Monday, July 30, 2012

DVR Diary: LA BANDIDA (1963)

Pedro Armendariz and Emilio Fernandez are probably two of the most recognizable Mexican actors for American movie fans. Armendariz, the "Clark Gable of Mexico," broke into Hollywood in the late 1940s with the patronage of John Ford, acting alongside John Wayne in 3 Godfathers and Fort Apache, and remained busy as a character actor in American films until his cancer-provoked suicide, his last film being From Russia With Love. He continued to work in Mexico regularly throughout this period, and La Bandida is his final Mexican film. Fernandez, "El Indio," is best known to American fans as Mapache, the brutal warlord who employs and is destroyed by The Wild Bunch. Despite a personal history of violence, he was a popular star and director in Mexico for most of his life. Acting alongside these mighty men in Bandida is Katy Jurado, an Academy Award nominee for 1954's Broken Lance and a noteworthy presence in American westerns from High Noon through Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. All three, as the poster to the left shows quite clearly, are vastly subordinate to the actual star of Roberto Rodriguez's melodrama, yet Maria Felix is a nonentity to American movie fans. Unlike the others, Felix never went north to Hollywood. She was apparently content to reign as a diva of Mexican cinema, and Bandida is very much a diva's vehicle however you slice it. You may feel elegiac watching a moribund Armendariz and a going-on-sixty Fernandez, but the overall impression Bandida makes is as if Ride the High Country had been written by Mae West and directed (on the cheap) by Josef von Sternberg, with the gunfights replaced by cockfights. Yes, "we will speak more of cocks," as Armendariz says in a subtitle, as an already certainly unsubtle picture is made even less so in translation.

We meet Armendariz's Herrera and Fernandez's Gomez in mortal combat. Herrera's a northerner and a Villista, Gomez a southerner and a Zapatista. For some reason they're fighting each other, the two jefes dueling with machetes (the sound effects seem to have been dubbed in years later) when Herrera runs out of ammo until the official army makes them break it up. Threatened briefly with execution for insubordination, both men are paroled and sent home, Gomez to mourn his wife, who died protecting a rooster, Herrera to discover his beloved, Maria la Bandida, in bed with another man. He shoots the man but spares the woman and goes off to sulk. In time, Gomez comes north to pit his fighting cocks against all comers. He resumes his rivalry with Herrera on friendly terms, especially after gunning down a cardsharp whom Herrera had accused of cheating. Herrera is a pretty tense guy, since his neighborhood's one social spot, a brothel, is where La Bandida holds court with her BFF, Jarocha (Jurado). Bandida is the local celebrity, the subject of songs and universal male lust, to Herrera's chagrin. She gradually takes over the place, ready to enforce her will with a broken bottle whenever necessary. She warms up to Gomez, seemingly to stoke Herrera's jealousy. When interlopers feed his fighting cock buckshot to weigh him down, Gomez assumes that the jealous Herrera has cheated him and a gunfight breaks out in the cockpit. Neither mortally wounded, they recover in adjacent beds, Herrera annoyed by Gomez's insistence on having one of his cocks with him in the hospital. Recovered, Herrera resumes his love-hatred of Bandida, their relationship climaxing when he whips her, beds her, and dumps her again. Still, he can't stand the idea of Gomez scoring with her on the rebound, so he challenges his fellow cocksman to a game of Russian Roulette to determine the rights to Bandida. It ends up a draw when the gun inexplicably fails to fire when Gomez has to take the last shot. The implausibility of this drives Herrera's faithful retainer (and Jarocha's boyfriend) Anselmo (Ignacio Lopez Tarso) out of his wits, literally, after he starts compulsively playing with the weapon. Mercifully, a revolution breaks out again, but that won't stop that "pair of centaurs," as one singer calls them, from staging one more showdown with guns that actually fire....

Armendariz and Fernandez's macho rivalry often seems but a sideshow to Maria Felix's fashion show and her emotive showcases. This shabby vehicle -- it seems to have been tampered with in the preservation somewhat -- is a peon's fantasy of living large in Mexico's equivalent of Wild West days, a woman's fantasy specifically of tough guys battling over the beautiful temptress. The problem is that Felix, like her two male leads, is past her prime, pushing 50 when the film came out. Her options look promising if you like your heroes beefy and burly, but it really seems like everyone should be at least a generation younger for this story to work as something other than camp. For what it's worth, Fernandez comes off better as the more calm and reasonable of the two heroes, while Armendariz is practically apoplectic, raging in one scene, braying like a jackass in another. I've liked Armendariz in most of his American films that I've seen, but he's pretty bad here. I blame that partly on his illness and mainly on bad direction from Rodriguez, who brings little style to this overlit, zoom-happy picture. In everyone's defense, La Bandida does seem designed to be an over-the-top picture, the kind where a singer bursts into the cockpit before one of the big fights to sing a ballad in honor of the title character, who basks in the adulation. It's all hokey as heck and should have seemed primitive thirty or forty years earlier, but even its camp value will be compromised for some viewers by the cockfighting scenes, which seem as important to this movie as the wrestling bits are in El Santo's films. I recorded this off TCM last night expecting some classic of Mexican cinema, though the 1.5 star cable-guide rating should have warned me otherwise. It proved a disappoint I can only laugh off slightly, since all the stars -- I give Felix the benefit of the doubt -- were capable of better, and Armendariz should have gotten a better sendoff in his homeland. Still, some people will have a good time laughing at this -- you can probably decide for yourself from my synopsis -- and to them I recommend it.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

DVR Diary: PORK CHOP HILL (1959)

Lewis Milestone's last work as a director was an episode of the TV show Arrest and Trial in 1964. He missed by just a short time a historic opportunity to apply his cinematic acumen to a fourth American war. Until then, every generation had its Milestone war film. The Great War generation got the first and best one, 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front, which arguably has not yet been topped as a movie portrayal of its subject. The "Greatest" generation got several World War II pictures, the best regarded of which is 1945's A Walk in the Sun. Filmed while the war was still on, Walk was inevitably a different kind of picture than All Quiet, though admirers credit it for a relative absence of propaganda and cliche -- much of which can be found in 1943's The North Star and 1944's The Purple Heart. Milestone continued to concern himself with WWII well into the Fifties, directing the decent Halls of Montezuma and a British commando movie, They Who Dare, that I haven't seen. Not until producer/star Gregory Peck recruited him for a dramatization of S.L.A. Marshall's account of the final battle for Pork Chop Hill in 1953 did Milestone turn his attention to the Korean conflict. The "police action" was a war Americans viewed with more ambivalence than the last one, and that gave Peck and Milestone leeway to make a grimmer, edgier picture while boasting of their fidelity to fact.

Peck played a real soldier, Joe Clemons, who led troops in the battle and survived to have a hand in the production. Clemons played talent scout in one noteworthy case, recruiting a fellow West Pointer and Korea veteran to play his real-life Japanese-American executive officer. Here, from a Garland UT newspaper, is the story of how George Shibata broke into the movies.

Shibata didn't get that Wagon Train part, as far as IMDB knows, but he did find work in movies and TV for another decade. I should have figured he had an inside track, since I assume James Shigeta otherwise had first crack at all Japanese-American roles in this period. Shibata brings credibility to a creditable performance that requires little in the way of histrionics and benefits from their absence.  Pork Chop Hill marks the movie debut not only of Shibata but of Martin Landau, who had been busy in TV previously and has only one prominent scene here. Shibata makes a better impression and better represents a certain inclusiveness, justified by facts, on the part of Clemons, Peck and Milestone. Korea was the first modern American war in which whites and blacks routinely fought side by side, and the producers make black actors conspicuous by their presence in comparison to most previous war movies. They actually take something of a chance by having the one malcontent in the cast be a black soldier played by Woody Strode. The part's a bit of a stretch for Strode, who has to play an angry malingerer grown sick and tired of a seemingly pointless fight. Peck as Clemons threatens Strode's "Franklin" (an intro notes that nearly all the soldiers' real names were used) with a court-martial and ten years in prison to keep him moving up the hill. Franklin finally snaps, luring Clemons into a trap where he can frag the officer and claim that he shot the man by mistake should Clemons fail to give the proper countersign. Rather than shoot Clemons, however, Franklin is more interested in making a speech -- one of the film's few false notes -- explaining his disinterest in Korea and his unwillingness to fight for anyone eles's cause. Clemons talks him down all too easily, but merely staging the scene was, as I said, taking a chance in this era. The film takes steps to pre-empt any conclusions that might be drawn from Strode's race by casting another black actor as a soldier of unquestioned loyalty and some eagerness to take Franklin down a few pegs. The Korean War was seen in retrospect as a laboratory in race relations, as illustrated not only by this film but by 1960's All the Young Men, in which Sidney Poitier must take command of a unit in the face of white distrust. I'll have to watch that sometime for comparison's sake.

In the starring role, Peck projects the same sort of harried professionalism that Shibata does. His frustration builds, without ever compromising his competence, as reinforcements, supplies, fresh weapons, etc. prove slow in coming, even as the military portrays him as the triumphant conqueror of the worthless hill. A professional tone prevails among the cast as a whole, with few of the actors getting real showcase moments except for Strode and Robert Blake as a somewhat dumbly heroic runner. The film's really about the situation rather than the personalities. Milestone can sink his teeth into the lethal pointlessness of the battle, as both Americans and Chinese acknowledge that Pork Chop has no strategic significance. Nevertheless, the battle has to be fought in order to prove a point to the Reds (the Chinese, one officer helpfully explains, are "not only Orientals, but Communists") who themselves want to prove a point to the Americans. The Chicoms are willing to spend blood and treasure to take the stupid hill just to show that they're willing. The Americans have to prove that they're no less willing, but it all reduces the actual soldiers, as they well realize, to chips on a bargaining or gambling table. Milestone occasionally cuts to the negotiations at Panmunjon in a way that seems designed to get you to root for a settlement before more soldiers die and to blame the Commies when negotiations stall. You also get chances to hiss the Reds when Milestone shows us a Chinese propaganda broadcaster exhorting the Yanks to surrender and tormenting them with Muzak renditions of "Autumn in New York" during lulls in the action.

As for the fighting, that's why Milestone is directing, and his old tricks still work. He stages some impressive nighttime hill climbing, and he never can go wrong with those lateral tracking shots of advancing troops he perfected in All Quiet. If Pork Chop's battle scenes don't have the visceral fury and terror of All Quiet's, the fact that Milestone doesn't speed up the action to synch it with machine-gun fire, as in the 1930 film, may have something to do with that. Pork Chop Hill is still an above-average battle picture, though the nearest it comes to All Quiet's intensity comes not on a proper battlefield but when the last 25 survivors of Clemons's unit barricade themselves in a shed, piling sandbags against the walls, doors and windows, as the Chinese hit the place with flamethrowers. It's a hell-raising climax and once it's resolved the film closes on a note of exhausted relief rather than victory, despite Peck's narrative boast that "millions of people live in freedom today because of what we did." The film itself belies that claim, and Milestone (despite alleged editorial tampering by Peck) found the right tone and note to close on. At his best, he has to be considered one of the better war-film directors ever, and he's near his best, probably for the last time, in Pork Chop Hill.

Gregory Peck was pretty impressed by his handiwork, as he explains in this trailer, uploaded by ClassicWarMovies1.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Michelangelo Antonioni's I VINTI (1953)

The last thing you expect from an Antonioni film is a moralistic lecture about the corrupting effects of pop culture on youth around the world. But that's how his international anthology opens and closes. What's wrong with kids today? About sixty years ago, the narrator's answer, spoken over a montage of newspaper headlines in many languages, is that they have an egotistical craving for notoriety, for easy money, or just for kicks. So I vinti ("the vanquished") is Antonioni's j.d. picture, the stuff of American B pictures, albeit with much more style and something of a subtext. It consists of three episodes, with French, Italian and English actors each speaking their own language, though all were dubbed into Italian for the film's original home release. In the opening French episode, an unlikely gang of teenagers, with a kid sister in tow, go on a merry outing to a ruined chateau, where one of their number is to be killed. Antonioni heads home for the middle episode, where a young man is involved in a cigarette-smuggling operation and suffers a mortal injury, mortality catching up with him only gradually as he heads anywhere but home. In the closing English episode (13 years before the director's more famous Channel crossing for Blow-Up and oddly scored to "Danny Boy") an aspiring poet turns his discovery of a corpse into a media payday, but his craving for fame and fortune threatens to incriminate him further. He can't help seeming to observe his own trial as a spectator rather than a defendant.

The bracketing narration invites us to deplore these young paragons of depravity, and they're a dubious lot, to be sure. The Italian protagonist seems the most sympathetic of the group, since he's simply desperate for opportunity, while the English would-be poet (Peter Reynolds) is an absolute creep, and the French kids are almost stereotypically indifferent to the enormity of their scheme. Theirs is a banal evil, while the Englishman is a pretentious psycho and the Italian comes closer to noir. Yet the common thread linking their stories isn't necessarily youth itself -- Reynolds hardly comes across as a juvenile -- but the cluelessness of the older generation. Each of the troubled protagonists lives with his parents or with other elders -- the Englishman lives with a grandmother. None of them (including Hollywood arch-heel Eduardo Ciannelli as the Italian father) has any inkling of the evil the younger folks are up to. When the Italian boy is out late at night, Ciannelli assumes he's with a girlfriend, for instance. This disconnect separating the generations seems like a likelier theme for the director eventually identified with representing alienation on screen, but a growing global indifference to life isn't really outside his zone of presumed interest, either. In many ways, Vinti looks and feels like a characteristic work in the manner the world only really discovered years later with L'avventura.

Antonioni is a master of spatial relationships between actors and landscapes. His films have a sense of immensity, not just because of his love for architecture -- buildings loom large in his films to both dramatic and satiric effect -- but because of the way he stages action. A typical scene in any episode of I Vinti will have characters advance from a distance into the foreground, where they are tracked as the continue moving until they walk or run off toward the horizon, growing ever smaller as the camera stands still, letting the dwindling figures measure the vastness of the location. Vinti is the earliest Antonioni film I've seen, and it seems as if by then the 40 year old director had his style fully in place. He closes the English episode with one of his signature shots, panning from a reporter talking in a telephone booth to a sparse landscape in a manner often taken to represent spiritual emptiness in our modern environment -- something I Vinti is designed to portray.

Juvenile delinquency may seem like a banal subject for the likes of Antonioni, but if we call it anomie then we're in business. Whether you agree with the narrator's judgments or not, the director films a compelling composite portrait of a world where something's definitely going wrong.

Of Corpse It's All in Fun. Now Playing: JULY 28, 1962

Nothing much today; just a spookshow in Youngstown OH.

Interesting how they don't bother telling what the movie is. If I were the audience I wouldn't get their hopes up. On the other hand, at least all they had to worry about was monsters doing in the theater was grabbing girls from the audience. Those were the days....

Thursday, July 26, 2012

DVR Diary: SHOPWORN (1932)

Nick Grinde's Columbia picture is an almost perfect instance of a movie condemning itself in its very title. Shopworn? Let me count the ways. Barbara Stanwyck plays Kitty Lane, a good little waitress in a college-town diner who spends her time fending off the students until she falls for medical student David Livingstone (a stiff Regis Toomey) -- Dr. Livingstone, I presume? Kitty aspires to David's intellectual level, memorizing dictionary pages in order to provide edifying conversation. But David's high-society mother takes Kitty for a gold-digger. She sends her crony the local judge to offer Kitty $5,000 in get-out-of-town money, telling her that David's already left town, the mother having feigned a stroke -- the kind that requires an Atlantic crossing for specialist care -- to distract the lad. Kitty nobly throws the cash in the judge's face. When the judge tries the other direction, telling David that Kitty took the money and ran, Young Dr. Livingstone socks him one. But the judge is a power in the town, and he manages to frame Kitty on a public morals charge that earns her a stint in a home for "the Reformation of Women." This reformation consists of scrubbing floors on your knees until you pass out, and little else that we see. Freed at last, Kitty loses her job, though her co-worker Dot the dishwasher (Zasu Pitts) remains a pal, and David is long gone. What's a girl to do? Kitty fatefully spies a "Follies" poster and shazam! -- if you'll excuse the anachronism -- five years later she is an international star, with her own variety show and Dot playing her maid, and a godsend to the gossip columns. Her latest tour comes to the old college town, where she plans to show up Dave, but the old sparks rekindle. Once more Mom struggles to put out the flames, going so far as to pull a gun on Kitty to make her give Dave up once and for all. But the poor dear is just afraid. She loves her boy and doesn't want anything bad to happen to him. Come to think of it, Kitty feels the same way, so when Dave comes knocking, she hides Mrs. L in a closet and gives her man the big brush-off. He's just about to storm off for good when the old biddy bursts out to dissuade him. Having seen Kitty lie about not loving him just for her sake, she realizes at last that, notwithstanding the last five years, Kitty's been a good girl all along. And they all lived happily ever after.

Newspaper publicity still of Barbara Stanwyck, Zasu Pitts and Regis Toomey.

Barbara Stanwyck would seem to have had as good a track record as any Pre-Code star, shuttling between Columbia assignments for Frank Capra and high-powered stuff like Night Nurse and Baby Face for Warners. But she couldn't work for Capra all the time, and given her rapid rise to stardom both Columbia and Warners stuffed her into as many vehicles as possible. The more that Turner Classic Movies and on-demand DVD stores mine the depths of both studios' archives, the lower Stanwyck's hit average will sink, though it shouldn't sink too far. TCM thought it had something to show off in Shopworn, playing it in prime time to open a four-film marathon of Stanwyck Pre-Codes, but the film is hopeless. Toomey is an inert male lead; it would take alchemy, not chemistry, for sparks to strike between him and Stanwyck. But a more charismatic actor probably could not have saved the, well, shopworn scenario (concocted by Capra cohorts Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin) and its catalogue of corny climaxes. Fortunately, Hollywood knew how to be brief in those days, so you lose little more than an hour of your life sitting through Shopworn. Movie fans probably should find a film like it to watch sometime, if only to remind themselves that not everything in the Pre-Code era was scintillating, relevant or even interesting. Content and context can redeem a lot of Pre-Code crap, but not every time. For a film about scandal, Shopworn talks a good game -- I close in a generous mood -- but doesn't walk the walk. With Stanwyck there to walk it for them, that should prove what a stinker Shopworn is.

Bonus material: An enterprising exhibitor in Regina, Saskatchewan, convinced local merchants to stage tie-in "Shopworn" sales to promote the movie. Here's  a page worth of publicity from one of the Regina newspapers.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Now Playing: JULY 25, 1962

Now that I'm over my own Dark Knight madness -- for the time being -- let's return to a simpler time of more innocent (and some may still say less childish) entertainments. From Toledo OH comes 1962's idea of a big summer movie event.

On the other hand, from Baltimore:

Which of these is a more representative film of fifty years ago? Neither, says a Schenectady NY exhibitor....

Movie fans, the last word is yours!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

DVR Diary: CAPTURED! (1933)

Roy Del Ruth's POW drama for Warner Bros. isn't the typical anti-war story you might expect in 1933, when cynicism about the last Great War was near its height. Nor is Captured! a pro-war film or patriotic in any way, since its heroes are British. If anything, Edward Chodorov's adaptation of a Philip Gibbs story suggests that the problem with war isn't war itself, but the warriors. War itself can be a very orderly, almost civilized affair, depending on who wages it. If you're a British POW like Capt. Allison (Leslie Howard), and your new camp commandant (Paul Lukas) just happens to be an Oxford man, confinement can be almost bearable. It wasn't at first. An impromptu escape attempt results in Allison's men being locked in a cellar for weeks. They nearly go stir crazy, growing impatient with each other's company -- the banter between a Texan and a Cockney is hard to bear -- before Allison prevails upon the new commandant's regard for humanity and makes himself responsible for the men's conduct.  Of course, some of the prisoners, like the bug-eyed, barely articulate Strogin (John Bliefer) seem to have lost it even before they were captured. But what bothers Allison most isn't his loss of freedom but the fact that he hasn't gotten a letter from his wife (Margaret Lindsay). He can at least expect information about her when their mutual friend Digby (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) ends up in camp after getting shot down. But Digby is strangely reticent on the subject and soon grows all too eager to escape. We soon learn why, though Allison remains in the dark about the fact that his wife started an affair with Digby almost as soon as Allison went to war. Digby's primary motive for escaping is that he can't bear proximity to the man he cuckolded. So he bolts despite Allison's warnings, seizes a plane from a nearby airfield and flies back to the Allied lines. That same night, a local woman who brought produce to the camp is found raped and murdered just outside the gates, and Digby's abandoned coat is found nearby.

For the Germans, the rape and murder matter more than a prisoner's escape. Under the prevailing laws of war, they have a right to demand that the Allies deliver Digby back to captivity to stand trial for the girl's violation. The commandant wants Allison to undersign the formal demand as proof of everyone's good-faith commitment to justice, but our hero can't imagine Digby doing such a terrible thing. Why do they think Digby did it, anyway? Well, they did find his coat, and it did have letter addressed to him inside. The commandant shows Allison the letters for verification purposes, and now Allison learns the truth about Digby and his wife. You bet your ass he signs that document now. And in the most surreal scene in the picture, the laws of war are observed to the letter. Damned if the British don't hustle Digby back to the front and march him into No Man's Land under a flag of truce. Damned if the Germans don't accept him like a Red Cross package while sharing a quick smoke with the Tommies escorting the prisoner. Then it's back to the war and back to prison for Digby, where his denials of having even seen a girl do him little good. The only thing that saves him from the firing squad is the wretched Strogin's handwritten confession to Allison, punctuated by his hanging himself and topped with a lovely Pre-Code closeup of his bug-eyed strangled face.

The prison still isn't big enough for Allison and Digby, and that means another escape attempt is inevitable. This time, however, it's a mass breakout, the men to storm the airfield and fly out en masse. For the plan to work, someone will have to take control of a machine-gun tower and hold the guards at bay. It's dueling renunciation time as Digby believes himself worthy of death for betraying Allison, while Allison has convinced himself that Digby is his wife's true love and the one who should go home to her. I won't spoil who ends up with the machine-gun, but it ends with a fair amount of carnage and the commandant's salute to an honorable enemy.

All of the picture's violence, apart from the initial escape attempt, is motivated by the passions and jealousies of men. War, by comparison, or at least away from the battlefield, is an almost absurdly orderly affair, always subject to pauses for proper transactions like the delivery of one's own fighting man to the enemy. A POW camp can be just as civilized under the combined influence of Allison and the commandant, until the wild card of Digby and his guilty secret disrupts the decorum. It's as if he triggers the savage impulses of Strogin -- as if Digby's escape and Strogin's murder of the girl were not coincidental. Digby and Allison can't resolve the issue between them without a massive battle and the deaths of who knows how many people. The thought of Allison and Digby fighting each other never really seems to occur to either man; they take their rivalry out on the Germans instead. Gibbs and Chodorov may be saying something very provocative about war here -- or they may not have had a clue about the implications of their story. Either way, Captured! is one of the more peculiar POW movies ever made, setbound for the most part but stylishly so in a big-studio way until the big breakout as hundreds of men swarm across open ground like the release of something fundamentally male. As Allison, Leslie Howard seems to be playing his standard role, while Fairbanks Jr. gives one of his typical edgy, slightly feral performances from the period when he tried harder as an actor. As Strogin, Bliefer lurks at the fringes often enough to remind us of his ticking-bomb status, and his mostly-mute mugging is such that you hardly notice J. Carroll Naish hanging around until he gets more lines late in the picture. You probably don't actually need Margaret Lindsay in the picture, but she's here to nail down the heart interest in some flashbacks. As an ultimate good German, Lukas has little to do but be reasonable when no one else will. His commandant is the warrior as administrator, a well-meaning bureaucrat who hopes to cope with soldiers but can't contain men. So is war hell because it weaponizes male rivalry, or would guys be better off under military discipline as long as that included leaving each other's women alone? Captured! doesn't necessarily offer any answers, but it does raise some interesting questions.
Given that the trailer promises "Ten thousand love-starved men storming the barricades that bar them from the world of women," I now think this film knew quite well what it was saying. Here's the trailer, provided as usual with Warners Pre-Codes by

Monday, July 23, 2012


Back in the golden age of pulp fiction and superhero comics, this was the treatment most people felt superheroes deserved. By 1946, The Shadow had been an immensely popular hero of pulps and radio for nearly a generation. Walter Gibson's mysterious crimefighter had already been rendered on film three times, including a Columbia serial, before Poverty Row mainstay Monogram Pictures launched a fresh series in 1945 with The Shadow Returns. Phil Karlson's Behind the Mask is the second of the three Monogram Shadows, and it opens with a promise of better things to come from Karlson. A man makes his rounds at night in moody scenes that reveal him to be a newspaper reporter who uses his information to blackmail shady characters like the proprietors of illegal gambling operations. He's raising his price and people don't like it. This is straight and to the point and nearly noir, until the reporter is killed. It seems that The Shadow did it, and that'd be understandable since the reporter's a rat -- except The Shadow didn't do it. Lamont Cranston (Kane Richmond) was at a pre-wedding party that night; he's finally planning to make it legal with Margo Lane and she's putting the pressure on him to quit his nocturnal crimefighting. But getting framed for murder is a poor note to quit on, so Cranston and his loyal driver Shrevvy set about finding the real killer, despite the best efforts (that's irony, son) of Inspector Cardona, while Margo and her loyal galpal Jennie set about complicating matters even further.

The Shadow has hardly been done justice on film. His first two outings, in which Rod La Rocque plays him, miss the mark in different ways. I want to emphasize here, however, that La Rocque's second effort, International Crime, is a genuinely funny film in its brazen abandonment of the pulp/radio gimmick in favor of a lightly hard-boiled portrayal of Lamont Cranston as a wiseass radio crime reporter who uses The Shadow to rib ineffective cops and get himself in trouble. International Crime is a more complete travesty of the original concept than Behind the Mask, yet Karlson's picture, inherited from old "One Shot" Beaudine, is infinitely more stupid. Story writer Arthur Hoerl did a lot of hero pictures, including the original Superman serial, while scripter George Callahan did a lot of Monogram's Charlie Chan pictures, noteworthy for their emphasis on comic relief. I would not have been surprised had either of them had written Bowery Boys movies, though that seems not to have been the case. The comedy is on that level. Margo is written as a complete shrew and idiot, and you have the mirror effect of two obnoxious women -- Jennie is Shrevvy's girlfriend -- harassing their men and getting their comeuppance. The picture ends with the men spanking the women on a fire escape. It takes 67 minutes getting there and that's a hard hour and change to sit through. I didn't keep exact score, but Margo may actually wear the Shadow costume more than Lamont does, having appropriated it to snoop around a crime scene on the assumption that solving the crime would speed her wedding day. Slapstick ensues, all of it scored to the most intelligence-insulting mickey-mousing soundtrack imaginable. The film's big action scene is a romp in an impoverished gym with the Shadow running up and down flights of stairs, swinging from a rope, bouncing off mattresses, etc. He can neither shoot people as his pulp precursor would nor cloud men's minds as his radio self could. His one power is the ability to elicit radio-esque organ music when he finally appears in costume.

It all leaves you wondering who wouldn't see this film and feel cheated, and why a studio would so blithely cheat its presumed audience. I can't help but feel that it boils down to contempt. The Shadow and his ilk were disposable garbage then, which is why their original publications are so valuable now. The idea of fidelity to the source material would probably have struck screenwriters, even at Monogram, as insulting. You see this whimsical contempt in so many of the earliest superhero adaptations that by comparison the infamous Sam Katzman Batman serials are nearly Nolanesque in their respect for the character. At least Katzman didn't change Batman's name and origin like Republic did with Captain America.  But I digress. My main point is that even a travesty can work, as International Crime did for me, if it can at least work on its own terms. Behind the Mask doesn't even do that. There are different degrees of contempt for material, after all. You may be so contemptuous of the source material that you assume you can do better. Or you may be so contemptuous that you won't bother doing any good. Common to either form of contempt is an assumption that the stupid audience won't really care. Contempt in, contempt out, I say. Behind the Mask is one of the most contemptible movies I've seen in a while.

Believe it or not, a trailer survives. Captbijou uploaded it to YouTube.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

On the Big Screen: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

"S AFETY NOT GUARANTEED" read the marquee of the Spectrum Theater, but the exhibitors were only advertising the indie time-travel picture that was playing alongside the venue's typical arthouse fare and the new Christopher Nolan film. For one night, at least, those lines might give a moviegoer pause, for not since The Warriors, I suppose, has a motion picture seemed to drive a nation mad, from the hysterical threats made to critics, through Rush Limbaugh's baroque interpretations of it, to the horror of Friday morning in Aurora CO. You could almost believe that the film was evil, that something about the idea of it -- its own apocalyptic agenda and the corporate hype of an ultimate movie event -- was exerting a malignant influence on people. My screening didn't live up to those implications. The Spectrum is an old neighborhood theater far from the malls where most people went to see this picture. A 9:40 p.m. screening last night was about one-third full, though many more probably turned out for the 8:00 show on another screen. I don't know if you're better off watching it with a bigger crowd, though you probably are better off paying extra for the IMAX show at Crossgates Mall, but the picture can be judged separately -- it has to be, eventually -- from this disturbing week in pop-culture history in which it premiered. So here's what we'll do. The next paragraph will be a spoiler-free summary of my opinion, after which, in order to explain myself better, I must give things away.

As a comic-book fan and Batman fan, I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises, but it probably has the worst writing of Nolan's trilogy. Most of the script's faults are inherent in Nolan's self-assigned task to complete a cohesive trilogy of movies; he could have told the same basic story much more effectively without most of the continuity baggage. On the other hand, Rises easily has the best action of the three films, and Batman's two principal antagonists in this picture are at least equal, combined, to Heath Ledger's already-legendary turn as the Joker in the previous film. Two other new characters, however, are anchors dragging the show down. The ending reinforces a major difference between Nolan's vision and the fundamental Batman concept that ultimately prevents Nolan's films, despite their many virtues, from ever being the definitive Batman movies. For now, however, they stand quantitatively, at least, as the most consistently well done series of superhero films from one director.

 And with that said...




"Let the games begin!..."

We last left Batman fleeing from the police and taking the rap for Harvey Dent's brief crime spree at the end of The Dark Knight, and the first surprise of the new picture is that he apparently did not continue fighting crime after that escape. Bruce Wayne was apparently more injured, physically and spiritually, than we realized, and has made himself a limping recluse in the eight ensuing years. He has grown so out of touch that he seems bemused rather than indignant when a cat-burglar in a maid's costume raids his private rooms at Wayne Manor, steals his martyred mother's pearl necklace, and kicks his cane out from under him before backflipping out a window. He's still smart enough to notice something unusual: the cat-burglar, whom research quickly identifies as Selina "The Cat" Kyle, had dusted his safe for fingerprints -- his. Intrigued if not aroused, and also alerted by rumors of a mysterious masked man building an army in the sewers, he decides to don his costume once more despite the entreaties of a panicky Alfred, who fears for his master's life and will take any measure to deter what he sees as a pointless death wish. The cat-burglar and the masked man seem to be working for the same person, John Daggett -- a sinister businessman pursuing a hostile takeover of Wayne's financial empire. Bruce's only ally is Miranda Tate, an investment partner in a massive, money-losing clean-energy project, to whom Bruce turns over control of his empire to keep it, and especially Lucius Fox's arsenal of weapons and vehicles, out of Daggett's hands. Realizing that Daggett isn't dealing square with Selina, Batman tries to flip her to his side but his plan backfires when she delivers him to the masked man, Bane, who's been waiting for an opportunity to break him. Still, her increasing revulsion at the way Bane brutalizes the outmatched Batman leads us to think our hero's gut feeling about her isn't entirely wrong. For now, Bane dumps Bruce Wayne in a deep hole far away while he perpetrates a hostile takeover of Daggetts's scheme, converting it to a hostile takeover of Gotham City, enforced by his possession of a mobile, undisarmable nuclear bomb. Inevitably, however, the Dark Knight rises, joined by an eclectic assortment of allies, to take the city back -- but at what cost?

I hope I've described at least a potentially compelling story, and as filmed it is compelling much of the time. But if the plot seems labored even in my minimal description, bear in mind that I haven't told you everything. On its own, this has the makings of a good third Batman movie. The problem is, Nolan wants to make the last Batman movie. He wants to complete a trilogy by filling his third film with references to the first. That means we're reintroduced to the League of Shadows and to Ra's al Ghul -- Liam Neeson returns for some flashback and hallucination scenes -- when we might have thought that we'd never have to think of them again after Batman Begins. But to reinforce the trilogy nature of his story, Nolan drops two heavy shoes. First, he ties Bane to the League, in a bald burst of exposition from Michael Caine -- since Alfred somehow knows this -- that Bane is an ex-member of the League expelled for being somehow too mean. And the moment the League is invoked, the comics fans in the audience can start waiting for the other shoe, the one many had expected all along, to drop. Boy, does it drop. This plot twist is a dud in three ways. First, Nolan makes a tease of it as fellow prisoners tell Bruce a legend of the one person who escaped from their hole. From these accounts, Bruce assumes that the person was Bane and that he was an unwanted child of Ra's al-Ghul. He is, of course, wrong, and he has to get the correct facts explained to him by someone who's just literally stabbed him in the back back in Gotham. Worse, this backstabbing involves the revelation of a major figure in the Batman legend, but Nolan has actually done nothing to make the naming of this character the tremendous moment he seems to want it to be. The name is spat out, almost as an afterthought or a sop to comics fans who are presumed to be thrilled to hear it -- though they're not supposed to care if Selina Kyle is never called "Catwoman." Worst of all, the abrupt nature of this revelation, contrived so Nolan can have a late plot twist, instantly turns Bane into a stooge. This could have been avoided. If Bane had made clear all along that he answered to somebody, or did what he did in tribute to some mystery person, than there'd be some buildup toward that person finally taking a bow. But the better course would have been to skip the League of Shadows stuff altogether. Nolan's trilogy would be no less complete and cohesive; the films, after all, are about Bruce Wayne, not the League.

What is the story of Bruce Wayne, anyway? For all that The Dark Knight Rises ends with Batman once more revered as a hero, Bruce has spent the last two pictures struggling to squirm his way out of the costume. For him, to live a real life means to be rid of Batman. This was the tragic core of The Dark Knight. In that picture, Wayne selfishly tried to shift the burden of heroism onto other shoulders so he could get the girl, and get her from the very man he appointed Gotham's white knight. The results were disastrous on every level. In the new movie, he can be reckless about re-donning the cowl because, with Rachel Dawes dead, he feels he has nothing to live for. Yet we've already noticed that he's become Batman again at least in part to pursue a woman, one with whom he's also willing to flirt as Bruce Wayne before snatching that necklace off her neck. This woman is also the only person on Earth who dresses in any way like himself -- though Nolan is at pains to deny that Selina's work clothes, if you will, are a superhero costume. A soulmate, perhaps? An ideal woman who would not force a choice between love and crimefighting on him? Not quite, because Nolan's Selina Kyle is also looking for a way out of the life. She expects payment from Daggett in the form of a "Clean Slate" program that would obliterate her criminal record and allow her to make a fresh start -- doing what, exactly? Later, Bruce Wayne (and his "powerful friend") dangle the same enticement before her. If Bruce and Selina are soulmates in this picture, it is not so much because they both enjoy romping on rooftops in hot costumes but because they both want the clean break and the fresh start. This only reinforces Nolan's message that a happy ending for Bruce Wayne is when he is no longer Batman. A comics fans can't be blamed for balking at that idea, though on the alternate-universe level it is well-executed here, thanks largely to the chemistry between Christian Bale and Anne Hathaway and the Nolan Brothers' efforts to condense the classic long arc of redemption that has left Catwoman no worse than an antihero in the comics. That may be strange to say given that Nolan's Selina is an unrepentant killer, but the movies have never been as big on the code-against-killing thing as the comics. Batman snatches a gun from her hand in one scene, but I think he grows more forgiving after she saves his life with extreme prejudice later in the picture. Well, I know he grows more forgiving because I saw the end of the movie, and let's leave it at that. But while a happily-ever-after finish for these two is many fans' dream, it can be said that it also misses the point of Batman, and Bruce Wayne, for whom the pursuit of justice is his life -- a fact that Selina Kyle, paradoxically enough, may be the one woman capable of appreciating.

As Nolan's Catwoman picture, Rises is a success. It also succeeds as an action movie, from the bludgeoning brawls between Batman and Bane to the epic chase scenes through the streets and skies of Gotham in the final act. Visually the film's as fine as the others, though there's some choppiness in the editing, especially early on, that creates the bizarre impression of a 165-minute movie that feels truncated -- I wouldn't be surprised to see a considerably extended edition at some point. Rises is worst in its writing, both in bad dialogue and bad ideas. Sadly, much of the bad stuff focuses on Michael Caine's underutilized Alfred, who's burdened with explaining Bane to the world and with an awful, mawkish scene in which he tells Bruce the truth about the Rachel Dawes breakup letter he burned at the end of Dark Knight. That's part of this film's confused attitude toward lies, the big lie being the legend of the martyred Harvey Dent. Nolan seems to want to deplore a resort to "noble" lies yet also to affirm their occasional necessity, the need for someone to dirty his hands so another's can stay clean. Certain lies are among the film's necessary evils, but they also give occasion for the film's more sanctimonious characters, including Bruce Wayne himself, to throw snit-fits. The worst offender in this regard, and nearly the worst major character in the movie, is its most mysterious, the much-speculated-upon policeman John Blake. Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Blake reminds me of the sort of character fan-fictioneers call a "Mary Sue," a too-good-to-be-true personality with privileged access to legendary personalities. All you need to know about Blake is that in his youth, as an angry orphan, he pegged Bruce Wayne as Batman because he recognized a certain look in his eyes. Yes, indeed. But Blake has only just begun to be insufferable, and the end of his arc seems supremely unmerited. The film could have done without him quite nicely, just as it could have done without many things. Rises is overstuffed and rushed at the same time, which is more likely than it sounds because that simply means it's doubly flawed -- too much of the bad and not enough of the good, or the good done too quickly or abruptly. Someone who isn't a comic-book fan or an action-movie fan could easily and understandably dismiss it as a bloated trifle; they certainly have a right to do so without facing threats of bodily harm.

Even if Rises seems bloated, Nolan still manages his neat trick of not having the epic scale of the action dwarf his strong personalities. Bale has been consistently good, Hathaway and Hardy are terrific, and even the more mundane characters portrayed by Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman often shine. I can't close without defending Hardy from both the "you're not Heath Ledger" and the "I can't understand what you're saying" critics. His Bane is a tremendous physical presence as well as a classic pompous ass of a villain; he's like Goldfinger and Oddjob rolled into one. I didn't mind the muffler effect of his muzzle, because Bane is so self-absorbed (except when he's ultimately revealed as a loyal puppy) that I felt that he didn't really care whether anyone understood him or not. I found his brutal nihilism not much inferior to the Joker's lethal anarchy -- though I must add that the vaunted political subtext of the new movie isn't all it's cracked up to be. That may be a good thing, since it'll make Bane a more timeless villain down the line, and it'll be in the future, when the madness of this sick week is long past, and perhaps after there are more Batman films for comparison, that Nolan's achievement will get the fair appraisal it deserves.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The End of Something

Twenty years ago, give or take a few weeks, I took a day off from work to see a matinee of Tim Burton's Batman Returns. This year I felt no need to take time off so I could go to a midnight show of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. That's no reflection on Nolan. I'm eager to see the picture, but can't justify skipping work even if I'm entitled. I'll see it sometime this weekend, barring unforeseen circumstances, but the film is the real event, not the time you see it. If its arrival has the air of a historic event, that's not all hype. Rises is likely to be the last film of its kind: a big-budget brand-name superhero film that takes place in a director's "universe" rather than a comic-book publisher's. Between the premiere of Batman Begins in 2005 and tomorrow, Marvel Studios has changed the game for the genre and altered expectations for fans of comic-book movies. Warner Bros. is expected to emulate Marvel in the future when developing film treatments of its corporate cousins at DC Comics. Next year's Man of Steel will be transitional, brandishing the Nolan brand name while probably aspiring to transcend it.

The film Warners and DC really want to make, everyone believes, is Justice League, the super-team saga that, ironically enough, drove Stan Lee to initiate the "Marvel Age of Comics," including The Avengers, because Lee's boss wanted a similar book for his line -- he got The Fantastic Four. How soon Justice League will get made is unclear, but it seems more certain that the next film adaptation of a DC comic after Man of Steel will be set in someplace recognizable as the "DC Universe." Such a place will be defined by its multiplicity and diversity of superpowered beings, and as such it'll be the antithesis of the imagined worlds of Batman in the seven films made since 1989. The closest any of those movies has come to acknowledging even the possible existence of other superheroes is George (Batman) Clooney's crack in Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin, "This is why Superman works alone." The irony, of course, is that it's Batman who's worked alone in movies, whose franchise has failed, or rather refused to fertilize a universe of crimefighters and superheroes. Superman has worked alone as well, of course, and much of this compartmentalization was a matter of rights, different producers like Michael Uslan claiming individual characters rather than seizing or receiving a universe. That situation has changed, but it's arguable that Nolan has held back the evolution of a cinematic DC universe by claiming auteurial rights over Batman. If so, he was only claiming his due, much as Tim Burton did. If neither was a household name at the time of his first Batman movie, by each man's sequel the director's personal vision had become a major selling point, and The Dark Knight Rises is being sold primarily as the climax of Nolan's vision. By comparison, how much of Iron Man was Jon Favreau's vision. Whatever the fraction, it was probably greater than Kenneth Branagh's visionary contribution to Thor, or Joe Johnston's to Captain America, or even Joss Whedon's to The Avengers. Marvel has embarked on another series of films, with none of the aforementioned directors returning -- except perhaps for Whedon down the line. Marvel does not want a Christopher Nolan, and while Warners seemingly offered the entire DC Universe to Nolan, one suspects that they wanted the name more than the man.

There really can be no place in the future of superhero movies for an auteur who balks in any way at his characters interacting with characters from other comics or their movie adaptations. Superhero cinema is becoming a corporate art in more than the obvious monetary ways. Making superhero movies will be a collaborative, editorially-supervised practice. The age of the auteur -- the Nolans, the Burtons, the Sam Raimis -- is almost certainly over. Some comics fans will welcome this. The multitudes of superbeings is an essential part of the comics reading experience for these people that only the Marvel movies have begun to translate into film. Even some admirers of Nolan protest that his quasi-realistic vision limited the cinematic possibilities for Batman compared to what can happen to him in comics -- that you're not getting the true Batman experience unless the more outlandishly powerful characters like Mr. Freeze of Clayface can cut loose, or unless Superman or Green Lantern can drop into Gotham for a visit and a team-up. A lot of Batman fans feel differently, but many DC fans are not so committed to Batman's isolation and would welcome a Justice League film. To be blunt, I see no artistic imperative to make that film, but there's nothing automatically preventing such a project from being at least as good as The Avengers. But why couldn't there be a Justice League jamboree and more individual films, in any sense of the word, at the same time? I can't help thinking that one option will preclude the other, however, in a way that makes another Burton or Nolan franchise unlikely -- and that would be a real loss. The imminence of that loss makes The Dark Knight Rises more of an event than it already is -- more than most people watching may realize.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Dark Knight's Lady

My earliest memory of Batman is also a memory of Catwoman. Maybe I'm misremembering; I probably watched lots of the old Batman TV show without specific incidents making strong impressions, but I remember it being unusual for one of his enemies to die, and still more unusual for him to regret it. The episode was "Scat, Darn Catwoman," from the second of the show's three seasons. I later learned that it wasn't the first time that Catwoman had seemed to die; she'd fallen into a bottomless pit in Julie Newmar's only appearance of the first season. This second death -- Catwoman had lives to spare -- is still unusual for its build-up. There's nothing like the foot chase, with Newmar and Adam West apparently doing their own running, in the entire series. Maybe it was a form of padding, with no one able to come up with the usual melee gags. But it seems more like a build-up to a dramatic moment, though the moment itself is capped in camp fashion as Batman's mourning is made into a typical Bat-gag.

Newmar's persona isn't fully formed in the "Purr-Fect Crime/Better Luck Next Time" diptych from the first season. In those shows Catwoman is a less appealing (though still undeniably attractive), more ruthless figure, backstabbing her own gang so she can have a whole treasure for herself. It's not until the second season -- and after Lee Merriwether coldly replaced her in the big-screen version of the show -- that Newmar and key Catwoman writer Stanley Ralph Ross came into their own. In that season, with the exception of a story where she was shoehorned in to support a lackluster new villain, Michael Rennie's Sandman, Newmar can do no wrong. Ross had figured out how to ring the changes on Catwoman's love-hate relationship with Batman and make the most of the comic chemistry between Newmar and West. The actors' best scenes together are paradoxically funny, emphasizing the sex-temptation angle while portraying both Catwoman and Batman as overgrown nerds and brats, playing out life-and-death showdowns like schoolyard games. Look at the climax of "The Bat's Kow-Tow," when Catwoman almost abashedly explains, with Batman's encouragement, how her voice-stealing device -- her own invention, apparently -- works. Note also the moment when Catwoman, maybe uniquely among the show's villains, seems capable of defeating Batman single-handedly, yet can't do it.

Newmar and West are at their bickering bratty best in their last teaming, "Batman Displays His Knowledge." Their comic timing over a long take is impeccable as Newmar careens from seductive mode to blustering claws-baring "katrate" stances. This two parter (opening with "Catwoman Goes to College") seems like a missed opportunity as Bruce Wayne becomes Catwoman's probation sponsor. It looks like a perfect setup for the Princess of Plunder to go after Wayne's fortune, yet she promptly plunges into a plot to frame Batman, while Wayne pays attention to his new charge only as Batman. Bruce is a disaster of inaction in his assigned role, but there's a payoff for that in the two-parter's closing scene, Newmar's final appearance in the series. Confronting her one last time in his civilian identity, an uncomfortable Bruce seems to realize that he's screwed up, while Catwoman is a portrait of serene desolation. Showing no defiance, she consoles the warden, reminding him that her recidivism is the exception, not the rule. Then, after telling Batman earlier that reform was hopeless for her without the love of a good man, she tells Bruce that there might have been something between them, except that her heart belongs to Batman. You might not hear it here, but on a proper TV you can hear her say "good-bye" as she exits the frame. The story may be that Newmar didn't return for the third season because she was tied up on a thankless movie shoot (McKenna's Gold), but when I watch this I sense that she knew she was done. There's a last bow quality about it that's undeniable, as if Ross, who would go on to write a very different Catwoman for Eartha Kitt, knew he'd said all he could as well.

These stories were my first meaningful exposure to romance, the first romances that had an impact on me. If there was an overarching story to the Batman series, at least in its first two seasons, his combative courtship of Catwoman was it. I watched those shows before I ever read a Batman comic book, without the comics fans sense of insult over travestied sacred texts. I went through that phase later, when I did become a comics fan and took the books seriously. But the very first Batman comic I bought had a surprise in it. It was Batman 320, if I remember right, from sometime in 1980. The Joker was kidnapping Batman's allies to make them candles in a birthday cake for himself, and one of his stops was Bruce Wayne's residence. I don't recall whether he was after Wayne himself, who was absent, or Alfred the butler, whom he captured, but there hanging out in the mansion was one Selina Kyle, helpfully identified for me by the Clown Prince of Crime as "the sultry Catwoman." I'd never seen or heard the name before. Anyway, resenting the intrusion on Wayne's behalf, Selina Kyle set about clobbering the Joker's minions until he kayoed her with some gag boxing glove. It did not occur to him to make her a candle; he was probably confused, as I was, about what she was doing there.

In time, I learned that Selina, claiming to have reformed, had approached Bruce Wayne, not knowing him to be Batman, in the self-interested hope that he'd fund a cure for some rare disease she'd contracted. Romance ensued. I was intrigued. Ever since then, through "reboots" that reset the DC Universe, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle -- the TV character was never called by that name -- have been on again, off again. The tone as actually set slightly before Len Wein wrote the stories I've just described. One of DC Comics's ingenious ideas during the "Silver Age" of superhero comics (roughly 1956-86) was that the heroes of the "Golden Age" of superhero comics' origins lived on a separate planet in a separate dimension from the present-day heroes. DC could thus show slightly-different versions of the current heroes aging and evolving beyond what a monthly comic could tolerate. On "Earth-2," readers learned, the original Batman and Catwoman from the 1940s eventually did marry. After the Crisis on Infinite Earths ended the Silver Age and rebooted the DC Universe, this event presumably never happened, but following the most recent reboot, in 2011, the "New 52" universe once more includes an Earth-2 where a Batman married a Catwoman, or at least had a daughter together. Legends of this sort make a romance between the characters in the current monthly comics a matter of fate. It definitely becomes a temptation and at least twice in the last 30 years editors apparently decided that things had gone too far. After writers in the mid-1980s had made Batman and Catwoman too close -- she had practically become his crimefighting sidekick, a story was concocted in which Selina had her brain fried and rewired by a mad scientist, the results being that she reverted to villainy and conveniently forgot Batman's secret identity. No such contrivance was needed more recently; the 2011 reboot once more stripped Catwoman of that key bit of knowledge and restored some distance between the characters after Ed Brubaker, Jeph Loeb and succeeding writers had developed the Bat-Cat relationship over the past decade. These changes are artificial and jolting to longtime readers, not to mention "shippers" for whom relationships are all, but there's a reasonable argument for them. Unless you, like many other people, including one with a quarter-billion-dollar budget, propose to write "the last Batman story," some respect for basic archetypes are in order. If you bring Batman and Catwoman too close together, you risk losing much of the tension and pathos that made their stories compelling originally. If Catwoman becomes no more than a loyal supporting character or partner of Batman, you may miss what makes her interesting. The potential for a redeeming relationship may make for better comic book stories than a realized relationship. Tim Burton understood this and succeeded, when he used an unorthodox Catwoman -- a supernatural avenger rather than a charismatic bandit -- in Batman Returns, in taking the pathos occasionally invoked on the old TV show to a new level of romantic tragedy.

Art by Jim Lee

Christopher Nolan's work with Batman would not really have been done, in my opinion, if he didn't give us a Catwoman. With some cajoling, Nolan himself came around to that view, and the world will see the results this weekend. Not everyone may agree. Batman comics fans have diverse opinions about their hero's love life or his potential for one. The three largest factions might be described as "Team Selina," "Team Talia" and "Team Neuter." In the comics, Selina Kyle's great rival for Bruce Wayne's and Batman's affections for the last forty years has been Talia al-Ghul, the rebellious daughter of assassin-king Ra's al-Ghul. Talia, whom many people still expect to see in The Dark Knight Rises, is the ideal for those who idolize the writing of Denny O'Neil, the scribe who liberated Batman comics from the incubus of the TV show's camp legacy. Many fans find Talia's story more compelling than Selina's -- O'Neil came to the comics with an initial contempt for the costumed villains tainted by association with TV -- and the character simply more attractive. The fact (in current continuity) that Talia is the mother of Batman's only child would seem to make her the woman in his life even though present writer Grant Morrison portrays her as a more implacable enemy than Catwoman ever was. Talia has been central to several great stories over the decades, but for me she's always lacked that primal opposites-attract quality that Catwoman brings to the comics. A smaller fourth faction, represented most recently in comics by Kevin Smith, might argue for Silver St. Cloud, the romantic interest in the small late-70s run of stories by Steve Engelhart and Marshall Rogers that are still considered one of the greatest achievements in Batman history, while no one, I suspect, takes Vicki Vale, the star of comics, 1949 serial and 1989 movie, seriously as Bruce Wayne's great love. "Team Neuter," I hope, speaks for itself. Suffice it to say that some people are happy, or at least more comfortable, with Batman having no strong romance in his life. It's as valid a viewpoint as any, but also less interesting. Had Christopher Nolan a more exploitative mentality, he might have made his new movie a different kind of bonanza by pitching it as a kind of anti-Twilight, with a hero torn between two uber-women -- but for now it's still the official word that there's no such creature as Talia in his movie, despite irrepressible speculation about the role played by Marion Cotillard. The comic-book movie business being what it is, such a movie may yet be made some day.

While I want to judge The Dark Knight Rises on its own terms, I also have to admit that how Nolan treats Selina Kyle -- while he has no problem calling the character "Catwoman" in interviews, she'll never be called by that name in the picture -- will strongly influence my opinion. For the new film to succeed fully, Nolan has to get Catwoman right. That doesn't mean he has to match some ideal I have of the character; Burton and Michelle Pfeiffer triumphed with an interpretation resembling no previous version of Selina. Nolan and Anne Hathaway have deep boots to fill, but I've liked most of what I've seen in the trailers and commercials. Considering what I've just written, there's no point in my attempting a list of what director and actress have to do. They just have to not screw up one of the most important elements of the Batman legend. I won't know whether they have or not until I see the movie. Until then, I hope to have something to say about Rises's prospective place in pop-culture history tomorrow.

Bat-clips from The Bat's Kow-Tow and Batman Displays his Knowledge uploaded by captivebatfan; Scat! Darn Catwoman uploaded by Fanof Bats.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

William Asher (1921-2012)

Asher was some sort of auteur. A sitcom specialist who spent most of the Sixties directing his wife Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched, he was also the principal director of American-International's "Beach Party" series and, just to be different, the director of the violent neo-noir cult film Johnny Cool, in which Montgomery played an unreliable romantic lead for Henry Silva's title gangster. Asher's Beach pictures are sunbaked pop art, comic books come to formulaically anarchic life or something almost like being. I ignore the banality of beauty on the surface and focus on the reanimated old-timers like Karloff and Keaton, playing roles or playing "themselves," whose presence is less degrading than deifying, and on the eternal recurrence of the Rats and their master, Erich von Zipper, a burlesque villain godlike and hapless at once, pining after his "ideal," raging against the "stupids" all around him, asking always, "Why me? Why me all the time?" Time has been kind, I think, to films I would probably have hated had I lived when they opened. They'll never be comedy classics, but they now enjoy the charm of good-natured obsolescence as they document their era's cloudless fantasy of a world without real threats and with parties every day. Before the hippies came, Bill Asher did much to shape the Sixties of our media-based retroactive imaginations. Like it or not, he was a major contributor, in quantitative if not qualitative terms, to our pop-culture legacy, and that makes his passing worthy of notice here.

Monday, July 16, 2012


William Lustig is an honored name among cult-movie collectors for his DVD entrepreneurship, mainly as the proprietor of the Blue Underground video line. He gained cult credibility as a director, his best known works being the 1980 slasher film Maniac and the 1988 extravaganza Maniac Cop ("You have the right to remain silent ... forever."). Between these landmarks Lustig got involved with the vigilante genre, taking the most obvious yet unused-to-date title for his 1983 picture. Lustig's Vigilante is a stripped-down version of the archetype, notable for an absence of either introspection or much in the way of cheerleading. Vigilantism is simply taken as a phenomenon, an inevitable reaction to systemic injustice as a bystander is sucked into the maelstrom. Robert Forster plays Eddie Marino, whose co-workers, led by Fred Williamson's Nick, are clandestine vigilantes. We see them in action dragging a rapist off a street corner ("Slime!" one yells at the criminal). We later learn that the gang broke nearly every bone in the perp's body. The cops seem to have a clue who's doing this stuff, but no evidence. After one warns Nick, Eddie wonders what's going on but wants to keep his nose clean. He'll soon think differently after his wife insults a gang member at a gas station. His gang follows her home, tears up the place, tears her up pretty bad, and blasts her little son to death with a shotgun -- we see a window explode with bits of red on the fragments. Eddie assumes a legal remedy is at hand and an earnest prosecutor encourages that belief. But the gangs have the power and the money, so that the gang leader plea-bargains his way to a suspended sentence and Eddie gets sent to jail for going nuts and attacking the judge. During his two months in stir he's saved from rape only by an old con (Woody Strode), and the near-miss hardens his attitude even further. Once free, he learns that his traumatized wife is leaving him; she wants no reminders of the past. Vigilante is nearly Kafkaesque in its accumulation of injustices and indignities on its poor protagonist. But never mind the literary pretension. Lustig's film is a coiled spring that takes pressure until it releases. Eddie wants in on Nick's vigilante gang, who help him track down the gang members so he can wipe them out. But that's not all. The film closes on an ambivalent note -- at least I felt ambivalent about it -- when Eddie extends his vengeance campaign to the judge who put him in jail. Is that going too far? Lustig doesn't give us time to dwell on it, though the finish means it's up to us, not him, to decide whether Eddie has crossed one line too many. All the film tells us is that Eddie was pushed too far and pushed back.

Forster makes a good everyman hero without having to do much fancy acting, while Fred Williamson's limitations as an actor work in his favor here, underscoring his character's singleminded fanaticism. What he lacks in subtlety he makes up for in disquieting intensity. The locations look appropriately grungy, and the film as a whole has a look that qualifies it for "last film of the Seventies" consideration. There's nothing special about the action or the film's big car chase, but the film moves briskly. It definitely ends briskly, and it's bound to seem incomplete to anyone curious about the consequences for Eddie, Nick and their friends. You're tempted to wonder whether there was more story to tell, but no more money to tell it with. Another, more unsettling reading is possible. Our expectation that there should be more to the story is based on an assumption that the protagonists' vigilantism is exceptional, with necessary implications for the transgressors. Ending the film without the usual soul-searching or police manhunt creates a counter-impression that Eddie's reaction has become a normal one, or at least an inevitable one, in his present-day dystopia. It isn't really a satisfying finish, but maybe it wasn't meant to be.

Darrligsmag uploaded this version of the original trailer to YouTube. Note the second-person spiel toward the end: you, not Forster's character, have to take a stand, it seems.

Idiots of the Week: Dark Knight Rises Critic-Haters

Idiot of the week is an occasional feature of my political blog, The Think 3 Institute. It's occasional rather than weekly because I feel no need to make a ritual out of it, and I want the idiocy recognized to stand out from the run-of-the-mill stupidity that's encountered all too often in political life. I've moved the feature to Mondo 70 for the first time as an unintended preface to a series of posts I've planned leading up to Friday's release of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Rises. As some readers may know, this film is a sequel to a 2008 Nolan movie called The Dark Knight and the conclusion of a trilogy the director began back in 2005, literally enough, with Batman Begins. As both of those films were successful, the second film more so than the first, the third film is rather highly anticipated in many quarters. Many people want Rises to be a good, even great film -- I wouldn't mind that myself. Some people, unfortunately, don't want to hear bad news, even though they strain to hear it amid a mounting volume of hosannas greeting Rises as if it were the Second, or rather Third Coming. Many professional reviewers have seen the film by now and have started to post their reviews on media websites. The Rotten Tomatoes website keeps a running tab of early critical opinion; as I write, it reports that 29 reviewers have rated it "fresh," while 2 have deemed it "rotten." Working with the reviewers' star-ratings, letter grades, and other appraisal systems, it gives Rises a 94% "fresh" rating so far. Impressive, no? No! -- as far as many people are concerned, for those two heretics, and for much of the day a lone heretic, Marshall Fine -- have ruined Rises's perfect score. As a result, numerous Nolan fans have flamed poor Fine, deeming his opinion, after seeing the picture, inferior to theirs, sight unseen.

Part of this results from presumptions of prejudice on Fine's part. He must hate superhero movies, or like Marvel movies better, etc., etc. Superhero-movie fans are perhaps especially defensive against any hint of prejudice against the genre. But so what? If you're a superhero-movie fan, or a Batman fan in particular, or a fan of Christopher Nolan's work in general, are you going to like Rises any less because Fine, whom I'd never heard of before today, disliked it? But perhaps these people are insecure in their anticipation and want no hint from anyone, no matter how prejudiced they assume the source to be, that the film might not live up to their eschatological expectations. My own expectations are pretty high despite my less than rapturous reception of Nolan's last picture, the heavy-handed dream fantasy Inception. My expectations probably differ from those of the people who would hear no criticism as well as those of the critics, since I liked different things about The Dark Knight than most people. Some of my expectations have less to do with Christopher Nolan than with my near-lifetime of Batman fandom. For me, there's a standard that Nolan has to meet, which I hope to elaborate on later this week; Nolan doesn't set the standard himself. That's why I can't accept this idiotic notion, from people who haven't seen the movie, that it's above criticism from people who have seen it, or that any criticism is automatically wrong in some way. It's still possible for Nolan to get Batman, and in this case Catwoman, wrong at the last moment. I don't mean that he might deviate from my ideal of either character. I do mean that he can still screw up as a moviemaker. I welcome any vision that's different but good, especially since The Dark Knight Rises may be the last mainstream superhero movie with license to be "different" -- but that's also a topic for later in the week. For now, let me say to anyone freaking out because they read a thumbs-down review that I hope you like the film better than Marshall Fine or Christy Lemire did, and that once you've seen it you can prove how they saw things wrong. Until then, you're idiots.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Celeste Holm (1917-2012)

One week after Ernest Borgnine's death ended his tenure as the earliest surviving winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor, the earliest surviving winner of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar has passed on, also at the age of 95. Holm won her statue for the 1947 Best Picture winner, Gentlemen's Agreement, but may be better known for her role in a somewhat better-loved film, the 1950 Best Picture All About Eve, for which she received another Oscar nomination. At least that's the film I remember and like her best from. She was also one of the original Broadway cast of the seminal Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, which opened back in 1943. She returned to acting near the end of her life; the final two entries on her IMDB filmography are a completed film scheduled for a 2013 release and another in postproduction. Both are low-budget independent productions, the latter also sporting Mickey Rooney and other seniors in the cast. The earliest surviving Best Supporting Actress is now Eva Marie Saint, who won for 1954's On the Waterfront. The earliest surviving nominee for the award is Olivia de Havilland, who was considered for Gone With the Wind before winning two Best Actress Oscars in the 1940s. Those make her the third-earliest surviving Best Actress winner, behind 102 year old Luise Rainer (1936 and 1937) and de Havilland's sister Joan Fontaine (1941). Rainer is no doubt watching her back if she takes the comes-in-threes rule seriously, as may be George Chakiris, the earliest surviving Best Supporting Actor winner for 1961's West Side Story. This trivia aside, every remaining link lost to classic Hollywood is to be regretted, and this blog pays its respects to Celeste Holm's memory.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


W. S. "Woody" Van Dyke was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's specialist in exotica dating back to 1928's White Shadows in the South Seas, a silent film that portrayed Polynesian folk as Edenic innocents corrupted by the "white shadow" of the civilized world's greed. Van Dyke carried on in exotic mode into the talkie and Pre-Code era, most memorably as the director of Johnny Weissmuller's debut as Tarzan the Ape Man. That film has a somewhat different idea of the un-"civilized" world from that of White Shadows, and so does the Peter B. Kyne story -- he also authored 3 Godfathers -- Van Dyke directed from an adaptation by three screenwriters. Itself a remake of a lost 1925 silent directed by Maurice Tourneur, Never the Twain Shall Meet is just about the polar opposite from White Shadows, since it's the story of Polynesian culture corrupting a civilized white man. Corruption comes in the form of Tamea (Conchita Montenegro), a half-breed daughter of a white ship captain and a Polynesian princess. The princess is dead and the captain is leprous and suicidal when he brings his latest cargo, including Tamea, to San Francisco, where he entrusts the cargo and the daughter to Dan Pritchard (Leslie Howard) and promptly jumps overboard to his death. Given Howard's presence, movie buffs probably can't help anticipating a Pygmalion approach to the material as the somewhat uptight trader welcomes the nearly wild girl into his mansion. She speaks English just about adequately, plays a wicked concertina, but isn't quite comfortable in American clothes. She assumes that "Daniel Pritchard," as she always calls him, is meant to be her mate, and her demands for his physical attention -- she won't agree to dress for a social evening unless he kisses her -- complicates Dan's relationship with his frosty fiancee (Karen Morley). Dan's indulgent and forgiving of Tamea's innocent aggression and grows increasingly defensive as the fiancee and his own father (C. Aubrey Smith) increasingly disapprove of the island girl. When the elder Pritchard finally arranges to have Tamea shipped back to her home, Dan rebels against convention and follows her to the island, which proves anything but paradise for him.

Dan doesn't care for the food or the way the natives eat it. He cares less for the other whites on the island, especially the alcoholic beachcomber (Clyde Cook) who predicts ruin like his own for Dan. Worst of all, Tamea proves hopelessly promiscuous, running off with handsome island boys at every opportunity but still expecting Dan to love her. Her apparently instinctual infidelity demoralizes Dan until he becomes a dirty, drunken beachcomber just as predicted. First disgusted by Tamea's conduct, he vows to quit the island, but Tamea solves the problem by inviting him to beat her. "Beat me but don't hate me," she pleads in the Pre-Code Play of the Film, "Beat me or you will hate me!" Dan takes a few whacks that have the desired effect, one presumes, on both people, and so things go until his old fiancee shows up on the island to see what's become of him. She finds Dan drunk and defensive, still insisting that he can leave any time he feels like it. Very well then, she says -- she'll go back to San Francisco and wait for him. She can do nothing but wait, she reminds him, because there can only ever be one man for her. The contrast with Tamea is like a cold shower to our hero, who resists all further temptation from Tamea, cleans up, packs his bag and departs on the same boat as his true love, going so far as to drag his fellow white man, the beachcomber, kicking and screaming on board for redemption. Tamea sulkily watches the ship depart, broods a minute or so, and then runs off with the first available boy-toy. The End.

Earlier in the picture, when a friend of Dan's in San Francisco confronts Tamea with the hard fact that the white race shouldn't mingle with others, her indignation and Dan's sympathetic response suggested a brave anti-racist direction for this movie. Boy, was I wrong. If anything, its escalatingly harsh presentation of Tamea makes Never the Twain one of the most bigoted films I've seen from the Pre-Code era. A non-racist reading might have been possible had the film suggested that Tamea was just a nympho or hopelessly starved for male attention, but the hints from the beachcomber that he'd had a similar experience suggest that Tamea is really just a typical mindlessly promiscuous island girl. The contrast between Tamea and Dan's selflessly faithful fiancee reinforces the assumption of the era that non-whites or "primitive" people were incapable of living according to any ideal higher than instant gratification of appetites. Somehow this situation never arises in the more "noble savage" fantasies like White Shadows or Bird of Paradise. In those pictures it's assumed that a white man can find a true, albeit doomed love in the islands. Never the Twain is just as much a fantasy, but it's much nastier and not very convincing. Howard is his usual cool customer and lacks much chemistry with the Spaniard Montenegro, who plays Tamea less like an island siren and more like a bratty child. It must be added that, in retrospect, there's simply nothing seductive about dancing with a concertina. The childish aspect of Montenegro's performance is in keeping with the era's assumption that aboriginal people were "just children," and both the performance and the assumption make Never the Twain a childish film. It's one of those films that make an enthusiasm for Pre-Code cinema occasionally embarrassing.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Now Playing: JULY 13, 1962

Not as many horror marathons or spook shows as I expected for a Friday the 13th -- at least not in the places whose papers I can read in the Google News Archive. I suppose the target audience has other things to do on a summer night....But here are two in Eugene OR alone.

Here's an eclectic lineup in Daytona Beach

I imagine that the early show they promise will calm the nerves may be just the picture to make horror fans' skin crawl.

And here's an exhibitor in Lawrence KS who thinks he can promote William Castle pictures better than Castle can.

Castle himself would probably appreciate the mystery about that shock bonus. There are probably people alive who remember what it was, but we'll probably never know....But let's see how Castle does it. This pitch for Macabre appears on EddieVHRocks5150's YouTube channel.

This trailer for House on Haunted Hill comes from latenitevideo's channel.