Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Jacinto Molina died one year ago this week but on film he lives on as Paul Naschy, the last of the old-school horror men, an interpreter of the classic monsters who translated the naive fantasies of Universal Studios into the idiom of Seventies exploitation without losing the original sense of wonder. To mark the anniversary of his passing I'm contributing to a memorial celebration blogathon coordinated by the Vicar of VHS and the Duke of DVD of Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies fame, but I fear that my tribute isn't all it could be. That's because I chose to watch Leon Klimovsky's Dr. Jekyll y el Hombre Lobo in a version provided by Mill Creek Entertainment as part of its new Pure Terror collection. In its original form, the film is 96 minutes long. Mill Creek's version is barely 72 minutes; more than a quarter of its running time is gone, including the opening credits. The remainder is an awkwardly disproportionate film that feels like two separate projects grafted together and leaves you wondering for the longest time when Dr. Jekyll might show up.

We seem to be moving far from Jekyll territory immediately as Imre, an Anglo-Hungarian gentleman, and his new bride Justine take their honeymoon in the old country so Imre can commune with his dead ancestors. A well-off tourist, Imre is an instant target for the local riffraff, and he will go exploring in odd places despite warnings of a monster in a nearby castle. Why worry about monsters, though, when the countryside has plenty of mundane carjackers and rapists to offer? In short order Imre is stabbed to death and Justine is prepped for gang rape. All the while, however, a monster has been watching, but now Waldemar Daninsky has seen enough.

Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy, below) works himself up to the proper state of outrage before intervening to break up a gang rape.

Before you can wonder how long our old friend has been watching -- did he miss the stabbing, or did he suppose the rapists might stop at some point of no harm done? -- the man in the black turtleneck strides into action. With Waldemar around, who needs a werewolf? The man himself can snap ribs with a bear hug and finish his victim with a rock to the face. He doesn't get them all, however, and that means vendetta! Daninsky's faithful leper lackey and his motherly witch of a keeper fall victim to a rapist's vengeance before Waldemar finally chokes the villain out. The werewolf gets his licks in, too.

Ding, dong, the witch's head.

With his friends dead and a widow wanting to go home to England, there's nothing to keep Waldemar in Transylvania anymore. Indeed, Justine just happens to have a friend who might be able to help the poor Pole with that curse thing. The friend is Dr. Henry Jekyll, grandson of the famous fictional physician and inheritor of his research into the isolation and concentration of evil in human form. He's been busy refining granddad's formula, and he has an idea that could help Daninsky. It goes like this: Jekyll will inject Waldemar with granddad's formula just before the next full moon. Daninsky's transformation into Mr. Hyde will counteract the effect of the curse, Hyde's concentrated evil will being stronger than the werewolf's. Once the crisis is past, Jekyll will hit Hyde with the newly improved antidote, restoring a civil Daninsky and curing the curse. Despite a setback when Waldemar is trapped in an elevator at the rise of a full moon, slaughters a nurse, and rages into the night, everyone resolves to carry on with the experiment.

"Why do things happen?" Waldemar waxes philosophic just before tearing a nurse's throat out with his teeth. Below, the werewolf steps out.

It may be an oddity of the dubbing, but you almost get the impression that "Mr. Hyde" is a default villain that anyone who takes the formula will turn into. Jekyll and his assistant Sandra (an homage to the femme fatale/mad scientist/vampire's assistant of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein?) react to their successful transformation of Waldemar into a leering creep with Serverus Snape hair as if they had revived the "historic" Mr. Hyde. And as we'll see, "Hyde" has a decidedly retro fashion sense, when he isn't sporting an unflattering sweatshirt.

Above, "Waldemar's Hyde!" The scientists mean to say that Waldemar is now Mr. Hyde, but he does show plenty of hide in this shot. Below, I saw Waldemar Daninsky in the streets of London, but the hair he wore was funny, through no fault of his own.

Believe it or not, the experiment works. Jekyll's lab has the best restraints in the business. They hold down the werewolf in an early test, and they hold down Hyde while he whines about his blood boiling and his need to be free. The antidote does its work and Daninsky is himself again. That can't last. Turns out Sandra, also Jekyll's mistress, is jealous of Justine's attention to him. So at the moment of his redeeming triumph, Sandra stabs him in the back and injects the helpless, terrified Waldemar with another dose of Hyde serum. A madder scientist than her mentor, she apparently wants to see Hyde at his full power.

Sandra "hydes" a dagger in Jekyll's back. Get it?

And here we come up against the limitations of the Mill Creek edition of the movie. In that, the reign of terror of Hyde Redux consists of 1) pushing a drunk into the Thames, 2)impaling Sandra on a torture device in a fit of temper and 3)flirting with girls in a bargain-basement discotheque in the dregs of Swinging London. It's a short reign; the Hyde formula is in limited supply, and in time an embarrassed Waldemar finds himself among the go-go dancers just as the full moon cues a nifty stroboscopic transformation scene. That sets up the inevitable showdown as the werewolf targets Justine, who may have learned to love Waldemar enough to kill him....

Above, a Polish werewolf in London. Below, a continuity error: this shot of Shirley Corrigan as Justine comes from much earlier in the picture, but I thought it looked best here.

The Mill Creek version of Dr. Jekyll and the Werewolf is a colorful, picturesque and entertaining ruin. As usual, there's little in the way of continuity with past or future Daninsky movies. Waldemar is a cartoon character who can be rebooted after every fatal outing. His conduct is inconsistent from film to film. In Werewolf Shadow (aka The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman) Daninsky is conscientious about chaining and confining himself during full moon nights. Here, in the first half of the film, he strolls out as if it doesn't matter if he kills or not. Waldemar never quite has the overbearing guilty conscience of his precursor, Universal's Larry Talbot. Sure, he'd like to be cured, but it doesn't really seem to bug him (or his friends, for that matter) as much as it should that he's a mass murderer. If Talbot had had an elevator accident like Waldemar's, you know he'd be demanding to be locked up, or killed, the next morning. Here, Waldemar, Jekyll, Justine and Sandra just seem to shrug the episode off. It seems almost amoral but it may simply be a refusal of self-pity, Naschy the actor distinguishing himself from Lon Chaney Jr. by adopting an air of stoicism rather than despairing self-pity or self-righteous.

I'm reluctant to judge Klimovsky's film on such limited evidence, but I do feel that it retains the odd charm of Naschy's work. My only real complaint is the absence of a worthy antagonist for the werewolf to fight, it being impossible, after all, for Hyde and the Werewolf to fight. A good dream sequence could have taken care of that, however. Anyway, count me among those already won over by Paul Naschy's curious charisma and his commitment to the monster movie tradition. Even in its vivisected form, Dr. Jekyll and the Werewolf didn't damage my regard for the man and his work.

There's more where this came from all over the Internet this week. Look for this sign for a wide variety of Naschiana from fans and critics throughout the blogosphere.

Mario Monicelli (1915-2010)

When Joseph E. Levine released the four-part Italian anthology film Boccaccio 70 in the United States in 1962, he made it a three-part film to make the running time more manageable. As a result, while Mario Monicelli was presented to fellow Italians as the peer of fellow directors Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio de Sica, and had recently scored an art-house hit in the U.S. with Big Deal on Madonna Street, he was symbolically left off the A-list of Italian auteurs of the country's cinematic prime, at least as far as Americans were concerned. When the complete Boccaccio 70 was issued on DVD in the U.S. more than forty years later, Monicelli's contribution pretty much stole the show, as far as I was concerned. His "Renzo and Luciana" is a neorealist comic romance filmed on a massive if not epic scale, a vividly composed portrait of work and play for ordinary Italians. By the time I saw the film, Monicelli had outlived all his collaborators, and had directed a film as recently as 2006, in his nineties. I resolved to watch more Monicelli films, but haven't found the time yet, though I have his Girl With a Pistol on my Netflix queue. The news that Monicelli has killed himself following a diagnosis of prostate cancer, leaping from a fifth-floor hospital window at the age of 95, makes me regret my negligence. His death all but ends a heroic era in Italian and international cinema, while the man himself ought to be better known.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

THE CONTEXT (Cadaveri Eccellenti, 1976)

You'll find Francesco Rosi's paranoid epic on Netflix under the utterly unassuming name of The Context, which turns out to be a literal translation of the original title (Il contesto) of the Leonardo Sciascia novel the film is based upon. The novel itself is available in English as Equal Danger, while the film may be better known to English-speakers as Illustrious Corpses. Rosi's intention, signified by his choice of title, may have been as much surrealist as paranoid, but whatever its meaning in, er, context, Cadaveri Eccelenti is Italy's answer to the great American paranoid thrillers of the Seventies, touching the same themes of conspiracy, surveillance and frame-up, only with more urgency, portraying a nation on the edge of the abyss.

Lino Ventura (who despite the sound of his name acted primarily in French films) stars as Inspector Amerigo Rogas, assigned to investigate the assassination of a judge. The judge is introduced in an eerie credit sequence strolling through a crypt of mummified but presumably exquisite corpses, only to be cut down abruptly once he emerges into the daylight. The crypt has been a popular hangout for politicians for centuries, a crazy old priest tells Rogas, because the mummies make good sounding boards for men with secrets. The killing takes place in a highly charged environment, in the middle of a citywide garbage strike. His funeral is attended by political leaders and mafia dons. Outside, a politician's impromptu oration is heckled by young leftists. When the politician says that the judge was killed by the Mafia, the leftists yell, "He was the Mafia!" before the cops chase them away. The politician tells Rogas that the garbage strike is politically motivated and aimed at him personally. Relevant? Hard to say; harder yet when another judge is shot down, and then a third. Ballistics determine that they've all been killed with the same weapon.

Lino Ventura as Rogas

The case metastasizes before Rogas's troubled eyes, even as he tries to narrow it down to someone with a grudge. The three dead judges shared a jurisdiction for a time, and there are three free men who'd been sentenced to hard time by them. One of these, the pharmacist Cres, seems a very likely candidate, quite possibly framed by his wife for trying to poison her. He's gone off the grid, having clipped his face off all the photographs in his home. His photo is even missing from the government's records of him, and his best friend has a hard time offering a good description of him. But the more Cres falls into shape as the prime suspect, the more extra details complicate Rogas's investigation, making it seem as if the judge murders are part of, or at least somehow related to, some larger, menacing agenda.

If Cres is the killer, then there's one more likely target, now the chief justice of Italy. Rogas has a hard time arranging a meeting, but notices that the judge (Max Von Sydow) has been meeting with top political and military leaders. Finally granted an audience, Rogas is subjected to a disturbing harangue. When Rogas suggests that Cres may have been wrongly convicted, the judge proclaims that "judicial error does not exist," and compares the judiciary to the priesthood. Their decisions are always right the same way that priests, no matter how corrupt, convert the bread and wine to the body and blood of Christ by virtue of their office. Worse, in our chaotic times exemplary convictions and punishments are useful regardless of their justice. The judge invokes the Roman concept of decimation, literally the killing of every tenth man to punish a military unit for cowardice. Modern society, torn by crime, labor conflict and political terror, could stand such a decimation. The minimal implication is that Cres's innocence is a matter of indifference to the judge. Can we and Rogas infer more? Is another kind of decimation under way? Is Cres really the killer, and if he is, is he only pursuing his own agenda, or is he an instrument, willing or not, of higher powers? The more that Rogas sees criminals and judges, conservatives and communists, mingling together, and the more that he takes advantage of the surveillance technology that initially disgusts him, the closer he comes, if not to the truth, than to mortal peril....

Big Brother is listening: Max Von Sydow in The Context.

The surrealist "exquisite corpse" is a matter of blind men building an elephant, a collective production with little or no central organizing principle. Calling Sciascia's story an "exquisite corpse" implies a warning from Rosi that we should expect no closure from Rogas's investigation, no revelation of a monolithic conspiracy or power play, even though martial law or a military coup seems to be in the making in the film's apocalyptic scenario. Loose ends are inevitable as plots appear to ravel or unravel just beyond our notice. We never see the sniper, and we never see Cres except possibly as a distorted image in a mirror at a decadent party. Once we think we've figured out the conspiracy, presumed major players are eliminated. They may well have been major players, but there may be no master conspirator, no inexpendable person as events acquire their own murderous momentum. Cadaveri Eccelenti leaves us asking what's more disturbing: a secret power controlling socio-political convulsions or the absence of such a power amid continuing convulsions. The faceless Cres is a perfect metaphor for the nearly disembodied terror set loose on Italy.

Rosi sustains an atmosphere of dread and menacing immensity, dwarfing Lino Ventura with vast interiors and cityscapes. The director is a master of neorealist architectural expressionism, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphors, going back at least as far as his dramatic building collapse in 1962's Hands Over the City. In its staging of public spectacles and rituals like funerals, it may be Italy's closest analogue to the Godfather films, though it isn't really about the Mafia. Those Coppola-esque scenes give the story epic weight and heighten your sense of the national stakes involved in the killings and the investigation.

Unfortunately, you don't get the full effect from The Context since Netflix is streaming a fullscreen version of the film, but you definitely get the idea. The English dub also means that no actor speaks in his own voice except for Max Von Sydow, who apparently performed his role in English on the set. I missed the gravelly voice Ventura had been given in English for Three Tough Guys, but since his performance here is often pensively passive and effectively anxious, befitting a man who knows he's going in over his head, it comes through regardless of the dubbing. Ventura became one of my favorite actor once I saw him in such French classics as Army of Shadows, Le Deuxieme Souffle and Classes Tous Risques, and Rosi's film, even in its compromised presentation, didn't damage his standing. Von Sydow nearly steals the show, however, with that one chilling rant, which should go down as a defining moment of Seventies cinema. As for the soundtrack, Piero Piccioni provides suitably menacing music, while the film manages to make an Astor Piazzola tango sound vaguely threatening. Context is everything.

If ever a film screamed for the deluxe Criterion DVD treatment, it's The Context in its current form. I want to see Cadaveri Eccelenti in a proper widescreen, subtitled print someday, with all the support materials Criterion, which has done Rosi justice before with Hands Over the City and Salvatore Giuliano, can gather. I'll still recommend Context to fans of paranoid political thrillers, Italian crime movies, and Seventies cinema in general; it'll definitely whet your appetite for a more definitive presentation.

Friday, November 26, 2010


Harry Langdon is generally considered the fourth of the great clowns of American silent film, behind Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Langdon emerged the latest of the four, rose the fastest, and fell fastest. His career as a star of A features was finished before the actual end of the silent era, though he continued working in shorts and in occasional supporting roles in features until his death in 1944. His first film as his own director, Three's A Crowd, is known as the film with which he jumped the shark and lost his audience irrevocably, with two features left to make under his contract with First National Pictures. The last feature, Heart Trouble, is a lost film, signifying Langdon's ruin.

So what was I doing watching this doomed venture? I have a biographical interest in film, and I've been interested in Langdon since Walter Kerr wrote about his rise and fall in The Silent Clowns, one of the best books of movie criticism ever written. Kerr's account of Three's A Crowd was damning, though he also described it as a near-masterpiece. It made me curious to see whether it was really a career-killing movie. But I must also confess that the real hook for me was the commentary track. I don't listen to commentaries often, but the big exception for me is the work of David Kalat. Along with being an expert on Dr. Mabuse, Kalat is a big booster of silent comedy. He put out a terrific DVD collection of Langdon shorts a few years ago, every one of which had a commentary track, provided by him or fellow Langdon fans. He is a passionate advocate of Langdon as a still-misunderstood genius whose comic sensibility may actually be better appreciated by modern audiences than it was in the Twenties. He is also a revisionist who challenges Kerr's interpretation of Langdon's career as well as self-serving dismissals of the comedian by his collaborators, most notably Frank Capra. So I definitely wanted to hear what Kalat had to say about Three's A Crowd, while the film would determine whether Kalat was full of it or not.

Kalat is most determined to refute the idea that Langdon "jumped the shark" with Three's A Crowd. The question is: did Langdon do something wrong, screw up his gimmick and alienate the fans of his earlier films? That's what Kerr claimed; he wrote that Langdon abandoned an ambiguity about whether his character was a mature adult or not. Capra made a similar claim; he accused Langdon of abandoning a story formula wherein his infantile innocent got by on sheer good luck, if not God's grace. Kalat dismisses Capra as a liar and claims that Kerr misunderstood Langdon because he lacked access to the comedian's complete canon. Kalat's revision is twofold. He argues that contemporary critics and audiences did not perceive that Langdon had gone too far, misunderstood his appeal, or abandoned a successful formula. More significantly, he demands that the box office failure of Three's A Crowd be understood in the context of a general decline of popularity for slapstick comedy circa 1927. Keaton and Lloyd had box office disappointments (The General and The Kid Brother) that year, while Chaplin's The Circus failed to top The Gold Rush with moviegoers or critics. Langdon didn't recover from the failure of Three's A Crowd, Kalat suggests, because he was the least established of the major comedians, and thus the first to be dropped during a loss of interest in slapstick. But his box-office failure doesn't prove that Three's A Crowd was a wrong turn. What, then, does the film prove?

According to Kalat, Langdon's directorial debut is the culmination of his own theories of comedy and the ultimate statement of his comic persona. For Kalat, Langdon's is the comedy of futility and slowness bordering on stasis. The Langdon character is slow-witted and slow in motion; the slowness originally set him apart from his frenetic peers, and goes back to Langdon's days as a vaudeville star. There's a link between his stasis and his futility that found a fan in Samuel Beckett; Kalat says that, had Langdon lived, the playwright would have cast him instead of Keaton in Film. Three's A Crowd brings futility to the forefront after Capra had contrived happy endings for Langdon in earlier features. Capra characterized Langdon's ambition as an inappropriate insistence upon pathos in pretentious imitation of Chaplin. For Kerr, Langdon's presentation of himself as a man with normal heterosexual yearnings for family betrays the ambiguity of the boy-man persona that allegedly made Langdon a success and makes his ordeal in Three's A Crowd merely pathetic. Kalat claims that Langdon was ahead of his time in attempting to make comedy out of pessimism and unredeemed futility.

Deceptive advertising for Three's A Crowd. This piece would make you think that Harry Langdon's in the middle of a romantic triangle. See below for the truth.

Let's start to clear things up a little. First of all, Three's A Crowd isn't an imitation of Chaplin, but a commentary if not a sardonic parody of the romantic Tramp. In simplest terms, the plot elaborates on themes Chaplin had played since The Tramp back in 1915. Langdon's film is the story of a hapless fellow, an assistant junkman who makes enough to keep his own apartment but is unfulfilled and lonely. He longs for a wife and child, adopting a doll briefly to toss in the air the way his boss tosses his own son. His wish comes true in miraculous fashion when he discovers a woman lying unconscious in a snowbank outside his apartment. He carries her up the long, slanted flight of stairs to his home and calls a doctor. In a development the original advertising kept discreetly secret, the woman is pregnant and about to give birth. She has fled an abusive husband and found a refuge with Harry.

Our hero works harder than ever to provide for his new family, but while Chaplin will show us his labors to raise money for the blind girl in City Lights, Harry's labors are only referred to by others in Three's A Crowd, and then only to set up a punch line. Instead of showing the lengths Harry will go to, Langdon focuses on his anxious home life and his mounting fear that it will all be taken away from him. He seeks assurance from a palmist that fortune will favor him, but he's not convinced. In a dream sequence, he fights the girl's husband in a boxing ring, armed with an oversized glove, and still loses. For Kalat, the dream is especially telling; the Langdon character can't even imagine winning and keeping the girl. Nor should he. The husband tracks the mother down, begs forgiveness, and is forgiven. Couple and child depart with a few perfunctory words of thanks to Harry, leaving him alone in the middle of the night.

Never was a fight more fixed than this.

With Chaplin, Kalat claims, this moment always comes with a conscious gesture of renunciation, as if Chaplin knows he could keep the girl with his charm but also that he, a tramp, can't provide for her as she deserves. In Three's A Crowd, Langdon is pretty much a bystander to the destruction of his dream. He can't pretend that it's up to him to let the girl go or not. He can only acquiesce, but then what?

Walter Kerr describes Three's A Crowd as framed by a brilliant visual gag. It opens at dawn, when the streetlights go out. At the end, Kerr recalled, Harry lurches out into the street after the reunited couple and child, candle in hand. As dawn arrives, Harry blows out his candle at the exact moment that the lights go out. Kerr describes Harry panicking, thinking that he blew out the streetlights, and exiting to end the film. The critic misremembered the ending. Harry doesn't react at all to the lights going out, because he has another agenda that takes him to the actual final scene of the film. He returns to the palmist's shop, where the fortune teller had made a false prediction to him. By this point in a Chaplin film, the Tramp has resigned himself to solitude and resolved to carry on cheerfully. Under similar circumstances, Keaton or Lloyd might attempt comic suicide. Now Langdon charts his own course: Harry will curse his fate by throwing a brick through the palmist's window. Except that he can't bring himself to break the window or the law. He tosses the brick out of harm's way, only to set an oil drum rolling loose from a wagon and through the palmist's window. Now Harry runs, and now the film ends.

That actually is a brilliant ending and a powerful statement on some level by Langdon. But if there's a problem with Three's A Crowd, it may be that Langdon could have told his basic story nearly as well with a two-reeler. It's not that he takes too long with his slowness. The opening scenes of his reluctant waking for work are properly paced, and he milks his deliberation to the maximum when Harry discovers the girl in the snow. He eyes her for a long still moment, crouches to examine her more closely. He stands erect, spreads his arms and makes a few feeble gestures appealing for aid. He crouches again to examine her some more, then gets up again. He repeats the cycle once more before finally picking her up. You're supposed to be saying, "Help her, moron!" while understanding or even empathizing with his stunned reticence. Watching sequences like that I see what Kalat appreciates about Langdon. There's a lot to appreciate visually about the film as well. Langdon's production team built him a picturesque wintry cityscape that reflects the star's own longstanding concern with scenic effects dating back to the stage. The cinematography is top notch, both during the snowstorm scenes and a stormy night that sets up Harry's dream sequence.

Slightly expressionist exteriors and chiaroscuro interiors photographed by Elgin Lessley and Frank Evans.

There's at least one great physical gag involving a trapdoor in Harry's apartment and his carpet. Harry falls through the trapdoor and takes some of the carpet with him. The carpet eventually jams the trapdoor, leaving Harry suspended over an alleyway. He can barely manage to climb up the carpet, but when he pushes the trapdoor open to get inside, he only starts the carpet and himself falling again. Again, he repeats the sequence several times before he lands on the roof of a truck. This strikes me as his mockery of thrill comedy on the Lloyd model. Lloyd or Keaton would probably have swung their way to safety, and Chaplin might have managed to surge through the trapdoor fast enough to make it safely home. Langdon, however, is truly hopeless. If there's suspense here, it's all about waiting for him to fail and knowing he will.

Even at 62 minutes, however, Three's A Crowd drags. There's an interminable pie-making sequence that nearly stops the film dead without being funny. The mother remains invalided throughout the picture, leaving little opportunity for real interaction between her and Harry. He spends most of his time simply watching them, as if knowing it's borrowed time. The dream is cut awkwardly to deny us the usual payoff. We see Harry knocked out, but we don't see the husband hit him. Call it dream logic, I suppose, but the film sometimes seems perversely dedicated to denying the audience any satisfaction. Capra might say this was because Langdon really wanted to make us cry. I think not, but his bleak approach to comedy here, which I think Kalat describes fairly accurately, was bound to alienate audiences then and would probably alienate nearly as many people now. Thanks in part to Kalat I "get" Three's A Crowd and appreciate what Langdon was attempting, but it still isn't a great comedy. Watching it with the commentary was a fascinating experience, reminiscent of those old Robert Youngson documentaries Kalat himself cites -- Youngson described Three's A Crowd as Langdon reaching for a "celestial high note," -- and maybe the film should be presented the same way, with the commentary in the forefront, so that fiction becomes documentary.

Kino released Three's A Crowd as part of its Slapstick Symposium series, the title never being more appropriate, and included Langdon's follow-up feature, The Chaser, without commentary from Kalat. Chaser is Langdon's comic nightmare of emasculation as Harry, wrongly convicted of disorderly conduct at home, is "denied the privileges of manhood" by an experimental judge. He's compelled to do housework and wear an apron that somehow makes him look attractively feminine in the male gaze of visitors. Walter Kerr misinterpreted this film, too, describing a scene in which Harry surrenders a baby's crib to the repo man as a confession of impotence when emasculation is clearly the problem; he doesn't turn the thing over, nor a potty-training chair, until he calls the wife first. It works as a comic nightmare until a botched suicide attempt halfway through the picture, but then veers off into some generic golf humor and a strange sequence portraying Harry as a kissing bandit before a lame payoff with his wife mistaking him for a ghost. It's still worth a watch for silent-comedy buffs who are intrigued with the biographical drama of a career in trouble and an aspiring artist grappling uncertainly with daring material. As a director, Harry Langdon doesn't quite rise to the level of heroic failure, but his efforts to define himself are a kind of drama that eclipses his comedy. Who knows who'll actually laugh last?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Toei Studio boasted that Kinji Fukasaku's biopic of legendary mad-dog yakuza Rikio Ishikawa was three years in the making. Given the director's productivity, including the explosive five-films-in-two-years burst that resulted in the Battles Without Honor or Humanity series, a three-year production process suggests to me only that Fukasaku had the Ishikawa story on the back burner for a while, and that it wasn't a high priority with him. The finished product shows that; it's the weakest Fukasaku film I've seen to date.

Graveyard of Honor starts promisingly in semi-documentary style. A narrator presents recordings supposedly made from interviews who knew Ishikawa when he grew up in the 1930s. This segues into a scenario very familiar to fans of the Battles series; Ichikawa (Tetsuya Watari) was another one of those thugs who rose out of the refugee camps to be recruited by yakuzas. Unlike the other yakuza protagonists of Fukasaku's films, Ishikawa has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He is a total mad dog, distinctive only for his drug addiction and his virtually complete lack of deference to his criminal elders. He is pure reckless aggression, but in no way interesting to anyone who isn't a hardcore yakuza buff or a historian of Japanese crime.

Fukasaku uses his familiar gimmick of filming Ishikawa's origin in black and white, but if the entire story's a thing of the past, why convert to color? Below, money is no object to Rikkio (Tetsuya Watari)

Neither Fukasaku nor Watari invest the main character with the tragic depth they found for the fictional protagonist of their later collaboration, Yakuza Graveyard. The best they can hope for is to make Ishikawa an object of morbid fascination, and they nearly do that by showing him chomping on his cremated girlfriend's bone fragments in a crucial scene. They may not have wanted to do more. For all I know Ishikawa is presented as he was, and it may be the lack of dramatic nuance that disappoints me about this film. We're apparently supposed to take it literally when an acquaintance recounts Ishikawa describing himself as a balloon that must expand until it explodes. Fukasaku even inflicts a literal reminder of the metaphor when Ishikawa appears to be mortally wounded. He sees a balloon floating over the city and reaches toward it like the Frankenstein Monster reaching for the sun. That would have been a bathetic way to end the picture, but history gave the director a more gruesome finish. Ishikawa somehow survived the shooting, only to kill himself by jumping from a prison rooftop some years later. Fukasaku films this unflinchingly, arranging the effect so Watari himself can appear to land and burst with a great splash of blood. It's a startling finale but neither fully convincing nor satisfying.

Fukasaku's global reputation benefited from the flourishing of the DVD market in the last decade and the interest generated by his controversial swan song, Battle Royale. Many of his key films are available, though many others remain largely unseen in America and may now only appear in the greymarket. There's a lot to choose from, but my advice is to leave Graveyard of Honor somewhere near the bottom of your list.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wendigo Meets FANGS OF THE LIVING DEAD (Malenka, 1969)

In 1969 fading Swedish sexpot Anita Ekberg took the title role in Amando de Ossorio's gothic horror film Malenka. She also starred as the title character's descendant, Sylvia Morel, "the most beautiful model in Rome," who's summoned to the old ancestral castle to claim her inheritance as the Countess Wolduck. She meets her uncle, the old Count (Euro-baddie extraordinaire Julian Ugarte), and a mysterious woman named Glinka whom the Count keeps prisoner and flogs.

(l-r) Diana Lorys, Rosanna Yanni and Anita Ekberg in a tavern scene that may include a clue explaining the quality of Ekberg's performance in Malenka.

Like nearly every woman in this characteristic Euro horror, Glinka (Adriana Ambesi) is well endowed, and in her case not only up front but in her mouth, with a lovely pair of fangs. Some vampire, though, to be so easily in the Count's power. But what of the Count? He never shows any fangs, but he claims to be a vampire, too, one of the "nondead" cursed by long-ago Malenka's experiments in "necrobiology." It's a twist on the Black Sunday formula with a twist that turns the customary witch into a mad scientist and her curse into the consequences of pseudoscience. The outcome is the same as ever; Malenka is captured and burned by a mob, but she doesn't have to make threats. The curse was already in place when the mob got her. Or was it?

Above, Adriana Ambesi as Glinka the good vampire. Below, Diana Lorys as Berthe, the less good.

It later appears that the Count was simply trying to drive Sylvia insane with stories of vampires, presumably so he can keep the castle for himself. He went the extra mile with his scheme, faking the death of a barmaid and arranging for her to appear to rise from her grave. He's willing to go a mile further and cinch Sylvia's insanity by having her kill her intrepid boyfriend (Gianni Medici/"John Hamilton"), who with his comedy-relief sidekick has come to Sylvia's rescue. Even Glinka claims that everything's a big fakeout, though why she should collaborate by sporting fangs when she opposes the Count's intentions is still a mystery to Wendigo and me. Fine. Everything's a big fakeout. So why does the old Count start decomposing rapidly, and why does his skull ignite, when he gets a stake stuck through his heart?...

"No, Mr. Medici, I expect you to die!"

I kept it from my friend Wendigo until we were already into the movie that it was made by the maker of Tombs of the Blind Dead, a film of which he retains hostile memories. But Malenka's pedigree was the least of its problems. We saw it in its edited-down American edition, titled Fangs of the Living Dead as part of the infamous "Orgy of the Living Dead" triple-bill that included Mario Bava's Kill, Baby, Kill (as Curse of the Living Dead) and Elio Scardamaglia's Murder Clinic (as Revenge of the Living Dead). Even that version had probably gone through some cuts by the time Mill Creek got hold of it for inclusion in their new Pure Terror box set. Malenka reportedly runs 98 minutes in its original form. Fangs of the Living Dead on my disc runs 73 minutes.

Given these circumstances, it's almost unfair to ask Wendigo what he thinks of the film. It may have been unfair to have him watch it in the first place. Perhaps understandably, he regards Fangs as "a sad, sorry little thing," a confused mess that seems uncertain of whether it's a horror film or a farce comedy. The actors themselves appear to be in disagreement, while Anita Ekberg attempts to split the difference by giving a ludicrously overstated performance, running an emotional range from bitchy-crabby to pure rest. She isn't flattered by the gothic get-ups imposed on her once she arrives at the castle, nor by proximity to such younger Euro-hotties as Ambesi and Rosanna Yanni (as a barmaid). Julian Ugarte always looks right for films like these, but Wendigo had the impression that he, or at least his English dubber, was bored by the part. Meanwhile, Medici/Hamilton tries to be an action hero, while Cesar Benet as his sidekick keeps trying, singlehandedly sometimes, to turn the show into an old-school comedy, ogling dames and bugging out at the sight of fangs or profoundly bad bat effects.

A film like this has got to have a painting in it, and so shall this review.

Even in its present ravaged form, enough remains to convince Wendigo that Malenka would at least have looked good. It has the usual Euro advantages of great locations and rich, colorful cinematography. Whether the story would make more sense at full length is another matter. The big mistake is in the original title. The Black Sunday formula usually involves the original condemned villain actively seeking revenge across the generations, but Malenka the progressive biochemist of centuries past has no role in the present day story. That might make sense if the story really isn't supposed to have a point, if the Count is trying to fake out Sylvia and drive her crazy. But what's fake and what isn't? Can the Count be a real vampire (or "nondead") and still want to have Sylvia put away? It's hard for us to say because the shambles that is Fangs doesn't make anyone's ultimate motivations clear.

Our complaints beg the question: if an opportunity arises to watch Malenka in optimum format, in its original length and properly letterboxed, would Wendigo take advantage? He says he was curious immediately after watching Fangs, but the more he thinks about it the more he realizes that Ekberg would stink no matter how much time he gave her. There's also no guarantee, this being a Euro horror, that the full-length Malenka would clarify matters to any great extent. The most Wendigo will say is that whether he returns to this subject or not will depend on his mood. If that's not exactly a vote of confidence, so be it.

Here's a little bit of a trailer for Fangs, as uploaded to YouTube by OcpCommunications.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

LE TROU (1960)

A man stops working on his car and addresses the camera. He informs us that his friend the director Jacques Becker based the movie we're about to see on a true story. It's the man's own story, and he's an actor in it, but he won't be playing himself. His plan to escape from prison inspired a novel by Jose Giovanni, an ex-con in his own right and a key figure in French crime literature and film. Le Trou ("The Hole") adapts that novel, and the real con, Jean Keraudy, plays his fictional avatar, Roland Darbant. Becker himself, perhaps best known in America for the noirish Touchez pas au Grisbi, didn't live to see the film released.

Keraudy/Darbant is one of four cons who've volunteered for work making cardboard boxes in their shared cell. They're joined by a fifth prisoner, Claude Gaspard (Mark Michel), who's been transferred while his original cell is under repair. Claude faces an attempted murder charge for taking a shot at his wife. It's a he-said-she-said situation and doesn't look good for him. He may be desperate enough to be trusted with his new cellmates' secret. The pile of cardboard the guards have nicely brought in for them is going to conceal a hole they mean to dig through the cement floor of their cell. That should get them into the service corridors, and from there they hope to get into the sewer system and escape through a convenient manhole cover. Their cell is an enclosed room, and they'll do their digging by day, when the sound should be obscured by the other noises of daily routine. Claude ingratiates himself with his cellmates by sharing his food packages and joins in the step-by-step, day-by-day business of finding a way out of prison. He comes to respect the industrious cons and experiences an ironic kind of rehabilitation through labor, until word comes that his wife is going to drop the charges against him. He may be able to walk out the front door, but what does that mean for his new friends who plan an earlier exit?...

The view through a cell door via "periscope" -- a shard of glass mounted on a toothbrush. A typical instance of convict creativity in Le Trou.

Le Trou is a prison-break movie but not a crime film. Giovanni and Becker don't have a study of the criminal mind in mind. Instead, the movie is very much about the ennobling quality of work, even if that work contradicts the rehabilatory purpose of prison confinement. However bad the prisoners may have been on the other side, they demonstrate all the bourgeois virtues of teamwork and time-management as conspirators, even improvising their own hourglass so they can keep track of time while digging underground. They also demonstrate working-class solidarity, until the moment when Claude gets an exclusive chance at freedom. What happens later leaves you asking who the real criminals are.

The French seem to excel at a certain kind of open-ended thriller. While thriller scenarios often involve races against time, deadlines or ticking clocks, French filmmakers like Becker and Jean-Pierre Melville are good at letting a situation develop in naturalistic fashion while instilling a sense that something bad could happen at any moment. Le Trou has a perfect example of this on the first day of digging in the cell. The cons peel away some slats of parquet flooring and start whacking away at the hard surface beneath with a tool cannibalized from a metal bunk frame. The sound is alarmingly loud; it seems impossible that the guards won't hear it, but we've been insured that they won't really notice. Meanwhile, Becker focuses on that patch of floor as the cons hack away at it. It looks like a real floor and you can hardly choreograph the digging process. You can't know how long it should take, though one con has said, "In an hour we'll be through or we'll be caught." It'll be a make or break scene for any viewer. Some will want to fast-forward until the cons hit paydirt. Others will be riveted by the suspenseful illusion of an arduous real-time task with men's fates at stake.

Becker has prefaced the action with long character-developing scenes as Claude befriends the other cons. By the time they go to work, you should be on their side, especially after they experience the casual (as opposed to the violently cliched) humiliations of prison life, from routine pat-down searches to seeing their food shipments manhandled and torn up by guards in search of contraband. Maybe they deserve it, but Becker's compassionate, humanistic stance seems to be that no one should have to live like that. Arguably, he and Giovanni stack the deck in the cons' favor by focusing on their humanity rather than their criminality, but you'd have to be pretty hard-hearted not to root for the cons or for Claude not to screw them over when an opportunity arises.

Most of the commentary I've seen on Le Trou treats the film as some sort of response to a different kind of breakout movie, Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped. I haven't seen that film, though the comparisons make me want to do so. All I can say is that, on its own terms, Le Trou is one of the better prison-break movies that I've seen.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In Brief: GIALLO (2009)

Dario Argento has disavowed his latest film and star Adrien Brody is suing its producers. I can't blame either man, but I don't think they're blameless, either. While I've never really been a fan of Argento's -- I find Suspiria overrated and I walked out of Opera in the director's presence, though I recently saw The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and liked it -- I still expected something auteurial or idiosyncratic from him, especially in a film named after the genre he's credited with inventing or perfecting. It's as if Sergio Leone had made a film called Spaghetti Western, or John Ford just plain Western. But there's an all-too-literal subject to which the title refers; a BTK-style menace dubbed "Yellow" by one of his victims because of his jaundiced appearance. He's a villain for torture porn, and the last sort you might expect in a giallo homage. He's almost something out of a Tod Browning film, tormented as a child for his color and grown into an ugly man. Insults are his weakness, in fact; he has a hard time getting into his groove with a victim when she recklessly (I'd say suicidally without benefit of hindsight) insults his looks. Without a proper giallo killer the homage aspect of the project doesn't extend much beyond some handsome shots of typical genre milieux: a fashion show and an opera, for instance. But Argento doesn't invest any of his directorial personality into these actualities, nor in any other part of the film from what I could tell. Even the gore is relatively minimal. Worse yet, while Argento's films are noted for their music, from the likes of Morricone, Goblin, etc., Giallo's score is so utterly generic you'd be excused for thinking it was library music. Worst of all, the story is simply dull when it isn't actively stupid, and the acting is dull (Brody) when it isn't obnoxiously shrill (nearly everyone else). The star sleepwalks through his role as an Italian-American police detective with a sensitivity to serial killers because as a child he'd seen his mother murdered and as a teen murdered the murderer. He was found red-handed by a policeman who apparently became his mentor, but did not make much of a detective of him. Fortunately, clues tumble into his lap. A corpse dumped on the street proves to be not quite dead, living long enough to call her killer Yellow, and it's up to our hero's hectoring tagalong (Emmanuelle Seigner), the sister of the latest kidnap victim, to deduce that Yellow might mean jaundiced and hence a hepatitis patient. Once they realize that the suspect must depend on prescription drugs, the movie can only keep itself going by literally throwing obstacles in Brody's path. The only reason he doesn't catch the killer in a hospital, having shown up serendipitously just as he's filling his prescription, is that he trips over a janitor's mop and bucket. It's that kind of film, i.e. lousy. No one had a heart in it. It's an insult to its own title, and to Argento's own legacy.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Yaphet Kotto in DRUM (1976)

Hammond Maxwell went through some harrowing experiences in Richard Fleischer's Mandingo, the hit adaptation of Kyle Onstott's slavesploitation bestseller, and he appears in the sequel, adapted from Onstott's own follow-up novel, a much changed man. What does a man have to go through to change from Perry King into Warren Oates? There are hints of Hammond's adventures since we last saw him boiling his prize fighting slave in a cauldron and mourning his murdered father. In Drum he tells us that he's been married twice, apparently not counting the bride he poisoned in the first film. Actually, there's only one reference to the events of Mandingo in the entire sequel, when Hammond mentions that he had to kill a favorite slave once because he let his pecker do his thinking for him. That may be because United Artists, rather than Paramount, distributed the sequel, but whatever the reason, Drum may as well start from scratch. Rather than the almost offensively tragic figure of Mandingo, where he was shown as much a slave of the system as his chattels, Hammond, as played broadly by Oates, is almost a comedy-relief figure, clownishly boorish and still not really as malignant or corrupt as his slaveholding peers. Most importantly, he isn't really Drum's main character. That's the man the film is named for, played by the returning Ken Norton between heavyweight fights. The point of recasting Norton is somewhat lost, though. From what I've read about Onstott's novel, Drum is supposed to resemble and remind Hammond of Mede, the character Norton played in Mandingo. The resemblance is never noted, however.

"We aint gonna worry 'bout that kind of henshit!" Warren Oates holds forth in Drum.

Drum is a scaled-down sequel, replacing Richard Fleischer with Steve Carver behind the camera and relying heavily on an obvious soundstage set for whorehouse exteriors during the opening New Orleans sequence. Carver is no nonentity; he deserves a small piece of genre immortality, in my book, for directing one of the last great B movies, the Chuck Norris-David Carradine showdown Lone Wolf McQuade. There's comparatively little action in Drum until the end, but Carver keeps things moving briskly with a visceral intensity. He might have kept some of the actors under tighter rein, but there'd hardly be a point to the picture had he done so. If Mandingo itself was an exploitation film, Drum exploits Mandingo. The only direction to go is over the top.

Mandingo plus homophobia plus homoeroticism (female category) plus castration anxiety plus a slave uprising equals Drum. Along with all that, there's a documentary style opening set in Cuba, and a narration detailing the spawning of Drum, the mulatto son of Marianna (Isela Vega), an aristocrat turned madam, and Tambura, a lion-hunting African warrior. To preserve what's left of Marianna's honor, her handmaiden (and lover) Rachel raises Drum as her own son and a refined house servant of Marianna's famous New Orleans bordello. Mild-mannered Drum is no fighter, but is pressed into combat when a slave scheduled to fight for the entertainment of bordello patrons is withheld by his master.

Drum's first fight pits him against Blaise (blogathon honoree Yaphet Kotto), who belongs to the flaming villain De Marigny (champion ham and future betrayer of the human race John Colicos). Blaise has all the advantages of experience and technique, but Drum's raw strength carries the day after he catches his man in a rib-snapping bear hug. Afterward, a disgusted De Marigny decides to castrate Blaise, but when Drum appeals for mercy, he makes a present of Blaise to the victorious slave (to Marianna legally, of course), along with the female slave of his choice. That bit comes with a catch; when Drum beds his female prize, De Marigny wants to join in. Drum can still have the girl to himself; it's not her the white man wants. But neither Drum nor Calinda (Brenda Sykes, also of Mandingo) wants any of that, and the formerly magnanimous De Marigny becomes Drum's mortal enemy, even sending hired thugs to attack him. Fearful for her son's safety, Marianna decides to sell him to Hammond Maxwell, who's always looking for good studs, but she insists on his taking Blaise along as part of a package deal.

This brings us back to dear old Falconhurst plantation, where "we don't grow cattle, just n*ggers." Hammond makes Drum an overseer in all but name, but insists that the newcomer learn to talk more "n*ggerish" as a matter of deference. Both Drum and Blaise become house servants, but while their main job is to breed more slave "suckers" (is this where Barnum got the idea about them being born every minute?) they're also potential prey for Hammond's horny idiot daughter Sophie (Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith). Along for the ride are Hammond's new housemistress Augusta, a white lady hired to keep Sophie in line, and his new bed wench Regine ("Pamela" Grier), who for some reason has had five different masters in the past two years. While Hammond's made clear that he has no sexual interest in white women, Gussie is jealous of Regine's bed privileges, and tries to pair off Regine and Drum. Regine likes this idea and coaches Gussie on how to make herself attractive to Hammond.

Pam Grier offers some advice to the lovelorn: crazy white girls like Cheryl 'Rainbeaux' Smith aren't worth the risk of getting nutted for someone like Yaphet Kotto.

Meanwhile, Drum and Blaise have all they can handle keeping Sophie out of their pants, though Blaise is somewhat less steadfast on this point than Drum. Our hero tries to keep Blaise in line for his own good, since otherwise Hammond "will kill Blaise, or even worse, castrate him!" Blaise resents Drum's officiousness and picks a fight with him. Then, though they try to cover for one another afterward, he more deeply resents the fact that Drum gets just five strokes on the buttocks while Blaise has to take thirty -- approximately, since Hammond seems to get squeamish about it before the end. The fact that Drum gets favorable treatment factors at least as much as his sore butt in Blaise's new ambition to run away. "I got freedom in my heart and I'm gonna grab it," he says, stating later that "Blood is the color of freedom." Any escape plans are aborted, however, when Sophie, in a fit of pique against her father and prospective stepmother, denounces Blaise for enticing her into masturbating him. Hammond shackles Blaise and wants to hang him, but when he catches Sophie flashing and teasing the prisoner he becomes uncertain of whether to kill, castrate or simply sell him.

"Free at last my ass!"
Things come to a boil when local slavedriver Montgomery (Royal Dano) parks a troupe of down-the-river bound slaves in Hammond's barn, where Blaise remains a prisoner. Still fearing that Hammond will castrate his friend, Drum frees Blaise, not suspecting that Blaise will incite Montgomery's charges into a violent uprising and attack on the Hammond mansion, where familiar faces from New Orleans, including Marianna and De Marigny, are visiting. With the whites besieged, but little prospect of the blacks making good any escape, Drum offers to negotiate a cease-fire, and Hammond takes up his offer. What better time could there be for De Marigny to try to settle old scores with Drum and Blaise? Mistaking De Marigny's treachery for Hammond's, Drum joins in the uprising, but soon has second thoughts....

While there was something appropriately unsettling about the intimacy of masters and slaves in Mandingo, Drum too often comes across as comically sleazy. It ups the ante of decadence by introducing homosexual desires that were part of Onstott's original novel, but misses the point somewhat by making the homo-or-bisexual characters outsiders to Falconhurst. Worse, Colicos's villain is impossible to take seriously, making Susan George in Mandingo look like a model of something resembling restraint. The sequel's obsession with castration (or "nutting") -- a subject that miraculously failed to come up in Mandingo -- quickly becomes ridiculous rather than menacing, climaxing in Marianna's coming-out toast at the Hammond party: "I would like to make a toast...to castration...of all men."

In Drum's defense, Carver does a good job of gradually building tension until, as the ads, said, the fuse lit by Mandingo explodes here. Here's where Yaphet Kotto should take a bow, since Blaise is the most catalytic character in the story. His perils often motivate Drum's actions, the title character being pretty passive otherwise, and his desire for freedom and resentment of Drum and the Hammonds alike sparks the climactic uprising. It may have been just so in the novel, but it also looks like a vote of no confidence in Ken Norton's ability to carry the film. He obviously can't compete with Kotto as an actor, but he does convey a fundamental decency despite Drum's disreputable childhood environment. But where Norton lacks passion, Kotto has it to spare. The two make a halfway decent team, and it must have been fun in the initial fight scene for the character actor to have the man who beat Ali sell his punches.

If Mandingo lacked the analytic rigor and apocalyptic scale of atrocity of Goodbye Uncle Tom, then Drum lacks much of whatever moral seriousness Mandingo itself had. As entertainment, however, Drum could easily be somebody's guilty pleasure. It has a super Seventies lineup and the singular sight of Oates and Grier in bed together. It has instant camp in the form of John Colicos ("On your feet, you piece of merde!" is a typical utterance) and Cheryl Smith's wild, shameless performance. And it has just the sort of slave-rebellion climax, reminiscent of or anticipating window-breaking zombie attacks of besieged buildings, that I said a truly crowd-pleasing slavesploitation film should have. Drum is dumb, but it can be endearingly so for audiences in the right mood.

As with Mandingo, robatsea2009 has uploaded a trailer for Drum to YouTube

This review is part of a weeklong blogathon appreciation of Yaphet Kotto organized by the Lost Video Archive. Visit The Goodkind's site to find out more about Kotto's distinguished diversity of work from the Sixties to the present day.