Monday, December 31, 2012

Now Playing: DEC. 31, 1962

Our visit to the moviegoing world of fifty years ago draws to a close with a night of New Year's Eve previews and premieres. There's a "First Night" quality to the newest offerings touted as the first hits of 1963. As opposed to many of the prestige pictures and roadshows that opened in December, these last and first pictures are wide releases opening all over the place. Here are two such new arrivals in Toledo.

In Milwaukee, one theater chain has both pictures and advertises them together.

Comedy predominates this festive night, and Pittsburgh doesn't buck that trend.

Miami does, however. In some places, any holiday is the right time for this kind of show ... and maybe it still is comedy, after all.

Some people may welcome 2013 at the movies tonight, but I'm not aware of any new releases to herald the new year. In theory, of course, a TV station could schedule a marathon of the sort of movies Miami was seeing, but most stations aren't quite that imaginative. A different kind of showmanship prevailed in 1962, as our trip back in time has amply shown. Where -- or when -- will we end up next? Watch this space to find out!...

Sunday, December 30, 2012

On the Big Screen: DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

The new film by Quentin Tarantino is a poor excuse for a spaghetti western in many ways, whatever its other virtues may be. Consider: the great fan of the genre forgot to include a climactic mano-a-mano gunfight between the hero and a villain. Yes, not every spaghetti western has such a scene, but just about all of them have villains who are good with guns -- but Django Unchained does not. It actually has a couple of great villains in Leonardo DiCaprio's decadent plantation master and Samuel L. Jackson's loathsome sycophant of a major-domo, but neither of them shows any prowess with firearms. Tarantino saw no need to endow either character with gun prowess, nor any need to stage a classic showdown. As far as the big action scenes are concerned, Django often resembles Asian films in which the hero, whether armed with a sword or just with kung fu, slays multitudes. Even most of those films, however, have some sort of one-on-one showdown involving an evil master, a worthy antagonist who allows the hero to show off his ultimate skills. The absence of such a figure in Unchained is glaring. It's not as if Tarantino's hero Sergio Corbucci eschewed such showdowns; the face-off in his Il Mercenario between Jack Palance and Tony Musante is one of the best of the genre. Such scenes don't figure so much, however, in the revolutionary westerns, usually set in Mexico, which certainly influenced Tarantino.

In the teaming of Jamie Foxx's title character and Christoph Waltz's Germanic bounty hunter Django echoes the archetypal pairing of "primitive" bandit and foreign "expert" in films like Damiano Damiani's Bullet for the General and Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dynamite. Those movies usually involve some sort of consciousness raising, but that element is strangely abortive in Unchained. That's unfortunate given the potential for rich backstory for Dr. King Schultz, an immigrant who despises slavery and proves less capable than Django the ex-slave of restraining his disdain for the slavemasters. The bounty hunter may be German only because Waltz is playing him, but the casting raises the possibility that Schultz might have been a refugee from the suppressed 1848 revolutions in Germany and the rest of Europe and thus a liberal if not an outright leftist. Schultz's past goes unexplored, however, and in general Django has fewer of the digressions that define Tarantino's work. It's the most rhetorically subdued film the director has made to date. The only truly characteristic Tarantino moment comes with DiCaprio's impromptu lecture on the phrenological proofs of Negro inferiority, illustrated with his hacksaw dissection of a former servant's Yorick-like skull. Otherwise, Waltz's occasional grandiloquence hardly holds a candle to the arias Tony Kushner gave to some of Dr. Schultz's contemporaries in Spielberg's Lincoln.  As my original complaint might indicate, Django Unchained lacks much of Tarantino's usual genre magic. That may be because the spaghetti western as a genre is a form of pastiche, and one that embraces a certain superficiality -- or sacrifices depth to achieve other, often impressive effects -- so that a pastiche of spaghetti westerns starts at one further remove, at least, from any kind of spontaneity. Unchained is lovely to look at, but that's the least you could expect from a cinematographer like Robert Richardson on some epic locations. But there's less feeling of seeing something with new eyes here than you'll get from any other Tarantino film except for Death Proof. If anything, the new film feels redundant, its ultimate resort to slaughter differing little from Inglourious Basterds, as if that's how Tarantino movies are going to end from now on -- not with showdowns, not even with revolutions, but with executions. Even his sampler soundtrack -- including an original song contributed by Ennio Morricone -- sounds relatively uninspired. As a fan of Jacopetti & Prosperi's Goodbye Uncle Tom, I found the absence of cues from Riz Ortolani's tremendous score for that film conspicuous. Maybe the use of the theme song in Drive last year made it poison for him.

Worse, Tarantino may have joined the ranks of directors who've forgotten how to end movies. You'll think you're seeing the wrap-up of Django Unchained in one very violent sequence, but you'll see that the film has about a half-hour to go. Django is one of Tarantino's most linear movies -- it plays out in chronological order, apart from brief flashbacks, and there's only one of the director's compulsive chapter breaks -- and it may show why he prefers to go non-linear. At nearly three hours, it lacks pace along with much urgency in the first half. It picks up considerably once the heroes begin their journey to Candieland, DiCaprio's plantation where Django's beloved remains enslaved. Tarantino has suggested that Apocalypse Now is a structural model for his film and you do get a sense of descending into an abyss as DiCaprio and Jackson reveal their evil. But perhaps out of some misplaced sense of historical or social realism, Tarantino's villains aren't made for single combat, and beyond that he fails to make the most of their menace. As a case in point, I was expecting Jackson's Stephen, made up as Uncle Tom's evil twin, to be a sexual threat to Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django's wife, but that threat never materializes, and as an elderly, lame man Stephen is no one to get into physical fights with Django. He falls somewhere between Grima Wormtongue and Edward G. Robinson's Dathan from The Ten Commandments, with a volume of Tarantino-Jacksonisms thrown in. Jackson and DiCaprio give the film's best performances but the film still seems to underutilize them, while Tarantino may have plotted a climax and filmed it before realizing that, while he might do without a climactic gun duel, he couldn't dispense with another key spaghetti trope, the capture and torture of the hero. It couldn't come at a more awkward time. Overall, Django Unchained feels surprisingly haphazard, especially since we know that some scenes are pointless whimsies (the dreadful business of Don Johnson's proto-klansmen kvetching about their ill-made masks) while others (retained in the graphic-novel adaptation) were cut out or never filmed.

Tarantino may have been too full of a sense of historical mission. He's told Henry Louis Gates that Django Unchained is to some extent an exorcism of John Ford, a director he affects to despise for his alleged offense of wearing a Klan hood as an extra on Birth of a Nation and his supposedly-unreconstructed racism, as if Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn had never existed. He seems really to want to blow bloody holes in a cinematic heritage he deems tainted by bigotry. His intellectually-admirable anti-racist agenda is even more sweeping, if you think about his appropriation of the Siegfried-Brunhilde myth most often associated with the anti-Semite Richard Wagner. Django is as much a self-conscious countermyth as Oliver Stone's JFK, and as such it has already been criticized. Inevitably, he's drawn fire from Spike Lee and fired back, dismissing Lee's insulted sensibilities as ridiculous. The exchange is telling. Lee protested against the idea of addressing slavery in a spaghetti western context, while Tarantino assumed that Lee insisted on some politically correct standard of dignity in any cinematic portrayal of slaves. This point came up in a different way during the actual shoot, as Tarantino had to persuade Foxx that Django could not be a Jim Brown-like badass superhero from his first appearance. The director had to know he was playing with fire by emphasizing the abjection of slaves, since someone might take it as a reflection on the character of slaves' descendants. But it's one thing to accuse detractors of demanding a false ideal of dignified resistance and another to caricature slavery for sensationalism, and by stating bluntly that slavery was not a spaghetti western Lee (who has admitted not seeing or intending to see the film) was probably criticizing some inevitable caricature, not flinching from some uncomfortable truth. Tarantino's slavedom is a realm of extensive collaboration by the likes of Stephen or Candie's apparent concubine, an arena for "mandingo fighting" and a venue for depravity by masters and slaves alike. If "slavesploitation" as a genre, from the epochal Goodbye Uncle Tom to Hollywood's lurid fantasies like Mandingo, has a defining fault, it's the generic focus on depravity rather than drudgery. You hardly see slaves working in the fields in slave movies. They are seen to exist as objects of their masters' fantasies and whims and become fantasy objects for audiences as well -- so goes the general critique. That extends to films that envision slave insurrections or the more personal revenge played out in Django Unchained.  I can imagine Tarantino offering his film as an empowering myth, but I wonder what he thinks the moral is.

Despite all I've said, Jamie Foxx's Django makes an intriguing spaghetti hero. His consciousness-raising arc is the closest the film gives us to something new in the genre. It's not the usual arc taking a "primitive" hero from selfishness to revolutionary consciousness. Django seems mostly indifferent, or else sometimes contemptuous, towards other slaves -- more so, in either case, as he adopts the role Schultz assigns for him as a "black slaver," an appraiser of mandingo fighters. Schultz talks anachronistaclly like an acting coach encouraging his charge in Method technique, while Django threatens to prove too good a student, his assumed arrogance toward whites and blacks alike threatening Schultz's delicate scheme to secure Broomhilda's manumission from Candie. To spoil a few things, however, it's Schultz himself who sabotages the plan at the last moment. They've been found out and forced to pay a high price for Hildy, but it looks like Candie will let them have her as long as he's got the money. As a last condition, however, Candie insists that state law requires the deal to be finalized with a handshake, but Schultz can't bring himself to shake hands with the vile slaveowner and can't stop himself from precipitating a disaster. You can't help thinking that had it been up to Django alone, he'd have shaken Candie's hand and left with Hildy.Whatever his political heritage, Schultz succumbs to moral indignation while Django seems able to restrain his -- despite several shots of him reaching toward his holster when he sees evidence of Hildy's suffering. This is a significant distinction, though for all I know the full significance of it may be lost to Tarantino himself. In simplest terms, the distinction may be between an idealist and a pragmatist, but Schultz remains too vaguely defined for me to guess where his fault lies exactly. Suffice it to say that his acte gratuite is where the film goes off the rails, but there may still be a point to his impulse making the rest of the movie's violence necessary. More than the monotonous flow of blood in the last reels, this mystery keeps me from dismissing Django Unchained as a genre botch, but it remains a disappointment. Tarantino has talked about quitting while he's ahead, but despite many positive reviews for this one, it may already be too late.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Now Playing: DEC. 28, 1962

Outside of New York City, Miami is probably the biggest movie market we've been visiting regularly this year. You could deduce that from the fact that Miami is getting Lawrence of Arabia before the other places. Check out all the live ballyhoo that came with a roadshow premiere in a big city fifty years ago.

Nowadays, I suppose, no one thinks any of this necessary to sell an "event" movie. Who in 2012 can imagine a parade and a boys' choir, or even the appearance of a beauty queen, to open any movie, even something in 3-D and IMAX. Of course, there's no point to any one theater in any community going to such trouble when the same movie's going to play on possibly dozens of screens in the general vicinity. Here, the Colony theater will probably have Lawrence exclusively, on a reserved-seat basis, for the next several months, and the eventual Best Picture Oscar winner may not reach some markets at "popular prices" for another year. That kind of slow rollout is alien to our moviegoing mentality today, when everything's about setting some opening-weekend record. Some people like the modern way better because the old way seems like a class system and they don't want to wait months to see the most-hyped films. There's justice to that argument, but there's something to be said for the ballyhoo, too. It was part of the publicity of movies, by which I mean not just the advertising but the sense that a movie was a public event that brought people together for a memorable shared experience, not something to be handed out to each person who then runs off to enjoy it in private -- which seems to be the way our culture is headed. Change always brings trade-offs, of course, but what's lost is sometimes as much worth noting as whatever we gain.

* * * 

There'll be one more "Now Playing: 1962" entry on Monday featuring the New Year's Eve showings of various "first hits of 1963," but I don't plan to continue into that particular year. I do intend to do something along "Now Playing" lines in 2013. Right now I'm leaning toward merging it with another regular feature on Mondo 70. I have a year in mind but I'm still looking for a specific place and specific content on the Google News Archive to realize my objective: one year at the movies in a single American city. Drop in next Tuesday or Wednesday to see what I come up with.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

HELL'S HEROES (1929): a film for Christmas

Almost one hundred years ago, Peter B. Kyne published the novella The Three Godfathers. His allegory of redemption through sacrifice has been filmed seven times since then, starting with a Harry Carey starrer in 1916 and ending with a relatively loose TV adaptation, The Godson, with Jack Palance in 1974. The best known movie version is John Ford's, starring John Wayne, from 1948 (Ford's silent western Three Bad Men is unrelated). Ford's version actually comes closest to Kyne's original (now widely available as a free e-book) in many respects, particularly in its religiosity and its resolution of the story through a miracle. The Ford Godfathers still has more of a happy ending than the original story, while the two previous sound adaptations are stunning bleak. Traveling backward from Ford, we find Richard Boleslavski's virtually existential version from 1936, in which the Bible is replaced by Lewis Stone's book of Schopenhauer's philosophy -- when Walter Brennan asks if it's a joke book Stone concedes that it could well be seen that way. Hurtling back to 1929, William Wyler's early talkie is a less pretentious, far grungier version. If anything, that makes the story even more bleak than Boleslavski's rather forbidding interpretation.

With so many versions floating around, you may know the basic story. Three bad men (in some versions there's a fourth initially) rob a bank one December and flee across a desert to escape a posse. Expecting to refill their canteens at a natural "tank" en route, the bandits stumble across an expectant mother alone in a covered wagon, going into labor. They learn that her husband accidentally destroyed the tank, leaving them without water beyond what's left in their canteens, and disappeared in the desert. The mother dies shortly after giving birth and tasking the bandits with bringing the baby to civilization. Spurred by some sort of race instinct, and helped along by a little bibliomancy, the men set out to bring the baby to the town they had fled, regardless of the risk to themselves. Two of the three die along the way.

In Kyne, the final bandit survives through divine intervention -- the appearance of a donkey to take him the final leg of the journey. Ford builds this miracle into a happy ending, giving John Wayne a new life to look forward to after serving a minimal sentence for his crime. Kyne's original ends with the surviving bandit delivering the baby to the New Jerusalem church. By that point the bandit, despite his lucky break, has been reduced to an incoherent gibbering wreck by his desert ordeal. It is unclear whether he'll actually live, but whether he does is irrelevant to Kyne's story. The Wyler and Boleslavski versions eliminate the ambiguity by having the last bandit drop dead in the church during a Christmas service. We can guess that he hasn't just fainted because we've seen him drink from a pool of arsenic-tainted water on the premise that he'll get energy for his last run before the poison kicks in. I don't know whether Wyler's writers invented this idea or carried it over from one of the silent scenarios. But it's interesting, considering how beloved the Kyne story was supposed to be, that at least two movie versions dispense with the climactic miracle and other religious elements that presumably gave the story its inspirational or allegorical power. Without the Christian framework, the bandits' trek can seem less redemptive than simply foolhardy. Obviously from a secular perspective you can still argue that they're doing the right thing for the baby's sake, but Ford seems to have understood that it isn't enough for them to deliver the baby to civilization. For the godfathers really to have accomplished something in our eyes, at least one of them ought to survive the ordeal. Absent that, there is only a grim irony in their equation with the Kings or Wise Men of the Gospels. The bandits in Wyler's film openly scoff at the idea of themselves playing such a role. But I suppose they play it just the same.

Hell's Heroes was part of a short-lived trend of A-level westerns shot on location following the smash success of In Old Arizona. Wyler certainly makes the trek seem like an ordeal with lengthy tracking shots of his heroes trudging through genuine desert. Contributing strongly to that impression is the overall decrepit appearance of the godfathers -- not stylish outlaws but ragged, filthy ruffians from the start. They're an unheroic looking bunch, their leader (Charles Bickford) the most reluctant to take on the little brat. Bickford was still being built up as a star at this time, though he was destined to prosper as a character actor for another 40 years. He lacks star charisma and no effort is made to glamorize him, despite the advertising's effort to play up a romantic angle that doesn't exist in Kyne. What makes Hell's Heroes stand out as the Pre-Code version of Three Godfathers, compared to the Enforcement-era Boleslavski and Ford versions, is a catfight staged in a New Jerusalem cantina before the bank robbery, as a Mexican and Anglo girl go at it over Bickford. As Bickford's cohorts, Raymond Hatton and Fred Kohler seem authentically primitive. Wyler arts up the proceedings occasionally, having one character shoot himself in the shade of a blatantly cruciform tree -- this being Pre-Code, we can almost see the man do the deed as his buddies walk away from him toward the camera. Most notably, he cuts in close-ups of a noose late in the picture to illustrate Bickford's desperate, dehydrating delirium. Despite Wyler's efforts, Hell's Heroes, while often impressive pictorially, compares unfavorably to the mythic sincerity of Ford and the tragic poetry of Boleslavski. That leaves Wyler with the pathos of sacrifice or renunciation that was typical of the era that was ending as his movie premiered in the autumn of 1929. The core idea may be to save the baby, but the bandits' sacrifice may have been an end unto itself for Twenties audiences -- something they either empathized with or yearned to comprehend. The emphasis on sacrifice makes the godfathers resemble three crucified criminals more than the Wise Men at the manger, but I suppose that still makes Hell's Heroes a sort of Christmas movie. Not one for the children, probably, but one that definitely says it's better to give than to receive -- whether it convinces you or not.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Last Angry Man

The final surviving jury member from Sidney Lumet's 1957 film Twelve Angry Men, Jack Klugman has died at the age of 90. That statistic testifies to extraordinary endurance. Klugman had struggled with cancer since the 1970s and had to lose a vocal cord in 1989, only to return to acting a few years later. While he shuttled between Hollywood and Broadway during the 1950s and early 1960s, he is best known, of course, for his two long-running TV series, The Odd Couple (recreating a role he had understudied for with Walter Matthau in the original stage production) and Quincy M.E. The latter alone might have earned Klugman my headline, since Quincy was one of those shows used as a soapbox by its star to rant about social issues. It grew monotonous if you watched regularly but Klugman was good enough hour to hour to keep our household watching loyally. He was typical of a golden-age generation of character actors who keep dramatic television from the Fifties through the Seventies watchable today.  He was a welcome sight in movies as well, in films like the thriller Cry Terror! and the alcoholism drama Days of Wine and Roses. But his first noteworthy movie role, in the Lumet film, will remain his his foothold on movie history, one small chapter of which closes with his passing.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Z (1969)

There were political thrillers before -- I described the 1935 trifle Secret Bride as one, while a more notable American example would be 1963's Seven Days in May, but Costa-Gavras's international hit gives us the political thriller in recognizably modern form. Based on Greek politics and a Greek novel based on actual events, the Greek director filmed his adaptation with a mostly French cast on Algerian locations, setting the action in some unspecified country with a monarch and parliament. By doing that he guaranteed his movie a certain timelessness that makes it as immediate an experience as ever, well after its original political relevance has faded from memory.

Z is a two-part movie, its first act building up to a speech by a apparently pacifist, presumably leftist politician (real-life lefty Yves Montand), as organizers scramble to relocate the event amid fears of violence from right-wing goons. The buildup is intercut with the misadventures of two lumpen losers, Yago (Renato Salvatori) and Vago (Marcel Bozzuffi) apparently intent on mischief in Yago's kamikaze, his Japanese three-wheeled mini-truck. The storylines converge after Montand's speech, and after he stares down a goon who seems set on slugging him. As Montand crosses the street to confront the authorities, Yago barrels through and Vago smacks Montand over the head with a truncheon. Before you can fully register what's happened, Costa-Gavras segues instantly into a breathless action sequence as one of Montand's allies leaps into the bed of the kamikaze to fight Vago. As Mikis Theodorakis's perfectly thrilleristic percussion sets the rhythm the kamikaze careens through the streets while Vago tries to smash his new enemy's skull against the sides of parked cars. The man manages to toss Vago into the street and tries to smash his way into the cab before quick braking throws him off. A crowd appears before Yago can finish him.

Yves Montand is the martyr.
Marcel Bozzuffi is the assassin.
Renato Salvatori is the driver.

We finally get our breather during the deathwatch as surgeons struggle against heavy odds to save Montand's life. Once he dies and Irene Papas gets her big scenes as the new widow, and after we see the title invoked by a pro-Montand crowd painting the letter Z in a parking lot, Jean-Louis Trintignant (returning soon and touted for an Oscar in Michael Haneke's Amour) takes over the story as the magistrate assigned to investigate Montand's death. At this point the film becomes a classic procedural as Trintignant picks up the trail of Yago and Vago, linking them to a right-wing goon squad (they don't really rise to the level of a paramilitary organization) called CROC (the acronym translates as Christian Royalists Against Communism). He has a brilliant scene with Bozzuffi, himself brilliant as a comical yet menacing thug, as the magistrate red-baits Vago into declaring his and Yago's membership in CROC as Vago's lawyer looks on in disgust. Along the way, the magistrate has to deal with officials who want either to cover up the truth or simply have the case go away, pressing Trintignant to determine that Yago was a drunk driver who simply blundered into Montand's path and hit him with the kamikaze -- Costa-Gavras films alternate-reality scenes illustrating this theory -- despite the forensic evidence of a shattering blow to the top of the victim's skull. At the same time, conspirators scramble to eliminate witnesses, failing most dramatically during one tensely car-vs.-foot chase.

Jean-Louis Trintignant is the magistrate
Marcel Bozzuffi is the useful idiot.
Pieds ne me manquent maintenant!

Finally, Trintignant manages to implicate numerous generals in a conspiracy using CROC to eliminate a political enemy -- but this apparent victory for justice only delays the inevitable, as an epilogue explains that the military would shortly take over this supposedly fictional country and crush civil liberties, banning (among many, many other things -- including the music of Mikis Theodorakis) the letter Z, which in Greek serves as shorthand for "he lives."

Modern political thrillers come in two modes: paranoid and procedural. While the conspiratorial element in Z suggests that it might be a bit of both, the decentered all-star nature of the production and the investigatory emphasis of the second half put it firmly in the procedural camp.  In a year when Alfred Hitchcock bungled the genre with his own adaptation of a novel, Topaz, Costa-Gavras managed a more successfully Hitchcockian picture, succeeding equally in building and sustaining suspense and in filming exciting action. But in its lack of a single protagonist who carries through the whole picture Z seems less Hitchcockian than a precursor of modern political thrillers like Syriana where no one character dominates the entire story. That gives it more of a quasi-documentary flavor compared to the more paranoid films that focus on the ordeal of one person. Z's procedural format probably makes it more palatable for those who might object to the filmmakers' politics if they knew about them, since Trintignant is less concerned with political struggle than with solving a crime. In its own time, Z may have been a rallying point for fashionably leftist moviegoers, but by now its politics are practically irrelevant and it can be appreciated simply as a great, groundbreaking genre film.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Now Playing: DEC. 21, 1962.

Holiday releases continue at a festive pace this weekend. Here's a movie page from the Milwaukee Journal to give you some idea of the big pictures in play.

And here's some of the advertising close-up.

I should count Taras Bulba among the big holiday wide releases along with Billy Rose's Jumbo, Gypsy, In Search of the Castaways and It's Only Money. It's definitely the one I'd most likely see of the five, if I didn't live within reach of Lawrence of Arabia. I'm not saying Taras is a good movie -- just that it's my type of movie. Let's take a closer look thanks to soapbxprod.

Also in Milwaukee:

Disney made Jules Verne a viable movie brand with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954. That film arguably started the whole trend of classics-illustrated movies, if you will, that resulted in Roger Corman's Poe cycle and some H. G. Wells pictures as well. I don't recall Castaways making as big an impression as 20,000 Leagues, however.

Here are the musicals I've mentioned this week, one in Cape Girardeau, MO.

And in Miami:

Not everyplace is limited to these choices. Here are some alternatives opening today in Schenectady.

Tale as old as time? Song as old as...? No, I suppose not.

Why popular prices for a Cinerama attraction? Probably because it's actually a blown-up re-release of the legendary Scent of Mystery, the one and only feature made in the equally legendary Smell-O-Vision process. Yes, that's what they called it. So what format would you rather see it in???...

Meanwhile, what's opening in the biggest showcase of all? Here's three new attractions in New York City.

This is one is sure to sway the sophisticates!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Now Playing: DEC. 20, 1962

The biggest cities get reserved-seat roadshow events like Lawrence of Arabia, while more modest markets get stuff like It's Only Money. Some places in the middle, probably leaning toward large, get this.

While Nicholas Ray's King of Kings is coming back for an encore in many cities, Richard Fleischer's spectacle is the "Bible movie" for 1962, albeit one derived from a Swedish novel. As Sixties Bible spectacles go, this one is pretty good, or so I thought back in 2009.

Meanwhile, here's Bounty opening in Miami with live attractions and alleged celebrities on hand.

Of course, NYC is where it's really happening this month, and here's the latest arthouse event, just eight months after its Italian opening.

I've never reviewed this one, but I've seen it and it's good stuff.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Now Playing: DEC. 19, 1962

We're in the homestretch now. From today through the 25th theaters will be bringing in their big Christmas attractions. Across the country the wide releases include two musicals -- Gyspy and Billy Rose's Jumbo -- and Disney's latest Jules Verne adaptation, In Search of the Castaways ... along with this, opening in Schenectady.

While these four dominate the medium-sized markets, with Lawrence of Arabia and Mutiny on the Bounty playing the big cities in limited, reserved-seat release, there's still room in some cities for alternate entertainment. Here's a one-of-a-kind picture opening in Milwaukee: Toshiro Mifune playing a Mexican, in a Mexican film.

Here's some curious exploitation in Daytona Beach.

Gordon Scott's peplum vehicle is promoted as "Tarzan as Samson," even though Scott no longer was Tarzan, having surrendered the role to Jock Mahoney, who had played the bad guy in Scott's last Tarzan film. Mahoney starred in Tarzan Goes to India earlier this year, and it's probably a measure of that film's success, ironically, that Scott is identified as "Tarzan" here.

Bad guys are asking for trouble in this U.S. trailer, uploaded by SomethingWeirdVideo.

Finally for today, here's piracy Hammer style in Charleston.

And here's a trailer from horrorfictionmovies.

National Film Registry Class of 2012

The Library of Congress has made its annual announcement of the latest 25 films added to the National Film Registry of movies to be preserved for their historic and artistic value. The LOC has been doing this since 1989, so we're past the point of obvious choices. Still, each year's selection can provoke debate, whether the subject is "what took them so long?" or "are you kidding?" Each year brings a mix of Hollywood features, documentaries, art films, newsreels and home movies. The new class ranges in time from 1897 (a complete film of a 14-round heavyweight title fight, the longest movie made to that point) to 1999 (The Matrix). The Hollywood cohort includes two 1914 feature films, Laurel & Hardy's Sons of the Desert (1933), Born Yesterday (1950), the original film of 3:10 to Yuma (1957) by still-underrated western director Delmer Daves, Otto Preminger's taboo-breaking and Duke Ellington-scored Anatomy of a Murder (1959), 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's (perhaps simultaneously controversial and historically significant for Mickey Rooney's clownish turn as a Japanese man), Dirty Harry and Two Lane Blacktop from 1971, Ivan Dixon's Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Bob Clark's A Christmas Story (1983), Richard Linklater's Slacker (1991) and Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own (1992) -- included, one suspects, primarily for feminist content. Among the documentaries, the best known is probably The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), while the induction of 1967's They Call It Pro Football has an air of homage to the late (and deserving) NFL films co-founder Steve Sabol. The annual announcement is always a good conversation starter, but the LOC ought to arrange with a network like Turner Classic Movies to show the whole lineup over a weekend. That might impress more people with the significance of the selection -- or get more debates started. Meanwhile, the LOC offers a helpful list for future reference of a remaining multitude of potential inductees, and invites the public to make suggestions for the Class of 2013. The canon of essentials seems far from exhausted -- if anything, older classics miss out in favor of films with more recent cultural significance, though the historical-value principle justifies some of that. You're invited to nominate up to 50 films, but the real challenge may be limiting yourself to that number.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Released at the end of the transitional year from Pre-Code to Code Enforcement, William Dieterle's early political thriller for Warner Bros. has an air of obsolescence about it. Barbara Stanwyck was winding up her studio contract and virtually sleepwalks through her title role, while second-billed Warren William is already a shadow of his proudly predatory Pre-Code self. Whatever interest Secret Bride has is generic; what does a political thriller look like in 1934? This one has some of the paranoid vibe of the classics of the genre, only leavened with very conventional melodrama. The title is a last minute change from the title of the original play, Concealment, to emphasize the melodramatic angle. Stanwyck plays the secret bride of William, the state attorney general. Stanwyck is the governor's daughter, and the couple doesn't want to publicize their small civil ceremony once the public starts clamoring for William to investigate the governor's ties to a corrupt businessman who'd attempted to have an apparent bribe deposited into the governor's bank account. William's crack investigator (Douglas Dumbrille) catches the businessman's nervous secretary (Grant Mitchell) in the act, and new of the businessman's suicide soon follows news of the secretary's arrest. That makes things look bad for the governor (Arthur Byron), despite his denials of financial ties to the dead man. Once the investigation gets under way, William finds in the businessman's paper a letter, signed with the governor's initials, apparently soliciting a bribe. Analysis of the letter and the governor's personal typewriter point to his authorship, despite further denials.

I don't know how typed Douglas Dumbrille had become by the end of 1934, but he was eventually typed as a heel to the point that anyone watching Secret Bride now will automatically suspect that his character is up to no good. That's when the film throws a curve: as Dumbrille picks up his girlfriend, William's secretary (Glenda Farrell, nearly as noncommital in her role as Stanwyck), a shot rings out outside William's home and Dumbrille drops dead. Watching from a window, Stanwyck sees clearly that Farrell, however quickly arrested, didn't shoot Dumbrille. But she can't testify to this effect because -- the horror! -- she'd have to admit that she was at William's house, which would require them to fess up to their politically toxic marriage or face even worse gossip. The only thing to do is find out who shot Dumbrille before Farrell gets convicted, or worse. This means tracking down Mitchell, the increasingly frantic secretary who has to have the key to the multiplying mysteries. Stanwyck convinces him to talk to William, but Mitchell faints and then flees via a fire escape. The chase is on again, but now with Farrell's jury deliberating Stanwyck has no choice but to go to court and exonerate her, however damning the testimony may be to Stanwyck herself, her father and her husband....

There's plenty still unspoilt here, and Dieterle, working from an adaptation co-written by on-camera comic F. Hugh Herbert, spins a slick yarn with an energetic plot despite the lack of enthusiasm among most of the cast. The big exception is Grant Mitchell, who rather easily steals the picture in scenery-chewing support and gives the picture much of its nervous momentum. Dumbrille also does a decent job in an effort to keep his character ambiguous, while Farrell shows some of her Pre-Code spirit in a defiant interrogation scene. But reviewers of the time noted Stanwyck's lack of emotional commitment, while William often seems to vanish before our eyes. Was there something to the story that might have kept the stars interested had the film been made a year earlier, under Pre-Code conditions? It's hard to say, but however disappointing the leads are Secret Bride is still mildly entertaining as a fast-moving conspiracy play. There are worse ways to waste 65 minutes, but later generations knew better how to use this material -- except maybe for the secret-bride part.

If it's from Warner Bros., has a trailer.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Koji Wakamatsu's CATERPILLAR (2010)

We've heard this story before: a young man marches off to war and comes back mutilated and crippled. It's the stuff of popular song and a metaphor for war's waste of youth. Inevitably the young man must seem a victim, but Koji Wakamatsu saw things differently. Caterpillar is his critical take on the maimed warrior motif, pitched somewhat closer to Johnny Got His Gun than to Born on the Fourth of July, yet closer in spirit, I dare say, to Tod Browning than to Dalton Trumbo. I have a friend who likes horror movies who found Browning's Freaks the most repulsive film he'd ever seen. I'll never show him Caterpillar.

Wakamatsu's film follows the misfortunes of Tadashi Kurokawa (Keigo Kasuya), the warrior idol of a small rural village who returns home a "war god." He's survived some terrible ordeal that cost him all his limbs as well as his hearing. Nearly half his face is scarred from burns. Given the reputed Japanese attitude toward death in battle I'm surprised the effort was made to save his life. Kurokawa was probably surprised as well. His wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima) is horrified but eventually assumes a patriotic duty of caring for him: feeding him, cleaning him, dressing him up for outings and, increasingly, servicing him sexually. However improbably, Kurokawa's manhood survived his trauma, and he comes to crave sex as much as he craves food. Through the miracle of CGI we get to see him do the deed, frequently, albeit at a distance intended to be respectful. I imagine many viewers will find it neither respectful nor distant enough, but Wakamatsu specialized in disquieting cinema and wants you to be disturbed.

Kurokawa, before and after

We're used to an unfortunate like Kurokawa learning to bemoan war, but the man's deafness, and possibly other brain damage, make such pathetic eloquence impossible. He can barely choke out single words, though an attempt to write with a pencil in his teeth indicates that he's somewhat more sentient than he looks. Shigeko reads a little of his scrawl: the subtitles translate it as "I want to do it." Suicide? Sex, more likely, or so Shigeko assumes. Kurokawa, we learn, was a domineering, violent husband when whole, but war has reduced him to a sulky, demanding invalid. But maybe he was a big spoiled baby all along.


The symbolism of the "war god" as an embodiment of Japan's fatal militarism is pretty blatant, but the virtue of Caterpillar isn't its political satire but its unflinching examination of the shifting dynamics of the Kurokawa marriage. Just as mutilation doesn't confer sainthood on Kurokawa, neither can we easily identify Shigeko as victim, heroine or other. On one obvious level, Japan's defeat in war and its analog in the film's village, an impoverished yet strangely idyllic place haunted by a jolly village idiot and untouched by bombing, from what we can tell, are a kind of liberation for her. At the same time, she discovers a capacity for intimate cruelty, whether she's smashing precious eggs into hubby's face or mocking him (and giving the film its name) by singing some kind of nursery rhyme as he rolls on the floor in an agony of the damned, flashing back to his rape of a Chinese woman -- referenced briefly at the start of the show -- and the ensuing fire and building collapse that ruined him. The Kurokawas are a plausibly if idiosyncratically dysfunctional couple, and Wakamatsu's gutsy portrayal of it, aided by two gutsy actors, transcends the picture's more obvious political context. Caterpillar definitely works as a satiric history play, but it works best when Wakamatsu refrains from reducing his characters to generic or sexual-political types. That creative restraint makes Caterpillar probably the best mutilated-veteran picture ever made.

Koji Wakamatsu died on October 17, aged 76, after getting hit by a taxi. He made one more film after Caterpillar, a film about Yukio Mishima that should prove one of the must-see pictures of 2013 in the U.S. Long a cult figure for his provocative "pink" films of the Sixties and Seventies, Wakamatsu seemed to hit a new stride in his eighth decade, his global profile raised by his 2007 portrait of leftist self-terrorizing, United Red Army. One suspects, or at least hopes, that his last film will reconfirm what the two prior films suggest, that Wakamatsu, tragically, died at the peak of his powers.

Now Playing: DEC. 16, 1962

Here's the big one, this year's eventual Oscar winner, opening in New York City.

And here's the original trailer, with the same shadowy face for a logo, uploaded by Ray Acton.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Now Playing: DEC. 14, 1962

Cinema's Christmas gift to America arrives in Schenectady NY.

Given this Mexican import's present reputation, we can assume that a generation is about to be scarred for life.

Meanwhile, the build-up for The Longest Day continues in Milwaukee.

And here's a long, long trailer for it from

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Now Playing: DEC. 13, 1962

Another of the big year-end roadshow pictures arrives in Pittsburgh.

This remake of the 1935 Oscar winner is one of the year's most controversial films if only because it was still novel for Marlon Brando to make an ass of himself on a shoot, but it wasn't the kind of controversy that made anyone want to see the picture.

Elsewhere, the new attractions aren't quite as prestigious. Here's a double-feature opening in Spokane....

...and in Miami.

Paul Frees pitches Varan in this trailer uploaded by Batmandingo007.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pre-Code Parade: CLEAR ALL WIRES (1933)

Late in 1932 the Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons reported that M-G-M had replaced Clark Gable in the lead role of Clear All Wires with Lee Tracy. "Now we know Clear All Wires will rate at the box office," Parsons wrote. That's because Tracy, "in spite of his many sick lapses, is the man of the hour [and] has never given a single inferior performance." His casting in Gable's place put the George Hill picture on a "flying start." If you're wondering what alternate reality Parsons was writing from -- other than Hollywood -- bear in mind that Gable in 1932 was just breaking out as a leading man, while Tracy was coming off a big hit in Warners' Blessed Event and certainly had made a strong impression with RKO's Half-Naked Truth. Still, compare your instant mental images of Gable and Tracy -- if you have one for the latter -- and you have to imagine two very different pictures. You actually don't have to think very hard, since Gable eventually got his chance in 1940, when M-G-M very freely remade Clear All Wires as King Vidor's Comrade X. That was such a free remake that it got an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story, but contemporary reviewers noted its origins in the older film, itself an adaptation of a hit 1932 stage farce. All that remains of Clear All Wires in Comrade X, however, is the core idea of a cocky American reporter making mischief in the Soviet Union. The mischief is very different, however, and the remake is more overtly hostile toward the USSR than the original. A minor aspect of Pre-Code cinema is a relatively ambivalent attitude toward Communism -- the Code itself, I think, didn't require a harder or more critical stance but Hollywood did seem to take a harder line following Upton Sinclair's 1934 gubernatorial campaign, when M-G-M's Irving Thalberg -- who made the casting switch for Clear All Wires -- infamously produced fake newsreels warning of a hobo takeover of California should Sinclair win. Before that crisis, Hollywood seemed to regard the USSR as simply another exotic country with strange customs and eccentric politics. If the films of the period seem insufficiently outraged by Stalin -- well, it was a kind of amoral period. That's what the Code Enforcers were griping about.

Naturally, the abrasively loquacious Tracy plays an amoral star reporter. Buckley Joyce Thomas is the foreign correspondent for a major Chicago newspaper, and as the story opens he's reported missing among the Rif tribesmen, the notorious enemies of the French Foreign Legion. As a military force combs the desert for him, we find Buck enjoying the hospitality of a Rif chieftain, promising him favorable coverage in the global press. His liberation takes him quite by surprise, but he responds promptly, filing a dispatch reporting his narrow escape from captivity and death to the disgust of his main rival, the English journalist Pettingwaite. For his next trick, Buck intends to cover the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, determined to interview representative Russians, the head of the GPU (precursor to the KGB) and possibly Stalin himself. He won't take no for an answer. "The Kaiser never gave interviews! The Pope never gave interviews! Gandhi never gave interviews!" he reminds skeptics, "But they all talked to me!" With his trusty and helpfully named flunky Lefty (James Gleason) in tow, Buck invades Russia and tricks Pettingwaite out of his Moscow hotel suite, as well as his press pass for Lenin's Tomb for the big parade. In fact, we see Buck light Stalin's pipe in what may be Hollywood's first portrayal of the dictator.

Despite Buck's aggressive tactics, his interpreter is unable to secure an interview with the GPU boss, and their visit to the Lubyanka ends quickly -- though not without the chilling sight of an execution in progress -- with the reporter directed to the egress, po-russki. Also complicating Buck's plans are his new girlfriend (Una Merkel), who happens to be his publisher's regular mistress, and a lunatic dissident (John Melvin Bleifer) who wants him to publicize his anti-Stalin campaign. "Stalinism is not Leninism!" Sozanov raves, "Stalinism is not Bolshevism! Bolshevism is not Communism! And Leninism is not Marxism!" Buck can only share our own confusion. Despite the man's boast of attacking a radio station, Buck insists that he isn't worth covering unless he does more than talk. He shows Sozanov an American newspaper for examples of what he means. One woman dominates the headlines because "She did something worthwhile, murdered her husband."

Buck's ambitions fall apart as the publisher learns of his affair and fires him, leaving him and Lefty without funds in a strange country. Our hero rages against his former employer: "What did he ever do besides inherit a newspaper? Predatory wealth!...I'm telling you, Lefty, there's something to this communism...." The farce plot kicks in as Buck decides he has to make news in order to regain his job. After rejecting the idea of stealing Lenin's body ("Too gruesome, too macabre.") he exploits his acquaintance with a Prince Tomofsky, allegedly the last surviving Romanov in Russia, setting the hapless aristocrat up for an assassination attempt, with Lefty poised to shoot to wound. Just then, the interpreter arrives at Buck's suite in triumph: he has brought the GPU commissar (the usually vile C. Henry Gordon in one of his most strangely amiable performances) for an exclusive interview. Of course, Buck has ordered Lefty to shoot at a man in a chair at an exact moment, when in fact the commissar occupies the fatal seat. Now Buck is unable to end the interview soon enough, as the commissar is happy to ramble on about the Five Year Plan. Ultimately Buck has no choice but to take the bullet, making the most of it by filing a dispatch crediting himself with saving the commissar's life. Unfortunately, when Pettingwaite arrives on the scene, he finds the dispatch Buck had prepared in advance reporting the shooting of Tomofsky. He goes to the commissar and gets Buck and Lefty thrown in prison, where in an adjoining cell they find Sozanov, who had taken Buck's advice with no success. Now everything clicks, and in a darkly ironic finish, when you take Russia's near future into account, Buck rescues himself by convincing an innocent man to confess to a crime and conspiracy in which he didn't take part. But it's a happy ending after all after Buck convinces the commissar to spare the obviously insane Sozanov's life. There's also a happy ending to the romantic complications, but I admit losing track of the women in Buck's life, and the happiness of it all may be compromised by the closing newspaper headline indicating that he's set his new wife up to be kidnapped for the usual publicity.

Clear All Wires is more interesting than entertaining. Tracy is about as obnoxious here as he ever would be, displaying no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and the farce aspect of the victim in the chair is laboriously anti-cinematic. For Pre-Code buffs it might even escalate to fascinating for its exceptionally whimsical attitude toward the Bolsheviks and its overall, almost overwhelming cynicism. Without much of a sex angle -- though Merkel gets to show off some lingerie -- Clear All Wires stands out as a distinctive Pre-Code film because it's the sort of movie, for many reasons, that you can't imagine Hollywood making just a short time later. And for some, it might be proof for the argument that Hollywood was better off stopping.

Now Playing: DEC. 12, 1962

Then as now, December is Oscar-bait season. Here's a would-be front-runner opening in New York City.

A biopic like this might have better luck today, but we had a Freud movie last year -- sort of -- that didn't get very far, either.

The following doesn't fall strictly into the "Now Playing" category, but the year's big war epic is already playing in the biggest cities at the time this teaser campaign starts up in Milwaukee. It's a neat way to emphasize the film's all-star element, though the player featured below wasn't exactly a star. We'll see a few more of these before the year is out.