like the other....They seem to lack that sense of inferiority that woman should have in the presence of a man." This is just before he makes an ass of himself with the stripper. Likewise, his lurch toward dictatorship is meant to be distressing. It terrifies Mayo, at least, and the suspense of the last act is based on whether or not he follows through on his threats. Ezekiel Cobb is neither simply laughable or simply lovable. In his effort to overcome his own outdated image, Harold Lloyd puts something authentically strange on screen. But it didn't stop his decline, perhaps because it was too strange. So it was on to the next battlefield, and then another, and then it was exile until Howard Hughes and Preston Sturges summoned him to his Waterloo. But The Cat's-Paw was a victory of a kind that's worth remembering.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

LOW BLOW (1986): "I think you owe me a car!"

Somewhere in San Francisco, a deli robbery disturbs the repose of Joe Wong, private detective. Surveying the scene from his window, he glumly puts on his gun and heads out the door. Where are you going, his secretary asks. "Going to quiet things down," he answers. He strolls into the deli, demanding, "Hey, where's my ham sandwich?" A gunman helpfully conducts him to a table, then resumes demanding money from the cashier. "Okay, here's your money," Joe says. Actually, it's a gun. In moments, the robbers are dead. Joe heads back to his office. "Forget about the ham sandwich," he says.

Two years after Killpoint, we're back in the world of Leo Fong, Asian-Arkansan martial arts auteur. Fong is a man of many skills. For this occasion, he stars, acts, and wrote the script, leaving the direction to his Killpoint helmer, Frank Harris. Compared to that minor apocalypse of gangs and gunrunners running amok, Low Blow seems much less inspired, and definitely less well funded. It also hardly seems to merit an R rating; while it wallows in a certain impoverished scuzziness, it never delves to the depths of sleaze you'd want to reach with such a film. It's Fong's fourth film as a writer, but he's still a work in progress, playing with the building blocks of a script but never quite getting one to stand on top of another for long.

The bare description of Low Blow promises more than the film delivers. Joe Wong is recruited to rescue a millionaire's daughter from a cult run by Yarakunda -- played by Cameron Mitchell. The prospect of Mitchell in Jim Jones mode ("It's very much like Jonestown" a cult expert tells Wong) had me stoked for this film, especially since Fong and Harris got a great crazy turn from Cam as the head gunrunner in Killpoint. Two years later, Mitchell seems really out of it, unwell and uninspired. Whether this was because he was on or off the wagon, I just don't know. But it seems like Fong knew something was wrong, so he and Harris build up the role of Yarakunda's exploitative assistant, Karma. One year earlier, Akosua Busia was in The Color Purple. Working for Leo Fong, she camps and cackles away as a cynical con artist with a fetish for Brach's salt-water taffy. It's probably the closest thing to actual acting in the picture.

Yarakunda and Karma run Unity Village, where the acolytes till the fields daily and listen to Karma's harangues. Their latest recruit is Karen Templeton, daughter of John Templeton of the vaunted Templeton International. How did Templeton get so rich? We get a sample of his savvy in a scene that has him riding through a seedy street in his limousine. He has the driver stop when he witnesses two muggers snatching an old lady's purse. Joe Wong is enjoying a bowl of chicken feet soup nearby when he hears the woman's screams. Abandoning his repast, he rushes out, chases down the muggers (who'll become recurring comedy relief characters), dodges a vicious purse attack and saves the day, before Templeton's eyes. This man knows talent when he sees it. He braves Wong's slobbovian office to hire the man to rescue Karen, whom the cultists call Purity.

Purse fu is no match for Leo Fong -- and this guy swings like a girl, anyway.

Check out those credentials on the door. And check out Troy Donahue as Mr. Templeton

Purity has given up her jewelry and signed a document of some kind, but even though the cultists know who she is, they make no great effort to exploit their asset. No matter how mercenary Karma is said to be ("She's not just from India, she just got out of prison," says the cult expert), there's no attempt to shake down Mr. Templeton or induce Purity to get more money. Yarakunda seems quite content to have his charges work the fields while he babbles about the river reaching the ocean. Mitchell talks so low so often that Busia has to repeat his words through a bullhorn so the faithful may hear. But I wonder if Fong and Harris had her do this because they knew that they'd be using an incredibly annoying wall-to-wall soundtrack of generic 80s instrumentals. In any event, I'm trying to tell you that there's no urgency to Purity's plight, nor is Joe Wong in a great hurry to save her after an initial foray into Unity Village. Pretending to be journalist "Jack Chan," he's taken on a tour of the minimalist compound. "Right around here I think we've got a nice setup," a guard doubling as a guide tells him, moments before another guard bops Wong on the head. A nice setup -- get it?

With the help of a disgruntled cultist sharing a cell with him, and after a session of ear biting and hair pulling courtesy of Karma, Joe sets a convenient wastebasket on fire to get a guard's attention. "Hey guard, fire in here," he says. Calling it yelling would give Fong too much credit, as he sounds about as exasperated as if the room were leaking rather than burning. He waves the pyre just under a barred window so the guard will get the idea. Suffice it to say that Joe fights his way out and into his dilapidated car, in which he must brave the dreaded barrier of empty cardboard boxes.

Somehow the cultists figure out "Jack Chan's" true identity and track him down to his house, somewhere in a junkyard. But the garbage and loose planks strewn about everywhere make Joe the master of his terrain, and that means it's "Home Alone" time for his attackers. The ensuing sequence is perplexingly non-violent. Yes, Joe hits people all over the place. But his strategy seems to consist of jumping someone, disarming them, and then leaving them behind and conscious so they can rejoin their buddies. One offender is even subjected to a puppy attack, such is the brutality of the moment. Finally tiring of the monotony, the perps pile into their car to flee, but Joe is just getting started. He rips out their wiring, smashes all the windows with a two-by-four, puts on a pair of goggles and grabs a circular saw. Before our eyes, and sometimes with clearly no one inside the car, he tears up the roof until he can peel it off like the lid of a tin can, at which point all the clowns now back inside the car spill out and run away up the road, presumably with Joe's best wishes.

Payback time should be coming, but Joe's approach to taking the offensive is rather like Colin Powell's. He is determined to have overwhelming force on his side. Toward this goal he's been scouting out likely allies like Duke, an overaged boxer, and Fuzzy, a fat guy with professional wrestling moves, and Chico, a stereotypical Hispanic knife fighter. They're still not enough to overcome Unity Village's formidable army of guards. They're led by future Tae-Bo tycoon Billy Blanks, after all. Also, Leo Fong has time to kill if he wants his film to get to the 80-minute mark. But I don't want to characterize what follows as a stalling tactic. Actually, it's at this point that Low Blow achieves genuinely inspired stupidity.

While John Templeton waits with dwindling patience for his daughter's freedom, Joe Wong tells his faithful secretary to call the press and announce a $20,000 toughman tournament. I assume the prize money is coming out of poor Templeton's pocket, since the gate isn't going to be much based on this crowd shot. We should note that the tournament is not a "Toughman" competition, strictly speaking. Those are boxing tournaments for people without professional skills. What Joe Wong stages is more like pit fighting. But what do I mean, "more like?" It literally is pit fighting. They've dug a hole in the earth and thrown people in it to fight each other.

At times, the tournament looks like a prototype of old-school mixed martial arts competitions, or early versions of those Kumite-style affairs that became their own movie genre in the late 80s. It's too bad more people didn't show, because there was something for everyone here.

Fat guys!



Now Joe Wong has his private army of fighters for the dangerous assault on Unity Village. Strangely, though, considering the need for stealth, he didn't pick any ninjas. Stranger yet that he felt a need to judge their skills in unarmed combat, since they'll spend much of the climactic siege shooting down Yarakunda's guards like ducks in a gallery. The privilege of unarmed combat belongs to the master. He can use guns, too, but he also uses doors and other unorthodox attacks, including the emotionally challenging double handjob.

But the supreme moment comes when Joe fights the man whose car he destroyed back at the junkyard. "I got you now, Chinaman," this villain says in an instant of upper-handedness, "I think you owe me a car!" Joe promptly throws the car guy on his back, but the baddie is reaching for the gun in his shoulder holster.

I'll tell you now that Purity is rescued, Karma kills Yarakunda, and her own fate is left a mystery. I do this because the climax of the Joe vs the car guy fight is the real climax of Low Blow. You can tell it's an important moment because Fong and Harris prepared a special effect. The fact that there's a continuity problem between action and follow-through shouldn't affect our appreciation of their effort. Let's break it down shot by shot.

Joe has to act fast to beat car guy to the draw, so to speak. We see him desperately bearing down with his fist to subdue his antagonist.

The target: car guy's face. Kinda looks like Michael Medved, doesn't he?

IMPACT: But what's wrong with this picture?

Yes, you guessed it. Joe is destroying car guy's face with his foot rather than his fist. Harris has to take the blame for this one, because Fong was in his moment, getting into his Bruce Lee finishing move trance. Don't knock it: for him, this is acting.

For Low Blow Leo Fong had plenty of ideas that might have made a more effectively comical film in more skilled scripting hands, but he and Harris leave most of them laying on the screen. There are running gags like Joe's awful driving and his always getting a ticket, and the repeated appearances of the two purse-snatchers, who get beaten up by nearly everyone. There's politically incorrect repartee between Joe and Duke the boxer, the black man calling the Asian "Chinaman" and Joe calling Duke "boy." But our filmmakers are not really comedians by temperament, however comical their films turn out regardless. Fong has no sense of pacing, and his dialogue is rarely bad enough to be quotable.

The final third of the picture almost redeems the whole, but my knowledge that this team was capable of better (or "worse") work keeps me from really recommending the film. Low Blow is best appreciated by intensive students of 80s cheese and fans of Leo Fong, whose bland stoicism makes Chuck Norris look like a Method actor. Despite that, Fong's obvious dedication to making movies makes him a sympathetic figure in a period when the odds against getting on the big screen were growing ever longer. He has my respect.

Here's how they sold it back in the day.